Todd Graham’s Troubles

Patrick Breen/azcentral sports

By Tyler Wiese

After disappointing results for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Arizona State University football head coach Todd Graham will be coaching for his job security coming into the 2017 college football season.

During Graham’s first year in Tempe (2012), he was able to turn around the ASU program quickly, as he led the Sun Devils to their first winning season since 2007.

Graham ended his first season with an 8-5 record, winning the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Navy.

Over the next two seasons as head coach, Graham led the Sun Devils to two consecutive 10-win seasons as ASU went 10-4 in 2013 and 10-3 record in 2014 for a combined record of 28-12 over his first three seasons.

Arizona State went 8-1 in conference play in 2013 while losing its last two games in the Pac-12 Championship against Stanford and the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech.

Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Graham found himself struggling to find wins as ASU ended the 2015 season with a 6-7 record and 2016 with his worst record yet at 5-7.

Over his time at ASU, Graham has found himself homesick, for only two out of their last 11 wins have come away from Tempe.

The Texas native has made ASU relevant in the recruiting game, placing ASU in the top five in the Pac-12 ever since his arrival.

With slight declines of recruiting over the past couple seasons, Graham has produced a solid 2017 class that is headlined by former five-star Alabama recruit Blake Barnett.

While injuries were a reoccurring theme last season for the Sun Devils, more depth in the secondary and a plethora of quarterbacks to choose from this year will not help Graham’s case if he doesn’t get the team to a bowl game.

Added pressure from one of the worst statistical defenses in a college football season and his roots coming from the defensive side of the ball, Graham can’t afford to let his defense give up an average of 39.8 points per game like the team did last season.

ASU

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With upcoming 2017 home tilts against Washington, USC, and Colorado, Graham will need the team to be playing some of their best football in recent years as their schedule is unforgiving.

Washington is coming off one of their best seasons in school history, making the college football playoffs only to get trampled by the Crimson Tide.

USC has reached national college football relevance as the program won its 25th Rose Bowl along with bringing in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in college football.

Finally, Colorado and AP Coach of the Year, Mike MacIntyre, have the Buffaloes running away from their terrible past into Pac-12 South Division Champions.

Arizona State has given Graham full control over his staff during his time with the team. Going into his sixth season, Graham has replaced his staff with six new assistants and a new offensive coordinator in Billy Napier and a new defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett.

Graham and the rest of the Arizona State football staff will need to be able to synchronize quickly in order to produce promising results for the Sun Devils in 2017. Otherwise, we can expect Todd Graham to be looking for another job outside of Tempe.

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Alabama Will Win the 2018 CFB Championship

Photo via Assoicated Press

It seems like the impossible has happened: Alabama lost a national championship. I was shocked, to the point where I had already written an anticipatory article about Bama’s win in the National Championship game.

Next year, however, I can’t see any other teams winning. Bama’s recruiting class has an incredible amount of talent coming in including 7 of the top 40 players in the nation. They have five “5-star” recruits that have already enrolled at the university—on the offensive side, Najee Harris (RB), Alex Leatherwood (OT), Dylan Moses (OLB), Jerry Jeudy (WR), and Tua Tagovailoa (QB/DUAL). Tagovailoa is an excellent quarterback, and Bama may have an interesting dual threat with Jalen Hurts–only a sophomore–and Tagovailoa.

The QB situation must be watched closely, because some would say having two quarterbacks is equal to having none. Who will they start? Will they move either of the versatile players to another position? Until very recently I would check up on the Sarkisian’s past, but of course the Tide just lost him–this raises another important question: who will replace him, and how will they handle this offensive conundrum? It’ll be interesting to watch this develop, because it most definitely has implications for how well the Tide play this season.

Defensively, they have also picked up LaBryan Ray, who has signed a letter of intent.

Let this sink in: these are only the 5-star recruits. They have countless other players in the recruiting class that are performing better than anyone in high school football and should show a lot of promise going into next season.

If anyone was to take a look at the recruiting classes from other top teams, they will realize that Bama absolutely dominated this year. Clemson, the defending national champions, only picked up two top-40 players. They still have a talented squad returning, but it will be without their heart and soul from last season, Deshaun Watson.

Ohio State has the 2nd best recruiting class with 5 top 40 players coming in this year. In addition, the greatness of Urban Meyer and an increase in motivation from their recent disaster in Glendale (losing 31-0 to Clemson in the semi-final), they should prove to be the biggest threat to Alabama’s title hopes.

Remember, Nick Saban is one of the best coaches in history, and he excels in molding recruits into the best players they can be. The Tide’s team cohesion is the envy of all of college football, and with these new recruits to bolster their ranks, they could prove unstoppable.

Alabama is also retaining a good amount of their very talented team from last year. The first name that comes to mind is Jalen Hurts, who wowed everyone with his poise and clear-headedness at the age of 18 by driving down the field to score the go ahead touchdown with just over 2 minutes left against Clemson and throwing 0 interceptions in the game. He played like a champion all season, and it is not hard to believe that he will continue to improve.

For the sake of brevity I won’t go into every impact player that’s staying on the team, but suffice to say that they’ll be formidable next year.

Clemson, FSU, USC, Oklahoma, and Ohio State should all expect to have great seasons (Washington and Penn State not so much). If Alabama can overcome the first hurdle, a season opener against the Seminoles, they’ll be right on track. Realistically, a loss wouldn’t eliminate them from the college football playoff, but it would put them in a hole forcing them to win out to insure their spot in the playoffs.

However, a win against FSU would provide the perfect confidence boost for Alabama to go on a tear throughout the entire season and win the 2018 National Championship.

Deondre Francois, the Next Heisman Trophy Winner?

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Florida State has a knack for recruiting quality players. Deondre Francois came into the program after Jameis Winston made, what I consider to be, his great escape. The investigations were iffy, the departments in charge were in disarray, and Winston probably took his lawyer’s advice and declared for the NFL draft (of course, he probably would have anyways).

FSU didn’t have the best season in 2015. Sean Maguire didn’t have what it took to keep them in playoff contention, and they suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Houston Cougars in the Peach Bowl. Fast forward to 2016, and Francois has helped them rebound to a top 10 program once again.

Francois had an impressive season statistically, but he had less success than several ACC Quarterbacks. He passed for 3,350 yards with a 58.8% completion percentage and threw for 20 touchdowns. In the game that mattered most, when FSU pulled out a win against Michigan 33-32, he didn’t perform well completing only 9/27 passes for 22 yards.  Luckily for FSU, Dalvin Cook was there to save the game.

Francois will have an immediate test in 2017, against Alabama in the season opener, to prove that he is a Heisman contender. Vegas has already flagged him as a possible 2017 Heisman candidate among 18 other players. During Winston’s Heisman trophy campaign as a freshman, he threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns while completing 66.9% of his passes. The difference is pretty staggering. Even in 2014 when Jameis was 6th in the running for the trophy, he did better than Francois’s redshirt freshman year.

There are several things that need to happen for him to be considered a serious contender for the Heisman. First, FSU needs to step up the caliber of their offensive line. After losing Cook, they might need to pivot and become a pass-heavy team—the only way they can possibly do this is to protect Francois more than they did last year.

Next, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield need to have average seasons. I could see Mayfield doing this, but the other two might prove to be a problem. FSU has the opportunity to beat Louisville, and improve Francois’ Heisman chances, but may need USC to lose to several games throughout the year.

Jimbo Fisher never recruits uncoachable players. He’s fostered many amazing players in the last couple years, and not only do I see Francois staying through his junior year, but he will improve each season as well.

Francois has a lot of talent that he hasn’t cultivated yet. He has as much talent as anyone in the nation. If he can stay focused and play like everyone knows he can, then he will make an impressive case for the Heisman next season.

It wouldn’t hurt if FSU makes it to the College Football Playoffs next year, either.

2016 Deondre Francois Highlights

Keep an Eye on FAU

Vasha Hunt / Associated Press

By now, everyone has heard that Lane Kiffin left Alabama to be the head coach of Florida Atlantic. It seemed as if he was on his way to leaving normally—after the Championship game—until Nick Saban fired him and put Sarkisian in his place.

Kiffin left, while on bad terms with Alabama, for a program that people do not know much about. He’s definitely left a trail of disappointments behind him in all of the programs he’s worked for making him a polarizing figure in college football.

It’ll be very interesting to see where he takes the program that has been one of the worsts in college football. They’re in Conference USA and have gone 3-9 for three straight seasons. They haven’t been to a bowl game since 2008, which was the last time they were .500 or better. Kiffin wants to bring them to greatness in just a few short years; this sounds like a tall order, but it has been done before.

At WKU, Willie Taggart brought a struggling team from a 2-10 season to two consecutive 7-5 seasons. Since Taggart, the Hilltoppers have been to a bowl game every year except 2013.

Bobby Bowden did the same at FSU. From 1973 to 1975, the Noles only had 4 wins over three seasons. In 1976 when Bobby Bowden took over the program, they went 5-6. The next year, they went 10-2 and haven’t had a losing season since. It’s possible, and this is exactly what Kiffin hopes to achieve.

FAU is the perfect program for a disgraced (?) ex-head coach to test the waters again. He signed a five-year contract, and it doesn’t seem like he is going to view those years as a rebuilding period (which might be the smartest thing to do). Right off the bat he hired Kendal Briles from Baylor to be his offensive coordinator. It’ll be interesting to see how much of the play calling and coordinator duties Kiffin will relinquish to Briles knowing that Kiffin was just the OC at Alabama and might have a short leash ready for Briles.

The hire is raising questions about the honesty of the new FAU program. Many remember that Briles’s father was fired in a sexual assault scandal last May. It seems he kept information from the university to protect players. Briles stayed on with the program and feuded with the school and the new head coach. He recently got slapped with a fine for recruiting violations as well.

Another addition to the FAU squad is raising questions. Kiffin signed QB De’Andre Johnson to the Owls—you might remember him from when FSU kicked him out for punching a woman two years ago. He was a four-star recruit but never got a chance to play for the Noles. When he was dismissed from the school he got a second chance at Eastern Mississippi Community College, where he threw for 2,846 yards and rushed for 834. He had 26 passing touchdowns and only threw six interceptions while maintaining a 60% completion percentage on the season.

Regardless of whether Johnson is a good person or not, he’s a good quarterback that could very well shine in his three years of eligibility at FAU. He’s the sort of talent that a head coach like Kiffin dreams of getting during his 5-year stint at FAU.

In his press conference at FAU, he said: “there are great players here, obviously great players in the state of Florida, and great high school coaches.” He is very excited about the quality of recruits in Florida but will have to be very efficient in his recruiting because the top tier programs are always looking to swoop talented players from Florida.

Kiffin has gained a lot of experience at Alabama under Saban. Undoubtedly, he had a big hand in a great Bama offense, and he should be able to transfer the experience from Alabama to FAU. A more important revelation, however, will be to see if he has gained wisdom (less to do with coaching talent and more with maturity). If he has learned from his mistakes at other programs, he’ll do well at FAU. He said he was very humbled by USC, and inspired by Saban (this was of course before he was thrown off the Tide’s team right before the national championship).

He admitted in his press conference that he made a mistake by jumping around programs every couple years, and he made it sound as if he would be staying, perhaps, longer than his 5 years of contracted employment. It’s hard to imagine, but it has happened before. “Today starts, brick by brick, of building the foundation of a national championship program;” grand words for a coach coming into a young and underwhelming program, but I wouldn’t put it past him. It might take more than a year or two, but I have a feeling that after a few years we will consistently see the Owls in bowl games and maybe even top tier bowl game if everything goes well.

Allstate Sugar Bowl Preview and Predictions

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Who: #7 Oklahoma vs #14 Auburn

When: January 2, 8:30PM EST

Where: New Orleans, Louisiana

Watch: ESPN

Winner: Oklahoma

This is a hard game to predict. Both teams are very strong programs with impact players and have been battle tested throughout the year.

Strengths for Auburn

The Tigers have a super strong defense, and have only allowed 30 points once this season (vs. Alabama). They have good pass rushers that could make it very difficult for Baker Mayfield.

Sean White’s offense is just as strong…when he’s healthy (see: weaknesses). If White’s shoulder is good to go, the Tigers will present a very impressive pass attack. He completes 65.2 percent of his passes and should be a thorn in the Sooners’ side if he is healthy and ready to go.

RB Kamryn Pettway is also healthy now, and he should prove to be a strong force for Auburn. He has had 1,123 yards in only 9 games this season.

Weaknesses for Auburn

If Sean White isn’t as healthy as he seems, or he hasn’t found his stride by halftime, the Tigers will have a really hard time moving the ball down the field.

Auburn took big losses from Georgia and Texas A&M which were pretty embarrassing and worrisome. Their only win since November 5 was against Alabama A&M, and they just lost to their rival Alabama. They’ll be looking to redeem themselves, but is it enough?

Strengths for Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield is an amazing QB. He has 3,669 yards this season, and so far has thrown 38 touchdowns. If he is able to heat up early, it’ll be a short day for the Tigers.

Oklahoma has two great running backs (again, see the weaknesses section) who will hopefully turn out to play well. Samaje Perine is a great back with a lot of talent (974 yards on 179 attempts and 11 touchdowns). This is decidedly less than his last two seasons, but everyone knows he is still extremely talented.

Joe Mixon is also an amazing back who can be used as a threat in the running game and the passing game with 1,183 rushing yards and 449 receiving yards this season.

Weaknesses for Oklahoma

There’s only one problem with Mixon: he reportedly physically assaulted a woman in 2014. The video was released, and the controversy is heating up again. He has been cleared to play, but I’m wondering if his head will be able to put the distractions to the side and focus on winning the game for the Sooners.

The Sooners have a hard time defending the run, and this should prove to be a problem with Pettway healthy.

Prediction

I could easily see this game going either way. However, I will have to go with the Sooners. Their diverse offense, with a great quarterback and two great running backs, will prove difficult to contain.

Rose Bowl Preview and Prediction

Photo via Mark Holtzman

Who: #9 USC vs #5 Penn State

When: January 2, 5PM EST

Where: Pasadena, California

Watch: ESPN

Winner: Penn State

On the surface this seems like a pretty close matchup. One team has two losses and the other has three. However, I don’t think USC can compete at the same level as the Nittany Lions. First, they were absolutely trashed by Alabama in the season opener. Yeah, a lot of teams get thrashed by Alabama, but top ten teams should be able to at least hold their own. Next, they lost to Stanford, and to a Utah team who lost to Colorado and Washington. If they were the same caliber as Penn State, they would have won those games.

Penn State’s only two losses were a surprise early season loss to Pitt and a loss to Michigan. They beat Wisconsin, Ohio State, and several other powerful programs throughout the season. Simply put, I think they’re better equipped to win this one and show the world that they belong in the college football playoff.

Penn State has a great QB and RB duo that should be hard for the Trojans to beat. Trace McSorley has 760 yards in his last two games, as well as eight touchdowns and 16.3 yards per completion. Saquon Barkley has 19 touchdowns and 1,302 yards rushing along with 23 receptions.

USC’s Sam Darnold’s NFL-level talent and reliable WR Juju Smith-Schuster is a pair that should worry the Penn State defense. Darnold has 2,633 passing yards with 26 touchdowns on the season, while Smith-Schuster averages 12.4 yards per catch.

Most of the predictions I’m seeing say that USC will win this contest. Vegas has them at -7, but I just don’t see it. Sure, it’ll be a really close game, but ultimately the Nittany Lions have more talent and determination. More talent and determination is usually a good recipe for success. Have to go with Penn State to beat USC.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Preview and Prediction

Photo via JASON CHAN/The Badger Herald

Who: #15 Western Michigan vs #8 Wisconsin

When: January 2, 1PM EST

Where: Arlington, Texas

Watch: ESPN

Winner: Wisconsin

This game is one of the more intriguing pairings of the bowl season. Wisconsin is set to square off against an unbeaten MAC conference team in Western Michigan.

Wisconsin has had a standout season, and even came close to defeating Penn State in the Big 10 title game, showing that they should not be taken lightly. The Badgers’ running back Corey Clement has ran for over 1,300 yards, and is the leader of the offense. The Badgers defense will also shine as well, with players like T.J. Watt (brother of JJ Watt), Alec James, and T.J. Edwards, among a couple more standout players.

On the other side of the field, Western Michigan also has an impressive squad. Their defense is led by QB Zach Terrell (with 3,376 yards and 32 touchdowns), Corey Davis (1,427 yards and 91 receptions), and behemoth Jarvion Franklin (1,300 yards yards rushing). The Broncos also have a quality front 7 on defense.

WMU might be undefeated, but they’re also in a weaker conference. Wisconsin has 3 losses, but competed against great programs and many of them were tight games.

It’s possible for WMU to win this one—they haven’t lost yet—but a lot needs to happen for them to play on a level that can compete with Wisconsin. This will be the perfect time for them to show everyone that they can win it, but I don’t think them winning is realistic.

Outback Bowl Preview and Predictions

Photo via Charlie Neibergall, AP Photo

Who: #17 University of Florida vs Iowa

When: January 2, 1PM EST

Where: Tampa, FL

Watch: ABC

Winner: Iowa

The Outback Bowl isn’t exactly what both teams imagined before this season, but you can be sure that the Hawkeyes and the Gators will make the most of the placement.  They get one last chance to prove their worth to rest of the country.

UF won the SEC east with an 8-4 record, but ended its season with a bitter taste in its mouth with losses to both FSU and Alabama. Florida will be looking to put themselves in a great place to be a serious contender for the SEC title game against Alabama (most likely) next year.

Iowa had an amazing win against a then second-ranked Michigan late in the season, and shouldn’t be overlooked despite being unranked. The Hawkeyes are also on a three-game winning streak, which should provide a spark of momentum.

I think the key to this game is which offense can get off the ground and perform. The Hawkeyes are ranked #120 in total offense, and the Gators are ranked #115. Whichever offense can actually play well will win.

Iowa’s QB C.J. Beathard has 40 touchdowns in his career, and is proven to be a solid option, but will be the key to Iowa’s success. UF’s quarterback has a problem both throwing touchdowns and avoiding interceptions, and this will prove to be detrimental to the Gators.

UF has a great defense which gives up just 298.6 yards per game. Unfortunately, the Gators will be missing linebackers Jarrad Davis and David Reese due to injury.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Gators have the strength to come up with the W, and the Hawkeyes will win in a defensive struggle.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Preview and Predictions

Photo via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Who: Washington vs. Alabama

When: 3 PM EST Saturday, December 31

Where: Georgia Dome— Atlanta, GA

Watch: ESPN

Winner: Alabama

Fans all across the nation (except in Alabama) have been wishing that Bama would finally fall this year, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Many have been saying that Saban’s team this year is his best yet. He’s got a team that has been an inexorable force, and if Washington doesn’t think of savvy ways to stem the tide (pun intended) they’ll be crushed.

Washington hasn’t been tested by a team like Alabama all year. I’m by no means saying that Washington is a bad team—this might be their best team ever, and they’ve proven themselves to be worthy of a top-5 ranking, but it is more of a testament to Alabama. However, being the best Washington team ever doesn’t guarantee they can compete with an Alabama defense that can dominate any front they play.

Washington’s solace, if it’s possible at all, will come from their pass game. Browning is a great quarterback with a lot of potential—averaging 9.4 yards per pass…but that will probably not be enough?

Washington’s defense will also be important if the Huskies want to stay in the game. They’re great at forcing turnovers, but against a fundamentally sound team in Bama, they might not get the chance.

Jalen Hurts might start out slow giving Washington the chance to force an early turnover (Washington leads FBS in turnover margin and total turnovers).  Therefore, Hurts will have to be extra careful to keep his hands on the ball as he goes down, as well as to not throw errant passes possibly leading to interceptions.

I think this is going to be a repeat of last year’s semis, where the Tide ripped into Michigan State. Simply put, Alabama is a much better team. It would be surprising if Washington loses by less than 14—of course, anything is possible in a bowl game, and secretly I’m hoping my prediction is wrong.  However, Alabama is going to come out on top like they do almost every season. In reality, this is just a tune-up game for Alabama before they play in the National Championship game.

Dalvin Cook Announces He Will Enter The NFL Draft

Photo via AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Junior FSU running back Dalvin Cook has just announced via instagram that he will be entering the NFL draft, instead of completing his senior year at Florida State.

There was speculation as to whether he would stay, after he took a firm stance on not skipping the Orange bowl on Friday night. The Seminoles won in a stunner 33-32 over Michigan.

Cook leads the Seminoles all time in rushing yards at 4,464, which is amazing considering he has only competed for three years at the school. He is second in the ACC all time, just under 300 yards less than the leader Ted Brown of NC State (1975-1978).

Cook had 19 touchdowns on the ground in addition to a pass touchdown and 488 receiving yards.

Cook is expected to be a first round pick, if not a top-10 pick. He has speed, power, and is unrelenting in his runs. It seems impossible for any program to stop him, and he has shown that he is ready for the NFL.