I am going to try something new this year – – a pre-season look at college football. I have been doing an NFL prognostication for more than 15 years now but never did one for college football. The reason I stayed away from college football is that I was locked into the model that I used for the NFL where I – ridiculously – try to pick the final record for every team in the league.
Being stuck in that mindset, I realized that was an impossibility for college football where there are about 130 teams and where I really do not care much about 75% of them. But it did seem as if there was something to be done on the subject; and so, I decided to try and look at college football from a pre-season perspective a bit differently from the way I look at the NFL. If I like the outcome, I’ll make this an annual feature. If I don’t like the outcome, I’ll try to think of modifications to make it so that I like it next year. If I hate the outcome, this will be a “one-and-done”.
From the outset, let me say that I cannot even pretend to know much about the roster details of any college football team. That is a subject I will learn about as I watch college football games and read what local writers have to say about the best and worst teams in the country. The content here is going to be much more abstract than team-by-team analysis.
Bob Molinaro had this comment recently in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot; it is almost as if he knew what I was going to write here before the first keystroke was struck:
“Quick hit: Speaking of college football, here is all the preseason blather you need in a nutshell: Every team promises to do better. Rinse and repeat.”
With all that as preamble, let me start by talking about coaching changes in college football for this season. If you assume that 25% of the head coaches get replaced every year, that means there will be between 30 and 35 new head coaches on the sidelines this year. I don’t care enough about a coaching change at Disco Tech to check the bios and credentials of the coach leaving the job or the new guy coming in. But there are changes at eight major schools to keep an eye on.
- Colorado: Mike Macintyre is out, and Mel Tucker takes over. Colorado started out last year on a roll winning the first 5 games of the season including wins over Nebraska, Arizona St., UCLA and rival Colorado St. Then the wheels came off the wagon and Colorado lost the final 7 games of the season – including a loss at home to a woeful Oregon St. team.
- Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson is out, and Geoff Collins takes over. Johnson was not fired; he surprisingly resigned his position to be with his family after a lifetime in football. Collins comes there off two winning seasons at Temple; make no mistake, Georgia Tech is a significant step up the coaching ladder from Temple. This could be an interesting situation to watch…
- Kansas: David Beaty is out, and Les Miles takes over. Beaty was the head coach at Kansas for 4 seasons; his teams won a total of 6 games in those 4 seasons. Miles’ previous college jobs have been at Oklahoma St. and LSU; Kansas is MUCH lower on the food chain than either of those schools. Notwithstanding that fact, Kansas football has exactly nowhere to go but up. The last winning season for Kansas was in 2008; since the 2000 season the cumulative record for the Jayhawks has been 75-153. If Les Miles wins 5 games this year, he will be seen as a miracle worker; it his team wins only twice in 2019, he will be viewed as an overpaid has-been who needs to be run out of town on a rail.
- Kansas St.: Bill Snyder is out, and Chris Klieman takes over. Snyder is an icon at K-State; his departure is a retirement and nothing else. It would be an understatement to say that Snyder was the “face of K-State football”; he was the “soul of K-State football”. Kleiman has the unenviable task of replacing a “legend”; Klieman comes to K-State from North Dakota State which has been a Division 1-AA powerhouse for the last 7 or 8 years.
- Maryland: DJ Durkin is out, and Mike Locksley takes over. The football program – and the entire athletic department – at Maryland was a hot mess last year. Locksley was the OC at Alabama last year; his only head coaching gig was at New Mexico where his teams went 2-26 – – and there was more than a little off-field nonsense going on too. This could be interesting to watch too…
- North Carolina: Larry “The Hat” Fedora is out, and Mack Brown takes over. UNC was awful last year; the overall record was 2-9. Brown returns to Chapel Hill having been the head coach there from 1988 to 1997; Brown leaves a cushy spot at ESPN to return to the coaching ranks.
- Ohio St.: Urban Meyer is out, and Ryan Day takes over. Meyer has “retired” once again; if you look at leaving a job as a head coach in college football as akin to divorce, then Meyer is the Za Za Gabor of the Gridiron. Day coached the Buckeyes to a 4-0 record while Meyer was on “administrative leave” last season.
- Texas Tech: Klif Kingsbury is out, and Matt Wells takes over. Tech has been known for its prolific offense in recent years, but that has not produced much in terms of winning seasons. In 6 years under Kliff Kingsbury, Tech has only had two winning seasons. Matt Wells was hired to change that status and he will bring a more balanced offense to the field. How well that might work with a team recruited to play in a different system remains to be seen.
I want to mention only one coaching change at the Division 1-AA level:
- William and Mary: Jimmye Laycock is out, and Mike London takes over. Jimmye Laycock has been the head coach at William and Mary since 1980. In his 38 seasons there, his teams have gone 249-194-2. Moreover, 3 people from his program are currently NFL head coaches. Sean McDermott (Buffalo) and Dan Quinn (Atlanta) were assistants under Laycock; Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) played for Laycock. London played for Laycock and has been the head coach at Richmond, UVa and Howard before taking this job.
The 2018 season saw its share of changes in head coaches around the country. Some of the new hires made a decent impression while others were “disappointing”. I think there are six second-year coaches that will be interesting to keep an eye on. I am listing them alphabetically lest anyone try to read some meaning into the order that is unintended.
- Herm Edwards (Arizona St.): People scoffed when Arizona St. hired him away from ESPN, but Edwards and his staff led the Sun Devils to a bowl game and a 7-6 record. [Aside: The Las Vegas line for total wins for Ariz St. last year was 5.] Edwards is not a prototypical head coach for a college team; if his system continues to work, things will be just fine in Tempe; if the system sputters …
- Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M): His first season in College Station was 9-4 and the Aggies only lost to Clemson by 2 points. Every other coach on this list would be thrilled to have had an opening season like that; but that is not what the Aggie boosters opened their wallets to see. Fisher has a 10-year deal worth $75M to coach at Texas A&M; those folks bankrolling that job expect a lot in return.
- Scott Frost (Nebraska): He was hailed as a savior when he returned to his alma mater as the head coach last year. Then the team started off 0-6; all was not peaches and cream in Lincoln, NE. However, the team rallied and went 4-2 in its final 6 games leading Husker fans to think very positively about the 2019 season. I don’t think another 4-8 season will make Nebraska a “happy place”; there is some pressure here…
- Chip Kelly (UCLA): The Bruins were 3-9 last year and were blown out in 5 of those losses. If you want to explain that away, you can say that Kelly has his own system for offensive football and that he inherited a squad not recruited to play his style of football. If you want to be less kind, you can say that Kelly is more stubborn than a mule. That record needs to improve this year – particularly avoiding losses to out of conference opponents from the All-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference.
- Dan Mullen (Florida): He had Florida in the hunt for the SEC East berth in the SEC Championship Game last year; that slot went to Georgia. Florida fans expect the same sort of meaningful football again this year.
- Willie Taggert (Florida St.): His first year in Tallahassee was “unacceptable” to Seminole fans. The team finished 5-7 and did not make a bowl game for the first time in next to forever (1982); moreover, the team looked overmatched in many of its losses six of which were by 19 points or more. If Florida St. does not make it to bowl eligibility again this year, Taggert may be looking for work elsewhere.
One thing that must be part of any pre-season future cast is the section on “Coaches on a Hot Seat”. I am going to put a couple of coaches here who are not on a hot seat in the sense that they are likely to be fired at the end of this season; they are here because there are certain expectations for their teams that have not been close to fulfilled so far despite overall success.
- Chris Ash (Rutgers): Look, no one with the brains of rutabaga expects Rutgers to be a Top 25 football program. However, Ash has been on the job at Rutgers for 3 years and his record there is 7-29; last year the Scarlet Knights were 1-11. The poohbahs at Rutgers may delude themselves into thinking they might actually be able to hire a good coach to come to Rutgers; and then, they might use that delusion to fire Chris Ash.
- Randy Edsall (UConn): On one hand his job is very safe because UConn has opted out of its conference and faces the choice of making a go of it as in Independent or dropping down to Division 1-AA – – neither of which would be an attractive lure for a competent coach. On the other hand, his team last year was historically bad on defense allowing just over 50 points per game and about 9 yards per play to opposing offenses. Not surprisingly, UConn was 1-11 last year…
- Jim Harbaugh (Michigan): He will not be fired by the folks in Ann Arbor, but the fact is that he has not achieved what Michigan fans expected when he was hired 4 years ago.
- Clay Helton (USC): He was 5-7 with USC last year; the last time the Trojans had a record that bad was in 2000; the last time they had a worse record than that was in 1991. Need I say more…?
- Lovie Smith (Illinois): The school gave him a 2-year contract extension in this off-season so he may be safe for this year. But here is the rub; he has been at Illinois for 3 years and his teams have gone 9-27.
The one thing that I do not like about college football is that too many top-shelf teams go out of their way to avoid playing any reasonably competitive games out-of-conference. There will be mismatches dictated by conference alignments; when Ohio St hosts Rutgers, that is not a scheduling choice that either school has made. However, some of the very good teams make a mockery of their out-of-conference scheduling decisions. Here are seven (again in alphabetical order) that deserve a healthy measure of opprobrium:
- Alabama: Duke, New Mexico St. So. Mississippi and Western Carolina. Duke is at a neutral site; the other three games are home games for Alabama. Really …
- Florida St.: Boise St., La-Monroe, Alabama St and Florida. Florida is a traditional game; the other three games are embarrassing choices.
- Ohio St.: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami (OH). Surprise, all those games are in Columbus, OH…
- Oklahoma St.: Oregon St., McNeese St. Tulsa. A smidgen of good news here is that only the McNeese St. game is a home game for the Cowboys.
- Penn St.: Idaho, Buffalo, Pitt. All are home games; the game against Pitt is the reincarnation of what used to be a big rivalry, but still …
- Texas A&M: Yes, they play Clemson out of conference. They also chose to schedule Texas St., Lamar and Texas-San Antonio. Please…
- Va Tech: Yes, they play Notre Dame out of conference. They also chose to schedule Old Dominion, Furman and Rhode Island. Seriously …
Compare those out-of-conference choices with just one other team that should compete for the National Championship this year:
- Clemson: They play Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Syracuse and UNC-Charlotte.
Also, compare some of that cupcake scheduling against independents such as Notre Dame and BYU. Yes, I know that Notre Dame can schedule just about anyone that it wants because it will result in a nice payday for both schools. Nonetheless, Notre Dame could opt to schedule the Little Sisters of the Poor and Our Lady of the Amputees; the fact is that they do not, and you know they do not. You may not be nearly as familiar with the independent schedule that BYU has assembled for itself:
- The first four games are: Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington
- It gets a tad easier after that with games against Liberty and Idaho State.
Looking over the schedules for some of the teams that appear to be “top teams” for 2019, I have identified six games in the first month of the season that should be fun to watch as well as instructive as to what may come later in the season:
- Oregon/Auburn (31 August): Auburn is a competitive SEC West team and the SEC West is the best division in the best conference in the US. Oregon has QB, Justin Herbert, returning for his senior year; he could have declared for the NFL Draft in April and might have been the first QB selected. This is a neutral site game (Arlington, TX).
- LSU at Texas (September 7): Both teams – and many of their fans – consider the Tigers and the Longhorns as serious contenders for the national championship. I don’t agree – – but this will be an interesting game to watch just to get a yardstick on these teams.
- Texas A&M at Clemson (September 7): Last year’s game was a 2-point win for Clemson. I would not be surprised to see this game end as a “one-possession game”. Two of the best college QBs will be on display here – – Kellen Mond for the Aggies and Trevor Lawrence for the Tigers.
- Washington St. at Houston (September 13): I predict the Total Line for this game will be at least 80 points. If you like tight defensive battles, just avert your eyes…
- Texas Tech at Arizona (September 14): This should be another offensive explosion driven by the two QBs – Alan Bowman (Tech) and Khalil Tate (Arizona).
- Notre Dame at Georgia (September 21): The Irish were undefeated in the regular season last year; Georgia lost twice – once to LSU and another time to Alabama; neither loss was embarrassing. Both teams hope to be part of the national championship conversation in November/December.
I do need to make some observations about specific teams and their prospects for the upcoming season just to prove that I can embarrass myself at the college football level as well as I do at the NFL. So, here are five generalized team predictions (in alphabetical order) for some teams in 2019:
- Arizona: The Wildcats were 5-7 last year but – presumably – they will have a healthy Khalil Tate this year. They have a relatively soft out-of-conference lineup and the PAC-12 South is not the toughest division in the country. I think Arizona will be a winning team in 2019.
- Duke: The Blue Devils were 8-5 last year using a QB who was drafted #6 overall in this year’s NFL Draft. Coach Cutcliffe is reputed to be a QB-whisperer; unless he has a willing and talented listener for this year’s squad, it may be a stretch to see Duke winning 8 games again this year.
- Kentucky: The Wildcats were 10-3 last year and two of the three losses were to very good teams (Texas A&M and Georgia); they finished 12th in the final poll for the season. They won playing tough defense and using a grinding offense featuring Benny Snell. The defense may continue to be tough, but Snell and his 16 TDs are gone. I will be surprised if Kentucky comes close to winning 10 games again this year.
- Nebraska: The Huskers were 4-8 last year but they were 4-2 in the final half of their season. Adrian Martinez developed nicely as a true freshman at QB toward the end of last year and the schedule sets up favorably in terms of home and away games. Nebraska should be bowl eligible and may win 8 games in 2019.
- Tennessee: The Vols were 5-7 last year with a new head coach and a new system. They have a soft out-of-conference schedule that should provide 4 wins. Their SEC schedule is difficult, but Tennessee ought to be able to win 7 games this year.
I need to mention here a specific player and program. Jalen Hurts will be the Oklahoma starting QB after transferring there from Alabama. Two years ago, Baker Mayfield was the starting QB there; he won the Heisman Trophy and was the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Last year, Kyler Murray was the starting QB there; he won the Heisman Trophy and was the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. No pressure on Jalen Hurts this year … right …?
I need to mention here that Division III Linfield College will enter the 2019 season riding a 63-year streak of winning seasons in football dating back to 1956. I will be keeping you abreast of their progress toward another such season in “Football Fridays” again this year. If there is a longer streak of seasonal success in a team sport in the US, I am not aware of it.
Finally, here is an item from Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times regarding college football – – and one of its more colorful characters:
“Washington State football coach Mike Leach, to ESPN, when asked how he’d like to be remembered when his obituary is written: ‘Well, that’s their problem … What do I care? I’m dead.’”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………