by Ian Boyd
Week 1 of the college football season has finally arrived, and it's a very interesting one with a few big contests featuring preseason playoff picks squaring off. We've got lots of neutral-site contests, a few regional power struggles, and most delightfully a diversified schedule. You can watch important and intriguing games on Friday night, all day and afternoon Saturday, Sunday night, and then Monday night as well while waiting for the NFL to get going.
Included in our weekly six feature games are the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide, midwestern titans Michigan and Notre Dame, and Clemson's main ACC challengers in Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Miami. This week will not only sort out the pecking order heading into the season, but it will also likely produce wild overreactions. Let's get started!
All times are listed as Eastern.
San Diego State at Stanford (-14.5) -- 9 p.m. Friday (FS1)
|Overall||SD State||Stanford||Projected F/+||59||17||When SD State has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||69||53||2017 FEI||62||62||2017 S&P+||44||59||2017 IsoPPP+||63||51||2017 Rushing S&P+||85||58||2017 Passing S&P+||101||69||When Stanford has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||47||12||2017 FEI||43||14||2017 S&P+||38||29||2017 IsoPPP+||38||19||2017 Rushing S&P+||39||46||2017 Passing S&P+||45||34|
The mighty Aztecs gave Stanford one of their few black eyes in the 2017 season, a 20-17 victory achieved while holding the ball for over 41 minutes of game clock. San Diego State went 7-for-17 on third downs, and quarterback Christian Chapman put in a workmanlike 21-for-29 for 187 yards (6.4 yards per pass) while keeping the chains moving.
On the other side of the ball, Love ran wild with 184 rushing yards and two scores on 13 carries ... but quarterback Keller Chryst threw a pair of picks and the Cardinal weren't able to feed their war horse back like they should have. Stanford only ran 43 plays on the day, and 22 were passes that netted just 80 yards while leading to a pair of turnovers. The Cardinal drew the contest the week after a grueling loss to USC, and the following week they turned to young K.J. Costello at quarterback and went 8-3 over the rest of the season.
For the 2018 season, the Aztecs will presumably have Stanford's full attention at home. However, San Diego State has a strong team with seniors across their offense and defense, Chapman back at quarterback, and speedy running back Juwan Washington returning after running for 759 yards a year ago as the backup. The Aztecs have had their lead back go for over a thousand rushing yards every year since head coach Rocky Long took over in 2011. Five different guys hit that total in the last three years, and the last two years saw the lead back go for over 2,000 yards rushing. While Stanford has the national reputation for producing hard-nosed, power-run teams, the Aztecs have the best run game resume of any program in the FBS division.
Another complicating factor is that Stanford is missing two or three starters for this game with injuries from fall camp and starting over on defense after taking a major dip in 2017. They're looking to rebuild on defense this year with a new core of players while taking a leap on offense with the return of most of their offensive line, Love, and Costello.
- How much will Stanford lean on their passing game with redshirt sophomore K.J. Costello emerging as a key player?
- The return of electric playmaker Bryce Love.
- Will San Diego State field yet another pounding run game?
- Can Stanford better attack San Diego State's 3-3 dime structure defense after an offseason to prepare?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Stanford
Auburn (-2) vs Washington at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Auburn||Washington||Projected F/+||5||7||When Auburn has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||18||4||2017 FEI||17||10||2017 S&P+||34||6||2017 IsoPPP+||37||7||2017 Rushing S&P+||16||11||2017 Passing S&P+||12||26||When Washington has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||5||15||2017 FEI||4||9||2017 S&P+||5||18||2017 IsoPPP+||2||17||2017 Rushing S&P+||5||45||2017 Passing S&P+||1||9|
Auburn and Washington are both regarded as playoff hopefuls. The Huskies missed the playoffs a year ago after dropping Pac-12 contests to Arizona State and Stanford before taking a pounding at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Fiesta Bowl. Meanwhile, Auburn won the Iron Bowl against Alabama only to lose their rematch with Georgia in spectacular fashion and draw Central Florida in the Sugar Bowl, where they lost again to the "national champions."
Washington is in very strong shape this year after returning left tackle Trey Adams (lost to injury in 2017), starting running back Myles Gaskin, and fourth-year starting quarterback Jake Browning. The defense had to start over in the secondary a year ago after losing three players to the NFL, but now returns all five starters from their nickel defense along with leading tackler Ben Burr-Kirven at linebacker. The Huskies have some emerging weapons on offense around Gaskin, loads of experience, and a clever coaching staff led by Chris Petersen that will take advantage of their veterans to craft precise game plans.
Auburn is facing more of a rebuild from 2017. They lost star running back Kerryon Johnson along with their two best offensive linemen and star pass-rusher Jeff Holland. Head coach Gus Malzahn has this team in reload mode. The Tigers have lots of blue-chip talent emerging on both lines as well as a pair of returning starters at defensive tackle. The Tigers defense settled on an identity two years ago under coordinator Kevin Steele: a base nickel formation that plays up tight on opponents and relies on soundness and execution. With the level of talent they regularly bring into Auburn, that tends to work out quite well.
Matching Washington's offensive firepower, though, will require returning Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham to carry a bigger load. In 2017 Stidham became the first quarterback in the Malzahn era of Auburn to throw for 3,000 yards. He now returns, along with top targets Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. If Auburn can retool in the run game behind lead blocker Chandler Cox, they will really test whether Washington's experience is matched by enough sheer size and talent to hang with the top SEC teams.
- If Washington can hang with Auburn in the trenches, which would boost their profile and playoff case all year long.
- Will Auburn be more of a passing team now or simply reload with a young running back like Kam Martin?
- Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham against Washington's clever pass-rush and veteran secondary.
- Washington head coach Chris Petersen will likely have some trick plays up his sleeve.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington
Michigan at Notre Dame (-1) -- 7:30 p.m. (NBC)
|Overall||Michigan||Notre Dame||Projected F/+||11||6||When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||45||7||2017 FEI||78||20||2017 S&P+||85||27||2017 IsoPPP+||49||5||2017 Rushing S&P+||14||13||2017 Passing S&P+||86||7||When Notre Dame has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||2||22||2017 FEI||9||13||2017 S&P+||10||24||2017 IsoPPP+||24||9||2017 Rushing S&P+||8||5||2017 Passing S&P+||3||65|
These are two of the more fascinating teams entering 2018, and at least one of them (perhaps the winner of this game) is likely to be a playoff contender come November. The Irish are facing a tough rebuild on offense after losing the left side of their line (including all-time great left guard Quenton Nelson) to the first round of the NFL draft. They also lost top receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and lead back Josh Adams. On the surface it would appear the Irish are heavily depleted on offense, but head coach Brian Kelly has shown a knack for recruiting future NFL players and the Irish are pumped about their three returning starters on the offensive line and young wide receiver talent. What's more, the defense returns eight starters from a top unit that figures to be one of the nation's best.
The big question in South Bend concerns the quarterback position. Returning starter Brandon Wimbush ran for 923 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, but threw for only 1,870 and was benched for superior passer Ian Book in the Citrus Bowl, a Notre Dame comeback victory. With a diminished backfield but emerging wide receiver corps, there's a lot of question over whether the Irish might have a higher ceiling with Book behind center.
Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh has quietly been retooling the faltering Michigan offense. He hired spread run game guru Ed Warriner, who made his name coaching at Kansas when they went to the Orange Bowl, at Notre Dame with Brian Kelly, and then at Ohio State with Urban Meyer. Harbaugh also landed transfer quarterback Shea Patterson from the wreckage of Ole Miss and named him the starter. Now the Wolverines have an emerging young core on the offensive line, a deep stable of running backs and tight ends, and a dominant defense that returns eight starters from a nationally elite unit. If Michigan's offseason changes and evolution on offense yield a top unit on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines could make a significant leap into a playoff team. Starting on the road in South Bend is as stern and solid an initial test as you'll get.
- Has Michigan evolved into more of a spread offense with option tactics for new quarterback Shea Patterson?
- Who starts at quarterback for Notre Dame and, more importantly, who finishes?
- How will Notre Dame's retooling offensive line handle Michigan's star defensive ends and blistering blitzes?
- Is the winner a playoff frontrunner?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Louisville vs Alabama (-24.5) at Camping World Stadium in Orlando -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Louisville||Alabama||Projected F/+||28||1||When Louisville has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||5||6||2017 FEI||12||2||2017 S&P+||5||1||2017 IsoPPP+||10||3||2017 Rushing S&P+||3||1||2017 Passing S&P+||11||5||When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||97||10||2017 FEI||84||11||2017 S&P+||84||23||2017 IsoPPP+||114||8||2017 Rushing S&P+||94||12||2017 Passing S&P+||103||3|
This game has been dominated by the talk leading up to it, which has been about as stratified as you could imagine. On one side, Louisville's players and coach Bobby Petrino have let it be known that they expect to go in and beat Alabama. On the other, Alabama head coach Nick Saban recently remarked that new Louisville starting quarterback Jawon Pass was a "Cam Newton-looking type" of player.
Louisville needs Pass to be something like that not only to beat Alabama but to replace Lamar Jackson, who won a Heisman Trophy in 2016 and produced 5,419 total yards in 2017. Jackson was an electric player who was strong in the Cardinals' passing attack but also completely dominant as a runner in their option game or scrambling. Pass figures to be more of a traditional Petrino quarterback, executing his under-center and dropback-oriented offense with a talented cast of receivers. The top three targets of 2017 are all back for the Cardinals.
Despite the adjusted stats, which suggest Louisville can be competitive with this Alabama team, the line is wide because Louisville collapsed on defense in 2017 after losing coordinator Todd Grantham to Mississippi State (from which he followed Dan Mullen to Florida). Now they've brought in Brian VanGorder, who spent 2017 consulting for Oklahoma State in the wake of being fired from Notre Dame. There's some young talent on this roster for him to work with, but VanGorder will need a new approach after struggling at his previous college stops.
Alabama is not quite the juggernaut this coming season they've been in the past, or at least they don't appear to be. The nickel and dime packages they relied on to win a championship in 2017 have been gutted, with all six defensive backs moving on along with star nose tackle Da'Ron Payne and hybrid linebacker Rashaan Evans. Alabama will be starting over on that side of the ball with new stars and a largely new defensive staff after losing coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to the Tennessee vacancy.
On offense the Tide look much more formidable, although they are young at quarterback with true sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, and at wide receiver, where sophomores Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Devonta Smith are emerging. The offensive line is loaded with both talent and experience, while the running back room returns lead back Damien Harris along with up-and-coming sophomore Najee Harris. The hope in Louisville is that this is a shootout they can win by virtue of having a more experienced passing attack.
- Young quarterbacks Jawon Pass and Tua Tagovailoa, who may be Heisman candidates sooner or later.
- How will Alabama's revamped defense look?
- How much does Louisville's offensive identity change without Lamar Jackson?
- Can Brian VanGorder get Louisville's defense back to respectability?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
Miami (-3) vs LSU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington -- 7:30 p.m. Sunday (ABC)
|Overall||Miami||LSU||Projected F/+||12||15||When Miami has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||12||10||2017 FEI||36||35||2017 S&P+||36||18||2017 IsoPPP+||12||20||2017 Rushing S&P+||22||24||2017 Passing S&P+||21||20||When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||12||40||2017 FEI||14||22||2017 S&P+||22||42||2017 IsoPPP+||23||18||2017 Rushing S&P+||30||7||2017 Passing S&P+||31||16|
Miami and LSU are both hovering in the "could be playoff contenders IF…" realm, with neither team currently getting much benefit of the doubt from voters or prognosticators. The Hurricanes had a breakthrough 2017 season up until the end, when they blew a game against Pittsburgh, failed to overcome Clemson in the ACC title game, and then went down hard against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes return their quarterback/running back tandem in a spread option offense, though, and quarterback Malik Rosier is now a year better and wiser in head coach Mark Richt's passing game.
On defense, the Hurricanes return a lot of experience on the back end while needing to reload on the defensive line with new young players. The Mark Richt staff at Miami has made a point to zero their recruiting back on the "state of Miami," which essentially runs from the I-4 corridor from Tampa Bay to Orlando into South Florida, where they've always made their home. They have a defense loaded with South Florida kids now that they hope will be a fast and aggressive unit.
LSU has had a tumultuous 12 months, parting ways with offensive coordinator Matt Canada just before the bowl game and then hiring 2016's interim offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger as the head guy once more. The Tigers graduated star running back Derrius Guice but managed to recruit grad transfer Joe Burrow from Ohio State to play quarterback and throw to Texas Tech wide receiver transfer Jonathan Giles. The expectation is that LSU will finally feature the passing game from spread formations this coming year and lean on that approach rather than trying to pound every opponent with power tosses.
The Tigers defense is loaded and led by returning starters up the middle at tackle (Rashard Lawrence), linebacker (Devin White), and safety (John Battle and Grant Delpit). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has star cornerback Andrea "Greedy" Williams back and a deeper secondary overall that could allow him to dip back into his vaunted "peso" 2-4-5 nickel defense. There's a lot of young talent across the unit that had to play as freshmen in 2017; they now hope to make it another great defense in Baton Rouge. They'll be a tough challenge for Miami if the Hurricanes haven't made significant strides in the passing game.
- Can Malik Rosier attack LSU's defense with the passing game?
- How will transfer quarterback Joe Burrow and the new offense look?
- Can Miami's rebuilt defensive line dominate up front against a veteran LSU offensive line?
- Does either team have the firepower to win their division?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Miami
Virginia Tech vs Florida State (-7) -- 8 p.m. Monday (ESPN)
|Overall||Virginia Tech||Florida State||Projected F/+||22||16||When Virginia Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense||Projected S&P+||55||21||2017 FEI||79||21||2017 S&P+||96||33||2017 IsoPPP+||87||15||2017 Rushing S&P+||68||26||2017 Passing S&P+||45||25||When Florida State has the ball||Defense||Offense||Projected S&P+||22||30||2017 FEI||11||70||2017 S&P+||9||76||2017 IsoPPP+||65||39||2017 Rushing S&P+||15||32||2017 Passing S&P+||24||30|
Virginia Tech is hoping that 2018 is the year that head coach Justin Fuente finally breaks through with his spread offense. The Hokies have yet to put together a brilliant season under Fuente, despite adding him to strong program that retained longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster and Virginia Tech's famous 4-2-5 defense. The 2016 season started well, but JUCO quarterback Jerod Evans left early for the NFL and left redshirt freshman Josh Jackson in charge for 2017. The struggles that followed were inevitable, and the Hokies struggled to avoid negative plays or run the ball.
Now Jackson is a sophomore and surrounded by a mostly intact offensive line and a young cast of skill players ready to make a leap in Year 3 of the system. Of course, Foster's defense has to rebuild from losing their two starting linebackers and almost the entire starting secondary from 2017. They have a mix of older and younger players that will seek to win the vacant jobs, but the defense may take a step backwards while rebuilding the defensive backfield. The main hope in Blacksburg is that running back DeShawn McClease will find room in their spread offense to carry a big load while Jackson distributes the ball in space to emerging targets.
Florida State has a lot of known, established weapons across both sides of the ball, but is starting over with a new coaching staff and new systems. Head Coach Willie Taggart now has the Seminoles in a spread RPO offense in which reinstated quarterback Deondre Francois will look to use pass options to clear out space for star running back Cam Akers to run behind a reshuffled offensive line.
Virginia Tech struggled with that style of attack in their bowl contest against Oklahoma State but the Noles haven't demonstrated the proficiency of ex-Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph or the lethality of Cowboys wide receivers James Washington and Marcel Ateman just yet. Week 1 is a great time to catch this offense before it really starts to come together.
The Florida State defense is going to embrace the model of Michigan State, playing press-quarters behind a 4-3 Over front, pressuring the ball, and daring opponents to throw it deep in order to make them back off. With Florida State's athletes on defense, this kind of pressuring defense could be a real challenge for opponents. Again though, it's Week 1, and the Noles may not have the system down cold like the Spartans did with some of their more dominant defenses of the last several years.
- Is Florida State ready to go in their new spread offense and pressure defense, or will there be growing pains?
- Will Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson be ready to make a leap?
- How will Virginia Tech's retooled defense adjust to another RPO spread offense?
- Are we watching a potential ACC champion?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida State
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 1
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick||S&P+ Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Stanford||14.5||San Diego State||Stanford||Stanford||Stanford|
|Notre Dame||1||Michigan||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Michigan|
|Florida State||7||Virginia Tech||Florida State||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last year: 64-57