Yesterday we previewed the WNaBP Top 11-25. Today, we cover the playoff contenders, such as they are. It’s as plutocratic and chalk-friendly top-of-the-charts as you’ll find. If you loved Clemson-Alabama Parts I, II and III, do we have some good news for you...otherwise, do we have some bad news for you.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes: Urban Meyer has never ran what you’d call a disciplined program or tight ship. Now, suspend him for a quarter of the season, lose an entire NFL roster’s worth of talent on both sides of the ball the past two seasons, and a senior quarterback. Throw in road trips to Penn State, TCU, Michigan State and Purdue. Add a dash of Michigan in the ‘Shoe, a LB corps and secondary with questions, and you’re asking a whole lot of a new sophomore QB playing behind an OL that’s missing an all-B1G selection and a two-year All-American. It’s just too much, and especially with these distractions. Talent alone will win nine games. Discipline and cohesion will decide the other three. I don’t think they can rise to the challenge. The Buckeyes have come up short with more talent, and the Big 10 has gotten better than it was just a few years ago.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Every three years or so, Mississippi State’s homegrown talent rises up and beats half the conference into submission. And, under Mullen, it usually stumbled down the stretch. This is the year ‘State is well-positioned to do the same, only without Mullen. The line play will be excellent on both sides of the ball. The offense may turn out the be even better — Aeris Williams is going to have a great year. And, in my heart of hearts, I truly believe that Joe Moorhead is a better X and O coach than Mullen. If he can get road consistency from Bully, a 10-win season and a nice January bowl game is not an unreasonable ask. This team (sorta’) scares me.
8. Florida Gators: What? Huh? Seriously, I’m not on drugs. Think about it for a moment: last year Florida played just 52 scholarship players under a lame duck; and they were mostly freshmen and sophomores, pressed into service out of necessity. The kids took their lumps. And now 19 of those guys return. Not just any returning starters, Florida talent — only three starters are outside the Top 75 at his position, and most are in the Top 25. More importantly, they return behind a guy who knows how to win immediately with a seasoned group. And, y’all, it’s a really soft schedule. Florida State will be vulnerable on the road — Willie Taggart is nothing special, if his peers (and track record at USF / Oregon) are to be believed. Besides the Cocktail Party, the toughest trip looks to be a barn burner against State in Starkville. But otherwise it’s really forgiving — Mizzou, LSU and Sakerlina come the Swamp. The race for the East will last all season. I’ve got my money on Georgia winning the battle in Jacksonville, but ultimately losing the war. This team is not getting nearly enough hype, and that’s probably how Mullen would prefer it. Weirdly, this may turn out to be the best season of his entire Gator tenure.
7. Michigan Wolverines: Call the Wolverines the Northern Florida: returning a metric ton of starters after a rough season, with excitement at the quarterback position for a change. This year, though, the schedule is a little more challenging than last. They open at Notre Dame and end at the Horseshoe, with trips to Northwestern and Sparty sprinkled in. Home visits by Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska at least balance it out somewhat. The question with this team, as it has been for almost a decade, is the offensive line. This is where Shea Patterson comes in. He’s a little more reckless with the ball than Brandon Peters, but his mobility opens up the offense and mitigates UM’s biggest question mark. The other question mark is whether Jim Harbaugh, after three years of yapping, can finally remove the chains from his talented offensive bunch, and play looser — especially on the road. I think that Ohio State wins the head-to-head again, because reasons. But Michigan is poised to finally make an appearance in the B1GCG. The tough road slate probably keeps this team out of the playoffs, but this represents Harbaugh’s best chance to get there to-date — the defense faces a complete overhaul next season. This season either begins with Michigan as a quiet playoff contender with unlimited upside — or one that can go off the rails almost immediately under the outstretched arms of Touchdown Jesus.
6. Georgia Bulldogs: Stop me if you’ve read this script before: A super-talented offense with weapons at every position, headlined by a star in the making sophomore quarterback, a deep and exciting running back group, faces question marks all over the defense. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s roughly the same position in which Alabama finds itself. The secondary was vulnerable to chunk plays last season; Auburn bullied them at the LOS for fully 60 minutes; the linebackers weren’t particularly special outside of Roquan Smith. Those issues are likely exacerbated this season. You can like Swift and Holyfield, but they’re not in the same class as Michel and Chubb yet. Another question is the development and consistency: UGA pulled away late in a few games last year that made scores more respectable than they were. Veterans from Richt’s era are mostly gone now too: It’s up to Kirby & Co. to show that they can develop all of the talent stockpiled in Athens. Another X-factor is whether having had a taste of the trophy, the Bulldogs fall back into complacency or can ever get over that ‘Dawg hump, be it one game or one play. They’ll need it: the heavy lifting is on the road: At South Carolina, at Mizzou, and at LSU. A road trip for the Cocktail Party. And, just one critical home game — Auburn. We’ll see. Talent gives UGA the benefit of the doubt, coaching prowess and program development will have to shoulder the balance. It’s a potential playoff team, but, man, you just don’t know if you can trust that secondary if it comes to a potent passing attack — Third and Kirby is a ‘Bama meme for a reason. And now 2nd and 26 lives forever.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Hi, haters. This team’s not going anywhere. Yes, the right side of the offensive line needs to be retooled — last year’s group was as nasty as I’ve seen in CFB since 2012 Alabama. So, it’s not a small loss. But, if there’s any area where Brian Kelly has excelled, it has been in recruiting and developing top-flight o-linemen. Brandon Wimbush returns after a full year under his belt, and the dual-threat talent should finally be settled in. But, the defense is really where you like the Irish. Nine starters return, including every member of an outstanding secondary. The Irish will need to get much better at rushing the passer though. This year’s schedule is also much easier than 2017’s. The Irish’s road trips aren’t particularly perilous: Wake, Va. Tech. Northwestern, USC. The Domers get FSU, Michigan, Stanford at home — and no Clemson. Georgia or Miami appear in 2018. If Wimbrush can become a more complete passer, the schedule sets this team up for a legitimate, non-BS run at the playoffs. The September 1 game vs. Michigan is as big an opener as we’ve had in a while: That game is going to be what Alabama-FSU was supposed to be.
4. Washington Huskies: The read-sheet on the Huskies is straightforward. Among the 17 returning starters includes the nation’s best secondary, hands down (cue whining from Baton Rouge.) An uncharacteristically wobbly year by Jake Browning was more likely the result of a rebuilt offensive line and the absence of John Ross more than anything. He’ll rebound. Myles Gaskin is one of the best tailbacks in the country that no one talks about. Chris Petersen can flat out coach. The schedule is manageable too (Atlanta vs. Auburn; roadies to Utah, Oregon.) And, they do get the Cardinal at home in a game that should decide the North. Like Notre Dame, this team has a schedule that sets up perfectly for a playoff run. Like Michigan, the Huskies have a lot of returning starters that are ready to peak. The big stage won’t chase off Petersen either. If this team shuts down Auburn on Labor Day, and handles its business in Seattle, you can see the Huskies running the table all the way to the playoffs. But that tilt versus the Tigers is a must-win. The P12 will regress somewhat this year, with not many marquee wins left on the slate for U-Dub. That makes this the most important opener for Washington in almost two decades. You have to believe that Gus and Petersen will throw the kitchen sink at one another.
3. Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers return a starting quarterback that showed flashes last year — and showed a lot of #butt too. He won’t be asked to do very much this year, not behind a Heisman-caliber running back and a beefy veteran offensive line, among the nation’s best. The run defense will be stout; the secondary excellent. The schedule doesn’t set up as nicely as some other contenders though. While Wisconsin dodges Sparty and Ohio State from the East and gets Nebraska at home, they must travel to Happy Valley, Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan — all of those can be manageable if this team is built like most suspect they are. And they’re just as easily losable games as well. This is probably the iffiest of the national title contenders: Paul Chryst’s team could go 11-1 and play in the B1GCG or lose three games. Only Hornibrook’s development and key replacements in the secondary will determine that. You get the feeling that losing Troy Fumigalli to the NFL will sting a bit more than most suspect it will. If you’ve never seen a passing offense that goes through the tight end, then you must have missed Wisconsin the past three seasons.
2. Clemson Tigers: Yeah, them again. The nation’s best defensive line with a bullet forms the heart of a team that will still win with defense-first as Trevor Lawrence gets his feet under him. You know the other suspects: Ettiene, Renfrow. The big question on offense is whether the talented young players on the outside can step up and replace the NFL WR talent the Tigers have lost the past two seasons. Their development will closely tie into how much upside Lawrence has. The other issue with the Tigers is a secondary that can be smoked in the vertical passing game — 20.4 YPP. Woof — and, half of those guys have to be replaced. Their defensive line buys a lot of leeway for iffy corner play, to be sure though. The schedule is also a bit tougher: at A&M, BC, and FSU. Home vs. NCSU, Luhvl, Sakerlina. Dabo is good for at least one derp game you don’t see coming — Pitt, Syracuse, etc. But, it could just as easily come from one of those six. Not a perfect season, not a perfect team, but probably the second or third best one with oodles of playoff experience under their belts.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: This is the nation’s best team, its deepest one, its most talented one, and its best-coached and prepared one. Throw in a very soft landing of a schedule and its easy to love a title run: 75% of its hardest games are at home (A&M, State, Auburn.) They catch a down LSU team for the tough roadie in Baton Rouge. With what should be the nation’s most balanced offense, you’re never going to make this squad one-dimensional. Those days are over. The front seven will be dominating — maybe the most athletic one-through-seven Nick Saban has fielded, even if doesn’t generate the gaudy sack numbers of ‘15-’16. The secondary will take a while to get their sea legs, to be sure. But, the biggest question mark for this squad is communication: how well the new coaches can install and teach a game plan, and how well the new full-time starters will work together as a unit. You have to think they’ll pass the test: Alabama has gone to the playoffs with far iffier squads. This is decidedly not an iffy one .
Just outside the Top 25:
For one reason or another, the following teams came up short. Be it a lack of defense (Mizzou), wasting talent (Hokies), new coaching (UCF), dumpster fires (Geaux Rebuild), more hat than cattle (‘Horns), etc. they need to prove it on the field:
Florida State Seminoles
Preseason Playoff Prediction:
- Notre Dame
After a vicious defensive grinder between U-Dub and Clemson, the prevailing Tigers watch the Alabama Crimson Tide obliterate Notre Dame — the century-long grudge remains, as the Irish have no answers for a team on a mission.
‘Bama - Clemson IV is won by the Tide in a wide-open shootout en route to a 15-0 season and its 18th national championship. Nick Saban takes home his seventh national title, exceeding Bear Bryant’s major college record, and his sixth total with the Crimson Tide, tying the legend at the Capstone. And he will show no signs of slowing down either, quickly hitting the road to net another Top NSD class — and a 2019 team that could be even better than this one.
Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa enters 2019 as its favorite and the top Draft-eligible junior in the nation, being named one of five First-Team All-Americans for the 2018 Crimson Tide.