What’s happened in the close season and what can we look forward to in the new college football year? – By Gareth Evans
Seven and a half months ago, we were marvelling at the exhibition put on by a storied Alabama side that gave Nick Saban his seventh national championship and Alabama an unbeaten season.
The last college football season was robbed by Covid of full stadiums, atmosphere, and actual games in the cases of a number of teams. While we can look forward to a return of some semblance of normality, a number of seismic changes happened in the close season that threaten to change the future landscape of college football.
So, what’s been happening in college football this off season?
“Name, Image and Likeness”. The vast amounts of money surrounding college football will no longer be out of the reach of the student athletes. While they can’t be paid by universities directly or earn from any endorsement deals arranged by their college, on 1st July, NCAA legislation changed to enable college football players to make money from their own name, image, and likeness.
The players didn’t hang around. Antwan Owens, a defensive end at Deion Sanders-coached Jackson State, signed a deal with Three Kings Grooming on the stroke of midnight. D’Eriq King was sponsored by Tampa-based College Hunks Hauling Junk and was charging for autographs within the day. Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman favourite Spencer Rattler, complete with new logo, announced he would give a proportion of his NIL earnings to communities in need. Bo Nix, in the meantime, was promoting a chicken sandwich.
There are concerns about the impact on players’ college careers. Quinn Ewers, the highly touted quarterback and No.1 overall prospect of the 2022 class, declared he would be leaving high school early to take advantage of the new NIL rules and enrol at Ohio State. Bryce Young, Alabama’s starting quarterback, has thrown one touchdown pass in his college football career to date. Speaking at the Texas High School Coaches Association convention in July, coach Nick Saban commented:
“Our QB has already approached ungodly numbers, and he hasn’t even played yet. If I told you what it is … it’s almost 7-figures.”
Realignment and the new SEC
Having moved away from Tuscaloosa to take the reins as Texas head coach, former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian may be back sooner than he thinks. The Power 5 conferences were shaken to their core by Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC. Technically tied to their Big 12 media contracts until 2025, the Red River rivals may move sooner.
There have historically been changes to the make up of conferences, but this feels different. Talk is of the Big 10, Pac-12 and ACC conferences merging. There are rumours of Clemson joining the SEC to form an even more powerful group and top Group of 5 teams such as Cincinnati and BYU moving to the Big 12 or newly merged conferences. Notre Dame, famously independent bar their cameo in the ACC last season, remain currently above it all.
The intense competition to recruit the best high school players means, especially at quarterback, there can be two or three four or five-star prospects battling for the signal-caller role. Accordingly, with a potentially lucrative NFL career at stake, college players are less keen to warm the bench and anxious to secure a starting job.
Zach Charbonnet’s strong opening performance for UCLA vs. Hawaii this weekend has done his draft stock no harm following his move from Michigan. Other key players to look out for include quarterback McKenzie Milton who moves from Dillon Gabriel’s shadow at UCF to join Florida State.
Jack Coan has been announced as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback following his transfer from Wisconsin. Also Charlie Brewer, following 44 games at Baylor, is the new field general at Utah.
Others to watch include Charleston Rambo who will catch passes from D’Eriq King at Miami this year, instead of Spencer Rattler. Rattler will be handing off to Eric Gray, a running back transfer from Tennessee who will significantly boost the Sooners’ rushing attack.
The SEC loses two big characters in Gus Malzahn and Steve Sarkisian. Malzahn moves from underachieving Auburn to an intriguing opportunity at UCF; replacing Josh Heupel who moves to the SEC, taking the helm at Tennessee. Arguably the headline move was Sarkisian to Texas. Who hope he can provide the offensive flair in Austin that characterised Alabama’s unbeaten season last year.
Brett Bielema’s winning start as the new coach at Illinois has seen them already reach half their win total last year. Key assistant coaches Shane Beamer (Oklahoma) and Charles Huff (Alabama) take the head coach roles at South Carolina and Marshall respectively.
Expanding the College Football Playoff
Many among the fans and the media in recent seasons have lobbied for an expansion of the end of season playoff from four teams. The dominance of Alabama and repeat appearances of Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State in the deciding stages of the national championship highlight a real lack of parity at the top.
The same teams competing in the playoff every year could see fans and media lose interest. While it wouldn’t generate the same level as college basketball’s “March Madness”, an expansion to twelve teams instead of four would open opportunities for different teams to contend. More regional representation would see the Pac-12 and Big 12 teams feature more and offer some intriguing matchups; Oregon-Alabama or Clemson-Texas, for example.
Who Could Surprise this Year?
This opening weekend gave us a teaser of things to come. The college football season kicks off in earnest next weekend with Alabama very much the team to beat. Who can challenge them?
Outside the perennial contenders Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia, Oklahoma will be in contention. Quarterback Spencer Rattler is a Heisman contender in his second year under Lincoln Riley and the Sooners’ defense is improving. Texas A&M have committed long-term to coach Jimbo Fisher who is steadily improving the Aggies. The surprise package of the year could be Matt Campbell’s Iowa State who have Brock Purdy and Breece Hall returning at quarterback and running back.
North Carolina under Mack Brown have the impressive Sam Howell under center and will come closest to taking the ACC away from Clemson.
The Heisman Trophy
DeVonta Smith bucked the trend by winning the trophy given to the best player in college football last year. Unless Oregon’s defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux has a record-breaking year, it’s highly likely a quarterback will win again. Spencer Rattler and Sam Howell are the preseason favourites. But, I like Mississippi’s polished passer Matt Corral to upset the odds in his second year under Lane Kiffin’s tutelage in Ole Miss’s explosive offense. Their October 2nd matchup with Alabama in Tuscaloosa will be one to watch.
It promises to be a great season.
This article was written by Gareth Evans. You can check out Gareth’s work @saturdaysfeedm1 on twitter. Thanks to Gareth for producing the article and we look forward to working with him throughout the College Football season.
Feature Image: 247sports.com