Forde-Yard Dash 1Q: Four playoff picks and four bold predictions for 2017

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (panic buttons sold separately in Corvallis):

Welcome to a new season, and with it a new format for this column. Hopefully this isn’t the UConn-Paul Pasqualoni hire of editorial alterations. We’ll see how it goes.

In an effort to get information to the readership more quickly and in shorter, more easily digestible quantities, The Dash will be coming to you this year in four quarters. (Get it? Football theme. OK, hold your applause.)

It will basically be published 10 points at a time, across a quartet of installments, each of them in the neighborhood of 800-1,200 words. That means you can start getting your Dash fix on Sunday nights and throughout the day Monday, instead of waiting for it all to arrive on Tuesdays.

In the end it will all add up to the usual Forde-Yard Dash, with links to each quarter for handy navigation. The Dash will not leave you shortchanged.

Feedback is, of course, always welcome (fordesports@yahoo.com).

Now on to the football:

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

Teams The Dash expects to see in the College Football Playoff bracket come Selection Sunday, Dec. 3:

Alabama (1). What, you were expecting Kansas? You can’t have a playoff without houndstooth – the Crimson Tide has made all three editions to date. While there has been turnover and tumult on defense (six new starters, a high-profile arrest and a projected starter was shot in the leg), Nick Saban’s team is gifted offensively. Alabama has the best running backs in the nation (Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and so on and so forth), an All-American wide receiver (Calvin Ridley) and a quarterback who should be significantly improved as a passer (Jalen Hurts). With new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll calling plays, those running backs should be sufficiently fed the football. (Exclusive rights to “Run the damn ball, Lane,” pleas has been sold by ‘Bama fans to Florida Atlantic.) Then there is this: with Alabama voodoo specialist Hugh Freeze unemployed, no current SEC coach has beaten the Tide since the Kick Six epic of 2013. Key non-conference game: Saturday against Florida State in Atlanta. Key conference game: at Auburn on Nov. 25. Strength of schedule: Not an issue.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban talks with the media on Thursday, Aug. 24. (AP)

USC (2). The Dash is riding with delightfully entertaining Sam Darnold. Of course, so is everyone else – the bandwagon has become bloated since that scintillating Rose Bowl performance against Penn State. But Darnold doesn’t have to do it all himself, with a 1,000-yard running back alongside. New playmakers must emerge at receiver, but the Trojans have recruited very well at that position. Defensively, USC returns five players who made more than 50 tackles last year. Key non-conference game: at Notre Dame, Oct. 21. Key conference game: Stanford on Sept. 9. Strength of schedule: With Texas, Notre Dame and nine league games, USC is fine in that category (although Oregon State immediately started dragging that down Saturday).

Ohio State (3). The Dash is convinced that the diminution of the Buckeyes’ passing game is reversible, and that new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is the guy to reverse it. A unit that threw for 152 yards or fewer in six games last season will be better coached and schemed, while still retaining the ability to run with authority. And with a defense that should be hell on wheels in the front seven, Ohio State isn’t going to have to outscore many opponents. Key non-conference game: Oklahoma on Sept. 9. Key conference game: Penn State on Oct. 28. Strength of schedule: Might be down a little from last year with Wisconsin off the slate, but still should be sufficient for playoff inclusion.

Oklahoma State (4). It all starts with turnover margin. Five times in the last seven years, the Cowboys have won at least 10 games – and in those five seasons they were a combined plus-72 turnovers. The two less successful seasons (one 8-5, one 7-6), they were a combined minus-eight. So it helps that quarterback Mason Rudolph is fabulously fastidious with the ball – just four interceptions last year in 448 attempts. That’s one every 112 passes, a ratio topped only by Miami Ohio’s Gus Ragland (who played just seven games). Rudolph also has a 2,000-yard receiving tandem and a 1,100-yard running back to work with. If underrated defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer patches a few holes, the Pokes can win the Big 12. Key non-conference game: at Pittsburgh on Sept. 16. Key conference game: Oklahoma on Nov. 4. Strength of schedule: Ehhhh. Oklahoma State would benefit from Pitt and Tulsa having strong seasons, but it may need to beat Oklahoma twice to break into the bracket.

FOUR BOLD PREDICTIONS

Northwestern (5) will win the Big Ten West, continuing the school’s revenue-sport annus mirabilis. Clayton Thorson is improving at quarterback (though he will miss safety blanket Austin Carr). Justin Jackson is an unsung star at running back, and playing behind a veteran line. Safety Godwin Igwebuike leads an experienced defense. Yes, the Wildcats must visit prime West competitors Wisconsin and Nebraska – but they beat both on the road two years ago. Send the purple to Indy (then avert your eyes when Ohio State gets hold of them).

Josh Adams (6) will be Notre Dame’s most viable Heisman Trophy candidate since Manti Te’o. If Brian Kelly gives him the ball enough. Kelly’s seven previous Fighting Irish teams have never run for more yards than they’ve passed – but you wonder if that might change this season, given the inexperience at QB, the talent on the offensive line (particularly the left side) and the gifts of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Adams. If he gets 20 carries per game, he’ll have a big year.

The Atlantic Coast Conference (7) will cannibalize itself right out of the playoff. Florida State, Clemson and Louisville will take turns knocking each other off. Improved North Carolina State is going to score a big victory or two. Syracuse will shock someone in the Carrier Dome. Wake Forest will drag a good team into a close game – and actually finish the deal this year. Miami will have a good season and win the Coastal – then lose to a multi-loss Atlantic champion in the ACC title game.

Lane Kiffin (8) will make us pay attention to Florida Atlantic football for the first time since the mid-Schnellenberger. Not because he’ll win a big game, or many games at all. Because he will do something so stupid or smarmy that America will not be able to avert its gaze.

OPENING WEEK OVERREACTIONS

There were five low-wattage games played Saturday. That’s enough for The Dash to make a couple of sweeping proclamations:

The Mountain West (9) is mounting a comeback. The league has been in decline on the national scale for a few years, but Saturday looks like it could be the start of something big. Colorado State’s 31-point beatdown of Oregon State was a startling result that got the ball rolling. Hawaii pulled out a win at Massachusetts, its first non-conference road victory since 2011. San Jose State took a stunning, 16-0 lead on ranked South Florida before reality hit. All told, 11 MWC teams have a returning starter at quarterback, led by Wyoming’s Josh Allen – a likely high NFL draft pick. Four MWC teams play a Power Five opponent this week: CSU vs. Colorado; Wyoming at Iowa; Utah State at Wisconsin; Nevada at Northwestern. All difficult games, but the big boys better be ready.

Stanford may not miss Christian McCaffrey. Say hello to Bryce Love (10), and perhaps a re-energized Cardinal passing attack. The 62 points Stanford hung on Rice was its most in a game since 2013. Love ran for 180 yards on just 13 carries, and although he doesn’t have McCaffrey’s all-around versatility, he looks like a guy who can be the centerpiece of the offense. But don’t short-change the Cardinal quarterbacks, three of whom combined to throw for 369 yards – Stanford’s highest single-game passing yardage since 2011, when Andrew Luck was slinging it. Then again, maybe Rice is just an atrocious team.

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