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College Football Conference Previews

College Football Conference Previews 9 months 1 week ago #443879

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American Athletic Conference Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Coach Me Up

Entering its fourth year of existence, the American Athletic Conference remains the top Group of 5 League heading into the 2017 football season.

While the loop has struggled in bowl games, going 6-14 SU and 7-13 ATS, it has become a breeding ground for up-and-coming head coaches.

Tulsa’s Phillip Montgomery, SMU’s Chad Morris, and Memphis’ Mike Norvell are three promising young coaches on the rise, and we didn’t even mention Tulane’s Willie Fritz. Meanwhile, the 23 wins by Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo over Power Five or BCS Conference foes is the most of all Group of Five schools.

The AAC has five new coaches for 2017: Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, Connecticut’s Randy Edsall, Houston's Major Applewhite, Temple's Geoff Collins, and USF’s Charlie Strong.

And rest assured, East Carolina’s Scottie Montgomery is fully aware that the Pirates have missed out on bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05. Beware of the AAC. Its coaches take a back seat to no one.

Talking Points

Average attendance at American Athletic Conference home stadiums was 31,611, clearly No. 1 for Group of Five conferences, and right on the heels of 2015 when it averaged 31,842 in 2015, after an average of 21,193 in 2014. USF was up 41% in 2016 with a 10-2 record and a home game vs. Florida State. On the flip side, Temple fell 38% without facing Notre Dame. Other than BYU, East Carolina (44.113) had the largest average attendance outside the Power Five.

Danger ahead: since the AAC formation in 2014 the conference has struggled mightily in non-conference games following a SUATS loss, going just 4-26-1 ATS. And if they are not taking at least 7 points in these games they fall off the face of the earth, going 0-13-1 ATS. Gulp.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


CINCINNATI (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 6/3, 42 Lettermen)


A 3-1 start last season turned into a 1-7 disastrous finish and an absolute P.R. nightmare when head coach Timmy Tuberville went off on a disgruntled fan in front of cameras. As a result of the implosion, the Bearcats brought in longtime Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell to right the program and polish its image. Fickell also served as the Buckeyes’ interim coach in 2011 following the Jim Tressel fallout while guiding OSU to its first losing season since 1988. The good news is Fickell has defensive DNA in his blood and the strength of this Bearcats team appears to be its defense. Behind an experienced Power 5 coaching staff, cool hand Luke looks right at home in Cincinnati.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fickell was 1-5 ATS in games following a win as a head coach with Ohio State.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. UCF (10/27)

CONNECTICUT (Offense – *7/3, Defense –5/3, 57 Lettermen)


Like a stray dog returning home, former head coach Randy Edsall is back at UConn. With the Bob Diaco experiment officially history, Edsall returns to Connecticut for a second tour, this time trying to ignite an offense that was virtually non-existent in three seasons under Diaco. The 20 touchdowns they scored was lowest tally of any team in the nation in 2016. Edsall turns to former Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee – a Gus Malzahn protégé – and Villanova DC Billy Crocker for his new coordinators. The good news is five OL with starting experience are back. And remember: Huskies’ sophomores made a total of 127 starts in 2015, the most in the nation. Those young pups are now seniors.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies scored a total of nine first-quarter points (three field goals in two games) last season.

PLAY ON: vs. UCF (11/11)

EAST CAROLINA (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 7/3, 53 Lettermen)


Year One under head coach Scottie Montgomery was expected to be productive. After all, 51 upper classmen dotted the Pirates’ roster, including star WR Zay Jones and transfer QB Phillip Nelson. Neither disappointed with Jones leading the nation in receiving while Nelson, a protégé of quarterback specialist coach Terry Shea, finished 7th in completion percentage (67.9). Through it all the offense improved 53 YPG, but the defense – horse-collared with injuries – slipped 51 YPG. It didn’t help that ECU was also the worst team in the nation in turnovers gained (8 ) last season. The question is with Jones and Nelson gone, what can they to improve on last year’s three wins?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Pirates are 2-16 SU and 0-18 ATS versus conference foes with a winning record since 2010.


TEMPLE (Offense - 5/3, Defense – 4/1, 42 Lettermen)


When Florida DC Geoff Collins replaced Matt Rhule as the Owls coach this season, he almost immediately began using social media hashtags to show his footprint on the program. The one that has gotten most of the attention from the players is #the STANDARD, as they quickly learned that the standard expected from every player has been raised even higher this year. After fighting thru a 2-10 seaosn in 2013, Temple concluded the final two years of the Rhule regime with a pair of 10-win seasons. But because 50% of the starts made for the Owls last season were by seniors, Collins realizes everone must step up in 2017. The ranks are thin but the spirit is high.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: New Temple coach Collins is the only coach to be a Broyles award nominee – the nation’s best assistant coach - at three schools.


UCF (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 4/3, 43 Lettermen)


After taking over a program that failed to win a game in 2015 and leading them to a bowl game, the big question is what does Scott Frost do for an encore? He was 24-2 as a quarterback at Nebraska. As a DC at Northern Iowa the Panthers went from 7-4 to 12-1. And while an assistant at Oregon, the Ducks went 79-15. So yes, the man knows how to win. It’s also no coincidence that the UCF freshmen made the 2nd most starts in the nation in 2015. After coming up big as sophomores last season, they are now juniors. With added improvement in store this year behind a powerful front seven, the question has been answered.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: UCF was the No. 2 team in the nation in red zone defense in 2016.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. East Carolina (10/14) - *KEY

USF (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 9/4, 49 Lettermen)


One of 11 teams to win 11 games last season, USF set nearly 40 team records in 2016, including total yards (6,650), rushing yards (3,714), touchdowns (77), and scoring (569) in its best season ever. JR QB Quinton Flowers was named AAC Offensive POY while leading a school-record 10 players named to the all-conference team. While those are some mighty big shoes to fill, six of those players - including Flowers - return in 2017. Among the missing, though, is head coach Willie Taggart who moves on to Oregon. Enter controversial Charlie Strong, whose first task will be to rebuild a defense that actually regressed over 100 YPG last season. Just the way he likes it.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USF was the No. 1 team in the nation in 4th down conversion percentage last season.



HOUSTON (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 8/2, 37 Lettermen)


It’s been said that Major Applewhite likes big challenges. In succeeding Tom Herman as the Cougars’ new head coach he has taken on a gargantuan task. On the heels of its best two-season effort (22 wins) in school history, Applewhite inherits two terrifically talented recruiting classes left behind by Herman, including 2016 Defensive Freshmen All-American of the Year, DT Ed Oliver, the most decorated recruit in Cougar history. Dynamo QB Greg Ward Jr. is gone, creating a big hole behind center. The hope is Texas A&M transfer QB Kevin Allen can live up to his blue-chip recruit hype. If new DC Mark D’Onofrio (Miami and Temple) can continue to plug holes, gargantuan just may turn to tiny.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Former Utah OC and Mississippi State QB coach Brian Johnson is Houston new offensive coordinator.


MEMPHIS (Offense – *9/4, Defense – 8/3, 43 Lettermen)


When Memphis won 8 games in Mike Norvell’s first year after replacing Justin Fuente in 2015, he set the bar high. Real high, considering it was the most wins by a first-year coach in school history. He was also the first coach to lead the Tigers to a bowl game in his first season, plus the first rookie head coach at Memphis to defeat a ranked team since 1975. Now, after 27 wins in three seasons, and with a boatload of starters returning, the upside for this fledgling program has never been higher. A quick glance of the schedule confirms that Memphis could be favored in as many as 10 games this campaign. Beware of the Tiger.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Memphis is 12-0 ATS as an underdog in regular season road finales.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (10/19)

NAVY (Offense - 4/2, Defense – 7/1, 47 Lettermen)


We could write a book about the Navy program every year, but due to space limitations, we’ll go with the Cliff Notes version. Ready? Since Ken Niumatalolo became head coach Navy in 2008, the well-disciplined Middies have never finished lower than 2nd in penalties per game. They also know how to win, going 144-92 in Coach N’s 19 seasons on the Navy sidelines. Last year they saw 102 games missed by key starters or contributors due to injury – and the Midshipmen still won 9 games! You can do that when you’re the No. 1 team in the land in 3rd down conversion percentage, and when you’ve got the horses to topple your first AP Top 10 team since 1984. And beware: Navy will enter the 2017 season on a three-game losing streak. It is Navy’s longest losing streak since 2014. Navy won 26 of their next 31 games after the previous three-game losing streak. Forewarned is forearmed.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Navy played nine FBS teams in 2016 that finished with eight or more wins (tied with North Carolina for the most in the country).

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (11/24)

SMU (Offense - *9/4, Defense – 5/3, 40 Lettermen)


The Mustangs continued their upward ascent last season under head coach Chad Morris. Noteworthy in the Ponies’ annual improvement run last season was its first win over a Top 15 team since 1986. Morris’ non-stop triple option attack is loaded with returning starters, including exciting SO QB Ben Hicks and last year’s top eight targets, along with four-star LSU transfer Trey Quinn, who starred during spring camp. Defensively, depth and attrition became issues down the stretch in 2016. Five starters from that unit are gone, but no less than 16 contributors are back. Like we said last year, if the defense can hold the fort, the Mustangs should be ordering up bowl shirts by season’s end.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freshmen have started a total of 101 games for the Mustangs last two seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (10/7)

TULANE (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 7/2, 49 Lettermen)


Perhaps no other coach in college football hits a groove like Willie Fritz does when it comes to his second-year with a program. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation.com, in his second year at Blinn College his team won the NJCAA title. In his second year at Central Missouri, the Mules went from 5-6 to 8-3. In his second year at Sam Houston State, the Bearkats went from 6-5 to 14-1. And in his second year at Georgia Southern, the Eagles secured their first bowl bid. Better yet, because Fritz played a ton of underclassmen last year, that youth turns to experience this year. Sure, they were the worst team in the nation in team passing, and 3rd down conversion percentage, last season. But rest assured, Willie is right where he wants to be this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Willie Fritz is 14-0 SU and 11-1 ATS versus .333 or less opponents.

PLAY ON: vs. Houston (11/18)

TULSA (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 6/2, 49 Lettermen)


Tulsa’s high octane offense hit on all cylinders under head coach Phillip Montgomery - remember that name – when it became the first team in FBS history to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers, and two 1,000-yard WRs in the same season. Even more satisfying for Montgomery, though, was the fact that the Hurricane defense actually improved over 100 YPG over the previous season. Throughout it all, an offense going full-speed for 60 minutes continued to percolate with its second straight Category 5 effort under Monty when its 527 YPG effort topped the 507 YPG posted in his first year with Tulsa. And oh yeah, Tulsa has scored 30-plus points in each of its last 11 games. Yikes.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tulsa is 29-7 SU and 28-8 ATS in conference games in which it scores 30 or more points.

PLAY ON: vs. Navy (9/30)
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College Football Conference Previews 9 months 1 week ago #443880

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Atlantic Coast Conference Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Two By Fours

The Atlantic Coast Conference is the only conference in the nation to have two football national champions in the past four years. Florida State took the final BCS National Championship after the 2013 season and Clemson claimed the 2016 National College Football Playoff title last year.

In addition, the ACC returns the Heisman Trophy winner for second time in four years with junior QB Lamar Jackson returning to lead Louisville in 2017. Florida State's Jameis Winston did so in 2014 after winning the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Jackson is the youngest athlete (19 years, 337 days) to win the Heisman Trophy, while Winston (19 years, 342 days) is the second youngest.

ACC Powering Up

ACC teams will play more games (22) against Power Five non-conference teams in 2017 than any of its peer conferences. The ACC will also have a higher percentage (.393) of its non-conference games against Power Five opponents than any other league.

In addition, the ACC will play more games against 2016 AP-ranked teams than any other conference. ACC teams will play more games in 2017 against non-conference teams (7) that were ranked in last year’s final Associated Press Top 25 than any other Power Five conference.

Including the 11 ACC teams that went to bowl games, no ACC team will face fewer than seven opponents that went to bowls in 2016, while eight teams will face eight or more opponents that played in the postseason. Through it all, a total of 11 ACC teams ended 2016 with winning records, the most of any FBS league and the most in ACC history. The next highest total by a conference was eight teams.

Orange Bowl Roll

The ACC has won the last five Orange Bowl games, the longest winning streak for a conference in the Orange Bowl in 72 years. The SEC won seven straight from 1938 through 1944.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


BOSTON COLLEGE (Offense – 9/3, Defense – 7/2, 47 Lettermen)


Last year, for the second straight season, the Eagles’ overall defense ranked in the nation’s Top 10. In fact, BC's 'D' finished No. 2 in team sacks (ahead of Alabama and Michigan). Unfortunately, as good as Yin was, Yang was simply deplorable. Steve Addazio’s squad averaged less than 300 YPG for the second straight year when it gained just 110 PYPG in conference play, while completing only 46.5% of its passes for a mere 4 TDs. The good news – or is it? - is that nine starters are back on offense, sans QB Patrick Towles. Better news is that star pass rusher Harold Landry (16.5 sacks) decided to forgo the NFL draft and returns in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Home field disadvantage? The Eagles are 0-6 SUATS as home underdogs since 2014.


CLEMSON (Offense – 5/4, Defense – 7/3, 53 Lettermen)


Reigning National Champion Clemson will have a tough row to hoe in 2017, as it will be the only FBS school to replace a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard running back, and a 1,000-yard wide receiver. That’s a LOT of production to supplant, especially while also carrying the biggest bulls-eye of all on its back in 2017. And don’t forget that the Tigers won seven games by a TD or less last season (tops in the nation). On top of it all, 10 Clemson players were either drafted or signed free agent contracts, making the Tigers one of only four programs that have had at least one 1st-round selection for five consecutive years. Good luck, Dabo!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers have the nation’s third-longest current streak (71 games) without losing back-to-back games.

PLAY AGAINST: at Louisville (9/16)

FLORIDA STATE (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 10/3, 48 Lettermen)


Talk about a loaded team: the Seminoles will likely need to take breathalyzers onto the field with them in 2017. FSU is one of only two teams (along with Bama) to have appeared in five straight BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games, while Jimbo Fisher’s 11.14 average wins per season leads all current head coaches. Meanwhile, QB Deondre Francois passed for more yards than any freshman in the nation last year (3,350) while guiding FSU’s top-ranked red zone offense. And the FSU defense has 186 career starts, including 15 players who have started a game! Remember, only 18.4 % of starts by Florida State last year were made by seniors. Yep. They’re rolling in it.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Noles have the longest current streak (76 games) without losing back-to-back games, dating back to the 2011 season.

PLAY ON: vs. Louisville (10/21) - *KEY

LOUISVILLE (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 7/1, 45 Lettermen)


2016 Heisman Trophy winning QB Lamar Jackson returns after becoming the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 3,500 yards and rush for over 1,500 yards in a season. As powerful as the offense once again promises to be in 2017, it’s the defense that will be the linchpin of the team. The stop-unit returns 12 players who recorded 20 or more tackles last season, including star LB Stacy Thomas with 85. In addition, Trevon Young, a senior LB who missed the entire season last year with a hip injury, is back. He was an all ACC performer in 2015. A major concern – only three teams tallied more giveaways (32) than the Cardinals last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Bobby the Louse is 0-15 SU away versus AP Top 15 ranked opponents.

PLAY ON: at Kentucky (11/25)

N.C. STATE (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 8/4, 47 Lettermen)


With 22 seniors on the roster – 11 of who are returning starters, including the entire DL – NCSU will field their most experienced team in school history. In addition, two seniors who sat out last season, but have started multiple games in their careers, join the fray. The defense, which owned the second best 1st-down defense and the 8th best rush unit, returns the entire starting front six. On the flip side, the veteran offense is keyed by H-back Jaylen Samuels, who has averaged 6.25 YPR and a TD every 5.9 carries the last two seasons, and Boise State graduate transfer QB Ryan Finley, who tossed for 3,059 yards and 18 TDS for the Pack in 2016.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolfpack is 23-3 SU and 18-5 ATS in games where they outgain their opponent under head coach Dave Doeren.

PLAY ON: at Florida State (9/23)

SYRACUSE (Offense – *9/5, Defense – 10/4, 42 Lettermen)


This from our crack fact-finding research department: Syracuse seniors started the 2nd fewest amount of games in the nation last season. As a result, head coach Dino Babers welcomes back a bevy of experienced, young talent in 2017 as 53.4 % of all Syracuse starts made last season were by underclassmen. As you know by now, we’ve come to expect good things from teams fitting this M.O. The hurdle this year, though, is that no less than 11 foes on the schedule appeared in a bowl game last season. Despite the salty slate, and last year’s season-ending crash, Dino is aching to lead this team to a bowl game. Don’t bet against him.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Syracuse amassed 5,290 yards under Dino Babers in 2016, the 2nd-highest total in the 127-year history of the program.

PLAY ON: vs. Pittsburgh (10/7)

WAKE FOREST (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 6/3, 42 Lettermen)


If patience is a virtue, then Wake Forest should be a very advantaged team in 2017. Freshmen made a total of 71 starts in 2015, the 3rd most in the land. Then last year underclassmen accounted for 45.8 % of the team’s starts (10th most in the nation). A pronounced increase in the ground game finally emerged in 2016 when the Deacs gained 40 YPG more on the ground than in 2015, but that was largely attributable to the fact that Wake Forest was the only FBS school in the nation in 2015 whose top three rushers were all true freshmen. It's time for this suddenly experienced team to step up in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Demon Deacons have ranked 12th or worse in the ACC in scoring the last five consecutive seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: at Boston College (9/9)


DUKE (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 5/1, 43 Lettermen)


Talk about a tough nut to crack. Not only will the Blue Devils face only ONE foe this year that owned a losing record last year, but also 11 of whom that were in a postseason game! Fortunately, QB Daniel Jones finished with the 5th-most passing yards of all freshmen in 2016. He was named the team’s MVP after matching or establishing 23 school records, including most offensive yards by a freshman (3,322). Head coach David Cutcliffe is widely recognized as a quarterback whisperer, having coached nine QBs who either earned all-conference honors or led their school to a bowl victory. In a ‘mission year’ this season, expect Cutcliffe to crack the code.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Duke is 4-5 SU versus ranked opponents under HC Cutcliffe. They were 0-47 SU versus the same prior to his arrival.

PLAY ON: at Virginia (10/7)

GEORGIA TECH (Offense – 8/3, Defense – 8/2, 43 Lettermen)


As we alluded to on this page last year, Paul Johnson stands tall within the NCAA coaching ranks. He averages 8.85 wins per season, which ranks No. 9 among all current head coaches, and in his previous 19 years as a head coach, Johnson led his teams to either FCS playoffs or FBS bowl games 18 times. That’s impressive, to say the least. The key to his success is simple – run the ball down your opponent’s throat until they succumb. Four of the top five running backs return in 2017, but a new quarterback will be at the helm. Its Achilles' heel is a defense that allowed a .492 conversion rate on third down (3rd worst in the land) last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: In his 15 years as a FBS head coach, Paul Johnson’s teams have each averaged at least 5 Yards Per Rush per season.

PLAY AGAINST: at Virginia (11/4)

MIAMI, FL (Offense – 8/4, Defense – 8/4, 40 Lettermen


For the first time since 2009, the Hurricanes finished the 2016 season ranked in the Top 25. With it, the return of head coach Mark Richt to his alma mater was met with cheers and applause in Miami. Richt is 90-43 in conference games in his career, while averaging 9.63 wins per season, which ranks No. 7 among all current head coaches. Sixteen starters are back from last year, including WR Ahmmon Richards, a 4.3 sprinter who pulled in 46 receptions for 866 yards to smash Michael Irvin’s single-season yards mark for a freshman last year. Yes, it’s safe to say the Canes are back on a winning path. STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Miami tied with Old Dominion for the 2nd best team in the nation in fewest turnovers lost last season (10).

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia Tech (10/12)

NORTH CAROLINA (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 7/2, 35 Lettermen)


As UNC head coach Larry Fedora likely reminds himself each night, it was nice while it lasted. It started after losing a star quarterback (after one year) to the NFL when Mitchell Trubisky was selected as the second player in this year’s NFL Draft. Also gone are workhorse RBs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, along with three key WRs. But the biggest loss of all is not a player. It’s DC Gene Chizik, who decided to retire after two highly productive seasons in which the Tar Heels' defense improved 90 YPG after his arrival. Here’s hoping LSU transfer QB Brandon Harris lasts longer than Trubisky. Otherwise, it will be back to square one again for Fedora.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Larry Fedora is 12-0 SU and 11-1 ATS in regular season games vs. foes who were upset as a favorite in their previous game.


PITTSBURGH (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 4/1, 36 Lettermen)


It’s hard to imagine that Pat Narduzzi’s defense was the No. 119 team in the nation in red zone defense in 2016. To top it off, the architect and former DC from Michigan State’s most recent glory days, was also hit hard in the NFL Draft when he lost five starters, including QB Nathan Peterman (Bills), and RB James Conner (Steelers) among others. In all, over 50 % of the starts made for the Panthers last season were by seniors. Despite it all, Pitt was the only team to defeat two opponents ranked in the Top 5 of the final College Football Playoff rankings. With no back-to-back road games, expect that to be enough to build on.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: All of Pitt’s 10 losses under Narduzzi have occurred versus bowl teams that went 98-37 combined on the season.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Virginia (10/28)

VIRGINIA (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 8/2, 37 Lettermen)


As we outlined here last year, new Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s hands were tied when he inherited a team that had recorded the largest decline in recruiting talent the previous five years of all Power 5 teams. And it showed up as expected last year like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. A super soft defense (6th worst team in the nation in red zone defense) and an anemic rush offense (8th weakest in the land) left the Cavs little or no chance of succeeding. UVA did, however, manage to snap a 17-game road-losing skid, while Mendenhall improved to 4-0 ATS in his career as a dog of 20 or more points… numbers worth remembering.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cavaliers are 2-18 SU in their final two games of the season the last ten years.

PLAY ON: vs. Connecticut (9/16)

VIRGINIA TECH (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 8/1, 37 Lettermen)


Justin Fuente knew coming in that he had some mighty big shoes to fill as Virginia Tech’s new head coach last season. Replacing a legend like Frank Beamer is never easy. But to his credit Fuente delivered, leading the Hokies to their first double-digit win season in five years. Along the way, Virginia Tech not only improved all of its numbers convincingly on both sides of the ball, they took the College Football Playoff champion Clemson Tigers right down to the wire in the ACC title game as well. Thus, the question begs: What can Fuente do for an encore? Having defensive guru Bud Foster on his sideline makes it a moot point.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hokies' current 24-game bowl streak is the longest in the nation.

PLAY ON: at Georgia Tech (11/11)
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College Football Conference Previews 9 months 2 days ago #444517

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Big Ten Preview
By Marc Lawrence

We’re Back

The 2017 campaign will feature 33 All-Big Ten players (seven first-team, 12 second-team, 14 third-team) and 46 honorable mention selections from last season.

The Big Ten had 35 draft choices. That total ranked fourth among the Power Five conferences, as the SEC led the way with 54, followed by the ACC 43 and the Pac-12 with 36. Michigan led the nation with 11 players selected in the draft, while Ohio State had seven players heard their name called in Philadelphia.

And once again the Big Ten has not had a QB taken in the 1st round since Penn State’s Kerry Collins in 1995.

Welcome Aboard

Just like last year, the Big Ten welcomes three new head coaches in Indiana’s Tom Allen, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm.

Allen joined the Indiana staff as an associate coach last season. He’s a 25-year coaching veteran who led a dramatic defensive turnaround for the Hoosiers, just as the he done at Ole Miss and South Florida... Fleck’s was 1-11 in his first year with Western Michigan before going 13-1 last season... Brohm comes from Western Kentucky where his Hilltoppers went 30-10, including 19-5 in conference games.

Five current Big Ten mentors have been college head coaches for 10 years or more – Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (20 seasons), Nebraska’s Mike Riley (15), Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (14), Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (12) and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (10).

Bowled Over

Eleven Big Ten teams will square off against at least one non-conference team that played in a bowl game last season, with 17 total games against squads coming off bowl trips. Indiana is the only school to not make the list. Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers will each face two non-conference bowl teams in 2017.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


INDIANA (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 9/3, 62 Lettermen)


Indiana engineered one of the top defensive turnarounds in the country last year when, despite taking on four Top 10 opponents, the Hoosiers managed to improve 11 PPG and 130 YPG. It was good enough to land defensive associate coach Tom Allen his first college head coaching position. The good news is, thanks to former coach Kevin Wilson, Allen inherits the highest-rated recruiting classes in school history over the past five seasons. Mike DeBord, OC at Tennessee the past two seasons, joins Allen’s staff. Back in the day, DeBord tutored Tom Brady at Michigan, and will work with talented 6’ 6” SR QB Richard Lagow, who aired it out for 3,362 yards and 19 TDs for IU last year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Over the last 22 years, the teams for which Allen has been a member of the coaching staff have posted a combined 222-69 record (.763).

PLAY ON: at Penn State (9/30)

MARYLAND (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 8/2, 53 Lettermen)


Regarded as one of the brightest young coaching minds in college football, DJ Durkin quickly changed the culture and brought instant energy to the Maryland program last season when the Terps doubled their win total and earned a bowl bid in his first year on the sidelines. Durkin also showed his recruiting prowess by signing a consensus Top 20 class in 2017. The class, which included eleven 4-star signees, and five members of the ESPN 300, ranked among the best in program history. A former star LB at Bowling Green where he captained the team and led it in tackles, this DJ is a star in the making. And the Terps are on the rise.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Terps are 0-8 SUATS following a win from Game Seven out the last four years.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. UCF (9/23)

MICHIGAN (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 1/0, 55 Lettermen)


A team that started the season 8-0 last year before closing out 1-3, UM could be in a world of hurt in 2017. That’s because Wolverine seniors accounted for the highest percentage of starts of all FBS teams last season (76.6%). It’s a wickedly high number and it means that Jim Harbaugh will need to rely on a bevy of underclassmen to compensate this season. Gone are 138 receptions, more than 1,900 yards and 13 touchdowns just between two senior WRs and TE Jake Butt. That said, Harbaugh has now brought in consecutive Top-10 recruiting classes. Remember, we saw this same pattern last season when Ohio State returned barefoot with only 6 total starters returning – and all they did was land a spot in the College Football Playoffs. And don’t forget, the SU winner ‘In The Stats’ is 24-2 in UM games with Harbaugh as its head coach. After an offseason trip to visit the Pope in Roma, they'll lean on any sanctification they can get.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 11 UM players selected in this year's NFL Draft were the most in school history, and the most of any team in the Draft.


MICHIGAN STATE (Offense – 4/1, Defense – 4/1, 43 Lettermen)


As we outlined on this page last season, a fortuitous band of Spartans won 7 one-possession games in 2015 – the best in the nation. They went 0-3 in those same games last season. It came back to bite them when Mark Dantonio suffered his first losing season with MSU, falling from 12 wins to 3 in 2016. The epitome of a ‘Mission Team’ this season, Sparty should be in a nasty mood. The bad news is over 50% of the starts made for the Spartans last season were by seniors. Thus, improvement from a defense that had just 11 quarterback sacks and 13 forced turnovers last year (as opposed to 37 and 28 respectively in 2015) is mandatory. Beware: with an impending NCAA investigation swirling over sexual abuse by players (including 10 four-star recruits) this program might suddenly have “Baylor” written all over it.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Spartans dropped from fourth in the nation in turnover margin in 2015 to 101st – at -0.42 – in 2016.

PLAY ON: vs. Notre Dame (9/23) - *KEY as a dog

OHIO STATE (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/4, 48 Lettermen)


That the Buckeyes again returned to the CFB Playoffs last year despite a staggering lack of experience was truly remarkable. 1,000-yard RB Mike Weber was one of two first-team, two second-team and one honorable mention Freshman All-American starters on Urban Meyer’s squad last season, one that played 29 freshmen. Not so shockingly, only 5.6% of the starts made by the baby Buckeyes last season were by seniors – the fewest in the land (compare that to 76.6% for Michigan – the most). With that, this season finds 40 upper classmen dotting the roster for new OC Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach and offensive guru, led by All-American QB J.T. Barrett. Beware of this ready-for-prime-time group.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Buckeyes will play no back-to-back road games in 2017.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan State (11/11)

PENN STATE (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 7/2, 45 Lettermen)


Penn State earned eight Big Ten wins in 2016 for just the second time in program history, and the Lions celebrated their first Big Ten title since 2008. A whopping 31 school records were eclipsed or tied during the Big Ten Championship season, one being four double-digit comebacks – which included rallying from a 21-point deficit in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. Both QB Trace McSorley and/or RB Saquon Barkley set a majority of the aforementioned records, and both return in 2017. Also back is PK Tyler ‘Automatic’ Davis who has nailed 30-of-32 career field goals, with both misses being blocks. He's also made all 73 of his PAT attempts.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Penn State and Wisconsin are the only Big Ten teams that have posted winning seasons the last 12 consecutive years.

PLAY AGAINST: at Ohio State (10/28) - *KEY

RUTGERS (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 8/2, 44 Lettermen)


It’s hard to imagine there was an offense worse than Boston College’s popgun attack last season, but Rutgers actually ranked dead last in the NCAA in total offense (including red zone offense). And it’s difficult envisaging a worse effort than what the Knights delivered in 2015 when they lost by 20.5 points and 167 yards per game in Big Ten play. But, hey, when you’re outclassed from head to toe by every team in your conference, there's always room for more. Rutgers was so pitiful in Chris Ash’s first season in New Brunswick they were actually dismantled by 30.5 PPG and 230 YPG while losing all nine Big Ten battles. Talk about being charred.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rutgers suffered the worst two-game scoring span last year (to Michigan and Ohio State) by an FBS school since 1939.

PLAY ON: at Illinois (10/14)


ILLINOIS (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 4/0, 32 Lettermen)


There was little love in the air at the conclusion of the 2016 Illinois football season, Lovie Smith’s 1st year with the program. Because of his decision to start the second-most amount of freshmen in the country last year (29.2 percent of players that started games for the Illini), his troops were ranked No. 127 (2nd last) in the nation in first down offense, and also No. 127 in 3rd down conversion percentage. Five players with significant experience return up front. If star WR Mike Dudek, former Big Ten Freshman POY, can fight his way back from a gruesome knee injury suffered in 2015, the underclassmen just might come to Lovie’s rescue in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Illinois is 3-31 SU and 11-23 ATS in its last 34 Big Ten games versus .500 or greater opponents.

PLAY ON: at Purdue (11/4)

IOWA (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 8/3, 48 Lettermen)


After just missing a berth in the 2015 College Football Playoffs, the Hawkeyes ‘regressed’ to 8-5 last season. It marked the 14th bowl appearance in 18 seasons for the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz. Unfortunately, Captain Kirk loses star QB C.J. Beathard – 20-5 SU as a starter during the regular season – to the NFL. However, SR RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa’s leading rusher with 1,081 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, returns. The best news, though, is that four starters from an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award – given to the best OL in the nation – are back. With eight starters back on defense, Ferentz is well positioned to land another bowl berth in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Kirk Ferentz shares the distinction of being the longest-tenured head coach in the nation.

PLAY ON: at Northwestern (10/21)

MINNESOTA (Offense – 7/2, Defense – 6/1, 43 Lettermen)


Minnesota is located in the land of lakes and captaining one of the new boats in the Big Ten football waters this season will be P.J. Fleck, named as the new skipper of the Gophers. The former Western Michigan head coach makes the transition from the MAC to the Big Ten with a core team that won nine games last season. Fleck went 1-11 in his first year with the Broncos, and 13-1 in his final season. The biggest loss, though, is the Ekpe brothers from the defensive line. Thankfully, the first seven games on the schedule include only one winning team from last season. The remaining five contests are all against bowl teams from 2016. Hopefully by then, the Gophers will have learned how to row the boat.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Gophers are 17-2-1 ATS as conference underdogs since 2012.

PLAY AGAINST: at Northwestern (11/18)

NEBRASKA (Offense – 7/5, Defense – 7/2, 49 Lettermen)


With Nebraska owning 385 victories over the past 40 seasons (tops in the land), HC Mike Riley is always feeling the heat. As a result, he made key hires in the offseason, bringing in Bob Diaco from UConn as his defensive coordinator, and Bob Elliott from Notre Dame as his secondary coach. They served together on the 2012 Fighting Irish defense that was 12-0 and played in the BCS Title Game. Diaco won the 2012 Broyles Award and is recognized as one of the college game's top defensive minds. Meanwhile, Riley owns 16 wins over ranked foes in 16 seasons as a college head coach. It all makes Tulane transfer QB Tanner Lee’s job that much easier.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Mike Riley has 43 overall years of coaching experience, the second-most among any active FBS head coach.

PLAY AGAINST: at Oregon (9/9)

NORTHWESTERN (Offense – *9/4, Defense – 8/3, 50 Lettermen)


When Indianapolis selected LB Anthony Walker in this year’s NFL Draft, history was made: Walker became the first Wildcat drafted after leaving school early. The junior amassed 227 tackles, including 30.5 for a loss, at NU. The message is that Northwestern is an academically focused institution that is now getting top athletes. It’s not HC Pat Fitzgerald’s job to prepare players for the NFL. His job is to build the best football team he can to represent Northwestern. And because he’s exceeded expectations, Fitzgerald signed an extension to remain NU’s coach through 2026. With 17 starters returning from a bowl-winning team, the school is in good hands.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Pat Fitzgerald has not had a player selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since taking over at NU 11 years ago.

PLAY AGAINST: at Illinois (11/25)

PURDUE (Offense – *5/2, Defense – 8/2, 51 Lettermen)


New head coach Jeff Brohm was needed in West Lafayette like a transfusion for a dying vampire. Purdue fell to 9-39 in four years behind Darrell Hazell. To which we wonder: how did he last four years? Check these rancid numbers: despite having the most returning starters in the Big Ten last year, Purdue won one conference game. They finished last in the nation in turnover margin (-17) and averaged 96.2 rushing YPG in conference play last season – dead last. Hence, it's no surprise to learn from Ralph Michaels of Cal Sports that the Boilermakers have played UNDER their season win total each of the last five years. Good luck, Jeff.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Purdue was 1-8 SU in one-possession games versus FBS foes under former head coach Darrell Hazell.


WISCONSIN (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/3, 52 Lettermen)


To say Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was up against it when he replaced Gary Andersen in Madison two years ago would be an understatement. After all, Andersen won 20 games in two seasons. That was after Bret Bielema averaged nearly 10 wins a season in his seven years with the Badgers before Andersen’s arrival. So how has Chryst responded to the self-imposed pressure? By averaging more wins per season than both Andersen and Bielema. With no Ohio State sighting, and only six foes on this year’s itinerary with a winning record in 2016, it would be nothing short of disappointing should Chryst win less than his usual 10 games this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Badgers' 15 consecutive bowl appearances is tops in the Big Ten.

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College Football Conference Previews 9 months 2 days ago #444572

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Blade, It would great if you could post this football conference preview just before the season begins or the week it does start..Would appreciate it.. Thanks
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College Football Conference Previews 9 months 1 day ago #444598

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armyranger wrote:
Blade, It would great if you could post this football conference preview just before the season begins or the week it does start..Would appreciate it.. Thanks

A conference comes out once a week and if I waited till start of season it would take to much time to dig through all the other articles to find each conference. This thread will be pinned up top.
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College Football Conference Previews 8 months 3 weeks ago #445169

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Big Twelve Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Title Time

At long last the Big 12 will have a conference championship game this season. The Big 12 title game will be December 2 at AT&T Stadium (Jerry’s World) in Arlington, Texas, a move that should increase the chances for a playoff team. Oklahoma went undefeated in Big 12 play last season and didn’t make the playoff.

Over the last eight seasons, the Big 12 football conference has had six different teams win a conference trophy. No other Power 5 conference has had as many different champions since 2009.

Bowl Me Over

The Big 12 concluded postseason games with a .667 winning percentage, the second-highest among all conferences. In addition, Big 12 defenses were the nation’s best in bowl games as they surrendered an average of 21.5 points, holding five of six opponents below their season average.

Plus, Big 12 offenses had the second-highest scoring average in postseason among the Power Five leagues at 29.0 ppg. Oklahoma’s current 10-year bowl skein is the longest in the nation.

No Cupcakes Allowed

After years of devouring non-conference cupcakes, the Big 12 is manning up in 2017. Nine of 10 teams (save Kansas) have dates with Power Five teams on the docket, including the likes of Ohio State, USC and Virginia Tech.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

BAYLOR (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 7/4, 66 Lettermen)


The first step in torching any traces of the Art Briles era – a coach who was 50-15 SU during his final five years with BU – was the immediate hire of squeaky-clean, hard-nosed Matt Rhule, former Temple head coach. The first thing he’ll clean up was the fact that the Bears led the nation in most penalty yards per game in 2016, and were the 3rd most penalized team in 2015. FYI: Rhule’s Owls ranked 21st in the land in fewest penalty yards per game last year. Baylor was rocked by player defections following the end of last season, but Rhule signed 27 recruits and a number of them will likely find playing time in 2017. Rhule’s troops were grinders at Temple, averaging 69 plays per game the last two years. Conversely, the Bears' up-tempo offense tallied 85 plays per game over the same span. Our guess is we’ll hardly recognize the players in Bears uniforms… just the way the brass wants it.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bears are 30-0 SU in their first six games of the season the last five years.


IOWA STATE (Offense – *5/1, Defense – 7/1, 44 Lettermen)


Sophomore coach Matt Campbell’s work with the Cyclones in his inaugural season last year proved he's the right man for the job. Inheriting a program with depleted numbers on both sides of the ball, the Cyclones displayed gradual improvement throughout the season. Iowa State played the 2016 campaign with 38 combined starts from true or redshirt freshman (only 20 teams had more). On defense, the Cyclones also improved, holding five of their final seven opponents to under their season scoring average. FYI: For the second year in a row, the Cyclones boasted a freshman running back who led the team in rushing as Mike Warren and David Montgomery bring talent and experience aplenty. Once Campbell is able to knock down a ranked foe (Cyclones 0-21 SU against the same) it will be safe to say he is ‘the man’ in Ames.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cyclones suffered four losses by a TD or less in 2016.

PLAY ON: at Kansas State (11/25)

KANSAS (Offense – 7/3, Defense – 5/3, 47 Lettermen)


Despite the usual mix of expected blowout losses and close-call defeats in 2016, Kansas finally managed to crack the win column in head coach David Beaty's 2nd season in Lawrence. KU’s first 8 losses last year were against schools that were 62-9 combined in 2015. The big news? Beaty is making inroads on the recruiting trail landing a consensus Top 20 2018 Class, while even extending offers to the Classes of 2019 and 2020. Beaty understands that Kansas is a school that has to do this sort of thing, build relationships with kids early on so they can have a chance at signing them before the “power schools” come calling. They also have to begin to learn to win conference games, where they are 5-65 SU since 2009. Beaty’s rebuild is on.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Ball security? Hah! Kansas was the worst team in the nation in most turnovers lost last season (36).

PLAY ON: at TCU (10/21)

KANSAS STATE (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 6/3, 44 Lettermen)


As we alluded to last year on this page, Bill Snyder is on a youth kick. A total of 47 redshirt or true freshmen combined to make their first start in 2015. To top it off, the 2016 team was the youngest in Snyder’s 25-year career at KSU, with a combined 135 starts coming from freshmen (42) or sophomores (93), including DE Reggie Walker – the Big 12 Freshman Player of the Year. And lest we forget, the Wildcats are the best team in the nation in non-offensive TDs with 106 since 1999 – plus they’ve scored on 42 kickoffs and punt returns since 2005, 14 more than any other FBS school. Yeah… Gramps can coach.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wildcats are the only team to rank in the Top 15 nationally in red zone offense each of the last three seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: at Texas Tech (11/4) - *KEY

OKLAHOMA (Offense – *9/5, Defense – 7/1, 49 Lettermen)


No, not Keyser Soze from 'The Usual Suspects.' We're talking about Big Game Bob Stoops, who shockingly resigned as Oklahoma's head coach on June 7th. In Stoops' 18 years at the helm, OU won a national championship and had more Big 12 titles (10) than home losses, while averaging 10.5 wins per season. Lincoln Riley, 33, takes over after two seasons as the Sooners' OC. Under his direction, OU led the country in team passing efficiency in 2016, and returns 99.4% of last year’s passing yards (read: QB Baker Mayfield), plus all five starting OL. Lincoln, though, has never been a head coach, so this will be a huge test. With Oklahoma entering 2017 riding a nation's-best 10-game win streak, perhaps Stoops is right to say, "Now is the ideal time to make this transition." We'll see.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: OU is the highest scoring football program of all-time, and its 7.5 yards per play in 2016 rank as 2nd most in school history.

PLAY ON: as a dog at Ohio State (9/9)

OKLAHOMA STATE (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 5/2, 39 Lettermen)


When a baseball team possesses three home run hitters at the No. 3, 4, and 5 spots in the order, they are considered offensively threatening. When a college football team owns three similar caliber players at its QB, RB, and WR positions, they are lethal. In Mason Rudolph, Justice Hill, and James Washington, OSU has the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the Big 12 – and perhaps the nation – heading into 2017. Collectively, they played together for one of only two schools in the nation with a 4,000-yard passer, and 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver (Clemson was the other). Watch out for the Cowboys!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cowboys are 11-0 SU and 10-1 ATS off back-to-back wins versus a foe off back-to-back losses under Mike Gundy.

PLAY AGAINST: at Texas (10/21)

TCU (Offense – *10/4, Defense – 7/1, 55 Lettermen)


It’s safe to say the Frogs were hopping mad (sorry about that) after falling from 11 wins in 2015 to 6 last season when the offense slipped 11 points and 100 yards per game. As a result, TCU suffered only its second losing season in 16 years behind head coach Gary Patterson. Patterson went to work, hiring Sonny Dykes, the former California head coach, and son of longtime Texas Tech head football coach Spike Dykes, as his offensive analyst/consultant. After winning six one-possession games in 2015 (2nd most in the nation), and then reverting to 1-3 in the same games last year, look for Patterson’s squad to revert back to their winning ways in 2017. STAT YOU WILL LIKE: In the two losing seasons Gary Patterson has endured at TCU, his troops went 11-1 and 12-1 the following years.

PLAY ON: at Arkansas (9/9) - *KEY

TEXAS (Offense – *7/4, Defense – 10/4, 46 Lettermen)


After starting 3-4 each of the last three years – all losing seasons – Charlie Strong was dispatched and Tom Herman was hired to turn the tables in Austin. The glowing look on new head coach Herman’s face is hard to dismiss. That’s because only 16.3% of the starts made by the Longhorns last year were by seniors – the 5th fewest in the nation. The reason being is underclassmen accounted for 54.4% of all teams starts by the Horns in 2016, the 2nd most in the nation. In fact, UT freshmen have now started 109 games the past two seasons, tops in the nation. Five losses by a TD or less in 2016 made the difference between 2017 being Charlie Strong’s 4th season on the 40 Acres versus Herman’s first. Thus, you can understand Herman’s desire to get this party started.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Longhorns haven’t suffered four consecutive losing seasons since 1938.

PLAY AGAINST: at Baylor (10/28)

TEXAS TECH (Offense – 9/4, Defense – 7/1, 48 Lettermen)


The Red Raiders were the nation’s No. 1 ranked team in total offense in 2016. They were also ranked last (No. 128) in total defense, which made TTRR an ‘Over’ machine all by themselves. Unfortunately, they lose the cannon-like arm of star QB Patrick Mahomes, who left early for the NFL (1st round, Kansas City Chiefs). More important, though, is Kliff Kingsbury’s ridiculous disguise of a defense, one that has surrendered over 500 YPG in three straight seasons. How bad is it? It’s so bad, opponents rushed the ball for 40 or more attempts in 29 of 37 games in that span. The good news is freshmen played in a total of 104 games. That should help this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: SR QB Nick Shimonek has served as a backup to four QBs in the NFL: Jake Ruddock, C.J. Beathard, Davis Webb, and Patrick Mahomes.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Baylor (11/11)

WEST VIRGINIA (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 3/0, 36 Lettermen)


With the 3rd highest percentage of starts by seniors of all FBS teams last season (60.1%), HC Dana Holgersen will be forced to re-tool his troops in 2017. Helping out will be Jake Spavital, who begins his first year as OC, returning to WVU after stints at Texas A&M and California. He’ll be operating without QB Skyler Howard who graduated with 7,302 yards and 60 TDs in his career. Howard’s replacement is Will Grier, who transfers from Florida where he started six games as a redshirt freshman. The good news is the Mounties return three of their top four running backs, led by Justin Crawford (1,100 yards), the returning rushing leader in the Big 12.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers from Morgantown are 9-1 ATS as conference underdogs from Game Ten out.

PLAY ON: as a dog at Oklahoma (11/25)
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College Football Conference Previews 8 months 2 weeks ago #445785

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Conference USA Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Lineup Tweak

With UAB back in the Conference USA this season, the loop will now operate with 14 teams. Each school will play every team in its division once for six games, while playing two crossover opponents from the opposite division.

We Won’t Back Down

Conference USA teams refuse to shy away from playing challenging non-conference competition, and this season is no exception. Among the teams on this year’s schedule are Arizona, Baylor, Florida, Iowa, Kansas State, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin.

A total of 28 games are scheduled against teams that played in a bowl game last season.

We’ll Bowl You Over, Too

Last season, Conference USA sent a record seven teams to bowl games. In the process, Conference USA posted its sixth consecutive winning season in bowl play and two programs - Louisiana Tech and WKU - are among nine schools that have won a bowl game in each of the past three seasons, joined by Clemson, Georgia, Stanford, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.

C-USA is 22-11 SU and 20-12-1 ATS over the last six years in bowl games. No other FBS conference owns a higher bowl SU and ATS win percentage than the C-USA the last six years.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


CHARLOTTE (Offense - *6/3, Defense - 6/1, 44 Lettermen)


The youthful 49ers were FBS’ newest spring chickens in 2015 when they debuted and won two games. They doubled that output last season. Better yet, six of their eight CUSA titles were either wins (3) or one-possession losses (3). On the surface it appears Brad Lambert’s veteran staff (over 150 years of experience) has this squad fast-tracked, but before they continue an expected uptick they will need to address a defense slipped from 94th to 108th last season. Gone are 22 members from a senior class that was part of the Niners’ first team in 2013. Now a young core of sophomores and juniors are set to take over. A soft schedule figures to help.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since becoming an FBS school, Charlotte is 0-6 SU and 0-5-1 ATS in its final six games of the season.

PLAY ON: at Florida International (9/30)

FLORIDA ATLANTIC (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 8/2, 63 Lettermen)


Like their cross county rivals, FIU, FAU made a celebrity hire in controversial Lane Kiffin as its new mentor. The former Tennessee, USC, and Oakland Raiders head coach, Kiffin inherits a pair of strong recruiting classes from his predecessor, Charlie Partridge. In fact, this year’s junior class led the nation with 16 true freshmen starters two seasons ago while last year’s squad featured 68 underclassmen. And speaking of last year’s team, through the first seven games last season the Owls started a different OL all seven games. Meanwhile, RB Devin “Motor” Singletary became the first freshman in Owl history to break the 1,000 yard plateau last year when he rushed for 721 yards, 8.1 Yards Per Rush, and 10 TDs over the final 4 games of the 2016 season. With no back-to-back road games and with the addition of FSU stud transfer WR De’Andre Johnson, the experienced Owls are perched for success.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls are 6-18 SU in one-possession games since Howard Schnellenberger resigned, including 2-8 the last two seasons

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Middle Tennessee (9/30)

FLORIDA INT’L (Offense - *6/2, Defense - 9/3, 57 Lettermen)


Celebrated head coach Butch Davis takes over the FIU football program, and he couldn’t be happier. The 65-year old Davis has compiled a 79-43 overall record in 10 years as a college head coach, including three Big East Championships while coaching the University of Miami. What Davis knows is that the FIU campus is within 40 miles of 15 south Florida high schools that have produced numerous state champions. Meanwhile, SR QB Alex McGough leads a deeply experienced team that ranks No. 1 in the nation by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s metrics – one that returns 85% production on both sides of the ball. It’s no wonder Butch is beaming.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: FIU is 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS versus sub .333 conference foes without Ron Turner since 2010.

PLAY ON: at Rice (9/23)

MARSHALL (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 4/2, 52 Lettermen)


After being the only Group of 5 program to record a third straight 10-win season in 2015, the Herd went from a thundering 33 wins in three seasons to a blundering 3 victories last year. Safe to say, Doc Holliday is walking around campus these days looking over his shoulder. Strangely, Marshall committed only 16 turnovers in 2016, the fewest for the program since it entered FBS waters in 1997. They also led the conference in 4th-down conversions (66.7%) as well. JR QB Chase Litton ranks on MU’s all-time Top 10 quarterback list. It remains to be seen, though, if the confidence can be restored to a team that may still be shell-shocked. We do know this, though: Marshall is 8-0 SU and 7-1 ATS as a home favorite with conference revenge.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Herd are 10-1-2 ATS as home dogs of more than 6 points.

PLAY AGAINST: at Florida Atlantic (11/3)

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (Offense - *6/32, Defense - 6/0, 40 Lettermen)


SBNation.com’s Bill Connelly contends MTSU may field the two best offensive players in the conference in quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. After a promising 6-2 start last season, Stockstill (head coach Rick’s son) was lost to a broken collarbone and the Blue Raiders responded by losing three of their final five games. The super sharp southpaw (threw for a school record 3,233 yards and 33 TDs) and his go-to target, WR Richie James, are back but the biggest question mark surrounding this year’s squad is the rush defense, one that surrendered more than 200 RYPG in 2016. If that same rebuilt unit comes around, the blue smurfs could be deadly.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: MTSU has been bowl eligible eight times in 11 years under Rick Stockstill and competed in six bowl games.

PLAY ON: vs. Vanderbilt (9/2) – KEY as a dog

OLD DOMINION (Offense - 8/4, Defense - 6/3, 46 Lettermen)


Spurred by a six-game season-ending win skein, the Monarchs capitalized on force-feeding freshmen in 2015 (their first ever losing season under head coach Bobby Wilder) to win 10 games last year. Through it all, Old Dominion tied for 1st place in the East Division and made its first bowl appearance when it defeated Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl. ODU became the youngest program (eight years) to win 10 games in a season since the NCAA formed Division I in 1978. Not only did Wilder’s crew set a single-season team rushing record with 2,595 yards last year, they also tied Miami Florida for the 2nd best team in the nation in fewest turnovers lost (10). Wow. This year, though, it will be a major surprise to find them sniffing 10 wins again as they must replace their starting QB and all three starting linebackers. And in a scheduling quirk, ODU has no back-to-back home or back-to-back road games this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Monarchs have sold out all 54 home games in school history and own a 41-13 SU record in those games.


UAB (Offense - 0/0, Defense - 0/0, 0 Lettermen)


They’re back. No thanks to bunked up claims from its president of losing money, the Blazers shut down the football program and missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons. But UAB and the city of Birmingham raised over $43 million for the reinstatement of its football program, and as a result they are back as full Division 1 FBS and Conference USA members in 2017. Bill Clark is back, too. In Clark’s first season as head coach of the Blazers in 2014, he turned around a program that was 2-10 the year before into a team that finished 6-6 and earned bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004. Yes, they are the feel good story for 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Per 247Sports, Clark has inked 18 three-star prospects in the last two classes.


WESTERN KENTUCKY (Offense - *4/2, Defense - 6/2, 52 Lettermen)


Considered one of college football’s brightest offensive minds (and a former Hilltopper assistant), Mike Sanford was named the 20th head football coach at WKU. Sanford spent the previous two seasons as the OC/QB coach at Notre Dame and replaces Jeff Brohm who, after 30 wins in three seasons, took the money and bolted to Purdue. The good news for Sanford is that after leading the nation’s top scoring offense and securing WKU’s 2nd consecutive C-USA title, SR QB Mike White returns to The Hill as the nation’s No. 2 returning passer behind Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. The Toppers also owned the nation’s No. 2 ranked rush defense last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hilltoppers have gone OVER their season win total each of the last five years.

PLAY ON: at Vanderbilt (11/4) - *KEY


LOUISIANA TECH (Offense - 5/3, Defense - 5/3, 27 Lettermen)

In a year of foremost accomplishment last season, the Bulldogs won the CUSA West and the Armed Forces Bowl, recording their third straight bowl win (a first in school history). In the process, Louisiana Tech has won 19 of its last 24 conference games and is tied with WKU for the best winning percentage in games over that span. Unfortunately, there is a price to be paid for all of that success as the Bulldogs enter the 2017 season with only one start at the collegiate level from the entire group of quarterbacks (this from a team that had a senior starting signal-caller each of the last three seasons). Uh oh. Nonetheless, in the watered-down West, the Bulldogs are still the favorite to capture division honors. Don’t be surprised if they are not nip-and-tuck with Southern Miss, though.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bulldogs will face 7 bowl foes this season, but only 2 that owned winning records overall.


NORTH TEXAS (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 8/1, 49 Lettermen)


You know you’re in trouble when you run a pass-first offense that can’t pass. Sure, UNT won five times as many games, and improved its numbers on both sides of the ball last season under first year head coach Scott Littrell. All feel-good numbers, for sure. The question is did they show dramatic improvement, or were they simply that bad in 2015 (the roster featured 36 non-scholarship players)? We do know that the 37-year old Littrell was considered one of the brightest offensive minds in college football when he was hired from North Carolina (served as assistant head coach of the offense). The bottom line is the Green are now in good hands with Littrell.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lean Green have gone 2-17 SU and 4-15 ATS away the last three years, outyarded by 175 YPG.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Army (11/18) - *Key if favored

RICE (Offense - 5/5, Defense - 8/3, 54 Lettermen)


After winning 30 games the previous four years, and being just 6 wins shy of matching a school record for 36 victories over a five-year span, the 16 returning starter Owls stalled on their perch in 2016 as they managed just three wins, the fewest since 2009. It should be noted that after a stretch of five different lineups over its first eight games of the season, Rice started the same offensive line for the last four games of the season in 2016. It’s relevant considering all five of the OL represent the entire returning starter component of the 2017 offense. And don’t look now but somehow David Bailiff owns the 2nd most wins in school history.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rice is just one of two FBS teams that will face 2016 bowl teams in each of its four non-conference games this season.

PLAY ON: at UTSA (10/21)

SOUTHERN MISS (Offense - 6/2, Defense - 5/2, 40 Lettermen)


When 1st-year head coach Jay Hopson witnessed his team go on a 34-0 run to turn a 35-10 deficit into a 44-35 victory over Kentucky in his debut game with the Eagles last season, he knew this squad had finally turned the corner for good. Yes, the powerful forward moving offense, led by RB Ito Smith – just the fourth Golden Eagle to gain more than 1,000 yards in multiple seasons – and WR Allenzae Staggers, was almost unstoppable. But their real success came from an unsung defense that not only improved 50 YPG in 2016, the stop-unit ranked No. 2 in the land in 3rd down conversion percentage defense. And they did it all despite recording a -17 turnover margin. Pretty impressive, to say the least. Remember that moving forward this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Eagles have gone bowling 20 of the last 23 years.

PLAY ON: vs. Charlotte (11/18) - *KEY

UTEP (Offense - *5/3, Defense - 7/1, 44 Lettermen)


Sean Kugler’s fifth year with the Miners will likely decide his future in El Paso. While production was up on both sides of the ball last season, the win tally slipped, and with just one winning season (7-6) to show for his effort, Kugler is suddenly feeling the burn. The building blocks are there, but a strong core of freshmen last year will need to mature in 2017. All-American SR Will Hernandez, who has started all 37 games in his career at the left guard position, anchors the OL. Meanwhile, JR QB Ryan Metz completed 64.7 percent of his passes last year, the 2nd-best completion percentage during a single season in program history. Stay tuned.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Miners are 9-54-1 SU and 15-45-2 ATS in the last 64 games in which they have been outgained in the stats.

PLAY AGAINST: at UAB (11/25) - *KEY if favored

UTSA (Offense - *6/3, Defense - 7/2, 45 Lettermen)


Head coach Frank Wilson guided Texas-San Antonio to six wins and its first-ever bowl game in his initial year at the helm last season. In the process, the Roadrunners tied an NCAA modern startup program record by playing in a bowl game in just their sixth season. And to top it off, UTSA returns four All-Conference performers from a year ago, including LB Josiah Tauefa, the CUSA Freshman of the Year. Better yet, living up to his moniker as one of the nation’s best recruiters, Wilson reeled in what was considered the top recruiting class in program history and the No. 1-ranked class in Conference USA, when he signed 23 highly decorated players (12 offense/11 defense) this offseason. Backers hope his squad can continue 2016's torrid 5-1 ATS season-ending skein.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Roadrunners are 2-14 ATS in SU conference losses.

PLAY ON: at UTEP (10/28)
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College Football Conference Previews 8 months 1 week ago #446355

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Independents Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Fearsome Foursome

Roll call among FBS Independent college football teams has quietly inched up to four teams currently competing among the ranks of Independents.

While the look and feel of this autonomous affiliation might appear small in size, its impact is substantial on the outcome in the chase the College Football Playoffs. Just ask the foes that will be taking on a super focused group of Fighting Irish, or the chancy Cougars from BYU this campaign.

Pushing The Needle

According to our well-oiled machine, since 2000 Independent teams that score 16 or fewer points in a contest are just 15-152 SU and 33-130-4 ATS in lined games – including 5-28 ATS as favorites.

On the flip side, they are 205-52 SU and 172-81-4 ATS in games in which they put more than 28 points in the scoreboard – including 68-21-2 ATS as dogs of 8 or more points.

Proceed accordingly.

Big Ugly Bowl Dogs

Each year one or two Independent teams find themselves earning bowl bids. And when they do they become attractive plays when taking more than 7 points during the post season.

That’s confirmed by the fact that Independent bowl dogs of 7.5 or more points are 13-6 ATS in these games since 1980, including 12-3 ATS when facing a foe that allows more than 12.5 PPG on the season.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

ARMY (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 8/2, 66 Lettermen)


Something was in the air last year when the Cadets opened the season with three consecutive wins, including a pair on the road. This from a program that was a deplorable 1-24 SU and 4-20 ATS in its previous 25 true road games. The cherry on the cake came when Army ended a 14-year losing drought to Navy, and then went on to win its first bowl game since 2010 (the Cadets' last winning season). While QB Ahmad Bradshaw returns to run the offense, and 11 of the top 14 tacklers return to a unit that ranked No. 2 in first downs defense last season, our concern is that anything less than another bowl will considered a setback. Then again, only once in its history has Amy defeated Navy and won a bowl game the same year. They went 9-3 the following season. Unfortunately, our ‘Stat You Will Like’ below says otherwise...

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: In the three seasons following a victory over Navy, the Black Knights have gone 1-11, 3-8, and 4-7 the next year.

PLAY ON: vs. Buffalo (9/9) - *KEY

BYU (Offense – 6/4, Defense – 6/3, 59 Lettermen)


One of only 10 programs to earn a bowl invitation every season since 2005, the Cougars will face 13 foes in 2017, but only four that owned a winning record last season. Three of them, though, finished in the nation’s Top 25. Gone this year are two of the most dynamic offensive players in school history – all-time leading rusher Jamaal Williams and dual-threat QB Taysom Hill, both of whom accounted for over 6,700 career rushing yards. The good news is JR QB Tanner Mangum will step back into his familiar starting role (13 starts last two years). Meanwhile, rookie head coach Kalani Sitake won nine games, including a bowl, last season. He fits like a glove.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cougars were the 2nd best team in turnovers gained (31), and the #3 team in red zone offense in 2016.

PLAY AGAINST: at Mississippi State (10/14)

NOTRE DAME (Offense – 8/4, Defense – 7/2, 39 Lettermen)


Rest assured, losing seven players to the 2016 NFL Draft – all in the first 4 rounds – took a toll on the Irish last season. Seven of eight losses came by just 8 points or less, and as improbable as it seems, the Fighting Irish are now a sister-kissing 15-15 SU in their last 30 games thanks to their 2nd worst season in 50 years in 2016. It was only the second time since 1963 the Irish finished with fewer than five victories. Brian Kelly even suffered his first loss with a Top 10 team against a non-ranked foe last season (Texas in the season opener). And it doesn’t get any easier as Kelly’s troops will face a murderer’s row schedule, taking on 11 bowl teams from 2016. All of which means Touchdown Jesus will likely need to bless new starting QB Brandon Wimbush… pronto.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last six times the Irish failed to deliver a winning season, they went bowling the next year all six times.

PLAY ON: vs. Navy (11/18)

UMASS (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 9/2, 51 Lettermen)


After being tossed about in the turbulent FCS, then discovering significantly calmer FBS waters in 2012 as a member of the Mid-American Conference, the Minutemen were feeling giddy. A 10-40 record and two head coaches later, UMass is suddenly swimming in murky waters, terribly close to being an extinct FBS program. Along the way they managed to lose to Miami Ohio, a team that was on a 21-game losing streak. Gone are three senior offensive linemen, but that may be a good thing considering they allowed 45 sacks and were one of only five FBS teams that rushed for less than 100 YPG last season. Like Chubby Checker wanted to know… how low can you go?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Minutemen are 1-12 SU in one-possession games under head coach Mark Whipple.

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College Football Conference Previews 8 months 3 days ago #446743

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MAC Preview
By Marc Lawrence

The West Is Still Best

Entering its 71st year of gridiron competition, the MAC welcomes 12 teams as it settles into a balanced format for the second consecutive season.

According to 5Dimes.eu, these are the odds to win the 2017 conference championship:

East – Miami Ohio +500, Ohio U +500, Akron +1300, Bowling Green +3000, Kent State +8000, Buffalo +10000

West – Toledo +250, Western Michigan +250, Northern Illinois +1000, Central Michigan +1200, Eastern Michigan +1400, Ball State +5000

By doing the math it appears the power in the MAC resides in the West, which is noting new as the West has won the title 7 of the last 11 years.

Ballin’ Outside the Conference

As lightweight a reputation as the MAC has they have surprisingly managed to hold their own when installed as favorites outside the conference, especially as invaders.

That’s confirmed by the MAC’s sterling 24-7 SU and 19-11-1 ATS mark as non-conference road chalk since 2004 – including 11-1 SUATS from Game Four out.

Bowl Fodder

And speaking of non-conference opposition, the MAC has been little more than feedstuff for opponents in bowl games dating back to 2007, as they are just 14-38 SU and 18-32-2 ATS in post season play in that span.

Worse, when facing a bowl opponent off a season ending loss, the MAC lacks any kind of attack going a paltry 3-21 SU and 5-18-1 ATS in these games. It should be noted, though, they have picked up the slack of late, managing to go 3-4 SU and 4-2-1 ATS in these same games the past three seasons.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


AKRON (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/2, 57 Lettermen)


Head coach Terry Bowden is the dean of MAC coaches with the most career wins (164). Nationally, Bowden ranks sixth among active coaches in career wins. Meanwhile, the Zips welcome two-year SR starting QB Thomas Woodson behind center, along with former Pitt quarterback transfer turned WR Tre’Von Chapman. In addition, the NCAA granted RB Warren Ball a 6th year of eligibility. Good news also returns on both the offensive (4 starters) and defensive lines (2) in 2017. After losing 188 starts to graduated seniors in 2015 (tied for the most in the nation), Akron was forced to suck it up last year. The benefits should begin to surface in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Zips head coach Bowden is 2-16 SU and 3-14-1 ATS as a home dog against .500 or greater opponents.

PLAY ON: at Bowling Green (9/30)

BOWLING GREEN (Offense – 6/2, Defense – 6/2, 43 Lettermen)


The Mike Jinks era at Bowling Green got off to a really rough start last season. After winning 36 games the previous four years, the Falcons fell like birds without wings en route to a 4-win campaign, thanks mainly to an offense that ranked dead last in passing efficiency defense last season. Things were so bad that only lowly Kansas had more lost turnovers (36) in 2016. Yes, BGSU's offense slipped 140 yards and the defense dipped 40 yards under Jinks, but the Falcons were one of just 20 FBS teams to conclude the season on a winning streak of at least three games, rushing for 984 yards in those contests.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Falcons went 36-3 SU in games where they won the stats, and 4-22 SU when they lost the stats over the last five years.

PLAY ON: at Miami Ohio (10/7)

BUFFALO (Offense – *6/4, Defense – 8/2, 46 Lettermen)


The baby Bulls football team struggled through some growing pains in 2016 as Buffalo had 42 new players on the roster. Now with a more experienced group, 3rd-year head coach Lance Leipold is hoping the program can turn the corner. Last season UB’s defense was last in the MAC and 124th out of 126 in the nation against the run. Big plays were the problem: Buffalo gave up 10 runs of 40-or-more yards (only seven teams allowed more). UB returns a lot of experience on defense, but the influx of speed on display during the spring game is the most encouraging sign. “We’re trying to find more athleticism, more speed,” insists DC Brian Borland.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since joining the MAC in 1999, the Bulls are 6-54 SU and 21-38-1 ATS versus winning opponents.

PLAY ON: at Miami Ohio (10/21)

KENT STATE (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 6/2, 52 Lettermen)


Talk about a bizarre season. Per Bill Connelly of SBNation.com, you know it was a bad year when you cycle through five quarterbacks, one of whom ended up with 868 passing yards, 1,038 rushing yards, and 135 receiving yards (you read that right). And how about a true freshman walk-on running back that led the team in receptions! If all that wasn’t weird enough, the Flashes were ranked No. 128 – last – in the nation in first down offense last season… that on the heels of finishing No. 127 in 2015! Is it any wonder that through it all the offense actually improved 8 points and 36 YPG last season? Go figure.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Flashes are 3-30 SU and 8-24 ATS in games in which they score less than 24 points under Paul Haynes.

PLAY AGAINST: at Akron (11/21)

MIAMI, OHIO (Offense – *9/4, Defense – 8/2, 54 Lettermen)


After opening the season with six straight losses in 2016, Miami made NCAA history by winning its final six games. In the process they landed a bid in the St. Petersburg Bowl where they went toe-to-toe with an SEC team. And while a letdown would normally be in order the following season, we can’t knee-jerk to that assumption with this suddenly experienced squad. For openers, a super-soft schedule in 2017, with only two winning teams from 2016, dots their itinerary. In addition, the Hawks welcome back 17 starters, including all three linebackers and three members of the secondary from a unit that finished first in total defense in the MAC. Whew.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After losing 15 consecutive games to winning opponents the previous five years, Miami went 2-2 last season.

PLAY ON: at Ohio (10/31)

OHIO (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 6/2, 39 Lettermen)


In Frank Solich’s 72 years on this earth, including 12 with Ohio, the Bobcats have managed to win four MAC division titles, including one last season. Solich is certainly battle tested. The former head coach and running back at Nebraska has lifted OU from the depths of despair to a competitive program, one that seems to play an abundance of close games (nine decided by a TD or less last season). The difference between Solich and the revolving door of coaches in this league is he knows how to win them with (9 wins in the last three seasons coming in close call games). And it’s a primary reason the Bobcats have been bowling 8 of the last nine years. Furthermore, the Bobcats kicking game figures to be rock solid for the next few years with PK Louie Zervos and P Michael Farkas. Each earned Campus Insiders Freshman All-American honors last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: OU will face only two teams this year that owned a winning record last season.

PLAY ON: vs. Central Michigan (10/7)


BALL STATE (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 4/2, 34 Lettermen)


Head coach Mike Neu – one of the Cardinals’ very own, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year as a quarterback with BSU in 1993 and former QB coach with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints – returns for his second season on the sidelines in Muncie. His Cardinals were ranked No. 3 in the nation in 4th down percentage defense last season, which helped contribute to a 47 YPG improvement on defense to go along with a 78 YPG upgrade on offense. Unlike 2015 when Ball State was outyarded -172 YPG in conference play (worst in the MAC), the Redbirds cut that deficit to -69 YPG last year. Safe to say a new era is underway at Ball State. FYI: the Cardinals averaged the fewest fans in attendance among all FBS teams last season, drawing just 7,789 per game. Big brother Michigan led the nation with 110,648. The average FBS attendance was 46,731.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The stats winner is 44-5 SU in Ball State games the last four seasons, including 12-0 last year.

PLAY ON: at Eastern Michigan (11/2)

CENTRAL MICHIGAN (Offense – 9/3, Defense – 6/2, 47 Lettermen)


Talk about a consistent sort: CMU’s record over the last five years is 7-6, 6-6, 7-6, 7-6 and 6-7. Thus, in two seasons with the Chippewas, head coach John Bonamego has not only taken his team to two bowl games, but also battled tonsil cancer in the process. And it looks as if his run is not about to end anytime soon. “I plan to win, win now and be here for a very, very, very, very, very long time,” the coach said. The 2017 Chips return a 3,800-yard passer and his top five wideouts, plus most of the defensive two-deep. With that, we’ll safely pencil them in for another 6-or 7-win season… because we’re big Bonamego fans.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chippewas are 12-5 SU and 13-4 ATS away from Game Six out the last five years.

PLAY ON: at Kent State (11/14)

EASTERN MICHIGAN (Offense – *8/2, Defense – 8/2, 53 Lettermen)


As predicted on this page last year, Eastern Michigan benefitted mightily from a sudden wealth of experience – and a young coach in Chris Creighton, who is on his way to bigger things in the near future. Back this season are 16 starters from last year’s bowl squad led by QB Brogan Roback, who threw for 2,694 yards in 10 games. Creighton’s “E Tough” philosophy was never more apparent than last season when the Eagles won games against Wyoming and Ohio U. Like Creighton says, his team will compete against “anyone, anytime and anywhere… even on a parking lot covered with broken glass.” Now that’s one tough team!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Eastern Michigan enjoyed its first winning season last year since 1995.


NORTHERN ILLINOIS (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 9/2, 55 Lettermen)


Following a disappointing 5-win season in 2016, Northern Illinois becomes a certified ‘Mission Team’ this season. Looking deeper into their fait di accompli, the Huskies opened the campaign with 6 losses in their first seven games – including a pair of gut-wrenching triple OT defeats – before going on to win three of their final four contests. In the end, a skein of 6 straight MAC West titles vanished into thin air, but we’re not about to nail the coffin just yet. After all, how does one expect a team beset with quarterback injuries (five in the past 18 games) to compete? They may be just 5-10 SU in their last fifteen games overall, but no one is sleeping on these Huskies.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies are 27-7 SU and 25-8-1 ATS in their last thirty-four road games.

PLAY ON: at Toledo (11/2)

TOLEDO (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 7/2, 44 Lettermen)


There is a lot to like about the Rockets this season. Head coach Jason Candle won 9 games in his debut last year and can’t wait to see what the future holds for this team. “We have a great group of senior leaders, and plenty of talent on both sides of the ball,” said Candle. It starts with SR QB Logan Woodside who led the nation with 45 TD passes last season. He’s the reason UT was the 2nd best squad in the land in team passing efficiency in 2016. In addition, RB Terry Swanson, who gained 923 yards last season, returns. With the OL returning five players that either started or saw significant action in 2016, look for a lift-off from Toledo this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Four of Toledo’s 7 losing records over the last 36 years came in 2006-09 immediately following a point-shaving scandal.

PLAY ON: at Ohio (11/8 )

WESTERN MICHIGAN (Offense – 5/3, Defense – 8/2, 25 Lettermen)


After winning its first championship in 27 years, and playing in its first title game in 16 seasons, new WMU head coach Tim Lester has big shoes to fill. But the WMU alum has big feet. Lester, who takes over for departed P.J. Fleck, resides in the Western Michigan Hall of Fame after passing for more than 11,000 yards for the Broncos in the late ‘90’s. After losing stud QB Zach Terrell to the NFL, Lester inherits Tom Flacco (brother of NFL Joe) as his quarterback. The biggest loss, though, is that of superstar WR Corey Davis, a 1st round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. It’s a good thing Lester has his footprint on this transitioning program.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Broncos led the nation in fewest turnovers lost last season (8 ).

PLAY AGAINST: at Toledo (11/24)
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College Football Conference Previews 7 months 3 weeks ago #447336

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Mountain West Conference Preview
By Marc Lawrence

We’re Back, Again

For the tenth consecutive year, the Mountain West sent at least five teams into postseason bowl games when seven participants hit the alleys last season. The MWC has earned 84 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 46-38 (.548) all-time record in those contests.

More important, for the first time in six years the Mountain West finished the bowls with a winning campaign last season.


The Mountain West has welcomed 29 new head coaches over the last 18 seasons, twelve of which played in a bowl game in their rookie year. Three new head coaches debut this season: Brent Brennan (San Jose State), Jay Norvell (Nevada), and oldie but goodie Jeff Tedford (Fresno State). The bad news is all three of the new coaches will face uphill battles with squads that all figure to battle to stay out of the cellar in their respective divisions.

Way Up There

The Mountain West Conference is appropriately named with all 6 teams in the MWC Mountain Division more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

Wyoming’s War Memorial stadium scales the highest at 7,215 feet, with Air Force’s Falcon Stadium also better than a mile high at 6,621 feet.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


AIR FORCE (Offense - *5/2, Defense - 1/0, 80 Lettermen)


It’s a good thing the Air Force Academy is always heavy on upper classmen. That’s because this year’s squadron has plenty of holes to fill as AFA seniors accounted for the 2nd highest percentage of starts of all FBS teams last season (69.0%). The good news is former starting QB Nate Romine returns, along with his heir apparent Arion Worthman, who is undefeated (6-0) as a starter for the Falcons. Lost however are six of seven defensive linemen, four of five linebackers and six of seven defensive backs. Furthermore, the Flyboys will most likely need to win out at home as five of six road games are slated against bowl teams.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Falcons are 2-12 ATS in games after facing Army and Navy since 2010.

PLAY AGAINST: at Colorado State (10/28)

BOISE STATE (Offense - *5/2, Defense - 4/2, 38 Lettermen)


You have to go back to 1998 to find the last time a Boise State football team failed to win 8 games in a season. And were it not for the fact that the Broncos finished the 2016 season with the 2nd fewest amount of turnovers gained (9), they likely would have topped the 10 wins they recorded last season. In fact, the most consistent mid-major in the nation has knocked off five of their last six Power Five foes. We’re not certain what happened in their bowl loss to Baylor, but the last four times the Broncos lost a bowl game, they bounced back to go 51-3 combined the following season. Thought you’d like to know.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Broncos are 61-2 SU in games against .500 or less foes with Bryan Harsin on the sidelines (as OC 2006-2010 and since 2014).

PLAY ON: vs. Air Force (11/18)

COLORADO STATE (Offense - *6/2, Defense - 8/3, 43 Lettermen)


Starting QB Nick Stevens leads a stacked backfield speared by the three-headed attack of Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey, Jr., who combined for 2,199 rushing yards last season. (Note: the Rams were 6-0 SU in game in which they rushed for 200 yards last season; 0-6 when they did not). After being demoted, and then reclaiming his starting position October 22nd, Stevens posted the nation’s best pass efficiency from that point forward when the Rams finished as the No. 4 team in the nation in red zone offense in 2016. Defensively, nine starters return, most of who were thrown into the fire due to a lack of proficiency. Meanwhile, Mike Bobo is one of only two Group of Five coaches hired in 2015 to post winning records each of the last two years. Color them dangerous.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Rams are 0-20 SU all-time versus ranked opponents.

PLAY ON: at Wyoming (11/4)

NEW MEXICO (Offense - *7/3, Defense - 2/1, 41 Lettermen)


The Lobos won their first NCAA rushing title last season (after finishing second in 1970 and 1971) when they tallied 4,550 yards, edging Army by 86 yards. The question is was New Mexico good last season, or were they good and lucky? Five of its wins were by a TD or less in 2016 (only Clemson owned more). With over 50% of the starts made for the Lobos last season coming by seniors, we’ll see what Bob Davie has left in his recruit war chest. We do know this: the Lobos committed just 14 giveaways last season. In four of Davie’s five seasons at the helm, the Lobos have ranked in the top five in fewest giveaways.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lobos have been outscored by 2.8 PPG under Davie, after being outscored by 26 PPG in the 3 years prior to his arrival.

PLAY ON: vs. New Mexico State (9/9)

UTAH STATE (Offense - *7/2, Defense - 8/1, 40 Lettermen)


It’s not a good sign when your team wins 3 games in a season in which over 50% of the starts were made by seniors – especially when six players that earned various MWC honors are gone this year. Granted, four losses last season by a TD or less were discouraging but signs of progress are evident in 2017 with the return of starting QB Kent Myers (2,389 passing yards and 10 TDs), RB Tonny Lindsey, Jr. (763 rushing yards and 6 TDs), and WR Ron’quavion Tarver (46 receptions for 602 yards) from last season. Also good news is the fact that 20 players made their first start last season. Collectively, they can only get better.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies own a 19-13 SU record in conference games under Wells. They were 24-42 SU the previous nine seasons.

PLAY ON: at Air Force (11/25)

WYOMING (Offense - *6/4, Defense - 8/3, 51 Lettermen)


Meet the FBS team that started the most underclassmen in the nation in 2016 (56.2%). And for the first time in four seasons at Wyoming, head coach Craig Bohl will have a returning starter quarterback in JT Josh Allen – a mighty damn good one at that. Allen burst onto the college football scene in 2016, leading the MWC, and ranking 20th in the nation in passing touchdowns (28). Some thought he might enter the NFL Draft early this year but he didn’t. As a result, Allen should be one of the top returning QBs in the nation. Bohl’s force-feeding of youngsters two seasons ago paid major dividends last year. Could he hit the jackpot in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Last year’s win over Boise State was the first over a ranked opponent for the Cowboys since 2002.

PLAY ON: vs. New Mexico (10/28)


FRESNO STATE (Offense - *10/5, Defense - 6/3, 42 Lettermen)


What is the last thing a team that ranked dead last in in the nation in first down defense – and also ranked in the bottom 10 in the land in rush offense – would want to face during the first month of a new season with a new coach this year? If you said consecutive road trips to Alabama and to Washington, you’re spot on. The new coach is actually an old one recycled, former California boss Jeff Tedford. He was brought in after the Bulldogs fell from 11 wins to 11 losses in three years under Tim DeRuyter, who ironically moves to Cal as it new defensive coordinator. Remember this team suffered four losses by a touchdown or less last season. The only direction this program can go is up.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After a 19-4 start with the Bulldogs, former Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter went 11-30 in his final 41 games.

PLAY ON: at Hawaii (11/11)

HAWAII (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 6/2, 54 Lettermen)


If you thought the 10,000 miles Hawaii flew before playing its first home game last season was dizzying, wait until you get a load of this year’s passenger manifest. By the end of September 2017, the Warriors will have journeyed to Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and Wyoming. Troubling? No way. Not after 1st year coach and former Hawaii quarterback Nick Rolovich used last season's 10,000-mile journey to discover an exciting QB in Dru Brown and an explosive RB in Diocemy Saint Juste, pairing them to form one of the MWC’s more frightening backfields. With most of last year’s starting cast back, plus 9 of the top 11 receivers, another bowl looks likely.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hawaii is 1-7 SU in Eastern Time zones since 1959, with losses by a combined margin of 286-30.

PLAY AGAINST: at Massachusetts (8/26)

NEVADA (Offense - *5/2, Defense - 9/3, 40 Lettermen)


Though it seems like eons ago now, three stints of Chris Ault and his altered shotgun offense are a faded memory following four non-descript seasons under Brian Polian. Replacing Polian is offense-maker Jay Norvell, a wide receivers coach at Arizona State last season, and a former OC with Nebraska, Oklahoma, and UCLA. To help kick-start the offense, Norvell hired Matt Mumme (Hal’s son), a former HC at Division III LaGrange as his OC. With air raid in Mumme’s blood, expect the pig to fly in Reno in 2017. Norvell’s DC is Jeff Casteel who brings almost 25 years of coordinator experience, including stints at West Virginia and Arizona. The rebuild is in place.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolf Pack were the 4th best team in the nation in fewest turnovers lost last season (11).

PLAY AGAINST: at Fresno State (9/30)

SAN DIEGO STATE (Offense - *5/1, Defense - 6/1, 34 Lettermen)


A monster in the Mountain West has emerged. Over the past two seasons Rocky Long’s Aztecs have won two MWC titles while outscoring conference foes by 24 PPG, while going 16-2 SU in conference games in the process. The problem now facing Long’s troops is that over 50% of the starts made for the Aztecs in 2016 were by seniors. Obviously, they will need to be replaced. The good news is super-pest South Alabama is no longer on the schedule. The Aztecs went 0-2 SUATS versus the Jaguars in 2015-16, and 22-4 against everyone else! Last year SDSU started the same OL in all 14 games, a group that combined for 114 starts. Now 130 of those starts are gone – along with record-setting RB Donnel Pumphrey.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After bowling twice in 22 years between 1987 and 2009, the Aztecs have bowled six straight years under Rocky Long.


SAN JOSE STATE (Offense - 7/5, Defense - 8/2, 35 Lettermen)


First the bad news: The Spartans were the worst team in the land in sacks allowed (50) last year. They were also the 2nd worst team in the nation in 4th down conversion percentage defense. Throughout it all, after collaring Top 60 recruiting classes each of his last three years, promising young head coach Ron Caragher was canned. The good news is his replacement is Brent Brennan, a 44-year old former UCLA wide receiver, known for his infectious personality. He inherits major experience on the OL with six linemen owning 125 combined career starts. Even better news: Brennan also inherits a deeply experienced defense that could be the backbone of the team.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The SU winner in Spartans’ games is 33-4 the last three seasons, including 12-0 in 2016.


UNLV (Offense - *9/4 Defense - 2/2, 48 Lettermen)


Bit by the injury bug last year, HC Tony Sanchez’s troops fell short of .500 – but still improved their record, point production, and overall defense. The Rebels return two starting QBs and four WRs, plus a high upside of youthful experience is back as Sanchez’s recruiting skills are beginning to surface. For it to happen, though, veteran DC Kent Baer (45th year of coaching) needs his troops to show continued improvement. This is a program that's been to only four bowl games in four decades and, as a result, head coaches have struggled in Vegas (USC’s John Robinson was 28-42 here). Sanchez is determined to set a new norm. Don’t discount his chances as UNLV returns one of the Mountain West’s best backfields and top offensive lines this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Rebels have enjoyed just one winning season over the last 16 years.

PLAY ON: at Idaho (9/9) - *KEY
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Pacific-12 Conference Preview
By Marc Lawrence

It’s Getting Warm Around Here

If it appears that things are warming up in the desert these days it’s because they are. Global warming aside, Arizona and Arizona State are just 20-19 and 21-17 respectively since 2014.

That puts head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham squarely on the hot seat this season. Behind defenses that allowed an average 38 (Wildcats) and 40 (Sun Devils) points per game last season its no surprise new defensive coordinators were hired in the off season.

Quarterback Checklist

Like most football conferences, the Pac-12 is a quarterback driven league. And 2017 will be no different, with USC Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Washington’s Jake Browning and Washington State’s Luke Falk leading the charge.

Each will be in the Heisman Trophy talk in 2017. And rest assured, by the time the final dust settles backers of these teams will have air miles aplenty.

Bowl Shorts

For a Power 5 conference, the Pac-12 landed only six bowl berths in 2016. Not only did they manage a waffling 3-3 SU mark, they lost the money in all six contests when they went 0-6 ATS.

After a blasé 6-4 bowl effort in 2015, it’s time for the surfer dudes to stand and deliver in 2017.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


CALIFORNIA (Offense – 5/2, Defense – 8/3, 56 Lettermen)


The bad news Bears fielded the 4th worst overall stop-unit in the nation last season, owning the worst rush defense AND worst 4th down conversion percentage defense as well. Hopefully, those days are now in the rear-view mirror. The dismissal of HC Sonny yikes (no D) and the hire of Justin Wilcox bring a new look to Berkeley. As a DC, Wilcox’s stuffing defenses at Boise State, Tennessee, USC, Washington and Wisconsin guarantees a defensive turnaround at Cal. And for good measure, he brings in hard-nosed former HC Tim DeRuyter as his new DC, and former Eastern Washington HC Beau Baldwin as his OC. The Bears look ready to strap on the ‘D’.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Under Dykes, the Bears were 2-14 SU and 4-12 ATS versus Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, losing by over 20 PPG... and 1-11 SU in Games Six thru Eight.


OREGON (Offense – *7/4, Defense – 9/0, 48 Lettermen)


New HC Willie Taggart inherits a decidedly desirable situation, and not just because he’s taking over a top-level program. It’s the fact that Oregon hit a chuckhole in 2016 when its 4 wins (the fewest since 1983) snapped a 12-year win skein. Thus, a winning season of any sort will be looked upon as improvement. But more than that, the Ducks started more freshmen that any FBS team (29.1% of all starts). In addition, 46.7% of all starts were made by underclassmen (8th most in the land). That goes hand-in-hand with our take on young teams translating ambitious experience into success (see Washington in 2016). Fear these dangerous Ducks.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Ducks were held to under 300 yards of total offense for the first time in 89 games in a loss to USC last season.


OREGON STATE (Offense – *8/2, Defense – 7/3, 51 Lettermen)


After being beaten to a pulp in Gary Andersen’s first year with OSU in 2015 (they were outscored and outyarded by conference foes, -24.6 and -208 YPG ), things improved across the board in 2016 – to the point that they handily outperformed the oddsmaker, going 9-2 ATS. Hence, promise is the optimal word in Corvallis these days. 22-year old OT Gus Lavaka spent two years as an LDS missionary in Tonga and returned to land a spot on Campus Insiders’ 2016 Freshmen All-American First Team for the Beavers last season. He joins CB Xavier Crawford as another 2016 Freshmen All-American First Teamer, so the building blocks are in place.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Beavers were ranked No. 127 (2nd worst) in 4th down conversion percentage in 2016.


STANFORD (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 8/2, 82 Lettermen)


Perpetuating their lofty standing as a premier team in the Pac-12, Stanford ranks at the top of its division and third in the conference in the number of 4-or 5-star (41) and ESPN 300 (32) recruits signed over the past five seasons. It’s a primary reason that, since he arrived at Stanford in 2011, head coach David Shaw has averaged 10.7 wins per season. However, the loss of two 1st-rounders in this year’s NFL Draft cannot be overstated. RB Christian McCaffrey’s 3,360 rushing yards against Power 5 foes was tops in the land (nearly 700 yards more than runner-up D’Onta Foreman of Texas). And DL Solomon Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in the draft. Be careful here.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cardinal’s offense slipped 12 points and 68 yards per game last season.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Notre Dame (11/25)

WASHINGTON (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 7/2, 53 Lettermen)


Last year we proclaimed the fact that the 2015 Huskies were ”young as hell, and back for more in 2016.” That force-feeding paid off in spades when they earned a trip to the CFB Playoffs. And because only 17.5% of all starts last year were made by seniors (the 6th fewest in the nation), they are still hungry, led by QB Jake Browning and TB Myles Gaskin. Still, three members of UDub’s starting secondary were scooped up in the first 11 picks in the 2nd round of this year’s NFL Draft. Remember, the Huskies led the nation in turnovers gained last season (33). What happens to the defending Pac-12 champs if they don’t this year?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Chris Petersen averages 10.82 wins per season, which ranks No. 3 among all current head coaches.

PLAY AGAINST: at Colorado (9/23)

WASHINGTON STATE (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 7/2, 44 Lettermen)


After seeing his best squad ever at WSU last season open up 0-2 and then stall down the stretch, one can only imagine the numbers on Mike Leach’s Fit Bit this offseason. We know this for sure: we’re betting QB Luke Falk will be in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentations this year. The 6’4” SR started all 13 games in 2016 while completing 443-of-633 passes for 4,468 yards (third most in the nation) and 38 TDs. And those numbers were actually DOWN from two years ago when he completed 448-of-645 passes for 4,566 yards and 38 TDs. A wealth of receivers also return, making this a team no one will want to line up against in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cougars are 10-1 ATS as conference road dogs versus winning foes under head coach Mike Leach.

PLAY ON: vs. Boise State (9/9)


ARIZONA (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 8/3, 45 Lettermen)


It was a collapse of major proportions. Last year’s awful 3-9 season, after four consecutive bowl campaigns, dropped the Wildcats to 10-15 since winning the Pac-12 South Division in 2014. Last year’s 82-yard slippage on offense can be attributed to a depleted attack unit being forced to play three different quarterbacks, and a wide receiver at running back. Only in this case it was a lack of talent – not injuries – that handcuffed the team. “Part of the problem we had last year was mistakes in recruiting or bad luck in recruiting,” head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “It falls on me.” It's fair to say he won’t be long for Tucson with another 3-9 season. Safe to say Rich Rod will need stud RB Nick Wilson, who’s missed 14 games the past two seasons with injuries, to stand and deliver.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: For the third time in the last five years, Arizona has had zero players selected in the NFL Draft.

PLAY ON: vs. Utah (9/22)

ARIZONA STATE (Offense – *7/2, Defense – 7/3, 57 Lettermen)


After a second straight losing campaign in 2016, head coach Todd Graham’s staff underwent more change for the second straight year, losing passing game coordinator Jay Norvell (new HC at Nevada). Also gone is OC Chip Lindsey, who accepted the same position at Auburn. Graham then added former Baylor DC Phil Bennett to the mix. But you know things are going bad when Youngstown State and West Georgia each had more players drafted (2) this year than you did (1). The good news is new OC Billy Napier, Alabama’s WR coach, will work with former Alabama QB Blake Barnett, who transferred out with automatic eligibility.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Arizona State ranked dead last (No. 128) in passing yards allowed for the second consecutive season.

PLAY AGAINST: at UCLA (11/11) - *KEY

COLORADO (Offense – 9/4, Defense – 3/1, 53 Lettermen)


The Buffaloes improved from 3-33 in conference play the previous four seasons to 8-1 in 2016. And the expectation is that Colorado will likely remain a Top 25-caliber team for the foreseeable future. The Pac-12’s best scoring defense will need to overhaul its unit, though, with 8 starters gone. On the flip side, the Buffaloes have one of the best groups of receivers in the conference, and also return 2nd-team All-Pac-12 RB Phillip Lindsay. They should be in good shape with Steven Montez replacing Sefo Liufau at QB, and four starters back on the OL, including OT Tim Lynott, a Freshmen All-American First Teamer who started every game last year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Buffaloes have forced a turnover in each of their last 25 home games – the longest skein in the nation.


UCLA (Offense – *7/4, Defense – 6/2, 49 Lettermen)


Where does a team go that loses its franchise quarterback at the midway point of the season behind an offense that ranked No. 127 (2nd worst in the land) in rushing offense? Not far, or as Dwight Yoakam might say, “A thousand miles from nowhere.” Thus, this year’s team will be all about having the “Chosen Rosen” back behind center. The ‘mission team’ Bruins will also be looking to improve on last year’s 1-5 mark in true road games (as opposed to going 17-6 the prior four seasons). UCLA’s defense actually improved in 2016 when it held six straight opponents to under 400 yards of total offense in a season for the first time since 2010.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Josh Rosen was sacked 13 times in 6 games last season, as opposed to 15 times in 13 games in 2015.

PLAY ON: vs. Texas A&M (9/3)

USC (Offense – *6/2, Defense – 7/1, 48 Lettermen)


After starting the season 1-2 for the first time since 2001, USC handed the keys over to phenom QB Sam Darnold, who lost his first start and then led the Trojans to nine straight wins – winning the stats in all ten games. Darnold finished with the 2nd-most passing yards (3,086) of all freshmen in 2016, and he projects as the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft (should he decide to enter). Hence, the 2017 Trojans are well equipped, returning 81 squad men from last year’s Rose Bowl champion team. A consensus national Top 5 recruiting class of 23 newcomers will join them. That likely tells you all you need to know. What is concerning is the fact that the Trojans averaged 68,459 fans in home attendance in 2016. They drew 91,480 fans a game under Pete Carroll.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USC beat both teams that played in the Pac-12 Championship Game last season.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Notre Dame (10/21)

UTAH (Offense – *6/1, Defense – 6/2, 50 Lettermen)


Former Washington Huskies and JCU transfer QB Troy Williams stepped in and filled Travis Wilson’s shoes with aplomb last season when he threw for 2,757 yards and 15 TDs. The Utes tied with BYU for the 2nd best team in the land in turnovers gained (31), and was also the No. 1 ranked team in net punting in 2016. However, Kyle Whittingham’s team took a big hit in the NFL Draft when eight players were selected this year. Fortunately, there are no back-to-back road games this season for the first time since 2003, when they went 10-2. The bad news, though, is they will face the top four teams from the North division in 2017. FYI: Utah has appeared in every College Football Playoff ranking since its inception in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Utes head coach Whittingham owns the best bowl winning percentage (.910) of any coach in NCAA history.

PLAY AGAINST: at USC (10/14)
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SEC Conference Preview
By Marc Lawrence

Rolling With The Tide

Alabama finished one second shy of winning its fifth national championship in eight years in a heart-breaking loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game last season.

The SEC has won the National Championship eight times in the last 11 years, while appearing in the title game 10 times - with the Crimson Tide claiming four crowns.

A Long Time Between Drinks Of Water

Since the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators defeated Alabama in 2008 in the SEC title game en route to winning the national championship, teams from the West division have reeled off 8 straight victories against East division foes in SEC titles games, including Alabama’s 54-16 victory over Florida in last season.

Take Your Choice

In Las Vegas, Alabama leads the 2017 season win totals brigade at 11, followed by Ohio State at 10.5.

According to odds to win the SEC at 5Dimes.com, the 2017 SEC East pecking order finds: Alabama -160, LSU +675, Auburn +700, Texas A&M +5000, Arkansas +8000, Mississippi State +12000.

In the SEC East its Georgia +1000, Florida +1100, Tennessee +2200, Kentucky +12000, South Carolina +12000, Missouri +23000 and Vanderbilt +23000.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.


FLORIDA (Offense – 9/4, Defense – 6/3, 49 Lettermen)


Here’s a sobering thought: since Tim Tebow left in 2009, the Gators have had 10 different starting quarterbacks, none of whom passed for 2,500 yards or 12 TDs in a single season. Feleipe Franks appears to be the next in line this season. A concern is eight Florida players were selected in this year’s NFL Draft, including three members of a secondary that were selected in the 2nd round (UF owned the No. 1 passing efficiency defense in 2016). Nonetheless, Florida qualifies as a ‘play on’ squad in 2017 that improved its stats on both sides of the ball last year, yet slipped SU and ATS. We’re expecting big things from the Gators.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Only 15.4 % of starts made by the Gators last year were by seniors – the 3rd fewest in the nation.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia (10/28)

GEORGIA (Offense – *8/2, Defense – 10/2, 53 Lettermen)


In 2015 a total of 22 true freshmen, which led the nation, played for the Bulldogs. Then last year the Bulldogs ended the season by playing a total of 20 freshmen. Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that only 19.3% of all starts for Georgia in 2016 were made by seniors (the 9th fewest in the nation). Most important, though, Georgia’s top three rushers are back, including Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The All-Star seniors – the best 1-2 combo in college football – have rushed for 5,835 yards and 48 TDs in their careers. But the big news is the return of 10 starters on defense. Meanwhile, 2nd-year babysitter Kirby Smart is lovin’ it.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: West Georgia had more players drafted (2) this year by the NFL than did Georgia (1).

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Missouri (10/14) -*KEY

KENTUCKY (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 9/3, 49 Lettermen)


After just completing a new mind-boggling 100,000 square foot, $45 million training facility in 2016 – a year after a $120 million “re-imagining” of Commonwealth Stadium in 2015 – it’s time for the Wildcats to git 'er done. It starts with a team that features the nation’s 7th largest amount of returning production, keyed by 17 returning starters. That’s because just 16.2 % of starts by the 'Cats last year were made by seniors, the 4th fewest in the nation. Anchoring this year’s attack, the OL returns 47 starts from 2016, a line that paved the way for the 2nd-most rushing yards in school history (3,044) and a school-record 30 TDs. Okay, now get to work.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Kentucky was the No. 3 team in the nation in 4th down conversion percentage last season.

PLAY ON: vs. Tennessee (10/28)

MISSOURI (Offense – *10/5, Defense – 6/2, 42 Lettermen)


Things went from bad to worse for the Tigers in 2016. After winning 23 games and going 14-4 in SEC play in 2013-14, Mizzou has won just 9 games the past two seasons while going 3-13 in conference contests. The good news, though, is a marshmallow offense came alive in 2016 when the Tigers improved 17 points and 219 yards per game. However, the bad news is the defense fell apart at the seams under 1st year head coach Barry Odom when it regressed 15 points and 177 yards. OC Josh Heupel did his job, and welcomes 10 starters back in 2017. In order to move the program back in the right direction, defensive improvement is a must. A bigger problem is slipping attendance, as the Tigers 52,236 average attendance was the biggest dip off all FBS schools, down 20% from 71,165 the previous season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers are 26-5 SU and 20-8 ATS the last four years in games where they outgain their opponent.

PLAY ON: vs. Tennessee (11/11) - *KEY as a dog

SOUTH CAROLINA (Offense – *10/4, Defense – 6/2, 43 Lettermen)


When SC faced USF in the Birmingham Bowl last season, 76 of the 113-man bowl roster (67.3%) were comprised of either freshmen (52) or sophomores (24) – compared to just 18 juniors and 19 seniors. By season’s end, 13 true freshmen saw game action in 2016, matching Maryland, Ole Miss and Texas for the most true freshmen starters in the country. In fact, the Gamecocks were the only squad in the nation to have freshmen lead the team in rushing and passing yards. Second-year head coach Will Muschamp is thrilled to welcome back the youngsters, but the Gamecocks will face a brutal schedule with 11 bowl teams from 2016. Yuk.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Gamecocks were 0-7 SU against ranked opponents until they defeated Tennessee last season.

PLAY AGAINST: at Missouri (9/9)

TENNESSEE (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 8/1, 53 Lettermen)


The Vols’ resurgence all started in 2014 after Tennessee played 23 true freshmen – the most in the nation – the year prior, and then followed it up with 240 total returning starts in 2015. It resulted in a pair of 9-win seasons the past two years. UT has some mighty big shoes to fill in 2017, though. Granted, they're still a young team that is rapidly maturing. But the loss of QB Joshua Dobbs (23-12 as a starter, the Vols' career leader in rushing yards and TDs) and RB Alvin Kamara (1,188 all-purpose yards and 13 TDs in 2016) leaves crater-size holes to fill at the two most important skill positions. Things could get a bit rocky in 2017.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vols ranked No. 126 (3rd worst) in 2016 in 4th down conversion percentage.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia (9/30)

VANDERBILT (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 7/2, 43 Lettermen)


We really liked the makeup of last year’s Vanderbilt squad as a preponderance of youth in 2015 (123 overall starts by underclassmen) led to a vastly experienced band of Commies in 2016. In fact, only 20% of the starts made last season were by seniors, the 10th fewest in the nation. And it paid off in spades as Vandy finished 2016 as the top team in the land in red zone defense – as well as the No. 5 unit in red zone offense. Together that’s a pretty powerful tandem. It resulted in the 'Dores landing their 4th bowl bid in the last six years. Safe to say, head coach Derek Mason has this team on the rise.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Commodores are 0-16 SU and 2-14 ATS in Game Six of the season over the last 16 years.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia (10/7) - *KEY


ALABAMA (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 6/1, 52 Lettermen)


For the second straight season the powerhouse Tide return 6 starters on each side of the ball. The difference this year, though, is QB Jalen Hurts is now a sophomore and explosive WR Calvin Ridley is now a junior. After 17 years of coaching experience in the NFL, new co-OC Brain Dabol was lured ($1.2M) to Tuscaloosa. Along with DC Jeremy Pruitt’s $1.3M annual salary, the Tide’s 10 full-time assistant coaches will earn a combined $6.5M… or $5M collectively less than Nick Saban’s $11.5M haul. Sheesh. Meanwhile, like last year’s national champion, Clemson, the Tide will face no back-to-back away games, playing only 4 true road games the entire season. FYI: The Tide has won 17 consecutive SEC games by an average of 21 points.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Nick Saban is an incredible 119-19 SU at Alabama, including 40-1 versus .500 or less opponents.


ARKANSAS (Offense – *7/4, Defense – 5/0, 54 Lettermen)


Devastating news hit the Razorback program this offseason when star RB Rawleigh Williams III announced his retirement after suffering a second major neck injury in as many years. “He might be the most complete running back I’ve ever signed," said head coach Bret Bielema. "He’s serious.” The good news is Austin Allen is one of the top three returning quarterbacks in the SEC. The problem is his top two targets have departed. That and a gaping hole on the DL where none of the starters are anywhere to be found. After blowing some really big halftime leads last season, Bielema shook up his defensive coaching staff to make amends for a plethora of failures.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hogs have played UNDER their season win total in three of four seasons under Bret Bielema.

PLAY ON: vs. Missouri (11/25)

AUBURN (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 8/2, 57 Lettermen)


There's an army of supporters who feel that Auburn is rapidly closing the door on Alabama. With former 5-star Baylor recruit QB Jarrett Stidham taking over the controls for Gus Malzahn’s offense this season, the door is shutting fast. Consider: Auburn QBs had 12 TD passes in 2016. Stidham had 12 TD passes as a backup with Baylor in 2015. Our 4 Year Statistical Review above confirms the suspicion as it notes the Tigers improved their numbers on both sides of the ball last year (+13 net PPG, +71 net OYPG, and +43 net DYPG). RB Kamryn Pettway averaged 122 RYPG in 2016, the highest mark among all returning FBS running backs. Here come the Tigers.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers are 30-1 SU at home in non-conference games since 2007. The loss occurred last year against Clemson.

PLAY ON: at Clemson (9/9)

LSU (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 5/2, 47 Lettermen)


Here’s a bar bet you’ll win every time this year – the Tigers were ranked dead last in 4th down conversion percentage in 2016. It’s numbers like those that ran Les Miles out of town. What backfired last season was a master plan that called for an experienced squad of underclassmen who made 41.9% of all starts last season. Amid rumors of insubordination, they opened the 2016 campaign at 2-2 last year, and Miles was shown the door. Fixer Ed Orgeron steps in as the full-time coach but has a long way to go to mirror Miles’ numbers. There will come a time when he’ll need to win games against quality conference teams… or else.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Ed Orgeron is 2-18 SU as a head coach against winning SEC foes in his career.

PLAY ON: at Florida (10/7) - *KEY as a dog

MISSISSIPPI (Offense – *5/4, Defense – 6/1, 60 Lettermen)


The Rebels have somehow managed to crack the 60 returning lettermen barrier once again. In fact, going back from 2017 to Hugh Freeze’s first year with the program in 2012, the Rebels returning lettermen have numbered 60, 61, 58, 60, 58, and 61. What it means is his recruiting skills have been exceptional, thus the reason his teams are 49-27 SU and 44-25-1 ATS throughout his FBS career. And he did it in the ultra-competitive grounds of the SEC. Freeze is gone but the young Rebels started the 5th most freshmen in FBS last season (20.1%), and will be a qualified ‘Mission Team’ in 2017, suffering their first losing season last year under Freeze.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freeze was 15-1 SU and 14-2 ATS as a favorite vs. non-conference opponents.

PLAY ON: at California (9/16)

MISSISSIPPI STATE (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 7/0, 49 Lettermen)


After losing a quarterback that put up some of the most impressive numbers in SEC history, Mississippi State looked to be in a pinch last season. That was until SO QB Nick Fitzgerald surfaced – at just the right time. All Fitzgerald did in his first year as a starter was shatter nine school records. He also broke the SEC single-season record for 100-yard rushing games by a QB (8 ) and average yards per rush by a QB (7.1). Fitzgerald is joined in the backfield by late-bloomer RB Aeris Williams, who changed the complexion of MSU’s rushing attack late last year. The “A-Train” averaged 102.8 YPG in the last five contests of 2016. All aboard!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Under Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs are 27-12 SU in seasons after losing 6 or more games the previous year.


TEXAS A&M (Offense – 6/2, Defense – 6/2, 50 Lettermen)


On the heels of its third consecutive 8-5 season, it would appear things are hunky-dory in College Station. We beg to disagree. According to our database, the Aggies have suffered four consecutive ATS losing seasons, going 16-32 ATS. What it means is that Kevin Sumlin’s crew has underachieved, as the Las Vegas oddsmakers had them pegged for better results. Along the way A&M is 15-0 SU during the first three games of the season the last three years, but only 9-15 SU and 3-20 ATS out. The good news is RB Trayveon Williams was a 2016 Freshmen All-American First Team selection when he rushed for 1,024 yards on only 147 carries (7.0 YPR) last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin is 1-13 ATS in games following a loss since 2013.

PLAY ON: vs. Mississippi State (10/28)
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Sun Belt Conference Preview
By Marc Lawrence

On the surface the Sun Belt appears to be a three-horse race in 2017, according to 5Dimes.eu. Here are their odds to win the conference title this season:

Appalachian State +130
Arkansas State +325
Troy +340
Georgia Southern +1400
UL Lafayette +1400
Idaho +1700
New Mexico State +2000
South Alabama +2000
Georgia State +4500
UL Monroe +4500
Coastal Carolina +11500
Texas State +17500

We’re Getting There

The Sun Belt Conference will hold its first ever football championship game beginning in 2018.

“This championship will be a first-class experience – and we look forward to it being a launching-pad for a team to reach the College Football Playoff’s ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl games,” said Commissioner Karl Benson.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

APPALACHIAN STATE (Offense - *6/3, Defense - 7/3, 45 Lettermen)


After an injury-marred 4-8 mark in 2013, and then going 1-5 to start the following season, ASU head coach Scott Satterfield was simmering on the hot seat. But suddenly, when it mattered the most, his Mountaineers went on a mission, winning 27 of their next 32 games while going 20-2 SU against fellow Group of 5 opponents. And just like that, they were back. Now with only ONE losing season under their belt since 1993 – the aforementioned 2013 campaign – and falling in overtime at Tennessee last season, App State is primed to win its first game against a Power 5 opponent (read: Wake Forest) behind star QB Taylor Lamb (27-9 as a starter – second to Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield in total wins) and RB Jalin Moore. Remember, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 in the nation in 4th down percentage defense last season. Be there.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers have won three FCS national championships since 2005.

PLAY ON: vs. Wake Forest (9/23)

ARKANSAS STATE (Offense - *5/0, Defense - 4/1, 50 Lettermen)


To no one’s surprise, an 8-win effort in 2016 (after a 0-4 start) was in keeping with the Red Wolves’ 44 victories over the previous five seasons. What is surprising is the fact they managed to scale such heights behind four different head coaches. The good news is Blake Anderson has been at the helm with each of the last three ASU teams which, if you read in between the lines, like his predecessors he could be flying the coop with another bowl effort this campaign. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation.com, the Wolves have won or shared five of the last six Sun Belt titles, and are 20-4 in conference play under Anderson. Having arguably the best quarterback in the league in Justice Hansen, along with talented RBs and WRs, makes the Red Wolves a contender for conference honors in 2017. They were also the top team in the land in team tackles for a loss last season. Very impressive, to say the least.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 38-9 SU and 33-14 ATS from Game Six out the last six years.

PLAY ON: vs. UL-Lafayette (10/19) *KEY

COASTAL CAROLINA (Offense - *3/1, Defense - 6/3, 57 Lettermen)


Meet wildly successful head coach Joe Moglia and the Chanticleers. Moglia has gone 51-15 in five years at Coastal Carolina with four trips to the FCS playoffs, including 10-2 last year, with both losses by one-point each despite a cavalcade of quarterback injuries (5). A Vince Lombardi Hall of Fame award winner, he also won the 2015 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year honor. The much-accomplished Moglia has gone from the Ivy League (DC at Dartmouth) to CEO and Chairman of the Board of Ameritrade, to an unpaid assistant at Nebraska, to head coach of the Chanticleers. He also brings an FCS all-star coaching staff with him. Granted, they were hit hard by injuries last season and graduation losses this season, but Syracuse transfer QB Austin Wilson, and Boston College RB Marcus Outlow will help spur the attack. Yes, you can say they are ready for the next level.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chanticleers offense has averaged at least 34 PPG every season under Moglia.

PLAY ON: vs. Massachusetts (9/2)

GEORGIA SOUTHERN (Offense - 5/4, Defense - 5/2, 23 Lettermen)


New head coach Tyson Summers knew that replacing Willie Fritz was not going to be an easy task. Little did he realize that following a 3-0 start, his Bald Eagles would be running on bald tires the rest of the way. A 2-7 blowout finish to the season would leave the Georgia Power Company on a season-ending energy outage. The fact of the matter is Summers is a non-option guy coaching an option-first offense and the regression was swift. Sensing a need to change gears immediately, Summers canned his co-offensive coordinators and brought in Paul Johnson disciple Bryan Cook to run the show. He’ll need all the drive he can get.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Before last season’s 3-2 effort, the Eagles had gone 29-4 SU at home the previous five years.


GEORGIA STATE (Offense - 9/4, Defense - 7/2, 52 Lettermen)


Behind former South Carolina offensive line coach – and interim head coach – Shawn Elliott, the Panthers move into a (sort of) new stadium in their next FBS phase. Elliott – the only new face among Sun Belt head coaches in 2017 - replaces Trent Miles who was vanquished after a 10-39 mark in four years with GSU. The Panthers will call revamped Turner Field (former home of the Atlanta Braves) home, and with it they welcome a cast of experienced players led by QB Conner Manning, a former Utah transfer. Also back is star WR Penny Hart who missed most of last season with a foot injury. Because it doesn’t take much to make yourself a bowl-caliber team in the Sun Belt, Elliott’s first full year at the helm should prove successful.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Despite going 1-3 SU, the Panthers won the stats in each of their final four games last season.

PLAY ON: at UL-Monroe (10/14)

IDAHO (Offense - *9/3, Defense - 6/1, 31 Lettermen)


With a tear in its eye, Idaho is FCS bound next season. After twenty-one seasons at the FBS level, the Vandals will take their 76-166 (a .301 win percentage) record to a lower echelon next year. During 18 years playing on the FCS stage, Idaho went 134-79 (a .629 win percentage), including 15 winning seasons and 11 postseason appearances. So while the move will likely generate new excitement in Moscow, the fact of the matter is they will be hell-bent to build on last season’s 7-1 SU and 8-0 ATS finish. Behind a Paul Petrino offense that has improved it’s scoring each and every year on his watch, don’t count them out for one last bowl.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After losing 30 of its previous 32 away games, Idaho went 5-3 away last season, including a 61-50 bowl win.

PLAY AGAINST: at South Alabama (9/23)

NEW MEXICO STATE (Offense - 8/3, Defense - 9/3, 44 Lettermen)


In four years under current head coach Doug Martin, the Aggies have averaged 2.5 wins per season. From 2005-2012, NMSU averaged 2.6 wins per season. Like a goldfish swimming in circles, some things remain constant. And because his contract expires at the end of this year, Martin resorted to signing an abundance of JUCOs, including 13 of the team’s 25 new signees this season according to SBNation.com. After largely ignoring the JUCO route, it’s apparent Martin is in all-out mode to save his rear end. With a ton of experience returning on both sides of the ball, including star RB Larry Rose III, we say if not this year… then when?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies have allowed 500 or more yards 26 times in 48 games under Martin, including ten 600+ yards games.

PLAY ON: at Ga Southern (10/14)

SOUTH ALABAMA (Offense - *5/3, Defense - 6/3, 41 Lettermen)


Respectability. With three 6-win FBS seasons since jumping in with the sharks in 2012 – none fewer than five – they’ve also won three games as underdogs of more than 17 points. The problem is they have also laid some golden goose-size eggs, too. More importantly, while knocking on the door, they’ve yet to taste a winning season at this level. They did, however, knock off Mississippi State and San Diego State last year to earn a coveted bowl berth. After closing out the 2016 season with stat-wins in each of their final five games, USA opens the 2017 campaign against a murderer’s row schedule in September with three games against top-tier FBS foes that have collectively won 13 of their last 17 bowl games this decade.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jaguars are 0-4 SUATS following a SU underdog win the past two seasons by an average loss margin of 23.3 PPG.

PLAY ON: vs. UL-Monroe (10/21)

TEXAS STATE (Offense - 8/3, Defense - 7/3, 45 Lettermen)


Simply put, Year One under the Everett Withers coaching regime last season was not up to scratch, as the Bobcats owned the puniest rush offense in the nation. They were also the worst team in red zone defense in 2016. It was all largely due to the fact that Texas State freshmen were involved in 30% of all starts made by the Bobcats in 2016 – the most in the land. Withers is hoping Mississippi State transfer QB Damian Williams can come in and lead a suddenly experienced squad to a higher level of performance (read: more wins). Coupled with the best recruiting class in the Sun Belt this offseason, a reversal of fortune should be in order sooner rather than later.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bobcats are 2-20 In The Stats versus FBS foes the last two seasons.


TROY (Offense - *10/2, Defense - 6/2, 54 Lettermen)


Get ready, Alabama. The Trojans are one of three FBS schools in the state – and they might not be the weakest. We realize it’s a daunting statement, what with the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers each residing in the same territory, but Troy will field its best team this century in 2017. Led this season by 4th year starting quarterback Brandon Silvers, the Trojans won 10 games last year behind a bevy of sophomores and juniors – who are now juniors and seniors. In addition, every rushing and pass-receiving yard returns. Stern September road trips to Boise State and LSU should shape them into a powerhouse in the Sun Belt this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Trojans are 9-0 ATS in regular season games following a SU favorite loss.

PLAY AGAINST: at New Mexico State (9/16)

UL-LAFAYETTE (Offense - 6/4, Defense - 7/3, 52 Lettermen)


There is an unraveling situation going on in Lafayette. In the last two years, ULL barely won more games (10) than it averaged under head coach Mark Hudspeth in the four years previous. It’s one of the reasons ULL has played UNDER its season win total each of the last four years. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. A quick scan of their stat-logs atop this page tells it all. The culprit is an offense that has regressed each and every year since 2012. Through it all, ULL has managed to hit the alleys in five of six seasons under Hudspeth. An ultra tough road slate puts that streak in jeopardy this season. That and the loss of QB Anthony Jennings and star RB Elijah McGuire to eligibility.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hudspeth is 13-3 ATS as a dog vs. winning opponents, including 8-0 SUATS as a single-digit underdog.


UL-MONROE (Offense - 7/3, Defense - 8/3, 53 Lettermen)


It’s a good thing 2nd year head coach Matt Viator is on the scene. When your rush defense ranks No. 125, there is generally trouble looming. A 10-year head coach at McNeese Sate where he led the Geaux Pokes to the FCS playoffs five times, Viator rolled up his sleeves and went to work hitting the recruiting trail hard this offseason. Word is he might have landed the school’s best class ever. Unfortunately, it may take a year or two for the results to show, as the Warhawks will face no less than 10 bowl teams from last season. The good news is ULM beefed up its offense 62 YPG in 2016. Now it’s the defense’s turn.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Warhawks have been shut out in at least one game in 7 of the last 8 seasons – all versus Power Five conferences.

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SEC East Predictions
By Brian Edwards

1-Florida Gators

Best Players: OT Martez Ivey, WR Antonio Callaway, CB Duke Dawson, DE CeCe Jefferson, CB Chauncey Gardner & PK Eddy Pineiro.

Toughest Games: vs. Michigan (Arlington, TX.), vs. LSU, vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) and vs. FSU.

Danger Spots: at Missouri on Nov. 4 & at South Carolina on Nov. 11.

UF will be looking for its third consecutive trip to Atlanta on Jim McElwain’s watch. McElwain is the first coach in SEC history to win division titles in the first two seasons of his tenure at a school. The Gators probably won’t be quite as salty on defense in 2017, especially after last season’s leading tackler, senior safety Marcell Harris, went down with a torn Achilles in late July. However, the Gators finally appear poised to field an offense that can score.

In McElwain’s first two seasons, UF averaged 23.2 and 23.9 points per game. But the offensive woes at Florida date all the way back to Tim Tebow’s exit in 2009. Since then, the Gators have averaged more than 30.0 PPG just once (30.3 PPG in 2015). Furthermore, every QB that has made a start was either a player that eventually transferred out or transferred in. Those QBs include Jeff Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg, Treon Harris and Will Grier. Two others – Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby – came to UF from other schools, and now Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire is wearing orange and blue.

The reason for optimism on offense extends well beyond the QB position, but even the most talented unit can’t function well without adequate QB play. The thinking in Gainesville is that the arrival of Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire and the presence of four-star redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will cure an illness that’s engulfed the program for seven seasons. Whoever earns the starting job will have weapons galore at his disposal. Callaway, the true junior WR and special-teams ace, is the only player in school history to score five different ways – passing, rushing, receiving, kick return and punt return. He had 54 receptions for 721 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, but his status for the opener against Michigan was in question after his arrest in June for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Now it seems he’ll play, however, after McElwain addressed the media on Aug. 2. When asked if there will be in any Week 1 suspensions, he said “not at this time as long as some obligations are met.” Senior WR Brandon Powell is a three-year starter who’s joined by Tyrie Cleveland, the true sophomore who has NFL size and speed and made the huge play (a 99-yard TD reception) to trigger last year’s division-clinching victory at LSU.

The defense returns just four starters, but that’s a misleading number. When LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone went down with injuries at Arkansas in ’16, true freshmen David Reese and Kylan Johnson were inserted into the starting lineup. Both played well, earned starting experience and will be better for it as full-time starters this year. Also, Jefferson and Jordan Sherit weren’t considered starters, but both took snaps galore and made many big plays in ’15 and ’16. The Harris injury is costly, especially with less depth in the secondary this year. With that said, though, CBs Gardner (MVP of Outback Bowl) and Dawson are All-SEC candidates.

Gambling Numbers: 8/1 odds to win the SEC, 50/1 odds to win nat’l title & a season win total of 8.5 (‘over’ -115).

Prediction: With every prediction I make in August, you go by the presumption that most key players stay healthy. The reality of college football (or pigskin at any level) is that teams will indeed lose key players to injuries or even suspensions in some case. So with that said pertaining to this prediction and the rest of them below, I’m confident in seven wins for UF and then there are five crucial swing games – vs. Michigan, vs. LSU, vs UGA, at South Carolina and vs. FSU. You notice how only one of those five are on the road? (Thanks, Joe Alleva!) In fact, the Gators play only three true road games all year and are likely to be favored in each – at Kentucky, at Missouri and at USC. If things fall into place, this could be a monster season for UF. Then again, the depth on defense isn’t what it has been and if injuries are anywhere near the level of last season (UF won at LSU with seven defensive starters back in Gainesville), things could go south in a hurry. And, as always, until a Florida QB has a big year, that position remains a question mark. Regardless though, I think the Gators are a given to win eight games. I feel it’s more likely they go 9-3 or 10-2. I’ll call for UF to win the SEC East but lose again to Alabama in Atlanta.

Bets: Florida pick ‘em vs. Georgia in Games of the Year (three units). Why? UF’s defensive line eats UGA’s o-line for breakfast, lunch and dinner annually.

2-Georgia Bulldogs

Best Players: RB Nick Chubb, QB Jacob Eason, RB Sony Michel, DT Trenton Thompson & LB Roquan Smith.

Toughest Games: at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, vs. UF, at Auburn & at Ga. Tech.

Danger Spots: vs. Appalachian St. in Week 1 & at Vanderbilt on Oct. 7.

Georgia went 8-5 straight up and 6-7 against the spread in the first season of the Kirby Smart Era. In fairness, the Bulldogs lost three games by five combined points and one of those defeats came on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play. But they also stole one at Missouri on a fourth-and-10 TD pass in the final minute of a 28-27 triumph. Also, UGA’s 13-7 win over Auburn came when Gus Malzahn’s team had its two best offensive players (QB Sean White and RB Kamryn Pettway) injured, and a victory at South Carolina came before Jake Bentley was inserted into USC’s starting lineup.

Smart’s second squad has seven starters back on offense and 10 on defense. Eason was predictably inconsistent as a true freshman, displaying his NFL arm on plays like the game-winning pass at Missouri and especially on his ridiculous go-ahead TD throw against Tennessee with 10 ticks left. He completed only 55.1 percent of his passes, throwing 16 TD passes compared to eight interceptions. Five of his top six pass catchers return, but his top target Isaiah McKenzie has departed. Chubb and Michel provide UGA with the best 1-2 punch of RBs in the country, but will the offensive line show improvement? This unit, which is ranked just 46th nationally by Phil Steele in his preseason magazine, was dominated by the defensive fronts for Missouri (2.7 yards per carry), Vanderbilt (2.1 YPC), Florida (1.1 YPC) and Auburn (3.1 YPC).

Fourteen of UGA’s top 15 tacklers are back from a defense that gave up 24.0 PPG. This unit is filled with veterans. In fact, only juniors and seniors were listed as starters coming out of spring practice. Thompson, Smith, FS Dominick Sanders and Lorenzo Carter are the leaders on this side of the ball. Smart, who cut his teeth as an excellent defensive coordinator for nearly a decade at Alabama under Nick Saban, should have this side of the ball playing at a elite level in 2017.

Gambling Numbers: UGA has 6/1 odds to win the SEC and 25/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff at Sportsbook.ag. Depending on if you like the ‘over’ or ‘under,’ you probably need to shop around. I’ve seen the Bulldogs’ win total at 8.5 with the juice as high as -135 (Sportsbook.ag as of 8/2), but they can also be found at nine with a price in the -140 neighborhood.

Prediction: The first two games are crucial and it would be ignorant for anyone to think Appalachian St. doesn’t have a chance between the hedges. UGA is currently favored by 14 over the Mountaineers, while most shops with Games of the Year have it installed as a short underdog (I’ve seen it from +1 to +3) for the trip to South Bend to face the Fighting Irish. If Smart’s club wins at UT on Sept. 30, that will make the ensuing trip to Nashville even more challenging. I see Georgia finishing second in the East. I have the Dawgs going 8-4 or 9-3, depending on how their trip to The Flats for the regular-season finale works out.

Bets: I have nothing here.

3-Tennessee Volunteers

Best Players: WR Jauan Jennings, SS Todd Kelly, LB Darrin Kirkland, KR Evan Berry & TE Ethan Wolf.

Toughest Games: vs. Ga Tech in Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Dome, not Bobby Dodd Stadium), at Florida, vs. Georgia, at Alabama & vs. LSU.

Danger Spots: at Kentucky on Oct. 28 & at Missouri (11/11).

Tennessee finished 9-4 SU and 5-7-1 ATS in 2016. The Volunteers went 2-2 in four one-possession games, beating Appalachian St. in overtime and winning at Georgia on a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play. They lost in double overtime at Texas A&M and dropped a 24-21 decision at South Carolina.

Jones enters his fifth season with a 30-21 record at UT, guiding his team to a 3-0 record in bowl games since limping to a 5-7 record in his first season in Knoxville. He is only 2-2 against Vanderbilt and remains winless against Will Muschamp’s teams in three head-to-head meetings. Many in the media seem to think Jones is on steady footing in terms of job security, but those members of the press have absolutely zero clue.

Jones is a relentless excuse maker who constantly ruffles the feathers of his fan base with asinine remarks like last year’s senior class being “champions of life” (rather than SEC East champs in a division UT was favored to win and was in the driver’s seat of after rallying from 21 points down to beat Florida and stealing its game in Athens). Jones lacked the stones to own his kindergarten-level mistake of note going for two at UF two years ago after his team took a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. In short, he’s a clown who is on the hot seat and will remain there until he takes this program back to Atlanta (in early December).

Gambling Numbers: UT has 20/1 odds to win the SEC and 85/1 odds to win the CFP. The Vols have a win total of 7.5 with the juice toward the ‘over’ in the -130 range. They are +7 at UF, pick ‘em vs. UGA, +24.5 at ‘Bama, -1 at UK, +7.5 vs. LSU & -8.5 vs. Vandy.

Prediction: UT has seven starters back on each side of the ball, but offensive playmakers like Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone are gone. On the flip side, the Vols have their top five and eight of their top nine tacklers returning. With that said, Derek Barnett and key secondary players like Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman have moved on. The QB position is a question mark, making it difficult for pundits to peg this squad in August. I look at the schedule and see a likely 5-2 record with five games I’m uncertain about. Those contests are vs. Ga. Tech, vs. UGA, vs. South Carolina, at Missouri and vs. LSU. The Vols have two weeks to prep for the Gamecocks and will be in revenge mode, but arch-rival Alabama will be on deck to potentially provide a look-ahead scenario. If UT gets quality QB play, I think it can finish 8-4. If the QB play is poor, 6-6 is a possibility. I’ll hedge and say 7-5.

Bets: I want to say fade UT as a seven-point ‘dog at The Swamp. However, I’d like to see who gets both starting jobs at QB (and then see how they play in Weeks 1 and 2) for those division rivals before committing to that wager. I’ll pass on the win total.

4-South Carolina

Best Players: TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, LB Skai Moore, LB Bryson Allen-Williams & QB Jake Bentley.

Toughest Games: vs. N.C. St. in Charlotte, at UT, at UGA, vs. UF & vs. Clemson.

Danger Spots: vs. La. Tech on Sept. 23 & vs. Arkansas on Oct. 7.

I went in-depth on my take on the ’17 Gamecocks and why I love their win total ‘over’ 5.5 victories. They have 85/1 odds to win the SEC.

5-Vanderbilt Commodores

Best Players: RB Ralph Webb, LB Oren Burks, NG Nifae Lealao, SS Ryan White & WR Trent Sherfield.
Toughest Games: vs. Kansas St., vs. Alabama, at UT, vs. UGA, at South Carolina & at Tennessee.

Danger Spots: at Middle Tennessee in Week 1 & vs. Western Ky. on Nov. 4.

Derek Mason’s fourth team should be his best but, according to Phil Steele, it has the fourth-toughest schedule in the SEC and the 15th-toughest in the nation. After 2.5 years of inept QB play on Mason’s watch, Kyle Shurmur caught fire in November and led the Commodores to consecutive home wins over Ole Miss (38-17 as 9.5-point ‘dogs) and Tennessee (45-34 as 7.5-point ‘dogs) to close the regular season and become bowl eligible. Vandy also won at Georgia and at Western Ky., which won Conference USA and finished with an 11-3 record, in addition to a 47-24 blowout victory over Middle Tennessee when Brent Stockstill was healthy. The Commodores, who finished 6-7 SU and 7-6 ATS in ’16, return nine starters on offense and seven on defense. Ralph Webb is already the school’s all-time leading rusher and appears poised for a banner senior campaign. The Gainesville, Fla., product ran for 1,283 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 5.1 YPC last year. Khari Blasingame had a strong ’16 as well in a reserve role, rushing for 449 yards and 10 TDs with a 4.6 YPC average. The top eight pass catchers are back, including Sherfield and C.J. Duncan.

After struggling on defense in Mason’s first season (33.3 PPG), he fired his defensive coordinator to take over that position himself. The results have been great and can’t even really be told in the stats. Vandy gave up just 21.0 PPG in ’15, but that was with an abysmal offense that averaged only 15.2 PPG. Then last season, the Commodores allowed 24.0 PPG while slightly improving on offense with a 23.0 PPG average.

Thirteen of 22 starters, including eight on defense, will be seniors for Vandy. The ‘Dores only lost 19 lettermen, but they lost their best player in LB Zach Cunningham, who went pro a year early after recording 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one QB Hurry and one blocked field goal. He should’ve had another forced fumble and fumble recovery at Auburn, but his strip and recovery of the ball on Kamryn Pettway early in third quarter was inexplicably reversed on replay (that clearly didn’t have any evidence to overturn the call on the field).

Gambling Numbers: Vandy has 225/1 odds to win the SEC. The win total varies from six (‘under’ -170 at Sportsbook) to five (‘over’ -135 at South Point).

Prediction: The only victory that’s a given is a Week 2 home game vs. Alabama A&M and the only guaranteed defeat is a Week 4 home game vs. the Crimson Tide. Every other game on the schedule can be won or lost. Vandy lost four of six one-possession games last season. If the veteran-laden ‘Dores can flip that stat, they’ll be bowling again for a second straight year. I’m taking the optimistic view on this team that I thought really turned the corner in November of last year. With 18 career starts now under his belt, I think Shurmur will look closer to the signal caller we saw in November rather than the first two months of ’16. If that’s the case, I see five wins (at Middle Tennessee and at home vs. Alabama A&M, Western Ky., UK and Missouri) and three losses (vs. ‘Bama, at UF & at UT). That leaves four swing games vs. Kansas St., vs. UGA, at Ole Miss and at South Carolina. I’m thinking Vandy goes 2-2 or 1-3 in those four contests, leaving it with a 6-6 or 7-5 mark.

Bets: I lean slightly to the ‘over,’ but I’d keep it at just one unit and wouldn’t play ‘over’ five wins if the price is north of -135.

6-Kentucky Wildcats

Best Players:
RB Benny Snell, LB Jordan Jones, SS Mike Edwards, WR Garrett Johnson, DE Denzil Ware & PK Austin MacGinnis.

Toughest Games: at USC, vs. UF, vs. UT, at UGA & vs. Louisville.

Danger Spots: at Southern Miss in Week 1 & at Vandy on Nov. 11.

Mark Stoops was on the hot seat early in his fourth year at the helm, especially after blowing a 25-point lead at home in the opener vs. So. Miss before getting blasted at UF the following week by a 45-7 count. From there, however, the ‘Cats won five of their next six games with the only loss coming at Alabama. They would finish 7-6 both SU and ATS, losing 33-18 to Ga. Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But UK went to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and broke a series-high five-game losing streak to its bitter in-state rival Louisville.

Kentucky returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense. The leading rusher (‘Boom’ Williams) and leader in receiving yards (Jeff Badet, grad transfer to Oklahoma) are gone, but the best players on defense are back. Junior LB Jordan Jones is an All-American candidate who had 109 tackles, four sacks, 11.5 TFL’s, four PBU and nine QB hurries in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: UK has 120/1 odds to win the SEC and 1,000/1 odds to win the CFP. The Wildcats’ win tally is 6.5 (-110 either way at South Point).

Prediction: Stephen Johnson did an adequate job at QB (13/6 TD-INT) after Drew Barker was injured in September. This duo will battle throughout August for the starting gig. The offense averaged 30.0 PPG with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Williams is gone, but Freshman All-American Snell is back for his sophomore campaign. Snell rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 5.9 YPC as a freshman. I initially marked UK with a 4-6 record with two swing games: vs. Ole Miss and vs. Louisville. I now think the ‘Cats will beat the Rebels, but I’m undecided on the U of L game in Lexington. I think it’s 5-7 or 6-6 for UK depending on the regular-season finale.

Bets: I’ll pass.

7-Missouri Tigers

Best Players:
QB Drew Lock, DT Terry Beckner, WR J’Mon Moore, RB Damarea Crockett & DE Marcell Frazier.

Toughest Games: vs. Auburn, at UGA, vs. UF, vs. UT & at Arkansas.

Danger Spots: vs. South Carolina & at Vandy.

Missouri limped to a 4-8 SU record and a 5-7 ATS mark in Barry Odom’s first season as head coach. The offense was vastly improved, going from an anemic 13.6 PPG average in ’15 to scoring at a 31.4 PPG clip last year. The opposite was true on the other side of the ball. The Tigers had one of the nation’s top defenses in ’15, allowing only 16.2 PPG despite having one of the worst offenses in the country. But in ’16, this unit lost Beckner to a season-ending injury last summer and gave up 31.5 PPG.

The offense improved because Lock settled in as a true sophomore, throwing for 3,399 yards with a 23/10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Moore enjoyed a breakout campaign, catching 62 balls for 1,012 yards and eight TDs. Lock has his top four pass catchers back in the mix and a pair of excellent RBs in Crockett and Ish Witter (750 yards LY).

The offense returns 10 starters, while five starters are back on defense (really six, though, with Beckner’s return). The non-conference games should be a breeze and Missouri could steal a couple of home games out of four vs USC, Auburn, UF and UT.

Gambling Numbers: Missouri has 225/1 odds to win the SEC and its win total is 6.5 (‘under’ -145) at Sportsbook. Some spots in Vegas have the number at six with similarly expensive odds for the ‘over.’

Prediction: I have the Tigers going 5-7 or 6-6, so I have no bets on the win total. Many of their games could go either way, especially the ones at home vs. USC and UT, in addition to a road game at Vandy.
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College Football Conference Previews 7 months 21 hours ago #449492

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SEC West Predictions
By Brian Edwards

1-Alabama Crimson Tide

Best Players:
WR Calvin Ridley, SS Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS Ronnie Harrison, QB Jalen Hurts, RB Bo Scarbrough & LB Rashaan Evans.

Toughest Games: vs. FSU in Atlanta, vs. LSU & at Auburn.

Danger Spots: at Texas A&M & at Mississippi State

Alabama has won 36 of its last 39 games after finishing 14-1 and just one play shy of another national championship. Other than a pair of losses to Ole Miss in 2014 and ’15, Nick Saban’s teams have dropped just two regular-season contests in the last five years. Those defeats came at Auburn in ’13 on the remarkable kick-six return on the game’s final play and the 29-24 home loss to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel back in ’12.

The Crimson Tide return six starters on offense and five on defense. They’re literally five deep at running back and probably have the nation’s best WR in Calvin Ridley. As a true freshman last season, Jalen Hurts had a 24/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 954 rushing yards and 13 more TDs. He’ll face competition from true freshman and five-star recruit, Tua Tagovailoa, who is from Hawaii and came to school early for spring practice.

Another five-star recruit and true freshman is RB Najee Harris, who was also in for the spring. He joins the nation’s premier backfield along with Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons. The defense is led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, a future-first-round pick who had 66 tackles and six interceptions last year. Other standouts on this unit include DB Ronnie Harrison, LB Rashaan Evans, DE Da’Shawn Hand, DT Da’Ron Payne and LB Shaun Dion Hamilton.

Gambling Numbers: The Westgate has Alabama’s win total at 11 (‘under’ -125, ‘over’ +105). The Tide is the +250 ‘chalk’ to win the College Football Playoff at the Las Vegas betting shop. They have -150 odds to win the SEC Championship Game.

Prediction: There’s a strong chance Alabama will be a double-digit favorite in 10 of its 12 games, with the lone exceptions being the opener vs. FSU and regular-season finale at Auburn. You never know what will happen at the Iron Bowl but even if Alabama loses in that spot, it will probably remain on solid footing for a CFP berth if it finishes 11-1. I have Alabama winning the SEC by beating Florida for a third straight season in Atlanta and getting back to the CFP for the fourth consecutive campaign.

Bets: I’m on the sidelines here.

2-Auburn Tigers

Best Players:
QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway, PK Daniel Carlson, CB Carlton Davis & OT Braden Smith.

Toughest Games: at Clemson, at LSU, vs. Georgia & vs. Alabama.

Danger Spots: at Missouri & at Arkansas.

Auburn returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense. The 2016 Tigers finished 8-5 straight up and 7-6 against the spread, but they were 7-2 before injuries to starting QB Sean White and workhorse RB Kamryn Pettway derailed the season. They lost three of their last four, mustering only 19 combined points in losses at Georgia (13-7) and at Alabama (30-12). The ’16 defense was outstanding under new coordinator Kevin Steele. This unit gave up just 17.1 points per game and returns nine of its top 11 tacklers.

Although White played well before getting injured last year (9/3 TD-INT), I’m confident Jarrett Stidham will be an upgrade at QB. He was a 5-star recruit in Baylor’s 2015 class. When Seth Russell sustained a season-ending injury, the Bears were undefeated and ranked second in the nation. As a true freshman in his first start the following week, all Stidham did was guide Baylor to a 31-24 win at Kansas State by throwing for 410 yards and three TDs without an interception. In a rain game at home next, Art Briles’s club dropped a 44-34 decision to Oklahoma (but 34 points should be enough to win). Stidham would get injured in a 45-35 victory at unbeaten and No. 4 Oklahoma State during his third start. He left Baylor when Briles was fired, did not play while in junior college last year and arrived on The Plains for spring football.

Gambling Numbers: Auburn is a 34-point home favorite vs. Ga. Southern in Week 1. The Tigers are an abysmal 1-7 ATS in their last eight outings as favorites of 23 points or more, while the Eagles are 7-1 ATS in eight games against SEC or ACC foes dating back to 2011. AU has 30/1 odds to win the CFP at The Westgate. The Tigers have the second-shortest odds to win the SEC (+450, risk $100 to win $450), while their season win total is 8.5 (‘over’ -140, ‘under’ +120).

Prediction: I believe Stidham is going to be outstanding and Auburn has a pair of excellent RBs in Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. The offensive line will be led by third-team All-American Braden Smith, who turned down the NFL to stick around for his senior season. Three starters return on an o-line that’ll be bolstered by a pair of grad transfers. Wilson Bell is expected to start at guard after making 18 starts at FSU, while Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn will provide quality depth. Dunn was an FCS All-American in ’16. Gus Malzahn has brought in a new offensive coordinator in Chip Lindsey, who should work well with Stidham in an offense more suited for a pro-style passer. Even if Auburn loses at Clemson in Week 2 and at LSU in October, it will be able to win the SEC West if it takes a 6-1 conference record into the regular-season finale at home vs. ‘Bama. I think that’s what happens, but I have the Tide prevailing at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Therefore, I think Auburn finishes 9-3.

Bets: I like to have a 1.5-game cushion to play a season win total, so I’m not interested in betting ‘over’ 8.5 wins, especially with the -140 price tag. I’m leaning Ga. Southern catching the huge number in Week 1.

3-LSU Tigers

Best Players:
OLB Arden Key, RB Derrius Guice, C Will Clapp, WR DJ Chark, CB Kevin Toliver & CB Donte Jackson

Toughest Games: vs. BYU in Houston, at Florida, vs. Auburn, at Tennessee & at Alabama.

Danger Spots: at Mississippi State & vs. Arkansas.

LSU went 8-4 SU and 6-6 ATS in a season that saw Les Miles fired after an 18-13 loss at Auburn in Week 4. The Tigers lost three games by eight combined points at Wisconsin (16-14 at Lambeau in Green Bay), at Auburn (18-13) and vs. Florida (17-16), and they dropped a 10-0 decision vs. Alabama in a game that was a one-possession contest for nearly 60 minutes. Ed Orgeron earned the head-coaching gig thanks to a 6-2 record that included wins at Texas A&M (54-39 in the regular-season finale) and vs. Louisville (29-9 at Citrus Bowl).

However, AD Joe Alleva struck out on Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher before choosing Orgeron. Also, he insisted on the Gators coming to Baton Rouge after the originally-scheduled game in Gainesville was postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. As it turned out, the game decided UF’s SEC East fate but didn’t have major implications for the Tigers after they had lost to Alabama and were eliminated from the SEC West race. Not only did Florida win at Tiger Stadium to clinch the East with an epic goal-line stand in the final seconds, but now the Gators get to play LSU at The Swamp in 2017 and ’18. Therefore, LSU plays five SEC road games this year and has just three league tilts at home.

LSU brings back six starters on offense and five on defense. Derrius Guice is a legit Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs while averaging 7.6 YPC despite sharing touches with first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette last year. Guice is poised for a monster campaign behind one of the nation’s premier offensive lines, albeit one that just lost junior OG Maea Teuhema (21 starts as a freshman and sophomore) to a transfer. Nevertheless, the QB position remains a question mark. Danny Etling was adequate in ’16 and is the likely starter again, but he doesn’t scare opposing DCs. He threw for 2,123 yards with an 11/5 TD-INT ratio, but he won’t have talented WRs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural around anymore. DJ Chark will be his favorite target after hauling in 26 catches for 466 yards and three TDs last season.

LSU’s defense lost its top five tacklers. Key, who is projected as a potential top-five pick in next spring’s NFL Draft after recording 12 sacks last year, had offseason shoulder surgery and hasn’t been cleared for full contact yet. His status for early September remains a question mark. Dave Aranda is one of the country’s top DCs, directing a unit that gave up just 15.8 PPG in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: LSU’s win total is nine flat (-110 either way) at The Westgate, which has its odds to win the CFP at 20/1. The Tigers have the third-shortest odds (5/1) to win the SEC. They are favored by 12.5 or 13 points vs. BYU in Week 1.

Prediction: I have LSU going 9-3, losing at Florida and at Alabama. The third loss could come in a number of different spots, perhaps at Mississippi State or at Tennessee and Auburn at home certainly won’t be easy, either.

Bets: I’ll pass.

4-Arkansas Razorbacks

Best Players:
C Frank Ragnow, QB Austin Allen, WR Jared Cornelius, DE McTelvin Agim & OG Hjalte Froholdt.

Toughest Games: vs. TCU, vs. Texas A&M at Jerry World in Arlington, vs. Auburn, at Alabama & at LSU.

Danger Spots: at South Carolina & at Ole Miss.

Arkansas finished 7-6 SU and 5-8 ATS in 2016 after blowing leads at Missouri in the regular-season finale and vs. Va. Tech at the Belk Bowl. The Razorbacks raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead over the Hokies in Charlotte, only to see that advantage evaporate when Justin Fuente’s team scored 35 unanswered points to not only win outright, but to also crush the wallets of Arky backers (like me!!) who lost as a seven-point underdog despite being ahead of the number by 31 points at intermission.

Some pundits have suggested Bret Bielema’s seat could be warming in Fayetteville going into the fifth season of his tenure, but I believe that’s a joke and Arkansas is fortunate to have one of the league’s best coaches (3rd or 4th-best in my opinion). Arkansas had three wins over ranked teams last year, winning at TCU (No. 15 at the time) in double overtime, in addition to home scalps of 12th-ranked Ole Miss and 10th-ranked Florida.

The Hogs, who are 7-1 ATS in their last eight games as road underdogs, return 12 total starters (six on each side of the ball). The defense lost three of its top four tacklers, including Brooks Ellis, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise. Furthermore, the offense lost its best playmakers in RB Rawleigh Williams (1,360 rushing yards, 12 TDs & 5.6 YPC), WR Keon Hatcher (44 catches, 743 yards, 8 TDs), WR Drew Morgan (65/739 & 3 TDs) and TE Jeremy Sprinkle (33/380 & 4 TDs). On the bright side, Jared Cornelius returns after hauling in 32 receptions for 515 yards and four TDs. Plus, juco transfer WR Brandon Martin, who started his career at LSU, is expected to start right away and be a key contributor.

Williams had a breakout 2016 campaign, only to sustain another neck injury during spring practice that prompted him to retire from football. Devwah Whaley rushed for 602 yards and three TDs while averaging 5.5 YPC as a true freshman last season. Also, Bielema has two talented true freshmen backs who will be in the mix and Arkansas was fortunate to land South Carolina grad transfer David Williams, who brings plenty of experience with him.

Austin Allen enjoyed an excellent first season as a starter. He completed 61.1 percent of his throws for 3,430 yards and 25 TDs. The negative stat was his 15 interceptions, but we should point out that he was often under heavy pressure and took a plethora of big hits (although there was ZERO excuse for the pick he threw in the red zone with a 24-14 lead at Missouri). Nevertheless, he jumped back up each time and demonstrated toughness and leadership throughout the year.

Gambling Numbers: Arky’s season win total is 6.5 flat (-110 either way) at The Westgate. Sportsbook.ag has the Hogs with 65/1 odds to win the SEC and 300/1 odds to win the CFP.

Prediction: I initially marked Arkansas with a 4-3 record and five swing games: vs. TCU, vs. Texas A&M, vs. Auburn, at Ole Miss and vs. Mississippi State. For those wondering about the third loss I was confident about (outside of at Alabama & at LSU, obviously), it was at South Carolina, which is certainly a game the Hogs can win. I’m going to call it 7-5 for Arkansas, but eight or nine wins is undoubtedly within reach, especially if they can run the table at home. The key will be the offensive line, a unit that’s always strong under Bielema with the exception of last season. If the o-line is elite and Arkansas can avoid more injuries at the RB position, it’ll be a solid season in Fayetteville.

Bets: I like Arkansas +4.5 vs. Texas A&M (8/12 spread at Sportsbook.ag).

5-Texas A&M Aggies

Best Players:
RB Trayveon Williams, SS Armani Watts, DB Donovan Wilson, WR Christian Kirk & DT Zaycoven Henderson.

Toughest Games: at UCLA, vs. Arkansas (Arlington), vs. Alabama, at Florida, vs. Auburn & at LSU.

Danger Spots: vs. South Carolina (9/30) & at Ole Miss (11/18).

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is on a boiling hot seat going into his sixth season at the helm. The Aggies have finished 8-5 for three straight years, limping down the stretch in each of those campaigns. Sumlin’s squad started 6-0 last year and held a 14-13 lead at Alabama early in the third quarter. However, the Tide would score 20 unanswered points to win a 33-14 decision. A&M lost four of its last five contests with the lone victory coming at home vs. UTSA.

Texas A&M returns five starters on offense and seven on defense, but QB Trevor Knight is gone along with three elite WRs (Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones & Speedy Noil), the NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick (Myles Garrett), two-time third-team All-SEC DE Daeshon Hall and the defense’s two leading tacklers (Shaan Washington & Justin Evans).

Let’s hit on some positives now. Kirk is one of the nation’s top WRs and might be the country’s most dangerous return player on special teams. There are three veteran seniors in the secondary, including All-SEC candidates Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson. John Chavis is one of the nation’s top DCs and has some talent in the trenches with players such as Zaycoven Henderson, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke.

The biggest question mark is at QB. Jake Hubenak has the most experience, starting three games over the last two years while posting a 9/3 TD-INT ratio. He’ll face stiff competition to earn the starting job from redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman 4-star recruit Kellen Mond.

Gambling Numbers: The Westgate has A&M’s win total at seven (‘under’ -130, ‘over’ +110), while the Aggies have 40/1 odds to win the SEC and 100/1 odds to win the CFP.

Prediction: Just like with Arkansas, my first look at A&M’s schedule resulted in a 4-3 record with five swing games. Those include at UCLA, vs. Arky, vs. South Carolina, vs. Auburn and at Ole Miss. I think the Aggies will go 3-2 or 2-3 in those matchups. I’ll say they finish 7-5 or 6-6 depending on how the trip to Oxford goes. The opener at UCLA is obviously pivotal. If A&M loses to the Bruins, it will be 4-1 (at best) going into games vs. Alabama and at Florida. I think the Aggies lose both of those before their open date and wouldn’t be shocked if Sumlin got fired after they get back to College Station from Gainesville. My main reasoning for that possibility is to get an early start on putting an offer on Chip Kelly’s plate that will be tough to pass up.

Bets: Another pass here.

6-Mississippi State Bulldogs

Best Players:
QB Nick Fitzgerald, WR Donald Gray, LB Leo Lewis, DT Jeffery Simmons & OT Martinas Rankin.

Toughest Games: vs. LSU, at UGA, at Auburn, vs. Alabama & at Arkansas.

Danger Spots: at La. Tech in Week 2 & vs. BYU.

Mississippi State finished last year with a 6-7 SU record and a 5-8 ATS mark. The Bulldogs dropped four one-possession games, including three defeats by six combined points. They lost the opener vs. South Alabama after missing a chip-shot field goal off the crossbar on the game’s final play, fell in double OT at BYU and went home from Lexington a loser after Kentucky hit a walk-off game-winning FG. Dan Mullen’s team did win outright as a double-digit underdog twice, defeating seventh-ranked Texas A&M in Starkville and blasting Ole Miss 55-20 in Oxford for the Egg Bowl. The victory allowed MSU to go bowling despite a 5-7 record. The Bulldogs blocked a Miami (OH.) FG attempt on the game’s final play to preserve a 17-16 triumph.

There’s plenty of optimism for ’17 based on the return of QB Nick Fitzgerald, who threw for 2,423 yards with a 21/10 TD-INT ratio in his first year as a starter after replacing Dak Prescott. Fitzgerald also rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs with a 7.1 YPC average. Donald Gray will be his favorite target after the senior WR brought down 41 balls for 709 yards and five TDs last season.

The defense will be led by Todd Grantham, the new DC who led the units at Louisville and Georgia over the last seven years. This was considered a big-time hire by Mullen, who has taken Mississippi State to seven bowl games in his eight seasons at the school. Leo Lewis, a sophomore LB, enjoyed a banner freshman campaign in ’16. Lewis recorded 79 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.

MSU has seven starters back on offense and six on defense. Phil Steele lists the Bulldogs’ schedule as the fifth-toughest in the nation.

Gambling Numbers: MSU has a season win total of 5.5 (‘over’ -150, ‘under’ +120). Sportsbook.ag has the Bulldogs with 75/1 and 300/1 odds to win the SEC and CFP, respectively.

Prediction: Mullen is one of the better coaches in the SEC and Fitzgerald is an elite talent who can be the difference in a number of games. Looking at the schedule, I see five wins, three losses and four swing games: at La. Tech, vs. LSU, at Texas A&M and at Arkansas. MSU lost outright in Ruston to a different set of Bulldogs in 2008. Nevertheless, I see MSU knocking off La. Tech this year and winning another one of the swing games to finish 7-5.

Bets: The expensive price on the ‘over’ makes me less interested. I lean to the ‘over’ clearly but I’d keep the play really small due to the juice.

7-Ole Miss Rebels

Best Players:
DE Marquis Haynes, QB Shea Patterson, WR Van Jefferson, LB DeMarquis Gates & OT Greg Little.

Toughest Games: at Alabama, at Auburn, vs. LSU, vs. Arkansas & at Mississippi State

Danger Spots: vs. Vandy (10/14) & vs. Texas A&M (11/18).

Ole Miss self-imposed a bowl ban and isn’t eligible for the SEC Championship Game due to NCAA violations committed on Hugh Freeze’s watch. Freeze resigned before being fired with cause in late July, ending a tumultuous tenure filled with the highest of highs (two wins over Alabama and a blowout win over Oklahoma State in the school’s first trip to the Sugar Bowl in decades) and the lowest of lows (all the lies & NCAA violations, the excruciating losses at home to Auburn in ’14 and to Arkansas in overtime in ’15 & the assbeating taken in last year’s Egg Bowl). More penalties will be levied by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in November, including a likely ban from postseason play in ’18 and maybe even ’19.

Ole Miss finished ’16 with a 5-7 SU record and a 4-8 ATS ledger. The Rebels led at halftime in four of their losses and blew leads of 22 and 21 points in setbacks against FSU and Alabama. The Rebels return five starters on offense and six on defense. Shea Patterson started the last three games of ’16 after Chad Kelly was sidelined with an injury. The five-star recruit, who is now a rising sophomore, threw for 880 yards with a 6/3 TD-INT ratio. He has a pair of extremely talented sophomore WRs in Van Jefferson and AJ Brown.

The defense will be led by senior DE Marquis Haynes, who is one of the country’s top pass rushers. Haynes had 53 tackles, seven sacks, four TFL’s, eight QB hurries, three PBU and one interception last season. Five of the top seven tacklers return, including leading tackler DeMarquis Gates (79 tackles & 4 sacks), and a lot of young players earned valuable playing time in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: Ole Miss has a win total of 5.5 flat (-110 either way). The Rebels are ineligible for the SEC and CFP.

Prediction: Interim head coach Matt Luke has never even been a coordinator before, much less a head coach. Freeze was an outstanding game coach, so he’ll be missed in that department as well. It’s difficult to gauge the morale of this club that’s been mired in the issues created by its former coach for well over a year. I think it’s a 4-8 or 5-7 finish, and then a major rebuild under crippling sanctions for the next head coach.

Bets: I liked South Alabama +26 at Ole Miss in the opener even before Freeze was escorted out (hat tip to the Oxford Eagle). Even with it down to 24 or 24.5 at quite a few books, I still like the Jaguars.
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