The 2017 season ended with Alabama beating Georgia, 26-23, in the College Football Playoff championship.
It’s unlikely, but the two teams could meet in a championship game again next year. Familiar foes such as Ohio State and Clemson also could return to the College Football Playoff.
Here are the other teams I project as the 25 best in college football entering next season.
Tom Herman seems like the coach to get the Longhorns back among the nation’s best teams. QBs Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, RB Daniel Young and talented receivers return. The offense will have to carry more weight, as linebacker Malik Jefferson, punter Michael Dickson, safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Holton Hill all depart.
The “defending national champions” have done a nice job emulating LaVar Ball and creating a lot of attention for themselves. Scott Frost left for Nebraska, but new coach Josh Heupel inherits a strong roster, including quarterback McKenzie Milton.
I know. Call me crazy. But Dan Mullen gets back a ton of suspended and injured players. The QB, whomever it is, has to be better than what the Gators trotted out there this past year. And the schedule still includes Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee. I see Florida winning at least 8 games in 2018 and returning to contender status in the next two or three years.
Never doubt Gary Patterson. Quarterback Kenny Hill and running back Kyle Hicks are gone, and the defense must replace some significant pieces.
21. West Virginia
Will Grier (3,490 yards, 34 touchdowns) should return from a finger injury with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Gary Jennings and David Sills). The Mountaineers must improve on defense, though, after allowing more than 445 yards per game last season.
20. Boise State
QB Brett Rypien (2,877 yards, 16 touchdowns) and RB Alexander Mattison (1,086 yards, 12 touchdowns) return for the perennial Group of 5 favorites. Games at Troy and at Oklahoma State will be difficult, but the defense returns almost everyone. The team with the blue turf will prove tough again in 2018.
If RB Bryce Love returns, Stanford may become the Pac-12 favorites. But even if he departs, I’m giving credit to David Shaw as one of the best coaches in college football. QB K.J. Costello returns with a stacked group of passing targets, including tight end Kaden Smith. Linebacker Bobby Okereke (96 tackles) will anchor a defense that probably will lose a lot of talent.
18. Virginia Tech
QB Josh Jackson should be better after a strong freshman season (2,991 yards, 20 touchdowns, 324 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns). The defense might lose some familiar names, but there’s no reason to ever doubt defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
17. Mississippi State
Assuming QB Nick Fitzgerald returns to form after a nasty ankle injury he suffered early in the Egg Bowl, this will be a scary SEC team. A nasty offensive line returns intact. Montez Sweat will be one of the best returning pass rushers in the conference. RB Aeris Williams (1,100-plus yards) is also back. This is a physical, defense-first, run-first team loaded with experience. As long as new coach Joe Moorhead, formerly Penn State’s offensive coordinator, isn’t a major downgrade, this team should do even better than the 9-4 record of 2017.
16. Florida State
QB Deondre Francois’ return, and getting rid of the internal strife on the coaching staff, should be enough to vault the Seminoles from a 7-win disappointment to at least 10 wins in 2018. The team lost three games by one possession in ’17 and the roster ranked No. 5 on the 247Sports talent rankings as of Jan. 8. Cam Akers (1,024 yards in 2017) and Jacques Patrick (735 yards) form an outstanding backfield, but the offensive line has been atrocious for two seasons and must improve. On defense, the Seminoles constantly feature NFL talent, but that group must play better than it did at times last year.
QB Justin Herbert accounts for the majority of my optimism. He didn’t play well in a bowl loss to Boise State after returning from a fractured collarbone, but Oregon went 6-1 in the regular season when Herbert played. The Ducks have a new coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State, but I think a second chance for Mario Cristobal is long overdue. The Pac-12 isn’t as intimidating as it has been in some years of late. Stanford and Washington both visit Eugene. And keeping Jim Leavitt on as defensive coordinator was vital.
14. Notre Dame
QB Ian Book looked impressive in beating LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and there may be a high-profile quarterback competition this offseason. Outside of a terrible ’16, Brian Kelly has won 12, 9, 8, 10 and 10 games in the last six seasons. But the biggest challenge is the schedule for the Irish, which is as daunting as ever. The coaching staff under Kelly and the personnel on both sides of the ball is undergoing significant turnover, but Notre Dame’s roster remains one of the 10 most talented in college football, according to 247Sports.
Chris Petersen has to be considered one of the best coaches in the country, having led the Huskies to back-to-back double-digit wins for the first time since 1990-91. QB Jake Browning should bounce back from a relatively disappointing 2017, and is one of the Pac-12’s most experienced players at the position. Ryan Bowman (9.5 tackles for loss) and Taylor Rapp (59 tackles) are key players returning on a defense that’s played stout football for the last two seasons.
12. Penn State
The Big Ten proved its strength during bowl season and will have a lot of momentum in the media entering this fall, despite failing to reach the College Football Playoff. Saquon Barkley is headed to the NFL, and Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan loom large once again. QB Trace McSorley returns, and James Franklin deserves credit after consecutive 11-win seasons. He’s establishing a consistent program, one that can contend on a yearly basis despite one of the toughest divisions in football.
Jim Harbaugh, fair or not, has gotten all sorts of backlash after failing to deliver on sky-high expectations in Ann Arbor. But 2017 always was going to be a rebuilding year. Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson could play as soon as 2018. And that could help Harbaugh avoid the Les Miles path on offense (too old-school and conservative). The offensive line also is a top concern, though whomever starts at QB should have an adequate backfield and receiving corps. Don Brown’s defense has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten based on returning personnel. Can Harbaugh shake off the boobirds just as people lose faith in his potential to win titles?
The Pac-12 got excluded from the 2017 College Football Playoff. And with QBs Sam Darnold (USC) and Josh Rosen (UCLA) leaving for the NFL, and coaches Jim Mora and Rich Rodriguez losing their jobs, most of the headlines around the conference have been negative. But for all his potential to be a high NFL draft pick, Darnold threw 13 interceptions and ate 29 sacks. USC always seems to find its next great QB. Running back Ronald Jones also is off to the NFL. But four starters on the offensive line return. I’m not sold on Clay Helton as a championship-level coach, but there’s no doubting USC’s talent. The Trojans are No. 3 in the 247Sports talent composite, which ranks teams based on the overall roster talent. UCLA (No. 11) and Stanford (No. 14) are the only other Pac-12 teams in the top 20.
Kerryon Johnson and Jeff Holland may be the biggest impact offense/defense early NFL entrants in the country. Add to that Carlton Davis, Braden Smith, Casey Dunn, Austin Golson and Darius James, and the Tigers face a heck of an offseason. After appearing to skirt the cliff’s edge as Auburn’s coach at one point in 2017 — it seemed that Auburn was flirting with the idea of a change at one point, and Arkansas came after him hard — Gus Malzahn is one of the longest-tenured SEC coaches, and the only active SEC coach to beat Nick Saban twice. He also benefits from the return of Jarrett Stidham for another year. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been one of the SEC’s unsung heroes in the last two years. He has that unit playing excellent football.
Yes, Baker Mayfield is gone. And with that, 34-year-old coach Lincoln Riley will have to start proving he can sustain the program that Bob Stoops built. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray figures to get the first crack at replacing Mayfield. He’ll have plenty of help with Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams at running back CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown at receiver. Left tackle Orlando Brown is a huge loss. Oklahoma must replace Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, linebacker Emmanuel Beal, safety Steven Parker and end D.J. Ward from a unit that wasn’t very respected in ’17. OU needs a more balanced squad this fall, with each side pulling its weight. But the Sooners likely will be Big 12 favorites once again.
7. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio regrouped after a 3-9 season in 2016 to win 10 games this past year. The Spartans didn’t get much hype despite beating Penn State, Michigan, Washington State and Iowa. Brian Lewerke is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country, and accounted for 3,352 total yards in 2017. LJ Scott looks like a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018, as he’ll operate behind a line that returns five starters. A good defense loses just two seniors of note. The Spartans did get embarrassed by Ohio State, and the division once again will go through the Buckeyes next fall. But don’t be surprised if Dantonio fields a top 10 team this fall.
One of the least-respected Power 5 teams to finish the regular season unbeaten in quite some time, the Badgers won 13 games last season, including a New Year’s Six bowl. QB Alex Hornibrook usually makes enough plays to win, and he could have the best receiving corps in the Big Ten in 2018. RB Jonathan Taylor may enter the year as the favorite to win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. A defense that gave up 13.9 points per game will endure major losses, but LB T.J. Edwards already announced he’ll be back.
Mark Richt won 10 games yet again in 2017. On cue, the Hurricanes closed the season with three consecutive losses. But it marked the first time Miami won 10 football games since 2003. QB Malik Rosier (3,120 passing yards, 468 rushing yards, 31 total TDs) returns. The schedule includes some tough games (LSU, Florida State, Virginia Tech). But much of the confidence in this team stems from the defense built by Manny Diaz — the same group that inspired the hated turnover chain. Defensive back Jaquan Johnson (team-best 96 total tackles, 4 interceptions) announced in December he will be back next season, and the majority of the unit remains intact.
Kirby Smart has ensured that the Bulldogs will remain a contender for years to come by recruiting as well as Nick Saban the last two years — if not better. Standout freshman QB Jake Fromm returns, along with the more mobile 5-star signee Justin Fields. Yes, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel leave at running back, but that just frees up more carries for D’Andre Swift, who could be better than both. The offensive line continues to get better under Sam Pittman. The defense loses a ton of talent, including potential early NFL draft entrant Roquan Smith. But the top programs in the SEC are able to replenish on that side of the ball each year. Plus the SEC East remains winnable, with new coaches at Tennessee and Florida.
Remember when “Clemsoning” was a punchline? Dabo Swinney will attempt to make the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive time during the 2018 season. QB Kelly Bryant proved the Tigers could win without Deshaun Watson, though 5-star signee Trevor Lawrence will push him. Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne give Clemson a proven, reliable 1-2 punch at running back. The front seven on defense will lose some major pieces due to expired eligibility and early NFL draft entry (Christian Wilkins, probably). But if Brent Venables remains coordinator, I have confidence in that unit.
2. Ohio State
Expect Dwayne Haskins to replace longtime QB J.T. Barrett without issue. Haskins replaced an injured Barrett vs. Michigan and won in 2017. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber could be the best duo in the nation next year. Urban Meyer’s program is a perennial national championship contender. Defensive end Nick Bosa also returns as one of the most disruptive pass rushers in all of college football.
For all the criticism surrounding Jalen Hurts, the Tide’s quarterback returns as one of the most decorated and experienced players at the most important position in college football — including four starts in College Football Playoff games. And with Tua Tagovailoa’s performance against Georgia, Hurts should be a BACKUP entering next season. That gives you an idea about how good the 2018 version of Alabama could be. Nick Saban’s defenses always rank in the top 5 nationally no matter the personnel and the coordinator, and that won’t change, though Bama must restock its secondary. Alabama may need to replace Calvin Ridley, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. But a loaded group of skill players that signed in 2017 will get a chance to shine, including Najee Harris and Jerry Jeudy.
The bottom line here: Alabama is the surest bet in college football.
Also considered: LSU, Florida Atlantic, South Carolina, UCLA, Iowa State, Arizona, Fresno State, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Washington State, Memphis.