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College Football Preview: 60-51

#60: Mississippi | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Rebels missed on a bowl and posted the first losing season under coach Hugh Freeze in 2016. Ole Miss probably won't rebound back to a nine-win campaign, but a return to the postseason and a winning record should be within reach. Quarterback Shea Patterson gained valuable experience by starting the final three games of 2016 and heads into 2017 as one of the SEC's top breakout candidates. Tight end Evan Engram will be missed, but the Rebels have a wealth of promising talent and options at receiver. Finding some balance on offense is critical for new coordinator Phil Longo after this offense averaged 3.9 yards per rush in SEC games last season. New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff inherits a group that finished last in the conference in points allowed (34.0 ppg) and surrendered 6.2 yards per play. End Marquis Haynes, linebacker DeMarquis Gates, tackle Benito Jones and defensive backs Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield return as the foundation for the defense in 2017.

#59: Arkansas | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Razorbacks ended the year on a down note by losing to Missouri and lost in the Belk Bowl after building a commanding 24-0 lead. The offense should be the strength of this team once again in 2017, as quarterback Austin Allen and running backs Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams return to Fayetteville. Finding new playmakers at receiver and developing the offensive line will be the top priorities this spring for Bielema. After giving up 31.1 points a game on defense, it was clear change was needed for this unit headed into 2017. Coordinator Robb Smith won't return, and the Razorbacks could shift to more of a 3-4 approach under new play-caller Paul Rhoads next fall. Adding to the concerns for Rhoads is the departure of a few key cogs - linemen Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Taiwan Johnson, linebacker Brooks Ellis and cornerback Jared Collins.

#58: Washington State | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Cougars ended the 2016 season on a down note with three consecutive losses, including a surprising defeat in the Holiday Bowl against Minnesota. While the end to the year certainly didn't go according to plan for coach Mike Leach, Washington State should be in the mix to be a top 25 team in 2017. Quarterback Luke Falk passed on the NFL for one more season in Pullman, and the offensive line returns standout guard Cody O'Connell and tackle Cole Madison. The Cougars also return three running backs who rushed for at least 475 yards in 2016. The biggest question mark on offense is at receiver. Gabe Marks (89 catches) and River Cracraft (53) will be missed. Can Tavares Martin (64), Robert Lewis (33) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (35) step up their performance to fill the void left behind by Marks and Cracraft? Safety Shalom Luani, tackle Robert Barber and nickelback Parker Henry are the biggest losses on defense, but this unit returns in good shape and should improve on the stat sheet next fall.

#57: Colorado | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
All of the pieces for Mike MacIntyre's rebuilding effort in Boulder fell into place in 2016. Colorado won 10 games - the same number this program won in MacIntyre's first three years - and claimed the Pac-12 South title. A strong senior class was the backbone of the 10-win team, so the Buffaloes have some major voids to fill this offseason. The defense was hit the hardest by departures. Coordinator Jim Leavitt was hired by Oregon, and this unit must replace linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert, linemen Josh Tupou and Jordan Carrell and defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon. For some perspective on how decimated this defense is, Colorado returns only four out of its top 11 tacklers from 2016. While the defense appears to be a rebuilding year, the offense is in good shape. New quarterback Steven Montez showed promise in a limited stint under center in 2016, running back Phillip Lindsay returns after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 scores last year, and the team's top three wide receivers are back. The Buffaloes catch Washington in crossover play but won't have to face Oregon or Stanford.

#56: Middle Tennessee | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
MTSU is a close second behind the Hilltoppers in the East Division, with the dynamic connection of quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James providing enough firepower to push for the conference title. But Stockstill will be throwing behind an offensive line with three new starters, and running back I'Tavius Mathers departed after a standout 2016 campaign. The Blue Raiders made one of the conference's top coordinator hires with former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer taking over the defensive calls. However, similar to the offense, MTSU has some work to do in rebuilding the defensive line.

#55: Northwestern | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Northwestern could finish higher if quarterback Clayton Thorson continues to develop after a solid sophomore campaign. Running back Justin Jackson turned down the NFL for another season with the Wildcats, but top receiver Austin Carr (90 catches) leaves big shoes to fill. The offensive line loses only one starter (tackle Eric Olson) and must take a step forward after giving up 39 sacks last year. The defense limited opposing offenses to 22.2 points a game in 2016, but there are a couple of glaring losses for this unit. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, while standout edge rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo and defensive end C.J. Robbins expired their eligibility. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play but still has to play Penn State and travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin in key conference road tests.

Ohio has been a model of consistency under coach Frank Solich and should be a lock to earn its eighth bowl bid in nine seasons. The defense ranked second in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game (22.6) and should remain near the top of the league despite a few personnel losses. The biggest concern for Solich is on offense. Can quarterback Quinton Maxwell take the next step in his development?

#53: Pittsburgh | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Pat Narduzzi has brought some much-needed stability to the Steel City. The Panthers have finished 8-5 in back-to-back seasons under Narduzzi's watch and should be a factor in the Coastal Division despite some significant personnel losses. The offense will have a new play-caller after Matt Canada left for LSU, and quarterback Nathan Peterman and linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson have expired their eligibility. Additionally, running back James Conner left early for the NFL. USC graduate transfer Max Browne is expected to claim the starting job at quarterback, and the cupboard isn't empty at running back with the return of Darrin Hall, Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss. All-purpose threat/receiver Quadree Henderson is another weapon for Narduzzi's offense to utilize. With the losses on offense, Pitt's defense needs to take a step forward to help alleviate some of the concerns on that side of the ball. This unit suffered a few key losses at each level, but safety Jordan Whitehead is back after missing the final three games due to injury.

#52: Mississippi State | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Bulldogs earned their seventh consecutive trip to a bowl last year and finished the 2016 season with momentum on their side. After a dominant win over rival Ole Miss (55-20) in the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State edged Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish the year at 6-7. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is back after a breakout season to headline an offense that averaged 30.4 points a game in 2016. Receiver Fred Ross, center Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are three big losses on offense. However, running back Aeris Williams (720 yards) and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) provide two weapons in the skill positions for Fitzgerald to utilize. Improving a defense that surrendered 31.8 points per game is a must in 2017. And Mullen already took a big step in addressing those concerns by hiring coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. Linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Brandon Bryant are two building blocks for Grantham in 2017.

#51: New Mexico | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
New Mexico turns over the head coaching reigns over to Bob Davie this season. The Lobos have some issues on defense to address. This unit allowed 31.5 points per game in 2016 and returns just three starters. The secondary is an area of great concern for coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, especially in non-conference matchups against Texas A&M and Tulsa. The Lobos led the Mountain West in scoring offense (36.7 ppg) and should be explosive once again with quarterback Lamar Jordan and running back Tyrone Owens leading the way. The passing attack needs to improve, and New Mexico regains the services of receiver Delane Hart-Johnson after he missed all of 2016 due to injury.


July 19, 2017