College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2018

Which teams are poised to improve their win total in 2018?

College football’s 2018 season won't get underway until August, but it's never too early to look ahead and predict which teams are poised for a significant leap in the rankings or win column next year. The 2018 version of college football's teams on the rise features West Virginia, Arizona, Georgia and Florida State from the Power 5 ranks, along with Houston, Temple and ULM from the Group of 5 ranks. 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 prior to 2018. However, this list reflects teams we think are poised to take a step forward next fall in the rankings or by an increase in wins. 

There’s a long ways to go until the 2018 season officially begins, but here are 20 teams we think are on the rise for next season (and a few to watch).

College Football's Top 20 Teams on the Rise for 2018

Arizona

With three teams changing coaches and USC replacing quarterback Sam Darnold, the Pac-12 South is wide open for 2018. Arizona is an intriguing wild card team in this division next fall, as new coach Kevin Sumlin inherits several promising pieces on a roster capable of winning the South crown. The most important piece in Sumlin’s 2018 offense is quarterback Khalil Tate. The dynamic junior-to-be averaged 272.9 total yards a game in 2017 and should thrive under a coach that has played a role in developing Johnny Manziel and Case Keenum at the collegiate level. Running back J.J. Taylor (847 yards) should push for all-conference honors, and Tate’s top two receivers – Tony Ellison and Shun Brown – are back for 2018. Rebuilding the line and helping Tate continue to develop as a passer are Sumlin’s top priorities on offense this spring. Arizona’s defense went with a youth movement in 2017 and the experience gained should translate into optimism for 2018. Coordinator Marcel Yates was retained on Sumlin’s staff to provide continuity for the young defense next fall. This unit features a handful of promising players, including Colin Schooler, Kylan Wilborn, Tony Fields and Lorenzo Burns. Sumlin seems like the right fit at the right time for Arizona. If Tate continues to develop, and the defense takes another step forward on the stat sheet, the Wildcats should contend in the South Division.

Buffalo

The Bulls are on the cusp of a breakthrough year in coach Lance Leipold’s fourth season. After a 2-10 record in 2016, Buffalo improved to 6-6 last fall and finished 4-4 in MAC play. The driving force behind the four-game jump in wins was an offense that averaged 28.5 points a contest – up from 16.5 in 2016. Injuries limited quarterback Tyree Jackson to nine games, but he still threw for 2,096 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 197 yards and four scores on the ground. The passing numbers were a clear improvement from 2016, as Jackson clearly benefitted from the emergence of Anthony Johnson (76 catches for 1,356 yards and 14 TDs) at receiver, along with a line that allowed just 17 sacks. Johnson is back for his senior year, with K.J. Osborn and Antonio Nunn returning to anchor the secondary targets at receiver. Additionally, the Bulls return their top two running backs – Emmanuel Reed and Theo Anderson – and three starters up front. Buffalo limited opponents to 24.8 points a game in 2017, and this unit should take a step forward next fall. Lineman Demone Harris, safety Ryan Williamson and linebacker Jarrett Franklin are significant departures, but Leipold’s group returns All-MAC linebacker Khalil Hodge and standout lineman Chuck Harris for 2018.

FAU

Lane Kiffin’s team finished 2017 on a 10-game winning streak, but the Owls are aiming even higher in 2018. With an opener against Oklahoma and a non-conference matchup against UCF next season, FAU has a chance to play its way into a New Year’s Six bowl as the top Group of 5 team. Coordinator Kendal Briles left for Houston, but the offense should remain one of the best in college football with Kiffin and new coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. at the controls. Running back Devin Singletary (1,920 yards) should be a preseason All-American and will ease the transition for the new quarterback. With Jason Driskel retiring, Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison or former Florida State signal-caller De’Andre Johnson will get the nod under center. Left tackle Reggie Bain will anchor a rebuilt line, while three out of the top five targets are back in the receiving corps. FAU’s defense was quietly one of the most-improved groups in college football last year. The Owls gave up 39.8 points a game in 2016 but cut that total to 22.7 in ’17. This unit should be even better next fall. FAU loses only two seniors among its top 15 tacklers, with first-team all-conference selections in linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, cornerback Shelton Lewis and safety Jalen Young leading the way for coordinator Chris Kiffin. Even if FAU falls short of a New Year’s Six bowl, this team should be in the mix to rank in the top 25.

Florida State

The 2017 season certainly didn’t go according to plan for Florida State, but the 2018 outlook and long-term trajectory is clearly pointing up with Taggart at the controls. Taggart takes over at Florida State after a one-year stint at Oregon. The Florida native is inheriting a roster that was clearly better than its 7-6 record indicated last fall. The Seminoles have two proven quarterbacks in Deondre Francois and James Blackman, with Taggart and coordinator Walt Bell changing the offense to utilize tempo and more spread looks. Running back Cam Akers returns after a standout freshman campaign, teaming with Jacques Patrick to form an effective one-two punch on the ground. Receiver Auden Tate declared early for the NFL, but Nyqwan Murray, Keith Gavin, George Campbell and D.J. Matthews is a good foundation at receiver. New line coach Greg Frey was a standout hire up front, and he’s tasked with helping a group that allowed 32 sacks last fall. Harlon Barnett takes over the defensive signals after a successful stint at Michigan State. Barnett won’t have safety Derwin James, end Josh Sweat or cornerback Tarvarus McFadden in Tallahassee next year, as all three players declared early for the NFL. But the cupboard isn’t bare. Tackle Demarcus Christmas and ends Brian Bruns and Joshua Kaindoh provide a strong foundation up front, and the secondary is anchored by cornerback Levonta Taylor. From 2013-17, Florida State averaged a 5.2 finish nationally in recruiting classes. Taggart’s “lethal simplicity” approach on offense, as well as a fresh start for the defense should help this program rebound closer to the nine-win mark in 2018.

Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2018

Houston

With Memphis replacing a handful of key players, Houston could be the early favorite to win the AAC West Division. Leading the way for second-year coach Major Applewhite is arguably the top returning defensive player in the nation: Ed Oliver. In two seasons with the Cougars, Oliver has recorded 39.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles and 139 overall stops. He’s the key cog in a defense that limited opponents to 23.8 points a game last fall. Applewhite and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio must replace a couple of key seniors from the 2017 defense, but two transfers – Darrion Owens (Miami) and Isaiah Chambers (TCU) – should provide help next fall. After Brian Johnson left for Florida, Applewhite hired former Baylor and FAU assistant Kendal Briles to call the plays. Under Briles’ direction, FAU averaged 40.6 points a game in 2017. The offense must replace its top two receivers and the right side of the line. However, Briles should help quarterback D’Eriq King develop with a full offseason to work under center. The dynamic junior will also have running back Duke Catalon (637 yards) providing support on the ground. Houston has a chance to make some early noise with Arizona visiting on Sept. 8, along with a road date at Texas Tech on Sept. 15. In conference play, Applewhite’s team misses UCF and has to play at Memphis and Navy. However, USF, Temple and Tulane have to visit TDECU Stadium.

Iowa State

Matt Campbell’s team was the biggest surprise in the Big 12 last year. The Cyclones knocked off both participants – Oklahoma and TCU – in the conference title game, claimed the Liberty Bowl trophy and posted the program’s highest win total (eight) since 2000. The program has also increased its talent level under Campbell, which should ensure less of a drop off for personnel losses on a year-to-year basis. Iowa State’s defense finished second in the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 20.9 points a game in 2017. This unit has a few significant players to replace, including linebacker Joel Lanning, lineman J.D. Waggoner and defensive backs Reggie Wilkerson, Kamari Cotton-Moya and Evrett Edwards. But coordinator Jon Heacock returns one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs in cornerback Brian Peavy, along with linebacker Marcel Spears (107 tackles) and end JaQuan Bailey (seven sacks). Iowa State’s offense is set to lose receiver Allen Lazard to the NFL but could receive a boost if quarterback Kyle Kempt is granted an additional year of eligibility. If Kempt does not return, Zeb Noland should be a capable option under center. Regardless of which quarterback takes the first snap, the goal of the offense will be to utilize running back David Montgomery. As a sophomore in 2017, Montgomery rushed for 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 36 passes. The line must replace left tackle Jake Campos and guard Robby Garcia, but three other starters are back for 2018. Iowa State’s schedule features home games against Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas State, while road contests are on tap against Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU. Even though the Cyclones have a few personnel concerns to address, Campbell has this program pointed in the right direction and another step forward in the win column wouldn’t be a surprise in 2018.

Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2018

Miami

With a young core of talent in place, Miami was perhaps a year early in its quest to reach the CFB Playoff. However, even with three consecutive losses to end the season, 2017 was still a good year for coach Mark Richt’s program. The Hurricanes reached the ACC title game for the first time since joining the league, played in a New Year’s Six Bowl, defeated rival Florida State and knocked off Notre Dame 41-8 in a mid-November showdown. While Clemson is the early favorite to win the ACC next fall, look for Miami to be squarely in the mix for a CFB Playoff spot. Quarterback Malik Rosier returns after throwing for 26 touchdowns in 2017, but the senior will be pushed by redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry. Regardless of which quarterback is in the lineup, the skill positions are loaded with talent. Travis Homer, DeeJay Dallas and incoming freshman Lorenzo Lingard lead the way at running back, with Ahmmon Richards, Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley rounding out the key targets at receiver. The line loses left tackle Kc McDermott and guard Trevor Darling, but Navaughn Donaldson is back after a promising freshman campaign, and right tackle Tyree St. Louis was steady throughout the 2017 season. Coordinator Manny Diaz must replace ends Chad Thomas and Trent Harris and tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, but the rest of the defense is in good shape. Linebacker Shaquille Quarterman is one of the ACC’s top returning defenders, and safety Jaquan Johnson should be in the mix for All-America honors. Miami has an opportunity to start fast in 2018, as a neutral site matchup against LSU is on tap in the opener, and Florida State visits Hard Rock Stadium on Oct. 6. Another double-digit win total is coming for Richt’s team next fall. 

Michigan

The Big Ten East Division features four teams – Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State – in the top 12 of Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2018. However, coach Jim Harbaugh’s team should be near the top of the division and in the mix for a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Wolverines posted back-to-back seasons of 10 victories from 2015-16 but slipped to 8-5 in a rebuilding year last fall. With most of the core returning from the 2017 team, along with three standout recruiting classes in place, Michigan should be improved in 2018. The big question surrounding this team remains quarterback play. Will Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson be eligible for 2018? And if not, will Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey emerge as the answer under center. In addition to the question marks under center, Michigan has to find new starters at both tackle spots. But the receiving corps should be improved with Tarik Black returning, along with another offseason of development from Donovan Peoples-Jones. Harbaugh also has a solid set of backs in place, including Karan Higdon (994 yards) and Chris Evans (685). Despite losing nearly all of its starters from the standout 2016 defense, Michigan didn’t miss a beat on this side of the ball in 2017. The Wolverines limited opponents to 4.5 yards per play and 18.8 points a game. This unit returns largely intact, including lineman Rashan Gary, linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long. With a dominant defense in place, any improvement by Michigan’s offense should be good enough to push this team back into double-digit wins.

Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018

Michigan State

The Spartans improved their win total by seven games from 2016 to ’17. With most of coach Mark Dantonio’s depth chart on both sides of the ball set to return, Michigan State will be in the mix to win the Big Ten title in 2018. Quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns and accounted for 559 yards and five scores on the ground. He’s a rising star to watch for the Michigan State offense, and the ground attack is in good shape with the return of running back LJ Scott. Lewerke will miss standout lineman Brian Allen, but the rest of the line returns intact. At receiver, Felton Davis (55 catches) and Darrell Stewart (50) headline the pass catchers. Harlon Barnett left to become the defensive coordinator at Florida State, and Dantonio opted for continuity with Mike Tressel promoted to play-caller. The standard isn’t going to change with Tressel at the helm, as Michigan State limited opponents to just 20 points a game last fall and could be even better in 2018. Just two seniors – linebacker Chris Frey and lineman Demetrius Cooper – were among the top 15 tacklers from last season. Additionally, linebacker Joe Bachie (100 tackles), cornerback Josiah Scott, safety David Dowell, end Kenny Willekes (14.5 TFL) should push for All-Big Ten honors. The path to the East Division title could run through East Lansing. The Spartans host Michigan and Ohio State, with a road trip to Penn State on tap for Oct. 13.

Mississippi State

Joe Moorhead is stepping into one of the best situations for a first-year coach. After a successful run as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Moorhead is tasked with continuing Mississippi State’s recent success, which includes bowl games in eight consecutive years. That shouldn’t be a problem for Moorhead in 2018, as the Bulldogs won’t lose much in the way of key players from last season’s team that finished 9-4. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald suffered a significant leg injury in the Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss but is on track to return by the 2018 opener. And if the dynamic senior isn’t ready to go, Keytaon Thompson is plenty capable of handling the offense. Moorhead is one of college football’s top minds on offense, and his arrival should help Fitzgerald develop as a passer. The supporting cast for Fitzgerald features the return of leading rusher Aeris Williams (1,107 yards) and four starters up front. The Bulldogs are looking for more playmakers at receiver, but the return of Malik Dear from injury and the 2018 recruiting class should provide immediate help. Moorhead hired SEC veteran Bob Shoop to coordinate a defense that limited opponents to 20.9 points a game last fall. Shoop’s front seven is stocked with talent. Edge rusher Montez Sweat is back after recording 15.5 tackles for a loss in 2017, and Jeffery Simmons will anchor the line after earning first-team All-SEC honors by Athlon Sports last fall. Shoop also has proven options at linebacker with the return of Gerri Green, Willie Gay, Errol Thompson and Leo Lewis. Mississippi State has to play LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss on the road, but Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M visit Starkville. If Moorhead can ensure a smooth transition between coaching staffs and Fitzgerald returns to 100 percent, Mississippi State has all of the pieces in place to finish second in the SEC West in 2018.

Nebraska

New athletic director Bill Moos hit a grand slam when he was able to bring Scott Frost back to Lincoln. Now after a successful two-year stint at UCF, Frost has his sights set on transforming Nebraska back into a Big Ten power. Expect progress in that area in 2018, as Frost and his staff will make an immediate impact on a team that went 4-8 last year. True freshman Adrian Martinez is a good fit for Frost’s spread attack and should push Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia for the starting quarterback job. The offense has talent at receiver to utilize with JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan, while running back Tre Bryant returns after missing most of 2017 due to injury. New coordinator Erik Chinander transformed a UCF defense that gave up 37.7 points a game in 2015 to one that allowed 24.6 the following year. Nebraska’s defense surrendered 36.4 points a contest last season but returns linebacker Dedrick Young (80 tackles), safety Aaron Williams (80 stops) and edge rusher Ben Stille (9.5 TFL). The Cornhuskers only lose three out of their top 15 tacklers from last season, and the front seven returns intact. With three home games to start 2018, Nebraska has an opportunity to start fast in Frost’s first season. And with Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois visiting Lincoln next fall, a bowl game should easily be within reach. Frost’s first season is all about building a foundation for the future. Looking ahead into the future, Nebraska is clearly on an upward trend with the Frost at the controls for 2019 and beyond.

Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018

Purdue

Jeff Brohm was one of the top hires in college football’s 2016-17 carousel, as the Boilermakers showed marked improvement under his watch. After winning just eight games in three years prior to Brohm’s arrival, Purdue finished 7-6 and claimed a victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. Brohm’s second team in West Lafayette has a few holes to fill, but it’s safe to assume this staff will find the right answers and make Purdue a bowl team once again. Quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar are recovering from significant leg injuries, but both are proven options for Brohm. Running back Markell Jones should find plenty of room behind a line that returns four starters. The receiving corps loses its top two targets – Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou – but the 2018 recruiting class could provide immediate help. The improvement wasn’t just limited to Brohm’s offense. Purdue’s defense surrendered 38.3 points a game in 2016 but cut that total to 20.5 a contest last fall. Coordinator Nick Holt has voids to address at each level this offseason in order to build on last year’s improvement. Purdue opens 2018 by playing its first four games at Ross-Ade Stadium and catches Iowa and Wisconsin in West Lafayette in November. Road trips to Michigan State and Nebraska are challenging, but the Boilermakers are poised to build on last year’s seven victories.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks capped a solid 2017 season by defeating Michigan in the Outback Bowl, earning a 9-4 record in coach Will Muschamp’s second year. The next step for South Carolina is to be a top-25 team next fall, and that’s certainly within reach with a promising core of talent in place on offense. New coordinator Bryan McClendon is tasked with jumpstarting an offense that averaged 24.2 points a game in 2017. McClendon’s efforts to improve this attack start with the development of quarterback Jake Bentley. As a sophomore in 2017, Bentley threw for 2,794 yards and 18 scores. If he can elevate his game, the Gamecocks can easily improve on their scoring average. Bentley lost tight end Hayden Hurst to the NFL, but the receiving corps is loaded with the return of Bryan Edwards, Shi Smith and OreTre Smith, and Deebo Samuel returns after missing most of 2017 due to injury. The offense also appears to have three capable running backs in place with Rico Dowdle (251 yards) back for a full year after missing a good chunk of 2017 due to injury. The line returns three starters, including tackle Zack Bailey. Muschamp’s defense allowed only 20.7 points a game but has to replace a few key figures at each level, including linebacker Skai Moore and defensive backs Chris Lammons, Rashad Fenton and JaMarcus King. However, end D.J. Wonnum (13 TFL) and linebacker T.J. Brunson (88 tackles) are back to anchor this defense for coach Will Muschamp. South Carolina also has a favorable slate next fall. Georgia visits Columbia in Week 2, and crossover games against Texas A&M and Ole Miss are winnable. Additionally, Tennessee and Missouri – both swing games – are in Columbia.

Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2018

Temple

A slow start was expected from Temple last year. After all, the Owls had to replace several key pieces from the 2016 team that won the American Athletic Conference and transition to a new coaching staff. While there were plenty of ups and downs along the way, Temple quietly improved late in the year under coach Geoff Collins. The Owls started 3-5 but won four out of their last five games. Additionally, three of the team’s losses came by seven points or less. With UCF and USF each losing key pieces from their 2017 teams, Temple could threaten both programs for the top spot in the East Division. The team’s late-season surge also came as Frank Nutile was inserted into the starting lineup at quarterback. Nutile returns in 2018, along with the team’s top two running backs and three starters up front. Collins has work to do on a defense that loses defensive backs Sean Chandler and Mike Jones and must replace Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin and Julian Taylor in the trenches. Quincy Roche is a name to remember off the edge, after he recorded 11.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman in 2017. Temple has to play at Houston and Navy but won’t catch Memphis in crossover play. Also, USF visits Philadelphia in 2018.  

Texas A&M

Texas A&M was easily one of the biggest winners from the coaching carousel during college football’s 2017-18 offseason. The first step in transforming the program was the hire of Jimbo Fisher from Florida State. Fisher went 83-23 during his stint in Tallahassee, and a fresh start in College Station with a familiar face in athletic director Scott Woodward should translate into success. Additionally, Fisher hired a standout staff, including former Notre Dame and Wake Forest coordinator Mike Elko as the team’s new defensive signal-caller. Fisher’s first priority is to sort out a quarterback battle that features two promising options in Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel. Fisher’s offense at Florida State suggests Starkel is the better fit, and this unit has plenty of weapons at the skill positions to improve upon last year’s 25.6 mark in SEC-only matchups. Running back Trayveon Williams returns after gaining 798 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and the receiving corps can lean on Jhamon Ausbon, Camron Buckley and Roshauud Paul to replace standout Christian Kirk. Assistant Jim Turner’s two-deep on the line of scrimmage returns nearly intact, and improvement is expected from a group that allowed 29 sacks last fall. Elko inherits a defense that gave up 30.7 points a game in 2017 but featured several freshmen and sophomores in key roles. Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka are back to anchor the linebacker unit and end Landis Durham (10.5 sacks) leads the way up front. Standout safety Armani Watts will be missed, but Derrick Tucker, Debione Renfro, Larry Pryor, Myles Jones and Charles Oliver gained valuable reps as underclassmen last fall. Additionally, safety Donovan Wilson is back after missing 2017 due to injury. Texas A&M will be tested right away with games against Clemson and Alabama in September, but Ole Miss and LSU visit College Station in November. Fisher recruits and develops talent at a high level. He seems like the right coach to get this program in a position to move forward in the SEC.

Tulane

Willie Fritz’s team just missed on a bowl game last season, as the Green Wave finished 5-7 in 2017 and lost four of its games by six points or less. However, the four-year postseason drought should end in 2018. The offense is poised to take a step forward with quarterback Jonathan Banks at the controls once again. In his first year with the program, Banks accounted for 592 rushing yards and seven scores and threw for 1,797 yards and 12 touchdowns. Banks returns his top three receiving targets, including Terren Encalade (18.7 ypc) and Darnell Mooney (34 catches). Texas Tech transfer Corey Dauphine and sophomore Stephon Huderson are expected to pickup where Dontrell Hilliard (1,091 yards) and Sherman Badie (350) left off at running back. The offense is also led by a line that returns four starters next fall. The defense has to replace standout cornerback Parry Nickerson and key cogs in tackles Ade Aruna and Sean Wilson, along with linebacker Rae Juan Marbley and defensive back Jarrod Franklin. Even if the defense takes time to reload, an improved offense should be more than enough for Tulane to reach the postseason next fall.

UAB

Bill Clark deserved consideration for national coach of the year honors after guiding UAB to an 8-5 record in its return to the gridiron following a two-year absence. Making Clark’s job even more remarkable was a roster built from scratch with transfers, junior college recruits and freshmen. Considering the team’s transition back to the gridiron and the rebuilt roster, an 8-5 record – the program’s best at the FBS level – and a trip to the Bahamas Bowl certainly wasn’t anticipated in the preseason. But the outlook for UAB’s program is clearly trending up. A new stadium could be in the works, and the program’s on-campus facilities are improving. And in 2018, the Blazers should enter the year among the favorites to win Conference USA’s West Division. Bryant Vincent is reportedly set to rejoin the staff as offensive coordinator and should build the gameplan around running back Spencer Brown (1,329 yards) and the steady play of quarterback A.J. Erdely. Helping Vincent’s transition back into the program is an offensive line that returns four full-time starters and the team’s top four statistical receivers from last fall. Clark’s defense limited opponents to 25.6 points a game in 2017 and should be near the top of Conference USA despite the losses of Shaq Jones and Tevin Crews in the front seven. The schedule also breaks in UAB’s favor. Southern Miss, UTSA and North Texas visit Birmingham and a non-conference game against Tulane also takes place at Legion Field.

UCLA

The Bruins were a big winner in the offseason’s coaching carousel, as former Oregon coach Chip Kelly replaces Jim Mora in 2018. Kelly previously went 46-7 with the Ducks from 2009-12 and is set to bring his up-tempo offense to Westwood after spending 2017 with ESPN. While the Bruins have to adapt to Kelly’s offense, and quarterback Josh Rosen must be replaced, this team could make some noise in the wide-open Pac-12 South next year. Devon Modster flashed potential in limited action, and he will be pushed at quarterback by Washington graduate transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels and incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In addition to settling the quarterback battle, Kelly has to retool the line and reload at receiver after Jordan Lasley jumped to the NFL and Darren Andrews finished his eligibility. However, Theo Howard (56 catches) and incoming freshman Bryan Addison are a good starting point at receiver, and tight end Caleb Wilson returns after missing most of 2017 due to an injury. After giving up 36.6 points a game last year, UCLA’s defense has only one way to go in 2018. This unit must replace linebacker Kenny Young, lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and defensive back Jaleel Wadood, but new coordinator Jerry Azzinaro returns standout safety Adarius Pickett and cornerback Darnay Holmes in the secondary, and former five-star recruit Jaelan Phillips is poised for a breakout year in the front seven. With USC, Stanford, Utah, Arizona and Washington all visiting the Rose Bowl next year, Kelly’s team has a chance to make some immediate noise in 2018. And with Kelly at the helm, UCLA is in good hands for the long haul.

Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2018

ULM

Coach Matt Viator has guided ULM to back-to-back 4-8 records to start his tenure in Monroe, but the Warhawks could be poised for a breakthrough year next fall. Four of the team’s eight losses in 2017 came by 10 points or less, and ULM knocked off Appalachian State 52-45 in early November. Viator’s offense will be led by dynamic quarterback Caleb Evans (287.3 ypg), with Alabama transfer Derrick Gore (585 yards) back to lead the ground attack once again. Receiver Marcus Green (55 catches) accounted for 167.3 all-purpose yards a game last fall and headlines a group of pass catchers that returns four out of the top five statistical options from 2017. Viator also returns a strong foundation up front on a line that allowed only 21 sacks last year. The defense needs to take a step forward after giving up 41 points a game in 2017. Only three seniors are among the team’s top 15 tacklers, so there’s plenty of experience returning on the defense next fall. The Sun Belt is shifting to divisions in 2018, with the Warhawks in the West with Arkansas State, Louisiana, South Alabama and Texas State. Assuming the defense improves, ULM should push for six or seven wins and second in the division behind Arkansas State.

West Virginia

Coach Dana Holgorsen was one of the big winners at the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline. Quarterback Will Grier, receivers Gary Jennings and David Sills and tackle Yodny Cajuste all passed on the NFL for another season in Morgantown. Grier is one of college football’s top returning quarterbacks, while Sills tied for the national lead with 18 touchdown grabs. In addition to the firepower in the passing game, West Virginia can lean on Kennedy McKoy (596 yards) and Martell Pettaway (149) to replace Justin Crawford. Guard Kyle Bosch is the only departure from a line that allowed only 19 sacks in 2017. The Mountaineers had to reload on defense last fall and finished seventh in the Big 12 in points allowed. Coordinator Tony Gibson is one of the best assistant coaches in the Big 12 and improvement on defense should be noticeable. Linebacker David Long is one of the Big 12’s top returning defenders, and the secondary is anchored by safeties Dravon Askew-Henry and Kenny Robinson. With all three starters returning up front, the defense should be better against the run in 2018. Replacing safety Kyzir White and cornerbacks Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle in the secondary will be a priority for Gibson this spring. West Virginia will be tested in non-conference play with games against Tennessee and Charlotte. But in league action, the Mountaineers host TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State.   

Others to Watch

Akron

Defending MAC East champs will have to hold off Ohio, Miami and Buffalo to return to Detroit once again. But quarterback Kato Nelson is talented and most of the defense returns intact for 2018.

Baylor

The Bears will be better in Matt Rhule’s second season. Quarterback Charlie Brewer is promising, and a couple of transfers will add depth and talent to both sides of the ball. Receiver Denzel Mims is back after catching 61 passes for 1,087 yards and eight scores.

Boston College

The 2018 version of Steve Addazio’s Eagles has a chance to be his best team since taking the job in 2013. Quarterback Anthony Brown and standout running back AJ Dillon are set to lead the offense, and the line should be one of the better units in the ACC. The defense suffered a few personnel losses but shouldn’t slip too far on the stat sheet. Addazio’s biggest obstacle might be a schedule that features road trips at Purdue, NC State, Virginia Tech and Florida State, along with home games against Louisville, Miami and Clemson.

California

Justin Wilcox’s team just missed out on a bowl last year. The addition of quarterback Brandon McIlwain as a transfer from South Carolina to compete with Ross Bowers, along with the return of receiver Demetris Robertson from injury, should help add punch to an offense that averaged 27.8 points a game in 2016.

Georgia State

The Panthers improved their win total by four games in coach Shawn Elliott’s first year in Atlanta. A new quarterback must emerge to replace Conner Manning, but Georgia State returns one of the Sun Belt’s top receivers in Penny Hart, along with a solid core of talent from a defense that limited opponents to 24.8 points a game last fall.

Old Dominion

The Monarchs hope to return to a bowl behind promising quarterback Steven Williams and standout defensive end Oshane Ximines.

UNLV

The Rebels fell short of a bowl game in coach Tony Sanchez’s third year with a 5-7 record. Can dynamic quarterback Armani Rogers get UNLV to the postseason in 2018?

Utah State

The Aggies rebounded from a 3-9 record in 2016 to a 6-7 finish last year. Coach Matt Wells’ team returns promising quarterback Jordan Love, and the defense returns largely intact in the front seven.