The 2016 college football season is almost here. I canvassed 26 media members for their thoughts and predictions. Their results are below.
Before you go betting obscene amounts of money on the recommendations, remember our 2015 survey. Two thirds of those surveyed last year had Auburn in the playoff. They also thought Jeb Bush was a shoo-in to win the GOP Primary.
Who Will Reach The College Football Playoff?
Twenty-five media members predicted the four teams that will reach the College Football Playoff. Not surprisingly, last year’s two finalists were popular choices to return. Clemson led the way with 18 votes (72 percent). Chalk-tacular Alabama was just behind with 17 votes (68 percent).
Florida State was the next most popular choice with 13 votes (52 percent) followed by Oklahoma 12 votes (48 percent) and LSU with 10 votes (40 percent). Ohio State with nine votes (36 percent) and Michigan with seven votes (28 percent) split the Big Ten representation.
Six respondents chose both Clemson and Florida State in their final four. I don’t think that outcome is feasible. Clemson won’t have the wins to argue their way past a conference champion with one loss. The Seminoles could cobble together a strong one-loss argument with wins over Ole Miss, Florida and against Louisville and Miami on the road. But, as we’ve written before, the playoff is predicated on winning a Power 5 conference meaning something.
Stanford received six votes (24 percent). So, 76 percent of media members do not believe the Pac 12 will produce a playoff team. The Cardinal may have a playoff caliber team. They also begin the season with Kansas State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State, at Notre Dame.
TCU, Notre Dame, Houston, and Tennessee also featured on ballots.
Who Will Win The Power 5 Conferences?
ACC: Given their playoff predictions, this will not surprise. Media members believe the ACC winner will be Clemson or Florida State. 15 respondents chose Clemson. The other 11 chose Florida State.
Big Ten: The Game may have some significance this year. Seventeen voters picked Ohio State. The other nine picked Michigan. Defending champion Michigan State, who beat both teams last year on the road, will feel disrespected.
Big 12: Media members have confidence in Oklahoma, or little faith in anyone else. The Sooners received 21 votes. The other five respondents chose TCU.
Pac 12: Stanford was the choice of 15 voters in the Pac 12. Though three other teams – UCLA (6), USC (3), Washington (2) – received votes. No love for underrated Oregon. Consensus wisdom seems to be the eventual Pac 12 champion will have multiple losses.
SEC: Media members see the SEC coming down to Alabama vs. LSU in November. Fifteen respondents chose Alabama. The other 10 went with LSU. One outlier opted for the Tennessee Volunteers.
No off the wall predictions here. Deshaun Watson enters as the front-runner with 13 votes (50 percent). Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette tied for second with five each. Other votes went to Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett (2 votes) and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers (1 vote).
Respondents also gave their unheralded player who would have a breakout season. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson won with a plurality of five votes. Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough (2 votes) was the only other player named multiple times.
Surprises, Disappointments, and Upsets
Surprise Team: Media members are bullish on the ACC this year. In addition to Clemson and FSU in the playoff, the top choices for surprise team were Miami and Louisville with four votes each. Charlie Strong’s Texas were just behind at three votes. Washington, UCLA, Penn State, and TCU each received multiple votes.
Disappointing Team: Respondents think someone will drop the ball this year. They were divided on the identity of said disappointment. The leaders, with three votes each, were Tennessee and Notre Dame. Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, Baylor, UNC, and Ole Miss each received two votes.
Biggest Upset: Media members were asked for their biggest 2016 upset. Three – Houston over Oklahoma, Arkansas over Alabama, Texas over Notre Dame – were mentioned twice. The most popular teams to tumble were Alabama (USC, Texas A&M, and Arkansas) and Michigan (Rutgers, Indiana, and Penn State). The most common spoiler was Appalachian State, who respondents chose to upset both Miami and Tennessee.
Biggest Game: Games media members were looking forward to come as no surprise. Alabama/LSU lead the way with eight votes, trailed by Michigan/Ohio State with seven and Clemson/FSU with five. Oklahoma vs. Ohio State, two votes, was the only other game chosen more than once and the only non-conference game.
How many wins for Michigan? Michigan averaged 10.3 wins. Ten voters picked 10 wins. Nine voters felt they would win 11 games. No one had lower than nine.
How many wins for Tennessee? Tennessee came out to 9.7 wins. Sixteen media members felt they would win 10 games. Projections ran from seven to 11 wins.
How many wins for Texas? Texas averaged 8.2 wins. Fourteen voters pegged them for eight wins. Seven were slightly more optimistic at nine. Choices ranged from 6-10.
How many wins for Baylor? Media members thought Baylor would win 7.7 games. Ten chose eight wins and seven chose seven wins. Projections ranged from six to 10.
Hot Seat/Coaching Carousel
First Power 5 Coach Fired: Purdue’s Darrell Hazell with 12 votes was the leading candidate. Entering his fourth year at 3-30 vs. FBS, that seems sensible. Gus Malzahn, Les Miles, Kevin Sumlin, and Steve Addazio were each nominated twice.
Best Job Available After 2016: Media members are selling on SEC West coaches. The top three choices were Texas A&M (8 votes), Auburn (7 votes), and LSU (3 votes). Baylor, already on the market, and USC, where Clay Helton was just hired, each received two votes.
Hot Seat After 2016: The presumptive favorite is Penn State’s James Franklin (8 votes). One would imagine the scholarship restrictions buy him one more year. Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin each received three votes. Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn, Mark Stoops, and Todd Graham got two votes.
Where will Tom Herman be coaching in 2017? Just seven of 26 respondents (27 percent) had Herman staying at Houston. A plurality, 11 media members, think Herman will be coaching at Texas A&M in 2017. Baylor and Texas each got one vote. The other six believe Herman will be at an another Power 5 destination.
Hottest Coach That Is Not Tom Herman: Media members believe Temple head coach Matt Rhule (six votes) will be in demand. Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck (three votes) was the next highest. Two voters each opted for Alabama OC Lane Kiffin, Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm, and Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley.
What Will The Big 12 Look Like In 2020?
The Big 12, whether the networks want it or not, appears to be expanding. We asked media members to project forward about what the conference would look like in 2020.
Media members were confident the conference would expand. Only one of 26 media members had the conference staying at 10 teams. Fourteen had the conference expanding to 12, while eight had the conference going to 14. Three media members saw a 16-team conference. Not sure if that would qualify as a “super conference” given the available additions.
Which teams will be added? Houston was the nearly unanimous choice. Of media members who said their would be expansion, 23 of the 25 had Houston joining. Cincinnati was close behind with 19 of 25.
If the conference went to 14, the next teams in line per the media would be BYU (11 votes) and Memphis (8 votes). UConn (5 votes), UCF (3 votes), and USF (2 votes) received multiple votes. Colorado State, Tulane, and Boise State earned one vote each.
Likes and Dislikes
Best Coach To Work With: Media members’ favorite was Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (4 votes). Houston’s Tom Herman was close behind (3 votes). Mark Richt and Dabo Swinney each received two votes.
Worst Coach To Work With: Noted appreciator of media Nick Saban led the way with five votes. Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin tied for second place with four votes. Bobby Petrino (3 votes) and Urban Meyer (2 votes) also earned multiple nods.
Best Venue: Media members had a few clear favorites. LSU led the way with eight votes. Ohio State was second with five votes. The Rose Bowl (4 votes) and Clemson (3 votes) were the others to get multiple nods. Watching a bus slowly circle a stadium and a bunch of people touch a rock is doubtless more impressive in person.
Worst Venue: Media members differed on this question. Penn State was the least favorite with (5 votes), with travel and accommodation difficulty being a definite factor. Kentucky (2 votes) was the only other to receive multiple slights. Syracuse’s Carrier Dome (1 vote) was described as “having the charm and energy of the waiting room where you get a hole in your tire fixed.”
Best Fans: Respondents felt Nebraska fans were the best, receiving 7 votes. LSU was second with 3 votes. Clemson, Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech each received two votes.
Most Annoying Fans: Media members tied between Florida State (4 votes) and Ohio State (4 votes) for most annoying fans. Baylor, Texas A&M, Alabama, and Penn State each received two votes. With multiple positive and negative votes, we can safely presume Texas A&M fans are the most polarizing.
Best TV Personality: Kirk Herbstreit, no surprise, was the top choice with 13 votes (50 percent). Lee Corso was second with three votes. Rece Davis, Greg McElroy, and Joe Tessitore each received two votes. Strong performance from ESPN’s College GameDay and the SEC Network.
Best Writer: Bruce Feldman was the clear choice of his colleagues with eight votes. Andy Staples and Ivan Maisel tied for second with three votes each. Mark Schlabach and Pat Forde each earned two votes.
State of the Industry
The survey polled media members on the best and worst things about covering college football. While respondents appreciated the pageantry, the passion of the fans, and the collegiality among their colleagues. There were a few common concerns.
Access: Media members are concerned their access to players, coaches, and assistants is decreasing. They believe that SIDs are overprotective. Schools are cutting off media and creating their own.
Local Homers: Media members believe the line between fan and media is too blurred on a local level making it harder for actual reporters to do their jobs. Too much “sucking up to coaches” and “desire to believe the party line.”
National Writers: There were multiple complaints about national writers. They are either (a) writing hot take columns (b) tweeting badly or (c) using their columns to push agendas for coaches they like or against coaches they dislike. Though, national writers were praised for covering the sport nationally and not having an East Coast bias.
SEC Bias: Multiple respondents listed SEC bias as the worst feature of college football media coverage and referenced ESPN’s “blatant” role in feeding it.
Preseason Polls and Opinions: Media members believe the preseason, whether its polls or initial expectations, has too much importance shaping the regular season itself.
Groupthink: Respondents believe the college football media is susceptible to groupthink fueled by social media. Read more on that here.
Odds and Ends
Ideal College Football Playoff Size: There has been ample debate over the appropriate college football playoff format. Nineteen of 26 media members (73 percent) think the playoff should expand. The largest number, 14, favor an 8-team format. Four media members favored a 6-team format. One wanted to expand it to 16 teams. Seven respondents (27 percent) wanted to keep the playoff at four teams. No one, notably, wanted to move back to the BCS with a two-team final.
Presidential Election: Twenty-four of 26 media members (92 percent) think Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. Two chose Donald Trump. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were included in the survey.
Taylor Swift vs. Kanye/Kim: College football media members favored Taylor Swift to Kanye/Kim by a 9-2 margin. Fourteen, 56 percent, believe the conflict was staged and hate everything about it.