Athlon answers some questions and angry fans about the early top 25 for 2018.
We posted our "way-too-early" college football top 25 for 2018 on Wednesday, and before we knew it, the Internet was blowing up. Tweets were flying, emails were coming in, and Redditors were commenting...and commenting...and commenting. And yes, most were critical. As fans of Reddit's CFB community, we wanted to address those concerns. And while we can't answer all of them, we did round up a few and will do our best to give our reasoning behind those rankings.
1. Why is Michigan ranked so high? Are you just forcing controversy to get clicks?
Michigan seems to be the most polarizing team going into the 2018 season. I think the Wolverines are poised to rebound in a big way next year. The 2017 season was supposed to be a downturn in wins. After all, Michigan lost a massive senior class from a team that nearly made the College Football Playoff in 2016. Finding some answers on offense has to be priority No. 1. This unit is tough to get a read on right now considering the uncertainty of quarterback Shea Patterson’s status after transferring in from Ole Miss. However, receivers Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones are going to be better now that both have a full season in Ann Arbor under their belt, and the running back corps is solid with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans leading the way. If the line takes a step forward, the pieces are in place for Patterson, Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey at quarterback to spark the offense. The biggest strength of this team has been its defense, and this unit should be among the best in the nation once again. With a standout defense in place, Michigan doesn’t need 40 points a game from its offense. However, this group has to improve in order to be a top-10 team again. One stat to watch: The Wolverines were minus-eight in turnover margin in losses and minus-four overall in 2017. That type of turnover luck or margin usually flips the other way after a bad season, which could be the difference in a couple of close games.
It’s also worth noting that Harbaugh posted back-to-back seasons of 10 victories to start his tenure in Ann Arbor, recruited back-to-back top-five classes in the 2016-17 signing hauls and won at a high level at Stanford and in the NFL. Michigan is going to be just fine in 2018 and '19.
2. Why Isn’t TCU in the Top 25? C’mon?!
TCU was actually the last team out of the rankings. The gap between 20-35 is pretty small, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team jump into the top 25 when our official projected top 25 is released for the 2018 season. After Oklahoma, I thought the next group of teams in the Big 12 wasn’t separated by much. I like Texas at No. 2, but a case could be made for West Virginia, TCU, Oklahoma State, Kansas State or even Iowa State. As for the Horned Frogs, the offense loses four senior starters from the line, running back Kyle Hicks and quarterback Kenny Hill. And on defense, linebacker Travin Howard, end Mat Boesen and safety Nick Orr are just a few of the players departing. That’s a good chunk of talent to lose on the line of scrimmage and on defense. I’m never going to count out Gary Patterson’s team in the Big 12. However, with a small gap between the Big 12’s second tier behind Oklahoma, Bill Snyder coming back to Kansas State, and some of the personnel losses, we have TCU just outside of our top 25 – for now.
3. Texas at 18? Are we smoking crack?
The second tier of the Big 12 is tough to sort out after Oklahoma, but I’m going to bank on Tom Herman finding the right answers this offseason. It wouldn’t take that much for Texas to finish in the top 20 next year. Consider: The Longhorns lost five of their six games by 10 points or less. With Herman working to develop Sam Ehlinger or Shane Buechele at quarterback, the offense should improve off its 29.5 points per game average in 2017. Also, even though standout left tackle Connor Williams is gone, the rest of the line returns nearly intact. I would expect this group to improve in 2018. The defense does have some holes to fill but only allowed 21.2 points a game in 2017. Coordinator Todd Orlando is one of the best in college football, so I don’t expect this group to regress much in terms of production. Additionally, the Longhorns can tap into help from a standout recruiting class to rebuild some of the depth in the secondary. Also, the schedule isn’t that difficult. USC (without Sam Darnold), TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State all come to Austin.
4. Seriously, you think Michigan will be better than Penn State?
The Big Ten has five teams that could be ranked in the top 10 next year, so there really isn’t much separation between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions. The big question for Penn State is how much coordinator Joe Moorhead and running back Saquon Barkley will be missed. The bowl game was a good showing for new play-caller Ricky Rahne, and I wouldn’t expect the overall scheme to change much. But Moorhead was one of the best in the nation and he will be missed. Miles Sanders is a capable replacement for Barkley, but will he produce the same amount of big plays? Penn State does have a clear edge at quarterback with Trace McSorley coming back. The senior might be first-team All-American in 2018. The Nittany Lions have a good collection of talent at receiver, but I do think tight end Mike Gesicki will be missed. And up front, I’d like to see this group take a step forward after struggling to open up rushing lanes at times. With Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Happy Valley, Penn State has a favorable path to win the division. However, the matchup against Michigan is in Ann Arbor. When one game might decide which team finishes No. 2 or No. 3 in the standings, we went with the Wolverines in that head-to-head matchup (for now). I think picking Michigan ahead of Penn State is more about the Wolverines getting close to their 2016 level than it is the Nittany Lions getting that much worse.
5. Answers to Grimbo_Reapers many questions...
One big advantage Oklahoma has next year is the lack of a clear No. 2 team – at least right now – in the Big 12. The Sooners can take a small step back on offense and still win the league. Quarterback Kyler Murray should be dynamic with Lincoln Riley designing an attack that benefits his strengths. There’s no question the offensive line isn’t going to be up to its 2017 level, and tight end Mark Andrews is going to be missed. But the skill players are still set with CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown and running back Rodney Anderson. With five of the top nine tacklers departing, and question marks at linebacker, the defense remains an issue for Riley. It seems inevitable a split with Mike Stoops will happen at some point (either this offseason or after 2018).
I’m curious to see what Michigan does with its staff with Brian Smith and Greg Frey leaving, along with the addition of a 10th member this year. Will Jedd Fisch return to Ann Arbor? Since Harbaugh calls the plays, it’s tough to know what he’s going to do in terms of the assistant shuffle on the offensive side.
The offensive line is my biggest concern with Auburn – and I think it’s a big one right now. When we first posted this, I ranked Auburn assuming Kerryon Johnson, Carlton Davis and Jeff Holland would return. But with all three going to the NFL, the Tigers should slide a few spots down. Even with Davis and Holland leaving, the defense is still going to be solid, and Jarrett Stidham should be able to handle more in his second year as the starter.
4. Penn State/Barkley
I suspect Penn State is still going to be dynamic on offense even with Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Saquon Barkley in the NFL. But I do think both are going to be missed in 2018. Ricky Rahne had a standout debut as the full-time play-caller in the Fiesta Bowl, but it will be interesting to see how this offense evolves week-to-week in the season and not having a month to gameplan for an opponent.
This is a good question. Had Sam Darnold returned to USC, I would have placed this team a spot or two higher and as the favorite in the Pac-12. But with Darnold gone, I’m going to drop the Trojans into the 20s. The Pac-12 South is going to be an interesting league next year. USC still has a lot of talent but a question mark at quarterback. Additionally, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA will all have new coaches. Utah is probably USC’s biggest threat right now.
If Bryce Love doesn’t return to Stanford, I think the Cardinal will slide down our list by a couple of spots. Love’s big-play ability isn’t going to be easy to replace. But as we’ve seen at Stanford under David Shaw, this team always seems to have talent ready to step up at running back. Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights have been solid in limited work, and the offensive line should be one of the best in the nation next year. That should help ease the transition if Love departs for the next level.
7. Florida State
Florida State hit a home run by getting Willie Taggart away from Oregon. I wouldn’t expect the Seminoles to challenge Clemson for the Atlantic Division title, but there’s simply too much talent to finish 7-6 again. This offense will have to adapt to a new scheme, but Taggart can build an up-tempo attack around running back Cam Akers and one of the two proven quarterbacks in Deondre Francois or James Blackman. Florida State’s defense should also benefit from a coaching change, but this unit is losing one of college football’s best defensive backs in Derwin James. Most importantly, the Seminoles won’t have to deal with any coaching rumors and are better positioned at quarterback to withstand an injury than they were in 2017.
The losses on defense and need to develop the offensive line give me a little pause on Texas next year. But the middle of the Big 12 is there for a team to step up. I’m going to buy in that Tom Herman gets this team on track, and a couple of the close losses move into the win column next year.
If Dave Aranda left LSU for Texas A&M, I was probably going to drop the Tigers to 24 or 25 – or maybe out of the poll. Keeping Aranda was huge for Ed Orgeron and his future in Baton Rouge, especially with all of the question marks on offense right now. I think he would have been a huge addition for the Aggies, but Mike Elko is a standout hire too.
I went back-and-forth on Florida and how high to rank them. I think there are still a lot of good players in Gainesville, and I’m a big believer in Dan Mullen. That being said, this team still has some offensive issues to work out, and a true freshman could start at quarterback. Todd Grantham was a solid pickup as coordinator and should help this defense improve after giving up 27.3 points a game. The schedule works out favorably for Mullen since Florida only has to leave the state three times next year. Also, swing games against LSU, Missouri and South Carolina are all at home and after the first month of the season – giving Mullen plenty of time to find a quarterback.
Questions from Twitter:
I try not to put too much stock into bowl games one way or the other. But you are right, Michigan State was better than Michigan in 2017, and the bowl game performance was decisively in favor of coach Mark Dantonio’s team. The Wolverines did not play well in the second half, but they basically gave the game away with the turnovers and sloppy play in the final two quarters. Looking ahead to 2018, I suspect the Wolverines are going to rebound back into the 10-win area. Michigan’s defense is still among the best in the nation, and the offense has to be better. I just don’t see a Jim Harbaugh-coached offense struggling like it did once again in 2018. But of course, that’s also relying on Michigan to find a quarterback and get more consistency out of the offensive line. The Wolverines won 20 games from 2015-16 and lost a ton of talent from their 2016 team that nearly made the CFB Playoff. After a year to reload, this team should be in better shape next fall. As for Michigan State, I think Penn State, Michigan and the Spartans are all really close in the Big Ten East. And all three could be in the top 10 by the start of next year. The Spartans bring back nearly everyone and home games against Michigan and Ohio State could decide the edge in the East Division. It’s definitely safer to pick Michigan State ahead right now, but I’m going to take the upside (for now) in Michigan.
The Knights were close to making the top 25, but I had them just on the outside in the top 30-35 range. Looking ahead to next season and the way-too-early rankings outside of the top 25, I have FAU over UCF due to a projected win by the Owls on Sept. 22. I think both will be right around the 10-win mark again. Also, there’s a coaching transition in Orlando. How much will Josh Heupel change after what Scott Frost was able to do in two years? Even if Heupel makes a few tweaks to the offense, it’s hard to worry about this group with quarterback McKenzie Milton leading the way. But the defense has a few voids to fill in the front seven and loses linebacker Shaquem Griffin. UCF should still be a very good team next year, but it’s a lot to ask Heupel to replicate what Frost did in 2017.