In 106 days college football will be back. In the meantime, dig into some of these daring predictions for the upcoming season.
Step one is determining the SEC champion. I like Georgia to come out on top in the SEC East, using their dominant offense to climb over Florida and South Carolina. Alabama's schedule is too manageable to pick anyone else in the West. A Bama-UGA rematch would be highly entertaining but I like Saban's defense to make more plays than Richt's young D, which returns just three starters.
As for the other half of the BCS title game I have some bad news for a couple teams. Louisville will run the table, but their lousy schedule will force them to have to settle for the Fiesta Bowl. Boise State will also run the table with two exciting wins over Fresno St, first in the regular season and then in the inaugural MW title game, but strength of schedule will also be their undoing. Clemson, Ohio State, and Stanford will headline a strong group of one-loss teams on the outside looking in. That leaves Oregon at 13-0, heading to the BCS title game for the second time in four years. Marcus Mariota, DAT, Josh Huff and Colt Lyerla lead an explosive offense, but it will be an improved defense that makes the difference for the Ducks. By season's end, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and defensive lineman Arik Armstead could be making a push for All-American honors. It should be a phenomenal title game, with Alabama matching the Ducks punch-for-punch behind the play of T.J. Yeldon and fellow sophomore Amari Cooper. This time I like the Ducks to get the fourth quarter break and edge out Alabama and the SEC for the BCS championship, 34-31.
Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback. No disrespect to Mr. Manziel, but Johnny Football will face unrealistic expectations all season, so don't count on him repeating the feat. Mariota has everything going for him. Huge stats? Check. Name program? Check. Chance at an undefeated season? Check. Then you have the regional voting that should work in his favor. The Heisman balloting is divided into six regions: Far West, Mid Atlantic, Mid West, North East, South, Southwest. Mariota will only have to compete with his teammate De'Anthony Thomas for Far West votes, as there are no other Heisman favorites on the West coast. A player like Aaron Murray, on the other hand, will have to compete against Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Miami's Duke Johnson in the South region. Dominating the voting in your region is vital. Mariota will have a huge stage to impress the rest of the voters on Nov. 7th when the Ducks travel to the Farm for a seismic showdown with Stanford. If he dominates and gives Oregon the inside track to the title game, he'll be the front runner.
A record 73 underclassmen declared for this year's NFL Draft, a trend that opens the door for younger and younger players to see the field at the collegiate level. LSU set an NCAA record this year, sending 10 underclassmen, a total that didn't even include Tyrann Mathieu. The youth movement has made it's way to the Best Buy Theater in New York City. Ten of the last 13 Heisman finalists have been underclassmen and there is a good chance this year we will see the young bloods taking over again. Eight of the ten early favorites to win the prestigious award, according to Vegas odds, are underclassmen. Three seniors have a shot to fly to NYC: Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Georgia's Aaron Murray.
Indiana, Ole Miss and TCU all have a chance to catch teams napping in 2013. Indiana's offense was cooking down the stretch last year and they return 19 starters, including a rising star at quarterback (Cameron Coffman). If the Hoosiers get off to a hot start (Ind St, Navy, BGSU), I like their regular season finale against Purdue to take on added importance with a bowl bid hanging in the balance. Ole Miss returns 18 starters from a surprising 7-6 team, which saw them win a bowl game for the first time since 2009. The offseason was nothing short of miraculous, as the Rebels landed the 5th-rated class in the nation. The infusion of young talent to go along with a second year starter at QB could push Ole Miss to a New Year's Day bowl game. The sky is the limit for TCU. The Horned Frogs welcome back Casey Pachall at QB and 15 other starters. They open with LSU right in their backyard at Jerry World. An upset of the Tigers could be the springboard to a top-10 finish and a BCS bowl.
Johnny Football and Cam Newton never started a game prior to their Heisman Trophy seasons. For that reason, every comprehensive Heisman watch list needs to have a few players off the national radar. At QB, I'm going with Baylor's Bryce Petty. Baylor opens with four home games against awful defenses and Art Briles has surrounded the junior with speedy playmakers. Baylor should be ranked and 4-0 by the time they travel to Kansas State on Oct. 12th. At RB, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has a chance to make the folks on State Street forget all about Monteé Ball. Wisconsin's new head coach, Gary Anderson, made Kerwynn Williams into a star at Utah State and Gordon is a more talented version of the Aggie back. Williams eclipsed 2,000 total yards in 2012 and I like Gordon to do the same for Wisconsin. At WR, Houston's Deontay Greenberry, a former five star recruit, is sliding into the Y receiver slot, a position that has produced 100+ receptions in previous years. The Cougars have a Downy soft opening in 2013 (Southern, Temple, Rice, UTSA, Memphis), which should lead to some huge stats for Greenberry.
A moment of silence for the ridiculously named Leaders and Legends divisions. The new East and West divisions are not just a change in name, the deck is also being shuffled by Jim Delany, starting in 2014. This has led to the East being stacked and the West, well, not so much. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all find themselves in the most challenging division this side of the SEC West. Wisconsin and Nebraska are the lone powers in the new Big Ten West, although Northwestern has grown into a formidable program under Pat Fitzgerald. If this imbalance plays out the way most commentators are fearing, the question is, will Delany consider another realignment? I doubt it.
There were 30 coaching changes this offseason, but not all hires were created equal. Three hires in particular jumped off the page. Sonny Dykes packed his bags and headed West, taking his offensive coordinator Tony Franklin with him. Dykes has some serious toys to play with at Cal, keep an eye on Brendon Bigelow in Dykes' first year. Staying in California, San Jose State did a fine job landing a rising star from the FCS ranks. Ron Caragher successfully replaced Jim Harbaugh at San Diego and is set to inherit a dangerous offense led by David Fales. Kliff Kingsbury takes over at his alma mater and the young coach has already shown himself to be an offensive genius. Last season, he coached up the first freshman to win the Heisman trophy and his wide open philosophy should remind the Lubbock faithful of the Mike Leach era. Tech returns eight starters on defense, so if KK can work his magic with Michael Brewer at QB, the Red Raiders could compete for the Big XII title in his first season.
There are some big names on the hot seat entering the season. Lane Kiffin, Charlie Weis, Kirk Ferentz and Steve Sarkisian shouldn't be buying any green bananas this year. If Jim Mora, Jr. takes back LA with a second straight victory over the Trojans, you can start sending your résumés to Pat Haden. Charlie Weis is coming off a 1-11 season that was less competitive than that record indicates. Weis needs at least four Ws to keep his job and you'd be hard pressed to find two on his current schedule. Did you know Kirk Ferentz is the sixth highest paid coach in college football? The five coaches ahead of him have all won BCS championships. Iowa paid Ferentz $958,750 per win last season. Finally, back-to-back 7-6 campaigns for Sarkisian has UW fans grumbling. The UW program was once the jewel of the Northwest and if they feel Sark has hit his ceiling they may serve him his walking papers by December.
Johnny Football is larger than life. He was court side in Houston, then on the water in Cabo and he avoided the sand at Pebble Beach. His off-field lifestyle caused a bit of a backlash this offseason with analysts wondering if he could replicate his on-field dominance. Manziel was in mid-season form during A&M's spring game last month, putting any sophomore slump fears to rest. The reality for Manziel and the Aggies, however, is that the Heisman winner could play at a higher level in 2013 and the team could still fall short of their 2012 heights. A&M only returns four starters on defense and they won't be sneaking up on anyone this year. Alabama travels to College Station on Sept. 14th and something tells me that Nick Saban has been agonizing over last year's five point defeat to the Aggies. Unless Johnny Football learns how to play defensive back, I have a feeling A&M will come up short in a lot of highly entertaining shootouts.
The college football playoff is within sight, but that doesn't mean the BCS is going out with a whimper. Like a meteorologist studying disturbances in remote portions of the Atlantic, I have my eye on a few scenarios that could shake up the final year of the BCS. The SEC champ has the equivalent of an auto-bid, provided they don't lose more than one game. After that, there could be a pile up of undefeated teams vying for the second slot in the national title game. Louisville returns 15 starters, a Heisman candidate at QB and a schedule that may not feature a single top-25 opponent. Oregon and Stanford are both capable of running the table, which gives their Nov. 7th meeting at The Farm a national semi-final feel. Clemson and Florida State have a similar opportunity on Oct. 19th with the Noles traveling to Death Valley. Both of those ACC squads have the strength of schedule to make a title game claim as an undefeated or one-loss team. Ohio State is on a 12-game winning streak and has the chance to be special in '13. Notre Dame and Boise State both have a chance to crash the BCS party as well. The Irish have multiple opportunities to capture marquee wins and Boise has a good chance to run the table, which would include the inaugural Mountain West championship game. By season's end there is a high likelihood that there will be four or five teams deserving to play in the national title game, a familiar recipe for disaster.