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Keeney’s Korner: Texans hope for a full season from Watson

Mike Keeney

Aggie fans hopeful Fisher is right man for job

By Mike Keeney

Welcome back football, we’ve missed you!

The 2018 season is right around the corner and while baseball is still the talk of the town thanks to the Astros, football will always be king in these parts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big of an Astros fan as there is in this area, and am hopeful for another long playoff run in the fall, but injuries and a tepid offense has made things more difficult this time around. Heck, they may not even win their division. The Oakland A’s are breathing down their necks and are the hottest team in baseball. It would help to get Jose Altuve and George Springer back in the lineup (both are out with injuries) and get Carlos Correra’s bat going.

But enough about baseball. It’s time to turn our attention to the 2018 football season and what story lines we will be following this year.

In college football, all eyes will be on first-year Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, who was lured away from Florida State last December to be the savior Aggie fans have been looking for for decades. The Aggies handed Fisher $75 million to make the Aggies relevant in college football toughest conference, the Southeastern Conference and give Nick Saban and Alabama run for their money. Aggie fans are sick and tired of finishing in fourth place in the rugged SEC West and Fisher just might be the man to get them over the hump.

Fisher has the pedigree to get the job done as evidenced by his 83-23 (78% winning percentage) record in eight years in Tallahassee. For those keeping score, that’s an average of 10 wins a year. He also won the 2013 national championship, is a great offensive coach and more importantly, an excellent recruiter. The Aggies will be better in 2018, but once he gets his type of player in College Station (he currently has a top five recruiting class for 2019 in place) look for A&M to be a yearly contender for the SEC title, even with Saban still around prowling the sidelines in Tuscaloosa.

Aggie fans should have a pretty good idea of what sort of season will be in store for them early when they host a very talented Clemson team on Sept. 8 at Kyle Field. If the Aggies can compete with the Tigers, the turnaround could come quicker than some people think. Two weeks later, the Aggies play at Alabama.

Former head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is now the head coach at Arizona, left Fisher with some decent talent. He has two good quarterbacks in Kellen Mond (117-227, 1,375 yards, 6 TD passes) and Nick Starkel (123-205, 1,793 yards, 14 TD passes). Mond is the better runner and Fisher likes his quarterbacks to be mobile, but the new head coach has yet to name a starter. The running game will be in the capable hands of Trayveon Williams (798 yards rushing, 8 TDs).

While A&M fans are optimistic about their future, University of Texas fans are hoping this is the year their high-priced coach starts paying off. Tom Herman was hired away from the University of Houston two years ago to turn around a mediocre UT program and while his first year wasn’t all that, they did finish with a winning record (7-6) and won a bowl game. Herman expects his team to contend for the Big 12 title this year, but that’s asking a lot for a team with a huge question mark at the game’s most important position, namely quarterback. UT returns two experienced signal callers in junior Shane Buechele (137-213, 1,405 yards, 7 TD passes) and sophomore Sam Ehlinger (158-275, 1,915 yards, 11 TD passes). Ehlinger is the better athlete, but he had turnover problems last year. If he does a better job of protecting the ball, he should win the job and that should open up things for the UT offense. Texas has a veteran offensive line, but is looking for help in the running game. The Texas defense should be very good, and may have to carry the team early while Herman sorts things out on offense. Texas fans should get a pretty good idea of how much their team has improved when they host USC Sept 8 in Austin. A win over the Trojans could give the ‘Horns a huge shot of confidence as they look to make waves in the Big 12 against the likes of Oklahoma, TCU and West Virginia.

Offense will once again rule in the Big 12. Defending conference champ Oklahoma lost its starting quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, but the OU offense should be fine this year with former Aggie Kyler Murray (142 yards rushing, 359 yards passing, 3 TD passes) running things. Murray will get a lot of help from running back Rodney Anderson (1,161 yards passing, 18 total TDs in 2017) and the defense will once again be solid.

TCU should also contend for the Big 12 title. The Horned Frogs will have an inexperienced quarterback in Shawn Robinson, so look for running back Darius Anderson 768 yards rushing, 8 TDs) to carry the offensive load until Robinson gets comfortable running the offense.

West Virginia could be scary good on offense with the return of quarterback Will Grier (3,490 yards passing, 34 TD passes) and outstanding wide receivers in Gary Jennings (97 receptions, 1,096 yards, 1 TD) and David Sills V (60 receptions, 980 yards, 18 TDs).

Texas Tech might have a say as well. This could be a make or break year for popular head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Things could be topsy turvey in Lubbock this year, as the defense returns 10 starters and played well down the stretch, but the offense might struggle with an inexperienced signal caller. It’s been years since the Red Raiders had a question mark at QB, but they do this year as little known McLane Carter and Jeff Duffey battle for the job. It’s a good thing Tech has an experienced and talented offense line returning to take pressure off the two inexperienced quarterbacks.

In the SEC, it appears Alabama will be the team to beat in the West and Georgia should roll through the East.

Nick Saban’s team is the defending national champs, but did not even make it to the SEC title game a year ago. Saban turned to his youngsters to pull off a 26-20 win over Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game as he benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts (2,081 yards passing, 17 TDs; 855 yards rushing, 8 TDs) after an ineffective first half and inserted Tua Tagovailoa, who ignited a second-half comeback to force the game into overtime. Tagovailoa threw the gamewinning touchdown pass in OT to hand Saban his fifth national title at Alabama (sixth overall) and begin a quarterback controversy that has yet to be settled.

It will be interesting to see whom Saban names as his starting QB and while he is at it he has to replace a boatload of talent on defense, but Crimson Tide fans need not worry, there is plenty of young talent on hand to pick up the slack. The ‘Bama offense, which returns a ton of talent, might be called on to carry this team early while the young defenders adjust to playing big time college football.

Mississippi State and Auburn could give ‘Bama a battle in the West. The Tigers won the West last year and beat up the Tide in their annual grudge match. They also return a pretty fair QB in Jarrett Stidham (3,158 yards passing, 18 TDs).

As stated earlier, Georgia should rule the East. The Bulldogs are loaded on both sides of the ball. Head coach Kirby Smart, who served as Saban’s defensive coordinator for a number of years, returns Jake Fromme (2,615 yards passing, 24 TDs) at quarterback and even though the Bulldogs lost two stellar back in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to the NFL, D’Andre Swift (618 yards, 3 TDs as a true freshman) should be ready to explode on the scene. Georgia also landed one of the country’s top quarterbacks in Justin Fields (6-3, 225 pounds) who will be waiting in the wings should Fromme falter.

In the Big 12, there’s more drama off the field than there is on it at the moment. Ohio State placed head coach Urban Meyer on paid administrative leave for his handling of an assistant coach’s domestic abuse allegations. The jury is out on whether or not Meyer will keep his job and that could be a huge distraction in Columbus. OSU is also breaking in a new quarterback in Dwayne Haskins, but they have one of the country’s top running backs in sophomore J.K. Dobbins (1,403 yards rushing, 7 TDs). Look for Penn State to be the team to beat in the Big 12 East. They have a veteran quarterback in Trace McSorley (3,570 yards, 28 TD passes), but must find a capable replacement for the NFL’s No. 2 pick, running back Saquon Barkley. PSU also has a favorable schedule as they get Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin at home.

Wisconsin should be the team to beat in the West as the Badgers return their starting quarterback in Alex Hornibrook (2,644 yards passing, 25 TD passes) and super-talented sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor (1,977 yards rushing, 13 TDs).

Clemson looks like the class of the ACC and could be scary good on defense. Dabo Swiney’s team has three defensive linemen who should be first round picks in the 2019 NFL draft. In 2018, Clemson was ranked fourth in the nation in defense and should be ever better this year. Look for quarterback Kelly Bryant (2,802 yards passing, 13 TDs; 665 yards rushing, 11 TDs) to be much improved in his second year as the Tigers starter.

All conference champions, and Notre Dame, will be vying for the four College Football Playoff spots that are up for grabs. The national semifinals will be played on Dec. 29. The Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will host the semis and the CFP title game will be played on Jan. 7 at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

While the 2018 college football season will culminate in California, the 2018 NFL season will play its ultimate game in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3.

The Philadelphia Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champs as they defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII behind back up quarterback Nick Foles (971 yards passing, 6 TDs and one interception in three playoff games).

Foles might have to start the season while reigning NFL MVP Carson Wentz (3,296 yards passing, 27 TDs in 13 games) recovers from an ACL injury. Foles proved he is a capable replacement and the Eagles should get by until Wentz returns.

Speaking of quarterbacks who are coming back from a knee injury, Houston Texan fans are hoping DeShaun Watson lasts an entire season after being limited to only seven games in 2018. Before Watson suffered his season-ending knee injury on Nov. 2, the rookie QB from Clemson wowed Texan fans and the rest of the NFL with 19 touchdown passes, two rushing touchdowns and 1,699 yards passing. Had he remained healthy, Watson was projected to throw 43 TD passes. I’d say the Texans have finally found a quarterback!

With wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (96 receptions, 1,378 yards receiving, an NFL best 13 TD receptions) hitting his stride, the Houston offense could be one of the best in the NFL this season. New General Manager Brian Gaine revamped the offensive line during the offseason and they will be a key to giving Watson the time he needs to connect with Hopkins and speedy and bulked up wide receiver Will Fuller.

Defensively, the Texans get defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus back from injuries. Their return should bring vast improvement to a defense that was one of the worst in the league in 2018. Watt and Mercilus will join with Jadeveon Clowney to form a formidable pass rush. The secondary was improved in the offseason with the signings of defensive backs Tyran Mathieu (formerly of Arizona) and Aaron Colvin (formerly with Jacksonville).

The Texans should be improved from last year’s 4-12 record, but they will have a tough go of it in a much-improved AFC South where Jacksonville is the team to beat. Still, I can see the Texans competing for a Wild Card slot.

Up I-45, Dallas Cowboy fans are hoping Ezekiel Elliott returns to his 2017 form to lead the way on offense. The multitalented Elliott was suspended for six games last year and when he was gone, so was the Dallas offense. In 10 games, Elliott rushed for 983 yards, scored 7 rushing touchdowns and grabbed two receiving touchdowns. His presence, and a healthy Dallas offensive line, could be a big boost to third-year quarterback Dak Prescott (3,324 yards passing, 23 TD passes). Prescott struggled with Elliott out, but should be ready for a bust out year now that he knows his speedy tailback is back for the full 16-game schedule.

Prescott will be without two huge offensive weapons this year as wide receiver Dez Bryant was let go in March and tight end Jason Witten retired to serve as the analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Witten might be the biggest loss for Prescott, who counted on the future Hall of Famer to be his security blanket on third downs. The Dallas receiving corps is new as the Cowboys traded for Tavin Austin and signed former Jaguar Allen Hurns. If the new additions mesh with Prescott, then the Dallas offense might be OK, but if they struggle, look for Elliott to get a ton of carries and be used as a receiver out of the backfield.

The 2018 NFL season should be an interesting one. Will this be Tom Brady’s final season? Will Aaron Rodgers return to former after suffering a broken collarbone in Week 7? Will Kirk Cousins (4,093 yards passing, 27 TDs for Washington in 2017) be the missing link for the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl? Will the Los Angeles Rams be the team to beat after the acquisitions they made on both sides of the ball during the offseason?

We shall see.

You have to figure Brady (4,577 yards passing, 32 TDs) will be focused to avenge last year’s loss in the Super Bowl. He and head coach Bill Belichick might not be the best of friends, but they are competitors and will want to lift a sixth Lombardi Trophy in February in Atlanta.

Rodgers (1,675 yards passing, 16 TDs in just 7 games) returns will be a huge lift for the Packers who upgraded their defense through free agency and in the draft. Look for Green Bay to give the Vikings all they can handle in the NFC North this year.

Speaking of the Vikings, Cousins should improve the offense to go with perhaps the best defense in the league. The return of running back Dalvin Cook, who was off to a nice start his rookie year before suffering a season-ending knee injury, should also bolster the Minnesota offense.

Out West, the LA Rams should be a force on offense behind quarterback Jared Goff (3,804 yards passing, 33 TDs) and Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley (1,305 yards rushing, 13 TDs, 64 receptions, 788 yards receiving, 6 TDs). They added speedy wide receiver Brandon Cooks (65 receptions, 1,082 yards receiving, 7 TDs) in the offseason to make the offense all the more explosive. The Rams also bolstered their defense by signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive backs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.

The NFC South should once again one of the toughest divisions in the league. Last year, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans all earned playoff spots. Look for another competitive race from those three again this year.

Speaking of the Saints, quarterback Drew Brees (4,334 yards passing, 23 TDs) is just 1,496 yards away from breaking Peyton Manning’s all-time yardage record and 51 touchdown passes away from breaking his all-time TD pass mark. Look for Brees, if he stays healthy, to break Manning’s passing mark this year and the touchdown mark in 2019.

It’s good to have football back and good to be able to share my thoughts and picks with you for another year. Speaking of picks, here are my fearless predictions for both the 2018 college and NFL seasons.

NCAA

ACC

Atlantic Division – Clemson

Coastal Conference – Miami

Conference Champion – Clemson

Big 10

East Division – Penn State

West Division – Wisconsin

Conference Champion – Wisconsin

Big 12

Conference Champion – Oklahoma (over West Virginia in Big 12 title game)

Pac 12

North Division – Washington

South Division – Arizona

Conference Champion – Washington

SEC

East Division – Georgia

West Division – Alabama

Conference Champion – Alabama

CFP Semifinals

Cotton Bowl – Alabama vs. Wisconsin

Orange Bowl – Clemson vs. Georgia

CFP Champion Alabama

NFL

AFC East – New England

AFC North – Pittsburgh

AFC West – Los Angeles

AFC South – Jacksonville

AFC Wild Cards – Houston and Baltimore

AFC Title Game – New England over Pittsburgh

NFC East – Philadelphia NFC North – Minnesota

NFC West – Los Angeles

NFC South – Atlanta

NFC Wild Cards – Dallas and Green Bay

NFC Title Game – Los Angeles over Philadelphia

Super Bowl LII – New England over Los Angeles

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