Most season previews are rendered meaningless weeks, even days, after publishing. But our approach to a season preview doesn’t have the goal of predicting exactly what will happen. The ultimate goal is to lay out a template of what COULD happen based on the information we have available. That way any fan could jump into the wonder and merriment of college football and join the rest of the crazies in being shocked and awed about what takes place on the field this fall.
College Football Playoff
Every bit of me wants to take Alabama, but for the third consecutive year of doing this podcast, I’m going to resist. My LSU pick in 2016 went up in flames. Florida State last year was over before you could blink an eye. But I have a feeling Clemson this season is different.
The Tigers under Dabo Swinney have solidified themselves right alongside Alabama as one of the surest things in college football. They bring back the best defensive line in recent memory – Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence – a strong offensive line, playmakers at running back and an unnecessarily maligned starting quarterback in front of a hailed freshman. The talent is there. The depth is there. And the schedule sets up nicely for another run. Sure, this team doesn’t have DeShaun Watson, but this may be the most balanced, best iteration of Swinney boys we’ve seen. I’m going out on a limb with running back Travis Etienne for the Heisman, and that’s only after I strongly considered Kelly Bryant. Offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt didn’t pass up the NFL Draft for a middling attempt at the throne. The upperclassmen on this team are motivated as Swinney continues his drive toward supplanting Alabama.
Alabama has more inexperience on defense than any of Saban’s recent squads, but they are still chock full of NFL prospects. It’s just how quickly it coalesces into a title contender. The quarterback issue shouldn’t be a concern either because a) both players are more dynamic than any quarterbacks under Saban and b) the youthful targets catching passes are the best the Tide have had, including a probable breakout from Jerry Jeudy. I’m extremely high on defensive tackle Raekwon Davis this year. He’s the most physically gifted lineman Saban has had on defense and he has a chance to push for the #1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Linebacker Mack Wilson is another favorite who has a chance to follow in the footsteps of Rolando McClain, C.J. Mosley and Dont’a Hightower.
Shane and I called it two years ago that Washington was a giant ready to ascend and that should continue in 2018. Chris Peterson is my favorite coach in the country (probably Shane’s too) and he has created a squad that’s here for the long haul. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are back for a third run with a top tier offensive tackle in Trey Adams, defensive line reinforcements to replace Vita Vea, and one of the most talented secondaries in the country. My only qualm is finding a playmaker to take Dante Pettis’ spot. Chico McClatcher, Aaron Fuller and Marquis Spiker may not have the numbers, but they have the potential.
Penn State seems to be an unlikely selection to come out of the Big Ten considering Ohio State’s recent dominance, Michigan’s addition of a playmaker at quarterback and the return of the best overall defense in the nation, Michigan State’s resurgence, and Wisconsin’s best team ever (maybe?), but Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley has that Baker Mayfield look about him. Penn State loses a host of defensive contributors and of course, running back Saquon Barkley, but Barkley’s absence could potentially make the offense more explosive as McSorley is at the controls without teams keying on Barkley. Miles Sanders and Juwan Johnson will be the playmakers and folks are going to get to defensive end Shareef Miller, linebacker Koa Farmer and cornerback Amani Oruwariye. Plus, the only time they need to go on the road against top tier competition is against Michigan.
Georgia have arrived as a year in, year out potential playoff team. This iteration of the Bulldogs should be good enough to get through the SEC East fairly easily. If they can get by Auburn, they should be undefeated heading into the SEC Title game. If history repeats, and there’s two one-loss SEC teams available, we know the selection committee won’t be afraid to put both into the playoff. Georgia gets the 4-seed because the PAC-12 and BIG 12 cannibalize themselves and don’t give the committee enough faith to select one of their respective conference champions.
If not now, when? That has to be the mantra for Wisconsin this season. The Badgers bring back their upperclassman quarterback, 2,000 yard running back, and arguably the best offensive line in the country led by Beau Benzschawel, Michael Dieter, and David Edwards. Defensively, they’re as stout as they always are with All-Americans T.J. Edwards and D’Cota Dixon anchoring that unit. Wisconsin plays in the toughest conference in college football this season, with any of the four teams opposite them in the Big Ten capable of making a run to the playoff. The reason I go with Wisconsin is because they’re the most stable, extremely balanced and experienced, and have a coach in Paul Chryst who will keep his team grounding juxtaposed against the media attention surrounding the personalities of Harbaugh, Meyer, and Franklin.
Clemson makes it four straight playoffs, and four with them playing Alabama. In most any other year they’d be the easy selection. The Tigers bring back their entire defensive line, led by Christian Wilkins, and have plenty of offensive firepower with Travis Etienne and Kelly Bryant. There’s not real weakness on this team. They just happen to run into Alabama again. The Clemson Tigers are neck-and-neck with Alabama for the strongest program in College Football, and we’re all getting to witness something historical from them.
What else is there to say about Alabama? Toward the end of last season, many were beginning to openly question if this was the beginning of the end for Nick Saban at Alabama. I said it was the opposite – last season was simply the end of the new beginning for his tenure. Saban is a year older, a year wiser, and a year more comfortable in his skin. The way he micromanages and coaches his players now is a bit different than a decade ago. He, even the great Nick Saban, is evolving. And that evolution is manifested in the quarterback play of Tua Tagovailoa, a gunslinger the likes of which Bama has never had.
The offense will be dynamic, explosive, and ultra-productive. For once, a defense facing so much turnover and having to integrate so many new faces will have to lean on the offense for much of the season. If the playoff was in October, I’d pick Clemson. But come January all of these young players will essentially be a year older in terms of games played; they will be more mature and galvanized. The Tide will be able to score alongside Clemson, and in the end stop them when it counts. The dynasty continues. Alabama are your 2018-19 National Champions.
Preseason College Football Rankings
|7||Notre Dame||Ohio State||Oklahoma||Wisconsin|
|11||Michigan||West Virginia||Michigan State||Notre Dame|
|12||Oklahoma||TCU||Notre Dame||Michigan State|
|14||Mississippi State||Mississippi State||Michigan||Michigan|
|17||Virginia Tech||Oregon||West Virginia||Virginia Tech|
|18||Arizona||Texas||Mississippi State||Mississippi State|
|19||Boise State||Penn State||Florida State||Florida State|
|20||Michigan State||Central Florida||Virginia Tech||West Virginia|
|21||Texas A&M||Arizona||Central Florida||Texas|
|22||USC||South Carolina||Boise State||Boise State|
|23||Florida||Boise State||Texas||Central Florida|
|24||Florida Atlantic||Virginia Tech||Oregon||LSU|
|25||Central Florida||Florida State||LSU||Oklahoma State|
|The Next 10|
|26||LSU||Florida||South Carolina||South Carolina|
|27||Kansas State||Florida Atlantic||Florida||Florida|
|29||Oregon||Boston College||Oklahoma State||Utah|
|30||TCU||Iowa State||Florida Atlantic||Texas A&M|
|32||Iowa||Oklahoma State||NC State||Kansas State|
|33||Boston College||Utah||Texas A&M||Florida Atlantic|
|34||Utah||Ole Miss||Boston College||Boston College|
|Heisman Top 10|
|1||Travis Etienne-RB-Clemson||Will Grier-QB-West Virginia|
|2||Khalil Tate-QB-Arizona||Khalil Tate-QB-Arizona|
|3||Trace McSorley-QB-Penn State||Jonathan Taylor-RB-Wisconsin|
|4||Bryce Love-RB-Stanford||Jarrett Stidham-QB-Auburn|
|5||Myles Gaskin-RB-Washington||Shea Patterson-QB-Michigan|
|6||Ed Oliver-DL-Houston||Justin Herbert-QB-Oregon|
|7||Jarrett Stidham-QB-Auburn||Tua Tagovailoa-QB-Alabama|
|8||Kelly Bryant-QB-Clemson||Bryce Love-RB-Stanford|
|9||AJ Dillon-RB-Boston College||Kelly Bryant-QB-Clemson|
|10||Justin Herbert-QB-Oregon||AJ Dillon-RB-Boston College|
|Bednarik||Ed Oliver-DL-Houston||Christian Wilkins-DT-Clemson|
|Davey O’Brien||Trace McSorley-QB-Penn State||Will Grier-QB-West Virginia|
|Doak Walker||Travis Etienne-RB-Clemson||Jonathan Taylor-RB-Wisconsin|
|Butkus||TJ Edwards-LB-Wisconsin||TJ Edwards-LB-Wisconsin|
|Lombardi||Ed Oliver-DL-Houston||Nick Bosa-DE-Ohio State|
|Outland||Trey Adams-OT-Washington||Jonah Williams-OT-Alabama|
|Thorpe||Julian Love-CB-Notre Dame||Greedy Williams-CB-LSU|
|Biletnikoff||Kelvin Harmon-WR-NC State||Kelvin Harmon-WR-NC State|
|Mackey||Noah Fant-TE-Iowa||Noah Fant-TE-Iowa|
|Robinson||Chris Peterson-Washington||Paul Chryst-Wisconsin|
Jeff’s Dime for the Season
- We talked about it two years ago, but I’d be shocked if Clay Helton and Ed Orgeron make it through the season. People are pining for USC’s resurgence and I don’t think they’re there yet. This team doesn’t have as much talent as the team that went 11-3 last year with Sam Darnold. Ed Orgeron never felt like the perfect fit in Baton Rouge. His hiring didn’t engender positivity with the Tigers fan base. The poor quarterback play is probably the bigger issue, but they need to get someone in there to reinvigorate the program, especially at a time when Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher, Mississippi State looks to be on the warpath, Florida hired the best coach on the market, Georgia is pretty well cemented in the upper echelon of the nation, and Alabama is Alabama.
- Clemson’s Kelly Bryant, Miami’s Malik Rosier and Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush are all mobile quarterbacks on successful teams who have come under intense scrutiny as their detractors pine for their successors. But I think all three will be standing at the end of the year, leading their teams to successful seasons, and putting up numbers that make people forget their 2017 flaws.
- Wisconsin needs to win now. Since Barry Alvarez took over in the early 90s, this is the best team they’ve had. They have a fairly clean path to the Big Ten West title (just watch they don’t even win the division) meaning if they handle their regular season business, it’s a one game shot to get to the playoff. The lone reason I didn’t select them to make the playoff is quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Hornibrook is a decent enough player, but I just don’t have the confidence that when the going gets tough and teams are able to handle Jonathan Taylor, even in front of that dominant offensive line, he can make the play.
- Arizona is the team I’m most looking forward to watching this season, and not just because of Khalil Tate. It’s because Kevin Sumlin is the perfect fit for this squad. He won’t be under the same scrutiny he was under in College Station and takes over a fairly blank slate with low expectations. Arizona will always be a basketball school. But with a dynamic quarterback and a host of young players that got valuable experience last season, the timing is perfect for the Wildcats to surprise in the South.
- The most interesting transition I’m waiting to see: how Georgia goes from a two-headed monster at tailback with a freshman quarterback managing the game to a squad who has tasted top level success with an arsenal of weapons capable of some serious fireworks. How a team deals with their first taste of serious success is always interesting. But when that coincides with a potential shift in game plan, it’s all the more intriguing.
- Lane Kiffin should not take another Power 5 job. And Power 5 programs should have learned from the past. He found a place he can succeed, although probably not at the level he would like. But the Group of Five guy I fully expect to get a new job after this season is Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin. Sure, he’s from Boise and like Kiffin, he can stay there as long as he wants as long as they’re winning, but at 41 years old, now seems like the perfect time for Harsin to jump an breathe some life into a moribund program.
- When will the Big Ten West rise? We’ve already talked about Wisconsin and why they seem like such a sure thing: because no other team in their division has taken the next step and it’s been that way since the Big Ten split into geographically-modified (Sorry Legends and Leaders!) prior to 2014. Iowa’s miraculous 2015 season aside, Wisconsin has had a stranglehold on the division, appearing in the other three conference title tilts. But there may be a big shift coming. Iowa will be Iowa as long as Kirk Ferentz is in town. Always threatening, but never really threatening. You know? Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern in a good place, but their new football facilities on the Chicago lakefront will soon be a jewel in the conference, allowing the Wildcats to expand their recruiting appeal. Nebraska’s hiring of Scott Frost has reinvigorated the program, but it wasn’t just bringing a familiar face home. Frost proved at Central Florida he can coach. Purdue and Jeff Brohm showed very positive signs in his first season and PJ Fleck still has a bit of shine on him in Minneapolis, even after a rough first year. And Lovie Smith, despite the record on the field, has pumped life into the program at Illinois with new facilities on the come and a legion of young players that got experience last year and should peak in 2019. All I’m saying again is…Wisconsin…you better get it done this year.
- Texas…welcome back to the big kids table! Tom Herman’s second year should provide more happiness for Longhorns nation. By the numbers, they were far better than their 7-6 record, they got the whole “quarterback controversy” taken care of already by naming Sam Ehlinger the starter and they have a cadre of returnees ready to thrust themselves into the consciousness of college football including wide receiver Collin Johnson, defensive end Breckyn Hager, cornerback Kris Boyd, and linebackers Malcolm Roach and Gary Johnson. It doesn’t hurt that that nation’s #3 recruiting class is rolling into town. Freshman safeties Caden Sterns and BJ Foster are in the Top 25 of prospects in the nation and are ready to disrupt the aerial attacks of the pass-happy teams in the Big XII.
- The 2012 Notre Dame team was the worst team to play for the title in the BCS/CFP era. There I said it. It’s good to get it off my chest. And they may have been the third best team in the Brian Kelly era behind 2015 and 2017. To say the 2018 version has a chance to be the best is not hyperbole and its mainly due to the continuity of the defense led by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney and cornerback Julian Love. But the real thing I’m excited to watch this season is the emergence of a trio of junior pass rushers – Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. If they finally capitalize on the talent they possess, look out.
- The storyline of the season is going to be Ohio State-Michigan. What will the effect of Urban Meyer’s suspension be? Will Jim Harbaugh finally win a big game? Is Dwayne Haskins the answer at quarterback for Ohio State? Is Shea Patterson for Michigan? Will Nick Bosa kill someone this year? Will Rashan Gary? I may not have picked either team to make the playoff, but both should be in contention for the title. Or if everything goes wrong, 8-4 and looking for new coaches is out there as well.
Shane’s 8-Ball Forecast
- To piggyback off of Jeff, I believe Clayton Helton and Ed Orgeron are both let go by the end of the season. Helton has done a better job than predicted, but USC cannot continue to hang around the 15-25 ranking. They have to get back to playing for titles. Orgeron has been on borrowed time from the beginning. The Tigers defense this season has the talent to make a playoff run, but the offense looks to be in for another frustrating year. You can’t win 13-10 games every week in college football any longer. LSU will go a very disappointing 7-5 and Ed O will be out.
- This will be Urban Meyer’s last year at Ohio State. Whether he’s fired, bought out, resigns, or by some mutual decision between he and the university, he’s done. There’s too much of a severed relationship between he, the athletic department, and the college football world as a whole. The Buckeyes will do all they can to get through this year, but then there will be heavy transition.
- Michigan’s Shea Patterson is the most important player in all of college football in 2018. Is he more important to Michigan than Jarrett Stidham is to Auburn or Justin Herbert is to Oregon? Definitely not. But we know that the latter are proven commodities. Patterson isn’t. And in terms of volatility, he decides Michigan’s season more so than anyone else will decide theirs. If Patterson hits, Michigan should contend for the Big Ten and the Playoffs. But if Patterson comes up short, not only will Michigan’s season be a failure, but the Jim Harbaugh Era at Michigan could be in serious doubt.
- To of my favorite Group of Five head coaches are FAU’s Lane Kiffin and Troy’s Neal Brown. Both, for different reasons, are making a big name for themselves. And both, for varying reasons, have their respective teams garnering a lot of attention and praise. Both will surely be hot names when the Coaching Carousel revs up around November. But I predict that both stay at their schools for at least one final season, 2019, and bypass the chance to jump to a Power 5 job – and in Kiffin’s situation, likely a very nice Power 5 job. Both are building mini-powerhouses in Conference USA and the Sun Belt, and both will stick around longer than they have to do see the build through to completion.
- Auburn’s offense will take a step forward in its evolution to a degree that we haven’t seen. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsay can keep the power run-game tendencies that we’re use to installed, but with Jarrett Stidham in year two, and with the amount of receivers he has, you’ll see the Tigers put up big numbers through the air, and Stidham will be in the conversation for postseason awards the entire season. Anything less than a 10-2 regular reason will be a big failure for Gus Malzahn.
- If I had to put money on a college receiver becoming a sure-fire Pro Bowl caliber player in the NFL, it would be on Alabama sophomore Jerry Jeudy. He will become the fourth “alpha” wideout at Bama, joining Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, and Calvin Ridley. All of the conversation about Alabama’s offense is on the quarterbacks, but Jeudy will be the player that both common fans and pro scouts are buzzing about by season’s end.
- Trust the process. Nebraska’s Scott Frost, UCLA’s Chip Kelly, and Florida’s Dan Mullen are the answers at the head coach position for each school. But 2018 might come with some growing pains. I expect each team to upset a Top 25 team that they shouldn’t, but I also expect a game or so to be lost due to growing pains. In Florida’s case, I wouldn’t be surprised with a 9-3 season, but 8-4 is more realistic. All three teams have a chance to be really exciting in 2019 and beyond, but let’s not overreact to anything that happens this year.
- The CFB Playoff Committee will get it right again, as this playoff selection process continues to be great for the game of football. Say what you want to about the week-to-week rankings by the Selection Committee, they have gotten the right four teams into the Playoff every season, and regardless of how it winds up come December, they will get it right again. Everyone will want to stir up drama for clicks and radio listens and talking points’ sake, but for all of the things college football gets wrong, it’s proven to be able to get smart, influential people in a room and put bias aside to select the best four teams.