25. Florida State
The Seminoles are a true mystery coming into this season. The squad underperformed in 2017, barely finishing above .500. Despite the losses of Derwin James and Tavarus McFadden to the NFL, as well as Jimbo Fisher heading to Texas A&M, Florida State looks like they can compete and get back to a New Years bowl game. Cam Akers put up over 1,000 rushing yards as a Freshmen, and Deondre Francois is back after suffering a knee injury early last season. The Seminoles bring back one of the top defensive lines in the nation, but time to adjust to Willie Taggart’s system should lead to a few surprises.
The Tigers will greatly benefit from two highly touted transfers in wide receiver Jonathan Giles from Texas Tech and Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrows. Burrows will be expected to lead an offense that has been stagnant for what feels like a decade and complement what looks to be a dominant defense. Greedy Williams will receive all the preseason accolades, but it’s the linebacking crew that should also receive headlines. Devin White is a tackling machine, with more than 10 per game in 2017. Look for him to put an All-American season and make Death Valley a nightmare for opposing offenses.
The Badgers had a dominant 2017, finishing 13-1 and winning the Orange Bowl. Jonathan Taylor came on the scene as a freshman and ran for close to 2,000 yards. Quintez Cephus returns after missing part of 2017 with an injury after posting six touchdowns along with 501 receiving yards. A.J. Taylor gives an outlet on the opposite end that Alex Hornibrook can rely on. Hornibrook will be looking to cut down on his turnovers, after throwing 15 picks last year. The defense needs to replace both cornerbacks and two defensive ends. The schedule is also treacherous, with crossover games at Michigan and in Happy Valley.
The Trojans didn’t meet my playoff expectations of 2017, but still had a strong season. Sam Darnold will be a difficult loss, both from his production and leadership. There is going to be a battle for who will step in at quarterback between Matt Fink, Jack Sears and J.T. Daniels, but whoever gets the job will have no shortage of playmakers. Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. both are capable of big plays at the receiver position and tight end Tyler Petite was a solid safety valve in 2017. The schedule is manageable and avoids games against the Washington Huskies and Oregon.
It all starts at tight end for the Hawkeyes. Noah Fant scored 11 times last season, and may be the top at his position in college football. Fant gives Nate Stanley an elite red zone target. Stanley threw for five touchdowns against Ohio State last season and proved he had the ability to be a dominant player in the Big Ten. I expect him to take the next step on the offensive side of the ball, while I project Amani Hooker to become an elite safety in Iowa City. The Badgers come to town this year and while they do crossover to Penn State, they also get Indiana and Maryland. There is a great chance for a Big Ten West title and a 10-win season.
Mario Christobal inherits a Ducks team that is so close to being back to their early decade dominance. The Ducks 7-6 record of a year ago is deceiving. The team scored 52 points per game and were 6-1 with quarterback Justin Herbert in the lineup. He returns, along with most of the offensive line and leading receiver Dillon Mitchell. The defense wreaks havoc with linebackers Troy Dye and La’Mar Winston. Jalen Jelks is a future NFL stalwart who seems to be in the backfield all the time (15.5 tackles for loss). The schedule is fairly favorable. Both Washington and Stanford have to go to Eugene, one of the best home field advantages in the nation.
19. Boise State
Brian Harsin has done an impressive job of picking up right where Chris Peterson left off five seasons ago. The Broncos should easily win the Mountain West and challenge for an undefeated season. A lot of the team’s success will fall on the shoulders of quarterback Brett Rypien. The offense was unspectacular in the first half of last season, with Rypien not accounting for many explosive plays and a substandard turnover rate. But over the final seven games, Rypien turned it around, adding four yards per completion and cutting his interceptions almost in half. Rypien will get to bring back four receivers with experience in A.J. Richardson, Octavius Evans, CT Thomas and Sean Modster. The defense was dominant, with 26 turnovers. While they have to replace superstar Leighton Vender Esch, the Broncos keep all their production on the defensive line, every other linebacker and seven of nine defensive backs.
18. Penn State
Penn State will go as far as their defense takes them. After losing both defensive tackles and Jason Cabinda, there are certainly areas for a younger, blue chip to step in. All four starters in the secondary are gone, but Amani Oruwariye played often last season and led the team in picks. John Reid is back from injury, so not too much drop off is expected from the back end. While Saquon Barkley deservedly received all of the headlines during his time in Happy Valley, Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in passing last year and Miles Sanders is a game breaker, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in his career. Look for Juwon Johnson to have an All-American year at wideout after accumulating 701 yards last season. The schedule is brutal, and the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead cannot be understated.
The Longhorns will be a completely different team from 2017, when they leaned on a completely dominant defense to carry an offense going through growing pains and injuries. Sam Ehlinger, whom I expect to win a contentious quarterback battle, should take the next step after an inconsistent and injury riddled 2017. Ehlinger will not be asked to do too much, as the Longhorns bring back a ton of experience on the line (including an All-American candidate at the interior line in Patrick Vahe) and an efficient runner in Daniel Young. Texas has a couple of difficult losses on the defensive side to deal with in Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliot, but the depth returned has the fans in Austin ecstatic. Cornerback Kris Boyd is a shutdown type player and pass rushers Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager combined for eight sacks last season. Recruiting has not been an issue for Tom Herman and he also inherited some very hyped up recruits brought in late in Charlie Strong’s tenure. The biggest loss may be punter Michael Dickson, who absolutely turned the field around every time he was called upon.
16. West Virginia
If you want to see a season full of exciting shootouts and two minute drills deciding games, the Mountaineers are your team. Will Grier should be a preseason favorite to win the Heisman trophy and David Sills will try to top his ridiculous 18 touchdowns from a year ago. On the other side is Gary Jennings, who was a perfect complement to Sills with 1,096 receiving yards on the season. Yodny Cajuste is a future NFL left tackle. The defense is patchwork and Grier will have to stay healthy for this team to compete. I believe he does and the schedule is manageable for a 7-1 start before a brutal November stretch.
15. Virginia Tech
Despite losing the Edmunds brothers and Tim Settle to the NFL, Virginia Tech will always field a dominant defense due to defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s ability to make pieces fit and develop playmakers. Ricky Walker will be a force on the interior, but the majority of the defense will be new parts. My assumption in this ranking is the return of quarterback Josh Jackson, who has a bit of murkiness surrounding his eligibility. He led the Hokies to 28 points per game, despite an unspectacular running game. Jackson has some very solid linemen protecting him, namely tackle Yosuah Nijman and guard Kyle Chung. The schedule is extremely friendly and Tech catches a rebuilding Florida State team in Week 1.
The nation’s longest winning streak resides in Orlando after the Golden Knights reeled off a magical 13-0 season and a self-declared National Championship. Whether or not UCF should have gotten into the playoff will be contested until the end of time, but another undefeated season has to get them in. Josh Heupel steps in as head coach after Scott Frost bolted for his high profile alma mater job in Nebraska. His ultra-up-tempo style of play should pick up right where Frost left off. Plus, a lot the weapons on the offensive side are back. McKenzie Milton finished with the fourth-highest passer rating in the nation last year. Adrian Killins averaged 6.4 yards per carry and two All-AAC offensive linemen are back. The offense will have to make up for some major losses on the defensive side in Mike Hughes and Shaquem Griffin. The Golden Knights should still be solid in containing the run, with linebackers Pat Jasinski and Titus Davis returning. Aaron Robinson will be asked to step in for Hughes after transferring in from Alabama. The schedule contains games at North Carolina and home against Pitt, so you can’t blame the schedule makers for trying to get UCF into the playoff.
13. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are an experienced group with 18 returning starters from a nine-win season. No starter is more valuable than quarterback Nick Fitzgerald who dislocated his ankle in the Egg Bowl and passed on the draft. Joe Moorhead’s offense should be a perfect fit for the dual threat player, who scored 30 total touchdowns a year ago. Aeris Williams will be tasked a Saquon Barkley-type role. The big back rushed for 1,107 yards a year ago. The defensive brings back Montez Sweat, who was an absolute monster with 11 sacks last season. Mississippi State also has one of the more dependable safety units with Mark McLaurin and Jonathan Abram. Kicker Jace Christmann is reliable. This battle-tested squad is a true sleeper team to win the SEC West.
The U is back and will be favored in every regular season game they play this season. And like any Hurricanes contender, they boast an unguardable force at wideout in Ahmonn Richards. Richards broke records held by Michael Irvin on his way to being a freshman All-American in 2016, but was hampered by injuries for all of 2017, and missed the Orange Bowl with a meniscus tear. All accounts say he will be back to his dominant self. Malik Rosier will most likely get the retain his job, and if he wants to keep it, should be looking for Richards as often as possible. Travis Homer averaged 5.9 yards per carry and scored nine total touchdowns. The defense will be one of the best in the nation and boasts the best linebacker rotation in the country with Shaquille Quarteman (167 tackles in his first two seasons), Michael Pinkney and Zach McCloud. This defense had 31 takeaways and 44 sacks a year ago, and brings back its entire secondary and most of its defensive line.
11. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish bring back almost all production on one of the most dominant defenses in the nation from last year. Julian Love was second in the nation in pass breakups and Shaun Crawford and Tony Pride complement him to form a very treacherous secondary. Both defensive tackles return, as do both safeties and two linebackers. Simply put, there are no holes on this defense. They don’t wow you with explosive talent, but they bring so much consistency and experience that they will present a lot of problems to offensive coordinators. The offense will try to grind out wins despite losing leading rusher Josh Adams. Brandon Wimbush is a dual threat quarterback whose main threat is his legs. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and does not turn the ball over often, but throws for an awful 49.5 completion percentage. Chase Claypool will be his safety valve when he tries to throw. The offensive line loses two of the best linemen in the nation, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, but there is still a lot of experience there.
Jake Browning has now taken the role of “That Guy Is Still in the NCAA?” award from JT Barrett. Browning’s stats regressed in his junior campaign, making him elect to come back for his senior season. He will look to raise his profile back to 2016 level when he threw 43 touchdowns. Aaron Fuller will take over as the primary wide receiver, but look at tight end Hunter Bryant to make a major impact this year. Somehow, Chris Peterson convinced star running back Myles Gaskin to return for his senior year as well. Gaskin put up 1,380 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The Huskies defense should be fun and aggressive. In 2017, this defense only allowed 16.1 PPG and brings back nine starters. The star of this unit is safety Taylor Rapp, but JoJo McIntosh has quietly made 117 tackles over his past couple of seasons.
Baker Mayfield is gone, but there is still hope in Norman that the Sooners can make a run at a National Championship. Dual-sport athlete Kyler Murray will step in at quarterback, after the Oakland Athletics agreed to let him play despite using a top 10 draft pick on him. He won’t throw like Mayfield, but he certainly will be tough to stop running the ball. Running back Rodney Anderson (1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns) will be on the other end of Murray’s read options. Oklahoma will attempt to win by controlling the clock and letting its star corners, Tre Norwood and Parnell Motley, keep Big 12 passing attacks in check. Kenneth Murphy had 77 tackles in his freshman campaign.
Kirby Smart led the Bulldogs to a dream season and national championship berth in 2017, but still left with a sour taste and unfinished business. While I do think 2019 could be the year Georgia seals the deal, they still should be in the hunt in 2018. D’Andre Swift may have been the most talented tailback in a three-headed monster that included Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and he won’t be splitting carries anymore. The reigns should also be coming off Jake Fromm, who was a solid game manager. The defense loses almost everyone, especially do-it-all linebacker Roquan Smith. The secondary will be awesome. Deandre Baker is a shutdown corner and will lock down one side of the field. JR Reed is also back at safety and is just 12 months away from an NFL camp.
Heisman Trophy favorite Bryce Love is back after rushing for 2,118 yards in 2017. And Love could be even better in 2018 because the parts around him are better. The Cardinal return four all-conference linemen. K.J. Costello came on late last year with a passer rating over 150 in his last four starts. All of the receivers are back, led by JJ Arcega-Whiteside. If Costello performs, this is possibly the most balanced offense in the Pac-12. Stanford always fields a hungry and competitive defense. Despite Justin Reid turning pro, the secondary brings back a ton of experience. The Cardinal do travel to Oregon and Notre Dame, as well as host USC, all in September! The Cardinal either will be directly in the driver’s seat by months end or could be completely out of it.
6. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are loaded in 2018, with what may be the most efficient and explosive running game in the nation. The Buckeyes have two running backs that could win Big Ten player of the year in Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins in particular may be the most excited back in the nation after putting up 1,409 yards as a freshman. JT Barrett is gone after what seems like 10 years in Columbus, but Dwayne Haskins was a big-time recruit and Parris Campbell is an absolute game breaker. The defense is young, but stacked. The Buckeyes need to replace all three starting linebackers and Denzel Ward at corner and Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis up front. But Nick Bosa is back after sacking the quarterback 8.5 times last season. Urban Meyer recruits as well as anyone, so there will be former 5-star recruits all over the field. This ranking is prior to knowing the outcome of the investigation on Urban Meyer.
5. Michigan State
Imagine everyone telling you it was going to be a rebuilding season and then reeling off 10 wins despite having an extremely young and inexperienced team that didn’t even play well on the offensive side of the ball. It wasn’t always pretty for the Spartans, but Mark Dantonio’s strategy of just dragging their opponents through the mud with sustained drives and ball control was enough to end 2017 with a top 15 ranking. And everyone is back for what looks to be a special season. Brian Lewerke is going to be starting under center on Sundays very soon. In nine starts, he threw for 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He returns some intriguing option on the outside, none more prolific than Felton Davis, who was dynamic. LJ Scott is going to be a bellcow in East Lansing. He ran for 898 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago. A dominant defense from a season ago brings everyone back. This unit will be special. The schedule sets up for a playoff push. Ohio State and Michigan both have to go to East Lansing, and the only road hurdle may be Penn State.
The Crimson Tide bring back the SEC offensive player of the year at quarterback, and he most likely won’t start. That is how loaded this roster has become. Tua Tagovailoa should take over as the starting quarterback after leading Alabama to a comeback victory in the National Championship Game. Damien Harris has topped 1,000 rushing yards over the past 2 seasons and Jerry Jeudy averaged 18.8 yards per reception in limited action last year. The defense lost a lot from last season, but Nick Saban will reload with blue chip prospects, including freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. Defensive end Raekwon Davis is back after producing 8.5 sacks. The schedule is extremely manageable and while the secondary will be completely rebuilt, it is hard to believe there aren’t future first round picks waiting in the wings.
There is a good chance Jarrett Stidham hears his name called at the top of the 2019 NFL Draft. Stidham threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He deals with little turnover at the skill positions, and Darius Slayton should step in and become a household name in the deep south. Ryan Davis returns after hauling in 84 passes a year ago. The defensive line should wreak havoc with returnees Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell, all of whom may join Stidham in the first round. The Tigers will have to earn it, traveling to both Georgia and Alabama. They open against the Washington Huskies and have to travel to Mississippi State. It will not be easy, but even a two-loss Auburn has a case over most teams.
If it doesn’t happen this season for the Wolverines, perhaps it never will. After some heartbreaking moments against Michigan State and Ohio State these past few seasons, Jim Harbaugh has the most talented roster since he returned to Ann Arbor. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary may be the most talented player in the country. Linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson return to a defense that finished third in the nation in 2017. All starters are back for the No. 1 pass defense in the country. Simply put, this is an elite defense under Don Brown that may never be this talented again. The passing game struggled due to youth on the line. That same line only lost one starter from last season so there will be experience, namely star guard Ben Bredeson. Shea Patterson transfers in from Ole Miss and the former five-star recruit averaged 322 passing yards per game with 17 touchdowns in seven games for the Rebels prior to being injured. Running backs Karan Higdon (804 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2017) and Chris Evans (489 yards, four touchdowns) return.
The Tigers are now a fine-tuned factory, joining the ranks of Alabama and Ohio State as teams that will always be in the national championship conversation. Much like Michigan, the Tigers are centered on the return of a top five defense and a young offense from last season taking the next step. Defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell are all first round picks. No ACC offensive line is capable of stalling this unit. I suspect Kelly Bryant will hold onto the quarterback spot despite super-prospect Trevor Lawrence being a fan favorite. Bryant threw for 2,802 yards with 13 touchdowns and added 11 more touchdowns on the ground. Tackle Mitch Hyatt and center Justin Falcinello are back after receiving postseason accolades a season ago. Travis Etienne keeps the tradition of dominant Clemson runners going after averaging over seven yards per carry. The schedule is easy. The Tigers open up at a Texas A&M program that is reinventing itself and shouldn’t face a challenge until late October when they travel to a Florida State team also reinventing itself. Truly, there should be no expectation of any losses until the ACC Championship game. A battle tested squad with an easy path to the playoffs gives me no option but to name the Clemson Tigers as my pick to win this year’s national championship.