1. Who will finish the fall season at No. 1?
• LANCE RINGLER: Alabama. Four of the five starters return from last year including Justin Thomas, who was everyone’s college golf player of the year last year. This team should be motivated after losing to Texas in NCAA Championship match and is known for firepower and going low. Expecting multiple wins this fall and a quick start to the season should land them in the top spot at the winter break.
• SEAN MARTIN: Cal. The Bears closed last year by winning their conference and regional titles and making the semifinals of the NCAA Championship. Everyone’s back, and they add U.S. Amateur runner-up Michael Weaver after he redshirted last season. The Bears don’t have a star like a Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth, but they’re solid from top to bottom. Four players made match play at the U.S. Amateur, and two players (Weaver, Brandon Hagy) made it to the semis.
• RON BALICKI: While I think California will have the strongest 1-thru-5 lineup, I believe Alabama’s Big 3 will carry the Tide to the top spot, certainly in the fall season. Sophomore Justin Thomas and juniors Bobby Wyatt and Cory Whitsett are proven performers. Each was an All-American last season and all three had outstanding amateur summers. Scott Strohmeyer and Trey Mullinax are proven players as well, and coach Jay Seawell has a few other horses in his talented stable. The Tide finished second at NCAA and No. 1 in the final Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. No reason to think they won’t pick up where they left off.
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2. What team will surprise the most in the fall?
• LANCE RINGLER: California might not be considered a team that will surprise this fall, unless they grab the top spot in the rankings, which the Golden Bears very likely can. If not, they will be very close and might exceed expectations on how good this team can be. The Bears return all five players from last year’s team that made it to the semifinals at Riviera and finished the year ranked No. 6 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Don’t forget Michael Weaver returns this fall after sitting out last year. Cal would rank No. 1 in six-count-six events. Wait, maybe they should be the team that finishes the fall ranked No. 1.
• SEAN MARTIN: SMU. Josh Gregory’s first recruiting class in Dallas is deep. Freshmen Bryson Dechambeau, Austin Smotherman and David Lee are ready to compete, and senior transfer Mario Clemens, No. 58 in last season’s Golfweek rankings while at UCLA, will be a solid addition to a team that narrowly missed making last year’s NCAA Championship.
• RON BALICKI: Keep a close eye on Kent State. The Flashes lost MacKenzie Hughes, but have four solid returnees from their NCAA team that qualified for match play. Juniors Corey Connors, Kyle Kmiecik and Taylor Pendrith along with senior Kevin Miller give coach Herb Page a solid foundation to build upon. Also, Georgia Tech and Arkansas failed to qualify for the NCAA finals last season — don’t expect that to happen this time around.
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3. What player is the one to watch?
• LANCE RINGLER: We know all eyes will be on Justin Thomas, who clinched player of the year honors with a strong finish last spring, but a more interesting story will be following Texas sophomore Jordan Spieth. He was the frontrunner most of last year to be player of the year. Now, what will he do this year? Can he keep the professional golf distractions away and again be among the best?
• SEAN MARTIN: Steven Fox. The Chattanooga senior has never been an All-American – he was No. 103 in last season’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings – but all eyes will be on him at events this year. Why? He holds the Havemeyer Trophy as the U.S. Amateur champion. Also worth watching is Alabama’s Bobby Wyatt, who’ll be one of teammate Justin Thomas’ main challengers as Thomas tries to win a second consecutive Haskins Award. Thomas beat Wyatt, 1 up, in the U.S. Amateur’s Round of 16.
• RON BALICKI: Alabama’s Justin Thomas, for sure, as he tries to match his inaugural college season that saw him win four times, capture the Haskins Award and Nicklaus Award as player of the year, the Mickelson Award as freshman of the year and finish No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. I also really like Washington senior Chris Williams and think that he’s going to end his college career in high fashion. Williams had a solid summer, capped off by his victory at the Western Amateur, where he also was the record-setting, 72-hole stroke-play medalist and a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Amateur.