Thor Nystrom

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CFB Preview: Team Nos. 10-1

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Note: My fantasy rankings can be found here (quarterbacks), here (running backs), here (wide receivers), here (tight ends) and here (kicker/defense). 


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(10). Auburn Tigers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Jarrett Stidham  (No. 21 QB)
Kamryn Pettway (No. 49 RB)
Kerryon Johnson (No. 101 RB)
Nate Craig-Myers (No. 61 WR)
Darius Slayton (No. 139 WR)
Daniel Carlson (No. 2 K)
Auburn defense (No. 14 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DT Byron Cowart (Rd. 2 grade, per Fox Sports)

How should I think about this team?: The under-the-radar title contender.

Auburn finished 8-5 last season. They were better than their record. The Tigers nearly upset Clemson in the opener, and they still appeared hungover from the near-miss two weeks later when the offense forgot to show up for a home loss to Texas A&M. But from then until QB Sean White injured his shoulder in early November against Ole Miss, the Tigers went 6-0, beginning that torrid stretch with the wild win over LSU that cost Les Miles his job.

After White got hurt, the declawed offense was forced to use no-arm options Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III behind center. Auburn staggered to a 1-3 finish.

Over the offseason, HC Gus Malzahn swapped out OC Rhett Lashlee (now at UConn) for Chip Lindsey, who engineered the most explosive S&P+ offense in the country at Southern Miss in 2015. Then, Malzahn traded in White (now the backup) for Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. Stid was one of the country’s best quarterback recruits in 2015.

Malzahn’s ground attack is terrifying. It starts with a tremendous offensive line, which features ace NFL prospect Braden Smith (a 2016 CBS Second-Team All-American), two other returning senior starters, and two lauded imports in Florida State transfer Wilson Bell (who started the equivalent of a season-and-a-half for the Noles) and Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn (twice an FCS All-American).

With that kind of line, Auburn wouldn’t need a star running back to gain consistent yards on the ground. It seems almost unfair that the Tigers have three backs suitable for all occasions. You’ve got your rumbling bruiser (Kamryn Pettway), your prototypical all-purpose back (Kerryon Johnson) and your scatback (former Baylor commit Kam Martin). The only way to slow Auburn’s ground game is to crowd the box.

That strategy was risky when White was healthy. Now that Stidham is aboard, it’s downright untenable. Stidham is the perfect fit for this offense. He’s an NFL-caliber dual-threat, sure, but the element of his game that will take Auburn’s offense to the next level is his deep-ball accuracy. As a true freshman at Baylor, Stidham connected on 57-percent of passes over 20 yards. His receiving corps at Auburn blends hyped sophomore athletes Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis, and Nate Craig-Myers with possession options like Ryan Davis, Eli Stove and Will Hastings.

The beauty of Lindsey’s schemes is that they achieve explosiveness through balance. Like a pitcher with a 100 mph heater, a killer changeup and a pair of strong breaking pitches, Lindsey’s offenses are difficult to time, impossible to get comfortable against. During that 2015 season at Southern Miss, Lindsey’s Eagles ranked No. 92 nationally in rush attempts but still managed to have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. How do you think he’ll fair with Bubba Pettway and Johnson?

Auburn’s top-ten S&P+ defense from last season suffered major losses on the defensive front, most notably DE Carl Lawson (13.5 TFLs) and DT Montravius Adams. Auburn has high-end prospects in the pipeline, but it’s fair to assume the line won’t be as strong as it was in 2016. The good news defensively is that most of the linebacking corps and secondary returns. The defense may not be quite as good as it was last year, but it doesn’t figure to drop off much.

To add to its riches, the Tigers boast one of the nation’s best kickers in Daniel Carlson. On paper, you can see the makings of a national title contender. Expectations should be tampered a bit, though, because of the schedule. Auburn plays only one difficult non-conference game, but it’s a doozy—at Clemson in Week 2. Outside of that, the typically ferocious SEC schedule includes an October road date at LSU, and a November dance card that includes a trip to College Station and home dates against Georgia and Alabama.

Bovada over/under win total: 8.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 10-2

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(9). Clemson Tigers


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Kelly Bryant (No. 37 QB)

C.J. Fuller (No. 96 RB)

Deon Cain (No. 27 WR)

Ray-Ray McCloud (No. 77 WR)

Clemson D (No. 5 D)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Clelin Ferrell (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)


How should I think of this team?: Playing with house money.


Let us bid one last fond farewell to the championship team from a year ago, who teetered early in the season before finding their footing to rise to the moment in dramatic wins over Louisville and Florida State in October. They would trip up, for real, against Pittsburgh, but rolled to the Playoff with one loss, after which they shut out Ohio State and won a title game for the ages against Alabama. It was the perfect way for QB Deshaun Watson to end his career with the Tigers.


Watson wasn’t the team’s only loss on offense -- RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams and C Jay Guillermo are also no longer around -- but his absence leaves a gargantuan hole to fill. First up to try to fit into those Shaq-sized shoes will be junior Kelly Bryant, who won out in preseason camp over redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson. Bryant’s experience gave him the edge over Cooper and Johnson. If he struggles early, there’s going to be a patter for Johnson (Rivals No. 18 for 2017). But this was the right decision by HC Dabo Swinney. You don’t need to rip the scaffolding off to repair your shingles.


Gallman and Williams are gone, too, but that’s less concerning territory. Gallman was underrated in every aspect of what Clemson did last season (especially as blocker), but C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster should keep the ground game moving along in steady fashion. Swinney, himself, has compared sophomore Feaster to C.J. Spiller. He hasn’t supplanted Fuller in the backfield, yet, but closed the gap in preseason. Starter carries by October are not out of the question, especially if he busts a few long runs early.


There’s no replacement for the Inspector Gadget-like Williams, but team effort! Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud (who has been moonlighting on defense at times during camp) will start, with Diondre Overton, Trevion Thompson, and Cornell Powell likely for regular rotation work. That’s a fine receiving corps (albeit, not a tall one -- their starters would be unable to ride a rollercoaster with a height minimum of 6-foot-2). The line loses Guillermo at center, but returns a pair of all-conference studs in T Mitch Hyatt and G Tyrone Crowder. Bryant’s going to have everything he needs for the drink, but he’ll need to provide the straw that stirs it.


Clemson doesn’t need their offense to be perfect, though, because they are going to be holding a lot of opponents to 20 points, max. The Tigers are out-and-out loaded defensively, and that’s with DT Carlos Watkins, LB Ben Boulware, S Jadar Johnson and CB Cordrea Tankersley all out the door. They might have the best defensive line in the country. Dexter Lawrence recorded 6.5 sacks from defensive tackle as a true freshman last season, while DE Clelin Ferrell (a redshirt freshman) dropped peeps for 12.5 TFL. These guys are going to wreck people. We haven’t even touched on DT Christian Wilkins, who is also awesome. Ditto for the linebacking group sans Boulware, ditto for the secondary sans Tankersley and Johnson. The fate of the offense in absence of Watson should not obscure the real strength of this team. Their defense alone is going to win them games. It probably won’t come to defense alone, but hey, if it does, this one has a chance to be special.


The real trouble is that any early missteps could prove immediately fatal. The Tigers will have faced Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg) before the month of September is out. They don’t play Florida State until November 11, but that potentially Playoff-deciding match-up won’t mean nearly as much if Clemson is chugging in with two or three losses on the docket. Still, Swinney has the Tigers in a perfect place as a program. Run to the Playoff this season? Sweet. Take on a little water as you’re rebuilding for next year? Cool, you just won the national title, you deserve a rebuild year.


Bovada over/under win total: 9.5

Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 10-2


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(8). Wisconsin Badgers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Chris James (No. 62 RB)
Bradrick Shaw (No. 113 RB)
Jazz Peavy (No. 70 WR)
Troy Fumagalli (No. 6 TE)
Wisconsin D (No. 8 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: TE Troy Fumagalli (Rd. 4 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Kimbo Slice, circa his street-fighting days.

Wisconsin isn’t subtle. It’s a team that recruits big backs, jumbo linemen and muscular defenders. The Badgers want to bludgeon you with brute force. It’s a proven formula, and they’ll roll with it again in 2017. Last year, Wisconsin went a perfect 10-0 against teams outside of the top-10 in S&P+, but only 1-3 against teams inside of it. While their physical M.O. allows them to brutalize less-talented teams, the Badgers’ athletic stiffness tends to sink them against teams of equal size and strength but who are blessed with more athletic firepower. Think Kimbo Slice when he transitioned from street fights to the UFC octagon. Size, strength and guts only gets you so far when the only way you can win is to brawl.

The question is: Can Wisconsin make enough big plays against elite teams this year to improve upon the 1-3 mark? The Badger offense will look very familiar. All-American left tackle and first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk is gone, but most of the OL unit that surrounded him in 2016 returns. Once again, it’ll be a massive group averaging well in excess of 300 pounds a player. RBs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are gone, but Wisconsin’s new RB trio of Pitt transfer Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal should be just as effective.

QB Alex Hornibrook struggled last year as a second-year freshman. There isn’t much behind Hornibrook; if he gets hurt again, Wisconsin’s plans could be derailed quickly. If he doesn’t, all the pieces around him are in place. Hornibrook has two strong weapons to work with in all-purpose WR Jazz Peavy and future NFL tight end Troy Fumagalli.

On the other side of the ball, new DC Jim Leonhard inherits a defense that has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 10 for two straight years. Leonhard won’t have OLBs T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel (NFL) or Jack Cichy (OFY) but the linebacking corp, led by T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, is still strong.

The secondary, meanwhile, lost a pair of all-conference DBs in Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton. Even so, Wisconsin is stocked with seniors in the defensive backfield.

Perhaps the best news is the schedule. Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule is a breeze (Utah St., FAU and BYU), and the Badgers avoid Ohio State in Big 10 play. In addition, the Badgers get Iowa and Michigan at home. It’s possible that Wisconsin will be favored in all 12 regular season games.

Bovada over/under win total: 9.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 11-1


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(7). LSU Tigers

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Derrius Guice (No. 2 RB)
D.J. Chark (No. 105 WR)
LSU defense (No. 2 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Arden Key (Rds. 1-2 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: New coach, same story—LSU is offensive cohesion away from a Playoff berth.

Ed Orgeron’s 2016 LSU Tigers were very similar to Les Miles’ 2016 LSU Tigers:  They whipped teams without elite defenses, and they couldn’t beat teams with elite defenses.  LSU went 0-4 against top-10 S&P+ defenses. They beat everyone else.

The reason for that, of course, was that superb defenses could force LSU’s offense to play left-handed. While the All-World RB duo of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice ran wild no matter the opponent—LSU finished No. 22 in Off. S&P+ despite the aerial issues—the passing offense disappeared against the best teams on the schedule. Will that change this year?

That’s the task for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Danny Etling is back at quarterback, Guice returns as the All-American candidate at RB and the receiving corps swaps out Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural at the top for D.J. Chark, Drake Davis and Russell Gage. The skill position changes may amount to a talent wash. The offensive line, meanwhile, returns some front-liners, like All-SEC G Will Clapp, but is thin on depth.

Basically, Canada is being asked to transform an offense of similar actors into something more than the sum of its parts. He’s known for doing this, but judgment is best withheld until we see the Tigers take the field. Best-case scenario? Canada’s machinations allow Danny Etling to level-up, ala Nathan Peterman of 2016. Worst-case? The offense performs as it did last fall, just using different plays.

New DC Dave Aranda was predictably outstanding in his first year, leading LSU to a No. 3 Def. S&P+ finish in 2016. The Tigers suffered losses on all three levels—Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal on the line, Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith at linebacker and S Jamal Adams and CB Tre'Davious White in the secondary—but Aranda has enough talent on hand to bag another top-five S&P+ finish.

Edge rusher Arden Key is the star, though Key’s availability for the start of the season is in doubt due to a shoulder issue. The line gets Christian LaCouture back after he missed last season to injury. The secondary, meanwhile, is full of four- and five-star recruits.  


Bovada over/under win total: 9
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 11-1

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(6). Penn State Nittany Lions

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Trace McSorley (No. 12 QB)
Saquon Barkley (No. 1 RB)
DaeSean Hamilton (No. 63 WR)
Juwan Johnson (No. 82 WR)
Mike Gesicki (No. 5 TE)
Tyler Davis (No. 3 K)
Penn State D (No. 17 D)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Saquon Barkley (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: As the greatest show on collegiate turf -- if the offensive line improves.

Despite having a running back that some say is the best NFL RB prospect of the past decade, the Nittany Lions ranked No. 68 in Rushing S&P+ last year. Facing consistent penetration, Saquon Barkley became a boom-or-bust runner who would often either get stuffed at the line or rip off a huge gain (19 carries of 20-plus yards; Barkley also averaged nearly 15 yards per catch).

That put QB Trace McSorley in many of the second-and-long and third-and-long scenarios that he ultimately thrived in. While Penn State isn’t likely to continue throwing deep at the ludicrous success rates it enjoyed last season, the offensive line’s theoretical improvement would cut down on the third-and-longs, make Barkley all the more scary and ease the burden on the aerial attack.

With a new OL coach (Minnesota’s Matt Limegrover), six linemen who started at least one game in 2016 back (46 of 70 starts return in total), and a group of blue-chip prospects in reserve roles, that unit will almost assuredly improve. We haven’t even mentioned that Penn State has one of the nation’s best tight ends in Mike Gesicki, as well as a solid receiving corps.

The majority of the defense returns, though Penn State did suffer key losses on that side of the ball on all three levels, with DE Garrett Sickels, LB Brandon Bell and S Malik Golden departing. DE Torrence Brown should prove to be a worthy successor to Sickels, and the linebacking crew should be typically excellent with a full season of Jason Cabinda (he missed five games last year) and further improvement from former safety Koa Farmer.

In addition to replacing Golden, the secondary must make do without John Reid, who tore his ACL in the spring. In S Marcus Allen, the Nittany Lions have a star to build around, and in hyped true freshman CB Lamont Wade, they have a potential lock-down corner.

Bovada over/under win total: 9.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 11-1


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(5). Washington Huskies


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Jake Browning (No. 8 QB)

Myles Gaskin (No. 25 RB)

Lavon Coleman (No. 121 RB)

Dante Pettis (No. 11 WR)

Chico McClatcher (No. 67 WR)

Washington D (No. 9 D)


NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DT Vita Vea (Rds. 1-3 grade, per Charlie Campbell)


How should I think of this team?: Undone by an unproven secondary.


Washington or USC, Washington or USC? David Shaw is waving his hand in the back of the classroom -- we see you, Coach -- but any real conversation about the Pac-12 essentially boils down to whether Washington or USC will win the conference, with Stanford (yes, we still see you, Coach) a lurking sleeper so much as the Cardinal can be a sleeper. The Washington-USC question will have to wait. These two behemoths do not play each other in the regular season. If they meet, it will be in the Pac-12 Championship Game. By the by, Stanford plays both USC and Washington this season. If the seemingly destined meet-up between the Huskies and Trojans does not occur, Stanford could well play a major part in that.


Just how far the Huskies might rise this season depends on how much you trust their retooled secondary. Their flat-out beastly unit from their Playoff team boasted a plethora of NFL talent in corners Kevin King and Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker. All off to play with the big boys now. There’s alluring talent set to step up for that trio, with ball-hawking redshirt Byron Murphy and redshirt junior Jordan Miller taking over for King and Jones. JoJo McIntosh, meanwhile, is expected to help fill for the loss of Baker. Only McIntosh has any real experience (Miller has 12 tackles for his career, Murphy has yet to play in a college game), though, and that’s concerning in a pass-first conference. Especially for a team with title aspirations.


We’re positive people, though, and the positive to be gleaned from an unproven secondary is that when they make mistakes, QB Jake Browning, RBs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman (both NFL prospects) and WR Dante Pettis are more than capable of picking them up. While Alabama might have caused Jake Browning’s shoulder to spontaneously combust in the Playoff semifinal -- not really, but Browning dealt with an achy wing down the stretch and needed offseason surgery -- the Tide defense was historically good against everybody until they finally met their match in Deshaun Watson and Washington’s performance against Alabama is not indicative of their offense. The Huskies boasted a fantastic unit last season and that won’t change, not even with the loss of 40-yard dash immortal/wide receiver John Ross. Browning threw 43 touchdowns last season.


A year ago, Washington’s schedule was torched by pundits. Expect more of the same this go-round. The best team they face in September is Colorado, a game which they follow up with a run against conference also-rans Oregon State, Cal and Arizona State. November’s slightly more difficult than that, only because most slates are tougher than that trio of Pac-12 patsies. A wrap of UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State closes the regular season. In that grouping, they’ll travel away from Seattle just once, when they head to Palo Alto to take on Stanford on November 10. They'll lose that one, but meet up with USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans are just a touch better. It should be enthralling theater.


Bovada over/under win total: 10

Prediction: OVER

Projected Record: 11-1


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(4). Florida State Seminoles

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Deondre Francois (No. 22 QB)

Cam Akers (No. 73 RB)

Jacques Patrick (No. 92 RB)

Nyqwan Murray (No. 42 WR)

Auden Tate (No. 101 WR)

Florida State D (No. 3 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: S Derwin James (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think of this team?: A better version of last year's preseason Playoff contender.

The Seminoles were among a handful of teams in the Playoff conversation last August, but dreams of glory were dashed by a horrific September when do-everything safety Derwin James tore the meniscus in his left knee against Charleston Southern in a 52-8 blowout in the second week of the season. One week later, Lamar Jackson went and danced all over them. For all intents and purposes, they were planning for 2017 by the time the leaves started to fall. Even with the terrible injury luck, they finished with 10 wins anyway. And now Derwin’s back. And he might be returning kicks and working on offense when needed. He’s almost certainly going to be used in a multitude of capacities on defense. As Mr. James himself said this month, “I could be anywhere.” One of the true transcendent players in college football today, James’ return tips FSU from a borderline Playoff contender to a team that could win it all.


It’s not just a one-man wrecking crew. Unlike conference foe Clemson, Florida State has the luxury of a returning starting quarterback in Deondre Francois, who just needs to take steady steps forward to keep the ship moving in the right direction after turning in a promising redshirt freshman campaign a year ago. The backfield’s loaded. Cam Akers is the name a-buzz down in Tallahassee, but the five-star true frosh might just have to wait his turn, with junior Jacques Patrick set to work as the team’s No. 1 back to open the season. That’s not a bad thing. Patrick averaged 5.7 yards on 61 carries last season while serving as backup to Dalvin Cook and true freshmen -- even the most talented of them -- giveth and they taketh away when it comes to blocking and reads. At wideout, Nyqwan Murray, Keith Gavin and Auden Tate are going to end up as one of the more fun trios in the country.

Flipping over to the defense, the aforementioned Derwin James is joined at safety by upperclassman Trey Marshall. James is a top-five draft pick. You’ll be hearing the names of Tavarus McFadden and Levonta Taylor, too, though 2019 at the earliest for true sophomore Taylor. That’s later. Right now, everybody’s together and it’s going to be glorious. The front seven, you would expect, might be the soft underbelly of the crocodile. It’s softer, but only in comparison. A defensive line of Brian Burns-Demarcus Christmas-Derrick Nnadi-Josh Sweat isn’t quite Clemson good, but it’s close. Throw in an experienced linebacking corps and you have a Playoff defense ready for Jimbo Fisher to unleash upon the ACC.

The Seminoles have a few potential stumbling blocks early in the season (outside of Alabama in the opener, which is just a brick wall) -- a September 16th hosting of Miami, an October 21 hosting of Louisville in what could be one of the best games of the year -- but it’s the end of the schedule which will truly make-or-break Playoff aspirations. Florida State travels to Clemson on November 11. Two weeks later, they’ll mosey on down to Gainesville to take on the Gators. If they win both of those games, they deserve to make the Playoff. They will. Just don’t freak out if Alabama beats them on Saturday.

Bovada over/under win total: 9.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 11-1

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(3). USC Trojans


Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:

Sam Darnold (No. 8 QB)

Ronald Jones (No. 13 RB)

Deontay Burnett (No. 25 WR)

Tyler Vaughns (No. 133 WR)

Michael Pittman (No. 153 WR)

Daniel Imatorbhebhe (No. 25 TE)

USC D (No. 12 D)


NFL Prospect to Watch: QB Sam Darnold (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)


How should I think of this team?: Believe the hype.


Our expectations could not be higher for the Trojans this year. It’s a dangerous game to play with USC, which seems to consistently dangle a potentially killer team only to not quite get there. They almost collapsed before they had a chance to suck us all in last season, with the ill-fated Max Browne Era lasting all of three games before HC Clay Helton sensed the entire apparatus about to fall. Sam Darnold sparked a monster eight-game winning streak to close the season before the Trojans capped it off with their thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State.


Now we get to see just how well Darnold handles the brightest of spotlights. Heisman-National Championship-No. 1 overall pick is most definitely in play for him. Pairing with Darnold in the backfield is human-highlight-reel Ronald Jones, who will finally get the starting job all to himself with Justin Davis moving on to the Los Angeles Rams. There’s plenty behind Jones, too, in one of the deepest running back groups in the Pac-12. That brings us to the biggest concern on offense for Helton and company -- the receiving corp. And it’s a receiving corps which has already taken a pair of camp blows in injuries to WR Michael Pittman (ankle) and TE  Daniel Imatorbhebhe (hip). Pittman’s injury, in particular, is concerning.


When healthy, Pittman offers the sort of big downfield target that the team needs. As is, the Trojans will be trotting out wideouts Deontay Burnett, Steven Mitchell and Jalen Greene to start against Western Michigan in their opener -- three young men all best suited to play out of the slot. The losses of the more explosive JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers offer a potential crack in the armor which could be exploited by an experienced secondary if Pittman needs a lengthy recovery and a youngster like Tyler Vaughns or Joseph Lewis does not emerge.


The defense is without any such questions akin to that receiving group. To the contrary, they’re stacked with experienced playmakers regardless of where you look. They offer up a deep secondary which returns three of its top four playmakers from a year ago and a stacked linebacking corps led by Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin. There’s slightly more attrition on the defensive line -- departed NT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has no immediate replacement -- but assuming they can find solutions on that front, they’re pretty much set. The Trojans ranked 20th in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ last season and that was with a relatively inexperienced bunch. They’re better, now.


They’ll be battle-tested by October, as they host Stanford and Texas back-to-back in Week 2 and Week 3 (respectively). After that Longhorns contest, a road trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame on October 21 will be their toughest remaining test. Unlike Washington, whose schedule tightens up into November, the Trojans will be working with a final stretch of Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado and UCLA before a possible date with Washington in the conference title game. In a way, the Trojans and Huskies mirror each other in potential deficiencies. At USC, all eyes will be on the receivers, while at Washington, all eyes will be on the secondary. Whoever wins the Pac-12 Championship will be heading to the Playoff. Give us USC by the thinnest of margins.


Bovada over/under win total: 9.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 12-0   


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(2). Alabama Crimson Tide

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
Jalen Hurts (No. 10 QB)
Bo Scarbrough (No. 36 RB)
Calvin Ridley (No. 21 WR)
Alabama defense (No. 1 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Rd. 1 grade, per Charlie Campbell)

How should I think about this team?: Same old, same old.

Over the spring, we were one of the few outlets that didn’t rank Alabama No. 1. With the new season upon us, we’re sticking with Ohio State as our national title frontrunners, but that has more to do with the Buckeyes’ easier road to the Playoff than it does a true talent advantage.

Because let’s be honest: The Crimson Tide are once again college football’s most talented team. This version is quite similar to last year’s, with a few exceptions. New OC Brian Daboll was brought in to replace Lane Kiffin (now FAU’s HC) and Steve Sarkisian (who became the Atlanta Falcons’ OC after directing Bama’s offense in the 2017 title game).

Daboll is similar to Kiffin in that his play-calling is dictated by the talent on hand and exploiting defensive mismatches. Like Kiffin, he’ll make heavy use of quick-hitting horizontal passes to spread the defense out in order to pound the ball with his collection of elite running backs.

All of that should work swimmingly with this bunch. Like a star NBA point guard who thrives in the pick-and-roll, sophomore QB Jalen Hurts is a zone-read maestro. That talent plays up what is already a ludicrously stacked rushing attack. Over the winter, the Tide added Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, to future NFL backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs.

Hurts loses TE O.J. Howard and WRs ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter, but his favorite toy Calvin Ridley is back. Alabama will compliment Ridley with a mix of graybeards—seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster—and mega-stud freshmen; Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Tyrell Shavers were all top-12 WR signings in the 2017 class.

While Hurts is strong on zone-reads and in the short area of the field, his maddening inconsistency in the intermediate and deep levels will cap the offense’s potential until it improves. To stretch the basketball metaphor further, Hurts’ pocket struggles last year rendered him into something like college football’s Ricky Rubio: He was strong on defense (didn’t make many mistakes), court vision (zone-reads) and in transition (quick-hitting passes), but his inability to shoot from long range allowed defenses to sag off of him (or, in Hurts’ case, to sneak closer to the line of scrimmage).

Remember: Hurts was a true freshman last year. He’s going to improve as a passer. By just how much will dictate Alabama’s offensive ceiling, because the Tide are close to perfect everywhere else. Hurts’ line did lose Outland winner Cam Robinson, but it returns three starters (Ross Pierschbacher, Jonah Williams and Bradley Bozeman) as well as a host of top-notch recruits.

On defense, the Crimson Tide lost DE Jonathan Allen, DE Dalvin Tomlinson, LB Tim Williams, LB Ryan Anderson, LB Reuben Foster, S Eddie Jackson and CB Marlon Humphrey from a unit that finished No. 1 in Rushing S&P+ and No. 2 in Passing S&P+. But Alabama will do what they always do; replace NFL talent with NFL talent.

The secondary will be outstanding, led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett. On the line, NT Da'Ron Payne will be flanked by Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier, ensuring another stout front.

The linebacking corps will find complements for Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans from a grab bag of elite recruits. Take your pick between the juniors (Keith Holcombe, Christian Miller) sophomores (Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson) and five-star freshman (Ben Davis, Dylan Moses). Speaking of stud recruits, the Tide haven’t finished below No. 2 in recruiting for the past three cycles. They had the unanimous No. 1 class in 2017.

Alabama faces another murderer’s row schedule, and it’s for that reason that we’re more comfortable with Ohio State at No. 1. The Tide face three top-10 teams in Florida State, LSU and Auburn, and only have two cupcakes on the schedule (Fresno State, Mercer). Even so, the Tide will probably be favored in every game they play this season.

Bovada over/under win total: 10.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 12-0

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(1). Ohio State Buckeyes

Thor Nystrom’s fantasy targets:
J.T. Barrett (No. 5 QB)
Mike Weber (No. 26 RB)
Parris Campbell (No. 49 WR)
Binjimen Victor (No. 157 WR)
Marcus Baugh (No. 31 TE)
Ohio State D (No. 6 D)

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Sam Hubbard (Rd. 1 grade, per Tony Pauline)

How should I think about this team?: Your 2017 frontrunners.

Over the winter and spring, when outlets were publishing their early 2017 rankings, Alabama was nearly the unanimous choice nationally for No. 1. I went with Ohio State, and I remain in that camp with the new season now officially upon us.

This may turn out to be HC Urban Meyer’s (61-6 with the Buckeyes) best team. After losing twice last season and failing to make the Big 10 title game, Meyer hired former Indiana head coach (and ace Oklahoma offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson to rejuvenate the offense. Wilson’s M.O. is to spread the field and overpower you in space. That mission statement jives well with both Meyer’s vision and the talent returning to Columbus.

Heisman contender QB J.T. Barrett and starting RB Mike Weber both return. The Buckeyes must replace Dontre Wilson, Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel in the receiving corps, but they don’t figure to fall off much there, if at all. Some believe Parris Campbell -- who’s taking over Samuel-s H-receiver position -- is a Rd. 1 NFL prospect.

Between Campbell, returners K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack, plus a trio of stud freshman recruits (headlined by Trevon Grimes), the Buckeyes can once again do hockey-style line shifts of four- and five-star recruits on the perimeter. The offensive line returns four starters, only losing Pat Elflein, and should be one of the conference's best.

Defensively, Ohio State has one of the scariest front sevens you’ll ever see. The NFL has been sniffing around DLs Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers since they arrived on campus. A level back, LB Raekwon McMillan now plays on Sundays but everyone else returns. Jerome Baker should make his full-fledged star turn this fall.

How effectively the Buckeyes replace a secondary that lost S Malik Hooker and CBs Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley -- in addition to how quickly Wilson can reignite the aerial attack -- will ultimately decide if the Buckeyes are a legitimate national title contender or only’ a 10-win team that misses the Playoff.

As with the receiving corps, Ohio State has so much talent in the back-end of its defense -- S Damon Webb is a returning starter, CBs Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette both received huge reps last year, and five-star JUCO Kendall Sheffield and prep stars CBs Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade all look like potential stars -- that it’s difficult to be pessimistic.

Not only is Ohio State on Alabama’s level in terms of talent, but the Buckeyes play a far more forgiving schedule. OSU hosts Oklahoma and Penn State -- the two best teams on the schedule -- and its most difficult road game is at a rebuilding Michigan in the finale. The Buckeyes play no other team that S&P+ ranks in the top-38 heading into the season.

Bovada over/under win total: 10.5
Prediction: OVER
Projected record: 12-0

 




Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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