Here are the Top 10 storylines to watch out for this college football season:
There have been few summers where so many national championship contenders hadn’t yet sorted out who would be taking their snaps. Alabama has the option of two-year starter Jalen Hurts, or title game hero Tua Tagovailoa. Clemson can go with senior Kelly Bryant or true freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence. Georgia’s Jake Fromm will have to beat out freshman Justin Fields, the No. 1 recruit in the country. Notre Dame, LSU and Texas, among others, face similar scenarios. The wrong choice could cost a team a chance at a championship.
Familiar faces, new places
Coaching changes come as naturally as breathing, but the carousel went into overdrive since the end of last season. Chip Kelly returned to college football, at UCLA. . Dan Mullen went back to Florida. Scott Frost went home to Nebraska. Another Nick Saban disciple (Jeremy Pruitt) got another SEC job (Tennessee). Former Jets coach Herm Edwards even joined the college game, taking over at Arizona State. Now, will any of them have as much success as they have had in the past?
Will the Pac-12 be a power again?
The conference hasn’t won a national championship since USC’s vacated 2004 title and failed to make last year’s playoff — going 1-8 in bowl games — leaving them on the outside for the second time in the playoff’s four years of existence. If the conference doesn’t soon rejoin the country’s elite, the gap may only widen.
Group of Five contender
A non-power conference team will qualify for the playoff one day. Even a 16-seed took down a 1-seed this year in the NCAA Tournament. But many things need to fall in place and an undefeated season likely isn’t enough, as UCF learned last season. The Knights return with more respect and could remain the best of the group, but have no opportunities against marquee opponents. Lane Kiffin’s explosive Florida Atlantic Owls open against Oklahoma. Boise State plays at Oklahoma State.
Good luck p. Though a quarterback has claimed the Heisman Trophy in seven of the past eight seasons, two of the top three favorites are running backs (Stanford’s Bryce Love, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor). The favorite at quarterback is a player who has never started a game (Alabama’s Tagovailoa), and other contenders under center include Georgia’s Fromm, Arizona dual-threat Khalil Tate, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Penn State’s Trace McSorley.
The year of defensive linemen
Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators, be warned: Reading further may lead to sleepless nights. The country is loaded with future Sunday stars on the defensive line — dominant monsters who will wreak havoc in the backfield, many of whom surprisingly passed on the NFL for one more year of college. It may lack the sex appeal of last year’s impressive array of signal-callers, and there are no catchy tank slogans, but the top of the draft is expected to be flooded with the likes of Clemson’s elite foursome of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant; Ohio State’s Nick Bosa; Houston’s Ed Oliver; Alabama’s Raekwon Davis and Michigan’s Rashan Gary, among several others.
How does Georgia respond after its best season in years ended in bitter heartbreak?
Prediction: Extremely well. After coming so painfully close to the school’s first national title since 1980, motivation won’t be difficult to find. Throw in competition among so many talented young players — most notably at the quarterback position between Fromm and Fields — for open spots created by graduation and defections to the NFL, and it would be stunning for complacency to be an issue. Hence the team motto of “being comfortable with being uncomfortable” Though there are holes to fill — especially at running back, linebacker and in the secondary — three straight top-10 recruiting classes have the Bulldogs positioned to reload instantly at those spots, and a soft early schedule will provide valuable experience entering the gauntlet that is the SEC season.
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Coaches who need big seasons
This isn’t about coaches who will be gone with one more bad season, though Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury fits into that category. These are three coaches who desperately need big seasons to ease unrest at their respective schools. Jim Harbaugh has yet to finish higher than third in the Big Ten East and finally has the quarterback in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson to take the offense to a much-needed higher level. LSU hasn’t won 10 games since 2013, and Ed Orgeron, whose hire wasn’t exactly praised in Baton Rouge in November 2016, didn’t distinguish himself in last year’s pedestrian nine-win season. Then there is Kingsbury, the former Texas Tech star quarterback who is coming off consecutive sub-.500 seasons with a 16-29 conference record in five years.
The Kyler Murray experience
It isn’t just about replacing Heisman Trophy winner and top draft pick Baker Mayfield. Or the added pressure of teammates knowing Murray has one eye on the baseball diamond after getting drafted ninth overall by the A’s and already being a millionaire. Or the fact there are massive holes at left tackle and tight end, where All-Americans Orlando Brown and Mark Andrews were mainstays. It’s all of it. The scrutiny on the junior will be intense to lead the Big 12 preseason favorites back to the College Football Playoff.
Post-scandal Ohio State
Urban Meyer , instead getting a three-game suspension. That doesn’t mean the scandal involving alleged domestic abuser and former wide receivers coach Zach Smith will disappear upon Meyer’s return from his ban. More information could come out regarding the scandal. A civil suit could follow. And just look at how a different scandal, involving sexual assault and student-athletes, impacted the Michigan State basketball team under Tom Izzo, which severely underachieved. Meyer and his players will be continually asked about Smith and the allegations. Though Ohio State remains a national title contender, this cloud almost certainly will follow the program the entire season.
Games to watch
Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 1)
One of college football’s best rivalries reignites, following a three-season hiatus between the traditional powers, and kicks off an incredible opening weekend to the season. Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh’s teams both have the talent to contend for a playoff spot, but the loser likely will have no room for error after this meeting. Other notable opening week games include Auburn vs. Washington, LSU vs. Miami, Florida Atlantic vs. Oklahoma and Florida State vs. Virginia Tech.
Ohio State at Penn State (Sept. 29)
The Buckeyes play their first true road game in Happy Valley, where they lost in 2016 and were taken to double-overtime in 2014. These teams have played back-to-back classics, splitting the past two meetings, which were decided by a total of four points. In a quarterback duel between Trace McSorley and Dwayne Haskins, expect another high-scoring affair between the winners of the past two Big Ten titles.
Stanford at Washington (Nov. 3)
The experienced and balanced Huskies are the best bet to bring the Pac-12 back to the playoff, but Heisman runner-up Bryce Love could keep Washington from even winning the conference’s North Division. The Cardinal claimed last year’s meeting, with Love rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 27)
The Tigers have wrestled ACC domination away from the Seminoles — the teams have combined to win the past seven ACC crowns, with Clemson taking three straight — but Dabo Swinney still has to march through Tallahassee to pass his team’s biggest test of the season. New Florida State coach Willie Taggart is installing an explosive new offense, featuring running back Cam Akers, and Clemson has one of the most talented defensive lines of all time.
Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 24)
The Iron Bowl seems to be when the postseason truly begins. One of these SEC West participants has reached the national title game or playoff in nine straight seasons, winning six national championships in that span. Perhaps a spot in the Big Ten title game will also be at stake that day, with Harbaugh looking for his first win over Ohio State.
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