Gabriel Davis (USF) and Anthony Russo (Temple)

Cincinnati Bearcats

2018 record: 11-2 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Josiah Deguara. A rock-solid blocking option who lacks for downfield speed and will be fighting for a Day 3 selection.

The case for: The Bearcats are coming off an impressive 11-2 season after ending 2017 with a 4-8 record. The incredible turnaround saw them average 34.9 points per game (23rd in the country) while only allowing 17.2 (9th in the country). This was all while using a number of young players in the starting lineup who shined. Almost all of them return, giving Bearcats enthusiasts plenty of hope for the upcoming season.

QB Desmond Ridder played exceptionally well as a freshman, completing 62.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and posting a 20/5 TD/INT ratio. Even with last season’s top wideout out of the picture, the No. 2-No. 6 options all return. As long as one of them take a step forward, the receiving corps should be in pretty good shape. RB Michael Warren will likely be the centerpiece of the offense after rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries. He was also utilized as a pass-catcher (25-232-1) and figures to remain the focal point of the offense.

The defense was stellar last season, ranking 36th in S&P+ while allowing the lowest completion rate in the country. They should be Cincinnati’s strongest unit again in 2019 after returning most of their best players in the secondary and linebacker group. Their defensive line will have a number of new faces but also return Kevin Mouhon after he suffered a season-ending injury in 2018. Cincinnati doesn’t have to play back-to-back road games at any point this season and has the benefit of playing four teams who rank outside the top-90 in S&P+.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cincinnati rip off another double-digit win season in 2019.

The case against: The offense finished just 74th in S&P+ last season and lost more pieces than most think. A lot of issues may stem from the offensive line where three new players will be thrust into the starting lineup. There’s a legitimate chance they don’t pan out which dampens both the running game and Ridder’s upside. He’ll also be without last season’s No. 1 option, Kahlil Lewis, who racked up 782 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 56 receptions. Is it smart to bank on improvement from a young quarterback who lost his No. 1 wideout and will likely have less time to throw? I’d lean with no.

The defense doesn’t lose much on the back end, but the defensive line may need to be reworked. They lost their top tackles in addition to defensive end Kimoni Fitz. They have a number of players who hypothetically should fill the void, but that’s not a guarantee. While the schedule doesn’t look too intimidating on paper, they have to travel to Ohio State and Memphis while drawing UCF at home. Beyond the four games against teams who rank outside the top-90 in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+, every other contest is winnable for either side. This gives the Bearcats a fairly wide range of outcomes despite the 11-2 finish in 2018.


Temple Owls

2018 record: 8-5 (7-1 in conference) 

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Anthony Russo. A pro-style thrower through and through, Russo couples smarts and an arm with a developing sense of the game. Stamp him as a sleeper behind the big boys.

The case for: Temple was expected to hire former Miami DC Manny Diaz as the team’s head coach – and technically did for about 18 days. Then Diaz bolted back to Miami after HC Mark Richt retired, leaving the Owls emptyhanded. Instead, they ended up with former NIU HC Rod Carey. Carey has been a much better defensive coach in his career as of late and specifically focuses on running the ball on offense.

They’ll likely turn to a combination of senior RB Jager Gardner and sophomore Jeremy Jennings. Neither has much experience but could thrive behind Temple’s offensive line which returns 4-of-5 starters from last season. The passing game could be more efficient this year with junior QB Anthony Russo having a full offseason to work as the starter. They return WR Branden Mack (44-601-5) and Randle Jones (23-445-4) who are expected to take on an even bigger role this year. Their offense ranked 76th in S&P+ last season and has a good shot of improving with plenty of talent returning.

The defense was their strongest unit, finishing the season ranked 42nd in S&P+. This is highlighted by their 7th ranked passing defense S&P+ finish. They lost a few starters but picked up a graduate transfer from Penn State in S Ayron Monroe who didn’t contribute much for the Nittany Lions but should make an impact for Temple. They also have a few players who saw some playing time in the secondary last season and should be able to step up and make an impact. Up front, Temple has two interesting defensive ends in Quincy Roche and Zack Mesday. They should make up a formidable pass-rush after combining for 10 sacks last season. The schedule is pretty favorable for the Owls who don’t have to play a single back-to-back road game and play against seven teams projected to rank 85th or worse in S&P+. If they win all the games they are expected to take care of and win a close one against Maryland, USF, or Cincinnati they can easily match last season’s 8-5 record.

The case against: Carey has been a run-first coordinator thus far in his career which may not be a great fit with the Owls’ personnel. They lost leading rusher Ryquell Armstead to the NFL this offseason. Their best returning running back is senior Jager Gardner who only had 253 rushing yards on 65 carries (3.9 yards per carry). Anthony Russo took over last season and was up-and-down. He completed just 57.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. He also threw exactly as many interceptions as touchdowns (14). He played fairly average and will need to step up if the running game isn’t clicking.

Unfortunately, a lot of the stellar defense had to do with Rock Ya-Sin who was selected with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They also lost their top three safeties from last season. They have a few guys who are expected to competently fill in, but there’s almost no shot Temple approaches the top-10 of passing S&P+ defense. Given the turnover, there’s a good chance they aren’t even in the top-50. With the pass defense likely taking a step back the overall unit won’t be nearly as strong. The offense will need to make up for the declining defense if they want to take steps forward as a team.


UCF Knights

2018 record: 12-1 (8-0 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Gabriel Davis. At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Davis has the frame for red zone work and an intriguing athletic profile which could push him up boards with strong testing work in the spring.

The case for:  UCF completed their second-straight undefeated regular season in 2018 prior to the bowl game against a surging LSU team. While they had a better record than some of the college football playoff semifinalists, their strength of schedule gave them little chance of the committee giving them the thumbs up. Those same issues will ring true this year even if the Knights are able to string together another 12-0 regular season. While it’s easy to look at the team and say “no way they make another run,” they return plenty of exciting players on both sides of the ball.

QB McKenzie Milton won’t be available this year after last season’s disturbing injury at the end of the season. He’ll continue to rehab in hopes of a return in 2020. They aren’t completely out of luck at the position though with either Notre Dame grad transfer QB Brandon Wimbush likely at the helm. QB Darriel Mack was expected to compete with Wimbush but recently suffered a broken ankle and has no timetable for return. Even if Wimbush doesn’t take a personal step forward in accuracy, he’ll have a nice array of skill players around him. They return wideouts Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon who were the Nos. 1 and 2 pass-catchers from last season. RB Adrian Killins is also a factor in the passing game, averaging 19.8 yards per reception to the tune of 377 yards on 19 receptions. His speed makes a legitimate difference for the offense. He and Greg McCrae return in the backfield after combining for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage last season. Part of the reason for their success was the offensive line which ranked No. 8 in “Line Yards.”

The defense figures to remain strong in the secondary after ranking 50th in passing defense S&P+ and returning their top two corners and safety. They have plenty of depth at linebacker and brought in a lot of players to address the defensive line. That includes two JUCO transfers and five freshmen. The defense has a chance to maintain top-50 efficiency if some of the newcomers make an instant impact up front. Playing in the AAC, their schedule is by no means difficult. Everything is relative though, and after two straight undefeated regular seasons the bar is set incredibly high. They should be favored in every single game this season and only have one set of back-to-back road games. Luckily for them, that comes with a bye week in between and is against two of the weaker AAC teams in Tulsa and Tulane.
 

The case against: Grad transfers normally present exciting options but in the case of Brandon Wimbush that couldn’t be further from the truth. At Notre Dame he completed 50.5% of passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. He didn’t even finish out 2018 as the starter and was unseated by replacement-level QB Ian Book. Wimbush leaves a lot on the table with accuracy, a massive difference from McKenzie Milton who completed 59.2 percent of his passes while averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. Maybe Wimbush struggled due to the strength of schedule and system, but it’s tough to bank on a major improvement. They also lost their No. 2 wideout and slot wide receiver Dredrick Snelson who accrued 688 yards and five touchdowns on 43 receptions. The offensive line likely won’t be able to post another top-10 season in “line yards” or a top-50 season in “sack rate” after losing two big-time starters. This could spell trouble for Wimbush and the Knights offense.
 

While the secondary should be solid, they lost two of their top three safeties. The defense line also figures to be in bad shape after losing nearly all of their starters and depth. There’s a slim chance they repeat the ranking of 47th in S&P+ run defense. Beyond DE Brendon Hayes (three sacks) they only return two defensive ends who don’t have much to show for in their careers. They also lost last year’s starting MLB in Pat Jasinski. While their schedule isn’t overly challenging there are a few roadblocks along the way. A home game against Stanford should be close and a road trip to Cincinnati won’t be a walk in the park. It seems unlikely they post another undefeated regular season.


USF Bulls

2018 record: 7-6 (3-5 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Mitchell Wilcox. A jack-of-all-trades tight end with sleeper potential but athleticism questions. In a thinner tight end class, has sleeper/riser potential.

The case for: Heading into the eighth game of the season against Houston last year, South Florida ranked No. 21 in the country and was 7-0. They had scored 20-or-more points in every game and 30-or-more in 4-of-7 contests. Everything changed after the 21-point loss to Houston as they tumbled to six-straight losses afterward. They scored less than 20 points in half of their games and allowed 27-or-more points in all of them. You couldn’t have imagined a worse ending for the Bulls. Luckily for HC Charlie Strong and company, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

They replaced their offensive coordinator with Kerwin Bell, a former Division 2 coach at Valdosta State. He’ll have plenty of weapons to create a formidable offense as QB Blake Barnett, RB Jordan Cronkrite, and WR Randall St. Felix all return.  Barnett is a former four-star prospect who spent time at Alabama and Arizona State before finding a home at USF.  He suffered a few minor injuries down the road and ended his season with a 61.1 completion percentage while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.  St. Felix figures to be his top option after a stellar freshman season (33-679-4). Change-of-pace running back turned slot wide receiver Johnny Ford should replace a good bit of production lost by WR Tyre McCants and has been described as a “natural” in the slot. With Ford lined up as a wideout (115 carries last season), Cronkrite figures to take on an expanded role as the lead back after racking up 1,121 yards on just 184 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season. The whole offense will be bolstered by the offensive line which returns seven players with some type of starting experience. This is made possible after injuries struck last year and forced multiple players into bigger roles. A bad turn of events last season will likely help them out this year.

The defense had its fair share of mishaps last year and will look to improve in 2019. They retain star linebacker Nico Sawtelle who was arguably their top defender in games he played (six). They also return a number of key players in the secondary – even if their depth isn’t great. As long as they stay healthy, they should be able to approach last seasons 51st-ranked Passing defense S&P+. The schedule gifts the Bulls with four games which should all be wins against teams ranked outside the top 110 in S&P+.

The case against: Barnett struggled down the stretch with the rest of the team and ended up with a 12/11 TD/INT ratio, something that will need to improve if the Bulls want to be a top-tier team within the AAC. It won’t help that he lost last season’s leading wideout Tyre McCants (59-617-3). There aren’t too many holes to poke in the offense other than maybe first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell not working out. While his offensive stats were good at the Division 2 level, he is inheriting a mid-level division one program with a number of difficult matchups.

While the offense should have some hope to play better, I’m not as optimistic about the defense. They ranked 90th in rush defense S&P+ last season and lost a number of starters including two of their top three tackles. They lost essentially all of their depth at linebacker and over half of their secondary is gone including corner Ronnie Hoggins. The defense is one or two injuries away from seeing the bottom fall out and taking a big tumble in overall efficiency. In addition to the potentially poor defense, the schedule isn’t very favorable. They have a back-to-back road game scenario against Navy and East Carolina during conference play. Both teams would normally be easier games but anything can happen on a long road trip. They also have to play against three teams projected to rank inside the top-30 and five teams inside the top-50 of projected S&P+. Playing that many games against tough teams severely limits their ceiling given their roster outlook.


East Carolina Pirates

2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: G D’Ante Smith. Nice movement skills for a 6-foot-4, 294-pound tackle. Will need polish and scrub if he is to stick on an NFL roster.

The case for: The Pirates started off the 2018 season in a weird fashion, losing to North Carolina A&T by five then following that up by thrashing North Carolina 41-19. They continued with a 13-20 loss to South Florida and a narrow 37-35 win over Old Dominion. Things got ugly afterward, losing 7-of-8 to close out the season. Head Coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t survive the end of the year and finished his stint at ECU with a 9-26 record.

They’ve now hired Mike Houston, a long-time Carolina coach who’s been at a High school, Division 3, and Division 2 program within the state of North Carolina. His last stop was as James Madison where he won an FCS title in his first season in 2016. ECU is hoping Houston’s strong track record at lower levels continues into the ranks of Division 1. A lot of work will need to be done in order for the Pirates to be relevant especially after their finish of 119th in S&P+. QB Holton Ahlers returns after seeing plenty of playing time last season and posting a 12/3 TD/INT ratio. He also added 592 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries (5.0 yards per carry) on the ground. The Pirates return five of their top six wideouts, giving Ahlers a solid base of weapons. At least one of them will need to step up to replace former No. 1 wideout Trevon Brown’s production. The running game was abysmal last season with leading rusher RB Anthony Scott compiling 405 yards on 103 carries (3.9 yards per carry). The good news is, the offensive line should give it a boost this season. After multiple injuries to the offensive line last season, they return seven players with starting experience. Between the line improving and a number of suitable replacements who should all be an upgrade over RB Anthony Scott, we can pencil in some type of improvement.

The Pirates’ defense returns nearly everyone from a unit which improved dramatically since 2017. It’s fair to be worried about the loss of DE Nate Harvey but they return the rest of their starters in the front seven and brought in a three-star JUCO transfer. The secondary returns a good majority of their starters and could improve solely due to continuity. The schedule features two matchups against FCS opponents at home in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary early in the season as well as a road game against Navy in between. They play a total of five games against teams projected to rank 115th or lower in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections and don’t have to play back-to-back road games once all year.

The case against: Even though they beat North Carolina, the Pirates were not a very good team. The offense scored 10-or-fewer points in four games while the defense allowed 40-or-more points in five games. East Carolina has won three games each of their last three seasons but now has a new head coach. Whether Houston can improve upon Montgomery’s woes remains to be seen. QB Holton Ahlers figures to be the starter in 2019 but was an abysmal passer last season, completing just 48.3 of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. The Pirates top pass-catcher from last season, Trevon Brown (74-1,123-9), has also since departed. He more than doubled the next closes pass-catcher in receptions and more than tripled the next closest in receiving yards. His loss can’t be understated, especially when the quarterback is hoping to improve as a passer. The running game was a trainwreck last year, largely in part to a mosh-posh offensive line. They figure to have better luck on the injury front this year, but none of the starters were very good when they played. Even though they return a number of starters on offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue their struggle.

The defense lost its best player on this side of the ball in Nate Harvey. He racked up 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss as a senior and will be greatly missed by the Pirates defense.  Even with Harvey breathing down the necks of opposing passers, ECU still ranked 107th in passing defense S&P+. This could spell trouble in 2019 as ECU returns nearly all of their starters. Continuity is good unless the players aren’t very talented. The Pirates schedule looks pretty soft with five matchups against teams projected to rank outside the top-115 in S&P+. The issue is, outside of the two games against FCS opponents, the other three are all on the road. Both Navy and Old Dominion could give the Pirates fits on the road despite being some of their weakest opponents. Outside of those five games, the Pirates don’t have much of a chance to add to the win column. Every game except a matchup against Tulsa will be against a top-75 opponent or will be played on the road.


UConn Huskies

2018 record: 1-11 (0-8 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: T Matt Peart. Has shown progress each year in college, particularly in terms of developmental technique. UConn might not have much, but Peart ain’t nothing. Potential Day 3 dude.

The case for: I’ve noted this before, but “the case for” section should always be viewed relatively. The expectation for UConn is a lot different than UCF this season and needs to be understood as such. How exciting can a team that’s gone 3-9 and 1-11 the past two seasons really be? Some changes have been made and there is room for relative optimism.

After allowing 605 points last year, they rightfully fired their defensive coordinator. He’s been replaced by Lou Spanos, a former analyst for UCLA and Alabama. He legitimately can’t get worse in terms of S&P+ (130th). If we are going to look at this situation with rose-colored glasses, the defense was extremely young last season and returns a vast majority of starters and contributors. They also added Columbia grad transfer Mike Hinton and JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris who could play a role pretty quickly.

The offense was much better than the defense (99th in S&P+) with a few highlights. The running game was strong and returns leading rusher Kevin Mensah. He added 1,045 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 225 carries (4.6 yards per carry). With former starting QB David Pindell departed, there will be a two-way quarterback competition between Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Krajewski is a former three-star recruit who has hypothetical potential. There are a few spots on the schedule where UConn could snag a win. They should actually start the season with a winning record as Wagner is first up on the schedule. Wagner was 4-7 last season in the FCS and have to play at UConn.  The Huskies next winnable matchup comes against Massachusetts who is projected to rank 125th in S&P+. They then draw two home games against Navy (118th) and East Carolina (113th). If Connecticut takes even a slight step forward in some areas those games should be somewhat competitive. Four wins would be their best season during the Randy Edsall era, a relatively good year.

The case against: I could probably go on for quite a while in this section but I’ll try to keep it brief as I’m not a huge “kick em’ while their down” type of person. Randy Edsall remains the head coach after the team allowed the most points per game among all 130 teams (50.4) last season. They allowed fewer than 30 points just once and scored more than 30 points just twice. That’s not a very good recipe for success. Their only win came by seven against FCS program Rhode Island. The defense was so inexplicably bad that they ranked either 130th or 129th in all of Football Outsiders main metrics.

Their offense was significantly better but lost their starting quarterback. Pindell was a solid quarterback given their horrendous overall outlook and his rushing ability (1,139 yards) will be missed. Marvin Washington was last season’s backup quarterback and had an edge on the starting job but entered the transfer portal this offseason. This leaves just Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Neither are very appealing as starters on paper but maybe one of them surprises. The receiving corps is just as dreadful with redshirt junior WR Keyion Dixon in the transfer portal. Only one of their top eight pass-catchers from last year returns. They’ll need a nice influx of talent in order for their passing game to be even remotely close to last season’s. A 2.5 win total is honestly generous for a team that’s this bad.  The only game I think we can pencil in a win is against a bad FCS team in Wagner. Their next easiest game is at Massachusetts where they will likely be touchdown underdogs. With the defense likely to remain in the cellar and the offense taking a step back with a new starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine them winning more than one or two games in 2019.

Posted in CFB, Top Fantasy Picks

TCU Horned Frogs vs SMU Mustangs Preview

Might it be remembered as the night the Dallas/Arlington metroplex truly became divided when the TCU Horned Frogs (1-0) travel crosstown to take on the SMU Mustangs (0-1) in the latest “Battle for the Iron Skillet.”

The Texas Christian vs. Southern Methodist rivalry dates to 1916, with long winning streaks had by both teams against their neighbor. New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes is thrust into the middle of the longstanding heated rivalry faced with ending a six-game losing streak to TCU. Dykes’ return to the sideline as head coach after his four-year stint with Cal (2013-16) did not go as planned in Week 1. The Mustangs could not stop North Texas quarterback Mason Fine, surrendering 444 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 46-23 loss.

The Horned Frogs opened the season in style downing FCS member Southern 55-7 using their suffocating defense to keep the Jaguars’ offense off the field. Sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson nearly surpassed his 2017 season totals as a backup, finishing the game with 182 passing yards and three touchdowns while rushing for two more scores.

TCU at SMU

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2

Spread: TCU -22

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Three Things to Watch

1. TCU’s rushing attack

The Horned Frogs’ stable of backs should be fresh for the Mustangs. Emari Demercado led TCU with eight carries for 57 yards against Southern but returning leading rusher Darius Anderson was able to get some work in, toting the pigskin eight times for 36 yards. Another back to watch for is Sewo Olonilua. Olonilua was explosive against the overmatched Jaguars, gaining 43 yards on just five carries.

A win over SMU is needed, but the most important thing is for the offense to punish Southern on the ground, especially with Ohio State on tap for next week’s matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. A delicate balance between gelling the offense and getting the backs off the field is to be had.

2. SMU’s secondary

The Mustangs’ lack of effectiveness against the pass in Week 1 was somewhat surprising with four starters back in the secondary. North Texas starts the 2018 season off as the second-leading passing squad in the FBS ranks meaning SMU statistically has the second-worst pass defense. If Robinson can maintain his 71 percent completion rate, the Mustangs are in big trouble.

On the bright side for SMU, the Mustangs only allowed 68 rushing yards against the Mean Green. Stopping TCU’s rushing attack and Robinson’s ability to pick up yards on broken plays will be a big challenge.

3. The Dykes and Ohio State effect

It is worth noting that SMU head coach Sonny Dykes spent the 2017 season as the offensive analyst for the Frogs. With his years in the game as a coach and his first-hand knowledge of the team, there is no other coach in the country better suited to beat TCU from a knowledge base… but can he? One thing that might help Dykes, is TCU looking ahead to the Buckeyes? No. 4 Ohio State hosts Rutgers in Week 2 and is perhaps looking ahead to the non-conference showdown against TCU. Dykes may have to keep his guys focused as well with a Week 3 road trip to No. 21 Michigan (0-1) looming.

Final Analysis

Former SMU head coach Chad Morris did not leave the shelves bare of talent, but the Mustangs are still in transition in a new philosophy. If they got caught sleeping on North Texas, maybe a more competitive game is to be expected on Friday?

Over the last five meetings, TCU has kept SMU at arm’s reach with the closest margin of victory being 19 points in 2015. Look for TCU to push the overall series to a 50-39-7 mark notching a seventh consecutive win in this series.

Posted in CFB, Top Fantasy Picks

Complete Mountain West preview for the 2018 season.

The Mountain West Conference heads into 2018 with familiar faces projected to be at the top of the league. Boise State claims the top spot in the Mountain West predictions, and coach Bryan Harsin’s team should challenge for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. In the West, San Diego State and Fresno State are the teams to beat once again. The Aztecs edge the Bulldogs in the projections, but it’s a tossup for No. 1 in the West. Utah State and Wyoming are the biggest challengers to Boise State in the Mountain Division, with Colorado State also projected to reach bowl eligibility.

Air Force

Few Air Force quarterbacks have possessed Arion Worthman’s combination of power and speed, but he’s still struggling to master the position. He must mature as a passer and option distributor for the offense to thrive. If he fails to mature, he could lose his job to Isaiah Sanders, who led the Falcons to victory in last season’s finale against Utah State.

Someone, or a few someones, must emerge on defense to stop the run. A September 8 trip to Florida Atlantic will do much to reveal the Falcons. If FAU stampedes to a big rushing day, Air Force could be destined for a repeat of last season’s troubles.

Boise State

If pass catchers can step up — and if QB Brett Rypien can elevate them — it would go a long way for a team that averaged “only” 32.5 points per game, the program’s lowest output since 2012. The defense and special teams return a ton of talent, so there is little reason to believe the Broncos can’t make a run at a second straight Mountain West title and contend for a New Year’s Six Bowl.

Colorado State

The offense might be able to avoid a significant drop-off if QB K.J. Carta-Samuels is able to learn coach Mike Bobo’s playbook well enough to make the proper reads and check-offs. The quarterback run is likely to become part of the CSU offense, given the athletic abilities of Carta-Samuels and his top two backups — junior J.C. Robles and redshirt freshman Justice McCoy. The Rams were even experimenting in the spring with some option plays. A difficult early schedule that includes three consecutive games against schools in Power 5 conferences — Colorado, Arkansas and Florida — could put the Rams into a tailspin that might be difficult to reverse.

New Mexico

If the offense clicks, the defense forces turnovers and little drop-off occurs on special teams, UNM can approach its 2016 form when it went 9-4. Any early struggles, however, could spell disaster.

Utah State

With four of the first six games at home, the Aggies — who return 16 starters and feature talent on across the board — could build some momentum by midseason and put themselves in position to be a factor in the Mountain Division for the first time in three years. At a minimum, Utah State should head to a bowl game for the seventh time in eight seasons.

Wyoming

Even when Josh Allen was still starting quarterback with the Cowboys, they weren’t as productive offensively as coach Craig Bohl expected. If the new quarterback can be efficient and protect the ball and the rest of the offense improves, Wyoming is good enough to contend for the Mountain Division title and do something that has never been done in school history — play in a bowl game for a third consecutive season.

Fresno State

Jeff Tedford was a well-deserved National Coach of the Year finalist after Fresno State became just the second FBS team to go from double-digit losses (1-11) to double-digit wins (10-4). What can he do for an encore? A good start would be taking the MW title away from Boise State after the two teams split the regular-season finale and MW Championship Game in consecutive weeks. With so many key starters back and a softer non-conference schedule (i.e. no Alabama or Washington), it’s perfectly fine to dream bigger.

Hawaii

The changes have been sweeping for a team that has six new assistant coaches, including defensive and special teams coordinators, and will see coach Nick Rolovich call the offensive plays. The schedule gets more manageable, with no Power 5 foes for the first time in 16 years. But producing the first winning season since the 10-4 Western Athletic Conference tri-champions of 2010 still figures to be an uphill battle.

Nevada

Nevada’s high-powered offense, a manageable non-conference schedule and a conference slate in which the Wolf Pack’s toughest opponents travel to Reno could have Nevada flirting with bowl eligibility. If Nevada’s defense can jell, the Wolf Pack have the potential to sneak up the standings and be a factor in the West Division.

San Diego State

San Diego State is a stellar 32-9 over the past three seasons and once again figures to be among the best of the Group of 5 teams. The Aztecs have become a dominant force in the Mountain West — they are 22-4 with two titles over the past three seasons — and the yearly expectation under coach Rocky Long is that they will be in the mix for a conference title. Long’s method of pounding the ball on the ground offensively and assaulting opponents with an opportunistic defense assures that the Aztecs will be in the hunt for their fourth consecutive season of 10 or more wins.

San Jose State

Trepidation will linger until a quarterback proves himself during games, although the skill positions offer promising talent. Defensively, there is optimism thanks to a strong defensive line and some young talent in the back eight. If the injury bug can stay away and a QB emerges, the Spartans can double their win total from a year ago.

UNLV

With a favorable home schedule that includes non-conference games against UTEP and Prairie View A&M and a conference slate once again void of Mountain West heavyweight Boise State as well as Wyoming and Colorado State, the pressure will be on coach Tony Sanchez to guide his team to a bowl game in 2018.

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Posted in CFB

Complete Pac-12 preview for the 2018 season.

The Pac-12 never lacks for intrigue, but the conference heads into 2018 looking to rebound after a disappointing 2017 slate. The league did not produce a playoff team, had only two programs reach double-digit victories and went 1-8 in bowl games. But there’s reason for optimism on the West Coast for 2018. Washington takes the top spot in Pac-12 predictions, as coach Chris Petersen’s team should be in the mix for a playoff spot this fall. The Huskies are loaded on both sides of the ball and are a clear favorite to win the conference title. Stanford and Oregon are both top 25 teams and will battle Washington for the top spots in the North. The other side of the conference features three teams vying for the division title. USC is the favorite in the South, but there’s little separation between the Trojans, Arizona and Utah.

California

The arc of the Cal program is headed in a positive direction, but second-year coach Justin Wilcox knows the Bears aren’t where they need to be. “It’s not good enough. We can say we have all these returnees, but we were 5-7,” he says. “Every one of us has got to show improvement.”

A year ago, the Bears dramatically improved the Pac-12’s worst defense and inched close to bowl eligibility. But the stretch run was a study in frustrating close calls, a 1-4 finish that included three losses by a combined seven points. “Those are the margins that are toughest to overcome,” Wilcox says. That will remain Cal’s challenge in the tough Pac-12 North.

Oregon

The schedule sets up for a return to contention in the Pac-12 North. After three bland non-conference matchups — the Ducks can thank Texas A&M for backing out of a contracted series — Oregon hosts Washington and Stanford in conference play. With Justin Herbert and Tony Brooks-James in the backfield, and experience up front, the offense should be able to put up points. History says the defense in its second year under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will take another step forward. But will it be enough to get Oregon back to double-digit wins and Pac-12 title contention? The Ducks haven’t won a bowl game since the 2014 CFB Playoff semifinal, a streak fans badly want to see end.

Oregon State

The Beavers aren’t trying to snap a streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons like in 1999, but the gap between them and the rest of the Pac-12 felt as wide as ever last year. Still, if OSU can buy into what Jonathan Smith is selling and move past a disastrous 2017, his first season as a head coach will be considered a success.

Stanford

For years, Stanford has led with its defense, which it backed up with a rugged, run-first offensive attack. That could change this year The Stanford offense hasn’t eclipsed 40 points per game since 2011, when Andrew Luck lined up behind center. It could in 2018. And it might need to, thanks to a defense in transition.

Stanford visits Pac-12 North favorite Washington on Nov. 3, but we’ll get a good picture of the Cardinal before September is over, with games vs. USC, at Oregon and at Notre Dame.

Washington

In Year 5 of the Chris Petersen era, the meticulous Washington coach will trot out a rarefied group that boasts 16 returning starters from a team that won 10 games. The Huskies take a backseat to no team when it comes to game experience. They’re positioned to run with college football’s elite again this season, and expectations are through the roof in Seattle. All Petersen’s club needs to do now is stay relatively healthy — and win.

Washington State

In each of the past two seasons, Washington State fell four quarters shy of its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. It’s unlikely that the race for the Pac-12 North will come down to the Apple Cup again, and fans may need to temper their expectations after WSU followed an eight-win season in 2016 with nine wins in ’17. That doesn’t mean that the Cougars will backslide too much. They may just have to find some middle ground: Competing for a title in the rugged Pac-12 North seems unrealistic, but a bowl game is within reach.

Arizona

With a forgiving schedule – Arizona does not play Washington or Stanford – the Wildcats are positioned to contend for the Pac-12 South title. Arizona is thin on defense, but its starters are of Pac-12 quality. Khalil Tate will attempt to be the school’s first All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback since Arizona joined the league in 1978. But much like on defense, Arizona is not deep and has no game-ready backup should Tate go down. Still, this is Arizona’s most anticipated season since 2010.

Arizona State

The presence a handful of top-shelf Pac-12 players may mask to some degree the scope of ASU’s overhaul, but at least it’ll give the staff a boost in the transitional phase. While the Sun Devils likely won’t challenge for the Pac-12 South division title, they have potential to remain relevant into November. All eyes will be on coach Herm Edwards, one of the most intriguing hires in college football in years.

Colorado

After a South Division title in 2016, Colorado entered last season eager to prove it was more than a one-hit wonder. Instead, the Buffs settled into their familiar spot at the bottom of the division. Mike MacIntyre is only one year removed from winning National Coach of the Year honors and signing a contract extension (through 2021), but there’s pressure to get the Buffs back to the postseason. There’s enough talent and hunger to get them there, but not much margin for error.

UCLA

Coach Chip Kelly is inheriting a full rebuilding job and not a top-25 team like he had when he embarked on his magical run at Oregon. The Bruins do have talent on campus from all those top recruiting classes signed by the previous staff, but there are significant issues on both sides of the ball.

It may not be long before Kelly has the Bruins contending for titles like they did with regularity two decades ago, but there are bound to be a few growing pains in 2018. Even in a wide-open Pac-12 South, this UCLA squad may prove to be more pesky than good as it builds toward a brighter future.

USC

Clay Helton is the first coach in the program’s history to guide the Trojans to 10 wins in each of his first two seasons, but it is going to be a challenge to continue that level of success with significant roster turnover.

The Trojans should remain the favorites in the Pac-12 South race, considering the talent remaining on their roster and coaching changes that occurred at three of their division rivals. The challenge to repeat as Pac-12 champions gets off to a difficult start with a tough September slate that includes trips to Stanford and Arizona, plus a matchup with Washington State on a Friday night. It won’t be an easy road to navigate.

Utah

Utah is entering its eighth season in the Pac-12, and Kyle Whittingham now has been a head coach in this conference longer than he filled that role in the Mountain West. So the Utes are feeling some pressure to win their first Pac-12 South championship. “We are getting closer and closer to where we want to be, but no one cares about being close,” Whittingham says. “We have to get over that hump.”

The schedule is difficult – the Utes miss Oregon State and California in the rotation – but the pieces are in place for Utah to threaten USC for supremacy in the South.

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Posted in CFB

Complete preview for the MAC in 2018.

The MAC hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2011-12, and it’s likely that streak extends to five years in a row in 2018. That’s due to Ohio taking the top spot in the 2018 MAC predictions as the favorite to win the league. The Bobcats fell just short of reaching the league title game last season and are a heavy favorite in the East Division. Buffalo and Miami aren’t far behind the Bobcats, with Akron in the next tier. The picture is a little cloudier at the top of the West Division. Toledo is the defending conference champion but must replace standout quarterback Logan Woodside. Northern Illinois returns one of the MAC’s top defenses, while the development of quarterback Marcus Childers could help coach Rod Carey’s team win the West once again.

Akron

This year, Akron seems to have some pieces in place, but the Zips could have a tough time getting back to the league title game as the top teams in the East should be vastly improved. Ohio looks to be the class of the division, and both Miami and Buffalo will be in the hunt. The Zips could finish anywhere from first to fourth in what figures to be an intriguing season of MACtion.

Bowling Green

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has some decent building blocks with Bowling Green’s veteran secondary and athletic linebackers. QB Jarret Doege has the confidence of his coaches and teammates after making five starts as a freshman, while Scott Miller provides a clear No. 1 target on the outside. The first month of the season will be rough, with Oregon, Maryland and Georgia Tech all on the schedule, so a break-even year will require a strong conference showing.

Buffalo

Coach Lance Leipold won five Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater but has not reached the postseason in three years at Buffalo. With so much firepower returning, anything less than a trip to a bowl game will be a major disappointment.

Kent State

If nothing else, the team will be much more fun to watch in 2018, with head coach Sean Lewis calling the shots in a fast-paced attack. His system will breed a star or two per usual, and if one of them is a quarterback, the Flashes could pull off a few surprises in 2018 — and set the stage for much bigger and better things in the years to come.

Miami (Ohio)

Despite the numerous and costly mental breakdowns, coach Chuck Martin saw his contract extended for two years, through the 2020 season. He has spent the first four seasons building up the roster, both in talent and physicality, and he feels now that the RedHawks are in an enviable position with experienced players who are better able to physically compete in the MAC.

Miami will be tested by a challenging schedule that includes only five true home games. The RedHawks are due to play archrival Cincinnati at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium, and they face a grueling stretch of three road trips to Army, Buffalo and Northern Illinois in the second half of the season.

Ohio

Coach Frank Solich has the Bobcats poised for a run at the MAC East title. “This is a team that could easily win the division — and the league — this year if they get more of the same kind of play from the quarterback position,” says one opposing MAC assistant coach.

Ball State

The Cardinals should show significant improvement across the board — assuming they don’t suffer a similar rash of injuries. That, however, might not be enough for them to make a significant move in the MAC West, the more challenging of the league’s two divisions.

Central Michigan

A lot of what Central Michigan does this season will tie in with the development of QB Tony Poljan and the inexperienced wide receiver group. Every other position group should be satisfactory to strong, so those could be the final pieces of the puzzle in taking another step forward. The Chippewas have a fairly difficult schedule with three Power 5 opponents in addition to the MAC slate, which is bookended by road games at Northern Illinois and Toledo. At least rival Western Michigan is a home game.

Eastern Michigan

There are plenty of reasons for optimism this year with so much back in the fold on defense and on the offensive line, but the name of the game in football is quarterback play, and there is a serious question mark there. It’s hard to imagine anyone living up to the standard set by Brogan Roback. If Eastern Michigan is to win more games than it loses this season, it will be due a running game that controls the clock and a defense that limits big plays. It won’t be long before EMU figures out where it stands in the MAC as it opens league play at home against Northern Illinois, travels to Western Michigan and is back home versus Toledo in the first three weeks of the conference season.

Northern Illinois

The Huskies have not won more than eight games in any of the last three seasons, and although the talent level, especially on defense, would indicate a possible 10-plus-win team, the schedule is a big obstacle. The good news is that the Huskies possess significant talent on both sides of the ball, enabling them to make a run at the West Division title.

Toledo

If either Mitchell Guadagni or Eli Peters emerges as a viable replacement for Logan Woodside at quarterback, then it’s all systems go. But if the offense struggles a bit, the defense will have to do its part. And that defense will be tested early with non-conference dates against Miami (Fla.), Nevada and Fresno State. The Rockets do catch a break in league play by not having to face either Ohio or Miami, the two favorites in the East.

Western Michigan

By the end of last season, WMU had lost a whopping 21 players to season-ending injuries, including five safeties, five running backs and five receivers. “It started getting ridiculous,” head coach Tim Lester says. It did, however, create a good dynamic entering this season — an experienced roster, devoid of a large senior class. The Broncos have only nine seniors on a team with realistic designs on competing for a MAC championship, meaning this should be a two-year group.

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Posted in CFB

Complete preview of the Independent Teams for 2018.

The Liberty Flames will be making their debut in the FBS this year along the 5 other independents squads, Army, UMass, New Mexico State, Notre Dame and BYU. Check out how each teams will fair this year.

Army

While there is a trip to Norman in September, the Sooners are the only FBS team on Army’s schedule that won more than seven games last season. The slate also includes two FCS programs and one transitioning to the FBS. It should all add up to the academy playing in a bowl game for a third consecutive season — something that has never happened. “I think it’s easy for guys that haven’t experienced anything but winning seasons to maybe think it’s a lot easier than it is,” coach Jeff Monken says. “We have to keep our team from being complacent.”

Notre Dame

Notre Dame is aiming for its first back-to-back double-digit-winning seasons since Lou Holtz was head coach in 1992-93. Winners of 10 games in two of the last three years, the Fighting Irish remain a difficult read, due largely to the ugly 4–8 season in 2016. It begs the question: Was last year’s September-October run for a Playoff berth a more accurate depiction of Notre Dame moving forward, or does the collapse in November at Miami and Stanford say more about the up-and-down Brian Kelly regime?

UMass

With an experienced roster and winnable games on the schedule, bowl eligibility is a more reachable goal than it’s been since UMass became an FBS program in 2012. But to get in a bowl without a conference, they’ll have to hope that a conference fails to fill its slots.

BYU

BYU’s sudden drop to 4-9 has created quite a challenge for coach Kalani Sitake in his third season on the job. “There’s a huge urgency to get better,” Sitake says. That can happen if the Cougars start putting points on the scoreboard. BYU scored 17 or fewer points in eight defeats in 2017, continually frustrating Sitake. An improved offensive line and receiving corps, along with more continuity at quarterback, should help in this pivotal year for the independent program.

New Mexico State

The schedule is not daunting, with two games against fellow independent Liberty and matchups with familiar Sun Belt teams Louisiana, Texas State and Georgia Southern. If NMSU receives quality play at quarterback and the defense takes another step forward, the Aggies have a realistic opportunity to enjoy a second straight winning season — something that hasn’t happened since the late 1960s.

Liberty

Sustaining success throughout an entire season has been Liberty’s struggle under coach Turner Gill, and if the offense is unable to score enough points to negate the defense’s inability to stop the run, Liberty’s streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons will end.

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Posted in CFB

Complete preview of the Sun Belt for 2018.

Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy have ranked as the top teams from the Sun Belt in recent years, so it should be no surprise this trio leads the way for the league in 2018. The Red Wolves are the top team and projected champion in the 2018 Sun Belt predictions, with the Trojans and Mountaineers locked into a tight battle atop the East Division. ULM, Louisiana, South Alabama and Georgia State round out the next tier, with Coastal Carolina and Texas State expected to improve after winning a combined five games in 2017. New Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford hopes to build off a promising finish last season.

Appalachian State

Scott Satterfield’s program sticks to its proven formula of pounding the run to control the game and playing aggressively on defense. The faces will be different, but there’s more than enough talent in the backfield and on the offensive line to keep it rolling. The only question, of course: When will a major program make Satterfield an offer he can’t refuse?

Arkansas State

If the Red Wolves plug a few holes on defense and clean up some of the miscues, their chances of reaching the Sun Belt title game are strong. “They’ve got a lot of guys back, which makes them the scariest team in the Sun Belt,” says one Sun Belt assistant. “Their receivers could start in any league. They are that good.”

Coastal Carolina

Coastal is in its third year of transitioning to the FBS and will be eligible for a bowl game for the first time. The Chants went 3-9 and 2-6 in their first season in the Sun Belt, winning their final two games to snap a program-record nine-game losing streak and take some momentum into the offseason. They look to improve their standing with head coach Joe Moglia back at the helm.

Georgia Southern

The atmosphere is far better now than it was during Tyson Summers’ failed 18-game stint, as head coach Chad Lunsford understands the pressures and expectations of being at Georgia Southern. “One of the biggest changes I wanted my staff and us to do is make sure football was fun again and still be able to hold them accountable,” he says. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Louisiana

The mandate for new coach Billy Napier, a 38-year-old offensive guru with stints at Clemson, Alabama and Arizona State, is to get the Cajuns back in the black and keep them there. That will take time, especially given that he inherited a roster with far fewer than the 85 scholarships players allowed by the NCAA. The incoming recruiting class has just 15 players, including three junior college signees with limited eligibility. Even with a relatively veteran lineup, Napier’s debut has the makings of a classic rebuilding year. If the end result exceeds last year’s 5-7 mark, that will be a promising first step.

ULM

Overall, ULM has posted back-to-back 4-8 seasons since coach Matt Viator’s hiring, but there are hints of progress. The Warhawks went 1-14 on the road in two seasons before Viator, but they won two road games last season.

Any chance at a winning record must include victories in non-conference play, where ULM went 0-4 last season. There are tough trips to Ole Miss and Texas A&M on the schedule, but also more manageable matchups against Southern Miss and FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana.

South Alabama

South Alabama has been competitive, but the roster needs re-tooling, and the Jaguars won’t win consistently without major strides on offense. It may be difficult to earn bowl eligibility, but the schedule does line up for a late-season surge, with four of the final six games at home.

Texas State

With just 12 seniors on the roster, the Bobcats are fielding a very young team once again. The difference: Their inexperienced underclassmen are now seasoned sophomores and juniors. While this probably won’t translate into a winning season, Texas State should start to show progress in coach Everett Withers’ third year.

Troy

The schedule opens with two non-conference heavies in the first month, Boise State and Nebraska, and ends with a trip to fellow SBC East favorite Appalachian State. In between, though, the Trojans will likely be favored in every game, putting a third consecutive 10-win season very much within reach.

Georgia State

Coach Shawn Elliott still needs another couple years of recruiting to get the roster up to par. Though a tougher schedule and a younger team may function as speed bumps in 2018, Elliott is well on his way to building one of the more solid programs in the Sun Belt.

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Posted in CFB

Complete Big 12 preview for the 2018 season.

Oklahoma has a few key players to replace from last year’s squad, but coach Lincoln Riley’s team is the pick to win the Big 12 this fall. The Sooners have claimed the conference title three years in a row and hold an edge over Texas, West Virginia and TCU in the 2018 Big 12 predictions. The Mountaineers will have no trouble scoring points behind quarterback Will Grier, but the defense will be key in whether or not this team contends for the conference title. After eight teams reached bowl eligibility last season, it would not be a surprise to see the conference reach that level or if nine programs hit at least six victories in 2018.

Baylor

Playing with a chip on their shoulder after last year’s 1-11 finish, the Bears should be able to get off to a better start and make a run at their eighth bowl bid in nine years. But staying healthy will be the key.

Iowa State

Coach Matt Campbell was a year ahead of schedule in getting Iowa State back to a bowl game. The program seems poised to maintain its momentum. The Cyclones should be better in the trenches on both sides of the football, and across the board, this is a deeper and more athletic team than the one that went 8-5 a year ago. Another trip to the postseason seems likely in Ames, and finishing in the upper half of the Big 12 is possible.

Kansas

KU finished just 1-11 in 2017, with its only win coming in the season opener against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State. Coach David Beaty’s record stands at 3-33 in three seasons, with his only FBS win coming against Texas in 2016. The stakes will be high in 2018. If KU struggles to start the season, the moves could come in a hurry.

Kansas State

K-State coach Bill Snyder has enough returning talent and experience to remain a factor in the Big 12, but it won’t be easy with two new coordinators and uncertainty at key positions. The Wildcats started slow in each of the past two seasons before finishing strong and winning bowl games. They will need to play well from the get-go, especially with Mississippi State on the schedule, to reach higher levels this season.

Oklahoma

In Norman, they’re used to replacing All-Americans and continuing to win big. So downgrade the Sooners with caution. Sure, the coaches would like to be more settled at quarterback. And the schedule doesn’t offer the opportunity to ease into things, with UCLA visiting in Week 2, followed by the Big 12 opener at Iowa State the following Saturday. Still, if Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall takes hold of the quarterback position, the Sooners will again have the look of a Big 12 favorite and CFB Playoff contender.

Oklahoma State

Outside the program, all focus centers on replacing QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington, understandably. Inside, however, there’s a quiet confidence, with 12 returning starters and plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball.

A quarterback must emerge, but Oklahoma State coaches are excited about their options. The schedule offers two comfortable games – Missouri State and South Alabama – to get the quarterback some confidence, before Boise State arrives in Stillwater for an intriguing non-conference clash. If all goes well early, it could signal business as usual for the Cowboys.

TCU

Like always, TCU will field a good defense. But coach Gary Patterson and his staff have assembled what looks like the best offensive skill talent they’ve ever had. If the offensive line comes together, TCU will be closer to pairing an offense that can keep up with the Big 12’s best with a defense that can win games on its own. The last time that happened, in 2014 and ’15, TCU won 23 of 26 games, shared a league championship and nearly crashed the CFP.

Texas

Texas improved from five to seven wins in Tom Herman’s first season. Getting to a bowl game was a nice first step. Herman also established a culture and added some elite talent in his first full recruiting class. To challenge Oklahoma for supremacy in the Big 12, the Horns will have to show significant improvement on offense and hope that Todd Orlando’s defense doesn’t drop off too much despite key personnel losses.

Texas Tech

Texas Tech’s defense got key stops consistently for the first time in years in 2017, but the offense often wasted away those opportunities, particularly in the red zone, where short-yardage situations and field goal tries often ended in disaster.

To take a step forward, the Red Raider offense simply has to get tougher on the ground, the quarterback — whoever wins the job — needs to be steady, the kicking game must take a huge step forward and the defense needs to stay on course. A veteran offensive line and a healthy kicker in Clayton Hatfield should help, but the quarterback’s success or failure will weigh the heaviest on this team’s season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s job depends on it.

West Virginia

WVU fans were downright giddy for the 2018 team until departures and injuries hit the Mountaineer defense in the spring. Now, there’s a wait-and-see approach while defensive coordinator Tony Gibson tries to patch the holes.

With Will Grier and perhaps the nation’s best receiving corps, WVU will score. The only question is whether they’ll have to score 50 per game to cover for the defense.

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Posted in CFB

Complete Big Ten preview for 2018.

The Big Ten heads into the 2018 college football season with five candidates to reach the playoff. After winning the conference championship last year, Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten to win the league title once again. However, rival Michigan and division foes Penn State and Michigan State aren’t far behind. In the West, Wisconsin is a clear favorite over Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. The Badgers face a tougher schedule than they had in 2017, but coach Paul Chryst’s program has the returning talent to push Ohio State or any of the teams from the East in the Big Ten Championship.

Penn State

Saquon Barkley is someone else’s problem now, but opponents should still be wary of this offense, especially if Trace McSorley displays the kind of accuracy he showed while completing all 12 of his third-down passing attempts vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State is going to get its points. But can a graduation-depleted defense stop opponents from getting theirs? That’s what will determine whether this team earns its third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl berth.

Ohio State

OSU ended last season with a win over That Team Up North and a defeat of USC in the Rose Bowl, but the 55–24 setback at Iowa still can’t be explained. Plus, the late-season momentum was offset by the loss of a multitude of key players, QB J.T. Barrett atop the list. The Buckeyes will march onward with a new quarterback, a roster loaded with hungry talent and a defense that still plans to come after people.

Michigan

This is a pivotal season for coach Jim Harbaugh, whose struggles against his three main rivals are well documented. His fourth Michigan team will once again be outstanding on defense. If the offense, a trouble spot in recent years, shows any improvement, this team can compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff — even against a difficult schedule that includes the usual suspects from the Big Ten East as well as Notre Dame (on the road) and Wisconsin (the top team from West). However, if the quarterback play remains an issue and the offensive line doesn’t progress, it will be more of the same in Ann Arbor.

Indiana

Head coach Tom Allen landed Indiana’s best recruiting class in years and has upgraded the program’s athleticism. But depending on freshmen to win against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State is not a winning formula. With questions at quarterback, the offensive line and across the defense, the ceiling for this team could be six wins.

Maryland

Coach DJ Durkin’s endless enthusiasm was tested last year. Injuries crippled a promising team that upset Texas in the opener. The Terrapins got pounded by the Big Ten’s biggest bullies. Now there’s a second straight top-30 recruiting class in tow, five new coaches, a new state-of-the-art indoor practice/sports medicine facility in New Cole Field House, and a whole new offense with some healthy quarterbacks. Big Ten foes may not have to “Fear the Turtle” just yet, but they’ll have to start paying attention.

Michigan State

Michigan State bounced back from a 3–9 season to reach double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years. With 19 returning starters from a team that went 10–3, the Spartans are a dangerous contender in one of the best divisions in college football and will continue to be a problem for Penn State and Michigan. A return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2015 is unlikely but not impossible. No one is expecting Michigan State to leapfrog Ohio State, but that’s the way coach Mark Dantonio likes it.

Rutgers

A bowl game is the hope for coach Chris Ash’s third season — a goal he is not shying away from. But if bowl eligibility does happen, it will likely be achieved early. Six of the first seven opponents Rutgers faces were a combined 20-52 last season, including three that lost 10 games or more. The closing five-game stretch of Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State — a combined 52-14 last year — isn’t conducive to making bowl headway. In the end, it all comes down to offensive improvement and the play at quarterback for this team.

Wisconsin

The defense has been the star for the first three years of the Paul Chryst era, a stretch that includes 34 wins. Now, the Badgers might have to light up the scoreboard if they’re going to make a run at the Big Ten title. A light non-conference schedule should give the defense a chance to grow, but that group needs to be ready for a Big Ten slate that includes road games against five bowl teams from a year ago.

Iowa

There is a lot to like but also a lot to question about this Iowa team. QB Nate Stanley and TE Noah Fant both have star potential, the defensive ends might be the best in the Big Ten as a group and the kicking game is solid. On the other hand, the top two running backs have to be replaced, along with all three starting linebackers and an All-America cornerback.
One of Iowa’s biggest strengths might be its schedule, which doesn’t include games against Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State – three of the Big 4 from the Big Ten East.

Nebraska

Nebraska has been largely absent from the national discussion since 2001, and the Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference championship since 1999. Without overstating things, coach Scott Frost and staff were miracle workers at UCF, taking a program from 0-12 the season before they arrived to 13-0, including a Peach Bowl victory against Auburn, last year, their second in Orlando.
Whether they can work such magic in two seasons again is uncertain. Nebraska had better than 4-8 talent a year ago, and much of it returns. New systems are in place all the way around, causing growing pains, and the schedule is daunting. But the Cornhuskers will be up-tempo, aggressive, physical — and competitive.

Minnesota

For the third time in four seasons, Minnesota figures to enter November still in search of an elusive sixth win — and bowl eligibility. A year ago, in coach P.J. Fleck’s first season at Minnesota, the Gophers lacked depth and talent and finished at 5-7, including 2-7 in the Big Ten. It marked the first time Minnesota had missed a bowl since 2011.
“The outside people are going to say, “What about your wins?”” Fleck said during the spring. “Again, I’m not worried about all that. I’m not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I’m worried about developing this football team.”
Fleck, who took Western Michigan from 1-11 to 8-5 in Year 2 in Kalamazoo, received a one-year rollover contract extension at Minnesota during last season and now has five years remaining to build the program in his image.

Northwestern

With 27 wins in the last three seasons and a new lakefront facility, Northwestern clearly has momentum. Keeping it likely depends on QB Clayton Thorson, who, if healthy, can take the Wildcats a long way. But his uncertain status and key losses at running back, safety and defensive tackle increase the degree of difficulty. Northwestern needs line play to excel and for its star power on defense to shine again. Although the schedule is tough, Northwestern misses both Ohio State and Penn State and gets almost all of its marquee opponents at home.

Illinois

Coach Lovie Smith’s teams are 5-19 overall and just 2-16 in the Big Ten, including an unprecedented 0-9 in 2017. He has a six-year deal, so the administration is giving him time. The fans want to see some progress and some excitement. The schedule is challenging, with an early game against South Florida in Chicago, visits from Penn State and Iowa and trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.
During the past two decades, the third year has been a charm for Illinois coaches. Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman earned bowl bids in their third seasons. If offensive coordinator Rod Smith continues to have a golden touch with quarterbacks, like he did at Arizona, the offense will improve. Enough to bump the win total to six? Probably not.

Purdue

Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Coach Jeff Brohm exceeded those expectations by leading Purdue to its first bowl win since 2011. Veteran defensive leaders keyed the turnaround last year. Now, with so many of those players gone, the pressure is on the offense. Purdue could take a step back in Year 2 before it takes two steps forward in Year 3.

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Posted in CFB

Complete ACC preview for the 2018 season.

Clemson is once again the pick to win the ACC title for the 2018 college football season, but the conference has continued to improve its depth in recent years. Miami took a step forward under coach Mark Richt last season by winning its first Coastal Division title and are the pick to win the division once again in 2018. Virginia Tech isn’t far behind, with Georgia Tech and Pitt next in line as contenders. Clemson should be picked No. 1 or No. 2 nationally by most this preseason and holds a significant edge over the rest of the Atlantic. New coach Willie Taggart should have Florida State in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl and is the top threat to the Tigers in the Atlantic. Behind projected first-team All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley, NC State ranks just outside the top 25 and headlines the next tier of teams in the division. It’s a close call behind the Wolfpack, as Boston College, Wake Forest and Louisville each finished 4-4 in the league last fall and not much separates this trio once again in 2018.

Boston College

This should be one of coach Steve Addazio’s best teams, even though it may not show up in the record, as the Eagles draw both Miami and Virginia Tech out of the ACC Coastal Division and travel to an improved Purdue in the non-conference slate. Still, RB AJ Dillon should have a big year, and the defense has enough returning firepower to keep games close. If either Anthony Brown or EJ Perry provides a real threat in the passing game, the Eagles can win more than seven games under Addazio for the first time in his six years at the Heights.

Clemson

Upsets happen, as Clemson knows after losing to Syracuse last year and Pitt in 2016. But this team is just so much more talented than almost everyone it will play. A fourth consecutive playoff appearance seems like the baseline for this team. Clemson-Bama Part 4 sounds fun.

Florida State

After Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M, FSU’s administration wanted a head coach who could take the football program in a completely new direction. Willie Taggart checked every box. The biggest change, of course, is the swapping of Fisher’s plodding pro-style offense for the up-tempo, spread attack Taggart employed at Oregon and USF. FSU’s defense also will take a more aggressive stance under former Michigan State co-coordinator Harlon Barnett.  Judging by the excitement during spring drills and offseason workouts, FSU’s players are fully on board. That alone should help the Seminoles improve upon their dismal 7–6 campaign from a year ago. How much they improve will depend largely on how quickly they can execute their new schemes at a high level.

Louisville

The Cardinals have more questions in 2018 than they’ve had during any season of Bobby Petrino’s second tour of duty at the school. Louisville must solve significant issues on defense and replace a former Heisman-winning quarterback. And they must do so against a schedule that begins with Alabama in Orlando and includes a road trip to Clemson. Another season in the middle of the ACC Atlantic pack looms.

NC State

NC State got a preview of life without DE Bradley Chubb in the Sun Bowl. The offense did the heavy lifting behind QB Ryan Finley and the receivers and put up 52 points in a win over Arizona State. With so many personnel changes on defense, the same formula will have to work in 2018 for the Wolfpack to avoid a step back after their first top-25 finish under Dave Doeren and only third in the past 20 years.

Syracuse

Syracuse enters Year 3 of the Dino Babers era with reason to believe that a four-year bowl drought could end this fall. The Orange bring back experienced lines, have quality quarterback depth and feature an experienced secondary. The schedule is slightly less of a gauntlet, too.

There are questions, though, on both sides of the ball. How will SU replace its linebackers, including three-time captain Zaire Franklin? Can the receiving corps pick up the production that graduated with Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips?

This projects to be a season in which Babers’ reputation begins to take shape. A postseason appearance would invite talk of a contract extension. But another disappointing finish would hurt much more than the last two seasons.

Wake Forest

The building blocks are there for a third straight bowl appearance. That starts on both lines, where Wake finally boasts talent and experience. Depth is always a concern, and a couple key injuries could eliminate a small margin for error. Coach Dave Clawson has rebuilt the facilities and the culture, and this is now a program that expects to win.

Duke

There’s reason to believe Duke will once again be stout on defense. It could be up to the offense — which averaged only 19.8 points in ACC games — to determine whether the Blue Devils will be a borderline bowl team or emerge as a contender in the Coastal Division. The schedule certainly gets tougher, with non-conference road games at Baylor and Northwestern and a crossover game at Clemson.

Coach David Cutcliffe likes what he sees from his group. “We know this team can run,” he says. “[This] was the most physical Duke football that has been out here in quite some time. This is something we’ve got to build on; I’m anxious to see.”

Georgia Tech

Coach Paul Johnson’s teams traditionally outperform expectations, but last year’s 5-6 record was disappointing because a play here or there in games they led late against Tennessee, Miami or Virginia cost them a bowl berth. With nearly the entire offense returning and a defensive philosophy that should better fit the personnel, it’s easy to envision those games going their way in 2018. There’s never a huge margin for error at Tech, but with even small improvements in TaQuon Marshall’s passing, offensive line play and the kicking game, Tech should return to the postseason and factor into the ACC Coastal race.

Miami

Last year was a rude awakening for the Hurricanes, who elbowed their way into the College Football Playoff discussion in November only to get thrashed by Clemson in the ACC title game. No one in Coral Gables will forget that feeling, and confidence is high on campus that Miami is building the type of team that can compete with the top dogs in any conference. They’re not playing at a championship level consistently, but they’re showing flashes, and Mark Richt’s last two recruiting classes have been excellent. The former Miami quarterback has restored the shine to his alma mater.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels have plenty of room for improvement after limping to a 3-9 record in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether they have enough talent to make much progress. Top priorities on offense are patching together a passable offensive line and getting consistent play at quarterback. On defense, UNC must avoid major breakdowns after allowing five runs of more than 50 yards and five TD passes longer than 65 yards a year ago. With a non-conference schedule that includes two road games and a matchup against UCF, a bowl game would be a good accomplishment.

Pittsburgh

In the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has pulled off major upsets against Miami, Clemson and Penn State. But at what point do the Panthers advance past the occasional stunning win and start to develop more consistency across the board? Coach Pat Narduzzi’s program took a step back in 2017. It finished 5-7 (3-5 in the ACC) after posting 8-5 records in each of his first two seasons. The mission in 2018 is to prove the program is trending upward, as was the case in 2015 and ’16.

Virginia

In Year 2 at Virginia, coach Bronco Mendenhall took the team from two wins to six and helped the Cavaliers reach their first bowl game since 2011. He may be hard pressed to continue that upward trajectory this season, at least in terms of wins and losses. The team lost key seniors in key spots, robbing the lineup not only of production but also of leadership.

The offensive and defensive lines are being largely rebuilt, and the entire offense figures to have a different feel as Virginia moves to a dual-threat quarterback and a scheme more reminiscent of what Mendenhall and his staff employed at BYU. There’s enough depth on defense to be optimistic, and if Bryce Perkins shines at quarterback, the offense could be interesting.

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech fans couldn’t have asked for much more from coach Justin Fuente in his first two years in Blacksburg, where he’s gone 19–8, won a division title and seamlessly handled the transition from legend Frank Beamer. It’s possible that 2018 might be his greatest challenge so far, however, with three-quarters of the roster being sophomores or younger. Fuente and his staff have recruited well, but those classes are just now starting to hit a turning point in their development.

The schedule’s manageable, with Clemson rotating off, Miami at home and the Coastal Division not overwhelming, but the Hokies will need to do a lot of growing up at key positions if they’re going to make a run at the division title again.

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Posted in CFB

Complete SEC preview for the 2018 season.

After winning its fifth title in nine seasons last year, Alabama is primed for another run at the national championship and SEC title in 2018. The Crimson Tide are the pick in 2018 SEC predictions to edge Auburn and win the West Division and knock off Georgia in the conference title game to claim the league championship. The Bulldogs are also primed for another run into the CFB Playoff. Coach Kirby Smart continues to add elite talent on the recruiting trail, and there’s a strong foundation to build off the 2017 season. Auburn is Alabama’s biggest challenger in the West, followed by Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The race to finish second in the East is wide open. Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky or Missouri are next up, with Tennessee and Vanderbilt projected at the bottom of the division.

Florida

Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen embraces the incredible expectations that drove his former boss, Urban Meyer, to retire for a season and cost Will Muschamp and McElwain their jobs at Florida. Mullen’s ability to develop quarterbacks is critical given the long-standing issues under center. He and his staff must prove to be strong recruiters to rebuild Florida’s talent level and depth after four straight classes outside the top 10. The 46-year-old will benefit from a favorable schedule. Doubling last season’s total of four wins is within reach.

Georgia

Georgia doesn’t have the experience coming back that it did last year, but it may have as much talent. It’s just younger and inexperienced talent, and that does matter, and would be a reason not to expect another CFB Playoff run. Then again, the schedule is far from daunting. Georgia has to go to LSU, and September games at South Carolina and Missouri could be troublesome. Auburn visits Athens.

Georgia should be a heavy favorite to repeat as SEC East champion. Everything else probably depends on how quickly the defense reloads.

Kentucky

If Kentucky can find a competent quarterback, there is enough experienced talent at the other positions to envision the Wildcats breaking through the seven-win plateau for the first time in the coach Mark Stoops era. If not, the Wildcats could be in danger of taking a step back by either falling to a lesser bowl than the last two seasons or missing postseason play altogether.

Missouri

There’s just enough turnover to give one pause, but most of the reasons for last year’s second-half surge return. That suggests a pretty high floor in a division that features quite a few teams that bottomed out in 2017.

South Carolina

If a Will Muschamp-coached team is ever going to get the offense going, this would seem the year with QB Jake Bentley and WR Deebo Samuel in the fold. The defense has personnel question marks, but Muschamp and 3rd year defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have earned the benefit of the doubt on that side of the ball.

With Florida and Tennessee in transition thanks to coaching changes, South Carolina can realistically enter the season with its eye on second place in the SEC East, the same spot it claimed a year ago. It’s probably a bit much to expect the Gamecocks to compete with defending conference champion Georgia, but South Carolina gets the Bulldogs in the second game of the season at home, so there’s always hope.

Tennessee

Tennessee doesn’t have much margin for error, particularly with a challenging schedule that opens with offensive juggernaut West Virginia. The Vols plan to be efficient with a low-risk offense, mindful of turnovers while featuring aggressive blitz packages and coverage schemes. New coach Jeremy Pruitt hopes that recipe is good enough to produce (at least) six wins in Year 1.

Vanderbilt

The overall win total dropped by only one game from 2016 to 2017, but a deeper dive into the numbers reveals that the Commodores took a significant step back in coach Derek Mason’s fourth season. To get his team back into the bowl picture — and to stay off the hot seat — Mason will need to solve the Commodores’ defensive issues. Even if QB Kyle Shurmur and the offense continue to progress — a realistic proposition with an improved offensive line and the addition of Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the backfield — Vanderbilt will struggle to stay out of the SEC East cellar if the defense is allowing 40-plus points in league games.

Alabama

There was a different feel to Alabama’s most recent national title. For one thing, the Tide had to overcome a bewildering rash of injuries and a November loss to Auburn. There also were the emotional swings of the title game, topped off by the iconic second-and-26 walk-off winner.

The end result was the same, though — a fifth national title in the past nine seasons — and the expectations remain, thanks to many of the players who were involved in the crucial moments of that wild night in Atlanta. Alabama will begin the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. And there’s a good chance the Tide will end the season in that spot as well.

Arkansas

It would be unreasonable to believe the Razorbacks could go from 1-7 in conference play to a contender in the SEC West in the course of one offseason. Quarterback play will likely go a long way in determining whether the offense builds up steam in coach Chad Morris’ debut. And the defense — which gave up a staggering 7.1 yards per play in SEC games — needs major help at all three levels. The debut of Morris should provide some splash and dash, but the Razorbacks need a further injection of speed and depth across the board to make a significant move in the brutal SEC West.

Auburn

Gus Malzahn faces some lofty expectations. The Tigers’ sixth-year head coach just signed a seven-year contract extension for $49 million, with $36.75 million guaranteed, after a 10–4 season in which he won the SEC West and defeated both National Championship Game participants (Alabama and Georgia). Now, though, many fans will define an Auburn season as a success or failure based on whether it defeats those two rivals, and the Tigers must do so on the road in 2018. Good luck, Gus.

LSU

LSU’s schedule isn’t conducive to finding a path back into the SEC’s upper echelon. The Tigers will face two teams that played in the College Football Playoff (Alabama and Georgia) and two teams that played in New Year’s Six bowls (Auburn and Miami). Add games at home with Mississippi State and at Texas A&M, and it’s difficult to picture the Tigers being able to challenge for SEC West supremacy. The key for coach Ed Orgeron is not to slip so far that he’s facing a must-win-big scenario in 2019 to keep his job.

Mississippi State

When Dan Mullen left Mississippi State after nine seasons to return to Florida, the school elected to go outside of the SEC and hire Joe Moorhead as coach. There’s some risk there (mostly related to recruiting), but the hire was hailed by outside observers, and 2018 could prove why immediately.  Mississippi State lost very little of consequence from its 2017 team, and despite a fairly challenging schedule, there’s reason for optimism in Starkville. Eight wins are expected, and some believe that this could be a 10-win team with the right breaks.

Ole Miss

Coach Matt Luke led the Rebels to a 6-6 mark in a tumultuous 2017 that included the cloud of the NCAA investigation hovering above. His candidacy for the full-time job was not looking strong until the Rebels won three of their last four games, including a 31-28 upset at No. 16 Mississippi State.

Barring a reprieve, Ole Miss is banned from a bowl game for the second straight season. The Rebels have enough firepower on offense to pose some serious problems, but they will need to show significant improvement on defense — most notably against the run — to reach the six-win mark again.

Texas A&M

Weary from four consecutive seasons with eight wins or fewer, A&M pulled off a major coup and lured Coach Jimbo Fisher to College Station. The Aggies have bet $75 million over 10 years that Fisher can duplicate the success he had at Florida State, where he won the 2013 national championship. Fisher inherits 15 returning starters and some top-flight talent. But the Aggies have lacked the physicality and depth to compete for championships in the rugged SEC. If significant strides are made in those areas, A&M could make a run at exceeding the eight-win plateau. Competing immediately for an SEC championship may be asking for too much too soon.

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Posted in CFB

NFL Mock Draft 2018

The countdown has entered the final stages and the 2018 NFL Draft is finally ready to kick off in Dallas. After months of scouting, it’s time to make the draft board reality for every franchise and start turning in the card for the next step in filling out their roster for the upcoming season.

Taking into account everything from positional needs to free agent signings to the coaching staff, here’s a look at how the top 10 picks in the first round could play out at AT&T Stadium Thursday night.

1-Cleveland Brown: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Allen is likely the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in the draft, while Sam Darnold is probably the safest of the top four options. Which sounds more likely for Cleveland? Allen has elite arm strength. Matt Stafford-esque. Plus mobility. Inconsistent accuracy and decision-making. Often over-extends plays which gets him into big trouble. Has All-Pro and UDFA flashes.

2-New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The Giants would definitely consider Sam Darnold here, but Barkley is a generational talent and the top prospect in the draft. Rare flexion and smoothness as an athlete, particularly for a running back his size. Some cuts are reminiscent of Barry Sanders. Has elite downfield speed to hit home runs. Best on the outside though he’s not terrible between the tackles. Has plenty of power too. Dynamic running back prospect.

3-New York Jets: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

If the Giants pass on the second quarterback, the Jets should pounce. More often than not, Darnold plays well beyond his years mentally when reading coverages and when making anticipation throws at all levels of the field. Arm strength is fine. Good scrambling ability. and even better throw-on-the-run-skills. Footwork is sporadic. Accuracy is mainly spot-on. Effective eluding pressure but gets antsy when blocking is leaky. Owns awkward, elongated release.

4-Cleveland Brown: Bradley Chubb, DL, NC State

There will be a ton of interest in trading for this pick from teams that want Baker Mayfield and it wouldn’t even be surprising if the Colts extract something out of Denver to ensure that selection. By staying put however, the team gets the best defensive player in the draft and a truly top-notch tandem of edge rushers by adding Chubb to a defensive line that already boasts Myles Garrett.

5-Denver Broncos: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

By all indications, Mayfield won’t drop past the fifth pick (no matter if it’s Denver, Arizona or Buffalo). John Elway will listen to offers but will have no qualms grabbing the team’s long-term starter and enlivening the offense after he learns under Case Keenum.

6-Indianapolis Colts: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

The Colts are the trendiest team to trade back, but they already did that and currently have four selections in the top 49, an ideal rebuilding scenario. Take a look at their linebacker depth chart. It’s not pretty. Smith would be a game-changer in the middle.

7-Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derwin James, DB, Florida State

James gives the Bucs defense a fantastic talent to build around in the secondary, and he’ll be the impact player at strong safety they didn’t get in the failed T.J. Ward addition. The scary thing is that he still has room to grow into a better player.

8-Chicago Bears: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame

The Bears benefit from what may be their best-case scenario at No. 8 with Nelson, a plug-and-play guard who should garner multiple All-Pro distinctions in his career, especially if he gets a little better in pass blocking.

9-San Francisco 49ers: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

The 49ers still need help in the secondary after adding Richard Sherman, who is coming off a major injury himself. Enter Fitzpatrick, who could slide in at slot corner with Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon on the boundaries, or at free safety if San Francisco decides it wants to move Jimmie Ward to corner. Either way, the Alabama product is a talent you want on your defense.

10-Oakland Raiders: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Edmunds might have the highest upside of any front seven player in this draft and would be a perfect fit to land in Oakland and be mentored by guys like Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.

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Posted in NFL

College football’s 2017-18 national championship is up for grabs on Monday night, as Alabama and Georgia meet in Atlanta in a matchup of SEC foes. As with any big matchup, the stars are expected to shine. Georgia is led by running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. On the Alabama sideline, quarterback Jalen Hurts and running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough headline the offense.

While Chubb and Hurts will be under the spotlight to perform, who are the under-the-radar players that could deliver a clutch performance on Monday night? Here are 3 x-factors to watch in the national title game:

X-Factors for Alabama and Georgia in the National Championship

Jeb Blazevich/Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia

The Bulldogs will be down one tight end on Monday night, as sophomore Charlie Woerner is out due to a leg injury suffered against Oklahoma. Woerner only caught nine passes in 14 games, but the sophomore was a valuable blocker. With Woerner out, more snaps for Blazevich and Nauta are in order. This duo has combined for just 11 receptions so far, but both players will be essential to blocking the standout Alabama defensive front on Monday night. Can this duo keep pass rushers away from quarterback Jake Fromm and open up holes for running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel?

Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

Fromm was mentioned as an x-factor prior to the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma. As was the case in the regular season, the moment was never too big for the true freshman. Fromm completed 20 of 29 throws for 210 yards and two touchdowns against the Sooners, which included a couple of clutch connections with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. With Alabama likely to load the box and stop Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Fromm may need to throw on early downs to loosen up the front seven. There’s no reason to doubt Fromm after his performance all year, but this is his toughest test of the 2017 season.

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Mobility of Alabama QB Jalen Hurts, QB

Considering how dominant Alabama’s rushing attack and defense has been this season, Hurts didn’t need to throw 30 times a game. The sophomore averaged only 18.9 passes a game, throwing for 2,060 yards and 17 touchdowns. Efficiency is critical for coach Nick Saban’s quarterback, as he connected on 61.4 percent of his throws and tossed only one interception. Hurts will need to make a few plays through the air to win on Monday night, but the biggest x-factor for the Crimson Tide offense could be his mobility. The sophomore is the team’s second-leading rusher with 808 yards and eight scores this year. He rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries against Clemson and had 63 on 10 attempts in last season’s national championship against the Tigers. Can Hurts continue to play mistake-free ball when he throws? And when plays break down inside of the pocket, can Hurts scramble for first downs or make plays downfield? Hurts’ mobility is going to be key for Alabama to win on Monday night.

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Posted in CFB