The weather's warming up, the days are getting a little longer, and it's finally time to kick back at the pool with the frozen beverage of your choice.
Folks, summer is here.
But summer also means that we're just over three months away from the kickoff of the college football season once more. And with spring practices in the books and the fall camp on the horizon, this is prime time to start speculating about all of the loose ends from the previous season... along with a few new questions that could define the 2019 slate.
So as the temperature rises, here are the things I'm burning on...
Is the B1G East up for grabs?
For as competitive as the B1G has felt the last few seasons, it's really gone unnoticed just how dominant Ohio State has been year in and year out.
The Buckeyes have held at least a share of their divisional crown each year since 2012, and while Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State have all - at one time or another - threatened to dethrone them as top dog in the B1G... OSU has stood tall as the most consistently great program in the conference.
But of course, one name has coincided with this B1G run for the Buckeyes: Urban Meyer... and with Meyer's departure from the helm in Columbus, the door could be open for a new outright champ in the division.
Penn State will once again return in 2019 locked and loaded for a deep run - especially if their QB battle is able to get resolved quickly and decisively. But losing Trace McSorley isn't the only gap they'll have to make up for; while they landed 3rd highest in the conference in terms of the S&P+ last season, they're currently next to last in terms of returning production. So while Shaka Toney and KJ Hamler will no doubt be the names to watch for in 2019... their ability to challenge for the division will depend a great deal on new faces we may not know yet.
The opposite appears to be true with regards to Michigan State - while they return among the most experience in the conference... they actually lose a great deal of their most important experience on the defensive end, while returning primarily the core of their offense that ended up 112th in the country last season. Still, if Brian Lewerke can return to the form that got him over 2,700 yards passing with 20 touchdowns his sophomore year, they'll remain formidable all year long.
Yet my pick for the most surefire threat to the Buckeyes this season is Michigan. They'll return Shea Patterson at QB, fresh off one of the best seasons by a Wolverine passer in the last 10 years - along with almost all of his primary targets in the passing game. True, they'll need to replace almost all of the country's 9th ranked defense - but that hasn't ever been a problem for defensive coordinator Don Brown. This team is going to be good, and given that they'll be able to play both Notre Dame and Ohio State at home this season, my money will be on them to finally walk away with the B1G crown.
But none of this should be taken to discount the potential of Ohio State's claiming the divisional crown for the seventh straight season. They, too, will return plenty of playmakers - especially among a defense that landed 26th a year ago. And while they'll lose Dwayne Haskins playmaking at QB, they'll gain Georgia transfer Justin Fields this season - a former #1 dual-threat recruit, and someone who is already being called the second-best QB in the conference behind only Patterson.
Speaking of which...
Which QB transfer will have the biggest impact?
I can't think of a time in recent memory when QB transfers felt like such a huge story coming into the season - and given this group of names, we may not see such circumstances for a long, long time.
We've already mentioned Fields, whose presence cannot be overstated in providing instant offense for a team that will have lost so much of it heading into the season. While we didn't see much from him during his one (sort of) season in Athens, you can bet his full range of skills will be on display this fall.
Meanwhile, it's rare that talents like Jalen Hurts and Kelly Bryant find themselves transferring into new programs so late in their careers - let alone at the same time - to say nothing of just how similar the situations in which they find themselves are.
For Hurts, he'll be taking over an Oklahoma offense that needs no introduction: a Heisman winner, a 1st ranked finish in the S&P+ offensive ratings (2nd ranked in passing), and while the loss of WR Marquise Brown will sting - returnees like CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra, Lee Morris, and Charleston Rambo should keep this offense humming, especially with Hurts at the helm. After all, he may not be the passer Kyler Murray was last season, but Hurts' experience, savvy, and fantastic mobility should fit perfectly in Norman.
Bryant, meanwhile, must fill similar shoes in Missouri, where Drew Lock led the Tigers to the 12th ranked passing attack with nearly 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns. They will have lost a bit by way of experience, but TE Albert Okwuegbunam and RB Larry Rountree III should both help Bryant make Missouri a sleeper pick to make waves in the SEC this season.
Is Texas, indeed, back?
Austin has longed to hear it, and I do think it's time to proclaim: Texas is back.
Behind sophomore Sam Ehlinger's 3,296 yards and 25 touchdowns, the Longhorns went 10-4, beat much heralded Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, and set up a 2019 full of sky high expectations for coach Tom Herman and this squad. Ehlinger returns for the offense, as does key O-lineman Zach Shackelford - but besides them the cupboard will need to be restocked on both sides of the ball, which, of course, opens plenty of questions as to who can step up.
The good news about this question is that we won't have to wait long to get our answer; their September 7 match-up with LSU at home should provide instant feedback as to just how high Texas - and, indeed, even the Big 12 at large - can climb this season.
Can Willie Taggart prove he's the right man for the job at FSU?
It certainly wasn't the start Willie Taggart and FSU had hoped for.
After coming in with the hopes of a grand "turning of the page" in Tallahassee, it's safe to say the story didn't take a pleasant turn - the Seminoles ended the season with an abysmal offense anchored by what SB Nation's Bill Connelly called "maybe the least stable line I've ever seen." And while their young defense certainly didn't play terribly, it wasn't enough to save FSU from finishing 5-7, their worst mark in over four decades.
Which brings us to 2019.
The coaching staff has largely been cleared out offensively, and with James Blackmon likely (finally) getting the full time nod as the starting QB, alongside the return of Cam Akers and a new O-line coach in Randy Clements - who should (in theory) be able to work out a consistent group from the Seminoles' returners - things are indeed looking up in Tallahassee.
Combine that with a defense that will be a year older (with plenty of returning talent), and 2018 could (and should) prove the exception, rather than the rule, for Taggart and this FSU program.
Can the SEC East finally surpass the SEC West this season?
At first glance, this question is ridiculous.
The SEC West has long held sway over its Eastern counterparts, and with the most recent exception of Georgia, the imbalance in the conference has been pervasive and consistent for the the last 10 years, during which time the Dawgs lone 2017 victory was the only East win in the SEC Championship game.
And of course, at the top of the mountain is Alabama, who remains the team to beat no matter which side of the conference you fall on. More on them in a moment.
But taking a look at 2019, the full picture of the conference feels more balanced than it's been in recent years. Traditional powers Georgia and Florida both appear to be as good as ever, while upstart Kentucky will look to prove their staying power alongside a South Carolina team with Jake Bentley at QB once again.
This, of course, is to say nothing for Missouri adding Kelly Bryant or Tennessee leaping from 107th to 48th in the S&P+ (and having the country's 2nd most returning production this season).
Add to all this question marks as to whether Mississippi State's defense can recover from losing Montez Sweat, whether Ole Miss' rebuild can continue linearly, and even whether traditional power Auburn can rebound after a strange 2018... and suddenly the SEC East climbing the latter doesn't feel quite so ridiculous, after all.
Was 2018 a fluke for Auburn, or the sign of things to come?
Hey speaking of the SEC West, what the heck happened to Auburn in 2018?
I was one of the loudest voices proclaiming Auburn to be the best shot we had at an Alabama upset following their miracle November run a year prior - what with Jarrett Stidham being an outside Heisman favorite and a defense that looked like one of the best we had anywhere in the country. Even with the loss of their two great RBs in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson - this team looked poise for a huge season.
We all know what came next, though - 8-5 (including a downright head-scratching loss to Tennessee at home), and save for an absolute beat down of Purdue in the Music City Bowl to cap it off, it was hard to feel good about much in Auburn when it was all said and done.
But it's a new year, and there's plenty of reason for The Plains to feel optimistic about Auburn's chances in 2019.
They return some absolute game-changers in Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, and Nick Coe on defense - and while they lose three senior linebackers, KJ Britt looks like he's ready to take the mantle and lead this unit. And while they lose Stidham, there's quite a QB battle brewing in Auburn between Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix - both of whom could end up being program-defining talents.
Add all that to the fact that their two toughest games this season against Georgia and Alabama will be back at home, and Gus Malzahn could make us all forget about 2018 rather quickly if the ball takes a few favorable bounces.
Can the Pac-12 get back its national prominence?
Out of the entire power five landscape, no conference has sent fewer teams to the College Football Playoff than the Pac-12 - and they haven't actually sent anyone since the 2016 season. As far as 2018 went, they weren't even really "on the outside looking in" - they just kind of felt "on the outside."
You had to go all the way to 10th to find their highest rated team on the S&P+ in Washington, and even the Huskies didn't really feel like a "bubble team" in the final playoff rankings, falling to 9. Even the B1G, who shares the Pac-12 moniker as a conference without recent playoff success, landed two teams in the top 10 of those CFP seedings (both above the Huskies).
Part of this has been due to a comparative rough patch for traditional powers like Oregon, USC (especially USC) - while early favorites like the aforementioned Huskies and Stanford stumbled down the stretch. All that's been left, then, are surprise picks in Washington State and Utah State (shouts to the Utes for snagging their first divisional title in 2018, by the way) - neither of whom made much noise within the CFP conversation.
So what does 2019 hold for the Pac-12? Still more questions than answers. But one thing is for certain: it will be a conference that hinges on the names under center.
Key conference standouts like Stanford's KJ Costello and Oregon's Justin Herbert return, along with Utah State's Tyler Huntley - and USC's JT Daniels still carries plenty of promise after an up and down freshman season.
Meanwhile, of course, Khalil Tate still looms in Arizona as a potential breakout player if he can regain even a bit of his 2017 form, and Georgia transfer Jacob Eason will inherit a Washington offense that returns plenty of options for him at receiver.
Early season match-ups for Oregon against Auburn, Stanford vs. UCF, and Arizona State vs. Michigan State all provide the Pac-12 with a chance to regain some footing on the national stage - but, admittedly, there's no clear team that stands out as one that could break through the recent dry spell and get back to CFP. As they say though, that's why we play the games.
Is this finally the year we get a Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff?
It's become fairly in fashion to start wondering each season whether a "Group of Five" team can finally reach the college football mountaintop and get to the playoff this season. And while it's still worth questioning if, following UCF two straight undefeated regular seasons without a bid, it's even possible... there a few interesting candidates to keep an eye on week to week this season.
Houston's offense is as good as you'll find in 2019, and running the table on their schedule would include wins against Oklahoma, Washington State, Cincinnati, and UCF - all of which would give them a very compelling case, especially if there's chaos at the top of the ladder.
Boise State has the talent to go undefeated, but I do have to wonder if their schedule is tough enough to give them a shot at making an impact with voters. Right now their toughest game appears to be Florida State, whose issues we've already gone into detail on.
Which leaves us with UCF once again, who could go undefeated in the regular season for the third straight season and, if we're being honest, that type of consistency will be hard for the committee to ignore.
QB McKenzie Milton will continue to rehab his gruesome injury from last season, but both Darriel Mack Jr. and Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush are more than capable replacements - and should provide us with quite the QB battle in camp this summer. And with tons of talent returning on both sides of the ball, my money certainly won't be against them this season.
Can Notre Dame run the table again?
It's been a wild couple of years in South Bend. A 2016 that saw the Irish go 4-8 quickly turned into 10-3 in 2017, then 12-1 in 2018 - the latter of which included an undefeated regular season and the program's first ever CFP berth.
And regardless on your feelings about the Irish, it's hard to argue that 2018 doesn't appear to another opportunity for them to get right back to the playoff and redeem their loss to Clemson a year prior.
QB Ian Book will return to take the reigns of an offense that - though losing key contributors like Miles Boykin and Dexter Williams - should be able to be even more lethal and explosive through the air, with added speed in some of their younger players like Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy likely getting plenty of playing time alongside more experienced options in Chase Claypool and Chris Finke.
And while the defense must depend more on the pass rush to make up for some youth at the secondary and linebacker positions - that will surely be fine with the Irish, whose dual ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara should be among the best duos in the nation this season.
They'll have possibly their biggest tests of the past three years when they hit the road to face Michigan and Georgia this season, but make no mistake: they have the talent to get it done.
Does anyone stand a chance to beat Clemson or Alabama?
Of course, the extent to which any of this matters also comes down to whether the teams that met in the national championship last season can be knocked off on their way back there in 2019.
Defensively, both Clemson and Alabama will both need to replace key contributors, though any growing pains will likely be assuaged by the Tigers and the Tide returning their two most important pieces in, respectively, QBs Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa.
And in 2019, both of them will have more options to play with on offense than just about any team in the country.
For Lawrence, the return of four offensive linemen should give him plenty of time to find receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross - both of whom are explosive targets that can get down the field in a hurry - and RB Travis Etienne will give the attack perhaps even more balance than it had a year ago.
The story is similar for Tagovailoa, whose receiving corps is absolutely loaded with talent, and who will have Najee Harris filling in the #1 RB spot in the backfield. The offensive line is a little suspect with three new starters to keep an eye on, but... I mean... when has this Nick Saban program ever struggled with personnel turnover?
As we look at the schedule, Alabama will obviously have a tougher path to the CFP in the SEC than Clemson's ACC schedule - and road games against Texas A&M and Mississippi State stand out as potential traps, especially given that the latter comes on the heels of a game against LSU.
But they'll be able to avoid the worst of the SEC East in Georgia and Florida (at least until the conference championship), and while they'll need to go on the road to beat Auburn at the end of the year... those Tigers have plenty of questions on their own.
Both Clemson and Alabama will likely be favored in every game on their schedule this season, so while there are plenty of questions to ask this season, the importance of those answers will depend, as it has each of the last few years, almost solely on what the answer to our last question ends up being:
Can anyone beat Alabama and Clemson?
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