All month, we'll be checking in on the nation's top teams as they prepare for the 2019 season. Travel the country with us as we visit Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
Stop four: Oklahoma
NORMAN, Okla. - The night before Oklahoma opened preseason camp earlier this month, Lincoln Riley found himself for the first time watching the television version of the Sooners' 45-34 loss to Alabama in the Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal.
"I'd seen the cutups on tape and watched them a few times. ... It makes me sick every time," lamented Riley, whose Sooners fell behind 28-0, charged back valiantly in the second half, but could never make that one stop they needed to make defensively to genuinely make things close.
As Riley enters his third season as OU's head coach, he knows all too well the pain of "close." In 2017, his first season after taking over for Bob Stoops, the Sooners lost to Georgia 54-48 in a double-overtime heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl CFP semifinal.
"One quarter can beat you," Riley told ESPN. "That was the frustration in the Alabama game. We played so poorly early, and it was just too much to overcome. If we could have stopped them one more time, I don't think they were going to stop us again. It sure didn't feel like it on the field."
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban has said that the Tide simply couldn't tackle Kyler Murray as that game wore on, to which Riley responded, "No, they couldn't, but nobody could. The NFL is getting ready to find that out, too."
So with two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks having come and gone, Riley now turns to another transfer quarterback. Officially, Jalen Hurts hasn't been named the Sooners' starter. But it's obvious within the confines of the OU football complex that Hurts has come in and done everything, and then some, to win the job.
"He's done a great job of handling everything, keeping a closed mouth and focusing on what we're all trying to accomplish, and that's winning a national championship," Oklahoma junior receiver CeeDee Lamb said.
Hurts is hardly the only high-profile newcomer in Norman this season. First-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will be as closely watched as Hurts. The Sooners were 101st nationally a year ago in scoring defense, allowing 33.3 points per game, and gave up 40 or more points six times.
"Coach Grinch's big thing is: No excuses, and that's the mentality he's brought and the standard we've created," Oklahoma junior linebacker Kenneth Murray said. "He demands that all 11 guys play with great effort, but I also like the way he's able to keep things simple."
Grinch, 39, spent last season as a co-coordinator at Ohio State after previously serving as Mike Leach's defensive coordinator at Washington State. Grinch was coveted by several coaches, and Saban was interested two years ago. But at the time, Grinch felt it was best to go to Ohio State, which was closer to home and would make it easier to help with some family matters.
Grinch used smaller, quicker players at Washington State, which had difficulty attracting top defensive linemen, and was creative in finding ways to generate pressure and force turnovers.
"I've compared it so many times to when we came from East Carolina," Riley said. "That's what intrigued me about this job, knowing the kind of linemen and backs we could get here. You can get great quarterbacks and receivers anywhere, I think, but I was like, 'With some of the players that we should be able to get here, we're going to be really, really good.' That was also my sense with Alex on defense. Yeah, they weren't doing it with the most talented players or the elite of the elite, but they were still making it hard for all kinds of offenses who had better players."
Alabama football campus tour with Holly and Maria
Holly Rowe and Maria Taylor take a tour of Alabama's facilities to see how the Tide are looking to redeem themselves in 2019.
Stop three: Alabama
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here at Alabama, there's no escaping Clemson's 44-16 thrashing of the Tide in the national title game. But there's no dwelling on it, either.
"We didn't prepare very well, and as I've said, had some distractions [namely staff turnover and assistant coaches jockeying for new jobs elsewhere], but none of that has anything to do with the fact that we got exposed by a great team. That's what happened," Saban told ESPN.
What matters to Saban now is making sure it doesn't happen again.
"Regardless of who we play, it still gets back to the Alabama factor for us," said Saban. "We've got to be more disciplined, accountable in everything we do, have humility, put the team first. All of us do. If we do that, I'm not saying we're going to win every game we play, but we'll have a chance. That's what we have to get back to."
Much like Clemson, Alabama returns an offense that should be dynamite in 2019. While it's true that junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will have his third different offensive coordinator in former USC and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, it's also true that Tagovailoa has four receivers returning who caught six or more touchdown passes a year ago. Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III combined to catch 25 touchdowns and also combined for 36 receptions that went for at least 20 yards.
"We've got four guys that will play in the NFL," Saban said, alluding to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, in addition to Jeudy and Ruggs. "We've always had one really good receiver, but we've never had a group like this."
As much as anything, Saban thinks Sarkisian will broaden Alabama's passing game and doesn't want to be quite as dependent on run-pass options as they've been in the past.
"What happened last year is that we made so many big plays that the players got big-play phobia or whatever you want to call it," Saban said. "Then when you play against better defenses, those plays aren't there and you get a little frustrated, and I think Tua tried to force it a little bit rather than taking what the defense gives. It was a good learning experience for Tua. I know he is really driven."
As the season wore on, the Crimson Tide had more problems in the red zone and didn't run the ball as well, Saban said.
"We were so used to making all these big plays that it would be like if you were selling cars and were making $10,000 on every car, you wouldn't even want to screw with the one you could make a $1,000 on," Saban quipped.
Saban readily admits the turnover on his coaching staff hasn't been ideal, but he likes the mix on this staff. There's also no ambiguity about who will be calling the plays on defense. It's Pete Golding's show, although Saban is always going to be involved.
Additionally, Saban said it will be important to keep guys like outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings and cornerback Trevon Diggs healthy. The linebacker position, in particular, is thin.
"We're a little better in the secondary, but everybody around those guys is so young," said Saban, noting that sophomore cornerback Josh Jobe has developed nicely. "The maturity level, knowledge, confidence, experience -- it's going to be a little bit of a work in progress to get it where we need it to be. ... We can't afford to lose a lot of guys on defense right now."
One of the freshmen who's turned heads is nose guard D.J. Dale, who's been bothered by a slight knee sprain, but is expected back. He reminds some in the program of Da'Ron Payne with the way he collapses the pocket.
And on offense, while most of the talk has surrounded Tagovailoa and the receivers, Saban likes the potential of the offensive line. Redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. and true freshman Evan Neal have been impressive, and Saban said Florida State transfer Landon Dickerson has come right in and been a factor at guard. Saban said one of the challenges for the Tide this season will be finding a tight end.
One thing the Tide won't have to find, according to Tagovailoa, is the right culture.
"What I've seen from this team is going out and doing more, pushing each other to do more," said Tagovailoa, who lost 20 pounds then put on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. "We might have gotten to a point where we were too comfortable last season and weren't playing the game the way Alabama is supposed to play it. That's what we're going to get back to, and everything else will take care of itself."
Stop two: Georgia
ATHENS, Ga. -- This is the fourth preseason camp for Kirby Smart as Georgia's head football coach, and he's grinding as hard as he ever has, going all the way back to his days as a defensive backs coach at Valdosta State.
It's just the way the son of a lifelong high school coach rolls, especially a son who also spent 11 seasons coaching under Nick Saban.
Smart joked last week that it was killing him to break away from watching tape with his coaches to sit down for a quick interview. But one thing nobody in these parts is joking about is the sense of urgency to finish games, especially when the opponent just happens to be Alabama.
Pardon the pun, but it's the big crimson elephant in the room for the Dawgs, who have vaulted back among college football's elite since Smart returned to his alma mater. Now comes the part that everybody has hashed and rehashed ever since Georgia squandered a 14-point, third-quarter lead against Alabama last season in the SEC championship game.
How do the Dawgs finish the deal?
Taylor, Rowe go 50 yards with Fromm
Georgia QB Jake Fromm catches up with Maria Taylor and Holly Rowe as he says the team's chemistry is growing.
"We have a mantra of, 'Do more,' which is whatever it takes to finish games better," Smart told ESPN. "But I don't look (at the last two losses to Alabama) like it's a major scar. Our players know they went toe-to-toe with the gorilla. There's more of a sense of frustration, to me, that we know we are just as good and just as physical as them. We just haven't been able to close it out."
Junior running back D'Andre Swift was even more to the point.
"Most people are scared of the name 'Alabama,' but we went right at them. Nobody was scared of anybody," Swift said. "The second half, we lost touch with who we are, and that's what we take from that game."
Smart was a part of four national championship teams while coaching at Alabama under Saban, so he knows what a championship team looks like. He looks around the practice field this preseason at Georgia and is heartened by what he sees, particularly up front offensively.
"We've got two tackles (Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson) that look like Cam Robinson did at Alabama, big, athletic guys," Smart said. "Solomon Kindley at left guard is a lot like Chance Warmack was at Alabama, and there's a great battle at the other guard spot between Ben Cleveland and Cade Mays. In time, the best player of all of them might be (true sophomore) Trey Hill at center. He's the most athletic 350-pound man that I've ever seen. And what I like is that everybody is motivated because they've been anointed and talked about all offseason.
"They better get ready because they're going to get everybody's best shot, but they're talented. All five guys will play in the NFL. I have no doubt."
More than once, Smart has had to remind himself of such this preseason when the offensive line has put a beating on the defensive line. One of the things he said the Dawgs have to do better defensively this season is pressure the quarterback.
"We've got to affect the passer better and get a better rush," Smart said. "We did that against Alabama. We gave up some points but affected the quarterback. We got to him and knocked him down and hit him. We were a little more rush the passer first and play the run second. That's a little more of the demeanor we're taking on this year."
In particular, Smart said redshirt freshman outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari has had a strong camp along with senior defensive lineman Tyler Clark. He likes this freshmen group as well, including linebackers Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean.
"We've got some active, athletic guys who can help us," Smart said. "We don't match up super well against our (offensive line) guys every day in practice. We're getting smashed some, but they're going to do that to a lot of people. I mean, they're grown men, but that's just going to make us better."
Georgia has recruited like gangbusters under Smart, and that is paying off like it has with all of the elite programs that are able to create fierce competition on the practice field on a daily basis.
"You look out there at the physicality and you're like, 'This is what you want, iron sharpening iron, really good players against really good players,' and our practices are harder than 90% of the games," Smart said. "Only 10% of the games will be tougher than practice.
"I love our energy out there."
With quarterback Jake Fromm returning for his junior season, Smart thinks his signal-caller will be in a position to make even more plays. And while the Dawgs were gutted at receiver, the freshman to watch is George Pickens, who's been hard to miss thus far in practice. Smart said Pickens is the most talented receiver on the roster and has routinely made "wow" plays during the preseason.
"That's part of the culture here," Fromm said. "Coach Smart does an unbelievable job of finding guys who buy into that culture, guys that want that competition and want to go compete every single day against somebody as good or better than they are. Ultimately, at the end of the day, that makes the team better."
This will be James Coley's first season as offensive coordinator and playcaller after Jim Chaney left in the offseason for Tennessee. Smart said he didn't want to see Chaney leave, but was also intent on keeping Coley, not to mention offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
"People were coming after (Coley) left and right," Smart said. "I love Jim. He did a good job and led that side of the ball. I was very comfortable with that, but he felt like this was his chance to get paid at a really high level. I ran the risk of paying him at that level and possibly losing two other coaches. The key is you've gotta figure out who you're going to pay and where your value is in recruiting."
Smart said where he's evolved the most as a head coach is that he's delegating more.
"My coordinators are doing things right and I know they're in control, whereas before my antenna was up all the time," Smart said.
Fromm said the transition from Chaney to Coley has been seamless, especially with Coley already on staff as the quarterbacks coach a year ago.
"Coach Coley was in that quarterback room last year, so there's not a whole lot of difference," Fromm said. "He does a great job of communicating and just being him, which is what the players love. He makes it really fun to buy in, and that's been the case with this entire team."
Stop one: Clemson
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney is well aware that Clemson has won two of the past three national championships, beating Alabama both times in the title game. But don't dare tell him that the stakes have somehow risen in college football's newest version of Titletown, USA.
"To me, it's business as usual. We're always on the attack around here, attacking Clemson and the standard of Clemson," Swinney told ESPN. "We hold everybody accountable. There's a winning performance at every position and that's what we talk about. We don't get caught up in this team really wants to beat us or that we won the national championship or lost the last game, any of that.
"We're always attacking."
And always pushing, even the Tigers' most talented players.
Rowe tests out Clemson's lab
Holly Rowe and Maria Taylor tour Clemson's Applied Science Lab with Dabo Swinney to test out their motion capture facilities.
As the Tigers opened preseason camp, Swinney was quick to note that sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence was one of the last players off of the practice field each of the first few days. Lawrence was out there getting in extra reps, extra stretching -- anything to take it to another level.
As good as Lawrence was last season as a true freshman, good luck in finding anybody in Clemson's program who won't tell you that he will be that much better this season. He's up to 221 pounds after reporting at just under 200 a year ago, much faster than he has ever been and putting the kind of zip on passes that we last saw in January when he was carving apart Alabama's defense.
"You gotta be about it, not talk about it," said Lawrence, as he walked off the practice field carrying his gear. "We talk a lot around here about being servant leaders, and that's something we take seriously."
No detail is too small for Lawrence, either. Before he sat down for our interview following practice, he scurried around looking for a shirt to sit on or something so that he wouldn't get the office chair of Clemson sports information director Ross Taylor too sweaty.
"He's like all the great ones, incredibly focused, hungry, driven, never satisfied ... and humble," Swinney said of Lawrence. "All of the great ones, that's how they carry themselves. Trevor's a grinder and a natural leader."
Lawrence said he also wanted to branch out and use his legs to make more plays this season and not just be a pocket guy.
"He can fly, I mean flat-out fly," Swinney said. "He's a great athlete and would be great at anything he wanted to do."
The body transformation award on offense this preseason at Clemson goes to sophomore Jackson Carman, who came in at 375 pounds and is now down to 335 and is penciled in as the Tigers' left tackle. "He's finally gotten serious about being a great player," Swinney said.
Carman will be joined by four seniors in the offensive line, and another guy to watch is redshirt freshman tackle Jordan McFadden. Swinney said he has a chance to be a "superstar."
Speaking of superstars, Clemson has a receiving corps -- Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers -- that offers a little bit of everything. Even better news is that Rodgers is way ahead of schedule, according to Swinney, in his recovery from an ACL tear. Rodgers was running confidently on the side during practice, and Swinney says he thinks there's a chance the Tigers could get him back as early as late September. And judging from the early practices, it won't take long for true freshmen receivers Frank Ladson Jr. (6-4, 190) of Miami and Joe Ngata (6-4, 215) of Folsom, California to get some playing time. Both are big rangy targets who are good at going after the football.
Running back Travis Etienne, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, looks noticeably bigger and has added even more upper-body strength. Swinney said it's the "best version" of Etienne that he has seen since Etienne arrived on campus. Etienne had 12 rushing plays of 30 yards or longer last season but said he hasn't lost any speed.
Defensively, Swinney said this might be the best back-seven he has had at Clemson since taking over as head coach. Losing so many defensive linemen to the NFL wasn't ideal, but "we're talented up front. We just gotta grow them up," Swinney said.
Freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis has already shown signs of being next up in Clemson's long line of great defensive linemen.
"A lot of the young guys have been leaders," Swinney said. "Tyler Davis ... you ain't gotta lead him. If you're looking to lead him, you're left behind because he's way out front. That's just his mindset. A lot of that leadership, you recruit."
Throughout Clemson's Reeves Football Complex this preseason, there are several "Carpe Diem" signs.
"That was my challenge to them this year, seize the day, the old Robin Williams and 'Dead Poets Society' line," Swinney said. "This is the 150th year of college football. It's unbelievable to have the privilege to be a part of that, and this is our 124th team at Clemson. My message was, 'What's going to be different about y'all? What's your chapter? Is it going to matter? Are people going to open up the book and can't wait to get to that 124th chapter, or do they just skim over that part?'
"People want to know how we stay focused (after winning two of the past three national titles). It's being great today."