Category: College football

Coaches on the rise (2018)

Rhett Lashlee ADAY on Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Auburn AL Lauren Banrard

Rhett Lashlee — Offensive Coordinator, SMU

Lashlee goes way back with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn — he quarterbacked a record-setting offense for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Arkansas before following his mentor into the college game, first at Arkansas State (2012) followed by Auburn (2013-16). He transformed a previously stagnant offense at UConn last season before joining forces with Air Raid guru Sonny Dykes at SMU. Lashlee is still only 35 and has an infectious energy that pays dividends in recruiting. Look for him to get a head coaching shot sooner rather than later, most likely at a mid-major school in the south.

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Neal Brown — Head Coach, Troy

Amazingly, Brown is still at Troy after a fantastic 2017 season that saw the Trojans stun LSU on the road and claim a share of a Sun Belt championship. Brown’s exciting Air Raid offenses have lit up the scoreboard frequently, while his defenses have been marked by speedy playmakers who create turnovers at just the right time. Brown has won two bowl games in two years and has a combined 13-3 record in conference play. While he has no shortage of big-time offers, don’t be surprised if Brown waits for the perfect opportunity to become a head coach at a higher-profile program.

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Beau Baldwin — Offensive Coordinator, Cal

Born in Santa Barbara, California and raised in Spokane, Washington, Baldwin has a sterling resumé: he’s a former quarterback with plenty of experience in innovative offensive systems, and he’s also experienced at the lower levels of Division 1. Baldwin coached at Eastern Washington from 2008-2016, posting an overall 85-32 mark, six FCS playoff appearances, and one FCS national title (2010). Baldwin was rumored to be a finalist for the Oregon State job this past offseason until it went to Jonathan Smith, so look out for his name when the 2018-19 coaching carousel starts spinning.

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Ryan Day — Co-Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State

At this point, I’m basically contractually obligated to put at least one Urban Meyer assistant on these lists. What can I say? The Ohio State boss can flat-out coach. So can all of his assistants from top to bottom, and Day is no exception. In addition to Meyer, the 39-year-old Day coached under Chip Kelly at New Hampshire, Steve Addazio at Temple and Boston College, and even got some NFL experience under his belt (with the 49ers and Eagles). Day could be an ideal fit at a lower-level Group of Five program that needs a shot in the arm offensively.

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Mike Elko — Defensive Coordinator, Texas A&M

Elko has been a high-riser in the coaching ranks in recent seasons, and for good reason. His defenses have been among the most statistically impressive in the FBS. He worked under Dave Clawson at Bowling Green (2009-2013) and Wake Forest (2014-2016) before engineering an eye-opening turnaround at Notre Dame last season. Seeing Elko’s lasting success, Jimbo Fisher immediately hired him when he took over at Texas A&M this past offseason. The jury’s still out on whether Fisher is the long-term right choice for the Aggies, but Elko is likely to get plenty of calls coming his way this coming winter for coaching vacancies.

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Walt Bell — Offensive Coordinator, Florida State

There’s a lot to like about Bell, who cut his teeth under spread offense wizards like Larry Fedora (Southern Miss, North Carolina) and Blake Anderson (Arkansas State). In 2016, he was scooped up by D.J. Durkin at Maryland, where he made an offense hum for two seasons despite dealing with tons of injuries at quarterback. Seeing his potential, Willie Taggart tabbed him as his new coordinator this past winter in Tallahassee. If Florida State’s offense gets back to its lethal standard, watch out…

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Alex Grinch — Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State

The 37-year-old Ohio native is back in his home state after earning rave reviews for his revamping of the Washington State defense for the past three seasons. Grinch earned nominations for the Broyles Award all three years (given to the nation’s top assistant coach) and helped the Cougars improve dramatically in forced turnovers and yards allowed.

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Chip Lindsey — Offensive Coordinator, Auburn

Another Gus Malzahn disciple, Lindsey first got into the college game in 2010. Since then, he’s been a coordinator for high-powered spread offenses at Southern Miss, Arizona State, and now Auburn. Given Malzahn’s coaching tree and their track record, Lindsey will certainly be another name to watch in the near future.

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Manny Diaz — Defensive Coordinator, Miami

Remember Miami’s supersized turnover chain last year? You can thank Diaz for that. The well-traveled Florida native has managed to make an impact at every stop he’s been, starting with his first DC position at Middle Tennessee in 2006, followed by Mississippi State (twice), Louisiana Tech and Texas. He could be in high demand if the right job opens.

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Seth Littrell — Head Coach, North Texas

A former Oklahoma Sooner running back, Littrell has already gotten Mean Green fans as excited as they’ve ever been in the modern era. While a 14-13 record in two seasons might not sound earth-shattering, Littrell’s teams have featured explosive offenses, gone 10-6 in conference play and been to back-to-back bowl games. With another big season in Denton, the 40-year-old Littrell might be on Power Five teams’ radars.

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Second-year coaches ready to make a big leap

It seems like every year, there’s a handful of unexpected teams in college football that defy expectations under second-year head coaches. While there are certainly a number of quick-fix jobs every year in the FBS, the first year of any coach’s tenure is typically a bit of a bumpy transition. The second year is usually when things start clicking on all cylinders, and there’s a greater chance that the players on the roster have 100% bought into what the new regime has been preaching.

So here are a handful of second-year coaches whose teams have potential to make a big leap:

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Geoff Collins, Temple

The Owls got off to a mediocre start in 2017 as Collins — the former defensive coordinator at Florida — took the reins. But Temple finished the season with four wins in five tries, including a convincing bowl victory over Florida International. Collins is an excellent recruiter and his defense already looks like one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. It’s unlikely that the Owls can catch UCF or USF in the East Division this season, but they’ll certainly make the race interesting.

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Jay Norvell, Nevada

Norvell was a highly-touted offensive mind who arrived in Reno ready to tailor-make the Wolf Pack’s offense in his image. Historically a run-dominated offense, Nevada instead went with an Air Raid courtesy of offensive coordinator Matt Mumme (son of former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme). While the Pack started 0-5, they rebounded down the stretch and even upset rival UNLV in the season finale to deny them bowl eligibility. With more seasoning, the Nevada offense could be even more dangerous behind strong-armed QB Ty Gangi and a deep group of receivers.

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Justin Wilcox, Cal

Wilcox came to Berkeley last year after stints as a defensive coordinator at a number of high-profile programs, including USC, Wisconsin and Boise State. In year one, he turned around a previously woeful Cal defense and got the Bears to within one game of bowl eligibility. With better luck in close games, the Bears could take the next step in the difficult Pac-12 North.

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Tim Lester, Western Michigan

Let’s be clear: there was going to be an inevitable letdown in Kalamazoo after P.J. Fleck’s departure following the magical undefeated regular season of 2016. But Lester, a WMU alum, did an admirable job getting his new players to buy in. Despite a rash of injuries, the Broncos competed well and identified a handful of new stars on both sides of the ball. While the Broncos got the six wins needed to reach bowl eligibility, they were not invited to one. You can bet that Lester will use that as fuel to motivate his players entering year two.

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Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

The talent level has seriously dropped off at Cincinnati following Tommy Tuberville’s resignation, so Fickell was bound to have some hiccups in his first season. The longtime Ohio State assistant is unfazed though, and his fiery attitude seems to have rubbed off on his players (Fickell also landed the Group of Five’s top recruiting class in February). The Bearcats don’t have a ton of proven firepower right now, but their level of raw talent is as good as its been in years. They’re a sleeping giant in the AAC.

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Brent Brennan, San Jose State

Brennan was an intriguing hire at SJSU, a place that has seen its share of booms and busts in its gridiron history. His first season was certainly rough: The Spartans led the nation in turnovers lost, their offensive line was a turnstile, and the defense wasn’t prepared to carry a disproportionate load. However, things could settle down in year two of the Brennan era. He’s been recruiting well (particularly at the skill positions), the defense is more experienced, and the quarterback position might be settled for the first time in awhile. The Spartans probably won’t make the postseason in 2018 due to a tough schedule, but the future looks bright.

2017-18 coaching carousel

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#21 — Sean Lewis, Kent State

  • Age: 32
  • Hometown: Oak Lawn, Illinois
  • Alma Mater: Wisconsin
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Syracuse

This is one of the toughest jobs in the nation, and Paul Haynes, a Kent State alum, still faced a mountain of obstacles, going 14-45 in five years and never winning more than four games in a season.

Lewis has been with Syracuse head coach Dino Babers since 2012, following him from Eastern Illinois to Bowling Green to Syracuse, smashing offensive records along the way. He’s an energetic guy who knows offense as well as anybody, but this job is not your average one. Lewis needs plenty of time to clean up this mess.

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#20 — Dana Dimel, UTEP

  • Age: 55
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
  • Alma Mater: Kansas State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Running Backs Coach/Tight Ends Coach, Kansas State

It can’t get any worse in El Paso — UTEP is coming off a winless 2017 campaign, so new AD Jim Senter decided to look outside the box for his first major hire. The 55-year-old Dimel is a proven assistant from the venerable Bill Snyder coaching tree, but his track record as a coach is mixed: he did reasonably well at Wyoming from 1997-99, but then crashed and burned at Houston (2000-02) before returning to K-State. He’s a good recruiter and should give the UTEP offense a much-needed shot in the arm, but his long-term success is harder to predict.

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#19 — Steve Campbell, South Alabama

  • Age: 51
  • Hometown: Pensacola, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Troy
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Central Arkansas

Campbell was an intriguing choice for this position. An Alabama native and a Troy alum, the 51-year-old Campbell won 33 games in the past four years at FCS Central Arkansas, and also has experience at the Division II level and the junior college level in Mississippi.

The Jaguars showed flashes of great potential and sprang several notable upsets under longtime coach Joey Jones, but never quite turned the corner, going 29-46 overall since joining the Sun Belt in 2012. Campbell will feel right at home in Mobile, as he tries to take a South Alabama program to new heights.

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#18 — Mike Bloomgren, Rice

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Florida State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Stanford

After a 1-11 season, things currently look as bleak at Rice as they have in some time, but Bloomgren could end up being a nice sleeper pick. The former Stanford offensive coordinator brings a no frills, run-first offense that prioritizes being disciplined and mentally tough, and it helps that he has experience recruiting at a program with high academic standards. Give him a couple years and the Owls could be consistently competitive again.

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#17 — Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Elberton, Georgia
  • Alma Mater: Georgia College
  • Previous Job: Tight Ends Coach/Special Teams Coordinator, Georgia Southern

A school birthed in the triple-option tradition, Georgia Southern hit rock-bottom in 2017, firing Tyson Summers after an 0-6 start and then going 2-4 with Lunsford as the interim head coach. Despite looking at flashier candidates, Georgia Southern elected to reward Lunsford, the school’s longest-tenured assistant (in addition to Summers, Lunsford served under former coaches Willie Fritz and Jeff Monken).

Lunsford is as enthusiastic as anyone, even if he is unproven as a full-time head coach himself. The Eagles have plenty of talent, but they never flourished under Summers, a defensive guru, and their offense sputtered without a clear identity. Getting back to the option is the first order of business, and Lunsford is committed to doing so. Whether that translates to a return to Sun Belt prominence remains to be seen.

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#16 — Matt Luke, Ole Miss

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Gulfport, Mississippi
  • Alma Mater: Ole Miss
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Ole Miss

Considering the current circumstances in Oxford, the school was smart to promote from within. Luke was the 2017 interim coach and former offensive line coach under Hugh Freeze, as well as an alum who wants to be there. The NCAA is still hovering around the program and the Rebels will suffer through another bowl ban in 2018, but give credit to the 2017 squad for not quitting and rallying to reach .500. There’s still plenty of challenges ahead, but Luke seems ready to take them on, and he has some talent to work with.

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#15 — Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

  • Age: 38
  • Hometown: Pasadena, California
  • Alma Mater: Oregon State
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Washington

Gary Andersen’s abrupt departure after a 1-5 start in 2017 was surprising, as the Beavers had shown flashes of potential under his watch. However, they never settled on a quarterback, cycling through six in two and a half years, and also dealt with young and inexperienced defenses.

Meanwhile, Smith had significant success the past two years as co-offensive coordinator at Pac-12 North rival Washington and should definitely give the Beavers a shot in the arm. In addition to being an OSU alum, Smith has spent his entire coaching career elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest at Idaho (2004-09), Montana (2010-11), and Boise State (2012-13). He should be the right guy to navigate a tough job in Corvallis.

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#14 — Mario Cristobal, Oregon

  • Age: 47
  • Hometown: Miami, Florida 
  • Alma Mater: Miami
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Oregon

Willie Taggart never seemed to be an ideal fit in Eugene, but it was still surprising to see him bolt after only one season. The 2017 product was average, but the Ducks still have plenty of talent left over for Cristobal, the former offensive line coach who was promoted from within following UO’s long tradition.

The 47-year-old Cristobal is a great recruiter who also has head coaching experience at Florida International (2007-12), where he inherited a trainwreck of a program and made it reasonably competitive. He also has assistant coaching experience at programs from Alabama to Rutgers. The Ducks should be in good hands, although there’s little margin for error these days in the Pac-12 North.

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#13 — Chad Morris, Arkansas

  • Age: 49
  • Hometown: Edgewood, Texas
  • Alma Mater: Texas A&M
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, SMU

Morris, one of the top offensive minds in the nation, engineered a turnaround at SMU the past three years, going from two wins to five to seven. He also has a sterling pedigree as both a Texas high school coach and as a former offensive coordinator at Clemson (2011-14).

The one red flag is the fact that Morris’s defenses were routinely dreadful at SMU. You can’t win many shootouts in the SEC. He’ll also need a couple of years to transition from Bret Bielema’s old-school, run-heavy offense to a more wide open spread scheme. He’ll get a reasonably long leash from new athletic director Hunter Yurachek.

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#12 — Sonny Dykes, SMU

  • Age: 48
  • Hometown: Big Spring, Texas
  • Alma Mater: Texas Tech
  • Previous Job: Offensive Analyst, TCU

Post-death penalty SMU remains a tough place to win consistently, and give credit to Chad Morris for building an excellent foundation and upgrading the facilities before he bolted for Arkansas this past offseason. Dykes is hardly a fresh new face, and he didn’t do so well at Cal, but he never really seemed to be an ideal fit in Berkeley to begin with. Can the Mustangs take the next step forward and dethrone UCF and Memphis at the top of the conference? Dykes gives them as good a shot as anybody.

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#11 — Herm Edwards, Arizona State

  • Age: 63
  • Hometown: Fort Monmouth, New Jersey
  • Alma Mater: San Diego State
  • Previous Job: ESPN analyst

Edwards came out of nowhere to become the leading contender for the vacant ASU job, landing the full-time gig on December 3rd. He takes over for Todd Graham, who started off with a bang when he took over in 2012, but peaked too early, going 18-19 in the past three years after a 28-12 mark in his first three seasons.

While Edwards’s disciplined approach and NFL experience will certainly be a draw for potential recruits, one has to wonder if the college game has passed him by — he hasn’t coached anywhere for a decade and hasn’t been in the college game since an assistant gig at San Jose State from 1987-89. Side note: both Edwards and athletic director Ray Anderson publicly stated that they wanted to hold on to both of Graham’s coordinators, Billy Napier and Phil Bennett, but they both left within a week, making the transition trickier. It might be a case of wait-and-see in Tempe.

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#10 — Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

  • Age: 53
  • Hometown: Brewton, Alabama
  • Alma Mater: Purdue
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Texas A&M

Sumlin inherits an Arizona program that has plenty of talent left over from former coach Rich Rodriguez, who was dismissed in the offseason was prompted by sexual harassment allegations. Can Sumlin win consistently while no longer under the albatross of high expectations at Texas A&M? He won big at Houston from 2008-2011, and has a well-deserved reputation as an elite recruiter, so he should fit in well in the wide-open Pac-12 South.

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#9 — Josh Heupel, UCF

  • Age: 39
  • Hometown: Aberdeen, South Dakota
  • Alma Mater: Oklahoma
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Missouri

It was fairly obvious by season’s end that Scott Frost would be jumping to Nebraska (his alma mater) after orchestrating a perfect 13-0 regular season and a conference title in Orlando.

Heupel, the former Oklahoma QB and assistant, has spent the past two years at Missouri, where he helped transform Drew Lock into one of the SEC’s best passers. A proven recruiter, Heupel walks into a seemingly perfect situation at a program with on-field explosiveness, excellent facilities, a fantastic recruiting area, and a passionate fanbase. This could be an ideal fit.

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#8 — Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette

  • Age: 37
  • Hometown: Chatsworth, Georgia
  • Alma Mater: Furman
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Arizona State

UL-Lafayette regressed considerably in the past three years under Mark Hudspeth, and NCAA sanctions (which included vacated wins from 2011-14) didn’t help. With that being said, this hiring could be a slam-dunk for all involved. Napier is still young, and he’s cut his teeth at both Clemson and Alabama, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters in the process. With the amount of talent in the state of Louisiana, Napier should be able to mine fertile recruiting regions in the immediate area and re-energize a fanbase that is as passionate as any in the Group of Five.

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#7 — Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

  • Age: 44
  • Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Alma Mater: Fordham
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Penn State

Kudos to Dan Mullen for staying in Starkville and not jumping at the first opportunity; his nine years with the Bulldogs produced some memorable seasons and stats, and AD John Cohen was looking to keep the good times rolling when he hired Moorhead. The former Penn State offensive coordinator engineered a spectacular turnaround for them in the past two seasons, and before that, he led Fordham (his alma mater) to a 38-13 mark in four seasons (2012-15). Mississippi State should stay relevant.

 

NCAA Football: Southern Utah at Oregon

#6 — Willie Taggart, Florida State

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Bradenton, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Western Kentucky
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Oregon

This development came about after a dreadful 2017 season for the Seminoles and the subsequent bombshell departure of Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M. Taggart is a terrific choice for this position, as a Florida native and a proven developer of talent. Plus, he never seemed to be an ideal fit in Eugene. The question is: can Taggart help FSU get back to consistently challenging Clemson for ACC titles?

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#5 — Dan Mullen, Florida

  • Age: 45
  • Hometown: Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
  • Alma Mater: Ursinus
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Mississippi State

Mullen was one of the country’s most consistent winners at Mississippi State, bringing excitement and stability to a program that needed both when he took over prior to the 2009 season. The 45-year-old is a great recruiter and an even better offensive mind, with a long track record of developing quarterbacks. He’ll look to bring a shot in the arm to a Florida team that has been running on fumes since Urban Meyer left town.

Speaking of which — Mullen’s connections to UF as a former Meyer assistant is the primary reason he was brought in to right the ship in Gainesville. The only major areas of concern are the fact that, while Mississippi State enjoyed a historic run under Mullen (eight straight bowl trips), they rarely recorded major upsets or made national noise when it mattered. With that being said, this is a great hire that most Gator fans will buy into immediately.

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#4 — Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

  • Age: 43
  • Hometown: Rainsville, Alabama
  • Alma Mater: Alabama
  • Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Alabama

This hellish offseason in Knoxville culminated with a 4-8 record on the field, Butch Jones’s midseason firing, a pouring of outrage when school administration attempted to bring in an alleged Penn State scandal conspirator (Greg Schiano), and then finally the promotion of Hall of Fame coaching legend Phil Fulmer to make the official decision in place of ousted AD John Currie.

Enter Pruitt, an outstanding defensive mind who has done exceptional work at Florida State, Georgia, and most recently Alabama. Before that, he had a long run at a number of different Alabama high schools and developed a well-deserved reputation as a players’ favorite. Tennessee is desperate for success, and with the 43-year-old Pruitt — a two-time Broyles Award finalist — they might finally have some stability.

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#3 — Scott Frost, Nebraska

  • Age: 42
  • Hometown: Wood River, Nebraska
  • Alma Mater: Nebraska
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, UCF

It’s been a tough few years for Nebraska, dealing with porous defenses and an overall lack of consistency under veteran coach Mike Riley, who went 19-19 in the past three seasons. 

Frost, a Nebraska alum, has a background as a Chip Kelly disciple and did an incredible job at UCF: he inherited an 0-12 team in 2015 and went 18-7 in two seasons, including an undefeated regular season mark in 2017. Frost will certainly add lots of excitement on offense and rejuvenate the fanbase, both of which are imperative heading forward. An outstanding hire.

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#2 — Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

  • Age: 52
  • Hometown: Clarksburg, West Virginia
  • Alma Mater: Samford
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Florida State

Well this will be interesting. Texas A&M administration has made it abundantly clear that they expect the Aggies to be perennial national title contenders — not an easy task in the SEC and one that consistently eluded Kevin Sumlin after his high watermark debut season in 2012.

Fisher was 83-23 during his tenure in Tallahassee, and a terrible 2017 season notwithstanding, carved out an impressive legacy in the post-Bobby Bowden era. Fisher is an excellent recruiter and should be able to get Sumlin’s players to buy in immediately, but there are questions about his staff, as many FSU fans grumbled that he held on to coordinators for too long and was too conservative of a playcaller. Regardless, this is a very good hire and one that should keep Aggie fans invested as the program looks to push higher.

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#1 — Chip Kelly, UCLA

  • Age: 54
  • Hometown: Dover, New Hampshire
  • Alma Mater: New Hampshire
  • Previous Job: ESPN analyst

It was inevitable that Kelly was going to try to make a splash again in the college game. It was just a question of “when?” and “with who?”

Jim Mora was a veteran name and an excellent recruiter, but fell behind in the Pac-12 rat race and never recovered. Labeled as chronic underachievers who only received buzz due to NFL prospect Josh Rosen, UCLA finished badly in the past three seasons despite the obvious talent on the roster and numerous changes in scheme.

While Kelly’s NFL career didn’t pan out, he remains one of college football’s biggest innovators, and his hiring instantly makes UCLA one of the nation’s most intriguing teams. He’ll have a chance to work his magic in Westwood.

Punters from Down Under, pt. 2 — continued success

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Nathan Chapman admits that it took awhile for his Aussie punting experiment to catch on with American coaches. With limited resources and plenty of logistical challenges, there was a laundry list of reasons why Chapman’s idea of putting Australians into American college football was a far-fetched idea.

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, several prominent Australian rules footballers shocked the world by trading in a pudgy Sherrin for an American pigskin. Ben Graham, Sav Rocca, Darren Bennett, and others all had stints in the NFL, using their impressive leg strength to become star punters. Inspired by them, Chapman decided to take the same route to the NFL following an injury-marred eight-year stint in the AFL.

Chapman’s NFL aspirations didn’t pan out — he spent the 2005 preseason with the Green Bay Packers before getting cut and going back home to Melbourne. In the years since, the direct AFL-to-NFL pipeline has slowed down considerably.

But the NFL’s temporary loss has been Chapman’s gain.

In 2006, he started ProKick Australia — a unique training academy that would take young Aussie footballers, retrain their natural kicking abilities to American football, and send them off to US colleges. Based on his own experiences in the States, Chapman believed that college football could be an ideal conduit for young Aussies whose AFL dreams hadn’t worked out and who were looking for something new.

Fast-forward over a decade, and ProKick currently has over 40 athletes punting at various levels of the NCAA, the junior college system, and even three in the NFL. The past four Ray Guy Award winners have been Aussies, and more ProKick punters are on the way each year. It’s become a lucrative deal for Chapman and his business partner, John Smith, who train athletes not just how to kick an American ball, but the finer mechanics of kicking, NCAA eligibility rules, the daily grind of balancing academics and athletics, etc.

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Part of Chapman’s instructions are not just learning about American college football and adjusting to a smaller, pointier ball, but about knowing when to release, getting the hangtime right, knowing when to roll out and kick it, or simply drop-kick it. This has sometimes caused issues with the ultra-traditional NFL, where special teams structures are different from college, and where roll-out punts aren’t viewed as particularly effective. Therefore, ProKick athletes must be adept at both styles and execute them to perfection.

The punt has long been considered a boring play in football. While every team appreciates a good one, most fans use the punt play itself to grab a new beer from the fridge or text back a friend. It’s become Chapman’s task to take that one “boring” play and turn it into an art form.

“There are analytics for everything, but punting might be the last frontier in terms of gaining that extra edge that coaches want,” Chapman explains. “Punting, if it is done at an elite, expert level, can dramatically influence the outcome of a game.”

Quite frankly, it’s a win-win situation for most of Chapman’s students. Many of them are older than the average college freshman, and the majority have a background in Aussie rules from a young age, giving them the raw talent to punt an American ball. It’s relatively easy for Chapman to visit a kid and recruit him to play a completely different sport in a completely different country, with the added opportunity to get noticed by the NFL, play for roaring home crowds, and get a degree. Some of the athletes in question are coming off injuries and/or disappointing Aussie rules careers and are inherently intrigued by the possibilities of college football.

However, with that comes added wrinkles, like the fact that in the US, the vast majority of college punters are walk-ons. It’s rare for a high school punter, even if he’s nationally ranked, to get multiple scholarship offers.

“We realize that if we want to get a scholarship offer, we need to be better than a thousand kids in America each year. We’ve got to have that X factor,” Chapman says.

The ProKick alums themselves have amazing stories. No two are alike:

  • Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky won the 2016 Ray Guy Award in his first season as a Ute, but he was once a high school dropout who apprenticed as a glass-installation specialist in his hometown of Perth.
  • Jack Sheldon was recruited to ProKick after suffering a foot injury in Aussie rules; despite not having kicked for 10 weeks, Sheldon impressed Chapman with his raw talent. Four months later, in August 2016, Sheldon earned a scholarship to Central Michigan and is now playing for head coach John Bonamego — who once coached Chapman himself with the Packers!
  • Indiana’s Haydon Whitehead only found out about ProKick because his older brother played in an amateur gridiron league in Melbourne.
  • Oregon State punter Nick Porebski was recruited by Chapman when he was still a teenager playing Aussie rules in Melbourne. After Porebski suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, he decided to give punting a try, landing for a year at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah before heading north to Oregon State in the fall of 2015.
  • Cameron Johnston grew up in the footy-obsessed city of Geelong and made it to the AFL’s Melbourne Demons, but never played a senior level game for them. Eventually, he found ProKick and earned a scholarship to Ohio State, where he started all four years and left second in school history in punting average. Johnston now punts for the Philadelphia Eagles and his cousin, Michael Sleep-Dalton, also went through ProKick and is currently a sophomore at Arizona State.
  • Houston punter Dane Roy worked the phones as a customer service rep at a Melbourne ice cream factory and was recruited by Chapman after winning a “biggest kick” competition in Aussie rules. Roy landed at Houston last year as a 28-year-old freshman.

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One of ProKick’s best known alums is former Utah punter and two-time Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Perhaps more so than anyone else, Hackett may have been the one who proved to the entire country that Aussies had staying power in the American game.

Standing at only 5’10”, 180 pounds, Hackett came to Salt Lake City as an unheralded walk-on. Four years later, he was a back-to-back Ray Guy winner and was even on the Pac-12 All-Century Team. In addition to his uncanny punting accuracy, Hackett was also well-known for his dry Aussie humor and unique bond with a fellow former walk-on, Utes placekicker Andy Phillips. Hackett’s NFL dream didn’t pan out, but he’s found steady work hosting ESPN radio shows in the Salt Lake City region since then. He paved the way for his successor, Wishnowsky, and many, many others.

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The coaches who are in contact with Chapman have been convinced to keep looking Down Under. One of them, former LSU boss Les Miles, once quipped that “if the guy can’t speak Australian, I don’t want him.”

Another ProKick convert is Virginia Tech special teams coordinator James Shibest.

Shibest and Hokies coach Justin Fuente worked together at Memphis for several years and both recruited 2013 Ray Guy winner Tom Hornsey. So when Fuente moved to Blacksburg to take over in December 2015, he took Shibest with him. This past February, Shibest recruited and signed another ProKick alum — Oscar Bradburn, a 19-year-old Sydneysider.

“They’re extremely competitive, No. 1. Just through the way they’re brought up playing Australian rules football — that’s what I’ve liked the most and we’ve had success with it, so we’re excited about him,” Shibest said of Bradburn on National Signing Day.

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Another believer in the Aussie tradition is former NFL coach and current Illinois head man Lovie Smith. Earlier this year, Smith used a scholarship on ProKick’s Blake Hayes, who stands at an imposing 6’6″, 220 pounds and landed in Champaign over the summer. “He has a strong leg. He’s calm. He’s a confident player. We’re going to call on him a lot,” Smith said of Hayes.

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Hayes, another Melbourne native, admitted that he was amazed at the recruiting process that some of his freshman teammates had to endure. In today’s social media-obsessed world, Chapman is acutely aware of how many young kids de-commit, commit, then de-commit again from high-profile programs. To avoid any potential flakiness, the ProKick coaches handle the entire recruiting process for their students and use their best judgment to determine which school(s) are the best fit for them athletically and academically. It could be seen as a risky move, but Chapman wants ProKick’s reputation to remain good and for his pupils to make a firm decision when the time is right.

“Our coaches try not to tell us a huge amount on what schools are interested,” Hayes explains. “It can boost confidence too much and we get ahead of ourselves. Coaches can’t see us in person. Basically when a coach starts speaking to my coach first, and then once they display genuine interest, they’ll call the player. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know how these guys do it with multiple offers. I think it keeps us level-headed.”

 

In addition to a steady group of coaches who are consistently interested in new Aussie faces, Chapman’s program has benefitted from positive PR in their own backyard; they’ve fostered a loyal group of Aussie coaches, families, and the like that have sustained them. With college coaches in the States requesting tape from ProKick athletes nearly every month, they’ve become a veritable football factory in a country that doesn’t even play the American version of the sport. Friends and family of ProKick athletes stay up to ungodly hours to watch the games live.

“They don’t really grasp it yet, but with guys coming over and having success, Australians are starting to see college football is a really big deal,” says Penn State senior punter Daniel Pasquariello.

Parents of ProKick athletes have also been able to provide glowing reviews:

We couldn’t be happier with the way this has turned out and thoroughly recommend ProKick Australia to any future participant….this has been a fantastic, life-changing experience and once again we thank you for all your help and encouragement — in not just the boys’ college aspirations, but also in generating a great bond between all concerned. We wish all the boys in the USA the best of luck.

-Paul & Joanne Johnston, parents of Cameron Johnston (formerly of Ohio State, now with the Philadelphia Eagles)

Nathan is extremely personable and patient and has a wealth of knowledge about the technical aspects of punting.  Nathan and John both relate well to their students and have a very effective teaching manner….we are deeply indebted to the ProKick team who delivered exactly what they promised. 

Steve & Sally Gleeson, parents of Tim (Rutgers) and Will Gleeson (Ole Miss)

Nathan is personable and enthusiastic; he did not pressure us, but patiently explained to us what was available and how he could assist and train Alex….we found Nathan and John to be genuine and sincere….ProKick Australia doesn’t just get positions for the boys, they re-train their kicking abilities and they continue to support them, even three years after placement, and they match the boys to an area in which they feel they will thrive.

Ken & Gillian Dunnachie, parents of Alex Dunnachie (Hawaii)

As of the 2017 season, there are currently over 40 ProKick punters in the FBS, the FCS, the NFL, CFL, Division 2, and the junior college system. How many more will come each year? Good question. Chapman just wants to focus on the process year by year and continue to foster lasting relationships with athletes and coaches alike. Still, the man remains confident:

“You will see that our punters will dominate as they’re given more scope and more opportunities to do what they do best.”

2018 FBS/FCS PUNTER LIST

  • Alex Bland, Oregon State — Adelaide, South Australia
  • Oscar Bradburn, Virginia Tech — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Ryan Bujcevski, Texas — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Kirk Christodoulou, Pitt — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mitchell Crawford, UTEP — Newcastle, New South Wales
  • Mark Deaves, Louisiana-Monroe — Girraween, New South Wales
  • Joel Dixon, UAB — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Max Duffy, Kentucky — Perth, Western Australia
  • Corey Dunn, Iowa State — Numurkah, Victoria
  • Davan Dyer, Louisiana Tech — Gilston, Queensland
  • James Elmo, Houston Baptist — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Bailey Flint, Toledo — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Stan Gaudion, Hawaii — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Ben Griffiths, USC — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Josh Growden, LSU — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Ollie Holdenson, Georgia State — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Owen Hoolihan, Prairie View A&M — Oberon, New South Wales
  • Adam Korsak, Rutgers — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Wade Lees, Maryland — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Doug Lloyd, Weber State — Mt. Gambier, South Australia
  • Luke Magliozzi, UConn — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mackenzie Morgan, NC State — Perth, Western Australia
  • Harry O’Kelly, James Madison — Wynnum, Queensland
  • Dominic Panazzolo, Texas Tech — Adelaide, South Australia
  • Phillip Richards, Eastern Kentucky — Mt. Dandenong, Victoria
  • Dane Roy, Houston — Bunyip, Victoria
  • Jamie Sackville, SMU — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Trent Schneider, USF — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Jack Sheldon, Central Michigan — Echuca, Victoria
  • Arryn Siposs, Auburn — Sandringham, Victoria
  • Tom Snee, Oregon — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Xavier Subotsch, Appalachian State — Perth, Western Australia
  • Joel Whitford, Washington — Warragul, Victoria
  • Haydon Whitehead, Indiana — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah — Gosnells, Western Australia

Coaches on the hot seat – 2017

In relation to my previous post, here are the hot-seat coaches entering the 2017 season.

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Todd Graham, Arizona State

Graham (39-26 overall) came to Tempe in 2012 following a brief, controversial tenure at Pittsburgh. While his first three years at ASU were a resounding success — winning two bowl games during that time period — Graham’s program has since gone in reverse, posting losing records in the past two seasons. The primary problems have been a porous secondary and numerous misses on the recruiting trail; Graham’s staff has struggled to keep the top Phoenix area talent home.

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Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

A 44-21 record in five years is good, right? Not when you’re in the meat-grinder that is the SEC and when your teams have taken annual nosedives in November, which is why Sumlin occupies what could be the hottest seat in the nation right now. The Aggies have finished 8-5 for the past three years despite starting undefeated all three times, and while Sumlin continues to flex his recruiting muscle, fans are getting restless. A&M hasn’t finished above fourth place in the SEC West since Sumlin’s debut season in 2012, when his offense was led by Johnny Manziel….say, whatever happened to that guy, anyways?

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Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

Turns out College Station isn’t the only town in Texas where fans are disgruntled. Kingsbury (24-26 overall) had a sweet homecoming when he came back to Lubbock in 2013, this time as a head coach after previously being a record-smashing QB at Tech in the early days of Mike Leach. However, he has had little consistent success since then, with only one bowl win and routinely terrible defenses. What else can you say about a team that can put up 50-plus points multiple times and still lost by double digits? Tech will always light up the scoreboard, but they simply haven’t had any type of sustained momentum under Kingsbury.

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Paul Haynes, Kent State

Haynes (12-35 overall) simply hasn’t made much of an impact at his alma mater. A former defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Arkansas, Haynes has made a nice enough impact on that side of the ball. But the offense has been mediocre at best during his tenure, and the Golden Flashes have repeatedly lacked adequate athleticism at the skill positions. Haynes might be out of a gig if he can’t get the Flashes to their first bowl game since 2012.

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Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette

Hudspeth (24-31 overall), a Mississippi native, made a big splash when he was hired. His first three seasons were huge, helping lift the Ragin’ Cajuns to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history. However, the celebration was short-lived — the Cajuns had to vacate 22 wins due to the actions of former assistant coach David Saunders, who committed academic fraud in order to recruit otherwise-ineligible junior college players. Since then, the Cajuns have gone 10-15 in the past two years under Hudspeth, missing the postseason both times. And if that wasn’t enough, 13 Cajun players were arrested on misdemeanor theft charge earlier this summer, stemming from the dorm room robbery of a recently-dismissed player. Hudspeth might need a winning season to save his job and quiet the well-deserved noise surrounding the program.

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David Bailiff, Rice

It’s easy to feel bad for the 59-year-old Bailiff (overall 56-69), who has built a historically-awful Rice program into a respectable and competitive team, even securing two 10-win seasons in 2008 and 2013. However, it’s safe to say that most of the magic has been lost, with the Owls having lost 13 of their past 17 games; they started last season 0-6 before stumbling to a 3-9 record. Bailiff might need to win big this season in order to keep his job under new athletic director Neil Brodeur.

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Sean Kugler, UTEP

Kugler (18-31 overall) is a UTEP alum with NFL connections, which is a nice start. He’s earned kudos from the El Paso community by recruiting lots of local kids, but the Miners have honestly been mediocre under Kugler’s watch. A 2014 bowl game notwithstanding, UTEP hasn’t been able to take advantage of Kugler’s smash-mouth brand of football. They have particularly struggled on defense, and bringing in veteran coordinator Tom Mason last year did little to improve the situation.

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Matt Wells, Utah State

Wells (28-25), a Utah State alum, took over the program after a record-setting 2012 season, which earned then-coach Gary Andersen a job at Wisconsin. Wells took the Aggies into uncharted territory in the Mountain West, but they have been up-and-down since. USU won 19 games in their first two years of Wells’s tenure, but in the two years since, the Aggies have gone 9-16, including a below-.500 mark in the conference. Logan is a hard place to win consistently; has Wells’s program hit its peak already?

 

Coaches on the rise – 2017

The 2017 college football season is almost here, so now is as good a time as any to examine which FBS coaches are on the rise entering the season.

 

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Neal Brown, Troy

Brown (14-11 overall) enters his third season at Troy coming off the winningest campaign in school history — the Trojans finished 10-3 and beat Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl last year. Brown is a disciple of the Air Raid offense, earning his stripes under offensive gurus like Mike Leach and Hal Mumme. Look for the 36-year-old Brown to get his chance in the near future, presumably at a program that needs a shot in the arm offensively.

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Scott Frost, UCF

It may be too early to judge Frost’s tenure at UCF, as he’s only entering his second year as head coach (6-7 overall). But what a debut season it was — Frost took over a winless program and got the Knights to a bowl game in one season. The highest-rated recruiting class in school history was the icing on the cake in February. Frost was previously an offensive coordinator at Oregon, where he helped mold Marcus Mariota into an NFL-caliber starter and Heisman winner.

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Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan

Creighton (10-27 overall) didn’t get much love nationally, but the man can seriously coach. He was hired at EMU in 2014 and walked into a trainwreck, but he earned his stripes at lower levels of football, including the FCS. Last year, the rebuilding project paid off, with the Eagles earning their first bowl berth since 1987 and first winning record since 1995. At EMU and his previous stops, Creighton has been acclaimed for his ability to overcome limitations such as lack of adequate facilities and low levels of fan support. It’s safe to say that he’s a rising star for a reason, and he’s still relatively young by head coaching standards (48).

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Mike Bobo, Colorado State

So far, so good for Bobo (14-12 overall), who took over a loaded roster from Jim McElwain in 2015 and has since guided the Rams to back-to-back bowl games. Bobo was Mark Richt’s long-time offensive coordinator at Georgia and has successfully used those southeastern recruiting connections to his advantage at CSU. The Rams will be opening a brand-new $220 million on-campus stadium in 2017, giving Bobo a much-larger stage to show off his exciting brand of football. Watch out for him.

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Craig Bohl, Wyoming

Everyone loves stories about the Little Program That Could, right? Well, Bohl has made a career out of it, first at FCS juggernaut North Dakota State, where he won three national titles and unearthed a hidden gem in future NFL QB Carson Wentz. Now, Bohl is quietly building a contender in the equally isolated terrain of Laramie, Wyoming — he won Mountain West Coach of the Year honors last season after leading the Cowboys to a spot in the conference championship game. His recruiting prowess and coaching lineage are not to be underestimated — plus, he played for Tom Osborne at Nebraska back in the 70s.

 

2017 Top 25 college football preview

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#1 — USC Trojans

What an epic turnaround. The Trojans rebounded after an ugly 1-3 start last September, rattling off nine straight wins, including a breathtaking last-second win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Sophomore QB Sam Darnold plays beyond his years, and he’ll be surrounded by a terrific supporting cast.

Good News: Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones II are an awesome place to start on offense, and there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings at wide receiver. Linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith are a dynamic duo in the front seven, and coaches think that sophomore Jack Jones can continue the tradition of star Trojan cornerbacks.

Bad News: The Trojans lost superstar receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL, and also have to replace three starters along the offensive line. The interior of the defensive line looks dangerously thin by USC standards. Starting placekicker (and Rose Bowl hero) Matt Boermeester was indefinitely suspended in the offseason, with the Trojans possibly turning to a true freshman at that position.

Bottom Line: USC has underachieved when in this position before, but if they navigate a tricky early schedule, they’ll be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race. Darnold could be a Heisman frontrunner, and the Trojans should be able to quickly reload at receiver.

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#2 — Alabama Crimson Tide

Oh, so close. The Crimson Tide were one solitary second away from yet another national title, falling to Clemson on the last play of regulation. But there’s no reason to think that Nick Saban’s team won’t be national contenders again, right? Plenty of talent is always waiting in the wings, and a couple of players postponed NFL paychecks to come back to Tuscaloosa for one more ride.

Good News: Sophomore QB Jalen Hurts showed his immense potential last season, and he’s already developed a good rapport with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Hurts has a mammoth offensive line to protect him, and still has receivers like Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster to throw to.

Bad News: As usual, the talent drain on the Tide’s defense was significant, including defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson, and safety Eddie Jackson. Running back Bo Scarbrough was having a fantastic season before injuring his leg late in the year, and he might not be 100% heading into the fall.

Bottom Line: It’s unwise to bet against the Tide, as they continue to stockpile talent year after year. Still, they’ll need to be sharp straight out of the gate, as they’re playing an equally-hungry Florida State team in the season opener in Atlanta.

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#3 — Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles had a “down” year — only 10 wins — but return plenty of experience and talent from a team that deserves to be in the playoff conversation again. Coach Jimbo Fisher has a number of go-to veterans, and — apart from a late date at Clemson — a favorable schedule.

Good News: Despite a rough start, sophomore Deondre Francois has developed into an outstanding quarterback for the Noles. The linebacking corps is athletic and experienced, and All-American Tarvarus McFadden returns at cornerback.

Bad News: FSU needs new playmakers to step up in the receiving corps, and the offensive line is iffy. The Noles are deep at tailback, but they’re still replacing Dalvin Cook, the program’s all-time leading rusher.

Bottom Line: Florida State looks like a legit national threat again, and if they get past the opener against Alabama in Atlanta, they could be standing at 6-0 heading into an anticipated clash against Louisville in October.

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#4 — Washington Huskies

The Huskies finally arrived in 2016, earning their best record since the Rose Bowl season of 2000. Coach Chris Petersen’s squad got roughed up by Alabama in the playoff semifinal, but a bulk of that team’s talent returns despite some key losses on defense.

Good News: Quarterback Jake Browning, a Heisman contender, returns to lead an explosive offense. Junior tailback Myles Gaskin stiff-armed the NFL to come back after a 1,300-yard season, and senior receiver Dante Pettis is also back.

Bad News: Lots of big-time talent departed the defense, including safety Budda Baker and linebacker Psalm Wooching. While there’s still plenty of talent left, the team’s depth will need to be extra strong, especially in the wide-open Pac-12.

Bottom Line: UW is back for the foreseeable future, and with Browning, Gaskin, and others, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again. But the defense needs to prove itself quickly in order for the Huskies to make a return trip to the playoff.

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#5 — Ohio State Buckeyes

You’d better believe that the Buckeyes will be motivated after getting curb-stopped by eventual national champion Clemson in the playoff semifinal. It was the worst loss of the Urban Meyer era, so he didn’t take any chances in the offseason, bringing in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator.

Good News: Fortunately, QB J.T. Barrett is back, and there’s a legit group of athletes at the other skill positions. The offensive line returns four starters, and did I mention that defensive line? It looks tenacious.

Bad News: Only one starter returns in the secondary, and while Ohio State signed a ton of elite DBs in their recruiting class, it’s unlikely they’ll all be able to contribute immediately. The talent at receiver is mostly unproven.

Bottom Line: Meyer has recruited extremely well, and the Buckeyes are the clear favorite over Michigan and Penn State in the Big Ten East. An early game against Oklahoma should be a key indicator of where the Buckeyes end up on the national scene.

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#6 — Clemson Tigers

It’s weird to have a reigning national champion ranked this low, but Dabo Swinney’s team lost quite a bit from the team that posted that euphoric win over Alabama. Swinney has made it clear that they’re strictly focused on the task at hand this year — no more, no less. We’ll see if this team has the moxie to defend that hard-earned title.

Good News: Clemson has talent in spades across the defensive line and in the secondary. The offensive line has lots of size and depth, while the receiving corps looks great despite the NFL Draft loss of Mike Williams.

Bad News: Who’s replacing Deshaun Watson at QB? There were four candidates in the spring, with the most promising being last year’s backup (junior Kelly Bryant), and early enrollee freshman Hunter Johnson. With Wayne Gallman gone at running back, the Tigers could rely on a by-committee approach until someone emerges.

Bottom Line: Clemson won’t give up its top spot without a fight, but there still aren’t enough proven pieces to return to the playoff picture just yet. While the defense looks strong as usual under coordinator Brent Venables, the offense needs time to grow and adjust to new faces. If the new QB is effective though, watch out.

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#7 — Oklahoma Sooners

No Bob Stoops? No problem. The long-time Sooners coach retired unexpectedly over the summer, and the school immediately promoted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to the head position. The 33-year-old Riley has plenty of experience and talent to go around on his first OU team, starting with Heisman contender Baker Mayfield.

Good News: Start with Mayfield, who led the nation in passing efficiency last year and showed a stunning ability to improvise on the run. He’s a game-changer who will help a young receiving corps find its way early on. The offensive line returns everybody, and the secondary looks strong after an up-and-down 2016 campaign.

Bad News: There’s no getting around the fact that Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook are gone. The record-setting offensive trio leave a huge void, and the Sooners must identify new playmakers quickly. The potential replacements at running back looked solid in the spring, but they must deliver on game days.

Bottom Line: The replacements at the skill positions should pan out OK, but the defense needs to be more consistent overall if OU is to get back to the playoff. Despite a potentially tricky road schedule, the Sooners should be favored to win the Big 12 and be in national contention once again.

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#8 — Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions did lose that heartbreaker to USC in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no reason to be down on them. Coach James Franklin’s third season was a rip-roaring success overall and included a massive upset of Ohio State and a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

Good News: The awesome 1-2 punch of QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley give Lions fans a chance to believe in this offense. There’s only one senior starter on the offensive line, but that group improved by leaps and bounds in 2016. Safety Marcus Allen is a potential NFL first-rounder in 2018.

Bad News: Penn State’s overall depth is suspect, and the run defense was surprisingly inconsistent last season. The receiving corps has some talent and experience, but no major go-to guy or deep threat.

Bottom Line: The Lions should be neck-and-neck with Ohio State throughout the conference season before their matchup on Columbus on October 28th. Even if they lose that game, Penn State could possibly win out and make a New Year’s Six bowl again.

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#9 — Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys return a boatload of offensive talent from last year’s team that went 10-3 and blasted Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. QB Mason Rudolph is one of the best in the country, and James Washington is an elite receiver. If running back Justice Hill can avoid a sophomore slump, this offense could be tough to stop.

Good News: Rudolph, Washington, and Hill are an outstanding trio for the Cowboys, and the offensive line is one of the more experienced units that they’ve had in years. Cornerback Ramon Richards is a legit defender who could also play safety this season.

Bad News: Oklahoma State needs to replace significant production on a defense that wasn’t great to begin with. There’s a lot of inexperience at defensive tackle and at cornerback.

Bottom Line: If the defense comes around, the Cowboys could become threats to grab another Big 12 title, because this offense will be one of the best in the nation. As usual, the season should come down to the Bedlam rivalry game against the Sooners.

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#10 — Auburn Tigers

The Tigers faded badly down the stretch last season after a 7-2 start, losing to rival Alabama and then a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. The quarterback situation never settled down, frustrating coach Gus Malzahn, whose offense was effective in other categories. Still, there’s reason to believe in Auburn again this season, which could mean big things.

Good News: Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham wowed audiences at the spring game, proving that Malzahn might finally have the quarterback he needs. In addition, the running back tandem of Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway could be lethal. The front seven on defense looks strong.

Bad News: There aren’t many proven threats at wide receiver, and this needs to be addressed in order for Stidham to have total control of where the offense goes. The defensive line has plenty of bodies, but they need someone to step up and replace pass-rushers Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, who graduated.

Bottom Line: Auburn has too much talent to not be in the national picture. Malzahn spoke highly of this team at SEC Media Days, saying he sees the same heart and passion on this team that he saw in the 2013 squad, which stunned Alabama and nearly won a national championship. Stay tuned.

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#11 — Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals limped to the finish line last season, but returning the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is always good, right? QB Lamar Jackson is back and still feels like he has something to prove. If his offensive line can protect him, Louisville could do some more damage in 2017.

Good News: Jackson returns, along with a cast of talented playmakers that can make the offense go, including WR Dez Fitzpatrick, RB Jeremy Smith, and WR Traveon Samuel. Defensive back Jaire Alexander and linebacker Stacy Thomas lead an athletic defense under new coordinator Peter Sirmon.

Bad News: Jackson took far too many hits last season, and the offensive line will be an issue until proven otherwise. The defensive line needs to reload after losing a couple of difference-makers to graduation.

Bottom Line: Louisville has the horses to attempt to dethrone Florida State and Clemson, but that’s the key word — attempt. If the Cardinals were in the ACC Coastal Division, they’d be ranked higher. Still, they’ll have a fighting chance in every game as long as Jackson is still on campus.

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#12 — LSU Tigers

Is LSU ready to be nationally relevant again? Les Miles was fired midway through last season after years of fans complaining that he was too conservative of a play-caller. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was promoted from within, and expectations were raised for 2017. Can the Tigers take advantage of a fresh start?

Good News: Enter offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who has promised to make the Tigers’ offense more exciting and up-tempo. But don’t let that make you think that LSU won’t run the rock: Derrius Guice is next up in the tradition of great tailbacks to come out of Baton Rouge. The defense looks scrappy and aggressive as usual, and Orgeron managed to hang onto coordinator Dave Aranda during the coaching change.

Bad News: Quarterback Danny Etling is good, not great. The linebacking corps returns only one starter, Arden Key, and he sat out spring practice due to undisclosed personal reasons. Placekicking could be an issue.

Bottom Line: Orgeron doesn’t inherit enough talent to challenge for a playoff spot right away, but LSU has a chance to beat out Auburn for second place in the SEC West if the ball bounces their way.

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#13 — Georgia Bulldogs

Year Two of the Kirby Smart era promises to be more exciting than the disappointing 2016 campaign, which saw a couple of ugly SEC losses and an overall lack of consistency. But the Bulldogs could be a sleeping giant this year, primarily due to QB Jacob Eason and 10 returning starters on defense.

Good News: Georgia returns Eason, as well as senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, which is great start for any offense. Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith are two heat-seeking linebackers. Overall, this team is more experienced and hungry than last year — plus, Smart signed a top five recruiting class in February.

Bad News: The Bulldogs need an untested group of receivers to be more reliable, and only two starters return on the offensive line. Eason was up-and-down in 2016 and needs to be better in close games in 2017.

Bottom Line: UGA has been a perennial underachiever in recent years, but this is a big window of opportunity in the SEC East, with Tennessee losing a ton of NFL talent and Florida treading water. If the Bulldogs don’t win the SEC East, color me shocked.

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#14 — Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal had a mystifying 2016 season — they had disappointing losses to Colorado and Washington State, but that was largely overshadowed by the dominance of running back Christian McCaffrey (a first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers). The Cardinal finished with six straight wins, but injuries at quarterback hampered the offense’s overall efficiency. So which Stanford team will we see in 2017?

Good News: Stanford has Bryce Love ready to make a big impact at tailback; he was McCaffrey’s backup last season and showed plenty of promise. As per usual at The Farm, both lines of scrimmage look excellent.

Bad News: In addition to McCaffrey, versatile defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was a first-round draft pick, and he’ll be difficult to replace. Can Keller Chryst reclaim the starting quarterback job when he gets back from a late-season ACL injury? Or will touted youngster K.J. Costello win out?

Bottom Line: The Cardinal have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation the past decade. If they can find an answer at QB and get past a Week 2 date at USC, they’ll be New Year’s Six contenders once again.

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#15 — Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers aren’t flashy. They never have been, really. But what they do is win a lot of games. And that looks likely again in Paul Chryst’s third season, which features a loaded offensive line and an aggressive group of linebackers. Sounds like the start of a winning formula….

Good News: The O-line returns all five starters, and tight end Troy Fumagalli is one of the program’s best products in years. Linebackers T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy cover a lot of ground, and D’Cota Dixon is a potential all-conference pick at safety.

Bad News: Sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook has potential, but posted pedestrian numbers in 2016. Unusual for the Badgers, they have no go-to tailback in the pipeline and might have to rely on Pitt transfer Chris James.

Bottom Line: The Badgers should win another Big Ten West crown in 2017, but they’re hungry for more. A kind schedule should help them in that regard, but more consistent QB play is needed in order for Chryst’s team to take the next step.

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#16 — Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines are back for Year Three of the Harbaugh regime, and they have a ton of young talent ready to be thrown into the fire. Despite disappointing losses to Ohio State and Florida State to end the year, Michigan still nabbed 10 wins. Harbaugh’s recruiting will be put to the test in 2017, as the Wolverines return only five total starters.

Good News: QB Wilton Speight is back, and the offensive line looks solid. There’s plenty of depth at running back, and the defensive line has some young talent waiting to emerge.

Bad News: Ten starters lost on defense — let’s start with that. The Wolverines have massive rebuilding to do in so many areas, and there’s no getting around it. LB Jabrill Peppers, DE Taco Charlton, DE Chris Wormley are all gone and will be playing on Sundays in 2017.

Bottom Line: Harbaugh won’t hear any excuses if the Wolverines disappoint in 2017, but it’s hard not seeing this team take a step back after the massive offseason talent drain. Another 10-win season could very well be in the cards, but for now, Michigan fans must be patient.

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#17 — Miami Hurricanes

Are they back? Are they all the way back? Well, not really. But Mark Richt’s debut season left a good taste in fans’ mouths after years of underachieving. The Canes have solid depth and just look like a more athletic and disciplined football team. If the new QB delivers, Miami could finally inch closer to that elusive ACC title.

Good News: The Canes have the makings of an excellent defense, led by big-time linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud. Defensive end Chad Thomas, a former five-star recruit, finally lived up to his billing last season, and junior running back Mark Walton rushed for over 1,100 yards.

Bad News: Who is the quarterback? That’s the primary question in Coral Gables after Brad Kaaya left early for the NFL. Junior Malik Rosier and sophomore Evan Sherriffs competed in the spring until touted freshman N’Kosi Perry arrives in fall camp.

Bottom Line: The Canes could push for a 10-win season if it all falls into place, but they won’t be top 10 material until 2018. Barring any catastrophic injuries, Miami should be favored in a usually wide-open Coastal Division race.

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#18 — Florida Gators

Florida fans have something to cheer about following two straight SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain. However, McElwain’s offensive background hasn’t translated to tangible results, with the Gators still sporting lackluster units on that side of the ball. With key personnel losses on defense, Florida’s offense needs to get in gear quickly.

Good News: The Gators do have a couple promising quarterbacks, led by redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, but Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire could challenge when he gets to Gainesville in the fall. RB Jordan Scarlett and WR Antonio Callaway are big-time impact players. Only four starters return on defense, but the Gators still have plenty of talent on that unit.

Bad News: Did I mention the offensive line? Yeah, it allowed the most sacks in the nation last year. Florida could have Peyton Manning at quarterback and it won’t matter if the O-line can’t get its act together. There’s also a surprising lack of depth in the secondary.

Bottom Line: Florida is at a crossroads. While another bowl game is almost a certainty, it’s unknown whether they can successfully hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC East and if the offense can take another step forward. An opener against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Dallas will be telling.

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#19 — Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee ended 2016 with a flat thud, leaving fans and critics alike to wonder if they were really as good as advertised. Sure, the Volunteers started 5-0, but often had to grind out victories. And then the wheels came off, with Tennessee finishing a disappointing 9-4 with a .500 record in the SEC. Coach Butch Jones now has to reload and develop more talent, especially on a defense that was frequently mediocre in 2016.

Good News: The talent cupboard isn’t bare, with the Vols boasting an experienced offensive line and a gifted special teams unit. The secondary looks solid, and DE Jonathan Kongbo could be primed for a breakout season.

Bad News: In addition to correcting the lack of mental toughness in last year’s late skid, the Vols need to replace record-setting QB Josh Dobbs and need more depth at tailback. Tackling was a major issue in 2016 and must improve.

Bottom Line: It’s a critical season for Jones, as his Vols need to show substantial progress as they attempt to win the SEC East. If a leaky defense can be fixed and the new quarterback delivers, Tennessee could get there, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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#20 — West Virginia Mountaineers

Was WVU’s 10-3 season a sign of things to come, or a blip on the radar? Skeptics would say that the Mountaineers only beat three teams with a winning record last season (Kansas State, Baylor, BYU) and that they got embarrassed by Miami in their bowl game. But then again, WVU’s other two losses were to elite Big 12 teams (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), so perhaps they’re closer than many think.

Good News: Coach Dana Holgorsen got an extension in the offseason and now he has a legit QB — Florida transfer Will Grier — to command his offense. Combine that with Tony Gibson’s opportunistic defense, and the Mountaineers could be in line to stay relevant.

Bad News: There’s not many proven playmakers at wide receiver, and the offensive line only brings back two starters (although getting LT Yodny Cajuste back from an injury was big in the spring). Kicker Mike Molina was unreliable in 2016.

Bottom Line: A season opener at FedEx Field against Virginia Tech will be a key test to see if WVU is for real or not. The fiery Holgorsen has the Mountaineers on the right track, but it’ll be difficult to stay in the upper echelon of the Big 12, one of the more unpredictable conferences.

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#21 — Washington State Cougars

The Cougars were up-and-down in 2016, starting off with an ugly loss to FCS Eastern Washington and ending with a frustrating bowl loss to Minnesota. But in between, they were as good as they’ve been in years, finishing with a 7-2 Pac-12 record, including big upsets over Oregon and Stanford. Can Mike Leach keep swinging his sword in 2017?

Good News: Start with QB Luke Falk, the most prolific returning starter in the country. The receiving corps is deep as always, and the offensive line is spearheaded by All-American guard Cody O’Connell. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer is a scrappy leader in the front seven.

Bad News: The defensive line didn’t make much of an impact in 2016, registering only 19 sacks. There are plenty of bodies in the secondary, but not many known commodities now that safety Shalom Luani is gone.

Bottom Line: Sustained success is the goal for Wazzu, as is maintaining composure in big games. With that being said, Mike Leach has the Cougars at a level that was unfathomable five years ago. They’ll make another bowl game and challenge Stanford for second place in the Pac-12 North.

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#22 — Utah Utes

Utah has been the bridesmaid of the Pac-12 South. Although they’ve won the most conference games out of any South team in the past three seasons, the Utes are the lone team that hasn’t won the division since the conference expanded in 2011. That could change this year, with a new, exciting offense and an always stout front seven.

Good News: The Utes return two big bodies on the defensive line, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, as well as junior safety Chase Hansen, a major playmaker. Quarterback Troy Williams had moments of brilliance in his first season as the starter. Special teams should be excellent.

Bad News: The offensive line lacks depth and must replace star left tackle Garett Bolles, a first round draft pick. There’s no clear-cut starter at running back, and some new shutdown cornerbacks need to emerge.

Bottom Line: If Williams can take the next step forward under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, the Utes could be in line for another winning season. Utah has the right ingredients to challenge for another nine or ten-win season, but a South title probably won’t happen in 2017.

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#23 — Virginia Tech Hokies

It was quite a debut for Justin Fuente in 2016, who had big shoes to fill following Frank Beamer’s retirement. Nonetheless, the Hokies got back to their standard — a 10-win season and an ACC Coastal title. Fuente will have to reload quickly on offense to compensate for early NFL draft entries, but this looks like another quality group in Blacksburg.

Good News: Another tough, fast, fundamentally-sound Bud Foster defense. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka are the veteran leaders, while the Hokies’ secondary returns every starter. If the offensive line can open up holes for him, RB Travon McMillian has 1,000-yard potential.

Bad News: Someone must step up at receiver to complement senior Cam Phillips, while the quarterback battle must also be resolved. The spring candidates were junior college transfer A.J. Bush, redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, and true freshman Hendon Hooker, with Jackson holding the temporary edge. The offensive line needs to make more strides despite returning three starters.

Bottom Line: Virginia Tech should be neck-and-neck with Miami as the Coastal favorites, as long as the offense can pull its weight and match last year’s productivity. After a season opener against West Virginia, the Hokies have a fairly friendly conference slate, getting Clemson, North Carolina, and Pitt at home.

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#24 — Boise State Broncos

The Broncos have gone 31-9 in the first three seasons of the Bryan Harsin era, so what’s the problem? Well, they’ve seemed to take a step down in the Mountain West in recent years after a decade of dominating the WAC. With Wyoming and Colorado State hot on their tails in the Mountain Division, now is not the time to slip up.

Good News: QB Brett Rypien — nephew of NFL great Mark Rypien — is arguably the Mountain West’s best signal-caller. Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson is a major difference-maker, while the front seven looks steady despite being relatively young.

Bad News: The offensive line needs some rebuilding and reshuffling, while Boise State could use a new playmaker at linebacker following the departure of Joe Martarano, who left the team in order to pursue a pro baseball career. The secondary has plenty of talent, but much of it is young.

Bottom Line: Boise State has Rypien, a solid defense, and a great coaching staff. Those are three places to start, but there’s suddenly little margin for error in the Mountain West standings.

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#25 — TCU Horned Frogs

The 2016 season was unusually mediocre for Gary Patterson’s Frogs, stumbling to a 6-7 record. But they probably weren’t as bad as their record reflected, as most of their problems stemmed from an inefficient offense and general inconsistency. Can they bounce back in 2017?

Good News: The Frogs return 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Hicks, who’s also adept at catching passes out of the backfield. TCU’s defense should be especially sharp in the linebacking corps, with all-Big 12 pick Travin Howard leading the way.

Bad News: Senior QB Kenny Hill was maddeningly inconsistent in his first year as the starter. Sure, some of that could be blamed on a receiving corps plagued by drops, but Hill needs to evolve as a passer and be more patient in the pocket. There aren’t many newcomers vying for playing time at receiver, so it’ll be up to Hill and most of the same crew to improve their numbers.

Bottom Line: The Frogs are capable of contending in the Big 12, but the schedule isn’t particularly in their favor, with road dates at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State, as well as a non-conference matchup at Arkansas. If Hill can right the offensive ship, TCU will get back to their winning ways, but it’s difficult seeing any real shakeup at the top of the conference.