Five for Five: Week Three

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This is a weekly series of five lists of essential information for the coming college football weekend. This week, the conference games are here and booooooy are they good.

Five Reasons Lamar Jackson Can Keep Putting Up Ridiculous Numbers

He’s a better runner than passer The numbers that matter most to the Louisville quarterback’s torrid start: 318, 9.9 and six. That’s the rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns Jackson has amassed in the first two games, fresh off a freshman season where he ran for 980 yards and 11 touchdowns in part-time duty. Jackson’s still learning how to beat defenses with his arm, so the fact that no one has slowed his legs down is a good sign.

He catches defense sleeping on early downs On first downs with an average distance of eight to 10 yards or more, Jackson has completed 21 of 30 passes (an even 70%) for 468 yards and five touchdowns while also rushing for 210 yards and an average of just over 13 yards per carry. Defenders have to be aware that the playbook is wide open for Jackson on first down, and the ball could end up anywhere with big-play results.

He has two of the most underrated tackles in the nation Florida State proved against Ole Miss it has more than enough athletes to attack a mobile quarterback, led by pass-rushing menace Demarcus Walker. But Jackson will have left tackle Geron Christian to protect his blind side. The 6’6″, 314-pound sophomore has started all 15 games of his college career and has proven to be much better than anyone could have expected, earning All-ACC honorable mention after having just two years of high school ball under his belt. Throw in 6’6″, 316-lb redshirt sophomore Lukayus McNeil at right tackle, and pass rushers will have an even tougher time catching the already-elusive Jackson (read this great profile of McNeil by ESPN.com’s Jared Shanker here).

ACC defenses look a little suspect Only two teams-Boston College and Miami-are allowing less than 200 yards per game, and the conference as a whole is surrendering an average of 306 yards per game. Jackson will only see one or two truly elite defenses like the Seminoles the rest of the season, so he has a chance to put up bigger numbers as he progresses throughout the year.

He doesn’t make costly decisions Jackson’s completion percentage is on the rise, up five points from last year, and he’s only thrown nine interceptions in 14 college games and 309 career pass attempts. He also doesn’t fumble much as a runner, so game-changing turnovers will be hard to come by for opposing defenses.

Five Things Oklahoma Has to Do to Beat Ohio State

Don’t turn the ball over Ohio State leads the nation with seven interceptions and a +7 turnover margin through the first two games. Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker have proven to be feisty ball hawks for the Buckeyes, so QB Baker Mayfield has to be careful with where he puts the ball.

Get Joe Mixon more involved One safe way to avoid turnovers is to hand the ball off, and one Sooner who needs to see the ball more often is the 6’1″, 226-lb sophomore. He does lead OU in rushing yards with 157 and is averaging 15 yards per reception, but most of those touches came in the first half of the loss to Houston. If offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley wants to beat the Buckeye defense, he needs to use Mixon’s potential to the fullest.

Know where Curtis Samuel is at all times The versatile junior not only leads Ohio State in receiving with 239 yards (17 yards per catch), but he’s also rushed for 162 yards and is averaging just under 8 yards a carry. Urban Meyer has used dynamic players with world-class speed all over the field before, going back to his Florida days with Percy Harvin and more recently with Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall, and Samuel is the next X-factor defenses have to find if they don’t want to get burned.

Watch out for the pass over the top Of J.T. Barrett’s six touchdown passes, five have traveled at least 25 yards. Barrett is averaging just over nine yards per pass attempt, so the Bucks are more than capable of going deep off of play action.

Make the game come down to a field goal kick Senior Tyler Durbin is a first-time kicker who’s yet to attempt a field goal from outside of 29 yards. Forcing him to take his first long kick on the road in a hostile environment with the game on the line heavily favors the Sooners.

Five Teams that Need to Play Better This Week

Clemson You can excuse the lack of fireworks to open the season on the road against an improved Auburn defense, but Troy? Really, Tigers? Deshaun Watson issued a public apology for the team’s performance through the first two weeks, which might be a bit too much, but the offense does need to pick it up, especially rushing the ball, where their 136.5-yards-per-game average is tied for 92nd in the country.

Tennessee The Volunteers spotted Virginia Tech a 14-0 lead one week after escaping Appalachian State in overtime. If Ohio gives them trouble, you might want to think about putting some money on Florida making it 12 in a row.

LSU The defense has been quietly solid, but the offense’s woes for the last year finally reached a breaking point for Les Miles, as quarterback Brandon Harris was benched for Purdue transfer Danny Etling last week against Jacksonville State. Leonard Fournette is back, and Derrius Guice had a stellar game in his place a week ago, but unless Etling can help the passing game take the next step, even this week’s home date with Mississippi State might be a tall task.

Georgia Kirby Smart can’t pick a quarterback heading into the first true road game of the season. Not great. Whether it’s Jacob Eason or Greyson Lambert under center, the Bulldogs have to do better than only beating Nicholls State  by two if they want to come out of Missouri unscathed.

Arizona An opening-week loss at the horn to BYU was followed up by a lackluster effort against Grambling State. If Hawaii comes to Tuscon and makes some noise, Rich Rodriguez might want to start looking over his shoulder.

Five Players That Will Be Crucial to Their Team’s Success This Week

Matt VandeBerg, WR, Iowa North Dakota State remains the class of the FCS, so the Hawkeyes don’t have it easy this week. C.J. Beathard needs to continue to play smart, which means continuing to find his security blanket VandeBerg, whose 11 catches is five more than any other Iowa receiver.

A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss The 6’1″ freshman has big-play potential, exactly what Chad Kelly and the Rebels need to if they want to make it three straight against Alabama.

Devonte Fields, OLB, Louisville Last time the junior pass rusher saw a young pocket passer like Deondre Francois, he had three sacks in the Music City Bowl versus Texas A&M. The Cardinals need the pass rush to rattle Francois the way it did in the first half of FSU’s win over Ole Miss.

Torii Hunter Jr., WR, Notre Dame The most experienced target for the Fighting Irish is back from a concussion suffered versus Texas and will need to get open if Deshone Kizer wants to move the ball against the always-stingy defense of Michigan State.

Darreus Rogers, WR, USC JuJu Smith-Schuster gets all the attention at receiver for the Trojans, and rightfully so, but Rogers proved last week against Utah State he can be an excellent second option. He will need to get loose to help the Men of Troy sling it around The Farm against Stanford.

Five (or More) Stone-Cold Locks

Record on the Season: 17-5

Houston (-7.5) at Cincinnati Greg Ward Jr.’s back, which means the Cougars will be running at full speed. Hayden Moore will sling it enough for the Bearcats to score some points and make this fun for a while, but Tom Herman has too good a team this year for a let down. Houston 45, Cincinnati 24

North Dakota State at Iowa The Bison always come to play for their annual FBS road trip, but the Hawkeyes have looked better than many expected to start the year. Iowa 27, North Dakota St 17

Pittsburgh at Oklahoma State (-6) The last-second loss that never should have been against Central Michigan was a just a precursor of things to come. The Cowboys don’t have what it takes to slow down James Conner and the Panthers’ multifaceted run game Pitt 31, Oklahoma St 17

Miami FL (-3.5) at Appalachian State The Hurricanes have blown away their first two opponents, led by RB Mark Walton’s five TDs. But this is easily the biggest home game in program history for the Mountaineers. Kidd Brewer Stadium, AKA “The Rock,” will be rocking, and App State will get the upset they missed out on against Tennessee. App St 31, Miami 28

Florida State (-2) at Louisville Jackson will put on a show, but the ‘Noles are just too talented. It was enough to get out of a 22-point hole in Week One, and it will be just enough here, with Dalvin Cook having his first big game of the year to remind you he’s still a legitimate Heisman candidate. Florida St 34, Louisville 31

Alabama (-10.5) at Ole Miss Jalen Hurts’ first career road game is something to ponder, as is Hugh Freeze’s success against Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are also stacked with the best roster in the country, which is a thing you should ponder more. Alabama 38, Ole Miss 21

Oregon at Nebraska (-3) That the Ducks are road ‘dogs according to Vegas is a little surprising. Dakota Prukop has looked solid leading the high-powered offense in Eugene to 97 points in the first two games. What’s not surprising is the development of Huskers signal-caller Tommy Armstrong, who looks much more comfortable as a passer this year and should have enough tricks up his sleeve to win a shootout. Nebraska 41, Oregon 34

Texas A&M vs Auburn (-3) The Tigers look improved, but the big challenge now comes when Myles Garrett and a ferocious Aggie defense roll into town. Throw in a good start to the year for QB Trevor Knight, and Kevin Sumlin has a team that can make some noise in the SEC West. Texas A&M 35, Auburn 21

Mississippi State at LSU (-14) The Bulldogs so far have lost to South Alabama and hung on at the end to beat South Carolina. Relief is on the way, Bayou Bengals. LSU 31, Miss St 7

UCLA (-3) at BYU Josh Rosen has already faced one tough road test this year and come up short. A second would seriously damage any playoff hopes the Bruins still hold to. Sadly, Taysom Hill has a flair for making that sort of damage occur. BYU 28, UCLA 24

Georgia (-6.5) at Missouri Tigers QB Drew Lock absolutetly torched Eastern Michigan last week, but he’ll need some help in the trenches. Mizzou has to run the ball better and stop the run if they want to knock off UGA, and that’s something Nick Chubb won’t let happen easily…unless Lock goes off again ūüėČ Mizzou 31, Georgia 24

Texas (-8) at California Texas road games matter again! Davis Webb can sure spin that magic bean, but the Golden Bears’ defense is bad enough to lose a shootout with grind-it-out San Diego State. Why can’t Shane Buechele and the Longhorns come to Berkeley and light it up as well? Texas 45, Cal 31

USC at Stanford (-8.5) Clay Helton needs a statement win to prove the Trojans are a program to be reckoned with again. It’s not coming against Christian McCaffrey, especially when he’s looking to do better than his 206 all-purpose yards against Kansas State. Stanford 31, USC 14

Michigan State at Notre Dame (-8) The Irish look right again with Kizer taking the snaps, and Sparty looked mighty suspect in a close home win against Furman Notre Dame 34, Michigan St 17

Ohio State (-1.5) at Oklahoma The closest line of the week should also provide the best game. Mayfield and Barrett will duel in a heck of a matchup, but the Buckeyes have a more talented defense, which will get just enough stops to earn a win. Ohio State 31, Oklahoma 28

Your Team Sucks Unless It’s ‘Bama: A College Football Preview

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War are two of my favorite movies that I saw this offseason, largely because, even though the good guys were always going to win, the stakes were raised and the drama was still there to keep me invested and wondering if maybe things would turn out differently this time around.

College football’s a little like that, but in reverse.

Every year we dare to dream someone new will steal the show. Each fall we hope a contender will emerge from nowhere to grab the spotlight with a Crest-smile quarterback, a good-ol’-boy ¬†head coach and a Cinderella-story finish to slay Goliath and become the unlikely champions.

There is drama. There is tension. There are certainly stakes.

And every year, the bad guys win.

The elite of college football are not evil. Corrupt, unchecked, power-hungry, profit-greedy, business-first tycoons run by megalomaniac presidents who are more concerned with the size of a person’s wallet than the content of their character? Sure, but evil’s a pretty strong word.

College football’s “Manifest Destiny programs,” a term I came up with a few years back in this preview to describe places where fans think they root for God’s predestined gridiron principal, have more money and more resources than other schools, sure, but the biggest reason these teams have earned a reputation as the new Yankees, sports’ next Evil Empire, is quite simple: they keep winning.

Teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State, Oklahoma and Southern California¬†have drawn national attention since the emergence of the sport because they also often draw national ire. We’re all sick of these teams because they keep beating the little guys and making the club for national championship contenders evermore exclusive.

And nowhere is this feeling more directed nowadays than Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Save for the 7-6 season he endured his first year as head coach at the University of Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban is more than just an “all he does is win” coach. The man has a bloody statue right next to Paul “Bear” Bryant, considered one of the best coaches in college football history and the only person who could make houndstooth fashionable. And Saban, fresh off his fourth national title with the Crimson Tide and fifth overall last season, doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

The Tide picked up the best recruiting class in the country during the offseason, they’ve only lost 12 games¬†total¬†in the last eight seasons, and they’ve had all this success with five different starting quarterbacks, spitting in the face of the very design of the game.

When the College Football Playoff was introduced two years ago, it came with the promise any team could now be a part of a mini-tournament to play for the national crown. This was, of course, a lie, as it simply serves as a comfy little Power 5 party, of which the Crimson Tide have become the belle of the ball.

Alabama is the bad guy. The bad guy’s been winning a lot. The bad guy’s probably gonna win again.

Any complaint you might have against Alabama can be rebutted. The secondary gave up too many big passing plays? Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey showed a lot of talent down the stretch¬†while still learning how to play. The revolving-door-QB job landing on a lack of experience? Whoever gets the starting reps throws to potential All-Americans Calvin Ridley and OJ Howard. Games are truly won at the line of scrimmage? Meet Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and a whole host of other large men primed to haunt the nightmares of SEC coaches.

Saban is a legendary coach that turned a city on a hill into a heavily-fortified castle on top of a mountain. ‘Bama has been so much better than everybody else and still is that if Saturdays in the fall weren’t still the best show on turf, we’d probably be taking a Golden State approach to this and wondering if we should call the season off.

Of course…

Stranger things (Awesome show) have happened.

Let’s do this.

 

The Conferences – The who, what, when, where and why

American

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Who’s Hot: South Florida¬†Yes, you read that correctly. Most people would think of Temple’s P.J. Walker and Jahad Thomas as the best QB-running back duo in the league, but the Bulls beg to differ. Quinton Flowers nearly joined the 3,000 yards passing-1,000 rushing club while accounting for 34 touchdowns in 2015, and Marlon Mack has a chance to be the first running back off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Who’s Not: Central Florida¬†Former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost is a solid hire to replace longtime head coach George O’Leary, but the Knights¬†went winless last year, so that’s not going to show up any time soon.

Lukewarm at Best: Cincinnati¬†NFL scouts might drool over Gunner Kiel’s arm, but that doesn’t mean the Bearcats are going to leapfrog the tough competition in front of them.

Best Player: Greg Ward Jr, QB, Houston¬†The largest reason you see the Cougars popping up in so many preseason polls? This senior star, who was the only quarterback other than Deshaun Watson to put up over 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Ward will be asked to do more with the loss of a few key running backs, but there’s little doubt he can handle it.

Conference Champ: Houston USF will make a strong push as East division winners and could see some time in the rankings this year, but Ward will have former Texas RB Duke Catalon and a defense that quietly gave up only 20.7 PPG last year and never allowed more than 31. You listening, Oklahoma?

ACC

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Who’s Hot: Florida State¬†Minus the fact that the last time the Seminoles were on a football field they got whupped by Houston in the Peach Bowl, there is plenty of reason for optimism in Tallahassee. Dalvin Cook is a Heisman Trophy contender if he stays healthy and continues to rip off long runs; DeMarcus Walker is a frightening human being that could make the case for being the league’s best defensive end; and the safety combo of Derwin James and Nate Andrews is maybe the best in all the land. Even if redshirt freshman Deondre Francois is the starting quarterback on Labor Day night against Ole Miss, the ‘Noles are still stacked.

Who’s Not: Wake Forest¬†At some point, it has to feel like Dave Clawson is trying¬†not¬†to score. The Demon Deacons only broke the 30-point mark once-in the opener against Elon.

Lukewarm at Best: Miami (FL)¬†Mark Richt’s first job as the new head coach of the Hurricanes is to make them not so predictable and boring. Yes, the ‘Canes haven’t been awful the last few years, but given the program’s history, 8-5 isn’t all that sexy. A big year from QB Brad Kaaya is a must.

Best Player: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson¬†The days of lobbying¬†for Watson as a breakout star are long gone. Everyone knows who the junior is, especially Saban, who does his best to avoid talking about Watson ripping his defense apart in the desert in last year’s national championship game. A dual threat who does more damage as a pure passer that can absolutely play at the next level, there’s little reason why Watson can’t duplicate or improve on last year’s production and make a run at the Heisman he fell short of last year.

Conference Champ: Florida State¬†It will again come down to the ‘Noles and the Tigers, although North Carolina should win the Coastal Division and give one of them a run for their money in the ACC title game in Charlotte. Watson has a few more explosive weapons in WR Mike Williams and RB Wayne Gallman, and coordinator Brent Venables will help the defense adjust to the loss of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd up front with the emergence of Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and top recruit Dexter Lawrence. But in the tightest conference race in the land, FSU wins at home in late October to give them the slight tiebreaker over Dabo Swinney & Co.

Big Ten

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Who’s Hot: Michigan¬†Yeah, I was one of those idiots who didn’t think hiring Jim Harbaugh was going to yield instant results. Sorry. The fact is, Harbaugh inherited a lot of talent from Brady Hoke and got the most out of that potential. Regardless of who starts at QB, Year Two should be even better, with TE Jake Butt, DE Chris Wormley and LB/S/RB/WR/Magician Jabril Peppers all primed to become superstars.

Who’s Not: Michigan State¬†While perhaps not set up for a total flop, the Spartans will still see a downgrade on offense to where non-conference games against Notre Dame and BYU and a strong schedule in-conference could keep them from the the 10 wins Mark Dantonio has made a habit.

Lukewarm at Best: Iowa¬†They almost shocked Michigan State in the Big Ten title game to make you wonder if their undefeated season wasn’t a fluke, then Stanford utterly dissected them in the Rose Bowl to assure it most likely was. The Hawkeyes bring back CB Desmond King, my personal favorite defensive player and a top NFL Draft Prospect, but even if they win the division, they won’t beat the East champ.

Best Player: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State¬†When healthy the last two seasons, no one runs their offense to a higher efficiency and with more explosive results than Barrett. If he stays healthy, true freshman RB Mike Weber should fill enough of Ezekiel Elliot’s void to have the Buckeyes humming as they were at the end of last year.

Conference Champ: Michigan¬†Harbaugh winning in Columbus after Urban Meyer’s #BEATEMDOWN in Ann Arbor last autumn followed by a Big Ten title and a playoff spot is too juicy a scenario not to dream for.

Big 12

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Who’s Hot: Texas¬†EVERYBODY SHUT UP. STOP LAUGHING, I’M SERIOUS. Charlie Strong has gotten a lot of flack from a rabid fan base because he didn’t show up and win a national championship right away. Big shock, but that doesn’t happen, Longhorn fans. This year, however, might serve as the breakthrough. Freshman Shane Buechele might finally be the stabilizing force at quarterback the ‘Horns have been searching for. Add the Smash Brothers of D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren at running back, rangy receivers in John Burt and Collin Johnson, and All-American linebacker Malik Jefferson leading the defense, and Strong is poised to finally push the program in the right direction.

Who’s Not: Kansas¬†Is any team in the country worse? Short answer:¬†Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeelllllllll¬†no. If the Jayhawks don’t beat Rhode Island, they’ll be enjoying 0-12 again.

Lukewarm at Best: TCU¬†Gary Patterson was expected to make the Horned Frogs a force when they relocated to the Big 12 in 2012, and he’s done just that. But the Frogs still lack a playoff appearance or an outright Big 12 title. I won’t go so far as I did last year, when I said they would fall off the map quite a bit and they responded with 11 wins (thanks, Gar-Bear), but there are a few too many good teams in front of them for this to be the year TCU gets over the championship hump.

Best Player: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma¬†I know there’s a theme emerging here about the best players in the country, but with players like Mayfield, how can you blame me? The former walk-on threw for 3,700 yards last year¬†in a run-first offense. Having Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon back will ease the transition into a new corps of receivers.

Conference Champ: Texas AGAIN, PLEASE KINDLY STOP LAUGHING. If the Longhorns beat Notre Dame in a primetime affair on Sunday night of Week 1, the rest of the schedule sets up nicely, with home dates for TCU and Baylor, and we know what Strong can do in the Red River Rivalry with OU. Keep an eye on DE Naashon Hughes.

Conference USA

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Who’s Hot: Southern Mississippi¬†Senior QB Nick Mullens threw for almost 4,500 yards in winning the league’s offensive player of the year. RB Ito Smith also had a big 2015 season with over 1,600 yards from scrimmage. Kentucky best be ready for the Golden Eagles in Week One.

Who’s Not: North Texas¬†Coaching legend Hayden Fry was the last man to have a career winning record with the Mean Green. That was from 1973-78. It’s not getting better any time soon.

Lukewarm at Best: Louisiana Tech¬†Back-to-back nine-win seasons but no conference title for the Bulldogs. (Pokes Skip Holtz with a stick) C’mon…do something.

Best Player: Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic¬†Look, a non-quarterback! The 6’4″, 270-lb menace had 13.5 sacks last year, second best in the country, and a highlight reel that will make pro scouts hoot and holler more than the Internet did over the new¬†Ghostbusters¬†movie (was it really worth all that wasted time, YouTube commenters?)

Conference Champ: Western Kentucky¬†Jeff Brohm shunned the shiny Power 5 offers to come back and try to somehow make the Hilltoppers better than last year’s 12 wins. RB Anthony Wales and WRs Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris might just help him do it.

MAC

Who’s Hot: Toledo¬†RBs Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson are a potential dynamite duo. The biggest challenge for first-year head coach Jason Candle is getting the defense up to speed.

Who’s Not: Eastern Michigan¬†As long as Chris Creighton’s Eagles keep going 1-11, I’ll have to keep using this GIF. Mr. Gorbachov, TEAR DOWN. THIS WALL.

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Lukewarm at Best: Central Michigan¬†P.J. Fleck has the Mustangs pointed in the right direction, and senior Zach Terrell is a terrific quarterback, but we’ll see if this they’re still not a year away from busting out. They can beat Northwestern to open the season, which would could be the start of the ROW THE BOAT Revolution. Or other teams could just use that motto as a way to make fun of the…whoops.

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Best Player: Corey Davis, WR, Central Michigan¬†One thing Fleck does have is arguably the best receiver in the country. Davis grabbed 90 catches and 12 touchdowns as a junior and came back to try and get even better. He should easily surpass the 403 yards necessary for him to set the MAC’s all-time career receiving record.

Conference Champ: Toledo Having Logan Woodside return at quarterback after missing 2015 recovering from ankle surgery should give the Rockets enough stability to be the last team standing come December in Detroit.

Mountain West

Who’s Hot: San Diego State¬†Senior RB Donnel Pumphrey (ALL-NAME TEAM) was a beast with over 1,650 yards and 17 scores last year. Corner Damontae Kazee was the conference’s defensive MVP after picking off eight passes. If the Aztecs’ defense only gives up about 16 points a game once again, 10 wins again is also a possibility – maybe even more.

Who’s Not: Wyoming¬†Friends don’t let other friends watch Cowboys football, college OR pro.

Lukewarm at Best: Nevada If the Wolfpack wants to take a step up from back-to-back seasons of 7-6, RB James Butler will likely have to become an All-American.

Best Player: Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State¬†Pumphrey’s good, but lawdy lawdy is former Super Bowl-winning QB Mark Rypien’s nephew great. Brett threw for over 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns¬†as a freshman. The return of sure-handed wideout Thomas Sperbeck and speedy back Jeremy McNichols means Rypien could be even better and emerge as one of the nation’s elite passers.

Conference Champ:¬†Boise State¬†This year would be as dumb as any to go against the Broncos. They might even run the table and crash the playoff party if they survive consecutive meetings with Washington State and Oregon State. Besides, picking against Boise is dumber than if a backup NFL tight end sent Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman an email asking her on a date and she said ye…(checks the Internet) WAIT WHAT

Pac-12

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Who’s Hot: Washington¬†Chris Petersen wasn’t going to be just mediocre for long. The Huskies are a popular playoff darkhorse, and the return of QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin will do a lot to support that theory. However, the biggest reason for the U-Dub love might be the secondary, anchored by All-American safety Budda Baker, which only gave up less than 250 passing yards per game and 11 touchdowns through the air.

Who’s Not: Washington State¬†Everyone’s also raving about the Cougars’ surprise potential fresh off nine wins last year. But don’t forget that snapped an 11-year streak of seasons at or below .500. Mike Leach’s teams give up a lot of points, and that does not bode well against the many high-powered offenses in the league. Luke Falk will keep Wazzu in a lot of games, but the defense is the one that has to win them.

Lukewarm at Best: Oregon¬†The Ducks might win the Pac-12. They also might not. The league is so stacked with talent that not even the annual 10 wins can give college football’s most fashion-forward squad a guaranteed shot at a conference crown. Plus, despite the return of bruising RB Royce Freeman, is Brady Hoke really going to be the guy that fixes a defense that surrendered 306.5 passing yards a game?

Best Player: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford (Annoying Stanford Guy appears, starts to shout “HEISMAN” but thankfully gets squashed by an anvil)

Storytime! I went to the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California this past January. So yes, I was there live when McCaffrey dodged, ducked, dipped, dived and dodged his way past hapless Iowa tacklers. It was jaw-dropping. I was so blown away that I was screaming in awe smack dab in the middle of a very quiet Iowa fan section (They told me they didn’t like me and I still don’t care). McCaffrey is a once-in-a-generational talent, a tour de force of football. Put the rock in his hands and let the magic happen. There are a number of wildly gifted players across the country that will surely contend for the Heisman, but if McCaffrey ends up being better than a season in which he set a¬†national single-season record for all-purpose yards, then that trophy race is over. And if you’re still not convinced, for your viewing pleasure…

Conference Champ: Stanford¬†(Annoying Stanford Guy shakes anvil off, is shaped like cartoonish accordion, tries to yell “HEISMAN” again, is mercifully stampeded by rhinos)

It really isn’t going to matter too much that Ryan Burns¬†is taking over under center for Kevin Hogan. David Shaw is still a great coach, the offensive line is still huge, and the defense will be well-coached. Minimizing the damage during a brutal stretch the first six weeks and then winning at Oregon opens the door for a playoff bid.

SEC

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Who’s Hot: Tennessee¬†Aaaaaallll the preseason hype resides in Knoxville, where the Volunteers are suddenly the most experienced team in the country and flush with talent. QB Joshua Dobbs, RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cam Sutton are all expected to be All-Americans. Plus, if¬†this¬†isn’t the year Butch Jones beats Florida and wins the East division, when will it be?

Who’s Not: South Carolina¬†Outside of LB Skai Moore adding to his draft resume, Will Muschamp’s first year with the Gamecocks is going to be hard to watch (and given the faces we had to see him make at Florida, that’s saying something).

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Lukewarm at Best: Georgia¬†The ingredients seem to be in place for Kirby Smart’s first year with the Dawgs to be special. Highly-touted recruit Jacob Eason could be the answer at signal-caller; Nick Chubb and Sony Michel make for a dynamic duo at halfback; and Smart has talented pieces like Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter and Dominick Sanders that he can turn the defense around in a hurry. But, for all we know, more Georgia potential could also easily go to waste. You never know, Uga’s a crafty dog.

Best Player: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU Boy, this is a tough call. Chubb, Ridley, Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly, Florida corner Jalen Tabor and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett are all really good candida-

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH MY GAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWD

Nope, sorry, no contest. It’s not close. He had the stiff-arming statue wrapped up midseason before Saban figured out Brandon Harris can’t pass, so if Harris improves this year, and we see more of this? I don’t envy the Heisman voters this year one bit.

Conference Champ: LSU¬†HAHAHAHAHAHAHA THAT’S RIGHT I PULLED THE WOOL OVER YOUR EYES. SERIOUSLY LOOK AT THAT MAN UP THERE WEARING NUMBER SEVEN. GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON SOMEBODY’S BEATING A TEAM WITH HIM ON IT.

(Sees the box score from LSU-Alabama last year)

Ok, so yes, Fournette has been slowed down before. But when you consider that Derrius Guice rushed for over 400 yards in spot duty, receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre have yet to fully break out, and the addition of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin could make the unit even tougher to score on, the only thing standing in the way is Harris not being horrible. And he can’t be anywhere as bad as he was last year. Also, LOOK AT THIS.

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(Fans self) See that, Bielema? THAT’s borderline erotic.

Independents

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Who’s Hot: Notre Dame¬†Deshone Kizer being back at quarterback to improve on a solid debut in 2015 plus a soft-ish schedule that has many of the biggest opponents coming to South Bend again puts the Fighting Irish in the playoff discussion. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to be fooled again into picking them to win it all (crosses fingers, mouth widens into evil grin).

Who’s Not: Army¬†I…I don’t have anything to say about Army. I’m really just trying to finish this so I can go watch¬†Kubo and the Two Strings.

Lukewarm at Best: BYU¬†Taysom Hill, if he can stay healthy, is one of the most magical playmakers in the country. RB Jamaal Williams can also become a star as a senior. But if there’s a tougher schedule in the country, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. The bright side for first-year head coach Kalani Sitake is that if the Cougars somehow navigate this schedule unbeaten, the case for the playoff will be near overwhelming.

Best Player: Taysom Hill, QB, BYU His 2013 stat line is one of the most shockingly underappreciated performances in the game over the last decade. If he can return to that form at age 26 and maybe even get better with the edition of former Heisman-winning Cougar Ty Detmer at offensive coordinator, Hill will once again be must-see TV. And if not, we always have Tanner Mangum.

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The Rankings – how they’ll finish

The Rest

25. Nebraska¬†Hey now, don’t laugh so much just yet. The picks get weirder. For all the talk of Iowa as the class of the Big Ten West, the only team who had more games go down to the wire was the Huskers, which didn’t nearly work out as well as it did for the Hawkeyes. QB Tommy Armstrong Jr has his best year to help Big Red get back to the Big Ten title game.

24. Boise State¬†Keep an eye on both the Broncos and BYU. They’ll play respectable schedules that, if they keep winning, will keep them in the hunt for the New Year’s Six or even more.

23. Ole Miss Chad Kelly throwing to tight end Evan Engram is about the only thing that can save the Rebels from finishing at eight wins.

22.¬†Pittsburgh¬†Why not have a surprise team? The Panthers have one of the most inspiring stories in the country in former ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner returning from his battle with cancer and last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in Qadree Ollison to run them to a Coastal division title.

21.¬†Texas A&M¬†Too much talent not to once again be fooled into thinking the Aggies can do something special. Christian Kirk, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones make for perhaps the best group of receivers in the nation, and Garrett will team up with Daeshon Hall to invade quarterbacks’ nightmares.

20. Oregon Dakota Prukop should settle in nicely by just handing off to Freeman as much as possible, and Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson can still be quality weapons. The defense just has to get more stops.

19.¬†UCLA¬†Say it with me now: Jim Mora is the most overrated coach in college football. If he doesn’t win a conference title with a stud like Josh Rosen at QB and Eddie Vanderdoes and Deon Hollins wreaking havoc on defense, when will he?

18.  TCU Having Kenny Hill at quarterback does not change the fact that several skill position players will have to emerge. RB Kyle Hicks and JUCO transfer receiver Taj Williams have to become stars in a hurry.

17. Washington Browning and Gaskin will put up big numbers, but the key to winning in the Pac-12 will be stopping the run, an area the Huskies might suffer enough that they will end up only chasing nine wins.

16.¬†Louisville¬†Lamar Jackson has everyone buzzing as the next breakout star at quarterback. He has all of Watson’s skills and a great defense led by pass rushers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey to make the Cardinals a force.

15.¬†Tennessee¬†They will find a way to lose to Florida, because that’s what they do, and Alabama visiting is no cupcake, regardless of all the talent the Vols have.

14. USC¬†Max Browne’s first season as a starting QB will have him throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster, handing off to Ronald Jones and getting the ball any way possible to Adoree’ Jackson. Sweet gig for a Trojan that should win the Pac-12 South in his first year playing.

13. Baylor¬†Seth Russell throwing to KD Cannon and handing off to either Shock Linwood or Johnny Jefferson is going to work a lot, but the defense might bend too much and end up breaking the Bears’ back.

The New Year’s Six

12. Houston¬†Tom Herman is that dude you want as your next head coach, and with good reason. He’s made the Cougars a national power is a little more than a year. And while they might fall short of the playoff by losing at least one game, they’ll knock off Oklahoma in Week One to make a big statement and be in the conversation all year long, ending with a berth in the Cotton Bowl.

11.¬†Georgia¬†Kirby Smart does the logical thing and embraces Atlanta’s rap communtiy, embracing 2 Chainz as the program’s new ambassador. Coincidentally, the Dawgs win 11 games on a thinner schedule, including stomping Tennessee at home, to claim the East and set up a huge showdown in the SEC Championship Game.

10. Ohio State¬†Love me some J.T., but Barrett can only do so much, especially when a trip to Norman, Oklahoma looms in Week Two for a team without any standout weapons at receiver. The Rose Bowl won’t be too bad a consolation prize for one of just two double-digit win teams in the Big Ten.

9.¬†Oklahoma¬†Mayfield, Perine and Mixon are great, but can they carry the Sooners past such a loaded schedule? It’s going to be pretty hard if the defense struggles as it did against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Houston and Texas tag Boomer despite winning at home against Ohio State to end up with a Sugar Bowl spot.

8. Stanford That brutal six-week stretch we talked about? Brutal enough that there will be a loss mixed in there somewhere. The Pac-12 gets left out of the playoff again because of the two-loss Cardinal, but the Rose Bowl awaits again, and McCaffrey, after breaking his own all-purpose record, rightfully claims the Heisman.

7. Notre Dame¬†Kizer and RB Tarean Folston will lead a high-powered attack that will knock off Stanford at home, but the Fighting Irish will take a tumble in Week One to the breakout team of 2016 (yep, we’re going there).

6. Clemson¬†Watson finishes a close second in Heisman voting but can’t win in Tallahassee in an otherwise stellar season. If that game is close enough, we could be seeing a real argument for two teams from the ACC in the playoff (even though the 2011 Alabama-LSU national title rematch was supposed to be the last straw for the BCS way of doing things).

5. Alabama¬†Just like Clemson, this will all come down to one game but could get two teams in if the game is an absolute barnburner. The reason I take LSU over the Tide is not quarterback uncertainty, but the lack of experience at running back, ‘Bama’s most important position. Will Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris be ready to be the stars of the show for the game’s biggest act? For that one night in Baton Rouge that will mean so much, I’m not quite sure they can out-shine Fournette the way Derrick Henry did.

The Playoff

4. Texas ONCE AGAIN, PLEASE STOP MOCKING ME. Buechele taking over under center helps the Longhorns gain stability and even (gasp!) break out on offense. Strong and friends stun Notre Dame on Labor Day weekend, knock off Oklahoma and go unbeaten to get the Big 12 in just ahead of the Irish, Alabama, Clemson, and Stanford. SERIOUSLY GUYS, STOP LAUGHING, THIS COULD TOTALLY HAPPEN.

3. Florida State Cook runs his way to fourth in the final Heisman ballot, and the Seminoles knock off Clemson to win the ACC behind breakout years from WR Travis Rudolph and DE Josh Sweat. Unfortunately, the committee overlooks talent ever so slightly and gives the number-3 spot to Texas and its undefeated record, which dooms FSU to a hard-fought loss in the Peach Bowl.

2.¬†Michigan¬†Harbaugh has a well-oiled machine already built in Ann Arbor that would have had a much more compelling case for the playoff last year if it weren’t for Sparty pulling off the most bonkers ending to a game since the Kick Six. No such shenanigans will ensue this year, with a rather easy schedule getting dispatched with, capped by knocking off the Buckeyes in Columbus, winning the Big Ten and defeating Texas with ease in a 2-3 matchup in the Fiesta Bowl.

1. LSU¬†Fournette finishes behind McCaffrey and Watson in the tightest Heisman race ever. Harris is so much better that he actually has some games near or over 300 yards passing. The defense is even better than that, with Arden Key and Lewis Neal ripping quarterbacks to pieces, Davon Godchaux clogging up run lanes and Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams leading a top-tier secondary that shuts down all hopes of passing.

The Tigers manage their way to the night of November 5th, when Fournette is far from shut down and Harris makes enough plays to beat Alabama. After close calls at Arkansas and Texas A&M to finish the regular season, LSU edges Georgia for an SEC title and escapes Florida State on a tight-wire act as well in the Peach Bowl to reach the big game. The strength-on-strength battle with Michigan goes to the Tigers, as Fournette captures the magic of Zeke Elliot from two years ago and runs his way to a national title.

Blockbuster: A College Football Preview

Preparing for an outstanding season of college football that promises to have a Hollywood ending

It might be the start of the semester, but there is already one course we are up until 2 a.m. studying for. College football is a final exam for an honors course on the history of Newtonian physics, and the last month has been finals week. Despite all the studying, all the research, all the bibliographies that you have cited and re-cited credible sources like Football Outsiders or Fake Bo Pelini (“You may not believe this but Taylor Swift has a new song about how some people don’t like her but she doesn’t care”), you are going to fail. Binge watch replays of last year’s games on ESPNU and the newly minted SEC Network like they’re Adderall. It will do you no good. Come January 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in North Texas, we will all get a big fat F.

And that’s just great.

Division I FBS college football is a lot like a James Cameron movie. The high-profile names of both the driector and his cast is what gets you into the theater. Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Nick Marshall and a cast of well-known thousands return to make the NFL scouts salivate and wonder why they thought drafting that Manziel guy was a good idea. Enigmatic coaches like Steve Spurrier, Dabo Swinney, Kliff Kingsbury, and (of course) Les “Mad Hatter” Miles provide the right dashes of hard-headedness, bravado, and insanity to fit the bill of comedic lead. Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio do their best Russell Crowe impressions as impassioned, dramatic leaders of men.

Once the movie starts, you begin to the notice the immense granduer of the visual spectacle you are witnessing. Admit it, there is no party like a fall Saturday at one of the hallowed tailgating grounds across the country that have become the stuff of bucket lists, like the Grove in Oxford, Mississippi, between the hedges in Athens, Georgia, or at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The color and pageantry of college football is undeniable and often breath-taking, whether it’s touching Howard’s Rock, jumping around at Camp-Randall, hitting your mark on every yell you practiced at midnight at Kyle Field, dotting the “i” at the Horseshoe, letting Ralphie lead the Buffs on the field, chomping like a Gator, chopping like a Seminole, screaming “Roll Damn Tide” or “War Damn Eagle” at the other guys, or just having your ears flat out blown off by the supersonic boom of a night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, AKA Death Valley

But Michael Bay makes big, visually stunning films with superstar casts that have all the hype Paramount Pictures’ marketing department can buy. So why do we constantly go the cinema expecting him to throw acidic poison on our favorite Hasbro toys or ’80’s cartoons and are sadly correct (just because he produced it doesn’t mean¬†Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles¬†didn’t look like¬†they took the Transformers “blow everything up” mantra¬†and substituted Autobots for weird, Shrek-looking things with the hots for Megan Fox)?

Michael Bay can’t write a screenplay to save his life. The story a great film tells is far more important than whether or not ILM will be doing the special effects. James Cameron has found ways to bring captivating stories to the silver screen, like a peasant boy in love with a wealthy girl on a doomed ship, or a primitive culture defeating a more technologically advanced civilization to save their home (Star Wars¬†fans wish¬†Avatar¬†had been around when George Lucas was coming up with Ewoks).

College football’s “Power 5” conferences may have been given the power this offseason to change rules like ticket prices, but the grand epic that will play out over the next 4 plus months is always worth the price of admission. The struggle to achieve perfection, the senior taking one last shot at glory, the freshman coming out of nowhere to become a star, the intensity of the most meaningful and the best regular season in sports, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the upsets that blow your mind, the miracles that leave your jaw sore from the cartoonish drop it just suffered, the…well, whatever the hell you call this:

This madness, this perfect script, this magic story, this never-ending maze of plot twists and turns, is why we keep coming back.

And yet, the script always seemed to be missing one element, barred from enhancing the story by a brick wall of greed, producer rights, and sheer stupidity. The presidents of major universities are like Hollywood producers. They may not make the movie, but they put the production together, and their lone concern is how much the box office sales profit. The Bowl Championship Series was doing a fine job of making mega-millions and holding massive audiences captive while a facade of what could be played out. But the audiences did not stay quiet for long. An arbitrary system that used computer polls and the opinions of often uninterested voting coaches provided a unsatisfying result to the question of who was king of college football. The BCS became M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. It all seemed headed towards a spectacular ending, until it swiped the rug from under your feet to try and make you feel inferior, but only left you feeling betrayed and ripped off.

No more. Go ruin¬†Avatar: The Last Airbender again, Shyamalan-a-ding-dong. James Cameron is making the movie this time around, and the script’s climax has just what we’ve all been yearning for: settling the debate of national champion on the field. Behold, the College Football Playoff:

Does the inaugural CFP have its flaws? It surely will. We don’t much about how the 13-person selection committee will determine the best teams in the land. The system’s ownership of historical bowls as the “New Year’s Six” seems to suggest that the main motive continues to be cash flow, and not determining a true champion. No one continues to question the absurdity of having a month to prepare for a semifinal, but only 12 days after for a national title tilt. And I still believe that more than four teams should be included in a championship tournament.

But complaining will get us nowhere, as the current system is under contract for 12 years and no discussion of changes can really be had until we actually kick off games and play this drama out. So enough about student-athlete unions, lawsuits from Ed O’Bannon, arrests and suspensions to potential essentials, or even what really happened to Josh Shaw’s ankles. Let’s put aside the debates, the questions, the concerns, and let’s instead to look the hopes, the dreams, and the promise that another Labor Day weekend brings.

Get your ticket, get to the theater, and, as a wise man once said, “Get ‘cho popcorn ready.” The show’s about to start.


Conference by Conference

American

On The Rise: East Carolina

New member will bring one of the nation’s most potent passing attacks led by QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy (328.1 YPG was good for 12th in the country, 40.2 PPG was 9th).

Cruisin’ For a Brusin’: South Florida

Tempting to pick SMU, but it’s been just so bad at USF since Jim Leavitt was fired January 2010, highlighted by Willie Taggart’s inaugural 2-10 campaign.

Player to Watch: William Stanback, RB, Central Florida

The 6-1, 225 lbs sophomore will have his work cut out trying to replace Storm Johnson, but he showed flashes of potential last season in spot duty, rushing for 443 yards and 6 TDs. Plus, He almost broke Rutgers’ Anthony Cioffi:

Champ: Cincinnati

UCF has the talent returning defensively to repeat, but I like what Tommy Tubberville has put together in just a year’s time. Gunner Kiel will step in under center and could end up being the league’s best quarterback. A September 27th showdown at Ohio State recently became a lot more winnable with the season-ending shoulder surgery for Buckeyes All-Everything QB Braxton Miller. How the Bearcats perform in Columbus will be indicative of whether or not they’ll take the non-Power 5 spot in the New Year’s Six bowls.

ACC

On The Rise: North Carolina

Before DeVante Parker’s foot surgery, I would have said Louisville. But it’s hard to ignore the Tar Heels’ 7-1 finish to last year and their tissue-soft schedule for this year. Junior QB Marquise Williams has not yet been named the starter, which would be a huge blow because the potential dual threat he could be. We’ll learn more about UNC after a September 27th visit to…

Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’: Clemson

Last year, 4-8 Florida proved that having a top-flite defense means nothing when the offense is gutted of its talent. Dabo Swinney can recruit, but not even he can replace virtually every top offensive weapon that the Tigers had during last year’s Orange Bowl championship campaign, especially now that tailback Zac Brooks is out for the year. Vic Beasley & Co. will be worth the watch, but this still feels like a 8-win team at best. Of course, they could beat Georgia and make the rest of this article pretty obsolete.

Player to Watch: Ryan Switzer, WR/PR, North Carolina

Being a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I have a soft spot in my heart for great punt returners like Dante Hall and Dexter McCluster. If you are of sound mind and body, YOU WILL NOT KICK TO RYAN SWITZER IN ANY CIRUCMSTANCE:

Coastal Division Champ: UNC

Hey, you really think DUKE ¬†is gonna win this thing again? Well let me tell you…you might not be wrong. Yeesh.

Atlantic Division: Florida State

After FSU and Clemson, even more yeesh.

ACC Champ: Florida State

They will be clunkier on defense than you would think, with much of the leadership from last year gone to the pros, but the absurdity of returning riches on offense (Rashad Greene, Nick O’Leary, Karlos Williams to name a few) will keep them at an elite level that no one else in the conference seems ready to attain. Oh, and that Jameis Winston guy is back to play QB. I heard he won some big award last year. Must have been a big deal, because now he thinks he can just take crab legs whenever he wants (SHOTS FIRED!!!!!).

Big 12

On The Rise: Kansas State

I almost said Texas, but the recent round of suspensions by Charlie Strong makes me wonder if 8 wins isn’t enough to be a solid year. Meanwhile, Bill Synder just keeps winning. K-State is in the same class as North Carolina and Washington, those hot teams at the end of last year that carry over much of their talent to this season. Having Jake Waters throwing to Tyler Lockett for a full season and Ryan Mueller terrorizing opposing QBs will be a welcome sight for the Wildcats, whose schedule sets up for a potentially special year if they take out Auburn on a Thursday night in September

Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’: Oklahoma

Yes, the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama was impressive. And yes, this team should probably still win 9-10 games. But no team was more overrated this offseason than the trendy-national-title-pick Sooners. Trevor Knight played the game of his life against ‘Bama, but he didn’t show that ability to throw the ball in games beforehand. Who’s to say he’ll develop into a Heisman Trophy winner in his first¬†full¬†season as the starter? The defense will be the best in the Big 12, but the WR corps is depleted, and the backfield took a major hit with the suspension of highly-touted frosh Joe Mixon.

Oklahoma looks primed to lose at least one of the tough home games they have (Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Tennessee) and maybe even a game away from Norman (at TCU, at West Virgina, vs Texas in Dallas), which would be enough to spell doom for their national title dreams in a weakly-scheduled Big 12.

Player To Watch: Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor

When Lache Seastrunk got hurt last year, Art Briles made the 5-9 true freshman his feature back and kept his Ferrari offense humming, highlighted by back-to-back games with 180+ yards rushing against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. After posting 881 yards and 8 TDs as the second fiddle, Linwood could emerge as one of the nation’s top backs that nobody’s talking about.

Champ: Baylor

I’m not saying this just because I want to eat BBQ while sailing on the Brazos River to the palace that is McLane Stadium (hint, hint @RoepIce22). There is no better returning offense statistically in the history of the universe. The Bears won’t duplicate their nearly 619 YPG and 52.4 PPG, mostly because they could surpass it. Bryce Petty has Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood back to sling the rock to, and a veteran group that was the most improved defense in the land last year is also back, which could mean the Bears come through where they haven’t yet proven themselves under Briles: Winning on the road when the national spotlight is on (see: at Ok St, 2011, 2013).

Big Ten

On The Rise: Iowa

The schedule is paper thin until the end of the year, when the Hawkeyes host Wisconsin and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks. Jake Rudock should be solid in year two as a starter, especially when throwing to Kevante Martin-Manley. Plus, head coach Krik Ferentz’s strength continues to be building brick wall defenses (9th in scoring last year). Don’t be surprised to see Iowa in Indianapolis the first weekend in December.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Ohio State

It would be easy to say Maryland and Rutgers here, but you knew how bad their introductory season to the conference would be. Ohio State’s fortunes changed literally in seconds when Miller, a senior and Heisman Trophy favorite, tore his labrum in practice. The Buckeye offense lives and breathes because the quarterback is the heart pumping the blood, especially when it’s an athlete as dynamic as Miller.

Urban Meyer’s recruiting prowess will need to show up in a hurry, now that Ohio State must replace last year’s top 4 rushers, top passer, top receiver, top offensive lineman, top three tacklers, most of their secondary, and their starting place kicker. Suddenly, the opener with Navy in Baltimore has serious intrigue.

Player to Watch: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

He went from being the game manager who avoided the mistakes that Andrew Maxwell was making to suddenly being the key to upset victories over stingy defenses from Ohio State and Stanford (combined 636 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). Having a full offseason under his belt and the return of 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Langford means Cook will not feel the pressure to play like an All-American. But if he improves on last year and scores high-profile wins like September 6th at Oregon, he could very well earn a trip to New York in December.

East Champ: Wisconsin

It’s hard to not go with Iowas as a sleeper, but the power running game Gary Andersen brings to the the table is the same-old, same-old in Madison, as is elite backs like Melvin Gordon and 10 wins.

West Champ: Michigan State

The division comes down to Ohio State’s visit to East Lansing on November 8th.

Big Ten Champ: Michigan State

The defense will be nasty as long as Mark Dantonio ¬†and Pat Narduzzi coach ’em up, and that’s with the return of potential All-Americans Shilique Calhoun, Trae Waynes, Kurits Drummond, and RJ Williamson. Cook can continue to utilize the deep ball off of play action to Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey. If the Spartans win their monster showdown with the Oregon Ducks in Autzen Stadium, the door is open to a shot at perfection and a CFP bid.

Conference USA

On the Rise: Western Kentucky

Bobby Petrino got a team 8+ wins and then left them high and dry for another job…What else is new? Former offensive coordinator and new head coach Jeff Brohm should keep the offense rolling along with the return of senior QB Brandon Doughty, who needs to build off of performances like the season finale win against Arkansas State (255 yds, 3 TDs). This team has the best chance of anyone in C-USA of ending Marshall’s dreams of perfection when they travel to Huntington, West Virginia for the final game of the regular season.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: ¬†Middle Tennessee

A huge amount of luck (+12 turnover margin) led the Blue Raiders to 8 wins. That reliance on good fortune was exposed by Navy in a 24-6 thrashing at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Lucky breaks will be harder to come by with three-year starting quarterback Logan Kilgore gone.

Player to Watch: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall

Yes, this a cop-out, but it’s also the top reason you should watch the Thundering Herd (and, honestly, C-USA in general). Cato’s career numbers make the Heisman exploits of guys named Manziel, Winston, and Griffin look cute. Cato will need to not only duplicate his 3,916 yards and 39 TDs from last year, but he’ll need to (gulp) improve on those marks¬†and¬†go undefeated to have a shot at becoming a Heisman finalist

East Champ: Marshall

Playing Louisville would have been the only impediment to perfection.

West Champ: UT-San Antonio

Head coach Larry Coach made games against divisions foes his priority last year (5-1)

C-USA Champ: Marshall

Even on paper, this seems far too easy, which is why, regardless of perfection, Marshall won’t end up representing non-Power 5 schools in the New Year’s Six bowls.

Independents

On the Rise: BYU

When was the last time Bronco Mendenhall didn’t field a quality team? Nine years ago, apparently, also known as the last time the Cougars didn’t go bowling. Prepare to be dazzled by one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks, powered by Heisman darkhorse QB Taysom Hill (1,344 yds, 10 TDs rushing to go with 2,938 yds, 19 TDs passing), tailback Jamaal Williams (1,233 yds, 7 TDs), and the entire starting offensive line from last year. The schedule affords some spotlight wins with road games at UCF, Boise State, California, and (in the MACK BROWN SMACK DOWN!!!!!!) Texas. An undefeated campaign is not out of the question, but (in the first major flaw of the CFP) the Cougs have to steal a bid from a Power 5 team to play in the New Year’s Six bowls.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Notre Dame¬†

The suspensions handed out this last week to DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, KeiVarae Russell and Kendall Moore are devastating. The Fighting Irish lose their top receiver, top corner and two key role players in the defensive front seven. Even with Everett Golson’s return, this schedule is too demanding to expect a return to gunning at a national title.

Players to Watch: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy & Taysom Hill, QB, BYU

Roger Staubach, the guy who won a Heisman Trophy and is considered the greatest quarterback in the history of the United States Naval Academy, has said he thinks Keenan Reynolds will end up as the greatest quarterback in the history of the United States Naval Academy.

Woah. Heavy.

Ricky Dobbs might stand up and argue, but Roger the Dodger may not be wrong. Reynolds lead the nation with 29 rushing scores last year, and he should post yet another 1,000+ yards rushing this season. The recent pitfalls for Ohio State and Notre Dame suggest Navy is poised to join BYU in the hunt for perfection, which Reynolds would need if he has any chance of joining Mr. Staubach at the Heisman ceremony.

Taysom Hill, meanwhile, seems headed for greatness of his own. Nobody has a better shot of joining the Johnny Football club (3,000+ yds passing, 1,000+ yds rushing), considering he nearly pulled the feat off last year WHEN HE WAS STILL LEARNING THE OFFENSE. BYU should play in the CFP if they run the table, but they probably won’t. And that’s just stupid. Because there will be very little television as entertaining as Hill. I mean, if he’s only supposed to get better…IS THERE EVEN SUCH A REALM OF POSSIBILITY AS BETTER THAN THIS?!?!?

Mid-American

On the Rise: Akron

Terry Bowden’s revival job has been outstanding, as veteran presence on both sides of the ball mean this could be the first winning Zips team since 2005.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: UMass

I wanted to say Northern Illinois because of the loss of Jordan Lynch, but you can’t ignore what is easily the worst FBS program in the country. You know what their combined turnover margin is the last 6 years? Minus 45. Forget what I said earlier about TO margin and luck. It takes skill to reek this bad. When does hoops start in Springfield?

Player to Watch: Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green

Not a bad debut. Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 TDs in his first year as the Falcons’ starter. But that was in the wildy successful system implemented by head coach Dave Clawson, who is now at Wake Forest. How Johnson fares with new head man Dino Babers, who brings an up-tempo attack similar to Baylor’s, will be the key to BGU’s hopes at repeating as MAC champs

East Champ: Bowling Green

Akron makes a push, but the return of Johnson and stud back Travis Greene (1,594 yds, 11 TDs) are too much

West Champ: Toledo

Normally, losing players the caliber of T.O. Owens and David Fluellen would be a killer, but Darrell Hazell keeps building winners behind a potent rushing attack and returning burners like Kareem Hunt and Alonzo Russell.

MAC Champ: Bowling Green

Aha! You thought the picture indicated the conference champ and you wouldn’t have to read this worthless pile of opinionated crap (your words cut me deep).

Bowling Green brings back more talent on offense and could actually be more explosive in Babers’s system. Plus (in the “Wow, what a stat” department), the Falcons were 9th in the country last year in scoring D (15.9 PPG). If it wasn’t for their September 20th trip to Wisconsin, they’d have a good shot at an undefeated season.

Mountain West

On the Rise: Utah State

So what if the offensive line is brand new and 1,000+ yard rusher Joey DeMartino is gone? Chuckie Keaton is back at QB, and the Heisman darkhorse talk is already buzzing. Opening the season with a road win against Tennessee would be the statement needed to prove the Aggies are not messing around.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Fresno State

Welcome to life after Derek Carr (5,082 yds, 50 TDs…ouch). The nation’s best passing offense a season ago will take a massive hit with the absence of Carr and top target Davante Adams (1,718 yds, 24 TDs…OUCH). Duke transfer Brandon Connette must prove he can run the show or the Bulldogs’ tough schedule will eat them alive (road trips to USC and Nebraska…SO MUCH PAIN).

Player to Watch: Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

The ultimate workhorse back, Ajayi will most likely have to build on his 2013 numbers (1,425 yds, 18 TDs) to help the Broncos win a conference title with a new starting quarterback. If he gets off to the right start tonight against Ole Miss, he could start thinking about winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top back

Mountain Champ: Boise State

That new starting quarterback is Grant Hedrick, who actually filled in halfway through last year when Joe Southwick got hurt. Hedrick stepped in and didn’t miss a beat, completing 69% of his passes and capping off the year with standout performance in a Hawaii Bowl loss to Oregon State (73% completion, 382 yds, TD). He should pick up where he left off.

West Champ: Nevada

No one else seems primed to win this division, so I’ll take senior QB Cody Fajardo to lead a turnaround from last year’s 4-8 anomaly.

Mountain West Champ: Boise State

Bryan Harsin is a Chris Petersen disciple, so not much is expected to change around Boise. Bringing back leading receiver Matt Miller (1,140 yds, 12 TDs) completes a potentially lethal offense that could be enough to get by the Broncos’ toughest opponents (Ole Miss in Atlanta, home vs BYU) and make 13-0 seem like a reachable goal.

Pac-12

On the Rise: Washington

This could have easily been USC before the Josh Shaw madness became Distraction-apalooza 2014, but it’s hard not to argue with the coaching upgrade made by hiring Chris Petersen. Doing nothing but winning apparently causes you to suffer chest pains when you don’t, which is how Petersen described the losses that became more frequent during his final years at Boise in a recent interview.

Having great experience on both lines will only help ease new QB Cyler Miles into the starting role, where he could be a dynamo by year’s end and have the Huskies making noise in the North.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Oregon

Again, could have been USC, as their season feels like a toss-up, but I’ll take the other most overrated team this offseason. I love Marcus Mariota as much as the next pundit, but who in the world is he going to throw the ball to? Keanon Lowe is the only of the top four receivers returning after the injury to Bralon Addison.

Throw in the loss of left tackle Tyler Johnstone, the relative youth defensively that won’t get coached up by now-retired coordinator Nick Aliotti, and the monster schedule that gets going Week Two with a visit from Sparty, and this feels like another Duck team destined to win every preseason national title, but then come up with 10 wins and an Alamo Bowl title.

Player to Watch: Myles Jack, LB/RB(?), UCLA

The nice thing about the Pac-12 becoming maybe the best conference in college ball is all the potential stars that could light up the cosmos. USC QB Cody Kessler and WR Nelson Agholor, Washington LB Shaq Thompson, Oregon State QB Sean Mannion, Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly and RB DJ Foster, Oregon RBs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, Stanford WR Ty Montgomery and LB Kevin Anderson…You catch my drift? Lots of talent, and those are technically the second-tier guys.

But let’s face it, what’s more exciting (and more fueling to Heisman hype) than a two-way player? For crying out loud, Stanford’s Owen Marecic finished 10th in voting in 2010, and he played fullback on offense! Imagine what happens if UCLA not only has one of the top edge linebackers in the nation, but then he goes back on the field on offense and scampers for a 40-yard TD?

This could be potentially be the greatest display of athleticism in the history of the universe, but coach Jim Mora is saying THE Jack of All Trades will play on defense only for now. C’mon Jimmy. Call us when Jordan James doesn’t work out and Brett Hundley is running too much for your taste, and we’ll direct you to the treasure chest of YouTube glory that is Myles Jack.

North Champ: Stanford

They’ve won it the last two years, and the style that got them there is not changing any time soon. Head coach David Shaw brings in one the most highly touted offensive lines in the school’s recruiting history to protect QB Kevin Hogan and the newest group of backs that will mash opponents into tiny bits. The pass rush still has big Henry Anderson, and the corner combo of Dwayne Lyons and Alex Carter will make last year’s number 10 scoring defense fearsome again. A third straight win against Oregon gets the job done.

South Champ: UCLA

I never thought my man crush on Marcus Mariota would be matched, until I saw Brett Hundley last season. The funny thing is, Hundley’s numbers actually dropped off from his redshirt freshman season. A return to form is enough to take the division for the third time in four years.

Pac-12 Champ: UCLA

Mora is building a heyday-SEC defense with Jack, Eric Kendricks, and Eddie Vanderdoes among others. There will be no shortage of bruises and cuts when the Bruins and Cardinal play in back-to-back weeks, but having the star QB in Hundley is enough.

SEC

On the Rise: Ole Miss

Fine, I’ll drink the annual “one of the Mississippi teams will make noise in the SEC West” Kool-Aid. But the Heisman hype is in the wrong part of the state. Bo Wallace is more experienced than Dak Prescott, has more returning weapons like Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram, and has the more fearsome defense with studs like Robert Nkemdiche and Cody Prewitt.

Home games against Alabama, Auburn, and Miss. State set the Rebels up nicely, but Hugh Freeze’s team has not yet learned to win consistently. Winning tonight against Boise State is the first step.

Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’: Auburn

They are more talented than last year on offense, and Elliot Johnson’s defense should slightly improve, but let’s get real. They were handed the most unthinkable combination of luck, magic, fate, divine intervention, miracles and pure coincidence. That type of lightning does not strike twice.

Even an improved Nick Marshall and a deeper receiving corps with the addition of juco transfer D’haquille Williams won’t overcome the short comings of a weak secondary. Throw in their nasty schedule chock full of revenge-fueled opponents like Georgia and Alabama, and the Tigers might even have a hard time reaching the New Year’s Six.

Player to Watch: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

DEAR. GOD. HELP US ALL.

Remember when Adrian Peterson came to Oklahoma as a true freshman, went wild against Oregon and never stopped? But, he didn’t take home the Heisman, because the voters were old and stubborn. No freshman should be allowed to come to New York, they seemed to state, let alone win the award.

No more. Now that back-to-back redshirt froshs have seized the most coveted individual award in sports, it’s time a kid step off his high school field and into the history books. Fournette is big and strong enough to be the feature back for a Cam Cameron offense that emphasizes the power running game, but he’ll get help from Terrance Magee and Kenny Hilliard to get breathers now and again.

The ball-carrier vision is the most stunning thing about Fournette. He’s got a Gale Sayers- type ability to see everything that’s going on before it happens. Throw in outstanding speed, and you can see why coach Les Miles is already putting his new toy’s name next to Michael Jordan. Fournette will need to display greatness like His Airness if LSU wants to survive an inexperienced receiving group and an ongoing quarterback battle.

East Champ: Georgia

Don’t go feeling too bad for Huston Mason. Aaron Murray’s replacement will have plenty of time to learn the offense while handing off to Todd (CENTAUR) Gurley and Keith (Satyr?) Marshall. New D-coordinator Jeremy Pruitt must have seen something he liked in the young Bulldogs to leave national champ Florida State. Having edge rushers like Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd might have Pruitt thinking he can duplicate the Seminoles’ success in Athens.

West Champ: LSU

I know, all the great QBs are gone, and it’s really easy to pick chalk with Alabama. So why go with the most inexperienced team in college football’s toughest division?

Because it’s college football’s toughest division. NO ONE knows what’s going to happen.

LSU won’t go undefeated, but the strength of returners on defense like Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White will let the super-talented youth on offense catch up. This feels a lot like the 2011 team that knocked off ‘Bama in a close game, won the conference title and reached the BCS championship game. Regardless of whether Anthony Jennings or Branden Harris starts at QB, the talent and a lot of big games at home will get the job done.

SEC Champ: LSU

Like I said, NO ONE knows what’s going to happen in this conference. It’s a total crap shoot with all the veteran quarterbacks gone. I’m just getting the feeling Fournette will be incredibly special and the vets on defense will step up. Plus, if you’re going to take a flier on this upcoming season, last year’s SEC division winners proved this is the conference to do so.


 

How It All Plays Out

Heisman Trophy

The 5 finalists and the big winner

5. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

Too many weapons for him to not at least duplicate his 2013 production. Repeating, however, just doesn’t happen.

4. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU

This will probably be Bryce Petty’s slot, but I don’t care what you think. He’s the best dual-threat QB in the game. It’s not going to happen, but, hey, Jordan Lynch got to New York last year, and somebody has to represent the small schools here (Jay Ajayi, Chuckie Keeton, Rakeem Cato, etc.)

3. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

Almost rushed for 1,000 yards during an injury-shortened season. The sky’s the limit for maybe the best all-around running back in the nation and the key cog to a Georgia team with very real national title hopes.

2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

Can anyone live up to this type of hype? If Fournette does, Barry Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Herschel Walker may need to watch their backs – a legend is about to be born in Baton Rouge.

1. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

I don’t know whether to be mad with Grantland’s Matt Borcas or thank him. He’s as excited about Fournette as I am, yet claims the best quarterback in the Pac-12 is “efficient to the point of being boring, and that‚Äôs not going to fly with the thrill-seeking voting panel.” SO WAS JAMEIS WINSTON LAST YEAR!!!!! Being utterly more gifted and precise than the rest of superstars around you is the very essence of the award.

Plus, Hundley plays in a better league, has national-title-or-bust goals, and allegedly (really big gulp) needs to improve these marks to win the Heisman

  • 67.2% completion, 8.32 YPA, 3,071 yds, 25 TDs, 82.3 adjusted QBR
  • 160 carries, 748 yds, 4.67 YPC, 11 TDs

How on earth does he get better? By putting up passing numbers (3,745 yds, 29 TDs) similar to 2012 to go with rushing totals near last year’s marks. Post those stats while staying in the national title hunt, and Hundley should have no problem becoming the 5th straight QB to take home college football’s highest individual honor

The Top Twelve

Who Makes It To the New Year’s Six

3rd Tier РJust getting in will be a shocker to some

12. BYU

Like I said, I don’t care what you think. I want them here because I want Taysom Hill on my TV, so the undefeated Cougs take a bid away from Oklahoma or Oregon.

11. Cincinnati

BYU is the better team, but the Bearcats at worse will have one loss and grab the non-Power 5 spot.

10. Kansas State

There’s a weird buzz around Manhattan, just like Seattle or Chapel Hill. The difference here is that Sir Billiam Synder has done this before. They’ll knock off Auburn and stun Oklahoma in Norman to get 10 wins.

9. Wisconsin

The move to make mobile Tanner McEvoy the starting QB suggests Gary Andersen wants an offense similar to the one he ran at Utah State. That offense never had elite runners like Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. There’s a sleeper CFP team here if they improve on defense.

2nd Tier¬†– You are really going to begin to question my sanity…

8. Stanford

Call me when David Shaw stops winning and his defenses stop being anything but top five in the nation. Third straight win over Oregon means they get 11 wins (you: “He’s a little crazy, but that’s not unrealistic”).

7. Florida State

Last year was the exception to the modern rule that the ‘Noles will blow at least one road game in conference every year. Despite the embarrassment of riches on offense, Winston & Co. will keep tradition alive by dropping a Halloween visit to Louisville, and one loss in this weak ACC ¬†is enough to shut you out of the CFP (you: “Maybe he just forgot to take his pills, that’s all”).

6. Georgia

If the lone tough road game is against overrated South Carolina, I’m kind of at a loss as to how the Bulldogs don’t have a shot to get to 12-0 (you: “Okay, so this is nuts, but it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever read”). Their opener this weekend with Clemson is tricky, as is the trip to see the Gamecocks and a visit to Missouri, but winning the East should not as much of a problem with Gurshall shouldering the load.

5. Alabama

(You: “Okay, now¬†that’s¬†the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. You’re frickin Looney Tunes, dude. Go see a doctor.”)

They are so close to being in it pains me to leave them out of the CFP. Top to bottom, nobody is probably more talented in the nation. TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, OJ Howard, A’Shawn Robinson, Trey DePriest, Landon Collins…the list goes on. It seems ulimately insane to leave the most decorated team in college football history out of this historic first playoff.

But history also tells us that the Crimson Tide get pushed around every time they visit Death Valley in Baton Rogue. Last time was the first regular-season meeting between Alabama and LSU since 2006 that wasn’t decided by single digits, and the last three games in Baton Rogue have been decided by a combined¬†13 points. LSU has ‘Bama’s number, and regardless of who starts at QB, Jake Coker and/or Blake Sims will be thrown into a hostile environment in a huge game. I’m not sure if they’ll make the plays AJ McCarron made two years ago.

If a conference champ slips up and loses 2, Alabama will swoop in and take their place. For the time being, though, I don’t see that happening. Call me crazy, but crazy has happened to Alabama before.

3rd Tier РYour inaugural College Football Playoff

4. LSU

They’ll lose one, but beating ‘Bama will be enough to win the West. Fournette goes bonkers all season, especially against Gurley and Georgia in an epic SEC championship and de-facto CFP play-in (Playoff for a playoff? If it’s inside of a playoff, I’m calling Leonardo DiCaprio).

3. Baylor

Bryce Petty may not get the individual awards he deserves, but his team is better than a season ago. The second-best defense in the Big 12 combines with its best offense to beat Oklahoma in Norman, go 12-0 and win a second straight conference title.

2. Michigan State

A statement win at Oregon propels Sparty to an elite defense, improved offense led by Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford, and a 13-0 Big Ten title. Plus, how awesome is a Baylor-Michigan State national semifinal?!?

1. UCLA

Brett Hundley’s too good, the defense is too stout, and Brett Hundley’s still to good. Pac-12 play toughens them to the point of tree bark, and they’ll go undefeated in the process. Not only do they grab the top spot, but they win the first-ever College Football Playoff with two massive games from their Heisman-winning quarterback.

Because hey, every good story needs a Hollywood ending.