As the August days fly by, it means one thing, football is right around the corner. A LONG eight months have gone by since the all too familiar picture of Nick Saban hoisting up a fourth national title while coaching the Alabama Crimson Tide. In cities across the country, fans are prepping for parties and packing up tailgate equipment eagerly anticipating the turn of the calendar. Almost Varsity Sports is here for another year with winning predictions, money making bets, and hours of in depth research to make this another enjoyable college football season.
Champion – Houston Cougars (over South Florida in AAC championship)
Last year we predicted Temple to put teams around the country on notice, Marlon Mack to be the sleeper stud, and Paxton Lynch to take the Memphis Tigers, as two touchdown dogs, to the wire with Ole Miss. We were dead on. This year, unfortunately, we don’t have too much to surprise you with. I see this conference as fairly cut and dry. The Houston Cougars will take this conference and run with it. Greg Ward is back from an absolutely explosive offense last year. Coach Tom Herman will have his choice of top college jobs to choose from after this season.
Houston plays a very favorable conference schedule playing in the AAC and went out of its way to schedule two big out of conference opponents (Oklahoma and Louisville). If Houston can run find a way to get a win against the Oklahoma Sooners, this team will be undefeated going into a Thursday night battle, at home, against the Louisville Cardinals. Even while playing in the AAC, an undefeated season, and two big OOC wins, should be plenty for the Cougs to be the first Group of Five team to squeeze into the playoffs.
Sleeper team: South Florida Bulls
I cannot stop this love fest for Bulls RB Marlon Mack. We were high on him last year and he brought a mediocre team to an 8-5 season. This team ended up winning 7 of their final 8 regular season games including putting up 44 points against one of the best defenses in the country (Temple). Quinton Flowers is the new BJ Daniels. He’s a South Florida QB with all the tools in a conference where he has the ability to shine. The one thing Daniels did not have is consistency. If Flowers can play under control, his legs give him another added dimension to drive defenses mad. With Mack and Flowers in the backfield, this team could battle for a conference title come December.
Sleeper player: Matt Davis, QB SMU
Davis was a very highly recruited player out of high school. He backed up the one and only Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M before transferring out. Davis will have another year in Chad Morris’ uptempo system in which he has all the tools to flourish. With a decent arm and a threat to run for 100 yards each game, he may be the cause of some sideline defensive coordinator tirades this fall. I don’t think the team is good enough to make a huge step, but HC Chad Morris has this team pointed in the right direction.
Biggest AAC Game of Year: Oklahoma Sooners @ Houston Cougars, Sep 3
This is the biggest game of the year for one reason and one reason only: notoriety. If Houston can pull of the upset, the country will finally tune in to what is going on within the American Athletic Conference. Not only would a win bring notoriety, but a win would bring the possibility of a title run for the Cougars.
Champion – Clemson Tigers (over Miami in the ACC Championship)
Deshaun Watson and company are back for another shot at a national title. After coming up just shy of a national title last year, this could be the year Coach Dabo Swinney pushes this team to the Promised Land. Knowing the makeup of this Clemson roster, I can tell you that last year was not meant to be the year for a title. Last year’s team ended up FAR beyond preseason expectations. As recruiting classes have come and gone for Swinney and his staff, this team has been built to make a run at a 2016-17 national title.
Once again, this offense is absolutely loaded with weapons surrounding Watson. This is the best receiving core in the nation, Jordan Leggett is one of the best tight ends in college football, and Wayne Gallman is one of the most underrated running backs in the country. With all of these weapons, the best quarterback in college football will have a myriad of options to choose from. Watson has the makings of a superstar and is quickly becoming the face of college football.
After losing a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, Clemson will be trusting on many underclassmen to contribute immediately. After an exodus on defense two years ago, this team showed they are no longer a team that rebuilds; they reload. Ben Boulware anchors a front seven that is absolutely loaded on the defensive line, especially at defensive tackle.
With a very favorable ACC schedule and down years for their schedules out of conference opponents, Clemson fans should be expecting a 10+ win season once again. This conference seems to always be decided in the Clemson/Florida State matchup, and this year will be no different. The ACC conference title will be decided by late October.
Sleeper team: Louisville Cardinals
Everyone seems to be talking about Florida State and Clemson in the ACC, but the Cardinals seem to be flying under the radar. Though the Cardinals had uncertainty under center last year, Lamar Jackson has the capability of being extremely special. If he can hold on to the starting job from Reggie Bonnafon, this offense will score. Coach Petrino brings back 8 returning starters this year on a defense that ranks among the best in the nation. Almost Varsity Sports picked Devonte Fields to be its sleeper player in the ACC last year and he did not disappoint. He was 5th in the ACC in sacks and 3rd in TFL last year. He and Josh Harvey-Clemons (possible All-ACC/All-American candidates) anchor a defense that will cause mayhem for opposing offenses.
Sleeper Player: Dexter Lawrence, DT Clemson
Dexter Lawrence is a true freshman that is coming in to immediately compete for playing time on a stacked defensive line at Clemson. He was an ESPN top 100 recruit and the #2 ranked DT in the national behind Michigan’s Rashan Gary. He is 6’5”, 340 pounds, and early reviews of this kid are off the charts. This kid has a chance to be special. Expect to see him garner All-ACC talk as a true freshman.
Biggest ACC Game of the Year: Florida State @ Louisville, Sept 17
It would’ve been way too easy to select Clemson/FSU. The biggest game of the year is Florida State @ Louisville. I have a strange feeling that Louisville will win at least one of their two big time ACC games (Clemson/FSU). If Louisville can pull this one from FSU early in the season, we will be in for an interesting ACC Atlantic tiebreak opportunity between these three powerhouses. Getting FSU at home, on a Saturday night, in Papa Johns stadium could lead to some fireworks.
Champion – Ohio State (over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship)
Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild. He reloads. Year after year Ohio State recruits top talent and plugs the holes from the seniors and NFL departures. The departures of Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliot, to name two, shouldn’t affect the overall success of this team. With the electric JT Barrett under center, this offense will put up points. However, the youth throughout the team may lead to some questions as not one senior is projected to start.
Last year Ohio State added one of the top RBs in the nation coming out of high school, Mike Weber. He will be leaned upon early and often this season. JT Barrett spent last year in a rotation with Cardale Jones until he finally won the job. Just about everyone in the country saw Barrett should’ve started from the beginning. He’s a special talent with the ability to make this entire offense click.
The Buckeyes defense is led by one of the best LBs in the nation. Raekwon McMillan anchors a very young defense in which only 3 starters return from last season. McMillan is an incredible talent and will be in the All-American discussion by season’s end. This unit will have to gel quickly as they will face the Oklahoma Sooners in Week 3.
I have been down on the Big Ten conference for a few years now. Each year it seems there are only two or three good teams at the top of the conference. I feel that way again this year. Although I am very high on Iowa, Ohio State will avoid them in crossover play. Ohio State’s biggest game comes when visiting Oklahoma in Week 3. However, this game won’t affect conference standings. The Michigan Wolverines come into Ohio Stadium to end the year. The homefield advantage should be enough to put the Buckeyes over the top in the rivalry matchup.
Sleeper team: Iowa Hawkeyes
I don’t think any 12 win, division champion falls into a “sleeper” role quite like the Iowa Hawkeyes. I’ve never seen a 12 win team get such little respect. This team will start out 7-0 before they even get a real test (on the road at Wisconsin). CJ Beathard takes the reigns of the offense once again behind an experienced offensive line. Last year, this team gave the playoff bound, Michigan State Spartans, a run for its money in the Big Ten Championship game. Another year of experience and another year of a weak schedule may finally put the Hawkeyes on the map.
Sleeper player: LJ Scott, RB Michigan State
In a line of Michigan State tailbacks to go from workhorses to NFL starters, LJ Scott could be next. First, it was Le’Veon Bell, and then it was Jeremy Langford. LJ Scott has the talent, size, and speed to mirror his predecessors. Playing for a coach with a history of playing good defense and grinding out wins, Scott will not only put up his numbers, but will give this team a shot to win every game.
Biggest Big Ten Game of Year: Michigan @ Michigan State, Oct 29
Be on the lookout on Oct 29 when Michigan State faces Michigan. Sparty will have its chance to prove it’s still a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. Michigan seems to be the preemptive favorite to take home the Big Ten. This is the first battle of Big Ten powers this year and will put the winner in the driver’s seat the rest of the way.
Champion – TCU Horned Frogs
Gary Patterson has to deal with major offensive losses in Boykin and Doctson. However, Patterson makes it work year after year. He consistently gets beat on on the recruiting trail by the bigger schools in Texas, but he finds the diamonds in the rough and molds them into great football players. He’s one of the most underrated coaches in the NCAA and as long as he is at Texas Christian, the Horned Frogs are in the mix.
I’m sure many people will remember Kenny “Trill” Hill. He previously played for Texas A&M. He started a game against South Carolina at threw for over 500 yards and threw three touchdowns. While pundits across the US donned him “The next Manziel,” he quickly fizzled out. There are high hopes around Fort Worth, Texas that he will return to that form and lead this team to a Big 12 victory. Hill will have a few transfer weapons at WR and three OL starters protecting him. Patterson used a RB by committee last year and I assume that will be the case this year as well. There were no issues last year on the way to an 11-2 season. For a team returning just three offensive starters, this team is much more experienced than at first glance.
Last year the Horned Frogs defense was simply bad. What most don’t know is how injury-plagued this team was. The defense is back and healthy. TCU returns 8 starters from last year plus the guys that missed time with injury. This unit should be back to a very familiar and capable defense.
Sleeper team: Baylor Bears
The Baylor Bears were thought of as a preseason national title contender about 4 months ago. Amid a ton of legal issues and the hiring of a new coach, the Bears have sunk from the likes of national title favorites. The problem with writing this team off is simple. Baylor still has a TON of talent. Seth Russell is back under center with Shock Linwood behind him. This team could’ve been a playoff team last year, but lost the first and second string QBs to injury. There are a few questions along the offensive and defensive lines, but this team can surprise. Everyone is talking Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield, but the Baylor Bears could very much be in the running for a Big 12 title in December.
Sleeper player: Patrick Mahomes, QB Texas Tech
Mahomes was an absolute stud last year. He threw for 4600+ yards and ran for almost 500. Kliff Kingsbury loves what Mahomes brings to this offense. The uptempo offense paired with this mobile quarterback makes for a beautiful match. In the offense-first Big 12 conference, Mahomes will once again put up huge numbers.
Biggest Big Ten Game of Year: Oklahoma @ Ohio State, Sept 17
Oklahoma needs to be the team that shows the world the Big 12 should be on the big stage without a conference title game. Oklahoma scheduled a huge OOC slate with Houston and Ohio State. The game against Ohio State will be the one to watch. The favorites in each conference square up in what could be an early playoff elimination game. If Baker Mayfield can get this team passed the Buckeyes, they could have a quick run to another final four appearance. Lose, and Oklahoma’s loss could take the whole conference down with it.
Champion – USC Trojans (over Washington Huskies in Pac 12 title game)
Clay Helton took over last year after being the offensive coordinator for all of the 2015-16 regular season. After losing to the Wisconsin Badgers in the Holiday Bowl, USC looks to build on a subpar year. Call this more of a hunch then anything. I think QB Max Browne is extremely underrated in the eyes of national writers. Browne has the QB build and has a huge arm. With arguably the best WR in the nation lining up on the outside, Juju Smith-Schuster will give always give Browne a target to hit.
The offense will be much more explosive this year and bring focus back to the passing game. With a little confidence, Max Browne could turn some heads. Juju Smith-Schuster is probably the best receiver in the nation and will have many highlight catches. Be ready to see him on Saturday evenings in the fall making defensive backs look useless.
The Trojans are losing a lot of talent up front on defense. The secondary is the strength of this defense and I think it’ll be enough to improve on last year’s DPPG. The offense and defense have potential through the roof. The question is if the honeymoon with Clay Helton at the end of last year can carry over. The team seemed to love him. If he can get the best out of this team, the Torjans can make an attempt to get back into the national spotlight.
Sleeper Team: Washington Huskies
I hate this sleeper pick. I like the Huskies so much this year, but they have quickly become a trendy pick to win the PAC 12 and make a huge jump this year. The Huskies were extremely young last year and got another year under Chris Peterson. When Peterson made the move to Washington, we knew it was only a matter of time before this team was among the elite in the country. Jake Browning is going to put up great numbers with a matured offense and the defense will remain tops in the Pac 12.
Sleeper Player: Luke Falk, QB Washington State Cougars
Luke Falk will put up video game numbers this year. He did the same thing last year, but this is the year you will hear the name. I love watching that offense move up and down the field. Unfortunately, the team is just not good enough overall to succeed. Watch for Luke Falk for another season of big numbers and another season of over bettors cashing in.
Biggest Big Ten Game of Year: Alabama vs. USC Trojans, Sept 3
This is more of a pick for my gut than anything. I honestly think this game will be much closer than the Vegas handicappers predict. Right now, USC is about a 10 point underdog. If USC can keep it close or pull one out, it sets the standards pretty high for the PAC 12.
Champion – LSU Tigers (over Tennessee Volunteers in SEC title game)
Les Miles is back after almost being fired last year. This team was able to rally around rumors that Les was going to be fired and finish off the season strong with wins over Texas A&M and Texas Tech. The Tigers have a healthy Brandon Harris Jr. in control of the offense. They also have a guy you may have heard of in the backfield: Leonard Fournette.
Fournette is the only name you need to know on this team. If this offensive line can open up even the smallest of running lanes, he will find it and he will make defenders pay. Last year, Alabama was able to bottle him up and you could see the holes this team had throughout the roster. The glaring problem was QB. This Tigers team could not throw the ball after the hernia injury to Brandon Harris. WR Malachi Dupre will get open enough to give Harris a target to throw to.
This defense will once again be unbelievable. If there is one thing Les Miles can do well, it’s recruit defenders and coach defense. LSU brings in the DC from Wisconsin. Dave Aranda was able to coach one of the best defenses in the nation and the Tigers defense should not see a drop off.
LSU plays in the brutal SEC West where they will have to play Alabama, a good Ole Miss team, and improved Arkansas and Texas A&M teams. However, I think the Tigers are a legitimate title contender. LSU gets Alabama at home, in the friendly confines of Death Valley, and that may be enough to get the W in the biggest game of the year.
Sleeper Team: Georgia Bulldogs
The best part of this sleeper pick: the Bulldogs avoid the Crimson Tide in the SEC crossover games. This schedule is very favorable for Georgia. Even though they only get three SEC home games, the four on the road are very manageable. Ole Miss can win 8 or 9 games this year, but the other three teams will be awful.
Kirby Smart comes over from Alabama where he inherits an extremely talented roster. This team should be good again and will battle not only for the SEC East, but also the SEC title.
Sleeper Player: Jalen Hurd, RB Tennessee
If you’re a die hard college football fan, this name isn’t new. Jalen Hurd has a ton of talent in a Volunteers offense where he is the main attraction. If the Volunteers can live up to the preseason hype, Jalen will be a huge reason why. I’m assuming Jalen has a big year with about 1200 yards and 10 TDs. He won’t get enough publicity to make a Heisman push, but he will have great numbers to make a push for All-SEC.
Biggest SEC Game of Year: Alabama @ LSU, Nov 5
I could basically copy and paste the same paragraph every year. For the next few years the SEC winner will probably come from this game. This year, LSU is home. I’m leaning towards LSU in this game and think that will set them up the rest of the way. I think Fournette will be able to do enough in this game and the defense will bottle up the new offensive faces in Alabama.
Other conference champions
- Conference USA – Southern Mississippi
- MAC – Toledo Rockets
- Mountain West – Boise State
- Sun Belt – Arkansas State Red Wolves
- Deshaun Watson
- Christian McCaffery
- Leonard Fournette
- Baker Mayfield
- Dalvin Cook
- JT Barrett
- Greg Ward Jr
- Lamar Jackson
- Royce Freeman
- Saquon Barkley
Final Four Matchups:
- Clemson vs 4. Houston
- LSU vs 3. Ohio State
National Championship Game: Clemson over LSU