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Sure, the 2018 season is officially in the books and Clemson is celebrating its second championship in three years, but college football never really ends.
After the final whistle in Santa Clara, California, it was already only a matter of weeks until several programs head into spring practice. Every coaching staff is getting ready for the traditional national signing day on the first Wednesday of February, too.
The offseason is hardly that.
We’re looking ahead to the coming months, a time that will include transfers, an increase in pressure on certain coaches and a whole bunch of hype for potential breakout teams.
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Ohio State Enters Post-Urban Meyer Era
Although the finality of his decision has been met with skepticism, Urban Meyer chose to retire as Ohio State head coach after the 2018 campaign.
He’s handing Ryan Day, formerly the offensive coordinator, the keys to a thriving program. Ohio State finished 13-1 with a Big Ten crown and Rose Bowl victory in 2018, and Meyer posted an 83-9 record during his seven years in Columbus.
The Buckeyes are built to compete for national championships without him. That burden of expectation now falls on Day.
New Faces, Familiar Places
Mack Brown is best known for winning a national championship at Texas, but he spent 10 years with North Carolina immediately before his UT tenure. And now, Mack is back at UNC.
Dana Holgorsen’s rise through the ranks included a two-year stop at Houston as the offensive coordinator. Following an eight-year stint at West Virginia, he’s decided to return to H-Town.
Manny Diaz spent three seasons as Miami’s defensive coordinator and accepted his first head coaching opportunity at Temple in December. Within three weeks, however, Mark Richt retired, and Diaz headed back as the boss.
Additionally, former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is embarking on his third stint at Maryland. He was in College Park from 1997-2002 and 2012-2015 as an assistant.
Familiar Faces, New Places
While the coaches above have a connection to those schools, two former SEC bosses jumped at the chance to be the head man again. And you wouldn’t have expected the places.
Les Miles, who led LSU to 112 victories from 2005-16, has taken over a floundering Kansas program and is hoping to rebuild it.
Jim McElwain’s tenure at Florida ended poorly, but one year assisting Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan led to a head coaching gig. McElwain has assumed control at Central Michigan.
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This Really is the New Normal
Two years ago, the first Wednesday of February was still the most important date of the recruiting calendar. Only then could non-early enrolling high schoolers sign a national letter of intent.
But things have changed dramatically.
The introduction of the early signing period in December has reshaped recruiting. Prospects send in paperwork then to officially end the process―or, in some cases, protect their spot. Coaches want to have their classes finalized before the year ends, too.
As a result, a majority of players are signed. While some top talents remain, the number is substantially lower than before 2018.
5-Stars Up for Grabs
Alabama is pursuing both talents―shocker!―while LSU is a key contender for Sopsher. Wright has a more extensive list with North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee in the running, too.
No, there won’t be as much national drama, but that won’t take away from the excitement of landing a player of their caliber.
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Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Shortly before the title game, the dual-threat quarterback officially decided to leave Georgia and picked Ohio State as his new home.
Transfers typically need to sit out a full season, but a rare circumstance will give Fields a decent case in a fight for immediate eligibility. He was the target of racial slurs from a fellow UGA athlete, a baseball player who was dismissed from the team.
As with Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson last year, Fields may transfer and be ready to play in his first season on campus.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Where will he land?
Hurts graduated from Alabama in December, so he can transfer freely. After sitting behind Tua Tagovailoa (when healthy) all season, the two-year starter is expected to leave Tuscaloosa.
Dozens of teams should be interested in the rising senior, including Oklahoma―the team Alabama defeated in the College Football Playoff. Hurts didn’t have much time in the spotlight as a junior, but he should return to a starting lineup in 2019.
Kelly Bryant, QB, Missouri
If Hurts bolts, that means two starting quarterbacks from the College Football Playoff in the 2017 season will have transferred.
Kelly Bryant opened 2018 as Clemson’s starter, but he lost the role to star freshman Trevor Lawrence. Bryant decided to leave the team, wisely protecting his redshirt and final season of eligibility.
Several power-conference teams expressed interest in Bryant, and he eventually settled on Missouri. The dual-threat quarterback is the favorite to replace Drew Lock, a potential first- or second-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
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Austin Kendall, QB, Oklahoma
Hey, kid! Have fun replacing the Heisman Trophy winner who replaced a Heisman Trophy winner.
Well, maybe. If he stays, Kendall must beat out incoming 5-star Spencer Rattler. That’s no sure thing, considering Kendall only has 39 career pass attempts.
Plus, he’s graduated and entered the transfer database. Kendall might not leave, but let’s say Rattler thrives in winter workouts and spring practice. Kendall could transfer and wouldn’t need to sit out. Either way, he could be a starter somewhere in 2019.
Tate Martell, QB, Ohio State
It’s not certain, but he’s probably gone. Once considered the heir to Dwayne Haskins, Martell entered his name in the transfer database after Fields transferred to OSU.
Martell served as the backup to Haskins in 2018, ending his redshirt freshman year 23-of-28 for 269 yards and a touchdown. Martell added 128 yards and two scores on the ground.
West Virginia and Miami are among the early candidates to land Martell, per Jeremy Birmingham of Lettermen Row. There won’t be a shortage of interest, though.
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Austin Bryant used up his eligibility, and the NFL is beckoning Clelin Ferrell. Clemson will revamp its defensive front in 2019, and Thomas should quickly emerge as the star.
Midway through the season, Dabo Swinney said Thomas was “taking off like a rocket ship,” per Tony Crumpton of TigerNet.
The No. 3 overall prospect in the 2018 class, he stepped into the Tigers’ rotation as a true freshman. Thomas gathered 35 tackles with 10.5 stops for loss and three sacks.
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Clay Helton, USC
2018 was always a rebuilding year for USC. Expectations were relatively low, though an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game seemed possible because the South Division was mediocre.
But missing a bowl? Oh, there are some people in Los Angeles who are quite unhappy with Helton.
Entering his fourth year, Helton brought in Kliff Kingsbury to coordinate the offense. Provided he doesn’t leap to an NFL job―and that’s possible―Kingbury’s system and quarterback coaching will be hugely beneficial to USC’s scoring attack.
Should he leave, though, the pressure on Helton to put together a bounce-back year will only increase after his best solution departs.
Chris Ash, Rutgers
The program has spent five seasons as a member of the Big Ten. During that time, Rutgers has never registered a winning record in conference play and is 7-36 overall against Big Ten foes.
And the “why” is simple: Rutgers can’t score.
In 2018, the Scarlet Knights trudged to 13.5 points per game―the lowest mark in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. They ranked 121st last season and 127th in 2016, Ash’s first year.
Ash likely has one final opportunity in 2019 to show Rutgers is becoming a competent football program, or he’s gone.
Randy Edsall, UConn
Speaking of competence, let’s aim for that, UConn.
The Huskies ended 2018 with historically bad numbers on defense. They surrendered 617.4 yards per game―the most in college football history―and 50.4 points. The 605 total points allowed surpassed the previous record by 33 points.
Yes, UConn played a bunch of freshmen. Perhaps that experience plus an offseason of development will bring major improvement. But if it doesn’t, Edsall won’t last through 2019.
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After the Sugar Bowl, Sam Ehlinger said it. He really said it.
“Longhorn nation: We’re baaa-aaack.”
The quarterback capped his sophomore year with a 28-21 triumph over Georgia, giving Texas its first 10-win season in nine seasons. The Longhorns also reached the Big 12 Championship Game, positioning itself on the national radar despite falling short to Oklahoma.
Revamping the defense will be pivotal to Texas matching its inevitable hype, but Tom Herman has recruited extremely well for two years. And Ehlinger certainly won’t lack confidence.
Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher’s first season at Texas A&M ended with a 9-4 record, highlighted by victories over ranked Kentucky and LSU. While the Aggies left a win or two on the table, it was a strong year.
And entering 2019, they’ll be a popular top-15 choice.
Texas A&M brings back four starters on the offensive line in front of quarterback Kellen Mond, plus every top wide receiver. Throw in a potential top-three recruiting class, and Fisher has inspired a whole bunch of excitement in College Station.
Similar to Texas, the Aggies have several key departures on defense, as well as running back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jace Sternberger. Withstand those, however, and Texas A&M will be a threat.
The return of Justin Herbert solidifies Oregon’s place in the national championship discussion this summer.
All five offensive linemen will return with running backs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye, who combined for 2,141 yards from scrimmage as freshmen. Once again, this offense will score―provided it can replace Herbert’s most important target.
No player other than Dillon Mitchell managed more than 500 receiving yards, and he’s headed to the NFL. Though development is never guaranteed, the Ducks have a clear succession plan.
A season-opening showdown with Auburn and late September trip to Stanford will shape Oregon’s level of success.
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In 2017, Auburn found itself an SEC Championship Game victory from likely reaching the College Football Playoff. This past season, the Tigers were hardly even in the conversation.
While lumbering to an 8-5 record, Auburn posted the lowest yards per carry (4.25) of Gus Malzahn’s tenure. Second-year starter Jarrett Stidham couldn’t atone for those struggles, and now he’s chasing the NFL rather than returning for his senior season.
And it won’t be any easier in 2019. In addition to annual games with the SEC West and Georgia, the Tigers will encounter Florida and Oregon. Malzahn’s job security may be tenuous.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Trace McSorley wrapped up his career with more than 10,000 yards of total offense and accounted for 107 touchdowns. Penn State won 31 games and a Big Ten championship with him at quarterback.
Now, he’s gone.
On the bright side, the replacement isn’t a complete question. Tommy Stevens has waited patiently for his opportunity, taking some snaps and also contributing at receiver. He’ll be in a competition with Sean Clifford to replace McSorley.
The projections will be simple: Believe in the quarterback, Penn State will be fine. Have doubts, and the Lions will regress.
Not only does Missouri return a healthy majority of its production, the schedule sets up quite nicely in 2019.
The nonconference slate is manageable, especially because West Virginia travels to Columbia. Then in SEC action, the Tigers will avoid Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M in crossover play. SEC schedules can hardly be more favorable.
But it always depends on the quarterback. Bryant thrived in 2017 when surrounded by outstanding talent and coaching. Will he duplicate that performance in a new environment?
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3. Fake Fair Catch Fools Arkansas
By the time the regular season ended, you might’ve forgotten about this play. After all, North Texas routed Arkansas 44-17.
During the first quarter, North Texas held a 7-0 lead. Keegan Brewer caught a punt at his own 10-yard line, hopped a couple times as if he’d fair-caught the kick and watched the Arkansas coverage unit head toward the sideline.
2. Jalen Hurts Leads the SEC Title Comeback
After leading Alabama to the national title game as a true freshman and sophomore, Hurts watched most of 2018 from the sideline. He gathered nearly 1,000 yards of total offense, but that was mostly because Alabama kept wrecking everyone.
However, the one time Hurts played meaningful snaps, it was the Crimson Tide’s most critical moment of the season to date.
During the SEC Championship Game, an ankle injury sidelined Tua Tagovailoa while Bama trailed 28-21. Hurts stepped in and guided two straight touchdown drives to give the Tide a thrilling win.
1. Trevor Lawrence Shreds Alabama Defense
Round 4 of the Alabama/Clemson postseason rivalry was the most lopsided game of them all.
Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman, racked up 347 yards and four touchdowns during the 44-16 beatdown in the national championship. Clemson won its second national title in three years.
By no means is Alabama dropping off the national radar, but the blowout signaled Clemson’s arrival as college football’s preeminent force. That’s also in no small part to one simple, eye-popping fact: Lawrence still has two more years.