ESPN’s lead college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit participated in a media conference call today to discuss college football’s best kickoff week, as well as College GameDay’s first destination—Lambeau Field. Herbstreit will be live with the rest of the GameDay crew in Green Bay, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 3 (9 a.m. ET), before calling No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama (8 p.m. on ABC) that night from Arlington, Texas, and No. 11 Ole Miss vs No. 4 Florida State in Orlando, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 5 (8 p.m. on ESPN).
Transcript of the conference call is available below.
I’m down here in South Carolina, Deshaun Watson at Clemson looks like he’s poised for a big year. What are the challenges when somebody who may have only tangential been part of it, steps into that glare and spotlight? We saw a few years ago Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to have a big final year, and things didn’t work out as well as he wanted. What are some of the things you have to embrace to excel in that kind of spotlight?
Kirk Herbstreit: I think that’s a great question for a lot of the players that are back this year. Anytime you have a big freshman or sophomore year and you come back for your third year, you hear a lot of people talking about, just don’t get hurt and just get ready for the NFL, your lifelong dream. And while that is a big goal, obviously, and it should be for all these players, to me when you start worrying about things like that, that’s really when you hurt your own cause. Whether it’s going on to the NFL or helping your team win, I think the best thing to do is not forget what got you to that point. It was an attitude and approach that was selfless. It was not worrying about getting hurt.
In fact, Deshaun last year was coming off of an ACL, and probably pushed his rehab just to be able to try to get ready for those first couple games and maybe was a little bit ahead of schedule.
I remember early calling a few of their games, they were kind of protecting him a little bit, but he wanted to be out there. So I would be shocked if he changed his attitude and his approach because I just think that’s his DNA. That’s how he’s wired. I don’t think any agents or anybody’s going to be able to get to him and tell him to take it easy.
But you do see that happen from time to time. I personally think, as long as he focuses on the team goals and what they can accomplish this year, and that’s an important thing, then I think everything else will fall right into place.
I’m focusing on LSU-Wisconsin. One, was part of you hoping you were going to be at that game? And two, where’s LSU right now as a program considering how close Les got to being fired at the end of last season.
Kirk Herbstreit: I’m sorry — on the first part?
Were you hoping you were going to maybe be assigned to that game because it’s probably going to be spectacular?
Kirk Herbstreit: Oh, yeah, Game Day will be there, and I’m looking forward to being there for a couple of days, looking forward to just seeing — I’ve never been to Lambeau, so really looking forward to taking in the atmosphere. I would have loved to be able to stick around for the game, but as you know I’m flying to Dallas for the USC-Alabama game.
I think LSU for many people is kind of a very trendy pick. There are a lot of people with 17 or 18 starters back that feel that LSU is destined to win the SEC and get into the playoff and maybe win the national title.
I think if you look at them on paper, despite all the criticism and despite whatever Les Miles maybe faced a year ago, this team was sitting in a pretty good spot as they got ready for the month of November on their trip down to Tuscaloosa. They were, I think, number four in the country at that time. That kind of tells you what the state of their program was.
They lost to Alabama and they seemed to lose control and they lost three in a row. They bring almost everybody back from a year ago. The one question about them is are they going to be willing to open up their offense and be more balanced and be more multiple? Against many of the teams they play, they run the football with Fournette and that’s good enough and sometimes it’s not, and they have to be willing to kind of get teams off guard a bit with Brandon Harris, a veteran quarterback now and a great group of receivers.
That’s the one question mark people have about them is what will their quarterback do and what will the offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron do with this experienced group? Is he willing to use more of an imagination or will he be fairly conservative? Then of course, Dave Aranda comes over from Wisconsin, which adds a twist, I think, to this game as well.
They’re coming off a really bad year defensively. They gave up 24 a game, which is the worst, I think, since going back to the late ’90s. So they need to improve on that side of the ball too.
I’m covering Kentucky here in Lexington for the AJC, but basically in Lexington. Before Mark Stoops was fired at Kentucky, you were one of the only people to toss around his name as a candidate, even before he was fired. What did you see in him then, and what are realistic expectations for the Kentucky program now heading into its fourth year?
Kirk Herbstreit: Well, going back to, I guess five years ago, I just saw a very talented, experienced coordinator. I think getting away from his brother, Mike, who is at Arizona and he was the defensive coordinator and kind of getting out on his own and he ended up at Florida State and having a great deal of success. I knew what kind of leader he was. I knew what kind of recruiter he could be. I just thought if he finally got an opportunity to be his own guy, he would have a chance to do pretty well.
As we know, trying to get Kentucky to compete and be a consistent winner in the SEC East is very challenging. They’ve made some strides. But I know that that fan base would love to get to a bowl game and love to be more competitive in the SEC.
If you look at the team, I think the change at quarterback with Drew Barker taking over I think will help them. I think they really turn the ball over too much and they just seem to be a little bit out of sorts offensively.
So you have a new scheme, a new quarterback with Barker. They’re loaded in the back field with Kemp and Williams. So there’s a lot, I think, to be excited about offensively with, as I said, the new attack.
Then, this is a young defense. They’re not quite there as far as where they need to be on the defensive line, and they’re going to have to be kind of creative and aggressive.
But I look at their schedule, and if there’s a game that’s going to decide if they go to a bowl game or not, I hate to say it’s the opener, but I think it is. I mean, if they beat Southern Miss, I think that schedule all of a sudden looks a lot more attainable and a bowl becomes more attainable than if they were to lose that game and go to the Swamp in week two.
So I think they need to get off to a good start and hope for the best. But I think you’ll see improvement this year for sure.
I wanted to get your impression of the Sooners and the very ambitious non-conference schedule with Houston and Ohio State in September?
Kirk Herbstreit: I love it. I appreciate Joe and Bob agreeing to play those games. It’s great for us as fans to be able to get excited to watch OU and in two big games before they even get to conference play. One big thing about scheduling that in September is the winter conditioning. The spring football and especially the two-a-days, you get the players attention because they know what’s coming up they know what’s going to be challenged. OU has been able to accomplish that this year with the schedule.
I think everybody knows about Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine
Samaje Perine, the talented back field that they have. I think that’s the obvious thing. The questions are: Where would they be with the offensive line? Who is going to step up and take over for Sterling Shepard? They lost a lot of not just play makers, but leaders on defensive side with Dominique Alexander and Striker and Tapper and Zack Sanchez. They lost kind of the heart and soul of that side of the ball. So who is ready to take over would be big.
I think they’re going to be really good on the back end, but I’m anxious to see their front seven and how they develop. And the schedule of Houston and Ohio State, two of the first three weeks, they’re going to have to be ready to go on the defensive side of the ball, because they do not want to get into shootouts against teams like Houston and Ohio State.
Are you picking them to get to the playoffs?
Kirk Herbstreit: As you know, I did a year ago, and I am looking at the Big 12 at TCU, I think, to kind of surprise people. Now that they went through so many injuries a year ago, I think they’ll be a lot better on that side of the ball. I think Kenny Hill could make them pretty dynamic on offense. So I think TCU could be the team to beat in the Big 12.
Checking in to see why you decided to pick Minnesota to come out of the west? What do you like about them? How do you think Coach Tracy Claeys will do in his first season at Minnesota?
Kirk Herbstreit: I’m excited to see what they can do this year. I think first the Big Ten West is wide open. You can talk to any different analyst and maybe get a different answer on what they think might happen. I think conventional wisdom, I guess, would be the Iowa Hawkeyes because of the year that they had a year ago and having C.J. Beathard back and a lot of great players on the defensive side of the football.
There are some people that like Nebraska. There’s talk about Wisconsin, Northwestern, you name it. The reason I like Minnesota is I think that their front seven defensively is going to be very, very stout. I think they’re going to be physical up there. I know they’re inexperienced on the back end, but I think they have a history of playing outstanding pass defense, and I’m kind of counting on, even though they’re young, I’m counting on them to still be solid in the secondary. And I think a lot of people are really sleeping on their offensive play makers.
You’ve got a veteran in Mitch Leidner who has played a ton of football, and I think he could have a great year. They’ve got some great backs that not a lot of people know much about. They always seem to have a good nucleus on that side of the ball. There are some concerns like every team in that West has. But they don’t play Ohio State. They don’t play Michigan State. They don’t play Michigan. They get Iowa at home.
So if they can beat Oregon State to open the season on Thursday, I think there’s a real shot that they could be sitting there looking at maybe 8-1 when they get ready to go to Nebraska on November 12th. Maybe I’m crazy, but I have kind of a weird feeling about them having a great year.
I think you’re aware there’s been a lot of hype for Michigan this season and a lot of them haven’t been in the playoffs. Do you think that’s too early or do you think it’s a fair assessment going into Harbaugh’s second year?
Kirk Herbstreit: No, I think if you look at what he did in his first year and what they have coming back, there’s obvious reason to be optimistic about what they can accomplish this year. I still would make the argument that the roster that he inherited in these first couple years will be the least talented roster that he coaches while he’s in Ann Arbor because of the way they’re going to recruit, or they do satellite camps or sit in their backyard in Ann Arbor. He’s going to recruit his tail off and he’s going to get very, very high-caliber skill players at receiver, running back and quarterback. I think — I personally think they’re about a year away.
With that being said, it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to be 7-0 getting ready for the big arrival game against Michigan State in East Lansing. They’ve got to go to Iowa, and they’ve got to go to Ohio State. If those three games were in Ann Arbor, I might be saying something a little bit different. But I just have a hard time imagining them going on the road in those three games and being able to win all three of those. Even two of them, I think, would be tough to do.
I think they’re about a year away from being the team that everybody is kind of excited for them to be. But I still think they’re going to be one of the Top 10 best teams in the country.
I wanted to ask you about the games that you’re going to be at next week. First off, do you think it’s more important for Ole Miss to have Chad Kelly have a big season or do you think it’s more important for Chad Kelly to have a big season? And second of all, what do you think of the dynamic of Lane Kiffin facing his old team?
Kirk Herbstreit: As far as my job analyzing these teams and watching teams excel, if Chad Kelly has a big year individually and their team goes 7-5, nobody cares about Ole Miss or Chad Kelly. If Ole Miss knocks off Florida State, they find a way to beat Alabama, week three, all of a sudden, they’re 3-0, ranked in the top 5 in the country, now everybody cares about Ole Miss and Chad Kelly.
So I think it’s much more important for Ole Miss for Chad Kelly to go out and play well and not feel the pressure to live up to the standard that he set a year ago where he was such a great player in his first year of Hugh Freeze’s offense, running and throwing and avoiding the disastrous play for the most part. So as long as he doesn’t feel like he has to push it himself or force himself out there to make plays, then I think he can have another monster year.
As far as Lane Kiffin going against his former team, USC, I think he’ll downplay it to everybody in the media. I think he’ll try to kind of poo-poo it even. Like this is just another game. We’ve got to get ready. We’ve got to find a quarterback. We don’t know what we have. But I do think that deep down there is something a little bit special for him going up against USC. Just to remind the USC folks what they let go. He’s a human. He has a competitive spirit. If anybody ever left one job and got fired to go to and he got hired in another job and you’re going back to play that school that fired you, I think anybody would be crazy to say that it wasn’t a little bit special or there’s a little bit more incentive there.
So it will be there. How it will impact the game, I don’t think it will. But I think privately deep down, I think Lane Kiffin’s incredibly fired up to have an opportunity to coach Alabama offensively against USC.
Saw that you picked Auburn as your sleeper in the SEC. Just wanted to have you expound on that as to why you’re optimistic about Auburn when seemingly most of us in the media, certainly in the SEC media picked him to finish quite low in the SEC West. Why are you optimistic about the Auburn Tigers this year?
Kirk Herbstreit: I think that’s a big part of it. I think that this team just seems to be Jekyll and Hyde over the last four, five years. They’re either really, really good or really, really inconsistent. If you go back and think about where they were, I think it might have been 2013, we actually had a “College Gameday,” I think it was ’13, where they played Mississippi State in Starkville. There were a lot of people excited about that team and what they were going to do. Actually it was 2014. They were at No. 2 in the country and Mississippi State was at No. 3, and they lost that game. It seems like from that game on they have not been able to get back to being the kind of team that they can be.
I think, in fact, in the last two years in conference play, they’re 6-10. Just have struggled.
I think if you look at that and you look at their roster and you look who they have at quarterback, I can see why the media said that this team’s not going to compete, even in the back field with the tailback situation. For me, it’s more of I think the defense is going to be really, really good. I think they’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder. I think they’re going to be mad at the world when they play this year, and I think defensively they’re going to stay in almost every game that they play.
Then it’s just a matter of the head coach, Gus Malzahn and offense finding ways to put enough points on the board to win. But I would be careful just by looking at 8-5 two years ago, 7-6 last year, 6-10 in conference play over the last couple years. I think it’s easy to look at this and say that this thing’s heading into the wrong direction. I just think there’s a little bit more backbone to the program than maybe all of us realize on the outside. And I think it will be led this year by the defense. I think, as I said, I think the defense is going to be one of the best in the SEC.
Obviously, calling from Louisville, I was wanting your thoughts on Louisville and Lamar Jackson and the chances they may have to make some noise with Florida State and Clemson in that division?
Kirk Herbstreit: Well, they’re the sleeper this year in the ACC with all the talk about Florida State and Clemson. There are a lot of people talking about Florida State and Clemson both getting into the playoff. I think this year the ACC is deep as I can remember it. Because, while everybody wants to talk about Florida State and Clemson, there is Louisville who is obviously going to be competitive, Miami, North Carolina. I think Pitt could be better. Virginia Tech has a new coach and a new offense. It’s going to be an interesting run this year.
We know about Lamar Jackson. They’ve got all the skill coming back. I expect James quick to have a big year this year. I really think that they get Florida State at an interesting time. I was at the game two years ago when they played on a Thursday night and they had Florida State on the ropes and it looked like they might win that game. And Papa John Stadium, as you were probably there, it was live and it looked like this was going to be their moment and they just couldn’t hold on. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be another game like that. We’ll see this time if Bobby Petrino’s team can find a way, and then a couple weeks later they’re on the road at Death Valley and Clemson.
So they’re going to know really where they stand within the first five weeks of the season, and whether or not they have what it takes to be competitive enough to be that surprise team and push Florida State or Clemson down. They get a chance to play them both.
So other than those two games, I know they have Houston late in the year. I mean, worst-case scenario, I can’t imagine this team not getting to ten wins this year. So I think they’re going to have a great year, and I think it’s going to come down to how they play against Florida State and how they do on the road against Clemson.
Is there anybody that Lamar Jackson brings to mind that you’ve seen like that?
Kirk Herbstreit: There have just been so many of them in the last few years, the guys that can run and throw. I feel like when I watch him, you better hold your breath when he takes off to run with the football. I think he averaged close to six yards a carry a year ago. What’s ironic is Bobby Petrino’s known over the years of having quarterbacks, whether they’re dual-threat guys or pocket guys, he’s trying to find ways to dissect a defensive secondary to throw the football.
To me, I think Lamar Jackson, if I were coaching him, and I’m sure this is what they’re focused on, it’s really more about consistency. I think at the latter part of the year, we start to see them really figure out his skillset. I think in the last five games they average like 35 points a game. In the first few games it was more like 28 points a game. So I think they have a handle on what he does well. But, no, the kid at Houston this year, Lamar Jackson and Greg Ward are similar in how they attack defenses. But I still want to watch Lamar play more this year to see more of him and to see how he develops as a passer before I really compare him to anybody.
I want to ask you about Saquon Barkley out of Penn State. What traits distinguish him from others in college football? And just in general, what do you consider the potential and pressure points for Penn State this season?
Kirk Herbstreit: He reminds me of some of the great Penn State backs back in the day. He has tremendous balance, kind of low center of gravity; players seem to bounce off of him because of his strength. He’s got great quickness and acceleration. He’s just a guy that’s been blessed with that rare combination of quickness and speed and power. So he’s a handful, and when he gets his momentum started, he’s tough to bring down.
That was in more of a pro-style offense. I’m really looking forward to, of all the players that I’ve talked about today, Saquon Barkley in this new offense where they’re going to be a lot more tempo, a lot more spread, more quarterback run threat, I think he may be the beneficiary of the new system and what Joe Moorhead’s bringing in there. I think he’s going to get the ball in space more, which could be really dangerous, and I expect him to have a really big year.
Not to mention, they’ve got great wide receiver play, so they should be able to have balance. And as teams load up on the running of the quarterback and Barkley, they should be able to make him pay for that with one-on-one opportunities on the outside.
I think if their pressure points to me, the obvious one is the defense save line, after what they lost a year ago, and just lose a group of guys like that and experience and the production, and then a year later just throw anybody out there, no matter what four-star, three-star, five-star, whatever it is, and expect him to live up to what they did a year ago. So that’s the biggest one for me.
I think the back end, the back seven at linebacker and secondary, I think they’re going to be outstanding with a new scheme, new defensive coordinator. And I also think the quarterback spot. It was almost these last couple years with Hackenberg, it just seemed to be — it just didn’t fit with what James Franklin was trying to do, after what Bill O’Brien had done. It just kind of seemed to be out of rhythm or out of sorts offensively. And there’s been a lot of talk about a more mobile quarterback and that’s what James Franklin wanted and he has it. So until we see it, I would say the quarterback spot in this new system, that’s the one question mark for me on offense and the on defensive line. We’ll know a lot September 10 when they go over to Pitt.