100 things to watch 100 days until college football kicks off

Two sportswriters, both with Southern drawls, found themselves sitting through a mandatory college sports summit last week in a place that simply oozes with college football tradition — Connecticut.

While listening to myriad speakers over three days, the first writer — Mark Schlabach — realizes that the 100-day mark of the first full weekend of college football is rapidly approaching. The other writer sitting next to him — Ryan McGee — suggests they pass the time by making a list of the 100 things they can’t wait to see during the 2018 season.

The conversation that followed went something like this …

McGee: I’ll start. New Nebraska coach Scott Frost absolutely fascinates me (1). We’ve been here for only 15 minutes and UCF’s “national championship” has already come up at least a dozen times (2). OK, I’ll admit it: Frost did a fantastic job guiding the Knights to an undefeated season in 2017. And I’m always intrigued when the prodigal son goes home (3). Maybe it’s because I love Johnny Majors so much.

But the question with UCF going forward is whether the Knights will be too busy polishing their fake championship rings to worry about what’s right in front of them, which is trying to build on what they accomplished (4). Don’t forget that UCF was the team that won my Bottom 10 championship just two years ago (5). Stability isn’t really its thing.

Schlabach: Speaking of prodigal sons and Johnny Majors, it would have been so much fun to see Lane Kiffin back in Tennessee (6). Who would have won more games on Rocky Top this season: Jeremy Pruitt or Greg Schiano (7)?

McGee: I think I know the answer, but I’m afraid to say it because I don’t want my house to be torched.

How about all the new coaches in Florida (8)? Willie Taggart replaces Jimbo Fisher at Florida State (9). Dan Mullen takes over for Jim McElwain at Florida (10) and Josh Heupel has the unenviable position of following Frost at UCF (11). Weren’t we just having this conversation about Florida coaches a year ago?

Schlabach: Miami’s Mark Richt is already the dean of FBS head coaches in the Sunshine State (12). That didn’t take long! I loved the Turnover Chain last year, but is The U really back (13)? The Hurricanes won a lot of close games in 2017, but that three-game losing streak at the end looked all too familiar. Quarterback Malik Rosier is going to have to play a lot better if Miami is going to unseat Clemson in the ACC (14).

We haven’t even talked about the legitimate national champions yet. Does Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts do what Blake Barnett did and leave the Crimson Tide before the season even starts (15)? I think we both agree it’s Tua Tagovailoa’s job to lose. Will Hurts stick around or transfer out to keep two years of eligibility somewhere else? I think Georgia’s Jake Fromm proved last year that the old adage is actually true: You’re only one play away (16). I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t hear Tagovailoa speaking at high schools anytime soon.

McGee: The good news for Alabama is that the Tide probably have the most complete running back unit in the country (17). They have, at worst, a top-five offensive line, and you might even argue they have a top-five receiver corps. It might not even matter who the Tide’s quarterback is going to be.

Schlabach: And we haven’t even mentioned Nick Saban, who has won more national championships than all the other FBS head coaches combined (18). Saban won one title with LSU in 2003 and five more with Alabama (2009, ’11, ’12, ’15 and ’17). With one more, he’ll pass Bear Bryant for the most championships by a head coach in the poll era, which dates back to 1936 (19).

The only other FBS head coaches who have won national titles are Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (three), Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher (one) and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (one).

McGee: So who’s the next FBS head coach to win a national championship (20)?

Schlabach: My money would be on Georgia’s Kirby Smart (21). He got the Bulldogs really close last year, before losing to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T. I think Smart is Saban’s biggest threat because he knows the Alabama program so well. He’s following the same blueprint as Saban, and Georgia is so fertile when it comes to recruiting (22). The Bulldogs are spending money on facilities, and Smart has everything he needs in terms of resources.

Georgia might take a small step back after losing so many players from last year, especially tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (23). But D’Andre Swift was fantastic as a freshman, and Elijah Holyfield looks like the real deal.

McGee: Did you really go there? You should be a sportswriter. What about Alabama’s defensive line (24)? Saban said it might be more athletic and deeper than it was a year ago, and that unit was pretty doggone good.

Schlabach: It’s funny you mention defensive linemen. I’m starting to think this might very well be the Year of the Defensive Lineman (25). Did you notice that our buddy Todd McShay had Houston’s Ed Oliver, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Michigan’s Rashan Gary going Nos. 1-3 in his first NFL mock draft for 2019 (26)? In fact, McShay projected 11 defensive linemen being selected in the first round, and Mel Kiper Jr. had 10 in the top 25 players of his initial 2019 Big Board. The big uglies might rule college football this coming season.

McGee: Ed Oliver might be the best football player in the country, regardless of school, conference or position (27). He won’t win the Heisman Trophy, because a defensive lineman will never win it. But when we were at the Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Atlanta in December, there were two guys every other player wanted to meet: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Oliver.

Schlabach: Why don’t we start Oliver’s Heisman campaign today? So who are the leading Heisman Trophy contenders going into the season (28)?

McGee: I suppose Stanford running back Bryce Love Jr. is the favorite, so we’re going to put East Coast bias to the test again (29). Two Big Ten tailbacks, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, also will be in the mix, along with a bunch of quarterbacks: Tagovailoa, Fromm, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, Arizona’s Khalil Tate and West Virginia’s Will Grier. It’s probably going to be a wide-open race (30).

Schlabach: Let me give you a dark horse: Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence (31). Not to sound like Beano Cook, but if Lawrence is as good as I’m hearing, he might win two or three Heismans. Or at least one more than Peyton Manning won.

McGee: You had to go there, didn’t you?

Schlabach: I can’t wait to see if we get Round 4 of Alabama vs. Clemson, or — even better — an Alabama-Georgia rematch in the national championship game (32). If that happens, we’ll have an eight-team playoff by 2019.

McGee: Did you know Dabo Swinney played at Alabama (33)?

Schlabach: Clemson might have the most intriguing quarterback decision in the FBS (34). It’s hard to imagine Swinney benching rising senior Kelly Bryant, who won 12 games and an ACC title in his first season as a starter (35). But I’m told Lawrence is a once-in-a-generation type of player, who might end up being even better than Deshaun Watson. Swinney was cautious with Watson and probably waited too long to hand him the starting job. Will he take the same approach with Lawrence?

McGee: I’ll give you another guy who didn’t get the starting job when he should have: Khalil Tate (36). He didn’t end up taking over until the fifth game last season, rushing for 327 yards with four touchdowns in a 45-42 win at Colorado. His numbers were stupid. We all know what new Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin can do when he inherits a good quarterback (37).

Schlabach: Can Washington’s Jake Browning save the Pac-12 (38)? That league really needs something good to happen. Its teams haven’t won a national championship since 2004 and really haven’t been much of a factor in the College Football Playoff era since Oregon reached the championship game in Year 1.

McGee: It has to be Washington or Stanford. Does the Pac-12’s entire season ride on Washington’s opener against Auburn in Atlanta on Sept. 1 (39)? If the Huskies get rolled, does the rest of the country check out on the Pac-12 after the first week? UCLA and new coach Chip Kelly go to Oklahoma and Arizona State hosts Michigan State the second week (40). By the end of Week 2, we might have already waved goodbye to the Pac-12. That’s crazy, but it’s a fact.

Schlabach: Speaking of Arizona State, what’s Herm Edwards going to do there (41)?

McGee: I think Herm will give the greatest speeches we’ve heard since Steve Spurrier was picking on everybody in the SEC (42). Speeches might be enough to buy you some time, but I don’t know if he’ll win enough football games. What I worry about with Herm — and I love him — is what concerns me about a lot of other first-year coaches: understanding everything else that comes with the job. It’s not just about coaching football.

Are guys such as Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Pruitt and Heupel ready to assume that responsibility (43)?

Schlabach: LSU coach Ed Orgeron has been known to give one heck of a postgame speech (44). Can Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow save his job (45)?

McGee: I don’t know if anyone can save Orgeron’s job. The Tigers open the season against Miami in Arlington, Texas, and play Florida and Georgia from the SEC East (46). They’ll get to play Alabama and Mississippi State at home, but I can’t see them winning more than seven or eight games. Am I wrong?

Schlabach: I know one thing: The Tigers are going to have to really flop for athletic director Joe Alleva to fire him. If Orgeron doesn’t make it, Alleva won’t stay employed, either (47).

McGee: Did you ever think we’d see the day when assistant coaches are making this much money (48)? Is LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda really worth $2.5 million per year (49)? Can he keep the other guys from scoring while Orgeron tries to figure out the offense? Does Tommy Hodson have any eligibility left? That seems like the last time the Tigers could score.

Schlabach: Which other coaches are on the hot seat (50)?

McGee: Now you’re in my wheelhouse with the Bottom 10. David Beaty has a 3-33 record in three seasons, and that’s bad even by Kansas standards (51). East Carolina is about to close out one of the worst decisions ever made by an administration. Scottie Montgomery is 6-18 in two seasons, and the Pirates don’t look like they’ll be any better (52). It’s the same thing with Lovie Smith at Illinois. The Illini are 5-19 in his two seasons there, but does anyone really care (53)?

How about Kliff Kingsbury (54)? Good looks will buy you only so much time. The Red Raiders had a losing record in three of his five seasons at his alma mater. They had better be good this coming season or Kingsbury might have to go into modeling.

Schlabach: Am I crazy to believe that Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh will be in trouble if he doesn’t beat Ohio State (55)? I think his act is starting to wear a little thin in Ann Arbor. He did get Ole Miss QB transfer Shea Patterson eligible for this season, but he has to win some games that really matter.

McGee: Harbaugh is 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State (56). If the Wolverines lose to Ohio State on Nov. 24, he’ll be the first Michigan coach to start 0-4 against the Buckeyes, dating back to the 19th century (57). That’s not good.

Schlabach: I’ll tell you one Big Ten team that’s going to be really good, and that’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a potential star in quarterback Dwayne Haskins and two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, who have had 1,000-yard rushing seasons (58). They’ll have to win at Penn State and Michigan State, but I think Urban Meyer is going to be back in the CFP (59).

McGee: What about Clay Helton at USC (60)? Is it too soon to say he’s on the hot seat?

Schlabach: The Trojans have won 21 games the past two seasons combined and went to New Year’s Six bowl games each year (61). I’ll tell you what’s going to be fun to watch: freshman J.T. Daniels starting at quarterback for the Trojans (62). He’s graduating a year early from high school and might be the starter the day he steps on campus. I have a rising high school senior and I can’t even rely on her to put away her laundry, let alone beat UCLA.

McGee: That’s one of the trends in college football that has blown my mind. When you and I were coming along, which wasn’t very long ago, you would have never turned over your offense to a true freshman (63). Now, people do it without even thinking about it, especially after Tagovailoa came off the bench to lead Alabama to another national championship (64).

Schlabach: Is new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher worth $75 million over 10 years (65)? It’s fully guaranteed! Even if he wins six or seven games in each of the next four seasons, the Aggies are still going to have to pay him everything.

(McGee quickly Googles the current price of a barrel of oil.)

McGee: About seventy-one dollars. That’s a lot of damn oil.

I have a friend who works in the movie industry, and I asked him if there was ever a movie star worth $75 million. He said, “Not a chance.” Are you telling me Jimbo Fisher is worth more than Tom Cruise (66)?

I think there’s a list of programs that have never been as great as they should have been (67). I’d put UCLA in there, along with Ole Miss and a lot of other programs. But at the top of that list for me has always been Texas A&M, because of where it is and how much money it has spent on facilities and salaries (68). The Aggies’ last conference championship came in 1998 and their last national championship was in 1939 (69). “Gone With the Wind” was still playing in theaters. That’s a long time ago.

While we’re on the subject of Texas, do you think Tom Herman can have the kind of second-year jump that Smart had at Georgia last year (70)? Can he turn things around after going 7-6 in Year 1?

Schlabach: The Longhorns have to settle on a quarterback, and it looks like it’s going to be Sam Ehlinger (71). Herman is recruiting very well, landing UT’s first top-five class since 2012 (72). UT lost a bunch of good players, but Herman is starting to get his guys on the two-deep, and those are the guys who really start to buy in and turn a program around.

If Ehlinger plays better, and receivers like Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay continue to develop (73), the offense should be a lot better. Incoming freshmen BJ Foster and Anthony Cook might be able to shore up the secondary. I think nine or 10 wins is a realistic possibility.

I don’t think Baylor is going to win 10 games this coming season, but I guarantee you the Bears won’t lose 11 games again (74). Matt Rhule is too good. I can’t wait to see what quarterback Charlie Brewer (75) does in his second season.

McGee: So who is going to have the best team in Texas (76)?

Schlabach: It has to be Texas or TCU, am I right? I’m not sure what to think about the Horned Frogs (77). They lost so many contributors from last season, but everybody tells me that Gary Patterson really likes this team. He’ll be counting on a lot of young players, but quarterback Shawn Robinson looks ready and pass-rushing specialist Ben Banogu is a potential All-American.

McGee: So who has the best team in the Big 12 (78)?

Schlabach: Dare I say that it’s West Virginia? If quarterback Will Grier stays healthy, he might be this year’s Baker Mayfield (79). He has a big personality and an even bigger arm. He has flourished in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. The Mountaineers won’t be great on defense, but who is great on defense in the Big 12?

Oklahoma isn’t going to fall off the map without Mayfield, but I think the Sooners will take a step back (80). They relied on him so much. Kyler Murray was a highly recruited quarterback, but I’m beginning to wonder if his heart isn’t with baseball. I love tailback Rodney Anderson. He’s a grown man and a freakin’ stud. OU has to get better on defense. The Sooners have to be able to stop good teams when it matters (81). That’s the reason they lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.

McGee: Is there a Group of 5 team out there that might do what UCF did a year ago (82)?

Schlabach: Maybe it’s Boise State. The Broncos have been in that position before, knocking on the door of the top 10 (83). Quarterback Brett Rypien is very good, but he’ll miss receiver Cedrick Wilson. The Broncos’ nonconference schedule includes games against Troy, UConn and Oklahoma State. If they run the table and beat a Power 5 team in a bowl game, maybe they’ll declare themselves national champions (84).

McGee: I can’t wait to see what Lane Kiffin has in store for Year 2 at Florida Atlantic (85). After winning 11 games in his first season, what does he do for an encore?

Schlabach: Beat UCF in Orlando on Sept. 21? His offensive coordinator, Kendal Briles, left for Houston, and his defensive coordinator and brother, Chris Kiffin, took a job with the San Francisco 49ers (86). His new offensive coordinator has a familiar name: Charlie Weis Jr.

McGee: I’m beginning to wonder if a Power 5 athletic director will take a gamble on Kiffin after this coming season (87). He has matured. I think he’s probably over the hump when it comes to being ostracized. He has proved he’s a good coach. Even Tennessee fans wanted him back.

Schlabach: Tennessee fans wanted everybody. Well, except Schiano (88). Nobody wanted Tennessee (89).

McGee: What do we make of Notre Dame (90)? Brian Kelly is going into his ninth season there. He has a 69-34 record. A lot of guys who coached there before him are probably wondering why that’s good enough (91).

Schlabach: ESPN’s Football Power Index is a lot more optimistic about the Fighting Irish than I am. FPI projects Notre Dame will win 10 games and currently ranks the Irish No. 5 in the FBS, behind only Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State (92). Say what?

I think Notre Dame has a chance to be pretty good. But there are at least five games on its schedule that are toss-ups: Michigan (home), Stanford (home), Virginia Tech (road), Florida State (home) and USC (road). And that’s assuming the Irish take care of business with everyone else (93).

The Irish lost two All-American offensive linemen, guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey, who were both selected in the top 10 picks of the NFL draft (94). And they lost highly regarded defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who’s making $1.8 million per year at Texas A&M (95).

McGee: I’m starting to wonder if there’s not a curse when a team reaches the national title game too soon (96). I’m not sure Notre Dame has ever recovered from that 42-14 drubbing by Alabama in the BCS National Championship after the 2012 season.

Schlabach: And look what happened to Oregon after it lost to Ohio State 42-20 in the first CFP National Championship. Mark Helfrich lost his job and the Ducks have had two more coaches (97). Do expectations get too high too soon?

I think the same thing has happened to Gus Malzahn at Auburn (98). The Tigers beat the No. 1 team in the country twice last season, but then lost to Georgia in the SEC championship game and UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (99). You might have heard about that one. Some Auburn fans were ready to run him out of the Plains. Now, he has a seven-year contract extension. What happens if he loses to Washington?

McGee: Might that be a warning for Georgia fans (100)?

Schlabach: I think we better get back to this guest speaker.

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