Ward’s Winners: Week 1
By James Ward
College football is back and that means another highly anticipated season of Ward’s Winners. If you read this weekly column last season, thanks for coming back. If you didn’t make it to this site last year, I’m glad you’re here now. Welcome the junior season of Ward’s Winners. Let’s go!
CFB Playoff Predictions:
1. OHIO STATE 2. ALABAMA 3. USC 4. LSU
Derrius Guice (12-1): The SEC’s leading rusher returns to Baton Rouge for his junior season. Wait, didn’t Leonard Fournette get drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars? Guice had one of the most underrated seasons in college football last season in Fournette’s shadow. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will bring his explosive offense to LSU this season and use Guice in a variety of roles. It wouldn’t shock me if the strongest running back in college football is in New York posing with Mr. Heisman.
QB Hype: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen are the three most hyped quarterbacks entering the 2017 college football season. There are already NFL fan bases shaking with excitement about the prospects of drafting Darnold No. 1 overall after just 10 career starts. Calm down. Christian Hackenberg and Matt Barkley were both thought to be sure-fire No. 1 picks. Overrated.
Charlie Strong: The new coach of the South Florida Bulls inherited a Preseason Top 25 team and a lot of pundits think USF is the best team in the Group of Five. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is capable of putting up Lamar Jackson-type numbers and by the end of the year, Strong is sure to be in the news again, but this time it’ll be for his team’s solid play on the field. Underrated.
Clemson Football: The defending champions are underrated, as the majority of the country expects them to take a step back without Deshaun Watson. But this season, with a revolving door at quarterback, the Tigers will prove they are a consistent national power without Watson. Underrated.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know:
1) Last season, Lamar Jackson became the 3rd player in FBS History with 30 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns. Believe it or not, that will actually hurt his chances to repeat as Heisman Trophy winner. Repeat Heisman winners are often held to higher standards in year two, and since Jackson’s 2016 Heisman season is unrepeatable, don’t expect him to win two in a row.
2) The last two JUCO transfer quarterbacks at Auburn led the Tigers to SEC Championships and trips to the National Championship Game. Let’s just say the expectations for Jarrett Stidham are high.
3) Oklahoma and Texas both have new head coaches entering Week 1 for the first time in 70 years. The last time both teams started a season with new coaches was 1947, when Bud Wilkinson (Oklahoma) and Blair Cherry (Texas) made their head coaching debuts. Wilkinson led the Sooners to three national championships, while Cherry had a successful, albeit short, career as Longhorns coach before retiring early for health reasons.
Florida State & Alabama (-7): Nick Saban has never lost an opener at Alabama. After last year’s 52-6 beat down of USC, Saban has also beaten all seven Power Five opponents in Week 1 by double digits. This streak includes wins against No. 9 Clemson in 2008, No. 7 Virginia Tech in 2009 and No. 8 Michigan in 2012. I don’t usually take trends from a 10-year window into play when making picks, but this trend is clear: Saban’s teams are always prepared to start the season. This is also an Alabama team with 11 returning starters, who were a Deshaun Watson drive away from winning the national championship. Motivation and preparation are on the Crimson Tide’s side.
Florida State is a trendy pick to win the ACC and contend for the national championship this year, but I am not buying it. Their offensive line last year was porous and while Deondre Francois impressed as a redshirt freshman, I’m surprised he made it through the season. Florida State faces a lot of the same issues this year with several returning starters on the offensive line. The one certain with every Alabama team is their ability to rush the passer. I know we’re all excited for college football, but the Florida State offensive line versus the Alabama defensive line and pass rushers has the potential to make this game ugly. Roll Tide.
Appalachian State (+14.5) at Georgia: This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of Appalachian State’s upset over Michigan. While on paper this may look like a sentimental pick, but I think the Mountaineers have a chance to be the best Group of Five team in college football. In Week 1 last season, Appalachian State almost upset Tennessee, potentially ruining their season before it even started. (It didn’t take long for Tennessee to do that on its own.) The Mountaineers return 7 starters on offense and 7 starters on defense, including their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver.
While Georgia is improved this year after a disappointing season, I think there’s a chance they are one of the most overrated teams heading into Week 1. I’m not saying the Bulldogs will go down at home to a Sun Belt team, but I expect a close game. Last season, Georgia played close games against Nicholls State and Louisiana Lafayette. Appalachian State will cover the two touchdowns and a hook.
Michigan (-5.5) & Florida: At the end of last season, these teams appeared to be evenly matched heading into this game with strong defenses and underwhelming offenses. But heading into the game, Florida has now suspended 10 players or roughly eight percent of their roster (as Sports Illustrated noted). Wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett are among the suspended, and Florida’s offense isn’t capable of overcoming these losses. Last season, the Gators finished 116th in the country in total offense and that was with Calloway as their biggest threat. Florida’s quarterback situation is still up in the air and I have hard time believing any of their three options will be able to put points on the board against a tough Wolverines defense.
This game will be ugly and not for the weakhearted. Points will be limited, but I think Michigan will find a way to score, offensively and defensively – against a turnover prone Gators squad. Wilton Speight is likely back at quarterback for the Wolverines and while he too is turnover prone, he does bring experience to the offense. If he can limit the mistakes, the Wolverines will be in good shape for this game of survival. Michigan will win by a touchdown.
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 58-47-0
James Ward is the Executive Producer of CBS Sports Radio Weekends and Sunday Morning Football. On Saturdays, you can find him in studio producing Eye on College Football and catching as many games as possible. Check him out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS).