Athlon ranks every FBS team
Ranking all 130 college football teams for 2018 is no easy task, but it's never too early to think about the upcoming season. Alabama and Clemson have met for three consecutive years in the College Football Playoff and a fourth matchup seems to be in order this fall. These two teams seem to be a step above the rest of the nation, with Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma and Wisconsin in the next tier. Outside of the top 10, Florida State and Florida hope to get back on track after disappointing 2017 seasons, while Mississippi State looks to push for 10 victories under first-year coach Joe Moorhead. Penn State and Michigan State rank just outside of the top 10 but will be a factor in the race to win the Big Ten East Division.
In the Group of 5 ranks, Boise State is the top projected team for 2018, with Lane Kiffin's FAU Owls just outside of the top 25. UCF will once again be in the mix for the New Year's Six bowl spot under new coach Josh Heupel, as the Knights check in at No. 31 overall. Arkansas State, Troy and Appalachian State headline the favorites from the Sun Belt, while Ohio was a clear pick to win the MAC.
Where do all 130 teams stack up for 2018? This is not a preseason 130 ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
2018 Conference Predictions
Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2018
The Miners were the only FBS team to finish 2017 without a victory. It’s no secret new coach Dana Dimel has a lot of work to do in his first year on campus. The former Kansas State assistant was previously a head coach at Wyoming and Houston, and his background on offense should provide immediate help for a unit that averaged only 11.8 points a game last fall. Senior quarterback Ryan Metz is expected to be pushed by junior college recruit Kai Locksley for the starting job this offseason. The Miners return only two starters on offense and must replace standout guard Will Hernandez. In addition to settling the quarterback battle and generating more big plays through the air, Dimel has to spark a ground game that averaged less than 100 yards a game in 2017. However, there’s talent in the backfield with the return of Joshua Fields, Quardraiz Wadley and Trevyon Hughes. The defense is also in need of repair. UTEP gave up 36.8 points a game and 6.24 yards a play in 2017. The strength of this unit for new coordinator Mike Cox is in the secondary. Cornerbacks Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly, along with safety Michael Lewis, provide a good foundation on the back end. Improving the rush defense is a priority after giving up 234.3 yards a contest last fall.
129. Kent State
Kent State is one of college football’s toughest jobs, so why not try something different? New coach Sean Lewis fits that mold, as he’s the youngest coach in college football for the 2018 season (31 years old). Lewis certainly knows what it takes to win in the MAC as a former assistant for Dino Babers at Bowling Green, and he’s not short on energy, providing a spark for a program that’s managed just one winning season since 2007. As expected, Lewis inherits a team with a lot of question marks. The new up-tempo spread attack needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver, and the line must be restocked with just two returning starters. At quarterback, former Auburn and JUCO recruit Woody Barrett could be the answer. Junior running back Justin Rankin could push for All-MAC honors under Lewis. Defense should be the strength of Lewis’ first team. Linebacker Jim Jones is among the top defenders in the MAC, and cornerback Jamal Parker is an Athlon Sports third-team All-MAC selection for 2018. With the significant change in scheme, along with the uncertainty at quarterback, 2018 is a transition year for Lewis and the new staff.
With its tough academic standards, maintaining success at Rice isn’t easy. However, new coach Mike Bloomgren is certainly aware of the challenges. He arrives in Houston after a successful stint at Stanford as the program’s offensive coordinator and line coach. The Owls were 1-11 last season, so small signs of improvement would be a good first step for this staff. The first concern for Bloomgren to address is at quarterback. Rice quarterbacks combined for just six touchdowns and tossed 16 interceptions last season and uncertainty surrounds this group for 2018. Junior Jackson Tyner left spring with an edge over sophomore Sam Glaesmann, with Vanderbilt graduate transfer Shawn Stankavage also in the mix. The offensive line must be revamped, but the backfield should be the strength of this offense with Emmanuel Esukpa and Austin Walter leading the way. Receiver Aaron Cephus is an intriguing player to watch after averaging 24.5 yards per catch last year. The defense surrendered 35.8 points a game in 2017 and returns only five starters. The strength of this group will be up front thanks to the return of Zach Abercrumbia, Roe Wilkins and Graysen Schantz. However, big improvement is needed from a secondary that allowed quarterbacks to complete nearly 70 percent (69.7) of their throws in 2017.
Brad Lambert heads into his sixth season facing a make-or-break 2018 campaign. He’s the first coach in Charlotte’s program history, but the 49ers are just 17-41 under his watch. A major turnaround is needed for Lambert to stick around for 2019. In order for Charlotte to take a step forward in Conference USA’s East Division, it has to generate more out of an offense that averaged 14.2 points a game last season. New play-caller Shane Montgomery has a couple of quarterbacks to work with, including senior Hasaan Klugh, Miami graduate transfer Evan Shirreffs and freshmen Brady Pope and Chris Reynolds. Running back Benny LeMay returns after rushing for 732 yards last season, and there’s a solid foundation in place up front with four returning starters. Despite giving up 32.8 points a game on defense last year, there’s room for optimism. New coordinator Glenn Spencer inherits 10 returning starters, including safety Ben DeLuca. Until the offense comes around, Charlotte will need its defense to keep it in games.
126. Texas State
Everett Withers has posted back-to-back 2-10 seasons to begin his tenure in San Marcos, but the Bobcats have played a lot of young players during that span. Could the youth movement begin to pay off in 2018? If Texas State is to take a step forward in the Sun Belt, both sides of the ball have to show improvement. The defense gave up 33.6 points a game last fall and is under the direction of a new play-caller (Chris Woods). Linebacker Bryan London is one of the Sun Belt’s top defenders, and he’s flanked by senior Frankie Griffin (11.5 TFL in 2017). A healthy Ishmael Davis would ease the transition up front, while the secondary has to cut down on its big plays allowed after giving up 15 passes of 40 or more yards last fall. Sophomore quarterback Willie Jones III showed promise in limited action in 2017 and will battle freshman Jaylen Gipson for the starting job. More is needed out of the ground attack after the Bobcats rushed for only 134.1 yards a game last season. If Jones or Nelson develops at quarterback, and the defense takes a step forward, Texas State could double its win total (two) from 2017.
125. San Jose State
Brent Brennan’s first year in charge at San Jose State was certainly a struggle. The Spartans gave up 41.7 points a game, ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring offense (15.8 ppg), posted a minus-26 turnover margin and lost nine games by 20 or more points. Drastic improvement is unlikely in 2018, but there are pieces for the second-year coach to build around. Running back Tyler Nevens returns after recording 670 yards last season, and the receiving corps ranks among the best in the Mountain West. While the skill talent is in good shape, the Spartans have to settle on a quarterback and improve a line that gave up 36 sacks in 2017. New play-caller Kevin McGiven ended spring with three quarterbacks -- Josh Love, Terrell Carter and Montel Aaron vying for the starting job. After giving up over 40 points a game last season, there’s only one way for San Jose State’s defense to go. However, tackling machine Frank Ginda (173 stops) and defensive backs Maurice McKnight, Jermaine Kelly and Andre Chachere have expired their eligibility. With better play under center, along with fewer turnovers, San Jose State should show some improvement in the win column in Brennan’s second year.
Under the direction of former Nebraska quarterback and Kansas head coach Turner Gill, the Flames will make their FBS debut in 2018. Liberty finished 6-5 last season, which included a road win at Baylor in the opener. Gill’s team is led by an offense that averaged 32.5 points a game in 2017, headlined by quarterback Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert and receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. The biggest concerns for Liberty rest on defense. Last year’s group surrendered 30.4 points a contest and gave up 225 yards per game on the ground. With six starters back, along with a couple of additions in the 2018 recruiting class to bolster the trenches, there’s pressure on this group to improve. The Flames have posted 12 winning seasons in a row, but a challenging schedule in their first year at the FBS level might be too much to overcome.
123. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers’ 2017 season hit an unexpected speed bump when coach Joe Moglia was sidelined for the year due to a medical condition. However, Moglia is back at the controls for 2018, allowing coordinator Jamey Chadwell to focus solely on the offense. While Coastal Carolina was only 3-9 last fall, this program did finish the year on a two-game winning streak. Building off that finish will require better play at quarterback. Senior Kilton Anderson is the frontrunner, but he completed only 45 percent of his passes last season. He will be pushed by freshman Bryce Carpenter. The strength of Moglia’s offense rests at running back. Former Boston College transfer Marcus Outlow is set to assume the No. 1 role after rushing for 279 yards behind Osharmar Abercrombie last fall. Outlow is joined by Presbyterian transfer Torrance Marable and sophomores Alex James and Jacqez Hairston to provide a deep stable of backs. Receiver Malcolm Williams should push for All-Sun Belt honors, and there’s a good foundation up front with four returning starters. The defense returns only four starters after giving up 34 points a game last season and is under the direction of a new play-caller in Marvin Sanders.
122. East Carolina
Scottie Montgomery could be facing a defining season for his tenure in Greenville. The Pirates are just 6-18 under Montgomery’s watch and lost eight games by 20 or more points in 2017. Montgomery is hoping a revamped staff, especially on defense, will help this program move forward in 2018. Quarterback Gardner Minshew chose to leave the program as a graduate transfer this offseason, leaving Reid Herring and true freshman Holton Ahlers to battle for the starting job. Regardless of who starts, getting the ball to senior receiver Trevon Brown (60 catches for 1,069 yards) is a must. Finding more punch out of a ground game that managed only 107.7 yards a game last season is also a priority. However, the biggest concern for Montgomery remains on defense. The numbers for East Carolina’s 2017 unit were staggering (and not in a good way). In its per-game totals, this defense gave up 45 points, allowed nearly 250 rushing yards and gave up over 540 yards. New play-caller David Blackwell has a tough assignment ahead, but there’s enough returning talent (and a fresh start) should help this group improve in 2018. With games against North Carolina, Virginia Tech and South Florida in September, Montgomery should quickly find out how far his team has progressed since last year.
Third-year coach Nick Rolovich is looking to get Hawaii back in the postseason in 2018. The Rainbow Warriors finished 7-7 in Rolovich’s first year in ’16 but slipped to 3-9 last fall. Adding to the challenge of a turnaround was the departure of a couple of key players via transfer, including quarterback Dru Brown and receiver Dylan Collie. Sophomore Cole McDonald is the frontrunner to replace Brown under center, but freshmen Chevan Cordeiro and Jeremy Moussa are intriguing. The return of John Ursua (47 catches in 2017) from injury softens the blow of Collie’s transfer to BYU. However, 1,000-yard rusher Diocemy Saint Juste must be replaced, and only one starter is back up front. Hawaii’s defense struggled to get stops last year, allowing 33.9 points a game and 6.76 yards a play. New coordinator Corey Batoon has big holes to fill up front and at safety, but the linebacker unit is strong, thanks to the return of Jahlani Tavai.
120. Ball State
Injuries wreaked havoc on Ball State’s 2017 season. Quarterback Riley Neal and standout running back James Gilbert were just two of the players out due to ailments, but both are back for 2018. The strength of coach Mike Neu’s offense is at running back, as Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards in 2016, and Caleb Huntley (1,003) and Malik Dunner (440 yards) impressed last season. Neal’s go-to target should be Justin Hall, who caught 78 passes in a promising freshman campaign. With Neal and Gilbert back, Ball State’s offense should be more potent, helping to alleviate some of the concerns on defense. This unit gave up 40.7 points a game last season and returns only five starters for 2018. Coordinator David Elson has to replace standout lineman Anthony Winbush, but the move to a 3-4 should ease some of the concerns about a revamped line. With better luck in the health department, Ball State should have a chance to double last year’s win total.
119. Bowling Green
The 2018 season will be an important one for coach Mike Jinks. The Falcons are 6-18 over the last two years and have slipped from the top of the MAC East. But there’s optimism for Jinks headed into his third season. Quarterback Jarret Doege and running back Andrew Clair are poised for breakout seasons, and receiver Scott Miller (63 catches in 2017) is poised to challenge for All-MAC honors again. Additionally, three returning starters provide plenty of pieces for Jinks to build around in the trenches. The question marks are greater on defense. However, the arrival of new coordinator Carl Pelini is a step in the right direction. Pelini takes over a unit that surrendered 38 points a game last season and struggled to stop the run (253.3 ypg). The back seven features standout linebacker Brandon Harris, while the secondary returns three starters, and regains the services of safety Jamari Bozeman, who missed 2017 due to an injury. Jinks hasn’t had a problem recruiting talent to Bowling Green. But entering his third year at the helm, it’s time for this program to take a step forward.
118. New Mexico
After earning trips to back-to-back bowl games, the Lobos took a step backwards last season. New Mexico regressed to 3-9 overall and claimed just one victory in Mountain West play. As if overcoming last year’s struggles weren’t enough, the program has been surrounded in turmoil all offseason, with coach Bob Davie serving a 30-day suspension in the spring. Getting back to a winning record starts with the offense. After generating 6.85 yards a play in 2016, New Mexico slipped to 5.5 in ’17. New coordinator Calvin Magee is expected to transition the offense to more of a spread approach. Leading rusher Tyrone Owens (770 yards) is back, and sophomore receiver Jay Griffin is poised to build on a promising freshman campaign. Davie’s biggest uncertainty on offense rests at quarterback. Tevaka Tuioti has an edge to start, but Coltin Gerhart and junior college recruit Sheriron Jones are in the mix. The Lobos return just one starter on the offensive line. The defense also enters 2018 with its share of concerns. Defensive back Jake Rothschiller (6 TFL), linebacker Austin Ocasio (6 TFL) and linemen Kene Okonkwo (6 TFL) and Garrett Hughes have expired their eligibility. This unit also ranked 109th nationally in pass efficiency defense and registered only 21 sacks. In addition to the turmoil surrounding the program, the Lobos have personnel concerns on both sides of the ball and must do a better job in the turnover department after posting a minus-16 margin last fall.
The Huskies are in rebuild mode in coach Randy Edsall’s second act in Storrs. New play-caller John Dunn takes over an offense that averaged 23.6 points a game in 2017 but improved its yards per play to 5.5 -- up from 4.8 the previous year. The 2018 unit features standout receiver Hergy Mayala (43 catches), and a solid one-two punch at running back with the return of Kevin Mensah and Nate Hopkins. Senior David Pindell threw for 937 yards in nine contests last year and takes over as the full-time starter under center. Pindell has good mobility but is still developing as a passer (52.8 percent). Edsall’s defense can only improve after giving up 37.9 points and over 500 yards a game last season. The defensive front must be revamped, but while the secondary is anchored by Marshe Terry and Tyler Coyle. With just five returning starters, marked improvement in the win column is likely a year or two away.
With just three victories over the last three seasons, Kansas coach David Beaty is sitting squarely on the hot seat for 2018. And there was added pressure following spring practice when athletic director Sheahon Zenger was fired in May. Beaty inherited a mess and had to rebuild the roster, but this team has to be more competitive in Big 12 play for the coaching staff to get another season. Running back Khalil Herbert (663 yards) and receiver Steven Sims (59 catches) are two promising pieces to build around on offense. However, question marks remain at quarterback. Peyton Bender, Carter Stanley and junior college recruit Miles Kendrick will battle for the job in the fall, looking to provide more consistency for an offense that tossed 17 interceptions to 14 touchdowns in 2017. The outlook isn’t much better on defense. Kansas gave up 43.4 points a game last fall and lost standout end Dorance Armstrong to the NFL. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Clint Bowen. Tackle Daniel Wise and linebacker Joe Dineen are two of the Big 12’s top defenders, and incoming freshman Corione Harris is expected to help right away in the secondary. Just winning a game in conference play and sweeping the non-conference schedule would be a step in the right direction.
115. Georgia Southern
After guiding Georgia Southern to a 2-4 finish over the final six games of 2017, Chad Lunsford was promoted from interim to the full-time coach. Lunsford’s mission is pretty simple: Return the Eagles to the top of the Sun Belt after back-to-back losing records. Lunsford took the first step towards getting the program back on track by hiring a good staff, including new offensive play-caller Bob DeBesse. Lunsford and DeBesse are looking for improvement out of an offense that averaged 20.8 points a game in 2017. The Eagles return a solid offensive line, and running back Wesley Fields is back after rushing for 811 yards last year. The development of quarterback Shai Werts is critical for this offense. Georgia Southern’s defense is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but nine returning starters suggest there should be some improvement from a unit that gave up 32.2 points a game last fall and struggled to stop the run. Tackle Raymond Johnson is one of the top returning linemen in the Sun Belt, with the secondary poised to rank among the best in the conference. The Eagles should be better than they were in 2018, but Lunsford’s program might be a year away from bowl eligibility.
114. New Mexico State
The Aggies were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season. After winning just 10 games in the previous four years, Doug Martin’s Aggies finished 7-6 and claimed an Arizona Bowl victory over Utah State. The seven-win season was just the program’s second winning record since 2000. However, returning to a bowl game won’t be easy. Martin has to replace a couple of key cogs -- quarterback Tyler Rogers, running back Larry Rose and receiver Jaleel Scott -- from a group that averaged 29.3 points a game last season. Senior Nick Jeanty has the inside track to replace Rogers, with junior running back Jason Huntley poised for a breakout year as the new starter in place of Rose. The defense has made strides under Frank Spaziani, allowing only 29.7 points a game last fall. Linebacker Dalton Herrington must be replaced, but there’s optimism the defense will be even better in 2018 with seven returning starters, including end Cedric Wilcots (8.5 sacks). Life as a FBS Independent won’t be easy for New Mexico State. However, the schedule isn’t too daunting for 2018. If Martin restocks the offense, another six-win season could be within reach.
113. Georgia State
Shawn Elliott’s first year at Georgia State was a success. The Panthers won seven games (a program high) and claimed a bowl victory over WKU. Another step forward wouldn’t be a surprise for Elliott’s team in 2018 -- provided a quarterback emerges to replace Conner Manning. Junior college recruit Dan Ellington, freshman Jack Walker and Aaron Winchester are battling to replace Manning, with the battle expected to extend into fall camp. Regardless of who wins the job, there will be a heavy focus on getting the ball to receiver Penny Hart. The junior has two 1,000-yard seasons in his career and is among the top returning receivers in college football this fall. Four starters return up front, but an area of focus will be improvement on the ground after averaging just 117.3 yards a game last season. Georgia State’s defense limited opponents to 24.8 points a game in 2017 and should be strong once again. Cornerback Jerome Smith is a lockdown cover man on the outside, and the front seven ranks among the best in the Sun Belt.
112. South Alabama
Steve Campbell was a strong hire for South Alabama, and the former Central Arkansas coach should have this program in contention for a bowl game in his debut in Mobile. The Jaguars gave up over 400 yards a game and 5.8 yards per play last season on defense, but this unit has help coming from a couple of Power 5 transfers, including Shawn Jennings (Alabama) at linebacker. The return of Jalen Thompson after missing 2017 due to academic reasons will provide a boost at cornerback. Under Campbell’s direction, Central Arkansas had one of the top scoring offenses at the FCS level in 2017. This unit is the biggest area of need for Campbell in his debut, as South Alabama only averaged 19.8 points a game last fall. Redshirt freshman Cephus Johnson is the likely starter at quarterback, and he inherits a talented group of receivers, with Jamarius Way (47 grabs) the headliner. Campbell needs to find a go-to running back and restock a line that returns only one starter from last season.
After winning back-to-back Conference USA titles under Jeff Brohm, the Hilltoppers took a step back last season. Under new coach Mike Sanford, WKU finished 6-7 and slipped to No. 87 nationally in scoring offense. Sanford’s second year will require some patience. Standout quarterback Mike White has finished his eligibility, leaving senior Drew Eckels and true freshman Kevaris Thomas to battle for the starting job. While a replacement for White must emerge, the offense won’t take off without improvement up front. The line surrendered 48 sacks and struggled to open up holes for the running backs. New line coach T.J. Woods has only two returning starters to work with after Dennis Edwards left as a grad transfer. Freshman Joshua Samuel and senior D’Andre Ferby are tasked with improving a ground game that managed only 60.8 rushing yards a game last fall. The situation is a little better on defense for Sanford. WKU returns seven starters, and features a secondary that should be among the best in Conference USA. Improving the pass rush is a priority for coordinator Clayton White.
After finishing 9-4 in four straight years from 2011-14, the Ragin’ Cajuns regressed over the final three seasons under former coach Mark Hudspeth. With a track record of success on offense, along with experience working under Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban, new coach Billy Napier should be a good fit at Louisiana. Napier’s first team is likely to lean heavily on running back Trey Ragas, along with one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps. The quarterback position is up for grabs after Jordan Davis transferred at the conclusion of spring ball. Sophomore Levi Lewis is the favorite, with Andre Nunez also in the mix to start. While scoring points won’t be a problem for Louisiana, stopping teams is likely to be an issue once again. The Ragin’ Cajuns allowed 40 points a game last fall and surrendered over 230 yards a game on the ground. End Joe Dillon is a building block up front, with grad transfer Garrald McDowell (DL) and Kendall Johnson (CB) expected to provide immediate help. A favorable home slate should allow Louisiana to push for bowl eligibility in Napier’s first year.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2018 Predictions
FIU had a strong debut under coach Butch Davis in 2017. The Panthers won eight games, earned a bowl trip and finished 5-3 in C-USA play. Can Davis continue the momentum in 2018? In order for FIU to go bowling again, Davis will have to fill key voids on both sides of the ball. Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan is slated to step in at quarterback, but the rest of the offense is in relatively good shape. There’s depth and talent at receiver and running back, with a solid foundation in place up front. The defense also has holes to fill, but there’s intrigue with this group. The line features Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Wood, along with two potential impact junior college recruits in Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey. Linebacker Fermin Silva is the defense’s top player, with fellow linebacker Sage Lewis also a candidate for all-conference honors. A young secondary could benefit from an improved pass rush in 2018. FIU is trending up under Butch Davis, but this program may take a step back this fall in order to take a big step forward in 2019.
The Golden Hurricane entered 2017 having to replace quarterback Dane Evans, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back in James Flanders. While a drop off was expected, Tulsa surprisingly regressed to 2-10. Coach Philip Montgomery hopes to get this unit back on track in 2018, but question marks remain at quarterback. Chad President and Luke Skipper shared the job last season, with Skipper eventually emerging as the team’s best option. Assuming Skipper takes a step forward, the Golden Hurricane shouldn’t have a problem scoring points. Running back Shamari Brooks is one of the American Athletic Conference’s top rushers for 2018, and the line is solid with three returning starters. The receiving corps features Justin Hobbs (55 catches), Keenen Johnson (44) and Josh Stewart (13). Injuries took a toll on Tulsa’s defense last season, but this unit still has a ways to go. This unit gave up over 260 rushing yards a contest and allowed 37.5 points a game. The line is Montgomery’s top concern, while the secondary should improve thanks to the return of Manny Bunch and Jordan Mitchell from injuries. Considering Montgomery’s track record on offense, it’s unlikely Tulsa finishes with two wins once again. However, getting back to a bowl will require significant development from Skipper, along with better play in the trenches against the run on defense.
The Minutemen finished 2017 by winning four out of their last six games, providing some momentum for coach Mark Whipple’s team. FBS Independence is tough path for this program, but the schedule is favorable enough to push for a bowl game in 2018. Boosting the chances for a postseason trip is the return of quarterback Andrew Ford. He threw for 2,924 yards and 22 touchdowns to just four picks last fall. Ford is the catalyst for the offense, but senior running back Marquis Young has rushed for at least 898 yards in each of the last three seasons. Tight end Adam Breneman will be missed, but Ford still has plenty of weapons to throw to. Senior Andy Isabella returns after catching 65 passes last year, while Sadiq Palmer, Brennon Dingle and Jessie Britt round out the secondary weapons. Cornerback Isaiah Rodgers doesn’t get a ton of national attention, but the junior is quietly having a strong start to his career. The line is the biggest concern for Whipple, as this group gave up nearly 200 rushing yards a game last season.
106. Eastern Michigan
The Eagles had some of the worst luck of any team in college football last season. A year after earning the second bowl trip in program history, Eastern Michigan finished 5-7 but lost six games by a touchdown or less. Exceeding last season’s five-win total could be tough unless a quarterback emerges to replace Brogan Roback. Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers is expected to open the year as the starter, but he could be pushed by Isaac Stiebeling. Until a quarterback emerges, look for coach Chris Creighton’s team to lean on an offensive line that’s one of the best in the MAC, along with the one-two punch of Ian Eriksen and Shaq Vann at running back. The offense is in transition, but the defense has a chance to be one of the best units in the MAC. Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris combined for 17 sacks last season and return to anchor the defensive line. And the secondary returns five starters, with senior Ikie Calderon back in the mix after missing nearly all of 2017 from injury. With winnable crossover games against Akron and Kent State, and Central Michigan visiting Ypsilanti, Creighton’s team has a good shot at rebounding back to six wins in 2018.
105. Central Michigan
Coach John Bonamego has guided the program to three consecutive bowl trips, but that streak could be in jeopardy in 2018. The Chippewas must replace quarterback Shane Morris, and the receiving corps was decimated by personnel departures. Sophomore Tony Poljan is the frontrunner to replace Morris, and Bonamego will lean on sophomore Brandon Childress and freshmen Drayton Law, Bailey Edwards and Keonta Nixon to fill the void at receiver. With the passing game in flux, look for coordinator Chris Ostrowsky to lean heavily on running back Jonathan Ward, who averaged 114.4 all-purpose yards a game in 2017. Defensive backs Josh Cox and Amari Coleman, along with lineman Joe Ostman leave big shoes to fill on a defense that held opponents to 27.5 points a game last season. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Greg Colby. The front seven features five returning starters, including Mike Danna and Nathan Brisson-Fast, while linebacker Malik Fountain is a second-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports. Cornerback Sean Bunting is one of the top returning defensive backs in the MAC.
The Roadrunners have posted back-to-back six-win seasons under coach Frank Wilson, and there’s a good chance this team returns to the postseason in 2018. All five losses from 2017 came by 13 points or less, and a change at offensive coordinator (Al Borges) could help this group take a step forward. However, the biggest concern facing Wilson’s offense is at quarterback. Frank Harris suffered a torn ACL in spring ball, leaving junior college recruit Cordale Grundy, SMU graduate transfer D.J. Gillins and sophomore Bryce Rivers to battle for the starting job. The rest of the offense is under construction, as just two starters are back up front, and the top three receivers from last season have expired their eligibility. Until the offense finds its passing game, look for UTSA to lean heavily on running back Jalen Rhodes and its defense. Just like the offense, there’s a new play-caller (Jason Rollins) in place on this side of the ball. However, don’t expect much to change in 2018. Rollins has to replace first-round pick Marcus Davenport, but linebacker Josiah Tauaefa is back to 100 percent, and cornerback Teddrick McGhee returns after missing 2017 due to injury. The cupboard isn’t bare up front. Kevin Strong and Baylen Baker are two talented pieces for Rollins to build around this fall. UTSA’s defense will make this team a potential spoiler in the C-USA West Division, but the offense will decide just how high this team can climb in 2018.
103. Old Dominion
The Monarchs entered 2017 looking to earn back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in program history. However, coach Bobby Wilder’s team just missed that mark with a 5-7 record. There’s plenty of optimism for a rebound in 2018, as Old Dominion returns a promising sophomore quarterback in Steven Williams, along with a potential 1,000-yard rusher in senior Jeremy Cox at running back. Jonathan Duhart’s return from injury adds another valuable weapon on the outside, and the line has a chance to rank among the best in Conference USA with five returning starters. Standout edge rusher Oshane Ximines (8.5 sacks in 2017) anchors a defense poised to improve after giving up 31.7 points a game last fall. Ximines is joined by two standout seniors in Miles Fox and Pat Toal at tackle, while Marvin Branch and Jordan Young are back at linebacker. The secondary -- especially at the cornerback position -- is the biggest concern for Wilder’s defense. After finishing 2017 by winning three out of their last four games, the experience on defense, along with the development of Williams at quarterback could be just enough for ODU to reach six wins this fall.
102. Oregon State
Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over at his alma mater with a lengthy to-do list in Year 1. The Beavers finished 1-11 and failed to win a Pac-12 game last fall. It’s unlikely Smith can engineer a quick fix in Year 1, but this season is critical to establishing a foundation for future success. An offense that averaged only 20.7 points a game last season is filled with question marks. The line needs to be more consistent, a running back needs to emerge to replace Ryan Nall, and Smith has to identify a quarterback. Jake Luton missed most of 2017 due to injury, but if healthy, he’s the likely favorite to take the first snap of 2018. The outlook is just as concerning for Smith on defense. Oregon State allowed a whopping 43 points a game last fall. New coordinator Tim Tibesar does inherit pieces to work with, including linebackers Jonathan Willis and Bright Ugwoegbu. The line struggled to stop the run and remains a concern exiting spring ball. The return of cornerbacks Xavier Crawford and Dwayne Williams from injury will provide a boost in the secondary.
101. Air Force
After winning 10 games in 2016, the Falcons suffered a surprising fall to 5-7 last season. A variety of reasons contributed to the drop in wins, but Air Force has to be more careful with the ball after posting a minus-10 turnover margin. Senior quarterback Arion Worthman (831 rushing yards and 13 TDs) was solid in his first full year as the program’s starter. However, Worthman wants to be better with his option distribution to get the running backs more involved in 2018. Tim McVey expired his eligibility at running back, leaving Joseph Saucier and fullback Taven Birdow to take the bulk of the carries. A running team like Air Force won’t throw it often, but the coaching staff would like to see Worthman (49.5 percent) raise his completion percentage in 2018. With Ronald Cleveland, Marcus Bennett and Geraud Sanders returning on the outside, Worthman has a few talented difference-makers at receiver. Just one starter is back up front, but coach Troy Calhoun usually does a good job of restocking the offensive line. Defensive coordinator Steve Russ left for the NFL after the 2018 season, and Calhoun has yet to officially name a replacement. After giving up 32.4 points a game last season, Calhoun needs more out of this group in order for AFA to return to a bowl. Six starters are back for the Falcons, but this unit has to get better against the run and create more pressure after generating just 10 sacks in 2017.
Related: Mountain West 2018 Predictions
The Wolf Pack finished 3-9 in coach Jay Norvell’s first year in Reno, but there were signs of optimism by the end of 2017. Nevada won two out of its last three games and lost four others by 11 points or less. Assuming the Wolf Pack pick up where they left off, a bowl game is within reach. Quarterback Ty Gangi returns after throwing for 2,746 yards and 25 touchdowns last fall. He’s the catalyst for an offense that returns one of the Mountain West’s top receiving corps, along with junior running back Kelton Moore (855 yards in ’17). It’s a good thing Nevada is loaded with offensive firepower. The defense gave up 33.9 points a game last season and heads into 2018 with uncertainty up front and at cornerback. Linebacker Malik Reed is the unit’s top player, while safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus anchor the secondary.
After a 3-9 debut under coach Tony Sanchez in 2015, the Rebels have increased their win total in back-to-back years. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team take another step forward and earn a trip to a bowl game in 2018. UNLV’s offense features one of the Mountain West’s top backfields. Lexington Thomas rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, with Charles Williams (763 yards in 2016) back in the mix after missing most of 2017 due to injury. Quarterback Armani Rogers ranked fourth in the Mountain West by averaging 225.1 total yards a game last season. Rogers should continue to improve as a sophomore in 2018, as the coaching staff would like to see the completion percentage rise (52.4 percent in ’17) and more week-to-week consistency as a passer. Top receiver Devonte Boyd will be missed, but Rogers still has plenty of weapons at receiver, headlined by Brandon Presley (34 catches last year) and Kendal Keys (27). While there’s a lot of optimism as it relates to UNLV’s offense, there are question marks surrounding the defense. New coordinator Tim Skipper inherits seven starters, but this unit ranked 11th in the Mountain West against the run and surrendered 6.3 yards a play last season. Gabe McCoy and Bailey Laolagi anchor a solid linebacker unit, but question marks remain up front and in the secondary. The non-conference slate provides two opportunities for victories (UTEP and Prairie View A&M), while conference matchups against Nevada, Hawaii, San Jose State, New Mexico provide a path to six wins.
Matt Viator has ULM trending up entering the 2018 season. The Warhawks have posted back-to-back 4-8 campaigns under Viator, but the program has been more competitive in Sun Belt play and lost five games by 11 points or less in 2017. Those close defeats could turn into wins in 2018, as Viator returns one of the Sun Belt’s top quarterbacks in junior Caleb Evans, along with standout all-purpose threat Marcus Green at receiver. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore leads the ground attack after rushing for 585 yards in 2017, and ULM returns one of the Sun Belt’s top offensive lines. While the outlook on offense is positive, Viator is still searching for the right pieces on defense. The Warhawks were hit hard by injuries in the secondary last season and gave up 41 points a contest. With seven starters back, along with better luck in the health department, ULM should take a step forward on this side of the ball. The non-conference schedule isn’t very forgiving. The Warhawks play at Southern Miss, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, which limits the path to bowl eligibility. But with Evans leading a high-powered attack, ULM should find just enough victories to reach the postseason in 2018.
97. Colorado State
Colorado State has finished 7-6 in each of coach Mike Bobo’s three years at the helm and heads into 2018 with more question marks than in recent seasons. Bobo shuffled his coaching staff over the offseason, which includes new coordinators (Dave Johnson on offense, John Jancek on defense) on both sides of the ball. Additionally, projected starting quarterback Collin Hill (after missing 2016) injured his knee again over the offseason and could miss the 2018 season. With Hill out of the mix, Bobo hit the graduate transfer market and brought in former Washington signal-caller K.J. Carta-Samuels. The senior is talented but only threw 47 pass attempts during his career in Seattle. Michael Gallup leaves big shoes to fill at receiver, but this group won’t drop off too far with the return of Olabisi Johnson and the addition of Tennessee transfer Preston Williams. The offensive line is also under construction with three new starters. Carta-Samuels won’t have to carry the offense thanks to a strong stable of running backs. Izzy Matthews, Rashaad Boddie and Marvin Kinsey form the backbone of the 2018 attack for Bobo. Jancek inherits a defense that surrendered 27.8 points a game last season and gave up 6.3 yards a play. The switch to a 4-3 will require a transition period up front. Senior Josh Watson is the unit’s top performer, while Rice graduate transfer V.J. Banks could provide help in the secondary.
Luke Fickell’s first team at Cincinnati resulted in a 4-8 record, but the future outlook for this program looks bright. Fickell is recruiting well, inking the No. 1 class in the American Athletic Conference by the 247Sports Composite. While there’s young talent moving through the program, 2018 is likely to be another transition season. The Bearcats ranked last in the AAC last fall by averaging 20.9 points a contest. Play-caller Mike Denbrock returns a proven quarterback in Hayden Moore and a couple of talented skill players in receiver Kahlil Lewis and running backs Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren. However, the offense won’t improve without answers up front. Cincinnati returns just two starters in the trenches for 2018. The outlook is a little better on defense. The Bearcats could have one of the AAC’s top defensive lines thanks to the return of Cortez Broughton, Marquise Copeland and Kevin Mouhon. Perry Young collected 101 tackles last fall and is back to anchor the linebacker unit. If the offensive line stabilizes over the season, and the defense takes a step forward on the stat sheet, Cincinnati will have a good shot at exceeding last year’s four wins.
Lovie Smith has struggled to get Illinois on track. The Fighting Illini are just 5-19 over the last two years and enter 2018 with question marks on both sides of the ball. In an effort to hit the reset button last fall, Smith and the coaching staff went with a youth movement. That decision produced a handful of promising players for 2018, including receiver Ricky Smalling, tight end Louis Dorsey, running back Mike Epstein, defensive linemen Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay, and cornerback Nate Hobbs. That core will be the focal point for improvement this fall and beyond, but the biggest concern for this team remains at quarterback. Sophomore Cam Thomas is the frontrunner, but he will be pushed by incoming freshmen Coran Taylor, Matt Robinson and MJ Rivers, along with Virginia Tech graduate transfer A.J. Bush. With few seniors expected to find a place in the starting lineup this season, Illinois’ 2018 season is all about growth and development. If the Fighting Illini can be more competitive and find an answer at quarterback, Smith and the staff can feel better about the future of this program for 2019 and beyond.
The Zips were one of the MAC’s biggest surprises last fall. Coach Terry Bowden’s team knocked off Ohio in mid-November, propelling the program to the East Division title and a trip to Detroit for the conference championship. Akron was a bit fortunate en route to its seven wins, using a plus-10 turnover margin to win five games by 11 points or less. A return to the top of the East wouldn’t be a surprise, but the Zips catch Northern Illinois from the West in crossover play and play road games at Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa State, Buffalo, Ohio and Eastern Michigan. Quarterback Kato Nelson is a rising star, and the return of Mykel Traylor-Bennett provides another weapon at receiver. The Zips need to generate more from their rushing attack after ranking last in the MAC at 105.4 yards per game last year. The defense should rank among the best in the conference. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert is back after collecting 140 tackles last season while cornerback Alvin Davis and end Jamal Davis are also among the best in the MAC at their respective positions. A tough schedule doesn’t provide much margin for error, but the Zips will be a factor in the East once again.
Related: MAC Football 2018 Predictions
93. Western Michigan
As expected, the Broncos took a step back in 2017. Western Michigan finished 13-1 and claimed the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl in 2016, but under new coach Tim Lester, this program finished 6-6. Lester’s first team had some bad luck on its side, as quarterback Jon Wassink missed the final four games due to a collarbone injury. With Wassink sidelined, Western Michigan finished 1-3 in its final four contests. Wassink is back under center, and he’s supported by a solid offensive line, anchored by standout center John Keenoy. Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy form a solid one-two punch at running back, and the Broncos feature a good collection of options at receiver. The defense is Lester’s biggest area of concern. Cornerback Sam Beal entered the NFL’s Supplemental Draft, adding concerns to a unit that lost five of its top seven tacklers from 2017, including linebacker Robert Spillane and standout corner Darius Phillips. The front seven must be rebuilt, and the development of this group, along with Wassink’s play under center could decide whether or not Western Michigan returns to the postseason in 2018.
92. Southern Miss
With just eight returning starters, along with a quarterback battle to address, Southern Miss might be the biggest wild card in Conference USA’s West Division. The Golden Eagles have only missed three bowl games since 2002 and are 15-11 under coach Jay Hopson. With all of the new faces stepping into key roles, it may take a couple of games for Hopson’s team to find the right mix. Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard combined for 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, but both players could be pushed by junior college transfer Jack Abraham and freshmen Tate Whatley and Marcelo Rodriguez. The offense also has to replace standout running back Ito Smith, along with its top two receivers from 2017. Three starters should provide a good foundation up front. Hopson’s defense is under the direction of a new coordinator (Tim Billings), but this unit is likely to be the strength of this program in 2018. LaDarius Harris and Darian Yancey are a solid combo off the edge, while Racheem Boothe, Jeremy Sangster and Paxton Schrimsher provide options at linebacker. The secondary is the biggest concern for Hopson, but the return of Picasso Nelson from injury provides help to a rebuilt unit. Southern Miss has a lot of promising pieces on both sides of the ball -- how quickly will it come together?
The Mustangs snapped a streak of four losing seasons in a row, reaching seven victories and a bowl under former coach Chad Morris. He left for Arkansas this offseason, but SMU made a solid hire, bringing former California and Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes to Dallas. Dykes’ background on offense is a good fit for the returning personnel, including quarterback Ben Hicks and one of the AAC’s deepest backfields, headlined by 1,000-yard rusher Xavier Jones. The biggest concern for new play-caller Rhett Lashlee rests at receiver. The Mustangs have to replace standouts Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn, with James Proche (40 receptions), Myron Gailliard, and graduate transfer C.J. Sanders providing a foundation to build around. Four starters are back up front, but there could be some shuffling this offseason. Defense has been an issue for SMU in recent years, and this unit gave up 36.7 points and over 475 yards a game last fall. The addition of a couple of transfers, including former Texas A&M linebacker Richard Moore provide a talent boost, while cornerback Jordan Wyatt is among the AAC’s top defensive backs. SMU faces a tough schedule to start 2018, but the second half of the slate is lighter, providing Dykes a path to bowl eligibility in his first year at the helm.
The Green Wave have made steady progress through coach Willie Fritz’s two seasons in New Orleans. And thanks to an offense poised to break out in 2018, Tulane should earn its first bowl trip since '13. Quarterback Jonathan Banks averaged 217.2 total yards a game in his first year on campus and should be even better this fall. Banks is supported by a line that returns four starters, and gains the services of South Alabama graduate transfer Noah Fisher. Senior Terren Encalade headlines a solid receiving corps, and Texas Tech transfer Corey Dauphine and converted quarterback Darius Bradwell lead the way at running back to alleviate the loss of Dontrell Hilliard. Fritz’s offense should be among the best in the AAC, but the defense enters 2018 with uncertainty. The line has to stop the run better after giving up 210.4 yards a contest last season, and top cornerback Parry Nickerson leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary. Cornerback Donnie Lewis and linebacker Zachery Harris are two building blocks for coordinator Jack Curtis this season. Assuming the offense takes off, Tulane should easily exceed last year’s five wins and potentially play spoiler against one of the AAC West’s top teams in 2018.
The MAC East had a surprise winner (Akron) last season. Could this division be in for a repeat in 2018? Don’t be surprised if Buffalo follows the Zips' footsteps. The Bulls took a step forward in coach Lance Leipold’s third year, finishing 6-6 with all six defeats coming by 10 points or less. Quarterback Tyree Jackson and receiver Anthony Johnson, an Athlon Sports All-American for 2018, should be one of the top pass-catch combinations in the Group of 5 ranks this fall. The Bulls return three starters on a solid offensive line, and Johnathan Hawkins returns from injury to anchor a backfield that also features Emmanuel Reed (840 yards). Buffalo isn’t short on offensive firepower, which is a good thing considering the defense has a few holes to fill. After giving up 194.8 rushing yards a game in 2017, Leipold’s defense must replace standout lineman Demone Harris (9.5 TFL), linebacker Jarrett Franklin and safety Ryan Williamson. While there are personnel concerns at every level, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Brian Borland. Linebacker Khalil Hodge should challenge for All-America honors, tackle Justin Brandon and end Chuck Harris provide a good foundation up front, and the cornerback position is in good shape. The second-half schedule will be critical for Leipold’s team. Buffalo catches Toledo, Miami and Ohio in that span -- likely a make-or-break stretch for the division title.
88. Miami (Ohio)
The RedHawks were poised to challenge for the MAC East title last season, but an injury to quarterback Gus Ragland prevented coach Chuck Martin’s team from improving off a 6-7 record from 2016. If Ragland can stay healthy, Miami should easily return to the postseason after a one-year absence. Not only does Martin have an All-MAC candidate at quarterback, the offense returns standout receiver James Gardner and a deep stable of running backs. The line features five returning starters, including a rock-solid left side of Jordan Rigg and Sam McCollum. Miami limited opponents to 24.1 points a game last fall and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this defense perform even better in 2018. Cornerback Heath Harding and safety Tony Reid won’t be easy to replace, but eight starters are back, including tackle Doug Costin and linebackers Brad Koening and Junior McMullen. De’Andre Montgomery’s switch from linebacker to the secondary should solidify the safety position. With Ohio visiting Oxford in early November, Martin’s team will have a chance to stake their claim to the MAC East title in Yager Stadium.
The Scarlet Knights took a step forward in coach Chris Ash’s second year, improving from 2-10 in 2016 to 4-8 (with three conference victories) in ’17. Challenging for a bowl game is the next step for Ash and this program, but it won’t be easy in 2018. New play-caller John McNulty is Rutgers’ ninth offensive coordinator in nine years, and he’s tasked with developing a unit that averaged only 18 points a game last fall. True freshman Artur Sitkowski could get the nod under center, but the strength of the offense is at running back. Boston College graduate transfer Jonathan Hilliman joins Raheem Blackshear and freshman Isaih Pacheco as options on the ground for McNulty. Left tackle Tariq Cole anchors an improving line. The defense cut its points allowed a game from 37.5 in 2016 to 28.3 last fall. With eight starters back, another step forward is expected. Trevor Morris anchors a solid linebacker unit, while the secondary gets a boost from the return of standout cornerback Blessaun Austin from a season-ending injury. The biggest concern for Ash remains up front in terms of depth and stopping the run.
BYU surprisingly regressed from 9-4 in coach Kalani Sitake’s first year (2016) to 4-9 last fall. The losing record was the program’s first since 2004. Getting the Cougars back into a bowl won’t be easy in 2018. BYU’s schedule features five Power 5 opponents, along with a road trip to Boise State. The primary culprit in the 2017 regression was the offense. After averaging 29.5 points a game in Sitake’s debut, the Cougars slipped to just 17.1 points a contest in ’17. Sitake didn’t sit idle following the disappointing season, as he revamped the staff, including a new play-caller on offense in veteran line coach Jeff Grimes. The quarterback spot is up for grabs, as the offense utilized four signal-callers last season, and Tanner Mangum is recovering from a torn Achilles. Mangum is on track to return in 2018, but he could be pushed by Beau Hoge, Joe Critchlow or incoming freshman Zach Wilson. Grimes has to settle the quarterback battle, but the rest of the offense is in relatively good shape. Squally Canada and Zach Katoa lead the way at running back, while Hawaii transfer Dylan Collie should emerge as a key weapon at receiver. Notre Dame transfer Tristen Hoge should be a key piece in the trenches for BYU in 2018. While struggles on offense surrounded the Cougars last year, the defense held its own. BYU limited opponents to 24.7 points a game and allowed 5.4 yards a play. End Corbin Kaufusi and linebacker Sione Takitaki anchor the front seven, with Sitake’s biggest concerns coming in the secondary.
Keeping quarterback Brent Stockstill healthy is the top priority for the Blue Raiders in 2018. The senior missed six games due to an injury last year, derailing any hopes MTSU had of matching or exceeding its eight victories from 2016. Stockstill is among the Group of 5’s top quarterbacks, and his return to full strength is critical in a division that features FAU and Marshall. Stockstill’s top target (Richie James) left for the NFL, but Ty Lee (79 catches) is back in 2018. The Blue Raiders are solid at running back thanks to the return of Terelle West, Brad Anderson and Tavares Thomas, and three starters are back to anchor the trenches. MTSU’s defense took a step forward under coordinator Scott Shafer last season and could be even better in 2018. Khalil Brooks anchors one of C-USA’s top linebacker units, while safety Jovante Moffatt is back after recording 101 stops in 2017. End Walter Brady decided to leave the team as a graduate transfer in the summer, but there’s still enough talent to prevent a major drop-off up front. With Stockstill back for one more season, MTSU should earn its fourth straight bowl trip.
After a two-year absence from the gridiron, UAB returned to action last season and was one of college football’s biggest surprises. Coach Bill Clark guided the Blazers to an 8-5 record and a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. With another recruiting class to build depth and offseason to work under Clark and his coaching staff, UAB should contend for the Conference USA West Division title. The Blazers are deep at running back, headlined by rising star Spencer Brown. Quarterback A.J. Erdely is steady and should push for all-conference honors. His favorite target is senior Andre Wilson (54 catches in 2017), and the offensive line should be among the best in C-USA. UAB’s defense held opponents to 25.6 points a game last season but heads into 2018 with a few key cogs to replace. Leading tackler Tevin Crews (102), edge rusher Shaq Jones, lineman Teko Powell and defensive back Darious Williams have expired their eligibility. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator David Reeves. The Blazers feature a solid pair of safeties in Will Dawkins and Broderick Thomas, while Anthony Rush, Garrett Marino and Stacy Keely are back to anchor the front seven. Sophomore Thomas Johnston could be in for a breakout year at linebacker. With North Texas and Southern Miss visiting Birmingham, UAB has an opportunity to push for the top spot in the West or at least match last year’s 6-2 mark in conference play.
Craig Bohl’s team heads into 2018 with uncertainty at quarterback, but the Cowboys are likely to be a factor in the Mountain West once again thanks to a rugged defense. Wyoming returns eight starters from a unit that limited opponents to 17.5 points a game last season. Safety Andrew Wingard, linebacker Logan Wilson and linemen Carl Granderson and Youhanna Ghaifan are among the best in the Mountain West at their respective positions. The outlook is less certain on offense. Josh Allen left for the NFL, leaving senior Nick Smith and freshman Tyler Vander Waal to compete for the starting job. Vander Waal ended spring practice with an edge for the top spot. In addition to the new quarterback, Wyoming has to do a better job of establishing the run. The Cowboys averaged only 108.8 yards a game last season. Additionally, running back Trey Woods is expected to miss the 2018 campaign due to injury. The offensive line should take a step forward with all five starters back, and the receiving corps is in good shape with Austin Conway, James Price and C.J. Johnson leading the way. In a favorable scheduling break for Bohl’s team, both Boise State and Utah State visit Laramie in 2018.
82. Utah State
Boise State is the heavy favorite to win the Mountain West’s Mountain Division, but Utah State is an intriguing sleeper team. After finishing 3-9 in 2016, coach Matt Wells’ team rebounded to 6-7 last fall. And with 16 returning starters in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Aggies take another step forward and push for at least eight victories. Quarterback Jordan Love appears primed for a breakout year, and there’s no shortage of weapons on the outside, including Ron’quavion Tarver, USC graduate transfer Jalen Greene and tight end Dax Raymond. The line is expected to be among the best in the Mountain West with all five starters returning. The only question mark on offense is who steps up to be the go-to running back following the departure of LaJuan Hunt. Junior college recruit Darwin Thompson is a player to watch at that position. The Aggies held opponents to 26.9 points a game last season and should be strong on defense once again. TCU transfer Tipa Galeai adds to the depth and talent in the front seven, with the biggest concerns coming in the secondary after the departure of Jalen Davis and Dallin Leavitt. Utah State won’t have to play San Diego State or Fresno State in crossover play with the West Division, but games at Wyoming and Boise State take place on the road.
Virginia was arguably the biggest surprise in the ACC last season. The Cavaliers finished 6-7 and earned a bowl trip in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second year in Charlottesville. While Mendenhall has this program trending in the right direction, a step back could be in order for 2018. Quarterback Kurt Benkert expired his eligibility, with junior college recruit (and former Arizona State QB) Bryce Perkins expected to start. Perkins will add more of a running element to the offense, but he’s yet to attempt a pass at the FBS level. Running back Jordan Ellis returns after rushing for 836 yards last season, and Perkins has a couple of proven targets at receiver, including Olamide Zaccheaus (85 catches) and Joe Reed (23). The offensive line has been a concern for Mendenhall in each of the last two seasons and has some uncertainty once again for 2018. Rutgers graduate transfer Marcus Applefield is likely to step into a starting job this fall. Virginia’s defense gave up 28.4 points a game last season but held opponents to just 5.4 yards a play. Safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser have finished their eligibility, but Mendenhall still has a good foundation in place. Six starters return, including Jordan Mack and Chris Peace (7.5 sacks last year) at linebacker. The secondary is the strength of this unit and could be among the best in the ACC. Similar to the offense, the line remains Mendenhall’s biggest concern. Ohio State graduate transfer Dylan Thompson is likely to help right away. The Cavaliers exceeded expectations last season but will need Perkins to quickly fill the void left behind by Benkert in order to reach a bowl in 2018.
Led by a high-scoring offense last season, Toledo claimed its first MAC title since 2004. The Rockets should be in the mix once again to win the conference title, but coach Jason Candle’s team will have to find a replacement for standout quarterback Logan Woodside. Junior Mitchell Guadagni and sophomore Eli Peters are the frontrunners to replace Woodside, but true freshman Carter Bradley will have a shot to win the job in the fall. Regardless of who starts, there’s no shortage of skill talent. Cody Thompson is back from injury to anchor a receiving corps that’s among the best in the nation. Diontae Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson join Thompson as key targets for the new quarterback. At running back, Art Thompkins and Shakif Seymour provide an effective one-two punch to replace Terry Swanson. Toledo’s defense didn’t need to be a shutdown group due to the offensive firepower last season. However, the Rockets need more out of this unit due to the transition under center for 2018. Coordinator Brian George returns six starters, but lineman Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (20 TFL) won’t be easy to replace in the trenches. Safety Kahlil Robinson and cornerback Ka’dar Hollman anchor a secondary that’s the strength of the defense. Toledo won’t have to play Ohio in the regular season, but the West Division showdown versus Northern Illinois takes place on the road.
Related: MAC Football 2018 Predictions
79. Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech’s string of consecutive nine-win seasons stopped at three last year, as the Bulldogs slipped to 7-6 overall and 4-4 in C-USA play. However, don’t expect coach Skip Holtz’s team to be down for long. Instead, Louisiana Tech should challenge for the West Division title in 2018. Quarterback J’Mar Smith is back after a solid debut as the team’s starter, and the junior quarterback is supported on the outside by standout receiver Teddy Veal (74 catches) and secondary targets in Rhashid Bonnette and Adrian Hardy. The departure of Boston Scott and Jarred Craft created a void at running back, but whoever emerges at the position will be running behind a solid offensive line that returns four starters. End Jaylon Ferguson is back to wreak havoc off the edge for Louisiana Tech’s defense, and the secondary is anchored by rising star Amik Robertson at cornerback. The Bulldogs need to be better against the run, but this unit should rank near the top of Conference USA in 2018. A road slate with trips to LSU, Mississippi State, FAU, Southern Miss and North Texas provides plenty of challenges for Holtz’s team to overcome in order to exceed last year’s win total and push for the C-USA West crown.
78. North Texas
Seth Littrell is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise entering 2018, and the Mean Green have made marked improvement during his two seasons in Denton. A dynamic offense led the way for last year’s team that claimed the C-USA West Division title. Quarterback Mason Fine was the catalyst, throwing 31 touchdowns and 4,052 yards over 14 games. Fine has the deepest receiving corps in Conference USA at his disposal. North Texas returns four receivers that caught at least 30 passes in 2017 -- Michael Lawrence (62 receptions), Jalen Guyton (49), Rico Bussey (47) and Jaelon Darden (32). Tight end Kelvin Smith (27 catches) is another weapon to watch. Last year’s leading rusher Jeffery Wilson finished his eligibility, but North Texas has three capable options in Nic Smith (684 yards last year), Evan Johnson and junior college recruit DeAndre Torrey. At 5-foot-11, Fine isn’t the biggest quarterback, so it’s important for the line to keep him upright in the pocket. After giving up 39 sacks last season, Littrell’s offensive line has to perform better in 2018. Another area in need of improvement is the defense. A high-powered offense covered for a lot of deficiencies, but North Texas can’t afford to give up 35 points a game in 2018. There’s hope for improvement with eight starters back, and Kansas State transfer Bryce English should add some bulk to the defensive line after missing 2017 due to injury. The Mean Green play at UAB and catch FAU in crossover play. However, key West Division matchups against Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss take place in Denton.
77. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have ranked as one of the top Group of 5 programs over the last three years, finishing with a 21-3 mark in Sun Belt play during that span. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team heads into 2018 looking to address some personnel turnover on both sides of the ball, but don’t expect a big drop off. Appalachian State’s offense led the Sun Belt in rushing last fall, averaging 223.6 yards a game behind running back Jalin Moore. This area will be the focal point of the offense once again, especially with a solid line in place, along with the departure of quarterback Taylor Lamb (255.5 total yards a game in 2017). Sophomore Zac Thomas attempted 10 passes as a backup last fall and is the favorite over Jacob Huesman to replace Lamb. Thomas Hennigan, Kansas State transfers Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath, Jalen Virgil and Darrynton Evans provide plenty of weapons for Thomas in the receiving corps. Defense has been a strength for Appalachian State in recent years, but this unit will have a new signal-caller in 2018 after Nate Woody left for Georgia Tech. Additionally, the Mountaineers have to replace linebackers Eric Boggs, Rashaad Townes and Devan Stringer, as well as safety A.J. Howard and lineman Tee Sims. Cornerback Clifton Duck is one of the top defenders in the Group of 5 ranks. While some big names are gone, the return of Myquon Stout up front and linebacker Anthony Flory provide plenty of talent for new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown to build around this season. Appalachian State will be tested right away at Penn State in the opener, but hopes of winning the Sun Belt East Division title likely come down to the Nov. 24 home game against Troy.
It’s a close call at the top of the Sun Belt’s East Division between Troy and Appalachian State in 2018, with the Trojans getting the nod as Athlon’s pick. Troy's Neal Brown is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise and is 25-13 through three years at the helm. The Trojans’ 2017 campaign was memorable. The program upset LSU in Baton Rouge, defeated Arkansas State 32-25 in Jonesboro and beat North Texas 50-30 in the New Orleans Bowl. In order for Troy to exceed last year’s accomplishments, it has to find a replacement for quarterback Brandon Silvers. Kaleb Barker and Sawyer Smith will continue their battle into fall practice, with the winner taking over a loaded supporting cast. The Trojans return four starters off one of the Sun Belt’s top offensive lines, and Louisville graduate transfer Traveon Samuel adds talent and depth to a receiving corps already set to return Damion Willis and Deondre Douglas. Jordan Chunn departs after leading the team with 774 rushing yards in 2017, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Jamarius Henderson is back after averaging 7.89 yards a carry last season, with B.J. Smith and junior college recruit Kevin Perkins also pushing for snaps. While the offensive firepower under Brown usually garners most of the national attention, Troy’s defense led the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed per game (18.5), ranked first against the run and limited opponents to 4.78 yards a play. Coordinator Vic Koenning has voids to fill at every level, but there’s not a ton of concern surrounding this group. That’s due to return of standout linebackers Hunter Reese (6.5 sacks) and Tron Folsom (80 tackles), along with defensive backs Blace Brown, Cedarius Rookard and Marcus Jones. Oklahoma transfer Will Sunderland should help right away at safety. Troy will have a couple of chances to earn marquee non-conference wins once again, as Brown’s team hosts Boise State to start 2018 and plays at Nebraska in Week 3.
FAU is the overwhelming preseason favorite to win Conference USA’s East Division, but don’t overlook the Thundering Herd. Doc Holliday’s team returns 17 starters from last year’s 8-5 team and hosts the Owls on Oct. 20. The top priority for Holliday this offseason will be to find a new starting quarterback. Marshall isn’t hurting for options despite the uncertainty under center. Wagner graduate transfer Alex Thomson or freshman Isaiah Green are both intriguing options to replace Chase Litton. Additionally, new play-caller Tim Cramsey is one of the top coordinator hires in Conference USA. Making Cramsey (and the new quarterback’s) debut a little easier is the return of receiver Tyre Brady, along with running back Tyler King. Center Levi Brown returns to anchor a line that returns four starters. After Chuck Heater left for Maryland, Holliday promoted Adam Fuller to defensive coordinator. Fuller won’t have to make drastic changes, as Marshall returns nine starters from a unit that allowed only 19.9 points a game last season. Each level is stocked with talent and experience and was the toughest in Conference USA against the run last fall. If the Thundering Herd find the right mix on offense, the showdown versus FAU in Huntington is likely to decide which team represents the East in the conference championship.
74. Northern Illinois
The Huskies are looking to reclaim the dominance that led the program to earn six consecutive trips to the MAC title game from 2010-15. After missing out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark in 2016, coach Rod Carey’s team took a step forward last fall, finishing 8-5 overall and 6-2 in league play. The program appears to be on track following 2017 and should be the favorite to win the West. Sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers is back after a promising freshman campaign and will be asked to handle more in 2018. The Huskies must replace three out of their top five receiving targets from last season, and leading rusher Jordan Huff also expired his eligibility. Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison should form an effective duo at running back, with a line led by Max Scharping clearing plenty of lanes up front. NIU led the MAC by holding opponents to 22 points a game in 2017. Despite a new coordinator (Jeff Knowles), the standard won’t change in DeKalb for 2018. End Sutton Smith (14 sacks) is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2018, and the secondary returns potential all-conference players in safety Mykelti Williams and cornerbacks Albert Smalls and Jalen Embry. A non-conference schedule that features Utah, Iowa, Florida State and BYU should give Carey’s team a good idea of where it stacks up. However, the season will likely be defined by home games against Ohio and Toledo.
P.J. Fleck’s first team at Minnesota just missed out on a bowl in 2017. The Golden Gophers finished 5-7, losing three games by seven points or less, including a seven-point loss at Iowa. As expected, Fleck is reeling in good talent on the recruiting trail, but Minnesota might be a year away from marked improvement in the win column. An offense that averaged only 22.1 points a game last season enters 2018 with a big concern at quarterback once again. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan holds an edge over true freshman Zack Annexstad to start after Vic Viramontes transferred back to junior college in the summer. Until Morgan develops, look for running back Rodney Smith to get a heavy workload. Smith led the team with 977 yards last season. Junior Tyler Johnson is an All-Big Ten candidate at receiver, but Fleck needs a couple of other playmakers to emerge. Minnesota’s defense was the strength of the 2017 team, holding opponents to 22.8 points a game. This unit is likely to lead the way once again this fall, as coordinator Robb Smith returns eight starters, including safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Thomas Barber. Finding a replacement for lineman Steven Richardson is the biggest concern for 2018.
72. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves are the team to beat in the Sun Belt this fall. Under coach Blake Anderson, Arkansas State has reeled off 21 victories to just three losses in league play over the last three years. Just like the 2017 team, Anderson’s squad is led by an explosive offense. Justice Hansen is the Sun Belt’s top quarterback, and the senior won’t have any trouble finding receivers to target, as Arkansas State’s group of pass catchers is arguably the deepest in the Sun Belt. Senior Warren Wand returns at running back, and the line brings back four starters, including standout left tackle Lanard Bonner. While the defense is reloading with just four returning starters, it’s hard to be too concerned about this group considering the firepower on the other side of the ball. However, coordinator Joe Cauthen has to find a replacement for standout edge rusher Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and last year’s leading tackler Kyle Wilson (93 stops). Ronheen Bingham and Ball State transfer Kevin Thurmon provide a good foundation to build around in the trenches.
Related: Sun Belt 2018 All-Conference Team
The Bobcats have emerged as one of the MAC’s most consistent programs under veteran coach Frank Solich. With nine starters back from the league’s top scoring offense in 2017, Ohio has its sights set on its first conference title since 1968. Quarterback Nathan Rourke delivered a breakout year in his first season as the starter. After taking over for Quinton Maxwell, Rourke threw for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 912 yards and 21 scores. The junior will make plenty of plays on the ground once again, but he has help returning in the backfield with seniors A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons. Receiver Papi White (17.5 ypc in 2017) is a big play waiting to happen, while Rourke is protected by one of the MAC’s top offensive lines. Ohio’s defense was the best in the conference against the run and allowed only 24.2 points a game last fall. However, it’s a good thing the Bobcats have enough offensive firepower to simply outscore its league foes. Solich’s defense returns just four starters and must replace a handful of key players from the front seven, including standout linebacker Quentin Poling. Cornerback Jalen Fox and safeties Javon Hagan and Kylan Nelson are back to anchor the secondary, which has a chance to rank among the best in the MAC. A road trip to Virginia provides an opportunity for an early upset, but Ohio catches Northern Illinois and Miami (key MAC games) away from Peden Stadium this year. The away slate is tough, but Ohio is the clear pick atop the MAC for 2018.
Related: MAC Football 2018 Predictions
Derek Mason’s program appeared to be headed in the right direction following the 2016 season. The Commodores finished that year by winning four out of their last six regular season matchups and earned a trip to the Independence Bowl. However, Vanderbilt didn’t capitalize off that momentum last fall. The Commodores slipped to 5-7 overall and won just a single contest in SEC play. The defense -- Mason’s area of expertise -- was especially problematic. Vanderbilt gave up 43.3 points in SEC play, struggled to stop the run and generated only nine turnovers. As a result of last year’s issues, Mason handed over play-calling duties to former NFL and Stanford assistant Jason Tarver. While there are personnel concerns at every level, the cupboard isn’t empty for Tarver. Cornerback Joejuan Williams is an emerging star on the back end, and linebacker Charles Wright recorded nine sacks last fall. The outlook is a little better for Vanderbilt’s offense. Senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur returns after tossing 26 touchdowns last season, and the loss of running back Ralph Webb is minimized by the arrival of Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Replacing two out of the team’s top three receivers and getting more consistent play out of the offensive line is a priority for play-caller Andy Ludwig. Shurmur’s presence gives the Commodores a chance to go bowling once again. However, the defense must take a big step forward on the stat sheet to get Vanderbilt over the five-win mark.
69. North Carolina
North Carolina’s three-win 2017 season represented the fewest wins for this program under coach Larry Fedora. Additionally, the Tar Heels missed out on a bowl for the first time since 2012 and finished just 1-7 in league play. While last season was clearly a disappointment for a program that won the Coastal Division in 2015, the news wasn’t all bad. Fedora’s team won two out of its final three games and played better late in the year. Additionally, six of North Carolina’s nine losses came by 12 points or less. With a little improvement on both sides of the ball, a jump to five or six wins is within reach for 2018. In order for the Tar Heels to get back into a bowl game, this program needs more out of an offense that averaged 26 points a game last fall. Sophomore Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott will battle for the quarterback job deep into fall practice after both saw extensive time in 2017. Jordon Brown and Michael Carter form an effective duo at running back, while receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams is one of the top all-purpose threats in college football. The quarterback situation is going to get most of the preseason attention in Chapel Hill, but the offensive line is also a priority. Charlie Heck is the only returning starter, but William Sweet is back after missing most of 2017 due to injury. The preseason question marks for Fedora extend to a defense that allowed 31.3 points a game and 5.9 yards a play last year. Coordinator John Papuchis has a good foundation with seven returning starters, but linebacker Cayson Collins and defensive backs M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles must be replaced. End Malik Carney seems poised for a big senior year after recording 5.5 sacks in 2017. Cole Holcomb anchors the linebacker unit after leading the team with 93 stops last season. Both sides of the ball are under pressure to perform after subpar showings last fall. Adding to the pressure of a turnaround is a tough schedule. North Carolina plays UCF and California in non-conference play, while road trips to Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Duke are on tap in ACC action.
68. Arizona State
Arizona State might be college football’s most intriguing team for the 2018 season. In an effort to shake up the program and change the dynamic in the Pac-12 South, athletic director Ray Anderson turned to former NFL head coach Herm Edwards to lead the Sun Devils. Edwards hasn’t coached in college since 1989 and went 54-74 during his stint in the NFL. While there are plenty of questions about Edwards’ long-term viability in Tempe, Arizona State has enough talent to get to a bowl in 2018. Of course, that would mean overcoming a brutal schedule that includes non-conference games against San Diego State and Michigan State, along with crossover games versus Oregon, Stanford and Washington. New play-caller Rob Likens inherits one of college football’s best receivers in junior N’Keal Harry, while quarterback Manny Wilkins looks to build off a promising 2017 campaign (3,270 yards and 20 TDs). Eno Benjamin is poised for a breakout year at running back. Edwards’ biggest concerns in 2018 rest up front on the offensive line and to restock a defense that lost its top four tacklers and standout lineman JoJo Wicker. Cornerback Chase Lucas and linebacker Koron Crump are two key pieces for new coordinator Danny Gonzales to build around this year.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2018 Predictions
A year after winning the Pac-12 South and posting double-digit victories for the first time since 2001, the Buffaloes regressed to 5-7. A drop off was expected since coach Mike MacIntyre’s team had to replace a handful of key players from the 2016 squad. However, Colorado fell off more than most anticipated. Getting back to a bowl game and winning record this fall starts with improvement on offense. Running back Phillip Lindsay leaves big shoes to fill, but Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian should alleviate some of the concerns about the ground game. Quarterback Steven Montez had an inconsistent first full year as the team’s starter but seems poised to take a step forward in 2018. Montez’s top three receivers from 2017 have expired their eligibility, but there’s not much concern in Boulder. Juwann Winfree, Laviska Shenault, Tony Brown, Kabion Ento, and Jay MacIntyre are capable targets and poised for a bigger role in the offense. Mike MacIntyre’s biggest concern on offense is up front. The Buffaloes allowed 39 sacks in 2017 and return only two starters from a thin group this fall. Returning the defense to the top of the Pac-12 is also a priority. After allowing just 21.7 points a game in 2016, Colorado gave up 28.2 last year and watched its yards per play allowed increase from 4.87 to 6.12. All-Pac-12 cornerback Isaiah Oliver left early for the NFL, but six starters are back, including linebackers Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa, along with safety Evan Worthington. Similar to the offense, there are concerns up front. Colorado has to get tougher against the run and needs linemen Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba to emerge in their second year on campus.
Dino Babers has delivered back-to-back 4-8 campaigns to begin his tenure at Syracuse, but as indicated by upset wins over Virginia Tech (2016) and Clemson (’17), this program is headed in the right direction. And with 14 starters back, a breakthrough 2018 is within reach. Babers’ team is once again led by a high-powered offense. When healthy, quarterback Eric Dungey is among the ACC’s top signal-callers. Promising redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito is an intriguing backup, providing insurance in case Dungey is limited at any point this season. Replacing receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips is the top priority on offense, but this unit also needs more production out of its ground attack and improved play in the trenches. With four starters back, along with the return of Aaron Roberts from injury and the arrival of Koda Martin as a graduate transfer, Syracuse’s offensive line is poised for improvement this fall. The Orange have finished last in the ACC in yards per play allowed in each of the last two seasons. Even with the firepower on offense, this group has to improve in order to reach a bowl game. The pieces appear to be in place for that to happen. Tackle Chris Slayton might be one of the ACC’s most underrated players, and the secondary is headlined by All-ACC candidate Chris Fredrick. All three starters must be replaced at linebacker. Entering year three under Babers, the natural progression for Syracuse is to reach six wins and a bowl game. While there are personnel concerns, those two goals seem like reasonable expectations for 2018.
In 2016, Duke suffered its first losing record (4-8) since ’12 and snapped a string of four consecutive bowl trips. However, the Blue Devils weren’t down for long. Under coach David Cutcliffe’s watch, Duke rebounded to 7-6 overall last season and wasn’t far from a couple more victories with four losses by seven points or less. A return to .500 or better in ACC play seems to be within reach this fall. New defensive co-coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri take over a unit that finished third in the ACC in fewest points allowed (20.3 ppg) and returns two All-Americans in linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert. Additionally, the line has plenty of depth and talent, headlined by sophomore end Victor Dimukeje. The unit’s biggest concern is in the secondary. Only Gilbert returns as a starter, and safety Jeremy McDuffie is recovering from a significant knee injury suffered in November. While the defense could rank in the top half of the ACC, Cutcliffe’s side of the ball -- the offense -- averaged only 4.92 yards a play last season. Quarterback Daniel Jones returns, and running back Brittain Brown is a breakout candidate. Jones returns four out of the top five statistical receiving options from last year, but the line will be revamped with just two returning starters. Non-conference games against Northwestern and Baylor are challenging, but a favorable home slate in league play -- Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia -- should provide enough opportunities for the Blue Devils to reach bowl eligibility.
64. Washington State
The Cougars have won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, but coach Mike Leach’s team seems headed for a transition year in 2018. Leach’s high-powered passing attack needs to find a new quarterback following the departure of Luke Falk. No quarterback on the roster has attempted a pass in a Washington State uniform, but there are options. East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew will join the team this summer, with Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley finishing the spring atop the depth chart. It’s safe to assume the Cougars won’t regress too far on offense despite the quarterback uncertainty, especially with skill talent like running back James Williams and receiver Tay Martin in place. Another area of focus for Leach will be the offensive line. This unit surrendered 44 sacks last fall and must replace three starters. The defense also is in transition due to the departure of coordinator Alex Grinch to Ohio State. Former Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys was hired to handle the play-calling duties for 2018. Claeys must find a replacement for standout lineman Hercules Mata’afa, but end Nnamdi Oguayo is a good building block in the trenches. The back seven should be the strength of this defense, which features standout safety Jalen Thompson, along with linebacker Peyton Pelluer.
The Hoosiers just missed out on a third consecutive bowl trip in coach Tom Allen’s first year at the helm. Indiana had some bad luck due to injuries and also faced a brutal schedule, losing four games by eight points or less. In order for the Hoosiers to rebound and go to a bowl game, Allen has to restock a defense that held opponents to just 25.3 points a game in 2017. Standout linebacker Tegray Scales is a significant loss, and this unit must also find replacements for cornerback Rashard Fant and linemen Robert McCrary, Greg Gooch and Nate Hoff. The return of linebacker/safety hybrid Marcelino Ball and cornerback A’Shon Riggins from injury will provide a boost. Indiana’s offense averaged only 4.99 yards a play last fall, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for 10 touchdowns and 1,252 yards in his first year of action in Bloomington, but he will be pushed for time by Arizona graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins. Sophomore running back Morgan Ellison could reach 1,000 yards with more opportunities in 2018. Miami transfer Nick Linder provides a boost to a line that allowed 29 sacks last fall. The strength of the offense should be at receiver. Nick Westbrook was one of the Big Ten’s top returners last season but was lost for the year on the opening kickoff against Ohio State in Week 1. Westbrook is back, and he joins Whop Philyor and Luke Timian to form an effective trio for Ramsey or Dawkins. Missing Wisconsin in crossover play is huge, but Indiana still has to play the big four in the East and catches a swing game against Minnesota on the road. If the defense doesn’t slip too far, and Allen is able to get steady play from Dawkins or Ramsey under center, six wins is within reach for the Hoosiers.
Scott Frost was one of the top hires for the 2017-18 coaching carousel, but it may take a year for the former Nebraska QB to get all of the right pieces into place. While the Cornhuskers are unlikely to jump to the top of the Big Ten West, improvement should be noticeable. Frost’s up-tempo, spread attack will improve as the year progresses, especially if true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez picks up where he left off in the spring game. Martinez is a good fit for the offense and has a solid supporting cast at his disposal. Tre Bryant is back from injury at running back, and junior college recruit Greg Bell will push the junior for carries. The line is expected to improve under Frost’s direction, and Nebraska returns two of the Big Ten’s top receivers in Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman. The Cornhuskers surrendered 36.4 points a game last season, so the defense is facing a tougher climb. New coordinator Erik Chinander does have pieces to work with. Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford anchor the linebacker unit, with sophomore Ben Stille and Mick Stoltenberg leading the way in the trenches. Nebraska was searching for help via the transfer ranks at defensive backs this offseason. This unit allowed opposing quarterbacks to compete 64.5 percent of their passes last year. A big year is needed from cornerback Lamar Jackson and safety Aaron Williams. Nebraska faces Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State in crossover play, which adds another obstacle to Frost’s debut. However, the Cornhuskers will improve over the course of the season and find their way into a bowl game.
Life after Quinton Flowers begins for USF in 2018. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare for coach Charlie Strong, but the Bulls will miss the dynamic, all-around playmaking ability from Flowers. Vying to replace him at quarterback is a trio of candidates. Junior Brett Kean and sophomore Chris Oladokun finished spring locked into a tight battle for the starting job, with Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett joining the competition this summer. Until a quarterback emerges, USF can lean on its line and ground game to carry the offense. The backfield features Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite and sophomore Elijah Mack to replace D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice. Senior Tyre McCants is one of the top receivers in the AAC. The defense made major strides under Strong’s watch last season. The Bulls gave up 31.6 points a game two years ago but cut that total to 23.5 in 2017. Strong does have a few voids to fill at every level, but there’s more than enough of a foundation to keep this unit near the top of the AAC. Tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, along with defensive back Deatrick Nichols and linebacker Auggie Sanchez will be missed. If USF finds the right answer at quarterback, the Nov. 23 showdown against UCF could be for the AAC East Division title.
The Owls finished 2017 on a high note, winning four out their final five games to finish 7-6 in coach Geoff Collins’ debut. Collins hopes to build off that, as Temple returns enough talent to be the top threat to UCF in the AAC East. Quarterback Frank Nutile’s emergence in the second half was a big reason why the Owls finished fast. He ended the year with 12 touchdowns and 1,600 yards and should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter. Nutile has two potential all-conference receivers at his disposal in Ventell Bryant and Isaiah Wright, while Ryquell Armstead is back to lead the way on the ground after rushing for 604 yards last fall. The biggest concerns for Collins in 2018 are on defense. The Owls must replace standout safety Sean Chandler and linemen Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin and Julian Taylor. Safety Delvon Randall and a trio of all-conference candidates at linebacker should ensure there’s not a big drop off after finishing fourth in the conference in scoring defense last fall. Temple catches Navy and Houston in crossover play and has a trip to UCF on tap in early November. However, USF visits Philadelphia, in a key contest for positioning within the AAC East.
After a 1-7 record in SEC play and a 4-8 overall record last season, it was time for change in Fayetteville. Out is Bret Bielema and in is Chad Morris. The Texas native arrives in Fayetteville after a successful three-year run at SMU and a previous stint as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Morris’ ties to the state of Texas, along with a high-powered offense should be a good fit for the job. However, his debut season won’t be easy. The offense is shifting to more of a spread, up-tempo attack, and question marks remain at quarterback following spring ball. Cole Kelley and Ty Storey were essentially even at the end of spring, with touted freshman Connor Noland arriving this summer. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have a deep stable of running backs to lean on. Devwah Whaley, Chase Hayden and Maleek Williams return in the backfield, with junior college recruit Rakeem Boyd also in the mix. The offensive line is Morris’ biggest area of concern, as guard Hjalte Froholdt headlines a unit that allowed a hefty 30 sacks in SEC contests last year. Veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis arrives in Fayetteville after a stint at Texas A&M. This stop is Chavis’ fourth in the SEC as a defensive play-caller and might be his toughest assignment. The Razorbacks gave up 36.2 points a game and allowed 7.1 yards a play in SEC contests. Chavis does have pieces to work with, however. Lineman McTelvin Agim and linebackers De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw are three standouts in the front seven. Cornerback Ryan Pulley is back after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury. If Arkansas goes 4-0 in non-conference play, home SEC games against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss (in Little Rock) provide a path to bowl eligibility -- but it all hinges on quarterback play.
58. Ole Miss
Matt Luke had a successful audition for the full-time job in Oxford last season. The Rebels finished 6-6 and knocked off rival Mississippi State to win the Egg Bowl, helping to propel Luke from interim to full-time coach. Ole Miss is ineligible to reach a bowl game once again, so this team has nothing to lose in 2018 -- a dangerous caveat for the SEC. And just like last fall, the Rebels should have one of the league’s top offenses. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu shined after Shea Patterson was lost due to injury, and A.J. Brown is arguably the No. 1 receiver in all of college football. He’s not the only target on the outside for Ta’amu, as DK Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge form one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Additionally, the line is anchored by All-America tackle Greg Little and guard Javon Patterson. Finding a replacement for running back Jordan Wilkins is the top concern on offense. It’s a good thing scoring points should be easy for Ole Miss in 2018. The defense gave up 34.6 points a game last fall and surrendered 6.5 yards a play in SEC contests. Question marks surround this unit once again, as coordinator Wesley McGriff returns only four starters and must get this unit to be more physical against the run and better at preventing big plays.
The Black Knights are on the rise. This program has won 18 games, defeated Navy two years in a row and has claimed back-to-back bowl victories over the last two seasons. Another bowl trip and winning record is in the works for coach Jeff Monken’s team for 2018. Junior Kelvin Hopkins is slated to replace quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw this season, and the backfield is stocked with options, including Darnell Woolfolk, Andy Davidson and Kell Walker. Even with a revamped offensive line, it’s unlikely the ground attack -- No. 1 in college football last season -- will missed a beat in 2017. Army’s defense held opponents to just 22 points a game last fall and should be solid once again. Standout linebacker Alex Aukerman and lineman John Voit are the unit’s biggest losses, but linebackers Cole Christiansen and James Nachtigal are back. With just three teams that played in bowl games on the schedule for 2018, along with matchups against Liberty, Hawaii, San Jose State, and a pair of FCS teams (Lafayette and Colgate), Army should easily post a winning record, and for the first time in school history, play in a third consecutive bowl game.
Tennessee appeared to be moving in the right direction after back-to-back nine-win seasons under former coach Butch Jones in 2015-16. However, the program was unable to win the SEC East Division, and following an 0-8 showing in conference play, Jones was dismissed last fall. New coach Jeremy Pruitt arrives in Knoxville after successful stints at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama as a defensive coordinator. Pruitt is regarded as a good recruiter, but he’s a first-time head coach and will need a year or two to rebuild the program. Pruitt wasted no time looking for immediate help, as graduate transfers Keller Chryst (QB), Madre London (RB) and Brandon Kennedy (OL) should boost an offense that averaged only 19.8 points a game and 4.8 yards a play last season. Chryst will battle Jarrett Guarantano for the starting job, while London is likely to work as a backup to breakout candidate Ty Chandler at running back. If Chryst or Guarantano can provide steady play under center, there’s ample weapons at receiver. Jauan Jennings is slated to rejoin the team after missing most of 2017 due to injury, and Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson round out the top targets on the outside. Junior college recruit Dominick Wood-Anderson is expected to push for snaps at tight end. Health concerns sidelined standout guard Trey Smith in the spring, but he’s expected to return to the team this fall. Even with just one season under his belt, Smith is arguably among the SEC’s top linemen. Pruitt’s background on defense should be helpful for a group that ranked last in the SEC and allowed nearly 30 points a game in 2017. While this unit needs more talent, Pruitt has pieces to work with, including linebackers Darrin Kirkland and Darrell Taylor, safety Nigel Warrior and linemen Shy Tuttle and Jonathan Kongbo. With a schedule that features a non-conference matchup against West Virginia, along with crossover games against Alabama and Auburn, just getting to a bowl game in Pruitt’s debut would be a good first year on Rocky Top.
Related: SEC Football 2018 Predictions
The Wildcats are coming off back-to-back bowl trips and have made considerable progress within the SEC under coach Mark Stoops. After winning just four league games from 2013-15, Kentucky has eight such victories over the last two years. The pieces seem to be in place for the Wildcats to claim at least six wins. With uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, coordinator Eddie Gran is set to build the offense around running back Benny Snell once again. Snell rushed for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns last season and should challenge for first-team All-SEC honors in 2018. Junior college recruit (and former Oregon signal-caller) Terry Wilson will battle sophomore Gunnar Hoak for the starting job at quarterback. Wilson has more mobility, but Hoak has the better grasp of the playbook. Regardless of who wins the starting job, more playmakers must emerge at receiver. There’s promise here, as Dorian Baker is back from injury, and sophomore Lynn Bowden is an intriguing weapon for Gran to utilize. Four starters are back up front, and this unit could rank in the top half of the SEC for 2018. Stoops’ defense still has room to improve after giving up 28.2 points a game and struggling to stop the run last fall. Six starters are back, but some fall shuffling could be in order after Denzil Ware left the program as a graduate transfer. Senior Josh Allen (seven sacks in 2017) and safety Mike Edwards are both candidates for All-America honors. All four starters return in the secondary, but Stoops needs more out of this unit. Kentucky gave up 21 touchdown tosses and allowed quarterbacks to complete nearly 65 percent of their passes last season.
54. Texas Tech
In an odd reversal of roles, Texas Tech could lean on its defense to win games in 2018. Yes, really. The Red Raiders showed marked improvement on this side of the ball last season, cutting their points allowed from 43.5 in 2016 to 32.2 in ’17. Coordinator David Gibbs has this unit trending in the right direction, and there’s plenty of optimism with nine returning starters back in 2018. Linebacker Dakota Allen is one of the Big 12’s top defenders, with Eli Howard (5.5 sacks) anchoring the line of scrimmage. The return of Damarcus Fields, Justus Parker and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson bolsters a secondary looking to cut down on the 33 touchdown passes allowed in 2017. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has several new faces in the mix for playing time on offense, but it’s hard to be too concerned about this group. After all, Texas Tech usually finds the right answers on offense. McLane Carter or Jett Duffey will start at quarterback after a tight battle in the spring. Four of the team’s top five pass catchers from 2017 have departed Lubbock, including standout Keke Coutee. Sophomore T.J. Vasher averaged 18.8 yards per reception in 2017 and is expected to be the new go-to receiver for Kingsbury. Tre King and Da’Leon Ward will battle for carries at running back. The strength of the offense could be the line of scrimmage. Texas Tech brings back all five starters, including rising star Jack Anderson at guard. Assuming Texas Tech’s defense continues to improve, that should buy Kingsbury some time to sort out the offense early in the year. The Red Raiders needed an upset over Texas to go bowling last fall and may need another upset or two in order to exceed last season’s six victories.
Baylor should be the Big 12’s most improved team in 2018. Then again, the Bears were 1-11 last season, so there’s only one way to go. However, the final record wasn’t as bad as it looked. Under new coach Matt Rhule, Baylor lost eight games by no more than points, including an eight-point defeat to Oklahoma. With another offseason to learn under Rhule and this staff, the Bears are poised to push for a bowl game. Quarterback Charlie Brewer is a rising star, and he’s got one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Denzel Mims is the go-to target, but Chris Platt and Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd will catch their share of passes. The addition of Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen should help a offensive line that gave up 38 sacks in 2017. The defense gave up 35.9 points a game last fall but improvement should be noticeable in the second year under coordinator Phil Snow. Ira Lewis, Tyrone Hunt and Texas A&M transfer James Lockhart are a good start in the trenches, while Clay Johnston returns at linebacker after recording 54 stops in 2017. Cornerback Grayland Arnold could challenge for All-Big 12 honors. The non-conference schedule features games against Abilene Christian, UTSA and Duke, so a 3-0 start is realistic. If Rhule can navigate that start, home Big 12 matchups against Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and a neutral-site affair against Texas Tech should be enough to find a path to six victories.
The top of the AAC West Division might be one of the toughest Group of 5 predictions to make this preseason. Houston, Memphis and Navy each have a case to be picked No. 1, and it should be a tight battle all year. Standout defensive tackle Ed Oliver is back for one more season, and he’s joined by a couple of transfers on that side of the ball. TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers is set to lineup next to Oliver, with former Miami linebacker Darrion Owens and defensive backs Deontay Anderson (Ole Miss) and Nick Watkins (Notre Dame) also expected to push for starting roles. Houston’s defense allowed only 23.8 points a game last fall and it could be even better in 2018. Coach Major Applewhite brought in former Baylor play-caller Kendal Briles to handle the offense after this unit ranked seventh in the AAC at 28.3 points a game in 2017. Briles’ up-tempo, spread attack should be a good fit for the personnel. Quarterback D’Eriq King is a dynamic playmaker, and transfers Terence Williams (RB) and Raelon Singleton (WR) fill immediate needs at the skill positions. After a 7-5 mark in his first year on the job, Applewhite didn’t sit idle this offseason. Instead, he upgraded the offense with the addition of Briles and added several impact transfers. While there are few concerns about talent, the schedule does not break in Houston’s favor. The Cougars play non-conference games against Texas Tech and Arizona and make treks to Memphis and Navy in league play.
Injuries took a toll on coach DJ Durkin’s team last season, preventing Maryland from building off a 6-7 record in 2016. The quarterback position was especially hit hard, as Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome were lost due to season-ending injuries before October. Both are back in the mix for 2018, giving new offensive coordinator Matt Canada two intriguing options under center. Hill has more upside, but he won’t be asked to do it all if he’s the No. 1 QB. That’s due to the return of a deep backfield, headlined by Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison, along with redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland. No. 1 receiver DJ Moore will be missed, but senior Taivon Jacobs is a proven target, and Utah State transfer Rayshad Lewis should help right away. The offensive line returns four starters and has quietly developed into a strength. The return of end Jesse Aniebonam from injury, along with the arrival of transfers Byron Cowart (DE), Tre Watson (LB) and Marcus Lewis (CB) should help a defense that gave up 37.1 points a game last fall. Maryland has to do a better job against the run and needs more of a pass rush after recording just 16 sacks in 2017. Durkin has Maryland moving in the right direction, and if Hill or Pigrome stays healthy, another bowl trip should be in the cards for the Terrapins.
UCLA made a big splash in the coaching carousel by luring former Oregon coach Chip Kelly to Westwood. It’s been a few years since Kelly coached in the collegiate ranks, but there’s little doubt he will get this program on track. Kelly’s background on offense is well documented. However, his first go-around at UCLA is likely to be a year of transition. The Bruins have a wide-open quarterback battle to sort out, as Michigan graduate transfer Wilton Speight will join Devon Modster and touted true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the mix this fall. The offensive line and a lack of a ground game have been reoccurring issues for UCLA in recent years. Kelly’s offense should help the ground attack find a little punch, but the line enters 2018 with just two returning starters and there are significant concerns about depth. A fresh start on defense is a good thing for a unit that gave up 36.6 points and 287.4 rushing yards a game last season. New coordinator Jerry Azzinaro inherits former five-star recruit Jaelan Phillips at linebacker, along with a secondary that figures to rank among the best in the Pac-12.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2018 Predictions
Despite recording identical 5-7 records in 2016 and ’17, California was a better team last fall under first-year coach Justin Wilcox. The improvement was especially notable on defense. After giving up 42.6 points a game in 2016, the Golden Bears cut that total to 28.4 in ’17. Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter have a few voids to fill in the front seven, but there are pieces to work with, and the secondary is likely to take a big step forward with all four starters back, including sophomore cornerbacks Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum. Receiver Demetris Robertson decided to transfer, but the receiving corps is still in good shape for 2018. Running back Patrick Laird had a breakout junior year, recording 1,127 yards and eight scores in 2017. Quarterback Ross Bowers was steady in his first season as a starter, but he could be pushed by South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain. With all five starters coming back in the trenches, along with one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps, California is likely to improve upon last year’s scoring average (27.8 ppg) and earn a bowl trip in Wilcox’s second year in Berkeley.
48. Fresno State
Jeff Tedford engineered a historic turnaround in his first year at his alma mater. Fresno State went 1-11 in 2016 but finished 10-4 with a Mountain West Mountain Division title in Tedford’s first season. With 14 starters back, another trip to the conference title game is a realistic goal for Tedford’s team. Oregon State graduate transfer Marcus McMaryion threw for 2,726 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year in the program. With a full offseason to work under Tedford, McMaryion should be better in 2018. And it certainly doesn’t hurt his cause to have the Mountain West’s No. 1 receiving corps at his disposal, along with three starters back in the trenches. With Ronnie Rivers sidelined indefinitely due to an injury suffered in the spring, Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit will handle the bulk of the carries. While Tedford brought marked improvement to the offense, Fresno State’s defense took a major step forward last fall. However, the architect of the 2017 unit -- Orlondo Steinauer -- returned to the CFL. Tedford promoted Bert Watts to handle the play-calling duties for a unit that allowed only 17.9 points a game last season. Watts has to retool up front, but the back seven should be strong, anchored by linebacker Jeffrey Allison and cornerback Jaron Bryant. Back-to-back games against Boise State and San Diego State in late November are likely to decide whether or not the Bulldogs repeat as division champs.
Turnovers and injuries derailed Navy after a promising 5-0 start to the season. The Midshipmen lost six of their next eight games, but all six of those losses came by 10 points or less. A quick rebound should be in order for coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team in 2018. Junior quarterback Malcolm Perry rushed for over 200 yards against SMU and Army and is slated to handle the full-time role under center this fall. He’s primed for a breakout season, with former starter Zach Abey moving to receiver. Fullback Chris High expired his eligibility, but Perry will be joined in the backfield by capable runners in Anthony Gargiulo, Tre Walker and Keoni-Kordell Makekau. The interior of the offensive line has to be rebuilt, but there’s a good foundation in place with Jake Hawk and Andrew Wood holding down the edges. Navy’s defense loses six of its top 10 tacklers from last fall, including linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore and cornerback Tyris Wooten. End Jarvis Polu, linebacker Hudson Sullivan and safety Sean Williams will be the key cogs for coordinator Dale Pehrson in 2018. This unit will be tested in league play with matchups against Memphis, SMU, Houston and UCF on tap. A crossover matchup against UCF is a tough draw, but the Midshipmen host Memphis in Week 2 and catch Houston in Annapolis on Oct. 20.
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats might be the toughest team to predict this preseason. Quarterback Clayton Thorson’s status is in question due to a knee injury suffered in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky. Thorson’s availability is crucial with an opener against Purdue, followed by matchups against Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska by Oct. 13. If Thorson doesn’t return, junior TJ Green, sophomore Aidan Smith and redshirt freshman Andrew Marty are the next options. Justin Jackson’s departure leaves a significant void at running back, but Jeremy Larkin appears to be the next standout rusher in Evanston after recording 503 yards last fall. The Wildcats return their top two receivers, and there’s optimism the offensive line will show marked improvement with four returning starters. With the uncertainty surrounding the offense, Northwestern can lean on its defense early in the year. This unit held opponents to 20.1 points a game last fall and is expected to be strong once again. The Wildcats bring back six starters, including one of the Big Ten’s top linebacker duos in Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall. Cornerback Montre Hartage and linemen Jordan Thompson, Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano are candidates for All-Big Ten honors as well. In addition to the early test at Purdue and the tough crossover with the East Division, the Wildcats also play Notre Dame in non-conference play and play at Iowa in November.
Purdue won just nine games from 2013-16 combined, but the hire of Jeff Brohm quickly changed the fortunes in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers posted seven victories last fall, including at Iowa, a 35-3 win against Missouri and 38-35 defeat of Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. Brohm will have to retool a defense that showed big-time improvement under coordinator Nick Holt last season, but there’s no doubt he will have Purdue back in the mix for seven victories. Holt’s rebuilding effort starts in the front seven following the departures of lineman Gelen Robinson and linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley, T.J. McCollum and Danny Ezechukwu. Junior linebacker Markus Bailey and tackle Lorenzo Neal will lead the way in the rebuilding effort, while the defense has a solid pair of safeties returning in Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley. With the defense rebuilding, Brohm will have to ask a little more of his offense. The Boilermakers improved their yards per play from 5.1 in 2016 to 5.6 last fall. Another step forward seems likely for 2018, as the offensive line returns all five starters and adds WKU grad transfer Dennis Edwards. Markell Jones headlines a solid stable of running backs, and Brohm has two proven quarterbacks to work with in David Blough and Elijah Sindelar. The biggest question for the offense rests at receiver. True freshman Rondale Moore could provide some much-needed big-play ability this season. Road trips to Nebraska and Michigan State are tough, but Purdue catches Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, Boston College, Wisconsin and Missouri at home.
Related: Big Ten Football 2018 Predictions
44. San Diego State
San Diego State’s two-year run as Mountain West champion ended last season, but the program still won 10 games, posting double-digit victories for the third consecutive year. Coach Rocky Long’s team will use a familiar formula as it looks to dethrone Fresno State in the West Division this fall. Despite losing running back Rashaad Penny to the NFL, the Aztecs probably won’t miss much of a beat on the ground. Junior Juwan Washington rushed for 759 yards and seven touchdowns in a reserve role last fall and is primed for a breakout year as the team’s No. 1 rusher. Left tackle Tyler Roemer and guard Keith Ismael anchor the Mountain West’s top offensive line after starting as freshmen last season. Senior quarterback Christian Chapman doesn’t produce huge numbers, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense. As usual, San Diego State should be strong on defense. Seven starters return from a unit that held opponents to 20.2 points a game in 2017. Linebacker Ronley Lakalaka and safeties Tariq Thompson and Parker Baldwin are back to headline the defense for Long, who calls the signals on game days. The Aztecs knocked off Stanford and Arizona State last season and will have an opportunity to victories against both again in 2018. Additionally, there’s a tough road trip to Boise State on Oct. 6, but the division title is likely to be decided on Nov. 17 at Fresno State.
The Panthers missed out on a bowl game for the first time under coach Pat Narduzzi in 2017. However, Pitt won three out of its last five games and lost the other two by six or fewer points. A big reason for the late-season surge was the emergence of quarterback Kenny Pickett. He guided the team to a victory over Miami on Black Friday and will benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter after seeing limited time as a true freshman in 2017. Top receiver Jester Weah has expired his eligibility, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson needs a big year from Tre Tipton (back from injury) and senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes. The ground attack is in good hands with Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison returning to anchor the backfield, but the offensive line could be a work in progress with three new starters. Kent State graduate transfer Stefano Millin is expected to help right away. Pitt’s defense has not finished higher than ninth in the ACC in points allowed a contest since Narduzzi arrived in the Steel City. However, this unit is poised for marked improvement. Seven starters are back, including standout linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu and a couple of promising players, including end Dewayne Hendrix, tackle Amir Watts, cornerback Paris Ford and safety Damar Hamlin. A big challenge for Pitt to overcome is a brutal schedule. The Panthers play Notre Dame, UCF and Penn State in non-conference play and catch road trips to Virginia, Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina in the ACC.
Related: ACC Football 2018 Predictions
42. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets missed out on a bowl game for just the second time under coach Paul Johnson. However, Georgia Tech wasn’t too far from a postseason trip due to four losses by no more than four points. While contending for the Coastal Division title is too steep of a hill to climb, the Yellow Jackets should rebound and get back to a bowl game. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall leads the way for the flexbone attack, recording 1,146 rushing yards in his first year as the starter. Fellow 1,000-yard rusher KirVonte Benson joins him in the backfield, with Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch providing support. Marshall won’t throw it a ton, but the coaching staff would like to see his completion percentage tick up after connecting on just 37.1 percent of his passes last year. Johnson’s hire of Nate Woody as the program’s new defensive coordinator is one of the ACC’s top assistant moves for 2018. Woody has promised to install more of an attacking scheme and returns five starters, including linebacker Brant Mitchell and end Anree Saint-Amour. Woody’s biggest area of concern is in the secondary. The Yellow Jackets lost a couple of key players from last season and safety A.J. Gray retired due to medical reasons. Former USC transfer Lamont Simmons is one potential answer at cornerback, while Wofford graduate transfer Malik Rivera could help right away at safety. Freshman Tre Swilling is another name to remember in the secondary.
41. Kansas State
The Wildcats are always dangerous under coach Bill Snyder, so even with some preseason question marks to address on both sides of the ball, K-State will still be a factor in how the Big 12 race shapes up this year. The Wildcats finished with five wins over their final six contests in 2017 and getting off to a fast start this fall is essential. Kansas State catches Mississippi State in a tough non-conference matchup in Week 2, followed by road games at West Virginia and Baylor, along with a home date with Texas by Oct. 6. Snyder’s 2018 team features new play-callers on both sides of the ball, along with an intriguing quarterback battle between Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson. Both showed promise last season and should keep the offense performing at a high level. This unit also features a solid stable of running backs, and an offensive line that ranks among the best in college football, anchored by right tackle Dalton Risner. New coordinator Andre Coleman has to find a couple of playmakers to round out the receiving corps. The biggest concerns for Snyder seem to rest on defense. K-State brings back five starters and lost tackle Will Geary, cornerback D.J. Reed and linebackers Jayd Kirby and Trent Tanking. The cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Blake Seiler, as cornerback Duke Shelley and safeties Kendall Adams and Denzel Goolsby return to anchor one of the Big 12’s top secondaries. Up front, end Reggie Walker and tackle Trey Dishon are all-conference picks by Athlon Sports for 2018. While the linebacker unit will be revamped without Kirby and Tanking, having Da’Quan Patton and Elijah Sullivan to build around is a good place to start.
Life after Lamar Jackson won’t be easy, but Louisville’s offense isn’t likely to slip too far in 2018. Sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass is primed for a breakout year under coach Bobby Petrino, and the Cardinals return one of the ACC’s top receiving corps. Senior Jaylen Smith (60 catches for 980 yards and 7 TDs in 2017) should be among the league’s top targets, with Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick providing support. Pass will be protected by an improving offensive line, which includes rising star Mekhi Becton at right tackle. Dae Williams, Colin Wilson and Trey Smith should handle the bulk of the work at running back. Without Jackson, Louisville will likely ask more out of this position group after no running back accumulated more than 100 carries last fall. Similar to last season, the Cardinals will have to lean on their offense to win in 2018. The defense gave up 27.4 points a game, 5.6 yards a play and ranked near the bottom of the ACC in rush and pass defense. New coordinator Brian VanGorder inherits just two returning starters, but sophomore linebacker Dorian Etheridge and end Jon Greenard are potential All-ACC candidates. A couple of transfers could find their way into the two-deep this season to provide instant help. Louisville’s rebuilt defense and new quarterback will be tested right away with a matchup against Alabama in Orlando to start the year.
39. Boston College
Boston College finished 2017 on a tear, winning five out of its last seven games and losing those two contests each by a touchdown. Coach Steve Addazio’s team seems poised for another step forward this fall -- provided it can navigate a brutal schedule. The Eagles catch Miami and Virginia Tech -- the ACC Coastal’s best teams -- in crossover play and has to take on Purdue in non-conference play, along with road trips to NC State, Wake Forest and Florida State. While the schedule is an obstacle, this team is loaded with intrigue. Running back AJ Dillon is among the best in college football after rushing for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. And he’s running behind the ACC’s No. 1 offensive line, anchored by right tackle Chris Lindstrom. Tight end Tommy Sweeney is a valuable weapon in the passing attack, earning first-team All-ACC honors from Athlon Sports for 2018. Quarterback Anthony Brown missed the last three games of 2017 due to injury but is on track to return this fall. Brown tossed 11 touchdowns to nine picks last season but only completed 51.9 percent of his passes. Boston College’s defense loses end Harold Landry and cornerback Isaac Yiadom, but six starters provide a strong foundation. End Zach Allen and safety Lukas Denis are All-America picks by Athlon Sports, and the return of Connor Strachan from injury provides a boost at linebacker.
Despite losing quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller, the Tigers are still Athlon’s pick to win the AAC West. Coach Mike Norvell will start the process of reloading behind a deep backfield, along with two intriguing quarterbacks. Junior Darrell Henderson rushed for over 1,000 yards on just 154 carries last season, and he’s joined by Tony Pollard and Patrick Taylor as potential ball carriers behind the AAC’s top offensive line. Sophomore David Moore finished spring as the top quarterback on the depth chart, but Arizona State transfer Brady White will push for the job in the fall. The Tigers are going to miss Miller on the outside, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Tight ends Joey Magnifico and Sean Dykes form a solid duo, while sophomore Damonte Coxie is primed for a breakout year. The Tigers gave up 32.5 points a game and 5.8 yards a play last season, but any deficiencies on this group were overshadowed by a high-powered offense. With a new quarterback and no more Miller at receiver, Norvell needs a little more out of this group. That shouldn’t be a problem with eight returning starters. Cornerback T.J. Carter is one of the AAC’s top defenders after picking off five passes as a freshman last fall, with linebacker Curtis Akins and lineman O’Bryan Goodson rounding out the front seven. Memphis has to play at Navy but key AAC games against Houston and UCF take place in the Liberty Bowl.
37. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are coming off their best finish under coach Dave Clawson, claiming eight victories and a 4-4 record in ACC play. Another step forward in 2018 is within reach, but Clawson’s team already suffered a setback when quarterback Kendall Hinton was suspended for the first three games of the year. The suspension covers a road trip to Tulane, along with a matchup against Boston College in Week 3. With Hinton sidelined, Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman will get the nod under center. Regardless of who starts, Clawson has assembled a good supporting cast. Receiver Greg Dortch is one of the ACC’s top playmakers, and Matt Colburn and Cade Carney form a solid one-two punch at running back. The offensive line struggled early in Clawson’s tenure in Winston-Salem but has developed into a strength. Center Ryan Anderson is one of the league’s top linemen, and left tackle Justin Herron should earn all-conference honors in 2018. Wake Forest took a step back on defense last season, giving up 28.3 points a game -- up from 22.2 in 2016. Coordinator Jay Sawvel has six returning starters to work with, but safety Jessie Bates III, linebackers Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams and linemen Zeek Rodney and Duke Ejiofor leave big shoes to fill. Even with Bates off to the NFL, the secondary should be a strength thanks to the return of cornerback Essang Bassey and safety Cameron Glenn. Assuming Hinton picks up where John Wolford left off at quarterback last season, Wake Forest should post a third consecutive winning season.
36. Iowa State
Matt Campbell delivered a breakout year in his second season in Ames. Iowa State defeated both Oklahoma and TCU -- the two teams that played for the Big 12 title -- and claimed a Liberty Bowl victory against Memphis en route to an 8-5 finish. The Cyclones will be another tough out for the rest of the conference once again in 2018. Quarterback Kyle Kempt was awarded an additional year of eligibility, and running back David Montgomery is among the nation’s best at his position. An improving offensive line should open up plenty of lanes for Montgomery. The receiving corps is Campbell’s biggest concern on offense. Allen Lazard (71 catches and 10 TDs), Marchie Murdock and Trever Ryan have finished their eligibility. However, the Cyclones aren’t starting from scratch here. Tight end Chase Allen is an intriguing weapon that should be more involved, and Hakeem Butler (41 catches) is primed to emerge as a No. 1 target for Kempt. After giving up 5.97 yards a play in 2016, Iowa State’s defense allowed only 5.4 in ’17 and emerged as one of the Big 12’s top groups. Key seniors Joel Lanning, Reggie Wilkerson, Kamari Cotton-Moya and J.D. Waggoner have finished their eligibility and will be missed. However, coordinator Jon Heacock will keep this unit near the top of the Big 12. End JaQuan Bailey and linebackers Marcel Spears and Willie Harvey are back to anchor the front seven, and cornerback Brian Peavy is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2018. Nose guard Ray Lima is a player on the rise for Heacock and helps to anchor a rush defense that allowed 128 yards a game last fall. Iowa State’s schedule features road trips to Iowa, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas. However, another eight-win season is within reach for Campbell’s team.
The Hawkeyes continue to churn out winning records under coach Kirk Ferentz. And coming off an 8-5 finish last year, there’s optimism for Iowa to push for nine victories in 2018. Ferentz’s team has a favorable slate, which misses Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in Big Ten crossover play. Also, Nebraska and Northwestern and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2018. In addition to the kind schedule, the Hawkeyes return one of the conference's top quarterbacks in Nathan Stanley (26 TDs last season) and an All-American at tight end with Noah Fant. T.J. Hockenson (24 catches in 2017) will team with Fant to form one of the nation’s best tight end tandems. Coordinator Brian Ferentz has to identify a new running back to replace standout Akrum Wadley and develop more options at receiver. However, the Hawkeyes usually do a good job of reloading in the backfield, and the same can be said for an offensive line that’s replacing two starters. The question marks are bigger on defense. Iowa loses all three of its linebackers, including All-American Josey Jewell. However, the line is one of the best in the Big Ten, and there’s enough talent in the secondary to alleviate the loss of cornerback Josh Jackson.
34. Oklahoma State
Replacing the dynamic quarterback-receiver connection of Mason Rudolph and James Washington won’t be easy for coach Mike Gundy, but Oklahoma State has won at least 10 games in four of the last five years. It’s hard to see a drastic drop off despite the personnel losses. The battle to replace Rudolph will extend deep into fall practice. Taylor Cornelius and Keondre Wudtee finished the spring atop the depth chart, but Hawaii transfer Dru Brown and incoming freshman Spencer Sanders will push for the job in the fall. Sanders has the most upside of any quarterback on the roster, while Brown has the edge in experience. Regardless of who starts, getting the ball to running back Justice Hill and a standout receiving corps is a priority. Hill averaged 127.5 all-purpose yards a game last fall and will be even more crucial to a team with a new quarterback. The offensive line returns only two starters, but the return of guard Larry Williams from injury should give this unit a boost on the interior. The strength of Gundy’s 2018 team should be its defense under the direction of new coordinator Jim Knowles. The Cowboys are strong in the trenches, headlined by Jordan Brailford and Trey Carter. Justin Phillips and Calvin Bundage give Knowles two proven options at linebacker, while A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams are ready for their second season as starting cornerbacks. A favorable early schedule should allow Oklahoma State an opportunity for a fast start. However, the late-season stretch includes games at Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma, along with home dates with Texas and West Virginia. Settling the quarterback position by then will be essential to reach eight (or more) wins.
33. NC State
Last year’s nine-win season represented NC State’s highest victory mark since 2010 and the best finish in the polls since '02. Maintaining that momentum and finishing in the top 25 for 2018 is a possibility for coach Dave Doeren’s program. The Wolfpack return the ACC’s top quarterback in Ryan Finley, along with a standout group of receivers, headlined by junior Kelvin Harmon (69 catches), Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis. Running back Nyheim Hines and all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels will be missed, but Reggie Gallaspy and Ricky Person are a good place to start the rebuilding effort at running back, while USC transfer Cary Angeline will help right away at tight end. The line loses a couple of standouts, but a strong foundation remains in place with three returning starters. Reloading on defense is the biggest challenge for Doeren. NC State has to replace four key performers in the trenches, including first-round pick Bradley Chubb. Senior Darian Roseboro should ease the transition at end, but this unit is likely to be a work in progress most of 2018. The question marks extend to the back seven, as the Wolfpack have to do a better job of eliminating the big plays on the back end (six of 50 yards or more last season). The losses on defense are significant. But with Finley returning, NC State should finish third in the ACC Atlantic.
New coach Kevin Sumlin inherits a favorable situation for his first year in Tucson. The Wildcats return dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate and won’t have to play Washington or Stanford in Pac-12 crossover play. Also, USC visits Tucson in late September. With a friendly schedule and Tate returning, a trip to the conference title game isn’t out of the question. In addition to Tate, Arizona’s offense features running back J.J. Taylor and a solid group of receivers, headlined by Shun Brown on the outside. Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone will have to do a little tweaking up front, but two returning starters and Michigan State transfer Tshiyombu Lukusa should keep this unit performing at a high level. Sumlin decided to retain defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, and that decision could pay off in a big way. The Wildcats have made progress under Yates, and nine returning starters provide hope for a big jump. Linebackers Kylan Wilborn and Colin Schooler, along with cornerbacks Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns should push for all-conference honors in the fall.
Whether it was the 13-0 record and a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn or the postseason celebration, UCF was seemingly in the headlines all year. The Knights hope to find that same level of success in 2018, but it won’t be easy. Every Group of 5 team that played in a New Year’s Six bowl has watched their win total decrease by three the following year. Adding to the challenge of high expectations was the departure of coach Scott Frost to Nebraska. New coach Josh Heupel has a similar background as Frost (offense) and is also a first-time head coach. Heupel shouldn’t make too many changes on an offense that averaged 48.2 points a game last fall. Quarterback McKenzie Milton is the catalyst for Heupel, averaging 357.7 total yards a game in 2017. Milton has the AAC’s top receiving corps at his disposal, while Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson provide big-play ability at running back. Restocking the line is Heupel’s biggest concern on offense. It’s a good thing UCF can simply outscore its opponents in 2018. New coordinator Randy Shannon inherits some challenges on defense. Standout cornerback Mike Hughes and linebacker Shaquem Griffin are now in the NFL. Additionally, this unit is transitioning to a 4-3 after utilizing a 3-4 alignment. Shannon does have players to work with, including tackle Trysten Hill, safety Kyle Gibson and linebacker Pat Jasinski. UCF’s schedule features tough road trips to Memphis and USF, while non-conference games against FAU, North Carolina and Pitt won’t be easy. Another unbeaten season will be difficult, but the Knights are still the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.
Missouri’s offense was on fire to close out the 2017 season. Behind quarterback Drew Lock, the Tigers scored at least 45 points in six of their final seven games. Lock passed on the NFL for another season in Columbia, and the senior heads into 2018 as one of the top signal-callers in the nation. Lock’s supporting cast is led by big-play threat Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson at receiver. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam had a breakout freshman season and should be even more involved this fall. Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree form one of the SEC’s top tandems at running back, while all five starters are back in the trenches. On paper, there are few concerns about the offense. However, there is one big question surrounding this group: How will new play-caller Derek Dooley perform after Josh Heupel left for UCF? Missouri’s defense showed some improvement in the second half of last season. Will that continue in 2018? Or was that a product of a favorable schedule? Tackle Terry Beckner is among the top linemen in college football, while senior Terez Hall returns to anchor the linebacker unit. The secondary surrendered 13 plays of 40 or more yards last season and remains a concern for coach Barry Odom. Texas transfer Jordan Elliott should be an impact addition to the defensive line. If Missouri is going to improve on last year’s record, it has to navigate tough road trips in swing games against Purdue, South Carolina and Florida. And there’s also a trip to Alabama on Oct. 13.
After winning 11 games in Lane Kiffin’s debut in Boca Raton, FAU has its sights set on ranking as the top Group of 5 program in 2018. The Owls open the season with a huge test at Oklahoma and play at UCF on Sept. 22, but Kiffin’s team is likely to be favored in all 10 of its remaining contests. Kiffin experienced some turnover on his staff, with Charlie Weis Jr. taking over the offensive coordinator role, and former Southern Miss assistant Tony Pecoraro assuming the defensive duties. FAU’s offense was dynamic last fall, averaging 40.6 points a game and finishing sixth nationally in rushing. Don’t expect wholesale changes, but the Owls do have to find a new quarterback. Former Florida State signal-caller De’Andre Johnson is battling Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison for the starting job. The offense will run through a deep stable of backs, headlined by All-American Devin Singletary and junior college recruit (and former Alabama player) B.J. Emmons. The addition of Junior Diaz as a graduate transfer adds a proven center to a standout offensive line, and the receiving corps is deep with options thanks to the return of Willie Wright, DeAndre McNeal, tight end Harrison Bryant and the addition of West Virginia transfer Jovon Durante. With 10 starters back, FAU’s defense should be even better than the 2017 version that held opponents to 22.7 points a contest. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young should contend for All-America honors, with Hunter Snyder leading the way up front after registering six sacks last season.
With USC expected to take a step back in 2018, the door is open for Utah to push for the Pac-12 South title. However, winning the division won’t be easy with a schedule that features crossover games against Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Washington State. Also, Utah has to play at UCLA and Arizona State. Needless to say, if coach Kyle Whittingham’s team does win the South, it will have earned it. The Utes averaged 29.5 points a game in coordinator Troy Taylor’s first season calling plays, so there’s room to grow in 2018. Taylor should be able to push this group a little higher this fall, especially with quarterback Tyler Huntley back under center. He averaged 294.8 total yards a game last season but needs to stay healthy after missing three contests due to injury. Utah’s backfield is among the best in the Pac-12, and Huntley is supported by a line poised to improve with four starters back. The biggest question for the offense is at receiver. Darren Carrington expired his eligibility, and Raelon Singleton left as a graduate transfer (wound up at Houston). Siaosi Mariner and Demari Simpkins combined for 49 catches last fall and return as the top options on the outside. A wild card to watch: Britain Covey is back after a LDS mission and should provide instant help at receiver. As usual, Utah’s defense should be near the top of the Pac-12. Whittingham’s group returns four starters, with Chase Hansen slated to shift from safety to linebacker. Cornerback Julian Blackmon is one of the top Pac-12’s top defensive backs, anchoring a secondary that should be among the best in college football.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2018
27. South Carolina
After winning nine games last season, there’s optimism in Columbia for South Carolina to take the next step and emerge as a top 25 team in 2018. With eight starters back on offense, including quarterback Jake Bentley, that goal is certainly within reach for coach Will Muschamp’s program. However, the offense is also one area where Muschamp is looking for improvement. The Gamecocks averaged only 24.2 points a game in 2017, prompting a change at coordinator. Bryan McClendon was promoted to play-caller after the Outback Bowl win over Michigan, and he’s not hurting for weapons to work with this fall. In addition to Bentley, South Carolina has one of the SEC’s top receiving corps. Bryan Edwards caught 64 passes last fall, while Deebo Samuel is back after missing most of 2017 due to injury. The Gamecocks may not have an All-SEC running back this year, but there’s depth with the return of Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams and A.J. Turner. Filling the void left behind by Hayden Hurst at tight end is the biggest concern for McClendon in his first year. Muschamp’s defense enters 2018 with question marks in the secondary, but the addition of graduate transfers Nick Harvey (Texas A&M) and J.T. Ibe (Rice) will provide instant help. Tackle Javon Kinlaw is poised for a breakout year, and T.J. Brunson’s return will alleviate the loss of Skai Moore at linebacker. The Gamecocks did have a little good fortune on their side in 2017. This team had a plus-11 turnover margin and won six games by eight points or less. Even if a bounce or two goes the other way this year, there’s more than enough talent on offense to make up the difference.
The Tigers find themselves in an interesting spot for 2018: Likely near the bottom of most preseason top 25s or just outside that range. However, projecting LSU to finish No. 26 illustrates the challenges coach Ed Orgeron faces this fall. The Tigers have several question marks from an offense that averaged only 27.2 points a game last fall. New coordinator Steve Ensminger has promised to improve the passing attack, but there are few proven receivers. Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles should help in this area. There’s also a new quarterback -- likely Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow -- and no proven running back to replace Derrius Guice. While the offense faces its share of uncertainty, the defense should rank near the top of the SEC. The Tigers return one of the nation’s top linebackers in Devin White, with All-American cornerback Greedy Williams back to anchor the secondary. A few new faces are set to step into starting roles in the front seven, but there’s plenty of talent. The schedule is another obstacle for this team. LSU plays Miami in the opener, catches Florida and Georgia in SEC crossover play, a road trip to Texas A&M and the usual matchups against Auburn and Alabama. It’s no secret the Tigers have a lot of good players in the program. How quickly will the offense come together? That will determine whether or not Orgeron’s team finishes in the top 25 this fall.
25. Texas A&M
As evidenced by new coach Jimbo Fisher's $75 million dollar contract, Texas A&M is serious about upgrading its place in the brutal SEC West. While Fisher needs a few years of player and program development to push for the division title, immediate improvement from last season's 7-6 record is within reach. Fisher is one of college football's top quarterback gurus and has two promising signal-callers to work with in Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. Starkel is more of a pocket passer and a better fit for Fisher's offense. Dynamic receiver Christian Kirk will be missed, but the cupboard isn't bare at this position. Sophomore Jhamon Ausbon is poised for a breakout year, and the coaching staff is counting on freshman Jalen Preston and fellow sophomores Camron Buckley, Klyde Chris, Kendrick Rogers and Roshauud Paul to contribute more in the passing game. The ground attack is in good hands with Trayveon Williams leading the way. The offensive line struggled with inconsistency last season and remains a concern headed into 2018. Fisher's best hire for his staff was Mike Elko as the program's new defensive coordinator. Elko, who previously oversaw defenses at Notre Dame and Wake Forest, should make an immediate impact on a unit that gave up 30.7 points a game last fall. The defensive depth chart was loaded with underclassmen last season, but that experience should pay off in 2018. The linebacker duo of Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka is among the best in college football. Safety Donovan Wilson is back after missing 2017 due to injury. The schedule isn't easy. Texas A&M plays Clemson and Alabama in September and has road games against Mississippi State and Auburn. However, Fisher should make a difference in Year 1, helping the Aggies to improve throughout the 2018 season.
The Horned Frogs return the fewest starters (nine) of any Big 12 team for 2018. However, that won't stop coach Gary Patterson's team from contending for a spot in the conference title game once again. TCU led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year, limiting opponents to just 19 points a game and 5.07 yards a play. This unit suffered key losses at each level but should still rank near the top of the conference. End Ben Banogu is poised to wreak havoc off the edge after accumulating 8.5 sacks last fall, while linebacker Ty Summers should be among the best in the Big 12. Finding a cornerback to start opposite of Jeff Gladney and replacing safety Nick Orr are the top offseason priorities for Patterson's defense. The rebuilding effort is greater on offense, but just like the defense, there's a next wave of players ready to emerge. Sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson made one start in relief of Kenny Hill last season, and the former four-star prospect is ready to take over the full-time job. Robinson has a talented group of receivers at his disposal, including sophomore Jalen Reagor, KaVontae Turpin and Jaelan Austin. The strength of the offense is a stable of running backs that features Darius Anderson (768 yards last season), true freshman Fabian Franklin and Sewo Olonilua. The offensive line returns just two starters and is the biggest concern for Patterson's offense. A non-conference game against Ohio State provides a huge opportunity in Week 3 and key Big 12 contests against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State take place in Fort Worth.
New coach Mario Cristobal couldn't ask for a better set-up in his first year at the helm. Oregon hosts its biggest competition in the Pac-12 North -- Stanford and Washington -- and does not have to play USC from the South in crossover play. Also, Cristobal managed to retain standout defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, and quarterback Justin Herbert is among the nation's best at his position. Herbert missed five games due to a collarbone injury but returned for the final three games and still finished the season with 2,166 total yards. The supporting cast for Herbert remains strong. The Ducks return three starters up front, including All-America candidate Jake Hanson at center. Alabama graduate transfer Dallas Warmack is expected to push for a starting job along the offensive line this fall as well. Dillon Mitchell and Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines are likely to be the top targets in the passing game, while Tony Brooks-James and CJ Verdell are slated to replace Royce Freeman at running back. In Leavitt's first year calling the defensive signals in Eugene, Oregon cut its points per game allowed from 41.4 to 29.0. With seven starters back -- including linebacker Troy Dye and end Jalen Jelks -- the Ducks are poised for more improvement on defense in 2018. If the coaching transition to Cristobal is seamless, a healthy year from Herbert and more improvement on defense could equal a double-digit win season in 2018.
22. West Virginia
With an offense capable of scoring 40 points every week, West Virginia will be a dark horse Big 12 title contender to watch in 2018. Quarterback Will Grier is back after missing the final two games of 2017 due to a finger injury, and the senior could be the best in college football at his position by the end of 2018. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 scores last season, and with a significant amount of turnover at the quarterback position in the Big 12, West Virginia has a huge advantage at this position. Grier has one of college football's top receiving corps at his disposal. David Sills returns after catching 18 touchdowns last year, Gary Jennings eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2017, and transfers T.J. Simmons (WR) and Jovani Haskins (TE) add to skill talent on the outside. Tackles Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz anchor a solid offensive line, and coach Dana Holgorsen has a deep stable of running backs to rotate on the ground. The defense allowed 31.5 points a game and struggled to stop the run last year. However, coordinator Tony Gibson has reinforcements coming up front in grad transfers Kenny Bigelow (USC) and Jabril Robinson (Clemson), along with junior college transfers Keith Washington and Josh Norwood in the secondary. Linebacker David Long should challenge for All-America honors. Key swing games against Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU take place in Morgantown, but West Virginia will be tested in non-conference play with matchups against NC State and Tennessee.
Related: Big 12 Football 2018 Predictions
The defending Pac-12 champions are Athlon's pick to win the South Division once again, but the gap between USC and Utah or Arizona is very narrow headed into 2018. As if coach Clay Helton didn't have enough to worry about in replacing quarterback Sam Darnold, the Trojans will be tested right away with games against Stanford and Texas in September. But the good news for USC: Washington and Oregon are missed in crossover play with the North in 2018. The battle to replace Darnold will carry into the fall, as Matt Fink and Jack Sears will compete with true freshman JT Daniels for the starting nod. Daniels is reclassifying as a high school junior to graduate a year early and is the most talented quarterback on the roster. How quickly will he adjust to the FBS level? Until a quarterback emerges, Helton should be able to ride the one-two punch of Stephen Carr and Aca'Cedric Ware at running back. And when a quarterback emerges, the receiving corps should be among the best the Pac-12, as Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown form a promising duo on the outside. The offensive line had its share of ups and downs last fall but could be a strength in 2018. With the offense in transition, Helton will need more out of his defense. The Trojans limited opponents to 26.1 points a game last fall and return seven starters from that unit. There's star power at each level, including All-America linebacker Cameron Smith, safety Marvell Tell and lineman Christian Rector. All eyes will be on the quarterback battle this offseason. How quickly will Helton find the right answer? How this position plays out will likely decide whether or not USC wins the Pac-12 South once again.
The Longhorns showed small signs of progress in Tom Herman's first season. Texas increased its win total by two games and earned its first bowl trip since 2014. The expectation level will go up a notch in 2018, as the Longhorns return 12 starters and should be adjusted to the new staff and schemes on both sides of the ball. Defense led the way for Herman's first team, as coordinator Todd Orlando's charges limited opponents to 21.2 points a game. Despite losing lineman Poona Ford, linebacker Malik Jefferson and safety DeShon Elliott, the Longhorns are still in good shape on this side of the ball. Linebacker Gary Johnson will be an impact player in his second year from the junior college ranks, with Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu and Chris Nelson providing a strong foundation in the trenches. Herman reeled in one of the nation's top recruiting classes this offseason, with defensive backs Caden Sterns, BJ Foster and Anthony Cook likely to contribute right away. While the defense is likely to rank among the best in the Big 12 again, Texas won't climb in the standings without improvement on offense. Herman has reasons to be optimistic about this group in 2018, especially with the development of quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey are two talented options for Ehlinger on the outside, but more depth in the receiving corps is needed. The offensive line was inconsistent last year but should improve behind new coach Herb Hand, along with the addition of Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. Improved play in the trenches could help spark a rushing attack that managed only 139.6 yards a game last fall. California graduate transfer Tre Watson and true freshman Keaontay Ingram should provide help in the backfield. If the offense takes a step forward, and the defense doesn't regress, Texas could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12.
Related: Big 12 Football 2018 Predictions
19. Boise State
College football's top Group of 5 team for 2018 resides in Boise. Coach Bryan Harsin's team has won at least 10 games in three out of the last four years, including 12 in 2014 after defeating Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. With 15 returning starters, including the Mountain West's top quarterback in Brett Rypien, it's hard to find a glaring weakness on Boise State's 2018 team. Go-to receiver Cedrick Wilson (83 catches in 2017) will be missed, but A.J. Richardson, Sean Modster, Octavius Evans and CT Thomas provide a solid group of targets for Rypien. Alexander Mattison returns after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season, and the offensive line should be among the best in the Mountain West with four returning starters. While the offense will be explosive, the defense might be the best unit on this team. The Broncos limited opponents to 22.9 points a game last season and return nine starters for 2018. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be missed, but the secondary is stacked with talent, and the line is in great shape with end Curtis Weaver and tackle David Moa leading the way. Idaho graduate transfer Tony Lashley will help fill the void left behind by Vander Esch in the linebacking corps. With road trips to Troy and Oklahoma State, Boise State will have an opportunity to pick up a couple of big non-conference victories. Even if the Broncos lose one of those games (and a contest in Mountain West play), 11 wins and a conference title is more than enough to get this team back into a New Year's Six Bowl.
Stanford has the most appearances (four) of any team in the Pac-12 title game, since its inception in 2011. Defense and a strong ground game have largely supplied the formula to win the Pac-12 North, but coach David Shaw's team may have to shift that philosophy for 2018. Running back Bryce Love returns to the Farm after rushing for 2,118 yards and 19 scores last fall. Love is a dynamic option on the ground, a threat to score every time he touches the ball and should be near the top of the Heisman favorites for 2018. Leading the way for Love is a massive offensive line, anchored by guard Nate Herbig and rising star tackle Walker Little. Quarterback K.J. Costello showed promise (1,573 passing yards and 14 TDs) as a redshirt freshman last year and is poised to take on a bigger role in the offense. Costello's favorite target is likely to be JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and tight end Kaden Smith should challenge for All-America honors. Costello's growth and development is critical due to the uncertainty surrounding Stanford's defense. The Cardinal gave up 22.7 points a game last fall and surrendered 5.98 yards a play -- its highest total over the last 10 years. This unit lost a couple of key cogs from last season's group, including disruptive tackle Harrison Phillips, safety Justin Reid and cornerback Quenton Meeks. The Cardinal lack proven options in the trenches, which is problematic for a run defense that finished seventh in the Pac-12 last fall. Shaw's team had some good fortune in close games last year, using a plus-16 turnover margin to help post five wins of 10 points or less. Unless the defense finds the right answers up front, Costello and Love will have to carry Stanford's offense to another level in order to win the North once again.
Projecting the Gators to finish No. 17 might come as a surprise to some, but Florida should get a bump from the addition of new coach Dan Mullen, and there's still plenty of talent in the program. Mullen's arrival is a big boost to an offense that averaged only 22.1 points a game last fall. Mullen has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks and will have his work cut out for him in 2018. Feleipe Franks struggled last season but finished spring as the favorite. However, he's far from secure as the No. 1 quarterback. Sophomore Kyle Trask and true freshman Emory Jones will battle for the job in fall camp. Until a quarterback emerges, look for Mullen to build his offense around a strong stable of running backs, along with an offensive line that returns all five starters from 2017. The line has room to improve after struggling last fall, but similar to the quarterback position, this unit should benefit from a coaching change. The return of Jordan Scarlett bolsters a backfield that already features Lamical Perine, Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis (if healthy). Receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney are likely to take a step forward in their development, and this unit received a boost with Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson being granted immediate eligibility. While the offense is a work in progress, the defense has a chance to rank among the best in the SEC. The Gators return six starters, including cornerbacks Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to anchor the SEC's No. 1 secondary. Edge rusher Cece Jefferson should thrive under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The schedule also is favorable for a quick rebound in Mullen's debut. Florida has only three road SEC games, hosts LSU, Missouri and South Carolina and won't leave its home state after an Oct. 13 matchup at Vanderbilt.
16. Virginia Tech
The Hokies haven't missed a beat since Justin Fuente took over for Frank Beamer. Fuente has guided Virginia Tech to 19 wins over the last two years and another double-digit season of victories is within reach for 2018. Quarterback Josh Jackson is back after a breakout season as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Jackson averaged 255 yards a game, completed 59.6 percent of his passes and averaged 6.4 yards a play. He should be even better as a sophomore, especially if the supporting cast continues to develop. Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton and senior C.J. Carroll will be counted on to fill the void left behind by Cam Phillips at receiver. The offense averaged only 3.31 yards a carry in ACC games last fall. Fuente is likely to use a committee approach, with Steven Peoples, Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston in line to share carries. Guard Wyatt Teller will be missed up front, but the line returns three starters, including All-ACC candidate Yosuah Nijman at tackle. Bud Foster's defense usually ranks near the top of the ACC, so there's no panic in Blacksburg despite losing a handful of key players from last year's unit. The strength of the 2018 defense is up front. Tackle Ricky Walker is poised to challenge for All-America honors, with senior Vinny Mihota sliding inside from end to help anchor the interior. Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka leave big shoes to fill at linebacker. Mook Reynolds will be counted upon for leadership and to guide this unit, especially since inexperienced sophomores Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby could take starting jobs. The secondary also was hit hard by departures from last season, along with the summer departure of Adonis Alexander at cornerback. If the defense reloads as expected and Jackson takes a step forward, the Nov. 17 showdown versus Miami could decide the Coastal Division title.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2018
15. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish rebounded in a big way from a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016. Coach Brian Kelly's team started 8-1 and was squarely in the mix for a CFB Playoff spot before finishing the regular season with two losses in their last three games. A 10-3 record marked the second time in three years Notre Dame reached double-digit victories. Another 10-win season could be in the works for 2018. The defense showed marked under coordinator Mike Elko, holding opponents to 21.5 points a game -- down from 27.8 in 2016. Elko left for Texas A&M, and Kelly opted for continuity when he promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea. Lea is a first-time coordinator at the FBS level but returns nine starters, including All-America candidates in defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te'von Coney and cornerback Julian Love. The biggest question marks for the Fighting Irish remain on offense. Will quarterback Brandon Wimbush take a step forward in his second year as the starter? And how will the team replace standout linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey? Dexter Williams and Tony Jones should be a solid one-two punch on the ground, but the offense won't improve without more consistency from Wimbush. The schedule features home games against Michigan, Stanford and Florida State, along with road trips to Virginia Tech and USC.
New coach Joe Moorhead is stepping into one of the best situations of any first-year coach in 2018. The Bulldogs won nine games under Dan Mullen last season and return most of that core. Moorhead transformed Penn State's offense into one of nation's most explosive attacks over the last two years and inherits a group that averaged 32 points a game in 2017. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ranked third in the SEC with 230.5 total yards a contest last fall but suffered a significant ankle injury in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. While Fitzgerald was limited in the spring, he's set to return to full strength in the fall. The senior's rushing ability isn't in question but he has room to improve as a passer after completing 55.6 percent of his throws last year. Fitzgerald needs more help from his receiving corps after the Bulldogs generated just one pass play of 50 yards or more last season. Junior college recruit Stephen Guidry, freshmen Devonta Jason, Malik Heath and Austin Williams and the return of Malik Dear from injury should provide a boost to this unit. Mississippi State also boasts one of the SEC's top offensive lines, anchored by guard Darryl Williams and center Elgton Jenkins. New coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that allowed only 20.9 points a game last fall and could be even better in 2018. Linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat combined for 27.5 tackles for a loss last season and should push for All-America honors in 2018. Leo Lewis, Willie Gay and Erroll Thompson are the main contributors at linebacker, and the safety position is set with Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram returning. Shoop doesn't have many concerns to address this offseason, but the cornerback spot is one area to watch this fall. A non-conference road trip to Kansas State provides an intriguing non-conference affair, and Mississippi State hosts Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M in key conference swing games. Assuming the coaching transition is seamless (as most expect), the Bulldogs should push for 10 victories in 2018.
13. Florida State
It's a new era at Florida State with Willie Taggart taking over in 2018. While there are a few big changes on the way for the Seminoles, this program is poised to rebound from last year's 7-6 record. Taggart is transitioning the offense from a pro-style approach to more of a spread, up-tempo attack. The shift should be a relatively seamless move, as Taggart has plenty of weapons to build around. Of course, there's still an ongoing battle at quarterback. However, Taggart has to feel good about his options under center. Deondre Francois was one of the ACC's top returning quarterbacks last fall but suffered a season-ending leg injury in the opener against Alabama. James Blackman was pressed into duty to replace Francois as a true freshman and threw for 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns. Additionally, redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2017 signing class. The Seminoles don't have a clear answer under center yet, but there's no shortage of options. The running back corps is among the best in the nation, with rising star Cam Akers joining Jacques Patrick to form an effective one-two punch. More depth is needed at receiver, but Nyqwan Murray is one of the ACC's top returning targets, and sophomore D.J. Matthews is poised to take on a bigger role in 2018. The line returns four starters, but this unit needs to take a step forward after giving up 32 sacks last fall. New coordinator Harlon Barnett inherits a defense that returns only three starters, but the cupboard isn't empty on talent. Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas anchor a talented line, with cornerback Levonta Taylor poised to challenge for All-America honors. Defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, cornerback Stanford Samuels III and safety Jaiden Woodbey are three promising players to watch this fall. Barnett's biggest concern rests at linebacker following the departures of Matthew Thomas, Ro'Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh. Florida State will be tested right away with Virginia Tech visiting Tallahassee in the opener. And Taggart's team has a chance to make even more noise in the Atlantic Division with Clemson visiting Doak Campbell Stadium on Oct. 27.
12. Michigan State
The Spartans were one of college football's most improved teams in 2017, increasing their win total by seven games from the previous year. With 19 starters back and home games against Ohio State and Michigan, coach Mark Dantonio's team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title. Quarterback Brian Lewerke had a standout first season as the starter in East Lansing, averaging 257.8 total yards a game and accounting for 25 total scores. He should take another step forward in his development, especially with a receiving corps that ranks among the Big Ten's best and a strong foundation in the trenches. Running back LJ Scott anchors the ground game after leading the team in rushing each of the past three seasons. The Spartans could use a little more production from the backfield after averaging just 3.5 yards a carry in Big Ten contests last fall. Similar to the offense, the defense is largely set for 2018. New coordinator Mike Tressel won't make drastic changes from a unit that limited opponents to 20 points a game in 2017. End Kenny Willekes is back after recording seven sacks last season, while linebacker Joe Bachie is a candidate for All-America honors. Justin Layne and Josiah Scott form a promising duo of young cornerbacks, while safety David Dowell returns after picking off five passes in 2017. Michigan State may be due for some regression in the luck department after winning six games by 10 points or less last season. However, with a loaded depth chart and one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks and head coaches, the Spartans aren't going to need all of the bounces in their favor to win 10 games once again.
Related: Big Ten 2018 All-Conference Team
11. Penn State
Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, the bar is set high in Happy Valley once again for the Nittany Lions. And despite a few personnel losses, coach James Franklin's team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten title. The big-play ability of running back Saquon Barkley will be missed, but the offense won't suffer too much thanks to the return of quarterback Trace McSorley. The senior is the Big Ten's top returning signal-caller after averaging 312.4 total yards a game last fall. Miles Sanders is slated to replace Barkley at running back, and the junior is primed for a breakout year with a full complement of carries. The offensive line is deeper and more talented than at any point in Franklin's four-year tenure at Penn State. McSorley will miss receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, but the cupboard isn't empty. Junior Juwan Johnson, senior DeAndre Thompkins and freshmen KJ Hamler and Justin Shorter will keep the passing attack performing at a high level. The Nittany Lions have made considerable progress on offense over the last two years, but coordinator Joe Moorhead left for Mississippi State following the 2017 season. Franklin opted for continuity by promoting Ricky Rahne to take over the play-calling duties, and he will be under pressure to keep this attack firing on all cylinders. The defense returns only two starters from a unit that limited opponents to 16.5 points a game in 2017. Despite the turnover in personnel, this group is still in good shape. Cornerback John Reid is back from injury, and five-star freshman Micah Parsons should provide help at linebacker. End Shareef Miller leads the way for a talented defensive front. Penn State's schedule features home games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, so there's a favorable path to the East Division title. Winning the division will likely come down to how Rahne handles his first season as the offensive coordinator, along with how fast the defense settles into place with new faces stepping into key roles at every level.
Even though coach Lincoln Riley's high-powered offense has a few big names to replace, Oklahoma is still the team to beat in the Big 12. The Sooners averaged 45.1 points a game last season, which nearly carried this team to the national championship. However, quarterback Baker Mayfield, left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews have departed Norman. Mayfield's lethal accuracy and all-around playmaking ability won't be easy to replace, but Riley should find ways to keep this offense performing at a high level. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray is the favorite to replace Mayfield, with Austin Kendall pushing him once again in the fall. Murray is a dangerous runner but has room to grow as a passer. Regardless of who starts, they will have one of the nation's top receiving corps at their disposal. CeeDee Lamb returns after a promising freshman campaign, with junior Marquise Brown back to provide more big plays on the outside. Until a quarterback emerges, Oklahoma's offense can lean on its ground game. Running back Rodney Anderson returns after rushing for 1,161 yards last fall, with sophomore Trey Sermon providing a dynamic No. 2 option. Even though Brown must be replaced, the line is still one of the best in the nation. Left tackle Bobby Evans is a candidate for All-America honors, with Ben Powers and Dru Samia back to anchor the guard spots. With the offense likely to take a small step back without Mayfield, Oklahoma needs more out of its defense to make a run at the CFB Playoff. This unit surrendered 27.1 points a game and struggled to stop the run (156.5 ypg) last fall. True freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles should provide a boost in the secondary, and the duo of Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray provides a good foundation at linebacker. Riley's ability to build elite offenses should minimize the concerns about the personnel losses on that side of the ball. However, the margin for error is a little smaller without Mayfield leading the way.
Led by a powerful ground attack and one of the nation's top defenses, Wisconsin was on the doorstep of a Big Ten title and a trip to the CFB Playoff last year. But with matchups at Michigan, Iowa and Penn State, this fall's schedule features more obstacles to another unbeaten regular season. However, coach Paul Chryst's team isn't going to fade from the playoff mix. Jonathan Taylor set a new FBS freshman rushing record with 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns on 299 attempts. Taylor will the focal point of the offense once again, but there's quality depth at the position with the return of Taiwan Deal, Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and freshman Nakia Watson. Helping to clear rushing lanes for Taylor is the nation's No. 1 offensive line. Right tackle David Edwards and guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel are All-America candidates. Even though the combination of Taylor and the offensive line is good enough to win the Big Ten's West Division, the Badgers could have more of a balanced attack in 2018. That's due to the development of quarterback Alex Hornibrook, along with the emergence of a deep receiving corps. Considering the firepower on this side of the ball, Chryst may have to lean on his offense a little more in 2018 to compensate for a defense that returns just three starters. The Badgers suffocated opponents last year, holding them to just 13.9 points and less than 100 rushing yards a game. However, coordinator Jim Leonhard has holes to fill at every level. Gone are key players like cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, end Alec James, safety Natrell Jamerson and linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley. The list of departures is lengthy and significant, but Leonhard can build his 2018 unit around one of the nation's top linebacker units. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly anchor the interior of the 3-4 unit, with Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun back to fill the outside spots. Sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams needs a big year at cornerback, with safety D'Cota Dixon among the top returning defensive backs in the Big Ten. How quickly the defense reloads is likely to determine whether or not Wisconsin makes the playoff.
The Huskies are the clear No. 1 team in the Pac-12 and the league's best hope of a playoff team for 2018. Washington earned a CFB Playoff bid in 2016 but fell to 10 wins last season, largely due to a lack of big plays in the passing game. Quarterback Jake Browning is back for his fourth season as the starter and is one of the top returning signal-callers in college football. However, Browning clearly missed John Ross' speed on the outside last year. Who steps up at receiver for Browning in 2018? Senior Chico McClatcher and freshman Marquis Spiker are two potential candidates for a breakout year on the outside. Running back Myles Gaskin leads the way on the ground, aiming for his fourth 1,000-yard campaign. Gaskin will be running behind one of the Pac-12's top offensive lines, which includes standout left tackle Trey Adams back from injury. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense for three consecutive seasons and is likely to retain that crown once again. The Huskies will miss tackle Vita Vea, but the two-deep is stocked with talent for co-coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski. Senior Greg Gaines will fill Vea's presence in the trenches, while Ben Burr-Kirven, Ryan Bowman and Tevis Bartlett are back to anchor the linebacker unit. The strength of the defense is a secondary that returns all five starters, including lockdown cornerback Byron Murphy. Washington's defensive backfield could be the best in college football by the end of the 2018 season. Road trips to Oregon and Utah will test Chris Petersen's team in the first half of the year, but Stanford visits Seattle in November. However, the biggest test of 2018 comes in the opener in a neutral site matchup against Auburn. Regardless of how that matchup plays out, an undefeated record in Pac-12 action should keep Washington in the mix for a playoff spot.
If Auburn is going to go back-to-back as SEC West champions, it will have to do so on the road in 2018. After hosting Georgia and Alabama last season, the Tigers catch their top rivals on the road. Additionally, coach Gus Malzahn's team draws Mississippi State in Starkville and plays Washington in a neutral site matchup for Week 1. While the schedule is tough, Malzahn has the necessary personnel to push for another New Year's Six bid and the SEC West crown once again. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns after throwing for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first year on the Plains last fall. The offense will lean even more on Stidham in 2018, as running back Kerryon Johnson departed for the NFL. But a major concern for Malzahn and Stidham has to be in the trenches. Four senior starters are gone from a unit that allowed 15 sacks in SEC play last season. Stidham's receiving corps suffered a setback with injuries to Will Hastings and Eli Stove in the spring, but Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers is a solid trio to build around on the outside. Auburn's defense ranked among the best in the SEC after holding opponents to 18.5 points a game in 2017. This unit remains strong, including a line that ranks among the best in college football. Senior Deshaun Davis anchors the linebacker unit, while Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis form a solid tandem at cornerback. If the offensive line develops, Auburn could be 9-0 headed into its Nov. 10 showdown at Georgia.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2018
Thanks to a 10-0 start and an ACC Coastal Division title, Miami muscled its way into CFB Playoff contention -- likely a year earlier than most anticipated under coach Mark Richt. The Hurricanes are a program on the rise for 2018 and should be in the mix for a spot in the top four once again. However, there are a few obstacles to overcome. Malik Rosier threw for 3,120 yards and 26 touchdowns to 14 picks last fall, but the senior is being pushed by N'Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams for the starting quarterback job. Rosier needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball after last year's interception total and must raise his completion percentage (54 percent). Outside of the quarterback situation, the offensive line is likely to garner the most attention from Richt this offseason. This unit returns three starters, including All-ACC candidates Navaughn Donaldson. But two starting spots are up for grabs, and this unit needs to play with more consistency after giving up 24 sacks in league contests last year. A healthy season from Ahmmon Richards will help whoever starts at quarterback, and Miami has plenty of talented weapons on the outside thanks to the return of Lawrence Cager, Jeff Thomas, Mike Harley and incoming freshman Mark Pope. The ground game is in great shape with the return of Travis Homer, along with the emergence of DeeJay Dallas and freshman Lorenzo Lingard. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has to fill a few spots in the trenches, but the Turnover Chain should be prominent once again in South Florida. The Hurricanes return one of the ACC's top pass rushers in Joe Jackson, while the linebacker unit is among the best in college football. Sophomore Trajan Bandy could be poised for a breakout year at cornerback, which would solidify a unit that returns three starters. After losing its final three games of 2017, Miami won't be hurting for motivation this fall. An athletic and speedy defense is good enough for the ‘Canes to take the top spot in the Coastal. But taking the next step and knocking off Clemson or reaching the CFB Playoff will hinge on how well the offense performs. With a matchup against LSU in Week 1, Miami will find out right away where it stands on both sides of the ball.
Projecting Michigan to finish No. 5 might come as a surprise to some, but the Wolverines are poised to rebound in a big way. Coach Jim Harbaugh's team returns 14 starters and received a boost in late April when quarterback Shea Patterson was awarded immediate eligibility. Patterson has a big-time arm, but his biggest asset to the offense could be mobility. Michigan's offensive line has been a source of concern in recent years and enters the 2018 season with a few question marks. The addition of assistant Ed Warinner should help the offensive line take a step forward in 2018, but this unit could be a work in progress throughout the year. The skill positions are stocked with promising talent for Patterson. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans provide a potent one-two punch at running back, with Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins poised to emerge at receiver. The unquestioned strength of Harbaugh's team remains its defense. Michigan's defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary are all among the nation's best units. Linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are poised to wreak havoc off the edge, while linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson make plays around the line of scrimmage. The cornerback combination of David Long and Lavert Hill might be the best in college football. If Michigan is going to earn a CFB Playoff bid, it will have to do so on the road. The Wolverines must play at Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame, with Penn State and Wisconsin set to visit Ann Arbor. Harbaugh arrived at Michigan with high expectations and was just a couple of plays away from making the Big Ten title game in 2016. Last season's team represented a rebuilding effort. The Wolverines returned only six starters, used three starting quarterbacks, posted a minus-four turnover margin and lost four games by 14 points or less. With more stability at quarterback, along with the development of young playmakers to go with a shutdown defense, Michigan should rebound to double-digit wins in 2018.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes lose some key members from last year's team that claimed the Big Ten title, but the conference title still runs through Columbus in 2018. With Joe Burrow opting to transfer, Dwayne Haskins is the clear No. 1 quarterback headed into fall practice. Haskins has played well in limited action and should benefit from the additional reps with the No. 1 offense. The sophomore is a better passer than former starter J.T. Barrett but may not be as effective on the ground. That's not a concern for offensive co-coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson, as the backfield is stocked with talent. J.K. Dobbins leads the way at running back after rushing for 1,403 yards as a freshman in 2017, with Mike Weber also in line for carries. Haskins has a deep group of playmakers at his disposal, including Parris Campbell (40 catches), K.J. Hill (56) and Binjimen Victor. The line usually reloads without much trouble in Columbus, but center Billy Price and tackle Jamarco Jones leave big shoes to fill. As usual, Urban Meyer's defense should be one of the Big Ten's top groups. Ends Nick Bosa and Chase Young and tackle Dre'Mont Jones anchor a line that could be the best in college football outside of Clemson. Denzel Ward will be missed at cornerback, but sophomore Jeffrey Okudah and freshman Shaun Wade are poised to take on bigger roles to help veterans Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette. Linebacker was a concern for defensive co-coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch at the open of spring ball, and those concerns grew after Tuf Borland suffered an Achilles injury. Borland is slated to return in 2018, but the Buckeyes may have a few growing pains until the young talent has a chance to develop. Assuming Ohio State survives road trips to Penn State and Michigan State, the Nov. 24 showdown against Michigan should determine the Big Ten East champion.
Related: Big Ten 2018 Predictions
Kirby Smart's Bulldogs fell just short of a national championship last season, but it won't be the last time this program reaches the CFB Playoff. Georgia is primed for another run at the top four in 2018, as Smart's team is likely to be favored in all 12 of its regular season contests. The defense was the strength of last year's team, holding opponents to 16.4 points a game. This unit has a few holes to fill, namely at linebacker following the departure of Roquan Smith to the NFL. Thanks to elite recruiting classes, the cupboard is stocked with promising talent at every level. Jonathan Ledbetter and Tyler Clark form an effective duo in the trenches, while Natrez Patrick is slated to return after being away from the team for the final two contests last year. Providing a pass rush off the edge will be D'Andre Walker and Walter Grant, with freshmen Adam Anderson, Robert Beal and Brenton Cox also poised to push for snaps. Senior cornerback Deandre Baker and safety J.R. Reed will contend for All-America honors. Despite some personnel turnover on defense, this unit returns enough of a foundation to prevent too much of a drop-off in 2018. Until the defense jells, Smart can ask more of his offense. Jake Fromm returns under center after a promising freshman campaign. Fromm threw for 24 touchdowns to just seven picks but could be pushed by five-star freshman Justin Fields. Terry Godwin should be the go-to target, while Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman are primed for bigger roles in 2018. As usual, Georgia is deep at running back. D'Andre Swift is slated to take over the starting role, with freshmen James Cook and Zamir White, along with junior Elijah Holyfield, supplying depth. With four returning starters and some promising freshmen, the line ranks among the best in the nation. Barring an upset or a loss to Auburn in November, Georgia has a favorable path to 12-0 in the regular season -- setting up a showdown with Alabama for the SEC title.
Clemson has been a model of consistency since 2011. The Tigers have won at least 10 games every year during that span and have earned three consecutive CFB Playoff berths. There's no reason to expect that to change in 2018. Dabo Swinney's team represents the biggest threat to Alabama's hopes of a repeat. Both sides of the ball are loaded, but the strength of this team is a defensive line that's overflowing with talent. Ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, along with tackle Christian Wilkins, passed on the NFL for one more season in Death Valley. Additionally, junior Dexter Lawrence is back to join Wilkins on the interior, with freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry battling for snaps on the outside. The back seven also is in great shape for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Kendall Joseph is the new leader of the linebacker unit after Dorian O'Daniel finished his eligibility, while Tre Lamar, Isaiah Simmons, Jalen Williams and Shaq Smith provide Venables with talent, speed and depth across the board. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen could push for All-America honors this fall. Despite a solid debut as Clemson's No. 1 quarterback (and replacing Deshaun Watson), Kelly Bryant isn't guaranteed to start in 2018. That's due to the arrival of five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who would give the offense more ability to push the ball downfield. The ground game is set with the return of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, and there's no shortage of athletic playmakers on the outside. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt is among the top linemen in the nation, anchoring a group that returns two other starters. Road trips to Texas A&M and Florida State won't be easy. However, Clemson should make its fourth consecutive trip to the CFB Playoff. And if the true freshman quarterback is as good as advertised, the Tigers could bring home their second title in three years.
Alabama is the only team to go back-to-back (2011-12) as college football's national champion since the start of the BCS era in 1998. History is working against Nick Saban's team, but the Crimson Tide are Athlon's pick to win it all in 2018. As with any Saban-led team, the defense will be an elite group. The 2018 version of Alabama's defense features a couple of question marks, but it's hard to be too concerned. Da'Ron Payne's presence on the interior of the line will be missed, and the secondary will be an entirely new group of starters. However, the end combination of Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs will be dynamic off the edge, and the linebacker unit is stocked with promising talent. Junior Mack Wilson, sophomore Dylan Moses and edge rusher Anfernee Jennings could all have breakout years at linebacker. While the secondary features four new starters, this unit isn't hurting. Former LSU and junior college cornerback Saivion Smith steps into one cornerback spot, while freshman Patrick Surtain could claim the other. In a role reversal in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's offense is likely to be the strength of this team. Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa impressed in limited action last fall, which included the game-winning touchdown pass in the national championship. Tagovailoa still needs to officially hold off Jalen Hurts for the starting job, but the sophomore brings more to the passing attack. The sophomore trio of DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs is a dynamic group of receivers. Saban and new play-caller Mike Locksley also have an embarrassment of riches at running back. Senior Damien Harris will be the leader of the backfield, but sophomore Najee Harris will be tough to keep on the sidelines. Led by junior Jonah Williams, the offensive line is likely to be among the best in college football. The Crimson Tide may need a couple of games to sort out the new faces on defense. However, this team should be a heavy favorite in most of its games and now has more offensive firepower than in recent years. Assuming Tagovailoa is as good as expected, Saban is likely to hoist his third national title in four seasons.