We all knew it was going to happen the day he was granted immediate eligibility back in February but it finally became official on Monday: Justin Fields is Ohio State’s starting quarterback.
Change has been the only constant inside the Ohio State quarterback room over the past nine months, as Dwayne Haskins unexpectedly went pro, Urban Meyer retired, Ryan Day was promoted from the QB room to the big chair, Mike Yurcich was hired away from Oklahoma State to coach the Buckeyes’ quarterbacks, Fields transferred in, Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin transferred out, and the Buckeyes added Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak to pair with the Georgia transfer fields and West Virginia transfer Chris Chugunov.
Day insisted Fields would not be handed the Ohio State job and, perhaps to the dismay of Ohio State’s fortunes this season, it took him most of training camp to fend off Hoak.
Still, we all knew Fields was going to be Ohio State’s starter, just as we all knew Kyler Murray was going to start for Oklahoma last year no matter how much Lincoln Riley insisted otherwise. A word of caution, though: Don’t assume Fields will produce Murray-level results. This was indeed a battle for Fields to win the job.
A 5-star recruit in the class of 2018, Fields appeared in 12 games as a true freshman for the Bulldogs. He completed 27-of-39 passes for 328 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing 42 times for 266 yards and four touchdowns… and one ill-fated fake punt attempt.
Fields will have three seasons of eligibility for the Buckeyes, a career that will officially begin with the first snap against against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31 (noon ET, FOX).
This won’t come as a shock to you, but Clemson and Alabama will begin 2019 where they finished 2018 — as the top two teams in the nation. The two programs to win the sport’s last four national championships are overwhelmingly favored to extend their combined streak to five, with the three programs nipping at their heels — Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State — rounding out the top five.
Clemson’s nod as the No. 1 team ended Alabama’s streak of three consecutive years as the preseason No. 1. The Tide, however, continue their streak of 11 straight seasons inside the AP’s preseason top-5. Ohio State has started seven straight seasons inside the AP top-6.
At the bottom of the poll, Nebraska got by far the benefit of the doubt. The Huskers shook off their 4-8 record of 2018 to check in at No. 24, becoming the first team since Alabama in 2000-01 to lose eight games in one season and appear in the AP preseason Top 25 the next.
Michigan is also a big beneficiary, as the Wolverines leaped from No. 14 in the final 2018 poll to No. 7 today. Nine teams from the final AP top-10 of 2018 returned, as the Wolverines replaced Washington State, No. 10 to close 2018, who fell all the way to No. 23.
The full poll:
1. Clemson — 1,540 total points
2. Alabama — 1,496
3. Georgia — 1,403
4. Oklahoma — 1,331
5. Ohio State — 1,261
6. LSU — 1,199
7. Michigan — 1,164
8. Florida — 1,054
9. Notre Dame — 1,044
10. Texas — 1,005
11. Oregon — 860
12. Texas A&M — 852
13. Washington — 786
14. Utah — 772
15. Penn State — 651
16. Auburn — 578
17. UCF — 410
18. Michigan State — 377
19. Wisconsin — 370
20. Iowa — 330
21. Iowa State — 302
22. Syracuse — 209
23. Washington State — 200
24. Nebraska — 154
25. Stanford — 141
The directive said to write about a six pack of must-see games for the upcoming season, but since I’m the one doing the typing here, I’m going to alter the directive a bit and write exclusively about non-conference games here. Spoiler alert: Texas-OU, Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-LSU are going to be important again this year.
Let’s talk, in no particular order, about the important games that don’t happen every year.
Miami vs. Florida (Aug. 24, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, at Orlando): We’re not just including this because it’s the first. This one has real, juicy football implications. Riding a 4-game winning streak to end last season, Florida has generated tons of optimism this season. Well, let’s see how long that optimism sticks around when the Gators’ re-tooled offensive line goes up against the nation’s No. 1 passing defense from a year ago. Remember, Florida scored 16.3 points per game in its three losses last season. On the other side of the ball, it’s redshirt freshman Jarren Williams‘ first start, while N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell wait for him to throw his first incompletion. If Williams succeeds, Miami could be a legit contender to Clemson in the ACC. If Florida prevails, Georgia could have a challenge in the East.
Auburn vs. Oregon (Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC, at Dallas): It’s rare to see an entire conference put its reputation on the line in a single evening, and yet here we are yet again. Last year, Washington trekked south and east to face this same Auburn program, lost, and then watched the entire Pac-12 fade from the Playoff conversation the moment the Huskies’ Oct. 13 loss to Oregon went final. The calculus is simple: The Pac-12 is too treacherous, too even for any one team to go undefeated, and no 2-loss conference champion has ever made the Playoff, lest of all a 2-loss Pac-12 champion. Ipso facto, Oregon could be all but eliminated from the Playoff before September even begins.
Cincinnati at Ohio State (Sept. 7, noon ET on ABC): Let’s be honest, nearly ever player wearing Cincinnati red and black imagined themselves wearing Ohio State scarlet and gray instead. Here’s their chance to prove it. The Bearcats went 11-2 last season under head coach Luke Fickell — a Columbus native and a former Buckeye nose guard, graduate assistant assistant coach, co-coordinator, interim head coach and co-coordinator again who definitely saw himself becoming Ohio State’s head coach some day, most likely after Urban Meyer stepped away at some point in the distant future. While Fickell took what looked like the next step — proving he had the goods to be a head coach, at a program that recruited the same area as Ohio State — Ryan Day swooped in and took the job Fickell thought would be his. Now here’s his one and only chance to shove it in his former boss Gene Smith‘s face, in his stadium, on national TV. And, oh by the way, the game should be pretty good, too. Cincinnati could very well win the AAC this season and, if the reports about Justin Fields struggling to win the starting quarterback job are true, Ohio State could be vulnerable in Game 2 with a new quarterback and a new coaching staff. Consider this your season-shaking upset alert.
(This is the point where you’d expect me to include Texas A&M at Clemson, scheduled between these games on Sept. 7, but I’m not going to for this reason: Even if A&M beats Clemson, I don’t think the Aggies can make the Playoff; even if Clemson loses to A&M, I think the Tigers are going to the Playoff. Fun? Yes. Must-see? Eh.)
LSU at Texas (Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC): It’s two college football blue-bloods playing a clash of cultures that also happens to be a border war. It’s LSU’s first trip to Austin since 1954. It’s the ultimate Big 12 vs. SEC proving ground game. It’ll be played under the lights before a national audience. It’s everything a non-conference home-and-home series is supposed to be. Honestly, it might even be too much. Someone in the stands at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium might die on this sure-to-be-sweltering Austin night.
Outside of all that, it’s also a mighty interesting football game. LSU and Texas both fancy themselves as the next programs to step up and join the elite of the elite, with a chance to prove that by beating the other. Joe Burrow will showcase LSU’s new, we’re-really-doing-it-this-time spread offense against a talented secondary led by All-American candidate Caden Sterns, while Sam Ehlinger gets to make his Heisman case against the best defense’s he’s ever faced. Then there’s the storyline that LSU pursued Tom Herman before going after Ed Orgeron back in November of 2016. Again, it’s too much for a single non-conference game.
Notre Dame at Georgia (Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET on CBS): Don’t let anyone ever tell you Notre Dame isn’t relevant. The Irish’s first trip inside an SEC stadium since 2004 is enough to get CBS to lower Alabama-LSU from its No. 1 slot for the first time since 2010, and for good reason. This game is going to be a mad house. Both of these programs reached the Playoff in the past two years, and yet it seems like only one program’s trip seems to really count — the team in red and black. It seems TV executives have more faith in Notre Dame’s prospects than fans and writers. Well, there’s no surer route to changing minds than to go into the heart of the South and slay one of the SEC’s sacred cows.
USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC): Yes, we’re going back to the same well, but with a different angle. We’ll go more in depth on this tomorrow, but this one is about USC and head coach Clay Helton. Helton sits on the hottest seat in all of college football, and his first-half schedule does him no favors: vs. defending Mountain West champion Fresno State, vs. No. 23 Stanford, at BYU, vs. No. 15 Utah, at No. 12 Washington, at No. 9 Notre Dame. That’s four ranked (according to the Coaches’ Poll, which is all we have as of press time) teams and two of the most difficult Group of 5 opponents possible. If Notre Dame limps into South Bend at 2-3 or 1-4 and then loses to Notre Dame? Helton might be fired on the tarmac Lane Kiffin style, and then it’s off to the races for one of the most desirable jobs in the entire sport. If USC arrives 5-0 or 4-1 and then beats Notre Dame? Helton is good to go and USC bullets into a manageable second half schedule as a Pac-12 and Playoff contender.
It appears Hugh Freeze has dodged what could’ve been a fatal bullet.
Liberty announced Tuesday that Hugh Freeze was dealing with severe back spasms and had been unable to participate in practices since Sunday. As it turns out, there was a significantly more serious underlying issue than simple back spasms as the first-year Flames head football coach told Chris Low of ESPN.com that he underwent emergency surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center Friday “after a potentially life-threatening strand of staph infection entered his bloodstream.”
From Low’s report:
The doctors told me if it had been another 24 hours, that strand of bacteria could have gotten to my heart and that I would have been fighting for my life,” Freeze told ESPN. “It’s the way God works because there’s no doubt that bacteria would have killed me if President [Jerry] Falwell [Jr.] wasn’t so quick to make sure we got the right people involved.”
When Freeze first told Falwell about the excruciating pain he was experiencing in his back, one of the first calls Falwell made was to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, one of the leading pioneers in neurosurgery. Carson spoke with Liberty professor Anthony Nobles, renowned in the medical device field, and the decision was made to transport Freeze from the hospital in Lynchburg to UVA Medical Center.
Falwell sent the Liberty plane to Scottsdale, Arizona, to bring in Dr. Dilan Ellegala, another leading neurosurgeon who developed his own ultrasonic technology (Sonospine) for spinal surgery, and Ellegala was the one who performed Freeze’s surgery at UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville.
The 49-year-old Freeze remains hospitalized and will continue so for the foreseeable future. When he is released and resumes his football duties, he’ll likely have to coach from a golf cart as the Flames finish up summer camp; for Liberty’s opener against Syracuse Aug. 31, it’s expected Freeze will have to coach from the booth.
Hired by the Flames in December of last year, Freeze is set to enter his first season as the head coach at the football independent. Freeze had been out of coaching for two full seasons following his unceremonious ouster as the head coach at Ole Miss in July of 2017.