Well, it’s finally here.
College football season.
All around the country, fans are eagerly getting their season tickets ready, students are planning their tailgates, and stores are loading up on cheep beer and liquor. ESPN is preparing broadcasts for this week’s action and the College GameDay crew is already looking at three or four potential locations for the second week of the season. It seems like everyone has everything all planned out for what they’re going to do to make this college football season better than the last.
Well, except those that actually have to play the game.
Frankly, this season is somewhat of a mystery. We don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into this year. There are so many questions we can ask ourselves about what this college football season will be like and, honestly, not many answers we can get back. It seems like, in season’s past, there was always an entity that we could rely on and look to as the face of college football. Be it a player, such as Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston, who were making headlines for their off-the-field antics, or a team that simply reloaded year in and year out.
But this year, there isn’t an entity like that. Winston and Marcus Mariota, the two biggest names in college ball, are off to the NFL. Nearly every team in the country has major question marks surrounding them. In this era of the College Football Playoff, is there really a single team we can pencil in as a sure-fire playoff lock at this point? When we look at this season and begin to speculate as to what’s what, more questions arise than answers.
So where do we start?
I guess there’s no better place to start than with the defending national champs, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Lead by their quarterback, Cardale Jones… Or wait, is it J.T. Barrett?
See? Two sentences in and we already have a major question that doesn’t have an answer.
We all know the story now. After losing Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped up and lead Ohio State to an 11-1 record before getting injured himself, which opened the door for sophomore Cardale Jones. Jones famously lead the Buckeyes to victories over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon en route to a national championship while drawing praise from NFL scouts along the way for his performance.
But now, less than a week before Ohio State travels to Virginia Tech on Monday night, we still don’t know who will be starting versus the Hokies. While Urban Meyer listed both Barrett and Jones as co-starters, there’s only one quarterback on the field at a time (except if you run some sort of weird formation, here’s looking at you Princeton). Barrett seems to be the favorite to win the job after his performance last year, but, and this is where it gets weird, Jones is probably the more NFL-ready quarterback of the two. After his playoff run, NFL scouts were drooling over Jones’ size, arm strength and physicality, and the Ben Roethlisberger comparison has even been thrown out there. But what if Cardale Jones rides the bench this year? Does he still get the same amount of draft hype after failing to win the job in college? And if Jones wins the job, does Urban Meyer sit Barrett, who scored 45 touchdowns last year to break Drew Brees’ single-season record in the Big 10?
Luckily for Urban Meyer, whichever quarterback he chooses will probably have a lot of success, given the amount of talent Ohio State returns elsewhere. All-world running back Ezekiel Elliott, who ran all over Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs, returns, as do wide receivers Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall. On defense, big names such as Adolphus Washington, Darron Lee, Von Bell and Eli Apple look to return the Buckeyes to the playoffs. Oh yeah, and some guy named Joey Bosa is back as well, but no one’s really heard of him, have we?
The real X-factor here is Braxton Miller. After sitting out last season with a shoulder injury, all the offseason talk was about his name being thrown back into the open quarterback competition with Barrett and Jones, which is weird considering he was a two-time Big 10 Player of the Year at that position. But instead, he decides to move to H-back, or a wide receiver in Ohio State’s scheme, mostly because there was little to no chance of him getting drafted at quarterback and H-back takes advantage of his natural athleticism. This is his final college season, so it’s boom or bust on Miller at wide receiver.
Down in Texas, there’s a guy by the name of Trevone Boykin whose career path has also taken several twists like Miller’s. After spending the first two years at TCU transitioning between quarterback and wide receiver, Boykin was supposed to have another down year in 2014 for a TCU squad that finished 4-8 in 2013. Instead, Boykin threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, led TCU to a 12-1 record, a Big 12 title and absolutely crushed Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl while narrowly missing out on a playoff berth. This season, TCU opens as the #2 team in the nation behind Ohio State and Boykin is the early favorite to win the Heisman trophy. Not bad for a guy who, at this point a couple years ago, wasn’t sure if his future was at wide receiver or quarterback.
But is TCU really the favorite to win the Big 12? Well Baylor, who won the Big 12 last year, might have something to say about that.
Wait, you’re thinking to yourself, “Two champions?” Yes, TCU and Baylor split the Big 12 title after both going 9-1 in conference last year, despite Baylor winning the head-to-head matchup against TCU.
And the Big 12’s motto last year was “One True Champion.”
This year, maybe their motto will be “One (or more) True Champion(s).”
Anyways, Baylor returns a lot on both sides of the ball, including 6-9, 280 lb. Shawn Oakman, who is actually two Baylor players spliced together by a mad scientist. Bryce Petty is gone, but Seth Russell and 5-star freshman Jarrett Stidham are there to run the hurry-up no-huddle offense that vows to score more points than there are fans in the stadium. Elsewhere in the Big 12, Oklahoma finished 8-5 last year and received a participation trophy for at least showing up to their bowl game versus Clemson (because everyone knows that no Sooner actually played in that game).
This season, they bring in Lincoln Riley to run the air-raid offense to revolutionize their offense, which is weird because Oklahoma actually had a very successful run game last year that they probably should have continued to use this year. I mean, it’s not like they had a running back that broke the single-game rushing record as a freshman or anything, right? Seriously though, Samaje Perine is an incredible talent and a Top 5 back in the country. A lot of people really like Oklahoma as a dark-horse Big 12 contender (which is weird to say), but I have serious questions about how this offense will best be able to utilize its talent.
Since we’re bouncing around here, why not go to a conference that actually had one true champion: the Pac-12.
Yes, that was a knock on you, Big 12.
What better place to start with in the Pac-12 than with USC, the team that is receiving all the hype this offseason (kind of like every offseason). They return Cody Kessler, a legit Heisman contender and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. They also have a plethora of young talent with guys such as JuJu Smith and Adoree Jackson expected to become the next big names of college football.
But will that hype train hit the wall? It seems as if USC always loses that one stupid game that no one expects them to, such as Boston College or Utah. Plus they lost their best players, Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor, to the NFL Draft. I’m not buying the USC hype this year. Sark is a good coach, but not a great one. Plus, I think he still has some burpees to finish after his little stunt this past weekend.
One team I am buying into is the Oregon Ducks, which kills me as a Florida State fan. Vernon Adams landed in the perfect location and there shouldn’t be a significant drop off in quarterback play despite the Ducks losing the best player in school history. Oregon has possibly the best wide receiver corps in the entire country and returns an experienced offensive line. There are some questions on defense, but they replaced first-round draft pick Arik Armstead with 5-star freshman Canton Kaumatule and DeForest Buckner returns as well. If there were one team I would pick to make the playoff at this stage, it would definitely be Oregon.
Elsewhere in the Pac-12, 5-star freshman Josh Rosen takes over the reigns at UCLA and has high expectations to lead an offense that returns 10 starters and many playmakers. While UCLA may be a year or two away from making serious noise, they are a dangerous team and should not be overlooked despite losing Brett Hundley to the NFL. Stanford is always a threat in the North division, especially because no other team in the country can line up and pound the ball down your throat like the Cardinal can. They should be improved on defense this year also and Kevin Hogan returns for his final season as well. So between those factors, Stanford is definitely primed to pull off an upset or two this season.
Down in the grand state of Arizona, two schools on the rise also look to cause some ruckus. The Wildcats of Arizona had a phenomenal 2014 season. Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson were breakout stars on offense and Scooby Wright III cemented himself as the best defensive player in the country. They upset Oregon at home and won the South division, before getting crushed by Oregon in the rematch and losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl (oh yeah, Boise State should be seriously good this season as well).
Arizona State had an up-and-down season last year, but they have senior quarterback Mike Bercovici stepping in and wide-receiver/running back/playmaker D.J. Foster back for another year and are being mentioned as a dark horse playoff contender as well. While I think Arizona State definitely has a better shot of winning the South division than Arizona, both schools are Top-25 programs that are on the rise.
So I guess we should bounce on back to the Big 10, huh? Or the B1G if you want to get all fancy. Either way, it’s Ohio State, then Michigan State, and then everyone else The Spartans are probably the only team that can go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes and give them a fight. Connor Cook is in the race for the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and Michigan State has serious talent all over their roster. They have questions on defense, especially with the loss of Ed Davis recently to injury, but defensive end Shilique Calhoun returns after spurning the NFL twice already. They lose Pat Narduzzi to Pitt, but Michigan State is a serious contender for the B1G title and a playoff berth if they can get past Ohio State.
Staying in the state of Michigan, the Wolverines of Michigan hired some guy named Jim Harbaugh this offseason. Everyone assumes Harbaugh is going to have immediate success at Michigan, but that probably won’t be the case. He inherits a roster full of holes at lots of positions. Jake Rudock is assumed to be the starting quarterback, but there’s a question within itself. Do they have a dependable wide receiver roster? Will the defense be able to get back on track? One name to definitely keep in mind is Jabrill Peppers. A 5-star prospect of the 2014 class, he was injured early last season and is now a redshirt freshman/sophomore. Regardless, he moved to safety and has the looks of someone just waiting to murder a poor wide receiver coming over the middle. I’m setting the over/under on the amount of players he knocks out of a game at 6.5.
Penn State might have the most interesting NFL prospect in Christian Hackenberg. A former 5-star prospect, he had a very good freshman campaign but followed it up with a dreadful 2014 performance. Of course, Penn State’s offensive line was terrible and they would have protected him better if they had just laid out traffic cones instead, but a lot more should be expected from a guy who is pushing for the top overall pick in the draft. Hack has all the tools you want from a future franchise quarterback, but the biggest question in 2015 is if he’ll be able to put all those together for NFL teams to see.
Wisconsin loses Melvin Gordon to the NFL after he successfully rushed the length of the continental United States last season, but Corey Clement is the next big running back for the Badgers from the looks of it. However, they still have Joel Stave at quarterback so don’t count on many big things from the Badgers this season. They’ll win their division because we’re just being honest with ourselves here (sorry Nebraska fans), but should get crushed in the B1G title game by either Ohio State or Michigan State.
Oh yeah, and Illinois firing its head coach a week before the season started is still a thing.
Another conference that actually had one true champion was the ACC. Florida State and Clemson have been the class of the conference for some time now and there’s no reason to think things are going to change.
Deshaun Watson is possibly the most intriguing player in college football. He tore his ACL last season, but was very, very good his freshman year and I would not argue with anyone calling him the best quarterback in the nation. They also might have the best 1-2 at wide receiver in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, not to mention the various other blue-chippers they have at the position. Running back also seems to be solid for the Tigers as well.
However, the problems begin when we look at basically every other position. Clemson is starting a true freshman at left tackle (albeit a 5-star) and that does not bode well for a quarterback coming off an ACL injury. I’m not saying Mitch Hyatt is going to be terrible, but to expect a Cam Robinson-type performance out of a true freshman is too much. On defense, the Tigers return a grand total of 1 (one!) starter from the 2014 defense that was the best in the nation. While I like Clemson, I don’t love them (not speaking as a Florida State fan here) and they’re not the dark horse playoff contender that everyone has them as. They’re like the really, really dark horse. While Deshaun Watson could certainly live up to his potential, I am betting on Clemson to Clemson this season.
Now while I could write an entire thesis paper on Florida State and what 2015 looks like for the Noles, I’ll limit it to a few sentences:
Everett Golson is the best option at quarterback and, if he can limit turnovers, could have a good year in Jimbo’s offense. Dalvin Cook is a Top-5 back nationally, but the receiver corps is scary young and unproven. Offensive line is solid on the left, but questionable on the right. Defensive line depth is good, but linebacker depth is paper-thin. Defensive secondary will be much improved and Jalen Ramsey is one of the best players in college football. Oh, and Roberto Aguayo has a good head of hair and can kick the football pretty good, I guess.
Louisville is going to have a very good defense that will basically be comprised of players that got kicked off of previous Power-5 teams (Petrino is going to send several thank-you cards to Georgia and TCU this year). They would be a dark-horse contender, but they’re in the same division as Florida State and Clemson so that’s just not going to happen.
Georgia Tech is still the class of the Coastal and, despite losing basically every single playmaker on offense except for Justin Thomas, should be able to find guys that are capably of running the option offense. Elsewhere in the Coastal, Miami is going to go 6-7 again with a bowl loss because they still employ the services of one Al Golden. Virginia Tech will have a scary defense, but you will be able to beat them if you score around 10 points because their offense will be dreadful yet again. Virginia might give UCLA a fight early on, but after that people will continue to forget they exist. How Virginia got two five-star prospects in their 2014 class I’ll never know.
Fun fact: Wake Forest as a team ran for 479 total yards last season, as in over the course of 12 games, which is absurdly bad.
Samaje Perine, just one player, ran for 427 yards in a single game last season!
Wake Forest will continue to be terrible in 2015. Sorry Demon Deacon fans.
What is a Demon Deacon after all?
Anyways, I guess that wraps up our coverage of the Power 5 conferences for the… Wait, I’m getting word from my producers that, in fact, I have missed out on one conference. Some conference called the SEC? Never heard of it.
Seriously though, time for SEC talk. The best conference in college football apparently.
My pick to win the SEC is Alabama, simply because no one recruits and reloads at the level that they do. Lose a running back? Just throw in the 6-2, 240 lb. backup to start. Lose a wide receiver? Well good thing we have a dozen blue chip players at that position? Lose a quarterback? Well… There’s where things get interesting.
Jacob (I refuse to call him Jake) Coker looked to be the lock for the job, but that’s what people said in last offseason as well. As a Florida State fan, we famously know that he “pushed” Jameis Winston in fall camp before Winston was named the starter prior to the 2013 season. So while Coker certainly has all the tools you look for in a starting quarterback, something is holding him back from winning the job, be it mental or otherwise. So while I do think Coker will start for Alabama in his final college season, the backups that the Crimson Tide has on their roster will be important if Coker struggles. David Cornwell is another prototypical pocket passer and Blake Barnett is a dynamic dual-threat freshman and both will likely see playing time this season.
Except for quarterback, Alabama is practically loaded everywhere else. Derrick Henry is a human tractor at running back, blue-chip prospects are at wide receiver and tight end, and Cam Robinson is probably the best left tackle in the nation. On defense, A’Shawn Robinson is a monster and Reggie Ragland is the best player that no one talks about. Their defensive secondary is young, but they’ve got a 5-star at practically every position so at some point talent has to win out.
Auburn is a trendy pick in the SEC and for the playoff for two reasons. One, they replace Nick Marshall with Jeremy Johnson, a junior who is a much better passer than Marshall ever was. Already getting comparisons to Cam Newton, I do think Johnson will be very good, perhaps become the best quarterback in the SEC, but this Auburn offense returns three starters from last season. Their best wide receiver, Duke Williams, is in some sort of limbo stage with Gus Malzhan and who knows if he even plays this season. Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson could become the best 1-2 punch at running back but, honestly, all of this love for Auburn’s offense is coming off of speculation and not much proven talent.
Two, they hired Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Yes, that Will Muschamp that turned Florida into a tire fire. Now Willy might not be a good head coach, but he is a very good defensive coordinator. The Tigers have talent on defense and also get back defensive end Carl Lawson from injury, which should help their pass rush along with 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart. I definitely expect Auburn to be a good team this year, but they may be a year away from making a serious playoff push.
Leonard Fournette at LSU might be the best running back in the entire country, but the Tigers as a team will be held back by their abysmal quarterback play. Brandon Harris was only a freshman in 2014, but he didn’t do a lot to inspire hope for improvement this season. They have talent all over this team, but until they get consistent quarterback play, they won’t make a serious push in the SEC West.
Arkansas had a tremendous end to the 2014 season and I really like Alex Collins at running back, but the top-tier talent in the West will prevent them from making a serious push. I’m also a huge fan of Kyle Allen at Texas A&M and they are absolutely loaded at wide receiver, but they have huge questions at offensive line and defense in general.
The Mississippi schools will cause a lot of buzz based off of their 2014 performances, but if you remember, both were abysmal to end the season when they got demolished in their individual bowl games. Ole Miss has Top-10 draft pick talent in Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell (yes, make your bag men jokes now), but the play of Chad “Swag” Kelly will define how good this team will actually be. Dak Prescott is the best returning quarterback in the SEC, but the Bulldogs only have 7 returning starters on both sides of the ball and should take a huge step back this season.
Damn it; look at what you’ve made me do. I’m talking a bunch about the stupid SEC. I’ll make the East division much quicker.
The East division is, well, a lot more confusing. Tennessee and Georgia are trendy picks, but each has their flaws. Tennessee is super, super young and should be a serious contender in 2-3 years. Georgia has Nick Chubb, possibly the best running back in the nation (yes, I know I’ve said that about like three backs now), but they’re starting Greyson Lambert at quarterback so you can already pencil them in for 2-3 bad loses now. Florida is an absolute tire fire and is starting a slot wide receiver at quarterback. South Carolina isn’t anything special right now either.
As a final note, Notre Dame should be very good this year. Malik Zaire is young, but talented and has a huge arm. If he can put it all together and limit turnovers, he can be very good for this offense. Ronnie Stanley is an amazing left tackle as well. On defense the playmaker is Jaylon Smith, who is an absolute monster on the field. I don’t quite think they’ll make the playoff this year, but I do expect a Top 10 finish from the Irish.
So there you go, a couple thousand words on everything we don’t know about this college football season. I guess before I let you go, I’ll give you my four picks for the second College Football Playoff.
- Ohio State: The best team in the country on paper. Whether it’s J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones, this team will dominate on offense. Defensively, they have Bosa, Lee and Apple for one more year and should pick up where they left off. The only thing that concerns me with the Buckeyes is complacency. Bosa and several others are already suspended for the season opener versus Virginia Tech (their only loss last season) so how much will the players take the season game-by-game and not look too far ahead? Luckily Urban Meyer has been in this place before and I trust him to get his players ready.
- Alabama: Like I said before, no one recruits and reloads like Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Jacob Coker should be fine at quarterback and besides, how hard is it to hand the ball off to 6-2, 240 lb. Derrick Henry? They have a terrific offensive line anchored by sophomore sensation Cam Robinson and several good options at wide receiver. Saban and Kirby Smart should be able to get the defense back in order and, if your only problem is figuring out which 5-star talent to put where, you’re in a pretty good place.
- Oregon: I like the Duck’s move of replacing Mariota by getting Vernon Adams, probably the best “free-agent” quarterback on the market. They’re loaded at wide receiver and running back and I expect this offense to continue to score dozens of points each week. They have questions on defense, but I feel more confident about the Ducks than any other team in the Pac-12.
- TCU: Trevone Boykin returns as probably the best quarterback in the nation at the moment and is the front-runner for the Heisman trophy. They won’t be a surprise team this year and will have trouble in a tough Big 12, but I’m confident in Boykin to lead this offense to another successful campaign. They lose a bunch on defense, but Gary Patterson is a defensive wizard and can replace the talent that they lost.
So there you have it: Ohio State, Alabama, Oregon and TCU in my college football playoff. Of course, we’re probably going to come back to this in December and see that I was totally wrong about everything, but that’s what I love about college football. You think that there are guarantees at the beginning of the season, but those are all wiped out and everything is plunged into chaos. That’s how college football goes and it is amazing.
It’s officially gameday.
Are you ready?