The 2017 college football season is complete, with Monday’s national championship game in Atlanta the final chapter of a story that began with Florida State as a national title contender, Notre Dame the butt of an offseason’s worth of 4-8 jokes and more than a few long-term questions about the long-term fate of several Southeastern Conference coaches.
Well, Florida State fell apart, Notre Dame authored a 10-win season and a half-dozen SEC schools have a different program leader than this time last year. Sometimes, change is easy to predict; other times, not so much.
It’s a long, cold offseason (relatively shorter for those who obsess over spring football), and it’s not too early to take a stab at a top 25 (plus a half-dozen more) for next fall.
Arizona, which probably would have cracked this list without any instability, is a bit of a wild card after Rich Rodriguez’s firing. Also missing is Florida Atlantic, but after an 11-3 season, it would be unwise to bet against the Conference USA champion Owls or Coach Lane Kiffin’s ability to draw attention to himself. That last part’s a given, of course.
But there are 31 teams below, all of which have the benefit of having a zero in the loss column for most of the next eight months as the focus shifts to 2018.
31. Texas A&M (7-6 in 2017): All eyes on College Station and Jimbo Fisher, the 75 Million Dollar Man himself. If he can win multiple conference games in November, that would be a win in and of itself.
30. Iowa State (8-5): Owners of the nation’s most successful 8-5 season this past fall, the Cyclones will try to repeat their strong showing as Matt Campbell heads into his third year in Ames.
29. Missouri (7-6): If quarterback Drew Lock turns pro rather than play his senior year for the Tigers, ignore this projection. But life in the SEC East isn’t that arduous, and Missouri did win six in a row before a bowl loss to Texas to close out 2017.
28. Texas (7-6): A winning season constituted progress for the Longhorns. Do they make a jump in Coach Tom Herman’s second season, or tread water in the middle of the Big 12? Last season’s results suggest either is possible.
27. West Virginia (7-6): The Mountaineers are easy to forget about as a geographic misfit in the Big 12, but they might have the league’s best quarterback next season in Will Grier. West Virginia will score a bunch of points, and is a decent bet to exceed this conservative expectation.
26. Memphis (10-3): The Tigers aren’t going to fall off that much, even after the departure of quarterback Riley Ferguson. Mike Norvell is set up to be one of the top targets in next year’s coaching carousel.
25. South Carolina (9-4): Credit to Will Muschamp, who learned some lessons from his time at Florida and has applied them while overachieving in his first two seasons with the Gamecocks. Junior quarterback Jake Bentley has a season and a half of starting experience, the defense has a few holes but a lot of answers and the SEC East isn’t frightening beyond Georgia. South Carolina could push for 10 victories.
24. Florida State (7-6): Willie Taggart returns east after a one-year pit stop at Oregon to take over the Seminoles in the wake of Fisher’s departure. Sophomore tailback Cam Akers is a good place to start on offense, and a healthy Deondre Francois would presumably have a good shot to seize the starting quarterback job. But the lingering question here is the offensive line; can Taggart fix that in an offseason?
23. Oklahoma State (10-3): The Cowboys have six 10-win seasons in the past eight years, and it doesn’t make sense to bet too heavily against them. With quarterback Mason Rudolph and wideout James Washington departing, it might take some time for the Cowboys to figure things out on offense. But it probably won’t take long.
22. Texas Christian (11-3): There are questions scattered across the roster, from quarterback and running back to several key spots on defense. Gary Patterson has a way of solving those problems, and while the Horned Frogs don’t look quite as dangerous, they’ll remain a threat to reach the Big 12 title game.
21. Oregon (7-6): The Ducks will have their third coach in as many years, but at least Mario Cristobal (a) was on staff last season and (b) has head-coaching experience from his time at Florida International. Expect more progress in Eugene, especially with another year under ace defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. A healthy Justin Herbert at quarterback will help, too.
20. Boise State (11-3): The Mountain West favorites will have quarterback Brett Rypien back, and a Sept. 15 trip to Oklahoma State looks more manageable (not easy, mind you, but manageable) chance to pick up a brand-name victory with the Cowboys’ considerable losses on offense. If Central Florida doesn’t dominate again, this is the best bet to earn the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl berth.
19. Michigan (8-5): The Wolverines are adding Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, and he should help their woeful quarterback situation. After sputtering along last season and enjoying minimal success against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in three seasons under Coach Jim Harbaugh, 2018 is a prove-it year for the Maize and Blue.
18. LSU (9-4): School administrators dug deep into their pockets to keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who will average $2.5 million per year over the next four years. The Tigers were a much better team once October arrived, but it will be interesting to see what sort of offensive identity is forged once Coach Ed Orgeron hires a new coordinator.
17. Mississippi State (9-4): Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead probably landed in the best situation among this year’s crop of new head coaches. He takes over an experienced roster with a tested quarterback (Nick Fitzgerald). His arrival isn’t accompanied by over-the-top expectations (a la Jimbo Fisher). And no one expects him to win his league immediately (which may well be true at Central Florida). Still, a 10-win season isn’t out of the question for the Bulldogs.
16. Notre Dame (10-3): You know what the Irish are going to do. A run-heavy offense paired with a stingy defense that must replace Texas A&M-bound coordinator Mike Elko suggests there will be a relatively high floor for this bunch. But the schedule is daunting: Florida State, Michigan and Stanford at home, Southern Cal and Virginia Tech on the road. If the Irish find a way to go 11-1, they will have earned a playoff berth.
15. Southern California (11-3): For the first time since before Pete Carroll left, the Trojans feel like a stable program with a long-term plan. Sure, Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones are off to the NFL, so the ceiling probably isn’t as high in 2018 as it was this season, but USC has plenty of pieces in place under Coach Clay Helton and three of their five division rivals will have a new coach. The Trojans should repeat in the Pac-12 South.
14. Central Florida (14-0): Scott Frost has gone to Nebraska, and the Knights will break in a first-time head coach in Josh Heupel. That means something of a learning curve, though Frost illustrated that doesn’t have to mean much (he took over an 0-12 team and went undefeated two years later). Central Florida probably won’t go to Disney World to savor a self-proclaimed national title again, but with McKenzie Milton back at quarterback, it should be viewed as a favorite in the American.
13. Stanford (9-5): The Cardinal probably gets dinged a spot or two if Bryce Love turns pro. Then again, Stanford changes running backs as well as offensive linemen and tight ends and its power rushing attack continues to produce at a high level. The Pac-12 North isn’t a neighborhood that’s getting any easier, and the Cardinal has to go to Washington next season. Nonetheless, QB K.J. Costello and the Cardinal won’t be an easy out.
12. Virginia Tech (9-4): This was a transition year for the Hokies, who unexpectedly had to break in a freshman quarterback and still had a shot at a 10-win season. Josh Jackson did fine, and Virginia Tech’s defense is one of the sport’s most dependable units. It wouldn’t be a shock if Justin Fuente’s team unseated Miami in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
11. Michigan State (10-3): From the playoff to 3-9 to 10-3, it’s been a wild ride on the field for the Spartans. Five months ago, it was anyone’s guess whether Mark Dantonio could get his program back on track. That question received an impressive answer, and now it’s time to go back to the standard expectations for the Spartans: strong, stingy and ready to exploit their opponents’ mistakes at every turn.
10. Washington (10-3): Things didn’t fall into place quite as nicely as the Huskies would have hoped in 2017. Still, Jake Browning is back for his fourth year as a starter, and the Huskies’ defense should remain exceptional — especially against the run (No. 4 nationally). The opener against Auburn in Atlanta is one of the highlights of Labor Day weekend.
9. Penn State (11-2): Just because Saquon Barkley is understandably off to make a lot of money playing on Sundays doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions are poised to fall apart. Yes, they’ll rely more on quarterback Trace McSorley, but this was a miserly defensive team as well and that isn’t about to change. Penn State gets Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin at home in 2018, too.
8. Miami (10-3): If only this season ended on Thanksgiving. Alas, the Hurricanes dropped their last three games and ended the year without a conference, bowl or national championship trophy. Still, Mark Richt has his alma mater on the right track, though it will be interesting to see if a team that relied so heavily on forcing turnovers can replicate that performance in 2018. Here’s guessing there is some regression there, but improved offensive efficiency with QB Malik Rosier back for another season as a starter.
7. Auburn (10-4): The Tigers found a quarterback this season in Jarrett Stidham, and his presence should help offset the loss of key rusher Kerryon Johnson. But the main reason Auburn was good this season was its improvement on defense. If that side of the ball can sustain its success despite some notable losses, the Tigers will be a factor again in the SEC.
6. Oklahoma (12-2): Baker Mayfield exits with his Heisman Trophy, and Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray is set to take over the explosive Sooners offense. Coach Lincoln Riley will have an even better sense of how to go about things in his second season, and there isn’t an obvious team in the Big 12 to make a sustained run at 8-1 or 9-0 in the league. Oklahoma remains the conference’s default favorite.
5. Ohio State (12-2): The Buckeyes have averaged 12.2 victories in six seasons under Urban Meyer while never losing more than two games. They’ll survive J.T. Barrett’s graduation just fine. Even if Dwayne Haskins doesn’t immediately emerge as a star, Ohio State boasts a potent rushing attack and a Nick Bosa-led defense that adds another sharp mind in former Washington State coordinator Alex Grinch.
4. Georgia (13-2): This season was a validation of two things — former coach Richt’s talent evaluation (which really wasn’t in question) and Kirby Smart’s ability to maximize his talent (which, as with any first-time head coach, had to be determined). Well, Georgia followed the Alabama blueprint: Nasty on defense, able to rely on a punishing running game. The Bulldogs have some pieces to replace, but they have two tested young QBs (Jake Fromm and Jacob Eason) to work with moving forward.
3. Wisconsin (13-1): The schedule will be tougher, certainly, what with trips to Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. But the Big Ten West should still be manageable (even with Purdue emerging as a greater threat) and the Badgers’ defense will remain miserly. Toss in sophomore tailback Jonathan Taylor, and the Badgers are a serious threat to make their first playoff trip.
2. Clemson (12-2): Dabo Swinney has the Tigers right where Florida State was a couple years ago — and where Alabama is every year. Clemson has piled up seven consecutive 10-win seasons, three ACC titles in a row and will have quarterback Kelly Bryant back for another run. Then there’s coordinator Brent Venables’s always-stout defense. A fourth playoff berth in a row is attainable.
1. Alabama (13-1): It didn’t matter how Monday night played out. Alabama is the surest thing in the sport. Including 2017, the Crimson Tide has finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll in 10 consecutive seasons. While some high-end talent will head for the NFL, Coach Nick Saban has as many future pros in the pipeline as anyone — and he even had a second star quarterback emerge on Monday night. Expect Alabama to contend again next season.
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