Sunday, May 31, 2015

Most Intriguing College Football 2015 Opening Week Games

I know that the summer of 2015 is just beginning, but the start of the college football season in September isn't all that far off, as we are now under 100 days until the first kickoff. With that in mind, here is my list of the most intriguing games scheduled on opening weekend (spans from September 3rd to the 7th). Here are the best offerings from opening weekend in no particular order...

Louisville vs. Auburn (at Atlanta)
This should be an Auburn win, but I am not buying in on Auburn just yet, and if the Tigers slip up early despite all the early adoration that Jeremy Johnson is getting, the Tigers may be proven as a fraud early on. Hell, Louisville just needs to find a QB that won't implode to injury.

Youngstown State at Pittsburgh
This is one of our early watch games when we look to see which FCS teams can make life hell on the FBS. Pitt is starting over again at head coach, and YSU is breaking in Bo Pelini. Advantage Penguins. Pitt is officially on upset alert as we start the month of June.

Virginia at UCLA
Mike London is a Dead Pooler early on. He almost upset UCLA at home last fall before falling late. The Bruins should be better with 17 returning starters, but UVA may have an upset recipe. Probably won't happen, but London needs this one...badly.

Ohio State at Virginia Tech
The Buckeyes are still stinging from this one blight on their national title season at home last season. The Hokies will likely get blasted this time around in Blacksburg, but we thought that would happen in Columbus, so this bears watching for a quarter or two.

Villanova at Connecticut
This may not look like much on paper, but Villanova is likely going to beat the Huskies in East Hartford. This is our second FCS team on upset prowl for the opening weekend, but this one could be showing the Wildcats as an actual favorite.

Illinois State at Iowa
The Redbirds will be likely ranked in the top five when the first FCS poll is released. Going into Iowa City will not be all that intimidating for ISU, as they could likely beat Iowa, and it would not be all that much a surprise. Iowa just isn't that good, and ISU is.

Richmond at Maryland
Maryland wants to be a legit force in the Big 10 (or is it 14?). Richmond has a chance to show the world that the Terps are largely a pretender in a bigger world. The Spiders have a very big chance to be our fourth FCS upset perpetrator on opening weekend.

Michigan at Utah
If for no other reason, this game bears watching on a Thursday night because it marks Jim Harbaugh's return to the college game, and it could also mark a very obvious nose bleed for overeager Michigan fans who think the Wolverines will dominate the world from day one because of Harbaugh's appearance. It's too soon for that Wolverine fans, just too soon.

Michigan State at Western Michigan
First of all, the Spartans are playing a road game against an instate MAC opponent. That's strange enough, but WMU is very good, and Sparty cannot take this game lightly. MSU has to get out to a strong start here, and show some dominance, because if they don't the questions will start piling up.

BYU at Nebraska
Welcome to Huskerland Mike Riley. Let me be the first to say that when BYU beats your ass in Lincoln on opening weekend, and they very well could as Taysom Hill makes that red turn blue, you may suddenly realize that even your most ardent supporters may be starting to rethink that whole Bo Pelini thing very quickly.

Wisconsin vs. Alabama (at Arlington)
I have this awful feeling that Wisconsin fans and Nebraska fans will be commiserating their coaching situations together on opening weekend as they realize that both schools downgraded that position. Nick Saban outclasses Paul Chryst by miles, but Chryst has enough talent on hand to make this game interesting for a little while, especially if whomever Alabama chooses at QB struggles early.

Northern Iowa at Iowa State
Again, a sleeper on paper, but a UNI upset win (possible) would go a long way to finally forcing the Cyclones to start to consider an overdue coaching change.

South Dakota State at Kansas
SDSU is yet another FCS power player marching into an FBS stadium with a reasonable chance at a win. Kansas is pathetically awful, and they have such a sterling recent record against teams from the Dakotas anyway.

Texas at Notre Dame
This game is extremely old school, and I applaud both for scheduling this as an opener at an actual home stadium for one or the other, not some miserable overhyped neutral site toilet. Texas needs this win on the road for legitimacy, and Notre Dame needs it to keep theirs. Both teams could struggle early on while looking for new identities, but as far as national recognition, this game means everything.

Sam Houston State at Texas Tech
KC Keeler is one hell of an FCS coach, and Kliff Kingsbury is a pretender of an FBS coach. Now that this has been said openly, SHS is a solid FCS program that could use a regional eye popper of a win, and this could be it. It's hunting season for FCS schools looking for signature wins, and Tech is low enough to let it happen right now.

Georgia Southern at West Virginia
GSU narrowly missed two major upset chances against Power 5 schools last fall, and here is another real shot for the newly minted FBS Eagles to take. WVU is just not good right now, and they are extremely vulnerable here. If the Eagles can control tempo early, they can get this.

Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Ok, we all know how bad Vandy is these days. We can all agree on that. However, beating an SEC opponent, any SEC opponent, is a huge deal at WKU, and it could give the Sun Belt another signature win to go along with Georgia Southern if they can handle WVU. Two power five wins in one weekend for the SBC would be enormous.

Bowling Green vs. Tennessee (at Nashville)
The Falcons are sneaky good, and they don't have to travel to Neyland for this one. The Vols are all over the place, and I don't see how they are better now than before. I will come short of predicting the upset here, but if the Vols don't get their heads right before this game, an upset could happen.

Washington at Boise State
How could we sneeze at a game that has Chris Peterson taking his Huskies to a Boise blue field that he dominated on for years as coach of the Broncos. Here is the bad news for Peterson...Bryan Harsin's Broncos are a better football team.

Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at Houston)
Make no mistake, this is an Aggie home game. A&M should dispatch the Sun Devils here, as they are the better team by a bit. However, if the Aggies don't do their pregame work here, they could be primed to get beat just down the road from home.

Eastern Washington at Oregon
Won't it be interesting to see Vernon Adams suit up for the Ducks against his former team ,the FCS powerhouse Eagles? Wouldn't it be interesting if the Eagles used this as their ammo to make things interesting? No way EWU wins this, but it may not be a runaway either.

UL-Lafayette at Kentucky
Mark Stoops has made Kentucky better, of that there is no doubt, but the Cajuns are strong under Mark Hudspeth, and they will come into Lexington expecting to pull an upset. If the Cajuns won here, they could be the third Sun Belt team to beat a power five opponent on opening weekend. Not bad.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

2015 College Football: Top Ten Returning RBs

A few weeks ago, I posted the top ten QBs returning for the 2015 season. We now move on to take a look at the top returning backs for 2015 as we hit the 100 day mark until the start of the 2015 season. Here are the best and most impactful backs returning for the upcoming year:

Kareem Hunt, Toledo
With so many top tier backs leaving after the 2014 season, Hunt is the best returning back in the nation. Hunt made head coach Matt Campbell a happy camper last fall, as the Rockets enjoyed a season in which Hunt rushed for 1631 yards and 16 TDs on the year, and averaged 7.96 yards per carry. He averaged 163 yards per game last season, and could key a Toledo run in the MAC title chase.

Devon Johnson, Marshall
Johnson returns from a solid season after he rushed for 1767 yards and led the Herd to their best season in their FBS era. Johnson scored 17 TDs on the year on the ground, and averaged 8.58 yards per carry,and 135.92 yards per game. Johnson, a senior, may also be one of the most important players in the country, as Marshall may likely lean on him more as they break in a new QB to replace the departed Rakeem Cato. I'm guessing that we should see his carries per game average increase from 15.85 to somewhere closer to 20 to 22.

James Connor, Pittsburgh
Connor is a monster on legs while running between the tackles for the Pitt Panthers. The Panthers will have a new coach after Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin, and Connor will be a center piece under the new regime. He rushed for 1765 yards, 26 TDs, and a 5.92 YPC average, all while carrying the ball just under 23 times per game. Look for more of the same in 2015.

Jordan Howard, Indiana (UAB Transfer)
Howard was a beast for UAB in their final season, and will replace a record breaking back in Tevin Coleman at IU after Coleman entered the draft. There should be no fall back with Howard in place for the Hoosiers, and he will get the rock plenty. Howard rushed for 1587 yards, 13 TDs, and 5.19 YPC on 25.5 carries per game. He's a workhorse, but can he take Indiana bowling?

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Prine is one of the most exciting young players in the game, rushing for 1713 yards as a freshman, while scoring 21 TDs and averaged 6.51 yards per carry. Perine carried just over 20 times per game, and with Trevor Knight's inconsistencies at QB, they should rely on Perine plenty this fall.

Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
If the Buckeyes weren't fortunate enough with their riches at QB, they return Elliott at RB. Elliott drove the Buckeyes in the national time in particular. Elliott rushed for 1878 yards and 18 scores on the season. He averaged 6.88 yards per carry, and is a huge part of the Buckeyes 2015 title run.

Paul Perkins, UCLA
Perkins gave the Bruins legitimacy at the RB position last fall, and rushed for 1575 yards on the season and averaged over 6 yards per carry while scoring 9 times. With Brett Hundley gone at QB, Perkins should see more opportunities to score this season, and should see an uptick in carries.

Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
Franklin is yet another MAC monster returning in 2015. Franklin was a key member of a Bronco team that came out of nowhere for coach PJ Fleck in 2014. Franklin rushed for 1551 yards and 24 TDs last season, averaging 5.07 YPC. Franklin is a key to an offense that could actually carry the improving Broncos to a top 25 ranking by the end of this season.

Nick Chubb, Georgia
I was just talking over dinner with my good friend last week who is from Georgia, and we both agreed that Georgia will not miss a beat with Chubb replacing Gurley over the course of a full season for the Bulldogs. Chubb is a rising star, and should force his way into the Heisman discussion this year or next. With the Dawgs looking for offensive firepower this season, Chubb will be vital. He rushed for 1547 yards and 14 scores as a freshman last fall.

Leon Allen, Western Kentucky
WKU lost Bobby Rainey a couple of years ago, and yet They landed another monster in Allen, who rushed for 1542 yards and 13 scores last fall. WKU is running for the Sun Belt title in 2015, and Allen should be a key cog in that run in 2015.

Monday, May 25, 2015

UNLV Football Future Suggests All In Move With Sanchez

     It's been no secret that I have been talking about football program shutdowns amongst "mid-major" programs for well over a year now. UAB, while still in flux with their football program, was the first to pull the trigger (even though a small chance exists that a reversal is in order), and they were only in the middle of a list of approximately 30 schools that was released late last year detailing athletic departments in absolute trouble financially. On that list was UNLV, and their AD debt was amongst the highest in FBS football, and in fact, was the highest at over $30 million, almost double the debt that UAB carried.
     It's also been no secret that the few loyalists left to the moribund program at UNLV have attacked my stance endlessly on the matter, stating that UNLV was about as safe as a fun (albeit expensive) family vacation to Disneyland on the fun scale. When UAB, who was strongly in the middle range of debt on the list released, dropped football on perceivably what was a strong revenge driven whim, it proved no program was safe moving forward, and the precedent was set for others to follow suit.
      When last season ended, and the Rebels continued on a listless path with Bobby Hauck (whom I still contend is a damn good football coach), it became imperative that Hauck had to go. The program was sinking like a stone, support in the community was beyond apathetic at best, and had the program dried up in short order, very few people would have given a damn. Las Vegas is a community of winners. This town doesn't support minor or bush leagues, and UNLV football has long been bottom rung, along the likes of the now former ECHL club (which has had several incarnations), and the likely soon to be abandoned Arena Football club which languishes in a mostly empty Thomas and Mack on most home dates.
     UNLV made the smart play and accepted Bobby Hauck's likely forced resignation. A search began in short order, and there were actually some solid names on the short list of people who actually wanted the job. When the smoke cleared, the Rebels laid a huge bet on the only hire that strangely enough made sense for them. They hired Tony Sanchez, a career high school coach from Bishop Gorman.
     Sanchez understands the community, and he came with high profile backers in the Fertitta Family, who owns the chain of Station Casinos around town, as well as a huge share in UFC. The Fertitta's were entrenched supporters financially of Gorman, and likely cut a huge check to get Sanchez hired on Maryland Avenue. Of course, when grilled about Fertitta financial assistance for the school, AD Tina Kunzler-Murphy acted like she was being handed an indictment by a grand jury. In short, every time she was asked, she changed the subject like a politician who had just been nabbed with a bag of blow in a less than savory hotel. To this date, it's still unclear, however probable, as to what contribution that the family made to support the hiring of Sanchez, but I am guessing that the program deficit went down somewhat.
     Kunzler-Murphy would have been smart to take that check, and keep on taking them at this point. UNLV has to go all in and double down on Sanchez, because he is likely the last great hope that this program has of survival. It's a huge risk, but when you are against the ropes as often as this program is, you have to take big gambles.
     In yesterday's (May 24) edition of the LVRJ, Mark Anderson wrote what I have been saying for quite a while now. Before the hiring of Sanchez, there was talk in circles at the university of shutting the show down. UNLV football had all of the attraction of Taylor Hicks performing at the Paris. None. Check the fifth paragraph in the article that begins with " Talks of killing football at UNLV has subsided with the hiring in December of Tony Sanchez, who has brought energy to the program and created a buzz in the community for the first time in a decade or so".
     I think that the Buzz that Anderson is discussing is tangible, if not a tad bit over hyped, but he is right that someone has to create a buzz that literally has never really existed, and it's been longer than ten years since it's existed if it ever did. It dates back 20 years to John Robinson's hire, even if Robo Coach was worn out and outdated by that time.
     Everything lays on the shoulders of the energetic Sanchez, and he has a short time frame in which to entirely change a culture that has gotten used to apathy and losing. Hell, he has to build a culture that largely doesn't exist. Right now, he has to get people that just don't care to buy in. He has to win people who've never given a damn to start giving a damn.
     If the Sanchez gamble fails, the program eventually dies out, especially in an ever changing landscape where money and success is the only game in town. The Mountain West is not in the Big 5, which keeps UNLV in what is essentially a minor league in a town that, outside of the PCL 51s, largely could care less about the minors. Even the 51s rarely see front page coverage in a town where no other baseball exists for almost 300 miles around.
     Sanchez has a ton of weight on his shoulders right now, and he has the bravado to carry it out. The problem is that the university dropped a huge chip on him, and if it doesn't pay off, it's game over in all likelihood. Good luck with that.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

2015 Post Spring Report: PAC-12

The PAC-12 had a relatively strong 2014 season, and finished 6-3 during the bowl season. @015 looks to repeat an upward swing for the conference, especially in the South, where as many as three schools could win the divisional title (UCLA, USC, Arizona). The North may be stagnating a bit, as Oregon may very well slide back a half step while they seek a replacement for Marcus Mariota, amongst others, and Stanford may remain in neutral for another season. Here's how I see the conference heading into the 2015 season as things stand now:

PAC-12 North Predicted Order
1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. California
4. Washington
5. Washington State
6. Oregon State

PAC-12 South Predicted Order
1. USC
3. Arizona
4. Arizona State
5. Utah
6. Colorado

Breakout Team

Arizona State

Offensive MVP
Jared Goff (QB), California

Defensive MVP
Myles Jack (LB), UCLA

Biggest Shoes to Fill
QB, Oregon (Marcus Mariota)
QB, Oregon State (Sean Mannion)
LB, Washington (Shaq Thompson)
LB, UCLA (Eric Kendricks)
QB, Arizona State (Taylor Kelly)

South Notes
The strength of the conference still lays in the South, but the conference hasn't been able to parlay that strength into a conference title, which is somewhat maddening. As many as three schools could win this division outright in USC, UCLA, and Arizona, and that order is completely interchangeable. Arizona is set with freshman Anu Solomon at QB, who had an explosive season as a freshman in 2014, and could be even better in 2015. Nick Wilson was just a freshman at RB, and ran for over 1300 yards. Targets will be plentiful, as Solomon has six of his top seven receivers returning.
For USC, they may have the most pro ready QB in the league coming back in Cody Kessler, who was a bright rising star in 2014 for the Trojans. USC is back in order to compete for the title, and Kessler will be driving the bus. He will be breaking in a new RB this fall, but the Trojans always have a strong line to run behind, and should be able to fill that role in short order. The bigger question will be who will fill the shoes of Nelson Agholar at WR, but JuJu Smith seems to have a beat on the lead job next fall, and maybe, just maybe, George Farmer may very well finally be the guy he has always supposed to have been.The Bruins are actually four deep at QB now, have a deep receiving corps, and Paul Perkins gives them a run game that they haven't had in years. On defense, the Bruins are deep everywhere, and Myles Jack moves to the MLB spot, where his talents will be better served. Eric Kendricks, however, will be missed.
UCLA is beginning a new era post Brett Hundley at QB, and they may actually be better off without him in 2015 than they were with him. With Hundley under center, it was normal for other players to hang around and wait for him to make a play. With him off the field in the Texas win, other players were forced to make plays, and they became more diverse on offense. The Bruins are exceptionally deep at QB now, and freshman Josh Rosen may very well win the job over Jerry Neuheisel in the fall.
Arizona State slides to fourth in the South, as they must replace Taylor Kelly at QB. Mike Bercovici will likely step into the starting role, which he held when Kelly was hurt last fall, but will he be able to carry the load over 12 games in 2015? Remember, he won't have Jaelon Strong to throw the ball to as well.
Utah is falling like a rock, and Kyle Whittingham nearly bailed on the program after last season. He finally agreed to stay, but he may not live through another disappointing season, and the Utes must get Travis Wilson right at QB to get above that point. He had decent numbers last fall, but he was mostly inconsistent, especially in big games. Overall, the Utes have lacked the talent they need to compete on the next level, and they have to recruit up to get there. Whether or not Whittingham can get it done is up in the air, but I think he is a solid coach.
Colorado is a team I feel bad for at this point.It's obvious that Mike MacIntyre is making strides in Boulder, but they just cannot seem to get over the hump, as the South is so strong that they get easily overshadowed. Sefo Liufau is a solid young QB, and will likely hit his apex as a junior this season, but the talent around him may just not be good enough to overcome the immense strength  of the division. There is progress being made, however it's hard to see it on paper right now. If the Buffs were in the North, it may be more visible just how much they have progressed as a team.

North Notes
PAC-12 fans may not like this, but the conference may not have a final four option this fall, as Oregon is likely to slide a bit in 2015. It's the reality of the situation, and that's it. The Ducks have holes all over the place coming into the season, and none more than at QB where it is looking like Jeff Lockie will be leading in replacing Mariota at QB. He threw all of 28 attempts last season, so he is really in the hole as a junior with experience. Because of this, the Ducks may be a more run oriented football team this fall, as the backfield is the core of the offensive strength and experience for this edition. Richard Marshall, Thomas Tyner, and leading rusher Royce Freeman all return. The Ducks have three holes to fill in the secondary on defense, and that could be an area of growing pains as well. One thing to remember is that the Ducks do get Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams in August, and he will be directly competing for the starting QB job into the opening week of the season.
Stanford was not nearly as impressive in 2014 as they were in years past. I expected that. What I see now is that the Cardinal will hold onto second place, but they aren't necessarily better than they were a year ago. Kevin Hogan returns at QB, but was mostly streaky all season, and he loses Ty Montgomery. The Cardinal did not have a robust run game either, and they need more production there. I won't even line item the losses on defense heading into 2015, as they are numerous.
California is a team to watch in the conference, as they are rising quickly under third year coach Sonny Dykes. Jared Goff is coming into his junior season, and he may be the most productive QB in the league. He should have a breakthrough season, and help drive the Bears to their first bowl appearance under Dykes.
Washington should be in a decent spot, but losing Shaq Thompson will be felt on both sides of the football, and Cyler Myles cannot get out of his own way off the field for the Huskies when they are depending on him to win the starting QB job. The Huskies may have to take a step back before the take a surge forward beyond 2015.
Washington State is bound to get better under Mike Leach, but they haven't found the combo to unlocking that ability just yet. Leach enters his third season, but is behind Cal when it comes to building talent around both sides of the football. WSU could press for a bowl bid this season, but questions must be answered at QB, as well as at several other positions.
Look for Oregon State to fall to the bottom as they transition to Gary Anderson's system of doing things. Gone is QB Sean Mannion, who meant so much to the Beaver's success the last few seasons. Anderson is going to have to build from the bottom up in Corvallis, as Mike Riley left the cupboard pretty bare on his way out the door to the Nebraska job. Anderson is an excellent coach and recruiter, so look for the Beavers to not languish for very long before they are pushing the upper half of the league overall.

Opening 2015 Games

Grambling State at California (9/5)
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at Houston) (9/5)
UTSA at Arizona (9/3)
Colorado at Hawaii (9/3)
Eastern Washington at Oregon (9/5)
Weber State at Oregon State (9/4)
Stanford at Northwestern (9/5)
Virginia at UCLA (9/5)
Arkansas State at USC (9/5)
Michigan at Utah (9/3)
Washington at Boise State (9/4)
Portland State at Washington State (9/5)