It’s Week 0, and boy, did that feel good to type. While this isn’t exactly the most action-packed weekend of the year, it’s the perfect appetizer before a legitimately compelling college football campaign. A big reason for that? Teams that are fascinating regardless of how good they’re going to be.
There are plenty of squads with national title aspirations, but the sport is about much more than determining a champion, and throughout the Power 5, there are teams, players and coaches who will be must-watch, even if their team probably won’t find themselves in NRG Stadium in Houston on Jan. 8, 2024.
So far, we’ve looked at two of the Power 5 conferences, and the three biggest questions facing the Big Ten and the SEC. Now we’ll do the same with the remaining three P5 conferences: the ACC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12.
1. Is a perfect storm brewing for Florida State, or will Clemson defend its ACC title?
Dabo Swinney couldn’t establish Clemson as a national power until he was able to knock Florida State off its ACC perch. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, as the Seminoles — which won 10 games and return more starters than almost any other team in the season — are trying to get back to the top of the conference under Mike Norvell. They start the season with a neutral site game against LSU and must travel to Clemson on Sept. 23, giving them one of the trickiest first months of any team.
But they have a Heisman contender at quarterback in Jordan Travis, are loaded just about everywhere else (especially off the edge, where Jared Verse is a potential top-10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft), and would have a pair of elite wins by October if they can get through the first month unscathed.
For Clemson, all eyes are on the offense under Cade Klubnik, a five-star quarterback recruit in the class of 2022 who had his ups and downs as a true freshman. Fortunately, his life will be made easier by the team’s do-everything running back, Will Shipley, who is among the best players at his position in the nation.
2. Can Drake Maye win the Heisman?
There are a few notable exceptions to this, but the Heisman has basically turned into an award that goes to the best quarterback in America. Nationwide, quarterback play is as good as ever, whether it’s with established players who have done incredible things in their careers (i.e. last year’s winner, USC’s Caleb Williams) or up-and-coming youngsters who explode onto the scene and turn into some of the best signal callers in the sport.
Few, if any, quarterbacks have drawn more excitement this year than North Carolina’s Drake Maye, who might be the most polished passer in the country and has a real shot at pushing Williams for the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
The redshirt sophomore was brilliant last year — 4,231 yards and a 66.2 completion percentage with 38 touchdowns, just seven interceptions, and another seven scores on the ground — and while the Tar Heels lost their top two receivers to the NFL and their offensive coordinator to Wisconsin, Maye should still put up gigantic numbers.
If he can help them navigate a tricky first month of the season by putting up huge numbers, he’s going to be in the Heisman hunt all season, and if he can lead North Carolina to double-digit wins for the first time since 2015, he’ll be making the trip to New York.
3. How’s it going down in Miami?
The Hurricanes made one of the most ambitious hires last offseason when Mario Cristobal, an alumnus and Miami native, left a very good job at Oregon to return to Coral Gables. But the Hurricanes went 5-7 and lost five games by two or more touchdowns, including a 45-31 loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Cristobal’s best teams can shove people around in the trenches on both sides of the ball and build things out from there, particularly on offense — Miami was 77th in offensive SP+ last season, which led to Josh Gattis, Cristobal’s splashy offensive coordinator hire who won the Broyles Award in 2021, getting fired after just one year.
The good news for the ‘Canes this season is there is plenty of talent in the trenches, with three offensive linemen and two defensive linemen making PFF’s preseason All-ACC first team.
1. Seriously, is Texas back?
The underlying numbers said that Texas was elite last season. Despite their 8-5 record, the Longhorns finished the year seventh nationally in SP+. No team in the Big 12 — not even conference champion and College Football Playoff participant TCU — finished higher, but Texas had a nasty habit of losing close games.
This year, they’re the most talented team in the Big 12, have a returning quarterback in former blue chip prospect Quinn Ewers, and are slated to be the best team the program has had in some time. If they can navigate losing the running back duo of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson to the NFL, look out.
2. Who can be this year’s TCU or Kansas State?
For whatever reason, the Big 12 is excellent at having unexpected teams reach its championship game. In the last three years, six different programs have made the trip to Arlington, and Texas would make it seven if they can take care of business.
The conference has made parity a calling card, with last year’s magical runs by TCU (picked to finish seventh in the conference in the 2022 preseason media poll) and Kansas State (fifth) good examples.
This year, Texas Tech and conference newcomer UCF are trendy picks to make some noise, and keep an eye on Kansas, whose weird, high-powered offense gave teams a ton of trouble last season.
3. What does Brent Venables’ second year in Norman look like?
Oklahoma got blindsided when Lincoln Riley left for USC two offseasons ago, but did well to bring in Venables, a longtime defensive coordinator under Bob Stoops in Norman whose success in the same position made him a no-brainer candidate for the position.
It seemed like a home run, and then, the team went from being ranked ninth in the preseason to a 6-7 record and a 3-5 mark in conference play, the Sooners’ worst marks since 1998.
Oklahoma’s offense was very good, but a step back from the elite levels it reached under Riley, as it finished the year 10th in SP+. The defense, however, finished 70th in SP+ and allowed a combined 104 points and 1,253 yards to TCU and Texas.
OU was 0-5 in one-score games, with losses to Kansas State, Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Florida State by a combined 19 points.
It was a Murphy’s law year for the Sooners, but if the defense can take a step forward under Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof and the offense can stay steady in the second year with Dillon Gabriel under center, there’s enough talent here for Oklahoma to compete for a Big 12 title. That game against Texas on Oct. 7 will be massive.
1. How the heck is the final year of Pac-12 football going to go?
Maybe there are football games in 2024 in a conference called the Pac-12, but let’s be honest: the conference has been stripped for parts. Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington are all headed to the Big Ten next season and Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are going to the Big 12.
Lord knows what the future holds for Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State. The Conference of Champions is playing football one final time this season, and at the very least, the games between historical rivals that are ending due to a deference to the almighty dollar (Oregon-Oregon State, Washington-Washington State, Stanford-USC) should be a little more emotionally charged than usual.
2. Will the conference keep itself out of the Playoff?
Part of the reason why the Pac-12 is so fascinating this year is there are five teams — USC (6th), Washington (10th), Utah (14th), Oregon (15th), Oregon State (18th) — ranked in the top 20 in the AP Poll entering this season.
All these teams should have very good-to-elite offenses, and while betting on defense in the Pac-12 is usually a bit of a risk, SP+ believes all five of these teams have top-50 units entering the year.
And if you want to expand this out a bit, UCLA is 28th in the initial AP Poll and 22nd in preseason SP+. There’s going to be a big game every single week once conference play rolls around, but it’s fair to wonder if the Pac-12 champion can emerge with a Playoff-worth resume (i.e.: they don’t lose more than one game).
This has been a problem in recent years, as no Pac-12 team has made it to the Playoff since 2016. If that changes this year, the team that earns a Playoff nod will have certainly earned it.
3. What does the first year of Coach Prime look like?
Deion Sanders has certainly made a splash before ever coaching a game in Boulder. In a highly scrutinized move, Sanders brought in 57 new players, including some of the biggest names from his time at Jackson State in QB Shedeur Sanders (Deion’s son) and DB/WR Travis Hunter, the latter of whom was the No. 1 high school player in America in the class of 2022.
The sheer amount of roster turnover mixed with a difficult schedule makes it hard to project a team that contends for a Pac-12 title, but the goal this year is for Sanders — who showed at Jackson State that he’s a good coach who knows how to win games — to prove he’s building something at a school that wants to be good but hasn’t made back-to-back bowls since 2004 and 2005.
They have an absolutely brutal first month of the season, which features trips to TCU and Oregon and home tilts against Nebraska and USC.
Does the shine come off the Coach Prime experiment quickly if the team is licking its collective wounds after a month, or will they get to October, exceed expectations, and have a metaphorical rocket strapped to their backs due to the most charismatic coach in the nation?
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