Mississippi State: Lack of experience in the front seven
To Dan Mullen’s credit, the Bulldogs have emerging stars up front, specifically defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons and linebacker Leo Lewis. But only Lewis has starting experience. A young front-seven is a bad omen for a club that ranked just 70th in rushing defense, 71st in sacks and is now on its fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
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NC State: They’re NC State
As someone who covers both college football and basketball, I can tell you that virtually nothing ever goes right for NC State. Ever. For example, last fall, when the Wolfpack simply needed a chip-shot field goal to beat eventual national champion Clemson. But they shanked it, lost in overtime and proceeded to lose their next three games. Or this past basketball season, which started with NCAA Tournament dreams and ended with Mark Gottfried getting fired.
The Wolfpack have the talent to compete with virtually anyone in the ACC this year, but recent history says they're destined to crush the hopes and dreams of their fanbase in the most devastating way possible.
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Nebraska: Do they have playmakers at the skill positions?
Nebraska didn’t have much of a vertical passing game last year (their leading receiver had just 38 catches) and of the five players who had 20+ catches, three have graduated. Only Stanley Morgan Jr. and DeMornay Pierson-El (who caught a combined 53 balls last year) are returning. Will that be enough to keep this offense rolling, and competing with the best in the Big Ten West?
Charlie Strong's South Florida Bulls are the Group of Six team du jour this year, the one that can be a player in the College Football Playoff discussion if everything breaks right. But as we learned last year with Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars, there is no easy road into the playoff conversation for Group of Six teams.
The Cougars beat Oklahoma on opening weekend last year and it still wasn’t enough to impress some people (not that it mattered a few weeks later when Houston lost to Navy). Which brings us back to South Florida, whose only Power Five opponent this year is Illinois. Going undefeated probably won’t be enough to impress the always fickle playoff committee.
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Washington State: Can they actually beat the FCS team on their schedule this year?
The Cougars are coming off nine and eight win seasons in 2015 and 2016, respectively. But despite two seasons that should be considered wildly successful, Wazzu failed to beat their opening FCS opponent in both of the past two seasons, leaving fans wondering "what if?"
The Cougars certainly have enough to get to eight or nine wins this season, but the real question is whether they can get past that pesky Week 1 game against… gulp… Montana State.
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LSU: Can Matt Canada really improve the Tigers’ passing attack?
In four of the past six years, LSU has failed to rank in the Top 100 in passing offense. That's right, the Tigers have been nationally ranked in the Top 100 just twice in the past six years. So while we’ve heard nothing but great things about new coordinator Matt Canada’s passing attack, haven’t we had this conversation before? We’ll believe LSU’s passing offense has improved when we see it.
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Miami: How do they replace QB Brad Kaaya?
Kaaya, Miami's QB for the past three seasons, never lived up to his billing as a guy who could potentially be a first-round NFL Draft pick. But his veteran presence helped steady the coaching transition when Mark Richt took over for Al Golden last season.
So with Kaaya off to the pros, who replaces his leadership both on and off the field? The most likely candidate is Malik Rosier, but former uber-recruit N’Kosi Perry should get a shot as well.
Whoever takes on the leadership role will be woefully short on experience: The five quarterbacks on the Canes' roster have one combined college start between them.
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Louisville: Protecting QB Lamar Jackson
You remember how last year ended for Louisville, right? After gaining major College Football Playoff traction early in the season, the Cardinals sputtered late, thanks to their inability to protect their Heisman-winning QB. Jackson was sacked 11 times in an embarrassing Thursday night loss to Houston, eight more times in a listless Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to LSU and 47 times overall last season (third worst in all of FBS football). With just two starters returning along the offensive line, it’s fair to ask if Jackson’s protection will be any better in 2017.
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Florida: Replacing defensive starters
The Gators' success in the last two seasons came from the strength of a loaded defense, where most of its key players were recruited by Will Muschamp. So after seven players from that defense were drafted by the NFL this spring, you have to wonder if their replacements will be as productive. If not, it could make for a long season for the Gators.
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Michigan: How do they replace basically their entire defense?
The fact that Michigan lost 18 starters off last year's team and will still enter the year ranked in the Top 20 is proof that Jim Harbaugh is a damn good football coach. But he has his work cut out for him this season after losing basically his entire defense (10 of 11 starters) off last year’s 10-win team.
There is plenty of talent in Ann Arbor, but it's insanely young. Sophomores Rashan Gary and Devin Bush Jr. will both have to step into leadership roles, while any number of players from last year’s Top 5 recruiting class could be called into action as true freshmen.
Asking Harbaugh to hit the 10-win total for a third straight season will be a lot to ask for.
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West Virginia: Replacing their center
On a field full of quarterbacks, skill-position playmakers and defensive stalwarts, how important can a center be? We’re about to find out, as West Virginia has to replace Tyler Orlosky, one of college football's best centers over the past few years. Orlosky, a three-year starter and two-time All-Big 12 selection, started the Mountaineers’ last 42 games.
Sure, there are questions on West Virginia’s defense, but this is a program which will always be defined by their offense. And there is no faster way to screw up an offense than if the quarterback and center aren’t on the same page.
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Kansas State: Inexperience at linebacker
It wasn't the best week for Bill Snyder, who put his foot in his mouth while dealing with Corey Sutton's transfer drama. But assuming that situation eventually comes to a resolution, the biggest question remaining comes at linebacker. The Wildcats have plenty of experience on offense, along the defensive line and in the defensive backfield, but the one issue is in the middle. K-State has no returning starters at linebacker and lost two of its top three tacklers (Elijah Lee, Charmeachealle Moore) from that position group. How they replace them could determine whether or not the Wildcats compete for a Big 12 title.
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Wisconsin: Can you really trust their quarterback?
The Badgers were one of college football’s most pleasant surprises last year, winning 10 games, the Big Ten West and the Cotton Bowl. And the scary part is that they did it without great quarterback play. Senior Bart Houston and freshman Alex Hornibrook split time and with Houston now departed, it’s Hornibrook’s team.
But can the Badgers – a loaded squad with experience – really reach their potential with a quarterback who completed only 58 percent of his passes last year and had a 9-7 touchdown to interception ratio?
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Georgia: Can you really trust Kirby Smart?
Kirby Smart’s first year in Athens was neither a rip-roaring success, nor a catastrophic failure. The Bulldogs went a respectable 8-5 (which included a surprise victory over rival Auburn) but lost to Vanderbilt and had way too many close calls against inferior teams. So was it a byproduct of a young coach getting his sea legs? Or a byproduct of the type of coach that Smart is? With a loaded roster that's favored to win the SEC East, we’re about to find out.
Stanford doesn’t have the toughest schedule in college football but it's pretty brutal, with more travel miles than just about anyone else in the sport.
David Shaw’s club opens in Australia against Rice, then will taken on the Trojans at USC just two weeks later. Stanford doesn't play a home game until the fifth week of the season, and six of their first nine games are on the road.
The last two years, the winner of the Big 12 has been decided in Bedlam, the annual matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. That will likely be the same case in 2017, and if the Pokes want any shot at a Big 12 title (and potentially a spot in the playoff) they’ll almost certainly need to get through their most hated rival, who they've failed to beat in four of the past five seasons.
Auburn: Their schedule
The team with the toughest schedule in 2017 probably belongs to Auburn. The Tigers play at defending national champion Clemson in Week 2 and have a brutal three-game road stretch in the heart of SEC play at LSU, at Arkansas and at Texas A&M.
On a positive note, Gus Malzahn’s club will end the season with three straight home games. However, two of those games are against Georgia and Alabama.
Oklahoma: The need to replace every weapon around Baker Mayfield
The Sooners are once again a trendy, way-too-early pick to make the playoff, thanks in large part to the return of quarterback Baker Mayfield. But he lost virtually every key piece around him, including a pair of 1,000+ yard rushers in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, plus Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook, who had 80 catches at wide receiver. In addition to the Sooners’ top running backs, their top three receivers have departed as well. Add it up and it leaves one excellent, fifth-year senior at quarterback -- and not a lot around him.
Calm down, Florida State fans, we’re not saying the Seminoles will lose to Alabama. But if they do, they would basically have to run the table the rest of the way to make the final four. That won’t be easy with an incredibly challenging schedule that includes road games against Clemson and Florida, plus home tilts with Louisville and Miami.
Washington: Replacing an NFL-caliber secondary
The Huskies' rise to college football power last year shocked many onlookers, but it was proven legit in April, when Chris Petersen’s club had four players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. The bad news is that three came out of their secondary, where cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones, in addition to safety Budda Baker, all went in the second round. That’s a lot of talent for Petersen and his defensive staff to replace. The one saving grace is the return of Taylor Rapp, a safety who actually led the team in interceptions last season with four.
Clemson: Replacing Deshaun Watson
It’s bad enough that Watson is the best quarterback Clemson has ever had, but there’s no obvious replacement on the roster. Junior-to-be Kelly Bryant was the presumed favorite, but he's only thrown 18 passes in his career and he failed to impress in spring practices. The same could be said about freshman super-recruit Hunter Johnson, who just arrived to campus this winter.
Penn State: The schedule isn’t as favorable this season
The Nittany Lions return virtually every key piece off last year’s Big Ten title squad, but they’ll have to go through a slightly more daunting schedule to repeat as conference champs.
Penn State plays Ohio State on the road this year, rather than at home, where they stunned the Buckeyes last season. And while Michigan comes to Happy Valley, that matchup will be far from easy. Yes, the Wolverines are young, but they’ve dominated Penn State since Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, going 2-0, which includes last year's 49-10 drubbing.
USC Trojans: Can they handle the hype?
The last time the Trojans entered a season with this much hype was back in 2012, when they were ranked the No. 1 team in the country. They went on to finish 7-6 and Lane Kiffin was fired just a few games into the following season.
So after starting off 1-3 last year and completley flying under the national radar while rolling off eight-straight wins on their way to the Rose Bowl, is USC ready to handle the hype of being one of the top teams in the country? Will the high expectations put too much pressure on the Trojans the same way it did for the 2012 squad? We're about to find out.
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Ohio State: Which J.T. Barrett will we get?
It wasn’t all that long ago that J.T. Barrett led the Buckeyes to a College Football Playoff berth and was in the Heisman conversation. But a lot has changed since 2014, including Barrett's completion percentage (which has dipped each of the last two seasons) and Ohio State's passing yardage (which ranked just 81st nationally in 2016). Not all of that can be blamed on Barrett, but he clearly isn’t the same quarterback that he was in his redshirt freshman season. And it doesn’t help that last year’s leading receiver Curtis Samuel is now in the pros. That could make for another long season for the Ohio State passing attack, a unit that needs to improve for the Buckeyes to reach their potential in 2017.
Alabama: Leadership on defense
Alabama had seven players from their top-ranked defense drafted to the NFL, which would be a blow to any college program. But when you take a closer look at who those players are, it makes it sting even more for the Tide Jonathan Allen was a four-year contributor and three-time All-SEC defensive lineman while Reuben Foster was the leader of the linebacker group. Strong safety Eddie Jackson also held a veteran leader role, even after his season was cut short thanks to injury.
While Alabama will have no problem replacing those players from a talent perspective, it will be interesting to see how they fill the void in peer leadership.