Although the UAA is trying to make sure there are few, if any, leaks regarding the search for Jeremy Foley’s replacement, there are enough sources from various places including some out in Tucson who say Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne is indeed the first choice. Everybody I have talked to says Byrne would be the perfect fit at Florida because he’s got a great eye for coaching talent and understands that it’s the AD’s job to give coaches what they need to succeed.
Here is what I like about Byrne. A year before he accepted the AD job at Arizona, the school took on massive amounts of debt as part of a $378 million campaign to upgrade the facilities of all of UA’s sports teams. That kind of debt load made a lot of folks squirm but Byrne took on the challenge and has retired more than $100 million of the debt in the last five years through aggressive, effective fund raising. He’s confident enough in his abilities to raise the money necessary to field a first class athletic program with second to none facilities that he’s busy raising the money for $50 million more in upgrades to Arizona Stadium.
He showed tremendous innovation when he moved Arizona’s baseball program off campus to Hi Corbett Field, a former AAA minor league park and formerly the spring training home of the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies. Byrne got a long term lease of the 9,500-seat stadium and then provided the upgrades to make it one of the best college baseball facilities in the country. When former UF coach Andy Lopez retired after the 2015 season (he won the NCAA title at UA in 2012), Byrne hired Jay Johnson from Nevada. Johnson took UA to the NCAA championship series in his first year on the job.
I have no idea who else Florida will interview for the AD job, but I am convinced this is the right guy. He’s got SEC experience (associate AD at Kentucky; AD at Mississippi State), has proven he can balance the budget even with enormous debt, knows how to raise funds and isn’t afraid to think outside the box. Florida is replacing one of the best athletic directors – if not the very best – in the country over the last 25 years. This is no time to hire some up and comer who can “grow” into the job, but time to go for someone with experience and a knack for raising the money it’s going to take to keep UF athletics in first place.
SIX TEAMS THAT ARE GOING TO SURPRISE IN 2016
Arkansas: At SEC Media Days Bret Bielema admitted the Hogs aren’t exactly the sexiest team out there. Sexy they may not be. Sound, however, they are and if they can find someone to run the football, they’re going to be very, very good. The defense returns nine starters and most of the backups. If they can generate any kind of pass rush, they’ll get a lot of stops. Arkansas has gone 7-6 and 8-5 in the last two years. Even with a schedule that has TCU and the Aggies in September and a gauntlet of Alabama, Ole Miss, at Auburn, Florida, LSU and at Mississippi State in consecutive games, this is a team nobody wants to play.
Miami: Here is a prediction for you – by the end of the year the people at Georgia will be asking what the hell were we thinking when we fired Mark Richt and the people at Miami will be thinking the Canes are going to be relevant again. The way Richt works with QBs, Brad Kaaya is going to go from really good to first rounder.
Arizona: Do you know who Anu Solomon is? In two seasons working with Rich Rod he’s thrown for 48 TDPs and 6,040 yards. What’s scary is he knows the offense now, is 100% healthy and ready to set the Pac-12 on its ear this year. Eight starters return on defense and the belief in Tucson is that the Wildcats will be able to get some stops this year.
Mississippi State: Losing Dak Prescott was big, but it’s not like Dan Mullen lacks for quarterbacks. Damian Williams, who would have started at least half the SEC schools last year, took a redshirt last year so he could have a chance to start two years. He might not be the best QB of the four Mullen has ready to go. The offense will hum along and the defense is going to be a complete upgrade after a complete staff overhaul.
Washington State: The NFL scouts think Luke Falk is the real deal after last season when he threw for 38 TDs and only 8 picks. He completed nearly 70% of his passes that were good for 4,561 yards. Mike Leach doesn’t have a lot of size, speed or depth on the defensive side of the ball, but if the Cougars can slow folks down, they will outscore people. They won nine last year and were within a single play of wins over Stanford and California. The Pirate has a chance to bring a rare championship to Pullman.
TCU: Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson are gone. Big deal. Former Aggie QB Kenny Hill will take over at QB and Deante’ Gray, who missed last season with an injury, is back and ready to terrorize Big 12 secondaries. Two things to remember: TCU’s co-offensive coordinators stayed with the program rather than take HBC jobs elsewhere and eight defensive starters return from a unit that allowed only 19 points per game and registered 39 sacks. Defense has always been Gary Patterson’s calling card and this year he’s got the horses to dominate.
FIVE TEAMS THAT COULD DISAPPOINT IN A VERY BIG WAY
1. Tennessee: The Vols like to crow about the fact they’ve won 13 of their last 18 games. That’s true, but how many teams with a winning record have they defeated? The answer is five. The Vols are 1-7 against ranked teams (only win was against #23 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl). Yes they have tons of experience (third most experienced team in the country), but they also have learned how to lose to decent teams. They could lose to VaTech in game two and then there is that gauntlet of Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and Alabama. This is an 8-4 or 9-3 team … at best.
2. Michigan State: Connor Cook led the Spartans to a 36-5 record the last three seasons and now he’s gone along with six other starters on the offensive side. There isn’t a lot of speed at the skill positions and the new QB is a senior who has thrown 54 passes hi his career. The D-line has three new starters and two of the three linebackers are newbies. There are back-to-back games with Notre Dame and Wisconsin, a midyear game with Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State to close out.
3. Stanford: The first six games are Kansas State, Southern Cal, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State and at Notre Dame. If the Cardinal were to run that table they would be in the national title hunt, but it’s not difficult to see 3-4 losses, especially since the new QB threw all of nine passes last year.
4. Oregon: The Ducks went 48-7 in the four seasons prior to 2015, largely because they had home grown QBs who knew the system inside and out. Last year they got a rent-a-QB in D1AA grad transfer Vernon Adams and the record dipped to an unfathomable 9-4. The Ducks are going the rent-a-QB route again with D1AA grad transfer Dakota Prukop. The entire left side of the O-line has to be replaced and last year’s shaky defense (gave up 37.5 points per game) has mostly new faces. The schedule includes consecutive games of at California, Arizona State, at Southern Cal, Stanford and at Utah. Another season with four losses is entirely possible, which means Mark Helfrich might need to find a new job. Now that they’ve grown accustomed to winning big in Eugene, patience is in short supply.
5. Ole Miss: If the NCAA accepts the self-imposed sanctions and doesn’t suspend HBC Hugh Freeze, then the Rebels will actually be quite good. If there are still NCAA issues handing over their heads, that could be a huge distraction and when three of your first four games are Florida State, Alabama and Georgia, the last thing you need are distractions. There is also a thee-game gauntlet of at Arkansas, at LSU and Auburn in October that could be a serious problem if the Rebels are reeling after that September start.
FIVE HEISMAN CONTENDERS NOT NAMED WATSON OR FOURNETTE
1. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, QB: It’s hard to believe he had to walk on at Texas Tech as a freshman where he started eight games and threw for 2,319 yards and 12 touchdowns. He transferred to Oklahoma, sat out 2014 and made the Heisman podium last year after throwing for 3,700 yards (9.4 yards per pass attempt), 36 touchdowns (only 7 interceptions) and ran for 405 yards and another 7 TDs. Why he could win the Heisman is the supporting cast that includes the best 1-2 running back punch in the country in Samaje Perine (1,349 yards, 16 TDs) and Joe Mixon (753 yards, 7 TDs) and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who is a game changer.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB: He’s easy to dislike after the way he stiffed the Gators and the way he got away with battery against a woman and miraculously, he was found not guilty (doesn’t it always happen this way with FSU). None of that changes the fact that he’s enormously talented and a threat to score every time he touches the football. In two seasons he has run for 2,699 yards and scored 27 touchdowns. He’s also caught 46 passes for 447 yards. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry last year and gained 1,691 yards even though he missed 2-1/2 games with injuries.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, RB: If he repeats what he did last year – 2,019 rushing yards, 8 TDs; 45-645 receiving, 5 TDs; 15-130 punt returns, 1 TD; 37-1,030 kickoff returns, 1 TD; 2-3 passing, 39 yards, 2 TD – then he’ll have a real shot to win, but can he repeat? McCaffrey could be a better player but come up short statistically against what he did last year. Stanford went 12-2 last year. If the Cardinal do that well this year, then McCaffrey will be a serious contender all year. The schedule is tougher and one of two subpar games could prove costly to his candidacy.
4. Ole Miss, Chad Kelly QB: If for no other reason Kelly is on this list because he owns a win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a game in which he threw for 341 yards and three TDs and ran for another. Last year he threw for 4,042 yards and 31 TDs plus ran for 500 yards and 10 more scores. The knock on him last year was it took him until midseason to really figure out the offense. He knows it now. If Ole Miss can survive a brutal schedule, he could put up Heisman numbers and make the podium.
5. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, RB: Two seasons have produced 3,062 rushing yards (7.1 per carry) and 37 touchdowns. He is a 237-pound hammer who can leave DBs behind once he gets to the second level. He holds the NCAA single game rushing record of 427 yards (with 5 TDs) set as a freshman. Baker Mayfield is such a threat throwing the ball that safeties are going to play 20-25 yards off the line of scrimmage, so this could be a 2,000-yard season and that could vault Perine into the Heisman conversation.
Just missed: J.T. Barnett, Ohio State, QB; Royce Freeman, Oregon, RB; Luke Falk, Washington State, QB; Elijah Hood, North Carolina, RB; JuJu Smith-Schuster, Southern Cal, WR
Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why he wasn’t a unanimous selection. Griffey is the highest draft pick (#1 in the 1987 draft) ever to make the Hall of Fame while Piazza, a 62nd round pick in 1988, is the lowest draft pick ever selected.
Darnell Dockett will retire from the St. Louis Cardinals today. Maybe it’s sour grapes on my part, but I still believe he did something to Earnest Graham’s knee in 2001.
Former Vikings and Cardinals coach Denny Green died last week from a heart attack. I always thought the Minnesota Vikings were stupid to fire him after a losing season in 2001, just one season removed from losing to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game.
Since they won’t play on Sundays, BYU is offering to join the Big 12 as a football-only school. I still think the league would be foolish to expand with the Cougars, who need to go back to the Mountain West.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Who do you think will be the nation’s surprise team in 2016 and which one will disappoint the most?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Big Brother and the Holding Company was a bar band in the San Francisco area when Janis Joplin was brought on to front the band starting in 1966. Their first album debuted in 1967 and after Joplin tore it up at Monterrey Pop, the album was reissued and became a commercial success. That led to the 1968 release of “Cheap Thrills” which made it to #1 in 1968. Today’s music is the first Big Brother album.