Every summer, we try to pinpoint the perfect day to get excited for college football.
A prolonged countdown can trigger burnout. Starting the pre-party too close to the season leaves fans scrambling. It’s a tricky exercise.
Fortunately, the calendar obliges. Go ahead and check for yourself. It’s August, y’all. Actual football games will be played this month. Preseason camps are under way around most of the country.
The season is almost here, so consider this permission to start tomahawk-chopping, 8-clapping, hog-calling or whatever gets you pumped for the 148th season of intercollegiate football.
As always, there’s plenty of new things, some familiar ones and some you don’t know that you should know before kickoff. This checklist of season superlatives has it all covered.
Most interesting new coach (Power 5): Tom Herman, Texas
The sport’s hottest coaching prospect since Urban Meyer (Herman’s former boss at Ohio State) takes over at Texas, where everything is bigger except the recent win totals. Herman wants to restore an edge with the Longhorns, and it starts with a defense that endured historic lows last season. Herman will be tested early at USC and then in the Red River game against Oklahoma, also led by a first-year, young-gun coach in Lincoln Riley.
Most interesting new coach (Group of 5): Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic
Already tired of Kiffin mania? Too bad. He remains one of the sport’s most fascinating and polarizing figures, and the 42-year-old’s fourth head-coaching jaunt at a middling Conference USA program will be, if nothing else, entertaining. Kiffin says he has matured after three years with Nick Saban at Alabama, and better understands how to lead a program. We’ll see if Lane being Lane is a thing of the past.
Heisman frontrunner: Sam Darnold, USC
No team and no player ended the 2016 hotter than USC and Darnold, who threw 29 touchdown passes during the Trojans’ nine-game win streak to end the season. The redshirt sophomore has the arm, the accuracy, the pocket mobility and, perhaps more importantly, the maturity to handle soaring expectations. Few would be surprised if he becomes USC’s eighth Heisman winner and then enters the NFL draft.
Other Power 5 Heisman candidates: Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (remember him?), Penn State RB Saquon Barkley, Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough, Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett, LSU RB Derrius Guice, Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph, Washington QB Jake Browning.
Heisman sleeper: Quinton Flowers, South Florida
USF’s schedule likely won’t provide Flowers enough showcase opportunities to make a legitimate Heisman push, but the numbers should be there. Next to Lamar Jackson, there might not be a more dynamic dual-threat quarterback than Flowers, who rushed for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns to go with 24 touchdown passes in 2016. He leads a Bulls team that’s favored to win the American and could go undefeated.
Best self-run preseason Heisman campaign: Oklahoma State punter Zach Sinor
Don’t pity the Fu. Sinor’s signature mustache is only one reason why any Heisman voter should consider him for college football’s top individual honor. As he outlined during Big 12 media days, the Oklahoma State punter is beloved by animals, reviled by opponents, leads the nation in punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and, according to his fancy promotional literature, is “skilled at many sports but especially football.” Strike a pose, young man. #Sinor4Heisman
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) July 19, 2017
Best fan road trips: Texas A&M
The Rose Bowl, The Swamp, Tiger Stadium and The Grove — all in one season. Texas A&M fans can visit the four venues this fall with their beloved Aggies. Kevin Sumlin’s team opens at UCLA, visits Florida in Week 7 and wraps up the regular season in the Bayou. Texas A&M also makes its annual trip to Jerry’s World to face Arkansas. The Aggies finish with road games against Ole Miss and LSU, allowing fans to then compare which spot has college football’s greatest tailgates.
Most interesting new offensive coordinator: Matt Canada, LSU
LSU’s offense needed new blood and a new vision. Canada brings a unique scheme filled with pre-snap movement that gives defenses headaches. Quarterback will be his chief priority this fall and in the coming seasons, as few positions around college football have been mismanaged more. But, as an ACC coach told ESPN, “He hasn’t been scoring points necessarily with the quarterback. With what he does offensively, he creates a lot of problems.”
Most interesting new defensive coordinator: Mike Elko, Notre Dame
If Brian Kelly survives in South Bend, it likely will be because of Elko, whom he hired to upgrade a middling defense. Elko worked wonders with less talent at Wake Forest and brings a smart, streamlined approach to the Irish, who have struggled to generate takeaways and pressure. Notre Dame lost seven games by eight points or less last season, and the defense will need to be the difference this fall.
Playoff favorite: Alabama
Alabama once again enters the season as the team to beat after falling just short in last year’s title game. Much will depend on new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and his ability to develop quarterback Jalen Hurts in the passing game. The defense loses great players in the front seven but has another wave ready to step up. All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick anchors the secondary.
Playoff sleeper: Wisconsin
Wisconsin is the nation’s quintessential very-very-good-but-not-quite-elite program. Since 2004, the Badgers have averaged 9.8 wins despite four different coaches. Can they finally enter the national conversation? The Badgers are clear favorites in the Big Ten West Division, don’t play Ohio State or Penn State during the regular season, and have Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa at home. There are some tricky games, such as Week 3 at BYU, but come December, you might be talking to your kids about undefeated Wisconsin.
Playoff spoiler: NC State
The ACC is swelling with pride after two national championships in four years. The league’s top contenders, Florida State and Clemson, once again figure to compete for the title. But NC State could mess it all up. The Wolfpack outplayed both Clemson and Florida State last year, only to find ways to lose at the end. NC State will have its best team under Dave Doeren, headlined by a ferocious defensive front. There’s urgency here as Doeren likely needs to match or exceed last year’s win total to ensure his safety. Watch out for the Pack.
Favorites to win their Power 5 conference: Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC
All five bluebloods return talent-stocked rosters and starting quarterbacks with experience. USC is the only team in the group that hasn’t won its league recently, but the Trojans could be on the verge of another Pac-12 takeover. The best news here is Alabama and Florida State open the season against each other in Atlanta, while Ohio State and Oklahoma meet the following week in Columbus.
Power 5 conference title sleepers: South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Kansas State, Washington State
The view on Will Muschamp and South Carolina has changed dramatically in a year, thanks largely to the emergence of dynamic young quarterback Jake Bentley. Georgia Tech quietly finished strong last year and should never be counted out in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division. Kansas State has an underrated offense and should ball out for Bill Snyder this fall.
Don’t write off: Florida, Virginia Tech and Colorado
All three teams won their divisions in 2016, yet they aren’t receiving much preseason love. Yes, Florida needs a quarterback, but Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire or the talented Feleipe Franks could give the Gators what they need to complement a gifted defense. Virginia Tech also turns to a new quarterback (Josh Jackson), but Justin Fuente will figure out an offense to work alongside Bud Foster’s always-capable defense. Colorado should be much better on offense this year, and has some promising pieces on defense like cornerback Isaiah Oliver.
Stadium watch: Colorado State Stadium
Some Power 5 fans will be envious of the $ 220 million facility Colorado State opens later this month. CSU’s new stadium features large concourses, 352 luxury suites, an SEC-sized video board and a 10,000-seat student section (nearly one-fourth of the 41,200 capacity). The stadium debuts Aug. 26 when Colorado State hosts Oregon State.
Best new uniforms: UCLA
More teams are donning single-color unis, but few are as sleek as UCLA’s new all-whites from Under Armour. The Bruins maintain tradition with stripes across the shoulders and down the pant legs, and the white jerseys and pants contrast nicely with the gold helmets.
A close look at our new white uniforms.
— UCLA Football (@UCLAFootball) July 15, 2017
Best throwback uniforms: Penn State
Penn State’s classic look is not one to be messed with, unless you’re willing to go even further into the program’s past. The Nittany Lions’ uniforms for their “Generations of Greatness” game Sept. 30 against Indiana do just that, as they honor teams from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They include original block numbers, blue numbers on helmets, white stripes on the sleeves, blue stripes lining the pants and around the socks and … white cleats (yes, you read that right). Sometimes throwback unis flop, but these look pretty nice, and the players are fired up.
The hype is real. 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/Ttm9pnYxJG
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) June 16, 2017
Under-the-radar NFL draft watch
Josh Allen‘s name should be somewhat familiar, as the Wyoming quarterback projects to be a top quarterback prospect in the 2018 NFL draft. Also keep an eye on Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside, who led the FBS with 45 touchdown passes last fall. Other Group of 5 players on the NFL radar include SMU wide receiver Courtland Sutton, Middle Tennessee wide receiver Richie James, Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, UTEP guard Will Hernandez, Massachusetts tight end Adam Breneman and Western Michigan tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. Don’t forget about the FCS, as South Dakota State tandem Jake Wieneke (wide receiver) and Dallas Goedert (tight end) are on the draft boards.
Under-the-radar Power 5 prospects include NC State’s ultra-back Jaylen Samuels; Kansas defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr.; Utah defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei; Virginia safety Quin Blanding; and Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli.
Biggest mystery: Michigan
No team and no coach filled up the offseason quite like Michigan and Jim Harbaugh. But will the Wolverines command the same attention in November? The NFL draft hit Michigan especially hard. The Wolverines return only one starter on defense and have questions at wide receiver and other spots. Harbaugh clearly has things trending up, but he also needs concrete results. Since 2003, Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten outright and beaten Ohio State just once.
Most interesting coaching second act: Ed Orgeron, LSU
He still will ditch his shirt on occasion, but Coach O wants to leave his wild-man image in the past. It’s the past, specifically a 10-25 run at Ole Miss, that Orgeron struggles to outrun, despite successful runs as interim coach at USC and LSU. He now begins his dream job with the Tigers. If he elevates LSU past Alabama and into the national title race, he will become a legend in Cajun country.
Toughest road schedule: Syracuse
Dino Babers’ second Syracuse team might be a lot better than its record. Although the Orange open with three winnable home games — Central Connecticut State, Middle Tennessee and Central Michigan — their road slate is merciless. They face four of the ACC’s five toughest teams away from home — Florida State, Miami, NC State and Louisville — as well as LSU in the Bayou in Week 4. If that’s not bad enough, Syracuse visits LSU and NC State in consecutive weeks, and, after hosting Pitt and defending national champ Clemson, returns to the road for Miami and Florida State.
Most intriguing coach hot seat situation: Butch Jones, Tennessee
Jones is at or near the top of several preseason hot seat lists, despite undoubtedly improving the Tennessee program during his tenure in Knoxville. The Vols have recorded three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 12 years, and consecutive Top 25 finishes for the first time in nine years. But without a title in a winnable SEC East Division, Jones needs to show more for new athletic director John Currie.
Other coaching hot spots to watch: Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Arizona State’s Todd Graham, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, UCLA’s Jim Mora and NC State’s Dave Doeren.
Coaches who can rise to Power 5 jobs
Among current FBS head coaches, look first to the American and, perhaps surprisingly, the Sun Belt. The AAC should continue to be a springboard for coaches, as Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery, UCF’s Scott Frost and SMU’s Chad Morris are on the radar. It may not take long for USF’s Charlie Strong to reappear on the Power 5 radar. Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield, Troy’s Neal Brown and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson are all interesting names coming out of the Sun Belt. Toledo’s Jason Candle is a rising star in the MAC, while Boise State’s Bryan Harsin could become a hot name again with a strong 2017 season.
Among coordinators, interesting names include LSU’s Dave Aranda, Penn State’s Joe Moorhead, Clemson’s Brent Venables, Alabama’s Jeremy Pruitt, USC’s Tee Martin, Ohio State’s Greg Schiano, Miami’s Manny Diaz, TCU’s Sonny Cumbie and Michigan’s Tim Drevno.
Conference under most pressure: Big 12
SEC angst spikes whenever it doesn’t win the national title, but the league still has Alabama and several other teams that could contend if things break right. The Big 12 needs to make the playoff after missing out in two of the first three years. A conference title game should help, but the Big 12 appears to have only two realistic CFP candidates (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State) and must perform better in nonconference matchups. Big 12 teams face Ohio State, USC, Virginia Tech, Pitt and others in September.
Best early season group of games: Week 2
Unlike last year, opening weekend is a little light outside of Alabama-Florida State, but things get cranked up in Week 2. Defending national champion Clemson gets its first major test when Auburn visits Death Valley. New Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley takes his redemption-seeking team into Ohio Stadium. Notre Dame hosts Georgia under the lights, and USC and Stanford meet in a key Pac-12 clash at the Coliseum. The late window brings us the Holy War (BYU-Utah) and Boise State visiting Washington State.
Rivalry streaks to watch
Wisconsin, owner of Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2004, visits Minnesota and first-year coach P.J. Fleck on Nov. 25. … On the same day, Michigan tries to snap a five-game slide against Ohio State when it hosts the Buckeyes. … New Cal coach Justin Wilcox gets a $ 25,000 bonus if the Bears end a seven-game slide in the Big Game against Stanford on Nov. 18 on The Farm. … Cincinnati tries to keep the Victory Bell for the 12th straight year when it visits Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 16. … Kansas State aims for its ninth straight win over Kansas in the Governor’s Cup game Oct. 28 in Lawrence.
Most important transfer: Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
Stidham’s performance this season could merely impact the SEC West race, possibly the CFP race and Gus Malzahn’s status as Auburn coach. No pressure, kid. The quarterback impressed in 2015 at Baylor, and coaches inside and outside the Big 12 expect big things. Malzahn needs more from the quarterback position to get Auburn over the hump in rivalry games (0-8 against Alabama and Georgia since 2013).
Other key quarterback transfers include West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, the former Florida quarterback who finally gets a fresh start, as well as Houston’s Kyle Allen (from Texas A&M); North Carolina’s Brandon Harris (from LSU); Florida’s Malik Zaire (from Notre Dame); Pitt’s Max Browne (from USC); Nebraska’s Tanner Lee (from Tulane) and Arizona State’s Blake Barnett (from Alabama).
On the defensive side, Miami cornerback Dee Delaney, an FCS All-American at The Citadel already on the NFL draft radar, is especially interesting. Other transfer defenders to watch include Oregon tackle Scott Pagano (from Clemson); Tennessee cornerback Shaq Wiggins (from Louisville); Purdue linebacker T.J. McCollum (Western Kentucky); Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson (from Hawaii) and Oklahoma State cornerback Adrian Baker (from Clemson).
Dalvin Cook will be missed in Tallahassee, but Akers is getting Nole Nation excited about the future. The top running back and No. 9 overall player in the 2017 class should be featured in an offense looking for playmakers to surround quarterback Deondre Francois. After an impressive spring, Akers will immediately push for carries, beginning in the opener against Alabama.
Talent hasn’t been the issue in Westwood, and Phillips gives UCLA’s defense an impact playmaker on the edge. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Phillips excels both in coverage and in the pass rush, which UCLA needs following the departure of first-round pick Takkarist McKinley. He joins an exciting young core of defenders as the Bruins try to bounce back from a 4-8 season.
This season marks 20 years since Michigan’s Charles Woodson, a predominantly defensive player, won the Heisman Trophy. … Sept. 30 marks 50 years since the SEC integrated as Kentucky’s Nate Northington made his debut against Ole Miss. … On Nov. 4, Johnson C. Smith University and Livingstone College will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first college football game between black colleges. … Nov. 16 will mark 60 years since Oklahoma’s record 47-game win streak ended in a 7-0 loss to Notre Dame.