It’s finally August, which means the NFL no longer has a monopoly on the football news cycle. Fall camp starts this week for many of college football’s best teams, and with the first practice, the shouting gets louder—which premature Top 25 list is right, who will win Team X’s quarterback battle and why Coordinator Y’s new scheme will change everything.
Unplug your ears for a second, though. Even though many of the questions facing college football’s top teams will take weeks or even months of the regular season to resolve as depth charts solidify and systems work out their kinks, fall camp should provide answers to at least a few of the questions that have built up over the long offseason. Here are a few topics you can expect to see some clarity on in August, maybe even well before Week 1 kicks off.
Who will win USC’s wide-open quarterback battle?
Once J.T. Daniels reclassified to the Trojans’ 2018 class, the battle to replace Sam Darnold looked as if it had been upended—if not tilted in the direction of the 18-year-old true freshman. But that isn’t the case yet, not officially. Going into camp, Clay Helton’s team will see a handful of quarterbacks battling for the spot: Daniels, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and redshirt sophomore Matt Fink.
Only Fink has any in-game experience, but it’s not exactly extensive: Last year, he played in three games and threw nine passes, completing six. That tiny sample shouldn’t mean much, and since Daniels was finishing up high school in the spring, this competition will come down to how each quarterback fares in the coming month. With Stanford looming in Week 2, there won’t be much time for experimentation.
How will other murky quarterback situations shape up at Florida State, Texas and Nebraska?
Sure, there are plenty of other quarterback situations up in the air, some of which look likely to drag into the season. (Alabama’s seems to fall into that group; with the new redshirt rules allowing players to appear in four games before they risk burning a year of eligibility, it’s easier to envision Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa splitting time early in the year.) But at several schools, clarity should come by the end of camp.
At Florida State, Deondre Francois is trying to win his job back from James Blackman, who took over last fall when Francois injured the patella tendon in his left knee in the final minutes of the season opener. Neither appears to have a significant edge going into camp, which will be the first time Francois will be healthy enough for a truly head-to-head competition in front of new head coach Willie Taggart.
The Texas job looks like it’s sophomore Sam Ehlinger’s to lose, but with junior Shane Buechele back after splitting time with Ehlinger in 2017, head coach Tom Herman has options. A year after the Longhorns failed to find any continuity under center, Herman needs a more stable quarterback situation to contend in the Big 12. Ehlinger will need to take care of the football and limit turnovers during camp (he threw seven interceptions as a freshman and lost a key fumble in a double-overtime loss to USC), but his dual-threat capabilities can be a huge asset. Buechele offers more experience and a potentially higher floor.
Nebraska probably isn’t quite ready to contend for a Big Ten West title, but the Cornhuskers are building toward reclaiming the program’s past greatness under new coach Scott Frost. Coming from UCF, where he directed a great offense led by dual-threat quarterback McKenzie Milton, Frost seems to want a consensus on his QB sooner than later, and definitely before Week 1. The battle comes down to freshman Adrian Martinez, the four-star recruit who was the star of the Huskers’ spring game, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch.
What will LSU’s new-old offense look like?
Offense hasn’t exactly been the Tigers’ strong suit in recent years, despite the succession of NFL-caliber running backs to come through Baton Rouge. Les Miles was fired in large part over the inefficiency on that side of the ball, and in Ed Orgeron’s first full season on the job, things weren’t much better. Orgeron clashed with offensive coordinator Matt Canada (whom he had just hired from Pitt) and replaced him this fall with Steve Ensminger, who was LSU’s tight ends coach prior to the promotion and had served as the Tigers’ interim coordinator for Orgeron’s successful 2016 stretch run after Miles and OC Cam Cameron were let go. From October on, the Tigers averaged 465 yards per game after putting up 340 per game in September, but running backs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice have moved on to the NFL, and LSU’s quarterback situation only gained clarity in May, when Joe Burrow arrived as a grad transfer from Ohio State. He has plenty of experience as a backup, but none starting.
What does a healthy John Reid look like—and mean—for Penn State?
The cornerback tore his ACL in spring ball last year and received a medical redshirt for the 2017 season. He’s healthy headed into camp, which is crucial for a Nittany Lions secondary that lost a ton of talent after last season, including safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke as well as cornerback Christian Campbell and Grant Haley. Reid could be the best defender on this Penn State team; though undersized, he’s versatile and able to take on pretty much anyone’s best wide receiver. Getting a chance to see his knee back and full strength should be a marquee attraction of fall camp.
How will Ohio State’s receivers adjust to brand-new position coach Brian Hartline?
The Buckeyes were under the microscope at Big Ten media days after news broke that receivers coach Zach Smith had been accused multiple times of domestic violence by his ex-wife, who filed a civil protection order against him this summer. Once the news broke, coach Urban Meyer fired Smith, and just a few days later named his successor. Hartline, the former Buckeyes receiver who played seven years in the NFL, had been a quality control coach on staff, and he’d already been working with the team’s receivers. All signs point toward continuity, but it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on the reports coming out of that position group, which has the potential to be one of Ohio State’s strengths.
How many of Georgia’s star freshmen are going to get first-ream reps right off the bat?
Coming off their loss in the 2017 title game, the Bulldogs have to replace maybe their three best players of a season ago: running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and linebacker Roquan Smith. But less than a month after the overtime loss to Alabama, Georgia knocked off the Tide in a different arena by signing the best 2018 recruiting class of any program in college football. Replacing the likes of Michel, Chubb and Smith won’t be easy—but with the talent Georgia added, it’s possible multiple true freshman could step into important roles. The Bulldogs added five-star players at quarterback (Justin Fields), running back (Zamir White), linebacker (Adam Anderson), defensive end (Brenton Cox), cornerback (Tyson Campbell) and on the offensive line (Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer).