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Heisman favorites, COVID plans and why Clemson won’t miss a beat: 50 things to know about the college football season

Clemson has a promising successor to Trevor Lawrence, someone other than Alabama will win it all and an Imhotep product is bound for stardom.

Iowa State safety Isheem Young, from Imhotep, was the Big 12's co-defensive freshman of the year in 2020 and a member of the conference's all-academic team.
Iowa State safety Isheem Young, from Imhotep, was the Big 12's co-defensive freshman of the year in 2020 and a member of the conference's all-academic team.Read moreCharlie Neibergall / AP

Alabama lost five first-rounders, and 10 draft picks overall, and is still favored to repeat as national champion. So, of course, we’re picking someone else.

Texas is feeling good about itself after hiring the Tide’s offensive coordinator to run its program, Michigan will beat Ohio State or “die trying,” its coach said, and Cincinnati hopes to crash the four-team playoff. Get ready to hate the term NIL. Here are 50 things to know about the upcoming season.

1. Clemson shouldn’t miss a beat with D.J. Uiagalelei stepping in for Trevor Lawrence at quarterback. Uiagalelei was terrific in two starts last year as a freshman, including passing for 439 yards in a double-overtime loss at Notre Dame.

2. For those who missed that scintillating game against the Irish, Uiagalelei’s last name is pronounced ooh-ee-AHN-guh-luh-lay. His dad, Dave (6-4, 350), used to be a bodyguard for celebrities, including Meek Mill.

3. Georgia, which had to replace its top six defensive backs, opens with Clemson next Saturday in Charlotte (7:30 p.m., 6ABC) in the best nonconference game of the early season.

4. One of those replacements is cornerback Tykee Smith, an Imhotep Charter product who transferred in from West Virginia. Smith is on the watch list for the Nagurski Award given to the nation’s best defensive player. Smith injured his foot midway through August and might not play against Clemson.

5. The best nonconference games in September (besides Clemson-Georgia):

Sept. 4: Alabama vs. Miami (at Atlanta), 3:30 p.m. (6ABC)

Sept. 5: Notre Dame at Florida State, 7:30 p.m. (6ABC)

Sept. 11: Oregon at Ohio State, 12 p.m. (Fox29)

Sept. 18: Nebraska at Oklahoma, 12 p.m. (Fox29)

Sept. 18: Auburn at Penn State, 7:30 p.m. (6ABC)

Sept. 25: Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (at Chicago), 12 p.m. (Fox29)

6. Nebraska will visit former archrival Oklahoma on Sept. 18 in the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century,” the 1971 classic won by Nebraska. This is their first meeting since 2010 and the first game in Norman since Nov. 1, 2008. For perspective, that was the day after the Phillies’ World Series parade.

7. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler is the Heisman favorite (8-1 at FanDuel) and Sooners linebacker Nik Bonitto is arguably the best edge rusher in the nation.

8. Contrary to his Twitter handle (@pdontplay), Perrion Winfrey certainly plays. He’s an excellent nose tackle in the Sooners’ 3-4 scheme. Asked about his expectations for a defense that returns nine starters, Winfrey responded, “There’s no limit. I can’t even say the sky’s the limit because we’re blowing the roof off, for real.” A roof on the sky? Hmmm.

9. Before becoming the Pac-12′s new commissioner, George Kliavkoff was the president of sports and entertainment for MGM Resorts in Las Vegas. Got us thinking about the times the NCAA would threaten to deny credentials for reporters whose newspapers ran daily point spreads.

10. Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox was one of the first football players to take advantage of the name, image, and likeness (NIL) revenue opportunity. Knox partnered with PetSmart, saying he’s just as proud to be a dog dad as he is to be a football player. It sounds cheesy only to those who don’t have dogs.

11. Knox named his Siberian Husky “Blue,” which would seem an odd choice for a guy who wears Razorbacks red. “I was just so drawn to her blue eyes,” he told The Inquirer via Twitter.

12. ”I still wonder what you get from giving a student-athlete a whole bunch of money,” Stanford coach David Shaw wondered. “Does that help your business? If it does, great. If that’s not a great business model for you, how is that sustainable?”

13. Army-Navy (Dec. 11) is at the Meadowlands this year, marking the first time since World War II this game is played outside Philadelphia in consecutive years. COVID-19 restrictions caused it to be moved from Lincoln Financial Field last year to West Point, as Army shut out Navy, 15-0, for the first time since 1969. The game is back in Philadelphia in 2022.

14. Arizona State, with 20 returning starters including quarterback Jayden Daniels, is a dark horse to challenge USC in the Pac-12 South. There’s a bit of a cloud hanging over Herm Edwards’ program, because the NCAA is probing whether the Sun Devils committed recruiting violations during COVID-19 restrictions.

15. ASU is not mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, but when it plays on the road, unvaccinated players and staff will be left home. “It is a privilege to be a part of our football program but not a right,” Sun Devils athletic director Ray Anderson said in a statement, “and we simply cannot risk putting others in harm’s way.”

16. After initially refusing a COVID-19 vaccination for “personal reasons,” Washington State coach Nick Rolovich finally decided to roll up his sleeve and get the shots. Good for him. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

17. Iowa State will be looking for a fifth consecutive winning season, something it hasn’t done since the 1920s. The monster game on its schedule is at Oklahoma on Nov. 20.

18. Safety Isheem Young, another Imhotep product, was the Big 12′s co-defensive freshman of the year after registering 50 tackles, an interception, and three forced fumbles (including one in ISU’s Fiesta Bowl win over Oregon). And — what we like even more — Young also was on the conference’s all-academic first team. Good to see him smarten up after nearly throwing his life away following an arrest on armed robbery charges as a juvenile in 2017.

19. Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who finished last season with games of 172 and 183 rushing yards, will be “the center point of what we do,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Every year I’ve called plays in college football, I’ve had a 1,000-yard rusher. Bijan’s got that one-cut ability where he can be going full speed, make one cut, and not lose speed. I saw that every day with Reggie Bush, and Bijan is impressive.”

20. That optimism will vanish with a loss in the opener to Louisiana, which won at Iowa State last season and has 19 starters returning. Quarterback Levi Lewis has been compared to Kyler Murray.

21. Louisiana coach Billy Napier said more than 90% of his players, coaches, and staff have been vaccinated. “I do think we’re all a little more aware of what’s going on around us, right?” he said. “I think the state of Louisiana is a hot spot, and we’ve got to do our part and make good choices and decisions relative to the team.”

AP Preseason poll
1. Alabama
Toughest game
Oct. 9: at Texas A&M
AP Preseason poll
2. Oklahoma
Toughest game
Nov. 20: vs. Iowa State
AP Preseason poll
3. Clemson
Toughest game
Sept. 4: vs. Georgia (at Charlotte)
AP Preseason poll
4. Ohio State
Toughest game
Oct. 23: at Indiana
AP Preseason poll
5. Georgia
Toughest game
Sept. 4: vs. Clemson (at Charlotte)
AP Preseason poll
6. Texas A&M
Toughest game
Oct. 9: vs. Alabama
AP Preseason poll
7. Iowa State
Toughest game
Nov. 20: at Iowa State
AP Preseason poll
8. Cincinnati
Toughest game
Oct. 2: at Notre Dame
AP Preseason poll
9. Notre Dame
Toughest game
Sept. 25: vs. Wisconsin (at Chicago)
AP Preseason poll
10. North Carolina
Toughest game
Oct. 30: at Notre Dame
AP Preseason poll
Toughest game
AP Preseason poll
19. Penn State
Toughest game
Oct. 30: at Ohio State

22. Clemson safety Nolan Turner, son of former Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, is one of 23 seniors and 16 grad students on the team. Because of a redshirt season and the extra year of eligibility granted because of the pandemic, he will be 24 years old before the season ends.

23. Ball State’s Justin Hall is the leading active receiver with 257 receptions. He’s had at least one catch in every game of his career and is on the Biletnikoff Award preseason list for the second time (also 2018). The Cardinals visit Penn State on Sept. 11 (3:30 p.m., FS1).

24. Boise State hosts Oklahoma State on Sept 18 in an FS1 night game, then plays at Utah State the following week in a game that will start at 10 a.m. local time for CBS TV.

25. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was the media’s preseason pick for player of the year, something no Tar Heel has done since Lawrence Taylor 41 years ago. Howell has 68 touchdown passes in 25 games for UNC, which does not play conference bully Clemson in the regular season.

26. First-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said one key thing separates the SEC from everyone else. “The line of scrimmage is different [in the SEC], and it’s the size and the length of the bodies, you know what I mean? Up front, inside, it’s their girth. On the edges, it’s their ability to have length and speed.”

27. The Cotton and Orange Bowls are hosting the playoff semifinals on Dec. 31. The championship game is Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

28. Cincinnati, with the return of three-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder, has its eyes on crashing those semifinals. The Bearcats, whose only loss last season was when Georgia hit a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds of the Peach Bowl, have two key games, both on the road. They are at Indiana on Sept. 18 and at Notre Dame on Oct. 2 with a bye in between.

29. Cincy added Archbishop Wood defensive lineman Rob Jackson to a stacked rotation. He’s a relative football newbie, so Jackson might play a few games before redshirting.

» READ MORE: “Imagine if, after a year in college, he’s 6-7, 300, with the way he moves his feet.”

30. Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux should be one of the first players selected in next year’s NFL draft. He’s partnered with Nike co-founder Phil Knight to create non-fungible tokens. “I look at it as a digital baseball card and that’s kind of the easiest way to make sense of it,” Thibodeaux explained.

31. The highest an Oregon defensive player has ever been drafted was end Dion Jordan, who went No. 3 to the Dolphins in 2013. The Eagles had the next pick and selected Lane Johnson.

32. Chip Kelly, who coached Jordan at Oregon and Johnson with the Eagles, is entering his fourth season at UCLA. He is 10-21 with the Bruins, who host LSU on Saturday night (8:30 p.m., Fox29) in an interesting nonconference game. LSU is laying 4.

33. Pretty funny (if unintentional) response from Texas coach Steve Sarkisian when asked about the Longhorns and Oklahoma moving into the SEC in 2025. While Sarkisian preferred to talk about the 2021 season, “you’ve got to recognize the elephant in the room,” said Sarkisian, who had been Alabama’s offensive coordinator. “We can’t be naive to that. But we also can’t put so much emphasis into it that we don’t focus on ourselves and do what’s necessary for us to have success.” The elephant, of course, is Alabama’s mascot.

34. The 1930 Crimson Tide linemen were so dominant that Atlanta sportswriter Everett Strupper dubbed them the “Red Elephants.” Alabama went 10-0 that year, outscoring opponents 217-13, and the name stuck.

» READ MORE: The story behind the Alabama elephant

35. Bryan Harsin is the fourth coach at Auburn since Nick Saban became archrival Alabama’s head coach in 2007. Harsin pulled the elephant’s trunk a bit when he referred to Alabama as the “team up north that’s doing a good job.” He refuses to say if he’s vaccinated, an unfortunate stance given his position of authority within the state.

36. “Let me be clear: I am not anti-vaccine, and any narrative along those lines is misinformed,” said Harsin, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 19. “I fully support the choice for anyone to vaccinate. I also support getting reliable data-driven information in the hands of those who still have questions about the vaccine. Anyone who’s been in our facility knows that.”

37. Championships since 2001: Tom Brady 7, Nick Saban 7. This is the second time they both enter a season hoping to defend their titles. Brady was successful in beating the Eagles to win the Super Bowl following the 2004 season. Saban went 9-3 in 2004 and then took the Miami Dolphins job, the only mustard stain on his coaching resume.

38. Former Penn State (and Houston Texans) coach Bill O’Brien is Alabama’s new offensive coordinator.

39. Former Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton, who was in the Heisman conversation before a gruesome knee injury in 2018, is starting for Florida State. It’s a great story, but a brutal schedule. The ‘Noles open at home with Notre Dame on Sunday but have road games against North Carolina, Clemson, and Florida.

40. Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton could be a top-10 pick next year. He was born in Greece, where his dad was playing pro basketball, and his brother Tyler was a reserve guard at Penn for three seasons before finishing up at William & Mary in 2019-20.

41. His mother, Jackie, understandably bragged to NDInsider that Kyle is a member of Mensa.

42. Texas A&M is ranked sixth, its highest in the preseason in more than a quarter century (1995).

43. The Aggies have gotten smoked by Alabama in the three seasons since Jimbo Fisher became coach, so any playoff hopes likely hinge on their not getting blown out again when the Tide visit College Station on Oct. 9.

44. Some of the highest regular-season win total over/unders, according to DraftKings: Alabama (11.5), Clemson (11.5), Ohio State (11), Oklahoma (11), Georgia (10.5), Cincinnati (10), Coastal Carolina (10). Penn State’s line is 8.5.

45. Some of the lowest: Kansas (1), Bowling Green (1.5), Louisiana-Monroe (1.5), New Mexico State (1.5), UMass (1.5), UNLV (1.5). Temple is 3.

46. Ohio State is 15-1 against Michigan since 2004, when the Buckeyes were unranked and shocked the No. 7 Wolverines. They didn’t play in 2020, and will meet in Ann Arbor on Nov. 27 — two days after Thanksgiving. It’ll be nearly 10 years to the day Michigan beat OSU (Nov. 26, 2011).

47. Senior linebacker Josh Ross was asked if Michigan’s players think about the eight-game losing streak to Ohio State. “Every day,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s about beating them every single day. To do that, we’ve got to stack the days, and that’s one thing that’s been a focus for our program, for the players, for the coaches. Make the best of every day.”

48. Note that a couple of important overtime rules were adjusted. Teams must try for two-point conversions in the second overtime (had been the third OT). Also, starting with the third OT, teams will alternate two-point conversions only. They will not start drives at the 25-yard line. (Previously, this had been the policy starting with the fifth OT.)

» READ MORE: Full rules changes and points of emphasis

49. Six of the 11 players on the media’s all-SEC first-team preseason defensive team play for Alabama, including all three linebackers. Henry To’oto’o, who led Tennessee in tackles last season, joins Will Anderson Jr. and Christian Harris as the starting LBs. Whew.

50. National championship pick: Oklahoma. Not a lot of money gets made picking against Alabama and Clemson, but the Sooners have a good early schedule, get Iowa State at home, and are plenty deep. They’re priced around 8-1 at FanDuel, which will go down only as teams who play each other in the top 10 lose.

This article contains information from Inquirer wire services.