Georgia and Auburn are among the big-time college football programs entering 2017 with a heightened sense of urgency. For the Bulldogs, Tigers and these other “win now” teams, there is no particular win total that will determine a successful season, but you can bet fans want to see these five teams in the mix for conference titles and, potentially, a spot in the College Football Playoff.
In the NFL, “win now” is a concern for head coaches and general managers entering free agency and the NFL Draft. In college football, “win now” is also personnel-related as it ties to the limited eligibility of the game’s biggest stars. College football coaches recruit tirelessly to string together multiple classes of top talent but usually only get a 1-2 year window where it all comes together and the program can peak. There are exceptions, obviously, but not everyone can be Alabama.
By this definition, Tennessee was a “win now” team in 2016. Butch Jones had assembled a talented roster with a couple good recruiting classes and much of the team’s core had at least a year or two of experience on the field in SEC play. With quarterback Joshua Dobbs and many key contributors gone, the Vols are not likely to be the media’s pick to win the SEC East in 2017.
These are my four “win now” teams to watch in 2017.
With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning and quarterback Jacob Eason more experienced, Georgia has one of the top offensive backfields in the SEC, and definitely the most impressive group in its own division. The window isn’t going to close anytime soon for second-year coach Kirby Smart, but there’s an expectation that 7-5 isn’t good enough given the makeup of the roster in 2017.
Georgia just locked down the No. 3 recruiting class in the country and will get at least one more year with Eason on the roster, but the buzz of Chubb’s return for a senior season has Georgia fans eyeing an appearance in the SEC Championship Game this year, not 2018. There’s also a handful of wildly talented players like linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive lineman Trenton Thompson that were top recruits coming into school and after a couple years in the program seem primed for a breakout season.
Big expectations also follow big price tags, and Georgia just committed $63 million to renovating Sanford Stadium.
Too much time was spent in 2016 discussing Auburn’s quarterback rotation and play-calling responsibilities on the offensive staff. Gus Malzahn has brought back an old staffer to be his new offensive coordinator, dipped into the junior college ranks to land the Tigers’ next quarterback (hey, it worked with Nick Marshall and Cam Newton) and has Auburn in a spot to put up big numbers again this fall.
Jarrett Stidham, from Baylor via JUCO, will be the new trigger man of the high-octane attack, and he will be joined by Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson in the backfield. Both players missed time due to injury in 2016 but each was a huge part of Auburn’s success when healthy. Their ability to move the ball on the ground is proven, and Stidham’s addition is presumed to boost a passing attack that featured just 11 touchdown passes from quarterbacks in 13 games. If the quarterback position is settled and the offense is clicking (on the field and the sidelines), Auburn could be in the mix to knock of its Iron Bowl rivals in the SEC West.
And if you don’t think the Auburn fans are hyped for an upgrade at quarterback, check out this standing ovation at a men’s basketball game when Stidham was introduced along with the other early enrollees.
The Cowboys have the most prolific quarterback-wide receiver tandem returning for 2017 with Mason Rudolph and James Washington. Both players turned down opportunities to test the NFL Draft process and announced their plans for 2017 in a joint video after practice. Their on-field chemistry helps Washington crush opposing defenses as he uses his versatility and quickness to find open pockets of grass created by Oklahoma State’s wide-open attack. These two are special, and they’ll be gone soon.
The Big 12 is also there for the taking. The Cowboys have gone 14-4 in conference play over the last two seasons and finished in a tie for second place each year behind Oklahoma, who returns Baker Mayfield but loses a huge chunk of its skill position production. Oklahoma State good experience and depth up on the offensive and defensive lines and will get host both the Sooners and Kansas State in Stillwater this fall.
The theme developing here is that a pairing of successful quarterbacks and talented offensive skill players is a gift, and one that should not be wasted in college football. Trace McSorley will be fourth-year player in 2017, and though he will have a year of eligibility remaining after that, it’s going to be a surprise if superstar running back Saquon Barkley sticks around for another year. James Franklin has the rare opportunity to get a two-year peak with this talented Nittany Lions roster, cashing in on last year’s Big Ten title and entering 2017 as a top-10 team looking to be back in the playoff mix.
On the other side of the ball, leading tackler Marcus Allen elected to return for 2017 instead of going pro and linebacker Jason Cabinda is also back following a strong showing last season. In the Big Ten East, the window for big-time success is short if you’re not Ohio State. You’ve got to get in and get it while the talent is in place and hang on dearly until another one of the conference powers makes their own run at the crown.