Expert Predictions for the 2018 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2018

Expert Predictions for the 2018 College Football Season

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    Predictions are an inexact science. Fortunately for you, valued reader, Bleacher Report's experts know exactly what to expect during the 2018 college football season.

    Our four NostradamiMatt Hayes, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller and me, David Kenyonpicked only two different national champions and five programs to reach the College Football Playoff.

    However, they had more variety on Heisman winners, first-year coaches to watch and several other topics.

    The quartet responded to eight questions concerning the campaign and looks forward to the answers being entirely corrector hilariously wrong. Welcome back, college football!

Which Week 1 Showdown Will Mean the Most in December?

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    Hayes: A loss by Auburn would likely mean the Tigers must go undefeated in the SEC to get to the CFP. That's because a two-loss SEC champion would be a tough sell to the CFP committee, especially with the perceived breaks the SEC has gotten in the first four years of the playoff.

    Washington must win because in the Pac-12, the surest, safest way to get to the CFP is to win every game. The Huskies made it with a loss two years ago but only after significant controversy—Big Ten champion Penn State was left out.


    Kenyon: The Pac-12 could miss the CFP with a loss by Washington. The North Division is nasty enough to anticipate at least one conference loss for UW, but Stanford and Oregon can't be trusted to win 11 games.

    Auburn's schedule lends itself to a loss being forgivable, but starting 0-1 with both Georgia and Alabama remaining on the slate is a deep hole. The victor in Atlanta will be in position to use the marquee nonconference win to overpower a potential upset loss.


    Kramer: I feel like this is somewhat obvious right now, which means it will be a woeful miss come December. Washington-Auburn is a delightful matchup out of the gate, and it's a massive one for both teams.

    Like so many "experts," I get the Washington hype. It has a little of everything, especially on offense. I also believe Auburn could be the best team in the SEC if Jarrett Stidham plays to his potential at quarterback.

    A loss by Washington would hurt a great deal because of the reputation of the Pac-12 is still down. For Auburn, this game is by no means make-or-break, but it could help a great deal.


    Miller: It's not No. 1 on the list of games I'm most excited about watching in college football's true opening weekend, but Virginia Tech at Florida State on Monday night could have massive ACC and national title implications. Both teams will later host games against the favorites in their divisions (Miami at Virginia Tech on Nov. 17; Clemson at Florida State on Oct. 27), so a Week 1 win over a fellow ACC contender would clear the path to a division title.

    Conversely, the loser will have drastically reduced odds of playing for the conference championship, which simply doesn't apply in the Washington-Auburn, Miami-LSU or Michigan-Notre Dame gems.

Which Preseason AP Top 25 Team Will Tumble Furthest?

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    Chris Knight/Associated Press

    Hayes: I'm not sold on Miami as one of the top eight teams in the country. The Canes feasted on mostly average competition last year until the heavy lifting portion of their schedule. Even a bowl game in their own backyard got ugly. In the last three games of 2017—losses to Pitt, Clemson and Wisconsin—Malik Rosier completed less than 45 percent of his passes and threw five interceptions. Until he plays better in big games, I'm not buying Miami.


    Kenyon: I so desperately want to like No. 17 West Virginia. I will spend several Saturdays watching Will Grier, David Sills V, Gary Jennings Jr. and the rest of that enjoyable high-powered offense.

    But the combination of a road-heavy schedule and reworked defense scares me off. The Mountaineers play Tennessee at a neutral site and North Carolina State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma State on the road. Throw in November clashes with TCU and Oklahoma, and there's 7-5 potential despite a top-10 offense.


    Kramer: This one is tough, especially considering I generally feel really good about the teams near the top of the rankings. But I'll go with No. 10 Penn State.

    I love Trace McSorley and some of the young defenders. I also love the front end of the Nittany Lions' schedule, which they should cruise through. The middle portion, however, is loaded, and even though many of the toughest games are at home, the Big Ten is a nasty group this year.

    That’s not to say Penn State won’t win a bunch of games. If everything comes together, this could be a wonderful team. But the Big Ten could very well cannibalize itself, and Penn State, despite being one of the more talented teams in the nation, could fall because of that.


    Miller: I'm a big believer in most of the teams in the Top 15, and I'm a huge fan of all things Bryce Love, but I think No. 13 Stanford could be out of sight, out of mind before October even begins. It plays USC in Week 2 before closing the opening month with back-to-back road games against Oregon and Notre Dame. Factor in November road games against Washington, California and UCLA, and the Cardinal may have a tough time even becoming bowl-eligible.

Which Unranked Team Deserves More Attention?

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    Hayes: I really like what Will Muschamp has done at South Carolina in such a short time. Jake Bentley is going into his third season as a starter, and he has the SEC's most dynamic player (Deebo Samuel) back from injury. The Gamecocks are strong on the lines of scrimmage, too. We'll see just how much of a jump South Carolina has made in Week 2 when Georgia visits Columbia.


    Kenyon: Iowa intrigues me. While I have issues believing in the Hawkeyes as a contender, they have an opportunity to play spoiler in the Big Ten West. Kirk Ferentz's club hosts Wisconsin on Sep. 22, and that Kinnick Stadium magic upended Ohio State and nearly stunned Penn State last year.

    Beyond that, the Hawkeyes host Iowa State, travel to Penn State and avoid each of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Thanks to a little bit of schedule luck, Iowa could be a nine- or 10-win program and threaten for a New Year's Six slot.


    Kramer: Lane Kiffin has no issues generating attention, but FAU is a talented team that could win almost every game it plays.

    I don't think the Owls beat Oklahoma out of the gate. But outside that, I could see another 11-win season. Kiffin welcomes back Devin Singletary, who ran for 1,918 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. He also returns linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who finished third in the nation in tackles.

    It's a fabulous tandem, and it's a roster with players who could play in bigger conferences. This team may average more than 40 points per game (again) and be one of the most enjoyable weekly watches.


    Miller: It's boring to pick the first team listed in the "Others receiving votes" section, but it's ridiculous South Carolina is not ranked. With the exception of Hayden Hurst, basically the entire offense is back, including Samuel. The Gamecocks will probably take a step backward on defense, but they have 10-win potential.

Which New Coach Is Most Intriguing?

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    Hayes: Chip Kelly, UCLA. As a middle-of-the-pack, irrelevant Pac-12 program, the Bruins have struggled to recruit the talent-rich Los Angeles area. We saw what Kelly did at Oregon when he and his staff recruited well, but he also did it when his Blur Ball spread offense wasn't as prevalent in the game as it is now. Has everyone caught up to Kelly? That's the question.


    Kenyon: I have a bunch of answers, from Kelly to Herm Edwards to Scott Frost. But I'll jump into the Group of Five and tab Josh Heupel, who took over for Frost at Central Florida.

    Last year, Heupel helped Missouri quarterback Drew Lock set an SEC record and lead the FBS with 44 touchdown passes. UCF's McKenzie Milton accounted for 45 scores. He's back, yet the Knights appear to be devalued because Kiffin and Florida Atlantic are stealing the attention. UCF isn't going away, though.


    Kramer: After spending a few days in Lincoln for multiple trips this offseason, it has to be Frost for me. (In fact, it's not even close.)

    This will take time. The Nebraska of old might never appear while Frost is coach, but he will get it closer than it's been in some time. You can just feel it in the program and around town. There is a palpable buzz—and I can't wait to see things play out.

    But more than that, Frost is a remarkable coach with a great staff. The offense will be so much fun to watch, even while he finds the right pieces over the next few years. Look out. It might happen sooner than most think.


    Miller: I'm intrigued to see if Heupel can even remotely maintain what Frost built at UCF, but Joe Moorhead is my answer. From 2010 to 2015, Penn State consistently had a below-average scoring offense. But after Moorhead became the offensive coordinator in 2016, the Nittany Lions turned into a high-scoring freight train.

    Sure, having Saquon Barkley helped. A lot. But Moorhead will have one of the most dynamic players in the country at his disposal in Nick Fitzgerald. The Bulldogs won't win the SEC West, but they'll deliver a lot of entertainment.

Which Quarterback Situation Will Include an In-Season Switch?

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    Hayes: Trevor Lawrence will eventually be Clemson's starting quarterback. He may not be for the first series of Week 1, and it may not happen until late September. But the best player usually plays for Dabo Swinney, and there's no question he's the Tigers' best player at the most important position on the field. It might be as simple as waiting for Lawrence to get comfortable in the offense and to make smart decisions before the starting job is his.


    Kenyon: We're in agreement about Lawrence and Clemson. Because of the new four-game redshirt rule, he'll play. And then it'll be difficult to keep him off the field.

    Beyond that popular choice, though, Notre Dame and Florida State are possibilities. Another to monitor closely if things go sour is Miami. Rosier is a fine player, and he could usher the Hurricanes to another Coastal Division crown. But he is what he isgood enough to help Miami compete nationally, inconsistent enough to cause worryand both N'Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams are interesting backups.


    Kramer: Clemson, no doubt, will likely be one. As much as I like Kelly Bryant, Lawrence is too good to wait for long. A change might not come quickly but rather over the course of the first month. If Lawrence starts sooner, I think he will hang on to the job and never look back. In general, the influx of young quarterbacks who are ready to push for playing time should be a fabulous storyline to watch.


    Miller: It would probably be quicker to list the teams that won't have multiple quarterbacks who take meaningful snaps this season. Alabama, Clemson and Georgia are the obvious answers, which is wild, since they are also the three obvious picks to reach the playoff. I'll also give you three fringe contenders who will do some quarterback shuffling: Notre Dame, TCU and Florida State.

Who Will Win the Heisman Trophy?

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    Hayes: I'll go with Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. He's an elite back, and the Badgers have their best offensive line in years—and maybe ever. Their schedule is favorable, and if Taylor stays healthy, he can rush for more than 2,000 yards.


    Kenyon: My top choices have a common theme: experience on the offensive line. Georgia, Stanford and Wisconsin return at least four starters apiece, and the latter two bring back a couple of more players with substantial previous game action.

    However, I'm leaning Stanford's Love over Taylor and Georgia's D'Andre Swift. Love won't sneak up on any Heisman voters this year, so the Pac-12's late-night kickoffs should only be a minor nuisance to his candidacy.


    Kramer: This is difficult, but Love did ridiculous things last year before he got hurt. Even after he got hurt, Love still posted huge numbers on basically one good ankle.

    Even if Stanford doesn't make the playoff, Love could surpass 2,000 rushing yards. If he stays healthy, this could be a historic year. The concerns that come with picking him are the conference's reputation and that some of his games will likely start late at night.

    Don't care. The guy is a machine. The 2k watch starts now.


    Miller: I usually pick the favorites to reach the playoff and try to go off the beaten path with my Heisman pick, so give me Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who had 30-1 odds at last check, per OddsShark. The Ducks play one of the weakest nonconference schedules of all time, so Herbert is going to pad the hell out of his stats against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State.

    If Oregon wins home games against Stanford and/or Washington, it should have more than enough victories for Herbert's video-game numbers to register on the Heisman Richter scale.

Which Teams Will Make the College Football Playoff?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Hayes: Alabama: There's a common thread with my first three teams. They're programs that recruit better than anyone else. Players win games; elite players win championships. Alabama is loaded, has two quarterbacks who could play for 90 percent of the programs in FBS and has a two-deep defense that will again be among the top three in the nation. The only question: How does Nick Saban handle the co-quarterbacking of Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts and prevent it from affecting the locker room?

    Clemson: There is no better defense in college football, and the offense is loaded with talented skill players. If Lawrence develops quickly, Clemson will roll through the season—including the CFP. If he struggles and Clemson must use him and Bryant, the lack of continuity could become an issue in big games.

    Ohio State: As much as head coach Urban Meyer loved quarterback J.T. Barrett, new starter Dwayne Haskins has more arm talent and is a more dynamic runner. This season will be Meyer's hardest yet because of how he handled allegations of domestic abuse against former assistant coach Zach Smith. If Meyer can hold together an uber-talented group, the only team that can prevent the Buckeyes from reaching the CFP is Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

    Washington: The Huskies' return to the CFP will begin with a big win in their season opener against Auburn. Momentum from that victory and quarterback Jake Browning playing like it's 2016 (not 2017) will give a team with talent and experience the confidence to navigate a dicey Pac-12 road schedule (Utah, Oregon, Washington State).


    Kenyon: I'm probably going to pick Alabama every season until Saban retires. Safe and boring, sure, but reliable. To me, the other obvious pick is Clemson because the ACC is loaded with likely bowl teams yet short on elite competition. The Tigers should be favored every week and have a one-loss margin of error.

    I'm tempted to take Oklahoma, but a two-loss year is foreseeable. Plus, the Big Ten might destroy itself because it has five potential Top 12 teams. It's unlikely any program escapes that grind at 12-1, so in addition to Pac-12 winner Washington, I'll take Georgia to round out the CFP field.


    Kramer: Let's get this out of the way: Give me Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Washington.

    Leaving Alabama out doesn't feel particularly smart given its plethora of young talent, a potential star at quarterback and a coach who pretty much reaches the CFP on command. But I also think it has holes, specifically in the back half of the defense, that could be hard to overcome. Alabama will be right there, but I could see it falling short.

    Clemson: The defense is remarkable, which you know. And when Lawrence eventually starts—I'll say this happens by Week 5 if not sooner—he will become a star.

    Ohio State: Yes, Meyer's absence has to factor in, but I also think this is a talented team with tons of offensive weapons. Haskins could sneak into the Heisman conversation.

    Georgia: This is going to become a regular pick in the years ahead, and with good reason. Even without Roquan Smith and Co., Georgia has stars, speed and athletes everywhere.

    Washington: The Auburn game will say a lot, but this is a good team that plays just the right schedule at just the right time. Not sure there is a more underappreciated player in college football than running back Myles Gaskin. He could go off this year.


    Miller: Give me Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Washington. I know, I know. No Big Ten team? I just think that league is going to beat itself up too much. Excluding the conference championship game, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin will face each other eight times. (Not to mention tough nonconference games for Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.)

    If any team emerges from that gauntlet with a 12-1 record and a conference championship, then yeah, it'll get one of the four spots. It isn't likely, though.

Who Will Win the National Championship?

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    Hayes: Alabama. Players win games. Alabama has the best players, and Saban will figure out his unique quarterback quandary. Both will play, and both will contribute to another national championship.


    Kenyon: Make it four years in a row that the CFP will feature Alabama vs. Clemson. This time, let's return the era's most exciting postseason rivalry to the biggest stageand Clemson wins.

    Alabama will reload defensively, as always, but measuring up to the "Power Rangers" and the experience of Clemson's point-stopping crew will be challenging. Lawrence should be the starter by that point, and his ability to control games through the air is what the Tigers lacked in their meeting with 'Bama last season.


    Kramer: Clemson. Even with some sizable losses, everything is in place: the defense; the quarterback; young, talented skill position players who will break out; and much more.

    Plus, the ACC will be down this year. A significant part of making this pick comes down to the schedule. Clemson has a favorable one, to put it mildly. And it has a supreme amount of talent.


    Miller: Since 2015, it's been Alabama, Clemson and Alabama. That pattern will continue with the Tigers winning it all. The defensive line will be historically great. And whether it's Bryant or Lawrence at quarterback, there's more than enough offensive firepower for them to consistently score more than the D allows.

    But take heed, Clemson fans: I picked Florida State to win it all last year, and that cursed the Seminoles so hard they damn near ended what is now a 36-year bowl streak.


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