One of the best things about college football is the diversity of the offenses and the different viewing experiences. Styles of play, skill level and tempo vary so much from team to team, among 130 FBS squads, and every conference features at least a few exciting teams that have a knack for playing entertaining football. There is never a truly dull Saturday, because certain teams have inherent entertainment value attached to them, and almost every game is on TV these days.
Are you looking for reliable sources of entertainment? These are the most watchable teams from each conference to pay close attention to in 2017.
The ACC will undergo a quarterback transition in 2017. Clemson will still be fun, but it has to say goodbye to Deshaun Watson and will surely have some growing pains on offense. Mitch Trubisky, Nathan Peterman, Brad Kaaya, Justin Thomas and Jerod Evans are all gone from the ACC Coastal. But not everyone loses their QB, and there is one clear answer here: the returning Heisman Trophy winner. Louisville, despite its late-season slide, is the most fun team to watch in the ACC, because Lamar Jackson is the most entertaining player to watch in all of college football. Forget the Heisman backlash; Jackson had 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards and 51 total touchdowns in a spectacular, Heisman-worthy season in which he didn’t always get enough help from his offensive line and receivers.
The Louisville offense will have to deal with a lot of turnover, losing the top three receivers and tailback Brandon Radcliff, but Jackson is an electrifying talent, an explosive runner with a strong arm who should continue to get more comfortable as a passer in his third year in Bobby Petrino’s system. Defense may rule the ACC this year, because of all the quarterback turnover, but Louisville still gets to deploy its Heisman winner, who’s a highlight-creating machine and sparked an offense that scored 42.5 points per game and averaged 7.2 yards per play. Jackson has made every Louisville game a must-watch.
Big Ten: Penn State
No team has transformed more over the past year than Penn State. In James Franklin’s first two seasons, the offense dealt with constant frustration, due in part to a lack of depth as a result of scholarship restrictions. The Nittany Lions ranked 78th and 121st in yards per play those two seasons, giving up a total of 83 sacks. Then, Franklin brought in Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to run the offense. They improved depth on the offensive line. And they switched to a more mobile quarterback in Trace McSorley. After some early trouble, the Penn State offense took flight in the second half of the season, leading to a surprise Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, which proved to be one of the most entertaining games in years. The Lions scored 37.6 points per game, and no Power Five team had a higher percentage of its plays go for 30-plus yards, as they boasted a big-play tailback in Saquon Barkley and a fearless downfield passing game in which McSorley averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, frequently connecting with the Lions’ rangy, athletic receivers on long balls. This was all part of Penn State’s sudden reputation for scoring bursts and comebacks.
Now? Nearly everybody from 2016’s most entertaining team is back, include the nation’s best running back in Barkley and the nation’s best tight end in Mike Gesicki, plus McSorley, a promising receiving corps and what will be the best Penn State offensive line in several years. Perhaps the Lions won’t hit as many of the deep passes that McSorley completed last year, but Barkley will be running behind a better line and McSorley will be better protected. With Moorhead back calling the plays, this team is well-equipped to compete for another Big Ten title and will continue to put on a show, even if last year’s flair for the dramatic will be tough to match.
Big 12: Oklahoma State
An offense that can match Texas Tech, but with a defense that will be capable of getting occasional stops. The Cowboys could be as dangerous as anybody in the country on offense thanks to the presence of senior quarterback Mason Rudolph, a rising star tailback in sophomore Justice Hill and the nation’s best receiving corps. Rudolph is coming off a season in which he threw for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions, and he’s throwing to a group that includes All-American James Washington (19.4 yards per catch), plus Jalen McCleskey, Marcell Ateman (returning from injury), Chris Lacy and touted LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. It’s a wealth of talent, and Oklahoma State’s running game has been reinvigorated by the dynamic Hill, as well.
Last year, Oklahoma State played five games in which both teams scored over 30 points, and it’s bound to have another highly entertaining season with an offense that should be even better after finishing 12th in yards per play and averaging 38.6 points per game. Few teams are more explosive and more capable of connecting for big plays, and the Big 12 always provides plenty of opportunities for dramatic shootouts.
Pac-12: Washington State
With Sam Darnold, USC showed in the Rose Bowl that it can be as entertaining as anybody. Washington is creative and fun with a lot of talent. Oregon’s defense has a long way to go, but it is loaded on offense. In fact, it’s very tempting to pick Ducks, who have a promising young QB in Justin Herbert, a fantastic group of running backs and a coach, Willie Taggart, coming off an entertaining season at South Florida. But it’s hard to know what will happen in Year 1 after a coaching change, and it’s hard to ever go wrong with picking a Mike Leach team with a prolific veteran quarterback.
Washington State hasn’t made a ton of big plays with Luke Falk at quarterback, but he completed 70 percent of his passes for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. This is still a pass-happy Air Raid offense, and Falk has thrown for 10,888 yards in his career. Falk will be well-protected behind this offensive line, and while Gabe Marks is gone, Leach offenses always have a plethora of capable receivers. It’s Leach; it’s Washington State. It’s probably going to be on late at night, and it’s probably going to be a lot of fun. Grab your popcorn.
– Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 17, 2016
This is perhaps the hardest answer, particularly because the SEC East has been so dull and because Alabama’s dominance doesn’t mean it qualifies for this list. Mississippi State will be entertaining with Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback. Ole Miss will be entertaining with a crafty promising star at quarterback Shea Patterson. Given Auburn’s post-Nick Marshall trouble on offense, it’s hard to feel totally confident in answering with the Tigers here. Still, Malzahn has built plenty of entertaining teams in the past, and the hope is that he has the quarterback to make this offense roll again now that Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham has arrived.
Stidham is strong-armed and skilled, and he’s joined in the backfield by overpowering but nimble star tailback Kamryn Pettway, plus another dangerous runner in Kerryon Johnson. With what should be an improved receiving corps, Auburn has a lot of pieces in place for Stidham to jumpstart this offense after it slipped as low as 86th in yards per play in 2015. It wasn’t too long ago that Auburn had one of the most entertaining seasons ever. While this team will look different than that 2013 squad with Stidham instead of Marshall, there’s hope of recapturing the explosive, high-tempo identity Malzahn had been known for.
American: South Florida
Charlie Strong’s offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, was associated with some explosive offenses under Dino Babers and Philip Montgomery, and Gilbert will be calling the plays for an offense set up to succeed despite the departures of coach Willie Taggart and tailback Marlon Mack. At the start of the Taggart era, USF was unwatchable, but it found its groove the past couple years with Quinton Flowers at quarterback. Flowers is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 1,530 yards and 18 TDs, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. The Bulls finished sixth in yards per play and fourth in scoring, and they had a knack for big plays, particularly on the ground. Even without Mack and top receiver Rodney Adams, this is a veteran offense with a dynamic quarterback, making the Bulls both a highly watchable team and a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl spot after they finished last season ranked 19th in the AP poll.
Conference USA: Middle Tennessee
Surprisingly, this is as tough of a decision as there is. That’s because, by picking Middle Tennessee, we’re snubbing Western Kentucky — arguably the most entertaining team in all of college football last season. There’s little doubt that the Hilltoppers will continue to be fun to watch, and everyone in the conference is still chasing them even as they transition from the Jeff Brohm era to the Mike Sanford era. But combine the coaching change with the losses of two receivers who combined for over 3,000 yards (Taywan Taylor, Nicholas Norris) and a 1,600-yard rusher (Anthony Wales), and some sort of step back in offensive production is likely.
Meanwhile, there’s little doubt that Middle Tennessee will also be fun with the combination of junior quarterback Brent Stockstill (son of head coach Rick Stockstill), junior receiver Richie James and innovative offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Stockstill has passed for 7,267 yards and 61 touchdowns in two seasons. James has nearly 3,000 receiving yards in two seasons. And last year, the Blue Raiders averaged 39.7 points per game. When Stockstill was injured against Florida Atlantic, they shifted James to wildcat quarterback … and he rushed for 207 yards in a 77-56 win. Western Kentucky beat MTSU 44-43 last October, and it’s a good bet that they will play another thriller that could decide the Conference USA East on Nov. 17. While the Blue Raiders do have to replace tailback I’Tavius Mathers and some linemen, the offense will be explosive with Stockstill and James now attaining seasoned-veteran status.
Mountain West: New Mexico
Continue to forget all of your perceptions about Bob Davie when he was Notre Dame’s head coach. Davie has done a fantastic job with the Lobos, embracing an explosive running offense that led the nation in both yards per carry (6.6) and yards per game (350) last season, when they went 9-4 for their best season in nearly a decade. They have a veteran quarterback in Lamar Jordan, and while they lose top rusher Teriyon Gipson, they have three players who ran for over 650 yards last year, plus solid experience on the offensive line. The Lobos are in a tough Mountain West Mountain Division that should be entertaining as a whole, with star QBs in Boise State’s Brett Rypien and Wyoming’s Josh Allen, a potentially dangerous Colorado State offense and Air Force’s option attack. So, yes, nearly this entire division would be a good answer here, but New Mexico exists as a wild card that is capable of piling up yards and springing upsets, making the Lobos intriguing to follow.
Sadly, college football fans don’t get to enjoy Kareem Hunt anymore. (Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs.) But the Rockets are the likely favorite for their first MAC title since 2004 behind quarterback Logan Woodside and a terrific offense that also features a star receiver in Cody Thompson. Woodside threw for 4,129 yards and 45 TDs, and Toledo finished fifth in yards per play. Remember, this is the team that lost that wild 55-53 Friday night game at BYU (the one where Mack Brown left the broadcast booth early). Even with six starters gone from the offense, this is going to be a fun squad that will provide us with plenty of midweek November entertainment.
Sun Belt: Idaho
The real answer here? Maybe Appalachian State, a highly competent and efficient team that could give a lot of Power Five teams problems. But let’s hold out hope for an Idaho Vandals revenge tour. New Mexico State and Idaho are both entering their last season in the Sun Belt. New Mexico State will stay in the FBS as an independent; Idaho is dropping to the FCS. It may be unwanted in the Sun Belt, but Idaho is coming off its first nine-win season since 1998, one that ended with a thrilling 61-50 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over Colorado State. The Vandals return their entire backfield, including a stellar quarterback in Matt Linehan. They need to make more big plays, but they have a talented a QB, they had several high-scoring games in the second half of last season and, well, there’s never a bad time to tune into a game at the wondrous Kibbie Dome.
– Jay Tust (@KTVBSportsGuy) December 23, 2016
Maybe it’s unrepeatable, but BYU has a knack for playing in tight games. While it may be hard to stomach for Cougars fans, it’s been thrilling for everyone else. Last year, the Cougars’ first five games were decided by a field goal or less, including the 55-53 win over Toledo. They also beat Mississippi State in double OT, lost to Boise State by one and beat Wyoming in a bowl by three. In total, they played eight games decided by a touchdown or less. Now, they turn back to Tanner Mangum at quarterback, and he’s been known to participate in dramatic plays, too.