There are only 30 minutes remaining in the 2017 college football season. That’s a half hour of football until a new national champion is crowned … and a half hour of football until fans begin debating the next preseason Top 25.
The SEC figures to play a huge role in the conversation. We have five teams included here, but a handful of others have legitimate claims, too.
Here’s your primer for the 2018 season:
Honorable mentions: Oklahoma State, Stanford (Top 25 if running back Bryce Love returns, but he probably won’t), Mississippi State, West Virginia, Northwestern, Florida State (The pressure is already on Willie Taggart to contend, but Year 1 won’t be smooth), Texas A&M, Arizona, Purdue, Fresno State, Missouri
25. Florida Atlantic
Lane Kiffin has turned perennially-forgettable Florida Atlantic into one of the Group of 5’s most buzzworthy teams. The Owls capped an 11-win season by slaughtering Akron 50-3 in the Boca Raton Bowl. Now, they bring back several key offensive names. Most notable is rising junior running back Devin Singletary, who totaled more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2017.
Running back Royce Freeman and his 1,600 yards from scrimmage are gone. But the Ducks replace him with a duo — Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit — that totaled more than 1,300 in 2017 alone. Dual-threat quarterback Justin Herbert (20 total touchdowns in eight games) will be back, too, and his presence will keep the Ducks in the preseason Pac-12 title conversation. The defense brings back a combined 21 sacks from last season but loses key players at each position group.
Losing most of the O-Line, the starting quarterback and the starting running back mean Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs will be offensively challenged in 2018. Roughly half of the starting defense is leaving, too, which makes this placement more of a sign of faith in Patterson’s program than in the way TCU looks on paper.
22. Washington State
Luke Falk set plenty of records at Wazzu, but backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski wasn’t too far off Falk’s pace when he saw playing time this season. He quarterbacked a classic win over Boise State in September (25 of 33 for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns) as well as the Cougars’ bowl loss to Michigan State (39 of 50 for 272 yards and 2 touchdowns).
Hilinski also has an abundance of receiving talent returning. So long as Mike Leach is running the Air Raid in Pullman and has a living, breathing athlete behind center, the Cougars are going to compete.
21. Kansas State
Bill Snyder is about to enter his 27th season as Kansas State head coach. His current group is one of the more promising ones he’s had in Manhattan. Much of the offense is expected to return, and the majority of the defense is, too. K-State will need to get better against the pass next season, a goal aided by the return of the entire starting defensive backfield.
20. South Carolina
Deebo Samuel was the heart and soul of the Gamecocks offense, but the receiver/rusher/returner extraordinaire missed the majority of the season with a knee injury. He’ll be back to lead an excellent receiving corps for rising junior quarterback Jake Bentley. Will Muschamp’s defense is losing a decent amount up front and in the backfield, but a restructured “D” won’t keep South Carolina from competing in the SEC East.
It’s Myles Brennan time in Baton Rouge, which should have fans feeling mighty nervous. Coach Ed Orgeron brings back the bulk of his strong Tigers defense, but is the disappointing offense finally going to be able to break through? The departures of its starting quarterback, star running back, left tackle and top receiver mean whomever takes over as offensive coordinator has a tough task ahead.
A surprising bowl win over Missouri featured an impressive defensive performance. Tom Herman’s Longhorns return the bulk of their starters on that side of the ball, and the offense will be similarly experienced. Expect more musical chairs at quarterback, but each guy — Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger — had his moments. Expectations in Austin will be high once again.
17. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish need a ground-game reboot on both sides of the ball. Four of the five starters on the offensive line — plus the top two tight ends — are gone, and so is star running back Josh Adams. On the defensive depth chart, Brian Kelly will be filling holes at all of his linebacker spots as well as half the defensive line. That’s a lot of manpower to replace, and the late-season disappearance of quarterback Brandon Wimbush doesn’t help things.
16. Boise State
The pieces are in place for another memorable season in Boise. Eleven wins won’t cut it; this team will be competing for a major bowl bid with nearly all of its defensive starters back and an offense that returns most of its big names. Brett Rypien, nephew of Super Bowl MVP Mark, should be the full-time starter at quarterback after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards in 2017.
The return of quarterback Jake Browning means less this year than it did 12 months ago. The once-lauded rising senior struggled in several games this season, most notably in the Huskies’ three losses (an average of 168 passing yards and 0.33 touchdowns). Top receiver Dante Pettis has graduated, and top running back Myles Gaskin is thinking about going pro. The Huskies defense brings back plenty of talent, but it surrendered 30-plus points in three of its final four contests this year.
Life after Baker Mayfield figures to be rough. Neither Bob Stoops nor Lincoln Riley have been able to shore up the Sooners defense in recent seasons, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change after another defensive embarrassment in the Rose Bowl and the departure of a handful of starters on “D.”
Projected starting quarterback Kyler Murray — a former Texas A&M Aggie — is mostly a mystery, but at least he’ll have a solid receiving corps and good experience at running back (even if Rodney Anderson departs for the NFL).
The Badgers’ memorable 2017 run was made possible by a standout defense that boasted more experience than just about any other Big Ten unit. Many of those key players are gone, which means Wisconsin will need a bit of an offensive renaissance in 2018.
The running game is rock solid. Rising sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor will be a popular name on Heisman lists, and he’ll have most of his offensive line back in place. But rising redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook was a constant Achilles heel at quarterback; he will either need to be replaced or take a galactic step forward to guide Wisco through visits to Iowa City, Evanston, Ann Arbor and Happy Valley.
12. Penn State
The defense takes a big hit with the departures of the entire starting backfield and each of the front seven’s interior starters. Nittany Lions fans are also waving goodbye to do-it-all superstar Saquon Barkley, All-American tight end Mike Gesicki and receiving leader DaeSean Hamilton. The return of quarterback Trace McSorley means it’s not a rebuilding year, but James Franklin will be hard-pressed to earn a major bowl bid for the third consecutive season.
Sam Darnold recently announced his intention to enter the NFL draft, which puts USC back to square one at quarterback. Backup Matt Fink threw just 9 passes this season, and he will be without top running back Ronald Jones and — pending his NFL decision — top receiver Deontay Burnett. A solid group of returninees on defense should ease the transition.
10. Michigan State
One of the country’s biggest overachievers in 2017 should have more of a fighter’s chance in the Big Ten East race this coming autumn. Mark Dantonio brought another 10-win season to East Lansing despite minimal preseason expectations. Now, he’s expected to bring back nearly all of his key players as he attempts to drag MSU to the playoff for the second time in four seasons.
9. Virginia Tech
The returning defensive line will have plenty of experience, as will the offensive skill positions. If the Hokies want to get over the ACC hump, they will need rising redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson (2,991 passing yards and 20 touchdowns against 9 interceptions) to build on the promise he showed at various points of an inconsistent first season.
The national champions are back, baby! Scott Frost hauled his entire coaching staff to Nebraska, but his replacement — Josh Heupel — steps into a solid situation. Rising junior quarterback McKenzie Milton is one of the best in the country and deserves plenty of consideration in the preseason Heisman conversation. He still has nearly all of his offensive teammates around him. There are some concerns about replacing a few spots on the defensive front seven, but UCF has the firepower to make another
national AAC title run.
7. Ohio State
Urban Meyer’s team narrowly missed an invitation to the College Football Playoff, and a notable exodus of defensive talent — plus the loss of longtime starting quarterback J.T. Barrett — makes the snub sting a little more. Much like Michigan last year, the Buckeyes face a daunting reload that will threaten to keep them out of title contention.
Much of a formidable defense returns, but fans aren’t as excited to see the bulk of an ugly offense come back. The Wolverines’ bowl loss to South Carolina highlighted what supporters have known for awhile now: Michigan’s “O” is borderline unwatchable. Enter Shea Patterson, whose potential (likely?) eligibility could swing the fortunes of Jim Harbaugh’s team. Assuming Patterson plays, we’ll give Michigan’s crummy offense the benefit of the doubt in the Big Ten East race.
Losing to UCF in the Peach Bowl was slightly detrimental to Auburn’s image, especially considering the Tigers would be more of a Top-5 lock had they finished strong. But Gus Malzahn has enough talent coming back — including every skill player except for All-SEC running back Kerryon Johnson — to keep the hype train rolling on the Plains.
Every offseason features a top-tier program that brings back seemingly every key player, and Miami fills that role in 2018. The Hurricanes aren’t returning everybody, but there were only four seniors in the combined offensive and defensive starting lineups at the end of the season. Rising fifth-year senior quarterback Malik Rosier will be key to any serious success; he had too many disappointing games this past season.
Prognosticators will be gun shy about slotting Clemson at No. 1 after watching Kelly Bryant and the Tigers offense crumble against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Bryant is no Deshaun Watson, and the big question for Dabo Swinney becomes: Does the next version of his program — which includes significant turnover on that vaunted front seven — have championship mettle?
Welcome to Nick Saban’s most unstable offseason in recent memory. Five of his top defensive backs will be gone, including defensive MVP Minkah Fitzpatrick. So will the top three wide receivers, including the great Calvin Ridley. Both junior running backs — Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough — are expected to leave early, and both kicking specialists are done. Did we mention the quarterback competition brewing? Or that another defensive coordinator is on his way to a rival school? Alabama reloads better than anybody, but there will be enough perceived growing pains to keep the Crimson Tide out of the No. 1 spot in August.
A wave of defensive starters are leaving Athens, including all-world linebacker Roquan Smith. Running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are on their way out, too. But Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift — both rising sophomores — will still wreak havoc behind a stacked offensive line. Kirby Smart’s newest class of elite recruits should help determine whether 2018 is an in-between year or another major milestone for the SEC’s new “it” program.
Which teams are in your 2018 Top 25? Let us know in the comment section below.