Two days, man, two days–that’s how long college football fans have to wait until UNC and South Carolina kick off the 2013 college football at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Thursday evening. It’s been a long time coming. Too long, really. We’ve been inundated with stories as massive as Johnny Manziel (the entirety of the Texas A&M quarterback’s life) to the sweet bits of miscellany like Steve Spurrier’s just being the man on these streets to whet our appetites.
But all of it–from the scandals to the little bits of news–signal that the pigskin’s about the fly on Saturdays again. And to prep you for those sh*t-talking, beer-guzzling weekends, we here at The Smoking Section have compiled a handy little Primer to get you prepped for the upcoming season, just in case you needed reminding.
Conference name: ACC
Where to Watch It: Raycom Sports, ABC
Conference Summary: The most obvious difference in the ACC this year will be the inclusion of its two newest teams, Syracuse and Pitt. Neither are expected to represent the conference in a BCS bowl come January, but new blood is always exciting, right? Aside from that, the elite squads include Clemson and Florida State–for great reasons, too, including reigning ACC Player of the Year and Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and Christian Jones (Florida State), whom we’ve already sung the praises of. Yet, don’t be surprised if the next echelon of teams – Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech – pull off an upset that flips the entire conference on its head.
Besides Boyd and Jones, here’s who we have our eye on: Jameis Winston, Florida State
An emerging charge of support for Miami’s Stephen Morris has been bubbling all summer. NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks crowned to him as the nation’s top signal caller following the Manning Passing Academy. But make no mistake about it, no one’s under more pressure from the first snap than Jameis. Ideally, it would’ve been great had the redshirt freshman Winston kept his mouth shut on the whole Johnny Manziel issue a few weeks back. But word around Tallahassee is this kid is the real deal. The defense will be the squad’s calling card and should be help ease Winston into his role as signal caller in the early weeks of the season.
Sooner or later, however, it’s going to be all up to Winston to lead a drive that’ll either make or break Florida State’s season. Plus, when your play in spring ball makes your leading competition for the starting job – Clint Trickett – transfer to West Virginia, that’s pretty f*ckin’ badass.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch: Florida State at Clemson; Sat., Oct. 19, TBD
How important is this game? With both teams being in the Atlantic division of the ACC, not only could a BCS bowl appearance be at stake, but also a conference championship berth as well. The ‘Noles beat the Tigers to within an inch of their lives last year, 49-37, pummeling them 35-9 in the second half. With both heavily favored to win the ACC this year, best believe this will be the game to watch–primetime, ABC, under the lights.
Our Pick for Conference Champion: Florida State, at least in August.
The biggest thing for Florida State is to not fall victim to what they do every season – the trap game (which could be season opener at Pittsburgh if the ‘Noles aren’t careful). If Jimbo Fisher doesn’t get in his own way and can somehow keep this team’s focus on each game–week in, week out–FSU could run the table. Keyword: could.
Conference Name: American
Where to Watch It: ESPN, CBS
Conference Summary: So the American was the Big East, which is now a basketball-only super-conference that emerges when it’s cold and Dick Vitale’s in a broadcasting booth instead of spouting senility via Twitter. And in this final season before it completely becomes the “old” Conference USA, the American will be Louisville’s to lose.
Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a Heisman candidate and should run wild over American defenses, while he now has former stand-out Auburn running back Michael Dyer to aid in offensive blitzkriegs. Cincinnati and new head coach Tommy Tuberville could provide competition, as could Houston and B1G-member-to-be, Rutgers.
Besides Teddy Bridgewater, Here’s Who We Have Our Eye On: Michael Dyer, Auburn
Remember that the Little Rock, Arkansas, native was supposed to be the second coming of Bo Jackson at Auburn, a squat, shifty dynamo who racked up 2,335 yards and 15 touchdowns in his two seasons with the Tigers. Then he kind of got in trouble and jettisoned around Arkansas before landing a second chance with Louisville. He’ll be on a tight leash, but should make a nice addition to the 2013 UL offensive machine.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch: Louisville at Cincinnati; Thurs., Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Most college football analysts have highlighted this game as the only one that could see Louisville lose its vice-grip about the American. Assuming the Cardinals and Bearcats are undefeated and relatively unscathed, respectively, heading into this match-up, then it could decide who gets the conference’s BCS spot–or, in the case of Louisville, a Bridgewater Heisman and national championship berth.
Our Pick for Conference Champion: Louisville
Still need a reason why the Cards are the topic choice here?
Conference name: B1G
Where to Watch It: ABC/ESPN, The B1G Network
Conference Summary: The B1G was noticeably absent from the national championship conversation last season, a down year which culminated with unranked Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl loss. So what’s there to look forward to? Ohio St. comes in with title hopes and plenty of starters returning, including quarterback Braxton Miller, fresh off an undefeated season that went nowhere because of NCAA violations.
Blocking the Buckeyes’ run to the BCS are Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern. The Badgers are led by new coach Gary Andersen, who takes over a program that’s consistently won for the past two decades under Barry Alvarez and Brett Bielema.
In Happy Valley, Penn St. won’t duplicate their improbable eight-win season without a proven QB and limited scholarships. Meanwhile, Michigan might have a future Heisman trophy winner in QB Devin Gardner, who showed flashes of brilliance late last season for the Wolverines.
Besides Braxton Miller, Here’s Who We Have Our Eye On: Devin Funchess, Michigan
At 6-foot-5 and 229 pounds, the sophomore Funchess is a prototypical tight end. He caught five touchdowns in 2012 and was an honorable All-Big Ten selection, but we have a hunch he’s just getting started. With running quarterback Denard Robinson graduated, the 2013 Wolverines offense will be more dependent on a West Coast passing game (led by Gardner). It’s always nice for a young quarterback to have 1) A protected Twitter account and 2) A beefy security blanket in the flat. Funchess will see plenty of targets and become one of the nation’s elite tight ends.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch: Ohio State at Michigan; Sat., Nov. 30, TBD
We know, not exactly going out on a limb here, but they’re the two best teams. And this could potentially be the first of back-to-back matchups between bitter rivals, should they both advance to the conference championship game the following week. If the Buckeyes and/or Wolverines are undefeated for this showdown, watch out for one of the rowdiest Michigan crowds in recent memory. Remind me to book a flight to The D for that weekend.
Our Pick for Conference Champion: Ohio St.
Even with the off-field issues and pressures of a top-5 preseason ranking, there’s too much Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller to ignore. The B1G title comes back to Columbus.
Conference Name: Big 12
Where to Watch It: ABC/ESPN, FOX/FOX Sports
Conference Summary: Holy sh*t, the Big 12. After starting last year with so much promise, the conference imploded by season’s end. West Virginia wins became scanter than Dana Holgersen’s hairline; former Kansas State quarterback Colin Klein pissed away his Heisman chances; and then Oregon and Texas A&M steamrolled the Wildcats and Oklahoma, respectively, in their BCS games. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the conference that only one team, Oklahoma State, is even ranked in the top-15. Chances are good that flagship programs like Texas and Oklahoma will bounce back from 2012 and teams like Baylor and TCU will surprise. But until then: holy sh*t.
Besides David Ash, Here’s Who We Have Our Eye On: Lache Seastrunk, Baylor
The only thing you really need to know about junior running back Seastrunk is that he’s an Oregon transfer. So the guy’s lightning-quick and guaranteed to find plenty of holes to exploit in the defensively deficient Big 12. And he’s sure to thrive in Art Briles’ offense-happy system, as he amassed five 100+-yard games in his final six appearances last season. Since the Big 12’s known for its quarterbacking, expect eyes to be on Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas’ Ash before settling on Seastrunk once he finds his (bad joke alert) sealegs.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch: Texas vs. Oklahoma; Sat., Oct. 12, TBD
College football journalists are calling the Big 12 a toss-up this year because of its depth of potential eight-, nine- and ten-win teams. So you could take any game featuring Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor or TCU and consider it a must-watch.
However, we’ll be looking forward to the Red River Rivalry like everyone else because the game could serve a number of different purposes: a breakout showcase for either Ash or Knight; the start of Texas coach Mack Brown’s demise and/or the tie-breaking win for whomever ends up at the top of the season’s Big 12 standings.
Our Pick for Conference Champion: Texas.
It’s impossible that the Longhorns have two down years in a row, right?
Conference name: Pac-12
Where to Watch It: Pac-12 Network, ABC/ESPN
Conference Summary: David Shaw’s marvelous first two seasons as Stanford head coach serve as a spoiler alert for the Pac-12’s 2013 campaign: new coach, no problem. Chip Kelly’s replacement, Mark Helfrich, should at the very least keep the Duck offense rolling quickly enough to keep Oregon near the top of the North division, if not the outright favorite to win the whole conference.
The Cardinal and the Ducks remain the class of the conference but things look less settled elsewhere. Cal and Colorado are also breaking in new coaches, but are likely years away from meaningful contention. Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA, however, could work a miracle or two to compete with Arizona State for the suddenly vulnerable South division.
Besides Marquise Lee, Here’s Who We Have Our Eye On: Anthony Barr, UCLA
Barr, at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, is quite simply a beast of an athlete at linebacker. He was born in South Bend, Indiana, where his father played fullback for Notre Dame. So naturally Barr ended up at the traditional Midwestern meat and potatoes linebacker powerhouse of… UCLA?
Well to be fair Barr probably wasn’t looking for schools with a storied linebacking tradition as he began his college career as a running back, wide receiver and tight end. Last year, his junior season, was his first as a linebacker and he immediately became one of the game’s best NFL prospects, recording a league-leading 13 1/2 sacks. He also has a heart of gold, mercifully ending Matt Barkley’s tortuous senior season with a brutal sack that injured Barkley’s shoulder.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch: Stanford at Oregon; Thurs., Nov. 7, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Oregon-Stanford has become the conference’s key rivalry over the past few years. In 2011 No. 7 Oregon ended any chances of the No. 4-ranked Cardinal reaching the National Championship game. Stanford repaid the favor a year later, defeating the No. 2-ranked Ducks just one week before the Civil War, banishing them to Fiesta Bowl purgatory. Sure, Chip Kelly might be gone, but this match-up has already proven that it can survive an elite coach departing for the NFL.
Our Pick for Conference Champion: Oregon.
Even without Kelly the Ducks have too much continuity in both their staff and roster and scored such an easy schedule (getting to play both Arizona and Colorado in one season hardly seems fair) that it’s hard to imagine them not at least sneaking past Stanford to trounce whomever the South division can throw at them.
Conference Name: SEC
Where To Watch It: CBS, ABC/ESPN
Conference Summary: It’s the SEC. The Southeastern Conference. What else is there to say? Since OSU fell to Florida some years back, the SEC has become something of the NFL’s junior division, featuring the kinds of freak athletes and coaching geniuses that make other conferences tremble.
Five of the nation’s top 10 teams beginning the season rep this division: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida. LSU trails behind them at No. 13. Teams like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State make for a strong middle-of-the-pack, and look for Ole Miss to bounce back from their win-less 2012 to make a bowl. Top-to-bottom, the SEC looks as strong as ever.
Besides Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, Here’s Who We Have Our Eye On: Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, both of Alabama
Alabama’s recent string of spell-binding skill position players will continue with Cooper and Yeldon, both true sophomores, playing wide receiver and running back respectively. Cooper led the team in every major receiving category in 2012 (59 receptions, 1,000 yards, 11 touchdowns), as a freshman. Yeldon provided the lightning to second round pick Eddie Lacy, rushing for 1,108 yards (with a 6.3 YPC) and 12 touchdowns. Again, as a freshman. Look for them to take major steps forward, potentially catapulting themselves into Heisman contention. There’s no end in sight, man. THAT CRIMSON TIDE OFFENSE. SOMEONE, PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP.
The One Game We Can’t Wait to Watch (Besides Alabama v. Texas A&M): Georgia at Florida; Nov. 2, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
The Bulldogs and Gators both have their eyes on the SEC East crown. Let’s assume that Georgia beats South Carolina in Athens in week 2 (not a done deal, but the Bulldogs should be favored). Considering Florida is, on paper, better than everyone they face leading up to the matchup, we could be looking at two undefeated top-5 teams knuckling up. Doesn’t get much better.
Our pick for conference champion: Alabama.
Duh. In all seriousness, though, you won’t find a team better equipped to weather the tough competition found in the SEC. Unfair skill position players? Check. Dark-hoarse Heisman-candidate quarterback? Check. The best coach in the sport? Game, blouses.