The long offseason is finally over and college football has returned. With that comes all of the typical prognostications — preseason polls, watch lists and the like. We at CBS Sports are here to do our part as our staff breaks down its picks for the College Football Playoff, 2017 national champion, Coach of the Year and Heisman Trophy winner. They also look at the most overrated and underrated teams in college football before making a bold prediction for the season as a whole.
College Football Playoff
Alabama: The Tide’s first three possessions of the fourth quarter in the CFP national title game: 10 plays, 27 total yards, three punts. Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow won the title for Clemson, but that stretch of short, unproductive offensive football lost it for Alabama. A few months later, Nick Saban has a new coordinator and arguably one of the most potent combinations of offensive skill players we’ve seen since his arrival in Tuscaloosa. Consider me one of many that believe Tua Tagovailoa is too talented to keep off the field, and recent contemplation of this group’s offensive potential has me imagining a nightmare attack where the change-of-pace quarterback isn’t the running threat but the better downfield passer. Rashaan Evans is going to be a superstar, Minkah Fitzpatrick already was one and Da’Ron Payne will be hosting parties in everyone else’s backfield. The defense as a whole will live up to the standard set by previous years’ units, but this year’s team will be a champion because there’s enough depth and talent at every offensive skill position to field two title-worthy units. Old school coaches might hate the 7-on-7-ification of football, but the best 7-on-7 team in the country is in Tuscaloosa. — Chip Patterson (and Jerry Palm, Tom Fornelli)
Ohio State: Imagine in 2010 if I told you that Urban Meyer would be the coach at one of the most talented rosters in college football, Greg Schiano would be his defensive coordinator and Kevin Wilson would be his offensive coordinator. A national title coach, a future NFL head coach and one of college football’s best offensive coordinators together in one place? The idea would be incomprehensible at that time and yet here we are conditioned to think Meyer reality is normal. It’s the same reality that has him trotting out a fifth-year four-year starter at quarterback that has regularly dabbled in Heisman contention tutored by an NFL quarterback coach (Ryan Day), a reality that has Meyer suiting up a defensive line that goes about 12 deep with NFL talent, a reality that sees Ohio State welcoming one of the highest-ranked recruiting classes of all time (according to the 247Sports Composite rankings) to campus, and a reality that it all might not even be enough because Alabama is still out there. But I think it all will be enough and Urban gets his second title in Columbus. — Barton Simmons (and Ben Kercheval)
Florida State: It’s Jimbo’s time. Actually, it has been Jimbo’s time. Do you realize he’s the winningest coach (percentage-wise) in FSU history? And it’s not even close with Bobby Bowden at the moment. Yes, we know Saint Bobby was around forever. But in seven short seasons, Fisher has built the Noles into where Papa Bowden had them. Deondre Francois will make the natural progression to the next level in his second season. The stable of running backs might be better than last year without Dalvin Cook. Safety Derwin James is starting to get some Heisman run. This is Fisher’s best team since the 2013 national champions. If they don’t beat Alabama in Saturday’s opener, they’ll get them in the playoff. — Dennis Dodd
Southern California: The Trojans will take home their first national title since the one they gave back following the 2004 season and will do so thanks to the golden arm of Heisman winner Sam Darnold. He was awesome in a pinch last season, and Clay Helton and Co. have had a full offseason to tinker with that offense to make it exactly the way he needs it. With a veteran offensive line, established stud at tailback in Ronald Jones and talented and versatile receiving weapons, the Trojans will be a well-oiled machine that will force Pac-12 foes to play point-a-minute football. It’ll be a nice complement to a defense that is loaded from front to back with stars like Rasheem Greene up front, Porter Gustin in the middle and Iman Marshall on the back end. — Barrett Sallee
Most overrated team
Michigan: The Wolverines are talented, but I don’t think the Big Ten East landscape will evolve in a way that benefits this particular team, which has an awful lot to replace to be ranked 11th to start the season — especially given the schedule. With so much turnover defensively and Penn State and Ohio State bringing back potent offenses, Jim Harbaugh’s crew might have to get out of its comfort zone more than it did a year ago — when Ohio State’s offensive line was bad and Penn State was evolving when the two played. I still think Michigan can have a decent season and go to a good bowl, but it’s the third-best team in the division with the gap to the other two being significantly wider than some believe. — Barrett Sallee (and Jerry Palm)
Texas: This is not about what Tom Herman will do at Texas. He’ll win championships, build powerhouses and maybe even save the Big 12 in the process. But not this year, sorry. It’s a process, people. Texas will finish fourth or lower in the Big 12 this season. Too many folks have forgotten D’Onta Foreman is gone. There still isn’t a sure thing at quarterback. Herman himself called it a transition year in recruiting. So enjoy the fine social media artwork, enjoy Herman’s energy, enjoy the beginning of the turnaround. it just won’t happen this year. — Dennis Dodd
LSU: This is splitting hairs. I don’t have any major beef with any of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, so I’m picking on LSU at No. 13. LSU probably has a top-13 roster, but if we’re talking expectations, 13 is about as high as you can possibly go. It hasn’t finished higher than No. 13 since 2012, so I don’t know how we can expect any more this year. The offense is still average at quarterback, the Tigers are thin on the offensive line due to attrition, injuries are already hitting with Arden Key expected to miss the season opener and new head coach Ed Orgeron has a lot to prove. There’s a top-five ceiling on this team for sure, but I’m not sure it has proven that it deserves to be sniffing the top 10 just yet. — Barton Simmons
USC: There’s no doubt that USC has top-five, CFP and title-worthy talent, but the inability to turn talent into consistent results has been a sustaining theme through multiple coaching changes at Southern Cal. There’s two things in particular that have me pumping the brakes on Trojans’ hype: 1) If Sam Darnold gets hurt, or even banged up, the offense looks much different; 2) the schedule gives USC no time to rest or reset. USC doesn’t have to deal with the same depth issues it faced under NCAA sanctions, but there is inexperience that might be thrust into action on short notice with a schedule that features no bye weeks until Nov. 25, the week before the Pac-12 title game. It’s going to be an extra challenge for Clay Helton to keep this team mentally and physically sharp for that 12-week grind, and I think it will end up costing them at least one winnable game late in the season. — Chip Patterson
Penn State: This isn’t one of those attempts to say “actually, that thing you like? It’s bad.” I think Penn State is still going to be pretty good in 2017, but I’m just a bit hesitant after seeing it begin the season at No. 6 in both polls. The Nittany Lions finished strong last season, but their final five regular-season games came against teams that finished a combined 22-40. Also, nobody saw them coming last year. That won’t be the case in 2017 when they’ll be playing every game with a target on their back. — Tom Fornelli
Oklahoma State: There might not be a more hyped preseason non-favorite this offseason than the Cowboys. And there are certainly reasons to like this team. The combination of quarterback Mason Rudolph, wide receiver James Washington and running back Justice Hill make for a potent offense. Still … are we giving them too much love? The defense lost its best player to the draft (defensive lineman Vincent Taylor) and this veteran group needs other big names to emerge. The top half of the Big 12 is deep this year, too. Make no mistake, the Pokes will win games, but it also wouldn’t be completely surprising if they didn’t make the Big 12 Championship Game. — Ben Kercheval
Most underrated team
Northwestern: The Wildcats return the Big Ten’s leading rusher from a year ago in Justin Jackson, who ran for over 1,500 yards, along with quarterback Clayton Thorson and four starters from an offensive line that was frankly much better at run blocking than pass protection. That bit has to improve if the Wildcats are to make a run at the top of the West Division, which most people think is Wisconsin’s to lose. Northwestern’s bread-and-butter under coach Pat Fitzgerald, though, has always been defense and much of that unit returns as well, especially on the line and in the secondary. No coach in the Big Ten gets more out of what he has to work with that Fitzgerald. Look for NU to push the Badgers hard for that division crown. — Jerry Palm (and Dennis Dodd)
Stanford: You saw exactly why Stanford is underrated in Week Zero against Rice. Bryce Love is a monster at tailback, Keller Chryst seems fine after suffering a gruesome injury in the Sun Bowl, and the Cardinal defense — especially on the back end — is one of the best in the country. They’ll upset USC in the regular-season matchup in September, and the two will meet again in Santa Clara, California, in December with a playoff berth on the line. — Barrett Sallee (and Chip Patterson)
Auburn: I think Auburn is a potential playoff team. Jarrett Stidham is the truth. I don’t have to trust the internal buzz to believe that. I saw him in high school, saw him as a true freshman at Baylor, saw him in the Auburn spring game. He is legit and with a legit quarterback, Gus Malzahn has a legit track record. He has a “national title contention” track record. The defense will be just as stout if not better than last year, and last year it was one of the best in the country. As long as the offensive line gels, I think Auburn will win every non-Alabama, non-Clemson game on its schedule. Those other two will decide its playoff future or lack thereof. — Barton Simmons
South Florida: This prediction came before the Bulls opened their 2017 season, and even though I was ready to abandon ship when they fell behind San Jose State 16-0, order was quickly restored. There are a lot of questions left to be answered here with the coaching changes, but when you look at the Group of Five and then look at this team’s schedule, it’s hard to find a better candidate for that New Year’s Six spot. This is a team that could be pushing toward the top 10. — Tom Fornelli
Miami (Fla.): We’re going to hear a lot about Clemson, Florida State and Louisville out of the ACC, and justifiably so. However, this might be the most complete team the Hurricanes have had in a while. The defensive front seven has some bright young stars — especially at linebacker — who will be household names soon. Ahmmon Richards is emerging as one of the top big-play threats in the passing game and running back Mark Walton is an underrated star who could be breaking school records soon. If the quarterback situation is even adequate, this team should impress. Other than a road trip to Florida State, the schedule sets up a nice path, too. — Ben Kercheval
Coach of the Year
Clay Helton, USC: Coach of the year awards generally don’t go to the best coach in the sport. So we must eliminate guys like Saban, Meyer and Dabo Swinney from consideration. The award does tend to go to coaches who either exceed expectations by a lot or actually meet high expectations when everyone remains a bit skeptical. Well, I have USC going to the playoff this year. If that happens, Helton will win some Coach of the Year awards. — Tom Fornelli (and Dennis Dodd, Barrett Sallee)
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: In the 11 years that Fitzgerald has been the coach at Northwestern, he has led the Wildcats to 10 wins twice. That number matches the total amount of 10-win seasons Northwestern produced in the previous 112 years. Ten losses, on the other hand? Northwestern hit that mark seven times in that century-plus. I think he has got another 10-win season in him this fall. A great defensive coach with great defensive personnel returning, Fitzgerald also returns an experienced offensive line, a workhorse running back and an NFL prospect at quarterback. If he hits the 10-win threshold like I expect, he deserves every job offer, extension, raise and coaching award that is coming his way. — Barton Simmons
Jim McElwain, Florida: Coach of the year is typically about exceeding expectations. It’s hard for a guy like Saban to win that award without winning the Super Bowl, for example. If your team is in the top five or six of the polls to start the season, you might be in for a very good season, but it will not likely end with a coach of the year award. So, I looked further down the list to No. 17 Florida and McElwain. I think the Gators are in for a better year than that, specifically one that ends with double-digit wins, another SEC East title, a spot in one of the New Year’s Six games and a COY trophy for McElwain. That has to start with beating Michigan, though. Otherwise, you can set fire to this prediction. — Jerry Palm
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: I’m high on Oklahoma this season, and as we inch closer, I grow even more confident in having them as my pick in the Big 12. If the Sooners are able to maintain their dominance in the conference and make the playoff, it’s going to be hard to make a case for anyone other than the 33-year old (about to turn 34 in September) head coach promoted less than three months before the start of the season. Young as he is, there’s more than a decade of studying on the sidelines under Mike Leach, Ruffin McNeill and Bob Stoops to prepare him for this moment and I think it’s going to be an outstanding debut season. — Chip Patterson
Gary Andersen, Oregon State: This prediction is already off to a rough start thanks to the 58-27 shellacking Oregon State took at the hands of Colorado State. However, the Rams appear to be a legit team, Group of Five or not. And the Beavers’ schedule was always going to be front-loaded. However, Andersen has quietly done a good job getting things in Corvallis turned in the right direction over the past two seasons. Last year’s 4-8 team was close to snagging bowl eligibility. Six — or even seven — wins in one of the deeper divisions in the Power Five would be a significant victory for a program in rebuilding mode. — Ben Kercheval
Heisman Trophy winner
Sam Darnold, USC quarterback: There is a quiet calm about a kid whose head could be easily turned by all that happens around him in Los Angeles. That will serve him well with USC already projected to win the Pac-12 and participate in the playoff. Darnold simply has the best body and best mechanics of any college signal callers. Look for 40 touchdown passes and 3,800 yards as the Trojans win their first conference title in nine years. With Heisman voters looking elsewhere this season, a good-lookin’ SoCal kid with a top-five team will fill up plenty of ballots. — Dennis Dodd (and Barrett Sallee)
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State quarterback: I’m working under the assumption that a quarterback will win the Heisman because quarterbacks win Heismans these days (14 of the past 17) and this is a great year at the position. Rudolph has an NFL arm, a wide-open offense, perhaps the best group of wide receivers in college football and — most important of all — he’s playing on a non-traditional powerhouse that has a real shot at making the CFP. He’ll be the face of Oklahoma State’s storybook season and with modest improvement on last season’s 315 passing yards per game, he’s a lock to be in New York for the Heisman ceremony. — Barton Simmons
Lamar Jackson, Louisville quarterback: Jackson is getting no love in preseason Heisman talk, and I don’t understand why. This year’s race figures to be more competitive than last year’s, so he’ll have to do better at the end of the season than he did last year. This is a guy who put up video game numbers last season, and with another year of experience, there is no reason he cannot do that again. If he is going to be the first repeat winner since Archie Griffin, though, he will have to have big games against teams like Clemson and Florida State, even if those games result in losses. — Jerry Palm
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma quarterback: This is my Oklahoma parlay. If Oklahoma is going to win the Big 12 and make the CFP like I predicted, then Baker Mayfield is probably a big reason why. And if Mayfield leads the Sooners to the CFP, then Riley is going to be a Coach of the Year candidate. Heisman voters love Heisman moments, and the backyard-style of Mayfield should provide enough highlights to fill up a reel that will make picking him easy when combined with 10-plus wins and a potential playoff spot. With so many great skill players gone, Moxie Mayfield is going to have to go do it himself sometimes — stressful for OU fans eyeing the playoff but potentially beneficial for the quarterback’s Heisman chances. — Chip Patterson
Saquon Barkley, Penn State running back: We’ve seen some great running backs in the college game that past few seasons, and Barkley might turn out to be the best of the bunch. I see him as the best running back in the country right now, and he’s playing in an offense where he’s not only the best player but with an offensive coordinator that knows how to use him effectively. Assuming health, Barkley is going to have a monster season and become a household name. And then he’s going to win the Heisman. — Tom Fornelli
Cam Akers, Florida State running back: My bold prediction this offseason was that Akers would win the Heisman as a freshman. The former top running back recruit has the talent and he plays in a good scheme that caters to his skill and on a nationally relevant team. His performance in Week 1 against Alabama will be something to monitor. Overall, I like candidates who enter the season a little off the radar as far as odds go. — Ben Kercheval
- Dennis Dodd: Charlie Strong will go 13-0 at South Florida and win the American. His quarterback, Quinton Flowers, will be invited to New York, and USF will snag the New Year’s Six Group of Five golden ticket. Strong will ride that magic season right back to a Power Five job in 2018. His three-year downturn at Texas will be — if not forgotten — pushed to the back of his rèsumè.
- Barton Simmons: Based on nonconference play and its bowl record, the beleaguered Big 12 will come out of the postseason as college football’s best conference, but due to parity — and an Oklahoma loss to Ohio State — it will not be represented in the CFP.
- Jerry Palm: The loser of the Alabama-Florida State game still makes the CFP, but the Big 12 is left out again.
- Chip Patterson: Florida State becomes the first two-loss team to make the CFP.
- Tom Fornelli: South Florida will be 13-0 after winning the AAC title but that won’t be enough to earn the Bulls a CFP spot ahead of a two-loss USC.
- Ben Kercheval: A conference championship game will knock at least one team that would have been in the CFP out of it.
- Barrett Sallee: All four CFP teams will have one loss while Big 12 champion Oklahoma State will be left out. USC will ride Sam Darnold all the way to its first title since the vacated 2004 season, and Darnold will forever be known as the man who brought the Trojans back to national prominence.