The opening weekend of college football is nearly upon us. Every team across the nation will have played a game by Tuesday morning (and in some cases two), and the chase for the College Football Playoff will officially be on.
With the return of college football comes the return of our weekly college football interview series. Each week, we’ll chat with a different analyst from CBS Sports to get their thoughts on some of the weekend’s biggest games, the sport’s biggest stars, and other story lines that are making headlines.
First up, is CBS Sports Network analyst Jay Feely, who’s going to be on the call this weekend for a pair of games on the network. He starts on Thursday, when Dave Clawson and Wake Forest make the trip to the Big Easy to take on Tulane, and then heads to Texas for a Saturday afternoon match-up between Houston and Rice. I caught up with Jay at CBS Sports’ NFL on CBS Media Day on Tuesday afternoon in New York. As always, our conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CBS Local Sports: A pair of games for you this weekend, and in one of them, Houston vs. Rice, you get to see the player most consider to be the top pick in next year’s draft, Ed Oliver. Oliver’s talent is obvious, but the Cougars were just 7-5 last season, struggling in Year 1 under Major Applewhite. What do you expect from them this season?
Jay Feely: I have been… giddy watching film on Ed Oliver for the last week. I talked about it all day yesterday (Monday) when we were talking to people, saying go watch his film. I went back and watched every play of his from the last two years, and it just blows you away. He does things I’ve never seen a defensive lineman do.
He lines up most of the time as a nose tackle. He gets off the ball quicker than any of the offensive lineman, so before the center can even stand up, he’s pushed him two yards back into the backfield. Then, sometimes he’ll rush all the way around the tackle after hitting the center, looping around to get a sack. Other times he’ll hit the center, hit the guard, then come all the way down the sideline and tackle a running back there.
Because he’s so big (290 pounds) and so strong, you don’t expect him to be so fast. He runs like a DB. It’s amazing watching him, and Houston has a very good defensive line. They’re getting people healthy who were not healthy last year, they have transfers coming in who will play right away. So it’s not just Ed Oliver. They have other guys on that defensive line who will be able to keep pressure off of him. You can’t block him (Oliver) one-on-one, and you can’t zone block against him because he’s too quick. You have to double him to contain him, and that opens it up for the other guys to make hay. And I think they’ll do that.
The question will be at quarterback. Is (D’Eriq) King able to come in there and make plays and run this offense efficiently. Is Major Applewhite able to establish what he wants offensively? Can they take that next step?
Defensively, they’ll be one of the best teams in their league. It will be a question of how quickly that offense comes along. And they have two pretty big tests after they play Rice in Arizona and Texas Tech. Those two games will tell you a lot about where their season is headed.
CBS Local Sports: For Rice, this season appears to be a bit of a re-start, as new coach Mike Bloomgren takes the helm. What are you expecting from the Owls in his first season?
Jay Feely: Well, I watched their first game, and they started out great with a 16-0 lead. And then they started switching quarterbacks, and that lead quickly evaporated. I know Mike from when I was with the Jets, and he wants to instill this smash-mouth concept that he had at Stanford and with the Jets under Rex. That’s hard to do when you don’t have bigger, stronger players. They were able to recruit that at Stanford, and I know he’s going to try to recruit that at Rice. He doesn’t have that yet.
It will be interesting to see how that offense is able to function. They had a running back (Emmanuel Esupka) who had 174 yards, granted it wasn’t against great competition in Prairie View A&M. But he ran hard and physical, exactly what you want a running back in that system to do. Plus, they have a couple other backs who are quick back, so there’s a nice change of pace. I think it will be tough sledding against that tough Houston defensive line.
CBS Local Sports: You’re also on the call for one of Houston’s conference foes this weekend, as Tulane takes on Wake Forest. They came up inches short last year..
Jay Feely: Yes, literally (laughing).
CBS Local Sports: So with that in mind, Willie Fritz coming into his third season with a bunch of guys back, are the Green Wave capable of making it to a bowl game?
Jay Feely: I think they could be the surprise team in the league this year. Willie Fritz is in his third year, and he’s establishing his style of football. He’s helped the special teams tremendously. I did one of their games a couple years ago, and they were atrocious on special teams, so they’ve taken big strides in that area.
Their offense is coming along as well, and they have a quarterback (Jonathan Banks) trying to establish himself and be one of the better quarterbacks in that league. They have talent throughout that team, better than they’ve had before.
That said, I think they have a tough game against Wake Forest. It’s a tough way to open up the season. You always want to get off to a good start, especially when you want to get to a bowl game, and you were so close last year. You don’t want to start the season 0-1. To go up against a tough, veteran team in Game 1, like Wake Forest, is difficult. The only position they’re trying to replace is quarterback. They have a true freshman starting there, so there’s a lot of questions about how a true freshman handles that at 19 years old.
But, the rest of that offense, the entire offensive line is back, a couple receivers left, but they’ve still got a few guys outside….
CBS Local Sports: Greg Dortch in particular.
Jay Feely: Yep, Greg Dortch is really good. He gets in the slot, he’s quick. He’s the kind of guy who’s very reliable. It’s a tough game for Tulane, but it could be an opportunity for a big win for them.
CBS Local Sports: You started talking about Wake Forest there, and Dave Clawson’s group surprised some people last year, going 8-5. Now, heading into another year in the ACC, where teams are maybe gunning for them a little more, how do you think they’ll handle that transition to being the top dog in some games rather than the underdog?
Jay Feely: When you look at Dave Clawson’s career as a head coach, everywhere he’s been, the fourth and fifth year are the breakout years. He takes over teams that are struggling and then, by the fourth year, he’s instilled the toughness that he wants, he’s instilled the philosophies, and they have a lot of success.
So, it wasn’t a surprise to me that they went 8-5. He’s a really good coach who knows exactly who he is and what he wants his team to look like. Having a veteran offensive line, having all of those guys back, having a defense that should be much better in the secondary where they struggled last year, I think they’re going to be a formidable team.
CBSLocal Sports: Finally, with the start of a new season comes predictions for the Playoff. So, who ya got? Who’s your four?
Jay Feely: Well, I’ve got two teams that won’t surprise anybody: Alabama and Clemson. They’ve been there every year for the past three years. Then, I’ve got two teams that probably would surprise everybody.
I’ve got Stanford and Bryce Love as one. I think, if Bryce Love stays healthy, he wins the Heisman. They’ve got an offensive line that was young last year but very talented, so now they’ll be a lot better. And, he’s (Love) a special back. He’s a home run hitter every time he touches the ball, had more 50 yard runs than anybody in the country last year.
Then I’ve got Michigan. Now everybody will laugh at me and say I’m a homer, and I am, but I think Shea Patterson will be the difference for them. He is a veteran guy who’s played before, who has the ability to move outside the pocket and make plays on the run. That’s going to be a dynamic part of that offense. Plus, they have the best defense in the country. Last year, they had no starters returning on that defense, and this year, they have almost everybody back. So they’ll be a force.
They also have playmakers on offense. At the receiving position, even though Tariq Black is hurt, they still have top guys at every spot. At tight end, they’re three-deep, with really good tight ends. They’ve got two good running backs to be able to move the ball offensively, and I think they have the general to lead them down the field now.