Congratulations, cherished readers: You did it! You survived the seeming eternity of the college football offseason, and now here you stand, mere hours away from the return of Actual Football. Playoff spots will be claimed, a championship will be won, a stiff-arm trophy will be hoisted — and foolishly confident prognosticators will gaze into crystal balls to attempt to tell you who’s going to do each of those things and more. Be gentle. We can’t help ourselves.
Matt Hinton: Ohio State, Alabama, Baylor, Clemson
The Buckeyes: Obviously.
The Tide: I know, I know. With so much attrition on offense, this year sets up as the sobering reality check after 2014 exposed a few cracks in the facade. I just keep coming back to the defense, and the even more obvious vulnerabilities of every other SEC West contender, and the goddamn talent, and it all leads to the Tide. The Saban Death Star can’t last forever, but it’s got another year, at least.
The Bears: The closer we get to the season — and the further we get from Baylor’s and TCU’s divergent performances in their respective bowl games — the more obvious it is to me that the Bears, not the Frogs, are the smart pick in the Big 12. Everything about Baylor’s ascendancy under Art Briles points to an impending breakthrough: They’ve barely missed the championship cut each of the past two years, and with NFL-caliber guys like Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings prowling around on defense, now is the time to make good on the upward trajectory. The new quarterback is going to be fine. The Bears just need to finish this thing already.
The Tigers: I’m all aboard and safely buckled in to the Deshaun Watson bandwagon (see below), and it just so happens that the Tigers get all three of their toughest games (Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Florida State) at home. Yes, they’re also planning to break in four new starters on both sides of the line of scrimmage, including a true freshman left tackle. But the talent is there, the schedule is there, and as long as Watson is there, so am I.
Holly Anderson: Baylor, Ohio State, Arkansas, Arizona State
The Bears: I’ll worry about Art Briles having to break in a new quarterback only when I’m given a reason to worry about Art Briles having to break in a new quarterback, and that day ain’t here yet.
The Buckeyes: Last season’s quarterbacking carousel spoke volumes about the player development work this staff has put in.
The Razorbacks: While we’re all distracted wondering which of the very-good squads in the state of Alabama will tote the division’s banner to Atlanta, a veiling shadow glowers in Fayetteville.
The Sun Devils: There’s a joke to be made here about the Devils we know and the high volume of returning defensive starters in Tempe, but for real: This feels like the year in the Pac-12 when offense ceases to carry the day.
Michael Weinreb: Ohio State, Oregon, LSU, Boise State
The Buckeyes: Because you have left me with no other choice.
The Ducks: Because I have faith in undersize quarterbacks who have copious experience playing on turf the color of the blood coursing through their veins.
The Tigers: Because I miss you, Les.
The Broncos: Because I really, really want the playoff committee to have no other choice.
Andrew Sharp: Ohio State, Oregon, Auburn, Oklahoma
The Buckeyes: It feels deeply strange to have an Ohio State team that I don’t hate, but I guess this is happening.
The Ducks: The Pac-12 is absolutely loaded this year, and … I’m still not picking against Oregon.
The Tigers: Muschamp & Malzahn & Jeremy & Duke & like four running backs who will run through everyone. WDE.
The Sooners: It’s not even Week 1, and I already regret this.
Chris B. Brown: Ohio State, Alabama, TCU, Arizona
The Buckeyes: “For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity.” — Isaiah 26:21
The Crimson Tide: The Bama pick is essentially a proxy for the winner of the SEC, though this could be the year when the committee has to decide whether to insert a two-loss SEC team into the playoff over a one-loss Big 12, Pac-12, or ACC champ.
The Horned Frogs: The polls are picking TCU, while the smart set seems to be siding with a Baylor team with more returning starters, but I’m sticking with the polls. The assumption is that any QB can run Baylor’s offense, but Art Briles isn’t talking about Seth Russell like he did Bryce Petty or RG3. Gary Patterson has his QB, though, and his teams have lived up to high expectations before.
The Wildcats: The Pac-12 will be a melee yet again, but Rich Rodriguez, Scooby Wright III, Anu Solomon, and Nick Wilson will overcome a shaky early-season loss to slide in as Pac-12 champs.
Matt Borcas: Ohio State, Alabama, TCU, Notre Dame
The Buckeyes: It should be illegal for a team this talented to enjoy such a doormat-laden schedule.
The Crimson Tide: Any concerns you might have about talent loss on the offensive side of the ball should be assuaged by the twin facts that (a) with the way Alabama recruits, no team is better equipped to handle roster turnover, and (b) Nick Saban is the straw that stirs the Crimson Tide’s drink, rendering his players eminently replaceable.
The Horned Frogs: This time around, they’ll handily dispatch Baylor in the regular season, making the selection committee members’ decision easy.
The Fighting Irish: If they can get past Clemson and USC before their mid-October bye week, running the table isn’t out of the question. Just look at the Fighting Irish’s second-half schedule.
Mallory Rubin: Ohio State, Alabama, Baylor, USC
The Buckeyes: Sure, it’s a little scary Joey Bosa is suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech, but that just means he’ll be even more rested and shrug-tastic when he returns. The only real concern here is whether the now-banned crop top will prove to have been the source of Ezekiel Elliott’s powers.
The Crimson Tide: I’m confident that Jacob Alec Cornwell Bateman will be a capable quarterback, especially with Cam Robinson and the O-line paving the way for Derrick Henry’s breakout season. And if you think this Tide defense lacks the blue-chip star power of former editions, you’re both wrong and in dire need of a formal introduction to A’Shawn Robinson and Reggie Ragland.
The Bears: If it feels like no one’s talking about Baylor’s gun-slinging quarterback or juke-happy running back for a change, that’s because Art Briles’s crew finally has a defender worth gushing over, which should be just the ticket for Baylor’s final push.
The Trojans: Star senior quarterback? Check. Freak-of-nature all-purpose playmaker? Check. Embarrassment of incoming recruiting riches? Check, as always. Coach desperate to silence the critics? Unfortunately, check, but hey, no team’s perfect!
Ryan O’Hanlon: Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Notre Dame
The Crimson Tide: Eventually, nature always wins.
The Buckeyes: While the strict formation-shape requirements of the sport limit the possibilities of such a stockpile, “the team with the three best quarterbacks in the country on its roster” will likely win plenty of football games.
The Ducks: UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Arizona State fans — are you familiar with the concept of “mutually assured destruction”?
The Fighting Irish: My last name begins with an “O,” the schedule contains a solitary difficult road game in Palo Alto, and Malik Zaire, whose sterling touchdown-to-interception ratio literally cannot be calculated by traditional mathematical processes, might be better than Andrew Luck Kevin Hogan.
Hinton: Ohio State. I’m wary of the overwhelming consensus that says the defending champs are bound to repeat, and if I could plausibly argue against them, believe me, I would. But how would that argument even go? They look just a little too good?
Anderson: Ohio State. Almost as soon as the Buckeyes hoisted that golden vape pen trophy in Arlington, the story line became their chances to repeat as national champions. And while that’s a terribly tricky feat, it’s hard to remember a team that’s been better set up for consecutive title runs.
Weinreb: Oregon. The Ducks avenge last year’s loss to Ohio State with a 53-48 victory, despite all three Ohio State quarterbacks (including new wideout Braxton Miller) throwing for 100 yards.
Sharp: [Corso heel turn] AUBURN. Ohio State loses to 4-seed Oregon before Auburn beats Oklahoma, 63-59, and comes through to win at the end.
Brown: Ohio State. The Buckeyes should win the title: They bring back essentially everyone of relevance, they have more top-tier quarterbacks on their roster than most conferences, and their coach is ruthless, mechanistic efficiency personified. Even their weaknesses are strengths; despite losing Devin Smith to the NFL and some other receivers to injury, the Buckeyes are down to a mere eight four-star receivers — not to mention converted QB Braxton Miller. At this point, it’s the Buckeyes versus the field.
Borcas: Ohio State. Taking a cue from Drake, the Buckeyes go back-to-back in dominant fashion, causing Meyer to officially supplant Saban as the greatest college football coach of his generation.
Rubin: Alabama. Nick Saban may not be ready to anoint true freshman wideout Calvin Ridley the next Julio Jones or Amari Cooper just yet, but once Lane Kiffin lets this kid loose, it could open up the offense in a way that makes even Cardale Jones drool. If the Tide can beat fellow playoff hopeful Auburn on the road on Thanksgiving weekend, they’ll be prepared for whatever comes their way in the SEC title game and beyond.
O’Hanlon: Alabama. Here’s a little gambling tip from someone who once spent a few hours at Mohegan Sun five years ago: When the house suddenly becomes undervalued, you don’t bet against it.
Heisman Trophy Winner
Hinton: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. First of all, even though 2015 looks like the Year of the Running Back going in, at this point the Heisman is realistically reserved for a quarterback whose team is playing for a national championship. (If this category were simply “Best Player,” full stop, I’d nominate Ohio State DE Joey Bosa.) And secondly, given that I’ve already picked his team to make the final four, I’m pretty much obligated to go with Watson, who I’ve endorsed from the get-go, and who will need to deliver a Heisman-worthy sophomore campaign if Clemson is going to make that kind of leap. You can’t have one without the other; I’m guessing the Tigers will get both.
Anderson: Georgia’s Nick Chubb. With all due respect to Ezekiel Elliott and Trevone Boykin, OSU and TCU will have arrays of familiar point-scoring weapons at their disposal, while Georgia will be breaking in a new quarterback and returning most of its offensive line experience. The D-lines of the SEC East will prove no more adept at stopping Chubb when they know he’s coming than they did last year when they knew he was coming.
Weinreb: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. He’ll become the first player to accept the award shirtless.
Sharp: Ohio State’s Cardale Jones. We can’t let Cardale Jones go to the Redskins.
Brown: Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Because I think Urban Meyer will eventually opt for Barrett and his hyper-efficiency, and because leading a team that will likely humiliate most of its opponents is a good recipe for Heisman success. Also, because I think Trevone Boykin will have at least one off game on a high-profile stage in an otherwise excellent year. But given how many Top 25 teams will play new starting quarterbacks this fall, this is a crapshoot, and inevitably some current unknown will burst onto the scene. If that’s the case, my money is on Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson.
Borcas: USC’s Adoree’ Jackson. What can I say? I’m a sucker for track stars, I admire the man’s confidence, and I happen to think the Heisman should go to the best player in college football, which isn’t always a quarterback.
Rubin: Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs. Marcus Mariota was enough of a superhuman to survive the curse that afflicts most preseason Heisman favorites, but absent any no-duh favorite in 2015, it seems like we’ll return to the world in which the eventual winner is a talented but not totally established dude who came out of nowhere to take the world by storm. I don’t really believe that Dobbs has this thing locked, but I do believe that the Ohio State candidates will cancel each other out, and the kid piloting this year’s breakout team seems like a smart pick to fill that void.
O’Hanlon: USC’s Cody Kessler. Without the lovable specter of Cardale Jones lobbing meteors into opposing defensive backfields, J.T. Barrett’s elegant and assured efficiency would be the easy choice here. But thanks to the lack of certainty at the absolute top, we might be in for something like 2012, when the high-profile quarterback with gaudy stats overcomes the moral blight that typically consists of a couple of regular-season losses. Kessler put up Aaron Rodgers–esque numbers as a sophomore, and if we’re not yet living in a world where Adoree’ Jackson can win this thing, it might as well go to his quarterback.
Surprise of the Season
Hinton: UCLA will win the Pac-12 with a true freshman quarterback. For the past several months, I’ve spent countless painstaking offseason hours logging data points for a complex, all-encompassing system designed to yield foolproof projections for the upcoming season. And if I were actually beholden to that system, I’d be projecting UCLA as a playoff team: Somehow, the Bruins landed at no. 3 in both the “raw” rankings and the final result after adjusting for schedule. (Ohio State and Alabama held the top spots in both cases; Clemson was nowhere near the playoffs.) I don’t have the guts to go that far, because I’ve done the research on teams stuck with true freshman quarterbacks and know that limb is not sturdy enough to support a hypothetical playoff run. But I will take UCLA’s high marks as evidence that Jim Mora has assembled a viable contender in every other respect, and if Josh Rosen can weather a rocky start, I’m willing to give the Bruins the nod to spoil USC’s and Oregon’s playoff chances down the stretch.
Anderson: Cal wins 10 games. You just never know with those late Pac-12 kickoffs, y’all.
Weinreb: Houston begins the season 11-0 … and then loses its final game to Navy.
Sharp: Tennessee wins the SEC East. It’s debatable whether this even qualifies as a surprise after two months of everyone predicting a breakthrough year, but Josh Dobbs is back and Butch Jones has been stockpiling talent for two years, so let’s ride the wave of optimism. This will also help restore some dignity to the SEC East, while restoring that creamsicle orange to our collective consciousness. Everyone wins, except Mark Richt.
Brown: Georgia Tech wins the ACC title. The Yellow Jackets’ schedule won’t do them many favors, with trips to Notre Dame and Clemson plus home games against Florida State and Georgia. But I don’t think there’s a better team in the ACC right now, and Paul Johnson has his offense rolling as well as I’ve seen it since his days at Navy and Georgia Southern.
Borcas: Tennessee will win the SEC East. Butch Jones has been quietly stockpiling grade-A talent in Knoxville for the past three years, and it will finally start to pay on-field dividends in 2015. Plus, freshman defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie — a five-star prospect and the son of Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie — is going to be a PROBLEM for opposing linemen.
Unfortunately, Alabama will probably slaughter the Vols in the SEC title game, but it’s the journey that truly matters, not the destination.
Rubin: Boise State runs the table but gets shut out of the College Football Playoff, creating a time warp in which Boise and TCU are both good again, both on the brink of championship glory again, and both deprived of the chance of competing for the prize because of subpar schedules. Again. Welcome back to 2009, people!
O’Hanlon: Sure, skeptics will say he just doesn’t have the “look” of a top-notch collegiate signal-caller. And yes, critics may ask, “Wait, how can that even be legal?” But regardless of all the preseason chatter, come December we’ll have a new mold of greatness to look upon: Vernon Adams Jr. will become the first quarterback with a nose piercing to be invited to the Heisman ceremony.
Hinton: Upstanding, Golden Dome–hating Americans will be spared the sepia-toned spectacle of a Notre Dame playoff run when Stanford derails the Fighting Irish in the dying hours of the final weekend of the regular season. The outcome will hinge on a controversial call on the goal line — preferably in, like, triple overtime — that instantly and irreparably divides the nation, igniting a collective wail of conspiracy theories and open calls for a congressional investigation. The “Fraud on the Farm” will go down as a cherished moment in college football history in short order.
Anderson: About that earlier statement that Ohio State is so well-equipped for back-to-back championships: The Buckeyes aren’t resting on any laurels now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be tempted to come, say, late November. The first real dogfight for OSU will be the Michigan State game, and after a hard-fought win the Buckeyes will cruise into Ann Arbor high on their own power and lose a spectacularly boneheaded game. Oh, they’ll still win the title, but Michigan will be this season’s transitive national champs, and neither fan base will ever let the other one hear the end of it, between now and the heat death of the universe.
Weinreb: Louisville coach Bobby Petrino quits midway through the season to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and then is fired before coaching a game when it’s revealed he is actually the son of famed hijacker D.B. Cooper.
Sharp: The Paul Bunyan Trophy returns to Ann Arbor. Michigan struggles this year but still upsets Michigan State after Jim Harbaugh lines up helmetless at nose tackle to show his players what commitment looks like.
Brown: Kentucky wins nine games. OK … nine games is a stretch, but I honestly believe the Wildcats will win, like, eight. Mark Stoops (the other other Stoops) has been recruiting at a furious clip the past few years; the schedule sets up decently if not exactly easily; and I very much expect new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson (whose drawl led one Kentucky fan to tell me he felt like UK’s new OC was Raylan Givens) to improve the play of the entire offense, particularly when it comes to finding playmakers among Stoops’s young recruits and getting much more consistent play from QB Patrick Towles. P.S. I’m from Kentucky, so please don’t put money on this.
Borcas: It will come to light that this widely circulated anecdote from the new Nick Saban biography wasn’t merely a hypothetical scenario devised by the Alabama coach — it’s something that actually happened:
The Saban-Clinton sex scandal sends shock waves from D.C. to Tuscaloosa. Moreover, it sinks Hillary’s presidential hopes, paving the way for a battle royal between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the general election, and ultimately leads to Saban’s resignation at Bama. (The fans can forgive a cheat, but not sleeping with the former First Lady of Arkansas). Harvey Updyke calls up Paul Finebaum and claims that Saban is the unwitting victim of a diabolical smear campaign perpetrated by Kristi Malzahn. Mississippi State and Ole Miss dominate the SEC West for years to come.
Rubin: The single-game rushing record that Melvin Gordon set last season and Samaje Perine broke one week later will fall three more times in 2015: when Pitt’s James Conner breaks it against North Carolina on October 29, Georgia’s Nick Chubb shatters it against Kentucky on November 7, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette obliterates it against Texas A&M on November 28. What, you didn’t really think we were going to get through an entire Grantland staff Shootaround without mentioning Big Len, did you?
O’Hanlon: I like to imagine that Mark Dantonio has dreamt about Jim Harbaugh every night since the turn of the new year. And if he hasn’t, he better start soon, because Harbaugh’s khakis are freshly pleated, his shirt is nowhere to be found, he’s drenched in whole milk, and the Wolverines are coming for Sparty. As our own Riley McAtee outlined at the beginning of last month, Michigan looks pretty good beyond its coach, so the conditions could be there for Harbaugh’s omnipotent mania to turn that typical first-year-coach bump into a tsunami. The Wolverines won’t snag the Big Ten title, but they’ll have the most wins of any team in the Great Lakes State.