As we look ahead to the 2019-20 college football season, these are the players that will capture our attention and the coaches and trends that will shape the game.
The College Football Playoff still looms, as well as a slate of bowl games sponsored by everything from edible starches to aerospace technology—but by mid-December, it can seem like the college football season has been tied up in a neat little bow. The eventual champion has been narrowed down to one of four teams, coaches have been fired and hired, honors have been doled out. The 2018 season is a past-tense event now, and accordingly, it’s also a predictor of what looms in the game, from the players who seem poised to capture our attention in 2019 to the coaches who will shape the game and the trends that will anger/excite/frustrate/confuse fans and critics alike.
Every season, it seems, calls for playoff expansion get a little louder—and whether you agree or disagree with an eight-team model, it’s hard to deny that all signs point toward that conversation becoming more and more dominant in 2019. Consider this: Alabama will likely win its second consecutive title come January. Next fall, the game’s best teams look poised to remain the game’s best teams: The Tide will get Tua Tagovailoa back and will reload across the rest of the roster. Clemson will lose its silly-talented d-line, but with Trevor Lawrence under center and a deep stable of defenders, it’ll be in the conversation again, as will Notre Dame, and Michigan, and Ohio State, and LSU. Maybe Oklahoma will fall off a bit without a Heisman-winning quarterback (more on that later), but really, there’s no reason to believe the status quo won’t persist, and that a four-team playoff field might not feature a single team that hasn’t been among the final four in the past. That’ll only add to the clamor, and at some point, the CFP seems likely to begin making concrete, if slow, steps toward expansion.
The Pac-12 as odd man out
This is almost a corollary to the expanded-field argument; in 2019, the Pac-12 doesn’t look anywhere close to poised to snapping its streak of two straight seasons without a playoff berth. It hasn’t gotten a team in since 2016, when Washington was the No. 4 seed, and of all the Power 5 conferences, its two bids in the CFP’s five years is the fewest. That kind of drought, if it persists in 2019, will be a major driver both for playoff change and for change in the Pac-12 itself, which also faces lower payouts per school than teams in the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 from its TV contract. Late kickoff times are also a stumbling block for the country’s farthest-west conference, which has to work harder than any other to stoke a national fan base. Finding a fix for its playoff drought will be crucial going forward.
Oklahoma’s coach is, at the end of 2018, both two years and two Heisman winners deep into his tenure as the Sooner’s headman. (Oh, he also has two playoff berths on his resume in that span.) Riley may be the most fascinating coach in the game, both in terms of what he’s achieved in Norman behind Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and due to questions, which should increase, about if and when he’ll jump to the next level. Just imagine if Murray decides to hold off or give up baseball and instead quarterback in the NFL. Imagine if his career starts going the way Mayfield’s has this fall—that is to say, well. Riley’s system prepares his players for the next level, and he’s proven he can have wild success with two quarterbacks who possess hugely different skill sets. His offenses at Oklahoma have been as productive as they are efficient, the Air Raid scheme that forms the basis of his philosophy has gained traction in the NFL in recent years. Riley’s name will continue to be linked to open pro jobs, and it’ll be fascinating to see how long he stays at Oklahoma (two more decades seems as likely as two more years), as well as what he can do with quarterbacks to come.
Quarterbacks win Heismans, defense wins championships
Since 2010, one running back has won the Heisman Trophy: Derrick Henry in 2015. The rest of the recipients have been quarterbacks, and it’s been more than 20 years since the last defensive player took home the game’s most coveted individual trophy. That skew toward offense won’t change anytime soon, but consider this: Since 2014, the playoff’s first season, a playoff-bound quarterback has won the award. There was Marcus Mariota at Oregon in 2014, Mayfield last year and Murray this year. Both Mariota and Mayfield’s teams lost in the playoff, though, and Murray’s must get through Alabama to glimpse the title game. And it’s not that Nick Saban doesn’t have a great quarterback himself—Tagovailoa was a Heisman finalist—but rather that championships in the playoff era aren’t won because of offensive prowess. Every year, it’s been defense that’s claimed the title, and that’s going to persist—which begs the question of if teams like Oklahoma, West Virginia and other offensive juggernauts might start slightly tweaking their rosters to build toward that reality.
Day is about to embark on a journey at Ohio State that will look similar to Riley’s at Oklahoma. Once the Buckeyes finish the Rose Bowl, Urban Meyer will retire, and his 39-year-old offensive coordinator will take over. Like Riley, Day has spent a few seasons with the team he's about to inherit, but he’s not entrenched in its history and system—which means he isn’t necessarily tied to its faults. Day will inherit a talented roster (one that’ll be significantly easier to win with should quarterback Dwayne Haskins stick around) with defensive issues that need to be remedied, and he has all the pieces to keep on winning. But he’s also not Meyer, who’s the third-winningest coach in the history of the game; bemoan his unconscionable proclivity toward looking the other way off the field all you want, but this is a coach who can define a program. Ohio State will face and adjustment under Day, and next fall, he’ll be the most fascinating new coach to watch, under one of the sport’s brightest spotlights. How he shapes Ohio State in this new era will have a bigger ripple effect in the Big Ten and among college football’s power structure of contenders—and if he succeeds the way Riley has early, that model of promoting a young hotshot coordinator might catch on even more than it has.
Rising assistant-coach salaries
Part of the aforementioned model working involves paying those young guys to stay—and paying all sought-after assistants and coordinators to stick around, whether or not they’re being groomed to take over. According to USA Today, only five assistants in the country were making $1 million or more annually five years ago; now, there are at least 21—and that number looks poised to keep growing. It makes sense, too; some schools have the talent and hiring appeal to go through a rotating cast of coordinators (look no further than Alabama), but eventually, that carousel can catch up with even the best of them. Wisconsin, for instance, has seen three defensive coordinators over the past four seasons, and this year, the unit took a major hit. Rather than letting the best coordinators and position coaches go, then, some schools have taken to simply paying them to stay—and many coaches would just as soon take a pay bump and stay put, rather than deal with the added stresses that come with the prestige of a head coaching job. As this trend continues, it’ll alter the hiring process, perhaps pooling the most talented coaches among the top tier of teams—or maybe, this trend will be an opening for young coaches from different background to get a toehold in the industry.
Of the three Heisman finalists this month, Tagovailoa might be the only one who will return to college next fall—and he’ll be the Heisman favorite from day one of the 2019 season, which Alabama will more than likely start out ranked No. 1. The Crimson Tide quarterback will be the player to watch next fall, with another year of development behind him and just as much talent around him. This season, he led the best offense of Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa, and it’s thrilling to imagine what he could do with even more reps behind him in 2019.
The four-game redshirt
Often, college football’s rule changes take a minute to settle into the reality of the game, and in the second season of the new redshirt rule, by which players can play up to four games and still not lose a year of eligibility, teams and players will start using it to their advantage even more. The Kelly Bryant model will become even more popular among quarterbacks who lose jobs, allowing talent to move even more freely and helping teams bridge gaps, as Missouri will when Bryant is immediately eligible next fall. The rule will also lead to more situations like the one at Florida State this fall, where coaches of struggling teams will sit players—quarterbacks and others, for that matter—once it’s midseason, they realize they’re completely out of it, and talent up and down the roster still have a redshirt available. It’ll be frustrating to fans, but it also might lead to more pronounced turnarounds, heightening how bad a team looks one year before it plays with its full arsenal in the next.
The Nick Bosa effect
Midseason, Ohio State’s star defensive lineman announced he was leaving school to prepare for the NFL draft, due to the core injury that had sidelined him since September. There was a lot to unpack, but the gist was this: Bosa might have been ready to play a late-season game or two for the Buckeyes, but it would have been a stretch, and instead of rehabbing and training with that goal in mind, it made sense for him to work toward a different deadline: to get ready for the draft. Bosa’s father has always been a shrewd manager of his sons’ transition from college to the NFL, and the family correctly assessed this situation. In a sport that isn’t paying Bosa, why potentially cut corners rehabbing to return when the end goal is an NFL contract—and full health? If Bosa is a top pick in April, which he should be, players will take notice, and it’s easy to imagine other top talents could handle injuries in the same way going forward.