The last time I put together a projected Top 25 was at halftime of the national title game. Georgia commanded a 13-0 lead — and the No. 1 spot in my rankings — and Tua Tagovailoa was not yet a household name.
Thirty minutes of football changed a lot. Now, National Signing Day has shaken things up even more. So, it’s time to take another close look at the 2018 race. Here’s how you should expect the preseason Top 25 to line up:
Honorable mentions: Florida Atlantic, TCU, Washington State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Northwestern, Florida State, Arizona, Purdue, Fresno State
Quarterback Justin Herbert and running backs Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit return 33 total touchdowns from last season, while top receiving target Charles Nelson is also back. The Ducks defense loses key players at each position group but figures to continue trending upward after drastically cutting down on yards allowed per game.
24. Mississippi State
Joe Moorhead’s former players at Penn State are dead sure he will build a winner at MSU. The recent Nittany Lions offensive coordinator is now in charge of a 9-win Bulldogs team that brings back much of its offense — including star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald — and an athletic defense spearheaded by former 5-star recruit Jeffery Simmons.
23. Kansas State
Bill Snyder is nearly an octogenarian, which means he isn’t exactly hauling in star recruits these days (247Sports.com lists the current Wildcats class as 67th in the country). But he continues to take that “lower-level talent” and turn it into winning football teams. Take, for instance, the newest version of his Wildcats, which boasts plenty of former 2- and 3-star prospects and should be one of the best — if not the best — in the Big 12.
22. West Virginia
Will Grier is back for a second season in Morgantown, and should be in the thick of the Heisman conversation so long as the Mountaineers stay afloat in the Big 12 race. Before a gruesome finger injury ended his 2017 season, he racked up 3,490 passing yards (9.0 yards per attempt) and 34 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. A loaded receiving corps will make life hell for the rest of the conference’s defensive coordinators.
The NFL running back class is loaded, so Bryce Love is back in Palo Alto. That’s amazing news for the Cardinal, who saw Love carry their offense with 2,118 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Expect plenty of high-scoring games when Stanford is on the bill; the team boasts an electric offense but will likely find it tough to replace several key players in the defensive lineup.
After whiffing on 5-star cornerback Patrick Surtain, Jr., this is LSU’s lowest-rated recruiting class in 16 years. Coach Ed Orgeron brings back the core of his defense, but is anyone really that confident that the Tigers offense — which lost its starting quarterback, running back, left tackle and top receiver — can turn things around under Steve Ensminger?
A huge recruiting class keeps the momentum rolling for the Longhorns, who surprised the college football world with a big win over Missouri in December. Much of the defense is back, and so are the two quarterbacks — Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger — who split time during the 2017 season. Maybe the ‘Horns won’t be overrated this preseason (It’s been awhile).
18. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly’s team must prove it can stay balanced on offense. The Fighting Irish often counted on star running back Josh Adams to keep the ball moving, but he’s off to the NFL draft. Meanwhile, quarterback Brandon Wimbush infuriated the fan base at various points last year. He’s a promising dual-threat who struggled during a crucial stretch of late-season games. It’s a mystery as to which version of him we’ll see in the massive opener vs. Michigan.
17. South Carolina
Is there a more important SEC skill player returning than Deebo Samuel? His absence for much of 2017 cost the Gamecocks any semblance of a consistent passing offense. Now that he’s back, we can expect a big step forward from rising junior quarterback Jake Bentley … and a dynamic offense that can pick up the slack for a somewhat inexperienced defense.
16. Boise State
Those bygone days when Boise State made noise on a national level appear to be coming back. Bryan Harsin’s team brings back nearly all of its defensive starters and most of the big names on offense. If quarterback Brett Rypien, nephew of Super Bowl MVP Mark, continues to improve, we might see the Broncos join the College Football Playoff conversation in November.
The Sooners have neglected to play much defense over the past few years. That’s not an issue when your quarterback is an all-time great player. But Baker Mayfield is gone, and there’s little reason to think that replacement Kyler Murray is going to produce numbers in the same zip code. We will learn plenty about Lincoln Riley and his staff this season.
“D” was the key to Wisconsin’s 12-0 start last season, but Paul Chryst will need to lean on his offense a little more with several important defenders leaving Madison. The good news: Heisman-contending running back Jonathan Taylor is back for more, as is quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who shed a season’s worth of ugly play with an excellent performance in the Orange Bowl.
Jacob Eason is headed to Seattle, but it’s still Jake Browning’s show for one more season. The rising senior was disappointing in 2017, especially in the Huskies’ three losses (an average of 168 passing yards and 0.33 touchdowns). He’ll be supported by star running back Myles Gaskin, who decided in mid-January to return for one more year. It’s easy to get excited about the experience on defense, but keep in mind that those same guys surrendered 30-plus points in three of their last four games.
12. Penn State
Much of the defense is gone, and so is an impressive offensive trio: All-America running back Saquon Barkley, All-America tight end Mike Gesicki and receiving leader DaeSean Hamilton. Coach James Franklin gets quarterback Trace McSorley back under center, but the rising senior took a small step backward in 2017. A top 5 recruiting class should help ease the transition, especially stud defensive recruits Micah Parsons, Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton.
The defense comes back mostly intact, but the starting quarterback, running back and top wide receiver are all gone. Sam Darnold is off to the NFL, which leaves Clay Helton with very inexperienced incumbent options at the most important position on the field. New signee JT Daniels, a 5-star quarterback prospect from Santa Ana, Calif., is expected to push for the starting job after reclassifying.
10. Michigan State
There’s plenty of uncertainty brewing in East Lansing, but it appears as if coach Mark Dantonio will escape the current climate with his reputation and job intact. So long as he and his program are not punished by the university or the NCAA, Dantonio’s forthcoming squad looks primed to build on an impressive 2017 season. Nearly every key player is back, and there’s not a clear favorite among the other Big Ten East powers.
9. Virginia Tech
The Hokies narrowly landed a top 25 class that won’t turn many heads and probably won’t contribute much this coming autumn. But the Hokies are bringing back plenty of good football players at important areas, most notably the defensive line. Rising redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson needs to be more consistent in big games if Virginia Tech is to get over the ACC hump.
Where’s the love for the Golden Knights? Scott Frost and his staff were great, sure, but their departure doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a team that’s bringing back nearly all of its top talent. Quarterback McKenzie Milton should be the Group of 5’s odds-on favorite to crash the Heisman Trophy ceremony next December. A Sept. 22 showdown with Florida Atlantic will be must-see TV.
7. Ohio State
The Buckeyes just landed an all-time great recruiting class, which should help ease the pain of losing several defensive studs and longtime starting quarterback J.T. Barrett. It’s fair to expect a little less from the
rebuilding regrouping Bucks this season; the Big Ten East will be as competitive as it’s ever been. And the school-that-shall-not-be-mentioned is on the rebound. Speaking of which …
Jim Harbaugh had a disappointing National Signing Day, but that won’t change much about his 2018 team. The Wolverines bring back much of their strong defense, and the offense can only improve on an often-unwatchable ’17 campaign. Michigan’s fate will likely swing on the eligibility of Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, who is still waiting to hear from the NCAA.
The relationship between Gus Malzahn and the Auburn fan base is still tempestuous. There’s a chill on the Plains after back-to-back losses vs. Georgia and UCF to finish the season. Malzahn’s newest team — led by a strong defense and a promising offense — is talented enough to finish the job in 2018. But anything less than a double-digit-win season means more friction than this relationship can likely withstand.
Can Mark Richt finally break through? He’s spent his entire career building winners but has never played for a national championship. His 2018 Hurricanes should be one of the best teams he’s coached. Only four late-season starters are out of eligibility, and rising fifth-year senior quarterback Malik Rosier will love having potential All-America wide receiver Ahmmon Richards back at 100 percent health.
No game swung the “Which conference is best?” conversation more than Alabama’s beatdown of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide exposed the Tigers’ iffy passing offense, and now Dabo Swinney must go back to the greaseboard. But don’t forget: Swinney still has that vaunted defensive line from a year ago, as well a consensus top 5 recruiting class that will provide new blood at key positions.
I had Georgia at No. 1 when I published the original version of this list … during halftime of the national title game. In the two quarters that followed, ‘Bama solved its single biggest issue of the past couple years — passing offense — and stole a ring from the Bulldogs. Several defensive starters are leaving Athens, including all-world linebacker Roquan Smith. Star running back duo Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are gone, too. But Kirby Smart’s newest class of elite recruits should make some key contributions in Year 1 as the ‘Dawgs once again battle against the Tide for national supremacy.
The heroic emergence of Tagovailoa, a rising sophomore quarterback, helped the Crimson Tide secure a 17th national title and makes Alabama a somewhat easy choice at No. 1. But defending the championship won’t be easy; five of Nick Saban’s top defensive backs will be gone, including defensive MVP Minkah Fitzpatrick. So will the top three wide receivers, including potential top 10 pick Calvin Ridley. Both coordinators left town (what else is new?). Signing Surtain, Jr. gave the latest Tide class a boost into “normal” territory, though it still noticeably lags behind a few other prominent programs.
Which teams are in your 2018 Top 25? Let us know in the comment section below.