Will quarterback Sam Darnold be able to help the USC Trojans avoid a road upset versus the California Golden Bears?
X-Washington Huskies 10-3 (7-3)
It has not taken head football coach Chris Petersen that long to turn around the fortunes of the Washington Huskies. In three years at Washington, Petersen has compiled a record of 27-14 which included going 12-2 last year. En route to winning 12 games for the first time since 1991, Washington won the Pac-12 Conference for the first time since 2000 as Peterson has once again created a buzz for Husky football in the Pacific Northwest. But whereas Washington was able to creep up on some opponents last year, they won’t be able to do the same thing here in 2017 as they look to repeat as Pac-12 Champs.
Junior quarterback Jake Browning will begin this season as the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Browning spent 2016 shredding defenses around the Pac-12 as he threw 43 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions. Browning also completed more than 62% of his passes as he is a cool customer in the pocket which is evident by the fact that he hardly gets rattled. And being that Browning has ice water in his veins will once again be important for the cause of the Huskies.
Along with Browning there is plenty of talent returning at the skill positions for Washington. Junior running back Myles Gaskin is coming off of a season where gained 1,373 rushing yards as he averaged 5.8 yards per carry. And with the National Football League in the near future of Gaskin, I expect him to once again be one of the better ball carriers in the Pac-12. Senior wide receiver Dante Pettis has been a dependable target for Browning in the passing game, while junior wide receiver Chico McClatcher could be a sleeper in Washington’s deep passing game.
Whereas Washington was a young team in 2016, they have become a veteran team rather quickly which is illustrated by their offensive line. This season the Huskies will have a pair of seniors as well as two juniors starting on the offensive line. And led by senior center Coleman Shelton, Washington should have one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12.
Last year saw the Huskies have the 12th best defense in the nation and this unit has the potential to be special this time around under co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatowski. Senior inside linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria will tackles anything that moves while overall Washington has a swarming front seven which led to 40 sacks in 2016. Last year as a true freshman, free safety Taylor Rapp led the team in interceptions with 4 and he has the potential to improve off of that.
2016 saw the Huskies get back onto the national scene. However Washington’s 24-7 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoffs shows that they still have some work ahead of them to be a consistent national title contender. The non-conference slate will be a cake walk for the Huskies, but when Pac-12 play begins, they’ll have a conference title game rematch with the Colorado Buffaloes along with a road meeting with the Stanford Cardinal which could decided who’ll win the Pac-12 North.
X-Stanford Cardinal 9-3 (6-3)
The last seven years have seen the Stanford Cardinal become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Since 2011, Stanford has won three Pac-12 Championships which is more than any other football program in the conference over that stretch. Stanford head coach David Shaw continues to go about his business as he has compiled a record of 64-17 in his six years in Palo Alto. Under Shaw, the Cardinal have made a bowl game in each season, while his four bowl victories are more than any other head football coach in the history of the program. And now that Stanford has established themselves as one of the premier programs within the Pac-12, how will 2017 work out for them?
The Cardinal must replace one of the most dynamic players in their program’s history as running back Christian McCaffrey is now in the National Football League. However the cupboard is never bare in Palo Alto at the running back position. Running back Bryce Love spent last year as McCaffrey’s understudy and he held his own which included rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Stanford’s final two games. Love enters his junior year as a potential breakout performer in the Pac-12, and although that his elusiveness might not be on the level of McCaffrey, he can still hold his own.
Stanford has become one of the top programs in the nation as far as developing offensive linemen, and this year will see them once again have another solid unit up front. Led by left tackle David Bright, Stanford has three seniors that’ll be starting on their offensive line and they embody Shaw’s strategy which is to wear down your opponent as the game goes along. Aside from opening holes for Love, the big boys up front will also provide protection for senior quarterback Keller Chryst.
Chryst was Stanford’s starting quarterback last season, and if the Cardinal are going to compete for the Pac-12 Title, he will need to pass more effectively in order to balance out the team’s power running game and shed his reputation of simply being a game manager.
Defensively the Cardinal might fly under the radar, but with the guidance of defensive coordinator Lance Anderson this is a unit that knows how to fly around the football. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is an anchor on the defensive line and he is a part of a unit that will feature eight senior starters.
After the Cardinal open the regular season against the Rice Owls who are out of Conference USA in Australia, they will head to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 9th to face the USC Trojans in a contest that will be telling for them within the Pac-12. And over a seven-day span in November, Stanford will face the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in a pair of contest that’ll go a very long way in determining who will get to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
X-Oregon Ducks 8-4 (5-4)
2016 was a year in which the Oregon Ducks would like to quickly forget. The Ducks went 4-8 for their worst campaign since 1991. Oregon’s issues began on defense where they were ranked 126th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Ducks surrendered at least 50 points in a game four times while teams were no longer intimidated of going to Autzen Stadium in Eugene as Oregon lost on their home field three times last season.
The struggles of Oregon signaled that it was time for the school to move on from head football coach Mark Helfrich after four years in order to find someone who would once again provide a spark. That search led school officials at Oregon to make the journey to Tampa, Florida where they found Willie Taggart.
Taggart comes to Oregon after first turning around the fortunes of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and most recently the South Florida Bulls. Taggart’s first season at South Florida was 2013 and his team went 2-10. However last season would see the Bulls go 10-2 under Taggart, while also winning their bowl game for the best mark in school history. And now Taggart will be charged with getting Oregon back to being one of the best football programs that the Pac-12 Conference has to offer.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Justin Herbert was thrown to the wolves as it was baptism by fire. Herbert did not have the luxury of playing on a talented Oregon team, but he still managed to complete more than 63% of his passes while only throwing 4 interceptions. And now as Herbert is heading into his sophomore campaign, he will have to become a leader for an Oregon offense that is in a transition period under Taggart.
Running back Royce Freeman still managed to average 5.6 yards per carry in 2016, but he did not have the impact that he was expected to have when the season began. Freeman only had 168 carries and I expect his workload to increase under Taggart in this his senior campaign.
Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby will anchor the offensive line, but the key word for this unit will be toughness as Taggart is using this time to see who is ready to buy into what he is selling which is being more competitive. And for the Ducks to be more competitive, it begins in the trenches.
Prior to Taggart’s success as South Florida, Jim Leavitt was the most successful head football coach in the brief history of the program as he led them to five consecutive bowl appearances. And ironically Taggart hired Leavitt to be his defensive coordinator at Oregon. Like Taggart is with the team as a whole, Leavitt is going to find the guys who are committed to his system as it all about changing the culture in Eugene.
But as bad as things were for Oregon last season, there were some freshman on the defensive side of the football who earned some valuable playing time. Safety Brenden Schooler led Oregon in interceptions with 4, while inside linebacker Troy Dye led the team in tackles (91) and sacks (6.5). And the combination of Schooler and Dye will be building blocks as the Ducks look to turn things around.
2017 will be a work in progress for the Ducks, but a winning record and a bowl appearance will be a tremendous step in the right direction for Taggart and Oregon.
X-Washington State Cougars 6-6 (3-6)
2016 began and ended in the same fashion for the Washington State Cougars. Washington State surprisingly lost their first two games before they reeled off eight consecutive victories. With two games remaining in the regular season the Cougars were in first place in the Pac-12 North, but they would come up short versus the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington Huskies by a combined 42 points in their final two contests. And with Wazzu favored by 10 points over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl, they came up short there as well. Mike Leach is set to begin his seventh season as the head football coach at Washington State and he is attempting to do something that no other head coach of the program has been able to do which is to lead the Cougars to a bowl appearance in three consecutive years.
With Leach running the show you know that the Cougars will have one of the better passing offenses in the nation. The Cougars were third in the nation in 2016 in passing, and with senior quarterback Luke Falk running Leach’s offense, the football will be flying around once again in Pullman. Over the last two years Falk has combined to throw for 9,029 passing yards and 76 touchdowns as he has thrived in Leach’s “air-raid” offense. And even though that Washington State doesn’t have one wide receiver who stands out from the others, this passing game can still be effective; especially since Falk will be protected by an offensive line that includes three seniors.
But whereas the Cougars can put up points with the best of them, their defense is not a unit that puts fear into opponents. The Cougars were 62nd in the nation last year in total defense and they must play with more a chip on their shoulders in order to somewhat offset the team’s high-octane offense. Senior middle linebacker Peyton Peuller is a solid tackler, however outside of him Wazzu lacks impact players on that side of the football.
Make no mistake about it that the Cougars face a tough schedule which includes home games with Colorado, the Stanford Cardinal, and USC Trojans as well as road meetings with Washington, the Arizona Wildcats, and Utah Utes. And without a stellar defense to lean on Washington State will have to work hard to become bowl eligible in 2017.
Oregon State Beavers 5-7 (3-6)
2013 was the last year in which the Oregon State Beavers were able to finish with a winning record, but they could be on the cusp of breaking through. Gary Anderson has two years under his belt as the head football coach at Oregon State, and after going winless in the Pac-12 Conference in 2015, the Beavers were able win three conference games last year which included them defeating their arch rivals in the Oregon Ducks for the first time since 2007. But after taking some strides in 2016, will the Beavers be able to break through and become bowl eligible this season?
For the Beavers to have a successful season on offense, it will start with the production of junior running Ryan Nall which means that he will need to have at least 200 carries. And even though that Nall is expected to be the feature back for Oregon State, they will be very young on offense as wide receiver Jarmon Hunter and right guard Fred Lauina are the only seniors that will be starting on that side of the football.
Defensively the Beavers were 79th in the nation last year which isn’t going to cut it. Kevin Clune is set to begin his second season as the defensive coordinator at Oregon State and his feature player will be senior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu who after being second in tackles with 83 in 2016 for the Beavers could be a sleeper as far as being one of the better middle linebackers that the Pac-12 has to offer.
You can’t accuse Anderson and Oregon State of having a soft non-conference schedule as they will travel to Fort Collins to face the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference while also hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big Ten Conference. And as the Beavers have road meetings in the Pac-12 with the Washington State Cougars, USC Trojans, Arizona Wildcats, and a trip to Eugene to face Oregon, Anderson will have his work cut out for him to get this team to a bowl game this season.
California Golden Bears 1-11 (0-9)
When the California Golden Bears knocked off the UCLA Bruins 36-10 on November 26th, it marked the end of a very tough season for them. The Golden Bears went 5-7 for their fifth losing season in the last six years. But surprisingly Sonny Dykes was fired as California’s head football coach. In four seasons with Cal, Dykes had compiled a record of 19-30; however he had inherited a program that he had to revive, while also losing the first overall pick in the 2016 National Football League Draft in the form of quarterback Jared Goff. And now California is once again starting over; this time with Justin Wilcox as their new head football coach.
Wilcox has never been a head football coach as he has served as a defensive assistant; most notably as the a defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans and Wisconsin Badgers respectively. Now Wilcox is charged with not only making the Bears respectable in the Pac-12 Conference, but also making sure that they are able to maintain it.
With a new head coach in the Wilcox, and no clear cut favorite to be Cal’s starting quarterback, it means that there will be an open competition. Junior quarterback Chase Forrest is coming off of a redshirt in 2016, while sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers has never taken a game snap for the Golden Bears. But one if not both of them will get their chance to be the starting quarterback for California this year.
I doubt that Cal will once again have the fourth best passing offense in the nation like they did last season which means that their defense must improve. In 2016, the Golden Bears defense was 125th in the nation which included giving up at least 40 points in a game nine times. Former Fresno State Bulldogs head football coach Tim DeRuyter will be California’s new defensive coordinator, and along with the experience of Wilcox on that side of the football, they will be out to change the culture in Berkley with senior inside linebacker Devante Downs as a potential building block.
If the folks that follow the Bears thought that 2016 was tough, just wait until the team takes the field this fall. California will face a tough non-conference schedule as they’ll face the North Carolina Tar Heels of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with the Ole Miss Rebels of the Southeastern Conference. And when Pac-12 play begins, the Golden Bears will start off by hosting USC who are one of the favorites to win the conference, along with road affairs versus the Oregon Ducks, Washington Huskies, Colorado Buffaloes, Stanford Cardinal, and UCLA Bruins as this will be a tough go round for Wilcox.
Y-USC Trojans 11-2 (8-2)
The West Coast has been in need for the USC Trojans to once again be a power on the college football scene, and this could be the year where it finally happens. The Trojans didn’t win the Pac-12 last year, but they still managed to make their 34th Rose Bowl Game appearance and 25th victory in “The Granddaddy of Them All” which are each more than any other school. And after a 10-win season for the Men of Troy in 2016, they ceiling is high for them entering this season. But unlike most programs, USC knows how to live up to the expectations.
The buzz that is around with USC begins with sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold did not begin 2016 as the Trojans starting quarterback, but when head football coach Clay Helton decided to make the change, USC went 9-1. Darnold enters 2017 as the reigning Pac-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year, while he made a name for himself when he set a Rose Bowl Game record with 5 touchdown passes and his 453 passing yards in the contest were the second most in the game’s history. Darnold’s passing ability and overall savvy has gotten the attention of many National Football League scouts, and now he must show the last season was no fluke.
This might not the era of “student body right” for ‘SC, but they still possess a solid rushing attack. Last year as a sophomore, running back Ronald Jones II averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and with his explosiveness at tailback, he is always a play away from taking it to the house. Jones will be doing his thing behind an experienced offensive line that consists of seniors and juniors. Senior center Nico Falah anchors the line for Southern California as this unit will not only provide protection for Darnold and Jones, but they could also produce a first-rounder as well.
Clancy Pendergast returned to Southern California last year for his second go round as the team’s defensive coordinator, and although that the Men of Troy were ranked 36th in total defense, they came on as the season progressed, while finding the knack to make the big play. Junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith could keep USC’s reputation going as far as developing solid linebackers and he has the potential to be one of the best at his position in the Pac-12.
For USC head football coach Clay Helton, what a difference that a years makes. After Helton went 5-4 in 2015 as USC’s interim head coach, there were some people who questioned why former athletic director Pat Haden decided to make him the full-time head coach going into 2016. And fuel was added to that fire when the Trojans began 2016 with a record of 1-3. But after USC’s turnaround everyone is singing the praises of Helton in Los Angeles. Now Helton heads into the 2017 college football season in a different position as many people expect ‘SC to be the team to beat in the Pac-12, but it’s just a matter of whether or not that they’ll be able to live up to it.
X-Colorado Buffaloes 9-3 (6-3)
2016 saw the Colorado Buffaloes come out of nowhere for their best season in a very long time. The Buffaloes won 10 games for the first time since 2001 while also making their first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre was able make the Buffaloes respectable once again, but will he be able to build off of 2016’s success in order to make his program consistent?
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Steven Montez got his fair share of reps as Colorado’s starting quarterback. And with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez has to be the guy now for MacIntyre at quarterback. At 6’5, 225 lbs., Montez has the prototypical size for a quarterback, but most importantly he has moxie which is a skill that cannot be coached which gives Colorado an edge.
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay has the potential to build off of his campaign last season where he gained 1,252 yards on the ground. Lindsay is slight in stature, but he is ball carrier that MacIntyre can rely on as he was able to tote the rock 244 times last season. And I anticipate seeing Lindsay get closes to 250 carries once again.
Speed is the name of the game for the Buffs at wide receiver as they have some of the fastest players in the Pac-12 at that position. Senior wide receivers Shay Fields and Devin Ross are a matchup nightmare for any secondary within the conference, and overall Colorado might possesses the fastest players at the skill positions within the league.
Left tackle Jeromy Irwin anchors an offensive line that has three seniors as this Buffaloes offense has the potential to build off of being ranked 47th in the nation in 2016. And that offense will be vital if Colorado is going to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game this year.
Junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa led a unit that flew under the radar for the most part last season. However the Buffs will have to find a way to forget that they gave up a combined 79 points in their final two games and get back to being the unit that held six opponents under 20 points earlier in the campaign.
The Buffs should be able to cruise through their non-conference slate which includes the annual meeting with the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference to kick start the season. However Colorado will be tested when Pac-12 play begins as they will have a rematch of the conference title game with the Washington Huskies who blew them out by 31 points. This time Colorado will get Washington at home. But Colorado’s chances of winning the Pac-12 South will come down to their final two games of the season as they’ll host the USC Trojans before traveling to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes.
X-Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)
For Utah Utes head football coach Kyle Whittingham, he has a squad that is more than respectable as they are cusp of being championship contender in the Pac-12 Conference. Through Utah’s first 10 games in 2016, they were sporting a record of 8-2 and if they had won out they would have been heading to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time in school history. But unfortunately for the Utes they would lose their final two games which saw them denied a chance to win the conference crown and play in the Rose Bowl. However Whittingham knows how to get the most out of his teams, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to do the same here in 2017.
After seeing limited action last year as freshman, quarterback Tyler Huntley will get the nod from Whittingham in regards to being Utah’s starting quarterback. With the graduation running back Joe Williams, Utah must find another ball carrier that will be able to carry the offense while leaning on opposing defenses, and you can expect Whittingham to give sophomore running back Zack Moss every opportunity to be that guy.
Defensively the Utes must replace 23.5 sacks that they got from the combination of defensive linemen Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu. Overall the Utes pass rush was able to generate 43 sacks which helped the defensive unit get 18 interceptions. And it will be interesting to see who is going to emerge and be the impact players for the Utes on defense.
As always I expect the Utes to be a tough out. But road against the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans will go a long way in letting us know good that Utah will be here in 2017.
X-UCLA Bruins 6-6 (4-5)
In Jim Mora’s first four years as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, he was able to lead his program to bowl game in each season. And just when it appeared that UCLA was going to capitalize on their arch rivals In the USC Trojans who were attempting to climb from under NCAA sanctions that had handcuffed their program, 2016 happened. The 2016 college football season was a very forgettable one for the Bruins. UCLA was never able to recover from a tough road loss to the Texas A&M Aggies to begin the season followed by a home loss to the Stanford Cardinal to begin Pac-12 play. And once you factored in an injury to quarterback Josh Rosen, things got bad in a hurry for the Bruins. UCLA would finish 4-8 for their worst season since 2010 with their only two Pac-12 victories coming against the Arizona Wildcats and Oregon State Beavers. But as hope springs eternal for a new college football season, will it also mean that the Bruins are set to get back on track?
A healthy Rosen will be important for UCLA if they want to be a player in the Pac-12 South. In 2015, Rosen passed for 3,670 yards as he was the Pac-12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year. And now with National Football League scouts eyeing Rosen as a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft, he will be poised to bounce back.
Aside from not having a healthy Rosen at quarterback, UCLA struggled to run the football as they were 127th in the nation in rushing with running back Soso Jamabo leading the way with just 321 yards on the ground. However with Jamabo set to begin his junior campaign, along with the fact that UCLA will have four seniors on their offensive line which includes center Scott Quessenberry, this Bruins squad should put more of an emphasis on the run game this season.
In spite of UCLA’s struggles on offense last year, their defense continued to compete and I expect that spirit to once again be at the forefront this season. Senior middle linebacker Kenny Young was second on the team last year in tackles with 90 and he has the potential to be one of the best players at his position within the Pac-12 Conference, while also being a leader for his team.
UCLA will begin their season with a rematch against Texas A&M; this time at the Rose Bowl, while they will be tested in the Pac-12 with road affairs with the Stanford Cardinal, Arizona Wildcats, Washington Huskies, Utah Utes, and USC Trojans. And you have to wonder if Mora will be able to survive if the Bruins endure another subpar season.
Arizona Wildcats 4-8 (2-7)
When Rich Rodriguez became the head football coach of the Arizona Wildcats in 2012, he brought some excitement with him to the desert. Rodriguez lead Arizona to an 8-5 record in each of his first two seasons with the program, and in 2014 he was able to get the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game. However since the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South, their production on the field has gone south. The Cats were able to win 10 games in 2014, but since that time they’ve only won 10 games. Included in this was a 3-9 record last season for their worst campaign in program history. And whereas the production of the Wildcats has dipped, will Rodriguez be able to reverse the tide and get his team back on track in the Pac 12?
Look no further than the quarterback situation in Tuscon in order to see the issues with Arizona’s offense. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued the Wildcats at quarterback as the onus will be on junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins to put it all together here in 2017. And in order for Rodriguez’s spread offense to work, the quarterback’s production must be superb as it is as important for him to be able to consistently run the football as it is for him to throw it.
Defensive football has never been a specialty for Rodriguez’s teams which was once again the case in 2016 when they were 115th in total defense and this included them surrendering at least 34 points in each of their last nine games.. Marcel Yates is set to begin his second season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator, and if his unit is unable to improve, he could find himself out of a job.
The Wildcats should be able to navigate through their non-conference slate of games without a problem. However when Pac-12 play begins that’ll be when the rubber will meet the road as if Arizona is unable to improve in the win column, Rodriguez could be looking for a job.
Arizona State Sun Devils 3-9 (1-8)
Like Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham became a head football coach in the Pac-12 Conference in 2012 and was able to get off to a roaring start. Graham led the Arizona State Sun Devils to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2013. But after Arizona State was able to post consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, they have become just another team in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are coming off of consecutive losing seasons and they must turn things around in a hurry as the Pac-12 is a tough conference to attempt to rebuild in.
The Sun Devils need to attain some consistency on offense as eight different players took reps at quarterback last season. While some of these instances involved gadget plays, Arizona State still had three players that attempted at least 49 passes. Arizona State’s success this season on offense will hinge on the ability of sophomore quarterback Blake Barnett. Barnett began his collegiate career with the Alabama Crimson Tide, but now it is time to see whether or not that he can get it done in the Pac-12 with the Sun Devils; especially since he’ll be under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Billy Napier who is in his first season in Tempe.
Defensively only the Texas Tech Red Raiders were worse on defense in 2016 than Arizona State at the Football Bowl Subdivision level as eight opponents scored at least 40 points against them. Like the offense, the Sun Devils defense needed a makeover as Graham has brought in former Baylor Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to fix this unit which will be a tall task.
2016 was tough for Arizona State and all signs points to it not being that much easier for Graham and his team.
Pac-12 Championship Game- Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, California: Washington Huskies vs. USC Trojans
Conference Champion: USC
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The 2016 college football season saw the Alabama Crimson Tide fall just short of winning their second consecutive national championship, but don’t expect this team to be falling off of the map anytime soon. The Tide must replace seven starters from a defense that was the top ranked unit in the nation as they only allowed 13 points per game. But when you have a head football coach like Alabama does in Nick Saban who has a pipeline to the National Football League, there are always plenty of reinforcements that are waiting in the wings looking to make a name for themselves.
The Crimson Tide defense had 16 interceptions last year with 6 of them going to the house. Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in 2016 with 6 interceptions and you can expect to hear his name in the conversation as far as winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
After an up and down marriage between Saban and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin who is now the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls, another former USC Trojans head football coach in Steve Sarkisian appeared ready to call the offensive plays for Saban at Alabama. However after calling the offensive plays for Alabama during their national championship game loss to the Clemson Tigers, Sarkisian jumped at the chance to become offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League.
Saban will seek to have some stability at the offensive coordinator position as he has pegged Brian Daboll to call plays for the Crimson Tide this season. Daboll has spent the last three years as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, and after learning from one of the all-time head coaches in the National Football League in Bill Belichick, he now has an opportunity to learn from one of the best in college football history in Saban while he’ll call plays on offense for the Crimson Tide.
Daboll will have the opportunity to work with a quarterback who is built like a running back in sophomore Jalen Hurts. At this point of Hurts’ career, he is more dangerous with his legs than he is with his arm, but if he is able to get some consistency from the offensive coordinator, he could be one of the better quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
The injury to running back Bo Scarbrough changed the dynamics of the national championship game for Alabama as Clemson never had an answer for him. Last year Scarbrough averaged 6.5 yards per carry as he was only a part-time ball carrier. And at 6’2″, 235 lbs., Scarbrough is a big physical running back in the form of former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Scarbrough will once again split carries coming out of the Alabama backfield with junior running back Damien Harris as they’ll give the Crimson Tide a thunder and lightning tandem in Tuscaloosa.
Under Saban, the Tide have been the best team in college football in regards to playing in big games and they’ll get another one to start the season when the take on the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Crimson Tide will get the LSU Tigers at home, while they’ll be on the road to meet the Auburn Tigers as these two games will go a long way in deciding whether or not that ‘Bama will be able to play for the national title for a third consecutive year.
2. Florida State Seminoles
The 2016 college football season saw the Florida State Seminoles have a very quiet 10-3 campaign as they lost three games within the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the Seminoles still managed to win the Orange Bowl while finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the seventh consecutive year. In seven years as the head football coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has compiled a record of 78-17 along with a national championship. And here in 2017 he once again has a team that will be in national title contention.
For nearly four decades the Florida State program has been a pipeline to the National Football League and this year is no different as they lost running back Dalvin Cook to the pro game. But this is another one of those programs that doesn’t rebuild as they instead opt to reload.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois was unfazed as he started the entire season for Fisher. And after Francois was able to be named as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year, which included him throwing 20 touchdowns, he should be more comfortable this season.
The ‘Noles will miss the contributions of Cook, but they have another power back in sophomore Jacques Patrick. Like Cook, Patrick is a big and physical runner who also possesses speed. I still anticipate Fisher using a heavy dose of the running game which should allow Francois to be efficient via play action passing.
However the offensive line could be an issue early on for Florida State as they will employ a pair of redshirt freshmen, along with a sophomore in the starting lineup. But as the season progresses I do see this unit being able to solidify.
Last year saw defensive end DeMarcus Walker lead the Seminoles in sacks with 16. And although that Walker is now in the National Football League, don’t expect Florida State’s pass rush to fall off. Sophomore defensive end Brian Burns and junior defensive end Josh Sweat are arguably the best combo of bookend pass rushers in the nation. And good luck to opposing offenses that want to game plan on slowing down one player as the other can quickly be in an opponent’s backfield wreaking havoc.
After snagging 8 interceptions last year, junior cornerback Tarvarus McAFadden will head into this season as one of the favorites to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. I don’t see McFadden being able to tally as many interceptions this year due to the fact that opposing offenses will be more conscious of testing him.
Florida State begins their season by meeting the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta on September 2, and it would not surprise me to see them meet again in the College Football Playoff as outside of hosting the Louisville Cardinals on October 21, the Seminoles should be able to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
The 2016 college football season was a clear indication that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back. The Nittany Lions were able to navigate through the very tough Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to take home the conference crown. Penn State would go on to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl where they put on a show before falling to the USC Trojans. But now the huge test for Penn State head football coach James Franklin will be that his squad is no longer able to sneak up on anyone.
However the Nittany Lions still have one of the better backfield tandems in the nation. At times junior quarterback Trace McSorley can look like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in the pocket, but he knows a thing or two about improvising in order to keep a play going. Junior running back Saquon Barkley is coming off of a season where he rushed for 1,496 yards and scored 18 touchdowns on the ground. At 5’11”, 233 lbs., Barkley is a load as his thick lower body allows him to easily shed tacklers.
And whereas Barkley should get some consideration in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy, senior tight end Mike Gesecki could be in line for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Gesecki is extremely versatile as he can also be used as an H-back, while his 6’6″ frame is always an advantage for Penn State in the red zone.
Defensively the Nittany Lions had a bend but don’t break style on defense last year, however with six seniors projected to be in their starting lineup which includes middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Lions should once again be a very tough team.
With road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans, it will be tough for Penn State to repeat as Big Ten Champs, but it is not out of the question to see them in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
4. USC Trojans
If you were to eliminate the first month of the 2016 college football season, then you would have seen the USC Trojans in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans began with a record of 1-3 before they reeled off nine consecutive victories to end the season which included getting the best of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl.
USC’s turnaround began when head football coach Clay Helton inserted quarterback Sam Darnold into the starting lineup. After Darnold lost his first start, he was locked in as he completed more than 67% of his passes. Darnold became the leader the USC needed at quarterback, and now he has people considering him to win the Heisman Trophy this season.
As good as Darnold is, you cannot think about the USC offense and not think about “student body right”. The Trojans will have one of the best running games in the Pac-12 Conference with the speedster in junior running back Ronald Jones II leading the charge. Jones will be rushing behind an experienced offensive line that includes senior center Nico Falah.
Junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith has the potential to be the next great USC linebacker, while junior cornerback Iman Marshall could use this season to pad his National Football League resume.
The Trojans will be the team to beat in the Pac-12 this year, and after they got to the Rose Bowl last season, a trip there this time around would signal that the Men of Troy are in the College Football Playoff as Pasadena will play host to one of the national semifinals.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Although that the 2016 college football season didn’t end on a positive note for the Ohio State Buckeyes, this team will be right back in the mix for 2017. The Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff in spite of not winning the Big Ten Conference and they got smoked by the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl. But at Ohio State, head football coach Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild as he merely reloads, and thus the Buckeyes will once again be in the mix to win it all.
The Buckeyes were 12th in the nation last year in rushing and they’ll enter with two of the best athletes in the country in their backfield. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference, and his athletic ability will keep him in the mix as far as the Heisman Trophy conversation goes. Aside from Barrett, the Buckeyes have a dynamic running back in sophomore Mike Weber who will put a ton of pressure on the defenses in the Big Ten.
Barrett and Weber have the privilege of being protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from 2016 which includes senior offensive tackle Jemarco Jones who could be the anchor of the unit.
The Buckeyes must replace a ton of talent from a defense which was ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, but the return of sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa is a huge positive.
Ohio State will once again be one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference and if they are able to survive a pair of November road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan Wolverines respectively, they could be heading to the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year.
6. Washington Huskies
It hasn’t taken the Washington Huskies that long to once again become a power under head football coach Chris Petersen. It took Petersen just three years at Washington to lead the Huskies to their first Pac-12 Championship since 2000, and under his watch they don’t appear ready to fade.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Jake Browning lit up the Pac-12 Conference to the tune of 3,430 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Browning is also one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and another strong season on his part will definitely draw the eyes of scouts from the National Football League.
Along with Browning, junior running back Myles Gaskin will also receive some serious consideration from the National Football League. Gaskin has proven himself to be a durable ball carrier as he toted the rock 237 times last season. Peterson will once again give Gaskin every opportunity to be the featured running back for the Huskies as he is the best running back in the Pac-12 Conference.
At first when you think of Peterson, defensive football doesn’t come to mind as his defenses tend to be overshadowed by his high powered offenses. However the Huskies were 12th in the nation in total defense last season and it was a total team effort as it was a unit that didn’t solely rely on stars. But one player to keep an eye on this season defensively for Washington will be sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp who possesses some of the best ball skills of a defensive back in the Pac-12.
On September 23, the Huskies will travel to face the Colorado Buffaloes in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Title Game, while a November 10 road affair with the Stanford Cardinal will go a long way in determining if Washington will be able to get back to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
7. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to return the Michigan Wolverines to a national power as they’ve gone 10-3 in each of his first two seasons there. And after Michigan barely missed making the College Football Playoff last year, this could be the season in which they make the dubious field of four.
Junior quarterback Wilton Speight could be a dark horse in the race to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as he has continued to progress under Harbaugh. And Michigan will need Speight more than ever since they lost seven starters from last year’s team on offense.
Defensively the Wolverines were ranked second in total defense as only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them. But in that Michigan must replace their top eight tacklers from last season along with their best pass rusher in defensive end Taco Charlton. Harbaugh will be rolling the dice at the start of the upcoming season due to the fact that including defensive end Rashan Gary, there are six freshman scheduled to start this season for the Wolverines.
Michigan begins their season on September 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas versus the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. Michigan has never lost to Florida which included Harbaugh leading the Wolverines to a commanding 41-7 victory in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines will travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 21, while their regular season will conclude with a road meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers on November 18 before they host the Ohio State Buckeyes on November as these three games within the Big Ten will determine whether or not that the Wolverines will make the College Football Playoff.
8. Louisville Cardinals
Heading into the 2017 college football season, unfinished business will be the motto for the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards began 2016 with a record of 9-1 as they appeared to be on the verge of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, they would not win another game as the final three games saw them lose by a combined 49 points. However hope springs eternal and for Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino, he once again has a team that is set to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew. Jackson accounted for 5114 and 51 touchdowns en route to becoming the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy. And now as a junior, Jackson will look to do it again even though that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will be gunning to stop him. But led by senior guard Skylar Lacy, the Cardinals will be returning four starters on their offensive line to protect Jackson.
Last year Louisville was 14th in the nation in total defense and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the Cards have some talented play makers in junior defensive back Jaire Alexander and senior linebacker Stacy Thomas.
If the Cards want to get to the College Football Playoff this year, the games that they must circle on the calendar are on September 16 when they host the Clemson Tigers, October 21 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles, and November 25 when they’ll be on the road to face the Kentucky Wildcats as they went 1-2 versus these teams last season.
9. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn Tigers are coming off of their third consecutive season in which they lost at least five games, but there is some optimism on the plains for War Eagle heading into the 2017 college football season. Three of Auburn’s five losses last year were against conference champions which included the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide who played for the national championship. Gus Malzahn is set to begin his fifth season as the head football coach at Auburn, and although that he has been unable to recapture the success that the Tigers had under him in 2013, his squad could be a sleeper in the Southeastern Conference this year.
In 2015, Jarrett Stidham saw limited action as the starting quarterback for the Baylor Bears. Stidham would transfer to Auburn which forced him to sit out in 2016. Stidham might not be the runner that Malzahn typically incorporates at the quarterback position, but he arguably possesses the best arm for an Auburn quarterback since Cam Newton.
Under Malzahn, Auburn’s strength on offense is rushing the football as they were sixth in the nation in that category last season. Junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are coming off of a season in which they combined for more than 2,100 yards on the ground. Auburn’s running game is the equivalent to fast break basketball and the speed and elusiveness of Pettway as well as Johnson will test the patience along with the endurance of their opponents this year.
It will also help Auburn’s case to be one of the top teams in the nation this season being that they’ll have three seniors on their starting offensive line which included left tackle Darius James.
Kevin Steele is set to begin his second year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Auburn doesn’t have a star player on defense coming into this season, but they play fast, aggressive, and physical on that side of the football which always keeps them in a game.
Auburn has a chance to make a statement in their second game of the season when they travel to face Clemson, while they will also have to survive the gauntlet of the Southeastern Conference which includes consecutive road games versus the LSU Tigers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and Texas A&M Aggies.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Three of the last four years have seen the Oklahoma State Cowboys go 10-3, and there is once again some optimism in Stillwater around this team. Mike Gundy is set to begin his thirteenth season as the head football coach at Oklahoma State and his team has the potential to not only win the Big 12 Conference, but to also get a berth into the College Football Playoff.
The past two years have seen quarterback Mason Rudolph have his way with the defenses of the Big 12 to the tune of a combined 7,861 passing yards and 49 touchdown passes. Last season Rudolph was only picked off 4 times, while he completed 63.4% of his passes. And as Rudolph is set to begin his senior campaign, there is definitely be a buzz around him in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Rudolph will be throwing the football to a talented group of wide receivers which is led by senior wide receiver James Washington. Last year Washington tallied 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, and if he is able to come close to that level of production once more, he could take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys have specialized in recruiting speedy, undersized running backs for his uptempo offense. Last year as a freshman, running back Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards and he averaged 5.5 yards per carry as his ability to run the football is the perfect compliment to the passing ability of Rudolph.
Senior left tackle Aaron Cochran leads an experienced offensive line that could be the best in the Big 12, while he will be charged with protecting Rudolph’s blind side. And this unit is also the key to Oklahoma State potentially averaging 40 points per game this season.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys don’t have a strong reputation in regards to defensive football, but if players such as senior free safety Ramon Richards will be able to hold up their end of the bargain, this unit could be able to do just enough to offset their high powered offense.
With Bob Stoops stepping down at Oklahoma, it has opened the door for the Cowboys to win the Big 12 this year. But Oklahoma State will have a tough road ahead of them which includes away games against the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers, while they’ll get Oklahoma at home this season.
11. Oklahoma Sooners
When Bob Stoops became the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999, he was attempting to make the program respectable once again, but he has done that and then some. The Sooners have gone 190-48 under Stoops and they’ve never had a losing season while also claiming a national championship. After making the College Football Playoff in 2015, Oklahoma was poised to get back there last year. However a pair of non-conference losses to the Houston Cougars and Ohio State Buckeyes would change that. Oklahoma was still able to win the Big 12 Conference and after they knocked off the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, it capped off an 11-2 campaign which saw them win their last 10 contests. By January, Oklahoma was one of the hottest teams in college football and Stoops appeared to have another dominant season coming around the bend in Norman.
However things would change on June 7 when Stoops would shock the college football world by deciding to retire. The timing was shocking, but it did not completely hurt Oklahoma as it was during an unofficial “dead period” in college football as the roster and coaching staff was set.
Lincoln Riley spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but now he will be the man who will succeed Stoops at the school. Stoops feels that Riley has been groomed for this position, but only time will tell if he’ll be able to keep the success at Oklahoma going.
After being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year, quarterback Baker Mayfield has returned to Oklahoma for his senior year. In two years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Mayfield has thrown 76 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions while he can also make plays happen with his legs.
But after Mayfield, the Sooners will have to replace of talent at the skill position, and once you factor that in with a new head coach in Riley, will Oklahoma’s offense that was second in the nation last season take a step back?
Although that Bob Stoops is no longer running the show at Oklahoma, his brother Mark is set to begin his 11th year as the defensive coordinator in Norman. The Sooners have a reputation of having solid defensive players which has also meant having a pipeline to the National Football League. And one player to watch out for this season is senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo who will be in the running to be the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
It will be weird to not see Stoops lead the Sooners out onto the field this year, but Riley inherits a team that will still be an elite unit in the Big 12.
12. LSU Tigers
The 2016 college football season was a tough one for LSU Tigers, but after surviving it they are looking to get back on track and returning to being one of the nation’s elite programs. Four games into the season Les Miles was fired as LSU’s head football coach and replaced by defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron was only the interim head coach as LSU was seeking to hire then Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman. But after it appeared that Herman and LSU had an agreement in place, he decided to take over the Texas Longhorns football program which left LSU in a bind. LSU would ultimately decide to remove the interim tag from Orgeron who had compiled a 6-2 record which included a victory over the Louisville Cardinals in the Citrus Bowl. And now that this is all behind LSU, let’s see what they’ll be able to on the gridiron in 2017.
The past few years have seen the Bayou Bengals have their fair share of issues at the quarterback position, but it appears that Orgeron is ready to stick with senior Danny Etling. Unlike Miles, Orgeron is seeking to open things up more in the passing game which makes Etling their best option. But even with Orgeron seeking open the offense up more in 2017, the Tigers can still get it done on the ground with the best of them.
Coming into the 2016 college football season, all of the talk on offense was around running back Leonard Fournette as he was in the conversation to win the Heisman Trophy. But as injuries slowed Fournette down, it gave running back Derrius Guice the opportunity to shine. Last year as a sophomore, Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns which included 252 yards against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and 285 versus the Texas A&M Aggies. And with Fournette now in the National Football League, Guice will be the feature tailback for LSU.
Junior outside linebacker Arden Key is attempting to work his way back from shoulder surgery and he’ll be vital to the success of the Bayou Bengals defense which was tenth in the nation last year in total defense.
LSU will get their season started by taking on the BYU Cougars in Houston, while their Southeastern Conference schedule includes road games against the Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Tennessee Volunteers.
13. Colorado Buffaloes
After a magical run in 2016, the Colorado Buffaloes are seeking to return to being on the national scene in college football. Last year Colorado was able to secure its first bowl appearance since 2007 and their first winning season since 2005. And whereas the Buffs won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, will they have enough in their arsenal to reach the College Football Playoff?
Quarterback Steven Montez saw limited action last year for the Buffaloes, but he was responsible for a pair of victories. And now with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez will be the full-time starter for Colorado as he is ready to show what he can do in this his sophomore campaign.
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay is coming off of a season in which he totaled 244 carries. Lindsay proved to be durable for Colorado and if he gets the rock in his hands at least 200 times this year, it should symbolize another solid season for the Buffaloes.
Senior wide receiver Shay Fields is a burner as he is one of the fastest wide receivers in the Pac-12 Conference, while the Buffs will also have an experienced offensive line that includes three seniors which features left tackle Jeromy Irwin.
The Buffaloes will have six seniors starting on defense this year, but the player to keep an eye on will be junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa who is a solid tackler as well as a leader.
Colorado will begin the season with their annual showdown with the Colorado State Rams in Denver, while their first Pac-12 game will be a rematch of last year’s conference title tilt when they host the Washington Huskies. And on November 11, the Buffaloes will host the USC Trojans in a meeting that could determine who will win the Pac-12 South and ultimately get to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
14. Georgia Bulldogs
Kirby Smart enjoyed a solid first year as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia went 8-5 last season which included appearing in their 20th consecutive bowl game. The Bulldogs have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation in regards to winning and that trend should continue in 2017.
Smart turned to a true freshman last year at quarterback in Jacob Eason and he did not disappoint. Eason appeared in all 13 games for the Bulldogs as he threw 16 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions and that experience as a freshman should be very valuable for both he and the Dawgs. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Eason has the size needed for the pros, while he could also be in the running to be the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Running back Nick Chubb had an opportunity to go to the National Football League, but he spurned it for one more year at Georgia. Chubb averaged 5 yards per carry last year as he runs very angry and looks for contact. But Georgia opponents cannot solely focus on slowing down Chubb and he has his tag-team partner in senior running back Sony Michel who is just as explosive as he is with the ball in his hands.
Defensively the Dawgs have a ton of talent returning which includes a pair of junior inside linebackers in Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick as well a senior safety Dominick Sanders who is a game changer in the secondary.
On September 9, the Bulldogs will make a rare venture to South Bend, Indiana to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Bulldogs will avoid having to face the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they’ll have road meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers as well as their annual showdown in Jacksonville with the Florida Gators.
15. Miami Hurricanes
It’s safe to say that the Miami Hurricanes are back on the track to success under head football coach Mark Richt. In Richt’s first year at Miami, the Hurricanes won 9 games and finished the season ranked for the first time since 2009. In 16 years as a head football coach which included 15 with the Georgia Bulldogs, Richt has taken his team to a bowl game in each season. And after Miami’s strong showing in 2016, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that this team could win the Atlantic Coast Conference Title this season.
The ‘Canes will definitely miss the contributions of quarterback Brad Kaaya who is now in the National Football League as it will now be up to junior quarterback Malik Rosier under center. But whereas Rosier won’t begin the season with a ton of experience to his credit, he’ll be able to rely on junior running back Mark Walton to shoulder the load. Last season Walton rushed for 1,117 and 14 touchdowns and this time around he could be the best ball carrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a freshman, wide receiver Ahmmon Richards averaged 19.1 yards per reception as he was the go-to-guy for Kaaya. And with a new signal caller in Rosier set to take over, it will be important for he and Richards to get some cohesion heading into the season.
Defensively Miami held eight opponents to 20 points or less last season as they were 20th in the nation in total defense. Manny Diaz is entering his second year as the defensive coordinator for the ‘Canes as he has an attacking unit. Middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and defensive end Joseph Jackson became impact players last year as true freshman for the Hurricanes and they could become two of the best defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year.
Miami has a chance to make a statement on September 16 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles who are favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. And a conference title run would be just what the doctor ordered for Miami to put them back on the national stage.
16. Stanford Cardinal
Each year the Stanford Cardinal are a team that flies under the radar at the beginning of the college football season, but before you know it they are one of the top teams in the country. In five of the last six years the Cardinal have won at least 10 games which included them going 10-3 last season. And for head football coach David Shaw, his Stanford squad will once again be a force to be reckoned with here in 2017.
Senior quarterback Keller Chryst is in the category of a game manager which is okay at Stanford due to the program’s commitment to the running game. Chryst only threw 10 touchdown passes last season which was due to the fact that he wasn’t asked to throw the football a ton. But heading into Chryst’s senior season he should be more comfortable which means that the Cardinal could have more balance on offense.
The dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey has moved on to the National Football League, but the productivity at tailback will continue at Stanford as the next good back could be junior Bryce Love. Love has spent the past couple of seasons in the shadow of McCaffrey, but he appears ready to emerge which was highlighted by him gaining at least 100 yards on the ground in both of Stanford’s final two games in 2016.
Since 2010, Stanford has built a reputation as far as producing quality offensive linemen, and they should once again have one of the better units in the nation as this year they’ll be led by senior center Jesse Burkett up front.
As the years go by the Cardinal continue to have a defense which is difficult to score on. Led by senior nose tackle Harrison Phillips, Stanford will have eight senior starters on defense. Lance Anderson is entering his fourth year as Stanford’s defensive coordinator and once again he’ll have a unit that doesn’t make too many mistakes, while they also know how to fly around the football as their specialty is gang tackling.
The Cardinal will begin the season in Australia versus the Rice Owls, and after a bye week they will be in Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans who are favored to win the Pac-12 Conference. But in a seven-day span in early November, Stanford will face both the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in two games that will more than likely determine who’ll win the Pac-12 North.
17. South Florida Bulls
2016 saw the South Florida Bulls breakthrough for their best year in program history, and now they must find a way to keep the momentum going. Willie Taggart’s success as South Florida’s head football coach led to him being named as the new coach of the Oregon Ducks last December. But South Florida didn’t cry over spilled milk as they hired Charlie Strong to replace Taggart. South Florida needs the Strong who went 37-15 in four seasons as the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals, and not the Strong who went 16-21 in the last three years as the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns. But if Strong is on point, the Bulls could be ready to have a solid 2017 campaign.
The Bulls have lost their dynamic running back in Marlon Mack to the National Football League, but they still have senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as he totaled 4,342 all-purpose yards last season, and he should be in the running to be the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. And Flowers will be protected by an offensive line that has two seniors in the starting lineup including center Cameron Ruff.
Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez is one of the leaders on South Florida’s defense as he will tackle anything that moves which makes him one of the best linebackers in the conference, while putting him in the conversation to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
South Florida will once again be one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. And a strong 2017 campaign by the Bulls could put them into the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
18. Texas A&M Aggies
In five years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has compiled a record of 44-21, but his hot seat is rather warm heading into the 2017 college football season. The Aggies have gone 8-5 in each of the last three years, which includes last season’s disappointing 2-5 finish after a 6-0 start. After a strong showing in their initial year in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, A&M has never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West, and Sumlin must find a way to get the most out of his team and then some this year.
One thing that has hurt A&M over the last few years has been their inconsistency at the quarterback position. In the last three years, Texas A&M has used five different quarterbacks and constant change at this position is never a good recipe. Senior quarterback Jake Hubernak started three games for the Aggies last year. But for Hubernak to help A&M succeed, he must find a way to improve his completion percentage which was at 58% last season.
Sophomore running back Trayveon Williams is looking to build off the solid freshman campaign that he had where he had 1,057 yards on the ground. But after Williams was able to rush for 217 yards against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 8, his productivity rapidly declined, and heading into the new season, Sumlin needs him to be able to answer the bell each Saturday.
During Christian Kirk’s time with the Aggies, he has been a dependable wide receiver as he led the team in receptions in each of the last two years. And with this being Kirk’s senior season, you can expect that trend to continue as he looks to polish up his resume for the National Football League scouts.
John Chavis is set to begin his third season as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Chavis has a veteran laden group which includes six seniors as starters and that experience will be needed in order for the Aggies to navigate life in the Southeastern Conference.
A&M will face one of the toughest schedules in the country which includes road games with the UCLA Bruins, Florida Gators, and LSU Tigers, while they will be welcoming the Alabama Crimson Tide to College Station, Texas. And if the Aggies are unable to take the next step, Sumlin might be forced to pack his bags.
19. Boise State Broncos
The head coaches might change as well as the names that are on the back of the jerseys for the Boise State Broncos, but there is no denying that they possess one of the best programs in college football. In spite of not finishing either of the last two college football seasons ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, Boise State won a combined 19 games. And even though that the Broncos saw some key talent go the National Football League, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien tends to get lost in the shuffle being that Boise State is not in a Power Five Conference, but he can play. In the last two years Rypien has thrown 44 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions. Rypien has a solid arm, while he has completed 62.7% of his passes, and he has the potential to be the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Rypien has one of his top targets in the passing game returning in senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson who will put pressure on opposing defensive backs in the Mountain West Conference who will cover him. Boise State will miss the contributions of running back Jeremy McNichols who is now in the National Football League as he rushed for 1,709 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year, but now it is time for sophomore running back Alexander Mattison to show what he can do. At 5’11”, 206 lbs., Mattison is a burner and he should benefit from running behind an offensive line that has three seniors which includes left tackle Archie Lewis.
The Broncos offense will have to carry the load early on as the defense will be very green after the departures of some key players. But junior defensive end David Moa led Boise State in sacks last year with 8.5 and his presence could once again loom big for the Broncos.
This year’s schedule will be tougher for Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin and his team. The Broncos will travel to face the Washington State Huskies of the Pac-12 Conference on September 9, while they’ll also have a road date with the BYU Cougars on October 6. Boise will also have road meetings in the Mountain West against the San Diego State Aztecs and Utah State Aggies. However going on the road and getting wins has been a specialty for Boise State for quite some time now.
20. West Virginia Mountaineers
It has taken the West Virginia Mountaineers some time to get acclimated to life in the Big 12 Conference, but they could be ready to re-emerge on the national scene. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season which matched their best season since 2011 when they were still in the Big East Conference as head football coach Dana Holgorsen has developed one of the best offenses in the nation.
Last year the Mountaineers were 17th in the nation in total offense and they have the potential to be just as good if not better this year. In 2015, Will Grier emerged from a muddled race to become the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators. But as soon as Grier appeared to be guy for Florida, he was suspended for one year by the NCAA due to the fact that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Grier would then look for a fresh start which led to him transferring to West Virginia and as his junior year is set to begin, he will find himself in contention to be the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
The Mountaineers will have one of the fastest offenses in the Big 12 which includes senior running back Justin Crawford who is coming off of a season in which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. And if Grier is able to get on the same page with wide receivers such as junior Gary Jennings, West Virginia could be very tough to stop on offense.
The Mountaineers don’t have any players who stand out on defense, but for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson his unit has a “bend, but don’t break” mentality which will allow them to hang around in the Big 12 Title race.
The Mountaineers will have a tough road in front of them in order to win the Big 12 as their schedule includes road games against the TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma Sooners.
21. Florida Gators
In the two years that Jim McElwain has been at the helm as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, his team has gone 19-8 and finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. The Gators have also gone to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in each year under McElwain. But some followers of the Gators aren’t satisfied as they feel that McElwain could be doing more. However to the surprise of those pessimistic Florida followers, the Gators have the potential to be a top-25 team for the entire 2017 college football season.
The frustration with some Florida fans in regards to the Gators has been the struggles of the offense under McElwain. Last season the Gators were 116th in the nation in total offense which is a far cry from the explosiveness that they’ve been accustomed to seeing in Gainesville. Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Luke Del Rio showed occasional flashes of being the guy under center for McElwain. But what McElwain and the Gators need is a guy that can consistently get it done from the pocket, and will Del Rio be that guy?
Junior running back Jordan Scarlett has the potential to be a 1,000-yard back for the Gators in spite of the fact that he’ll be running behind an offensive line that won’t have any seniors. But for the Gators to take that next step and once again become a top-10 team, they are going to need more from their passing game.
Last year Florida was 79th in the nation in passing offense and their offense has already taken a step back as junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway has had several off-the-field issues. And regardless of who is on offense for the Gators, they need to find more explosiveness in their passing game in order to keep opposing defenses honest.
McElwain has plenty of talent to replace on the defensive side of the football as the Gators were ranked fifth in the nation last year in total defense, but at Florida there is always talent that is waiting in the wings.
Last year as a freshman, Chauncey Gardner was second on the team in interceptions, while defensive end Jabari Zuniga led the team in sacks with 5. But as Gardner and Zuniga are each ready for their sophomore campaigns, I expect them to take the next step and become anchors for Florida.
September 2 will provide a rarity for the Gators as they will begin their season versus a national power when they’ll travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas to face the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference. With the exception of Florida’s annual regular season finale against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference, this is a program that tends to take it light in their non-conference slate which won’t be the case here in 2017 with the showdown with Michigan right around the corner. Florida will then open Southeastern Conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers, while they’ll also have conference home games against the LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies, along with their annual tilt with the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, Florida.
I expect the Gators to be a team that could in and out of the top 25 this year, but they should improve as the season goes along.
22. Virginia Tech Hokies
Under first-year head football coach Justin Fuente, the bar of expectations weren’t that high for the Virginia Tech Hokies. However what the Hokies were able to do on the gridiron far exceeded expectations as they won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies went 10-4 to finish the season ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2011. And although that the Hokies won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2017, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.
Quarterback Josh Jackson redshirted last season and now he will take the field for his first go around the field in college football. And it could be a rough start to the beginning of Jackson’s career since Virginia Tech must replace a wealth of talent from last year’s team.
But what the Hokies do have is defensive coordinator Bud Foster who is in his 31st season at the school. Foster’s defenses at Virginia Tech are generally rock solid and they should once again be stout. Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who is a tackling machine will be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And aside from Motuapuaka, the Hokies have a very strong linebacking core which includes junior inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Virginia Tech always has a knack for forcing turnovers and after they snagged 16 interceptions last year, they should once be one of the best defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies will begin their season by facing a familiar foe as they’ll take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. From 1991-2003, West Virginia and Virginia Tech were rivals in the Big East Conference as they have not met on the gridiron since then. The Hokies will have their shot at revenge on September 30 when they host the Clemson Tigers who got the best of them in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game last December. And consecutive road games in November versus the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will show strong that the Hokies will be here in 2017.
23. Washington State Cougars
Under the football coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars have won 17 games over the last two years which has been the best stretch for the program since 2003. But heading into the 2017 college football season, will the Cougars be able to finish ranked for the first time since 2003, while also contending in the tough Pac-12 Conference?
Leach’s offenses are always wide open which means that his starting quarterbacks tend to put up big numbers. The last two years have seen Washington State quarterback Luke Falk combine to pass for more than 9,000 yards. And as Falk is set to begin his senior season, I don’t expect Leach’s air-raid offense to slow down.
The Cougars had the third best passing offense in the nation last season, and even though that two of their top wide receivers from 2016 are no longer with the program, don’t expect them to slow down. Junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. should become more of the feature guy for Falk this season as he brings speed to the table. And it will be important for the Cougars passing game to be on point as they struggle to run the football which includes them being 114 in the nation in the category last season.
Falk will operate behind an experienced offensive line which includes senior left guard Cody O’Connell as this unit will be the key to any potential success that the Cougars will have in 2017.
One player who stands out defensively for the Cougars is senior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer who knows how to set the tone. And the intensity that Pelluer brings to the table will be important as Washington State will look to slow down the high octane offenses of the Pac-12 Conference.
We’ll see how good that Washington State can be when they host the USC Trojans on September 29, while they’ll be on the road to face the Arizona Wildcats, Utah Utes, and Washington Huskies. The Cougars were close to winning the Pac-12 North last year and it will be interesting to see if they can take the next step.
24. Wisconsin Badgers
The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers become one of the most successful college football programs in the nation and head football coach Paul Chryst has kept that tradition going. In two years under Chryst, the Badgers are 21-6 which includes a berth in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game last year as well as the school’s first appearance and victory in the Cotton Bowl.
Last year was a learning process for quarterback Alex Hornibrook as a redshirt freshman. Hornibrook was limited in the passing game. but being that Chryst has a reputation in regards to being a quarterback guru, I anticipate him opening up the passing game some more this year. The Wisconsin offense will grow with Hornibrook as there are only three seniors projected to be in the starting lineup which includes wide receiver Jazz Peavy.
Defensively the Badgers were seventh in the nation last season in total defense. Wisconsin lost their defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who is now the head football coach of the California Golden Bears, but a familiar face in Jim Leonard will replace him. Leonard was a defensive back for Wisconsin who would go on to play in the National Football League for seven different teams And after Leonard spent 2016 as the Badgers defensive backs coach, he will now be calling the shots on that side of the football.
One defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards who flies around the football. The Badgers have long had a reputation in regards to having hard nosed defensive players and Edwards will add to that reputation here in 2017.
The Badgers will be a dark horse in regards to winning the Big Ten, however if they’ll be able to survive their final three games of the season as they will face the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Minnesota Golden Gophers, Wisconsin could find themselves in the conference title game along with getting a potential Rose Bowl bid.
25. Arkansas Razorbacks
There will be some adversity that’ll be awaiting the Arkansas Razorbacks when the 2017 college football season begins. But for Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema, don’t expect him to want people to feel sorry for his squad.
Since Bielema joined Arkansas in 2014, the Razorbacks have had a commitment to rushing the football in spite of a dip in production. Last year the Hogs were tied for 77th in the nation in rushing after they were 34th in 2015. And after running back Rawleigh Williams III was expected to be the featured ball carrier for his junior season, he decided to retire due to injuries.
Sophomore Devwah Whaley will now be the feature running back for the Hogs this year and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself as he’ll get at least 200 carries this season. But with senior quarterback Austin Allen under center for Arkansas, I do expect Bielema to open the offense up more than he has in the past which means that we’ll see more of a vertical game in Fayetteville.
Former Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads is set to begin his first season as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator and he must find a way to get this unit to compete more than they did in 2016. Arkansas was 75th in the nation in total defense last year which included surrendering 40 points or more in a game four times.
The Razorbacks schedule won’t be a cakewalk as they have consecutive road games versus the South Carolina Gamecocks and Alabama Crimson Tide in October, while they will also be on the road to face the LSU Tigers.
Top 25 By Conference:
Southeastern Conference (7)
Pac-12 Conference (5)
Big Ten Conference (4)
Atlantic Coast Conference (4)
Big 12 Conference (3)
Mountain West Conference (1)
American Athletic Conference (1)
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
In eight years as the head basketball coach of the Arizona Wildcats, Sean Miller has compiled a record of 220-66 with four Pac-12 Conference Championships. Six of the last seven years have seen Arizona make the NCAA Tournament as they are one of the premier basketball programs in the nation, but there is one thing has continued to allude both Miller and his Wildcats.
Arizona’s last trip to the Final Four came in 2001 when they were the runner-up to the national champion Duke Blue Devils. Since then Arizona has gone on to remain as a hotbed for future NBA talent, but they’ve been unable to get back to the Final Four.
Former Arizona head basketball coach Lute Olson led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2003 and 2005, but he was denied his sixth trip to the Final Four and fifth with the Cats. After Olson retired in 2007, Arizona’s program took a step back before they lured Miller away from the Xavier Musketeers in 2009.
In five years with Xavier, Miller showed his ability to lead a program as he got the Musketeers to the Elite Eight in 2008. It didn’t take Miller that long to get Arizona back on the national scene as he led them to the Elite Eight in 2011. But heartbreak would await the Cats in the West Regional Final where they fell to the Connecticut Huskies 65-63. After failing to make the NCAA Tournament in 2012, the Wildcats would storm back in 2013. This time Arizona would lose by three points in the Sweet Sixteen to the Ohio State Buckeyes. 2014 and 2015 would each see the Cats make the West Regional Final. But each time Arizona was denied a trip to the Final Four.
This season the Wildcats were projected to once again have a strong team as they began the season ranked tenth in the Associated Press Poll and they lived up to the hype. Arizona went 16-2 in the Pac-12 Conference with their only losses coming against the UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks. The Cats would also go on to win the Pac-12 Tournament for the second time in the last three years. The Cats finished the regular season with a record of 30-4 which earned them the second seed in the West Region for the NCAA Tournament. And although that the Gonzaga Bulldogs were the top seed in the region, Arizona was still the favorite to advance to the Final Four.
The Wildcats would easily take care of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the first round before they survived against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the second round. And with the West Regional taking place in San Jose, California, the Wildcats were expected to coast over Xavier who was an 11-seed.
With just over two minutes left in the contest, Arizona had a 71-64 lead and they appeared to be set to meet Gonzaga in the West Regional Final. However the Wildcats would not score again while Xavier would as the Musketeers finished the game on a 9-0 run to stun Arizona 73-71. But unlike Arizona’s other stumbles under Miller in the NCAA Tournament, this one stings a little more since this was arguably the Wildcats best path to the Final Four since 2001.
The Wildcats had a team comprised of future NBA players such as sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and freshman forward Lauri Markkanen leading the way, but they were unable to reach the Final Four which will be played in Glendale, Arizona which is just two hours away from their campus in Tuscon. Now including Miller’s time at Xavier, he is now 0-4 in the Elite Eight, and in spite of the fact that he is one of best coaches in the nation, he cannot shake the fact that a trip to the Final Four is still not on his resume.
However Miller can take solace in knowing that it took some of the game’s best coaches a long time to reach the Final Four and eventually win a championship. Jay Wright became the head basketball coach at Villanova in 2001 and it took him until 2009 to make his first trip to the Final Four. And after years of disappointments in the tourney, Villanova was finally able to break through and win the national championship last year. It took former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun 13 years to break through and win a national championship as he had previously gone 0-3 in the Elite Eight.
There’s a possibility that Markkanen and Trier could be headed to the NBA Draft, but Miller has done an excellent job of recruiting since he took over in Tuscon. The Wildcats have another solid class coming in next year which includes center DeAndre Ayton as this will once again make Arizona one of the top teams in the nation. The abrupt ending to a stellar season for Arizona will sting, however hope always springs eternal.
As point guard Lonzo Ball was tearing up the high school basketball scene in the State of California, he could have attended any basketball powerhouse that he chose to. As a high school senior, Ball took home numerous accolades which included him being a McDonald’s All-American, the State of California’s Mr. Basketball, and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year as he averaged 23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. Ball would ultimately decided to put his basketball skills to use for the UCLA Bruins which has been beneficial for all parties involved. As a freshman, Ball is averaging 15 points and 6.3 rebounds, while his 7.6 assists per contest are leading the nation, and he is a big reason why UCLA is once again in the national spotlight.
When the Bruins went 15-17 last year for their first losing season since 2010, there were some followers of the UCLA program that wanted head basketball coach Steve Alford fired to the point that a banner was flown around the campus seeking his removal. But as UCLA decided to stick with Alford, he went out on a limb to give back a portion of his salary for this college basketball season. And with a star studded freshmen class that includes Ball, Alford is once again the man of the hour in Westwood.
The Bruins are currently 27-3 which is good for third place in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins are the third ranked team in the Associated Press and they’ve held their own this season against the best the college basketball has to offer. In non-conference play, UCLA was able to defeat the Kentucky Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference who were the top ranked team in the nation at the time. And after their first meetings against the Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats respectively, the Bruins were able to avenge each loss the second time around with Ball having a hand in all of it.
Ball’s first collegiate game came on November 11 against the Pacific Tigers and he messed around and almost got himself a triple-double as he finished with 19 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds. In UCLA’s first game against Arizona, Ball had 24 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds. And in the rematch with Oregon which resulted in a UCLA victory, Ball had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Ball hasn’t been asked to consistently carry the Bruins due to he fact that he plays alongside freshman forward T.J. Leaf and senior guard Bryce Alford, but don’t sleep on his potential at the next level.
At the very worst Ball will be selected third overall in the upcoming NBA Draft as at 6’6″, he is tremendous ball handler with court vision that a franchise can build around. But in the interim, Ball is making the most of his time in college as UCLA could still win the Pac-12 Title, while they are also seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2008. And with the calendar ready to shift to March, I expect Ball to add to his resume when the bright lights of the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments are on him.