Category Archives: College Football

2017 Key Games For Week One In College Football

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Will the legs of quarterback Jalen Hurts be able to propel the Alabama Crimson Tide to a victory over the Florida State Seminoles?

 

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2017-2018 College Football Bowl Projections

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National Championship Game-Mercedes Benz Stadium-Atlanta, Georgia: Ohio State vs. Alabama

National Champion: Alabama

Roll Tide as the dominance continues in Tuscaloosa for Nick Saban.

Rose Bowl (National Semifinal): USC vs. Ohio State

It’s a battle between perennial Big Ten and Pac-12 powerhouses in order to reach the National Championship Game.

Sugar Bowl (National Semifinal): Florida State vs. Alabama

These two teams began the year by facing each other and someone’s season will come to an end here in New Orleans.

New Orleans Bowl: Appalachian State vs. Southern Miss

Southern Miss knows a thing or two about this bowl game as they’ve appeared in it more than any other school.

Cure Bowl: Memphis vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

This has the making to be one of the better bowl games of the season.

Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State vs. UCLA

Will making a bowl game be enough for Jim Mora to save his job at UCLA?

New Mexico Bowl: Wyoming vs. Louisiana Tech

There will be plenty of scouts in attendance to watch quarterback Josh Allen in his last collegiate game for Wyoming.

Camellia Bowl: Central Michigan vs. Troy

Don’t tell the folks in the Mid-American or Sun Belt Conferences that this game is not important.

Boca Raton Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Houston

The scorekeepers will earn their paychecks in this one.

Frisco Bowl: Cincinnati vs. BYU

As usual BYU is a team that nobody wants to face.

Gasparilla Bowl Tulsa vs. Middle Tennessee State

This game might be indoors at the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, but these are two teams that know a thing or two about slinging the football around.

Bahamas Bowl: UTSA vs. Miami (Ohio)

I don’t think that either one of these teams will mind having to travel to the Bahamas for this one.

Idaho Potato Bowl: San Diego State vs. Toledo

The run game of San Diego State versus the passing attack of Toledo; something has to give here.

Birmingham Bowl: Central Florida vs. Mississippi State

There will be some paint swapping in Birmingham on this day.

Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force vs. Army

One meeting during the regular season is not enough for these service academies.

Dollar General Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Western Michigan

No team has appeared in this game more than Arkansas State.

Hawai’i Bowl: Colorado State vs. SMU

The football will be flying through the Honolulu night between two teams that can put up a ton of points.

Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College vs. Maryland

It’s rare that two teams meet in the same bowl game in consecutive years, but that’ll be the case here with Boston College and Maryland.

Heart of Dallas Bowl: TCU vs. Temple

TCU will make the short trip for this bowl game to face a Temple team that is just happy to be there.

Cactus Bowl: Texas vs. Washington State

It’s a weird site when Texas is merely happy to be playing in a bowl game.

Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Pittsburgh

The biggest question surrounding this game will be which team will be more enthused about being in Shreveport.

Pinstripe Bowl: Nebraska vs. North Carolina State

New York City will be covered in a blanket of red in late December.

Texas Bowl: Baylor vs. Texas A&M

Will this game mark the end of the Kevin Sumlin era at Texas A&M?

Foster Farms Bowl: Oregon vs. Iowa

A bowl game in the first year of the Willie Taggart will be a step in the right direction for Oregon.

Military Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Navy

Triple-option versus triple-option as Ken Niumatalolo faces off against the man who started the turnaround at Navy in Paul Johnson.

Camping World Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Kansas State

Two of the most underrated programs in college football will square off in a contest that could be one of the better ones of the bowl season.

Alamo Bowl: Colorado vs. Oklahoma

Two former Big 12 Conference foes will meet in San Antonio and add to this game’s history of high scoring affairs.

Holiday Bowl: Indiana vs. Stanford

The folks from Palo Alto will make the trek down Interstate-5 to see their team put a stamp on a solid campaign on the gridiron.

Belk Bowl: Louisville vs. South Carolina

The big question will be whether or not that Louisville be interested in showing up for this one.

Sun Bowl: Clemson vs. Utah

This game could be a preview of two teams who are ready to do bigger and better things in 2018.

Music City Bowl: Vanderbilt vs. Michigan State

The first team to score 20 points will more than likely win this one.

Arizona Bowl: New Mexico vs. Notre Dame

Notre Dame appears to be in turmoil, but don’t expect their former head football coach in Bob Davie to feel sorry for them.

Cotton Bowl: LSU vs. Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State barely missed making the College Football Playoff, and they won’t have a chance to feel sorry for themselves as they’ll take on a very game LSU team.

TaxSlayer Bowl: Minnesota vs. Tennessee

This will be an interesting matchup between a pair of energetic head coaches in P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) and Butch Jones (Tennessee) who won’t make this just another trip to Northern Florida.

Liberty Bowl: Arkansas vs. West Virginia

This game will more than likely end with each team scoring at least 40 points.

Fiesta Bowl: Washington vs. Michigan

After both of these teams barely missed making the College Football Playoff, this could be the best game during the bowl season.

Orange Bowl: Miami vs. Penn State

College football is in a better place when Miami and Penn State are good at the same time.

Outback Bowl: Northwestern vs. Auburn

If you’re a fan of teams that can run the football this will be the game for you.

Peach Bowl: South Florida vs. Georgia

Georgia barely misses out on making the College Football Playoff, but a trip to Atlanta won’t be a bad consolation prize.

Citrus Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Florida

It’s another New Year’s Day bowl game for Florida, but will their fans appreciate it?

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2017 Big Ten Conference Football Projections

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East

Z-Ohio State Buckeyes 12-1 (9-1)

It has not taken head football coach Urban Meyer that much time to restore order for the Ohio State Buckeyes as in his five years in Columbus, they’ve only lost six games while claiming one national championship. The Buckeyes didn’t win the Big Ten Conference last season, but they still went 8-1 within the conference. Ohio State’s strong regular season saw them qualify for the College Football Playoff. However after a 31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s back to the drawing board for Ohio State as they look to win the Big Ten and return to the College Football Playoff.

J.T. Barrett

J.T. Barrett is back for his senior season at Ohio State and he’s looking to leave on a strong note. Barrett has been able win numerous big games as the starting quarterback of the Buckeyes which included going undefeated as a freshman in 2014, along with a Fiesta Bowl victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and getting a road win over the Oklahoma Sooners last year. However Barrett did falter in Ohio State’s last three games of the 2016 college football season which gives him something to work on heading into a new campaign.

Barrett is still one of the better play makers at the quarterback position in the Big Ten Conference, but the Buckeyes will need him to become more efficient as far as making plays in the pocket goes. As the defenses that Ohio State faced towards the end of the season in 2016 got better, Barrett struggled as he never had a completion percentage higher than 57.6 in their last three games. And Barrett’s play could be the determining factor in whether or not that the Buckeyes will be able to win the Big Ten.

Meyer’s spread offense is predicated on the ability to run the football and the Buckeyes have themselves another dynamic tailback in sophomore Mike Weber. Last year as a freshman, Weber averaged 6 yards per carry as he totaled 1,096 yards on the ground. Weber has that explosiveness in the mode of former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot and he could be a dark horse to win the Heisman Trophy, while also being in the mix to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Barrett and Weber will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which includes senior center Brady Taylor. This offensive line has the ability to lean on opposing defenses as the Buckeyes offense tends to get better as the game goes along.

Defensively the Buckeyes will have to replace key talent that helped the unit be sixth in the nation in total defense last season. But under Meyer the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.

Nick Bosa

After recording 5 sacks last year as a freshman, defensive end Nick Bosa could be ready for a breakout performance here in 2017. And Junior linebacker Jerome Baker was second on the team in tackles last season with 83 as he should continue to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the Big Ten.

After Ohio State went on the road last year and defeated the Oklahoma Sooners, they’ll get an extra motivated team that will travel to Columbus on September 9th for the rematch. The Penn State Nittany Lions were the only team to defeat the Buckeyes in the regular season last year; however this time around Ohio State will get them at home on October 28. And of course there is regular season finale with the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor on November 25th as these two games will go a very long way in determining who wins the Eastern Division of the Big Ten this year in order to qualify for the conference title game.

Y-Penn State Nittany Lions 10-2 (7-2)

It’s safe to say that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back as far as being a football power. After not finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll since 2009, the Nittany Lions roared through the competition last year as they won the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 2008. Penn State had the luxury of sneaking up on teams last season which included a victory at home over the Ohio State Buckeyes. And although that Penn State head football coach James Franklin has a very talented team to work with, the element of surprise is gone. But luckily for Franklin, he has arguably the top backfield combination in the Big Ten at his disposal.

Trace McSorley

At 6’1″, junior quarterback Trace McSorley doesn’t have the prototypical size for a signal caller, but he fits Franklin’s system to a tee. McSorley has tremendous mobility and agility which makes him so difficult for opposing defenses to stop. Last year McSorley threw 29 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions which can traced back to his ability to improvise and create when the initial play breaks down. And whereas most mobile quarterbacks tend to take off, McSorley gives his wide receivers the opportunity to get open for the big play down the field.

And if dealing with McSorley isn’t enough, teams that face Penn State must also account for junior running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards last year to go along with 18 touchdowns on the ground as he was the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. At 5’11”, 223 lbs., Barkley is a load for defenders to tackle as he has a thick lower body, while also becoming a better runner as the game progresses. Had it not been for a rule which requires players to be out of high school for three years before entering the National Football League, Barkley would be playing pro ball right now. But the NFL’s rule works out immensely for Penn State as they arguably have the best ball carrier in the nation in their backfield this season.

Mike Gesicki

Senior tight end Mike Gesicki was a little under appreciated last year after he was the Nittany Lions second leading receiver with 679 receiving yards and 5 touchdown grabs as he can get the job done. Gesicki is like a swiss army knife for the Penn State offense as he can be used as an H-back, a blocker in pass protection, a run blocker, and he also has the ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game by keeping opposing safeties and linebackers honest. McSorley won’t have a problem getting Gesicki the football this season and thus he could be an All-Big Ten performer.

Aside from Gesicki, senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton has the potential to be a breakout performer in the Nittany Lions passing game. At 6’1″, 211 lbs., Hamilton has size and speed, while being the perfect compliment to the play making ability of McSorley and Barkley in Penn State’s offense.

Penn State had a young offensive line last year, but led by junior center Connor McGovern, this is now a veteran offensive line that could be the best that the Big Ten has to offer.

The Nittany Lions were a young team on both sides of the ball last year which led to them getting plenty of seasoning. Senior linebacker Jason Cabinda and junior linebacker Manny Bowen are solid tacklers, while defensive back Marcus Allen is a play maker and an enforcer in the secondary. And this will be vital for Penn State as they will be seeking to improve being the 37th ranked defense in 2016.

The Nittany Lions were the kings of the comeback in 2016 which could once again work in their favor in 2017. However Penn State must deal with a daunting schedule that will see them travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes who are never an easy squad to secure a road win against. In three consecutive weeks the Nittany Lions will face the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans as this stretch will decide their fate as to whether or not that they’ll be able to get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title Game in December.

Y-Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (7-2)

Jim Harbaugh

It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to turn around the fortunes of the Michigan Wolverines program. After the Wolverines only had one 10-win season in the previous eight years, they’ve gone 10-3 in each of the last two campaigns under Harbaugh. Harbaugh is taking Michigan back to being a national brand as they are once again a perennial top-10 program. But will 2017 be the year that Harbaugh will be able to bring the maize and blue a Big Ten Championship?

Under Harbaugh there hasn’t been anything that has been pretty about the Wolverines as they are an old-school, lunch pale crew, but it has been effective. Senior quarterback Wilton Speight is set to begin his second consecutive year as the starting quarterback for the Wolverines. Speight needs to show that he is more than just a game manager as in Michigan’s three losses last season, he threw a combined 4 interceptions. However Speight has good size for a quarterback at 6’6″, while he weighs 243 lbs., and being under the tutelage of Harbaugh should once again help him to get prepared for the riggers of playing in the Big Ten Conference.

Harbaugh is in the process making the Wolverines a more physical football team which means being able to run the football effectively. In 2015, Michigan averaged 4.2 yards per carry, while last year it was 4.8. However the Wolverines need to find a game changing play maker at the tailback position. With just 88 carries last year as a true freshman, running back Chris Evans showed his potential as he averaged 7 yards per carry, and he’ll be vital to the success of Michigan’s offense in 2017.

Senior offensive tackle Mason Cole will anchor a Michigan offensive line that is truly a lunch pale crew as they could be the engine of this squad.

It will be tough for Michigan to duplicate their success on defense from last year as they were ranked second in the nation in total defense. Don Brown is set to begin his second year as Michigan’s defensive coordinator as he looks to make sure that his unit remains stingy. However the Wolverines must replace their top eight tacklers from last season, along with defensive end Taco Charlton.

The Wolverines will be a work in progress as the season goes along, but they will get better as their regular season finale against the Ohio State Buckeyes should once again decide who’ll win the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference.

X-Indiana Hoosiers 7-5 (5-4)

For the first time since 1992, the Indiana Hoosiers enter the college football season looking to make their third consecutive bowl appearance. The Hoosiers have been able to survive some of the stiff competition within the Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to become bowl eligible, but things will be slightly different in Bloomington heading into a new college football season.

After nearly six years as Indiana’s head football coach, Kevin Wilson is out. The school and Wilson agreed to mutually part ways last December due to his mistreatment of players. Indiana didn’t look to far to find Wilson’s replacement as defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted. Allen has never been a head coach at the collegiate level as he must now learn on the fly in the Big Ten which will not be easy.

Richard Lagow

Quarterback Richard Lagow is set to be under center for his senior campaign and he needs to build off of what he did in 2016. Lagow was up and down at time as he threw 19 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. And as Lagow goes, so does the Indiana offense as 11 of his interceptions came in losses last season.

Junior wide receiver Nick Westbrook was Lagow’s go-to-guy in the passing game last year and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Westbrook tallied 54 receptions and he was just five yards shy of reaching the coveted 1,000-yard mark. At 6’3″, 215 lbs., Westbrook is a big receiver that is a matchup problem for opposing cornerbacks and he and Lagow should be able to wreak some havoc on defenses in the Big Ten this fall.

There will be plenty of experience on Indiana’s offensive line as they’ll have a pair of seniors in right tackle Brandon Knight and left guard Wes Martin as well as juniors in left tackle Coy Cronk, center Hunter Littlejohn, and right guard Simon Stepaniak as this offense could be one to keep your eyes on.

Last year the Hoosiers were 45th in the nation in total defense and they should be able to improve in 2017. Led by senior linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver, Indiana’s top nine tacklers from last season are returning on defense. Defensively the Hoosiers were also able to tally 13 interceptions last season and they should be able to set up their offense with solid field position via the turnover.

The schedule makers weren’t kind to Indiana as their first game right out of the chute will be at home versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road games against the Penn State Nittany Lions and Michigan State Spartans. But if the Hoosiers can handle their business versus the teams in which they are expected to defeat, they could once again be ready to go bowling.

X-Michigan State Spartans 7-5 (4-5)

Mark Dantonio

During Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans, the level of expectations have changed in East Lansing. Five of the last six seasons have seen the Spartans finished ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll which included them making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Michigan State has claimed two outright Big Ten Championships under Dantonio as well, but they took a huge step backwards in 2016.

After beginning the 2016 college football season with a record of 2-0, Michigan State would lose nine of their remaining ten contests for their worst campaign since 1991. Things never clicked for Sparty as last year marked the first time that they lost to the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions in the same season. Aside from struggling against conference powerhouses, Michigan State also lost to the Rutgers Scarlet Knight and Illinois Fighting Illini who were a combined 5-19 last season. And after Dantonio worked so hard to build Michigan State into being one of the better teams within the Big Ten, he needs to have a bounce back campaign in the worst way here in 2017.

For the Spartans to turn things around this season, their offense is going to have to pick up the production. Last season Sparty was 75th in the nation in total offense which included them being held under 20 points five times. Dantonio is a firm believer in having an effective rushing attack which means that you can expect a heavy dose of junior running back LJ Scott. Scott was able to improve in his sophomore year in East Lansing, but he was still unable to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. This was in part due to the fact that Michigan State lacked talent on that side of the football around Scott. However any success that Michigan State intends to have this year will rely on the running ability of Scott.

Michigan State was 32nd in the nation in defense last season as there is room for improvement for this unit under defensive coordinator Mike Tressel. Senior linebacker Chris Frey led the Spartans in tackles last year with 96 and she should be a leader for this team. But where the Spartans must improve the most in is their ability to force turnovers and put pressure for opposing quarterbacks. Last year Sparty was only able to tally 11 sacks, while only grabbing 8 interceptions which are two areas that they must improve in if they want to once again be a player in the Big Ten Conference.

I don’t see the Spartans being able to contend for the Big Ten Title here in 2017 as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are light years ahead of them. It also won’t help the Spartans cause that they have some difficult road games on tap which includes meetings with the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Buckeyes, along with a contest in Evanston, Illinois versus the Northwestern Wildcats. But Michigan State should be an improved team as I simply do not see Dantonio having consecutive bad seasons.

X-Maryland Terrapins 6-6 (3-6)

In D.J. Durkin’s first year as the head football coach of the Maryland Terrapins, he got the most out of his team by getting them to a bowl game. But after Maryland began the season with a record of 4-0, they went 2-7 the rest of the way as Durkin was indoctrinated into life in the Big Ten Conference. And as Maryland was only able to go 3-6 within the Big Ten last season, will they be able to build off of that mark in 2017?

Caleb Henderson

After junior quarterback Caleb Henderson began his collegiate career with the North Carolina Tar Heels, he decided to transfer to Maryland. And after Henderson had to sit out last year, he is expected to be Maryland’s guy under center this season. Junior running back Ty Johnson provided plenty of explosiveness coming out of the backfield for the Terrapins and you can expect more of the same this time around. Last season Johnson averaged 9.1 yards per carry as he is Maryland’s home-run hitter on offense.

There will be plenty of experience on the offensive line for the Terps as led by left tackle Derwin Gray, you’re looking at an offensive line that has four seniors in the starting lineup which should make Henderson’s transition to be the starting quarterback in College Park a bit smoother.

Durkin’s specialty is defensive football and after the Terrapins were only 77th in the nation in total defense last season, this year should see them as an improved unit. Maryland’s top three tacklers from last season are returning which includes senior linebacker Shane Cockerille. Senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam is a solid pass rusher coming off of the edge which should help to keep Maryland in games, while also potentially forcing turnovers. But the Terps needs to improve in the secondary as they were only able to force 5 interceptions last year.

Whereas last year’s non-conference schedule was easy for Maryland, that won’t be the case this time around as they’ll travel to take on the Texas Longhorns of the Big 12 Conference, while hosting the Central Florida Knights of the American Athletic Conference. And the Terps Big Ten slate isn’t easy either which includes road games versus the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Minnesota Golden Gophers and home dates with the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights 3-9 (1-8)

It has been a steady decline for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights since they joined the Big Ten Conference in 2014. That year would see Rutgers go 8-5 which included a bowl game victory. However since then the Scarlet Knights have lived up to their expectations in the Big Ten as they’ve become the whipping boys for the conference powerhouses. In three years in the Big Ten, Rutgers is a combined 1-11 versus the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Penn State Nittany Lions. And if the Scarlet Knights have any chances of being a contender within the conference, these are the teams that they are going to need to get past.

Chris Ash

Chris Ash is set to begin his second year as the head football coach of Rutgers. And after Ash and the Scarlet Knights were only able to go 2-10 last year, there is only one way for them to go which is up.

The talent pool for Rutgers isn’t deep as this is a team that was 97th in the nation in total defense last season, while they were dead last in total offense which isn’t going to cut it in the Big Ten. Rutgers calls the State of New Jersey home. And even though that the Garden State is littered with quality football talent, the Scarlet Knights has not been able to keep those players home as they are consistently losing out in the recruiting battle to the Big Ten powerhouse schools.

However two names to look out for this season for Rutgers are linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts who are both solid tacklers. And the ability of Morris and Roberts will be on display this year as they should be on the field a ton due to a lackluster offense.

Rutgers wanted the money of the Big Ten which they’ve gotten. But now the Scarlet Knights have to accept the reality of life for them in the Big Ten as they are now everyone’s homecoming game.

West

X-Wisconsin Badgers 9-4 (7-3)

Six of the last eight years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers win at least 10 games. But since Wisconsin is a program that lacks national sizzle, they tend to get lost in the shuffle. The Badgers are coming off of an 11-win season and a victory in the Cotton Bowl over the Western Michigan Broncos. Things could have been ever better for the Badgers had they not blown a 21-point lead in the Big Ten Championship Game to the Penn State Nittany Lions as they would have been Rose Bowl bound. However for Wisconsin head football coach Paul Chryst, he will head into the 2017 college football season looking to keep his program near the top of the Big Ten.

Alex Hornibrook

Last year saw quarterback Alex Hornibrook gain valuable time as a freshman and now he can hopefully build off of that. Hornibrook will now need to be more than just a game manager as he no longer has the protection of running back Corey Clement who is in the National Football League. The Badgers also have a young offensive line which includes a pair of sophomores in left tackle David Edwards and left guard and Jon Dietzen as this unit will have to get their feet under them in a hurry in order to keep up in the Big Ten.

Last year the Badgers were seventh in the nation in total defense and they’ll have some key components that will be returning. Junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles last season with 89, while senior inside linebacker Jack Cichy was fourth with 60. The Badgers lost 15.5 sacks when linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel went to the National Football League, but their departure could open the door for senior defensive end Alec James and senior outside linebacker Garrett Dooley to emerge. The Badgers pass rush also opened things up for their secondary and I anticipate senior strong safety D’Cota Dixon to have another big season. In 2016, Dixon had 4 interceptions, and his range will be important if Wisconsin intends on hanging tough in the Big Ten West.

The Badgers have never been known to take it easy in the non-conference portion of their schedule as a September 16th trip to face the BYU Cougars will be telling. And when the Big Ten portion of Wisconsin’s schedule begins, road meetings with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Minnesota Golden Gophers, as well as home affairs with the Northwestern Wildcats, Michigan Wolverines, and Iowa Hawkeyes will show us a ton about the character of this team.

X-Northwestern Wildcats 9-3 (6-3)

Pat Fitzgerald

Under head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern Wildcats are enjoying their best stretch in program history. After being a two-time Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year during his playing career at Northwestern, Fitzgerald has brought the same hard working ethic to his team in Evanston, Illinois. Fitzgerald’s record with the Wildcats is 77-62 which is nothing to sneeze at. But can Fitzgerald do something which hasn’t been done at Northwestern since 1995 which is to lead them to the Big Ten Conference Title?

Whereas the Wildcats were only able to go 7-6 last season, led by their offense they have the ability to be a sleeper here in 2017. Senior running back Justin Jackson has the ability to frustrate defenders with his elusiveness coming out of the backfield. Last season saw Jackson gain 1,524 rushing yards to go along with 15 touchdowns on the ground and he has the potential to once again be one of the better running backs in the Big Ten.

Accuracy is the name of the game for Northwestern junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. After Thorson was only able to complete 50.8% of his passes as a freshman in 2015, he got that number to nearly 60% last year at 58.6. Now the key for Thorson as a junior is to get that number above 60, and he can do it by complimenting the rushing ability of Jackson which means utilizing the play-action pass in order to be efficient.

Led by left tackle Blake Hance, the Wildcats have three seniors that will be starting on their offensive line as they will not only be responsible for opening up holes in the run game for Jackson, but to also protect Thorson as this unit will be a big part of any chance that Northwestern has of getting to the Big Ten Title Game.

However as the old saying goes, offense might win games, but defense wins championships. And although that Northwestern might have a prolific offense on their hands, they are going to need a strong effort on the defensive side of the football in 2017. Last year the Wildcats were 60th in the nation in total defense, and on top of that they lost three of their top four tacklers from 2016 as well as their leading pass rusher.

But Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about strong linebacking play in the Big Ten and a player to watch out for at Northwestern this year is junior outside linebacker Nate Hall. After grabbing 5 interceptions last year as a sophomore, junior cornerback Montre Hartage should once again be one of the better corners in the Big Ten as it will be interesting to see how much that opposing offenses will be willing to test him.

The Wildcats should benefit from an easy non-conference schedule, but when Big Ten play begins they must hunker down for a pair of road games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers which will more than likely decide who wins the Big Ten West.

X-Minnesota Golden Gophers 7-5 (5-4)

It might be hard to believe, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers have claimed a share or have outright won 15 Big Ten Conference Championships on the gridiron. Minnesota’s 15 titles are third most in conference history behind the 42 of the Michigan Wolverines and the 35 of the Ohio State Buckeyes. But unlike Michigan and Ohio State who are regularly atop the Big Ten standings, the Golden Gophers have not won the conference crown since 1967. Since then the Gophers have been an up and down program with just one appearance in a New Year’s bowl game. Each of the last five years have seen Minnesota reach a bowl game, but they’ve been unable to take that next step in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers program dealt with their fair share of off-the-field issues last season which saw the school part with Tracy Claeys as their head football coach, but they may have struck it big in finding his replacement.

In January, Minnesota would name P.J. Fleck as their new head football coach. Fleck became a hot commodity on the coaching scene as in four years as the head football coach of the Western Michigan Broncos, he compiled a record of 30-22 which included leading the Broncos to their first undefeated regular season in school history. Fleck is a 36-year old that is full or energy, and now it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to turn Minnesota into an upper echelon program within the Big Ten. But as Fleck is set to take over a new program, he can have solace in knowing that he inherits a team that won nine games last season, while three of their four losses came by a touchdown or less.

Conor Rhoda’s time with Minnesota has been in the role of being a backup quarterback. And as Rhoda is set to begin his final season in Minneapolis, he’ll be eager to show what he can do. But whereas Rhoda is inexperienced, he can lean on junior running back Rodney Smith. Last year Smith was the heart and soul of the Minnesota as he carried the football 240 times for 1,158 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. And you can expect Smith to once again get his opportunity to show what he can do under Fleck.

Defensively in 2016, the Gophers amassed 37 sacks with junior linebacker Blake Cashman and senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson combining for 14.5 of those. The front seven of the Golden Gophers already had played with a solid level of intensity which will now only be magnified under Fleck.

The first half of Minnesota’s schedule is very manageable, but when the competition will pick up in the second half as they’ll have road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Northwestern Wildcats, Fleck will get a healthy dose of life in the Big Ten.

X-Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-5 (4-5)

The Nebraska Cornhuskers are coming off of their eighth 9-win season in the last nine years. But will the Huskers be able to build off of what they did last season in order to win the Big Ten Conference which is something that they’ve been unable to do since they joined the league in 2011?

Mike Riley

Mike Riley is set to begin his third season as Nebraska’s head football coach. Riley is known for his offensive football, but the first two years of his regime in Lincoln has seen both he and the Cornhuskers offense in limbo. When Riley took over for his predecessor in Bo Pelini, he had to convert from a run oriented offense to a passing system that had philosophies of the West Coast offense. Riley was attempting to do this with players that Pelini had recruited and in year three he can potentially get some semblance of order.

The outlook for the Cornhuskers offense in 2017 will begin with junior quarterback Tanner Lee. Lee sat out the 2016 college football season after he transferred from the Tulane Green where he didn’t exactly light it up. In two years at Tulane, Lee 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions as he was on one of the worst teams in college football. And whereas Lee could get lost in the shuffle with the Green Wave, he will now have to contend with the “Sea of Red” at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln where they expect their team to contend for the Big Ten Title.

Defensively Nebraska must replace a ton of production as their top three tacklers from 2016 have graduated, but senior safety Kieron Williams who led the team in interceptions last season with 5 has the potential to be the best safety in the Big Ten.

The Huskers should once again be a bowl team here in 2017, however after finishing one win shy of winning the Big Ten West last season, they will more than likely take a step back this time around.

X-Iowa Hawkeyes 7-5 (4-5)

With the stunning retirement of Bob Stoops as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in June, Iowa Hawkeyes head football coach Kirk Ferentz is now the current longest tenured head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. In 18 seasons at Iowa, Ferentz has a record of 135-92 which includes getting his team to a bowl game in 14 of those years in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are coming off of consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games for the first time since 2005, but will they be able to avoid getting lost in the shuffle this year in the Big Ten Conference?

Nathan Stanley

After C.J. Beathard spent the last two years as the starting quarterback for Iowa, it is now Nathan Stanley’s opportunity to take over the reigns. Stanley saw limited action last year as a freshman, and he should be another in a long line of game managers that Ferentz has relied on to keep his offense going. Last year saw running back Akrum Wadley split carries in the backfield with LeShun Daniels Jr. But with Daniels now in the National Football League, Wadley will have a bigger workload here in 2017 as he has a chance to be the best running back in the Big Ten in this his senior season.

The Hawkeyes offense will benefit from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation that features three senior starters which includes left tackle Boone Myers. One of Ferentz’s specialties is developing quality offensive lineman and this group of big uglies could have a stellar season for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa was 23rd in the nation last year in total defense, and although that they lost some talent on the defensive side of the football, they still have have middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Jewell recorded 124 tackles last year as a junior and with his senior campaign set to begin, he should be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

The Hawkeyes have the potential to be a force in the Big Ten West, but they face a daunting journey. After a pedestrian like non-conference schedule, Iowa has home games within the Big Ten against the Penn State Nittany Lions, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and Ohio State Buckeyes, while they’ll also have road affairs with the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers as this could be the conference’s tough schedule.

Purdue Boilermakers 2-10 (1-8)

In the expansion of the Big Ten Conference, the Purdue Boilermakers have been an afterthought. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time in which Purdue was able to finish with a winning record, while they haven’t finished a season ranked since 2003. The last four seasons have seen the Boilermakers win a combined nine games which has resulted in a change of leadership in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Jeff Brohm

Jeff Brohm is set to begin life in the Big Ten as the new head football coach of the Boilermakers. Brohm spent the last three years as the head football coach of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers where he compiled a record of 30-10 which included winning a pair of Conference USA Championships. Brohm is known for production on the offensive side of the football as Western Kentucky was fifth in the nation last year in total offense in 2016 and he will need to input some life into the Purdue offense.

David Blough

As Brohm is taking over, he has a quarterback in place in junior David Blough. Last season Blough passed for 3,352 yards, but the majority of that was due to the fact that Purdue constantly attempting to play catch up. Blough threw 25 touchdowns, but he was also intercepted 21 times and that must change in order for the Boilermakers to be competitive in the Big Ten. However it will be tough for Blough to get that interception total drastically down in 2017 being that Purdue doesn’t have a ton of talent at the skill positions around him, while there aren’t any seniors on the offensive line which hurts; especially since Brohm will be instilling a new blocking system.

Defensively Purdue must become more competitive after they were 91st in the nation last year in total defense. The Boilermakers surrendered 44 points or more in a game last year six times which simply won’t cut it. Anthony Poindexter and Nick Holt will be co-defensive coordinators this year as they look to ignite a fire under Purdue’s defense. However last year saw the emergence of middle linebacker Markus Bailey who led the team in tackles (97) and interceptions (4) as a true freshman, and he’ll be a building block as well as a leader for this unit here in 2017.

Brohm will begin his time at Purdue by facing his alma mater in the Louisville Cardinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’re led by head football coach Bobby Petrino who also happens to be his coaching mentor. And when Big Ten play begins, it will be simply about attempting to compete for Purdue as up is the only way for them to go.

Illinois Fighting Illini 2-10 (1-8)

The football program of the Illinois Fighting Illini currently finds themselves in a rut that they cannot get out of. 2010 was the last time that Illinois finished a college football campaign with a winning record as they’ve been taking a beating since then in the Big Ten. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is coming off of a 3-9 campaign his first time around in Champaign as he was fighting an uphill battle. Smith wasn’t named as the head football coach until March 2016 which put him behind the eight-ball as far as recruiting and being able to put together a coaching staff as he set out to instill discipline and have a culture change for this team. And as a new college football season is on the horizon for the Illini, will they be able to show any signs of life?

It’s still unclear if Smith will go with junior Chayce Crouch or sophomore Jeff George Jr. as the Illinois starting quarterback, but this is a team that needs a leader. The Illini were 123rd in the nation in total offense last season as they were limited to 10 points or less five times. The inability of the Illinois offense didn’t make things better for their defense that spent too much time on field. And like the offense of the Fighting Illini, the defense needs to find some impact players as well.

Smith and his team are still fighting an uphill battle in the Big Ten, and until they are able to reverse the tide, they are going to keep watching the parade pass them by.

Big Ten Championship Game:Lucas Oil Stadium-Indianapolis, Indiana: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Conference Champion: Ohio State

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-New Year’s Six

Z-Conference Champion

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com

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2017 American Athletic Conference Football Projections

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East

Y-South Florida Bulls 12-1 (8-1)

In four years as the head football coach of the South Florida Bulls, Willie Taggart took the program to heights that it had previously never been to. In just four years Taggart was able to transform South Florida from a 2-10 squad to a 10-2 team. Taggart’s success led to him becoming the head football coach of the Oregon Ducks. And for anyone who thinks that South Florida is ready to take a step back now that Taggart has moved on, think again.

Charlie Strong is set to replace Taggart as South Florida’s head football coach. Prior to taking over at South Florida, Strong was the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals and Texas Longhorns as he had a combined record of 53-36. Strong enjoyed tremendous success at Louisville as in four years there he compiled a record of 37-15 which included winning the final Big East Conference Championship in 2012. However Strong’s tenure at Texas would not be as memorable as in three years there his record was only 16-21. Strong never had a winning season at Texas which led to the school dismissing him last year. There are those who felt that the big stage at Texas may have been too big for Strong, while he also never received the full support from everyone who is affiliated with the Longhorns program. But Strong has been welcomed with open arms at South Florida, and that along with the fact that he knows how to successfully recruit within the State of Florida from his time as the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators as well as his tenure at Louisville, the Bulls could be ready to win many games with him leading the way.

Taggart left Strong a good team to work with which includes senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers enters this college football season as the reigning American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as he is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Last year Flowers accounted for 4,342 total yards along with 42 touchdowns and he should get some consideration for the Heisman Trophy this year as well.

D’Ernest Johnson

Running back D’Ernest Johnson has spent the last few years as the backup to Marlon Mack. But with Mack now pursuing a career in the National Football League, Johnson will be the featured back for South Florida. Strong is a coach that loves to run the football which means that you can expect Johnson to tote the rock anywhere between 200-250 times this season.

Defensive football is supposed to be the best asset that Strong can bring to a football team. But last year under Strong, the Longhorns were 94th in the nation in total defense. South Florida was even worse as they were 120th which included giving up at least 40 points three times. However one key contributor to look at on the defensive side of the football for the Bulls is senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez. Sanchez was second-team All-Defense in the American Athletic Conference last year as he led the Bulls in tackles with 117. Sanchez has solid range which will be need to be put to the test if the Bulls are going to win the AAC.

Everything is set up for 2017 to be another strong campaign on the gridiron for South Florida; it is simply just a matter of them living up to the expectations.

X-Central Florida Knights 7-5 (5-3)

When Scott Frost became the head football coach of the Central Florida Knights, the sky was the limit for him. Frost inherited a Central Florida team that went  0-12 in 2015, but in his first season in Orlando he was able to get them to a bowl game. The Knights were able to sneak up on some opponents in 2016, but how will 2017 fare for them?

There is not anything flashy about Central Florida, but they have embodied the mindset of their head coach which means that they fight, scrap, and claw on each play. Senior outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin enters the upcoming season as the reigning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Last season Griffen registered 92 tackles along with 11.5 sacks, and he’ll once again be a force this season.

After Central Florida ended 2016 on a three-game losing streak, I expect Frost to use this as additional motivation for his team heading into the new season.

X-Cincinnati Bearcats 6-6 (4-4)

The start of the 2017 college football season brings with it a new era for the Cincinnati Bearcats. After four years at the helm at Cincinnati, Tommy Tuberville was relieved of his duties last December as the Barcats head football coach and he would be replaced by Luke Fickell. Fickell spent parts of the last 15 years as an assistant coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes which included him being the interim head coach at the school for 2011. Fickell is a native of Columbus, while he also played his collegiately at Ohio State. And now Fickell gets the opportunity to lead his own program on a full-time basis in the Buckeye State.

For the Bearcats to become players in the American Athletic Conference, they will need to become more efficient on offense. Last year Cincy was only 99th in the nation in total offense. And this was highlighted by the fact that the Bearcats were only able to convert 38% of their third down conversions.

A couple of bright spots on offense for Cincinnati will be senior wide receiver Devin Gray and their experienced offensive line. Gray has the speed to separate and become one of the best pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference, while led by center David Niehaus, Cincinnati’s offensive line will feature four seniors in the starting lineup.

Defensively the Bearcats lost a wealth of talent from last year’s team which means that Fickell is going to have his work cut out for him in order to maintain this unit that carried the team at times last season.

Fickell inherits a team that will hover around .500 all year, but if he finds a way to motivate the Bearcats enough, this team could be headed to its sixth bowl appearance in the last seven years.

X-Temple Owls 6-6 (4-4)

2017 will be bittersweet for the Temple Owls as they will be starting over. After four years as the head football coach at Temple and compiling a record of 28-23, Matt Rhule left Philadelphia for a bigger payday as he became the head football coach of the Baylor Bears in the Big 12 Conference. Rhule has been replaced at Temple by Geoff Collins.

This will the first time around the floor as a head coach for Collins. Collins is known for his work on the defensive side of the football which included him being the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators for the last two years. At Florida, Collins oversaw one of the top defenses in the nation which helped the Gators reach the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in both of his years in Gainesville. Now Collins will be tasked with attempting to build off of what Rhule was able to establish at Temple, while not allowing the program to take a step backwards.

Collins won’t have the same talent to work with that Rhule had last year, but he does inherit an experienced offensive line with three senior starters which includes left tackle Cole Boozer. Senior running back Ryquell Armstead has the potential to be one of the better ball carriers in the American Athletic Conference, while senior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood could be a sleeper as far as being one of the better pass catchers in the conference.

Collins does inherit a defense which was third in the nation last year in total defense, however most of the key players from that unit are no longer with the team. But one defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior strong safety Delvon Randall who has solid range, along with a nose for the football which will keep quarterbacks thinking twice in regards to testing him.

2017 will be a year of transition for Temple, and although that it will be a long shot for them to repeat as American Athletic Conference Champions, they should be able to reach a bowl game for the third consecutive year.

Connecticut Huskies 4-8 (3-5)

In a shocking move last December, the Connecticut Huskies decided to part ways with Bob Diaco as their head football coach. In three years with UConn, Diaco complied a record of 11-26 which included reaching a bowl game in 2015. However when the Huskies went 3-9 last season which included losing their last six games, school officials in Storrs decided to move on from him. Connecticut would find solace by bringing back a familiar face in Randy Edsall to lead their football program.

Randy Edsall

From 1999-2010, Edsall was Connecticut’s head football coach which included guiding the Huskies from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. And from 2007-2010, Edsall led UConn to four consecutive bowl appearances which included making the Fiesta Bowl during the 2010 college football season.

But when the Maryland Terrapins offered Edsall more money, he could not refuse. From 2011-2015, Edsall was the head football coach at Maryland. During Edsall’s time in College Park, he oversaw the Terrapins transition from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. Over time Edsall’s Maryland program improved which included making consecutive bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, However with unrealistic expectations that were thrust on Edsall by alumni and boosters, he was fired in 2015 as his record there was 22-34. And now Edsall’s career has a chance to come full circle at Connecticut as he returns to a program that he understands and he can once again make them respectable.

The Huskies will need to find an identity on offense as they were 122nd in the nation last season in total offense which included being held to 20 points or less eight times. But led by a pair of seniors in inside linebacker Junior Joseph and outside linebacker Vontae Diggs, there is some potential for Connecticut to be solid on defense, however I do not see it being enough to get them to a bowl game.

The folks in Storrs are happy to have Edsall back, and even though that the results might not be there for UConn in 2017, they’ll be patient with him as he looks to rebuild.

East Carolina Pirates 2-10 (1-7)

The Scottie Montgomery era as the head football coach of the East Carolina Pirates began on a strong note as the Pirates won their first two games in 2016, but it quickly turned sour. East Carolina would only win one more game on the season for their second consecutive losing season. And of those nine losses, only two were by less than 16 points as the Pirates failed to compete. The American Athletic Conference is a league that teams can get lost in the shuffle very quickly, and as a new season is set to begin, the Pirates must find a way to toughen up against their competition.

Quarterback Thomas Sirk began his collegiate career for the Duke Blue Devils, and in 2015, he helped them reach their fourth consecutive bowl game. But whereas Sirk appeared ready to build off of that in 2016, he decided to transfer. And after sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules, Sirk is ready to finish his collegiate career at East Carolina. At 6’4″, 216 lbs., Sirk provides the Pirates with good size at the quarterback position along with his leadership as a senior which should come in handy as East Carolina looks to turn things around.

Last year the Pirates were 100th in the nation in total defense as they surrendered 30 points or more nine times which cannot be repeated in 2017 if they want to turn things around. But with a lack of play makers on defense, East Carolina will have their hands full in regards to getting things turned around in 2017.

Even with a veteran signal caller in Sirk added to the mix, it is going to be very tough for East Carolina to turn it around as the talent is simply not there to compete in the American Athletic Conference.

West

X-Memphis Tigers 9-4 (5-4)

From 2014-2015, Justin Fuente led the Memphis Tigers to 19 victories. And in the process Fuente’s success would lead to him becoming the head football coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies last year. And although that Fuente was no longer at Memphis, the Tigers didn’t slow down. Memphis went 8-5 last season under head football coach Mike Norvell which was good enough for a third place finish in the Western Division of the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers should once again be a viable team, but will they have enough to win the AAC for first time in school history?

Riley Ferguson

Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson has the potential to be the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Last year Ferguson threw 32 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. And at 6’4″, Ferguson has the ability to scan the field which compliments his ability to spread the football around.

Aside from being one of the best pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference, senior wide receiver Anthony Miller should get some recognition in regards to winning the Belitnikoff Award as the nations top wide receiver. Miller torched defenses last year in the AAC last year to the tune of 95 receptions for 1,434 and 14 receiving touchdowns. And as Memphis has one of the best passing offenses in the nation, Miller will once again be tough to defend with his speed along with ability to move the chains on third down.

The Tigers won’t be recognized in regards to having the best defensive unit in the American Athletic Conference, but one player to keep an eye on will be senior outside linebacker Genard Avery. Avery is a versatile linebacker that can be effective in both run and pass coverage which will be important if Memphis wants to be a title contender in the AAC.

Within the American Athletic Conference, the Tigers have a very manageable schedule, while a home game versus the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference on September 16 could do wonders to raise the profile of the conference. And when it is all said and done the Tigers could be in line to win their first conference title at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

X-Houston Cougars 8-4 (5-3)

The last two years were the best in the history of the Houston Cougars. The Cougars won a combined 22 games and they became the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference. This success of Houston led to their head football coach Tom Herman becoming the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns which left the Cougars with another void to fill. Houston would promote offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to become their seventh head football coach since 2007. Applewhite is very familiar with the football scene in the State of Texas from his time as a quarterback for the Longhorns and now he will look to add to what Herman had already established in regards to making the Cougars one of the top teams in the AAC.

Quarterback Kyle Allen began his collegiate career with the Texas A&M Aggies where he won six games as a starter in 2015. But that season also saw A&M go through multiple quarterbacks, and Allen sought out a fresh start with Houston. The presence of senior wide receiver Linell Bonner will make the transition easier for Allen as he is one of better pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference. Bonner snagged 98 receptions last year and although that he’ll see his fair share of double coverage, he will have a big impact for this offense.

From 2011-2015, Mark D’Onofrio was the defensive coordinator of the Miami Hurricanes and now he is joining Houston in the same capacity. D’Onofrio inherits a defense that features the likes of senior inside linebacker Matthew Adams and sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver. As a true freshman last year Oliver was able to wreak havoc on the Cougars defensive as he managed to record 5 quarterback sacks. Oliver should be able build off of that as he will be a problem for opposing offensive lines. Adams is a solid player and as a senior, he gives Houston a leader on that side of the football.

The fact that Applewhite has been with Houston for the last two years will cushion the loss of Herman, while the Cougars will be in the mix to reach the American Athletic Conference Championship Game for the third time in the last four years. However three of the Cougars last five games will see them face the Memphis Tigers, South Florida Bulls, and Navy Midshipmen in contest that will go a long way in determining if they’ll win the AAC West.

X-Navy Midshipmen 7-5 (5-3)

Ken Niumatalolo

For Navy Midshipmen head football coach Ken Niumatalolo, he has built one of the most respected college football programs in the nation. Since Niumatalolo has been running the ship at Navy, the Midshipmen have only had one losing season. And Niumatalolo has done this in spite of the fact the he is coaching at a service academy where players must give at least two years to the United States Navy upon graduating. 2016 also marked Navy’s first year in the American Athletic Conference and they held their own as they won the Western Division. But even though that Navy ended the year on a three-game losing streak which included losing to the Army Black Knights for the first time since 2001, they should once again be a force to be reckoned heading into the new college football season in the AAC.

This marks the third consecutive year that Navy will have a different starting quarterback. Junior Zach Abey will be the Midshipmen’s starting quarterback as he will look to excel in Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Navy’s triple-option begins and ends with the quarterback as he goes, so does the rest of the offense.

The Midshipmen did struggle on defense in 2016 as they were 84th in the nation in total defense. But the return of key players such as senior linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore who are each solid players in the front seven should allow Navy to improve on that side of the football.

In 2016, the Midshipmen benefited from having the top teams in the American Athletic Conference make the trek to Annapolis. However this season Navy will be on the road for key games versus the Memphis Tigers, Temple Owls, and Houston Cougars as it will be very difficult for the Midshipmen to get back to the conference title game.

X-Southern Methodist Mustangs 7-5 (4-4)

In 2015, Chad Morris was given a tough task as the new head football coach of the Southern Methodist Mustangs. SMU was coming off of only winning one game in 2014, while their facilities didn’t make the program a hotbed for the top recruits. The Mustangs went 2-10 under Morris in his first season, but by 2016 they were able to win five games. Last year SMU only needed to win one of their final two games in order to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2012, but they fell short. However SMU could use their improvement in 2016 as a springboard for better things this season.

Ben Hicks

Last year as a redshirt freshman, Ben Hicks took his lumps as the starting quarterback for the Mustangs. Morris was only able to complete 55% of his passes while he also threw an interception in seven of Southern Methodist’s twelve games. But Hicks does have a big arm, along with some upside, and the fact that he hung in there as a freshman showed his toughness as he showed that he could be ready to take his game to the next level this year.

The Mustangs do have one of the best ball carriers in the American Athletic Conference in the form of junior running back Brandon West. Last year West was able to exceed 200 carries, and even for a smaller running back that is still a lot. West is a dependable ball carrier who is always just a step away from breaking off a big run, while he provides the perfect compliment to Hicks and SMU’s passing game.

Junior wide receiver Courtland Sutton will be in the mix to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. Last season Sutton tallied 76 receptions for 1,246 and 10 receiving touchdowns. At 6’4″, 218 lbs., Sutton is a matchup nightmare, and if he is able to put up similar numbers as compared to what he did last season, he could be one of the first wide receivers selected in next year’s National Football League Draft. But if SMU opponents want to focus on stopping Sutton, junior wide receiver James Proche could burn them as it is a classic case of pick your poison.

Led by center Evan Brown, the Mustangs have three seniors on their offensive line which will give them an advantage in the American Athletic Conference as this experienced unit can anchor an offense that is possessed with potential.

However the SMU offense will have to make up for a defensive unit that was 103rd in the nation in total defense last season. As a unit the Mustangs were not sharp, but one player to keep an eye on will be junior cornerback Jordan Wyatt who has a nose for the football.

Morris is building something at SMU, and a bowl berth this season would be a huge shot in the arm for both he and his program.

X-Tulsa Golden Hurricane 6-6 (4-4)

2016 was one of the strongest campaigns in the history of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes football. Tulsa won 10 games for the first time since 2012 and two road losses by a combined 9 points prevented them from playing for the American Athletic Conference Title. But for Tulsa head football coach Philip Montgomery, he lost an immense amount of talent from that team as he’ll have his work cut out for him in order for the Golden Hurricane to make a bowl game in the third consecutive year.

Quarterback Dane Evans and running back James Flanders, along with wide receivers Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson have all graduated and with them they took a combined 50 touchdowns which must now be replaced.

Last year quarterback Luke Skipper redshirted as he sat out what would have been his freshman campaign. But now Skipper will get his first crack to be the guy for Tulsa. Last year running back D’Angelo Brewer gained 1,425 yards on the ground in spite of the fact that he split carries with in the Golden Hurricane’s backfield with Flanders. But now it will be Brewer who’ll get the bulk of the carries this year. In 2016, wide receiver Justin Hobbs took a backseat to Lucas and Atkinson, but now he’ll be looked at to be the go-to-guy in Tulsa’s passing game. And at 6’4″, 218 lbs., Hobbs definitely has the physical presence to be a problem for opposing defenses.

Without any play makers on the defensive side of the football, it will be up to the offense to carry Tulsa in 2017. And as this season will be a rebuilding campaign for the Golden Hurricane, there will be plenty of ups and downs this year.

Tulane Green Wave 1-11 (0-8)

Since the American American Conference went to a two-division format in 2015, the Tulane Green Wave has finished in the basement of the AAC West in both seasons. In three years in the AAC, the Green Wave have only managed to win four conference games as the parade of success has passed them by. Willie Fritz is set to begin his second season as Tulane’s head football coach and as the deck is stacked against him, will he be able to make the Green Wave into a contender?

If Tulane is going to make a splash this year in the American Athletic Conference, senior running back Dontrell Hilliard will need to have a big season. Hilliard has never gained 1,000 yards rushing during his collegiate career, but this could be the year that it finally happens. Aside from Hilliard, another impact player for the Green Wave could be senior cornerback Parry Nickerson who has some of the best coverage skills in the conference.

But being that Tulane is fighting an uphill battle and Fritz is still attempting to chance the culture around his program, don’t expect any miracles for the Green Wave this season.

American Athletic Conference Championship Game: Memphis vs. South Florida

Conference Champion: South Florida

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

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2017 Pac-12 Conference Projections

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North

X-Washington Huskies 10-3 (7-3)

It has not taken head football coach Chris Petersen that long to turn around the fortunes of the Washington Huskies. In three years at Washington, Petersen has compiled a record of 27-14 which included going 12-2 last year. En route to winning 12 games for the first time since 1991, Washington won the Pac-12 Conference for the first time since 2000 as Peterson has once again created a buzz for Husky football in the Pacific Northwest. But whereas Washington was able to creep up on some opponents last year, they won’t be able to do the same thing here in 2017 as they look to repeat as Pac-12 Champs.

Jake Browning

Junior quarterback Jake Browning will begin this season as the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Browning spent 2016 shredding defenses around the Pac-12 as he threw 43 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions. Browning also completed more than 62% of his passes as he is a cool customer in the pocket which is evident by the fact that he hardly gets rattled. And being that Browning has ice water in his veins will once again be important for the cause of the Huskies.

Along with Browning there is plenty of talent returning at the skill positions for Washington. Junior running back Myles Gaskin is coming off of a season where gained 1,373 rushing yards as he averaged 5.8 yards per carry. And with the National Football League in the near future of Gaskin, I expect him to once again be one of the better ball carriers in the Pac-12. Senior wide receiver Dante Pettis has been a dependable target for Browning in the passing game, while junior wide receiver Chico McClatcher could be a sleeper in Washington’s deep passing game.

Whereas Washington was a young team in 2016, they have become a veteran team rather quickly which is illustrated by their offensive line. This season the Huskies will have a pair of seniors as well as two juniors starting on the offensive line. And led by senior center Coleman Shelton, Washington should have one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12.

Last year saw the Huskies have the 12th best defense in the nation and this unit has the potential to be special this time around under co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatowski. Senior inside linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria will tackles anything that moves while overall Washington has a swarming front seven which led to 40 sacks in 2016. Last year as a true freshman, free safety Taylor Rapp led the team in interceptions with 4 and he has the potential to improve off of that.

2016 saw the Huskies get back onto the national scene. However Washington’s 24-7 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoffs shows that they still have some work ahead of them to be a consistent national title contender. The non-conference slate will be a cake walk for the Huskies, but when Pac-12 play begins, they’ll have a conference title game rematch with the Colorado Buffaloes along with a road meeting with the Stanford Cardinal which could decided who’ll win the Pac-12 North.

X-Stanford Cardinal 9-3 (6-3)

The last seven years have seen the Stanford Cardinal become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Since 2011, Stanford has won three Pac-12 Championships which is more than any other football program in the conference over that stretch. Stanford head coach David Shaw continues to go about his business as he has compiled a record of 64-17 in his six years in Palo Alto. Under Shaw, the Cardinal have made a bowl game in each season, while his four bowl victories are more than any other head football coach in the history of the program. And now that Stanford has established themselves as one of the premier programs within the Pac-12, how will 2017 work out for them?

The Cardinal must replace one of the most dynamic players in their program’s history as running back Christian McCaffrey is now in the National Football League. However the cupboard is never bare in Palo Alto at the running back position. Running back Bryce Love spent last year as McCaffrey’s understudy and he held his own which included rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Stanford’s final two games. Love enters his junior year as a potential breakout performer in the Pac-12, and although that his elusiveness might not be on the level of McCaffrey, he can still hold his own.

Stanford has become one of the top programs in the nation as far as developing offensive linemen, and this year will see them once again have another solid unit up front. Led by left tackle David Bright, Stanford has three seniors that’ll be starting on their offensive line and they embody Shaw’s strategy which is to wear down your opponent as the game goes along. Aside from opening holes for Love, the big boys up front will also provide protection for senior quarterback Keller Chryst.

Keller Chryst

Chryst was Stanford’s starting quarterback last season, and if the Cardinal are going to compete for the Pac-12 Title, he will need to pass more effectively in order to balance out the team’s power running game and shed his reputation of simply being a game manager.

Defensively the Cardinal might fly under the radar, but with the guidance of defensive coordinator Lance Anderson this is a unit that knows how to fly around the football. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is an anchor on the defensive line and he is a part of a unit that will feature eight senior starters.

After the Cardinal open the regular season against the Rice Owls who are out of Conference USA in Australia, they will head to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 9th to face the USC Trojans in a contest that will be telling for them within the Pac-12. And over a seven-day span in November, Stanford will face the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in a pair of contest that’ll go a very long way in determining who will get to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game.

X-Oregon Ducks 8-4 (5-4)

2016 was a year in which the Oregon Ducks would like to quickly forget. The Ducks went 4-8 for their worst campaign since 1991. Oregon’s issues began on defense where they were ranked 126th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Ducks surrendered at least 50 points in a game four times while teams were no longer intimidated of going to Autzen Stadium in Eugene as Oregon lost on their home field three times last season.

The struggles of Oregon signaled that it was time for the school to move on from head football coach Mark Helfrich after four years in order to find someone who would once again provide a spark. That search led school officials at Oregon to make the journey to Tampa, Florida where they found Willie Taggart.

Willie Taggart

Taggart comes to Oregon after first turning around the fortunes of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and most recently the South Florida Bulls. Taggart’s first season at South Florida was 2013 and his team went 2-10. However last season would see the Bulls go 10-2 under Taggart, while also winning their bowl game for the best mark in school history. And now Taggart will be charged with getting Oregon back to being one of the best football programs that the Pac-12 Conference has to offer.

Last year as a freshman, quarterback Justin Herbert was thrown to the wolves as it was baptism by fire. Herbert did not have the luxury of playing on a talented Oregon team, but he still managed to complete more than 63% of his passes while only throwing 4 interceptions. And now as Herbert is heading into his sophomore campaign, he will have to become a leader for an Oregon offense that is in a transition period under Taggart.

Royce Freeman

Running back Royce Freeman still managed to average 5.6 yards per carry in 2016, but he did not have the impact that he was expected to have when the season began. Freeman only had 168 carries and I expect his workload to increase under Taggart in this his senior campaign.

Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby will anchor the offensive line, but the key word for this unit will be toughness as Taggart is using this time to see who is ready to buy into what he is selling which is being more competitive. And for the Ducks to be more competitive, it begins in the trenches.

Prior to Taggart’s success as South Florida, Jim Leavitt was the most successful head football coach in the brief history of the program as he led them to five consecutive bowl appearances. And ironically Taggart hired Leavitt to be his defensive coordinator at Oregon. Like Taggart is with the team as a whole, Leavitt is going to find the guys who are committed to his system as it all about changing the culture in Eugene.

But as bad as things were for Oregon last season, there were some freshman on the defensive side of the football who earned some valuable playing time. Safety Brenden Schooler led Oregon in interceptions with 4, while inside linebacker Troy Dye led the team in tackles (91) and sacks (6.5). And the combination of Schooler and Dye will be building blocks as the Ducks look to turn things around.

2017 will be a work in progress for the Ducks, but a winning record and a bowl appearance will be a tremendous step in the right direction for Taggart and Oregon.

X-Washington State Cougars 6-6 (3-6)

2016 began and ended in the same fashion for the Washington State Cougars. Washington State surprisingly lost their first two games before they reeled off eight consecutive victories. With two games remaining in the regular season the Cougars were in first place in the Pac-12 North, but they would come up short versus the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington Huskies by a combined 42 points in their final two contests. And with Wazzu favored by 10 points over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl, they came up short there as well. Mike Leach is set to begin his seventh season as the head football coach at Washington State and he is attempting to do something that no other head coach of the program has been able to do which is to lead the Cougars to a bowl appearance in three consecutive years.

Mike Leach

With Leach running the show you know that the Cougars will have one of the better passing offenses in the nation. The Cougars were third in the nation in 2016 in passing, and with senior quarterback Luke Falk running Leach’s offense, the football will be flying around once again in Pullman. Over the last two years Falk has combined to throw for 9,029 passing yards and 76 touchdowns as he has thrived in Leach’s “air-raid” offense. And even though that Washington State doesn’t have one wide receiver who stands out from the others, this passing game can still be effective; especially since Falk will be protected by an offensive line that includes three seniors.

But whereas the Cougars can put up points with the best of them, their defense is not a unit that puts fear into opponents. The Cougars were 62nd in the nation last year in total defense and they must play with more a chip on their shoulders in order to somewhat offset the team’s high-octane offense. Senior middle linebacker Peyton Peuller is a solid tackler, however outside of him Wazzu lacks impact players on that side of the football.

Make no mistake about it that the Cougars face a tough schedule which includes home games with Colorado, the Stanford Cardinal, and USC Trojans as well as road meetings with Washington, the Arizona Wildcats, and Utah Utes. And without a stellar defense to lean on Washington State will have to work hard to become bowl eligible in 2017.

Oregon State Beavers 5-7 (3-6)

2013 was the last year in which the Oregon State Beavers were able to finish with a winning record, but they could be on the cusp of breaking through. Gary Anderson has two years under his belt as the head football coach at Oregon State, and after going winless in the Pac-12 Conference in 2015, the Beavers were able win three conference games last year which included them defeating their arch rivals in the Oregon Ducks for the first time since 2007. But after taking some strides in 2016, will the Beavers be able to break through and become bowl eligible this season?

Ryan Nall

For the Beavers to have a successful season on offense, it will start with the production of junior running Ryan Nall which means that he will need to have at least 200 carries. And even though that Nall is expected to be the feature back for Oregon State, they will be very young on offense as wide receiver Jarmon Hunter and right guard Fred Lauina are the only seniors that will be starting on that side of the football.

Defensively the Beavers were 79th in the nation last year which isn’t going to cut it. Kevin Clune is set to begin his second season as the defensive coordinator at Oregon State and his feature player will be senior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu who after being second in tackles with 83 in 2016 for the Beavers could be a sleeper as far as being one of the better middle linebackers that the Pac-12 has to offer.

You can’t accuse Anderson and Oregon State of having a soft non-conference schedule as they will travel to Fort Collins to face the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference while also hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big Ten Conference. And as the Beavers have road meetings in the Pac-12 with the Washington State Cougars, USC Trojans, Arizona Wildcats, and a trip to Eugene to face Oregon, Anderson will have his work cut out for him to get this team to a bowl game this season.

California Golden Bears 1-11 (0-9)

When the California Golden Bears knocked off the UCLA Bruins 36-10 on November 26th, it marked the end of a very tough season for them. The Golden Bears went 5-7 for their fifth losing season in the last six years. But surprisingly Sonny Dykes was fired as California’s head football coach. In four seasons with Cal, Dykes had compiled a record of 19-30; however he had inherited a program that he had to revive, while also losing the first overall pick in the 2016 National Football League Draft in the form of quarterback Jared Goff. And now California is once again starting over; this time with Justin Wilcox as their new head football coach.

Wilcox has never been a head football coach as he has served as a defensive assistant; most notably as the a defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans and Wisconsin Badgers respectively. Now Wilcox is charged with not only making the Bears respectable in the Pac-12 Conference, but also making sure that they are able to maintain it.

Justin Wilcox

With a new head coach in the Wilcox, and no clear cut favorite to be Cal’s starting quarterback, it means that there will be an open competition. Junior quarterback Chase Forrest is coming off of a redshirt in 2016, while sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers has never taken a game snap for the Golden Bears. But one if not both of them will get their chance to be the starting quarterback for California this year.

I doubt that Cal will once again have the fourth best passing offense in the nation like they did last season which means that their defense must improve. In 2016, the Golden Bears defense was 125th in the nation which included giving up at least 40 points in a game nine times. Former Fresno State Bulldogs head football coach Tim DeRuyter will be California’s new defensive coordinator, and along with the experience of Wilcox on that side of the football, they will be out to change the culture in Berkley with senior inside linebacker Devante Downs as a potential building block.

If the folks that follow the Bears thought that 2016 was tough, just wait until the team takes the field this fall. California will face a tough non-conference schedule as they’ll face the North Carolina Tar Heels of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with the Ole Miss Rebels of the Southeastern Conference. And when Pac-12 play begins, the Golden Bears will start off by hosting USC who are one of the favorites to win the conference, along with road affairs versus the Oregon Ducks, Washington Huskies, Colorado Buffaloes, Stanford Cardinal, and UCLA Bruins as this will be a tough go round for Wilcox.

South

Y-USC Trojans 11-2 (8-2)

The West Coast has been in need for the USC Trojans to once again be a power on the college football scene, and this could be the year where it finally happens. The Trojans didn’t win the Pac-12 last year, but they still managed to make their 34th Rose Bowl Game appearance and 25th victory in “The Granddaddy of Them All” which are each more than any other school. And after a 10-win season for the Men of Troy in 2016, they ceiling is high for them entering this season. But unlike most programs, USC knows how to live up to the expectations.

Sam Darnold

The buzz that is around with USC begins with sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold did not begin 2016 as the Trojans starting quarterback, but when head football coach Clay Helton decided to make the change, USC went 9-1. Darnold enters 2017 as the reigning Pac-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year, while he made a name for himself when he set a Rose Bowl Game record with 5 touchdown passes and his 453 passing yards in the contest were the second most in the game’s history. Darnold’s passing ability and overall savvy has gotten the attention of many National Football League scouts, and now he must show the last season was no fluke.

This might not the era of “student body right” for ‘SC, but they still possess a solid rushing attack. Last year as a sophomore, running back Ronald Jones II averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and with his explosiveness at tailback, he is always a play away from taking it to the house. Jones will be doing his thing behind an experienced offensive line that consists of seniors and juniors. Senior center Nico Falah anchors the line for Southern California as this unit will not only provide protection for Darnold and Jones, but they could also produce a first-rounder as well.

Clancy Pendergast returned to Southern California last year for his second go round as the team’s defensive coordinator, and although that the Men of Troy were ranked 36th in total defense, they came on as the season progressed, while finding the knack to make the big play. Junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith could keep USC’s reputation going as far as developing solid linebackers and he has the potential to be one of the best at his position in the Pac-12.

Clay Helton

For USC head football coach Clay Helton, what a difference that a years makes. After Helton went 5-4 in 2015 as USC’s interim head coach, there were some people who questioned why former athletic director Pat Haden decided to make him the full-time head coach going into 2016. And fuel was added to that fire when the Trojans began 2016 with a record of 1-3. But after USC’s turnaround everyone is singing the praises of Helton in Los Angeles. Now Helton heads into the 2017 college football season in a different position as many people expect ‘SC to be the team to beat in the Pac-12, but it’s just a matter of whether or not that they’ll be able to live up to it.

X-Colorado Buffaloes 9-3 (6-3)

2016 saw the Colorado Buffaloes come out of nowhere for their best season in a very long time. The Buffaloes won 10 games for the first time since 2001 while also making their first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre was able make the Buffaloes respectable once again, but will he be able to build off of 2016’s success in order to make his program consistent?

Steven Montez

Last year as a freshman, quarterback Steven Montez got his fair share of reps as Colorado’s starting quarterback. And with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez has to be the guy now for MacIntyre at quarterback. At 6’5, 225 lbs., Montez has the prototypical size for a quarterback, but most importantly he has moxie which is a skill that cannot be coached which gives Colorado an edge.

Senior running back Phillip Lindsay has the potential to build off of his campaign last season where he gained 1,252 yards on the ground. Lindsay is slight in stature, but he is ball carrier that MacIntyre can rely on as he was able to tote the rock 244 times last season. And I anticipate seeing Lindsay get closes to 250 carries once again.

Speed is the name of the game for the Buffs at wide receiver as they have some of the fastest players in the Pac-12 at that position. Senior wide receivers Shay Fields and Devin Ross are a matchup nightmare for any secondary within the conference, and overall Colorado might possesses the fastest players at the skill positions within the league.

Left tackle Jeromy Irwin anchors an offensive line that has three seniors as this Buffaloes offense has the potential to build off of being ranked 47th in the nation in 2016. And that offense will be vital if Colorado is going to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game this year.

Junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa led a unit that flew under the radar for the most part last season. However the Buffs will have to find a way to forget that they gave up a combined 79 points in their final two games and get back to being the unit that held six opponents under 20 points earlier in the campaign.

The Buffs should be able to cruise through their non-conference slate which includes the annual meeting with the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference to kick start the season. However Colorado will be tested when Pac-12 play begins as they will have a rematch of the conference title game with the Washington Huskies who blew them out by 31 points. This time Colorado will get Washington at home. But Colorado’s chances of winning the Pac-12 South will come down to their final two games of the season as they’ll host the USC Trojans before traveling to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes.

X-Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)

Kyle Whittingham

For Utah Utes head football coach Kyle Whittingham, he has a squad that is more than respectable as they are cusp of being championship contender in the Pac-12 Conference. Through Utah’s first 10 games in 2016, they were sporting a record of 8-2 and if they had won out they would have been heading to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time in school history. But unfortunately for the Utes they would lose their final two games which saw them denied a chance to win the conference crown and play in the Rose Bowl. However Whittingham knows how to get the most out of his teams, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to do the same here in 2017.

After seeing limited action last year as freshman, quarterback Tyler Huntley will get the nod from Whittingham in regards to being Utah’s starting quarterback. With the graduation running back Joe Williams, Utah must find another ball carrier that will be able to carry the offense while leaning on opposing defenses, and you can expect Whittingham to give sophomore running back Zack Moss every opportunity to be that guy.

Defensively the Utes must replace 23.5 sacks that they got from the combination of defensive linemen Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu. Overall the Utes pass rush was able to generate 43 sacks which helped the defensive unit get 18 interceptions. And it will be interesting to see who is going to emerge and be the impact players for the Utes on defense.

As always I expect the Utes to be a tough out. But road against the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans will go a long way in letting us know good that Utah will be here in 2017.

X-UCLA Bruins 6-6 (4-5)

In Jim Mora’s first four years as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, he was able to lead his program to bowl game in each season. And just when it appeared that UCLA was going to capitalize on their arch rivals In the USC Trojans who were attempting to climb from under NCAA sanctions that had handcuffed their program, 2016 happened. The 2016 college football season was a very forgettable one for the Bruins. UCLA was never able to recover from a tough road loss to the Texas A&M Aggies to begin the season followed by a home loss to the Stanford Cardinal to begin Pac-12 play. And once you factored in an injury to quarterback Josh Rosen, things got bad in a hurry for the Bruins. UCLA would finish 4-8 for their worst season since 2010 with their only two Pac-12 victories coming against the Arizona Wildcats and Oregon State Beavers. But as hope springs eternal for a new college football season, will it also mean that the Bruins are set to get back on track?

Josh Rosen

A healthy Rosen will be important for UCLA if they want to be a player in the Pac-12 South. In 2015, Rosen passed for 3,670 yards as he was the Pac-12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year. And now with National Football League scouts eyeing Rosen as a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft, he will be poised to bounce back.

Aside from not having a healthy Rosen at quarterback, UCLA struggled to run the football as they were 127th in the nation in rushing with running back Soso Jamabo leading the way with just 321 yards on the ground. However with Jamabo set to begin his junior campaign, along with the fact that UCLA will have four seniors on their offensive line which includes center Scott Quessenberry, this Bruins squad should put more of an emphasis on the run game this season.

In spite of UCLA’s struggles on offense last year, their defense continued to compete and I expect that spirit to once again be at the forefront this season. Senior middle linebacker Kenny Young was second on the team last year in tackles with 90 and he has the potential to be one of the best players at his position within the Pac-12 Conference, while also being a leader for his team.

UCLA will begin their season with a rematch against Texas A&M; this time at the Rose Bowl, while they will be tested in the Pac-12 with road affairs with the Stanford Cardinal, Arizona Wildcats, Washington Huskies, Utah Utes, and USC Trojans. And you have to wonder if Mora will be able to survive if the Bruins endure another subpar season.

Arizona Wildcats 4-8 (2-7)

Rich Rodriguez

When Rich Rodriguez became the head football coach of the Arizona Wildcats in 2012, he brought some excitement with him to the desert. Rodriguez lead Arizona to an 8-5 record in each of his first two seasons with the program, and in 2014 he was able to get the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game. However since the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South, their production on the field has gone south. The Cats were able to win 10 games in 2014, but since that time they’ve only won 10 games. Included in this was a 3-9 record last season for their worst campaign in program history. And whereas the production of the Wildcats has dipped, will Rodriguez be able to reverse the tide and get his team back on track in the Pac 12?

Look no further than the quarterback situation in Tuscon in order to see the issues with Arizona’s offense. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued the Wildcats at quarterback as the onus will be on junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins to put it all together here in 2017. And in order for Rodriguez’s spread offense to work, the quarterback’s production must be superb as it is as important for him to be able to consistently run the football as it is for him to throw it.

Defensive football has never been a specialty for Rodriguez’s teams which was once again the case in 2016 when they were 115th in total defense and this included them surrendering at least 34 points in each of their last nine games.. Marcel Yates is set to begin his second season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator, and if his unit is unable to improve, he could find himself out of a job.

The Wildcats should be able to navigate through their non-conference slate of games without a problem. However when Pac-12 play begins that’ll be when the rubber will meet the road as if Arizona is unable to improve in the win column, Rodriguez could be looking for a job.

Arizona State Sun Devils 3-9 (1-8)

Todd Graham

Like Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham became a head football coach in the Pac-12 Conference in 2012 and was able to get off to a roaring start. Graham led the Arizona State Sun Devils to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2013. But after Arizona State was able to post consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, they have become just another team in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are coming off of consecutive losing seasons and they must turn things around in a hurry as the Pac-12 is a tough conference to attempt to rebuild in.

The Sun Devils need to attain some consistency on offense as eight different players took reps at quarterback last season. While some of these instances involved gadget plays, Arizona State still had three players that attempted at least 49 passes. Arizona State’s success this season on offense will hinge on the ability of sophomore quarterback Blake Barnett. Barnett began his collegiate career with the Alabama Crimson Tide, but now it is time to see whether or not that he can get it done in the Pac-12 with the Sun Devils; especially since he’ll be under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Billy Napier who is in his first season in Tempe.

Defensively only the Texas Tech Red Raiders were worse on defense in 2016 than Arizona State at the Football Bowl Subdivision level as eight opponents scored at least 40 points against them. Like the offense, the Sun Devils defense needed a makeover as Graham has brought in former Baylor Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to fix this unit which will be a tall task.

2016 was tough for Arizona State and all signs points to it not being that much easier for Graham and his team.

Pac-12 Championship Game- Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, California: Washington Huskies vs. USC Trojans

Conference Champion: USC

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

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2017 Conference USA Football Projections

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East

Y-Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 10-3 ( 7-2)

X-Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 7-5 (6-2)

X-Old Dominion Monarchs 7-5 (5-3)

Marshall Thundering Herd 5-7 (3-5)

Florida International Panthers 4-8 (2-6)

Charlotte 49ers 3-9 (1-7)

Florida Atlantic Owls 3-9 (1-7)

West

X-Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 9-4 (7-2)

X-Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners 8-4 (6-2)

X-Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 6-6 (5-3)

UTEP Miners 2-10 (2-6)

Rice 2-10 (2-6)

North Texas Mean Green 2-10 (1-7)

UAB Blazaers 0-12 (0-8)

Conference USA Championship Game: Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech

Conference Champion: Western Kentucky

2016 was a solid year on the gridiron for Conference USA as six of their 13 members played in bowl game, while three programs were in the top ten in the nation in regards to total offense. One of those top offenses belonged to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers who under head football coach Jeff Brohm went 11-3 last season. Western Kentucky had 11 games in which they scored at least 40 points as their wide open offense kept opponents on their toes. However Brohm’s success at Western Kentucky would not go unnoticed as he is now the head football coach of the Purdue Boilermakers in the Big Ten Conference.

Replacing Brohm at Western Kentucky will be Mike Sanford Jr. who has spent the past few years as an offensive assistant coach with the Stanford Cardinal, Boise State Broncos, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish respectively. In 2010 Sanford was the quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky under current Oregon Ducks head football coach Willie Taggart.

Mike White

Sanford will have the luxury of working with one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA in senior Mike White. White began his collegiate career with the South Florida Bulls in the American Athletic Conference, and after sitting out in 2015 as he transferred, he was able to make a name for himself last year in Conference USA. White passed for at least 300 yards in a game eight times last year as he has a big arm that can find receivers all over the field. And this year White will be one of the favorites to be the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year.

One player who will give White competition in regards to being Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year is Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders junior quarterback Brent Stockstill. Like White, Stockstill plays in one of the better offenses in the nation. In two years as Middle Tennessee State’s starting quarterback, Stockstill has thrown 61 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions. Stockstill is also an accurate quarterback, and although that he is slightly undersized for the position in regards to National Football League standards, Stockstill does have a future at the next level.

Brent Stockstill

Stockstill’s main target in the passing game is returning in the form of junior wide receiver Richie James who reeled in 105 receptions last season. And if opponents of the Blue Raiders want to focus on stopping James, they could be burned by sophomore wide receiver Ty Lee who like James is a speedster.

For Middle Tennessee State head football coach Rick Stockstill, his defensive unit must improve as they were 96th in the nation in total defense last season which included them surrendering 40 points or more seven times. However one building block for the Blue Raiders defense will be junior outside linebacker Chris Melton who will tackle anything that moves. And as a unit, the Blue Raiders defense must find a way to build some momentum off of their high-powered offense.

The Old Dominion Monarchs are looking to build off of the momentum that they were able to create for themselves last season when they broke through to go 10-3. And only a loss to Western Kentucky prevented the Monarchs from advancing to the Conference USA Championship Game. Old Dominion head football coach Bobby Wilder has developed a winning culture around his program as this team has quickly become one of the better programs in Conference USA.

The Monarchs will no longer have the services of quarterback David Washington as sophomore Blake LaRussa will now have his chance to be Old Dominion’s signal caller. But whereas LaRussa is still green as far as being a starting quarterback, Old Dominion has one of the best rushing attacks in Conference USA. Senior running back Ray Lawry and junior running back Jeremy Cox give Old Dominion one of the better running games in the conference and I see Wilder leaning on his two running backs in order to offset the inexperience of his starting quarterback.

After the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs won the Western Division of Conference USA for the second time in three years, they have the potential to win it all this season. Under head football coach Skip Holtz, the Bulldogs had the ninth ranked offense in the nation last season and he must find a way to replace some of those key players from that unit. But the Bulldogs still have senior running back Jarred Craft who is one of the better ball carriers in Conference USA, and he is always a step away from breaking off a big run.

The Bulldogs also have junior defensive end Jaylon Ferguson who is the odds on favorite to be Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Last year Ferguson recorded 14.5 sacks as he was one of the top edge rushers in the country. This time it will be tougher for Ferguson to get to the quarterback due to the teams will be focused on stopping him; however his ability should open things up for his teammates such as junior defensive tackle Jordan Bradford to have better opportunities to get to the quarterback.

One team that could give Louisiana Tech a problem in Conference USA West could be the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. The Roadrunners are coming off of their first bowl appearance in program history as head football coach Frank Wilson is building off of what his predecessor Larry Coker started.

Josiah Tauaefa

One player to watch out for at Texas San-Antonio is sophomore middle linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. Tauaefa exploded onto the scene last year as freshman by leading the Roadrunners in tackles with 115. Tauaefa combines his tackling ability with solid instincts which not only makes him one of the better linebackers in Conference USA, but he should also receive some recognition in regards to winning the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the nation.

Other stories to follow this season in Conference USA will be some of the new faces around the league.

Butch Davis is set to begin his tenure as the head football coach of the Florida International Panthers. Davis is best known for restoring the Miami Hurricanes in the late 1990’s, while he also had some success with the North Carolina Tar Heels. And while at Miami and North Carolina respectively, Davis heavily recruited South Florida which he is hopeful to do once again.

Lane Kiffin

Lane Kiffin is beginning his first season as the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls which will definitely add to the rivalry with Florida International. Kiffin has previously been a head coach in the National Football League with the Oakland Raiders, while he has also been the man in charge for the Tennessee Volunteers and USC Trojans. Most recently Kiffin was the offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide whom he helped to win a national title during the 2015 college football season. However Kiffin has been known to burn bridges along each step of his college football journey, but he will be beat writers dream in South Florida.

And then there is the case of the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers who after pulling the plug on their program following the 2014 college football season have decided to give it another try. However UAB head football coach Bill Clark and his staff will have their work cut out for them as after not having a program for two years, they are literally starting over from scratch.

Some games to focus this season in Conference will be the meeting between Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky on November 17 as this could decide who wins the Conference USA East. And for the Blue Raiders it won’t get any easier when they travel to face Old Dominion on November 25. On November 18, Florida Atlantic will host Florida International, and although that neither team will be a title contender here in 2017, the anticipated rivalry between Davis and Kiffin will garner some media attention in South Florida.

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com

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2017 Atlantic Coast Conference Projections

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Atlantic

Y-Florida State Seminoles 11-2 (9-0)

In seven years as the head football coach of the Florida State Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher has been able to build off of the success that his predecessor Bobby Bowden was able to achieve. Fisher is 78-17 as a head coach, while the Seminoles have finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll in each of his seasons in Tallahassee which included winning the national championship during the 2013 college football campaign. The ‘Noles went 10-3 in each of the last two years, but they were overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference due to the dominance of the Clemson Tigers. But with Clemson expected to take a step back this season after they were able to win the national championship last season, will Florida State be able to take advantage in order to win the ACC?

Deondre Francois

Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois flourished for Florida en route to being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. Francois was able to throw 20 touchdown passes while also completing nearly 60% of his throws. Even more will be expected of Francois this season as if he’s able to build off of his solid freshman campaign, he could overtake Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson in regards to being the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Coming into this season there could be some concern in regards to who will be able to replace the contributions of running back Dalvin Cook as Florida State’s running back after he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, but in Tallahassee the cupboard is never bare. Jacques Patrick spent 2016 as Cook’s understudy and in a limited role he was able to average 5.7 yards per carry. Now as Patrick is entering his junior campaign, he will have to be the guy that must be able to offset Francois in the Seminoles running game.

The offensive line could be a concern for Florida State to begin the season as Fisher is going with two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, while it will be up to senior right tackle Rick Leonard to anchor this unit.

In 2016, the ‘Noles were able to show flashes of brilliance at times on defense, and heading into the new campaign there is once again talent on this squad that is worthy of playing the National Football League.

Last year as a freshman, defensive end Brian Burns was able to tally 9.5 sacks. However Burns was able to accomplish this as he played opposite of defensive DeMarcus Walker. But with Walker now in the National Football League, will Burns be able to be the guy? Burns should be able to answer the call as Florida State as a team was able record 51 sacks last season with the “meet me at the quarterback play” once again being in effect in Tallahassee.

Junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is coming off a season in which he recorded 8 interceptions and here in 2017, his name will be mentioned in regards to winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. But whereas McFadden was able to register 8 picks last season, I don’t see him getting as many chances this time around to display his pass catching skills as opposing offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference will think twice about testing him.

The Seminoles will be tested to begin the new season as they’ll face the Alabama Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference in what will be the first college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And after the ‘Noles lost to Louisville 63-20 last year, revenge will be on their minds heading into the rematch on October 21 in what could decide who wins the Atlantic Division.

X-Louisville Cardinals 10-2 (6-2)

The transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference has been a seamless one for the Louisville Cardinals. Overall the Cardinals are 26-13 since joining the ACC, but they must find a way to contend with the big boys of the conference. Louisville has gone a combined 1-5 versus the Florida State Seminoles and Clemson Tigers which has held them back from winning the conference title. And as head football coach Bobby Petrino and his team are set to embark on a new campaign, they must find a way to finish. After the Cards started 9-1 last year and they were in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff until they finished the season on a three-game losing streak. And it will be interesting to see if the Cards are ready to bounce back in order to take that next step in 2017.

Lamar Jackson

In 2016, quarterback Lamar Jackson had a season for the ages. Jackson accounted for more than 5,000 yards of total offense to become the first player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player. Now as Jackson is set to begin his junior campaign, he must be able to channel out the white noise.

There will be talk of Jackson seeking to become the first player since Archie Griffin in 1975 to win consecutive Heismans, while people will also be discussing the possibility of him being the first overall pick in next year’s National Football League Draft. And we cannot forget about the fact that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will put a target on Jackson’s back as they are seeking to slow him down. But even with all of that if Jackson is able to remain focused on helping his team win games this fall, the Cardinals nor he should falter.

Like Jackson, the Cardinals entire starting offensive line is comprised of juniors which includes left tackle Geron Christian. And due to Jackson’s athleticism, it will be important for Louisville’s offensive line to keep their heads on a swivel because you never know in which direction that he will take the play.

When you think of Petrino led football teams, you think of offensive football; however this year’s Louisville team can be better on defense than expected. Peter Sirmon is set to begin his first season as Louisville’s defensive coordinator and he has some talent to work with.

Senior linebackers James Hearns and Issac Stewart each have the potential to play in the National Football League and the same can be said in regards to junior cornerback Jaire Alexander. These players solid play making ability on the defensive side of football and that’ll be important as they must consistently be able to offset the Cardinals high-octane offense.

In order for the Cardinals to win the Atlantic Coast Conference they will definitely have to earn it as their first two conference games will be against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Clemson. But Louisville’s chances of winning the ACC will come down their October 21st meeting with Florida State which will more than likely decide who wins the Atlantic Division.

X-Clemson Tigers 8-4 (5-3)

Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney has nine years under his belt as the head football coach of the Clemson Tigers while the last five seasons have been the best stretch in program history. Over this stretch Clemson is 60-9 which includes them going 14-1 in each of the last two years. Clemson was able to culminate this by winning the national championship last season and the party is still going on. But after the Tigers were able to reach the top of the mountain, what will they be able to do for an encore?

There is no way that the Tigers will be able to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson and what he meant to their program over the last three years, but somebody must try.

Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant appears to be the favorite to be Clemson’s next starting quarterback. Bryant only attempted 9 passes last season and now he will get his chance to show what he can do.

It’s not just Watson who Clemson must replace on offense as running back Wayne Gallman along with wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams are now in the National Football League as after the Tigers had the 12th ranked offense in the nation last season, they should take a step back here in 2017.

Defensively Clemson will miss the leadership of linebacker Ben Boulware, but there are some players who should be ready to step up for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is solid on the interior of the Tigers defensive line, while junior middle linebacker Kendall Russell has the potential to be one of the better players at his position within the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Clemson will have a different look when they take the field as compared to the last few years, but don’t expect their opponents to let up on them as they will still be viewed as the defending national champs. This is a rebuilding year for the Tigers, but they should still be respectable.

X-North Carolina State Wolfpack 7-5 (5-3)

With the exception of a minor uprising here and there, the North Carolina State Wolfpack are consistently a middle of the pack football program in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Wolfpack only have one double-digit winning season in their history which gives you an idea as to how consistently inconsistent that they are. Each of the last two years have seen N.C. State go 7-6, and can we expect anymore for this team under head football coach Dave Doeren?

Ryan Finley

In 2016, Ryan Finley was given his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Wolfpack and he did not disappoint. Finley passed for 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns as he gave the folks in Raleigh some hope for the future. Finley also showed poise as he was able to complete more than 60% of his passes. And now it will be interesting to see if Finley is able to take that next step for both himself and North Carolina State.

Finley will be protected by a veteran offensive line that consist of four juniors and a senior in right guard Tony Adams as they will be important to any potential success for this offense.

Defensively the Wolfpack have a strong core of linebackers that is led by a pair of seniors in middle linebacker Jerod Fernandez and outside linebacker Airius Moore. Both Fernandez and Moore are solid tacklers that possess good lateral movement which will be on display as they seek to slow down the quarterbacks and running backs that that the Atlantic Coast Conference has to offer. Senior defensive end Bradley Chubb could be a first-team All-ACC performer as he has the potential to be the best pass rusher in the conference. Chubb was able to record 10 sacks last season and he should be able to build off of that by tallying at least 12 this year.

The Wolfpack face a daunting schedule which includes road games against the Florida State Seminoles and Pittsburgh Panthers, while home showdowns with the Louisville Cardinals and Clemson Tigers will more than likely keep them as a middle of the road squad within the conference.

X-Boston College Eagles 6-6 (3-5)

You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time in which the Boston College Eagles were able to win more than 7 games in a season. Three of the last four years have seen Boston College go 7-6 with a 3-9 campaign in 2015. But for Boston College head football coach Steve Addazio, will 2017 be the year that he and his program are finally able to buck their trend of mediocrity?

Defense was the name of the game in 2016 for the Eagles and you can expect more of the same this season. Under defensive coordinator Jim Reid, Boston College was ninth in the nation in total defense last season, and if they are going to be successful this season they’ll need to again win ugly.

It would have been easy for defensive end Harold Landry to head to the National Football League last season after he tallied 16.5 sacks in his junior campaign. However Landry decided to return to to school, and the NFL’s loss will be Boston College’s gain. Landry has tremendous edge rushing ability which will be on full display once again. However after Landry was able to get to the quarterback at will last season, I expect more attention this year from opposing offenses for him which should open things up for his teammates to make plays. As a team Boston College was fourth in the nation in sacks with 47 and with Landry leading the way I expect that trend to continue this season.

And that defense will have to once again be rock solid since the BC offense is stagnant at best. Last year the Eagles were 127th in total offense which won’t cut it again. This offense needs to develop some cohesion under Addazio if they want any chance of staying afloat in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they need to provide some balance for a defense that is able to make it happen.

In 2016, the Eagles were able to make a bowl game in spite of the fact that they were only able to win two conference games. That might not cut it again in 2017 as Boston College is going to have to knock off some of the big boys that the conference has to offer in order to gain some respect, and more importantly victories.

Syracuse Orange 4-8 (2-6)

Life on the gridiron in the Atlantic Coast Conference has not been easy for the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse’s best year in the ACC was 2013 when they went 7-6. However since then the Orange have never won more than four games in a season. Dino Babers is set to begin his second season as Syracuse’s head football coach and he is attempting to transform the offense in Central New York. Babers has been known to produce offenses that put up solid numbers and last year Syracuse was 11th in the nation in passing offense. Now it’ll be interesting to see if the Orange will be able to build off of that and sneak up on some teams in the ACC.

Eric Dungey

Junior quarterback Eric Dungey could be a dark horse as far as being the best signal caller within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year saw Dungey complete nearly 65% of his passes and he also threw for more than 400 yards in a game twice. Syracuse’s offense is conducive to Dungey’s passing ability which could be good news for both he and the Orange.

Senior wide receiver Ervin Phillips was able to haul in 90 receptions in 2016 and he should be able to do more of the same this time around. At 5’11”, speed is the name of the game for Phillips who could again be Dungey’s go-to-guy in the Syracuse passing game.

However as good as Babers’ offenses have been, the same cannot be said in regards to his team’s defensive prowess. Last year the ‘Cuse was 122nd in the nation in total defense which included them surrendering 40 points in six games. Syracuse does have a trio of solid senior linebackers in Jonathan Thomas, Zaire Franklin, and Parris Bennett, but the unit needs to find more play makers on the defensive line.

Syracuse must take advantage of the early portion of their schedule which is easy. But things will get difficult in a hurry for the Orange with a road meeting against the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference, along with road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the North Carolina State Wolfpack, Miami Hurricanes, Florida State Seminoles, and Louisville Cardinals.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons 5-7 (2-6)

The Wake Forest Demon Deacons were able to raise some eyebrows last season when they began the season with a record of 5-1. The competition got tougher in the second half of the season for the Demon Deacons, but they still managed to go 7-6 with their first bowl appearance since 2011. It was not pretty at times, but Wake Forest was able to display an effective brand of football under head football coach Dave Clawson. And although that the Deacons will once again fly under the radar, will they again be able to shock enough teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference in order to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive year?

Defensively Wake Forest must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season. However the Deacons have the luxury of leaning on senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor. Last year Ejiofor was one of the best pass rushers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his skills will once again be needed if Wake Forest wants to be in contention to make a bowl game. Sophomore free safety Jesse Bates is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign which saw him be a Second-team All-ACC member as he tallied 5 interceptions. Bates is a player that has solid football instincts which will once again be on display on Tobacco Road.

However as good as Wake Forest’s defense can be, their offense cannot be held in the same regard. Last year Wake Forest failed to score at least 20 points in a game seven times and their offensively is still not recognized as a juggernaut. And that inability for the Demon Deacons to consistently put up points will hurt them in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Seeing Wake Forest make a bowl game last year was a feel good story, but 2017 might not produce too much for them to cheer about.

Coastal

X-Miami Hurricanes 10-3 (6-3)

The 2016 college football season was a Jekyll and Hyde campaign for the Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes began the season with a record of 4-0 before they proceeded to lose their next four contests. However Miami would rebound to win their final five games which included them winning a bowl game for the first time 2006. And as Miami won 9 games last season, will this be the year in which they are finally able to win the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Mark Richt

Mark Richt has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Miami. Prior to coming to Miami, Richt comprised a record of 145-51 in 15 seasons as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs which including winning a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. In one year at Miami, you can see that Richt is attempting to provide his team with stability, while getting them back to being a consistent force on the college football scene.

Miami is a school which has been known to produce quality running backs and they could have another one in junior running back Mark Walton. Walton averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year and he plays for a head coach in Richt that is dedicated to the running game which means that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to carry the Hurricanes offense.

Mark Walton

Walton’s ability to run the football will be important as junior quarterback Malik Rosier is projected to be Miami’s starting signal caller. Rosier only attempted 4 passes last season as he was the backup to Brad Kaaya. But with Kaaya now in the professional ranks, Rosier has to be the guy for Miami.

But being that Richt loves to run the football, along with the fact that the Hurricanes are going with an inexperienced starting quarterback in Rosier, it will be important that they can rely on an experienced offensive line. Led by center Nick Linder, Miami will have three senior starters on the offensive line which plays right into what Richt wants to do on offense and that is to run the football.

Last year Miami was stingy on the defensive side of the football which could once again be the case this year. The Canes were 20th in total defense last year under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and some underclassmen were able to gain some valuable playing time. Sophomore defensive end Joseph Jackson will be in the discussion to be the pass rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while another pair of sophomores in middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and outside linebacker Michael Pickney have tremendous instincts and lateral ability to slow down opposing offenses. However Miami must be able to create more turnovers as they only produced 19 last season which would enhance their chances of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Three of Miami’s four losses last season were decided by a touchdown or less which shows how close that they are to breaking through. And although that the Hurricanes biggest rival in the Atlantic Coast Conference are the Florida State Seminoles, their meetings with the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies on October 28 and November 4 respectively will decide their fate in regards to whether or not that that they’ll finally get the shot to play in the conference title game.

X-Virginia Tech Hokies 10-2 (6-2)

One of the highlights for the 2016 college football season in the Atlantic Coast Conference was the success that first year head coaches were able to have. For the Virginia Tech Hokies, first year head football coach Justin Fuente was able to lead them to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2011, and he was also able to guide them to their fourth bowl victory in the last five seasons. Fuente found a way to awake a sleeping giant in Blacksburg, but will he able to avoid the “sophomore jinx”?

Justin Fuente

Whereas Fuente was able to rely on a veteran quarterback last year in Jerod Evans, this time around it will be the untested redshirt freshman in Josh Jackson that’ll be taking the starting reps for the Hokies. But Jackson’s job will be made a little bit easier due to the fact that he can rely on a dependable senior at wide receiver in Cam Phillips.

But make no mistake about the fact that Virginia Tech’s bread is buttered on the defensive side of the football. Bud Foster is set to begin his 31st season in being affiliated with Virginia Tech and his 23rd as the team’s defensive coordinator. Foster has sent his fair share of players to the National Football League, and he has several pro prospects on this year’s unit.

Andrew Motuapuaka

Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka set the tone with his instincts along with the fact that he is a fierce competitor. Junior outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is no slouch either as he is one of the most athletic players at his position in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As a unit the Hokies were able reel in 16 interceptions last year and led by junior free safety Terrell Edmunds, points will be at a premium against Virginia Tech.

The Hokies will begin the season by facing an old rival in the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 Conference at FedEx Field as this will mark their first encounter since 2003 when they were members of the Big East Conference. The Hokies find themselves with a manageable conference schedule and their ability to get to Charlotte for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game will come down to whether or not that they can get by the North Carolina Tar Heels at home on October 21st, and the Miami Hurricanes on the road on November 4th.

X-Pittsburgh Panthers 6-6 (4-4)

2016 saw the Pittsburgh Panthers go 8-5 for the second consecutive season. However things could have been much better for Pitt being that four of their losses were decided by a touchdown or less. Pittsburgh head football coach Pat Narduzzi has been able to get his program to a bowl game in each of his first two years in Western Pennsylvania, but will he be able to get them to take that next step and contend for the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Max Browne

Last year saw Max Browne begin as the starting quarterback for the USC Trojans. However after just three starts, Browne was benched in favor of Sam Darnold who ended up leading USC to a Rose Bowl victory. Subsequently Browne would transfer and he has found himself a new home with Pittsburgh. The Panthers needed a new starting quarterback with the departure of Nathan Peterman, Browne will look to finish off his collegiate career on a positive note with the Panthers. Browne will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which features three seniors and a pair of juniors in the starting lineup.

Narduzzi’s specialty is defensive football as prior to taking over at Pitt, he was the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans for eight years. However Pittsburgh struggled last year on defense as they were 100th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering at least 35 points on six occasions. And if Pittsburgh wants any shot to be relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, they are going to have to get stingy on that side of the football.

The non-conference season won’t be kind to the Panthers as they’ll travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions who are the defending Big Ten Conference Champions, while also hosting the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. And road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Virginia Tech Hokies will keep Pittsburgh in chase mode all season long.

X-Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 6-6 (4-4)

After going 3-9 in 2015 for their first losing season since 2010, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were able to bounce back in a big way as they went 9-4 which included their second victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the last three years. For Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson, his triple-option rushing attack can be very frustrating at times for opponents as the Yellow Jackets tend to lull you to sleep before exploding for the big play. And as the Jackets are looking to be a player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will their run game be able to carry them?

Justin Thomas

After being ninth in the rushing last season, the Yellow Jackets will have a new quarterback operating their triple option in junior Justin Thomas. Thomas will take his fair share of carries with the football, while he will also be handing off to a bevy of ball carriers; however one of those won’t be sophomore running back Dedrick Mills who was dismissed from the program after an athletics department violation. Georgia Tech will have one of the youngest offensive lines in the Atlantic Coast Conference as there will be just on senior in right tackle Andrew Marshall, while there will be three sophomore starting in the unit.

And even though that their are not any standout players defensively for Georgia Tech, this unit will fly around the football, while playing with plenty of passion.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be rocking on Labor Day night when the Yellow Jackets take on the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference, while they will look to survive in the Atlantic Coast Conference with road meetings versus the likes of the Miami Hurricanes and Clemson Tigers.

Virginia Cavaliers 5-7 (3-5)

It’s been some time since the Virginia Cavaliers were relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference as their last appearance in a bowl game came in 2011. Virginia has never won the ACC Title outright and through conference expansion they only finished second in the Coastal Division twice. Bronco Mendenhall has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Virginia as he and his team took their lumps in 2016. The Cavs went 2-10 last season, while only being able to muster one conference win. And after the Cavaliers finished tied for last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC, how will Mendenhall be able to improve his team?

Kurt Benkert

Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Kurt Benkert took his lumps as he was guy who endured nine of Virginia’s ten losses. However Benkert showed toughness and grit as he never gave up while providing Mendenhall with a quarterback that he could rely on. And if Benkert is able to complete 60% of his passes this season, it could symbolize that Mendenhall is getting things turned around in Charlottesville.

Benkert has the potential to get the job done for the Cavaliers, but Virginia’s offense needs more balance. Last year the Cavs were 121st in the nation as they were only able to average 3.5 yards per carry. And although that it more than likely that it will be a running back by committee for Virginia, there needs to be more of a focus on being able to establish the running game; especially with three seniors on the offensive line.

Even though that the Cavaliers were 93rd in the nation last season in total defense, there is a glimmer of hope for them heading into a new campaign. Senior middle linebacker Micah Kiser and junior strong safety Juan Thornhill are playmakers who can make those around them better and they will have to be on point if they want to help get things turned around this year for their program.

The Cavaliers will need to get as many victories as possible early on in the season to get some confidence for themselves which could pay huge dividends in the second half of the season.

X-Duke Blue Devils 6-6 (3-5)

2012-2015 saw the Duke Blue Devils have one of their best stretches in program history. The Blue Devils were able to make four consecutive bowl appearances which was highlighted by making the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history in 2013. However Duke to a step back last year as they went 4-8 which included them losing five out of their last six games. David Cutcliffe has been Duke’s head football coach since 2008, and after doing more with less, he once again has a tough sell job on his hands to recruits being that the Blue Devils football facilities and overall tradition don’t measure up against some of the other schools in the ACC. Now Cutcliffe must once again go to the well once in order to get things turned around in Durham.

David Cutcliffe

Cutcliffe’s pedigree is working with quarterbacks and he has another solid one to work with in Daniel Jones. Last year as a freshman, Jones was able to complete nearly 63% of his passes, and outside of a 5-interception performance against the Virginia Cavaliers, he did a solid job of not forcing the football. At 6’5″, 210 lbs., Jones has solid size for the position, along with good instincts which will have to be at the forefront if the Blue Devils are going to get things turned around.

Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming was Jones’s go-to-guy last season in the passing game as he led Duke in receptions with 70. And I expect the combination of Jones and Rahming to once again be on the same page.

As Duke took their lumps last season, it meant that there were some underclassmen who had a chance to get their feet wet. Sophomore outside linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and junior middle linebacker Ben Humphreys were first and second respectively in tackles for the Devils in 2016. And I expect Giles-Harris and Humphreys to become leaders on the defensive side of the football for Duke as the program seeks to get back to its winning ways.

Duke’s journey in the Atlantic Coast Conference won’t be easy, but if they are able to survive which includes road games versus the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies, the Blue Devils could sneak into a bowl game this season.

North Carolina Tar Heels 5-7 (2-6)

Larry Fedora’s time as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels has been successful as his program has been one of the better ones in he Atlantic Coast Conference. Only the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles have won more games in the ACC over the last two years than North Carolina which gives you an idea of how consistent that Fedora has been. But with key talent such as quarterback Mitch Trubisky now in the National Football League, how will the Heels be able to stay afloat in 2017?

Larry Fedora

Quarterback Brandon Harris began his collegiate career with the LSU Tigers before transferring to North Carolina. And after sitting out due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Harris will bring some athleticism to the quarterback position at Carolina that has not been seen at Chapel Hill in a long time. Harris’ ability to create plays with his legs will be very important for a North Carolina team that will be inexperienced on the offensive side of the football.

For first year North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis, his unit has the chance to be special. Senior linebackers Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb will tackle anything that moves, while junior defensive end Malik Carney is a solid edge rusher who needs to take the next step in order to help North Carolina surprise some teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the biggest thing that the Tar Heels must improve on defensively are takeaways as they only recorded one interception in 2016. And winning the turnover battle will be very important for a team such as Carolina who needs to win the field position battle.

With the exception of facing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Carolina’s non-conference schedule will be easy. However when Atlantic Coast Conference play begins, the Heels will have to tango with the Louisville Cardinals and Miami Hurricanes at home, while going on the road to meet the Virginia Tech Hokies which is a daunting task.

Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game: Bank of America Stadium-Charlotte, North Carolina: Miami vs. Florida State

Conference Champion: Florida State

Y-Conference Champion X-Bowl Eligible

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

 

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2017 Mid-American Conference Football Projections

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East

X-Miami (Ohio) Redhawks 7-6 (6-3)

X-Bowling Green Falcons 6-6 (5-3)

X-Ohio Bobcats 6-6 (3-5)

Akron Zips 3-9 (2-6)

Buffalo Bulls 2-10 (1-7)

Kent State Golden Flashes 1-11 (0-8)

West

Y-Toledo Rockets 10-3 (7-2)

X-Western Michigan Broncos 8-4 (6-2)

X-Central Michigan Chippewas 6-6 (5-3)

Northern Illinois Huskies 5-7 (4-4)

Eastern Michigan Eagles 4-8 (3-5)

Ball State Cardinals 4-8 (2-6)

Mid-American Conference Championship Game-Ford Field-Detroit, Michigan: Miami (Ohio) vs. Toledo

Conference Champion: Toledo

2016 was a banner year for the Mid-American Conference on the gridiron. The highlight of this was seeing the Western Michigan Broncos go undefeated to win the MAC and earn a berth in the Cotton Bowl. And although that the Broncos would fall to the Wisconsin Badgers of the Big Ten Conference in the contest, they showed tremendous grit as they would only lose by eight points. However the Broncos are now set to take step back after last year’s success.

After leading Western Michigan to an undefeated regular season, it was going to be tough for head football coach P.J. Fleck to remain at the school. And the money along with resources of the Minnesota Golden Gophers as well as the prestige of being in the Big Ten Conference were too much for him to pass up on.

Fleck has been replaced by Tim Lester as Western Michigan’s head football coach. Lester spent last year as the quarterbacks coach of the Purdue Boilermakers, but more importantly he is also an alum at Western Michigan as he is very familiar with Kalamazoo. But whereas it was the offense that carried the Broncos in 2016, the defense will have to shoulder the load this time around.

The Broncos arguably have the best linebacking core in the Mid-American Conference as it features a pair of seniors in outside linebackers in middle linebacker Robert Spillane and outside linebacker Asantay Brown, along with sophomore outside linebacker Drake Spears.

But if Western Michigan does take a step back this year as most people expect, a team that could be ready to benefit are the Toledo Rockets. Throughout this decade the Rockets have been close to breaking through to win the Western Division of the Mid-American Conference, but they’ve been unable to get past either the Broncos or the Northern Illinois Huskies.

However this could be the year in which the stars align for Toledo and they can get to the Mid-American Championship Game for the first time since 2004. Last year Toledo had the tenth best passing offense in the nation and they are set to return some key players to that unit.

Logan Woodside

Quarterback Logan Woodside passed for 4,129 yards while throwing 45 touchdowns last season. Woodside also completed nearly 70% of his passes and you will definitely hear his name in the conversation to be the Mid-American Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Woodside’s main target in the passing game will be senior wide receiver Cody Thompson who after tallying 64 receptions, 1,269 receiving yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns in 2016 is in the mix to be the best pass catcher in the MAC this year. Led left tackle Elijah Nkansah and right tackle Brant Weiss, Toledo has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the MAC. And after the Rockets lived up to their name last year, expect more of the same this year for head football coach Jason Candle’s crew.

With Western Michigan and Toledo as the two best teams in the Mid-American Conference, it is only fitting that their meting on November 24 in Toledo will decide the winner of the Western Division. And for Toledo this will be their best chance to get to Detroit for the MAC Title Game in a very long time.

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com

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2017 Mountain West Conference Football Projections

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Mountain

Y-Boise State Broncos 9-3 (7-1)

Through the first seven games of the 2016 college football season, the Boise State Broncos appeared to be the team to beat in the Mountain West Conference, while also having a chance to make a New Year’s Six bowl game. The Broncos were 7-0, but they would lose two out of their last five games. And being that those losses came to the Wyoming Cowboys and Air Force Falcons, Boise State missed out on a chance to get back to the Mountain West Title Game. Boise’s slide would continue as they lost their bowl game by 19 points to a Baylor Bears team that entered the game on a six-game losing streak. And for Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin, he and his team must find a way to bounce back after letting things get away from them towards the end of 2016.

Bryan Harsin

For Harsin, his Broncos should once again have one of the most balanced offenses in the Mountain West. Last year Boise had the 21st ranked offense in the nation as it was under the command of first-year offensive coordinator Zak Hill.

If it wasn’t for the exploits of San Diego State Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey, Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien would have been the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. But with Pumphrey now in the National Football League, the award is Rypien’s to lose this year.

Brett Rypien

Rypien is set to begin his junior year and he is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in school history. Last year Rypien completed nearly 62% of his passes. Rypien knows how to spread the football around, and most importantly he has solid pocket awareness. Rypien also doesn’t get fazed quickly which is important as his demeanor should once again pay dividends for the fortunes of Boise State.

The Broncos will miss the contributions of running back Jeremy McNichols who is now in the National Football League, but they have shown the ability to be able to replace players when they move on. Sophomore running back Alex Mattison should get the bulk of the carries this year for the Broncos after he was the understudy to McNichols last season. At 5’11”, 216 lbs., Mattison will look to use his speed and elusiveness to compliment Rypien, and I also anticipate him being used coming out of the backfield as a receiver which will add another element to the Broncos offense.

Cedrick Wilson

Senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson has the potential to be the best pass catcher in the Mountain West this season. Wilson spent last year as being one of the go-to-guys in the passing game for Rypien and with his height being 6’3″, he will once again have an advantage versus defensive backs in the conference.

Defensively the Broncos must replace their top four tacklers from last year’s team, but one standout player to keep an eye on will be junior defensive tackle David Moa. At 6’3″ 272 lbs., Moa is a little light for the defensive tackle position; however he possesses a high motor which allows him to split double teams in order to wreak havoc in an opponent’s backfield.

Winning the Mountain West won’t be easy for Boise State as they’ll have road games versus San Diego State and the Colorado State Rams, while their non-conference schedule includes road meetings with the Washington Cougars of the Pac-12 Conference and the BYU Cougars.

X-Wyoming Cowboys 8-4 (6-2)

2016 saw the Wyoming Cowboys produce one of the best turnarounds for the year in college football. The Cowboys were only able to win two games in 2015, but they came out of nowhere last year to go 8-6 which was good enough for them to win the Mountain Division. Wyoming’s turnaround led to their head football coach Craig Roh being named as the Mountain West Conference’s Coach of the Year as “Cowboymania” took over Laramie. However as the Cowboys were able to sneak up on teams last year, what will they be able to do this time around when the rest of the Mountain West is focused on slowing them down?

Josh Allen

When quarterback Josh Allen was on he was as good as any other signal caller in the Mountain West, however when he struggled, the fortunes of the Cowboys went south. Of Allen’s 15 interceptions last season, 12 of those came in Wyoming losses and as his junior campaign is set begin, he must cut down on the turnovers while also becoming more accurate. However it won’t be as easy for either Allen or Wyoming as he won’t have the same amount of talent around him on offense.

Wyoming was able to win the Mountain Division last year in spite of the fact that they were 104th in the nation in total defense. Wyoming surrendered at least 50 points in a game three times which resulted in the school moving on from Steve Stanard as their defensive coordinator. Former Jacksonville Jaguars assistant linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton will be Wyoming’s new defensive coordinator. It doesn’t help the Cowboys situation that their top two tacklers from last season were defensive backs, however middle linebacker Logan Wilson was able to tally 94 tackles as a freshman. And being that the Cowboys were able generate 15 interceptions in 2016 which includes the return of junior strong safety Marcus Epps and sophomore cornerback Tyler Hall, this unit will be able to somewhat balance off the yards in which they surrender.

Wyoming won’t be dealing with an easy non-conference schedule as they’ll travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten Conference, while they will also host the Oregon Ducks of the Pac-12 Conference. And when Mountain West play begins, Wyoming’s season will be defined by a road game against the Boise State Broncos and the Air Force Falcons in November as these two meetings will have a big bearing on who will get to the conference championship game.

X-Colorado State Rams 8-4 (6-2)

It’s been under the guidance of two different head football coaches, but the Colorado State Rams have made a bowl game in each of the last four years and a winning record here in 2017 could send them bowling for a fifth consecutive season which would mark just the second time in school history that this has occurred. Mike Bobo is entering his third year as Colorado State’s head football coach and he has a team that is capable of vying for a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game.

Nick Stevens

Nick Stevens has been Colorado State’s starting quarterback in each of the last two years and that experience should benefit him in this his senior campaign. Stevens’ best asset is that he takes care of the football as he only threw 5 interceptions last year, while he was able to complete more than 64% of his passes. And if Stevens continues to do a good job in regards to protecting the football, the Rams should be one of the better teams in the Mountain West.

Senior running back Dalyn Dawkins and junior running back Izzy Matthews each have the ability to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. Both Dawkins and Matthews are explosive as they push each other for reps. Prior to taking over at Colorado State, Bobo was the offensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs and his system there thrived on using multiple running backs. This tactic keeps both ball carriers fresh and it should pay dividends for the Rams when the second half of the season rolls around.

Senior wide receiver Michael Gallup is a dependable target in the passing game for Stevens and he has the potential to be one of the better pass catchers in the Mountain West, while the Rams also have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country that features senior left tackle Trae Moxley.

2016 was not a banner year on defense for the Rams, but they will enter the upcoming season with some play makers on that side of the football. Junior free safety Braylin Scott along with junior middle linebacker Josh Watson should be impact players this year for Colorado State and hopefully this unit will be able to do enough to keep up with their offense which will be one of the best in the Mountain West.

Special teams is always strong for the Rams as they possess one of the best kickers in the country. Junior kicker Wyatt Bryan possesses a strong leg which included him connecting on three kicks from at least 40 yards out last year. Bryan also has the benefit of thin Rocky Mountain air which is always an advantage for Colorado State.

On September 1st, the Rams will have their annual meeting with their in-state rival in the Colorado Buffaloes of the Pac-12 Conference, while they will travel to Tuscaloosa to meet the Alabama Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference on September 16. And when Mountain West plays begins, the Rams will have a four-game stretch against the New Mexico Lobos, Air Force Falcons, Wyoming Cowboys, and Boise State Broncos which will go a long way in determining whether or not that they’ll be able to reach to conference title game for the first time in school history.

X-New Mexico Lobos 7-5 (5-3)

It has taken New Mexico Lobos head football coach Bob Davie some time, but he has gotten his program on track in Albuquerque. After the Lobos never won more than four games in each of their first three years under Davie, they’ve won a combined 16 games over the last two years which included winning 9 games last season for the first time since 2007. And now after New Mexico was an afterthought, Davie has a team that could be ready to win the Mountain West Conference.

Bob Davie

What has allowed this turnaround at New Mexico is Davie’s commitment to the running game. Last year the Lobos averaged 350 yards on the ground which was tops in the nation as they averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Senior quarterback Lamar Jordan and junior running back Tyrone Owens will be a big part of New Mexico’s triple-option attack. And as the Lobos running game will depend on the blocking of an offensive line which features three seniors as the unit if led by left tackle Raymond Baylor III and center Blaise Fountain, this offense will once again be difficult for defenses in the Mountain West to handle.

But it will be very important for New Mexico’s offense to be able to dictate things as their defense lacks play makers which means they are going to have to continuously win the time of possession battle in order to keep their defense fresh.

The schedule for the Lobos won’t be easy as they’ll face the Boise State Broncos, Wyoming Cowboys, and San Diego State Aztecs, while they will also dip out of conference to face the Texas A&M Aggies of the Southeastern Conference in College Station on November 11.

X-Air Force Falcons 6-6 (4-4)

When it is time to discuss the top college football programs that the Mountain West Conference has to offer, you cannot go too far without mentioning the Air Force Falcons. Over the last three years Air Force won a combined 28 games as the triple-option running game of head football coach Troy Calhoun has kept defenses around the Mountain West on their toes. But whereas that the Mountain Division is much more difficult to navigate than the Western Division, will Air Force get lost in the shuffle this season?

The biggest key to operating a successful option attack is to have an experienced quarterback leading the charge. Junior quarterback Arion Worthman will be leading the charge after he saw some action in 2016. Worthman will team with senior running back Timothy McVey to be the two focal points of the Falcons rushing attack which could be a successful combination in Fort Collins.

Air Force will also possess one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Mountain West which has four seniors and a junior. Senior center Alexander Norton is the anchor for this group as they could potentially be paving the way for a pair of 1,000-yard ball carriers in McVey and Worthman.

There will be a huge question mark on defense for the Falcons as they lost so much talent from last year’s team and it will take some time for everything to come together for them.

Unfortunately for Air Force, they will face the New Mexico Lobos, Colorado State Rams, and Boise State Broncos all on the road this season as they will be a long shot to reach the Mountain West Championship Game.

Utah State Aggies 2-10 (1-7)

It appears that the well has run dry for the Utah State Aggies. The Aggies went 3-9 last season and in the process their streak of making a bowl game came to an end after five consecutive trips. For Utah State head football coach Matt Wells, he must find a way to get his team to compete better as they lost five games by at least 11 points, while they were only able to win one game within Mountain West Conference. And as the Mountain Division is once again loaded, it could be easy for the Aggies to get lost in the shuffle.

The Aggies simply don’t have the talent to win right now in the Mountain West which is going to make this a very long season in Logan.

West

X-San Diego State Aztecs 9-3 (7-1)

Rocky Long

The Rocky Long era has been a successful one for the San Diego State Aztecs. Long has been San Diego State’s head football coach since 2011 and he is orchestrating one of the best runs in program history. The Aztecs have won the Mountain West Conference in three of the last five years as they’ll enter the new season as the two-time defending champs. And as the Western Division is once again expected to be weak, will anyone be able to overtake Long and San Diego State?

The Aztecs will enter the upcoming season without the services of running back Donnel Pumphrey who after setting a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 6,405 career rushing yards is now pursuing a career in the National Football League. But the Aztecs running game won’t miss a beat as senior running back Rashaad Penny is set to be the primary ball carrier. Penny was Pumphrey’s understudy last year and he still managed to gain 1,005 yards on the ground while Pumphrey went for 2,133. Like it was with Pumphrey, speed is the name of the game for Penny as San Diego State’s running game will once again be among the best in the nation.

Christian Chapman

Junior quarterback Christian Chapman should be able to once again feed off of San Diego State’s powerful rushing attack. Last year Chapman was extremely efficient as he was able to complete 61% of his passes while only being intercepted 6 times. San Diego State does not throw the football as much as other programs do, but when it happens they are very productive.

One thing that could hinder the Aztecs offense this season is their inexperienced offensive line. Including left tackle Tyler Roemer, San Diego State’s starting offensive line will have two freshman, while the lone senior in the bunch will be right guard Antonio Rosales. This could be a problem for the Aztecs early on, however as the season progresses they should be able to improve.

Danny Gonzales is set to begin his first season as San Diego State’s defensive coordinator and he inherits a very opportunistic group. Last year the Aztecs were 11th in the nation in total defense, while they also led the country in interceptions with 26. Senior cornerback Kameron Kelly and sophomore cornerback Ron Smith combined for eight interceptions last year and this duo could once again be one of if not the best corner combo in the Mountain West. Junior outside linebacker Ronley Lakalaka is a solid tackler while he combines that with good range which means that it will once again be difficult for opponents to score points against the Aztecs.

The Aztecs should once again benefit from the Western Division not having that much competition for them which means that a third consecutive Mountain West Title could be around the bend for them.

X-UNLV Rebels 6-6 (4-4)

As Tony Sanchez is set to embark on his third season as the head football coach of the UNLV Rebels, he is attempting to do something that has never been done in the program’s history which is to make them a consistent winner. Since 2000, UNLV has only had two winning seasons and you have to go all the way back to 1984 to find the last time that they were able to win at least 10 games. Sanchez is attempting to turn the Rebels into winners and making a bowl games here in 2017 would be huge.

For the Rebels, winning football relies on a basic game plan on offense which focuses on the rushing the football. Last year Nevada-Las Vegas was 15th in the nation as they averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a team. There is not one player that opponents can focus on in UNLV’s running game as Sanchez has done a solid job in regards to spreading the love. But being that UNLV needs to improve defensively as they were 80th last season in total defense, will they be able to overcome defensive inefficiencies to make a bowl game for the first time since 2013?

UNLV should be slightly improved from last season, however finishing the regular season with consecutive road games against the New Mexico Lobos and Nevada Wolf Pack will have a huge part in whether or not that they’ll be able to go bowling this season.

X-Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 6-6 (4-4)

Nick Rolovich’s first year as the head football coach of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors was very successful as he was able to lead the program to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Hawaii is not an easy place get the top high school football recruits to attend as players are weary about making the trip from the Continental United States to Honolulu, while the top talent on the Hawaiian Islands tends to get recruited to play for West Coast powerhouses such as the USC Trojans. But Rolovich isn’t in the business of making excuses as the Rainbow Warriors will head into the new college football campaign seeking to do something that they have not done since 2008 which is to make a bowl game in consecutive years.

Dru Brown

Junior quarterback Dru Brown has been dependable for Hawaii as he is a player who tends to protect the football. As running back Diocemy Saint Juste is ready to begin his senior season, he will look to build off of his breakout campaign in 2016 that saw him gain 1,006 yards on the ground, while he averaged 6.1 yards per carry. The Rainbow Warriors will also benefit from having a solid offensive line as led by senior left tackle Dejon Allen, there will be three seniors as well as a junior on the starting unit.

Defensive football has never been a specialty for the Rainbow Warriors which included them being 112th in the nation last season in total defense. Legi Suiaunoa is set to embark of his first season as Hawaii’s defensive coordinator and the only way for his unit to go is up. Junior middle linebacker Jahlani Tavai led the Warriors in tackles last season with 129 while he was the team’s best pass rusher as he had 7 sacks and he’ll once again be an impact player for them. Senior safety Trayvon Henderson can fly around in the secondary in order to cover ground as both he and Tavai have the potential to be All-Mountain West performers.

The defense could once again be an issue for the Rainbow Warriors, but they should be in position to once again take advantage of a weak Western Division in the Mountain West in order to reach a bowl game.

Nevada Wolfpack 4-8 (3-5)

In four years as the head football coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack, Brian Polian was never able to maintain the level of success which had been established by his predecessor Chris Ault. Ault was the innovator of the “pistol offense” who led Nevada to new heights which included winning 13 games in 2010. However Ault’s success came when Nevada was in the Western Athletic Conference. The Wolf Pack joined the Mountain West Conference in 2011, and since then they have been unable to win more than seven games in a season. Now it will be Jay Norvell’s turn as Nevada’s head football coach to turn things around, but it will be easier said than done.

One of the biggest issues that Norvell must be able to fix for Nevada is their inconsistency on offense. Last year the Wolf Pack were limited to scoring 20 points or less in a game five times as they need to have a semblance of order.

There will be one building block for Norvell in sophomore middle linebacker Gabe Sewell who could be one of the most underrated players at his position within Mountain West.

A difficult schedule which includes Nevada stepping out of the conference to face the Northwestern Wildcats of the Big Ten Conference and the Washington State Cougars of the Pac-12 Conference, along with road games within the Mountain West versus the Colorado State Rams, Boise State, and San Diego Aztecs means that Norvell will definitely have his work cut out in regards to getting Nevada back on track.

San Jose State Spartans 2-10 (1-7)

The 2016 college football season was over before it started for the San Jose State Spartans. The Spartans failed to keep contests close as six of their eight losses came by 14 points or more which included losing by 39 points to the San Diego State Aztecs. After four years as San Jose State’s head football coach, Ron Caragher was relieved of his duties as he was never able to lead the Spartans to a winning season. Now Brent Brennan will have his chance to turn things around for San Jose State as their head football coach. Most recently Brennan was the wide receivers coach for the Oregon State Beavers as this was a post that he held for the last six years. Brennan has never been a head coach at any stop along his football journey, but will he be able to make San Jose State respectable in the Mountain West Conference?

One positive that Brennan will have going for him to begin his tenure at San Jose State is the fact that he’ll have four seniors on the offensive line. Left tackle Nate Velichko and center Keoni Taylor lead this experienced group, however the Spartans are lacking play making ability at the skill positions.

Defensively San Jose State is looking to improve off of being 88th in the nation last year in total defense. Derrick Odum was on Oregon State’s staff last year with Brennan as he was the school’s safeties coach. But it will take Odum some time to turn things around as San Jose State’s defensive coordinator being that he simply does not have the players who can make an impact as of yet.

The Spartans have a long way to go before their program will get turned around and they will definitely take their lumps here in 2017.

Fresno State Bulldogs 1-11 (0-8)

In 2016, the Fresno State Bulldogs went through two head football coaches which is never a good sign for a program. After a 1-7 start, Tim DeRuyter was fired and he’d be replaced by Eric Kiesau on an interim bases. Kiesau would not fare much better as the Bulldogs would go 0-4 at the helm. Fresno State’s struggles would lead the school to seek out and ultimately hire Jeff Tedford as their next head football coach.

Jeff Tedford

Tedford is most recognized for his run as the head football coach of the California Golden Bears as in 11 years at Berkley he compiled a record of 82-57. At California, Tedford sent his fair share of talent to the National Football League which includes Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Now Tedford will be charged with reversing the fortunes of a Fresno State program that is coming off of three consecutive losing seasons.

It is going to take Tedford some time to turn around the fortunes of the Bulldogs as he must get players who will fit his system. On offense Fresno State was 120th in the nation in total offense last season, while they were 84th in passing which gives you an idea as to why they were only able to win one game last season. Things aren’t that much better for Fresno State on the defensive side of the football where they were ranked 68th in the nation in total defense and like the offense, they are lacking play makers.

For Fresno State this is a team that must find a way to compete in the Mountain West as they’ve failed to win a conference game since November 2015. And if Tedford can begin to put the pieces in play in order to make this team believe, it would be a huge step in the right direction.

Mountain West Championship Game: Boise State vs. San Diego State

Conference Champion: Boise State

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

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