And we’re back for the third and final Conference Preview here at DaveOnCollegeFootball.com. As we all know – the best movie sagas were trilogies! (Hopefully this will be more Indian Jones and the Last Crusade than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part III…)
Last year’s Champion: San Diego State
Led by their star running back and the NCAA’s leading rusher Donnel Humphrey, the Aztecs ran all over their MWC opponents on their way to their 2nd consecutive MWC title.
Predicted Champion: Wyoming
HC Craig Bohl engineered the Cowboys to a surprise division title and conference championship game appearance last year led by star QB and potential first overall pick in next year’s draft Josh Allen. Prior to the Cowboys, Bohl won back-to-back-to-back national championships at the FCS level with North Dakota State. His championship pedigree might just rub off on these Cowboys; look for Wyoming to top out this season with Allen leading the way to the MWC title.
Player to Watch: Wyoming QB Josh Allen, as mentioned above, has all the physical tools to succeed at the next level. At 6″5′, 234 lbs, the question is: can he put it all together for one final season with the Cowboys?
Teams with Question Marks: Boise State seems to have plateaued the past two years. Following an initial 12-2 campaign that saw the Broncos win the MWC and go to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014, the Broncos have gone 9-4 and 10-3 the past two seasons with no conference titles to speak of under HC Bryan Harsin. Considering the heights that now-Washington HC Chris Pedersen had with the Broncos (five conference titles in eight seasons, along with two BCS Bowl wins), it’s going to be hard to duplicate such success.
New Mexico – Can the Lobos achieve back-to-back 9+ wins seasons for the first time in school history? HC Bob Davie is sure going to try, as duel-threat QB Lamar Jordan returns for his senior season, along with 1,000 yard rusher Tyrone Owens, who will try to duplicate the nation’s leading rushing attack from a year ago.
Last year’s Champion: Washington
In his third season in charge in Seattle, HC Chris Petersen led the Huskies to their first conference crown in over 16 years, as well as their first CFB playoff.
Predicted Champion: USC
Sophomore QB Sam Darnold won every game but his first as a starter for the Trojans last year and showed off just how dynamic of an arm (cover your eyes and ears Nittany Lion fans, but seriously watch the full highlight and the breakdown by Kirk Herbstreit which starts at the 1:10 mark) and pocket passer he really is in their Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Expect more of the same from Darnold as he leads the Trojans into a pretty lackluster Pac-12 South and to face the defending Pac-12 Champion Washington Huskies in the title game.
Players to Watch: USC QB Sam Darnold – Did I say this guy is good? Following that Rose Bowl he’s been the perennial favorite to win the Heisman, plus a likely first overall pick if and when he decides to leave.
Washington QB Jake Browning led the Huskies to a magical season and one that included him throwing for 40+ TDs. Look for Browning to have a similar season even without speedy WR and 17-TD John Ross who’s now catching passes in the NFL. Browning now has SR WR Dante Pettis, who caught a modest 15 TDs.
UCLA QB Josh Rosen – Can Rosen put behind his injury-plagued sophomore season and shut up all those naysayers in the NFL scouting community? Or will he fall victim to the pressure of being a top prospect QB who can’t seem to pull it all together, while also making comments to the media about how college isn’t fair to athletes? It will definitely be interesting to follow his progress.
Teams with Question Marks: Arizona and Arizona State – in 2014 these two in-state rivals battled for the right to represent the Pac-12 South in the Pac-12 title game, one eventually played in the Fiesta Bowl. Since that season both programs have been eclipsed surprisingly by Colorado, and unsurprisingly by USC. This past season saw their end of the season tilt end in an Arizona win which prevented the Sun Devils from going bowling, both HC’s, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, and Arizona State’s Todd Graham butts are squarely on the hot seat.
Last year’s Champion: Alabama
One of the perennial powers of the sport, Alabama was brought to the brink of consecutive national championships by a true freshman QB, Jalen Hurts, and one of the more legendary defenses in the history of the game. Alabama was certainly in a class all their own in the SEC.
Predicted Champion: Alabama
I really wanted to say Georgia here, considering their backfield, QB Jacob Eason and the plethora of talent they have on defense, but that inexperienced O-line really leaves a lot of question marks for a team that pretty much has it all. I also don’t know what to make of second year HC Kirby Smart just yet.
Alabama just reloads every year… not much to see here. Although, considering the short falls that freshman sensation Jalen Hurts had vs. Clemson, if there’s a small, ever-so-slight chink in the Crimson Tide’s armor, that might be it.
Players to Watch: LSU LB Arden Kay is a monster – he’s 6″6′, 238 lbs – and last year had 12 sacks, which had him second in the league behind first round picks and consensus All-Americans Derek Barnett (Tennessee, who broke Reggie White’s school record for sacks in a career), and Jared Allen (Alabama). Look for Kay to have a huge season off the edge for the Tigers’ defense.
Georgia QB Jacob Eason, the sophomore has a rocket for an arm (which would be hard to write autographs with no?), and reminds me of Matthew Stafford as far as gunslingers go. Expect a big season for Eason and if you like watching great pocket passers, he’ll be one to keep an eye on.
Teams with Question Marks: Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida – 8 and 9. For a majority of programs in America, eight and nine wins in a season is a pretty darn good year. For schools such as Tennessee, Florida, and Texas A&M, that’s the definition of malaise.
Tennessee HC Butch Jones has guided the Vols to consecutive 9-win campaigns but finds himself on the hot seat, and I personally think it’s quasi justified. With last year’s expectations of winning the SEC East, being ranked in the top 10, and potentially ending the year at a big bowl all not being reached, it’s justified to be disappointed as a Vols fan for their performance down the stretch. The injuries piled up, as did the disappointing losses to teams that should be tackling dummies, and highlight reel fodder for the Vols (I’m talking to you, South Carolina and Vanderbilt). With the talent that unloaded after last season due to graduation or the NFL Draft, expectations are tempered in Knoxville, but the bitter taste of last season is still strong on the banks of the Tennessee River. It’s also a distant memory that this program was in a serious talent shortage prior to Jones’ arrival which has since been fixed. My expectations are eight wins, and it’s a hard eight wins. And I ask, actually, I beg, for the Vols to beat the teams they are supposed to beat and beat them soundly, please (Vandy, Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri, UMass, Southern Miss, and Indiana State)!
The Aggies of A&M and HC Kevin Sumlin found themselves in another late season tailspin for the fourth consecutive season since their inaugural SEC season. For a program with as prideful a fan base as the Aggies to go a combined 1-9 vs. rivals LSU and Alabama is far worse than how the Aggies fared in their last five seasons in the Big XII vs. then-conference rivals Texas and Oklahoma (3-7). It seems the Aggies have found themselves in someone else’s shadow after all…
It’s crazy to think but Florida Gators HC Jim McElwain might just be on the hot seat at Florida. Yes, he’s successfully guided the Gators to the SEC Championship game in consecutive years. However, the Gators under McElwain have been completely outclassed by most Power 5 teams outside of the SEC East (3-7), including 0-4 vs. in-state rival Florida State and SEC West power Alabama. Oh, and he blew a 21-3 lead in Knoxville vs. the Vols where they lost by double digits (gotta get that shot in there!). Starting the season at a neutral site in Arlington vs. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan could be a step in the right direction – or perhaps, a start of a long, painful year for the Gators. Look for some heat to be coming McElwain’s way.
Last year’s Champion: Arkansas State & Appalachian State
We had co-champions in the SunBelt last season, as the Mountaineers of App State and the Red Wolves of Arkansas State did not play each other. And since the SunBelt didn’t have a title game, we missed a chance for a pretty decent game. This no-championship set up that the SunBelt has will change, as next season they will have two divisions (East and West) with a title game at the school of the team with the best record.
Predicted Champion: Appalachian State
The Mountaineers were perennial FCS champions in the mid-2000’s, but have found a good niche and groove inside the FBS and inside the SunBelt for them to grow and continue to be somewhat of a power (back to back 10-win seasons and bowl wins). Last year the Mountaineers scared the pajamas off of all of Big Orange Country in Knoxville, bringing the heavily-favored and top-ten ranked Tennessee Volunteers to OT (the Vols would prevail and it wasn’t pretty). Look for the Mountaineers to continue their SunBelt dominance.
Player to Watch: App State RB Jailen Moore – Moore returns for his junior season after leading the conference in rushing with 1,410 yards and 10 TDs. More likely than not that that will continue.
Teams with Question Marks: Idaho and New Mexico State – Both teams had very different years last year (Idaho 9-4 (bowl win), NMS 3-9), but next season they will both be moving down into the FCS. Will both schools go out of FBS football with a bang or a whimper?
That’s it for our Conference preview here at DaveOnCollegeFootball.com, tune in next week for our 1st Watch Guide of the season!