Athlon projects college football's top 25 teams for 2017.
College football’s 2017 season starts on Aug. 26 and concludes with the national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. The season is less than 15 days away and fall practice is ongoing for all 130 teams around the nation, which means depth chart changes, quarterback battles, freshmen and breakout players are under the microscope. With the 2017 season quickly approaching, it's never too early to project and rank college football's top 25 teams.
Each NCAA season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture, but a familiar program tops Athlon's rankings. Alabama is the projected national champion, while two other teams - Washington and Ohio State - join Florida State to round out the CFB Playoff picks.
The Athlon Sports 2017 preview magazines hit newsstands on Tuesday, May 23 and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. All five regional - ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC - and national preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
Here's Athlon’s projected top 25 teams in college football. This ranking takes into account where we think teams will finish after the national championship in January.
College Football Top 25 for 2017
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 was named the starting quarterback in August, with junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hookier fighting for the backup role. The Hokies have to find playmakers for Jackson at receiver (other than Cam Phillips) and generate 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 practice. 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. Citadel graduate transfer Dee Delaney was a key pickup this offseason at cornerback for 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 two 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 receiver Charles Nelson. The departure of Darren Carrington left a void at receiver, which could be filled by converted safety Brenden Schooler, running back Taj Griffin and sophomore Dillon Mitchell. 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. Kelly also added graduate transfers in Freddy Canteen (Michigan) and Cam Smith (Arizona State) to bolster one of the nation's top receiving corps. 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 fall practice. Dormady left the spring with a slight edge for the No. 1 spot and is on track to start the opener against Georgia Tech. 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. The return of veteran assistant Mike Summers should help the offensive line develop in 2017. 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 should get a huge boost with the return of senior Trevon Young 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. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina but returned in time for fall practice. Chryst is on track to start the opener against Rice, with Ryan Burns and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello providing depth. With Chryst on track to return at full strength, the focus on offense shifts to running back. The Cardinal have to replace running back and all-purpose threat 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 returned to practice in the fall after missing the spring 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. Additionally, Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire joined the mix in the fall. The battle to start is expected to go deep into fall practice, with Franks and Zaire likely holding an edge over Del Rio. Until the passing game develops, the Gators could lean heavily on running back Jordan Scarlett. Antonio Callaway (suspended for the opener against Michigan) anchors the SEC’s top receiving corps and should ease Franks or Zaire's 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. The secondary suffered a setback over the summer as safety Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to a torn Achilles.
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. The Bulldogs could have three freshmen play a significant role on the offensive line this fall. Former No. 1 recruit Trenton Thompson had a breakout performance in the Liberty Bowl and returned to the team in the fall after he was away during the spring. Thompson provides Smart with a talented anchor to build around in the trenches and should push for All-America honors. 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 pushed 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, and Kyle Porter and true freshman Toneil Carter are poised to push the junior for the starting job. 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 losses at linebacker grew in fall practice after Jack Cichy suffered a season-ending knee injury. With Cichy out for the year, Leonhard will lean a little more on T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr (returning from injury). 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 returned 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. Depth on the offensive line is a concern for Orgeron and Canada after a couple of players departed over the offseason. 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. If healthy, end/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Key was nursing a shoulder injury at the start of fall camp, and his status for the opener against BYU isn't certain. Cornerback Donte Jackson should push for All-SEC honors, while talented freshmen Grant Delpit, Eric Monroe and Kary Vincent are slated for major roles. 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 was named the starter in mid-August 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? Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet, senior Jeffery Mead and tight end Mark Andrews round out the top targets for Mayfield this fall. 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. Additionally, this unit is moving to a 4-3 scheme. 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 and is the likely starter in the opener, 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. True freshman Lamont Wade is expected to be an impact addition for the secondary in 2017. 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. USC's starting unit is good enough to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. However, this team has some depth concerns that could come into focus with a few injuries.
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. True freshman running back Salvon Ahmed had a strong debut in fall practice and should push for snaps as an all-purpose player. 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, Austin Joyner and Byron Murphy, 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. If Florida State drops the opener against the Crimson Tide, can Fisher's team afford a loss in ACC play and still make the CFB Playoff? Considering the strength of schedule for the Seminoles' 2017 slate, two losses (with an ACC Championship) should still be enough to earn a spot in the playoff.
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. Running back Mike Weber leads the way on the ground after rushing for 1,096 yards last fall, but true freshman D.K. Dobbins will be tough to keep on the sidelines. 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 and converted receiver Trevon Diggs 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 freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III 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.