College football is back! The 2015 campaign kicks off Thursday, with Michigan’s first outing in the white-hot crucible of Harbaugh mania headlining the 19-game FBS slate that will ring in the first full football weekend of the year.1 If you’ve been too busy to keep pace with our full season preview, or just lost track of time during the most interminable offseason in sports, don’t worry: We’ve got your back. Consider this your conference-by-conference cram session, outlining the least you need to know about the Power 5 leagues to get you back up to speed.
The FCS ranks got the ball rolling Saturday with Montana’s dramatic 38-35 win over the four-time defending national champ, North Dakota State.
What’s Changed: Florida State’s offense. On paper, FSU looks like a shadow of its former, indestructible self, which would have been the case even if the only notable departure from last year’s playoff team was Jameis Winston. In addition to losing their volatile quarterback, though, the Seminoles also lost his favorite target, Rashad Greene, and four mainstays on the offensive line who together started 26 of the contests in FSU’s 29-game win streak, leaving an impossibly green front in their place. To fill Winston’s role, the Noles will likely turn to Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, who nearly beat them last year in Tallahassee before proving to be even more volatile than Winston down the stretch. If he wins the job,2 Golson will have the benefit of playing alongside sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook, a late-blooming star in 2014 who was formally reinstated to the team last week following his acquittal on a misdemeanor battery charge. For everyone else on the Noles offense, the word is potential, as yet untapped.
Although coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to name a starter, Golson seems destined to beat out junior Sean Maguire.
What’s the Same: Georgia Tech’s offense. After seven years, opposing ACC defenses know exactly what they’re going to get from Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack — Georgia Tech has averaged between 54 and 58 carries per game six years running, most in the nation each year outside of the similarly option-oriented service academies — but they’re no closer to solving it. In fact, 2014 was a banner year for Johnson’s system, yielding the most yards (476.5) and points (37.9) per game in the coach’s tenure; an ACC Coastal title; and, following November upsets of Clemson and Georgia and an Orange Bowl blowout of Mississippi State, Tech’s highest finish in the AP poll (eighth) in 24 years. Despite his limitations as a passer, junior quarterback Justin Thomas may be better suited to run his offense than any other incumbent quarterback, and despite a nightmare of a schedule,3 Tech may be a legitimate playoff dark horse as a result.
Somehow the Yellow Jackets had the misfortune of drawing Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic Division, in addition to facing nonconference dates with Notre Dame (in South Bend) and Georgia.
Best Player: Pittsburgh RB James Conner. With apologies to ascendant Clemson quarterback (and Grantland favorite) Deshaun Watson, Conner remains the most exciting player in the league until proven otherwise. The 240-pound behemoth single-handedly makes Pitt football worth watching, but for the love of god, can someone please buy this man a defense? In the Panthers’ seven 2014 losses alone, Conner churned out 1,023 yards on nearly 25 carries per game, including above-the-fold efforts against Iowa (155 yards, 1 TD), Georgia Tech (120 yards, 3 TDs on just 10 carries), Duke (263 yards, 3 TDs), and North Carolina (220 yards, 4 TDs) — all for naught, as Pitt went down in all four by a combined 171-131. Truly, the plight of a back who can do this …
… and this …
… on the same afternoon and still wind up losing is worth your attention, and possibly some kind of humanitarian intervention.
Biggest Game: Florida State at Clemson. Last year, Clemson blew its chance to stick a dagger in the Noles thanks to an ill-timed fumble near the end of regulation, setting up the first of many improbable FSU triumphs, in this case with a suspended Winston watching from the sideline. This year, with Watson entrenched and the defending champs in flux, the November 7 clash in Death Valley will be a golden opportunity for the Tigers to snap Florida State’s three-year run as Atlantic Division kingpin — and, if their young quarterback is as good as advertised in October home dates with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, to possibly put Clemson squarely in the playoff conversation.
Bold Prediction: Virginia coach Mike London won’t make it to December. The Cavs held on to their embattled head coach despite a 5-7 record in 2014, largely for reasons that had nothing to do with football. But three of the Cavaliers’ first four games this September come against ranked nonconference opponents (no. 13 UCLA, no. 11 Notre Dame, and no. 23 Boise State; who made this schedule?), and there’s no reason to expect the Coastal Division’s reigning doormat to reverse the apathy that has defined London’s tenure after a 1-3 start.
What’s Changed: The Harbaugh has landed. Jim Harbaugh doesn’t have a national championship (or a Super Bowl) under his belt, but the initial comparisons to Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Nick Saban at Alabama are apt: Coaches with Harbaugh’s track record at his age4 come along only once in a blue moon, and with maximum resources at their disposal, the momentum they’re able to generate at top-tier programs just by showing up and radiating competence is enough to create a monster. Factor in Harbaugh’s single-minded, maniacal intensity and “Michigan Man” pedigree, and after seven years of diminishing returns under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Michigan finally feels like Michigan again, even if it will likely take a couple of years for the on-field product to catch up to the lofty expectations. Whatever happens in the long term, barring an outright disaster during the honeymoon phase, Harbaugh’s presence alone will give the faithful a chance to believe the Wolverines are back.
He’s 51, giving him at least another decade before anyone starts hinting at an impending retirement.
What’s the Same: Ohio State. As a slightly dazed Meyer pointed out in January, in the immediate aftermath of his team’s championship win over Oregon, the really frightening thing about the Buckeyes’ postseason surge was that it came a year early: The roster was built to win big this season, with only five 2014 starters going in this spring’s NFL draft. Practically everyone else from the playoff run is back, including the breakout star at quarterback (Cardale Jones), the Heisman-contending tailback (Ezekiel Elliott), five of last year’s top six receivers, four-fifths of the starting offensive line, eight of the top 10 tacklers, and a couple of pretty damn good kick returners for good measure. Ohio State is so loaded that the star quarterbacks who preceded Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett — owners of 46 career starts, 129 total touchdowns, and three top-10 Heisman finishes between them — aren’t even assured of a prominent role as they return from injury; Barrett is currently vying with Jones for the starting job, while Miller has already made the full-time switch to receiver. No preseason front-runner has ever been favored by as wide a margin as this one.
Best Player: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. Of all the star power on hand in Columbus, none has generated as much wattage5 as Bosa, a unanimous All-American whose singularly shruggy dominance as a sophomore registered at the highest levels.
Although Bosa is suspended for the Buckeyes’ season opener at Virginia Tech (and although he risked a Samson effect by cutting his long hair in the spring), rest assured that his presence will be felt for the rest of the season, mostly by opposing quarterbacks.
Biggest Game: Oregon at Michigan State. The Spartans led the Ducks last year in Eugene, 27-18, before succumbing to a patented Oregon burst en route to a 46-27 defeat, one that permanently knocked Michigan State from the playoff race and contributed to the Big Ten’s wilting reputation through the end of the regular season. This year, Oregon will arrive in East Lansing on September 12 with a brand-new quarterback (see below) making his first significant start as a Duck,6 opposite Connor Cook, a well-established senior for MSU with some nascent Heisman hype at his back and a first-round draft grade in his sights. If the Spartans stand any chance of emerging as worthy challengers to Ohio State’s supremacy in the Big Ten East by the time they visit Columbus in November, this is the game to prove it.
Oregon opens with a gimme against FCS Eastern Washington, that quarterback’s former team.
Bold Prediction: Christian Hackenberg will lead the conference in passing yards and touchdowns … and interceptions. Penn State’s junior phenom is cut straight from the Jay Cutler mold: superlative arm strength, suspect surrounding cast, borderline attitude, endless frustration. After a dismal sophomore campaign, Hackenberg is still regarded as a first-round talent stuck behind a debilitating offensive line, and although the line is destined to improve in 2015 (if only because it can’t be any worse), Hackenberg’s penchant for maddening turnovers will emerge as a defining trait. He’ll be one of the top quarterbacks taken next spring, anyway.
What’s Changed: Oklahoma’s offense. Last year marked a new low in Bob Stoops’s OU tenure, an 8-5 slog that was arguably worse than the record indicated: The Sooners were blown out by Baylor at home and by Clemson in the bowl game, the latter coming on the heels of a deflating loss against a foundering Oklahoma State outfit that had dropped each of its previous five games by double digits. In response, Stoops sent two offensive assistants packing, including the chief playcaller, co–offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, better known as the starting quarterback on Stoops’s only national championship team, in 2000. In Heupel’s place, Stoops imported 31-year-old Lincoln Riley from East Carolina to take the offense back to its roots in the Air Raid, the same philosophy Stoops coveted when he hired Riley’s pass-happy mentor, Mike Leach, as his first offensive coordinator in Norman in 1999.
The shift in philosophy will be accompanied by a coup d’état at quarterback, where Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield — a former walk-on who showed up in Stoops’s office last summer, uninvited — has displaced incumbent Trevor Knight, whose tenure as QB1 was marked by injuries, inconsistency, and incoherence in terms of what the Sooners wanted their offensive identity to be. “We got a little too enamored with trying to run the quarterback,” Stoops told me earlier this summer, a trend he described as a result of circumstance rather than design. “It just slowly evolved that way.” With Mayfield, who gained experience operating the Air Raid during his freshman season at Texas Tech, there’s not much risk of inadvertently drifting toward the zone-read. How likely he is to revive the heights of the Sam Bradford era, though, remains to be seen.
What’s the Same: Texas’s quarterback void. Given the sheer volume of pass-happy talent graduating from Texas high schools each year, you’d think someone would have come along by now to quench the Longhorns’ thirst for a top-shelf passer. But you’d be wrong: Since Colt McCoy’s untimely shoulder injury in the 2009 title game, UT has endured a revolving door of underwhelming starters whose failure to take the step forward has mirrored the team’s extended bout of mediocrity over the same span. For now, the baton remains in the hands of junior Tyrone Swoopes,7 who was unexpectedly thrust into the starting job last year because of injury and didn’t do anything to reassure fans about his long-term prospects in that time. If Swoopes doesn’t move the needle this year, expect the page to refresh in 2016 with the next next big thing, Shane Buechele.
As a recruit, Swoopes was the top choice of the previous UT coaching staff under Mack Brown, who passed on another nearby class-of-2013 quarterback, J.T. Barrett, as a result. Add Barrett to the list of Texas natives — Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel — whom Brown didn’t view as desirable college quarterbacks.
Best Player: Baylor DE Shawn Oakman. On top of his status as the most freakish physical specimen in the game — seriously, just look at this man; even his opponents admit to being basically terrified at the sight of him — the onetime Penn State transfer is actually productive, having racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2014 for an often underrated Baylor defense. That a 6-foot-9, 280-pound human can execute a 40-inch vertical jump while holding 70-pound dumbbells is a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism, but the implications on the field are just plain dangerous.
Biggest Game: Baylor at TCU. Last year, the Bears and Horned Frogs combined for 119 points in a wild, come-from-behind Baylor victory in Waco that was arguably the Game of the Year on multiple fronts, both as a spectacle of modern spread offenses at full throttle — Baylor erased a 58-37 deficit by rallying for 24 unanswered points in the final 11 minutes — and as the result that turned out to have the most far-reaching implications on the playoff race. This year, Baylor and TCU won’t meet until Thanksgiving weekend, when both sides can realistically expect to arrive with perfect records, and the stakes will likely be even more explicit.
Bold Prediction: Expectations notwithstanding, neither the Bears nor Frogs will arrive at their appointed showdown undefeated. In the weeks preceding that game, Baylor has road trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State on either side of a visit from Oklahoma; TCU, meanwhile, will go on the road to Stillwater and Norman on the heels of a visit from West Virginia. The Big 12 crown will still be up for grabs in late November, but perfection — and the automatic playoff bid that comes with it — won’t be.
What’s Changed: Stanford’s defense. Stanford was its usual, rugged self in 2014, finishing atop the Pac-12 and among the top five nationally in both yards and points allowed and Defensive S&P+. Altogether, the Cardinal held opposing offenses below 20 points per game for the third year in a row, a streak matched only by Alabama. Now, though, eight of the top 10 tacklers from that unit are gone, leaving just four players (linebackers Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez; cornerback Ronnie Harris; safety Zach Hoffpauir) with starting experience behind a completely revamped defensive line. Predictably, the no-name group that’s left fully expects to uphold the tradition, but opposite one of the conference’s most anemic offenses, there’s little margin for error.
What’s the Same: Oregon’s offense. Sure, the instinct is to hedge one’s bets after losing a player like Marcus Mariota, the most unflappable quarterback in college football over the past three years and the undisputed engine of one of its most prolific offenses. But Oregon was a warp-speed, point-a-minute machine before Mariota ascended to the starting role — the Ducks have led the Pac-12 in scoring in eight consecutive seasons — and his replacement, Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams, appears to be ideally suited to pick up the mantle after finishing as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS’s top offensive honor) each of the past two seasons. Just as importantly, there’s still no shortage of proven, productive backs and receivers8 on hand, and their collective potential is barely diminished by a rash of injuries and suspensions. Regardless of who’s at the controls, nothing we’ve seen from this program in the Chip Kelly–Mark Helfrich era suggests that it’s inclined to slow down anytime soon.
An increasingly irrelevant distinction.
Best Player: Arizona LB Scooby Wright III. Name a notable Pac-12 quarterback in 2014, and Scooby sacked him. Cody Kessler? Sacked. Connor Halliday? Sacked. Jared Goff? Sacked, then sacked again. Brett Hundley? Sacked and sacked. Mariota? Sacked and stripped.
In all, Wright9 racked up 14 sacks as a mere sophomore, good for the third-best total nationally, which is impressive enough for a former two-star recruit who had exactly one FBS scholarship offer. (Especially considering that he’s, you know, a linebacker, not a regularly designated pass-rusher off the edge.) Amid the rest of his gonzo stat line, though, his pass-rushing prowess was almost a footnote: Including sacks, Wright led the nation in total tackles (163), tackles for loss (29), and forced fumbles (six), making him a shoo-in for just about every award he was eligible to win. The numbers will be almost impossible to repeat, but now that he’s made a national name for himself, the hardware still has “Scooby” written all over it.
Given name: Philip.
Biggest Game: UCLA at USC. Under Jim Mora, UCLA has taken three straight in a series that had been monopolized by USC for the better part of a decade, and if not for the vagaries that come with starting a true freshman quarterback — 18-year-old Josh Rosen was officially handed the keys last week — the Bruins would probably be on the short list of viable national contenders: In every other respect, Mora’s outfit is legitimately loaded. Still, by the time the crosstown rivalry rolls around in late November, most projections expect the Trojans to be in the driver’s seat in the South Division, and conceivably for a playoff spot, if only because their overall talent level remains undiminished and senior quarterback Cody Kessler is a known quantity. If Rosen isn’t quite yet up to championship snuff himself (and frankly, there’s no guarantee he won’t be), what could be better than playing spoiler?
Bold Prediction: UCLA will win the South Division. After a rocky start (the Bruins’ first three conference games are against no. 22 Arizona, no. 15 Arizona State, and no. 21 Stanford), Rosen will find his footing against the lesser half of the Pac-12 slate and emerge in the national consciousness by outdueling Kessler in the Coliseum, sending UCLA to the conference title game by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker — too little, too late for a playoff bid, but just in time to generate soaring expectations for Rosen and the Bruins in 2016.
What’s Changed: The Reign of Terror is over. (Or is it?) It’s not unusual for the curtain to rise on a new season without an obvious SEC front-runner: No team (not even Alabama) has claimed back-to-back SEC championships since Tennessee in 1997-98, and the favorite according to preseason media consensus is almost always wrong. But it is a brave new world when there are legitimate fears about the SEC being shut out of the playoff altogether, which suddenly seems if not likely then at least plausible. While every team in the West Division has latent playoff potential,10 they also combined to go 2-5 in bowl games last season, and all have glaring flaws that make them vulnerable amid the relentless weekly grind that is the conference slate. Alabama and Ole Miss are replacing successful senior quarterbacks; LSU is on the verge of benching its incumbent; Auburn and Texas A&M were saddled with two of the league’s most generous defenses; Mississippi State lost most of the supporting cast around revelatory QB Dak Prescott; and Arkansas, as well as it played late in the season, was still a last-place outfit that struggled to generate points. Even if all seven teams play up to their potential, it’s still possible that none will win enough games to emerge from the scrum unscathed.
Six of the division’s seven members spent multiple weeks in the AP top 10 last year, and the only one that didn’t, Arkansas, was arguably playing as well as any team in the league by season’s end.
What’s the Same: Alabama’s ferocious front seven. The common thread in the Crimson Tide’s dynastic run under Nick Saban has been a smothering run defense, and while the secondary has taken its lumps the past couple of years, nothing has changed up front: Alabama led the nation again last year in Defensive Rushing S&P+, the fourth consecutive season the Tide have ranked in the top three. This year, the push will again be led by last year’s frontline starters, A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, and Jarran Reed, and supported by the unrivaled depth that has truly set Saban’s operation apart: Allen and Robinson were five-star prospects out of high school, as was sophomore Da’Shawn Hand and incoming freshman Daron Payne. The linebackers, led by seniors Reggie Ragland and Denzel Devall, were equally touted, meaning Saban should rarely feel compelled to commit a safety against the run at the expense of defending the pass.
Best Player: Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil, a Florida native, is one of the five-star headliners from the 2013 recruiting class that effectively changed the trajectory of Ole Miss football overnight, and according to pro scouts, he’s the one who stands the best chance of fulfilling that potential as a junior. Although he’s coming off a nasty injury in the Rebels’ Peach Bowl loss to TCU, all signs out of Oxford indicate that Tunsil will be healthy and eligible11 for the upcoming season. Assuming he and his blue-chip classmates will all be off to the next level in 2016, the window for ending the Rebels’ 52-year SEC championship drought may be as wide open in 2015 as it’s going to be for a long time to come.
A domestic violence case involving Tunsil and his stepfather was dismissed earlier this month, and despite an initial investigation by the NCAA, there’s no indication his stepfather’s claim that Tunsil was “riding around with football agents” stands to affect Tunsil’s eligibility.
Biggest Game: Alabama at Georgia. In June, a Las Vegas sportsbook sized up the Crimson Tide’s October 3 trip to Athens as a pick-’em, which was fairly momentous in itself: If that line holds on game day, it will be the first time Alabama has entered a game it wasn’t favored to win at kickoff in more than five years, a streak dating back to the 2009 SEC championship game. For now, that probably says more about Bama’s looming uncertainty at quarterback than it does about any groundswell of confidence in Georgia, which is still sorting out its own QB situation, among other question marks. With a win, though, Georgia can exorcise the demons of the 2008 “Blackout” game and the 2012 SEC championship game, both of which saw Alabama bring UGA’s national ambitions to a screeching halt, and take a dramatic step toward putting the “underachiever” meme to bed.
Bold Prediction: Alabama will become the first repeat SEC champ in nearly 20 years. After assuaging doubts with early victories over Ole Miss and Georgia, the Crimson Tide will fall back to the pack in an October 17 stunner at Texas A&M (turnabout for last year’s 59-0 debacle in Tuscaloosa), only to rebound with six consecutive wins en route to a repeat conference championship and playoff bid.