Far-reaching predictions ahead of the 2019 college football season.
Could we see a first time College Football Playoff participant this season? Will a non-quarterback be a serious threat in the Heisman Trophy race? Is there a chance Clemson or Alabama doesn't reach the national championship finale?
There's a lot of intrigue three months out from the start of the 2019 season, one that can't get here fast enough as we trudge through the summer months without it. Coming out of spring practice, there's a handful of teams we know will be ranked among the elites in August and a couple others with darkhorse buzz.
As for the stars expected to carry college football's momentum? The 2020 NFL Draft appears to be quarterback-rich and those guys are expected to carry their respective teams throughout the fall. But there's a few teams and individual standouts we're not talking enough about as well and perhaps this projection sheds some light on those.
Here are 10 bold predictions ahead of the 2019 college football season:
10. HIGHLY-RANKED FLOP? NOTRE DAME
Flop might be a bit harsh, but there's a chance Notre Dame — despite talent returning on both sides of the football — finishes with three regular-season losses, a number that will certainly keep the Irish well short of their expectations nationally as a preseason Top 10. Ian Book returns and should be one of the nation's top quarterbacks, but losing two captains up front — Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher — along with Dexter Williams and big-play wideout Miles Boykin means the Notre Dame offense will look a little different. Notre Dame won't be favored in road trips to Georgia or Michigan and there's several other games that could go either way on the schedule this fall, one that's tougher than last season's slate. Their efforts in getting back to the Playoff will be on life support after the September setback in Athens.
9. NEBRASKA REACHES BIG TEN TITLE GAME
Perhaps the boldest prediction on the list, could the Huskers really turn the tables on a 4-8 season with a Big Ten Championship appearance? It would take a Herculean effort from sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, but more importantly, better-than-expected play out of a defense facing questions entering the season. But there's two factors that weigh heavily on Nebraska's chances — the Huskers don't play in the black-and-blue division and face one of those rare schedules conducive to success. Scott Frost's team won't play a single Top 25 opponent on the road and their two toughest games — Ohio State and Wisconsin — come in ideal spots. They'll play the Buckeyes with budding confidence at 4-0 and battle the Badgers following an open week in November. Northwestern won this division last season and I expect it to be wide open once again.
8. TENNESSEE WINS 9 GAMES
It'll take a bowl victory, but the Vols will finish 9-4 during Jeremy Pruitt's second season and all will be well in Knoxville. We'll know if a better-than-expected finish for Tennessee is feasible heading into the Georgia game on Oct. 5 after a bye post-Florida. There will be extreme optimism and buzz if Pruitt's team goes into Gainesville and beats the Gators in their SEC opener after three straight victories at home. The offense should be much-improved under Jim Chaney if there's solid play up front and Tennessee likes its starting 11 on defense. Depth could be an issue with any significant injuries, but I'll roll the dice here and says the Vols only lose to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and either Mississippi State or Mizzou during the regular season.
7. ALABAMA PLACES TWO IN HEISMAN TOP 5
The last time one team has placed two players in the final five in Heisman voting came in 2008 when Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell and wideout Michael Crabtree were voted fourth and fifth, respectively. It has only happened four times since the turn of the century, but there's a good chance it comes back around this season with Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy. These two have a chance to be the nation's top quarterback-wideout tandem in terms of production and that comes in spite of Alabama's talent-wealth at the receiver position. Jeudy won the Biletnikoff award last season and could add more hardware to his trophy case as a junior. Both of these talented players will be first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft should they choose to come out.
6. SAM EHLINGER IS HEISMAN FINALIST
More on the Heisman conversation — here's a guy with Tim Tebow-like qualities, someone who makes the players around him want to use every last ounce of energy they have to win football games. Ehlinger is one of the few players nationally with it this season, an athlete with intangibles needed to be successful at the all-important position of leadership. The straw who stirs for the drink for the Longhorns, Ehlinger might be college football's most important player respective to his team's success. Should he take the next step as a passer this season, and I expect he will after last year's rise, this bulldozing signal caller could exceed 50 total touchdowns — especially if the Texas defense takes a slight step back with several new starters. Ehlinger's numbers will be too impressive to ignore for Heisman voters not to mention his play in spotlight games.
5. FLORIDA BEATS GEORGIA
All that preseason chatter from the Gators has increased the intrigue a bit for this one in Jacksonville and I liked Florida to back it up against the unbeaten Bulldogs. How's that for a big-time SEC upset pick? Honestly, it won't be all that surprising if both teams are inside the Top 10 when this matchup comes around in November. The Gators' schedule isn't going to do them any favors, however. Florida will come into the Cocktail Party with at least one SEC loss (Auburn, LSU, South Carolina three straight weeks pre-Georgia) and then face enormous pressure at Mizzou on Nov. 16 after beating the Bulldogs with a potential chance to clinch the East. Somehow, Florida will finish 6-2 in SEC play and miss out on a trip to Atlanta despite beating the eventual division champs. Another 10-win season for Dan Mullen, perhaps 11 if the Gators show up to their postseason with focus (like they did last fall vs. Michigan).
4. OREGON WINS THE PAC-12
Returning a veteran quarterback as talented as Justin Herbert can not be understated. But even with that universally-understood as a strength, if you're betting on a Pac-12 champion, chances are you're placing your wager on Chris Petersen's Washington Huskies. There's a certain trust factor there coupled with the Ducks' treacherous road slate — Stanford, Washington, USC and Arizona State. One of college football's national sleeper teams in 2019, if Oregon can rely on its defense in late-game situations, a Pac-12 championship is not out of reach. Justin Herbert's return means the Ducks will be in the thick of the conference title race if they can navigate their way through a challenging schedule. Much like Washington this fall, one of the Pac-12's top teams in 2019 won't be without a blemish or two. That elite-level 2019 signing class will pay immediate dividends for Oregon, too.
3. MICHIGAN BEATS OHIO STATE
It's bound to happen at some point for Jim Harbaugh, right? He gets the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor this season with senior quarterback Shea Patterson finally finding his comfort zone in an offensive scheme that'll compliment his skill set. And considering 2018's massacre and the year-long aftertaste it has left in the mouths of the Wolverines, there's extra motivation in this one for Michigan to snap the streak. There's three teams in my opinion who could win the Big Ten in 2019 and the Wolverines are one of them. Keep an eye on Michigan's defense this fall. Despite losing key contributors Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and Chase Winovich, Don Brown believes this could be the most athletic unit he has fielded at the program. There's the Ryan Day factor, too. Ohio State's first-year coach will be facing immense pressure to get back to the Big Ten title game in his first season and needing this one to do so.
2. BIG TEN MISSES PLAYOFF
Since Ohio State's national championship commenced the Playoff era to end the 2014 season, the Big Ten has scored zero points in two final four appearances and has not been represented since the Buckeyes' 31-0 loss to Clemson in the semifinals to end the 2016 campaign. That streak will continue as Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska beat up and each other this season in the upper tier. From the outside looking in, it's Michigan who appears to have the fewest questions but the schedule is challenging and a two-loss conference champion — whether that's the Wolverines or Buckeyes — won't be enough to impress the selection committee against the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and the Big 12 victor.
1. CLEMSON LOSES A REGULAR-SEASON GAME
One of five teams this season expected to be favored in every regular-season game (perhaps by double digits), the defending national champions should cruise to another Playoff berth without much adversity standing in their way. But no team nationally has a bigger target this fall and there's a possibility that the lack of competition on the schedule may backfire somewhere the Tigers least expect. With Clemson's over-under win total matching Alabama's at 11, beware. The Tigers needed a 13-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to earn the come-from-behind win last year vs. Syracuse at home and lost the previous time these two teams met at the Carrier Dome. That matchup comes on Sept. 14, after what could be a tough tilt vs. Texas A&M. And if the Tigers get past those two unscathed, there's two potential upsets in November away from home against rivals N.C. State and South Carolina.