lemson just wrapped up the national championship in thrilling fashion, which can only mean one thing—time to contemplate who might inhabit the 2017 Top 25 in college football.
There’s a long stretch between now and the next opening weekend. And, yes, this is a highly fluid process that’ll veer and turn at various calendar outposts, such as Signing Day, following spring drills and whenever some star inevitably falls victim to an injury or poor decision-making. But based on where we stand at this very moment, these schools are in the best position to contend in 2017 for league crowns, playoff berths and the recognition that comes with being a Top 25 program.
Yeah, yeah, the Ducks bottomed out in 2016, winning just four games. But don’t sleep on Willie Taggart’s first team in Eugene, which returns a mess of starters on both sides of the ball, including up-and-coming QB Justin Herbert and star RB Royce Freeman. Plus, Taggart nailed the hiring of Jim Leavitt to coordinate a defense that’s been Oregon’s Achilles heel the last two seasons.
24. Kansas State
Bill Snyder is back. QB Jesse Ertz is back. And the Cats will carry a four-game winning streak into the new campaign. If K-State can backfill a few key openings on defense during the offseason, this program has enough momentum and offensive returners to be a fly in the Big 12 ointment.
23. West Virginia
The Mountaineers now know they can win in the Big 12, knowledge they’ll use to remain in the Top 25 neighborhood again in 2017. There’ll be a lot excitement surrounding the offense now that Florida transfer QB Will Grier hopes to join RB Justin Crawford and big-play WR Shelton Gibson in the huddle, pending their NFL Draft decisions.
22. South Florida
Charlie Strong couldn’t guide Texas into an extended Top 25 stay, but he inherits a high-powered Bull team that won 11 games a year ago and returns dynamic dual-threat QB Quinton Flowers. Prolific back Marlon Mack has declared for the NFL Draft, but fingers are crossed that USF’s top defenders, DT Deadrin Senat, LB Auggie Sanchez and CB Deatrick Nichols, remain in Tampa for a final year.
21. Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente fulfilled expectations in his first season in Blacksburg, winning 10 games including the Belk Bowl and the Coastal Division. Maintaining that level of play, though, got much tougher when the NFL Draft came calling, particularly the unexpected loss of QB Jerod Evans. Bud Foster’s D will retool on the fly, leaving redshirt freshman QB Josh Jackson as the most watched and scrutinized Hokie on campus this offseason.
Expectations will be dialed down considerably compared to last summer, and that’s a good thing for beleaguered coach Butch Jones. The Vols will sport a very different look now that QB Joshua Dobbs, DE Derek Barnett and a chunk of last year’s offensive production are gone. Solid recruiting and a sense of urgency ought to keep UT in the mix in the SEC East.
The Cards will spend the spring trying to shake the memory of an awful season-ending, three-game losing streak. Won’t be easy. But Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson returns for his junior season, intent on becoming a more complete weapon in Bobby Petrino’s attack. Jackson, along with Petrino’s knack for attracting talent, will keep Louisville in the standings.
Charlie Strong’s recruiting chops paired with Tom Herman’s coaching ability equals the Horns’ best season since 2012. Strong left Herman’s staff with a well-stocked cupboard of youthful promise, headlined by QB Shane Buechele, All-American LT Connor Williams and LB Malik Jefferson. If Herman can do for Buechele what he’s done for other passers, and if Todd Orlando can coach up the defense, Texas will be off and running in 2017.
The D in Gainesville remains fine, despite another flood of Gators heading to NFL rosters. It’s the offense, which has really been sputtering since the Tim Tebow days, that needs to improve for Florida to return to a third straight SEC title game. There are a slew of young playmakers, but the line must get physical and fingers are crossed that young Feleipe Franks can win the QB job.
Mark Richt is off to a solid start, capping a nine-win debut by handling West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Plus, a young defense played exceptionally well all season for Manny Diaz. Now that Brad Kaaya has declared for the NFL Draft, the big question mark is at quarterback, where inexperience could hamstring the Canes’ 2017 potential.
In a year that Gus Malzahn was in danger of getting axed, the Tigers exceeded expectations by finishing the season in the Sugar Bowl. Still, dropping the final three games with FBS opponents casts a pall over another offseason. Auburn is banking on Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham being the answer at a position that’s vexed the program the last two seasons.
The Dawgs used very few seniors in 2016, Kirby Smart’s first as the head coach and QB Jacob Eason’s first out of high school. Plus, backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel elected to remain in Athens for their senior years. If Eason makes the necessary strides as a sophomore, Georgia has the personnel to win the SEC East and contend for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Cardinal remains uber-consistent, winning at least 10 games in six of the past seven seasons. As long as David Shaw is at the helm, Stanford will be a factor because of its physicality and recruiting prowess. However, Christian McCaffrey’s departure means more production will be needed from quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst, who suffered a serious knee injury in the Sun Bowl.
Through recruiting, Jim Harbaugh is building a program that can withstand the usual attrition that comes with graduation and early departures. But the Wolverines are losing an unusually high number of veterans, leaving a particularly big hole on defense. Harbaugh expects QB Wilton Speight to be a star in 2017, which he might need to be to keep Michigan from a precipitous decline.
11. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy is one of the most underrated coaches in America, quietly winning 10 games five different times this decade. And with the surprising returns of both QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington, anything less than a sixth double-digit win campaign will be a disappointment. Can the Cowboys catch Oklahoma in the Big 12? Depends on the maturation of a middling D that’s going to miss DT Vincent Taylor and S Jordan Sterns.
Ed Orgeron gets his first opportunity to put a stamp on the Tiger program as the permanent coach. He’ll be surrounded by a dynamite duo of coordinators, Matt Canada on offense and Dave Aranda on D, as well as the usual array of blue-chippers who call Baton Rouge home. Derrius Guice is an emerging star, though Canada still needs to coach up QB Danny Etling much the way he did with Nathan Peterman at Pitt.
With the consistency that the Badgers run the ball and play D for Paul Chryst, there’s no reason to believe they won’t again hover around the top 10. Wisconsin was ahead of schedule in 2016, winning the Big Ten West and the Cotton Bowl. The new feature back could be young riser Bradrick Shaw or Pitt transfer Chris James, while QB Alex Hornibrook gets his shot to command the offensive huddle.
8. Penn State
Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley return to the backfield, and Joe Moorhead is back as James Franklin’s coordinator. In other words, the Lions will continue rolling on offense, the catalyst for last year’s unlikely Big Ten championship. Franklin will put out an APB for pass rushers now that Evan Schwan has graduated and Garrett Sickels has foregone his remaining eligibility.
The downside to rising into the upper echelon of college football is that the Huskies have been hit hard by early entries to the NFL Draft. The secondary, in particular, will be getting a facelift. But Chris Petersen returns enough of the key contributors, like QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin and DE Vita Vea, to last year’s Pac-12 title to be right back in the hunt for a league championship in 2017.
6. Florida State
The Noles lose their best offensive and defensive players, RB Dalvin Cook and DE DeMarcus Walker, respectively. But this is Florida State, so talent is never be an issue. Plus, QB Deondre Francois is ready to pick up more of the offensive slack now that he has a rookie season in the bank. The defense gets a big boost from the return of All-American-caliber S Derwin James who missed most of last year to an injury.
The Tigers have played in the last two national championship games, with one title under their belt, so Dabo Swinney clearly has the program rocking on every level. But can Clemson remain atop the ACC and return to the College Football Playoff without linchpin QB Deshaun Watson guiding the offense? Heck, backup Nick Schuessler is also gone, so a whole new era starts under center. Line play will be the early strength for a program only losing C Jay Guillermo and DT Carlos Watkins to graduation.
The Sooners will be in the market for new offensive playmakers, though Baker Mayfield operating behind an assertive O-line will keep the points flowing in Norman. The defense is poised to continue building on a strong finish, helped by all-league CB Jordan Thomas’ decision to stay in school. The class of the Big 12 must travel to Ohio State in September in a non-conference game that’ll again define its playoff potential.
Few teams begin 2017 with a bigger head of steam than the Trojans, who won their final nine games, including a Rose Bowl classic over Penn State. Oh, and the resurgence was fueled by a redshirt freshman, QB Sam Darnold, who is morphing into one of the game’s megastars. Troy is flush in elite talent, though replacing offensive tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler won’t come without a lot of heavy lifting.
2. Ohio State
This past season ended poorly, the shutout Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. But the Buckeyes reached the playoffs with one of the nation’s youngest teams, so there’s hope that the 2017 edition could be even better positioned to go on a title run. J.T. Barrett and the offense need to collectively evolve, which is why Urban Meyer has sought out the assistance of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and QB coach Ryan Day.
Despite the outcome in Tampa, everyone is chasing the Crimson Tide … still. Nick Saban has built a machine in Tuscaloosa, attracting some of the country’s best recruits and then turning them into championship contenders. There’ll be holes that need to be plugged. There always are at Alabama. For a change, though, a new quarterback won’t need to be broken in. Jalen Hurts and RB Bo Scarbrough are ready to bloom into even bigger stars, while a new wave of standouts will emerge on defense in the wake of graduations.