Posted in: College Football
It’s almost here. In a little over a month, tailgate traditions will be reborn, stadiums will fill with screaming voices, and college football will be back.
The recent college football conference media days gave a small fix to get us through the rest of the summer. But we’ve once again learned that the sport’s absence (over 6 ½ months already) has made the heart grow fonder.
And with the variety of matchups scheduled for 2018, why wouldn’t it?
In the non-conference slate alone, there are showdowns with playoff consequences spread out all over the nation.
These are games with programs on the rise, mainstays of the sport, and those we’re not really sure about yet. They will feature a star quarterback transfer playing in a timeless rivalry, matchups of some of the most feared defenses in the nation, and plenty of Heisman candidates.
And we’ll be getting several of these best non-conference games in the first week alone.
Here’s the first ten to look forward to over the course of the season. They’re ranked 20th through 11th, with ESPN’s FPI favorite listed below each game.
The top ten will be posted tomorrow, so make sure to join me then.
I’ve seen Clemson-South Carolina too many times. Same with Georgia-Georgia Tech. So instead, I gave the bottom spot of the list to a game that meshes a rare duo of teams.
Oh, and for the first time, we get to see the Herman Edwards experiment in full effect.
Arizona State’s surprising hire at head coach will go up against Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. It’ll be a battle of old-school defensive minds.
Sparty will come in with nine returning starters on the nation’s No. 7 defense of 2017.
Sun Devils’ QB Manny Wilkins will have his hands full and needs to utilize his one major playmaker, N’Keal Harris. If the passing game isn’t working, forget it. Michigan State is too stout in the interior line for ASU to find consistent running lanes.
Expect RB L.J. Scott to get his fair share of carries for the Spartans. But with the Sun Devils sporting three new starting members in a secondary 120th against the pass last year, MSU QB Brian Lewerke could have a coming out party.
Going to Tempe in the heat of early September could wear on Sparty late. But don’t expect one of the most physical teams in the country to get too tired.
FPI: Michigan State 79.3%
If only this game had Lamar Jackson in it.
Unfortunately, the former Louisville Cardinals’ quarterback has moved on to the NFL. Still, Louisville will serve as a good early-season measuring stick for the Crimson Tide.
A more pass-happy Tide offense will likely feast on a defense returning only two starters. The Cardinals’ new coordinator, Brian VanGorder, will be thrown in the fire quickly along with the inexperience at all three levels.
Tua Tagovailoa will be up against an unproven secondary, and the Tide have unprecedented depth behind him at running back.
The Cardinals have some playmakers on the perimeter of their offense as well. Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Seth Dawkins are all high-caliber wideouts. And if there’s one place Alabama is going to be vulnerable, it’s in their secondary early in the year.
It’ll allow Louisville to stick around in the first half. But the Bama RBs will eventually take over with the muscle up front. It’ll swallow up time of possession and knock Louisville’s offense out of any sync they may have found early on.
FPI: Alabama 86.5%
Quarterback Will Grier once pulled off a great comeback against Tennessee while at Florida. Now he finds himself in a rematch as a Mountaineer.
Tennessee isn’t the same as it was then and may not be anywhere close by opening week. They’re still very much undecided at quarterback and lost their top rusher. But that doesn’t mean much considering they were already near the bottom of college football last year in most offensive stats.
West Virginia, however, possesses likely the best receiving group in the college game. David Sills V and Gary Jennings are both top-15 receivers. The former is the lead candidate for the Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver).
Vols’ safeties Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy are a rare duo who could suppress this passing attack over the top. But they’re working with less experience at corner this year. The Vols also have serious questions to still answer on the defensive front.
Grier won’t shred Tennessee left and right. But the Vols are still a long way from keeping up on the scoreboard in this one.
FPI: West Virginia 59.1%
If the Bulldogs are truly the dark horse in the SEC, we’ll get a good indication in the Little Apple.
Manhattan, Kansas will be rocking as coach Bill Snyder and Co. try to minimize the elusiveness of Nick Fitzgerald. The Mississippi State QB is one of the best dual-threat guys in the game.
The Wildcats are a little fresh up the middle of their defense, but this is a Bill Snyder defense after all. Running will always be tough. But Aeris Williams is one of the better backs of the SEC, so they’ll be tested.
The difference might be on the other side of the ball for the Wildcats, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
QBs Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson look like they may both take a considerable amount of snaps. Against a front-four like the one the Bulldogs have, this is risky business. It’s hard for one QB to get into a rhythm against a squad so good, let alone two.
All games might be won in the trenches, but this one especially will. KSU has the best line in their conference. Miss State’s D-Line is anchored by two (Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat) future NFL 1st-round draft picks.
May the best beasts win.
FPI: Mississippi State 69.3%
North Carolina State has a lot of big shoes to fill.
The Wolfpack are replacing a 1,000-yard running back (Nyheim Hines) and their No. 1 playmaker (WR Jalen Samuels). And there’s also that Bradley Chubb guy, who went fifth in the NFL Draft. He’s gone too.
So, when West Virginia continues their tough non-conference schedule with a trip to Raleigh, they will face few of the stars the Wolfpack had last fall. But one just so happens to be one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
That would be Ryan Finley. He’s been a model of consistency and has a pair of well-established receivers. With a 2017 pass defense ranked 90th, the Mountaineers will have to find some answers in their first couple games.
Either way, they won’t be getting the same reprieve they had against Tennessee.
They will, however, be playing an inexperienced linebacking group and a secondary 104th at stopping the pass last season. That’s not going to be good enough for the Wolfpack against the best receiving group in the nation.
NC State will be an ACC dark horse again this year if they can work out kinks at the backend of their D. But it may be too much to expect those results so early against such a good Mountaineer offense.
FPI: NC State 57.6%
A couple years ago, a matchup between these two teams would produce little more than yawns. This year, it offers two defending conference champions and top-10 scoring offenses.
Let the fireworks begin.
UCF is coming off their amazing perfect season. Coach Scott Frost may have moved on to Nebraska, but he leaves many of his offensive weapons behind.
QB McKenzie Milton is easily the AAC’s premier passer, going for over 4,000 yards and 37 touchdown passes in 2017. Their backfield and offensive line are reliable. The receivers can really stretch the field.
But for all the damage the Knights do through the air, don’t be surprised if FAU does just as much on the ground.
RB Devin Singletary rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last year. He was only a sophomore. Acceleration, shiftiness, field vision, he’s got just about every tool you could be looking for at his position.
The Owls and Coach Lane Kiffin, who resurrected his career last season, will give the inexperienced UCF D-line all they can handle. FAU is well-equipped up front once again.
Neither squad was awful defensively last season either. But UCF lost their three best players on that side, and FAU (63rd overall defense in 2017) isn’t of the caliber to stop the Knights.
There will be an explosion of points in this one, and I’ll love every minute of it.
FPI: Central Florida 68.6%
The Chip Kelly era at UCLA will no doubt be an exciting time for college sports in LA. Just don’t expect it to start in week two this season.
Still, UCLA going to Norman, Oklahoma to face off with the Sooners could supply a sneak peek of what might be for the Bruins.
They’ve consistently grabbed top-20 recruiting classes with little to show for them. Kelly had less luck on the recruiting trail while at Oregon, but still put together championship-caliber teams.
We’ll see how his zone-read does against one of few gifted defenses in the Big 12. But Oklahoma is not necessarily dominant at any defensive position. This is despite having a couple of young bright spots at linebacker.
If this were a late-season matchup, there’d be much more intrigue. It looks like Devon Modster will win the QB battle for UCLA. Whether everything’s in-sync with him by week two is unknown. But things certainly won’t be cranking on all cylinders the way they would have under former QB Josh Rosen.
Despite replacing their own NFL first-rounder at QB, Oklahoma still has threats all over the field offensively.
The offensive line is something to behold even with just two returning starters. And Rodney Anderson won’t be giving UCLA’s rush-defense, ranked 129th of 131 last season, any room to breathe.
His ability to gobble up yardage between or outside the tackles will be the difference in this one.
FPI: Oklahoma 87.8%
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is more than acquainted with the Clemson Tigers. He faced them eight times while at Florida State, with a record of 4-4.
That’s not a bad mark against such a powerhouse as the Tigers are. But they got him the last three times. And Fisher doesn’t have the same talent he had in most of those Tallahassee years.
Still, Clemson going into Texas A&M shouldn’t produce the blowout some people are predicting. An early-season bout is sometimes hard to judge.
Yes, the Tigers have the most vicious defensive line in the game. They have two quarterbacks who can lead the offense and return a pair of leading running backs and their top receiver.
But the Aggies have always been sleeping giants. Fisher might finally be the coach to wake them. They’re not particularly weak anywhere but aren’t very proven at any spots either.
Trayveon Williams is their most established player offensively, and he’s going to be running into brick walls all night. If Auburn and Alabama can get sized-up by the Clemson D-line, then Texas A&M will probably get bowled over by it.
Fisher will have a game plan in place to combat Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. But it’s more likely A&M comes out with optimism for the future, and not a victory on the board.
FPI: Clemson 75.7%
There’s a lot of new playmakers for Texas Tech to break-in this year. But they still have the same electric Kliff Kingsbury air raid scheme to turn them loose in.
There’s no telling who will be at quarterback for Texas Tech come opening week. But given Coach Kingsbury’s track record with QBs, there’s no doubt the winner in the position battle will do just fine with the offense.
But they’ll clash with an Ole Miss team with more stability on that side of the ball. And just as much firepower, too.
They have A.J. Brown, who will go in the first round of the draft next year. He’s just one of three wide receivers on this team who could be a No. 1 option at several power-five schools.
Former Rebel QB Shea Patterson may be gone, but Tech will still have a hard task in containing Jordan Ta’amu. He fit in brilliantly with Matt Luke and OC Phil Longo’s offense late last season.
Neither team has recruited well on defense. They both finished outside the top-100 last year on that side of the ball.
This will not be a game of inches. Rather, it could be a game decided by who has the ball last.
FPI: Ole Miss 52.2%
Boise State has long been the perennial power out of the group of five conferences. Nothing will change this season.
But they will face an underrated schedule early, first going to Troy and then traveling to Oklahoma State two weeks later.
Coach Mike Gundy will be lucky to have the kind of offense he had last year at Oklahoma State. They were 2nd in yards and 4th in points with canon-armed Mason Rudolph at quarterback. They lose the QB and three high-caliber receivers.
Boise State catching them early will be for the best. They have NFL talent at QB with Brett Rypien and a 1,000-yard RB, Alexander Mattison. They will be depleted at wide receiver same as the Cowboys, but they have more consistent, reputable weapons across their offense.
Their defense also returns nine starters from a team 17th against the run last season. That will do wonders in countering talented Cowboys running back Justice Hill. He’s the most dependable mainstay from last season.
As good as the Broncos defense is, this is a Mike Gundy offense. There should be points early and often in this one. But there’s more hope in Boise getting the timely stops.
FPI: Oklahoma State 74.4%