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2016 ACC Football: Proof That They Aren’t Just Good at Basketball

Now is when I tell you about the good and the bad from this past season of ACC football. I’ve been brainstorming for this article since the day after Clemson won it all, but I’ve still run into a problem of sorts. All in all, there was just much more good in ACC football than there was bad this season.

That isn’t to say that there was no bad in ACC football. Trust me, there was. There is even one play from one particular ACC game this season that still bothers me. I’ll get to that later, though.

What all the good did do for the conference was offer evidence that maybe these schools are capable of being among the best in the country in more than just one sport. Without further ado, I present you with the proof.

The Best of ACC Football

Clemson won the College Football Playoff National Championship game. I am sure nothing else that any conference carried out can top that. But Clemson’s victory over mighty Alabama in that game wasn’t all the good they provided for ACC football this year. The Tigers were 14-1 by the end of it all, having lost that one game by a single point. They also shut out Ohio State in their first playoff game.

Deshaun Watson, our favorite (black) dual-threat quarterback, ended up accounting for a total of 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards between passing and rushing for Clemson. Running back Wayne Gallman contributed 17 more touchdowns this season. And there was wide receiver Mike Williams who came back from injury and ended up having quite the season as well, racking up 11 touchdowns.

The Clemson defense was also nothing to scoff at, allowing an average of 314 yards per game. Clemson was very good for the ACC.

Florida State, overall, was also pretty dang good for ACC football. There was some definite bad in that 63-20 loss to Louisville early in the season, but the Seminoles still managed to bounce back and have an impressive year. Star running back Dalvin Cook was essential to Florida State’s success, with 288 carries for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns. The fact that he was not a Heisman finalist still baffles me. But aside from Dalvin Cook’s success, the team was successful as well, finishing the year at 10-3. Not to mention, Florida State beat Michigan 33-32 in its bowl game when Michigan was arguably a playoff contender at the end of the season.

There’s also Virginia Tech and coach Justin Fuente on the “good” side of things. In his first season as head coach of the Hokies, Fuente took the team to the ACC Championship Game. And, the Hokies actually gave Clemson a good game. Fuente and the Hokies finished with a record of 9-4 and an impressive comeback win over Arkansas in their bowl game. This is why Fuente, in my mind, was clearly the best coaching hire from last year.

There’s one more name I’d be crazy for not mentioning, regardless of how his season ended. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had an incredible year. It was so incredible that he won the Heisman trophy. With 51 touchdowns throughout the season, it’s safe to say that Jackson was the key to Louisville’s success. Jackson is also only a sophomore, which means he has at least one year left with the Cardinals. That’s very good for them.

I can think of one last name I should also mention when praising the good in ACC football. Pittsburgh running back James Conner returned this season after being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. He clearly didn’t let his cancer slow him down considering he had 16 rushing touchdowns and four receiving touchdowns this year. Here’s to Conner, because he’s about as good as it gets–aside from Clemson’s championship.

The Worst of ACC Football

The few bad things I could come up with off the top of my head require much less explanation.

There are the only three teams from the ACC that did not play in bowl games: Virginia, Duke and Syracuse. Virginia and Duke both were 1-7 in conference play while Syracuse was 2-6. None of these teams won more than four games this season. When you’re a member of a Power Five conference, those kinds of records are beyond bad.

The other major “bad” that I saw in ACC football this year was Lamar Jackson’s supporting cast. Jackson did get some help from his teammates at times. But most the work rested on Jackson’s shoulders, and because of that the Cardinals had a hard time winning when their opponents could contain him.

This brings me to the one horrible play I mentioned above. The Louisville vs. Clemson game was one of the best games of the regular season. That game really did come down to the wire. And the Cardinals could’ve beaten the Tigers if it weren’t for a huge mistake James Quick made on a pass play from Jackson at the end of the game. Instead of getting the yardage necessary to get a first down, Quick went out of bounds to stop the clock only to realize he had done so on fourth down and had not gained enough to get the first down. And that was the end of the game. SO BAD!

One last fact worth mentioning when speaking of the bad in ACC football this season has to do with the North Carolina Tar Heels. They were actually a pretty good team this season with a top 20 defense. But somehow the Tar Heels managed to only grab one interception (as a team) during the entire season. For most of the season, it looked like they might make history and not end up with any interceptions at all. That one interception came against The Citadel, too, so it wasn’t even all that impressive. What gives, Tar Heels?

 

Even with these bad things I just mentioned, it stays clear that this was a mostly good season for ACC football. Only three teams in the entire conference weren’t bowl eligible. Then, the ACC won eight of its eleven bowl games, not including the National Championship Game. Dabo Swinney took down Nick Saban in that one. I’d say that’s good—especially for a basketball conference.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Photo from Flickr user Jason A G.

Do You Like a Hollywood Blockbuster? Alabama and Clemson Wrote Back-to-Back Scripts

It’s five past eight on Tuesday morning and I’m surprisingly not tired, considering I stayed up until 12:45 in the morning watching Clemson topple Alabama. I didn’t dare go to bed while that game went on. I couldn’t have slept knowing what I was missing.

Last night’s College Football Playoff National Championship rematch was even better than last year’s installment. This time last year, I was talking about how we had just witnessed a sensational football game. Well, I’m back to say the same thing about Monday night’s classic.

Last year’s game had just about everything – stars carrying their team (Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson), surprising standout performances (O.J. Howard and Hunter Renfrow) and numerous dramatic momentum shifts. Monday night’s game wasn’t as wide-open, but the storylines were just as, if not more compelling.

Admittedly, I was searching for them but there really were a lot of similarities between the 2015 and 2016 versions of this game. I started noticing them in the second quarter as the Tide’s offensive line began to dominate the Tigers’ front seven. Then, my guy Bo Scarbrough scampered in from 37 yards out to score his second touchdown of the evening. A lot of people were ready to hand the Tide the title at that point. Aren’t we glad they didn’t?

Last season we saw improbable stars emerge in the form of Hunter Renfrow and O.J. Howard. Both of them were cast brilliantly in the sequel. Renfrow was again Watson’s most reliable target, reeling in 10 passes for 92 yards and two scores. Howard turned in more big plays when Alabama needed them most, racking up 106 yards and a touchdown on four grabs.

This game was the culmination of what truly could be made into a movie. It felt like fiction as it played out in front of us. The “underdog” won. You have the villain, Nick Saban, (or anti-hero, as I prefer to see him) trying to win his sixth national championship and remain perfect in the game itself. The zany Dabo Swinney can act as comic relief, if you’re into his whole act.

Deshaun Watson is clearly the main character and hero. His performance was both outstanding and inspiring. My favorite part was the way he handled it. He doesn’t seem like a spotlight guy, off the field. He can’t help but steal it on the field, though. He became a college football legend and unquestioned top-pick candidate without being annoying like a lot of guys tend to get now.

All the makings of a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster are there. The only difference is this was real life.

The most untouchable dynasty in the history of college football hit a big speed bump and got a flat tire. I’m not at all worried about Alabama not making it back to this stage. In fact, find any odds you can and I’ll take the Tide as 2017 champs.

That’s down the road though. For now, all we have to do is revel in the greatness that was Monday night’s game and give props where they are due.

Congratulations to Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers, 2016 College Football Playoff National Champions.

E-mail Mitch at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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College Football Playoff National Championship Preview

With the National Championship on Monday, I was tasked with writing a proper preview. The game is the first rematch in the D1 National Championship era. The respective beatings that Alabama and Clemson handed to Washington and Ohio State, two teams who were supposed to be amongst the top four in the country, left me unable to find the proper terms or analogies to show just how incredible the Crimson Tide and the Tigers have been over the course of the season. As I thought more about the matchup, I began to see Alabama and Clemson less as college football teams and more as legendary figures set to do battle. With that in mind, I set to find a chimerical battle that properly described the teams. At this point, I remembered the Greek myth of the fight between Heracles (known as Hercules to Romans and Disney fans) and the Hydra, two figures that I realized represented the teams in the National Championship perfectly. Don’t believe me? Let me explain.

From the depths of the Black Warrior River, the Tuscaloosan Hydra has vanquished any and all in its way this year. With college football stars like Jonathan Allen, Marlon Humphrey, Cam Robinson, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, O.J. Howard, and Jalen Hurts headlining an elite roster, the Crimson Tide truly embody the mythological serpent’s ability to regenerate its decapitated heads. So many teams come into matchups attempting to best Alabama straight on, only to be swarmed by sheer magnitude of talent that the Crimson Tide possesses on its roster. Interestingly enough, this week it felt like Alabama cut off one of its own heads, as the Tide parted ways with Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin a mere week before the National Championship game. We don’t yet know how the offense will blend with new OC Steve Sarkisian, but the change could prove to be the biggest weakness in Alabama’s team all season.

Heracles here is none other than Deshaun Watson, the descendant of “Clemson football gods” Tajh Boyd and Steve Fuller. Like Heracles, Deshaun-cles has the combined strength, agility, willpower and intuition of his predecessors. Deshaun-cles, with some help from his foster father, general “Dabo” Amphitryon and his army of tigers, has completed all of his labours to this point. Deshaun-cles has already defeated the Louisville bronze-beaked man-eating birds, killed the fearsome Seminole giant Geryon Cook, captured the Palmetto Hind, and most recently, slain the Ohioan Lion. All that is left on Deshaun-cles’ list of labours is to kill the Tuscaloosan Hydra. Whether or not Deshaun-cles and the Tigers can sear Alabama’s wound closed and bury the head under a rock will be answered Monday night.

Okay, okay, let’s get serious and talk what is actually going to go down on Monday evening. Deshaun-cles Deshaun Watson and the Tiger offense are looking to score early and minimize the scoring ability of the Crimson Tide. I think the difference between the upcoming matchup and Washington’s effort in the Peach Bowl is that the Tigers, through their elite spread offensive approach, will be able to beat the Alabama defense early enough to have the points to counteract the massive retaliation that often occurs once an Alabama opponent scores. I think both Alabama and Clemson will get into the double digits by the mid-second quarter, but the game will then start to slow down. Both the Alabama and the Clemson defenses will take over for the middle two quarters of the contest. However, by the fourth, with the game tied, what I predict will be an incredibly physical matchup will begin to take its toll. Possibly some injuries, cramps or just exhaustion will start to take effect. The offenses, having been handicapped by the ferocious play of the respective defenses, will see an opportunity and kick back into high gear. Unfortunately for Clemson, Deshaun Watson, who has thrown numerous interceptions this season, will at some point have an Alabama defender jump a route, leading to a Crimson Tide touchdown. Alabama then kicks a field goal to go up by 10 late in the game. Clemson will score a last minute touchdown, but fail to recover the onside kick, finishing off Alabama’s victory in this year’s National Championship game, making the Tide back-to-back champions, and giving Nick Saban his sixth National Title.

Final Score: Alabama Crimson Tide 27, Clemson Tigers 24

 

Email Cooper at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @uf_goetz.
Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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All Aboard the Tar Heel Bandwagon

Down the stretch last fall, a good buddy of mine hopped on the North Carolina Tar Heels’ bandwagon.  He’s a big fan of this guy, Ryan Switzer.  Why exactly, I couldn’t tell you.

Now, contrary to popular belief, being a bandwagon fan is not a bad thing.  If your hometown team sucks, or if you lack one altogether, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking up an alternate rooting interest.

Doing so can revitalize your love for the game.  Believe me, as a Michigan fan that spent his high school and college years watching Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke coached teams, I know.  If you have a true love for the game, you’ll be able to pick up that side team no problem.

Anyway, I had been watching last year’s Heels somewhat closely ever since they’d proven me wrong, winning at Georgia Tech in early October.  Then, when they popped Pitt on the road at the end of the month, I was ready to ride the Fighting Michael Jordans all the way to a surprise playoff appearance.

I called for the upset in the ACC Championship Game, but the Heels and I can’t get no (dunh nuh nuh) satis-faction.  So, I’m here now to double down.

ACC Ripe for Picking

The Tar Heels are the team to beat on the East Coast this fall.

A quick aside: UNC’s athletic director’s name is Bubba Cunningham.  Without knowing anything about him personally, that’s a man I want to see succeed, if only because we’ll get to hear the name Bubba Cunningham more often.

Clemson is good, yes.  DeShaun Watson will likely be the best quarterback in the draft class.  Florida State is also good.  Dalvin Cook will be a top pick, too.  The Tigers and the Seminoles will come up short this season, though.

What Clemson did last year was captivating.  We all wanted that team to succeed so we could watch Dabo Swinney act a fool after big wins.  Realistically, a repeat performance will be tremendously difficult.

Say goodbye to seven key members of last year’s defense, including ends Shaw Lawson and Kevin Dodd, corner Mackensie Alexander, and safety T.J. Green, who all went in the first two rounds of the draft.

Overwhelming firepower only takes you so far when you lack proper fortifications.  I’ll err on the side of Clemson’s replacements not being as sturdy as the now pros they’re taking over for.

Florida State is the new USC.  That 2013 national championship was supposed to be a springboard for FSU, not the pinnacle.

We keep hearing about how loaded Jimbo Fisher’s group is but we’ve not seen enough supporting evidence the past two years to legitimize the hype.  The Seminoles have lost the benefit of the doubt.  They’ve got a lot to prove in order to earn it back.

Closing Statement

North Carolina wins the ACC this year because it replaces its gamebreaker with a steady hand that can utilize all the returning talent around him.  Mitch Trubisky is taking over for Marquise Williams and with a name like that he’s got to be good.

Five All-ACC selections return on the offensive side.  Switzer, along with running back Elijah Hood, receiver Mack Hollins, guard Caleb Peterson, and tackle Jon Heck will all be reliable cogs in the UNC machine.  Receiver Bug Howard, tackle Bentley Spain, and center Lucas Crowley are all back as well.

Interestingly enough, former Illinois head coach Tim Beckman is now a volunteer coach for the Tar Heels.  Beckman, who was fired almost a year ago to the day for mistreatment of players, will help scout and evaluate film.

This is an excellent move by head coach Larry Fedora, who’s familiar with Beckman from their time together on the 2007 Oklahoma State staff.  Basically, Fedora is getting a major bargain, adding a veteran defensive-minded coach with plenty of incentive to get his act together at no cost.

Normally, having to replace a quarterback, particularly one of Williams’ stature, is a great way for me to not pick you to do much.  However, the progress report on Trubisky and the supporting cast he’ll be able to lean on have me sipping the Carolina blue kool-aid.

No, it won’t be either one of the usual suspects representing the ACC in this season’s playoff.  It’ll be the team whose bandwagon is about to pick up many more interested travelers along the way.

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

E-mail Mitch at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck Marks Changing of the Guard at MAC Media Days

Last Thursday, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher took the podium at Ford Field to deliver his annual State of the MAC address, kicking off media day festivities and, more importantly, signaling that the long wait for 2016 #MACtion is drawing quickly to a close. In his remarks, Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s reputation for “respecting the grind.” He discussed adjustments to challenge procedures. He voiced proposed restrictions on satellite camps. He even took the time to recite his favorite sections of A Tale of Two Cities. Sexy stuff.

The remainder of the day was dominated by coaches and their respective programs. Frank Solich gave us a glimpse into Ohio University’s improved front seven. Terry Bowden discussed building upon Akron’s program-record eight wins last season. Mike Jinks announced his plans to continue Bowling Green’s explosive success with the air raid offense. In short: standard, run-of-the-mill, coaching speak.

Then there was P.J. Fleck.

Nearly four years ago, the Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a disastrous, 4-8 campaign with a loss to Eastern Michigan, the Broncos’ worst finish since 2004. Head coach Bill Cubit took the resulting fall, his tenure in Kalamazoo ending after seven seasons, three bowl appearances, and – count ‘em – zero postseason victories. Still yet to claim a bowl victory or a MAC title in its history, the Broncos found themselves once again searching for a savior to resurrect a stagnant program.

Jesus Christ was resurrected at 33. P.J. Fleck was hired at 32. Jesus Christ is a pretty good recruiter. P.J. Fleck might just be better.

Fleck steered into the skid his first season at the helm, limping to a 1-11 season as the youngest coach in the FBS (he still is). But shortly thereafter, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mentality propelled the program to back-to-back eight win seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and – finally – a bowl victory. Fleck’s marked improvements to the culture of Western Michigan even birthed a new language: Bronconese. While nuggets like Row the Boat and F.A.M.I.L.Y. might strike outsiders as a foreign language, recruits are clearly fluent in it. Fleck hauled in the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to what’s currently a sizable lead for the 2017 cycle.

Those recruits haven’t delivered a MAC title yet, but this season’s preseason media poll indicates those fortunes may be changing. Despite the fact Northern Illinois has claimed an FBS record seven straight division titles, the Broncos are the media’s overwhelming favorite to take the conference crown, signaling not only a changing of the guard among MAC elite, but among college football at large.

A 35-year-old coach in his fourth season is taking the Group of 5 by storm. And can we really be surprised?

Certainly Fleck isn’t the first coaching phenom to rise from a mid-major school, but he’s certainly a far cry you’re your average MAC coach. College football, more commercialized than ever, has assumed a climate where the P.J. Fleck’s of the country can thrive even in mediocre programs and mediocre conferences. Look towards Michigan’s recent uniform reveal, following a nearly $200 million deal with Nike. Look towards college football’s loosened restrictions on Twitter as a recruiting tool, a welcomed development for a man this skilled in the art of Twitter.

Western Michigan might not have Fleck for long, but the overall trend is going nowhere. I’m a college kid myself, and hearing Fleck’s narrative in articles and interviews makes a nerd like me want to run through walls. Young coaches like P.J. Fleck, Tom Herman, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart represent a new wave of college coaches in a new era of college football. These guys aren’t sullen and curmudgeonly like certain high-profile coaches, they’re brand-oriented, message-driven inspiratory uniquely tooled to address millennials as near-millennials themselves. It’s happening in the MAC, and it’s happening countrywide.

Jon Steinbrecher, Frank Solich, Terry Bowden, and other seasoned figures across the college football landscape will continue the same old song and dance, and that’s fine. But don’t be mistaken, P.J. Fleck is the future of college football. It’s reflected in recruiting rankings, on the field, and in the locker room. The question isn’t whether or not P.J. Fleck will stick, the question is whether other programs will take notice, opting to abandon traditional, X’s and O’s coaching candidates, to find a media-savvy brand builder fit to revive a program in the reality of 21st Century college football.

So when a Power 5 school looks to fill a coaching vacancy this winter, they’ll survey a myriad of candidates. Those candidates will come with thick resumes, foolproof pro-style offenses, and run-of-the-mill coaching speak.

And then there’ll be P.J. Fleck.

E-mail Cole at [email protected] or follow him in Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of larrysphatpage – Flickr

Ranking the Power 5 Conferences for 2016

The SEC has been running college football for about a decade now. When will it end? 2020? 2030? Never? It certainly doesn’t look to be anytime soon. Though the SEC went on a two-year championship drought, it still felt like it was the best conference overall. With Alabama winning it all in 2015, it stamped another year of SEC supremacy.

Even if no conference challenges the Southeastern Conference for the top spot in 2016, it is important to look at the perceived strength of the remaining conferences since it always gets talked about once the playoff rankings roll around.

2016 could be an interesting year because of the relative strengths of the Power 5 conferences. The past two years it was somewhat easy to have four conference champs in the playoff while leaving the fifth conference champ out. Looking forward to 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the first year in the era of the college football playoff that we see two teams from the same conference make the four-team field. So with that, here is my ranking of the Power 5 conferences heading into 2016.

5. Big 12

The Big 12 is used to being picked on when it comes to conference rankings. Being the only Power 5 conference with just 10 teams and without a conference championship game certainly hasn’t helped matters. This offseason hasn’t exactly seen a lot go right for it either. The conference seemingly can’t decide whether it should expand or not, and in the end will probably have to do what Oklahoma and Texas want it to do anyway.

The conference’s on-field prospects don’t exactly look great heading into this fall either. Oklahoma will be ranked highly to start the year with Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield returning under center after leading the Sooners to the playoff a year ago. Looming however is Oklahoma’s history of falling apart whenever it starts the year ranked highly. If it happens again this season, the conference may not have another team to fall back on to lead its charge.

Baylor looked to be the other contender for the conference, but with the recent off-field turmoil and dismissal of coach Art Briles it is difficult to expect much from the Bears. I wasn’t sure Baylor would make a run at a playoff spot to begin with and replacing the head coach three months before the season starts has only added to those doubts.

There are nothing but question marks among the rest of the teams. Oklahoma State had a nice season in 2015 on its way to a surprising ten wins but got blasted in its final two games against good competition. TCU has to replace Trevone Boykin at quarterback and WR Josh Doctson, who was picked in the first round. Then there’s Texas, who is in the vast group of former powerhouse programs that have to show something before we buy in again.

Being a top conference is largely based on the contenders at the top. I don’t see the Big 12 having that strength at the top or the depth to make up for it.

4. Pac-12

It certainly looks like the Pac-12’s opportunity has passed it by. A couple years ago the conference had gained enough steam where an argument could be made that it was the nation’s best. The past year and a half has seen a swift fall that culminated in the Pac-12 being left out of the college football playoff in 2015. It’s going to be tough for the conference to claw its way back up the conference rankings, at least in 2016.

There’s a decent chance the Pac-12 will be the only Power 5 conference to not have a team ranked in the pre-season Top 10. Stanford has to replace Kevin Hogan who, while not the most dynamic quarterback, has the most wins in Cardinal history. It is also hard to expect Christian McCaffrey to duplicate his historical 2015 season. They may be the favorite again, but they aren’t nearly in the same class as the Alabama/Michigan/Clemson’s of the world heading into this season.

The Cardinal’s main competition in the Pac-12 recently, the Oregon Ducks, will be trying to bounce back from their first season of under ten wins since 2007. They’ll have to do it with just five starters returning on defense and relying on another FCS transfer at quarterback.

Elsewhere in the conference you have USC which hasn’t been able to get back to national prominence, UCLA who has folded under the weight of pre-season expectations multiple times recently, and a group of average teams that were a disaster on defense a year ago (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State).

The two teams that battle for the Apple Cup, Washington and Washington State, give the conference some hope in providing quality depth. The Huskies will be a popular sleeper pick to be the conference champion, and the Cougars Mike Leach-led offense will have a field day against Pac-12 defenses after ranking first nationally in passing a year ago.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12 and a lot of that comes down to the unknowns behind center. The conference has just six returning starters at quarterback (all other Power 5 conferences have at least nine). The Pac-12 may not have elite level teams, but it still has some quality depth throughout the conference which is why I rank it ahead of the Big 12.

3. Big Ten

There isn’t nearly as much uncertainty in the Big Ten where Ohio State and Michigan may both be ranked in the top 10 to start the year, two teams that didn’t even play for the conference title in 2015. Michigan should challenge for a playoff spot and even with just six starters returning, anything less than double-digit wins would be a disappointment in Columbus.

Then we get to Michigan State and Iowa, the two teams that did play for the Big Ten Championship a year ago. Regardless of who they lost, the Spartans can’t be counted out after what they’ve done under Mark Dantonio. Aside from 2012, Sparty has notched at least 11 wins every year this decade. The Hawkeyes will be doubted again after being treated to much of the same throughout their surprise 2015 campaign, but I don’t think they should be. They should have one of the best defenses in the country led by future first-round cornerback Desmond King. That defense, along with a returning signal-caller and a solid running game, will keep them in each contest.

The difference when it comes to the Big Ten is that I believe the bottom of the conference is more of a disaster than the ACC, which is why I could only put it at three.

2. ACC

The ACC can thank Clemson for getting it out of the conference-rankings basement in recent years. The conference needed a team to step up to challenge Florida State on a yearly basis and the Tigers have done more than that. Clemson has reached SEC-level respect nationwide under Dabo Swinney as they are expected to be a contender every year no matter who they lose to the NFL.

This year they’ll have a tougher path in an Atlantic Coast Conference that may be as good as it has been in recent memory. The Seminoles have the look of a top 5 team with athletes all over the defense and every single starter returning on offense.

A large number of returning starters is a common theme among ACC teams in 2016. Eight of the conference’s 14 teams return at least 15 starters, and 11/14 have their starting quarterback returning (a nation high). While this doesn’t mean all of those teams will necessarily be good, it does mean a lot of those teams should be improved, increasing competition in the middle and bottom off the conference. Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were at the bottom of the conference a year ago, but with 15+ starters back including the quarterback, should be less of a pushover than they were in 2015.

There’s also hope for the ACC in the tier below Florida State and Clemson. Louisville has eight starters back on a defense that was 18th in the country last year. If they can get consistency from an offense with 10 starters returning, they’ll be a dark horse in the conference.

The Coastal division should be a three-team race between UNC, Pitt, and Miami. The Tar Heels will be the favorite, but it’s hard to expect them to run away with it again if they repeat a defensive performance that left them 97th in the country in 2015. The Panthers return eight starters on each side of the ball after going 6-2 in conference play a year ago. Then there’s Miami, which could see improvement with new head coach Mark Richt and a quarterback that could be taken very highly in the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. SEC

Was there any doubt? As much as I’d like to see another conference take over the top spot, it’s hard to make that argument for 2016. After last year, it’s time for anyone (myself included) who doubted Alabama to stop expecting less than an SEC championship for the Tide. It’s better to just be surprised if it doesn’t happen.

LSU could be the team to overtake them this year. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the Tigers have the look of a championship contender once again. Everyone will point to the needed improvement at quarterback, which is surely necessary. Really though, it’s the defense that needs to get back to playing the way it used to. The Tigers’ run defense imploded last year during the team’s losses, but should revert to form with nine starters back and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda on board.

Tennessee was looked at as a bit of a disappointment last year, but still went 9-4. This year they bring 17 starters back from that team, including a dynamic backfield in Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. Along with Tennessee, Ole Miss could help give the SEC four pre-season Top 10 teams. Say what you want about pre-season polls, but they are generally about the most talented teams, and the SEC has more talent than anyone.

The talent discrepancy shows up among the second-tier of the SEC, where teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss had dominating bowl wins over other Power 5 teams. Other conferences may have a couple teams as good as the SEC’s top teams, but it’s the quality of that middle tier that keeps the SEC on top.

Feature image courtesy Ken Lund

Auburn Links: The Latest From The Plains

The first SEC football news I saw this morning was in the form of a tweet. It was another tale of two more young, and very talented, players being arrested. This time it was for illegal possession of a firearm and, you guessed it, marijuana. The team the young men play for is the University of Alabama, but, that’s not the point. The point is that you could fill in the blank with the name of any team from any conference, at any level, in any sport.

This type of thing has, sadly, become commonplace.

I find myself at a loss for words, except for three… WTH? That’s it. That’s all I’ve got on the subject today. More later? I don’t know. We are scheduled to record a podcast this afternoon and I’m sure that this story will be a prime source for our conversation.

Today? In this slot? I’m going back to Auburn, and I’m going to do a twist of my Friday column format, links, Auburn links.

ESPN just released it opening weekend TV schedule.

I can hear the collective moans and groans, from the Auburn Family, up here in north Georgia. If I’m honest, I have to include myself in that company. 9 PM EDT is the time the Tigers vs. Tigers matchup will kickoff. That means the game will not conclude until around 12:30 or 1 AM EDT on Sunday,  September 4th.

It is what it is. As Auburn fans, let’s just embrace the moment and get good and “prepared” for the conclusion of the ESPN tripleheader. Let’s see this as an opportunity. Jordan-Hare Stadium, at night, is an exceptionally tough place to play. Auburn fans should make it doubly so and give Dabo’s group of highly-ranked felines all they can handle and more.

Auburn’s win total, including a bowl game, has been set at 7.5. This number comes from the good people at 5Dimes. I disagree, slightly. I would put that total at 8.5, but I’m an optimist. We will get into the specifics of all of this when August rolls around. The only other thought I’ll share, at this point, is that Auburn will be much improved, in my humble opinion.

We now have info on what Auburn’s participation in satellite camps will be. Gus revealed that Tiger coaches will, probably, be involved in three of the the gatherings that Jim Harbaugh, directly or indirectly, foisted upon the college football world. Good! That’s the given. Embrace it just like you should that late kickoff with Clemson.

Auburn’s new linebacker coach, Travis “T Will” Williams speaks up on the subject of the position that he oversees. I love Coach Williams. He was an undersized player when he made his way to the Plains and he made the most of it in spades. His tenacity and work ethic will rub off on his steads and I expect the group will be a big part of that much improved equation.

Speaking of linebackers, Auburn got a big commitment from one this past Friday. He is Chandler Wooten from North Cobb High School which is right here in Acworth, GA. My wife, Melodye, teaches math at NCHS, but she doesn’t know Wooten. She hasn’t taught him. Everything I hear about him is positive. Here’s thinking that Coach Williams should develop Wooten into a very good outside linebacker.

Also last Friday, in My SEC Links blog, I featured a story on Auburn quarterback John Franklin III working out with Michael Vick. My immediate thought was how head coach Gus Malzahn would react to this bit of news on one of his signal callers who is in the thick of the quarterback battle. We have that reaction here. I am pleased with the news on Franklin and Malzahn’s response to it. I think it shows how focused and committed Franklin is in his pursuit of the starting job and, it seems, that this could only help him toward that goal.

105 days remain until Auburn and Clemson kick it off on September 3rd.

Can Mark Richt and the Miami Hurricanes Win in the ACC?

Last week, I read through one of those “way-too-early” preseason rankings on ESPN. There were plenty of teams I expected to see in those rankings that were there. But there was one team included in the top 25 that completely surprised me, the Miami Hurricanes. In case you don’t remember what happened to them last season, Al Golden was fired during the middle of their sub-par season after an embarrassing blowout loss at home to Clemson. Then, at the end of the season,  Mark Richt was announced as the team’s new head coach. So, how did the Hurricanes land such a great head coach?

I have to say, I was shocked when the Georgia Bulldogs let go of their (now-former) Head Coach Mark Richt last year. Shocked may be a bit of an overstatement, but I was definitely surprised that they would let him go given all of the things he had done at Georgia. The problem is, there were things he hadn’t done…really big things. He didn’t win that big title. He actually never even got a shot at it. During his tenure, other SEC head coaches like Les Miles, Urban Meyer, and Nick Saban were dominating the conference and Richt could never quite edge them out. Now that he’s in the ACC and he has the Miami talent pool to recruit from, can Mark Richt finally get those big victories?

If winning the National Championship is your goal, then the ACC is probably a better conference to play in. Just ask Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher about that one. Unfortunately for Richt, there is a new superstar coach on the rise in the ACC these days. Clemson Tigers’ Head Coach Dabo Swinney led the team to an impressive 14-1 overall record last season. The Tigers only lost one game, the National Championship Game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. That darn Nick Saban is always crushing other coaches’ hopes and dreams! Fortunately for Swinney, the Tigers are poised to have an equally impressive season this year. Unfortunately for Mark Richt, Dabo Swinney has arrived and is here to stay. And as for Jimbo Fisher, there’s no telling what next season holds. I’m sure he isn’t too happy about having a piece of SEC history becoming part of his ACC competition, though.

Then there’s that other thing that is really important to a team’s success, all that recruiting nonsense. Since Richt came into the process pretty late this season, the class he managed to put together wasn’t all that bad. Next season there will be much higher expectations. Richt is off to a good start for his next signing class, but there is still plenty of time for things to change. The best thing he can do is have a successful first season at Miami, ending with a bowl game victory. That, in and of itself, may not guarantee him a stellar recruiting class, but with the start he has gotten off to this spring it would definitely help.

Still, the question remains. Will Mark Richt be able to win in the ACC? I don’t mean post a 9-3 record when I say win. He did that at Georgia and we all saw where that got him. I mean, will he be able to win enough to at least play for the National Championship? In the short-term I don’t think he will. Dabo Swinney has a lot of momentum going at Clemson and Jimbo Fisher still has some of that magic left at Florida State, too. Richt will be working with someone else’s recruits and waiting for his own classes to come to Miami and gain crucial experience over these next few years. Because of that, he will almost surely be in the shadows of both Swinney and Fisher. If you give him a few years, I think he might just be able to finally get a really big win. Mark Richt has always been an outstanding ball coach and this time he may have a better shot at proving it.

For more football talk or to let me know whether or not you think Mark Richt is up to the challenge be sure to follow me on Twitter!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Recapping a Phenomenal Football Game

It’s a real shame that the College Football Playoff National Championship Game did not get good ratings last night.  If you didn’t tune in then you missed out on an instant classic.  The Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide battled back-and-forth for four quarters to decide which team would take home the ugliest trophy in sports and you didn’t even turn it on.  Oh well, your loss.

Or, maybe you fell asleep during a fourth quarter that didn’t start until 11:15 and ended sometime after midnight in the east.  I can’t say that I blame you but you too missed out on a frantic finish.

Or, maybe you’re one of us.  Those who were glued to the four-letter network’s “Megacast” were treated to a tremendous football game between two championship-caliber teams.  Yes, Alabama won the game and the national championship but it was undoubtedly well-earned.  Clemson played well enough to win, and would’ve on most other nights.  The Tide was not to be denied though.

This game had just about everything.  The Heisman winner went off.  The second runner-up put his team on his back.  Unexpected heroes stole the show.  A trick play drastically swung the momentum late in the game.  There was even a feel-good aspect to the ending.  That wasn’t all either, but if we go through everything how are we supposed to make people feel like they missed out?  Here are the essential highlights of the biggest, and arguably the best, game of the 2015-16 season:

Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry struck first, shrugging off a defender and scampering 50 yards into the end zone.  When the night was over Henry had carried 36 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns.  All that and it didn’t even seem like he had impacted the game as he normally does.

DeShaun Watson was the one wowing those watching.  He carried the Tigers all night, as he did all season.  Scrambling for first downs, extending plays, marching his offense down the field against the best defense in the country, Watson showed us a little bit of every part of his game.  Most impressive of all were his two touchdown passes in the first quarter.  The first of which was an absolutely perfect throw to the corner of the end zone.  The second one was placed where only his guy could catch it.

The guy on the receiving end of those perfect passes was former walk-on Hunter Renfrow.  This redshirt freshman came into Monday night with just 26 catches, 404 yards and three touchdowns to his name.  What a coming out party it was for him, reeling in seven balls for 88 yards and two scores in the national championship.  Renfrow certainly stole the first half headlines.

Another unlikely hero emerged in the second half.  Alabama tight end O.J. Howard plays a vital role in the offense even if he doesn’t get the statistical reward he deserves.  Howard had only one game with more than four catches this season.  He hadn’t scored since November 9, 2013.  That is, until he exploded for 208 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions last night.  The first touchdown was a brilliantly designed play, called at the opportune time by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.  On the second, Howard was the lucky recipient of some poor communication in Clemson’s secondary.  The real highlight of his night, however, was a little screen pass that should’ve resulted in a two-yard loss.  Instead, Howard slipped a tackle, turned the corner and tiptoed down the sideline, picking up 63 yards and setting up Alabama’s game-winning touchdown.

By far the most surprising and exciting play of the game came on special teams.  An Adam Griffith field goal tied the game at 24 with about 10 and a half minutes left in the game.  Then Nick Saban, a notoriously conservative coach, dialed up the trick play that would allow his team to take the lead for good.  Griffith pooched one right into the hands of his intended receiver.  He kicked it more accurately than most guys can throw it.  Clemson was caught off-guard and you could feel the wind shift in favor of the Tide’s sails.

As the confetti fell all around the victorious Alabama players, none must have felt as accomplished as Jake Coker.  You want to know what patience is, ask him.  This guy’s had to sit in the back seat his entire collegiate career.  He started at Florida State where he was redshirted and beat out by EJ Manuel and then Jameis Winston.  Then he transferred to Alabama where he was immediately eligible to play because he had already graduated from FSU.  Coker competed with Blake Sims for the starting job only to be relegated to backup duty for the fourth year in a row.  This year Coker finally got his chance to start but did not play well early in the season.  In fact, Cooper Bateman got the start in Alabama’s only loss against Ole Miss.  Bateman’s poor play in that game opened the door for Coker yet again.  The second half comeback attempt fell just short that night but Coker had won his job back.  Fast forward three months and Coker found himself on top of the college football world.  We can only imagine the feeling of validation that washed over him after such a journey.  His story is one that makes college football so special.  You had to feel good for him during his postgame interview where it seemed to sink in what he had accomplished.

Congratulations are in order for Coker, Griffith, Howard, Kiffin and, of course, Saban who has won his fourth national championship in seven years.  You can hate on them all you’d like but you can’t deny that Alabama’s current run ranks high in terms of the all-time great dynasties of not just college football, but all major American sports history.

So yeah, you either missed all that or were so enthralled by it that you wanted to recap.  Either way, there’s no doubt that the second edition of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game was simply sensational.

E-mail Mitch at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Auburn: Is Kevin Steele The Answer?

Kevin Steele is the new defensive coordinator at Auburn University. He indicated, at his press conference on Tuesday, that his goal is to make Auburn the last stop on his coaching journey. That is certainly possible, but is it likely? Steele’s path, like that of countless other assistant coaches, is often long and circuitous. That is simply the nature of the business.

Here is look at Steele’s ‘long and winding road’.

After his playing days, as a linebacker, at Furman and Tennessee, he became a graduate assistant for the Vols from 1978-1979. He was promoted to outside linebackers coach in 1982. He held this position for one year.

1983 saw Steele as the coach of linebackers at New Mexico State.

Steele then took the job as linebackers and tight ends coach at Oklahoma State for three seasons. Afterwards he returned to Knoxville to coach defensive backs from 1987-1988. The head coach at Tennessee throughout his playing and coaching time there was Johnny Majors.

Lincoln, Nebraska was the next stop for Steele. He spent six seasons with the Cornhuskers, under the tutelage of the legendary Tom Osborne, as a linebackers coach. He departed the Midwest for an opportunity to test the waters of the NFL. Charlotte was the destination and the job was linebackers coach of the Carolina Panthers for four seasons. Dom Capers was the head man for the Panthers during those years.

In 1999 Steele was offered an opportunity that every coach must relish. He was hired as a head coach. The job was with the Baylor Bears. The four years in Waco did were not productive, as far as wins and losses were concerned, and he moved on to Tallahassee, Florida to assist another coaching legend, Bobby Bowden. Linebackers were his duty there.

In 2007, the University of Alabama, in an effort to end years of frustration, announced Nick Saban as head coach of the Crimson Tide. Saban lured Steele away from the Seminoles to be his defensive coordinator. Assistant head coach was added to his title in 2008.

Dabo Swinney enticed Steele away from Tuscaloosa to Clemson as the DC of the Tigers in 2009. He remained in that capacity through 2013, when he was dismissed after a blowout loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Then it was back to Alabama where Steele, again, coached linebackers for one season.

The phone rang early in 2015. Les Miles was on the line. He offered Steele another shot as a defensive coordinator. Steele accepted. And, as you know, things got a little dicey down in Baton Rogue this past season.

“It’s certainly an exciting time for (his wife), myself and my children. … It’s an exciting time to be here with coach. It was a very, very easy decision for me.” – Kevin Steele

Everything wasn’t coming up roses for another group of Tigers during this most recent campaign. The Auburn version of fierce felines went 6-6 on the Plains of east Alabama. Auburn’s DC, Will Muschamp, was given the chance to turn it around in Columbia, South Carolina and he, wisely, embraced it. If you are afforded a shot as a head coach in the SEC then you are probably set for life, as far as your finances are concerned.

Gus Malzahn said that he was looking to build stability and continuity in his hiring of a new defensive coordinator. Will this be possible with Steele, or anyone else for that matter? If you follow football, whether it be college or pro, you know that coaches move and move and move, again and again and again. You just read of a perfect example in the words above. It is somewhat rare that any coach stays at a job for a lengthy period of time, be he the head coach or an assistant, these days. The pressure to win NOW, and continue to do so, is enormous.

But, Steele has very strong ties to the state of Alabama and Auburn. His daughter is a graduate of Auburn. His mother lives in Prattville. The first college football game he attended was at, then, Cliff Hare Stadium in Auburn. That was back in the late 60’s when his father was a head coach in Gordo, Alabama. Steele said that most of his relatives live within a one-hundred mile radius of Auburn.

Auburn has, for multiple reasons, and not all of them good, changed defensive coordinators SEVEN times in the last ten years. They desperately need that stability and continuity that Malzahn spoke of before he hired Steele. The Tigers haven’t fielded a truly good defense since the 2008 unit. That takes a toll on the program.

“I don’t know how to read a contract.” – Kevin Steele

Will Kevin Steele, at 57 years old, actually find the last stop of his coaching career at Auburn University? Will he help bring the stability and continuity that both he and Malzahn, together, seek? Will the Auburn family, finally, be able to step off the roller coaster ride that has been Auburn football since Pat Dye’s last SEC Championship in 1989?

Stay tuned.

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

Photo: TigerNet/Flickr