College Football Preview: 10 Questions for New Playoff Era
After arguably being a tipped pass away from making the BCS title game the year before, Georgia lost a heartbreaker to Clemson to open last season, 38-35. Though they returned nearly every impact player from the year before, Georgia's title hopes were effectively dashed. Thanks for playing. See ya next year.
That won't be the case this year. If Georgia loses to Clemson on Saturday, they will still be in the title hunt--so long as they win their next game against South Carolina. If Michigan State loses to Oregon in week 2, their season won't be done--so long as they win the Big Ten. If Alabama or Florida State get shocked on Saturday, they too will still be alive.
Welcome to college football's new playoff era, where more teams can cling to hope and one early season loss won't destroy a season. The regular season will be just as, if not more, meaningful and intense even with a four-team playoff at the end.
Here are ten questions heading into opening weekend. And a very preliminary top ten is below that (I don't think teams should be ranked until after the second week of the season so these are indeed very preliminary rankings). I'll write about my top five teams and some news, notes, and observations every week.
1. Will the College Football Regular Season Be Even Better?
It's fitting that the Rose Bowl and the Superdome will host first two semifinal games since the Pac-12 and the SEC are the two dominant conferences at the end of the BCS era and the start of the new College Football Playoff era. I would have preferred a BCS-style system to select the top two teams and a committee to select the remaining two. But this system ensures there will be controversy. And controversy only ensures conversation... and, of course, cash.
Speaking of cash, the one downside of the playoff system may be that some of the most loyal fans may not afford to travel to the title game. Imagine a Midwestern fan having to travel to California and then to Texas after that without having weeks in advance to get reserve cheaper hotel rooms and air fare. It would be a shame if the title game becomes more of a corporate affair and the die-hard fans that are the foundation of college football are left to just watching it on television.
2. Can Jameis Winston Win Back-to-Back Heismans and National Titles?
Jameis Winston has a chance to be the first back-to-back Heisman winner since Archie Griffin. He should be more mature and have a better grasp of the offense on the field, which is scary. But will his tumultuous offseason (reports that the Tallahassee police department allegedly mishandled a sexual assault case and walking out of Publix with crab legs) be a distraction to him and his teammates? Florida State's road back to the title game will not be as easy as some are saying. Florida is better. So is Miami. Oklahoma State is always tricky. And they may have a date with Virginia Tech's Beamer Ball in the ACC title game.
3. Who will emerge as Alabama's quarterback? -
Alabama has the most talented players in college football. It will be tough for a team with Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, O.J. Howard, Chris Black, Christion Jones, and stars galore on defense and the offensive line to lose a game... so long as 'Bama has a quarterback who can get the playmakers the ball. And that's a huge question mark without A.J. McCarron. Can Blake Sims be a read-option version of a Matt Mauck and just manage Saban's to the title? Or will Alabama need Jake Coker to win the big games against Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M?
And how will Lane Kiffin function in Tuscaloosa? When Bama hired Kiffin, it reminded me of when the Steelers hired Todd Haley to be their offensive coordinator. Both had famous fathers who were great coordinators. Both were bring an air-it-out style of play to traditionally smash-mouth cultures. And both had rocky tenures as head coaches. It's tough to doubt Saban after the run he has had in Tuscaloosa, and perhaps Kiffin's speed-it-up offense will actually help Alabama's defense, which has struggled against teams like Texas A&M and Auburn in years past. On defense, look for cornerback Tony Brown to emerge later in the year to be a playmaker along with starts like Landon Collins. He can potentially make some season-defining plays against teams that play the "hurry up" style of offense.
Alabama found its identity three years ago in a week-two game against Penn State, when A.J. McCarron pulled away from Philip Sims and would cement Alabama's dynasty. Alabama has the talent for another run, but the Tide must figure out the quarterback situation before they play Florida.
4. Will this finally be Oregon's Year?
Every year, Oregon starts off the season ranked in the top-5 only to trip up and disappoint. But with Stanford at home and Marcus Mariota, a Heisman favorite, back for his senior year, this may be the year where Oregon finally contends for the title. Their running backs will have to step up and the defense will have gel fast. I think their game against Michigan State will help them prepare for Stanford in November. And luckily for the Ducks, they play Arizona at home (I'm sure Oregon checks their schedule every year to see if they play Arizona on the road).
5. Can Georgia Win Their First Two Games? Like Oregon, Georgia could finally make it to the big dance this year. If they win their first two games against Clemson and South Carolina, they could go into the SEC title game undefeated, which could ensure them a spot in the final four. Quarterback Hutson Mason knows the system and got valuable game experience last year after Aaron Murray's injury. And running back Todd Gurley, a Heisman contender, returns after being sidelined with an injury last year. The defense should get more stout with Jeremy Pruitt calling the shots as well.
6. Can UCLA Live Up to the Preseason Hype?
No team may have received more hype in the preseason than the UCLA Bruins. They are the preseason darlings. Prognosticators have them even winning the first college football playoff. I'm not sure they are even the best team in the conference. Will all-world quarterback Brett Hundley, who will likely be at the Downtown Athletic Club in the winter, have a running game and an offensive line to ease his burden? Will the defense be as nasty, in terms of attitude, without Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt? Can they get through the schedule in the Pac-12, a league that is arguably just behind the SEC in terms of the being the best league?
7. Can Top Teams Find Their Quarterbacks After Week One?
Many of the most talented teams that are outside of the Pac-12 will have to find their quarterback in the first two games. LSU, Virginia Tech, Alabama, and Wisconsin are just some of the teams that will need to find its top signal caller because, as the saying, goes... if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. Not all schools, of course, have a Leonard Fournette like LSU and a Derrick Henry (and T.J. Yeldon, of course) like Alabama to take the pressure off of whichever quarterback emerges. On a side note, don't be surprised if Derrick Henry and Fournette battle twice next year -- once in the regular season and once in the title game. Alabama and LSU are that loaded.
These teams are hoping their quarterback problems are solved like Texas A&M's seeming was after Kenny Hill's record-breaking performance. Serious question: If Hill has a few more of those games, will all-world quarterback Kyle Allen think about transferring?
8. Will Texas Tech and Kansas State Wreak Havoc in the Big XII?
Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and Art Briles at Baylor are getting all the deserved hype, but don't overlook Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury, who just signed an extension until 2020 and was Johnny Manziel's first offensive coordinator. His offense clicked on all cylinders last year, especially against Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, and don't expect the Red Raiders to slow down this year. Meanwhile, Bill Snyder and Kansas State look like they will again give teams fits. What else is new? Pundits have said that since the Big XII is not as good as the SEC or Pac-12, a team like Oklahoma or Baylor will have a better chance of making the playoffs because they won't have to go through a demolition-derby schedule. I think Texas Tech and Kansas State will have something to say about that. Don't be surprised if they make the league a lot tougher than it seems on paper.
9. Who Will Be This Year's Party Crasher?
Marshall and Central Florida may make a run for a "New Year's Six" bowl bid. But because Central Florida plays Penn State and Missouri, Marshall has the edge on paper with an easier schedule. Even though Central Florida lost quarterback Blake Bortles, their defense should keep them in every game. Keep an eye on these two teams this season.
10. Why Are Critics Dismissing Stanford and Ohio State?
Stanford was arguably a loss at Utah away from possibly making a run at the national title game last year. Sure, they lost Tyler Gaffney, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, and Josh Mauro, among others. But they return Kevin Hogan, one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football. He has a full season of experience, only one loss against top-ten teams, a knack for winning, and doesn't have to face the pressure as quarterbacks who may be more hyped. His arm is also underrated, and he may be able to showcase it this year after the loss of Gaffney, who bulldozed opponents last year at running back. Hogan reminds me of a bigger and more mobile A.J. McCarron -- a guy sometimes dismissed as a game manager but who is much more with tons of leadership intangible. The Cardinal go four-deep at running back, return Devon Cajuste and Ty Montgomery at wide receiver, have a plethora of talented tight ends, return an anchor in Andrus Peat on the offensive line who has been likened to Jonathan Ogden. The Cardinal were doubted when Jim Harbaugh Left. When Andrew Luck left. When offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton left. But they kept winning with their smash-mouth brand of football, and there is no reason to believe they won't do so this after Derek Mason left to go Vanderbilt. Let's just hope David Shaw does a little better job calling plays during crunch time (hint: don't fall in love with the wildcat formation).
Ohio State may have lost Braxton Miller, but it's not like they play in the SEC. With a weak schedule, who knows what Urban Meyer, who has a proven track record of putting young quarterbacks in schemes in which they can succeed (see: Alex Smith at Utah), will be able to pull out of his hat? It would be foolish to bet against a still talented team playing in a very weak league.
My very preliminary top ten (taking into consideration games already played):
1. Florida State - The Seminoles start on top until someone knocks them off.
2. Auburn - I don't think they'll make the playoffs. But before teams have played, the return of Heisman contender Nick Marshall at quarterback puts Auburn at No. 2 until they lose.
3. Alabama - Until Alabama figures out its quarterback situation, I can't put them ahead of Auburn.
4. Oregon, Michigan State - They'll resolve which team should be ahead in week 2.
6. Oklahoma -- Trevor Knight must be consistent or the Sooners will disappoint.
7. Georgia -- If Georgia wins its first two games, the Bulldogs may run the table.
8. Stanford -- Look for the Cardinal to keep continuing what Jim Harbaugh started. Still the nastiest team in the Pac-12.
9. LSU -- Next ear may be LSU's year. But the future could arrive early. They are that talented.
10. UCLA -- The preseason hype is a bit unwarranted. Tough league. And questions at offensive line and running back need to be answered. Brett Hundley needs to consistently hit the intermediate pass over the middle.