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 15 that we thought were some of the toughest to rank in our prediction meetings.
Kickoff for the 2017 college football season is under 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about rankings, predictions and previews for the upcoming year. 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 over. The 2017 Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazines officially hit the newsstands on May 23 and all five regional and the national editions are available for order in our online store.
Which teams are the biggest wild cards and the toughest to rank for 2017? Here are 15 candidates:
15 Biggest Wild Card College Football Teams in 2017
Which team of Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West? In Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2017, Auburn ranked No. 9, while LSU checked in at No. 11. Little separates these West Division rivals, but Auburn has potentially a significant advantage at quarterback. The addition of Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham adds a difference maker at quarterback for coach Gus Malzahn, helping to round out an offense that’s loaded with potential. The one-two punch of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson leads the way on the ground, and the receiving corps is loaded with potential breakout players. The defense will miss end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams, but seven returning starters should ensure little drop on the stat sheet. For LSU, it’s a similar story once again in Baton Rouge. New coach Ed Orgeron has one of the SEC’s best rosters, a defense loaded with speed and athleticism and dynamic running back Derrius Guice. However, LSU enters another year with question marks at quarterback, with new coordinator Matt Canada tasked with elevating the passing attack. Both teams have the talent to push for a top-10 finish this year. Will the difference in jockeying for position in the West Division come down to how well Stidham performs?
Replacing quarterback Deshaun Watson isn’t going to be easy, but the Tigers are still capable of making another run at a CFB Playoff berth. Coach Dabo Swinney has recruited at a high level (13.4 average class nationally over the last five seasons) and key swing games against Florida State and Auburn take place in Death Valley. Junior Kelly Bryant left spring practice with an edge to replace Watson under center, but true freshman Hunter Johnson will have a chance to close the gap after a solid showing in spring workouts. While quarterback play is obviously critical, Clemson features one of the nation’s top receiving corps, four returning starters on the offensive line, and a defense that expects to rank among the college football’s best. Linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are candidates for first-team All-America honors, and linebacker Kendall Joseph is a rising star in the ACC. The talent is there for another CFB Playoff berth. How fast will Swinney replace Watson? And how will the Tigers fare in the showdown against Florida State on Nov. 11?
Related: ACC 2017 All-Conference Team
The SEC East champion was one of the toughest picks by Athlon’s staff in our preseason prediction meetings. As evidenced by the final top 25, there is little separation between Georgia (No. 15) and Florida (No. 16). The Gators have claimed back-to-back East Division titles, but coach Jim McElwain’s team enters 2017 just behind the Bulldogs. Florida’s standout 2016 defense returns only three starters, but the drop in production should be minimal with a cast of talented youngsters ready to step up. On offense, quarterback play and the line is a concern once again. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks finished spring with an edge as the team’s No. 1 quarterback, but graduate transfer Malik Zaire is still considering Florida as a landing spot for 2017. On the positive side for McElwain’s offense, the skill players are solid, including one of the SEC’s top receiving corps. For Georgia, it’s safe to say 2016 was a disappointment for first-year coach Kirby Smart. But the Bulldogs were only a couple of plays away from double-digit victories, as they lost three games by three points or less. With quarterback Jacob Eason better in his second year as the starter, the offense should take a significant step forward – provided the line is improved and a few targets emerge at receiver. Eason can also lean on one of the nation’s top backfields with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel leading the way. On defense, Georgia returns all 11 starters from last year and should have one of the SEC’s top groups. Can either of these teams find the right mix on offense and challenge for a spot in the top 10?
Pencil in the Coastal Division favorite in this spot. In Athlon’s projections, the Hurricanes are the pick to win the division, but the Hokies aren’t far behind. While these two teams are separated by nearly 1,000 miles, there are a lot of similarities between Miami and Virginia Tech for 2017. Both teams boast a standout defense and question marks on offense. Barring an offseason shake up, it’s likely the Hokies and Hurricanes will turn to a freshman at quarterback (N’Kosi Perry – Miami and Josh Jackson at Virginia Tech). Additionally, while both teams have talented skill players (Cam Phillips at Virginia Tech and Mark Walton or Ahmmon Richards at Miami), depth at running back or receiver is a concern. With standout defenses capable of carrying either program to the ACC Championship, it’s likely which team solves its question marks on offense the fastest will win the Coastal. And in a one-game ACC title scenario, the Hokies or Hurricanes won’t be a pushover against Clemson or Florida State (potentially with a playoff berth on the line).
The Wolverines return only six starters, which ranks as the second-fewest in the Big Ten for 2017. However, it’s a safe bet coach Jim Harbaugh will have Michigan in the mix for 10 wins for the third year in a row. The strength of the offense is at running back, while quarterback Wilton Speight returns after throwing for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Harbaugh’s biggest concern on offense remains up front with just two returning starters, while the receiving corps must find a few go-to weapons after losing Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. Even if the offense is a work in progress early in the year, the defense should be able to carry this team. Led by sophomore Rashan Gary and senior Maurice Hurst, the Wolverines feature one of the nation’s top defensive lines. The back seven is rebuilding, but back-to-back top-five recruiting classes should ease the learning curve for this group. Harbaugh is one of the nation’s best coaches, and despite the personnel concerns, he should be able to keep the Wolverines in the mix for the Big Ten East Division title deep into the season.
Related: Big Ten's 2017 All-Conference Team
Last year’s 4-8 record was the first losing mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame and only the second of his 26 seasons as a head coach. But while last year was a big disappointment, things aren’t all bad in South Bend. For starters, the Fighting Irish lost seven games by eight points or less in 2016. With a turnover margin of minus-four, small improvement in ball control would make a huge difference in close games. Additionally, Kelly added two standout coordinators in Mike Elko (defense) and Chip Long (offense). Quarterback DeShone Kizer will be missed, but sophomore Brandon Wimbush is a breakout candidate under center. He’s surrounded by a solid-one two punch at running back in Dexter Williams and Josh Adams, while the offensive line should be among the top 10-15 in the nation. The return of Alize Mack at tight end is another positive, as he joins Equanimeous St. Brown as key targets for Wimbush in the passing game. More question marks exist on defense, but Elko’s arrival should help this unit after the Fighting Irish gave up 27.8 points per game in 2016. A schedule featuring 11 bowl teams is challenging, but Notre Dame should return to the top 25 in 2017. And if Wimbush is better than expected, the Fighting Irish could exceed Athlon’s preseason expectations of eight wins.
Predicting the order of finish between Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M after the top three teams in the SEC West isn’t easy. The Rebels won 19 games from 2014-15 but slipped to 5-7 last year, largely due to injuries and a defense that ranked last in the SEC in points allowed. Was last season a one-year blip or a sign of things to come? Of course, we can’t talk about Ole Miss without mentioning the ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding this program. How much of an impact will that have on the team this year, especially with no postseason opportunities? Assuming motivation isn’t an issue, the Rebels will be a tough out for the rest of the SEC. Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson is a rising star, there’s plenty of talent at receiver, and the ground game should get a boost with the return of Eric Swinney and Jordan Wilkins at running back. New coordinator Wesley McGriff inherits a defense with six returning starters, including All-SEC end Marquis Haynes. Depth on this unit is a concern, so don’t be surprised if Ole Miss has its share of high-scoring affairs in 2017. The Rebels could easily finish 8-4 and 4th in the West. However, with the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA issues, Ole Miss could also finish with its second straight losing record.
Washington is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 North for 2017, but Stanford and Oregon are two intriguing teams to watch. The Cardinal host Washington on Nov. 10, which is late enough in the season for coach David Shaw to find some clarity at quarterback. Keller Chryst is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Sun Bowl but is scheduled to return in time for fall practice. If Chryst is slowed or ineffective, Shaw could turn to former starter Ryan Burns or promising redshirt freshman K.J. Costello. Bryce Love is a capable replacement for all-purpose threat Christian McCaffrey, and the offensive line is poised to take a step forward this fall. And as usual, Stanford should have one of the Pac-12’s top defenses. Oregon’s 4-8 record in 2016 was the program’s first losing mark since 2004. But the Ducks won’t be down for long, as new coach Willie Taggart should make an impact in his first year in Eugene. Taggart’s offense at USF was similar to the up-tempo attack Oregon has used in previous seasons. Quarterback Justin Herbert is poised to take a step forward in his first full year as the starter, and he will have plenty of help at receiver, along with the return of running back Royce Freeman. Improving the defense was priority No. 1 for Taggart this offseason. The addition of veteran coordinator Jim Leavitt should provide instant help for a unit that gave up 41.4 points per game last year. Oregon or Stanford may not win the Pac-12 North. However, both teams have more than enough returning pieces to create some problems for the Huskies or in crossover games against the top teams from the South. Could one of these two teams play spoiler to prevent another trip for Washington into the CFB Playoff?
Outside of Texas, the team with the most upside in the Big 12 could be TCU. The Horned Frogs finished a disappointing 6-7 last year but return 16 starters for 2017. Defense is usually a strength in Fort Worth, and TCU limited opponents to just 5.5 yards per play last fall. With seven starters returning, this unit should once again rank among the best in the Big 12. While few concerns exist on defense, the offense is the biggest preseason question mark for coach Gary Patterson. TCU’s scoring average dipped from 42.1 points per game in 2016 to 31 last year. Additionally, the Horned Frogs lost 20 turnovers, gave up 31 sacks and tied for eighth in red zone conversions. Running back Kyle Hicks leads a talented backfield, and there are plenty of options at receiver. With four starters back, there’s plenty of optimism for improvement on the offensive line. But the 2017 season is likely to come down to one player: Quarterback Kenny Hill. Can the senior play with more consistency on a week-to-week basis and eliminate some of the turnovers that plagued this offense last year? If Hill eliminates some of the mistakes, the pieces are in place for TCU to return to the top 25 and create some havoc in the Big 12.
A team that has recorded three consecutive losing seasons generally wouldn’t qualify for this space, but the Longhorns are the perfect description of a wild card team for 2017. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Austin. Texas has reeled in four top 20 classes over the last five years, which ranks just behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 in terms of overall talent. Talent alone doesn’t win games, which is why the hire of Tom Herman (and a standout staff) is enough to boost the Longhorns back into the top 25 this year. Herman comes to Austin after a successful 22-4 stint at Houston and inherits an offense loaded with potential. The line could develop into one of the best in the Big 12, there are talented playmakers on the outside, and quarterback Shane Buechele enters his second season as the starter. A defense that surrendered 31.5 points per game last fall will immediately improve behind the play-calling of coordinator Todd Orlando. Depth is a concern up front, but linebacker Malik Jefferson is poised for his best season in Austin, and the secondary has too much talent to rank in the 100’s once again in pass defense. With Kansas State and Oklahoma State visiting Austin, Texas has a favorable schedule to make a run in the Big 12. Combine a favorable home slate with Herman’s arrival and the talent in place, and it’s easy to see why the Longhorns are due to rebound in 2017.
Clay Helton’s decision to hand the keys to the offense to Sam Darnold paid big dividends last season. After a 1-3 start, the Trojans reeled off nine wins in a row – including a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State and win at Washington – to finish 10-3 in Helton’s first full year at the helm. Darnold emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks over the final 10 games and enters 2017 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Joining Darnold is dynamic running back Ronald Jones and a talented cast of receivers. However, the line is replacing a couple of starters, including All-Pac-12 selections Damien Mama, Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. How quickly this group reloads is likely to play a huge role in how high USC can climb into playoff contention. The concerns for Helton on the line of scrimmage extend to the defense. Standout tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary. This unit surrendered 14 plays of 40 yards or more through the air last season, so it’s critical to shore up the pass defense before stepping into Pac-12 play. USC has its share of personnel concerns, but Darnold can carry this team to the playoffs. But if the offensive line doesn’t come together and the defense struggles to fill the voids up front and in the secondary, can the Trojans overcome Washington in the Pac-12?