The 2018 college football season is quickly approaching, and there is no shortage of compelling storylines to look forward to involving playoff teams, prominent coaches and other intriguing subplots.
Let’s analyze the 15 most noteworthy narratives to monitor throughout the upcoming campaign.
Can Alabama do it again…with a quarterback controversy?
Head coach Nick Saban must feel a sense of loyalty to Jalen Hurts, whom he started for most of two seasons, but there’s no question Tua Tagovailoa is the better passer.
Tagovailoa relieved Hurts after halftime of the national title game and guided the Crimson Tide to an overtime victory. He’s can run like Hurts, and is a far more accurate and natural thrower.
Thus, Saban shouldn’t allow this to fester as he pursues a third national title in the past four years. Alabama will be a College Football Playoff team regardless of who’s under center, but Tagovailoa has the tools to be the best quarterback Saban has had in Tuscaloosa.
The Urban Meyer scandal’s impact on Ohio State, Big Ten
Meyer was recently placed on paid administrative leave as the school investigates the allegation that he knew of an assistant coach’s domestic violence arrest and failed to act appropriately on it, though he denied as much in a statement he released Friday.
Now it’s not as much about football at Ohio State and its chances of going to the College Football Playoff. Meyer may not coach in Columbus again depending on what the investigation reveals, which sends shockwaves throughout college football.
The Big Ten picture no longer features OSU as the favorite without Meyer’s leadership, opening the door for teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan to more easily factor into the playoff picture.
Historic talent pool of defensive linemen
Speaking of the Buckeyes, defensive end Nick Bosa is one of the headliners in a potentially unprecedented lineup of star big men in the trenches.
Sportsnaut’s recent list of the 20 best prospects in the 2019 NFL draft had Bosa checking in at No. 2 overall behind Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver. Six of the top eight on that list were defensive linemen.
Clemson nose tackle Dexter Lawrence and pass-rusher Clelin Ferrell are top-10-caliber NFL prospects. The Tigers also have Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant on that unit, and they’ll definitely be drafted too.
Those are just some of the developments to watch at this position group in 2018.
Kyler Murray’s long-awaited, short starting tenure
The 2015 top-ranked dual-threat quarterback by 247 Sports’ rankings, Murray transferred from Texas A&M before he started full-time but looks like he’ll at last lead the Oklahoma Sooners offense this year.
Expectations are high as Murray takes over for Baker Mayfield. Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner insists Murray will break all his records, so that doesn’t exactly slow the hype train.
Adding a unique layer to the situation is the fact that Murray will be gone after this year to play baseball for the Oakland Athletics, who chose him ninth overall in the 2018 MLB draft. It will be fascinating to see how Murray handles the gridiron after already signing an A’s contract worth millions.
Freshmen quarterback X-factors
The rich got richer as two of last year’s playoff teams, Clemson and Georgia, landed 247Sports’ top two quarterbacks in the country.
Tigers recruit Trevor Lawrence was the site’s top overall prospect and No. 1 pro-style signal-caller. The Bulldogs’ big catch, Justin Fields, ranked second among all recruits and rated as the best dual-threat quarterback. Both could play right away in some capacity.
Lawrence may well push Kelly Bryant to start after the latter flopped in a CFP loss to Alabama. It would appear Jake Fromm’s job security is safer since he guided Georgia to the CFP finale as a true freshman, but Fields brings a dynamic running ability to the offense Fromm definitely doesn’t have.
How will UCF back up undefeated season?
Former Knights head coach Scott Frost took the lead job at his alma mater Nebraska, so UCF has its work cut out to replicate last year’s success based on Frost’s departure alone.
The good news is the program hired another offensive-minded coach in Josh Heupel, who through his time at Oklahoma, Utah State and Missouri as a quarterbacks coach and play-caller, knows how to draw up an effective spread attack.
Quarterback McKenzie Milton took a huge step forward in 2017 and was a big reason for the Knights’ 13-0 record. With no margin for error, though, it’ll be interesting to see how Milton and Heupel leaders deal with the scrutiny added exposure brings.
Jim Harbaugh under pressure at Michigan
But let’s be real: Harbaugh is one of the best pure football coaches on the planet. He inherited a program in shambles with below-average Power Five talent and won 10 games in his first two years, only to be plagued by awful quarterback play in 2017.
Coming off an 8-5 season and armed with the best passer he’s probably had in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, Harbaugh has something to prove and the means with which to prove it. Look for him to deliver his best Wolverines year yet.
New, accomplished coaches at storied programs
Jimbo Fisher, a national champion at Florida State, takes over at Texas A&M for Kevin Sumlin, who’s off to Arizona to coach up dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate. Meanwhile, Willie Taggart is succeeding Fisher in Tallahassee.
Chip Kelly brings his offensive wizardry to UCLA, Dan Mullen switched SEC schools from Mississippi State to Florida and ex-Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is in charge at Tennessee.
Pruitt took over his post in Tuscaloosa for Kirby Smart, who’s had immense success as coach at Georgia. It’s unrealistic to expect a similarly swift rise, but Pruitt is among a number of influential coaches who could really shake up the Top 25 polls by season’s end.
The next wave of NFL franchise quarterback hopefuls
Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller reported NFL scouts are “terrified” of the upcoming quarterback class. Not exactly a flattering outlook for the crop of talent at the most important position.
It’s still so early in the evaluation process, though. Missouri’s Drew Lock, along with Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Ryan Finley of NC State and Jarrett Stidham of Auburn, among others, all have the potential to be starting NFL quarterbacks.
Lock fell victim to dropped passes and threw deep often last year, which contributed to his 57.8 completion percentage last season. However, he also threw a whopping 44 touchdowns and could well prove to be the best of the bunch.
Heisman Trophy: Year of the running back?
Among the past 17 official winners of college football’s most prestigious individual award — not counting Reggie Bush’s vacated 2005 Heisman — only two have been running backs, and the rest have been quarterbacks.
This season could well be an anomaly. Stanford ball-carrier Bryce Love finished second in last year’s voting and returns to the Cardinal after scampering for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017.
Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor ran for an FBS freshman record 1,977 yards and 13 scores as this past season, so he’s easily in the Heisman hunt as well. Love and Taylor have to be considered the favorites at this juncture.
Notre Dame’s return to glory?
This is a talking point every year and will be until the Fighting Iris qualify for the College Football Playoff. They opened at No. 11 in the Amway Coaches Poll, so there’s no shortage of respect for coach Brian Kelly’s team.
But Notre Dame faces a tough test right out of the gates against Michigan. Thankfully that tilt against the Wolverines is at home, along with most of the Irish’s toughest games, including Stanford and Florida State.
Road trips to Virginia Tech, Northwestern and USC in the season finale figure to be tough. What will make or break Notre Dame is whether Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book can step up to be a playoff-caliber quarterback.
Georgia replacing massive amount of NFL talent
The 2017 Bulldogs offense saw its best offensive lineman, Isaiah Wynn, and two top rushers, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, chosen within the first 35 picks of the NFL draft.
Linebacker Roquan Smith went eighth overall to the Chicago Bears, while the New York Giants nabbed linebacker Lorenzo Carter in Round 3. Leading receiver Javon Wims got drafted late as well.
The good news: returning running back D’Andre Swift had more receptions (17) last season than Michel and Chubb combined (13), and had 618 yards rushing playing behind the dynamic duo. Georgia has arguably the nation’s best cornerback in DeAndre Baker, too.
Plenty of talent to go around in Athens despite huge losses to the professional ranks.
How far can Lane Kiffin carry Florida Atlantic?
A college football powerhouse the Owls are not, yet Kiffin is a lightning rod wherever he is. Seemingly restless in his career, the 43-year-old is already on his fourth stint as a head coach, across college and the NFL.
After Florida Atlantic won only three games in each of the prior three seasons, Kiffin arrived in 2017 and did a sensational job as the Owls only had three losses against 11 wins, including a 10-game streak to end the season.
Kiffin’s presence helped the program garner the eighth-most initial Amway poll votes outside the top 25. A season opener against Oklahoma on the road will be telling as to how far this year’s Florida Atlantic team can go.
Tom Herman changing culture at Texas
A steady rise through the coaching ranks and a stepping-stone head gig at Houston prepared Herman for the task of turning around the Longhorns.
Although Herman, an offensive guru, only went 7-6 in his first season, he brought in the third-ranked recruiting class, per 247Sports. A defense that played better down the stretch last year now adds two 5-star safeties in Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster.
Armed with a strong offensive line, Texas just needs to figure out its quarterback situation as three players have a shot at the starting job.
Ongoing debate for playoff expansion
The College Football Playoff has worked just fine with four teams, but advocates like Frost and Harbaugh want the field expanded to eight for now.
Expansion would be more inclusive but also increase the chances of the one-and-done tournament format leading to upsets and not pitting the two best teams against each other. However, some may enjoy not seeing two SEC teams playing for the championship like Alabama and Georgia just did.
Cinderella stories could more easily happen with a field of eight. There are valid arguments on both sides. This season will add some immediacy bias to the equation, and how the year plays out is bound to strengthen one side of the argument in dramatic fashion.