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15 burning questions heading into 2018 college football season

With the dawn of a new college football season comes certain burning questions that will beg answering throughout the year. Whether it’s off-field issues, personnel dilemmas or the outlooks of prominent programs, there’s plenty to ponder.

The 2018 slate is just getting underway, but there’s still a little time to think about the biggest storylines before the majority of ranked teams kick off their schedules.

Let’s take a look at the 15 burning questions whose answers will go a long way in determining the college football landscape.

How will the Urban Meyer scandal impact Ohio State?

This initial question begets others. The Buckeyes coach is suspended for three games. Two of those are against cupcake opponents, and the final contest is on a neutral field versus TCU, which Ohio State should be able to handle given the talent at hand.

How will Meyer lead the team upon his return? Will the controversy harm his credibility in the locker room? How are the players going to respond? Can they handle the transition and remain on course for a playoff berth?

These are intangibles that will test the Buckeyes. Even if the players overcome the adversity, it won’t be applauded, because the scrutiny on Meyer likely won’t subside unless he resigns.

Who will be Alabama’s starting quarterback?

Head coach Nick Saban recently said it’s possible both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts will play in the season opener.

The national championship game in which Tagovailoa subbed for Hurts showed the former is a better passer than the latter. Hurts is superior as a ball-carrier, and might have to become a tailback at some point if he wants to play to the NFL someday.

It depends on what Saban is looking for. As long as the quarterback controversy doesn’t create a divide on the team, the Crimson Tide have to be considered the prohibitive national title favorites. If they succeed, it’ll be their three championship in four years.

Which true freshman will make the biggest impact?

Two leading candidates play the most important position on two of last year’s College Football Playoff participants. Per 247Sports, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was the top overall recruit and pro-style quarterback from the class of 2018. Georgia signal-caller Justin Fields was the No. 2 prospect and top dual-threat.

Head coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers depth chart will drop any day, and Lawrence could well supplant incumbent Kelly Bryant, who had a pedestrian 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions a season ago.

Fields’ running ability should get him snaps in special packages, yet he’ll be hard-pressed to unseat Jake Fromm, who as a true freshman led the Bulldogs to the CFP finale.

Can Kyler Murray keep Oklahoma’s offense elite?

It’s reasonable to expect the Sooners to take a step back after losing Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield — also the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. That’s especially so since Murray is on his way to a pro baseball career.

Count Mayfield among the believers, as he has said his successor would break all his records. Oklahoma has plenty of weapons surrounding Murray, a former 5-star prospect to help the cause.

Running back Rodney Anderson is an electrifying playmaker as a runner and pass-catcher at 6-foot-2, 218 pounds. Receiver Marquise Brown might be the fastest man in the country and should help Murray create chunk plays in the passing game.

Will a running back win the Heisman Trophy?

Stanford star Bryce Love was second in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting and could easily do one better this season. Love ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior.

But Love isn’t the only ball-carrier in line for the most prestigious individual hardware in college football. Rising Wisconsin sophomore Jonathan Taylor ran for 1,977 yards as a true freshman and will have the Badgers’ burly offensive line paving the way for him.

Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins has an outside chance if teammate Mike Weber doesn’t take too many touches from him. Quarterbacks usually win the Heisman, but don’t be surprised if a tailback pulls off the upset.

Can Jim Harbaugh take Michigan back to the top?

Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss and gave the Wolverines coach the best quarterback he’s had to work with since arriving in Ann Arbor. That move alone should help Michigan stay in contention for a Big Ten title.

Harbaugh hasn’t had the greatest talent to work with since taking over his alma mater, yet Michigan has never ceased to be competitive in his three seasons. Now there’s a legitimate signal-caller in Patterson to run the offense.

After a down 2017 campaign in which bad play under center doomed the Wolverines, look for Harbaugh to set up Patterson to shine. With a solid defense anchored by lineman Rashan Gary, don’t be surprise if Michigan is in the playoff conversation.

Might a non-Power Five team contend for the playoffs?

The Knights went undefeated last season and return their star quarterback, McKenzie Milton. Although they have a new coach, Josh Heupel helped Missouri have the No. 8 offense in total yards last season, behind UCF, which came in fifth.

Lane Kiffin’s own schematic prowess helped an unheralded Florida Atlantic program rattle off 10 straight wins to end its year and rank in the top 10 in total yards. Running back Devin Singletary will once again be the offensive catalyst after running for an insane 32 touchdowns this past year.

A 2018 season opener against Oklahoma is a huge opportunity for the Owls to show they belong among the nation’s best.

Is Notre Dame for real this time?

The Fighting Irish have a new defensive coordinator in Clark Lea, and plenty of uncertainty on offense.

Wimbush has been named the starter, and he is probably the right choice due to his excellence as a runner — he had 14 touchdowns last year. Yet he’s a wildly inaccurate passer whose completion rate was a meager 49.5 percent in 2017.

Notre Dame always seems to get the benefit of the doubt, evident in its No. 12 ranking in the opening Associated Press poll. Its opener is at home versus Michigan, which is the only big test until a September 29 home tilt against Stanford.

If the Irish pull both those out, they’ll be touted as a legitimate CFP contender. Wimbush is the real X-factor, though. His progress as a passer will largely determine the team’s ceiling.

Which new coach will orchestrate the biggest program turnaround?

Jimbo Fisher won a national title at Florida State but now helms a rebuilding Texas A&M. His successor, Willie Taggart, has his work cut out with the Seminoles.

Chip Kelly has been away from college football for years, so it’s hard to expect instant success at UCLA. Dan Mullen’s move from Mississippi State to Florida should take at least a year to jell.

Try Kevin Sumlin. Last seen as the coach of the Aggies, Sumlin left a dysfunctional program that’s struggled in the post-Johnny Manziel era.

Sumlin has, most importantly, a sensational, dual-threat quarterback in Khalil Tate with the Wildcats. Tate is a darkhorse Heisman candidate, whose full-time starting status under Sumlin’s tutelage should lead to drastic improvement on a 7-6 record.

Which quarterbacks are potential first-round prospects?

Five quarterbacks went in the first round of the 2018 draft, and it’s unlikely that will be the case next year.

The season will largely determine this question’s answer, but Missouri’s Drew Lock, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, NC State star Ryan Finley and West Virginia’s Will Grier stand out.

With Jim Harbaugh’s NFL background, don’t be surprised if Shea Patterson is in the mix if he shows well at Michigan. Finley is an efficient, accurate passer but lacks the arm talent and physical tools the others have in spades.

Lock may emerge as the best. He threw 44 touchdown passes last season facing SEC competition often and has prototypical size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), arm strength and downfield accuracy.

Will this year’s crop of defensive linemen live up to the hype?

Houston’s Ed Oliver stands out as the best defensive line prospect to this point, but he has plenty of challengers who could take that status away from him during the 2018 campaign.

Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa is being touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick. Bosa’s arch-rival has Rashan Gary, a versatile lineman who was 247Sports‘ top recruit coming out of high school.

The Tigers of Clemson boast the likes of Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. All of them could be NFL starters in the years to come, particularly the first three.

Watch for this position group. It’s going to be something special. Others to keep an eye on include Alabama’s Raekwon Davis and Auburn’s Derrick Brown.

Is Texas reemerging as a powerhouse program?

The Longhorns brought in head coach and offensive guru Tom Herman a year ago. While Herman is in the process of bolstering the offense, Texas seems to have gotten the key leadership it needed to have an improved overall program.

Although the team posted a 7-6 record this past season, only two of those losses were by more than one possession: the opening game against Maryland and a road contest at TCU.

Texas’ defense improved down the stretch, too, limiting Oklahoma’s high-octane offense to a season-low 29 points. Now the Longhorns welcome a 2018 recruiting class featuring 5-star safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster.

If Herman can get Sam Ehlinger to play to his potential, there’s no telling how high Texas can soar this year.

Will the Big Ten outpace the SEC as the nation’s best conference?

Preseason polls are usually fool’s gold for fanbases seeking validation that their teams are among the nation’s elite. That said, it’s hard to ignore the number of teams from two of the best conferences.

Four of the top five and five of the top 10 AP teams are from the Big Ten and SEC, with the latter having one more representative. Looming just outside, though, are No. 11 Michigan State, 14th-ranked Michigan and No. 18 Mississippi State.

There may be just a little more depth and certainty at quarterback in the Big Ten. The Meyer scandal at Ohio State could really be a huge detriment to the Buckeyes, but they won’t face Wisconsin unless the two teams meet in the conference title game.

Can the Badgers finally break through?

Wisconsin is one of the premier programs in college football. However, the team lacks a national championship in its history, and typically opts for old-school smashmouth football as opposed to speed and finesse.

The aforementioned Jonathan Taylor is the latest in a long line of studly tailbacks and will have another great offensive line to pave his way. Where the Badgers really need production is the passing game, led by quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

Most alarming from last year’s statistics were Hornibrook’s 15 interceptions. He must make better decisions in order for Wisconsin to get into the Final Four. The AP poll has the Badgers fourth, so they’re already right in the thick of the playoff race.

How will Ole Miss perform amid final year of postseason ineligibility?

Wideout A.J. Brown may well be the top prospect at his position in the 2019 draft. Brown is joined in the receiving corps by other gifted D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge, who had seven touchdown catches apiece in 2017.

Jordan Ta’amu filled in for Shea Patterson under center last season and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt, throwing 11 touchdowns to only four picks in his five starts. Ta’amu is primed for a big year as the unquestioned starter from the outset.

Ole Miss is home for all of their games against currently ranked AP teams, save for a road trip to No. 25 LSU.

However, Alabama is the Rebels’ third opponent of the year. That showdown could well make for an offensive fireworks show with upset potential, though. Ole Miss really has nothing to lose against the reigning national champions.

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