Athlon projects college football's top 25 teams for 2018.
The 2018 college football season is less than 100 days away, but it's never too early to start thinking about what might transpire this fall. Each FBS season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture, but a familiar program tops Athlon's rankings. Alabama is the projected national champion, with Clemson at No. 2, followed by Georgia and Ohio State in the top four. The 2018 season starts on Aug. 25 and concludes with the national championship on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif. in Levi's Stadium.
The Athlon Sports 2018 preview magazines hits newsstands nationwide this week and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. All five regional - ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC - and national preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
An important note on Athlon's top 25 for 2018: This is not a preseason ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Here's Athlon's projected top 25 teams in college football for 2018.
College Football's Projected Top 25 Teams for 2018
25. Texas A&M
As evidenced by new coach Jimbo Fisher's $75 million dollar contract, Texas A&M is serious about upgrading its place in the brutal SEC West. While Fisher needs a few years of player and program development to push for the division title, immediate improvement from last season's 7-6 record is within reach. Fisher is one of college football's top quarterback gurus and has two promising signal-callers to work with in Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. Starkel is more of a pocket passer and a better fit for Fisher's offense. Dynamic receiver Christian Kirk will be missed, but the cupboard isn't bare at this position. Sophomore Jhamon Ausbon is poised for a breakout year, and the coaching staff is counting on freshman Jalen Preston and fellow sophomores Camron Buckley, Klyde Chris, Kendrick Rogers and Roshauud Paul to contribute more in the passing game. The ground attack is in good hands with Trayveon Williams leading the way. The offensive line struggled with inconsistency last season and remains a concern headed into 2018. Fisher's best hire for his staff was Mike Elko as the program's new defensive coordinator. Elko, who previously oversaw defenses at Notre Dame and Wake Forest, should make an immediate impact on a unit that gave up 30.7 points a game last fall. The defensive depth chart was loaded with underclassmen last season, but that experience should pay off in 2018. The linebacker duo of Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka is among the best in college football. Safety Donovan Wilson is back after missing 2017 due to injury. The schedule isn't easy. Texas A&M plays Clemson and Alabama in September and has road games against Mississippi State and Auburn. However, Fisher should make a difference in Year 1, helping the Aggies to improve throughout the 2018 season.
The Horned Frogs return the fewest starters (nine) of any Big 12 team for 2018. However, that won't stop coach Gary Patterson's team from contending for a spot in the conference title game once again. TCU led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year, limiting opponents to just 19 points a game and 5.07 yards a play. This unit suffered key losses at each level but should still rank near the top of the conference. End Ben Banogu is poised to wreak havoc off the edge after accumulating 8.5 sacks last fall, while linebacker Ty Summers should be among the best in the Big 12. Finding a cornerback to start opposite of Jeff Gladney and replacing safety Nick Orr are the top offseason priorities for Patterson's defense. The rebuilding effort is greater on offense, but just like the defense, there's a next wave of players ready to emerge. Sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson made one start in relief of Kenny Hill last season, and the former four-star prospect is ready to take over the full-time job. Robinson has a talented group of receivers at his disposal, including sophomore Jalen Reagor, KaVontae Turpin and Jaelan Austin. The strength of the offense is a stable of running backs that features Darius Anderson (768 yards last season), true freshman Fabian Franklin and Sewo Olonilua. The offensive line returns just two starters and is the biggest concern for Patterson's offense. A non-conference game against Ohio State provides a huge opportunity in Week 3 and key Big 12 contests against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State take place in Fort Worth.
New coach Mario Cristobal couldn't ask for a better set-up in his first year at the helm. Oregon hosts its biggest competition in the Pac-12 North – Stanford and Washington – and does not have to play USC from the South in crossover play. Also, Cristobal managed to retain standout defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, and quarterback Justin Herbert is among the nation's best at his position. Herbert missed five games due to a collarbone injury but returned for the final three games and still finished the season with 2,166 total yards. The supporting cast for Herbert remains strong. The Ducks return three starters up front, including All-America candidate Jake Hanson at center. Alabama graduate transfer Dallas Warmack is expected to push for a starting job along the offensive line this fall as well. Dillon Mitchell and Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines are likely to be the top targets in the passing game, while Tony Brooks-James and CJ Verdell are slated to replace Royce Freeman at running back. In Leavitt's first year calling the defensive signals in Eugene, Oregon cut its points per game allowed from 41.4 to 29.0. With seven starters back – including linebacker Troy Dye and end Jalen Jelks – the Ducks are poised for more improvement on defense in 2018. If the coaching transition to Cristobal is seamless, a healthy year from Herbert and more improvement on defense could equal a double-digit win season in 2018.
22. West Virginia
With an offense capable of scoring 40 points every week, West Virginia will be a dark horse Big 12 title contender to watch in 2018. Quarterback Will Grier is back after missing the final two games of 2017 due to a finger injury, and the senior could be the best in college football at his position by the end of 2018. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 scores last season, and with a significant amount of turnover at the quarterback position in the Big 12, West Virginia has a huge advantage at this position. Grier has one of college football's top receiving corps at his disposal. David Sills returns after catching 18 touchdowns last year, Gary Jennings eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2017, and transfers T.J. Simmons (WR) and Jovani Haskins (TE) add to skill talent on the outside. Tackles Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz anchor a solid offensive line, and coach Dana Holgorsen has a deep stable of running backs to rotate on the ground. The defense allowed 31.5 points a game and struggled to stop the run last year. However, coordinator Tony Gibson has reinforcements coming up front in grad transfers Kenny Bigelow (USC) and Jabril Robinson (Clemson), along with junior college transfers Keith Washington and Josh Norwood in the secondary. Linebacker David Long should challenge for All-America honors. Key swing games against Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU take place in Morgantown, but West Virginia will be tested in non-conference play with matchups against NC State and Tennessee.
The defending Pac-12 champions are Athlon's pick to win the South Division once again, but the gap between USC and Utah or Arizona is very narrow headed into 2018. As if coach Clay Helton didn't have enough to worry about in replacing quarterback Sam Darnold, the Trojans will be tested right away with games against Stanford and Texas in September. But the good news for USC: Washington and Oregon are missed in crossover play with the North in 2018. The battle to replace Darnold will carry into the fall, as Matt Fink and Jack Sears will compete with true freshman JT Daniels for the starting nod. Daniels is reclassifying as a high school junior to graduate a year early and is the most talented quarterback on the roster. How quickly will he adjust to the FBS level? Until a quarterback emerges, Helton should be able to ride the one-two punch of Stephen Carr and Aca'Cedric Ware at running back. And when a quarterback emerges, the receiving corps should be among the best the Pac-12, as Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown form a promising duo on the outside. The offensive line had its share of ups and downs last fall but could be a strength in 2018. With the offense in transition, Helton will need more out of his defense. The Trojans limited opponents to 26.1 points a game last fall and return seven starters from that unit. There's star power at each level, including All-America linebacker Cameron Smith, safety Marvell Tell and lineman Christian Rector. All eyes will be on the quarterback battle this offseason. How quickly will Helton find the right answer? How this position plays out will likely decide whether or not USC wins the Pac-12 South once again.
The Longhorns showed small signs of progress in Tom Herman's first season. Texas increased its win total by two games and earned its first bowl trip since 2014. The expectation level will go up a notch in 2018, as the Longhorns return 12 starters and should be adjusted to the new staff and schemes on both sides of the ball. Defense led the way for Herman's first team, as coordinator Todd Orlando's charges limited opponents to 21.2 points a game. Despite losing lineman Poona Ford, linebacker Malik Jefferson and safety DeShon Elliott, the Longhorns are still in good shape on this side of the ball. Linebacker Gary Johnson will be an impact player in his second year from the junior college ranks, with Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu and Chris Nelson providing a strong foundation in the trenches. Herman reeled in one of the nation's top recruiting classes this offseason, with defensive backs Caden Sterns, BJ Foster and Anthony Cook likely to contribute right away. While the defense is likely to rank among the best in the Big 12 again, Texas won't climb in the standings without improvement on offense. Herman has reasons to be optimistic about this group in 2018, especially with the development of quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey are two talented options for Ehlinger on the outside, but more depth in the receiving corps is needed. The offensive line was inconsistent last year but should improve behind new coach Herb Hand, along with the addition of Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. Improved play in the trenches could help spark a rushing attack that managed only 139.6 yards a game last fall. California graduate transfer Tre Watson and true freshman Keaontay Ingram should provide help in the backfield. If the offense takes a step forward, and the defense doesn't regress, Texas could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12.
19. Boise State
College football's top Group of 5 team for 2018 resides in Boise. Coach Bryan Harsin's team has won at least 10 games in three out of the last four years, including 12 in 2014 after defeating Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. With 15 returning starters, including the Mountain West's top quarterback in Brett Rypien, it's hard to find a glaring weakness on Boise State's 2018 team. Go-to receiver Cedrick Wilson (83 catches in 2017) will be missed, but A.J. Richardson, Sean Modster, Octavius Evans and CT Thomas provide a solid group of targets for Rypien. Alexander Mattison returns after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season, and the offensive line should be among the best in the Mountain West with four returning starters. While the offense will be explosive, the defense might be the best unit on this team. The Broncos limited opponents to 22.9 points a game last season and return nine starters for 2018. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be missed, but the secondary is stacked with talent, and the line is in great shape with end Curtis Weaver and tackle David Moa leading the way. Idaho graduate transfer Tony Lashley will help fill the void left behind by Vander Esch in the linebacking corps. With road trips to Troy and Oklahoma State, Boise State will have an opportunity to pick up a couple of big non-conference victories. Even if the Broncos lose one of those games (and a contest in Mountain West play), 11 wins and a conference title is more than enough to get this team back into a New Year's Six Bowl.
Stanford has the most appearances (four) of any team in the Pac-12 title game, since its inception in 2011. Defense and a strong ground game have largely supplied the formula to win the Pac-12 North, but coach David Shaw's team may have to shift that philosophy for 2018. Running back Bryce Love returns to the Farm after rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 scores last fall. Love is a dynamic option on the ground, a threat to score every time he touches the ball and should be near the top of the Heisman favorites for 2018. Leading the way for Love is a massive offensive line, anchored by guard Nate Herbig and rising star tackle Walker Little. Quarterback K.J. Costello showed promise (1,573 passing yards and 14 TDs) as a redshirt freshman last year and is poised to take on a bigger role in the offense. Costello's favorite target is likely to be JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and tight end Kaden Smith should challenge for All-America honors. Costello's growth and development is critical due to the uncertainty surrounding Stanford's defense. The Cardinal gave up 22.7 points a game last fall and surrendered 5.98 yards a play – its highest total over the last 10 years. This unit lost a couple of key cogs from last season's group, including disruptive tackle Harrison Phillips, safety Justin Reid and cornerback Quenton Meeks. The Cardinal lack proven options in the trenches, which is problematic for a run defense that finished seventh in the Pac-12 last fall. Shaw's team had some good fortune in close games last year, using a plus-16 turnover margin to help post five wins of 10 points or less. Unless the defense finds the right answers up front, Costello and Love will have to carry Stanford's offense to another level in order to win the North once again.
Projecting the Gators to finish No. 17 might come as a surprise to some, but Florida should get a bump from the addition of new coach Dan Mullen, and there's still plenty of talent in the program. Mullen's arrival is a big boost to an offense that averaged only 22.1 points a game last fall. Mullen has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks and will have his work cut out for him in 2018. Feleipe Franks struggled last season but finished spring as the favorite. However, he's far from secure as the No. 1 quarterback. Sophomore Kyle Trask and true freshman Emory Jones will battle for the job in fall camp. Until a quarterback emerges, look for Mullen to build his offense around a strong stable of running backs, along with an offensive line that returns all five starters from 2017. The line has room to improve after struggling last fall, but similar to the quarterback position, this unit should benefit from a coaching change. The return of Jordan Scarlett bolsters a backfield that already features Lamical Perine, Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis (if healthy). Receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney are likely to take a step forward in their development, and this unit will get a boost if Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson is awarded immediate eligibility. While the offense is a work in progress, the defense has a chance to rank among the best in the SEC. The Gators return six starters, including cornerbacks Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to anchor the SEC's No. 1 secondary. Edge rusher Cece Jefferson should thrive under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The schedule also is favorable for a quick rebound in Mullen's debut. Florida has only three road SEC games, hosts LSU, Missouri and South Carolina and won't leave its home state after an Oct. 13 matchup at Vanderbilt.
16. Virginia Tech
The Hokies haven't missed a beat since Justin Fuente took over for Frank Beamer. Fuente has guided Virginia Tech to 19 wins over the last two years and another double-digit season of victories is within reach for 2018. Quarterback Josh Jackson is back after a breakout season as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Jackson averaged 255 yards a game, completed 59.6 percent of his passes and averaged 6.4 yards a play. He should be even better as a sophomore, especially if the supporting cast continues to develop. Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton and senior C.J. Carroll will be counted on to fill the void left behind by Cam Phillips at receiver. The offense averaged only 3.31 yards a carry in ACC games last fall. Fuente is likely to use a committee approach, with Steven Peoples, Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston in line to share carries. Guard Wyatt Teller will be missed up front, but the line returns three starters, including All-ACC candidate Yosuah Nijman at tackle. Bud Foster's defense usually ranks near the top of the ACC, so there's no panic in Blacksburg despite losing a handful of key players from last year's unit. The strength of the 2018 defense is up front. Tackle Ricky Walker is poised to challenge for All-America honors, with senior Vinny Mihota sliding inside from end to help anchor the interior. Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka leave big shoes to fill at linebacker. Mook Reynolds will be counted upon for leadership and to guide this unit, especially since inexperienced sophomores Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby could take starting jobs. The secondary also was hit hard by departures, but cornerbacks Adonis Alexander and Caleb Farley, along with safety Reggie Floyd provide a strong foundation. If the defense reloads as expected and Jackson takes a step forward, the Nov. 17 showdown versus Miami could decide the Coastal Division title.
15. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish rebounded in a big way from a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016. Coach Brian Kelly's team started 8-1 and was squarely in the mix for a CFB Playoff spot before finishing the regular season with two losses in their last three games. A 10-3 record marked the second time in three years Notre Dame reached double-digit victories. Another 10-win season could be in the works for 2018. The defense showed marked under coordinator Mike Elko, holding opponents to 21.5 points a game – down from 27.8 in 2016. Elko left for Texas A&M, and Kelly opted for continuity when he promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea. Lea is a first-time coordinator at the FBS level but returns nine starters, including All-America candidates in defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te'von Coney and cornerback Julian Love. The biggest question marks for the Fighting Irish remain on offense. Will quarterback Brandon Wimbush take a step forward in his second year as the starter? And how will the team replace standout linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey? Dexter Williams and Tony Jones should be a solid one-two punch on the ground, but the offense won't improve without more consistency from Wimbush. The schedule features home games against Michigan, Stanford and Florida State, along with road trips to Virginia Tech and USC.
New coach Joe Moorhead is stepping into one of the best situations of any first-year coach in 2018. The Bulldogs won nine games under Dan Mullen last season and return most of that core. Moorhead transformed Penn State's offense into one of nation's most explosive attacks over the last two years and inherits a group that averaged 32 points a game in 2017. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ranked third in the SEC with 230.5 total yards a contest last fall but suffered a significant ankle injury in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. While Fitzgerald was limited in the spring, he's set to return to full strength in the fall. The senior's rushing ability isn't in question but he has room to improve as a passer after completing 55.6 percent of his throws last year. Fitzgerald needs more help from his receiving corps after the Bulldogs generated just one pass play of 50 yards or more last season. Junior college recruit Stephen Guidry, freshmen Devonta Jason, Malik Heath and Austin Williams and the return of Malik Dear from injury should provide a boost to this unit. Mississippi State also boasts one of the SEC's top offensive lines, anchored by guard Darryl Williams and center Elgton Jenkins. New coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that allowed only 20.9 points a game last fall and could be even better in 2018. Linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat combined for 27.5 tackles for a loss last season and should push for All-America honors in 2018. Leo Lewis, Willie Gay and Erroll Thompson are the main contributors at linebacker, and the safety position is set with Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram returning. Shoop doesn't have many concerns to address this offseason, but the cornerback spot is one area to watch this fall. A non-conference road trip to Kansas State provides an intriguing non-conference affair, and Mississippi State hosts Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M in key conference swing games. Assuming the coaching transition is seamless (as most expect), the Bulldogs should push for 10 victories in 2018.
13. Florida State
It's a new era at Florida State with Willie Taggart taking over in 2018. While there are a few big changes on the way for the Seminoles, this program is poised to rebound from last year's 7-6 record. Taggart is transitioning the offense from a pro-style approach to more of a spread, up-tempo attack. The shift should be a relatively seamless move, as Taggart has plenty of weapons to build around. Of course, there's still an ongoing battle at quarterback. However, Taggart has to feel good about his options under center. Deondre Francois was one of the ACC's top returning quarterbacks last fall but suffered a season-ending leg injury in the opener against Alabama. James Blackman was pressed into duty to replace Francois as a true freshman and threw for 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns. Additionally, redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2017 signing class. The Seminoles don't have a clear answer under center yet, but there's no shortage of options. The running back corps is among the best in the nation, with rising star Cam Akers joining Jacques Patrick to form an effective one-two punch. More depth is needed at receiver, but Nyqwan Murray is one of the ACC's top returning targets, and sophomore D.J. Matthews is poised to take on a bigger role in 2018. The line returns four starters, but this unit needs to take a step forward after giving up 32 sacks last fall. New coordinator Harlon Barnett inherits a defense that returns only three starters, but the cupboard isn't empty on talent. Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas anchor a talented line, with cornerback Levonta Taylor poised to challenge for All-America honors. Defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, cornerback Stanford Samuels III and safety Jaiden Woodbey are three promising players to watch this fall. Barnett's biggest concern rests at linebacker following the departures of Matthew Thomas, Ro'Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh. Florida State will be tested right away with Virginia Tech visiting Tallahassee in the opener. And Taggart's team has a chance to make even more noise in the Atlantic Division with Clemson visiting Doak Campbell Stadium on Oct. 27.
12. Michigan State
The Spartans were one of college football's most improved teams in 2017, increasing their win total by seven games from the previous year. With 19 starters back and home games against Ohio State and Michigan, coach Mark Dantonio's team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title. Quarterback Brian Lewerke had a standout first season as the starter in East Lansing, averaging 257.8 total yards a game and accounting for 25 total scores. He should take another step forward in his development, especially with a receiving corps that ranks among the Big Ten's best and a strong foundation in the trenches. Running back LJ Scott anchors the ground game after leading the team in rushing each of the past three seasons. The Spartans could use a little more production from the backfield after averaging just 3.5 yards a carry in Big Ten contests last fall. Similar to the offense, the defense is largely set for 2018. New coordinator Mike Tressel won't make drastic changes from a unit that limited opponents to 20 points a game in 2017. End Kenny Willekes is back after recording seven sacks last season, while linebacker Joe Bachie is a candidate for All-America honors. Justin Layne and Josiah Scott form a promising duo of young cornerbacks, while safety David Dowell returns after picking off five passes in 2017. Michigan State may be due for some regression in the luck department after winning six games by 10 points or less last season. However, with a loaded depth chart and one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks and head coaches, the Spartans aren't going to need all of the bounces in their favor to win 10 games once again.
11. Penn State
Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, the bar is set high in Happy Valley once again for the Nittany Lions. And despite a few personnel losses, coach James Franklin's team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title. The big-play ability of running back Saquon Barkley will be missed, but the offense won't suffer too much thanks to the return of quarterback Trace McSorley. The senior is the Big Ten's top returning signal-caller after averaging 312.4 total yards a game last fall. Miles Sanders is slated to replace Barkley at running back, and the junior is primed for a breakout year with a full complement of carries. The offensive line is deeper and more talented than at any point in Franklin's four-year tenure at Penn State. McSorley will miss receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, but the cupboard isn't empty. Junior Juwan Johnson, senior DeAndre Thompkins and freshmen KJ Hamler and Justin Shorter will keep the passing attack performing at a high level. The Nittany Lions have made considerable progress on offense over the last two years, but coordinator Joe Moorhead left for Mississippi State following the 2017 season. Franklin opted for continuity by promoting Ricky Rahne to take over the play-calling duties, and he will be under pressure to keep this attack firing on all cylinders. The defense returns only two starters from a unit that limited opponents to 16.5 points a game in 2017. Despite the turnover in personnel, this group is still in good shape. Cornerback John Reid is back from injury, and five-star freshman Micah Parsons should provide help at linebacker. End Shareef Miller leads the way for a talented defensive front. Penn State's schedule features home games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, so there's a favorable path to the East Division title. Winning the division will likely come down to how Rahne handles his first season as the offensive coordinator, along with how fast the defense settles into place with new faces stepping into key roles at every level.
Even though coach Lincoln Riley's high-powered offense has a few big names to replace, Oklahoma is still the team to beat in the Big 12. The Sooners averaged 45.1 points a game last season, which nearly carried this team to the national championship. However, quarterback Baker Mayfield, left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews have departed Norman. Mayfield's lethal accuracy and all-around playmaking ability won't be easy to replace, but Riley should find ways to keep this offense performing at a high level. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray is the favorite to replace Mayfield, with Austin Kendall pushing him once again in the fall. Murray is a dangerous runner but has room to grow as a passer. Regardless of who starts, they will have one of the nation's top receiving corps at their disposal. CeeDee Lamb returns after a promising freshman campaign, with junior Marquise Brown back to provide more big plays on the outside. Until a quarterback emerges, Oklahoma's offense can lean on its ground game. Running back Rodney Anderson returns after rushing for 1,161 yards last fall, with sophomore Trey Sermon providing a dynamic No. 2 option. Even though Brown must be replaced, the line is still one of the best in the nation. Left tackle Bobby Evans is a candidate for All-America honors, with Ben Powers and Dru Samia back to anchor the guard spots. With the offense likely to take a small step back without Mayfield, Oklahoma needs more out of its defense to make a run at the CFB Playoff. This unit surrendered 27.1 points a game and struggled to stop the run (156.5 ypg) last fall. True freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles should provide a boost in the secondary, and the duo of Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray provides a good foundation at linebacker. Riley's ability to build elite offenses should minimize the concerns about the personnel losses on that side of the ball. However, the margin for error is a little smaller without Mayfield leading the way.
Led by a powerful ground attack and one of the nation's top defenses, Wisconsin was on the doorstep of a Big Ten title and a trip to the CFB Playoff last year. But with matchups at Michigan, Iowa and Penn State, this fall's schedule features more obstacles to another unbeaten regular season. However, coach Paul Chryst's team isn't going to fade from the playoff mix. Jonathan Taylor set a new FBS freshman rushing record with 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns on 299 attempts. Taylor will the focal point of the offense once again, but there's quality depth at the position with the return of Taiwan Deal, Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and freshman Nakia Watson. Helping to clear rushing lanes for Taylor is the nation's No. 1 offensive line. Right tackle David Edwards and guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel are All-America candidates. Even though the combination of Taylor and the offensive line is good enough to win the Big Ten's West Division, the Badgers could have more of a balanced attack in 2018. That's due to the development of quarterback Alex Hornibrook, along with the emergence of a deep receiving corps. Considering the firepower on this side of the ball, Chryst may have to lean on his offense a little more in 2018 to compensate for a defense that returns just three starters. The Badgers suffocated opponents last year, holding them to just 13.9 points and less than 100 rushing yards a game. However, coordinator Jim Leonhard has holes to fill at every level. Gone are key players like cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, end Alec James, safety Natrell Jamerson and linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley. The list of departures is lengthy and significant, but Leonhard can build his 2018 unit around one of the nation's top linebacker units. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly anchor the interior of the 3-4 unit, with Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun back to fill the outside spots. Sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams needs a big year at cornerback, with safety D'Cota Dixon among the top returning defensive backs in the Big Ten. How quickly the defense reloads is likely to determine whether or not Wisconsin makes the playoff.
The Huskies are the clear No. 1 team in the Pac-12 and the league's best hope of a playoff team for 2018. Washington earned a CFB Playoff bid in 2016 but fell to 10 wins last season, largely due to a lack of big plays in the passing game. Quarterback Jake Browning is back for his fourth season as the starter and is one of the top returning signal-callers in college football. However, Browning clearly missed John Ross' speed on the outside last year. Who steps up at receiver for Browning in 2018? Senior Chico McClatcher and freshman Marquis Spiker are two potential candidates for a breakout year on the outside. Running back Myles Gaskin leads the way on the ground, aiming for his fourth 1,000-yard campaign. Gaskin will be running behind one of the Pac-12's top offensive lines, which includes standout left tackle Trey Adams back from injury. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense for three consecutive seasons and is likely to retain that crown once again. The Huskies will miss tackle Vita Vea, but the two-deep is stocked with talent for co-coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski. Senior Greg Gaines will fill Vea's presence in the trenches, while Ben Burr-Kirven, Ryan Bowman and Tevis Bartlett are back to anchor the linebacker unit. The strength of the defense is a secondary that returns all five starters, including lockdown cornerback Byron Murphy. Washington's defensive backfield could be the best in college football by the end of the 2018 season. Road trips to Oregon and Utah will test Chris Petersen's team in the first half of the year, but Stanford visits Seattle in November. However, the biggest test of 2018 comes in the opener in a neutral site matchup against Auburn. Regardless of how that matchup plays out, an undefeated record in Pac-12 action should keep Washington in the mix for a playoff spot.
If Auburn is going to go back-to-back as SEC West champions, it will have to do so on the road in 2018. After hosting Georgia and Alabama last season, the Tigers catch their top rivals on the road. Additionally, coach Gus Malzahn's team draws Mississippi State in Starkville and plays Washington in a neutral site matchup for Week 1. While the schedule is tough, Malzahn has the necessary personnel to push for another New Year's Six bid and the SEC West crown once again. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns after throwing for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first year on the Plains last fall. The offense will lean even more on Stidham in 2018, as running back Kerryon Johnson departed for the NFL. But a major concern for Malzahn and Stidham has to be in the trenches. Four senior starters are gone from a unit that allowed 15 sacks in SEC play last season. Stidham's receiving corps suffered a setback with injuries to Will Hastings and Eli Stove in the spring, but Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers is a solid trio to build around on the outside. Auburn's defense ranked among the best in the SEC after holding opponents to 18.5 points a game in 2017. This unit remains strong, including a line that ranks among the best in college football. Senior Deshaun Davis anchors the linebacker unit, while Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis form a solid tandem at cornerback. If the offensive line develops, Auburn could be 9-0 headed into its Nov. 10 showdown at Georgia.
Thanks to a 10-0 start and an ACC Coastal Division title, Miami muscled its way into CFB Playoff contention – likely a year earlier than most anticipated under coach Mark Richt. The Hurricanes are a program on the rise for 2018 and should be in the mix for a spot in the top four once again. However, there are a few obstacles to overcome. Malik Rosier threw for 3,120 yards and 26 touchdowns to 14 picks last fall, but the senior is being pushed by N'Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams for the starting quarterback job. Rosier needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball after last year's interception total and must raise his completion percentage (54 percent). Outside of the quarterback situation, the offensive line is likely to garner the most attention from Richt this offseason. This unit returns three starters, including All-ACC candidates Navaughn Donaldson. But two starting spots are up for grabs, and this unit needs to play with more consistency after giving up 24 sacks in league contests last year. A healthy season from Ahmmon Richards will help whoever starts at quarterback, and Miami has plenty of talented weapons on the outside thanks to the return of Lawrence Cager, Jeff Thomas, Mike Harley and incoming freshman Mark Pope. The ground game is in great shape with the return of Travis Homer, along with the emergence of DeeJay Dallas and freshman Lorenzo Lingard. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has to fill a few spots in the trenches, but the Turnover Chain should be prominent once again in South Florida. The Hurricanes return one of the ACC's top pass rushers in Joe Jackson, while the linebacker unit is among the best in college football. Sophomore Trajan Bandy could be poised for a breakout year at cornerback, which would solidify a unit that returns three starters. After losing its final three games of 2017, Miami won't be hurting for motivation this fall. An athletic and speedy defense is good enough for the ‘Canes to take the top spot in the Coastal. But taking the next step and knocking off Clemson or reaching the CFB Playoff will hinge on how well the offense performs. With a matchup against LSU in Week 1, Miami will find out right away where it stands on both sides of the ball.
Projecting Michigan to finish No. 5 might come as a surprise to some, but the Wolverines are poised to rebound in a big way. Coach Jim Harbaugh's team returns 14 starters and received a boost in late April when quarterback Shea Patterson was awarded immediate eligibility. Patterson has a big-time arm, but his biggest asset to the offense could be mobility. Michigan's offensive line has been a source of concern in recent years and enters the 2018 season with a few question marks. The addition of assistant Ed Warinner should help the offensive line take a step forward in 2018, but this unit could be a work in progress throughout the year. The skill positions are stocked with promising talent for Patterson. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans provide a potent one-two punch at running back, with Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins poised to emerge at receiver. The unquestioned strength of Harbaugh's team remains its defense. Michigan's defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary are all among the nation's best units. Linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are poised to wreak havoc off the edge, while linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson make plays around the line of scrimmage. The cornerback combination of David Long and Lavert Hill might be the best in college football. If Michigan is going to earn a CFB Playoff bid, it will have to do so on the road. The Wolverines must play at Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame, with Penn State and Wisconsin set to visit Ann Arbor. Harbaugh arrived at Michigan with high expectations and was just a couple of plays away from making the Big Ten title game in 2016. Last season's team represented a rebuilding effort. The Wolverines returned only six starters, used three starting quarterbacks, posted a minus-four turnover margin and lost four games by 14 points or less. With more stability at quarterback, along with the development of young playmakers to go with a shutdown defense, Michigan should rebound to double-digit wins in 2018.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes lose some key members from last year's team that claimed the Big Ten title, but the conference title still runs through Columbus in 2018. With Joe Burrow opting to transfer, Dwayne Haskins is the clear No. 1 quarterback headed into fall practice. Haskins has played well in limited action and should benefit from the additional reps with the No. 1 offense. The sophomore is a better passer than former starter J.T. Barrett but may not be as effective on the ground. That's not a concern for offensive co-coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson, as the backfield is stocked with talent. J.K. Dobbins leads the way at running back after rushing for 1,403 yards as a freshman in 2017, with Mike Weber also in line for carries. Haskins has a deep group of playmakers at his disposal, including Parris Campbell (40 catches), K.J. Hill (56) and Binjimen Victor. The line usually reloads without much trouble in Columbus, but center Billy Price and tackle Jamarco Jones leave big shoes to fill. As usual, Urban Meyer's defense should be one of the Big Ten's top groups. Ends Nick Bosa and Chase Young and tackle Dre'Mont Jones anchor a line that could be the best in college football outside of Clemson. Denzel Ward will be missed at cornerback, but sophomore Jeffrey Okudah and freshman Shaun Wade are poised to take on bigger roles to help veterans Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette. Linebacker was a concern for defensive co-coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch at the open of spring ball, and those concerns grew after Tuf Borland suffered an Achilles injury. Borland is slated to return in 2018, but the Buckeyes may have a few growing pains until the young talent has a chance to develop. Assuming Ohio State survives road trips to Penn State and Michigan State, the Nov. 24 showdown against Michigan should determine the Big Ten East champion.
Kirby Smart's Bulldogs fell just short of a national championship last season, but it won't be the last time this program reaches the CFB Playoff. Georgia is primed for another run at the top four in 2018, as Smart's team is likely to be favored in all 12 of its regular season contests. The defense was the strength of last year's team, holding opponents to 16.4 points a game. This unit has a few holes to fill, namely at linebacker following the departure of Roquan Smith to the NFL. Thanks to elite recruiting classes, the cupboard is stocked with promising talent at every level. Jonathan Ledbetter and Tyler Clark form an effective duo in the trenches, while Natrez Patrick is slated to return after being away from the team for the final two contests last year. Providing a pass rush off the edge will be D'Andre Walker and Walter Grant, with freshmen Adam Anderson, Robert Beal and Brenton Cox also poised to push for snaps. Senior cornerback Deandre Baker and safety J.R. Reed will contend for All-America honors. Despite some personnel turnover on defense, this unit returns enough of a foundation to prevent too much of a drop-off in 2018. Until the defense jells, Smart can ask more of his offense. Jake Fromm returns under center after a promising freshman campaign. Fromm threw for 24 touchdowns to just seven picks but could be pushed by five-star freshman Justin Fields. Terry Godwin should be the go-to target, while Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman are primed for bigger roles in 2018. As usual, Georgia is deep at running back. D'Andre Swift is slated to take over the starting role, with freshmen James Cook and Zamir White, along with junior Elijah Holyfield, supplying depth. With four returning starters and some promising freshmen, the line ranks among the best in the nation. Barring an upset or a loss to Auburn in November, Georgia has a favorable path to 12-0 in the regular season – setting up a showdown with Alabama for the SEC title.
Clemson has been a model of consistency since 2011. The Tigers have won at least 10 games every year during that span and have earned three consecutive CFB Playoff berths. There's no reason to expect that to change in 2018. Dabo Swinney's team represents the biggest threat to Alabama's hopes of a repeat. Both sides of the ball are loaded, but the strength of this team is a defensive line that's overflowing with talent. Ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, along with tackle Christian Wilkins, passed on the NFL for one more season in Death Valley. Additionally, junior Dexter Lawrence is back to join Wilkins on the interior, with freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry battling for snaps on the outside. The back seven also is in great shape for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Kendall Joseph is the new leader of the linebacker unit after Dorian O'Daniel finished his eligibility, while Tre Lamar, Isaiah Simmons, Jalen Williams and Shaq Smith provide Venables with talent, speed and depth across the board. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen could push for All-America honors this fall. Despite a solid debut as Clemson's No. 1 quarterback (and replacing Deshaun Watson), Kelly Bryant isn't guaranteed to start in 2018. That's due to the arrival of five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who would give the offense more ability to push the ball downfield. The ground game is set with the return of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, and there's no shortage of athletic playmakers on the outside. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt is among the top linemen in the nation, anchoring a group that returns two other starters. Road trips to Texas A&M and Florida State won't be easy. However, Clemson should make its fourth consecutive trip to the CFB Playoff. And if the true freshman quarterback is as good as advertised, the Tigers could bring home their second title in three years.
Alabama is the only team to go back-to-back (2011-12) as college football's national champion since the start of the BCS era in 1998. History is working against Nick Saban's team, but the Crimson Tide are Athlon's pick to win it all in 2018. As with any Saban-led team, the defense will be an elite group. The 2018 version of Alabama's defense features a couple of question marks, but it's hard to be too concerned. Da'Ron Payne's presence on the interior of the line will be missed, and the secondary will be an entirely new group of starters. However, the end combination of Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs will be dynamic off the edge, and the linebacker unit is stocked with promising talent. Junior Mack Wilson, sophomore Dylan Moses and edge rusher Anfernee Jennings could all have breakout years at linebacker. While the secondary features four new starters, this unit isn't hurting. Former LSU and junior college cornerback Saivion Smith steps into one cornerback spot, while freshman Patrick Surtain could claim the other. In a role reversal in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's offense is likely to be the strength of this team. Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa impressed in limited action last fall, which included the game-winning touchdown pass in the national championship. Tagovailoa still needs to officially hold off Jalen Hurts for the starting job, but the sophomore brings more to the passing attack. The sophomore trio of DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs is a dynamic group of receivers. Saban and new play-caller Mike Locksley also have an embarrassment of riches at running back. Senior Damien Harris will be the leader of the backfield, but sophomore Najee Harris will be tough to keep on the sidelines. Led by junior Jonah Williams, the offensive line is likely to be among the best in college football. The Crimson Tide may need a couple of games to sort out the new faces on defense. However, this team should be a heavy favorite in most of its games and now has more offensive firepower than in recent years. Assuming Tagovailoa is as good as expected, Saban is likely to hoist his third national title in four seasons.