18 early questions for 2018 college football season

Alabama capped the 2017 college football season with a 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday.

Now, it’s on to 2018: Who will win the national championship next? It’s never too early to ask.

MORE: Tua Tagovailoa brought out the best in Bama

That question — and others — will shape the upcoming college football season and the chase for the next College Football Playoff all offseason. With that mind, Sporting News asks 18 way-too-early questions for the long offseason that is here: 

1. Will Alabama shake things up? 

By shake things up, we mean “lose.” The season doesn’t start until Alabama loses. That has been the theme of all but one season since Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, and the Tide will start No. 1 in most preseason polls, including Sporting News’. The quarterback position will offer some intrigue between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, but Nick Saban will surely look to cure the “rat poison” in his chase for another national championship. Plus, there’s a new defensive coordinator to work with. We expect Alabama to be in the playoff chase for a fifth straight season. What else is new?

2. What’s next for Bulldogs? 

The nation’s No. 1 recruiting class is a good start. The Bulldogs will be right back in the hunt in the SEC next season despite heavy losses to the NFL, and Jake Fromm will make use of those lessons from leading Georgia to the championship as a freshman. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama and Georgia in Atlanta again next season — this time in the SEC title game.

3. Who can actually unseat the Tide? 

The usual suspects: Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma will round out most top-five rankings, but those programs have varying levels of quarterback intrigue. Clemson’s Kelly Bryant will have competition from Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2018. Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray have the inside track on the jobs at Ohio State and Oklahoma, respectively.

4. Which top 10 team is most intriguing? 

Wisconsin. The Badgers should easily win the Big Ten West and are prime candidates for another undefeated regular season. They have exciting skill position players, and Jonathan Taylor is a nice value pick for the Heisman Trophy. Wisconsin, however, still needs to beat a Big Ten East power in Indianapolis. The regular-season schedule also includes trips to Michigan and Penn State. There’s a lot to prove. 

5. Is Jim Harbaugh on the hot seat? 

No, but the criticisms he faces are valid. The Wolverines are 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State, and coming off a five-loss season. The schedule is brutal this year, starting with a season-opening test vs. Notre Dame in South Bend. Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson will help, if eligible, but the Wolverines need to be better up front. There’s only one criticism that lands: Michigan must beat the Spartans and Buckeyes, and both games are on the road this year.

6. Which first-year coach will be a hit? 

Scott Frost. Remember when Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor? It’s like that in Lincoln now. Frost’s arrival rejuvenates a program that needs to find its identity, and the excitement level will be off the charts for his program. Will that be enough to challenge for a Big Ten West championship right away? Maybe. We also like Chip Kelly at UCLA a lot.

MORE: Jake Fromm brightens Georgia’s future

7. Which first-year coach can make an early statement?

Willie Taggart. The Seminoles barely made a bowl game in 2017, but they can set the tone in a Labor Day opener against Virginia Tech. Quarterback Deondre Francois should return after missing almost of last season with a leg injury. FSU should be much better in 2018.

8. Which first-year coach will be a viral sensation? 

Herm Edwards. We can’t wait for the news conferences, even if we’re unsure about the results on the field at Arizona State.

9. Which first-year SEC coach intrigues you most? 

The easy is answer is Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, but we can’t wait to see what Joe Moorhead can do with Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.

10. Who has the biggest shoes to fill? 

Louisville’s Jawon Pass. There’s no way you can simply replace Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, but Pass has learned for two years and will put up big numbers in Bobby Petrino’s offensive scheme. Watch out for the “Puma.”

11. Which conference needs to make a statement? 

The Pac-12. The 1-8 bowl season came on the heels of being left out of the College Football Playoff for the second straight year. USC and Washington were knocked off in New Year’s Day Six bowls, and the conference will also fight for attention with those late Saturday kickoffs. That makes the season opener between Washington and Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game huge for conference perception.

12. Will UCF win another “national title?” 

Frost is gone, but UCF could create some real playoff discussion under first-year coach Josh Heupel. The Knights bring a lot of talent back, including dark-horse Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton. UCF plays North Carolina and Pitt in nonconference play, not to mention what will be a highly publicized in-state battle with Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic on Sept. 22.

MORE: 3 reasons Bama won | 3 reasons Georgia lost

13. How will Miami bounce back? 

That’s an interesting question for the ACC. Miami broke through in Mark Richt’s second season, but a three-game, year-ending losing streak showed the Canes still have a long way to go. The “turnover chain” helped The U get its swag back, but we’ll see how real that is in a season opener against LSU at Jerry World.

14. What’s next year’s big playoff debate? 

Same as this year: The Big Ten’s divisional imbalance pits four legitimate playoff contenders against each other in Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. Don’t be surprised if a two-loss Big Ten team is the focus of the same debate come selection day. It’s going to happen.

15. Will two SEC teams get in next year? 

No. Auburn could make things interesting again, but the Tigers will suffer heavy losses to the NFL Draft and have to go to Athens and Tuscaloosa next season. The SEC playoff picture should be more clear-cut in 2018.

16. Can you make a bold Heisman prediction? 

A running back will win the Heisman Trophy. We mentioned Taylor at Wisconsin, and Stanford’s Bryce Love hasn’t made his decision yet. Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are also viable candidates. We think a running back gets the job done in 2018.

17. What’s going to shake up the College Football Playoff race?  

Texas wins the Big 12. Tom Herman will take the next step in his second season in Austin, and it will hinge a lot on an early-season matchup against USC to determine whether the Horns can crack the College Football Playoff.

18. Will somebody other than Alabama win it all? 

Five championships in nine years is hard to beat. The only other active coaches with national championships are Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher, and Fisher took a new job in Saban’s division. Saban doesn’t appear to be slowing down heading toward another run that would put him ahead of Bear Bryant for the most national championships in college football history. It’s hard to pick anybody against the Tide. 

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