Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2015 CFB Preview: Question Quantity

By Jonathan Lowe

When a new college football season comes calling, fans are looking for answers. Everything is a mystery, and few clues are provided until play actually gets going. So, with the first games of the college football season set for Thursday night, there's no time to dilly-dally. Here are some things I'm wondering as kickoff draws closer.

Can Missouri Defy More Odds?

Okay. If you've read any of my raving rants over the last dozen or so years (Dozen? Wow.), you probably know how big of a Mizzou fan I am. But, come on. You're telling me that the Tigers are two-time defending SEC East champs? Heck, I would've thought LSU or Auburn had switched divisions. The simple fact is that I can't give any logical reasoning for it.

I couldn't begin to explain how they held off South Carolina after losing to the Gamecocks in week eight of the 2013 season. I have no earthly idea how they fended off Georgia after getting blasted by the Bulldogs in week six of the 2014 season. And trust me, if these Tigers somehow pull off a third consecutive trip to Atlanta, I'll have no clue how they'll end up defying the doubters ... including me ... again.

Could Minnesota Stun the Big Ten West?

If you asked me which program from this division was the most stable, I don't think I could come up with a better answer than the Gophers. Wisconsin and Nebraska are going through coaching changes. Iowa has become stagnated on a plane of mediocrity. Northwestern has slipped below mediocrity. Purdue is trying to build back to mediocrity. And, after last week's firing of head coach Tim Beckman, Illinois is in a state of chaos.

That leaves the Gophers. The program improved its overall season record in the first three seasons of Kill's four at the helm. The team has improved its conference record the last three seasons (in the same four-year stretch) they've played. The only thing left to improve to would be a Big Ten West title. With the rest of the division in flux, this would seem to be the perfect situation to improve toward that goal.

Has the Departure of Famous Jameis Opened Up the ACC?

Florida State was the talk of college football through most of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Part of that attention came off the field. However, the majority of it came from the 27-1 record those teams posted over the timespan. Losing a Heisman Award-winning quarterback would usually signal a downturn in the program's sustained relevance. That has been reflected by the media conglomeration covering the ACC. They picked Clemson to win the Atlantic Division.

But where one year might offer a protege to take the reins from the teacher, the Seminoles found someone to simply usher in a changing of the guard. Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson slides into the spot vacated by Jameis Winston. Golson may have had his own issues with the Golden Domers, but he won his first 16 starts and led the 2012 Irish to the BCS title game. All of that big-game experience (including last season's gut-wrenching loss in Tallahassee) should prove quite helpful as Jimbo Fisher searches for his next prodigy. And this should keep FSU, at the very least, in the mix.

Which "Group of Five" Teams Could Earn a Prime Bowl Game Bid?

Boise State is the leader in the clubhouse. The Broncos are ranked in both preseason polls. They play in the Mountain West, which is widely considered to be the best of the rest. They're also coming off of a win in the last Fiesta Bowl, so there's that.

When it comes to some of the other preseason conference favorites in this group, there are some opportunities to make some early statements. Cincinnati (AAC) hosts Miami in early October, followed by a trip to BYU. Memphis (AAC), hoping to build on their first bowl win since 2005, could make some hey if they take care of Cincinnati and Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl. The winner of the Louisiana Tech/Western Kentucky (CUSA) matchup may get road boosts later on in their schedules. La Tech will head to Kansas State and Mississippi State, while WKU will travel to LSU midseason.

Toledo (MAC) could really make inroads if they can upset Arkansas on September 12th. Western Michigan (MAC) could make the college football world explode if they could pull off the Big Ten double (vs. Michigan State on Friday, at Ohio State on September 26th). The Broncos' chief competition, Utah State could also make some headway during back-to-back roadies at Utah and Washington. So, while Boise State might be at the head of this class, the Broncos aren't in a class by themselves.

Is the Pac-12 South This Year's "Best Division?"

The SEC West received an inordinate amount of attention last season. I'm not saying it wasn't deserved, but it was more than the norm. All seven teams in that division went to a bowl game and finished above .500. But would you believe that wasn't the most impressive collective at season's end? I'd put my vote in for the Pac-12 South. Yes, 2-10 Colorado provides a weighty anchor to the rest of the division. The other five ... five bowl games, four bowl wins, and overall records of 9-4 or better.

Going into this season, the SEC West appears to have the upper hand again (five ranked teams to the Pac-12 South's four). However, the half-dozen set has more experience where it counts...at quarterback. Out of those six, only UCLA doesn't have a signal caller with ample experience (including Arizona State's Mike Bercovici, who started three crucial games last season in place of an injured Taylor Kelly). With so many QBs returning to teams with winning pedigrees, I expect the race to the conference title game to be a frantic as it was in 2014.

Is the Big 12 Race Boiled Down to One Game?

For much of the conference's existence, Oklahoma versus Texas was the standard bearer for title claims (with Nebraska and Kansas State sprinkled in). Last year, biggest showdown shifted from Dallas to Waco. This season, that showdown will head back to the Metroplex, but it's slated for Fort Worth instead of the Cotton Bowl. TCU and Baylor are new to Big 12 superiority, but, whether it be Art Briles' system or Trevone Boykin's Heisman candidacy, these two are primed to duke it out.

But Oklahoma won't want to give up their position so easily. Katy Perry's "supercrush" Trevor Knight is back behind center. NCAA single-game rushing record holder Samaje Perine will also return to the backfield. And during the Bob Stoops era, each time the Sooners win eight games or fewer, they back it up with at least 11 wins and a conference title the next.

Should We Be Prepared for Another "What's Your Deal?"

Call this one a guilty pleasure. For the first time in a few decades, the dynamics are present to re-establish the Bo v. Woody battles that lifted Michigan/Ohio State to another plane. Urban Meyer grew up in Ohio. Jim Harbaugh is a Michigan alum. Pride and passion will be abundant when these two teams meet each November.

But what happens if Harbaugh finds some way to derail the Buckeyes' grand plans for a repeat, rubbing it in with a last minute touchdown like he did to USC in 2009? This wouldn't be a face-off with loosey goosey Pete Carroll. It would be a stare-off with no-nonsense Urban Meyer. I just wonder if the "What's Your Deal?" meme would turn into a "Why You on the Ground, Bro?" one.

Is Everybody Just Playing For Second Place?

Speaking of Meyer, his team is loaded. The competition for quarterback was so crowded, last season's top starter (as well as Heisman candidate) has converted to a wide receiver. In 2014, Meyer himself projected that his program was a year away from contending for the national championship. Welp ... year's up.

But winning titles ain't easy. Winning them in consecutive years? Meyer knows that kind of difficulty. His 2009 Florida team was basically as talented as his current Ohio State squad. That Gator team was coming off a national championship. 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow returned for his senior season, leading an offense that included offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, wideout Riley Cooper, and tight end Aaron Hernandez. The stout Gator defense included future pros Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, Major Wright, Janoris Jenkins, etc.

That '09 Florida team completed an undefeated regular season before losing in the SEC Championship Game. In this game, it only takes one loss at the wrong time to derail greatness (just ask last season's Florida State team). However, it may take more than that for someone else to catch up to this edition of the Buckeyes.

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