With the 2019 season kicking off Saturday, theScore NCAA writer Mark Cooper gives his predictions for the FBS conferences and College Football Playoff.
Bold prediction No. 1: Florida upsets Georgia on Nov. 2 in the SEC East title game. The Gators will ride their defense and veteran quarterback play from Feleipe Franks to a 7-1 conference record.
Bold prediction No. 2: No SEC team gets through the regular season undefeated. Alabama will still be the playoff representative by defeating the Gators, but the Crimson Tide stumble somewhere - we'll guess Oct. 12 at Texas A&M.
The Tigers are head and shoulders above the rest of the ACC and look poised for another undefeated regular season. The Coastal is once again wide-open, but the feeling here is it comes down to Virginia, Miami (Fla.), and Pittsburgh. The Cavaliers have the second-best quarterback in the conference in Bryce Perkins and will get the job done by winning nine games - the key one coming against the Hurricanes on Oct. 11. In a non-championship note, look for Boston College to surprise as the second-best team in the Atlantic.
The Buckeyes are loaded on defense and will surround quarterback Justin Fields with terrific playmakers. And, of course, they've had Michigan's number. They'll head into the conference title game with a chance to reach the College Football Playoff. The Big Ten West is anyone's guess, but the Cornhuskers have the best quarterback (Adrian Martinez) on that side of the league and play most of their tough opponents at home. The dark horse that could spoil Nebraska's rise? Purdue. The Boilermakers avoid Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, and should get decent quarterback play from Elijah Sindelar.
Lincoln Riley's first two seasons as head coach played out similarly. The Sooners went 11-1 in the regular season, played a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, won the Big 12 championship, and reached the College Football Playoff. Expect much of the same in 2019. Jalen Hurts might not win the Heisman, but Oklahoma's talent advantage should help it to double-digit wins in the regular season once again. Texas is likely second-best, but Iowa State, TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech - if Alan Bowman stays healthy - could also be factors.
The Pac-12 will be better in 2019, led by a talented group of quarterbacks. But there may not be a team that can distance itself enough to reach the College Football Playoff. Oregon, most likely the best team in the league, opens the season with a difficult game against Auburn in Arlington, Texas. Washington has questions at quarterback, Stanford doesn't have its best team, and Utah must travel to Washington, USC, and Arizona. The Trojans aren't the favorite, but the talent is there. If new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell can get his Air Raid offense moving, USC will contend with the Utes, UCLA, and Arizona at the top of the division.
In both divisions, the American should be competitive this year. UCF, with Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush at quarterback, will face a challenge defending its conference title. It was tempting to take Cincinnati or South Florida in the East, but the Knights do get the Bulls at home. Memphis' schedule is tough, with trips to Temple, Houston, and South Florida, but the Tigers look like the conference's best team. If they can prove it at Houston to win the West division, they'll move on to beat UCF in the conference championship.
Picking a team that hasn't named a starting quarterback is risky, but Boise State should be fine with either sophomore Chase Cord or true freshman Hank Bachmeier. The Broncos' entire starting offensive line is returning and their conference schedule is on the easy side (no San Diego State nor Fresno State). Hawaii is the choice in the West division because it returns 18 starters, including productive quarterback Cole McDonald.
After winning nine games in consecutive years, North Texas will have a chance to reach the conference championship game in 2019. The Mean Green have the top quarterback in the conference Mason Fine, who threw for 3,793 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. The East division probably comes down to Florida Atlantic and Marshall. After winning 11 games in 2017 and falling to 5-7 last year, Lane Kiffin's Owls should bounce back strong.
After winning the MAC in 2017, Toledo will have a chance to do it again this year. The keys to doing so will come from the development of quarterback Mitchell Guadagni (13 touchdowns, three interceptions last season) and a defense that needs to improve after allowing 30.5 points per game in 2018. If it's not the Rockets, Ohio could win the league for the first time under Frank Solich. The Bobcats have the top quarterback in the conference with Nathan Rourke (2,434 yards passing, 860 rushing in 2018).
Appalachian State lost its coach when Scott Satterfield left for Louisville. Former North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz has taken over a team built to win the conference for the second consecutive season. Quarterback Zac Thomas (2,039 yards passing, 504 rushing in 2018) is the best in the league.
Semifinals: Clemson over Oklahoma; Alabama over Ohio State
National championship: Clemson over Alabama
These matchups are not a reprint.
Clemson and Oklahoma meet for the third time in six years, and the Tigers will send the Sooners out as a semifinalist for the fourth time in five. This would actually be the first Alabama-Ohio State meeting since the first year of the playoff, and the Crimson Tide will exact their long-awaited revenge.
That brings us to Clemson-Alabama, again. The top two quarterbacks, the top two teams, and the top two coaches in college football. Though Clemson has to replace a ton of players on its defensive line, it's hard to overlook how dominant the Tigers became by the end of last year and how many pieces are back on offense. Another national championship will come home to Clemson.