SN Debate Team: Top non-QB Heisman threat, winningest first-year coach, best September game and more

Week Zero is just over the horizon, so we felt like it was time to bang around some preseason topics at the Sporting News office. The Debate Team has gathered to discuss the Heisman, first-year coaches and transfer QBs.

There should also be some intriguing conference races to track, plus we have a loaded September full of prime-time matchups to get the season up to speed quickly. Away we go.

Which non-QB will finish highest in Heisman race?

Bill Bender: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas 

Najee Harris scored 50 TDs the last two years with Steve Sarkisian as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Now Sarkisian goes to Texas, where he has a super-talented sophomore running back who averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman and was a reliable pass-catcher, too. I’m all in on Robinson putting up huge numbers against Big 12 defenses. Robinson could have a season like D’Onta Foreman in 2016, but this would get more Heisman attention.

Mike DeCourcy: Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

I want to say Chris Olave, because he brings it every game and it’s impressive that he chose to run it back for his senior year with the Buckeyes. But OSU tends to spread out its catches over so many elite wide receivers that Olave might struggle to get Heisman-eye-catching numbers. Hall will not. The only question is how much work the Cyclones choose to present to Hall, and how well his line blocks for him.

Bill Trocchi: Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson

The Heisman is made for Hollywood stories, right? Ross missed all of 2020 not because of COVID-19, but a discovery of a congenital fusion in his spine that required surgery. It was uncertain whether he would resume his career, but Ross was cleared to play just before the season, and has a chance to put up some video-game numbers if quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei lives up to the hype. He had 865 yards and 8 TDs two years ago as a No. 2 WR behind Tee Higgins.

Which first-year coach will have the most wins?

Bender: Gus Malzahn, UCF

UCF was 35-4 from 2017-19 before finishing 6-4 in 2020 with Josh Heupel. Gus Malzahn takes over after yearly hot seat temperature checks in Auburn, and his offense should be a fit for the Knights and quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The non-conference schedule features matchups against Boise State and Louisville, and that won’t be easy. But Malzahn will have more success in the AAC than the crop of first-year coaches in the SEC, which includes Heupel at Tennessee and Bryan Harsin at Auburn. Can we get UCF against an SEC school in bowl season?

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DeCourcy: Malzahn

He steps into a sweet situation with Dillon Gabriel to run the show at QB, a variety of veteran options around him and an intact offensive line to protect him. He’s got seven home games, including the rivalry game against USF. It wouldn’t surprise me if he pushed double-digits in his first lap around the American. The challenge will be in the future, whether he can avoid the Tuberville trap – failing to understand that recruiting to this league takes actual work and not simply phoning it in for a comfortable paycheck.

Trocchi: Steve Sarkisian, Texas

No, Texas is not a top 10 program and hasn’t been for quite some time, but there is no reason to believe the Horns won’t win 9-10 games this season, and that should be good enough to win this Texas-Auburn-UCF race. Oklahoma and Iowa State will be stiff challenges, but Texas should be favored in every other game this season. Bijan Robinson is a nice safety net for a first-year coach.

RELATED: SEC getting one superpower from Big 12, not two

Which transfer quarterback will get the most wins as a starter?

Bender: Charlie Brewer, Utah

Charlie Brewer takes over at Utah for a program that has enjoyed seven straight winning seasons in the Pac-12. Brewer was a four-year starter at Baylor. He’s experienced, doesn’t turn the ball over often and offers more in the running game than it seems. He should fit in well for the Utes, who are trying to get back to the top of the Pac-12 South Division. Notre Dame’s Jack Coan is probably a better answer here, but Brian Kelly’s propensity to swap quarterbacks is a factor in my decision.

DeCourcy: Brewer

How nice it would be to say McKenzie Milton with some degree of confidence. Hard to imagine anyone deserving it more, after what he went through with his 2018 leg injury. He hasn’t played since then, however, and there’s not even a guarantee he wins the Florida State quarterback job. Brewer has a four-year track record as a starter at Baylor and he should continue to do well with the Utes.

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Trocchi: Jack Coan, Notre Dame

Reports from South Bend have been positive regarding Coan in the spring and the early parts of fall camp. The graduate transfer from Wisconsin started 18 games for the Badgers before a foot injury cost him his entire 2020 season. ND’s offense is built on a solid offensive line, an explosive back in Kyren Williams and a stud tight end in Michael Mayer. Coan should retain the job and lead the Irish to 9-10 wins.

What conference race will be the most fun?

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Bender: Big 12

The Big Ten and ACC have no drama, the SEC still revolves around Alabama and the Pac-12 hasn’t had a playoff team since 2016. The Big 12 is the best answer. What if this is the last dance for Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12? That automatically makes this the most-intriguing race in a top-heavy landscape. Will the Sooners stumble on the way out after winning six straight conference titles, perhaps to a loaded Iowa State team that brought everybody back? How will fellow Texas schools TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech say goodbye to Texas? We can’t wait for Bedlam either; especially if this is the last installment.

DeCourcy: Pac-12

What so many in college football are missing – and, curiously, seem to be content to miss – is how exciting conference races would be if there were an automatic playoff bid at the end of the rainbow. A competition with a lot of potential winners is inherently more interesting than one with a single expected outcome. (Yes, here comes Alabama in the SEC. Again. Here comes Clemson in the ACC. Again and Again and Again). The problem with the “fun” in the Pac-12 is if it winds up with the winner owning three losses (or more), the champion will be dismissed by the people who follow the sport and those on the CFP committee. The game loses there.

RELATED: USC takes the title and more Pac-12 predictions

Trocchi: Pac-12

It is a two-team race in the North with Oregon and Washington, and a three-team race in the South with USC, Arizona State and Utah. All five should have their eyes on a spot in the championship game in Las Vegas. The biggest question is, can one team overcome the parity at the top of the league and finally break through to the CFB Playoff? The league is hoping so, which makes for even more storylines as the conference office is going to inevitably be (silently) pulling for one team over another late in the season to get that playoff berth..

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What is the best September game outside of Georgia-Clemson?

Bender: Oregon at Ohio State on Sept. 11

It’s the only matchup between Power 5 league champions from last season, and the high-noon spotlight should come with the first full stadium at The Shoe since the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a statement game for both teams. Ohio State will be breaking in a new quarterback around a ridiculous group of receivers, and Oregon can prove it belongs back at the big-boy table. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are just a few of the future first-round picks that will be on the field.

DeCourcy: Cincinnati at Indiana on Sept. 18

Ever since the Bearcats finished the truncated 2020 regular season with a 9-0 record and completed the year by outplaying Georgia in the Peach Bowl before folding in the end, the Bearcats have been presented as a possible breakthrough team for the 2021 CFP. Now, we all know there is no such thing as a breakthrough team in the invitational that passes for a championship playoff in this sport; it’s restricted to brand-name schools only. But if the Bearcats were able to travel to Bloomington and take down an Indiana squad that is ranked in the preseason top 20 (and then later pull off a road win at Notre Dame), it’ll at least keep the debate alive.

Trocchi: Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame on Sept. 25

This matchup at Soldier Field is going to be flat-out amazing. You’ve got the whole Jack Coan storyline, as the ND quarterback faces his old team. You’ve got Chicago’s college football team (sorry Northwestern and Illinois) taking the stage on Lakeshore Drive. If both teams can get by opening-week testers against Penn State (for Wisconsin) and Florida State (for ND), we should have two top 10 teams. I’m expecting a cloudless sky, brats for breakfast for the 11 am local time kickoff and a knockdown-dragout affair worthy of the NFC North.