With the completion of spring football, we updated our 2017 top 25 with a new No. 1: Ohio State. As we get closer to the start of the season, here are the most pressing questions in each Power 5 conference.
Three burning questions for the ACC
- Will it be Florida State’s turn on the ACC championship seesaw?
Defending national champion Clemson and Florida State have combined to win each of the past six ACC championships. After the Seminoles won three in a row from 2012-14, the Tigers won each of the past two. But FSU seems poised to return to the top, especially with quarterback Deondre Francois coming back for his second season as a starter and the Tigers still searching for Deshaun Watson‘s replacement. Of course, FSU might have to survive a Nov. 11 trip to Clemson to win the ACC Atlantic.
- Is reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson the favorite again?
There has been only one two-time Heisman Trophy winner (Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974 and ’75), and for good reason. Jackson was sacked a whopping 46 times last season, and the Cardinals’ inability to protect him during a three-game losing streak really dampened what might have been a special season in 2016. Along with making changes along the offensive line, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino wants Jackson to play under center more and develop as a downfield passer.
- Is there a true challenger in the ACC Coastal?
It would probably have to be Miami, which will need departed quarterback Brad Kaaya‘s replacement to play very well this coming season. Hurricanes coach Mark Richt still hasn’t picked between Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs, but whoever wins the job will have some nice weapons around him. Defending Coastal champion Virginia Tech has to replace a boatload of skill players, including quarterback Jerod Evans and top receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. North Carolina is basically starting from scratch on offense after losing quarterback Mitch Trubisky and six other starters. When it’s all said and done, Georgia Tech might end up being the pick.
Three burning questions for the Big 12
- Is it Oklahoma State’s turn in the Bedlam Series?
On paper, at least, the Pokes might actually be the Big 12 favorite. They’re going to be every bit as explosive on offense as they were a year ago, especially because quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington decided to return to school. LSU transfer Tyron Johnson gives Rudolph another weapon on the perimeter, and then Mike Gundy addressed two of his team’s biggest areas of concern by adding Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker and Cal offensive tackle Aaron Cochran as graduate transfers. Oklahoma is still going to be very, very good, but the Sooners have to replace top rushers Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and star receiver Dede Westbrook. The Pokes host OU in Stillwater on Nov. 4.
- What should the expectations be at Texas in Tom Herman’s first year?
Former Texas coach Charlie Strong was criticized for a lot of things during his tenure in Austin, but he can’t be accused of leaving Herman a bare cupboard. The Longhorns are expected to bring back 18 starters on offense and defense, which is tied for second most in the FBS, and quarterback Shane Buechele and linebacker Malik Jefferson are two of them. UT still has to find departed running back D’Onta Foreman’s replacement and shore up its offensive line, but most of the pieces are in place for Herman to have success in Year 1, though title contention alongside the Cowboys and Sooners is asking too much.
- What should we expect from Baylor under Matt Rhule?
Rhule inherits an unenviable situation, but he’s tackled challenges before and turned Temple into a winner. He’s committed to transforming Baylor’s offense from a fast-paced, spread attack to a more physical pro-style system. The good news: Baylor has a great one-two punch at tailback in Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty. The bad news: The Bears had only seven scholarship offensive linemen available during spring practice, and seven freshmen linemen are coming this summer. Baylor fans will have to be patient as he rebuilds a depleted roster.
Three burning questions for the Big Ten
It might take a monumental upset by the Wolverines at the Big House on Nov. 25. The Buckeyes are bringing back quarterback J.T. Barrett and 14 other starters, although they will have to replace three starting defensive backs, each of whom was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Conversely, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh faces a monumental rebuilding job, with only five starters returning, which is fewest among 129 FBS teams. If Michigan falls to Ohio State for the sixth consecutive time, Harbaugh would become only the second Wolverines coach (with at least three seasons on the sideline) to start his tenure 0-3 against the Buckeyes. The other? Rich Rodriguez, whose teams went 0-3 from 2008-10.
- Will Penn State live up to the preseason hype?
After a 2-2 start in 2016, the Nittany Lions came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl. They’ll have the best backfield in the Big Ten this coming season with Heisman Trophy candidates Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley returning. They might not have as much depth on defense as Michigan and Ohio State, but coach James Franklin has slowly been building the talent on that side of the ball. The Big Ten East schedule flips, so Penn State will play at Ohio State and host Michigan, along with tricky non-division road contests at Iowa and Northwestern.
- Michigan State can’t be that bad again, right?
From 2013-15, the Spartans won 36 games, reached the College Football Playoff semifinals and played in two other New Year’s Six bowl games. That’s what made last season’s 3-9 collapse so stunning. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong, and the past offseason hasn’t been much better because of serious off-field allegations. But the Spartans should be more competitive on the field, especially with quarterback Brian Lewerke coming back from a broken leg. He completed 25 of 44 passes for 305 yards with one touchdown in the spring game.
Three burning questions for the Pac-12
- Does any other conference have better quarterbacks than the Pac-12?
No, and it’s not even close. As many as three Pac-12 quarterbacks — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk — might be picked in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, and Washington’s Jake Browning threw for 3,430 yards with 43 touchdowns while leading the Huskies to the College Football Playoff last season. Darnold might end up being the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Rosen is projected to be a top three pick if he bounces back from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the final six games last season. Whether UCLA can finally capitalize on his enormous talent remains to be seen. Bruins coach Jim Mora blew up his offensive coaching staff after last season’s 4-8 disaster. Former Michigan assistant Jedd Fisch was hired as offensive coordinator, and former Wolverines analyst Jimmie Dougherty is the new passing game coordinator.
- Can Oregon return to contention under Willie Taggart?
After last season’s 4-8 meltdown, the more appropriate question might be whether or not the Ducks can return to being competitive against the Pac-12’s better teams. Oregon’s defense needs a lot of work, which is why Taggart brought former USF coach and Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to Eugene. The Ducks allowed 41.4 points and 246 rushing yards per game last season, which were their worst marks since 1977. The best news from spring practice: quarterback Justin Herbert completed 16 of 22 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns.
- Can anyone unseat Washington in the Pac-12 North?
The Huskies probably have more returning talent than anyone outside of USC in the Pac-12, even after receiver John Ross, cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker turned pro and were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Stanford lost its two best players, running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas, and quarterback Keller Chryst still isn’t back from a torn ACL he suffered during the Sun Bowl. With Falk coming back, Washington State might be a sleeper in the division, if the Cougars can avoid early pitfalls.
Three burning questions for the SEC
- Can anyone in the SEC end Alabama’s reign?
The Crimson Tide are aiming for their fourth consecutive SEC championship, which would be the first time that’s happened since Florida won four in a row from 1993-96. Alabama was the only SEC team to win at least 10 games last season, but Auburn and LSU might be more difficult outs in the SEC West this coming season, especially if both teams get more consistent quarterback play. Sure, the Crimson Tide lost 10 players to the NFL draft, including seven defensive starters, but they’re still deeper and more talented than every other team in the league.
- Is this the year Georgia finally puts it together?
The Bulldogs went 8-5 in coach Kirby Smart’s first season, which maybe doesn’t seem as mediocre after only one UGA player was selected in the NFL draft. Georgia has most of its starters coming back, including tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, who opted to come back for their senior seasons. Georgia’s offense should be more explosive in quarterback Jacob Eason‘s second season as a starter, as long as the Bulldogs get better play up front. Georgia’s road schedule is pretty arduous with trips to Notre Dame, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Georgia Tech.
- Will quarterback play in the SEC be any better?
After the league endured a few seasons of pretty inconsistent quarterback play, things should start getting better in 2017. Eason is one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, along with South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson. The league’s four best quarterbacks — Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Arkansas’ Austin Allen, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald — might play in the SEC West. Stidham threw for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions at Baylor in 2015. He sat out this past season before transferring to Auburn this past winter.