Way-too-early Top 25 for 2018: How many SEC teams at the top?
It is too early for a 2018 poll.
Ah, I bet you didn’t think I’d say that. After all, we still have spring camps, transfers, NFL departures and injuries to break down. What makes anyone think that they can put together an actual top 25 just hours after the national championship?
OK, I guess it’s not too early. Why?
Well, I bit the bullet and came up with a way-too-early top 25 for 2018:
Hop on board the Lane Train. It’s going to be a wild ride. FAU didn’t just win its final 10 games of 2017. The Owls dominated. They won 9 of those 10 games by double digits after starting the Lane Kiffin era 1-3. FAU returns its top two skill players in quarterback Jason Driskel and tailback Devin Singletary, who scored about a billion touchdowns in 2017. Kiffin still has a bunch of weapons to light up scoreboards.
Can you imagine if he somehow led the Owls to a season-opening win at Oklahoma? I don’t know if the internet could handle that much Lane Train.
24. South Carolina
I would’ve liked to have seen what the Gamecocks could’ve done in 2017 with a healthy Deebo Samuel. They made a nice step up to 9 wins, but I think they could’ve actually given Georgia at least a little bit of a scare in the division with Samuel healthy. He’ll be back along with Jake Bentley and a new offensive coordinator. Bryan McClendon will be tasked with jump-starting an offense that was silent for too much of 2017.
The good news is that he’ll have 9 starters back to work with. The schedule also looks favorable and given Will Muschamp’s ability to coach up the defense, the lack of experience shouldn’t prevent South Carolina from taking another step forward.
23. Boise State
The battle for the Group of 5 bid will be interesting to watch. The Broncos return basically their entire defense after allowing 22.9 points per game. They’ll also get quarterback Brett Rypien back for his fourth season as a starter. Boise State averaged double-digit wins in the post-Chris Petersen era, and it’ll be in good shape to do so again.
Things could get really interesting if the Broncos can get an early win in Stillwater.
22. Virginia Tech
I’m a Justin Fuente believer. I’m not a Josh Jackson believer just yet. The Hokies struggled against elite competition in 2017, and Jackson was a big part of that. Bud Foster’s defense will always keep Virginia Tech in the thick of the ACC picture, but I’m still not convinced that they’ll stack up well against the dominant foes on the schedule, which there are plenty of.
Still, it’s hard to argue against a guy who won between 9-10 games each of the past 4 seasons.
21. West Virginia
Will Grier’s return should mean big things for the Mountaineers, who had one of the nation’s top offenses in 2017. He and David Sills V could form the most productive QB-WR duo in America. Dana Holgorsen could be looking at a 10-win season with the amount of offensive firepower his team returns.
The question with West Virginia is if it can just be average on defense. West Virginia can’t expect to compete with the Oklahoma States and the Oklahomas if it allows 50 points to them.
Wait, you thought the fairytale was over? No, it’ll continue with former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, though not necessarily with an unblemished record. After all, the Knights have to face FAU in 2018. The schedule does get more challenging with Georgia Tech and UNC also in the mix, but the Knights do return McKenzie Milton (the guy who finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting) and nearly all of the nation’s top offense.
UCF’s big challenge will be finding replacements for someone like Shaquem Griffin, who finished as one of the program’s best defensive players ever. Still, don’t sell your UCF stock just yet.
You’re right. We in the ranking business always overrate Texas. It was OUR fault that the Longhorns laid an egg in their season opener against Maryland in 2017. Not really, but that game did serve as a launching point for that evergreen take on overrating Texas.
I look at the Longhorns and see a 7-win team that lost 4 of its 6 games by a combined 15 points. Year 2 of the Tom Herman era should have a clearer offensive plan with eight starters back on that side of the ball. Add in a top-3 recruiting class and Texas should have a better path to double-digit wins in 2018.
18. Oklahoma State
It’s always difficult to evaluate a team that’s replacing an extremely prolific quarterback like Oklahoma State is with Mason Rudolph. It’s also difficult to talk football with OSU when all I want to do is break down Mike Gundy’s mullet.
We don’t know if OSU’s offense will be anywhere near what it was in 2017, but we do know that Gundy led the Cowboys to 4 top-20 finishes in the past 5 seasons. Even without the dynamic James Washington, OSU still has plenty of talent at the skill positions to make them Big 12 contenders.
17. Florida State
Wait a minute. Didn’t 7-6 FSU just lose its coach and its best player? Yes and yes.
But let’s not act like Willie Taggart has a bare cupboard in Tallahassee. Cam Akers is going to be special, and the return of Deondre Francois will be huge. The Seminoles will make big offensive strides after an atypically awful season — much of that was due to Francois’ injury — and we’ll see those young 5-star recruits shine on defense.
I’m buying a bounce-back year after the mess that was 2017.
So get this. There’s a good chance that for the first time since 2010, LSU won’t have either Odell Beckham, Jr., Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice on the roster. Oh, and the Tigers have another new offensive coordinator. What makes me think the offense will suddenly be better?
Well, they actually might have an upgrade at the quarterback position. There’s also the fact that they still have Dave Aranda — and for a lot of money — to lead what figures to be a young but talented defense. I think after a rocky offensive start, LSU figures it out and creeps back into the top 20.
This is a bet on Clay Helton. I’m not sure that Sam Darnold’s replacement will even play in the NFL, but I do like the chances that Helton steers them in the right direction. USC could also have a lot of early entries into the NFL draft.
What’s the good news?
The Trojans signed 14 players rated 4-stars or better in each of their past 2 recruiting cycles. There’s that and the notion that the Pac-12 isn’t going to suddenly become a grind.
14. Mississippi State
In case I haven’t said it enough, I’m a big Joe Moorhead guy. In terms of offensive minds, he ranks up there with the best in the sport. His ability to work with Nick Fitzgerald while developing Keytaon Thompson is going to make the post-Dan Mullen transition as seamless as possible.
But the real game-changer is that the Bulldogs defense will still have Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, both of whom were first-team All-SEC selections in 2017. This group has plenty of potential to be nationally relevant without Mullen in Starkville.
Looking for a crazy take about Michigan? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolverines earned a Playoff bid in 2018. Really.
Assuming he gets NCAA clearance to play, Shea Patterson is that difference maker that Jim Harbaugh has been waiting for at the quarterback position. The Wolverines were the youngest team in America in 2017, and it showed. Certainly the Outback Bowl collapse didn’t provide reasons for optimism. Michigan still has uber-talented playmakers like Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and Donovan Peoples-Jones, all of whom could develop into All-Americans in a hurry.
That schedule is brutal — Michigan has 4 road games against teams that won double-digit games in 2017 — but Michigan is in better shape to handle it than it was this past year.
12. Penn State
Penn State will remain nationally relevant without Saquon Barkley. My question is if the Lions will be on that elite offensive level without Joe Moorhead. The Fiesta Bowl provided some optimism that at least with Trace McSorley back, Penn State is going to be in good hands. Couple that with the fact that the Lions are bringing in a top-5 recruiting class and they shouldn’t take a significant step back.
They’ll fly as high as their young, but talented defensive starters will take them in 2018.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m a little too high on Auburn. I know. Losing Kerryon Johnson and Jeff Holland doesn’t suggest that the Tigers will as good as they were in 2017.
But if — it’s a big if — Auburn can find a reliable tailback option, I think Jarrett Stidham’s game soars to new heights. He’s still surrounded by an extremely young group of pass-catchers and his rushing should improve. Auburn finally has some stability on its coaching staff, which could make for another SEC West championship Iron Bowl.
A lot of this depends on Bryce Love’s status. If he returns, you could see the Cardinal crack the top 7 in some polls. If he doesn’t, Stanford is likely a fringe top-15 team. I split the difference and give a little extra benefit to David Shaw.
Does anyone else realize that Shaw had 6 top-20 finishes in his first 7 seasons? Five of those were actually top-10 finishes. The loss of Harrison Phillips will hurt Stanford’s ability to defend the run, but bringing back 17 starters usually bodes well for Shaw.
9. Michigan State
I’ll admit that I was the last to jump on the MSU bandwagon in 2017. But there are very few Power 5 teams that won double-digit games and also return 19 starters. In fact, I don’t think there are any.
L.J. Scott’s return is huge, and Brian Lewerke showed promise. This team got its identity back by stellar defensive play from non-household names. The Spartans are back to being their pre-2016 selves, which means the B1G East is going to be an absolute dogfight.
It ended horribly. Three losses to end the season was not exactly a sign that Miami was back.
The Canes were also a bit banged up and perhaps a bit new to the spotlight. In Year 3 of the Mark Richt era, I think we see an even better Miami team. This group returns a whopping 17 starters, including basically all of the guys who made the Turnover Chain the 2017 sensation that it was. I think Malik Rosier improves and this offense handles the loss of Mark Walton better than it did down the stretch.
Before Jacob Eason gets his crack at running the Huskies offense, Chris Petersen still has one more year of Jake Browning. That’s an enticing thought for a team that should be the preseason Pac-12 favorite.
As of this writing, I don’t know the NFL status of Myles Gaskin, but if he returns, Washington will have arguably the most dangerous weapon in college football. The question is if they can replace a run-stuffer like Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Vita Vea.
Losing one of the greatest players in college football history obviously hurts, but something tells me this Lincoln Riley guy is going to be just fine without Baker Mayfield. Much like Dabo Swinney with the loss of Deshaun Watson, Riley will show that he’s capable of winning without a once-in-a-generation quarterback.
Kyler Murray gets the keys to the car, but it’s Rodney Anderson who will wind up driving the Sooners back into the Playoff picture.
5. Ohio State
People in Columbus are already sold on the fact that Dwayne Haskins is going to be the next great Ohio State quarterback. I think he has great potential. I also think that there’s a learning curve for him to gel with Kevin Wilson’s offense in live game action.
The good news is that the Buckeyes return arguably the best 1-2 backfield punch in America in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Ohio State will have offensive line questions, but Urban Meyer’s program is a yearly contender no matter what talent the Buckeyes lose.
So, um, does everyone else realize that the Badgers won a program-record 13 games and they return the majority of their starters?
They got to and won another New Year’s 6 bowl despite the fact that they lost preseason All-American Jack Cichy and Alex Hornibrook threw an interception in every B1G game. With Paul Chryst, the Badgers are going to be yearly contenders. And hey, for the first time since 2015, they won’t have to replace their defensive coordinator!
The Badgers aren’t going anywhere.
Until further notice, Clemson, Georgia and Alabama are the cream of the crop and everyone else is a notch below them. A more-experienced Kelly Bryant will be key for the Tigers, who were arguably the best team in the country until the Alabama game.
I think Clemson reloads its dominant defensive front if and when the likes of Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell announce that they’re off to the NFL. Dabo Swinney has developed a Nick Saban-like ability to replace key players, and 2018 should be no different.
The Dawgs will start 2018 right where they finished 2017. Kirby Smart might’ve had a senior-laden group, but it helps when you have true freshman playmakers with experience and the No. 1 recruiting class. As we saw Monday night, there’s no reason that true freshman can’t shine on the big stage.
Another year in Jim Chaney’s offense is going to do wonders for Jake Fromm, and D’Andre Swift could become a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate behind that experienced offensive line. I like Georgia’s odds of at least getting a chance at some redemption next year.
Yes, believe it or not, I have the Tide at No. 1 heading into 2018. After seeing what the Tide’s true freshmen did in the national championship, how could you not?
Tua Tagovailoa and Najee Harris were huge down the stretch. Of course Alabama is losing a ton of talent to the NFL, but as long as the Tide can find a legitimate replacement for Calvin Ridley — assuming he’s gone — there’s no reason to think the team that made 4 consecutive Playoff berths will suddenly fade.
Considering Nick Saban’s squad finished No. 1 in the Associated Press poll 5 of the past 9 years, this is as safe a bet as any.