Others int the conversation: Northwestern, Texas A&M, NC State, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Oregon, Kansas State, Louisville, Memphis, FAU, Purdue, Florida, Iowa State, UCLA, Fresno State, Washington State, Houston
After winning the National Championship on the back of a gallant performance from freshman quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, the Tide will likely enter 2018 as the number one ranked team in the AP Poll. Tagovailoa will almost certainly be taking over for Jalen Hurts under center and provide a greater passing threat for Alabama’s offense. The receiving corps will miss Calvin Ridley, but Jerry Jeudy should step in to fill the void nicely along will Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith. Alabama will also be uplifted by news of leading rusher Damien Harris’s decision to forgo entry to 2018 NFL draft. Look for former five star recruit Najee Harris to also potentially break out at the running back position. Both backs will be running behind an offensive line that should once again prove one of the best in the country. On the defensive side of the ball Nick Saban faces the loss of a number of key contributors including Da’Ron Payne and Minkah Fitpatrick among others. Nevertheless, the Tide still boast an incredibly talented and deep roster on defense with names like Raekwon Davis, Christan Miller, and Isaiah Buggs. The added dimension of a passing game plus a customarily strong running game and stalwart defense should see the Tide to the top of the preseason AP Poll for the third straight season.
The number one seed in last year’s playoffs, and champions the year before, the Tigers will again have national title hopes. Despite getting obliterated by the Tide in this past year’s semifinal, the Clemson Tigers have a real argument for the number one ranking. Dabo Swinney’s team is returning the majority of its key contributors from last season and looks prepped for another trip to the final. On defense the Tigers will be bringing back number of players who turned the chance at becoming high selections in the 2018 NFL draft. Clelin Ferell, Christian Wilkins, Kendall Joseph, and Austin Bryant were potential first round picks and are all coming back to give Clemson perhaps the best past rush in the country (along with phenom Dexter Lawrence). Offensively, the tigers boast a similar embarrassment of riches. Kelly Bryant returns to quarterback this team after a successful first season, but may face some competition from his teammates. Hunter Johnson, one of the top pocket passing quarterback recruits from a year ago is waiting in the wings. As if that wasn’t enough, Trevor Lawrence will finally be on campus and the freshman is heralded as one of the most polished young quarterback prospects in recent memory. The Tigers return all four of their leading rushers from last year, but Travis Etienne in particular should lead the pack after a stellar freshman campaign. Kelly Bryant is losing his number one receiver in Deon Cain, but former five star recruit Tee Higgins and and 2017 national championship hero Hunter Renfrow give the quarterback a number of options in the passing game. Overall, n extremely balanced and experience roster should spell at least a top 3 preseason ranking for Clemson.
Although the heartbreak of an overtime loss in the National Championship will haunt the Bulldogs, Georgia’s outlook for next season is highly encouraging. Kirby Smart has managed to put together the top recruiting class of 2018. However, the Bulldogs success will come down more to the returning players on their roster. In 2017, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm burst onto the scene and lead this team to CFP final. As well as Fromm played, he’ll likely still be looking over his shoulder for Justin Field. Fields, a five star dual threat quarterback, steps on campus as one of the most prized quarterback recruits in recent memory. Unseating Jake Fromm may seem unlikely, yet it was Fromm himself who supplanted a heralded sophomore quarterback in Jacob Eason to win the job this past year. Whichever way the cookie crumbles, the Dawgs are set at quarterback. Despite losing the most lethal backfield tandem in the nation to the NFL Draft (Sony Michel and Nick Chubb), the Bulldogs are well equipped in the run game as well. D’Andre Swift flashed breakout potential in 2017, but Elijah Holyfield and 2018 five star recruit Zamir White should also bolster the rushing attack. Taking after his mentor Nick Saban, Coach Kirby Smart has assembled one of the best defenses in country behind players like Jonathan Ledbetter, DeAndre Walker, JR Reed. Losses on defense to stars like Roquan Smith, Davin Bellamy, and Lorenzo Carter will be tough to get over, but the Bulldogs have earned a top five ranking in this year’s preseason poll at minimum.
4. Ohio State
Ohio State will come into the 2018 season with something to prove after being left out of the College Football Playoffs this past year. Perennial Favorites, the Buckeyes return one of the more talented rosters in the country. The only question mark heading into the season will be the quarterback position. As successful as JT Barrett was throughout his career in Columbus, his departure may in fact make the Buckeyes better. Dwayne Haskins Jr. is known as a far more capable pocket passer, who should be far more capable of utilizing weapons like Paris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin, and KJ Hill. But the passing game may not even be the most dangerous part of their offense. JK Dobbins led the Big Ten East in rushing last year as a freshmen and opens as one of the favorites for the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Mike Weber also surprisingly elected to return to for his redshirt junior year after speculation that he would enter the NFL Draft. Urban Meyer will lose stars Denzel Ward, Sam Hubbard, Jerome Baker, and Tyquan Lewis on defense. But the Buckeyes still boast tons of elite talent on that side of the ball with players like Nick Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones. The Buckeyes should again be a playoff contender and the favorite in the Big Ten; that is unless Penn State has anything to say about it.
5. Penn State
James Franklin has done an impeccable job as head coach of the Nittany Lions. Through the past two seasons his team has gone 22-5. Penn State entered last season as a playoff favorite and finished the year 11-2. However, this doesn’t paint the entire picture of the Nittany Lions’ season. Penn State’s two losses came by a combined 4 points. If not for a rain delay at Michigan State and an epic fourth quarter comeback at by Ohio State, the boys at University Park would have an undefeated regular season on their hands. For that reason many hold that Penn State may have in fact been the best team in the conference. But with Saquon Barkley headed to NFL and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead off to coach Mississippi State, how could Penn State possibly trend upward? James Franklin himself has given Barkley’s successor a vote of confidence. The coach has been quoted saying that he does not expect any drop-off when former five star recruit Miles Sanders takes over the starting running back position. Even more important to Penn State’s success will be the return of senior quarterback Trace McSorley. McSorley is regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in college football after his performance across the past two seasons. As long as he is at helm, Penn State is one of the most dangerous teams in the conference.
Down the stretch of the 2017 regular season, Auburn found their form knocking off both CFP finalists Alabama and Georgia, within the span of three weeks. These performances had pundits speculating that the Tigers may have in fact been the best team in the country when they were on their game. And while the 2017 season ended in disappointment with consecutive losses to Georgia and UCF, the 2018 season in Auburn will begin with plenty of optimism. Much of that optimism comes down to quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s return to campus. Stidham passed up a chance at the NFL and will hope to elevate his draft stock lead the Tigers’ offense. The good news for the returning quarterback is that he will retain all six of his top receiving targets including Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton, Will Hastings, Nate Craig-Myers, Eli Stove, and Kyle Davis. The bad news is that the tigers will lose pivotal parts of their running game as both Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway are headed for the draft. However, Kam Martin has shown lead back potential and should be able to carry the torch for the Tigers’ offense. Auburn is also losing a ton of talent on defense that they will need to replace. Carlton Davis, Jeff Holland, Tray Matthews were playmakers for this defense in 2017, but the tigers will be hoping talents like Dontavius Russell, Deshaun Davis, Andrew Brown, and Marlon Davidson can step up to keep this unit afloat. Despite some concerns on both sides of the ball, Auburn should be the best team in the SEC West not named Alabama.
Wisconsin is another team that will feel a bit slighted after missing the College Football Playoff. The Badgers made their way through the regular season undefeated. While that’s no small feat in the Big Ten, pundits had been reluctant to show this team any respect due to the fact that they played a weak schedule. That criticism was certainly valid, but that is not to say the 2017 Badgers were not for real. Year after the year the Badger’s strength offensively is predicated on stellar offensive line play that allows them to impose their will on the ground. This has always been the blueprint at Wisconsin and last year was certainly no different. True freshmen running back Jonathan Taylor exploded for just under 2000 yards and was second in the nation in rushing. As integral as the run game has been for Wisconsin over the years, their defense has been just as vital to their success. The Badgers will return number of starters on D and field another staunch upper echelon defense headlined by TJ Edwards. What is arguably the best defense in the conference should set up the Badgers nicely for another playoff push. The only point of doubt surrounding this program is quarterback play. That being said Alex Hornibrook acquitted himself nicely this past season despite battling threw turnover issues. Hornibrook is losing star Tight end Troy Fumagali to the draft, but he’ll have no shortage of weapons at his disposal with Quintez Cephus’ return to good health. The Badgers have all the tools to win the Big Ten and possibly even make the playoffs; that is if they can finally beat Ohio State.
Is “the U” back? The jury is still out on that question. Throughout much of this past season Miami looked like a CFP contender on the back of their defense. In spite of the fact that they let the wheels come off a bit later in the season, the Hurricanes look primed for another big year in 2018. Most of the playmakers on that vaunted defense characterized by the turnover chain will be back on campus next season. The program announced earlier that the turnover chain will be making its return next season as will key defensive contributors in the secondary JaQuan Johnson, Michael Jackson, Sheldrick Redwine. However, The Hurricanes’ front seven will take a hit as they lose RJ McIntosh, Chad Thomas, and Kendrick Norton to the draft. Yet I would still expect this defense to be perhaps the most formidable unit in the ACC behind’s Clemson’s. The question mark with this team will be their offense. While it wasn’t necessarily their strength last year, much of their struggles can be attributed to crucial injuries to players like Mark Walton, Ahhmon Richards, and Christopher Herndon. Mark Walton will now be permanently absent as he’s chosen to enter the 2018 NFL Draft. But Miami fans shouldn’t worry as Travis Homer made a seamless transition in the lead running back role amassing almost 1,000 yards. In the passing game, the Hurricanes will be losing seniors Braxton Berrios and Christopher Herndon. This is a major hit to that offense, but Miami will be lifted by the fact that revered 2019 NFL Prospect and number one receiver Ahmonn Richards will have an opportunity to get healthy and lead this receiving core. The real point of intrigue will be quarterback Malik Rosier’s progression. The dual threat QB had a great first season as a starter but his inexperience began to show in the latter half of the season. If Rosier can put together another good year, the Hurricanes should be favorites in the ACC Coastal Division. But I wouldn’t expect them to trouble a team like Clemson in the conference championship.
Baker Mayfield’s incredible career with the Sooners has finally come to an end. His illustrious tenure in Norman will be marked by a 36-4 record, two trips to the college football playoff, and a Heisman Trophy. Suffice it say Oklahoma will miss having Mayfield around campus. Obvisously expectations for this program will be tempered heading into next season without their star player. However, with former five star recruit Kyler Murray taking over, I wouldn’t necessarily expect a dropoff. Murray is a dynamic dual threat quarterback who looked more than capable in the limited action he saw this past season. The Texas A&M transfer is not yet the passer that Mayfield was, but is even more than his predecessor with his legs. Furthermore, Murray will not have to be superman in his first year as a starter, seeing as the Sooners are returning a singificant amount of talent on offense. Oklahoma sports one of the best backfields in the country with the arsenal of Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon, and Abdul Adams. Anderson turned the chance to enter the NFL draft as a potential first or second round pick and will enter 2018 as a Heisman hopeful. Murray will also have an array of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. CeeDee Lamb and Marquise brown should prove particularly lethal. Unfortunately Tight End Mark Andrews is also off to the NFL, but Grant Calceterra showed promise at the position as a freshman. One area where the Sooners are relatively thin is on defense. The Sooners’ defense that wasn’t exactly a brick wall will also be losing players Ogbonnia Okoronknwo and Jordan Thomas. But if you know anything about Big 12 football, defense isn’t all that important. Especially when you a high powered offense like Oklahoma’s. For all the points they give up, the Sooners will likely still have one of the better defenses in the conference with players like Preston McKinney .The heartbreak of losing to Georgia and the Rose Bowl coupled with the sting of losing star quarterback surely left a bad taste in the Sooner fans mouthes. Although it may feel like hope is lost after both of those significant losses, a return to this next year’s playoffs is by no means unthinkable.
Coach Chris Petersen’s Tenure is Seattle has seen the Huskies to one of their best stretches in program history. Fresh off of a playoff appearance in 2017, the Huskies entered this past season ranked the number 8 team in the country. Despite managing a 10-3 record, finishing the year ranked #16 marked somewhat of a disappointing campaign for a team that hoped to return college football’s biggest stage. The good news for this team is that with all of talent returning in 2018, another run at the playoffs may be within reach. Washington and Stanford will again vie for Pac 12 North supremacy, but the Huskies look set to field an impressive roster this year. Star quarterback Jake Browning has lead this team to a 22-5 record as a starter and returns to the school as the most accomplished quarterback in the PAC 12. This offenses stock will be further boosted by news of Star running back Myles Gaskin’s returns to school for his senior season after posting over 1,300 yards rushing in each of first three seasons as a starter. The tandem of Browning and Gaskin should give the Huskies one of the most potent offenses in both the conference and the country. In addition, their offense the Huskies will also bring to the table what is likely the best defense in the conference Despite losing studs Vita Vea and Azeem Victor the Huskies have far and away the most star studded defense in the conference with name Greg Gaines, Jojo McInstosh, and Jordan Miller among others. With the rest of the Pac 12 being notoriously thin on this side of the ball, the Huskies will likely be heavily favored to finish the season as champions. Chris Petersen’s men will be hoping for another shot at not only a conference championship but a national championship. Unfortunately a week one matchup against Auburn stands in their way.
11. Notre Dame
Notre Dame is team a that looked like College Football Playoff contenders mid way through the year, until a crushing defeat at Miami derailed their season. It is tough to say whether the Fighting Irish will be able to recapture that early season form this year, after facing so many key losses. Offensive line play was the Irish’s calling card in 2017 and that unit is losing its two best players in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Their ability to pass protect and open up running lanes helped Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams floruish on offense. Speaking of Josh Adams, Notre Dame’s star running back is also departing for the NFL leaving a hole at the running back position. Dexter Williams will have to step in to fill the void but the position will still be a question mark. Another question has to do with the quarterback position. There have been whispers that a quarterback controversy may be brewing in South Bend after Brandon Wimbush’s inconsistent play under center. Wimbush is gifted as a runner but his limitations as a passer, particularly when under pressure, have fans and pundits questions whether backup Ian Book might be a better option for the Irish. Furthermore, the job will likely be even tougher this year with the loss of number one receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to the NFL. Look for Chase Claypool to take over in Brown’s stead. But for all the outrage about losses on offense, it is important to note that this team is retaining all of its key contributors on defense. Jerry Tillery, Tevon Coney, and Drue Tranquill are all projected to be high picks in the 2019 NFL draft class and will spearhead a very capable defense for Notre Dame. As solid as they are on defense, this number eleven still feels a bit like wishful thinking. Number eleven is probably about as high this team will rise. And with an opening day matchup against Michigan on their Schedule, Notre Dame’s season may be on life support from the get go.
The Cardinal will begin the year as one of the favorites in the PAC 12. Most of the projection is based upon the amount of talent this team possesses of offense. After supplanting Keller Chryst this past season, heralded 2016 recruit KJ Costello will be the undisputed starter at quarterback for Stanford. Costello was stellar in relief of Chryst throughout the 2017 season before eventually unseating him altogether. Fans should be excited about this new quarterback regime after the sophomore posted a 79.4 raw QBR (6th in the nation). Even more important to this offense will be the run game. The program will be ecstatic that first round draft prospect Bryce Love shockingly decided to return for his senior season. After racking up over 2,000 rushing yards, Love comes back to school as a Heisman favorite in 2018, and the most integral part of the Cardinal’s PAC 12 title hopes. Another return that will boost morale is that of number one receiver, JJ Archega-Whiteside, who also passed up a shot at the draft. With all the talent coming back, this squad will no doubt be formidable on offense. However, where is is doubt is on the defensive side of the ball. This unit is losing a number of difference makers including Harrison Phillips at fefensive tackle and Justin Reid, and Quenton Meeks in the secondary. Although Aljiah Holder’s return will certainly give the the secondary a boost, this defense will likely face an adjustment period with a number of it stars. But can this juggernaut offense compensate for a defense dealing with so many departures? Time will tell.
13. Florida State
Florida State is coming off one its worst seasons in recent memory, and will enter this season with a new coach at the helm. Jimbo Fisher’s departure to Texas A&M, and the loss of a number of key contributors to the NFL draft, make a this next season a major question mark for Seminoles. Despite all of the turnover, there is still reason for optimism in Tallahassee. Florida State lured Coach Willie Taggart away from Oregon, and now will be headed by a hometown coach who should have no trouble recruiting in state. Perhaps even more important will be the return to good health of star quarterback DeAndre Francois. Francois’s season ending injury in last year’s season opener against Alabama significantly altered the trajectory of Florida State’s season. Although James Blackmon, acquitted himself competently for a freshman, Francois’s absence undeniably made a colossal difference. A team ranked number 3 and thought to be a national championship contender in pre season stumbled their way to lackluster 7-6 record. Yet Francois’s return should spell a return to prominence for Florida State. Unfortunately he’ll no longer have Auden Tate to throw to. Neverthless, he’ll have a talented and experienced group of targets headlined by Nyquan Murray and Keith Gaven. But the quarterback isn’t the only lethal weapon the ‘Noles have on offense. Star running back Cam Akers is expected to prove himself as one of the best backs in the country in only his sophomore season. Akers made an instant impact as a true freshman amassing over 1000 yards and 7 touchdowns. He will likely terrorize the ACC for the next two years until the NFL beckons. On defense, there’s no way to sugarcoat things, the Seminoles will face tremendous losses, particularly to the secondary. Star safety Derwin James will enter the 2018 NFL draft as a likely top 10 pick, and will no doubt be hard to replace. As will cornerback Tavarus McFadden who is also headed for the league. Josh Sweat and Matthew Thomas were also key players at defensive end and linebacker respectively. Typical of Florida State, this roster is filled with talent thought step in to fill the void capably. Impact players like Levonta Taylor and Brian Burns will also return to lead the defense. In spite of all the new faces that will feature in the starting lineup, the Seminoles are still oufitted for success in 2018. Although, they currently sit at number 13 in my rankings I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their way into the top 5 at some point in the season.
Michigan began the 2017 season ranked number 11 but failed to live up to those expectations. Much of their underwhelming season can be attributed to spotty quarterback play. 2018 has the potential to be a much different year or the Wolverines as Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson heads to Ann Arbor. Patterson left the Rebels in the wake of scandals in Oxford that portended sanctions. But his time in Mississippi was marked by success. Patterson entered school as one of the top quarterbacks in 2016, and has thus far delivered on the hype. His success as a passer in a conference known for making life a quarterback a nightmare bodes well for his career trajectory at Michigan. Patterson would be the missing piece to a Michigan offense who’s only real deficiency has been at the quarterback. The only question is whether Patterson will be eligible to play immediately. If not, the Wolverines will likely be forced to turn to Brandon Peters (or even Wilton Speight who has said he’d be open to returning to Ann Arbor if Patterson is denied elibility). Aside from the quarterback position, Michigan is well outfitted on offense. Even more so following news that leading rusher Karan Higdon will be returning for his senior season. Moreover, the Wolverines will still boast one of the best defenses in the country and the country. Lead by former five star recruit defensive end Rashan Gary, the Wolverines defense will surely give them an opportunity to win every game. The only question mark will be whether they can get the job done on the offensive side of the ball. With Patterson, they should be prepped for success, but with Peters things are far more uncertain. If the Wolverines struggle again this year, Jim Harbaugh’s seat as head coach might get a little hotter.
TCU is one of the few teams in my early top 25 that will not be returning their starting quarterback. Kenny Hill had a highly productive Senior season at the helm for Horned Frogs, who finished the season ranked number 9. His 3.152 passing yards and 23 touchdowns will no doubt be hard to place. But Sophomore Shawn Robinson may be up to the task. Robinson’s only start came last season in a victory against Texas Tech. While capable as a runner, Robinson has a ways to go as a passer. However, with the rest of the Big 12 conference’s powerhouses also dealing with turnover at the position (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech all also will have new QBs), I would expect that the Horned Frogs should be okay. Luckily for TCU, lead back Darius Anderson will be back to lead the rushing attack. Coach Gary Patterson’s defense was given a huge boost with news of star defensive end Ben Banogu’s return to school. With Baker Mayfield’s departure for the NFL, the door could be open for TCU to usurp Oklahoma as potential Big 12 champions. On the other hand, their own quarterback predicament is the subject of some uncertainty. Thus is it hard to really forecast just how good this team will be. An early season meeting with Ohio State should tell us a lot about this TCU team.
The Trojans will return a ton of top flight talent from a season ago, in which they were at one point a CFP contender. Nevertheless, the group of Trojans departing made up some of the most talented names on the roster. that USC one of the few players they are losing is their star quarterback Sam Darnold. Obviously it’s never good losing your starting quarterback, especially when that quarterback is the presumptive number one overall pick. What that means is the offensive will likley be in the hands of heralded recruit JT. Daniel or Matt Fink. Both of whom should at the very least competently carry the torch for Darnold. But who will be throwing to? Number one receiver Deontay Burnett is also part of that group leaving for the NFL draft. Fortunately, USC has stable of top ecehlon recruits at the position who have the makings of stars, including Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman. Unfortunately, USC will also be without their star running back from a year ago, Ronald Jones. Like Darnold, Jones is also off to the NFL by way of a likely high selection. Yet I wouldn’t expect the running game to suffer much if at all. The reason being that Stephen Carr is a potential breakout candidate at the position. Despite all of the key losses on offense, I wouldn’t expect the Trojan’s to struggle scoring with all of the talent still in place. Defense is a similar story, marked by both key departures and key returns. Uchenna Nwosa and Rasheem Green are headed to leaving major voids. However, surprising news that star linebacker Cameron Smith plans to play out senior season should give this defense a lift. Long story short, the Trojans are without a doubt still relevant without Sam Darnold; but just how relevant remains to be seen. Whether or not the can compete for the PAC 12 championship with the likes of Washington and Stanford is an interesting question.
17. Michigan State
With all of the turmoil surrounding this program, it’s tough to say prospects are good for the Spartans. However, from the standpoint of how their roster looks, there is a lot to be optimistic about. First and foremost, quarterback Brian Lewerke had an outstanding season in first year as a starter. Leading rusher LJ Scott also made the decision to forgo entering the NFL draft and return for his senior season. On top of that the Spartans return all four of their top pass catchers including standouts Felton Davis and Darrell Stewart Jr. The only real loss of note on offense will be that of guard Brian Allen. Aside from that the Spartans return virtually the same exact team (on the defensive side of the ball as well) that finished last year ranked number 15. So why would we expect this team be ranked lower than a year before? I’d say the fact that coach Mark Dantonio is embroiled in one of largest scandals in the history of the NCAA might have something to do with it. Whether or not the coach is implicated in these transgressions will undoubtedly affect his job status. Moreover, even at full strength, another 10-3 season with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State all on the schedule is a tall task.
18. Mississippi State
The Rebel’s major roadblock next year will not be overcoming player departures, but rather adjusting to a coaching change. The flight of Coach Dan Mullen to Florida means that Mississippi State will be without its most prolific head coach in program history. The “quarterback whisperer” Mullen came in and vitalized the football program and lead them to a period of sustainable success in the nation’s toughest conference. Joe Moorhead certainly has a successful track record asa an offensive minded coach at both Fordham, and as a offensive coordinator for Penn State. But replacing Mullen will be no easy feat, and may not be a seamless transition when they’re dealing with an SEC west schedule. Fortunately for Coach Moorhead, He has Nick Fitzgerald, one of the best quarterbacks in the country. But Fitzgerald himself is coming off of a gruesome season ending injury in the Egg Bowl. Even if Fitzergald isn’t ready but the start of the season the Rebels should be in good hands with backup Keytaon Thompson who led the team to bowl victory against Louisville in December. Both Thompson and Fitzgerald are perhaps even more potent as runners than they are as passers. Speaking of runners, lead back Aeris Williams, who racked up 1107 yards on the ground last year, also returns to the rebels backfield. Despite the loss of all important tackle Martinas Rankin to the NFL, this team shouldn’t have a problem getting the job done on offense, even against SEC defenses.
Its kind of unthinkable to say that ranking LSU number 19 in the preseason may be giving them too much credit. Nevertheless, with all of the losses this roster faces and a less than stellar recruiting job by coach Ed Orgeron to fill those voids, 2018 could potentially be a tough year for the Tigers. Star running back Derrius Guice and top receiver DJ Chark are no longer with the team after declaring for the NFL draft. Top defensive players Arden Key and Donte Jackson have also done the same. And while LSU always has a wide array of talent, it tough to figure out who’ll be replacing these key contributors’ production. If there is one positive that can be drawn from all these departures, it is that Danny Etling will no longer be quarterback for LSU. The Tigers will turn to Miles Brennan to lead the offense instead. Luckily the new starter should have five star wide receiver Terrance Marshall to throw to. Still this offense will be a major question mark coming into the season. No longer will the Tigers have an elite in the run game like Derrius Guice or Leonard Fournette. Instead they will likely have to lean on Nick Brossette, who may very well prove himself. But there is little game tape to go off with the young back. An opening day meeting with Miami should help us gauge what kind of season we’re looking at for LSU. But Coach O will likely have short leash if things start to go wrong in Baton Rouge.
I would be remiss to leave out last season’s only undefeated team in my top 25. The Knight’s improbable 2017 run culminated in an upset victory over Auburn in the peach Bowl. In doing so UCF certainly showed they were for real and could hang with college football’s elite. But where will the Knights go from here? Even an undefeated record was not even close to convincing the committee that they deserved a shot at a playoff berth. Strength of schedule was a the root of the problem last year, and thus year will likely be no different. Take a look at their schedule and you’ll notice a lot of cupcake games. At first glance, their conference (American Athletic Conference) also looks to be spread thinner than in years past. What that means is that unfortunately the Knights will likely have to prove themselves all over again in 2018; this time with a new coach at the helm. Scott Frost sadly left town for the coaching vacancy at his alma mater, Nebraska. However, their new hire provides reason for optimism in Orlando. Josh Huepel takes over after as head coach after a successful run as offensive coordinator for Missouri. And while, the coaching staff has changed, much of the core from last year’s team will be returning. Most important among that bunch will be quarterback, McKenzie Milton. The dual threat qb threw for over 4,300 yards and 37 touchdowns a season ago. He was also the team’s second leading rusher. Milton will no doubt be the most integral part UCF’s playoff hopes. But he will have to get along without his number one wide receiver and number one tight end as both Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins will enter the NFL Draft. However, Milton will have some help on the ground as lead back Adrian Killins Jr. returns for his junior year. On defense, the Knights will also have to make due without their heart and soul linebacker Shaquem Griffin. Griffin was the engine of the last year’s defense but has also moved on to the draft. In spite of losing key pieces, UCF will still likely be heavy Favorite to win the AAC. As i mentioned before, the conference is losing a lot of talent due to the draft/graduation, and their non conference schedule isn’t exactly daunting either. With such a weak schedule, the margin for error for the Knights will be incredibly small in 2018. Even if they manage repeat their success from last year, i can’t imagine that the playoff committee will evaluate them much differently than they did in 2017.
21. Virginia Tech
Josh Jackson burst onto the scene last season to fill the Hokies’ void at quarterback. He has done so with both his arm and his legs. The freshman threw for almost 3000 yards in first season under center, and rushed for another 324. If last year’s performance is any indication he will likely be the signal caller depended upon for years to come in Blacksburg. Sadly he will be without his top target as Cam Phillips is on his way to the next level. On the ground, the Hokies will be looking for either DeShawn McClease or Travon McMillian to step up into the lead running back role. The most significant area of loss for the Hokies comes on defense. Unfortunately Virginia Tech is bidding Adieu to the freakishly athletic Edmunds brothers. The loss of Tremaine and Terrell will leaving gaping holes at both the Linebacker and safety position. Yet, I would still fully expect the Hokies to contend with Miami for supremacy in the ACC Coastal division. Not that it will mean anything…With Clemson in their way an ACC championship or a shot at the playoff is more of a pipe dream at this point.
22. West Virginia
West Virginia successes hinges almost exclusively on their offense. Imagine how happy the Mountaineers were to hear that Will Grier will be returning for his senior year. The Florida transfer passed for almost 3500 yards and 34 touchdowns leading West Virginia to a 7-3 record before a thumb injury ended his season. Grier is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and may have left for the pros had the thumb injury not derailed his season. Fortunately for West Virginia, their star quarterback is coming back, as is one of the best receiving cores in the country. David Sills was a Biletnikoff award finalist after scoring 18 touchdowns on the year. Gary Jennings lead the team in receiving yards with 1096. The only departure from this group is Ka’Raun White. The Brother of former Mountaineers star and 1st round pick Kevin White, finished off his own illustrious receiving career at West Virginia with a 1004 yard campaign. He’s not only White brother leaving West Virginia this year. The biggest name on the Mountaineer’s defense was Kevin White’s other brother Kyzir White. However, the safety is headed to the NFL draft. Certainly this isn’t great news, but neither West Virginia or the Big 12 are renowned for their defense. When all is said and done, number 22 may be the floor for West Virginia’s potential. I’ve already mentioned that the conference is up for grabs more so than in years prior. A top 15 ranking may be feasible behind the strength of one college footballs’s most potent offenses.
23. South Carolina
South Carolina is another team on the list that has an opportunity to improve from last season. A second full season with Jake Bentley as starting quarterback could potentially be a breakout year for the Junior. Much of that optimism surely comes from having Deebo Samuel back as an option in the passing game. Samuel was setting the world on fire early last year until an injury ended his season in only the third game of the year. Samuel is absolutely lethal after the catch with the speed and elusiveness. Samuel could have came of college this year and likely would’ve been a 2nd-3rd pick had he so chose. But news of his return should reenergize both this offense, and this fanbase. The Gamecocks will likely be fine on that side of the ball so long as they get the ball in his hands. Perhaps the only silver lining of Samuels injury is that it allowed Bryan Edwards to step up and take a more central role in the passing game. Edwards himself managed almost 800 receiving yards in 2017. Quarterback Jake Bentley will now have two of the threatening receivers in the SEC at his disposal. The Cocks are coming off a 9-4 season and dramatic comeback bowl victory over Michigan. There hasn’t been this much buzz surrounding South Carolina football since Steve Spurrier left the program. Georgia stands in their way in the East, as does a threatening Missouri offense, but this team has an opportunity to put together a solid season and reestablish themselves as a force in the SEC East.
24. Boise State
Boise State has been one most consistent mid major programs in the country. Year after year they seem to find a way to stay relevant and compete for the Mountain West title. In fact they’ve managed to make a bowl game in each of the last 19 seasons. But Boise State may be more than just “relevant” in 2018. If that is the case, it will likely be because of senior quarterback Brett Rypien. Rypien managed two 3000+ passing yard seasons in first two years under center. Last season was actually his worst year statistically speaking, but the Broncos still put together an 11-3 season capped off with a Mountain West title and a dominant bowl win over Oregon. The returning starters and the momentum they’re carrying with them coming into the 2018 season could make for a big year in Idaho. Looking at their schedule, theres no reason the Broncos can’t make a major run. Meetings with Fresno State and a transitioning Oklahoma State team are the only matchups on the docket that pose any real threat. However, Rypien will be without top target Cedrick Wilson this year who moved on to the NFL. On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos are also losing a gamebreaker at linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch. Nevertheless, Boise State is still well equipped for another run at the Mountain West championship at minimum.
Is this finally the year that Texas makes its triumphant return to the top of the big ten? Tom Herman has put together perhaps the most talented roster in the conference. They certainly looked primed to make a run. But we have been saying that about Texas for the past three years. Year after year we have to listen to pundits speculate that Texas is back. And year after year the Longhorns have disappointed . But 2018 feels different. And the door has never been more open. The Longhorns have two more than capable starters in Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger. It looks like it will be Ehlinger who gets the nod but both have flashed star potential. Collin Johnson, the Longhorns top receiver, has the look of potential first round pick in 2019, and should make life a hell of lot easier for whoever is under center. On defense, things are a little certain as the Longhorns will be losing a few impact players. Malik Jefferson, DeShon Elliot, and Holton Hill are all on their way to the draft and will require replacements. Nevertheless, Texas still had the best defense in the conference last year beside TCU. In spite of all losses on that side of the ball, they likely end up one of the better defense in the conference once again. The Bottom line for Texas, and what makes this team different than Texas teams of years past, is quarterback continuity. The only team other big program in the conference that is returning their quarterback is West Virginia. As I mentioned before when talking about the Mountaineers, Oklahoma, TCU, and Oklahoma State will be starting new quarterbacks in 2018. Texas brings to the table not only a returning starter, but two with big 12 championship pedigree.
Other Who will Receive Votes:
Northwestern may find their way into the top 25 on the basis of quarterback Clayton Thorson’s return to campus. Thorson would have been a mid round prospect in the upcoming 2018 draft, but his return to school will likely mean another solid season for the Wildcats. Unfortunately he’ll have to lead this offense without star running back Justin Jackson this year.
Outside of the Georgia, Missouri may be the best team in the SEC East. Quarterback Drew Lock led the SEC in both passing yards and touchdowns, and will return to give the Tigers perhaps the most high powered offense in the SEC. It doesn’t hurt that two of his top targets, Emmanuel Hall and Jonathan Johnson, will also be back. Damarea Crockett is also a former 1,000 yard rusher and will come together with Larry Roundtree III to form one of the nations best backfields. The Tigers are one of the best offensive teams in the country both through the air and on the ground, but can they matchup against the rest of the perennial powerhouse programs in the SEC.
NC State is another team that finds themselves in the conversation because of a returning star quarterback. Ryan Finley was second in the ACC with over 3,500 passing yards. Number one receiver Kelvin Harmon may also be in for a breakout year. The loss of stars Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels will hurt them, as will the loss of potential number one pick Bradley Chubb on defense. That is the only reason the Wolfpack haven’t cracked my top 25.
Texas A&M went out and hired one of the best coaches of the country in Jimbo Fisher. They also boast an incredibly talented roster on both offense and defense. Whether its Nick Starkel or Kellen Mond under center, the Aggies should be more than alright. But the loss of top receiver Christian Kirk will make things more difficult. The real reason Texas A&M isn’t a top 25 team to start the year is that they’re playing in the SEC West. Alabama, Auburn, and a non-conference meeting with Clemson on their schedule mean this year may be an uphill battle.
What will Mike Gundy’s team be without star quarterback Mason Rudolph? That is the question. The Cowboys are stacked at every other position on offense. Justice Hill and JD King give the Cowboys an elite run game. Oklahoma State also has an array of weapons in the receiving game including Jalen McCleskey, Dillon Stoner, and Tyron Johnson. But who will be leading this corps under center. Taylor Cornelius looks the early leader but the uncertainty at quarterback makes this a difficult team to project.
Coach Willie Taggart assembled a very nice recruiting class for the Ducks. The only problem is that he is no longer head coach. Nevertheless, Oregon is still one of the more talented teams in the Pac 12. Justin Herbert is one of the more gifted quarterbacks in the nation and had the team looking like the ducks of old. However, an injury derailed his and Oregon’s season. Although Herbert is back, star running back Royce Freeman departed for the NFL. Its uncertain whether the Ducks will be able to get back on track with new coach Mario Cristobal at the helm.
The Wildcats have an opening to make a play in the Big 12, with Oklahoma, TCU, and Oklahoma State all fielding new quarterbacks. Skylar Thompson is the quarterback of the future in Manhattan, Kansas but Alex Delton will also get snaps out of the wildcat. Starting running back Alex Barnes is also back to give the Wildcats a lethal ground game. On Defense the cats will likely feel the loss of star safety DJ Reed, but defense isn’t exactly paramount in the Big 12.
Memphis is still one of the best teams in the AAC, but they are losing key contributors all over the place. First and foremost they are losing a 4000 yard passer to the draft in Riley Ferguson. Replacing a quarterback like that likely will not be a seamless transition. Especially given the fact that Ferguson’s top target, star receiver Anthony Miller, is also headed for the draft. The only good news on offense is that lead rusher Darrell Henderson returns after a 1000+ yard season. Even despite all of the losses to the draft, competing in the AAC this year won’t exactly be a daunting task. This is weak year for this conference in terms of depth, and as such no one but UCF (and Houston) really poses much of a threat.
Louisville is losing Lamar Jackson. If you were wondering why they were not in the top 25, thats pretty much all you need to know. Jackson threw for 3000+ yards and rushed for 1000+ yards in consecutive seasons. That type of production is impossible to replace. However, Louisville is returning some talent for likely new starter Jawon Pass to work with. Both of last season’s top receivers, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick will be back, but the Cardinals will also be missing both of their top rushers from a season ago. Transitioning after the post Lamar Jackson era will likely mean this could be an up and down season for the Cardinals. However, they should manage to stay relevant.
The Fighting Lane Kiffins will sport one of the best offenses in the country thanks to their coach. The Owls became one of the prolific scoring offenses in the country during the second half of the season last year, annihilating the rest of Conference USA. Everyone important from that unit is returning. Quarterback Jason Driskel is back to lead the line. Running Back Devin Singletary ran for an incredible 1920 yards and 32 touchdowns, and will look to do more of the same in 2018. Not to mention all of their top receivers are also staying on campus. It’s tough to imagine anyone slowing down this offense. However, a opening day matchup against Oklahoma looms.