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SportOpinion: The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season

16:56  11 january  2019
16:56  11 january  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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It's never too early to look ahead to next season — or to tackle the biggest topics that come with it.

We're pushing the envelope on prematurity. Forecasting the 2019 college football season at this stage, when slivers of confetti have yet to land on the Levi's Stadium turf and Dabo Swinney has yet to For the first time in six years, the Bulls lose their season opener, falling to Big Ten foe Wisconsin.

Even with the 2018 college football season now in the rear-view mirror, Clemson’s performance against Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game will set the tone for the next eight months of conversation.

Here are college football’s three big questions looming over the offseason.

Is Clemson the favorite to repeat?

As soon as Clemson put the finishing touches on its remarkable and thorough 44-16 victory over Alabama on Monday night, writers putting together preseason Top 25 rankings and Las Vegas oddsmakers quickly changed the narrative for 2019. Whereas it seemed prior to kickoff that Alabama would automatically be preseason No. 1 for next season no matter what, that changed as the nation caught a glimpse of how complete a program Clemson has become.

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College football may be more than eight months away, but that doesn't mean we can't look ahead. 28: Nebraska was a trendy preseason pick to challenge for the Big Ten West title this past season thanks to the All he's done is win 73 percent of his games with three 10-win efforts in four years.

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Opinion: The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season© Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports Receiver Justyn Ross accounted for 153 of Clemson's 482 yards of offense in the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama.

Sure, the Tigers will have their challenges in 2019. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially when a defense that dominated for much of the season will undergo a personnel overhaul. In addition losing its entire starting defensive line and all-ACC linebacker Kendall Joseph, linebacker Tre Lamar and corner Trayvon Mullen announced Wednesday they’re turning pro early, so it’s going to look totally different.

But Clemson has gone through this before. When coordinator Brent Venables lost that great defensive group led by Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, it reloaded. When it lost a slew of defensive backs after the first title game appearance in 2015 including Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse, it reloaded. Now it’s time to reload again, and there’s little doubt Clemson has recruited the depth to do it.

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Here are five big questions to start the season : Which quarterbacks will step up and win starting jobs? John O'Korn (8) transferred from Houston to Michigan and is competing for the Ohio State headed into last season with three viable quarterback options in J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller.

As Dabo Swinney said on Monday about departures on his defensive line, “We've got a lot of guys that y'all don't have any idea who they are right now, but this time next year everybody is going to know who they are. That's the fun part about what I do. We get to start over every year and plug guys in and let them go play.”

But even if there is a drop-off on defense, Clemson’s offense projects to be historically good in 2019. The nation saw Monday night what quarterback Trevor Lawrence was capable of as a true freshman, and all of the top skill players around him are coming back including spellbinding freshman receiver Justyn Ross along with Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. With Travis Etienne returning as a junior and four seniors starting on the offensive line, there aren’t going to be any question marks on that side of the ball.

Coming off his title game tour de force, Lawrence’s presence and expected growth should nudge Clemson to No. 1 in the preseason over Alabama. And given the lack of challengers in the ACC, it is hard to envision a College Football Playoff without the Tigers.

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The only thing that could potentially derail Clemson at this point is complacency or ego, which has happened before when teams that have already accomplished quite a bit bring back most of their stars. But much like what Nick Saban has established at Alabama, you can bet on Swinney finding ways to keep his guys motivated.

What adjustments will Alabama make?

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Saban won’t take Monday night in stride and chalk it up to “one of those games.” That’s not how it works at Alabama. Rear ends will be chewed, egos will be bruised and changes will be made.

The suggestion that Alabama’s dynasty is headed toward collapse after getting exposed so badly on Monday is probably wishful thinking. Alabama isn’t leaving the championship conversation any time in the near future, not with Tua Tagovailoa coming back next season and another No. 1-ranked recruiting class set to enroll. There’s simply too much talent at Alabama to project an imminent decline as Saban enters the twilight of his career.

Opinion: The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season© Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC

But it’s certainly reasonable to say that Monday’s outcome demands some adjustments, particularly with Saban’s coaching staff, which has experienced significant turnover in recent years as other programs have poached his behind-the-scenes brainpower.

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Notably, a number of Saban’s moves last offseason were geared toward recruiting. After slipping a bit in the 2018 class (Rivals had Alabama at No. 7, while a Georgia program full of ex-Alabama staffers was No. 1), Saban reloaded with younger coaches like co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding from Texas-San Antonio, receivers coach Josh Gattis from Penn State, defensive backs coach Karl Scott from Texas Tech and special teams coach Jeff Banks from Texas A&M.

But did Saban go too far on recruiting and lose some of the edge in preparation that he has typically had? It certainly looked that way Monday night. In key situational moments, Clemson’s staff dominated, particularly with Venables throwing some coverage looks at Tagovailoa that clearly had him confused. And whereas Alabama’s season-long issues in the secondary and on special teams didn’t matter all season because of how dominant its offense had been, every problem became magnified against Clemson, whose staff had a better game plan and got the better of Alabama on key third down plays and red zone opportunities.

Opinion: The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season© George Schroeder, USA TODAY Sports Damien Harris consoles Tua Tagovailoa after Alabama lost the national championship game to Clemson.

Obviously Saban has a hole to fill already with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who had a particularly bad night in the championship game, headed to Maryland. Co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis left Thursday for Michigan. Offensive line coach Brent Key is headed to Georgia Tech, and you could see other departures that develop organically.

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Find NCAA football breaking news, scores, stats, rankings, polls, truth and rumors and college football analysis from Sports Illustrated at SI.com. It's not often that Nick Saban deserves criticism for his coaching, but he correctly shouldered blame for the Tide's humbling defeat by Clemson.

How Saban reconfigures the staff will say a lot about what he thinks is necessary to win another title, particularly if he is tempted to bring former Maryland coach D.J. Durkin aboard. Durkin is still a controversial name given the circumstances that led to his departure, but his reputation as a defensive coach would far exceed anyone currently on the Alabama staff. He reportedly spent time “observing” Alabama in December.

Can anyone close the gap?

Inevitability is the issue that will hang over the 2019 season. Clemson and Alabama appear to be so far ahead of the rest of the pack that, until proven otherwise, it’s safe to assume they’ll meet for the fifth straight year in the College Football Playoff unless injuries take one or both of them down.

Still, there will be a nationwide hunger to see somebody else rise up and get to that level. But who’s it going to be?

Georgia is a popular candidate because of how well Kirby Smart has recruited, but there are going to be significant question marks with both coordinator positions open and an exodus of playmaking experience with receiver Riley Ridley, tight end Isaac Nauta, receiver Mecole Hardman and running back Elijah Holyfield all leaving early for the NFL.

Ohio State will have plenty of talent, as always, but the first year for coach Ryan Day will be a big test. If quarterback transfer Justin Fields is eligible and as good as advertised, maybe the Buckeyes can avoid their annual Iowa/Purdue disaster.

Hiring Alex Grinch to run the defense is a good start for Oklahoma, but it seems unlikely he can plug all the leaks to make that leap in just one year — even if Lincoln Riley is able to seamlessly transition from Kyler Murray to another elite quarterback.

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Texas is on the upswing, and Sam Ehlinger is coming back. Even if the Longhorns start as Big 12 favorites, there just isn’t enough talent there overall to make the leap from possible playoff team to the Clemson/Alabama level.

Texas A&M could be a problem for Saban over the long haul in the SEC West with Jimbo Fisher recruiting the way he is, but the Aggies play at Georgia, Clemson and LSU next season. Even if Texas A&M beat Alabama at home, holding up over that schedule to make the playoff seems unlikely.

Notre Dame seems to have hit its ceiling. Penn State has too much to replace, starting with quarterback Trace McSorley. Michigan needs way more pop on offense to get into contention. Auburn is too up-and-down. Washington might be better with Jacob Eason taking over at quarterback, but the Huskies’ overall talent level gets exposed every time they play top-level competition. Southern California is a mess. Florida State isn’t even a factor anymore.

Maybe someone else will put together a magical season and challenge the favorites, but Clemson-Alabama, Part 5 is the likely outcome next on Jan. 13, 2020 in New Orleans.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season

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