Preview 2016

16 for ’16: Biggest Storylines Heading Into Summer


College football may be in a brief lull, but there are plenty of key storylines percolating that’ll impact the 2016 season. We address the 16 most important ones below.


 

Pads won’t be popping for a few months. And college football, and college sports in general, will take a backseat to the NBA and NHL playoffs for a while. But nestled between the conclusion of spring drills and the onset of fall camp in early August are a handful of impactful offseason storylines that are both intriguing and likely to resurface once games begin on Sept. 1.

16. The Plight of the Insolvent Program

After years of expansion, the FBS might go through a mini-period of contraction.

This offseason has shined a light on some of the smaller FBS programs, many whom don’t bowl, struggle to sell tickets and perennially bleed red ink. In the ever-escalating arm’s race of major college athletics, a surprising number of teams are not self-sustainable, let alone profitable. Idaho announced in April it would drop to the FCS for the 2018 season, and UMass and Eastern Michigan have fielded pressure to follow a similar prescription. Who’s next to go under the bean counter and faculty microscope? The FBS is so bloated that it’s squeezing out non-competitive programs, a reality that’s not going away for the have-nots.

15. Coach Pete Ready to Pay Dividends

Okay, so Chris Petersen couldn’t immediately transform Washington into Boise State of the Pacific Northwest, losing six games in each of his first two seasons. However, this could be the breakout moment for Coach Pete and his Huskies.

U-Dub went with a ton of youth in 2015, even starting true freshman QB Jake Browning. The Huskies didn’t just live to tell about it, they made a surprise appearance in the postseason. And now that so many of those underclassmen are even better positioned to erupt, the program feels it has realistic dreams of overtaking Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North. Yeah, Washington will have to prove it on the field, particularly versus their archrival Ducks, but this squad is gearing up to be one of college football’s big surprises of 2016.

14. Retooling of the Baylor Lines

The Big 12 will be as competitive as ever this season, more so if Texas becomes a player in Charlie Strong’s third season. But how high Baylor can scale will depend not on its speed and skill guys, but on how quickly both lines cane be revamped this summer.

For the Bears to shake off last season’s deflating finish, squandering a chance at a playoff berth, they’ll have to settle both lines in August. Baylor was ransacked by graduation and NT Andrew Billings’ early exit, leaving behind one returning starter, C Kyle Fuller. While this team will continue scoring by the bushel as long as Art Briles is in Waco, there’s a hard cap on its ceiling if play in the trenches becomes a liability when conference games begin.

13. Rebuilding the Clemson D

Coordinator Brent Venables engineered a terrific rebuilding job in 2015, overcoming the loss of a bunch of key defenders. He’ll need to be just as crafty this season for Clemson to win another ACC crown and return to the playoffs.

The Tigers are once again rebuilding on defense after a whopping seven former players were selected in the NFL Draft. LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley and tackles Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins will form the new base. However, what gets added to that foundation this summer will determine Clemson’s 2016 ceiling. While the Tigers can handle a lot of teams with offense alone, getting past Florida State in Tallahassee and closing the deal in Tampa on Jan. 9 will require a handful of former defensive backups to deliver this season.

12. Michigan-Ohio State Hasn’t Been This Good In Ages

Older generations had Woody and Bo. Today’s students will one day wax poetic about Urban and Harbaugh.

Michigan vs. Ohio State has always mattered and always been one of college football’s most storied rivalries. But there’ve been many years when the game was more of a regional phenomenon than truly nationally intriguing. However, that all changed when Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh at the end of the 2014 season. The Wolverines and the Buckeyes. Meyer and Harbaugh. The storylines and significance are boundless. And there’ll be no better—or more anticipated—coaching matchup each fall. This marks the onset of another golden age in this rivalry, and it’s about to hit a new gear of hype and importance in 2016.

11. Aggie Hell

Texas A&M peaked during Johnny Manziel’s two seasons in College Station. Stopping the bleeding is now the responsibility of Kevin Sumlin, who’s endured a brutal past six months as the program’s head coach.

All of the promise surrounding the Aggies when Manziel was busy developing a cult following has evaporated. A&M went 8-5 in each of the last two seasons, including 7-9 in SEC play. Far more damning, though, was the voluntary exodus of blue-chip quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen, and the recent decommitment of heralded Las Vegas hurler Tate Martell. The Aggies have lost their swagger, and the only way to recapture it is by winning. Ironically, in an offseason marked by exits, A&M’s fortune could hinge on a pair of Oklahoma imports, QB Trevor Knight and RB Keith Ford.

10. L.A. on the Verge of Becoming Center of Pac-12 Universe

True, either Stanford or Oregon has won each of the last five Pac-12 titles. But Los Angeles could be championship central in 2016.

It’s a good time to be a football fan in L.A. The Rams are back on the West Coast, with top overall pick Jared Goff ready to be the face of the franchise. And it might finally be time for the city’s two major universities, USC and UCLA, to make a serious run at the Rose Bowl Game for the first time this decade. The Bruins, actually, last played a bowl game in Pasadena in 1999. But both teams have been feasting on the area’s best talent for years, and they feel as if they have stability on the sidelines. Plus, the Cardinal and the Ducks are a little more vulnerable than in recent seasons. While it’s been a while since L.A. ruled the Pac-12, the city could be the backdrop for a title chase this fall.

9. Dalvin Cook’s Shoulder (and Other Medical Updates)

There’s an unavoidability to injuries in this game. By this time of the calendar, though, there should be a much better sense of who’s behind schedule on their rehab and who’s on target for the opener.

Florida State’s Cook, one of the nation’s premier backs, underwent shoulder surgery in the spring to repair a torn labrum, though he should be full speed ahead in fall camp. He’s one of a large list of players using these next few months to take the final important steps back to a clean bill of health. While this might seem like a down period of the calendar, it’s actually essential to monitor the development of linchpin players who may have sat out the spring or missed all of 2015 with an injury.

8. Critical Period For Shane Buechele and Jacob Eason (and Many Other True Freshmen)

Increasing the likelihood of avoiding a redshirt year for rookies means maximizing this juncture between the end of spring drills and the beginning of fall camp.

Every first-year recruit is drinking from a fire hose these days, even those who began taking classes in January. So, it’s important to win the months of May, June and July in the weight room and when building bonds with new teammates. For Buechele and Eason, they’ve got a shot to become rare rookie starting quarterbacks at storied programs, Texas and Georgia, respectively. If they arrive in early August as even better versions of their April selves, new and exciting eras are liable to kick off in Austin and Athens.

7. James Conner Inches Closer to Miraculous Comeback

You know you’re a warrior when an MCL tear is the least of your physical concerns, yet you’re still targeting a return for the opener.

Star Pitt RB James Conner missed all but a few series of 2015 with a serious knee injury, unable to defend his crown as the reigning ACC Player of the Year. Three months later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. Undeterred, Conner attacked the disease like it was an opposing linebacker, battling with heart, confidence and determination. He remains atop the depth chart, just completed his chemo treatment and unless his doctors suggest otherwise still hopes to be in pads when Villanova visits on Sept. 3.

6. New Eras Begin at Georgia, Miami and Virginia Tech

There’ll be more than two dozen first-year head coaches in college football this season. Nowhere will the intrigue and anticipation be greater than in Athens, Coral Gables and Blacksburg.

Georgia ended its 15-year relationship with Mark Richt, hoping that Kirby Smart can bring titles to a campus that hasn’t enjoyed one in more than a decade. Miami scooped up Richt for an instant sideline upgrade after too many years of mediocrity under Randy Shannon and Al Golden. And for the first time since 1986, Virginia Tech will led by someone other than Frank Beamer. Coveted Justin Fuente will look to energize a program that ran out of gas for its legendary former coach. Hopes are high at each school that new leadership will result in a return to glory and title chases.

5. Ole Mess

The Rebel athletic department was already under NCAA investigation, awaiting a resolution … and then the school underwent a Tunsilectomy during the NFL Draft.

Yeah, OT Laremy Tunsil was previously on the NCAA radar, but an entirely new dynamic surfaced when the former Ole Miss star announced he’d accepted money from a coach while at the school. It was particularly untimely because it somewhat tarnishes the program’s recent run of success under Hugh Freeze. And it creates a narrative, fair or not, for rivals to suggest the Rebs had to bend rules to contend in the SEC West. With clouds growing a little darker above Oxford, Ole Miss will now hold its breath and wait to see if alleged indiscretions will detrimentally affect the 2016 squad.

4. Year of the RB

Remember when the running back was in danger of becoming football’s version of the payphone? Well, save the obsolescence talk, because the backs will trump the quarterbacks and occupy center stage this fall.

The 2016 season will pay homage to the golden age of running backs, when offenses were built around Herschel Walker, Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett. Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are all capable of being the face of the sport this fall.

Plus, Nick Chubb could join the trio now that he’s back from injury, and Royce Freeman, Elijah Hood and Samaje Perine would be getting more pub most any other year. Offenses will continue to move fast and spread the field, but with a wink and a nod to the 1970s, running backs are set to dominate headlines this fall.

3. Opening Weekend Fireworks

Most seasons of late have begun with a couple of marquee games and a whole lot of yawn-inducing routs of FCS opponents. Week 1 of the 2016 campaign, though, is rife with anticipation and terrific matchups.

There’ll be no easing into the upcoming season, which is great news for fans and TV execs alike. There’ll be no shortage of riveting non-conference games, like Notre Dame at Texas, Clemson at Auburn, Alabama vs. USC, Ole Miss vs. Florida State and LSU vs. Wisconsin, to name just a handful.

It’s like a New Year’s Day slate of games, except meaningful. Start alerting family members now that you’re booked Labor Day weekend, because the opening weekend will be jammed with quality football, from the first Thursday until the final barbequed burger has been consumed on Monday night.

2. Realignment Carousel Still Spinning

It’s your move, Big 12. And everyone will be paying attention to whether or not the league decides to expand beyond its current 10 members.

While realignment chatter has settled down over the past couple of years, it’s about to become very interesting again in the coming months. The Big 12 presidents and ADs will meet in Texas from May 31 to June 3, with expansion being one of the most compelling topics. Recent analytical reports indicate the conference is statistically more likely to put a team in the playoffs by growing to 12 teams and adding a league title game.

Plus, there’s an opportunity to beef up the coiffures and extend the television footprint to new regions of the map. Of course, the ripple effect, if the Big 12 grows, will be felt through the game and especially by the leagues that are poached.

1. Unraveling the Remaining Undecided QB Battles

True, 15 spring practices resolved quarterback derbies on some campuses. But plenty remain unresolved, including at schools that’ll be contending for hardware later this year.

The first phase of the process to determine the face of the offense is over. The next stage is when coaching staffs become super serious about deciding on depth chart pecking orders. Nick Saban has a choice to make. So does Jim Harbaugh, Jimbo Fisher and Clay Helton at USC.

Stanford has yet to decide on a successor to Kevin Hogan, and Notre Dame’s race between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer could be the hottest of the summer. A ton of programs are still kicking tires, which also means it’s prudent to start monitoring which May graduates elect to end all debates by transferring to a new school.