2017 Top 50 College Football
Based on how I project the regular season to finish.
The Good—This is the most talented roster in the country, by far, and it also may be the most talented offense of the Nick Saban era. I don’t ever remember seeing a team deeper at running back.
The Bad—The only concern in Tuscaloosa is the brain drain/turnover on the coaching staff in the offseason, which could test even the likes of the game’s greatest coach.
The Bottom Line—The 2016 Crimson Tide were literally seconds away from being one of the greatest teams of the current era, which should provide more than ample motivation for 2017.
2. OHIO STATE
The Good—A record-setting senior quarterback, a Hall-of-Fame coach, and a devastating defensive line are usually the ingredients for a national title run.
The Bad—For all the highly-ranked recruiting classes, there really isn’t a proven difference maker at either wide receiver or running back.
The Bottom Line—To topple Alabama you need an Ezekiel Elliott/DeShaun Watson type playmaker. Buckeyes don’t have that – yet – but they are strong up front, and also have a chip on their shoulder because of how last season ended.
3. OKLAHOMA STATE
The Good—A schedule that doesn’t feature an opponent with what’s considered an elite defense, which is good news for what could be the most explosive offense of the Mike Gundy era (and that’s saying something).
The Bad—At some point you have to stop somebody, don’t you? Can you win a shootout every single week?
The Bottom Line—The stars have aligned for a breakthrough season for the Cowboys, who return an experienced team/coaching staff while Texas and Oklahoma both go through coaching changes.
4. FLORIDA STATE
The Good—Last off-season, Jimbo Fisher was telling anyone who would listen that his 2017 team had a better chance to make a national title run than the 2016 edition. And the 2016 edition were Orange Bowl champs and won 10 games.
The Bad—The Seminoles’ porous offensive line tried to get Deondre Francois killed last season, and nearly did. They can’t be that bad again, can they?
The Bottom Line—The roster says national title run. The schedule says games versus Alabama, Clemson, and Florida away from Tallahassee. But this could be the year a two-loss team makes the playoff.
The Good—For almost a month last season, Auburn was playing as well as anyone in the country before injuries did them in. Now those guys are healthy, and the Tigers finally have the quarterback to run Gus Malzahn’s offense.
The Bad—There’s good roster numbers on defense, and a solid defensive coordinator, but what’s lacking is a proven defensive playmaker.
The Bottom Line—The addition of Jarrett Stidham, who shined as a freshman at Baylor, is going to be among the biggest difference-makers in the sport this fall.
The Good—Dynamic standouts abound for the Huskies, who return an All-American/All-Pac 12 caliber player at nearly every position group.
The Bad—The one position group lacking a standout is the secondary, which was a dominant unit last year.
The Bottom Line—The Huskies are in an enviable position. Instead of dealing with preseason expectations the program hasn’t faced in about 15 years, the bandwagon has moved to Southern California as the new hotness. That should give Washington an edge most teams coming off last year’s breakthrough wouldn’t have.
7. PENN STATE
The Good—This could be the most explosive offense in Happy Valley since that legendary 1994 team, and the schedule is manageable, too.
The Bad—Sure, Marcus Allen is a nice player in the secondary, but the program still doesn’t have that one defensive stopper in the front seven.
The Bottom Line—The Nittany Lions benefited from flying under the radar last year. Can they bear the burden of expectations the program hasn’t faced since before the Sandusky scandal? What about James Franklin, who’s never coached a pre-season top-10 team before in his career?
The Good—16 starters return for the Longhorns, and the average improvement in the first year for a team with Tom Herman on its coaching staff is 4.3 wins.
The Bad—We know Herman likes the quarterback run game, and from a physique standpoint Shane Buechele makes Greg Ward look like Vince Young. Can Buechele hold up for an entire season?
The Bottom Line—This is eerily similar to the Harbaugh situation at Michigan. Elite, public university with a proud tradition falls on hard times. Also struggles with a prickly and disliked athletic director, until administration cleans house. Then opens up the checkbook to bring home a favorite son head coach, who inherits a talented but underachieving roster ready to win. Longhorns are gonna make a big leap.
The Good—The list of schools who have recruited better than Michigan the last two years is pretty exclusive company, and few develop talent better than Jim Harbaugh.
The Bad—Is Wilton Speight ready to step up from game manager to game changer at quarterback? Because that could be the difference in what kind of season the Wolverines end up having.
The Bottom Line—This will be the youngest power five team of consequence in the country, which means you better get ‘em this year while you can.
The Good—According to my four-year talent foundation study, this is one of the top-five rosters in the country. And did you notice how dominant Nick Chubb looked in the season opener and bowl game last season, with plenty of time to rest coming off knee surgery? With another year of rehab expect him to return to All-American form.
The Bad—Can Kirby Smart walk the fine line between letting Jake Fromm push Jacob Eason, and pushing an all-out quarterback controversy?
The Bottom Line—It’s time for a lot of highly-recruited players, with light college achievement resumes, to reach their collective potential.
The Good—No team, sans Alabama, will be stronger up front on both sides of the ball. So if games are still won in the trenches, look out.
The Bad—Don’t sleep on how great DeShaun Watson truly was. Even with a ton of offensive firepower sent off to the NFL after 2015, the Tigers won six games – including the national championship – by a touchdown or less last year. He will likely be missed more than any player in the sport this season.
The Bottom Line—You can’t hide your quarterback in college football, and none of the potential replacements lit it up this spring. That’s how some of those close wins become close losses just one season later.
The Good—The Gators are the only SEC team this decade not to average 400 yards of total offense for a season. That’s about to change, because Jim McIlwain finally has some offensive firepower, plus a decent offensive line.
The Bad—Now it’s a defense, which has lost every player of significance in the past two NFL drafts, that has to reload.
The Bottom Line—It comes down to quarterback. Is Malik Zaire the player who burst onto the scene in the 2014 Music City Bowl, or the player Notre Dame passed over in 2016? Can offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier manage Zaire better than he didn’t Devin Gardner when he was at Michigan?
The Good—Sam Darnold is going to be the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft whenever he comes out. This looks like the best defensive line the Trojans have had since the Pete Carroll era.
The Bad—The offensive line is spotty, and there’s all new weapons to rely on at receiver. Plus, the schedule is a gauntlet – again – but this time with no bye weeks between contests.
The Bottom Line—Clay Helton caught lightning in a bottle switching to Darnold last season, which took him from fired to Rose Bowl champion. However, USC’s recent history with lofty preseason expectations isn’t rosy. Since 2007, the Trojans have been a pre-season top-5 team three times, and in only one of those seasons did they finish in the top 20 at the end of the year.
The Good—This is still the most overall talented team in the Big 12, and one of the top 10 most talented rosters in all of college football.
The Bad—Only three years ago, new Coach Lincoln Riley was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. Now the 33-year old, who’s never been a head coach before, has been handed the keys to one of the sport’s Cadillac programs. There are going to be some growing pains. For example, Bob Stoops is a definite Hall of Famer, and even he didn’t have a season with fewer than two losses since 2004. How is Riley gonna top that?
The Bottom Line—When you don’t have an upper echelon defense – and the Sooners don’t – the margin for error becomes slimmer for championship contention. Especially with such an untested young head coach launching his virgin voyage.
The Good—We know the Tigers have a roster littered with natural resources that would be the envy of at least 90% of college programs.
The Bad—Though it’s a broken record, the song remains the same in Baton Rouge. How is it possible a program of this magnitude’s best option at quarterback is a guy who wasn’t good enough to play at Purdue—again?
The Bottom Line—New coach who already failed once in the SEC, no threat at quarterback, and a schedule with nine bowl teams from a year ago. Frankly, I’m being kind putting them this high.
The Good—There’s a lot of guys back. In fact, this is the most experienced team returning in the Pac-12 depending on how you measure it. And a dynamite recruiting class is being added to the fold, too.
The Bad—Who’s the quarterback? Keller Chryst’s return is uncertain after off-season knee surgery. Ryan Burns didn’t set the world on fire last year, which is why he lost the job to Chryst. Is touted redshirt freshman K.J. Costello ready?
The Bottom Line—There’s a lot of numbers back for the Cardinal, but not a lot of production. So playmakers need to step up, starting at quarterback.
The Good—Arguably the best developmental program in the country returns a lot of talent, and has a schedule tailor-made for a run.
The Bad—Though the volume of losses is minimal, the impact of those departed players is significant. Furthermore, most of them were the best players the Badgers had on their units last year.
The Bottom Line—Playing a hunch that after Wisconsin defied the odds with last year’s brutal schedule, this year’s seemingly softer slate will even things out and be tougher than we thought.
18. KANSAS STATE
The Good—This has the makings of every contending team Bill Snyder has ever had at K-State. Favorable schedule, underrated dual-threat quarterback, and a respectable defense. In fact, his is about the only program in the Big 12 that actually plays any consistent defense whatsoever.
The Bad—An outstanding linebacker corps anchored last year’s defense, and those guys are gone now. So replacements must be found.
The Bottom Line—You get the sense this is the perfect swan-song set-up for Snyder, who could be coaching his final season. Especially with a schedule that includes just one road game against a bowl team from a year ago. If I’m already wondering if I have LSU too high, I’m now wondering if I have K-State too low.
19. SOUTH FLORIDA
The Good—It’s New Year’s Six bowl game or bust for the Bulls, who return the most explosive team in the Group of Five by far.
The Bad—The biggest loss for the Bulls is the overlooked Marlon Mack, who was their bell cow in the backfield last year.
The Bottom Line—They’re favored in every game on their schedule for a reason. Charlie Strong couldn’t have devised a better landing spot to begin rehabilitating his coaching reputation.
The Good—Having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the scintillating Lamar Jackson, returning at the most important position on the field is a good place to start. As is having someone on the sidelines like Bobby Petrino, who’s won fewer than eight games in a season only once in his head coaching career.
The Bad—The offensive line was so offensive for the Cardinals down the stretch last season, it should’ve come with its own parental advisory sticker. The losses in the defensive front seven are significant, too.
The Bottom Line—It all comes down to whether Jackson can buck the trend working against returning Heisman Trophy winners by carrying the Cardinals again.
The Good—Clayton Thorson took the next step as a quarterback last year, and he teams with three-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson to form one of the best offensive backfields in the country.
The Bad—The Wildcats don’t lose a lot, but two of those losses are huge. Austin Carr was the best wide receiver in the Big Ten last season, while Anthony Walker was probably the school’s best inside linebacker since coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The Bottom Line—If there was ever a year for the Wildcats to make it to the Big Ten championship, this is it. Tough to see an unwinnable game on the schedule.
22. MIAMI (FLA.)
The Good—This will be the best defensive front seven the ‘Canes have had in quite a while, and it ranks among the best in the nation. Running back Mark Walton and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards are poised to become stars.
The Bad—The offensive line is still a work in progress, as is the all-important quarterback position with the early departure of Brad Kaaya.
The Bottom Line—Mark Richt looks ready to lead Miami back to national prominence—either this season or next.
23. N.C. STATE
The Good—The Wolfpack are solid where it counts the most. This will be their best defensive line in recent memory, and Ryan Finley came on at quarterback a year ago. In all, nine starters return on what was a top 25 defense nationally in 2016.
The Bad—The entire offense ran through Matthew Dayes last season, so his departure leaves a large void. Plus, the schedule includes a mid-season gauntlet: at Florida State, Louisville, at Pittsburgh, at Notre Dame, and Clemson over a 7-week stretch.
The Bottom Line—The buzz surrounding Raleigh-Durham is legit, but the Wolfpack are in the wrong ACC division.
24. NOTRE DAME
The Good—The Irish were better than their 4-8 record last season. Losing six games by a touchdown or less, and four of those were by a field goal or less. Normally that kind of tough luck has a way of evening out the next year, and this will be an explosive offense for Brian Kelly.
The Bad—You lose a lot of close games when you can’t get key stops, and that was Notre Dame on defense in 2016. In fact, the Irish lost a whopping five games in which they scored at least 28 points.
The Bottom Line—Kelly knows he’s on the hot seat and has attempted to reinvent himself to some degree. I think it will result in a bounce-back autumn.
The Good—The MAC is an offensive league and the Rockets return quarterback Logan Whiteside, who led the NCAA in touchdown passes in 2016. Two of his top-three receivers also return. Though departed running back Kareem Hunt was a stud, his replacements are a former 1,000-yard rusher and a guy that averaged eight yards a carry last season. This will be an explosive offense again.
The Bad—The defensive losses will be tougher to replace. And the only real standout returning on that side of the ball was just a third team all-conference player last year.
The Bottom Line—The Rockets have won at least nine games in five of the last six seasons, but haven’t won the MAC since 2004. That streak is gonna end, especially with a schedule that should see them favored in 11 of their 12 games.
THE NEXT 25:
26. Washington State…Luke Falk is back in that Air Raid offense, and the defensive front seven is actually pretty good.
27. Tennessee…If the Vols were overrated last season, maybe they’re underrated this season? Butch Jones has plenty of talent on hand.
28. Virginia Tech…Bud Foster’s defense will be good, as always, but Justin Fuente must find a quarterback.
29. UCLA…They’ll be better with Josh Rosen healthy, but probably not good enough to save Jim Mora’s job.
30. West Virginia…Remember these two names – Will Grier and Justin Crawford. They’re gonna light up the defenseless Big 12 this fall.
31. BYU…A lot of solid pieces are back, and quarterback Tanner Mangum probably fits better with who they want to be on offense.
32. Oregon…The talent and schedule is there for Willie Taggart to completely reverse last year’s 4-8 slide.
33. TCU…It seems like the Horned Frogs have lost their identity. Not quite as explosive on offense, and not quite as stout on defense.
34. Texas A&M…Is this a roster of prospects or suspects? A lot of highly-recruited players need to develop on the fly to save Kevin Sumlin’s job.
35. Indiana…Granted, it’s a low bar, but this is probably the Hoosiers’ best defensive personnel since the Bill Mallory days a quarter century ago.
36. Utah…Kyle Whittingham is the sport’s most underrated coach, so he’ll make a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of winners this fall.
37. Kentucky…16 starters are back as the Wildcats’ have their best chance to lose fewer than five games in a season for the first time since 1985.
38. Arizona State…There’s enough offensive firepower here for the Sun Devils to bounce back and have a surprisingly decent season.
39. Arkansas…This just seems like a program stuck in a perennial 6-to-8 win rut while trying to compete in the rugged SEC West against teams with better players.
40. Mississippi State…Nick Fitzgerald will put up monster numbers this fall, but he can’t do it all by himself.
41. San Diego State…Still the most talented team in the Mountain West if they can rebuild their offensive line.
42. Boise State…Waiting in the wings in the Mountain West with Brett Rypien, just in case San Diego State can’t rebuild that offensive line.
43. Houston…Tom Herman left behind plenty of talent, and former five-star recruit Kyle Allen should flourish in Major Applewhite’s offense.
44. Ole Miss…Shea Patterson appears to be the truth at quarterback, which is good because the defense looks like it’s anything but.
45. Minnesota…P.J. Fleck inherits 14 starters from a team that won nine games in 2016. Now he just needs to find a quarterback.
46. Navy…They may not have their vintage triple-option threat at quarterback, but they still have Coach Ken Niumatalolo.
47. Middle Tennessee—Brent Stockstill-to-Richie James is the most lethal passing combination you’ve never heard of.
48. North Carolina—Larry Fedora tries to win in Chapel Hill with a different quarterback for the third straight year—this time LSU transfer Brandon Harris.
49. Nebraska—The key for Mike Riley is to win enough games to hold on until next year, when he’ll have a more talented squad.
50. Miami (Ohio)—Ended last season with six straight wins before a narrow, one-point loss to an SEC opponent in the bowl game.