Louisville's Jackson looks to lead Cardinals to playoffs after Heisman win
August 22, 2017 3:01 AM
by Jim Feist
It’s time to kick off a new football season! College football begins Aug. 26, so here’s a look at the top teams, starting with my top 21-40.
Bret Bielema’s squad made a bowl with upsets of Ole Miss, TCU, Florida and Mississippi State. Senior QB Austin Allen (25 TDs, 15 INTs) returns along with RB Rawleigh Williams (1,360 yds). The offensive line is experienced and new DC Paul Rhoads is shifting from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 with five starters back. They should be able to improve their red zone play on offense (No. 100 in the nation in efficiency).
A program on a quick decline got a big boost with the hiring of Coach Willie Taggart and DC Jim Leavitt. Taggart turned South Florida into an offensive power while Leavitt did wonders for the Colorado defense. Sophomore QB Justin Herbert (19 TDs, 4 INTs) impressed as a freshman while senior RB Royce Freeman (945 yards) is back. Freshman All-American linebacker Troy Dye anchors a young defense that helped pull a 30-28 upset at Utah as a +13 dog late last season. Their revenge game comes in Week 10 after losing 70-21 to Washington.
Despite chaos the Bears started 5-0 last season and finished with a winning record. New coach Matt Ruhle comes over from Temple where he ran physical teams that relied on a power running attack, so the offense will look very different from the Art Briles finesse spread offense. Soph QB Zach Smith (13 TDs, 7 INTs) has a strong arm and Baylor has a great 1-2 punch at tailback in Terence Williams (1,048 yds) and JaMycal Hasty (623). The Bears have a veteran O-line and new DC Phil Snow brings in a 4-3 scheme predicated on being physical in the trenches. The special teams are very good, so the Bears might go bowling again. They are on a 9-4 run UNDER the total.
37 Boise State
The Broncos started 10-1 in 2016 before flat finishes against Air Force and Baylor (31-12 loss). Head coach Bryan Harsin is rebuilding around junior QB Brett Rypien (24 TDs, 8 INTs). They lost their top back and most of the offensive line, however. LB Joey Martarano leads a young defense that will be tested with road games at Washington State, BYU, and SDSU. Boise carries an 8-5 run UNDER the total into the new season.
The Bruins bottomed out at 4-8, though three losses were by a TD or less. QB Josh Rosen (10 TDs, 5 INTs) missed half the season and the team was 3-3 when he started. They went with a pro-style offense last season and it was a disaster, so the Bruins will have more of a spread look in 2017 with their third OC in three years. The defense is building around Kenny Young and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. This group will bounce back, though the schedule is rough with a stretch of six games on the road in nine contests beginning in Week 3.
35 NC State
Coach Dave Doeren’s squad is moving in the right direction, with wins over Notre Dame (10-3) and a victory over rival North Carolina (28-21) as a +9 road dog. The Wolfpack also had an Independence Bowl victory over Vanderbilt (41-17). Junior QB Ryan Findley (18 TDs, 8 INTs) leads a balanced offense with RBs Jaylen Samuels and Reggie Gallaspy along with a strong O-line. Nine starters return on defense (#24 in yards allowed), anchored by senior DE Bradley Chubb (10.5 sacks).
34 South Florida
The Bulls are off an 11-2 SU, 8-5 campaign and welcome back 16 starters along with new head coach Charlie Strong who was at Texas. Senior QB Quinton Flowers (24 TDs, 7 INTs) leads the way after rushing for 1,530 yards, 7.7 yards per carry. WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (415 yds) averaged 18.9 yards per catch. The defense has some key losses and needs work, allowing 482 ypc. But that’s Strong’s specialty and the secondary picked off 15 passes and returns Ronnie Higgins. And the schedule is easier without playing Florida State again.
33 Mississippi St.
Dan Mullen’s squad is off a losing season (6-7) but it ended strong with a pair of victories, including 55-20 as a +10 dog at rival Ole Miss. Hopes are high for a winning campaign with a slew of starters back and a great recruiting class. Junior QB Nick Fitzgerald (21 TDs, 10 INTs) ran for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs. Sophomore WR Don Gray (709 yards) is outstanding. New DC Todd Grantham gets a gem in freshman LB Willie Gay, a top recruit, along with former Michigan State defensive lineman Montez Sweat. And they get LSU and Bama at home.
32 Virginia Tech
Coach Justin Fuente has to decide on a QB for the defending Coastal Division champs. Freshman Josh Jackson has the early lead, but they also have JC transfer A.J. Bush and freshman Hendon Hooker. RB Travon McMillian looks to return to his 1,000 yard form of 2015 to take some pressure off the young QBs. The Hokie defense looks strong with Vinny Mihota, Tim Settle and Ricky Walker up front, along with experienced DBs Mook Reynolds and Greg Stroman. In Week 5, Va Tech hosts Clemson, a 42-35 loss last fall.
The Cardinals dazzled, then flopped in a 0-3 SU/ATS finish, losing to Houston and Kentucky as -17 and -28 chalk. So who are the real Cardinals? The offense ranked sixth in points (42.5 ppg) with 242 yards rushing and returns Heisman Trophy-winning QB Lamar Jackson (30 TDs, 9 INTs), who ran for 1,571 yards. Throw in senior RB Jeremy Smith (383 yds) and the offense should be explosive again. The Cardinals were 124th in the nation in sacks allowed per game, so Bobby Petrino made some coaching changes. The defense lost key players and their coordinator but there is talent. Louisville heads to Tallahassee this fall after humiliating FSU, 63-20. Revenge game of the Century?
The Cougars went 9-4 SU/ATS with the four losses by a total of 8 points! Junior QB Tanner Magnum (3 TDs, 1 INT) is a two-way threat who started 12 games two years ago and is well suited for Ty Detmer’s pro-style attack. There are new targets but the depth on both sides of the line is impressive. BYU added four defensive linemen earlier this year, while the O-line should be outstanding. The schedule is the biggest challenge with LSU, Wisconsin and Boise State before Oct. 7. BYU is on a 10-3 run UNDER the total.
Wow, from 1-8 in the Pac 12 to 8-1! Coach Mike MacIntyre has worked wonders and has some key challenges for 2017. The Buffaloes excelled because of a dynamite defense that was tops in the conference but loses 8 starters. Seniors Leo Jackson and Timothy Coleman will have bigger roles on a unit that allowed 21.7 ppg. The offense returns sophomore QB Steven Montez (9 TDs, 5 INTs), who shared time and gained valuable experience. The Buffs have one of the best groups of receivers in the Pac 12 in Shay Fields (883 yds) and Devo Ross (787), plus RB Phillip Lindsay (1,252 yds). They still have something to prove after ending the year with losses to Washington (41-10) and Oklahoma St (38-8).
The Gophers went 9-4 and are on a 22-15-2 ATS run. Despite this they bring in a new coach in P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan). Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft are battling it out at QB and will lean on dynamic junior RBs Rodney Smith (1,158 yds) and Shannon Brooks. The defense (22.9 ppg) impressed and looks strong all-around again behind Gaelin Elmore and Steven Richardson up front. They could start 5-0 before getting Iowa and Michigan back to back.
Coach Gary Patterson’s team has plenty of offensive punch returning to a unit that averaged 31 points, 268 yards passing and 195 rushing. Sonny Cumbie will call plays, while pass-happy Sonny Dykes is aboard. QB Ken Hill (17 TDs, 13 INTs) returns but was erratic, so athletic freshman QB Shawn Robinson may usurp him. They will utilize senior RB Kyle Hicks (1,042 yards rushing), who is also a terrific receiver (417 yds, 47 catches). The O- line is very strong while the defense has the best LB duo in Big 12 in junior Ty Summers and Travin Howard, who topped the league with 130 tackles. TCU carries a 51-12 SU/35-28 ATS run at home into new season.
Hopes were sky-high for Coach Butch Jones and the Vols last season and they went 9-4. QBs Jarret Guarantano and Quinten Dormady (148 yards) are battling it out, while the ground game returns junior RB John Kelly (630 yds), plus junior WR Jauan Jennings (580 yds) to help the QBs. Four starters return on a solid O-line. The defense loses its top players and allowed 45 or more points in three of its four defeats. The Vols might continue their 9-4 run OVER the total.
The Canes won 9 games last season, thrashing West Virginia in a bowl, 31-14. Mark Richt works in junior QB Malik Rosier (32 yards), though Jack Allison is a top recruit and may step in. The offensive line improved in the second half of the season and returns its best players plus adding LSU transfer LT George Brown. RB Mark Walton topped 1,000 yards and is back after averaging 5.3 ypc.
The defense excelled at getting after the passer and has a strong group returning, led by DE Joe Jackson. It shapes up as one of the best D-lines in the ACC, though the secondary has a lot of youth. The big one is Week 3 at Florida State, a 20-19 loss last year as a +13 dog.
Coach Mike Riley runs a pro-style attack and has to decide between QBs junior Tanner Lee and freshman Patrick O’Brien. They can lean on junior WR Stanley Morgan Jr (453 yds) but the ground attack has been a weak spot the last few years. Bob Diaco is the new DC (Cincinnati, Notre Dame) inheriting a unit that was No. 31 in the nation allowing 22.8 ppg. He prefers a 3-4 front but the jury is out on whether they have the personnel to make it work. At least the secondary is strong behind Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. Nebraska is 26-18 SU/26-16-2 ATS on the road run, plus on a 9-4 run UNDER the total.
23 Washington St.
Mike Leach and his pass-happy attack was No. 18 in the nation in yards (483) and third in passing (362.5) that averaged 38.2 ppg. QB Luke Falk (38 TDs, 11 INTs, 4,468 yds) is back with multiple targets to scatter the field at receiver and in the backfield. Keep an eye on WR Easop Winston, a JC transfer, who dazzled at San Francisco. The defense is solid (26.4 ppg allowed) with Hercules Mata’afa up front and LB Payton Pueller. The Cougars open with 5 straight home games, then play 5 of 7 on the road.
A young group of Tigers went 8-5 SU/9-4 ATS and Gus Malzahn has 15 starters back. Auburn has a strong offensive line and two talented QBs in Sean White (9 TDs, 3 INTs) and newcomer Jarrett Stidham. Throw in RB Kerryon Johnson (895 yds) and Kamryn Pettway (1,224 yds, 5.9 ypc) and this offense is balanced. The D-line lost its top two players and has to play 5 of their first 8 games on the road, including at LSU and Clemson (a 19-13 loss in 2016).
21 West Virginia
Coach Dana Holgorsen is off a 10-3 campaign behind a strong offense that averaged 31.2 points, 257 yds passing and 228.4 rushing. Junior QB Will Grier arrives from the Florida Gators where he had 10 TDs, 3 INTs. Senior RB Justin Crawford (1,001 yards, 7.7 yards per attempt) was the Big 12’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year. The WRs are deep, anchored by senior Ka’Raun White (583), while the defense excelled in their 3-3-5 scheme allowing 23.4 ppg. There are new faces on the D-line and the secondary returns senior safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who missed all last year with an injury but is a solid player. And graduate transfer DB Corey Winfield, a two-year starter at Syracuse. The Mountaineers carry a 7-3 run UNDER the total into the new season.
Next week: The Top 20.