College football’s 2016 season officially ended on Monday night in Tampa, Fla. with Clemson's last-second win over Alabama. While the Tigers are still celebrating and the party in Death Valley isn't going to end anytime soon, it's never too early to peek ahead at 2017 and examine some of the teams that could take a step forward in the win column or move a little higher in the rankings. With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed this offseason.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
There’s a long ways to go until the 2017 season officially begins, but here are 15 teams we think are on the rise for next season.
College Football's Top 15 Teams on the Rise for 2017
The Black Knights had a breakout year in coach Jeff Monken’s third season at West Point. Army recorded its first winning season and bowl trip since 2010 and snapped a 14-game losing streak to Navy. The Black Knights could be even better in 2017, as Monken’s offense returns its top six rushers from last year, including Andy Davidson (961) and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (826). The defense limited opponents to 5.1 yards per play in 2016 but must replace standouts Andrew King (LB), Jeremy Timpf (LB) and Xavier Moss (safety). Linebacker Alex Aukerman (15 tackles for a loss) will take on an even bigger role in this defense next fall, and the Black Knights return a pair of freshman cornerbacks – Jaylon McClinton and Elijah Riley – that received significant playing time in 2016. Outside of a road trip to Ohio State, the schedule isn’t too daunting for Army next fall. Could Monken’s team push for 10 wins in 2017?
After a 1-2 start, Auburn reeled off six consecutive wins and appeared to be on the verge of finishing 2016 as a top-10 team. However, injuries took a toll on the Tigers, including ailments to running back Kamryn Pettway and quarterback Sean White. As a result, Auburn finished the year 1-3 over its final four games. While the end of 2016 didn’t finish on a high note, the Tigers could be the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West next fall. Former Baylor and junior college transfer Jarrett Stidham is set to take over at quarterback, and there’s no shortage of talent at receiver or running back to ease the former four-star recruit’s transition into the starting job. The addition of Stidham should spark a passing attack and add balance to an offense that already ranked No. 1 in the SEC in rushing. Guard Alex Kozan is a big loss up front, but Austin Golson, Darius James and standout guard Braden Smith provide a strong foundation. The biggest losses for coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense are end Carl Lawson, safety Rudy Ford, cornerback Joshua Holsey and tackle Montravius Adams. However, the defense shouldn’t suffer too much of a setback next year, especially with rising star Marlon Davidson coming off the edge and cornerback Carlton Davis anchoring the secondary. Auburn has to play LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road next fall. However, Georgia and Alabama visit Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With Lane Kiffin taking over in Boca Raton next fall, FAU is going to be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2017. Former coach Charlie Partridge was regarded as a good recruiter, and there are several promising players for Kiffin to build around. Running back Devin Singletary is a rising star after posting at least 200 rushing yards in two out of his final four games, and the top three receivers are back from 2016. Former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson was signed from the junior college ranks and will compete with Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for the starting nod. FAU allowed 39.8 points per game in 2016, so there is plenty of room for improvement behind new coordinator Chris Kiffin. The biggest loss for Kiffin is standout end Trey Hendrickson (9.5 sacks in 2016), but the rest of the defense returns largely intact. Defensive back Ocie Rose, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young are a promising trio for Kiffin to build around this spring. Considering the talent in place, along with the addition of Kiffin as a head coach, FAU should contend for a bowl in 2017.
The Seminoles should be one of the favorites to win it all in 2017. Under coach Jimbo Fisher’s watch, this program has won at least 10 games in six out of the last seven seasons and has played in a New Year’s Six bowl for three consecutive years. Quarterback Deondre Francois started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and finished the year with 3,350 yards and 20 scores. With another offseason to work with Fisher, Francois should take another step forward in his development. The receiving corps also returns largely intact, with Nyqwan Murray (27 catches) emerging as a breakout candidate for 2017. The biggest loss on offense is running back Dalvin Cook (1,765 yards), but the Seminoles won’t be hurting for options. Five-star prospect Cam Akers will push Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul for carries right away. The offensive line gave up 36 sacks in 2016 and has to replace standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. After allowing at least 30 points in four out of the first five games, the defense stepped up over the second half of 2016. Contributing to the early struggles was a tough slate of opposing quarterbacks, as well as the loss of safety Derwin James. With James back in the mix and a handful of talented young defensive backs in place, Florida State’s secondary should be one of the best in the nation. End DeMarcus Walker is a big loss up front, but end Josh Sweat, tackle Derrick Nnadi and linebacker Matthew Thomas is a talented trio for coordinator Charles Kelly. A road trip to Clemson and a neutral site matchup against Alabama will be tough. However, the development of Francois, and a talented defense should push Florida State to be the team to beat in the ACC next fall.
Despite a significant turnover on defense and a true freshman (Jacob Eason) at quarterback, Georgia finished 8-5 and lost three of those games by a touchdown or less in coach Kirby Smart’s first year in Athens. It’s no secret the standard is much higher than eight wins, but the pieces seem to be falling in place for Smart’s team to take a step forward in 2017 and challenge for the SEC East title. Eason should be better with a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, and running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel turned down the NFL for another season at Georgia. Developing the playmakers at receiver and solidifying the offensive line are the top priorities for coordinator Jim Chaney this offseason. Despite a major overhaul in the front seven on defense, the Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (24) in 2016. With tackle Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith anchoring the front seven and poised for a breakout 2017 campaign, Georgia’s defense should take a step forward on the stat sheet. Maurice Smith is the biggest loss in the secondary, but safety Dominick Sanders passed on the NFL for another year in Athens.
Coach Bill Snyder’s team quietly finished 2016 with a 9-4 record and wins in six out of the program’s last seven games. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are likely to begin 2017 as the favorites to win the Big 12 title, but don’t overlook Kansas State in the conference championship discussion. The Wildcats return quarterback Jesse Ertz and running back (and rising star) Alex Barnes to anchor a ground game that averaged 231.8 yards per contest in 2016. In addition to Ertz and Barnes, the top two receivers (Dominique Heath and Byron Pringle) are back and the offensive line should be among the best in the Big 12. Linebacker Elijah Lee, safety Dante Barnett and end Jordan Willis are three big losses for a defense that led the Big 12 in scoring (22.3 points per game allowed). However, the cupboard is far from empty. Tackle Will Geary, end Reggie Walker and cornerback D.J. Reed should keep this unit performing at a high level. Could the Oct. 21 matchup against Oklahoma in Manhattan be an early preview of the Big 12 title game?
The Wildcats are coming off their first bowl trip and winning season since 2010, and with most of the depth chart returning intact for 2017, another step forward in the win column wouldn’t be a surprise. An injury to Drew Barker pressed junior college transfer Stephen Johnson into the starting quarterback role last season, but both passers should battle for time this offseason. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, the ground game will be the focal point for the offense. Boom Williams (1,170 yards in 2016) is off to the NFL, but Benny Snell (1,091 yards) is back after a terrific freshman season. Three out of the top five statistical receivers also return. The biggest loss on offense is standout center Jon Toth. If Kentucky is to take a step forward and challenge for a finish in the top three of the SEC East, improving the defense is a must. With only five seniors set to depart after contributing in a major role from 2016, this unit has enough returning depth and talent to show improvement on the stat sheet. Linebacker Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) is quietly emerging as one of the better defenders in the SEC.
The RedHawks were one of the nation’s most improved teams during the course of the 2016 season. After an 0-6 start, coach Chuck Martin’s team won its final six games and earned a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl against Mississippi State. While Miami (Ohio) fell short in the bowl, Martin has this program poised to take another step forward next fall. Quarterback Gus Ragland was instrumental in the second-half turnaround (1,537 yards and 17 TDs) and should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter. Leading receivers James Gardner (45 catches) and Jared Murphy (43) return, along with the team’s top three running backs from 2016. Martin has a few voids to fill in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but there’s enough of a foundation in place to prevent a major drop in production. The defense surrendered only 23.8 points per game in 2016 and features a standout secondary, which is headlined by first-team All-MAC selection Heath Harding. Linebacker Junior McMullen and defensive back De’Andre Montgomery are two other key returnees, but end J.T. Jones expired his eligibility.
After losing arguably the best player in school history in former quarterback Dak Prescott, it was no surprise Mississippi State took a step back in the win column in 2016. After posting 19 victories from 2014-15, the Bulldogs slipped to 6-7 but still managed to earn a bowl trip, which extended the program’s postseason streak to seven in a row. Coach Dan Mullen’s team is in much better shape for 2017, as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a rising star, running back Aeris Williams (720) is back after a strong close to the season, and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) is a big-play threat on the outside. Replacing standout receiver Fred Ross and offensive linemen Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are the biggest concerns on offense. Improving the defense is an offseason priority for Mullen, but the addition of veteran play-caller Todd Grantham should help this unit take a step forward. Grantham will be busy this offseason as he looks to find replacements for ends A.J. Jefferson and Johnathan Calvin, linebacker Richie Brown and safety Kivon Coman. The schedule features home games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and LSU in conference play.
Wisconsin is the early favorite to win the Big Ten West next fall, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is one to watch this offseason. The Wildcats are positioned as the biggest threat to the Badgers in the West Division, especially if quarterback Clayton Thorson develops into one of the Big Ten’s top passers. Thorson finished 2016 with 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns but won’t have top receiver Austin Carr to throw to next fall. However, the Wildcats return standout running back Justin Jackson, and the offensive line should take a step forward with the starting group returning nearly intact. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, but safety Godwin Igwebuike and defensive end Xavier Washington headline the key returnees on defense. In addition to replacing Walker, standout pass rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo (12 TFL) will be missed. Road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska are tough, but Northwestern catches Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota at home. Additionally, the Wildcats won’t have to play Michigan or Ohio State.
Under coach Mike Gundy’s direction, Oklahoma State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last seven seasons. Considering the returning firepower on offense next year, the Cowboys should hit double-digit wins once again and challenge for the Big 12 title. The dynamic connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington passed on the NFL for one more year in Stillwater. But Washington will have plenty of help at receiver, as Jalen McCleskey emerged as a key contributor in 2016, Marcell Ateman is back from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible after sitting out last fall. The ground game will be anchored by Justice Hill after he rushed for 1,142 yards as a freshman in 2016. Left tackle Victor Salako and guard Michael Wilson are the biggest losses in the trenches. Each level of the defense suffered a key loss, but coordinator Glenn Spencer is one of the best in the Big 12. Tackle Vincent Taylor and safety Jordan Sterns leave big shoes to fill this offseason. Oklahoma State catches a break in scheduling with Kansas State and Oklahoma coming to Stillwater in 2017.
The Ducks should be one of the nation’s most improved teams in 2017. New coach Willie Taggart is one of the offseason’s top hires and his background on offense should be a good fit for a team with a young core of talent on that side of the ball. Quarterback Justin Herbert (1,936 passing yards and 19 TDs) had a promising debut, and running back Royce Freeman decided to return to Eugene for his senior year. Charles Nelson and Darren Carrington lead the way at receiver, and the offensive line returns four key freshmen who saw extensive snaps in 2016. Taggart’s blend of power football and spread looks should be a good fit for the returning personnel. On the other side of the ball, Taggart hired Jim Leavitt – one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators – away from Colorado. Leavitt inherits a defense in need of repair after this unit gave up 41.4 points per game in 2016. However, Leavitt does have pieces to work with this spring. Linebacker Troy Dye is back after a promising freshman campaign, safety Brenden Schooler picked off four passes as a freshman, and nine of the team’s top 10 tacklers from 2016 return next fall. Additionally, Oregon misses USC in crossover play with the Pac-12 South.
The Nittany Lions were on the doorstep of a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2016 and should be one of the favorites to claim a spot in the top four next fall. Coach James Franklin’s team showed marked improvement after a 2-2 start. Penn State knocked off Ohio State in surprising fashion (24-21), which helped to spur a winning streak that extended to nine in a row after defeating Wisconsin (38-31) in the Big Ten Championship. Franklin’s decision to hire Joe Moorhead as the program’s new offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season paid immediate dividends. The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points a game – up from 23.2 in 2015 – and quarterback Trace McSorley developed into one of the best in the Big Ten. McSorley and Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley (running back) are back to anchor an explosive offense next fall. Another reason for optimism on offense is the play of the front five. The overall depth and performance for this group took a step forward in 2016. Receiver Chris Godwin declared early for the NFL, but tight end Mike Gesicki is back in Happy Valley. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry will have a few big losses to address this offseason. Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden have departed. However, there’s still a good foundation in place, led by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen. Penn State has to travel to Ohio State, but Michigan, Pitt and Nebraska visit Beaver Stadium.
There wasn’t a better fit in the offseason coaching carousel than Tom Herman returning to Texas after a successful two-year stint at Houston. Herman – a former graduate assistant with the Longhorns – should provide an immediate boost for a program that has missed out on a bowl game in each of the last two seasons. Quarterback Shane Buechele (2,958 yards and 21 TDs) returns after a promising freshman season, the top three receivers from 2016 are also back in the mix, and the line is anchored by one of the nation’s top tackles in Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren missed eight games due to injury in 2016 but is slated to return and should assume a key role in the backfield. While Herman’s background on offense should help this group take a step forward in 2017, one of his best offseason moves was to bring in coordinator Todd Orlando. Under Orlando’s direction, Houston finished second in the American in scoring defense in 2016 and third in 2015. After giving up 31.3 points per game last year, Texas has room to improve on defense. With most of this unit returning intact – including linebacker Malik Jefferson and edge rushers Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach – immediate improvement is expected. Texas should go from 5-7 to a top 25 team next fall.
New coach Charlie Strong is stepping into a good situation. The Bulls were one of the top Group of 5 teams in 2016, and the pieces are in place for a run at a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2017. Running back Marlon Mack will be missed after declaring early for the NFL Draft, but the USF offense won’t miss a beat behind quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers averaged 334 total yards per game and scored 42 total touchdowns. New play-caller Sterlin Gilbert needs to find a new go-to receiver for Flowers after Rodney Adams (67 catches) expired his eligibility. With a dynamic offense in place, Strong should be able to devote some extra attention to the defense (31.6 ppg in 2016). This unit doesn’t lose a ton, but linebacker Nigel Harris (9.5 TFL) and defensive back Nate Godwin will be missed. The combination of Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector at tackle is a tough matchup for opposing offensive lines, and linebacker Auggie Sanchez returns after leading the team with 117 tackles. USF’s schedule is also favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games, with Illinois as the only Power 5 opponent on the slate for next fall.
Others to Watch
Kalani Sitake had a successful debut in 2016, and the Cougars open 2017 with three Power 5 programs (LSU, Wisconsin and Utah) in the month of September. Quarterback Taysom Hill is gone, but Tanner Mangum is ready to step back in under center. Replacing running back Jamaal Williams is the top priority this offseason for coordinator Ty Detmer.
There’s no clear favorite in the ACC’s Coastal Division for 2017. However, the Yellow Jackets should be picked near the top of the division after improving their win total by six games from 2015 to 2016. Quarterback Justin Thomas, center Freddie Burden and linebacker P.J. Davis are just a few of the key losses, but running back Dedrick Mills should be one of the ACC’s top playmakers in 2017. Additionally, the schedule isn’t too daunting, as Georgia, North Carolina, Pitt and Virginia Tech visit Bobby Dodd Stadium.
New coach Nick Rolovich guided the Rainbow Warriors to a 7-7 record in his first season at the helm and finished the year with a victory over MTSU in the Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors should be in good shape to take another step forward under Rolovich in 2017, as quarterback Dru Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste headline the key returnees.
Replacing quarterback Brad Kaaya is the biggest offseason priority for coach Mark Richt, but there’s a solid foundation in place for this team to win the Coastal in 2017. Running back Mark Walton returns after rushing for 1,117 yards in 2016, and receiver Ahmmon Richards (934 yards) is back after a promising freshman campaign. Cornerback Corn Elder is a big loss on defense, but the front seven should return nearly intact.
After back-to-back 7-6 seasons under coach Dave Doeren, can the Wolfpack take a step forward in 2017? This team was close to a couple of big wins in 2016, as NC State lost by seven in overtime to Clemson, by four to Florida State and two other games were decided by seven points or less. Running back Matt Dayes is a big loss, but quarterback Ryan Finley, all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels and a solid offensive line return on offense. End Bradley Chubb turned down the NFL for one more season in Raleigh, but the secondary loses three key contributors. The schedule breaks in NC State’s favor, as Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina all visit Raleigh in 2017.
Coach Gary Andersen didn’t inherit a lot to work with in 2015, but this program is on the right track after a 6-18 mark over the last two years. The Beavers finished 2-10 in 2015 and made a two-game jump in wins last fall (4-8). In order for Anderson to elevate Oregon State into a bowl in 2017, a quarterback needs to emerge, and three starters must be replaced on the offensive line. Junior college recruit Jake Luton could be the answer under center. Running back Ryan Nall (951 yards) leads the way on offense. The defense limited opponents to 5.7 yards per play in 2016, but linebacker Caleb Saulo and defensive backs Treston DeCoud and Devin Chappell leave big shoes to fill.
The Mustangs are poised to breakthrough under coach Chad Morris in 2017. SMU just missed out on a bowl last year but should reach the postseason next fall. Receiver Courtland Sutton and running back Braeden West headline an improving (and potentially dynamic) offense.
The Orange might be one year away from reaching a bowl game under coach Dino Babers, but this program showed progress in 2016 and should take another step forward next fall. A healthy (and full) season from quarterback Eric Dungey would be a huge boost for Syracuse and its potential bowl hopes in 2017. Dungey threw for 2,679 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine games last year but faced a lot of pressure from an offensive line that dealt with a handful of injuries and surrendered 38 sacks. Amba Etta-Tawo (94 catches) will be missed at receiver. However, Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael return, and running back Dontae Strickland is back to anchor the ground attack. Scoring points won’t be a problem, but Syracuse won’t push for a bowl without improvement by its defense. This unit gave up 6.9 yards per play in 2016.
Willie Fritz was one of the top coaching hires from last offseason and guided the Green Wave to a 4-8 record in his first year. As expected, Fritz and this coaching staff needed a year to transition offensive schemes and find an answer at quarterback. Junior college recruit Jonathan Banks could be the answer under center, and running back Dontrell Hilliard (759 yards) retruns to anchor the ground game. The defense will miss standout tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley.
The Blazers are back after a two-year hiatus on the gridiron and return as the 14th member of Conference USA. Rebuilding the program (and roster) is no easy assignment, but coach Bill Clark is one of the best in C-USA and will have this team competitive right away in 2017. Additionally, with facility improvements already underway and potentially a new stadium in the near future, this program is clearly trending up as it makes its return to the gridiron on Sept. 2.
Scott Frost’s first year at the helm resulted in a six-game improvement in the win column for the Knights. UCF has a few key losses to address on defense, but the offense should improve if quarterback McKenzie Milton takes a step forward in his development.
Despite losing quarterback Garrett Smith to a season-ending injury in mid-October, the Warhawks improved their win total by two games in 2016. First-year coach Matt Viator was a solid hire last offseason and returns enough talent to push for more improvement in the win column in 2017.
The Roadrunners earned the program’s first bowl appearance under new coach Frank Wilson in 2016 and enter 2017 as one of the frontrunners in a wide-open C-USA West Division. Standout running back Jarveon Williams must be replaced, but quarterback Dalton Sturm and the top four receivers are back next fall. The defense is anchored by linebacker Josiah Tauaefa (115 stops as a freshman in 2016) and end Marcus Davenport (second-team All-Conference USA).
The Demon Deacons have showed marked improvement under coach Dave Clawson and finished 2016 on a high note by beating Temple in the Military Bowl. A few key pieces must be replaced on defense, but the offense should take a step forward.