Ward’s Winners: CFB Preview & Week 1
College football is here and to say I am looking forward to it would be a vast understatement. Kenny Brock is out, and I, James Ward, am in. In this weekly column, I will give you insight into the college football season, along with weekly winners. Brock had Brock’s Locks. I have Ward’s Winners. Let the games begin.
Week in Review:
Since there is nothing to review, here are some things that I am keeping my eye on at the beginning of the season:
The Ohio State QB Situation: Who will start – Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett?
Ohio State’s first depth chart was released this week and it listed both Jones and Barrett as co-starters. Urban Meyer has already said that both quarterbacks will play in 2015. This figures to be a discussion for the entire college football season.
New Coaches: A multitude of high profile jobs changed hands this off-season.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since last college football season, Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh and tasked him with rebuilding the Wolverines. UM went 5-7 last year, but returned nine offensive starters and seven defensive starts, so Harbaugh should hit the ground running.
Mike Riley left Oregon State for Nebraska this winter in a surprise move, considering he had spent a total of 12 seasons in Corvallis, but he told DA a few weeks ago on the show that he had “one last adventure” in his career. Riley is the antithesis of Bo Pelini and should make friends in Lincoln immediately.
Gary Andersen left Wisconsin after two seasons to fill Riley’s vacant position at Oregon State. In what seemed to be a step down at the time, Andersen returned to the West where he spent the majority of his career. Bret Bielema has found success at Arkansas after leaving Wisconsin, how will Andersen do in Corvallis?
Paul Chryst left Pittsburgh for his dream job, hopefully giving Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez some stability in the head coaching position that has now seen three coaches since 2012. Chryst may not have immediate success, but you can bet he will be in Madison for more than two seasons.
Transfer QBs: Two transfer quarterbacks are tasked with taking over for Heisman Trophy Winners.
EWU transfer Vernon Adams will take over for Marcus Mariota at Oregon. Adams was one of the top players in the FCS over the last three seasons, but the Pac-12 is major increase in talent. The Ducks playoff chances hinge on how long it takes Adams to get acclimated to the tougher opposition.
Former Notre Dame Golden Domer Everett Golson is now the main man at Florida State, taking over for Jameis Winston. The question for Golson: Is he going to perform at the level that propelled Notre Dame to the 2012 National Championship Game or will he look like the quarterback that lost five of six down the stretch of the regular season in 2014?
Returning RBs: Nick Chubb of Georgia, Ezekial Elliot of Ohio State and Leonard Fournette of LSU headline a crop of returning running backs in college football.
Chubb averaged 165 yards per game following Todd Gurley’s suspension, including 266 yards against Louisville in the Belk Bowl and figures to be a force for the Bulldogs this season.
Elliot will be Ohio State’s bell cow after he became a star late last year in the Big Ten Title Game and the College Football Playoffs, rushing for over 200 yards in all three games, and figures to be extremely productive behind an offensive line returning four starters.
Fournette was last year’s #1 High School Recruit and did the Heisman pose after scoring his first TD. He didn’t win the Trophy last year, but he figures to be in the running this year.
Also keep an eye on Derrick Henry of Alabama, Samaje Perine of Oklahoma, James Connor of Pittsburgh, Devontae Booker of Utah, Royce Freeman of Oregon and Nick Wilson of Arizona.
Power Five Conference Winners:
Big Ten: Ohio State
It’s impossible to pick against the Ohio State Buckeyes to win the Big 10. Not only are the Buckeyes the Big Ten favorite, but they are also favorites to win their second straight National Championship. When the AP Top 25 Preseason Poll was released, the Buckeyes became the first unanimous preseason #1 in the history of the poll.
Whoever Urban Meyer decides to start at QB will be the best QB in the conference, maybe the nation. Last year, J.T. Barrett broke the Big Ten record for most touchdowns in a season, but Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to the National Championship.
The Buckeyes offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters, which helps stud RB Zeke Elliot, who rushed for over 200 yards the last 3 games of the season, including 246 against Oregon in the National Championship Game. Joey Bosa, Darron Lee and Vonn Bell are three of the best defensive players in the conference. The only significant loss for the Buckeyes is last year’s deep threat Devon Smith, who was taken in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft by the Jets.
Big 12: TCU
The Horned Frogs will look to run the table and go undefeated after they were snubbed (yeah, snubbed) from last year’s College Football Playoffs. Trevone Boykin returns at QB for TCU, as the odds on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy at 5-1. Last year, Baylor erased a 21-point deficit and scored 24 points in the final 11 minutes last season to give TCU their only loss and knock them out of a potential spot in the first ever College Football Playoffs.
TCU returns 10 starters on offense and 5 on defense, so the Horned Frogs will be playing with a chip on their shoulder following last season. The Horned Frogs are the biggest contenders to knock off OSU. Believe the hype in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Tigers were excellent last year when DeShaun Watson played as a true freshman, but Watson missed seven games last year with a broken finger and a torn left ACL. The Tigers lost Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett to the NFL along the defensive line, as well as 2 other All-ACC Defenders.
When talking about his new defense, Dabo Swinney said, “They might be short on experience, but not talent.” The big key for them is keeping the QB healthy and the performance of a rebuilt defense.
Clemson plays Louisville on Sept 17th and Notre Dame on October 3rd, so the Tigers fate will be decided pretty early on. With only 3 AC C teams in the top-25, the Tigers, off of four straight double-digit winning seasons, are poised to win the ACC this season.
There’s a lot of talk in college football circles that Jeremy Johnson could have a ‘Cam Newton-like’ effect on the Auburn Tigers. Johnson spent the last two years backing up Nick Marshall, so he is familiar with Gus Malzahn’s system. By all accounts, Johnson won’t have the impact rushing the ball that Newtown had, but he has a cannon for an arm, so expect D’haquille Williams to have a big season.
Will Muschamp will have an immediate impact on the Auburn defense. A lot of people will remember Muschamp’s failures at Florida, but prior to succeeding Urban Meyer at Florida, Muschamp was the best defensive coordinator in college football. Point blank: Muschamp can coach defense and expect the eight returning starters to lead a strong Auburn defense. This year’s Iron Bowl will decide the winner of the SEC.
Pac 12: USC
Cody Kessler might be the most underrated player in college football. Last year, Kessler completed almost 70% of his passes for 3,826 yards with 39 TDs and just 5 interceptions. By comparison, last year’s Heisman Trophy Winner Marcus Mariota passed for 4,454 yards with 42 TDs and 4 interceptions in Oregon’s pass heavy offense.
The Trojans will feel the loss of last year’s leading rusher Buck Allen and last year’s leading receiver Nelson Agholor – both hoping to make an impact in the NFL, but USC always has depth at those positions.
USC should be everyone’s preseason choice to win the Pac 12, but last year’s up-and-down team lost four games and their schedule this year is equally as difficult. The Trojans face Stanford and ASU in back-to-back in September and head to South Bend, IN to play Notre Dame in October. If the Trojans are an undefeated or one-loss team heading into November, this pick will look good, but this pick has the potential to look really bad early on if the Trojans disappoint.
My Heisman Favorites:
Trevon Boykin (5-1): Boykin’s Heisman chances are predicated on the TCU Horned Frogs team success. Last year, he had all of the individual numbers and finished fourth place in the voting. If the Horned Frogs are undefeated following the regular season, Boykin will win. If TCU loses at all during the regular season and are unable to live up to last year’s hype, the award will go to someone else.
Ezekiel Elliot (8-1): The last non-QB to win the Heisman Trophy was Mark Ingram in 2009, and we’ve seen some terrific running backs in college football. Elliot would have to have a special season to become a legit contender for the Heisman. Montee Ball rushed for 1923 yards and 33 TDS in 2011; Andre Williams rushed for 2177 yards and 18 TDS in 2013 and Melvin Gordon rushed for 2587 yards and 29 TDS in 2014, and all were shut out. J.T. Barrett is at 12-1, Cardale Jones is at 18-1 and Braxton Miller is at 40-1 heading into the first weekend of the college football season, but right now, Elliot has the best odds to win the Heisman Trophy from the Buckeyes.
Cody Kessler (12-1): Kessler occupies one of the most prestigious jobs in sports. The quarterback for the USC Trojans is comparable to centerfield for the New York Yankees and quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, but Kessler has been overshadowed for much of his college career. What gives? Well, now that Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley are playing in the NFL (OK, Hundley isn’t really going to play), Kessler is the best quarterback in the Pac 12. Even if he only matches his numbers from last year, Kessler should make it to New York.
Secondary Heisman Contenders:
Deshaun Watson (16-1): Watson has the potential to be this year’s Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel. I know both of those guys won the Heisman in their first seasons as starters, but Deshaun missed a lot of time last year due to injury. Deshaun Watson is the best player in college football that the average college football fan hasn’t heard of (yet). Expect a big season from the Clemson Tigers and a big season from Deshaun Watson.
Vernon Adams (33-1): Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adam takes over for Marcus Mariota in Eugene. He joins Everett Golson (FSU) and Greyson Lambert (GA) as transfer students starting for big time college football teams. As for Adams: the Pac 12 is another level of competition compared to the Big Sky, but Adams played twice against the Pac 12 North for EWU and combined for 886 yards with 11 TDS and 0 INTS in those games. The Ducks offense will always give a quarterback gaudy numbers and if Adams starts for Oregon all season, his numbers will be there with the best in the country.
Anu Solomon (50-1): Solomon led the Wildcats to 10 wins last year as a redshirt freshman and Arizona actually has some hype heading into the 2015 season. Solomon was inconsistent last year, but with a full year under his belt plus playing in Rich Rodriguez’s prolific offense; he could be a serious dark horse candidate.
College Football Playoffs:
Cotton Bowl: TCU vs. Auburn
Orange Bowl: Ohio State vs. USC
CFB Playoffs National Championship: Ohio State vs. TCU
National Champions: Ohio State
The ACC Champion will be shut out of this year’s Playoffs. The Big 12 was shut out of the first College Football Playoffs, but if the ACC Champion had been anyone other than FSU, the Big 12 Champion would’ve jumped ahead of the ACC Champion. Simply put: the committee knew it couldn’t keep an undefeated reigning national champion with the defending Heisman Trophy Winner as their quarterback out of the first ever College Football Playoffs.
The ACC’s strength of schedule is inferior to the other power 5 schools, especially the Pac 12, the SEC and the Big 10. Like the ACC, the Big Ten and Big 12 only had three teams ranked in the top 25 of the AP Preseason Poll, but the ACC’s highest ranked team was FSU at #10, while the Big Ten and the Big 12 each have two teams in the top 5. Preseason rankings don’t mean anything, but they give a good barometer to how each conference looks heading into the season. This season, the ACC is weak.
A four-team playoff is better than no playoff, but when will we see an eight-team playoff? I have no idea, but hopefully soon. With four teams, one conference champion will always be excluded from the playoffs. An eight-team playoff is the ideal number consisting of the five Power Five conference champions and three at-large bids with one of the three coming from a Non-Power Five school. This is the best scenario, but again, a four-team playoff is better than no playoffs.
Games to Watch:
Michigan at Utah: Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor begins with a formidable opponent in the Utah Utes. The Wolverines head to Rice-Eccles Stadium and face off against Kyle Whittingham’s stout Utes team, led by Heisman hopeful Devontae Booker, who were unranked in the AP Preseason Poll despite many college football experts expecting them to contend for the Pac-12 title. Last year’s Wolverine team went 5-7, but Harbaugh has returned nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters from the Hoke regime.
Both teams are polar opposites on the hype train. Harbaugh brings immense hype and national media coverage to a Wolverine’s program that might win eight games, while Whittingham looks to build off of last year’s nine win season. Utah is favored by 5.5 points in the game, which is low considering Utah should be a much better football team this season, but I have seen a few experts, including CBS Sports’ Brian Jones pick the Wolverines to win outright.
Louisville at Auburn: Saturday’s Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome offers Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson a first attempt to live up to the preseason hype. Although he started last year’s opener because of Nick Marshall’s first half suspension, this is Johnson’s first time leading his team onto the field. The big question for Johnson is whether he can run enough to run Gus Malzahn’s read-option because he can make every throw in the playbook.
This game also marks Will Muschamp’s return as a defensive coordinator. Both Auburn and Bobby Petrino’s Louisville squad are rebuilding, so there are a lot of question marks heading into this game.
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M: This game figures to be a shootout. Last year, Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici threw for 998 yards in his first two starts when he took over for an injured Taylor Kelly. The Sun Devils are his team now and many experts are expecting him to have a breakout season. Much like Georgia’s Hutson Mason from a year ago, Bercovici is a fifth year senior who waited his turn, instead of transferring.
Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen came to College Station last year as a five star recruit from both Scout and Rivals recruiting rankings. Allen lost out in last year’s QB competition to Kenny ‘Trill’ Hill, but over took Hill after the Aggies started losing and finished the season 3-2 as a starter. Side note: remember the hype surrounding Kenny ‘Trill’ Hill in September? Look for Allen to get it going early in the season under the tutelage of Kevin Sumlin.
Stanford (-11.5) at Northwestern: Two seasons ago, Northwestern vs. Ohio State was the biggest game of the college football weekend. Northwestern football was back under Pat Fitzgerald. That was the last time Northwestern football was relevant. The Wildcats could actually finish behind Indiana in the Big Ten West this year. On the flip side, Stanford returns senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was terribly inconsistent last year, and after a disappointing season, the Cardinal are expected to vie for the Pac-12 North title. These teams are in different classes and the 11.5 line actually seems low to me.
Bowling Green (+20.5) at Tennessee: Tennessee looks poised to return to the SEC elite, but I’m not buying it yet. Bowling Green was the coach’s preseason choice to win the MAC East Division and they return all 11 starters on offense. I don’t think Bowling Green can win, but the Falcons will put up points and I don’t think Tennessee will cover the 20.5. The one thing that makes me nervous is Bowling Green’s defense, but the Vols in recent years have lacked the ability to move the ball downfield, so I’m not sure if they can exploit a bad Falcons defense.
Wisconsin vs. Alabama (-10.5): This game has the potential to be a replay of last year’s Big Ten Championship Game for the Badgers. If you can believe it: Wisconsin was favored over Ohio State in that game by 4.5 – aka free money on the OSU money line (the Buckeyes won 59-0). In recent years, the Badgers have made a living beating bad teams. The Badgers need to run the ball to win, but Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has the best front seven in college football. Wisconsin’s Joel Stave will have a rough game and Alabama will cover by plenty.
Season Record: 0-0-0
Check me out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS) for all of your college football questions throughout the season.