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Prep Rally

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Dabo Swinney last month, on chatter about Clemson's chances of defending its national championship: "None of that really matters. What matters is what we think and how we prepare."

Jim Harbaugh a few weeks ago, on his summer plans: "I'm avoiding all fun stuff. Concentrating on preparing ourselves for the season."

Nick Saban ... well, always: "No matter what your chosen profession, be prepared for opportunity."

See a pattern? Leaders in all sports love to extol the virtues of preparation, but college football coaches are the true masters of the art. (Saban also gets a hat tip for introducing a new koan at SEC Media Day, as he seized on the Process-ready value in Bama's title-game loss last January: "Hopefully, we won't waste a failure.") The goal of SI's annual college football preview is similar. We want to do for you, the fan, what those guys do for their teams—get you as prepared as possible for the joy, sadness and madness of the season ahead. And we can do it without two-a-days.

This year's preview, expertly conceived and overseen by senior editor Jim Gorant, takes on that task in ways that are traditional and cutting-edge. Senior writer Lee Jenkins profiles USC's Sam Darnold, who checks off every trait for the Big Time Quarterback: huge arm, winner's pedigree, surfer-dude cool—and great hair (page 78). Senior writer Andy Staples examines how the most elemental act in football—the tackle—is evolving in an era of rampant spread offenses and increased head-injury awareness (page 64). Staples also dives deep into the troubles facing one of the sport's most hallowed conferences, the Big 12, which has been losing relevance in both the College Football Playoff conversation and in the NFL draft (page 54). We also have team-by-team previews of SI's Top 25, from Saban's Crimson Tide at No. 1 to Texas A&M at 25. Spoiler: No. 4 Oklahoma State could improve things for the Big 12.

Features like those are the fundamentals of preseason prep. This year we're adding a few wrinkles, too. Staff writer Joan Niesen looks at an obscure NCAA rule—the grad-transfer option (page 70)—that is suddenly having a seismic impact on the college football landscape. (Your coach hates this free agency approximation ... until he uses it to find a quarterback.) Even more futuristic: The cover is enabled for a special augmented reality experience, presented by Holiday Inn Express®. Download the LifeVR app, use its AR camera to scan the cover, and a video that sets the table for the 2017 season will play on your phone.

Speaking of setting the table: We've imagined this preview as a road trip through the season—spotlighting not only key games but also the towns and attractions that make college football about so much more than football. Food, of course, is huge. Sprinkled through the issue, you'll find Staples's recommendations for some of the tastiest—and scariest—dining options in the country, part of the Top 25 College Town Meals he's assembled for our new digital food vertical, SI Eats. (The full list is at SI.com/eats.)

So what does our lead college football writer and resident road eats expert do to get geared up for the season? "I study depth charts, schedules and college town menus," Staples says. "Every so often I'll mix 'Rocky Top' or 'The Victors' or 'Fight On' into the workout playlist. And if I really want to get fired up, I pull up the greatest calls of Keith Jackson or Larry Munson on YouTube. I still have no idea what a hobnail boot is, but I know I get pumped when I hear Larry yell about it."

That's the essence of college football: We can't always explain it, but we love it. Consider yourself prepared.

College football 2017: Darnold, Saban and the Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese at the Village Idiot in Lexington, Ky.