by Keith Aksel
It’s that time of year; while other sports sites lay out their standard slate of Heisman and national championship predictions, we at The Tattered Pennant present our annual College Football Un-Preview. Here we’ll present five specific things to watch on the gridiron this season, all in the hope that you’ll come out of 2017 with more of a big-picture perspective on the game. Assumptions will be challenged. Annoying trends will be pointed out. Let’s get it on!
1-Will conference championship week ever be interesting?
For too many years, conference championship week goes according to plan. The PAC-12 title game has really never had an upset in its short history. The SEC title game outcome hasn’t surprised anyone since the 2005 season when Georgia upset Les Miles’ first LSU squad. The ACC Championship Game has also gone according to plan almost every year. The Big Ten usually provides an entertaining title game, but why can’t the season really blow up that week like many of us secretly wish? How about across-the-board upsets for once, just to make the playoff committee sweat? Instead, like clockwork, a week that in theory should provide the best games of the season between highly regarded and battle-tested teams, becomes a formality. When will the promise of a chaotic championship week become reality? Perhaps realignment within leagues can produce something like chaos one day, but that doesn’t seem likely for a while.
2-The Heisman winner will probably come “out of nowhere.”
Regardless of how many people argue that the Heisman is Southern Cal QB Sam Darnold’s “trophy to lose,” odds are that the Heisman will not go to someone who is thought of as a preseason front-runner by journalists. Jameis Winston wasn’t “supposed” to win the trophy in 2013. In the preseason, that honor was “supposed” to be bestowed upon returning winner Johnny Manziel or Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. In 2015, the Heisman was “supposed” to be laid at the feet of Ohio State’s JT Barrett, TCU’s Trevone Boykin, or LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Eventual winner Derrick Henry didn’t register on most preseason front runner lists, but took the trophy anyway. In perhaps the most obvious example of upsetting the preseason Heisman predictions cart, Lamar Jackson took the trophy home last year to Louisville despite being absent from journalists’ preseason frontrunner lists.
The moral of the story is that the Heisman has proven to be a season-to-season award. Journalists have a hard time guessing who will rise up from obscurity to contend, so they exclusively rely on the previous season as an (unwieldy) guide for the next. Regardless of the momentum a particular player supposedly carries into the next year, those players who maintain high performances beginning their first game of a new season through the end have the best chance to contend for the trophy. Well, that, and being a quarterback doesn’t hurt.
3-When will the West’s title drought end?
The last time a team from West of the Great Plains won a national title (USC in 2004), Joe Paterno was still considered a football deity, Nick Saban was ready to take over the Miami Dolphins, and the #1 song in the nation was Mario’s Let Me Love You (still a smooth tune). Last year Washington made it to the playoff before falling unceremoniously to Alabama in the semifinals, extending the West’s drought. Some say USC could contend this year, and it’s anyone’s guess regarding other teams from the region that can rise up. Will the West break through this year? It’s impossible to tell now, but the clock is ticking. The West has not gone this long without a title since the 1960s, so the moment deserves mention.
4-Your team’s going to lose.
In the three seasons of the College Football Playoff, finishing the year undefeated has become a feat akin to catching the yeti; wildly elusive and treacherous. In reality, the difficulty teams have had pursuing a perfect season in this era should have been expected. With a 15-game slate now ahead of just about every title hopeful, achieving the perfect season is harder than it has ever been. This is a significant obstacle that great coaches like Woody Hays, Bear Bryant, and the recently-departed Ara Parseghian couldn’t have dreamt of in their day. That said, every team is probably going to end the season with at least one blemish on their record. The trick is figuring out where that blemish will come. But, for all fans still stuck on the early 2000s notion that a loss will in some way derail national title hopes, this development should be a great comfort. With plenty of space to pad a resume with nice victories, a loss has never meant less than in this day and age.
5-What conference will be crowned mid-season, only to embarrass itself by season’s end?
Here’s a fun game to play; track the conference that seems to get the most positive attention through six weeks, then bet your friends that the very same conference will embarrass itself in the postseason. Last year the Big Ten was heralded as the nation’s most talented and dangerous league. Ohio State and Michigan remained at the top of the national rankings until the end of the year, and Penn State looked like the hottest team in the country. Then, one by one, each team lost its bowl game and threw any notion about the league’s supremacy down the toilet. In 2014, the same thinking emerged about the SEC, but Alabama, Auburn, and Dax Prescott’s highly-regarded Mississippi State squad all went down in their respective bowls.
Like a lot of narratives in college football, the midseason “nation’s best conference” trope is an easy one in which to get swept up. It is tough to see the big picture through the mid-season fireworks, but that is precisely what good fans should do. This year, be the contrarian one in your friend group to challenge any midseason idea of the nation’s best conference, while you wait for the actual money round to play out at season’s end. You’re smarter than them, anyway.
6- Don’t be surprised if Michigan is as good (or better) than last year.
I don’t have some grand explanation for this point to ponder- but it is far too simple to count Michigan out in 2017 just because they lost a lot of upperclassmen. With the cleansing rain comes a full refresh (or something like that). Michigan doesn’t need lots of upperclassmen to contend for a Big Ten title. They need chemistry and belief, and Jim Harbaugh seems to foster those dynamics pretty regularly wherever he has coached. Something tells me Michigan isn’t going away in 2017…just watch them closely.
On the face of it, 2017 may look to be shaping up like business as usual in college football. Like every year, Alabama and Ohio State will be expected to contend for the national championship, and the typical hype-fest over last year’s bowl winners parlaying their momentum into a stellar 2017 is well underway. Yet, tracking each of these un-preview points should provide at least a little spice to your weekly viewing slate. Cheers to an entertaining 2017!
 As seen on the cover of Sports Illustrated 2017 college football preview edition
 Yeah, I still consider the Trojans the champs for that year, despite the NCAA sanctions. Trojans were nasty-good, and they would have beaten Oklahoma by thirty in the BCS title game even without the recruiting rule-breaking Reggie Bush. And I’m generally tired of recognizing NCAA sanctions in any form.