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Notre Dame Football

Teams to Watch (When ND Isn't Playing)

August 24, 2018

One of my favorite sports columns every year is Zach Lowe’s NBA League Pass Rankings. If you’re an NBA fan, it’s a must read.

The gist of the article is that Lowe ranks the teams that are the most entertaining to watch from 30-1, all in an effort to help people who love basketball to find teams to watch outside of their region. With League Pass allowing everyone to watch any team on any given night, Lowe makes it easier to find who might be worth staying up late for on a random Wednesday in January.

Unfortunately there is no League Pass or Sunday Ticket for college football. If there was, I’d probably try and get rid of most of my cable package and go with that instead. But despite not having that option, virtually every Power 5 football game can be found either on cable or streaming. If you want to watch a specific team, chances are you can find them playing on an ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS, or NBC platform.

I know that most ISD members have their fall Saturdays revolve around watching Notre Dame. I also know that there are a significant portion of people who belong to this site who are fans of college football in general.

The games don’t stop if the Irish aren’t playing. Most of us are finding some other game to watch instead of doing something else productive. It’s with those people in mind that I decided to rank 2018 college football teams that I believe are worth seeking out for a noon kick or a late night on Saturday when Notre Dame is not playing.

I’m strictly basing on it the potential entertainment value that a specific team can provide and I’m using this criteria to determine my rankings.

Consistent Highlights: This is a no-brainer and why I’m listing it first, but I tried to think of teams that are most likely to be featured in highlights whether it’s because of fun players or style of play.

Splash Players: Piggy backing off of that, do they have players who are capable of doing something spectacular? I’m thinking cutting across the grain on long runs, one-handed catches, and things of that nature.

Fun Scheme/Creative and Daring Coaches: These tend to go hand in hand and often produce those highlights I mentioned. Is a coach a gambler that likes to run fakes and gadget plays consistently? Are they doing something different on offense or defense that not many others could duplicate?

Shootout Potential: Look, I’m a defense first guy as an analyst/player/coach. But when’s the last time everyone wanted to tune into a thrilling 9-6 victory? Give me a team that has a better chance of scoring 50 and only winning by a score than pretty much any team in the Big Ten West (with one exception below).

That’s pretty much it.

If a team has most of those elements, then I’m probably going to be watching them as much as I can when I’m not occupied during or directly after a Notre Dame game. Here are 15 teams that I would recommend checking out this season.

15. Toledo

The token MACtion choice on the list, Jason Candle’s team is the one that should make you stop what you’re doing and check out those rare Wednesday night games in November. They won 20 games over the last two years and did it primarily by with one of the best offenses in the nation.

They finished 5th in yards per play in 2016 and 8th last season. While they did lose some talent to the NFL, the receiving corps is loaded and led by Cody Thompson (1,269 yards in ‘16) and Diontae Johnson (1,344 in ‘17).

Candle is a rising star who is on track to have a Power 5 job someday soon as well. They also play Miami in September so keep an eye out for that noon kick in week two.

14. Texas

Unless you have an irrational hate for the Longhorns, they should be on everyone’s list of teams to watch. Tom Herman gets his teams to play their best in the big games (think USC last year, Houston beating Oklahoma in ‘16) and his offense should be significantly better in year two in Austin.

It’s Texas so they always have options at the skill positions and lil’Jordan Humphrey is someone who should turn heads with his talent. On the other side of the ball Todd Orlando’s defense consistently produces turnovers (26 last year) even if they get gashed from time to time.

13. UCLA

I’m not a huge fan of their roster (at least how the roster has performed in college). They are on this list for one reason and one reason only: Chip Kelly.

What’s Chip Kelly going to do with what looks like an undermanned team in his return to college football? I don’t know, but I bet it will be fun to watch on offense.

Look out for freakish edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, a former 5-star recruit, to produce something special on defense too.

12. Nebraska

This is another pick that has to do primarily with the coach, but Scott Frost has some talent to work with on offense that could be very intriguing like Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman, and Tyjon Lindsey in the slot.

I loved what Frost and his staff did with his offense at UCF and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander did wonders with a defense that was horrendous before he arrived.

The Big Ten is boring. Nebraska won’t be under Frost and I think it will start right away even if might not show with wins in year one.

11. Auburn

Jarrett Stidham is back at quarterback and Gus Malzahn is one of the most inventive minds on offense when he has a great player running his scheme. I think they are going to go from good to great on that side of the ball with all of these athletes at wide receiver.

The defensive line might only be rivaled by Clemson’s in terms of overall talent. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown can be a game wrecker for them.

Their schedule is one of the toughest in college football and that’s even more reason to check them out as much as possible, starting with week one against Washington before the Irish take on Michigan.

10. West Virginia

David Sills, Will Grier, and Dana Holgorsen’s mullet. What else do you need to be entertaining?

Holgorsen’s adaptable Air Raid offense and Tony Gibson’s unorthodox defense are not too shabby either.

9. Houston

Even the casual football fan has to appreciate how fantastic it is to watch defensive tackle Ed Oliver. He is relentless and dominant against inferior competition in the AAC. The potential top pick in next year’s NFL Draft is more than enough of a reason to watch Houston when they are on your TV.

8. Florida Atlantic

Lane Kiffin is there for possible unintentional comedy, but the guy can coach offense too. With him and young Charlie Weis Jr. running the show, I’d pay attention just for that side of the ball alone. Running back Devin Singletary is a big time player too.

They went 11-3 last season and can make even more noise this year with a game against Oklahoma to kick off the year and then going to face Central Florida on September 21st.

They went from 80th to 8th in scoring offense in just one year under Kiffiin. Expect a lot points again from them in 2018.

7. Clemson

Notre Dame is not facing Clemson this year so Irish fans don’t have to worry about the Tigers when tuning into their games. Because of that they can enjoy the destruction their defensive line can do and the overall spectacle that they’ll have on offense.

Kelly Bryant is an explosive runner as a quarterback and he might get beat out by 5-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who throws one of the prettiest balls you’ll ever see. Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers are stars in waiting at receiver and they have two backs returning who scored on touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer last year.

The only reason that people might not enjoy watching them is jealousy.

6. Mississippi State

Joe Moorhead turned Penn State from boring to dynamic on offense. At Mississippi State they were not boring under Dan Mullen, but Moorhead is someone that I think can make quarterback Nick Fitzgerald a better passer in addition to being a great runner. T

hey’re going to RPO teams to death in a way that most SEC teams haven’t seen and that in itself should be fun to watch. Jeffery Simmons as an All-American candidate on the defensive line will keep you from switching games when the offense is off the field too.

With 17 starters back, the Bulldogs should be very good and I expect Moorhead to make them entertaining.

5. Ole Miss

I guess this means the Egg Bowl has the chance to be the game of the year. Moorhead brings intrigue to Starkville and Ole Miss is bringing a ton of players on offense that could make them one of the best offenses in college football.

Without Shea Patterson the offense was actually better with Jordan Ta’amu at quarterback throwing to the best set of receivers in the nation in AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge. They finished 9th in YPP and could be even better in ‘18.

Having a first round left tackle in Greg Little to go head to head against the best pass rushers in the SEC adds even more to watching them.

4. Florida State

Willie Taggart had really fun teams to watch at South Florida and Oregon. Now he should have the same at FSU with more talent to work with.

Cam Akers, Khalan Laborn, and Jacques Patrick might be the best backfield in college football. How Taggart uses them in his spread offense could make them all extremely productive. It’s going to be a fast team overall and fast is always fun.

(Although maybe they won’t look as fast running in cold weather in South Bend this November.)

3. Oklahoma

I think we are going to find out that Lincoln Riley had more do with making Baker Mayfield a great player than Mayfield had in making Riley a great coach. I love watching Riley’s Oklahoma offense work.

The new wrinkle of having a big run waiting to happen at quarterback with newly appointed starter Kyler Murray is only going to make things more interesting. I expect Oklahoma to continue to be prolific on offense, but probably in a different way. To me, that’s going to be exciting to see that develop.

2. UCF

Without knowing about what Josh Heupel did at Missouri, I think the average fan would expect a drop at UCF on offense now that Scott Frost is gone. But if you do know what Heupel did at Mizzou (6th in YPP), then you know things are going to continue to hum for them in Orlando.

McKenzie Milton is the most exciting returning quarterback in the nation in my opinion. He has skill players returning to help him and the defense might take a drop this year after losing some guys to the NFL so there could be plenty of back and forth in all of their games.

1. Arizona

Kevin Sumlin may not be a great head coach, but he is walking into a situation where he might have the most exciting team in all of college football. That primarily has to do with quarterback Khalil Tate.

He’s not all that different from a Michael Vick at Virginia Tech. If Sumlin can do a little of what he did for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M with Tate, then this could be something beautiful to witness.

The combination of Tate and 5’6” dynamo JJ Taylor (847 yards a freshman) in the backfield is going to make the Wildcats must-see TV every time they are featured on #PAC12AfterDark and I’m sure that will happen often.

They are already are slotted for three of those games (vs BYU, at Utah, and vs Colorado). That number will go up if Arizona is as fun to watch while staying perfectly in the middle of the Pac-12 standings as they are supposed to be.

They aren’t the best team in college football. I think they might be the most fun to watch, though, and that is all that matters with these rankings.

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