football-fbs flag | September 4, 2015

College Football Q&A: Week 1

  Marshawn Williams (42) and the Hokies will be looking for a repeat upset of Ohio State on Monday.

Every Friday, will run ‘Third and Long,’ a look at three different questions facing the college football world. This week, our three respondents are Joe Boozell, Eric Vander Voort and Austin Vaughn.

1. Ohio State is the first unanimous No. 1 and opens against Virginia Tech, the only team to beat them last season. What has to happen for the Buckeyes to become the third team in history to go wire-to-wire as No. 1? Or if they don’t, who knocks them off?

JB: Ohio State has three unbelievable quarterbacks, a Heisman hopeful in Ezekiel Elliott, plenty of talent on the outside and a reliable offensive line. The defense returns the bulk of its key cogs, too. Avoiding injuries is the most crucial variable in the Buckeyes going unbeaten, and when that’s a squad’s biggest “issue,” you know they’re in pretty good shape.

I don’t see anyone knocking them off in the regular season, to be frank. But if someone does, outside of Michigan State, Virginia Tech is probably the biggest hurdle the Buckeyes have to leap to go undefeated into the playoff. Joey Bosa, Jalin Marshall and a crew of others missing the season opener only magnifies that possibility.

And for all the Michigan fans out there, I’ll say this: The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry should be epic for years to come, but the Wolverines just don’t have the talent the Buckeyes do in 2015. The Wolverines are a year (or two or three) away from making an upset a realistic possibility.

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EV: Ohio State has that target on its back now, but I’m not sure any team in its out of conference schedule or any team in the Big Ten has enough talent to knock them off. It will take the Buckeyes beating themselves to keep them out of the College Football Playoff. I also don’t think that an Urban Meyer-coached team is likely to do that, so I’ve got the Buckeyes making it back to the national championship game. There, against an elite team from another conference, will the Buckeyes have been under pressure enough as they were a year ago to be prepared for what they’ll face? TCU is my preseason pick for national champion, winning a close one against a Buckeye team that will learn some lessons about how hard it is to repeat.

AV: The defending national champions schedule reads a lot like a bakery menu: cupcake, cupcake, cupcake, and that’s not even mentioning how capable the Buckeyes are to handle actual challenges. Virginia Tech’s momentum –and the fact that many pundits are saying the Hokies will return to form this year- going into game one with last year’s upset still on their mind could equal immediate disappointment for Urban Meyer and company. However, if the Buckeyes start the season 1-0, there’s no team on their schedule that can challenge them until No. 5 Michigan State. My thought is, that in order for OSU to lose, its going to have to sustain some serious injuries to keep their stellar playmakers off the field. But, with Frank Beamer and Mark Dantonio looking for revenge and Jim Harbaugh leading an excited new breed of Wolverine, the Bucks are going to have some serious tests. And, if they find themselves in the playoff, they’ll deserve it.

2. Third-ranked Alabama and No. 6 Auburn each start their season with tests against No. 20 Wisconsin and Louisville, respectively. Which Iron Bowl foe would be in more trouble with a first-week loss?

EV: Alabama is in a weird spot -- not getting much as much talk and attention in the regular season, but the sky-high expectations remain. Auburn has the hype without the record of consistency of their arch rivals, so some are buying in, some are not. What I find interesting about these two is that with both, we really don’t know what we’re going to get. Even with Alabama, last year’s pass-happy style of play was successfully but uncharacteristic, and questions still surround their quarterback situation this close to the first game. More often than not, that isn’t exactly a good sign. Still, I think that Auburn is in more trouble with a loss in Week 1. With a loss to Wisconsin, Alabama would drop a few spots, but a couple good SEC wins later the Tide could be right in playoff contention again. It’s the Saban factor. But if Auburn falls to Louisville, could they quickly go the way of 2014 Texas A&M?

Versus: Alabama Football-Derrick Henry vs. Wisconsin Football-Corey Clement
AV: The Tigers and Tide both have extremely challenging schedules, that’s just the way of life in the SEC West. However, Auburn plays LSU and Mississippi State in Week 3 and Week 4, respectively; so, if the Tigers do start 0-1, they better make adjustments quickly or they could easily find themselves with a two in the L column. Meanwhile, Alabama’s Week 3 opponents gave the Tide their first loss of the season last year, but the 2015 edition of the Ole Miss Rebels aren’t as intimidating as the Baton Rouge Bengals. Regardless, if the two SEC West titans go into the Iron Bowl with only one loss and playoff hopes still on the line, the earlier the loss the better.

JB: I’m going with Alabama. As loaded as the Tide is on both sides of the ball, they have major question marks at the most important position on the field – the quarterback spot. The Wisconsin game in Arlington, Texas is a worthy test for the Tide, and whichever guy takes control under center needs to be steady, at the very least.

The Badgers are Alabama-lite in the sense that they have quarterback issues of their own, too. Joel Stave is far from a superstar, and the Badgers will look to overpower foes with Corey Clement and a behemoth offensive line.

The problem with that strategy against Alabama? I’ll just rattle off some names: A’Shawn Robinson. Reggie Ragland. Jonathan Allen. You get the idea.

Wisconsin’s biggest strength does not exploit a Bama weakness, which is the secondary. If the Crimson Tide lose on opening night, it will be a rockier season than expected in Tuscaloosa.

  This year's Iron Bowl returns to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since Chris Davis' "Kick Six."
3. Let’s say our crystal ball tells us that a team outside the AP preseason top 10 makes the College Football Playoff. Which team is it?

AV: If you’ve seen my CFP predictions you know I have No. 22 Arizona as my national champion. Hold on, before you start questioning my sanity, my rationale is this: the most complete team will come from the Pac 12. The Big 12 has no defenses to give the high-flying offenses of TCU or Baylor a good litmus test, the SEC’s premier programs are having trouble naming starting quarterbacks and the ACC is probably going to be on the outside looking in. Which leaves the Pac 12 champion and Ohio State, because really, is someone else going to win the B1G? But, the Buckeyes, much like Florida State last year, are going to take everyone’s best shot, and, more than likely, will get banged up along the way. So, the Pac 12 champion, who won’t be Oregon because it had to replace a Heisman Trophy winner with an FCS transfer, will triumph over a ragged Ohio State team in the championship. Yes, it may not be Arizona, but the national champion will come from the Pac 12 South. And the Wildcats have my vote.

JB: UCLA has so many things going against it. The freshman quarterback. The loaded Pac-12 South. The … wait, that’s about it.

The Bruins return pretty much everyone from a 10-3 squad that beat Arizona State, Arizona and USC last season. And Josh Rosen is the next Peyton Manning.

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Ok -- that might be a tad extreme, but all reports are positive on the newly minted starter after his first training camp. He has plenty of help around him, as UCLA welcomes back the dynamic Paul Perkins on the ground and the explosive Jordan Payton on the outside.

The Bruins’ toughest road test, based on quality of opponent, would be USC in the season finale. But that’s hardly a true road game for UCLA given proximity between the schools, and the rest of the schedule bodes well for Jim Mora’s bunch. They avoid Oregon out of the north, and their non-conference schedule is the perfect level of respectable without posing any daunting threats (BYU may take issue with this, but UCLA gets them at home).

Is it likely? No. But UCLA is a freshmen sensation at quarterback away from making the College Football Playoff.

EV: Boise State is criminally underrated at No. 24. Is it just because they don’t play in a Power Five conference? I don’t know, but the team that beat Arizona in last year’s Fiesta Bowl returns nearly all starters. The Broncos can absolutely go undefeated this season. Their toughest out-of-conference game is probably Week 1 at home against old coach Chris Petersen, and the Mountain West schedule won’t be easy, but it can be done. If that happens -- how could Boise State possibly be left out of a playoff? There’s no way we’ll have four unbeaten teams from the Power Five. Maybe if it were another, less-proven school, but one with as many as three Fiesta Bowl wins in the past 10 years has to be given a shot. Wasn’t rewarding teams for great seasons the point of instituting the playoff?