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23 Things To Watch For in the 2016 College Football Season

Friday, September 02, 2016

 

1. Oregon’s Defense: The Ducks demoted Don Pellum back to Linebackers coach after a mostly disastrous two year run as the team’s defensive coordinator. In his place, Oregon made an unusually splashy hire – bringing in former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.

 

The Ducks were 116th in the country last year in yards given up per game, and if Hoke is the real deal, Oregon – even with a fairly young team – could be a threat in the Pac 12 North.

 

2. Year Two for Gary Andersen: The optimism surrounding the hire of Gary Andersen and the future of Oregon State football seemed to survive a phenomenally bad 2015, in which the Beavers went 0-9 in conference play.

 

Problem is, it’s hard to see Oregon State being drastically improved this year. They’re easily the worst team in their half of the Pac 12, and bowl eligibility looks a long-shot. Unless Andersen exceeds expectations this year, he’ll be responsible for the worst two-year run at OSU since the Jerry Pettibone era.

 

3. Leonard Fournette: It’s impossible to say who will take home the Heisman Trophy in four months time, but you won’t see a more dominant football player in the country this year than LSU’s sophomore running back Leonard Fournette.

 

4. Royce Freeman: And while he doesn’t get much national attention, for whatever reason, Oregon’s junior back Royce Freeman isn’t far behind Fournette. More than 20 touchdowns, seven yards per carry, and a trip to New York aren’t out of the question.

 

5. Will Anyone Hire Art Briles? No one came out of the scandal involving the handling of sexual assaults at Baylor looking good – former BU President Ken Starr appeared particularly addle – but Briles’ handling of the situation was repugnant.

 

The head coach, who was fired in the wake of the scandal, has remained defiant – apologizing for nothing and expressing no regret for his actions. But Briles can coach, and everyone’s best guess is that he’ll get another job before the year is over. He shouldn’t.

 

6. Pressure on Mark Helfrich? There shouldn’t be. That’s not to say that any criticism of the coach or his team should be out of bounds, but Helfrich shouldn’t be coaching for his job this year.

 

In three seasons at the helm in Eugene, Helfrich has lost just five conference games and appeared in the national championship. Expectations at Oregon – fueled by a decade in which the Ducks had the fourth best winning percentage in the country – have spiraled out of control.

 

Helfrich is averaging better than ten wins a season. Besides that, Oregon has seen a dramatic reduction in off-the-field issues from the Chip Kelly era. Helfrich is the right man for the job.

 

7. That Being Said… The fundamentals of the Oregon program aren’t as strong as they were five years ago. The Ducks, long renowned for the coaching stability, are replacing both coordinators this year after Pellum’s demotion and Scott Frost’s hire as the head coach at UCF.

 

It’s a situation that is almost unprecedented in the modern era of Oregon football. Another concern is that this will be the second consecutive year that the Ducks have transferred in a fifth-year senior to play quarterback.

 

This year’s Vernon Adams will be Dakota Prekup, and however good Prekup is, there’s little question that the Ducks have to get back to developing their own signal callers.

 

8. More Competitive Non-Conference Schedule: Week One of the college football season, which kicks off in earnest tonight, is being billed by some as the best opening weekend the sport has ever seen.

 

It isn’t a totally ridiculous claim. There are five matchups involving ranked teams in week one, and a number of other marquee games between Power 5 schools to boot.

 

Why the suddenly strengthened non-conference schedule? One reason could be the effect of the College Football Playoff, but another reason has to be the SEC’s new decree that its schools play at least one Power 5 opponent in non-conference play.

 

9. Playoff Scheduling: After fairly dismal ratings for the College Football Playoff last year, the sport and ESPN have nixed the idea of playing the semifinal games on New Year’s Eve starting with the season after this one.

 

It’s a common sense move that benefits everyone involved. The semifinal games this year will be held at the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl, with the national title game being played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

 

10. The Contenders: There are plenty of heavy hitters with the capable of getting into that field of four and winning the national championship this year, with Michigan, Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, and Florida State all in amongst the favorites.

 

11. Les Miles: The Tigers are widely expected to compete for a national title, with some saying that this is the best team Les Miles has ever had at LSU.

 

It’s quite a turnaround from where we were at the end of last year, when Miles’ firing was a forgone conclusion as the school pursued Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

 

But then, at the eleventh hour – which coincided surreally with LSU’s season finale at Tiger Stadium against Texas A&M, the deal to sign Fisher fell apart as the public outcry to keep Miles reached a fever pitch. In the end, Miles kept his job in one of the most incredible plot lines for last season.

 

The sport, for one, is better off with Miles in it. He is, by far, the most colorful, entertaining, and unpredictable coach around – the only man crazy enough to lead LSU.

 

12. The Washington Schools: Are supposed to be pretty damn good.

 

You always knew that Chris Petersen would eventually figure things out at Washington, and a number of people think that the Huskies are dark-horse contenders to win the Pac 12.

 

Meanwhile in Pullman, Mike Leach has Washington State playing its best football since the turn of a century with the air-raid style that made Leach’s Texas Tech teams so much fun.

 

If both Apple Cup schools have good seasons, it likely means that Oregon will disappoint. There’s only room for two of these schools in the conference championship discussion. The Pac 12 North could be a bloodbath.

 

13. The Pac 12 South: Could be a two-horse race between UCLA and USC. The Bruins are led by Josh Rosen, who is perhaps the conference’s most talented quarterback since Andrew Luck and unquestionably has a little Johnny Manziel in him.

 

The Trojans are entering their first full season with new head coach Clay Helton in charge. Helton, who, for the moment is well liked and respected, should reduce the drama that this team became synonymous with over the Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian eras.

 

The Arizona schools are set to take a step back this year, but Utah is usually a lock for eight or nine wins. The coach most in need of a good season is Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, who has only won two conference games in three seasons with the Buffs.

 

14. Tennessee and Texas: The schools have plenty in common in terms of their color scheme and logo, and both could be primed for a return to college football relevance this season.

 

Butch Jones is entering his fourth season at Tennessee with the program in a better place than it has been since the Phillip Fulmer era. The Vols are the favorites in the SEC East.

 

Meanwhile, Charlie Strong – freed from Steve Patterson for his third year at Texas – is under a considerable amount of pressure. There are a ton of reasons to hope for Strong’s success in Austin, and it feels like the all close games that the Longhorns lost last year could even out in 2016.

 

15. Verne Lundquist: This year will be Lundquist’s last calling the SEC on CBS. Throughout his seventeen years as the face of one of the best sports programs in the country, Lundquist has been one of college football’s gems – a jovial, enthusiastic, and gifted broadcaster. His final season should be treasured.

 

16. Brent Musburger: One of the other great broadcasters of Lundquist’s era, ESPN’s Brent Musburger, frustratingly, is in the midst of a lesser sendoff.

 

Even with the likes of Brad Nessler and Sean McDonough leaving the network’s college football coverage, Musburger remains mired for a third straight year in calling irrelevant third-rate games for the SEC Network.

 

Not only does a legend of the business deserve better, but, with Nessler gone – to replace Lundquist at CBS, as it were – Musburger is ESPN’s best college football play-by-play man.

 

17. Mike Tirico: The odd situation involving the NFL’s refusal to let Tirico broadcast NBC’s Thursday Night Football package means that Tirico will call three Notre Dame football games for the network this fall. He should be superb.

 

18: Mike Riley: The Pacific Northwest native and longtime Oregon State coach enters his second year at Nebraska coming off of a laughably unlucky 6-7 season in which the Cornhuskers lost six games by one score or less.

 

Riley’s team, led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, should be amongst the B1G’s best this year – but if Nebraska is poised to make national noise, we’ll find out in week three when the Oregon Ducks travel to Lincoln.

 

19. James Conner: The beloved Pittsburgh running back, who is returning to the field this year after missing 2015 with a severe knee injury and a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, could lead his team to the ACC Costal crown.

 

Either way, if all goes well this season, Conner will deservedly be a household name across the sport and the country. His is a truly inspirational story.

 

20. Big XII Expansion: The conference landscape across major college football has been blissfully stable since a flurry of activity some five years ago. Now, though, after being shut out of the College Football Playoff in consecutive years, the Big XII is preparing to shake things up.

 

At the moment, the Big XII has the fewest member football teams of any of the power conferences. It’s also the only conference of the power five not to have a conference championship football game. That all will change soon.

 

The conference is reportedly considering some twenty schools for expansion, as it looks to both bolster its revenue and improve its competitive status in college football.

 

21. Gus Malzahn: One coach who might not make it out of this season is Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who is on the hot seat just two years after taking the Tigers to within a whisker of another national championship.

 

Malzahn is a formidable offensive coach, but Auburn is coming off of back-to-back mediocre seasons, and its 2016 schedule is brutal – with games against Clemson, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama. Good luck.

 

22. North Dakota State: One of the most remarkable college football storylines this season is in Fargo, North Dakota, where the North Dakota State Bison are going for their sixth straight national championship under two different head coaches.

 

This year’s quarterback at NDSU is a man named Easton Stick, which, in itself, is fantastic. Go Bison.

 

23. Get Ready! It’s going to be another wild ride.

 

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