By Shane Bidwell
With the season six grueling months away let’s take an extremely early look at teams poised to make a run at the playoff that may not be receiving enough national attention.
West Virginia Mountaineers
A healthy Will Grier will be ready to go come opening day, and he should be a favorite to earn All-American honors. In his first season at WVU Grier threw for 3,490 yards, 34 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions. The Mountaineers have a deadly three headed monster in the backfield in Kennedy McCoy, who rushed for nearly 600 yards as the number two back last year, Martell Pettaway, and Tevin Smith. These backs should help carry the load offensively. The Mountaineers also have returning deadly receiver threat David Sills and will add Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons. Look for defenses to have a tough time stopping the high-powered WVU offense that will be able to torch teams both on the ground and through the air. WVU has an iffy defense that will be interesting to watch this year, but they do have a chunk of their top defensive performers returning. WVU will be battle tested by the end of the season as they have to play Tennessee to open the season, and navigate an ever improving Big 12 slate. If this defense can improve from last year fully expect them to push Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, and maybe a playoff spot.
After a disappointing 8-5 campaign Jim Harbaugh and company are itching for a breakthrough season. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson should ignite this stagnate offense. Also, with the development of the young receiving corps, look for the arial attack in Ann Arbor to be deadly. Michigan also returns Karan Higdon and Chris Evans in the backfield rivaling any running back duo in the nation. Defensively this team is flat out elite. The Wolverines only lose All American Mo Hurst and Mike McCray, so despite those two losses, 9 starters come back on defense. Michigan’s defensive front should cause havoc this year led by Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. The Wolverines schedule does them no favors with trips to South Bend, Columbus, and East Lansing. If Michigan makes it through this slate relatively unscathed they could be a serious contender for the College Football Playoff.
Last season Mark Richt’s squad burst onto the scene grabbing the nation’s heart with their beloved “Turn Over Chain”. The Canes played with a swagger that hadn’t been seen from them since the early 2000s, and look for that to carry over to the 2018 season. Dual threat quarter back Malik Rosier should be at the helm of the Cane’s offense again this season unless N’Kori Perry snatches the starting job from him. Miami loses stud wideout Braxton Berrios but do not be fooled- there is no shortage of talent on this roster. The defense should play with the same swagger and passion that garnered them national attention, and if Ahmmon Richards can get healthy he has plenty of potential to be Rosier’s new favorite target.
This team is a no brainer to win the Big Ten West, and if they can steal a win in the conference title game they may find themselves in their first CFP. Freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor returns for his sophomore season and he should be one one the favorites to hoist the Heisman Trophy. Taylor nearly eclipsed the 2000 yard mark this past season, and if he’s able to do it again that should open up the passing game. Despite losing arguably the best tight end in the nation in Troy Fumagalli, Alex Hornibrook should have no issue. What started as a turnover plagued season Hornibrook developed down the stretch into a reliable quarterback and capped off the season with a remarkable 4 touchdown performance against the stout Miami defense. On the other side of the football the Badgers have consistently been one of top units in college ball. Although they lost both defensive ends and most of the secondary, Wisconsin is usually a “reload” not “rebuild” team on the defensive side of the ball. The schedule sets up nicely for the Badgers other than a cross over game in Ann Arbor, and if the defense is able to reload as expected and Hornibrook can continue his development then look for this team to be right back in Indianapolis vying for a Big Ten Title.
One of the more interesting teams in college football the Cardinal are not relatively talked about despite being one of the more consistent teams in the nation. Electric running back Bryce Love is returning for his senior season after putting together a memorable 2017 campaign after rushing for over 2000 yards. Love coupled with emerging star K.J. Costello could combine for a lethal offense in 2018. Costello did not take the starting job until later in the season but when he did he developed fast, throwing 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. Stanford’s defense struggled at times this past season and their schedule does them no favors with trips to Oregon, Notre Dame, and Washington, but if this offensive can keep motoring on and the defense play at least up to par this could be a dangerous team heading into 2018.