It's football season, and with it, we already have a slew of high-profile matchups coming out of the gate in Week 1. In the first edition of Cover 3 here on CBS Sports, I have those headliner games of Florida-Michigan and Alabama-Florida State on my mind as well as some money-making opportunities in the Heisman Trophy race.
1. Florida's unfamiliar territory
This year is a referendum on Jim McElwain at Florida. It's not so much a referendum on him as a coach. I think he has proven that he can coach at Colorado State and with his ability to squeeze out SEC East titles at Florida in his first two years. The referendum is on his talent acquisition via recruiting.
In his first two seasons at Florida, McElwain has primarily been coaching Will Muschamp's players. He prepared them and he has developed them, but he didn't recruit them. According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, those classes checked in at No. 3, No. 3 and No. 9 before McElwain's arrival.
Among the talent McElwain inherited were second-round NFL Draft pick Marcus Maye and third-rounder Jonathan Bullard out of the 2012 class, first-rounders Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves III out of the 2013 class with first-rounder Jarrad Davis and second-rounders Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson out of the 2014 class. McElwain doesn't get penalized for getting the most out of talented players but now we get to see if he can do the same with his own talent.
In the years since he took over, Florida has landed the No. 21, 12 and 11 recruiting classes in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite. Anywhere else in the country, that would be considered a heck of a run. At Florida, it's the worst three-year recruiting stretch in the internet era, dating back to 2002.
Those numbers are more representative of a different recruiting style than they are of a failing to deliver on McElwain's part. This current staff at Florida is much more willing to trust its evaluation on an unheralded prospect rather than tool up to go to battle for a blue chip.
McElwain has won his fair share of battles. Five-stars Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson were in-state must-haves out of the 2015 class, which Muschamp recruited but McElwain closed. Sophomore receiver Tyrie Cleveland was a huge steal out of Texas. Quarterback Feleipe Franks might ultimately start this week against Michigan thanks to McElwain flipping him from his long-time LSU commitment out of high school.
Some of those clever evaluations have already paid off, too, particularly out of the 2016 class. David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Jawaan Taylor are all guys that impacted as true freshmen but lacked the hype and offer lists in high school.
But the point remains: McElwain has proven he can win division titles, but when the expectation at Florida is to be in national title contention, and when Alabama and Florida State -- teams that have dominated UF the past two seasons -- are going three deep with five-stars, there's a firepower question that arises.
A subtle recruiting slide portending a more dramatic on-field result has happened elsewhere. At Oregon, Chip Kelly took a team recruiting in the 30s and hit a three-year stretch of top-15 classes, including back-to-back years finishing 12th in the country. National title contention followed. When Mark Helfrich took over, the classes dipped to Nos. 19, 21, 16 and 27 in his four seasons. That consistent dip showed up on the field last season when his classes where carrying the load.
The good news for Florida is that the 2018 class is trending better than usual. It's pacing toward a top-10 finish and hires like running backs coach JaJuan Seider show McElwain has acknowledged the need for stronger recruiting.
If McElwain, in an improved SEC East, can win another division title with his own guys, that will speak volumes about this staff's acumen both as developers and recruiters and it would safeguard the fast start for 2018. But if Florida takes a step back this fall, sluggish recruiting will be the culprit.
2. Alabama's newest headhunter
Remember when we didn't know much about Reuben Foster? When he was just a faceless cowboy collar shot out of a missile used to decapitate ball-carriers on special teams? It's hard to believe that the eventual first-round draft pick and Butkus Award winner had to wait his turn; however, at Alabama, linebackers sign up for that.
Foster had 12 tackles as a true freshman. He had 22 as a sophomore. He arrived as a junior, piling up 73 tackles in a starting role before becoming the most dominant linebacker in the country as a senior. Now Foster is with the San Francisco 49ers. In his wake, Rashaan Evans is the starting middle linebacker at Alabama, and he's about to be considered one of the best players in college football.
Alabama fans and most of the SEC already know about Evans. He has followed a similar path to that of Foster. He played sparingly in his first two years, picking up 25 tackles in the process. As a junior, after moving from the outside as an edge rusher to inside linebacker, Evans (like Foster) had his breakthrough year with 53 tackles and four sacks, playing primarily in a backup role.
This fall, Evans becomes a national name. Next spring, Evans will follow Foster into the first round of the NFL Draft. That's the kind of breakout season I expect from the former five-star prospect.
There are going to be a lot of new faces on the Alabama defense thanks to seven defenders getting drafted in the first four rounds last spring. Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings, Isaiah Buggs and Mack Wilson are players that might have fans checking their program to identify in the first few games. Evans has graduated from that, but he's about to take a step into an entirely new territory.
Because of his ability and experience rushing the passer, and because of his instincts, ridiculous motor and unique athleticism, the 6-foot-3, 234-pounder is going to be used in a variety of ways for the Tide. He'll be a sideline-to-sideline tackler, but he'll also provide some pass-rush value, making him a hard defender to prepare for and a good candidate for some of those game-changing plays that the Tide are so good at producing.
When Alabama and Florida State square off this weekend in the most high-profile season-opener of all time, make sure you identify Evans and his No. 30 jersey every play. Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois certainly will.
3. Value in Vegas for the Heisman
This time last year, the money line for Lamar Jackson to win the Heisman Trophy was +11,000 (a $100 bet on Jackson to win would pay out $11,000). None of the top five preseason favorites (Leonard Fournette, Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey, J.T. Barrett, Dalvin Cook) even made It to New York.
As I look at the Vegas preseason odds this year, two names might as well be written in dollar signs. Nobody provides more value on the Heisman board than quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Jarrett Stidham.
In today's wide-open, pass-happy, spread-dominated game, quarterbacks are winning the Heisman. Fourteen of the past 17 awards (82 percent) have gone to a quarterback. This is an absolutely loaded year at the position, so with apologies to Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice, they're not beating out one of these first-round arms that are touching the ball every play. So if you want to do better than just quadrupling of your money with a Sam Darnold pick, these are the guys to target.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (+2,000): Forget the farcical preseason quarterback competition between Stidham and Sean White. He's the undisputed leader of this offense and confidence inside the Auburn program is high. Stidham will have the contrast of last season's inept passing attack in his favor. He'll also have a strong run game to support him, and he has a coach in Gus Malzahn who has already shepherded one quarterback to the trophy in Cam Newton. Stidham is on a team that will be really good. Beat Clemson and beat or put up a lot of points on Alabama, and Stidham is a lock to be in New York.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State (+2,500): Rudolph will be in New York for the same reason that Josh Rosen won't be: supporting cast. Rudolph has the best wide receiving corps in college football with James Washington and Jalen McClesky leading the way, Marcell Ateman returning off of injury, talented LSU transfer Tyron Johnson and true freshman standout Tylan Wallace offering a bevy of play-making opportunities to pad his stats. The Cowboys will be Big 12 title contenders and College Foootball Playoff contenders. There will be plenty of big-game settings for Rudolph to state his case. He's my pick to win the Heisman regardless of the odds, so getting him at +2,500 is stealing.