The Memorial Day weekend brings our annual long-range look at college football, guaranteed to ruin any backyard cookout. Without further ado, we dig in.
Alabama will not win the national championship. It’s still the best program with the best coach and the best talent. It will again win the SEC. (I don’t see a challenger arising. Do you?) That said, I’m not sure Jalen Hurts, the SEC’s offensive player of the year as a freshman, is a championship quarterback. For all his excesses, Lane Kiffin was useful as a quarterback whisperer, and he’ll be missed if Bama finds itself torn between Hurts and the ballyhooed Tua Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide could make the College Football Playoff with almost anybody at quarterback, but this, by exalted Saban standards, mightn’t be a truly vintage year.
Georgia Tech will go 9-3 and win the ACC Coastal. As satisfying as going 3-0 against the SEC was, the Yellow Jackets were 4-4 in the ACC. So why am I picking a team that just finished fifth in its division to win the thing? First, because I’m an idiot. Second, because the four teams that finished ahead of Tech must replace quarterbacks. And now you’re saying, “Don’t the Jackets have to do the same thing?” Well, yes. But here’s my thinking, such as it is: Paul Johnson has some intriguing choices to succeed Justin Thomas, and Tech’s schedule isn’t bad. It gets Miami down there and Clemson-without-Deshaun in Death Valley; Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh come here. Miami must play Florida State in Tallahassee and finishes at Pitt. The Coastal is always wide open. This can happen.
I’m officially done with Tennessee. Idiot that I am, I picked Tennessee to win the SEC East two years running. (Should have picked the Volunteers to be “Champions of Life” and been done with it.) Last season was Butch Jones’ prove-it year. He proved he’s overmatched. Look for Tennessee to have a new coach by 2019. Also look for Georgia Tech to win in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day night.
The Big 12 will again be frozen out of the College Football Playoff. Tom Herman landing at Texas is about the best thing that conference has going for it. Baylor is a mess. TCU has lost traction. Baker Mayfield returns at Oklahoma, but most of his playmakers left. Oklahoma State probably should win the league, but Oklahoma State wouldn’t win any of the other Power Five leagues. Oh, and remember the Big 12’s claim of having One True Champion? Its re-institution of a conference title game could mean its regular-season runner-up gets handed a trophy.
The playoff field: Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama and USC. Penn State, which nearly made it last year, will disappoint. Washington, which did make it, will lose to the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game. Everyone scoffed at the Huskies’ out-of-conference schedule last season, and that won’t change. Their first three opponents: Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State.
Florida State will begin and end the season with victories over Alabama in Atlanta. Just on the record, the post-Jameis years weren’t awful: The Seminoles twice were 10-3. Yes, there were weird losses — the blocked field-goal return at Tech, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl no-show against Houston, the obliteration at Louisville — but the biggest thing FSU did wrong was play in the same division as Deshaun Watson. The Noles are accustomed to neutral-site games — they opened last season by beating Ole Miss in Orlando and closed it by shading Michigan in the Orange Bowl — and won’t be fazed by the sight of Alabama in MBS on Sept. 2. If you can beat Alabama, you can beat anybody. If you win the ACC Atlantic, recent history shows you’ve got a great chance to win it all.
Biggest flop? Ed Orgeron and LSU. For reasons unclear, the Westgate sports book assigns the Tigers the third-best chance (tied with Florida State and USC) of winning the national championship. This is laugh-out-loud funny. The Tigers’ only decent win last season came in the Citrus Bowl against Louisville, which had gone from lobbying for a playoff spot to squabbling among itself. Say what you will about Les Miles, but he was a proven head coach. Orgeron has proved he’s not a head coach. (He’s pretty good as an interim, which isn’t the same.) No amount of talent — LSU has loads — can hide that for long. LSU is more apt to go 7-5 than win the SEC West.
Ohio State will win the Big Ten but lose to Alabama in the playoff semifinal. From the famous quarterback surplus of 2015, only J.T. Barrett remains, and he forgot how to throw at the end of last season. Guessing Urban Meyer gets that fixed. Still, the 31-0 playoff loss to Clemson was the sort Meyer’s teams never have, and it again raised the question — one that was supposed to have been answered by the 2014 national championship — as to whether the Big Ten is overrated. (Note that Penn State and Michigan lost New Year’s Six bowls.)
Georgia will go 9-3 and finish second in the SEC East. I won’t lie. I was disappointed in Kirby Smart, who seemed — especially given his schooled-by-Saban breeding — oddly unprepared to be a head coach. How do you take Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jacob Eason and lose at home to Vanderbilt? Those three return, and a manageable schedule should yield nine wins. Still, Smart could find himself hamstrung by his continuing choice of Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a loss in Jacksonville will prevent the East’s most talented team from winning the East.
So: Does this mean I’ve become a Florida believer? I still wonder how the Gators have taken the East in consecutive seasons without benefit of an offense. (Largely by default, I’d suggest.) But I’ve come to believe that Jim McElwain can get the most from what he has, which is more than we can say of any coach lately based in Athens. The Gators’ schedule looks tough — it begins with Michigan and ends with FSU — but only three games will come on an opponent’s field. Those three: At Kentucky, at Missouri, at South Carolina. And there’s a chance McElwain has found a quarterback in Feleipe Franks, which means there’s a chance the rest of the East has seen its window slam shut.