The College Football Offseason To Do List is detailed and mundane. It keeps us engaged throughout the entire calendar year. From the end of the BCS title game to National Signing Day to the beginning of spring football to the end of spring football to Arrests Season to random, scary fall camp injuries.
It includes items like "Overreact to a freshman's performance in the spring game" and "Freak out because rival team has more commits than you." Fans of almost every school in the nation follow the same list. Tonight, we'll check "Post 'FOOTBALL!!!!!' on Twitter when the first game kicks off" off the list, and by Saturday night, most of our teams will have played their first games.
But as the 2013 college football season begins, let's look into the future a bit at a To Do List item we'll periodically address in the coming 14 weeks: "Pretend we knew [random national storyline] would happen all along."
Just about any poll you can find -- AP, Coaches, Sports Illustrated, any random blogger's or columnist's top 25 -- features almost all of the same teams in most of the same spots. There's only one difference, for instance, between the AP's and Coaches' respective top 10s: the AP has South Carolina sixth and Texas A&M seventh, while USA Today has the Aggies sixth and the Gamecocks seventh. That's it. Aside from Notre Dame (14th AP, 11th USA Today), no team in the top 25 is more than one spot away in one poll from where they are in the other. Hell, teams No. 15-25 are absolutely identical.
Part of the fun, though, is that at least half of what we think we know right now will turn out to be incredibly, ridiculously wrong when the season actually begins. Below are a few things that are both feasible and logical enough that, if they were to actually happen, we'd pretend it was obvious from the start.
Now, make no mistake. There's a reason why we're not predicting these things -- they're not likely. But they register on the scale, and if they happen, it will make sense. And we'll say we knew it all along.
Texas goes 12-0
Oh, don't act like it's not in the back of your head somewhere. Texas gets Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, and Texas-killer Kansas State at home and obviously doesn't have to go to Oklahoma. The Longhorns could still easily trip up in any of those games, or to BYU, TCU, or Baylor on the road. But as I said in this year's Texas preview, "a team with Texas' 2012 offense and special teams and 2011 defense would have ranked seventh in the country in F/+ last year. The 'Horns are close." Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat are healthy (for now), last year's young defensive tackles are older, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom are still the corners, and not only were David Ash and the Texas offense quite a bit better than you want to admit last year (18th in Off. F/+), but they also return nearly everybody.
Since bottoming out in 2010, Texas improved a lot in 2011 and a little in 2012 (offensive growth offset defensive regression). Sure, that feels like three years of underachievement, but it could also be one massive collapse followed by two years of recovery. And beyond that, teams with 19 returning starters (10 on offense, nine on defense) are nearly slam dunks to improve.
The Longhorns will almost certainly slip up -- Kansas State is still on the schedule, after all -- but let's not pretend this isn't a possibility. And if it happens, it will make perfect sense. Ash and the running game click, the pass rush is still strong without Alex Okafor, the linebackers aren't completely hapless, the safeties do a little better job of form tackling, and the Longhorns head to Waco on December 7 with a chance to lose to Alabama again in the national title game.
(And don't give me the "Stoops owns Mack Brown" stuff. The Brown-Stoops series has been littered with streaks -- OU winning five in a row, then Texas winning four of five, now OU winning three in a row -- and three isn't even much of a streak.)
Stanford's offense stinks
I'm all in on Kevin Hogan. The sophomore became Stanford's starting quarterback at the most awkward possible time last season, but he went 5-0, beating five consecutive F/+ top-35 teams (No. 18 Oregon State, No. 2 Oregon on the road, No. 35 UCLA twice and once on the road, and No. 16 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl). He did what Josh Nunes could not: take what the defense gives you, matriculate the ball down the field a few times, and stay out of your defense's way.
If I had a top 25 vote, I would be giving serious thought to placing Stanford at No. 2 because of the defense, Hogan's maturity, the defense, the offensive line, and the defense.
Still, Stanford's skill position lineup faces some drastic turnover after losing running back Stepfan Taylor, tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, and underrated receiver Drew Terrell. Running backs Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney could handle the load just fine, new tight ends Luke Kaumatule (a four-star recruit) and David Dudchock could approximate Ertz and Toilolo, and receiver Ty Montgomery would find the reliability that he misplaced midseason last year. But it's not a given.
And if it happens, it will make perfect sense. The tight ends are catching passes but doing less with them, the backs aren't doing anything on the second level of the defense, even when they get there, and Montgomery's hands are still an occasional issue. Taking what the defense gives isn't getting Hogan as far, so he has to take some chances, and instead of winning games, 20-17, the Cardinal are losing, 17-14. Oregon takes the Cardinal down and rolls to the Pac-12 North title (and potentially the BCS title game), and Stanford is stuck to deal with a disappointing 8-4 season despite an incredible defense.
Michigan wins the Big Ten
The Wolverines get Ohio State and Nebraska at home. Last year's weakest pieces (offensive line, secondary, pass rush) get plumped up quite a bit from a depth perspective. Quarterback Devin Gardner could be the real deal.
Projections for Michigan are lukewarm, and preseason polls (17th in both AP and USA Today, 15 spots behind Ohio State in each) are only slightly warmer. It's wait-and-see mode for Michigan, but Brady Hoke's squad has the schedule to make a run, especially in conference play. And the Wolverines host Notre Dame and visit only UConn in non-conference play.
If it happens, it will make perfect sense. The offense clicks with Gardner throwing to Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess, and company. The young interior of the line, supplemented by some former star recruits like redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, holds up. The front seven is good enough to deal with Notre Dame and the non-conference slate, and the Wolverines get a spark by the October return of linebacker Jake Ryan (just in time for the trip to Penn State). Michigan perhaps slips against Michigan State or Northwestern but welcomes Ohio State on November 30 at 10-1, takes down the Buckeyes, and advances to the Big Ten title game, where either Ohio State or Wisconsin awaits. (Or maybe the Wolverines lose to Ohio State the first time but get revenge in the title game.)
I said in Michigan's preview that a top-15 team would have an off chance of going 12-0 with the Wolverines' schedule. I think Michigan's probably more between No. 15-25, like both the polls and projections do, but they're not that far off. They'll have a shot.
Florida goes 7-5
Florida played some ugly football last year and won its share of close games (4-1 in one-possession finishes). The Gators didn't look particularly good in any of the three games between Georgia and Florida State (Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State), and they obviously got thumped by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but don't let that fool you. This was a legitimately strong team.
That said, with an intentionally slow pace and unintentionally one-dimensional offense, Florida put a ton of pressure on its defense and special teams to repeatedly come through in the field position battle. Almost by design, the Gators eliminated their own margin for error, and if they do that again in 2013, only with a mean but less experienced defense and no Andre Debose in the return game, they could lose to any number of teams on the 2013 schedule. They are on the road versus Miami, LSU, South Carolina, and a Missouri team that almost won in The Swamp last year, and they could be losers of two straight when they get to Jacksonville to face Georgia. If Florida is top-five caliber again, this schedule could certainly produce a reasonably gaudy record (10-2 or better) again. But if the Gators regress even a bit, the tumble could be significant.
And if it happens, it will make perfect sense; an early slip-up to Miami raises major question marks that even solid wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas cannot quell. A 24-3 loss to LSU, followed by an upset at Mizzou, puts Florida at 4-3 heading into the Former Cocktail Party against Georgia. A loss there, and they're 5-4 heading to South Carolina. The Gators still dash Florida State's surprising national title hopes in the season finale, but a trip to the Music City Bowl is never going to be an indication of success for Go Gators.
Johnny Manziel throws 20 interceptions
Granted, you can find quite a few people already saying this, but those claims are met mostly with an "Oh, he's fiiiiiine," response.
I really enjoyed writing both this book and the season preview series this offseason. For one thing, it was just fun and ridiculously rewarding to do so. For another thing, it prevented me from having to write 116 separate pieces about Johnny Manziel this offseason. The bottom line is, we've never had a situation like this -- it's basically been the All Tebow, All The Time treatment given to a fiery, young Kenny Stabler 3.0 with Lance Harbor's "kids'll be kids" father -- and no matter what we believe, we have absolutely no idea what will happen next.
Starting with the second half against Rice, Manziel could pick up in 2013 right where he left off at Jerry World in the Cotton Bowl last year, running and gunning, finding open receivers and somehow knowing how to escape pockets when 90 percent surrounded by running backwards and to the left. He could lead Texas A&M to another win over Alabama, he could lead the Aggies to the national title game, and he could pull an Archie and take home his second Heisman before saying sayonara to the NCAA and declaring for the NFL Draft. Or ...
... the stresses he has admitted to facing this offseason could seep into his game. And if it happens, it will make perfect sense. Maybe things start out right, but maybe a few weeks into the season (say, September 14), he makes a few mistakes in a tough loss. And unlike last year, when he was a mostly anonymous young quarterback for a hungry, unproven team, he catches massive flack for those mistakes. And his 2013 season turns into a combustible series of missteps. Three picks and a late fumble in a loss to Ole Miss. Four picks and five sacks in a blowout loss at LSU. Another upset loss, perhaps to Arkansas or Vanderbilt or Mississippi State or Missouri.
A&M still does relatively well, but Manziel declares for the Draft a broken prospect of sorts, having survived, scathed, one of the toughest calendar years a big-time college football player has ever had to endure.
Lache Seastrunk wins the Heisman
In the last six games of the 2012 season, Lache Seastrunk carried 102 times for 831 yards (8.1 per carry) and six touchdowns; he also caught eight passes for 103 yards and a score. If he's capable of taking on five more carries per game and staying healthy (both ifs considering he was hurt a bit last year and will be sharing carries with, and losing touchdowns to, big Glasco Martin), he could easily end up north of 1,800 rushing yards this year, with receptions pushing him over 2,000 yards overall. And in a "quarterbacks versus Jadeveon Clowney" Heisman race, there might be room for an insurgent running back in the mix, especially if the quarterbacks (Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Braxton Miller) cancel each other out a bit.
Remember, three of the last four Heisman winners (Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel) were completely off of the Heisman radar when the season began, and the fourth (Robert Griffin III) was both a) a Baylor Bear, and b) only considered a marginal candidate because of his supposedly mediocre team.
If it happens, it will make perfect sense; Seastrunk puts up silly numbers in Baylor's four season-opening home games (Wofford, Buffalo, ULM, West Virginia) and heads to Kansas State on October 12 with 700 rushing yards already banked. With just enough defense, the Bears nip a Kansas State squad that is still salty but less experienced, take down Iowa State and Kansas, and host Oklahoma at 7-0 with Seastrunk in the 1,100-yard neighborhood. Meanwhile, Louisville's stock is slipping because of a loss to USF, Braxton Miller still can't throw without getting sacked, and Johnny Manziel is throwing picks and losing his temper. He rushes for 125 yards in a win over Oklahoma, explodes for 200 in a win over Texas Tech in Arlington, and positions himself (and Baylor) for major, major media coverage heading into a rough home stretch (at Oklahoma State, at TCU, Texas).
- ULM beats Oklahoma. Louisiana-Lafayette beats Arkansas and Kansas State.
- Alabama's offensive line can't open holes very well in losses to LSU and to [RANDOM] in the SEC title game.
- Heisman-winner Jameis Winston.
- Eddie Gran's "fast and slow and spread and pro-style" offense looks a little too much like 2008 Auburn's, and Cincinnati in no way challenges Louisville.
- Baylor's defense still stinks.
- USC romps to the Pac-12 South title.