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Mailbag: Is Penn State overrated? Who will be Week 1’s breakout Heisman sleeper? Fordham-Eastern Washington hype!

The first mailbag of the new season has been opened, and it was so good to getting back to answering your questions.

Each week on the blog I will attempt to answer your questions about college football and other topics. It took a little time to get you guys warmed up to submit your questions, but you came through with some good ones this week. Let’s keep that going for the entire season! Starting next week, I’ll throw in a video mailbag response to a couple of questions as well.

Let’s dig in.

We got at least a partial answer to this one yesterday with the news that Feleipe Franks will get the start this weekend for the Gators, however, I would not be surprised if we see Luke del Rio get some playing time as well. In the end, I feel as though Franks is the guy Jim McElwain wants to run the offense. Franks came out of the spring getting the most buzz about the job, so the redshirt freshman appears to be the trigger man in the Florida offense moving forward.

As for Malik Zaire, he may end up getting used at wide receiver just to get on the field. I don’t think this transfer from Notre Dame played out the way he anticipated.

Well, I have Penn State in the College Football Playoff, so I might suggest they are under-ranked. But I have been accused of being a biased homer wearing Coke-bottle glasses so let’s approach this from a neutral standpoint. Preseason rankings can be influenced by how a team ended the previous season. Penn State wen t on a roll to win the Big Ten and played a fantastic Rose Bowl game against another hot team that just so happens to be ranked ahead of them (USC). This Penn State team is bringing back arguably the top running back in the nation (Saquon Barkley), has one of the top tight ends (Mike Gesicki), and offense that runs well with Trace McSorley and is coached by one of the top offensive coordinators in the nation (Joe Moorhead, future Boston College head coach?), and the offensive line in 2017 will be one of the best Penn State has had in years.

The Nittany Lions also get home games against the only two teams to defeat them in the regular season a year ago (Pitt and Michigan), and Penn State could potentially be favored in every game they play this season except for one. And that one game comes against the preseason No. 2 on their home field coming off a bye week (Ohio State). Which of the other teams in the rankings ranked behind Penn State are so much better they deserve to be ranked higher? Oklahoma and Washington could have cases made for them ahead of Penn State, and if you want to switch the order of those three I would be OK with it. After that, I’m not sure there are many strong cases to be made.

So Penn State as a preseason No. 6 feels about right given the way last season ended and what I anticipate they will do this season. I will caution once again though that Penn State does have a tricky schedule and we have never seen James Franklin and his staff enter a year with these kinds of expectations placed upon them. So there are fair questions to ask about how this team handles the pressure of being one of the top teams in the conference and the nation.

I’m not sure if it should count or not, but Ohio State running back Mike Weber might be flying under some radars this season. This can be explained by the focus on Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, LSU’s Derrious Guice, and a handful of other running backs around the nation that have established themselves, like Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway. Heck, you may have heard about Northwestern running back Justin Jackson than you have the Buckeyes back.

Weber is Ohio State’s sophomore running back and he is coming off an impressive freshman debut in Columbus with 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. The Buckeyes may be loaded across the board and J.T. Barrett is often thought of as Ohio State’s top Heisman candidate, but Weber will play a key role in any success Ohio State has this season. Watch him tonight against Indiana, a team that struggled against the run a year ago. Weber could put up some big numbers and have some long-distance runs to show off.

For starters, I think the Eagles break even this season, and I figure you can generally play it safe and suggest the Steelers will win 10 or 11 games. So that means Penn State will have some ground to make up if you think Pitt is an 8 or 9-win team (which I do). As I have said time and time again, I think Penn State will be favored in all but one game this season, but winning all of those games will not be easy. So if I give the steel city duo a combined win total of 20, that means Penn State has to win 12 games just to match the win total (assuming the Eagles are .500).

I’ll play it safe here and say Pitt and the Steelers get the overall win total advantage because Doug Pederson is not a good coach. I trust the Eagles to fail more than anything else in the equation.

Now we are thinking outside the box, and I like it. For the purpose of this question, I am going to avoid going the easy route and picking a Group of Five team, since one is guaranteed a spot in the New Years Six if they are the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion at the end of the year. I think No. 19 USF ends up being that team anyway, but you have good odds with teams like Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, Memphis and Toledo to count on if you wish to take the Group of Five field straight up against the Bulls. So I’ll keep it to the power conferences. With that being the case, I am going to say Texas A&M might just be the team currently unranked with the best chance to get to a New Years Six bowl.

I peg Alabama as a lock to get into the New Years Six, but the Aggies may have the best chance to move up the pecking order among SEC teams after that. If Texas A&M wins at UCLA this weekend, they could get to their bye week with a record of 6-1. That would require winning on the road at Florida and the loss would be a home loss to the Crimson Tide. But I’m not sold at all on LSU in the SEC West, and Texas A&M gets Auburn at home in a toss-up game. The road team has won all five meetings in the series since Texas A&M joined the SEC, so the Aggies need to break that trend too. If they do, we could potentially be looking at a Texas A&M team sitting with a 10-win season, which could get them into a New Years Six bowl game. 

Who is on Upset Alert in Week 1?

As for the first top 10 team most likely to fall out of the top 25, I’m going to say it just might be Penn State. The reason I say that is because as much as I think they have the best offense in the Big Ten in 2017, they also have some challenging games heading their way. Pitt and Michigan are at home, but neither will be automatic wins. Road trips to Iowa and Northwestern may prove trickier than some expect. The same is true of a road game at Michigan State a week after back-to-back games against Michigan and at Ohio State (which is also a possible loss). We have yet to see Penn State play with the target on the back they will carry this year, and they won’t be taking anyone by surprise. If I had to pick one team in the top 10 most likely to fall out of the top 25, it would be Penn State. 

But I also have Penn State in the College Football Playoff, so I think they are safe. That just goes to demonstrate how confident I am in the rest of the teams in the top 10 as well. Now, if USC loses to Western Michigan this week, we’ll talk… 

In the East, I think we will see the most improvement from Michigan State. Mark Dantonio is battling some roster issues going into the season, but I refuse to believe they will be as bad as they were a year ago. I think Michigan State has enough to go bowling this season and will be the most improved team in the division. I also think Maryland takes some good steps forward too. Rutgers will at least score some points against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State this year too, so that counts as progress.

I think Michigan takes a small step back overall, but only because of the roster turnover going into the season. Indiana could be trending downward too this season.

The toughest to win will be the SEC West, because I don’t think Alabama is going to lose twice to make that happen. But I do expect good years out of Auburn and Texas A&M, and top to bottom I might be inclined to take this division over any other division in college football. It’s a close call though.

The Big Ten East is a very close second and the most top-heavy with Ohio State and Penn State, and Michigan strong enough to give both a battle. But the division still has Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers. I actually think the Pac-12 North is the stronger of the two Pac-12 divisions. While USC is good, the north has Washington and Stanford, and I anticipate Oregon will show some improvement this season under Willie Taggart.

The quick answer here is of course ESPN wants the game to happen. ESPN has a broadcast deal in place with BYU and a vested interest in the SEC. Losing a game between these two programs from the programming schedule would be a tough pill to swallow for the network, so doing whatever it takes to get the game played is of great interest for ESPN. It does appear as though the storm may be heading north of New Orleans at this point, so moving the game from Houston to New Orleans looks like it will work out. I don’t know how realistic any other options for the game would actually have worked out well on such short notice.

As far as FCS matchups go, that one should be a lot of fun. Both programs have become strong FCS teams over the years, and to get them on the same field should be one of the top FCS games of the year, if not just that week. Put me down for a solid 7.

Great question, and it’s possible we see that go down this weekend. Using the AP Top 25 as our official ranking system to rely on until the College Football Playoff rankings begin being used, Tennesee looks ripe for the picking this weekend in Atlanta. On Monday night, the Vols take on Georgia Tech in the second game of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff event in the brand new football mecca in Atlanta (two days after Alabama-Florida State). Tennessee starts the year on the fringe of the Top 25 rankings at No. 25, while Georgia Tech is probably sitting on the doorstep. With Georgia Tech’s offensive style and Tennessee being without two key starters on defense, I could see the Yellow Jackets scoring a nice win in their home town and knocking Tennessee out of the top 25. I think it is the safest bet this weekend, at least. The other matchups between ranked and unranked teams do not have a ton of upset potential as I see it.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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