Athlon projects college football's very early top 25 teams for 2017.
College football’s 2017 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. Alabama and Clemson will close out the 2016 season on Jan. 9, and both teams should begin 2017 near the top of the rankings. However, there will be no shortage of contenders next fall, as Florida State, Ohio State, USC, Penn State, Oklahoma and Washington will be in the mix for a playoff spot.
While we tried to account and project teams based upon how depth charts will look by spring ball and the upcoming schedule, it’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 130 teams. Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2017 officially starts.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2017, followed by 15 other teams to watch this offseason:
A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2017
Picking a favorite in the ACC Coastal for 2017 isn’t easy. North Carolina lost quarterback Mitch Trubisky to the NFL, Virginia Tech must replace three of its standouts on offense, and Pitt loses a couple of key players from last year’s 8-5 team. For now, Miami gets the nod as the early Coastal frontrunner. However, coach Mark Richt has to break in a new quarterback after Brad Kaaya left for the NFL and standout tight end David Njoku also left Coral Gables for the next level. The cupboard is far from bare on offense, as running back Mark Walton and receiver Ahmmon Richards are two of the ACC’s top returning playmakers. The offensive line is another area of concern for Richt, especially with standout guard Danny Isidora expiring his eligibility. Coordinator Manny Diaz helped the defense take a step forward in 2016, and this unit could be even better in 2017. The front seven is strong, headlined by linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud after all three started as freshmen. Replacing cornerback Corn Elder is the biggest concern for Diaz this spring. Miami has road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina, but Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech visit Hard Rock Stadium.
24. 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 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. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and returns a solid one-two punch in Josh Adams and Dexter Williams to lean on at running back. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, but Torii Hunter Jr. decided to skip his last year of eligibility for baseball. Alize Jones also returns from suspension to bolster the tight end position. The left side of the offensive line is set with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Both players should be All-America selections next fall. 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 schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are at Notre Dame next season.
23. West Virginia
Assuming quarterback Will Grier is eligible for the entire 2017 season, the Mountaineers should push to be a top 25 team once again. Grier played in six games as a redshirt freshman at Florida (1,204 yards and 10 TDs) before a suspension ended his 2015 campaign. The addition of Grier should boost West Virginia’s passing attack, especially with one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps in place. Shelton Gibson (22.1 ypc) declared for the NFL, but Ka’Raun White (48 catches) and Jovon Durante headline the key returnees on the outside. The Mountaineers return 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford and promising freshmen Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway at running back. The biggest question mark for coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense is the offensive line. Center Tyler Orlosky, left tackle Adam Pankey and guard Tony Matteo expire their eligibility, but left tackle Yodny Cajuste is back from injury. Similar to last season, coordinator Tony Gibson will have a busy offseason replacing some key faces on defense. Standout cornerback Rasul Douglas, end Noble Nwachukwu and defensive backs Antonio Crawford, Maurice Fleming, Jarrod Harper and Jeremy Tyler are just a few of the names departing a solid 2016 unit. Gibson will regain the services of safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.
The Bulls are likely to head into spring practice as a slight favorite over Boise State for the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 ranks. New coach Charlie Strong will make a few tweaks from the foundation set by former coach Willie Taggart, but USF is still going to lean heavily on 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. The biggest question marks on offense rest with finding a replacement for receiver Rodney Adams and left tackle Kofi Amichia. Additionally, running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL. The Bulls surrendered 31.6 points a game on defense, but this unit returns largely intact for 2017. Another reason to like USF in 2017? The schedule. The only Power 5 opponent on the schedule is Illinois, while Houston, Temple and Tulsa all visit Raymond James Stadium next fall.
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 will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receiver 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. 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 level of the defense returning for 2017. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
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. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, and only one of the top four receivers is set to leave. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on the offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury. 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 and isn’t hurting for talent at any of the three levels.
David Shaw’s program might be one of the most difficult to rank in the very early top 25. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina, and his status for offseason workouts (and perhaps the 2017 season?) is uncertain. Regardless of whether Chryst, Ryan Burns or K.J. Costello takes the first snap next fall, Stanford should lean heavily on its talented running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett. 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 a strength with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
Related: Pac-12 2016 All-Freshman Team
18. Kansas State
Looking for a dark horse title pick in the Big 12 next year? Take a look at Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. Kansas State quietly finished 2016 at 9-4 and returns most of its core from both sides of the ball. On offense, quarterback Jesse Ertz is back after rushing for 1,012 yards and 12 scores last season, and running back Alex Barnes could be one of the Big 12’s top breakout players. Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath return at receiver, and the Wildcats should have one of the conference’s best offensive lines with four starters returning. End Jordan Willis is a big loss, and linebacker Elijah Lee declared early for the NFL Draft. However, cornerback D.J. Reed (the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016) is back to anchor the secondary. Big 12 frontrunner Oklahoma is slated to visit Manhattan in mid-October next year.
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 next year, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. Additionally, the Volunteers will have a new play-caller on offense and a quarterback battle this offseason between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. The offensive line returns mostly intact, and John Kelly is a player to watch at running back with Alvin Kamara off to the NFL. 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 Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to beat Georgia or Tennessee for the East 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, but Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask (both redshirt freshmen) will press the junior for the starting nod in the spring. Regardless of which quarterback wins the starting job, expect to see a lot of running back Jordan Scarlett and receiver Antonio Callaway. The offensive line also is improving, but tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson depart, and the list of key voids to fill grew after tackle Caleb Brantley declared early for the NFL. Florida has a tough schedule next season, which starts in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against Michigan on Sept. 2. However, while the schedule is tough, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State each visit the Swamp in 2017.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson is back to defend his Heisman Trophy victory and lead the Cardinals back in contention for the ACC title. Jackson accounted for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and added 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground. Jackson should continue to improve as a passer, but coach Bobby Petrino has some work to do in retooling the supporting cast. Running back Brandon Radcliff departs, and the receiving corps loses James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). Three starters have expired their eligibility in the trenches, but left tackle Geron Christian should be one of the ACC’s top linemen in 2017. Improving the offensive line has to be a priority for Petrino this offseason. The Cardinals also lose a couple of key players on defense, including tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields. However, coordinator Todd Grantham can build the 2017 defense around linebackers James Hearns and Stacy Thomas, along with cornerback Jaire Alexander. Louisville’s schedule features road trips to North Carolina, Florida State and Kentucky. However, Clemson visits Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2017.
Auburn had an up-and-down 2016 season, with injuries to quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway derailing the offense in November. The Tigers started 1-2 before winning six in a row, followed by a 1-3 finish to the season. Coach Gus Malzahn needs more out of the passing attack in 2017 and landed a potential All-SEC quarterback in Jarrett Stidham. After one year at Baylor, Stidham left the program and spent 2016 out of football at a junior college. Stidham has a promising group of receivers to target on the outside, and the one-two punch of Pettway and Kerryon Johnson should be one of the nation’s top backfield tandems. Two starters depart from a standout line, but center Austin Golson and guard Braden Smith are back. A couple of key cogs are gone on defense, but coordinator Kevin Steele has plenty of talent to rebuild in 2017. End Carl Lawson declared for the NFL Draft, while cornerback Joshua Holsey and safety Rudy Ford have expired their eligibility. After a solid freshman season, Marlon Davidson will help to anchor the trenches in 2017, and cornerback Carlton Davis is poised to rank among the SEC’s top defensive backs. Malzahn’s team will be tested early with a road trip to Clemson in September and also faces LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M away from Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The SEC East will be a tight, three-team battle between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee next fall. For now, the Bulldogs get the nod as our early favorite to claim the division title. The schedule for coach Kirby Smart’s team does feature a couple of tough road trips with games at Tennessee, Notre Dame and Auburn. However, the offense should take a step forward with quarterback Jacob Eason having a full offseason to work as the starter. The return of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ensure the ground game will be one of the best in the SEC. Georgia’s defense is expected to return nearly all of its key contributors from a unit that limited opponents to 24 points a game in 2016. Lineman Trent Thompson had a huge performance in the Liberty Bowl win over TCU and returns to anchor a strong front seven that also features linebacker Roquan Smith.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a similar 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 a strong hire, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Can Danny Etling hold onto the starting quarterback spot? There’s also uncertainty at receiver, as more depth is needed and Malachi Dupre left for the NFL. LSU’s defense under Dave Aranda will be one of the best in the nation next fall. End/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and lineman Davon Godchaux leave big shoes to fill, and safety Jamal Adams is expected to declare for the NFL Draft. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Orgeron.
11. 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. 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. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor is another loss on a defense that must replace cornerback Ashton Lampkin, safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton. The schedule features road trips to Texas, West Virginia and Pitt next year, but Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State come to Stillwater.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. The losses on both sides of the ball are heavy, but quarterback Wilton Speight is back from a promising first year as the starter, and the Wolverines have a solid stable of running backs to utilize. Additionally, center Mason Cole turned down the NFL Draft for one more year in Ann Arbor. Cole’s return is critical for an offensive line that loses three other starters. Speight will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, as Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt have each expired their eligibility. Each level of the defense suffered a significant loss, but coordinator Don Brown is one of the best in the nation and won’t let this group slip too much in overall production. Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton depart in the trenches, all four starters in the secondary – including standout cornerback Jourdan Lewis – have expired their eligibility. Standout linebacker/safety hybrid Jabrill Peppers declared for the NFL Draft.
The Badgers faced one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016 and lost three games against top-10 teams – Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – by a touchdown. The good news for coach Paul Chryst in 2017? Wisconsin’s slate is much easier. The Badgers play Maryland, Indiana and Michigan in crossover play, and the Wolverines have to visit Camp Randall Stadium. With Bart Houston departing, the quarterback job should go to Alex Hornibrook. But Wisconsin’s identity on offense won’t change, as this team is still going to lean on a standout offensive line and stable of running backs. Corey Clement expired his eligibility after leading the team with 1,375 yards. However, Bradrick Shaw (457 yards), Taiwan Deal and Pitt transfer Chris James is a good trio to anchor the ground game. Coordinator Justin Wilcox will have a few holes to fill on defense, as T.J. Watt declared for the NFL Draft and fellow linebacker Vince Biegel and cornerback Sojourn Shelton expired their eligibility. The linebacking corps should get a boost with the return of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy from injury.
Related: Big Ten 2016 All-Freshman Team
After back-to-back trips to the national championship game (and a thrilling victory over Alabama to claim the 2016 title), Clemson is due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. But the drop won’t be far for coach Dabo Swinney’s team, even though the Tigers are expected to lose quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt and running back Tavien Feaster are two building blocks for coordinator Tony Elliott to build around in 2017. The quarterback competition features a few intriguing options with Kelly Bryant, Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and potential five-star freshman Hunter Johnson vying to replace Watson. The defense will lose a couple of key players – linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and tackle Carlos Watkins. 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.
Chris Petersen has Washington on the rise after a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth in 2016. Replicating that success in 2017 could be difficult, as the Huskies lost standout defenders Sidney Jones (CB), Budda Baker (S) and Elijah Qualls (DL) to the NFL. Additionally, dynamic receiver John Ross also declared for the next level. The losses on defense are significant, but there’s a good foundation for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to start the rebuilding process. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines return in the trenches, while Azeem Victor returns from injury to headline a solid group of linebackers. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are back to anchor the offense, and the line should be one of the best groups in the Pac-12. The Huskies won’t have to play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon, Utah and Washington State. A trip to Stanford is the toughest road date on the 2017 slate.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title in 2017. Standout wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running back Samaje Perine must be replaced, but the offense will remain deadly behind coordinator Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield. The offensive line also will be among the nation’s best, and Abdul Adams, Rodney Anderson or perhaps an incoming freshman should keep the ground attack performing at a high level with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine off to the NFL. Finding a replacement (or two) among the skill positions is the biggest question mark for Riley this offseason. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Linebacker Jordan Evans is the biggest loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expire their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Safety Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor the secondary. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
Clay Helton’s first full year at the helm in Los Angeles got off to a rocky start. The Trojans began the season with a 1-3 record and were 0-2 in Pac-12 play before October. However, USC reeled off nine consecutive wins to end the season, largely due to the emergence of Sam Darnold at quarterback. The redshirt freshman threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold should be even better next season and has rising star Ronald Jones (1,082 yards) to rely on at running back. The Trojans are set to lose Darreus Rogers (56 catches) at receiver, and JuJu Smith-Schuster (70 catches) declared early for the NFL. Standout offensive tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner also depart and leave big shoes to fill in the trenches. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast was 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. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson also decided to leave early for the NFL.
4. 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. 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 has already announced his intention to return to school 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). 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 this season. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent for 2017. 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.
3. Florida State
Dalvin Cook is off to the NFL, but coach Jimbo Fisher’s team will be in the hunt to win it all in 2017. Quarterback Deondre Francois leads the way on offense after throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 scores as a redshirt freshman. Francois started all 13 games in 2016 and should take another step forward in his development with an offseason to work under Fisher. Francois also has an solid group of receivers to target, including Nyqwan Murray (27) and Auden Tate (25). Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul will factor into the mix to replace Cook at running back. However, five-star prospect Cam Akers will have a major role in the offense once he arrives on campus. The defense showed improvement late in the year and won’t have to go against the brutal slate of quarterbacks it faced in 2016 at the start of next season. End DeMarcus Walker and cornerback Marquez White are the biggest losses on defense. End Josh Sweat, tackle Derrick Nnadi and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden headline the key returnees for coordinator Charles Kelly. Additionally, All-America safety Derwin James is back from injury.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Freshman Team
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. The Buckeyes are losing a couple of players early to the NFL Draft, but there’s no shortage of blue-chip talent waiting to emerge. Fixing the offense is at the top of Meyer’s offseason to-do list, and the hires of Kevin Wilson (play-caller) and Ryan Day (QB coach) should help this unit take a step forward. The passing game is the biggest area of focus, but quarterback J.T. Barrett (2,555 passing yards, 24 TDs) is back. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL Draft. Running back Mike Weber should be one of the best in the nation next year. 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. The Buckeyes did not have a senior crack the two-deep up front on the depth chart for the Fiesta Bowl. The biggest uncertainty rests in the back seven. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Gareon Conley (CB) and Malik Hooker (safety) have declared for the NFL Draft. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team has a few key pieces to replace going into the 2017 season, but as usual, the Crimson Tide aren’t hurting for talent. New play-caller Steve Sarkisian will continue to build the offense around quarterback Jalen Hurts. With a full year to develop as the starter, expect Hurts to improve as a passer in 2017. Calvin Ridley is back at receiver, and the sophomore will be handing off to Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs at running back. Cam Robinson is a big loss at left tackle, but Jonah Williams started every game as a true freshman and could flip from right tackle. The losses on defense are more significant. End Jonathan Allen, linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams must be replaced. The secondary should be a strength with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison anchoring the group. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey left early for the NFL Draft. The schedule also breaks in Alabama’s favor. The Crimson Tide host LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss and play Florida State at a neutral site (Atlanta).
15 Others to Watch
Running back Jeremy McNichols departed early for the NFL, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team will build around quarterback Brett Rypien and receiver Cedrick Wilson on offense. Each level of the defense suffers a key loss (or two).
Standout running back Jamaal Williams leaves big shoes to fill, and the Cougars face difficult matchups against Power 5 opponents LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. Quarterback Tanner Mangum steps back under center after working as the No. 2 option to Taysom Hill in 2016.
Quarterback Justin Thomas departs, but the Yellow Jackets will be a dark horse contender to watch in the Coastal Division next year.
After a berth in the College Football Playoff in 2015, the Spartans bottomed out with a 3-9 record in 2016. How much improvement is in store for coach Mark Dantonio’s team in 2017?
Quarterback Ryan Finley, tight end/all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels and end Bradley Chubb headline a NC State team that won three out of its last four games in 2016.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, receiver Jordan Westerkamp and safety Nate Gerry are three big losses for coach Mike Riley to address this offseason.
Running back Elijah Hood and quarterback Mitch Trubisky are leaving Chapel Hill early for the NFL.
Pencil in Iowa or Northwestern as a dark horse team to watch in the Big Ten West next year. The Wildcats return quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, but receiver Austin Carr and linebacker Anthony Walker leave big shoes to fill.
The losses are heavy for coach Pat Narduzzi. Running back James Conner, offensive linemen Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty, quarterback Nathan Peterman and defensive end Ejuan Price are just a few names departing the roster. USC transfer Max Browne is slated to step in at quarterback.
Let’s pencil in the teams in the SEC West outside of Alabama, Auburn and LSU in this space. Each team – Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M – have significant question marks to address. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of those programs put everything together this offseason and make a run at the top 25 in 2017.
The Horned Frogs should be solid on defense, but question marks remain after the offense took a step back in 2016. Will quarterback Kenny Hill take a step forward in his second year as the starter?
Quarterback Josh Rosen returns to full strength after a season-ending shoulder injury and has a new play-caller in Jedd Fisch. The Bruins lose a couple of key cogs on defense.
The Utes return two interesting options at quarterback (Troy Williams and Tyler Huntley), but running back Joe Williams and four starters on the offensive line must be replaced. Safety Marcus Williams and end Hunter Dimick are the biggest losses on defense.
Even though the Hokies lose quarterback Jerod Evans, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges to the NFL, coach Justin Fuente should keep this team in the mix to win the Coastal Division.
Receiver Gabe Marks and two starters on the line are the biggest losses for coach Mike Leach’s offense. Quarterback Luke Falk is back after another prolific season, and the defense returns promising end Hercules Mata’afa and safety Jalen Thompson.