Week 1 of the 2019 college football season begins Thursday night, and it’s safe to say that Hawaii’s Week 0 upset of Arizona isn’t the only surprise in store for us this season. After all, this time a year ago, who saw Kyler Murray winning the Heisman or Wisconsin and Auburn both falling out of the Top 25 by Week 10? After locking in our Crystal Ball picks for the season—including Playoff, national champion and breakout candidates, we asked our writers and editors to think broader and give their boldest prediction for what’s ahead.
Notre Dame won’t be in the playoff conversation after Week 4. That’s when the Fighting Irish play at Georgia, a team that’s both superior on the field and bitter about Notre Dame’s inclusion in the playoff last winter—which many saw as coming at the Bulldogs’ expense. One loss should be enough to knock Notre Dame out of realistic contention, but the Irish will bury themselves with one or two more losses down the stretch; Stanford, Michigan and Duke are the most formidable opponents, but games against Virginia Tech and USC could also be traps.
The Pac-12 will make the Playoff. This wouldn’t have seemed so bold back in 2014, when Pac-12 champion Oregon advanced to the national championship game in Year 1 of the CFP. But here we are five years later and just one other Pac-12 squad has made it to the playoff (Washington in 2016). The conference is in need of an on-field boost because there are problems off of it. The Pac-12 Network’s distribution is insignificant. The league is operating at a financial disadvantage to other Power 5 conferences. The video review scandal of 2018 lingers. The one thing that might make all this better? Winning. Oregon, Washington and Utah seem to be the most likely candidates to reach the CFP, and we’ll know quickly if the Ducks are for real. Oregon meets Auburn in Arlington, Texas, in the biggest matchup of Week 1.
Nebraska will play for the Big Ten championship this year. That’s right—after going 4–8 last season, Scott Frost’s team is poised to meet those exceedingly high expectations in Lincoln and turn things around in Year 2. The Cornhuskers have the right pieces: they’re led by a Heisman hopeful in QB Adrian Martinez, who ended his freshman year with 3,246 total yards, 25 total touchdowns and just eight interceptions; they welcome Cal grad transfer Kanawai Noa who will give the WR corps a boost; and we’ll likely see a lot of top 2019 recruit Wan’Dale Robinson, who can play both WR and RB. There are still questions surrounding the Big Ten’s worst defense from a year ago, but it helps to have an overall winnable schedule—and a weak Big Ten West—with your toughest and trickiest opponents (Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin) playing at Memorial Stadium this fall.
This year’s title game will not be Alabama v. Clemson, Round 4. I’m not sure if I believe that moments after typing it, but let’s roll with it for a second. Alabama has some obstacles to hurdle in the SEC: road games against No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 16 Auburn, an early November date with No. 6 LSU, and the SEC championship game, of course. Clemson plays the Aggies early on, too, but has a relatively easy schedule from then on. Nevertheless, maybe Georgia, Oklahoma, or one of the Big Ten teams (Ohio State or Michigan) develops enough throughout the year to topple one of those two in the Playoff. That’s not too unrealistic, is it?
Lots of relieving…of duties. Losing a job isn’t fun, and in no way is this short spiel advocating men that make millions of dollars coaching a kid’s sport be fired, but this is college football. Boosters with deep pockets and delusional fans just don’t care about job security if said coach isn’t winning. At least 10 coaches will be joining the rankings of the unemployment line before season’s end, with a few not even making it to December. Watch out for these names that could be added to the Pink Slip Invitational: Clay Helton, Lovie Smith, Chris Ash and Gus Malzahn.
A wide receiver will win the Heisman Trophy for the first time since 1991. The current crop of college wideouts is the best in recent memory, and a few players are well-positioned to earn a visit to New York in December. Perhaps Laviska Shenault can snag a trip from Colorado, but there are a few other receivers who are more likely to contend for the Heisman given their offensive situations.
Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Collin Johnson are each All-American contenders for teams who could reach the College Football Playoff, hauling in passes at Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas, respectively. Clemson wideouts Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins also have All-American potential, though they could cancel each other out in the Heisman race. Jeudy is the best bet of the bunch, and perhaps a 20-touchdown season could have voters tabbing him as Alabama’s engine over Tua Tagovailoa. Trevor Lawrence and Tagovailoa are hefty Heisman favorites in a quarterback-dominated award. But if any receiver class can steal the Heisman, it will be this one.
Iowa State will win the Big 12. The Cyclones make the leap from back-to-back eight-win seasons to serious conference contenders, and it culminates in a Big 12 championship. Led by its defense and QB Brock Purdy, who started as a true freshman in 2018, Iowa State should be favored in most games this year. Its toughest tests are against Iowa (non-conference), at Oklahoma and at home vs. Texas, and if it takes care of business elsewhere, splitting against the Sooners and Longhorns should be enough to get it to Arlington. Winning in Norman may be a bridge too far, but a Texas team replacing a lot on defense could be ripe for a late-season defeat in Ames. Get to the Big 12 title game, and I think the Cyclones’ D makes the difference in the rematch with Oklahoma, with Purdy doing just enough against a still-leaky Sooners defense (despite Alex Grinch’s best efforts).
Texas finishes the season unranked. Let’s be honest: Texas was not as good as its 10–4 record last season. Just three of those wins were by margins of more than seven points. The Longhorns’ defense allowed more yards per play (5.6) than the Longhorns’ offense gained (5.5). But in this case, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The same team that lost to Maryland in its season opener followed by beating lowly Tulsa at home by seven points ended up with a big statement win over Georgia.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the offseason hype created from that Sugar Bowl victory. But don’t be fooled by the preseason top-10 ranking, this is a team that isn’t as good as it’s being propped up to be. Texas has to undergo a complete rebuild job on the defensive side of the ball, as it has to replace its entire front seven and both of its starting cornerbacks. The Longhorns also will be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line and Sam Ehlinger lost his top target in Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Speaking of Ehlinger, his big weakness is an inability to stretch the field with his arm. Texas was one of two schools that didn’t have a 50-yard gain on offense last season, and the Longhorns had just six 40-yard-plus gains (tied for 124th) despite playing in 14 games. That’s tough to accomplish given the Longhorns had the dynamic duo of Humphrey and 6’6” behemoth Collin Johnson at wideout. He’s an effective runner, but that also opens himself up to getting hit, and Texas can ill-afford to lose him via injury. In 2018, Shane Buechele came off the bench in relief when Ehlinger got hurt, but Buechele transferred to SMU in the offseason. Now Ehlinger’s backup is redshirt freshman Casey Thompson.
The Longhorns have a tough road schedule this season, including games at TCU, Iowa State and Baylor, all of whom have win totals of at least 7.5 at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Add in the Red River Showdown against Oklahoma and an incredibly tricky Week 2 home game against LSU, and that is a schedule that could easily result in four losses. And that’s what I think will happen.