Clemson, Bama headline Lindy’s Top 25 Staff

August 24, 2018 at 8:00 am.


Dec 2, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) celebrates with defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) after scoring a touchdown a touchdown in the first quarter in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 2, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) celebrates with defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) after scoring a touchdown a touchdown in the first quarter in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

1. Clemson

The Tigers lost to Alabama on Jan. 2 when it mattered — in the College Football Playoff semifinal — and then won something way more mythical a couple of weeks later. When the deadline passed to declare for the NFL Draft, there were three Clemson defensive linemen curiously absent from the league’s official list. And just like that, the Tigers won the offseason. We were sold. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant went against the grain and returned to school to join forces again with not-so-little brother Dexter Lawrence, giving the Tigers the biggest bullies along the defensive line in college football. In addition to rag-dolling offensive linemen and stealing quarterbacks’ lunch money, you know what else these guys do well? Drop into coverage, allowing Clemson to unleash its linebackers. Consider, too, that these guys have that added som-som that fueled Alabama in 2017. So, we say this will be the third year in a row that the national champion will be the team that lost the previous year’s Alabama-Clemson game.

THE GOOD NEWS: Clemson has a lot of gravy to pour over that defensive-line beef — talented quarterbacks, tag-team running backs in Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, All-American left tackle Mitch Hyatt, productive linebackers, and a coach who knows how to win it all. Some roadies hold a reasonable degree of difficulty — Texas A&M, Georgia Tech and Florida State — but a 12-0 regular season is right in the Tigers’ wheelhouse.

THE BAD NEWS: It took the very best of an elite quarterback, Deshaun Watson, to barely take down Alabama for the 2016 national title, and Kelly Bryant isn’t Deshaun Watson. He might not even be the starter at some point this season, if true freshman Trevor Lawrence has anything to say about it. Beyond getting the right kind of play at quarterback, let’s toss in shaky secondary depth as a potential hurdle.

OUR CALL: You see where this is headed, right? Clemson-Alabama, for the fourth dang time in the playoff. And with that defensive line that looks more like Alabama than Alabama’s, Dabo Swinney will get his second ring while Nick Saban will somehow have to make do with his six.



The Crimson Tide is immune to all the college football super-bugs. Early entries into the NFL Draft. Departed All-Americans.  A gutted coaching staff. Quarterback controversies. Whatever happens,  Alabama barely gets the sniffles. It’s business as usual and nothing to worry about in 2018, which you could have already guessed, so let’s just drop a stat on you: Alabama has ranked in the national Top 10 in rushing defense and scoring defense in each of the past 10 years. Now that’s the picture of health.

THE GOOD NEWS: Alabama figures to unveil Tua Tagovailoa version 1.1 after the quarterback saved the day in the national title game as a true freshman. While the QB position intrigues, five-star recruits keep ascending the depth chart, like Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses taking over as starlets at inside linebacker.

THE BAD NEWS: The secondary was wiped out by early departures and graduation; the wide receivers are young, and proven depth on the unendingly stout defensive line isn’t what it often is at Alabama. The offense has its third coordinator in three years; the defense has its third coordinator in four years. The loss of talented edge rusher/outside linebacker Terrell Lewis (ACL) during offseason training was a blow.

OUR CALL: This season probably won’t come down to one game, because Alabama still has that built-in margin of error to suffer a loss, not win the SEC West, and still wreak terror in the postseason.



The page is being turned in Columbus as the J.T. Barrett era is finished. What’s next for the Big Ten’s superpower? The Buckeyes were pretty darn good with Barrett at the helm, winning the 2014 national title, making the playoffs on another occasion and winning two Big Ten crowns. Last year was solid, winning the Big Ten en route to a 12-win season with a victory over USC in the Cotton Bowl. If not for a confounding 55-24 loss at Iowa, Ohio State likely would have reached the playoff. Time to start writing a new chapter.

THE GOOD NEWS: This is Ohio State, where five-star recruits fall off trees and onto the depth chart. Urban Meyer has an embarrassment of riches. The defensive line makes NFL scouts drool. RB JK Dobbins, WR Parris Campbell … the offense teems with playmakers.

THE BAD NEWS: How does Meyer and his team respond to the offseason black eye surrounding the domestic abuse by former wide receivers coach Zach Smith that resulted in the team’s head coach being suspended for three games? How does the staff replace Barrett? (Hint: We think the QB spot will work out just fine.) More air needs to be pumped into what has been an inconsistent vertical passing game. The linebacking unit and secondary have something to prove. Again, how do the Buckeyes respond to all the offseason storm clouds?

OUR CALL: A motivated Ohio State team is a dangerous Ohio State team. Look for the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten — again — and earn the playoff spot they so narrowly missed last season.



The words “Tua” and “Tagovailoa” have been ringing in the ears of the Bulldogs all offseason, a condition only the start of a new — and highly promising — season can cure. Is this program to stay among the heaviest hitters? Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm has obvious NFL first-round potential, yet he is being pushed hard by five-star freshman Justin Fields — and that, friends, is the kind of “problem” any team in the country would love to have. A return to the SEC title game is the baseline of what would be acceptable.

THE GOOD NEWS: D’Andre Swift is No. 1 in another mouth-wateringly good stable of running backs; the receiver group is dynamic; the offensive line is experienced and the defense should more than hold its own at every level. And don’t forget America’s kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship.

THE BAD NEWS: As with every playoff team, there are personnel losses that sting. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be remembered among the SEC’s greatest running back duos. LB Roquan Smith was the straw that stirred the drink.

OUR CALL: Can Georgia be even better this season? Yes — but missing Alabama again in the league title game is a lot to hope for.



When you think of Wisconsin, you think of brats, cheese, and punch-in-the-nose football. The Badgers have socked it to the Big Ten West, winning back-to-back division titles and are coming off that historic 13-1 season. The only things missing from Paul Chryst’s glowing resume: a Big Ten title and playoff berth. And those two goals may be just around the corner. Pass the spicy mustard.

THE GOOD NEWS: This could be one of the top offenses not just in the Big Ten … but in America. The line is ready to maul and brawl so BMOC Jonathan Taylor can build on what was a sensational debut. Pencil in QB Alex Hornibrook for a huge junior season throwing to a deluxe set of receivers that should be fine despite losing starting wideout Quintez Cephus (left team due to off-field incident) for the year and heavy contributor Danny Davis (suspension) for two games.

THE BAD NEWS: Defense has been the program’s calling card of late. But the unit lost seven starters, including three in the secondary. Does star coordinator Jim Leonhard’s defense still have the big bite after leading the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense? The loss of Cephus stings.

OUR CALL: Wisconsin is ready to pounce on its first Big Ten title since 2012 behind an offense with the run-pass balance that should be able to cover for a defense that may need time to mature.



The Sooners have some serious momentum going, with two playoff trips and three straight Big 12 titles. The transition from Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley was truly seamless, and Riley has added a recruiting kick. An overtime loss to Georgia in the Rose Bowl (and Georgia’s OT loss to Alabama) shows how close the Sooners are.

THE GOOD NEWS: The backfield tandem of Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon — 1,905 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns last year — returns behind a stacked offensive line. Bobby Evans moves to left tackle and looks like a star in waiting.

THE BAD NEWS: Well, the Heisman Trophy winner needs to be replaced. Baker Mayfield was the face of the Sooners for three years, but he’s gone. OU must also replace leading pass-catcher Mark Andrews, two-time All-American LT Orlando Brown, and sack artist Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. That’s a handful.

OUR CALL: Now that Mayfield has taken his famous shoulder chip to the NFL, the Big 12 could be ripped from the Sooners’ grasp. But somebody is going to have to actually do it. West Virginia, that knock you hear is opportunity. But until proven otherwise, the Big 12’s flag remains planted firmly in Norman.


  1. Miami

Mark Richt is going without the goatee these days, and that just plain worries us. What was cooler than the Richt goatee as he skippered the Hurricanes to a 10-0 start last season? It’s possible that the man’s facial hair isn’t a major factor heading into 2018, and it’s undeniable that Miami is pointed in a return-to-glory direction. Let’s table the goatee issue for now.

THE GOOD NEWS: This team is exciting in pairs — as in, pass rushers Joe Jackson and Jonathan Garvin, safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine, and running backs Travis Homer and Lorenzo Lingard. There is talent all over the roster, and much of it — despite talk about whether or not he’ll be able to keep his starting job — comes from quarterback Malik Rosier.

THE BAD NEWS: Did we mention Richt’s shaving decisions? Maybe they don’t matter one bit. The season opener against LSU will be a rugged test, to say the least, and the November back-to-back at Georgia Tech and at Virginia Tech could amount to a playoff undoing. We all still remember how last season ended, right?

OUR CALL: Miami’s ascension under Richt seems to be of the sticky variety and helps assert the ACC’s case in the best-of-the-conferences debate. Just saying, get used to seeing the ‘Canes taking up residence in this neighborhood.



Oh, how the Pac-12 needs the Huskies. The L.A. schools are resetting their quarterbacks. The Arizona schools rebooted their coaches. Washington State takes a step back. Oregon is still climbing back. We’re going to file Stanford under “dang good” rather than “national title contender.” So, how ‘bout it, Chris Petersen? The Pac-12’s best coach — keen recruiting eye, player development, Xs and Os — needs to lead the way to the College Football Playoff.

THE GOOD NEWS: QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin are fourth-year starters who helped lead the Huskies to a national semifinal game as sophomores. But the Huskies’ backbone remains the defense, strong at every level, especially with an all-star cast at defensive back, led by Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy.

THE BAD NEWS: Can’t help but miss freakishly athletic DT Vita Vea as a force in the middle, although Greg Gaines is another good one. That’s the way it is. The Huskies have no major roster deficiencies, helped by the return from injuries of OT Trey Adams and WR Chico McClatcher.

OUR CALL: The strength-of-schedule issue will be solved in the opener with a game against Auburn in Atlanta. But with a loss, playoff dreams (probably) end early.



It’s almost all warm-up until November There was a point last season — oh, maybe around the time the Tigers were beating the daylights out of Georgia and Alabama — when it seemed to dawn on the football world all at once that a two-loss team had to be the best squad in the land. But then came two more losses, to Georgia in the SEC title game and to UCF in the Peach Bowl, and things looked so very different. Will the real Auburn please stand up?

THE GOOD NEWS: Jarrett Stidham has a great chance to put together the best season by a Tigers quarterback since Cam Newton. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is just about as promising as it gets. And the schedule provides multiple opportunities for epic wins.

THE BAD NEWS: Can everybody just not talk about November until, you know, November? Because it brings trips to Georgia and Alabama, and, well, you don’t need us to tell you how gnarly that could get. The opener against Washington in Atlanta is another monstrous test. Holes have to be filled on the offensive line and at running back.

OUR CALL: Optimistically, the schedule is an opportunity. But it also might be very bad news.



This time last year, it was doom and gloom for Michigan State football. Now? Sunny days are ahead. Engineering the biggest single-season improvement (from three to 10 wins) in school annals will do that. Making that reversal all the more remarkable: 67 percent of the roster was made up of freshmen and sophomores. The defense was the biggest surprise in 2017, allowing only 297.6 yards a game and just 95.3 on the ground.

THE GOOD NEWS: The emergence of QB Brian Lewerke was stunning last season. Mark Dantonio has almost every starter back on offense and defense. Oh, and the kicker and punter also return. The Spartans are loaded with no glaring weakness.

THE BAD NEWS: Not much. The backup quarterback spot is murky and depth has to be developed at running back. The offensive line needs to develop a consistent push in the ground game — MSU was just seventh in the Big Ten in rushing last season (167.8 ypg).

OUR CALL: Michigan State won’t sneak up on anyone this year. It won’t need to with all of this talent and mojo, along with the ever-present chip on the shoulder that defines this program. Winning the East is a very real possibility.



James Franklin is the Pied Piper. Come, follow him to big things — perhaps even a playoff berth. How dominating have the Nittany Lions been? Since early in 2016, they are 20-3. Penn State had one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation last season (41.1 points and 460.3 yards per game). The defense also did its part, allowing 16.5 points and 329.5 yards a game. It’s a happy tune in State College.

THE GOOD NEWS: RB Saquon Barkley is gone, but don’t weep for these Nittanies. Plenty of firepower remains. Juwan Johnson is a freaky good wideout, while the line will be the best in years. And meet Miles Sanders, the heir to Barkley’s throne. Best of all, triggerman Trace McSorley is back to lead the charge — and make a Heisman run of his own.

THE BAD NEWS: The defense has taken some hits, which wiped out the entire secondary. The offense also lost its play-caller, as coordinator Joe Moorhead took over the Mississippi State program. Franklin promoted Ricky Rahne to push the buttons. Fingers are crossed.

OUR CALL: A high-powered offense should cover for a defense that may take a bit to develop. Don’t be shocked if this team is in Indianapolis playing for the Big Ten title.



The Irish were in the playoff hunt until they got blasted at Miami last November, which was merely the latest reminder that this has not really been an elite program for a long time. Once again, Brian Kelly has a new coordinator — Clark Lea on defense — and it is Lea’s unit that will have to lead the way to the next level.

THE GOOD NEWS: Nearly everyone who was anyone on last season’s D is back in the fold, no one casting a more menacing shadow than Jerry Tillery up front. CB Julian Love is a straight-up star, and linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney are rock steady. QB Brandon Wimbush has the tools to take the next step. The kicking game is a major plus.

THE BAD NEWS: Gone is a left side of the offensive line — guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey — that was one of the school’s best in decades. And then there’s always this question: Can the Irish handle a schedule that includes Michigan, Stanford and Florida State at home, and Virginia Tech and USC on the road?

OUR CALL: Kelly’s legacy could ride on whether or not this team lives up to expectations. Another 10-win campaign certainly would see to that.



Cardinal coach David Shaw typically gets the most out of his talent, which actually makes last season’s 9-5 mark a poor showing by his standards. Stanford has finished in the top 12 of the AP poll in five of his seven seasons, with five Pac-12 North titles. There is little reason to think this season won’t be right back in that high-class neighborhood.

THE GOOD NEWS: Good luck, defenses. Do what you can to stop Bryce Love from getting behind you, because whatever you tried last season didn’t work, even when he had only one healthy ankle. Sophomore K.J. Costello, brought along slowly last season, showed enough promise to force Keller Chryst to jump to Tennessee. Costello is the season-long starter Stanford needs.

THE BAD NEWS: Stanford’s top three defenders from last season’s just-OK defense — DT Harrison Phillips, S Justin Reid and CB Quenton Meeks — are off to the NFL. The Cardinal usually does a nice job of patching holes, but the ceiling for the 2018 defense is somewhere below greatness.

OUR CALL: By the end of the September schedule — San Diego State, USC, at Oregon, at Notre Dame — we should know exactly how good this call is … or isn’t.



Boise State has won 30 games in the past three seasons but hasn’t been able to claim the Group of 5’s spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game since 2014. This is starting to look like one of those special big bowl seasons for the Broncos, who are coming off a Mountain West championship and a Las Vegas Bowl victory against Oregon, with a senior quarterback, 18 returning starters … and a defense with all kinds of stopping power.

THE GOOD NEWS: Brett Rypien is still around, folks. He has 9,876 career passing yards, the most among current quarterbacks in the FBS. He’ll get ample assistance from running back Alexander Mattison and a veteran O-line. Ten of the top 11 tacklers return to a defense that forced 26 turnovers.

THE BAD NEWS: The one key defender not returning is NFL early entry linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. On offense, Rypien will break in a new-look cast of pass-catchers, although that is not expected to be huge deal. What is huge: A game at Oklahoma State on Sept. 15.

OUR CALL: We can see this one clearly: Boise State ends the season with its traditional Statue of Liberty play in its fourth Fiesta Bowl since the 2006 season.



If anyone’s going to challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy this year, it’s WVU. The Mountaineers are the only team in the league to bring back last year’s full-time starting quarterback … and this conference is won by standout QBs. Three of last year’s top four receivers — including David Sills V and his nation-leading 18 touchdown catches — are back as targets.

THE GOOD NEWS: Will Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 TDs in 10-plus games last season before a broken finger sidelined him. He has a solid claim to preseason All-American honors, and he’s happy about the four starters back on the offensive line and star power at wideout.

THE BAD NEWS: Leading rusher Justin Crawford (1,061 yards) is gone, and so are three of the top seven tacklers on defense, including S Kyzir White and both cornerbacks. For a defense that ranked last in the Big 12 by allowing 204 rushing yards per game, the best way to improve might be some new blood — like UCLA grad transfer corner Denzel Fisher.

OUR CALL: Coach Dana Holgorsen has produced his share of explosive offenses, and this unit will score. Defenses aren’t the be-all in the Big 12, so question marks and concerns on defense can be mitigated by great quarterback play.



Wake Forest, Duke, Syracuse, Delaware State, Florida, Louisiana-Monroe, Southern Miss — that’s the entire list of opponents the Seminoles beat in 2017, and if you’re not impressed, well, of course you’re not. But new coach Willie Taggart, a lifelong fan of FSU, has arrived to change the narrative. His fi rst go-round won’t be easy.

THE GOOD NEWS: There’s a pair of lockdown cornerbacks in Stanford Samuels III and Levonta Taylor, and a strong pair of pass rushers in Brian Burns and Joshua Kaindoh — quality tools new coordinator Harlon Barnett can build with. And whichever quarterback wins the lead role, Deondre Francois or James Blackman will bring experience to bear.

THE BAD NEWS: Once upon a time, FSU offensive lines weren’t sieves. Will this be another season of QBs running for their very lives? The ‘Noles seem to have lacked the scariness factor for opponents the past couple of seasons, which led to a few murmurs about Jimbo Fisher’s timing to leave for Texas A&M.

OUR CALL: It’s a hugely important transition year. Taggart seems to be built for this sort of thing. The season opener at home against Virginia Tech could be mighty telling.



If Justin Fuente is the game-changing coach Virginia Tech believed it hired prior to the 2016 season, we’ll see why in 2018. Few teams have more key players to replace than the Hokies, which invites speculation that Year 3 under Fuente could be a real bummer. Still, there are so many wins waiting for the Hokies in their schedule (they can’t win fewer than 9), they don’t have to shock Clemson (or even Miami) to make a move up the Top 25.

THE GOOD NEWS: The Josh Jackson who quarterbacked his team to a 7-1 start last season is back and, one would hope, ready to spray the ball all around the field. He has enough receiving talent surrounding him to make Fuente’s passing game sing. And it’s more than a little nice to have a defensive coordinator like Bud Foster to lean on.

THE BAD NEWS: The run game left a lot to be desired last season, and that could be the case again with an offensive line situation that’s jumbled. Who’s the next Tremaine Edmunds on defense? Who’s the next Tim Settle? Will the Hokies find a capable replacement for starting safety Mook Reynolds and rangy cornerback Adonis Alexander?  Both were expected to be senior starters on the Virginia Tech defense, but they are no longer on the team due to off-field incidents.

OUR CALL: They beat up on the Bill & Marys, Old Doms, ECUs and Dukes, but after the cupcakes are eaten, the Hokies better be ready to bow up.



There were snarky Tweets, satellite camp invasions, and plenty of blustery bombast in between, but Jim Harbaugh has so far been more style than substance. Three years in, Harbaugh’s trophy case remains empty. He is champion of the offseason. The real season? Not so much. Less glare, more action. And how about beating Ohio State for once?

THE GOOD NEWS: Once again, the defense should be air-tight with only two 2017 starters gone. Last season, the Wolverines pass defense allowed a national-low 150 yards a game, and only 18.8 points a game.

THE BAD NEWS: The offensive malaise is well-documented. Pushing around Rutgers is one thing. Pushing around Ohio State is another. This program hasn’t measured up on the offensive line for years. And quarterback play continues to confound. The hope: Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who could be just what the listing offense needs.

OUR CALL: Too many questions loom on offense for Michigan to claim (even challenge?) for the East division title. So, it looks like 14 years and counting since the Wolverines last won a Big Ten championship (2004). That sound you hear? It’s the clock ticking louder for Harbaugh.


  1. USC

The door has slammed shut on the Sam Darnold era. While USC cashed two tickets to major bowls (Rose, Cotton) and last season won its first Pac-12 title since the Pete Carroll era (!), it somehow feels like a missed opportunity. If only Darnold had used one more of his two seasons of eligibility, USC would find itself within range of all the big prizes in 2018. Trojans fans, still waiting to be kissed by the College Football Playoff, have to keep puckering up until at least 2019.

THE GOOD NEWS: Skill. Speed. USC still has it. The renewable energy is seen on offense with sophomores like RB Stephen Carr and WR Tyler Vaughns. The defense remains the best in the Pac-12 South. Yeah, that’s a low bar. But we really do mean it as a compliment.

THE BAD NEWS: No quarterback distinguished himself in the spring, which leaves incoming true freshman J.T. Daniels very much in play in fall camp. Maybe he’ll end up being like 2016 Jalen Hurts or 2017 Jake Fromm … or maybe it’s just best to temper expectations and see how it all shakes out.

OUR CALL: Given the uncertainty at QB, getting back to the Pac-12 title game isn’t a slam dunk. Road games at Utah and Arizona in division play could be the difference.


  1. Mississippi State

Someday, we may look back at the Dan Mullen era and marvel at how competitive he kept the Bulldogs over eight consecutive seasons ending in bowl appearances. Isn’t Starkville supposed to be one of the hardest places to win in the SEC? New coach Joe Moorhead arrives from Penn State, where he coordinated some of the best offenses in Nittany Lions history. New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop gets to put his spin on a unit that ranked in the top 10 nationally in fewest yards allowed.

THE GOOD NEWS: Four offensive line starters are back to protect — and pave the way for — terrific QB Nick Fitzgerald. The defensive line, led by prime-time disruptor Jeffery Simmons, is a clear strength, too. Nowhere is the line of scrimmage more hotly contested than in the SEC, and the Bulldogs should be in fi ne stead.

THE BAD NEWS: A shame that Moorhead couldn’t convince Saquon Barkley to forget about the NFL, move to Starkville and play college football forever. But the Bulldogs will soldier on. The road schedule begins with a tricky visit to Kansas State and ends with Alabama and Ole Miss.

OUR CALL: The roster is rich in experience and potential. A good bowl destination awaits as Moorhead and his staff work to point their offense on an upward trajectory.


  1. TCU

Gary Patterson got his team to the Big 12 Championship Game last year, but they were overmatched by Oklahoma. That team relied on good defense, a consistent running game and solid play from QB Kenny Hill, but Hill is gone, almost half the run game has departed and the defense is rebuilding.

THE GOOD NEWS: Shawn Robinson, Patterson’s highest-rated recruit, is still cleaning a few things up as a passer, but his athletic ability reminds some of Trevone Boykin. JC transfer Anthony McKinney had a good spring and may be the answer anchoring an inexperienced offensive line.

THE BAD NEWS: Four of the offensive line starters from last year’s Big 12 Championship Game have moved on, so there will be a transition. The defense also has been gutted with the departures of DBs Ranthony Texada and Nick Orr, sack man Mat Boesen and tackle machine Travin Howard.

OUR CALL: Though this year’s unit may take a step back, we know TCU’s defense will be good by Big 12 standards. Running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua will carry the ground game, but the key will be how quickly Robinson and that line of his progresses.


  1. Oregon

After Willie Taggart’s layover in Eugene, the Ducks — the flashiest program in the Pac-12 — made the least sexy hire of the offseason. UCLA brought in Chip Kelly; Arizona State imported an ESPN analyst; Arizona landed a former SEC coach and at least Oregon State hired a popular alum. The new head Duck is (merely) promoted co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who might turn out to be miscast on the West Coast … but we mostly think this was a sneaky-good hire.

THE GOOD NEWS: The Ducks were 6-1 with QB Justin Herbert in the regular season, averaging 52.1 points per game. Without him … uh, not so much. For preseason purposes, we’re fi guratively wrapping Herbert in all the bubble wrap in Eugene and saying he plays all 13 games.

THE BAD NEWS: Young corners could stall the significant improvement made last season under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Bell-cow RB Royce Freeman is gone. There’s no guarantee sophomore backup QB Braxton Burmeister or freshman Tyler Shough will be ready to step in, if needed.

OUR CALL: The days of double-digit win totals, top 10 poll fi nishes and national title game appearances aren’t back yet. But the Ducks won’t have another 11-14 two-year stretch.


  1. UCF

We forgive you, Josh Heupel. Yes, we’re saying right now that Heupel’s first Golden Knights squad doesn’t have to go undefeated — and claim a (really damn ridiculous) national championship — for the 2018 season to be a success. Yet the program has every reason, personnel- and schedule-wise, to stay in the national conversation. So, yeah, there’s some pressure in Year 1 after Scott Frost.

THE GOOD NEWS: It begins with QB McKenzie Milton, a record-setting passer at the school who heaved the pill for nearly 3,800 yards and a natty 35 touchdowns in 2017. Protected well up front, Milton could play his way into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

THE BAD NEWS: The back-to-back against North Carolina (away) and Florida Atlantic in September will be a heavy test for the new coaching staff. And we have to look at a defense that lost Shaquem Griffin — such an inspirational player — and other key guys. It’s always hard to recreate the magic of the kind of season that seems to come once in a lifetime.

OUR CALL: Heupel should be able to lead the Knights to double-digit wins, but another spotless campaign? It smacks of the unthinkable, or at least the unusual. The Group of Five watches with tremendous interest.


  1. South Carolina

The Gamecocks could have fallen apart last season after an early loss at home to Kentucky, and many fi gured they would. When the dust settled, they had nine wins — better than advertised, no doubt — including a nice one over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The overall effort boosted coach Will Muschamp’s reputation and allowed positive vibes to settle on Columbia.

THE GOOD NEWS: There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be one of the better passing offenses in the SEC. Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel are top receiving weapons for QB Jake Bentley. Muschamp has made adjustments within his offensive staff and may finally have an offense that’ll make folks stop asking, “Why doesn’t Muschamp ever have an offense?”

THE BAD NEWS: The defense moves on without tackling machine Skai Moore, who was such a productive and important figure within the program that it makes one wonder if this one loss will feel like two or three. Will field goal tries be an adventure of the un-fun variety again?

OUR CALL: It would be ironic if a Muschamp team became better on offense than on defense, but that could be what we’re looking at here. At least the schedule is relatively friendly.


  1. Georgia Tech

Let’s begin with the assumption that Paul Johnson has this coaching job for as long as he wants it, because it sure seems that way. Johnson’s time in Atlanta has been marked in an alternating good-year, bad-year sort of way, and guess what? A good year is up in the rotation. Last season’s team missed out on a bowl, which a hurricaned-out game and a brutal schedule sure didn’t make any less likely to happen.

THE GOOD NEWS: QB TaQuon Marshall sure can run the option. Both he and KirVonte Benson were 1,000-yard rushers, and they’re back to kick things up a notch. When the Jackets are rolling, their run game is crushing foes. Changing defensive coordinators, with Ted Roof out and Nate Woody in, had to happen.

THE BAD NEWS: QB TaQuon Marshall sure can’t throw the ball. At least, he couldn’t — at a comical level — a year ago. Is there anyone who can catch the ball in the house? Ricky Jeune, who only seemed to catch every completed Marshall pass in 2017, is gone. The kicking game remains a huge concern, too.

OUR CALL: We’re betting on the running game, but you probably figured that out already. It should be just uncontainable enough for the Jackets to surprise a lot of people.