Mark Schlabach, in the midst of covering a golf tournament for ESPN, answers a phone call Ryan McGee, who is in the midst of covering a motorsports event for ESPN. Why the call? Because while they both are doing some springtime sportswriter moonlighting, they also both realize the college football season is precisely 100 days away and are jonesing for some CFB conversation.
So, Schlabach hides in an azalea bush, hoping PGA stewards don’t see his cellphone as he whispers to McGee, who is shouting over the roar of several dozen race cars as they roll out for NASCAR All-Star Race practice. Their conversation goes like this:
Ryan McGee: Hey, Schlabach, the season is 100 days away. You ready?
Mark Schlabach: Are Herschel Walker’s cleat marks still imprinted onto Bill Bates’ chest? Yes.
McGee: Not cool. But predictable. Speaking of predictable, it’s never too early to talk Heisman Trophy favorites. I seem to remember you long ago predicting something about a guy who is going to be on all the college preview magazine covers next month.
Schlabach: Trevor Lawrence. Yeah, as soon as he signed, I told people he’s going to win two Heisman Trophies before he’s done.
McGee: He introduced himself to the world in the CFP national title game. The year before that, it was Tua Tagovailoa, but now he’s the dude who lost the Heisman. And also lost a CFP title game. Vegas still has him listed as the Heisman favorite and he’s going to be healed up.
Schlabach: The truth is that he was hurt worse than I think most people realized even before his injury in the SEC championship. He won’t be hurt now and he has five receivers.
McGee: So, should Jerry Jeudy be on the Heisman list, too?
Schlabach: Why not? And how about Justyn Ross at Clemson?
McGee: And Travis Etienne.
Schlabach: If Lawrence or Tua doesn’t win the Heisman, that might be part of their problem. The teammates who helped get them there might also take away some of their votes.
McGee: Another guy who played in that national championship game, for like two seconds, was Jalen Hurts. Now he’s at Oklahoma, which, by the way, won the last two Heisman Trophies. Look, we don’t pull for teams or players, that’s not our job. But it wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit if Hurts won the Heisman Trophy.
Schlabach: That would be one of the greatest stories in the history of college football. The question is — can he do what Lincoln Riley wants him to do to keep that offense running like it did with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray? A lot of people believe he can. He got so much better as a passer.
McGee: Like Hurts, a guy I feel like we’ve been covering for 10 years is Jonathan Taylor at Wisconsin. Running backs just don’t win Heismans anymore. There have been only five running backs to win it in the last 20 years and one of those was vacated. Can Taylor make a run?
Schlabach: He can. He reminds of you one of those five guys you’re talking about and a Wisconsin guy, Ron Dayne. The only worry is can he keep going at this pace. He’s got more miles on him than an old school bus.
McGee: Maybe their old teammate Justin Fields, now at Ohio State.
Schlabach: Fields has the potential to be an NFL QB, but what people underestimate about him is that he really didn’t play much in high school, like Fromm and Lawrence. So, he’s really still learning on the job.
McGee: He’s going to have a few early games to get up to speed, but then Week 5 they head to Lincoln, Nebraska. That’s one I’m looking forward to. His former school hosts one I know you’re fired up about Week 4.
Schlabach: Notre Dame comes to Georgia. That’s a game people thought they would never see. When Georgia went to Notre Dame two years ago, it was pretty amazing. My wife and I went to the Florida Keys and we were in the hot tub with some Notre Dame fans. I asked them if they were coming to the game and the guy said, “Why in the hell would I go to Athens, Georgia?” I told him, “Man, I’ve lived in both. I would much rather come to Athens than South Bend, Indiana.”
McGee: I’m not sure I needed to picture you in a hot tub. But I do know who might be in hot water early. Just like last year. The Pac-12 has some gigantic games in early September. Auburn goes to Oregon on Aug. 31 and the next week Stanford goes to USC. And then Week 3 is totally bonkers.
Schlabach: Washington State at Houston.
McGee: The Air Raid Bowl! Hawaii at Washington, Texas Tech at Arizona, Arizona State at Michigan State, Stanford at UCF, Oklahoma at UCLA, USC at BYU.
Schlabach: If Stanford loses to UCF, Washington State loses to Houston and USC loses to BYU, not only will the Pac-12 miss the playoff, they should stop playing altogether.
McGee: But if they win them, maybe the perception of the conference changes. Finally.
McGee: Our 100 days to college football marker starts the countdown to one game. Florida vs. Miami in Orlando at 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 24 on ESPN. It feels like 100 years since that game mattered. Does it finally matter now?
Schlabach: Oh, yeah. And it matters because this is really to see who takes the lead as the top program in the state of Florida, fighting for all those recruits. Florida State is way down and UCF failed to win back-to-back national championships, so …
McGee: You love UCF. But you’re right, there’s a buzz around these two teams again.
Schlabach: The fan bases are excited. Dan Mullen is sure talking like he’s won something.
McGee: And Manny Diaz is the right guy for The U.
Schlabach: But to be clear, this isn’t Steve Spurrier vs. Jimmy Johnson.
McGee: But it also isn’t Ron Zook vs. Al Golden. Speaking of which, I’m not sure how much those guys were paid when they were head coaches, but I know it wasn’t as much as Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney are making now, because they have the two richest contracts in college football history. They meet Week 2 at Clemson. People forget now, but that’s a game A&M nearly won last year.
Schlabach: I get the feeling, though, that A&M is still a couple of years away from being on that level all the time. But down the road, is Texas back? I feel like we’ve asked that every year since Vince Young was celebrating at the Rose Bowl.
McGee: We’ll find out quick. They’ve got LSU rolling into Austin that same day. Speaking of, “Are they finally back?” For me, that starts Week 2. Army at the Big House. I think West Point might be the best Gang of Five team this year.
Schlabach: So good that they might force the College Football Playoff selection committee to have to wait until after Army-Navy on Dec. 14 to do their final rankings.
McGee: If Michigan survives the Black Knights in September, then the entire season will boil down to not just a game, but The Game.
Schlabach: I won’t say that this year is do or die for Jim Harbaugh, but I also won’t say that it isn’t. He never beat Ohio State under Urban Meyer. Now Ryan Day is in charge. So, do things finally change for Harbaugh?
McGee: I covered the Tulane game at Ohio State, Meyer’s first game back from his forced time off and it was so obvious to me that it was already Day’s team. I was so impressed by that.
Schlabach: Urban says Ryan Day is the best assistant coach he has ever had, and that list includes guys like Charlie Strong, Tom Herman and Kyle Whittingham.
McGee: You used to write the Bottom 10. Now I write it. So, we’ve both watched a lot of Kansas football. Can Les Miles win down there?
Schlabach: I’ve covered one game at Kansas in my life. Mark Mangino was the coach and we had a six-hour lightning delay. It was the longest college football game I’ve ever attended. Unfortunately, Les Miles isn’t bringing Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland to Lawrence.
McGee: But he’s bringing witty banter and a strong jawline. Dana Holgorsen brings the same to Houston. I still can’t believe he made that move.
Schlabach: Power 5 to non-Power 5, but he knows he can win there. And he loves Houston.
McGee: There used to be a bar there named McGee’s. They told me he really enjoys Houston. Almost as much as new Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins loves Waffle House.
Schlabach: He’s a Conyers, Georgia, guy. Down here where I live, he’s got people talking about Georgia Tech football, which isn’t easy to do, and he’s done it with slogans and gimmicks and yeah, a lot of Waffle House. But he’s also recruited well early. This won’t be the Paul Johnson triple option, so it’s going to take a minute to get going.
McGee: And where I live, Mack Brown has people talking about North Carolina football, also not easy to do, though it’s like a time machine when you go in the building and it’s all the same people he had working there in 1995. Meanwhile, at Mack’s old haunt, people are bummed that Scott Satterfield left Appalachian State for Louisville.
Schlabach: You know after you’ve covered a NASCAR race at Talladega and you see the guy the morning after cleaning up all those thousands of porta-potties? That’s the job Satterfield is going to have at Louisville following Bobby Petrino.
McGee: It’s not as bad at Maryland, but Mike Locksley also has some serious work to do.
Schlabach: He’s a Maryland guy, though. And after three years working under Nick Saban, he’s learned a lot.
McGee: Saban lost another group of assistant coaches. Bama got stomped by Clemson. Is this the beginning of the erosion that leads to the end of the Nick Saban era?
Schlabach: I think he’s so motivated to beat these former assistants who’ve been hired away just to beat him, that’s what keeps him going.
McGee: And will keep him going for at least five or six more years.
Schlabach: Yep. And when it comes to Locksley, I’m just happy to see a black coach getting a head coaching shot at a Power 5 school. Same with Mel Tucker at Colorado.
McGee: One of those opportunities that I fear is not going to end well is Willie Taggart at Florida State. I think the post-Jimbo situation he inherited was way worse than people probably realized, but they were also way worse than anyone could have possibly predicted. Will patience run out and send them running for the buyout?
Schlabach: Speaking of buyouts, is Auburn really going to pay $42 million to make Gus go away? I don’t think so.
McGee: I was at USC a few weeks ago. There doesn’t seem to be much patience left when it comes to Clay Helton. But inside the building, they are in a great mood. I ran into new OC Graham Harrell. He’s fired up.
Schlabach: So, let’s say Graham Harrell saves Clay Helton’s job in 2019. Where is he in 2020? With his Texas Tech bud Kliff Kingsbury as the new offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals?
McGee: Hey … isn’t that the same Kliff Kingsbury who had the USC OC job for 15 minutes before Harrell got the job? So, if USC does lose a couple of those early games and Harrell doesn’t save Helton’s job, then we start talking about … dare I say it?
Schlabach: Urban Meyer to USC rumors. That will be fun.
McGee: Almost as much fun as my least favorite topic in all of college football.
Schlabach: Playoff expansion.
McGee: That’s my second least favorite topic. Though if the Big Ten misses out again, that talk will run us all over like a monster truck. No, my least favorite topic is …
Schlabach: The transfer portal.
Schlabach: What are there, like 1,800 kids in there now? I think some went in and never came out again! An SEC coach told me he was disciplining a kid for cutting class, called him into his office to talk to him about it. So, the kid walked out, went straight to the compliance guy and told him to put him into the portal. I think we are all for giving players more power, but we’re also losing sight of the fact that these schools have invested a lot in these kids, too.
McGee: OK, do I dare bring up your current favorite least favorite topic?
Schlabach: The FBI basketball investigation?
McGee: Bingo. Do we see any of that bleed over into college football? Schools like Clemson have come up in these trials you’ve been covering.
Schlabach: I don’t think the FBI has a college football coach on wiretaps. But this will all lead to the bigger question and solution of player compensation. I think everybody agrees they deserve something, but the schools have to make it work. I don’t know if there’s 64 schools that can make that work financially.
McGee: Which leads to conference expansion and realignment and … sigh … me developing a migraine. So, if it’s cool with you I’m going to spend these next 100 days trying to think about actual football. Besides, I’m busy working on stories to commemorate the biggest 2019 CFB story of them all. It’s the 150th anniversary of college football!
Schlabach: That’s going to be great. I’m just sad that Hunter Renfrow wasn’t able to stick around for his 150th college football season.