Expert College Football Handicapping: Toughest Teams to Judge
There are some college football teams that are very easy to judge. Alabama and Ohio State, for example, are both going to be very good and will only be challenged a small handful of times. And there are teams that clearly seem to be getting more hype than they probably should be at this time because of who they are (I'm looking at you, USC). What is tougher for handicappers, though, and what we want to deal with here, are the teams that are the hardest to judge. Each of these teams on this list could be playoff contenders, or they could be unranked at some point, and neither would be particularly shocking. We really need to wait and see what they really are, but as sports bettors we don't have that luxury.
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Clemson: Deshaun Watson defined his team and drove their success as much as any player in a long time. He wasn't the only good player on this team by any means, but he was the face of the team, and when they won it was with him leading the charge. He believed they could do anything, so last year they did.
Sometimes when a team loses a player like that their identity goes with them. It happened to Oregon with Marcus Mariota. And Florida with Tim Tebow. Now, Clemson has to see if they can avoid the same fate.
They have a tremendous amount of talent around still, and they are very well coached, but the transition at QB is inevitably going to be jarring. The ACC remains a two-team league, and they have a decent schedule, so if they make the transition fine then they could easily have a shot at beating Florida State and winning the conference. But if they struggle with the change, or if the national title has robbed them of even a little bit of their hunger, then they would be in for a rougher ride.
Oklahoma: Top-level teams don't change coaches in June. It just doesn't happen. The departure of Bob Stoops was a shock. We knew it was going to happen at some point, but to see a guy of his caliber walk away from a team like this is just shocking.
Lincoln Riley is a great choice as the replacement, but he is behind from the start because he took over so late. The team also has to replace Riley at offensive coordinator, and since the offense is so key to this team that's an issue, too - especially with some of Baker Mayfield's key supporting pieces gone as well.
Oklahoma was expected to be a playoff contender. They certainly could still be - it's not like they will face a ton of resistance in the Big 12. Or they could really struggle in the face of these unique circumstances.
LSU: The team is going through a transition, too. They played without Les Miles for much of last year, but now it is officially Ed Orgeron's team. That alone will be a difference. And Orgeron faces a big challenge on offense. For too long the offensive approach has been to hand it to the running back and then trust the defense. Matt Canada, who did big things at Pitt last year, is charged with adding more complexity and effectiveness on offense. But he has to work with Danny Etling, who isn't exactly Tom Brady.
LSU could easily be a playoff contender. Or they could be humiliated by Alabama and cast to the pile of SEC also-rans - which is a very crowded pile these days.
Texas: Tom Herman worked miracles in his first year at Houston, and he has cupboards that aren't particularly bare despite the woes of the Charlie Strong era. And he plays in a conference that isn't exactly terrifying people with depth right now. Herman could have a great year. Or he could show that patience is needed in a situation like this even with a coach as good as him.
It won't help that Texas fans are whipped into a frenzy after years of heartbreak and have already crowned him as the new messiah. The USC game in Week 3 is a fascinating example of what is so interesting, and tough, about this team. The Trojans will be coming off a very physical game against Stanford, while Texas will have had two glorified scrimmages up to that point. You can imagine a scenario where Texas goes to L.A. and shocks the world. Or you can imagine USC beating the Longhorns by 30.
The only thing that is certain is that sooner or later Herman will get things rolling in Austin. We just can't really know what his timeline is.
Florida: The Gators have won the SEC East twice in a row, but that says as much about the struggles of the division as their strength. They could draw on the confidence of that and keep moving forward. Or, hit by losses and changes, they could take a step back.
Their schedule has some brutality to it, too. They open against an angry Michigan team and close against Florida State. This team could win 11 games. Or they could win seven or eight. The range is that wide, and I don't see any way to narrow it until we see them against Michigan in that opener.
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