Which teams are the toughest to rank in 2018?
College football's 2018 season is still a few months away, but the debate about preseason predictions and rankings will start to heat up even more over the next few weeks. For most college football fans, one of the annual traditions each summer is the trip to the newsstand to pick up a preview magazine. The good news? The wait is almost over. The 2018 Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazines officially hit the newsstands on May 21 and all five regional and the national editions are available for order in our online store. With Athlon's projected top 25 for the 2018 season coming on Monday, May 21, we wanted to provide a peek behind the curtain and pick 10 teams that were the toughest to rank in our preseason prediction meetings.
Predictions for any FBS conference and all 130 college football teams are an inexact science. Some teams are just a bigger mystery than others or a hard program to get a read on for the upcoming year. Coaching changes, transfers, players returning from injury, scheme tweaks or just overall depth chart concerns make any preseason prediction difficult for a number of teams. While any FBS team could fall into the "wild card" category, Athlon selected 10 that we thought were some of the toughest to rank in our prediction meetings.
Which teams are the biggest wild cards and the toughest to rank for 2018? Here are 10 candidates:
10 Biggest Wild Card College Football Teams in 2018
We are going to cheat a little and list the entire conference in this section. With every team entering the year with key personnel voids to fill, the Big 12 was the toughest Power 5 league to predict in Athlon’s preseason meetings. Baker Mayfield is gone from Oklahoma, TCU must rebuild its line of scrimmage and find a new quarterback, while Texas looks for improvement on offense after averaging only 29.5 points a game last season. Turnover at the quarterback position is a big reason why this league is in flux for 2018. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU – four of the Big 12’s top contenders – entered the summer with some uncertainty at quarterback. The league’s top signal-caller is West Virginia’s Will Grier. But will the Mountaineers overcome a questionable defense with a high-scoring offense? The Sooners won’t need Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall to replicate Mayfield’s production in order to win the Big 12. However, Oklahoma’s defense is questionable once again and a drop in offensive production would allow the rest of the league a chance to close the gap. Texas is the biggest wild card in the league. Tom Herman’s team lost five games by 10 points or less last season and boast one of the league’s rising stars in quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Will the Longhorns improve enough up front and reload on defense to push Oklahoma? Or is Texas another year away?
The 2017 season was a forgettable one for Florida. The Gators suffered their second losing record since 1990 with a 4-7 mark. The program got a fresh start this offseason, as former Florida assistant and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was hired to replace Jim McElwain. Mullen has a track record of developing quarterbacks and successful offenses - something that is desperately needed in Gainesville. Quarterback Feleipe Franks struggled last fall and will be pushed by Kyle Trask and Emory Jones this offseason. While this position is far from a strength, Mullen’s experience should help to improve the passing game. The skill positions are a strength, as Jordan Scarlett returns after missing 2017 to anchor the ground game, and Tyrie Cleveland, Kadarius Toney and Van Jefferson (assuming he’s eligible) are an interesting trio on the outside. The offensive line is once again a concern, but five returning starters provide hope for improvement. The unquestioned strength of Mullen’s first team in Gainesville is the defense. The Gators return six starters, including standout end Cece Jefferson and the SEC’s top secondary. Until the offense improves, Mullen’s team will have to lean on the play of the defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham. While last season was a disappointment, Florida isn’t far removed from winning 19 games from 2015-16. The Gators aren’t going to challenge Georgia for the SEC East title. However, there’s more than enough talent in place to potentially double last year’s win total.
Bad luck is the best way to sum up Florida State’s 2017 season. Starting quarterback Deondre Francois was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Alabama, forcing the Seminoles to turn to true freshman James Blackman under center. Blackman performed admirably well under the circumstances, helping the program finish with seven wins and a bowl victory over Southern Miss. In addition to Francois’ injury, the coaching future of Jimbo Fisher and the staff took a toll on this program. Fast-forward to 2018 and it’s a different set of circumstances surrounding the Seminoles. New coach Willie Taggart is a great fit in Tallahassee, and the Florida native inherits a roster that’s primed for a big turnaround in 2018. The biggest question mark remains at quarterback, but Taggart has one of the nation’s top running backs in Cam Akers, along with one of the ACC’s top defensive lines. An opener against Virginia Tech will provide an early glimpse of where Florida State stands in 2018. If the Seminoles knock off the Hokies on Labor Day, this team should be undefeated going into an Oct. 6 game at Miami. There’s too much talent to expect a repeat of last year. However, just how high can this team climb in 2018?
With just 10 returning starters and significant question marks on offense, LSU enters the summer with as little preseason buzz for the program in recent memory. The Tigers went 9-4 in Ed Orgeron’s debut, but the second-year coach faces a tougher schedule and an offense with even more question marks than it had in 2017. As usual, LSU should be strong on defense under coordinator Dave Aranda, and it’s no secret the program has plenty of talent thanks to top recruiting classes. However, for the Tigers to match last year’s win total, the offense has to take a step forward. In an effort to improve the passing attack, Orgeron jettisoned Matt Canada in favor of Steve Ensminger as the team’s play-caller. Ensminger called the plays during Orgeron’s interim season (2016) but will have his hands full this offseason. LSU finished spring with uncertainty at quarterback and could add to the competition via a graduate transfer. There’s no Derrius Guice or Leonard Fournette at running back, and the Tigers are thin on proven options at receiver. In addition to the rugged SEC West slate, LSU catches Florida and Georgia in crossover play and opens its season against Miami in Arlington, Texas. LSU has finished in the final Associated Press poll 15 times out of the last 18 seasons. Barring major improvement on offense, 7-5 isn’t out of the question.
Michigan might be one of the most polarizing teams in preseason prediction debates this offseason. The Wolverines slipped to 8-5 and finished fourth in the Big Ten East last year. However, three of those losses came by 11 points or less, with a minus-eight turnover margin combined in all five defeats. It’s likely those numbers swing the other direction for coach Jim Harbaugh, providing a little better luck in close contests. Michigan’s defense features eight returning starters, with linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush, and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long all capable of contending for All-America honors. This unit held opponents to 18.8 points per game last fall and could be even better in 2018. However, the Wolverines’ Big Ten title hopes will rest once again on the offense. Shea Patterson should provide a spark under center, but Harbaugh needs more out of his offensive line and receiving corps. If the offense takes a step forward, Michigan could find itself in a similar position as its 2016 team – needing a win over Ohio State in the season finale to win the East Division.
The Fighting Irish spent most of the 2017 season as a CFB Playoff contender but stumbled in November with losses to Stanford and Miami to finish the year with a 10-3 mark. Notre Dame hasn’t had back-to-back double-digit win seasons since 1992-93, but with 13 returning starters, coach Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to reach that level in 2018. However, contending for a playoff spot will once again hinge on quarterback play. Brandon Wimbush thrived on the ground (803 yards and 14 rushing scores) but only completed 49.5 percent of his passes. The passing game must also replace three of the team’s top five targets from last year, including leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Despite losing standout offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, a strong foundation remains in place up front. Until the passing game develops, Kelly and coordinator Chip Long can lean on the line and running backs Dexter Williams and Tony Jones to carry the offense. Notre Dame’s defense made considerable progress under Mike Elko’s watch, but he's now at Texas A&M. Clark Lea was promoted from linebackers coach to coordinator, which ensures continuity in 2018. Can Lea build off Elko’s progress? With nine starters back, the Fighting Irish could have a top-25 defense. A schedule that features games against Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC won’t be easy. How high Notre Dame ranks in most preseason top 25 polls is likely to hinge on whether or not most believe Wimbush will take a step forward this fall.
Considering Oregon had just three head coaches from 1977-2012, it’s odd to see this program on its third in three years. Mario Cristobal was promoted to head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State, and the Miami native surrounded himself with a standout staff, including defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. As with any new head coach, Cristobal will put his stamp on the program. However, drastic changes aren’t needed for a team capable of pushing Washington in the Pac-12 North. Quarterback Justin Herbert missed five games due to a collarbone injury last fall but is poised for a huge junior campaign. The biggest concerns on offense rest at the skill positions – usually a stalwart in Eugene. Standout running back Royce Freeman is gone, and Herbert needs another playmaker – perhaps Wake Forest transfer Tabari Hines – to step up on the outside. Oregon’s defense showed marked improvement under Leavitt’s watch last fall. The Ducks allowed 29 points a game, down from 41.4 in 2016. More improvement should be expected with seven starters back, including standout end Jalen Jelks and linebacker Troy Dye. The schedule also breaks in Oregon’s favor. The Ducks host Stanford and Washington and won’t play USC from the South. Assuming Cristobal builds off what Taggart started last fall, Oregon will push for double-digit wins.
In an effort to improve its standing in the rugged SEC West, Texas A&M wasn’t afraid to aim high and open up the pocketbook. Jimbo Fisher inked a 10-year, $75 million dollar deal to leave Florida State for College Station, giving the Aggies one of college football’s top coaches. Fisher isn’t walking into a complete rebuilding project, either. With a young roster, Texas A&M went 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the SEC last year, losing three games by eight points or less. Former coach Kevin Sumlin recruited well, so there’s no shortage of young talent to build around in 2018. Fisher left spring ball with an ongoing quarterback battle between Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. Both signal-callers are capable, but Starkel is a better fit for Fisher’s offense. All-SEC receiver Christian Kirk leaves big shoes to fill on the outside. However, Jhamon Ausbon, Camron Buckley, Jalen Preston and Roshauud Paul are a promising group to build around at receiver. And the ground attack is in great shape with the return of Trayveon Williams. Texas A&M’s defense allowed 30.7 points a game last year but is poised to improve behind new coordinator Mike Elko. Seven starters are back, including one of the SEC’s top linebacker duos in Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson. The biggest concerns for Fisher rest on the offensive line and depth at defensive end. If Fisher can maximize the talent on the roster and develop some of the younger players, Texas A&M has enough pieces in place to be a top 25 team.
The list of accomplishments from the 2017 season is an extensive one for UCF. The Knights recorded their best season in school history, winning the AAC title over Memphis, knocking off Auburn in the Peach Bowl and finishing 13-0 – the program’s first undefeated record. While expectations are high, repeating the 13-0 record and getting back to a New Year’s Six Bowl won’t be easy. Coach Scott Frost returned to his alma mater at Nebraska, with former Missouri and Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel set to take over the program. Heupel had a promising stint with the Tigers, but his high-powered offense averaged only 18 points a game against teams with a winning record in 2017. Heupel has plenty of talent to build around, including All-America candidate McKenzie Milton at quarterback, along with running backs Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson and receiver Dredrick Snelson. Will the offense suffer any drop in production without Frost or will Heupel oversee a seamless transition? The biggest concerns for UCF rest on defense. The Knights have a few voids to fill up front, and dynamic linebacker Shaquem Griffin must be replaced. With games against Pitt, North Carolina and FAU in non-conference play, along with road trips to USF and Memphis, the Knights have a tough path to another perfect season.
The Pac-12 South is one of the toughest divisions to get a read on this preseason. Arizona, Utah and USC each have a case to be picked at the top of the South for 2018. However, out of that trio, the Trojans were the toughest team for Athlon’s editorial staff to evaluate. The defending Pac-12 champs must replace quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones and leading receiver Deontay Burnett, while finding improvement on a defense that gave up 26.1 points a game last season. The spring didn’t provide any clarity to the quarterback battle, with true freshman JT Daniels likely to win the job once he arrives on campus this summer. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for the five-star prospect, but he did not play his senior year in high school after reclassifying to come to Los Angeles a year early. The Trojans return enough talent to expect improvement on defense, but this unit has to cut down on the big plays allowed (18 of 40 or more yards in 2017). Considering the new faces on offense, how long will it take USC to reload on this side of the ball? And until the pieces fall into place for this unit, can coach Clay Helton lean on his defense? Adding to Helton’s concerns is a schedule that features road trips to Stanford, Texas, Arizona, Utah and UCLA.