The SEC arguably boosted its stock the most during the 2017 NCAA Tournament with three teams reaching the Elite Eight. This trend continued in the 2018 season as an Auburn program riddled in scandal claimed a share of the SEC regular season title for the first time since 1999. A Kentucky team that reeled in six five-star recruits only finished fourth in league standings. This shows how deep this conference is and how unforgiving the schedule and competition can be.
Which team will scratch and claw their way to the top? Let’s dive in and find out.
This SEC season was defined by Auburn and Tennessee. The Tigers jumped out to a blazing 10-1 conference record before cooling down substantially. Bryce Brown and his streaky jump shot led the way all season for Auburn. The Vols settled down after a rocky start to conference play and have won four straight entering the SEC Tournament. The SEC preseason media poll projected Tennessee to finish in 13th out of 14 teams.
Florida and Kentucky, the two favorites heading into the season, endured a season maligned by inconsistencies. Florida’s offense appeared unstoppable when its three point shooting was on point, but lost and confused when it was not. Kentucky, a preseason season national title favorite, never seemed to fully come together as so many John Calipari coached teams do down the stretch of the season.
Missouri’s conference championship hopes were dashed when top-three recruit Michael Porter Jr. went down in the first game of the season with a back injury. However, Missouri still battled its way to a fifth place finish. Alabama drew preseason intrigue due to the presence of flashy, confident freshman Collin Sexton. Sexton, along with freshman John Petty, could not vault the Crimson Tide into serious contention at any point during the season.
Admiral Schofield led Tennessee to a share of the SEC regular season title (Wade Payne/Associated Press).
Auburn dominated the SEC for about three quarters of the season. Coach Bruce Pearl’s blistering and relentless attack often left opponents dazed and confused. Pearl encouraged aggressively pushing the ball on offense, often seeking an early three point shot attempt in transition. Bryce Brown spearheaded the Tigers’s attack, averaging 16.4 points on 41 percent shooting.
Mustapha Heron added 16.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for the Tigers. Heron’s ability to create plays off the dribble helped create space for Auburn’s shooters on the wings.
Tennessee was led by the two-headed of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams all season long. Schfield averaged 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds while Williams added 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. Tennessee, winners of four straight to end the season, will look to continue to build off of that momentum in the SEC Tournament. Schofield, in particular, has been hot, pouring in 25, 24, and 23 points respectively in each of his last three games.
Daryl Macon has Arkansas primed to shock the SEC world (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports).
Many pundits are clamoring about how the possible return of Michael Porter Jr. will magically vault Missouri into a dangerous darkhorse role both in this tournament and the NCAA Tournament. However, there is not guarentee Porter will play this tournament, and if he does, no one knows how effective he will be. Porter is returning from back surgery and will most likely struggle in his first few games back.
Meanwhile, the Razorbacks are seemingly rounding into shape as the SEC Tournament begins. Arkansas will enter the tournament winners of six of their past eight games. Led by two dynamic scorers in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, the Razorbacks are capable of shooting any opponent out of the gym.
Both Macon and Barford each average over 17 points per game and shoot 43.8 and 43.4 percent from three-point range as well. Arkansas, as a team, shoots at a 48.1 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three.
Arkansas can be derailed by poor free throw shooting. As a team, the Razorbacks only shoot 67 percent from the pinstripe. Poor fundamentals such as missing free throws can lead to blown late leads and disappointing exits in single-elimination tournaments.
The Champion: Auburn
Bryce Brown is capable of shooting Auburn to an SEC Tournament title (Adam Sparks/Scout.com).
Auburn seemingly found its offensive legs once again in its much-needed 79-70 victory over South Carolina. Down by eight points early in the match, Bryce Brown awoke out of hibernation to score 29 points on 60 percent shooting. Brown’s primary offensive game stems from his ability to hit open three pointers in transition. Brown could not buy a bucket during Auburn’s brutal stretch of losing three of four before defeating South Carolina.
In its first game, Auburn will take on either Texas A&M or Alabama. A&M defeated Alabama in its final game to end the season. Even though both of these teams found a way to take down Auburn during the regular season, Auburn’s offense is clicking at the right time and this should be enough to outlast any push from these teams.
Auburn would then take on Kentucky and then Tennessee in the final. If Auburn’s shooting begins to falter, a team like the Vols could take advantage by controlling the pace of play and pounding the rock inside. Look for Brown and Heron to take over in this tournament on the offensive end and lead Auburn to a title.
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The NCAA Tournament selection committee, for the second straight year, revealed who the top 16 seeds would be if the season ended this past Saturday. The committee deemed Virginia as the top seed of the Tournament despite its home loss to Virginia Tech. Villanova, Purdue and Xavier rounded out the remaining No. 1 seeds.
South: 1. Virginia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Michigan State and 4. Tennessee.
West: 1. Purdue, 2. Kansas, 3. North Carolina and 4. Arizona.
Midwest: 1. Xavier, 2. Auburn, 3. Clemson and 4. Oklahoma.
Let’s take a look at who the winners and losers of the committee’s judgement were this year.
Junior guard Jacob Evans III looks to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to a strong finish. (Photo by Laurence Kesterson/AP).
The Bearcats are sitting at 23-2 and in first place in the American Athletic Conference. While this record is impressive, Cincinnati has played a weak schedule thus far.
The Bearcats dropped both of their premier non-conference matchups against Xavier and Florida back in December. They defeated UCLA, Temple and Houston, but none of those teams are considered legitimate contenders come March.
The fact that the committee already has Cincinnati as a No. 2 seed shows that they are high on the Bearcats moving forward. Coach Mick Cronin’s squad has a huge opportunity to further bolster its stock with upcoming matchups against Wichita State and Houston.
If Cincinnati can continue its winning ways and another No. 1 team crumbles down the stretch (possibly either Villanova or Xavier), the Bearcats could steal a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Loser: Texas tech
The Red Raiders are poised to capture their first Big 12 regular season championship ever, yet they are only ranked as a No. 3 seed. Coach Chris Beard probably feels somewhat disrespected by this choice, and he has every right to feel that way. The Big 12 is the deepest conference in college basketball this season, sporting four teams in the AP top 25 rankings and three in the top 16 above.
Texas Tech sports an impressive 9-3 Big 12 record that includes a one-point victory over West Virginia (back when the Mountaineers were No. 2 in the nation) and a 12-point win at Kansas. What hurt the Red Raiders was their weak non-conference schedule (their only impressive victory coming against Nevada) coupled with a stretch of Big 12 conference play where they lost three of four.
Regardless of their spot at the moment, Beard’s upstart team has ample opportunities to move up to a No. 2 seed and possibly even a No. 1 if they win out. However, this is easier said than done as Tech has rematches against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia lined up in the future.
WINNER: THE BIG EAST
While the Big East only has two teams in the top 16, those two teams each captured a No. 1 seed. Villanova and Xavier have slowly developed a fun rivalry this season and have a highly anticipated rematch in Ohio slated for this Saturday. Even more important is that both squads have a significant chance to maintain their spot in the tournament over the next few weeks, especially if Xavier can knock off Villanova this weekend.
The revamped Big East has failed to live up the hype and intensity of the old school conference that featured schools like Syracuse, Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh and Georgetown. However, the Big East has been fairly competitive this season, both in and out of conference.
Competitive teams will not return the Big East to its former glory, but sending two teams into the tournament this season would be a significant step.
LOSER: THE PAC-12
Last season, the conference of champions (as Bill Walton would put it) had three teams vying for top seeds in the tournament at this point in the season. The season resulted in Arizona, Oregon and UCLA going to the Sweet 16 and Oregon making it to the Final Four.
This season has been much less kind to the Pac-12. Arizona entered the season as a national champion contender with top recruit Deandre Ayton coming to town. Coach Sean Miller also hauled in three other top 100 recruits per ESPN in Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. Now the Wildcats might be the most disappointing team in the nation up to this point.
Neither UCLA or Oregon have the depth or firepower compared to their respective teams last season. USC entered the season as a dark horse contender for the Final Four, but have seemingly failed to recover from the offseason’s FBI investigation. Needless to say, Arizona is the Pac-12’s best shot at back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Featured image by Stan Szeto/USA Today Sports
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This college basketball season it is nearly impossible to win on the road. Ranked teams and unranked teams a like, it is tough to go out and grab a win on the road. 36 mens college basketball teams are undefeated at home this season. In the last week, there have been over 35 home underdogs across college basketball that have won games. Many of which have knocked off ranked teams in that time. Just last Saturday, January 20th, five ranked teams lost to unranked teams on the road.
Being an underdog isn’t necessarily a bad thing anymore and during this college basketball season it almost seems like a compliment. Teams are rallying and finding a way to win in their home building.
Newly ranked Nevada fell victim to the home underdog Wednesday night in a one point, double overtime loss. What we’ve learned so far is that it is a nightmare to win on the road in college basketball. Home crowds and the comfort of your own gym propel teams that maybe shouldn’t win and cash it into the win column for the home team.
The Best Home Dogs:
Last season, at this point, only seven teams were undefeated at home and only two of those teams were from the power five conference (Oregon and Florida State). This season the home underdog has been dominant. The most impressive home underdog has been the North Carolina State Wolfpack. They are 3-0 as a home underdog and have knocked off Duke, Clemson and Penn State on their own court.
The other 3-0 home underdog this season is Wyoming, the team who beat Nevada Wednesday night. They are 12-8 this season and have played well in their own building. Of their loses, they have lost to two ranked teams as well as South Carolina but all of those games were road or neutral sites.
College basketball is getting pretty even these days. Being a home team is the great equalizer. It takes a strong team to win conference games on the road and an even stronger team to be a Vegas favorite going into a road conference game.
Predicting this weeks upsets:
Chris Silva, (Thestate.com).
Well here is a chance to take two home underdogs. Iowa State is at home against Tennessee who is number 22 in the country. Iowa State plays good defense and rebounds at a better clip then Tennessee does. To beat Tennessee you have to hit them inside and get close to the basket.
Iowa State has lost just three games at home this season and two of those were two red hot Kansas State and the Kansas Jayhawks. Iowa State is coming off a disappointing road loss to Texas where they lost by 16 and they are due for a good home showing.
The second choice could be an easy one. South Carolina has been playing great basketball as of late. They are much better on offense which had been somewhat of a struggle to start the season. On the other side number 14 Texas Tech is going through the offensive struggles. They just scored 58 in a loss at Texas and scored 52 in a loss at Iowa State. They are struggling to score which opens up doors for a thriving home underdog.
Both teams are extremely good defensively. South Carolina has come on strong offensively but Texas Tech is trending the wrong way. South Carolina is coming off great shooting performances in their last couple games. They went 11-21 from three in their win against Florida and went 10-23 in their loss to Tennessee.
These two teams seem to be trending the wrong way. South Carolina has won three of their last four and have played some of their best basketball as of late. Texas Tech has won two of their last five and is slowly regressing offensively. If South Carolina can get both Chris Silva working as well as their outside shooting game they will beat the Red Raiders.
Winning in the NCAA tournament means that you can win in hostile environments. The teams that go into hostile environments late in January and throughout February and grab wins are the teams that will be hanging around come April.
South Carolina is starting to turn their season in that direction as well as other teams, but for right now it will be interesting to see how the end of the college basketball season turns out. With all the parody and all the big time wins for teams there is no telling what will happen on any given week.
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Change. It is a simply spelt and pronounced word, but becomes complex when people start to deal with change. People run away from change out of fear. People usually grimace at the thought of change. Change is often looked at as a bad thing, but change can also be viewed as a great thing. Change is needed for growth and knowledge. Society finds it hard to change things that are long standing traditions, even if they do not work, are outdated, or completely wrong.
(Photo: Daniel Gluskoter, AP)
Take a look at the national anthem controversy for instance. Rather than admit its flaws, people are back-lashing against Colin Kaepernick. Why can’t we admit our faults as people or as a society? Because people hate change, whether it’s for the betterment of society or not. It is so much easier to go with the flow rather than to adapt.
It is time for a change in college football by eliminating any and all conferences. They are unnecessary in this day and age. They serve no purpose other than to please tradition. This is a highly unpopular opinion but hear me out before you grab your pitchforks.
(Sep 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate defeating the LSU Tigers by doing the Lambeau Leap following the game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY)
The best teams need to play each other weekly regardless of their region or conference. Week one was one of the greatest weeks of college football ever. People are still glamorizing it because it was that epic. We saw great games all over such as (15) Houston defeating (3) Oklahoma. We saw Wisconsin upset (5) LSU. We saw unranked Texas A&M upset (16) UCLA. (18) Georgia beat (22) North Carolina. (2) Clemson had to sneak by unranked Auburn by six points. Fans saw Texas upset (10) Notre Dame in an overtime classic. On a Monday night game, (4) Florida State beat (11) Ole Miss.
Week two also saw some great programs matching up for exciting games. Arkansas was unranked and upset (15) TCU. (17) Tennessee beat Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway in the most attended game in college football history with 156,990 in attendance.
Since the first two weeks there still have been great non-conference games even as teams have gotten into conference scheduling. In week six, Navy upset (6) Houston 46-40 in one of the most exciting back and forth games of the year. Most recently in week 12, the same Houston team that was upset by Navy, and was unranked, ended (5) Louisville’s shot at making the playoffs. They upset the Cardinals 36-10.
All these non conference match-ups with top programs facing off gave us excitement. Fans of football rejoiced over how fun it was to watch these teams play their hearts off to win these big time games. These games mean so much more with the rather new playoff system that determines a true champion in college football. Eliminating conferences would not eliminate rivalries because schools would be able to schedule 10-12 games completely how they want. The only thing each school would have to do is make sure they schedule their rival schools annually.
These huge games are what the fans want to see. It doesn’t have to be just about the fans either. The college football playoff committee highly values a team’s strength of schedule. Nobody wants to see Alabama playing teams like Chattanooga or Kent State, teams in which they manhandled this year. Ohio State shouldn’t be playing teams like Rutgers, who happens to be in their conference, or Tulsa. Clemson games are boring when they play teams like South Carolina State or Syracuse. Imagine Clemson scheduling Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State. If a team goes undefeated with a non-conference schedule as tough as this, there would be no question they deserve to be in the playoffs.
One of the biggest problems with the state of college football now is that great teams still get snubbed from making the playoffs. We need the best four teams in the country making the playoffs as long as it is a four team format. Maybe one day it will be a six or eight team format to eliminate more doubt, because there will always be a team or two on the bubble.
Currently the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12 and the Big 12 are known as the power five conferences. Most people can agree these are the top five conferences in the country, with each taking turns on where they rank within the power five.
In the current playoff system, one of the power five conferences will not be represented. A champion from one of these conferences will not have the chance to play in the playoffs and prove they are the best team in the country. This doesn’t account for a team without a conference, such as Notre Dame, who could go undefeated and cause two power five conferences to be left out of the playoffs. It also doesn’t account for a year like this one in which Ohio State and Michigan both look like teams capable of winning a national championship.
The first ever college football playoff left out TCU and/or Baylor in favor of Ohio State. The debate raged on about which of these teams should have gotten in. Ohio State then went on to win the National Championship as a four seed to quiet the debate, but how do we know, without a doubt, that TCU or Baylor would not have done the same? How do we know TCU or Baylor would’t have beat Ohio State? This is the problem with conferences. The Big Ten was assumed to be the better conference which is why the playoff committee chose to take Ohio State over one of the Big 12 teams. It was all because the Big 12 conference doesn’t have a conference championship game.
There is another issue at hand when it comes to conferences and the entire playoff format. There is always a talk of two teams getting into the playoffs from the same conference. If that were to happen, two conference champions from a power five conference would be left out. This was the problem with the BCS system that the playoffs were suppose to fix. The question that should be asked is how can you be a champion of the nation if you weren’t a champion of your conference? Essentially that is what happens if two SEC or two Big Ten teams get into a four team playoff. Eliminating conferences erases all the doubt. It makes teams schedule harder competition and creates more exciting games. If a school didn’t do it, they wouldn’t get into the playoffs.
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Conferences started mostly due to how difficult it was to travel when teams were still taking buses. Colleges can afford to fly their teams in today’s sports and traveling is not as hard as it use to be. What is the need for conferences then? The idea of no conferences at all is highly appealing in my eyes, but will not be popular to most. It would be revolutionary to eliminate conferences. The most remarkable changes in the world once were thought to be outlandish. Conferences are a tired idea that is outdated and the sport can become more exciting by eliminating them.
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I’m quite the insomniac. So Sunday night I’m up late browsing on social media when I see several new tweets pop up. I click the chrome tab and select to view the new tweets. They are all from one person – Luke Fickell, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator and linebacker coach (I’m a die-hard Buckeye, for those of you who do not know). And all of the tweets have something in common – they are re-tweets. They are re-tweets of committed recruits. They are re-tweets of committed recruits from the class of 2017 and 2018. This has to violate the NCAA social media rules, right?
No, of course not. It is the new, and fairly comical, NCAA rule regarding social media.
You see, if you couldn’t tell from the beginning of the article, back in the good ol’ days no social media interaction between college football coaches and recruits was allowed until the recruit penned his John Hancock on one of those fancy letters of intent. But now the NCAA has made the rule more NCAA like. That is to say, made it more middle ground-ish, complex, and needlessly controversial.
To put it simply, a coach can share, re-tweet or like the post of a recruit so long as they don’t comment on it. The general motto is “click, but don’t type”. Clicking, the stuff you are now able to do on social media, includes:
Re-tweeting and sharing a post (unless the prospect in question is currently visiting your school)
Liking or “reacting” to a post
Typing, what you are still not allowed to do, includes:
Commenting on a post
Adding words or emoticons to a share or re-tweet
Tagging or mentioning a specific recruit in a post
There’s the rule broken down.
Now do I personally agree with the rule? I could go either way. While I think some people’s need for vindication on social media is something that describes the shallowness, selfishness, and sadness of my generation, I also think that there is really no harm in it so long as people are smart. What made this an issue originally is that some coaches worried they might not get a player because they didn’t re-tweet or favorite as much as another coach. If that is really an issue, then I am against the new by-laws allowing more interactions. Twitter should not be influential in a recruit’s decision, end of story.
The thing is, I don’t think — at least in most cases — that social media really does impact a recruit’s decision. Most players are smart enough to choose their college based on where they feel most comfortable, not which coach favorited their offer letter picture. But you can bet that most coaches will not take that risk when trying to land that five star that could change their program. Which brings me to the other negative of this situation, the hassle. Every team wants the edge on their opponents, and if re-tweeting is a way to get one, by golly they will re-tweet everything a recruit throws up in 140 characters or less.
To sum this whole situation up, I think it’s funny sometimes to look at this day and age we now live in where social media is considered a recruiting resource that needs to have its own by-laws. I’m active on social media and in the same generation as these recruits, so who am I to judge? To get a like or a re-tweet feels good, let alone a like or a re-tweet from Urban Meyer. That said, it should have no impact on where an athlete furthers his or her academic and athletic career. And I hope the folks out there are smart enough that it won’t.
Everyone loves an underdog story, a David slaying a Goliath. Yet, there’s few non-power 5 teams that make it to a prestigious bowl, even with a solid record. And it seems that every year, there is at least one team from a non-power five conference that dominates their schedule with one loss or no losses, wins their conference title, and enters an esteemed bowl game with more to prove than any number of District Attorneys.
Cutting to the chase, here are, in my opinion the top five non-power five teams in terms of what they bring to the table — excluding Notre Dame, who is normally the quality of a power five school.
5. Marshall (Conference USA)
Chase Litton comes out of a stellar freshman season to lead the charge for the Thundering Herd. Thanks to tbo.com for the photo.
Marshall lost a lot and kept a lot from a team that finished 10-3 with a win in the St. Petersburg Bowl last year. Sophomore quarterback Chase Litton, pictured above, comes off a season where he threw for 2,608 yards and 24 touchdowns. Marshall has been a pass-based offense as of late (no one rushed for 600 yards or more for them last year) and they have their gunslinger to continue the aerial attack.
The question is who he will throw the ball to.
Marshall lost their top two receivers in Devonta Allen and Deandre Reaves, who reeled in 715 and 705 yards worth of catches, respectively.
Of course, those two don’t compare to the graduation of stud linebacker Evan McKelvey, who led the team with 121 tackles and was second with 9.0 tackles for loss. Also gone defensively is third leading tackler and starting safety Taj Letman (80 of them) who intercepted three passes. And the starter next to Letman and second leading tackler last year Tiquan Lang (91) faces a possible suspension after being arrested in late April.
Seems like quite a bit to overcome, doesn’t it? Until you hear that four of five starting offensive linemen for Marshall are returning from last year, and the one that isn’t a returning starter missed last year with injury and was first-team all-conference in 2014, Clint Van Horn. Litton will have a lot of time to find an open man.
And on defense stud defensive end Gary Thompson is back, who led the team in two categories defensively in 2015: sacks with 9.0 and tackles for loss with 12.5. At cornerback returning is Corey Tindal, who defended thirteen passes and intercepted two more.
In the end, Marshall needs contributors from two position groups to step forward: receivers and linebackers. Two starters are gone from both groups. The receiving corps gets some help from returning 400 yard receiving tight end Ryan Yurachek, but will need wideout production from a group that contains no one ever to have a season of at least 350 at that specific position. Justin Hunt, who has progressed steadily each year at Marshall and enters as a senior in 2016, and converted former tight end Deon-Tay McManus could look to try and get some production. And at linebacker the names appear to be Devontre’a Tyler and Shawn Petty.
My prediction: Marshall gets cake games against Morgan State and Akron, then wins one of their two tougher non-conferences either against Louisville or at Pitt. I see them tripping up against Western Kentucky and missing out on the conference championship, coming out mad in their bowl game and finishing 11-2 with a win in the New Mexico Bowl.
4. Appalachian State (Sun Belt)
The Mountaineers return the talent to climb to the top of the Sun Belt conference. Photo courtesy of 247sports.com.
Appalachian State used a balanced offensive attack and solid defense to earn an 11-2 record and a victory in the Camellia Bowl with a Sun Belt title. They bring back a lot of impact players from a team that was top-25 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
Those impact players include 2,300 yard passer Taylor Lamb, 1,400 yard rusher Marcus Cox, three starting offensive linemen, their top two tacklers on defense Eric Boggs and John Law with 104 and 72 tackles last year, respectively, and interception leader Latrell Gibbs who picked off seven passes — returning two of them for touchdowns.
The only detrimental loss seems to be stud defensive end Ronald Blair, who led the team in TFLs and sacks while coming in third for total tackles.
One spot of bother for the Mountaineers could be the tough opening to their schedule, they head to Tennessee in the opening week and then have to host Miami (FL) following their week two match-up with Old Dominion. Get out of those two brawls healthy, and it could turn into another ten win season with a bowl win for the Mountaineers.
My prediction: Someone important goes down in either the Tennessee or Miami game, and Appalachian State drops one during their conference play. They manage to get out with title in the Sun Belt though, or at least a share of one, as no team runs the table in the conference. The finish is 9-4, the aforementioned Sun Belt title, and a loss in the New Orleans Bowl.
3. Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
Taywan Taylor is the featured player in this year’s Western Kentucky attack. Photo courtesy of youtube.com.
Losing a 5,000 yard passer (that number led the nation) is never going to be easy. But when you have two receivers who were both over 950 yards last season back, one of which is 1,400 yard man Taywan Taylor, it makes the adaptation for your knew starter a bit less demanding. That replacement will likely be one of three players: Junior USF transfer Mike White, who threw for 1,639 yards and 8 touchdowns with the Bulls last year, senior Nelson Fishback, who has attempted 8 passes in his Hilltopper career, or senior Louisville transfer Tyler Ferguson.
The rushing attack will have no issue complementing whomever is under center, however. Anthony Wales returns off a 1,000 yard season, behind an offensive line totalling 130 combined starts of experience. That line includes first-team all-conference left tackle Forrest Lamp. New O-line coach Dale Williams has been given the keys to a Porsche and told not to crash it.
A mid-tier defense last year for Western Kentucky will look to improve for this season, as they return leading tackler and backfield plug in linebacker T.J. McCollum (106 tackles, 12.0 TFLs) and second leading tackler Branden Leston (96). Top defensive lineman Derik Overstreet also returns.
But if that defense wants to make the necessary jump, and in turn bring this team from a conference leader to potential contender for a New Year’s Six bowl, they will need a boost in the secondary, specifically at corner. Both starters are gone, including the only player with more than three interceptions for that Hilltopper defensive backfield in Prince Iworah.
The most experienced pair are juniors Joe Brown and De’andre Simmons. Both intercepted one pass last year, and Brown may have asserted his role as the primary cornerback with 9 PBUs. Both will have assistance from senior safeties, the aforementioned Branden Leston and Marcus Ward. The pair combine for 291 tackles and four interceptions on their respective careers.
My prediction: In the end, I think it could really come together for the Hilltoppers, one of three teams on this list (the top three, of couse) that I think finishes ranked nationally. They open with a win over Florida International before falling by no more than 20 to Alabama, a moral victory that will allow them to run the table… including wins over Vanderbilt, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, their opponent in the Conference USA title game, and their opponent in the Boca Raton bowl.
That’s 13-1, for those of you counting at home.
2. San Diego State (Mountain West Conference)
The Aztecs’ defense makes them a force to be reckoned with in 2016. Photo form sandiegouniontribune.com.
San Diego State is going to defend their conference title from 2015.
The biggest loss from a defense that was top ten nationally last year in scoring is fifth leading tackler Jake Fely (75, 8.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks). They return stud linebacker Calvin Munson, who led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks (98, 15.0, 10.5). Damontae Kazee (pictured above), returns and brings 8 interceptions with him. Defensive end Kyle Kelley, who had 7.5 sacks last year, will lead the defensive line. They return third leading tackler and second leading interceptor safety Malik Smith. And they return the centerpiece of their 3-3-5 defense, all-conference nose guard Alex Barrett. In other words, the offense won’t have to score all that much.
But they bring back the firepower to score a lot.
Sure they lost their leading passer. But when that quarterback barely cleared 1,500 yards, it doesn’t matter that much. Why? Because San Diego State is a running offense. And you know what they do return? A rusher of 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns named Donnel Pumphrey. He runs behind three returning starters on his line, including all-conference offensive guard Nico Siragusa.
Needless to say, the Aztecs look incredible entering this season.
My prediction: SDSU upsets Cal early in the season and goes on a rampage. It is tough to go undefeated, but easier with a Mountain West schedule. They do it, win the conference title game, and head to the Cotton Bowl as the “group of five” representative. From there I can’t tell, depends on who faces them there.
So either 14-0 or 13-1 is what I predict dependant on who they play in that bowl game.
1. Houston (American Athletic)
Second-year coach Tom Herman looks to repeat the success of 2015. Photo from al.com.
Notice I put above that I believe San Diego State becomes the “group of five” representative that receives a berth into the Cotton Bowl. I think Houston is the better team, but they run into Oklahoma week one… a game I don’t see them winning. Hence, number one team but not the number one finish.
Why is Houston the number one team? They come off a Peach Bowl win and return their star player, leading passer and rusher (he and Deshaun Watson are the only two quarterbacks ever to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000) Greg Ward. While his favorite target in Demarcus Ayers left early for the NFL, man number, two Chance Allen, does return off a season of over 750 yards. The ground game will have to replace second leading rusher and top running back Kenneth Farrow, which they were looking to do with junior Javin Webb.
With that and the graduation of Ryan Jackson, Houston has lost its next three rushers after Ward. No other running back posted even 100 yards last season, the only one even to gain positive yardage being upcoming sophomore Kaliq Kokuma, who ran 18 times for 92 yards. He should compete with fellow sophomore Tyreik Gray.
At the very least they do have four returning starters up front to pave the way for the inexperienced backs.
Flipping the coin to the defensive side, Houston’s 3-4 defense returns all-conference nose guard B.J. Singleton, backed by linebacker Steven Taylor who had 92 tackles with 18.5 TFLs and 10.0 sacks.
Houston should be able to cope fine with the loss of their leading takedown getter Elandon Roberts, as Taylor returns with fellow linebackers Tyus Bowser (35 games experience) and Matthew Adams (49 tackles in 2015). The real worry is the departures at safety, where the Cougars lost both starters in 2016. That includes Adrian Mcdonald, who intercepted 17 passes in a career that also included 299 tackles. The most senior player remaining is junior Khalil Williams, who registered 18 tackles and intercepted a pass last year.
The rest are a group of inexperienced sophomores including Garrett Davis, Michael Eke, and Darius Gilbert. One of them needs to fill some shoes.
As said at the beginning, Houston loses week one in a moderately close bout with Oklahoma, but wins out and goes to dominate the conference championship game and a dominating win in either the Hawaii Bowl or Armed Forces Bowl.
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After an entertaining SEC Media Week, I am doing a quick preview of one of the strongest conferences in the land.
Courtesy of Getty Images
SEC Player of the Year: LSU’s Running Back Leonard Fournette
For me it is a two horse race for the POTY for the SEC. It will be either be LSU’s running back Leonard Fournette or Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. I think I am leaning closer to Fournette. He is just one of the unicorns of College Football. He is so powerful and so strong, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He does it all for the Tigers on the offensive side of the ball.
Last year, Fournette accounted for the 45% of the offensive touchdowns, which lead the nation. I think Fournette will comeback this season on mission to prove he should have been in New York last year. Fournette will easily have 2000+ yards on the ground and about 300+ yards receiving. With dual threat quarterback Brandon Harris improving from last year to spring ball and throughout the summer it will make the defense have to defend more than Fournette.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
SEC East Champion: Tennessee Volunteers
The SEC East is pretty much Tennessee’s to lose. The Vols are really only competing with Georgia and Florida for the crown in the East and that is not saying too much. This is because of all the turnover that UGA will have this year. And because Florida will have to play a new quarterback since former starting quarterback Will Grier is no longer there. Second year Coach McElwain has a great core of receivers for whoever the quarterback is but, I would not count on a new starter to take any team to Atlanta for a SEC Championship Game.
Tennessee is just the strongest team in one of the weakest divisions in College Football. South Carolina has a new coach, and possibly a new quarterback that has never played a down of college football. Vanderbilt is still climbing out of the basement of the SEC, but they do return a good defense. I think this year will be the year we look at as Vandy’s take off year. They will probably still miss a bowl game but the nation will know that Vandy is finally playing football again.
Do you see where I am going with this? Tennessee is the only logical choice to win the division. They have one of the best backfields in the league with quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. On the defensive side they return seven starters from their stalwart defense of a year ago. Tennessee should run away with the East crown, but it is the SEC East. Anything can and will happen.
Courtesy of AP
SEC West Champion: LSU Tigers
On this side of the conference, we have one of the strongest division in College Football. My big favorites for the West are LSU, Bama and Ole Miss. All of those teams have great reasons why they can win the Division.
LSU with their tandem of Brandon Harris and one of the greatest running backs in school history, Leonard Fournette. Alabama still has Nick Saban, so it does not matter who their quarterback is because most of their quarterbacks are just game managers anyways. Ole Miss has the best quarterback in the conference with Chad Kelly. He is also the only quarterback in the conference with a win against the reigning National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
I think the division will be decided on Novemeber 5th when Alabama comes to LSU to play them under the lights of Death Valley. Whoever wins that game most likely wins the division. I think it will be LSU. We all should know that Saban has not found a way to stop a true dual threat quarterback. Until he shows that he can I will always pick the dual threat quarterback against Coach Saban. And LSU also plays Ole Miss at home this year but, they play Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road this year. Both teams look to be very dangerous this year and could spoil some teams National Championship aspirations.
SEC Champion: LSU Tigers
Les Miles has to do this year. After everything that has happened this summer in Baton Rouge, that area needs something to bring them together. Just like how Clemson did something wonderful for the state of South Carolina after the summer they had last year. Not only that, but, Les Miles need this to get the LSU fans off of his back. Last year they wanted him fired and a SEC Championship will be a great rebuttal to those fans. Miles has a great team coming into this season and he needs to strike now before they miss their opportunity with Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette.
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#5 University of Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs- The 6’3″ senior QB will be returning to Knoxville to quarterback the Vols for the third year in a row. Dobbs is coming off a very good 2015 campaign. He’s not your typical starting college QB, he is studying aerospace engineering at Knoxville so he must be a dedicated student while also being a dedicated athlete. The University needs a student athlete like Dobbs right now because he could be one of Tennessee’s shining star to distract from some of the issues going on at Tennessee. He led the Vols to their best season since 2007, with a 9-4 record. Dobbs has steadily improved in his first three years at Rocky Top. He is now one of the feared dual threat QBs in the nation. He threw for 2291 yards through the air and rushed for 671 yards. He passed for 15 touchdowns and only threw 5 interceptions and he also ran the ball into the endzone 11 times. During his junior year, Joshua Dobbs had some very impressive games for Rocky Top Nation.
On October 10, the Vols were facing the Georgia Bulldogs. Coming into this game the Vols had just dropped their first two SEC games by a combined margin of 5 points so the Volunteers needed a W in the baddest way. To start the game it looked like Tennessee wanted no part of the Georgia Bulldogs. Late in the second half, Tennessee was trailing 24-3 and from that point Tennessee never looked back. They ended the game on 35-7 run, including 28 unanswered points, and won the game 38-31. Dobb threw the a career high 312 yards passing add 118 yards on the ground. He had a season high in yards from scrimmage. He scored three times through the air and twice on the ground. He accounted for all of Tennessee touchdowns against Georgia that day. Dobb led his team to the third biggest comeback in school history. The biggest one since the 1991 game against Notre Dame. Also on this day Dobbs did something that only one other person in Tennessee history had ever done. He passed for over 300 yards and over 100 yards rushing. The other guy to do it? Joshua Dobbs in 2014 against South Carolina.
On October 31, he returned to the field after suffering a close loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide on the road, 19-14. Their opponent on this Saturday was the Kentucky Wildcats and once again the Vols were looking to get the bitter taste of defeat out of their mouth. Tennessee went to Kentucky and exercised their demons. The Vols would win the game 52-21. He threw for 233 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for 51 yards and scored twice using his feet. The most important stat for this game for Dobbs was that he had a QBR of 94, but this was not his season high. He would get his season high against Vandy on the 28th of November.
In the last home game of the season, the Vols played in-state rival Vanderbilt and Dobbs put on a show. They beat Vandy 53-28. Dobbs threw for 170 yards two touchdowns and he also rushed for 93 yards and had one rushing touchdown. But the biggest stat was his QBR. Dobbs had a season high QBR of 94.8 during his last game of 2016.
Going into the 2016 season the Vols and Dobbs have a chance to do something really special. They have an experienced backfield anchored by Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd. If Dobbs continues to improve coming into the 2016 season, he and his team will be some shiny hardware back to Knoxville.
Today I release part one of my six part series analyzing the 2016 NFL Draft. Teams drafting 1-5 will be analyzed today, while the other 22 teams will be analyzed over the next few weeks. Each team will receive two levels of analysis; what I would do if I were their General Manager, and what I think that they will do on draft day.
Tennessee Titians –
If I was the General Manager: Tennessee needs secondary help as well as offensive line help, but I wouldn’t want to draft either of those first overall. If you take a look at recent offensive linemen drafted first or second overall, you will see that the investment simply wasn’t worth it (Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, Jake Long). And if you look back at history no defensive back has ever been taken with the first overall draft choice. I believe that trend continues this year. I would first look to try and trade this pick. No single player in this draft matches the needs of this team in a way that screams first overall pick. I doubt any team in the NFL would want to make this trade with me; therefore, I would draft Laremy Tunsil with the first pick of the 2016 NFL draft. Last year the Titans drafted Marcus Mariota, and he showed signs of promise (until he got injured). In order to protect Mariota from getting hurt again, and open up lanes for their brand new running back, Demarco Murray, Laremy Tunsil is the obvious choice for me.
Who I think they will pick: Laremy Tunsil. I think they will pick him for the same reason I stated above, to protect Mariota and open up holes for Murray.
Cleveland Browns –
If I was the General Manager: The list of failed quarterbacks in Cleveland is an anomaly. Cleveland finds a way to ruin every quarterback they draft. The Browns just signed Robert Griffin III, and seem to be set on moving forward with him. I don’t feel extremely confident that any of the top-tier quarterbacks would mesh well with Cleveland. I would then draft Laquon Treadwell with the second overall pick. In doing this Cleveland would get an extremely talented wide receiver who would fill the gap of Josh Gordon, who’s suspension has no end in sight. It would provide a much needed verticle threat for RGIII.
Who I think they will pick: DeForest Buckner. Cleveland is notorious for taking midlevel quarterbacks in the early first round, the most recent of which being Johnny Manziel. The quarterback position is now filled by Robert Griffin III, so I think this might be the year Cleveland passes on a Quaterback. They will instead look to aquire an effective pass rusher to go after Big Ben, Flacco, and Dalton. Buckner is extremely athletic and has very quick feet. His ability to get of the line so quick is why the Browns will take him her instead of the bull rushing Joey Bosa.
San Diego Chargers –
If I was the General Manager: The offensive line for the Chargers is an absolute mess. The Chargers have had recent runs of success cut short because of trouble along the offensive line. Two years ago the Chargers had a legitimate chance at the AFC West division title, but when their offensive line experienced a little bit of injury turmoil, they fell apart. Assuming Laremy Tunsil doesn’t miraculously fall this far down, I would look to draft Ronnie Stanley. He would provide much needed help and stability along the offensive line, and he is as NFL ready as any prospect available in the draft at any position.
Who I think they will pick: Ronnie Stanley. There is no way around the fact their offensive line is absolutely trash. For the reasons I stated above, Ronnie Stanley should be the pick here.
Dallas Cowboys –
If I was the General Manager: The Cowboys are in a unique position. They are drafting in the top five, but aren’t a bottom five team. Their two best players (Tony Romo, and Dez Bryant) were out for the majority of the season. Two years ago the Dallas Cowboys were a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They were able to be a contender because they could run the football extremely well, and they weren’t injured. They will be 100% healthy going into this season, but they lack a serious running back. I know they just signed Alfred Morris, but I think he is a better change of pace back than he is a starting running back. I would draft Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas needs to return to the power run game that made them so unbelievably good in 2014. Demarco Murray was incredible in 2014. He was the reason the Dallas Cowboys were one of the NFL’s most feared running games the NFL has seen in the recent years. Ezekiel Elliott is the best power runner available in this draft.
Who I think they will pick: Joey Bosa. Dallas will probably feel okay moving forward with the running backs that they have. I am not sure how Alfred Morris will do, but I do not feel he is the power runner that Dallas needs to return to 2014 form. Dallas will probably look to improve their defensive line and pass rush, and Joey Bosa is the best pass rusher in the draft and maybe even the best overall talent in the draft.
Jacksonville Jaguars –
If I was the General Manager: Here is a sentence I never thought I would say, “Jacksonville is set at skill positions on offense”. For the first time in a long time, Jacksonville can move into the NFL draft and not focus on offensive skill players. The Jaguars need help in the secondary and they desperately need a pass rusher. They have Dante Fowler coming back off injury, but it would be unfair to put all the pressure on Fowler to deliver quarterback pressure. I would draft Myles Jack. I think drafting Jack gives Jacksonville a golden opportunity to grab another pass rusher to go along side Fowler, and develop a defensive front to be reckoned with for years to come.
Who I think they will pick:Jalen Ramsey. I think a pass rusher is a great option here, but secondary is also a desperate need for the Jaguars. Jalen Ramsey is an extremely versatile athlete who can play safety or cornerback. This will go a long way in helping the Jaguars became a contender. Cannot go wrong with Ramsey or a pass rusher here.