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  • College football notebook: Ga. Tech dismisses RB Mills
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Sophomore running back Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the Georgia Tech football team on Friday for violating team rules.

    • Mills, the top B-back on the roster, was the top returning rusher for the Yellow Jackets. He compiled 771 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016.

      Coach Paul Johnson was a supporter of Mills even in the face of discipline last season. As B-back, Mills is a central figure of the Georgia Tech option offense.

      Mills served two suspensions last season for a total of three games.

      --Penn State approved a six-year contract extension for head coach James Franklin through at least the 2022 season, the school announced.

      The new contract for the football coach will average $5.73 million per year for six years, according to Sports Illustrated and confirmed by ESPN. Franklin was scheduled to make $4.7 million this year under his previous deal.

      Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour announced the agreement after the university board unanimously approved Franklin's extension.

      "James and his staff have done an exceptional job with our football student-athletes and in all aspects of the football program," Barbour said in a statement. "His values are Penn State's values and they resonate throughout every member of the organization and team he has built. James is a tremendous leader of young men, motivating them to extend their reach and impact far beyond what they might have thought possible on the field, in the classroom and community. We are excited about continuing to work together to strive to make a lifetime of impact, win championships and celebrate many successes on and off the field along the way."

      --Former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Banks was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the 2013 gang rape of an unconscious female student.

      Banks was found guilty of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery in June.

      Banks is the third former Vanderbilt player sentenced to jail in the case. Brandon Vandenburg previously received a 17-year sentence and Corey Batey was given a 15-year term.

      One other player, Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie, also was charged and pleaded not guilty. He testified against each of the other men in hopes of securing a plea deal.

  • Stars gone but Stanford set to roll on
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Losing two first-round NFL Draft picks is difficult, but Stanford is among the most stable programs in the country and is built to absorb the departures.

    • The Cardinal will miss defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (the third overall pick in the draft) and running back/returner Christian McCaffrey (eighth overall pick), but coach David Shaw liked what he saw in camp as his team prepared for an Aug. 26 opener against Rice in Sydney, Australia.

      "I was really nervous about having the kind of training camp we need to prepare ourselves for the real grind," Shaw said. "The season's hard. Once we start, every week is going to be difficult. So you have to prepare with a tough and physical training camp. We fought and scrapped and got a lot done."

      Junior tailback Bryce Love, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in his first two seasons, can step in for McCaffrey behind a reliable offensive line.

      Still, replacing McCaffrey is almost impossible, statistically speaking. McCaffrey set a record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015. In 2016, he shook off an injury to rush for 1,596 yards and compile 16 total touchdowns.

      In 2015 and 2016, Stanford was 18-1 when McCaffrey rushed for at least 100 yards.

      But Stanford has seen Love in action and trusts him to be the featured tailback.

      "You've already seen glimpses of it," Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst said. "He got maybe five carries a game, if that, and he went 60 yards to the house on a regular basis. With more carries, more touches, that will only increase his productivity."

      Chryst's health is being monitored after he tore the ACL in his right knee during Stanford's 25-23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. So Ryan Burns, or newcomer K.J. Costello, may have a shot should Chryst's knee falters. But Shaw has happy with how well Chryst -- who went 6-0 as a starter last year -- was able to drive off that leg, and the coach was comfortable enough to make Chryst the opening-night starter.

      The Cardinal may not have a pass rusher quite like Thomas, but the secondary -- with cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, and safety Justin Reid -- is a strong point to stop prolific Pac-12 passing attacks.

      Meeks and Holder both missed time with injuries in 2016, in part why Stanford stumbled through a rough stretch before a strong finish and a 10-3 overall record, 6-3 in conference play.

      "It's an exciting group to watch, because not only are they talented, they work and they study and they have great camaraderie," Shaw said of the secondary. "I can't wait to watch those guys play."

      The favorite to lead the defensive front without Thomas is a trustworthy force in Harrison Phillips. The defensive tackle had 46 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and seven sacks in 2016.

      Stanford doesn't have much time to jell before a brutal test, as it faces USC on Sept. 9 in Los Angeles. The Pac-12's North Division champion may be decided in early November, as the Cardinal has a game against Washington State on Nov. 4 in Pullman, Wash., and returns home to host reigning champion Washington on Nov. 10 at Stanford Stadium.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Keller Chryst -- Chryst showed flashes in 2016, when he had 10 touchdown passes to just one interception. His continued growth and dependability are paramount to the Cardinal's success. Expect a continuous connection between Chryst and wide receivers Trenton Irwin and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and tight end Dalton Schultz.

      BREAKOUT STAR: RB Bryce Love -- This season is Love's time to shine. He has the ability to turn a slight opening into a home run play. Love may not be the proven special teams aficionado that Christian McCaffrey was, but he can be the motor behind the offense and become a 1,000-plus yard rusher for the first time in his career. Plus, Love could take his turn at returning kicks. While Love isn't big and menacing, his linemen are, and Stanford would be lucky to keep the ball in Love's hands, especially with a lead.

      NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: OT Walker Little and OT Foster Sarell -- Stanford prides itself on playing veterans, while underclassmen earn their way. So while we might not see much of Little and Sarell on Stanford's proud offensive line this season, they're huge additions to the program. Sarell is the fifth-ranked overall recruit from the class of 2017, while Little was No. 9. Little is a 6-7, 304-pound product of Houston; and Sarell is a 6-7, 309-pounder from Graham, Wash.

  • Georgia Tech dismisses star RB
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Sophomore running back Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the Georgia Tech football team on Friday for violating team rules.

    • Mills, the top B-back on the roster, was the top returning rusher for the Yellow Jackets. He compiled 771 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016.

      Coach Paul Johnson was a supporter of Mills even in the face of discipline last season. As B-back, Mills is a central figure of the Georgia Tech option offense.

      Mills served two suspensions last season for a total of three games.

      Several prominent schools made scholarship offers to Mills before he chose to sign with his home-state program, including Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State and Oregon.

  • Penn State's Franklin gets rich extension
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Penn State approved a six-year contract extension for head coach James Franklin through at least the 2022 season, the school announced Friday.

    • The new contract for the football coach will average $5.73 million per year for six years, according to Sports Illustrated and confirmed by ESPN. Franklin was scheduled to make $4.7 million this year under his previous deal.

      Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour announced the agreement after the university board unanimously approved Franklin's extension.

      "James and his staff have done an exceptional job with our football student-athletes and in all aspects of the football program," Barbour said in a statement. "His values are Penn State's values and they resonate throughout every member of the organization and team he has built. James is a tremendous leader of young men, motivating them to extend their reach and impact far beyond what they might have thought possible on the field, in the classroom and community.

      "We are excited about continuing to work together to strive to make a lifetime of impact, win championships and celebrate many successes on and off the field along the way."

      The new contract places Franklin among the five highest-paid coaches in college football along with Alabama's Nick Saban, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, according to ESPN.

      The 45-year-old Franklin led the Nittany Lions to an 11-3 record and Rose Bowl berth (losing to USC 52-49) after winning the Big Ten championship last year. It was Penn State's first Big Ten title since 2008 and first outright championship since 1994 as the Nittany Lions ended No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll, their best finish since 2005.

      In 2016, Franklin was honored as the Sporting News National Coach of the Year and the Woody Hayes National Coach of the Year, as well as the Dave McLain Big Ten Coach of the Year and Associated Press Big Ten Coach of the Year.

      Named Penn State's 16th head football coach on Jan. 11, 2014, the Pennsylvania native Franklin has directed the Nittany Lions to three consecutive winning seasons. He owns a 25-15 record, taking over a program that had been rocked by NCAA sanctions after the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal.

      "My family and I are very thankful to be a part of the Penn State community," Franklin said in a statement. "I am pleased with the progress our program has made in the community, in the classroom and on the field. I look forward to diligently working with President (Eric) Barron and Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour on implementing a plan that puts our University and our student-athletes in the best position to compete on the field and in life."

      Before coming to Penn State, Franklin turned Vanderbilt into a Top 25 program in two of his three seasons there, posting consecutive 9-4 seasons. The Commodores went to a bowl game in all three of Franklin's seasons after going 4-20 in the two seasons before he arrived in Nashville, Tenn.

      Penn State opens the 2017 season on Sept. 2 against Akron at Beaver Stadium.

  • Mora's future depends on offensive production
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    This could be a season of unrest for UCLA, or at least it appears that way heading into Jim Mora's sixth season as the Bruins' coach.

    • Mora is widely considered on the hot seat because he has only 12 wins in the last two seasons, including a 4-8 record last season when the Bruins were picked by the media to win the Pac-12 South. UCLA, despite highly touted recruiting classes each year, has not won a division title since Mora's first season in 2012. He has yet to coach the Bruins to one of the biggest bowls.

      But he does have junior quarterback Josh Rosen.

      Rosen is trying to get back to playing as he did as a freshman (passing for nearly 3,700 yards with 23 touchdowns) after an injury-marred 2016 season, when a nerve problem in his throwing shoulder sidelined him for the last six weeks.

      "We're supremely confident in our coaching staff," Rosen told the media when fall camp started.

      "I can't speak as much to the defense, but offensively, I would go to war with any one of them. We have a really good crop of core leadership in the locker room. We have the same goals and process and ideas in mind. There's no miscommunication. We all know where we want to get and how we're going to get there."

      Mora retooled his offensive staff after the Bruins finished second-to-last in the nation in rushing (only 84.3 yards a game). He calls his offensive line his "biggest concern" after the shortcomings last year running the ball and protecting the quarterback.

      Sunny Odogwu, 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from the University of Miami, gives the Bruins an experienced right tackle, likely sharing time with Kenny Lacy.

      Odogwu originally came to the United States from Nigeria at age 16 to play basketball. He followed new UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who had the same position at Miami. Odogwu started 14 games at Miami in 2014 but suffered season-ending injuries in 2015 and 2016 before choosing to transfer to UCLA over Michigan.

      Both tackle positions and center are solidified for new offensive line coach Hank Fraley, who must judge from a three-man competition for right and left guard.

      Five running backs return with playing experience. Bolu Olorunfunmi has emerged as the starter in training camp. The junior combines a punishing style of running with a decent amount of speed.

      UCLA's schedule is not favorable for Mora to cool his hot seat. It includes difficult road games against Memphis, Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC. The Bruins open at home against Texas A&M, with another embattled coach in Kevin Sumlin. The loser of that game will fight an uphill battle for respect from fans and critics.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Josh Rosen -- The junior's ability to make plays and stay healthy will go a long way to making the Bruins contenders in the Pac-12 South. Rosen must adapt to the schemes of new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose faster pace should help the potential NFL quarterback unload the ball before getting sacked. Look for the Rosen-to-Darren Andrews connection to be one of the best in the Pac-12. Rosen said he knows Andrews, a fifth-year senior receiver, is "going to be at the right place at the right time" and that they have built a chemistry.

      BREAKOUT STAR: S Nate Meadors -- After playing behind departed Fabian Moreau, Marcos Rios and Randall Goforth, Meadors, a junior, is ready to be an impact player for coach Jim Mora's defense. Despite playing in only nine games last season, Meadors totaled a respectable 35 tackles. A quarterback in high school, Meadors is known for his athleticism and speed. He also has the reputation of being a physical tackler. He tallied six defended passes in his limited time last season.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Jaelan Phillips -- He was rated the No. 1 prospect in the country in the 247Sports composite rankings, and he didn't disappoint when he enrolled early for spring practice. He's played with the first team in fall camp, and with an electric combination of size and speed at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, he has a chance to be a dynamic pass-rusher from the opening game.

  • Cougars more dangerous with balanced offense
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Washington State has reasons to think of big prizes because of the return of quarterback Luke Falk, nine starters returning on defense and a running game to finally boost the Cougars' chances.

    • Running backs Jamal Morrow, Gerald Wicks, Keith Harrington and James Williams were the talk of Pullman, Wash., heading into fall camp. That is meaningful because Washington State's running game has been mostly anemic as part of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. The Cougars ranked No. 114 nationally in rushing yards last season -- and that was a marked improvement from Leach's first four years in Pullman.

      Important to note: Although Washington State rushed for only 120 yards a game last season, Williams, Morrow and Wicks combined to average 5.8 yards per carry and were productive pass-catchers with a combined 152 receptions.

      "They're all dynamic. It's fun as heck as a coach, but it's a little bit frustrating because somehow, sometime, we've got to find two. Two or three," running backs coach Jim Mastro told the Seattle Times.

      The balance of big-play potential between the running backs and receivers makes Falk that much more dangerous. Falk finished his junior season with 4,468 passing yards and 38 touchdown passes. He had the second-best completion percentage (70.0) in school history.

      Top receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft have exhausted their eligibility, but Leach still has a talented array of receivers, including junior Tavares Martin (sixth last year in the Pac-12 with 64 receptions, seventh with seven touchdowns and eighth in the conference with 728 receiving yards).

      The pressure applied to quarterbacks by Washington State's defense fell off last season with 19 sacks after posting 31 in 2015. But experience is on the Cougars' side. Among the nine starters returning on defense are all the top linebackers and All-Pac-12 defensive end Hercules Mata'afa. The Cougars' opportunistic defense, with 23 takeaways last season, should prove to be ball-hawks once again.

      Washington State's schedule starts with five consecutive home games, including conference games with Oregon State and USC. The Cougars also get Stanford at home later in the season, but play five of their last seven on the road.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Luke Falk -- Falk is more than a system quarterback within Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. He is the unmistakable leader of the Cougars and will be the most valuable contributor toward a potential Pac-12 title if he stays healthy and plays to expectations. He is coming off a season of which he passed for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns. He had the second-best completion percentage (70.0) in school history. Instead of testing the NFL, the senior remained in Pullman, Wash., which shows his commitment to taking the program to a higher level. "Doing the same thing he has been doing, that is one of his strongest qualities," Leach said of Falk's promise in 2017.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Tavares Martin -- After getting fewer targets than Gabe Marks and River Cracraft -- both of whom have exhausted their eligibility -- Martin is ready to become QB Luke Falk's primary target in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. Martin's 64 receptions for 728 yards and seven touchdowns last season was a noted increase from 2015, when he had 16 catches for 124 yards and one touchdown in 2015.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Josh Talbott -- He will compete for a starting role despite being in his first season of college football. The 6-foot freshman is known for his ability to read routes. He has tremendous closing speed on receivers. He is also physical with the ability to shed blocks. Talbott, who recorded 35 tackles and two interceptions as a senior at powerhouse Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High School, chose to sign with Washington State over Arizona, Colorado, Texas A&M, UCLA, Florida, Oklahoma and Oregon.

  • Ex-Vanderbilt player Banks gets 15 years for rape
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Banks was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Friday for his role in the 2013 gang rape of an unconscious female student.

    • Banks was found guilty of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery in June.

      Banks is the third former Vanderbilt player sentenced to jail in the case. Brandon Vandenburg previously received a 17-year sentence and Corey Batey was given a 15-year term.

      One other player, Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie, also was charged and pleaded not guilty. He testified against each of the other men in hopes of securing a plea deal.

      Banks alleged that he feared retribution if he didn't participate in the attack on the Vanderbilt campus. However, 23 images of the rape were found on Banks' cell phone and the victim made it clear he was very much a participant.

      The victim didn't attend Friday's sentencing hearing but assistant district attorney general Jan Norman read a statement on her behalf.

      "Most of the horrible recollections that I live with are of Mr. Banks," Norman read. "His attempts to minimize the things he did in surveillance and cell-phone recordings after the fact do not change what I have seen and what four juries have seen.

      "Four years later he is still proving himself to be the person he is in those photos and videos. I ask this court not to use his transparent attempts to excuse himself as justification for leniency."

      Prosecutors suspect the victim was given a date-rape drug prior to the incident. Vanderbilt police were investigating another matter at the dorm and noticed the four players carry an unconscious woman into a room.

      The ensuing investigation uncovered more than 40 pictures and videos of the assault on the players' cell phones.

  • ASU's Graham in win-or-else mode
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Arizona State coach Todd Graham hears the win-or-else cries from fans and, to another extent, from his own administration.

    • When athletic director Ray Anderson was asked about Graham's fate if the sixth-year coach delivered another five- or six-win season, Anderson answered, "I don't think it's any revelation to anyone that if that happens -- and unequivocally I don't think it will, I think we're going to win -- but if that happens then we'll make the prudent business decision, whatever that might be."

      Translation: Graham is on the hot season. His teams won only 11 games (6-7 in 2015 and 5-7 last year) the past two seasons after winning 10 games in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

      ASU has the skill position players on offense to make the Sun Devils fun to watch at the very least, provided the offensive line makes a marked improvement in its pass protection and ability to clear running space for running backs (only 3.3 yards per carry last season). Only two starters return to a line that allowed 41 sacks last season. ASU has allowed 38 sacks or more in each of the last five seasons under Graham.

      Incumbent quarterback Manny Wilkins has held off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett in the competition through most of fall camp. Wilkins is athletic while Barnett has a stronger arm. The most productive running backs return, including Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Sophomore receiver N'Keal Harry can emerge as one of the best at his position in the Pac-12.

      ASU had the worst pass defense in the nation last season, allowing 357.4 yards per game and 33 touchdowns.

      The Sun Devils recruited defensive backs heavily -- signing eight -- and landed a great one in safety Alex Perry from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School. Perry is the younger brother of Armand Perry, who would have been a redshirt junior cornerback and leader of the Sun Devil defense if he hadn't retired from football in May due to injuries.

      New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has 37 years of coaching experience, including the last six at Baylor. The biggest key for him is improving a pass defense that yielded 13.84 yards per catch last season.

      ASU's top two tacklers -- linebackers D.J. Calhoun and safety/spur linebacker Marcus Ball -- return. Defensive linemen JoJo Wicker and Tashon Smallwood are reliable veterans, especially against the against the run.

      The Sun Devils play Pac-12 heavyweights USC, Colorado, Oregon and Washington at home. If they get through the non-conference slate -- New Mexico State and San Diego State at home; Texas Tech on the road -- without a loss, it will bode well for Graham's future.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB D.J. Calhoun -- ASU's defense has not the same since coach Todd Graham's first couple of seasons with the Sun Devils in 2011 and 2012. The Sun Devils need someone to be the catalyst to solidify an always-aggressive defense that ranked second-to-last in the nation last season (allowing 520.5 yards a game). Calhoun started every game in 2016 and was ASU's tackle leader with 77. He is a pass-rushing threat who has 26 career tackles for loss, including 13 sacks.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR John Humphrey -- The speedy Oklahoma transfer (4.3 seconds in the 40) is accustomed to big-time football being with the Sooner program after a stellar high school career in Texas. He was one of the stars of the spring, catching three touchdown passes in the spring game, including two for more than 35 yards. Humphrey is eager to show what he can do in his third year of college without playing a snap yet in a live game (redshirting at Oklahoma in 2015 and sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules).

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Alex Perry -- He's a heralded recruit from powerhouse Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School who should see immediate playing time for ASU's woeful secondary, especially with the transfer of Kareem Orr to Tennessee-Chattanooga. Perry was part of a Bishop Gorman program that ranked No. 1 nationally in 2016 by USA Today. "He's a guy that does nothing but win championships," ASU coach Todd Graham said.

  • New coach Taggart begins Ducks' revival
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    How the mighty have fallen.

    • From 2007 to 2015, the Oregon football program was as good as any in the country. The Ducks reeled off nine consecutive seasons with at least nine victories, including two appearances in national championships games, three BCS bowl victories. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy.

      Then disaster struck last year.

      Former head coach Mark Helfrich was fired after posting a 4-8 record, including embarrassing defeats to rivals Washington (70-21) and Oregon State (34-24).

      Tasked with returning Oregon to glory is former University of South Florida head coach Willie Taggart -- and one of the first things on his agenda was changing the culture at Oregon.

      "Anytime you come into a new program, changing the culture is probably the biggest thing and the hardest thing to do," Taggart said during Pac-12 media days.

      Gone were the "Win The Day" signs posted up throughout Autzen Stadium. Replacing them are Taggart's "Do Something" mantra. The Ducks will have to wait until Sept. 2 to see if it's working.

      Oregon will open its season with three nonconference games, including showdowns against Nebraska in week two and then potential 2018 No. 1 draft pick Josh Allen of Wyoming in week three.

      The Ducks have a gruesome four-game stretch midway through the season. Oregon will face Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington in weeks 7-10.

      The offense will help Taggart in his effort to return Oregon to a national power. Quarterback Justin Herbert, running backs Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James, wide receiver Charles Nelson and an experienced offensive line should help keep the Ducks' attack among the best in the nation.

      Defensively is where Oregon fell apart last year, ranking third-worst in the nation in scoring and total defense. Taggart brought in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt from Colorado to revamp the squad.

      Leavitt -- who is switching Oregon from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 -- has praised the play of true freshmen Thomas Graham Jr. and Jordan Scott, while sophomore linebacker Troy Dye and senior safety Tyree Robinson have taken on leadership roles.

      Expectations may be higher in Eugene than they were at the end of last year, but the Ducks will still have to go out and "do something." The Pac-12 media picked Oregon to finish fourth in the North division, although one media member picked the Ducks to win the conference.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Royce Freeman -- Freeman had an All-American campaign as a sophomore, when he ran for 1,836 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. Last year was one that Freeman would like to forget, as his injury-plagued junior season ended with 945 yards and nine touchdowns, both career-lows. Coach Willie Taggart has already made it clear that the Ducks are going to feed Freeman the ball as much as possible, and if he produces like his first two years as a Duck, look for Oregon to return to a bowl game.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Dillon Mitchell -- Conventional wisdom might point to a defensive player for this spot, given how bad the Ducks were defensively last year, but Mitchell's production will be the talk of the season. Oregon lost its top wide receiver when Darren Carrington was kicked off the team after a DUI arrest, so somebody must take his place -- and Mitchell is that guy. After displaying unreal athleticism in the 2016 spring game, Oregon fans have been waiting to see Mitchell in action and now they'll get their chance. Look for Mitchell to use his size (6-1, 180) to take advantage of play-action passes and lead Oregon in receiving throughout the year.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DB Thomas Graham Jr. -- Graham Jr. has been one of two breakout stars so far in fall camp (DL Jordan Scott being the other). Oregon had one of the worst passing defenses in the nation last year, so the play of Graham Jr. will be important to monitor. The freshman has proven that he's not afraid to play against the best, often lining up against Mitchell, Carrington or Nelson in fall camp drills. If Graham Jr. can provide stability to Oregon's back line, look for more turnovers and energy throughout the defense.

      --LT Tyrell Crosby is healthy and back to bolster the offensive line. After missing all but two games last year with a season-ending injury, Crosby has been named to the Outland Trophy watch list this year, given annually to the nation's best interior lineman.

  • Huskies face loftier expectations after CFP berth
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    The pressure is now on Washington, and it will be interesting to see how the program handles heightened expectations.

    • The Huskies operated under the radar at the beginning of last season before being one of four teams to reach the College Football Playoff. Washington lost to Alabama on the big stage, but the stellar record (12-2) exceeded all the preseason forecasts.

      Now, things are different. Junior quarterback Jake Browning will try to lead the Huskies back into the CFP after setting a Pac-12 record with 43 touchdown passes last season.

      Fourth-year Washington coach Chris Petersen is trying to minimize the prognostications, but senior inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria welcomes having the target on the team's back.

      "Just being there, understanding where we were at, just makes us a lot hungrier," Bierria said at Pac-12 media day festivities. "We got a glimpse, a taste. We didn't get that full meal. Guys like me, I want it all."

      Winning it all will take a stronger effort from Browning in the big games.

      His sophomore season was splendid, but his performance was shaky in the team's losses to USC and Alabama. He tossed two interceptions in each game.

      The Huskies averaged 41.8 points per game but scored just 13 against USC and only seven against Alabama. The Crimson Tide defense had Browning off-balance and confused most of the contest.

      "I hear all the 'big game' stuff, but first of all, what do you qualify as a big game?" Browning said. "Because, for me personally, (Washington State) was a pretty big game. Stanford was a big game. Pretty much every game is a big game.

      "So if you want to make a story out of something, it's always there. I'm not spending much time thinking about it."

      Browning lost top target John Ross, who departed early for the NFL, but he still has firepower to work with in senior receiver Dante Pettis and the backfield duo of junior Myles Gaskin and senior Lavon Coleman. Highly regarded junior left tackle Trey Adams is back to anchor a solid offensive line.

      Washington has holes in the secondary after losing three starters, but sophomore safety Taylor Rapp (four interceptions) returns. Senior linebacker Azeem Victor missed the final five games of last season due to a broken leg and is back at full strength.

      Junior nose tackle Vita Vea, who had five sacks last season, is the headliner of the defensive line.

      As for those pesky expectations, Petersen makes it clear it doesn't matter to him what outsiders think.

      "There's no higher expectations in this country for Washington football," said Petersen, "than what's in our building."

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jake Browning -- The Huskies rose to great heights last season behind Browning and would likely fall on hard times if he were to get injured. Browning's sensitivity about his offseason shoulder surgery makes it clear he knows deep inside that the program is highly dependent on his health. "If it was my left shoulder, no one would care," Browning said of the surgery. "Since it was my right, even I'm focused on it a little more, but it's just more to make sure I get back to where I need to be and be even better than it used to be."

      BREAKOUT STAR: CB Jordan Miller -- Washington needs to replace two standout cornerbacks, and this junior is being counted on to be a difference-maker. Miller is one of the fastest players in the program and has two career interceptions as a backup; he has looked at ease under his new role throughout fall camp. The Huskies led the Pac-12 with 19 interceptions last season and Miller's development could help the defense defend that title.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TE Hunter Bryant -- The true freshman is physically ready to make an immediate contribution -- at least as a pass-catcher. The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Bryant caught 56 passes for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns as a high school senior while earning all-state honors in Washington. Bryant is battling junior Drew Sample for the starting tight end job.

  • To reach bowl, Beavers must put points on board
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Oregon State has a fairly simple and perhaps obvious goal for the third season under coach Gary Andersen: continued improvement that leads to at least six victories and a bowl game.

    • After going 2-10 and 4-6 in Andersen's first two seasons, the primary method of reaching that goal must be offensive in nature.

      The Beavers have met Andersen's initial goals, to be more physical and compete, but now they need to take an even bigger step and put more points on the scoreboard.

      The Beavers averaged 26.1 points in 2016, which left them 10th in the Pac-12. They finished last in total offense, largely because their passing game was 11th in total yards and 12th in efficiency.

      The solution was to make a change at quarterback, and the starter will be junior college transfer Jake Luton.

      What the Beavers want is to be more "explosive" on offense, as Andersen put it, by combining a running game led by junior Ryan Nall with the ability to take shots downfield in the passing game.

      "We'd like to still be run-heavy, but we want to have more explosive plays, and you get those primarily from the throw game," Andersen said.

      The Beavers figure they have the targets, with returning starting receivers Jordan Villamin and Seth Collins, augmented by talented freshman Isaiah Hodgins and a solid group of backups.

      "We have some big-time playmakers at the wideouts," Andersen said.

      The 6-foot-7 Luton was impressive from his arrival for spring drills, offering a different dimension with his strong arm.

      That drove Marcus McMaryion to transfer, and left senior Darell Garretson to backup duties, and possibly being used as a change of pace with his running ability.

      "I'm sure they'll both play," Andersen said of Luton and Garretson. "Darell is a very good quarterback. ... He's got some pretty good pieces to the puzzle this year that allow him to play with his athleticism at times."

      Still, Andersen noted the offense has "really settled in" on its identity since Luton was designated as the starting quarterback only a week into fall drills.

      The Beavers should get an early indication of how successful they will be in their quest for more offense, and points. They open the season with an Aug. 26 game at Colorado State and play host to Minnesota on Sept. 9, before the Pac-12 schedule opens Sept. 16 at Washington State.

      It'll take a better passing performance, and more points, against those teams for the Beavers to earn any of those six wins.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jake Luton -- It was obvious when the Beavers brought Luton in from junior college they felt their two returning quarterbacks with starting experience weren't the answer. Luton was named the starter a week into fall practice, but it was obvious in the spring that his passing ability would be a step up from what the Beavers had the last two years. And let there be no doubt that Luton understands and accepts his importance. "I feel like this is my team," he said in a recent interview. "These are my guys and I'm ready to come out here and step out on the field and make plays and win ballgames."

      BREAKOUT STAR: TE Noah Togiai -- After four catches in less two games last season, including a touchdown at Minnesota, Togiai sustained a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of 2016. That caused a major change in Oregon State's offensive plan, with the tight end all but eliminated as a possible target. That will change this year with the 6-4, 245-pound sophomore healthy again. He's become a favorite target of new quarterback Jake Luton and the Beavers feel they have a big weapon in the athletic Togiai. Offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven termed the tight end position "a critical piece for what we want to do," which should mean significant reception numbers for Togiai, particularly on third downs or in the red zone.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Thomas Tyner -- After medically retiring because of a shoulder injury after two impressive seasons at rival Oregon, Tyner decided he wanted to return to football following two inactive seasons. Even on a crowded depth chart of running backs, the Beavers welcomed a player considered one of the greatest running backs ever produced in the state of Oregon. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Tyner is a potentially explosive addition, with speed that led to high school state championships in the sprints. But he also has shown an early ability to run inside and might make for the perfect player to trade off with Ryan Nall as the every-down back. He can also be used on kick returns, where his speed figures to show itself.

  • Colorado set to reload for another run
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Redshirt sophomore quarterback Steven Montez is by no means a wide-eyed, inexperienced rookie. So, Colorado's task of replacing its all-time leading passer, Sefo Liufau, might not be as daunting as it sounds.

    • Montez takes over at quarterback for a program that enters a season for the first time as the incumbent Pac-12 South champion. And while spirits are high in Boulder after the school's first 10-win season since 2001, a return to the conference title game is considered a long shot, especially given the departure of eight starters on defense.

      But another successful season is within reach, and that starts at the top of the depth chart with Montez, who replaces the talented and charismatic Liufau, who tallied 9,746 yards and 60 touchdowns in a Colorado uniform.

      In his first career start, Montez herded the Buffs into Autzen Stadium and walked out as the first player in the program's 126-year history to throw for more than 300 yards (333 yards, to be exact) and rush for more than 100 on the ground (135 yards) in a game. He would go on to throw for 1,078 yards and nine touchdowns, with five interceptions in 140 passes.

      Montez will have plenty of support to lean on, including arguably one of the best wide receiver corps in the country. The Buffaloes returns 13 of the 17 players who caught a pass in 2016, five of whom hauled in 400 or more yards. The trio of Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross have combined to play in 113 games and amass 4,072 receiving yards to go along with 27 touchdowns.

      Throw into the mix Phillip Lindsay, who has the lowest drop-rate of any returning tailback in the nation (1.82 percent), and the Buffs offense has the promise to be a well-seasoned group. Lindsay is one of the top runners in the Pac-12, with 2,301 career rushing yards.

      "We have so many good ones. It's day to day who's best, which is good," head coach Mike MacIntyre said.

      The defense, however, is where many question marks lie. Chief among them is how to restock a unit that landed seven players in NFL training camps this summer. The defensive overhaul is also happening on the sidelines, with the hiring of D.J. Eliot from Kentucky to head up the defense.

      Despite the mass exodus, the cupboard is not barren of talent for Eliot, who will retain the 3-4 system used last season by coordinator Jim Leavitt, who packed his bags and headed to Oregon this offseason.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: ILB Rick Gamboa -- With such turnover on the Buffs roster, including at linebacker with the departures of Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert to the NFL, the defense is in search of a leader. The obvious candidate is Gamboa, a team captain. The junior hasn't missed a game in two seasons, finishing third on the squad with 79 tackles in 2016 at the middle linebacker position. Gamboa plays bigger than his 6-0, 240-pound frame. Coaches rewarded him by giving him the team's Eddie Crowder Award for outstanding leadership after spring practice.

      BREAKOUT STAR: CB Isaiah Oliver -- The 2016 Buffs were led by an impressive group of cornerbacks in Chidobe Awuzie, Ahkello Witherspoon and Tedric Thompson, all of whom are now in the NFL. Often overlooked in the shuffle was Isaiah Oliver, who has the talent to be better than all three of his former teammates. Oliver registered 34 tackles as a freshman, 22 of them solo. Colorado will rely on Oliver with the rest of the cornerbacks still battling it out for playing time. The Arizona native will also return punts. Last year, he scurried his way to 158 return yards, with 124 of them and a touchdown coming in a 20-10 win over UCLA.

      NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: WR K.D. Nixon -- Colorado stockpiled its already impressive wide receiver talent pool when K.D. Nixon eschewed Baylor for Boulder. The four-star prospect has the tools to make an impact ... if he can eke out playing time among the Buffs' crowded wide receivers. The same goes for fellow freshman receiver E.J. Scott, who turned down offers from Mississippi State and Vanderbilt for an opportunity to play for Colorado.

  • Whittingham endures with revamped Utes
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, August 18, 2017

    Times have changed in recent years for Utah football in more ways than one.

    • Kyle Whittingham, on the hot seat only a few years ago, begins his 15th season as Utah's head coach in a much more comfortable position, having won 28 games in the past three seasons. The Utes had just 18 victories in the previous three years.

      Whittingham, 57, is not so stubborn as to stick with the run-first principles of the past. He let go of Aaron Roderick, Utah's play-caller for the past two years and an assistant for 12 years, to hire Troy Taylor as offensive coordinator. Taylor was the offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington, known for its up-tempo system with a lot of passing.

      The reason for change: Utah's anemic passing game. The Utes have finished ninth or lower in passing yards in the Pac-12 every year since joining the conference in 2011.

      "It's a situation where we were getting close -- we were really close -- to reaching our goal of trying to win a Pac-12 championship," said Whittingham, whose team has gone 9-4, 10-3 and 9-4 in the last three years without a Southern Division title.

      "We gotta improve throwing the football. That's really what Troy Taylor brings to the table: a history of prolific offenses, as well as quarterback tutoring and grooming. We just felt like that's what our needs were."

      Utah still figures to have a solid running game despite the loss of Joe Williams, who came out of a brief retirement last season to help the injury-ravaged Utes at that position. Zack Moss takes over as the lead back, somewhat by default after Armand Shyne suffered an injury during camp. Utah also has Devonta'e Henry-Cole, and the coaches moved Troy McCormick back from slot receiver to add depth.

      A big question is at quarterback. Whittingham and Taylor did not anoint returning starter Troy Williams, a senior, as the No. 1 player at that position. He is competing in fall camp with sophomore Tyler Huntley.

      Utah's usually strong defense is bolstered by experience on the line with future NFL players Lowell Lotulelei at tackle and Kylie Fitts on the end. Bradlee Anae and Filipo Mokofisi bolster one of the Pac-12's best defensive fronts, which will take the pressure off the reloading that's going on with the linebackers and secondary.

      The schedule is difficult one. Utah must play at BYU, USC, Oregon, and Washington. The Utes will probably be the underdog against the Trojans, Ducks and Huskies on the road, making it difficult to get that elusive Pac-12 South title and a chance to play for the conference title.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DT Lowell Lotulelei -- Utah's defensive front lost standouts Hunter Dimick, Pasoni Tasini and Pita Taumoepenu (all exhausted their eligibility), which puts the onus on Lotulelei to play up to his NFL capability in the interior of the line. Lotulelei went from a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2015 to honorable mention last season despite a good year with 8.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. His presence will help set the tone for a defense that has some inexperience at linebacker and the secondary. He is durable, with 30 starts in 38 games since his true freshman season, missing only one game.

      BREAKOUT STAR: LB Kavika Luafatasaga -- Highly recruited out of junior college, he showed his promise in the final two games of last season against Colorado and Indiana by registering 22 tackles and four tackles for loss with a forced fumble. He had only one tackle for loss in the previous 11 games. One of the senior leaders of the defense, Luafatasaga played in all 13 games with eight starts at stud linebacker last season.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Darren Carrington II -- The graduate transfer from Oregon has performed very well in fall camp. He was dismissed by the Ducks after being charged with a DUI in July. He played 33 games with Oregon, catching 112 passes for 1,919 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had 43 receptions for 606 yards and five touchdowns last season. "He's got the frame," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder. "He's got great ability to go up and get the contested ball. He's got exceptional hands, runs very clean routes. He's got great body control. He's a guy that fits very well into (new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor's) plans."

      --FS Chase Hansen is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. The lone returning starter of Utah's secondary, Hansen started all 13 games last season. Utah does not disclose information about injuries unless they are season-ending.

      --RB Armand Shyne was injured early in fall camp and will be "out a long time," coach Kyle Whittingham said. Shyne, whose injury is undisclosed, was battling RB Zack Moss for a starting role.

  • Rhule hits reset button on Baylor's image
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    New head coach Matt Rhule seems to be exactly what the Bears need.

    • During Rhule's introduction to Big 12 media in Dallas in July, he directly addressed the controversy that has surrounded Baylor for more than two years.

      "We're not running from the past but rather we're learning from it," Rhule said in his Big 12 Media Days press conference. "That which we don't acknowledge we're doomed to repeat."

      The sexual assault scandal that rocked Baylor led to the firing of coach Art Briles in May 2016. The school hired former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe as the interim head coach for last season.

      But Grobe and the program failed to escape the shadow of the scandal. While Briles' former assistants, including his son and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, argued with critics in the media, the Bears faltered on the field after the midway point of the season. Baylor lost its final six regular-season games.

      When Rhule was hired in early December, the program had only one commitment in its 2017 recruiting class. Rhule worked fast, signing a decent class that included 23 newcomers, 22 of whom committed after Christmas.

      Rhule's culture change within the program will be seen on the field in the form of a new pro-style offense. The former Temple coach has an interesting decision to make as to who will lead that attack.

      Sophomore Zach Smith started the last four games of the 2016 season, passing for 1,526 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But Smith will be challenged by Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon, who passed for just shy of 7,000 yards in three seasons with the Wildcats. Rhule has said he might wait until game time of the season-opener before he makes a decision about which quarterback to start.

      While it all seems like a positive new beginning for Baylor, some of those on the inside are having a hard time letting go of the past. Given the number of T-shirts and signs supporting Briles at Bears home games last season, it's clear plenty of Baylor fans could have stomached ongoing controversy if it meant the victories kept on coming.

      Briles' teams won 10 games per season from 2011 to 2015, and Robert Griffin III captured the Heisman Trophy in 2011. That's where Bears fans want to return, which could be a tough assignment for Rhule.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Taylor Young -- It doesn't seem like Baylor has the personnel to crank up its prolific offense of recent seasons, especially since the Bears will be implementing a new system under coach Matt Rhule. That places an emphasis on a defense that will still be called on to slow down high-octane Big 12 offenses. Young, who posted at least 80 tackles in each of the past three seasons, including 93 in 10 games in 2016, plays the crucial role of setting the tone for the Bears.

      BREAKOUT STAR: RB JaMycal Hasty -- As the commitment level of those around him came into question in 2016, Hasty stepped into the void and produced a solid freshman season. He rushed for 623 yards and three touchdowns. He will begin 2017 as the lead running back and one of Baylor's primary weapons in its new pro-style scheme. If Baylor's thin offensive line holds up, Hasty could easily post a 1,000-yard season.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB Anu Solomon -- The last time Solomon played a full season, he passed for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns as a freshman at Arizona in 2014. There was a time when that kind of experience would have translated to a sure thing within Baylor's scheme. But the Bears' depth at wide receiver and offensive line isn't what it once was. Even so, Solomon could emerge as a star in the Big 12 in 2017 if head coach Matt Rhule's system clicks from the beginning.

  • Red Raiders attempting to strike balance
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Life after Patrick Mahomes II begins in September for Texas Tech, and that's a scary prospect.

    • Mahomes led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 5,052 passing yards, and he tossed 41 touchdown passes in 12 games during his junior season. He declared for the NFL Draft in January and shot up the draft boards until Kansas City selected him with 10th overall pick.

      Yet having that kind of talent with the ball in his hands only resulted in a 5-7 season for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders finished out of a bowl game for the second time in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's four seasons. The pessimists in Raiderland were predicting another losing campaign and Kingsbury's exit as soon as Mahomes announced he was headed to the NFL.

      But maybe it's not that simple.

      The Red Raiders' new starting QB, senior Nick Shimonek, played important snaps in 2016, most notably helping Texas Tech stay in front of Kansas when Mahomes suffered a shoulder injury in the third quarter. And Kingsbury has proven his ability to mentor quarterbacks. Texas Tech also has a wealth of experience at wide receiver and a mix of experience and potential at running back and offensive line.

      All of that indicates that the Red Raiders likely won't slow down too much on offense.

      That leaves Texas Tech's seemingly eternal question mark: Can the defense stop anyone?

      The Red Raiders ranked 128th, also known as last, in the nation in total defense in 2016. Texas Tech gave up 554.3 yards per game and surrendered an average of 54 points in its seven losses.

      As soon as the 2016 season ended, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said he was sticking with Kingsbury as head coach, but he issued a public directive that the coach be more focused on defense.

      "I like what I saw this spring," Kingsbury said. "We played a lot of young players on defense last year, and I'm hoping those snaps pay dividends going into this year."

      Texas Tech has a chance to improve on defense, in part because there's not much place to go but up. But there are also reasons based on personnel.

      Defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who is beginning his third season in Lubbock, has a pair of linebackers who have shown the ability to get to the football. Sophomore Jordyn Brooks led Texas Tech with 61 solo and 86 total tackles as a freshman in 2016. Junior Dakota Allen was second on the defense in 2015 with 87 total tackles.

      Additionally, Texas Tech returns five defensive linemen who recorded at least one tackle for loss last season, led by junior defensive end Kolin Hill's four. Junior safety Jah'Shawn Johnson, the best among a group of six experienced defensive backs, posted 77 total tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2016.

      As nervous as Texas Tech fans might be about life after Mahomes, opponents could be even more jittery if the Red Raiders make a marked improvement on defense.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Nic Shimonek -- Shimonek passed for 464 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception in backing up Patrick Mahomes in 2016. His shining moment came against Kansas, when he was thrown into a tense moment after Mahomes suffered a third-quarter shoulder injury. Shimonek responded by completing 15 of 21 passes for 271 yards and four TDs with no interceptions. Shimonek hasn't shown the phenomenal play-making ability the Red Raiders enjoyed with Mahomes, but coach Kliff Kingsbury has praised Shimonek's work ethic and leadership ability. If Shimonek stays healthy, the Red Raiders probably won't drop off much at QB.

      BREAKOUT STAR: LB Jordyn Brooks -- The light apparently came on for Brooks during the final game of his freshman season in 2016 when he posted 18 tackles in a win over Baylor. Although he led Texas Tech in solo and total stops a year ago, he was still a freshman on a struggling defense. The Red Raiders desperately need him and the defense to progress together if they are to improve in the national defense rankings and reach the bowl season.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RG Jack Anderson -- A couple of Texas Tech's best offensive line signees of recent years -- sophomore Justin Murphy and freshman Conner Dyer -- were forced to give up football because of recurring knee injuries. That means that Anderson, a top 100-ranked prospect out of Frisco, Texas, steps into the starting lineup as a true freshman. He enrolled at the start of the spring semester and went through spring practice. Texas Tech might be due for some good fortune on the O-line, and Anderson could be the man to deliver it.

      --LB Dakota Allen was second on Texas Tech's defense in tackles in 2015, but then was kicked out of school following a burglary arrest in the spring of 2016. After being exiled to East Mississippi Community College and featured on the Netflix documentary "Last Chance U," Allen's case has been resolved and he accepted an offer to return to the Red Raiders. He'll be counted on as Texas Tech tries to improve on the defensive side.

  • Cowboys poised to make title run
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Oklahoma State is a somewhat fashionable pick to not only capture the Big 12 championship but advance to the College Football Playoff.

    • The second ambition could require the Cowboys to beat Bedlam rival Oklahoma twice, a tall order considering the Sooners are the consensus choice to repeat as Big 12 champions. The league restored its championship game, beginning this season, and will pit the top two teams to advance from the round-robin format the Big 12 has used since contracting to 10 teams in 2011.

      Offensive firepower is the primary reason to tout Oklahoma State, especially when offensive production is the primary mission for most Big 12 programs.

      "I don't see any reason to hide that on offense we should be really good," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, "and our players should expect that. They've worked hard and been demanding (of teammates) and should play very well early in the season."

      Two standouts who spurned early entry into the NFL return to form one of the nation's top pass-catch combos -- quarterback Mason Rudolph, a 4,000-yard passer, and wide receiver James Washington, the only Big 12 returnee among nine 1,000-yard receivers last year.

      Coming off a 10-3 finish, which included a mistaken ruling that gave Central Michigan a last-second victory, the Cowboys also have other experienced threats.

      Junior Jalen McCleskey is a fearless slot receiver capable of different dimensions. Sophomore Justice Hill established himself as the Cowboys' top rusher as a freshman with 1,142 yards.

      While the offense is well-stocked, including a more experienced line, the defense must be solid. Typically, the Cowboys attempt to achieve that goal by winning the turnover battle; they finished last season with a plus-11 margin.

      Senior linebacker Chad Whitener provides leadership in the middle, and the Cowboys should also be solid off the edge rushing quarterbacks. Without applying pressure, though, their inexperienced cornerbacks could be severely tested. Senior safeties Tre Flowers and Ramon Richards are returning starters.

      One of the defense's top contributors is junior Zach Sinor, a punter adept at pinning opponents deep.

      As for the schedule, that Bedlam matchup against Oklahoma falls on Nov. 4 at home.

      "We need to be effective and score points and be productive in the red zone from a touchdown standpoint, and not turn the ball over," Gundy said. "When we've had success at Oklahoma State, we've been very good in turnover margin. That's really important."

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Mason Rudolph -- Actually, this is a combo deal considering that two key players, Rudolph and WR James Washington, returned for their senior seasons in spite of the possibility they could have been first-round draft picks. Rudolph has a complete grasp of the system after taking over full-time as the Cowboys quarterback last season and passing for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. His play and leadership will key a potential CFP run.

      BREAKOUT STAR: CB A.J. Green -- The sophomore gained valuable experience last year as a true freshman when he played in nine games while learning from experienced cornerbacks. Green received praise for his aggressive nature from QB Mason Rudolph, who knows from practice situations. If Green can maintain fundamentals but also develop into a threat to intercept passes, he will fit the mentality of the OSU defense, which is predicated on creating takeaways.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Aaron Cochran -- Joined the Cowboys as a graduate transfer from Cal, where he logged 16 starts while blocking for throwing quarterbacks Jared Goff and Davis Webb. Cochran was instructed to lose 10 pounds when he reported at Oklahoma State, but he has actually dropped 30 from his 6-8 frame. His experience could prove invaluable, especially if he is situated at left tackle and providing blind-side protection for QB Mason Rudolph.

  • TCU has talent to rebound from rare losing season
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    If college football pundits and media types are looking past TCU this season, they are doing so at their own peril.

    • One losing season does not a downturn make, and Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson has the tools, and now some added motivation, to make sure his team bounces back in 2017.

      TCU finished 6-7 last season, only the third time in Patterson's 17-year tenure in Fort Worth that it did not post a winning record.

      The Horned Frogs have rebounded in the first two of those seasons to win conference titles in the ensuing campaign, but preseason media polls have them ranked fifth in the league.

      The Horned Frogs lost six of their final nine games and barely squeaked into a Liberty Bowl appearance, where they lost to Georgia.

      Four of TCU's defeats came by eight points or fewer -- including two three-point double-overtime defeats -- but the Horned Frogs also lost three games by at least 24 points and their offense failed to top 10 points three times.

      It was an uncharacteristically uneven year for TCU, but things should be different this season.

      Patterson, TCU's winningest coach with a 149-54 record, figures his team could have won nine games. He put offseason emphasis on getting stronger after his team faltered in the second half of games late in 2016.

      "At the end of the year, we got beat up in the second half against a couple of teams," Patterson said. "We've got to be more physical and mentally tough. I tell everybody that the good news is we have everybody back, and the bad news is we were 6-6 (in the regular season) and we've got everybody back. I really like the team; I like the kids."

      Any turn around has to start with quarterback Kenny Hill, who had an up-and-down season in 2016.

      While Hill's stats (17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) were pedestrian, they obscure the fact that he was hurt by countless drops and other mistakes by his receivers.

      TCU receivers dropped 38 passes, more passes than any team in the country, per Pro Football Focus.

      "We've got to catch the ball a lot better if we're going to win any ballgames," Patterson said after the spring game. "As I say, you can't just blame it on quarterback."

      No receiver caught more than 40 passes last year, with Taj Williams leading the group with 39; running back Kyle Hicks (47) had the most receptions on the team.

      Mercurial KaVontae Turpin returns from an injury and is one of the best return men in the nation, while Shaun Nixon, who missed 2016 because of an injury, will line up at both receiver and running back, where he will share the load with the mega-talented Hicks.

      Three seniors anchor TCU's offensive line, including preseason All-Big 12 selection Austin Schlottmann at center.

      After allowing 40 or more points in three of their first five games -- including 41 against South Dakota State -- TCU's defense tightened, not yielding more than 34 the rest of the season.

      The Horned Frogs held Texas Tech to 27 in an overtime loss late in October.

      One thing TCU did very well last season was get to the quarterback, averaging a Big 12-leading 3.31 sacks per game.

      Patterson built his reputation on developing stout defenses and he is counting on eight returning starters to bolster that unit. Senior linebacker Travin Howard led the team and the Big 12 in tackles last season (130) and is the most versatile player on the squad.

      As long as the front four can get bigger and tougher while still getting to the quarterback, this will be a defense that can keep TCU competitive in the Big 12.

      TCU has two easy games in September and two tough ones.

      It opens with Jackson State at home before going on the road to Arkansas. After a final non-conference game at home versus SMU, the Horned Frogs begin league play at Oklahoma State, which is one of the best teams in the nation.

      If they can get through that stretch at 3-1, it could set the table for great run through the Big 12 grind.

      It is not a stretch to think that Hill and the offense will be moderately better than in 2016 or that the defense will be improved -- probably very much so -- from last season.

      TCU can win 10 games this year, and if it plays to its capabilities, could contend for the conference championship.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kenny Hill got a lot of the blame for TCU's offensive inconsistency last season, but he had a better campaign than his stats indicate. Hill had some standout games last season in his first season as TCU's quarterback, including 449 yards and five touchdowns passing against Oklahoma, and 452 yards against SMU. He racked up 3,817 yards from scrimmage in 2016 (3,208 passing and 609 on the ground) and 27 touchdowns last year (17 passing, 10 running), but also had a league-high 13 interceptions. Hill gets one more chance to put the pieces together in his career and he has to be great for the Horned Frogs to have a chance at a big year -- there's no way around it.

      BREAKOUT STAR: Kyle Hicks amassed nearly 1,500 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns as a junior last season. Hicks led TCU in rushing and receptions, a first for a TCU running back since Basil Mitchell in 1996. His 1,042 rushing yards included a career-high 192 yards in a win at Baylor and his 47 catches were the most by a TCU running back since John Oglesby caught the same number in 1993. Hicks won the team's MVP award, the first Horned Frogs running back to be so honored since LaDainian Tomlinson's back-to-back awards in 1999 and 2000.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TCU's most notable addition is Louisiana-Monroe transfer Ben Banogu, a junior, who recorded five sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 13 starts for the Warhawks in 2015. He's taken over one of the starting defensive end positions and should be a force with which to be reckoned on the outside for TCU.

  • K-State's Snyder takes on cancer, another season
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    The beginning of a second quarter-century as Kansas State head coach has arrived for Bill Snyder, and he will commemorate by kicking a habit.

    • He no longer drinks coffee. Gave it up. Doctor's orders. It didn't mix well with the treatments and scans the coach underwent in the offseason after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.

      Also, Snyder has been told to eat. Much, much more. He is thin these days but never had an appetite for food, and he finds it particularly unappealing with a new season looming and the Wildcats picked third in the Big 12 by the league media.

      So, he's not the model patient. Given he will turn 78 in October, he probably should not be chastised too much. Especially since he could have Kansas State in contention following a 9-4 finish last year that culminated in a Texas Bowl victory.

      "We let him do his thing and he's doing all right," said junior tackle Dalton Risner. "He can still yell, he can still make us do sprints, so he's healthy. He seems like the same coach to me, man. He's been into it. I've seen zero difference in him, which is a testament to who he is."

      Casual football observers will probably see little difference in the Wildcats. They are an outlier in terms of Big 12 offensive philosophy, content to run the ball and eat clock while providing their defense some valuable rest on the sideline.

      That could be especially true this season.

      Quarterback Jesse Ertz returns after overcoming a shoulder injury at midseason last year to become a 1,000-yard rusher who engineered six wins in Kansas State's last seven games.

      Two running backs, sophomore Alex Barnes and junior Justin Silmon, will take turns battering opponents. The receiving corps, led by junior Byron Pringle, is deep and capable. And the front line is loaded with veterans.

      Of course, Snyder issued a caution regarding experience.

      "We've never approached a season any differently," he said. "It's not about who you have back or how many you have back, it's really about how you prepare yourself game by game. That's the important thing for us."

      It's important, too, for the Wildcats to build defensively.

      They lost several key playmakers, including last year's Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Jordan Willis. An underclassman, linebacker Elijah Lee, joined Willis as NFL draft picks, while veteran safety Dante Barnett exhausted his eligibility.

      Two newcomers who sparkled a year ago will assume even bigger roles. Junior D.J. Reed is considered one of the Big 12's top lockdown corners, while end Reggie Walker recorded 11.5 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks while breaking in as a freshman.

      Special teams, long a strength for the Wildcats under Snyder, should be strong again, with Reed, Pringle and Dominique Heath, who also returns as a starting receiver, splitting duties. Senior Matthew McCrane ranks fourth nationally among active kickers in field goal percentage (.900).

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jesse Ertz -- Coming off a 2015 season in which he suffered a torn ACL on the very first play and missed the rest of the season, Ertz engineered the Wildcats with a strained shoulder over the final half of 2016. His courage inspired teammates, who look at the senior as an undisputed leader. Improvement with his passing touch should be a given with a much stronger arm, though Ertz is a dangerous rusher capable of picking his spots.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Carlos Strickland -- He sat out a year ago after transferring from Cal. At 6-4, 212 pounds, Strickland provides a bigger target and is expected to add depth to the Kansas State receiving corps. Only a sophomore, Strickland transferred to Kansas State in part to be closer to his Dallas home. He was considered the 12th-best receiver nationally by Rivals in the class of 2015 after grabbing 84 receptions for 1,770 yards in high school.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: SS Elijah Walker -- The Californian joins the Wildcats as a junior college transfer and quickly ascended to the top of the depth chart to replace graduated Dante Barnett. Walker was considered one of the top JC prospects in the country after showing good range as a tackler and also exhibiting solid cover skills at 6-3, 210 pounds.

  • Jayhawks building off Big 12 win
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    It can be argued the lone Big 12 victory Kansas secured last season was mostly attributable to careless ball security by Texas.

    • The Longhorns committed six turnovers, including an overtime interception, in falling 24-21 as the Jayhawks claimed their first conference win under David Beaty before finishing 2-10 overall and 1-8 in the Big 12.

      Because the victory against Texas, the first for Kansas since 1938, snapped a 19-game losing streak in conference play, it was celebrated by fans tearing down a set of goal posts.

      Veteran players naturally responded to the outcome as a breakthrough heading into Beaty's third season as Kansas coach.

      "The Texas win was motivation, proving to ourselves that we can do it," said junior linebacker Joe Dineen. "It was a hunch on our back the whole time. 'You got to get a Big 12 win, get a Big 12 win,' and it finally happened. It was great for us and there's a buzz around KU football that I haven't seen since I've been here."

      The Jayhawks -- picked to finish last in the Big 12 in a preseason poll of league media -- not only return considerable experience, but also boost playmakers, particularly on defense.

      Dorance Armstrong, a junior defensive end, returns after recording 20 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks. Daniel Wise, a junior defensive tackle, emerged as one of the toughest interior linemen in the Big 12. Also, Mike Lee broke in as a safety and returns for his sophomore season with the reputation as one of the conference's fiercest hitters.

      However, Kansas must still improve dramatically against the rush. Each of its last six opponents rushed for 200-plus yards last season. Six individuals posted 100-yard games during that stretch.

      "On one end it was like we can make plays and control things at a high level," said defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, "but then due to a lack of focus and things we can control, we'll look like clowns. Most of the mistakes we made were not physical mistakes, but lack of attention in doing things the right way."

      Experience should help, with the Jayhawks returning playmakers on defense and eight starters on offense, which should also benefit from two Alabama transfers -- wide receiver Daylon Charlot and offensive tackle Charles Baldwin.

      Another transfer, however, could face the most scrutiny.

      Peyton Bender, who first enrolled at Washington State and then transferred to Kansas from the junior college, is battling returnee Carter Stanley for the quarterback job. They are executing a revamped spread system implemented by Doug Meacham, who left TCU to become the Jayhawks' offensive coordinator.

      If Kansas can make the high-tempo attack work, it will also need additional receivers to step up after junior Steven Sims led the team with 72 receptions for 859 yards last season.

      "Doug has done so many things to really focus on the individual skill sets of each player, to really utilize them correctly," Beaty said. "It's been really fun to watch, and it's been fun to really just kind of be around him and to just soak up the knowledge that he's brought to the room."

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DE Dorance Armstrong -- The junior was underrated as a 212-pound recruit, but he has filled out nicely while improving his speed and technique as a dangerous edge rusher. The havoc he creates for opposing passers enables the back end to take chances. Armstrong was in on 20 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, a year ago and was named the Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Daylon Charlot -- Charlot, as an Alabama transfer last season, did just about anything possible for the Kansas scout squad, returning kicks in addition to catching passes. He proved tough to cover for the first-team defense and should step into the starting lineup, especially with the Jayhawks looking at several four-wide looks in the spread attack installed by new coordinator Doug Meacham.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB Peyton Bender -- Kansas coach David Beaty may not reveal his starting quarterback until just before the Sept. 2 opener against Southeast Missouri, an FCS program. Bender is contending with Carter Stanley, who closed last season as the Jayhawks starter. If Bender shows the promise that made him a coveted recruit for Mike Leach at Washington State, he should be the QB to engineer new coordinator Doug Meacham's fast-paced attack.

      --Senior WR/PR Laquvionte Gonzalez was dismissed from the program at the start of fall camp for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Gonzalez began his college career at Texas A&M when Kansas coach David Beaty coached the Aggies receivers. Gonzalez ranked second among Kansas receivers with 62 catches for 729 yards.

  • Iowa State aims to surprise in 2017
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Iowa State won just three games in Matt Campbell's initial season as the Cyclones' coach, and not many expect much better in 2017. The team was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 by the league media in July, ahead of only Kansas.

    • But for a lower-tier team in the league, the Cyclones have a lot that's worth watching.

      Iowa State, a high-scoring team by the end of Campbell's first season, returns key pieces that bedeviled the Big 12 in 2016, with none more critical than wideout Allen Lazard. The senior looked at the NFL after last season before deciding to return. In doing so, he can rewrite the school record book and help turn the team's fortune.

      "It was really important for us to get a guy like that back," Campbell said. "Not only is he a great receiver, but he's a guy that is huge in that locker room and came to Iowa State not just to play the game of football, but came to leave a legacy."

      Lazard will have a familiar face throwing him the ball as well. Jacob Park split time with Joel Lanning a year ago, but Lanning has moved to defense and will play linebacker (perhaps still taking some snaps under center, though). Park now has the helm without having to share snaps or go through a preseason battle for the job. Tight end Chase Allen's return from a lost 2016 season gives Park another target.

      The Cyclones also have a deep backfield, though whether the offensive line can open holes is one of the critical early-season questions. Similar questions surround the defensive line. Campbell signed a trio of junior college defensive linemen to bolster the defensive front. Kamilo Tongamoa, Matt Leo and Ray Lima were all touted recruits out of high school and should see the field right away on the defensive line.

      The secondary should again be solid, but linebacker remains a position of concern. Lanning should help bolster that unit, potentially seeing significant time at middle linebacker. However, a quarterback converting to defense and immediately competing for a starting job is rarely a sign of strength at a position.

      Iowa State didn't win often in 2016, but it had no problems scoring points and were in most games until the final quarter. It wouldn't take much of an improvement for the Cyclones to be contending for a bowl berth in November.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Allen Lazard -- Lazard is the top receiver on a deep Cyclones group of wideouts, a Biletnikoff Award candidate who led the team in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns a year ago. In addition, the senior plays a key leadership role. He's aware that regardless of the numbers, his legacy will be determined by whether his class can turn the program around, so he will look to set the tone by example on and off the field.

      BREAKOUT STAR TE Chase Allen -- Allen was expected to be the highlight of the incoming class a year ago, but he sat out the 2016 season after being hit by car, catching the mumps and overcoming viral meningitis. The redshirt freshman starts 2017 atop the tight end depth chart and will get every chance to show what he can do.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Reggie Wilkerson -- Wilkerson joins the Cyclones as a graduate transfer from Georgia after playing in 20 games as a Bulldog. He's got something to prove to himself, as he failed to crack the starting lineup despite arriving in Athens as a four-star recruit. Early impressions indicate that he'll get every chance to be a first-string player at Iowa State.

      --QB Devon Moore was projected to be the backup quarterback this season, but the freshman will have to wait to make his Cyclones debut. He suffered a torn ACL in an August practice and will miss the season.

      --OL Jake Campos is back in the starting lineup after missing the 2016 season because of a broken leg. He'll be a key cog on an otherwise inexperienced line. He could face a choice this offseason. He could apply for a sixth year from the NCAA because of injuries, or he could consider the NFL with a strong 2017.

  • Mountaineers can make more magic in 2017
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    West Virginia enjoyed a magical season in 2016, winning its first six games on the way to a 10-3 record, mixing a powerful, senior-laden team with a lot of luck and hard work.

    • It's going to take a lot more of those intangibles to get the Mountaineers near those levels of success this year, but thanks to the steady hand of coach Dana Holgorsen -- who can get a bit frantic at times -- and a solid overall team built with junior college and graduate transfers, it would be foolish to discard West Virginia as a second-division Big 12 Conference squad.

      That's just what the league media did in the July, relegating the Mountaineers to sixth in the league in their preseason poll. The last thing the rest of the Big 12 needed was for West Virginia to have more motivation.

      "We have guys that have talent, but everybody that we play has guys that have talent," Holgorsen said. "The talent aspect of it is on par for what we have had the last couple of years. I'm still working through the chemistry aspect of it. That is what wins games.

      "There is a little luck that goes into it -- you have to have the ball bounce your way a little bit," he added. "You have to expect good things to happen. Make your own luck, that sort of thing. I like the team's chemistry right now, but how is the team going to go when there is adversity?"

      All the offseason talk about the Mountaineers has been about their offense, which gets a bump from Florida transfer Will Grier, a former Parade All-American who led the Gators to a 6-0 start as a freshman before getting suspended for a year for using performance-enhancing drugs.

      And West Virginia already had an established star in running back Justin Crawford, a big-play guy who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, so the Mountaineers are going to score some points.

      But West Virginia also has to find a way to stop the opposition. Its starting defensive line consists of two sophomores and a senior, Xavier Pegues, who had just one tackle last season. Four of its six top defensive backs weren't starters in 2016, and Dravon Askew-Henry is returning from an ACL tear.

      Opening the campaign against an up-and-coming Virginia Tech team at a neutral site (Landover, Md.) could set the tone for the rest of West Virginia's 2017 season. The Mountaineers could use that as a momentum-builder, but even if they don't they will have an easy road to wins in their next three games (East Carolina and Delaware State at home, before a road opener at Kansas).

      West Virginia's final three games are against teams ranked ahead of it in preseason polls (Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma) and that trio of contests should determine if the Mountaineers are a lower-tier bowl team or a player on the national stage.

      The Mountaineers probably won't win 10 games this season, but eight or nine wins should be reachable.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Justin Crawford -- He was West Virginia's only player on the Big 12's preseason all-conference team, and his production will be a huge part of the Mountaineers' success this season. Crawford had an outstanding junior year, racking up 1,184 yards and four touchdowns while averaging a sparkling 7.3 yards per carry. In 2016, he was the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year and was the league's Player of the Week three times.

      BREAKOUT STAR: DE Adam Shuler -- He made an immediate impact, recording six tackles (five solo) and forcing a fumble in his first collegiate game against Missouri. As a redshirt freshman backup last season, Shuler racked up 33 tackles (18 solo), caused a fumble and a sack. He has prototypical size (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) for a defensive end playing the 5-technique. Shuler won't be asked to make a lot of splashy plays, but he'll do a lot of the dirty work and be strong against the run.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB Will Grier -- He was already on the way to being great at Florida before he got suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs six games (all wins) into his freshman season. At the time of the suspension, Grier had thrown for 1,204 yards (65.8 completion percentage) and 10 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. "It didn't take long for us to figure out that Grier's a really good player," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He's got that starting quarterback trait. He's a coach's kid. He's a winner. He controls the huddle. He does everything right."

  • New coach, same goals for Sooners
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    Bob Stoops' late June retirement was unexpected.

    • Even Lincoln Riley, the 33-year-old prodigy tabbed to take his place, didn't know until a few days before Stoops' announcement that the longtime Oklahoma coach was even considering stepping aside without coaching another game.

      But with one of the best quarterbacks in the country returning, as well as the entire offensive line from last season's Sugar Bowl team, expectations haven't slipped a bit for the Sooners.

      "Obviously Coach Stoops stepping down was a huge shock and it caught us all off guard but at the same time, none of the other staff was leaving," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We've been around Coach Riley and been fortunate enough to be around him and the great coach that he is.

      "So it really hasn't been as up and down as you would expect. I think the expectations are even higher now."

      But while Oklahoma still expects to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff, this team has plenty of questions entering the season, especially with an unproven group of running backs and wide receivers, and a defense that's going through a transition as it moves to more of a 4-3 base.

      The Sooners' offense was one of the nation's most prolific last season, with not only Mayfield but running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Dede Westbrook.

      But the Sooners don't return a back who has rushed for more than 283 career yards and their leading returning receiver is a tight end -- Mark Andrews -- whose season a year ago was severely limited by a shoulder injury.

      Of course, last year, Westbrook was coming off a solid but not spectacular season and a big question was who would replace Sterling Shepard as the top receiver.

      "I think we're loaded at receiver honestly," backup quarterback Kyler Murray said. "All those guys can really run and they bring a lot of speed to our receiving corps. Once we get the timing down and all that type of stuff, I think they'll be dangerous."

      The addition of graduate transfer Jeff Badet from Kentucky should help.

      On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma decided to move to a four-man front to get more pressure on quarterbacks and take pressure off the secondary.

      That moves Ogbonnia Okoronkwo up from linebacker to defensive end in most sets and helps the Sooners better utilize a thin linebacker group.

      There won't be any time to ease into this season as the Sooners travel to Ohio State on Sept. 9.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Baker Mayfield -- The Sooners are actually deeper at the position than they were last year, when they only had one other scholarship quarterback -- true freshman Austin Kendall. Now, even with Kyler Murray eligible after sitting out last season, Mayfield is still the Sooners' most important. He had a record-breaking junior season and with many of his weapons gone from last year, more pressure will be put on him to make the offense go. He'll be asked to bring along an unproven group of wide receivers, but will at least have a strong offensive line to protect him.

      BREAKOUT STAR: LB Caleb Kelly -- The former five-star recruit got off to a slow start as a true freshman but by the end of the year had come on strong. In the Sugar Bowl win over Auburn, Kelly had 12 tackles to lead the Sooners. This season, he'll be used at both inside and outside positions depending on how Oklahoma is lined up. His ability to make plays in space gives him an opportunity to put up big numbers as long as the Sooners are able to keep him from wearing down.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Robert Barnes -- The easy answer here would be Jeff Badet, the graduate transfer wide receiver, but Barnes' upside is hard to ignore. He might not start at the beginning of the year but he has opened eyes with his performance in preseason camp and has a legitimate shot to move into a starting role soon. After missing his senior season with a broken leg, Barnes' recovery has gone better than expected. His athleticism at 6-foot-2 gives him the ability to make plays not many other OU safeties can make. His father, Reggie, was a standout linebacker for the Sooners.

  • Hungry 'Horns well-stocked for Herman's debut
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, August 17, 2017

    AUSTIN, Texas -- There's a certain hunger surrounding Texas as it begins its first season with Tom Herman as head coach, a desire fashioned by a series of losing campaigns and unmet expectations over the past three seasons.

    • Herman inherits a team that went 16-21 in three years under Charlie Strong, who took over for Mack Brown before the 2014 season. Texas went to just one bowl game under Strong and missed the postseason the past two years.

      People remember the Longhorns from the not-that-long-ago string of campaigns from 2001-2009 in which they produced at least 10 victories per season, two appearances in the national championship game, and a title in 2005.

      Texas hasn't had a winning season since 2013 and has posted only three since the 2009 campaign. It seems like it's been eons since the Longhorns were among college football's elite.

      Herman, who joined the Longhorns after two successful seasons at Houston, made "rebranding Texas football" one of his top priorities but understands that the change cannot be made overnight.

      "I know that these guys are going to be trained as well as anybody in the country, and we're going to play to our maximum potential," Herman said. "What that is, I don't know right now but we are learning.

      "I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had," he added. "They don't want that to be their legacy. They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around. I think we're well on our way."

      Texas, which was picked fourth in the Big 12's preseason media poll behind Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, will be tested by the tough and balanced league and by a non-conference schedule that includes a road game at USC on Sept. 16.

      The Longhorns' roster is stocked with back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes corralled under Strong and returns 37 of the 44 players on the two-deep. But there's plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball.

      Texas' offense has the firepower to keep up with its high-powered Big 12 brethren, with experience at quarterback (Shane Buechele), running back (Chris Warren III, if he can stay healthy) and receiver (Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay, Armanti Foreman and Jerrod Heard), as well as an offensive line with four returning starters, headed by All-America left tackle Connor Williams.

      The biggest improvement must come on defense, which surrendered nearly 32 points and 450 yards per game last season. That abysmal showing followed back-to-back campaigns of the worst defenses in school history (30.3 points per game in 2015 and 31.5 in 2016).

      On his way out of Austin, Strong said whoever was coaching the Longhorns in 2017 would win 10 games. That looks like a stretch, but Texas should rebound well enough to earn a bowl game and continue Herman's recent run of recruiting success.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Shane Buechele -- He is coming off an impressive freshman season in which he racked up almost 3,000 passing yards and had 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions while starting all 12 games for the Longhorns. Despite those numbers, Herman did not anoint Buechele as Texas' starter; true freshman Sam Ehlinger has been given every opportunity to take the job and has pressed Buechele through preseason practices. Herman wants his quarterbacks to be among the team's vocal leaders and that's not one of Buechele's strengths, although he has worked on that in the offseason. He has good, not great, arm strength, but is not afraid to take a deep shot if given the time to do so.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Collin Johnson -- He is a NFL star-in-the-making, possessing the size (6-foot-6, 212 pounds) and athleticism (a Goggle search of Johnson will net YouTube videos of him catching passes while doing back flips) that the pros crave. Johnson hauled in 28 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns last season as a freshman and was the star of Texas' spring game, snagging eight throws for 117 yards and two scores. Johnson looks the part but he's got to play tougher and he knows it. The good thing is that he's not shying away from the part.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LB Gary Johnson -- He was the No. 1-rated junior college linebacker in the nation last season while at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College and comes to Austin with a reputation as a sideline-to-sideline defender who can pack a wallop at his 220 pounds. "Johnson's a hammerhead," coach Tom Herman said. "He loves to hit, and you feel it when he hits you. He can fill the A and B gaps and make a ton of plays at the line of scrimmage." Tales of Johnson's speed are somewhat legendary; he won the 100-meter dash as a senior in Alabama with a time of 10.59 seconds at over 200 pounds without the aid of a starting block.

  • Fighting Irish hit reset button for 2017
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, August 16, 2017

    Notre Dame is not used to bouncing back from sub-.500 seasons.

    • In the 111-year history of the program, the Fighting Irish have finished with a losing record 12 times. The latest setback happened last season as coach Brian Kelly's team went 4-8 despite a talent-laden roster.

      This time around, Kelly knows he can't afford another national embarrassment. That is why he hired new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, as well as a new strength and conditioning coach.

      "I can tell you we're in a different place than we were," Kelly told the Indianapolis Star.

      Will different be better? Early signs point to yes, although it would be tough to be much worse than 2016.

      The Fighting Irish will turn to a run-pass option-spread offense under first-year coordinator Chip Long, who held the same role with the Memphis Tigers. The 34-year-old's creativity with drawing up formations and establishing game plans drew praise from Kelly, who was bothered by last season's inconsistency.

      On offense, Long has plenty of weapons to find the end zone.

      Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will take over the starter role from DeShone Kizer, who left early for the NFL Draft and was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round. Wimbush is a dual threat with a strong arm and terrific speed that could catch the attention of NFL scouts.

      Junior running back Josh Adams provides a powerful running style behind a strong offensive line that is led by left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson, both of whom figure to play on Sundays. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown figures to be Wimbush's preferred target.

      On the opposite side of the ball, Mike Elko will serve as defensive coordinator after holding the same role with Wake Forest for the past three seasons. Elko guided a Demon Deacon unit last season that finished in the top 20 in turnovers forced, sacks and scoring defense.

      Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan is the unquestioned leader of the defense, which managed only 14 sacks in 2016. Morgan provided a rare bright spot on the unit with a team-leading 94 tackles.

      Senior Drue Tranquill could take a step forward in a newly created "Rover" position in Elko's scheme. Meanwhile, sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes is among several Fighting Irish players who will be given a chance to make a bigger difference on the front line in 2017.

      As usual, Notre Dame's schedule includes several high-profile challenges. The Fighting Irish will square off against Georgia on Sept. 9, host USC on Oct. 21, and play at Miami and Stanford in November.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Brandon Wimbush -- No player on the Fighting Irish carries more intrigue or opportunity than the newly minted signal-caller. Wimbush, a highly touted junior, spent the past couple of seasons behind DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire on the depth chart. He has completed 3 of 5 passes for 17 yards and rushed seven times for 96 yards during his brief career. Wimbush is a versatile threat who is a nice fit for new coordinator Chip Long's run-pass option plays.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Equanimeous St. Brown -- He has a terrific opportunity to produce as the No. 1 wideout in Notre Dame's revamped offense. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is known as an innovator despite being only 34 years old, and he could find ways to open up St. Brown in the passing game. Many experts considered the 6-foot-5, 203-pound receiver as a top-100 recruit when he committed to the Fighting Irish as a high school standout in Anaheim, Calif.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TE Cole Kmet -- He has impressed observers during training camp and could have an opportunity to make an impact as a freshman. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder was heavily recruited out of St. Viator High School in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Another Fighting Irish freshman, Brock Wright of Cypress, Texas, also has a chance to carve out playing time at tight end.

      --TE Alize Mack, formerly known as Alize Jones, battled a nagging hamstring injury during training camp but is expected to be ready for the season opener Sept. 2 against Temple. Mack did not play last season because of academic ineligibility.

      --CB Shaun Crawford is likely to seize a starting position after he was cleared to return from a ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered last season. Crawford, a junior, had an interception and returned a blocked point-after attempt for two points in the season opener in 2016 before he went down with the injury in Week 2.

  • Northwestern aims for run in Big Ten West
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, August 16, 2017

    The pieces are in place for Northwestern to have a successful season.

    • But the degree of potential achievement seems to realistically range from another six-win regular season to as many as 10 victories and a battle for the Big Ten West title.

      One thing is certain, Northwestern figures to have an explosive offensive keyed by a veteran running back and quarterback from a unit that ranked fifth last year in the Big Ten.

      They'll be aided by experienced lines -- all juniors and seniors -- on both sides of the ball.

      But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a major hole at middle linebacker with the departure of All-American Anthony Walker, who had 105 tackles last year -- including 62 solos -- and anchored the run defense.

      "I don't think you can ever replace a player like that," Fitzgerald said.

      But he'll try.

      "That's the neat thing about college football," he said. "Every year, 20, 25 percent of your team graduates, and now you've got to replace it from a standpoint of freshmen coming in, but then new opportunity for guys that have been in the program."

      Fitzgerald is 77-62 entering his 12th season, including seven bowl games. Last year, Northwestern beat Pitt 31-24 in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish 7-6.

      "Going to 2017 (we'll) try to win a bowl game in back-to-back years, first time in program history," he said. "We've got a lot of excitement when it comes to that."

      Northwestern expects to have a powerhouse attack with the return of running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry last season. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was 280 of 478 for 3,128 yards and 22 touchdowns for a passing attack ranked fourth in the Big Ten.

      No. 1 receiver Austin Carr, who topped the Big Ten in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,247) and receiving touchdowns, has moved on to the NFL.

      So Flynn Nagel (40 receptions, 447 yards), Garrett Dickerson (34 catches for 318 yards and five TDs) and Jalen Brown, a graduate transfer from Oregon, are among likely targets. The speedy Brown had 19 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns last year as a Ducks sophomore.

      Freshman Riley Lees, ranked the No. 18 high school player in Illinois last year, could also make a quick impact, not just at wide receiver but at other positions.

      Safeties Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee all return in the secondary.

      Punter Hunter Niswander is back after averaging 41.3 yards per punt last season. But there will likely be new faces handling other kicking chores.

      Northwestern went 10-3 in 2015, and the most optimistic scenarios put that kind of season -- including contention for a Big Ten championship game berth -- within reach. The schedule does not include Ohio State or Michigan, but the Wildcats play at Wisconsin, Maryland and Nebraska and host reigning Big Ten champion Penn State.

      Non-conference games with Nevada, Duke and Bowling Green to open the season could help the Wildcats to a 3-0 start heading into a conference opener on Sept. 30 at Wisconsin.

      MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Justin Jackson -- A dependable workhorse for the past three seasons, Jackson already has 4,129 rushing yards in his Northwestern career. Another season like last year -- 1,524 yards -- would easily make him the school's all-time rushing leader. His 312 carries were among the top three in college football last season. He was named pre-season All-Big Ten.

      BREAKOUT STAR: WR Flynn Nagel -- He has a chance to step out of the shadows of departed WR Austin Carr and emerge as a go-to target for quarterback Clayton Thorson. Last season, he had 40 receptions for 447 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 11.2 yards per catch.

      NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Riley Lees -- Lees, a freshman who was ranked the No. 18 recruit in Illinois, could also have a quick breakout, not just at wide receiver but at other positions. A three-star recruit, Lees was seen as a dual-threat quarterback at Libertyville (Ill.) High School and led his team to a state championship appearance.