Small markets and “the true meaning of NIL”
July 1, 2021, was the day college sports were turned on their head. Name, image and likeness (NIL) laws came into effect, allowing student-athletes to be compensated for their likenesses.
Although there are still plenty of wrinkles to iron out, especially at the highest levels of college football, some schools and businesses are approaching NIL in an ethical and trustworthy way. At its best, NIL can be a win-win scenario for businesses and student-athletes alike. In a smaller market such as Troy, Alabama, that’s exactly what you see.
“I don’t think that at the University of Alabama, if a company gives an NIL deal to Bryce Young, that they have a relationship with him,” said Jason Jones, owner of Jones Medical Supply. “Here, it’s a completely different world because of small town relationships.”
Jones Medical Supply provides medical equipment “to the home” of customers, but Trojans fans will surely recognize the name from its presence at sporting events and on social media. As of late January, Jones Medical Supply had inked 19 deals with Troy student-athletes.
In a college football landscape that’s increasingly dominated by seven figure NIL deals, Jones is focused on relationships, character and the intent behind NIL laws.
“We’re sticking to what we believe is the true meaning of NIL, and that’s to give these guys spending money,” said Jones. “Every deal I’ve had is with an athlete that’s thought highly of by his position coach, head coach or someone in the community that’s said ‘this is a guy you can get behind.’”
“We want this to be a way to reward these guys for being good people off the field and off the court,” added Jones.
Besides just providing funds for student-athletes, NIL deals in Troy provide an opportunity for businesses to actually build a relationship with athletes and support them in ways beyond the financial realm. Jones refers to six student-athletes at Troy in particular that he has a strong relationship with.
“If I see any of those guys, we’re gonna talk,” said Jones. “Those guys were as gracious and as generous as I could’ve ever imagined.”
“I’d talk to them after every game, go down to the field and see them. We’ve gotten to know them more than just a jersey number and player on my favorite team,” said Jones.
There’s the connection that businesses and athletes have, but another important tool for student-athletes is the resources they have available. Troy University provides not only an NIL marketplace, but a platform to educate student-athletes about financial literacy and how to market themselves.
Troy University’s IDEA Bank lets student-athletes meet with them to discuss anything relating to NIL, finances, social media, marketing and more.
“We look at their personal branding strategies and how they can monetize their name, image and likeness,” said Lynne George, Director of Economic Development at Troy. “We look at ‘what does that look like,’ ‘how do you find businesses to partner with you,’ ‘how do you enter that market.’”
The introduction of NIL also brought a power shift to college sports, giving the student-athletes a bit more say-so in what happens. It allows them to be fairly compensated for what they do.
“[NIL] empowers student-athletes,” said George. “99% of student-athletes aren’t going to be handed a deal, but there is opportunity for all student athletes if they take the initiative.”
“This isn’t just a four year opportunity or way to make some extra cash while in school. This is a long term opportunity to build your own business,” said George.
While NIL at larger schools can be convoluted and confusing, there are some markets that are figuring out the best ways to use it to benefit both businesses and athletes alike. Troy is one of them.
Perfect Prospect? – Analyzing CJ Stroud
CJ Stroud graduated from Rancho Cucamonga High School as a consensus 4-star recruit by ESPN and 247. Despite heavy recruitment from schools such as Georgia and Michigan, Stroud decided to call Columbus, Ohio home, and his career as a Buckeye started.
After redshirting his freshman year (backup to now Chicago Bears starter Justin Fields), Stroud saw action in a total of 12 games in 2021 for the Buckeyes in his Sophomore season. He finished with 4,424 yards on 443 attempts (71.6% completion), 44 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and a total QBR of 130.8. Stroud also finished second in the nation in pass efficiency rating (186.6).
After leading the top statistical offense of 2021 (No. 1 nationally in total offense and scoring offense, and No. 3 passing offense) Stroud was awarded the Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year, and the Gries-Brees Quarterback of the Year, as well as being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
2022 continued to prove astounding for Stroud, as he played 14 games, finishing with 3,684 yards on 390 attempts (65.9% completion) for 41 touchdowns and a total QBR of 125. Stroud also led the nation in pass efficiency rating (177.7).
How well could this transfer to the NFL?
Following in Justin Fields’ footsteps is no easy task, but Stroud made it look effortless. Statistically, Stroud put up better numbers than Fields’ time in Columbus. Sure, his receivers and linemen were NFL-caliber, but you can’t argue with stats. Through his two seasons as a Buckeye, Stroud finished with an astonishing 8,000+ passing yards 85 touchdowns, and only 12 interceptions.
It did take some time for Stroud to settle in as a starter in his first season, but since Week 5 of 2021, Stroud has continuously been in the Heisman conversation.
Stroud could have a similar progression and path in the NFL, as he would likely be a day-1 starter to whichever franchise drafts him. He may struggle early on, especially if he is drafted by a “weaker” team, but there is little doubt that Stroud possesses the talent and maturity to succeed in professional football.
In a clean pocket, Stroud is arguably the best quarterback in the country. If he has time to throw, he is virtually guaranteed to pick apart the defense and find an open receiver. Granted, it helps that Stroud had the best offensive line and receiving core in college football, but he has had to make accurate reads and throws. He’s been blessed with historically good Ohio State teams, but he is still the one leading the huddle.
To identify a first-round worthy QB pick, you must look at size. Stroud is listed at 6 foot 3 inches and 218 pounds, so he absolutely fits the mold of a sturdy quarterback. With that frame, he boasts a crisp, tight release. He is fast and efficient with his throwing motion, and easily reaches all levels of the field.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Stroud’s arm is his elasticity. He has exceptional feel and touch, and knows exactly when to adjust the pace of his throws, as well as manipulating trajectory. Stroud is exceptional at placing throws ahead of receivers to set up valuable yards after catch, and he also has enough arm strength to accurately deliver passes on the move, or while his base is fading back. He’s also shown he has the ability to adjust arm angles to properly deliver passes while on the run.
One aspect of Stroud’s game we didn’t see much of was his mobility. Stroud is underrated as a runner and is natural at creating space on boot actions and rollouts, and he can extend plays on the ground as well. He uses short, deliberate movements to escape rushes, and he has the lateral athleticism to sidestep blitzes and create additional space and time for himself.
In the pocket, Stroud does well at feeling and anticipating pressure, and can pre-emptively step up to buy himself time. He’s exceptional at maintaining space and has active feet throughout the play. He’s comfortable staying poised, reading the field, and can stand in amidst contact to deliver passes. When he does roll out, he keeps his eyes downfield, and he also has enough speed to beat outside rushers and keep the play alive.
As accurate as Stroud is, his mental fortitude and ability is even more impressive. He is an extremely smart quarterback, who quickly goes through reads and process leverage. He’s able to quickly diagnose coverage and make pre-snap adjustments and is not afraid to do so.
With his receivers, Stroud is also able to anticipate options and maximize efficiency, especially on quick throws. He reacts quickly to option breaks and has the anticipation, arm strength, and confidence to make difficult throws.
Stroud is an intelligent, composed leader, and measured decision-maker who comfortably works through reads and progressions. As far as collegiate quarterbacks go, he is arguably one of, if not the best, composed QB in this draft class.
Despite this, Stroud does have areas for improvement.
I mentioned before how successful Stroud is with a clean pocket (71.7% completion rate, 35 TDs, 93.4 PFF grade). Under pressure, Stroud becomes a shell of himself (41.3% completion rate, six TDs, 42.0 PFF).
The same can be said for virtually any quarterback, but Stroud is notably bad when the pocket collapses. He ranks 97th in PFF grade out of 144 qualifying QBs under pressure. Stroud excels in a sturdy pocket, although he can be a bit of a statue in the pocket as well. It’s odd that coming into college he was touted as a dual-threat running QB, but he never really got an opportunity to use his legs at Ohio State. He will definitely have to work on this for the next level, as the NFL is beginning to move away from pure-pocket passers and rely more on dual-threat mobile QBs.
While in the pocket, Stroud also could benefit from improving his footwork more. His drops aren’t consistently synced to the routes, and there is notable wasted movement. He stays on his toes with his heels off the ground, which can lead to inconsistencies and issues setting a base for his throws. Also, while his pass-first mentality is appreciated by some, Stroud needs to weaponize his running ability in order to fully reach his potential.
Stroud also occasionally stares down his receivers, keying in defenders, and he sometimes forces passes with his arm. Most notably, he will probably need strong adjustments from a WR-option-heavy offense.
He also needs to become more comfortable running off-script. We saw flashes of this in the playoffs against Georgia’s pressure, but it was an anomaly during his time as a Buckeye.
Team sources for Ohio State have also mentioned Stroud is more reserved and quiet, and not very vocal as a leader. Franchises may not like this, as most want their playcaller to be the true leader of the huddle and locker room.
Regardless, Stroud is a definite top-10 pick in the NFL Draft and is a potential first overall pick. The real question is will he be picked first overall? It’s a matter of preference, and really comes down to which franchise holds the pick come draft night.
NFL Player Comparisons: Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow
Campus Builder: Tailgating
Welcome to the Campus Builder Series. In this column, I’ll be dissecting every aspect of a college football team, from tailgating experience to coaching staff. This week, we’re looking at the best tailgating experiences in the country. Read our last post about stadiums here.
As great as the on-field activities are at a college football game, the pregame festivities can be just as fun. Tailgating is one of the most popular parts of college football, but some schools do it better than others. What are some of the best tailgate experiences in the nation?
Ohio State University
According to Fansided, fans at Ohio State are allowed to start setting up for tailgates at 5 p.m. the Thursday before a game. Tailgating is already fun, and making it last even longer can only help. Couple that with one of the top teams in the Big 10 and a massive stadium, and you have yourself a great tailgating atmosphere.
South Dakota Mines
Ever wanted to tailgate while watching football live? At O’Harra Stadium, home to the South Dakota Mines Hardrockers, parking decks wrap around part of the field, allowing fans to tailgate and watch the game from the comfort of their own car. It doesn’t get any better than not having to stop tailgating once the game starts.
Louisiana State University
Louisiana is no stranger to partying. LSU takes that mentality to their tailgates and incredible atmosphere. From the amazing regional food to the passionate fans, LSU seems like one of the best tailgating spots in the country.
Although the on-field product might not always be the best, Ole Miss has long been heralded as one of the best places in the country to tailgate. With a dedicated spot on campus for tailgating called The Grove, plenty of fans pack in every Saturday before home games. The passionate fans are what makes the experience so unforgettable.
Overall, there are so many tailgating spots to choose from and only a few we could mention here. There are so many places, especially in the SEC, where tailgating is a central part of gamedays.
While the huge, packed lawns of the SEC are really great tailgating spots, I’m going to go with pure novelty here and pick South Dakota Mines tailgates. Why stop the tailgate at kickoff?
Biggest Upside – Analyzing Anthony Richardson
Anthony Richardson graduated from Eastdale High School as a consensus four-star recruit by ESPN and 247Sports.
After finishing his high school career with 4,633 yards and 37 touchdowns, as well as 1,633 rushing yards with 41 rushing touchdowns, he opted to stay home in Gainesville and committed to the Florida Gators.
In 2020, Richardson redshirted and saw very limited action, finishing the season with 27 yards on two attempts in two games for the Gators.
As a redshirt Freshman in 2021, Richardson played in seven games (with no starts), and passed for 527 yards on 63 attempts (58.7% completion rate) and six touchdowns, and a total QBR of 84.6. He also finished with 50 runs for 415 yards, and as a result was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team. Flashes of brilliance had Gators fans clamoring for more playing time.
As a Sophomore in 2022, Richardson was named the starter and played in a total of 12 games. He finished with 2,553 yards on 330 attempts (53% completion rate) with 17 TDs, and a total QBR of 84.3. As a runner, he racked up 713 yards on 97 attempts.
To many’s shock (and arguably horror), Richardson declared for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Richardson is a polarizing prospect. Declaring for the draft as a one-year starter is quite a risk, let alone when you’ve only attempted 66 passes before your first year as a starter.
He is difficult to evaluate for the next level. He has the size of your prototypical professional quarterback, being listed at 6 foot 4, 232 pounds.
As a passer, Richardson’s arm strength and ability to launch the ball downfield with ease is immediately evident. He also has the ability to put velocity on his passes to fit in narrow windows. In my opinion, there is not a single throw that Richardson doesn’t have the strength to make.
On occasion, Richardson has shown that he is capable of changing tempo and trajectory on his passes, and he has shown flashes of being able to read defenses high and/or low and is disciplined enough to take a checkdown throw when necessary.
Perhaps the most notable strength Richardson possesses is his athleticism. He’s able to use it both as a passer and a runner, and has shown multiple times that he is able to make all of his progressions, escape the pocket if necessary, and use his legs to extend the play. On designed QB rollouts and bootlegs, he can make accurate throws and properly read layered route concepts and deliver the ball accurately on the run.
Richardson profiles as a powerful runner. On designed QB runs, he can become a one-cut runner that can rip off big plays into the open field. He can also make the decision (and has the confidence) to run through people if necessary to pick up yardage in short-yardage situations. He also is intelligent as a runner, who is able to call for blocks and make the correct reads to maximize gains.
As a player with just one year as a starter under their belt, Richardson has a lot to improve on. The majority, if not all, of the improvements he needs to make are centered around his accuracy. While he does have arguably the strongest arm of any QB in this year’s draft, he is inconsistent with placement and location of his throws. When he can operate correctly mechanically, everything looks great. When he doesn’t execute his mechanics properly, it leads to missed throws, incompletions, tipped passes, or interceptions.
Richardson’s greatest and most visible weakness is his accuracy, especially in the short to medium parts of the field. He has a habit of overthrowing passes or tossing balls too high, as well as adding way too much velocity on shorter passes, leading to drops and incompletions.
Additionally, Richardson lacks confidence as a passer. When he starts out well, he gets into a rhythm, but if he struggles early, he can get rattled by the defense and struggle to break out of the funk. Steady pressure and pass-rushes often lead Richardson to make bad decisions.
There is no doubt that Richardson boasts the physical skill set to succeed in the NFL. His best fit would come in a downfield pro-style offense that lets him throw the ball vertically and to the sideline. When paired with a strong running game, he would be able to run play action as well.
Richardson struggles with decision-making and pre-snap recognition. He doesn’t decipher information quickly but does show flashes of understanding coverage and has relatively good field vision. He also has a bad habit of fading back in the pocket and throwing off of his back foot, and uses too much of his arm for throwing, which attributes to some of his accuracy woes.
He also struggles with holding on to the ball too long, instead of just throwing it away or accepting the check down. Often times you see Richardson wanting the big play or first down, and in turn he sacrifices possessions and turnovers.
Overall, Richardson is a very raw prospect who has all the physical tools that are coveted in a modern dual-threat quarterback. His ability to properly (and consistently) execute the details of reading coverages and mechanics will determine how high his ceiling truly is. I believe he just needs additional reps and coaching to reach his full potential.
Richardson has the highest upside of any quarterback in this year’s class. He’s just raw, and after only starting for one year, it’s unknown what his potential truly is, or how good he can be with more experience and training. He has an equal chance of being the best steal in the draft, just as much as the worst bust.
NFL Comparisons: Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson
Proven Winner – Is It Enough? Analyzing Bryce Young
Bryce Young attended Mater Dei High School and was ranked a 5-star recruit by ESPN and 247Sports. After earning Offensive MVP honors at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and being named the All-American Bowl Player of the Year, Young committed to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Young saw limited action in 2020 as a freshman backup to Mac Jones, finishing the season with 156 yards on 22 attempts for one touchdown and a total QBR of 96.
Young’s sophomore year was one for the ages, as he played 14 games for the Crimson Tide, finishing with 4,491 yards on 492 attempts (67.1% completion) and 45 touchdowns, and a total QBR of 122.3. Young also finished with 273 rushing yards on 45 attempts.
After the 2021 season, Young received a multitude of accolades including the Heisman trophy, college football’s Player of the Year by the Associated Press, the Maxwell Award, as well as the Davey O’Brien and Manning awards. He was also a consensus first-team All-American by the AP, FWAA, and TSN.
In his Junior year, Young saw further improvement and accolades, where he finished with 3,325 yards (64.5% completion), 32 touchdowns and five interceptions, with a total QBR of 114.9. Young also rushed for 306 yards in 33 attempts and four touchdowns.
2022 marked the first time a quarterback in Alabama history finished two consecutive seasons with 3,000-plus yards, as Young also finished second in program history for career passing yards (8,356) and passing touchdowns (80). He was also the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in five-touchdown games (5), was selected as a second-team All American, earned second-team All-SEC, finished second in the SEC and tied 10th nationally in passing touchdowns (32), and finished sixth in the 2022 Heisman Trophy voting.
But is it enough to be successful in the NFL?
Bryce Young’s greatest strength as a quarterback is his passing. He has excellent instincts and is superb at understanding where his options and reads are at all times. Young is deathly accurate and excels at lacing passes into tight windows to beat coverage. With good timing and precision, Young is also great at leading his receivers to rack up RAC. Many QBs lack Young’s confidence to throw into tight coverage, much less his skill at doing it successfully. Even when his passes fall incomplete, his touch on the ball is nearly perfect.
Young is an accurate passer in the short to intermediate parts of the field, however, he still has good ball placement when he throws deep. Even if he doesn’t have the cannon of Josh Allen, he is still more than capable of making any required throw. Although Young is short, he does not struggle with his field vision and knowing where his targets are at all times.
While Young is a pass-first quarterback, he does not shy away from the run. He is a good athlete who offers above-average mobility and escapability. He excels at climbing the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield while pressured, and throws well on the run. When plays collapse, Young can move the chains, however he looks to throw on the run first. With his mobility and intelligence as a runner, Young is capable of running off-script to create opportunities.
Another strength of Young’s is his on-ball intelligence. He has clearly studied enough to fully grasp and understand plays, and he is fully aware of where his receivers are and will be on the field. Young does not lack confidence in the slightest.
Young is almost picture-perfect. Almost.
Perhaps the biggest knock to Young’s draft stock is his size. He is listed at 6 foot, 194 pounds, and really does not match the stature you’d expect in an NFL quarterback; however this has not translated to poor performance throughout his collegiate career.
Conversely, Young could also be more patient at times. There are times when Young sticks to his first read too long, or tries too hard for big plays, when it would be smarter to throw the ball away or go for the checkdown.
Young’s mechanics also become a bit questionable when rolling out. He sometimes abandons the pocket prematurely, eroding opportunities. Mechanically, Young also needs to improve both during and at the conclusion of his dropbacks, where he sometimes releases too early and throws off his back foot, leading to inaccurate and under-thrown passes.
Lastly, Young appears to be nonchalant on the drop and can be late to reset his eyes as a result. Often he gets caught flat-footed, which can delay throws. Young could be more deliberate and precise with his in-pocket footwork, as his staggered feet can lead to inconsistencies in his throwing platforms.
While Young’s size is perhaps the most glaring negative aspect of his draft stock, he does also have a susceptibility to injury. Behind an elite line at Alabama, he’s been able to stay on the field, but if he is drafted by a team with a weak supporting line, it could quickly become a problem. As it is, any team that selects him should be prepared to stock up the offensive line in order for him to remain successful and healthy.
Comparing Bryce Young to NFL quarterbacks is a difficult task, as his size and ability is a bit of an anomaly. The closest comparison I could make for Young is a less-athletic Kyler Murray, where size is relatively similar.
Despite his size, Young is still an elite draft prospect, and behind the right supporting cast and staff, could become an elite-level quarterback at the next level. I project Young to be anywhere from the 1st to 3rd quarterback taken, depending on finalized draft order and potential trades.
NFL Comparisons: Less athletic Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa, Doug Flutie
A brief history of the Sun Belt Conference
Last season, members of the Sun Belt conference shocked the college football world. App State took down Texas A&M in College Station just a week after nearly beating North Carolina in an instant classic. The same week, new conference member Marshall dashed Notre Dame’s dreams with a 26-21 victory in South Bend, and that’s not all. Georgia Southern sent Scott Frost packing with a 45-42 shocker over Nebraska.
Over the years, the Sun Belt has built a reputation for upsetting Power 5 teams. Just take a look at Troy’s 2017 victory against LSU, or Lousiana-Monroe’s infamous upsets against Alabama in 2007 and Arkansas in 2012. However, it’s taken a while to ascend the mountain of Group of Five conferences. What’s the history of the Sun Belt Conference?
The year was 1976. It was a monumental year in history. Not because Apple was founded by Steve Jobs, not because the NBA and the ABA merged, and not because Family Feud made its TV debut. 1976 was special because the Sun Belt was founded.
The Sun Belt conference opened in 1976, including members such as: the University of New Orleans, Georgia State University, Jacksonville University, UNC Charlotte, University of South Florida, and the University of South Alabama. At the start of the conference, basketball was the biggest sport, as football wouldn’t be a part of the Sun Belt until 2001.
While it was a relatively small start, changes were on the way soon. Apparently size does matter, because New Orleans was kicked out of the league after four short years due to their undersized gym that didn’t meet conference standards. However, commissioner Vic Bubas also added Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, UAB, and VCU early in the conference’s lifespan. While they hadn’t introduced football as a conference sport yet, the Sun Belt was definitely shaping up. Then 1990 happened.
Once the 1990-91 basketball season ended, many teams left the Sun Belt in a shocking move. It might have had something to do with Vic Bubas retiring. The Sun Belt was looking to expand at the time, which might have fragmented some relationships with schools. Regardless of exactly how it happened, the conference was left with fragments– Western Kentucky, South Alabama, and Jacksonville were the only remaining teams.
The Sun Belt and the simultaneously struggling American South conference merged, with the new conference adopting the Sun Belt moniker. Notable teams in the American South were Louisiana Lafayette, UCF and old friend New Orleans. Around this point, the longtime basketball conference entertained the idea of starting a football conference too.
In the next ten years or so, a few teams left. UCF decided they were too good for everyone, and pursued other ways to win national championships. Lamar, Texas-Pan American University, and Jacksonville all left in 1998. At the turn of the century, the Sun Belt had seen their fair share of turnover, but new commissioner Wright Waters had his eyes set on starting a football conference.
In order to add enough members to make football viable, the Sun Belt had to expand their reach a bit. And by a bit, I mean they took anybody willing to join. The Sun Belt had generally stayed in the Southeast region in their early days. North Texas, Middle Tennessee State, and UL Monroe certainly fit the bill of expansion members. It makes sense, right? Well, add in Idaho. And New Mexico State. And Utah State in 2003. In 2004, they also added Troy as a member, and Florida Atlantic joined the next year.
The Sun Belt football conference started off in 2001 without a championship game, and the title was given to the team or teams with the best conference record. North Texas dominated the conference from 2001-2004, winning a share of the title every single year. 2005 saw a three way tie, and then it was Troy’s turn to dominate. Every year from 2006 to 2010, the Trojans captured a conference title. All was well until there was even more realignment in the early 2010’s.
How about now, Benson?
With a new commissioner, Karl Benson, came new members. Let’s go through this round quickly:
Georgia State rejoined. Texas State joined. University of Texas at Arlington joined as a non football member. FIU, FAU, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee State all left for Conference USA in 2013. Western Kentucky also left for Conference USA in 2014. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern both accepted invitations. Idaho and New Mexico State both rejoined for a short stint after the Western Athletic Conference dropped football. Then they were dropped by the Sun Belt in 2016. Additionally, Coastal Carolina joined the conference in 2015.
So, after this whirlwind of realignment and chaos, the Sun Belt decided to split into two divisions for football in 2018, thus installing a conference championship. The East consisted of: Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Troy. The West contained: Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana–Monroe, South Alabama, and Texas State.
The conference championships have been somewhat one-sided. Three out of five years, Appalachian State represented the East, while Louisiana has represented the West four out of five years. There was no more realignment up until last year.
Seriously? More realignment?
Thanks to Texas and Oklahoma agreeing to join the SEC, college football was thrown into yet another phase of realignment. After the Big 12 added schools from the American Athletic Conference, the AAC turned to add members from Conference USA. At this point, rumors sprung up that the C-USA might fold, so the Sun Belt agreed to add a few of their members.
That brings us to the current state of the Sun Belt, and the future is bright. Keith Gill and his predecessors have assembled a lineup of quality schools who are all capable of pulling the big, exciting upsets. Hopefully, there will be a decade free of realignment, and Cincinnati set the precedent for Group of 5 playoff berths in 2021. With the expanded playoffs on the horizon, the Sun Belt could certainly see increased success.It was a difficult situation for new commissioner Keith Gill to step into, but he’s handled it all very well. Southern Miss, Marshall, and former member Old Dominion all joined the Sun Belt in July 2022. Additionally, the conference added James Madison University, a top FCS program. All the new teams have fared well so far, with Marshall having the previously mentioned upset of Notre Dame and JMU beating App State in a thriller just last week.
Campus Builder: Best CFB Stadiums
Welcome to the Campus Builder Series. In this column, I’ll be dissecting every aspect of a college football team, from tailgating experience to coaching staff. To start the series, let’s look at some of the most unique college football stadiums. Thanks to the respondents at r/CFB.
First, let’s take a look at stadium criteria. The criteria that I’m using are personality, novelty, location and architecture, and categories will be ranked out of 10. So, what are the stadiums that we’re looking at?
Sun Bowl: El Paso, Texas
The home of the UTEP Miners is built into a mountain, making for some amazing scenery. Constructed in 1963, the stadium has a capacity of 45,971. While it may not look super imposing from the outside, the Sun Bowl has a friendly feel to it. The outside architecture is nothing to write home about, but it executes a simple style well and blends in nicely with the rest of campus. It may not be super intricate, but the aesthetic meshes well with the landscape and surrounding area.
Personality: 8 | Novelty: 7 | Location: 10 | Architecture: 6
Scott Stadium: Charlottesville, Virginia
Scott Stadium serves as the home venue for the University of Virginia. Most recently renovated in 2000, most of the Cavaliers’ stadium seems fairly generic. However, the unique approach to the North end zone vaulted Scott Stadium onto the short list. Rather than having seating wrap all the way around, the stadium features lawn seating which is flanked by pillars. It’s a nice feature, but the rest of the venue consists of a standard bowl stadium with an overuse of bricks.
Personality: 6 | Novelty: 7 | Location: 3 | Architecture: 6
Oklahoma Memorial Stadium: Norman, Oklahoma
With a capacity of 86,112, the Sooners’ stadium is one of the largest in the country. But unlike massive venues like the Big House in Ann Arbor, Oklahoma Memorial packs in as much personality as it does fans. From the outside, Oklahoma Memorial is reminiscent of a fortress, with turret-like features capping the walls. With a stunning exterior and a well-done interior, the stadium is one of the top places to visit for any college football fan.
Personality: 9 | Novelty: 6 | Location: 4 | Architecture: 10
Superior Dome: Marquette, Michigan
While it may be a few coats of paint away from being a Mario Kart blue shell, the Superior Dome can’t be beat in terms of sheer novelty. Built in 1991, the dome hosts the Northern Michigan University Wildcats. The Superior Dome is the largest wooden dome in the world, and also has a great location just off of Lake Superior. Although it only has a capacity of 8,000, the dome is a great fit for a smaller school like NMU.
Personality: 8 | Novelty: 10 | Location: 5 | Architecture: 7
Jones AT&T Stadium: Lubbock, Texas
Jones AT&T Stadium, home to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, might not be the biggest stadium in the conference. However, it has a ton of interesting and amazing aspects to it. First off, it’s important to notice the awe-inspiring design on the East wall of the stadium (the first thing you see in the tweet above). Additionally, Jones AT&T has not one, but two suite/press boxes. One of the best touches is the Texas Tech “Double T” shaped scoreboard. Overall, Jones AT&T is one of the more underrated stadiums in college football, and should only get better after ongoing renovations are completed.
Personality: 8 | Novelty: 7 | Location 3 | Architecture: 8
All of these stadiums have their own unique features that make them attractive, but for the sake of carrying on the series one must be picked. I’m going to pick the Sun Bowl– the way it fits in with the landscape is unbeatable and the skyline is magnificent. Which was your favorite? Let us know on Twitter.
A Breakdown of Kentucky MBB
The Kentucky Wildcats have had a very confusing season. The Wildcats are sitting at fifth place in the SEC with a 14-6 (5-3) record. Although one could argue that this is a successful season, the Wildcats are currently unranked and have been historically regarded as one of the best programs in the SEC, so their current standing is a shock to most. The Wildcats have plenty of time to turn their season around with about two months of conference play remaining (11 games) and key matchups against Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn. Rumors are circling about head coach John Calipari possibly taking the head coaching position at the University of Texas, but Calipari seems to be 100 percent bought in to the Wildcats and continuing their success that Kentucky has always been known for.
Speaking of success, the Wildcats have a lot to brag about. Kentucky has had impressive wins over Michigan, LSU, and fifth ranked Tennessee. Oscar Tshiebwe has been an unstoppable force this season for the Wildcats. The unanimous 2022 National Player of the Year is currently averaging a double-double and leading his team in both rebounding and scoring. Freshman Cason Wallace is third on the team in scoring, averaging 11.2 points per game and has solidified himself in the starting rotation. Seniors Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves are both averaging double digits in scoring and have became foundational pieces in this program. The Wildcats will continue to rely heavily on this trio of seniors to extend their 4 game win streak at home against number 9 Kansas.
Now that we have shared the positives of the Kentucky season, we must also discuss the negatives. Early losses to Michigan State and Gonzaga stalled the momentum of this program and people began asking questions about the players’ work ethic and chemistry amongst themselves. This was followed up with losses to UCLA and Alabama. Now you can make the argument that these four losses were simply early-season losses to very competitive teams. I would agree with that assessment, however, these losses were also accompanied by losses to Missouri and South Carolina. These two losses were embarrassing and had the majority of people questioning whether Calipari would stick around and how the Wildcats would compete down the stretch. Also as we mentioned in the positives, three of the biggest contributors to Kentucky’s season are seniors and there are four more seniors that I have not mentioned.
As we began to mention previously, I would like to further discuss the roster. The Wildcats have seven players currently in their freshman or sophomore seasons and two juniors. Losing Tshiebwe, Reeves, and Toppin will make a big dent in this program. However, Kentucky currently has the number 1 recruiting class in 2023. Calipari has recruited three out of the top four prospects in the nation to join his program next season. Calipari has also secured the ninth ranked prospect, Robert Dillingham, and the 30th ranked Reed Sheppard. These five Top-50 recruits will join Calipari’s squad and will learn and develop under one of the best college coaches of all time.
MEET THE PROSPECTS
Justin Edwards, the nation’s top prospect
- 6’7, 180 lbs.
- Small Forward from Philadelphia, PA
- McDonald’s All-American
DJ Wagner, number 3 prospect
- 6’3, 165 lbs.
- Point Guard from Camden, NJ
- McDonald’s All-American
Aaron Bradshaw, number 4 prospect
- 7’0, 210 lbs.
- Center from Camden, NJ
- McDonald’s All-American
Robert Dillingham, number 9 prospect
- 6’2, 165 lbs.
- Point Guard from Charlotte, NC
- Averages 13.3 points per game in Overtime Elite
Reed Sheppard, number 30 prospect
- 6’3, 170 lbs.
- Guard from London, KY
- McDonald’s All-American
Whether you love or hate the Kentucky Wildcats, they will continue their blue blood status and remain at the top of the SEC, competing with the very best programs in the nation. Although this season is not typical for the Wildcats, you can expect them to be back as a number 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the near future.
College Sports Shake Up: Conference Realignment and its impacts
College Football has been shaken up like never before, with new teams joining different conferences all around the country. This past season we saw new additions to the Sun Belt with James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss. We also saw other schools get accepted to join different conferences in the future, so what exactly does the future hold? What teams will be joining what conferences and in what season? Let’s take a look at the future shake up of NCAA sports.
The Big 12 is going to have the most shakeup out of every conference in the near future. Four new teams are joining this season, while two are exiting next season. What will this mean for the conference going forward?
The conference is welcoming BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston starting July 1st, 2023. Oklahoma and Texas will be leaving the conference as of July 1st, 2024. Losing Oklahoma and Texas is a huge loss for the conference as they are the top two schools in revenue in the Big 12. These two schools also have the most rankings in the top 10 in every sport and the most national championships.
What does adding the new schools do for the conference? Besides adding two amazing venues in Orlando and Provo to the conference it also brings in more competition. Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston have been in the top three in the American Athletic Conference in all major sports for five seasons now. Most notably football and basketball. Cincinnati most recently became the first Group of Five squad to make the College football playoff and UCF had an undefeated season and so called “National Championship” in 2019. Houston basketball is constantly at the top of the country with two elite eight appearances and a Final Four appearance in recent years. With the Big 12 already being the most competitive basketball conference, adding Houston will make the conference schedule even more brutal.
BYU is an interesting school in an interesting situation. They have been independent in football since they left the Mountain West conference in 2010 and have never been in a Power 5 conference before. BYU basketball competes in the West Coast Conference with teams like Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga– with the Cougars’ departure, the WCC will lose a lot of its strength as a conference. BYU will be interesting to watch in the new Big 12, but I think they will compete in football and possibly baseball the best.
American Athletic Conference
The American continues to rebound and reload on teams after losing some of its best members. With the departure of Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF many thought the AAC would no longer be king of the Group of Five conferences until they added a whopping SIX new members to the conference. Now, what does this mean for the future?
The six new teams joining the AAC for next season in athletics are UTSA, UAB, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte, and FAU. Out of these six schools, four made a bowl game last season but only one of them won. Charlotte has now joined the FBS and moved conferences in an eight year span, and Florida Atlantic finds itself in its fourth new conference. Yes these four teams are MUCH weaker than the three that left the conference, but it is a good sign that six have joined.
UTSA has been a staple in the C-USA for the last two seasons with two conference championships and 11 win seasons, but they have never won a bowl game. UAB competes in one of the hardest recruiting markets in sports in Alabama, but their basketball program has lots of upside potential with Houston leaving the AAC. Speaking of basketball programs, FAU is currently ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll this season within the C-USA. The Owls can build some momentum heading into next basketball season and possibly compete as a top four team right out the gate. North Texas is an interesting team, as they were once members of the Sun Belt and C-USA.
The UTSA and UNT rivalry is safe with both teams moving to the AAC, so that is an overall positive for the stability and recognition of the conference. I fully expect the AAC to remain the king of the Group of 5 with the Sun Belt being very close behind it. As for C-USA, where all six of these teams got poached from, the future is very bleak. However, that opens the door for brand new FBS teams to enter Division 1-A play in football.
The C-USA got the short end of the stick when it came to conference realignment. This conference lost six of its members to the AAC this season after losing three last season to the Sun Belt. How did they rebound? Well, they added two FBS programs to the conference and three schools made the FCS to FBS jumps. The C-USA is by far the weakest Group of 5 conference, but it has set itself up to be the gateway to FBS football.
Let’s start with the two FBS teams: Liberty and New Mexico State. Both of these teams were independent in football, but Liberty competes in the A-10 conference for other sports and NMSU competes in the WAC. NMSU basketball has dominated the WAC and now they will be leaving for the MUCH weaker C-USA so I do not expect much change in their dominance in that sport.
On the gridiron, the Aggies have struggled to compete with an independent schedule, but a conference schedule should see them improve after a 7-6 season and a bowl win in 2022. Liberty has been dominant in their football schedule being ranked three times under former head coach Hugh Freeze, but after his departure, what is ahead for them? New head Coach Jamie Chadwell brought Coastal Carolina to relevance in his years there, so there is no evidence suggesting Liberty will suffer a terrible fall off this season in the C-USA.
The two brand new members to the FBS are Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State. JSU has competed in football at the FCS level but not to the extent of SHSU. SHSU is a three time FCS national champion and will most likely be a top team in the C-USA next season. JSU will compete better in basketball and baseball. JSU’s basketball program won the A-SUN regular season conference title last season and should be a top 2 team this next season. The Gamecocks baseball team has always competed in their conference and should continue that level of competitiveness. The conference will also add Kennesaw State in 2024.
Along with these conferences gaining and losing teams, there are two other major moves that need to be addressed. The two biggest conferences in football, the SEC and Big 10, are going to have two new teams.
Oklahoma and Texas are joining the SEC in the 2025 season, or possibly earlier depending on the TV partnerships they have. This is good for the SEC as it adds more competition to the conference. With the addition of these two teams, the SEC is moving to division-less football with the top two teams making the conference championship each year for football.
USC and UCLA are joining the Big 10 starting in 2024. This was a weird move to hear about, having two California teams compete with a bunch of midwest teams, but when you look at the money involved then you see why. USC and UCLA helped the Big 10 land a deal with CBS to cast their games. Yes, the SEC on CBS will no longer be a thing– it will now be the Big 10 on CBS. The Pac-12 loses two of its most valuable programs, but at least they get to keep Oregon for now.
Other rumors surrounding conference realignment involve Oregon and Washington joining the Big 10 in the future, Notre Dame permanently joining the ACC, and a possible disbanding of the PAC12. Nonetheless, college sports are in for a wild future.
Boom or Bust? Analyzing Will Levis
Will Levis was a consensus three-star recruit and the number two player in the state of Connecticut, choosing to pursue a FBS career at Penn State despite multiple Ivy League offers from the likes of Princeton and Harvard.
After redshirting his freshman year, he barely saw the field for the Nittany Lions, only being used as a power-running goal line weapon. His sophomore year was just as limited, finishing with 414 yards on 54 attempts, with one touchdown and a completion rate of 59.3%, and a QBR of 89.6. Levis also ran 79 times for a total of 286 yards.
After starting two games in three years for Penn State, Levis transferred to Kentucky after the 2020 season, landing the starting role and not looking back.
Levis played a total of 13 games as a junior, finishing with a 10-3 record, as he tallied 2,826 yards for 24 touchdowns, and rushing 107 times for 376 yards and 9 touchdowns.
After his junior year as a Wildcat, helping the program reach their fourth ever ten-win season, and a fourth consecutive bowl game victory (20-17 against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl), Levis’ draft stock soared. And yet, he decided to return to Lexington for his senior year.
You can’t blame Levis for deciding to return for another year. The 2022 NFL Draft had the likes of Malik Willis, Brock Purdy, Kenny Pickett, Sam Howell, etc. It made sense for Levis to hone his skills for another year and enter the draft in 2023 with a weaker quarterback class.
Levis’ year did not go well, to say the least.
The Wildcats lost Liam Coen in the offseason prior, and this significantly hindered Levis’ development. The offensive line coach left for Alabama, and UK lost multiple starters to the draft, including Darian Kennard and Luke Fortner. Combined with a completely new offensive scheme from former 49ers OC Rich Scangarello, losing top WR in Wan’Dale Robinson, and a supporting cast that simply doesn’t have as much talent, Levis struggled to adjust.
Levis finished his collegiate career in 2022 with a 65.4% completion percentage, totaling 2,406 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, and a QBR of 99.1. However, 2022 marked the first season that Levis rushed for less than 200 yards, finishing with 119 yards on 45 attempts.
Despite this, Levis is still high on many draft boards. But why?
Levis is the poster child of “draft for ceiling.” Listed at 6 feet, 3 inches and 232 pounds, he is built like an NFL-ready prospect. If the draft was purely based on potential alone, Levis would probably go first overall.
Levis’ biggest strength is his arm strength. For someone of his size and arm strength, he boasts an unusually quick release. Overall, his throwing mechanics are clean and sharp, and he throws with a compact motion, making it easier to get the ball out faster.
If left unaccounted for, Levis also has the ability to scramble for distance once he breaks contain. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but his legs can move the chains if necessary, and he isn’t afraid of contact.
During his two seasons at Kentucky, Levis worked under a variation of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan style offenses, familiarizing himself with terminology, making protection checks, and pre-snap adjustments.
Perhaps Levis’ biggest strength regarding his passing talent is operating in play action. Levis had 75.4% on target throw percentage in PA schemes last season, with a 13/5 TD/INT ratio. The biggest benefit for Levis in PA offenses is the fact that it creates defined windows where defenders move based on the run action. However, when Levis has to throw without defined windows in RPA, his processing slows down a lot. In both years at Kentucky, Levis’ sack percentage increased in non-RPA called plays.
Levis also has a tendency to stare down his targets, leading to quite a few bad decisions and plays being easily read by defenders. Levis can easily work NFL passing games when reads are clearly defined for him, but it starts to get cloudier when running non-RPA called plays, and Levis crumbles.
Under pressure, Levis is hit or miss. During Kentucky’s week 7 game against Mississippi State, Levis went 17-for-23 for 230 yards, one touchdown and one interception. However, he ended the game with an adjusted completion percentage of 75%, and averaged 2.11 seconds to throw the ball due to State’s pressure.
However, week 9 versus Tennessee was a completely different quarterback on the field. Kentucky was thrashed 44-6 to the then #3-ranked Tennessee, but Levis’ performance was abysmal. He went16-for-27 for 98 yards, 3 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 7 total rushing attempts for -36 yards. Levis probably wants to forget this game ever happened just as much as scouts do.
Levis is raw. He has probably the highest ceiling of any of the 2023 QB class, however he could bust just as easily as he could succeed. His athletic gifts are no question, but I believe the biggest question is his mental fortitude. Levis doesn’t pick up blitzes and changes in coverage quickly or easily and doesn’t seem to be overly instinctive as a quarterback. He needs to improve his overall touch of the football and needs to work on his pocket patience. Many times throughout his career he has given up on the play and ran, when an extra thought or two could’ve led to a better outcome.
Overall, Will Levis is a big, physically dominant and talented quarterback who has proven success in a highly competitive conference, and has helped Kentucky maintain a winning consistency under Mark Stoops. However, he struggles with reads, and needs the picture clearly defined for him or else he crumbles. Levis needs time to develop and learn the processing speed of the NFL, and with his age (23), he does not have a ton of time to develop before reaching his “prime” years. He is a pro-style QB, eerily similar to Josh Allen-esque play, it’s just a matter of putting everything together.
My biggest concern for Will Levis has almost nothing to do with his talent. The concern for his career path comes from a QB-desperate team throwing a very raw, needing-development and time Levis into a starting role Week 1 and everything falling apart (see Deshone Kizer, Brandon Weeden, etc.) In order for Levis to truly succeed and play to the best of his potential, he needs valuable time to sit and learn behind a veteran QB.
Despite this, teams need quarterbacks and will take Levis on pure potential alone. Levis’ most likely fits are the Panthers, Lions, Texans, and Jets.
Carolina would be a bit of a mix-up. Levis would be under a first-year HC and a completely new staff– however, he would have time to learn from Sam Darnold and PJ Walker, who both have valuable NFL experience. Darnold and Walker are no stranger to being thrust into a starting role young, and could prove valuable in guiding Levis.
Detroit would be the best fit for Levis overall. The Lions have just come off a fantastic year, led by Jared Goff, and in a tossup NFC North, Levis may have just the right system around him to succeed.
Houston, on the other hand, would be disastrous. Although they hold the 2nd overall pick in the 2023 draft, and could potentially take Levis to remedy Davis Mills, Houston would most likely throw Levis into a dumpster fire. We’ve seen how Levis handles pressure, and under the Texans’ staffing and system, I think Levis has a high chance of being a one-and-done in Houston.
The Jets are in somewhat of a similar situation. Most likely parting ways with Zach Wilson in the offseason, the QB room is left with Mike White and Joe Flacco. Robert Saleh could be very keen on another QB project to really get the Jets over the hump and be true competitors, and Levis could benefit greatly learning from Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco. I can see Levis’ career going both ways in New York: boom or bust.
I project Levis to be anywhere from the 1st to 3rd quarterback taken. There are a lot of variables in his play styles, but a franchise looking for a sturdy, strong-armed playcaller could lean towards Levis instead of a smaller-framed QB in Bryce Young.
NFL Comparisons: Boom (Josh Allen, Matthew Stafford) Bust (Mitch Trubisky, Josh Rosen)