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The 2017 college football season is over. That means it’s time to start thinking about 2018.
The USA TODAY Sports way-too-early Top 25 for next season begins with familiar names. Topping the list are Clemson and Alabama, which recently met for the third time in as many seasons in the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl win. The Tigers and Crimson Tide are followed by Ohio State, the defending Big Ten Conference champions, and Georgia, which will rebuild its offense around sophomore-to-be Jake Fromm at quarterback.
The Big Ten flexes its muscles with four teams in the top 10 and five in the top 20. Following the Buckeyes are No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 6 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 16 Michigan.
The SEC is similarly represented, of course, following Monday night’s all-SEC championship game between Alabama and Georgia. Also in the top 25 are Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State.
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1. Clemson (2017 record: 12-2)
The Tigers aren’t going anywhere, as Dabo Swinney promised following the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. Swinney and his staff will bring back a senior starter at quarterback in Kelly Bryant, will again tout a deep stable of skill talent, will be stronger on the offensive front and will have a slight rebuild on defense behind star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. Clemson will be the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a heavy contender to recapture the national title.
2. Alabama (2017 record: 13-1)
The Tide are set to rebuild following an inevitable exodus of talent to the NFL draft. Check that: Alabama’s set to reload. While the cast changes, some constants will remain. One is the continued excellence of a defense due to find another one or two national names. Another is a physical offense that may hit on an offseason quarterback controversy but perhaps be better for it — either Jalen Hurts will take a step forward or sophomore-to-be Tua Tagovailoa will step in.
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3. Ohio State (2017 record: 12-2)
The Buckeyes will sorely miss J.T. Barrett’s leadership but should feel confident in Dwayne Haskins’ ability to take the reins of the offense as a sophomore. Like Alabama, OSU will lose a number of major players to the NFL, but the inherent talent base and the addition of former Washington State assistant Alex Grinch as co-defensive coordinator will keep Urban Meyer and his team among the nation’s elite.
4. Georgia (2017 record: 13-2)
Georgia will have to retool its offense to revolve around Fromm, though there are still options in the backfield to replace Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. What’s clear? The Bulldogs are beginning an extended run alongside the premier programs, with last year’s recruiting class set to take on larger roles and an incoming signing class due to include several players capable of an immediate impact.
5. Wisconsin (2017 record: 13-1)
If the biggest issue for Wisconsin is its defense — and with 10 starters back on offense, that’s the question — the Badgers are in good shape. As a program, Wisconsin’s consistency suggests another year battling with Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy.
Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski, USA TODAY Spor)
6. Penn State (2017 record: 11-2)
But the Buckeyes and Badgers are trailed closely by the Nittany Lions, who lose all-everything running back Saquon Barkley but will have a roster that matches up with almost any team in the country. Look for Trace McSorley to be a major factor in the Heisman Trophy race.
7. Oklahoma (2017 record: 12-2)
Few teams can replace a player of Baker Mayfield’s ability and not skip a beat. Oklahoma might not replicate this past season’s success, but with Kyler Murray set to add a different dimension as a runner the offense should remain as potent as you’ll find in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The big question: Can the defense improve and help shoulder the load?
8. Washington (2017 record: 10-3)
After a relatively drab season, all things considered, look for Washington to be a factor in the College Football Playoff race. Chris Petersen’s track record should have the Huskies optimistic about their chances to improve on a 10-win finish in 2017 and carry the flag for the Pac-12 Conference.
9. Miami (Fla.) (2017 record: 10-3)
Miami is still not quite ready to be included among the best of the best, though the program is making obvious progress. It probably will take another recruiting class or two to get this roster’s talent level on par with a Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia, but that time is coming. For 2018, look for the Hurricanes to compete for an ACC crown and take another step toward knocking Clemson off the top of the heap.
10. Michigan State (2017 record: 10-3)
Michigan State’s bounce-back 2017 season paints a bright picture for 2018, with an offense built around quarterback Brian Lewerke and a defense that returns the wide majority of this year’s main contributors. Defenders such as linebacker Joe Bachie and lineman Kenny Willekes are set to assume roles as some of the best at their positions in the Big Ten.
11. Virginia Tech (2017 record: 9-4)
Justin Fuente has the Hokies on a collision course with an ACC title, maybe as soon as 2018. Look for quarterback Josh Jackson to make an enormous leap in his second year as the starter.
12. Stanford (2017 record: 9-5)
Stanford’s hopes do hinge on Bryce Love’s decision regarding the NFL, but the Cardinal will get better play at quarterback and bring back each of their four leading receivers. There are holes to fill on defense, but it’s a similar case to Wisconsin – if Stanford’s biggest worry is that side of the ball, everything should be OK.
13. Auburn (2017 record: 10-4)
Auburn already has been dinged by losses to the NFL, though retaining quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a huge development. An issue is the Tigers’ schedule, which includes first-half dates with Washington, LSU and Mississippi State, and road games in November against Georgia and Alabama.
14. Boise State (2017 record: 11-3)
Boise will be the best team in the Group of Five. The offense is ready to roll behind Brett Rypien, running back Alexander Mattison and a strong front. But the big story for the Broncos is a loaded defense, which looks the part of not just the best in the Group of Five but a top unit nationally.
15. Notre Dame (2017 record: 10-3)
Don’t overlook how hard it will be for the Irish to replace the left side of their offensive line and to replicate the team’s recent level of play on defense. But there is experience back at key spots, including quarterback, and the schedule is on paper one of the friendliest in recent program history.
16. Michigan (2017 record: 8-5)
These are strange times for Michigan, which had enormous hopes upon Jim Harbaugh’s arrival but has yet to crack the upper echelon of the FBS. That may happen in 2018, especially given the Wolverines’ defense, but that’s only half the battle. Can Harbaugh find a quarterback?
17. Southern California (2017 record: 11-3)
The Trojans will move forward without Sam Darnold and face a major position battle during the spring and summer. While the talent is there, the program needs to be finetuned before retaking the field in September — and that starts with the coaching staff.
18. Florida State (2017 record: 7-6)
FSU won’t aim for the moon in Willie Taggart’s debut but should land firmly in the top 25. There’s no doubt about the Seminoles’ talent, obviously, and maybe the fresh voice Taggart brings to the table will breathe life into a tired football facility.
19. LSU (2017 record: 9-4)
This is a top-10 team in pure talent, as is always the case. Whether this current coaching staff can get the Tigers into that class remains up for debate. Another change at offensive coordinator doesn’t breed confidence in that unit’s potential.
20. Kansas State (2017 record: 8-5)
What looks like Bill Snyder’s final season could be a fitting swan song for one of the great coaches in college football history. It will be a pretty typical bunch of Wildcats: physical on offense, explosive in the running game, underrated in the front seven and opportunistic on special teams.
21. Florida Atlantic (2017 record: 11-3)
The second Group of Five team on this list, FAU shouldn’t take a step back in Lane Kiffin’s second season. The offense will have taken even firmer hold and the defense will get a nice influx of talent to keep the Owls at the top of Conference USA.
22. TCU (2017 record: 11-3)
TCU has some personnel issues to address on both sides of the ball, making the 2018 team less experienced than the 2017 version. But while Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs might have the odd middling season every few years, any major slide out of a national ranking just isn’t in the cards. If not the class of the Big 12, TCU will be a contender for a repeat appearance in the conference title game.
23. Oklahoma State (2017 record: 10-3)
There’s no doubt that losing Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington will be tough for the Cowboys to overcome. So expectations should be tweaked just somewhat: Oklahoma State isn’t a dark-horse Playoff contender but is definitely a threat to take eight or nine games during the regular season. It won’t always be a smooth ride, however.
24. Iowa State (2017 record: 8-5)
This is the next step for Matt Campbell and the Cyclones. After breaking through in a big way this past fall, Campbell has Iowa State destined to become an even bigger thorn in the sides of the established programs in the Big 12. The way Campbell is building ISU is through a culture, and every passing season finds that foundation taking an even more solid hold.
25. Mississippi State (2017 record: 9-4)
A whole lot of optimism greets Joe Moorhead’s first season with the Bulldogs. While Nick Fitzgerald’s availability will remain in some doubt following his leg injury suffered in the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State has a fine backup option at quarterback in Keytaon Thompson. Better yet, the Bulldogs have two reliable backs, several options at receiver, an experienced offensive front and a defense led by new coordinator Bob Shoop, who spent the past two seasons in the same role at Tennessee.