25 Things to Watch: Massive openers, dark horses, best returning players for 2017

College football long ago became a year-round sport.

There are always enough scandals, arrests, firings, rants and, uh, satellite camps to sustain us. I can trace this phenomenon to Dec. 26, 2009. Urban Meyer quit that day.

College football writers sitting around that day in a post-Christmas haze will never forget.

Twenty hours later, Meyer's resignation turned into a leave of absence and an eventual return to the Florida sidelines. That turned into a final season with the Gators.

And that was just one guy, one offseason story. From that point, it seemed like the calendar was always filled.

What sustains us during the offseason nonsense, always, is looking ahead. That's why we present the annual 25 Things to Watch list for the 2017 season.

You might have heard Meyer reinvented himself at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes are favored to win the Big Ten again. Nick Saban's rants have now become worthy of their own YouTube channel. There already is a website that tracks nothing but college football arrests.

So much for the offseason. Let's look ahead … 

1. The Joy of Six: Saban gets his second swing at his record-tying sixth national championship this season. You better believe a last-second loss to Clemson burns inside him like a cigarette put out on a naugahyde couch. Starting his 11th season in T-Town, the Alabama coach won his five titles over 11 college seasons (with a two-year NFL hiatus), beating one Bear Bryant (five in 18 years) as the quickest ever to that number.

It's hard to doubt Saban and the Tide will ascend to the top again this season. He returns the SEC's best offensive player (Jalen Hurts), has one of the deepest backfields in the country and isn't exactly rebuilding a defense that was called the best of the Saban era. A fully armed aircraft carrier moves on. Just don't ask the coach about being able to afford to lose because starting with the opener that just might be the case …

2. The best opener never: No. 1 vs. No. 3. Alabama vs. Florida State is befitting a shiny, new state-of-the-art facility named after a luxury car brand (Mercedes-Benz Stadium).

Championship pedigrees. Coaching greats. A cynic might say Florida State-Alabama has everything but … drama? It's entirely possible this game between two titans could be for CFP seeding. That's right. These teams are so loaded that a loss might not matter in the big picture. A close decision and good showing by the loser means it could easily win out and still get to the College Football Playoff in December.

It's ever OK to lose? Not only that, it's OK to lose before Labor Day.

3. The best opener ever: OK, I'll stop being a Debbie Downer.

Reasons to watch FSU-Alabama: A former Nick Saban assistant (in this case Jimbo Fisher) has never beaten him as a head coach. … If not for the last-second loss to Clemson, Alabama would be on a streak of 27 straight wins and consecutive national championships. … The game sports the second-most expensive ticket this season. … There will be seven first- or second-team CBS Sports Preseason All-Americans on the field. … Alabama has a chance to play in Atlanta three times this season (FSU, SEC Championship Game, CFP title game); Saban's career record in Atlanta: 13-1.

4. Clemson has arrived: The Tigers became a national power the moment Hunter Renfrow caught the winning touchdown pass with a second to go against Alabama. For now and until further notice, Clemson deserves annual top-10 mention along with the likes of Bama, Oklahoma, Southern California, etc. It took eight years of diligent roster building by Dabo Swinney to make it so.

The vivacious coach was attracting some of the best talent in the country before a life-changing $70 million football facility was built. The Tigers will take a step back this season but are going to be an annual factor in the national title race as long as Swinney is there.

5. ACC -- No. 1: In any discussion about best conference, it's not even close at the moment. The ACC has won two of the past four national championships and two of the past four Heisman Trophies. There is a depth of coaching not found in the SEC.

Miami's Mark Richt alone has more SEC titles than 13 of the 14 SEC coaches. The ACC routinely finishes second annually in NFL draftees. That's from a league that made its rep bouncing balls on Tobacco Road.

Clemson and Florida State have set the bar high, much like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten which, by the way, is the No. 2 conference. It's on you, SEC, to regain a crown that has been exclusively yours for the past decade.

6. Year of the Quarterback: The pickings were admittedly slim for the NFL in 2016. The top quarterback taken (North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky) started all of 13 career games.

This year, there is depth. Most of the best arms are on the West Coast, where Heisman favorite Sam Darnold will battle head-to-head with UCLA's Josh Rosen. Wyoming's Josh Allen might be better than most of them. Seven of the top 10 QBs in passer rating return. That doesn't include Washington State's Luke Falk, the game's leading returning passer.

7. The Age of Offense: Those quarterbacks have grown up as spread offenses have flourished. That might be the biggest reason scoring continues to rise at a record rate. Last year, the per-team average cracked 30 points (30.04) for the first time. Six of 10 FBS conferences and 58 teams averaged more than 30 points.

Within that revolution is balance and efficiency. It has been 20 years since teams ran and passed equally as well. The 51.8-yard average difference between passing and running is the lowest since 1998. Look for more of the same.

8. Fast Lane: Lane Kiffin begins his fourth head-coaching gig at the tender age of 42. Already, the former USC, Tennessee and Oakland Raiders coach has produced enough offseason copy to fill a newspaper. Remember those?

Kiffin is the perfect coach for the Instagram generation. It's always something and you have to look. That's a big reason why FAU hired him away from Alabama. Kiffin already is attracting players -- at his risk, in some cases -- who never would have given the Owls a second look.

The parties go into what looks like a short-term relationship with their eyes wide open. Kiffin wants to use Florida Atlantic as a springboard back to the Power Five. FAU wants to use Kiffin for a boost to relevance.

9. Chalk in 2017: This marks the 20th season of the championship game era. Curiously, only 18 teams have played for the national championship since 1998. Only 12 have won it.

What does that mean for 2017? Start by throwing a blanket over the top 10. Your four playoff participants are likely to come from that group. It's hard to get past Ohio State, Florida State and Alabama being something close to locks. That means the Big 12 and Pac-12 will battle it out for the final spot.

There is little reason to believe that exclusive club will gain members in 2017. Those 10 teams (based on the Coaches Poll) have accounted for eight of the past 13 national championships. No. 7 Washington (2016) and No. 8 Oklahoma (2015) have populated the past two CFPs.

No. 6 Penn State, Washington and Oklahoma are defending conference champs. Jim Harbaugh has won 20 games in his first two seasons at No. 9 Michigan. No. 10 Wisconsin has played for four of the six Big Ten titles since the conference championship game started in 2011. Bank it. That top 10 includes your CFP finalists.

10. OK, smart guy, how about some dark horses? Glad you asked.

  • Oklahoma State: The Big 12 champ (sez me) has the offense to score itself to an undefeated regular season.
  • Auburn: Not exactly a dark horse in the powerful SEC, but the Tigers are uncertainly underrated at No. 13. A new quarterback, new offensive coordinator and new outlook (Gus Malzahn has given up calling plays) have the Tigers on an uptick.
  • Kansas State: Never bet against Bill Snyder with an experienced quarterback (Jesse Ertz). Coming off a nine-win season, Snyder gets Oklahoma at home.
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Lamar Jackson would have to be extra special in 2017 to repeat. Getty Images

11. Heisman repeat? No. Let's get that out of the way. Lamar Jackson will not repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner. It's not that he can't, it's just that he won't. That's largely a function of the voters, who have the attention span of a kitten playing with a ball of string. They're looking for The Next Big Thing and unless Louisville's quarterback blows out last year's numbers (he won't), the best Jackson can hope for is another trip to New York.

One man's preseason Heisman ballot ...

  1. Sam Darnold, USC quarterback
  2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State running back
  3. Josh Allen, Wyoming quarterback

12. College Football Playoff prediction

  • Sugar Bowl semifinal: (1) Florida State vs. (4) USC
  • Rose Bowl semifinal: (2) Alabama vs. (3) Ohio State
  • CFP National Championship: (1) Florida State vs. (2) Alabama

13. Welcome back (coaches division): Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota coach who doctors told to give up the profession because of his constant seizures. There was too much stress. After spending a couple of years in administration at Kansas State, Kill returns to Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights' offensive coordinator. If there is ever a job that adds to stress, it's being the Rutgers OC.

Also: Butch Davis (FIU), Charlie Strong (South Florida), Jeff Tedford (Fresno State)

14. Welcome back (players division): These are the nation's statistical leading returning players …

  • Rushing: Kamryn Pettway, Auburn -- 1,224 yards
  • Passing: Luke Falk, Washington State -- 4,468 yards
  • Receiving: Richie James, Middle Tennessee -- 1,625 yards
  • Tackles: Bryan London, Texas State -- 141
  • Interceptions: Tavarius McFadden, Florida State -- eight
  • Punt returning: Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh -- 15.8 yards per return, TD
  • Kickoff returning: Kylen Towner, Western Kentucky – 40.3 yards per return
  • Total offense: Lamar Jackson, Louisville -- 393.4 yards per game

15. MVP (Most Versatile Player): It has been 53 years since two-platoon football returned to the college game. It has been one amazing offseason for Iowa State's Joel Lanning. The Cyclones' starting quarterback has been converted into a linebacker. Coach Matt Campbell thought the athletic Lanning could be an asset on defense after losing his job to Georgia transfer Jacob Park.

Lanning had a pick six in the spring game, and at 6-feet-2, 230 pounds, he has the body type to turn into a defender. Not exactly a Chuck Bednarik, Lanning has proved himself sort of a football Gumby -- flexible. He's one grad transfer who decided to stay despite a position change. If he's good enough, "the NFL will find him," one draft analyst said. 

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Joel Lanning lost his quarterback job but might have found a better one. USATSI

16. Acceptance, tolerance and moving on: The season will begin with two known gay players and that's simply not a big deal anymore. Arizona signed Tempe High product My-King Johnson. Kansas State's Scott Frantz came out this summer. Thankfully, those sorts of revelations are becoming less and less newsworthy.

Frantz perhaps summed up the world's changing perceptions when he recounted the moment he came out to his teammates. "I've never felt so loved and so accepted in my life," he said. We are 3 1/2 years removed from Michael Sam and are inching closer to the day when this sort of news is no big deal.

17. Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes: The nation's top prep quarterback looks like he should be in Nickelback or a body double for Shaggy in "Scooby Doo." But when he throws? Ruh-roh.

The Clemson commit from Cartersville, Georgia, is the No. 1 high school prospect in the country. Lawrence has a hose for an arm, which suggests what Dabo has going on at Clemson isn't going to slide. The Tigers might have a slide in their new ostentatious facility, but they aren't slipping back.

There is open talk of Lawrence being the best high school quarterback in years -- many years. Think of a harder-throwing, more accurate Deshaun Watson without the electric wheels. Good luck flipping that, rival recruiters.

18. Turnover: This might have been a record for the coaching silly season. The turnover in new coaches spanned 23 in 298 days. That would be from LSU's Les Miles and FIU's Ron Turner getting canned on Sept. 25 to Hugh Freeze getting The Big Haircut on July 20.

Actually, 23 is not even close to being a record, and the turnover certainly produced some storylines. Lincoln Riley might be the most unique hire in history at Oklahoma. The dervish that is P.J. Fleck landed in Minnesota. And Ole Miss' search for a permanent coach will be a topic throughout the season.

19. Netflix series or Ole Miss situation: Staying with that thought … If there were such a thing, the Ole Miss investigation would already have earned an Emmy for Best Original Drama. New and different twists from the ongoing NCAA case seem to sprout almost daily from Oxford. With the school's infractions hearing coming up on Sept. 11, that almost assures Ole Miss will get its NCAA sentence in the middle of the season.

In the interest of the offseason's dominant storyline, we offer these five titles asking if they are Netflix titles or perfect ways to describe Ole Miss football at the moment.

  1. "House of Cards"
  2. "Stranger Things"
  3. "Last Chance U"
  4. "Walking Dead"
  5. "Pretty Little Liars"

20. NCAA hot seat: Both North Carolina and Ole Miss are due to have their infractions cases decided in the middle of the season. Two bold predictions on how they might end up.

North Carolina (football only): One-year postseason ban, a loss of 15 scholarships over three seasons, vacating wins, existing players allowed to transfer without penalty  

Ole Miss: One-year additional postseason ban (two total), a loss of 25 scholarships over three seasons, severe recruiting restrictions, a multimillion-dollar fine, vacating wins, multiple boosters disassociated, show cause order and carryover suspension against former coach Hugh Freeze, existing players allowed to transfer without penalty

21. The hot seat: One of the offshoots of the rising salaries and soaring budgets is expectations. The pressure to win has never been higher. That brings us to the annual Hot Seat Rankings, which haven't changed since we posted them in July. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly are still at the top.

22. What to make of the Big 12? Once again, we'll probably know about the Big 12's playoff chances by the end of September after Oklahoma travels to Ohio State, Oklahoma State heads to Pittsburgh and Texas goes to USC. These are face-saving or elimination games when it comes to the CFP.

The first league to miss the playoff twice can't afford to be the first league to miss the playoff three times. Can it? The Large Dozen (with only 10 teams) is banking on its new/old championship game to provide that all-important 13th data point.

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Can Mason Rudolph lead Oklahoma State -- and the Big 12 -- to the CFP? USATSI

23. Dome Doubt: All is not well in South Bend. Kelly is on record criticizing the administration. Both coordinators were changed. The Irish themselves are coming off their second-worst record since 1963. With a quarterback drafted in the second round, ND only went 4-8. What are the prospects for this year? Better, but the Irish will have to win 10 games to even get considered for a New Year's Six bowl.

24. All-Name Team

Offense
QB: Giovanni Rescigno, Rutgers
WR: Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame; Tshumbi Johnson, Valdosta State
RB: Doroland Dorceus, Memphis; Squally Canada, BYU
OL: Layth Friekh, Arizona; Messiah Rice, East Carolina; Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn; Bunchy Stallings, Kentucky; Gewhite Stallworth, Louisiana Tech
TE: C'yontai Lewis, Florida

Defense
DL: Sharif Finch, Temple; Dee Liner, Arkansas State; Folorunso Fatukasi, UConn; Walvenski Aime, Florida State
LB: Jaboree Williams, Wake Forest; Benning Potoa'e, Washington: Cassh Maluia, Wyoming  
DB: Zykiesis Cannon, Louisville; Divine Deablo, Virginia Tech; Priest Willis, Texas A&M; Afolabi Laguda, Colorado

Special teams
K: Alex Trifonovitch, Hawaii
P: Rylee Critcher, Appalachian State

25. Separation Anxiety: The gap between the game's haves and have-nots has never been wider -- financially, physically and perceptively.

  • The Big Ten and SEC have their own networks.
  • Only four of Florida Atlantic's games will be televised -- three of them on a little-seen cable channel owned by Al Jazeera.
  • Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh alone will make a combined $20 million this year.
  • That's $13 million more than the combined salaries of all the MAC coaches in 2016.
  • The SEC has won eight of the past 11 national championships.
  • Sun Belt teams have won eight of the past 142 meetings against the SEC.

Never mind making money, Group of Five schools are struggling to stay relevant in advance of the next round of conference realignment. The Power Five need the Group of Five (MAC, Mountain West, American, Conference USA, Sun Belt), if for no other reason than as nonconference punching bags. Group of Five presidents need that FBS label for branding, enrollment, even attracting top-shelf professors.

A disparate relationship continues. 

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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