By James Ward
College football is back and that means another highly anticipated season of Ward’s Winners. If you read this weekly column last season, thanks for coming back. If you didn’t make it to this site last year, I’m glad you’re here now.
Oklahoma: The Sooners had a great season last year and Baker Mayfield is one of the most exciting players to watch in college football, but they lost their top playmaker and their defensive leader in Sterling Shepard and Eric Striker. Are they the best team in the Big 12? Yes. But are they the third best team in the country? I don’t think so. Overrated.
Christian McCaffrey: Is it possible to finish second in the Heisman Trophy vote and be underrated? It is if you’re Christian McCaffrey. Last year, McCaffrey set a new NCAA record for most all-purpose yards in a season and there are still (ignorant) SEC fans that think that McCaffrey couldn’t play for their school. Underrated.
Pac-12 After Dark: The Pac-12 is reducing the number of late night games this season, in an effort to cater to college football fans around the country. I am a college football junkie and I always stay up until the West Coast games are over. I understand the need for more exposure, especially with Christian McCaffrey’s recent Heisman snub, but I will miss the late night kickoffs. Underrated.
Joshua Dobbs: Tennessee is one of this year’s most hyped teams and Joshua Dobbs is getting a lot of preseason accolades. The Volunteers finished last year with five straight victories, but their wins were against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Mizzou and Vanderbilt. Dobbs is one of the SEC’s most experience quarterbacks, but he has yet to deliver on the hype. Overrated.
Washington State: Coming off a nine win season where they beat Oregon, Arizona and UCLA on the road, the Cougars are my sleeper team. If he is healthy all season, quarterback Luke Falk will lead college football in every major passing category and the Cougars can win the Pac-12 North. Seriously. Underrated.
Washington: The Huskies are ranked No. 14 in the preseason poll after winning just seven games last season. They played (and beat Southern Miss) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and now are expected to compete for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Seems a little excessive. Overrated.
J.T. Barrett: There is no quarterback controversy; J.T Barrett is the unquestioned starter in Columbus. Barrett was a third team All-American and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy vote before getting injured in Ohio State’s national championship season in 2014. After losing 12 players to last year’s NFL Draft, this year’s Buckeyes team will still contend because Barrett is a special college quarterback. Underrated
Here are my two candidates to win this year’s Heisman Trophy:
Deshaun Watson (4-1): Last year in this column, I wrote that Deshaun Watson was “the best player in college football that the average college football fan hasn’t heard of (yet).” Well that’s obviously changed. Watson is currently the co-favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy, alongside LSU running back Leonard Fournette. However, The Ringer put together a great article with statistics about previous Heisman Trophy odds. According to The Ringer, 71 players have entered the season at better than 20-1 odds since 2009, and only one of them (Marcus Mariota, 2014) won the award. Deshaun Watson is still my choice to win this year’s Heisman Trophy.
Greg Ward Jr. (33-1): The Houston Cougars were the biggest Group of Five story of last year’s college football season. When Houston lost to UCONN in their 11th game of the season, it cost the Cougars a shot at a perfect season, but it also solidified Greg Ward Jr. as the most important player in college football. If Ward were healthy, Houston would’ve beaten UCONN and potentially qualified for the College Football Playoffs. I know, the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, but if Ward leads the Cougars to another one-loss season, he will be in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy. And maybe he’ll even win it.
Oklahoma & Houston (+12): Technically a neutral site game, Houston and Oklahoma will kick off the season at NFG Stadium in Houston. The Cougars had a magical season last year behind first time head coach Tom Herman and dual threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr., but their one loss to UCONN with an injured Ward cost them a chance at the College Football Playoffs. Houston will be on the clock early, as a win against No. 3 ranked Oklahoma will scream loudly that last year was not a fluke and their No. 15 rank in the AP Preseason Poll is warranted.
Last time we saw the Cougars, they dismantled Florida State in the Peach Bowl and limited Dalvin Cook to 33 yards rushing. Oklahoma will look to run the ball a lot with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, but the Cougars defensive line returns three starters and is up to the task of stopping the Sooners rushing attack. On offense, Ward is back at quarterback and is legitimately a top-10 player in all of college football. While Ward’s durability will play a major role in Houston’s success this year, he’s ready to go in Week 1 and the Cougars will put up points because he’s just that dynamic. I’m not sure if Houston can win, but they won’t get blown out and 12 points is too many.
USC & Alabama (-11.5): A good nugget from CBSSports.com’s Ben Kerchival on Twitter: Nick Saban has never lost an opener at Alabama. He has also beaten all six Power Five opponents in Week 1 by double digits. While two of those victories were ten point wins, the other three were at least two touchdowns, including a romping of Michigan in 2012. The Crimson Tide beat the Wolverines 41-14 in 2012 en route to a national championship. Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett will see time at quarterback for the Crimson Tide on opening night, but that isn’t a concern for Nick Saban, who has had a different starting quarterback for the last four openers.
USC only has one returning starter in their front seven on defense to combat new Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough. Scarbrough replaces Derrick Henry, who replaced T.J. Yeldon, who replaced Trent Richardson, who replaced Mark Ingram. The Alabama running back factory isn’t a good matchup for the Trojans, who will have a difficult time stopping the run. In addition, first year starting quarterback Max Browne and the Trojans will have a difficult time scoring points against the Crimson Tide defense that returns five starters, including defensive end Jonathan Allen, cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and safety Eddie Jackson. Roll Tide.
Clemson (-7.5) at Auburn: Laying 7.5 points on the road against an SEC team looks like a big spread, but last year’s National Championship Runner-Ups are actually better this year. Deshaun Watson was the best quarterback in the nation last year and he gained almost 20 lbs. of muscle in the offseason. Running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and wide receiver Artavis Scott are back for Clemson, meaning the Clemson offense should be impressive again this season. What was most remarkable about Clemson’s success last season is that they did it without their biggest playmaker, but wide receiver Mike Williams is back and anxious to show off his deep threat ability. Clemson has to replace Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and Mackensie Alexander on defense, but remember, they had to replace Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony last season and defensive coordinator Brent Venables did it seamlessly. Sorry Auburn fans, but Clemson will win this game easily.
Last Season’s Record: 30-20-0
James Ward is the Associate Producer of the DA Show, as well as the Executive Producer of CBS Sports Radio Weekends and Sunday Morning Football. On Saturdays, you can find him in studio producing Eye on College Football and catching as many games as possible. Check him out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS).