Tulsa Golden Hurricanes vs. Temple Owls Preview
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane will make one of the longest in-conference road trips of the season — nearly 1,300 miles — to face the Temple Owls in Philadelphia. The Thursday night kickoff means that both Tulsa and Temple will open AAC play on a short week. The Owls hope to carry over the momentum of a 35-14 win over Maryland, in which they shook off an 0-2 start to pull off a major upset, while the Golden Hurricane, also 1-2 overall, have lost two in a row after falling to Arkansas State 29-20 at home.
Tulsa at Temple
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Temple -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback questions
Tulsa quarterback Luke Skipper wrestled the starting role away from Chad President midway through last season and entered 2018 atop the depth chart. In three starts this year, Skipper has completed 61.3 percent of his passes (up from 55.9 percent a year ago) for 521 yards and four TDs with three interceptions. He has also added 109 rushing yards and one score on 29 carries.
Skipper has held off President, a junior, and redshirt freshman Seth Boomer, but there is still some thought within the fan base that the quarterback job isn’t fully settled yet. One cause for concern is Skipper’s 6.9 yards per pass attempt, which is a sharp drop-off from the 9.0 mark (second best in the AAC) he posted in 2017.
Temple QB Frank Nutile also earned the starting nod at quarterback midway through the 2017 season, and his performance was a big reason the Owls won four of their final five games. Nutile threw for 1,600 yards with a 12-to-7 TD-to-interception ratio as a junior. He started the first two games of the 2018 season and completed 52.4 percent of his passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions in those two contests, but he sat out Week 3 with an undisclosed injury.
Though Nutile was shaky in losses to Villanova and Buffalo, it’s worth noting that head coach Geoff Collins reaffirmed his faith in the senior in the days leading up to the Maryland game. But it’s also worth noting that Anthony Russo performed well in Nutile’s absence. Russo completed 15-of-25 passes for 228 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and the Owls racked up 429 total yards and averaged 5.36 yards per play against its toughest opponent to date despite averaging 303 yards per game and 4.97 yards per play through Week 2. Most importantly, Russo led the team to its first win of the season.
Nutile appears likely to return against Tulsa, but it’s unclear whether or not he will start. Even if he does, because of last week’s results, Russo could force himself back into action.
2. The running backs
The questions that surround each team’s quarterback situation are nowhere to be found at running back, as both squads rely on workhorses in the backfield. Temple senior Ryquell Armstead currently ranks sixth in the AAC with 54 carries. Though he has yet to find the end zone, Armstead sits No. 7 on the conference leaderboard with 256 rushing yards after posting back-to-back 100-yard performances against Buffalo and Maryland.
Tulsa’s primary ball carrier, sophomore Shamari Brooks, has also broken the century mark twice so far. Brooks has racked up 310 yards on 70 carries — numbers that rank second and fifth in the league, respectively — and has scored four touchdowns.
3. Big plays on defense
Tulsa and Temple are very similar offensively, and though the two have also posted similar numbers in major statistical categories on defense, the largest difference has been Temple’s ability to make momentum-changing plays on the defensive side of the football.
The Owls were very disruptive on defense in the win last week. Temple held the Terrapins to just 63 passing yards on 8-for-21 passing and picked off two passes, one of which was returned 78 yards for a touchdown by Shaun Bradley. The Owls also recorded seven sacks against Maryland, including 2.5 by Michael Dogbe. Overall, Temple has forced four turnovers and ranks second in the AAC and 21st nationally with 9.0 sacks. Meanwhile, Tulsa has gotten to the quarterback just four times overall, which ranks seventh in the league and 93rd in the country. More troubling, the Golden Hurricane have yet to intercept a pass.
Temple’s big-play capabilities — and especially its pass rushing ability — could be a big factor, because the Tulsa offensive line has been shaky in non-conference play: The Golden Hurricane have surrendered eight sacks already this season.
Temple visited Tulsa in the 2017 regular season and came away with a 43-22 victory, which sealed a bowl bid for the Owls. The loss was Tulsa’s tenth of the 2017 season and marked an incredible turnaround from a 10-win campaign in 2016. The Golden Hurricane entered this season with modest expectations and enter conference play with the same 1-2 record as their cross-division opponents.
Both teams have the talent to go bowling in 2018, and though Temple stumbled to a 0-2 start in non-conference play, a big win over a Big Ten team boosted confidence heading into AAC play, and the Owls should still be considered a contender in the AAC East. Temple also has a major advantage this week given the short week and Tulsa’s long trip to Philly. Throw in an edge making big plays on defense, and the Owls should start conference play 1-0.
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Boston College Eagles vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons Preview
A pair of 2-0 ACC teams will square off Thursday night in Winston-Salem in what amounts to a significant conference game early in the season for Boston College and Wake Forest. The Eagles have been impressive early on against lackluster competition while Wake Forest still seems to be working out the kinks. The start time was moved up from 7:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. due to Hurricane Florence.
Boston College owns easy victories over Massachusetts and FCS opponent Holy Cross. The Demon Deacons opened the year by edging Tulane in overtime before notching an easy win over FCS member Towson. The winner of Thursday night’s contest could be a sleeper in the ACC Atlantic as both will host Clemson later in the year.
Wake Forest won 34-10 last season in Chestnut Hill, but lost in the last meeting in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons are looking to start 3-0 for a second straight year. The Eagles haven’t started 3-0 since 2007 when Jeff Jagodzinski was running the program. Steve Addazio and company will look to change that against Dave Clawson’s team.
Boston College at Wake Forest
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 13 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Boston College -6.5
Things to Watch For
1. AJ Dillon vs. the Wake Forest rush defense
Through two games, Wake Forest has actually been improved when it comes to stopping the run despite significant attrition in the front seven. The competition to this point however, has been lackluster. Against Tulane and Towson, the Demon Deacons have yielded just 110 rushing yards per game. This was after allowing more than 190 per game on the ground last year.
The biggest test yet should come on Thursday night in the form of Dillon. Boston College’s sophomore running back was a big reason for the Eagles’ improvement on offense over the last half of the season. In his first two games this fall, the 245-pound back has 247 rushing yards and three touchdowns while averaging 9.5 yards per carry. It also should be pointed out that last week against Holy Cross, he played just one quarter – in which he ran for 149 yards and three scores on just six carries (24.8 ypc).
For Wake Forest, defensive end Chris Calhoun and safety Essang Bassey lead the team with 14 tackles apiece. Defensive tackle Willie Yarbary leads the Demon Deacons with 3.5 tackles for a loss. Wake held Dillon to just 43 yards on 15 carries last season.
2. Quarterback play
The play under center has been pretty good early on for both Boston College and Wake Forest. After improving as the year went on as a freshman, the Eagles’ Anthony Brown has performed very well as a passer early on this season. He is completing better than 71 percent of his passes and has four touchdowns without an interception. Last season, Brown completed less than 52 percent of his throws and was picked nine times, including three against the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest has been susceptible to big plays in the secondary early on this season.
3. Special teams
If there is an area where Wake Forest may have the biggest edge over Boston College on Thursday night, it might be in the most overlooked aspect of the game — special teams. Since missing a short kick in his first collegiate attempt against Tulane, freshman kicker Nick Scibia has been solid for Wake Forest and Dom Maggio is a veteran punter. Wide receiver Greg Dortch has already returned a pair of punts for touchdowns for the Demon Deacons as well.
Last week against Holy Cross, Boston College had two blocked punts go for Crusader touchdowns. The Eagles also have averaged just 33.3 yards per punt and have given up 21.5 yards per punt return. Boston College has yet to kick a field goal this season, but its kickers have already missed a pair of extra points.
With weather complicating matters, a long trip to Winston-Salem on a short week will make things difficult for Boston College. If field conditions are bad however, that could actually benefit the Eagles since they clearly have the better rushing attack. For Wake Forest to win this game, it will need to take care of the football and be able to do the little things well, such as winning the turnover battle and on special teams. With a talented defense that includes defensive end Zach Allen, linebacker Connor Strachan and safety Lukas Denis, this will be the biggest challenge that true freshman quarterback Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons’ offense have faced to this point.
TCU Horned Frogs vs SMU Mustangs Preview
Might it be remembered as the night the Dallas/Arlington metroplex truly became divided when the TCU Horned Frogs (1-0) travel crosstown to take on the SMU Mustangs (0-1) in the latest “Battle for the Iron Skillet.”
The Texas Christian vs. Southern Methodist rivalry dates to 1916, with long winning streaks had by both teams against their neighbor. New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes is thrust into the middle of the longstanding heated rivalry faced with ending a six-game losing streak to TCU. Dykes’ return to the sideline as head coach after his four-year stint with Cal (2013-16) did not go as planned in Week 1. The Mustangs could not stop North Texas quarterback Mason Fine, surrendering 444 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 46-23 loss.
The Horned Frogs opened the season in style downing FCS member Southern 55-7 using their suffocating defense to keep the Jaguars’ offense off the field. Sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson nearly surpassed his 2017 season totals as a backup, finishing the game with 182 passing yards and three touchdowns while rushing for two more scores.
TCU at SMU
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: TCU -22
Three Things to Watch
1. TCU’s rushing attack
The Horned Frogs’ stable of backs should be fresh for the Mustangs. Emari Demercado led TCU with eight carries for 57 yards against Southern but returning leading rusher Darius Anderson was able to get some work in, toting the pigskin eight times for 36 yards. Another back to watch for is Sewo Olonilua. Olonilua was explosive against the overmatched Jaguars, gaining 43 yards on just five carries.
A win over SMU is needed, but the most important thing is for the offense to punish Southern on the ground, especially with Ohio State on tap for next week’s matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. A delicate balance between gelling the offense and getting the backs off the field is to be had.
2. SMU’s secondary
The Mustangs’ lack of effectiveness against the pass in Week 1 was somewhat surprising with four starters back in the secondary. North Texas starts the 2018 season off as the second-leading passing squad in the FBS ranks meaning SMU statistically has the second-worst pass defense. If Robinson can maintain his 71 percent completion rate, the Mustangs are in big trouble.
On the bright side for SMU, the Mustangs only allowed 68 rushing yards against the Mean Green. Stopping TCU’s rushing attack and Robinson’s ability to pick up yards on broken plays will be a big challenge.
3. The Dykes and Ohio State effect
It is worth noting that SMU head coach Sonny Dykes spent the 2017 season as the offensive analyst for the Frogs. With his years in the game as a coach and his first-hand knowledge of the team, there is no other coach in the country better suited to beat TCU from a knowledge base… but can he? One thing that might help Dykes, is TCU looking ahead to the Buckeyes? No. 4 Ohio State hosts Rutgers in Week 2 and is perhaps looking ahead to the non-conference showdown against TCU. Dykes may have to keep his guys focused as well with a Week 3 road trip to No. 21 Michigan (0-1) looming.
Former SMU head coach Chad Morris did not leave the shelves bare of talent, but the Mustangs are still in transition in a new philosophy. If they got caught sleeping on North Texas, maybe a more competitive game is to be expected on Friday?
Over the last five meetings, TCU has kept SMU at arm’s reach with the closest margin of victory being 19 points in 2015. Look for TCU to push the overall series to a 50-39-7 mark notching a seventh consecutive win in this series.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors vs Colorado State Rams Preview
Is this the season where Colorado State finally gets past the seven win mark? Or will Hawaii throw a wrench into the works as it tries to snap a string of seven straight non-winning seasons?
Both teams have plenty to prove going into their season opener on Saturday. The Rams have finished with a 7-6 record, punctuated by a bowl game loss, each of the last three years. The Rainbow Warriors scratched out a 3-9 mark last year after making a bowl game two years ago.
Colorado State holds a 15-9 lead in the series with Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors have not enjoyed much success against the Rams in the past three decades. Colorado State has won 10 of 11 games over Hawaii dating back to 1989 and hasn’t lost at home to the Rainbow Warriors since ’88.
Hawaii at Colorado State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Colorado State -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Colorado State reload on offense?
Matching last season’s offensive production could be an uphill climb for the Rams. Several key contributors from a team that averaged a school-record 492.5 yards per game are gone. Colorado State will be breaking in a new quarterback, a new lead running back and three new starters on the offensive line. The Rams also will be replacing their top receiver and top tight end from a year ago.
Colorado State will turn to some seniors to keep the offense humming. K.J. Carta-Samuels, a graduate transfer from Washington, takes over at quarterback. Izzy Matthews is the team’s top returning rusher after picking up 613 yards and eight touchdowns on 132 carries last season. Olabisi Johnson will likely be the top target for Carta-Samuels after tallying 595 yards and two touchdowns on 41 catches in 2017.
The Rams will need the offense to do some heavy lifting with a total rebuild underway on defense. Colorado State returns just five starters from a unit that yielded 431.6 yards and 27.8 points per game a year ago.
2. Run-and-shoot returns to Hawaii
After seeing the Rainbow Warriors struggle to put points on the board all last season, Nick Rolovich is going back to the offense that put Hawaii on the football map under former head coach June Jones. Hawaii will deploy the run-and-shoot in an effort to light up the scoreboard again.
A change is definitely needed. The Rainbow Warriors averaged just 3.7 points per trip inside an opponent’s 40-yard line last season. They ranked 122nd among FBS teams in that category. An inability to finish drives led to an offense that generated just 22.8 points per contest. Hawaii scored 23 points or less in all nine of its losses.
3. Bobo is back
Colorado State got some welcome news when head coach Mike Bobo rejoined the team this week. Bobo showed up at practice on Wednesday after being released from the hospital on Tuesday. He had been hospitalized following a team scrimmage on Aug. 11 after experiencing numbness in his feet.
Bobo was treated for peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes weakness, numbness or pain because of nerve damage in the hands and feet. He plans to coach the Rams from the coaches’ booth instead of the sideline.
Colorado State has enjoyed sustained success under Bobo. The Rams have reached a bowl game in all three of his seasons as head coach. Bobo has a 21-18 record overall entering his fourth season.
Both Hawaii and Colorado State are looking to take a step forward while undergoing major rebuilding heading into a new season. The Rams seem like they are better positioned to make a climb up the Mountain West Conference ladder than the Rainbow Warriors. It could take Hawaii some time to get things figured out in a new offensive system.
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Complete preview of the American Athletic Conference for 2018.
The American Athletic Conference is the top Group of 5 league and won’t lack for intrigue in 2018. UCF is back for another run at a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, as new coach Josh Heupel hopes to pick up where Scott Frost left off last fall. The Knights should win the league in the 2018 American Athletic Conference, with Temple and USF rounding out the next tier in the East Division. The top of the West Division isn’t as clear. There’s very little separation at the top between Memphis, Houston and Navy, with Tulane and SMU also poised to play a factor in which team wins the division title.
Head coach Josh Heupel inherits an enviable situation but also some of the biggest expectations coming off last year’s perfect season and self-proclaimed “National Championship.” That said, with all the returning talent, particularly on the offensive side, UCF should be the odds-on favorite to repeat as conference champions with a good shot at returning to a New Year’s Six bowl for the third time in six years.
Coach Charlie Strong’s first season at USF was a bumpy adjustment at times from Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense. But now there’s more of a blank slate to implement Strong’s preferred style. The running game will have increased importance, especially while a new quarterback develops.
Overall, though, USF’s prosperity will be defined by continued improvement on defense. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls find themselves in another do-or-die showdown against UCF for an AAC Division title in the regular-season finale.
Former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins took over from good friend Matt Rhule, who left for Baylor after putting together back-to-back 10-win seasons — at a program that had one double-digit win season in its history. In Collins’ debut season as a head coach, he had to replace a four-year starting quarterback. In the first eight games, the Owls lost at Notre Dame, at South Florida, to Houston and in overtime at Army. Their only blemish the rest of the way was a loss to UCF. That’s something to build on. The Owls just can’t afford to lose any games that they probably shouldn’t, like they did last year against 3-9 Connecticut in South Philly. This is Collins’ team now. Expect Year 2 to be another step in the right direction.
With a shortage of stars, and a coaching staff in Year 2 of a rebuilding project, a .500 record might be the best the Bearcats can hope for this season. UC has gone 8-16 during the past two years, but things appear brighter for the long term. Multiple recruiting services rated the 2018 UC class No. 1 in the AAC and tops among Group of 5 schools. “It shows us that we’re recruiting in the right way,” coach Luke Fickell says. “You continue to take those swings and you see them pay off. They’ll pay off for the next three, four or five years.”
The thought is that UConn will be better, with so many first-year players debuting last season and now returning, but that doesn’t mean an improved record should be expected. The Huskies aren’t quite big enough, strong enough or fast enough on either side of the line, and players at skill positions remain very raw. Barring a big surprise, UConn appears headed for an eighth straight losing season.
Coach Scottie Montgomery has five new coaches on staff this year, but David Blackwell is the most important of those changes, charged with salvaging a defense that was often defenseless last year. There’s some young talent among the sophomores and redshirt freshmen that can up the ante — on both sides of the ball — for the Pirates, who might finally have some wind in their sails again.
Memphis’ upward trend continued in 2017. The Tigers won 10 games, played in the AAC title game and appeared in a bowl game for the fourth straight season – a first for the program. They were also ranked in the AP Top 25 every week beginning in mid-October. To maintain the momentum, Coach Mike Norvell must find the proper triggerman, since the Tigers will have an experienced offensive line and depth in the backfield to counter the loss of Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue. Defensively, the Tigers must overcome some alarming numbers and continue to win the turnover battle after ranking third nationally in that category a year ago at plus-1.15 per game.
PR hit or not, the hiring of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles shows that the pressure is on to return to the top tier in the AAC West. Back-to-back non-conference games against Arizona and Texas Tech in September should tell us where the Cougars stand. Otherwise, the schedule is favorable with just three trips outside the state of Texas.
New coach Sonny Dykes is a proven offensive guru with a scheme that should ease the transition to the new staff. Defensive coordinator Kevin Kane’s back-to-basics renovation of the defense should at least reduce the number of back-breaking plays allowed. If the Mustangs can make a marked improvement on defense, stay healthy on the offensive line and develop some playmakers, they could find themselves in another bowl game.
After losing to archrival Army for the second straight year, Navy closed on a positive note by routing Virginia 49-7 in the Military Bowl to post a winning record for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons.
Navy’s offense became one-dimensional during the second half of the season since QB Zach Abey was strictly an inside runner. QB Malcom Perry provides the all-important perimeter element of the triple-option, and coach Ken Niumatalolo is confident the offense will be more effective with him at the controls.
Navy will travel an incredible 26,496 miles this season due to its six road and two neutral-site games. Niumatalolo is not thrilled about facing defending AAC West Division champ Memphis on the heels of traveling to Hawaii for the season opener. This year’s game against Notre Dame is in San Diego.
Perry figures to have a huge season if he stays healthy, and Navy’s triple-option attack should continue to confound AAC opponents enough to ensure another winning season.
QB Jonathan Banks is the catalyst. If he improves as expected, the offense will be much more formidable after scoring 21 or fewer points six times last season and finishing near the bottom of the league in third-down conversions. The defense will benefit by not having to be on the field as much.
In what could be a defining fourth year for coach Philip Montgomery, Tulsa needs to show significant progress at quarterback and on defense to avoid a second straight last-place finish in the AAC West. And with a non-conference slate that features visits to Texas and Arkansas, reaching bowl eligibility will likely be a challenge.
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Complete preview for Conference USA in 2018.
The list of top contenders in Conference USA for 2018 has to start with the two teams that played for the league title in ’17. FAU and North Texas won their respective division last season and take the top two spots once again in the 2018 Conference USA predictions. The Owls are a contender for the top Group of 5 ranking, but Marshall and MTSU won’t be easy outs in the East. Old Dominion is also expected to improve in 2018, while FIU and WKU are two wild card teams to watch. The Mean Green got the nod at No. 1 in the West, but there’s very little separation between coach Seth Littrell’s team and Louisiana Tech and UAB. Southern Miss is projected to make a bowl game, with UTSA just missing at five predicted wins. Rice and UTEP are starting over with new coaches in 2018.
The Owls underwent numerous personnel changes during the offseason, both in the coaching staff and in some key offensive positions. That turnover will likely lead to inconsistent play to start the season. By the time C-USA play begins, however, there’s no reason to believe that the Lane Train won’t be chugging in high gear. At the very least, Kiffin’s offensive mind should have FAU headed for its second consecutive bowl appearance.
While it will be a difficult road to get back to eight wins — considering the losses at the skill positions and throughout the back end of the defense — if the young talent recruited by Butch Davis can mature quickly, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Panthers can flirt with a winning record in 2017. FIU benefits from a schedule that features five of the first seven games at home, as well as key C-USA East rivals Florida Atlantic and Marshall coming to Riccardo Silva Stadium in November.
Marshall’s defense will keep the team in position to win plenty of games, so even at new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey’s high-octane pace, the offense needs to take care of the ball and put the quarterback in position to be a game manager. If Marshall is able to limit turnovers and find suitable replacements for Kaare Vedvik in the kicking game, the Herd could have a special season in 2018.
A 1-5 finish ended coach Mike Sanford’s honeymoon, but reaching bowl eligibility for the eighth straight year with an unproven roster would make for a positive 2018. The Hilltoppers have young talent thanks to strong 2017 and ’18 recruiting classes that focused on talent-rich Georgia. The more those players see the field this season, the more experience they’ll gain for what Sanford hopes is a return to the top of C-USA.
Getting to bowl eligibility won’t be an easy feat with non-conference games against SEC foes Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky, and only five home games overall. Plus, two of MTSU’s toughest C-USA games lead off its league schedule in a visit from Florida Atlantic and a trip to Marshall.
If the Blue Raiders can survive the first half of the schedule, they should collect wins in the back half. But again, keeping the younger quarterback Brent Stockstill upright is paramount. MTSU is possibly a conference title contender with its senior QB behind center, but it likely posts a losing record without him.
With plenty of starters back and wins in three of their final four games last season, there’s reason to believe that the Monarchs can make another jump forward.
“We feel like we can do that, with a lot of veteran players and the amount of guys back,” coach Bobby Wilder says. “There’s going to be a lot of competition all across the board. When you come off of a season where you don’t go to a bowl game, every spot is up for grabs.”
Brad Lambert has been the only coach the 49ers have known, and with some encouraging seasons early in the program’s history, he has built some equity. But with a new athletics director taking the reins this year, it’ll be important to show serious improvement in order to avoid more changes.
Early non-conference games should yield at least two wins, helping to put another bowl bid in reach. Plus, conference home games against Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic offer the opportunity to make another run in the West.
Expectations will be high this year, due in part to the return of Bryant Vincent as the offensive coordinator and a defense that should remain stout despite the loss of some key personnel. This team should be a factor in the C-USA West title chase.
The influx of new starters and ongoing uncertainty behind center make the 2018 forecast even hazier. Settling on a reliable week-in, week-out starter will be the top priority; if QBs Kwadra Griggs, Jack Abraham, or one of the younger players emerges as that guy, filling the vacancies around him should be par for the course. If not, the absence of an all-purpose workhorse on the level of Ito Smith will likely loom very large.
The lineup boasts as much top-to-bottom experience as any in Conference USA. This may not be Skip Holtz’s most talented outfit, and the conference schedule doesn’t do it any favors. But in a wide-open C-USA West race, the Bulldogs have the pieces in place to return to the top.
UTSA will again hang its hat on defense. The Roadrunners may feel like they let an opportunity get away last season when a veteran group dropped four games by seven points or fewer en route to a 6-5 record. This year, three Power 5 opponents greet a rebuilding UTSA squad to open the year, so a slow start may be in the cards. However, the talent is there, especially on defense, for this team to be a factor in the C-USA race. By the end of the season, if a quarterback emerges, the Roadrunners could be dangerous.
With a game at Hawaii, the Owls will play a 13-game schedule that includes eight bowl teams from 2017, including games against Houston, Wake Forest and LSU. Don’t expect head coach Mike Bloomgren to be a miracle worker as he builds the program for the long haul.
Things can only get better, both for a new-look offense that will put a premium on creativity, and for the final record, where any wins would represent infinite progress. Wins figure to be hard to come by, but a step forward shouldn’t be, as UTEP begins a massive rebuild.
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Complete Mountain West preview for the 2018 season.
The Mountain West Conference heads into 2018 with familiar faces projected to be at the top of the league. Boise State claims the top spot in the Mountain West predictions, and coach Bryan Harsin’s team should challenge for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. In the West, San Diego State and Fresno State are the teams to beat once again. The Aztecs edge the Bulldogs in the projections, but it’s a tossup for No. 1 in the West. Utah State and Wyoming are the biggest challengers to Boise State in the Mountain Division, with Colorado State also projected to reach bowl eligibility.
Few Air Force quarterbacks have possessed Arion Worthman’s combination of power and speed, but he’s still struggling to master the position. He must mature as a passer and option distributor for the offense to thrive. If he fails to mature, he could lose his job to Isaiah Sanders, who led the Falcons to victory in last season’s finale against Utah State.
Someone, or a few someones, must emerge on defense to stop the run. A September 8 trip to Florida Atlantic will do much to reveal the Falcons. If FAU stampedes to a big rushing day, Air Force could be destined for a repeat of last season’s troubles.
If pass catchers can step up — and if QB Brett Rypien can elevate them — it would go a long way for a team that averaged “only” 32.5 points per game, the program’s lowest output since 2012. The defense and special teams return a ton of talent, so there is little reason to believe the Broncos can’t make a run at a second straight Mountain West title and contend for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
The offense might be able to avoid a significant drop-off if QB K.J. Carta-Samuels is able to learn coach Mike Bobo’s playbook well enough to make the proper reads and check-offs. The quarterback run is likely to become part of the CSU offense, given the athletic abilities of Carta-Samuels and his top two backups — junior J.C. Robles and redshirt freshman Justice McCoy. The Rams were even experimenting in the spring with some option plays. A difficult early schedule that includes three consecutive games against schools in Power 5 conferences — Colorado, Arkansas and Florida — could put the Rams into a tailspin that might be difficult to reverse.
If the offense clicks, the defense forces turnovers and little drop-off occurs on special teams, UNM can approach its 2016 form when it went 9-4. Any early struggles, however, could spell disaster.
With four of the first six games at home, the Aggies — who return 16 starters and feature talent on across the board — could build some momentum by midseason and put themselves in position to be a factor in the Mountain Division for the first time in three years. At a minimum, Utah State should head to a bowl game for the seventh time in eight seasons.
Even when Josh Allen was still starting quarterback with the Cowboys, they weren’t as productive offensively as coach Craig Bohl expected. If the new quarterback can be efficient and protect the ball and the rest of the offense improves, Wyoming is good enough to contend for the Mountain Division title and do something that has never been done in school history — play in a bowl game for a third consecutive season.
Jeff Tedford was a well-deserved National Coach of the Year finalist after Fresno State became just the second FBS team to go from double-digit losses (1-11) to double-digit wins (10-4). What can he do for an encore? A good start would be taking the MW title away from Boise State after the two teams split the regular-season finale and MW Championship Game in consecutive weeks. With so many key starters back and a softer non-conference schedule (i.e. no Alabama or Washington), it’s perfectly fine to dream bigger.
The changes have been sweeping for a team that has six new assistant coaches, including defensive and special teams coordinators, and will see coach Nick Rolovich call the offensive plays. The schedule gets more manageable, with no Power 5 foes for the first time in 16 years. But producing the first winning season since the 10-4 Western Athletic Conference tri-champions of 2010 still figures to be an uphill battle.
Nevada’s high-powered offense, a manageable non-conference schedule and a conference slate in which the Wolf Pack’s toughest opponents travel to Reno could have Nevada flirting with bowl eligibility. If Nevada’s defense can jell, the Wolf Pack have the potential to sneak up the standings and be a factor in the West Division.
San Diego State
San Diego State is a stellar 32-9 over the past three seasons and once again figures to be among the best of the Group of 5 teams. The Aztecs have become a dominant force in the Mountain West — they are 22-4 with two titles over the past three seasons — and the yearly expectation under coach Rocky Long is that they will be in the mix for a conference title. Long’s method of pounding the ball on the ground offensively and assaulting opponents with an opportunistic defense assures that the Aztecs will be in the hunt for their fourth consecutive season of 10 or more wins.
San Jose State
Trepidation will linger until a quarterback proves himself during games, although the skill positions offer promising talent. Defensively, there is optimism thanks to a strong defensive line and some young talent in the back eight. If the injury bug can stay away and a QB emerges, the Spartans can double their win total from a year ago.
With a favorable home schedule that includes non-conference games against UTEP and Prairie View A&M and a conference slate once again void of Mountain West heavyweight Boise State as well as Wyoming and Colorado State, the pressure will be on coach Tony Sanchez to guide his team to a bowl game in 2018.
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Complete Pac-12 preview for the 2018 season.
The Pac-12 never lacks for intrigue, but the conference heads into 2018 looking to rebound after a disappointing 2017 slate. The league did not produce a playoff team, had only two programs reach double-digit victories and went 1-8 in bowl games. But there’s reason for optimism on the West Coast for 2018. Washington takes the top spot in Pac-12 predictions, as coach Chris Petersen’s team should be in the mix for a playoff spot this fall. The Huskies are loaded on both sides of the ball and are a clear favorite to win the conference title. Stanford and Oregon are both top 25 teams and will battle Washington for the top spots in the North. The other side of the conference features three teams vying for the division title. USC is the favorite in the South, but there’s little separation between the Trojans, Arizona and Utah.
The arc of the Cal program is headed in a positive direction, but second-year coach Justin Wilcox knows the Bears aren’t where they need to be. “It’s not good enough. We can say we have all these returnees, but we were 5-7,” he says. “Every one of us has got to show improvement.”
A year ago, the Bears dramatically improved the Pac-12’s worst defense and inched close to bowl eligibility. But the stretch run was a study in frustrating close calls, a 1-4 finish that included three losses by a combined seven points. “Those are the margins that are toughest to overcome,” Wilcox says. That will remain Cal’s challenge in the tough Pac-12 North.
The schedule sets up for a return to contention in the Pac-12 North. After three bland non-conference matchups — the Ducks can thank Texas A&M for backing out of a contracted series — Oregon hosts Washington and Stanford in conference play. With Justin Herbert and Tony Brooks-James in the backfield, and experience up front, the offense should be able to put up points. History says the defense in its second year under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will take another step forward. But will it be enough to get Oregon back to double-digit wins and Pac-12 title contention? The Ducks haven’t won a bowl game since the 2014 CFB Playoff semifinal, a streak fans badly want to see end.
The Beavers aren’t trying to snap a streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons like in 1999, but the gap between them and the rest of the Pac-12 felt as wide as ever last year. Still, if OSU can buy into what Jonathan Smith is selling and move past a disastrous 2017, his first season as a head coach will be considered a success.
For years, Stanford has led with its defense, which it backed up with a rugged, run-first offensive attack. That could change this year The Stanford offense hasn’t eclipsed 40 points per game since 2011, when Andrew Luck lined up behind center. It could in 2018. And it might need to, thanks to a defense in transition.
Stanford visits Pac-12 North favorite Washington on Nov. 3, but we’ll get a good picture of the Cardinal before September is over, with games vs. USC, at Oregon and at Notre Dame.
In Year 5 of the Chris Petersen era, the meticulous Washington coach will trot out a rarefied group that boasts 16 returning starters from a team that won 10 games. The Huskies take a backseat to no team when it comes to game experience. They’re positioned to run with college football’s elite again this season, and expectations are through the roof in Seattle. All Petersen’s club needs to do now is stay relatively healthy — and win.
In each of the past two seasons, Washington State fell four quarters shy of its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. It’s unlikely that the race for the Pac-12 North will come down to the Apple Cup again, and fans may need to temper their expectations after WSU followed an eight-win season in 2016 with nine wins in ’17. That doesn’t mean that the Cougars will backslide too much. They may just have to find some middle ground: Competing for a title in the rugged Pac-12 North seems unrealistic, but a bowl game is within reach.
With a forgiving schedule – Arizona does not play Washington or Stanford – the Wildcats are positioned to contend for the Pac-12 South title. Arizona is thin on defense, but its starters are of Pac-12 quality. Khalil Tate will attempt to be the school’s first All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback since Arizona joined the league in 1978. But much like on defense, Arizona is not deep and has no game-ready backup should Tate go down. Still, this is Arizona’s most anticipated season since 2010.
The presence a handful of top-shelf Pac-12 players may mask to some degree the scope of ASU’s overhaul, but at least it’ll give the staff a boost in the transitional phase. While the Sun Devils likely won’t challenge for the Pac-12 South division title, they have potential to remain relevant into November. All eyes will be on coach Herm Edwards, one of the most intriguing hires in college football in years.
After a South Division title in 2016, Colorado entered last season eager to prove it was more than a one-hit wonder. Instead, the Buffs settled into their familiar spot at the bottom of the division. Mike MacIntyre is only one year removed from winning National Coach of the Year honors and signing a contract extension (through 2021), but there’s pressure to get the Buffs back to the postseason. There’s enough talent and hunger to get them there, but not much margin for error.
Coach Chip Kelly is inheriting a full rebuilding job and not a top-25 team like he had when he embarked on his magical run at Oregon. The Bruins do have talent on campus from all those top recruiting classes signed by the previous staff, but there are significant issues on both sides of the ball.
It may not be long before Kelly has the Bruins contending for titles like they did with regularity two decades ago, but there are bound to be a few growing pains in 2018. Even in a wide-open Pac-12 South, this UCLA squad may prove to be more pesky than good as it builds toward a brighter future.
Clay Helton is the first coach in the program’s history to guide the Trojans to 10 wins in each of his first two seasons, but it is going to be a challenge to continue that level of success with significant roster turnover.
The Trojans should remain the favorites in the Pac-12 South race, considering the talent remaining on their roster and coaching changes that occurred at three of their division rivals. The challenge to repeat as Pac-12 champions gets off to a difficult start with a tough September slate that includes trips to Stanford and Arizona, plus a matchup with Washington State on a Friday night. It won’t be an easy road to navigate.
Utah is entering its eighth season in the Pac-12, and Kyle Whittingham now has been a head coach in this conference longer than he filled that role in the Mountain West. So the Utes are feeling some pressure to win their first Pac-12 South championship. “We are getting closer and closer to where we want to be, but no one cares about being close,” Whittingham says. “We have to get over that hump.”
The schedule is difficult – the Utes miss Oregon State and California in the rotation – but the pieces are in place for Utah to threaten USC for supremacy in the South.
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Complete preview for the MAC in 2018.
The MAC hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2011-12, and it’s likely that streak extends to five years in a row in 2018. That’s due to Ohio taking the top spot in the 2018 MAC predictions as the favorite to win the league. The Bobcats fell just short of reaching the league title game last season and are a heavy favorite in the East Division. Buffalo and Miami aren’t far behind the Bobcats, with Akron in the next tier. The picture is a little cloudier at the top of the West Division. Toledo is the defending conference champion but must replace standout quarterback Logan Woodside. Northern Illinois returns one of the MAC’s top defenses, while the development of quarterback Marcus Childers could help coach Rod Carey’s team win the West once again.
This year, Akron seems to have some pieces in place, but the Zips could have a tough time getting back to the league title game as the top teams in the East should be vastly improved. Ohio looks to be the class of the division, and both Miami and Buffalo will be in the hunt. The Zips could finish anywhere from first to fourth in what figures to be an intriguing season of MACtion.
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has some decent building blocks with Bowling Green’s veteran secondary and athletic linebackers. QB Jarret Doege has the confidence of his coaches and teammates after making five starts as a freshman, while Scott Miller provides a clear No. 1 target on the outside. The first month of the season will be rough, with Oregon, Maryland and Georgia Tech all on the schedule, so a break-even year will require a strong conference showing.
Coach Lance Leipold won five Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater but has not reached the postseason in three years at Buffalo. With so much firepower returning, anything less than a trip to a bowl game will be a major disappointment.
If nothing else, the team will be much more fun to watch in 2018, with head coach Sean Lewis calling the shots in a fast-paced attack. His system will breed a star or two per usual, and if one of them is a quarterback, the Flashes could pull off a few surprises in 2018 — and set the stage for much bigger and better things in the years to come.
Despite the numerous and costly mental breakdowns, coach Chuck Martin saw his contract extended for two years, through the 2020 season. He has spent the first four seasons building up the roster, both in talent and physicality, and he feels now that the RedHawks are in an enviable position with experienced players who are better able to physically compete in the MAC.
Miami will be tested by a challenging schedule that includes only five true home games. The RedHawks are due to play archrival Cincinnati at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium, and they face a grueling stretch of three road trips to Army, Buffalo and Northern Illinois in the second half of the season.
Coach Frank Solich has the Bobcats poised for a run at the MAC East title. “This is a team that could easily win the division — and the league — this year if they get more of the same kind of play from the quarterback position,” says one opposing MAC assistant coach.
The Cardinals should show significant improvement across the board — assuming they don’t suffer a similar rash of injuries. That, however, might not be enough for them to make a significant move in the MAC West, the more challenging of the league’s two divisions.
A lot of what Central Michigan does this season will tie in with the development of QB Tony Poljan and the inexperienced wide receiver group. Every other position group should be satisfactory to strong, so those could be the final pieces of the puzzle in taking another step forward. The Chippewas have a fairly difficult schedule with three Power 5 opponents in addition to the MAC slate, which is bookended by road games at Northern Illinois and Toledo. At least rival Western Michigan is a home game.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism this year with so much back in the fold on defense and on the offensive line, but the name of the game in football is quarterback play, and there is a serious question mark there. It’s hard to imagine anyone living up to the standard set by Brogan Roback. If Eastern Michigan is to win more games than it loses this season, it will be due a running game that controls the clock and a defense that limits big plays. It won’t be long before EMU figures out where it stands in the MAC as it opens league play at home against Northern Illinois, travels to Western Michigan and is back home versus Toledo in the first three weeks of the conference season.
The Huskies have not won more than eight games in any of the last three seasons, and although the talent level, especially on defense, would indicate a possible 10-plus-win team, the schedule is a big obstacle. The good news is that the Huskies possess significant talent on both sides of the ball, enabling them to make a run at the West Division title.
If either Mitchell Guadagni or Eli Peters emerges as a viable replacement for Logan Woodside at quarterback, then it’s all systems go. But if the offense struggles a bit, the defense will have to do its part. And that defense will be tested early with non-conference dates against Miami (Fla.), Nevada and Fresno State. The Rockets do catch a break in league play by not having to face either Ohio or Miami, the two favorites in the East.
By the end of last season, WMU had lost a whopping 21 players to season-ending injuries, including five safeties, five running backs and five receivers. “It started getting ridiculous,” head coach Tim Lester says. It did, however, create a good dynamic entering this season — an experienced roster, devoid of a large senior class. The Broncos have only nine seniors on a team with realistic designs on competing for a MAC championship, meaning this should be a two-year group.
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Complete preview of the Independent Teams for 2018.
The Liberty Flames will be making their debut in the FBS this year along the 5 other independents squads, Army, UMass, New Mexico State, Notre Dame and BYU. Check out how each teams will fair this year.
While there is a trip to Norman in September, the Sooners are the only FBS team on Army’s schedule that won more than seven games last season. The slate also includes two FCS programs and one transitioning to the FBS. It should all add up to the academy playing in a bowl game for a third consecutive season — something that has never happened. “I think it’s easy for guys that haven’t experienced anything but winning seasons to maybe think it’s a lot easier than it is,” coach Jeff Monken says. “We have to keep our team from being complacent.”
Notre Dame is aiming for its first back-to-back double-digit-winning seasons since Lou Holtz was head coach in 1992-93. Winners of 10 games in two of the last three years, the Fighting Irish remain a difficult read, due largely to the ugly 4–8 season in 2016. It begs the question: Was last year’s September-October run for a Playoff berth a more accurate depiction of Notre Dame moving forward, or does the collapse in November at Miami and Stanford say more about the up-and-down Brian Kelly regime?
With an experienced roster and winnable games on the schedule, bowl eligibility is a more reachable goal than it’s been since UMass became an FBS program in 2012. But to get in a bowl without a conference, they’ll have to hope that a conference fails to fill its slots.
BYU’s sudden drop to 4-9 has created quite a challenge for coach Kalani Sitake in his third season on the job. “There’s a huge urgency to get better,” Sitake says. That can happen if the Cougars start putting points on the scoreboard. BYU scored 17 or fewer points in eight defeats in 2017, continually frustrating Sitake. An improved offensive line and receiving corps, along with more continuity at quarterback, should help in this pivotal year for the independent program.
New Mexico State
The schedule is not daunting, with two games against fellow independent Liberty and matchups with familiar Sun Belt teams Louisiana, Texas State and Georgia Southern. If NMSU receives quality play at quarterback and the defense takes another step forward, the Aggies have a realistic opportunity to enjoy a second straight winning season — something that hasn’t happened since the late 1960s.
Sustaining success throughout an entire season has been Liberty’s struggle under coach Turner Gill, and if the offense is unable to score enough points to negate the defense’s inability to stop the run, Liberty’s streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons will end.
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Complete preview of the Sun Belt for 2018.
Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy have ranked as the top teams from the Sun Belt in recent years, so it should be no surprise this trio leads the way for the league in 2018. The Red Wolves are the top team and projected champion in the 2018 Sun Belt predictions, with the Trojans and Mountaineers locked into a tight battle atop the East Division. ULM, Louisiana, South Alabama and Georgia State round out the next tier, with Coastal Carolina and Texas State expected to improve after winning a combined five games in 2017. New Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford hopes to build off a promising finish last season.
Scott Satterfield’s program sticks to its proven formula of pounding the run to control the game and playing aggressively on defense. The faces will be different, but there’s more than enough talent in the backfield and on the offensive line to keep it rolling. The only question, of course: When will a major program make Satterfield an offer he can’t refuse?
If the Red Wolves plug a few holes on defense and clean up some of the miscues, their chances of reaching the Sun Belt title game are strong. “They’ve got a lot of guys back, which makes them the scariest team in the Sun Belt,” says one Sun Belt assistant. “Their receivers could start in any league. They are that good.”
Coastal is in its third year of transitioning to the FBS and will be eligible for a bowl game for the first time. The Chants went 3-9 and 2-6 in their first season in the Sun Belt, winning their final two games to snap a program-record nine-game losing streak and take some momentum into the offseason. They look to improve their standing with head coach Joe Moglia back at the helm.
The atmosphere is far better now than it was during Tyson Summers’ failed 18-game stint, as head coach Chad Lunsford understands the pressures and expectations of being at Georgia Southern. “One of the biggest changes I wanted my staff and us to do is make sure football was fun again and still be able to hold them accountable,” he says. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”
The mandate for new coach Billy Napier, a 38-year-old offensive guru with stints at Clemson, Alabama and Arizona State, is to get the Cajuns back in the black and keep them there. That will take time, especially given that he inherited a roster with far fewer than the 85 scholarships players allowed by the NCAA. The incoming recruiting class has just 15 players, including three junior college signees with limited eligibility. Even with a relatively veteran lineup, Napier’s debut has the makings of a classic rebuilding year. If the end result exceeds last year’s 5-7 mark, that will be a promising first step.
Overall, ULM has posted back-to-back 4-8 seasons since coach Matt Viator’s hiring, but there are hints of progress. The Warhawks went 1-14 on the road in two seasons before Viator, but they won two road games last season.
Any chance at a winning record must include victories in non-conference play, where ULM went 0-4 last season. There are tough trips to Ole Miss and Texas A&M on the schedule, but also more manageable matchups against Southern Miss and FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana.
South Alabama has been competitive, but the roster needs re-tooling, and the Jaguars won’t win consistently without major strides on offense. It may be difficult to earn bowl eligibility, but the schedule does line up for a late-season surge, with four of the final six games at home.
With just 12 seniors on the roster, the Bobcats are fielding a very young team once again. The difference: Their inexperienced underclassmen are now seasoned sophomores and juniors. While this probably won’t translate into a winning season, Texas State should start to show progress in coach Everett Withers’ third year.
The schedule opens with two non-conference heavies in the first month, Boise State and Nebraska, and ends with a trip to fellow SBC East favorite Appalachian State. In between, though, the Trojans will likely be favored in every game, putting a third consecutive 10-win season very much within reach.
Coach Shawn Elliott still needs another couple years of recruiting to get the roster up to par. Though a tougher schedule and a younger team may function as speed bumps in 2018, Elliott is well on his way to building one of the more solid programs in the Sun Belt.
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Complete Big 12 preview for the 2018 season.
Oklahoma has a few key players to replace from last year’s squad, but coach Lincoln Riley’s team is the pick to win the Big 12 this fall. The Sooners have claimed the conference title three years in a row and hold an edge over Texas, West Virginia and TCU in the 2018 Big 12 predictions. The Mountaineers will have no trouble scoring points behind quarterback Will Grier, but the defense will be key in whether or not this team contends for the conference title. After eight teams reached bowl eligibility last season, it would not be a surprise to see the conference reach that level or if nine programs hit at least six victories in 2018.
Playing with a chip on their shoulder after last year’s 1-11 finish, the Bears should be able to get off to a better start and make a run at their eighth bowl bid in nine years. But staying healthy will be the key.
Coach Matt Campbell was a year ahead of schedule in getting Iowa State back to a bowl game. The program seems poised to maintain its momentum. The Cyclones should be better in the trenches on both sides of the football, and across the board, this is a deeper and more athletic team than the one that went 8-5 a year ago. Another trip to the postseason seems likely in Ames, and finishing in the upper half of the Big 12 is possible.
KU finished just 1-11 in 2017, with its only win coming in the season opener against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State. Coach David Beaty’s record stands at 3-33 in three seasons, with his only FBS win coming against Texas in 2016. The stakes will be high in 2018. If KU struggles to start the season, the moves could come in a hurry.
K-State coach Bill Snyder has enough returning talent and experience to remain a factor in the Big 12, but it won’t be easy with two new coordinators and uncertainty at key positions. The Wildcats started slow in each of the past two seasons before finishing strong and winning bowl games. They will need to play well from the get-go, especially with Mississippi State on the schedule, to reach higher levels this season.
In Norman, they’re used to replacing All-Americans and continuing to win big. So downgrade the Sooners with caution. Sure, the coaches would like to be more settled at quarterback. And the schedule doesn’t offer the opportunity to ease into things, with UCLA visiting in Week 2, followed by the Big 12 opener at Iowa State the following Saturday. Still, if Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall takes hold of the quarterback position, the Sooners will again have the look of a Big 12 favorite and CFB Playoff contender.
Outside the program, all focus centers on replacing QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington, understandably. Inside, however, there’s a quiet confidence, with 12 returning starters and plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
A quarterback must emerge, but Oklahoma State coaches are excited about their options. The schedule offers two comfortable games – Missouri State and South Alabama – to get the quarterback some confidence, before Boise State arrives in Stillwater for an intriguing non-conference clash. If all goes well early, it could signal business as usual for the Cowboys.
Like always, TCU will field a good defense. But coach Gary Patterson and his staff have assembled what looks like the best offensive skill talent they’ve ever had. If the offensive line comes together, TCU will be closer to pairing an offense that can keep up with the Big 12’s best with a defense that can win games on its own. The last time that happened, in 2014 and ’15, TCU won 23 of 26 games, shared a league championship and nearly crashed the CFP.
Texas improved from five to seven wins in Tom Herman’s first season. Getting to a bowl game was a nice first step. Herman also established a culture and added some elite talent in his first full recruiting class. To challenge Oklahoma for supremacy in the Big 12, the Horns will have to show significant improvement on offense and hope that Todd Orlando’s defense doesn’t drop off too much despite key personnel losses.
Texas Tech’s defense got key stops consistently for the first time in years in 2017, but the offense often wasted away those opportunities, particularly in the red zone, where short-yardage situations and field goal tries often ended in disaster.
To take a step forward, the Red Raider offense simply has to get tougher on the ground, the quarterback — whoever wins the job — needs to be steady, the kicking game must take a huge step forward and the defense needs to stay on course. A veteran offensive line and a healthy kicker in Clayton Hatfield should help, but the quarterback’s success or failure will weigh the heaviest on this team’s season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s job depends on it.
WVU fans were downright giddy for the 2018 team until departures and injuries hit the Mountaineer defense in the spring. Now, there’s a wait-and-see approach while defensive coordinator Tony Gibson tries to patch the holes.
With Will Grier and perhaps the nation’s best receiving corps, WVU will score. The only question is whether they’ll have to score 50 per game to cover for the defense.
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Complete Big Ten preview for 2018.
The Big Ten heads into the 2018 college football season with five candidates to reach the playoff. After winning the conference championship last year, Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten to win the league title once again. However, rival Michigan and division foes Penn State and Michigan State aren’t far behind. In the West, Wisconsin is a clear favorite over Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. The Badgers face a tougher schedule than they had in 2017, but coach Paul Chryst’s program has the returning talent to push Ohio State or any of the teams from the East in the Big Ten Championship.
Saquon Barkley is someone else’s problem now, but opponents should still be wary of this offense, especially if Trace McSorley displays the kind of accuracy he showed while completing all 12 of his third-down passing attempts vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State is going to get its points. But can a graduation-depleted defense stop opponents from getting theirs? That’s what will determine whether this team earns its third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl berth.
OSU ended last season with a win over That Team Up North and a defeat of USC in the Rose Bowl, but the 55–24 setback at Iowa still can’t be explained. Plus, the late-season momentum was offset by the loss of a multitude of key players, QB J.T. Barrett atop the list. The Buckeyes will march onward with a new quarterback, a roster loaded with hungry talent and a defense that still plans to come after people.
This is a pivotal season for coach Jim Harbaugh, whose struggles against his three main rivals are well documented. His fourth Michigan team will once again be outstanding on defense. If the offense, a trouble spot in recent years, shows any improvement, this team can compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff — even against a difficult schedule that includes the usual suspects from the Big Ten East as well as Notre Dame (on the road) and Wisconsin (the top team from West). However, if the quarterback play remains an issue and the offensive line doesn’t progress, it will be more of the same in Ann Arbor.
Head coach Tom Allen landed Indiana’s best recruiting class in years and has upgraded the program’s athleticism. But depending on freshmen to win against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State is not a winning formula. With questions at quarterback, the offensive line and across the defense, the ceiling for this team could be six wins.
Coach DJ Durkin’s endless enthusiasm was tested last year. Injuries crippled a promising team that upset Texas in the opener. The Terrapins got pounded by the Big Ten’s biggest bullies. Now there’s a second straight top-30 recruiting class in tow, five new coaches, a new state-of-the-art indoor practice/sports medicine facility in New Cole Field House, and a whole new offense with some healthy quarterbacks. Big Ten foes may not have to “Fear the Turtle” just yet, but they’ll have to start paying attention.
Michigan State bounced back from a 3–9 season to reach double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years. With 19 returning starters from a team that went 10–3, the Spartans are a dangerous contender in one of the best divisions in college football and will continue to be a problem for Penn State and Michigan. A return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2015 is unlikely but not impossible. No one is expecting Michigan State to leapfrog Ohio State, but that’s the way coach Mark Dantonio likes it.
A bowl game is the hope for coach Chris Ash’s third season — a goal he is not shying away from. But if bowl eligibility does happen, it will likely be achieved early. Six of the first seven opponents Rutgers faces were a combined 20-52 last season, including three that lost 10 games or more. The closing five-game stretch of Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State — a combined 52-14 last year — isn’t conducive to making bowl headway. In the end, it all comes down to offensive improvement and the play at quarterback for this team.
The defense has been the star for the first three years of the Paul Chryst era, a stretch that includes 34 wins. Now, the Badgers might have to light up the scoreboard if they’re going to make a run at the Big Ten title. A light non-conference schedule should give the defense a chance to grow, but that group needs to be ready for a Big Ten slate that includes road games against five bowl teams from a year ago.
There is a lot to like but also a lot to question about this Iowa team. QB Nate Stanley and TE Noah Fant both have star potential, the defensive ends might be the best in the Big Ten as a group and the kicking game is solid. On the other hand, the top two running backs have to be replaced, along with all three starting linebackers and an All-America cornerback.
One of Iowa’s biggest strengths might be its schedule, which doesn’t include games against Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State – three of the Big 4 from the Big Ten East.
Nebraska has been largely absent from the national discussion since 2001, and the Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference championship since 1999. Without overstating things, coach Scott Frost and staff were miracle workers at UCF, taking a program from 0-12 the season before they arrived to 13-0, including a Peach Bowl victory against Auburn, last year, their second in Orlando.
Whether they can work such magic in two seasons again is uncertain. Nebraska had better than 4-8 talent a year ago, and much of it returns. New systems are in place all the way around, causing growing pains, and the schedule is daunting. But the Cornhuskers will be up-tempo, aggressive, physical — and competitive.
For the third time in four seasons, Minnesota figures to enter November still in search of an elusive sixth win — and bowl eligibility. A year ago, in coach P.J. Fleck’s first season at Minnesota, the Gophers lacked depth and talent and finished at 5-7, including 2-7 in the Big Ten. It marked the first time Minnesota had missed a bowl since 2011.
“The outside people are going to say, “What about your wins?”” Fleck said during the spring. “Again, I’m not worried about all that. I’m not worried one bit about any of the wins and losses. I’m worried about developing this football team.”
Fleck, who took Western Michigan from 1-11 to 8-5 in Year 2 in Kalamazoo, received a one-year rollover contract extension at Minnesota during last season and now has five years remaining to build the program in his image.
With 27 wins in the last three seasons and a new lakefront facility, Northwestern clearly has momentum. Keeping it likely depends on QB Clayton Thorson, who, if healthy, can take the Wildcats a long way. But his uncertain status and key losses at running back, safety and defensive tackle increase the degree of difficulty. Northwestern needs line play to excel and for its star power on defense to shine again. Although the schedule is tough, Northwestern misses both Ohio State and Penn State and gets almost all of its marquee opponents at home.
Coach Lovie Smith’s teams are 5-19 overall and just 2-16 in the Big Ten, including an unprecedented 0-9 in 2017. He has a six-year deal, so the administration is giving him time. The fans want to see some progress and some excitement. The schedule is challenging, with an early game against South Florida in Chicago, visits from Penn State and Iowa and trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.
During the past two decades, the third year has been a charm for Illinois coaches. Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman earned bowl bids in their third seasons. If offensive coordinator Rod Smith continues to have a golden touch with quarterbacks, like he did at Arizona, the offense will improve. Enough to bump the win total to six? Probably not.
Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Coach Jeff Brohm exceeded those expectations by leading Purdue to its first bowl win since 2011. Veteran defensive leaders keyed the turnaround last year. Now, with so many of those players gone, the pressure is on the offense. Purdue could take a step back in Year 2 before it takes two steps forward in Year 3.