18 Things to Watch in 2018: Storylines, controversies kicking off the college football season

Somebody, please just snap a football.

It seems like a relentless wave of controversy, scandal, even death, followed us at every turn in the offseason.

Now it's finally time to play -- and speculate. Pencil in Alabama and Clemson already? Is the game's best player a defender? Does the Pac-12 have a chance?

College football needs to start celebrating itself after this troubling offseason. The sport is one year short of turning 150. Believe me, you'll read, hear and watch enough about that leading up to Nov. 6, 2019.

For now, here are 18 things you need to keep an eye on ahead the 2018 season.

1. A relentless Tide: History awaits. Nick Saban goes for a record-breaking seventh national championship -- his sixth at Alabama -- this season. Seven would separate him from Bear Bryant for most titles won. A lot of us think Saban has achieved his own orbit already.

We are most likely living through the greatest dynasty of all-time. The SEC has never been better. Recruiting has never been more cutthroat. Saban has redefined strategy, work ethic and the game itself.

He deftly handled the transfer of quarterback Jalen Hurts that never happened. Somehow, a junior with a national championship ring and 26-2 record as a starter may end up being the backup this season. The assumption is that Alabama gets stronger if Tua Tagovailoa snags the job. 

The Crimson Tide were the last team to grab a spot in the College Football Playoff and won only after trusting the championship game to Tua, a true freshman, at halftime. If that's backsliding, everyone would love to experience that type of weakness.

Alabama is the favorite again this year, but there is a familiar challenger on the horizon …

2. Clemson, too (or is it "two?"): Maybe the discussion shouldn't be about Alabama but a Clemson team chasing its second title in three years. Dabo Swinney has Clemson at one of the peaks in its history. This season, the Tigers could become the first ACC team to win four straight outright conference titles. The defensive line is historic. The quarterback depth is excellent. It will be an upset if Clemson and Alabama don't meet for a third straight season in the CFP.

3. Choke hold: OK, assuming the Tide and Tigers are in, Cinderella's dress is in tatters. That's another way of saying the list of championship contenders is a small one. There's a group of 8-10 teams that can realistically win it all. Start with four from the Big Ten: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Continue with the SEC: Alabama, Auburn and Georgia. Add Clemson, and you've probably read this year's Football Four already in this paragraph.

4. So who makes it to the CFP then? The winners will meet Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California.

  • Orange Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Wisconsin
  • Cotton Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Georgia

5. Urban Meyer's legacy: Right now, it is damaged. One of the greatest coaches of this era was suspended last week in a moral and ethical crisis that won't go away anytime soon. Any summary of Meyer's career now has to include the assertion Ohio State's coach overlooked an alleged domestic abuser in the name of winning games.

For a legion of Bucknuts, Meyer's three-game suspension is too much. For others, it will define who he is as a man and coach.  Questions about the veracity of the investigation will continue to linger, but if history is an indicator, football at Ohio State has always been bigger than the Ohio State football coach. Regardless of the fallout, the Buckeyes will keep winning. Big.

6. Player safety: Two investigations are active at Maryland determining the circumstances surrounding Jordan McNair's death. The school has taken responsibility for his passing. That's a start. An ESPN report detailed a "toxic culture" of training within the Maryland program.

It points to a larger issue in college football. The sport continues to put too much value in punitive training measures over a performance-based approach. The mentality goes back to the no-water days of Vince Lombardi and beyond.

It must end. Since 2000, almost 30 college football players have died. The overwhelming majority of them were in T-shirts and shorts -- practicing football, not playing, when they were stricken. Football has a problem with player safety. More must be done than what looks like the likely firing of Maryland coach DJ Durkin.

7. Betting on a new era: College administrators are freaking about the new era of sports gambling. They don't quite know how to deal with one of their 21-year-old athletes legally placing a bet on a game but getting suspended for breaking NCAA rules. A handful of states will have sportsbooks open in time for the season. The concern is whether legal sports gambling makes it more or less likely that funny stuff (game-fixing, point-shaving) will be going on.

8. Herm Edwards: I'm through asking, "Why?" I'm ready to say, "Why not?" … when it comes to Arizona State's Grand Experiment. Everything else has failed in Tempe, so why not take a chance on a 63-year-old former TV analyst who has never been a college head coach.

9. After Baker: Quarterback Kyler Murray was surprisingly taken in the top 10 of the MLB Draft in June. The Oakland A's are allowing him play a final year of football before Murray (supposedly) goes full-time to baseball. Possibly dumb for the A's if Murray blows out a knee. Great for the Sooners and Murray, who gets the best of both worlds. No pressure, kid. Murray is replacing the Heisman Trophy winner and expected to help win a fourth consecutive Big 12 title while leading the Sooners to another playoff berth.

10. The Tom Mars Effect: Add the name of the Arkansas attorney to the list of the most influential figures in college football. The former director of Arkansas State Police and Wal-Mart general counsel has become one of the smartest people in the room wielding power behind the scenes.

Start with the Houston Nutt lawsuit that led to the  resignation of Hugh Freeze last year at Ole Miss. That, in turn, led to transfer waiver requests by six Ole Miss players handled by Mars. All of them have earned their immediate eligibility for 2018.

Lately, Texas A&M is under NCAA scrutiny because of Santino Marchiol's transfer appeal led by Mars. If Michigan wins the Big Ten, Mars deserves a slice of the trophy. His dogged appeal on behalf of Shea Patterson led to Jim Harbaugh getting the difference-making quarterback he never had at Michigan. Mars has at once become an athlete advocate, watchdog and power broker.

11. The SEC is back on top: With two teams in the title game last year and a number of new coaches joining the league, the SEC has regained its standing in the conference power rankings.

  1. SEC: Six deep, at least. 
  2. Big Ten: The East might be the toughest division in the game.
  3. Big 12: Oklahoma is favored again. West Virginia or TCU is No. 2. Is Texas back?
  4. ACC: Clemson is boat-racing the league. Hard to believe the Tigers play one currently-ranked team (Oct. 27, No. 19 Florida State)
  5. Pac-12: The league went 1-8 in bowl games. Get back in the playoff, and we'll talk. 

12. First coach to get fired: Kansas' David Beaty is 3-33 in three seasons. He has a new athletic director in Jeff Long, formerly at Arkansas. If the Jayhawks win two this season, it would be considered improvement. If not during the season, shortly thereafter it seems Beaty will be let go. Here are the candidates.

13. Most successful new coach: With apologies to Chip Kelly (UCLA) and Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M), it has to be Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State in 2018. Moorhead has been gifted 16 starters. For nine years under Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs have played "up." That should continue under Moorhead, who gets to work his offensive magic with Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback. Mullen will get a shot at this title, too, taking over at Florida.

14. Most likely to be shown to the hot seat: How many European capitals will Michigan visit before Jim Harbaugh beats Ohio State? OK, that's another way of saying that it's put up or shut up time for Harbaugh. Michigan's coach has his best team in his in his fourth season in Ann Arbor. There is a quarterback (Patterson), a stout defense and expectations out the wazoo.

Harbaugh can stage all the overseas spring practices he wants (Italy and France have been conquered so far). It's getting noticeable he is 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State. Oh, and there is that trip to blood rival Notre Dame this week to kick off the season. (And for the record, Harbs, London, Munich, Geneva and Oslo are still out there for you.)

15. God bless Bill Snyder: Kansas State's forever coach will turn 79 in October. That's just the beginning for the man who fashioned the Manhattan Miracle. The game's oldest coach recently received a contract extension that will take him to age 83 in 2022. That would make him the oldest coach in college football since one Joe Paterno was fired at age 84 in 2011. Snyder still hopes to have input in naming his eventual replacement -- special teams coach and son Sean Snyder.

16. Repairing Tennessee's rep, psyche and program: After a protracted, ugly process, Jeremy Pruitt finally replaced Butch Jones in Knoxville. In between, Tennessee football made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The school could have produced a training film for how not to conduct a coaching search.

Athletic director Phillip Fulmer finally hired a coach in his image. Pruitt will the run the ball and play defense. How quickly he does both those things well will determine if Tennessee has changed coaches or actually changed directions.

17. Best player in the country vs. Heisman winner: The best player is Will Grier. West Virginia's quarterback has all the weapons to throw at least 40 touchdowns this season. His best receivers are back. His defense is sub-par. The combination means Grier and the Mountaineers will have to outscore everyone. Stanford's Bryce Love has to be the Heisman favorite. On a healthy ankle, Love will rush for 2,000 yards and become the school's second Heisman winner.

Remember, there frequently is a difference between the best player and Heisman winner. Voters usually put candidates in a box: They must be skill players on a 10-win team (or better) who do something dramatic in November. There is definitely that difference this season.

18. The Group of Five playoff hope: Remember the Broncos? Boise State should be the Group of Five champion that gets the automatic New Year's Six berth (Fiesta or Peach Bowl this year). But given their reputation -- one of the original BCS busters -- can the Broncos snag a playoff berth? Yeah, it's a longshot. As far as schedule strength goes, their only Power Five opponent is Oklahoma State.

In coach Bryan Harsin's fifth year, Boise seems loaded enough to make an undefeated run similar to UCF. And we know what happened to the Knights. The NCAA just recognized their 2017 national championship claim.

Gosh, will Bama have to "share" the natty again?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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