Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (emergency stadium replacement grass sold separately at South Carolina):
With the season starting for real this week, who has the most opening-game pressure? The Dash assesses 10 under the microscope.
WEEK ONE PRESSURE GAUGE
The Pac-12 (21). Last year the league stumbled through the non-conference portion of the schedule and never recovered. The Pac-12 was out of contention for the College Football Playoff by midseason, then went a disastrous 1-8 in bowl games. When a 12-team Power Five league wins only the Heart of Dallas Bowl, that’s not good. A strong start will be imperative to regain respectability and for playoff positioning. No game looms larger than Washington vs. Auburn in Atlanta, with the Huskies looking like the best team in a league hungry for a statement win. Keep an eye on these openers as well: San Diego State at Stanford (a game the Cardinal lost last year); North Carolina at California; Washington State at Wyoming; BYU at Arizona; Colorado State vs. Colorado in Denver; and Cincinnati at new-look UCLA.
Ryan Day (22). The 39-year-old interim head coach at Ohio State is filling in for a guy with a 73-8 record and three national championships. Day was the choice over defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to lead the Buckeyes out of a tumultuous preseason; he’s highly regarded as an offensive coordinator and considered future head-coaching material. And it helps that the opening opponent is an Oregon State program that went 1-11 last year. Day really has to just avoid colossal screw-ups in this one; the margin for error will be thinner by week three against TCU.
Larry Fedora (23). His record has declined from 11-3 in 2015 to 8-5 in ’16 to 3-9 last year. Fedora largely got a pass on that debacle due to a horrendous run of injuries, but he likely can’t afford a second straight bad season. That became a distinct possibility after the program was hit with mass suspensions for players selling university-issued Jordan Brand gear in violation of NCAA rules. Then Fedora did himself no favors with a looney-tunes soliloquy at ACC media days tying the fate of America to the fate of football. It will be crunch time early, as the Tar Heels open with two games on the road: Cal this weekend and longtime ACC killer East Carolina next.
Ed Orgeron (24). His first full season in charge at LSU was a so-so 9-4. Nine wins isn’t terrible, but a 30-point loss to Mississippi State, an upset loss to Troy and a bowl loss to Notre Dame didn’t go over well — and don’t even bring up the two-touchdown loss to program nemesis Alabama. Orgeron trap-doored offensive coordinator Matt Canada after a season and elevated Steve Ensminger, whose last full-time OC job was 20 years ago. The bigger change might be Ohio State transfer quarterback Joe Burrow, who has barely played since graduating from high school in 2015. Burrow … and Ensminger … and Orgeron must be ready right away for No. 8 Miami on Sunday in Arlington.
Josh Heupel (25). Here comes Heupel to take over the program on the longest winning streak in America, Central Florida, coming off a 13-0 season. In other words, the only place to go is down, after Scott Frost’s miracle makeover in Orlando. Heupel is only 3½ years removed from being fired as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but rehabbed his résumé with a strong stint calling plays for Drew Lock at Missouri. Now we’ll see whether he’s head-coach material. The opener is no dress rehearsal — it’s an American Athletic Conference game on the road Thursday night, at Connecticut.
Clark Lea (26). The star of Brian Kelly’s 2017 Notre Dame staff was defensive coordinator Mike Elko, and it was a jarring loss when he unexpectedly left for a huge payday at Texas A&M. Kelly promoted from within, elevating Lea from linebackers coach. He’ll keep the same concepts Elko implemented, and has the luxury of nine returning starters from a unit that surrendered only 21.5 points per game last year. But the challenge is immediate, taking on Michigan on Saturday night in the marquee matchup of opening weekend.
Shea Patterson (27). He’s the key to Michigan’s season, and perhaps Jim Harbaugh’s long-term future at the school. The Wolverines were plagued by poor quarterback play last season, ranking 11th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and throwing just nine touchdown passes in 13 games. Enter Patterson as an immediately eligible transfer from Mississippi, where he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 10 games. First up is an experienced Notre Dame defense, on the road, in prime time.
Jawon “Puma” Pass (28). The Louisville sophomore is replacing a guy who produced more than 15,000 yards of total offense and 119 touchdowns in three seasons. A guy who won the Heisman Trophy. A guy who was a first-round draft pick. And his first college start is against Ala-freakin’-bama. Pass is big (6-foot-4, 231 pounds), athletic, talented and tough — but still, pray for the lad.
Kyler Murray (29). Speaking of replacing a legend — Murray steps in for Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma. He seems to have all of the talent to do the job like Mayfield, but little of the experience and none of the crotch grabbing (hopefully). The big question is whether the athletic, dual-threat Murray will put himself on the line running the ball with a multimillion-dollar baseball future beckoning. The opener is no slouch, either, with Florida Atlantic bringing a 10-game winning streak to Norman.
True freshmen starting quarterbacks (30). There are a few of them, and a couple in high-profile places. USC is going with J.T. Daniels, who not only is a true freshman but could have been a true senior in high school this fall — he reclassified when Sam Darnold turned pro and left an opening to start for the Trojans. Nebraska is going with Adrian Martinez, the first true frosh to start a season opener in program history. Minnesota has given the job to a walk-on, Zack Annexstad, who largely inherits the position by default — the Gophers had only one other QB on scholarship, a redshirt freshman. And Rutgers has tabbed Annexstad’s IMG Academy teammate, Artur Sitkowski, as its starter. All four at least have the luxury of starting against lesser opponents.