Summer ’17 has felt like a long one. Thankfully, we are inside of 24 hours from the first Saturday of the college football season. That’s right! Enough of the sweltering heat, orange barrel traffic and tiki torches—time to break out those school colors, polish up those tubas and get those cheerleaders limber!
There are countless storylines, iconic coaches and burgeoning superstars to help us shape the collegiate football landscape this season. While we watch to see how this race to the College Football Playoffs shapes up, these are the 4 biggest questions that we will need to answer on our road to crowning the next champion.
Can Sam Darnold Set Himself Apart?
There is a level of excitement around Trojan football that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. After starting the 2016 season behind Max Browne, Darnold took the reins after the team’s 1-2 start and never looked back. He set a USC record for TDs by a rookie quarterback (after being a backup for the first 3 games.) First-year head coach Clay Helton needed a locker room leader to help stabilize a program that was in total disarray; the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year did exaclty that. Throwing 31 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, with a QBR of 161.1, the Trojans were undefeated last year with Darnold under center, including a 26-13 upset victory over the #4 Washington Huskies.
While talking heads continue to fawn over the ACC, Big Ten and the SEC, this year could be a different beast for Darnold as the Pac-12 looks to turn skeptics into believers. The Pac-12 arguably has the best QB play in the country. Eighth-ranked Washington’s Jake Browning is another early Heisman candidate. Meanwhile Josh Rosen, SC’s crosstown rival at UCLA, has been upping his game as well. Current first-year coach Willie Taggart is hell bent on returning Oregon Football to the College Football Playoffs. So much so that he was beating up his own players in the process. Beyond the excessive workouts, Taggart somehow finessed Mario Cristobal — Alabama’s top recruiter/offensive coordinator — away from the Crimson Tide for a similar job with the Ducks (more on this later).
Questions remain for the Trojans offense as they lost 3 Offensive linemen, Chad Wheeler (T Giants), Damien Mama (G Redskins) & Zach Banner (T Ravens), along with playmakers Juju Smith-Schuster (WR Cowboys) & Darreus Rogers (WR Lions). As the 2017-18 season unfolds, Sam Darnold may have to prove that he is the best quarterback in America just to survive his own conference.
Can Nick Saban Handle Attrition?
The hardest part of staying at the top of the mountain top is retaining all of the components of your winning formula. Once you’re a winner, everyone wants a piece of your magic! Suddenly, hard-nosed assistants start looking for bigger and more lucrative coaching opportunities. Once impressionable young men begin getting their first glimpses of true stardom, with the promises of NFL success luring them away. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. This is why field generals like Nick Saban get paid the big bucks though: to replenish their programs year after year with talented players and experienced, game-ready staff.
Following a bitter National Championship defeat at the hands of Clemson, there was quite a bit of a shakeup in Tuscaloosa. Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin took his talents to Florida Atlantic University where he is now the head coach. Crimson Tide offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian was supposed to be the natural successor to Kiffin at Bama, right? Well, not so fast. On Feburary 7, 2017 Sark jumped
the shark ship to join the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons as offensive coordinator. When you factor in receiver’s coach Billy Napier joining the Arizona Cardinals, there has been comprehensive upheaval on the offensive side of the ball.
In addition to a springboard for coaches, Alabama is an NFL factory, cranking out a whopping 10 players in this year’s NFL draft. Bama’s success hinges on Nick Saban keeping his recruiting juggernaut in tact. However they are NOT projected to have a top recruiting class in America for the first time in 7 years. Despite losing names like Marlon Humphrey (CB Ravens), Johnathan Allen (DE Redskins), OJ Howard (TE Buccaneers) and Reuben Foster (LB 49ers), the cupboard in Bama is far from bare. Jalen Hurts’ 2016 season was electrifying (by freshman QB in a Bama offense standards). He will have targets Calvin Ridley and 5-star true freshman Jerry Jeudy to throw to. Not to mention a backfield featuring the lethal trio of Damien Harries, Bo Scarbrough and Najee Harris. We will get to see what this team is made of early as #1 Alabama kicks off the season against #3 Florida State in a neutral field game this Saturday.
Is Florida State Better than Clemson?
In the midst of all of the posturing between the SEC and the Big Ten as college football’s preeminent conference, the ACC has modestly flown under the radar. The secret is out now after Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers dismantled the Ohio State Buckeyes (Big Ten) before conquering Alabama (SEC) to win their first National Title since 1981. Team leader (and Michael Jordan of college football…if you ask Dabo) QB Deshaun Watson is now cutting his teeth with the Houston Texans, while his top target Mike Williams is trying to get himself healthy enough for action with the L.A. Chargers. Repeating is a hard enough task as it is, but when you have a powerhouse like Florida State standing in your way, Tiger fans must understand it will take more than positive momentum to have lightening to strike twice.
The Noles may have lost a major piece in Dalvin Cook, however, junior running back Jacques Patrick will be eager to pick up the slack. Early chatter around true freshman Cam Akers should give the backfield plenty of excitement. Head Coach Jimbo Fisher will look to help QB Deondre Francois establish rhythm and timing with a receiving unit that lost their top three producers from last season: Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield. Knowing this, it’s likely the Seminoles will make their name with their defense first this season. Safety Derwin James believes “he’s a pimp in his own mind, (shoutout to Ray Ca$h) and is considered by some to be the top NFL prospect in the nation.
After a stellar 2015, James tore knee cartilage just two games into his 2016 campaign. Back for more, look for James to have an All-American season if he can stay healthy. Though DeMarcus Walker (DE Broncos) has moved on to the NFL, Florida State brings back six of their front seven giving them one of the most imposing lines in the country. The Winner of the ACC looks to be a shoo-in for the College Football Playoffs. With a back half of the schedule that includes road games at Clemson, at Florida and a potential trap game at Boston College, Florida State will certainly have opportunities to prove themselves if they want to take the crown away from the Tigers.
Can Kevin Wilson Fix Ohio State’s Offense?
“There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.”
– Woody Hayes
The legendary Ohio State coach wasn’t lying. Last season’s 31-0 bludgeoning at the hands of Clemson should have been a full-blown exorcism for the Ohio State program. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck were both shown the door. Enter Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day. Wilson, fresh off a stint as the leading man for a scrappy Indiana team, is widely known for his innovative offensive schemes, aggressive running game and creative use of tight ends. He came to prominence however at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, where he was given the Broyles Award for top assistant in the country in 2008. Day last served as the quarterbacks coach for the San Diego Chargers.
So, new guys with clipboards are replacing old guys with clipboards— “What does this mean for the Buckeyes,” you ask? It means JT Barrett will be back in an offensive scheme built around his strengths. It means the massive Ohio State O-line will be moving at a much quicker tempo than the Buckeyes have seen since Tom Herman left. Remember the name JK Dobbins (he’s already left his mark against the Indiana Hoosiers). The true freshman has already supplanted more experienced backs on the depth chart. As Buckeyes RB Mike Weber has battled hamstring issues over the summer, Dobbins will be making a name for himself around The Horseshoe early in the season. In fact, he got the start against Indiana yesterday, making him only the second tailback in school history to start as a true freshman, joining Maurice “The Beast” Clarett in 2002.
The Buckeyes defense professes to be the B.I.A. (Best in America), and with a murderer’s row of Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick (Another One) Bosa, and Chase Young, the Buckeyes “Rushmen Package” will be sending more future first-rounders at your quarterback than you can shake a stick at. The staff, the schedule and the talent are all lining up for the Buckeyes to make another serious run at a National Championship. In order to make that a reality, coaches Wilson, Day and Head Coach Urban Meyer will need to help Barrett orchestrate an offense that couldn’t pass the ball downfield in 2016. If Wilson can’t find a new ways to reinvigorate this offense, the Buckeyes – amidst all their preseason fanfare — may not get past Saquon Barkley and Penn State.
Can Sam Darnold carve his name into the Trojan record books? Can Nick Saban continue to feed his juggernaut? Can The Seminoles overcome a difficult schedule to upend the reigning National Champions? Can Ohio State unlock their potential and figure out how to put numbers on the board this year? We have a long season ahead of us full of twists and turns. But getting definitive answers for these four questions alone will go a long ways in forecasting who will be watching that confetti fall in early January.