It’s that time of year again when nobody really knows how good their football team is and coaches are going to extremes to limit media access and make sure as little information as possible gets out to evil, unicorn-blood-drinking sportswriters and then into enemy hands.
Closed practices/information blackout policies have become the norm. One exception – amusingly -- is the Naval Academy, which actually knows something about state secrets. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's highly successful coach, even allows his assistants to speak to the media, explaining to the Washington Post, "I mean, they’re all grown men. If I couldn’t trust them talking to the media, how the heck can I trust them to work for me?"
This man is the exception to my belief that football coaches collectively are the most paranoid individuals on earth.
Truth is, even if every practice was open and everybody was made available to the media, we would still be guessing about the strength of teams going into this season. But most agree on what the biggest questions are. The following are mine for five teams: Falcons, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Kennesaw State:
Question: Will Steve Sarkisian work out as offensive coordinator.
Confidence score: 4 (out of 5).
Thoughts: I understand that Kyle Shanahan’s late-game decisions in the Super Bowl sit in a special corner of Atlanta sports hell. But he was a tremendous offensive coordinator and play-caller and will not be easy to replace. Sarkisian is talented. That’s why he never has struggled to find high-profile jobs. But taking over arguably the NFL’s best offense will be a significant stress test for a man who has struggled in the past to take care of himself away from football. Sarkisian said all the right things in June about his recovery. He also appears to have the respect of Falcons players and coaches and is not likely to make significant changes to the offense. All of the major components coming back. A new offensive coordinator would’ve been a bigger issue in my view if Sarkisian replaced Shanahan a year ago, before Matt Ryan and others were comfortable in the offense.
Question: Will the offense be better?
Confidence score: 2.9.
Thoughts: The defense will be good. The offense: not so sure. Georgia should have one of the better rushing attacks in the nation. But offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is coming off a horrible first season, quarterback Jacob Eason made expected freshman mistakes and needs to improve and the offensive line will be young. I’m still high on the Bulldogs’ potential in the SEC, but those are three major unknowns. Chaney is the biggest question because it’s up to him to develop Eason, call plays and put the offense in the best situation to succeed. Chaney, who already has held his one news conference of the season – see: aforementioned head-coach paranoia – said in June that he did some “soul searching” in the offseason and even watched tape of NFL games, including the Falcons. So at least he's not being stubborn.
Question: Is Matthew Jordan ready to be a starting quarterback?
Confidence score: 2.5.
Thoughts: Justin Thomas was a really good quarterback. He could not only run the spread option, but hit the occasional deep pass, a skill that increases Tech’s chances of winning a game exponentially. Jordan's strength and accuracy on the deep ball is less certain. He played well in one start when Thomas was injured, rushing for 121 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-20 upset win at Virginia Tech. So he doesn’t spook easily. But that’s not necessarily a barometer for long-term success. Jordan has two things going for him: 1) Tech running backs, led by Dedrick Mills, who's good when he’s not suspended. He rushed for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman in nine games, missing three games with suspensions and one because of injury; 2) Johnson's offense generally functions pretty well regardless of the quarterback. The ever-present issue at Tech is whether the offense can score enough points to overcome the defense. That’s where Jordan's arm comes in. Or the backup, TaQuon Marshall, if Jordan doesn’t work out.
Question: Will Shawn Elliott elevate the football program?
Confidence score: 2.5.
Thoughts: Elliott’s only experience as a head coach came as an interim at South Carolina after Steve Spurrier ducked out the backdoor in the middle of the 2015 season. He went 1-5 in an obviously difficult situation. There’s no evidence Elliott can’t handle the head job from an X-and-O/player-development standpoint. But the biggest problem at Georgia State may be the program itself. It’s been difficult for the first two head coaches (Bill Curry, Trent Miles) to acquire talent and build depth in classes. The lack of support from the student body in attendance also is concerning. Elliott will have to do something of significance to change that. The team's move into the former Turner Field for home games could help. The size of the stadium is more conducive for a Sun Belt program than the Georgia Dome was. But ultimately it’s still going to come down to getting people excited for Georgia State football. On a related note: CBSSports.com ranked the Panthers 122 out of 130 teams.
Question: Will Kennesaw State’s program grow?
Confidence score: 4.
Thoughts: Kennesaw State has gone about football the right way. Unlike Georgia State, it had the benefit of a cozy near-campus stadium with no immediate/premature aspirations to jump the program to FBS (if ever). The Owls are staying in the FCS' smallish Big South Conference (which has only six teams). They're considered co-favorites to win the conference and return 16 starters from a team that was 8-3. The non-conference schedule is a bit tougher this season: one NAIA opponent instead of two, and the addition of Samford, which is the team's season opener. Incremental growth is all anybody should expect from coach Brian Bohannon's third-year program.
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