Yes, technically the college football season has already kicked off (Texas Southern hosted Florida A&M Saturday afternoon), but the good stuff, the stuff you’ve been waiting for, is almost here, too. This coming weekend, local rivals will face off, top-ranked teams will put their rankings to the test, and hopefully Lamar Jackson will wow us with a few more touchdowns.
All that said, the college football landscape has changed a lot since Clemson’s national championship win in January – here are ten storylines to watch this season, or at least ten tidbits you can rattle off next weekend at the neighborhood barbecue:
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1. Let’s start at the top, or rather at the top of last season’s rankings: the defending national champions, Clemson. A last-second touchdown against Alabama lifted the Tigers to their first title in over 30 years – now the question is whether they can defend that crown. It won’t be easy without quarterback Deshaun Watson, who parlayed two trips as a Heisman finalist into a first-round NFL draft selection by the Houston Texans, but head coach Dabo Swinney is building something special in South Carolina. Don’t count the Tigers, who open their season against Kent State, out just yet; defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, two future first-round picks in their own right, are more than capable of taking over a game.
2. Moving from last season’s champs to last season’s runners-up, we have the Alabama Crimson Tide. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was a welcome anomaly on offense, and his game-winning drive against Clemson was only nullified by Watson’s heroics. The Tide lost another bushel of stars to the NFL, including O.J. Howard and Jonathan Allen, but as always, their cupboard is plenty full with former blue-chip prospects, including 2015 recruit Da’Shawn Hand. If Hurts avoids a sophomore slump (likely) and Nick Saban’s defense regenerates like always (definitely), it’s a near-certainty we’ll see Alabama playing deep into January. The only potential hangups? A brutally bookended schedule: the Tide will open against Florida State and finish the regular season with a trip to Auburn.
3. Other than last year’s epic national championship game, another key figure from the 2016-2017 season returns this coming weekend: reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson from Louisville. Jackson exploded onto the scene a year ago with eight touchdowns (!!) in the Cardinals’ season opener, and he couldn’t be stopped from there. He finished the year with more than 50 touchdowns and the sport’s highest honor, but his team collapsed at the end of the line, losing its last three games. To keep pace with Clemson and Florida State in the ACC, Louisville will need Jackson to be just as good – if not better – than he was in his record-setting campaign. We’ll see. ...
4. Speaking of the Heisman, we can’t ignore this year’s front-runner, quarterback Sam Darnold from Southern California. Darnold’s rise from benchwarmer to the Rose Bowl was the stuff of legends (or at least cheesy sports movies), and now he’s had a full offseason running with the starters. USC is being pegged by pundits everywhere as a College Football Playoff contender, but really most of that weight will fall on Darnold’s shoulders. If he performs up to expectations, the Trojans could close the season with the college football trinity: a Heisman winner, a national championship, and a historic program finally restored to its former glory.
5. If there’s any quarterback primed to steal the Heisman from out under Darnold, it’s Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. After leading the Sooners to a playoff berth two years ago, Mayfield improved individually in 2016, tossing 40 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. The only trick is that this year, he’ll have to do most of the leg work himself, especially since leading receiver Dede Westbrook and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine all moved onto the NFL. But Mayfield wasn’t a Heisman finalist last season for nothing, and if you had to pick anyone to lead their team to another playoff, you’d struggle to find someone better.
6. For all the hype surrounding excellent individuals, it’s crucial to keep track of all the excellent teams in college football each season. Luckily, when three of them play in the same division in the same conference, it gets a little easier. Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan will be at one another’s throats again, but it’s likely only one of the trio actually qualifies for the playoff. Will it be Urban Meyer’s revamped Buckeyes, led by J.T. Barrett, or Jim Harbaugh’s dominant defense, featuring 2016’s top recruit, defensive tackle Rashan Gary? Or maybe it’ll be Penn State, riding star running back Saquon Barkley? Whichever it ends up will be a tough out come January – and that, of course, assumes that only one of them makes it in.
7. Speaking of the College Football Playoff, let’s talk about Texas! Only kidding — it would take a handful of miracles for the Longhorns to finish this season as national champions. That being said, there’s a lot to like about Texas for the first time in a long time, and it all starts with new head coach Tom Herman. He proved his worth at Houston in recent seasons, landing five-star prospects and exceeding expectations with ease. Texas, of course, is a whole different beast, but he’s the successor the Longhorns have needed since Mack Brown’s retirement late in 2013. The ’Horns may not hook a natty in his first go-around, but in a few year’s time, they should be back in the thick of that chase.
8. One polarizing coach leads to another, and none is more fascinating than Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic’s new head honcho. Kiffin arrives in the Sunshine State after a stint as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, where he won a national title in 2016. Kiffin’s been in charge before at Tennessee and USC, but flamed out spectacularly in both – so, has he finally figured it out? Maybe, but he’s at least off to a good start; so far, he’s pillaged a number of former top recruits looking for second chances. It’s as much ‘Last Chance U’ for them as it is for him.
9. Clemson, ’Bama, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and we haven’t even mentioned Florida State yet? As always, there are too many good teams for four spots, but tough decisions have to be made. Predictions for the last four teams standing this year? Pencil Alabama into one, even if they lose the season-opener to Florida State; USC is probably a safe bet, too, especially if they can handle Stanford and Texas early on. A third spot is going to the Big 10, and it’s hard to bet against Barkley and the Nittany Lions right now. The last team in likely comes down to Florida State or Oklahoma – give me an improved Deondre Francois in his sophomore year and an always-stout Seminole defense to round out the group.
10. That’s a lot of preseason love to go around, but there’s always one team or one guy that comes from nowhere to shock the world (see Jackson, Lamar last season, for example). For entire programs, I like Oklahoma State, led by a pair of dynamic seniors, quarterback Mason Rudolph (from Rock Hill) and wide receiver James Washington – they’ll score enough points to beat anyone, but their defense is the big question mark. As for Heisman dark-horse candidates, look no further than Davidson native Will Grier, who’ll be starting under center for West Virginia. Grier transferred from Florida after a failed drug test cost him half of his breakout freshman season, but he found the perfect system for his arm strength. The Mountaineers should put up video-game numbers on offense this year, and if they’re halfway decent on the other side of the ball, Grier could earn himself some Heisman buzz.