With college spring football practices completed or coming to completion, we now have answers to the top 10 questions, plus a bonus one, going into the 2018 season.
1. Which teams look most like College Football Playoff semifinalists?
Expect Alabama and Clemson back for the fourth consecutive season. Georgia, which lost to Alabama in last season’s title game, has another Final Four team. Among other contenders, Wisconsin looks strongest. Coming off a 13-1 season, including an Orange Bowl victory over Miami, the Badgers again will have a strong ground attack with Jonathan Taylor and a big offensive line. The passing game should continue to improve with Orange Bowl MVP Alex Hornibrook at quarterback.
2. Who will be Alabama’s quarterback?
Tua Tagovailoa, who came off the bench in the second half to lead the Crimson Tide to the victory against Georgia, missed much of the spring, including the “A Day” game, with hand injuries. That actually worked to his advantage because the quarterback he replaced in the title game, Jalen Hurts, was not impressive in the spring. Hurts probably will transfer if not named the starter; his father told Bleacher Report that Hurts would be “the biggest free agent in college football history.” Another clue pointing toward Tagovailoa: His brother, one of the top high school quarterbacks in the 2019 class, committed to Alabama.
3. Outside of the Pac-12, which team looks to be the most challenging on UCLA’s schedule?
The Bruins play in Week 2 at Oklahoma, one of last season’s CFP semifinalists. Like Alabama, the Sooners might lose a quarterback who competed for the starting job in the spring if Kyler Murray decides baseball is his future and is drafted in June. That would leave it up to Austin Kendall to replace Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Kendall isn’t the mobile quarterback coach Lincoln Riley prefers, but the Sooners have their usual depth at running back.
4. What will USC be doing Sept. 8 when UCLA is playing at Oklahoma?
The Trojans will be in Northern California for their Pac-12 opener against Stanford and last season’s Heisman runner-up, running back Bryce Love. A week later, the Trojans travel to Texas. The Longhorns took them to double-overtime at the Coliseum last season before USC prevailed, 27-24. Like last season, the Longhorns still haven’t decided between dual threat Sam Ehlinger and pocket passer Shane Buechele at quarterback. They also lost several key juniors who turned pro. With two strong recruiting classes under Tom Herman, they should be improved over 2017, when they finished 7-6 with losses to USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State by a combined 11 points.
5. How does Notre Dame, USC’s other formidable nonconference opponent, look?
It’s too early to know how either team will look in their regular-season finale Nov. 24 at the Coliseum. For now, Irish fans are optimistic this is the season they will be in the CFP discussion. They also have a quarterback battle. Brandon Wimbush appears to have won the job in the spring, although Ian Book also looked capable. No one has forgotten he’s the one who came off the bench to lead Notre Dame to a Citrus Bowl victory over Louisiana State, securing a 10-win season after four wins in 2016.
6. USC is the consensus favorite in the Pac-12 South. Which team from the North is projected to meet the Trojans in the conference title game?
Washington. We’ll find out a lot about the Huskies when they open Sept. 1 against Auburn at Atlanta. We know they have an experienced, productive quarterback in Jake Browning. They also should be strong again defensively, especially if they return to the kind of ball-hawking unit that created 33 turnovers in 2016 and led them to the CFP semifinals.
7. Who in the spring looked like Heisman contenders?
We’d say Stanford’s Love, but, after surprising many by choosing to return for his senior season, he didn’t participate in the spring because he wanted to concentrate on his medical studies. We’d say Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, but he was off-limits to media for most of the spring. His new head coach, Kevin Sumlin, may or may not help him. After Johnny Manziel, Sumlin’s record with quarterbacks at Texas A&M didn’t earn him much respect. However, the offensive coordinator he brought along, Noel Mazzone (formerly of UCLA), is solid. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert also could be in the running. The Ducks were 6-2 and averaged 49 points in games he played last season. They were 1-4 and averaged 15 points when he was out with a broken collarbone. We’ve mentioned Wisconsin running back Taylor, who was sixth in voting last season.
8. Who is the best player who isn’t on offense?
Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa (6 feet 4, 263 pounds) was the Big Ten defensive player of the year last season with 34 tackles, 16 for losses and 8.5 sacks. Going into his junior year, he is expected to enter the NFL draft after the season. Already projected as the best edge rusher in the 2019 class, he could even be selected higher than his brother Joey Bosa, who went third to the Chargers in 2016.
9. Which new coach other than UCLA’s Chip Kelly will have the most positive impact on his program?
It’s difficult to narrow it to one with so much turnover after last season; there are five new coaches in the Pac-12 alone. The two who seem to have their fan bases most excited are Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Nebraska’s Scott Frost. There’s a lot of pressure on Fisher, who signed a 10-year contract with $75 million guaranteed. The understanding is that he will contend for a national championship at a university that hasn’t won one in football since 1939. Frost has more of an idea of what he’s getting into, having played at Nebraska. He says he will return the Cornhuskers to the basics taught during the glory years by Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. That doesn’t mean Frost will bring back the Power-I. He’s bringing his up-tempo offense from the University of Central Florida.
10. Which team will be this season’s UCF?
UCF. After the excitement of the 2017 season, when the Knights finished 13-0, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and declared themselves national champions, they unveiled a national championship banner at the stadium before this year’s spring game and awarded players rings. Although Frost left, Josh Heupel has most of the starters returning. That includes quarterback McKenzie Milton. We’ll have an idea of whether they can repeat that success, or at least again represent the Group of Five in a major bowl, when they host Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls on Sept. 21.
Bonus: Who won big this spring?
That would be Michigan and quarterback Shea Patterson. After two years at Mississippi, Patterson transferred to Ann Arbor and was brilliant in the spring. He normally would have had to sit out a season, but the Wolverines requested a waiver from the NCAA. They said he left Ole Miss because he had been misled by coaches about how severe NCAA sanctions would be against the school. On Friday, the NCAA ruled in Patterson’s favor.