The 2017 college football season is in the books, and it’s time to hold myself accountable for what I got right (not much) and what I got wrong (a lot) in my preseason predictions.
I predicted that Alabama and Ohio State would make the College Football Playoff, and the Buckeyes are still arguing that they should have been included. Unfortunately, I also picked Florida State and USC to make the playoff.
I correctly picked two of the Power 5 conference champions (Ohio State and USC) and six of the eight division winners. I incorrectly chose Florida State in the ACC, Alabama in the SEC and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.
I told you USF’s Charlie Strong would win more games than Tom Herman, his replacement at Texas, which he did. I also told you the coaching carousel would start in October because of the new early signing period, and that Arizona State’s Todd Graham, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, UCLA’s Jim Mora, Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez were in trouble, which they were.
Perhaps my most egregious mistake, however, was guaranteeing that the hype surrounding Lane Kiffin would quiet down after Week 2. Kiffin and Florida Atlantic proved me wrong on that front. I’ll try to make up for it with another Kiffin prediction for 2018.
What’s in store for 2018? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait about eight months to find out.
Here are 10 early bold predictions for this upcoming season:
1. Alabama-Georgia Round II will decide the SEC championship (and a CFP spot)
Alabama won its fifth national title in nine seasons with Monday night’s 26-23 victory over Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T. Those teams seem to be on a collision course for the SEC championship game in 2018.
The scariest part for the Bulldogs and everyone else in the SEC: The Crimson Tide had five true freshmen playing on offense when they won the game. Sure, the Tide lose a boatload of underclassmen to the NFL draft again, including star receiver Calvin Ridley and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, but there are plenty of young players ready to step in.
The Bulldogs made tremendous strides in coach Kirby Smart’s second season, and now they’ll have to replace many of the senior stars from a team that won its first SEC title since 2005. Replacing tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith (if he turns pro) won’t be easy, but Smart and his staff have recruited exceptionally well.
Plus, Georgia’s schedule in 2018 is probably less arduous than the one it navigated through this past season. The Bulldogs play nonconference games against FCS foe Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass and Georgia Tech, and they’ll play Tennessee and Auburn at home.
2. Freshman Trevor Lawrence will be Clemson’s starting quarterback
Kelly Bryant did a lot of great things in his first season as Clemson’s starting quarterback, throwing for 2,802 yards with 13 touchdowns and leading the Tigers to a 12-2 record. But the Tigers’ 24-6 loss to Alabama in a CFP semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl also exposed some of his shortcomings as a passer.
Bryant, a rising senior, will have a difficult time holding off Lawrence, an incoming freshman and early enrollee, who is ranked the No. 1 pocket passer and No. 2 player overall in the ESPN 300. Lawrence, from Cartersville, Georgia, is 6-foot-6 and 209 pounds. He has been described as a “once-in-a-generation kind of player,” kind of like the last Clemson quarterback from Georgia: Deshaun Watson.
Even with a freshman quarterback, Clemson will join Alabama in the CFP. Two other teams with first-year quarterbacks — Oklahoma and Ohio State — will also make the four-team field.
3. Chip Kelly will bring life to the Pac-12
There’s no other way to say it: It was a very, very bad year for the Pac-12 in 2017. It was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback on the West Coast, but UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold didn’t even crack the top 10 in Heisman voting. Only two Pac-12 teams (Washington and USC) won 10 games or more, and the league’s teams went a woeful 1-8 in bowl games (Utah was the only winner).
The Pac-12 really needs a boost, and former Oregon and NFL coach Chip Kelly might be the one to do it. Kelly probably could have had any opening in the country, but he chose to replace Jim Mora at UCLA. With Rosen and receiver Jordan Lasley entering the draft, and the Bruins having to replace three starting offensive linemen, there are going to be some growing pains on offense. Unfortunately, the Bruins also had the worst run defense in the FBS and school history in 2017.
But UCLA has enough talent on hand for Kelly to make an immediate impact. USC will still be heavy favorites in the Pac-12 South, but the Bruins should be as good as anyone else.
4. Jim Harbaugh’s team will beat an opponent that matters
After winning 10 games in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons, Michigan took a step back at 8-5 in 2017. Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise after the Wolverines lost so many players to the NFL.
But it was the way Michigan lost that was so alarming. Michigan threw nine touchdown passes, its fewest since 1975, when it attempted only 125 passes while running the triple option under Bo Schembechler. The Wolverines scored 13 points or fewer in losses to Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin and blew a 16-point lead in a 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
The Wolverines are one of the more difficult teams to project going into 2018. A lot depends on the availability of former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, who has already enrolled in classes at U-M. He has appealed to the NCAA for immediate eligibility because of the Rebels’ probation and bowl ban, and the Wolverines could be pretty good if he’s available.
For all the bluster about Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater, the early results have been mediocre. In his three seasons, the Wolverines are 2-7 in the two regular-season games that matter most to U-M fans (Michigan State and Ohio State) and bowl games. The odds are they’ll beat one of them next season, right?
5. A sophomore will win the Heisman Trophy
Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007 (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel won it as a redshirt freshman in 2012).
A group of sophomores will be among the favorites to win the sport’s most coveted individual award next season: Georgia’s Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Dwayne Haskins, and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.
6. Unless a defensive player finally takes home the Stiff-Armed Trophy
Michigan star Charles Woodson was the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997, and he claimed it as much for his versatility and big moments on offense and special teams as his stellar play on defense.
Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy winner this past season, is arguably the best player in college football. He had 16½ tackles for loss, 5½ sacks, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick while playing nose tackle in a three-man front this past season. Oliver is respected enough by voters to make a legitimate run at the Heisman Trophy in 2018.
7. Scott Frost (and Nebraska) won’t finish unbeaten
Frost directed one of the greatest turnarounds in recent history at UCF: The Knights went 0-12 in 2015, 6-7 in his first season in 2016 and then unbeaten this past season.
Should Nebraska fans expect more of the same after the Cornhuskers went 4-8 under Mike Riley in 2017? The turnaround might not happen immediately, but Frost will build a Big Ten title contender sooner rather than later.
Big Red fans will have to be patient, though. Not only might Nebraska be starting a freshman quarterback, Adrian Martinez, who missed his entire senior season of high school while recovering from a shoulder injury, but it also plays one of the most difficult schedules in the FBS this coming season.
The Cornhuskers play road games at Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa in 2018, along with home contests against Colorado and Michigan State. Ouch. A 6-6 record and return to the postseason might be a more realistic expectation for Frost in Year 1.
8. UCF won’t go unbeaten, either
Not only did Frost leave for Nebraska, but he also took UCF’s 10 assistant coaches and strength and conditioning coach with him. New UCF coach Josh Heupel, the former Missouri offensive coordinator, is starting from scratch, which means there’s going to be a transition period, regardless of the talent coming back.
UCF is expected to bring back nine starters on offense and seven on defense, including McKenzie Milton, who will be one of the better quarterbacks in the country. There are other key pieces in place for the Knights to be just as explosive on offense.
UCF’s schedule in 2018 includes nonconference games against Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and FCS foe South Carolina State. Its AAC schedule includes road games at Memphis and USF. Back-to-back unbeaten seasons might be asking for too much in Heupel’s debut, but a second straight New Year’s Six bowl appearance seems like a realistic possibility.
9. Auburn fans won’t like Gus Malzahn after Week 1
Auburn fans weren’t sure how to react to the Tigers’ 2017 campaign. Auburn defeated rivals Georgia and Alabama, when both of them were ranked No. 1, before finishing the season with consecutive losses to the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game and UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Then they had to watch Alabama and Georgia play in the CFP National Championship.
Auburn’s 10-4 turnaround was enough to earn Malzahn a new seven-year, $49 million extension after Arkansas officials tried to hire him away. The Tigers will go into the 2018 season as perhaps the second-best team in the SEC West. They open the campaign against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. Malzahn might want to make sure his team wins that one.
10. Lane Kiffin will get a Power 5 job after the 2018 season
There were 13 coaching changes at Power 5 programs this past season, and Kiffin didn’t get much of a sniff after guiding Florida Atlantic to an 11-3 record and Conference USA title.
With another 10-win season — the Owls bring back quarterback Jason Driskel, running back Devin Singletary and added a few key transfers — Kiffin will be one of the hottest coaching candidates going into the 2018 silly season. As long as Kiffin doesn’t implode on Twitter, he’ll be coaching at a Power 5 school in 2019.