Travis Haney: Insider NCF

Two of the bigger openings in this cycle, Nebraska and Wisconsin, came about in large part because of increasing strife between head coaches and their bosses.

You might have heard Bo Pelini spout about that to his former players on the way out the door in Lincoln. And Gary Andersen wasn’t outwardly as vocal about his issues with the school’s administrators, but the fact that he left Wisconsin for Oregon State was telling about the division in Madison.

Contention is always going to exist on some level between coaches who want more resources and administrators fighting to maintain budgets. But things recently came to a boil more than we’re used to seeing.

Three additional Power 5 programs -- Georgia, Oklahoma State and Utah -- were on the brink of changes similar to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Each, it appears, has found a way to mend fences for the time being.

So what happened -- and what happens next -- for Mark Richt, Mike Gundy and Kyle Whittingham at their respective schools?

In the spring, when quarterback Matt Joeckel decided to transfer from Texas A&M to TCU, the Frogs' coaching staff exhaled.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards in a win over Rutgers.
Finally. Gary Patterson and his assistants could move Trevone Boykin to his natural position, receiver, and let Joeckel, who was familiar with a fast-paced offense as an Aggie, handle the transition to the hurry-up, tempo offense.

A funny thing happened during those summer months: Boykin took to TCU's new offensive assistants, playcaller Doug Meacham and quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Boykin never relinquished the position. He never made it over to receiver.

Now look where we are.

TCU, a program founded on stingy defense, scored 82 points Saturday against Texas Tech. Eighty-two. TCU very much remains a playoff contender, even after its late collapse at Baylor.

And Boykin, after a school-record seven touchdown throws in three quarters, is now in the heart of the Heisman conversation.

“I told people before the year this would happen, that he was going to have this type of year,” Frogs running back Aaron Green told “Seeing how comfortable he was in the offense, I was like, ‘You’ll see. You’ll see.’”

Boykin now has 24 total touchdowns and just four turnovers and is averaging a healthy 8.1 yards per pass attempt.

Scoring 50.4 points per game, TCU is the only FBS school averaging more than half a hundred. Now’s a great time to remind you the Frogs scored 25.1 points per game a year ago. They went 4-8.

It’s been an incredible turnaround and a recreation of the program’s identity. Credit Patterson for the willingness and adaptability to do it. Credit the hires of Meacham and Cumbie, who should be co-favorites for the Broyles Award for the country’s top assistant coach.

And of course, credit Boykin for growing into the position.

I’ll have Boykin third on my Heisman Watch poll this week. Here’s how the rest of the top five looks as we enter the stretch run for the award:

First, a wild card who is currently an asterisk on my ballot:

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

How bad can it get for Alabama? 

October, 12, 2014
Nick Saban, Lake KiffinScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe once-mighty Alabama offense has taken a step backward during the 2014 campaign.
Alabama isn’t a top-10 team. It isn’t a playoff contender. Let’s face it: Alabama just isn’t Alabama in 2014.

We pondered this through the first month of the season. We suspected it after Alabama's 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. Now we know it after a sluggish showing at Arkansas in which the Crimson Tide eked out a 14-13 victory Saturday.

The defense has holes in the secondary and is lacking a dominant pass-rusher. The offense has been turnover-prone and has lost its ability to go vertical. Things have been so bad on special teams that coordinator Bobby Williams might soon be a candidate for reassignment.

With each elapsing week, we learn -- and really wrap our minds around the fact -- that the SEC race goes through Mississippi. Not Alabama.

Anticipation of the Egg Bowl (Mississippi vs. Mississippi State) has passed, and is lapping, the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn).

That’s where the Week 7 Takeaways begin. Later: the wait for the rankings that matter, Todd Gurley's admirable understudy, our weekly look at breakout players and thoughts on Michigan and Florida.

Next week now

So how did this happen? How did Alabama slip?

It starts with the offense.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Mullen, Freeze lead list of rising coaches 

October, 8, 2014
Dan MullenAP Photo/Jim LytleMississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has had an upswing in momentum.
College football is a love-me, love-me-not world. We know that. It’s emotional, and those emotions cause opinions to shift, and shift quickly, based mostly on wins and losses.

The lesson: If you’re winning, cash in while you can.

A year ago, Dan Mullen was the captain of yet another buoyant-but-not-beautiful ship at Mississippi State -- yet another .500-ish team. I didn’t have him on any sort of hot-seat watch, but some peers did. There was little momentum in Starkville.

And now? Mullen’s team is a 5-0 darling, having smashed LSU on the road and Texas A&M at home. His name has and will come up for probable openings at Florida and Michigan.

A guy who has worked to distance himself from being “Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator” is legitimately doing that. He’s built a team, but fellow coaches are taking note of something more than personnel. There’s a new mojo.

The Mississippi State of old would have had a late collapse at LSU, succumbing to Les Miles’ voodoo ways. It was a hurdle cleared, a new day.

“Look out,” another SEC coach said following the Bulldogs’ win in Baton Rouge, “Dan Mullen gets the bounces now and Les Miles doesn’t. How about that?”

Besides bounces, it helps -- a bunch -- to have the SEC’s best quarterback, Dak Prescott, a nice balance of speed and size around him and pro-quality linemen on both sides of the ball.

It’s a team equipped with the players to win the country’s most difficult division. If it does that, or even gets close, coaches agree that Mullen, 42, should get the heck out of there.

Winning in Starkville is possible, but in spurts and with short windows. Sustainability is an incredible challenge even where the resources are greatest. It’s a better job than it has ever been, coaches say, but let’s not mistake Mississippi State for Florida.

Here are other Power 5 head coaches who have upped their stock in the first six weeks

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Pac-12 unlikely to have a playoff team 

October, 5, 2014
Ty MontgomeryJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesStanford couldn't really get its ground game rolling on Saturday, and lost 17-14 to Notre Dame.
It’s Oct. 5, and there’s one remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12: the Arizona Wildcats.

Cal, which didn’t beat a single Power 5 team a year ago, is leading the Pac-12 North, despite giving up more than 100 combined points in its past two wins.

These are strange, unpredictable times in college football, and there’s no place wilder than the West. It hasn’t been merely odd; it’s been damaging. No conference was hurt more by a historically volatile college football weekend: Oregon went down. UCLA went down. Stanford went down again.

The result: The Pac-12 isn’t going to have a representative in the College Football Playoff. It wasn’t the league we projected to be shut out, but that’s where we’re heading.

That’s where the Week 6 takeaways begin. Also included: Mississippi State is the most complete team in America; the day’s biggest coaching winners; why North Carolina is suddenly broken; TCU and its vastly improved QB come through; and Ohio State’s quiet move.

Next Week now

Taking stock of the Pac-12

There’s undoubtedly an impressive level of depth in the Pac-12, but that depth is devouring a shrinking group of contenders that appear more flawed and less viable by the week. After seeing Arizona need a late stop to win at UTSA and a Hail Mary to beat Cal, there isn’t great momentum for the Wildcats to continue their undefeated run. They’re young and fun to watch, but not yet a contender.

Next week’s game between Oregon and UCLA, a prime choice for “College GameDay” before both teams lost in Week 6, has been taken down from the marquee. It’s now a playoff eliminator, though both teams have flaws -- most notably their offensive lines -- that will lead to additional losses.

In surviving Washington State and losing to Arizona, Oregon looked closer to an 8-4 team than a title threat.

“They’ve got problems,” a Power 5 head coach said Friday.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Who should replace Brady Hoke? 

October, 3, 2014
Much-needed change is on the way for Michigan football.

AD Dave Brandon and coach Brady Hoke have provided only more on- and off-field reasons for their ousters in the time since I wrote that they should be gone, 13 days ago. It’s a broken program in need of new leadership and direction.

Still, some questions remain:

Will things devolve to the point of in-season firings? (We might reach that point Saturday at Rutgers, whether that’s been fully realized.)

Can Michigan pull off simultaneous searches for a new AD and a new coach?

And where will it ultimately turn?

From talking with coaches and those intimately familiar with the program, my sense is that Michigan really wants to wait until December to move on from Hoke, though Brandon could be gone before then.

And when the time comes, LSU coach Les Miles -- not Jim Harbaugh, or anyone else -- should be the first and only call. For one, Miles is established enough that he wouldn’t feel unsettled if an AD were named after his hiring. He wouldn’t feel pressure from that office the way others might.

Miles is being dismissed in some circles because of his age. But he’s 61, not 71. And he’s a young 61, at that.

If a "brand" such as Michigan got 10 or so years from Miles, wouldn't that be more than sufficient given the recent run of turnover and turmoil? The "30-year college coach" isn't a thing anymore, right? We can agree on that. Take what you can get, and a decade is gold.

After the rumblings in 2007 and then again in 2011, this could finally be the right time for Miles to return to Michigan, where he got his start as a GA in 1980. Someone close to Miles told me last fall that he could see him heading back to UM, for his "last job." Coaches are buying it, too.

"I would think Les would try to get Michigan this time," a Power 5 head coach suggested this week by text.

That's where we begin the Saturday Storylines, with a hearty dose of CoachSpeak. If Miles were to leave, where would LSU look? And would Harbaugh consider a college program other than Michigan? Some of his friends think so.

Later, we'll hit the breakout players to watch this weekend. Plus my off-the-radar upset pick that would dramatically shift the playoff picture.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

TCU will stun the Big 12, and soon 

October, 1, 2014
Trevone BoykinAP Photo/LM OteroTrevone Boykin has exceeded expectations under center for the TCU Frogs.
Mark it down. One of the next two weekends, TCU is going to wreck the marquee November game that everyone believes will decide the Big 12.

The Frogs are going to beat either Oklahoma this weekend or Baylor next weekend, giving one of those conference favorites an early-season L. (Personally, I believe it’ll be Baylor.)

Here’s why.

They’ve been close

The Frogs lost eight games in 2013 by an average of 8.5 points per loss, including four in conference by two or three points in each game. Think about that. A field goal, #collegekickers and all, decided half their losses.

Two of those games were, you guessed it, Baylor and Oklahoma.

And here’s the takeaway: If you’re continually in games, you’re bound to win games.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

The Aggies are not a playoff-caliber team 

September, 28, 2014
 Jonathan WilliamsAP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Aggies had a lot of trouble with Jonathan Williams and the Razorbacks' offense Saturday.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- I learned something Saturday during my first trip to Jerry World: The Arkansas Razorbacks are better than we thought, and the Texas A&M Aggies are overrated. Those were my suspicions entering Saturday’s SEC showdown, and they were confirmed after the Aggies had to rally for a 35-28 overtime win.

The Aggies were prematurely included in most pundits’ four-team playoff field before Saturday, but they’ll be part of very few bracket projections after their comeback win over the Razorbacks.

Listen, that’s no knock on the vastly improved Hogs; there’s no weak link in the SEC West any longer. The run game is consistent, and a few coverage lapses aside, the defense is much quicker to the ball. They’re a handful.

“That’s a good team,” one of the Aggies’ coaches told me afterward. “Better than we thought they would be, and we thought they were pretty good.”

And really, it’s no slight of A&M; it’s talented and evidently stubborn in the face of adversity, a better collective group than I anticipated it would be post-Johnny Manziel, and with a work-in-progress defense.

But one of the four best teams in America? No way. Get real.

The secondary and skill players are too inconsistent, and I’m not nearly as sold on the quarterback as the staff. Three or four more wins? Sure. I don’t see a contender, though. The 5-0 Aggies are content to prove me wrong, and they’ll have chances the next three weeks at Mississippi State, against Ole Miss and at Alabama.

“You haven’t been big on us all year, so let’s keep it that way,” OC Jake Spavital texted me Saturday night, after I floated this central thesis that I called “realistic.”

That’s where Week 5 Takeaways begin. Also included: I took it too easy on Brady Hoke when I wrote last week that he should be fired by December; it’s a subtly big week ahead in the Big 12; and coaches wonder if a "sleeping giant" job in the ACC will soon be available.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Time is running out for Miami's Al Golden 

September, 24, 2014

While the hot-seat watch is largely focused on Brady Hoke at Michigan and Will Muschamp at Florida, there's another endangered coach at a high-profile program who has surprisingly managed to remain under the radar.

Like Hoke and Muschamp, Miami Hurricanes coach Al Golden has had only three full seasons to prove he can turn around a team. Which just goes to show how short the evaluation period has become, doesn't it? The window of success opens, or begins to open -- and then it slams shut on your pinkie finger.

Take Golden. If he wins a few more games a little bit sooner in Coral Gables, he would have been a prime candidate for Texas when it was done with Mack Brown.

And now? Well, Golden's .500 team is favored at home this week against Duke, and that's somehow newsworthy. Win or lose, the Hurricanes, in Golden's fourth season, are in a glut of mediocrity that defines the ACC's Coastal Division.

They could win, they could lose -- this week and every week. But so could the other six teams in the division. Miami is no better or worse than anyone else, and that’s damning because Miami has the wealth of the state’s recruiting base. Remember, that’s why it was such a coup that the ACC got "the U" from the now-defunct Big East in the first place.

So where is that Miami payoff? Tick, tick, tick. Tick. And if Golden doesn’t produce, and soon-ish, it'll be someone else's opportunity (or burden).

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Big changes coming for the Wolverines 

September, 21, 2014
Devin FunchessGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Funchess and the Wolverines were roughed up by the visiting Utes on Saturday.
Quarterback Devin Gardner will be the first change for the Michigan Wolverines.

Coach Brady Hoke will be the second, and probably by December.

Athletic director Dave Brandon will be the next, and probably shortly after Hoke.

It’s time to start over at Michigan. There’s no “fixing it” in the middle of the season. Losing at home -- and being dominated at home -- by Utah signals the denouement, as I wrote earlier in the week. The end is near.

“Utah’s a good team -- tough, physical, well-coached,” a Pac-12 coach said Saturday afternoon, “but Michigan can’t lose at home to Utah. You’re Michigan.”

The offense again didn’t score a point, again didn’t reach the red zone against a Power 5 opponent. (It didn’t against Notre Dame, either.)

There’s a deep culture of blah at Michigan, and it has prevailed since last November. It starts with a faulty offensive line, which undermines even a seemingly talented runner like Derrick Green and forces its quarterback into poor decisions. That’s why backup Shane Morris, whenever his number is called, will offer no more solutions than Gardner. It’s still September, yes, but Michigan’s season is doomed.

With Green (the No. 38 overall prospect in 2013) as an example, it’s not as if the Wolverines are bereft of talent. They had RecruitingNation’s No. 6 class in 2013, and No. 5 class in 2012. Shouldn’t those players be hitting their stride about now? If not, why not?

The situation reminds me of Auburn when it was clear that Gene Chizik needed to go (apart from the fact that Michigan has no title year to hang its hat on). Highly ranked recruiting classes yielded little to no results. When the program started to lose the fan base and future recruits, that’s when it made the move.

Hoke is a seemingly good guy, but Michigan will soon do the same. It has no choice, because it will only get worse. Even the next three games -- Minnesota, Rutgers and Penn State -- suddenly look rife with peril.

That’s where the Week 4 takeaways begin. Later: Why Jeff Long, Condi Rice, et al, should send a gift basket to Clemson, South Carolina; Texas A&M will now resume its regularly scheduled schedule; Florida (and LSU and Clemson) needs to give its freshman QB a shot; Oklahoma’s best back emerged in Morgantown.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Forget Jameis -- Clemson still has to score 

September, 19, 2014
Deshaun WatsonJoshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsCan freshman QB Deshaun Watson lead the Tigers' run game on Saturday?
When it comes to actual football, the suspension of Florida State QB Jameis Winston isn’t the most important storyline in Saturday’s Clemson-FSU game. And it really isn’t close.

The Heisman-winning quarterback's absence is irrelevant if Clemson can't run on the FSU front seven. That is the Tigers’ biggest concern -- not who is under center for the Seminoles.

“It’s a mismatch,” one ACC coach texted this week. “Big one.”

In addition to new quarterbacks and receivers, Clemson does not feel great about its tackles or guards. That goes all the way back to a conversation I had with coach Dabo Swinney in January at the Senior Bowl.

“I’m more concerned with who’s going to play tackle,” he said when asked about the Tigers' then-three-way QB battle.

And the offensive line remains the biggest concern. In two games, the Tigers have averaged a very modest 3.8 yards per carry. They’re using a lot of backs, but none has shown breakout ability -- particularly behind that patchwork line, and perhaps because of it.

That’s why freshman QB Deshaun Watson, clearly a more athletic option than Cole Stoudt, has to play a big role Saturday in the zone-read game. Watson can keep the FSU defense honest.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

How Kansas State can upset Auburn 

September, 18, 2014
Nick Marshall, Jake WatersGetty ImagesNick Marshall and Jake Waters lead highly potent offensive attacks in Thursday night's matchup.
The Auburn Tigers will be the most talented team on the field Thursday night in Manhattan, Kansas. There aren’t many people debating that -- not lucid ones, anyway.

The Kansas State Wildcats can beat Auburn, though. And here’s how coaches think it will play out

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Key swing games for Big Ten coaches 

September, 17, 2014
Brady Hoke Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPressure on Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is mounting in Ann Arbor.
It hasn’t exactly been a sterling September for the Big Ten. You know this.

And we still have two Saturdays this month left for it to get worse. Jobs are on the line.

The term “must-win game” can blur to cliché, but here are five examples where it’s reality for the Big Ten’s hot-seat coaches. Drop one of these, and there’s a strong possibility you’ll be claiming a buyout check by October and there will be a search for your replacement the final two months of the season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines
Swing game: Utah (Saturday)

Michigan has already been shut out for the first time since President Ronald Reagan was in office. A loss to Utah, which would drop the Wolverines to 2-2, would be crippling for a team that lost six of its final eight games in 2013.

Those haunting memories would start to creep in.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

College Football Playoff's new problem 

September, 14, 2014
Trevor KnightJ.P. Wilson/Icon SportswireTrevor Knight and the Sooners have run their record to 3-0, with a combined score of 134-33.
What do you know, a supposedly weak week in college football turned out to be meaningful. You’d think the public, and some media members, would learn not to judge the week by its schedule.

Losses by the Georgia Bulldogs, USC Trojans and Virginia Tech Hokies -- who had pulled off some of the biggest wins of the young season -- provided illustration that the upcoming 2 1/2 months are going to be wild. But what if it becomes so wacky that 2014 is counterproductive in the broader sense?

Picture this: What if the College Football Playoff's Nos. 1 and 2 seeds are mind-blowingly obvious, light-years ahead of everyone else, and Seeds 3 and 4 are so muddled that there’s great, great consternation over the committee’s final choices (as in, there are five or six teams with legit resumes for the final two spots)?

That means the new system in effect muddied the old one’s ability to decide the best teams playing for a national title. Why do you need three games if one would better determine the proper champ?

“Hadn’t thought of that,” one SEC coach told me late Saturday via text. “Wouldn’t be much point [of playing the semifinals], would there?”

The most dominant teams through three weeks have been, I’d say, Oklahoma and Oregon. Let’s just say they blow through their remaining games and look fantastic doing so. If that’s the matchup everyone’s dying to see, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds could only foul it up. Or, what if those semifinal games are ungodly bad, because the 3- and 4-seeds have no business being on the field with the top two? That wouldn’t be good, either.

Just to be clear: I hope it doesn’t play out like this. I’m like a lot of other people, especially the playoff folks in Dallas. I want to see three great games at the end, and forward progress for the sport. But it’s worth considering that newfound headaches could lead everyone to regret the system change. Or maybe the angst would just move us closer to an eight-team bracket.

That’s where the Week 3 takeaways begin. They continue with my week in Lubbock, Will Muschamp taking the hot seat “honors” back from Brady Hoke, and Saturday’s breakout performances.

Razorbacks' running backs running wild

• The SEC East is a jumbled mess, as expected. Meanwhile, the SEC West’s seven teams have lost one game in total, and it was to another team in the division. Each week cements it as the best division in the sport.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Tori EichbergerArkansas' Alex Collins racked up 212 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Texas Tech.
I watched as Arkansas, the West’s “worst” team -- the one with that sole loss -- go for 438 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground Saturday at Texas Tech. Arkansas had 14 rushing scores in all of 2013. With improving depth like that, who in the world would blame Texas A&M for going light in the nonconference schedule?

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

How Tennessee can hang with Oklahoma 

September, 12, 2014
Trevor KnightKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Vols would be wise to blitz QB Trevor Knight and force OU to rely heavily on the passing game.
Tennessee has held steady at most Vegas books as a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at Oklahoma. It would clearly be a significant, ahead-of-schedule upset if the Volunteers were to win in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)

But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.

For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Knight under center

Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.

If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:

Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.

We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider