Anyone can predict winners and losers. But no one puts it together like Ari Wajnberg. Each season he takes a theme related to what’s happening in college football, then reviews EVERY conference and EVERY team in light of that theme. Knowledgeable, comprehensive, and quite humorous – this is simply the best College Football Preview out there.
Welcome to the NINETEENTH Annual Laage Aage’s College Football Collage.
Last year as I reflected that the Collage is as old as my daughter, I also started to take a look at the way I came up with my predictions. As you would hope your children would evolve, so should the quality and character of your work. And thus, like college football continues to evolve, so shall the Collage! With each exponential, earth rattling change in the college football landscape, teams/conferences must continue to evolve, or they go the way of the dodo bird or excellent customer service in fast food (I KID – CHICK-FIL-A FOLKS STILL SAY “MY PLEASURE” AS THEY’RE GETTING YOUR ORDER MIXED UP).
Last year’s asteroid striking the gridiron was Oklahoma and Texas making their way to the SEC, which forced the Big 12 to evolve and chase 2X the number of teams leaving (Cincy, UCF, BYU, and Houston), so the Big 12 becomes the Big 14 for two years, and then becomes the Big 12 again in 2025. Got that? BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! NOW, with USC and UCLA (TWO CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS) now set to join the Big 10 (which is really the current Big 14 and which started out as a Midwest-centric conference but now has members in New Jersey and Maryland), the PAC 12 (which really has 12 member schools and IS mostly West Coast centric) is getting ready to become the PAC 10 again. However, when two of your most high-profile programs go, your chances of survival go as well – unless you adapt.
Evidently, the migration/evolutionary process is set to continue, except that it’s the individual teams and not the conferences that are adapting. Could we see the Arizona teams, Utah, and Colorado in the Big 12 (which would then be the Big 16, except that there’s going to be another Big 16 that’s currently called the Big 10 but has 14 teams……). And by the way – in case you haven’t paid attention, the Sunbelt is no longer the conference of the paramecium. Teams are now flocking to become multi-cell organisms there!
Although I consider myself somewhat of a religious man, if there is ANY case to be made for the theory of evolution, the college football world is the laboratory for testing that theory. Much like the way weaker brain cells are killed when consuming alcohol, leaving only the strongest ones (making one significantly smarter after a bender), college football is proving out that only the strongest (or most clever) survive. Thus, this year’s theme ties in to the organisms/conferences and teams that have adapted and been successful over time, and the one’s that will someday become diesel fuel…..
POINT OF DISCLOSURE – AS ALWAYS, I MUST DISCLOSE THAT I AM AN AUBURN HOMER, BUT DON’T HATE. I WILL CONTINUE TO BE AS DISPASSIONATE AS POSSIBLE……
Because of the cataclysm and forced adaptation we’ve seen in the last 2 seasons, I’ll start with the conferences that are going to have difficulties finding food and/or ad revenue going forward… :
MAC (“The Lungfish”)
Much like the MAC, lungfish evolved millions of years ago and they’ve just kind of stayed the same way: They eat, they move languidly, and they live in slow moving, sometimes stagnant water.…..The MAC started out long ago, along side the Big 10, has been the cradle of coaching (i.e., Miami University for Bo Schembechler and Woody Hays AND PAUL FRICKING BROWN, Toledo for Nick Saban, Bowling Green for Urban Meyer, etc.), but surprisingly, it hasn’t evolved much since the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Sure, there was some influx of freshness with UCF, Marshall, and Temple (each leaving nearly 10 years ago or more), but that’s long past. In other words, no new teams in, no teams out. Stagnant. In today’s college football climate, one has to wonder whether stagnation is good to drive adaptation – or survival.
Champ and West – Northern Illinois, but only because they’re getting EVERYONE back.
East: Miami (only because everyone else in the East will be mediocre at best, in most cases unwatchable)
Bowling – Akron (Joe Morehead on staff is good for a 3 game improvement in year 1), Eastern/Central Michigan (Eastern because they have a lot coming back, Central because they have momentum), Kent State (only because they have a little momentum from last years success), Toledo (only because everyone else will be crappier)
No bowl for you (“Some Amazonian tribe is going to be eating VERY well tonight”): Buffalo, Ohio, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Ball State
Conference USA (“The Black Rhino”)
Last year I compared Conference USA to Lazarus, always seemingly coming back from the dead (or playing like they’re dead). The rhino has made a comeback, but is still the target of poaching, just like conference USA. Next year, UAB, FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UTSA all leave. That said, just like big rhinos make little rhinos, you’ll have 2 FCS teams (Sam Houston and Jacksonville State) AND two independents (Liberty and New Mexico State) joining as replacements – although you have to wonder whether having NMSU in your conference is a good thing, and it’s still a leagues with a net 2 team loss. Oh well – it’s survival!
Champ: UAB (this despite Bill Clark’s sudden departure)
Second Place/First Loser: North Texas (YES – The Mean Green has a TON of production coming back)
Minor Bowling: Western Kentucky (Lost a lot of production from last year), UTSA (Lost WAY too much production to challenge for a conference championship again), Charlotte, FAU
No bowl (“Powdered Rhino Horn”): FIU, Rice, MTSU, La Tech
Mountain West (“The Bison”)
The symbol of western ruggedness, the bison was once on the brink of extinction. However, once left alone in broad swaths of the west, it managed to reproduce to re-create some of the large herds seen before Wild Bill Cody decided it would be a great idea to have un-managed hunts. Similarly, the Mountain West (which was cobbled together with multiple dispersed conferences that were going extinct, like the WAC, Southwest Conference, and Conference USA – what, they’re not dead yet….). And they’ve thrived…..until now. We’ll see how the shakeup of the PAC 12 works out. Maybe we’ll see Boise, Hawaii, or UNLV in the PAC 12. Or, maybe we’ll see Utah and the 2 Washington schools come to the Mountain West. In any case, depending on if they adapt or not, we’ll either see the big herds of yesteryear or pictures of piles of skulls after a train of make believe frontiersman rolls by.
Champ and West Champ –San Diego State (some talent coming back, but momentum from multiple successful years has enabled them to build depth)
Mountain – Air Force (only because they have more coming back than Utah St)
OK Bowl – Boise State, Utah St, Wyoming, San Jose St, Fresno (The darkhorse out of the West, and Jeff Tedford’s return is a reason for optimism for the Bulldogs)
No Bowl (“Bison Burgers”) – UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado St, Hawaii (They were absolutely STRIP MINED for talent after last year, but Timmy Chang’s return could be a reason to be update for the future), Nevada (also strip mined, AND a very inexperienced new coach)
Pac 12 (“The Monarch Butterfly”)
Monarch butterflies migrate to California in fall to avoid the winter. In the case of the Pac 12 (soon to be the Pac 10 again), there are two teams that are migrating out of California in the fall to the Midwest so they can be in the middle of winter. The monarch has been placed on the endangered species list because the milkweed that its larva eats is shrinking. The PAC 12 is shrinking because most of the folks in charge are eating/smoking weed. There was a time when the skies were full of monarch butterflies, and the football fields were full of tough, nasty players who made schools like USC, UCLA, Washington, and Arizona State their homes. Those days appear to be dwindling. The hope for the monarch is that their habitat can be preserved. For the Pac 12, it’s going to have to be preservation of what was once fertile recruiting grounds, and re-adapting to play big boy football and not the current “butter(fly)ball” – soft, slow, and unimaginative. Its so bad that the conference has reverted away from divisional format to a “top 2” only. Early matchups with the SEC and Big 10 will determine whether the conference stays relevant or fades like last year’s butterflies.
Overall Champ – Utah (only because Kyle Whittingham has the upper hand in terms of experience).
Second Place/First Loser – Oregon (only because they have a first time coach who will probably develop into a good hire)
Good Bowls –UCLA, Wazzu
OK Bowl – ASU, Stanford (last year was an aberration), Oregon State, Cal (BIG maybe)
No Bowling (“No (milk)weed for you….”) – Arizona, Colorado, USC, Washington
Sunbelt (“The Chimpanzee”) – Many people might scoff at this comparison, but the chimp is actually evolving faster than man (at the genetic level). Thus, the Sunbelt has RAPIDLY evolved from what was once the gateway into big boy football into, well, actual big boy football. It used to be that teams would move up from the FCS ranks, join the conference, then move onward. NOW, teams are joining from other established conferences…. and staying. The fact that Brett Favre U (AKA, Southern Miss), Marshall, and Old Dominion will now call the Sunbelt home is a testament to the adaptations made in conference. Maybe they might have a spot for U Mass…..or Cal Berkely…
Champ and East – Coastal Carolina (Despite significant losses, the Fighting Mullets are still led by one of the most fun and innovative coaches in college footbal)
West – Troy (YES – A ton of talent coming back and exciting hire in Jon Sumrall)
A bowl –Georgia State (Dark horse candidate for tops in the East with what they have coming back), Appalachian State (Mountaineers still aren’t used to NOT being at the top of the mountain – again, the league is getting stronger), Southern Miss (everyone is back, fresh start, look for the enthusiasm to translate into wins), ODU (another one with a lot returning)
No bowl (“Yes, we have no bananas!”) – Marshall (one of those bubble teams that could be .500 with the right breaks), South Alabama (same here), Georgia Southern (although with Clay Helton at the helm, they should be vastly improved), Arkansas State (boy, what happened to the Red Wolves?) ULM (the Fighting Buster Browns may have a shot at .500, but I am holding off on that), Texas State (could also be tantalizingly close to .500 with what is returning), James Madison (welcome to big boy football),
American Athletic Conference (“The Gray Wolf”)
Another one of those cobbled together conferences, we’re seeing what happens when the core of a pack stays together, even if the strongest wolves left. The AAC, to their credit, didn’t pout or go to state governments to try to make teams stay (Yes, slight swipe at the state of California on UCLA and USC leaving the PAC 12). No, they went as a pack and raided another dead carcass conference to find food AND replacement members for the pack. Thus, when UCF, Cincinnati (first group of 5 team to make the CFP), and Houston (second place in 2021) leave next year, they’ll be replaced by other hungry wolves (ok, maybe Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA only qualify as coyotes, but you get the idea). The lone wolf dies in winter……the pack adapts and survives
Champ – Houston (lost a bunch on defense, but offensively in better shape than Cincy and UCF)
Second – UCF (Similar to Houston, lost less on D than Cincy)
Decent Bowl – Cincy (Luke Fickell’s a great coach, but they lost more on defense than UCF and Houston), SMU (love the Rhett Lashlee hire), Memphis (this will be a tester of a year to be bowl eligible), ECU (can they be consistent and build up some depth?)
No bowl (“Not even a dead elk carcass around? It’s going to be a long, hard winter”……): Temple (Beth Israel – Oy!), USF (this was once the cream of the conference!), Navy (I hate it for Ken N., but this might be his last year in Annapolis), Tulane (they were on the way up – Willie Fritz has got some more work to do), Tulsa (they’ve lost too much and don’t have enough depth to reload)
Independents (“The Gray Whale”)
It’s an odd conundrum: Some gray whale populations are absolutely thriving and no longer endangered (North Atlantic population got a little breathing room, then got busy is making little whales to the point they’re becoming minor hazards to small boats) while other populations are near extinction. This is similar to Independent college football programs. Notre Dame, BYU, Army, and Liberty are flourishing. New Mexico State, UConn, and UMass are barely hanging on. Oddly, however, we’ll see in the next year or so that New Mexico St and Liberty will join Conference USA. That quick adaptation will save them and enable them to flourish. Same for BYU, as they go to the Big 12. Given their ability to schedule nearly anyone, Army and Notre Dame will be fine. However, UConn and UMass missed the opportunity – they may be a study in extinction, kind of like the Northern Pacific Gray Whale…..
Another Great Bowl – Notre Dame (Only because they’re Notre Dame….offensively there’s little coming back, defensively there is some talent returning coming back – but the enthusiasm around Marcus Freeman is palpable)
Potentially a REALLY good bowl – Army (with Jeff Monken as head coach, they’ve always got a chance), BYU (one last spin before the Big 12), e Liberty (Talk about voices in the calling for people to repent, NO ONE saw Hugh Freeze pulling this off!)
A meh bowl: Liberty (lost way too much production from last year, including the best QB in program history)
Not bowling (AKA, “Here we have the bones of the last remaining gray whale in the Pacific Ocean”) – Uconn, UMass, New Mexico St (although there is hope as you go off to Conference USA).
Big 12/10 – (“The Goat”)
Not the “greatest of all time,” but the actual billy goat. Adaptable in diet and in their environment, versatile in how they’ve been domesticated (Feta cheese and Goat Yoga are a thing, so I’ve been told). Despite being a food source for multiple apex predators, they still thrive in the wild and on farms. Similarly, the Big 12/10 has suffered predation, yet still continues to truck along. No sooner had the Sooners and Longhorns made their intentions known, they were already hitting the trash pile of the AAC and Independents for the choicest morsels (UCF, Cincinnati, BYU, Houston). Once netted out, the Big 12 will truly be the Big 12. That stated, as a continuing adaptation, they may scrounge the pile of cans that the Pac 12 will be once USC and UCLA leave. Whatever happens, the Big 12, given the recruiting and fan bases, will be able to continue to adapt.
Champion – Oklahoma State (Although production is down, they’ve still got Mike Gundy – and he’s a man!)
Second (and a nice bowl) – Baylor (Way too much lost year over year, but Dave Aranda as the Bears rolling).
Good Bowl – Oklahoma (Brett Venables had little left of last year’s starters, but they do have depth – just going to be difficult to replace all they lost at quarterback), TCU (they have IMMENSE talent returning)
OK Bowl – K State (could go south quick with the talent lost on offense), Texas (has Steve Sarkisian kept enough talent to get rid of the dead wood while keeping enough good?), Iowa State (good Lord, they lost a lot off of last year’s squad, but Matt Campbell can coach), Texas Tech (might have just enough talent to get bowl eligible).
No bowl (“A bit gamey, but still fine eating”) – Kansas (maybe with everything they have coming back they’ll double their win total from last year), WVU (massive talent loss from last year)
Much like the Independents, there are some teams in the ACC that are endangered, but other are doing quite well, thank you. That stated, rumors have been heard as to the potential move of some teams out of conference, which would make the ACC vulnerable as a whole (i.e., FSU/UVA/VA Tech/UNC joining the SEC). However, those are rumors right now, and due to solid evolution (and good leadership during the pandemic), the ACC has many teams ready to go toe to toe with just about anyone. One might even say that the massive amount of coaching turnover last year was an adaptation to the college football environment, much like bull sharks will adapt to fresh water, or hammerheads open their jaws to challenge other sharks…making sharks tough apex predators, much like most of the ACC.
Atlantic/Champ – Clemson (I still wonder how often they’ll run the “tiny bubble screen” with DJ Uiagalelei. Still, we’ll see how they adapt to the loss of 2 superb coordinators departing)
Coastal: UNC (but only because the rest of the division is not there yet)
Good Bowl – Miami (yes – immediate dividends from the Mario Cristobal era, plus a TON of returning talent), NC State (maybe the only team in the conference who can challenge Clemson)
OK Bowl –Pitt (let’s see, you lost the best QB in school history?), Virginia (will Tony Elliott help?), Florida State (high level of production back, still not sold on the Norvell era); Virginia Tech (a lot of experience coming back), Boston College (they may be slightly watchable this year), Louisville (A TON of folks coming back, and they’re starting to build depth in the recruiting game as well)
No bowl (“Shark Fin Soup”): GA Tech (sad year in Atlanta), Syracuse (sadder year – especially disappointing because I like Dino Babers), and Duke (saddest year in Durham, especially after Cutcliffe had gotten them to respectability).
Big 10/14 (“The White Tailed Deer)”)
Wide range, not afraid of people. Not many natural predators. And now they’ve gone coast to coast – literally. Such is the case with the white tailed deer AND the Big 10/14. They started out as something you only see in the cornfields and forests of Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, and now you see them in suburban Maryland and soon in L.A. Deer will ingest any available plant material, and similarly so does the Big 10/14, sometimes to their own determinant (Did you REALLY need Rutgers and Maryland?). Maybe a thinning of the herd might be needed, or a few more trips down south……
Champion / East: The big buck(eye….ha!) is Ohio State. With what they have coming back, with what they have in reserve, and what they have as a coaching staff, they are set to take on all comers.
West – Iowa (head, but not shoulders, above everyone else in the west. Minnesota will challenge).
Good Bowl: Michigan (got over the hump last year, but not enough coming back to build momentum), Minnesota (will challenge Iowa, may not have as much coming back, but are getting long term depth), Michigan St (only team who will outright challenge Ohio State this year), Purdue (outside shot at challenging Iowa out west)
Ok Bowl: Northwestern (last year was an aberration), Indiana (same), Penn State (limited returning production and brutal division trumps James Franklin’s coaching), Rutgers (Greg Schiano knows how to build and they have a ton of returning production), Wisconsin (next to no returning production), Maryland (because, even though they return a ton, well, they’re Maryland)
No bowl (“Doe season is right around the corner”) – Nebraska (based on the measurables, bad year in Lincoln – unfortunate, because I like Scott Frost), Illinois (based on the measurables, a WORSE year in Champaign-Urbana)
The SEC (“The Black and/or Brown bear…..”)
Territorial and adaptable to environment and food source. Apex predator. And they even are able to bring others into the species to create super-duper predators (Brown bears with polar bears). Normally solitary, except during mating season and when mama bears have cubs, and that’s what the SEC is doing – making more bears (or at least allowing more to join the sleuth, which is what a group of bears is called……boy howdy, this could get weird real quick, but I digest…..). And with a couple of exceptions, this is top to bottom a collections of bears that would tear the head off of most teams on a Saturday.
SEC (and West) – Alabama. Still the biggest, baddest grizzly on the list. They may have lost the CFP championship game, but they’re madder than hell about losing it. Further, they don’t rebuild, they simply reload. Good luck everyone else in the West…..and college football.
East – Georgia (Still the Beast in the East, but may end up with 2 losses this year). I expect that they will take Oregon to the woodshed in game 1, but will not have the otherworldly defense to go all the way.
Good Bowl– Arkansas (give Sam Pittman 2 more years, and they could be like Georgia), Tennessee (big surprise from last year), Kentucky (If anyone is going to dethrone UGA in the East, it’s UK), Ole Miss (Could go south, especially given what they’ve lost, but they still have the Lane Train)
Ok Bowl – Auburn (Line and QB questions, that defense will be top 3 in the conference – they could punch up), Miss St (a LOT of production coming back, could make for an interesting year), Texas A&M (not sold on Jimbo Fisher – all sizzle, no steak, and his all-world DC is now at Duke), South Carolina (bigger surprise than Tennessee last year, let’s see if they keep momentum), LSU (Brian Kelly, you have a long row to hoe).
No bowl (“Turned into a rug in front of a fireplace, now used for romantic purposes”) – Vandy, Mizzou, Florida (Billy Napier, you’ve got a LONGER row to hoe). College Football Playoff / National Championship – I seem to be stuck in a rut of picking 2 of the 4 CFP participants each of the last 3 years. Got the two finalists right, (UGA/Bama), then lost out on the final with a Bama pick. Michigan had disappointed me before, so had Ohio State (Jim Harbaugh, you proved me wrong – until you got pummeled in the Orange Bowl) and ND again. I’d actually picked UCF to be the first Group of 5 team to participate in the CFP, but a year later it turned out to be Cincinnati – who promptly got handled by Alabama. That stated, I don’t see 2 SEC schools making it to the playoff (GASP! THE HORROR!). Evolution has made staying on the mountain that much more difficult, and as mentioned earlier, Georgia is no exception. This year we’re going to see 4 different conferences represented:
Ohio St vs. Alabama Clemson vs. Oklahoma St
Yes, Oklahoma St will make its first appearance. Although one could make the case that we might see 2 Big 10 schools in the mix, I see the Cowboys with enough style points to fool the committee and put them in. Clemson, despite losing 2 great coordinators, has too much. And Bama…..well, their anger and continued grind will enable to them to make it through a tough SEC schedule back in to the playoff.
Clemson will then pulverize Oklahoma State, Bama will be tested by what will be a really good Ohio State team – but prevail….and then they’ll turn Clemson into bear scat in the championship game. It’s sad to see, just like when the new baby seal gets eaten by the orca, or the local toy store get swallowed by Wal Mart (RIP, Taggart’s Toys and Hobbies), but it’s nature – and sometimes, the baby seal gets away, or the small hobby or book shop gets bigger and eats the other big store’s lunch (e.g., Amazon). Either way, football continues to evolve, and it’s just fun to watch how the season unfolds!
HAPPY FOOTBALL SEASON, EVERYBODY!