50 storylines and questions for the 2017 college football season
The wait is over. College football season has arrived.
Here's a look at 50 storylines and questions to follow:
1.) Week 1 games with CFP implications: A couple of games will breed playoff atmospheres the very first week, which may have a hand in who plays in the actual College Football Playoff come January. Florida will battle Michigan in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET. Later on at 8 p.m. ET, Alabama will play Florida State in a No. 1 vs. 3 matchup at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Not bad for opening week.
2.) Lamar Jackson's encore performance: The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner finished with 5,114 total yards and 51 combined touchdowns in a breakout sophomore campaign. So what's on tap in 2017? Well, that may depend on the play by the Louisville offensive line in front of Jackson.
3.) Who will lift the 2017 Heisman? Only one student-athlete has ever won the Heisman Trophy in consecutive seasons (Archie Griffin; 1974-75). So history isn't on Jackson's side in his effort to repeat. Don't be mistaken, he'll still be in the mix, but watch for familiar names like USC's Sam Darnold, Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, among others, to make a run.
4.) Conferences battling for bragging rights: The SEC has claimed seven of the last 10 national championships and built up a decade-long argument for conference supremacy. The ACC and Big Ten had something to say about that in 2016. Led by national champion Clemson, the ACC finished with five reps in the final AP poll. The Big Ten had four, all in the top 10. The SEC still finished with five in the final rankings, including national runner-up Alabama. The race for bragging rights will continue this year.
5.) Will any team finish the season undefeated? The answer in 2016 was no. Alabama and Western Michigan, the last two undefeated teams standing last year, both failed in their pursuit for 14-0 records in bowl season. Florida State was the last program to finish the year undefeated, back in their national title run in 2013.
6.) Will Alabama maintain its dominance? Remember that stat about seven SEC national champs in the past 10 years? The Crimson Tide have won four of those. Nick Saban and Co. returns Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Calvin Ridley on offense and a wealth of potential on defense in what will be another season with high expectations.
7.) SEC East looks to end West dominance: SEC West powers Alabama, Auburn and LSU have combined to win each conference title since 2009. Is this the year where two-time defending East champ Florida or a team like Georgia or Tennessee breaks the streak?
8.) Will Clemson be knocked off the top of ACC Atlantic? Florida State is a popular championship pick early in the offseason with Deondre Francois under center. Louisville returns Jackson. Will either be enough to dethrone the two-time defending division champs and reigning national champ?
9.) Are Penn State and USC legit title contenders? Both of these historically successful programs returned to prominence in a big way last season, just missing out on Playoff bids after scorching hot late-season runs. Instead, they matched up in a classic Rose Bowl. May these two once again play each other in bowl season, this time at the CFP stage?
10.) Washington looks to stay top dog in the Pac-12: Washington was probably a year or two ahead of schedule when it reached the CFP last season. Now the pressure's on to stay atop the conference and return to the CFP, with USC lurking on the other side of the standings. Jake Browning returns under center, but UW faces the losses of wideout John Ross and a host of defensive backs.
11.) Will a Big 12 team return to the Playoff? Oklahoma ultimately buried its chances at a second-straight CFP spot with a 1-2 start last season. Elsewhere, teams like Baylor and West Virginia faded. Now, the conference seeks a return to the stage with a couple of contenders. The Sooners return Baker Mayfield while Oklahoma State has its tandem of Mason Rudolph and James Washington coming back. Get ready for some shootouts.
12.) The Mullet looks for his second Big 12 title: Sticking with Oklahoma State, Mike Gundy's Cowboys have a legitimate shot at their second-ever Big 12 title in program history. OSU went 10-3 last season and won the Alamo Bowl.
13.) The return of the Big 12 title game. Having a conference championship game will help in the Big 12's hopes at a CFP spot. After a six-year absence, the Big 12 championship game will return at the end of the regular season on Dec. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
14.) Can Florida State live up to expectations? With sophomore Deondre Francois leading the way at quarterback, some high-potential new talent arising on the offensive side and Derwin James returning from injury in the defensive backfield, FSU is a likely top five team — possibly top two — heading into 2017. It'll be a tough path, however, The Noles face Alabama in Week 1 and travel to Clemson in Week 10 and Florida in Week 12.
15.) Which program will be the 2017 Western Michigan? Houston entered 2016 as the darling Group of 5 team to watch, but it was Western Michigan that emerged as the top team outside the Power 5, earning a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Some Group of 5 programs to watch this year include Troy, Appalachian State, Toledo and Boise State.
16.) Which FCS teams will make noise vs. the FBS? North Dakota State toppled Iowa last season to create some buzz for the FCS. This year's early upset watch includes Eastern Washington vs. Texas Tech, James Madison vs. East Carolina and Cal Poly vs. San Jose State.
17.) Development of sophomore signal callers. Jalen Hurts, Sam Darnold, Deondre Francois, Jacob Eason. All big names, all just rising true sophomores. It'll be fun to see just how much better each of these young quarterbacks can get.
18.) Which QB will separate himself as a top draft prospect? The 2017 NFL draft could be full of top quarterback options. Darnold showed his mix of arm strength and mobility throughout his freshman campaign. A short drive away, UCLA signal caller Josh Rosen is primed to have a bounce-back year after his 2016 campaign was cut short. Then there's Wyoming's Josh Allen, who should get plenty more attention this year.
19.) New head coaches in the Red River Rivalry: The Oklahoma-Texas showdown will have a new look this year. Lincoln Riley is the new man in charge of the Sooners after Bob Stoops retired after 18 years. He's been the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons in Norman. Meanwhile, Texas made a huge splash with the signing of former Houston coach Tom Herman as its new head coach.
20.) Ed Orgeron's first full season at LSU: Orgeron's Louisiana ties and defensive mind made him a popular man in Baton Rouge when he took over as interim head coach midway through 2016. Now his term as the permanent hire begins, following a 6-2 run with a Citrus Bowl victory last year.
21.) PJ Fleck takes over at Minnesota: PJ Fleck "Row[ed] the Boat" to Minnesota after leading Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a Cotton Bowl berth in 2016. He'll have a chance to make a name for himself at the helm of the Gophers, with a road matchup with Michigan and home battles with Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin slated for 2017.
22.) Which assistants will emerge as the next hot coaching candidates? Clemson defensive coordinator Brett Venables will remain a name at the top of many schools' wish lists, as will LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Who else will make a name for themselves in 2017?
23.) Notre Dame hopes to rebound: Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016. That marked the first season the Irish failed to reach .500 since 2009-10. Notre Dame enters a critical year as it looks for stability from its offensive line and searches for an answer at quarterback.
24.) Oregon turns toward Willie Taggart era: Oregon suffered a similar falloff last year with a 4-8 season. The Ducks now turn to Willie Taggart to right the ship, a season after he led USF to an 11-2 record with the No. 5 rushing offense in the nation and a dynamic quarterback in Quinton Flowers. Taggart's offense should fit in nicely in Eugene. But the biggest question rests in Oregon's defense.
25.) What will see out of Michigan State? Yet another powerhouse looking to put 2016 behind them, coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans welcome a fresh season. MSU finished 3-9 last year, one season after reaching the CFP. There is reason for optimism though. This is a young Spartans team that should see development across the board. Plus, standout running back LJ Scott will be back as a junior.
26.) TCU's outlook: The Horned Frogs' expectations will be tempered this year, following a 6-7 2016. The good news is that TCU returns seven starters on the defensive side and will have quarterback Kenny Hill back under center. Hill accounted for 27 touchdowns in his first season at TCU but also had 13 interceptions. His security with the ball will be crucial to the Horned Frogs' success.
27.) Kirby Smart enters year two at Georgia: Smart's 8-5 first season at UGA wasn't spectacular, but it brings hope. The Bulldogs now return a full stock of offensive weapons and now look to take a big leap in the SEC East. Jacob Eason returns for his first full season as a starter and brings elite arm strength. Behind him, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel form an experienced and talented running back tandem.
28.) Where does Colorado fit into the Pac-12? Mike MacIntyre took home national coach of the year honors last season for his work at the helm of the 10-4 Buffs. Now sans Sefo Liufau, Colorado hopes to compete once again in a stacked Pac-12. Both Washington and USC will travel to Boulder for their head-to-head matchups, which will be an advantage for the Buffs.
29.) Luke Falk's return to Wazzou: Washington State turned heads last year with its explosive offense, led by the quarterback-receiver duo of Luke Falk and Gabe Marks. Falk is back after throwing for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns, but he'll have to find a new top target to improve his Heisman candidacy.
30.) USF's potential under Charlie Strong: Texas didn't quite work out for Charlie Strong, who left the Longhorns after four years and a 16-21 record. But now he finds himself in a nice situation at South Florida. AAC offensive player of the year Quinton Flowers and his 42 combined touchdowns in 2016 lead an offense that averaged 43.8 points per game last season.
31.) Lane Kiffin kicks things off at FAU: Welcome back to the head coaching world, Lane Kiffin. The former Alabama offensive coordinator gets things started at Florida Atlantic with a Sept. 1 game against Navy before traveling to Madison in Week 2 to take on Wisconsin. FAU is coming off a 3-9 season and hopes Kiffin's offensive mind can improve on the team's 26.4 points per game last year.
32.) Third time's a charm for Baker Mayfield? Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was invited to New York for each of the past two years' Heisman presentations. He finished fourth and third, respectively, in the voting. This year, Mayfield has a third trip to New York, his first Heisman Trophy and his second trip to the CFP on his mind.
33.) Will JT Barrett get help on the offense? Ohio State's lack of offensive depth was exploited in its 31-0 loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinals. The loss of Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown won't help in 2017. Quarterback JT Barrett will lean heavily on redshirt sophomore Mike Weber (nine rushing touchdowns in 2016) and will hope names like Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor become factors in 2017.
34.) Derrius Guice enters full-time feature role: It wasn't too long ago that Leonard Fournette was a popular pick for the 2016 Heisman while Derrius Guice waited in his enormous shadow. Now Fournette is off to the NFL and Guice is shouldering equal preseason expectations as one of the top returning running backs. Guice ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. He has serious open-field speed that will be on full display in 2017.
35.) Alabama's scary running back combo: The Crimson Tide have potentially the top running back combo in the nation in Damien Harris (1,040 yards in 2016) and Bo Scarbrough (11 touchdowns in 2016). Harris received the bulk of the carries and was more consistent last year but the 6-2 Scarbrough took over late in the season with a pair of touchdowns each in the SEC title game and both CFP matchups. If both stay healthy, Alabama has a nasty ground and pound combo to employ.
36.) How will Stanford replace Christian McCaffrey? Every top program faces the same questions each year when it comes to replacing some of their top student-athletes that left in the draft. But how do you account for losing a top running back, receiver, punt returner and kick returner all in one? Bryce Love will get the bulk of the carries after registering a couple of 100-yard outings in 2016 while McCaffrey was out due to injury.
37.) Is Kelly Bryant the guy for Clemson under center? The defending champion Clemson also has big shoes to fill. With Deshaun Watson's departure, the Tigers must find new answer at quarterback. Junior Kelly Bryant appears to be the answer with his potentially dynamic dual-threat ability, but he hasn't been battle-tested in a grueling ACC schedule yet. Clemson lost a lot of key pieces on offense, and it'll be intriguing if Dabo Swinney can find the answers and prevent any decline.
38.) Beware Clemson's defensive line: On the other hand, with Clemson's front seven, there will be some pressure taken off the Tigers' young offense. Returnees Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence combined for 15.6 sacks last season. Have fun, opposing quarterbacks.
39.) Transfer quarterbacks starting over: Plenty of familiar names at quarterback will be starting fresh in new places. Kyle Allen is onto Houston, Brandon Harris is heading to UNC and Malik Zaire is joining Florida, just to name a few. Perhaps the move that will pay the biggest dividends will be Jarrett Stidham's move to Auburn. The Tigers have been looking for an answer under center for the past six years, and they may have found a gem in the former Baylor Bear.
40.) Mississippi QBs take the spotlight: Nick Fitzgerald went largely unnoticed in the SEC last season, despite passing for 2,423 yards and rushing for 1,375 more in his first year as a starter at Mississippi State. Meanwhile, with Chad Kelly graduating, Ole Miss has a new option under center in Shea Patterson. Patterson finished with six touchdowns and three interceptions in three games last year. Both programs might struggle a bit in 2017, but these two youngsters will be bright spots.
41.) Ed Oliver enters sophomore season: Houston's Ed Oliver wasted no time adjusting to the college level last year with 65 tackles and five sacks in his true freshman 2016 season. Now he enters 2017 as one of the top players to watch across the nation on either side of the ball.
42.) Bill Snyder's return to sidelines: Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, 77, will return to the sidelines in 2017 after being diagnosed with throat cancer before KSU's bowl game. And he returns to lead a darkhorse Big 12 team who finished 9-4 last year.
43.) What to expect from Wisconsin's defense: The Badgers defense held opponents to just 15.6 points per game last season. Despite some major losses on that side of the ball, Wisconsin still shapes up to be a scary sight for Big Ten offenses. Jack Cichy and TJ Edwards team up for a potent inside linebacker duo while returnees in the secondary hope to fill the gap left by cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
44.) Derwin James back in action: College football lost one of its most dynamic players in Week 2 last year when Derwin James went down with a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 10. He'll be back in 2017, looking to show fans what they missed. James' athleticism allows him to play safety, cornerback or outside linebacker on the defense.
45.) Nick Chubb's final season: Georgia running back Nick Chubb rushed for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns last season, one year after suffering a devastating knee injury that cut short his 2015 campaign. With a full season and a half since the injury behind him, expect even bigger things out of the rising senior.
46.) The "U" looks for return to glory: Miami (Fla.) finished 9-4 in Mark Richt's first season at the helm of his alma mater but failed to win any signature games — largely thanks to Florida State's DeMarcus Walker. This season, the Canes look to take the next step behind their stout defense, led by linebacker Shaq Quarterman (85 tackles, three sacks in 2016).
47.) UAB football returns: Sept. 2 will mark UAB's first football game since the program was cut at the end of the 2014 season. The Blazers take on Alabama A&M in their season opener.
48.) Navy-Army rivalry at its finest: Navy overcame injuries to finish 9-5 in a season that surpassed expectations. However, when it came to one of the game's most historic rivalries with Army (8-5), the Midshipmen ended a 14-year drought with a 21-17 win. With both programs coming off impressive seasons, the 2017 edition of the rivalry could be another classic. Circle your calendars for Dec. 9, when the two armed forces face off at Lincoln Financial Field at 3 p.m. ET.
49.) 2006 title game rematch: For the first time since Vince Young scampered into the end zone to clinch the 2006 national title at the Rose Bowl, Texas and USC will play one another in college football again. The rematch is set for Sept. 16 at LA Memorial Coliseum.
50.) Can Michigan beat Ohio State? Let's go back to a rivalry that doesn't wait 11 years in between head-to-head matchups. Ohio State has topped Michigan each of the past five years and 12 of the last 13 years. Jim Harbaugh can further endear himself to Wolverines fans with a victory on Nov. 25 at Michigan Stadium. Bragging rights will certainly be on the line and CFP hopes may be, too.