Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Casual Fan's Guide to the 2015 College Football Season

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot is really good.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

College football gets going with the largest FBS kickoff showcase ever tonight. With 19 games on the schedule for this evening, eight more to come on Friday, and then the "true" kickoff on Saturday, the sheer number of teams, conferences, coaching personalities and players can be overwhelming.

Some people dive into every bit of that, and some people prefer a more casual approach. This article is for the latter. So, with that in mind, let's take a look around the country at what you should know about the upcoming college football season.


Teams You Should Care About: Florida State, Clemson, Duke

The Seminoles are still a national title contender, and Everett Golson (who led Notre Dame to the BCS final in 2012) takes over for Jameis Winston under center. Off the field issues aside, FSU has to be on your radar with rare talents like RB Dalvin Cook (who faced battery charges this summer) and do-it-all defensive back Jalen Ramsey.

Clemson, meanwhile, is looking to break through, and will lean heavily on uber-talented sophomore QB Deshaun Watson. The young signal caller is coming off a torn ACL, but many seem to believe he'll be back at full strength. He'll need to be, as the Tigers lose star pass rusher Vic Beasley to the NFL and will be looking to reload on defense.

Duke, meanwhile, continues to be surprisingly good under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils have won at least nine games the last two years, and avoid FSU, Clemson and Louisville on the schedule.

Maybe Care About: Virginia Tech

The Hokies could contend in a weak Coastal Division where Duke and constantly disappointing North Carolina and Pittsburgh are their biggest competition. VT was its typically solid self on defense last year, ranking second in the conference in scoring D at 20 PPG, and should be even better in 2015 with leading pass rushers Ken Ekanem and Dadi Lhomme Nicolas returning, along with three starters in the secondary.

Frank Beamer's squad will play Ohio State in the non-conference (and Purdue, but come on), and avoid both FSU and Clemson in conference, while getting UNC, Duke and Pitt all at home.

While there are questions about senior QB Michael Brewer and the offense, this league just might be mediocre enough for VT to win playing one-dimensional football.

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Syracuse, Wake Forest, Virginia

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Brad Kaaya, So. QB, Miami; James Connor, Jr. RB, Pitt

Kaaya enters his sophomore season essentially playing for coach Al Golden's job. If the talented passer can take the next step from a stellar freshman season, it's not out of the question that Miami wins 8 or 9 games against a tough schedule and keeps Golden.

Connor, meanwhile, is the conference's reigning Offensive Player of the Year, and the 250-pound bruiser's downhill running style should fit right in with new coach Pat Narduzzi's mentality. With a ton of experience returning in front of him on the Panther offensive line, look for Cook to improve upon his video game numbers (26 TD, 5.9 YPC) from last year.

Big Ten

Teams You Should Care About: Ohio State, Michigan State

These are easily the two best teams in the conference, though Ohio State is admittedly a notch above. We'll talk more about the Buckeyes in a bit, but don't sleep on coach Mark Dantonio's defense, built around All American DE Shilique Calhoun, or the savvy play of senior QB Connor Cook.

Maybe Care About: Minnesota

Well, somebody has to win the Big Ten West, and it ain't gonna be Purdue, Northwestern or Illinois. Iowa, meanwhile, continues its fall into irrelevancy under past-his-time coach Kirk Ferentz, while Wisconsin and Nebraska are each breaking in new coaches.

Oh, and Minny might actually be pretty good.

The Gophers return dual-threat QB Mitch Leidner, along with a talented and now experienced back-seven on defense. Minnesota is far from perfect, but a weak division, and pivotal matchups against Wisconsin and Nebraska both coming at home, make them one to watch.

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Purdue, Indiana, Illinois

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Ezekiel Elltiot, Jr. RB, Ohio State; Christian Hackenberg, Jr. QB, Penn State

The Buckeyes are pretty much loaded across the board, so you could've thrown in any of their quarterbacks (Cardale Jones, the likely starter, or J.T. Barrett who played well last year), a former quarterback (Braxton Miller, who was a Heisman candidate to begin last year and is now playing WR and TE), or a defensive stud (man-child Joey Bosa), but Elliot makes the OSU offense go.

His punishing running style and break-away speed made him unstoppable down the stretch, rushing for 696 yards and 8 touchdowns on an absurd 9.2 YPC during the Buckeyes' final three games. Those games would be the Big Ten Championship Game, and both playoff games.

Yeah, he's a dude.

I say watch Hackenberg, but not necessarily because he's that good. In fact, his numbers suggest he's a below average Big Ten signal caller, throwing for under 3,000 yards and more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12).

But Hackenberg is, somehow, the consensus top pick in next year's NFL Draft. Yeah, have fun figuring that out. Hype aside, Hackenberg does have all the physical tools, and arm strength galore, but with an improved supporting cast and his second year in James Franklin's system, a major step will be expected.

Can he even get back to his freshman year form, or is this another case of unfulfilled potential?

Big 12

Teams You Should Care About: TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma

TCU and Baylor will both again be able to score points in abundance, while Oklahoma just might have the most talented roster in the conference. Things may come down to that Baylor at TCU game on November 27th, but don't sleep on Baylor hosting the Sooners two weeks prior, or Oklahoma hosting TCU in between those two games on the 21st.

Basically, the end of November is all you need to watch in this conference.

Maybe Care About: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys seem to have something in sophomore QB Mason Rudolph, who threw 6 TDs in his three starts last season. When Mike Gundy has a competent QB, wins seem to follow, and nobody in the Big 12 has a more favorable conference schedule that Okie State.

Firstly, the Cowboys will play just four of their nine conference games on the road, and will battle powerhouses TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma all at home. Only a trip to Morgantown on Oct. 10th could be considered a "daunting" road game, and the Cowboys return a more disruptive defense than you remember, led by double-digit sack man Emmanuel Ogbah.

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Kansas, Iowa State

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Trevone Boykin, Sr. QB, TCU; Seth Russell, Jr. QB, Baylor

Come on, this is the Big 12, the land of the Air Raid! Quarterbacks have run this conference and put up scary numbers since the turn of the century, and this year should be no different with Heisman candidate Boykin passing and running all over people for TCU, and Russell stepping into a user-friendly offense in Waco.

Pac 12

Teams You Should Care About: Oregon, Stanford, USC

The Ducks lose Heisman winner Marcus Mariota but, let's be real, I could play QB in coach Mark Helfrich's offense and Oregon would still score 35 points a game.

Stanford loses play maker Ty Montgomery, but returns steady QB Kevin Hogan and an efficient, ball-control offense. The defense will get a virtual makeover, as only leading tackler Blake Martinez returns as a starter but, as with Oregon's offense, Stanford's defense seems to succeed with whomever the Cardinal throw in there.

USC is the interesting team here, as the Trojans return a Heisman candidate QB (more on him later), a plethora of play makers, and what they hope will be an improved defense, after the D let them down in critical moments last year.

Maybe Care About: Arizona State, Cal

Arizona State is loaded with speed on offense, and coach Todd Graham has proven to have the magic touch, pushing the tempo and leaving opposing defenses in the dust. There are some questions as to how they'll actually stop anybody, particularly against the pass, but the Sun Devils are definitely in the mix atop the Pac 12 South.

Cal, meanwhile, continues its rebuild under third-year coach Sonny Dykes. After improving from 1-win to five in his second season, Dykes and the Golden Bears appear on the verge of another big leap. Led by stat-machine Jr. QB Jared Goff (35 TDs and nearly 4,000 yards in 2014), Cal will certainly be able to put up some points, and should get back to a bowl this year.

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Colorado, Oregon State

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Royce Freeman, So. RB, Oregon; Cody Kessler, Sr. QB, USC

Freeman quietly rushed for over 1,300 yards and 18 TDs last year as quarterback Marcus Mariota put together his Heisman campaign. The Ducks have questions about their passing game, but Freeman should make them feel plenty comfortable on the ground. He could be a Heisman candidate himself by year's end.

Kessler, meanwhile, is already a bonafide Heisman hopeful, coming off a year where he was absurdly efficient (39 TD to just 5 INT on 70% passing), and prolific (3,826 yards passing). Losing top receiver Nelson Agholor to the NFL hurts, but the Trojans still return an explosive and deep receiving corps, led by returning Freshman All American JuJu Smith.


Teams You Should Care About: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia

It's SEC foot-bah time, you so you know you have to Roll Damn Tide and War Damn Eagle! Both the Alabama schools will be good again, but Alabama has issues at QB where Florida State transfer Jake Coker will finally get to start after losing jobs everywhere else in the Southeast.

If Auburn were returning any of its leaders on offense people would take them more seriously as a contender, since former Florida coach Will Muschamp will take over the oft-maligned defense. With head coach Gus Malzahn pressing the buttons on offense and Muschamp calling the shots on D, the Tigers should be able to play with anybody.

LSU returns a boat load of young talent from last year's 8-5 squad. The Tigers should be able to run the ball and stop most teams, but getting some competency from the QB position may be a challenge.

Georgia seems the most like a sure thing in this group, playing in the weaker SEC East and boasting a Heisman candidate in running back Nick Chubb. The Dawgs should outplay just about everybody in the East in the trenches, and anything less than an SEC title game appearance will probably be considered a colossal failure for coach Mark Richt.

Maybe Care About: Missouri

That being said, Missouri is totally winning the SEC East. I don't know how, but they're doing it. At least, if recent history is any indication, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee will all underachieve, while Gary Pinkel's group does just enough to get rocked in the title game.

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Kentucky, Vanderbilt

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Leonard Fournette, So. RB, LSU; Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr. CB, Florida

Fournette was a one-man wrecking crew running the ball for the Tigers last year, and should be even better this year, assuming the offense grows up around him. Hargreaves was one of only a few bright spots for Florida last year, earning All American honors and the reputation as one of college football's premier cover corners.

Neither will be able to do it alone, but both could go a long way toward their team surprising folks.


Teams You Should Care About: Notre Dame

The Irish are on many peoples' radar as a playoff contender, due to the return of QB Malik Zaire and nearly the entire defense. I think we all know this means they will lose to Texas week one and will exist by week three.

Maybe Care About: BYU

I guess...

Teams that Will Probably Suck: Service Academies

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Taysom Hill, Sr. QB, BYU

Hill ran roughshod over Texas last year before breaking his leg, and the Cougars think he can be even better in 2015. That's all I got.


Teams You Should Care About: Marshall, Boise State, Western Kentucky, Temple, Memphis

You don't need to know anything about these teams, just know when they're on TV that they're actually pretty good.

Maybe Care About: UCF, Cincinnati, Louisiana Tech

UCF is always pretty good, right? And Cincinnati, they used to be  a major conference team, right? And I've heard LA Tech is ok too…

Teams that Will Probably Suck: The rest of them

Players to Watch/Know Exist: Don't bother

The National Title Race

Just know that the smart money is on Ohio State to win it all, with TCU getting a ton of preseason hype after the end of their 2014 season. After those two, Baylor and Oklahoma should contend in the Big 12, while Michigan State remains a viable candidate in the Big Ten.

Oregon, Stanford, USC and Arizona State all seem likely to knock each other out of it in the Pac 12, while the door is wide open for (damn it) Florida State to get back into the playoff from a down ACC. Clemson should do it, but never trust Clemson. They get your hopes up every year!

The Heisman Trophy

Ezekiel Elliot and Trevone Boykin enter the year with enough hype and buzz that the award is essentially one of their's to lose. That can all change if OSU's QB goes bananas, or if somebody on Oregon or Baylor's offense puts up video game numbers.

But who are we kidding, this award is probably going to a sophomore or redshirt freshman QB that has never started a game before...

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