February 24, 2017
Rankings such as this are invariably described as Way Too Early. This one isn’t quite. (That can happen when two weeks of the College Football Playoff are followed by a month of an NFL postseason.) But I can’t say this Top 25 looks different from one that might have arrived six weeks ago. How hard is it to say, “Alabama’s No. 1 again”?
1. Alabama. The Crimson Tide are on their third offensive coordinator since New Year’s Day, Brian Daboll of the Patriots having replaced Steve Sarkisian, who replaced the noxious Lane Kiffin. The biggest defensive playmakers are outbound. Freshman Tua Tagovailoa of Honolulu could press incumbent Jalen Hurts at quarterback. But this is Bama. There’s no adjustment too big.
2. Florida State. Here’s how many games the ACC champion has lost over the past four years — three. Here’s how many national titles the league has won over that span — two, having come very close to a third. With Deshaun Watson gone from Clemson, the way is clear for the Seminoles to nose back ahead in the Atlantic Division, and if you can win the ACC, you’re not far from winning it all.
3. USC. The fresh memory of a breathless Rose Bowl might have left us with an inflated view of the participants. These Trojans did open last season by losing to Alabama by 46 points, and they were 1-3 as of Oct. 1. But they didn’t lose again, beating eventual Pac-12 champ Washington and eventual Big Ten titlist Penn State en route. And quarterback Sam Darnold does return.
4. Penn State. The same applies here. Even though the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State and won the conference, the CFP committee considered Ohio State the class of the Big Ten. Even though they gave a mighty effort in Pasadena, they lost to USC. We’re about to learn if James Franklin, recently of Vanderbilt, can consolidate gains. We’re about to see if Penn State is again Penn State.
5. Oklahoma. National championship hopes were dashed by September losses to Houston and Ohio State, but the Sooners finished 11-2. Running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are gone; so is receiver Dede Westbrook. Quarterback Baker Mayfield returns. This season will see the return of the Big 12 championship game, which can’t hurt a league that needs a nudge.
6. Washington. Chris Petersen needed three seasons to lift the Huskies to the College Football Playoff, and we know he’s good at maintaining: His Boise State teams were 84-8 over their first seven seasons. Washington returns seven starters on both offense and defense, quarterback Jake Browning chief among them. And it doesn’t face USC in the regular season.
7. Clemson. The aforementioned Watson leaves as the greatest player in program history. He’ll be missed. But Dabo Swinney has built too well for the orange empire to topple. The offense — also without tailback Wayne Gallman, receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett — will suffer. The defense, which famously shut out Ohio State, should be stout.
8. Ohio State. J.T. Barrett returns for what seems his 22nd year of eligibility. This would be a good thing, except that Barrett somehow forgot how to throw. Over the Buckeyes’ final three games — narrow victories over Michigan State and Michigan and the wipeout loss to Clemson — Barrett completed 44 of 89 passes for a total of 337 yards. Ohio State hopes that’s a blip.
9. Louisville. The Cardinals went from grumbling about their CFP ranking to losing their final three games to Houston, Kentucky and LSU. But Bobby Petrino still has Lamar Jackson, who still has his Heisman Trophy, and the Cardinals’ defense will be without coordinator Todd Grantham, who split for Mississippi State. Given that Louisville yielded 146 points in its four losses, he wasn’t indispensable.
10. Miami. Mark Richt is working in Coral Gables because his Georgia teams couldn’t win the SEC East when it was there for the taking. Well, the ACC Coastal is mighty inviting. Richt’s first Miami team started 4-0, slipped to 4-4 and closed with five wins, the last against West Virginia. He’ll need to replace quarterback Brad Kaaya, but that’s do-able. And yes, that’s four ACC teams in the top 10.
11. Wisconsin. The Badgers finished 11-3 and weren’t far from even better. They lost at Michigan by a touchdown, to Ohio State in overtime and to Penn State by a touchdown in the Big Ten title game. They don’t have to face Ohio State or Penn State in the regular season, which means they should again win the West, which means they’ll again have a shot at the playoff.
12. Oklahoma State. I underrate the Cowboys every year. I know I’m doing it, but I do it anyway. Maybe I’m blinded by the glitzier teams in the Big 12 — remember when Baylor and TCU were glitzy? — but here’s where I try to make amends. Mike Gundy: Good coach. Mason Rudolph: Good quarterback. Okie State’s 2017 schedule: Not half-bad; it gets Oklahoma and Kansas State at home.
13. Auburn. Our second SEC team doesn’t make its appearance until we’re more than halfway done. That’s the new reality for what is, with one exception, an unexceptional league. As hard as the rest of the league is chasing Alabama, nobody is gaining. The Tigers are 11-13 in SEC play over three seasons, so even this could be a reach. They’re banking on Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at quarterback.
14. Georgia. Once again, the Bulldogs appear to be the class of the SEC East. Once again, we wonder if results will reflect as much. Kirby Smart’s first season yielded a series of bewildering losses and one key question: Is the career assistant up to the task? The return of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and a banner recruiting class have spawned high hopes. Those aren’t new, either.
15. Texas. Speaking of great expectations, here’s Tom Herman in Austin. Just before being fired, Charlie Strong said of the Longhorns’ talent: “The cake has been baked. All that’s left is to put on the icing and slice it.” Herman was 22-4 with Houston’s talent, which isn’t to be confused with Texas talent. And he, unlike Smart when hired by Georgia, has actually worked as a head coach.
16. Michigan. The Wolverines lost three of their final four games, but anybody who would dismiss the Twitter King Jim Harbaugh on the strength of that evidence is being fanciful. Michigan lost to Iowa and Florida State by a point apiece and to Ohio State in overtime. The departure of nearly every starting defender will make this a retooling season, though.
17. South Florida. Speaking of Strong, here he is. It didn’t work at Texas, but his record at Louisville tells us he’s no empty chair. This was baked by Willie Taggart, who left for Oregon but who left quarterback Quinton Flowers in Tampa. The Bulls should be the class of the American Athletic Conference, the new launch pad for coaches. Strong shouldn’t be down for long.
18. Florida. It’s still unclear if the Gators won the SEC East two seasons running on merit or by default. What’s clear is that, if Florida wants to aim higher than a title-game thrashing by Alabama, it has to score more points. Transfer quarterback Luke Del Rio, who when injured was supplanted by transfer quarterback Austin Appleby, returns. That doesn’t mean he’ll start.
19. Boise State. By Boise standards, it was an OK season. The Broncos went 10-3 after again flirting with a New Year’s Six bowl assignment until a two-point loss at Wyoming on Oct. 29. There’s no reason to believe 2017 will be any worse, and it could be much better. There are two programs I can’t do a Top 25 without including. Alabama is one. This is the other.
20. LSU. I concede that this is the lowest you’ll find the Tigers in any Way Too Early. My reason: I have no confidence in Ed Orgeron as a head coach. The one good thing he did was hire offensive coordinator Matt Canada away from Pittsburgh. Georgia fans know Canada as the guy who replaced the not-irreplaceable Jim Chaney at Pitt.
21. Kansas State. Nick Saban is the nation’s best coach. Urban Meyer is second-best. Pound for pound, though, Bill Snyder can stand in against anybody. He’s 77 and coming off a 9-4 season that saw the Wildcats at 3-3 in mid-October. KSU won six of its final seven and stands a real chance of playing for the Big 12 title this time around. Best coach never to win a national title? Snyder, easy.
22. Virginia Tech. Here’s one of those AAC products — Justin Fuente, who won the ACC Coastal in Year 1 in Blacksburg. As we know, the Coastal is forever in flux. The last repeat winner was Virginia Tech in 2011, and I’m not sure these Hokies, who lost quarterback Jerod Evans early to the NFL draft, can swing it. But Fuente’s a good coach, and he has a proud program again pointed upward.
23. Colorado. The Buffaloes became a feel-good story after 20 years of feeling mostly bad. Georgia Tech alum Mike MacIntyre became the coach of year after leading Colorado to the Pac-12 South title over the glitzy likes of USC. Sustaining that rise won’t be easy, especially with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, once the head coach at South Florida, leaving for Oregon.
24. Oregon. We may never know the full story of how the Ducks fell from the national championship game in January 2015 to 4-8 last season, but this we do know: Apart from USC, no Pac-12 program has such resources. (Thanks, Nike.) Taggart and Leavitt are a splendid pairing, and the Oregon talent shouldn’t be hard to restock. Not having to face USC or Colorado won’t hurt.
25. Georgia Tech. I know the Yellow Jackets will be without Justin Thomas, the best quarterback of Paul Johnson’s nine seasons. I know they have tricky early games against Tennessee and Central Florida. I know they go to Miami and Clemson. But just once, when Johnson finishes a season 9-4 and harrumphs, “Nobody had us ranked,” I want to be able to say, “There’s one guy who did.”