John Clay

Five burning questions for this college football season

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: ‘We’re not here to take steps backwards’

Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.
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Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.

With college football reaching its full participation level this week, five burning questions about the 2019 season:

1. Will it be Clemson and Alabama in the CFP national championship game yet again?

The smart money says business as usual. The Tigers and Crimson Tide have met for the national championship three of the past four seasons — 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2018-19. Alabama won the first one; Clemson won the last two matchups. The duo sit atop the preseason mountain again this year. Clemson was No. 1 in the AP preseason voting. Alabama was No. 2. No other school received a first-place vote.

Georgia and Oklahoma lead the list of contenders most capable of disrupting the championship game party. Georgia lost to Alabama in the 2017 title game. Oklahoma lost to Georgia in the 2017 semifinals. But Georgia has a new coordinator on offense and holes to fill on defense. Oklahoma hopes a third transfer at quarterback (Jalen Hurts from Alabama) fares as well as previous transfers and Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

2. Is this the year the Pac-12 gets back in the College Football Playoff?

Don’t bet on it. The league reportedly considering 9 a.m. PCT kickoffs hasn’t cracked college football’s marquee matchups since 2016. At No. 13, Washington is the highest-ranked Pac-12 school in this year’s AP preseason poll. Utah is 14th, Washington State 23rd and Stanford 25th. Notre Dame did reach the national semifinals last year after being ranked 12th, but still it’s a steep climb.

Here’s the breakdown of conference participants since the CFP started five years ago: SEC-6; ACC-5; Big 12-3; Big Ten-3; Pac-12-2; Independents-1.

3. Is this the year Jim Harbaugh finally makes good at Michigan?

The controversial coach made news this past week for being quoted in a forthcoming book as saying about SEC football, “(It’s) hard to beat the cheaters.” Hey, despite the hoopla, his huge contract and supposed innovations — satellite camps in southern states; team trips abroad for spring practice — something is holding Harbaugh back.

Harbaugh is a respectable 38-14 overall and 26-9 in the Big Ten for his four years in Ann Arbor. He has never won a conference title or been better than 10-3 in a campaign, however. And Michigan lost 41-15 to Florida in last year’s Peach Bowl. Meanwhile, Ohio State keeps on being Ohio State. That’s not quite what the Wolverines expected when they hired the former Michigan quarterback away from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 2015.

4. Who are 10 players we might not have heard of who will shine this season?

Start with 1-Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, who reportedly threw the best ball of all at the recent Manning Passing Academy; 2- Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault, who caught 86 passes last season; 3-Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall; 4-Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa; and 5-Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, who threw for 2,250 yards as a true freshman in 2018.

Continue with 6-North Texas quarterback Mason Fine, who is closing in on 10,000 career passing yards; 7-Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant; 8-Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin; 9-Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson; and 10-Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt, who was 3-for-3 from 50-plus yards last season.

5. Who are five coaches who occupy the hottest seats this season?

Start with USC coach Clay Helton, fresh off a tough-to swallow-5-7 campaign. Helton’s 32-17 overall record won’t do with the tradition-rich Trojans. Not far behind on the Realtor’s watch list is Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who has dropped deep into the shadow of Nick Saban and Alabama. The quirky coach is just 41-25 over the past five years. Another so-so season while Bama blazes and the Gus-train will be headed to the ditch.

Others with their fingers crossed include former Kentucky assistant Lovie Smith, now head coach at Illinois. Former Western Kentucky star and head coach Willie Taggart can’t afford a second straight losing season at Florida State. And Randy Edsall at Connecticut has to show some improvement from last year’s 1-11 crash and burn.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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