Athlon projects college football's very early top 25 teams for 2018.
The start of college football's 2018 season is still several months away, but with spring practice underway it's never too early to look ahead and predict how the top 25 could look by next year. While personnel changes and coaching moves are expected to continue throughout the spring and have an impact on this list, the top of the rankings has a few familiar faces in the mix. Alabama tops the way-too-early rankings, with Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia rounding out the top four. The next group of teams is headlined by Miami and Oklahoma, with Michigan, Auburn, Wisconsin and Michigan State rounding out the top 10.
Expect several tweaks to this NCAA football top 25 ranking between March and August or before the 2018 officially starts. However, with the early entry deadline for the NFL Draft out of the way, the outlook for all 130 teams is starting to come into focus.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2018, followed by a handful of other teams to watch this offseason:
Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018
Nick Saban’s team will lose a handful of key contributors from its 2017 team, but this program is still one of the favorites to win it all and tops Athlon's early college football rankings for 2018. The offense is likely to be led by Tua Tagovailoa after leading Alabama to a second-half comeback and a national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. The offensive line ranks among the best in college football with the return of four starters, including left tackle Jonah Williams. As expected, the skill positions took a hit in early entrants to the NFL Draft. Receiver Calvin Ridley and running back Bo Scarbrough made an early jump to the next level, but Damien Harris is back for his senior year to lead the way on the ground. Sophomore-to-be Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs will also see plenty of snaps behind Harris at running back. At receiver, the Crimson Tide have three promising players ready for bigger roles in 2018. DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs will each see more snaps after Ridley's early departure for the NFL. Alabama’s defense will have a new play-caller after Jeremy Pruitt left to take the top spot at Tennessee. Tosh Lupoi will call the signals for the defense next fall, with Pete Golding hired away from UTSA to share the co-defensive coordinator role. However, don’t expect the standard of performance to change much on the Crimson Tide defense. End Da’Shawn Hand, tackle Da'Ron Payne, linebackers Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton and defensive backs Tony Brown, Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Levi Wallace must be replaced. But as expected in Tuscaloosa, the next wave of stars is ready to step up. Lineman Raekwon Davis and linebackers Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses are the leaders for the defense next fall. Former LSU cornerback and junior college recruit Saivion Smith is expected to play a major role in the secondary. The Crimson Tide also have a favorable crossover schedule in SEC play (no Georgia) and its toughest road date is at LSU on Nov. 3. Auburn has to come to Tuscaloosa next season.
The Tigers should be favored to win their fourth consecutive ACC title next year. The offense will return nearly intact for coach Dabo Swinney, starting with quarterback Kelly Bryant and running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne. While Bryant is the returning starter under center, five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence joins the mix this offseason. His progress will be a storyline to watch in offseason workouts, especially after the offense struggled in the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors a line that must replace three starters on the interior. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation with the return of Hunter Renfrow, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. Under the play-calling of coordinator Brent Venables, the Tigers will once again rank among the best on defense in college football. And Venables received a good surprise at the draft deadline, as ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and tackle Christian Wilkins decided to return to Death Valley. Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel departs after a standout senior campaign, and cornerback Ryan Carter also expires his eligibility. Tackle Dexter Lawrence, linebacker Kendall Joseph and cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Mark Fields headline the other key returning players for Clemson. The schedule isn’t too daunting, but road trips to Texas A&M and Florida State are on tap next fall.
3. Ohio State
Urban Meyer has won at least 11 games in each of his six seasons at Ohio State. Despite some key players moving on, the Buckeyes aren’t going to slip too far in the win column. That’s largely due to Meyer and his staff delivering standout recruiting classes, as well as a talented core to build around from the 2017 team. Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell will compete to replace J.T. Barrett at quarterback, with Haskins leading the way as the favorite to take the first snap. The Buckeyes should be able to ease the transition of the new signal-caller due to a strong supporting cast. The receiving corps returns its top six performers from 2017, including Parris Campbell (40 catches) and K.J. Hill (56). J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber combined for 2,201 yards and 19 rushing scores in 2017 and should lead the way for the offense next year. The line loses three starters, including All-Americans Jamarco Jones (left tackle) and Billy Price (center). The Buckeyes lost end Sam Hubbard, linebacker Jerome Baker and cornerback Denzel Ward to the NFL, but Nick Bosa returns to anchor the line, and Tuf Boland is a future star in Columbus at linebacker. Despite the personnel losses at each level, Ohio State has a cast of talented underclassmen on the depth chart ready to step into bigger roles. The schedule features road trips to Purdue, Penn State and Michigan State, along with a neutral-site matchup against TCU. The annual showdown against Michigan takes place in Columbus on Nov. 24.
Expect Georgia to be a fixture in the CFB Playoff picture under Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs showed marked improvement from 2016 to '17 and another strong recruiting class is on the way next fall to add even more talent and depth in Athens. The one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel must be replaced at running back, but D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien and freshmen Zamir White and James Cook will be more than enough to keep the ground game firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Jake Fromm should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter, and the Bulldogs return two out of their top three receivers. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn will be missed, but the rest of the line returns intact, which should rank among the best in the nation. Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker have some big names to replace on defense but a significant drop in production isn’t likely. First-team All-American Roquan Smith was arguably the best defensive player in college football for 2017 and decided to bolt to the NFL after the national championship loss to Alabama. Natrez Patrick was sidelined for the CFB Playoff due to an off-field incident but could provide a boost at linebacker in the fall. Additionally, all-SEC cornerback Deandre Baker is back for another year. Cornerback Malkom Parrish, safety Dominick Sanders, defensive back Aaron Davis, nose guard John Atkins and linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Reggie Carter expire their eligibility. Georgia doesn’t have a tough non-conference slate but road trips to South Carolina, Missouri and LSU are on tap. Auburn visits Athens for a SEC showdown on Nov. 10.
The Hurricanes are a program on the rise under coach Mark Richt. Miami was perhaps a year ahead of schedule by pushing for a CFB Playoff berth in 2017, but this team will be squarely in the mix for the top four in 2018. The Hurricanes open the year with an intriguing matchup against LSU in Arlington and host Florida State in their annual rivalry showdown. A road trip to Virginia Tech is the toughest away matchup, but the rest of the 2018 slate is manageable. Quarterback Malik Rosier threw for 3,120 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for 468 yards and five scores, but the senior will be pushed for the starting job by redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry and 2018 recruit Jarren Williams. With Mark Walton moving onto the NFL, true freshman Lorenzo Lingard and junior Travis Homer are set to anchor the ground game. The receiving corps loses Braxton Berrios and tight end Christopher Herndon, but Ahmmon Richards will return to full strength after a season-ending injury, and the Hurricanes will get bigger contributions from 2017 freshmen Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley. Richt will have a little work to do in the trenches after the departure of left tackle Kc McDermott and guard Trevor Darling. Manny Diaz has built one of the ACC’s top defenses over the last two years, and this unit could be even better than its 2017 version. The biggest concern for Diaz likely rests in the trenches after Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh declared early for the NFL. Ends Chad Thomas and Trent Harris, tackle Anthony Moten and cornerback Dee Delaney are the only seniors departing from the defensive depth chart from the Orange Bowl. The linebacker unit returns all three starters, including Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. Safety Jaquan Johnson and cornerbacks Michael Jackson and Trajan Bandy round out a strong secondary.
What’s in store for Lincoln Riley in 2018 after an impressive debut as Oklahoma’s head coach? For starters, the Sooners are likely to begin next season as the favorite to win the Big 12. There’s no doubt the offense will miss quarterback Baker Mayfield, but Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray should keep the unit performing at a high level. Additionally, Murray’s transition to the lineup should be eased by running backs Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, along with receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Left tackle Orlando Brown left for the NFL, and tight end Mark Andrews followed him to the next level. Even though Brown is a huge loss, the Sooners will return three starters from one of the nation’s top offensive lines in 2017. Riley will once again enter a season with question marks on defense. Oklahoma must replace Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, linebacker Emmanuel Beal, safety Steven Parker and end D.J. Ward. Can this unit take a step forward next fall? Linebackers Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray, along with cornerbacks Parnell Motley, Tre Norwood and Tre Brown provide a young foundation in the back seven, with Amani Bledsoe, Marquise Overton and Kenneth Mann returning to anchor the trenches. An interesting schedule note: Oklahoma opens with Lane Kiffin and FAU in 2018.
After a rebuilding year in 2017, the Wolverines are poised for a rebound back into the top 10 in 2018. In order for Jim Harbaugh’s team to win the conference title, the offense needs to find stability under center. Brandon Peters struggled in the bowl loss to South Carolina, and he will be pushed by Dylan McCaffrey after a redshirt year and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson (if granted immediate eligibility). The running back corps should be strong with the return of Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and Kareem Walker. And the receiving unit is in better shape than the 2017 version thanks to the return of Tarik Black from a season-ending injury. Black joins Grant Perry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Kekoa Crawford and tight end Sean McKeon as key contributors in the passing game. Outside of the quarterback spot, the offensive line is Harbaugh’s top concern, as left tackle Mason Cole and center Patrick Kugler expire their eligibility. Will this group take a step forward? In an effort to improve the play of this unit, Harbaugh hired veteran assistant Ed Warinner as the team's new offensive line coach. Warinner has previous stops on his resume from stints at Kansas, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Minnesota. Don Brown’s defense should rank among the best in the nation once again. This unit is slated to return nearly intact, but tackle Maurice Hurst and linebacker Mike McCray depart to the NFL. Linebacker Devin Bush and end Rashan Gary should push for All-American honors, with Khaleke Hudson (LB) and cornerback Lavert Hill returning as key contributors. Michigan’s schedule is challenging. Road games await at Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State. Additionally, the Wolverines catch Wisconsin in crossover play.
The Badgers were on the doorstep of making the CFB Playoff in 2017 and will be heavy favorites to win the Big Ten West Division once again. Coach Paul Chryst’s offense can lean on running back Jonathan Taylor after a standout freshman campaign, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook is poised to take another step forward as a junior. Hornibrook loses favorite target Troy Fumagalli, but Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor form one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. And as usual, Wisconsin should be strong in the trenches. Second-year coordinator Jim Leonhard has to retool a defense that led the Big Ten in scoring defense at 13.9 points a game allowed. Ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs and defensive backs Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson expire their eligibility. Additionally, cornerback Nick Nelson declared for the NFL Draft, but the good news is that standout linebacker T.J. Edwards announced he is returning for his senior season. Wisconsin’s 2018 schedule features road trips to Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018
Auburn ended Alabama’s three-year run at the top of the SEC West in 2017. Can coach Gus Malzahn’s team make it two in a row? This team has enough to knock off the Crimson Tide once again, but trips to Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama form a challenging road slate. Additionally, the opener against Washington won’t be easy. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns after an impressive debut, and the passing game should thrive with the return of the top five pass catchers from 2017, including Ryan Davis (76 catches) and Darius Slayton (23.9 ypc). Running back Kerryon Johnson earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors by Athlon Sports but decided to leave early for the NFL. With Johnson off to the next level, Kam Martin, Malik Miller, Devan Barrett, JaTarvious Whitlow and incoming freshman Asa Martin will compete for carries. Malzahn’s biggest concern rests up front. The Tigers lose All-America guard Braden Smith, while center Casey Dunn and tackles Austin Golson and Darius James expire their eligibility. Auburn's defense suffered a setback when cornerback Carlton Davis and edge rusher Jeff Holland left for the NFL. Even though Davis and Holland are big losses, this defense should still have enough talent to rank among the best in the SEC. Look for juniors Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown to emerge as one of the SEC’s best defensive linemen next fall.
10. Michigan State
The Spartans were one of college football’s most improved teams in 2017, increasing their win total by seven games from 2016. Can coach Mark Dantonio’s team challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten East Division title in 2018? The hopes of a trip to Indianapolis start with quarterback Brian Lewerke. As a sophomore in 2017, he threw for 20 touchdowns and 2,793 yards and added 559 yards and five scores on the ground. Running back LJ Scott is back for one more year in 2018, and the senior-to-be will anchor a backfield that also features Madre London (304 yards). Lewerke will lose starting center Brian Allen, but four other starters return up front. The receiving corps is also a bright spot, as Felton Davis (55 catches), Darrell Stewart (50) and Cody White (35) all return in 2018. The defense only gave up 20 points a game in 2017 and returns nearly intact. End Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Chris Frey are the lone seniors set to depart this group, with linebacker Joe Bachie, end Kenny Willekes, safety David Dowell and cornerback Josiah Scott forming a strong foundation. The Spartans also have a favorable schedule. Dantonio’s team misses Wisconsin in crossover play and catches Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing.
11. Penn State
After winning 14 games in his first two seasons at Penn State, coach James Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to 22 victories and back-to-back trips to New Year’s Six Bowls. In order for Penn State to reach that level once again in 2018, Franklin’s team will have to fill a couple of voids, none bigger than at running back in replacing Saquon Barkley. Former five-star recruit Miles Sanders should be a standout performer at running back, but Barkley’s all-around big-play ability will be missed. With Barkley off to the NFL, the offense will lean a little more on quarterback Trace McSorley. As a junior in 2017, he completed 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 491 yards and 11 scores. McSorley’s receivers will look a little different, as DaeSean Hamilton (53 catches) and standout tight end Mike Gesicki have finished their eligibility. In addition to the personnel turnover, this unit will be under the direction of a new play-caller in Ricky Rahne after Joe Moorhead left to be the head coach at Mississippi State. The defense only gave up 4.77 yards a play in 2017, but coordinator Brent Pry will have some key players to replace. Linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley each expire their eligibility. The Nittany Lions should have a strong front with the return of Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney and Kevin Givens in the trenches. Additionally, cornerback John Reid is back after missing all of 2017 due to an injury suffered in the spring. Five-star freshman Micah Parsons is expected to factor into the mix at linebacker. Penn State has a road trip at Michigan but games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin take place in Happy Valley.
The Huskies are coming off back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1990-91. In order to reach that level in 2017, coach Chris Petersen will have to fill a couple of key voids on both sides of the ball. The offense will have a new play-caller (Bush Hamdan) after Jonathan Smith left to be the head coach at Oregon State. Hamdan has a solid core to build around on offense with the return of quarterback Jake Browning, tackle Trey Adams and tight end Hunter Bryant. Running back Myles Gaskin has posted three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and decided to pass on the NFL for his senior year. Even with Gaskin returning, Salvon Ahmed should see a bigger role in the offense after rushing for 388 yards and three scores on 61 carries in 2017. The Huskies need to develop more playmakers for Browning on the outside after Dante Pettis (63 receptions) expired his eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl. A healthy Chico McClatcher and the addition of freshman Marquis Spiker will alleviate some of the concern at receiver. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in each of Petersen’s three years in Seattle. This group must replace standout lineman Vita Vea, linebacker Keishawn Bierria and safety Ezekiel Turner. However, co-coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski return plenty of talent to build around, including linebacker Ryan Bowman, cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp. Don’t expect a drastic drop in production on defense. Most importantly for Washington: Stanford visits Seattle next fall. The Huskies are the Pac-12's best hope of getting a team in the CFB Playoff in 2018.
It’s a toss up between Washington and Stanford for the early No. 1 spot in the Pac-12 North. Quarterback K.J. Costello returns after a solid debut for coach David Shaw, as he threw for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 appearances. He's out for spring due to injury but should return 100 percent in time for fall practice. Costello has a stocked group of options to throw to next fall, including JJ Arcega-Whiteside (nine touchdown catches), Trenton Irwin (43) and tight end Kaden Smith. Even though the passing game will take a step forward with a full year of development by Costello, the offense still runs through running back Bryce Love. As a junior in 2017, Love rushed for over 2,000 yards and posted 13 rushes of 50 or more yards. The Cardinal should have one of the nation’s top offensive lines next fall, as guard/tackle David Bright is the lone departure from a group that allowed only 17 sacks in 2017. Additionally, former top recruit Walker Little returns to anchor one of the tackle spots after missing a chunk of time due to injury. Stanford’s defense allowed 5.98 yards per play in 2017, which was its highest mark over the last 10 seasons. Coordinator Lance Anderson will have some work to do this offseason to get the defense back to the top of the Pac-12. That task won’t get any easier after cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid followed tackle Harrison Phillips to the NFL. Linebacker Bobby Okereke (96 tackles) should rank among the Pac-12’s top returning defenders for 2018.
14. Notre Dame
After a disappointing 2016 season, the Fighting Irish rebounded with a 10-win campaign in 2017. Can Notre Dame take another step forward and compete for a CFB Playoff berth next fall? Coach Brian Kelly’s team will find out right away where it stacks up with an opener against Michigan, along with a date against Stanford on Sept. 29. The schedule also features matchups at Virginia Tech and USC, along with a home game against Florida State in mid-November. After Ian Book guided the Fighting Irish to a bowl win over LSU, the sophomore-to-be will compete with Brandon Wimbush for the starting quarterback job. Running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown decided to leave early for the NFL, which added question marks on offense prior to spring ball. Standout left tackle Mike McGlinchey finished his eligibility after the Citrus Bowl, and All-America guard Quenton Nelson is leaving South Bend early for the NFL. The arrival of coordinator Mike Elko provided a boost for the defense in 2017, and this unit limited opponents to 21.5 points a game. However, Elko is headed to Texas A&M, which is a setback for a defense that was poised to take another step forward in 2018. Linebacker coach Clark Lea was promoted to play-caller, and he received good news at the draft deadline when linebacker Te’von Coney and lineman Jerry Tillery decided to return for 2018. Drue Tranquill, Julian Love and Nick Coleman return to anchor the secondary. Expect Navy transfer Alohi Gilman to be an impact addition at safety.
15. Virginia Tech
With quarterback Josh Jackson expected to take a step forward in his development this offseason, the Hokies should be poised to make another run at the Coastal Division title. Jackson threw for 2,991 yards and 20 scores and rushed for 324 yards and six touchdowns in a standout freshman campaign in 2017. Restocking the offensive line and developing a few playmakers will be the top priorities this offseason for coach Justin Fuente. Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples are a promising duo at running back, while Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Phil Patterson and Caleb Farley will be asked to step up at receiver to replace Cam Phillips. Additionally, Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton could be an impact player after catching 51 passes for the Cardinals in 2016. Guard Wyatt Teller is the biggest loss on a line that must replace three starters. The defense will be anchored by standout tackle Ricky Walker, but the unit is set to lose standout cornerback Greg Stroman, and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Terrell Edmunds and tackle Tim Settle left early for the NFL. Even with a few departures, Virginia Tech’s defense isn’t likely to suffer too much on the stat sheet with Bud Foster calling the plays.
16. Florida State
It's a new start for Florida State football with Willie Taggart at the controls. Taggart is a strong hire for the Seminoles, and the program is due to rebound after a 7-6 record in Jimbo Fisher’s last year in 2017. Taggart’s first priority this spring is to sort out the quarterback battle between Deondre Francois and James Blackman. Francois suffered a season-ending leg injury against Alabama in Week 1, while Blackman started the next 12 contests as a true freshman and threw for 2,230 yards and 19 scores. Regardless of which quarterback starts, there will be changes to the overall scheme and tempo under Taggart’s watch. Cam Akers (1,025 yards in 2017) returns after a strong freshman season, and he’s joined by Jacques Patrick (735 yards) to form a potent duo in the backfield. Depth and proven options in the passing game will be a question mark after tight end Ryan Izzo and receiver Auden Tate declared early for the NFL Draft. The offensive line returns nearly intact, but this group needs to take a step forward after giving up 32 sacks last season. End Josh Sweat and safety Derwin James declared for the NFL Draft, and the defense is set to lose linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins and tackle Derrick Nnadi. However, the cupboard isn’t bare. End Brian Burns, tackle Demarcus Christmas and cornerback Levonta Taylor provide a foundation to build around for Florida State’s new defensive coordinator (Harlon Barnett) in 2018. Clemson visits Tallahassee next year, but Taggart’s debut features road trips to Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State and Miami. A rebound year to eight or nine wins is certainly within reach for Florida State in 2018.
17. Mississippi State
New coach Joe Moorhead is stepping into a favorable roster situation for his first year in Starkville. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returns after accumulating 230.5 total yards a game in 2017 and should be healed from a season-ending leg injury suffered against Ole Miss by fall workouts. Even if Fitzgerald is slowed in his recovery, backup Keytaon Thompson impressed as a true freshman in his absence by beating Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl. After developing one of the nation’s top offenses at Penn State, Moorhead should have no trouble utilizing the returning skill talent, including running backs Aeris Williams (1,107 yards) and Kylin Hill (393) and receivers Jesse Jackson, Keith Mixon and Malik Dear. Incoming junior college recruit Stephen Guidry could be an impact addition at receiver. Standout left tackle Martinas Rankin departs, but the Bulldogs return four other starters in the trenches. New coordinator Bob Shoop is a veteran of the SEC after stints at Vanderbilt and Tennessee. He inherits a group that limited opponents to just 20.9 points a game and featured only two seniors among its top 10 tacklers in 2017. Lineman Jeffery Simmons, linebackers Leo Lewis and Gerri Green and rush end Montez Sweat will lead the way for Shoop’s defense in 2018.
After Oklahoma, the Big 12 appears to be wide open in the middle of the league. Will the Longhorns emerge as the biggest threat to the Sooners? Or is this team another year away? Coach Tom Herman reeled in a standout class on the early signing period, so help is on the way for a team losing five key players to the NFL Draft. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, punter Michael Dickson, safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Holton Hill and tackle Connor Williams leave big shoes to fill next fall. While the Longhorns averaged only 5.2 yards a play in 2017, the offense should improve next fall. Herman’s team returns two quarterbacks with starting experience (Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger), running back Daniel Young and the team’s top three receiving targets. Finding a replacement for Williams at left tackle and generating overall better play from the line that gave up 34 sacks has to be a priority this offseason. Coordinator Todd Orlando is one of the best defensive minds in college football and should keep the defense playing at a high level despite some key players moving onto the NFL. The schedule also is manageable for Herman’s team. The Longhorns open the year with a neutral-site game against Maryland and have road trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State on tap. However, USC, TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State all visit Austin next year.
Ed Orgeron completed his first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge with a 9-4 mark. LSU had its share of ups and downs in 2017, which included a home loss to Troy, a bowl defeat to Notre Dame but also resulted in a 27-23 win over Auburn and a 6-2 mark in league play. But Orgeron and this team enter 2018 with some significant question marks to address. Most importantly, what tweaks will Steve Ensminger put on the offense in his first full year as the play-caller? The question marks for Ensminger start under center, as quarterback after Danny Etling expired his eligibility. Sophomore Myles Brennan is expected to be the starter, but he attempted only 24 passes in his first year on campus. The ground game is also looking for a new go-to option after running back Derrius Guice left early for the NFL. The receiving corps is a question mark after DJ Chark (35 catches) expired his eligibility but should get a boost with Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles. The early departures by tackle Toby Weathersby and center Will Clapp to the NFL added uncertainty to an offensive line that was inconsistent in 2017. While the offense is unsettled, LSU will be among the best in the SEC on defense. Cornerback Greedy Williams is a rising star in the secondary, and linebacker Devin White should challenge for All-America honors. The Tigers are losing a couple of key seniors in the trenches, but Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko will provide immediate help. LSU’s schedule is tough, starting with a neutral site game against Miami in Week 1, followed by road dates against Auburn and Florida before November. The Tigers also host Georgia and Alabama next fall.
20. Boise State
The Broncos should open 2018 as the preseason favorite to claim the Group of 5 bowl spot in the New Year’s Six. Boise State got off to a slow start in 2017 but improved throughout the season, eventually finishing 11-3 with a win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Coach Bryan Harsin’s team will miss receiver Cedrick Wilson, tight end Jake Roh and center Mason Hampton from an offense that averaged 32.5 points a game. Quarterback Brett Rypien (2,877 yards, 16 TDs) is back to lead the way on offense, and running back Alexander Mattison also returns after rushing for 1,086 yards and 12 touchdowns. Standout linebacker Leighton Vander Esch left early for the NFL, but the rest of the defensive core returns intact. Boise State limited opponents to 22.9 points a game in 2017 and could lower that total next fall. Road trips to Troy and Oklahoma State dot the non-conference slate, but Colorado State, Fresno State and San Diego State each visit the blue turf in the regular season.
21. West Virginia
With a healthy Will Grier under center, the Mountaineers should easily rebound from their 7-6 record in 2017. Grier should be in the mix for preseason All-America honors after throwing for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in 11 contests in his debut in Morgantown. Grier returns two out of his top three receivers from 2017, including Gary Jennings (97 catches) and David Sills (18 TD receptions). Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons is another name to watch on the outside. Leading rusher Justin Crawford (1,061 yards) expired his eligibility, but Kennedy McKoy (596 yards), Martell Pettaway and Tevin Bush should be a capable trio in the backfield. The offensive line loses guard Kyle Bosch, but the rest of the line returns intact, including left tackle Yodny Cajuste. After finishing second in the Big 12 in scoring defense in 2016, West Virginia slipped to seventh in '17. The 2018 unit has the pieces in place to improve, especially with David Long returning at linebacker and four out of the top seven tacklers coming back to Morgantown. The Mountaineers will miss safety Kyzir White and linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton from a defense that gave up 204.2 rushing yards a game in 2017. Coach Dana Holgorsen’s team won’t have many breaks on its 2018 slate, as a neutral site matchup against Tennessee takes place in Week 1, followed by a road trip to NC State on Sept. 15. The Mountaineers also play at Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma State.
The Mario Cristobal era officially begins in Eugene in 2018. While Cristobal worked as the Oregon head coach for the Las Vegas Bowl, this offseason is his first opportunity to put his stamp on the program. Cristobal isn’t taking over a major rebuilding project either, as this team has enough talent to push for eight or nine wins next fall. Running back Royce Freeman expired his eligibility after the 2017 season, but the offense should continue to thrive behind quarterback Justin Herbert. With Freeman moving on, Tony Brooks-James and Darrian Felix are the top options at running back, while the receiving corps is set to lose Charles Nelson (32 catches in 2017). The Ducks are set to return four starters up front, with left tackle Tyrell Crosby the lone departure from the starting group in the Las Vegas Bowl. Coordinator Jim Leavitt helped Oregon cut its scoring defense average from 41.4 points per game in 2016 to 29 in 2017. Keeping Leavitt in Eugene was a priority, and the former USF head coach is back for 2018. Leavitt’s work with the defense should continue next fall, as the Ducks return standouts in linebacker Troy Dye and linebacker Jalen Jelks, along with cornerback Thomas Graham after a promising freshman campaign. A key scheduling note for Oregon in 2018: Stanford and Washington both visit Eugene.
With quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones off to the NFL, the race to win the Pac-12 South is wide open. Coach Clay Helton’s team gets the edge for now, but Utah and Arizona aren't far behind going into spring ball. With Jones and receiver Deontay Burnett also making an early jump, the Trojans will have to rely even more on a pair of promising freshmen from 2017 to take on a larger role next season in receiver Tyler Vaughns and running back Stephen Carr. Incoming freshman JT Daniels reclassified in order to graduate this year and join the quarterback battle for 2018. In addition to Daniels, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and sophomore Matt Fink are competing to replace Darnold. The offensive line had its share of ups and downs in 2017 but all five starters are slated to return next fall. The defense was also hit with an early departure, as lineman Rasheem Green passed on his senior year. Green will be missed up front, but coordinator Clancy Pendergast's group still returns linebacker Cameron Smith, lineman Christian Rector and defensive backs Iman Marshall and Jack Jones. However, this unit will miss the playmaking ability of linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and must tighten up in the secondary after giving up 13 pass plays of 40 or more yards (tied for 10th most in the Pac-12).
24. Kansas State
The biggest question mark for Kansas State was resolved on Jan. 2, as coach Bill Snyder decided to return for another year. Snyder’s return ensures the Wildcats will push for a spot in the preseason NCAA football top 25. The bad news for Snyder? Cornerback D.J. Reed and receiver Byron Pringle decided to leave early for the NFL Draft. The overall formula for Kansas State won’t change in 2018. This offense is going to lean on its ground game, which features two talented quarterbacks vying for the starting job in Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson, along with running back Alex Barnes (819 yards). The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12 with all five starters returning, including standout right tackle Dalton Risner. In addition to Reed’s departure, the defense loses All-Big 12 tackle Will Geary and two starting linebackers (Jayd Kirby and Trent Tanking).
Dan Mullen’s arrival in Gainesville should provide some immediate help for an offense that has ranked 11th or worse in scoring in the SEC over the last three years. Mullen’s first priority is to find a quarterback, and the answer could come in the form of true freshman Emory Jones. Regardless of who starts under center, the Gators will have a better scheme and direction than previous seasons. Additionally, Lamical Perine (562 yards) returns to lead the ground game, and receiver Tyrie Cleveland (18.6 ypc) is back to anchor the receiving corps. Perine will have help at running back after Jordan Scarlett - missed 2017 due to an off-field issue - was reinstated to the team. The offensive line has plenty of room for improvement after giving up 37 sacks last fall. The defense gave up 27.3 points a game in 2017, but new coordinator Todd Grantham could quickly get this group back on track. However, standout cornerback Duke Dawson has finished his career in Gainesville, and defensive lineman Taven Bryan and safety Marcell Harris decided to leave for the NFL a year early. End Cece Jefferson and cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson are three players Grantham can build around in 2018. The schedule works in Mullen’s advantage for a quick turnaround. Florida plays its first three games at home and won’t leave the state of Florida for its final five games. Also, the crossover game against LSU takes place in Gainesville. An 8-4 debut is certainly within reach for Mullen.
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Other Teams to Watch
Kevin Sumlin was a solid hire, and the former Texas A&M coach should help quarterback Khalil Tate's development in 2018.
The Owls enter 2018 riding a 10-game winning streak and are slated to meet Oklahoma in an intriguing Sept. 1 matchup in Norman. Running back Devin Singletary returns to make another run at All-America honors, and FAU’s defense doesn’t feature a senior among its top 10 tacklers from 2017. The biggest concern for Lane Kiffin’s team is replacing three interior starters from the offensive line.
Under Jeff Tedford’s direction, Fresno State improved its win total by nine games compared to 2016. The Bulldogs lose a few pieces in the trenches, but quarterback Marcus McMaryion and standout linebacker Jeffrey Allison return. Fresno State should have an edge over San Diego State in the Mountain West’s West Division again next fall.
The Cyclones showed marked improvement in coach Matt Campbell’s second year by finishing 8-5 and earning a victory over Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. Another step forward in 2018 is within reach, especially with running back David Montgomery leading the way on offense.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson entered the NFL Draft, and the Cardinals need to improve a defense that allowed 27.4 points a game in 2017.
The Tigers finished 2016 by winning their last six regular season contests before falling to Texas in their bowl game. Quarterback Drew Lock is back for his senior year, but coach Barry Odom made a curious hire in Derek Dooley as the team's new offensive coordinator to replace Josh Heupel. Odom's defense also has room to grow after giving up 6.2 yards a play in SEC action.
The Wolfpack are coming off their best season (9-4) since winning nine games in 2010. However, the defensive line must be restocked, while running back Nyheim Hines and offensive lineman Will Richardson declared for the NFL Draft. Quarterback Ryan Finley decided to return for his senior year and will push for All-ACC honors in 2018.
The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in four out of the last five years. Hitting the double-digit victory total again in 2018 is a tough assignment for coach Mike Gundy, as the dynamic duo of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington have finished their eligibility. Gundy’s team still returns a good chunk of talent, including running back Justice Hill and receiver Dillon Stoner.
The Boilermakers suffer a few losses on defense, but it's safe to assume coach Jeff Brohm will find some of the right answers this offseason. Both quarterbacks that played in 2017 - David Blough and Elijah Sindelar - are recovering from significant leg injuries suffered during the regular season.
The Gamecocks quietly won nine games in 2017. In order for this team to take the next step, coach Will Muschamp is relying on new play-caller Bryan McClendon to help develop quarterback Jake Bentley and improve an attack that averaged 24.2 points a game. Receiver Deebo Samuel returns to the team after missing most of 2017 due to injury. Each level of the defense has talent to replace, while the offense loses two starters up front and tight end Hayden Hurst.
A year after finishing 6-7, the Horned Frogs rebounded to a second-place finish in the Big 12 with an 11-3 record. Maintaining the 11-win mark could be tough in 2018, especially with an offense set to lose four starters up front, quarterback Kenny Hill and running back Kyle Hicks. Shawn Robinson made one start as a true freshman in 2017 and opens spring ball as the favorite to take the first snap over four-star recruit Justin Rogers, who is recovering from an injury suffered as a high school senior. Darius Anderson (768 yards) and Sewo Olonilua (637) form a solid one-two punch in the backfield for 2018. And at receiver, Jalen Reagor (33 grabs) is a future star in Fort Worth. Just like the offense, TCU’s defense has some significant voids to fill this offseason. Cornerback Ranthony Texada, safety Nick Orr, linebacker Travin Howard and end Mat Boesen top the list of personnel departures. Defensive end Ben Banogu, tackle Ross Blacklock and safety Niko Small will headline the effort on defense next fall.
New coach Jimbo Fisher inherits a young roster with room to improve, but the Aggies lost receiver Christian Kirk to the NFL and face a tough September slate in 2018.
The Knights were the only FBS team to finish the 2017 season unbeaten and capped the year with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Scott Frost left for Nebraska, but new coach Josh Heupel inherits a strong core to build around, including quarterback McKenzie Milton. However, the front seven on defense loses a couple of key cogs, including linebacker Shaquem Griffin. Defensive back Mike Hughes and receiver Tre'Quan Smith also declared early for the NFL Draft.
Chip Kelly’s arrival adds intrigue to UCLA, but the Bruins have to transition to a new scheme and lost quarterback Josh Rosen to the NFL. New quarterback Devon Modster showed flashes of promise in limited action in 2017.
The Utes must replace a couple of key defenders and receiver Darren Carrington, but quarterback Tyler Huntley is back after averaging 294.8 total yards a game in his first season as the starter.