2018 college football preview
No. 8 Hurricanes, No. 19 Seminoles tested early; Mullen takes over for Gators
No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 6 Washington
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When Auburn opens its season against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, it will be the third time in as many games that the Tigers have taken the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This time, though, Auburn fans are hoping for better results. The Tigers lost to Georgia 28-7 in last year's Southeastern Conference Championship game and then fell short in a 34-27 loss to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl. One advantage Auburn will have going for it is attendance. Auburn fans are almost certain to outnumber those rooting for the Huskies. This game matches two of the country's top quarterbacks in Auburn's Jarrett Stidham and Washington's Jake Browning. Stidham returns after throwing for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first season with the Tigers. Browning is back for his senior season, having started 33 consecutive games for the Huskies since 2015. He has thrown for 9,104 and 78 touchdowns, while also running for 12 scores. Both teams have participated in "New Year's Six" bowls each of the past two seasons, but they're 0-4 in those games.
No. 14 Michigan at No. 12 Notre Dame
This storied rivalry is renewed, at least for the time being. Notre Dame opted out of its annual series with Michigan after the 2014 season, ending a 13-year streak of consecutive meetings. Michigan went 7-6 during that span, but the Wolverines were blanked 31-0 in their last meeting and haven't won at Notre Dame Stadium since 2010. Will it be junior Brandon Wimbush or sophomore Ian Book at quarterback for Notre Dame? Wimbush was nifty on his feet, rushing for 803 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he struggled throwing the football and was benched in the first half of last season's game against Louisiana State in the Citrus Bowl. Book led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter as Notre Dame beat the Tigers 21-17. Former Mississippi quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred to Michigan in the offseason and is eligible to play right away, was named the starter against Notre Dame.
No. 1 Alabama vs. Louisville
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Alabama knows a thing or two about playing "Power Five" opponents on a neutral stage to begin the season. The Crimson Tide have disposed of Clemson, Florida State, Michigan, Southern California, Virginia Tech (twice), West Virginia and Wisconsin in neutral-site season openers under head coach Nick Saban -- a spotless 8-0 mark in such games. There is no reason to think things will be different against Louisville at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. The Cardinals will be without 2016 Heisman Memorial Trophy winner and two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Lamar Jackson at quarterback. After Jackson left school early for the NFL, Louisville will turn to relatively unproven (though not in name) sophomore Jawon Pass in 2018. Pass completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in a small sample size (33 attempts) last season. However, the intrigue at the QB position will most likely be on the other sideline. Will it be Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa for Alabama? Hurts was the 2016 SEC offensive player of the year as a true freshman, but Tagovailoa (also a true freshman) came off the bench in last season's College Football Playoff National Championship and sparked the offense, leading the Crimson Tide to a 26-23 overtime victory against Georgia. This would be a good problem to have for most teams, but Alabama isn't most teams. Whoever wins the starting job against Louisville could send the other one packing. Although Alabama led the nation in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense last season, the reigning national champion lost defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now head coach at Tennessee) and returns just two full-time starters. Still, anything other than Alabama over Louisville would be an opening-weekend stunner.
No. 8 Miami vs. No. 25 Louisiana State
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Will the losing streak continue in Texas? Miami got out to a 10-0 start last season, but the Hurricanes faded down the stretch, losing their final three games, including on their home field in the Orange Bowl. They'll be tested against Louisiana State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Miami and LSU haven't met since the Tigers pasted the Hurricanes 40-3 in the 2005 Peach Bowl. Incumbent senior quarterback Malik Rosier is facing competition from redshirt freshmen N'Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon, as well as true freshman Jarren Williams. Rosier completed just 40 of 89 passes in Miami's consecutive losses. Former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow transferred to LSU in May and is expected to compete with sophomore Myles Brennan for the starting job after redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse and redshirt junior Justin McMillan announced in August that they would be transferring. This is the first regular-season meeting between the teams since 1988. The Tigers are 9-3 overall against Miami.
No. 20 Virginia Tech at No. 19 Florida State
The Willie Taggart era at Florida State begins on Labor Day evening in Tallahassee. This will be the first meeting for the teams since the Seminoles beat Virginia Tech 28-22 in 2012. The Hokies haven't won in Tallahassee since 1974, when Darrell Mudra was in his first season as head coach. Mudra preceded the legendary Bobby Bowden, who took over in 1976 and led the team to a dozen ACC titles and a pair of national championships in the 1990s. Taggart, born the same year that Bowden took charge, is 0-3 against Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, dating to when they were coaching in the American Athletic Conference. Fuente is considered a quarterback guru, and he'll have a proven starter in sophomore Josh Jackson, who threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns last season -- breaking Michael Vick's freshman records. Taggart, meanwhile, will be deciding between last year's opening day starter, junior Deondre Francois, and sophomore James Blackman, who stepped in after Francois was injured in the first game and missed the rest of the season. Blackman seems to be the favorite, in part because of Francois' off-field trouble and perceived lack of leadership, but don't count out the 2016 ACC rookie of the year. Taggart is just the third full-time head coach for the Seminoles in 42 years.
No. 15 Southern California at No. 13 Stanford
This early-season tilt is a rematch of last year's Pacific 12 Conference title game, which Southern California won 31-28. Unlike last year, though, the Trojans will be without quarterback Sam Darnold, who left early for the NFL draft. USC will field an open competition between sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and true freshman JT Daniels. But the Cardinal will have the edge with the return of Doak Walker Award winner Bryce Love.
No. 2 Clemson at Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher will be used to seeing Dabo Swinney on the opposite sideline. Swinney, on the other hand, will have to get used to seeing Fisher in maroon instead of garnet. Fisher bolted for Texas A&M after eight seasons at Florida State, where the Seminoles were 4-4 against the Tigers during Fisher's tenure. Fisher has been on the losing end of the last three games, however, and he'll have his work cut out for him on a team with less talent than what he was accustomed to in Tallahassee.
UCLA at No. 7 Oklahoma
It's safe to say that Oklahoma didn't miss Bob Stoops much after the national championship-winning coach retired abruptly last summer, leaving the program in the hands of his offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley. In Riley's rookie season, the Sooners made the College Football Playoff, falling in double overtime to Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, UCLA is starting over with Chip Kelly, who returns to college after three uninspiring seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. The Bruins are counting on Kelly to bring his high-scoring west coast offense to the very stadium where former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield played his last game. Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick NFL Draft pick this year, so Riley will place Oklahoma's offense in the hands -- or feet -- of junior speedster Kyler Murray, who was the ninth overall pick of the Oakland Athletics in the Major League Baseball draft. The former Texas A&M quarterback is putting his professional baseball career on pause for one season leading the Sooners. Murray runs the read option, power plays and quarterback draws, which could force Riley to evolve as a play-caller. Then there's UCLA, which is searching for a new quarterback after Josh Rosen left school early to become a first-round draft pick. Rosen's backup, redshirt sophomore Devon Modster, and highly touted freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson are competing for the job.
Colorado at Nebraska
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Nebraska welcomes home new head coach Scott Frost, who was quarterback for the Cornhuskers during their heyday in the 1990s. Frost led Central Florida to an undefeated 2017 season and a self-proclaimed national championship, but will his no-huddle, fast-tempo spread offense bring the same results at Nebraska? Frost will first have to decide on a quarterback. True freshman Adrian Martinez, who enrolled in the spring, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and redshirt sophomore Andrew Bunch, who was a walk-on for the Cornhuskers in 2017, are the likely candidates. Frost's first true test will come against Colorado, which has found a recent resurgence under head coach Mike MacIntyre. These teams met annually from 1948-2010, first as members of the Big Eight Conference and later the Big 12 Conference. The rivalry came to an end when the Buffaloes bolted for the Pacific 12 Conference in 2011. Colorado last beat Nebraska in a 65-51 shootout in Boulder in 2007.
No. 15 Southern California at No. 23 Texas
Don't mess with Texas. Payback will be on the minds of Longhorns players and fans when the Trojans visit the Lone Star State. USC narrowly defeated Texas 27-24 in double overtime last season. The game was an instant classic, much like the 2006 Rose Bowl between the Longhorns and Trojans that decided the national championship. Texas head coach Tom Herman won't have Vince Young at his disposal like the Trojans did that day, but he'll have his choice between two experienced quarterbacks in junior Shane Buechele and sophomore Sam Ehlinger. Both battled for the starting job in the spring after sharing the spotlight last season. Buechele started the 2017 opener, but injuries limited his time in the lineup. Ehlinger may have the advantage after leading the team in rushing a season ago and avoiding mistakes in the 33-16 Texas Bowl victory against Missouri.
Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama
If Fisher wants to win in the SEC, he'll have to get past Alabama first. It's been 20 years since the Aggies have won a conference title (that was in the Big 12 days) and even longer -- try 1939 -- since they've laid claim to a national championship. Fisher, a former Saban disciple, tried to take down his old boss while at his old school a year ago. Yet Saban remains 12-0 against his former assistants, including Alabama's 24-7 win against Florida State in last year's season opener. One position Texas A&M will utilize more is tight end. In Fisher's final season at FSU, tight end Ryan Izzo was third on the team in receiving yards. Izzo had three catches for 46 yards against Alabama in last year's game -- the most yards Alabama's defense allowed by a tight end. So what are the chances that things change under Fisher? Until Fisher can bust a move to the "Cupid Shuffle" in a recruit's home like Saban did earlier this year, it'll be a tall task.
Florida at Tennessee
Remember when the Florida-Tennessee game used to determine the SEC Eastern Division? It's been quite a while since this game mattered, but it's come closer in recent years. Arguably Florida's biggest win of the 2017 season came on a "Hail Mary" pass to defeat Tennessee 26-20. While it may have been the highlight of Florida's season, it was the beginning of a downward spiral for the Volunteers. Tennessee endured a winless SEC campaign -- its worst season in school history. Tennessee's defense was 112th nationally in rushing and 117th nationally in scoring. That's out of 130 total teams. A combined eight wins between the teams signaled the end for Florida's John McElwain and Tennessee's Butch Jones. Both teams are starting over with head coaches who have SEC pedigree -- Florida's Dan Mullen, previously of Mississippi State, and Tennessee's Jeremy Pruitt, who coordinated defenses at Alabama and Georgia. The Volunteers have lost 12 of the last 13 meetings, although they rallied for a 38-28 win when the Gators most recently visited Knoxville in 2016. Pruitt told reporters he'll know "about halfway through the fourth quarter" of the season opener who will be his team's starting quarterback. If he hasn't figured it out by the time the Gators come to town, Pruitt could be in for a long season.
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 10 Penn State
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett led the Buckeyes to two touchdowns in the final 4:20 for a 39-38 comeback victory last season. Barrett is gone, leaving head coach Urban Meyer in search of a new quarterback. The fact that Meyer will even be on the sideline will be the subject of much scrutiny. Ohio State placed Meyer on paid administrative leave in August while investigating a report that he knew of a 2015 domestic abuse incident involving a former assistant coach. Based on the findings of an independent panel commissioned by the university, Meyer's punishment was a three-game suspension. Meyer named redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins the starter headed into fall camp, but he said true sophomore Tate Martell is also in the mix. Haskins appeared in eight games last season, relieving an injured Barrett in Ohio State's win at Michigan. Martell is a dual-threat quarterback who enrolled at Ohio State last spring. Meanwhile, Penn State is set at quarterback with the return of senior Trace McSorley. The top returning quarterback in the Big Ten Conference is 22-5 as a starter and the school leader for career touchdown passes (59), touchdowns accounted for (77) and total offense (8,268 yards). He's thrown at least one touchdown pass in 28 consecutive games -- the longest active streak in FBS. This game has decided the Big Ten East Division each of the last two seasons. The Buckeyes are 17-8 against Penn State since the Nittany Lions joined the conference in 1993.
Florida at No. 18 Mississippi State
Mullen returns to the place where he spent the last nine seasons. The Bulldogs were 69-46 from 2009-17 under Mullen and played in eight straight bowl games. That sustained success was enough for Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, hired away from Mississippi State last fall, to lure Mullen back to Gainesville, where he was offensive coordinator for the Gators during the 2006 and 2008 national championship seasons. Mississippi State beat Florida 10-7 the last time these teams met in 2010. Mullen was wearing the headsets that day. The Bulldogs had the nation's 10th-ranked defense a season ago under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who left for Florida with Mullen. New head coach Joe Moorhead, who orchestrated Penn State's prolific offense in 2017, turned to former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to fill the void. Nick Fitzgerald returns for his senior season after a gruesome ankle injury in the Egg Bowl sidelined him. Mississippi State's dual-threat QB has thrown for 4,440 yards and 39 touchdowns and rushed for 2,486 yards and 33 touchdowns in his career. Fitzgerald should be ready to go by the season opener, but if he isn't, Moorhead said he has confidence in backup Keytaon Thompson, who filled in during the bowl game and played in the spring game. The Gators have historically had a tough time playing at Mississippi State, losing all but one of their last four visits to Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field dating to 1986.
No. 19 Florida State at No. 8 Miami
Miami ended its seven-game losing streak to Florida State last season, scoring with six seconds left for a 24-20 win in Tallahassee. Rosier threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 23-yard strike to receiver Darrell Langham, and the "turnover chain" made a pair of sideline appearances in the game, improving their record against FSU to 4-10 since joining the ACC. Now the rivalry returns to South Florida, where the Seminoles haven't lost since 2004 -- when Miami was still playing its home games at the old Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes nearly got it done two years ago, but FSU blocked a point-after try to hold on for a 20-19 win. Miami head coach Mark Richt is 19-7 in two seasons at his alma mater and has reinvigorated the fan base. If the Hurricanes get past FSU unblemished, expectations will be elevated for the program to take the next step and answer the lingering question: Is Miami back?
No. 7 Oklahoma vs. No. 23 Texas
The last few games of the "Red River Showdown" at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas have been close. Neither team has won by more than a touchdown since Texas beat Oklahoma 36-20 in 2013. The Sooners have plenty of offensive weapons. Oklahoma's running back tandem of Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon combined for 1,905 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, while receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb combined for 1,902 yards and 14 touchdowns. But the defense remains a question mark. Since defensive coordinator Mike Stoops returned in 2012, the Sooners have finished outside the top 50 nationally four times in six seasons. If Texas plans to capitalize on Oklahoma's ho-hum defense, the Longhorns must find more consistency at the skill positions.
No. 3 Georgia at No. 25 Louisiana State
This rare SEC cross-divisional tilt pits Georgia against LSU for the first time since the Bulldogs beat the Tigers 44-41 in 2013. It is also their first meeting at Tiger Stadium since Georgia thumped the Tigers 52-38 in 2008. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron parted ways with offensive coordinator Matt Canada after one season, promoting tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to the role he held in an interim capacity after former boss Les Miles was fired in 2016. Ensminger revitalized an offense that was averaging 18 points and 335.9 yards per game. In his eight games as offensive coordinator in 2016, LSU improved its average to 32 points and 464.9 yards per game. The Tigers will need a dynamic offense to keep up with Georgia's potent ground attack. Even though Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have moved on to the NFL, the Bulldogs have a talented crop of running backs at their disposal -- juniors Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien and true freshmen James Cook, younger brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, and Zamir White. The Tigers and Bulldogs have played for the SEC title three times since 2003, with LSU holding a 2-1 edge in those games.
No. 6 Washington at No. 24 Oregon
These Pacific 12 Conference schools are roughly 350 miles apart along Interstate 5, making for one of the lesser-known border rivalries in the country. Washington has won two in a row against Oregon after 12 straight losses. The Huskies finally notched a win at Autzen Stadium the last time they visited in 2016, scoring a whopping 71 points. In fact, each of Washington's wins has come in lopsided fashion, with the Huskies beating the Ducks 38-3 in 2017. Oregon opted for continuity by promoting offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to replace Taggart as head coach. Cristobal then persuaded defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to remain with the Ducks, bumping his annual salary to $1.7 million. Under Leavitt, the Ducks improved from 126th in total defense in 2016 to 46th in his first season. Ultimately, Oregon's success is dependent upon the health of junior quarterback Justin Herbert. When Herbert was healthy, the Ducks averaged 52.1 points and were 6-1 in the regular season. When Herbert was out with a fractured collarbone, Oregon averaged 15 points and slumped to 1-4 with backup Braxton Burmeister in the lineup. The Ducks got a taste of Cristobal during last year's Las Vegas Bowl, when he served as interim coach in a 38-28 loss to Boise State. Cristobal's only previous head coaching experience was at Florida International, leading the South Florida school to a 27-47 record and a pair of bowl games in six seasons there.
No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 16 Texas Christian
The Sooners handed Texas Christian two of its three losses last season. Oklahoma beat the Horned Frogs 38-20 in the regular season and won again, 41-17, less than a month later to claim the Big 12 title. TCU quarterback Shawn Robinson takes over for Kenny Hill, who will be back as a student coach this season after exhausting his eligibility. Robinson played in six games as a freshman last season, completing 13-of-27 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns. In his lone start against Texas Tech, Robinson threw for 85 yards and a touchdown, leading the Horned Frogs to a 27-3 victory.
No. 14 Michigan at No. 11 Michigan State
Michigan has dominated this state rivalry, but don't tell that to Michigan State. The Spartans are 8-2 against the Wolverines since 2008. That includes Michigan State's stunning 14-10 upset last season. Defense will be key to whichever team comes out on top this year. The Wolverines ranked third nationally in total defense a season ago, while the Spartans were seventh. Michigan State is 4-1 in its last five games against the Wolverines at home, but Michigan won 32-23 on its last visit to Spartan Stadium in 2016.
No. 2 Clemson at No. 19 Florida State
Recent history hasn't been kind to the Seminoles when it comes to playing Clemson. FSU has lost three in a row against the Tigers. The challenge for FSU will begin in the trenches. The Seminoles have struggled mightily in pass protection in recent years, surrendering 32 sacks last season and 36 during the 2016 campaign. Senior center Alec Eberle is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, having started 32 consecutive games dating to the 2015 season. Complicating matters is the loss of sophomore tackle Josh Ball, who is no longer on the team after a ruling from a university judicial panel involving allegations of dating violence. They'll be tested by Clemson's defensive line -- returning starters Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell on the ends and Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins in the interior. The winner of this game has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic Division since 2009.
Florida vs. No. 3 Georgia
Georgia snapped a three-game losing streak to the Gators in a big way last season, blowing out Florida 42-7 in what turned out to be McElwain's final game. The Bulldogs were minutes away from their first shutout in the rivalry since a 44-0 decision in 1982. The Gators scored with 2:42 left against Georgia's backups. Franks fumbled twice as the Bulldogs recorded five sacks and eight tackles for loss. However, the annual border war in Jacksonville has been decidedly lopsided, with the Gators owning a 21-7 record since 1990.
UCLA at No. 24 Oregon
Kelly returns to Oregon, where he led the Ducks to the national championship game during the 2010 season. Kelly was 46-7 in four years at Oregon, culminating with a No. 2 final ranking after the 2012 season. The Bruins beat Oregon 31-14 last season, but they haven't won at Autzen Stadium since 2004. The loss of receivers Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley strips UCLA of 129 receptions, 2,037 yards and 19 touchdowns from a season ago.
No. 9 Auburn at No. 3 Georgia
Auburn trounced the Bulldogs 40-17 in the regular season, but Georgia returned the favor by walloping the Tigers 28-7 to win the SEC title game. Which team will win the rubber match? The fate of Auburn's season will likely be decided by its final two road games at Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers have one of the nation's best defensive tackle tandems in Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell, who combined for 15.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last season. Although the Bulldogs lost the heart and soul of their defense in Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith at linebacker, Georgia's solid recruiting should pay dividends for a defense returning just four starters. Auburn hasn't won in Athens since 2005.
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 11 Michigan State
The Buckeyes have lost a total of four Big Ten games under Meyer. Two of those losses were to Michigan State. That's more than any other team in the Big Ten during that span. The Spartans are counting on another solid season from junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 559 yards and five touchdowns. Michigan State had one of the nation's best defenses in 2017 (second nationally in rushing defense, allowing 95.3 yards per game on the ground, and seventh overall), but co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett left his alma mater in January to join the new coaching staff at Florida State. The job now falls solely to Mike Tressel, who spent the last three seasons sharing the duties with Barnett.
No. 19 Florida State at No. 12 Notre Dame
Will this November be kind to the Irish? Notre Dame is 9-12 in November games over the last five seasons. The Irish got out to an 8-1 start in 2017 before their playoff dreams were shattered in a 41-8 loss at Miami. They ended last November with a 38-20 loss at Stanford two weeks later. Simply put, the Irish must play better down the stretch. They'll be tested by a talented but mostly unproven FSU team. The Seminoles won 37-0 the last time FSU traveled to Notre Dame in 2003. FSU is 2-1 at Notre Dame Stadium and 6-2 all-time against the Irish. One thing working in Notre Dame's favor should be a partisan crowd. Less than 5,000 tickets were distributed to FSU fans.
Oklahoma State at No. 7 Oklahoma
The Sooners have won three in a row in the "Bedlam Series," which moved up to early November last season and will once again be played before Thanksgiving. The thought here is that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could meet a few weeks later in the second year of the reinstituted Big 12 title game. The Cowboys led the nation in passing offense last season, but they still came out on the losing end of a 62-52 shootout to the Sooners. Mike Gundy is back for his 18th season on campus and 14th season at the helm of the Oklahoma State program, but it was no doubt an uncomfortable offseason after longtime athletic director Mike Holder publicly criticized Gundy's recruiting efforts in a June podcast. Gundy, a former Oklahoma State quarterback, is the school's career coaching wins leader with a 114-53 record since being promoted from offensive coordinator in 2005. Now that Mason Rudolph is gone, Gundy has anointed fifth-year senior Taylor Cornelius starting quarterback for the Cowboys. If Oklahoma State can find a way to beat the Sooners, something the Cowboys have only done twice in the last 15 years, that seemingly contentious Gundy-Holder relationship should cool off -- at least until the next recruiting class.
South Carolina at Florida
Will Muschamp returns to Florida, where he was 28-21 overall in four seasons with the Gators. South Carolina got the better of Muschamp's former team in last season's 28-20 win, improving to 5-3 against Florida since 2010. Now the Gamecocks will get another crack at the Gators, this time at "The Swamp." South Carolina junior quarterback Jake Bentley passed for 2,794 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He's expected to improve upon those numbers under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon's run-pass option offense. He'll also benefit from the return of senior receiver Deebo Samuel, who had six touchdowns in three games before breaking his leg last September.
No. 15 Southern California at UCLA
UCLA cut ties with former head coach Jim Mora, in part, because of three straight losses to USC. When Kelly coached Oregon from 2009-12, the Ducks were 3-1 against the Trojans, averaging 49 points a game. That's exactly the kind of success UCLA fans expect from Kelly against their crosstown rival. UCLA was 6-0 at the Rose Bowl last season, but the Bruins were the mirror image on the road, failing to win a game outside of Pasadena.
No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 17 West Virginia
Will Grier might just be the best quarterback in college football. The redshirt senior is back for West Virginia after passing for 3,490 yards and scoring 36 total touchdowns in 2017. Before missing the rest of the season with a broken finger on his throwing hand, Grier was on pace to shatter nearly every single-season passing record in West Virginia history. But there's one statistic that seems to matter most -- West Virginia's 0-6 record against Oklahoma since joining the Big 12 in 2012. If there is ever a team poised to finally break through against the Sooners, this is it. Two of Grier's favorite targets are back -- Biletnikoff Award finalist David Sills V and Gary Jennings. Sills led the country with 18 touchdown receptions, while Jennings topped 1,000 yards as Grier's second option behind Sills. They'll be flanked by Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons and Marcus Simms, last year's fourth-leading receiver.
No. 10 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama
Auburn shocked the Crimson Tide with a 26-14 win in last year's "Iron Bowl." It didn't matter much, however, as Alabama went on to win its fifth national title in nine seasons. Still, losing to their state rival and being shut out of the SEC title game had to be a bitter pill to swallow for Alabama players, coaches and fans. Payback could come on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Tuscaloosa, where the Tigers haven't won since 2010. Alabama running back Damien Harris is poised to become the first Crimson Tide player to rush for at least 1,000 in three consecutive seasons, but the Tigers held him to 51 yards on six carries last year. Despite having the nation's top-ranked defense, Alabama couldn't keep up with Auburn's offensive production. That can't happen again for Alabama to have a chance to win.
No. 14 Michigan at No. 3 Ohio State
Ohio State has dominated this border rivalry, winning 13 of 14 since 2001. Michigan took an early lead in last year's game, but the Buckeyes went into the locker room at halftime tied 14-14. Ohio State held the Wolverines to six points in the second half on the way to a 31-20 victory. The Buckeyes and Wolverines had top-10 defenses a season ago, led by a pair of returning players with NFL pedigree. Junior defensive end Nick Bosa, son of 1987 first-round NFL draft pick John Bosa and brother of 2016 third-overall NFL draft pick Joey Bosa, recorded 8.5 sacks for the Buckeyes during the 2017 campaign. Junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr., son of former Florida State and 1995 first-round NFL draft pick Devin Bush, was the leading tackler for the Wolverines. Michigan hasn't won in Columbus since 2000, when John Cooper was in his final season as head coach of the Buckeyes.
South Carolina at No. 2 Clemson
South Carolina has been on the losing end of this state rivalry in recent years. The Tigers have won four consecutive games in the series, outscoring the Gamecocks 162-66. During Clemson's 34-10 win last year, Gamecocks fans hurled water bottles and other debris at Clemson players. Their actions drew the ire of Swinney, who was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after stepping out of the coaching box to argue his case for a flag against South Carolina. Senior quarterback Kelly Bryant is back for the Tigers after throwing for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also the third-leading rusher on the team with 665 yards and 11 touchdowns. Bryant and the Tigers racked up 469 yards of total offense against the Gamecocks last November. A fifth consecutive win for Clemson in the series would be the first since before World War II.
Florida at No. 19 Florida State
The Gators did something last season they hadn't done in two previous years against their state rivals -- score an offensive touchdown. Florida's 22 points scored were the most since a 37-26 win in Tallahassee in 2012. That was also the last time the Gators beat the Seminoles. Florida State has won five in a row and is 7-1 against the Gators since 2010. Although both teams entered last year's game with a losing record for the first time since 1959, the Seminoles cruised to a 38-22 victory in Fisher's FSU finale. Florida's anemic offense should improve under Mullen, but it may not happen right away. Patience will be required for Florida fans.
No. 24 Louisiana State at Texas A&M
Fisher hasn't coached in the SEC since he left LSU after the 2006 season. It was there he met Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward, who lured him to "Aggieland" with the promise of a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract. Fisher, who was offensive coordinator for the Tigers during their 2003 national championship season, is one of four active head coaches to win a national title, along with Saban, Swinney and Meyer. Fisher was twice rumored to take over for Les Miles at LSU after the 2015 and 2016 seasons, but it never happened. Eventually, Miles was fired and replaced by Orgeron. After a failed attempt by Fisher to lure Dave Aranda from LSU, Texas A&M ultimately turned to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko for the same position. Texas A&M led the SEC with 40 sacks last season, but the Aggies haven't finished in the top half of the conference in total defense joining the league in 2012. Expectations have never been higher for Texas A&M, but beating LSU would be a sign of improvement. LSU has won seven straight against the Aggies.
Arizona State at Arizona
Perhaps one of the most puzzling hires in all of college football was Herm Edwards at Arizona State. Edwards returns to coaching for the first time since 2008, his last year with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. Edwards was 54-74 in eight seasons with the New York Jets and Chiefs. His previous collegiate coaching experience ended in 1989 after three seasons as a defensive backs coach at San Jose State. Yet, Arizona State's athletic department tried to spin the hire in its initial news release as a dynamic new organization model that would revolutionize college football. "This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting process, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation," the release said. Huh? Meanwhile, Arizona turned to Kevin Sumlin to replace Rich Rodriguez, who was fired in January in the midst of an internal investigation into sexual harassment claims made by Rodriguez's former administrative assistant. Sumlin, who is 86-43 in his career, including a 51-26 mark in the past six seasons at Texas A&M, seems like a sensible hire by Arizona, where expectations aren't nearly as high as they were in the Lone Star State. The Wildcats have only played for one Pac-12 title (in 2014) and shared the league title once in 1993 (during the old Pacific 10 Conference days). Arizona racked up a school-record 511 rushing yards in a 56-35 victory the last time the Wildcats played in Tempe in 2016, but the Sun Devils won 42-30 last year.
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