Tag Archives: Greg Ward Jr

It’s Not Too Early (or Too Late) to Make Houston’s Case for the College Football Playoff

Oklahoma and Houston kicked off an incredible college football opening weekend that was full of big matchups and surprise results. In case you missed it, Tom Herman’s 15th ranked Houston Cougars dismantled the Sooners, 33-23, after outscoring Oklahoma 30-13 in the final three quarters. It was an impressive performance by a team considered an 11.5-point underdog, but on a weekend full of upsets and surprises, this outcome should come as a shock to no one. As a matter of fact, college football fans making their playoff picks better believe Houston is a legitimate contender not just to make the playoff, but to contend for a national championship.

What we saw Saturday was Houston picking up right where it left off in 2014, defeating its fifth straight ranked opponent after a 38-24 Peach Bowl victory over then-ninth-ranked Florida State last season. We saw Greg Ward Jr. continue to run Herman’s high-tempo, spread offense to near-perfection, passing for 321 yards, the third-highest total in his career, and two touchdowns. Sophomore RB Duke Catalon made the most of his touches, rushing 22 times for 88 yards and catching four passes, one for a touchdown. While junior WR Steven Dunbar had a career day with seven catches for 125 yards. Although, Linell Bonner arguably had the best catch of the day.

This offensive performance doesn’t come as a surprise, though. Herman’s offenses have been successful everywhere he’s gone. Last season, Houston scored the tenth most points per game of any team in the FBS. In 2014, Ohio State ranked fifth in points per game with Herman as its offensive coordinator, and don’t forget that it was Herman’s offensive leadership that helped lead the 2014 Buckeyes to a Big Ten and National Championship with a third-string quarterback.

It’s the other side of the ball that may surprise some people.  Defensively, the Cougars ranked 16th amongst all FBS schools in opponents’ points per game last season. They definitely showed the same kind of dominance Saturday, holding Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense to 23 points, 20.5 less than the 43.5 points per game the Sooners put up last season. After returning seven of their top 11 defensive players from last season, there is no doubt the Cougars will continue to make things difficult for opposing offenses.

Houston will spend this season navigating through a fairly simple American Athletic Conference schedule, avoiding upsets from pesky conference foes like Cincinnati, Connecticut, Tulsa, and SMU, before a home matchup with Louisville on Thursday, November 17. If they can get by Louisville, which they will, they shouldn’t have an issue in their final two matchups with Memphis and the AAC East Division champion in the AAC Championship game. That would give Houston a resume with two or three quality wins, no losses, and a conference championship.

At this point, it looks like Alabama is a good bet to make the College Football Playoff. Joining them will likely be the ACC champion, which is sure to be Clemson or Florida State, and the Big Ten champion, which will either be Ohio State or Michigan, although Michigan State has an outside chance at the conference crown. That leaves the fourth spot up for grabs, and unless Stanford can run the table in the Pac-12 or Texas continues to roll after an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame in week one, an undefeated Houston will be a no-brainer to fill it.

The potential playoff matchups are incredibly exciting as we could see a Tom Herman-Urban Meyer reunion. While Meyer may have the upper hand due to experience, both teams will be familiar with the other’s offense, creating quite the spectacle. We could also see Houston go up against Alabama, a team that Herman has experience beating after the Buckeyes won a 42-35 shootout in the 2014 CFP semi-final. Houston’s physical defense would match up well against Clemson or Florida State, and while Stanford’s offense may put up a ton of points, Houston would have no problem keeping up on the offensive side of the ball if the Cardinal somehow make the playoff.

Some may call it a reactionary pick based on one game and one result, but it’s not.  It’s a pick based on a coach and his team’s upward trend and consistent success. It’s a storyline worth following and it’s a bet worth placing. Houston will rock through their schedule and will roll right into the College Football Playoff, whether you like it or not.

E-mail Evan at or follow him on Twitter@skilliter.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Smackdown Fridays: Houston Dooms Oklahoma’s Playoff Run Far Sooner than Expected

In the course of human events, when it becomes necessary for one Group of 5 team to assert its dominance over a Power 5 foe, rest assured that team will probably be the Houston Cougars. It’s the circle of life. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.

After Houston’s comfortable 38-24 victory over #12 Florida State in last season’s Peach Bowl, who’s to say the Cougars can’t hang with the big boys? Critics may cherry-pick their easy schedule or a narrow victory here and there to excuse the program’s 2015 success, but Houston has a prime opportunity to prove those critics wrong. To open the season, the Cougars face Oklahoma.

I have some news for you: Oklahoma is overrated as hell.

Don’t worry, it isn’t just Oklahoma. It’s the entire Big 12. After the conference faithful finally finished whining about being (rightfully) excluded from the College Football Playoff, it seems it’s destined to happen again. The Sooners seem to be the conference’s best bet to clinch a berth, but I have serious concerns.  This Saturday, expect those concerns to become realities. Oklahoma is begging for an upset.

Assuredly, there are Sooner die-hards and Big 12 buffs reading this and foaming at the mouth, fuming over my casual dismissal of one of college football’s premier conferences. Well, the truth is, your conference can’t be premier if the Kansas Jayhawks are in it.

The Big 12 hasn’t claimed a national championship since Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns in 2005. These days, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vince Young waiting on my table at Sizzler. For their part, Oklahoma hasn’t won a national championship since 2000. That was way back when the BCS was actually hip and cool. My point? Picking against the Big 12- or Oklahoma- doesn’t scare me in the slightest.

So I’m taking the Houston Cougars to upset the Oklahoma Sooners this Saturday. And I’m doing so with gusto.

I’ll come out and say something nobody else will say: Tom Herman is currently a better football coach than Bob Stoops. Stoops has seventeen years of head coaching experience and one national championship to show for it. Meanwhile, Herman has been a head coach for all of one season.

Can anybody forget the Ohio State’s offense crumbling after Herman’s departure last season? Second to Urban Meyer, there was nobody more integral to that national championship. Stoops won his championship outright, Herman won his by proxy. Herman also managed to make Braxton Miller, then J.T. Barrett, then Cardale Jones, and now Greg Ward Jr. into Heisman-caliber signal callers. He’s legit. I expect Herman to flash his legit-ness and win the coaching battle in this interstate showdown.

By now, Oklahoma fans are likely loading their muskets and readying their covered wagons to come burn me at the stake, so I’ll go one step further. Greg Ward Jr. will perform better this Saturday than Baker Mayfield. Last season, only two quarterbacks rushed for 1,000 yards and passed for 2,000 yards. One was Greg Ward Jr. The other was Deshaun Watson. You know, the same Deshaun Watson that torched the Sooners 37-17 in the Orange Bowl.

The Sooners will struggle with containing Ward Jr. just as they struggled with containing Watson. The Sooners allowed a ho-hum 161.7 rushing yards per game last season, including 312 yards in the contest against the Tigers. Ward Jr. will be able to make enough big plays to keep momentum in Houston’s favor and the chips in Herman’s hand.

See, Baker Mayfield could throw for 350 yards on the Cougars. And guess what? It wouldn’t matter. Mayfield posted an impressive outing in the Orange Bowl, but even he couldn’t overcome the Sooners’ meager 67 rushing yards. With Houston’s eighth ranked rushing defense returning in full force, don’t expect the Sooners to do much better this time around. Forcing Baker Mayfield to throw might be a major gamble, so they’ll need a fresh secondary to earn their stripes on the largest of stages. Houston proved their resilience thirteen times last season. They can do it again.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard- the Big 12 is probably expanding. Add yet another chip to the underdog’s shoulder. If Houston wins this game, no further proof of their worthiness should be necessary.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean they’ll get in.

You know what? Let Big 12 heavyweights like the Sooners sit back and play politics with the futures of schools like the University of Houston.  Saturday night, Houston has an opportunity to score a larger victory far from the board room: complicate Oklahoma’s playoff bid far Sooner than expected.

E-mail Cole at cole [dot] hankins [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins

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Predicted: New Year’s Six and the College Football Playoff National Championship

This is the third and final part of my 2016 College Football Preview. The picks in this article directly reflect my first and second article, so check those out before reading this one.

Orange Bowl (ACC vs. Big Ten/SEC/ND) 12/31/16

Miami (9-4) vs. LSU (10-2)

The Matchup: Miami will get the automatic ACC bid, as the Hurricanes are the best ACC team not in the CFP. LSU squeezes its way into the New Year’s Six over the likes of Notre Dame, the second team in line who just misses the New Year’s Six due to their indecisiveness at the QB position early in the season, which cost a few games. Other teams who are in the hunt for the Tigers’ Orange Bowl spot are Michigan State, Ole Miss and Arkansas, but none of them finish over 9-3.

The Game: This is Leonard Fournette’s final game in an LSU jersey. He will eat up the Miami defense, which will have to deal with a bit of Les Miles madness. LSU will come out passing early and often, as the Miami defense gets weaker the further away from the line of scrimmage you go. Once the Tigers expose Miami’s pass defense, LSU will catch the Hurricanes on their heels by simply letting Fournette run over the competition. Fournette’s early season injury may keep him out of the Heisman Race, but he will sure look like a Heisman winner after this game is all said and done. LSU will simply put up too many points for the Hurricanes to keep up with.

Final Score: LSU Tigers 38 – Miami Hurricanes 20

Cotton Bowl (At-Large vs. At-Large) 1/2/17

Michigan (11-1) vs. UH (12-1)

The Matchup: Michigan is not happy to be here. The Wolverines believe that it belongs in the CFP. However, it ends up playing in Dallas facing off against a Houston Cougars squad whose excitement to be in this spotlight inversely mirrors the Wolverines.

The Game: The team’s respective enthusiasm for this particular game reflects into the matchup’s first half to a large degree. Michigan comes out uninterested and sluggish, which a Greg Ward, AAC player of the Year, powered Cougar offense heavily exploits. The First Half ends with the Cougars up 14-10. The Wolverines swing back in the second half, and take a three-point lead over UH with just over a minute left in the game. Greg Ward leads a final charge down the field into the red zone with time winding down. However, after two incomplete passes, Jabrill Peppers fools Ward, after Peppers fakes a blitz before dropping back into coverage. The strong Wolverine defensive line forces Ward to rush a decision, and he overlooks Peppers before throwing a pass which Peppers intercepts.

Final Score: Michigan Wolverines 41 – Houston Cougars 38

Rose Bowl (Big Ten vs. Pac-12) 1/2/17

Iowa (9-4) vs. Stanford (11-2)

The Matchup: Iowa, who lost the Big Ten championship to Ohio State, gets the automatic Rose Bowl bid. Stanford, meanwhile, wins the Pac-12 and because no Pac-12 team gets into the CFP, are the other automatic bid, which makes the 2017 Rose Bowl an identical matchup to the 2016 game.

The Game:  This game will have a similar outcome as the matchup the previous year. Stanford will let Christian McCaffrey run free, and he will single-handedly slaughter Iowa. Iowa, in all honesty, does not belong in the Rose Bowl, and once again, the game’s result shows that. This one is not even close.

Final Score: Stanford Cardinal 31 – Iowa Hawkeyes 6

Sugar Bowl (Big 12 vs. SEC) 1/2/17

TCU (10-2) vs. Tennessee (10-3)

The Matchup: I’m going to be honest. Even though I picked them to be here, I would be surprised if Tennessee can win the SEC East and get the automatic bowl berth. The Volunteers’ inconsistency over the last several years makes I hard to believe that it can string together a solid season and take the East over Georgia and Florida. But, that’s what my mind believed when I wrote last week’s prediction article, so here we are. If the Volunteers manage to make it to the Sugar Bowl, it will face off against TCU, winners of the lackluster Big 12.

The Game: Despite the fact that I don’t think it will make it to this game, I think the SEC will prove too much for TCU. Tennessee, behind powerhouse running back Jalen Hurd and a Joshua Dobbs who develops into a great passer throughout the season, are able to out muster the Horned Frogs offensively. Tennessee’ defense, which nine starters, will shut down the Horned Frogs’ offense. This will be a defensive battle between these two teams, but the Volunteers prevail.

Final Score: Tennessee Volunteers 24 – TCU Horned Frogs 17

Peach Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal)  12/31/16

#1 Ohio State (13-0) vs. #4 FSU (11-1)

The Matchup: Ohio State, still riding off “The Game of the Century” Part 2, in which the Buckeyes beat #2 ranked Michigan, gets the #1 overall seed for the third annual College Football Playoff. FSU, meanwhile, campaigns hard for its spot, which the Seminoles fight Michigan, Stanford, TCU and Houston for. However, dominating wins late in the season after a close defeat to Clemson allow FSU to squeeze into its second College Football Playoff appearance.

The Game: Lead by recently crowned Heisman Trophy winner, J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes get off to a quick start, scoring quickly on a pass over the middle against the weakest part of the Seminole defense. However, the Buckeyes’ inexperienced defense will struggle to do anything to stop the Dalvin Cook Seminole offense, and FSU goes up by 10 heading into halftime. Coming out of the half, Dontre Wilson brings the kickoff all the way back for a touchdown, making the Buckeyes deficit only three. Both defenses then hunker down, with the likes of Raekwon McMillan and DeMarcus Walker dominating for the Buckeyes and Seminoles respectively. Late in the 4th, J.T. Barrett leads Ohio State down the field, but Urban Meyer has to settle for a field goal. However, with two minutes to work with, Dalvin Cook is able to take his time and rush the Seminoles into Field Goal position with only a few ticks left. Ricky Aguayo gets a perfect hold ad knocks home a 52-yard field goal as time expires to allow the Seminoles to win.

Final Score: Florida State Seminoles 23 – Ohio State Buckeyes 20

Fiesta Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal) 12/31/16

#2 Clemson (13-0) vs. #3 Alabama (12-1)

The Matchup: Winners of the ACC and SEC respectively, Clemson and Alabama both come off monster season to qualify as the middle seeds for the College Football Playoff. Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson, Clemson finished undefeated, while Alabama’s only loss came to Ole Miss early in the season.

The Game: This game will ultimately come down to Clemson’s offense vs. Alabama’s defense. The Alabama offense will struggle with Cooper Bateman at the helm, but Clemson’s defense will not be nearly as dominant as years past, allowing the Crimson Tide to find holes to score both on the ground and in the air. However, the issue for Alabama is that Clemson’s offense simply has too many pieces, as if the passing game to wide outs Mike Williams and Artavis Scott struggles, Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman, both of whom were 1000 yard rushers in 2015, can simply push Alabama back behind the Tigers’ O-Line. Though Alabama remains in the game in the first half, Clemson comes out firing in the second and breaks the game wide open. Alabama, though talented, won’t have an answer for Clemson, and the Tigers win the game by a fairly wide margin. The Crimson Tide’s shot at returning to the College Football National Championship is cut one game short.

Final Score: Clemson Tigers 45 – Alabama Crimson Tide 24

 College Football Playoff National Championship 1/9/16 (Tampa, FL)

#2 Clemson Tigers (14-0) vs. #4 Florida State Seminoles (12-1)

The Game: This game is going to be a rematch of possibly the best offensive matchup of the 2016 season. Earlier, Clemson beat out FSU in Tallahassee, and that is why the Tigers remained undefeated the entire year. The National Championship, featuring two teams less located less than 600 miles from the game’s location, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, will be an offensive bout the likes of which we haven’t seen in man years. While both teams have competent defenses, Clemson and FSU will look to win the National Championship with offensive firepower. This game will actually not be as much of a nail-biter as their first matchup, as Deshaun Watson, in his second straight title game, will come out firing on all cylinders. FSU will stay in the game, but the Clemson offense will prove to be too much, and keep a constant lead over the Seminoles the entire game. The Clemson Tigers will have its first National Title since 1981.

Final Score: Clemson Tigers 48 – Florida State 35

E-mail Cooper at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @uf_goetz.

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The Cartel and the Mid-Majors, Why Scheduling Matters

Imagine pulling for a team that can’t possibly win a championship, and not just because they aren’t good enough.  In College Football, it might literally be impossible to even qualify for a championship based on the company we keep.  Because of that, and that alone, it falls on the schedule-makers at Nobody U to make said program outside the Cartel relevant to the national conversation.

That’s not to say any of the participants from “non-qualifying” conferences ever really diluted the product, quite the opposite, in fact.

Boise State was the nation’s only unbeaten team from the 2006 season. The Broncos had to ‘settle’ for that historic Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.   Meanwhile, one-loss Florida took down Ohio State in the bigger game on that same field in Arizona a week later.  After Boise State’s 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma, their quarterback was asked if they deserved a title shot, and he said he thought so.  He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t quite all-the-way right either.

That perfect Boise State squad scheduled Division I-AA Sacramento State, a 10-win Oregon State team, Wyoming, and Utah in a down year, out of conference. None of their Western Athletic Conference rivals were ranked at the time of their game against the Broncos or the end of the season, so it was very difficult to argue their body of work against that of Ohio State’s or Florida’s for a spot in the two-team playoff.  Being undefeated basically became the standard for the Broncos, but even non-league wins over Oregon, Virginia Tech, and Georgia were not enough for National Championship consideration.  Playing other mid-majors in 8 or 9 contests per year, it impresses no one.

What are the contenders in the American, Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt doing to chase down more than just small conference glory? What type of 2016 schedule might qualify these nobodies for the very exclusive tournament that College Football uses to crown its champion?

American Athletic Conference

The geography of this league lends itself to some really good non-conference games, as SMU gets backyard games with TCU and Baylor, but the team with a schedule worthy of national consideration is Houston.  Sure, they’re playing Lamar, and I will not support any playing of FCS opponents by teams that want to be the best of the FBS, but I’ll let it go for Oklahoma and Louisville.  The Sooners and Cardinals will both play Houston in Houston, which should be good enough if they survive the AAC.

Conference USA

Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) is going to attract the big boys to the Alamo Dome, but they will usually have to reciprocate with a road game. This year, they host Arizona State in September and take a trip to College Station, where Texas A&M will host them in November.  Don’t expect competitive games.  I might like Marshall’s gauntlet of ACC adversaries, if they weren’t coming immediately after an opening slate of Morgan State and Akron. Like Marshall, Western Kentucky will be taking on Louisville, but we’re focused on their Week 2 matchup. They’ll tussle with Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, so should there be a running of the table, the Hilltoppers may get to dance.

Mid-American Conference

There might be a case to be made for Northern Illinois, but Bowling Green accompanies their visit to Columbus to play Ohio State with solid mid-major matchups against Middle Tennessee State and Memphis. They’ll see both NIU and Toledo in conference play, games they need to win for anyone to take them seriously, especially if Ohio State doesn’t boat-race them in the opener.

Mountain West

Boise State will make headlines in some markets with their Pac-12 opponents, at home against Washington State and in Corvallis versus the Oregon State Beavers, but BYU may give them their biggest challenge. However, it is the much traveled Hawaii Rainbow Warriors that play Cal, Michigan, and Arizona.  Those are all long-ish to long road trips against 2016 teams that are much better than their 2015 counterparts.

Sun Belt

If I skipped this section or listed FCS schools in this paragraph, would you even notice?

On a serious note, Troy plays Clemson, which is cool, but it’s off-set it is by playing the dregs of the FBS in Idaho. Austin Peay and Southern Miss don’t move the needle for me either, looking at the Trojans schedule. However, our eye is on Appalachian State.  The team best known for upsetting Michigan in 2007 is going FCS-free in ‘16, visiting the best Tennessee Volunteers team anyone has seen in years, and they convinced The U to come to Boone, North Carolina. The Mountaineers have already won, if you ask me.

At the end of the day, if we’re talking about those four lines and those two semi-final games, to open our game’s championship up to the anyone outside of the Cartel, it’s probably Houston.

E-mail Jeff at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ByJeffRich.

(featured photo via Sporting News.com)

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The Best Football Games of 2016

It has felt like forever since Alabama knocked off Clemson for the national title. But worry not college football aficionados, it’s getting closer. Spring games are in the books and in just a couple short months, preview magazines will be hitting the shelves. Before we know it we’ll be settling in for another exciting college football season.

I recently listed the best ten games each conference has to offer in 2016, but here I’ve whittled those down to the ten best games to look forward to in 2016. Fans have been looking forward to some of these games for two or three years. Do those games look as exciting now as they did when they were scheduled? Let’s find out.

10. LSU at Wisconsin (Saturday, September 3)

We begin the Top 10 Games of 2016 with the first of four games from the opening weekend (3:30 pm est, ABC). If that doesn’t get you as riled up for college football as spring game attendance numbers do then I don’t know what will. This is the one game where the off-field storylines probably over-shadow the on-field ones. Dave Aranda just became LSU’s defensive coordinator after leaving the same position at Wisconsin. Not only is an SEC team playing north of the Mason-Dixon line a rare occurrence, it’s an SEC team playing a virtual road game, in Wisconsin. Oh, and it’s at Lambeau Field. There have been just a few classic games played there.

9. Oklahoma at Houston (Saturday, September 3)

Oklahoma is getting a lot more than it bargained for, because I’m guessing they didn’t think Houston would be a top 15-type team when this game was announced a couple years ago. A Sooner defense that replaces half of its starters, including its best pass-rushers, will get to face dynamic Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. On the other side, Houston will be starting four new defensive backs and gets to try and limit Heisman contender Baker Mayfield. Expect points, lots of them (ABC, Noon est). And the loser? They leave opening weekend not being able to afford another loss the rest of the way if they want to make the Playoff.

8. Florida State at Ole Miss (Monday, September 5)

The Seminoles and the Rebels doesn’t have quite the same ring to it that some of the other games on this list do, but it could be just as important. The Seminoles will be ranked highly to begin the year, but a loss on opening weekend would leave them no margin for error the rest of the season. The Rebels probably missed their golden opportunity a season ago, but their bid to dispel that notion can get off to a strong start with a win here. A few years of great recruiting classes mean Ole Miss can match up with Florida State talent wise. The Rebels also have a quarterback returning in Chad Kelly,who led the Rebels to wins over Alabama and LSU last year. On an opening weekend that features plenty of intriguing match-ups, this stand-alone game on Labor Day night is the perfect ending.

7. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Saturday, September 17)

These two teams have scheduled tough out-of-conference contests for years, but this one raises the bar. It’s hard to say this game has lost some of its luster when both teams could be ranked in the top 10. As it sits now however, there is a lot more uncertainty between these two programs than fans would have hoped when the game was announced. Having to replace key starters on defense, it will be difficult for Oklahoma to replicate the success it had last year, and it’s hard to know what to expect out of a Buckeye team that brings back just six starting players. All of these factors keep this game from being top five on this list. Both of these teams easily reload, and with Heisman contenders at quarterback in Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett, this match-up is still one of the best non-conferences games we’ll see all year (7:30 pm est on Fox).

6. Baylor at Oklahoma (Saturday, November 12)

The shift in the Big 12 has been amazing the past couple years, with Baylor vs. TCU being the game. Oklahoma took back some of that hold with its Big 12 championship last year. With TCU’s season looking much more like a rebuild, it leaves the Bears and Sooners to battle as the conference favorites. Both teams should have potent offenses, and with questionable defenses, this game should provide an entertaining four hours even if both teams aren’t still in the playoff race.

5. Stanford at Notre Dame (Saturday, October 15)

The Cardinal and Irish played an instant classic last season that Stanford won narrowly, 38-36. It was effectively a playoff elimination game and could be again this season. Stanford will have to replace Kevin Hogan, who won 36 games under center for the Cardinal. That won’t be a huge disadvantage in a 2016 Pac-12 conference that sees a lot of teams having to replace their starting signal-caller as well. Because of this, Stanford will have its sights set on another Pac-12 championship, but this mid-season non-conference game will determine if the conference title or a playoff spot is the Cardinal’s ceiling. On the other side, Notre Dame will be looking to make up for an opportunity lost last year when they came so close to making the Playoff, even after suffering a multitude of injuries at key spots. This game will be their best chance to put a statement win on their resume (7:30 pm est, NBC).

4. Alabama vs. USC (Saturday, September 3)

This is one of the aforementioned games that fans have looked forward to for years, since the day it was announced. Though the Trojans haven’t exactly lived up to their end of the bargain in terms of making this a matchup of playoff contenders, the game is still reason enough to clear your schedule on the season’s opening Saturday night. Alabama may have gotten back to the top of the college football mountain, but the defense was still vulnerable against playmakers, which USC has. Both teams will have a new starting quarterback under center and what a way to break them in. Need one more reason to tune in? These storied programs haven’t played in over 30 years, so who knows when we’ll see it again (ABC at 8:00 pm est).

3. Clemson at Florida State (Saturday, October 29)

It’s the annual “which team is the ACC’s playoff contender” game. Florida State has every starter returning on offense, most important of which is electric running back Dalvin Cook. Clemson has the Heisman favorite in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Both offenses should be great, but this one will be decided by whose defense makes enough plays. The Seminoles’ stop unit has been underwhelming the last couple years considering the talent on hand, and the Tigers’ have to replace five defensive starters who left early for the NFL draft.

2. Michigan at Ohio State (Saturday, November 26)

“The Game” finally returned to national prominence thanks to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh had Michigan ahead of schedule in 2015, but the Buckeyes showed they still had a ways to go, laying the smack down on the Wolverines to end each team’s regular season. This year looks to be different, however. Michigan might be ranked in the top five while Ohio State has just six starters returning. With the Wolverine’s trying to make a playoff push, will it be Urban Meyer’s squad in the spoiler role?

1. Alabama at LSU (Saturday, November 5)

For almost a decade, the winner of this game became an instant front-runner for a spot in the BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoff. This year will be no different. After answering questions about their dynasty potentially falling, the Crimson Tide will have few naysayers this season. With the cupboard as full as it always is for Nick Saban, he’ll be expected to lead Alabama to the Playoff once again. On the other side is LSU, which feels like it’s coming off a disappointing season, even after finishing 10-3. With the most starters in the nation returning (spurring a likely top 10 pre-season ranking), this is Les Miles chance to over-take Saban and get back atop the SEC.

Feature image courtesy Matt Velazquez

The American Athletic Conference’s Best Football Games of 2016

The AAC has been looked at as little more than a mish-mash of former Big East teams. One season has changed all that. Nobody expects them to move up to the level of a Power 5 conference, but they can’t be looked at as mere push-overs.

Last season, Houston achieved program-altering success and that momentum, along with their schedule, gives them an outside shot at the Playoff in 2016. It wasn’t just the Houston Cougars earning the AAC respect. Temple, Navy, and Memphis were all in the Top 25 at one point during the season. While a couple of those teams may fall back a bit with the loss of quarterbacks, other teams are primed to improve and make sure Houston doesn’t just waltz through the conference schedule.

Who will those teams be? There are some early season games among the ten best that may show which AAC team can challenge the Cougars for the top spot.

10. Temple vs. SMU (Saturday, October 1)

The conference opener for both teams, Temple will try to pick up where it left off last year. A year ago, SMU put up 40 against a Temple defense that allowed the second fewest points in the conference. The Mustangs still fell 60-40.

9. Cincinnati vs. Houston (Thursday, September 15)

Cincinnati was a disappointing 4-4 in the conference last year but was 5-1 at home, where they’ll get the Houston Cougars this year. The Bearcats only lost by three at Houston last year, and this Thursday home game early in the year will give them a chance to derail Houston’s conference and playoff hopes. This match-up will also provide the AAC’s two best quarterbacks in Greg Ward Jr. and Gunner Kiel.

8. SMU vs. TCU (Friday, September 23)

SMU didn’t exactly put a scare into TCU last year, but a 56-37 final made it closer than the Horned Frogs would have liked. Now the Mustangs get Gary Patterson’s crew at home, and we’ll have a good chance to see how far Chad Morris can bring his team in his second year as head coach.

7. Connecticut at South Florida (Saturday, October 15)

South Florida won seven of its last eight regular season games last year. Included in that stretch was a one-score victory over UConn. If the Huskies are going to improve on their six-win season and stay in the race for the AAC West, it starts here.

6. Temple at Connecticut (Friday, November 4)

This will be a big game in the AAC West race. Connecticut’s offense was abysmal last year, but Huskie fans hope there will be improvement with ten starters back. Temple will be trying to replicate the success of their 10-win 2015 after having just 12 total in the previous three seasons.

5. Houston at SMU (Saturday, October 22)

This should be a fun one. SMU struggled in Chad Morris’ first year as head coach but it shouldn’t take him long to get the offense rolling. The defense will have problems stopping Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. led offense, but the Cougars lost all four starting defensive backs so this game should see plenty of points.

4. Temple vs. South Florida (Friday, October 21)

The East division is Houston and everyone else this year, but the West will be up for grabs. This game could determine who plays the Cougars in the conference championship game. Temple and South Florida were the two best teams in the West last year and the winner of this one will have a leg up in the division race.

3. Houston vs. Connecticut (Thursday, September 29)

Houston gets Connecticut on a Thursday night at home, where they will try to avenge their only loss from the 2015 season. It won’t be easy though, with the Huskies returning a conference-high 16 starters.

2. Houston vs. Louisville (Thursday, November 17)

The Cougars get another chance to make a statement with this oddly scheduled non-conference game late in the year. If the Cougars lose to Oklahoma in the opener, no one will give them much credit unless they show up big in this one. This might be the best defense Greg Ward Jr. and company face all year.

1. Houston vs. Oklahoma (Saturday, September 3)

Houston heads into 2016 with a ton of hype after going 13-1 with a win over Florida State in 2015. We’ll see if they can sustain that success right off the bat when they play the Sooners in the season opener. With Greg Ward Jr. back, the offense should hold its own. This game will be about which rebuilt defense can get enough stops (Noon est, ABC/ESPN).

E-mail Jason at or follow him on Twitter @JLindy87

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Top 10 NCAA Quarterbacks for 2016

Quarterback is the most important position in football. (I’ll give you a moment to recover from this earth-shattering news) but this is especially the case in college football. Because of the talent discrepancies between top and bottom tier teams, even within a conference, a quarterback can single-handedly propel his team to the college football playoff. Additionally, top-notch quarterbacks who have exceptionally running ability can take over a game simply in that manner in a way that isn’t possible in the NFL. A great quarterback can make up for losses at the skill positions and keep his team in the game during shootouts.

Today, we’ll look at the top 10 quarterbacks heading into the 2016 season. This isn’t simply which quarterbacks had the best stats last year and are returning this year, or the ones that will have the best stats this year. It is a combination of statistical proficiency, pro potential, and who could lead their team to great things in 2016.

10. Chad Kelly – Ole Miss

Kelly is basically the de facto best quarterback in the SEC as he is the only returning quarterback to even finish in the top half of the nation in passing yards in 2015. That shouldn’t be a slight against Kelly since he put together a great year in his first season as the Rebels starting quarterback. It will be much tougher this year however without Laremy Tunsil protecting his blindside and fellow NFL draftees Laquan Treadwell and Cody Core gone from the receiving core.

9. Brad Kaaya – Miami (Fl.)

If Kaaya can regain his touchdown total from his freshman year (26) and add that to his improving accuracy (61% last year) it might be enough to make this list. It’s his potential however that has scouts salivating. Deshaun Watson is the favorite to be the number one pick in next year’s draft, but Kaaya is getting first round buzz as well. That buzz partially stems from the arrival of new coach Mark Richt, who has produced a plethora of quality quarterbacks in his career (Matthew Stafford, David Greene, Aaron Murray to name a few). If Kaaya wants to move into the top five, he’ll have to prove he can elevate Miami to outperform its run-of-the-mill expectations.

8. Notre Dame Starting QB

Alright this is a bit of a copout, but whoever ends up getting the starting gig for the Irish cannot be ignored. DeShone Kizer stepped in last year after Maliz Zaire got hurt early in 2015 and nearly led the Irish to a playoff spot. Zaire now returns as a junior after showing vast potential in his limited playing time for the Irish. If he’s able to beat out Kizer after the season Kizer had, Notre Dame fans know they are in good hands. On a team that is poised to make a run at a playoff spot again, whoever starts for the Irish will be a household name.

7. Josh Rosen – UCLA

There is a lot of potential put into this ranking of the UCLA sophomore, but it’s not as if Rosen has done nothing to warrant such hope. It can be tough to walk in as a prized recruit and perform from the moment you step on campus, but all Josh Rosen did was throw for 23 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and finish top 20 in the nation in passing yards as a true freshman. He’ll look to build on those numbers and to help him do so, he’s packed on some muscle which should help prevent him from wearing down as the year goes on. The Pac-12 doesn’t have a clear contender entering 2016, and Rosen has the talent to make the Bruins the front-runner as the year goes on.

6. Greg Ward Jr. – Houston

Ward might be the preeminent dual-threat quarterback in the country after rushing for 21 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards a season ago. First-year coach Tom Herman took Greg Ward’s (and Houston’s) offensive performance to the next level, and if they make even the slightest improvements from last year, Ward may find himself at the Heisman ceremony. Not just a runner, Ward Jr had a respectable 8.2 yards per attempt and a near 3:1 TD:INT ratio. Adding to his importance? The Cougars only loss of 2015 came in the game he all but missed.

5. Luke Falk – Washington State

I could go on and on about Falk, but our guy Mike Wilson did a great job detailing the Wazzou quarterback this past week. What I will say about Falk is this: he threw for 300 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in a blizzard in Washington State’s bowl game. As a fan of Miami (the Cougars’ opponent that day) I was thankful there was a snowstorm because it felt like he could go for 500 easily.

4. Baker Mayfield – Oklahoma

Getting to some heavy hitters here as many thought Mayfield deserved to be a Heisman finalist in 2015 after leading the Sooners to a spot in the college football playoff. He enters this year with the fourth best odds to take home the honor, and team expectations will be high as well with Oklahoma assuredly starting the year in the top 10. Mayfield was often the force behind keeping the Sooners’ hopes alive last year, but they may prove more difficult in 2016 without the help of superb wideout Sterling Shephard. Mayfield also won’t get the numbers that other top quarterbacks may achieve because of the running back tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, maybe the best duo in the nation.

3. Seth Russell – Baylor

Russell is just the next quarterback in line to lead a prolific Baylor Bears offense. After stepping into the role a year ago, Russell was carving up opponents to the tune of 29 touchdowns, six picks, and an astonishing 10.5 yards per attempt just halfway through the season before a neck injury ended his year. Russell will be without first-round draft pick Corey Coleman this year, but Baylor is stocked with top WR recruits and with a usually questionable defense, Russell will be slinging it well into the second half. Well, when the Bears are playing a real team anyway.

2. J.T. Barrett – Ohio State

It’s easy to forget just how good Barrett was in 2014 after Cardale Jones’ 3-game run to end the year and the subsequent season-long offensive non-sense in Columbus in 2015. Barrett merely completed 64-plus percent of his passes on 9.0 yards per attempt, accounting for 45 touchdowns during his freshman campaign two years ago. Now that the team is his again, I expect a lot more of 2014 J.T. Barrett to come.

1. Deshaun Watson – Clemson

Sometimes the right answer is the most obvious one. Watson fulfilled the potential he showed in his freshman year by leading Clemson to a national title appearance, falling short against Alabama even though he threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns against arguably the nation’s best defense. After finishing as a Heisman finalist in 2015, Watson is the favorite to land the award in 2016 when he’ll lead an offense that returns eight starters, in addition to potential first-round pick at WR Mike Williams, who missed basically all of last year.

Featured image courtesy Tom Magliery

 

Bold Predictions for Florida State vs Houston

With the Chic-Fil-A Peach Bowl only being a day away, there isn’t a whole lot that hasn’t been said about the matchup between the Houston Cougars and Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles are favored by seven, which most people agree with, giving the benefit of the doubt of a close matchup to the team with a better profile in recent history. Even with that, there isn’t much doubt that this will be a game that goes down to the end.

The Seminoles haven’t been able to put a lot of points on the board against any quality team this season, while Houston scores the 11th-most points per game in the nation. On the other side, Florida State allows the fifth-least points per game to opponents in the country, compared to Houston, who rank 19th in points allowed. Statistics can’t be relied on to predict a winner in this one, this will be your classic; is the national powerhouse team in fact better than a similar team that isn’t in a power five conference?

Having said all of that, here are a few bold predictions for the game:

GREG WARD JR. RUSHES FOR 150 YARDS AND 2 TD’S

This has to be the scariest aspect of the game for Florida State fans; the prospect of a running quarterback. Greg Ward Jr. is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks the Seminoles have faced in the past few years outside of Marcus Mariota, and typically, these types of quarterbacks are able to run free against Seminole defenses. Deshaun Watson and Justin Thomas, of Clemson and Georgia Tech, respectively, each accumulated at least 88 yards rushing against the Seminoles, and both games were losses for the Noles. I don’t see why this game will be any different (save for maybe the loss column.) Ward will be able to do what he wants on the ground, to the tune of over 150 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

SEAN MAGUIRE THROWS FOR 350 YARDS AND 4 TD’S

It's been an interesting year for Sean Maguire, but he'll prove his doubters wrong in this game
It’s been an interesting year for Sean Maguire, but he’ll prove his doubters wrong in this game

It’s been an interesting year behind center for the Seminoles. It began with Everett Golson, developed into a seesaw between him and Maguire, to now, where Maguire has firmly become the quarterback for the Seminoles. This will be the best game of Maguire’s season. Considering Houston’s rush defense (which I’ll get to later,) and their terrible pass defense that has allowed 3,449 yards through the air this season (which ranks them at 121 of 128 teams,) Maguire will have a field day against the Cougar defense, throwing for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns. This will be Maguire’s break out game for the Seminoles, and will begin the big question of whether he should remain the starter for 2016, or if the five-star recruit Malik Henry should be given the reins as a freshman.

HOUSTON HOLDS DALVIN COOK TO LESS THAN 50 RUSH YARDS

As I was alluding to earlier, Houston’s rush defense is very, very good. The Cougars allow only 3.3 yards per rush attempt, good for 6th in the nation in that category. Obviously they face a tough task in stopping one of the best running backs in the country in Dalvin Cook, but Houston will be up to the task. They’ve had success this season against potent rushing attacks, most noticeably having held Navy – who have the second most rush yards on the season – to only the 3.9 yards per carry in a win. Cook will have his hands full against Houston, and the results will tell the story, Houston will hold Dalvin Cook under 50 rush yards.

DERWIN JAMES HAS TWO INT’S AND TWO SACKS

Derwin James is poised to have a breakout game to finish his freshman campaign
Derwin James is poised to have a breakout game on a national stage to finish his freshman campaign

One of the wild cards of this game that I’ll be very interested to watch will be how the Seminoles utilize freshman safety Derwin James. James has proven to be a jack-of-all-trades for the Seminoles as the season has worn on, as he’s proved to be equally talented in coverage as he is rushing the passer. I think he’ll be put all over the field, at times being in charge of containing Ward, and at times dropping back in coverage. People who have watched James play recently are certainly aware of the talent he possesses and it can be argued that he has already had a couple breakout games. However, this will be the first time since he’s become a vital component on the Nole defense that the nation will be able to watch him play, and the nation will recognize a star in the making after he has two sacks and two interceptions on New Year’s Eve.

Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl: #18 Houston vs. #9 Florida State

In what seems to be a mismatch of sorts, #18 Houston of the American Athletic Conference (12-1) squares off against #9 Florida State of the ACC (10-2) in the Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

Houston Cougars:

The Cougars had an impressive 2015 campaign. Finishing with a record of 12-1 and #18 ranking, things are starting to look up for a ball club that finished 8-5 the last two seasons.  The Cougars have potent offensive attack led by Mr. Do-it-all, Greg Ward, Jr.

Bright Spot:

Greg Ward, Jr. is sunlight bright for this Houston team. He leads the team in both passing (2,590) and rushing yards (1,041). He literally makes this team go.  Ward’s favorite target, receiver Demarcus Ayers, will see plenty of passes his way if the Cougs plan on keeping stride with the Seminoles.

Low-Light:

You can’t really knock a team for the conference in which they reside. Houston steam-rolled the competition this year, except for the hiccup of a loss at UConn. Despite the loss, Houston hasn’t really faced competition the likes of Florida State. The downside of playing such inferior opponents is that they don’t quite give you an accurate read on how good your football team is. I guess we’ll soon see.

Florida State Seminoles:

The Everett Golson experiment is over. Taking the reins of the offense is Sean Maguire. Despite the change at quarterback, Florida State has continued to perform at a high level. After the departure of Heisman winner, Jameis Winston and a slew of extraordinary talent, it was generally expected that there would be a bit of a drop off, offensively that is. However, with a running back like Dalvin Cook in your back field, it certainly took the pressure of either quarterback of having to carry the team.

Bright Spot:

Finishing seventh in the Heisman voting, Dalvin Cook was FSU’s MVP. Though Cook missed a game with an injury, he still managed to break the FSU single season rushing record held by Warrick Dunn. Cook ended his regular season rushing for 1,658 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Low-Light:

Coming into this season, Notre Dame transfer, Everett Golson was tabbed to be the one to help shorten the gap left by Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Golson started off the season fairly strong. As the season progressed, Golson regressed. He wasn’t the turnover machine he was his final season at Notre Dame, but he lacked the pizazz that once garnered him such praise earlier on in his collegiate career. Golson was eventually replaced by junior Sean Maguire. So far, this has proved to be the best course of action for Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles.

X-Factor:

Both teams are explosive offensively. However, only one team has a top 20 defense. I’ll let you guess which. You know what they say, offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. Well, in this case, bowl games.

Prediction:

Florida State wins handily, 34-17.

Five You Must See: Week 11

#2 Alababma (8-1) at #17 Mississippi State (7-2) Saturday 3:30pm on CBS

Alabama made a loud statement last week by shutting down LSU completely.  Mississippi State, who’s lost to those Tigers and the Aggies of A&M, has since rattled off four straight wins during the midseason lull in their schedule.  Winning here would give them, Ole Miss and LSU new life in the crowded SEC West race.

This game features two of my favorite offensive players in the country.  Alabama running back Derrick Henry, fresh off a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance, is finally getting some Heisman hype of his own.  Most everyone was focused on Leo Fournette this time last week, but by out-rushing the former frontrunner by 179 yards, Henry has shifted the attention to him.  It’s time for him to follow it up with another stellar game on the ground to let everyone know he’s for real.

On the other side, watch out for (who else) quarterback Dak Prescott.  He’s really the only hope the Bulldogs have in this game.  The senior leads his team in passing and rushing yards, and I’m sure he would lead in receiving too if they had someone who could throw it to him consistently.  He’s also been responsible for 25 touchdowns this season.  For his team to have a chance in this one, Prescott has to go off.

This is the best chance all you Alabama haters have to see the Tide slip up again.  Tune in to hear Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson on the call.

#21 Memphis (8-1) at #24 Houston (9-0) Saturday 7:00pm on ESPN 2

Memphis ruined any shot they had at the playoff by losing to Navy last week.  Meanwhile, Houston’s 20-point win over SMU was much closer than the score suggests.  This matchup will likely be a battle of two great junior quarterbacks.

Memphis’ Paxton Lynch is getting some mention as a top QB in this year’s draft class if he decides to declare.  It’s hard to argue that based on his body of work.  He’s one of eight guys in the country who’ve thrown for more than 3000 yards.  He’s ninth in completion percentage at 68.9.  And with 19 touchdowns on just two interceptions he takes care of the ball too.  A signature game in front of a national audience would validate his high draft stock.

Greg Ward Jr. is just as prolific, though his game is much different.  Ward is that dual-threat that we’ve seen open up the NFL to new possibilities.  At 70.4 percent, he ranks second in completion rate.  He’s the top rushing quarterback in the nation outside of Navy’s Keenan Reynolds who has an unfair advantage, running the triple option.  To average 92 yards per game on the ground as a QB is just sick.  The Tiger defense is going to have to keep a spy on Ward all night if they hope to hold him in check.

All of a sudden Memphis finds itself third in the division, needing a win here and a Navy loss to have a shot at the AAC West crown.  Houston, on the other hand, still has dreams of an undefeated season and a playoff spot.  This is easily the biggest game in the AAC’s brief history.

Oregon (6-3) at #7 Stanford (8-1) Saturday 7:30pm on Fox

Oregon is finally playing well.  They’ve won three in a row, but a fourth will be difficult.  Stanford is really good.

The Cardinal calling card has always been a stout defense.  Now that they’ve added offensive firepower to their arsenal they’re an absolute nightmare of an opponent.  They can, and will, pound you between the tackles with Christian McCaffrey who averages 134 yards per game.  That’s made life so much easier for Kevin Hogan who’s completing 66 percent of his passes now that most of them come off a play action fake.

The Ducks are finally getting the production they need from Vernon Adams, which is good news because they’re going to have to outscore the Cardinal to win this one.  In the last three games he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.  Like McCaffrey does for Hogan, Royce Freeman opens up opposing defenses for Adams.  The sophomore standout has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of nine games this fall, with a pair of touchdowns in four of those seven.

It’s been a disappointing season for the Ducks but they’ve still got a chance to spoil Stanford’s playoff party plans.  There should be a fair amount of bad blood in Palo Alto.

#12 Oklahoma (8-1) at #6 Baylor (8-0) Saturday 8:00pm on ABC

The Baylor Bears have been waiting to prove themselves all season, but the Sooners have needed to prove themselves since taking a terrible loss to Texas.

This is the first of three gauntlet games that round out Oklahoma’s schedule.   They’ve got TCU coming to town next week and they’re headed to Stillwater for Bedlam against Oklahoma State in two weeks.  All three are huge obviously, but a loss here would significantly detract from the next two.  A quick note on quarterback Baker Mayfield: he’s completing 70 percent of his passes and averaging 10 yards per attempt.  That combination is astounding and needless to say, no one else is even close to that sort of production.

Baylor’s offensive machine is now operating with a backup quarterback.  Freshman Jarrett Stidham has the keys now after Seth Russell was injured two weeks ago.  He exceeded expectations last week against a formidable Kansas State defense.  He’ll need to be even better against hands down the best defense the Bears have seen all season.

Baylor also has a bumpy road ahead with trips to Oklahoma State and TCU, and a game against Texas on conference championship weekend that looks like the perfect opportunity to trip them up if they’re somehow still standing.  The odds are stacked against them, but that’s pretty much what they asked for.  Let’s see how they handle it.

Washington State (6-3) at #19 UCLA (7-2) Saturday 10:45pm on ESPN

Don’t pass out early.  The nightcap should be fun too.

Washington State has been entertaining this year.  At an astronomical 56.9 attempts and 417.3 yards a game, nobody throws it around the lot like the Cougars.  What else would you expect from a Mike Leach offense?  Luke Falk is another one of those guys completing passes at a 70 percent clip, but when you air it out 56 times a game it brings a whole new meaning to the stat.  UCLA’s defense has been banged up all season.  Falk and company will be aiming to take advantage.

UCLA is still alive despite back-to-back losses to Arizona State and Stanford.  They still control their own destiny with games at Utah and at USC after Wazoo.  Sure it’s tough to ask them to go out and win those last two, but that’s what championship teams do.

Josh Rosen has become a must-watch player for me.  He can make all the throws.  It’s clear he’s got the talent.  Now it’s a matter of him progressing as a quarterback, not just a thrower.  He has to learn how to diagnose defensive schemes and figure out how to consistently move his team down the field in order to take that next step.  I’m excited to see if he can do it.

Do the Bruins come out flat and fall on their faces again, or have they gotten their act together?  Stay up late to find out.