This is it: The calendar has turned to August, meaning fall camps are opening and we have officially arrived in a month that is home to actual meaningful football games. Texas A&M-South Carolina, Ole Miss-Boise State and others will help kick off the season on Thursday, Aug. 28 (with a random Georgia State-Abilene Christian appetizer the night before), and in the four short weeks until then, there is still much to be decided around the college football world.
From quarterback controversies to the debuts of true freshmen and more, here's what college football fans should be paying attention to as preseason practices begin opening around the country.
1. The Summer of Jameis
Nothing can possibly match the Summer of Johnny -- especially given that it is experiencing its own overblown sequel in Cleveland -- but college football has replaced one controversial, highly visible, charismatic freshman Heisman winner with another. Becoming only the second player to win a Heisman as a freshman makes Winston one of the most visible players in college football history, and as we all know that spotlight hasn't come without its problems. After an offseason devoted to baseball and stolen Publix crab legs, as well as the continued fallout from last fall's much more serious allegations, Winston will return to the football field as the centerpiece of an absurdly loaded Florida State team that has five senior starters on the offensive line, great skill-position talent and a schedule that, while more difficult than last season's, will still be favorable for the pursuit of another undefeated season.
2. Meet Jacob Coker
We've been hearing about him for so long that it's hard to believe Coker has been on Alabama's campus for only a few months and hasn't taken part in anything other than informal workouts until now. Jameis Winston's top backup at Florida State in 2013, Coker has played sparingly but has received rave reviews of his arm strength, among other attributes, to go with a 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. Coker has two years of eligibility remaining, and he is widely expected to beat out spring leader Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman to replace three-year starter AJ McCarron as Alabama's quarterback when the season opens against West Virginia on Aug. 30. Nick Saban, of course, isn't about to just hand Coker the job, but Sims didn't exactly distance himself in the spring despite the head start with Coker still absent. Making it easier for Coker's transition will be the fact that he's surrounded by stars, with Alabama owning running back and receiver units that could be considered the nation's best. McCarron may be one of the most decorated Alabama quarterbacks in history, but don't expect a drop-off in the Crimson Tide's offensive production. For now, though, we can only speculate as to what a Lane Kiffin/Jacob Coker marriage will look like.
3. Quarterback Competitions
Arizona: Jesse Scroggins vs. Anu Solomon vs. Connor Brewer vs. Jerrard Randall. After an uncomfortable three years at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez found a much more natural home at Arizona. Whoever wins the QB job will be his third starter in three years, with the favorite being Scroggins, a transfer from USC and yet another senior. Trying to catch him in the race are two more transfers in Brewer (Texas) and Randall (LSU/juco), plus a promising mobile redshirt freshman in Solomon. Rodriguez's offenses are always heavily dependent on the run out of the spread, but his new quarterback will be surrounded with a surprisingly deep receiving corps led by Austin Hill, who returns from a knee injury.
Cincinnati: Gunner Kiel vs. Munchie Legaux. After a terrible knee injury, the experienced Legaux is back in the mix and ready to get on the field again for the Bearcats. There's a big obstacle, though: former blue-chip recruit Kiel, who transferred from Notre Dame and is finally hoping to play after so many problems figuring out where he wanted to go to school. Legaux will likely find a way to get on the field, but this appears to be Kiel's job to lose for a Cincinnati team that is favored in the American Athletic.
Illinois: Wes Lunt vs. Reilly O'Toole vs. Aaron Bailey. Despite losing a quarterback who was seemingly in Champaign forever (Nathan Scheelhaase), the Illini have experienced options in what could be a pretty solid offense: Lunt started five games as a true freshman for Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring. O'Toole, a senior, has thrown 170 passes over the last three years. And while we haven't seen much of Bailey yet, he's a former four-star recruit who rushed for three touchdowns as a true freshman. Lunt remains the favorite, having completed 61.8 percent of his passes with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt for the Cowboys.
Kentucky: Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker vs. Reese Phillips. Barker was the gem of Mark Stoops' impressive 2014 recruiting haul, and he inserted himself into the competition early by participating in spring practice. With the experienced Jalen Whitlow transferring, Barker is competing with Towles, a 238-pound sophomore who redshirted last fall after playing sparingly in 2012, and Phillips, a redshirt freshman. Towles is probably the safest bet, but Barker is hoped to be the future under touted offensive coordinator Neal Brown. We'll likely see both taking snaps at some point during the season for a team that's in no position to contend for anything more than a minor bowl at this point.
LSU: Brandon Harris vs. Anthony Jennings. Jennings led LSU's game-winning drive vs. Arkansas after Zach Mettenberger got hurt, then completed 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards and an interception while getting sacked four times in a 21-14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl. A sophomore, Jennings has the experience edge, but Harris -- a four-star dual threat who enrolled last winter -- stood out in the Tigers' spring game and may have more upside. The race here was quickly narrowed down this offseason thanks to the transfers for Hayden Rettig (Rutgers) and Stephen Rivers (Vanderbilt), who saw the writing on the wall. The buzz around Harris increasingly makes him appear to be LSU's future at the position.
Miami: Kevin Olsen vs. Jake Heaps. Senior Ryan Williams was expected to be the frontrunner to replace Stephen Morris, but a torn ACL in April rules him out for the beginning of the season, at minimum. The next natural step would be Olsen, a redshirt freshman who was a four-star recruit in the class of 2013. However, Miami brought in competition in graduate transfer Jake Heaps, a Washington native who has slowly made his way east across the country, starting 16 games at BYU from 2010-11 and nine at Kansas last season before falling out of favor with coach Charlie Weis. With Williams attempting to return during the season, we'll more than likely see at least two Miami quarterbacks get significant snaps in the fall. (Update: On Friday, WTVJ in Miami reported that Olsen will be suspended for the season opener against Louisville because of a positive drug test, likely opening the door for Heaps to become the starter for his third FBS team.)
TCU: Matt Joeckel vs. Trevone Boykin. Even with the return of Casey Pachall from his off-the-field problems last season, TCU foundered on offense, ranking 105th in yards per play. With Pachall gone, the natural heir apparent was Boykin, who had to rush into the lineup to replace him when Pachall was suspended in 2012. Boykin did a bit of everything last season, attempting 176 passes, rushing for 313 yards and seven touchdowns and catching 26 passes for 204 yards. He may end up playing that slash role again, thanks to the addition of Joeckel, a senior graduate transfer from Texas A&M who played in an offense similar to the Air Raid that new coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham will install for the Horned Frogs.
Tennessee: Justin Worley vs. Joshua Dobbs vs. Nathan Peterman. While Tennessee has loaded up on exciting young skill players (sophomore wideout Marquez North, true freshman running back Jalen Hurd, true freshman wideout Josh Malone) it faces a major obstacle this season in finding a steady quarterback behind an entirely rebuilt offensive line. Riley Ferguson transferred, leaving three guys who played last year in Worley, Dobbs and Peterman. Both Dobbs and Peterman took the field before they were ready and struggled last year, meaning that Worley, a senior, appears to be the best option in terms of finding someone who can most adeptly handle an unsteady situation on the line.
Texas A&M: Kyle Allen vs. Kenny Hill. Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU, leaving the quarterback battle to two inexperienced but talented young players. Hill completed 16 passes in mop-up third-string duty as a true freshman and gives the Aggies a running threat who has spent a year learning the offense. Allen, meanwhile, was considered by many to be the top passer in the recruiting class of 2014, and he inserted himself into the discussion by enrolling early. Hill certainly didn't help himself in the spring, when he was suspended after a public intoxication arrest. Hill may bring the most Manziel-like qualities, but Allen may be best equipped to take advantage of Texas A&M's wealth of young receiving talent.
Vanderbilt: Johnny McCrary vs. Patton Robinette vs. Stephen Rivers. Robinette has the experience advantage, having started three games as a freshman, but he may have a hard time keeping hold of the job. McCrary, a redshirt freshman, was a four-star recruit in the class of 2013, and Rivers -- brother of Philip Rivers -- is a graduate transfer from LSU who further complicates matters. Whoever wins the job faces a pretty tough situation stepping into an offense that relied so heavily on wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
Virginia Tech: Michael Brewer vs. Mark Leal vs. Brenden Motley. The quarterback position gets a fresh start after the frustratingly inconsistent Logan Thomas era, but second-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has much to prove in reversing the fortunes of an offense that ranked 107th in yards per play last season. Motley, a sophomore who received a bizarre preseason ACC player of the year vote, unexpectedly moved past the senior Leal on the depth chart coming out of spring, but the spring battle may become an afterthought with the addition of Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, who has two years of eligibility remaining. A handful of freshmen, including Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin and Travon McMillian, are also in the mix.
Wisconsin: Joel Stave vs. Tanner McEvoy. Coach Gary Andersen said Stave and McEvoy will split snaps in camp, which is quite change from last season, when Stave started all fall while McEvoy made 27 tackles as a defensive back. McEvoy would give Wisconsin a more mobile option, and it's not like Stave has separated himself with his passing ability, given the inconsistent accuracy we've seen from him and the shoulder injury he dealt with in the spring. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with the typical role of a Wisconsin quarterback: handing the ball off to stud running backs. That's especially true given that the team's top four receivers, including Jared Abbrederis, are gone.
4. Hello, Leonard Fournette
He's been compared to Adrian Peterson. And Herschel Walker. And Michael Jordan. Now he gets to actually wear an LSU jersey. One of the most hyped football recruits in years has had that hype further bolstered by the comments of coach Les Miles, who made the Jordan comparison at SEC media days and even recently made sure to emphasize that, yes, Fournette got A's in his summer classes. Miles also claimed that the 230-pound true freshman from New Orleans is already the fastest or second-fastest player on the LSU team. So … no pressure.
While a pair of experienced rotational runners return to the LSU backfield in Terrace Magee and Kenny Hilliard, Fournette has a golden opportunity to take hold of the featured role that Jeremy Hill vacated. If Fournette gets acclimated quickly in camp (which opens Monday), expect Miles to show him off when the Tigers open with Wisconsin -- and an entirely new Badgers starting front seven -- in Houston on Aug. 30. This appears to be a perfect match of talent, opportunity and system. Now Fournette just has to prove it over the next few weeks.
5. Health Watch
While more bad injury news is inevitable over the next few weeks in preseason camp, teams are already trying to rebuild from unexpected bad luck over the spring and the rest of the offseason. Perhaps the biggest surprise was at SEC media days, when Gus Malzahn revealed that promising sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson tore his ACL on May 1, putting his availability in doubt for the entire season. Auburn's defensive front still boats a lot of young talent, but now the Tigers are down both departed senior end Dee Ford, who had 10 ½ sacks, and Lawson, a five-star recruit who had four sacks as a true freshman. Auburn still has question marks in the secondary, and those problems will be magnified if the pass rush struggles to get up to speed. Additionally, Malzahn revealed on Friday that promising sophomore guard Alex Kozan -- a freshman All-America who started all 14 games last year -- will miss the season with a back injury, meaning the Tigers lose a second key piece of the offensive line along with first-round pick Greg Robinson.
Elsewhere, Penn State's already depleted offensive line in front of star sophomore QB Christian Hackenberg received a major blow when senior guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in March. Oregon, already trying to replace 1,100-yard wideout Josh Huff, lost junior Bralon Addison (61 catches, 890 yards) to a torn ACL in April. Alabama cornerback Eddie Jackson, a four-game starter at a vulnerable position for the Crimson Tide, tore his ACL in April, which could add even more pressure on touted true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to contribute early. And Michigan is hoping to get tight end Jake Butt back sometime in the middle of the season after he tore his ACL before spring practice began. Also, keep an eye on the status of Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery, who's confident but still up in the air for the beginning of the season (UC Davis, USC) after shoulder surgery.
6. Heightened Expectations
The release of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll featured three expected but still unusual names in the top 10: No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 10 Baylor. Neither Michigan State nor Baylor was even in last season's preseason top 25, while UCLA was 21st. Now, they all find themselves in somewhat new territory as expected national contenders.
With that attention comes a new paradigm: No longer will they sneak up on anyone. UCLA, led by top draft prospect Brett Hundley, is becoming a trendy playoff pick despite its brutal schedule that includes games away from home against Texas, Arizona State and Washington, plus home dates with USC, Stanford and Oregon. Michigan State, so often considered a Little Brother in the Big Ten, is now neck-and-neck with Ohio State at the top of the league after unexpectedly winning the Rose Bowl. As for Baylor, the Bears have experienced a meteoric rise under Art Briles, developing into one of the sport's most exciting offenses as they move into a beautiful new stadium at time in which they're the highest ranked team in the state of Texas entering the season. Increased expectations means more pressure and attention, we have to be careful not to overreact to sudden spikes in success.
7. Two-Way Players
Preseason practice won't necessarily give us clear pictures of how players might be used on both sides of the ball, but there are obvious candidates. UCLA's Myles Jack -- the Pac-12's offensive and defensive freshman of the year -- is a linebacker, first and foremost. But it's hard to imagine the Bruins won't have special packages for him on offense after he bailed them out when injuries struck late season, rushing 38 times for 267 yards and seven touchdowns. Seeing Jack's success, new Washington coach Chris Petersen -- known for his creativity, of course -- may try to duplicate it with his highly athletic linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson, a 228-pound junior, is Washington's leading returning tackler, but he was also a star running back in high school and may get some looks on offense this fall.
Jack and Thompson are already known quantities as college players. Now, we wait the Michigan debut of Jabrill Peppers, one of the nation's top recruits in the class of 2014. Peppers is slated to be a defensive player, with Brady Hoke indicating that he'll get a chance to play in nickel packages, but he has the type of enticing athleticism that could make him a multi-dimensional weapon for the Wolverines.
8. Doling Out Punishment
We're still awaiting a decision from Gus Malzahn on possible punishment for Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who received a marijuana possession citation just before SEC media days in July. (UPDATE: After Auburn's first practice on Friday, Malzahn revealed that Marshall simply won't get to start the opener against Arkansas, although he's expected to play. Basically, it may be similiar to the punishment of Johnny Manziel, who was suspended for the first half of last year's Texas A&M opener vs.Rice.) We already know Washington quarterback Cyler Miles will miss an opening trip to Hawaii. Oklahoma true freshman running back Joe Mixon has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations that he punched a woman. LSU defensive back Jalen Mills was suspended indefinitely in June pending a second-degree battery investigation. Florida State receiver Jesus Wilson, who is currently suspended indefinitely, pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors after a scooter theft. Georgia and Clemson are still trying to make sure they can field teams when they play each other on Aug. 30. Inevitably, we know there will be more off-the-field trouble to come.
Perhaps most notably, new Texas coach Charlie Strong has set about changing the culture in Austin, dismissing a handful of players headlined by running backs Jalen Overstreet and Joe Bergeron. He also took an admirably hard stance on the sexual assault charges of Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander. Texas fell pretty fast in Mack Brown's final years, and Strong understandably is taking an aggressive approach in trying to mold the program the way he sees fit.
9. Last-Minute Additions
For all the injuries and dismissals in the offseason, some rosters continue to grow as players get their degrees in the summer and decide to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule -- as mentioned, Jake Heaps at Miami and Stephen Rivers at Vanderbilt expand their new teams' quarterback pools.
Former blue-chip recruit Dee Hart revealed on Thursday that he is transferring from Alabama to spend his senior season playing running back at Colorado State, where he'll reunite with coach Jim McElwain, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator from 2008-11. Hart hasn't rushed for more than 100 yards in a season and had a troubled Crimson Tide career with knee injuries and off-the-field issues, but he has a chance to win a role for a Mountain West contender that saw juco transfer Kapri Bibbs rush for 1,741 yards, then leave for the NFL after only one season. Also of note recently, Texas A&M's already problematic defense took a big hit when senior defensive end Gavin Stansbury was dismissed, then announced he'd transfer to Houston, potentially bolstering a Cougars team that may be a prime contender for the Group of Five's automatic bid to a major bowl.
Oklahoma fans shouldn't get their hopes up, but we are still waiting for answers to NCAA petitions for Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield -- who opened last season as a true freshman starter for Texas Tech -- and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham -- a Missouri star who was dismissed form the team for off-the-field issues. Green-Beckham has no real reason to be ruled eligible, but no NCAA decision has ever been a sure thing.
10. Playoff Positioning
We're still nearly two months away from then first selection committee rankings for the College Football Playoff, but much of the offseason discourse has focused on conference perception and strength as coaches and commissioners jockey for position in the minds of the committee members. All 14 ACC teams are trying to take ownership of Florida State's national championship, ignoring the fact that, based on depth, there is no legitimate argument to place the league higher than third (behind the SEC and Pac-12) in the current national pecking order. The American Athletic -- which is essentially morphed into the old Conference USA -- is trying to claim that it's a power conference. Pac-12 coaches aren't happy about the SEC's decision to stick to eight conference games. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson took a shot at the lack of a conference title game in the Big 12. Everyone continues to try to bait Bob Stoops into bashing the SEC, which he'll willingly do.
None of this is going to end anytime soon, especially as we head toward the first playoff, a time when no conference wants to get left out (even though at least one of the major ones will, by design) and no conference wants to see someone else get multiple bids. Interconference bickering is only going to get worse, with so many unknowns in a time in which there are not yet any existing playoff precedents.