We haven't watched a real college football game since January, but that doesn't mean we haven't been talking about it for the last eight-plus months. In that time, we've built up and sold programs and have created what we've deemed every possible scenario that could unfold over the next five months. We've heard it all, and a consensus has been formed around most every team — and some of those consensuses are wrong. It's not fun to be pessimistic, but there are six teams that are expected to compete at the highest level that could end up fighting for coaches' jobs or even bowl eligibility come November.
There’s a real chance that Gus Malzahn, who enters the season on the hot seat, doesn’t make it out of September with his job. That’s because there’s a real chance that the Tigers, who open the season with four home games, start 0-4 on the year against Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M, and LSU. Yes, Arkansas State, a team that is exponentially better than the Jacksonville State team that almost beat Auburn on the Plains last year. What issues appear solved heading into the season? The defense, outside of Carl Lawson, isn’t noticeably improved, and the quarterback situation is anything but settled, they’ll either roll with Sean White again or go with John Franklin III instead of Jeremy Johnson. Franklin, a junior college transfer, left Florida State because he wasn’t deemed good enough to be the fourth-string QB. They also have only one running back with collegiate experience and lost their two leading receivers from 2015. The makings of a bounce back do not appear in place — there’s a real chance Auburn finishes in last place in the SEC West again in 2016.
The Cougars are awesome, but expectations that they might get into the College Football Playoff might set a bar that’s too high for the team to reach. While they’re exceptionally coached and quarterback Greg Ward is a real Heisman contender, the Cougs start the season against Oklahoma (a loss would negate any chance of playing for the national title) and then have a pretty hellacious schedule against a constantly improving American. They might be the favorites in the conference, but they play a slate of tough games at Cincinnati, at Navy, and at Memphis on the schedule, not to mention Thursday night home games against Louisville and UConn. This schedule, for a team that returns less than 50 percent of its tackles and only 26 starts on the offensive line. If the Cougars get through that slate undefeated they deserve a spot in the CFP, but there’s a real shot that they might not even play for the championship of their own conference this year.
Do you want to bet on Chad Kelly to lose no more than two games against Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Texas A&M? Remember, Kelly lost his top two receivers from last year and returns only 36 offensive line starts — the Rebs also don’t have much of a run game. Outside of Kelly, Ole Miss is a good team — that defense deserves accolades — but it's not one that’s going to come close to challenging for the SEC West crown. Feel free to bet on Kelly, but don’t be surprised if the Rebs are far closer to Arkansas or their in-state rivals than Alabama this year.
The Trojans are talented, but that schedule might have five losses on it. It’s a shame, really — USC is probably the most talented team in the Pac-12 South, but they start the season against Alabama, play at Stanford off a Cardinal bye, then play at Utah on the following Friday night, go to Washington, and play UCLA and Notre Dame back-to-back. If they can drop only one game out of all of those contests, plus the Pac-12 title game, they deserve to be No. 1 in the nation. It’s more likely they’re fighting for bowl contention come December than a division crown.
A tough schedule, massive attrition, and a roster that starts the season in turmoil by starting two quarterbacks and losing key players at other positions to suspension or team expulsion — Notre Dame has all the makings of a team that isn’t going to come close to living up to its preseason Top-10 ranking. We’ll find out if the Irish are for real in the first three weeks — they start the year with Texas and then take on Michigan State off a Sparty bye week. Get through that stretch and you only have to beat Stanford, Navy’s triple-option at a neutral site, and USC on the road to contend for the playoff. It’s hard to see that happening with a team what brought back only 62 percent of its yards and 42 percent of its tackles.
The spot could easily belong to Michigan or Ohio State, as all three teams have the same problem — massive attrition — but Michigan State is the worst recruiter of the three elite teams, so Sparty is going to take the fall on this one. Now, it’s foolish to underrate Michigan State — it’s a surefire way to get burned — but what if the market has overcorrected this season? Sparty starts the season at No. 12 in the AP poll, despite having a new quarterback, a new center and left tackle in front of him, and one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Michigan State gets both Michigan and Ohio State at home, off easy in-conference opponents, which is excellent, but it’s going to be really tough for the Spartans, who return only 38 percent of their yards from last year, to be in the national title conversation late for a fourth-straight year. Then again, it’s Sparty….