Less than two weeks away from the NCAA season opener with the ACC’s Miami and SEC’s Florida making early cases for who is the top team in the Sunshine State, I wanted to give a little preview of the upcoming five months or so. To do that, I came up with my top ten storylines ahead of the upcoming college football season. While a lot of people may think this could be a two- or three-team race once again, several things are completely unpredictable and these are the themes that I will be following closely as the year goes along.
Can Trevor Lawrence emerge as an Andrew Luck-type prospect?
The Clemson Tigers had already been a playoff team three years in a row and won a couple of championships before 2018, with hopes of going all the way once again with a more than solid quarterback in Kelly Bryant. However, four weeks into the season, they made the switch to freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence. People expected him to be great after breaking Deshaun Watson’s passing yardage and touchdown records in the state of Georgia before being viewed as the number one national recruit, but nobody could have predicted the success he had in year one.
Lawrence completely transformed the Clemson offense, completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 3280 yards and 30 touchdowns compared to only four picks on 8.3 yards per attempt, despite not starting for the first four weeks. You see him beat tight coverage with perfect ball-placement and gives his receivers chances, he doesn’t really put the ball in harm’s way and he throws with a lot of anticipation, hitting receivers right out of their breaks. What I think was so different to most freshman QBs was the way he stood tall in the pocket and hitched up into it instead of hearing that mental clock tick and trying to escape.
He saved his finest work for the National Championship game, when he led the Tigers to 44 points against the feared Alabama D. In that game, Lawrence went 8 for 12 for 242 yards and a couple of touchdowns on third down, with only one of those attempts having less than five yards to go. He also picked up three first downs with his legs to close out the game and simply never looked rattled on the big stage.
As an NFL prospect, Lawrence pretty much is exactly what you are looking for. He has elite height at 6’6”, incredible arm talent and excellent athleticism to extend plays. I would like to see him fill his frame more, as he only weighed 215 pounds last year, and you want to see him continue to develop, but at this trajectory, he looks like the obvious number one draft pick in 2021.
Which wide receiver(s) will enter the Heisman trophy race?
While we don’t usually think of wide receivers in the Heisman trophy race and it has been 28 years since Desmond Howard won the award, after scored a couple of big return touchdowns to go with his 21 scores from scrimmage, in two of the last five years a receiver has made the trip to New York (Amari Cooper and Dede Westbrook). Not only can those explosive, multi-faceted guys quickly gain national recognition, but I also think this season there are several candidates capable of making noise with highlight plays.
First off, there is the obvious one in Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy. He is clearly the top pure receiver, having won the Biletnikoff award in 2018, and is part of a high-flying offense with a bunch of weapons and led by Tua Tagovailoa, who looked to be in the front seat to take home the honors for most of last season.
Next, I think a guy like Colorado’s Laviska Shenault is capable of putting up monster numbers. Through the first six games of last season, the 6’2”, 220-pound receiver racked up 867 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage before returning later on with a banged up toe. Expect to see him go over the top, make big plays after the catch and even line up at wildcat QB near the goal-line.
Another guy who will continue to take the nation by storm is Purdue’s Rondale Moore. He is a big-play threat on the deep ball, taking fly sweeps the distance and ripping off long returns. Last season Moore went for just over 2000 all-purpose yards and he will be the Boilermakers’ featured weapon once again.
While their quarterback is one of the front-runners at this point, Clemson has an incredible receiver duo between Tee Higgins and Justyn, Ceedee Lamb could put his name along some of those other great Oklahoma receiving seasons and even guys from smaller schools like Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, who was first in several under-the-radar categories in 2018, could all be in consideration at some point during the year.
How dominant can this Oregon offensive line be?
Every year there seems to be that one great unit on a college football roster. Whether that was the Clemson D-line last season, some of the extremely talented LSU secondaries in recent years or even those loaded Miami backfields back in the day. I think this upcoming season the most dominant unit in the nation could be the Ducks offensive line. First of all, Oregon has all five offensive linemen from last year returning and three of those guys – Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux and Jake Janson – likely will be selected in the top 100 picks of the 2020 draft.
Looking at the advanced stats, the unit ranked 35th in stuffed run and 41st in sack rate, which are rather mediocre numbers, such as their 4.5 yards per rush. However, watching the tape of these guys, they are a special group. They can run inside and outside zone, use all five guys as pullers in power schemes, have the athleticism to get on the move in the screen game and work well together in protection with everybody looking for work if they are uncovered originally.
In their first loss of the 2018 versus Stanford, Oregon ran the ball 49(!) times because of the job the O-line was doing against a physical Cardinal front. On designed runs with their backs, more than three quarters of their attempts went for 3+ yards with a lot of them being so well executed that nobody had a clear shot at the ball-carrier until he had easily picked up first down yardage. Stanford actually started blitzing their corners to create a couple of negative plays. The O-line also kept a textbook-like pocket for quarterback Justin Herbert, who went on to complete 17 of his first 18 passes and really only was touched when he ran himself into trouble. Oregon only lost the game due to turnovers and some craziness at the end.
While that 7-6 loss in their bowl game against Michigan State left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, I think this offensive line combined with their NFL prototype quarterback could lead the Ducks to a Pac-12 title. Right now I’m giving this group a slight edge over what Georgia has up front.
Which QB transfer will make the biggest impact at his new school?
This somehow feels like the age of transfer quarterbacks with this offseason being the pinnacle of moves. Several of them joined big-time schools, while a few talented guys left those contenders to be the star at smaller programs, after they were replaced. These are the guys I will be following closely.
Jalen Hurts was 25-2 as a starter over his first two years with Alabama, only throwing one interception compared to 25 scrimmage touchdowns in 2017. When Tua Tagovailoa took over in the second half of the National Championship game versus Georgia, Hurts never got his job back. However, he did lead the Tide back versus those Bulldogs last season and showed a lot of improvement as a passer. Can Lincoln Riley turn him into another Heisman candidate?
Whilst we’re talking about Georgia, the Bulldogs landed the nation’s number two recruit Justin Fields last year. He looked sharp in spring and saw at least some action in 12 games, where he showed a dynamic arm and athleticism as a runner. Due to dissatisfaction about his role with Jake Fromm as the starter and some racial comments he encountered with, he decided to transfer to Ohio State. There he will team up with a great offensive mind in Ryan Day to kickstart his collegiate career.
And with that we move on the way Tate Martell did from OSU to Miami, once the Fields news broke. Two years ago Malik Rosier looked like the guy to bring “The U” back to glory, throwing for over 3000 yards and 26 touchdowns while leading his team to an ACC Championship game appearance. He regressed mightily last season, when sharing time with N’Kosi Perry who certainly outplayed him, but overall the two combined for just over 2000 passing yards and 19 TDs to 14 INTs. Martell could take over and have a lot more success under former Alabama assistant Dan Enos.
There’s a bunch of other guys, such as Clemson’s Kelly Bryant going to the SEC to join the Missouri Tigers, another former Clemson QB in Hunter Johnson who had to sit out a year but will be first five-star QB to play for Northwestern, Brandon Wimbush leaving Notre Dame to continue UCF’s incredible success for a Non-Top Conference team and Jacob Eason who sat out a year after transferring from Georgia and is now looking to win the Pac-12 with Washington.
Will Jonathan Taylor become the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher?
Back in 2016 a 5’9”, 175-pound running back named Donell Pumphrey from San Diego State set a NCAA record with 6405 yards career rushing yards in a big win over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. Right now, Wisconsin superstar Jonathan Taylor sits at 4171 after two consecutive years of brilliance, putting up the highest rushing yardage mark for any freshman ever and last season being named a Unanimous First-Team All-American.
For as much as you can talk about the stellar offensive lines they have had for about a decade now in Madison, Taylor is also clearly one of the top backs in the nation, with the power that earned him over 1300 yards after contact and the explosive burst that led to 61 runs of 10+ yards last season. If he can surpass his yardage total from last year by a little more than 200 yards, just like he did from his freshman to sophomore campaign, he has a good chance of rewriting the record books once again – in a year less than Pumphrey. At this point Taylor is averaging 154.5 rushing yards per game on 6.9 yards per carry with more than a touchdown per game. As crazy as those numbers might seem, setting a new mark would once again bring up some controversy.
The NCAA only started counting bowl game statistics back in 2002. If they didn’t do that, former Badger Ron Dayne would still be more than 300 yards in front of Pumphrey, and if they decided to subsequently add his bowl statistics, Dayne would be far ahead with 7125 yards on the ground. As it stands, “only” 6397 of those count for the record books and I think the legendary RB has a reason to be upset. Assuming Taylor will go pro after his junior year, it would take another special season from the star back, but I’m sure Dayne wouldn’t mind seeing a current Badger bring the record back to Wisconsin.
How quickly can Scott Frost turn this Nebraska program into a Big 10 contender?
It’s been 24 years since Nebraska won those two peculiar national titles with guys like Ahman Green and Tommy Frazier running the show. Not a lot of people remember that time better than the guy who played quarterback the following two years and led them to their highest end-of-season ranking since, when they finished second nationally – Scott Frost. The now-44 year old returned to his former school last year after finishing a perfect season with UCF. His first season however did not go as planned, as they lost their first six games before picking up some steam and winning four of the last six. While there are certainly still question marks, there is even more reason for optimism.
Five or Nebraska’s eight losses last season came by one score, with two of those being against the teams that met in the conference championship game – Northwestern and Ohio State – and the season-finale at Iowa. Plus, two games could have easily gone the other way if quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t have to leave them. That brings me to the guy, who looked like a rising star as a freshman despite less-than-ideal situation. Martinez and Frost seem to have very strong relationship and I think as the young signal-caller develops, he will only improve on those 25 combined touchdowns.
While the Cornhuskers are looking to replace their leading rusher and receiver from 2018, J.D. Spielman looks primed to emerge as a number one option in the passing game and the coaching staff will try to feature their highest recruit in all-purpose back Wan’Dale Robinson heavily, who reportedly is “turning heads” in practice. The defense is expected to take a step forward with proven transfers up front to improve the run defense and pass rush.
Looking at their schedule for 2019, I expect Scott Frost’s troops to win eight or nine games, which could potentially be enough to win the Big Ten West. They should probably start the year 4-0 and they host most of their biggest games – Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa. While it definitely wasn’t against the same type of competition, Nebraska did win three of their conference home games last year.
How will Bama respond after talking that blow in the National Championship game?
Clemson did something to Alabama that I haven’t really seen anybody do during their championship run over the last decade – they kind of punched them in the mouth. Re-watching the game, I didn’t think the Tigers simply outmatched the SEC powerhouse, but instead it was them coming up with the crucial plays in the biggest spots.
Tua had that bad pick-six early on and they just could not convert on third downs. Overall the Tide went 4-13 in that game while Clemson converted 10 of their 15 attempts, with their spectacular receiving duo in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross going off for 192 yards and two touchdowns on six third down grabs. They just could not push those guys out of bounds on the sidelines or wrestle the ball out when it touched their hands. At the same time their Heisman trophy finalist seemed banged up and for the first team all year he was a little uncomfortable.
You can argue how much Bama was dominated or how great Trevor Lawrence and his receivers were, but in the end only thing counts – How will Nick Saban’s team respond? Those guys are bringing back who was considered a lock to take home the Heisman trophy until late in the year, the nation’s most talented receiving corp, a junior running back who once was a five-star recruit and averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season and a defense that is loaded with NFL prospects once again. They have everything they need to make it to the big game once again.
However, for the first time since this run has started, I feel like there is a crack in the Alabama armor. I saw a team that was more physical and better schematically, after everything Saban has lost among his coaching staff. With trips to College Station and Starkville, as well as a re-emerging LSU coming to town, this is not a cakewalk for the Tide. Plus their biggest test should come in the SEC title game, assuming Georgia makes it there.
Could two edge rushers move themselves to the top of next year’s draft board?
We just had a defense-heavy draft with a ton of D-linemen in the first round. While this was a special class and I don’t expect four players up front to make up my top four in the 2020 draft, those guys could once again be the story heading into next April. Of course people will hype up the quarterbacks like they do every year and you can pretty much book two of them for the first ten picks, at this moment I would probably have Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa and Chase Young competing for that number one spot. Here’s what I see:
At 6’6”, 280 pounds Epenesa is a physical specimen. He shows an effortless anchor and strong grip to pull blockers off himself. The highest-ranked recruit in the Kirk Ferentz-Hawkeye era uses his length very well with the long-arms or late swim-moves, but at the same time he has also shown a sudden dip to avoid contact, which is unique for his size. You see him simply overpowering large men and throwing them off balance, plus he gains the inside path on tackles with ease. I think he has to do a better job playing one half of the blocker and keeping his outside contain, as well as just fighting through holds and chasing with all-out effort to improve on those 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 25.4 percent pass-rush win rate.
With the absence of eventual second overall pick Nick Bosa, someone on that Ohio State offensive line needed to step up and their sophomore sensation Chase Young did not disappoint. He produced 76 total pressures, 14.5 tackles for loss and five passes knocked down at the line. At 15 pounds lighter than his fellow first-team All-Big Ten defensive end, Young is more of a speed guy who works in double-hand swipes and cross-chops. He displays quick burst, can tilt his feet around the edge and shows outstanding effort, often times forcing incompletions or turnovers with those hits on the QB as he releases the ball. I need to see the Buckeye standout play with better extension in the run game instead of throwing a shoulder to keep vision on the ball-carrier and he can be guided around the backside of the pocket a little bit too much.
Purely based on physical talent, Epenesa’s ceiling is probably a little higher, but Young has dropped out into the falts and hook zone every once in a while and could have more position flexibility. There will be a QB among the top three 2020 picks, but these guys are primed to be the other two.
Can Jim Harbaugh and Michigan finally win the Big 10?
Quarterback Shea Patterson is entering year two with the Wolverines, with the offensive schemes adjusting to his style of play more and all his receivers healthy. Despite having lost plenty of talent in the front-seven defensively with guys like Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, etc. their secondary should be equally as strong in 2019 and they had added one of the most productive pass rushers in the country with in-state transfer Mike Danna from Central Michigan. More importantly however, this is the main competition Michigan will be facing:
Ohio State: Urban Meyer is finally gone and he is replaced by a rookie (or do we call it freshman?) head coach in Ryan Day, who without a doubt is a very creative offensive mind, but has yet to prove himself at leading a team to a conference title. Plus, for as good as Justin Fields is expected to be after a stellar high school career, he is not Dwayne Haskins, who was a Heisman finalist with 50 touchdowns without a dependable running game or defense like most guys had there recently.
Michigan State: Back in 2015 Sparty won the Big 10 and made the College Football Playoff. They year after that they fell off the map with a 3-9 record and were believed to be in a rebuild. That’s why winning double-digit games the following year was very surprising, with guys like quarterback Brian Lewerke and linebacker Joe Bachie accelerating that process. Last season they somewhat returned to reality, going 7-6 with Lewerke struggling mightily (54.3 completion percentage, 8 TDs, 11 INTs) and while Mark Dantonio’s teams are always tough, they don’t nearly have Michigan’s offensive talent.
Penn State: I know James Franklin has really turned these Nittany Lions back into a winner and there is a lot of talent defensively, but I think they have received too much love by the committee. Projected starting QB Sean Clifford is expected to continue that offensive success, but he has attempted seven total passes in college. He is not the proven warrior that Trace McSorley was for them, who always seemed to find a way to keep them in games, and he doesn’t have a star back like Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders lining up next to him.
Two of these three teams, Iowa and Notre Dame are all coming to Ann Arbor, with their toughest road game being at Wisconsin, who they beat by 25 points last year. So if not now, when?
Will a team represent the Pac-12 in the College Playoff?
It hasn’t been since the 2014/15 season when Oregon made the playoff in its first year of existence that a Pac-12 team represented its conference in the National Championship game. Two years later Oregon made the Final Four, only to be destroyed 24-7 by Alabama. These last couple of seasons no team from that conference has really come that close to even being chosen by the committee. The closest ones have been USC in 2017, who looked lost versus Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, and then Washington State last year, who gave up their right to even compete for the conference title by losing to Washington. This year there are three Pac-12 teams in the top 15 of the pre-season polls – Oregon, Washington and Utah.
I already talked about Oregon’s offensive line and a potential top ten draft pick at quarterback. While the Ducks don’t have that highlight-reel skill position player on offense, they should feature a powerful rushing attack with a duo of talented running backs to go with #10 showing growth in becoming a more consistent passer and producing big plays through the air at a higher rate. The defense lost four starters from last year, but they still have Troy Dye in the middle and a talented young secondary to go with the number one overall recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux at D-end.
Washington on the other hand will have a lot of changes on offense. Jacob Eason is taking over under center after sitting out a year due to his transfer from Georgia. They will look to feature Salvon Ahmed more heavily as the top back with Myles Gaskin going pro and tight-end/H-back/all-purpose guy Hunter Bryant could emerge as a major weapon all across the field. However, they also lost a lot of leadership in the nation’s leading tackler Ben Burr-Kirven, the brains of their secondary in safety Taylor Rapp and their best cover-guy in Byron Murphy.
Utah is the team I really want to see winning big this year. The D-line looks stout with guys like Leki Fotu and Bradley Anae, while Julian Blackmon will transition to safety after a couple of strong seasons on the outside. I hope redshirt sophomore Duke Shelley will emerge as the Utes’ starting QB because of the potential he showed at the end of last year and with Zack Moss running the rock that offense could complement the defense much better.
I’m not sure if any of these teams is quite good enough to be one of the Final Four, but this is the best collection of Pac-12 teams in preseason I have seen in recent years.