Every summer, fans and media members from the NFL and college football start to hone in on preseason talking points and storylines. Some of the perceptions are prescient, while others are simply sports-talk fodder.
Some storylines sprout legs very early. The idea that USC quarterback Sam Darnold is the top quarterback and possibly the top overall prospect in college football emerged shortly after his heroic performance in the Rose Bowl last season. However, it's awfully early for that kind of buzz, and as my colleague Daniel Jeremiah pointed out last month, Darnold might put off entering the draft longer than many expect.
With a few days to go until the first college games, let's explore some things you can believe heading into the 2017 season.
1. Don't write off everyone but Sam Darnold in the competition to be the No. 1 QB: To be clear, I think it's too early to declare a top NFL prospect at the QB position right now. Darnold led USC to nine consecutive wins last season and it was impossible not to get excited watching him march the Trojans down the field for the game-winning score against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Darnold has NFL size, is mobile and certainly looks the part from an intangibles standpoint. However, there is too much talent at the position to say it's a done deal that he's the best.
UCLA's Josh Rosen is back from injury and I'm anxious to see how he responds with a more experienced offensive unit surrounding him. Rosen is a technician from a mechanics standpoint and should not be discounted.
Wyoming's Josh Allen is a gunslinger with a big arm and a willingness to take shots down the field that others won't. He has great size and athleticism, but the same swagger that leads to jaw-dropping throws can also lead to decisions that leave people asking "what was he thinking?".
Are we absolutely sure that Louisville's Lamar Jackson isn't a high-end prospect? I know there are many who have written him off, but there are some NFL evaluators who believe he could become a dangerous NFL quarterback if he continues to improve as a passer at the same pace he did last season.
2. Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice are absolutely as good as advertised. Barkley (Penn State) and Guice (LSU) were entertaining runners as freshmen, but both players took it to that "uh-oh" level as sophomores with eye-opening yardage and touchdown numbers. People will start nit-picking both players this year as the hype surrounding them picked up tremendous steam after their 2016 seasons. After watching the tape on both runners, I'm confident that Guice and Barkley are as talented as any runner taken in the 2017 draft.
3. Rashaan Evans will be a breakthrough star for Alabama this season: Alabama's defense has a pecking order and the "next man up" is consistently rewarded with stats, big plays and accolades. Evans is a hybrid linebacker talent with the speed to get in on tackle after tackle from the inside linebacker spot. He also has the quickness to torment quarterbacks when he bumps outside as a rush linebacker. Evans has continued to build his resume over his first three years and now it's time for the senior to become one of the brightest stars of the defense.
4. Mark Andrews will produce a monster season from the TE spot for Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield has lost targets like Sterling Shepard, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook over the last two seasons, but he's back to pile up big numbers again, and Andrews will play a big role in his success. Andrews caught 19 balls when Shepard was the primary target in 2015 and 31 last season when Westbrook was the top dog. Over his first two seasons, 14 of Andrews' 50 catches have gone for touchdowns and he's averaging 16.1 yards per catch for his career. With Westbrook and Mixon gone and Mayfield's confidence in Andrews building, I'm expecting a huge year for the nation's top tight end prospect.
5. CB Tarvarus McFadden is the next big thing at Florida State: I know that safety Derwin James is getting a ton of love from people who pay attention to draft prospects, and rightfully so. However, McFadden might be worthy of the same massive hype that Jalen Ramsey was receiving two years ago. In his first season as a starter, McFadden finished with 8 interceptions (in 8 different games) and had three more would-be interceptions slip through his hands. McFadden is a tall, long press corner who finds the ball exceptionally quickly and has outstanding ball skills. With a year under his belt, I expect those touchdowns he was burned for last season to disappear while he continues to stack interceptions if quarterbacks try to challenge him.
6. Ohio State's defensive line will dominate: As I completed my recent look into the most talent-rich college programs, one of the most eye-opening discoveries was the depth of Ohio State's defensive line. Alabama has been the "next-man-up" program with an assembly line of talent along the the defensive line year after year, but Ohio State now appears to be running ahead of the Crimson Tide in that department. Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones will all be playing on Sundays, but Michael Hill and Jalyn Holmes have that type of talent as well. The swarm of talented defensive linemen will be too much for the offenses they face.
7. Defensive tackles will be a force in 2017: The defensive tackle position was a little light in the 2017 draft, but this college season figures to shine a light on several talented prospects at the position. Utah's Lowell Lotulelei and Michigan's Maurice Hurst are talented seniors ready to state their cases for NFL scouts. Junior prospects like Washington's Vita Vea, Clemson's Christian Wilkins and Alabama's Da'Ron Payne already have dominated, foreshadowing their ability to wreck offensive lines in the coming season.