Powerhouse programs will dominate college football, NIU facing top-5 conference contenders

DeKALB — College football has one of the longest off-seasons in sports, so it’s no surprise that the start of the season brings plenty of excitement.

It’s been 234 days since Clemson beat Alabama, 44-16, Jan. 7 to win its second championship in three years. While some teams got an early start last weekend, it’s this weekend where the season jumps into overdrive.

This year’s College Football Playoff National Champion will be crowned Jan. 13 in New Orleans. While there’s a lot of football to be played, and a lot of questions still to be answered, here are my Top Five heading into the season.

Clemson With all apologies to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, the Tigers are currently college football’s toughest kid on the block. Coach Dabo Swinney has built a program that has gone 55-4 the past four years, while winning three bowl games and two national championships.

Clemson also returns quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns against four interceptions a year ago. What also helps is Clemson’s easy schedule, which has them playing just two teams ranked in the preseason’s Top 25.

Alabama If Clemson is my No. 1 team, ‘Bama is No. 1A. Not much separates the two programs, both have an elite-level coach and a potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. Tua Tagovailoa had a monster season last year, throwing for 3,966 yards and posting a 43-6 touchdown/interception ratio. Those numbers could’ve been better, but Tagovailoa spent a considerable amount of time on the sidelines on weekends the Tide rolled to easy wins.

Like Clemson, Alabama has a relatively easy schedule, with their only tests coming on the road at No. 12 Texas A&M (Oct. 12) and the Iron Bowl game with Auburn on Nov. 30. The Crimson Tide also host sixth-ranked LSU on Nov. 9, but also have easy home games with New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina.

Over the past four years, Alabama and Clemson have developed a rivalry for the ages. It’s safe to say the two have a good chance of seeing each other again this year.

Georgia Coach Kirby Smart has built the Beast of the (Southeastern Conference) East, going 24-5 while making the playoffs the last two seasons. Unlike the top two teams, Georgia doesn’t have an easy road to travel. The Bulldogs host No. 9 Notre Dame Sept. 21, play No. 8 Florida at The Swamp on Nov. 2, then travel to No. 16 Auburn and No. 12 Texas A&M on back-to-back weeks in November. If they happen to make it through that unscathed, Alabama most likely awaits in Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

Oklahoma When it comes to the top four teams in the rankings, it’s been wash-rinse-repeat with the first four teams I have listed. Of these four squads, Oklahoma might be the biggest question mark, as replacing Heisman Trophy-winning Kyler Murray with Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts is a step backwards. No disrespect to Hurts, who has proven during his college career he is an outstanding college quarterback, but following back-to-back Heisman winners in Murray and Baker Mayfield is a tall task.

Another tall task for the Sooners has been stopping the opponent. Oklahoma lights up the scoreboard on both sides of the ball, which works well in the wide-open Big 12. It doesn’t work come bowl-time as the Sooners have given up an average of 44 points in their last six bowl games, including 99 points combined over the last two, both losses.

Notre Dame Even if the Irish run the table this season, do I think they are one of the Top Five teams in the country? No. Do the bowl committee(s) even care? Again, no. But here we are. I’m a Notre Dame fan, but I really don’t understand how they remain on the same pedestal as the elite teams, as they have repeatedly fallen flat against big-time teams on big stages. Over the last 25 years, they have played a Top 10 team in a bowl game nine times – and have won just one of those games, beating then-No. 6 Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Let’s not also forget last year, where they made the College Football Playoffs and were embarrassed by Clemson, 30-3, in the semifinal round. Should they somehow navigate tough games at Georgia (Sept. 21), No. 7 Michigan (Oct. 26) and No. 25 Stanford (Nov. 30) they will once again be easy pickings for someone in the CFP semifinal round.

So let’s go a little closer to home: what’s in store for the Huskies this season?

Coming off a dramatic win at the Mid-American Conference title game over Buffalo last December, and the hiring of the dynamic Thomas Hammock as head coach, expectations are high.

Unfortunately, the Hammock Era gets off to a tough start one that will test the team and its new coaching staff. The Huskies kick-off the season against Illinois State, ranked No. 13 in the Football Championship Subdivision, then go on a cross-country run that takes them to No. 14 Utah, No. 24 Nebraska, and, after an off-week, Vanderbilt.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Huskies once the conference schedule starts, with two of their toughest games on the road against Ohio and Toledo.

Still, I’m optimistic about this team. I see them beating Illinois State this weekend, then stealing one of the next three games, most likely against Vanderbilt, as they have two weeks to prepare for that game.

In conference, I think they will go 5-3, putting them at 7-5 and making them bowl eligible for the 10th time over the last 11 seasons.

Over the last 10 years, the Huskie program has developed into one the produces wins and bowl appearances. There’s no reason that won’t continue in 2019.