As the summer months bring the news cycle to a slow churn, college football fans get a chance to breathe and reset our brains for the upcoming season.
With less than two months until media days begin and only 100 days until Aug. 26 -- when Stanford, South Florida, BYU and more take the field for the first Saturday of the season -- here are 100 items that should fire you up for the unpredictable madness to come this fall.
1. How Alabama looks getting off the mat: Nick Saban's undefeated record in national championship games was mentioned no less than a thousand times in Tampa, Florida, when title game predictions were being offered in the days leading up to Alabama-Clemson II. Even at halftime, while the Bo Scarbrough-powered rushing attack was moving without resistance, the discussion wasn't if the Tide would win, but the potential impact of them running away with a victory. Until Clemson made its move, Mike Williams made those catches and Deshaun Watson dropped that pass into Hunter Renfrow's hands, there had not been a reality where Nick Saban loses title games.
The heavyweight champion of college football got knocked to the mat, and now we get to see what's next.
Of course, what's next looks a lot like what was: a potentially transcendent talent in Jalen Hurts under center -- learning on the job while winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year -- and the most gifted roster in the country. The glory of The Process is while you and I have college football segmented into leather-bound books in our brain's library, the goals never change at Alabama.
What's next is another team expected to win the SEC and compete for the national championship in the College Football Playoff. The Tide lost in a dramatic way, but they'll be the preseason No. 1 and the most popular playoff pick until a new reality where someone else in the SEC can take their place.
2. Razor-thin margin for error at USC: When Southern California is good, it's declared "good for college football." The Trojans have a brand that's culturally significant to the sport's past and present and after a decade of NCAA sanctions and dramatic coaching changes, the narrative around Clay Helton has quickly been written as the coach that has led USC back to the top. With a Rose Bowl win and loaded roster coming back for 2017, it's hard to argue with that assertion, but the harder challenge might come in delivering on the national title expectations that haven't been placed on the program in a few years.
The last time USC went into the season with a high preseason ranking and a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback was 2012, when the Trojans' season ended with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. The nine-game Pac-12 schedule is unforgiving, and USC's early-season battle against Stanford seems to always set the stage for the title race. Last year, Helton was able to rally from a 1-3 start as the Trojans finished in the top five for the first time since 2008. This year, 1-3 would a huge disappointment for college football fans enjoying the look of USC back on top of the sport.
3. A shift in the ACC, but no change in expectations: Two coach-quarterback combinations have totally changed the ACC's reputation as a league that produce national champions. Jameis Winston and Jimbo Fisher gave way to Deshaun Watson and Dabo Swinney. In 2017, while there's no apparent alliterative successor, expectations are to have anywhere from two to four teams competing for top national recognition. That's what comes with winning the title twice in four seasons, and as Clemson reloads on offense, it is expected to stay right there at the top of the ACC with one of the best defensive lines in the country.
The natural expectation is that Florida State, loaded with top talent and quarterback Deondre Francois back for his sophomore season, will take the top spot back, but that ignores the chance that Louisville rallies around Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in the second coming of a breakthrough year for Bobby Petrino with the Cardinals. None of these teams has the best interest of the league's reputation in mind during the grind of the regular season, but there's a chance these teams all beat each other up, leaving the ACC in danger of missing the College Football Playoff for the first time. In the first CFP year without Jameis or Deshaun, the ACC needs a superstar to keep its streak going.
4. High-pressure seasons for well-paid coaches: There was a huge investment in coaching in the SEC West right as conference expansion exploded and new media rights deals were being inked. Three years of the coaching carousel (2011-13) resulted in changes at more than half of the division's schools, and at the start of 2016 every coach in the SEC West was making at least $4 million per season while one coach, Saban, seems to be doing all the winning. Auburn's Gus Malzahn is the only coach to win the SEC West besides Saban in the current division lineup, while Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Arkansas' Bret Bielema continue to work toward their stated goal from that introductory press conference that was now four or five years ago.
5. A new era in analysis for the College Football Playoff: We're learning as we go when it comes to the CFP era, and based on what we've seen from the three years of its existence, it seems like the sport's most powerful decision-makers are as well. Once we got past "game control" and the idea of a "good loss," some sense could be taken from the idea that conference championships matter and the playoff race begins with play-in competitions in each of the five power conferences.
Five power conference champions produce four playoff participants. Easy enough, right?
Well, as you know, Ohio State and Penn State helped shred that supposedly shared understanding. Now, all the rules are broken and we're back to the "four best teams" doctrine that leaves as much wiggle room as college football needs to stage the most competitive event possible come New Year's Day.
But even in this post-champion world, I think we can better simplify the 2017 race as such:
- SEC champion
- Big Ten champion
- USC or ACC champion or Big 12 champion
- ACC champion or Big 12 champion or non-USC Pac-12 champion
There we go. Now we just have to play the games and fill in the blanks.
Odds via Vegas Insider
Simple group here: SEC favorite, Big Ten favorite, ACC favorite, Pac-12 favorite, Big 12 favorite, and only two teams that can knock Ohio State from its perch in the Big Ten (even if winning on the field isn't enough to take their playoff spot).
The next tier/sleepers
This to me represents the second tier of contenders. The common thread between these teams is that we can count on at least one important aspect. For Clemson, it's the defensive line. For Louisville and Washington, the quarterback play. For Auburn, moving the dang ball.
Who says Miami can't win the Coastal, get to the ACC Championship Game and knock off Florida State in a second meeting of the season? (Except, you know, they've never done it before.) Oklahoma State doesn't seem as far behind Oklahoma as the odds suggest, though I would certainly consider it and Texas has the best chance to knock off the Sooners and steal a playoff spot. As for Stanford, that bet lies with Bryce Love emerging as one of the nation's top backs now that he'll have Christian McCaffrey's reps.
The new faces in new places
22. Matt Rhule, Baylor
23. Justin Wilcox, Cal
24. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
25. Randy Edsall, UConn -- technically an old face in a familiar place, but you know
26. Lane Kiffin, FAU
27. Butch Davis, Florida International
28. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
29. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State
30. Major Applewhite, Houston
31. Tom Allen, Indiana
32. Ed Orgeron, LSU
33. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
34. Jay Norvell, Nevada
35. Willie Taggart, Oregon
36. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
37. Brent Brennan, San Jose State
38. Charlie Strong, South Florida
39. Geoff Collins, Temple
40. Tom Herman, Texas
41. Mike Sanford, Western Kentucky
42. Tim Lester, Western Michigan
The Heisman favorites
43. Sam Darnold, USC, QB (15/2)
44. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, QB (15/2)
45. Lamar Jackson, Louisville, QB (15/2)
46. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State, QB (9/1)
47. Jake Browning, Washington, QB (12/1)
48. Deondre Francois, Florida State, QB (14/1)
49. Jalen Hurts, Alabama, QB (15/1)
50. Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB (15/1)
51. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State QB (16/1)
52. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama, RB (18/1)
53. Derrius Guice, LSU, RB (18/1)
Summer Heisman odds, per usual, are top-heavy with returning starting quarterbacks. Darnold, Browning and Jackson, last year's Heisman winner, were set to return already, but Mayfield and Barrett have crowded the race with the decision to return for another year and chase a title. Francois and Hurts will face off in the first game of the season, each with Heisman futures that are tied directly to team success, while a Rudolph or Barkley could stage a Heisman run with statistical greatness.
Here's the real catch with summer Heisman odds: Try and predict how each favorite will "lose" the Heisman. The will of the Heisman voters seems to follow the trail of the Heisman Trophy "race." It's like a game of musical chairs with the best players in college football, and the week-in, week-out expectations for the players at the top of your local Heismanology far exceed what's reasonable. Each of these players has a chance to slide into one of the two doors that seem to be giving us Heisman winners: the best player on a title contender or a statistically dominant player from a Power Five bowl team.
54. Josh Allen, Wyoming, QB: The top quarterback on NFL Draft boards rarely comes from the Mountain West. Allen and his teammates will have a rare spotlight this season, and given the steps Craig Bohl has taken with the Cowboys, it seems like they're ready.
55. Antonio Callaway, Florida, WR: It can be frustrating seeing stat lines that don't match athletic ability, but Callaway could help his pro prospects with a productive year on offense and in the return game.
56. Nick Chubb, Georgia, RB: Before a gruesome injury at Tennessee in 2015, Chubb was one of the top running backs in the SEC and the nation. His breakout as a freshman carried over into his sophomore year during a school-record streak of 13 straight 100-yard games. His decision to return for another year leaves the window open for Georgia fans to see him recapture that dominance.
57. Luke Falk, Washington State, QB: With more than 8,700 yards in the past two years and 10,624 yards in his career, Falk has the chance to finish in the top five of the all-time passing list with another productive season.
58. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State, QB: He's not Dak Prescott, but Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs are running run-pass option schemes like they had with the former quarterback under center. Fitzgerald is going to put up some big numbers this season, if he can stay healthy, as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
59. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, DB: Jersey in the House! Fitzpatrick is this year's Eddie Jackson, a next-level athlete in the defensive backfield that probably should be suiting up on Sundays but just happens to being playing on Saturdays for Alabama.
60. Quinton Flowers, South Florida, QB: The trigger-man in an offense that led the Bulls to 10 wins is back, and even if Taggart has been traded out for Strong, you have to expect another highlight-packed year from the Miami native.
61. Rashan Gary, Michigan, DT: This is the year Gary takes the step from National Signing Day storyline to established college football star.
62. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama, DB: You won't find a harder hitter in the SEC than Harrison, who I'm guessing will lead Alabama defenders in forced fumbles this year.
63. Derwin James, Florida State, DB: As we mentioned earlier, Florida State's defense is going to be nasty. A finally healthy James might not end up with crazy stats as opposing offenses choose to avoid his side of the field, but like Jalen Ramsey before him, he'll be cut loose to make plays all over the field. Just wait for the biggest moments in the game, and I bet you'll find James near the ball if it's not already in his hands.
64. Malik Jefferson, Texas, LB: A regular contributor since he was a freshman, Jefferson is a pro talent with a chance to be a superstar in the Big 12 this season. If Texas is going to have a resurgent year with Tom Herman, Jefferson and the Longhorns defense are going to be a huge part of that.
65. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama WR: Calvin Ridley (66) and Robert Foster (67) will demand a lot of attention from opposing secondaries, which makes it seem like a special rookie season is in the making for Jeudy, the MVP of Alabama's spring game.
68. Arden Key, LSU, DE: If Key returns, as LSU expects, then the Tigers' defense will receive an automatic boost of speed, strength, ferocity and production that totally changes the math for opponents.
69. Harold Landry, Boston College LB: Great range, terrific pass-rushing skills and a shock that we get to watch him cook for another year. Landry is an All-American level talent that could have been a first-round NFL Draft pick this year.
70. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson, DL: Lawrence only got more comfortable as the season progressed, and by the time he got to Tampa for the title game, he was talking like a sophomore. Lawrence crafts his game around his surreal combination of size, speed and strength, and with more time to study, there are big expectations in 2017.
71. Iman Marshall, USC, DB: While Adoree' Jackson had Olympic-caliber track ability and made a splash with his special teams play, it's possible that Biggie Marshall was the best cornerback on the roster last season. A former five-star recruit, Marshall is going to have everyone knowing his name this season.
72. Trace McSorely, Penn State, QB: If you're looking for a way long-shot Heisman pick, McSorely isn't a bad option. His improvement across last season suggests the kind of success that will have him among the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. With another Big Ten title and a playoff appearance, McSorley would have a good argument for an invite to New York.
73. Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State, DB: The Seminoles' defensive backfield was often overlooked after losing James to injury and getting shredded by Jackson, but McFadden emerged in James' absence as a top playmaker with eight interceptions.
74. Ed Oliver, Houston, DL: Possibly the best defensive player in all of college football. Oliver has committed himself to new coach Major Applewhite's mission and should see no drop in production as one of the nation's leaders in tackles for loss.
75. Josh Rosen, UCLA, QB: Jim Mora shut down Rosen's sophomore season for health reasons, likely keeping his potential pro career in mind. NFL scouts will be locked in on UCLA, but will the CFP selection committee? That depends on Rosen.
76. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn, QB: When Gus Malzahn has strong and consistent quarterback play, Auburn is at a level to compete for SEC championships. The hope is that Stidham can be Nick Marshall, but after recent results, just a full season of health without turnover issues might be enough to take Auburn to the next level.
77. James Washington, Oklahoma State WR: There hasn't been an Oklahoma State wide receiver since Justin Blackmon to enter the year with as much excitement as we've seen for Washington's 2017 after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
78. Mike Weber, Ohio State, RB: A lot was put on Weber's shoulders last season as a freshman, and though he proved to be capable, another year of work in the offense with Barrett should bring good results for Ohio State.
79. Christian Wilkins, Clemson, DL: Wilkins, like Lawrence, was thrown into the fire early and responded well. He's one year ahead and now in his get-money year, eligible for the NFL Draft in 2018.
The games we can't wait to see
80. Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2)
81. Florida vs. Michigan (Sept. 2)
82. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
83. Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
84. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)
85. Stanford at USC (Sept. 9)
86. Miami at Florida State (Sept. 16)
87. Texas at USC (Sept. 16)
88. LSU at Florida (Oct. 7)
89. Auburn at LSU (Oct. 14)
90. Michigan at Penn State (Oct. 21)
91. Louisville at Florida State (Oct. 21)
92. Florida vs. Georgia (Oct. 28)
93. Penn State at Ohio State (Oct. 28)
94. LSU at Alabama (Nov. 4)
95. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (Nov. 4)
96. Washington at Stanford (Nov. 10)
97. Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 11)
98. Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 25)
99. Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 25)
100. Army-Navy (Dec. 9)