What Could Go Wrong? Exploring the Biggest Assumptions of the 2019 CFB Season
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
The offseason has provided months of coverage for the 2019 college football campaign. Analysts have shared predictions of national and conference champions, breakout players, disappointing teams, top freshmen and a host of other topics.
Despite those who most definitely, absolutely hate your team—spoiler: they really do not—the research is overwhelmingly genuine. Everyone is trying to get these predictions right.
But where will we be wrong?
That's not a what-if question either. Although many analysts will crush a few categories, they're always going to make a few—sometimes glaring—miscalculations. Even outside of uncontrollable variables (injuries and suspensions), expectations will go unmet, and surprise results will alter the narratives shaped this offseason.
The proper place to start is a familiar one.
Alabama and Clemson Will Play for the Title
Both programs own +230 odds, according to Caesars. The next closest teams are Georgia (+700), Oklahoma (+800) and Ohio State (+1000), and there's a considerable gap between Michigan (+1200) and the rest of the field.
The Crimson Tide's Tua Tagovailoa and the Tigers' Trevor Lawrence are returning to lead the powerhouses, which have met in four straight editions of the College Football Playoff, including three championship games. Recent success combined with excellent coaching and recruiting has granted both programs a huge benefit of the doubt. Besides, they boast multiple elite weapons around star quarterbacks.
However, they're not immune to some retooling.
Alabama had 10 players drafted and has new coordinators on both sides of the ball (on offense, a returning Steve Sarkisian; on defense, a promoted Pete Golding). The kicking game is, as usual, an uncertainty.
Clemson must replace eight key defenders, as well as two starters on the offensive line.
Plus, Alabama has to navigate the SEC West—the nation's toughest division—with a home date against LSU and trips to Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. Clemson's early back-to-back of Texas A&M and at Syracuse could be tricky if those programs match their own preseason expectations.
In fairness, the Tide and Tigers have one-loss margins for error. Clemson is less likely to fall twice, but a pair of losses for either program opens the door for serious intrigue.
Georgia and LSU appear to be best positioned to capitalize on any Alabama lapse, mostly thanks to experience at quarterback and the defense.
But the senior must prove he won't return to a one-read-and-run tendency that plagued him at Alabama. If he does, Texas may capitalize.
Junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger and a star-studded secondary provide a sturdy foundation, but the hype will be tested immediately. The Longhorns' overhauled front seven must be ready for a marquee showdown at home against LSU in Week 2. Otherwise, one Big 12 loss would silence the "Texas is back" declarations.
All Good in the Midwest
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is hoping to prove its return to the nation's elite wasn't a one-year surge. Breakout quarterback Ian Book and a senior-heavy defense are the main appeals for a team that reached the CFP last season.
Unlike 2018, though, the Irish have a perilous slate, including trips to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. Additionally, seven of Notre Dame's other nine opponents have an open weekend preceding their matchup.
On the bright side, ND has a bye before going to Michigan.
By no means is patience running out, yet Jim Harbaugh enters his fifth year as head coach with a 2-6 record against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. The string of disappointing regular-season finishes led Harbaugh to hire Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator. The former Alabama assistant will revamp and modernize the scoring attack. This is finally the year the Wolverines can dethrone Ohio State!
Yes, the level of optimism is high.
"I love coach Gattis' offense; I love the way it works," senior lineman Ben Bredeson said, per Aaron McMann of MLive.com. "I love the way you can get playmakers the ball at any given play, no matter what's called. I'm fully on board with this, and I think I speak for the entire O-line and offense when I say we're all behind him."
Nevertheless, the Wolverines have questions to answer at both running back and receiver. Given that Shea Patterson only has two established targets in Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, expecting the offense to seamlessly adapt is brazen.
Florida Ready to Compete in SEC East
Patterson's development will have a comparable impact to that of Feleipe Franks at Florida, which is feeling confident after smashing Michigan in the Peach Bowl to finish 10-3. He made enormous progress from 2017-18 under head coach Dan Mullen, and most of the skill-position personnel remains intact for the Gators.
The offensive line, however, is a potential headache. Mullen basically admitted as much before fall camp.
Florida lost four longtime starters up front, and an aggressive Miami Hurricanes defense could make for a nasty opening matchup.
And with Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and South Carolina on the schedule by mid-October, the Gators have little time to waste. Mullen is a master at scheming around a weakness, but that's still a big ask, especially if injuries hit the offensive line.
Power-Five Teams Aiming to Match the Hype
Each of the above schools landed in the top 10 of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, and they have serious issues to address. The questions only get more complicated for everyone else, though.
Texas A&M's schedule is brutal. Washington's defense is reloading. Penn State and Auburn have new quarterbacks, and whoever wins those competitions will have fewer than 10 career pass attempts combined at this level. Utah has never won more than 10 games as a member of the Pac-12.
Oregon has a star QB in Justin Herbert and a veteran offensive line but an unproven group of wideouts. That's not a painless problem to overcome. Nebraska is eager for a second year of Scott Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez, but the defense was terrible, allowing 433.5 yards and 31.3 points per game, and graduated six key contributors. How much will offensive improvement atone for that unit?
Any preseason poll is mostly a reflection of how the individual or group believes teams will sufficiently live up to the assumptions created this offseason. Perhaps a decent majority of them end up correct and the consensus opinion looks pretty good.
College football, however, never goes entirely according to plan. We see what could go wrong in 2019. Now, are we bold enough to predict where it actually will?
The truth, though, is both quarterbacks have regularly struggled against top competition. Jake Fromm is 6-5 against opponents that ended a year ranked and has posted an uninspiring 7.3 yards per attempt in those contests. Joe Burrow mustered a 2-3 record in such games last season, averaging just seven yards per throw.
Both players had terrific late-season games—Fromm against Alabama and Burrow opposite UCF—but the larger sample is problematic. They need to reverse the trend in 2019.
New QBs, No Problem for Ohio State, Oklahoma
Despite the teams replacing a Heisman Trophy finalist, most everyone expects Ohio State and Oklahoma to have sensational offenses.
Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts transferred to the Buckeyes and Sooners this offseason, respectively, and are emerging from the pseudo-competitions. Fields was the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 cycle, while Hurts offers 28 career starts along with his heroics in last season's SEC Championship Game.
Still, major questions follow both.
Fields has a coveted dual-threat toolbox yet limited meaningful experience. Perhaps a relatively soft September schedule will offer him a chance to learn and adjust, but Ohio State finishes against Penn State and at Michigan, which will be no easy task.
Hurts will be the beneficiary of the Lincoln Riley System Boost™. The coach has helped two straight Heisman winners (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray), and expectations aren't much lower for Hurts.