1. Alabama (14-1 in 2016): The Crimson Tide was a play away from another national title last year. It brings back an electric quarterback in sophomore Jalen Hurts. There are enough pieces back from the best defense in the land, including defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, to be assured Alabama will continue to smother opponents.
This much seems certain: The Tide won’t trip up against a middling foe. It has won 60 in a row against unranked opponents, a stretch dating back to 2007. So maybe Florida State knocks off Alabama in the opener. Maybe Auburn or LSU can snag a victory. Perhaps even Texas A&M, which history tells us will be ranked when it meets the Crimson Tide in early October. It’s more likely Alabama rolls through them all and back into the College Football Playoff for the fourth year in a row.
2. Ohio State (11-2): The Buckeyes’ record last year was their worst under Meyer, which is incredible. He’s 61-6 since coming to Columbus, though it’s worth mentioning Jim Tressel was 56-9 in his last five seasons with the Buckeyes.
The Ohio State steamroller is headed for another 11- or 12-win regular season. That’s thanks to an experienced bunch that includes a monster defensive line led by Tyquan Lewis and a veteran quarterback, J.T. Barrett, who has seen just about everything. The Buckeyes get Oklahoma and Penn State at home, and might have their best defense yet under Meyer. This will be a tough bunch to upend.
3. Florida State (10-3): The Seminoles or Clemson have won every ACC title since 2009. With the Tigers losing so many proven stars from their title team, it looks like it will be Jimbo Fisher’s turn to hoist the championship trophy in Charlotte this December.
You know what you’re getting here. The Seminoles are strong up front and still have more options in the secondary than anybody except perhaps Alabama. Sophomore QB Deondre Francois should be more at ease in his second year as a starter. The offensive line is a bit of a question, but the overall level of talent on the roster isn’t.
4. Washington (12-2): Pegging the Huskies as a post-hype team a year early wasn’t a good idea last summer. They were every bit a top-five team in 2016, and while there were some NFL defections, Washington could be even better this year. That’s why the pick here is for them to return to the playoff.
The offense, which was stifled by Alabama in the national semifinals, brings back QB Jake Browning and star RB Myles Gaskin. The defense is led by a veteran linebacking corps, with Azeem Victor the best of the bunch. Maybe Washington doesn’t get the better of Southern California if they meet in the league title game, but no one should be surprised if it heads to the playoff again this year.
5. Oklahoma (11-2): Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield? He’s back. All five starting offensive linemen? Also returning. That’s an incredible place to start for a team that ranked second in the country in total yardage and third in scoring last season.
There wasn’t just a gap between the Sooners and the rest of the Big 12 in the second half of last season, there was a canyon. When they were challenged in league play, they just kept on scoring until the clock hit zeros. Expect that to happen again in a league with its share of beleaguered defenses. The real test comes Sept. 9 at Ohio State, the Sooners’ biggest bellwether since losing to the Buckeyes early last year at home.
6. Southern California (10-3): Is the wait for the next great Trojan team finally over? Some might argue it ended last year, and it’s tough to dispute that Southern Cal was probably one of the three or four best teams in the country after the start of October. But September counted, too, and that’s why the Trojans were part of a classic Rose Bowl rather than in the playoff.
Clay Helton’s second full season is promising not just because of QB Sam Darnold and RB Ronald Jones, but also because the defense is moving closer to the standards set by the Trojans a decade ago. The schedule helps, too; Stanford, UCLA and Utah all visit the Coliseum, and Washington is nowhere to be found.
7. Clemson (14-1): It should be noted that “not as good as last year” doesn’t mean the Tigers will be bad, or average or merely good. They’ve stacked so many strong recruiting classes this decade under Dabo Swinney and are one of the most reliable programs in the country. Making the defensive front a priority helps, and the combination of Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence at tackle might be the best in the country.
There are some echoes to 2014, when the Tigers were replacing Tajh Boyd and had some holes on offense. A holdover backup (Cole Stoudt) initially won the job and faced an early-season gantlet, but eventually Watson took over. It’s possible the same sequence unfolds this time around. The schedule, which includes Auburn and Louisville in September, will be prickly enough to make it clear quickly whether Clemson has any realistic hope of a third consecutive playoff berth.
8. Auburn (8-5): The Tigers’ most glaring deficiency the last couple years was erratic play at quarterback. Enter Jarrett Stidham, who played well for Baylor two years ago and transferred as the wreckage of the Art Briles regime crumbled in Waco.
He had 12 touchdowns against two interceptions as a freshman in 2015, and assuming there’s no rust he should settle in as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Auburn brings back 1,200-yard rusher Kamryn Pettway, and much of a defense that methodically worked its way back into the top half of the SEC last year. It’s not fun working in Saban’s shadow, but this projects as a team capable of winning 10 games.
9. Penn State (11-3): Offense is the strength here, and it pretty much has been since halftime of a season-changing victory over Minnesota last year. Tailback Saquon Barkley and QB Trace McSorley jump-started a nine-game winning streak, making themselves household names while ensuring Franklin would be a much richer man thanks to a contract extension issued this month.
There’s enough back on offense (four starters return on the line, as do most of the receiving corps) to ensure any defensive questions will be answered with a decidedly Big 12 attitude. Go ahead and try to score more than the Nittany Lions; most of the teams they’ll face don’t have much of a chance to do so. After a Big Ten title, the next step is a playoff berth, and that’s probably going to require a victory at Ohio State (and about 11 more triumphs along the way).
10. Oklahoma State (10-3): He’s a man, he’s 50 and he’s averaged 9.3 victories per season since uncorking one of the great coaching rants of the 21st century. No matter how generous the money spigot, it is hard to post five 10-win seasons in seven seasons at Oklahoma State while sharing the neighborhood with Oklahoma and Texas. That’s quite the feat for Mike Gundy.
There’s a good chance the Cowboys get there again. QB Mason Rudolph should pass Brandon Weeden as the program’s career passing leader no later than the third week of the season, and James Washington, who averaged 19.4 yards per catch last year, is one of the nation’s best deep threats. Even with a little regression on defense after six starters depart, Oklahoma State again poses the biggest obstacle to Oklahoma in the Big 12.