by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-ALABAMA...Sure, we could try to get cute with the top spot and stick our necks out with some team other than Bama. (Hey, it’s only the summer...if some other team emerges once the games begin, we can adjust accordingly.) Right now, however, there appears to be no perceptible differences between this upcoming Nick Saban edition and his various title winners (five of ‘em!) since 2009. We could nitpick and note the eight new starters on defense, but since when has a Bama Saban team not simply reloaded in recent years? Plenty of NFL draftees-to-be on the Tide stop unit, and if any coach can navigate around a possible QB controversy between Jalen Hurts and title game hero Tua Tagovaiola, it’s Saban. At least we think...Hurts is sounding a little anxious as the season approaches. Our best guess is that Bama makes time for both, and Saban keeps this from becoming a distraction.  No use that we can see in not pickng the Tide to at least get back to the Final Four, as the national title still runs thru Tuscaloosa..

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2-CLEMSON...No surprise if Clemson and Bama reprise their Warriors-Cavs NBA title thing (which has reached its conclusion) and meet for a fourth straight year in the playoffs. By now it is apparent that Dabo Swinney has assembled an ACC version of the Tide at Death Valley, and the IPTAY crowd is abuzz that touted true frosh QB Trevor Lawrence can get the ball downfield better than Kelly Bryant and thus key a possible Tiger win over Bama the way Deshaun Watson did in the 2016 title game. Maybe we’re jumping a bit ahead of ourselves here when talking about another matchup vs. the Tide, but Dabo is a clear choice again in the ACC, and the fact several key defenders from one of the nation’s best stop units bypassed the chance to enter the NFL draft for one more shot at Bama suggests Round Four of Tigers-Tide might be just a few months away.

3-GEORGIA...Kirby Smart could have a clearer path to the SEC title than even Nick Saban (remember, it was Georgia that won the SEC last year, as the Tide didn’t even make the conference title game in Atlanta), as the path through the SEC East looks less crowded unless Dan Mullen can revive Florida in short order. But UGa alum Smart, another Saban disciple, has established what looks like a Crimson Tide annex in Athens, loading up on top-level recruits and creating intense competition even for immediate stars like soph QB Jake Fromm (ballyhooed frosh QB Justin Fields is so good that Smart’s QB discovery from two years ago, Chad Eason, has already transferred out). Not quite as much experience on hand as last year’s runners-up, but the slate isn’t too daunting until the second half of the season (by which time any newcomers should be getting into the swing of things)...assuming Smart can avoid a potential banana peel on Sept. 8 at South Carolina.

4-OHIO STATE...As we go to press, we’re still not sure about Urban Meyer’s status for the upcoming season. (We’ll likely have more commentary on this matter sometime down the road...but not before August 19, we suppose.) In the meantime, just in case Meyer is out and Ryan Day is running the operation on an interim basis in the fall, it might be a mistake to equate 2018 with this last time this happened at Columbus in 2011, when Jim Tressel was forced out and Luke Fickell took over as an interim. That Buckeye team was rated no better than No. 18 entering the season before struggling to a 6-7 mark for Fickell; this OSU team is loaded like most Meyer editions, and any questions about Dwayne Haskins at QB should have been answered by his effort in the Michigan win last November. A tricky non-league date vs. TCU at Arlington in mid-September could also prove a trap, but for the moment we will keep OSU in a familiar top five perch while keeping an eye on developments with Meyer and any long-term consequences therein.

5-AUBURN...The SEC West could have gotten two entries into the Final Four last season had Auburn been able to beat Georgia (what would have been for the second time in three weeks) in the conference title game. In the end, that was asking a bit much, but along with Dabo Swinney at Clemson, no coach has given Nick Saban as much of an argument as Gus Malzahn. Who, if counting the 2010 Cam Newton-inspired comeback win at Tuscaloosa when Gus was o.c., has won 3 of his last 7 vs. the Nick-ta-tor...not too bad. The Tigers are loaded again, have a legit Heisman candidate in QB Jarrett Stidham, and a nasty defense featuring a robust line that all figures to soon be playing in the NFL. A win over Washington in the opener a short drive away in Atlanta should catapult Malzahn into a challenging position.

6-WISCONSIN...It’s a fact that the Big Ten West can be a short-cut into the Final Four. The winner of that half of the loop still has to win the conference title game for a chance at the big crown, but Iowa (in 2015) and Wiscy (last year) both came awfully close in Indianapolis after running the table in the regular season thru the lesser half of the loop. The pieces are in place for the Badgers to give it another go, with a third-year starter at QB in lefty Alex Hornibrook, and prolific soph RB Jonathan Taylor on a short list of serious Heisman candidates. Paul Chryst does have some reloading to do on a “D” that lost eight starters, but the stop unit has consistently been among the nation’s best in recent years. True, this fall the crossover portion of the Big Ten slate does not work in the favor of Wiscy, which must trek to Michigan and Penn State, but those are games the Badgers can win (and they did throttle the Wolverines last season). If prevailing in those, Wiscy might be playing for another chance at the Final Four at Lucas Oil on December 1.

7-WASHINGTON...The reputation of the Pac-12 has taken a hit in recent years and it might be up to the Huskies to change those perceptions. On paper this looks like it might be HC Chris Petersen’s best Seattle edition yet, especially with key srs. QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin back in the fold for one more run at the ring. But U-Dub didn’t play with the same edge last fall as it did in 2016 and even kicked away a chance to win the Pac-12 North with upset losses at Arizona State and Stanford. Moreover, after various soft landings non-league the past two years, there is an ultra-challenging intersectional at the top of the 2018 slate vs. Auburn in the heart of SEC Country (Atlanta). Lose that one and the Huskies have no margin for error to have a chance to get to the Final Four; win it, however, and the possibilities are endless!

8-TEXAS...We reserve the right to go way out on a limb in preseason and here’s our offering for this summer. Maybe we're out there alone in this observation, but we thought the Longhorns made bigger strides in their first year under HC Tom Herman than their eventual 7-6 record suggested. Once beyond a disastrous opener vs. Maryland, Texas picked up the pace, desperately unlucky to lose an OT game at USC, and ahead of Oklahoma late at the Cotton Bowl a few weeks later before Baker Mayfield bailed out the Sooners. Add in narrow losses to Ok State and Texas Tech and the Horns were closer to 10-2 than most people think. A year on, some of those close decisions might start falling in the Texas direction, and if soph Sam Ehlinger wins the QB job as we suspect, the sky’s the limit. A staggering recruiting haul (especially DBs) should make an immediate impact, though we’ll know by Columbus Day if the Horns are for real (rematch vs. SC, TCU, and Oklahoma all faced by then).

9-OKLAHOMA...Bob Stoops obviously left a pretty full cupboard for HC Lincoln Riley, who took the Sooners all of the way to the Final Four (and an OT in the Rose Bowl vs. Georgia) with a Heisman-winning QB, Baker Mayfield, to boot. But the bar has been set pretty high in Year Two of the Riley regime, and pressure is on former Texas A&M transfer (and MLB prospect) Kyler Murray, a dual-threat a bit different in style from Mayfield, to fill those Heisman-winning shoes. OU will still be plenty dangerous, and electric RB Rodney Anderson exceeded 1000 YR despite not cracking the starting lineup until late in the season. As a year ago, however, we wonder if the Mike Stoops defense is good enough to get OU across the finish line ahead of everyone else.

10-STANFORD...Bryce Love’s decision to bypass the NFL and return for a run at the Heisman generated the most offseason headlines, but the promise shown by soph QB KJ Costello down the stretch last season is the “buy” signal many on the coast were looking for on The Farm. With Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan providing outstanding leadership for most of the past decade at QB, the Cardinal has been formidable, and Costello’s emergence suggests David Shaw might have another pilot capable of taking the “Tree” up the rankings. The “D” slipped a bit last year, but Shaw’s formula has proven to work..especially when he has a QB. Stanford can signal it means business if it can beat USC in a double-revenge game at Palo Alto on September 8.
11-MICHIGAN STATE...While the sports media continues to preoccupy itself with the Ohio State soap opera and whatever is or isn’t going on with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Mark Dantonio continues to go about his business in East Lansing. Any thoughts that the unexpected dip to 3-9 in 2016 might be the signal of a downturn for the Spartans were quickly dispelled as a one-off as Dantonio recovered to 10-3 last season, beating Harbaugh’s Wolverines and Penn State along the way. Now Dantonio gets almost his entire team back, including versatile QB Brian Lewerke, from last season’s bunch that thumped Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The schedule breaks pretty well, too, with both Michigan and Ohio State visiting Spartan Stadium.

12-ARIZONA...We’re not sure how the move to HC Kevin Sumlin, fresh off a dismissal at Texas A&M, works long-term in the desert. But if Sumlin can take the Pac-12 by storm as he did the SEC in 2012 with Johnny Manziel, the Cats rate a legit sleeper this fall. Sumlin can do a lot of things with electric QB Khalil Tate, who burst upon the scene at midseason a year ago with such gusto that he became a peripheral Heisman candidate by Veteran’s Day. Almost everyone returns from last season, including from a “D” that force-fed many frosh a year ago. Now, they're a year wiser and stronger, and the schedule breaks incredibly well, with most of the Pac-12 showdowns in Tucson, along with a manageable non-league slate.

13-MIAMI-FLA...In retrospect that 41-8 thumping of Notre Dame last Nov. 11 might have been a bit of a false indicator, as the Canes had survived some earlier scares before suddenly finding themselves near the top of the polls and in playoff position. Miami didn’t cover a pointspread thereafter and closed the season on a 3-game losing streak, which created some doubts about QB Malik Rosier, who faded with his teammates while completing just 40 of 89 over those three losses. Still, the “U” has made lots of progress since alum Mark Richt arrived in 2016, with upgraded recruiting now bearing fruit, and their swaggy “turnover chains” a hot topic on ESPN. Another reason the Canes threaten the top ten is a very favorable slate (i.e. no Clemson) if they can get past the opener vs. LSU at Jerry Jones Stadium on September 1.

14-FLORIDA STATE...About everything that could go wrong did go wrong last fall in Tallahassee, which helped prompt Jimbo Fisher (with help from super-agent Jimmy Sexton) to move to Texas A&M. Enter Willie Taggart, who could not resist the lure of his home territory after one year getting Oregon back on track. Taggart, who won earlier at WKU and USF, seems up to the task, and he has a pair of QBs (Deondre Francois, a revelation in 2016 before last year’s knee injury, and James Blackmon, who took over the controls last fall) who have won games, plus a dynamite RB (Cam Akers) ready to explode in the Taggart offense that is runner-friendly. If a rebuilt “D” can step up, the Noles could cause trouble, and they do get Clemson at Doak Campbell on October 27.

15-MISSISSIPPI STATE...Like many others at SEC Media Days, we were highly impressed by new HC Joe Moorhead, who arrives in Starkville after installing the offense for James Franklin at Penn State. Moorhead, no self-promoter he, seems to have a grasp of the job, and does have HC experience (at Fordham, which once upon a time spawned another pretty good coach...Vince Lombardi). Moorhead inherits a potent, 32 ppg offense with almost everyone back from 2017, including dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald, and an experienced DL might be one of the SEC’s best. If Moorhead can get by a tricky Week 2 date at Kansas State, he could exit September unbeaten and set up an SEC West showdown vs. Auburn at Starkville on October 6.

16-NOTRE DAME...The Irish proved a bit of a false alarm into last November when they carried Final Four hopes into Miami and were promptly smashed, then hammered two weeks later at Stanford. Still, the eventual 10-3 mark proved a much-needed recovery for HC Brian Kelly, who had reason to fear for his job after the 4-8 pratfall of 2016. The Irish lost some prime-cut talent to the NFL, as key RB Josh Adams and two of the best OL in the nation, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchery, are in NFL camps this summer, and efforts of QB Brandon Winbush fluctuated wildly (backup Ian Book bailed out the Domers in the Citrus Bowl vs. LSU). But the aberration under Kelly seems to have been 2016, and ND gets its two toughest September tilts (Michigan and Stanford) both in South Bend.

17-MICHIGAN...We’ve seen enough from Jim Harbaugh at his alma mater to not be obliged to put the Wolverines in the top ten. After all, the Maize & Blue lost five times last season, and Harbaugh has yet to beat Ohio State in three tries. Lose a couple more in a row to the Buckeyes, and let’s see how those alums who proudly wear the “M” will react. (Hint...they’re already grumbling.) Plus Harbaugh has been known to wear thin after 4-5 years on a job, so this fall is crucial. Though if Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson can deal with Harbaugh’s myriad mind games, he could provide an exciting upgrade for the offense, which needs it badly after sinking to a ranking of 105 last season. A schedule vs. the usual Big Ten East heavyweights, plus Notre Dame, is also a challenge.

18-OREGON...Why are we pushing the Ducks into the Top 20? Partly because of what might be the most embarrassing non-conference schedule in the country...Bowling Green, Portland State, and San Jose State all at Autzen Stadium to open the season. Not a Power 5 conference foe to be found! (We’d like to blame Phil Knight, but it’s more the fault of Texas A&M, which backed out of a contracted date.) Mario Cristobal’s Webfoot debut as HC did not go too well in a Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State, but QB Justin Herbert is the real deal (note how the Duck offense, which scored 52 ppg in games he started, sagged badly in his absence), and if respected d.c. Jim Leavitt can get the stop unit up to speed, the Pac-12 North could become a three-team race.

19-GEORGIA TECH...Looking for one of the most misleading records of last season? Try the Yellow Jackets, who twice lost by one point, another game in the last seconds by four, and had an early game vs. UCF (when the Golden Knights might have been had before they began to really roll) cancelled by Hurricane Irma. But we’ve seen shrewd HC Paul Johnson sneak up and win big in just these sorts of situations before. Almost everyone is back on offense, including option wiz QB Taquon Marshall, who can become an ultimate weapon if he could just pass a little better (only 37% completions...even for a running team like Tech, that’s not good enough). ACC sources believe that new d.c. Nate Woody (from App State) could also prove an upgrade for the stop unit. Watch these guys.

20-SOUTHERN CAL...The Trojans are off of their first-ever Pac-12 title (it was the Pac-10 the last time they won the league in 2008), but the gap between SC and the nation’s elite was underlined in a pair of one-sided losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State (in the Cotton Bowl) by a combined 73-21. And that was with Sam Darnold at QB. Now Darnold is off to the New York Jets and HC Clay Helton has to replace the Trojans’ top passer, runner, and receiver all at once for the first time since 1980. Ballyhooed true frosh QB JT Daniels is expected to become a star sooner or later, but it’s no guarantee he starts the opener vs. UNLV, and scary dates at Stanford and Texas follow. With Arizona (also on the road) on the slate later in the month, SC might have to readjust its goals to the Holiday or Sun Bowls by Columbus Day.

21-PENN STATE...The breakthrough by the Nittany Lions two years ago was breathtaking, and HC James Franklin was four points from an unbeaten campaign a year ago. But two key cogs of the recent Happy Valley resurgence, star RB Saquon Barkley (off to the New York Giants) and shrewd o.c. Joe Moorhead (the new HC at Mississippi State), have departed, and a major re-tool is needed on defense with only two starters back in the fold. The cupboard is not bare thanks to Franklin’s enhanced recruiting, and big-play QB Trace McSorley remains in the fold, but sans Barkley & Moorhead and many key defenders, maintaining the same level as 2016-17 might not be easy.

22-FLORIDA...We’re on record as saying we think Dan Mullen’s move to Gainesville might be the best of many new coaching hires made in the offseason (though we’re watching aforementioned Joe Moorhead at Mullen’s old Mississippi State job). We also suspect things went so sour at the end of the Jim McElwain regime (which ended before the 2017 campaign was done) that it was almost unnatural, and that Florida should simply never be that bad. Mullen, on Urban Meyer’s Gator staff, knows what he’s getting into, but won enough at Starkville to suggest he could really fly with the resources on hand at The Swamp. Almost everyone returns on offense; can Mullen, a noted QB tutor, unlock Feleipe Franks or one of the other pilots?

23-TCU...Meet the mystery team of the Big 12, as most of the glossy forecasts on the Frogs are assuming some of Gary Patterson’s recent high-profile recruits hit the ground running. Only three starters are back on offense, but soph QB Shawn Robinson showed signs of justifying his considerable hype in limited work as a frosh, and various other blue-chippers are ready to step into featured roles. In the meantime, this looks like another robust TCU defense, helped by impact DE Ben Banogu opting to delay entry to the NFL for one more year in Fort Worth. We will know a lot more about the Frogs after a brutal back-to-back vs. Ohio State (in nearby Arlington) and at Texas in mid-September.

24-TEXAS A&M...If Jimbo Fisher and his shiny new $75 million contract don’t pan out at A&M, he can always find a job as an auctioneer, or some other occupation that values speed-speaking. We can honestly say we’ve never heard a coach jam as many words into a short amount of time as did Fisher on the podium for SEC Media Days in Atlanta. Eventually, Jimbo probably has to win a national title at College Station to make this expenditure worthwhile, but for 2018 all of the “Aggie-exes” and other A&M boosters will settle for an upgrade from Kevin Sumlin’s teams that invariably faded late in the season. Fisher’s history as a QB guru ought to help with holdovers Nick Starkel & Kellen Mond, who have both hinted at something better. How high-priced d.c. Mike Elko can improve a suspect “D” might be just an important this fall. Can Jimbo pull the upset on Clemson at Kyle Field on September 8?

25-LSU...He’s only in his second full-time year on the job, and we are as entertained by Ed Orgeron’s Foghorn Leghorn voice as anything else in college football. But some SEC sources are suggesting that Orgeron does not have all that much rope in Baton Rouge, and can’t slip too much from last year’s 9-4 or risks the vultures starting to circle Tiger Stadium. Especially if longtime AD Joe Alleva retires soon, as some in the region expect. The Tigers’ never-ending search for the next Bert Jones at QB might have landed upon Ohio State grad transfer Joe Burrow, who has two years of eligibility remaining. Keeping d.c. Dave Aranda on board, however, might have been LSU’s best bit of business in the offseason.

Teams 26 thru 40 are listed in condensed form...

26-UTAH...Kyle Whittingham has still yet to win a Pac-12 South crown. He might have a chance this fall, as the Utes face conference heavies Washington, USC, and Arizona all at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Smoothing out some of the rough edges of jr. QB Tyler Huntley and filling some of the graduation gaps on a usually-robust defense should at least get Whittingham to another bowl, where he is 10-1 straight-up in his career. 27-BOISE STATE...Bryan Harsin’s Broncos think they have a shot to be the “Group of Five” rep into the “New Year’s Six” bowl mix (lots of numbers here!), especially with sr. QB Brett Rypien the current active FBS leader in passing yardage (9876 in his career). Boise also has a streak of nine straight years with 1000-yard rushers, and the “D” remains underrated. But if the Broncos want a big bowl date, they have to avoid some of the Mountain West banana peels that have caused unexpected slips in recent years. 28-UCF...In the past five seasons, the Golden Knight pendulum has swung wildly, from a pair of New Year’s Six bowl dates and an undefeated 2017 to a winless 2015 campaign. The architect of last year’s powerhouse, HC Scott Frost, has moved to alma mater Nebraska, and instead of promoting from within, UCF went out and made what it hopes is another Frost-like hire, Josh Heupel, off of the Mizzou staff. Exciting QB McKenzie Milton returns but some key playmakers must be replaced from last year’s overachieving stop unit. The Golden Knights have a chance to get back to a major bowl, but they’re wearing a big target this fall. 29-IOWA STATE...Thanks in part to a hefty contract buyout, ISU was able to fend off suitors for its hot-commodity HC, Matt Campbell, in the offseason. The interest in the coach was understandable as the Cyclones became one of the surprise stories of last season, winning at Oklahoma and more than holding their own in the Big 12 before winning the Liberty Bowl vs. dangerous Memphis on the Tigers’ home field. Best of all, QB Kyle Kempt was granted a 6th year of eligibility. The “D” also progressed rapidly from roadkill status a year ago, and the resurgence under Campbell should continue. 30-FRESNO STATE...We saw HC Jeff Tedford author a dramatic turnaround at Cal many years ago, but he out-did himself last fall at alma mater Fresno, which became only the second-ever FBS team to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in the Tedford debut. Spectacular improvement on the defense actually keyed the upgrade, and this year expect the “O” to carry more of the weight with former Oregon State QB Marcus McMaryion now having an extra year to absorb the teachings of Tedford, a noted QB tutor.

31-SOUTH CAROLINA...We wondered about the hire of Will Muschamp by the Gamecocks a couple of years ago, chalking it more up to another case of almost-all-roads-in-the-SEC leading to super-agent Jimmy Sexton. But Muschamp has proven us wrong by taking USC to back-to-back bowls, and the upswing might continue this fall if Muschamp can get his attack in gear behind new o.c. Bryan McClendon. Perhaps able to benefit will be jr. QB Jake Bentley, who has shown flashes of stardom and should enjoy big-play WR Deebo Samuel being healthy (which he wasn’t last year). Muschamp’s big chance at a breakthrough comes at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 8 vs. Georgia. 32-VIRGINIA TECH...Justin Fuente has provided a seamless transition in Blacksburg from longtime HC Frank Beamer, whose regime was in fact showing some signs of wear and tear before he finally retired. Wisely, Fuente kept on sage d.c. Bud Foster, whose platoons continue to be high-ranked. It was not an easy offseason, however, with several suspensions and academic issues (including QB Josh Jackson) that have created a few extra question marks for the Hokies heading into the fall. Missing Clemson on the schedule, however, is a big benefit for any ACC entry. 33-WEST VIRGINIA...It looks like HC Dana Holgorsen has an offense that could score on the Minnesota Vikings, with prolific former Florida transfer QB Will Grier ready to post more big numbers and make a Heisman run for another potent offense. The problem for the Mountaineers, however, is a defense that wasn’t good enough last season, then was strafed by transfers in the offseason and injuries in spring. The Mountaineers have a puncher’s chance in all of their games, but the last time we talked like this in Morgantown, a much-hyped 2012 team featuring Gene Smith at QB proceeded to lose six times. 34-BOSTON COLLEGE...Flying well under the radar in the “Clemson half” (Atlantic) of the ACC, the Eagles might finally have an offense to match their always-tough defense for no-nonsense HC Steve Addazio. Nine starters return on the attack end, paced by punishing 240-lb. soph RB AJ Dillon, a sledgehammer who gained 1589 YR as a frosh and might rate a Heisman darkhorse. Much depends on the evolution of the passing game, and if Dillon’s fellow sophs, QBs Anthony Brown (recovering from a knee injury) or EJ Perry, can provide some upgrades for the aerial assault. If so, the chop-busting Eagles will become a squad no one wants to face this fall. 35-PURDUE...Anyone who wonders about Jeff Brohm’s credentials as a head coach need only look how Western Kentucky dipped noticeably in his absence last fall and how the Boilermakers suddenly resembled a real team after the Darrell Hazell experiment was humanely terminated in 2016. Brohm got Purdue a bowl win for the first time since 2011, surprisingly keyed by a stop unit that responded to d.c. Nick Holt, who came with Brohm from WKU. Both Purdue QBs from 2017 (David Blough and Elijan Sindelar) return from injuries, but the framework is there for the “O” to continue its own upgrade, especially with a vet OL. Four home games at Ross-Ade Stadium to begin the season could get the campaign off on the right foot.

36-SAN DIEGO STATE...While they ponder where the Aztecs will play after 2019 (the Padres’ Petco Park a possible short-term answer; check our Mountain West preview for more details), Rocky Long figures to have his typical team this fall as the Aztecs seek a ninth straight bowl. SDSU has featured the all-time NCAA rush leader (Donnel Pumphrey) and a nation’s leading rusher (Rashaad Penny) the past two years, with jr. Juwan Washington the next in line, and sr. QB Christian Chapman, in his third season as a starter, is a proven game-manager, if not a big-play threat. But it’s the Rocky 3-3-5 defense that remains the SDSU trademark and will try to get the Aztecs back atop the Mountain this fall. 37-MEMPHIS...They have managed to keep HC Mike Norvell in the fold at Memphis (we might stick around, too, just to be close to the BBQ at the Rendezvous “in the alley” downtown), and as long as he stays in Elvis-town, the Tigers should stay formidable. They have been moving top QBs (such as prolific Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson) thru the Liberty Bowl on an assembly line in recent years; promising heir apparent soph David Moore is a bit more of a dual-threat than his predecessors, and Norvell has a closet-full of RBs led by Darrell Henderson (1154 YR LY). The defense, however, needs to stay opportunistic, as it keyed an eye-opening +15 TO margin last fall to camouflage for an overall 117 ranking. 38-NORTHWESTERN...That was quite a run at the end of 2017 for the Cats, who won their last 8, including three straight in overtime at one point, prompting NHL Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to wonder if he should temporarily hire HC Pat Fitzgerald to oversee their OT shootouts. Optimism abounds, as NU returns various key cogs, including versatile sr. QB Clayton Thorson, who has NFL scouts interested, and plenty of star power on defense with several All-Big Ten candidates. The Cats also get six of their first nine at home, though back-to-back games sandwiched around Halloween vs. Wisconsin and Notre Dame (the first Fighting Irish visit to Evanston since 1976) will likely be the keys to a potential memorable campaign. 39-NAVY...After a couple of gut-wrenching, last-second losses to Army that broke the Mids’ record 14-game series win streak, it’s almost a crusade in Annapolis to get back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy this fall. But Navy might be able to do more, with a pair of QBs (exciting Malcolm Perry and punishing Zach Abey) to run Ken Niumatalolo’s familiar option and help keep a rebuilt defense off of the field. If the Mids don’t suffer from jet lag (26,496 air miles, including trips to Honolulu and San Diego, and that’s not counting a possible American title game and a bowl...whew!), another bowl visit and a return of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy is likely. 40-KANSAS STATE...As far as K-State fans are concerned, 78 year-old Bill Snyder can keep coaching until he’s 100. The ways things are going in Manhattan, it might take that long before identifying his successor, but since the Cats have only reached two bowls in their history (and won neither) when not coached by Snyder, who has been to 18 bowls, KSU boosters are in no hurry to make a change. This looks like a typical, punishing Snyder team, with a vet OL, and a jarring RB in 227-lb. Alex Barnes, though one from among returnees Skyler Thompson and Alex Delton must emerge at QB, and two new coordinators will be on the job. But we’d be foolish to ever underestimate Snyder...and we’re not about to start now!

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