The 2017 college football season is still taking shape. Major questions remain unresolved. Teams haven’t aligned into a clear, competitive hierarchy. Players off to slow starts have time to course correct, and those who burst out of the gates could crash back to Earth. Some coaches may yet save their jobs or make cases for better ones by scoring a few unexpected wins, while others could move onto the hot seat with an unanticipated downturn. There is still a lot to be determined between now and the postseason, but even so, it’s plain some expectations we carried into Week 1 were misguided.
With four weeks in the books, SI.com is evaluating 10 notable preseason storylines that missed the mark. These takes should be viewed less as definitive assessments than progress reports. Some of the preseason storylines may turn out to be at least partially on-point. They just look off right now.
Clemson will drop off after losing DeShaun Watson
No program had a more important piece to replace this offseason than the Tigers did in quarterback Deshaun Watson. For as well as Clemson has recruited at that position since Watson first arrived on campus as a five-star prospect in the class of 2014, there were no illusions about the enormity of the challenge of finding a guy to fill in for the best signal-caller in program history and one of the best in college football history. Junior Kelly Bryant held off true freshman Hunter Johnson in an offseason battle and, through four games, has kept the Tigers’ offense churning at high speed despite the losses of No. 1 wide receiver Mike Williams, leading rusher Wayne Gallman and first-team All-ACC tight end Jordan Leggett to the NFL draft.
Bryant was shaky in Saturday’s win over Boston College, tossing a pair of interceptions as the Eagles entered the fourth quarter tied with the Tigers, but he leaned on the running game, getting 113 yards and two touchdowns from dynamic true freshman Travis Etienne and adding two rushing TDs of his own, the second of which pushed Clemson out of danger in an eventual 34–7 win. At 4–0, Clemson looks like a prime candidate for its third consecutive College Football Playoff berth and a serious title repeat threat.
Lincoln Riley will struggle to adjust in his first year as a coach
The news that Bob Stoops was stepping down as Oklahoma’s coach after 18 seasons abruptly ended an early-June lull in the news cycle. Once the college football world finished taking stock of Stoops’s accomplishments and putting his career into context, its attention quickly turned to his replacement. Just 33 at the time of the announcement (he’s 34 now), Lincoln Riley, who’d served two years as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator, became the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. At a program that expects regular competition for conference and national championships, Riley wouldn’t get the brief honeymoon period often tolerated elsewhere in the FBS.
He hasn’t needed it. In the first real test of his young tenure, Riley guided the Sooners to a 31–16 win over then-No. 2 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 9, exacting revenge on a program that put Oklahoma in a 1–2 hole with a 45–24 victory last September. The triumph over the Buckeyes positioned Oklahoma at the forefront of the pack of squads who’ve made early cases for playoff berths, which is more than what you could say about the Sooners a year ago. They may be forging ahead with a rookie coach, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Josh Allen would solidify his status as an early first-round pick
Allen decided to return to Wyoming for his redshirt junior season, turning down a chance at an early-round pick in the 2017 draft. This season, he had two opportunities to show off his skill set against Power 5 defenses: at Iowa on in the season opener and against Oregon on Sept. 16. Allen failed to seize either chance to impress NFL scouts, completing half of his passes and throwing zero touchdowns against three interceptions. Including a loss to Nebraska in Lincoln last September, Allen has now thrown one touchdown and eight interceptions against Power 5 competition over his college career.
The former Reedley Community College (Calif.) transfer has the rest of 2017 to repair his draft stock, but his two games against defenses with the caliber of athlete most closely resembling what he’ll face in the NFL reflected poorly on his pro potential. Not having the Cowboys’ three top wide receivers and leading running back from last season certainly didn’t help Allen’s cause, and scouts will definitely take that into consideration when assessing those performances. Still, after underwhelming in his two highest-profile matchups, Allen seemingly has lost ground on the two other elite 2018 QB prospects, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold. For reference, SI.com pegged Allen as the No. 10 pick in our preseason mock.
Stanford’s rushing game will tail off without Christian McCaffrey
By the time McCaffrey was selected with the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft by the Carolina Panthers, he’d drawn more attention for his controversial decision to sit out Stanford’s 25–23 Sun Bowl win over North Carolina than what he did for the Cardinal before that. After breaking Barry Sanders’s all-purpose yardage record as a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey led the FBS in that statistic on a per-game basis as a junior, upping his yards per carry to 6.3 from 6.0. No player on any roster, let alone one at Stanford, seemed capable of matching that workload while maintaining a high level of efficiency. Now McCaffrey’s former backup is making a real run at it.
After going off for 164 total yards and two touchdowns in that victory over the Tar Heels, Bryce Love has made clear his qualifications as the feature back of a high-end rushing offense. Through four games, Love has carried 73 times for 787 yards, good for a 10.8 clip. No other FBS runner with more than 50 carries this season has registered a per-carry average higher than 8.3 (Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor, with 53 carries). Love also checks in third nationally in all-purpose yardage even though he doesn’t handle the Cardinal’s kick or punt return duties and has notched only five receiving yards. McCaffrey was a special talent, but Stanford may have another one in Love.
The SEC will close the gap on Alabama
Maybe we should just give up predicting when the Crimson Tide dynasty will draw to a close. This season has served as the latest indication that until coach Nick Saban decides to walk away, Alabama will continue setting the bar for the rest of the sport. Everyone else is just trying to keep up. That includes the SEC, which opened this season with a few candidates to inject some variety into the conference championship picture. Over the season’s opening month, most of them have disqualified themselves. LSU let Syracuse hang around into the fourth quarter of a 35–26 win on Saturday, a week after getting punked in a 37–7 loss at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs followed up their statement victory over the Tigers by failing to score a touchdown in a 31–3 hosing at the hands of Georgia. Florida is a couple of fortunate plays away from being 0–3 and is making do with a toothless offense deprived of a reliable quarterback, with its top wide receiver and running back serving indefinite suspensions. It’s too soon to write off Auburn, even after it allowed starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham to get sacked 11 times in a 14–6 loss to Clemson; we’ll see how the Tigers look come the Iron Bowl. And Georgia looks a cut above the rest of the East division, but it hasn’t shown enough to prove it’s ready to meet the Crimson Tide blow-for-blow in a hypothetical conference championship game matchup. Alabama is still operating on a different level than the rest of this conference.
Ohio State is the Big Ten’s best hope for the playoff
The Buckeyes were the only Big Ten program to receive first-place votes in either the preseason AP Top 25 or Coaches Polls. They brought back a ferocious defensive line, a veteran starting quarterback in J.T. Barrett and 15 total starters, according to Phil Steele. Getting to the final four wasn’t viewed as a layup for Ohio State, but in the eyes of media members, at least, they entered Week 1 a step ahead of Big Ten East peers Michigan and Penn State. With a fourth of the regular season in the books, the Buckeyes are playing catchup. A double-digit loss to Oklahoma at home on Sept. 9 simultaneously robbed Ohio State of its only opportunity for a marquee non-conference win and cracked, if not shattered, its buffer in the CFP picture should it suffer another defeat during conference play.
The Buckeyes could still make it into the field, just like they did after falling to Virginia Tech in September at home three years ago, but they’re no longer the clear-cut frontrunner to make it out of the Big Ten. Penn State deserves that title for now, after escaping Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with a two-point win over the same Iowa program that upended the East race a year ago with a home win over Michigan. Ohio State could derail the Nittany Lions’ playoff push by knocking them off at the Horseshoe on Oct. 28, but even if it manages that, the Buckeyes may need to take out the currently undefeated Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Thanksgiving weekend.
Florida’s quarterback situation will improve
The Gators did not begin the season with a no-doubt star ready to lead the first-team offense. Yet there was optimism that they’d get improved play at quarterback after finishing 11th and 12th in the SEC last season in passing yards per attempt and efficiency rating, respectively. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks was a former four-star recruit who’d shown promise during spring workouts, and he was pushed by former Notre Dame signal-caller Malik Zaire after the SEC changed a rule enabling his graduate transfer to Gainesville.
Neither QB has seized control of the top spot on the depth chart. Both Franks and Zaire got a turn at the wheel in the Gators’ Week 1 loss to Michigan, but they combined for a measly 181 yards and zero touchdowns. Franks played hero a couple of weeks later by heaving a 63-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland to beat Tennessee at the buzzer in The Swamp, but by the third quarter of Florida’s next game, a 28–27 win at Kentucky, coach Jim McElwain had benched Franks in favor of redshirt junior Luke Del Rio. On Monday McElwain named Del Rio the starter for the Gators’ matchup with Vanderbilt on Saturday. McElwain has proven he doesn’t need a future first-round pick under center to win the SEC East, but at this point, Florida’s best hope for a post-Tebow answer at quarterback might be highly touted 2018 commit Matt Corral.
South Florida is the clear favorite for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid
Charlie Strong found a good landing spot in Tampa after being fired by Texas last November. He had Florida ties, and he was taking over a South Florida program primed for big things. Senior quarterback Quinton Flowers gave Strong a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, and senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez was a tackle-stacking anchor capable of manning the middle of the field. The Bulls also had a manageable schedule, on which the lone Power 5 opponent, Illinois, remains in the throes of a rebuild under coach Lovie Smith. South Florida has taken advantage of that soft slate by going 4–0, and it may not be pushed until the season finale at Central Florida, but another Group of Five squad has supplanted it as the favorite to claim the automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl: San Diego State.
The Aztecs have already recorded two wins (at Arizona State and at home against Stanford) more significant than any the Bulls will notch this season, and running back Rashaad Penny, who operated in the shadow of FBS rushing record-holder Donnel Pumphrey the past three seasons, has usurped Flowers’s status as the Group of Five’s best bet for the Heisman. After surviving a tough road game against Air Force on Saturday, San Diego State has an 18.1% chance to run the table, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the highest figure for any team outside the Power 5. South Florida should not be counted out by any stretch, but in order to nab that coveted NY6 bid, it’s probably going to need the Aztecs to slip up at some point.
The Oklahoma schools will lord over the Big 12
It wasn’t just you: Sports Illustrated bought into the Sooner State hype, too, by ranking Oklahoma State fourth and Oklahoma sixth in our preseason top 25. The next highest-rated Big 12 school was Kansas State, at No. 19. Only one of those three teams, the Sooners, remains undefeated, while a different squad from the conference, TCU, has compiled one of the most robust résumés in the sport to date. Two weeks after stomping Arkansas in Fayetteville, the Horned Frogs disrupted the pyrotechnics show that is Oklahoma State’s offense, picking off Cowboys starting quarterback Mason Rudolph twice and running the ball 52 times to win the ball control battle 39:04 to 20:56 in a 44–31 decision at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday.
The Horned Frogs’ rushing duo of Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua demands extra defensive attention, which can open things up downfield for senior quarterback Kenny Hill, who has completed 72.6% of his passes and looks more comfortable this season than he did in his debut campaign. More importantly, TCU’s defense is showing signs of being in the same league as the units Gary Patterson molded while building the Horned Frogs into a mid-major powerhouse. TCU looks like it’s for real, and until further notice, it would be misguided to think of it as anything less than one of the Big 12’s top two outfits.
Michigan’s defense will regress
It was one of the most frequently uttered statistics of the offseason: The Wolverines were bringing back only one starter on defense. Michigan skeptics flagged the inexperience as a major weakness for a squad projected to compete at the top of arguably the Power 5’s most challenging division. That weakness has turned out to be a strong suit. Michigan leads the FBS in yards allowed per play at just 3.52 and has yielded only 13.5 points per game. Sure, the most potent offenses on the schedule are still ahead, including Penn State’s nitrous oxide-fueled attack that awaits the Wolverines on Oct. 21 in Happy Valley, but on Saturday they limited Purdue, which had averaged 35.7 points over its first three games, to only 10 points in an 18-point win at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush is a tone-setter who can track down ball carriers in space and detonate plays behind the line of scrimmage, while senior defensive end Chase Winovich leads the Big Ten with six sacks and eight tackles for loss. Michigan’s early defensive success is the product of astute talent evaluation, recruiting pull, player development and coordinator Don Brown’s tactical acumen. The Wolverines need to sort out their issues finishing drives, though their 3-for-3 showing in the red zone against the Boilermakers was a nice start. Early evidence suggests the defense won’t hold them back this season.