Those of you who read my weekly College Football Overtime column at SI.com will notice many similarities in this, my first edition of Forward Pass. However, as the name implies, this Monday morning feature will not just recap the weekend, but instead digest the results and start looking ahead, with particular emphasis on the College Football Playoff race. Enjoy.
Welcome, at long last, to the 2014 college football season. While we don’t even know yet the score of the first game, we can already be certain it will be unlike any played before it.
Opening week is always cause for excitement, as fans return to their favorite tailgate spot for the first time since last fall and stars like Jameis Winston and Nick Marshall return to the field for the first time since last January. Months of predictions and press conferences give way to actual passes and punts. It’s an exhilarating time.
But this season, that annual anticipation feels even a little bit heightened, albeit tinged with a hint of trepidation. It’s no secret why.
“I’ve felt a buzz about this regular season that I haven’t felt before,” said Bill Hancock, “and the only difference is, there’s a playoff now.”
The new College Football Playoff, of which Hancock is executive director, hovers over nearly every discussion of the season ahead, as coaches, players and fans begin acclimating themselves to the sport’s most significant reinvention since the advent of the BCS 16 years ago.
“I was a little skeptical of the four-team playoff because I wasn’t sure the game was broken and it needed to be fixed,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told FOX Sports this summer. “But now that all the smoke has cleared, I think a four-team playoff is pretty exciting.”
“Is it perfect? Nobody knows yet,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. “But I do think it allows for us to decide a champion on the field.”
That’s what we always wanted, right? Every time an undefeated Auburn lost the decimal-point rat race or a one-loss Alabama team played for the national title without winning its division, the controversy begot inevitable evergreen questions. Why not settle it on the field like every other sport? Why not hold a playoff?
Now, after decades of clamoring, the Playoff is finally here, and with it, all the accompanying vernacular. Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, et al., are competing in a playoff race. They’re playing for a coveted spot in football’s first Final Four. The gravity of the change hasn’t fully sunk in.
“My concern is a (13)-member panel voting on which teams get in,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said last week. “The concern for all of college football is that the teams … that are playing at the very highest level could play very well and not ever get in because of someone’s opinion about schedule strength.”
With that concern in mind, coaches began preemptively politicking this summer. The Pac-12’s want to make sure committee members know just how hard it is to play nine conference games AND a championship game. The SEC’s would tell them that while their conference plays only eight, they’re the toughest eight games this side of the NFL. The Big 12’s want to remind them that everyone in the league plays everybody else and even invented a helpful slogan.
Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher even told my colleague Bruce Feldman — with a straight face, no less – that, “No conference has ever had as dominant a year as the ACC had last year.” Translation: Don’t ding us if we lose one this year.
Mercifully, posturing finally gives way to playing football games this weekend. And while early-season intersectional clashes have long shaped conferences’ perceptions, now, with the committee’s stated emphasis on strength of schedule, they mean much more than that.
Florida State-Oklahoma State. LSU-Wisconsin. Georgia-Clemson. Alabama-West Virginia. These are the types of games on which playoff aspirants will begin building their cases. Just as all those mid-November college basketball games wind up molding the RPI ratings that prove so important come Selection Sunday, any number of this weekend’s games could play a direct role in shaping the first football bracket come Dec. 7.
“In basketball, a game would happen November 15, and the next morning among the staff we would say, ‘We’ll be talking about that game in March,’” said former NCAA tournament executive Hancock. “That will be the case here, too. We know that the committee on that first weekend in December will say, ‘Remember Aug. 30 when that happened? Now, let’s see what happened to that team from there.’”
And so we begin the long, winding road to Pasadena and New Orleans. The excitement of a new era might not fully be felt until we park in front of the television on New Year’s Day and watch No. 1 play No. 4 and No. 2 play No. 3 for the first time in history. In the meantime, prepare for three-plus months of drama – and a whole lot of lobbying.
LEONARD FOURNETTE HAS ARRIVED
Ten years ago next week, decorated high school running back Adrian Peterson made his Oklahoma debut, rushing 16 times for 100 yards and a touchdown in the Sooners’ 40-24 win over Bowling Green. Two weeks later he sprang for 183 yards against Oregon as it became obvious the soon-to-be Heisman runner-up was a special talent.
A decade later, the sport’s most hyped running back recruit since Peterson, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, will make his debut in the 13th-ranked Tigers’ primetime meeting with No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday in Houston. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette will likely share carries with veterans Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee. Meanwhile, LSU’s opponent boasts a returning 1,609-yard rusher in Melvin Gordon. Yet no player on the field Saturday night will garner more curiosity than last year’s USA Today high school offensive player of the year, a New Orleans native who caused coach Les Miles last month to make comparisons with a certain NBA Hall of Famer.
"I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan," Miles said. "Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any. …That’s the kind of player Leonard Fournette is."
In his one media appearance of the preseason, a confident Fournette laid out the following 2014 goals for himself: “Be a 1,000-yard rusher in my first year, be All-SEC, All-American and hopefully a Heisman Trophy candidate.”
So, yeah. We’ll be watching.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has added its own wrinkle in advance of the game. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday that dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy – a former juco transfer who spent last season at safety – has beaten out career 19-game starter Joel Stave. The more mobile McEvoy may allow second-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen to run something closer to the style of offense he did at Utah State and could come in handy against LSU’s always athletic defensive front.
Miles has said he will wait until Thursday to announce his starting QB, either sophomore Anthony Jennings, who filled in the last two games of 2013 following Zach Mettenberger’s ACL injury, or true freshman Brandon Harris. Either way, it’s a safe bet that LSU, with that trio of tailbacks and one of the nation’s best returning offensive lines, could have a very simple game plan Saturday night: Run … the … ball.
CAN BOISE SURPRISE US AGAIN?
It’s even more incredible now with a few years’ distance, but from 2008-11 — a.k.a. the Kellen Moore era — Boise State went a staggering 50-3, including wins over Oregon (twice), TCU, Virginia Tech and Georgia. After falling to Michigan State and Washington in their past two seasons’ opening-week showcase games and slipping to eight wins last year for the first time since 2002, the Broncos look to reestablish their giant-killer identity Thursday night in Atlanta against No. 18 Ole Miss.
“The stage is as big as anything,” said first-year Boise head coach Bryan Harsin, who served as offensive coordinator for the first three of those Moore-led teams. “We’ve done it before. We’ve won on that stage, and we’ve had games where we lost on that stage. This is a big opportunity for us to get back to winning those types of games.”
Boise has unwittingly become the potential face of the disenfranchised in the sport’s new, even more segregated setup. The Broncos rose as high as No. 3 in the BCS standings in 2010, but even then there was an implicit understanding that the program’s ceiling was an at-large berth to the Fiesta Bowl (which it earned in 2006 and ’09). Theoretically, the addition of two more teams to the national title field seemingly provides better access to a team like Boise. In reality, that’s probably not the case given the selection committee’s stated emphasis on strength of schedule, not to mention the realignment-depleted state of its conference, the Mountain West.
Boise always had to go undefeated to stand even a sliver’s chance of playing for a trophy. Harsin is concerned that now undefeated still might not be enough.
“The goal is to go through the season and be 14-0, not 13-1,” he said. “If Boise is an undefeated team and they’re one of four undefeated teams, I’d put them in the playoff, regardless of what conference you play in. That’s the goal, to go undefeated.
“… It’s a shame we predetermine some decisions and not allow a team that goes out and wins every game to have a chance to go out and prove (it’s No. 1). We shut out a team that had an unbelievable run because we think we know what the strength of schedule is.”
Before they can talk about undefeated, though, the Broncos must upset an Ole Miss team led by veteran quarterback Bo Wallace and stars like receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Cody Prewitt and defensive linemen C.J. Johnson and Robert Nkemdiche. Boise is inexperienced on both lines of scrimmage, not an ideal formula for knocking off a respected SEC foe. But the Broncos have certainly surprised us before.
PRESEASON BOWL FORECAST
Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.
Peach: Ole Miss (at-large) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)
Fiesta: Ohio State (Big Ten champ) vs. Washington (at-large)
Cotton: Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) vs. Stanford (at-large)
Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Georgia
Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 UCLA
Welcome to the new era.
My goal throughout the season will be to help you understand the new College Football Playoff bowl selection process – which somehow manages to be more confusing than the BCS. Let’s start with a step-by-step explanation of how I arrived at the predicted lineup above.
* FSU, Auburn, UCLA and Georgia are my four playoff teams, which already presents two interesting scenarios. For one thing, Auburn and Georgia could wind up playing each other three times (regular season, SEC championship and national championship game). And UCLA would be playing a semifinal game at its home stadium. FSU, as the No. 1 seed, gets first dibs on the much-closer Sugar Bowl.
* Clemson replaces Florida State as the Orange Bowl’s ACC contract team. Alabama would be the Tigers’ opponent as the highest-ranked at-large team from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame.
* Big Ten champ Ohio State and Big 12 champ Oklahoma are guaranteed spots outside the playoff. So is the highest-ranked champion from the five non-power conferences, in this case East Carolina from the American.
It’s been a particularly brutal preseason in the devastating injury department, with several teams losing some of the best players on the team. The only silver linings to them happening now as opposed to, say, mid-October, is the players have more time to recover and the teams have more time to adjust.
A quick Cliff’s notes on who’s out and who’s up.
* Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. There’s no overstating how crushing it is for the Buckeyes to lose the two-time Big Ten player of the year. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett steps in, playing behind four new offensive line starters.
* Louisville receiver DeVante Parker. The first-round talent injured his foot last Friday and visited a specialist in Charlotte for further evaluation. On Monday, head coach Bobby Petrino announced Parker will miss 6-8 weeks with a broken toe. Talented sophomore James Quick could be a new go-to guy.
* Duke linebacker Kelby Brown. The reigning ACC Coastal champs lost the conference’s third-leading tackler last season (114) but will move the leading tackler, David Shelton (133), from weakside to middle, while fifth-year senior C.J. France joins the 1s.
* Oregon left tackle Tyler Johnstone. The Ducks would have returned all five starters up front before Johnstone reinjured his knee. Redshirt junior Andre Yruetagovena takes over. That’s pronounced “e-dru-etha-goyena” if you need to tell a friend.
This, of course, is just a partial list. There’s also the matter of Notre Dame’s academic scandal, which has cost the Irish their standout cornerback (KeiVare Russell), top receiver (DeVaris Daniels) and starting defensive end (Ishaq Williams). Besides Miller, Russell is the biggest loss any team has suffered. As coach Brian Kelly said: "You don’t replace KeiVarae Russell.”
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
Three games we’re most excited for:
* Clemson at Georgia (Saturday, 5:30 ET): I’m expecting to see a much-improved Georgia defense under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but Chad Morris’ offense is not an ideal first test.
* LSU vs. Wisconsin (Saturday, 9 ET): This may be the Big Ten’s best hope for a marquee non-conference win, unless you think two-touchdown underdog Michigan State is going to win at Autzen.
* Boise State vs. Ole Miss (Thursday, 8 ET): I’m very high on the Rebels, as you saw in my predicted bowl lineup, but they have a long history of under-delivering. This is a good early indicator.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
* Texas A&M at South Carolina (Thursday, 6 ET): Because it’s the first game, obviously. Personally, I think they’re both slightly overrated, but it should still be entertaining.
* Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Saturday, 8 ET): It’s our first glimpse of the nation’s consensus No. 1 team and the return of Jameis Winston. But it could get ugly very fast.
* Miami at Louisville (Monday, 8 pm ET): Miami true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya gets the call for Al Golden’s squad, but the ‘Canes’ defense is under more scrutiny.
One under-the-radar gem:
* SMU at Baylor (Sunday, 7:30 ET): It’s the first game at Baylor’s brand new McLane Stadium, which looks pretty darn cool. And, oh yeah, Bryce Petty, Antwan Goodley and Co. are pretty darn good.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.