16 biggest questions heading into 2017 college football season

Jim Harbaugh Michigan football

The opening weekend in college football featured two ranked squads, but nearly every other team is beginning the final preparations for the 2017 season.

Despite our greatest attempts and months of predictions, however, we cannot know everything about the upcoming campaign. Not only will answers to our biggest questions will be revealed soon, they will shape the year.

These resolutions will likely have the largest impacts on which four teams eventually earn a College Football Playoff berth.

How disadvantaged will the FSU vs. Alabama loser be?

This is a terrific season-opening game. Ranked third and first in the preseason AP Top 25, respectively, Florida State and Alabama are ready to clash in Atlanta. But we’ve spent so much time thinking about the winner; what happens to the loser? If — and this is a crucial if — the game is tight, will the College Football Playoff committee essentially overlook a loss when November comes around? The conversation won’t really exist if that team finishes 11-1 anyway and then wins the conference, but would a two-loss regular season doom the ‘Noles or Crimson Tide despite falling to a premier nonconference opponent?

Should we believe the Georgia hype?

Jacob Eason

Given the terrible knee injury that ended Nick Chubb’s sophomore year, it was commonly accepted the running back would leave for the NFL after the 2016 season. However, he elected to return, and so did running back Sony Michel, defensive end Lorenzo Carter and linebacker Davin Bellamy. Georgia already would’ve been a popular offseason team thanks to quarterback Jacob Eason, and the return of Chubb and Co. solidified the attention. The program is looking for its first SEC East title since 2012, but the season may be considered a failure if Kirby Smart can’t make that happen.

Will Texas be a national thorn?

Since becoming an offensive coordinator at Texas State in 2005, Tom Herman has quickly elevated his program at every stop. Although history very clearly suggests the trend should continue and Texas has many of the right pieces to succeed, expectations should be tempered. Still, the Longhorns travel to USC in mid-September and clash with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on consecutive October weekends. Texas has a wonderful opportunity to disrupt Playoff projections and a coach who thrived at Houston in the underdog role. Will the ‘Horns pull off an upset?

How quickly will Florida figure out its quarterback?

In the spring, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks looked like the obvious choice. Then, Malik Zaire transferred from Notre Dame. And somewhat surprisingly, Luke Del Rio has stayed in the discussion after a return from injury. According to Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, Gators coach Jim McElwain is considering using all three in the opener against Michigan. That’s certainly not an ideal situation, but a loss to the Wolverines isn’t a major problem unless you think Florida is actually a CFP contender, which is unlikely. Beginning Sep. 16 vs. Tennessee, though, the Gators play eight straight SEC games. They need to figure it out by then.

Can Michigan deal with massive turnover?

Jim Harbaugh has done a superb job since returning to his alma mater, but the upcoming season will be his greatest challenge yet. The Wolverines had 11 players, including eight defenders, selected in the 2017 NFL draft. The starting lineup will be young, but there isn’t a lack of talent and the coaching staff is excellent. If Michigan dispatches Florida in the opener, the schedule opens up nicely to the point that Harbaugh’s club should be 6-0 entering a showdown with Penn State. That’s when the major tests begin. Will the new-look Wolverines be prepared for a stretch run that also includes Wisconsin and Ohio State?

Should we believe in Penn State and USC?

Penn State and USC, who met in the 2017 Rose Bowl, were the undisputed winners of the offseason. The programs have been regularly picked in College Football Playoff predictions and each boast one of the nation’s best players in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Sam Darnold, respectively. But the attention overshadowed potential flaws, too. Neither offensive line is a sure thing, Penn State may struggle in pass coverage and USC’s receiving corps lacks experience. Rarely does a “perfect” team emerge, so having a couple of weaknesses isn’t a disaster. Not playing up to expectations can strain a team’s ability to stick together, however.

Will the Big 12 Championship Game ruin a Playoff team?

Money talks. But in a twist of self-inflicted irony, it also may create serious problems for the Big 12. Despite playing a complete round-robin schedule, the conference decided to bring back a conference championship game. The positive spin is that two teams have a final chance to record a quality win. On the negative side, the league could have a clear and obvious champion. What if, say, Oklahoma school goes 12-0, then falls in Dallas to an Oklahoma State team with two Big 12 losses? Does that eliminate the Sooners from the Playoff? Is that enough to send the Pokes into the championship tournament? The title game could be problematic for the Big 12.

Who will be the Heisman finalists?

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson returns after hoisting the hardware in 2016. Between a slow finish to the season and considerable losses in his supporting cast, though, he’s not the favorite to win. That distinction goes to Darnold, per OddsShark, with Barkley, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Jackson not far behind. Alabama has a pair of possible finalists in quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Bo Scarbrough, while LSU running back Derrius Guice has earned a place in the discussion. It’s a strong preseason field. Will a surprise contender emerge from the rest of the pack?

Will Ohio State recover from 2016’s disheartening finish?

“Ohio State is not used to this. I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this. That’s not going to happen again,” Urban Meyer said after the 31-0 loss to Clemson in the national semifinals last season, per Bill Landis of Cleveland.com. About nine months later, the redemption tour begins for the Buckeyes. Most of the attention will be on Barrett, who struggled down the stretch in 2016. The passing game was essentially nonexistent during Ohio State’s final three games, but the hope in Columbus is another year of development combined with Kevin Wilson’s arrival won’t let that happen again. The challenge is making that hope a reality.

Can Auburn or LSU dethrone Alabama?

You might not believe this, but Alabama is the clear favorite to win the national championship, according to OddsShark. Everyone associated with Auburn and LSU — coaches, fans, players, etc. — must be tired of hearing that. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham has brought renewed excitement to the Plains, and Ed Orgeron seems like the ideal coach in Baton Rouge. Will either of those points translate to the ultimate goal? You know, beating Alabama. In the last five years, the schools are a combined 1-9 with the lone victory being Auburn’s memorable Kick-Six. For Auburn and LSU especially, the road to Atlanta runs through Nick Saban and Alabama.

Will a first-year quarterback help Clemson repeat?

Deshaun Watson left Clemson as a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and a national champion. At least to begin the campaign, the torch has been passed to Kelly Bryant. And within five weeks, the first-year starter should have presented a clear idea of whether the Tigers are a real contender. They host Auburn, travel to Louisville and head to Virginia Tech before the end of September. Should Clemson escape unscathed, back-to-back games against North Carolina State and Florida State in November will await. That’s a nasty schedule for Bryant and the defending champs. Is he ready?

Are we overlooking Washington?

Remember how Washington made the College Football Playoff last season? It might be a surprising fact to recall, considering USC dominated the headlines during the summer. But Chris Petersen’s team will be a national threat again. And the schedule, well, it can hardly get more favorable to start. The Dawgs have a breezy nonconference slate before opening Pac-12 play at Colorado. Win there, and UW should cruise to 7-0. The toughest tests come after an October bye, but the Huskies get UCLA, Oregon, Utah and Washington State at home. Only Stanford is on the road. Don’t be surprised when Washington is a top-five team in November.

If any, which big-name coach gets fired first?

Kevin Sumlin Texas A&M

Hot seats across the nation are about to get warmer. The biggest names to watch are Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Butch Jones (Tennessee). Patience is running in short supply for Kelly, who led the Irish to a 4-8 finish in 2016. A seven-win season without a marquee victory could end his Notre Dame tenure, while his SEC counterparts can’t afford less. Since 2013, Sumlin’s teams have gone a combined 3-9 against conference opponents in November. And Jones, despite consecutive nine-win years, hasn’t led the Vols to an appearance in the SEC Championship Game. The final month of the regular season may be rumor central.

Which Group of Five team stands out?

In 2016, Western Michigan soared to an undefeated regular season and unquestionably deserved the New Year’s Six bowl berth. South Florida is the early favorite to represent the Group of Five thanks to dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers, but the American Athletic Conference has other quality teams like Houston and Memphis. Elsewhere, Boise State and San Diego State are threats in the Mountain West, and Toledo is the favorite to win the MAC with quarterback Logan Woodside. Western Kentucky is still king of Conference USA, but the Hilltoppers and the Sun Belt champion — likely Appalachian State or Troy — might need to be undefeated for the NY6 bid.

Will Miami finally win the Coastal Division?

The ‘Canes won nine games during Mark Richt’s debut. Now, can they avoid going backwards? Miami is the popular choice in the ACC’s Coastal Division, mostly because the defense has elite potential and its competition is also replacing a quarterback. Yet other than a mid-September road trip to Florida State, the Hurricanes will likely be favored in every other week. Miami has an outside shot at the Playoff, but this should be the year the ‘Canes stand atop the Coastal. Will they finally avoid the bad conference loss and make it to Charlotte?

Can Wisconsin take advantage of a favorable schedule?

One year after respectably navigating a ruthless slate, Wisconsin holds one of the nation’s most appealing schedules. The Badgers have a soft nonconference list, avoid both Penn State and Ohio State in crossover play and host Iowa and Michigan. Yes, that only matters on paper; Wisconsin needs to execute on the field. The defense will be without linebacker Jack Cichy, but there should be enough depth to overcome that loss. The larger question is at quarterback, where Alex Hornibrook was just OK in 2016. If he develops quickly, though, the Badgers will return to the Big Ten Championship Game and have a chance at the Playoff. Is Hornibrook ready for the challenge?