Football season is here. Finally.
It has been 8 months since Clemson and Alabama gave us possibly the best championship game in NCAA history, and now it’s time to turn the page to the 2017 season. 130 teams in the FBS will suit up this week with hopes of making the college football playoffs. While previewing them all would be too much literature to consume, I’ve broken down what you really need to know, in these top 5 lists of teams, players and even hot-seated coaches.
Whether you shout Roll Tide, Go Irish, OH-IO or do the Seminole Tomahawk, we can all agree, that it’s great to have football back.
Top 5 teams that can make the College Football Playoffs
Alabama – Hell hath no fury like a Nick Saban led team that has spent the last 8 months stewing over a last second loss in the National Championship. That means he has had close to 100 days to game plan for Florida State on opening night. They return SEC offensive player of the year Jalen Hurts and wide receiver stud Calvin Ridley, and although they lost key players on a historically great defense such as Marlon Humphrey and Jonathan Allen, they still have safety Minka Fitzpatrick and his partner Ronnie Harrison. Throw a healthy Bo Scarbrough in the backfield with newcomer Najee Harris, and Saban once again puts the headsets on in the college playoffs. They face a tough challenge this weekend with #3 Florida State and end the season at Auburn, but hosting Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU in Tuscaloosa plays to their advantage.
Ohio State – If you thought Saban gave his team a summer of thinking after dropping their championship game, imagine what Urban Meyer did to his Buckeyes after being embarrassed by Clemson 31-0 in the semi-finals. How much did that loss hurt the players? Quarterback J.T. Barrett is so motivated to right those wrongs that he is returning for his senior season and is one of the front runners for the Heisman trophy. He will have running back stud Mike Weber to hand off to and a solid defense to get them right back on the field. A week 2 showdown against Oklahoma is must-watch television, and then later in the season they host Penn State for what could be the ticket to the Big Ten dance. They end the season on the road in Michigan. The schedule packs a lot of punch, but so do the Buckeyes.
Florida State – The ACC has sent Clemson to the National Championship two seasons in a row, and if they are to be represented again in January, the Seminoles are the leading pick. Derwin James is back to lead a strong defense and could find himself in the Heisman discussion. Signal caller Deondre Francois had a monster freshman campaign and looks to do what Jameis Winston did 3 years ago, and lead FSU to the playoffs. Week 1 will be very telling for both Florida State and Alabama, but if the Tide treat the Seminoles like they did the USC Trojans on opening night last season, how will that effect their ranking come year end? After week 1 they have 4 currently ranked teams on their schedule, including road trips to Clemson and Florida. Still, FSU is a strong candidate for success. They have confidence, they move with swagger, and they are motivated.
USC – This is the season of Sam Darnold as he tries to live up to the hype he himself created in last season’s Rose Bowl. As a redshirt freshman, he threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns and should be able to lead his team to the Pac-12 championship. They have a hell of a start to the season with Stanford and Texas back-to-back in weeks 2 and 3, and then road games at Washington State and Notre Dame in October. If they can start the season with the same intensity they ended last year with, Darnold’s confidence will be sky-high, and so will the Trojan’s rankings.
Penn State – One of the most exciting stories of 2016 was the re-emergence of the Penn State Nittany Lions. They were so good, many thought they were robbed of a playoff berth. Now with confidence, and experience, the defending Big Ten champions return running back highlight reel Saquon Barkley and his quarterback Trace McSorley, to form the best 1-2 duo in the country. What does Penn state posses that the other 4 above don’t? An easy start to their schedule. They don’t face a pre-season ranked team until October 21st when they host Michigan, followed by a trip to Columbus, Ohio to take on the Buckeyes. If they can survive that two-week stretch, expect them to be in the semi-final party.
Top 5 teams outside the top 5
Clemson – Dabo Sweeny leads his Tigers back to Death Valley fresh off an amazing championship performance in January. Who he doesn’t return with, is DeShaun Watson, Mr. Clemson. Not since Vince Young left Texas for the NFL will one team miss their star like Clemson will, but Sweeny is a good recruiter, and should have Clemson atop the ACC once again. Look for a successful season, but one where they miss the playoffs. Let’s not forget, they lost to Pittsburgh last season, and barely got by NC State in overtime. They weren’t invincible then, and without Superman Watson, they are far from it now,
Washington – They will be in the hunt for the Pac-12 title all year long, and returning Jake Browning is a big deal for a team coming off a college football playoff appearance. Their schedule is light until October, but last year everyone was waiting for them to trip up to drop them out of the top 4, and all it will take is a road loss to Stanford or a home stumble against UCLA or Oregon for them to land outside the playoffs.
Oklahoma – He’s back! Baker Mayfield returns under center for the Sooners, on a team that ended 2016 as hot as anyone in the country. This offense was unstoppable, and Mayfield was making big plays look like nothing at all. They are one of the best teams in the country, but they have a daunting schedule ahead of them. In week 2 they hit the road to face Ohio State and then still have road games at Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas, as well as hosting the likes of Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia. It will be a fun season to be a Sooners fan, but the schedule makes it tough to get inside the top 4.
Michigan – Not again. Please, not again. For the love of Maize and Blue, don’t let a top 4 ranking come down to the final week of the season against Ohio State. I can’t go through the Wolverines fans complaining over a 4th and inches all summer again! The Wolverines return a good bunch of athletes, and will be hovering around the top of the rankings once again, but road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin, as well as home tilts against Florida, Michigan State, Minnesota and of course Ohio State, make this schedule a little too scary to lock them in the top 4.
LSU – Will the heartbreak kids in the Bayou turn the program around to prominence it use to reside in? I think this could be the year, even playing within the Alabama-dominated SEC. 4 of their first 5 games are at home against teams that LSU could beat without using 2/3rds of their playbook, however a late season road trip to Ole Miss and Alabama in consecutive weeks spell trouble for the Tigers. It will be a good season, good enough to get them inside the top 10.
Top 5 Heisman Trophy Candidates
Penn State’s Shaqon Barkley – Their schedule is weak to start the season, and Barkley will run away with games in the first quarter alone. He will jump out as the Heisman favorite early on in the first half of the season. There are a lot of good runners in college this year, but none run behind a solid offensive line like the Nittany Lions have. Remember what he did last season against Wisconsin and USC? Expect that to be just the opening scene of his highlight reel.
Ohio State’s JT Barrett – This Buckeye Senior is the first 3-time captain in school history and has 23 school records to go along with it. Once he scores 6 touchdowns, likely by the second week of the season, he will pass Drew Brees’ Big Ten record of passing scores. He needs just 1,167 passing yards and 535 rushing yards to earn those respective school records on total yards. Throw in the national championship he won in 2015, and Barrett has done it all, except win the Heisman. His stats have always been great, but this season he could really reach the next level.
Washington’s Jake Browning – Last year he led the Huskies to a 12-2 record and set a new record of throwing a touchdown every 12.2% of his attempts. The reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year threw for 43 touchdowns and 3,430 yards. Between his Freshman and Sophomore campaign, he improved by 27 scores and 475 yards. Imagine what he can do if he improves as a Junior?
USC’s Sam Darnold – The Rose Bowl legend himself, the man who set the record for most passing touchdowns (5) and total yards (473) in this game, steps back on the field this weekend for the Trojans with plenty of buzz. After watching the first three games last season from the sidelines, he took over the starting role and scored 31 touchdowns and three over 3,000 yards in just 10 starts. The future is very bright for Darnold. Well, until next summer’s draft, when he becomes a New York Jet.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb – Not many players explode across the line of scrimmage with the power that Chubb does, and for those who do, they don’t have the breakaway speed. He is a year later than we expected him in the conversation for the top player in college, but an injury slowed down this progress. No defensive player, game plan or coach will be able to slow him down this season.
Top players to watch who won’t win the Heisman but worth your time on Saturday
South Florida’s Quinton Flowers – How lucky did Charlie Strong get, relocating to South Florida from Austin, Texas, and arriving on campus to Quinton Flowers. The duel threat quarterback will lead his team to an AAC championship, likely a New Year’s bowl game, and plenty of admiration along the way. Some quarterbacks throw well, others run well, but Flowers does both exceptionally well. He is worth your viewing anytime he is on the field.
Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway – Over 1,200 yards in 2016, and he only played in 9 games. Only twice did he not reach 100-yards, and I’m sure you can guess who they were against. Alabama and LSU. Every other team he torched, like Ole Miss for 236 yards, and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for 101 yards. He averages 5.9 yards per touch, and can rip off a 50-yard run at any handoff.
LSU’s Derrius Guice - The 2016 Citrus Bowl MVP and first team All-American has already made Tigers fans comfortable to see Leonard Fournette start cashing paychecks in the NFL. This dynamic runner scored a school record 96-yard rushing touchdown last season, and of his 18 career touchdowns, 7 of them are from 40 yards or further. He looks to become the first player in LSU history to lead the SEC in rushing yards in back to back seasons.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts – He can’t get better that he was in his true freshman campaign, right? A season where he was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, he led the Crimson Tide to the national championship, and scored 23 times through the air and 13 times on the ground. He was never asked to take the game over by passing, but more to manage the game form under center, but now given that experience, and a summer with Nick Saban, expect big things out of him.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert – Last season as a backup we saw limited glimpses of what Herbert can do, and even though it wasn’t a lot of film, it was impressive. In 3 games, he completed 64% of his passes for just shy of 1,000 yards. He scored 12 times in the air, and another on the ground. In a game against Arizona State he passed for 489 yards, setting the Oregon school record. If Herbert can build off those 3 games, the Ducks can really fly.
Top 5 hot seat coaches
Brian Kelly (59-31) in 7 seasons at Notre Dame – He has the support of the Athletic Director, but how long will the Alumni and Boosters support Kelly if he trips up to start the 2017 season? In week 2 they face a very tough Georgia team and then fly out to Michigan State in week 4. If they survive the first month of the season at 3-1, or 4-0, they have a late October game against USC and then road games at UNC, Miami and Stanford ahead of them. If Kelly goes 4-8 again, he will be packing his bags, but what if he goes 6-6? Or 7-5?
Kevin Sumlin (44-21) in 5 seasons at Texas A&M – The Aggies have gone 8-5 the last three seasons, and enter September with more question marks than exclamations. They lost their best defensive players to the draft, and once again have a quarterback completion. Sound familiar? It’s their 5th one during Sumlin’s tenure. Earlier this summer, Athletic Director Scott Woodward publicly stated his coach knows he has to win this year
Derek Mason (13-24) at Vanderbilt –I’m playing you an old record. The played-out tune of “This is the year Mason gets canned.” I’ve been listening to it for 3 years now, but this could be the year. He did recently get an extension, but how long will the school support him going 6-6? Last season they not only finished at .500, but they lost 2 of their out of conference games to ACC foes. The school increased his recruiting budget, so now is the time to show results.
Rich Rodriguez (36-20) in 5 seasons at Arizona – The Wildcats finished in 5th place in 2015, and followed it up with a 6th place finish last year. When asked about his coach’s future, athletic director Dave Heeke noted that this is a “results-oriented business.” Well the results have not been there for Rodriguez, but the pink slip could be if they don’t start climbing the standings again.
Kliff Kinsbury (24-26) in 4 seasons at Texas Tech – His overall record isn’t as bad as his Big12 record of 13-23. He has had trouble recruiting defensive stars, and those he does get have not shown the promise the Red Raiders alumni were promised. In a season where they finished 5-7, they lost 5 times by more than a touchdown, including a 56-point loss in November to Iowa State, who finished 3-9 on the season. Another showing like that, and Kinsbury could be run out of town.
Top Games for Every Week (Because you can’t spend ALL day watching football. Or can you?)
Using pre-season rankings
Week 1: #1 Alabama vs #3 Florida State (Atlanta, GA).
Week 2: #12 Auburn at #5 Clemson
Week 3: #23 Texas at #4 USC
Week 4: Notre Dame at Michigan State
Week 5: #15 Georgia at #25 Tennessee
Week 6: #13 LSU vs #17 Florida
Week 7: #12 Auburn at #13 LSU
Week 8: #6 Penn State at #2 Ohio State
Week 9: #10 Oklahoma State at #22 West Virgiina
Week 10: #13 LSU at #1 Alabama
Week 11: #3 Florida State at # 5 Clemson
Week 12: #11 Michigan at #9 Wisconsin
Week 13: #2 Ohio State at #11 MIchigan
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