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Spring Football 2018: 50 Things to Look Forward to in 2018

Shea Patterson, Michigan
It has been a long off-season without college football, but slowly, we are reaching the kickoff of the
2018 season. We are now 100 days away from the first real action of the 2018 campaign. In that spirit, we decided to cut it in half and look at 50 things to look forward to this coming fall. In no particular order, here are the storylines, players and teams that should leave us captivated every Saturday this autumn.

1. Opening Weekend: The 2018 college football season technically kicks off on Saturday, August 25th, but the real fun begins the next weekend. September 1st will feature some really fun matchups, all which should have a huge impact on the Playoff race. Michigan-Notre Dame will reignite their rivalry, Alabama opens up against the Lamar Jackson-less Louisville Cardinals, and Auburn-Washington should be a high-scoring affair. Then, Miami squares off against LSU a day later, and an ACC duel between Virginia Tech and Florida State will give us a fun Labor Day.

2. Alabama's Quest to Repeat: Its no secret Alabama has become the clear-cut top program in college football this decade, and they are hoping they can secure their sixth National Title under Nick Saban. There is serious talent everywhere on this roster, but how will this team adjust to a new D-coordinator and offensive coordinator, as well as an interesting QB competition?

3. Clemson's D-Line: While Alabama has become the most dominant program in college football, Clemson isn't far behind. The Tigers are the class of the ACC, and they should be stout once again in '18 thanks in large part to one of the best defensive lines we've ever seen in the sport. Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins all decided to wait on the NFL despite first-round projections, and junior Dexter Lawrence is another All-American candidate. Add in true freshman Xavier Thomas, a five-star strong-side defensive end, and this unit is absolutely terrifying.

4. Replacing Baker Mayfield: In his three seasons in Norman, Baker Mayfield became one of the most accomplished players in Big 12 history. He won a Heisman, made two Playoff appearances and won three Big 12 titles with the Sooners. He is off to Cleveland, but second-year head coach Lincoln Riley still has serious talent to work with. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray has big-time talent, but could pursue a baseball career, depending on what happens in this June's MLB Draft. If that is the case, Riley may turn to Austin Kendall, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the short spurts we've seen of him.

5. Shea Patterson at Michigan: With his flashy style and huge arm, Shea Patterson drew plenty of comparisons to Johnny Manziel while at Ole Miss. However, due to sanctions at Ole Miss, he was able to transfer anywhere and be eligible immediately. He ended up in Ann Arbor, where Jim Harbaugh was desperately looking to jolt his offense. How much damage will the former five-star recruit do in an offense with some impressive young talent at receivers, and a well-regarded offensive mind (Jim McElwain) likely to help out as O-coordinator?

6. Scott Frost in Lincoln: When Scott Frost took over at UCF, he inherited a program in shambles who had just had a 0-12 season. All he did over the next two seasons is go 19-7 overall, win a Peach Bowl and put together an undefeated 2017. He is now returning home to Lincoln, Nebraska to take over a program that has consistently underachieved over the last two decades. There will be a ton of pressure on the former 'Husker QB, but if his work elsewhere is any indication, Nebraska just got the man that can bring them back to an elite-level nationally.

7. UCF's Encore: What becomes of the place where Frost just left, UCF? The Knights put together a magical 2017, but losing Frost and defensive superstar Shaqueem Griffin will not be easy. New head coach Josh Huepel arrives after spending a few seasons as Missouri's offensive coordinator and the cupboard is far from bare. QB McKenzie Milton should put up huge numbers in Huepel's up-tempo, spread scheme, and there are enough offensive weapons to keep this team in contention to a win a second straight AAC title.

8. Big Ten East Power Struggle: There may not be a more chaotic and well-rounded division in college football than the Big Ten East. It isn't just Ohio State and Michigan, who will always be in the headlines, but Penn State and Michigan State have become consistent contenders who bring a ton of talent back in '18. Add in the quiet improvements of teams like Rutgers and Maryland, and the East should be as exciting and interesting as ever.

9. Joe Moorhead and Nick Fitzgerald: A huge part of Penn State's success the past two years has been the arrival of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Moorhead, the former head man at Fordham, created a super balanced system that stretched the field in a variety of ways. Now, Moorhead takes over at Mississippi State, and has plenty to work with. QB Nick Fitzgerald suffered a scary injury in the Egg Bowl last year but when healthy, is one of the premier dual threats in the country. It will be fascinating to watch such an innovative mind like Moorhead do serious damage with such an impressive talent.

10. Dan Mullen Returns to Gainesville: After a highly successful tenure at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen is moving on, taking over at Florida, where he was once the offensive coordinator. Long considered a quarterback guru, Mullen will have some serious work to do in Gainesville, who has lacked a premier signal-caller since Tim Tebow left town. Can Mullen and his new staff turn around a program that has been down for years, especially in the improving SEC East?

11. Khalil Tate and Arizona: After taking over mid-season as starting quarterback, Khalil Tate put together a magical 2017, rushing for 1,411 yards and averaging over nine yards per carry. Now, Tate will operate in an offense run by Kevin Sumlin, recently fired by Texas A&M. What will Tate do now, in an offense that will be as wide-open and aggressive as ever?

12. P.J. Fleck's Second Year in Minneapolis: P.J. Fleck has become a well-known name around the college football world because of his energetic and unique style. His first season with the Minnesota Gophers, however, was less than ideal as they limped to a 5-7 mark. With that being said, the Gophers continue to recruit the best they have in years and just landed highly touted JUCO transfer Vic Viramontes. Will Fleck's energy and creative ways end up creating a winner in Minneapolis?

13. Bryce Love: Big things were expected of Stanford's Bryce Love following the departure of star Christian McCaffrey, and he did not disappoint. He ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to winning the Doak Walker Award and finishing second in the Heisman race. After flirting with the idea of the NFL, Love opted to stay his senior season. It will be thrilling to see what the speedster can do with more experience under his belt.

14. Herm Edwards and ASU: Arizona State made one of the most interesting hires of the coaching carousel by hiring Herm Edwards, who had never coached at the collegiate level. Edwards is a great coach and motivator, but can he recruit and win at a level much different than the NFL? It seems like an experiment that will be highly successful or a huge failure.

15. The Continued Rebuild in Austin: Even though it started off slightly rocky, Tom Herman's first season in Austin was an overall success considering the circumstances. The Longhorns had their first winning season in years, identified a ton of young talent, and Herman continues to recruit at an incredible rate. There is an interesting QB competition brewing for UT, but this team has enough talent to legitimately contend for a Big 12 title, particularly with both Oklahoma schools likely to take a step back.

16. Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence: This year's recruiting class features a ton of talent, especially at the quarterback position. Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence are both five-star talents that have drawn rave reviews from scouts, and will be playing at Georgia and Clemson, respectively. Both impressed in their spring games, and there is no doubt they will continue to push the starters ahead of them, both incumbents.

17. Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M: The Aggies didn't surprise anyone when they decided to move on from Kevin Sumlin this past winter, but his replacement was a huge surprise. A&M decided to spend in a big way to land FSU's Jimbo Fisher. Fisher is a rock-solid coach, but moving from the ACC to the SEC will be tough, and expectations will be insane right away in College Station.

18. Miami's Breakthrough?: The Miami Hurricanes became one of the biggest stories of the 2017 season thanks to a 10-0 start and the awesome "Turnover Chain" they popularized. Their last three losses put a damper on their most successful season in over a decade, but head coach Mark Richt should continue to do big things in Coral Gables. A ton of their offense and defense returns, and the ACC Coastal is as wide-open as ever. This is a team that should have very legitimate Playoff aspirations in 2018.

19. Impact transfers: Shea Patterson isn't the only player switching schools that should have a big impact on the 2018 campaign. Former Texas Tech wide out Jonathan Giles should put up big numbers at LSU, Hawaii transfer Dru Brown should take over for Mason Rudolph at Oklahoma State, and big things are expected of Texas running back Tre Watson who arrives from Cal.

20. Redemption for the Pac-12: The Pac-12 conference as a whole had a dismal 2017. They were unable to get any team into the Playoff and their  two New Year's Six Bowl participants, Washington and USC, both were beat comfortably in their bowl games. In total, the conference went a lowly 1-8 in bowl games total, one of the worst performances ever in the postseason by a single conference. There is a ton of talent on the West Coast, and I expect a resurgent year by the Pac-12.

21. LA Quarterback Competition: With USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen both off to the NFL, both Los Angeles-based schools now must find new quarterbacks. The Trojans are overseeing a trio with little to no game experience but serious potential, while UCLA must decide between a number of youngsters (namely Devin Modster) and Michigan transfer Wilton Speight, who is eligible right away as a grad transfer.

22. Chip Kelly Back: Speaking of UCLA, the Bruins have a flashy new name on the sidelines, Chip Kelly. Kelly, of course, made a name for himself as the mastermind behind Oregon's freaky fast, high-octane offense before two rough stops in the NFL at Philadelphia and San Francisco. Kelly is an innovative mind who should be able to recruit, but college football has changed a lot since he left Eugene. Can he take UCLA to the next level, something his predecessor, Jim Mora, was never able to achieve?

23. Ed Oliver: Tom Herman is long gone from Houston, but his prized recruit he managed to land, Ed Oliver, is still wreaking havoc for the Cougars. Oliver has shown an impressive pass rushing regimen in his first two seasons at UH, and most believe he is just scratching the surface of what he can be as a D-Linemen. If he can get even better, the Cougars have one of the most dominant players in the sport, and a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

24. Wyoming's Underrated Defense: Josh Allen was the main reason anybody outside of the Mountain West cared about Wyoming football last season, as the gunslinging QB was a highly controversial Draft prospect. But, the Cowboys defense was quietly one of the best in the country a season ago. They allowed just 17.5 points per game (ninth nationally) in '17, and led the nation in turnovers forced, with 38. Eight starters return to the unit, a team that is a dark horse to win the conference.

25. Army vs. Navy: This annual battle between two service academies is always worth a watch, but it takes more meaning in 2018. Both programs are legitimately strong, as Army has taken huge steps forward under head coach Jeff Monken the past few years. The Black Knights may even be favored in this one, as they return significant talent on both sides of the ball this fall.

26. Coaches on the Hot Seat: As usual, there are a number of coaches on the hot seat entering this fall, from all regions of the sport. The big names have to be UNC's Larry Fedora, who is coming off a dismal 3-9 season, Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and Illinois' Lovie Smith. Being on the hot seat isn't a death sentence, but each will have to prove that their respective programs are heading in the right direction.

27. Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee: After moving on from Butch Jones, Tennessee's head coaching search was as chaotic and wild as you can get. They planned to hire former Rutgers head coach and current Ohio State D-coordinator Greg Schiano, before massive backlash from the fanbase. The Volunteers then made moves at Purdue's Jeff Brohm, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, Duke's David Cutcliffe and even Jon Gruden, missing on every single one. In the end, they decided on former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt is a proven defensive mind, and Georgia's hiring of Kirby Smart shows Alabama assistants can have success in the SEC East.

28. The Nation's Best QB-WR Combo: West Virginia got quite a Christmas present this past bowl season when quarterback Will Grier and wide out David Sills IV both opted to return to school, despite significant NFL interest. Grier has emerged as one of the Big 12's top quarterbacks, and Sills, a wild story himself, is a Biletnikoff Award frontrunner. With those two in charge, along with a solid defense, West Virginia could emerge as a serious Big 12 frontrunner.

29. Alabama's Revamped Defense: In typical Alabama fashion, the Tide sent off a ton of talent to the NFL this spring, and must now reload on both sides of the ball. That is particularly true on defense, where new defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi has to replace studs on every single level of this defense. It is a tall task, but there are breakout stars everywhere, namely linebackers Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses, along with former LSU transfer Saivion Smith at cornerback.

30. Kansas Turning the Corner?: It isn't much of a secret Kansas football has been the joke of FBS football for much of this decade, but there is still hope alive in Lawrence. Fourth-year head coach David Beaty was retained despite a 3-33 record in his first three seasons, and has his most experienced squad since arriving. Wide receiver Steven Sims is an All-Big 12 playmaker and the defense could actually be pretty good, led by D-Linemen Daniel Wise and D-back Mike Lee. With a favorable non-conference schedule, there is hope KU football could finally be making traction, especially with the strides Beaty has made on the recruiting trail.

31. Another Undefeated Season in Madison?: Wisconsin was able to roll through a very weak Big Ten West in 2017, running to a 12-0, flawless regular season. Despite the fact they were overpowered by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, it was a highly successful year in Madison. There is a chance they do much the same entering '18, returning QB Alex Hornibrook, back Jonathan Taylor and most of their stacked offensive line.

32. Drew Lock: Missouri's offense broke out last season, going from a mediocre unit to one of the most explosive in the SEC. Much of that can be attributed to the play of quarterback Drew Lock, who threw the ball over the field to record 3,695 yards and 43 touchdowns. Lock will have a new offensive coordinator after Josh Huepel left for UCF and will have to cut down on his 12 interceptions, but the veteran could assert himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country in 2018.

33. Life after Lamar Jackson: After two record-breaking years, Lamar Jackson is officially off to the NFL, leaving Louisville and head coach Bobby Petrino searching for answers offensively. Youthful sophomore Juwon Pass is the favorite to take over the reigns of the offense. He obviously has huge shoes to fill, but showed flashes of stardom last season and this spring.

34. South Carolina-Clemson Reignited: South Carolina-Clemson is one of the most passionate rivalries in college football, but it was been one-sided as of late, with Clemson winning four straight. The Tigers will once again be a serious Playoff threat, but South Carolina has a roster that could seriously challenge them. Quarterback Jake Bentley continues to improve, and a healthy Deebo Samuel could be a big help for a team that could win ten-plus games. This rivalry should be very exciting in 2018, and likely have a huge impact on the Playoff chase.

35. Rising Coaching Names: While there are a number of head coaches on the hot seat, there are a number trending up, set to get a bigger job. Troy's Neal Brown has built a very strong program and beat LSU last fall. Toledo's Jason Candle has picked right up where Matt Campbell (now at Iowa State) left off, and there are a number of coordinators set for better gigs, namely LSU's Dave Aranda and Clemson's Brent Venables.

36. Welcome Liberty: A FCS power for some time, Liberty football will be making the jump to the FBS in 2018. The Flames were not accepted into the Sun Belt, so they will be playing as an independent in '18. It will be a stark adjustment, but former Buffalo and Kansas head man Turner Gill has a proven pedigree at turning programs around, and the Flames may surprise some folks.

37. Michigan's Front Seven: While Clemson's defensive line will be the most dominant in the country, Michigan may have the best imposing front seven. Former No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary is only getting better and may prove to be the best interior linemen in the country this season. He is joined by end Chase Winovich, who flirted with the NFL, but instead is back after recording 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks a year ago. Add in one of the country's premier linebackers, the ultra-versatile Devin Bush, and defensive coordinator Don Brown should have plenty of fun this season.

38. A.J. Dillon: Meet the nation's most underrated running back: Boston College's A.J. Dillon. Playing at an under-the-radar school like BC, Dillon certainly didn't get much attention but was dominant, rushing for 1,569 and 14 scores on the year. How he ended 2017, with five straight 100-plus yard games, has fans very intrigued to see what the explosive back will do for an encore.

39. Willie Taggart with FSU: With Jimbo Fisher jumping ship to College Station, Florida State responded by hiring Willie Taggart, who was won at every school he has been at, most recently South Florida and Oregon. Taggart is a complete culture shift from Fisher; he has a carefree attitude and allows players much more freedom. Taggart also brings a different style of offense to Tallahassee, one that is sure to utilize the Seminoles' plethora of offensive weapons.

40. The Clemson QB Conundrum: There are quarterback competitions everywhere, but none may be more interesting than the one brewing at Clemson. The Tigers already bring an experienced, quality QB to the table in Kelly Bryant, but the addition of Trevor Lawrence raises questions. Lawrence had a terrific spring while Bryant, who ended 2017 on a poor note, struggled mightily. Just how long will it take for the five-star prospect to overtake the veteran signal-caller?

41. The Return of Michigan-Notre Dame: As I touched on earlier, the opening weekend this year will include Michigan-Notre Dame, a long-standing rivalry we haven't seen for a few years. The clash between two college football heavyweights is always exciting and could mean even more this season, with both teams possessing serious college football aspirations.

42. NFL QB Prospects: The 2019 NFL Draft is obviously awhile away, but quarterback prospects are already being evaluated. Guys like Oregon's Justin Herbert, Missouri's Drew Lock and Michigan's Shea Patterson will be under the microscope all season long. Which one, if any, will separate themselves from the pack?

43. Notre Dame and Syracuse: Neutral site games are nothing new in college football, but the ND-Syracuse game late in the season comes with a twist: it will be held at Yankee Stadium. The iconic venue is will offer something brand new to the sport of college football, and could feature an Irish team with plenty to play for.

44. Georgia's Running backs: Georgia had two running backs taken within the first 35 picks of this
D'Andre Swift
spring's Draft, as Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will both find themselves playing on Sundays. Amazingly, the thought out of Athens is that the running back situation could be even better in 2018. Breakout candidate D'Andre Swift has been great in the spring and has insane potential, while big things are also expected of Elijah Holyfield Jr. and newcomer Zamir White.

45. Another Run in Store for NDSU?: North Dakota State saw their streak of five consecutive FCS National Championships come to an end in 2016, as they were stunned in the semifinals by James Madison. They got their vengeance last year, taking down James Madison to win their 14th National Title in school history. The Dukes will once more be a worthy challenger, but the Bison have proven they are the program to beat at the FCS level.

46. Can LSU Return to the Nation's Elite?: It isn't much of a secret there is a lot of worry about the state of LSU football down in Louisiana. The Tigers, once one of the most consistently strong programs in the SEC and nationally, haven't beat Alabama since 2011 and haven't won ten games since 2013. They even lost their homecoming game last year to Troy, one of the most humiliating losses in school history. Second-year head coach Ed Orgeron now must find a way to replace his QB and star running back, along with a lot of his defense. If he doesn't, he could find himself on a very hot seat in Baton Rouge.

47. Group of Five Playoff Team?: One of the main criticisms of the College Football Playoff is that it doesn't include teams from the "Group of Five" conferences, which really limits it. UCF's performance last season only raised more questions about whether the Playoff ever will include a team outside the Power Five. If it does, Boise State, UCF and South Florida would likely be the favorites in '18.

48. The Heisman Race: With the last two Heisman winners going pro in this spring's Draft, the door opens for a new player to take over being the face of college football. It is obviously incredibly early, but the favorites have to be guys like Stanford's Bryce Love, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Penn State's Trace McSorley and Arizona's Khalil Tate.

49. Oklahoma's Backfield Trio: Already equipped with plenty of offensive talent, the real strength for Oklahoma in 2018 will be their three-headed monster at running back. Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams are all back, all guys who could start nearly anywhere else in the conference. Anderson is the real star, rushing for 960 yards and 11 scores a year ago, his sophomore year.

50. Lane Kiffin: One of the biggest personalities in the sport, Lane Kiffin is always worth a watch, and he grabbed plenty of headlines last fall. In his first season at Florida Atlantic  after guiding Alabama's offense for years, Kiffin went 11-3, won a Conference USA Title and was flawless in the conference overall. With a ton of talent back for the Owls, what will Kiffin do for an encore?

1 comment:

Mike McGowan said...

50 things - wow! This will take me some time to get through. You could tweet once/2 - day between now and the 8/25 and not run out :-)

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