Every college football team ranked 1-130 for 2017.
Ranking all 130 college football teams is no easy task, but with the first Saturday of action on Aug. 26 approaching quickly, it’s never too early to see how every FBS program stacks up for 2017. At the top, Alabama leads the way as Athlon’s projected national champion. The Crimson Tide lost to Clemson on the final play of last year’s title game, and even though both sides of the ball have a few holes to fill, coach Nick Saban’s program is still the team to beat. Ohio State is a close No. 2, while Florida State and Washington round out the projected playoff teams for 2017.
Outside of the top four, a host of teams should make for an interesting season, Michigan, Auburn, LSU, and Oklahoma State are just a few programs projected outside of the top eight that could be in the playoff mix. Defending champ Clemson is projected to finish No. 7, as coach Dabo Swinney's team still returns enough talent to remain a factor in the national title mix. Oklahoma is still Athlon’s pick to win the Big 12 after coach Bob Stoops retired. However, the gap between the Sooners and Oklahoma State or Texas closed just a bit in June.
USF is the projected top team from the Group of 5 conferences, with Boise State, San Diego State, Memphis, Navy and Colorado State rounding out the next tier of contenders. Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State headline a top-heavy trio in the Sun Belt, while Toledo and Miami are the favorites in the MAC. WKU and Louisiana Tech appear to be on a collision course for a rematch in the C-USA title game.
Where do all 130 teams stack up for 2017? Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
2017 Conference Predictions
Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017
After a two-year hiatus, the Blazers make their return to the gridiron on Sept. 2 against Alabama A&M. Considering all of the new faces on the depth chart, it’s hard to know what to expect out of this team in 2017. However, one thing is for certain: UAB is in good hands with Bill Clark leading the program. Clark guided the Blazers to a 6-6 mark back in 2014 and has recruited well during the hiatus to ensure this team can be competitive right away. A couple of transfers are likely to lead the way on offense. Former Middle Tennessee quarterback A.J. Erdely is the favorite to start under center, while Collin Lisa returned to Birmingham after a stint at Buffalo to work as the team’s go-to target. There’s also a cast of talented options at running back, including Kalin Heath, Donnie Lee, James Noble and Jonathan Haden. Senior Shaq Jones is the lone returning starter from the 2014 team and should be one of the leaders for Clark this fall. True freshman Thomas Johnston was the top recruit in UAB’s 2017 signing class and could push for snaps right away at linebacker. Considering all that has transpired with this program over the last couple of years, just returning to the gridiron and being competitive in conference play would be an accomplishment.
129. Texas State
The Bobcats are hoping for better results in their second season under coach Everett Withers. Texas State finished 2-10 last fall and nine of those defeats came by double digits. Withers is going with a youth movement on both sides of the ball, so instant improvement could be tough to find this fall. But there’s optimism for the Bobcats behind Mississippi State graduate transfer quarterback Damian Williams, along with a linebacker unit that features tackling machine Bryan London (141 stops in 2016). Williams should thrive in Texas State’s offense, but the senior needs help from a line that surrendered 44 sacks last year, along with a ground game that averaged 2.3 yards per rush in 2016. A defense that surrendered 41.1 points per game last season is expected to be in rebuild mode once again in 2017.
The Minutemen found out just how difficult life as a FBS Independent can be last season. Coach Mark Whipple’s team finished 2-10, went 0-4 against Power 5 opponents and lost 51-9 at BYU in late November. The going will get a little easier for this program in 2017. UMass plays just two Power 5 teams this fall but adds one of the Sun Belt’s top teams in Appalachian State, along with American Athletic champion Temple, and another matchup at BYU. While the schedule isn’t much easier, it should provide some relief for a team that quietly features one of the nation’s top tight ends. Senior Adam Breneman caught 70 passes for 808 yards and eight scores last season and is expected to push for All-America honors. Quarterback Andrew Ford was solid (26 TDs, 14 INTs) after taking over the starting job last fall, and running back Marquis Young (898 yards) is a potential 1,000-yard rusher. With Ford, Young and Breneman in place, the Minutemen should easily improve last year’s scoring average, which was just 23.3 points per game. While the offense is in good shape, new coordinator Ed Pinkham has a lot of work to do on defense. UMass gave up 35.5 points per game in 2016 (partially a product of the schedule) and allowed 6.1 yards per play. Reversing those numbers starts with better play up front against the run and getting after the quarterback more after generating 25 sacks in 2016. Safety Khary Bailey-Smith leaves big shoes to fill on the back end, but Pitt transfer Patrick Amara should be an impact addition. Doubling last year’s win total would be a step in the right direction for the Minutemen.
127. Kent State
The Golden Flashes have just eight wins over the last three years, making 2017 a critical year for coach Paul Haynes and his future at his alma mater. Any hope for a bowl push starts with senior quarterback/all-purpose threat Nick Holley. After injuries hit the quarterback position hard last season, Holley shifted from receiver to under center and ended 2016 with 1,923 total yards. With a full offseason to shape the offense to his strengths, can coordinator Don Treadwell help this unit average more than 20.6 points a game? Holley has a lot on his shoulders, and his 5-foot-10 frame could wear down over the course of the season. Can Holley get more help from his supporting cast? Defense has been a strength under Haynes, and this unit limited opponents to 28.7 points per game last fall. Senior tackle Jon Cunningham is a first-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports, but the strength of this unit is the secondary. The Golden Flashes allowed just one pass play of 50 or more yards in 2016. The schedule features crossover games against Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois and swing games versus Buffalo and Akron take place on the road. That’s a tough path for improvement.
The 49ers made progress in their second season at the FBS level in 2016. Coach Brad Lambert’s team won four games, with three of those coming in Conference USA play. The next step for Charlotte is to contend for a winning record and a bowl, but those two goals may have to wait another year. Lambert’s team returns 12 starters and has better depth thanks to its recent recruiting classes at the FBS level. But the program lost standout defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and running back Kalif Phillips, leaving big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball for 2017. Quarterback Hasaan Klugh showed promise last fall and returns for his first full year as the team’s starter. He’s joined by capable targets at receiver in senior T.L. Ford II and junior Workpeh Kofa, while guard Nate Davis should push for all-conference honors. Benny LeMay and Robert Washington are tasked with picking up the slack on the ground. The defense has significant voids to fill in the front seven and gave up nearly 35 points (34.6) a game in 2016. Safety Ben DeLuca could emerge as one of Conference USA’s top defensive backs this fall.
125. New Mexico State
This will be New Mexico State’s final year as a Sun Belt member, as the program is set to become a FBS Independent next fall. The Aggies will be looking to push for a bowl in their final year in the conference and snap a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons. The good news for coach Doug Martin? Running back Larry Rose is back to full strength after an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, and quarterback Tyler Rogers returns after throwing for 2,603 yards. Rogers needs to cut down on the turnovers (12 picks) but is surrounded by one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps. Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani returns eight starters from a unit that allowed 38.8 points per game last season. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but New Mexico State’s hopes of a winning season rest with a struggling defense against a tough schedule.
124. Coastal Carolina
Led by former TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina is the newest member of the FBS level. The Chanticleers are in the second year of a two-year transition period and are ineligible to play in a bowl game. But this team will be a factor in Sun Belt competition, as Coastal Carolina won 10 games at the FCS level last season. After injuries hit the quarterback position hard in 2016, Moglia and new offenisve coordinator Jamey Chadwell is hoping for stability behind Syracuse transfer Austin Wilson. If Wilson isn’t the answer, junior Josh Stilley is likely to get the call as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. The one-two punch of Marcus Outlow and Osharmar Abercrombie should be an effective one on the ground, but the Chanticleers will be replacing three starters on the line. An athletic and speedy defense returns only five starters from a unit that limited opponents to 19.3 points per game in 2016. Linebacker Shane Johnson and senior end Marcus Williamson are two of the leaders for defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews, while the secondary is looking for new starters to emerge.
Lance Leipold came to Buffalo after a successful run at Wisconsin-Whitewater, but this program has just seven wins over the last two years. In order for the Bulls to challenge for a bowl in 2017, Leipold needs marked improvement from both sides of the ball. The offense managed only 16.5 points a game last season, while the defense gave up 32.3 per contest. Sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson is promising but has to improve as a passer after completing only 53.1 percent of his throws in 2016. Improving the passing game doesn’t just fall on Jackson’s shoulders. The sophomore needs targets to emerge on the outside after the departure of the team’s top three receivers from last year. Additionally, running back Jordan Johnson expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,040 yards in 2016, leaving junior Johnathan Hawkins and freshman Theo Anderson as the favorites for carries. The strength of the offense should be up front. Four starters are back, and Rutgers transfer Jacquis Webb is penciled in at left tackle. While last year’s defensive numbers weren’t pretty, don’t be surprised if Buffalo takes a significant step forward on this side of the ball. The Bulls return eight starters – including one of the MAC’s top linebacker units – and safety Ryan Williamson anchors a secondary that is expected to improve with three returning starters. A bowl trip is unlikely, but Buffalo could double its win total from 2016.
122. San Jose State
New coach Brent Brennan has extensive ties to the state of California and San Jose State, but the first-year coach has a lot of work do in 2017. The Spartans went 4-8 last fall and have not posted a winning record since 2012. Reversing that trend is going to take some time. Brennan is regarded as a good recruiter, and his ties to the state will help San Jose State attract talent in the next couple of years. But in 2017, Brennan inherits a team filled with question marks on both sides of the ball. The offense averaged only 24.4 points per game in 2016 and must replace quarterback Kenny Potter. Sophomore Josh Love is the favorite to take the first snap, with freshman Montel Aaron and junior college recruit Sam Allen also in the mix. The Spartans are in good shape at the skill positions with the return of running back Malik Roberson (508 yards) and receivers Justin Holmes and Tre Hartley. However, none of this will matter unless San Jose State’s offensive line is better. This unit allowed a hefty 50 sacks last fall but returns all five starters. The concerns in the trenches spread to the defense, where this unit is transitioning to a new 3-4 scheme. Depth is a concern up front, but two of the starters – juniors Bryson Bridges and Owen Roberts – could be in the mix for all-conference honors. Linebacker Frank Ginda made 99 stops last season and is a first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2017. The secondary is the strength of this defense. Cornerback Andre Chachere and safety Maurice McKnight are both likely to earn all-conference consideration in 2017, with Chachere earning first-team honors last fall. Brennan worked under Mike MacIntyre during his successful tenure at San Jose State, so he knows what it takes to win here. However, it’s going to take some time to rebuild this program.
121. Georgia State
Change is the theme surrounding Georgia State this offseason. There’s a new coach (Shawn Elliott), and the Panthers now have their own stadium after taking over (and renovating) Turner Field (now Georgia State Stadium). Elliott comes to Atlanta after working as South Carolina’s offensive line coach since 2010, and he has ties to athletic director Charlie Cobb from a stint at Appalachian State. Georgia State’s offense averaged only 19.9 points per game last year, but there’s too much firepower to expect a repeat of that total. Senior Conner Manning will compete with Aaron Winchester for the starting quarterback job, and the receiving corps regains the services of All-Sun Belt target Penny Hart after missing most of last season due to a foot injury. One priority for the offense: Find more balance. Georgia State averaged just 87.7 rushing yards per game in 2016. The defense returns eight starters and could be among the best in the Sun Belt.
The Miners have one bowl appearances and winning mark (2014) under coach Sean Kugler, but this program has posted a losing record in three out of the last four seasons. And after a 4-8 mark in 2016, the pressure is building on Kugler to get UTEP back on track. That’s not an easy assignment for the former NFL assistant, as standout running back Aaron Jones left for the pros and the defense is a concern after giving up 34.9 points per game in 2016. Quadraiz Wadley was slated to replace Jones this fall, but he’s out after suffering a shoulder injury in spring practice. With Wadley out, sophomore Walter Dawn and true freshman Joshua Fields could handle the majority of the carries. Regardless of which player earns carries, he should find running room behind a standout offensive line. This unit is anchored by All-America candidate Will Hernandez and center Derron Gatewood. Quarterback Ryan Metz (1,375 yards, 10 TDs) was steady last fall, but the Miners connected on just 12 passes of 30 or more yards. More is needed out of Metz and the receiving corps without Jones to lean on in 2017. The defense has major concerns up front, but the back seven should be a strength. Linebacker Alvin Jones is one of Conference USA’s top defenders, and safety Devin Cockrell is another all-conference candidate. A tough schedule awaits UTEP in 2017. In addition to non-conference games against Army, Oklahoma and Arizona, the Miners catch WKU and Middle Tennessee in crossover play.
Second-year coach Matt Viator has ULM on the right track, but this program might be a year away from making a push for a bowl game. The Warhawks won two conference games in November, ending the season with some momentum after losing starting quarterback Garrett Smith due to injury midway through 2016. Smith is back under center and the supporting cast should be set with the return of the top three receivers and the team’s top four running backs. The supporting cast will also receive a boost from the addition of Alabama transfer Derrick Gore at running back. Viator’s offense should take a step forward after averaging 23.3 points per game last season, but the defense is a bigger concern. While eight starters return, this unit ranked near the bottom of the league against the run, pass efficiency defense and allowed 39.1 points per game. A tough schedule limits the upside for ULM.
Rice is one of Conference USA’s toughest jobs, but it’s notable that the Owls have watched their win total decrease in three consecutive years after a 10-4 finish in 2013. Coach David Bailiff has won 56 games since taking over in 2007 and could be facing a make-or-break campaign. In order for Rice to snap a string of two losing seasons in a row, finding a quarterback is Bailiff’s top priority. Sophomores Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato and freshmen Sam Glaesmann and Miklo Smalls will battle for the job in the fall. Until a quarterback emerges, expect the offense to lean heavily on a solid line that returns all five starters and running back Samuel Stewart. Sophomore Kylen Granson could be in for a breakout year at receiver. Rice was porous on defense last season, giving up 37.3 points a game, meore than 200 yards a contest on the ground and 32 plays of 40 yards or more. New coordinator Brian Stewart should build his 2017 group around linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee and a solid defensive line. The pass defense has to improve for the Owls to cut down on last year’s 37.3 points per game total allowed.
117. Fresno State
Fresno State was one of the Mountain West’s top programs but slipped considerably during the final three years under coach Tim DeRuyter. After an 11-2 campaign in 2013, the Bulldogs won just 10 games over the next three seasons, capped by a 1-11 record in '16. The long climb back to respectability begins with new coach Jeff Tedford, who returns to the collegiate sidelines for the first time since 2012. Tedford’s background is on offense, which is a good thing considering Fresno State averaged just 17.7 points a game in 2016. Sophomore Chason Virgil is team’s most-experienced option at quarterback, but he will be pushed by junior college recruit Jorge Reyna. The Bulldogs need more consistency out of his position, especially with a solid group of playmakers waiting to break plays on the outside. Even if the passing game improves, Fresno State still has to find ways to spark a ground attack that averaged only 3.2 yards per rush in 2016. Can Saevion Johnson or Dontel James emerge as the answer at running back? Adding to Tedford’s concerns on offense is a line that surrendered 31 sacks last fall. The defense was slightly better in 2016, giving up 30.9 points per game (seventh in the Mountain West). However, this group was gashed against the run (247.4 ypg allowed) and generated 14 sacks. New coordinator Orlondo Steinauer takes over after a stint in the CFL and will have his hands full.
116. Ball State
Mike Neu went 4-8 in his first season at his alma mater, and year two begins with significant concerns on both sides of the ball. The offense will be led by junior quarterback Riley Neal and Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC running back James Gilbert, who rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 scores last fall. Neal has showed flashes of promise but had an up-and-down 2016 campaign by tossing 12 picks vs. 13 touchdowns. Finding targets for Neal is critical for Neu, especially after top receiver Damon Hazelton decided to transfer to Virginia Tech. Freshmen Khalil Newton and Justin Gibbs could be counted on for major contributions at receiver. The line returns three starters and has a chance to be among the best in the MAC. New coordinator David Elson inherits a defense that ranked seventh in the MAC by allowing 30.1 points per game in 2016. And with only four starters back, Elson will be busy this offseason. End Brandon Winbush (8.5 sacks) is the headliner, while three new starters step into the rotation at linebacker. Ball State won only four games last fall but suffered six of the eight losses by 10 points or fewer. Turning some of the close losses into wins will require improvement from Neal, as well as a reversal of a minus-10 turnover margin.
Change is the key world to remember around Reno this offseason. The Wolf Pack are under the direction of a new coach (Jay Norvell), with new schemes slated to be implemented behind new coordinators Matt Mumme and Jeff Casteel. Mumme plans on transitioning Nevada from a Pistol offense to more of a pass-first/spread approach, which is likely to take a year or two to implement. Helping Mumme’s implementation is Alabama transfer David Cornwell at quarterback, and running back James Butler is poised for another 1,000-yard campaign. But the Wolf Pack need more targets to emerge at receiver, and the offensive line is a concern with just two returning starters. The firepower is there for the offense to improve over the course of the year, but Mumme’s group might be a year away. The personnel snapshot isn’t bad on defense. End Malik Reed is a candidate for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, linebacker Gabriel Sewell is back after a solid freshman campaign, and the secondary has two all-conference safeties in Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus. With the new schemes on both sides of the ball, just matching last year’s five wins would be a good debut for Norvell.
114. Bowling Green
It’s easy to pin the blame on coach Mike Jinks for Bowling Green’s drop off from MAC champion to four-win team in 2016. However, it’s also important to note the Falcons lost a good chunk of talent from that team, and a first-year coach learning on the job compounded the problem. But there were signs of promise last fall. The Falcons won their last three games and are positioned to exceed last year’s four total victories. Quarterback James Morgan is a rising star under center, and the receiving corps should be a standout group, anchored by Scott Miller, Teo Redding and junior college transfer (and former Oregon State player) Datrin Guyton. Josh Cleveland and Donovan Wilson anchor a solid stable of running backs, which received more of the workload during the team’s three-game winning streak. Jinks’ top priority this offseason is finding the right answers for an offensive line that replaces three starters. The development of this group is critical to the team’s hopes of challenging for a bowl. It’s a good thing Bowling Green has enough offensive firepower to average at least 30 points a game. The defense gave up 38.3 per contest in 2016 and returns only five starters. This unit does feature All-MAC candidates in lineman Gus Schwieterman, linebacker Brandon Harris and safety Jamari Bozeman. However, this defense is filled with question marks and could struggle once again in 2017. Punter Joseph Davidson is one of the best in the nation.
Butch Davis returns to the sideline for the first time since his firing at North Carolina prior to the 2011 season. While Davis has been away for six years, he’s stepping back into familiar territory. After spending time as an assistant at Miami (1984-88) and again as the head coach (1995-2000), he’s certainly familiar with FIU and its recruiting territory in Miami-Dade County. The Panthers landed sixth in Athlon Sports’ Conference USA East predictions, but this team has potential to surprise. The senior leadership of quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and receiver Thomas Owens provide a solid foundation on offense. The biggest concern for the offense is in the trenches after giving up 31 sacks in 2016. Progress could be slow for this unit with just two returning starters. The defense gave up 34.8 points per game last season but should show improvement under coordinator Brent Guy. The Panthers return nine starters, including a standout linebacker unit led by seniors Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint. A push for five wins or a bowl would not be a surprise from Davis in his debut.
112. East Carolina
Scottie Montgomery’s first year in Greenville was a struggle. East Carolina finished 3-9 – with a win over NC State – and claimed only one victory in league play. Another alarming stat: All seven of the losses in AAC action came by at least 11 points. To help this program get back on track, Montgomery dipped into the graduate transfer ranks for immediate help. Quarterback Thomas Sirk (Duke), running back Tyshon Dye and end Gaelin Elmore (Minnesota) are expected to start and provide an instant impact. Sirk is the most important addition, but he’s also coming off a torn Achilles that forced him to miss all of 2016. If Sirk is limited at any point, the Pirates will turn to junior Gardner Minshew under center. Dye adds to a talented backfield of options, but East Carolina needs more production from its rushers after averaging only 132.4 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 yards per carry. Zay Jones leaves big shoes to fill at receiver after catching 158 passes in 2016. But the cupboard isn’t bare for Montgomery. Quay Johnson, Jimmy Williams and Davon Grayson form a talented trio of options and a group capable of ranking as one of the AAC’s top receiving corps. Even if East Carolina’s offense matches last year’s per-game average (27), the defense has to improve for this program to go bowling. The Pirates gave up 36.1 points per game and finished last in the league against the run. Only four starters are back, but the addition of Elmore and Auburn transfer Tim Irvin should provide a boost. East Carolina should improve in Montgomery’s second season. But it’s also a long climb to six wins or to crack the top three of the AAC’s East Division.
111. Georgia Southern
Tyson Summers’ tenure at Georgia Southern got off to a rocky start. Despite returning 12 starters from a team that won 18 games from 2014-15, the Eagles slipped to 5-7 and just 4-4 in league play. A victory over Troy in the regular season finale likely secured Summers of a second year in Statesboro, and there’s already enormous pressure to win in 2017. Georgia Southern still has a good foundation of talent to engineer a turnaround this fall, and the addition of new play-caller Bryan Cook should help the offense get back to its option roots. But Cook must find a quarterback after Seth Shuman and Shai Werts ended spring locked into a tight battle for the top spot. The one-two punch of Wesley Fields and L.A. Ramsby at running back should find plenty of running room behind one of the Sun Belt’s top offensive lines. Summers and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Costantini have a tough assignment ahead this offseason. The Eagles return only four starters and face a significant rebuilding project in the front seven.
Mark Hudspeth has guided Louisiana to five bowl trips in six seasons at the helm, and the Ragin’ Cajuns should contend for another postseason appearance in 2017. Of course, Louisiana’s place in the Sun Belt will largely depend on how well the offense can replace standout running back Elijah McGuire. Senior Darius Hoggins and sophomore Jordan Wright headline a trio of options for new offensive coordinator Will Hall, while promising junior Jordan Davis is set to become the new starting quarterback. Davis has a solid set of receivers on the outside to utilize, including big-play threat Keenan Barnes. The line ranks as one of the best in the Sun Belt with four returning starters. The strength in the trenches continues on defense, as end Joe Dillon (seven sacks in 2016) anchors one of the Sun Belt’s best fronts. With the question marks on offense, Louisiana may have to lean on its defense a little more to win in 2017. And the schedule won’t provide many breaks. The Ragin’ Cajuns play two of the Sun Belt’s top teams – Arkansas State and Appalachian State – while playing road games at South Alabama, Idaho, Tulsa, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
A year after earning the program’s first bowl victory, the Zips slipped to 5-7 after injuries took a toll on the quarterback position and the defense. Returning to the postseason and a winning record likely rests on a return to full strength from quarterback Thomas Woodson. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery and is expected to resume throwing over the summer. If Woodson is limited or struggles, former Virginia Cavalier and junior college recruit Nick Johns will step under center. The return of running back Warren Ball from a season-ending injury should spark a ground attack that ranked 11th in the MAC last fall. The Zips will miss Jerome Lane’s big-play ability at receiver, but senior Austin Wolf could emerge as an all-conference candidate after catching 36 passes last year. A line that returns four starters could be the strength for the offense. After giving up 33.6 points per game and finishing 11th in the MAC against the run in 2016, it’s clear Akron’s defense can only go one way in 2017. But improvement isn’t guaranteed for coordinator Chuck Amato. The Zips suffered key losses at each level, struggled to generate a pass rush or create turnovers last fall and return only four starters on this side of the ball. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert is one of the MAC’s top defenders, while transfers Jamal Davis (Pitt), Darian Dailey (Rutgers), Mark Ellis (West Virginia) and James King (Miami) could provide some instant help. A schedule that features non-conference games against Penn State, Troy and Iowa State, along with crossover games against Toledo and Western Michigan won’t provide much relief.
108. North Texas
Seth Littrell was one of the top coaching hires from the 2016 cycle and provided an instant spark for the Mean Green last year. After North Texas won just one game in 2015, this program finished 5-8 last fall and earned a trip to a bowl due to APR scoring. Littrell still has a lot of work to do, but the Mean Green are clearly trending in the right direction. In order for this team to push for a winning record in 2017, more is needed from an offense that averaged only 24.8 points per game last fall. Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine (1,572 yards, six TDs) showed promise, but he could be pushed by junior Quinn Shanbour this fall. Fine’s development will be aided by one of Conference USA’s top running backs in senior Jeffery Wilson, along with junior college recruit Jalen Guyton at receiver. The offensive line returns three starters but must cut down on the sacks after giving up 43 last fall. The defense was a key cog in last year’s improvement. After surrendering 41.3 points per game in 2015, North Texas cut that total to 32.6 last year. There’s a new coordinator (Troy Reffett) and some turnover (just four returning starters), but the Mean Green have the pieces in place to improve on this side of the ball. The secondary is one of the best in Conference USA, and Kansas State transfer Bryce English is a name to remember in the front seven. Another bowl trip is within reach for Littrell’s team.
Marshall’s collapse from a team that won 33 games from 2013-15 to a 3-9 record in '16 was quite puzzling. What went wrong for this team last year and is it correctable in one offseason? That’s the big question for coach Doc Holliday. For starters, the Thundering Herd struggle to generate any consistency from its ground attack, averaging just 108.2 rushing yards per game. Some of that inconsistency came from the problems in the trenches, but both units have to improve in 2017. Quarterback Chase Litton has the potential to be one of Conference USA’s top signal-callers – if he can get more help from the supporting cast. Miami transfer Tyre Brady is a player to watch at receiver, while tight end Ryan Yurachek is the best in Conference USA. The problems for Holliday were not limited to the offense last year. Marshall gave up 35.3 points a game on defense and ranked ninth in Conference USA against the run. The secondary was equally problematic, finishing 101st nationally in pass efficiency defense. Junior tackle Ryan Bee and cornerback Rodney Allen are two building blocks for coordinator Chuck Heater, and the addition of Miami transfer Juwon Young should bolster a struggling linebacker unit. Marshall has too much talent on the roster to finish 3-9 again. However, contending for the C-USA East Division seems out of reach.
106. Central Michigan
John Bonamego opens his third season at the helm of his alma mater looking to replace standout quarterback Cooper Rush. Michigan transfer Shane Morris is the favorite, but sophomore Tony Poljan is also in the mix. Replacing Rush won’t be easy. After all, he finished second in MAC history with 12,891 passing yards. If a quarterback emerges, the Chippewas should have no trouble scoring points behind new coordinator Chris Ostrowsky. The running back corps is deep and more help is on the way in the form of Minnesota transfer Berkley Edwards. The receiving corps should be among the best in the MAC, with tight end Tyler Conklin a first-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports. The defense returns six starters from a group that surrendered 30.3 points per game last fall – an increase of just over eight per contest from 2015. Linebacker Malik Fountain, end Joe Ostman and defensive backs Amari Coleman and Josh Cox are the top performers and could all push for first-team All-MAC honors. This unit has a few holes to fill, but the defense has a chance to improve its numbers from 2016. If Morris or Poljan emerges under center, the Chippewas should earn their third consecutive bowl trip under Bonamego.
Third-year coach Tony Sanchez has the Rebels trending up entering 2017. A bowl could be a season away, but UNLV won four games last fall (up from three in 2015) and lost two by no more than six points. Making the jump to six (or more) wins will require better play at quarterback. And the Rebels could have the right answer in the form of redshirt freshman Armani Rogers. He’s projected as the team’s starter over former junior college/Nebraska signal-caller Johnny Stanton, and Rogers is primed for a breakout year. Joining Rogers on offense is a deep stable of backs led by Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas, along with one of the league’s top offensive lines. The Rebels are deep at receiver, with Devonte Boyd (45 catches in an injury-limited year) expected to push for first-team All-Mountain West honors. The receiving corps is also expected to get a boost from the return of Kendal Keyes (missed 2016 due to injury). While the offense is poised to take off, question marks surround the defensive depth chart. UNLV returns only two starters on this side of the ball and depth at all three levels is a concern. After giving up 36.8 points per game last fall, it’s tough to see this unit taking a significant step forward with much in the way of proven talent.
This will be Idaho’s final year at the FBS level, and coach Paul Petrino’s team has a chance to go out on a high note. The Vandals return nine starters from a team that claimed its first winning season since 2009. Quarterback Matt Linehan is a second-team Athlon Sports All-Sun Belt selection for 2017, but his supporting cast will feature some new faces after the departure of four out of the top five targets from last season. The offensive line is also a concern after the departure of three starters. The Vandals allowed just over 30 points per game (31.3) last season and had their share of issues against the pass. Coordinator Mike Breske returns only five starters, but end Aikeem Coleman is one of the Sun Belt’s top defenders, and the linebacker unit should be among the best in the conference. Idaho had a bit of luck on its side last fall. A plus-11 turnover margin and four victories by one score suggests some regression is in order for 2017.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2017 Predictions
103. South Alabama
The Jaguars had an interesting 2016 season. Despite a 2-6 record in Sun Belt play, South Alabama made its second bowl appearance in program history. Thanks to upset victories against Mississippi State and San Diego State in non-conference play, the Jaguars reached the six-win mark for the third time in four years. With 11 returning starters and one of the Sun Belt’s best defenses in place, South Alabama shouldn’t need upsets in non-conference play to go bowling in 2017. The line is anchored by Louisville transfer Finesse Middleton and standout tackles Tyree Turner and Tre Alford. Safety Jeremy Reaves is also a first-team All-Sun Belt selection by Athlon Sports for 2017. The offense averaged 25.4 points per game last season and needs more help from the line to improve on the stat sheet. Quarterback Dallas Davis should rank among the league’s top signal-callers, while running back Xavier Johnson should push for 1,000 yards after rushing for 831 last season. The receiving corps must be retooled after losing its top four options from 2016.
102. Eastern Michigan
The Eagles were one of college football’s most surprising teams in 2016. Under the direction of third-year coach Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan had its first winning season since 1995 and made its first bowl trip since '87. Another postseason game is within reach this fall, especially with a high-powered offense returning to Ypsilanti. Quarterback Brogan Roback is one of the best in the MAC, and despite losing tight end Nigel Kilby, the senior will have one of the league’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Shaq Vann’s return from injury adds to a solid stable of running backs. The offensive line is Creighton’s biggest concern after losing three full-time starters from last year’s group. If the line comes together, exceeding last season’s scoring output (29.6 ppg) won’t be a problem. While the defensive numbers from last season weren’t indicative of a shutdown group, it was a huge step forward for a unit that was gashed repeatedly in 2015. Eastern Michigan gave up 42.1 points per game that season but cut the total to 29.8 in 2016. End Pat O’Connor is the biggest loss for coordinator Neal Neathery from a defense that is slated to return eight starters. Assuming Neathery can fortify the pass rush and work on cutting down the big plays in the secondary, Eastern Michigan’s defense should take a step forward on the stat sheet once again. However, Creighton’s team won’t get a break in scheduling. The Eagles play the top two teams – Ohio and Miami – from the East and catch swing games against Northern Illinois and Central Michigan on the road.
A familiar name is set to take over at UConn this fall: Randy Edsall. The former UConn coach has returned to Storrs after leaving to take the top spot at Maryland following the 2010 season. Edsall guided the Huskies to four consecutive bowl games from 2007-10 but inherits a program in need of repair. The offense averaged just 14.8 points per game and needs to find an answer at quarterback after the offense generated just eight passing scores last fall. Senior Bryant Shirreffs is the favorite to start, but junior college recruit David Pindell could push for the job in the fall. New coordinator Rhett Lashlee plans to implement an up-tempo/spread attack to spark this attack, and running back Arkeel Newsome could be a huge focal point of the offense. Receiver Noel Thomas (100 catches in 2016) won’t be easy to replace and more is needed from a line that has struggled in recent years. The picture isn’t as bleak on defense for Edsall. UConn allowed 28.1 points per game last fall and finished third in the AAC against the run. New coordinator Billy Crocker has a solid foundation at his disposal, including standout senior linebackers Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph. Cornerback Jamar Summers is one of the AAC’s top defensive backs, but he’s also working with three new starters in the secondary. Edsall did a good job in his first stint at identifying under-the-radar recruits and developing them into solid starters. Finding success in his second stint in Storrs isn’t guaranteed, but Edsall knows what it takes to win and should help this team take a step forward in 2017.
The Green Wave are coming off a 4-8 debut under coach Willie Fritz, but this team wasn’t far from bowl eligibility. Tulane dropped four games by 10 points or fewer, including a four-point defeat against Wake Forest and losing to Navy by a touchdown. Fritz clearly has this program trending up, but the Green Wave are probably a year from bowl eligibility. The addition of junior college transfer Jonathan Banks at quarterback is huge for an offense that managed only 24.1 points per game in 2016. Banks has the mobility to thrive in Fritz’s spread option attack. Banks won’t throw a ton (15-20 attempts per game), but the receiving corps is in better shape this fall, with junior Terren Encalade (13.9 ypc) likely the top target. Senior running back Dontrell Hilliard has led the team in rushing for two years in a row and should be the anchor for the ground game once again. The line regains the services of center Junior Diaz, who missed most of 2016 due to injury. This group and Banks’ development is critical to Tulane’s hopes of hitting six wins. The Green Wave quietly boast one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defenses. Tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley will be missed, but there’s enough talent in place to remain near the top of the league. End Ade Aruna is poised for his best year, while the secondary is a standout group, headlined by cornerback Parry Nickerson.
99. Northern Illinois
The Huskies are coming off their first losing season since 2007 and a string of six consecutive trips to the MAC Championship Game was also snapped last fall. Can coach Rod Carey get this program back on track? Contending for the conference title is unlikely, but if the Huskies can find the right answer at quarterback, a bowl trip is within reach. Injuries hit this position hard last season, as four different quarterbacks received snaps. Junior Ryan Graham and sophomore Daniel Santacaterina are set to battle for the job this fall, but this offense is going to lean heavily on its ground attack. Leading the way for running back Jordan Huff is a standout line, anchored by Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC left tackle Max Scharping. Top receiver Kenny Golladay won’t be easy to replace, but the Huskies get Chad Beebe back from injury, and Iowa State transfer Jauan Wesley could provide a boost on the outside. While finding a quarterback is the biggest storyline for Carey this offseason, the defensive concerns shouldn’t be overlooked. This unit gave up 30.3 points a game and struggled to stop the run (10th in the MAC). The front seven has to be retooled and could be problematic once again. The strength of the defense is the secondary, which features standout senior Shawun Lurry. With Eastern Michigan coming to DeKalb and no Ohio or Miami in crossover play, the schedule breaks in Northern Illinois’ favor this fall.
The Owls will be one of college football’s most intriguing teams this fall. And the reason for that is pretty simple: Lane Kiffin. The former Alabama offensive coordinator takes over in Boca Raton and inherits a team that has won just nine games over the last three years. While Kiffin’s last stint as a head coach at USC ended in his firing, the guess here is this stint goes significantly different. FAU is a program with potential in a fertile recruiting territory, and with Kiffin helping to make the final push, the Owls inked C-USA’s No. 1 signing class. Included in that haul was former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, a junior college transfer who is expected to start in 2017. Johnson is surrounded by a deep group of skill players, including standout running back Devin Singletary and receivers Kalib Woods and Kamrin Solomon. The offensive line should get a boost from the return of tackle Reggie Bain, who missed all of 2016 due to injuries suffered in an offseason car wreck. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Kiffin’s team, but defense could be an issue. Standout end Trey Hendrickson expired his eligibility, adding to the concerns for a run defense that gave up 245.4 yards per game in 2016. Anchored by cornerback Raekwon Williams and safety Jalen Young, the secondary should be the strength of the defense. The personnel is in place for Kiffin to lead FAU to a bowl game in his first year in Boca Raton.
97. Utah State
After winning 19 games from 2013-14, Utah State has been trending in the wrong direction. The Aggies are just 9-16 over the last two seasons, and after a 3-9 record last fall, there’s considerable pressure on coach Matt Wells. Can Utah State get back into bowl contention this fall? It’s not going to be easy. An offense that averaged just 23.9 points per game in 2016 should improve behind new coordinator David Yost. The former Oregon assistant plans to utilize more up-tempo looks this fall, which should play into the strengths of quarterback Kent Myers. The senior has the talent to push for All-Mountain West honors, but the supporting cast is a concern. The Aggies are breaking in four new starters on the offensive line, and the receiving corps must be retooled after losing three key players from last year’s squad, including talented receiver Rayshad Lewis to transfer. The defense wasn’t the best in the Mountain West in 2016 but certainly wasn’t a weakness either. This year’s version must replace a couple of key cogs, including linemen Travis Seefeldt, Ricky Ali’fua, linebacker Anthony Williams, safety Devin Centers and cornerback Daniel Gray. The secondary is anchored by All-Mountain West candidates in safety Dallin Leavitt and cornerback Jalen Davis and is the strength of this defense. Senior Alex Huerta and juniors Derek Larsen and Chase Christiansen provide a solid foundation at linebacker, but the revamped line is likely to be the biggest concern for Wells. While this team has a lot of personnel concerns to address, it is important to note Utah State lost four Mountain West games by a touchdown or less last year. Turning a couple of those close losses into wins could equal a bowl trip for the Aggies.
96. New Mexico
Bob Davie has brought steady improvement to this program since taking over in 2012, with the Lobos finishing '16 with a 9-4 mark and another trip to the New Mexico Bowl. Davie has this program on stable ground, but New Mexico has a few key voids to address before matching last year’s nine wins. The offense led the Mountain West by averaging 36.7 points per game in 2016 and should rank near the top once again. Quarterback Lamar Jordan is streaky as a passer but ranked third on the team in rushing with 739 yards last fall. Jordan anchors the option-based attack for Davie, but he won’t have to shoulder the entire workload on the ground. Tyrone Owens (1,097 yards), Richard McQuarley (18 TDs) and Daryl Chestnut (255 yards) form a capable trio for coordinator Bob DeBesse. And the Lobos have a road-grading offensive line with four returning starters to lead the way. The passing game should get a boost from the return of Delane Hart-Johnson (29.7 ypc in 2015) after he missed all of 2016 due to injury. It’s a good thing New Mexico’s offense should be among the best in the Mountain West and can chew up chunks of time off the game clock, as the defense returns only three starters from a group that gave up 31.5 points per game in 2016. Each level is filled with question marks, but the secondary is of particular concern after giving up 17 plays of 40 or more yards last fall. The Lobos also face a tougher slate in conference play. Hawaii, Nevada and San Jose State are traded for road games at San Diego State and Fresno State, along with a home date against an improving UNLV team. Additionally, New Mexico plays at Wyoming in a key swing game.
The Bearcats have been one of the more consistent programs through the Big East/American Athletic Conference era, but last season’s four-win campaign was the program’s lowest victory total since 2010. Former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell is tasked with getting this program back on track, and with his extensive ties to the state of Ohio, he should be a good fit over the long haul. For Cincinnati to return to the postseason in 2017, Fickell and coordinator Mike Denbrock have to find answers for an offense that managed just 19.3 points a game last year. Ohio State transfer Torrance Gibson is expected to take a redshirt in 2017, leaving Ross Trail and Hayden Moore as the team’s top options at quarterback. Moore has the edge in experience and threw for 1,744 yards and 11 scores in seven appearances last year. The receiving corps is in good shape with Devin Gray (58 catches) and Kahlil Lewis (48) returning. Running back Mike Boone was limited to just 388 yards last year due to injuries, but he could be a 1,000-yard rusher with a full year of carries. Only two starters are back on the offensive line and this group is a concern entering fall workouts. The defense ranked fourth in the AAC in points allowed (26.9 ppg) last season and is under the direction of new coordinator Marcus Freeman. There’s some turnover at each level, but this unit returns one of the AAC’s top linemen in tackle Cortez Broughton. Cincinnati needs a few breaks to go bowling, but a fresh start under Fickell should be a step in the right direction.
The Roadrunners are a program on the rise under second-year coach Frank Wilson and will continue to build off the momentum from last season’s six wins. Wilson is known as a standout recruiter, but he’s already proving his mettle as a head coach by guiding UTSA to its first bowl trip in program history last fall. This year’s team is projected third in Conference USA's West Division, but there’s little gap between the Roadrunners and second-place Southern Miss. For UTSA to take a step forward in the win column, the offense needs more consistency out of its passing attack and quarterback Dalton Sturm. This unit is loaded with options at receiver and features talented running back Jalen Rhodes, who is ready to step in for Jarveon Williams. The offensive line allowed a whopping 43 sacks last fall and has to improve for this team to challenge Louisiana Tech at the top of the West. The defense should be a strength for the Roadrunners. Linebacker Josiah Tauaefa (115) is a tackling machine and already one of the top defenders in Conference USA as a sophomore. He’s joined by senior La’Kel Bass at linebacker, while end Marcus Davenport and safety Nate Gaines are also among the best at their respective position. The defense allowed 27.9 points per game in 2016 and should cut that total even lower this fall.
93. Southern Miss
Interesting was probably the best way to describe coach Jay Hopson’s first season in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss returned enough talent to push for the Conference USA West Division crown, but this team stumbled late after an injury to quarterback Nick Mullens, and a minus-17 turnover margin was among the worst in the nation. Mullens expired his eligibility after the New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana, leaving former junior college recruit Kwadra Griggs and talented sophomore Keon Howard competing for the starting job. Howard received limited playing time last season and showed he’s still developing as a passer after completing only 44 percent of his throws (50 attempts). Assuming Hopson and coordinator Shannon Dawson find an answer under center, Southern Miss should thrive on offense. Running back Ito Smith averaged 147.5 all-purpose yards per game last season and returns to anchor the ground game. Receiver Allenzae Staggers (63 catches in 2016) is among the conference's best at receiver. In addition to quarterback, the line – with just two returning starters – ranks as a concern for Hopson’s offense. The defense has to retool a bit in the front seven, but the secondary returns three starters and should be among the best in C-USA. The road game at UTSA on Oct. 7 looms large in positioning for teams in the West Division.
Lovie Smith’s second season in Champaign is likely to look a lot like 2016. After winning just three games (and one Big Ten contest) last fall, the Fighting Illini have personnel concerns with a depth chart that returns only eight starters. On offense, uncertainty surrounds the quarterback spot. Junior Chayce Crouch is the favorite to start after completing 18 of 32 passes for 249 yards and one score last fall, but this competition could receive a late addition if junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson arrives on campus before the season. The strength of the offense is at the skill positions with running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, and the receiving corps features two potential All-Big Ten candidates in Malik Turner (48 catches) and Mike Dudek (returning after missing the last two years because of a knee injury). With three starters back, the offensive line is also in a good spot after giving up just 20 sacks in 2016. The defense has a ways to go after giving up 31.9 points per game and finishing 12th in the conference against the run. Each level was hit hard by departures, and Smith dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help with the addition of linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, linemen Dawuane Smoot, Gimel President and Chunky Clements won’t be easy to replace. If Smith is able to get consistent quarterback play from Crouch, Jeff George Jr. or Lawson, Illinois will have a chance to exceed last year’s three wins. However, too many question marks exist to escape the bottom of the Big Ten West Division.
Chris Ash inherited a roster in need of major repair, so last year’s 2-10 record was no surprise. And it’s no secret, Ash and his coaching staff have another tough rebuilding year on tap. For perspective on where Rutgers is right now: The Scarlet Knights were shut out in four Big Ten games and lost six conference matchups by at least 17 points. New coordinator Jerry Kill is tasked with jumpstarting an offense that averaged only 15.7 points per game. Junior Giovanni Rescigno (889 yards, five TDs) is the favorite to start at quarterback, but Louisville graduate transfer Kyle Bolin and true freshman Jonathan Lewis are also expected to push for time. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the return of receiver Janarion Grant from a knee injury is a boost to the passing attack. Grant caught 20 passes for 210 yards in four games before being lost for the season. The strength of the offense is at running back with seniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, along with Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards forming a talented trio of options. The offensive line is under renovation with three new starters stepping into roles. The defense was problematic last fall by giving up 37.5 points per game and ranked last in the Big Ten against the run and yards per play allowed (6.4). With eight starters back, some improvement should be expected. Cornerback Blessaun Austin could push for All-Big Ten honors, and end Kemoko Turay hopes to regain his freshman form (7.5 sacks in 2014). All three starters also return at linebacker. For this defense to take a significant step forward, Rutgers needs more depth and playmakers to emerge in the trenches. Major improvement is unlikely in year two under Ash. However, the Scarlet Knights should be able to exceed last season’s two wins.
90. Old Dominion
The Monarchs had a breakout year in 2016, and there’s plenty of staying power behind coach Bobby Wilder. Old Dominion won 10 games and claimed a bowl victory for the first time since joining the FBS level in 2014. While quarterback David Washington leaves big shoes to fill, the Monarchs should be a safe bet for another postseason trip. Sophomore Blake LaRussa will get the first opportunity to replace Washington, with redshirt freshman Drayton Arnold also in the mix. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect to see a lot of running backs Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox. The receiving corps and offensive line rank among Conference USA’s best. The defense features three new starters at linebacker, but the end combination of Bunmi Rotimi and Oshane Ximines should keep the front seven performing at a high level.
Significant progress will take time at Kansas, but coach David Beaty seems to have this program on the path after winning two games in 2016. The Jayhawks are assembling a roster capable of competition in the Big 12 on a week-to-week basis, and the coaching staff was upgraded with the addition of former TCU play-caller Doug Meacham this offseason. Meacham will take over the offensive play-calling duties from Beaty, with junior college recruit (and former Washington State signal-caller) Peyton Bender expected to start over sophomore Carter Stanley. Bender quietly has a capable group of receivers at his disposal, headlined by Texas A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot and junior Steven Sims (77 grabs in 2016). In order for the offense to escape the cellar of the Big 12, improving the ground game is a must. Kansas managed only 119.1 rushing yards per game last fall. Junior college recruit Octavius Matthews and freshman Dom Williams could provide some much-needed punch at running back. The defense has allowed at least 30 points a game for seven consecutive years. That streak is unlikely to stop in 2017, but Kansas has one of the league’s top defenders at end in Dorance Armstrong Jr. (10 sacks in 2016), and a rising star at safety in sophomore Mike Lee. This team is loaded with question marks, but there’s enough to potential to win three or four games in 2017.
The Rainbow Warriors showed marked improvement in coach Nick Rolovich’s first season, finishing 7-7 and winning the program’s first bowl game since 2006. Another step forward is in store for Hawaii in 2017, as Rolovich’s squad is the biggest threat to San Diego State in the West Division. Toppling the Aztecs isn’t going to be easy, but the Rainbow Warriors can lean on an explosive offense. Quarterback Dru Brown (19 TDs, 7 INTs) provided a spark once he took over the starting job. The junior should be even better with a full year to work as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Top receiver Marcus Kemp (73 catches) expired his eligibility, but the receiving corps is in good hands with John Ursua, Dylan Collie and Ammon Barker. This offense has good balance with the return of running back Dicoemy Saint Juste (1,006 yards). Additionally, the line returns three starters, including All-Mountain West pick Dejon Allen at left tackle. While Hawaii shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball, stopping opposing offenses was a challenge last fall. The defense surrendered 37.3 points a contest (worst in the Mountain West) and gave up more than 200 rushing yards per game. New coordinator Legi Suiaunoa has a solid core returning up front – including linebacker Jahlani Tavai and end Meffy Koloamatangi. But the secondary features a couple of new faces, with the cornerback spot of particular concern for Suiaunoa.
Last season’s 2-10 record was the first losing mark in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s head coaching career. The lack of success by the Cavaliers was really no surprise considering the question marks surrounding this team in the preseason, but there were glimpses of hope at the end of the year. Virginia nearly defeated Louisville in late October and lost to Wake Forest by seven points one week later. Mendenhall will be expecting more than moral victories in 2017, but it’s tough to see this team getting drastically better. Quarterback Kurt Benkert (2,552 yards, 21 TDs) returns to direct the offense after an up-and-down first season in Charlottesville. Benkert’s favorite targets – Doni Dowling and Olamide Zaccheaus – are back after combining for 101 catches. However, the remainder of Benkert’s supporting cast is littered with question marks. With the departure of Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, the team’s top returning rusher is Jordan Ellis – with 61 yards in 2016. A couple of graduate transfers were brought in to improve a shaky offensive line. Mendenhall’s background is on defense, so it was a surprise to see the Cavaliers near the bottom of the ACC in scoring, rush, pass and total defense last fall. However, this unit has potential to improve behind eight returning starters, including All-America safety Quin Blanding, as well as standout linebacker Micah Kiser. The defensive line needs Andrew Brown to deliver a huge senior season. Marked improvement is unlikely. However, Virginia could double its win total from 2016.
86. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves have been a model of consistency in recent years, as this program has played in six straight bowl games and earned a winning record each season in that span. Even though coach Blake Anderson’s team has a few key voids to fill, that streak should be extended to seven. Senior end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones anchors a standout line – a group critical in Arkansas State finishing second in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (21.5 ppg) last fall. The biggest concerns on defense are in the secondary where three starters must be replaced. The offense got off to a slow start in 2016 but averaged 32.1 points per game in conference play. The firepower is there at the skill positions to match that total, and quarterback Justice Hansen should be better in his second year as the starter. However, the line looms as a major concern for Anderson. All five starters must be replaced, and instant help was sought through the transfer ranks.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2017 Predictions
Frank Solich’s Bobcats are one of the MAC’s most consistent teams. Ohio has won at least eight games in six out of the last eight years. Additionally, this program has made seven bowl trips in that span. Also, Ohio’s last losing record was in 2008. With Solich’s success in mind, it’s never a good idea to count this team out even when there are personnel concerns to address. The Bobcats are the defending MAC East champs but a repeat trip to Detroit will hinge on how much the offense develops behind sophomore quarterback Quinton Maxwell. Ohio’s ground game will receive a boost from the return of A.J. Ouellette from a season-ending injury in 2016, with junior Papi White anchoring a receiving corps looking to replace two out of its top three targets. There’s a solid foundation in place with three starters returning along the offensive line, including Athlon Sports first-team All-MAC selection Jake Pruehs. Continuing the consistent theme, Ohio is usually solid on defense, and there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2017. The defensive line loses standout end Tarell Basham, but there’s enough experience returning to keep this unit performing at a high level. Additionally, linebacker Quentin Poling should be in the mix for MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors and alleviates some of the concern up front. The secondary returns two starters and should take a step forward after ranking ninth in the league in pass defense in 2016. Ohio hosts Miami in a game that could decide the champion of the East Division. However, Solich’s team also has to play Toledo and takes on an improved Eastern Michigan team in crossover play.
The Boilermakers have won no more than three games in each of the last four years, but the program made one of the offseason’s top hires with the addition of Jeff Brohm. During a 30-10 run at WKU, Brohm developed one of the nation’s top offenses and guided the Hilltoppers to back-to-back Conference USA titles. While Brohm isn’t likely to lead Purdue to a bowl game in 2017, there should be some improvement in the on-field product. Brohm will call the plays on offense, which figures to provide immediate help for a unit that managed only 24.6 points per game in 2016. Working with quarterbacks is a specialty for Brohm, and junior David Blough showed promise after throwing for 3,352 yards and 25 scores last fall. Running back Markell Jones should push for 1,000 yards in the new offense, but question marks remain at receiver and up front. Two graduate transfers were added to boost the front five, while the receiving corps added Corey Holmes, who started his collegiate career at Notre Dame. New coordinator Nick Holt returns six starters on defense, with the strength of this unit coming at linebacker. Sophomore Markus Bailey and senior Ja’Whaun Bentley form a solid one-two punch at the position, while WKU grad transfer T.J. McCollum is expected to push for a starting job in the fall. The Boilermakers need to get tougher against the run after giving up 238.4 yards per game last fall. Don’t expect major improvement in Brohm’s first year, but Purdue’s offense will make things interesting in West Lafayette.
83. Western Michigan
The Broncos had quite a ride in 2016. Under the direction of former coach P.J. Fleck, this program finished the regular season at 13-0, won the MAC Championship Game and earned a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin. Repeating those accomplishments in 2017 isn’t going to be easy. There’s a new coach (former WMU quarterback Tim Lester), a first-time starter at quarterback after the departure of Zach Terrell, and both sides of the ball lost important pieces from last year’s squad. One of those pieces was standout receiver Corey Davis, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Replacing Terrell is likely to be a group effort, with junior Tom Flacco and sophomore Jon Wassink battling for the starting quarterback job in the fall. Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, expect the Broncos to lean heavily on their ground game. The trio of Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy is one of the most productive in the nation. This group will have plenty of help up front, as Western Michigan’s line could be the best in the MAC. After leading the conference in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) last fall, Lester could lean even more on this group in 2017. Each level suffered personnel losses, but this unit shouldn’t slip too far on the stat sheet. Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown form a standout one-two punch at linebacker, while cornerback Darius Phillips is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Another bowl trip is expected, but Western Michigan will have to overcome quarterback concerns and a date at Toledo in order to win the MAC West once again.
The Mustangs improved their win total by three games from coach Chad Morris’ first season to year two. And with an explosive offense on tap for 2017, look for SMU to earn its first bowl bid since 2012. Ben Hicks will have to hold off Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and junior college recruit D.J. Gillins for the starting job, but the sophomore is a breakout candidate at quarterback after throwing for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. The Mustangs are overflowing with talent at receiver and at running back. Junior Courtland Sutton (76 catches for 1,246 yards) is an All-America candidate, and he’s joined by LSU transfer Trey Quinn and sophomore James Proche as key targets for Hicks. Junior Braeden West (1,036 yards) headlines a solid trio of running backs. The biggest concern for Morris’ offense remains the line. This unit has to get better in pass protection after surrendering 26 sacks in 2016. While the offense is good enough to get SMU to six wins, moving higher in the American Athletic Conference standings depends on how far the defense progresses. The Mustangs gave up 36.3 points per game last fall and ranked 11th in the league against the run. End Justin Lawler is the unit’s top performer and a first-team American Athletic Conference selection for 2017 by Athlon Sports. However, question marks remain at every level.
The defending American Athletic Conference champs are a team in transition for 2017. Geoff Collins was hired as the program’s new coach after Matt Rhule left to take the top spot at Baylor. In addition to Collins and new schemes on both sides of the ball, the Owls must replace quarterback Phillip Walker, and a handful of key defenders, including standout edge rusher Haason Reddick. Uncertainty surrounded the quarterback spot exiting spring ball. Four candidates are vying for the starting job, with sophomore Logan Marchi or junior Frank Nutile likely the favorite to take the first snap. Helping to ease the new quarterback in is one of the AAC’s top receiving corps – led by receivers Ventell Bryant and Keith Kirkwood – and a strong ground attack, anchored by junior Ryquell Armstead. The line has to shuffle a bit after losing two starters, but this group should be solid once again. While the list of departures on defense is extensive, Collins isn’t inheriting a roster devoid of talent. The secondary should be strong with three returning starters, while there’s enough experience and talent in the front seven to remain near the top of the American Athletic Conference. Adding to Collins’ challenge in year one is a tough schedule. Temple catches Notre Dame and Army in non-conference play, while getting three of the top four teams from the West – Tulsa, Navy and Houston – in crossover action.
80. Army West Point
Maintaining success hasn’t been easy for Army West Point. The program has just two bowl bids and winning records since 1997. But the momentum for the Black Knights seems to be changing behind coach Jeff Monken. After a 6-18 start to his tenure at West Point, Monken guided Army to an 8-5 record last fall, which was the program’s highest win total since posting 10 in 1996. Additionally, the Black Knights won the Heart of Dallas Bowl and beat rival Navy for the first time since 2001. With 15 returning starters, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Monken’s team match or exceed those totals in 2017. Army West Point finished second nationally by averaging 339.5 rushing yards per game, and the bulk of that ground game is slated to return. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw was inconsistent as a passer but ranked second on the team with 826 rushing yards. Fullback Andy Davidson led the team with 961 yards, while Darnell Woolfolk (600 yards), Jordan Asberry (421) and Kell Walker (378) are all slated to provide support in the option-driven attack. Better ball security is a priority for Monken after the offense lost 25 turnovers last season and finished with a minus-three margin overall. The defense was hit harder by departures, as linebackers Jeremy Timpf (112 tackles) and Andrew King (11 TFL) leave big shoes to fill. Senior Alex Aukerman (15 TFL) will assume the mantle as the team’s top defender, with six other starters returning from a unit that limited opponents to 19.8 points per game in 2016. Also working in Army’s favor: The schedule. The Black Knights play only two Power 5 teams. Earning the program’s first back-to-back winning records since 1989-90 is easily within reach.
After UCF completed an 0-12 season in 2015, the program could only go up in coach Scott Frost’s first year in Orlando. While improvement was expected, winning six games and reaching a bowl game was probably more than most anticipated. Either way, UCF is in great shape with Frost at the helm. And with nine starters back, an improved offense could make the Knights the biggest challenger to USF in the AAC East. Frost was known for his high-powered offenses at Oregon after Chip Kelly left for the NFL, but UCF is still trying to put the right pieces together. Quarterback McKenzie Milton showed promise in his first year as the starter, but he could be pushed by freshman Darriel Mack. The skill talent is in good shape around the quarterback. The Knights return Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins as a capable duo at running back, with a deep slate of receivers coming back on the outside. Junior Tre’Quan Smith should push for first-team All-AAC honors. After giving up 36 sacks last fall, Frost needs better play from his offensive line for the offense to take a step forward. The picture isn’t quite as clear on defense. The Knights return only four starters – all in the front seven – with a complete rebuild underway in the secondary. However, the talent that is returning – linebacker Shaquem Griffin and linemen Trysten Hill, Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad – are all among the league’s top defenders. Griffin was particularly dominant in 2016, as he recorded 11.5 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and 92 tackles. Alabama transfer Shawn Burgess-Becker could be an impact addition at safety.
78. Miami (Ohio)
After finishing 2016 with six consecutive regular season wins and a one-point defeat to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl, the RedHawks are the favorite to claim the MAC East title. Coach Chuck Martin clearly has the program on the right path after winning five games over his first two years. The steady rebuild in Oxford took time, but Miami has a team loaded with talent in the upperclassmen ranks. An offense that averaged only 22.8 points per game in 2016 should take a significant step forward this fall. Quarterback Gus Ragland (17 TDs, INT) is a rising star under center and his return from a knee injury sparked the offense over the second half of 2016. Ragland will be throwing to one of the MAC’s top receiving corps, and the duo of Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith return to anchor the ground attack after combining for 1,266 rushing yards last season. The line gave up 42 sacks in 2016, but there’s optimism for marked improvement with four starters returning, including standout guards Jordan Diamond and Sam McCollum. While the offense is expected to take a significant step forward on the stat sheet, Miami’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, this unit could be the best in the MAC in 2017. The RedHawks limited opponents to 23.8 points per game last fall. Eight starters return, including cornerback Heath Harding and safety Tony Reid to anchor the top secondary in the MAC. Replacing standout end J.T. Jones is the top priority for co-coordinators John Hauser and Matt Pawlowski. Miami has to play at Ohio in a key East Division showdown but misses Toledo and Western Michigan in crossover play.
77. Air Force
Coach Troy Calhoun’s ability to quickly reload at Air Force will be tested once again in 2017. The Falcons lost a ton of talent from last year’s 10-win team, as just one starter is slated to return on defense, and top receiver Jalen Robinette as well as three of the top four statistical options at running back have expired their eligibility. The rebuilding process starts with junior quarterback Arion Worthman, who impressed in a late-season stint as the team’s starter. Worthman is poised for a breakout year in 2017. Rounding out the supporting cast for Air Force is all-purpose threat Timothy McVey (8.5 ypc in 2016) and three starters on the offensive line. Filling Robinette’s shoes on the outside is expected to fall to senior Tyler Williams, while tight end Ryan Reffitt could be more involved after catching eight passes for 173 yards in 2016. Scoring points or ranking near the top of the nation in rushing shouldn’t be a problem. But how quickly can Air Force’s defense reload? This unit was hammered by departures, including standout safety Weston Steelhammer and 12 of the unit’s top 13 tacklers from last fall. Senior Grant Ross (67 stops) is the lone returning starter and significant concerns remain about the defensive line and in the secondary. Calhoun is the Mountain West’s No. 1 coach, but it’s also reasonable to expect a regression in wins in 2017 after posting 28 over the last three years.
California hit the reset button after a 5-7 season under former coach Sonny Dykes, with Justin Wilcox tapped to lead the program for 2017 and beyond. Wilcox is regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator, and that side of the ball has been a glaring issue for California in recent seasons. How much of a difference can Wilcox make in one season? After giving up 42.6 points and more than 500 yards per game last fall, this unit can only go one way. The overall depth and talent level needs to improve, but Wilcox has some talented pieces to work with, including end James Looney and linebackers Devante Downs and Raymond Davison. The secondary features just one returning starter but a return to full health from cornerback Darius Allensworth and safety Evan Rambo could alleviate some of the concerns about the pass defense. New offensive play-caller Beau Baldwin comes to Berkeley after a successful stint as Eastern Washington’s head coach. He plans on making a few tweaks to the offense, including more involvement from the running game and tight ends in the passing attack. Finding a quarterback is Baldwin’s top priority after the departure of Davis Webb. Junior Chase Forrest and sophomore Ross Bowers are the leading candidates under center. The running back stable – led by Tre Watson and Vic Enwere – should be a strength, and this offense isn’t hurting for options at receiver. Sophomore Demetris Robertson is one of the Pac-12’s rising stars. However, even if a quarterback emerges, California’s offense won’t go anywhere unless the line finds three new starters. All signs point to a rebuilding year for the Golden Bears in 2017.
75. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders hope to knock WKU from the top of Conference USA’s East Division behind quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. Stockstill suffered a shoulder injury in early November last fall and missed three games before returning to play in the Hawaii Bowl. Despite the injury, he still finished with 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns. Stockstill will frequently target James – a potential All-America receiver for 2017 – after he caught 105 balls for 1,625 yards and 12 scores last season. James is joined by emerging threat Ty Lee (63 catches in 2016) and senior Patrick Smith (28) to form C-USA’s top receiving corps. Senior Shane Tucker rushed for at least 400 yards in 2014 and '15 and was slated to move to receiver before missing 2016 due to injury. He’s moving back to running back to replace I’Tavius Mathers, who expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,561 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall. Junior college recruit Maurice Gordon is a player to watch at running back. Skill talent isn’t a concern for coach Rick Stockstill, but the Blue Raiders have significant concerns up front. This unit must replace three starters after giving up just 14 sacks last fall. The concerns in the trenches extend to the defensive side of the ball. New coordinator Scott Shafer was a standout hire for Stockstill, but he’s got his work cut out this offseason. MTSU must replace all four starters up front, with Missouri transfer Walter Brady expected to provide a boost at end. The linebacker unit should be the strength of the defense with all three starters back. The Nov. 17 game at WKU should decide the winner of C-USA’s East Division.
The Golden Hurricane’s 10-win campaign in 2016 tied for the second-most victories in a single season in school history. What can Tulsa do for an encore? Contending for the AAC West Division title isn’t out of the question, but coach Philip Montgomery has to plug a few gaps on offense. For starters, Montgomery needs to find a quarterback to replace the prolific Dane Evans. Redshirt freshman Luke Skipper and sophomore Chad President are locked into a tight battle for the starting job, with Skipper a slight favorite exiting spring ball. Even though Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson depart the receiving corps, Montgomery isn’t hurting for talent. Justin Hobbs and Keenen Johnson combined for 80 receptions last fall and should easily exceed 100 in 2017. Leading rusher James Flanders expired his eligibility, but the ground game won’t miss a beat with D’Angelo Brewer (1,435 yards) taking over as the top back. The strength of Tulsa’s offense remains up front, with a line that returns four starters, including three first-team AAC selections by Athlon Sports. It was no secret the Golden Hurricane were led by their offense in 2016, but the defense quietly improved after giving up 39.8 points per game in 2015. Can the improvement continue in 2017 after the departure of linebackers Trent Martin and Matt Linscott and both starting defensive backs? The end combination of Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith (9.5 combined sacks last fall) should be a force off the edge, while the secondary is expected to take a step forward with four starters returning. Until a quarterback emerges, Tulsa will need more help from its defense early in the 2017 campaign.
The Hilltoppers have claimed back-to-back Conference USA titles, and despite a change in leadership, this program is the pick over Middle Tennessee in the East Division for 2017. New coach Mike Sanford is a rising star and should keep WKU performing at a high level this fall. The offense has averaged over 40 points a game for three consecutive seasons and has the firepower to push for that total once again. Quarterback Mike White (4,363 yards, 37 TDs) leads the way, with D’Andre Ferby anchoring a solid stable of running backs. Replenishing the receiving corps is a top priority for Sanford, as WKU will miss the big-play ability of Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris. Sophomore Lucky Jackson is primed for a breakout year in the passing game. Another area of focus for Sanford is the offensive line, which loses standout Forrest Lamp. But the cupboard is hardly bare, as WKU returns three starters, including Athlon Sports all-conference selections Dennis Edwards and Brandon Ray. New coordinator Clayton White is shifting the defense to a 4-2-5 approach. Each level suffered a key loss from last season, but a strong foundation is still in place. The secondary – led by cornerbacks Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons – should be among the best in Conference USA. With Middle Tennessee slated to visit Bowling Green this year, the East Division title still runs through L.T. Smith Stadium.
Craig Bohl delivered a breakout season in his third year at the helm in Laramie, as the Cowboys won the Mountain Division, finished with eight wins and snapped a bowl drought that extended four seasons. And this team is primed for another run at the top of the conference in 2017. NFL prospect Josh Allen is back after throwing for 3,203 yards and 28 scores last fall. Allen is already garnering interesting as a first-round pick in next year’s draft and could help his cause by cutting the number of interceptions (15 in 2016) and raising his completion percentage (56). Allen will be handing off to a new running back this season, as standout performer Brian Hill left early for the NFL. The receiving corps is under renovations as well after Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and tight end Jacob Hollister expired their eligibility. However, C.J. Johnson and Austin Conway are two promising targets for Allen to rely on this fall. The offensive line also is a strength with five starters returning, including Athlon Sports first-team All-Mountain West selection Zach Wallace. The defense surrendered 34.1 points per game last fall but should take a significant step forward with all nine starters returning. Sophomore linebacker Logan Wilson and junior safety Andrew Wingard are two of the best in the Mountain West. This group must eliminate the big plays allowed after surrendering 46 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Adding to the difficulty of a repeat: the schedule features road trips to Boise State, Air Force and Utah State.
71. Louisiana Tech
A third trip in four seasons to Conference USA’s Championship Game should be in the works for coach Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs in 2017. Despite losing quarterback Ryan Higgins and standout receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, this offense should remain near the top of the conference in scoring behind new quarterback (and rising star) J’Mar Smith. The sophomore will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, but there’s talent in place with the addition of Tulane transfer Teddy Veal, redshirt freshman (and former Oklahoma signee) Adrian Hardy and proven targets Kam McKnight and Alfred Smith. Additionally, Jarred Craft and Boston Scott anchor a strong ground attack behind a line that returns three starters. The defense suffered heavy losses in the back seven, but the line is the best in Conference USA behind standout end Jaylon Ferguson (14.5 sacks in 2016). This unit gave up 33.6 points a game last fall, so there’s a need for improvement in coordinator Blake Baker’s second year at the controls. All-conference safety Xavier Woods won’t be easy to replace in the secondary. Even though Louisiana Tech has some turnover on both sides of the ball, UTSA and Southern Miss aren’t quite ready to challenge for the West Division title. And by the end of 2017, the Bulldogs could emerge as the top team in the conference.
70. Boston College
The Eagles closed 2016 on a three-game winning streak, culminating in a 36-30 victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Coach Steve Addazio hopes to utilize that momentum into a bigger and better 2017. But Boston College will have its hands full in the brutal ACC Atlantic, along with a non-conference slate that features Notre Dame. In other words, just getting back to six (or seven) victories would be a good 2017 campaign. The strength of Addazio’s teams in Chestnut Hill have always relied on a strong ground game and standout defense. That formula should be intact this fall, as running back Jon Hilliman anchors a solid stable of backs, and the offensive line is poised to improve with three returning starters, along with the addition of West Virginia graduate transfer Marcell Lazard. Junior Darius Wade opened spring ball as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, but redshirt freshman Anthony Brown finished spring with the insight track. Expect Brown to target tight end Tommy Sweeney and receiver Michael Walker frequently in 2017. End Harold Landry (16.5 sacks) anchors a defense that held opponents to 25 points a game and ranked first in the ACC against the run last fall. The senior end is among the nation’s top returning defenders and a candidate for All-America honors. The linebacker unit is in good shape with Connor Strachan and Ty Schwab returning, and three starters are back for a secondary that hopes to take a step forward in 2017.
All of the pieces are in place for Toledo to claim its first MAC West title since 2004. Behind quarterback Logan Woodside, the Rockets averaged 38 points a game in 2016 and another prolific year is in store. Woodside is the MAC’s top quarterback and one of the best players returning in the Group of 5 ranks. The supporting cast is undergoing a few renovations around Woodside. Kareem Hunt has expired his eligibility, but Terry Swanson is primed for a big senior year as the team’s No. 1 running back. Tight end Michael Roberts is the biggest loss in the receiving corps. However, senior Cody Thompson (68 catches) and junior Jon’Vea Johnson (10 TDs) are both expected to earn all-conference honors in the high-powered passing game. The offensive line has been an annual strength in recent years and should remain solid with two full-time starters back in the mix. The defense suffered a few key losses in the secondary and on the defensive line, as three all-conference performers have expired their eligibility. Coach Jason Candle doesn’t need this group to be an elite, shutdown defense with a high-powered offense leading the way. Even if this group takes a small step back, it’s hard to see Toledo slipping from No. 1 in the West Division.
Related: MAC Football 2017 Predictions
The Trojans are coming off their first 10-win season at the FBS level, and coach Neal Brown’s team is in good shape to repeat that feat in 2017. The offense is loaded with firepower. Troy averaged 33.7 points per game last season and returns nine starters, including the Sun Belt’s No. 1 receiving corps and running back Jordan Chunn (1,288 yards in 2016). Brandon Silvers returns as the league’s top quarterback and is poised for his best year. The biggest concern for Brown is an offensive line that has three new starters and must find a replacement for standout tackle Antonio Garcia. The defense suffered a couple of key personnel losses but returns largely intact with six starters back. Rush end Rashad Dillard is the biggest loss and leaves big shoes to fill after recording 7.5 sacks in 2016. While Troy doesn’t play Appalachian State this fall, the Trojans have a road trip to Arkansas State and intriguing non-conference games against Boise State and LSU.
67. Appalachian State
With 21 victories over the last two seasons, Appalachian State has the most victories in that span by a Sun Belt team. The Mountaineers should easily add to that total in 2017. Coach Scott Satterfield’s program will once again lean on a standout line and running game to carry the offense. Running back Jalin Moore gashed opponents for 1,402 yards and 10 scores last season, and with Marcus Cox out of eligibility, the return of Terrence Upshaw from an academic suspension provides a capable No. 2 option. Quarterback Taylor Lamb is a steady leader under center and figures to connect on plenty of big plays with senior Shaedon Meadors (15.9 ypc in 2016). The Mountaineers must replace three All-Sun Belt selections on defense, but there’s a strong foundation in place. Linebacker Eric Boggs collected 98 stops last fall and returns to anchor the 3-4 scheme. He’s joined by rising star Clifton Duck at cornerback, along with senior end Tee Sims. This unit ranked first in the Sun Belt by holding opponents to 17.8 points per game last year. One key scheduling note for Appalachian State: No Troy or Arkansas State in conference play.
Since a 10-4 record and a Pac-12 South title in 2014, the Wildcats have been trending in the wrong direction. Coach Rich Rodriguez’s team is just 10-15 over the last two seasons and claimed only one victory in Pac-12 action last fall. Reversing that trend in 2017 is going to require some work on both sides of the ball. Arizona’s offense has been hit hard by injuries in the backfield over the last two seasons, and the hope is junior Brandon Dawkins, sophomore Khalil Tate or former MLB prospect Donavan Tate can emerge as the clear answer at quarterback. Dawkins played in 10 games last season, threw for 1,345 yards and eight scores, and led the team with 944 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s the favorite to start, but the Wildcats need more out of their passing game. That factor is complicated by a lack of proven targets at receiver. Arizona loses three out of its top four options on the outside, with Shun Brown (29 catches) the top returner. The picture is better at running back and up front. Nick Wilson is a former 1,000-yard rusher but has been unable to shake the injury bug the last two seasons. Freshman J.J. Taylor is a rising star to watch at running back and is likely to share the carries in 2017. Rodriguez is hoping for improvement under the second year of coordinator Marcel Yates after the defense gave up 38.3 points per game in 2016. But improvement isn’t guaranteed from a defense that is thin on proven talent in the front seven and was gashed for 194.2 rushing yards per game last fall. The strength of the defense will be a secondary that returns three starters, including potential All-Pac-12 safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. Arizona should be better than last year’s three-win mark, but this team will have trouble climbing into the top tier of the Pac-12 South.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2017 Predictions
65. Oregon State
Looking for a sleeper in the Pac-12 North? Take a look at Gary Andersen’s team in Corvallis. The Beavers improved their win total by two games from 2015, finishing 4-8 last fall, with victories over Arizona and Oregon to close out the 2016 campaign. And this team was much closer to a winning record than some may have realized: Oregon State lost three games by seven points or fewer. A tough schedule could prevent the Beavers from reaching a bowl, but Andersen should have this team in the mix for five or six wins. Junior college recruit Jake Luton is the favorite to start at quarterback over Marcus McMaryion and Darell Garretson, but the strength of this offense is at running back. Junior Ryan Nall (951 yards) is poised to crack the 1,000-yard mark, while former Oregon running back Thomas Tyner is expected to join the team to work as the No. 2 option. There’s some uncertainty at receiver after Victor Bolden (46 grabs) expired his eligibility, and Seth Collins’ status is unsettled after missing time due to an illness last year. The offensive line is also a concern for Andersen. Just two starters are back, and converted defensive lineman Sumner Houston is penciled in as the team’s starting center. Even though the depth chart indicates just five starters are back on defense, this unit should be a strength. Linebacker Manase Hungalu (83 stops) and cornerback Xavier Crawford are expected to push for All-Pac-12 honors, and the rush defense should easily cut down on its yardage allowed (218 per game) from 2016.
64. Texas Tech
Coming off a 5-7 record and missing out on the program’s second bowl trip in three years, there’s enormous pressure on coach Kliff Kingsbury to deliver a bounce-back season in 2017. That’s a tough assignment for Kingsbury considering quarterback Patrick Mahomes left for the NFL, and the Red Raiders are searching for answers on a defense that surrendered 43.5 points per game last fall. Replacing Mahomes will be senior Nic Shimonek, who should be a good fit for this offense. Shimonek has one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps at his disposal, but the line and ground attack remain an issue. Regardless of how many points this offense scores, Texas Tech won’t return to the bowl scene without marked improvement by its defense. With major concerns in the trenches and in the secondary, this unit has a long ways to go this fall.
The Orange are probably a year away from contending for a winning record and bowl trip, but this team should be better in the second season under coach Dino Babers. In Babers’ first year at the helm, Syracuse upset Virginia Tech and had a shot at six wins before a late-season injury to quarterback Eric Dungey ended any hopes of a bowl game. Dungey is expected to return to full strength this fall, and the junior should be one of the ACC’s top passers. Babers’ high-powered offense averaged 25.7 points per game last season, but that total should easily increase if Dungey plays all 12 games, and the offensive line finds stability after an uneven 2016 campaign. Amba Etta-Tawo (94 catches) is a huge loss at receiver, but the return of Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael provides two potential All-ACC candidates on the outside. Junior Dontae Strickland is penciled in as the team’s No. 1 back after rushing for 566 yards last fall. However, true freshman Markenzy Pierre is expected to push for time. It’s a good thing Syracuse’s offense could average nearly 30 points a game in 2017 because while the defense should be better after allowing 38.6 points per contest last fall, major improvement isn’t guaranteed. The strength of this group is at linebacker with Paris Bennett and Zaire Franklin leading the way, and the secondary should get a boost thanks to the return of Antwan Cordy from injury and two graduate transfers. Syracuse may not show much improvement in the win column, but Babers should have this team more competitive in the challenging ACC Atlantic.
A streak of four consecutive bowl trips ended last season, as Duke finished with its first losing record since 2011. While the 4-8 mark was certainly disappointing considering the progress made under coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won’t be down for too long. The hope of a turnaround in 2017 starts with sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones. He was pressed into the starting job last fall after an injury to former starter Thomas Sirk and proceeded to throw for 2,836 yards and 16 scores, while rushing for 486 yards and seven touchdowns. Jones should be even better as a sophomore, potentially challenging for All-ACC honors. His supporting cast features senior running back Shaun Wilson (623 yards in 2016), along with three of the top four statistical receivers from last fall. The offensive line lost two starters, but there’s a good foundation in place with left tackle Gabe Brandner, center Austin Davis, and Ohio State graduate transfer Evan Lisle at right tackle. In order for Duke to return to a bowl in 2017, it’s likely going to require the offense to carry this team to six wins. The defense does feature one of the ACC’s top linebacker duos in Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, but question marks dot the depth chart up front and in the secondary.
61. San Diego State
Rocky Long’s Aztecs have claimed back-to-back Mountain West championships, and despite some key personnel leaving, expect this team to be in the hunt for the conference title once again. The formula for Long’s team won’t change much in 2017. Rashaad Penny (1,018 yards in 2016) and Juwan Washington are an effective one-two combination to replace standout running back Donnel Pumphrey. Coordinator Jeff Horton will lean heavily on the ground game once again, but the Aztecs have four new starters up front. Quarterback Christian Chapman was steady in his first full year as the team’s starter and he’s poised for his best all-around year as an Aztec. This offense won’t throw it a ton (18 attempts per game), but Chapman has a couple of talented targets, including tight end David Wells and receivers Quest Truxton and Mikah Holder. Long’s defense has ranked first or second in the Mountain West in scoring defense in each of the last three years and figures to be near the top once again. But this unit does lose four All-Mountain West players from last season’s group, including standout cornerback Damontae Kazee. Long returns a good foundation for 2017, starting with linebackers Ryan Dunn and Ronley Lakalaka, while the secondary is in good shape at the cornerback spot with converted safety Kameron Kelly and sophomore Ron Smith. Even if this team takes a small step back, the rest of the West Division isn’t ready to catch up to San Diego State at the top.
60. Iowa State
The Cyclones are headed in the right direction under second-year coach Matt Campbell. As last season’s three wins showed, Iowa State still has a ways to go before challenging for a finish in the top half of the Big 12. But it’s also important to note this team lost five games by 10 points or fewer, with three of those defeats coming against Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – three of the four top teams from the Big 12 last fall. Looking ahead to 2017, a five or six-win season isn’t out of the question. Quarterback Jacob Park should improve in his second year as the starter, and he’s throwing to a standout receiving corps, anchored by All-America candidate Allen Lazard. The biggest concern on offense is once again up front. The Cyclones allowed 32 sacks last fall and return only one starter. The return of senior Jake Campos from injury should provide a boost up front. On the other side of the ball, Campbell is relying on three junior college transfers to bolster the defensive line after giving up 218.2 rushing yards per game in 2016. Led by All-Big 12 candidates in safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and cornerback Brian Peavy, Iowa State’s secondary is in good shape. However, Iowa State’s hopes of improving its defensive numbers (and bowl bid) likely hinges on how well this team performs in the trenches.
High expectations surround first-year coach Major Applewhite after Houston claimed 22 victories under Tom Herman. The Cougars return enough talent to win the AAC’s West Division, but the coaching transition could push this team behind Memphis and Navy. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen steps into the starting quarterback job after Greg Ward expired his eligibility. Allen doesn’t have Ward’s mobility, but he’s a better passer. That’s a good fit for Houston’s personnel in 2017, as the receiving corps is a standout group – anchored by seniors Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar. Question marks remain on the offensive line and at running back. Can Duke Catalon carry a full workload and stay healthy all season? Applewhite is handing the defensive coordinator duties over to Mark D’Onofrio and Clay Jennings after last year’s group limited opponents to just 23.5 points per game under former play-caller Todd Orlando. The basic 3-4 scheme won’t change too much, especially with Athlon Sports All-American Ed Oliver leading the way up front. There’s some retooling to do at linebacker and in the secondary. However, a player like Oliver can cover a lot of concerns. If Allen quickly settles into the starting job, and the offensive line develops, getting Navy and Memphis at home could swing the division in Houston’s favor.
58. Colorado State
Looking for a sleeper pick in the Mountain West this fall? How about Mike Bobo’s Rams? After finishing 2016 with four wins over its final five regular season games, Colorado State is poised to push Boise State for the Mountain Division crown. In addition to the momentum, the Rams have a new stadium set to open in 2017, which should provide an additional boost for Bobo’s hopes of elevating the program on a year-to-year basis in the conference. Leading the way is a dynamic offense, headlined by quarterback Nick Stevens and receiver Michael Gallup. Stevens began 2016 as the starter but was benched in favor of Faton Bauta and Collin Hill. But after an injury to Hill, Stevens regained the starting job and threw for 19 touchdowns over the final seven games. Gallup is a candidate for All-America honors after catching 76 passes for 1,272 yards and 14 scores. He’s not the only weapon in the arsenal for Bobo. Junior Olabisi Johnson averaged 21.9 yards per catch last fall, and the Rams also return one of the league’s top offensive lines and running back corps. With eight returning starters, the defense is expected to take a step forward after giving up 30.4 points per game and finishing eighth in the Mountain West against the run. The strength of this unit is at linebacker, as Deonte Clyburn returns after missing 2016 to round out one of the conference’s top trios. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but Colorado State’s hopes of winning the division likely rest with how much the defense can improve. The Nov. 11 game in Fort Collins against Boise State looms large in the Mountain West title picture for 2017.
DJ Durkin is a coach on the rise, and Maryland took a step forward in his first year in College Park. The Terrapins improved their win total by three games with a 6-7 finish, along with an invite to the Quick Lane Bowl. In the brutal Big Ten East Division, making a significant jump in the standings isn’t going to be easy. And Durkin’s hope for another step forward in 2017 is compounded by uncertainty at quarterback, as well as a defense that is a work in progress after giving up 29.5 points per game in 2016. North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, true freshman Kasim Hill and sophomores Max Bortenschlager and Tyrrell Pigrome are slated to battle this fall for the quarterback job. Henderson is the best fit for coordinator Walt Bell’s offense, but Hill might have the most long-term upside. The strength of the offense is at running back with the return of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson. This duo combined for 1,637 rushing yards last fall and brings big-play potential to the offense. Leading the way for Harrison and Johnson is an offensive line poised to improve with three returning starters, including rising star Damian Prince at right tackle. Receiver D.J. Moore (41 catches) should be the No. 1 target on the outside. Durkin was known for his defensive background prior to his arrival in College Park, but this side of the ball is still a question mark entering 2017. The Terrapins need more overall depth and talent after ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring, rush and pass defense. Linebacker Jermaine Carter (110 stops in 2016) is the headliner, while Jesse Aniebonam anchors the line after recording nine sacks last fall. The secondary loses three key performers from 2016, but junior JC Jackson’s development at cornerback, along with the return of safety Denzel Conyers from injury alleviates some of the concern in pass defense. With a non-conference game at Texas, crossover games against Wisconsin and Northwestern and road trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, a good encore for Durkin is just matching last year’s six wins.
Ken Niumatalolo has averaged 8.5 wins a year since taking over as Navy’s head coach in 2008. This program is also 14-2 in conference play since joining the American Athletic Conference prior to the 2015 campaign. So it’s safe to say a few personnel losses won’t slow the Midshipmen’s quest to win a conference title in 2017. New quarterback Zach Abey gained valuable experience by starting the final two games of last year. He should be more comfortable with a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, especially with a strong offensive line clearing the way up front. Abey has two all-conference candidates in the backfield in fullback Chris High and slot back Darryl Bonner. Receiver Jamir Tillman won’t be easy to replace. The defense allowed 31 points a game in 2016 and struggled to stop the pass. Coordinator Dale Pehrson will lean on end Jarvis Polu and linebackers D.J. Palmore and Micah Thomas to anchor the front seven. But the secondary is a bigger concern after giving up 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more in 2016. Additionally, this unit suffered a late blow in June, as standout safety Alohi Gilman decided to transfer.
Missouri is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02. After taking over for Gary Pinkel, Barry Odom put his stamp on the program last year by implementing scheme changes on both sides of the ball. The result? A mixed bag. The Tigers averaged 31.4 points per game under new play-caller Josh Heupel. However, that total dipped to 22.6 in SEC play. The firepower is there for another prolific year by the offense. Quarterback Drew Lock should continue to improve in his third season under center, running back Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) returns after a breakout freshman season, and the receiving corps is among the best in the SEC. Additionally, all four starters return from a solid offensive line. While scoring points won’t be a problem, Missouri’s hopes of a winning record rest with an improved defense. Odom took over the play-calling duties late last year, and this unit showed improvement in wins over Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Can that continue in 2017? With just three returning starters, it’s easy to be skeptical. End Marcell Frazier (7.5 sacks in 2016) is a force off the edge, and junior tackle Terry Beckner could push for All-SEC honors with a healthy season. Question marks surround the back seven, especially at cornerback after Aarion Penton and John Gibson expired their eligibility.
The Hoosiers are coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1990-91. But there’s change at the top of the program with Kevin Wilson out, and defensive coordinator Tom Allen taking over as head coach. Allen already has one game under his belt, as he guided Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah. Allen made a big difference with the Hoosiers’ defense last fall. After giving up 37.6 points a game in 2015, Indiana cut that total to 27.2. And in a reversal of recent history in Bloomington, expect this unit to be the strength of the team. Linebacker Tegray Scales is one of the Big Ten’s top returning defenders and a candidate for All-America honors. The secondary is quietly one of the better units in the Big Ten, anchored by standout cornerback Rashard Fant and hybrid safety/linebacker Marcelino Ball. One area in need of improvement is the rush defense. The Hoosiers gave up 160.4 yards per game on the ground last fall. Wilson was one of the Big Ten’s top offensive-minded coaches and will be missed in 2017. But coordinator Mike DeBord has a wealth of experience and inherits a unit with potential. Quarterback Richard Lagow was solid in his first year as the starter but needs to cut down on the interceptions after tossing 17 in 13 games. Running back Devine Redding left early for the NFL after posting 1,122 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last fall. A backfield-by-committee approach is likely to replace Redding’s production this year. The line will miss All-Big Ten guard Dan Feeney and former assistant Greg Frey who left for Michigan. Left tackle Coy Cronk is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. The unquestioned strength of this offense is the receiving corps. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs are both all-conference candidates.
53. Arizona State
The Sun Devils are just two years removed from winning the Pac-12 South title. But since claiming the division crown, coach Todd Graham’s team is just 11-14 and has just six conference wins in that span. Getting back to a bowl isn’t going to be easy in 2017. A brutal schedule is on tap, as Arizona State plays crossover games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington, while playing swing games against Utah, Oregon State and UCLA on the road. The pieces are in place to have a dynamic offense this fall, as receiver N’Keal Harry and the one-two punch of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage at running back should be one of the Pac-12’s best tandems. Alabama/junior college transfer Blake Barnett is expected to start at quarterback over Manny Wilkins, giving the offense a boost through the air. While the firepower is in place for a standout offense, this unit won’t take off without better play up front (41 sacks allowed last fall). Arizona State’s defense has struggled to stop the pass in recent years, and the secondary is a concern once again after cornerback Kareem Orr transferred, and safety Armand Perry decided to retire this offseason. The defensive front is in much better shape, as end JoJo Wicker and tackle Tashon Smallwood anchor the line. Hybrid edge rusher Koron Crump returns after notching nine sacks last fall, and he’s joined in the linebacker unit by All-Pac-12 candidates Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun.
52. Wake Forest
After back-to-back 3-9 records to start his Wake Forest tenure, coach Dave Clawson delivered a breakthrough year in 2016. The Demon Deacons finished 7-6 and earned the program’s first bowl trip since 2011. And with 13 returning starters, Wake Forest is poised to take another step forward in 2017. The offense has increased its scoring output in back-to-back seasons and is in the best shape personnel-wise since Clawson’s tenure started. Kendall Hinton is expected to get the nod under center, and the junior’s dual-threat ability could make a difference for a team that has struggled to get consistent play up front. The trenches remain a concern for Clawson, but there is optimism this group is ready to close the gap with the rest of the ACC. Sophomore Cade Carney and junior Matt Colburn are back to anchor the ground game, and Hinton will be throwing to a receiving corps returning four out of the top five options from 2016. Defense led the way for Wake Forest last season, with former coordinator Mike Elko guiding this group to a No. 3 finish in the ACC in scoring defense. With Elko off to Notre Dame, Jay Sawvel arrives from Minnesota to handle the play-calling duties. Sawvel inherits one of the ACC’s top linemen in Duke Ejiofor and a rising star in safety Jessie Bates.
Mike Norvell picked up where Justin Fuente left off last fall, guiding Memphis to an 8-5 record and a 5-3 finish in league play. The Tigers are aiming even higher this fall, as Norvell’s team is Athlon’s pick to win the AAC West Division. Quarterback Riley Ferguson anchors a dynamic offense, which averaged 38.8 points per game in 2016. This unit could be even better in 2017, as top target Anthony Miller is an All-America candidate, and the offensive line is expected to improve significantly with four returning starters. Doroland Dorceus anchors a backfield that features three options who could start for the Tigers. Memphis had its share of issues on defense last fall, and this unit is far from settled after spring ball. The front seven is the unquestioned strength, as linebacker Genard Avery is a first-team American Athletic All-Conference selection by Athlon Sports. The secondary loses six key defensive backs from 2016, with safety Jonathan Cook the lone returning starter. Considering Memphis will have to play face the prolific passing attacks of Tulsa, SMU, Houston and UCLA in non-conference action, the development of this unit is critical to the defense cutting down on the 28.8 points per game the unit allowed last season. One key scheduling note for Memphis in 2017: The Tigers miss USF and Temple in crossover play, while Navy visits the Liberty Bowl for a game that could decide the favorite in the West Division.
P.J. Fleck is bringing some much-needed energy to the Minnesota program after a successful stint at Western Michigan. Fleck is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, and the Golden Gophers should upgrade their profile on National Signing Day over the next few years. The first priority for Fleck is to identify a quarterback. Mitch Leidner expired his eligibility after 2016, leaving former walk-on Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft as the top two candidates this offseason. Quarterback isn’t the only concern for Fleck’s offense. The receiving corps loses Drew Wolitarsky and more big plays are needed out of this group. Additionally, while four starters are back up front, the line isn’t particularly deep. The unquestioned strength of the offense is at running back. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks form one of the Big Ten’s top tandems. Robb Smith was hired from Arkansas to coordinate a defense that allowed only 22.1 points per game in 2016. Maintaining that level of play in 2017 could be difficult with just four returning starters and depth concerns at each level. Safety Antoine Winfield is the leader on the back end, while tackle Steven Richardson is a second-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports. Despite the personnel concerns, Minnesota should be able to earn a bowl in Fleck’s first year. The Golden Gophers miss Penn State and Ohio State in crossover play and catch swing games against Maryland, Illinois, Michigan State and Nebraska at home.
Related: Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions
49. Michigan State
After winning at least 11 games every year from 2013-15, along with a berth in the CFB Playoff in '15, the Spartans completely collapsed last fall. Mark Dantonio’s team won only three games, which was the program’s fewest since a three-win campaign in 1991. Getting back on track isn’t going to be easy, but it’s also hard to envision Michigan State finishing with three victories once again. But how much can this team improve? The path to a bowl game starts with generating more from the offense. Quarterback Brian Lewerke takes over under center after a limited stint last season. In four appearances, Lewerke completed 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two scores. The passing game may take some time to grow with a first-year starter at quarterback and turnover at receiver with the top four receivers departing East Lansing. Expect to see a lot of junior running back LJ Scott after he nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards last fall. Additionally, Michigan State should be better up front with the return of anchor Brian Allen at center, along with left tackle Cole Chewins. The Spartans took a step back on defense last season, giving up 27.8 points per game and 5.5 yards per play. For the defense to take a step forward, Dantonio and co-coordinator Harlon Barnett have to ignite a pass rush that managed just 11 sacks last fall. The secondary will feature four new starters, with the strength of the defense expected to be at linebacker. Contending for the Big Ten title is out of the question, but Michigan State should at least rebound into bowl contention.
A late-season surge last year propelled the Commodores to their first bowl game under coach Derek Mason. Vanderbilt started 2-4 but won four out of its final six regular season matchups, including SEC games against Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on defense has paid dividends over the last two years. Vanderbilt ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense and limited conference foes to just 5.4 yards per play in 2016. This unit should be strong once again, but standout linebacker Zach Cunningham left early for the NFL, leaving a significant void in the middle. But the cupboard is hardly bare for Mason, as lineman Nifae Lealo is poised for a huge senior year, and fellow senior Oren Burks is an All-SEC candidate at linebacker. All four starters return in the secondary, with safety Ryan White the headliner. While the defense has been steady, the late-season surge was largely fueled by the offense. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur showed progress late in the year and is poised to take another step forward in his development. Helping Shurmur’s progress is an improving set of receivers, along with running back Ralph Webb, who is aiming for his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. A crossover game against Alabama and a non-conference matchup against Kansas State limit the margin of error for Vanderbilt’s hopes of another bowl trip. But if Shumur takes the next step as expected, and the defense successfully replaces Cunningham, the Commodores should find a way to hit six wins once again.
Not only is new coach Matt Rhule trying to change the culture of the program, he’s also inheriting a team with just 10 returning starters and depth concerns on both sides of the ball. The Bears will look a little different on offense, as Rhule plans to blend the spread, up-tempo principles with some pro-style, power looks he utilized at Temple. Sophomore quarterback Zach Smith is expected to win the starting job over Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon. Smith threw for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns in a promising stint under center last fall. The one-two punch of Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty forms one of the Big 12’s best backfields, but the receiving corps lost its top two targets – KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora – from 2016. Three starters are back up front, but this unit was dealt a blow this offseason when center Tanner Thrift decided to retire. New defensive coordinator Phil Snow engineered one of the nation’s top defenses at Temple last fall. He’s got his work cut out this offseason, as the Bears return only five starters from a unit that allowed 29 points per game in 2016. End K.J. Smith and linebacker Taylor Young are two of the Big 12’s top defenders. Baylor’s secondary could feature three sophomore starters this season. With the personnel concerns and transition in coaching staff, getting to a bowl game would be a good debut for Rhule.
Related: Big 12 Football 2017 Predictions
46. Ole Miss
The Rebels are one of the hardest teams in the SEC to get a read on this preseason. With an ongoing NCAA investigation, and the bowl ban in place for 2017, there are a lot of dark clouds swirling over the program. Despite the question marks, Ole Miss could be a dark horse team to watch in the SEC West. The offense averaged 32.6 points per game last season and is expected to be a high-powered unit once again behind quarterback Shea Patterson. The sophomore should be one of the SEC’s top breakout players in 2017 and is throwing to a deep stable of receivers, including all-conference candidates A.J. Brown and Van Jefferson. Replacing tight end Evan Engram is expected to be sophomore Octavious Cooley or converted quarterback Jason Pellerin. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is a standout hire for coach Hugh Freeze, but this unit could sputter without better play from the line and more balance from the ground attack. The return of Jordan Wilkins (academics) and Eric Swinney (injury) should provide some punch to a ground game that managed only 149.4 yards per game last fall. Change is coming to a defense that surrendered 34 points a game last fall. New coordinator Wesley McGriff has installed a 4-3 approach but is also working with a unit that is thin across the board in depth. End Marquis Haynes (seven sacks) is a force up front, with sophomore Benito Jones poised to anchor the interior of a strong defensive line. The return of cornerback Ken Webster from injury should bolster the secondary. There’s enough offensive firepower returning to Oxford to win eight games – but also enough question marks on defense and the off-field issues to finish with a losing mark once again.
Mark Stoops delivered a breakthrough year in his fourth season in Lexington. Kentucky finished with seven wins, defeated rival Louisville and earned a trip to Jacksonville for the TaxSlayer Bowl. With momentum on their side, the Wildcats are aiming for a top-three finish in the SEC East in 2017. The pieces seem to be in place for Stoops’ team to possibly exceed last year’s win total but challenging for one of the top spots in the East will depend on quarterback play. Junior college recruit Stephen Johnson stepped under center and kept the offense on track after a season-ending back injury to Drew Barker in September. But Johnson’s numbers in SEC play left a lot to be desired. He only completed 50.9 percent of his throws and tossed just four touchdowns to five interceptions. Kentucky needs more out of its passing game – whether that’s Johnson or Barker – and its receiving corps this fall. Top target Jeff Badet (21.6 ypc) transferred to Oklahoma this offseason, leaving Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and tight end C.J. Conrad as the top weapons in the passing game. Question marks surround the passing attack, but the ground game is among the best in the SEC. Benny Snell Jr. had a breakout year (1,091 yards and 13 TDs) last fall and is set to take over the full-time job after Boom Williams left for the NFL. Clearing the way for Snell is a standout offensive line, which is anchored by senior guard Nick Haynes. Stoops was regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator prior to taking over as head coach, but Kentucky has ranked 11th or worse in scoring defense in each of the last four years. Stopping the run was an issue last fall and is likely to be a challenge once again due to a struggling defensive line. However, the secondary and linebacker units have a chance to be among the best in the SEC.
Kirk Ferentz enters his 19th season in Iowa City looking to shake things up on offense. The Hawkeyes finished 10th in the conference in scoring last fall and averaged just 5.2 yards per play. New coordinator Brian Ferentz isn’t going to make wholesale changes but tweaks are expected. How much of a difference will it make in 2017? That largely depends on finding a quarterback. C.J. Beathard has expired his eligibility, with Tyler Wiegers and Nathan Stanley vying for the No. 1 spot this offseason. Stanley is the favorite to take the first snap after working as Beathard’s backup last fall. Adding to the challenge of a first-year quarterback is the receiving corps. The Hawkeyes are thin on proven options, with top target Matt VandeBerg coming off a season-ending foot injury. The unquestioned strength of this offense remains in the trenches with the Big Ten’s No. 1 line, along with senior running back Akrum Wadley. Cornerback Desmond King leaves a massive void in the secondary, but the Hawkeyes will be led by one of the nation’s top linebacker units, headlined by senior Josey Jewell. Sophomore Manny Rugamba is a rising star to watch at cornerback, and true freshman tackle A.J. Epenesa is someone else to keep an eye on. If a quarterback emerges, Iowa has the ground game and defense to finish second in the Big Ten West. However, the schedule is challenging. Ferentz’s team plays at Nebraska and Northwestern, with Ohio State and Penn State on the crossover slate with the East Division.
The main storyline in Mike Riley’s third season in Lincoln is simply about change. Longtime aide Mark Banker was dismissed as the team’s defensive coordinator, with former UConn head coach and former Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco hired to call the plays. Diaco is changing Nebraska’s base defense to more of a 3-4 approach, but how quickly will the personnel fill out the new scheme? The front seven isn’t completely thin on options, as end Freedom Akinmoladun and tackle Mick Stoltenberg are a good tandem up front, and the linebacker unit features junior Dedrick Young and senior Marcus Newby. While those four players are a good starting point, question marks remain about how quickly this group can be effective. The picture is better in the secondary. Nebraska should have one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backfields thanks to the return of lockdown corner Chris Jones and safeties Joshua Kalu, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams. Tommy Armstrong has expired his eligibility, which means the Cornhuskers will have a new full-time quarterback for the first time since 2012. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee won the job at the conclusion of spring practice and is a better fit for Riley’s pro-style offense than Armstrong. The junior should provide steady play at quarterback, but Riley needs a few playmakers to emerge after losing three of the top four receivers from 2016. The team also must replace leading rusher Terrell Newby (879 yards), but Devine Ozigbo, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon should be an effective committee. The line returns three starters and has a chance to be the strength of this offense. Of the teams hoping to push Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, Nebraska might have the most home-friendly schedule. The Cornhuskers get Northwestern and Iowa in Lincoln, while Ohio State visits in mid-October.
Related: Big Ten Football 2017 Predictions
42. North Carolina
North Carolina’s 19 wins over the last two seasons are the most in a two-year span for this program since recording 21 from 1996-97. Maintaining that momentum won’t be easy for coach Larry Fedora. For starters, the Tar Heels have to replace quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running back Elijah Hood and a couple of key receivers, including Ryan Switzer. To help with the rebuilding effort, Fedora dipped into the graduate transfer ranks. Former LSU Tiger Brandon Harris is slated to start at quarterback, while former Auburn receiver Stanton Truitt will help as an all-purpose threat. Freshman Michael Carter and sophomore Jordon Brown are likely to see significant work at running back following the departure of Hood and T.J. Logan. The line has been a consistent strength in recent years, but similar to the other positions on offense, Fedora has some work to do here. Graduate transfers Cam Dillard (center) and Khaliel Rodgers (guard) help bridge the gap for a unit returning three starters, including All-ACC candidate left tackle Bentley Spain. John Papuchis takes over the defensive play-calling after Gene Chizik decided to step aside. The Tar Heels have made some progress on defense under Chizik but struggled to stop the run last year, giving up 227.3 yards per game. There’s hope for improvement in the trenches, as tackle Aaron Crawford, junior Malik Carney and freshman Tomon Fox are a talented trio to build around. Cornerback M.J. Stewart is an All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for 2017, and linebackers Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb return after each eclipsed 100 tackles last season. As if the rebuilding project on offense wasn’t enough, North Carolina faces NC State and Louisville in crossover play, along with a non-conference game against Notre Dame. Matching last year’s eight wins isn’t going to be easy.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team got off to a disappointing 0-2 start last year after losing by a combined three points to Western Michigan and Illinois State. But the Wildcats rallied over the next two months, finishing with a 5-4 mark in Big Ten play and only losing by four points to Ohio State in Columbus. Fast-forward to 2017, Fitzgerald’s team might be the biggest threat to Wisconsin in the West Division. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is entering his third year as the team’s starting quarterback, while running back Justin Jackson is chasing his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season. Austin Carr (90 receptions in 2016) won’t be easy to replace, but the Wildcats could have help in the form of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown. The offensive line returns four starters but this group needs to get better in pass protection after giving up 39 sacks last year. The defense returns largely intact with seven starters back. However, the departing players from last year’s group leave big shoes to fill. Linebackers Anthony Walker and Jaylen Prater, along with end Ifeadi Odenigbo won’t be easy to replace. Odenigbo was the team’s top pass rusher last fall with 10 sacks, but there are solid pieces at Fitzgerald’s disposal. End Xavier Washington (currently suspended) is a potential All-Big Ten candidate, and senior Tyler Lancaster headlines the options at tackle. The secondary regains the services of cornerback Keith Watkins II after missing 2016 due to injury. However, returning starter Trae Williams is out until October after suffering a torn Achilles during the offseason. Safety Godwin Igwebuike is one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs.
40. South Carolina
The Gamecocks showed marked improvement in Will Muschamp’s first year in Columbia, and this team is poised to take another step forward in the SEC East in 2017. A big reason for that optimism is the emergence of quarterback Jake Bentley. As a freshman last fall, Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine scores after taking over the job in late October. He should be even better in his second year under center and is poised to emerge as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Bentley has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Sophomore running back Rico Dowdle (764 yards) returns after a promising debut in 2016, with North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams also in the mix. The receiving corps should be one of the best in the SEC. Junior receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst are first-team All-SEC selections by Athlon Sports. Sophomore Bryan Edwards is also another rising star to watch on offense. The Gamecocks return four starters in the trenches and improvement is a must after surrendering 41 sacks last fall. Muschamp and coordinator Travaris Robinson engineered improvement on the defensive side last season and more help is on the way with the return of linebacker Skai Moore (missed 2016 due to a neck injury). Muschamp is searching for the right combination up front and in the secondary, but there are a few promising pieces to build around, including end D.J. Wonnum, senior cornerback Jamarcus King and true freshman defensive back Jamyest Williams. With Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas coming to Columbia this season, the Gamecocks have a chance to make some noise at home and improve from last year’s six-win mark.
The Cougars weren’t short on drama or intrigue in coach Kalani Sitake’s first season at the helm. BYU opened the season with a last-second win over Arizona (18-16), followed by three defeats against Power 5 teams by three points or fewer. The Cougars finished 2016 by winning eight out of their last nine games, including the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming. While the schedule once again features a couple of tough matchups against Power 5 teams, and there’s some turnover in the personnel ranks on both sides of the ball, don’t expect the level of success to dip in Provo. Tanner Mangum is set to take over as the full-time starter at quarterback once again, and as a classic drop-back passer, the junior is a good fit for coordinator Ty Detmer’s pro-style attack. Mangum will have a new set of weapons at receiver with the departure of the team’s top three options from last season. However, the cupboard isn’t bare with the return of receiver Jonah Trinnaman and tight end Tanner Balderree. Converted receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau provides another weapon after moving to tight end this offseason. The strength of the offense should be its line, which is anchored by standout center Tejan Koroma, with left tackle Thomas Shoaf a rising star on the outside. Replacing running back Jamaal Williams, BYU's all-time leading rusher, is likely to fall to a committee of backs, including Squally Canada (315 yards in 2016) and KJ Hall (184 yards). Despite a couple of new starters up front and the departure of standout safety Kai Nacua, the defense won’t miss too much of a beat. The Cougars allowed only 19.5 points per game last fall and finished ninth nationally against the run. The strength of this defense is a standout trio of linebackers, while Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner are an emerging pair of cornerbacks.
The Utes return only seven starters this season, but it would be foolish to overlook coach Kyle Whittingham’s team. Utah has won at least nine games and finished in the top 25 in each of the last three years. The rebuilding effort starts on offense with new coordinator Troy Taylor – one of the Pac-12’s top assistant coach hires – and the return of senior quarterback Troy Williams. Although Utah’s ground game is consistently strong, the offense needs more out of its passing game. Taylor should be able to help this unit take a step forward, and Williams is likely to be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. Joe Williams leaves big shoes to fill at running back, but a group of options should be capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. Junior Armand Shyne and sophomores Zack Moss and Devonta’e Henry-Cole will battle to take over the carries. At receiver, the Utes must replace Tim Patrick (45 catches), but Raelon Singleton, Demari Simpkins and Siaosi Wilson is a good trio to build around. Tight end Siale Fakailoatonga returns after missing 2016 due to injury. The biggest concern for Taylor and Whittingham is up front after the departure of four starters, including first-round pick Garett Bolles. Considering Utah’s track record of finding and developing linemen, this may not be as big of a concern as some may expect. Sack Lake City should be in full effect with a strong group of options in the trenches, headlined by All-American tackle Lowell Lotulelei and end Kylie Fitts (returning from injury). This defense should be strong at linebacker, with the secondary the biggest concern heading into fall workouts. Safety Chase Hansen is an All-America candidate. One other problem for Utah’s rebuilding effort is a schedule that features crossover games against the top four teams from the North.
37. Texas A&M
It’s no secret coach Kevin Sumlin’s seat is getting a little warm. The Aggies are 44-21 over the last five years but peaked in 2012-13 with 20 wins during that span. While 8-5 in each of the last three seasons isn’t bad, Texas A&M has not recorded a winning mark in SEC play since 2012. Exceeding eight wins or hitting a winning record in conference action isn’t going to be easy for Sumlin in 2017. Texas A&M has major question marks on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback. Who will emerge as the answer to replace Trevor Knight? Senior Jake Hubenak is the team’s most experienced option, with freshmen Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel possessing more upside. Adding to the concerns in the passing game is a receiving corps replacing four out of its top five options. However, the one returner in that bunch is a good one – junior Christian Kirk (83 catches in 2016). True freshman Jhamon Ausbon is a name to remember at receiver. Until the passing game settles, expect to see a lot of running back Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards in 2016) and senior Keith Ford. Despite featurinng the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft (Myles Garrett), Texas A&M’s defense struggled to stop the run, gave up too many big plays and allowed 30.3 points in SEC games. Coordinator John Chavis had some bad luck due to injuries and better health could lead to improved results in 2017. However, make no mistake: Garrett will be missed off the edge. In addition to replacing Garrett, Chavis needs to find the right mix at linebacker and develop better play from the cornerbacks. Armani Watts is one of the best safeties in the SEC and leads the way in the secondary.
Related: SEC Football 2017 Predictions
36. Georgia Tech
After a 3-9 record in 2015, the Yellow Jackets bounced back in a big way last fall. Coach Paul Johnson guided this team to a 9-4 record, earning wins over Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech, rival Georgia and a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky. With the top of the Coastal in flux once again, don’t count out Georgia Tech from making a run as a dark horse team. The running game will be tough to contain once again, as sophomore running back Dedrick Mills is primed for a breakout season. But he’s not the only option for Johnson, as J.J. Green, Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy round out a deep stable of ball carriers. Junior Matthew Jordan garnered valuable experience last season, including a start at Virginia Tech in place of injured starter Justin Thomas. But Jordan is recovering from a foot injury and could be pushed by converted running back TaQuon Marshall. Regardless of who wins the job, the formula of leaning on the ground game and offensive line isn’t going to change. The defense ranked seventh in the ACC in points allowed last season and quietly features one of the league’s top secondary units. The big concern for Johnson and coordinator Ted Roof remains up front. The Yellow Jackets gave up 172.2 rushing yards per game and registered only 18 sacks in 2016. The development of this group is critical to Georgia Tech’s hopes of challenging Miami or Virginia Tech for first. The schedule also presents its share of obstacles.
35. Boise State
Just how high is the bar set at Boise State? For the first time since 2000-01, the Broncos have failed to finish inside of the Associated Press Top 25 in back-to-back years. And while the last two seasons didn’t result in a Mountain West title, Boise State still has 19 wins in that span. Coach Bryan Harsin has won 31 games during his three years guiding his alma mater, and the Broncos are Athlon’s pick to win the Mountain West this fall. But the path back to the top of the MW isn’t going to be easy. Boise State returns only eight starters and has some major personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. Some of those question marks are eased by the return of quarterback Brett Rypien, along with big-play receiver Cedrick Wilson. Sophomore Alexander Mattison is primed for a breakout year in replacing Jeremy McNichols at running back. Up front, three new players are slated to step into starting roles, but the two returning starters – center Mason Hampton and tackle Archie Lewis – claimed a spot on Athlon Sports’ All-Mountain West team for 2017. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos guided Boise State to a No. 2 rank in the conference in scoring defense last fall. Maintaining that rank will hinge on restocking the trenches, as just two returning starters anchor the front seven. But similar to the offense, those two players are standout performers. Tackle David Moa (8.5 sacks) should challenge for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, and end Jabril Frazier is critical to the pass rush. Junior Leighton Vander Esch is a potential breakout performer at linebacker, while cornerback Tyler Horton is the headliner in the secondary. The schedule is a potential obstacle to a return to the Mountain West title game. Boise State has to play at San Diego State and Colorado State in league play. Additionally, the non-conference schedule features several tough matchups – Troy, at Washington State and at BYU.
The Buffaloes are the defending Pac-12 South champions, but coach Mike MacIntyre’s team is going through some extensive turnover on defense this offseason. A unit that limited opponents to 21.7 points per game in 2016 and featured a rock-solid secondary returns only three starters and is under the direction of a new coordinator (D.J. Eliot). Gone from the front seven is leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode, last year’s top sack man Jimmie Gilbert (10), as well as linemen Jordan Carrell, Josh Tupou and Samson Kafovalu. The list of key departures is even bigger in the secondary. The Buffaloes must replace two shutdown cornerbacks in Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie, along with safety Tedric Thompson. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Eliot, as safety Afolabi Laguda and cornerback Isaiah Oliver are among the best in the Pac-12 at their position. Additionally, the return of linebacker Derek McCartney from injury will provide a boost to the front seven. The outlook is much better on offense. While quarterback Sefo Liufau departs, the Buffaloes have a rising star in sophomore Steven Montez ready to take the controls of the offense. Montez has three starts under his belt, throwing for 1,078 yards and nine scores last fall. He’s joined by standout running back Phillip Lindsay (129.9 total yards per game in 2016), and one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Additionally, the Buffaloes should be strong in the trenches with four returning starters. Considering the turnover on defense, a repeat trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game is unlikely. However, Colorado isn’t going to fall too far in the South Division.
Last season’s 4-8 record was the first losing mark under coach Jim Mora. Through five seasons, Mora has gone 41-24 but the sixth-year coach begins 2017 on the hot seat. While the Bruins have some significant concerns on both sides of the ball, the return of quarterback Josh Rosen from a season-ending shoulder injury should help this team return to a bowl game. Rosen threw for 1,915 yards and 10 scores in six games before he was lost for the year. However, when healthy, Rosen is one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks. But just getting Rosen back to full strength won’t be enough for UCLA to be a top 25 team in 2017. The Bruins need to develop a running game after averaging only 84.3 rushing yards per game in 2016, while the offensive line must be solidified after giving up 24 sacks. Rosen’s top two receivers from last year – Darren Anderws and Jordan Lasley – are back, with senior Eldridge Massington and sophomore Theo Howard rounding out the key weapons on the outside. Despite the sluggish production on offense, the defense ranked second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to just 4.86 yards per play last fall. Coordinator Tom Bradley loses standouts Jayon Brown at linebacker, Eddie Vanderdoes and Tak McKinley up front, and defensive backs Randall Goforth and Fabian Moreau. But there’s enough of a core returning for Bradley to piece together a solid defense, which includes five-star freshman Jaelan Phillips, linebacker Kenny Young and safety Jaleel Wadood. While UCLA finished 4-8 last year, it’s also important to note this team lost six games by 10 points or less. There’s potential for a rebound in 2017.
After winning 23 games from 2014-15, TCU regressed to 6-7 and finished with just its third losing mark since coach Gary Patterson took over the program at the end of the 2000 season. Getting back on track in 2017 will require the Horned Frogs to play with more consistency on offense. Quarterback Kenny Hill tossed 13 interceptions and completed only 57.4 percent of his throws in Big 12 games. Hill’s development is crucial to TCU’s hopes of returning to the top 25, as the rest of the personnel is in place on offense. Running back Kyle Hicks returns after rushing for 1,042 yards last fall, and the receiving corps brings back its top six options and adds a potential impact true freshman in Jalen Reagor. Patterson’s defenses usually rank among the Big 12’s best, and there’s a strong foundation in place with seven returning starters. The bulk of the losses from last year’s group were up front, as end Josh Carraway (11 TFL) will be missed. Safety Denzel Johnson also leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary.
Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers had an interesting 2016 season. Pitt was the only team to defeat CFB Playoff champion Clemson in 2016, and of course, in-state bragging rights were earned after a non-conference victory against Penn State in Week 2. Narduzzi has guided this program to back-to-back 8-5 records, but the goal in the Steel City for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Coastal Division. Working in the Panthers' favor is a schedule that does not feature Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in crossover play. Additionally, swing games against Miami and NC State take place in Heinz Field. Schedule aside, this team still has a few major personnel issues to address. Veteran play-caller Shawn Watson arrives to take over the offensive coordinator duties after Matt Canada left for LSU. Additionally, USC graduate transfer Max Browne is slated to start at quarterback after Nathan Peterman expired his eligibility. While Watson is likely to put his own stamp on the offense, the Panthers aren’t going to stray too far from the ground game – even with James Conner in the NFL. The backfield features former 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison, sophomore Chawntez Moss and promising freshman A.J. Davis. Clearing the way for the ground attack is one of the ACC’s top offensive lines, anchored by tackle Brian O’Neill. The Panthers are also set at receiver with Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah back on the outside. Tight end Chris Clark (UCLA transfer) is a name to remember. Considering Narduzzi’s roots as a defensive coordinator, Pitt’s struggles on this side of the ball over the last two years are surprising. Can this unit take a step forward in 2017? On paper, it’s tough to see the Panthers drastically improving on defense. This unit returns only four starters, and the line was hit hard by departures after Ejuan Price expired his eligibility, and expected starter Jeremiah Taleni was dismissed this offseason. Junior Jordan Whitehead is the defense’s top player and potentially one of the best safeties in college football.
Related: ACC 2017 All-Conference Team
30. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in 2016 but finished with wins in four out of their last six games. Building off that momentum shouldn’t be a problem for coach Dan Mullen’s team. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Dak Prescott last fall but eventually emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Fitzgerald gashed opponents for 1,375 yards on the ground and threw for 2,423 yards and 21 scores. In order for this offense to take another step forward, Fitzgerald has to improve as a passer after completing only 54.3 percent of his throws in 2016. Additionally, Mullen has some work to do in the supporting cast. Running back Aeris Williams returns after rushing for 720 yards and is a solid complement to Fitzgerald’s rushing ability. But who emerges to replace Fred Ross (72 catches) and help Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) in the receiving corps? The line is Mullen’s biggest concern on offense with three new starters stepping into the spotlight. After giving up 31.8 points per game last fall, look for Mississippi State’s defense to show progress in 2017. The addition of Todd Grantham as coordinator is a huge plus for this group, and Mullen dipped into the junior college ranks for instant help. Leading the charge up front will be talented sophomore Jeffery Simmons, with fellow sophomore Leo Lewis anchoring the linebacker unit. The pass defense must improve after giving up 33 scores in 2016. The cornerback spot is of particular concern, but this unit could have help in the form of a better pass rush, eliminating the time quarterbacks have to pick apart the secondary. The 2017 version of Mullen’s Bulldogs are clearly better than last year’s team. But road dates against Arkansas and Texas A&M could decide whether or not this team finishes fourth or seventh in the tight SEC West.
Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks certainly knew how to make things interesting in 2016. This team played an overtime thriller against TCU in Week 2, beat Ole Miss by four, crushed Florida 31-10 and blew second-half leads against Missouri and Virginia Tech to close out the year. After an uneven season, can Bielema get Arkansas back into top 25 contention? It’s not out of the question if the defense improves significantly behind new coordinator Paul Rhoads. This unit has surrendered at least six yards per play in back-to-back seasons, so there’s only one way to go in 2017 – up. Rhoads is transitioning this defense to a 3-4 scheme, but this unit needs some work in the front seven after giving up 205.5 rushing yards per game. Sophomore McTelvin Agim is due for a breakout season, and Dre Greenlaw should provide a boost at linebacker after missing a good chunk of 2016 due to injury. The secondary allowed too many big plays (13 passes of 40 yards or more last year) but could benefit from more help up front. Cornerback Ryan Pulley is quietly one of the SEC’s top defensive backs. Until the defense is settled, look for Bielema to lean a little more on his offense. Of course, that’s not a bad idea for Arkansas considering quarterback Austin Allen is one of the best in the SEC, and center Frank Ragnow anchors an offensive line that should improve with four starters back. Rawleigh Williams’ retirement due to a neck injury was a blow to the ground game, but Bielema has had no trouble finding stars at this position in his career. Look for sophomore Devwah Whaley to emerge as the next standout running back. Allen will be throwing to a revamped group of receivers, but senior Jared Cornelius, the emergence of promising tight end Austin Cantrell and the addition of junior college recruit Brandon Martin should alleviate concerns on the outside.
28. Washington State
The Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 North last fall and another run at 7-2 in league play and a spot in the top 25 is well within reach for coach Mike Leach’s team. As with any Leach-coached team, the offense leads the way. Washington State’s high-powered attack averaged 38.2 points per game last fall and isn’t expected to take its foot off the pedal with senior quarterback Luke Falk back to guide the offense. Falk has to find a couple of new receivers after Gabe Marks (89 receptions) and River Cracraft (53) expired their eligibility. Junior Tavares Martin and sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack are two names to watch this fall. While the passing game draws most of the attention in Pullman, the Cougars quietly have one of the Pac-12’s best running back corps. James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks each eclipsed at least 450 rushing yards last season and all three are valuable targets in the passing game. Anchored by guard Cody O’Connell, Washington State’s offensive line ranks among the best in the Pac-12. Coordinator Alex Grinch has helped the Cougars take a step forward on defense over the last two seasons, and a strong foundation is in place for 2017. Nine starters return, including standout end Hercules Mata’afa, linebacker Peyton Pelluer and cornerback Darrien Molton. The offense is going to miss Marks and Cracraft, but it’s hard to envision Washington State struggling too much through the air. However, one problem for Leach’s team is the schedule. The Cougars have to play USC, Colorado and Utah in Pac-12 crossover matchups, while dates against Washington and Oregon come on the road.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2017 Predictions
27. NC State
It’s easy to overlook NC State in a division that features Louisville, Florida State and Clemson – two national championship contenders for 2017. However, the Wolfpack could nudge their way into the top 25 this year. Coach Dave Doeren was on the hot seat after a 4-5 start last fall, but NC State finished strong with three wins in its final four games. While the final ledger showed six losses, NC State lost by seven points to eventual CFB Playoff champ Clemson, fell to Florida State by just four and lost two other games by a combined 10 points. The offense is led by junior quarterback Ryan Finley, who posted a solid debut in 2016 after transferring in from Boise State. All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels is one of college football’s best all-around talents and playmakers. He should be utilized even more in 2017. Replacing running back Matt Dayes is the biggest concern for Doeren’s offense. Junior (and converted receiver) Nyheim Hines is the front-runner for carries but Reggie Gallaspy and Dakwa Nichols are in the mix as well. The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is a strength for Doeren’s team. Anchored by standout guard Tony Adams, four starters return for one of the ACC’s top lines. On defense, end Bradley Chubb is back to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage after registering 10.5 sacks in 2016. The tandem of Justin Jones and B.J. Hill is an underrated duo on the interior. Both starters – Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore – are back at linebacker, while the secondary is the biggest area of need with three vacancies in the starting lineup. NC State is clearly a better team than it was last year, but it won’t get any breaks on the schedule. Notre Dame and South Carolina are on tap in non-conference play, and of course, the Wolfpack have to face three top 25 teams from their own division.
26. West Virginia
Last year’s 10-win season was West Virginia’s first double-digit victory total since joining the Big 12 in 2012. The 10-3 record and No. 18 finish in the Associated Press poll helped coach Dana Holgorsen secure a contract extension, which ensures he will be in Morgantown at least through 2021. West Virginia returns only seven starters from last year’s team, but another top 25 finish is within reach. That’s largely due to the arrival of transfer quarterback Will Grier from Florida. The junior should help the Mountaineers stretch the field more, taking the pressure off of a talented stable of running backs. Justin Crawford rushed for 1,184 yards in his first year from the junior college ranks, but he will have plenty of support from sophomore Kennedy McKoy. Grier’s supporting cast on the outside – anchored by David Sills, Jovon Durante and Ka’Raun White - is solid. However, the top two receivers – Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts – from last season have departed Morgantown. The Mountaineers had a standout offensive line in 2016, but center Tyler Orlosky leaves big shoes to fill in the middle. Line coach Joe Wickline can rebuild this unit around standout guard Kyle Bosch. For the second year in a row, coordinator Tony Gibson faces a significant rebuilding effort on defense. However, after the Mountaineers held opponents to 24 points a game in 2016, Gibson should push the right buttons again with a new cast of players stepping into major roles. The return of safety Dravon Askew-Henry provides relief for a secondary that lost standout cornerback Rasul Douglas.
25. Virginia Tech
After an appearance in the ACC Championship Game and a 10-win 2016 season, coach Justin Fuente will once again have the Hokies in the mix to win the Coastal Division. The second-year coach is regarded for his work on offense, especially at the quarterback position. Fuente will be tested once again this season, as Jerod Evans left early for the NFL, and standout receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges are also at the next level. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson closed spring ball with an edge at quarterback, with junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hookier fighting for snaps. The battle will resume in the fall, but the Hokies have to find playmakers around receiver Cam Phillips, along with generating more production from the ground game. A defense that returns seven starters should be among the best in the ACC. Cornerback Greg Stroman and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds should challenge for All-America honors on a unit that allowed only 22.8 points per game last year. The opener against West Virginia at FedEx Field should give some early insight into the quarterback situation. However, it’s likely Virginia Tech’s hopes of another division title rest with the Nov. 4 trip to Miami.
The Bulls are not only Athlon's pick to win the American Athletic Conference, but this team is also the projected top Group of 5 program for 2017. New coach Charlie Strong inherits a strong foundation from former coach Willie Taggart, starting with dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 scores and accounted for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Standout running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL and will be missed. However, D’Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice and redshirt freshman Elijah Mack should be a capable trio to handle the carries. The Bulls also must replace left tackle Kofi Amichia and leading receiver Rodney Adams. The defense gave up 31.6 points per game last season but should improve with nine returning starters, including standouts Auggie Sanchez (LB), Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector (DL) and Deatrick Nichols (CB). Strong’s arrival and background on this side of the ball should also help USF’s defense take a step forward. The schedule for USF is favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games and host Temple, Houston and Tulsa.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the ACC’s Coastal Division, but Athlon gives the nod to Miami. The biggest offseason question mark for coach Mark Richt remains at quarterback. Brad Kaaya departed early for the NFL, leaving junior Malik Rosier, true freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon and sophomore Evan Shirreffs as the top contenders for the No. 1 spot. Rosier has one career start, but he may not hold onto the job for long if Perry shows a good grasp of the offense in fall workouts. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running back Mark Walton, along with emerging star Ahmmon Richards at receiver. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Hurricanes can lean on a defense that returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to just 18.5 points per game in 2016. The line has a chance to be among the best in the nation, and the starting trio of linebackers will be better in 2017 after getting significant playing time as true freshmen. The secondary is the biggest concern for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina will be challenging in conference play. However, Miami hosts Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 – a game that could decide the Coastal Division winner.
22. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s team is always dangerous in the Big 12 and could be a dark horse to contend for the conference title in 2017. Kansas State returns a good chunk of its core from a team that won nine games last season. Quarterback Jesse Ertz headlines the offense, and he’s surrounded by breakout candidates in receiver Byron Pringle and running back Alex Barnes. The Wildcats also return three starters from an offensive line that should be one of the best in the Big 12. Replacing standout linebacker Elijah Lee and end Jordan Willis are the biggest concerns on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year (22.3 ppg) but shouldn’t slip too far despite losing Lee and Willis. End Reggie Walker anchors the line after recording 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, while cornerback D.J. Reed – the Big 12’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016 – leads the way in the secondary. The Wildcats have to play at Oklahoma State and Texas, but Oklahoma visits Manhattan on Oct. 21.
New coach Willie Taggart inherits a promising core of young talent for his first season in Eugene. Although the Ducks are coming off their first losing record since 2004, a quick rebound should be in order. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson. The Ducks also went with a youth movement in the trenches last season and this unit is slated to return four starters from the final two-deep. Additionally, left tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart’s team, but the defense needs to take a step forward if Oregon wants to challenge Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 North. The good news? Taggart hired standout coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado and has plenty of experience at all three levels of the defense returning for 2017. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is one of the Pac-12's rising stars on defense, and the addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano provides a boost up front. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
20. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016. However, the Fighting Irish lost seven of those games by eight points or less and finished No. 29 in the F/+ ratings. While there is certainly cause for concern in South Bend, coach Brian Kelly hired two standout coordinators this offseason (Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense), and there’s a good core of talent in place. A quick rebound back to a winning record should be in order for 2017. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is a breakout candidate this fall. Running back Josh Adams (933 yards) just missed on a 1,000-yard season last year and will be joined by Dexter Williams to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Torii Hunter Jr. elected to skip his final year of eligibility for baseball, but the Fighting Irish have a capable group of targets. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, with Kevin Stepherson (18.5 ypc) and C.J. Sanders (24) headlining the secondary targets. Tight end Alize Mack (formely Jones) is back after a one-year suspension and could be a difference-maker. Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are All-America candidates up front and anchor a line that returns four starters. Improving the defense was Kelly’s top priority this offseason and the arrival of Elko should help this unit take a step forward. Most of last year’s depth chart returns intact, but linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke depart South Bend. The strength of this group is at linebacker, largely due to the play of senior Nyles Morgan. Cornerback Shaun Crawford and safety Nick Watkins are back from injury to bolster a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.7 percent of their throws last season. The schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are in South Bend next season.
The Volunteers fell short of most preseason expectations of a SEC East title in 2016, but coach Butch Jones has still pieced together back-to-back nine-win seasons. In order for Tennessee to edge Florida and Georgia in the East this fall, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. The SEC slate presents its share of challenges, but the Volunteers also have some significant personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. There’s also a new play-caller on offense with Larry Scott taking over for Mike DeBord. Scott has two talented quarterbacks – Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano – at his disposal, with the battle for the starting job expected to continue into the fall. Junior John Kelly is due for a breakout year at running back, but depth is an issue at the position. Junior Jauan Jennings leads the way at receiver, but similar to the running back spot, the overall depth is a concern for Jones. The Volunteers also need more consistent play from their offensive line, with true freshman Trey Smith expected to play a key role this year. Injuries hit Tennessee’s defense hard in 2016, and this unit loses two standouts in end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton. Considering all of the injuries this team dealt with on defense, the playing time by backups and new starters should improve the overall depth for this unit in 2017. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be the leader of the front seven for coordinator Bob Shoop. The success of the defense will largely hinge on the development of the line. Former top recruits Jonathan Kongbo, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips need to deliver on their potential.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson hopes to take Louisville into contention for the CFB Playoff once again. He’s also back for another run at the Heisman after accounting for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and adding 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground last season. Jackson set the bar high last year and matching those totals in 2017 could be difficult. However, he’s the nation’s best playmaker and is only going to get better as a passer this fall. Jackson’s supporting cast features some new faces after the departure of running back Brandon Radcliff, receivers James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). While those are big losses, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Bobby Petrino. Jeremy Smith should be a capable fill-in at running back, with Reggie Bonnafon chipping in as an all-purpose threat, and Seth Dawkins, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick filling out the receiving corps. The biggest concern for Petrino’s offense remains up front. Left tackle Geron Christian is one of the ACC’s top linemen, but this unit surrendered 47 sacks in 13 games last fall. New coordinator Peter Sirmon inherits a defense that allowed only 23.8 points per game last season and returns a solid foundation with seven starters back. Senior linebacker Stacy Thomas and cornerback Jaire Alexander are two of the ACC’s top returning defenders. This unit could get a huge boost if senior Trevon Young returns to 100 percent after missing all of 2016 due to injury. A Week 3 showdown against Clemson is an early barometer test for Jackson and Louisville’s ACC title hopes.
Stanford has been a model of consistency under coach David Shaw. The Cardinal have won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons. Reaching that total in 2017 is within reach, as Stanford is the biggest threat to Washington in the Pac-12 North. Some mystery surrounds the quarterback position. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina and is on track to return by fall practice. If Chryst suffers any setbacks, Ryan Burns has starting experience, and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 signing class. In addition to the quarterback uncertainty, the Cardinal have to replace running back Christian McCaffrey. While McCaffrey’s all-around versatility is unlikely to be matched by one player, the running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett should be a capable one-two punch on the ground. Trenton Irwin (37 catches) and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (15.8 ypc) are back to lead the receiving corps, while the offensive line returns four starters, including Nate Herbig and center Jesse Burkett. Solomon Thomas is a big loss for Shaw’s defense, but the secondary should be among the best in the nation with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
The Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to edge Georgia for the division crown, improvement on offense is a must. Florida finished 100th nationally in scoring in 2015 and 107th in 2016. Luke Del Rio is the team’s most experienced quarterback and missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury. However, Del Rio was facing an uphill battle to hold onto the starting job, as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks is the team’s most talented option under center and worked all spring as the No. 1 quarterback. He won’t have much time to grow into the job, as Florida takes on Michigan in its season opener, followed by a matchup against Tennessee in Week 3. Until the passing game develops, the Gators could lean heavily on running back Jordan Scarlett. Antonio Callaway anchors the SEC’s top receiving corps and should ease Franks’ transition into the No. 1 role. The offensive line should improve even though tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator (Randy Shannon) calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, safety Marcus Maye, lineman Caleb Brantley and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson headline the key departures on defense. Despite losing a wealth of talent, this unit may not slip too far on the stat sheet. Cornerback Duke Dawson is an All-America candidate, and there’s plenty of promise in the front seven.
Related: Ranking the SEC Coaches for 2017
Kirby Smart’s debut (8-5) was a mild disappointment. But after losing three games by three points or less last season, the Bulldogs aren’t far from the top of the SEC East. With 11 returning starters on defense, and the continued development of Jacob Eason at quarterback, Georgia is Athlon’s pick to win the SEC East in 2017. Eason should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter, and the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should ensure the ground game is among the best in the nation. The question marks on offense remain up front and outside with the receiving corps. Former No. 1 recruit Trenton Thompson had a breakout performance in the Liberty Bowl but was away from the team in the spring. The junior lineman is expected to return, providing Smart with a talented anchor to build around in the trenches. The linebacking corps is among the nation’s best, and three seniors lead the way in the secondary. The annual showdown against Florida in Jacksonville is likely to decide whether or not the Bulldogs win the SEC East.
14. Oklahoma State
The big-play connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington is more than enough to keep Oklahoma State in the hunt for the Big 12 title next year. The Cowboys also return promising running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards), and there’s optimism the offensive line will continue to improve behind guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Zach Crabtree. The post-spring addition of Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran was a huge boost for coach Mike Gundy’s offensive line. Washington has plenty of support at receiver. Jalen McCleskey returns after leading the team with 73 catches, Marcell Ateman returns from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible in 2017. This is the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor was a setback for a unit already losing cornerback Ashton Lampkin, linebacker Jordan Burton and safety Jordan Sterns. Gundy also dipped into the graduate transfer ranks on defense, landing former Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker after spring ball. After finishing second in the conference in back-to-back years, the mission for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Big 12. To do that, the Cowboys have to navigate road trips to Texas and West Virginia but host rival Oklahoma on Nov. 4.
The Longhorns won the offseason coaching carousel by bringing Tom Herman to Austin after a successful two-year run at Houston. The former graduate assistant under Mack Brown inherits a team that finished 5-7 last year but features plenty of promising pieces to build around on both sides of the ball. Shane Buechele returns as the team’s quarterback after throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman in 2016. Freshman Sam Ehlinger could push Buechele for the starting job in the fall, but the sophomore is expected to hold onto the top spot. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, including standout left tackle Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury. Sophomore Collin Johnson is expected to be the go-to target, with sophomore Devin Duvernay seeing an increased role. Improving the defense is a must for Herman, and the addition of coordinator Todd Orlando will pay dividends right away. This unit returns largely intact, but depth on the line is an issue after two players transferred in May. Linebacker Malik Jefferson seems primed to deliver a huge junior year. The schedule sets up favorably with Kansas State and Oklahoma State visiting Austin.
After facing one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate for coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers is considerably easier. A crossover game against Michigan and a road trip to Nebraska are challenging, but Wisconsin won’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State from the East. And after coming up just short in the Big Ten title game last year, can Chryst’s team take the next step this fall? In order to knock off the East champion in Indianapolis, the Badgers need more consistency out of the passing game. The good news? Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is promising, and the receiving corps features All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli. Standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk will be missed, but there’s plenty of experience and talent returning to keep the offensive line among the best in the Big Ten. The trio of Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal should be enough to compensate for the loss of running back Corey Clement. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard inherits a unit that allowed only 15.6 points per game last season. The Badgers don’t have many glaring weaknesses on this group, but linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel leave big shoes to fill. The return of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy from injury should alleviate some of the concern at linebacker. Hornibrook’s development is crucial for Wisconsin to climb higher in the top 25 this season.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a familiar question: What will LSU get out of its offense? It’s no secret the Tigers have one of the nation’s top running backs in Derrius Guice and a strong foundation to build around on the offensive line. New coordinator Matt Canada was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires for 2017, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Danny Etling had offseason back surgery but will return in time for fall practice and is expected to hold onto the starting job. Etling’s performance is critical to LSU’s hopes of pushing Alabama in the SEC West. In addition to the concerns about quarterback production, there’s also uncertainty at receiver, as just one player (D.J. Chark) returns with more than 10 catches. LSU’s defense returns only four starters, but under coordinator Dave Aranda, this unit will be one of the best in the nation next fall. End/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Cornerback Donte Jackson should push for All-SEC honors, and true freshman JaCoby Stevens could see significant playing time at safety. Linebacker is Aranda’s biggest concern. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers will only go as far as the quarterback play allows it to.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. However, thanks to back-to-back top-five recruiting classes, the Wolverines won’t be down for long. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a promising first year as the team’s starter. The receiving corps must be revamped, with incoming freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black likely to play a huge role in the passing game this season. The strength of the offense should be the ground game. Sophomore Chris Evans leads a talented group of running backs, with Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker and Karan Higdon providing support. The left side of the line should be anchored by Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson, but this unit did not perform well late in the 2016 campaign and remained a concern exiting spring ball. The Wolverines return only one starter – linebacker Mike McCray – on defense. But don’t expect this unit to slip on the stat sheet. Sophomore lineman Rashan Gary is a rising star, senior tackle Maurice Hurst is a candidate for All-America honors and the recent recruiting efforts should produce starting talent in the back seven. Matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State come on the road this year, but rival Ohio State visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.
The Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC. With the addition of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the offense now has a difference-maker under center to go with one of the conference’s top ground attacks. Stidham impressed this spring and possesses the arm strength and accuracy to open up the passing game downfield. He’s also surrounded by a cast of promising playmakers on the outside, including sophomore Nate Craig-Myers. Kamryn Pettway emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs after posting 1,224 yards in 2016. He’s joined by Kerryon Johnson to form one of the league’s top tandems, while the offensive line is once again a strength with the return of three starters. Kevin Steele’s defense also is in good shape for 2017. Sophomore Marlon Davidson should fill the void left behind by Carl Lawson in the trenches, while the linebacker unit is anchored by Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. Depth is an issue at safety, but cornerback Carlton Davis is one of the best in the SEC. A Week 2 road trip to Clemson is a huge opportunity to make an early statement, while contending in the West is likely to come down to an Oct. 14 road date at LSU and the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2017. But this task got a little harder in June, as coach Bob Stoops retired and handed over the keys to the program to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He's one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, but this will be Riley's first chance to be a head coach - at the age of 33. Quarterback Baker Mayfield leads the way for Oklahoma's high-powered offense. The senior has tossed 76 touchdown passes under Riley the last two years and returns as one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Mayfield is supported by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but question marks surround the receiving corps after losing Dede Westbrook. Who steps up to be the No. 1 receiver? Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon leave big shoes to fill at running back, but Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams should be an effective one-two punch. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Linebacker Jordan Evans was a big loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expired their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor a secondary that showed improvement late in the 2016 season. Spring star Parnell Motley and the development of sophomore Jordan Parker adds to the talent on the back end. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
The defending national champs are due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. However, as the No. 7 ranking indicates, Clemson is still one of the top contenders to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Considering the amount of talent leaving Death Valley – quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and running back Wayne Gallman – it’s a testament to the job coach Dabo Swinney has done on the recruiting trail and in overall program development. A three-man competition to replace Watson is expected to extend deep into fall workouts. Junior Kelly Bryant is the front-runner, but true freshman Hunter Johnson is the name to remember. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors a line that could be the best in the ACC this fall. While Williams and Artavis Scott will be missed on the outside, the receiving corps is still one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow. Similar to the offense, the defense has a couple of voids to fill this offseason. However, coordinator Brent Venables should quickly find the right answers to keep this unit performing at a high level. Ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph are the anchors on defense next year. If Bryant, Johnson or Zerrick Cooper settles into the starting job, the Nov. 11 home game against Florida State could decide the ACC Atlantic title.
6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. After just missing on a CFB Playoff berth last year, coach James Franklin’s team won’t have to go far in order to crack the top four. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin left for the NFL draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki is a go-to target for McSorley and an All-America candidate for 2017. Even though Godwin is a big loss, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). Additionally, sophomore Juwan Johnson had a breakout spring and is poised to take on a bigger role in 2017. An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time in 2016. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent. However, top cornerback John Reid was lost for the year due to a spring knee injury. One of Pry’s top offseason concerns is at defensive end following the departures of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Coaches for 2017
Thanks to the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold, USC should be a playoff contender in 2017. Darnold’s play was a big reason why the Trojans showed marked improvement after starting 1-3 last season. As a redshirt freshman last year, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold is good enough to carry this team to a Pac-12 title on his own, but the supporting cast features a likely All-Pac-12 running back in Ronald Jones, as well as a solid group of receivers. The biggest concern on offense remains up front. Standout tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner expired their eligibility, and guard Damien Mama left early for the next level. Projected starters Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao are recovering from injuries but will return for the start of the season. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast proved to be one of the top assistant hires of last offseason, as USC’s defense limited opponents to 24.2 points per game despite major question marks in the front seven. Pendergast will have a solid core in place for 2017, but tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson decided to leave early for the NFL. This unit features an All-America candidate at linebacker in junior Cameron Smith, along with rising stars Rasheem Green (DL) and Iman Marshall (CB). The schedule features its share of challenges, starting with games against Stanford and Texas in September, along with road trips to Washington State, Notre Dame and Colorado.
Even though Chris Petersen has to replace a few key cogs from last season’s playoff team, Washington is primed for another run at the Pac-12 title and spot among the nation’s top four teams. Quarterback Jake Browning is back after throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season, but the junior has to find a new go-to target after the departure of receiver John Ross to the NFL. Dante Pettis (53 catches) moves into the No. 1 role, while the Huskies will be counting on bigger contributions from Chico McClatcher, Ty Jones, Aaron Fuller and Quentin Pounds in the receiving corps. The one-two punch of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman provides plenty of balance and support on offense out of the backfield, while three starters are back on a standout line. The biggest concerns for a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff rest with a defense that loses standout safety Budda Baker, cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and lineman Elijah Qualls. However, coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of the best in the nation, and this unit is anchored by standout senior linebacker Azeem Victor. Junior Vita Vea leads the way up front, while the rebuilding effort in the secondary should be minimized thanks to the emergence of cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy in the spring, along with the return of rising star Taylor Rapp at safety. The schedule also sets up for anotherplayoff berth. Washington does not play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon and Washington State. A trip to Stanford on Nov. 10 is the team’s toughest road test.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2017
3. Florida State
The balance of power in the ACC should shift back to Tallahassee in 2017. The Seminoles return nine starters from a defense that showed marked improvement over the second half of last year, and safety Derwin James is back after missing nearly all of 2016 due to a knee injury. James is arguably the best defender in college football. The line is overflowing with talent, as ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns anchor a standout pass rush, and tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas plug the interior. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in an impressive freshman debut in 2016. Now as a sophomore, Francois is expected to take his game to the next level and help carry this team to a CFB Playoff berth. That’s certainly within reach for the sophomore, but he also needs more help from the offensive line and receiving corps. Receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate are primed for breakout seasons as the top targets for Francois. The big-play ability and production of running back Dalvin Cook will be missed. However, junior Jacques Patrick and five-star recruit Cam Akers are a capable tandem and should prevent any drop-off in ground game. Florida State will be tested right away with a matchup against Alabama in Atlanta to open the season. The Seminoles host Miami, NC State and Louisville in key conference games, but a matchup at Clemson and a road date at Florida will determine whether or not Fisher’s team can finish in the top four.
2. Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returned only six starters headed into 2016, a trip to the College Football Playoff was probably a year ahead of schedule for coach Urban Meyer’s team. Despite losing a few key pieces from last season’s team, the Buckeyes are primed for another run at the national title. In an effort to jumpstart the offense, coach Urban Meyer hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the play-calling duties. Wilson’s arrival is good news for quarterback J.T. Barrett, as the senior begins 2017 as one of the leading Heisman candidates. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL draft. Junior Parris Campbell and sophomore Demario McCall are two players to watch in the passing game this fall. The offensive line loses standout center Pat Elflein, but guard Billy Price is expected to slide to the middle to fill the void. The strength of the defense will be in the trenches. This unit is headlined by All-America candidates Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa, and rivals Clemson as the best in college football. Raekwon McMillan will be missed at linebacker, but Jerome Baker, Chris Worley and Dante Booker form a solid trio. For the second preseason in a row, uncertainty surrounds the Ohio State secondary. This unit lost cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker to the NFL. However, thanks to elite recruiting classes, the drop-off should be minimal. Junior college recruit Kendall Sheffield and incoming freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade should make an instant impact, with junior Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb back as the unit’s top veterans. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team must replace a few key players from last season, but the Crimson Tide are once again the pick to win it all in 2017. The defense suffered key losses at each level, yet still figures to rank as the nation’s top unit. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand are the new leaders up front after Jonathan Allen expired his eligibility. The linebacker unit features three new starters, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge for the Crimson Tide. Seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans lead this group for Saban, with Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings slated to pick up the slack left behind by edge rushers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. True freshman Dylan Moses is another name to watch in this unit. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Marlon Humphrey departed early to the NFL, but seniors Anthony Averett and Tony Brown return at cornerback. The safety pairing of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison is the best in college football. Fitzpatrick’s versatility to play cornerback or safety is a huge asset for this defense. New play-caller Brian Daboll isn’t expected to make too many changes on offense, but he is tasked with helping quarterback Jalen Hurts develop more as a passer. Hurts’ dual-threat ability is no secret after rushing for just under 1,000 yards last fall. But the sophomore must become more consistent as a passer for this offense to improve in 2017. Hurts will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Junior Calvin Ridley will challenge for All-America honors, with seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster and freshman Jerry Jeudy rounding out the key targets. Left tackle Jonah Williams anchors one of the nation’s best offensive lines, and the running back position is the deepest in college football. Bo Scarbrough came on strong at the end of 2016, and he’s joined by Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star freshman Najee Harris as the key backfield pieces. Making it through the regular season undefeated won’t be easy, but Alabama is Athlon’s pick to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta on Jan. 8.