It’s been just about eight months and exactly 205 days since we last saw live, actual college football, and if you’re a fan of the sport, you’ve felt every one of those 205 days and 4,900 or so hours.
Thankfully the calendar has finally turned to August, camp is underway across the country, and it won’t be long until college football again graces our airwaves.
Man, Week 0 has never looked so good.
Still, with college football now just weeks away it’s easy to look back at last season and remember all the big things that happened: Clemson smacking Bama in the title game, Trevor Lawrence emerging as “that dude,” and Jim Harbaugh coming up short again against Ohio State.
But what about all the other little stuff?
If you don’t remember every little detail from last season that’s OK. Let’s take a look back at last season, while also looking ahead at what 2019 has in store, with the 11 Biggest Questions Entering the 2019 College Football Season.
1) How Angry Will ‘Bama Be By The Time Their Season Opener Kicks Off?
It isn’t often that Alabama loses period, and it’s been years—literally a decade plus—since they got smacked around quite like they did on January 7 in Santa Clara.
There Bama was, losing 44-16 to Clemson and getting outscored by a staggering 30-3 margin over the final three quarters of that game. To make matters worse, the Crimson Tide lost a record seven early entrants to the NFL Draft and have seven new assistant coaches this off-season as well.
But if you think Nick Saban is feeling sorry for himself, think again. One, Nick Saban doesn’t have normal human emotions. Two, if there is any emotion involved here it’s the pity we should feel for all 12 of Alabama’s regular season opponents.
The Revenge Season for Alabama Football pic.twitter.com/F1SIJieBdC— Kirby Smart is Nick Saban’s son (@BuiltBySaban) July 26, 2019
The bottom-line is that while it was an off-season of turmoil, there’s little reason to think the Tide Express is slowing its roll any time soon.
Tua Tagovailoa returns after a season in which at least one writer (this guy) thinks he was robbed of the Heisman. With new coordinator Steve Sarkisian in charge (remember him?) this could be the most explosive offense ‘Bama has ever had, with four receivers who caught at least 40 balls last season returning, as well. The defense certainly has to plug holes, but they always do under Saban and never seem to miss a beat.
Ultimately however, Bama has one thing that they rarely have entering a season: a chip on their shoulder.
Be afraid, opposing teams in college football. Be very afraid.
2) Will Oklahoma Finally Figure Out Their Defensive Issues?
Because Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff last year and because Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy, it’s easy to forget that the Sooners were nothing short of atrocious on defense.
Lincoln Riley had no choice but to fire Mike Stoops mid-season, and even that move didn’t help all that much. In the final four games of the regular season Oklahoma gave up 46 points to Texas Tech, 47 to Oklahoma State, 40 to Kansas – KANSAS! – and 56 to West Virginia.
The question now is, with an off-season of tweaks and changes, will the Sooners be improved?
Oklahoma defense showing positive signs under new regime.— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) July 27, 2019
"He is the defensive version of what coach Riley is on offense. So, I think there's a reason why everybody is excited."
— OU assistant coach Dennis Simmons on Alex Grinch#OUDNA | #BoomerSoonerhttps://t.co/biiIO82gqO
The early returns are good, as Oklahoma welcomed in Alex Grinch as its defensive coordinator in the off-season. Grinch is the man who worked miracles in turning Washington State into a Top 20 defense nationally in 2017, before spending one season at Ohio State a year ago (he wasn’t in charge of calling the defense—that was Greg Schiano). And in a few weeks we’ll see what he has in store in Norman, where he inherits a defense that finished ranked 114th nationally last year.
Lincoln Riley said at Big 12 media day that Oklahoma’s offense isn’t going to miss a beat this season, and with Jalen Hurts under center there’s no reason to think he’s lying. But whether or not the Sooners can get to a third straight College Football Playoff, and potentially win a game once they get there, will rely on what Grinch does on the other side of the ball.
3) Is Texas Actually Back? No, For Real.
It’s one of fall’s greatest traditions, alongside the leaves changing and apple picking with your grandma. It’s arguing with your buddies over whether or not “Texas is Back!” And after a season in which the Longhorns won 10 games and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the “Is Texas back” commentary is at an all-time high.
But is it warranted?
Player A: Sam Ehlinger, Texas darling and "Heisman hopeful"— Blinkin Riley (@blinkinriley) August 1, 2019
Player B: David Ash, famously benched multiple times mid-game for being bad https://t.co/DxeIBZJfn9
While the Longhorns do finally seem to have some stability at quarterback with the return of Sam Ehlinger, they have holes to fill pretty much everywhere else across the board. Leading receiver LJ Humphrey left early for the NFL last winter and, in total, Tom Herman will be forced to replace eight starters off last year’s quad.
And it’s not like Herman has time to ease in all those new starters. Texas hosts LSU in Week 2 this season.
Lose that game, and an off-season’s worth of hype will go out the window for the Longhorns.
4) Speaking Of Which … Did We Crown Georgia Too Early?
The team that lost to Texas in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia, is again coming into the season with plenty of hype. But like the Longhorns, it’s fair to ask, is it still a bit too much, too soon for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs?
With 23 wins in the past two seasons it sounds preposterous; but dig deeper and it makes a bit more sense. After all, Georgia is still 0-2 against Alabama over the last two seasons, and even if the games were close, they were still, in fact, losses. Let’s not forget that Georgia also lost to the second-best team on their schedule last season, LSU, by nearly three touchdowns.
🚨🚨A new Aaron Torres Sports Pod is LIVE, as @RyanCFowler joins me to wrap SEC Media Days— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) July 18, 2019
* Why he doesn't believe Georgia is a threat to Bama
* Why he wasn't happy with Nick Saban's comments yesterday
* Plus, life advice!
Here's a preview. Download NOWhttps://t.co/qSpx3zYSwc pic.twitter.com/xMpi6WILUA
Which leads me to this: Has any team in college football ever gotten more hype after losing the previous season to the two best teams on their schedule? To take it a step further, has any other team in all of sports gotten more credit for close losses more than the Bulldogs do?
This isn’t pee-wee and you don’t get juice boxes and participation trophies at the end of every game. At some point Georgia has to win the big games if they want to be considered on par with the elite teams in college football.
With a loaded schedule that includes Notre Dame, an improving Florida squad, Texas A&M and yes, maybe another matchup with Alabama, the road to the top of the college football world won’t be easy.
5) Which Second-Year Coach Will Make The Big Leap?
This time of year is usually reserved for spending way too much time overanalyzing off-season coaching hires. But after a relatively tame off-season where few marquee jobs opened up, let’s do something different and focus on the second-year guys.
After all, it’s hard to remember an off-season in which there is so much intrigue around the guys in their second go-around.
Nebraska went just 4-8 last year, but with four of those wins coming in the Cornhuskers’ final six games, Big Red is entering the season with big-time, Big Ten West contender buzz. In a division with Wisconsin, Iowa, and the emerging Minnesota and Purdue, can they live up to that hype?
"People need to be somewhat patient because these things don't get turned around in a hurry."— Dan Corey (@DanCorey1011) July 27, 2019
Tom Osborne gives his thoughts on Scott Frost leading Nebraska in the right direction. #Huskers pic.twitter.com/uybMsi4CXl
How about College Station, where Jimbo Fisher exceeded all logical expectations in Year 1 with a 9-4 overall mark? The Aggies have a thankless schedule (they play Clemson, Georgia and LSU all on the road) and you’ve got to wonder if, because of it, we might have to wait one more year for Jimbo’s big breakthrough.
Chip Kelly went just 3-9 last year but returns more starters than anyone in college football. Will the Bruins make a move up the Pac-12 South standings? Can Willie Taggart ward off the naysayers in Tallahassee and do what he’s done at every other stop in his career and flip the Seminoles? Can Jeremy Pruitt finally get Tennessee off the ground and back into national relevance in Knoxville? Can Chad Morris win, like, one SEC game at Arkansas?
Again, first-year head coaches are sooo last year. This year, all eyes will be on the second-year guys.
6) How Long Can Clay Helton Survive At USC?
On the opposite end of the spectrum of “new coach trying to flip program” is hot seat talk. And no one’s seat is hotter entering 2019 than Clay Helton’s. And we’re going to find out quickly where Helton has the goods to stick around—not just into next season, but into the second half of this one.
Now in Helton’s defense, while it’s inexcusable for USC to ever go 5-7, some of it was a little bit overplayed. The Trojans actually started out 4-2 last year, and while they finished just 1-5 down the stretch, some of those losses weren’t as bad in reality as they looked on paper. Keep in mind that, of USC’s final three losses last season, they led all three at halftime, and simply couldn’t close. That included a game in the LA Coliseum against eventual College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame.
“I’m going to hire the best coordinators that fit what we want to do and I’m going to focus on what wins football games. I’m going to have a passion towards that and I’m going to make sure our players feel that.” -@USC_FB Coach Clay Helton at 2019 #Pac12FB Media Day pic.twitter.com/zZF9Sbp9Jh— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) July 24, 2019
And while an inability to close out games certainly falls on the head coach, it also falls on a young team that was lacking experience across the board last year.
Well, this year, there will be no excuse. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (who replaced previous new offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury—remember that magical two-week period where “Kingsbury at USC” was a thing?) is in, and highly-touted quarterback JT Daniels is now a sophomore.
The issue, of course, is the schedule, and we’ll find out quickly just how far USC has come in the off-season. Check this out: In the first month of the season, USC opens with Fresno State (which won 12 games last season), then plays Stanford, at BYU, Utah (a College Football Playoff dark horse) and at Washington. Then they get a bye, followed by … a trip to Notre Dame.
Before we start discussing whether or not “Helton can survive this season,” we need to discuss whether he can survive September. It isn’t inconceivable he could be out the door by Oct. 1.
7) Do The Pac-12’s Playoff Hopes Rest Entirely On A Week 1 Result?
It’s no secret that the Pac-12 has become a bit of a punching bag through the years, and it’s also no secret that the reputation has been mostly deserved. The league has missed the College Football Playoff the last two seasons, and hasn’t won a playoff game since Oregon beat Florida State in the first ever playoff game back in 2014.
This year the Ducks, for the first time since that playoff season, are the class of the league and the overwhelming favorite to win the conference and potentially make the playoff. That’s all well and good, but there’s just one problem: Their toughest game of the season might just come in Week 1, when Oregon will face Auburn at Jerry World in Dallas.
Justin Herbert is set for success in all areas this season. pic.twitter.com/h5zIW0J66B— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 23, 2019
While it feels a bit premature to say that the Pac-12’s entire playoff hopes rest in that one game (Washington and Utah are also probably contenders) it isn’t all that far of a stretch either. A loss there would immediately put the best team in the league behind the eight-ball in the playoff conversation and, even worse, it would crush the entire perception of the conference. A
fter all, what leg would the Pac-12 have to stand on in the playoff race if their best team on paper lost to, what appears to be, the fourth or fifth best team in the SEC?
Which is why Week 1 in Dallas is so important. Not just for Oregon, but for the entire conference.
8) Can Ryan Day Be Lincoln Riley 2.0?
You knew that no college football preview article would be complete without a mention of Ohio State—because, let’s be honest, Ohio State is always one of the biggest stories in the sport.
That tends to happen when you have a massive fan-base, are the two-time defending Big Ten champ and have a national championship all within the last five years.
Oh, and when you’re replacing one of the greatest coaches in college football history as well.
That’s right, we are set to enter Year 1 post-Urban Meyer, which means that we’re also entering Year 1 of the Ryan Day era. And all Ohio State fans are wondering: Can Day essentially become Lincoln Riley 2.0? As in, a well-respected coordinator who took the reigns form an iconic head coach and didn’t miss a beat?
#Buckeyes coach Ryan Day tells me #Sooners coach Lincoln Riley has been a "great resource" for him as he prepares for a similar situation Riley entered in 2017.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) July 19, 2019
"He’s one of the few guys who I thought could probably relate to the situation."https://t.co/434VI6iHEZ
It might just be the biggest question in the Big Ten this season.
On the positive side, Meyer didn’t leave the cupboard bare, and to his credit, Day also hit the recruiting trail and secured Dwayne Haskins’ replacement with the arrival of Justin Fields at quarterback.
Fields was once the top-rated quarterback in the 2018 high school class who spent last season at Georgia before electing to transfer. He ended up in Columbus and was given a waiver to play right away.
So that’s the positive.
The negative is, of course, that it’s impossible to expect anyone to live up to the standard Meyer set in Columbus. While it’d be easy to expect Day not to miss a beat, keep in mind that Meyer went 83-9 over his seven years at Ohio State. Yes, you read that correctly. EIGHTY-THREE AND NINE. That’s just an insane clip in which Meyer averaged over 12 wins per year.
So good luck to Ryan Day. You’re going to need it, my man.
Staying in the Big Ten…
9) If Not Now, Then When, for Jim Harbaugh?
If you’ve followed my work through the years (and if you have, shout out to you—you’re the real MVP!) you know that I’ve been a bit of a Jim Harbaugh defender. While it goes against the easy-to-believe narrative that Harbaugh is a massive underachiever, remember, he has three 10-win seasons in four years in Ann Arbor. Michigan had one 10-win season in the nine seasons before he arrived.
Still, while those three 10-win seasons are nice, it’s also impossible to ignore the other reality with Harbaugh: He hasn’t been very good against the elite teams in this sport. He is 0-4 against Ohio State and just 1-9 overall against Top 10 teams. For those who forgot, that included an embarrassing loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl to end last season.
Jim Harbaugh was asked what his Michigan team needs to do to break through and beat Ohio State this year: pic.twitter.com/yYfB52R1Lm— Lori Schmidt (@LoriSchmidt) July 19, 2019
Which brings us to 2019, the season that Harbaugh is officially out of excuses. As mentioned, Urban Meyer is out at Ohio State, and the Buckeyes have a first-year, first-time head coach in Day. Penn State is rebuilding in the post-Trace McSorely era. The Big Ten West doesn’t appear (at least on paper) to have a truly elite team.
Michigan, itself, has questions—specifically on defense, where they lost a lot of key pieces.
They also have more answers than most of the league. And with most of their big games (Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame) at home, they are officially out of excuses.
If Harbaugh can’t break through now, then when will he?
10) Can Trevor Lawrence Handle the Hype?
As we start to wrap up, let’s go back to where we began: With ‘Bama and Clemson. And while we discussed Bama at length at the top, we’ve been particularly quiet on the reigning national champions. But while Clemson enters another season as an overwhelming ACC favorite, it seems fair to ask just how much weight we’re putting on Trevor Lawrence’s shoulders?
After all, as incredible as this kid was last season, it was just one year ago that he was a relative unknown to all but a few Clemson fans and recruiting junkies. Then he took over permanently for Kelly Bryant in Week 4, led Clemson to the title and torched the normally un-torchable Nick Saban defense for 347 yards in the process.
Trevor Lawrence was completely unfazed by pressure last season. pic.twitter.com/F3b0sauT3n— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 24, 2019
And with that one big game against 'Bama, many are saying Lawrence is the best college quarterback we’ve seen since Andrew Luck. The crazy part is that those comparisons don’t seem preposterous.
But with a revamped defense that lost eight starters off last year’s title team (including three first round picks) more will be on Lawrence’s shoulders this year than last.
Only he knows if he’s ready for the hype.
11) Are We Headed for An Inevitable Clemson-Alabama Part V?
Yes, we just spent a bunch of time discussing the weight on Trevor Lawrence’s shoulders. And yes, Alabama has its own questions.
But while we can poke holes all we want, Alabama and Clemson have emerged in a class of their own in all of college football over the last few years.
If you’re unable to catch the game tonight, don’t worry: Alabama-Clemson V is tentatively scheduled for January 2020 in the Superdome #NationalChampionship— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) January 7, 2019
So, can someone knock that pair off the perch and stake their claim as college football’s best team? Some like Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, LSU and Texas are going to try.
But until further notice, college football is Alabama and Clemson’s world, and everyone else is just living in it. For everything that changed this off-season, that has remained the same.
Welcome to the 2019 college football season.