It’s been a while since I last talked about the college game, since I consider the draft as more of an NFL topic. But don’t misjudge me – I’m extremely thrilled for this upcoming year. With that in mind, I thought about the topics I believe could rule the college football season. To some degree even more so than in the pros, conferences and the success of individual teams can vary on a yearly basis. Of course there are those juggernauts we expect to be back at the top in December, but some players and different programs come out of nowhere every single year and with homefield advantages, upsets are a fixture on the schedule.
Khalil Tate as a Heisman trophy candidate
With Lamar Jackson going pro, we need another explosive dual-threat quarterback to take over college football. Enter Khalil Tate. The Arizona QB had an incredible four-week stretch once he was put into the starting lineup, racking up a total of 1583 yards and 14 touchdowns, including a jaw-dropping 327 yards and four scores on the ground in his debut as a starter. Having gone 2-2 at the open the season before inserting the dynamic signal-caller, the Wildcards didn’t have a lot of room for error. After a week seven defeat to USC, Arizona was forced out of the Pac-12 race prematurely and nobody talked about them anymore.
However, Tate led his team to an average of 48.8 points while they were still in the race for the conference. Arizona ended up losing four out of their final five games and their QB was kind of forgotten. Looking ahead to this upcoming season, I expect the Wildcats’ explosive leader to be in the running for the Heisman trophy. Tate is an unbelievable open-field runner and has a cannon of an arm, which opens up some running room for him. He can make the wrong decision on zone-read plays and still shake the guy, earn that extra couple of yards thanks to a strong lower body and is constantly burning defenders’ angles. While I believe he still needs to work hard on his mechanics and setup in the pocket, Tate is more than just an athlete. He can throw the ball with touch, put the ball over the top of a trailing defender and has the arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows. It will be up to him to prove he can win as a passer against stacked boxes and can’t have teams hold him in check early on in games, before breaking loose.
I know he is far from mastering the nuances of quarterbacking and depends too much on his legs at this point, but the Heisman is about putting up videogame-type numbers and leading his team to new heights, as I expect Arizona to be a darkhorse candidate to win the Pac-12. I’m incredibly excited to watch Tate make a run for college football’s award for the best player in the country and take everybody by storm.
South Carolina as an SEC East darkhorse
Will Muschamp has done a great job recruiting and coaching this South Carolina program back to relevancy after the legendary Steve Spurrier retired. Coming off a disappointing couple of years, expectations were pretty low for this Gamecock football team last season, but they surprised people early on with a win over N.C. State in the opener. With losses to Kentucky and Texas A&M they came back down to earth, yet their only losses over the rest of the year came to CFP teams Georgia and Clemson. They proceeded to win their first bowl game since 2014, when they came back against Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Looking ahead to this upcoming campaign, I could see SC put their name back on the national radar. I have them as favorites in all but two games heading into the year, with their biggest test already coming in week two, when Georgia is coming to town, and then they finish at Clemson. Let’s check out what this group brings to the table. The Gamecocks bring back an excellent wide receiver duo in Deebo Samuels and Bryan Edwards. While injuries have been a big part of Deebo’s college career, he is an absolute dynamite when on the field. He ran sweeps, reverses, tunnel screens, slant-routes and other stuff for 280 yards from scrimmage and took two kicks to the house in just three games last season. He runs violent with the balls in his hands and has the speed to run away from anybody. Edwards might not be as flashy as his partner in crime, but he is a dependable target who can run the entire route-tree and has excellent hands. He is a jump-ball specialist and can juke people after the catch. Their quarterback Jake Bentley now has 20 starts under his belt and looked at his best in the biggest moments in 2017. I like his pocket posture, the way the ball comes out in rhythm, he has some decent mobility and can throw on the run. While a lot of his passes were completed behind the line of scrimmage, he can get the ball to his playmakers anywhere on the field and finds the first-down marker. Despite needing more balance on offense, they could be an explosive group.
On the opposite side of the ball, you find a defensive unit that gave up 20.7 points per game last season. They return most of their front seven outside of star linebacker Skai Moore and see an infusion of young talent. With 28 total takeaways this prior season, they should have the ability to get the ball back for their offense.
Alabama’s QB battle
Nick Saban has made it perfectly clear on several occasions that this battle for the starting quarterback position will go on until Alabama has to put a name on that week one depth chart. Yet, we can still wonder. Jalen Hurts was the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman and only threw one interception in all of 2017, which is something that coaching staff is definitely looking for, but he simply couldn’t win outside the numbers at all versus Georgia in the National Championship game and Saban decided to give Tua Tagovailoa a shot. Tua made some mistakes in that contest, but he also brought them back and looked like a much more prolific passer. I already knew he had special abilities and we saw him plenty in garbage time because Bama was up big, but he really showed me something at that biggest stage and wasn’t afraid of the moment. Let’s analyze their respective skill-sets.
Hurts is a tremendous athlete, who can go squatting with his offensive linemen and then run gasses with his wide receivers. As I already mentioned, he takes good care of the ball and he can be a primary ball-carrier with the speed and durability to run all over opposing defenses. He has a whippy arm and his QB rating is outstanding, but he displays inconsistent accuracy and rarely gets off his initial read, if it isn’t for an easy checkdown. Tagovailoa’s meaningful tape is very limited, but watching him perform in the championship game, you get very excited about what he brings to the table. He shows active feet in the pocket, slides around to allow his pass-catchers to run open, can stretch defenses with the deep ball and makes things happen when nothing is there and he needs to get creative. However, he is also very inexperienced at this level and you only have to look at that sack he took on the first play of overtime, which cost them 16 yards, before throwing a bomb down the sideline for the game-winner.
No matter who lines up under center for the reigning champs, with their personnel up front, they want to pound opponents and have their signal-caller to keep the offense on schedule. It will be very interesting to see which way the coaching staff goes.
Clemson’s ridiculous D-line
I don’t even know if ridiculous is a big enough word to describe this unit. Let’s be honest here – had Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell been available in April’s draft, none of them would have made it past the second round and all four could easily hear their name called on day one next year. It’s really interesting to watch them work together and look forward to them as eventual NFL prospects, because they offer very different skill-sets and might all different positions.
Bryant looks like a 3-4 outside linebacker, Lawrence is that stack-and-shed D-lineman to line up straight across his man, Wilkins is more up an upfield-penetrating 3-technique and Ferrell looks more like a base 4-3 D-end. So what do these guys bring to the table? Bryant was the fourth guy on this front to join the party. He emerged last season as a big, physical player with the athleticism and skill to play in space, as well as the effort to chase down faster opponents. Lawrence had an incredible 2016 campaign, when he showed up in the backfield continuously despite facing double-teams at a high rate. He is a rock against the run and has a good feel for how to rush the passer. Wilkins is much more slippery and likes to get up the field. He has an edge-rusher like get-off and can stress offensive linemen with his ability to slant aggressively, plus he can line up anywhere along the line. And finally, Ferrell is a guy who will squeeze gaps and doesn’t mind throwing his body around to create a mess at the point of attack. He shows a lot of football smarts and excellent pursuit.
Overall, this unit produced a combined 45 negative plays and a lot of times it was the linebackers behind them, who cleaned up what they had already forced. I truly believe this could be one of the all-time great position groups this season. Clemson held their opponents to 3.1 yards per rush attempts last year, but it’ll be up to an inconsistent offensive group to put up points this season and allow that ferocious front-four to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
Running backs ruling college football
College football saw some star running backs capture the nation, such as Saquon Barkley, Kerryon Johnson and to a lesser degree the country’s leading rusher Rashaad Penny. All three of those, as well as USC’s Ronald Jones, Georgia’s dynamic RB duo and others have gone pro. Yet, I’m not sure when the NCAA has brought back so many talented running backs in recent history.
Bryce Love had the challenge of replacing Christian McCaffrey at Stanford and broke out in a crazy way. Like his former teammate, Love was the Heisman trophy runner-up, as well as winning the Doak Walker award for the nation’s top RB and Consensus All-American honors , as he rushed for 2118 yards and 19 TDs. Love is a home-run hitter who averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and toughed out late season injuries. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor put up a freshman record 1977 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He offers a compact build with a low center of gravity to rumble downfield and has better pull-away speed than you’d anticipate. He reminds me a lot of Nick Chubb as a freshman, having that running style that tires out defenses and leads to his biggest runs coming later on in games. That led to just two games with less than five yards a clip. Another guy who received a lot of attention last season was Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson. It took Anderson a while to get going and take over the starting role for Oklahoma, but once he received more than ten touches per game from week seven one, Anderson averaged 166.6 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage. He really started looking more and more like a young Beastmode, running with tremendous force and contact balance and he seemed to get stronger as the year went along.
There’s so many guys, who nobody even talks about, but could have monster years in 2018. Most exciting for me is Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, who was held back a little by Mike Weber being ahead of him on the depth chart early on, but he still ended up reaching 1400 yards on the ground with less than 200 carries. His combination of explosiveness and power is off the charts. While he doesn’t quite have the same long-speed, he reminds me a lot of Zeke a few years back and as the lead-back I expect him to be in the Heisman conversation. I haven’t even talked about Florida State’s Cam Akers, Boston College’s A.J. Dllon, FAU’s Devin Singletary, Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Washington’s Myles Gaskin, Iowa State’s David Montgomery, Kentucky’s Benny Snell and others yet.
D’Andre Swift taking over for Chubb & Michel
Speaking of running backs, I have high hopes for another guy down in Georgia. D’Andre Swift is basically replacing the duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for over 2500 yards and 31 TDs on the ground, as well as carrying their team to a National Championship appearance. So that’s a heavy load to pick up. Yet, I believe the young man will shine in 2018. Does he bring the punishing running style of a Nick Chubb or the burst from going East-West to getting downfield like a Sony Michel? No. Yet, Swift offers his own special skill-set.
The 5’9”, 215 pound back only received 81 carries as a freshman, but he made the most of his opportunities, as he averaged 7.6 yards on those and consistently won that one-on-one matchup with the unblocked defender. Swift has elite breakaway speed and agility to make people miss in the open field. While he is a slashing type of runner, once he decides to bury his shoulder into the chest a defender, he makes that guy feel the pain. When he has space to operate he can juke or hurdle defenders, but if someone is in his way, he becomes a very physical runner. The thing Swift brings to the table that neither of his predecessors did, is his ability to contribute in the passing game. He is an incredibly gifted pass-catcher, who can not only make smooth adjustments on throws with poor ball placement, but he can actually be a downfield threat from that RB spot. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for just 13 total catches last season, while Swift already topped that by himself as the third option. Georgia simply didn’t throw the ball to its running backs very often, but I think the coaching staff will adjust to what they have and make Swift a weapon out of the backfield on the ground as well as through the air. He is way too talented to stay in protection or just run simple swing and checkdown routes.
I see a huge season for the sophomore standout, with 2000+ yards from scrimmage potentially, as they bring back a monstrous offensive line and Swift clearly being to go-to-guy at running back.
Will the Big Ten eliminate itself?
I don’t think I can remember the last time the Big Ten had so many highly competitive programs to show for. Ohio State looks to be the favorite in that conference, but there are several potential contenders – Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State and even schools like Iowa or Northwestern could be good for an upset. Last year Wisconsin went undefeated throughout the regular season, but lost in close fashion to those Buckeyes in the conference championship game. With losses to Oklahoma and Iowa by multiple scores, OSU’s resume didn’t put them in the playoffs either and while Wisconsin had dominated the competition up to that point, with a rather easy schedule the committee gave Alabama the nod over those two Big-10 schools. I think we could see a similar outcome with all those powerhouses in that conference.
Ohio State brings back sophomore RB J.K. Dobbins, who I already talked about having a monster year potentially, they have a promising sophomore QB in Dwayne Haskins and once again a loaded defense, headlined by Nick Bosa. Wisconsin on the other hand has a tremendous bell-cow RB themselves with Jonathan Taylor, running behind a road-grading offensive line, and they bring back most of that third-leading scoring defense from last season. This might be the year for Michigan. They finally have a clear-cut number one signal-caller in transfer Shea Patterson, who has a dynamic receiver duo to throw to with sophomores Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones. The edge-rushing combination of Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich might be the best in the country and Devin Bush is a seeking missile at linebacker. Penn State might have lost their superstar running back Saquon Barkley, but they still their quarterback Trace McSorley, who will look to make a Heisman case himself, and James Franklin with one of the nation’s top-five recruiting classes. Michigan State surprised some people in 2017, when they defeated both Michigan and Penn State, before having their dreams crushed in blowout fashion by Ohio State. However, they have their key pieces on either side of the ball – quarterback Brian Lewerke and linebacker Joe Bachie.
Teams travelling to Iowa always have to be on their toes and Northwestern has their own star duo of quarterback and middle linebacker in Clayton Thorson and Paddy Fisher. With all those teams competing against each other eventually, I could see them not being represented among the Final Four once again.
Fresh faces in the SEC
While there has definitely been a shift in the dominance of NCAA coaches by conference, as the Big-10 has put together a tremendous group of head-men, the SEC is on its way of catching up. Kirby Smart has led Georgia to levels they had not reached in decades and Auburn actually ended up winning the West last season, but Alabama is still the big bad wolf in this conference. Behind those three programs, LSU had the fourth-best record and they look loaded on the defensive side of the ball. I already talked about South Carolina being a darkhorse candidate in the East, but all the other teams have looked more like bottom-feeders recently and I think a lot of that had to do with coaching. However, six SEC teams hired new, promising head coaches.
The biggest name would be Jimbo Fisher, who is coming over from a Florida State program, that won the ACC three years in a row, including a perfect season and National Championship under him, and now is taking over the reigns at Texas A&M. He inherits a sophomore QB in Kellen Mond, who showed major flashes stepping in as a freshman and snagged 13 four-star recruits to start things off. Dan Mullen brought in the same number of four-star guys with his first recruitment class at Florida. Coming off his last gig at Mississippi State, who he led to their most successful eight-year stretch in school history, Mullen seems to be the perfect candidate to bring Florida back to relevance. The Gators have had some stingy defenses in recent years and Mullen is all about competition, but it’s the work he has done with quarterbacks in the past, such as Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald, that is desperately needed in Gainesville. Taking over for Mullen at MSU is Joe Moorhead, who most recently worked as the OC under James Franklin at Penn State. As a long-time QB coach, Moorhead will help Nick Fitzgerald, who I just mentioned, win more through the air than with his legs and he has a monster duo of D-linemen with Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. Chad Morris has had a lot success as the OC at Clemson and as the head-man at SMU. He will bring a significant change to the Arkansas offense, which relied heavily on the power-run game and should be much more wide open with Morris calling the shots. Jeremy Pruitt is another descendant of Nick Saban, who has done outstanding work as a defensive coordinator, being part of three national championship, and is widely regarded as an excellent recruiter. And finally there’s Matt Luke taking over Ole Miss. The 41-year old stepped in as the interim coach last season once Hugh Freeze was pushed out and had the tag removed after some excellent moments. They played several of the bigger name teams very tough (not named Bama) and “positive vibes” are coming out of Oxford reportedly. He lost Shea Patterson to Michigan, which was foreseeable, but he has already counted some wins in the recruiting business.
Three freshman QBs making noise
With all the research I do and tape I watch on college and pro football, I rarely get a chance to watch those guys coming out of high school. However, I try to at least check out the top recruits every year and this time around it’s the quarterback class at the top that really stands out. Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, Justin Fields at Georgia and JT Daniels at USC are all top-six national recruits and want to make noise right away, despite the competition they will be facing.
Let’s start with the guy, who has the easiest path to getting the nod as a starter in the season-opener. USC just lost an incredible leader in Sam Darnold, who overshadowed some of the weaknesses on this roster had a lot of his turnovers due to forcing those big plays. Sophomore Matt Fink is the only one to have thrown a pass in a USC uniform (6 of 9 for 43 yards). Jack Sears was the fourth-rated pro QB last year, but decided to redshirt and learn from Darnold and he has turned the ball over in practice quite a bit reportedly. Although, he should be a high school senior, Daniels offers the superb athleticism and arm-strength to intrigue coaches. The Gatorade National Player of the Year has shown how bad he wants to get out on the field through the whole reclassifying process instead of waiting to be the number one prospect in 2019 and I’d be shocked if he isn’t the starter by mid-season.
Trevor Lawrence’s road to taking over the Clemson program appears to be a little trickier. Now-senior Kelly Bryant did get exposed by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for his inability to beat the Crimson Tide with his arm, but he did score 24 touchdowns and led the Tigers to a number one national ranking up until then. Lawrence can put the necessary zip on the ball to fit passes into tight windows, kill defenses over the top and avoid the rush to extend plays. His new head coach Dabo Swinney already said ‘he’s got every tool you could possibly want’ and how ready he appears to be for this level.
And finally there’s Justin Fields, who has the toughest competition to beat out. Georgia started last season with Jacob Eason as their clear-cut starter after a pretty good freshman campaign, but after just three passes he got hurt and saw his job taken away by another five-star recruit in Jake Fromm. That guy was excellent for the entire year, never posting a QB rating below 100 once, and led them to a National Championship game appearance. However, Fields brings a running dimension to the table that neither one of those other two guys can even sniff. Watching him run through high school defenses, he actually looks a lot like Cam Newton and he has the crazy hip rotation to absolutely drill his receivers. Fields enrolled early at UGA and looked very impressive in their spring game, getting the ball out quickly and showing outstanding awareness.
Who will emerge as the top dawg in the Big XII?
Many of the familiar faces of this conference are gone. Most significantly, reigning Heisman trophy winner Baker Mayfield was the first overall pick, while Oklahoma State saw Mason Rudolph and his top two targets leave for the pros as well. The Sooners still look strong with wonderkid Kyler Murray trying to fill the shoes of Mayfield. He could be the centerpiece of another high-flying offense that includes superstar receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and a beastly running back in Rodney Anderson. However, OU has some serious competition.
In-state rivals Oklahoma State have certainly lost the most talent on offense and I don’t know what to expect from quarterback position, but they could rely more heavily on the running game with the little dynamo that is Justice Hill and they brought in a new defensive coordinator, who has an experienced unit at his disposal and will install much more aggressive schemes. They could easily start 6-0 with five home games and a trip to Kansas, before facing a brutal second half schedule. TCU has won at least 11 games in three of the last four years under Gary Patterson and they probably have the most-experienced roster in the conference. They return a stingy D and sophomore Shawn Robinson is taking over as the program’s highest-rated QB recruit ever, with some weapons around him. They get five conference games at home and two of those on the road are against Kansas and Baylor. Will Grier and West Virginia seem to be everybody’s offseason darling and breakout candidate. I’m not quite as high on the Mountaineers because I think the losses of running back Justin Crawford and safety-linebacker hybrid Kyzir White are bigger than they sound like, but I’m intrigued by the connection between Grier and his star receiver David Sills too. Texas definitely showed some signs in Tom Herman’s first season as the head-man and they bring in the third-best recruiting class in the country. The Longhorn defense is the closest to running any actual NFL schemes, which presented a ton of problems for the top QBs that were used to those soft quarter-coverages, as Texas held Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and USC to an average of 18.7 points through regulation.
I don’t think Iowa State can recapture the magic from 2017, but they have put their name on the national radar and David Montgomery is a serious NFL prospect, with an impressive all-around skill-set. Even the other four teams could potentially improve as well.