- We've finally arrived at the opening month of the college football season, but before we get to Week 1, there are still position battles to settle, schemes to install and, most importantly, storylines to stoke.
Here we are, at the start of our final preseason before there are incoming freshman born in the new millennium. Welcome. They’re getting younger, but you’re also getting older. As fall camps begin in earnest this week, there’s almost too much news to follow among the 129 FBS programs, so we are here to distill it down for you. Before the standout performances, before the injuries, before Jim McElwain finally tells us who his quarterback will be (more on that later), here’s what to watch this week and for the rest of August, with the promise of real, meaningful college football waiting at the end of the month.
Let’s start out west, where it’ll be interesting to see how USC redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold handles his first camp since becoming college football’s anointed one under center. Coming off a Rose Bowl performance in which he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns, Darnold attempted just six passes in the Trojans’ spring game—before signing autographs for an hour, according to the Los Angeles Times. USC will be a top-five team to open the season, and that’s in large part due to Darnold, who will face stiff competition from the start. USC opens against Western Michigan, which would have been a scarier proposition had P.J. Fleck not departed for Minnesota, and then faces Stanford and Texas.
Other quarterbacks to keep an eye on this August are reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, back for what will likely be his final season at Louisville, and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who was essentially last year’s Darnold. The preseason hype proved a bit premature for Rosen: He played in just six games before missing the rest of the season due to injury, and UCLA went 2–4 with him on the field. But he’s healthy and perhaps (unfortunately for us) a bit less outspoken than he was this time a year ago. Maybe 2017 will give us a better look at what we all missed a year ago.
Down south, Florida begins the most interesting quarterback competition of fall camp, between Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, 2016 starter Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. Zaire only arrived on campus in Gainesville this summer, so these will be his first reps going up against Del Rio, who’s coming off a shoulder injury, and Franks.
How Bama uses Bo Scarbrough
In addition to being a headliner on my All-Misspelled Team (I contend his last name needs an extra “o”), the Alabama running back chewed up college football at the end of the 2016 season. Over the Crimson Tide’s final four games—the Iron Bowl, the SEC Championship Game and both rounds of the College Football Playoff—he amassed 454 yards and six touchdowns, but he wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher last season. That nod went to Damien Harris, who also returns this fall, but if Scarbrough can be the guy he was at the end of last year, he should earn top billing in the Bama backfield and may even get some Heisman attention.
Minnesota gets Flecked
Keep an eye on the news out of the Twin Cities this August, as Fleck is never not a headline. The Gophers’ first-year coach was famous for his upbeat antics at Western Michigan, and on a bigger stage, they should be even more entertaining. Plus, he’s, you know, pretty good at coaching football.
LSU’s life after Les
As always, the Tigers will be ranked entering Week 1, but this year there’s an added measure of uncertainty at the first fall camp without Les Miles since 2004. The presence of beloved new head coach Ed Orgeron won’t be enough to separate the Tigers from the pack, but this roster certainly has the talent to be a top-10 team. Standout defensive end Arden Key won’t be ready for the start of camp as he recovers from shoulder surgery, but the offense’s engine will be: Running back Derrius Guice, who got plenty of work a year ago as Leonard Fournette dealt with injuries. If Orgeron and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can straighten out LSU’s erratic offensive production, the Tigers may well be in the playoff conversation.
Nebraska’s new defense
The Cornhuskers went 6–7 in coach Mike Riley’s first year in Lincoln, but last fall, they looked to be back on track amid a nine-win campaign. This year, Nebraska will implement new coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3–4 defense, the same scheme that lifted Notre Dame to the No. 7 defense in the country in 2012. Diaco was a hot commodity on the coaching free agent market this winter after getting fired at Connecticut, and Riley deemed his team’s defensive performance in its 38–24 Music City Bowl loss to Tennessee unacceptable. It was a convenient off-season marriage, but now the work begins shifting the Huskers’ personnel into this new system. We should get a good idea of how the transition is going in Week 2, when Nebraska travels to Oregon.
Lincoln Riley takes charge in Norman
This camp will mark Oklahoma’s first with a new head coach since 1999. To put that in perspective, incoming freshman Justin Broiles, a four-star cornerback, was just 11 months old when Bob Stoops opened his first fall camp in Norman. Riley is the youngest head coach in the country, an offensive mastermind who ran the Sooners’ attack in its last two high-flying seasons. He plans to call plays despite his new duties, and it’ll be interesting to see how the team adjusts to a new face in charge, even if it’s a familiar one.
This fall marks the beginning of Liberty University’s transition from FCS to FBS ball, and though the Flames aren’t going to be making the College Football Playoff anytime soon, they may pop up on your team’s schedule going forward, especially once they become an FBS Independent in 2018. For now, you’ll catch them in Week 1 against Baylor, where they will likely be pulverized. Coastal Carolina begins its second season of transition before joining the Sun Belt in ’18, and it’ll do so without coach Joe Moglia, who on Friday announced he is taking a season-long medical leave of absence. Also, bid farewell to Idaho, which will move down to the FCS ranks next year despite going 9–4 in 2016.