Spring camps are finally getting underway, which means football is right around the corner.
Games start in less than a month. The time is right to project where voters will slot teams in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
Many of the contenders remain the same, but new names have blown their way into the conversation. Here is where we project the AP Top 25 stands today.
There were major losses all over the field, but betting against Nick Saban is a fool’s errand. The Crimson Tide were picked to win the SEC West this season, despite losing several key playmakers. Regardless, the level of talent across the roster is enough to overcome the losses and contend for a title once again.
The Tigers’ top 10 defense was decimated by attrition to the NFL, but QB Deshaun Watson will ensure Clemson remains a title contender. Watson’s wide receiver rotation remains one of the best in college football. Between Watson and RB Wayne Gallman (1,527 rushing yards), the Tigers should be unstoppable offensively. If players can step up in the secondary, Clemson could be back in the title game.
3. Florida State
The ACC is a two-team league, but both should be exceptional next season. RB Dalvin Cook should have been a Heisman finalist last season. He leads an offense that returns all 11 starters from last season. The Seminoles must replace Jalen Ramsey on defense, but have the talent to push Clemson for a College Football Playoff berth.
The Sooners had a poor showing in the College Football Playoff, but QB Baker Mayfield ensures Oklahoma should be the class of the Big 12 once again. Mayfield teams with RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon to make for one of the scariest backfields in the football. Finding weapons along the defensive line will be the key heading into next season.
The Mad Hatter has at least one more season to lead LSU back to the promised land. Les Miles was nearly forced out of town last season, but now returns with one of the most talented rosters of his tenure. RB Leonard Fournette is an early favorite for the Heisman Trophy. ESPN’s FPI also gives the Tigers more than a 50 percent chance to win the SEC West.
Lost in the Harbaugh hype train this offseason is that Michigan made massive steps. The last time the Wolverines took the field, they eviscerated Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. Despite losing defensive coordinator D.J Durkin to Maryland, Michigan should continue to make strides in year two.
This is the year for Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers to put it all together. The Volunteers return 17 starters and introduce heralded defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to put it all together. Tennessee has been young the past few years as Jones rebuilt the program, but that excuse will no longer fly. The experience is there.
Stanford might boast the most versatile talent in college football. RB Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ record for all-purpose yards with 2,019 rushing, 645 receiving and 1,200 return yards. He returns, but the defense loses six starters. Finding player to step up in both trenches will separate a good and great season.
9. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly has continued to build Notre Dame into a title contender. Even though 12 starters from last season’s team are gone, the level of talent remains high across Notre Dame’s roster. With a pair of talented quarterbacks to choose from (DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire), the Fighting Irish should be a force.
10. Ohio State
Ohio State lost an insane amount of talent to the NFL draft, and now return just six starters total from last season’s team. The good news is QB J.T Barrett took full control of the job last season and will return as the undisputed leader this season. The talent is plentiful in Columbus, but the Buckeyes must find a way to withstand an early matchup against Oklahoma.
Like Tennessee, Washington is finally poised to live up to the hype. Fifteen starters return, including seven from a defense that allowed just 18.8 points per game last season in the high-flying Pac-12 Conference. Returning starting QB Jake Browning (2,955 yards, 16 TDs) and RB Myles Gaskin (1,302 yards, 14 TDs) will only help.
Outside of Cody Kessler, the offense is back in Clay Helton’s first full season as head coach. The big questions will come on defense, where the Trojans lost seven starters. Depth up front on defense will be an issue once again, but all-purpose star Adoree’ Jackson will keep the opposition on their toes.
Georgia fired Mark Richt even though he posted 9.7 wins per season during his 15 years with the program. The message is clear – pretty good is no longer enough in Athens. The Bulldogs hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to the position, and the goal will instantly be championships. The key in Smart’s first season will be replacing a front seven decimated by attrition.
14. Ole Miss
After a season in Oxford, QB Chad Kelly is one of the most heralded players in the nation. Kelly threw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first season. Things get tougher as the Rebels have to replace 14 starters, including three players picked in the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
15. Michigan State
After a run to the College Football Playoff, the Spartans lost 13 starters and numerous star players on both sides of the ball. Replacing QB Connor Cook will be the top priority, along with finding replacements for top NFL draft picks Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun.
QB Josh Rosen lived up to the hype as a true freshman. With offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone now gone to Texas A&M, Rosen will have to adjust to more of a traditional under-center offense. The Bruins lost seven offensive players, including linemen and top wide receivers. The defense is still good enough to make up for things, at least to start.
Who even knows what to expect from this program anymore? Before head coach Art Briles was terminated, Baylor was poised to be a national championship contender. The offense is still loaded, so Baylor should not decline too much in the first season post-Briles. Unfortunately, the future has quickly become murky in Waco.
Tom Herman’s squad was the surprise of last season. A year after struggling and firing coach Tony Levine, Herman led the Cougars to a surprising 13-1 season and upset victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Herman might not stay in Houston for the long haul, but the Cougars will be the class of the Group of Five next season.
Few expected Iowa to turn into an undefeated regular season team. But heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, there they were at 12-0. The Hawkeyes lost nine starters, but many were in the trenches. Iowa was able to stand out last season thanks to its dominance up front. Now, more will be asked of star QB C.J Beathard.
20. Oklahoma State
Even if the Cowboys have been unspectacular since 2011, Mike Gundy has continued to produce results in Stillwater, Okla. QB Mason Rudolph excelled in his first season and WR James Washington is set to become the program’s next star. Replacing DEs Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean will be the top priority.
Perhaps no team had to deal with the kind of injury woes TCU dealt with last season. Over 20 players dealt with injuries last season, including star QB Trevone Boykin and WR Josh Doctson. Both players are gone next season, along with several key pieces along the offensive line. The defense should be much improved, but offensive concerns keep TCU lower than expected to start.
The Cardinals have quickly become one of the hottest teams in college football thanks to one player: Lamar Jackson. As a true freshman, Jackson posted 453 total yards and four touchdowns to lead Louisville to a win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl last season. He added to his legend in the spring game, when he threw for 519 yards and eight touchdowns despite playing just one second half drive. If Jackson is legit, Louisville could play spoiler against either Florida State or Clemson.
Even with several departures to the NFL, Gainesville is filled with elite defensive talent. Even after QB Will Grier’s suspension, the defense continued to play at a high level. Now, it’s time for the offense to take a step back. The Gators were just 4-4 after Grier was suspended. QB Luke Del Rio needs to replicate some of what Grier did early last season.
If one thing became clear last season, it was how vital quarterback play is to Oregon’s offense. The Ducks were 8-1 with QB Vernon Adams in the lineup and 1-3 when he either got hurt or did not play. Adams is now gone to the NFL, so the performance of grad transfer Dakota Prukop will decide the Ducks’ chances.
25. North Carolina
Larry Fedora’s squad unexpectedly broke out last season. North Carolina exploded out to an 8-0 ACC record. The Tar Heels lost star QB Marquise Williams and elite OL Landon Turner, but still return many of their top skill position players. If the defense can keep things together in Gene Chizik’s second season at coordinator, North Carolina could win the Coastal Division again.