The season is inching closer, which means a further scouring of storylines to prepare us for when the ballgames resume again in a month (excluding that strange Cal-Hawaii game in Australia, of course). We know the favorites (Alabama, Clemson, Michigan), and the cellar dwellers (looking at you Kansas and Purdue), but today we evaluate the wild cards. Kirk Ferentz entered last season on the hot seat and ended it with Iowa in the Rose Bowl. North Carolina finished the 2014 with a 6–7 record; it ended up facing Clemson in the ACC title game just one year later. There are spoilers out there, so let’s find them.
*Note: I am excluding Louisville from this list despite being an obvious choice. For a more lucid and detailed explanation on why Louisville could be the 2016 season’s best spoiler, consult Brian Hamilton’s recent column on the excitement brewing in the ACC. I’m just here to avoid the overlap.*
Gators fans have grown accustomed to staunch defense and a putrid offense since Urban Meyer’s departure six seasons ago. With starting running back Kelvin Taylor gone and the transfer of quarterback Will Grier (who would have been suspended for half the season anyway), the offense will (again) likely struggle, even with a strong and young offensive line. Should coach Jim McElwain clear suspended star receiver Antonio Callaway, then presumed new starting quarterback Luke Del Rio will have one weapon. The question is whether Del Rio, unlike the since-transferred Treon Harris, can regularly get Callaway the ball.
Making up for the offense’s uncertainty is a defense that has three potential first-round picks (Jalen Tabor, Caleb Brantley, Marcus Maye) and is surrounded by more veteran talent. Even in a conference that contains Alabama, Florida might be the SEC’s best defense.
Couple that with a typically weak non-conference slate (excluding Florida State), only one challenging game among its first five (at Tennessee), and a schedule that doesn’t include Alabama or Ole Miss, and the Gators could win 11 games if their defense stifles the weak and unproven offenses of the SEC East.
Florida has mastered the art of non-conference scheduling (the Gators have not left the state of Florida for a non-conference game since 1991), which might cost them should they be in playoff contention. Even entertaining the playoff may sound ludicrous to Florida fans, who have grown cynical since their team’s dominance of the mid-aughts, but the Gators are a few competent offensive performances away from a possible semifinal berth.
They have three free wins (Massachusetts, North Texas, Presbyterian), only four true road games (excluding the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party against Georgia in Jacksonville) and should be favored in every game except three (LSU, at Tennessee, at Florida State).
A win against the Volunteers likely means Florida will be 5–0 entering its Week 6 showdown with LSU. If the vaunted defense can contain the Tigers’ Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb three weeks later, then the path to the playoff is clear even if the Gators lose to the Seminoles in the final week of the season. It’ll likely be up to Del Rio, who finally has a starting job after transferring twice, to give Florida the offensive firepower it’s been missing for six seasons.
And so begins year two with a graduate transfer quarterback. It took Vernon Adams a couple weeks to adjust to Oregon’s attack before becoming one of the Pac-12’s better offensive weapons in 2015. Now that job likely falls to Dakota Prukop, a Montana State transfer who picked the Ducks over Alabama this past December. Prukop has been compared favorably to Johnny Manziel but needs to learn the speed and complexity of the Oregon offense that did not find a long-term successor to Marcus Mariota after the 2014 season. When Adams endured injury trouble last season, the Ducks were feeble on offense. Oregon’s inability to find a long-term option after Mariota remains mystifying and it could hurt the Ducks again in 2016.
They have one of the nation’s most underrated offensive players in Royce Freeman and two home-run threats in Darren Carrington and Devon Allen (who will be joining the team after he participates in the Rio Olympics). The key question is how dependable will all three be if Prukop is not. If Prukop instantly adjusts to the offense, then the Ducks could make a surge to the top of the loaded Pac-12 North. If he struggles or gets injured, then Oregon will likely turn to Freeman for most of its offense and a defense that only returns one starter in its front seven.
The schedule isn’t kind, either. The Ducks get Virginia, now under the direction of new coach Bronco Mendenhall, at home in Week 2 before traveling to Nebraska (led by former Oregon State coach Mike Riley) in Week 3. Weeks 5 and 6 bring the Washington schools, one of which beat the Ducks in Autzen Stadium last season (Washington State), the other a conference favorite and potential playoff dark horse (Washington). Road tilts at USC and Utah (a team that won by 42 points in Autzen last season) won’t be easy either.
If Prukop is the answer that the coaches envisioned, Oregon could surprise the nation and end up in the playoff. If he isn’t, then the Ducks may win fewer than nine games for the first time since 2006.
*Note: I considered Stanford for this slot. It sound ridiculous to label the perennial Rose Bowl favorite a “wild card,” but Stanford has the most difficult opening schedule of any team in the nation. It’s unlikely that a David Shaw team could start 0–6, but remember that the Cardinal will be breaking in a new quarterback (Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns), and their first six games are against Kansas State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State and at Notre Dame. If they exit that gauntlet with one loss or fewer, they should be considered national title contenders.
The Cougars are widely considered to be the Group of Five team most likely to make a New Year’s Six bowl game, but let’s crank the hype machine a little more. Houston is a viable candidate for the College Football Playoff. If it beats Oklahoma in Week 1 at NRG Stadium (home of the Texans), then the playoff path is clear. Another brutal non-conference tilt awaits on Nov. 17 (Louisville), but the Cougars get that game at home and their road slate is mostly forgiving after a Sept. 15 date with Cincinnati. The Oct. 8 trip to Annapolis won’t be easy, as Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has embarrassed plenty of established programs with his triple option attack, but the Cougars will be favored in every game except Oklahoma and maybe Louisville.
With quarterback Greg Ward at the helm, Houston will put up points. Last season, the Cougars set a school record with an astonishing 232 points in their first five games. This from the school that employed the Run N’ Shoot, one of college football’s first true aerial attacks, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Those offenses produced a Heisman winner (Andre Ware) and a Heisman finalist (David Klingler) who broke over 25 NCAA records between them. The point? Coach Tom Herman’s offense can score with the best of them. Ward combined for 38 touchdowns last season (21 on the ground, 17 in the air) and is widely considered one of college football’s premiere offensive players.
The downside? The Cougars lose top receiver Demarcus Ayers, who accounted for 1,222 receiving yards last season, as well as three of their top four tacklers on defense. There will be shootouts, but if Houston can run the table, then the College Football Playoff committee will face its most difficult decision to date.
Whether momentum is a fallacy perpetrated by sportswriters or something tangible, Oklahoma State has a chance to gain it, or think it has it, in 2016. Should Baylor regress with the departure of Art Briles and the presence of only 70 scholarship players on its roster, Oklahoma State could be 4–0 entering its Oct. 1 tilt against Texas. After that, a fairly forgiving crop of games (Iowa State, at Kansas, West Virginia, at Kansas State, Texas Tech) is how the Cowboys will spend their October and early November before two vicious games to end the year (at TCU, at Oklahoma).
With quarterback Mason Rudolph at the helm, it’s not outlandish to suggest the Cowboys could be 9–0 before they travel to Fort Worth on Nov. 19 (hype machine, commence!). The entire starting offensive line returns, Rudolph may be the best quarterback Gundy has ever had (including Brandon Weeden), and one of the conference’s top home-run threats (wide receiver James Washington) returns for his junior season. Rudolph logged 3,770 passing yards last season with 21 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, and Gundy has proven himself, regardless of his starting QB, to be one of the keenest offensive minds in college football.
Despite the difficult road schedule (the aforementioned Kansas State game looks like a trap), Oklahoma State’s offense will be tough to stop. The biggest departure is defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah, but tackling machine Chad Whitener returns at middle linebacker along with seven other defensive starters from last season. If the Cowboys can get past Baylor and survive the tough one against the Wildcats, the Big 12 race will be full of intrigue come Nov. 19.
There is bad luck, and then there is whatever happened to Nebraska in 2015. First, the Cornhuskers lost to BYU on a Hail Mary. Then an overtime interception cost them against Miami after overcoming a 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter. After that came a strange decision to throw the ball on third down against Illinois and not run out the clock, leading to the Fighting Illini winning on a last-minute drive. Continuing the pain was a last-second loss to Wisconsin on a field goal. And, just to round out the misery, the Huskers surrendered a fourth-quarter lead to Northwestern in a 30–28 loss at home.
Exhausted? So was Nebraska. The national powerhouse of yore hasn’t logged an 11-win season since 2001, and while the likelihood of reaching that number is almost nonexistent, Nebraska returns 13 starters and a senior quarterback in Tommy Armstrong. While Armstrong has given fans fits with his decision-making in the past, he’s now in his second season of Riley’s attack and returns all of his top receivers. Running back Terrell Newby saw less and less action as last year went on due to lingering injury problems, but he should still have the starting job at the beginning of the season.
A non-conference tilt against Oregon before a trip to Northwestern will offer an early test for the Huskers, but the conference schedule is forgiving outside of a trip to Ohio State on Nov. 5. Double-digit wins may be a stretch, but with a senior-laden offense, the Huskers are equipped to make a decent run in an unbalanced conference.