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In each issue of Athlon Sports & Life, we pick six of our favorite things. They may be books, automobiles, games, gear, booze, apparel or whatever happens to be awesome. Here's what made our shortlist this month:
Star Wars Han Solo Yoga Mat
Whether you're a Star Wars geek wanting to display Jabba the Hut's favorite palace decoration (as in, Han Solo frozen in carbonite) or just want something unique to use at your next yoga session, this is a must-have. Like it, you will. $65 onnit.com
Hometeam Snack Box
If you're looking for any easy way to get some go-to snacks for your next game day gatherings, look no further. This snack box comes with all sorts of goodies, including Moose Munch Gourmet Popcorn, a one-pound football-shaped sausage, bean dip, queso dip, crackers and more. $50 harryanddavid.com
Epson Home Cinema 2150 3LCD Projector
If you've ever watched a movie at home or played a video game that fills up a wall or giant screen, you'll understand why you need one of these. Get widescreen 1080p images up to 11 feet or more — over four times larger than your puny 60-inch flat panel. It offers 2,500 lumens of color/white brightness to deliver vibrant images. Better yet, you can stream movies, games and more — from wireless or wired HDMI devices. $900 epson.com
DEWALT 20V Max Lithium-Ion Brushless Compact Drill Driver
This lightweight and compact drill is ideal for working in tight spaces. A high-speed transmission delivers two-speed variations allowing users to choose the level of performance needed for various applications. It comes with two lithium-ion batteries, so you can keep one charged while using the other. And we love the LED light which helps you line up in those hard to see places. $99 amazon.com
Golf Pride MCC ALIGN Grips
For many golfers, finding consistent hand placement on your clubs can be the difference between a great swing and yelling, "Fore!" These all-weather grips, popular among the pros, do just that thanks to raised ridges and surface texture that makes holding your club feel like shaking hands with an old friend. Starting at $11 golfpride.com
2018 Ford F-450 Super Duty Limited
It's time to live large. Ford establishes a new top end for trucks with the new Super Duty Limited, specially tailored for high-end heavy-duty truck customers. Ford’s luxury truck is powered by 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel V8 and features 20-inch polished aluminum wheels, a satin chrome grill and tailgate applique, premium Camelback two-tone leather seats, and dark ash swirl wood treatments. Customers who check every option box on this teched-out truck will top out around $94,455. Ford.com
In the latest Cover 2 podcast, Braden Gall and Mitch Light preview the Week 12 slate of college football action. Wisconsin hosts Michigan in by the far the biggest game of the day. Braden, continuing to show his disdain for Wisconsin — the school he grew up rooting for — picks Michigan to roll.
Other topics discussed:
• Mitch and Braden break down the latest CFP ranking
• Mitch puts an end to the worst segment in podcast history: Braden’s “Dilly Dilly”
• Should Georgia or Miami be on upset alert?
• Mitch makes his picks against the spread
Week 12 of the 2017 college football season features plenty of intriguing matchups, as conference play is in full effect with just three weeks of games remaining, and Athlon Sports is ready with complete predictions, preview and picks for the upcoming weekend of action. The Week 12 slate features only one matchup between top 25 teams, but there's no shortage of quality games to keep an eye on. Midweek MACtion kicked off the Week 12 slate on Tuesday night and continues into Wednesday with three games, including Western Michigan at Northern Illinois. Thursday's slate features USF hosting Tulsa and Buffalo traveling to Ball State. Friday's schedule also features two games, as MTSU-WKU meet in a key game for bowl positioning for both teams, while UNLV looks to keep its postseason hopes alive with a win at New Mexico. On Saturday, Wisconsin hosts Michigan at noon ET in the top game of Week 12. Outside of that Big Ten clash in Madison, Virginia-Miami, TCU-Texas Tech, UCF-Temple, SMU-Memphis and Texas-West Virginia are just a few of the games to watch in the first window. The afternoon slate features Navy-Notre Dame, Kansas State-Oklahoma State and Kentucky-Georgia. At night, LSU-Tennessee, Arizona-Oregon, Texas A&M-Ole Miss and UCLA-USC are just a few of the matchups on tap. One under the radar game for Week 12 takes place in Boca Raton, as Lane Kiffin's FAU Owls host FIU.
Each week, Athlon Sports’ editors will pick every game in the FBS ranks. Follow us on Twitter: (@AthlonSports)
Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 12
Eastern Michigan at
Western Michigan at
Western Carolina at
Delaware State at
New Mexico State at
Coastal Carolina at
The Citadel at
South Alabama at
San Jose State at
Arizona State at
Louisiana Tech at
San Diego State
Air Force at
Texas A&M at
Texas State at
Fresno State at
NC State at
Georgia Tech at
Iowa State at
Boston College vs.
Mississippi State at
Kansas State at
With the loss at Miami two weeks ago, any dreams that Virginia Tech had of going to the College Football Playoff were lost. And losing to Georgia Tech on Saturday took the Hokies out of New Year’s Six contention. But Justin Fuente's team still has reasons to be ready to play their final two games.
Thanksgiving weekend will feature a trip to rival Virginia and before that Pittsburgh comes to Blacksburg for Senior Day. Cam Phillips, Greg Stroman, Andrew Motuapuaka, and several others will be suiting up for the last time at Lane Stadium.
Pittsburgh is now 4-6 after losing to North Carolina last Thursday night and is looking to avenge last year’s 39-36 loss to the Hokies at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech
When: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ACC Network
Spread: Virginia Tech -16.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Virginia Tech offensive line
There have been concerns about the Tech offensive front for quite some time, but the last two weeks have been especially troubling. The Hokies have rushed for just 207 yards combined in the last two games and allowed six sacks. Not coincidentally, left tackle Yosuah Nijman was injured in the Duke game and did not play against Miami and Georgia Tech. A Nijman return would be nice, but either way, improved line play is a necessity.
2. Pittsburgh pass defense
It was an issue once again against a North Carolina offense that has struggled throwing the ball effectively. Tar Heels quarterback Nathan Elliott completed 20 of 31 attempts for 235 yards and two scores, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers. Plus, one-man wrecking crew Anthony Ratliff-Williams threw for another while also catching one of Elliott’s touchdown tosses and returning a kick for six points. This week the Panthers will have to contain Virginia Tech's top target, Cam Phillips, and the emerging Sean Savoy.
3. Darrin Hall and the Panthers' running game
While it was not a good night for the Panthers on the scoreboard, Hall (above, right) continued his roll against North Carolina. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound running back went for 121 rushing yards and four touchdowns, pushing his totals in the last three games to 486 yards and eight touchdowns. While Virginia Tech normally is stout against the run, the Hokies have struggled the past two weeks. Of course, many teams have problems with Georgia Tech’s option, but Miami also piled up 210 yards on the ground. Hall will get his chances despite being Virginia Tech's primary focus.
Pittsburgh finds itself in a very tough situation. The Panthers need to win both of their remaining games to become bowl eligible and after the trip to Blacksburg they will host red-hot Miami next week. Also, their pass defense continues to be a problem. The play of Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, much like the rest of the team, has slipped in recent weeks and some of the blame can be placed on his offensive line. Pittsburgh is 84th in the nation in sacks and if Jackson has time he should be able to get the ball to Cam Phillips and Sean Savoy. Offensively, the Panthers don’t want to have to rely on quarterback Ben DiNucci to win this game so they are going to need another great effort from Darrin Hall. The junior running back will get some yards, but it won’t be enough and the Hokies will get a Senior Day win.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Pittsburgh 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
There is more on the line in this game than meets the eye. The TCU Horned Frogs (8-2, 5-2 Big 12) are still the front-runners for a rematch with the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game. While it seems unlikely they will end up in the College Football Playoff, even if they win the Big 12, crazier things have happened. Meantime, the Texas Tech Red Raiders (5-5. 2-5) are coming off a win against Baylor in Arlington and now need to split one of their next two games to be bowl eligible. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury will feel much better about his job security for 2018 if he can get this team to a bowl game for the third time in his five seasons.
TCU at Texas Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: TCU -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who’s at quarterback for TCU?
TCU head coach Gary Patterson (above, right) announced on Tuesday that quarterback Kenny Hill is “probable to questionable” for this game against the Red Raiders. Hill does not get the same recognition as the top gunslingers in the Big 12, but he has been a consistent presence to lead this TCU offense. Hill has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,279 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions. If he can’t go, Patterson will ride the arm and legs of true freshman Shawn Robinson. He was a highly-regarded four-star prospect from DeSoto, Texas, with offers from Auburn, Michigan, Oklahoma, and several others. But is he ready for prime time with Big 12 title hopes on the line? Luckily, with TCU’s strong running game, he won’t be asked to do too much.
2. Turnover war
When the Red Raiders shot out of the gates off to a 4-1 start and getting ranked in the Top 25, they were leading the Big 12 in turnover margin. They snapped their four-game losing streak last week in a win over Baylor, a game where the Red Raiders forced four turnovers. In wins, Texas Tech has 10 fumble recoveries in five games. In five losses, they have zero. Both teams have been steady in conference play, going plus-three in the turnover margin. But it won’t be easy this week for Texas Tech, as TCU has only lost the ball five times in Big 12 play, the fewest in the conference.
3. Texas Tech offense vs. TCU defense
This is the matchup to watch. TCU has one of the best defenses in the country, but has injury concerns with linebackers Travin Howard, Montrel Wilson and safety Niko Small. They are all among the top 10 tacklers for the Horned Frogs this season. Does that allow Texas Tech’s high-powered offense to do even more damage? Tech has made an effort at being more balanced by running the ball, but the Horned Frogs have been even stinger against the run (second in the FBS) than the pass, so expect to see much more of Nic Shimonek slinging it on the outside to Keke Coutee and Dylan Cantrell. Tech’s best chance in this game is to get out to an early lead and force TCU to throw the ball with either Hill or Robinson.
Take this with an extreme grain of salt, but it’s a fun little stat: Playing on Nov. 18 has traditionally been favorable for the Red Raiders, who are 9-2 in their history on the date heading into this weekend. Texas Tech is a perfect 5-0 when playing at home on the date.
Yes, the Horned Frogs are banged up, but they are still the superior team and are ultimately playing for more (a Big 12 championship). Tech’s only win the past five games was last week against a one-win Baylor team using a true freshman quarterback who they forced into mistakes. Even if Kenny Hill can’t play for TCU, the Horned Frogs’ running game is more than capable of getting the job done (even though it’s missing Darius Anderson, who’s out with an injury). Kyle Hicks and Sewo Olonilua should carry most of the load against a Texas Tech team that is allowing nearly 170 rushing yards per game.
TCU is tops in the Big 12 in passing defense and should be able to slow down Nic Shimonek and the Red Raiders’ aerial attack enough to pick up the road victory. Also, if this game comes down to a field goal or special teams, don’t expect much from Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have hit one field goal the past five games and is near the bottom of the Big 12 in PATs, punt return average and punting average.
Prediction: TCU 31, Texas Tech 24
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a college football analyst for Sports Illustrated’s SI Now and a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio. He can be found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.
Winners of five straight games, the Northwestern Wildcats are flirting with a possible 10-win season for the third time under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Getting to 10 wins may be a reach as it will require the Wildcats to win their remaining two games on the regular season schedule and their bowl game, but this team has proven they have the guts to do whatever is needed to win a game no matter how long it takes. This week, the Wildcats host the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are fresh off a blowout victory over Nebraska that has P.J. Fleck and his program thinking about rowing their boat to a bowl game.
Minnesota may need a few more paddles to get out of Evanston with a win this week, but the Gophers are certainly feeling better about themselves after last week's showing against the Cornhuskers. Can they dig in and grind out a win against steady Northwestern?
Minnesota at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Justin Jackson's home finale
His season may not have gone quite according to plan, but Jackson (above, right) is the Big Ten's fifth-leading rusher with 844 yards and eight touchdowns. He has played a pivotal role in the success of the Northwestern offense during the last few seasons, so it will be fitting if he can wrap up his home career in Evanston with a big day on the ground. Jackson and Northwestern hope to find the holes against the eighth-ranked rushing defense in the Big Ten. Minnesota has allowed 15 rushing touchdowns this season as well, so do not be shocked to see Jackson get to the end zone on senior day.
2. Minnesota knows how to protect the football
There are only two teams in the Big Ten who have had fewer turnovers this season than Minnesota. The Gophers have lost the football just 13 times in 10 games this year with five lost fumbles and eight interceptions. That has helped contribute to Minnesota being tied in for the second-best margin (+4) in the conference. The Wildcats, on the other hand, come into this game with a minus-two turnover margin this season but have been on the plus side in each of their last four games.
3. Who has the advantage in the passing game?
At first glance, it would appear Northwestern has the clear edge in the passing game this week. Clayton Thorson has anchored a passing game averaging 270.5 yards per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten, but the results have been up and down with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Gophers also have the Big Ten's third-best pass defense (183.9 ypg) this season. Northwestern brings up the rear in the Big Ten pass defense rankings, while Minnesota ranks 13th in the conference in passing yards per game (143.0) offense. Something has to give, right?
P.J. Fleck has Minnesota heading in a positive direction, and the Golden Gophers remain one win away from being able to go to a bowl game. Getting that elusive win may be difficult against Northwestern, which continues to play well. Northwestern will merely have to focus on shutting down Minnesota's rushing attack and that should swing the game in their favor rather easily. Brighter days are ahead for Minnesota, but Northwestern remains the second-best program going in the Big Ten West Division right now.
Prediction: Northwestern 27, Minnesota 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
The No. 21 Memphis Tigers can wrap up a spot in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game with a victory on Saturday. Since dropping its conference opener by a wide margin to UCF, the Tigers have won five straight and at 8-1, are just two wins from tying a school record for victories.
The opponent this week will be a good SMU team, who comes in with a record of 6-4. The Mustangs have lost consecutive games to UCF and Navy, but by a combined 10 points. Both were decided late. SMU however, is just one win away from ensuring a winning season for the first time since 2012 and its first as a member of the AAC.
The Tigers have won three straight in the series with the average margin of victory being just under 48 points. Memphis trounced SMU a season ago in Dallas, 51-7. SMU is looking for its first win over a ranked team since defeating Houston last season.
SMU at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNews
Spread: Memphis -13
Three Things to Watch
Saturday’s contest in Memphis will feature the top two passers in the AAC and two of the top 15 players nationally when it comes to passing yards. The bigger name of the two is Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson, who is coming off a four-touchdown performance in a win over Tulsa. Since struggling in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Ferguson has passed for at least 279 yards in every game and has thrown for more than 400 yards twice and for at least three touchdowns five times, including seven in a win over Connecticut earlier this season and six in an upset of UCLA.
Not to be forgotten, SMU sophomore quarterback Ben Hicks (above, right) also has had a stellar year as the Mustangs are bowl eligible for the first time in five seasons. Hicks has a solid corps of skill players around him and he has improved immensely after being thrown into the fire as a freshman. Hicks threw four touchdown passes last week and rallied the Mustangs from 23 points down to tie Navy, only to lose on a last-second field goal.
2. Memphis offensive line vs. SMU defensive line
The battle up front will be one to watch this week, especially when Memphis has the football. The Tigers have been outstanding this season in pass protection as the offensive line has yielded just 10 sacks all season. Led by center Drew Kyser and senior guard Gabe Kuhn, only nine FBS teams have allowed fewer sacks than Memphis. Among those nine teams, only Colorado State has attempted more passes than the Tigers.
That Memphis offensive line however, should have its hands full this week. SMU ranks second in the AAC with 26 sacks. Only South Florida has more. The name to know up front for the Mustangs is defensive end Justin Lawler. Lawler leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. When it comes to being able to get to the passer however, Lawler is not alone. Fellow defensive end Tyeson Neals has 4.5 sacks and linebacker Kyran Mitchell has four sacks while being tied with Lawler for the team lead in stops behind the line of scrimmage.
3. Home-field advantage
The location of Saturday’s contest is important to note. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has been quite kind to the Tigers this season. Memphis has yet to lose at home (5-0), but it has been tested. Three of those five home wins have been decided by eight points or fewer. If this one is close, it's a situation the Tigers are familiar with and have been able to thrive in, at least at home.
For SMU, it’s been quite the opposite as three of the Mustangs’ four losses have come on the road. In those losses however, SMU was competitive, leading both TCU and Houston early on. Then, you have last week’s loss to Navy as time expired. It is important to note the only road win this season for SMU came by three points over a Cincinnati team that is just 3-7 on the year.
Neither SMU nor Memphis are strangers to playing high-scoring shootouts and with a pair of quarterbacks who can sling it, expect more of the same on Saturday. One thing to question is the mental state of the Mustangs after dropping heartbreakers to UCF and Navy in consecutive weeks. Adding insult to injury is that they will be on the road to face a Memphis squad that has yet to lose at home and needs only a win to clinch a spot in the conference title game.
Prediction: Memphis 45, SMU 31
(Ben Hicks photo courtesy of smumustangs.com)
After two consecutive victories over ranked teams, the Miami Hurricanes now find themselves No. 3 in the newly released College Football Playoff rankings.
The Hurricanes’ (9-0) latest win came over No. 3 Notre Dame, 41-8 as Miami led the game from start to finish and simply dominated the Irish in every face. The Hurricanes have already clinched their first-ever trip to the ACC Championship Game, but will look to keep things rolling against an upstart Virginia Cavaliers team.
Last week, the Cavaliers (6-4) lost to Louisville 38-21 as quarterback Lamar Jackson ran for 147 yards and a score. After blazing out to a 5-1 start, Virginia has lost three of its last four games, all to ACC teams.
These two teams have played each other 14 times previous with Miami holding a slight 8-6 advantage.
Virginia at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Miami -19.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Hurricanes’ defense
In their dominating victory over Notre Dame last Saturday, Miami’s defense came up with three interceptions, a strip sack, and a fumble recovery. That gave the Hurricanes eight takeaways in their previous two games and 24 for the season, which is the fourth most in the nation.
Miami will be playing a Virginia team that has been disciplined this year as the Cavaliers have turned the ball over just 12 times in 10 games. Five of those 10 turnovers came in two games, three against Boston College and two against Louisville, both resulting in losses.
The Hurricanes have a plus-15 advantage in turnover margin, which is the second best in the country. With Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert (above, right) putting together a solid season (2,492 passing yards, 21 TDs), it will be up to Miami’s pass rush to get pressure on him to try to force him to make mistakes early in the game.
2. Cavaliers’ defense
Virginia also enters Saturday’s game with an impressive defense. The Cavaliers are ranked 36th in the country in total defense at 359.1 yards per game allowed.
Free safety Quin Blanding, who has 454 career tackles, leads the way and will be looking to slow down Miami quarterback Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes’ offense.
Rosier was efficient against Notre Dame last week, completing 15 of his 24 pass attempts for 137 yards and a touchdown. Most of the Hurricanes’ damage came on the ground, as they ran for 237 yards on the Irish, led by running back Travis Homer’s 146.
Virginia’s focus needs to be on stopping the run and trying to force Rosier to beat them through the air. While Rosier has posted an impressive 20:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, he’s still not a prolific passer and is completing just 56.7 percent of his attempts on the season.
3. Miami’s attitude
During their last two victories over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, the Hurricanes have played with a chip on their shoulder as they had something to prove to the nation. Now that Miami is expected to win by a wide margin over Virginia, will the Hurricanes come out flat?
Players and fans on Twitter felt the Hurricanes were disrespected by being ranked below a Clemson Tigers team that lost to the Syracuse Orange, who Miami defeated by eight points. In their final home game of the season, the Hurricanes must play with the same edge that they did against the Hokies and Fighting Irish.
Virginia has the offensive firepower to keep the game close in the fourth quarter. Benkert is tied for the lead in the ACC in touchdown passes, with 21, and is averaging 249.2 passing yards per game on the season. Miami has already won the ACC Coastal Division and punched its ticket to the conference championship game, but it can’t afford any slips up if it wants to stay in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Now that Miami controls its destiny as it relates to a spot in the College Football Playoff some experts have said the team and fans will be complacent against an inferior opponent. Don’t count on it.
Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will have the team focused, as they are third in the playoff rankings behind a Clemson team that has lost a game.
While Virginia hasn’t turned the ball over a lot this season, they haven’t played a defense with as talented as Miami’s. Look for the Hurricanes to continue to make a statement as they count down to their first-ever appearance in the ACC Championship Game.
Prediction: Miami 37, Virginia 17
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
And then there were four. Undefeated teams, that is. With then-No. 1 Georgia falling out of the group after a 40-10 drubbing at now-No. 6 Auburn, only No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Miami, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 15 UCF — the highest-ranked Group of 5 team — remain perfect thus far in 2017. The Knights have had a tumultuous season to say the least, with two games — against Georgia Tech and Maine — cancelled due to Hurricane Irma and another against FCS opponent Austin Peay added to bring their game count back to 11. Through it all, though, UCF has held steady and dominated every opponent it has played, winning by an average of 28 points in nine games this season.
The Knights (9-0, 6-0 AAC) will try to keep their record unblemished for two more games, arguably the two most difficult on their schedule. Many want to look ahead to the Black Friday showdown between UCF and cross-state rival South Florida, but the Knights will have to get past a Temple team that is on the rise as of late. Needing to win three of its final four games to make a bowl, the Owls (5-5, 3-3) defeated Navy and Cincinnati and are only one win away from guaranteeing a postseason appearance. While the Knights of course have the perfect record, Temple has momentum and will not roll over on Saturday. These teams have only met four times previously, and while the series is tied at two games apiece the Owls have claimed victory in the last two, most recently a 26-25 win in Orlando last season.
UCF at Temple
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: UCF -14
Three Things to Watch
1. UCF claims residency in the end zone
Teams all across the country claim to be potent and put up a lot of points and yards, but no team can argue with UCF, the top-scoring offense in the nation at just under 49 points per game. Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton has averaged 302 passing yards per game, second in the AAC and ninth nationally. Milton also ranks in the top 15 in the country with 22 touchdown passes and with 17.3 points responsible for per game. He has a formidable cast around him to contribute to the cause. Sophomore running back Adrian Killins Jr. has rushed for a team-leading 599 yards and eight touchdowns, and freshman Otis Anderson has chipped in with 255 yards on 9.1 yards per carry in eight games. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith is quietly approaching a career year. With 761 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, he is 92 yards away from setting a career high in receiving yards and within reach of his first career 1,000-yard season.
2. Temple causing havoc defensively
What is a generally effective way to slow down a high-flying offense? Get pressure on the quarterback. Temple does a tremendous job of getting to and bringing down opposing quarterbacks, tallying nearly three sacks per game this season, good enough for second in the conference and 22nd nationally. The Owls feature a trio of proven pass rushers in Quincy Roche, Jacob Martin and Sharif Finch, each averaging more than half a sack per game. However, the Knights’ offensive line leads the AAC and sits eighth in the nation with only one sack allowed per game. Whichever line can control the trenches on Saturday will be a significant factor in determining who comes out on top after four quarters.
3. Time of possession
If there is one underappreciated attribute to Temple’s offense, it’s their ability to control the clock and limit opponents’ opportunities. Temple’s 30:28 average time of possession is fourth best in the AAC, a far cry from Navy’s 35:47 but still in the top half of the nation. While not up to the level of Milton and the Knights’ passing game, the duo of redshirt junior Frank Nutile and injured sophomore Logan Marchi have combined to throw for 256 yards per game. With UCF’s prolific scoring offense, holding onto and effectively moving the ball is imperative for the Owls to have any chance to pull the upset.
UCF comes into Saturday’s game with a perfect record and aspirations of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game. That matchup against South Florida on Black Friday will surely be a difficult test, but it would be a mistake for UCF to look past Temple, especially on the road. The Owls are a win away from securing bowl eligibility, and there would be no better way to do so than by handing UCF its first loss of the year. The Knights have a margin of victory of 18.5 points in each of their four road games, and would love to sustain that against Temple in Philadelphia.
Prediction: UCF 49, Temple 24
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @UCF_Football)
Two Mountain West teams coming off disappointing results are scheduled to meet Friday night in Albuquerque. UNLV had its two-game winning streak snapped last week by BYU, meaning the Rebels (4-6, 3-3 MW) must win to keep their bowl hopes alive. New Mexico (3-7, 1-5) had its bowl hopes dashed by Texas A&M, losing 55-14 in College Station last week. It was the fifth consecutive loss for the Lobos.
UNLV at New Mexico
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 17 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: New Mexico -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Correcting the running game
In 2016, New Mexico used its option attack to gain an average of 350.0 rushing yards per game, which led the nation and helped UNM win nine games. The Lobos have seen that number dip to 226.1 this season, which is still good for 22nd in the FBS, but just not near as productive as last year. New Mexico has failed to reach 200 rushing yards five times this season, and has averaged 185.4 during its five-game losing streak. The team also led the country with 6.6 yards per carry last season, but that’s down to 5.0 (34th). Since the Lobos haven’t been able to run the ball, they haven’t scored as points either. Bob Davie’s team is averaging 20.3 points per game this season, which places New Mexico 11th in the Mountain West, after leading the way with 36.7 in 2016.
Inconsistency at quarterback has played a role in this decline in offensive production. Lamar Jordan, a dynamic runner, was injured against Boise State and the senior missed the following game against Tulsa. Even when healthy, Jordan has shared snaps with Tevaka Tuioti and Coltin Gerhart. All three saw action last week against Texas A&M.
UNLV also has struggled to run the football consistently in recent weeks. The Rebels averaged an impressive 281.0 rushing yards across the first seven games of the season, but have managed just 142.0 over the last three. Running back Lexington Thomas, who is tied for the conference lead with 15 rushing touchdowns and ranks third with 1,146 rushing yards, has been held under 100 yards on the ground in three straight games.
2. Stopping the run
Naturally, because both teams like to run the ball, stopping the run will be paramount. New Mexico has had some success slowing down opponents on the ground, giving up 130.1 rushing yards per game, good for fourth in the Mountain West and in the top 30 in the nation. The Lobos have held four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards this season, including two of their last three. Last week, Texas A&M gained just 63 yards on 23 attempts.
UNLV has been more generous on the ground, allowing 227.3 rushing yards per game. That places the Rebels 10th in the conference and 120th in the FBS. The Rebels have surrendered more than 300 rushing yards on three different occasions and gave up 265 to BYU last week.
3. Winning the turnover battle
Thanks in part to an option offense that requires a series of fakes and pitches, as well as traditional handoffs, New Mexico has lost 15 fumbles – second most in the country. Overall, the Lobos have turned the football over 26 times, which is tied for second worst nationally. Coupled with a defense that has forced just 11 takeaways, UNM ranks 127th (out of 129 FBS teams) with minus-15 turnover margin. As a result, New Mexico has won the turnover battle just twice this season – but the Lobos are 2-0 in those games.
UNLV has done a better job both taking care of the football (14 turnovers, including just five lost fumbles) and taking it away (16 takeaways, including 11 fumble recoveries), giving the team a plus-two turnover margin. However, winning the turnover battle hasn’t directly resulted in a victory on the scoreboard – the Rebels are just 2-3 in such games this season.
With bowl eligibility no longer an option, New Mexico will be playing for its seniors during the final home game of their careers Friday night. On the other sideline, UNLV will be motivated knowing one more loss would mean a fourth consecutive season without a postseason appearance.
Both teams like to run the football, and the Lobos have had success with a unique option offense that distributes the ball to several ball carriers while UNLV has relied heavily on talented running back Lexington Thomas, whose pace has slowed in recent weeks. New Mexico also has done a better job stopping the run, and the unit is playing well despite its losing streak. Unfortunately, the Lobos have been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to ball security, which has played a big role in the declining rushing success, as well as put the defense in difficult short-yardage situations. Nevertheless, if the Lobos take care of the football, they can play spoiler.
Prediction: New Mexico 31, UNLV 30
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Injuries have riddled the 2017 season for Middle Tennessee (5-5) with multiple key playmakers missing extended periods of time throughout the year, including starting quarterback Brent Stockstill. But since Stockstill’s return to the lineup two weeks ago, the Blue Raiders have won two straight and can clinch bowl eligibility with a third consecutive victory.
Western Kentucky (5-5) also can clinch bowl eligibility with a win on Friday, but have a far more difficult stretch to close the season with a confident Middle Tennessee team this week and having to travel to FIU the day after Thanksgiving.
Neither team wants to leave it until the final week to secure postseason play, making this a crucial Conference USA battle Friday night.
Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Middle Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. He’s back folks
It’s like he never left. After missing six weeks due to a cracked sternum (yikes), Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill returned to the field against UTEP in Week 11 and while he only completed 43 percent of his passes, he still managed to toss three touchdown passes in the blowout victory. The rust wore off last week against Charlotte as Stockstill threw for 255 yards and three more touchdowns, leading the Blue Raiders to a 35-21 win. With those 255 yards, Stockstill became the school’s all-time leading passer with 8,159 yards and he still has a year of eligibility remaining. If it wasn’t evident before, it’s pretty clear now. This is an entirely different offense with Stockstill under center.
2. Year of streaks
After a 1-2 start to begin 2017, the Hilltoppers rattled off four consecutive wins to get to 5-2 and looked primed for a third consecutive trip to the Conference USA Championship Game. That came to a screeching halt as Western Kentucky has now dropped three straight after a close 30-23 loss at Marshall last week. If WKU is to get the ship turned around, which needs to happen quickly if the Hilltoppers want to go bowling, it will have to be via the arm of senior quarterback Mike White. Western Kentucky currently ranks dead last in the country in running the football, averaging just 69 rushing yards per game. In his last home game of his career, White will need to lead this offense through the air.
3. Out of nowhere
Middle Tennessee has struggled for much of the season running the football. For one, injuries certainly have not helped the lack of the passing game with Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James out. In addition, no running back has seized the starting role this season with as many as four players getting starts, including WR Ty Lee who was basically used there out of necessity. That may have changed against Charlotte with converted linebacker Tavares Thomas having a breakout game, rushing for a career-high 195 yards and two touchdowns. If Thomas can provide a consistent rushing attack with a healthy Stockstill, this offense is awfully tough to stop.
Don’t expect to see the same fireworks that we are accustomed to when these two team meet. In the last three meetings, the two programs have combined to average 90 points per game with Western Kentucky winning each of the last two matchups. Although Middle Tennessee appears to be healthy and on the rise of late, there is something about playing a desperate team on the road, on Senior Day that gives the slight edge to Western Kentucky here.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 31, Middle Tennessee 27
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Top photo courtesy of WKU Athletics/Steve Roberts)
Ten weeks into the NFL regular season and while a few teams have started to pull away slightly in their respective division, every team, except for three, is still very much alive for a playoff spot. Once again, the operative word this season appears to be parity.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh each have three-game leads in their divisions and in the Eagles’ case, they can put even more distance between them and the Cowboys with a win Sunday night in Dallas. The Cowboys lost to the Falcons in their first game without Ezekiel Elliott and now host a Philadelphia team that was won seven in a row and is coming off of its bye.
The Steelers kick the Week 11 slate off at home against a Titans team that is tied with the Jaguars for first in the AFC South. Jacksonville, which survived in overtime last week against the Chargers, will be in Cleveland to take on the Browns, who are the only winless team following San Francisco’s victory over the Giants last Sunday.
The most intriguing matchup of the week is in Minnesota between the Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, a pair of surprising division leaders who are tied with the Patriots, Steelers and Saints for the second-best record (7-2) in the league. Minnesota has won five games in a row and Los Angeles four, so one of those streaks is coming to end (or both if there’s a tie).
Other games on the slate include New England and Oakland playing in Mexico City and Tampa Bay and Miami finally playing each other after their season opener was rescheduled due to Hurricane Irma. Week 11 concludes with Atlanta in Seattle on Monday night as both teams are jockeying for playoff positioning, and the Seahawks figuring out their defense without top cornerback Richard Sherman.
So which teams will come out on top in every NFL game in Week 11? Athlon's own Rob Doster (AthlonDoster) and John Gworek (JohnGworek), along with AthlonSports.com contributor Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer), predict the winners for every game this week:
NFL Week 11 Predictions
Teams on bye: Carolina, Indianapolis, New York Jets, San Francisco
Tampa Bay at
Los Angeles Rams at
Kansas City at
New York Giants
Los Angeles Chargers
New England vs.
Oakland (Mexico City)
Atlanta atSeattle (MNF)
*Tampa Bay at Miami was postponed in Week 1 and moved to Week 11 due to the threat of Hurricane Irma.
The Week 12 edition of college football picks against the spread features a trio of games in the ACC, including Georgia Tech’s trip to Duke — where the Yellow Jackets will be looking for their first road win of the season — and Miami’s home date with Virginia. Can the Hurricanes stay hot? Here are 10 predictions for games against the spread:
Note: All games are on Saturday, Nov.18 unless otherwise noted.
Georgia Tech (-7) over Duke
Duke’s season continues to spiral out of control. The Blue Devils lost their sixth straight game, falling to Army 21–16 at West Point. This team scored 20 touchdowns in its first four games, all wins, but has seven TDs in its six-game slide. Georgia Tech bounced back from a two-game losing streak (at Clemson, at Virginia) by beating Virginia Tech 28–22 last weekend. One area of concern here: Georgia Tech is 0–4 away from Bobby Dodd Stadium. Still, the Jackets are the better team and should win this game by more than a touchdown.
Georgia Tech 34, Duke 17
Buffalo (-20.5) over Ball State (Thursday)
Buffalo’s record (4–6) might not be impressive, but the Bulls are making progress under Lance Leipold. All six of the losses have come by 10 points or fewer, including four by four or fewer. Ball State, on the other hand, is regressing. It’s a young roster hit by a ton of injuries, but the Cardinals have lost seven straight games, all but one by at least 28 points. And, more important to this space, they have failed to cover in six straight games — each of the last three with a spread of at least 25 points.
Buffalo 38, Ball State 10
SMU (+11.5) at Memphis
Memphis can secure a spot in the AAC Championship Game with a win over SMU on Saturday. The Tigers are one game up on Houston (who they beat) and two games up on Navy (who they beat) and SMU. They have won five straight overall and last week held an opponent (Tulsa) to under 26 points for the first time this season. SMU has played well in recent weeks but lost to both UCF (by seven) and Navy (by three). Are the Mustangs ready to break through and beat the best team in the AAC West on the road? Not likely — but it should be close.
Memphis 41, SMU 34
Virginia (+19.5) at Miami
There were plenty of doubters (including me) even after Miami raced out to a 7–0 record through the end of October. The reason? Four of those wins came by eight points or fewer, and the Hurricanes received some favorable bounces along the way. Now, after dominating wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, it’s clear this team is very good. But we can still admit there has been a degree of good fortune that has helped Miami along the way. Forcing turnovers is a skill, to a degree. There is also some luck involved, and it’s hard to envision this team continuing to force four turnovers per game — which it has done in each of the last four. For that reason, and because it’s difficult to keep playing at such a high level, the guess here is that Miami struggles a bit with Virginia. And the Cavs are good enough to make the Canes sweat; they have wins at Boise State and at home vs. Georgia Tech on their résumé.
Miami 27, Virginia 17
Kentucky (+21.5) over Georgia
Georgia dropped its first game of the season — in decisive fashion at Auburn — but the Bulldogs still control their own destiny. Close out the regular season with wins over Kentucky and Georgia Tech and somehow find a way to beat Alabama (or Auburn) in the SEC Championship Game, and Kirby Smart’s team will be in position to play for a national title. First things first: Beating Kentucky is not a sure thing. The Cats are 7–3 overall — a record that could be even better with a defensive stop against Florida and/or Ole Miss — and are playing very well on offense. This is a good spot for Kentucky.
Georgia 37, Kentucky 24
Ole Miss (-2.5) over Texas A&M
Since stepping in for the injured Shea Patterson against LSU last month, Jordan Ta’ama has thrown for 1,246 yards while completing 73.5 percent of his attempts with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. This is still a very formidable offense that has averaged 41.3 points in the past three games. Texas A&M got back in the win column last week with a 55–14 victory over New Mexico, but the Aggies had lost their previous two league games, both at home, by 21 points to Mississippi State and 15 points to Auburn. Also, rumors are swirling that Kevin Sumlin could be let go sooner rather than later.
Ole Miss 37, Texas A&M 30
UConn (+21.5) over Boston College
Boston College’s three-game winning streak ended last weekend, but there is no shame in losing by three points at home to NC State. The Eagles, however, lost the services of starting quarterback Anthony Brown and will have to go with Darius Wade for the final two regular-season games and a likely bowl game. UConn is 3–7 and has lost three straight in the first year of Randy Edsall’s second tour of duty. The defense is an issue — the Huskies have allowed at least 37 points in each game of their losing streak — but the offense should be good enough to keep this relatively close. Boston College 30, UConn 13
Wake Forest (-1.5) over NC State
Wake Forest has scored a total of 106 points in its last two ACC games, wins over Louisville and Syracuse — not bad for a team that ranked last in the league in scoring in 2012, ’13, ’14 and ’16 and next to last in 2015. With a win over NC State, the Deacons can secure a non-losing ACC record for the first time since 2011. NC State slogged through a 17–14 win at Boston College to snap a two-game losing streak (to Notre Dame and Clemson). This is a really good team that still has to be upset it let a great opportunity slip away against Clemson two weeks ago.
Wake Forest 30, NC State 27
Wyoming (+1) over Fresno State
Wyoming has won three straight to improve to 5–1 in the Mountain West. The Cowboys, however, are a longshot to win the Mountain Division title; they are one game behind Boise State with two games to play, and they lost the head-to-head battle with the Broncos. There was some concern earlier in the week about the health of Josh Allen, but coach Craig Bohl said on Tuesday that he expects his quarterback to play on Saturday. Fresno State has cooled off a bit in recent weeks. Yes, the Bulldogs have won two straight, but those wins were over BYU (not good at football) by seven points and Hawaii (also not good at football) by 10 points. And prior to that, Fresno State lost at home to UNLV.
Wyoming 24, Fresno State 14
Colorado State (-33) over San Jose State
Colorado State has played its way out of the Mountain Division race by losing three straight, including last week’s 59–52 setback in overtime to Boise State in a game in which the Rams once led 28–3. But this is still a good team that is capable of scoring a bunch of points. San Jose State is 1–10 overall (0–10 vs. FBS teams) and has allowed more than 40 points in eight games. The Spartans lost last week at Nevada (a two-win team) by 45 points. Also, San Jose has failed to cover in eight of its last nine games.
Colorado State 48, San Jose State 10
Last Week: 3–7
The circus that is the weekly College Football Playoff rankings release took place on ESPN Tuesday night, but not before the "worldwide leader" subjected would-be rankings viewers to 20 real-time minutes of an early-season college basketball game.
The shenanigans continued once the rankings were released, four or five teams at a time. Here's what stuck out to me.
The Selection Committee loves Clemson
Of the top five teams in the most recent rankings, only two have losses. Clemson has a loss to Syracuse. Oklahoma has a loss to Iowa State. Miami and Wisconsin have no losses. Somehow, some way, the selection committee has decided that losing to Syracuse is not as bad as losing to Iowa State or being undefeated against what is perceived to be a weaker schedule. I can't wrap my mind around it, and the only answer I can come up with is that the Tigers are getting some love for the season they had last year. If that's the case, shame on the committee.
You can lose early
Just ask Auburn! The Tigers got beat by Clemson in Week 3 and by LSU a month ago. No matter. Because they've looked good during the latter part of October and the beginning of November, the selection committee has all but forgotten those losses and slotted Auburn right behind unbeaten Wisconsin. Right below the Tigers is Georgia, whom Auburn just beat. Then you have Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State — all suffering their second losses recently. Lose early if you want to play for a title.
UCF continues to be disrespected
All the Knights do is win, yet you have eight teams with at least two losses in front of them in the rankings. Perhaps the biggest insult to UCF was the fact that a two-loss Washington State team leap-frogged it based on the apparent strength of a ho-hum win over Utah. I don't get it and you can't convince me that it's the right thing to do. It's looking more and more that for the second straight year, a Group of 5 team will run the table and get nothing but a consolation bowl trip for it.
Why is Michigan so low?
The Wolverines have only two losses, and both losses came to teams currently ranked in the Top 25. Their resume looks eerily similar to Auburn's, yet the Tigers are No. 6 and Michigan is at No. 24 looking up at six different teams with three losses.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
It may prove to be the story of the season, but the Turnover Chain is certainly the story of the week. Four different Miami Hurricanes were awarded with the huge gold necklace and prominent, sparkly green and orange “U” logo during Saturday’s 41-8 victory over Notre Dame. Broadcast cameras panned to the Hurricanes' sideline and caught the ceremony and celebration following each of the three interceptions forced by the Miami defense, as well as the fourth-quarter fumble recovery that set up the game’s final touchdown. There was even an on-screen graphic highlighting each “Turnover Chain Recipient.”
We love the Turnover Chain in part because it is shiny (literally) and new (developed during summer 2017),but also because it’s a nostalgic nod to an era in which Miami was the biggest and baddest team on the planet, winning national championships with a combination of elite talent and unmatched swagger. The Turnover Chain has made an appearance 24 times this season, at least once in every game and four times in each of the last four contests. Only three FBS teams across the country have produced more takeaways, and Miami’s defensive playmaking ability is a big reason why “The U” has jumped out to a 9-0 start, boasts the nation’s longest winning streak (14 games dating back to 2016), an ACC Coastal Division title, and moved to the forefront of the College Football Playoff race. With its renewed swagger, Miami is once again one of the biggest and baddest teams in college football.
And Manny Diaz deserves a lot of credit. The Turnover Chain — a simple yet brilliant motivational tool used to reward players for making big plays — is a Diaz creation. So is the opportunistic Miami defense.
Diaz first worked with Mark Richt at Florida State. Richt was the offensive coordinator for the Seminoles when Diaz was a defensive graduate assistant in 1998-99. Diaz would later work his way up the defensive coaching ladder at NC State, where he worked for another former FSU assistant Chuck Amato, and earned his first opportunity to be a coordinator in 2006 at Middle Tennessee (where, continuing the Florida State connection, he worked for former Seminoles quarterback Rick Stockstill).
Like most coaches, Diaz preaches the importance of forcing turnovers. However, Diaz has done better than most following through with on-field results. The first defense he ran with the Blue Raiders recorded 27 takeaways. His second forced 30 turnovers, followed by 23 in 2008. In 2009, Diaz’s Middle Tennessee unit broke into the FBS top 10, No. 8 overall, with 33 turnovers — and the Blue Raiders won 10 games. Four straight years of 20 or more turnovers caught the eye of Dan Mullen, who hired Diaz to lead his Mississippi State defense. After 28 turnovers (23rd nationally), Mack Brown sought out Diaz to coordinate the defense at Texas.
His tenure ended on a sour note in Austin as Diaz was ushered out of town early during the 2013 season, but the Longhorns still managed to produce at least 20 takeaways in each of his three years. Diaz landed on his feet when Skip Holtz hired him as the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 20014, and he immediately led the Bulldogs to the top spot on the national turnover leaderboard with 42 takeaways. Such success helped Louisiana Tech improve its record from 4-8 the year before Diaz arrived to 9-5, including a Conference USA West Division title and a victory over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
It’s worth noting that turnovers are fickle. Coaches across the country preach the importance of creating turnovers, and also put their teams through specific practice drills designed to help create more opportunities, such as stripping the ball from a ball carrier. However, there is also quite a bit of luck involved. In fact, football analytics pioneer Bill Connelly has a specific category dedicated to turnover luck. Sometimes — either by design or by luck - a player is in the right place at the right time to make an interception, or force or recover a fumble. Yet footballs bounce in unexpected ways, and that same player could be in the right place at the wrong time, allowing the opponent to keep possession of a loose ball, or following a poorly thrown pass. There are other drills that focus on taking advantage of fortunate bounces, such as tip drills and the proper way to recover a fumble, but on a long enough timeline, turnovers often find a way of evening out eventually, regardless of how well coaches prepare their players to make big plays.
Things evened for Diaz in 2015. When he returned to Starkville for a second tour with Mullen, the Bulldogs produced only 14 takeaways, which ranked 110th in the country, and marked the fewest turnovers ever for a Diaz-led defense. But Richt, who arrived in Diaz’s native Miami after more than a decade of success at Georgia, was comfortable enough with Diaz’s track record to bring him home. He also brought in legendary defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, Diaz’s right-hand man for roughly a half-decade in Ephraim Banda, and former Miami defensive back Mike Rumph to round out the defensive on-field coaching staff. It’s proved to be a good combination.
Miami forced 19 turnovers in 2016 (down from 25 the previous year), but the Hurricanes improved their record, finishing 9-4 and setting the stage for a standout performance in 2017. It took only seven games and one Turnover Chain for Miami to reach 20 takeaways this season — and though there is still work to be done to bring a championship (or two) to Coral Gables - thanks to Diaz and staff, the Hurricanes are among the nation’s best once again.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Photos courtesy of @CanesFootball)
You’re in or you’re out, it’s this week’s short and sweet scenario for many FCS teams.
They’re playing for a spot in the 24-team playoff pairings, which will be released by the NCAA Sunday morning. The bubble of playoff candidates is huge, making for many important matchups.
Here are the Week 12 games of the week:
Note: All times ET
Thursday, Nov. 16
Tennessee State (6-4, 2-4 Ohio Valley) at No. 2 Jacksonville State (9-1, 7-0), 7 p.m.
Jacksonville State is one of four teams already in the playoff field, but its seniors want to go in with a perfect record in their OVC careers. The Gamecocks’ conference win streak is 31.
Pick: Jacksonville State
No. 24 Nicholls (8-2, 7-1 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana (5-5, 5-3), 7 p.m.
The host Lions, who haven’t beaten a team above it in the Southland standings, have one last shot, but Nicholls can see the at-large bid dangling out there with a win. The Colonels’ head-to-head win over McNeese gives them an advantage in the playoff picking order.
Saturday, Nov. 18
No. 1 James Madison (10-0, 7-0 CAA) at No. 13 Elon (8-2, 6-1), noon
Reigning FCS champ James Madison seeks the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the playoff semifinals. A two-game losing streak wouldn’t necessarily keep Elon out, but the Phoenix may be losing steam at the wrong time of the season.
Pick: James Madison
Mercer (5-5) at Alabama (10-0), noon
We interrupt the playoff talk to point out Mercer is playing for a winning season. Well, at least the Bears hung tough with Auburn – a 24-10 loss – in September.
Pick: Mercer (ha, ha)
Harvard (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) at Yale (8-1, 5-1), 12:30 p.m.
No playoff game would be bigger for these archrivals than “The Game.” Harvard is tasked with slowing freshman Zane Dudek, who’s averaged more than 200 yards from scrimmage in his last three games. The Bulldogs are a one-point loss at Dartmouth in the last minute away from being perfect.
Lafayette (3-7, 3-2 Patriot) at Lehigh (4-6, 4-1), 12:30 p.m.
In college football’s most-played rivalry (it turns 153), Lehigh seeks a second straight Patriot League title and the automatic bid. If the surging Mountain Hawks, who were once 0-5, get in the field, they’ll be the second qualifier ever with a losing record. The first was Lafayette at 5-6 in 2013.
No. 3 North Dakota State (9-1, 6-1 Missouri Valley) at No. 23 Illinois State (6-4, 4-3), 1 p.m.
After the Bison posted a statement win over South Dakota (49-14) following their first loss two weeks ago, they’re seeking a top-two seed in the playoffs. An upset would boost Illinois State’s resume, but it’s not certain it would be enough for an at-large bid.
Pick: North Dakota State
North Carolina Central (7-3, 5-2 MEAC) at No. 11 North Carolina A&T (10-0, 7-0), 1 p.m.
A&T, already qualified for the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, seeks to end a three-game losing streak to NC Central. In fact, the Aggies want nothing less than a perfect season.
Pick: North Carolina A&T
Monmouth (9-1, 4-0 Big South) at No. 22 Kennesaw State (9-1, 4-0), 2 p.m.
Fifth Third Bank Stadium will be rocking over the Big South’s de facto title game. The winner claims the conference title and its automatic bid. The loser will have to sweat out the playoff committee’s decision making.
Pick: Kennesaw State
Montana (7-3, 5-2 Big Sky) at Montana State (4-6, 4-3), 2 p.m.
Oddly, the visiting team has won seven of the last eight meetings in this most bitter of rivalries. That’s good news for the Griz, who have to win to be in the mix for an at-large playoff bid.
No. 6 South Dakota State (8-2, 5-2 Missouri Valley) at No. 15 South Dakota (7-3, 4-3), 3 p.m.
With three losses in its last four games, South Dakota can’t afford another defeat. To beat the surging Jackrabbits, they’ll have to run the ball and get pressure on SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion.
Pick: South Dakota
No. 14 Furman (7-3, 6-1 Southern) at No. 19 Samford (7-3, 5-2), 3:30 p.m.
The winner is definitely in the playoff field. In fact, Furman can earn a share of the SoCon title with Wofford, which plays South Carolina. But can the Paladins stop Samford’s unflappable quarterback Devlin Hodges?
No. 16 Northern Arizona (7-3, 6-1 Big Sky) at No. 8 Southern Utah (8-2, 6-1), 4:30 p.m.
The winner earns at least a share of the Big Sky title (Weber State also is 6-1 in conference play), but NAU could be out of the playoffs with a loss. There’s likely going to be six Big Sky teams with at least seven wins and several aren’t getting in.
Pick: Southern Utah
Last Week’s Record: 9-2 (.818)
Season Record: 81-36 (.692)
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy University of Montana Athletics)
The football gods are obviously on the side of the television networks heading into Week 11. There is at least one marquee game between playoff contenders in every time slot: Rams-Vikings early Sunday; Patriots-Raiders late Sunday; Eagles-Cowboys on Sunday night; Falcons-Seahawks on Monday night; and it all starts with a game that should be too good for Thursday night, the Titans at the Steelers.
Tennessee (6–3) and Pittsburgh (7–2) are both riding four-game winning streaks, and both are relatively healthy having had their byes in recent weeks. The Steelers’ run has given them a three-game cushion in the AFC North, and this game starts a stretch where they play four out of their next five at Heinz Field. The Titans, on the other hand, are tied atop the AFC South with Jacksonville despite the winning streak, and they are on the road for four of their next five.
The way these teams have been winning also indicates that this one could be a nail-biter. The Steelers have done just enough to win their last two games, winning 20–15 at Detroit and 20–17 at Indianapolis. Likewise, the Titans beat the Browns in overtime 12–9, then held off a Ravens rally to win 23–20 two weeks ago, and last week rallied late to edge Cincinnati, 24–20. Can they make it a clean sweep of the AFC North?
Tennessee at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 16 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC/NFL Network
Spread: Steelers -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Titans' run game vs. Steelers' run defense
At first glance, one might think attacking the Steelers on the ground is the way to go; after all they rank second in the NFL against the pass, have allowed just eight touchdown passes through nine games (third in the NFL) and are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, which ranks 22nd. But a closer look indicates that in seven of nine games, the Steelers have been every bit as dominant against the run. In Pittsburgh’s seven wins, it has allowed 471 total rushing yards — just 67.2 per game. In losses to Jacksonville and Chicago, Pittsburgh allowed 453 rushing yards (226.5/game). Are the Titans capable of that kind of big day on the ground? On paper, yes, but they have been inconsistent. Tennessee is in the NFL’s top 10 in rushing yards and yards per carry and has four games this season with 168 or more yards on the ground. Only one team has more rushing touchdowns. But the Titans also have five games with fewer than 100 rushing yards, and they’ve lost three of them.
2. Mariota will be tested
Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota (above, right) has never faced the Steelers, and his first taste of Heinz Field could be an interesting one of the early weather forecast for 15 mph winds holds. That kind of wind doesn’t help when you are facing the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense. Pittsburgh will be without starting corner Joe Haden, who broke his left fibula last week, but expect Mariota to be under duress as the Steelers also rank second in sacks. Mariota has cut his sack percentage in half since his rookie season, but he’s been taken down seven times in his last two starts after being sacked just five times in his first six. Pittsburgh comes at passers from all angles as well, boasting four players with at least 4.0 sacks this season.
3. Is the Steelers' offense getting a bad rap?
There is a lot of hand wringing going on in Western Pennsylvania as fans wonder why the Steelers have scored more than 20 points only once in the last five games. Is Ben Roethlisberger finally slowing down? Did Le’Veon Bell’s holdout set him up for a down year? The fact is that the Steelers still rank 10th in the NFL in total offense despite not hitting on all cylinders. There’s also this: Last season around this time, Pittsburgh was 4–5 and struggling to run the ball, averaging 76.5 yards per game during a four-game skid. The Steelers then won nine in a row while averaging 143.8 yards per game on the ground to reach the AFC title game. Tennessee is tough to run against (sixth in the NFL in rushing defense), but Bell and the Steelers could bust out at any time.
If it’s a cold and windy night at Heniz Field, the Titans are as equipped as anyone to grind it out on the road with solid run defense and the two-headed backfield of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. But winning this kind of game at home is what the Steelers do best, and all it will take is a couple Roethlisberger big plays to Antonio Brown or JuJu Smith-Schuster to tip this one Pittsburgh’s way.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Titans 20
Before South Florida readies for its seismic Nov. 24 showdown with undefeated UCF, it must first take care of business against a reeling Tulsa team Thursday in an American Athletic Conference matchup that has all the makings of a trap game for the Bulls.
Charlie Strong has excelled in his first year in Tampa. With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, he's coached the Bulls to a No. 23 ranking in the AP Poll with an 8-1 overall record and a 5-1 mark in the AAC. South Florida is just a game behind UCF in the East Division and is well rested after a bye week following a 37-20 victory over UConn in Bulls' last game.
With just two wins this year, Tulsa's season will end at home next week against Temple. While a bowl trip this year is out of the question, the next best thing for Tulsa (2-8, 1-5) would be to quell South Florida's momentum and knock the Bulls out of the AAC picture. And with one of the nation's top rushing offenses, the Golden Hurricane could prove to be a challenging out.
South Florida and Tulsa have met just one time, which was in 2014 when the Bulls pulled out a 38-30 victory.
Tulsa at South Florida
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: South Florida -22
Three Things to Watch
1. USF quarterback Quinton Flowers
When Willie Taggart departed Tampa for for Oregon, he left behind a bevy of talented playmakers for new head coach Charlie Strong. Perhaps the most dynamic of the group being Flowers.
The seniorhas been nothing short of spectacular this season, as evidenced by his 1,955 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, to go along with 751 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Flowers amassed 516 total yards (385 passing, 131 rushing) and three touchdowns in the Bulls' win against UConn, giving him back-to-back 300-yard passing games.
A true dual-threat signal-caller, Flowers has rushed for 80 or more yards on five occasions this season. He should have more succcess on the ground against a Tulsa defense that's last in the AAC and 127th in the nation against the run, giving up 270.8 rushing yards per game.
2. Tulsa running back D'Angelo Brewer
The Golden Hurricane offense enters Thursday ranked 15th in the FBS in rushing, and much of that has to do with the contributions of Brewer (above, right). The senior ran for 1,435 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he's already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season.
With, 1,099 rushing yards, Brewer is second in the AAC and in the top 20 nationally. More importantly, he's just 153 yards shy of becoming Tulsa's career rushing leader. He has run for at least 100 yards in three straight games and has a total of six such performances this season, including a career-high 262 against Louisiana.
If Brewer is able to run into the Golden Hurricane record books on Thursday he will have earned it. South Florida is tops in the AAC and 15th in the FBS in rushing defense this season. The Bulls have given up just 118.2 yards per game on the ground and they have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.
3. USF wide receiver Marquez Valdez-Scantling
Scantling opened the season by hauling in six catches for 91 yards against San Jose State, proving himself to be a reliable target for Flowers and a key cog in the Bulls' Gulf Coast offense.
The 6-foot-5, 209-pound receiver has posted 720 yards and five touchdowns in nine games. And he has been playing his best football of the season recently.
In his last two games, he's totaled 338 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. Two weeks ago, Scantling tormented Houston's secondary for 186 yards, and a week later he accumulated 152 yards and a touchdown against UConn. Tulsa's pass defense, which has given up a fair amount of yards and big plays, will be tested by USF's top target.
Cliché aside, this one has all of the makings of a potential trap game for South Florida. Tulsa, typically known for its dynamic, high-flying offense, has taken a step back this year and will miss out on the postseason for the the first time in two seasons.
The Bulls have been overshadowed by the undefeated run of AAC East Division rival UCF, but Charlie Strong's team should not be overlooked or taken lightly. With Quinton Flowers leading the offense, and Auggie Sanchez providing veteran leadership for the defense, the Golden Hurricane will get all they can handle in Tampa.
Prediction: South Florida 45, Tulsa 20
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(D'Angelo Brewer photo courtesy of @TulsaFootball)
The 2017 season has been one with enough close calls going the wrong way for Buffalo that could come back to haunt them. With the Bulls fighting to reach a bowl game, a season including four losses by a single score suggests Buffalo is progressing as a program that can be competitive in the MAC. And Lance Leipold's team has lost a variety of ways from coming up short in a seven-overtime shootout against Western Michigan to a defensive battle and a 14-13 setback against Northern Illinois.
Buffalo put the pieces together for a much-needed win last week in a home victory over Bowling Green and this week look to keep the good times rolling on the road against Ball State as the MAC wraps up its Week 12 slate on Thursday night.
Buffalo at Ball State
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Buffalo -20.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ball State looking to snap 11-game MAC losing streak
It's been a while since Ball State celebrated a win in a conference game, so it is only fitting the Cardinals try snapping their extended losing streak in MAC play against the last team they managed to beat. Ball State last won in conference on Oct. 15, 2016 with a 31-21 victory over Buffalo. It's been even longer since Ball State won a MAC game at home. That last occurred on Oct. 31, 2015 against UMass, who is now an FBS Independent. Ball State has lost seven straight home games in conference play.
2. Can Ball State cover Anthony Johnson?
Buffalo's junior wide receiver enters the week as the MAC leader with 1,048 yards and eight touchdowns on 63 receptions. Last week against Bowling Green, Johnson caught eight passes for 160 yards and two scores in one of his best games of the season. Ball State has struggled to defend the pass this season (230.5 ypg, eighth), so look for Johnson to have a big game.
Ball State has a young receiver to watch as well with Justin Hall leading the MAC with 65 receptions, which have gone for 653 yards and two scores.
3. Must-win game for Buffalo's bowl hopes
Buffalo has not been to a bowl game since going to the Potato Bowl in Boise at the end of the 2013 season. Although the Bulls came close to bowl eligibility in Lance Leipold's first season as head coach in 2015, the Bulls are still looking to reach their first postseason game under him. Buffalo needs to win each of its final two games in order to go bowling. Buffalo may be in a favorable spot this week, but topping Ohio next week could be a different story. However, next week means nothing if Buffalo can't get this one.
Buffalo may not quite be where head coach Lance Leipold is trying to get the Bulls, but they are clearly ahead of Ball State in this matchup. Look for Buffalo to take advantage of the big plays courtesy of the MAC's second-best passing offense led by wide receiver Anthony Johnson and sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson (406 yards, 3 TDs last week vs. Bowling Green). If Buffalo gets its aerial attack off to a good start, Ball State will struggle to keep up the pace.
Prediction: Buffalo 34, Ball State 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
(Top photo courtesy of www.ubbulls.com)
With 11 weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. With 11 weeks completed, only three weekends remain in the 2017 college football season. Alabama remains No. 1 after escaping Starkville with a close win over Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide have a looming showdown against Auburn in Week 13, which will decide the winner of the SEC West. Oklahoma jumps to No. 2 after a convincing win over TCU, with Miami checking in at No. 3 following a dominant win over Notre Dame. Clemson is No. 4 in this week's rankings, followed by undefeated Wisconsin at No. 5 and Auburn at No. 6 after a huge win against Georgia. Check out Athlon's full 130 team rankings following the games after Week 11:
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 11
1. Alabama (10-0)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Mississippi State
Jalen Hurts and Calvin Ridley delivered in the clutch for the Crimson Tide to escape Starkville with a victory.
2. Oklahoma (9-1)
Week 11 Result: Defeated TCU
The Sooners averaged 7.8 yards per play against a tough TCU defense on Saturday night, which will only help quarterback Baker Mayfield increase his lead in the race to win the Heisman Trophy.
3. Miami (9-0)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Notre Dame
It’s official: The U is back. And thanks to Virginia’s loss to Louisville, the Hurricanes are the champs of the Coastal Division title for the first time since joining the ACC.
4. Clemson (9-1)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Florida State
The Tigers weren’t particularly impressive in the win over Florida State, but coach Dabo Swinney’s team pulled away late to secure the Atlantic Division title.
5. Wisconsin (10-0)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Iowa
Badgers’ defense dominates in win over Iowa. Victory over Hawkeyes also clinches a trip to Indianapolis for Wisconsin.
6. Auburn (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Georgia
Auburn won the battle up front on both sides of the ball and got clutch performances from running back Kerryon Johnson and quarterback Jarrett Stidham in Saturday’s huge win over Georgia.
7. Georgia (9-1)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Auburn
Loss to Auburn was a setback, but the Bulldogs are still alive for the CFB Playoff.
8. Ohio State (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Michigan State
Buckeyes rebound from last week’s disappointing loss at Iowa to demolish Michigan State 48-3.
9. Notre Dame (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Miami
Miami’s speed and athleticism and inconsistent quarterback play from Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book were just too much to overcome in Saturday’s loss.
10. TCU (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Oklahoma
A rematch against Oklahoma awaits TCU if it can win its next two regular season games.
11. Oklahoma State (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Beat Iowa State
The Cowboys need help in order to get to the Big 12 Championship Game, but the win at Iowa State keeps Mike Gundy’s team in the mix.
12. USC (9-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Colorado
For the second time in three seasons under coach Clay Helton, the Trojans are headed to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
13. UCF (9-0)
Week 11 Result: Defeated UConn
The Knights have scored at least 30 points in every game this season and have six contests of 40 or more points.
14. Michigan State (7-3)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Ohio State
Spartans had no answers to slow down Ohio State’s offense in Saturday’s loss.
15. Penn State (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Rutgers
The Nittany Lions started slow but eventually pulled away for a 35-6 win over Rutgers. Running back Saquon Barkley has been held under 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games.
16. LSU (7-3)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Arkansas
Saturday’s performance (11 of 16 for 217 yards and two touchdowns) was one of the better games for quarterback Danny Etling in his LSU career.
17. Washington State (9-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Utah
Mike Leach’s team has a timely bye in Week 12 before the Apple Cup showdown against Washington in Week 13.
18. Mississippi State (7-3)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Alabama
The Bulldogs won their share of battles in the trenches against Alabama on Saturday night. However, it wasn’t enough in the end, as the Crimson Tide’s offense made just enough plays to leave Starkville with the victory.
19. Stanford (7-3)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Washington
Bryce Love and a standout effort by the defense helped Stanford upset Washington on Friday night.
20. Washington (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Stanford
The 30 points allowed to Stanford on Friday night was the most Washington has surrendered all season.
21. Michigan (8-2)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Maryland
Jim Harbaugh’s team can play spoiler with matchups against Wisconsin and Ohio State up next.
22. Iowa (6-4)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Wisconsin
Cornerback Joshua Jackson continued his stellar season by returning two interceptions for a score against Wisconsin.
23. Iowa State (6-4)
Week 11 Result: Lost to Oklahoma State
The Cyclones could be down to their No. 3 quarterback (Zeb Noland) for the next two weeks.
24. Memphis (8-1)
Week 11 Result: Bye Week
The Tigers can clinch the AAC West Division with a win over SMU this Saturday.
25. NC State (7-3)
Week 11 Result: Defeated Boston College
Defensive end Bradley Chubb now owns the school record for most career sacks (26).
26. Virginia Tech
27. West Virginia
31. Boise State
32. Texas A&M
33. South Carolina
34. Georgia Tech
36. Fresno State
37. San Diego State
38. Wake Forest
39. Boston College
48. Florida State
50. Arizona State
59. Northern Illinois
60. North Texas
61. Arkansas State
64. Ole Miss
66. Kansas State
67. Texas Tech
74. Colorado State
76. Central Michigan
82. Southern Miss
83. Western Michigan
86. Appalachian State
88. North Carolina
89. New Mexico State
90. Air Force
92. Georgia State
93. Utah State
94. Louisiana Tech
98. New Mexico
99. Eastern Michigan
104. Miami, Ohio
107. Oregon State
108. Old Dominion
111. South Alabama
117. East Carolina
121. Bowling Green
122. Texas State
123. San Jose State
124. Kent State
125. Ball State
126. Coastal Carolina
129. Georgia Southern
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 10
With 10 weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. With 10 weeks completed, only four weekends remain in the 2017 college football season. Last week provided a few surprises, which also had a significant impact on the rankings. Alabama defeated LSU, and Georgia beat South Carolina to remain the top two teams in the nation. Notre Dame, Clemson and Oklahoma round out the top five, with Miami and Wisconsin leading the next tier. The Hurricanes defeated Virginia Tech last Saturday and have a key showdown against the Fighting Irish in Week 11. That game will play a huge role in the playoff outlook for both teams. Iowa joins the top 25 after its upset win over Ohio State, and FAU has reached the top 50 under first-year coach Lane Kiffin. Check out Athlon's full 130 team rankings following the games after Week 10:
1. Alabama (9-0)
Week 10 Result: Defeated LSU
Crimson Tide handle LSU once again. But injuries on defense are a concern with Mississippi State up next.
2. Georgia (9-0)
Week 10 Result: Defeated South Carolina
The Bulldogs clinched the SEC East on Saturday, but coach Kirby Smart’s team has its eyes on a bigger prize – a CFB Playoff trip.
3. Notre Dame (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Wake Forest
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush seems poised to finish November in a big way.
4. Clemson (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated NC State
Dabo Swinney’s team will clinch the Atlantic Division with a victory against Florida State on Saturday.
5. Oklahoma (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Oklahoma State
Defense remains an issue, but quarterback Baker Mayfield could carry Oklahoma into the CFB Playoff.
6. Miami (8-0)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Virginia Tech
The Hurricanes delivered a convincing win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. However, the path to a playoff spot won’t get any easier with a visit from Notre Dame up next.
7. Wisconsin (9-0)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Indiana
The Badgers are the Big Ten’s best hope of a playoff team in 2017.
8. TCU (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Texas
Gary Patterson’s defense leads the Big 12 with 28 sacks generated.
9. Washington (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Oregon
Huskies are the only one-loss team in the Pac-12, which means Chris Petersen’s team is still in the mix to get to the CFB Playoff.
10. Michigan State (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Penn State
From 3-9 last season to division champ in 2017? It’s possible for coach Mark Dantonio’s team - provided it can navigate a road trip to Ohio State this Saturday.
11. Ohio State (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Iowa
A complete meltdown by the Buckeyes in road loss to Iowa.
12. Auburn (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Texas A&M
The Tigers have scored at least 42 points in five out of six SEC games this season.
13. Penn State (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Michigan State
Running back Saquan Barkley has been held under 100 rushing yards in four out of Penn State’s last five games.
14. Oklahoma State (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Oklahoma
Oklahoma State’s defense simply had no answer for Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in Saturday’s Bedlam defeat.
15. USC (8-2)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Arizona
USC’s offense eclipsed 300 passing and 300 rushing yards for the second time in a game this year. That offensive performance was enough to hold off Arizona and dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate.
16. UCF (8-0)
Week 10 Result: Defeated SMU
SMU gave UCF a battle, but the Knights held on for a victory in Dallas. UConn is up next, and Temple has played better recently, but coach Scott Frost's team is likely to be 11-0 headed into the showdown against USF on Nov. 24.
17. LSU (6-3)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Alabama
With Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M to close out the season, LSU should finish its regular season at 9-3.
18. Iowa (6-3)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Ohio State
Iowa’s 55-24 victory over Ohio State might be the most surprising score and outcome of the 2017 college football season.
19. Iowa State (6-3)
Week 10 Result: Lost to West Virginia
Cyclones’ second-half rally in Morgantown fell short, but coach Matt Campbell’s team is still alive for the Big 12 title game.
20. Virginia Tech (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Miami
The Hokies need more out of their ground game and big plays on offense going forward.
21. Mississippi State (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Defeated UMass
Bulldogs will have to play a lot better than they did against UMass to have a shot against Alabama on Saturday.
22. Michigan (7-2)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Minnesota
Wolverines pounded Minnesota for 371 rushing yards on Saturday night.
23. Memphis (8-1)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Tulsa
The Tigers are off in Week 11 but a win over SMU on Nov. 18 would clinch the AAC West Division.
24. NC State (6-3)
Week 10 Result: Lost to Clemson
The Wolfpack have lost only six turnovers this season but four of those came in the team’s two losses (South Carolina and Clemson).
25. West Virginia (6-3)
Week 10 Result: Defeated Iowa State
West Virginia’s 524 total yards against Iowa State were the most allowed by the Cyclones in a game in 2017.
27. Washington State
33. Boise State
35. Texas A&M
36. South Carolina
37. Georgia Tech
38. Wake Forest
39. Boston College
41. Arizona State
43. Fresno State
44. San Diego State
45. Florida State
57. Arkansas State
58. Northern Illinois
59. North Texas
61. Ole Miss
63. Kansas State
64. Texas Tech
74. Colorado State
80. Southern Miss
81. Central Michigan
82. Western Michigan
86. Appalachian State
88. New Mexico State
89. Air Force
91. North Carolina
93. Louisiana Tech
94. Eastern Michigan
95. Utah State
98. New Mexico
99. Oregon State
103. Georgia State
106. Miami, Ohio
111. South Alabama
116. East Carolina
120. Old Dominion
121. Bowling Green
122. Texas State
123. San Jose State
124. Kent State
125. Ball State
126. Coastal Carolina
129. Georgia Southern
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 9
With nine weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. With nine weeks completed, the 2017 college football season has reached the second half of the year and only five weekends remain until the CFB Playoff is selected. Alabama was on bye in Week 9 and remains the No. 1 team headed into November. Georgia has a strong resume thanks to a non-conference win over Notre Dame, and coach Kirby Smart's team has dominated in SEC play. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are a cut above the rest of the nation right now, with Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State rounding out the top six. Iowa State, Arizona and Boston College are three of this week's big movers after picking up key wins in conference play last weekend. Check out Athlon's full 130 team rankings following the games after Week 9:
1. Alabama (8-0)
Week 9 Result: Bye Week
The Crimson Tide had a bye in Week 9 and return to action on Saturday night against LSU.
2. Georgia (8-0)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Florida
Bulldogs move once step closer to winning SEC Championship after blowing out rival Florida in Jacksonville.
3. Notre Dame (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Defeated NC State
Fighting Irish gashed a standout NC State defensive line for 318 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 35-14 victory.
4. Clemson (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Georgia Tech
A healthy Kelly Bryant at quarterback makes a big difference for the Tigers’ offense.
5. Oklahoma (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Beat Ohio State
Oklahoma’s place in the Big 12 and CFB Playoff mix is likely to be decided in next two weeks with matchups against Oklahoma State and TCU.
6. Ohio State (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Beat Penn State
Since the loss to Oklahoma, quarterback J.T. Barrett has passed for 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions. And Barrett’s performance against Penn State should get the senior into the Heisman conversation.
7. Penn State (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Lost to Ohio State
Despite the loss to Ohio State, don’t count out the Nittany Lions in the CFB Playoff mix.
8. Wisconsin (8-0)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Illinois
The Badgers have allowed only one opponent (Northwestern) to score more than 20 points in a game this season.
9. Miami (7-0)
Week 9 Result: Defeated North Carolina
The Hurricanes turned in a sluggish performance against North Carolina but once again found a way to win.
10. TCU (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Lost to Iowa State
Three turnovers (including two in the red zone) were tough to overcome against Iowa State.
11. Oklahoma State (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Defeated West Virginia
The Cowboys’ defense came up big in Saturday’s win against West Virginia.
12. Washington (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Defeated UCLA
The Huskies remain the Pac-12’s best hope to get a team in the CFB Playoff. However, this team has a lot of work to do in November in order to get to the top four.
13. Virginia Tech (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Duke
The Hokies have allowed only 20 points over their last three games.
14. Iowa State (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated TCU
Matt Campbell’s second season has been a special one in Ames. The Cyclones have two wins – Oklahoma and TCU – over top-five teams this season.
15. UCF (7-0)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Austin Peay
The Knights are the clear frontrunner to earn the Group of 5 bowl spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.
16. LSU (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Bye Week
The Tigers had a bye in Week 9 and return to action on Saturday against Alabama.
17. USC (7-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Arizona State
Arizona State’s improved defense was no match for USC’s offense on Saturday night, as the Trojans recorded 607 total yards in the 48-17 win.
18. Auburn (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Bye Week
Auburn had a bye in Week 9 and return to action in Week 10 against Texas A&M.
19. NC State (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Lost to Notre Dame
The Wolfpack’s CFB Playoffs are over after loss at Notre Dame. However, a win over Clemson in Week 10 would put coach Dave Doeren’s team in control to claim the ACC’s Atlantic Division title.
20. Stanford (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Oregon State
It wasn’t pretty, but the Cardinal found a way to escape Corvallis with a victory.
21. Mississippi State (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Texas A&M
Each of Mississippi State’s six victories have come by 20 points or more this season
22. Michigan State (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Lost to Northwestern
Spartans’ running game managed only 95 yards in loss to Northwestern.
23. Michigan (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Rutgers
Quarterback Brandon Peters (10 of 14 for 124 yards and a score) finally got an extended look in on-field action during Saturday's win over Rutgers.
24. Memphis (7-1)
Week 9 Result: Beat Tulane
With Tulsa, SMU and East Carolina remaining, Memphis has a clear (and favorable) path to the American Athletic Conference’s West Division title.
25. Arizona (6-2)
Week 9 Result: Defeated Washington State
The emergence of quarterback Khalil Tate has propelled Arizona into the mix to win the Pac-12 South.
26. Washington State
28. West Virginia
31. Georgia Tech
34. Texas A&M
36. South Carolina
37. Boise State
38. Wake Forest
39. Boston College
42. Arizona State
49. Fresno State
50. San Diego State
51. Texas Tech
55. Colorado State
59. Florida State
60. Northern Illinois
61. Arkansas State
67. Ole Miss
69. Kansas State
71. Western Michigan
72. North Texas
73. Appalachian State
79. Air Force
81. Southern Miss
89. New Mexico State
90. New Mexico
91. North Carolina
92. Louisiana Tech
93. Central Michigan
95. Eastern Michigan
96. Oregon State
101. Utah State
103. Miami, Ohio
104. Georgia State
106. South Alabama
112. East Carolina
120. Old Dominion
121. Bowling Green
122. Texas State
123. Kent State
124. San Jose State
125. Ball State
126. Coastal Carolina
129. Georgia Southern
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 8
With eight weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. With eight weeks completed, the 2017 college football season has reached the second half of the year and only six weekends remain until the CFB Playoff is selected. As expected, there are significant changes to the projected rankings from the preseason and plenty more to come over the next six weekends of action. Alabama remains No. 1 after a dominant win over Tennessee, with Georgia checking in at No. 2 following a bye week. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs appear to be on a collision course for a matchup in the SEC Championship in early December. Penn State is No. 3 following Saturday night’s blowout victory against Michigan, with TCU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Miami and Notre Dame rounding out the top 10. Fresno State and Boston College are two big movers outside of the top 25 in this week’s rankings. Check out Athlon's full 130 team rankings following the games after Week 8:
1. Alabama (8-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Tennessee
Crimson Tide continue their dominance against SEC foes with an easy win over Tennessee.
2. Georgia (7-0)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Bulldogs had a bye in Week 8 and return to action next Saturday against Florida.
3. Penn State (7-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Michigan
The Nittany Lions crossed one big hurdle off the schedule with an easy win over Michigan. But the path won’t get any easier this Saturday, as Penn State visits Columbus for a showdown against Ohio State.
4. TCU (7-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Kansas
Horned Frogs thoroughly dominate Kansas in 43-0 victory. TCU’s defense limited Kansas to just 21 yards on 49 plays.
5. Clemson (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Tigers had a bye in Week 8 and return to action this Saturday against Georgia Tech. The health status of quarterback Kelly Bryant is one of the top storylines to watch this week.
6. Oklahoma (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Kansas State
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was brilliant once again, as the senior recorded 479 overall yards in the win over Kansas State.
7. Ohio State (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Buckeyes had a bye in Week 8 and return to action on Saturday against Penn State
8. Wisconsin (7-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Maryland
Wisconsin’s defense has returned four interceptions (including one against Maryland) for touchdowns this season.
9. Miami (6-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Syracuse
Quarterback Malik Rosier threw for a career high 344 yards in Saturday’s win over Syracuse.
10. Notre Dame (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated USC
The second-half schedule won’t be easy for a run at the CFB Playoff, but the Fighting Irish are off to a good start after dismantling USC on Saturday night.
11. Oklahoma State (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Texas
It wasn’t pretty, but Cowboys survive slugfest in Austin to improve to 6-1.
12. Washington (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Huskies had a bye in Week 8, which allowed coach Chris Petersen’s team to regroup after losing to Arizona State in Week 7.
13. Washington State (7-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Colorado
The weather wasn’t ideal, but the Cougars leaned on balanced attack on offense and a shutout on defense to rebound from last week’s loss to California.
14. NC State (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The bye week came at a good time for coach Dave Doeren’s team. NC State has a difficult back-to-back set of games, as the Wolfpack play Notre Dame this Saturday, followed by a matchup versus Clemson in Week 10.
15. Virginia Tech (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated North Carolina
Saturday’s 52-point win over North Carolina is the Hokies’ largest margin of victory in ACC play.
16. Michigan State (6-1)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Indiana
Spartans’ offense delivers in fourth quarter to knock off Indiana 17-9 in a defensive slugfest.
17. UCF (6-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Navy
UCF’s offense seems to get most of the national attention during the program’s 6-0 start, but the defense delivered a key performance against Navy. The Knights limited the Midshipmen to 248 rushing yards and did not allow a run longer than 14 yards.
18. USF (7-0)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Tulane
By scoring 34 points in Saturday’s win at Tulane, the Bulls set a new FBS record with 24 consecutive games with at least 30 points.
19. LSU (6-2)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Ole Miss
Derrius Guice finally looks healthy – and that’s bad news for the rest of the opponents on LSU’s schedule.
20. USC (6-2)
Week 8 Result: Lost to Notre Dame
Following the loss to Notre Dame, USC’s playoff hopes for 2017 are officially over.
21. Stanford (5-2)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Cardinal had a bye week on Saturday, allowing coach David Shaw to get a head start on a key November stretch – at Washington State, Washington, California and Notre Dame – for a team that has Pac-12 title aspirations.
22. Auburn (6-2)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Arkansas
Tigers rebounded in a big way from last week’s loss against LSU by defeating Arkansas 52-20.
23. Michigan (5-2)
Week 8 Result: Lost to Penn State
Penn State’s dynamic duo of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley was simply too much for Michigan’s top-ranked defense on Saturday night. Can the Wolverines find a spark on offense over the last month of the season?
24. West Virginia (5-2)
Week 8 Result: Defeated Baylor
Mountaineers opened up a big lead in Saturday’s game at Baylor but had to hold on late after a furious rally by the Bears. Dana Holgorsen’s ground attack could use a spark after managing only 162 yards over the last two contests.
25. Texas A&M (5-2)
Week 8 Result: Bye Week
The Aggies had a bye in Week 8 and return to action next Saturday against Mississippi State.
26. Georgia Tech
28. Mississippi State
30. Iowa State
32. Arizona State
40. South Carolina
42. Boise State
43. Fresno State
44. San Diego State
46. Wake Forest
49. Colorado State
50. Florida State
51. Texas Tech
59. Boston College
60. Northern Illinois
62. Appalachian State
64. Southern Miss
66. Arkansas State
67. Ole Miss
69. Kansas State
71. Western Michigan
76. North Texas
86. New Mexico State
87. New Mexico
88. Air Force
89. North Carolina
91. Louisiana Tech
92. Central Michigan
94. Eastern Michigan
96. Utah State
100. South Alabama
103. Oregon State
104. Miami, Ohio
109. East Carolina
112. Georgia State
117. Old Dominion
120. Bowling Green
121. Coastal Carolina
123. Kent State
124. Ball State
125. San Jose State
126. Texas State
129. Georgia Southern
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 7
With seven weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. With seven weeks completed, the 2017 college football season has officially hit the halfway point. As expected, there are significant changes to the projected rankings from the preseason and plenty more to come over the next seven weekends of action. Additionally, Week 7 provided its share of upsets to alter this week's top 25. Clemson, Auburn, Washington State and Washington each lost on the road last weekend, prompting Syracuse, California and Arizona State to make a significant jump after pulling out upset victories in this week's 130 rankings. Alabama, Georgia, Penn State, TCU and Clemson rank in the top five, with Ohio State, Oklahoma, Miami, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State rounding out the top 10. Check out Athlon's full 130 team rankings following the games after Week 7:
1. Alabama (7-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Arkansas
Another week, another blowout win for the Crimson Tide in SEC play.
2. Georgia (7-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Missouri
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm threw for a season high 326 yards in Saturday night’s win over Missouri.
3. Penn State (6-0)
Week 7 Result: Bye Week
The Nittany Lions were off in Week 7 and return to action in Week 8 against Michigan.
4. TCU (6-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Kansas State
Quarterback Kenny Hill and Horned Frogs’ defense lead the way in Saturday’s 26-6 win over Kansas State.
5. Clemson (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Lost to Syracuse
Friday night’s loss against Syracuse won’t end Clemson’s CFB Playoff hopes. However, coach Dabo Swinney’s team has to do a better job against the pass and needs quarterback Kelly Bryant to return to full strength.
6. Oklahoma (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Texas
Sooners rebound from disappointing loss against Iowa State to beat Texas 29-24 in Red River Rivalry.
7. Ohio State (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Nebraska
Buckeyes rout Cornhuskers in Lincoln thanks to big performance from quarterback J.T. Barrett. Up next for Ohio State? A matchup against Penn State in Columbus.
8. Wisconsin (6-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Purdue
Defense and running back Jonathan Taylor lead the way for coach Paul Chryst’s Badgers in win over Purdue.
9. Miami (5-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Georgia Tech
For the second week in a row, last-second heroics give the Hurricanes a key win in ACC play.
10. Oklahoma State (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Baylor
Cowboys pile up 747 yards (a school record) and average a whopping 10.5 yards per play in Saturday’s win over Baylor.
11. Notre Dame (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Bye Week
The Fighting Irish were off in Week 7 and return to action on Saturday night against USC.
12. Washington (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Lost to Arizona State
The troubles in Tempe continue, dealing a blow to Washington’s hopes of a repeat bid to the CFB Playoff. The offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Jake Browning on Saturday night and now has an injury concern with standout left tackle Trey Adams.
13. Washington State (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Lost to California
Cougars’ high-powered offense sputters on the road against California’s aggressive defense.
14. USC (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Utah
Second-half comeback against Utah keeps USC’s playoff hopes intact.
15. NC State (6-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Pitt
The Nov. 4 showdown against Clemson looms large in the ACC title picture. But the Wolfpack have a tough matchup ahead against Notre Dame on Oct. 28 before the contest against the Tigers.
16. Virginia Tech (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Bye Week
Coach Justin Fuente’s team will return to action on Saturday to take on North Carolina.
17. Michigan State (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Minnesota
After giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2016, the Spartans are allowing just 4.3 through six games in 2017.
18. Michigan (5-1)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Indiana
Karan Higdon’s big day (200 yards and three scores) and an overtime goal-line stand on defense prevents Michigan from back-to-back losses.
19. USF (6-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Cincinnati
Bulls now own the nation’s longest winning streak (11 games).
20. UCF (5-0)
Week 7 Result: Defeated East Carolina
Knights have scored 50 or more points three times this season, including 63 in Saturday’s win over East Carolina.
21. Stanford (5-2)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Oregon
Running back Bryce Love has recorded a rush of 60 or more yards six times this season.
22. LSU (5-2)
Week 7 Result: Beat Auburn
What a difference a couple of weeks can make in the world of college football. After losing to Troy, LSU has defeated Florida and Auburn in back-to-back weeks.
23. Auburn (5-2)
Week 7 Result: Lost to LSU
Saturday’s loss at LSU was a bad one for coach Gus Malzahn. After leading 20-0 in the first half, the production on offense over the final two quarters was simply inexcusable.
24. West Virginia (4-2)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Texas Tech
Receiver David Sills leads all receivers in college football this year with 12 touchdown catches (including three in Saturday’s win over Texas Tech).
25. Texas A&M (5-2)
Week 7 Result: Defeated Florida
A couple of clutch plays from receiver Christian Kirk and four field goals from kicker Daniel LaCamera gave the Aggies a win in the Swamp – and a place in the top 25 this week.
26. Georgia Tech
28. San Diego State
31. Mississippi State
35. Boise State
37. Florida State
39. Texas Tech
40. Wake Forest
42. South Carolina
43. Arizona State
48. Iowa State
53. Colorado State
60. Northern Illinois
61. Appalachian State
62. Ole Miss
64. Kansas State
68. Southern Miss
69. North Texas
72. Arkansas State
73. Western Michigan
74. Boston College
82. North Carolina
83. Fresno State
84. New Mexico State
85. New Mexico
86. Air Force
90. Louisiana Tech
92. Eastern Michigan
96. Central Michigan
99. Utah State
104. Oregon State
106. Miami, Ohio
109. South Alabama
111. Georgia State
117. East Carolina
118. Old Dominion
120. Bowling Green
121. Kent State
122. Ball State
123. Coastal Carolina
125. San Jose State
126. Texas State
128. Georgia Southern
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 After Week 6
With six weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. While two full months of action remain this college football season, there are already plenty of significant changes to the projected rankings from the preseason. Florida State (a preseason favorite to win it all) has fallen out of consideration for the national title due to two losses in September, with Alabama and Clemson emerging as the clear favorites to win it all in January. In this week’s rankings, Georgia joins the top five to replace Oklahoma after the Sooners lost to Iowa State in Week 6. Penn State, Washington, TCU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Auburn round out the top 10. Arizona, UAB and Tulane are a few big movers outside of the top 25 in this week’s rankings.
1. Alabama (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Texas A&M
Even though Alabama won at Texas A&M, it’s probably safe to say the sluggish second-half performance will make for a tough week of practice in Tuscaloosa.
2. Clemson (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Wake Forest
The Tigers had no letdown from last week’s victory at Virginia Tech, as coach Dabo Swinney’s team defeated Wake Forest 28-14 on Saturday. Quarterback Kelly Bryant’s ankle injury isn’t serious, and the junior could play in Friday night’s matchup against Syracuse.
3. Georgia (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Vanderbilt
Georgia’s ground attack recorded 423 yards in Saturday’s 45-14 blowout victory against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs have allowed just 17 points through three SEC games this year.
4. Penn State (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Northwestern
The Nittany Lions have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 19 points this year.
5. Washington (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated California
Freshman tight end Hunter Bryant is an emerging weapon in the passing game for the Huskies.
6. TCU (5-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated West Virginia
Kenny Hill’s all-around performance and 14 points off two West Virginia turnovers keep TCU in the ranks of the unbeaten.
7. Oklahoma (4-1)
Week 6 Result: Lost to Iowa State
Defensive issues – especially in the secondary – are back for the Sooners after the loss to Iowa State.
8. Ohio State (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Maryland
The Buckeyes turned in one of the year’s top defensive performances so far in 2017, limiting Maryland to just 66 total yards in a 62-14 victory.
9. Wisconsin (5-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Nebraska
Badgers’ rushing attack gashed Nebraska for 353 yards in Saturday night’s win in Lincoln.
10. Auburn (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Ole Miss
Despite missing two games due to injury, running back Kerryon Johnson ranks fourth among SEC rushers in total yardage (504) this season.
11. Washington State (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Oregon
A short-handed Oregon offense provided little trouble for the Cougars in their first road game of the season.
12. Miami (4-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Florida State
Hurricanes snap seven-game losing streak to Florida State, but the win was costly for coach Mark Richt’s team. Standout running back Mark Walton is out for the rest of the year due to an ankle injury.
13. USC (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Oregon State
The Trojans were far from flawless in the victory over Oregon State, but the performance allowed coach Clay Helton’s team to move on from last week’s loss to Washington State.
14. Oklahoma State (4-1)
Week 6 Result: Bye Week
The Cowboys were on bye this Saturday and return to action in Week 7 against Baylor.
15. Notre Dame (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated North Carolina
With quarterback Brandon Wimbush sidelined due to a foot injury, Notre Dame’s defense and ground attack led the way in Saturday’s 33-10 victory over North Carolina.
16. NC State (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Louisville
The Nov. 4 showdown against Clemson in Raleigh looms large for the ACC Atlantic Division title.
17. San Diego State (6-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated UNLV
After he was limited to just 107 yards against Northern Illinois, San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny rebounded with 170 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday night’s win at UNLV.
18. Virginia Tech (5-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Boston College
Bye week comes at a good time for coach Justin Fuente’s team. Top receiver Cam Phillips suffered a foot sprain against Boston College and needs to be at full strength for the stretch run to win the Coastal Division.
19. Michigan State (4-1)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Michigan
Spartans have won eight out of the last 10 games against Michigan.
20. Michigan (4-1)
Week 6 Result: Lost to Michigan State
Five turnovers simply too much for Jim Harbaugh’s team to overcome against Michigan State.
21. USF (5-0)
Week 6 Result: Bye Week
The Bulls had a bye on Saturday and return to action in Week 7 against Cincinnati.
22. UCF (4-0)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Cincinnati
Knights averaged 12.9 yards per play in Saturday’s rain-shortened victory over Cincinnati.
23. Georgia Tech (3-1)
Week 6 Result: Bye Week
Yellow Jackets had a timely bye on Saturday. Coach Paul Johnson’s team has a huge showdown against Miami in Week 7.
24. Stanford (4-2)
Week 6 Result: Defeated Utah
Bryce Love’s 68-yard touchdown run sealed the victory for the Cardinal in Salt Lake City.
25. Louisville (4-2)
Week 6 Result: Lost to NC State
Lamar Jackson continues to play at a high level, but the Louisville defense has been a mess in conference play, allowing 40.3 points a game through ACC contests.
26. West Virginia
31. Mississippi State
32. Texas A&M
36. Texas Tech
39. Florida State
40. Wake Forest
43. Boise State
49. Kansas State
52. South Carolina
54. Iowa State
55. Colorado State
58. Appalachian State
59. Western Michigan
60. Northern Illinois
69. Arizona State
71. North Texas
72. Southern Miss
76. Ole Miss
77. Arkansas State
79. New Mexico
81. Louisiana Tech
84. Boston College
85. North Carolina
86. Air Force
87. Utah State
92. Miami, Ohio
93. Central Michigan
94. Eastern Michigan
98. New Mexico State
104. Fresno State
107. Oregon State
113. East Carolina
115. Old Dominion
118. South Alabama
119. Bowling Green
120. Georgia State
121. Ball State
122. Coastal Carolina
124. San Jose State
126. Texas State
127. Georgia Southern
128. Kent State
Ranking All 130 CFB Teams for 2017 (After Week 5)
With five weeks of action from the 2017 season in the books, it's time to revamp the full top 130 team projections and predictions and rank every FBS team in college football. While two full months of action remain this college football season, there are already plenty of significant changes to the projected rankings from the preseason. Florida State has fallen out of consideration for the national title due to two losses in September, with Alabama and Clemson emerging as the clear favorites to win it all in January. Oklahoma knocked off Ohio State to jump into the top five, and USC lost at Washington State to damage the Trojans' hopes of making a CFB Playoff appearance this year. UCF, NC State, Utah, Georgia Tech, TCU, Washington State and San Diego State have used strong performances in September to jump into the top 25, while Virginia, Wake Forest, Texas Tech and Maryland are a few of the big movers from outside of the top 25.
1. Alabama (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Ole Miss
Alabama has rolled its last two opponents by a combined score of 125-3.
2. Clemson (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Virginia Tech
Timely plays by quarterback Kelly Bryant and another standout effort on defense guide the Tigers to win in Blacksburg.
3. Oklahoma (4-0)
Week 5 Result: Bye Week
The Sooners had a bye in Week 5 and return to action on Saturday against Iowa State.
4. Penn State (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Indiana
The offensive line has allowed 11 sacks through five games and is a concern for coach James Franklin as the heart of Big Ten play arrives.
5. Washington (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Oregon State
Huge performance from quarterback Jake Browning and receiver Dante Pettis help Huskies pull away from Oregon State in the second half on Saturday night.
6. Ohio State (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Rutgers
Quarterback J.T. Barrett has passed for 484 yards and eight touchdowns over the last two games.
7. Georgia (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Tennessee
Kirby Smart’s defense has allowed only four touchdowns through five games in 2017.
8. Michigan (4-0)
Week 5 Result: Bye Week
The Wolverines had a bye week on Saturday and return to action this week against rival Michigan State.
9. TCU (4-0)
Week 5 Result: Bye Week
The Horned Frogs were off in Week 5 and return to action this Saturday for a huge Big 12 showdown against West Virginia.
10. Wisconsin (4-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Northwestern
Badgers come up big on defense with 11 tackles for a loss and eight sacks in Saturday’s win against Northwestern.
11. Auburn (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Mississippi State
Tigers getting better with each snap, with the offense starting to generate more big plays to team with a powerful rushing attack.
12. Washington State (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated USC
Defense delivers for Washington State and coach Mike Leach in upset win over USC.
13. USC (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Lost to Washington State
Offensive line concerns (and lack of big plays) finally catch up to USC in Friday night’s loss to Washington State.
14. Oklahoma State (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Texas Tech
Mason Rudolph’s five touchdowns just enough for Oklahoma State to avoid Texas Tech’s upset bid.
15. Louisville (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Murray State
Cardinals crush Murray State in easy tune up before Thursday night’s game against NC State.
16. Notre Dame (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Miami (Ohio)
Defense and a powerful ground game lead the way for Notre Dame in blowout victory over Miami, Ohio.
17. Miami (3-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Duke
Will the Hurricanes end a seven-game losing streak to Florida State this Saturday?
18. San Diego State (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Northern Illinois
Aztecs struggled on offense against Northern Illinois, but a touchdowns on special teams and defense help Rocky Long’s team hold on for a 34-28 victory.
19. Virginia Tech (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Lost to Clemson
Hokies have two of next three games at home, with November tests against Miami and Georgia Tech likely to decide their position in the Coastal Division.
20. Utah (4-0)
Week 5 Result: Bye Week
Utes had a bye in Week 5 and return to action this Saturday against Stanford.
21. NC State (4-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Syracuse
Defensive end Bradley Chubb has accumulated four sacks over the last two games.
22. USF (5-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated East Carolina
Bulls have scored at least 42 points in every game against FBS opponents in 2017.
23. Florida (3-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Vanderbilt
Gators posted 467 total yards (a season high) in Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt.
24. UCF (3-0)
Week 5 Result: Defeated Memphis
UCF’s offense averaging a healthy 7.1 yards per play through three games.
25. Georgia Tech (3-1)
Week 5 Result: Defeated North Carolina
Yellow Jackets join the top 25 after 33-7 victory against North Carolina. Up next? A huge showdown against Miami on Oct. 14.
26. West Virginia
29. Florida State
30. Texas A&M
31. Mississippi State
32. Michigan State
34. Kansas State
37. Wake Forest
41. Texas Tech
51. Boise State
57. South Carolina
58. Colorado State
61. Northern Illinois
65. Appalachian State
66. Western Michigan
67. Iowa State
68. Louisiana Tech
70. Arizona State
72. Ole Miss
76. New Mexico
78. Arkansas State
79. North Texas
80. Boston College
81. North Carolina
84. Southern Miss
87. Utah State
89. Air Force
91. Miami, Ohio
93. Eastern Michigan
97. New Mexico State
100. Old Dominion
104. Oregon State
107. Central Michigan
110. Fresno State
111. South Alabama
112. Ball State
113. East Carolina
119. Coastal Carolina
121. San Jose State
124. Georgia State
125. Texas State
126. Georgia Southern
127. Kent State
128. Bowling Green
Update: See the latest AP Poll Top 25 Rankings.
Preseason CFB Projected 130 Team Rankings for 2017
Ranking all 130 college football teams is no easy task, but with the first Saturday of action on Aug. 26 days away, it is time to see how every FBS program stacks up for 2017. At the top, Alabama leads the way as Athlon’s projected national champion. The Crimson Tide lost to Clemson on the final play of last year’s title game, and even though both sides of the ball have a few holes to fill, coach Nick Saban’s program is still the team to beat. Ohio State is a close No. 2, while Florida State and Washington round out the projected playoff teams for 2017.
Outside of the top four, a host of teams should make for an interesting season, Michigan, Auburn, LSU, and Oklahoma State are just a few programs projected outside of the top eight that could be in the playoff mix. Defending champ Clemson is projected to finish No. 7, as coach Dabo Swinney's team still returns enough talent to remain a factor in the national title mix. Oklahoma is still Athlon’s pick to win the Big 12 after coach Bob Stoops retired. However, the gap between the Sooners and Oklahoma State or Texas closed just a bit in June.
USF is the projected top team from the Group of 5 conferences, with Boise State, San Diego State, Memphis, Navy and Colorado State rounding out the next tier of contenders. Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State headline a top-heavy trio in the Sun Belt, while Toledo and Miami are the favorites in the MAC. WKU and Louisiana Tech appear to be on a collision course for a rematch in the C-USA title game.
Where do all 130 teams stack up for 2017? Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
2017 Conference Predictions
Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017
After a two-year hiatus, the Blazers make their return to the gridiron on Sept. 2 against Alabama A&M. Considering all of the new faces on the depth chart, it is hard to know what to expect out of this team in 2017. However, one thing is for certain: UAB is in good hands with Bill Clark leading the program. Clark guided the Blazers to a 6-6 mark back in 2014 and has recruited well during the hiatus to ensure this team can be competitive right away. A couple of transfers are likely to lead the way on offense. Former Middle Tennessee quarterback A.J. Erdely is the favorite to start under center, while Collin Lisa returned to Birmingham after a stint at Buffalo to work as the team’s go-to target. There’s also a cast of talented options at running back, including Kalin Heath, Donnie Lee, James Noble and Jonathan Haden. Senior Shaq Jones is the lone returning starter from the 2014 team and should be one of the leaders for Clark this fall. True freshman Thomas Johnston was the top recruit in UAB’s 2017 signing class and could push for snaps right away at linebacker. Considering all that has transpired with this program over the last couple of years, just returning to the gridiron and being competitive in conference play would be an accomplishment.
129. Texas State
The Bobcats are hoping for better results in their second season under coach Everett Withers. Texas State finished 2-10 last fall and nine of those defeats came by double digits. Withers is going with a youth movement on both sides of the ball, so instant improvement could be tough to find this fall. Mississippi State graduate transfer quarterback Damian Williams was expected to start at quarterback, but his status with the team is uncertain. If Williams does not return to the team, the Bobcats will have to turn to a true freshman at quarterback. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the offense has to get better play from a line that surrendered 44 sacks last year, along with a ground game that averaged 2.3 yards per rush in 2016. A linebacker unit that features tackling machine Bryan London (141 stops in 2016) figures to be the strength of the defense. However, Texas State surrendered 41.1 points per game last season, and even with London returning, the defense is expected to be in rebuild mode once again in 2017.
The Minutemen found out just how difficult life as a FBS Independent can be last season. Coach Mark Whipple’s team finished 2-10, went 0-4 against Power 5 opponents and lost 51-9 at BYU in late November. The going will get a little easier for this program in 2017. UMass plays just two Power 5 teams this fall but adds one of the Sun Belt’s top teams in Appalachian State, along with American Athletic champion Temple, and another matchup at BYU. While the schedule isn’t much easier, it should provide some relief for a team that quietly features one of the nation’s top tight ends. Senior Adam Breneman caught 70 passes for 808 yards and eight scores last season and is expected to push for All-America honors. Quarterback Andrew Ford was solid (26 TDs, 14 INTs) after taking over the starting job last fall, and running back Marquis Young (898 yards) is a potential 1,000-yard rusher. With Ford, Young and Breneman in place, the Minutemen should easily improve last year’s scoring average, which was just 23.3 points per game. While the offense is in good shape, new coordinator Ed Pinkham has a lot of work to do on defense. UMass gave up 35.5 points per game in 2016 (partially a product of the schedule) and allowed 6.1 yards per play. Reversing those numbers starts with better play up front against the run and getting after the quarterback more after generating 25 sacks in 2016. Safety Khary Bailey-Smith leaves big shoes to fill on the back end. Doubling last year’s win total would be a step in the right direction for the Minutemen.
127. Kent State
The Golden Flashes have just eight wins over the last three years, making 2017 a critical year for coach Paul Haynes and his future at his alma mater. Any hope for a bowl push starts with senior quarterback/all-purpose threat Nick Holley. After injuries hit the quarterback position hard last season, Holley shifted from receiver to under center and ended 2016 with 1,923 total yards. With a full offseason to shape the offense to his strengths, can coordinator Don Treadwell help this unit average more than 20.6 points a game? Holley has a lot on his shoulders, and his 5-foot-10 frame could wear down over the course of the season. Can Holley get more help from his supporting cast? Defense has been a strength under Haynes, and this unit limited opponents to 28.7 points per game last fall. Senior tackle Jon Cunningham is a first-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports, but the strength of this unit is the secondary. The Golden Flashes allowed just one pass play of 50 or more yards in 2016. The schedule features crossover games against Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois and swing games versus Buffalo and Akron take place on the road. That’s a tough path for improvement.
The 49ers made progress in their second season at the FBS level in 2016. Coach Brad Lambert’s team won four games, with three of those coming in Conference USA play. The next step for Charlotte is to contend for a winning record and a bowl, but those two goals may have to wait another year. Lambert’s team returns 12 starters and has better depth thanks to its recent recruiting classes at the FBS level. But the program lost standout defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and running back Kalif Phillips, leaving big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball for 2017. Quarterback Hasaan Klugh showed promise last fall and returns for his first full year as the team’s starter. He’s joined by capable targets at receiver in senior T.L. Ford II and junior Workpeh Kofa, while guard Nate Davis should push for all-conference honors. Benny LeMay and Robert Washington are tasked with picking up the slack on the ground. The defense has significant voids to fill in the front seven and gave up nearly 35 points (34.6) a game in 2016. Safety Ben DeLuca could emerge as one of Conference USA’s top defensive backs this fall.
125. New Mexico State
This will be New Mexico State’s final year as a Sun Belt member, as the program is set to become a FBS Independent next fall. The Aggies will be looking to push for a bowl in their final year in the conference and snap a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons. The good news for coach Doug Martin? Running back Larry Rose is back to full strength after an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, and quarterback Tyler Rogers returns after throwing for 2,603 yards. Rogers needs to cut down on the turnovers (12 picks) but is surrounded by one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps. Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani returns eight starters from a unit that allowed 38.8 points per game last season. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but New Mexico State’s hopes of a winning season rest with a struggling defense against a tough schedule.
124. Coastal Carolina
Led by former TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina is the newest member of the FBS level. Moglia is dealing with a medical issue and will be sidelined for the 2017 campaign. Offensive coordinator (and former Charleston Southern head coach) Jamey Chadwell will serve as the team's head coach this fall. The Chanticleers are in the second year of a two-year transition period and are ineligible to play in a bowl game. But this team will be a factor in Sun Belt competition, as Coastal Carolina won 10 games at the FCS level last season. After injuries hit the quarterback position hard in 2016, Chadwell is hoping for stability behind Syracuse transfer Austin Wilson. If Wilson isn’t the answer, junior Josh Stilley is likely to get the call as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. The one-two punch of Marcus Outlow and Osharmar Abercrombie should be an effective one on the ground, but the Chanticleers will be replacing three starters on the line. An athletic and speedy defense returns only five starters from a unit that limited opponents to 19.3 points per game in 2016. Linebacker Shane Johnson and senior end Marcus Williamson are two of the leaders for defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews, while the secondary is looking for new starters to emerge.
Lance Leipold came to Buffalo after a successful run at Wisconsin-Whitewater, but this program has just seven wins over the last two years. In order for the Bulls to challenge for a bowl in 2017, Leipold needs marked improvement from both sides of the ball. The offense managed only 16.5 points a game last season, while the defense gave up 32.3 per contest. Sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson is promising but has to improve as a passer after completing only 53.1 percent of his throws in 2016. Improving the passing game doesn’t just fall on Jackson’s shoulders. The sophomore needs targets to emerge on the outside after the departure of the team’s top three receivers from last year. Additionally, running back Jordan Johnson expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,040 yards in 2016, leaving junior Johnathan Hawkins and freshman Theo Anderson as the favorites for carries. The strength of the offense should be up front. Four starters are back, and Rutgers transfer Jacquis Webb is competing for the starting job at left tackle. While last year’s defensive numbers weren’t pretty, don’t be surprised if Buffalo takes a significant step forward on this side of the ball. The Bulls return eight starters – including one of the MAC’s top linebacker units – and safety Ryan Williamson anchors a secondary that is expected to improve with three returning starters. A bowl trip is unlikely, but Buffalo could double its win total from 2016.
122. San Jose State
New coach Brent Brennan has extensive ties to the state of California and San Jose State, but the first-year coach has a lot of work do in 2017. The Spartans went 4-8 last fall and have not posted a winning record since 2012. Reversing that trend is going to take some time. Brennan is regarded as a good recruiter, and his ties to the state will help San Jose State attract talent in the next couple of years. But in 2017, Brennan inherits a team filled with question marks on both sides of the ball. The offense averaged only 24.4 points per game in 2016 and must replace quarterback Kenny Potter. Sophomore Josh Love is the favorite to take the first snap, with freshman Montel Aaron and junior college recruit Sam Allen also in the mix. The Spartans are in good shape at the skill positions with the return of running back Malik Roberson (508 yards) and receivers Justin Holmes and Tre Hartley. However, none of this will matter unless San Jose State’s offensive line is better. This unit allowed a hefty 50 sacks last fall but returns all five starters. The concerns in the trenches spread to the defense, where this unit is transitioning to a new 3-4 scheme. Depth is a concern up front, but two of the starters – juniors Bryson Bridges and Owen Roberts – could be in the mix for all-conference honors. Linebacker Frank Ginda made 99 stops last season and is a first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2017. The secondary is the strength of this defense. Cornerback Andre Chachere and safety Maurice McKnight are both likely to earn all-conference consideration in 2017, with Chachere earning first-team honors last fall. Brennan worked under Mike MacIntyre during his successful tenure at San Jose State, so he knows what it takes to win here. However, it is going to take some time to rebuild this program.
121. Georgia State
Change is the theme surrounding Georgia State this offseason. There’s a new coach (Shawn Elliott), and the Panthers now have their own stadium after taking over (and renovating) Turner Field (now Georgia State Stadium). Elliott comes to Atlanta after working as South Carolina’s offensive line coach since 2010, and he has ties to athletic director Charlie Cobb from a stint at Appalachian State. Georgia State’s offense averaged only 19.9 points per game last year, but there’s too much firepower to expect a repeat of that total. Senior Conner Manning will compete with Aaron Winchester for the starting quarterback job, and the receiving corps regains the services of All-Sun Belt target Penny Hart after missing most of last season due to a foot injury. One priority for the offense: Find more balance. Georgia State averaged just 87.7 rushing yards per game in 2016. The defense returns eight starters and could be among the best in the Sun Belt.
The Miners have one bowl appearances and winning mark (2014) under coach Sean Kugler, but this program has posted a losing record in three out of the last four seasons. And after a 4-8 mark in 2016, the pressure is building on Kugler to get UTEP back on track. That’s not an easy assignment for the former NFL assistant, as standout running back Aaron Jones left for the pros and the defense is a concern after giving up 34.9 points per game in 2016. Quadraiz Wadley was slated to replace Jones this fall, but he’s out after suffering a shoulder injury in spring practice. With Wadley out, Kevin Dove, sophomore Walter Dawn and true freshman Joshua Fields could handle the majority of the carries. Regardless of which player earns carries, he should find running room behind a standout offensive line. This unit is anchored by All-America candidate Will Hernandez, graduate transfer Logan Tuley-Tillman, and center Derron Gatewood. Quarterback Ryan Metz (1,375 yards, 10 TDs) was steady last fall, but the Miners connected on just 12 passes of 30 or more yards. More is needed out of Metz and the receiving corps without Jones to lean on in 2017. The defense has major concerns up front, but the back seven should be a strength. Linebacker Alvin Jones is one of Conference USA’s top defenders, and safety Devin Cockrell is another all-conference candidate. A tough schedule awaits UTEP in 2017. In addition to non-conference games against Army, Oklahoma and Arizona, the Miners catch WKU and Middle Tennessee in crossover play.
Second-year coach Matt Viator has ULM on the right track, but this program might be a year away from making a push for a bowl game. The Warhawks won two conference games in November, ending the season with some momentum after losing starting quarterback Garrett Smith due to injury midway through 2016. Smith is back under center and the supporting cast should be set with the return of the top three receivers and the team’s top four running backs. The supporting cast will also receive a boost from the addition of Alabama transfer Derrick Gore at running back. Viator’s offense should take a step forward after averaging 23.3 points per game last season, but the defense is a bigger concern. While eight starters return, this unit ranked near the bottom of the league against the run, pass efficiency defense and allowed 39.1 points per game. A tough schedule limits the upside for ULM. However, this team should be more competitive in Viator's second year at the helm.
Rice is one of Conference USA’s toughest jobs, but it’s notable that the Owls have watched their win total decrease in three consecutive years after a 10-4 finish in 2013. Coach David Bailiff has won 56 games since taking over in 2007 and could be facing a make-or-break campaign. In order for Rice to snap a string of two losing seasons in a row, finding a quarterback is Bailiff’s top priority. Sophomores Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato and freshmen Sam Glaesmann and Miklo Smalls battled for the job in fall practice. Glaesmann was named the starter in mid-August, with Granato deciding to transfer to the FCS level. Until Glaesmann settles in, expect the offense to lean heavily on a solid line that returns all five starters and running back Samuel Stewart. Sophomore Kylen Granson could be in for a breakout year at receiver. Rice was porous on defense last season, giving up 37.3 points a game, meore than 200 yards a contest on the ground and 32 plays of 40 yards or more. New coordinator Brian Stewart should build his 2017 group around linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee and a solid defensive line. The pass defense has to improve for the Owls to cut down on last year’s 37.3 points per game total allowed.
117. Fresno State
Fresno State was one of the Mountain West’s top programs but slipped considerably during the final three years under coach Tim DeRuyter. After an 11-2 campaign in 2013, the Bulldogs won just 10 games over the next three seasons, capped by a 1-11 record in '16. The long climb back to respectability begins with new coach Jeff Tedford, who returns to the collegiate sidelines for the first time since 2012. Tedford’s background is on offense, which is a good thing considering Fresno State averaged just 17.7 points a game in 2016. Sophomore Chason Virgil is team’s most-experienced option at quarterback, but he will be pushed by junior college recruit Jorge Reyna and Oregon State graduate transfer Marcus McMaryion. The Bulldogs need more consistency out of his position, especially with a solid group of playmakers waiting to break plays on the outside. Even if the passing game improves, Fresno State still has to find ways to spark a ground attack that averaged only 3.2 yards per rush in 2016. Can Saevion Johnson, Dontel James or a couple of freshmen emerge as the answer at running back? Adding to Tedford’s concerns on offense is a line that surrendered 31 sacks last fall. The defense was slightly better in 2016, giving up 30.9 points per game (seventh in the Mountain West). However, this group was gashed against the run (247.4 ypg allowed) and generated 14 sacks. New coordinator Orlondo Steinauer takes over after a stint in the CFL and will have his hands full.
116. Ball State
Mike Neu went 4-8 in his first season at his alma mater, and year two begins with significant concerns on both sides of the ball. The offense will be led by junior quarterback Riley Neal and Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC running back James Gilbert, who rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 scores last fall. Neal has showed flashes of promise but had an up-and-down 2016 campaign by tossing 12 picks vs. 13 touchdowns. Finding targets for Neal is critical for Neu, especially after top receiver Damon Hazelton decided to transfer to Virginia Tech. Freshmen Khalil Newton and Justin Gibbs could be counted on for major contributions at receiver. The line returns three starters and has a chance to be among the best in the MAC. New coordinator David Elson inherits a defense that ranked seventh in the MAC by allowing 30.1 points per game in 2016. And with only four starters back, Elson will be busy this offseason. End Brandon Winbush (8.5 sacks) is the headliner, while three new starters step into the rotation at linebacker. Ball State won only four games last fall but suffered six of the eight losses by 10 points or fewer. Turning some of the close losses into wins will require improvement from Neal, as well as a reversal of a minus-10 turnover margin.
Change is the key world to remember around Reno this offseason. The Wolf Pack are under the direction of a new coach (Jay Norvell), with new schemes slated to be implemented behind new coordinators Matt Mumme and Jeff Casteel. Mumme plans on transitioning Nevada from a Pistol offense to more of a pass-first/spread approach, which is likely to take a year or two to implement. Helping Mumme’s implementation is Alabama transfer David Cornwell at quarterback. Cornwell's arrival became even more critical after running back James Butler decided to transfer in early July. The Wolf Pack need more targets to emerge at receiver, and the offensive line is a concern with just two returning starters. The firepower is there for the offense to improve over the course of the year, but Mumme’s group might be a year away. The personnel snapshot isn’t bad on defense. End Malik Reed is a candidate for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, linebacker Gabriel Sewell is back after a solid freshman campaign, and the secondary has two all-conference safeties in Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus. With the new schemes on both sides of the ball, just matching last year’s five wins would be a good debut for Norvell.
114. Bowling Green
It’s easy to pin the blame on coach Mike Jinks for Bowling Green’s drop off from MAC champion to four-win team in 2016. However, it’s also important to note the Falcons lost a good chunk of talent from that team, and a first-year coach learning on the job compounded the problem. But there were signs of promise last fall. The Falcons won their last three games and are positioned to exceed last year’s four total victories. Quarterback James Morgan is a rising star under center, and the receiving corps should be a standout group, anchored by Scott Miller, Teo Redding and junior college transfer (and former Oregon State player) Datrin Guyton. Josh Cleveland and Donovan Wilson anchor a solid stable of running backs, which received more of the workload during the team’s three-game winning streak. Jinks’ top priority this offseason is finding the right answers for an offensive line that replaces three starters. The development of this group is critical to the team’s hopes of challenging for a bowl. It’s a good thing Bowling Green has enough offensive firepower to average at least 30 points a game. The defense gave up 38.3 per contest in 2016 and returns only five starters. This unit does feature All-MAC candidates in lineman Gus Schwieterman, linebacker Brandon Harris and safety Jamari Bozeman. However, this defense is filled with question marks and could struggle once again in 2017. Punter Joseph Davidson is one of the best in the nation.
Butch Davis returns to the sideline for the first time since his firing at North Carolina prior to the 2011 season. While Davis has been away for six years, he’s stepping back into familiar territory. After spending time as an assistant at Miami (1984-88) and again as the head coach (1995-2000), he’s certainly familiar with FIU and its recruiting territory in Miami-Dade County. The Panthers landed sixth in Athlon Sports’ Conference USA East predictions, but this team has potential to surprise. The senior leadership of quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and receiver Thomas Owens provide a solid foundation on offense. The biggest concern for the offense is in the trenches after giving up 31 sacks in 2016. Progress could be slow for this unit with just two returning starters. The defense gave up 34.8 points per game last season but should show improvement under coordinator Brent Guy. The Panthers return nine starters, including a standout linebacker unit led by seniors Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint. A push for five wins or a bowl would not be a surprise from Davis in his debut.
112. East Carolina
Scottie Montgomery’s first year in Greenville was a struggle. East Carolina finished 3-9 – with a win over NC State – and claimed only one victory in league play. Another alarming stat: All seven of the losses in AAC action came by at least 11 points. To help this program get back on track, Montgomery dipped into the graduate transfer ranks for immediate help. Quarterback Thomas Sirk (Duke), running back Tyshon Dye and end Gaelin Elmore (Minnesota) are expected to start and provide an instant impact. Sirk is the most important addition, but he’s also coming off a torn Achilles that forced him to miss all of 2016. If Sirk is limited at any point, the Pirates will turn to junior Gardner Minshew under center. Dye adds to a talented backfield of options, but East Carolina needs more production from its rushers after averaging only 132.4 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 yards per carry. Zay Jones leaves big shoes to fill at receiver after catching 158 passes in 2016. But the cupboard isn’t bare for Montgomery. Quay Johnson, Jimmy Williams and Davon Grayson form a talented trio of options and a group capable of ranking as one of the AAC’s top receiving corps. Even if East Carolina’s offense matches last year’s per-game average (27), the defense has to improve for this program to go bowling. The Pirates gave up 36.1 points per game and finished last in the league against the run. Only four starters are back, but the addition of Elmore and Auburn transfer Tim Irvin should provide a boost. East Carolina should improve in Montgomery’s second season. But it’s also a long climb to six wins or to crack the top three of the AAC’s East Division.
111. Georgia Southern
Tyson Summers’ tenure at Georgia Southern got off to a rocky start. Despite returning 12 starters from a team that won 18 games from 2014-15, the Eagles slipped to 5-7 and just 4-4 in league play. A victory over Troy in the regular season finale likely secured Summers of a second year in Statesboro, and there’s already enormous pressure to win in 2017. Georgia Southern still has a good foundation of talent to engineer a turnaround this fall, and the addition of new play-caller Bryan Cook should help the offense get back to its option roots. But Cook must find a quarterback after Seth Shuman left the team to play baseball. Shai Werts ended spring as the No. 2 option and is expected to claim the job this fall. The one-two punch of Wesley Fields and L.A. Ramsby at running back should find plenty of running room behind one of the Sun Belt’s top offensive lines. Summers and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Costantini have a tough assignment ahead this offseason. The Eagles return only four starters and face a significant rebuilding project in the front seven.
Mark Hudspeth has guided Louisiana to five bowl trips in six seasons at the helm, and the Ragin’ Cajuns should contend for another postseason appearance in 2017. Of course, Louisiana’s place in the Sun Belt will largely depend on how well the offense can replace standout running back Elijah McGuire. Senior Darius Hoggins (out indefinitely due to a broken jaw), freshmen Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas and sophomore Jordan Wright headline a cast of options for new offensive coordinator Will Hall, while promising junior Jordan Davis is set to become the new starting quarterback. Davis has a solid set of receivers on the outside to utilize, including big-play threat Keenan Barnes. The line ranks as one of the best in the Sun Belt with four returning starters. The strength in the trenches continues on defense, as end Joe Dillon (seven sacks in 2016) anchors one of the Sun Belt’s best fronts. With the question marks on offense, Louisiana may have to lean on its defense a little more to win in 2017. And the schedule won’t provide many breaks. The Ragin’ Cajuns play two of the Sun Belt’s top teams – Arkansas State and Appalachian State – while playing road games at South Alabama, Idaho, Tulsa, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
A year after earning the program’s first bowl victory, the Zips slipped to 5-7 after injuries took a toll on the quarterback position and the defense. Returning to the postseason and a winning record likely rests on a return to full strength from quarterback Thomas Woodson. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery but is expected to return to full strength for fall practice. If Woodson is limited or struggles, former Virginia Cavalier and junior college recruit Nick Johns will step under center. The return of running back Warren Ball from a season-ending injury should spark a ground attack that ranked 11th in the MAC last fall. The Zips will miss Jerome Lane’s big-play ability at receiver, but senior Austin Wolf could emerge as an all-conference candidate after catching 36 passes last year. A line that returns four starters could be the strength for the offense. After giving up 33.6 points per game and finishing 11th in the MAC against the run in 2016, it’s clear Akron’s defense can only go one way in 2017. But improvement isn’t guaranteed for coordinator Chuck Amato. The Zips suffered key losses at each level, struggled to generate a pass rush or create turnovers last fall and return only four starters on this side of the ball. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert is one of the MAC’s top defenders, while transfers Jamal Davis (Pitt), Darian Dailey (Rutgers) and Mark Ellis (West Virginia) and could provide some instant help. A schedule that features non-conference games against Penn State, Troy and Iowa State, along with crossover games against Toledo and Western Michigan won’t provide much relief.
108. North Texas
Seth Littrell was one of the top coaching hires from the 2016 cycle and provided an instant spark for the Mean Green last year. After North Texas won just one game in 2015, this program finished 5-8 last fall and earned a trip to a bowl due to APR scoring. Littrell still has a lot of work to do, but the Mean Green are clearly trending in the right direction. In order for this team to push for a winning record in 2017, more is needed from an offense that averaged only 24.8 points per game last fall. Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine (1,572 yards, six TDs) showed promise and should build off 2016 in his first opportunity as the full-time starter in 2017. Fine’s development will be aided by one of Conference USA’s top running backs in senior Jeffery Wilson, along with junior college recruit Jalen Guyton at receiver. The offensive line returns three starters but must cut down on the sacks after giving up 43 last fall. The defense was a key cog in last year’s improvement. After surrendering 41.3 points per game in 2015, North Texas cut that total to 32.6 last year. There’s a new coordinator (Troy Reffett) and some turnover (just four returning starters), but the Mean Green have the pieces in place to improve on this side of the ball. The secondary is one of the best in Conference USA, and Kansas State transfer Bryce English is a name to remember in the front seven. English is out for the first few weeks of 2017 after an offseason injury but is still expected to make an impact. Another bowl trip is within reach for Littrell’s team.
Marshall’s collapse from a team that won 33 games from 2013-15 to a 3-9 record in '16 was quite puzzling. What went wrong for this team last year and is it correctable in one offseason? That’s the big question for coach Doc Holliday. For starters, the Thundering Herd struggle to generate any consistency from its ground attack, averaging just 108.2 rushing yards per game. Some of that inconsistency came from the problems in the trenches, but both units have to improve in 2017. Quarterback Chase Litton has the potential to be one of Conference USA’s top signal-callers – if he can get more help from the supporting cast. Miami transfer Tyre Brady is a player to watch at receiver, while tight end Ryan Yurachek is the best in Conference USA. Junior college recruit Trey Rodriguez should provide a spark for the ground game. The problems for Holliday were not limited to the offense last year. Marshall gave up 35.3 points a game on defense and ranked ninth in Conference USA against the run. The secondary was equally problematic, finishing 101st nationally in pass efficiency defense. Junior tackle Ryan Bee and cornerback Rodney Allen are two building blocks for coordinator Chuck Heater, and the addition of Miami transfer Juwon Young (suspended first four games of 2017) should bolster a struggling linebacker unit. Marshall has too much talent on the roster to finish 3-9 again. However, contending for the C-USA East Division seems out of reach.
106. Central Michigan
John Bonamego opens his third season at the helm of his alma mater looking to replace standout quarterback Cooper Rush. Michigan transfer Shane Morris is the favorite, but sophomore Tony Poljan is also in the mix. Replacing Rush won’t be easy. After all, he finished second in MAC history with 12,891 passing yards. If a quarterback emerges, the Chippewas should have no trouble scoring points behind new coordinator Chris Ostrowsky. The running back corps is deep and more help is on the way in the form of Minnesota transfer Berkley Edwards. The receiving corps should be among the best in the MAC, with tight end Tyler Conklin a first-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports. The defense returns six starters from a group that surrendered 30.3 points per game last fall – an increase of just over eight per contest from 2015. Linebacker Malik Fountain, end Joe Ostman and defensive backs Amari Coleman and Josh Cox are the top performers and could all push for first-team All-MAC honors. This unit has a few holes to fill, but the defense has a chance to improve its numbers from 2016. If Morris or Poljan emerges under center, the Chippewas should earn their third consecutive bowl trip under Bonamego.
Third-year coach Tony Sanchez has the Rebels trending up entering 2017. A bowl could be a season away, but UNLV won four games last fall (up from three in 2015) and lost two by no more than six points. Making the jump to six (or more) wins will require better play at quarterback. And the Rebels could have the right answer in the form of redshirt freshman Armani Rogers. He’s projected as the team’s starter over former junior college/Nebraska signal-caller Johnny Stanton, and Rogers is primed for a breakout year. Joining Rogers on offense is a deep stable of backs led by Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas, along with one of the league’s top offensive lines. The Rebels are deep at receiver, with Devonte Boyd (45 catches in an injury-limited year) expected to push for first-team All-Mountain West honors. The receiving corps is also expected to get a boost from the return of Kendal Keyes (missed 2016 due to injury). While the offense is poised to take off, question marks surround the defensive depth chart. UNLV returns only two starters on this side of the ball and depth at all three levels is a concern. After giving up 36.8 points per game last fall, it’s tough to see this unit taking a significant step forward with much in the way of proven talent.
This will be Idaho’s final year at the FBS level, and coach Paul Petrino’s team has a chance to go out on a high note. The Vandals return nine starters from a team that claimed its first winning season since 2009. Quarterback Matt Linehan is a second-team Athlon Sports All-Sun Belt selection for 2017, but his supporting cast will feature some new faces after the departure of four out of the top five targets from last season. Running backs Aaron Duckworth and Isaiah Saunders form one of the Sun Belt's top tandems. The offensive line is also a concern after the departure of three starters. The Vandals allowed just over 30 points per game (31.3) last season and had their share of issues against the pass. Coordinator Mike Breske returns only five starters, but end Aikeem Coleman is one of the Sun Belt’s top defenders, and the linebacker unit should be among the best in the conference. Idaho had a bit of luck on its side last fall. A plus-11 turnover margin and four victories by one score suggests some regression is in order for 2017.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2017 Predictions
103. South Alabama
The Jaguars had an interesting 2016 season. Despite a 2-6 record in Sun Belt play, South Alabama made its second bowl appearance in program history. Thanks to upset victories against Mississippi State and San Diego State in non-conference play, the Jaguars reached the six-win mark for the third time in four years. With 11 returning starters and one of the Sun Belt’s best defenses in place, South Alabama shouldn’t need upsets in non-conference play to go bowling in 2017. The line is anchored by Louisville transfer Finesse Middleton and standout tackles Tyree Turner and Tre Alford. Safety Jeremy Reaves is also a first-team All-Sun Belt selection by Athlon Sports for 2017, but the secondary suffered a setback over the summer when Jalen Thompson was ruled out due to academics. The offense averaged 25.4 points per game last season and needs more help from the line to improve on the stat sheet. Quarterback Dallas Davis should rank among the league’s top signal-callers, while running back Xavier Johnson should push for 1,000 yards after rushing for 831 last season. The receiving corps must be retooled after losing its top four options from 2016.
102. Eastern Michigan
The Eagles were one of college football’s most surprising teams in 2016. Under the direction of third-year coach Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan had its first winning season since 1995 and made its first bowl trip since '87. Another postseason game is within reach this fall, especially with a high-powered offense returning to Ypsilanti. Quarterback Brogan Roback is one of the best in the MAC, and despite losing tight end Nigel Kilby, the senior will have one of the league’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Shaq Vann’s return from injury adds to a solid stable of running backs. The offensive line is Creighton’s biggest concern after losing three full-time starters from last year’s group. If the line comes together, exceeding last season’s scoring output (29.6 ppg) won’t be a problem. While the defensive numbers from last season weren’t indicative of a shutdown group, it was a huge step forward for a unit that was gashed repeatedly in 2015. Eastern Michigan gave up 42.1 points per game that season but cut the total to 29.8 in 2016. End Pat O’Connor is the biggest loss for coordinator Neal Neathery from a defense that is slated to return eight starters. Assuming Neathery can fortify the pass rush and work on cutting down the big plays in the secondary, Eastern Michigan’s defense should take a step forward on the stat sheet once again. However, Creighton’s team won’t get a break in scheduling. The Eagles play the top two teams – Ohio and Miami – from the East and catch swing games against Northern Illinois and Central Michigan on the road.
A familiar name is set to take over at UConn this fall: Randy Edsall. The former UConn coach has returned to Storrs after leaving to take the top spot at Maryland following the 2010 season. Edsall guided the Huskies to four consecutive bowl games from 2007-10 but inherits a program in need of repair. The offense averaged just 14.8 points per game and needs to find an answer at quarterback after the offense generated just eight passing scores last fall. Senior Bryant Shirreffs opened spring practice as the favorite to start, but junior college recruit David Pindell won the job in fall camp. Sophomore Donovan Williams was in the mix to start but moved to receiver. New coordinator Rhett Lashlee plans to implement an up-tempo/spread attack to spark this attack, and running back Arkeel Newsome could be a huge focal point of the offense. Receiver Noel Thomas (100 catches in 2016) won’t be easy to replace and more is needed from a line that has struggled in recent years. The picture isn’t as bleak on defense for Edsall. UConn allowed 28.1 points per game last fall and finished third in the AAC against the run. New coordinator Billy Crocker has a solid foundation at his disposal, including standout senior linebackers Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph. Cornerback Jamar Summers is one of the AAC’s top defensive backs, but he’s also working with three new starters in the secondary. Edsall did a good job in his first stint at identifying under-the-radar recruits and developing them into solid starters. Finding success in his second stint in Storrs isn’t guaranteed, but Edsall knows what it takes to win and should help this team take a step forward in 2017.
The Green Wave are coming off a 4-8 debut under coach Willie Fritz, but this team wasn’t far from bowl eligibility. Tulane dropped four games by 10 points or fewer, including a four-point defeat against Wake Forest and losing to Navy by a touchdown. Fritz clearly has this program trending up, but the Green Wave are probably a year from bowl eligibility. The addition of junior college transfer Jonathan Banks at quarterback is huge for an offense that managed only 24.1 points per game in 2016. Banks has the mobility to thrive in Fritz’s spread option attack. Banks won’t throw a ton (15-20 attempts per game), but the receiving corps is in better shape this fall, with junior Terren Encalade (13.9 ypc) likely the top target. Senior running back Dontrell Hilliard has led the team in rushing for two years in a row and should be the anchor for the ground game once again. The line regains the services of center Junior Diaz, who missed most of 2016 due to injury. This group and Banks’ development is critical to Tulane’s hopes of hitting six wins. The Green Wave quietly boast one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defenses. Tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley will be missed, but there’s enough talent in place to remain near the top of the league. End Ade Aruna is poised for his best year, while the secondary is a standout group, headlined by cornerback Parry Nickerson.
99. Northern Illinois
The Huskies are coming off their first losing season since 2007 and a string of six consecutive trips to the MAC Championship Game was also snapped last fall. Can coach Rod Carey get this program back on track? Contending for the conference title is unlikely, but if the Huskies can find the right answer at quarterback, a bowl trip is within reach. Injuries hit this position hard last season, as four different quarterbacks received snaps. Junior Ryan Graham and sophomore Daniel Santacaterina are set to battle for the job this fall, but this offense is going to lean heavily on its ground attack. Leading the way for running back Jordan Huff is a standout line, anchored by Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC left tackle Max Scharping. Top receiver Kenny Golladay won’t be easy to replace, but the Huskies get Chad Beebe back from injury, and Iowa State transfer Jauan Wesley could provide a boost on the outside. While finding a quarterback is the biggest storyline for Carey this offseason, the defensive concerns shouldn’t be overlooked. This unit gave up 30.3 points a game and struggled to stop the run (10th in the MAC). The front seven has to be retooled and could be problematic once again. The strength of the defense is the secondary, which features standout senior Shawun Lurry. With Eastern Michigan coming to DeKalb and no Ohio or Miami in crossover play, the schedule breaks in Northern Illinois’ favor this fall.
The Owls will be one of college football’s most intriguing teams this fall. And the reason for that is pretty simple: Lane Kiffin. The former Alabama offensive coordinator takes over in Boca Raton and inherits a team that has won just nine games over the last three years. While Kiffin’s last stint as a head coach at USC ended in his firing, the guess here is this stint goes significantly different. FAU is a program with potential in a fertile recruiting territory, and with Kiffin helping to make the final push, the Owls inked C-USA’s No. 1 signing class. Included in that haul was former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, a junior college transfer who is fighting with Daniel Parr and Jason Driskel to start in 2017. Johnson (or Parr and Driskel) is surrounded by a deep group of skill players, including standout running back Devin Singletary and receivers Kalib Woods and DeAndre McNeal. Auburn graduate transfer John Franklin joined the team in mid-August and is expected to step in at receiver. The offensive line should get a boost from the return of tackle Reggie Bain, who missed all of 2016 due to injuries suffered in an offseason car wreck. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Kiffin’s team, but defense could be an issue. Standout end Trey Hendrickson expired his eligibility, adding to the concerns for a run defense that gave up 245.4 yards per game in 2016. Anchored by cornerback Raekwon Williams and safety Jalen Young, the secondary should be the strength of the defense. The personnel is in place for Kiffin to lead FAU to a bowl game in his first year in Boca Raton.
97. Utah State
After winning 19 games from 2013-14, Utah State has been trending in the wrong direction. The Aggies are just 9-16 over the last two seasons, and after a 3-9 record last fall, there’s considerable pressure on coach Matt Wells. Can Utah State get back into bowl contention this fall? It’s not going to be easy. An offense that averaged just 23.9 points per game in 2016 should improve behind new coordinator David Yost. The former Oregon assistant plans to utilize more up-tempo looks this fall, which should play into the strengths of quarterback Kent Myers. The senior has the talent to push for All-Mountain West honors, but the supporting cast is a concern. The Aggies are breaking in four new starters on the offensive line, and the receiving corps must be retooled after losing three key players from last year’s squad, including talented receiver Rayshad Lewis to transfer. The defense wasn’t the best in the Mountain West in 2016 but certainly wasn’t a weakness either. This year’s version must replace a couple of key cogs, including linemen Travis Seefeldt, Ricky Ali’fua, linebacker Anthony Williams, safety Devin Centers and cornerback Daniel Gray. The secondary is anchored by All-Mountain West candidates in safety Dallin Leavitt and cornerback Jalen Davis and is the strength of this defense. Senior Alex Huerta and juniors Derek Larsen and Chase Christiansen provide a solid foundation at linebacker, but the revamped line is likely to be the biggest concern for Wells. While this team has a lot of personnel concerns to address, it is important to note Utah State lost four Mountain West games by a touchdown or less last year. Turning a couple of those close losses into wins could equal a bowl trip for the Aggies.
96. New Mexico
Bob Davie has brought steady improvement to this program since taking over in 2012, with the Lobos finishing '16 with a 9-4 mark and another trip to the New Mexico Bowl. Davie has this program on stable ground, but New Mexico has a few key voids to address before matching last year’s nine wins. The offense led the Mountain West by averaging 36.7 points per game in 2016 and should rank near the top once again. Quarterback Lamar Jordan is streaky as a passer but ranked third on the team in rushing with 739 yards last fall. Jordan anchors the option-based attack for Davie, but he won’t have to shoulder the entire workload on the ground. Tyrone Owens (1,097 yards), Richard McQuarley (18 TDs) and Daryl Chestnut (255 yards) form a capable trio for coordinator Bob DeBesse. And the Lobos have a road-grading offensive line with four returning starters to lead the way. The passing game should get a boost from the return of Delane Hart-Johnson (29.7 ypc in 2015) after he missed all of 2016 due to injury. It’s a good thing New Mexico’s offense should be among the best in the Mountain West and can chew up chunks of time off the game clock, as the defense returns only three starters from a group that gave up 31.5 points per game in 2016. Each level is filled with question marks, but the secondary is of particular concern after giving up 17 plays of 40 or more yards last fall. The Lobos also face a tougher slate in conference play. Hawaii, Nevada and San Jose State are traded for road games at San Diego State and Fresno State, along with a home date against an improving UNLV team. Additionally, New Mexico plays at Wyoming in a key swing game.
The Bearcats have been one of the more consistent programs through the Big East/American Athletic Conference era, but last season’s four-win campaign was the program’s lowest victory total since 2010. Former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell is tasked with getting this program back on track, and with his extensive ties to the state of Ohio, he should be a good fit over the long haul. For Cincinnati to return to the postseason in 2017, Fickell and coordinator Mike Denbrock have to find answers for an offense that managed just 19.3 points a game last year. Ohio State transfer Torrance Gibson did not join the team, leaving Ross Trail and Hayden Moore as the team’s top options at quarterback. Moore has the edge in experience and threw for 1,744 yards and 11 scores in seven appearances last year. The receiving corps is in good shape with Devin Gray (58 catches) and Kahlil Lewis (48) returning. Additionally, this unit added Louisville graduate transfer Ja'Quay Savage in August. Running back Mike Boone was limited to just 388 yards last year due to injuries, but he could be a 1,000-yard rusher with a full year of carries. Only two starters are back on the offensive line and this group is a concern entering fall workouts. The defense ranked fourth in the AAC in points allowed (26.9 ppg) last season and is under the direction of new coordinator Marcus Freeman. There’s some turnover at each level, but this unit returns one of the AAC’s top linemen in tackle Cortez Broughton. Cincinnati needs a few breaks to go bowling, but a fresh start under Fickell should be a step in the right direction.
The Roadrunners are a program on the rise under second-year coach Frank Wilson and will continue to build off the momentum from last season’s six wins. Wilson is known as a standout recruiter, but he’s already proving his mettle as a head coach by guiding UTSA to its first bowl trip in program history last fall. This year’s team is projected third in Conference USA's West Division, but there’s little gap between the Roadrunners and second-place Southern Miss. For UTSA to take a step forward in the win column, the offense needs more consistency out of its passing attack and quarterback Dalton Sturm. This unit is loaded with options at receiver and features talented running back Jalen Rhodes, who is ready to step in for Jarveon Williams. The offensive line allowed a whopping 43 sacks last fall and has to improve for this team to challenge Louisiana Tech at the top of the West. The defense should be a strength for the Roadrunners. Linebacker Josiah Tauaefa (115) is a tackling machine and already one of the top defenders in Conference USA as a sophomore. He’s joined by senior La’Kel Bass at linebacker, while end Marcus Davenport and safety Nate Gaines are also among the best at their respective position. The defense allowed 27.9 points per game in 2016 and should cut that total even lower this fall. If the passing game and offensive line improve, UTSA could be the biggest challenger to Louisiana Tech in C-USA's West Division.
93. Southern Miss
Interesting was probably the best way to describe coach Jay Hopson’s first season in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss returned enough talent to push for the Conference USA West Division crown, but this team stumbled late after an injury to quarterback Nick Mullens, and a minus-17 turnover margin was among the worst in the nation. Mullens expired his eligibility after the New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana, leaving former junior college recruit Kwadra Griggs and talented sophomore Keon Howard competing for the starting job. Howard received limited playing time last season and showed he’s still developing as a passer after completing only 44 percent of his throws (50 attempts). Griggs emerged as the favorite at quarterback in fall practice. Assuming Hopson and coordinator Shannon Dawson find an answer under center, Southern Miss should thrive on offense. Running back Ito Smith averaged 147.5 all-purpose yards per game last season and returns to anchor the ground game. Receiver Allenzae Staggers (63 catches in 2016) is among the conference's best at receiver. In addition to quarterback, the line – with just two returning starters – ranks as a concern for Hopson’s offense. The defense has to retool a bit in the front seven, but the secondary returns three starters and should be among the best in C-USA. The road game at UTSA on Oct. 7 looms large in positioning for teams in the West Division.
Lovie Smith’s second season in Champaign is likely to look a lot like 2016. After winning just three games (and one Big Ten contest) last fall, the Fighting Illini have personnel concerns with a depth chart that returns only eight starters. On offense, uncertainty surrounds the quarterback spot. Junior Chayce Crouch is the favorite to start after completing 18 of 32 passes for 249 yards and one score last fall. The strength of the offense is at the skill positions with running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, and the receiving corps features two potential All-Big Ten candidates in Malik Turner (48 catches) and Mike Dudek (returning after missing the last two years because of a knee injury). With three starters back, the offensive line is also in a good spot after giving up just 20 sacks in 2016. The defense has a ways to go after giving up 31.9 points per game and finishing 12th in the conference against the run. Each level was hit hard by departures, and Smith dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help with the addition of linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, linemen Dawuane Smoot, Gimel President and Chunky Clements won’t be easy to replace. If Smith is able to get consistent quarterback play from Crouch, Jeff George Jr. or Lawson, Illinois will have a chance to exceed last year’s three wins. However, too many question marks exist to escape the bottom of the Big Ten West Division.
Chris Ash inherited a roster in need of major repair, so last year’s 2-10 record was no surprise. And it’s no secret, Ash and his coaching staff have another tough rebuilding year on tap. For perspective on where Rutgers is right now: The Scarlet Knights were shut out in four Big Ten games and lost six conference matchups by at least 17 points. New coordinator Jerry Kill is tasked with jumpstarting an offense that averaged only 15.7 points per game. Junior Giovanni Rescigno (889 yards, five TDs) opened spring practice as the favorite to start at quarterback, but Louisville graduate transfer Kyle Bolin and true freshman Jonathan Lewis pushed him for the No. 1 spot. Bolin emerged as the likely starter in fall practice but all three could see snaps in 2017. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the return of receiver Janarion Grant from a knee injury is a boost to the passing attack. Grant caught 20 passes for 210 yards in four games before being lost for the season. The strength of the offense is at running back with seniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, along with Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards forming a talented trio of options. The offensive line is under renovation with three new starters stepping into roles. The defense was problematic last fall by giving up 37.5 points per game and ranked last in the Big Ten against the run and yards per play allowed (6.4). With eight starters back, some improvement should be expected. Cornerback Blessaun Austin could push for All-Big Ten honors, and end Kemoko Turay hopes to regain his freshman form (7.5 sacks in 2014). All three starters also return at linebacker. For this defense to take a significant step forward, Rutgers needs more depth and playmakers to emerge in the trenches. Major improvement is unlikely in year two under Ash. However, the Scarlet Knights should be able to exceed last season’s two wins.
90. Old Dominion
The Monarchs had a breakout year in 2016, and there’s plenty of staying power behind coach Bobby Wilder. Old Dominion won 10 games and claimed a bowl victory for the first time since joining the FBS level in 2014. While quarterback David Washington leaves big shoes to fill, the Monarchs should be a safe bet for another postseason trip. Sophomore Blake LaRussa will get the first opportunity to replace Washington, with redshirt freshman Drayton Arnold also in the mix. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect to see a lot of running backs Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox. The receiving corps and offensive line rank among Conference USA’s best. The defense features three new starters at linebacker, but the end combination of Bunmi Rotimi and Oshane Ximines should keep the front seven performing at a high level.
Significant progress will take time at Kansas, but coach David Beaty seems to have this program on the path after winning two games in 2016. The Jayhawks are assembling a roster capable of competition in the Big 12 on a week-to-week basis, and the coaching staff was upgraded with the addition of former TCU play-caller Doug Meacham this offseason. Meacham will take over the offensive play-calling duties from Beaty, with junior college recruit (and former Washington State signal-caller) Peyton Bender expected to start over sophomore Carter Stanley. Bender quietly has a capable group of receivers at his disposal, headlined by Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot and junior Steven Sims (77 grabs in 2016). LaQuvionte Gonzalez was dismissed from the team over the summer after catching 62 passes last year. In order for the offense to escape the cellar of the Big 12, improving the ground game is a must. Kansas managed only 119.1 rushing yards per game last fall. Junior college recruit Octavius Matthews (limited in fall practice) and freshman Dom Williams could provide some much-needed punch at running back. The defense has allowed at least 30 points a game for seven consecutive years. That streak is unlikely to stop in 2017, but Kansas has one of the league’s top defenders at end in Dorance Armstrong Jr. (10 sacks in 2016), and a rising star at safety in sophomore Mike Lee. This team is loaded with question marks, but there’s enough to potential to win three or four games in 2017.
The Rainbow Warriors showed marked improvement in coach Nick Rolovich’s first season, finishing 7-7 and winning the program’s first bowl game since 2006. Another step forward is in store for Hawaii in 2017, as Rolovich’s squad is the biggest threat to San Diego State in the West Division. Toppling the Aztecs isn’t going to be easy, but the Rainbow Warriors can lean on an explosive offense. Quarterback Dru Brown (19 TDs, 7 INTs) provided a spark once he took over the starting job. The junior should be even better with a full year to work as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Top receiver Marcus Kemp (73 catches) expired his eligibility, but the receiving corps is in good hands with John Ursua, Dylan Collie and Ammon Barker. This offense has good balance with the return of running back Dicoemy Saint Juste (1,006 yards). Additionally, the line returns three starters, including All-Mountain West pick Dejon Allen at left tackle. While Hawaii shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball, stopping opposing offenses was a challenge last fall. The defense surrendered 37.3 points a contest (worst in the Mountain West) and gave up more than 200 rushing yards per game. New coordinator Legi Suiaunoa has a solid core returning up front – including linebacker Jahlani Tavai and end Meffy Koloamatangi. But the secondary features a couple of new faces, with the cornerback spot of particular concern for Suiaunoa.
Last season’s 2-10 record was the first losing mark in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s head coaching career. The lack of success by the Cavaliers was really no surprise considering the question marks surrounding this team in the preseason, but there were glimpses of hope at the end of the year. Virginia nearly defeated Louisville in late October and lost to Wake Forest by seven points one week later. Mendenhall will be expecting more than moral victories in 2017, but it’s tough to see this team getting drastically better. Quarterback Kurt Benkert (2,552 yards, 21 TDs) returns to direct the offense after an up-and-down first season in Charlottesville. Benkert’s favorite targets – Doni Dowling and Olamide Zaccheaus – are back after combining for 101 catches. However, the remainder of Benkert’s supporting cast is littered with question marks. With the departure of Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, the team’s top returning rusher is Jordan Ellis – with 61 yards in 2016. A couple of graduate transfers were brought in to improve a shaky offensive line. Mendenhall’s background is on defense, so it was a surprise to see the Cavaliers near the bottom of the ACC in scoring, rush, pass and total defense last fall. However, this unit has potential to improve behind eight returning starters, including All-America safety Quin Blanding, as well as standout linebacker Micah Kiser. The defensive line needs Andrew Brown to deliver a huge senior season. Marked improvement is unlikely. However, Virginia could double its win total from 2016.
86. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves have been a model of consistency in recent years, as this program has played in six straight bowl games and earned a winning record each season in that span. Even though coach Blake Anderson’s team has a few key voids to fill, that streak should be extended to seven. Senior end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones anchors a standout line – a group critical in Arkansas State finishing second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (21.5 ppg) last fall. Joining Rolland-Jones up front is rising star and Alabama transfer Dee Liner. The biggest concerns on defense are in the secondary where three starters must be replaced. The offense got off to a slow start in 2016 but averaged 32.1 points per game in conference play. The firepower is there at the skill positions to match that total, and quarterback Justice Hansen should be better in his second year as the starter. However, the line looms as a major concern for Anderson. All five starters must be replaced, and instant help was sought through the transfer ranks. Anderson is slated to handle the play-calling duties for the offense in 2017.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2017 Predictions
Frank Solich’s Bobcats are one of the MAC’s most consistent teams. Ohio has won at least eight games in six out of the last eight years. Additionally, this program has made seven bowl trips in that span. Also, Ohio’s last losing record was in 2008. With Solich’s success in mind, it’s never a good idea to count this team out even when there are personnel concerns to address. The Bobcats are the defending MAC East champs but a repeat trip to Detroit will hinge on how much the offense develops behind sophomore quarterback Quinton Maxwell. Ohio’s ground game will receive a boost from the return of A.J. Ouellette from a season-ending injury in 2016, with junior Papi White anchoring a receiving corps looking to replace two out of its top three targets. There’s a solid foundation in place with three starters returning along the offensive line, including Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC selection Jake Pruehs. Continuing the consistent theme, Ohio is usually solid on defense, and there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2017. The defensive line loses standout end Tarell Basham, but there’s enough experience returning to keep this unit performing at a high level. Additionally, linebacker Quentin Poling should be in the mix for MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors and alleviates some of the concern up front. The secondary returns two starters and should take a step forward after ranking ninth in the league in pass defense in 2016. Ohio hosts Miami in a game that could decide the champion of the East Division. However, Solich’s team also has to play Toledo and takes on an improved Eastern Michigan team in crossover play.
The Boilermakers have won no more than three games in each of the last four years, but the program made one of the offseason’s top hires with the addition of Jeff Brohm. During a 30-10 run at WKU, Brohm developed one of the nation’s top offenses and guided the Hilltoppers to back-to-back Conference USA titles. While Brohm isn’t likely to lead Purdue to a bowl game in 2017, there should be some improvement in the on-field product. Brohm will call the plays on offense, which figures to provide immediate help for a unit that managed only 24.6 points per game in 2016. Working with quarterbacks is a specialty for Brohm, and junior David Blough showed promise after throwing for 3,352 yards and 25 scores last fall. Running back Markell Jones anchors a solid stable of options and should push for 1,000 yards in the new offense, but question marks remain at receiver and up front. Two graduate transfers were added to boost the front five, while the receiving corps added Corey Holmes, who started his collegiate career at Notre Dame. New coordinator Nick Holt returns six starters on defense, with the strength of this unit coming at linebacker. Sophomore Markus Bailey and senior Ja’Whaun Bentley form a solid one-two punch at the position, while WKU grad transfer T.J. McCollum is expected to push for a starting job in the fall. The Boilermakers need to get tougher against the run after giving up 238.4 yards per game last fall. Don’t expect major improvement in Brohm’s first year, but Purdue’s offense will make things interesting in West Lafayette.
83. Western Michigan
The Broncos had quite a ride in 2016. Under the direction of former coach P.J. Fleck, this program finished the regular season at 13-0, won the MAC Championship Game and earned a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin. Repeating those accomplishments in 2017 isn’t going to be easy. There’s a new coach (former WMU quarterback Tim Lester), a first-time starter at quarterback after the departure of Zach Terrell, and both sides of the ball lost important pieces from last year’s squad. One of those pieces was standout receiver Corey Davis, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Replacing Terrell is expected to be sophomore Jon Wassink after Tom Flacco transferred over the summer. With inexperience under center, expect the Broncos to lean heavily on their ground game. The trio of Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy is one of the most productive in the nation. This group will have plenty of help up front, as Western Michigan’s line could be the best in the MAC. After leading the conference in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) last fall, Lester could lean even more on this group in 2017. Each level suffered personnel losses, but this unit shouldn’t slip too far on the stat sheet. Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown form a standout one-two punch at linebacker, while cornerback Darius Phillips is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Another bowl trip is expected, but Western Michigan will have to overcome quarterback concerns and a date at Toledo in order to win the MAC West once again.
The Mustangs improved their win total by three games from coach Chad Morris’ first season to year two. And with an explosive offense on tap for 2017, look for SMU to earn its first bowl bid since 2012. Ben Hicks will have to hold off Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and junior college recruit D.J. Gillins for the starting job, but the sophomore is a breakout candidate at quarterback after throwing for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. The Mustangs are overflowing with talent at receiver and at running back. Junior Courtland Sutton (76 catches for 1,246 yards) is an All-America candidate, and he’s joined by LSU transfer Trey Quinn and sophomore James Proche as key targets for Hicks. Junior Braeden West (1,036 yards) headlines a solid trio of running backs. The biggest concern for Morris’ offense remains the line. This unit has to get better in pass protection after surrendering 26 sacks in 2016. While the offense is good enough to get SMU to six wins, moving higher in the American Athletic Conference standings depends on how far the defense progresses. The Mustangs gave up 36.3 points per game last fall and ranked 11th in the league against the run. End Justin Lawler is the unit’s top performer and a first-team American Athletic Conference selection for 2017 by Athlon Sports. However, question marks remain at every level. Expect SMU to be involved in plenty of shootouts this fall.
The defending American Athletic Conference champs are a team in transition for 2017. Geoff Collins was hired as the program’s new coach after Matt Rhule left to take the top spot at Baylor. In addition to Collins and new schemes on both sides of the ball, the Owls must replace quarterback Phillip Walker, and a handful of key defenders, including standout edge rusher Haason Reddick. Uncertainty surrounded the quarterback spot exiting spring ball. Four candidates are vying for the starting job, with sophomore Logan Marchi or junior Frank Nutile likely the favorite to take the first snap. Helping to ease the new quarterback in is one of the AAC’s top receiving corps – led by receivers Ventell Bryant and Keith Kirkwood – and a strong ground attack, anchored by junior Ryquell Armstead. The line has to shuffle a bit after losing two starters, but this group should be solid once again. While the list of departures on defense is extensive, Collins isn’t inheriting a roster devoid of talent. The secondary should be strong with three returning starters, while there’s enough experience and talent in the front seven to remain near the top of the American Athletic Conference. Adding to Collins’ challenge in year one is a tough schedule. Temple catches Notre Dame and Army in non-conference play, while getting three of the top four teams from the West – Tulsa, Navy and Houston – in crossover action.
80. Army West Point
Maintaining success hasn’t been easy for Army West Point. The program has just two bowl bids and winning records since 1997. But the momentum for the Black Knights seems to be changing behind coach Jeff Monken. After a 6-18 start to his tenure at West Point, Monken guided Army to an 8-5 record last fall, which was the program’s highest win total since posting 10 in 1996. Additionally, the Black Knights won the Heart of Dallas Bowl and beat rival Navy for the first time since 2001. With 15 returning starters, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Monken’s team match or exceed those totals in 2017. Army West Point finished second nationally by averaging 339.5 rushing yards per game, and the bulk of that ground game is slated to return. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw was inconsistent as a passer but ranked second on the team with 826 rushing yards. Fullback Andy Davidson led the team with 961 yards, while Darnell Woolfolk (600 yards), Jordan Asberry (421) and Kell Walker (378) are all slated to provide support in the option-driven attack. Better ball security is a priority for Monken after the offense lost 25 turnovers last season and finished with a minus-three margin overall. The defense was hit harder by departures, as linebackers Jeremy Timpf (112 tackles) and Andrew King (11 TFL) leave big shoes to fill. Senior Alex Aukerman (15 TFL) will assume the mantle as the team’s top defender, with six other starters returning from a unit that limited opponents to 19.8 points per game in 2016. Also working in Army’s favor: The schedule. The Black Knights play only two Power 5 teams. Earning the program’s first back-to-back winning records since 1989-90 is easily within reach.
After UCF completed an 0-12 season in 2015, the program could only go up in coach Scott Frost’s first year in Orlando. While improvement was expected, winning six games and reaching a bowl game was probably more than most anticipated. Either way, UCF is in great shape with Frost at the helm. And with nine starters back, an improved offense could make the Knights the biggest challenger to USF in the AAC East. Frost was known for his high-powered offenses at Oregon after Chip Kelly left for the NFL, but UCF is still trying to put the right pieces together. Quarterback McKenzie Milton showed promise in his first year as the starter and should improve in his second season as the No. 1 signal-caller. The skill talent is in good shape around Milton. The Knights return Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins as a capable duo at running back, with a deep slate of receivers coming back on the outside. Junior Tre’Quan Smith should push for first-team All-AAC honors. After giving up 36 sacks last fall, Frost needs better play from his offensive line for the offense to take a step forward. The picture isn’t quite as clear on defense. The Knights return only four starters – all in the front seven – with a complete rebuild underway in the secondary. However, the talent that is returning – linebacker Shaquem Griffin and linemen Trysten Hill, Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad – are all among the league’s top defenders. Griffin was particularly dominant in 2016, as he recorded 11.5 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and 92 tackles. Alabama transfer Shawn Burgess-Becker could be an impact addition at safety.
78. Miami (Ohio)
After finishing 2016 with six consecutive regular season wins and a one-point defeat to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl, the RedHawks are the favorite to claim the MAC East title. Coach Chuck Martin clearly has the program on the right path after winning five games over his first two years. The steady rebuild in Oxford took time, but Miami has a team loaded with talent in the upperclassmen ranks. An offense that averaged only 22.8 points per game in 2016 should take a significant step forward this fall. Quarterback Gus Ragland (17 TDs, INT) is a rising star under center and his return from a knee injury sparked the offense over the second half of 2016. Ragland will be throwing to one of the MAC’s top receiving corps, and the duo of Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith return to anchor the ground attack after combining for 1,266 rushing yards last season. The line gave up 42 sacks in 2016, but there’s optimism for marked improvement with four starters returning, including standout guards Jordan Diamond and Sam McCollum. While the offense is expected to take a significant step forward on the stat sheet, Miami’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, this unit could be the best in the MAC in 2017. The RedHawks limited opponents to 23.8 points per game last fall. Eight starters return, including cornerback Heath Harding and safety Tony Reid to anchor the top secondary in the MAC. Replacing standout end J.T. Jones is the top priority for co-coordinators John Hauser and Matt Pawlowski. Miami has to play at Ohio in a key East Division showdown but misses Toledo and Western Michigan in crossover play.
77. Air Force
Coach Troy Calhoun’s ability to quickly reload at Air Force will be tested once again in 2017. The Falcons lost a ton of talent from last year’s 10-win team, as just one starter is slated to return on defense, and top receiver Jalen Robinette as well as three of the top four statistical options at running back have expired their eligibility. The rebuilding process starts with junior quarterback Arion Worthman, who impressed in a late-season stint as the team’s starter. Worthman is poised for a breakout year in 2017. Rounding out the supporting cast for Air Force is all-purpose threat Timothy McVey (8.5 ypc in 2016) and three starters on the offensive line. Filling Robinette’s shoes on the outside is expected to fall to senior Tyler Williams, while tight end Ryan Reffitt could be more involved after catching eight passes for 173 yards in 2016. Scoring points or ranking near the top of the nation in rushing shouldn’t be a problem. But how quickly can Air Force’s defense reload? This unit was hammered by departures, including standout safety Weston Steelhammer and 12 of the unit’s top 13 tacklers from last fall. Senior Grant Ross (67 stops) is the lone returning starter and significant concerns remain about the defensive line and in the secondary. Calhoun is the Mountain West’s No. 1 coach, but it’s also reasonable to expect a regression in wins in 2017 after posting 28 over the last three years.
California hit the reset button after a 5-7 season under former coach Sonny Dykes, with Justin Wilcox tapped to lead the program for 2017 and beyond. Wilcox is regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator, and that side of the ball has been a glaring issue for California in recent seasons. How much of a difference can Wilcox make in one season? After giving up 42.6 points and more than 500 yards per game last fall, this unit can only go one way. The overall depth and talent level needs to improve, but Wilcox has some talented pieces to work with, including end James Looney and linebackers Devante Downs and Raymond Davison. The secondary features just one returning starter but a return to full health from cornerback Darius Allensworth and safety Evan Rambo could alleviate some of the concerns about the pass defense. New offensive play-caller Beau Baldwin comes to Berkeley after a successful stint as Eastern Washington’s head coach. He plans on making a few tweaks to the offense, including more involvement from the running game and tight ends in the passing attack. Finding a quarterback is Baldwin’s top priority after the departure of Davis Webb. Junior Chase Forrest and sophomore Ross Bowers are the leading candidates under center, with the battle expected to go deep into August. The running back stable – led by Tre Watson and Vic Enwere – should be a strength, and this offense isn’t hurting for options at receiver. Sophomore Demetris Robertson is one of the Pac-12’s rising stars. However, even if a quarterback emerges, California’s offense won’t go anywhere unless the line finds three new starters. All signs point to a rebuilding year for the Golden Bears in 2017.
75. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders hope to knock WKU from the top of Conference USA’s East Division behind quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. Stockstill suffered a shoulder injury in early November last fall and missed three games before returning to play in the Hawaii Bowl. Despite the injury, he still finished with 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns. Stockstill will frequently target James – a potential All-America receiver for 2017 – after he caught 105 balls for 1,625 yards and 12 scores last season. James is joined by emerging threat Ty Lee (63 catches in 2016) and senior Patrick Smith (28) to form C-USA’s top receiving corps. Senior Shane Tucker rushed for at least 400 yards in 2014 and '15 and was slated to move to receiver before missing 2016 due to injury. He’s moving back to running back to replace I’Tavius Mathers, who expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,561 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall. Junior college recruit Maurice Gordon is a player to watch at running back. Skill talent isn’t a concern for coach Rick Stockstill, but the Blue Raiders have significant concerns up front. This unit must replace three starters after giving up just 14 sacks last fall. The concerns in the trenches extend to the defensive side of the ball. New coordinator Scott Shafer was a standout hire for Stockstill, but he’s got his work cut out this offseason. MTSU must replace all four starters up front, with Missouri transfer Walter Brady expected to provide a boost at end. The linebacker unit should be the strength of the defense with all three starters back. The Nov. 17 game at WKU should decide the winner of C-USA’s East Division.
The Golden Hurricane’s 10-win campaign in 2016 tied for the second-most victories in a single season in school history. What can Tulsa do for an encore? Contending for the AAC West Division title isn’t out of the question, but coach Philip Montgomery has to plug a few gaps on offense. For starters, Montgomery needs to find a quarterback to replace the prolific Dane Evans. Redshirt freshman Luke Skipper and sophomore Chad President are locked into a tight battle for the starting job, with Skipper a slight favorite exiting spring ball. Even though Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson depart the receiving corps, Montgomery isn’t hurting for talent. Justin Hobbs and Keenen Johnson combined for 80 receptions last fall and should easily exceed 100 in 2017. Leading rusher James Flanders expired his eligibility, but the ground game won’t miss a beat with D’Angelo Brewer (1,435 yards) taking over as the top back. The strength of Tulsa’s offense remains up front, with a line that returns four starters, including three first-team AAC selections by Athlon Sports. It was no secret the Golden Hurricane were led by their offense in 2016, but the defense quietly improved after giving up 39.8 points per game in 2015. Can the improvement continue in 2017 after the departure of linebackers Trent Martin and Matt Linscott and both starting defensive backs? The end combination of Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith (9.5 combined sacks last fall) should be a force off the edge, while the secondary is expected to take a step forward with four starters returning. Until a quarterback emerges, Tulsa will need more help from its defense early in the 2017 campaign.
The Hilltoppers have claimed back-to-back Conference USA titles, and despite a change in leadership, this program is the pick over Middle Tennessee in the East Division for 2017. New coach Mike Sanford is a rising star and should keep WKU performing at a high level this fall. The offense has averaged over 40 points a game for three consecutive seasons and has the firepower to push for that total once again. Quarterback Mike White (4,363 yards, 37 TDs) leads the way, with D’Andre Ferby anchoring a solid stable of running backs. Replenishing the receiving corps is a top priority for Sanford, as WKU will miss the big-play ability of Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris. Sophomore Lucky Jackson is primed for a breakout year in the passing game. Another area of focus for Sanford is the offensive line, which loses standout Forrest Lamp. But the cupboard is hardly bare, as WKU returns three starters, including Athlon Sports all-conference selections Dennis Edwards and Brandon Ray. New coordinator Clayton White is shifting the defense to a 4-2-5 approach. Each level suffered a key loss from last season, but a strong foundation is still in place. The secondary – led by cornerbacks Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons – should be among the best in Conference USA. With Middle Tennessee slated to visit Bowling Green this year, the East Division title still runs through L.T. Smith Stadium.
Craig Bohl delivered a breakout season in his third year at the helm in Laramie, as the Cowboys won the Mountain Division, finished with eight wins and snapped a bowl drought that extended four seasons. And this team is primed for another run at the top of the conference in 2017. NFL prospect Josh Allen is back after throwing for 3,203 yards and 28 scores last fall. Allen is already garnering interesting as a first-round pick in next year’s draft and could help his cause by cutting the number of interceptions (15 in 2016) and raising his completion percentage (56). Allen will be handing off to a new running back this season, as standout performer Brian Hill left early for the NFL. The receiving corps is under renovations as well after Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and tight end Jacob Hollister expired their eligibility. However, C.J. Johnson and Austin Conway are two promising targets for Allen to rely on this fall. The offensive line also is a strength with five starters returning, including Athlon Sports first-team All-Mountain West selection Zach Wallace. The defense surrendered 34.1 points per game last fall but should take a significant step forward with all nine starters returning. Sophomore linebacker Logan Wilson and junior safety Andrew Wingard are two of the best in the Mountain West. This group must eliminate the big plays allowed after surrendering 46 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Adding to the difficulty of a repeat: the schedule features road trips to Boise State, Air Force and Utah State.
71. Louisiana Tech
A third trip in four seasons to Conference USA’s Championship Game should be in the works for coach Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs in 2017. Despite losing quarterback Ryan Higgins and standout receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, this offense should remain near the top of the conference in scoring behind new quarterback (and rising star) J’Mar Smith. The sophomore will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, but there’s talent in place with the addition of Tulane transfer Teddy Veal, redshirt freshman (and former Oklahoma signee) Adrian Hardy and proven targets Kam McKnight and Alfred Smith. Additionally, Jarred Craft and Boston Scott anchor a strong ground attack behind a line that returns three starters. The defense suffered heavy losses in the back seven, but the line is the best in Conference USA behind standout end Jaylon Ferguson (14.5 sacks in 2016). This unit gave up 33.6 points a game last fall, so there’s a need for improvement in coordinator Blake Baker’s second year at the controls. All-conference safety Xavier Woods won’t be easy to replace in the secondary. Even though Louisiana Tech has some turnover on both sides of the ball, UTSA and Southern Miss aren’t quite ready to challenge for the West Division title. And by the end of 2017, the Bulldogs could emerge as the top team in the conference.
70. Boston College
The Eagles closed 2016 on a three-game winning streak, culminating in a 36-30 victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Coach Steve Addazio hopes to utilize that momentum into a bigger and better 2017. But Boston College will have its hands full in the brutal ACC Atlantic, along with a non-conference slate that features Notre Dame. In other words, just getting back to six (or seven) victories would be a good 2017 campaign. The strength of Addazio’s teams in Chestnut Hill have always relied on a strong ground game and standout defense. That formula should be intact this fall, as running backs Jon Hilliman and AJ Dillon anchor a solid stable of backs, and the offensive line is poised to improve with three returning starters, along with the addition of West Virginia graduate transfer Marcell Lazard. Junior Darius Wade opened spring ball as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, but redshirt freshman Anthony Brown finished spring with the insight track. The battle between Wade and Brown is expected to go deep into fall camp. Expect Wade or Brown to target tight end Tommy Sweeney and receiver Michael Walker frequently in 2017. End Harold Landry (16.5 sacks) anchors a defense that held opponents to 25 points a game and ranked first in the ACC against the run last fall. The senior end is among the nation’s top returning defenders and a candidate for All-America honors. The linebacker unit is in good shape with Connor Strachan and Ty Schwab returning, and three starters are back for a secondary that hopes to take a step forward in 2017.
All of the pieces are in place for Toledo to claim its first MAC West title since 2004. Behind quarterback Logan Woodside, the Rockets averaged 38 points a game in 2016 and another prolific year is in store. Woodside is the MAC’s top quarterback and one of the best players returning in the Group of 5 ranks. The supporting cast is undergoing a few renovations around Woodside. Kareem Hunt has expired his eligibility, but Terry Swanson is primed for a big senior year as the team’s No. 1 running back. Tight end Michael Roberts is the biggest loss in the receiving corps. However, senior Cody Thompson (68 catches) and junior Jon’Vea Johnson (10 TDs) are both expected to earn all-conference honors in the high-powered passing game. The offensive line has been an annual strength in recent years and should remain solid with two full-time starters back in the mix. The defense suffered a few key losses in the secondary and on the defensive line, as three all-conference performers have expired their eligibility. Coach Jason Candle doesn’t need this group to be an elite, shutdown defense with a high-powered offense leading the way. Even if this group takes a small step back, it is hard to see Toledo slipping from No. 1 in the West Division.
Related: MAC Football 2017 Predictions
The Trojans are coming off their first 10-win season at the FBS level, and coach Neal Brown’s team is in good shape to repeat that feat in 2017. The offense is loaded with firepower. Troy averaged 33.7 points per game last season and returns nine starters, including the Sun Belt’s No. 1 receiving corps and running back Jordan Chunn (1,288 yards in 2016). Brandon Silvers returns as the league’s top quarterback and is poised for his best year. The biggest concern for Brown is an offensive line that has three new starters and must find a replacement for standout tackle Antonio Garcia. The defense suffered a couple of key personnel losses but returns largely intact with six starters back. Rush end Rashad Dillard is the biggest loss and leaves big shoes to fill after recording 7.5 sacks in 2016. The secondary should be among the best in the Sun Belt thanks to the return of cornerback Kamryn Melton and safety Kris Weatherspoon. While Troy doesn’t play Appalachian State this fall, the Trojans have a road trip to Arkansas State and intriguing non-conference games against Boise State and LSU.
67. Appalachian State
With 21 victories over the last two seasons, Appalachian State has the most victories in that span by a Sun Belt team. The Mountaineers should easily add to that total in 2017. Coach Scott Satterfield’s program will once again lean on a standout line and running game to carry the offense. Running back Jalin Moore gashed opponents for 1,402 yards and 10 scores last season, and with Marcus Cox out of eligibility, the return of Terrence Upshaw from an academic suspension provides a capable No. 2 option. Quarterback Taylor Lamb is a steady leader under center and figures to connect on plenty of big plays with senior Shaedon Meadors (15.9 ypc in 2016). The Mountaineers must replace three All-Sun Belt selections on defense, but there’s a strong foundation in place. Linebacker Eric Boggs collected 98 stops last fall and returns to anchor the 3-4 scheme. He’s joined by rising star Clifton Duck at cornerback, along with senior end Tee Sims. This unit ranked first in the Sun Belt by holding opponents to 17.8 points per game last year. One key scheduling note for Appalachian State: No Troy or Arkansas State in conference play.
Since a 10-4 record and a Pac-12 South title in 2014, the Wildcats have been trending in the wrong direction. Coach Rich Rodriguez’s team is just 10-15 over the last two seasons and claimed only one victory in Pac-12 action last fall. Reversing that trend in 2017 is going to require some work on both sides of the ball. Arizona’s offense has been hit hard by injuries in the backfield over the last two seasons, and the hope is junior Brandon Dawkins, sophomore Khalil Tate or former MLB prospect Donavan Tate can emerge as the clear answer at quarterback. Dawkins played in 10 games last season, threw for 1,345 yards and eight scores, and led the team with 944 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s the favorite to start, but the Wildcats need more out of their passing game. That factor is complicated by a lack of proven targets at receiver. Arizona loses three out of its top four options on the outside, with Shun Brown (29 catches) the top returner. The picture is better at running back and up front. Nick Wilson is a former 1,000-yard rusher but has been unable to shake the injury bug the last two seasons. Freshman J.J. Taylor is a rising star to watch at running back and is likely to share the carries in 2017. Rodriguez is hoping for improvement under the second year of coordinator Marcel Yates after the defense gave up 38.3 points per game in 2016. But improvement isn’t guaranteed from a defense that is thin on proven talent in the front seven and was gashed for 194.2 rushing yards per game last fall. The strength of the defense will be a secondary that returns three starters, including potential All-Pac-12 safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. Yates could turn to a handful of freshmen to play key roles or provide depth on defense this fall. Arizona should be better than last year’s three-win mark, but this team will have trouble climbing into the top tier of the Pac-12 South.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2017 Predictions
65. Oregon State
Looking for a sleeper in the Pac-12 North? Take a look at Gary Andersen’s team in Corvallis. The Beavers improved their win total by two games from 2015, finishing 4-8 last fall, with victories over Arizona and Oregon to close out the 2016 campaign. And this team was much closer to a winning record than some may have realized: Oregon State lost three games by seven points or fewer. A tough schedule could prevent the Beavers from reaching a bowl, but Andersen should have this team in the mix for five or six wins. Junior college recruit Jake Luton won the starting quarterback job over Marcus McMaryion (transferred to Fresno State) and Darell Garretson, but the strength of this offense is at running back. Junior Ryan Nall (951 yards) is poised to crack the 1,000-yard mark, while former Oregon running back Thomas Tyner is expected to join the team to work as the No. 2 option. There’s some uncertainty at receiver after Victor Bolden (46 grabs) expired his eligibility. Converted quarterback Seth Collins and senior Jordan Villamin figure to be the top targets on the outside for Luton, while tight end Noah Togiai is also due for an increased role in the offense. The offensive line is also a concern for Andersen. Just two starters are back, and converted defensive lineman Sumner Houston is penciled in as the team’s starting center. Even though the depth chart indicates just five starters are back on defense, this unit should be a strength. Linebacker Manase Hungalu (83 stops) and cornerback Xavier Crawford are expected to push for All-Pac-12 honors, and the rush defense should easily cut down on its yardage allowed (218 per game) from 2016.
64. Texas Tech
Coming off a 5-7 record and missing out on the program’s second bowl trip in three years, there’s enormous pressure on coach Kliff Kingsbury to deliver a bounce-back season in 2017. That’s a tough assignment for Kingsbury considering quarterback Patrick Mahomes left for the NFL, and the Red Raiders are searching for answers on a defense that surrendered 43.5 points per game last fall. Replacing Mahomes will be senior Nic Shimonek, who should be a good fit for this offense. Despite the offseason transfer of Jonathan Giles, Shimonek has one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps at his disposal, but the line and ground attack remain an issue. Running back Da'Leon Ward's status is uncertain due to academic issues, opening the door for Justin Stockton and Demarcus Felton to assume a bigger role on the ground. Regardless of how many points this offense scores, Texas Tech won’t return to the bowl scene without marked improvement by its defense. The return of Dakota Allen from the junior college ranks should provide a boost at linebacker. With major concerns in the trenches and in the secondary, this unit has a long ways to go this season.
The Orange are probably a year away from contending for a winning record and bowl trip, but this team should be better in the second season under coach Dino Babers. In Babers’ first year at the helm, Syracuse upset Virginia Tech and had a shot at six wins before a late-season injury to quarterback Eric Dungey ended any hopes of a bowl game. Dungey is expected to return to full strength this fall, and the junior should be one of the ACC’s top passers. Babers’ high-powered offense averaged 25.7 points per game last season, but that total should easily increase if Dungey plays all 12 games, and the offensive line finds stability after an uneven 2016 campaign. Amba Etta-Tawo (94 catches) is a huge loss at receiver, but the return of Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael provides two potential All-ACC candidates on the outside. Junior Dontae Strickland is penciled in as the team’s No. 1 back after rushing for 566 yards last fall. However, true freshman Markenzy Pierre is expected to push for time. It is a good thing Syracuse’s offense could average nearly 30 points a game in 2017 because while the defense should be better after allowing 38.6 points per contest last fall, major improvement isn’t guaranteed. The strength of this group is at linebacker with Paris Bennett and Zaire Franklin leading the way, and the secondary should get a boost thanks to the return of Antwan Cordy from injury and two graduate transfers (Devin Butler and Jordan Martin). The defensive line remains the biggest concern for coordinator Brian Ward. Syracuse may not show much improvement in the win column, but Babers should have this team more competitive in the challenging ACC Atlantic.
A streak of four consecutive bowl trips ended last season, as Duke finished with its first losing record since 2011. While the 4-8 mark was certainly disappointing considering the progress made under coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won’t be down for too long. The hope of a turnaround in 2017 starts with sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones. He was pressed into the starting job last fall after an injury to former starter Thomas Sirk and proceeded to throw for 2,836 yards and 16 scores, while rushing for 486 yards and seven touchdowns. Jones should be even better as a sophomore, potentially challenging for All-ACC honors. His supporting cast features senior running back Shaun Wilson (623 yards in 2016), along with three of the top four statistical receivers from last fall. The offensive line lost two starters, but there’s a good foundation in place with left tackle Gabe Brandner, center Austin Davis, and Ohio State graduate transfer Evan Lisle at right tackle. In order for Duke to return to a bowl in 2017, it’s likely going to require the offense to carry this team to six wins. The defense does feature one of the ACC’s top linebacker duos in Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, but question marks dot the depth chart up front and in the secondary.
61. San Diego State
Rocky Long’s Aztecs have claimed back-to-back Mountain West championships, and despite some key personnel leaving, expect this team to be in the hunt for the conference title once again. The formula for Long’s team won’t change much in 2017. Rashaad Penny (1,018 yards in 2016) and Juwan Washington are an effective one-two combination to replace standout running back Donnel Pumphrey. Coordinator Jeff Horton will lean heavily on the ground game once again, but the Aztecs have four new starters up front. Quarterback Christian Chapman was steady in his first full year as the team’s starter and he’s poised for his best all-around year as an Aztec. This offense won’t throw it a ton (18 attempts per game), but Chapman has a couple of talented targets, including tight end David Wells and receivers Quest Truxton and Mikah Holder. Long’s defense has ranked first or second in the Mountain West in scoring defense in each of the last three years and figures to be near the top once again. But this unit does lose four All-Mountain West players from last season’s group, including standout cornerback Damontae Kazee. Long returns a good foundation for 2017, starting with linebackers Ryan Dunn and Ronley Lakalaka, while the secondary is in good shape at the cornerback spot with converted safety Kameron Kelly and sophomore Ron Smith. Even if this team takes a small step back, the rest of the West Division isn’t ready to catch up to San Diego State at the top.
60. Iowa State
The Cyclones are headed in the right direction under second-year coach Matt Campbell. As last season’s three wins showed, Iowa State still has a ways to go before challenging for a finish in the top half of the Big 12. But it’s also important to note this team lost five games by 10 points or fewer, with three of those defeats coming against Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – three of the four top teams from the Big 12 last fall. Looking ahead to 2017, a five or six-win season isn’t out of the question. Quarterback Jacob Park should improve in his second year as the starter, and he’s throwing to a standout receiving corps, anchored by All-America candidate Allen Lazard. The biggest concern on offense is once again up front. The Cyclones allowed 32 sacks last fall and return only one starter. The return of senior Jake Campos from injury should provide a boost up front. On the other side of the ball, Campbell is relying on three junior college transfers to bolster the defensive line after giving up 218.2 rushing yards per game in 2016. Led by All-Big 12 candidates in safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, Georgia transfer Reggie Wilkerson and cornerback Brian Peavy, Iowa State’s secondary is in good shape. However, Iowa State’s hopes of improving its defensive numbers (and bowl bid) likely hinges on how well this team performs in the trenches. The Cyclones might be a year away from a bowl game, but it wouldn't be a surprise if this team pulls off an upset or two in league play.
High expectations surround first-year coach Major Applewhite after Houston claimed 22 victories under Tom Herman. The Cougars return enough talent to win the AAC’s West Division, but the coaching transition could push this team behind Memphis and Navy. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen steps into the starting quarterback job after Greg Ward expired his eligibility. Allen doesn’t have Ward’s mobility, but he’s a better passer. That’s a good fit for Houston’s personnel in 2017, as the receiving corps is a standout group – anchored by seniors Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar. Question marks remain on the offensive line and at running back. Can Duke Catalon carry a full workload and stay healthy all season? Applewhite is handing the defensive coordinator duties over to Mark D’Onofrio and Clay Jennings after last year’s group limited opponents to just 23.5 points per game under former play-caller Todd Orlando. The basic 3-4 scheme won’t change too much, especially with Athlon Sports All-American Ed Oliver leading the way up front. There’s some retooling to do at linebacker and in the secondary. However, a player like Oliver can cover a lot of concerns. If Allen quickly settles into the starting job, and the offensive line develops, getting Navy and Memphis at home could swing the division in Houston’s favor.
58. Colorado State
Looking for a sleeper pick in the Mountain West this fall? How about Mike Bobo’s Rams? After finishing 2016 with four wins over its final five regular season games, Colorado State is poised to push Boise State for the Mountain Division crown. In addition to the momentum, the Rams have a new stadium set to open in 2017, which should provide an additional boost for Bobo’s hopes of elevating the program on a year-to-year basis in the conference. Leading the way is a dynamic offense, headlined by quarterback Nick Stevens and receiver Michael Gallup. Stevens began 2016 as the starter but was benched in favor of Faton Bauta and Collin Hill. But after an injury to Hill, Stevens regained the starting job and threw for 19 touchdowns over the final seven games. Gallup is a candidate for All-America honors after catching 76 passes for 1,272 yards and 14 scores. He’s not the only weapon in the arsenal for Bobo. Junior Olabisi Johnson averaged 21.9 yards per catch last fall, and the Rams also return one of the league’s top offensive lines and running back corps. With eight returning starters, the defense is expected to take a step forward after giving up 30.4 points per game and finishing eighth in the Mountain West against the run. The strength of this unit is at linebacker, as Deonte Clyburn returns after missing 2016 to round out one of the conference’s top trios. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but Colorado State’s hopes of winning the division likely rest with how much the defense can improve. The Nov. 11 game in Fort Collins against Boise State looms large in the Mountain West title picture for 2017. Additionally, the Rams will have an opportunity to score a marquee win out of the gate, as Oregon State visits Fort Collins on Aug. 26.
DJ Durkin is a coach on the rise, and Maryland took a step forward in his first year in College Park. The Terrapins improved their win total by three games with a 6-7 finish, along with an invite to the Quick Lane Bowl. In the brutal Big Ten East Division, making a significant jump in the standings isn’t going to be easy. And Durkin’s hope for another step forward in 2017 is compounded by uncertainty at quarterback, as well as a defense that is a work in progress after giving up 29.5 points per game in 2016. North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, true freshman Kasim Hill and sophomores Max Bortenschlager and Tyrrell Pigrome opened fall practice vying for the starting quarterback job. Henderson is the best fit for coordinator Walt Bell’s offense, but Hill might have the most long-term upside. The strength of the offense is at running back with the return of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson. This duo combined for 1,637 rushing yards last fall and brings big-play potential to the offense. Leading the way for Harrison and Johnson is an offensive line poised to improve with three returning starters, including rising star Damian Prince at right tackle. Receiver D.J. Moore (41 catches) should be the No. 1 target on the outside. Durkin was known for his defensive background prior to his arrival in College Park, but this side of the ball is still a question mark entering 2017. The Terrapins need more overall depth and talent after ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring, rush and pass defense. Linebacker Jermaine Carter (110 stops in 2016) is the headliner, while Jesse Aniebonam anchors the line after recording nine sacks last fall. The secondary loses three key performers from 2016, but junior JC Jackson’s development at cornerback, along with the return of safety Denzel Conyers from injury alleviates some of the concern in pass defense. With a non-conference game at Texas, crossover games against Wisconsin and Northwestern and road trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, a good encore for Durkin is just matching last year’s six wins.
Ken Niumatalolo has averaged 8.5 wins a year since taking over as Navy’s head coach in 2008. This program is also 14-2 in conference play since joining the American Athletic Conference prior to the 2015 campaign. So it’s safe to say a few personnel losses won’t slow the Midshipmen’s quest to win a conference title in 2017. New quarterback Zach Abey gained valuable experience by starting the final two games of last year. He should be more comfortable with a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, especially with a strong offensive line clearing the way up front. Abey has two all-conference candidates in the backfield in fullback Chris High and slot back Darryl Bonner. Receiver Jamir Tillman won’t be easy to replace. The defense allowed 31 points a game in 2016 and struggled to stop the pass. Coordinator Dale Pehrson will lean on end Jarvis Polu and linebackers D.J. Palmore and Micah Thomas to anchor the front seven. But the secondary is a bigger concern after giving up 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more in 2016. Additionally, this unit suffered a late blow in June, as standout safety Alohi Gilman decided to transfer to Notre Dame.
Missouri is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02. After taking over for Gary Pinkel, Barry Odom put his stamp on the program last year by implementing scheme changes on both sides of the ball. The result? A mixed bag. The Tigers averaged 31.4 points per game under new play-caller Josh Heupel. However, that total dipped to 22.6 in SEC play. The firepower is there for another prolific year by the offense. Quarterback Drew Lock should continue to improve in his third season under center, running back Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) returns after a breakout freshman season, and the receiving corps is among the best in the SEC. Additionally, all four starters return from a solid offensive line. While scoring points won’t be a problem, Missouri’s hopes of a winning record rest with an improved defense. Odom took over the play-calling duties late last year, and this unit showed improvement in wins over Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Can that continue in 2017? With just three returning starters, it’s easy to be skeptical. End Marcell Frazier (7.5 sacks in 2016) is a force off the edge, and junior tackle Terry Beckner could push for All-SEC honors with a healthy season. Question marks surround the back seven, especially at cornerback after Aarion Penton and John Gibson expired their eligibility. Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett is expected to help as a nickel linebacker this fall.
The Hoosiers are coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1990-91. But there’s change at the top of the program with Kevin Wilson out, and defensive coordinator Tom Allen taking over as head coach. Allen already has one game under his belt, as he guided Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah. Allen made a big difference with the Hoosiers’ defense last fall. After giving up 37.6 points a game in 2015, Indiana cut that total to 27.2. And in a reversal of recent history in Bloomington, expect this unit to be the strength of the team. Linebacker Tegray Scales is one of the Big Ten’s top returning defenders and a candidate for All-America honors. The secondary is quietly one of the better units in the Big Ten, anchored by standout cornerback Rashard Fant and hybrid safety/linebacker Marcelino Ball. One area in need of improvement is the rush defense. The Hoosiers gave up 160.4 yards per game on the ground last fall. Wilson was one of the Big Ten’s top offensive-minded coaches and will be missed in 2017. But coordinator Mike DeBord has a wealth of experience and inherits a unit with potential. Quarterback Richard Lagow was solid in his first year as the starter but needs to cut down on the interceptions after tossing 17 in 13 games. Running back Devine Redding left early for the NFL after posting 1,122 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last fall. A backfield-by-committee approach is likely to replace Redding’s production this year. The picture at running back was cloudy headed into fall practice, especially after projected starter Camion Patrick ended his career due to medical hardship. The line will miss All-Big Ten guard Dan Feeney and former assistant Greg Frey who left for Michigan. Left tackle Coy Cronk is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. The unquestioned strength of this offense is the receiving corps. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs are both all-conference candidates.
53. Arizona State
The Sun Devils are just two years removed from winning the Pac-12 South title. But since claiming the division crown, coach Todd Graham’s team is just 11-14 and has just six conference wins in that span. Getting back to a bowl isn’t going to be easy in 2017. A brutal schedule is on tap, as Arizona State plays crossover games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington, while playing swing games against Utah, Oregon State and UCLA on the road. The pieces are in place to have a dynamic offense this fall, as receiver N’Keal Harry and the one-two punch of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage at running back should be one of the Pac-12’s best tandems. Alabama/junior college transfer Blake Barnett is vying for the starting job with last year's No. 1 quarterback Manny Wilkins. Barnett has more overall talent and potential, but Wilkins was still in the lead for the first snap in fall practice. While the firepower is in place for a standout offense, this unit won’t take off without better play up front (41 sacks allowed last fall). Arizona State’s defense has struggled to stop the pass in recent years, and the secondary is a concern once again after cornerback Kareem Orr transferred, and safety Armand Perry decided to retire this offseason. The defensive front is in much better shape, as end JoJo Wicker and tackle Tashon Smallwood anchor the line. Hybrid edge rusher Koron Crump returns after notching nine sacks last fall, and he’s joined in the linebacker unit by All-Pac-12 candidates Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun. How much will this unit improve under new coordinator Phil Bennett?
52. Wake Forest
After back-to-back 3-9 records to start his Wake Forest tenure, coach Dave Clawson delivered a breakthrough year in 2016. The Demon Deacons finished 7-6 and earned the program’s first bowl trip since 2011. And with 13 returning starters, Wake Forest is poised to take another step forward in 2017. The offense has increased its scoring output in back-to-back seasons and is in the best shape personnel-wise since Clawson’s tenure started. Kendall Hinton is expected to get the nod under center, and the junior’s dual-threat ability could make a difference for a team that has struggled to get consistent play up front. While Hinton will start, senior John Wolford (a better passer) could see plenty of snaps this fall. The trenches remain a concern for Clawson, but there is optimism this group is ready to close the gap with the rest of the ACC. Sophomore Cade Carney and junior Matt Colburn are back to anchor the ground game, and Hinton will be throwing to a receiving corps returning four out of the top five options from 2016. Freshman Greg Dortch is a name to watch at receiver for 2017. Defense led the way for Wake Forest last season, with former coordinator Mike Elko guiding this group to a No. 3 finish in the ACC in scoring defense. With Elko off to Notre Dame, Jay Sawvel arrives from Minnesota to handle the play-calling duties. Sawvel inherits one of the ACC’s top linemen in Duke Ejiofor and a rising star in safety Jessie Bates. The line should receive a boost from the return of Zeek Rodney, who sat out the 2016 season.
Mike Norvell picked up where Justin Fuente left off last fall, guiding Memphis to an 8-5 record and a 5-3 finish in league play. The Tigers are aiming even higher this fall, as Norvell’s team is Athlon’s pick to win the AAC West Division. Quarterback Riley Ferguson anchors a dynamic offense, which averaged 38.8 points per game in 2016. This unit could be even better in 2017, as top target Anthony Miller is an All-America candidate, and the offensive line is expected to improve significantly with four returning starters. Doroland Dorceus anchors a backfield that features three options who could start for the Tigers. Memphis had its share of issues on defense last fall, and this unit was far from settled entering fall practice. The front seven is the unquestioned strength, as linebacker Genard Avery is a first-team American Athletic All-Conference selection by Athlon Sports. The secondary loses six key defensive backs from 2016, with safety Jonathan Cook the lone returning starter. Considering Memphis will have to play face the prolific passing attacks of Tulsa, SMU, Houston and UCLA in non-conference action, the development of this unit is critical to the defense cutting down on the 28.8 points per game the unit allowed last season. One key scheduling note for Memphis in 2017: The Tigers miss USF and Temple in crossover play, while Navy visits the Liberty Bowl for a game that could decide the favorite in the West Division.
P.J. Fleck is bringing some much-needed energy to the Minnesota program after a successful stint at Western Michigan. Fleck is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, and the Golden Gophers should upgrade their profile on National Signing Day over the next few years. The first priority for Fleck is to identify a quarterback. Mitch Leidner expired his eligibility after 2016, leaving former walk-on Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft as the top two candidates this offseason. Quarterback isn’t the only concern for Fleck’s offense. The receiving corps loses Drew Wolitarsky and more big plays are needed out of this group. Additionally, while four starters are back up front, the line isn’t particularly deep. The unquestioned strength of the offense is at running back. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks form one of the Big Ten’s top tandems. Robb Smith was hired from Arkansas to coordinate a defense that allowed only 22.1 points per game in 2016. Maintaining that level of play in 2017 could be difficult with just four returning starters and depth concerns at each level. Safety Antoine Winfield is the leader on the back end, while tackle Steven Richardson is a second-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports. Despite the personnel concerns, Minnesota should be able to earn a bowl in Fleck’s first year. The Golden Gophers miss Penn State and Ohio State in crossover play and catch swing games against Maryland, Illinois, Michigan State and Nebraska at home.
Related: Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions
49. Michigan State
After winning at least 11 games every year from 2013-15, along with a berth in the CFB Playoff in '15, the Spartans completely collapsed last fall. Mark Dantonio’s team won only three games, which was the program’s fewest since a three-win campaign in 1991. Getting back on track isn’t going to be easy, but it’s also hard to envision Michigan State finishing with three victories once again. But how much can this team improve? The path to a bowl game starts with generating more from the offense. Quarterback Brian Lewerke takes over under center after a limited stint last season. In four appearances, Lewerke completed 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two scores. The passing game may take some time to grow with a first-year starter at quarterback and turnover at receiver with the top four receivers departing East Lansing. Expect to see a lot of junior running back LJ Scott after he nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards last fall. Additionally, Michigan State should be better up front with the return of anchor Brian Allen at center, along with left tackle Cole Chewins. The Spartans took a step back on defense last season, giving up 27.8 points per game and 5.5 yards per play. For the defense to take a step forward, Dantonio and co-coordinator Harlon Barnett have to ignite a pass rush that managed just 11 sacks last fall. The secondary will feature four new starters, with the strength of the defense expected to be at linebacker. Contending for the Big Ten title is out of the question, but Michigan State should at least rebound into bowl contention.
A late-season surge last year propelled the Commodores to their first bowl game under coach Derek Mason. Vanderbilt started 2-4 but won four out of its final six regular season matchups, including SEC games against Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on defense has paid dividends over the last two years. Vanderbilt ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense and limited conference foes to just 5.4 yards per play in 2016. This unit should be strong once again, but standout linebacker Zach Cunningham left early for the NFL, leaving a significant void in the middle. But the cupboard is hardly bare for Mason, as lineman Nifae Lealo is poised for a huge senior year, and fellow senior Oren Burks is an All-SEC candidate at linebacker. All four starters return in the secondary, with safety Ryan White the headliner. While the defense has been steady, the late-season surge was largely fueled by the offense. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur showed progress late in the year and is poised to take another step forward in his development. Helping Shurmur’s progress is an improving set of receivers, along with running back Ralph Webb, who is aiming for his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. Webb has plenty of help in the backfield with the return of Khari Blasingame and redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield. A crossover game against Alabama and a non-conference matchup against Kansas State limit the margin of error for Vanderbilt’s hopes of another bowl trip. But if Shumur takes the next step as expected, and the defense successfully replaces Cunningham, the Commodores should find a way to hit six wins once again.
Not only is new coach Matt Rhule trying to change the culture of the program, he’s also inheriting a team with just 10 returning starters and depth concerns on both sides of the ball. The Bears will look a little different on offense, as Rhule plans to blend the spread, up-tempo principles with some pro-style, power looks he utilized at Temple. Sophomore quarterback Zach Smith is expected to win the starting job over Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon. Smith threw for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns in a promising stint under center last fall. The one-two punch of Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty forms one of the Big 12’s best backfields, but the receiving corps lost its top two targets – KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora – from 2016. Williams is expected to miss the first few games of 2017 due to a shoulder injury. However, Hasty is more than capable of handling the full workload as a starter. Three starters are back up front, but this unit was dealt a blow this offseason when center Tanner Thrift decided to retire. True freshman Ryan Miller is expected to claim Thrift's old job at center. New defensive coordinator Phil Snow engineered one of the nation’s top defenses at Temple last fall. He’s got his work cut out this offseason, as the Bears return only five starters from a unit that allowed 29 points per game in 2016. End K.J. Smith and linebacker Taylor Young are two of the Big 12’s top defenders. Baylor’s secondary could feature three sophomore starters this season. With the personnel concerns and transition in coaching staff, getting to a bowl game would be a good debut for Rhule.
Related: Big 12 Football 2017 Predictions
46. Ole Miss
The Rebels are one of the hardest teams in the SEC to get a read on this preseason. With an ongoing NCAA investigation, and the bowl ban in place for 2017, there are a lot of dark clouds swirling over the program. Additionally, the uncertainty surrounding this program grew after Hugh Freeze resigned as head coach in July. Offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke will serve as the interim coach for 2017. Despite the question marks, Ole Miss could be a dark horse team to watch in the SEC West. The offense averaged 32.6 points per game last season and is expected to be a high-powered unit once again behind quarterback Shea Patterson. The sophomore should be one of the SEC’s top breakout players in 2017 and is throwing to a deep stable of receivers, including all-conference candidates A.J. Brown and Van Jefferson. Replacing tight end Evan Engram is expected to be sophomore Octavious Cooley or converted quarterback Jason Pellerin. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is a standout hire, but this unit could sputter without better play from the line and more balance from the ground attack. The return of Jordan Wilkins (academics) and Eric Swinney (injury) should provide some punch to a ground game that managed only 149.4 yards per game last fall. Change is coming to a defense that surrendered 34 points a game last fall. New coordinator Wesley McGriff has installed a 4-3 approach but is also working with a unit that is thin across the board in depth. End Marquis Haynes (seven sacks) is a force up front, with sophomore Benito Jones poised to anchor the interior of a strong defensive line. The return of cornerback Ken Webster from injury should bolster the secondary. There’s enough offensive firepower returning to Oxford to win eight games – but also enough question marks on defense, with the coaching staff and the off-field issues to finish with a losing mark once again.
Mark Stoops delivered a breakthrough year in his fourth season in Lexington. Kentucky finished with seven wins, defeated rival Louisville and earned a trip to Jacksonville for the TaxSlayer Bowl. With momentum on their side, the Wildcats are aiming for a top-three finish in the SEC East in 2017. The pieces seem to be in place for Stoops’ team to possibly exceed last year’s win total but challenging for one of the top spots in the East will depend on quarterback play. Junior college recruit Stephen Johnson stepped under center and kept the offense on track after a season-ending back injury to Drew Barker in September. But Johnson’s numbers in SEC play left a lot to be desired. He only completed 50.9 percent of his throws and tossed just four touchdowns to five interceptions. Kentucky needs more out of its passing game – whether that’s Johnson or Barker – and its receiving corps this fall. Top target Jeff Badet (21.6 ypc) transferred to Oklahoma this offseason, leaving Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and tight end C.J. Conrad as the top weapons in the passing game. Question marks surround the passing attack, but the ground game is among the best in the SEC. Benny Snell Jr. had a breakout year (1,091 yards and 13 TDs) last fall and is set to take over the full-time job after Boom Williams left for the NFL. Clearing the way for Snell is a standout offensive line, which is anchored by senior guard Nick Haynes. This unit suffered a setback in the fall when tackle Cole Mosier was lost for the year due to injury. Stoops was regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator prior to taking over as head coach, but Kentucky has ranked 11th or worse in scoring defense in each of the last four years. Stopping the run was an issue last fall and is likely to be a challenge once again due to a struggling defensive line. However, the secondary and linebacker units have a chance to be among the best in the SEC.
Kirk Ferentz enters his 19th season in Iowa City looking to shake things up on offense. The Hawkeyes finished 10th in the conference in scoring last fall and averaged just 5.2 yards per play. New coordinator Brian Ferentz isn’t going to make wholesale changes but tweaks are expected. How much of a difference will it make in 2017? That largely depends on finding a quarterback. C.J. Beathard has expired his eligibility, with Tyler Wiegers and Nathan Stanley vying for the No. 1 spot this offseason. Stanley is the favorite to take the first snap after working as Beathard’s backup last fall. Adding to the challenge of a first-year quarterback is the receiving corps. The Hawkeyes are thin on proven options, with top target Matt VandeBerg coming off a season-ending foot injury. Ferentz dipped into the graduate transfer ranks and added former New Mexico receiver Matt Quarrells to the mix in fall practice. The unquestioned strength of this offense remains in the trenches with the Big Ten’s No. 1 line, along with senior running back Akrum Wadley. Nevada graduate transfer James Butler joined the team prior to fall practice and should be a standout No. 2 option behind Wadley. Cornerback Desmond King leaves a massive void in the secondary, but the Hawkeyes will be led by one of the nation’s top linebacker units, headlined by senior Josey Jewell. Sophomore Manny Rugamba is a rising star to watch at cornerback, and true freshman tackle A.J. Epenesa is someone else to keep an eye on. If a quarterback emerges, Iowa has the ground game and defense to finish second in the Big Ten West. However, the schedule is challenging. Ferentz’s team plays at Nebraska and Northwestern, with Ohio State and Penn State on the crossover slate with the East Division.
The main storyline in Mike Riley’s third season in Lincoln is simply about change. Longtime aide Mark Banker was dismissed as the team’s defensive coordinator, with former UConn head coach and former Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco hired to call the plays. Diaco is changing Nebraska’s base defense to more of a 3-4 approach, but how quickly will the personnel fill out the new scheme? The front seven isn’t completely thin on options, as end Freedom Akinmoladun and tackle Mick Stoltenberg are a good tandem up front, and the linebacker unit features junior Dedrick Young and senior Marcus Newby. While those four players are a good starting point, question marks remain about how quickly this group can be effective. Nebraska was expected to have one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backfields thanks to the return of lockdown corner Chris Jones and safeties Joshua Kalu, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams. However, Jones will miss the 2017 season due to a knee injury suffered in the summer. Even with Jones out, the Cornhuskers have a strong foundation in place in the secondary. Tommy Armstrong has expired his eligibility, which means the Cornhuskers will have a new full-time quarterback for the first time since 2012. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee won the job at the conclusion of spring practice and is a better fit for Riley’s pro-style offense than Armstrong. The junior should provide steady play at quarterback, but Riley needs a few playmakers to emerge after losing three of the top four receivers from 2016. The team also must replace leading rusher Terrell Newby (879 yards), but Devine Ozigbo, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon should be an effective committee. The line returns three starters and has a chance to be the strength of this offense. Of the teams hoping to push Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, Nebraska might have the most home-friendly schedule. The Cornhuskers get Northwestern and Iowa in Lincoln, while Ohio State visits in mid-October.
Related: Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions
42. North Carolina
North Carolina’s 19 wins over the last two seasons are the most in a two-year span for this program since recording 21 from 1996-97. Maintaining that momentum won’t be easy for coach Larry Fedora. For starters, the Tar Heels have to replace quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running back Elijah Hood and a couple of key receivers, including Ryan Switzer. To help with the rebuilding effort, Fedora dipped into the graduate transfer ranks. Former LSU Tiger Brandon Harris is slated to start at quarterback, while former Auburn receiver Stanton Truitt will help as an all-purpose threat. Harris is competing with Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt for the starting job. Freshman Michael Carter and sophomore Jordon Brown are likely to see significant work at running back following the departure of Hood and T.J. Logan. The line has been a consistent strength in recent years, but similar to the other positions on offense, Fedora has some work to do here. Graduate transfer Cam Dillard (center) should help bridge the gap for a unit returning three starters, including All-ACC candidate left tackle Bentley Spain. John Papuchis takes over the defensive play-calling after Gene Chizik decided to step aside. The Tar Heels have made some progress on defense under Chizik but struggled to stop the run last year, giving up 227.3 yards per game. There’s hope for improvement in the trenches, as tackle Aaron Crawford, junior Malik Carney and freshman Tomon Fox are a talented trio to build around. Cornerback M.J. Stewart is an All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for 2017, and linebackers Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb return after each eclipsed 100 tackles last season. As if the rebuilding project on offense wasn’t enough, North Carolina faces NC State and Louisville in crossover play, along with a non-conference game against Notre Dame. Matching last year’s eight wins isn’t going to be easy.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team got off to a disappointing 0-2 start last year after losing by a combined three points to Western Michigan and Illinois State. But the Wildcats rallied over the next two months, finishing with a 5-4 mark in Big Ten play and only losing by four points to Ohio State in Columbus. Fast-forward to 2017, Fitzgerald’s team might be the biggest threat to Wisconsin in the West Division. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is entering his third year as the team’s starting quarterback, while running back Justin Jackson is chasing his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. Austin Carr (90 receptions in 2016) won’t be easy to replace, but the Wildcats could have help in the form of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown. The offensive line returns four starters but this group needs to get better in pass protection after giving up 39 sacks last year. The defense returns largely intact with seven starters back. However, the departing players from last year’s group leave big shoes to fill. Linebackers Anthony Walker and Jaylen Prater, along with end Ifeadi Odenigbo won’t be easy to replace. Odenigbo was the team’s top pass rusher last fall with 10 sacks, but there are solid pieces at Fitzgerald’s disposal. End Xavier Washington (currently suspended due an incident in the spring) is a potential All-Big Ten candidate, and senior Tyler Lancaster headlines the options at tackle. The secondary regains the services of cornerback Keith Watkins II after missing 2016 due to injury. However, returning starter Trae Williams is out until October after suffering a torn Achilles during the offseason. Safety Godwin Igwebuike is one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs. Senior Solomon Vault was one of the Big Ten's top kickoff return men, but he is out for 2017 due to injury.
40. South Carolina
The Gamecocks showed marked improvement in Will Muschamp’s first year in Columbia, and this team is poised to take another step forward in the SEC East in 2017. A big reason for that optimism is the emergence of quarterback Jake Bentley. As a freshman last fall, Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine scores after taking over the job in late October. He should be even better in his second year under center and is poised to emerge as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Bentley has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Sophomore running back Rico Dowdle (764 yards) returns after a promising debut in 2016, with North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams also in the mix. The receiving corps should be one of the best in the SEC. Junior receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst are first-team All-SEC selections by Athlon Sports. Sophomore Bryan Edwards is also another rising star to watch on offense. The Gamecocks return four starters in the trenches and improvement is a must after surrendering 41 sacks last fall. This unit is anchored by standout tackle Zack Bailey and senior center Alan Knott. Muschamp and coordinator Travaris Robinson engineered improvement on the defensive side last season and more help is on the way with the return of linebacker Skai Moore (missed 2016 due to a neck injury). Muschamp is searching for the right combination up front and in the secondary, but there are a few promising pieces to build around, including end D.J. Wonnum, senior cornerback Jamarcus King and true freshman defensive back Jamyest Williams. With Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas coming to Columbia this season, the Gamecocks have a chance to make some noise at home and improve from last year’s six-win mark.
The Cougars weren’t short on drama or intrigue in coach Kalani Sitake’s first season at the helm. BYU opened the season with a last-second win over Arizona (18-16), followed by three defeats against Power 5 teams by three points or fewer. The Cougars finished 2016 by winning eight out of their last nine games, including the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming. While the schedule once again features a couple of tough matchups against Power 5 teams, and there’s some turnover in the personnel ranks on both sides of the ball, don’t expect the level of success to dip in Provo. Tanner Mangum is set to take over as the full-time starter at quarterback once again, and as a classic drop-back passer, the junior is a good fit for coordinator Ty Detmer’s pro-style attack. Mangum will have a new set of weapons at receiver with the departure of the team’s top three options from last season. However, the cupboard isn’t bare with the return of receiver Jonah Trinnaman and tight ends Tanner Balderree and Matt Bushman. Converted receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau provides another weapon after moving to tight end this offseason. The strength of the offense should be its line, which is anchored by standout center Tejan Koroma, with left tackle Thomas Shoaf a rising star on the outside. Replacing running back Jamaal Williams, BYU's all-time leading rusher, is likely to fall to a committee of backs, including Squally Canada (315 yards in 2016) and KJ Hall (184 yards). Despite a couple of new starters up front and the departure of standout safety Kai Nacua, the defense won’t miss too much of a beat. The Cougars allowed only 19.5 points per game last fall and finished ninth nationally against the run. The strength of this defense is a standout trio of linebackers, while Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner are an emerging pair of cornerbacks.
The Utes return only seven starters this season, but it would be foolish to overlook coach Kyle Whittingham’s team. Utah has won at least nine games and finished in the top 25 in each of the last three years. The rebuilding effort starts on offense with new coordinator Troy Taylor – one of the Pac-12’s top assistant coach hires – and the return of senior quarterback Troy Williams. Although Utah’s ground game is consistently strong, the offense needs more out of its passing game. Taylor should be able to help this unit take a step forward, and Williams is likely to be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. Joe Williams leaves big shoes to fill at running back, but a group of options should be capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. Junior Armand Shyne and sophomores Zack Moss and Devonta’e Henry-Cole will battle to take over the carries. Shyne will be sidelined for the start of the 2017 season, leaving Moss and Henry-Cole to handle the bulk of the carries in September. At receiver, the Utes must replace Tim Patrick (45 catches), but Raelon Singleton, Demari Simpkins and Siaosi Wilson is a good trio to build around. Additionally, this unit added Oregon graduate transfer Darren Carrington - a potential All-Pac-12 receiver - prior to fall practice. Tight end Siale Fakailoatonga returns after missing 2016 due to injury. The biggest concern for Taylor and Whittingham is up front after the departure of four starters, including first-round pick Garett Bolles. Senior Salesi Uhatafe and left tackle Jackson Barton are expected to be the new leaders in the trenches this fall. Considering Utah’s track record of finding and developing linemen, this may not be as big of a concern as some may expect. Sack Lake City should be in full effect with a strong group of options in the trenches, headlined by All-American tackle Lowell Lotulelei and end Kylie Fitts (returning from injury). This defense should be strong at linebacker, with the secondary the biggest concern heading into fall workouts. Safety Chase Hansen is an All-America candidate, but he missed time in fall practice due to injury. One other problem for Utah’s rebuilding effort is a schedule that features crossover games against the top four teams from the North.
37. Texas A&M
It’s no secret coach Kevin Sumlin’s seat is getting a little warm. The Aggies are 44-21 over the last five years but peaked in 2012-13 with 20 wins during that span. While 8-5 in each of the last three seasons isn’t bad, Texas A&M has not recorded a winning mark in SEC play since 2012. Exceeding eight wins or hitting a winning record in conference action isn’t going to be easy for Sumlin in 2017. Texas A&M has major question marks on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback. Who will emerge as the answer to replace Trevor Knight? Senior Jake Hubenak is the team’s most experienced option, with freshmen Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel possessing more upside. The buzz around fall practice was Starkel, as the redshirt freshman appears to be the favorite to take the first snap of the year against UCLA. Adding to the concerns in the passing game is a receiving corps replacing four out of its top five options. However, the one returner in that bunch is a good one – junior Christian Kirk (83 catches in 2016). True freshman Jhamon Ausbon is a name to remember at receiver. Until the passing game settles, expect to see a lot of running back Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards in 2016) and senior Keith Ford. Despite featurinng the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft (Myles Garrett), Texas A&M’s defense struggled to stop the run, gave up too many big plays and allowed 30.3 points in SEC games. Coordinator John Chavis had some bad luck due to injuries and better health could lead to improved results in 2017. However, make no mistake: Garrett will be missed off the edge. In addition to replacing Garrett, Chavis needs to find the right mix at linebacker and develop better play from the cornerbacks. Armani Watts is one of the best safeties in the SEC and leads the way in the secondary. Cornerback Nick Harvey is not expected to play in 2017 due to a knee injury suffered in the spring.
Related: SEC Football 2017 Predictions
36. Georgia Tech
After a 3-9 record in 2015, the Yellow Jackets bounced back in a big way last fall. Coach Paul Johnson guided this team to a 9-4 record, earning wins over Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech, rival Georgia and a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky. With the top of the Coastal in flux once again, don’t count out Georgia Tech from making a run as a dark horse team. The running game will be tough to contain once again, as sophomore running back Dedrick Mills is primed for a breakout season. But he’s not the only option for Johnson, as J.J. Green, Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy round out a deep stable of ball carriers. Junior Matthew Jordan garnered valuable experience last season, including a start at Virginia Tech in place of injured starter Justin Thomas. But Jordan suffered a foot injury in the spring and was limited in the fall by a shoulder injury. He could be pushed by converted running back TaQuon Marshall or freshmen Jay Jones and Lucas Johnson. Regardless of who wins the job, the formula of leaning on the ground game and offensive line isn’t going to change. The defense ranked seventh in the ACC in points allowed last season and quietly features one of the league’s top secondary units. The big concern for Johnson and coordinator Ted Roof remains up front. The Yellow Jackets gave up 172.2 rushing yards per game and registered only 18 sacks in 2016. The development of this group is critical to Georgia Tech’s hopes of challenging Miami or Virginia Tech for first. The schedule also presents its share of obstacles.
35. Boise State
Just how high is the bar set at Boise State? For the first time since 2000-01, the Broncos have failed to finish inside of the Associated Press Top 25 in back-to-back years. And while the last two seasons didn’t result in a Mountain West title, Boise State still has 19 wins in that span. Coach Bryan Harsin has won 31 games during his three years guiding his alma mater, and the Broncos are Athlon’s pick to win the Mountain West this fall. But the path back to the top of the MW isn’t going to be easy. Boise State returns only eight starters and has some major personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. Some of those question marks are eased by the return of quarterback Brett Rypien, along with big-play receiver Cedrick Wilson. Sophomore Alexander Mattison is primed for a breakout year in replacing Jeremy McNichols at running back. Up front, three new players are slated to step into starting roles, but the two returning starters – center Mason Hampton and tackle Archie Lewis – claimed a spot on Athlon Sports’ All-Mountain West team for 2017. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos guided Boise State to a No. 2 rank in the conference in scoring defense last fall. Maintaining that rank will hinge on restocking the trenches, as just two returning starters anchor the front seven. But similar to the offense, those two players are standout performers. Tackle David Moa (8.5 sacks) should challenge for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, and end Jabril Frazier is critical to the pass rush. Junior Leighton Vander Esch is a potential breakout performer at linebacker, while cornerback Tyler Horton is the headliner in the secondary. The schedule is a potential obstacle to a return to the Mountain West title game. Boise State has to play at San Diego State and Colorado State in league play. Additionally, the non-conference schedule features several tough matchups – Troy, at Washington State and at BYU.
The Buffaloes are the defending Pac-12 South champions, but coach Mike MacIntyre’s team is going through some extensive turnover on defense this offseason. A unit that limited opponents to 21.7 points per game in 2016 and featured a rock-solid secondary returns only three starters and is under the direction of a new coordinator (D.J. Eliot). Gone from the front seven is leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode, last year’s top sack man Jimmie Gilbert (10), as well as linemen Jordan Carrell, Josh Tupou and Samson Kafovalu. The list of key departures is even bigger in the secondary. The Buffaloes must replace two shutdown cornerbacks in Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie, along with safety Tedric Thompson. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Eliot, as safety Afolabi Laguda and cornerback Isaiah Oliver are among the best in the Pac-12 at their position. Additionally, the return of linebacker Derek McCartney from injury will provide a boost to the front seven. The outlook is much better on offense. While quarterback Sefo Liufau departs, the Buffaloes have a rising star in sophomore Steven Montez ready to take the controls of the offense. Montez has three starts under his belt, throwing for 1,078 yards and nine scores last fall. He’s joined by standout running back Phillip Lindsay (129.9 total yards per game in 2016), and one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Additionally, the Buffaloes should be strong in the trenches with four returning starters. Considering the turnover on defense, a repeat trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game is unlikely. However, Colorado isn’t going to fall too far in the South Division.
Last season’s 4-8 record was the first losing mark under coach Jim Mora. Through five seasons, Mora has gone 41-24 but the sixth-year coach begins 2017 on the hot seat. While the Bruins have some significant concerns on both sides of the ball, the return of quarterback Josh Rosen from a season-ending shoulder injury should help this team return to a bowl game. Additionally, Mora overhauled the offensive staff, bringing veteran assistant Jedd Fisch to Los Angeles to take over the play-calling duties. Rosen threw for 1,915 yards and 10 scores in six games before he was lost for the year. However, when healthy, Rosen is one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks. But just getting Rosen back to full strength won’t be enough for UCLA to be a top 25 team in 2017. The Bruins need to develop a running game after averaging only 84.3 rushing yards per game in 2016, while the offensive line must be solidified after giving up 24 sacks. Rosen’s top two receivers from last year – Darren Anderws and Jordan Lasley – are back, with senior Eldridge Massington and sophomore Theo Howard rounding out the key weapons on the outside. Despite the sluggish production on offense, the defense ranked second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to just 4.86 yards per play last fall. Coordinator Tom Bradley loses standouts Jayon Brown at linebacker, Eddie Vanderdoes and Tak McKinley up front, and defensive backs Randall Goforth and Fabian Moreau. But there’s enough of a core returning for Bradley to piece together a solid defense, which includes five-star freshman Jaelan Phillips, linebacker Kenny Young and safety Jaleel Wadood. While UCLA finished 4-8 last year, it’s also important to note this team lost six games by 10 points or less. There’s potential for a rebound in 2017.
After winning 23 games from 2014-15, TCU regressed to 6-7 and finished with just its third losing mark since coach Gary Patterson took over the program at the end of the 2000 season. Getting back on track in 2017 will require the Horned Frogs to play with more consistency on offense. Quarterback Kenny Hill tossed 13 interceptions and completed only 57.4 percent of his throws in Big 12 games. Hill’s development is crucial to TCU’s hopes of returning to the top 25, as the rest of the personnel is in place on offense. Running back Kyle Hicks returns after rushing for 1,042 yards last fall, and the receiving corps brings back its top six options and adds a potential impact true freshman in Jalen Reagor. Patterson’s defenses usually rank among the Big 12’s best, and there’s a strong foundation in place with seven returning starters. The bulk of the losses from last year’s group were up front, as end Josh Carraway (11 TFL) will be missed. Safety Denzel Johnson also leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary. Linebacker Travin Howard is one of the best in the nation, and Patterson experimented with linebacker Ty Summers as a defensive end during fall practice to bolster the pass rush.
Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers had an interesting 2016 season. Pitt was the only team to defeat CFB Playoff champion Clemson in 2016, and of course, in-state bragging rights were earned after a non-conference victory against Penn State in Week 2. Narduzzi has guided this program to back-to-back 8-5 records, but the goal in the Steel City for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Coastal Division. Working in the Panthers' favor is a schedule that does not feature Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in crossover play. Additionally, swing games against Miami and NC State take place in Heinz Field. Schedule aside, this team still has a few major personnel issues to address. Veteran play-caller Shawn Watson arrives to take over the offensive coordinator duties after Matt Canada left for LSU. Additionally, USC graduate transfer Max Browne is slated to start at quarterback after Nathan Peterman expired his eligibility. While Watson is likely to put his own stamp on the offense, the Panthers aren’t going to stray too far from the ground game – even with James Conner in the NFL. The backfield features former 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison, sophomore Chawntez Moss and promising freshman A.J. Davis. Clearing the way for the ground attack is one of the ACC’s top offensive lines, anchored by tackle Brian O’Neill. Narduzzi added depth up front with the addition of Texas graduate transfer Brandon Hodges this fall. The Panthers are also set at receiver with Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah back on the outside, but sophomore Tre Tipton suffered a season-ending knee injury over the offseason. Tight end Chris Clark (UCLA transfer) is a name to remember. Considering Narduzzi’s roots as a defensive coordinator, Pitt’s struggles on this side of the ball over the last two years are surprising. Can this unit take a step forward in 2017? On paper, it’s tough to see the Panthers drastically improving on defense. This unit returns only four starters, and the line was hit hard by departures after Ejuan Price expired his eligibility, and expected starter Jeremiah Taleni was dismissed this offseason. Junior Jordan Whitehead is the defense’s top player and potentially one of the best safeties in college football. However, Whitehead is suspended for the first three games of the 2017 season due to a violation of team policy.
Related: ACC 2017 All-Conference Team
30. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in 2016 but finished with wins in four out of their last six games. Building off that momentum shouldn’t be a problem for coach Dan Mullen’s team. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Dak Prescott last fall but eventually emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Fitzgerald gashed opponents for 1,375 yards on the ground and threw for 2,423 yards and 21 scores. In order for this offense to take another step forward, Fitzgerald has to improve as a passer after completing only 54.3 percent of his throws in 2016. Additionally, Mullen has some work to do in the supporting cast. Running back Aeris Williams returns after rushing for 720 yards and is a solid complement to Fitzgerald’s rushing ability. But who emerges to replace Fred Ross (72 catches) and help Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) in the receiving corps? Junior Malik Dear was expected to be a key contributor at receiver, but his status for 2017 is uncertain due to an offseason knee injury. If Dear is unable to return, the Bulldogs will lean more on sophomores Keith Mixon and Jamal Couch, along with redshirt freshman Reggie Todd. The line is Mullen’s biggest concern on offense with three new starters stepping into the spotlight. After giving up 31.8 points per game last fall, look for Mississippi State’s defense to show progress in 2017. The addition of Todd Grantham as coordinator is a huge plus for this group, and Mullen dipped into the junior college ranks for instant help. Leading the charge up front will be talented sophomore Jeffery Simmons, with fellow sophomore Leo Lewis anchoring the linebacker unit. The pass defense must improve after giving up 33 scores in 2016. The cornerback spot is of particular concern, but this unit could have help in the form of a better pass rush, eliminating the time quarterbacks have to pick apart the secondary. The 2017 version of Mullen’s Bulldogs are clearly better than last year’s team. But road dates against Arkansas and Texas A&M could decide whether or not this team finishes fourth or seventh in the tight SEC West.
Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks certainly knew how to make things interesting in 2016. This team played an overtime thriller against TCU in Week 2, beat Ole Miss by four, crushed Florida 31-10 and blew second-half leads against Missouri and Virginia Tech to close out the year. After an uneven season, can Bielema get Arkansas back into top 25 contention? It’s not out of the question if the defense improves significantly behind new coordinator Paul Rhoads. This unit has surrendered at least six yards per play in back-to-back seasons, so there’s only one way to go in 2017 – up. Rhoads is transitioning this defense to a 3-4 scheme, but this unit needs some work in the front seven after giving up 205.5 rushing yards per game. Sophomore McTelvin Agim is due for a breakout season, and Dre Greenlaw should provide a boost at linebacker after missing a good chunk of 2016 due to injury. The secondary allowed too many big plays (13 passes of 40 yards or more last year) but could benefit from more help up front. Cornerback Ryan Pulley is quietly one of the SEC’s top defensive backs. Until the defense is settled, look for Bielema to lean a little more on his offense. Of course, that’s not a bad idea for Arkansas considering quarterback Austin Allen is one of the best in the SEC, and center Frank Ragnow anchors an offensive line that should improve with four starters back. Rawleigh Williams’ retirement due to a neck injury was a blow to the ground game, but Bielema has had no trouble finding stars at this position in his career. Look for sophomore Devwah Whaley to emerge as the next standout running back. South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams and freshmen Chase Hayden and Maleek Williams are also expected to factor into the rotation at running back. Allen will be throwing to a revamped group of receivers, but senior Jared Cornelius, redshirt freshman Jordan Jones, the emergence of promising tight end Austin Cantrell and the addition of junior college recruit Brandon Martin should alleviate concerns on the outside.
28. Washington State
The Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 North last fall and another run at 7-2 in league play and a spot in the top 25 is well within reach for coach Mike Leach’s team. As with any Leach-coached team, the offense leads the way. Washington State’s high-powered attack averaged 38.2 points per game last fall and isn’t expected to take its foot off the pedal with senior quarterback Luke Falk back to guide the offense. Falk has to find a couple of new receivers after Gabe Marks (89 receptions) and River Cracraft (53) expired their eligibility. Junior Tavares Martin and sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack are two names to watch this fall. While the passing game draws most of the attention in Pullman, the Cougars quietly have one of the Pac-12’s best running back corps. James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks each eclipsed at least 450 rushing yards last season and all three are valuable targets in the passing game. Anchored by guard Cody O’Connell, Washington State’s offensive line ranks among the best in the Pac-12. Coordinator Alex Grinch has helped the Cougars take a step forward on defense over the last two seasons, and a strong foundation is in place for 2017. Nine starters return, including standout end Hercules Mata’afa, linebacker Peyton Pelluer and cornerback Darrien Molton. The offense is going to miss Marks and Cracraft, but it’s hard to envision Washington State struggling too much through the air. However, one problem for Leach’s team is the schedule. The Cougars have to play USC, Colorado and Utah in Pac-12 crossover matchups, while dates against Washington and Oregon come on the road.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2017 Predictions
27. NC State
It’s easy to overlook NC State in a division that features Louisville, Florida State and Clemson – two national championship contenders for 2017. However, the Wolfpack could nudge their way into the top 25 this year. Coach Dave Doeren was on the hot seat after a 4-5 start last fall, but NC State finished strong with three wins in its final four games. While the final ledger showed six losses, NC State lost by seven points to eventual CFB Playoff champ Clemson, fell to Florida State by just four and lost two other games by a combined 10 points. The offense is led by junior quarterback Ryan Finley, who posted a solid debut in 2016 after transferring in from Boise State. All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels is one of college football’s best all-around talents and playmakers. He should be utilized even more in 2017. Replacing running back Matt Dayes is the biggest concern for Doeren’s offense. Junior (and converted receiver) Nyheim Hines is the front-runner for carries but Reggie Gallaspy and Dakwa Nichols are in the mix as well. The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is a strength for Doeren’s team. Anchored by standout guard Tony Adams, four starters return for one of the ACC’s top lines. On defense, end Bradley Chubb is back to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage after registering 10.5 sacks in 2016. The tandem of Justin Jones and B.J. Hill is an underrated duo on the interior. Both starters – Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore – are back at linebacker, while the secondary is the biggest area of need with three vacancies in the starting lineup. NC State is clearly a better team than it was last year, but it won’t get any breaks on the schedule. Notre Dame and South Carolina are on tap in non-conference play, and of course, the Wolfpack have to face three top 25 teams from their own division.
26. West Virginia
Last year’s 10-win season was West Virginia’s first double-digit victory total since joining the Big 12 in 2012. The 10-3 record and No. 18 finish in the Associated Press poll helped coach Dana Holgorsen secure a contract extension, which ensures he will be in Morgantown at least through 2021. West Virginia returns only seven starters from last year’s team, but another top 25 finish is within reach. That’s largely due to the arrival of transfer quarterback Will Grier from Florida. The junior should help the Mountaineers stretch the field more, taking the pressure off of a talented stable of running backs. Justin Crawford rushed for 1,184 yards in his first year from the junior college ranks, but he will have plenty of support from sophomore Kennedy McKoy. Grier’s supporting cast on the outside was slated to be a strength but is a question mark in fall practice. The status of Jovon Durante is uncertain, and Marcus Simms is suspended for the opener. Additionally, the top two receivers – Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts – from last season have departed Morgantown. David Sills and Ka'Raun White will be targeted frequently by Grier early in the 2017 season. The Mountaineers had a standout offensive line in 2016, but center Tyler Orlosky leaves big shoes to fill in the middle. Line coach Joe Wickline can rebuild this unit around standout guard Kyle Bosch. For the second year in a row, coordinator Tony Gibson faces a significant rebuilding effort on defense. However, after the Mountaineers held opponents to 24 points a game in 2016, Gibson should push the right buttons again with a new cast of players stepping into major roles. The return of safety Dravon Askew-Henry provides relief for a secondary that lost standout cornerback Rasul Douglas. This unit will be without standout linebacker David Long for September due to an offseason knee injury.
25. Virginia Tech
After an appearance in the ACC Championship Game and a 10-win 2016 season, coach Justin Fuente will once again have the Hokies in the mix to win the Coastal Division. The second-year coach is regarded for his work on offense, especially at the quarterback position. Fuente will be tested once again this season, as Jerod Evans left early for the NFL, and standout receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges are also at the next level. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson was named the starting quarterback in August, with junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hookier fighting for the backup role. The Hokies have to find playmakers for Jackson at receiver (other than Cam Phillips) and generate more production from the ground game. A defense that returns seven starters should be among the best in the ACC. Cornerback Greg Stroman and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds should challenge for All-America honors on a unit that allowed only 22.8 points per game last year. The opener against West Virginia at FedEx Field should give some early insight into the quarterback situation. However, it’s likely Virginia Tech’s hopes of another division title rest with the Nov. 4 trip to Miami.
The Bulls are not only Athlon's pick to win the American Athletic Conference, but this team is also the projected top Group of 5 program for 2017. New coach Charlie Strong inherits a strong foundation from former coach Willie Taggart, starting with dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 scores and accounted for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Standout running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL and will be missed. However, D’Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice and redshirt freshman Elijah Mack should be a capable trio to handle the carries. The Bulls also must replace left tackle Kofi Amichia and leading receiver Rodney Adams. The defense gave up 31.6 points per game last season but should improve with nine returning starters, including standouts Auggie Sanchez (LB), Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector (DL) and Deatrick Nichols (CB). Strong’s arrival and background on this side of the ball should also help USF’s defense take a step forward. The schedule for USF is favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games and host Temple, Houston and Tulsa.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the ACC’s Coastal Division, but Athlon gives the nod to Miami. The biggest offseason question mark for coach Mark Richt remains at quarterback. Brad Kaaya departed early for the NFL, leaving junior Malik Rosier, true freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon and sophomore Evan Shirreffs as the top contenders for the No. 1 spot. Rosier has one career start, but he may not hold onto the job for long if Perry shows a good grasp of the offense in fall practice. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running back Mark Walton, along with emerging star Ahmmon Richards at receiver. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Hurricanes can lean on a defense that returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to just 18.5 points per game in 2016. The line has a chance to be among the best in the nation, and the starting trio of linebackers will be better in 2017 after getting significant playing time as true freshmen. The secondary is the biggest concern for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Citadel graduate transfer Dee Delaney was a key pickup this offseason at cornerback for Diaz. Road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina will be challenging in conference play. However, Miami hosts Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 – a game that could decide the Coastal Division winner.
22. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s team is always dangerous in the Big 12 and could be a dark horse to contend for the conference title in 2017. Kansas State returns a good chunk of its core from a team that won nine games last season. Quarterback Jesse Ertz headlines the offense, and he’s surrounded by breakout candidates in receiver Byron Pringle and running back Alex Barnes. The Wildcats also return two starters from an offensive line that should be one of the best in the Big 12. Replacing standout linebacker Elijah Lee and end Jordan Willis are the biggest concerns on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year (22.3 ppg) but shouldn’t slip too far despite losing Lee and Willis. End Reggie Walker anchors the line after recording 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, while cornerback D.J. Reed – the Big 12’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016 – leads the way in the secondary. The Wildcats have to play at Oklahoma State and Texas, but Oklahoma visits Manhattan on Oct. 21.
New coach Willie Taggart inherits a promising core of young talent for his first season in Eugene. Although the Ducks are coming off their first losing record since 2004, a quick rebound should be in order. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receiver Charles Nelson. The departure of Darren Carrington left a void at receiver, which could be filled by converted safety Brenden Schooler, running back Taj Griffin and sophomore Dillon Mitchell. The Ducks also went with a youth movement in the trenches last season and this unit is slated to return four starters from the final two-deep. Additionally, left tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart’s team, but the defense needs to take a step forward if Oregon wants to challenge Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 North. The good news? Taggart hired standout coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado and has plenty of experience at all three levels of the defense returning for 2017. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is one of the Pac-12's rising stars on defense, and the addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano provides a boost up front. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
20. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016. However, the Fighting Irish lost seven of those games by eight points or less and finished No. 29 in the F/+ ratings. While there is certainly cause for concern in South Bend, coach Brian Kelly hired two standout coordinators this offseason (Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense), and there’s a good core of talent in place. A quick rebound back to a winning record should be in order for 2017. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is a breakout candidate this fall. Running back Josh Adams (933 yards) just missed on a 1,000-yard season last year and will be joined by Dexter Williams to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Torii Hunter Jr. elected to skip his final year of eligibility for baseball, but the Fighting Irish have a capable group of targets. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, with Kevin Stepherson (18.5 ypc) and C.J. Sanders (24) headlining the secondary targets. Kelly also added graduate transfers in Freddy Canteen (Michigan) and Cam Smith (Arizona State) to bolster one of the nation's top receiving corps. Tight end Alize Mack (formely Jones) is back after a one-year suspension and could be a difference-maker. Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are All-America candidates up front and anchor a line that returns four starters. Improving the defense was Kelly’s top priority this offseason and the arrival of Elko should help this unit take a step forward. Most of last year’s depth chart returns intact, but linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke depart South Bend. The strength of this group is at linebacker, largely due to the play of senior Nyles Morgan. Cornerback Shaun Crawford and safety Nick Watkins are back from injury to bolster a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.7 percent of their throws last season. The schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are in South Bend next season.
The Volunteers fell short of most preseason expectations of a SEC East title in 2016, but coach Butch Jones has still pieced together back-to-back nine-win seasons. In order for Tennessee to edge Florida and Georgia in the East this fall, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. The SEC slate presents its share of challenges, but the Volunteers also have some significant personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. There’s also a new play-caller on offense with Larry Scott taking over for Mike DeBord. Scott has two talented quarterbacks – Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano – at his disposal, with the battle for the starting job expected to continue into fall practice. Dormady left the spring with a slight edge for the No. 1 spot and is on track to start the opener against Georgia Tech. Junior John Kelly is due for a breakout year at running back, but depth is an issue at the position. Junior Jauan Jennings leads the way at receiver, but similar to the running back spot, the overall depth is a concern for Jones. The Volunteers also need more consistent play from their offensive line, with true freshman Trey Smith expected to play a key role this year. Injuries hit Tennessee’s defense hard in 2016, and this unit loses two standouts in end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton. Considering all of the injuries this team dealt with on defense, the playing time by backups and new starters should improve the overall depth for this unit in 2017. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be the leader of the front seven for coordinator Bob Shoop. The success of the defense will largely hinge on the development of the line. Former top recruits Jonathan Kongbo, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips need to deliver on their potential.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson hopes to take Louisville into contention for the CFB Playoff once again. He’s also back for another run at the Heisman after accounting for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and adding 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground last season. Jackson set the bar high last year and matching those totals in 2017 could be difficult. However, he’s the nation’s best playmaker and is only going to get better as a passer this fall. Jackson’s supporting cast features some new faces after the departure of running back Brandon Radcliff, receivers James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). While those are big losses, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Bobby Petrino. Jeremy Smith should be a capable fill-in at running back, with Reggie Bonnafon chipping in as an all-purpose threat, and Seth Dawkins, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick filling out the receiving corps. The biggest concern for Petrino’s offense remains up front. Left tackle Geron Christian is one of the ACC’s top linemen, but this unit surrendered 47 sacks in 13 games last fall. The return of veteran assistant Mike Summers should help the offensive line develop in 2017. New coordinator Peter Sirmon inherits a defense that allowed only 23.8 points per game last season and returns a solid foundation with seven starters back. Senior linebacker Stacy Thomas and cornerback Jaire Alexander are two of the ACC’s top returning defenders. This unit should get a huge boost with the return of senior Trevon Young after missing all of 2016 due to injury. A Week 3 showdown against Clemson is an early barometer test for Jackson and Louisville’s ACC title hopes.
Stanford has been a model of consistency under coach David Shaw. The Cardinal have won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons. Reaching that total in 2017 is within reach, as Stanford is the biggest threat to Washington in the Pac-12 North. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina but returned in time for fall practice. Chryst is on track to start the opener against Rice, with Ryan Burns and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello providing depth. With Chryst on track to return at full strength, the focus on offense shifts to running back. The Cardinal have to replace running back and all-purpose threat Christian McCaffrey. While McCaffrey’s all-around versatility is unlikely to be matched by one player, the running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett should be a capable one-two punch on the ground. Trenton Irwin (37 catches) and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (15.8 ypc) are back to lead the receiving corps, while the offensive line returns four starters, including Nate Herbig and center Jesse Burkett. Solomon Thomas is a big loss for Shaw’s defense, but the secondary should be among the best in the nation with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
The Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to edge Georgia for the division crown, improvement on offense is a must. Florida finished 100th nationally in scoring in 2015 and 107th in 2016. Luke Del Rio is the team’s most experienced quarterback and returned to practice in the fall after missing the spring due to a shoulder injury. However, Del Rio was facing an uphill battle to hold onto the starting job, as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks is the team’s most talented option under center and worked all spring as the No. 1 quarterback. Additionally, Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire joined the mix in the fall. The battle to start is expected to go deep into fall practice, with Franks and Zaire likely holding an edge over Del Rio. Until the passing game develops, the Gators could lean heavily on running back Jordan Scarlett. Antonio Callaway (suspended for the opener against Michigan) anchors the SEC’s top receiving corps and should ease Franks or Zaire's transition into the No. 1 role. The offensive line should improve even though tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator (Randy Shannon) calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, safety Marcus Maye, lineman Caleb Brantley and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson headline the key departures on defense. Despite losing a wealth of talent, this unit may not slip too far on the stat sheet. Cornerback Duke Dawson is an All-America candidate, and there’s plenty of promise in the front seven. The secondary suffered a setback over the summer as safety Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to a torn Achilles.
Related: Ranking the SEC Coaches for 2017
Kirby Smart’s debut (8-5) was a mild disappointment. But after losing three games by three points or less last season, the Bulldogs aren’t far from the top of the SEC East. With 11 returning starters on defense, and the continued development of Jacob Eason at quarterback, Georgia is Athlon’s pick to win the SEC East in 2017. Eason should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter, and the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should ensure the ground game is among the best in the nation. The question marks on offense remain up front and outside with the receiving corps. The Bulldogs could have three freshmen play a significant role on the offensive line this fall. Former No. 1 recruit Trenton Thompson had a breakout performance in the Liberty Bowl and returned to the team in the fall after he was away during the spring. Thompson provides Smart with a talented anchor to build around in the trenches and should push for All-America honors. The linebacking corps is among the nation’s best, and three seniors lead the way in the secondary. The annual showdown against Florida in Jacksonville is likely to decide whether or not the Bulldogs win the SEC East.
14. Oklahoma State
The big-play connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington is more than enough to keep Oklahoma State in the hunt for the Big 12 title next year. The Cowboys also return promising running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards), and there’s optimism the offensive line will continue to improve behind guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Zach Crabtree. The post-spring addition of Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran was a huge boost for coach Mike Gundy’s offensive line. Washington has plenty of support at receiver. Jalen McCleskey returns after leading the team with 73 catches, Marcell Ateman returns from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible in 2017. This is the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor was a setback for a unit already losing cornerback Ashton Lampkin, linebacker Jordan Burton and safety Jordan Sterns. Gundy also dipped into the graduate transfer ranks on defense, landing former Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker after spring ball. After finishing second in the conference in back-to-back years, the mission for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Big 12. To do that, the Cowboys have to navigate road trips to Texas and West Virginia but host rival Oklahoma on Nov. 4.
The Longhorns won the offseason coaching carousel by bringing Tom Herman to Austin after a successful two-year run at Houston. The former graduate assistant under Mack Brown inherits a team that finished 5-7 last year but features plenty of promising pieces to build around on both sides of the ball. Shane Buechele returns as the team’s quarterback after throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman in 2016. Freshman Sam Ehlinger pushed Buechele for the starting job in the fall, but the sophomore is expected to hold onto the top spot. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, including standout left tackle Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury, and Kyle Porter and true freshman Toneil Carter are poised to push the junior for the starting job. Sophomore Collin Johnson is expected to be the go-to target, with sophomore Devin Duvernay seeing an increased role. Improving the defense is a must for Herman, and the addition of coordinator Todd Orlando will pay dividends right away. This unit returns largely intact, but depth on the line is an issue after two players transferred in May. Linebacker Malik Jefferson seems primed to deliver a huge junior year. The schedule sets up favorably with Kansas State and Oklahoma State visiting Austin.
After facing one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate for coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers is considerably easier. A crossover game against Michigan and a road trip to Nebraska are challenging, but Wisconsin won’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State from the East. And after coming up just short in the Big Ten title game last year, can Chryst’s team take the next step this fall? In order to knock off the East champion in Indianapolis, the Badgers need more consistency out of the passing game. The good news? Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is promising, and the receiving corps features All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli. Standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk will be missed, but there’s plenty of experience and talent returning to keep the offensive line among the best in the Big Ten. The trio of Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal should be enough to compensate for the loss of running back Corey Clement. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard inherits a unit that allowed only 15.6 points per game last season. The Badgers don’t have many glaring weaknesses on this group, but linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel leave big shoes to fill. The losses at linebacker grew in fall practice after Jack Cichy suffered a season-ending knee injury. With Cichy out for the year, Leonhard will lean a little more on T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr (returning from injury). Hornibrook’s development is crucial for Wisconsin to climb higher in the top 25 this season.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a familiar question: What will LSU get out of its offense? It’s no secret the Tigers have one of the nation’s top running backs in Derrius Guice and a strong foundation to build around on the offensive line. New coordinator Matt Canada was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires for 2017, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Danny Etling had offseason back surgery but returned in time for fall practice and is expected to hold onto the starting job. Etling’s performance is critical to LSU’s hopes of pushing Alabama in the SEC West. In addition to the concerns about quarterback production, there’s also uncertainty at receiver, as just one player (D.J. Chark) returns with more than 10 catches. Depth on the offensive line is a concern for Orgeron and Canada after a couple of players departed over the offseason. LSU’s defense returns only four starters, but under coordinator Dave Aranda, this unit will be one of the best in the nation next fall. If healthy, end/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Key was nursing a shoulder injury at the start of fall camp, and his status for the opener against BYU isn't certain. Cornerback Donte Jackson should push for All-SEC honors, while talented freshmen Grant Delpit, Eric Monroe and Kary Vincent are slated for major roles. Linebacker is Aranda’s biggest concern. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers will only go as far as the quarterback play allows it to.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. However, thanks to back-to-back top-five recruiting classes, the Wolverines won’t be down for long. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a promising first year as the team’s starter. The receiving corps must be revamped, with incoming freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black likely to play a huge role in the passing game this season. The strength of the offense should be the ground game. Sophomore Chris Evans leads a talented group of running backs, with Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker and Karan Higdon providing support. The left side of the line should be anchored by Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson, but this unit did not perform well late in the 2016 campaign and remained a concern exiting spring ball. The Wolverines return only one starter – linebacker Mike McCray – on defense. But don’t expect this unit to slip on the stat sheet. Sophomore lineman Rashan Gary is a rising star, senior tackle Maurice Hurst is a candidate for All-America honors and the recent recruiting efforts should produce starting talent in the back seven. Matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State come on the road this year, but rival Ohio State visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.
The Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC. With the addition of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the offense now has a difference-maker under center to go with one of the conference’s top ground attacks. Stidham was named the starter in mid-August and possesses the arm strength and accuracy to open up the passing game downfield. He’s also surrounded by a cast of promising playmakers on the outside, including sophomore Nate Craig-Myers. Kamryn Pettway emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs after posting 1,224 yards in 2016. He’s joined by Kerryon Johnson to form one of the league’s top tandems, while the offensive line is once again a strength with the return of three starters. Kevin Steele’s defense also is in good shape for 2017. Sophomore Marlon Davidson should fill the void left behind by Carl Lawson in the trenches, while the linebacker unit is anchored by Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. Depth is an issue at safety, but cornerback Carlton Davis is one of the best in the SEC. A Week 2 road trip to Clemson is a huge opportunity to make an early statement, while contending in the West is likely to come down to an Oct. 14 road date at LSU and the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2017. But this task got a little harder in June, as coach Bob Stoops retired and handed over the keys to the program to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He's one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, but this will be Riley's first chance to be a head coach - at the age of 33. Quarterback Baker Mayfield leads the way for Oklahoma's high-powered offense. The senior has tossed 76 touchdown passes under Riley the last two years and returns as one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Mayfield is supported by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but question marks surround the receiving corps after losing Dede Westbrook. Who steps up to be the No. 1 receiver? Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet, senior Jeffery Mead and tight end Mark Andrews round out the top targets for Mayfield this fall. Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon leave big shoes to fill at running back, but Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams should be an effective one-two punch. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Additionally, this unit is moving to a 4-3 scheme. Linebacker Jordan Evans was a big loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expired their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor a secondary that showed improvement late in the 2016 season. Spring star Parnell Motley and the development of sophomore Jordan Parker adds to the talent on the back end. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
The defending national champs are due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. However, as the No. 7 ranking indicates, Clemson is still one of the top contenders to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Considering the amount of talent leaving Death Valley – quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and running back Wayne Gallman – it’s a testament to the job coach Dabo Swinney has done on the recruiting trail and in overall program development. A three-man competition to replace Watson is expected to extend deep into fall workouts. Junior Kelly Bryant is the front-runner and is the likely starter in the opener, but true freshman Hunter Johnson is the name to remember. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors a line that could be the best in the ACC this fall. While Williams and Artavis Scott will be missed on the outside, the receiving corps is still one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow. Similar to the offense, the defense has a couple of voids to fill this offseason. However, coordinator Brent Venables should quickly find the right answers to keep this unit performing at a high level. Ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph are the anchors on defense next year. If Bryant, Johnson or Zerrick Cooper settles into the starting job, the Nov. 11 home game against Florida State could decide the ACC Atlantic title.
6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. After just missing on a CFB Playoff berth last year, coach James Franklin’s team won’t have to go far in order to crack the top four. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin left for the NFL draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki is a go-to target for McSorley and an All-America candidate for 2017. Even though Godwin is a big loss, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). Additionally, sophomore Juwan Johnson had a breakout spring and is poised to take on a bigger role in 2017. An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time in 2016. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent. However, top cornerback John Reid was lost for the year due to a spring knee injury. True freshman Lamont Wade is expected to be an impact addition for the secondary in 2017. One of Pry’s top offseason concerns is at defensive end following the departures of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Coaches for 2017
Thanks to the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold, USC should be a playoff contender in 2017. Darnold’s play was a big reason why the Trojans showed marked improvement after starting 1-3 last season. As a redshirt freshman last year, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold is good enough to carry this team to a Pac-12 title on his own, but the supporting cast features a likely All-Pac-12 running back in Ronald Jones, as well as a solid group of receivers. The biggest concern on offense remains up front. Standout tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner expired their eligibility, and guard Damien Mama left early for the next level. Projected starters Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao are recovering from injuries but will return for the start of the season. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast proved to be one of the top assistant hires of last offseason, as USC’s defense limited opponents to 24.2 points per game despite major question marks in the front seven. Pendergast will have a solid core in place for 2017, but tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson decided to leave early for the NFL. This unit features an All-America candidate at linebacker in junior Cameron Smith, along with rising stars Rasheem Green (DL) and Iman Marshall (CB). The schedule features its share of challenges, starting with games against Stanford and Texas in September, along with road trips to Washington State, Notre Dame and Colorado. USC's starting unit is good enough to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. However, this team has some depth concerns that could come into focus with a few injuries.
Even though Chris Petersen has to replace a few key cogs from last season’s playoff team, Washington is primed for another run at the Pac-12 title and spot among the nation’s top four teams. Quarterback Jake Browning is back after throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season, but the junior has to find a new go-to target after the departure of receiver John Ross to the NFL. Dante Pettis (53 catches) moves into the No. 1 role, while the Huskies will be counting on bigger contributions from Chico McClatcher, Ty Jones, Aaron Fuller and Quentin Pounds in the receiving corps. True freshman running back Salvon Ahmed had a strong debut in fall practice and should push for snaps as an all-purpose player. The one-two punch of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman provides plenty of balance and support on offense out of the backfield, while three starters are back on a standout line. The biggest concerns for a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff rest with a defense that loses standout safety Budda Baker, cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and lineman Elijah Qualls. However, coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of the best in the nation, and this unit is anchored by standout senior linebacker Azeem Victor. Junior Vita Vea leads the way up front, while the rebuilding effort in the secondary should be minimized thanks to the emergence of cornerbacks Jordan Miller, Austin Joyner and Byron Murphy, along with the return of rising star Taylor Rapp at safety. The schedule also sets up for anotherplayoff berth. Washington does not play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon and Washington State. A trip to Stanford on Nov. 10 is the team’s toughest road test.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2017
3. Florida State
The balance of power in the ACC should shift back to Tallahassee in 2017. The Seminoles return nine starters from a defense that showed marked improvement over the second half of last year, and safety Derwin James is back after missing nearly all of 2016 due to a knee injury. James is arguably the best defender in college football. The line is overflowing with talent, as ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns anchor a standout pass rush, and tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas plug the interior. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in an impressive freshman debut in 2016. Now as a sophomore, Francois is expected to take his game to the next level and help carry this team to a CFB Playoff berth. That’s certainly within reach for the sophomore, but he also needs more help from the offensive line and receiving corps. Receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate are primed for breakout seasons as the top targets for Francois. The big-play ability and production of running back Dalvin Cook will be missed. However, junior Jacques Patrick and five-star recruit Cam Akers are a capable tandem and should prevent any drop-off in ground game. Florida State will be tested right away with a matchup against Alabama in Atlanta to open the season. The Seminoles host Miami, NC State and Louisville in key conference games, but a matchup at Clemson and a road date at Florida will determine whether or not Fisher’s team can finish in the top four. If Florida State drops the opener against the Crimson Tide, can Fisher's team afford a loss in ACC play and still make the CFB Playoff? Considering the strength of schedule for the Seminoles' 2017 slate, two losses (with an ACC Championship) should still be enough to earn a spot in the playoff.
2. Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returned only six starters headed into 2016, a trip to the College Football Playoff was probably a year ahead of schedule for coach Urban Meyer’s team. Despite losing a few key pieces from last season’s team, the Buckeyes are primed for another run at the national title. In an effort to jumpstart the offense, coach Urban Meyer hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the play-calling duties. Wilson’s arrival is good news for quarterback J.T. Barrett, as the senior begins 2017 as one of the leading Heisman candidates. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL draft. Junior Parris Campbell and sophomore Demario McCall are two players to watch in the passing game this fall. Running back Mike Weber leads the way on the ground after rushing for 1,096 yards last fall, but true freshman D.K. Dobbins will be tough to keep on the sidelines. The offensive line loses standout center Pat Elflein, but guard Billy Price is expected to slide to the middle to fill the void. The strength of the defense will be in the trenches. This unit is headlined by All-America candidates Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa, and rivals Clemson as the best in college football. Raekwon McMillan will be missed at linebacker, but Jerome Baker, Chris Worley and Dante Booker form a solid trio. For the second preseason in a row, uncertainty surrounds the Ohio State secondary. This unit lost cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker to the NFL. However, thanks to elite recruiting classes, the drop-off should be minimal. Junior college recruit Kendall Sheffield and incoming freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade should make an instant impact, with junior Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb back as the unit’s top veterans. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team must replace a few key players from last season, but the Crimson Tide are once again the pick to win it all in 2017. The defense suffered key losses at each level, yet still figures to rank as the nation’s top unit. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand are the new leaders up front after Jonathan Allen expired his eligibility. The linebacker unit features three new starters, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge for the Crimson Tide. Seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans lead this group for Saban, with Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings slated to pick up the slack left behind by edge rushers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. True freshman Dylan Moses is another name to watch in this unit. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Marlon Humphrey departed early to the NFL, but seniors Anthony Averett and Tony Brown and converted receiver Trevon Diggs return at cornerback. The safety pairing of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison is the best in college football. Fitzpatrick’s versatility to play cornerback or safety is a huge asset for this defense. New play-caller Brian Daboll isn’t expected to make too many changes on offense, but he is tasked with helping quarterback Jalen Hurts develop more as a passer. Hurts’ dual-threat ability is no secret after rushing for just under 1,000 yards last fall. But the sophomore must become more consistent as a passer for this offense to improve in 2017. Hurts will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Junior Calvin Ridley will challenge for All-America honors, with seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster and freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III rounding out the key targets. Left tackle Jonah Williams anchors one of the nation’s best offensive lines, and the running back position is the deepest in college football. Bo Scarbrough came on strong at the end of 2016, and he’s joined by Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star freshman Najee Harris as the key backfield pieces. Making it through the regular season undefeated won’t be easy, but Alabama is Athlon’s pick to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
We’ve officially passed the halfway mark for the NFL season and parity might be the operative word this year given how many teams still look like they can make a second-half surge toward a Lombardi Trophy.
Doing as much as one can to sort through all that and factoring in everything from overall roster strength, to quarterback play, to the coaching staff, here is the latest edition of NFL power rankings and where every team stacks up from 1 to 32.
Week 11 NFL Power Rankings
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Last week: 1
The best bye weeks are ones where you have a week off as the best team in the league. Given events elsewhere in the NFL on Sunday, the Eagles may even be able to all but wrap up the division with a win over Dallas next week.
2. New England Patriots
Last week: 3
Those defensive woes seem to be a thing of the past as they’ve run off five straight and not given up more than 17 points at the same time. Given how weak the schedule is coming up, the biggest concern for the Pats might be not getting tested much late in the year outside of that trip to Pittsburgh.
3. New Orleans Saints
Last week: 5
The hottest team in the NFL has a good case that they are the best one and right there with the Eagles as the NFC favorites. Being able to play defense and run the ball always translates when the pressure of January rolls around and that’s not even bringing up the veteran quarterback who must enjoy being part of this ride.
4. Los Angeles Rams
Last week: 4
At this point, the NFC West is the Rams’ division to lose but we’ll find out if the team is capable of more in the postseason with fellow NFC contenders Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia upcoming. Those are measuring stick games and L.A. looks a lot more dangerous in them than most expected.
5. Minnesota Vikings
Last week: 6
The interceptions put a damper on the win but that was still a heck of a performance from Case Keenum on the road at Washington. Even with Teddy Bridgewater back on the sidelines, it’s pretty clear who should be under center as the starter going forward for one of the heavy division favorites.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last week: 2
Was Pittsburgh looking way ahead to that meeting with the Titans on Thursday night? Seemed like it given how they simply showed up expecting to roll over the Colts but did nothing of the sort. At least they eked out the victory in the end but that’s not an encouraging look given how the rest of the playoff contenders keep getting better.
7. Kansas City Chiefs
Last week: 8
The bye week came at the perfect time for the Chiefs to regroup after losing three of their last four. The next month offers a great opportunity to get back in the home-field advantage race, but Kansas City will need to play better if it wants to secure the wins needed against a week slate.
8. Carolina Panthers
Last week: 9
Not sure we learned much from that Monday night game against an already lackluster Miami team but it was certainly important for the Panthers to keep pace in the NFC South and in the win column. The passing game doesn’t seem like it’s still firing on all cylinders, which is a concern down the stretch for Cam Newton and company even if the defense looks to be Super Bowl-caliber.
9. Tennessee Titans
Last week: 11
Seemed like the team took its foot off the pedal a little in the second half but it’s a good thing Marcus Mariota (above, right) has ice in his veins to lead that comeback in the final minutes. The Titans will need to be much more consistent on Thursday night if they want to remain atop the division however.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last week: 12
Jaguars fans probably weren’t thinking about a win the way things were trending late against the Chargers but somehow this team gutted out a victory to remain in the AFC South race. Their plus-92 point differential is fourth best in the league.
11. Dallas Cowboys
Last week: 14
It was coaching malpractice what Jason Garrett did against the Falcons. Tyron Smith is clearly a much bigger loss than the Cowboys’ star tailback but not making any adjustments to that fact is a lot worse than that loss.
12. Seattle Seahawks
Last week: 10
That win over Arizona was a costly one in terms of personnel, with the biggest blow being Richard Sherman is lost for the year. We’ll find out if this team can rally and remain in the thick of the NFC chase the next two weeks against two of the league’s best.
13. Detroit Lions
Last week: 13
It kind of felt like the Lions were sleepwalking early on against the Browns before finally taking control. They’ve got several chances the rest of the month to get back into the division and wild-card races but Detroit needs a much better effort than what it had at home on Sunday.
14. Atlanta Falcons
Last week: 17
That game against the Cowboys was the best performance all season for the defending NFC champs and the Falcons’ most complete win in ages. While they probably won’t get that kind of performance from Adrian Clayborn ever again, the pass rush coming alive is a good sign going forward.
15. Washington Redskins
Last week: 14
You have to admire the way the team continued to battle in the second half against the Vikings but it’s pretty apparent that the depth chart is just too depleted to keep pace with some of the league’s best.
16. Oakland Raiders
Last week: 16
The bye week offered a nice opportunity to break ground on the new stadium in Las Vegas before heading to Mexico City. Whether that little bit of extra rest will be enough to slow down the Patriots next Sunday seems like a stretch though.
17. Baltimore Ravens
Last week: 18
We’ll see if the bye week provided any answers or, more importantly, any more healthy bodies for John Harbaugh’s squad. The next few games are winnable and it seems like the AFC is open enough that a turnaround to reach the postseason isn’t quite out the picture yet.
18. Buffalo Bills
Last week: 15
It’s one thing to lose to the hottest team in football, it’s another to get trucked by them after having extra rest. Now that once likely playoff spot is looking quite perilous, especially with a tough road stretch coming up out west.
19. Green Bay Packers
Last week: 26
That was a tricky spot for the Packers and their fresh-faced quarterback but Brett Hundley looked like old No. 12 against the Bears to keep this team afloat and possibly looking for more going forward. The injuries at tailback are starting to mount however and running the ball is a must for this team to win.
20. Miami Dolphins
Last week: 19
Somehow this team is still in the playoff hunt despite having precious little offense and a defense that is getting worn down each game. That probably says more about the middle of the AFC than the Dolphins.
21. Denver Broncos
Last week: 20
We know the offense — especially the quarterback — has provided no relief but what has happened to that once fearsome Broncos defense? That’s back-to-back games of giving up 40-plus points, to say nothing of the special teams woes that have become a part of this awful five-game losing streak.
22. Los Angeles Chargers
Last week: 22
It’s almost like it’s in the Chargers’ DNA to find ways to lose. Getting an interception with less than 90 seconds left in a game would normally result in a win but this team somehow managed to lose in overtime and get quarterback Philip Rivers into the concussion protocol.
23. Arizona Cardinals
Last week: 21
Larry Fitzgerald remains an ageless wonder and you could see that clear as day as he caught passes from Drew Stanton. Adrian Peterson’s resurgence seemed to hit a speed bump on Thursday night but the Cardinals can only hope that’s a one week thing on short rest.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last week: 27
The Ryan Fitzpatrick revenge game was ugly and borderline unwatchable but when you’re on a five-game losing streak, you’ll take wins any way you can.
25. New York Jets
Last week: 23
It’s not every week when New York has an opportunity to capture a road win but that game down in Tampa was an opportunity the team allowed to slip out of their hands with some bad play in the second half.
26. Chicago Bears
Last week: 24
Coming off a bye, at home, against your rival and a backup quarterback is the definition of a must-win game. The Bears instead laid an egg and showed why the coaching staff is likely out at the end of the year.
27. Houston Texans
Last week: 25
The good news is DeAndre Hopkins remains fun to watch play football. The bad news is the rest of the Texans, especially the quarterback, are not at all fun to watch play football.
28. Cincinnati Bengals
Last week: 28
Another game the Bengals should have won, but didn’t down in Nashville. Add in some mounting injuries and there’s just not a ton to enjoy about watching this team every Sunday.
29. Indianapolis Colts
Last week: 29
You could just tell that the Steelers were going through the motions and were going to eventually mount a rally to beat the Colts. While you can’t fault Indy’s energy every Sunday, the fact is this roster (and coaching staff) just isn’t any good.
30. San Francisco 49ers
Last week: 31
Kyle Shanahan finally picks up that elusive first victory and it was an all-around solid performance across the board to beat the Giants. The only downside is the 49ers now lose the tie-breaker with the Giants when it comes to the draft.
31. New York Giants
Last week: 30
If it wasn’t clear before Sunday, this is a team that has flat out quit on their coaching staff. That was some of the worst effort you will see in professional football players against the 49ers and the only bright side is that the upcoming housecleaning will have high draft picks to work with.
32. Cleveland Browns
Last week: 32
A surprisingly solid effort for three quarters but plays like that one right before halftime and down the stretch in the fourth quarter indicate that this team may have to hit the reset button once again after the season.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Midweek MACtion continues on Wednesday night, as Miami (Ohio) looks to keep its bowl hopes alive with a victory over the visiting Eastern Michigan Eagles. The bowl picture across the college football landscape is starting to clear, and with a couple of conferences expected to fall short on producing enough eligible teams, a 6-6 Miami (Ohio) squad could find its way into the postseason for the second year in a row under coach Chuck Martin. Eastern Michigan’s bowl hopes evaporated in last week’s turnover-filled 42-30 loss to Central Michigan. However, coach Chris Creighton’s team can still finish the year on a high note with a win over Miami, along with the finale against Bowling Green.
Miami (Ohio) was projected by some to win the MAC East this year, but Martin’s team has been derailed by an injury to starting quarterback Gus Ragland, as well as bad luck in losses. The RedHawks lost by four to Cincinnati after an interception was returned for a score with just over a minute left, was defeated by three at Kent State and lost by eight after Ragland was injured against Bowling Green. While Martin’s team hasn’t quite met preseason expectations, a win over Eastern Michigan and a victory against Ball State in the finale would get this team to six wins for the second year in a row.
Eastern Michigan is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but this program is headed in the right direction under Creighton. The Eagles went 3-21 in Creighton’s first two years in Ypsilanti but finished 7-6 with the program’s first bowl trip since 1987 last season. While Eastern Michigan’s record (3-7) is a setback, this team has lost all seven of its games by 12 points or less.
Miami holds an 18-4 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The RedHawks have claimed nine in a row over the Eagles. Eastern Michigan hasn’t won in Oxford since 1993.
Eastern Michigan at Miami (Ohio)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Miami (Ohio) -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Eastern Michigan’s Passing Attack
Led by senior quarterback Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan’s passing game ranks as one of the best in the MAC. The Eagles are third in the conference, averaging 269.5 yards a game this season. Roback is the catalyst for this offense and should be in the mix for All-MAC honors this December, as he’s passed for 2,546 yards and 16 scores through 10 starts in 2017. Additionally, Roback is completing 60.6 percent of his throws and has eclipsed 300 yards three times in MAC play. Helping Roback’s cause on the outside is a deep group of receivers, with Sergio Bailey (47 catches) and Antoine Porter (40) the primary targets. Johnnie Niupalau (27), Mathew Sexton (22) and Jaron Johnson (22) are a few other receivers for Roback to target on Wednesday night.
While Roback is one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks and hasn’t had trouble piling up yardage, Eastern Michigan is only seventh in the MAC in scoring (25.2 ppg). Turnovers and the inability to convert third downs are two reasons for that total, but the rushing attack is also worth mentioning. The Eagles only average 3.4 yards per rush and have managed just 10 rushing scores this year. Creighton's offense is 11th in the MAC in rushing attempts, but with a sluggish ground game, the hopes of a road win on Wednesday night are going to rest on Roback's right arm.
Miami’s defense has been one of the toughest in the MAC against the pass, so this unit figures to give Roback some trouble on Wednesday night. The RedHawks are led by a veteran secondary, with two seniors – safety Tony Reid and cornerback Heath Harding – leading the way. Miami ranks fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and no opponent has managed to eclipse 300 passing yards against this secondary. Additionally, the RedHawks showed signs of life in the trenches last week, as the pass rush registered six sacks against Akron. Through 10 games, Miami is only giving up 25.5 points a game.
Will Roback find ways to consistently push the ball downfield against Miami’s secondary? Or will the RedHawks keep Roback in long-yardage situations and contain Eastern Michigan’s offense on third downs?
2. Gus Ragland’s Return and Miami’s Offense
After sitting out three games due to an injury suffered against Bowling Green, Ragland made his return to the Miami lineup in last week’s win over Akron. The junior had to knock off a little rust but finished the night by connecting on 17 of 30 throws for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Ragland tossed two picks but also added 21 rushing yards on three carries.
With a game under his belt, and presumably healthier with another week to heal, expect Ragland to be sharp versus Eastern Michigan. But the Eagles will present some challenges for Martin’s offense. Eastern Michigan ranks third in the MAC with 24 sacks generated and is second in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 22.5 points a game. The Eagles are allowing 5.14 yards per play but won’t give up much in the way of big gains. Eastern Michigan has allowed only eight plays of 40 yards or more in 2017. This unit is also fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered only 13 scores via the air in 2017.
In addition to Ragland, Miami boasts one of the MAC’s top receivers in junior James Gardner (44 catches for 886 yards and 10 scores), along with tight end Ryan Smith (30). The ground game is in good hands with Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith, who have combined for 1,291 rushing yards this season. Protecting Ragland will be critical against Eastern Michigan’s pass rush, and so far in MAC play, the RedHawks have allowed only six sacks. If Miami protects Ragland, with Gardner and Young delivering a couple of big plays (something this offense has struggled to do in 2017), the Eagles will face an uphill battle in trying to keep this offense in check.
Considering both teams have lost most of their games in close fashion, Wednesday night’s matchup should be decided by a couple of points. And with a tight game expected, one factor could make a big difference on the scoreboard: Turnovers. Unfortunately both teams, this area has been problematic all year.
Miami checks in ninth in the MAC with a minus-four margin, while Eastern Michigan is tied for 10th in the conference at minus-five. The Eagles have lost 19 turnovers, compared to 16 from the RedHawks. These numbers don’t look any better when only conference games are included, as both teams are again near the bottom of the MAC.
Interestingly enough, Miami has been minus-two in turnover margin in four out of their last six games this season. Eastern Michigan has not posted a margin higher than plus-one this season and went minus-four in last week’s loss to Central Michigan.
As simple as it sounds, whichever team does a better job of taking care of the ball and limiting the giveaways on offense is probably going to win this game.
Eastern Michigan’s bad luck in close games will end at some point, but Miami should be motivated with a bowl trip still a possibility. This matchup features two of the MAC’s top quarterbacks, and Roback and Ragland should combine for their share of fireworks. These two teams are relatively even on the stat sheet for defense, so this one will likely come down to whichever offense is able to generate a few big plays and avoid the turnover bug. The guess here is Ragland outduels Roback, as Miami improves to 5-6 and keeps its bowl hopes alive for another week.
Prediction: Miami (Ohio) 31, Eastern Michigan 24
(Gus Ragland photo courtesy of www.miamiredhawks.com)
When the newest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday, the top four are likely to consist of some combination of Alabama, Miami, Oklahoma and Clemson, with Wisconsin and Georgia the first two teams left out.
Since all six teams have no more than one loss, all six seemingly control their own destiny. Win every remaining game, and they’re probably in. Lose, and things get murky. And with just three weeks to go before the playoff field is set, the “what if” scenarios are in full swing.
Either Alabama or Georgia is guaranteed to lose before the final rankings are revealed. An Alabama loss to Auburn would keep the Crimson Tide out of the SEC Championship Game, and two-loss Auburn could very well jump its archrivals and into the playoff. A loss to either the Tide or Tigers in Atlanta (or Kentucky or Georgia Tech for that matter) would end Georgia’s hopes after last week’s ugly loss in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Elsewhere, the playoff committee has already expressed its concerns over Wisconsin’s strength of schedule, which means a loss to either Michigan or Minnesota could doom the Badgers’ playoff hopes regardless of what happens in the Big Ten Championship Game. A Sooners loss in the revived Big 12 Championship Game would likely cost the league its hopes of a playoff bid, and if Clemson falls to an undefeated Miami squad in the ACC Championship Game, the defending national champions would surely be left out as well.
If chaos truly breaks loose, it could create an opportunity for a two-loss team to sneak into the final four. Looking ahead, and taking into account the worst-case scenario for the teams above, here are the current two-loss teams ranked based on their likelihood of earning a playoff bid.
Record: 8-2 (6-1 SEC)
AP Ranking: 6
Best Wins: 40–17 vs. Georgia, 49-10 vs. Mississippi State
Losses: 14-6 at Clemson, 27-23 at LSU
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. ULM, Nov. 25 vs. Alabama, *Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia
Thanks to the overall strength of its remaining schedule, specifically the Iron Bowl against potential No. 1 Alabama (which will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium), which would earn the Tigers a rematch against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn has the best chance of any two-loss team to sneak into the College Football Playoff.
If Auburn wins out, it would pick up two more wins over top-10 opponents, a conference title, and also own a head-to-head “tiebreaker” with a one-loss Alabama squad. The Crimson Tide might still make it into the final four depending on how the other Power 5 conference shake out, but Auburn would almost assuredly be the higher ranked of the two. Auburn almost controls its destiny. It appears the only scenario in which the SEC champion Tigers wouldn’t make it to the playoff would be if Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Clemson all win their respective conferences with the Tigers picking up a close win over a previously undefeated Miami squad in the ACC title game, keeping the Hurricanes in the playoff picture.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
AP Ranking: 9
Best Wins: 38-18 at Michigan State, 49-14 vs. USC, 35-14 vs. NC State
Losses: 20-19 vs. Georgia, 41-8 at Miami
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Navy, Nov. 25 at Stanford
Notre Dame is the only team on our list with three victories over teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25, and though the Fighting Irish were completely outclassed Saturday on the road against Miami, losses to the undefeated Hurricanes and old No. 1 Georgia are the most forgivable of the group. The Irish also have two tough remaining games against a pesky Navy squad and on the road at Stanford, which should help offset the lack of a conference championship game. If Auburn falls short of its bid, and Oklahoma, Clemson and Wisconsin lose again, Notre Dame would have a strong case to be the No. 4 seed.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 8
Best Wins: 39-38 vs. Penn State, 48-3 vs. Michigan State
Losses: 31-16 vs. Oklahoma, 55-28 at Iowa
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Illinois, Nov. 25 at Michigan, *Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin
Ohio State has two very impressive wins over Penn State and Michigan State, and has an opportunity to pick up two more by beating Michigan in the regular season finale and Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. The loss to Oklahoma is forgivable; the loss to an unranked Iowa squad could be difficult to overcome. If both Auburn and Notre Dame win out, the loss to the Hawkeyes likely erases any path to the playoff for Ohio State.
4. TCU Horned Frogs
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big 12)
AP Ranking: 11
Best Wins: 44-31 at Oklahoma State, 31-24 vs. West Virginia
Losses: 14-7 at Iowa State, 38-20 at Oklahoma
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 at Texas Tech, Nov. 24 vs. Baylor
TCU gave up 38 points in the first half of Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma, but the Horned Frogs shut out Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield after that to keep the final score respectable. The 44-31 victory over Oklahoma State earlier this season gives TCU the tiebreaker over the Cowboys and a win over the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game would be a big step towards a playoff spot.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big 12)
AP Ranking: 10
Best Wins: 50-39 at West Virginia, 49-42 at Iowa State
Losses: 44-31 vs. TCU, 62-52 vs. Oklahoma
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Kansas State, Nov. 25 vs. Kansas, *Dec. 2 Big 12 Championship Game vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma State needs quite a few dominoes to fall to get back into the playoff hunt, but hope remains in Stillwater. Should TCU lose to either Texas Tech or Baylor, the Cowboys would have an opportunity to avenge its Bedlam loss. Unfortunately, a win over the hated Sooners in the Big 12 title game might not be enough.
6. Washington State Cougars
Record: 9-2 (6-2 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 15
Best Wins: 30-27 vs. USC, 24-21 vs. Stanford
Losses: 37-3 at Cal, 58-37 at Arizona
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 25 at Washington, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
Two teams on our list are currently ranked higher in the AP Poll, and Washington State has arguably the most inexcusable loss of the group (the 37-3 turnover-fest on Friday the 13th in Berkeley), but don’t count the Cougars out of the playoff mix just yet. Mike Leach and company have a bye week to prepare for the Apple Cup, which gives Washington State an advantage ahead of the upcoming trip to Seattle. A win over the Huskies would secure the Pac-12 North title, and the Cougars would then have an opportunity to beat USC for the second time. With an 11-2 record, a conference title, and at least three wins over teams ranked in the top 15, Washington State would have a solid resume – especially since the committee has been known to reward big wins more than penalize ugly losses. If the Cougs get enough breaks elsewhere, they could sneak into the committee’s final four.
7. USC Trojans
Record: 9-2 (7-1 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 12
Best Wins: 42-24 vs. Stanford, 49-35 vs. Arizona
Losses: 30-23 at Washington State, 49-14 at Notre Dame
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 25 vs. UCLA, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. Washington State/Washington/Stanford
A preseason playoff contender, there’s still an outside shot for USC to make it into the final four. The 49-14 loss to Notre Dame is an ugly blemish on the resume, but the Trojans have two wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 and there’s a chance to pick up another in the Pac-12 title game. USC needs a lot of help (including another Notre Dame loss and chaos in the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12) but hope is not lost yet.
8. Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 13
Best Wins: 42-13 vs. Michigan, 31-7 at Northwestern
Losses: 39-38 at Ohio State, 27-24 at Michigan State
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Nebraska, Nov. 25 at Maryland
Other than Michigan State, Penn State was the biggest loser after Ohio State destroyed the Spartans Saturday. Yes, the Nittany Lions needed the Buckeyes to lose to put themselves in a better position to sneak into the Big Ten Championship Game, but the lopsided score makes Penn State’s 27-24 loss in the rain in East Lansing much worse than it did at the time. James Franklin’s team has two wins over teams currently ranked in the Top 25, and with slumping Nebraska and Maryland on the schedule to end the season, there’s a great chance Penn State finishes 10-2. However, the Nittany Lions need a lot of help to win – most notably an Ohio State loss – and it’s there’s no way Penn State would earn a spot in the final four without winning the conference title.
9. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Big Ten)
AP Ranking: 19
Best Wins: 33-17 vs. Florida, 33-10 vs. Minnesota
Losses: 14-10 vs. Michigan State, 42-13 at Penn State
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 at Wisconsin, Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State, *Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin
Did you forget about Michigan? We basically wrote off the Wolverines after they were blown out by Penn State, and it’s absolutely worth noting Jim Harbaugh’s squad hasn’t beaten a team that currently owns a winning record. Nevertheless, Michigan is actually in a similar situation to Auburn. If the Wolverines can get by Wisconsin and Ohio State over the next two weekends, Michigan would have a much improved resume. The Wolverines are still on the outside looking in in the Big Ten East Division, but if Michigan is can find a way to make it to Detroit, it’s very possible the team could finish with the momentum of three straight victories over top-10 opponents.
10. Washington Huskies
Record: 8-2 (5-2 Pac-12)
AP Ranking: 16
Best Wins: 38-3 vs. Oregon, 48-16 vs. Fresno State
Losses: 13-7 at Arizona State, 30-22 at Stanford
Remaining Schedule: Nov. 18 vs. Utah, Nov. 25 at Washington State, *Dec. 1 Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
Last week, Washington appeared to be an underrated College Football Playoff candidate quietly building momentum. Had the Huskies beaten Stanford Friday night, Chris Petersen’s team would likely be no worse than No. 6 in Tuesday’s playoff rankings with a great opportunity to move into the top four once the other conference races played out. But a 30-22 loss to the Cardinal now means Washington must rely on an unlikely Cal upset of Stanford to have any chance of winning the Pac-12 North. The Huskies also have zero wins over teams ranked in the Top 25, and both losses came against currently unranked opponents. As a result, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Huskies finish the season with the best resume among two-loss teams.
*Conference championship games to be determined
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Much is made of each game holding such great importance during the college football season. But everyone knows that games in November carry a little extra weight.
For Notre Dame, the second to last month has been very unkind for many years. From Bob Davie and his 11-7 record to Tyrone Willingham (6-5) through Charlie Weis (10-11 with losses in eight of his last nine), November has been sheer misery for the Irish football program.
When Brian Kelly was hired, though, there initially seemed to be a change. In his first game in November as the ND head coach, the Irish upset No. 15 Utah on their way to a 3-0 end to the regular season. After Kelly's first three years at the helm, Notre Dame was 11-1 in November. Though a case could be made that they were not playing their best football at the close of either 2011 or '12, 11-1 was 11-1 and considering what had occurred in November the previous 13 years, there was little room for complaint.
But following the run to the title game in 2012, Notre Dame regressed back to struggling when the calendar changes to November. There were four straight losses to end the 2014 season and last year’s disaster saw a 1-3 record in the regular season’s final month. With the loss to Miami on Saturday night, the Irish are now 8-11 in over the past four-plus Novembers.
A couple of things make the recent recession even more troubling. First, many of the eight wins have felt unsatisfying. In 2013, sitting at 6-2 with a chance to climb up the rankings the week after drilling Air Force, Notre Dame opened November by struggling to get by another option team in Navy. The next week the Irish lost at Pitt. It was Navy again in 2014 that gave them trouble in a game following the tight loss to No. 2 Florida State. And uninspired performances against Wake Forest and Boston College only hurt Notre Dame’s stock in 2015.
Also, in 2015 and again this year, Notre Dame was in great position to make a run at the College Football Playoff when as October came to a close. But both times, with everything on the line, the Irish fell flat in November and were eliminated from the chase.
Kelly made significant changes to the staff this year and the hope was that 2017 would be different. Specifically, the alteration of the strength and conditioning program was supposed to make the Irish a stronger team mentally and physically both at the end of games and the end of the year. With their lackluster defensive performance against Wake Forest and the egg that was laid in Miami, the early results are not positive.
But let’s not close the book just yet. How this team responds the rest of the way will go a long way in determining the direction of the Notre Dame football program. Do the Irish hang their heads now that they are out of playoff contention? Does that lead to a middling effort against Navy and a loss at Stanford, putting them in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida, or the like? Or do they respond angry, much like Ohio State did this past Saturday, winning both games and closing with a big victory in a New Year’s Six Bowl?
The Irish will not be winning the national title this year. But how they finish their most irritating month will set the perception of Notre Dame going forward.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
Heading into Week 11, the waiver wire has players that can fill in some gaps in fantasy rosters as the end of the season nears. For many owners, only three weeks remain in the regular season, so this is the time to be sure that your roster no longer has dead weight. The players on your team should be those with potential. If someone has been hanging on your bench for weeks and isn't shown anything (Danny Amendola, Martavis Bryant), drop them for someone that is starting to get hot or coming off injury that may help your team.
Teams on bye: Carolina, Indianapolis, New York Jets, San Francisco
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (31 percent owned)
The matchup is primarily what lands Bortles on this list. Because the Jags’ defense has been so solid this year, Bortles hasn't had a lot of the garbage time, which helped his fantasy production last year. He's kept the team in the game, and the running game is more effective than it has been in years past as well. In Week 11, the Jaguars face the Cleveland Browns, who allow the eighth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. In Week 10, they allowed Matthew Stafford to throw for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings (17 percent owned)
With the threat of Teddy Bridgewater looming, Keenum played what may have been the best game of his career in Week 10. He threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns (did have two INTs), his second 300-yard game of the season. The Vikings do face the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11, which is a tougher matchup. The Rams have only allowed one quarterback to throw for 300 yards (Brian Hoyer in Week 3) and only one quarterback to throw for three touchdowns (Dak Prescott, Week 4). However, Keenum is a QB2 streaming option.
Rex Burkhead, RB, New England Patriots (11 percent owned)
With Chris Hogan sidelined (and Mike Gillislee a healthy scratch), the Patriots turned to Burkhead to help move the ball. He had three targets and he caught all of them for 27 yards and a touchdown. He had 10 carries for 36 yards as well. Without the touchdown, his numbers obviously wouldn't look as good, but the reality is the Patriots are going to involve him in the offense. In PPR formats, he's a RB3 with upside.
Elijah McGuire, RB, New York Jets (8 percent owned)
Fantasy owners likely won't need to put in a waiver claim for McGuire, but he should be picked up once waivers end and free agency is open. The Jets have a bye in Week 11, but assuming Matt Forte is still out following that bye week, McGuire has RB2 value. Bilal Powell has been fading and is hard to trust. Both backs will get work, but in Week 10, McGuire was certainly more involved in the passing game. PPR owners may want to make a speculative add on McGuire.
Jamaal Williams, RB, Green Bay Packers (7 percent owned)
Aaron Jones, the Packers’ running back who seemed to be the best of the group, went down with a knee injury in Week 10. It was revealed as an MCL injury, and he will likely miss the remainder of the fantasy season. Ty Montgomery was the next man up, but he left the Week 10 game with a rib injury. Fantasy owners remember him dealing with rib injuries all season, so he may miss time as well. Williams is worth an add in all formats. He's not a very good running back, but he will be a starter on a team that will run the ball. He faces the Ravens in Week 11.
Samaje Perine, RB, Washington Redskins (7 percent owned)
Perine has likely been added and dropped many times in fantasy leagues. Rob Kelley left the game with what looked like an injury that will cost him multiple weeks. Fantasy owners have been here before. Kelley has missed time and Perine was supposed to step up and has yet to. He's only been given double-digit carries twice. He has one touchdown on the season, but overall has been disappointing. He's a RB3 for Week 11 at New Orleans.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans (48 percent owned)
Davis led the team in targets with 10 in Week 10. He only caught four of them, but almost had a touchdown, which would make his stat line significantly better. The Titans are clearly trying to get him the ball as often as they can. This was only his second game back after not playing since Week 2 with a hamstring injury. He was likely dropped in most leagues, but now could return WR3 value.
Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns (22 percent owned)
The Browns have said that Coleman will play in Week 11, so fantasy owners should take note. While it isn't a great matchup against Jacksonville, he'll immediately step in as the No. 1 receiver on a team that is still searching for a win. DeShone Kizer needs someone to throw the ball to and make plays and that's Coleman. He has potential to be a WR2 down the stretch.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, San Francisco 49ers (15 percent owned)
The 49ers are searching for playmakers and Goodwin certainly can do that. While many have heard the heartbreaking story involving his family, those who saw his touchdown run in Week 10 also saw his playmaking ability. He had one reception in Week 10, but it was for an 83-yard touchdown. He's the No. 1 receiver in San Francisco, but that only translates to WR3 value. He's on a bye in Week 11, but may be worth an add in deeper leagues.
Dontrelle Inman, WR, Chicago Bears (2 percent owned)
With eight targets in Week 10, Inman tied for the team high. He ended up with the most receptions (six) and the most yards (88) on the team. While he’s more relevant in deeper leagues, he may have some WR3 value down the stretch. Mitchell Trubisky isn't throwing a ton, but he does need players to throw to, and Inman is shaping up to be a viable receiver in Chicago.
Charles Clay, TE, Buffalo Bills (43 percent owned)
Clay's first game back from a knee injury was a disappointment for fantasy owners, but the Bills’ offense as a whole failed to show up in Week 10. They were embarrassed by the Saints at home and couldn't get any offense going. Clay had three targets and caught two of them for 13 yards. However, Tyrod Taylor only completed nine passes on 18 attempts. He was pulled once the game was essentially over, so this isn't a solid gauge of Clay's potential. The Week 11 matchup is tough, as the Chargers have only allowed one touchdown to a TE this season, but Clay should be added in a year when a solid tight end is tough to find.
Defense/Special Teams (DST)
Arizona Cardinals (47 percent owned)
The Cardinals play the Houston Texans in Week 11, which is a good matchup for an opposing DST. The schedule in Week 11 is tough for those streaming DSTs, and the Cardinals are one of the best options available in less than 50 percent of leagues. The Cardinals have positive points in all weeks of the year in standard DST scoring. They've recorded at least one sack in every game, and an interception in every game except for two.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
(Top photo courtesy of www.packers.com)