Heading into this college football season, defending national champion Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite. But beyond that, there are few sure things, and there are players and programs that could shock and intrigue throughout the fall. College football’s system may be a mess of corruption and exploitation, but there are plenty of reasons why the sport itself remains consistently dazzling and surprising and exciting.
In fact, here are 25 of them – as if you needed any additional incentive to tune in to tonight’s full slate of games. And let’s face it; after taking down the worst folks in the sport yesterday, perhaps it’s time for a little positivity. Can anyone beat the Buckeyes? Are Oregon’s best days behind them? Who will be this year’s proverbial fly in the ointment? All of these questions and more will be answered between now and January 11, 2016, the night of the National Championship Game. Let’s do this.
1. Ohio State’s Quarterback Hydra
Already, the Buckeyes have shifted Braxton Miller – who twice finished in the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy balloting before injuring his shoulder and missing all of last season – to a wide-receiver/H-back/Percy Harvin role in Urban Meyer’s offense. Which means the starting job comes down to J.T. Barrett – a Heisman candidate himself before he broke his ankle against Michigan last year – and Cardale Jones, who stepped in for Barrett and led the Buckeyes to, you know, the national championship. It’s arguably the greatest embarrassment of riches in college football history, which means if the Buckeyes somehow don’t make the four-team playoff, it would arguably be one of the greatest failures of Meyer’s already stellar coaching career.
2. The Post-Mariota Blues (and Greens and Yellows)
The team that lost to Ohio State in the national championship game may seek to replace one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history (Marcus Mariota) with either an unproven backup named Jeff Lockie or a roughly 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson-esque transfer from Eastern Washington named Vernon Adams. This could be the year the Ducks prove their system is able to transcend change, or this could be the year the Ducks’ run of torrential Pac-12 seasons comes crashing to a halt.
3. Harbaugh’s Back in Town
The Wolverines will probably not be that good – at least, not yet – in Jim Harbaugh’s first year at his alma mater after an acrimonious parting with the San Francisco 49ers, but they’ll be interesting as hell. Harbaugh will no doubt provide a modicum of entertainment for a fanbase that’s suffered through an ego-sapping malaise over the past several seasons. It’s only a matter of time before he says/does something crazily intense.
4. The SEC’s Magnificent Seven
Honestly, you could choose any team to win the SEC West at this point – and choose any other team to finish second through seventh – and it would seem to be a viable possibility. At least according to the AP poll, Alabama is the favorite, but LSU and Arkansas are improved, Auburn is a consistent threat, the Mississippi teams proved their worth last year and Texas A&M is a constant danger under Kevin Sumlin. In other words, those Saturday afternoon SEC games on CBS ought to render Verne Lundquist speechless over and over again.
5. The Running Back is Back
Since 2000, a quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy every year save two, and one of those – Reggie Bush’s 2005 trophy – was forfeited after an NCAA investigation. But this could be the season that changes. Besides Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (plus Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Arizona’s Nick Wilson), there are several running-back candidates in the SEC alone, most notably Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Arkansas’ Alex Collins and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who may have struck the pose a year too early.
6. Scooby Snacks
Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, a lightly regarded recruit coming out of high school, had 163 tackles last season and apparently has been camped out in the weight room this offseason. If ever a defensive player in a Pac-12 Conference known for its explosive offenses had a shot at the Heisman, its this year. Plus, the dude can solve mysteries.
7. No, You Cover Him
Baylor added, to its already explosive offense, a near 400-pound tight end named LaQuan McGowan, which might be the oddest and most intimidating innovation to emerge from Waco, Texas since Dr Pepper.
8. Hack’s Lament
Penn State’s quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, was Brady-esque as a freshman, and inconsistent and embattled through most of last season, the first for James Franklin as the Nittany Lions’ head coach. Which means he’ll either blossom in the Big Ten this year and turn into a potential top-10 draft pick, or he’ll lose it altogether and become a lightning rod for Penn State schadenfreude.
9. The Ball Coach Forever
Steve Spurrier’s still here, at age 70, and he plans on staying awhile at South Carolina and entertaining the hell out of us while infuriating his opponents. Arby’s forever, bitches.
10. Dak and Laquon
That would be Dak Prescott, the charismatic quarterback at Mississippi State; and Laquon Treadwell, the athletic wide receiver at Ole Miss who suffered a gruesome leg injury during the most heartbreaking play of last season. Both return this year, lending hope that both of the state’s teams can continue to keep pace with the remainder of the SEC West.
11. Who The Hell Is Brandon Doughty?
He’s the quarterback for Western Kentucky, and last year he threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t do so again this season. He threw for 569 yards and 593 yards in a pair of games; he finished the season by throwing for 977 and 13 touchdowns in his final two games. The Hilltoppers play at Vanderbilt, Indiana and LSU; if they somehow win the first two, and Doughty puts up big numbers in the third, he has an outside shot at earning Heisman consideration.
12. The Hawgs Have Hogs
It’s not often that a school puts its entire offensive line on the cover of its media guide, but this Arkansas under Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks are a thumb in the eye of the newfangled passing revolution – they average roughly 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds across that line and have two returning thousand-yard rushers. And their Bielema has a physique to match his philosophy.
13. Trevon and On (and On?)
Quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback-turned-Heisman finalist Trevone Boykin returns at quarterback for TCU, which is once again a legitimate playoff contender. And as is often the case, a quarterback from a Christian school in Texas is also an animal-rights activist.
14. Raising Arizona
Both Arizona and Arizona State won 10 games last season, and have two of the more intriguing coaching personalities in Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham. They meet on November 21; it’s not unfathomable to imagine that the Pac-12 South title will be on the line.
15. Boise: Wrench In The System (Again)?
Let’s say Boise wins its first two games, against Washington and at BYU. And let’s say Boise then wins its next 10 games, and then wins the Mountain West Championship game. Could the College Playoff Committee pass over the Broncos for a playoff bid, just as Boise was passed over in the old BCS system? The answer is yes, they probably could, but depending on the circumstances, it might be difficult to justify.
16. It’s Still OK to Hate Florida State
The bad boys of the moment in college football, the Florida State Seminoles, return running back Dalvin Cook (recently found not guilty of a misdemeanor battery charge) and quarterback Everett Golson, who transferred from Notre Dame, which means they should be just good enough to continue to attract nationwide loathing.
17. Fighting Over the Irish
And speaking of nationwide loathing: Notre Dame is either overrated or underrated once again, and quarterback Malik Zaire will either have a better year than Golson or a worse year than Golson, and the Irish will either be a playoff contender or a Pinstripe Bowl participant. Either way, they’ll be on television every week, in case you were worried about them being underexposed.
18. Big Wheels Keep on Turning
And while we’re on the loathing tip: Nick Saban has yet to choose a starting quarterback at Alabama, but the Crimson Tide will once again be prodigiously talented and assiduously coached. The fact that they don’t have an experienced quarterback and play the toughest schedule in the country could potentially keep them out of the playoff, but I wouldn’t count on it.
19. L.A. Story
USC was picked to win the Pac-12 title largely because of quarterback Cody Kessler and two-way threat Adoree Jackson, but that was before their coach, Steve Sarkisian, made a public spectacle of himself at a pep rally. The post-Pete Carroll era at USC has been a mess of NCAA sanctions and Lane Kiffin-related absurdities, and depending on Sarkisian’s ability to recover, that chaos could potentially carry on into this season.
20. Clemsoning Redefined?
There aren’t many programs whose oft-inexplicable failures to live up to expectations have landed them a spot in urban dictionary, but hey, hello there, Clemson. Once again, this could be the year the Tigers finally manage to eclipse Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference, given that they have one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country in DeShaun Watson, but Watson couldn’t stay healthy last year, and if he can’t stay healthy again, there’s reason to believe that Clemsoning will once again prove an ongoing state of mind.
21. The Sun Shines on the Bay
So college football Rain Man Phil Steele has chosen Stanford as his No. 1 surprise team heading into this season; and Cal, too, is on many list of potentially most-improved teams, given that Bears quarterback Jared Goff is a potential Heisman candidate. Which means that Cal-Stanford (November 21) could actually mean something to people who don’t play trombone.
22. Young American
If he can stay healthy – and if he can survive a brutal early-season schedule – Brigham Young’s Taysom Hill should be one of the most entertaining quarterbacks in the country.
23. ‘Til Tuesday
Tuesday, traditionally the worst night of the week (especially during football season), offers a small amount of solace beginning in October when the Sun Belt (briefly) and the Mid-American Conference begin playing games that often wind up becoming a strange and wonderful distraction.
24. Every Game Matters
The decades-long complaint about a playoff system was that it would somehow water down the regular season, but the opposite is happening: As the playoff era takes hold, more teams are upgrading their non-conference schedules so they don’t get punished for weak opponents, the way Baylor did last year. Which means we get intersectional matchups like Wisconsin/Alabama and Arizona State/Texas A&M in Week 1, and Michigan State/Oregon and Oklahoma/Tennessee in Week 2.
25. No One Knows Anything
Beyond Ohio State, this season appears to be one of those wide-open campaigns replete with unproven quarterbacks and potential two-loss playoff teams. College football is at its best when it’s chaotic and nonsensical, so here’s hoping it lives up to those expectations.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb