Though the college football season does not get underway to September 3rd, there is already lots of excitement building for the upcoming season. For Phil Steele, the editor of the largest and most accurate college football preview magazine, it is a year round affair. Few people can provide you in-depth analysis about every team, like Phil can. We welcome back the veteran NCAA football expert and TV personality for our 2015 college football preview.
Every year some teams improve, some underperform and now four teams ultimately end up playing in the playoff for the national title. The defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes look to be the preseason favorite to go undefeated, make the playoff and repeat as national champions. But like every other season, surprises can happen.
In our 30 minute conversation, we discuss with Phil Steele many of the prominent teams in college football and how he thinks this season will play out.
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Looking at why he believes Ohio State will make the four team playoff and repeat as national champions, Phil tells us this:
“Ohio State is gonna be a clear cut preseason number one team. They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the schedule to clearly run the table this year. When you look at the Buckeyes, each of their units is ranked in my top 12 in the front of the magazine. Their lowest rated main unit, and I’m talking quarterback, running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive back, is wide receivers at number eight. All the other units rank in my top four in the magazine. So they’re probably the most talented team.
They were thought to be a year away from winning the national title last year; they’re an even stronger team than last year’s national champ, 14 returning starters and then factor in the schedule. They play, their toughest games this year are at Virginia Tech, at Michigan and home against Michigan State and yet right now they are a double digit favorite in every single one of those games. So this is an Ohio State team with the talent and the schedule to run the table. And I mention how they’re a double digit favorite in every game, there’s no other team in the country that’s even favored in every game. That’s why they’re the clear cut favorites.”
The veteran college football journalist expects the TCU Horned Frogs out of the Big 12 to make the four team college playoff and play Ohio State for the national title. Last season, TCU was 12-1. In recent seasons, they have won a Rose Bowl. He thinks they are ready for the next step:
“This year’s TCU team, 10 returning starters on offense, Heisman front runner in Trevone Boykin at QB and a typical Gary Patterson defense, the toughest game of the season is Baylor. They get that one at home at the end of the year on a Friday night. I think TCU has got the talent and the schedule to potentially run the table this year.”
Focusing on the West Coast, particularly Southern California, the sports magazine editor believes the USC Trojans will get back to national prominence by making the four team playoff. On why USC gets back on the national radar, he says this:
“When you look at the overall talent USC has, start with Cody Kessler at QB. They’ve got my number two rated offensive line in the country, best set of linebackers in the country, number five DBs [defensive backs]. They like Ohio State rank in my top units in all eight position categories. And when I talked to Coach Sarkisian this spring, I liked what I saw out of the second team. I liked what I saw out of the third team. So they’ve got the depth, they’ve got the front line talent throughout and while the schedule’s not as easy as Ohio State, they have to play Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oregon all on the road this year. I see USC as a Pac 12 champ and getting to the playoffs.”
The last team he believes will be in the playoff is the Alabama Crimson Tide. However, Phil does say it is going to be a challenging year for the SEC powerhouse:
“A lot of folks will have some questions about Alabama because, you know, they didn’t win the national title and they only have 10 returning starters this year. They are actually one of the least experienced teams in college football and they are playing in the rugged SEC West. I mean, when the seventh place team pick in the West this year is Mississippi State and Mississippi State was a team that was number one in the country and has Dak Precott back at quarterback, that’s your seventh place team in the West? You know it’s a tough division. But the reason I like Alabama to win the SEC this year is their defense. They have my number one rated defensive line, number three set of linebackers, number seven DBs [defensive backs] in the country. I feel they have the best defense in the country.”
Looking at teams outside the top 10, that could win the national title, the NCAA football expert says the LSU Tigers is the team to keep an eye on at the top of that list:
“When I look at LSU, I see a team that has only one question mark on it and that’s at quarterback. All the other units are outstanding. You look at the defense, they’ve got six starters back on the defensive side of the ball and while they lose their defensive coordinator, I like Kevin Steele; I like Ed Orgeron coming in as the defensive line coach and it may be one of the fastest defenses Les Miles has put on the field. They have my number two set of defensive backs, number 12 set of linebackers, number 16 defensive line. I rate them the third best defense in the country.”
When it comes to surprise teams this year, look no further than the Stanford Cardinals from the Pac 12:
“When I talked to Coach Shaw last summer, he told me that that offensive line might have been the most talented offensive line he put on the field. The only problem was they were a little inexperienced. They only had one returning starter up front and Stanford’s offense didn’t really come together until the final three games of the year. … When you look at the talent and you look at how many players played last year, they’re gonna be better than what you would think. And then factor in the schedule for Stanford, they play on the road this year Northwestern, Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado. All of those teams had losing records last year. The only team they play with a winning record on the road is USC. That means all the big games are at home and David Shaw at home, how about 24 and 3.”
Arguably, no coaching hire in college football received more attention than former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. He is now the head coach for the Michigan Wolverines. On how they will do in their first season, he says this:
“Now Michigan fans probably think they’re gonna contend for the Big 10 title, but I still think Michigan State and Ohio State are a step ahead of them and they play both those teams at home, which means they’re gonna have to win some of their road games this year, but the road games do fall into the winnable category. So I think you’re gonna see Michigan go from the five wins up to maybe an eight or even perhaps nine wins this season and I think next year they become a legitimate Big Ten East contender.”
When it comes to the storied Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, he thinks this team may be better than the one in 2012 which played Alabama for the national title. Phil has them playing in the Fiesta Bowl:
“This unit on defense could be just as strong as that version that went unbeaten during the regular season in 2012. … You look at their schedule this year and it’s not easy, but it’s also not unwinnable, I mean at Clemson, at Stanford are the two toughest road games. They host USC. They host Georgia Tech. There’s some tough games throughout, but this is a team capable of being just as good as that 2012 version and that’s why I list them as my number three surprise team this year or a non top 10 team that it could actually contend for the national title.”
Another school with a big fan base is the Texas Longhorns out of the Big 12. In their second season under Charlie Strong, the veteran NCAA Football authority sees improvement:
“I see Texas jumping to eight or nine wins this season, don’t see them being a Big 12 title contender, but I see the large step up and then next year, I think in the third year of Charlie Strong, you’re gonna see this team be a legitimate Big 12 title contender along with the teams like TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. So I thought he took the right track in his very first year and you’re gonna see improvement this year and you’re gonna see them really blossom next season.”
The Florida Gators are another school with a large following. They hired Jim McElwain as their new head coach. On how he will do in his first season in Gainesville, Phil provided this analysis:
“It looks a typical first year head coach rebuilding type of year. Yes, there is talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida had one of the best defenses in the country last year despite their record. They only gave up 330 yards per game. They’re loaded in talent on the defensive side. They’ve got my number one set of defensive backs in the country led by Vernon Hargreaves. They got my number seven rated defensive line in the country led by Jonathan Bullard. That’s a very talented Florida defense. … I see Florida as a middle of the road team in the SEC East this year with just 11 returning starters, but I think McElwain will have this team contending in the East maybe as early as next year.”
Outside of schools in BCS conferences, the Boise State Broncos are his projected number one team. On what will put the Broncos in another BCS game this year, Mr. Steele said this:
“Last year’s Boise State team had 15 returning starters, so they were in pretty good shape. This year they’re in even better shape, 17 returning starters and if you look at the All Mountain West Conference Team, it is loaded with Boise State defensive players. … If you look at Mountain West cross over games, they avoid the top three teams out of the West, San Diego State, Nevada and Fresno [State]. So despite the fact they have to play Utah State on the road, I think they win the Mountain West Mountain Division again, win the Mountain West again and find themselves for a second straight year landing that top non power five spot.”
Many of our readers and listeners know that Washington State head football coach Mike Leach is a CYInterview regular [see here]. On how Mike’s Cougars will do this season, Phil sees some positive possibilities:
“This year, fortune should be a little bit better, eight returning starters on offense. Luke Falk is a guy that was able to gain some experience last year. He’s gonna battle Peyton Bender for the starting quarterback job. The offensive line returns almost intact. So that’s gonna be a strength for them this year, and they might actually play a little bit of defense. This is a team that’s given up over 440 yards per game over the last three years. They have six starters back on the defensive side and look stronger in that area. Schedule wise, they still figure to be an underdog in as many as seven or eight games this year. But knowing Mike Leach, knowing his history at Texas Tech and now his history at Washington State getting them to a bowl game two years ago, never discount the fact that they could be a contender.”
Finally, on whom he thinks will win the Heisman Trophy this year and be the best player in college football, Phil Steele told us this:
“My pick to actually win the Heisman this year and the guy to watch is a guy that was way under the radar last year. There was all kinds of big names out there at the quarterback spot, but one guy that flew way under the radar was Cody Kessler of USC. Kessler threw for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions and he completed 70 percent of his passes. He’s got one of the best receiving cores in the country to throw to, outstanding running backs behind him and my number two rated offensive line in front of him. The unit basically returns intact. I think Cody Kessler guides USC into the playoffs this year and guides himself to winning the Heisman Trophy.”
You can purchase Phil Steele’s college football preview magazine and find all his daily information at his official website www.philsteele.com.
You can follow Phil Steele on Twitter here.
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com
You can follow Chris Yandek on Twitter here.