Our Own 2016 Awards Show

College football’s various individual awards will be handed out this week to the outstanding players and coaches of the 2016 season. The biggie, obviously, is the the stiff-armed statuette bestowed Saturday night.

But we’re going to beat everyone to the Heisman Trophy ceremony – as well as the Home Depot Awards show Thursday night – by naming our top players and coaches of our own:

Top defensive player: Jonathan Allen, Alabama – The most dominant player on the most dominant defense of the year should get this honor. There’s not a whole lot to debate about this. Besides anchoring a nasty defensive line, Allen even took two fumbles back for touchdowns.

Top defensive back: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan – While teammate Jabrill Peppers gets much more publicity and even an invitation to New York as a Heisman finalist, it’s Lewis who plays a shut-down corner for the Wolverines’ suffocating defense.

Top linebacker: Reuben Foster, Alabama – The senior linebacker is the workhorse of the Alabama defense, leading the top-ranked Tide with 94 tackles, including 12 for a loss and four sacks.

Top punter: Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah – His predecessor Tom Hackett was a legend, but Wishnowsky picked up right where the two-time Ray Guy award winner left off by leading the nation in net punting (44.9 yards) and knocking 34 punts inside the 20.

Top kicker: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State – The Sun Devils senior is NCAA’s all-time leading scorer among kickers and he capped off his final collegiate season by hitting 23 of 25 field goals, including a career-best 59-yarder.

Top lineman: Cam Robinson, Alabama – With a young offense piloted by a true freshman quarterback, Robinson led the line that allowed Jalen Hurts to navigate out of trouble as the Tide rolled to a 13-0 regular season and a third straight playoff.

Top tight end: Jake Butt, Michigan – After deciding to return for his senior season, Butt proved to be the Wolverines’ most reliable pass-catcher, becoming the school’s all-time leading receiving tight end with a 43-catch, 518-yard season and four touchdowns.

Top receiver: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma – He is one of the difference-makers in the potent Oklahoma offense that rolled to a perfect 9-0 record in the Big 12. Westbrook caught 74 passes for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Top running back: D’Onta Foreman, Texas – San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey is set to become the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, but Foreman had a better year against better competition despite Texas’ disappointing 5-7 season.

Top quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma – The bad news for OU’s Big 12 foes is that Mayfield intends to return for his senior season, instead of opting for the NFL Draft. In his second season with the Sooners, Mayfield completed over 71 percent of his passes and racked up 3,669 yards with 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

Most versatile player: Adoree Jackson, USC – Again, Michigan’s Peppers was more touted for his all-purpose prowess, but Jackson actually made the bigger plays in the biggest games for the Trojans. Besides primarily being USC’s top cornerback, Jackson also returned kicks and punts and caught passes on offense. His signature moment came when he scored a TD each on a punt return, kickoff return and a pass reception against Notre Dame.

Assistant coach of the year: Don Brown, Michigan – In his first season in Ann Arbor after coming over from Boston College, Brown upgraded the Wolverines’ already stout defense into something even more ferocious. Statistically only Alabama’s defense is better than Michigan’s, but the Wolverines played better competition, going 3-1 against teams in the AP top 10.

Coach of the year: Mike MacIntyre, Colorado – Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South once again, the Buffaloes instead won it, marking a spectacular turnaround from their first five years in the conference. In his fourth year in Boulder, MacIntyre has finally restored a once-proud program that had been in the dumps ever since the early 2000s.

Most inspirational player: James Conner, Pittsburgh – When you beat cancer, you’re already plenty inspirational. But on top of that, Conner came back to rush for over 1,000 yards (1,060, to be exact) and score 20 touchdowns. The Panthers were the only team to defeat two Power 5 conference champions (Clemson and Penn State) and Conner had his best games in these upsets, rushing for over 100 yards in each.

Player of the year: Lamar Jackson, Louisville – Though the Cardinals sputtered late in the year, there’s no denying the spectacular season that Jackson had on his way to collect the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. The sophomore quarterback amassed nearly 5,000 yards of total offense with 51 touchdowns. Jackson will become Louisville’s first Heisman winner, something even Johnny Unitas was not able to claim.

10 Burning Questions for 2016 Season

After a two-year absence at the top, Alabama stormed back to reclaim the college football throne by defeating Clemson in a scintillating national championship game. Nick Saban went on to corral the top-ranked recruiting class a month later, so it looks like the crimson dynasty will continue, right?

Actually, maybe not. Now in the third year of the playoff era, the college football landscape looks more competitive than ever. The Big Ten is unquestionably on the rise again; the elite teams in the ACC are as good as those in the SEC; and the nouveau riches of the Big 12 have successfully broken up the Oklahoma-Texas monopoly.

Will we see a third different champion in as many years? Might there be a legitimate party crasher from out of the Power 5 conferences? We have questions – and answers – from on the off the field for the 2016 season:

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  1. Has Alabama lost too much to repeat?

 Sure, Saban is just going to reload, no matter how much he’s lost in the offseason. But it might not be that simple. The Crimson Tide will debut a fourth starting quarterback in as many seasons and must address attrition throughout both sides of the ball, including Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry. Add road games at LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee, the task of repeating suddenly looks pretty daunting.

  1. Is Houston a legitimate playoff contender?

Under first-year coach Tom Herman, the Cougars seemingly came out of nowhere to go 13-1, claimed the Group-of-Five bid for a New Year’s Six bowl and blew out Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Houston then added the most impressive recruiting class among G5 schools. With nonconference home games against Oklahoma and Louisville, the Cougars may get a shot (though a long one) at a playoff berth if they can go undefeated.

  1. How soon will Big 12 expand and which schools will it add?

It’s not a matter of if, but when, will the Big 12 add at least two more teams to make its name eponymous again. And that may happen as soon as this summer. The top candidates for the conference’s expansion are BYU, Cincinnati, UConn and maybe UCF and USF. West Virginia favors an eastern school as a travel partner, and school president Gordon Gee is lobbying hard for it.

  1. What kind of TV windfall can Big Ten expect to get?

Commissioner Jim Delany is a shrewd negotiator and this is why the Big Ten is expected to get the most lucrative media rights deal when its current contracts expire after the 2016-17 season. Fox anted up $250 million per year for half of Big Ten’s media rights, with ESPN and NBC in hot pursuit of the other half. When it’s all said and done, the Big Ten will at least triple the $100 million annual take from its last deal.

  1. Will USC’s schedule torpedo Clay Helton’s first season?

Let’s see, the Trojans open against Alabama at Jerry World, play road games at Pac-12 champ Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA. And they also get Oregon at home and finish the regular season with Notre Dame. Is that all? This is by far the hardest schedule any team will face this season, if not in recent memory. Helton, in his first full season as USC’s head coach, will have his hands full, even with a very talented squad.

  1. Will another running back win the Heisman Trophy?

In this century, the Heisman has been dominated by quarterbacks. You have to go back to 1998-99 to find non-QBs winning the statuette in consecutive years. That may happen again this year as most of the Heisman front-runners are running backs, including last year’s runnerup Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson may have a different idea, though.

  1. Is Clemson here to stay as a powerhouse?

Watson, who dazzled in the national title game and nearly single-handedly took down Alabama, is back with the Tigers. But Florida State, which won the last BCS title in 2013 and also made the playoff in 2014, will want to reclaim supremacy in the ACC. Their clash on Oct. 29 at Doak Campbell Stadium will settle a lot more than who wins the conference title.

  1. Might it be SEC’s turn to miss the playoff?

Given the current playoff format, each season at least one Power 5 conference will be kept out of the four-team field. And don’t laugh, it might be the SEC’s turn in 2016. If Alabama should stumble in conference play and no dominant team emerges in its stead – especially if the still-rebuilding SEC East wins the title game – the “toughest conference in college football” just might be missing out.

  1. What will Jim Harbaugh do to stay in the news?

Without question, since he returned to college football last year, Harbaugh has been the No. 1 newsmaker in college football. Whether it’s his satellite camps, recruiting tactics and clever subtweets, the Michigan coach has had everyone’s rapt attention. But the thing he craves the most is winning, and this year he might have the team to compete not just in the Big Ten but also for a playoff berth. If the Wolverines win the conference for the first time since 2004, Harbaugh-mania will be difficult to escape.

  1. Who’s going to win it all in 2016?

Last year, only Alabama made it back to the playoff after being in the inaugural field in 2014. This year, Clemson will be the only team among last year’s final four to return. The ACC champion Tigers should be joined by Big Ten champ Michigan, Pac-12 winner Stanford and the surprise entrant Houston in the four-team field. Clemson will win it all this time, defeating Heisman winner McCaffrey and Stanford in the title game.

Season Over, But Next Season Already Here

To the surprise of not very many, Alabama was crowned the national champion for the fourth time in seven years on Monday night. But this is no time to dwell on the thrilling title game or just-concluded 2015 season, and the perfect time to look forward to 2016, because it has already started.

The recruiting dead period ends on Thursday, meaning coaches from coast-to-coast will be in a talent-procurement frenzy from then until national signing day on Feb. 3. There will be more upheaval ahead for the next season, as several off-the-field decisions will leave profound impact on college football in the years to come.

So here we are, while saying adieu to 2015, taking an early peek at what’s ahead in 2016:

Will Alabama’s dynasty carry on?

After their sensational 45-40 victory over Clemson, it’s obvious that this is the Crimson Tide’s universe and everyone else is just a renter. And Nick Saban’s juggernaut doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

Over the past seven seasons, Alabama went 86-10 and won four national titles. Along the way, two Crimson Tide running backs (Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015) picked up the school’s first two Heisman trophies.

The Tide are definitely in conversation for being the most dominant program of all time, or at least in the post-bowl era (beginning in 1998 with the advent of the BCS). Over a same seven-year period between 2002-09, USC went 82-9, won its conference each year, was 6-1 in bowl games and compiled a 34-game winning streak. Alabama, meanwhile, won the SEC four times in the seven years, but lost two bowls and its longest win streak was 19 games.

Alabama, however, has a chance to carry on whereas USC’s dynasty ended abruptly after Pete Carroll’s departure coupled with crippling NCAA sanctions. If Saban sticks around, the Tide might not be done for awhile.

Heisman race is already heating up

While Henry most likely will turn pro and take his Heisman statuette to the NFL, the next three highest vote-getters in 2015 are all returning – Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (who nearly carried the Tigers to an 15-0 record and a title), Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.

But the hype machine (otherwise known as ESPN) has tabbed someone else as the 2016 frontrunner – LSU running back Leonard Fournette. He was actually the 2015 frontrunner until getting shut down by Alabama in a game that vaulted Henry to the front of the pack.

There is, of course, the possibility of a dark horse emerging from the shadows. Keep an eye on Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.

Fate of Big 12 and more realignment

The NCAA is holding a convention in San Antonio this week and at the end the membership is expected to vote on competing proposals to amend how conference championship games are structured.

The Big 12 – currently with 10 teams – would like to change the current rules so that it won’t be necessary to have at least 12 teams and two divisions to stage a title game. But the Big Ten has come up with a counter-proposal that would make the regulation more rigid. The SEC is backing the Big Ten while the ACC is in the Big 12’s corner, leaving the Pac-12 and Group of 5 conferences as swing votes.

The outcome of this vote could have an immediate impact on the college sports landscape. If its own proposal fails to pass, the Big 12 might be forced to expand to 12 teams, with Cincinnati, Houston and BYU the likely targets. And the wheels will be in motion very soon.

Big Ten goes for more big bucks

Over the last five years, all but one of the Power 5 conferences signed new mega-million television deals that greatly enriched each member school’s coffers. Now it’s the Big Ten’s turn.

Despite a more volatile marketplace with cord-cutting diminishing revenues for cable network operators, the Big Ten is still expected to get an unprecedented windfall. Its current deal, to expire after the 2016-17 season, is worth $1 billion over 10 years. Its next deal most likely will double that.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will be negotiating from a position of strength. Ohio State’s national championship season in 2014 re-established the conference’s legitimacy; and the re-emergence of Michigan, under the relentlessly driven and entertaining Jim Harbaugh, is only going to help drive up interest in the conference.

The Jim Harbaugh Express

Speaking of Harbaugh, the former Stanford and 49ers coach is easily the biggest newsmaker in all of college football. Not only has he immediately restored the Michigan program to a 10-win season, capped by a slaughter of SEC East champ Florida in the Citrus Bowl, he’s now poised to reel in the top-ranked recruiting class in 2016.

Each of his moves, tweets and ideas is immediately churned up in the social media hype machine. Last year he ruffled SEC feathers by staging satellite camps down south. This year, he’s contemplating holding Michigan’s spring practice in Florida.

Stay tuned. Harbaugh is just getting warmed up.

Way too early top 10

The 2015 season is over, so of course we should have new rankings for the 2016 season:

1. Alabama,  2. Oklahoma, 3. Stanford, 4. Ohio State, 5. Clemson, 6. Baylor, 7. Michigan, 8. Florida State, 9. LSU, 10. Notre Dame.

SEC’s Ownership Is Complete

S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!

If it wasn’t already patently obvious, Saturday night delivered confirmation: The Southeastern Conference’s hostile takeover of college football is complete.

Sure, the SEC has not won the national championship the last two seasons, but it did win it every year in the previous seven. And now you can add the Heisman Trophy to the list of SEC hegemony.

Alabama running back Derrick Henry became the fifth SEC player to win the prize in the past nine seasons. This dominance not coincidentally mirrors the SEC’s takeover of the BCS in its final eight seasons.

Before Florida’s Tim Tebow won it in 2007, only one SEC player had won the Heisman in the previous 21 years (the Gators’ Danny Wuerffel in 1996). In fact, until the recent run of SEC winners, players from that conference had taken the statuette south just seven times in the trophy’s first 73 years of existence.

Alabama, for all its storied history, never had a Heisman winner until running back Mark Ingram in 2009. Ingram won it at the expense at another Stanford running back, Toby Gerhart – just like Henry over Christian McCaffrey – in the closest Heisman voting ever.

While the SEC has dominated this award in recent years, no one has come so agonizingly close but ended up empty quite like Stanford. McCaffrey became the fourth Stanford player to finish runnerup in the past seven years, joining Gerhart and Andrew Luck (second to Cam Newton in 2010 and Robert Griffin III in 2011).

Except in 2010, when Newton led Auburn to an undefeated season and a national championship, a case can be made that each Stanford player was robbed during that span. Luck fell victim to a late-season hype for Griffin, whose flamboyance on and off the field helped to overtake the Stanford QB. Ingram, much like Henry, was a system runner in a formidable Alabama machine that also churned out other accomplished college backs such as Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.

Henry, who continued that lineage under the Nick Saban regime that began in 2007, put up impressive numbers but they were hardly exceptional. In each of the past four seasons, at least one back ran for at least 1,900 yards (Henry had 1,986) and had a better yards-per-carry average than Henry’s 5.86. Yet none of them came closer than fourth in Heisman voting with two receiving no votes at all.

McCaffrey, by contrast, broke Barry Sanders’ 28-year record with 3,496 all-purpose yards. Even if the ’88 Heisman winner did it in two fewer games, the fact remains that no one had come close to his mark until McCaffrey’s smashing season.

Without a doubt, McCaffrey, just like his fellow Stanford alums, suffered from a hype deficit. Most of the award’s 900-plus voters probably never saw McCaffrey play until the final two weeks of the season when the Cardinal faced Notre Dame and USC (in the Pac-12 title game) in back-to-back weeks. By then, the narrative had already been shaped and Henry already had the award well within his grasp.

Henry made his closing argument in the SEC championship game, where Alabama demolished Florida in a Saturday afternoon window going unopposed on CBS. McCaffrey, on the other hand, played in the Pac-12 championship game that same night, going up against two other conference title games with the Pac-12 game the only one not on network TV and drawing the lowest ratings among all four Power 5 title games.

It was difficult for McCaffrey, or anyone, to overcome a built-in advantage for SEC frontrunners in today’s college football landscape. ESPN, which has a near monopoly on the sport, practically is a shareholder of the SEC, with an 80 percent ownership stake in the SEC Network. CBS began its exclusive coverage of the SEC in 2001 and is seasoned at championing the league’s cause.

CBS actually began Henry’s campaign this year during its prime-time telecast of the Alabama-LSU showdown on Nov. 7. When it became apparent that Leonard Fournette, the Tigers running back and Heisman frontrunner at the time, was going nowhere against the Crimson Tide defense, the network’s announcers immediately installed Henry as the new favorite.

That’s nothing new for Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, who helped to kick off the SEC dynasty in the BCS era with a full-throated campaign for Florida to be included in the 2006 BCS title game over Michigan during that year’s SEC championship game. The pollsters were swayed and moved up the Gators, who went on to beat Ohio State and began the SEC’s seven-year title run.

History is repeating itself with college football’s most prestigious award, which used to be dominated by the Big Ten, Notre Dame and USC. But the sign of the times is instructive in how the epicenter of the sport has clearly shifted.

Immediately after Henry claimed the statuette over a pair of sophomores, ESPN on its web site declared the frontrunner for next year’s campaign – not McCaffrey, not Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – but LSU’s Fournette.