Are Clemson and Alabama playoff locks again?
I mean, are you willing to wager against them? There have been 15 games played in College Football Playoff history, and either the Tigers, the Tide or both have played in 12 of them, alternating championships the last four years. This season, Clemson is loaded as usual on offense but will be a shade inexperienced along its defensive front seven. Playing in the down-on-its-heels ACC should help. At Alabama, Nick Saban is breaking in two new coordinators and seven new full-time assistants but also has second-place Heisman finisher Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy at wide receiver. Something tells me they’ll be OK.
Nebraska: Good again?
Scott Frost’s house in Lincoln got robbed before he even took the field as the Cornhuskers’ new coach last year, which was bad enough. But then Nebraska lost its first six games, including one at home to Troy, and the sheer scope of the Frost’s rebuilding project came to light. The Cornhuskers went 4-2 down the stretch, however, and were eight points away from going 6-0 over that span, which was good enough for a No. 24 AP preseason ranking this year. Nebraska is just the second team this century to be ranked in the preseason after winning four games or less the year before (the other was Alabama in 2001, one year after a 3-8 campaign; the Tide went 7-5). Quarterback Adrian Martinez helped keep Nebraska afloat as a freshman last year with his arm (65 percent completion rate) and legs (789 rushing yards when excluding yards lost on sacks), but the defense still has a ways to go before anyone starts thinking of Blackshirts.
Which coach has the hottest seat?
Southern Cal brought back Clay Helton despite a 5-7 campaign in 2018, the Trojans’ first losing record since 2000, and the fact that USC is 1-12 straight-up as an underdog in Helton’s three-plus seasons. There’s also this: Helton went 20-4 when Sam Darnold was his quarterback; he’s 6-9 without him. We should have some idea of Helton’s fate early on: USC has to play Stanford, Utah and Washington before September is over, then travels to Notre Dame for its first game of October. Honorable mention: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who is 1-9 vs. top 10 teams during his Ann Arbor tenure.
OK, how about some playoff sleepers?
Over the past four seasons, we’ve seen five teams that were ranked outside the AP preseason top 10 make the College Football Playoffs (Clemson and Oklahoma in 2015, Washington in 2016, Georgia in 2017 and Notre Dame last year). This year, No. 14 Utah returns nearly everyone of note on offense, will field a stout defense as usual and might be favored in all but one game this season, giving the Utes a chance at helping the Pac-12 break its CFP drought.
If not Utah out of the Pac-12, then what about No. 11 Oregon and quarterback Justin Herbert, who likely would have been a high draft pick had he not returned to Eugene (we’ll know more about the Ducks after Saturday night’s game against No. 16 Auburn). ...
If No. 18 Michigan State’s offense can rebound from its injury-addled power outage in 2018, the Spartans (and not Michigan or Ohio State) could emerge out of the Big Ten East. ...
If No. 12 Texas A&M can get through a horrific schedule that includes road games at Clemson, Georgia and LSU and home affairs against Alabama and Auburn with only two losses, how can the playoff committee keep out the Aggies?
Who will be this year’s Central Florida?
This could be seen as something of a trick question, as Central Florida could be this year’s Central Florida (just go with it). Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush will start at quarterback for the Knights, though heralded true freshman Dillon Gabriel (who chose UCF over USC) will play early in the season, and the defense is in store for something of a rebuild. But until someone knocks off UCF, it will be the pride of the Group of Five.
If not the Knights, it could be American Athletic Conference foe Cincinnati, which won 11 games last season despite playing few seniors and hosts UCF on Oct. 4. If Boise State can beat Florida State on Saturday — and it really wouldn’t be much of an upset — the Broncos’ path to an unbeaten season is pretty clear, as it shouldn’t have too much trouble with the Mountain West this season.
Which quarterback or running back will win the Heisman Trophy?
We narrow down the question because that’s who wins Heisman Trophies: Only a handful of non-QBs-RBs ever have won the award, the last being Charles Woodson in 1997. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa is an obvious favorite, considering he finished second to Kyler Murray last year after throwing 43 touchdown passes and setting an FBS record with a 199.4 passer rating. Maybe he’ll play in more fourth quarters this season. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence will get a full season of games this year after helping lead the Tigers to the national title in dominant fashion. He threw 30 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, and has an almost absurd amount of talent surrounding him on offense. Oregon QB Justin Herbert has an experienced offensive line protecting him but wide receivers who struggled with dropped passes last season. If Wisconsin can improve on its eight wins from a season ago, RB Jonathan Taylor might get more notice than he got for a season in which he rushed for 7.1 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns.
What Vegas win total do you like? (over department)
Oklahoma State over 7.5 wins. The Cowboys still haven’t decided on a quarterback (it’ll be either redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders, once a heralded recruit out of Texas, or Hawaii transfer Dru Brown), and new offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson comes from Princeton, of all places. But Gleeson’s offense was nearly unstoppable last year as the Tigers won their first solo Ivy League crown since 1995, and the Cowboys’ easy nonconference schedule should mean three wins right off the bat. Five Big 12 home games follow, including Bedlam against Oklahoma to close the season.
What Vegas win total do you like? (under department)
Notre Dame under 9 wins. Of the Fighting Irish’s 12 opponents, seven will be coming off a bye week. This includes a four-game stretch in November when Notre Dame plays Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy and Boston College, all with a week of rest entering the game. Notre Dame also has to play Georgia and Michigan on the road.