The 2019 college football season is finally here, and I’m guessing it’s going to look an awful lot like the past few.
All-too-familiar teams such as Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma are back on top of the preseason polls, as the sport continues to become more and more top-heavy.
In my bold predictions back in January, I told you that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence would win the first of two Heismans in 2019; Alabama would reach the College Football Playoff for the sixth straight season; the Pac-12 would be left out again; and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer would land the Southern California job in the near future.
I have slightly altered my projections for the four teams that will reach the CFP: With the addition of Jalen Hurts at Oklahoma, I now have the Sooners returning to the playoff, alongside Clemson, Alabama and Georgia.
Here are the rest of my predictions for the 2019 season:
ACC champion: Clemson
Offensive player of the year: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Defensive player of the year: Shaquille Quarterman, LB, Miami
Freshman of the year: Zonovan Knight, RB, NC State
Coach of the year: Manny Diaz, Miami
Coach on the hot seat: Steve Addazio, Boston College
Coordinator on the rise: Tony Elliott, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Nonconference game of the year: Texas A&M at Clemson, Sept. 7
Conference game of the year: Clemson at Syracuse, Sept. 14
Upset of the year: Boston College over Florida State, Nov. 9
Three predictions for the ACC
1. Clemson goes undefeated again: The Tigers still are head and shoulders above everyone else in the ACC, albeit with a lot more youth in key positions. It won’t matter. No one else is close to toppling the defending national champions. Lawrence will be much better than he was as a freshman, when he threw 30 touchdowns with four interceptions. The Tigers will survive early tests against Texas A&M and Syracuse, before rolling the rest of the way to reach the CFP for the fifth consecutive season.
2. Florida State will be the most-improved team in the league: The Seminoles should have been better than they were a year ago, but Willie Taggart didn’t have much of a chance with the locker room and culture he inherited. The addition of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles — and just as importantly offensive line coach Randy Clements — will result in dramatic improvements on offense. If FSU can beat Boise State in Jacksonville, Florida, in its opener, it will have a good chance for a fast start before its schedule gets markedly more difficult in October and November.
3. Virginia Tech will send Bud Foster out as a winner: The Hokies struggled mightily last year, slipping to 6-7 in Justin Fuente’s third season, but they should be better in what will be longtime defensive coordinator Foster’s final campaign. The Coastal Division seems wide open, but the Hokies have the division’s softest schedule, and they won’t play Clemson or Syracuse from the Coastal Division during the regular season.
Big Ten champion: Ohio State
Offensive player of the year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Defensive player of the year: Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
Freshman of the year: Wan’Dale Robinson, WR, Nebraska
Coach of the year: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Coach on the hot seat: Chris Ash, Rutgers
Coordinator on the rise: Troy Walters, offensive coordinator, Nebraska
Nonconference game of the year: Notre Dame at Michigan, Oct. 26
Conference game of the year: Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30
Upset of the year: Penn State over Ohio State, Nov. 23
Three predictions for the Big Ten
1. Ohio State will beat Michigan again: First-year Buckeyes coach Ryan Day will pick up where Urban Meyer left off — owning the Wolverines. OSU has won seven straight games in the series — and 14 of the previous 15 — in what has become one of the most lopsided rivalries in college football. Even with an unproven head coach and a new quarterback, the Buckeyes will still find a way to beat the Wolverines, again, at the Big House on Nov. 30, dropping Jim Harbaugh’s record to 0-5 as head coach in the rivalry that matters most.
2. Ohio State’s Justin Fields leads the league in passing: Fields didn’t get much playing time as a freshman at Georgia — and looked like a deer in headlights at times in 2018 — but he is going to flourish in Ohio State’s plug-and-play system. Fields will have a plethora of playmakers around him, and Day does a tremendous job coaching quarterbacks. Last year’s OSU starter, Dwayne Haskins, was the only Big Ten player to average more than 300 passing yards per game. Fields will repeat the feat, but probably won’t throw 50 touchdowns, as Haskins did in 2018.
3. Iowa wins the West: You could honestly pick one of four teams — Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska or Northwestern — to win the ultra-balanced division and have a fighting chance to be correct at season’s end. But this season feels like Iowa’s time, with senior quarterback Nate Stanley and two of the league’s best players — defensive end A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs — returning. The Hawkeyes play at Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, so they’ll have to be road warriors to get it done.
Big 12 champion: Oklahoma
Offensive player of the year: Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
Defensive player of the year: Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma
Freshman of the year: Jordan Whittington, RB, Texas
Coach of the year: Tom Herman, Texas
Coach on the hot seat: None
Coordinator on the rise: Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma
Nonconference game of the year: LSU at Texas, Sept. 7
Conference game of the year: Texas vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas), Oct. 12
Upset of the year: Iowa State over Texas, Nov. 16
Three predictions for the Big 12
1. Oklahoma does it to Texas again: The Longhorns are back and they’re right on the Sooners’ heels in the Big 12. Texas will pull out a second straight victory in the Red River Rivalry game, but then it will fall to the Sooners in the Big 12 championship game for the second season in a row. Oklahoma’s offense won’t miss a beat with Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts under center — not with Lincoln Riley tutoring him. And OU’s defense actually will make a few stops with Grinch taking over the unit.
2. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell will be the hottest name in the coaching carousel: Under Campbell, the Cyclones have won eight games in back-to-back seasons, and they’ll finish one better during the regular season in 2019. Campbell, 39, signed a six-year contract extension in 2017, which pays him about $3.5 million annually. He’ll be the target of Big Ten and SEC schools this coming offseason, and they won’t blink at paying his $6 million buyout.
3. Kansas will win its first two games: The Jayhawks will knock off FCS foe Indiana State and then Coastal Carolina to start 2-0 under former LSU coach Les Miles, but they’ll win only once more. Their best chances at springing upsets during Big 12 play are against rebuilding West Virginia at home on Sept. 21 and versus Texas Tech and Kansas State in consecutive home games. Kansas has gone winless in Big 12 play four times since 2010.
Pac-12 champion: Utah
Offensive player of the year: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Defensive player of the year: Leki Fotu, DT, Utah
Freshman of the year: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
Coach of the year: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Coach on the hot seat: Clay Helton, USC
Coordinator on the rise: Andy Avalos, defensive coordinator, Oregon
Nonconference game of the year: Auburn vs. Oregon (Arlington, Texas), Saturday
Conference game of the year: Oregon at Washington, Oct. 19
Upset of the year: Arizona over Utah, Nov. 23
Three predictions for the Pac-12
1. Washington — and not Oregon — wins the Pac-12 North: The Huskies have to replace all-time leading passer Jake Browning and all-time leading rusher Myles Gaskin, along with most of their starting defense. But Washington’s offense will be more explosive with strong-armed Georgia transfer Jacob Eason under center, and running back Salvon Ahmed is a burner. Four starting offensive linemen are back, and star tackle Trey Adams is returning from a back injury. With Oregon, Utah and Washington State coming to Seattle, Washington has a slight edge over the Ducks.
2. UCLA makes a bowl game: The Bruins are still a long way from competing for a Pac-12 title, but they’ll make solid progress in Chip Kelly’s second season at Westwood. After starting 0-5 for the first time since 1943, the Bruins won three of their last seven games in 2018. They averaged 485.5 yards in their final four games, including 479 in a 34-27 upset of USC. Year 2 figures to be even better, after the Bruins played 21 true freshmen last season.
3. USC’s Clay Helton doesn’t survive: The Trojans are going to be better than they were last season, when they finished 5-7 in Helton’s third full season. The problem is they might have the most difficult start to the season of any team in the FBS. In their first six games, they’ll play underrated Fresno State (home), Stanford (home), BYU (road), Utah (home), Washington (road) and Notre Dame (road). Going 3-3 in that stretch might seem like a moral victory, and things could also go south in a hurry.
SEC champion: Georgia
Offensive player of the year: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Defensive player of the year: Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn
Freshman of the year: Derek Stingley Jr., CB/KR, LSU
Coach of the year: Nick Saban, Alabama
Coach on the hot seat: Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Coordinator on the rise: Pete Golding, defensive coordinator, Alabama
Nonconference game of the year: Notre Dame at Georgia, Sept. 21
Conference game of the year: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 9
Upset of the year: Texas A&M over Georgia, Nov. 23
Three predictions for the SEC
1. Georgia-Alabama, Part III: The Crimson Tide broke the Bulldogs’ hearts in each of the past two seasons, but Kirby Smart’s team will finally get over the hump against its nemesis in the SEC championship game. After jumping out to a 10-point halftime lead behind Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift, the Bulldogs will — wait for it — hold on against Alabama for a 31-27 victory. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide will join Clemson and Oklahoma in the CFP.
2. Missouri starts 8-0: Unless the Tigers win relief from what they perceive as unfair NCAA punishment for a tutoring scandal, they will not be eligible to play in the postseason. (The NCAA should make its ruling on Missouri’s final appeal between now and November.) It will be a shame if the Tigers can’t play in a bowl game, because they’ll start the season 8-0, before losing three of their last four games in November. Missouri’s nonconference schedule is Charmin-like soft, and the Tigers get Ole Miss and Arkansas from the SEC West.
3. Auburn won’t lose five games again: The Tigers will lose four. They have a freshman starting at quarterback, Bo Nix, and they’ll play arguably the most difficult schedule in the FBS. Auburn opens the season against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, and plays SEC road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU. Then the Tigers plays Georgia and Alabama at home in November. If Auburn loses five games or more for the fifth time in six seasons, Gus Malzahn won’t keep his job — but at least he’ll leave as a very rich man, with a reported $27 million buyout. I’m guessing the Tigers are good enough to keep him around through 2019.