Athlon ranks all 130 teams with 2018 spring practices underway.
Spring practice is underway across the nation, as all 130 college football teams are getting the first look at how their roster and program are shaping up for the 2018 season. And with every program hitting the field for offseason workouts, it’s never too early to look at the year ahead and project where all 130 teams could rank when the official Athlon Sports magazine predictions are released later this summer. With practices underway, the focus shifts to settling starting jobs for the depth chart, installation of schemes and figuring out how to alleviate any personnel concerns.
Expect several tweaks to this NCAA football top 130 ranking from now until August and before the 2018 officially starts. However, with spring practice starting for all 130 teams, the 2018 outlook for every program is coming into focus.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 130 teams in college football for 2018:
Way-Too-Early College Football 130 Team Rankings for 2018
Reason for Optimism: New coach Dana Dimel has previous head coaching experience at two different stops and learned under one of college football’s top coaches in Bill Snyder. Running back Joshua Fields is a good place to start the rebuilding effort on offense.
Reason for Concern: Dimel didn’t fare well at his last stop as a head coach (Houston) and inherits a roster full of issues. The Miners have question marks at quarterback, must replace standout offensive lineman Will Hernandez and rebuild a defense that gave up 36.8 points per game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: After a 1-11 season, the 49ers only have one way to go. Running back Benny LeMay (732 yards), safety Ben DeLuca and offensive lineman Nate Davis could challenge for All-Conference USA honors. Shane Montgomery was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, providing a fresh start for a unit that averaged only 14.2 points a game last fall.
Reason for Concern: As last year’s record indicated, Charlotte has a lot of work to do in order to close the gap in C-USA. Quarterback Hasaan Klugh is a good runner but must cut down on the interceptions (13 on 279 attempts last season). The defense returns nearly everyone from a unit that allowed 32.8 points per game in 2017. How much progress can this group make in one offseason under new coordinator Glenn Spencer?
128. Kent State
Reason for Optimism: New coach Sean Lewis is an exciting hire for a program in need of a spark. Linebacker Jim Jones is one of the MAC's top defenders.
Reason for Concern: Lewis’ top priority for 2018 is pretty simple: find a quarterback. All-MAC defenders Jon Cunningham and Demetrius Monday have expired their eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: New coach Mike Bloomgren has plenty of experience working at a program with strict academic standards, as he takes over as Rice’s head coach following a stint as an assistant at Stanford. Bloomgren has some promising pieces to work with at the skill positions on offense, including running back Nahshon Ellerbe and receiver Aaron Cephus. Vanderbilt graduate transfer Shawn Stankavage provides competition at quarterback.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. The Owls threw only six touchdown passes to 16 interceptions last year. Top lineman Calvin Anderson and a couple of players on defense are leaving as graduate transfers. Receiver Kylen Granson is also leaving the program. The defense needs a lot of work after giving up 35.8 points per game in 2017.
126. New Mexico State
Reason for Optimism: The Aggies are coming off their first bowl trip since 1960. Jason Huntley should be a capable replacement for Larry Rose at running back, and three of the team’s top four statistical receivers are back next fall. The defense has showed improvement under Frank Spaziani’s watch and returns nine of 11 starters from the Arizona Bowl depth chart.
Reason for Concern: New Mexico State is embarking on FBS Independence once again. Needless to say, this is a tough path for one of the toughest jobs at the FBS level. Coach Doug Martin has to reload on offense after losing running back Larry Rose, quarterback Tyler Rogers and receiver Jaleel Scott.
125. Coastal Carolina
Reason for Optimism: Coach Joe Moglia is back on the sidelines after missing the 2017 season due to medical reasons. Malcolm Williams (43 grabs for 793 yards) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning receivers. Center Brock Hoffman and guard Trey Carter are two building blocks up front.
Reason for Concern: Coastal Carolina needs to identify a quarterback after five different signal-callers attempted a pass last fall. Leading rusher Osharmar Abercrombie and All-Sun Belt linebacker Shane Johnson have finished their eligibility. The Chanticleers have to improve on defense after giving up 34 points a game in 2017.
124. San Jose State
Reason for Optimism: The second year under coach Brent Brennan should bring some overall improvement to the program. The offense has a few promising skill players to utilize, including running backs Tyler Nevens and Zamore Zigler and receivers Tre Hartley and JaQuan Blackwell.
Reason for Concern: The Spartans ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring offense and defense. Can the offense find stability and production at the quarterback position? Top linebacker Frank Ginda left early for the NFL after accumulating 173 tackles last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Liberty is a program in transition to the FBS level. The move to FBS is made a little easier thanks to the return of quarterback Stephen Calvert (3,363 yards, 29 TDs). Calvert’s top target will be junior Antonio Gandy-Golden, who caught 69 passes for 1,066 yards and 10 scores last year.
Reason for Concern: Transitioning to a tougher level is never easy. Leading rusher Carrington Mosley must be replaced, and the defense has to cut its points per game allowed (30.4) from last fall.
122. Texas State
Reason for Optimism: It’s the third year under coach Everett Withers. The Bobcats have used several young players over the last two seasons and it’s time for that youth to turn into production. Willie Jones is a promising but raw sophomore quarterback. Linebacker Bryan London has been a tackling machine since stepping onto campus in San Marcos and anchors the defense once again in 2018.
Reason for Concern: How quickly will Jones – or someone else – develop at quarterback? The Bobcats need more out of their ground attack after averaging 3.4 yards per carry, and the line has to step up in pass protection after giving up 36 sacks in 2017. The defense has room to improve after allowing 6.2 yards per play last fall.
121. East Carolina
Reason for Optimism: It’s coach Scottie Montgomery’s third year at the helm. His recruits and overall vision on both sides of the ball should be in place. Receiver Trevon Brown (second-team All-AAC in 2017) is one of the top players at his position in the conference.
Reason for Concern: Both sides of the ball have major concerns. True freshman Holton Ahlers is the front-runner to start at quarterback, and the offense needs more out of a ground game that averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in 2017. How much will ECU improve on defense? This unit gave up 45 points a game last year.
Reason for Optimism: A healthy John Ursua at receiver would be a big plus for Hawaii’s offense. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai is one of the Mountain West’s top returning defenders.
Reason for Concern: Coach Nick Rolovich has to revamp the offense after running back Diocemy Saint Juste expired his eligibility, and quarterback Dru Brown and receiver Dylan Collie left as grad transfers. The offensive line loses standout left tackle Dejon Allen. New defensive coordinator Corey Batoon inherits a unit that allowed 33.9 points a game last fall.
119. Bowling Green
Reason for Optimism: A pair of freshmen made noise for coach Mike Jinks last fall, as running back Andrew Clair and quarterback Jarret Doege showed flashes of potential in last year’s 2-10 season. The Falcons have a new defensive play-caller (Carl Pelini) and can only improve after giving up 38 points a game last fall.
Reason for Concern: Bowling Green has to improve on defense in order to exceed last year’s win total (two). Question marks surround this unit once again, especially after giving up 253.3 rushing yards per game in 2017. The Falcons also must replace receiver Teo Redding (45 catches) and All-MAC punter Joseph Davidson.
118. South Alabama
Reason for Optimism: New coach Steve Campbell is a solid hire, and the Jaguars return enough talent to push for six wins this fall. Receiver Jamarius Way (47 catches for 762 yards) is back after earning all-conference honors in 2017. Defensive back Jalen Thompson is back after missing the 2017 season due to academic reasons.
Reason for Concern: Cole Garvin and Dallas Davis combined for 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last fall. Will a clear answer present itself at quarterback? Also, a new running back needs to emerge after Xavier Johnson finished his eligibility. Standout safety (and 2017 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year) Jeremy Reaves leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary.
117. Ball State
Reason for Optimism: Injuries (especially at quarterback) wreaked havoc on coach Mike Neu’s team last year. Better luck in the health department could translate into a couple of wins. The backfield is stacked with options, including James Gilbert (back from injury) and Caleb Huntley (1,003 yards in 2017). Receiver Justin Hall also returns after a standout freshman campaign.
Reason for Concern: The defense gave up 40.7 points a game last fall and must replace standout lineman Anthony Winbush. With a return to full strength, will quarterback Riley Neal take a step forward in his development?
116. Central Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Chippewas will have a new quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Jonathan Ward (1,017 yards) until a signal-caller emerges. Lineman Nathan Brisson-Fast and linebacker Malik Fountain are two building blocks for the defense in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Coach John Bonamego’s team has some significant holes to fill this offseason. Is Tony Poljan ready to take over for Shane Morris at quarterback? The receiving corps loses three key seniors, along with tight end Tyler Conklin. The defense finished second in the MAC by limiting opponents to 5.03 yards per play last fall. Matching that total in 2018 will be difficult with the departures of end Joe Ostman, cornerback Amari Coleman and safety Josh Cox.
Reason for Optimism: After a transition year under coach Jay Norvell, the Wolf Pack have a chance to take a step forward in the win column in 2018. The offense is led by senior quarterback Ty Gangi, and there’s talent at the skill positions with the return of running back Kelton Moore and receivers McLane Mannix and Brendan O’Leary-Orange. End/linebacker Malik Reed is one of the Mountain West’s top returning defenders. While the final record was just 3-9, Norvell’s team lost three games by three points or less in 2017.
Reason for Concern: With a full year of snaps in this system, can Gangi be more consistent on a week-to-week basis? Standout tackle Austin Corbett leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches, while the defense has to play at a higher level after giving up 33.9 points a contest last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The win total from 2016 to ’17 was the same (three), but coach Randy Edsall’s team took a small step forward last fall. Leading receiver Hergy Mayala (43 catches) is back, and the Huskies have a promising duo at running back in place with Kevin Mensah and Hate Hopkins.
Reason for Concern: Offense. The Huskies made small strides on this side of the ball last season but enter 2018 with a new coordinator (John Dunn) and uncertainty at quarterback. The defense loses eight of its top 14 tacklers, including standout linebacker Junior Joseph and defensive back Jamar Summers.
113. Georgia Southern
Reason for Optimism: The Eagles played like a different team when Chad Lunsford was promoted to interim head coach late last year. As a result of that late-season success, Lunsford was promoted to the full-time role and seems to be pushing the right buttons so far, which includes hiring a standout staff. Running back Wesley Fields is back after rushing for 811 yards last fall, and quarterback Shai Werts seems to be a good fit for new coordinator Bob DeBesse’s scheme. The line returns intact, while the defense loses only one senior among its top 17 tacklers.
Reason for Concern: It’s one thing to capture momentum after a coaching change. It’s another to sustain that momentum over an entire season. Can Lunsford and his staff return Georgia Southern to a bowl game in 2018?
Reason for Optimism: Billy Napier is a standout hire for Louisiana. The former Arizona State offensive coordinator inherits two quarterbacks with experience (Andre Nunez and Jordan Davis), along with running back Trey Ragas, who rushed for 813 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman last year. The offensive line returns four starters. Rush end Joe Dillon anchors the defensive trenches after earning third-team all-conference honors in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Louisiana. However, Napier’s quest to get to a bowl in his first year will hinge on defensive improvement. Coordinator Ron Roberts inherits a group that allowed 40 points a game in 2017.
111. New Mexico
Reason for Optimism: The Lobos have a couple of interesting options to choose from at quarterback, as junior college recruit Sheriron Jones joins Coltin Gerhart and Tevaka Tuioti in the mix to start. Tyrone Owens (770 rushing yards) is back to anchor the ground game.
Reason for Concern: There’s a lot of turmoil surrounding coach Bob Davie. Will that spill over into the season? The Lobos’ running back depth took a hit with Richard McQuarley, Daryl Chestnut and Romell Jordan expiring their eligibility. The defense also loses its share of proven options and must cut down on its yards per play allowed (6.13).
Reason for Optimism: With a full year under his belt, Mike Sanford should be more comfortable in his second season as the program’s head coach. Receiver Lucky Jackson and safety Devon Key are two promising players for Sanford to build around in 2018.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line. WKU gave up 48 sacks last year and struggled to open up holes in the ground game. Additionally, quarterback Mike White has finished his eligibility, and standout linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe left for the NFL.
109. Old Dominion
Reason for Optimism: After a rebuilding year, the Monarchs are poised to challenge for a bowl game in 2018. Quarterback Steven Williams gained valuable experience as a freshman last fall, and the offense will have a couple of key players returning from injury, including lineman Chad Hendricks and receiver Jonathan Duhart. Defensive end Oshane Ximines is one of Conference USA’s top pass rushers.
Reason for Concern: The defense returns most of its starting 11 from last season but gave up 31.7 points per game. How much can this unit develop over one offseason? Also, how much progress can Williams make during spring ball?
108. Eastern Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Eagles are due for better luck in 2018. Coach Chris Creighton’s team lost all seven games by 12 points or less last fall. Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers joins the mix to replace Brogan Roback at quarterback, while the offense has a solid stable of running backs at its disposal with the return of Ian Eriksen, Shaq Vann and Breck Turner. A defense that limited opponents to 23.3 points a game last fall should be solid once again.
Reason for Concern: Roback will be missed under center, and the Eagles lose their top three receivers from last season. Eastern Michigan needs to be better in the turnover department after posting a minus-four total last year.
Reason for Optimism: It’s David Beaty’s fourth year as head coach. His players are now in place and this team doesn’t lose much in the way of departing seniors.
Reason for Concern: The Jayhawks have just three wins over the last three years. Quarterback play and defense remain big issues.
106. Georgia State
Reason for Optimism: After leading Georgia State to a seven-win season in his first year at the helm, coach Shawn Elliott has this program trending in the right direction. Penny Hart is one of the top returning receivers in college football. The defense returns All-Sun Belt selections Michael Shaw (LB) and Marterious Allen (DL).
Reason for Concern: The Panthers must replace quarterback Conner Manning and find a spark for a ground attack that managed just 3.2 yards per carry last season. The defense loses a couple of key seniors from a unit that limited opponents to 24.8 points per game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Andrew Ford, running back Marquis Young and receiver Andy Isabella headline a dangerous offense. The Minutemen will bolster that trio with the addition of Syracuse transfer Jordan Fredericks at running back. The offensive line also returns intact.
Reason for Concern: In order for UMass to push for a winning record and bowl trip, the defense has to improve after giving up 31.8 points per game in 2017.
104. Western Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Broncos lost three out of their last four games after quarterback Jon Wassink was lost due to injury. He’s back in 2018, along with receiver D’Wayne Eskridge and running backs Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. Center John Keenoy is one of the MAC’s top returning linemen for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor has finished his eligibility, and the defense loses its share of standouts, including defensive back Darius Phillips and linebackers Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown. The losses on defense are heavy for a unit that allowed 29 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Despite a 6-5 mark, the Roadrunners did not play in a bowl last season. However, UTSA wasn’t far from winning nine games after losing four games by five points or less. Frank Wilson has this program going in the right direction. The offense averaged only 23.5 points a game last year, so the addition of veteran play-caller Al Borges should help. A healthy year from linebacker Josiah Tauaefa will be huge for the defense.
Reason for Concern: UTSA has a revamped coaching staff on tap for 2018, as Wilson decided to go a different direction at offensive coordinator, and defensive play-caller Pete Golding left for Alabama. The defense led Conference USA in fewest points allowed last fall but must replace standout lineman Marcus Davenport, linebacker La’Kel Bass and three key performers in the secondary. Who steps up to replace Dalton Sturm at quarterback?
Reason for Optimism: FIU improved its win total by four games in coach Butch Davis’ first year. Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan could step in for Alex McGough at quarterback, and he’s supported by a line that returns four starters. Running back Anthony Jones is back from injury. FIU reeled in C-USA’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Reason for Concern: Leading rusher Alex Gardner (791 yards) and top receiver Thomas Owens (59 catches) have finished their eligibility. The defense will be under renovation this spring, as seven of the top nine tacklers from last season have finished their eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: Under third-year coach Matt Viator, the Warhawks are a sleeper team to watch in the Sun Belt for 2018. ULM averaged 33.9 points per game last season and should be prolific on offense once again. Quarterback Caleb Evans is a rising star, and receiver Marcus Green is one of the top all-purpose players in college football. The defense needs to improve, but most of the two-deep from last fall is back for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Defense. ULM allowed 41 points a game and 7.3 yards a play last season. If Viator’s team can cut those numbers into midpack in the Sun Belt, this program can challenge for a bowl game.
100. Oregon State
Reason for Optimism: Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith is the program’s new head coach. In terms of fit, there’s not a better coach for the job than Smith. Safeties David Morris and Jalen Moore are promising pieces for new coordinator Tim Tibesar to build around in the secondary.
Reason for Concern: The Beavers have significant question marks on both sides of the ball. An offense that averaged only 20.7 points a game lost standout running back Ryan Nall early to the NFL, and quarterback uncertainty remains after Jake Luton suffered a season-ending injury after four games in 2017. The defense gave up 43 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The ground attack. Even though D’Angelo Brewer finished his eligibility, Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II are set to return at running back. The offensive line returns three starters, including all-conference candidates at guard in Tyler Bowling and center Chandler Miller.
Reason for Concern: The offense regressed from averaging 42.5 points a game in 2016 to 29.3 in ’17. Will this unit get back on track in 2018? Can coach Philip Montgomery get better quarterback play? The defense surrendered 37.5 points a game last fall and enters the year with question marks at each level.
Reason for Optimism: The Rebels are on the right path under fourth-year coach Tony Sanchez. After winning three games in his first year (2015), UNLV improved to four wins in 2016 and five last fall. Quarterback Armani Rogers is poised to become one of the Mountain West’s top signal-callers, and he’s joined on offense by running back Lexington Thomas (1,336 yards).
Reason for Concern: Standout receiver Devonte Boyd and left tackle Kyle Saxelid must be replaced. The defense is a work in progress after giving up 6.2 yards per play last fall. This unit must also replace All-Mountain West tackle Mike Hughes.
Reason for Optimism: Recruiting. Coach Luke Fickell inked the AAC’s No. 1 class for 2018. Most of the key players on offense are back, including quarterback Hayden Moore, running back Gerrid Doaks and receiver Kahlil Lewis. The defense loses a handful of key seniors, but lineman Marquise Copeland (8 TFL) and linebacker Perry Young (9 TFL) are back. Additionally, incoming freshman Malik Vann could provide help right away in the trenches.
Reason for Concern: The Bearcats have a long ways to go. This team won three of its four games by four points or less, with two of those victories coming by a single point. The offense has to revamp its line and find ways to jump-start a unit that averaged only 20.9 points a game in 2017. Leading tackler and second-team All-AAC linebacker Jaylyin Minor has finished his eligibility.
96. Southern Miss
Reason for Optimism: The Golden Eagles have some retooling to do on both sides of the ball, but coach Jay Hopson should keep this program in contention for the C-USA West Division title. Paxton Schrimsher, Jeremy Sangster and Racheem Boothe are a promising trio to build around at linebacker. Quarterback Kwadra Griggs returns after throwing for 16 touchdowns and 1,879 yards last fall.
Reason for Concern: The offense must replace its top skill players, as running back Ito Smith and receiver Korey Robertson expired their eligibility. The defense also lost its share of talent, including all four starters in the secondary and end Xavier Thigpen.
Reason for Optimism: The Fighting Illini went with a youth movement last season. The experience gained by these players should translate into better results in 2018. Running back Mike Epstein and receiver Ricky Smalling are two promising pieces for new coordinator Rod Smith to build around this offseason. Virginia Tech graduate transfer A.J. Bush provides experience at quarterback.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Can Smith quickly find an answer under center? There’s plenty of room for improvement on a defense that gave up 31.5 points a game last fall.
94. Air Force
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Arion Worthman is back after leading the team with 821 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, while the linebacker unit is led by Lakota Wills (6 TFL as a true freshman last fall).
Reason for Concern: For the second year in a row, Air Force is losing a significant chunk of its starting lineup. The Falcons must replace running back Tim McVey and four starters in the trenches. The defense loses five seniors among its top eight tacklers, including linebacker Grant Ross (97 stops). This unit also has a new play-caller after Steve Russ departed for the NFL.
Reason for Optimism: The defending MAC East champs are in good position to repeat. Coach Terry Bowden’s team has a promising quarterback in Kato Nelson at the controls, and the defense could be one of the best in the conference thanks to the return of linebackers Brian Bell and Ulysees Gilbert. Safety Alvin Davis and end Jamal Davis are back after earning All-MAC honors last fall.
Reason for Concern: The Zips need more punch out of their ground game. Also, the receiving corps loses three out of its top four options from last year.
Reason for Optimism: After a 4-9 season, it seems unlikely BYU will be down for long. Coach Kalani Sitake revamped his staff after last year’s disappointing mark, and the changes on offense should provide some help for a unit that averaged only 17.1 points per game in 2017. Tight end Matt Bushman is back after a solid freshman campaign (49 catches), and the running back position should be a strength for new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. Linebacker Fred Warner is a big loss, but the defense is returning a healthy chunk of last year’s two-deep.
Reason for Concern: Will quarterback Tanner Mangum be at full strength by the opener after suffering an Achilles injury late in the 2017 season? If Mangum isn’t ready to go, who steps up at quarterback? The Cougars must improve in the turnover department after posting a minus-10 mark last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The transition from Chad Morris to Sonny Dykes should be a relatively seamless move for the program. The offense will miss receivers Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn, but quarterback Ben Hicks and running backs Xavier Jones, Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freeman are a talented trio for Dykes to build around. Linebacker Kyran Mitchell and cornerback Jordan Wyatt are poised to earn preseason all-conference honors.
Reason for Concern: Quinn and Sutton accounted for 182 of the team’s 283 catches last year. Both will be missed. SMU’s defense has not finished higher than ninth in the AAC in fewest points allowed per game since joining the league in 2013. New coordinator Kevin Kane has a busy offseason ahead.
90. Utah State
Reason for Optimism: After a 3-9 record in 2016, the Aggies rebounded to 6-7 last fall. With most of the team’s core returning for 2018, Utah State could take another step forward in the win column. Quarterback Jordan Love showed promise as a freshman late in the year, and he’s aided in 2018 by the return of top target Ron’quavion Tarver (48 grabs). All five starters return on the offensive line. New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson inherits a unit that loses only two starters and held opponents to 5.2 yards per play last fall.
Reason for Concern: The losses in the secondary are significant. Cornerback Jalen Davis earned All-America honors for a standout 2017 campaign, and safety Dallin Leavitt has also expired his eligibility. Last year’s leading rusher (LaJuan Hunt) must be replaced.
Reason for Optimism: The Bulls are trending up entering 2018. Quarterback Tyree Jackson is back after accounting for 2,293 total yards and 16 overall scores last fall. The skill positions are set with the return of running backs Emmanuel Reed and Theo Anderson, along with big-play receiver Anthony Johnson.
Reason for Concern: The defense finished fifth in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game, but this unit needs to get better against the run (194.8 ypg allowed) and generate more of a pass rush (19 sacks). Each level of the defense has voids to fill. All-MAC defensive lineman Demone Harris has finished his eligibility.
88. Miami (Ohio)
Reason for Optimism: The RedHawks entered 2017 with hopes of winning the MAC East. Those title hopes were derailed after an injury to starting quarterback Gus Ragland in early October. Ragland is back at full strength for 2018, and coach Chuck Martin’s offense returns No. 1 receiver James Gardner (11 TD catches) and running backs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young. The defense ranked third in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game last fall.
Reason for Concern: The losses on defense aren’t extensive, but Martin has to replace two starters in the secondary – Heath Harding and Tony Reid – and standout tackle Ikeem Allen. The offense has to find ways to generate more big plays after posting only five plays of 40 yards or more in 2017.
87. Colorado State
Reason for Optimism: The Rams have to replace All-Mountain West quarterback Nick Stevens, but Collin Hill could return after using a redshirt year in 2017 to recover from a knee injury. Hill threw for 1,096 yards and eight scores as a freshman in 2016. However, Hill reinjured his knee this spring, leaving his status for 2018 surrounded in uncertainty. Coach Mike Bobo’s offense will miss running back Dalyn Dawkins, but there’s quality depth at running back. Tennessee transfer Preston Williams is slated to step in at receiver to help replace Michael Gallup. Defensive back Jordan Fogal (71 stops) was granted an additional year of eligibility.
Reason for Concern: How quickly can Hill knock off the rust if he's able to return from the knee injury? Could Colorado State look to add a graduate transfer this offseason? In addition to Gallup, the Rams must replace two other key targets in the passing game and revamp the left side of the offensive line. Bobo overhauled his defensive staff in an effort to improve a unit that allowed 6.3 yards per play in 2017. The rebuilding effort won’t be easy. The Rams lose three out of its top six tacklers and struggled to prevent big plays last year.
Reason for Optimism: Craig Bohl is one of the top coaches in the Mountain West and should keep Wyoming near the top of the Mountain Division. The offensive line returns four starters, and leading rusher Austin Conway (61 grabs) is also back in the mix for 2018. The Cowboys led the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 17.5 points a game last fall. This unit should be strong once again, with safety Andrew Wingard contending for All-America honors.
Reason for Concern: Who replaces Josh Allen under center? Wyoming’s offense needs more from its ground game after averaging only 3.2 yards per rush last season.
Reason for Optimism: The Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go, but coach Chris Ash has brought progress over the last two years. New play-caller John McNulty needs to identify a quarterback, but tight end Jerome Washington and running back Jon Hilliman (a Boston College graduate transfer) are two solid players to build around. Standout cornerback Blessuan Austin is back after missing most of the 2017 season due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play and depth at the skill positions. Also, the defense has to cut down on its yards per play allowed (5.7) and generate a pass rush (16 sacks in 2017).
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: In their second year back on the gridiron, UAB should be one of Conference USA’s top teams after an 8-5 record last fall. Running back Spencer Brown is back after a standout freshman campaign (1,329 yards), and quarterback A.J. Erdely provides stability under center after throwing for 2,331 yards and 16 scores last fall. The bulk of UAB’s defense is back after limiting opponents to 25.6 points a game.
Reason for Concern: While the bulk of UAB’s defense returns, there are holes to fill. The linebacker unit loses Shaq Jones and Tevin Crews, while the line must replace tackle Teko Powell. The secondary will miss standout cornerback Darious Williams. The passing attack could use a few more big plays after connecting on just eight throws of 40 yards or more last fall.
Reason for Optimism: After a 2-10 debut, Virginia showed marked improvement in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season with a 6-7 record. Cornerback Juan Thornhill is back to anchor the secondary, and Chris Peace and Jordan Mack should from an effective one-two punch at linebacker. Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus returns after earning All-ACC honors last year.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Kurt Benkert, safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser have expired their eligibility. That’s three significant pieces from last year’s team to replace.
82. Middle Tennessee
Reason for Optimism: A full (and healthy) year from quarterback Brent Stockstill will keep Middle Tennessee near the top of C-USA’s East Division. The line should take a step forward after an uneven 2017 season, and the team’s top three rushers from last year also return. A defense that limited opponents to 4.95 yards per play last fall is in good shape for 2018.
Reason for Concern: The Blue Raiders must replace standout receiver Richie James, and the defense loses both starting quarterbacks. Middle Tennessee has to do a better job of taking care of the ball after sporting a minus-12 turnover margin in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Chase Litton declared for the NFL draft, but coach Doc Holliday landed an intriguing replacement in Wagner graduate transfer Alex Thomson. The Thundering Herd’s supporting cast for Thomson is strong, as all five starters are back on the offensive line, running back Tyler King returns after leading the team in yardage as a freshman, and Tyre Brady averaged 15.2 yards per catch last fall. Marshall’s defense allowed just 4.95 yards per play in 2017 and loses just two senior starters for ’18.
Reason for Concern: How long will it take Thomson to acclimate to new play-caller Tim Cramsey? Also, the defense lost veteran coordinator Chuck Heater.
80. Louisiana Tech
Reason for Optimism: The Bulldogs have made four consecutive bowl appearances and consistently reload under coach Skip Holtz. Louisiana Tech won seven games with just a few seniors on both sides of the ball. Quarterback J’Mar Smith should continue to improve in his second year as the starter and go-to target Teddy Veal (74 catches) returns for 2018. End Jaylon Ferguson (9.5 TFL) is one of Conference USA’s top returning defenders. Cornerback Amik Robertson is a rising star to watch after leading the team with five interceptions last year.
Reason for Concern: The offense loses its top two running backs from last season. The defense must get tougher against the run after finishing ninth in Conference USA last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The Green Wave just missed out on a bowl trip last season and should have a breakthrough year in coach Willie Fritz’s third season at the helm. Quarterback Jonathan Banks had a solid debut last fall and will be even better with another offseason to work as the starter. Four starters are back on the offensive line, and top target Terren Encalade (39 catches) also returns in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Tulane is losing a few of its key players from 2017. Running back Dontrell Hilliard, linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, lineman Sean Wilson and defensive backs Jarrod Franklin and Parry Nickerson won’t be easy to replace.
Reason for Optimism: Matt Rhule is the right coach to get Baylor back into contention for finishes in the top tier of the Big 12. The Bears also helped the rebuilding process by inking one of college football’s top signing classes. Quarterback Charlie Brewer and receiver Denzel Mims are two promising pieces returning on offense. Transfers Jalen Hurd (WR) and Jake Fruhmorgen (OL) will provide help.
Reason for Concern: Baylor might be a year away from making a bowl game. The program’s depth is improving, but a few areas are still in development. The offensive line must improve after giving up 38 sacks last fall. The defense surrendered 6.5 yards per play in 2017 and must take a significant step forward in order to reach a bowl game.
77. Arizona State
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is back after a solid 2017 campaign (3,270 yards, 20 TDs). Running back Eno Benjamin is a rising star, and receiver N’Keal Harry is among the top players in the nation at his position. The Sun Devils added two graduate transfers to the offensive line to bolster a unit that entered spring ball as a question mark.
Reason for Concern: New coach Herm Edwards hasn’t coached in college since 1989. It’s going to take some time to adjust. The Sun Devils lost two of their best defenders – linebacker Christian Sam and lineman JoJo Wicker – early to the NFL. The offensive line gave up 41 sacks last fall, and guard Sam Jones decided to leave early to the next level.
76. North Carolina
Reason for Optimism: Last year was expected to be a rebuilding season, so the Tar Heels should be positioned for improvement in 2018. Running backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter and receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams provide a good foundation at the skill positions.
Reason for Concern: The defense doesn’t lose much, but the departures of linebacker Cayson Collins and defensive back M.J. Stewart hurt a unit that allowed 5.85 yards per play in 2017. Will Nathan Elliott claim the full-time job at quarterback? Or will Chazz Surratt push for the top spot in the spring? The offensive line must be revamped.
Reason for Optimism: The Owls finished 2017 on a high note, winning four out of their final five games under new coach Geoff Collins. The offense should benefit from a full year from Frank Nutile under center, and the one-two punch of David Hood and Ryquell Armstead is back to anchor the ground game. Safety Delvon Randall is back after earning first-team All-AAC honors.
Reason for Concern: Two out of the team’s top three receivers are gone, and the line must replace three starters. The defense loses five out of its top nine tacklers, including standout safety Sean Chandler and linemen Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin and Julian Taylor.
Reason for Optimism: Toledo is the reigning MAC champs, and coach Jason Candle is one of college football’s rising stars. Despite the loss of quarterback Logan Woodside, the Rockets will be picked near the top of the MAC once again. Running backs Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins form an effective one-two punch on the ground, and the receiving corps is deep with options, including Cody Thompson (back from injury) and Diontae Johnson.
Reason for Concern: Replacing Woodside isn’t going to be easy. The Rockets also have to replace four starters on the offensive line and overhaul the defense.
73. Appalachian State
Reason for Optimism: The Mountaineers will boast a strong ground attack once again, as Jalin Moore (1,037 yards) and Marcus Williams (500) are set to anchor the offense next fall. Left tackle Victor Johnson is one of the top linemen in the Group of 5 ranks, while the defense returns standout cornerback Clifton Duck.
Reason for Concern: Who emerges at quarterback to replace Taylor Lamb? On defense, Appalachian State is set to lose a couple of key defenders, including end Tee Sims, safety A.J. Howard and linebackers Eric Boggs, Devan Stringer and Rashaad Townes.
72. Northern Illinois
Reason for Optimism: The Huskies rebounded from a disappointing 2016 campaign to finish 8-5 last fall. Coach Rod Carey has a team capable of winning the MAC once again, as quarterback Marcus Childers is poised for a breakout year, and standout left tackle Max Scharping leads the way in the trenches. Defensive end Sutton Smith is one of college football’s top returning defenders for 2018.
Reason for Concern: A new No. 1 running back must emerge after Jordan Huff finished his eligibility. Three of the team’s top five statistical receiving options are out of eligibility. All-MAC defenders Bobby Jones (LB) and Shawun Lurry (DB) have also finished their playing careers. Carey’s team needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball after losing 24 turnovers last season.
Reason for Optimism: Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and coach Mike MacIntyre’s team should be positioned for a run at a bowl trip in 2018. The offensive staff was shuffled, as MacIntyre looks to help quarterback Steven Montez (2,975 yards and 18 TDs) develop as a junior. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Travon McMillian arrives this offseason to push for carries at running back. Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa are back to anchor the linebacker unit after placing as the team’s top tacklers last fall.
Reason for Concern: MacIntyre has work to do on both sides of the ball. Will Montez take a step forward in 2018? Colorado’s offense will miss running back Phillip Lindsay, and the team’s top three receivers from 2017 have expired their eligibility. Top cornerback Isaiah Oliver left early for the NFL.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2018
70. North Texas
Reason for Optimism: The Mean Green boast one of Conference USA’s top offenses. Quarterback Mason Fine returns after throwing for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns last year. Running backs Nic Smith and Evan Johnson gained valuable experience late in 2017 after Jeffery Wilson was lost due to injury. Fine returns his top three receiving targets from last year, including All-C-USA receiver Jalen Guyton.
Reason for Concern: Defense. North Texas gave up 35 points per game last fall, allowed more than 200 rushing yards a contest and gave up 27 plays of 40 yards or more.
Reason for Optimism: The Trojans are led by one of college football’s top coaches on the rise in Neal Brown, and the program has won 21 games over the last two seasons. A new quarterback must emerge, but the rest of the offense is in good shape. Memphis transfer Jamarius Henderson (7.9 ypc) is due for a bigger workload in 2018, and top receiver Deondre Douglas (48 catches) also returns. Four starters are back in the trenches, and the secondary returns standouts Marcus Jones, Blace Brown and Cedarius Rookard.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up at quarterback to replace Brandon Silvers? The Trojans led the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed per game (18.5) but will have to retool the defensive line and replace linebacker Sam Lebbie.
Reason for Optimism: Frank Solich’s offense led the MAC in scoring last year, and it’s hard to envision this unit slowing down in 2018. Quarterback Nathan Rourke was a standout find from the junior college ranks, and running back A.J. Ouellette is back after rushing for 1,006 yards last fall. Left tackle Joe Lowery and guard Joe Anderson are back to anchor the line after earning second-team All-MAC honors in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Defense. Ohio’s defense must be overhauled after losing linebackers Chad Moore and Quentin Poling, along with linemen Kevin Robbins, Tony Porter, Trent Smart and Cleon Aloese. Cornerback Bradd Ellis is the lone departure in the secondary.
Reason for Optimism: P.J. Fleck. After a 5-7 finish in his first year at the helm, Minnesota should take a step forward in Fleck’s second season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the Golden Gophers reeled in a solid recruiting class. Rodney Smith is back to anchor the ground game, while receiver Tyler Johnson should push for All-Big Ten honors after catching 35 passes for 677 yards in 10 games last fall. Linebacker Thomas Barber (115 stops) leads the way on defense.
Reason for Concern: Is junior college recruit Vic Viramontes the answer at quarterback? The defense loses standout tackle Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin and two starters in the secondary. Minnesota needs more out of its pass rush after managing only 23 sacks last year.
Reason for Optimism: The Hoosiers missed out on a bowl last year, but this team lost four games by eight points or less. Coach Tom Allen’s team wasn’t too far from a seven-win season. Receiver Nick Westbrook (54 catches for 995 yards in 2016) is back after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey (1,252 yards and 10 TDs) showed promise in his first opportunity for snaps.
Reason for Concern: The Big Ten’s East Division is brutal. There’s not much in the way of margin of error for Allen’s team. The defense has made significant progress over the last two years but suffered a few key personnel losses, including standout linebacker Tegray Scales and cornerback Rashard Fant.
Reason for Optimism: Transfer Jordan Cronkrite is poised to step in at running back after D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice have expired their eligibility, and the receiving corps returns two out of its top three targets – Tyre McCants and Darnell Salomon. Tackle Marcus Norman is one of the best returning linemen in the AAC.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up to replace dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers? The defense is set to lose three all-conference performers from a unit that led the American Athletic Conference in fewest points allowed per game.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Kyle Shurmur returns after quietly throwing for 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2017. The addition of Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn alleviates the loss of Ralph Webb at running back. The defense returns three players that accumulated at least 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Receivers Trent Sherfield (50 catches) and C.J. Duncan (52) have expired their eligibility. Vanderbilt’s defense surrendered 43.3 points a game in SEC-only contests in 2017.
63. Ole Miss
Reason for Optimism: Matt Luke provided steady leadership as an interim coach and should be better prepared in his second tour through the SEC. Behind quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and receiver A.J. Brown, the Rebels will have one of the SEC’s top passing attacks.
Reason for Concern: The offense must replace running back Jordan Wilkins (1,011 yards in 2017). There’s plenty of room for improvement on a defense that gave up 34.6 points a game in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: Chad Morris is a strong hire and should turn around this program over the next couple of seasons. The Razorbacks are in good shape at the skill positions on offense, especially with the return of receiver Jared Cornelius from injury. The defense must improve, but cornerback Ryan Pulley is back after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Morris needs time to adapt the talent to his system and recruit his players to Fayetteville. Will Cole Kelley be the answer at quarterback? How much improvement can new coordinator John Chavis produce with a defense that gave up 36.2 points a game?
Reason for Optimism: Scott Frost. It won’t be long before Frost has this program in contention to win the Big Ten West Division. True freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, running back Tre Bryant (back from injury) and receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman provide a strong core for the offense to build around.
Reason for Concern: Frost likely needs a year to implement his scheme on both sides of the ball and another recruiting class for Nebraska to push for a finish in the top 25. Assuming Martinez is the answer at quarterback, how long will it take the true freshman to develop? Major improvement is needed on defense after giving up 36.4 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Despite losing receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, Syracuse’s offense should be a strength in 2018. Quarterback Eric Dungey can push for All-ACC honors, and the line has a chance to show marked improvement with most of the two-deep returning. Most of the personnel losses on defense are at linebacker, with the line and secondary almost intact.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up to replace Ishmael and Phillips? Also, how much can Syracuse’s defense improve after giving up 6.4 yards a play last year? The offense also needs more help from its ground game and offensive line.
Reason for Optimism: Running back Benny Snell anchors the offense after rushing for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Kentucky’s linebacker unit has a chance to rank among the best in the SEC with the return of Josh Allen (10.5 TFL), Denzil Ware (9.5 TFL) and Jordan Jones (7.5 TFL).
Reason for Concern: Who steps up at quarterback? The contenders – Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson – have not attempted a pass in a Kentucky uniform. The Wildcats need to improve on defense in conference games after giving up 30.8 points in league play last season.
Reason for Optimism: A fresh start. New coach Jeremy Pruitt is one of college football’s top minds on defense and is a standout recruiter. The future looks bright for Tennessee. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and running back Ty Chandler form a promising duo on offense, and guard Trey Smith is already among the SEC’s best in the trenches. Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst will push Guarantano for time at quarterback.
Reason for Concern: Pruitt needs time to implement his style of play and overall makeup of the roster. Progress should be notable, but Tennessee has a tough path to six or seven wins. The rush defense must improve after giving up 251.3 yards a game in 2017.
57. Arkansas State
Reason for Optimism: The Red Wolves have lost only three Sun Belt games over the last three seasons. The track record of success shows Blake Anderson’s team will simply reload in 2018. An offense that averaged 37.8 points a game last fall should be dynamic once again thanks to the return of quarterback Justice Hansen, running back Warren Wand and receiver Justin McInnis.
Reason for Concern: Anderson has some big voids to fill on defense, starting up front with end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Linebacker Kyle Wilson and cornerback Blaise Taylor also must be replaced.
Reason for Optimism: The Blue Devils rebounded from a four-win season in 2016 to a seven-win mark in ’17. Quarterback Daniel Jones is back for his third year under center and his top three receivers from last fall return as well. The defense quietly has two of college football’s top defenders in linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and defensive back Mark Gilbert.
Reason for Concern: Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left for Oklahoma State. The offensive line must be overhauled and leading rusher Shaun Wilson has expired his eligibility.
55. Washington State
Reason for Optimism: The program is on stable ground thanks to three consecutive seasons of at least eight wins under coach Mike Leach. Even though the offense has concerns at every position, Leach has a track record of finding the right answers on this side of the ball. The addition of graduate transfer Gardner Minshew gives the offense an experienced option at quarterback. New coordinator Tracy Claeys inherits a solid core to build around on defense, including safety Jalen Thompson and linebacker Jahad Woods.
Reason for Concern: How quickly will Leach find his next quarterback? The receiving corps lost its top two targets in terms of yardage from last season’s team, and the line loses standouts Cody O’Connell and Cole Madison. Lineman Hercules Mata’afa was one of college football’s top defenders last fall and leaves big shoes to fill on defense for 2018.
Reason for Optimism: The Terrapins were hit hard by injuries last year and a return to full strength by quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome should bolster the offense. The one-two punch of running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison will once again rank among the best in the Big Ten. The offensive line returns all five starters, including standout tackles Derwin Gray and Damian Prince.
Reason for Concern: No. 1 receiver DJ Moore and top cornerback JC Jackson left for the NFL. Coach DJ Durkin has to retool a defense that lost seven out of its top 12 tacklers and surrendered 37.1 points per game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Riley Ferguson leaves big shoes to fill, but Arizona State graduate transfer Brady White should be a capable replacement. The Tigers return four starters up front and a standout backfield with Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor and Tony Pollard back to handle carries. The defense loses only three seniors among its top 14 tacklers from 2017. Cornerback T.J. Carter is a rising star.
Reason for Concern: The prolific pass-catch duo of Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller will be tough to replace. The defense returns largely intact but gave up 32.5 points a game last season.
52. San Diego State
Reason for Optimism: Rocky Long’s team has a few voids to fill on both sides of the ball, but the Aztecs will find their way into contention for the Mountain West title. Juwan Washington appears to be the next standout running back at San Diego State, and quarterback Christian Chapman is a three-year starter. The offensive line will be a strength with all five starters back, including left tackle Tyler Roemer. The Aztecs expect to own one of the conferences's top defenses, and it’s hard to see a major drop in production despite a few personnel concerns for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Even though Washington looks like a rising star, Rashaad Penny won’t be easy to replace. The defense loses two starters in the secondary (Trey Lomax and Kameron Kelly) and two up front. The offense isn’t going to throw it 40 times a game, but receiver Mikah Holder and tight end David Wells are big losses from Chapman’s options in the passing game. Also, the 2018 game versus Fresno State is on the road.
Reason for Optimism: Malcolm Perry. The Tennessee native rushed for 264 yards and three scores over the team’s last two games and is expected to start at quarterback in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Some of the team’s top ball carriers from 2017 – Chris High, Josh Brown and Darryl Bonner – have expired their eligibility. The defense is set to lose nine of its top 15 tacklers from last season, including standout linebacker Micah Thomas.
Reason for Optimism: The Black Knights have 18 wins over their last two seasons. That’s the most in a two-year run since 1984-85. The nation’s No. 1 rushing attack returns Darnell Woolfolk (812 yards), Kell Walker (629 yards) and Andy Davidson (627 yards) as the top ball carriers. The defense limited opponents to 22 points a game last fall and is returning largely intact.
Reason for Concern: There’s uncertainty at quarterback. Ahmad Bradshaw could get an additional year of eligibility for 2018, but an official decision regarding his status has yet to be announced. The offensive line must be revamped, which includes the departure of standout tackle Brett Toth. Linebacker Alex Aukerman will be missed on defense.
49. Texas Tech
Reason for Optimism: Defense. The Red Raiders made progress on this side of the ball last year, and this unit returns largely intact for 2018. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has a quarterback battle on his hands and a restocked receiving corps, but Texas Tech’s track record suggests this team will find answers on offense.
Reason for Concern: Kingsbury’s track record on offense is very good, but how quickly can he find the next star quarterback in Lubbock? The battle between McLane Carter and Jett Duffey could extend into fall practice. Also, Keke Coutee is a big loss at receiver after catching 93 passes last fall. Considering the uncertainty on offense, Texas Tech’s defense may have to carry this team in the early stages of 2018.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: The Panthers ended 2017 on a high note by beating Miami 24-14. One of the catalysts for the upset was quarterback Kenny Pickett, and he’s set to enter 2018 entrenched as the starter after throwing just 66 passes last year. Running back Darrin Hall also returns after providing a spark for the ground game late in the year. Coach Pat Narduzzi’s defense returns its top nine tacklers from last season and is poised to show marked improvement.
Reason for Concern: The receiving corps must replace Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson. Left tackle Brian O’Neill left early for the NFL, adding to the question marks from an offensive line that had an uneven 2017 season. Is this the year Narduzzi brings a standout defense to the Steel City? Pitt allowed 5.96 yards per play last season.
47. Georgia Tech
Reason for Optimism: The Yellow Jackets upgraded their defensive staff over the offseason with the addition of former Appalachian State assistant Nate Woody as the new play-caller. The offense returns largely intact, which is led by quarterback TaQuon Marshall and running back KirVonte Benson.
Reason for Concern: The defense loses seven out of its top 12 tacklers and must revamp its secondary. Woody is a standout hire, but it may take a year to reload the depth chart. The defense needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks after generating only 17 sacks last year. Georgia Tech has to get better in the turnover department (minus-five in 2017).
Reason for Optimism: The Golden Bears had low expectations in Justin Wilcox’s first season, but this program nearly made a bowl (5-7). So far, Wilcox is off to a promising start in Berkeley. The offense returns nearly everyone from last season and should take a big step forward in coordinator Beau Baldwin’s second year. Additionally, receiver Demetris Robertson is back after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Wilcox’s defense has a few voids to fill after the losses of Raymond Davison III and Devante Downs (seven games due to injury) at linebacker. Standout lineman James Looney is also out of eligibility. The offensive line can protect better after giving up 35 sacks in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: New quarterback Jawon Pass should be a breakout candidate for 2018. The rest of the offense is in good shape, especially with the return of receiver Jaylen Smith for his senior year, along with continued improvement in the trenches.
Reason for Concern: Even though Pass should be a capable replacement under center, Lamar Jackson is going to be missed. Big question marks remain on defense. Louisville loses six of its top 10 tacklers from a unit that allowed 5.6 yards per play. New coordinator Brian VanGorder has a lot of work to do this offseason.
44. Wake Forest
Reason for Optimism: The Demon Deacons are trending up after back-to-back bowl appearances. Kendall Hinton should step in at quarterback for John Wolford, and his supporting cast is strong with the return of Greg Dortch from injury at receiver, along with Matt Colburn and Cade Carney anchoring the ground game. Also, the offensive line has made major strides over the last three years and returns all five starters for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Hinton has played significant snaps in his career, but how seamless will the transition be from Wolford? Also, the defense loses a key cog at every level. End Duke Ejiofor and safety Jessie Bates are the unit’s biggest departures.
43. Boston College
Reason for Optimism: The Eagles ended 2017 by winning five out of their last seven games. A solid core returns for 2018, including running back AJ Dillon and defensive end Zach Allen. The offensive line should be one of the best in the ACC.
Reason for Concern: The schedule is tough, which could limit Boston College’s ability to improve on its win total. Can the passing game continue to develop behind quarterback Anthony Brown? The defense must replace standout linebacker Ty Schwab, cornerbacks Isaac Yiadom and Kamrin Moore and end Harold Landry. The Eagles have to get better against the run.
Reason for Optimism: Defensive lineman Ed Oliver is college football’s top returning player for 2018. The addition of new play-caller Kendal Briles will provide a spark on offense and help the development of quarterback D’Eriq King.
Reason for Concern: The Cougars must replace their top two receivers and two starting linemen from last year’s offense. This unit also needs to develop depth at running back. Oliver’s presence will keep Houston’s defense among the best in the AAC, but this unit has to replace a handful of key players in the back seven.
Reason for Optimism: The Boilermakers showed marked improvement in coach Jeff Brohm’s first year last fall. Look for that improvement to continue in 2018. Brohm has two proven quarterbacks – David Blough and Elijah Sindelar – and running backs Markell Jones and D.J. Knox form a potent one-two punch on the ground.
Reason for Concern: The top two receivers from 2017 have expired their eligibility. Look for Brohm and his staff to dip into the freshman class for help. Coordinator Nick Holt will have to rebuild a defense that limited opponents to 20.5 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Nate Stanley returns after quietly throwing for 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. Tight end Noah Fant should challenge for All-America honors. The Hawkeyes will have a revamped linebacker unit, but the line has a chance to develop into one of the Big Ten’s best in 2018.
Reason for Concern: All three starting linebackers must be replaced, including standout Josey Jewell. Top cornerback Josh Jackson left early for the NFL. The offense loses running back Akrum Wadley, and the line must replace center James Daniels and guard Sean Welsh.
39. Oklahoma State
Reason for Optimism: Oklahoma State will reload. The Cowboys have won 10 games in four out of the last five seasons. Running back Justice Hill will pickup the slack on offense after the departures of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington. Coach Mike Gundy has options at quarterback with the arrival of graduate transfer Dru Brown and incoming freshman Spencer Sanders. New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was a solid hire.
Reason for Concern: Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich usually have no trouble reloading on offense. But Rudolph and Washington leave big shoes to fill this year. Knowles is a good hire on defense, but this unit suffered a few key personnel departures, including tackle DeQuinton Osborne, linebacker Chad Whitener and defensive backs Tre Flowers and Ramon Richards.
Reason for Optimism: The Tigers are loaded on offense. Quarterback Drew Lock, running back Damarea Crockett, receiver Emanuel Hall and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam are all contenders for All-SEC honors. And the line is set with all five starters returning next fall.
Reason for Concern: Will there be a smooth transition from Josh Heupel to Derek Dooley as the team’s offensive coordinator? The defense gave up too many points (33.8 in SEC-only matchups) and big plays last year.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: Chip Kelly. During his stint at Oregon, Kelly went 46-7 over four years and led the Ducks to an appearance in the national championship game. He’s capable of helping UCLA reach its potential over the next couple of seasons. Despite losing quarterback Josh Rosen to the NFL, Kelly has options at quarterback. Devon Modster, Washington graduate transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels and incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson will compete for the job this offseason. Adarius Pickett, Nate Meadors and Darnay Holmes form a solid foundation in the secondary.
Reason for Concern: Kelly’s up-tempo scheme will require a transition period from the pro-style sets run under former coach Jim Mora. How fast can the Bruins find an answer at quarterback and solidify an offensive line that gave up 22 sacks in Pac-12 games? The defense struggled mightily against the run last fall and gave up 6.3 yards per snap.
Reason for Optimism: Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats have two 10-win seasons over the last three years under Fitzgerald’s watch. Running back Justin Jackson will be missed, but Jeremy Larkin looks like a breakout star for 2018. The offensive line returns four starters to help clear the way for Larkin. The defense limited opponents to 20.1 points per game last fall and returns a strong front seven, including linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall and lineman Joe Gaziano.
Reason for Concern: The status of quarterback Clayton Thorson for 2018 is uncertain after a knee injury suffered against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. The secondary must replace standout safeties Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike.
35. NC State
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Ryan Finley is back for his senior season, and the Wolfpack have a talented trio of options at receiver, including Kelvin Harmon (69 catches) and Stephen Louis (15.8 ypc). Three starters are back from an offensive line that ranked among the ACC’s best last fall.
Reason for Concern: The offense lost running back Nyheim Hines, all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels and standout offensive linemen Will Richardson and Tony Adams. On defense, the entire starting line is gone, including end Bradley Chubb.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2018
34. Fresno State
Reason for Optimism: Under first-year coach Jeff Tedford, the Bulldogs engineered one of college football’s biggest turnarounds. Tedford has this team poised to repeat as division champs once again. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion, along with receiver KeeSean Johnson and running backs Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit, are back to lead the way on offense. The defensive line must be revamped, but Fresno State should once again rank among the best in the Mountain West.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line loses All-Mountain West center Aaron Mitchell and right tackle David Patterson. The trenches on defense are a concern, especially after losing Tobenna Okeke (six sacks) and Malik Forrester (five). Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer left for the CFL this offseason, prompting Tedford to promote Bert Watts into the play-caller role.
33. Iowa State
Reason for Optimism: The Cyclones are a team on the rise under coach Matt Campbell’s watch. Running back David Montgomery anchors the offense after rushing for 1,146 yards last fall. The offense needs to patch a few holes at receiver and on the line, but this unit received good news when quarterback Kyle Kempt was granted an extra year of eligibility. Cornerback Brian Peavy is one of the Big 12’s top returning defenders.
Reason for Concern: Three out of the team’s top four statistical receivers – including standout Allen Lazard – from last year are gone. The defense has a few holes to fill. Linebacker Joel Lanning, defensive backs Reggie Wilkerson, Kamari Cotton-Moya and Evrett Edwards and lineman J.D. Waggoner have all finished their eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: New coach Kevin Sumlin should be a good fit in Tucson and in the Pac-12. Quarterback Khalil Tate is a Heisman contender, and a young and talented defense returns most of its core from 2017.
Reason for Concern: Arizona may take some time to transition to Sumlin and his new staff. The offensive line must be reworked after losing three starters, and the receiving corps isn’t particularly deep. The defense returns mostly intact, but this unit gave up 34.4 points a game in 2017.
31. Texas A&M
Reason for Optimism: Jimbo Fisher was one of the offseason’s top coaching hires, and the former Florida State head coach assembled a standout staff to help lead the way in College Station. The Aggies have a roster full of promising young talent and two intriguing quarterbacks in Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond.
Reason for Concern: The Aggies have the talent to finish in the top 25, but this team has to transition to a new staff and plays Clemson and Alabama in September. Texas A&M might be a year away on a defense that surrendered 30.7 points a game in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: Uncertainty surrounds nearly all of the Pac-12 South, but Utah has the league’s longest-tenured coach in Kyle Whittingham. In addition to stability at the top, the development of quarterback Tyler Huntley and return of running backs Zack Moss and Armand Shyne provides plenty of optimism. The offensive line should take a step forward with four returning starters in place. Safety/linebacker Chase Hansen turned down the NFL for another season in Salt Lake City.
Reason for Concern: Top receiver Darren Carrington (70 catches) leaves big shoes to fill. The defense has to retool the front seven after the losses of end Kylie Fitts, tackles Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei and linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli.
29. South Carolina
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Jake Bentley seems poised to take a big step forward in his junior year, and the supporting cast on the outside is strong with the return of Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards.
Reason for Concern: The Gamecocks need more out of their ground attack (3.9 ypc) and offensive line. Each level of the defense loses a key contributor, with the secondary set to lose three starters.
Reason for Optimism: The Knights return a strong core from last year’s 13-0 team, including quarterback McKenzie Milton, tackle Wyatt Miller and nose guard Trysten Hill. New coach Josh Heupel inherits a team that should be favored to win the AAC.
Reason for Concern: Maintaining success from one year to the next is never easy with a new coaching staff. What tweaks will Heupel make to the offense? Even though the returning talent has UCF as the favorite to win the AAC, linebacker Shaquem Griffin, cornerback Mike Hughes and receiver Tre’Quan Smith are significant losses.
Reason for Optimism: The Owls are rolling under second-year coach Lane Kiffin and could challenge for a spot in most preseason top 25 polls. Running back Devin Singletary is back after rushing for 1,920 yards and 32 scores last fall. Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison could be an impact addition on offense at quarterback. The defense showed significant improvement under former coordinator Chris Kiffin last fall and loses just two seniors from last year’s top 20 tacklers. Chris Kiffin left for the NFL, but the hire of former Southern Miss play-caller Tony Pecoraro should keep this unit near the top of C-USA.
Reason for Concern: Not much. How quickly will Robison or De’Andre Johnson settle into the starting role under center? Three starters on the offensive line must be replaced.
Reason for Optimism: The Horned Frogs will always be in the mix for the Big 12 title with Gary Patterson on the sidelines. The offense features promising skill players like running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua and receiver Jalen Reagor. The defense must replace standout linebacker Travin Howard, lineman Mat Boesen and defensive backs Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada, but Patterson should still keep this unit near the top of the conference.
Reason for Concern: How much will new quarterback Shawn Robinson (or incoming freshman Justin Rogers) develop this offseason to replace Kenny Hill under center? The offensive line loses four starters. Losing Howard, Orr and Texada is a big blow to the defense.
Reason for Optimism: Dan Mullen is a home-run hire. Most importantly, Mullen’s arrival should help an anemic offense that averaged just 21 points a game in SEC contests last year. With running back Jordan Scarlett returning to the team, the Gators should have one of the better backfields in the SEC. Florida’s defense will improve under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The schedule is very manageable.
Reason for Concern: How much of an impact can Mullen have on the offense in just one offseason? Will true freshman Emory Jones emerge at quarterback? Or will Feleipe Franks win the job? The line has to improve after giving up 37 sacks in 2017.
24. Kansas State
Reason for Optimism: Bill Snyder is back for 2018. That’s enough to keep Kansas State in the mix to be a top 25 team. Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson are promising options at quarterback, and the offensive line should be among the best in the nation.
Reason for Concern: The Wildcats have new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Will a clear answer emerge at quarterback? On defense, the team’s top two tacklers (Jayd Kirby and Trent Tanking) have departed and cornerback D.J. Reed left for the NFL.
Reason for Optimism: Despite the loss of quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II to the NFL, USC isn’t hurting for talent. Running back Stephen Carr and receiver Tyler Vaughns are two breakout stars to watch next fall. After an uneven performance in 2017, the offensive line should be a strength this fall. Linebacker Cameron Smith and defensive lineman Christian Rector are back to lead the defense for coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Reason for Concern: Who replaces Darnold at quarterback? Will it be true freshman JT Daniels? The defense is in relatively good shape in terms of personnel, but lineman Rasheem Green and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu will be missed. The secondary also has to cut down on the big plays allowed (13 of 40 yards or more in 2017
Reason for Optimism: Entering his junior year, all signs point to quarterback Justin Herbert having a huge season. The promotion of Mario Cristobal to head coach should ensure continuity from former coach Willie Taggart. Coordinator Jim Leavitt has the Ducks’ defense moving in the right direction.
Reason for Concern: Although continuity is important, Cristobal has to adapt from being a position coach to calling the shots as a head coach. An adjustment year might be necessary. Standout running back Royce Freeman (1,475 yards and 16 TDs) finished his eligibility. Speedy receiver Charles Nelson also finished his playing career in Eugene.
21. West Virginia
Reason for Optimism: Offense. The Mountaineers return one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Will Grier, along with standout receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings. Linebacker David Long (75 tackles) is poised for a monster year after playing in nine games due to injury last fall.
Reason for Concern: How much will the defense improve in 2018? West Virginia gave up 31.5 points a game, 6.14 yards a play and finished 10th in the Big 12 in rush defense. Losing safety Kyzir White and linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton certainly doesn’t make coordinator Tony Gibson’s job any easier.
20. Boise State
Reason for Optimism: The Broncos are the preseason favorite to earn the Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. Quarterback Brett Rypien returns to anchor the offense after earning second-team All-Mountain West honors last year. Boise State’s defense was loaded with underclassmen last fall and held opponents to 22.9 points a game. This unit should be even better in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Not much. The Broncos have to replace standout linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, along with go-to receiver Cedrick Wilson. The offense could use more production out of the ground game after averaging just 3.8 yards per carry in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: Thanks to standout recruiting classes, LSU isn’t hurting for raw talent. Even with some new faces at each level, the Tigers will rank among the SEC’s best on defense once again. The addition of transfers Jonathan Giles (receiver) and Breiden Fehoko (defensive line) fill two key areas of need. Sophomore Greedy Williams is already among the nation's top defensive backs.
Reason for Concern: The offense has a new play-caller (Steve Ensminger) and new starting quarterback (Myles Brennan). Additionally, top running back Derrius Guice and No. 1 receiver DJ Chark must be replaced.
Reason for Optimism: Recruiting and coach Tom Herman. Texas reeled in the nation’s No. 3 signing class and could see a handful of players make an instant impact. The offense returns two proven quarterbacks in Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, a couple of promising running backs, including Daniel Young (373 yards in 2017). Receiver Collin Johnson should push for All-Big 12 honors this fall. The addition of Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson should provide immediate help for the offensive line.
Reason for Concern: Will the offensive line take a step forward in 2018? How will the defense reload after losing linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety DeShon Elliott and lineman Poona Ford?
17. Mississippi State
Reason for Optimism: New coach Joe Moorhead is a standout hire and inherits a team that doesn’t lose much talent from a program that won nine games in 2017. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is expected to return to full strength from a leg injury by the season opener. Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons are two of the SEC’s top returning defenders. Running back Aeris Williams also returns in 2018.
Reason for Concern: A coaching transition is never 100 percent smooth. The receiving corps loses two out of its top five options from last season and more big plays and consistency is needed out of this group.
16. Florida State
Reason for Optimism: A fresh start. New coach Willie Taggart is a great fit in Tallahassee and inherits a roster with plenty of talent. The Seminoles have two proven quarterbacks (Deondre Francois and James Blackman) and one of the ACC’s rising stars in running back Cam Akers.
Reason for Concern: Can the offensive line take a step forward? Taggart will need to tap into his freshman class to have depth at receiver. The defense loses key cogs at each level, including standout safety Derwin James.
15. Virginia Tech
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Josh Jackson returns after throwing for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 324 yards and six scores as a freshman in 2017. Even though Cam Phillips is a big loss at receiver, Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah and Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton is a good trio to build around. Even though the defense loses a couple of key players, Bud Foster will keep the defense near the top of the ACC. Defensive tackle Ricky Walker is one of the best linemen in the ACC.
Reason for Concern: Phillips is a big loss at receiver. He dominated Jackson’s targets last year and was responsible for 71 of the Hokies' 245 completions. Guard Wyatt Teller was the offensive line’s best performer and will be missed. Can Virginia Tech get more production from its running backs to take some pressure off of Jackson? The defense loses cornerback Greg Stroman, linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds and tackle Tim Settle.
14. Notre Dame
Reason for Optimism: After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016, the Fighting Irish got back on track with a 10-win season in ’17. The offense needs more consistency from its starting quarterback, but there are options here with the return of Brandon Wimbush, Ian Book and incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec. Josh Adams leaves big shoes to fill at running back, but Dexter Williams should be a capable replacement. The defense is under the direction of new coordinator Clark Lea but took a step forward last fall and could be even better in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Will the Fighting Irish find a clear answer under center this offseason? Also, who steps up on the line to replace standouts Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey? Last year’s leading receiver (Equanimeous St. Brown) left early for the NFL as well.
Reason for Optimism: Stanford’s offense received a significant boost when running back Bryce Love decided to return for his senior year. The Heisman candidate rushed for 2,118 yards in 2017. Quarterback K.J. Costello is expected to take a step forward in his second year under center, and the offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Costello will miss spring ball due to injury but is expected to be 100 percent by the fall.
Reason for Concern: The defense. Stanford lost safety Justin Reid, cornerback Quenton Meeks and defensive lineman Harrison Phillips early to the NFL. Those are big losses on a unit that allowed 5.98 yards a play last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Coach Chris Petersen needs to reload at receiver following the departure of Dante Pettis, but Washington should have one of the Pac-12’s top offenses. Quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and offensive linemen Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary are set to return in 2018. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense for three consecutive years and should run that streak to four in a row this fall.
Reason for Concern: While the defense is largely in great shape, the departures of lineman Vita Vea and linebacker Keishawn Bierria are significant. Who steps up to replace Pettis at receiver?
11. Penn State
Reason for Optimism: Trace McSorley is one of the top returning quarterbacks in college football. Saquon Barkley will be missed, but Miles Sanders was a big-time prospect out of high school and should pick up the slack on the ground. The offensive line has a chance to be a strength with four returning starters. Cornerback John Reid is back after missing 2017 due to injury. Penn State’s recruiting under James Franklin continues to improve, which should speed up the rebuilding process.
Reason for Concern: Even though the Nittany Lions have recruited well, Barkley, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki won't be easy to replace. The offensive line needs to play with more consistency after an uneven 2017 campaign. The defense must make do without standout linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley.
10. Michigan State
Reason for Optimism: The Spartans return nearly everyone from last year’s team that won 10 games and defeated Michigan and Penn State. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is one of the conference’s top returning signal-callers, and running back LJ Scott is poised to earn his first 1,000-yard season. The defense is under a new play-caller (Mike Tressel) after Harlon Barnett left for Florida State. Don’t expect many changes from a unit that limited opponents to just 20 points a game last fall.
Reason for Concern: Center Brian Allen leaves big shoes to fill on the offensive line, and there’s not a proven backup to Scott. The pass rush could use more production after ranking ninth in the Big Ten in sacks generated in 2017.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: Jarrett Stidham returns under center after a solid debut at quarterback for coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn’s defense returns six starters from a unit that limited opponents to 18.5 points a game in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up to replace Kerryon Johnson at running back? And how will the offensive line replace four starters from last year’s unit?
Reason for Optimism: The Badgers are the overwhelming favorite to earn their third consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. The offense is loaded with potential, as the line ranks among the best in college football, running back Jonathan Taylor is a Heisman candidate, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook is poised for a breakout year. The defense has holes to fill, but coordinator Jim Leonhard can start the rebuilding process around linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards.
Reason for Concern: Wisconsin doesn’t have many concerns for next season, but how quickly will Leonhard fill the voids on defense?
Reason for Optimism: If eligible, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will be a difference-maker at quarterback. Receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black should be more involved as sophomores, and the backfield is stable with the return of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. The defense will be among the nation’s best once again.
Reason for Concern: If Patterson isn’t awarded immediate eligibility, will Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey step up at quarterback? The offensive line loses tackles Mason Cole and center Patrick Kugler. This unit needs to step up if Michigan wants to contend for the Big Ten title.
Reason for Optimism: The Sooners lose a handful of key pieces from last year’s team that made the CFB Playoff. However, this program should reload and challenge for a spot in the top four once again. Quarterback Kyler Murray is an intriguing replacement for Baker Mayfield, and the offense has plenty of talent at the skill positions.
Reason for Concern: Even though Murray is a former five-star prospect, Mayfield won’t be easy to replace. Oklahoma’s line loses standout left tackle Orlando Brown. The defense still has a ways to go after giving up 27.1 points a game in 2017.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: The Hurricanes were probably a year ahead of schedule last season and should push for a CFB Playoff berth once again. Quarterback Malik Rosier returns and will be pushed by talented redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry for the starting job. The skill positions aren’t hurting for talent. Miami’s defense should have one of the nation’s top linebacker units. Safety Jaquan Johnson should be an All-American in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Rosier was solid in his first year as the team’s starter but has to cut down on the interceptions (14). The left side of the offensive line must be revamped. The defense suffered a couple of key losses up front, including standout tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh.
Reason for Optimism: The Bulldogs are poised to contend for the CFB Playoff on an annual basis with Kirby Smart at the helm. Quarterback Jake Fromm returns for his second year under center after throwing for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017. The offensive line is poised to rank among the SEC’s best, and running back D’Andre Swift is a breakout star for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker have several holes to fill on defense. Linebacker Roquan Smith was one of the top players in college football last season and will be missed.
3. Ohio State
Reason for Optimism: The Buckeyes lose a handful of key players, but the next wave of stars is ready to emerge in Columbus. The one-two punch of running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins is ready to anchor the offense until quarterback Dwayne Haskins or Joe Burrow is ready. The receiving corps returns largely intact. End Nick Bosa is poised for a monster year as a junior.
Reason for Concern: How quickly will Haskins or Burrow assume full control of the offense? Three starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including standout tackle Jamarco Jones and center Billy Price. The defense should be one of the best in college football, but the secondary will miss standout cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb expired his eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: The Tigers have made the CFB Playoff for three consecutive years and return a bulk of the roster that earned the No. 1 seed last season. Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers are a promising trio of sophomores at the skill positions. Kelly Bryant is one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks but could be pushed by incoming freshman Trevor Lawrence. The defensive line is the best in college football.
Reason for Concern: Clemson must replace a couple of starters from the offensive line and could use a little more from its passing attack. Dorian O’Daniel leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker.
Reason for Optimism: Best overall roster and No. 1 coach in college football. As if that wasn’t enough, the Crimson Tide will be led by a rising star at quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, along with an emerging cast of receivers on the outside. The defense will always be tough under Nick Saban, with Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson set to emerge as All-SEC defenders in 2018.
Reason for Concern: The secondary needs to reload. Standout safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, along with cornerbacks Tony Brown, Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace must be replaced. It’s not easy to repeat.