Mark Lindquist

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Post-Spring Top 25

Monday, May 14, 2018


Author’s note: Rotoworld will be running through a complete preview series for the 2018 college football season beginning in July. Check back then for extensive breakdowns of all 130 college teams. For now, our top 25.


1. Clemson -- While much has been made of the elite front seven the Tigers will trot out this season thanks to the returns of Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Kendall Joseph, what intrigues us most about HC Dabo Swinney’s crew is their potential offensive upside. A pair of explosive runners in Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster -- though both players could stand to be a little more efficient -- and a budding receiving star in Tee Higgins lead the way. We have zero doubts about Clemson’s defense (they’re going to be elite) and zero doubts about the skill-position talent (it’s awesome).


The real question and the question that’s going to determine whether the Tigers reach their potential not just as a contender for the Playoff as they were in 2017, but as a true contender for the national championship, will be that of quarterback play. Specifically, which quarterback will play. Kelly Bryant served as an admirable enough fill-in for Deshaun Watson last fall, but Bryant has limitations as a passer which clearly showed against Alabama when push came to shove. Versus the Tide in the Playoff, he completed just 18-of-36 passes for 124 yards and two interceptions. Enter five-star true freshman Trevor Lawrence over the winter. Considered by many to be a generational quarterback prospect, Lawrence was exactly as advertised during Clemson’s spring game, completing 11-of-16 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. This offseason, Swinney has consistently said that Bryant would be the starter “if the season started today.” That’s fine, though reading between the lines might tell a slightly different story.


Said Dabo: “Kelly has had a good spring, but those guys behind him have had great springs as well.”


Said Dabo: “[Bryant’s] made a lot of big plays and proven that he can win at the highest level. But last year isn't this year. It's a very competitive situation.”


Said Dabo: “[Lawrence] really was excellent, very well prepared and ready.”


We’re leaning on our hunch that Lawrence ends up starting this coming season. If he does -- and if he’s ready to rock -- we’ll have another Clemson title contender on our hands. If he doesn’t and Bryant retains his starting job, though, we’d knock the Tigers down several pegs on the rankings board. They simply do not have National Championship upside without a quarterback change, no matter how fierce the defense or how explosive the running backs and receivers.


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2. Georgia -- Gone are backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, linebacking star Roquan Smith and wayward son QB Jacob Eason, along with a smattering of others parting ways for the draft or graduation. It’s a lot of talent out the door, to be sure, but that’s what happens when you’re a big dawg. The Bulldogs are equipped to deal with their losses, not only due to their previously-rostered talent, but also whole slew of talented freshmen. Their running backs room, in particular, is just silly, headlined by De’Andre Swift, who is buttressed by a pair of five-star freshmen in Zamir White and James Cook.


If Jake Fromm can take the developmental steps you would hope for from a quarterback heading into his sophomore season, Georgia will again be competing for a national championship this season. And if Fromm falters, well, five-star super freshman dual-threat Justin Fields is waiting in the wings. We don’t expect Fromm to have issue, though. Georgia’s schedule is no great shakes, especially if LSU and Florida are in for downturned seasons. The Bulldogs face them in an October two-step, but otherwise the schedule’s soft into November. For the record, we do see the Tigers taking a downtown, but we’re kind of intrigued by the Gators.



3. Ohio State -- Buckeye fans have probably paid thousands of dollars in therapy bills coping with the great-but-not-as-great-as-it-should-have-been J.T. Barrett Era in Columbus over the past few years. No more for that, though. No, OSU fans will have to find something else to focus their angst on, as Barrett has moved on and turned the car over to one of Dwayne Haskins or Tate Martell. Haskins is the odds-on favorite to start following the transfer announcement of Joe Burrow earlier this week. He backed up Barrett last season and had himself a cup of coffee here and there during the campaign. We liked what we saw in brief spots (especially in terms of his accuracy) he’ll have a bevy of skill-position talent at his disposal, ranging from running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber to receivers Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon.


Their offense could be spectacular this season and their defense boasts some scary names headlined by edge terror Nick Bosa, who wrecked offensive gameplans even while working in rotation a year ago. It's easy -- though not always advised -- to fall under the sway of a shiny new quarterback, but this Ohio State team has all sorts of upside if Haskins hits.

 

 

4. Alabama -- We just have weird feelings about the defending champs, if we’re being honest. Throughout the offseason, there’s been a consistent assumption that Tua Tagovailoa -- based on one half of up-and-down football -- will start over Jalen Hurts. We can’t get there, though we understand it. Tagovailoa brings far more to the table with his arm. He’s the passer that Hurts never will be. He’s also the risk-taker that Hurts is not. And if we’re to step into Nick Saban’s brain for a moment, what’s the downside of Jalen Hurts? That maybe you don’t have the spark you need against a Georgia, in those big championship moments. Fair. The downside of Tua? He’s completely unproven as a starter, automatically more of a risk than Hurts until he proves otherwise. You know what you’re getting in Hurts, even if it’s not everything.


It’s tricky, because if we’re Nick Saban, Hurts is the easy choice, here. He’s not going to jump for the draft. You have him for two more seasons. You’re Alabama and can bring in another quarterback down the road. You don’t need Tua Tagovailoa to do what you’re trying to do. Tua Tagovailoa might actually be detrimental to the metronomic game you play on a week-in, week-out basis. Guarantee these thoughts have gone through Nick Saban’s head this offseason. That’s not to say that Hurts will win the starting job. That’s just to say that it shouldn’t be considered a cut-and-dried case. Why would it be?



5. Washington --


“Marge, anyone can miss Canada. All tucked away down there.” - Homer Simpson


That sort of does sum up the Huskies, doesn’t it? They play most of their games at weird times. They play in a conference which is essentially an internet meme. It even comes with its own hashtag. We’ll say this -- sleep on the Huskies at your own peril. While Clemson’s front seven made all sorts of headlines for their seemingly collective decision to return to campus this winter, the Huskies were working more in dribs and drabs. A Jake Browning here, a Myles Gaskin there, a Trey Adams there and suddenly it’s all like, “We’re getting the gang back together, Ma!” Sans a few friendly faces such as Vita Vea and Dante Pettis. In essence, though, Washington is bringing back their whole squad. We love their secondary, which will be one of the best in the country this year.


Probably needless to say, we’re bullish on the Huskies. As a national title contender. For real. It may feel like we’ve been through this dance before without a happy ending, but Browning needed shoulder surgery after that campaign and we feel like this is the year everything finally comes together for Coach Pete. He’ll have Jacob Eason at the helm next year and we expect it will be off to the races at that point.



6. Wisconsin -- Speaking of teams that people kind of acknowledge as existing, it’s the Badgers. As much as we’re left feeling cold and emotionally detached from them as though we’re watching an episode of Westworld, there’s a steep drop-off after Washington for us and Wisconsin boasts enough offensive talent -- Jonathan Taylor leading the way -- to pair with an always-staunch defense that we’re comfortable they’ll be relevant come November. They have an intriguing open to their Big Ten schedule (at Iowa, home to Nebraska, at Michigan) that may well determine their season.



7. Oklahoma -- So the Sooners are a difficult gauge right now. They lost the face of the program to the Cleveland Browns and their next would-be starter at quarterback might not even be on the team in August. That’s because Kyler Murray is not only good at throwing the ball around the yard, he also carries quite the big stick on the diamond. Murray is in play as a first-round selection for the MLB amateur draft in June. Five-star quarterback, potential centerfield star in the bigs, he’s as athletic as they come. A year ago, Baker Mayfield called him the fastest player on the team. Regardless of position. That’s impressive. Should Murray opt out with football, the mantle of starting quarterback in Norman will likely fall to four-star redshirt freshman Austin Kendall. Regardless of whether Murray ends up playing a starting down for Oklahoma in 2018, it’s reasonable to expect a few growing pains this year. The offensive talent on this team as a whole remains some of the best in the country.



8. Penn State -- A make/break year for Trace McSorley, who enters without his backfield buddy Saquon Barkley for the first time in his career. And he won’t have offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to look to on the sideline, either, as Moorhead’s at Mississippi State, now. The quarterback was sharp in spring work -- 10-of-14 in the team’s spring game -- and the Nittany Lions have been toeing the line that the offense is going to push through the losses of Barkley and others without major issue. We’re tentatively buying that argument. If McSorley can pull the team to a conference title and a Playoff berth to cap his career, he could well parlay that into a top-10 selection in the NFL draft. If nothing else, Baker Mayfield’s selection at No. 1 this spring is going to bring some non-traditional quarterback prospects (such as McSorley) into the light of serious consideration for high selections.



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Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.
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