Welcome to the opening edition of my new weekly column. Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue in the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes the Sam Horn vs Brady Cook battle is the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri contest, in the SEC, and around the nation. Let’s get to it.
Three Things to Watch: On Mizzou
Defensive end rotation
This is the only position group where there is still plenty of murkiness about the roles. I expect to see the top two transfers, Joe Moore and Nyles Gaddy, factor into this game. I expect to see Darius Robinson slide over from the interior, and play meaningful snaps on standard downs setting the edge. I expect to see breakout candidate Johnny Walker get plenty of opportunities. But how does it all shake out? If Gaddy and Moore do not dominate against an FCS opponent, will they be ready for SEC ball? Does Robinson kick into the middle for passing downs, and how effective will this experiment be? Is Johnny Walker ready to set the edge – if he can’t against South Dakota, this position group could look very thin. This is the one position on defense that is causing heartburn, and you should watch their play with a keen eye.
I’m not particularly concerned about linebacker; Ty’Ron Hopper is a stud after all, and Chad Bailey has been excellent in the year-and-a-half in which he has started. But Bailey is already injured to start the season, and so his backups suddenly become a position of intrigue. Dameon Wilson and Triston Newson appear set to be next in line; are they prepared to shoulder more responsibility if necessary?
Well, duh. Honestly, this could have been all three things. Fixing this offense – which finished 74th in SP+ last season – is paramount, and it starts and ends with better quarterback play. I am optimistic Brady Cook will take a leap in 2023; he will be healthier, and the offensive infrastructure promises to be better around him. I will be even more optimistic if Sam Horn manages to beat out that version of Cook for the job. Let the debates begin…
Three Things to Watch: In the SEC
South Carolina lines
South Carolina might be college football’s ultimate Rorschach test right now. Do you focus on the fact that they beat two top ten teams to end their regular season last fall, or that they were barely competitive in losses to Florida and Missouri and struggled in other spots? Do you focus on the talent leaving the program in the portal, or on the gangbusters high school recruiting? Do you focus on Spencer Rattler’s poor timing and decision-making, or on his rocket arm and occasional Sunday throws? Do you notice the dearth of talent on both lines, or trust in Rattler and star receiver Juice Wells?
The line play is worrisome. This team got pushed around in the trenches last year, and reinforcements were scarce. Starting left tackle Jaylen Nichols is likely out for the year after a spring game injury. If they can’t hold their own against a UNC team known for finesse play, things might get dicey for the Gamecocks in the SEC.
Florida at Utah
While readers of these electronic pages will spend their Thursday evening locked in on who is backing up Luther Burden in the slot, which back is getting the carries after Peat/Schrader, and if any of the tight ends look decent, the rest of the country will be enjoying this matchup from Salt Lake City. Last year’s game was a classic, as the Gators escaped by the hair of Anthony Richardson’s chinny-chinny-chin. Utah has two problems: firstly, neither quarterback Cameron Rising nor star tight end Brant Kuithe might be available, and secondly, they always seem to start slow in recent years. They do have a major trump card, with one of the best home-field advantages in the sport. Rice-Eccles Stadium will be absolutely rocking for this game, as the limited Utes look to revenge last season’s loss.
LSU vs Florida State
While most of the league will be picking its teeth by halftime after demolishing an overmatched foe, Louisiana State will put its playoff sleeper credentials on the line. Last year’s edition was a humdinger, and this one promises to be more of the same. Both teams have eyes on the postseason, both teams have loaded wide receiver rooms and excellent defensive ends, both teams have veteran quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs. The only thing this game is missing is an on-campus crowd.
Three Things to Watch: Around The Nation
South Alabama at Tulane
For the Group of Five aficionados among us, this contest is a real treat. Tulane crashed the New Year’s Six party last year with a surprising win over USC in the Cotton Bowl. They lost some star power from that overachieving squad, but quarterback Michael Pratt is back to operate Willie Fritz’s funky option-esque offense. South Alabama is looking to play the role this year, and they will get to audition for it in this matchup. The upstart Jaguars have a host of athletic playmakers on the perimeter on both sides of the ball – safety Yam Banks might be one of the best defenders in the country you don’t know about. The winner of this game will have the inside track to representing the smaller schools on college football’s grand stage in January.
Sweeping overreactions to new offenses
So many teams around the country are making changes at offensive coordinator or head coach due to pressure to win, and I can’t wait to read all the breathless overreactions to their first efforts. Of course, you have Jimbo Fisher turning over the reins to Bobby Petrino at Texas A&M in hopes of not squandering another talented roster. Arkansas, South Carolina, and (gulp) Missouri all claim to have fixed last year’s struggles with new playcallers. Colorado, Old Dominion, and USF will all be running the veer-and-shoot as it continues to take over the sport. Miami, NC State, and Clemson will all try to win the ACC with a revamped offensive attack after a mediocre (or worse) 2022. Some of these hires will work out, some of them will not. Enjoy the schadenfreude.
Boise State at Washington
This game promises to be pointsy as hell. Boise State can defend a little bit, but there are questions about their secondary. Washington can’t really defend. Boise has one of the best trios of ballcarriers in the nation, with mobile QB Taylen Green and backs Ashton Jeanty and George Holani. Washington has the best trio of receivers in the country: Rome Odunze is a game-breaker, and Jalen McMillen and Ja’lynn Polk are excellent complements. With these excellent trios, how could I not feature them in this threesome-themed piece? This game should be a track meet; don’t miss it.