1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Another college football season has gone by with the Alabama Crimson Tide as the kings of the mountain. The Tide won the national title last season for the fifth time since 2009 as Alabama’s head football coach Nick Saban has established himself as one of the best to have ever done it. Precision is the best way to describe this Alabama program as when they are rolling (no pun intended), they are truly a well-oiled machine. What has separated Alabama from other programs has been their ability to reload as the Tide are consistently sending players to the National Football League which falls into the lap of Saban who has set the gold standard in regards to recruiting and developing talent. And when you do the math, Alabama will once again be in the national title discussion.
The biggest question that Saban must answer for this team is who will be their starting quarterback. Junior quarterback Jalen Hurts is 27-2 as a starting quarterback, but he found himself being benched in the national title game. Some people expected Hurts to transfer after this, but he has decided to remain in Tuscaloosa. Hurts is not a big thrower as his presence on the field gives the Crimson Tide another running back and it will be interesting to see how Saban will use him this year.
Sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa came off of the bench last year to replace an ineffective Hurts at quarterback and it resulted in Alabama erasing a 13-point halftime deficit as he was 14-of-24 passing for 166 yards with 3 touchdowns versus Georgia. Tagovailoa has the better arm as well as the pocket presence, and it won’t surprise me if he were to completely overtake Hurts this year.
Running back Damien Harris only had 135 carries last year, but he was still able to gain 1,000 yards on the ground. However this time around Harris will be ‘Bama’s featured running back in this his senior season as the sky is the limit for this youngster due to his athletic ability.
But under Saban, defensive football is where Alabama’s bread is buttered. Last year the Tide led the nation in total defense as only four opponents were able to score more than 20 points against them, and you can expect them to once again be stingy.
The cupboard is never bare in Tuscaloosa and two studs to keep an eye on for this Alabama defense will be junior middle linebacker Mack Wilson and junior defensive end Raekwon Davis. The bottom line is that Wilson and Davis are play makers who’ll each be in the conversation to be All-Americans, while propelling the Crimson Tide to great heights.
Under Saban, Alabama has not been a team to shy away from playing programs from the power conferences to start the season. And 2018 will be no different as the Crimson Tide will travel to Orlando to face the Louisville Cardinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Alabama should be able to take care of their business in the Southeastern Conference which will set the stage for them to get back to the College Football Playoff in order to defend their national championship.
2. Clemson Tigers
The Clemson Tigers are in the midst of their best run in program history as over the last seven years they’ve gone 82-15. And you know that the culture has changed for Clemson as last season’s loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl was viewed as a disappointment for the Tigers as opposed to being a building block. Dabo Swinney is set to begin his tenth season as the head football coach of Clemson, and Dabo’s decade of dominance should once again have the Tigers in the national title picture.
After losing quarterback Deshaun Watson to the National Football League Draft, Clemson was able to do better than most people expected as Swinney had a Watson-type clone running his offense. Last season quarterback Kelly Bryant was able to emerge as a play maker for the Tigers, but with that he never tried to do too much, or more importantly be Watson. And that humility by Bryant along with his ability to be a catalyst for Clemson will be important as they are seeking to make their fourth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff.
Under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Clemson’s defense has been difficult for opponents to score on as they were fourth in the nation in total defense. Clemson’s defense is loaded once again with the likes of play makers such as senior defensive end Austin Bryant, junior defensive end Clelin Ferrell, senior outside linebacker Kendall Joseph, and junior cornerback Trayvon Mullen.
Once again Clemson will be the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and if they take care of business, nothing should stop them from getting back to the playoff.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
Yes the Georgia Bulldogs fell just short of winning the national championship last season, but you cannot overlook the talent that this team possesses. The Dawgs may have lost some talent to the National Football League, but the cupboard is not bare in Athens as head football coach Kirby Smart once again has a team that is capable of winning it all.
An injury to Jacob Eason threw Jake Fromm into the fire last year as a true freshman at quarterback, and he didn’t disappoint. Fromm showed that he is not afraid of the spotlight which is important for a Georgia team that is expected to once again contend for the national title.
Georgia has been producing quality running backs for the past 40 years, and in spite of the fact that Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have moved on to the next level, there is another good ball carrier who is waiting in the wings. Last year as a freshman, running back D’Andre Swift gained 618 yards on the ground in spite of the fact that he had limited carries due to the presence of Chubb and Michel. But with Michel and Chubb no longer with the program, Swift will be the featured ball carrier as defenses around the Southeastern Conference will have to pack a lunch in order to stop him.
Last year the Dawgs were ranked sixth in the nation in total defense as 11 of their opponents failed to score 20 points against them. Like the offense, Georgia’s defense must replace a ton of talent, but one player to keep an eye on will be senior cornerback Deandre Baker who will be one of the top defensive backs in the Southeastern Conference.
The Bulldogs will also get added help from the special teams as junior kicker Rodrigo Blakenship made 66% of his field goals from beyond 40 yards. And having a kicker with a strong and accurate leg is a huge plus for any team that has aspirations of winning a national title.
With road games versus the South Carolina Gamecocks and LSU Tigers, Georgia will be tested in the Southeastern Conference, but if this team can get back to Atlanta and win the conference title, there is no reason to believe that they won’t be playing for the national title again.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
Playing in the Western Division of the Big Ten Conference means that the Wisconsin Badgers will continuously fly under the radar as for the most part they will avoid having to tango with the heavyweights of the conference. But whereas that Wisconsin flies under the radar, they continue to pile up the victories as they won 13 games last season for the first time in school history. Paul Chryst is set to begin his fourth season as Wisconsin’s head football coach, and so far he has compiled a stellar record of 34-7. However will 2018 be the year that the Badgers will not only win the Big Ten, but also break through to reach the College Football Playoff?
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is turning into more than just a game manager for the Badgers, and as his junior campaign is set to begin, he will be in the conversation to be the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year. At 6’4″, Hornibrook is a big quarterback who has benefited from the guidance of Chryst. Hornibrook continues to improve as a passer, and if he can cut down on the 15 interceptions that he threw last season, the Badgers offense will be tough to defend.
In 2017, running back Jonathan Taylor had one of the best season in the history of college football by a true freshman. Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards which included gaining 200 yards in three of those contests. At 5’11”, 216 lbs., Taylor is a speed demon who will once again pace Wisconsin’s offense. And if Taylor is able to come close to his production from last year here in 2018, he could be the first Wisconsin player since Ron Dayne to win the Heisman Trophy.
Years ago the defense of the Texas A&M Aggies was dubbed as “The Wrecking Crew”, but the 2018 Badgers could be ready to take that mantra. Last season only the Alabama Crimson Tide had a better better defense than the Badgers as 11 of their 14 opponents failed to score at least 20 points. The Badgers have the best set of linebackers in the nation with seniors inside linebacker T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, along with senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and junior Zack Baun who give Wisconsin a magnificent quartet due to their ability to tackle, rush the passer, and defend the field. And in the case of Edwards, he was tied for the team lead in interceptions last season with 4.
The Badgers also have the luxury of having one of the best place kickers in the nation in senior Rafael Gaglianone. Last year Gagalionone connected on all four of his field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards, and his accurate leg will be vital for a Wisconsin team that has national title aspirations.
The Badgers won’t be tested in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but in Big Ten play they’ll have to deal with road meetings with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Northwestern Wildcats, and Penn State Nittany Lions.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
The Lincoln Riley era as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners got off to a roaring start, but what will he be able to do for an encore in 2018? The Sooners were able to win their third consecutive Big 12 Conference Title en route to securing a berth in the College Football Playoff. But now the hard part for Riley begins as he must now find a way to win without one of college football’s top play makers from the last few seasons.
In three years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield accounted for 12,292 passing yards and 119 touchdowns as his play making ability resulted in him winning the Heisman Trophy last year. But as Mayfield has graduated and is now pursuing a career in the National Football League, it is now Kyler Murray’s time to be Oklahoma’s starting quarterback.
Murray’s collegiate career began with the Texas A&M Aggies in 2015 before he transferred to Oklahoma. At 5’10”, 195 lbs., Murray might be slight in stature, but like Mayfield he makes up for it with his elusiveness as well as his ability to make plays with both his arm and feet alike. And just like it was with Mayfield, Oklahoma’s offense will continue to excite with the junior Murray leading the charge.
The Sooners offense will resemble fast break basketball as Murray, along with junior running back Rodney Anderson and sophomore running back Trey Sermon are speedsters. Junior wide receiver Marquise Brown could be the best wide receiver in the Big 12, while his tag-team partner at wide receiver in sophomore CeeDee Lamb is one of the more underrated players in the conference. The Sooners will bolster one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation as only seniors and juniors will be in the starting lineup. Senior center Jonathan Alvarez will anchor this unit as Oklahoma’s offensive line could be among the best in the program’s history.
Last year as a true freshman, middle linebacker Kenneth Murray had a good impact on Oklahoma’s defense as he was the team’s second leading tackler with 77. At 6’2′, 242 lbs., the future is extremely bright for Murray as his athleticism will be vital for Oklahoma as they look to win another Big 12 Title.
Oklahoma will once again be the team to beat in the Big 12. And if the Sooners are able to get past the likes of the Texas Longhorns, and TCU Horned Frogs, as well as the conference title game, there isn’t anything to prevent them from getting back to the College Football Playoff.
6. Michigan State Spartans
Four of the last college football seasons have ended with the Michigan State Spartans winning at least 10 games, and 2018 is promising for them as well. For Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio, his Spartans enter this college football season with not only one of the better teams in the Big Ten Conference, but a squad that should be in contention to reach the College Football Playoff.
As quarterback Brian Lewerke is entering his junior season, he has a year’s worth of experience to his credit in regards to being the Spartans starting signal caller. Lewerke is another in a long line of game managers to play quarterback for Dantonio at Michigan State as it is all about playing within the realm of the system. Lewerke is not going to be a guy who will take chances, but he doesn’t turn the football over either which is exactly what Dantonio wants.
Running back LJ Scott fits into the mold of being that classic big back for the college game as he is a bruiser. At 6’1″, 226 lbs., Scott is a throwback to the old days of the Big Ten Conference when the league was synonymously known for paint swapping in the trenches and bruising running backs. Scott is not explosive, but it takes a committee to stop him, and defenses around the Big Ten will once again have to deal with him in this his senior season. Scott will be running behind an inexperienced offensive line that’ll have three sophomores as starters, but that should not stop him from bringing the pain.
But defense will once again be the name of the game for the Spartans as scoring against them will not be easy. Last year Sparty was seventh in the nation in total defense and they have some key play makers returning from that unit.
Junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie is in line to be one of the better defenders in the Big Ten due to his ability to defend as well as his instincts, while senior outside linebacker Andrew Dowell will be among the top strong side defenders in the conference. Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes is a sleeper in regards to being a solid edge rusher, and junior free safety David Dowell has some of the best hands at his position in the Big Ten.
With games versus the Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan Wolverines, and Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State will be tested, but all season long they will be in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth.
7. Washington Huskies
It took head football coach Chris Petersen several years to get his footing with the Washington Huskies, but now he is off and running. The Huskies have gone 22-5 over the last two years under Petersen which includes a Pac-12 Championship, along with an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Petersen is restoring the Huskies to what they were under former head football coach Don James in regards to being a national power as another great campaign appears to be on the horizon in Seattle.
It seems like quarterback Jake Browning has been around at Washington forever, but as his senior year is set to begin, he appears ready to add to his stellar resume. Browning’s ability to throw the football puts him in the category with former great Washington quarterbacks such as Warren Moon, Mark Brunnel, and Jake Locker. Browning’s completion percentage has increased in each of three years with the Huskies which included him completing 68.5% of his passes in 2017. Browning only threw 5 interceptions last season, and if he is once again careful with the football, it should lead to plenty of victories for Washington.
Running back Myles Gaskin could have left school early in order to pursue a career in the National Football League, but like Browning he decided to return to Seattle for his senior season. At 5’10”, 191 lbs., Gaskin is a durable and dependable running back for Petersen who should get at least 200 carries, while flirting with gaining 1,500 yards on the ground.
Led by center Matt James, Washington will have three seniors on their offensive line as this unit will be one of the best in the Pac-12 Conference. The Huskies can pass block as well as run block, and the balance of their offense will make them very hard to stop.
Defensively the Huskies were extremely stingy in 2017 as nine of their 13 opponents failed to score 20 points. The strength of Washington’s defense will be in their linebacking core with senior inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven and sophomore outside linebacker Ryan Bowman leading the charge. The Huskies know how to apply pressure with their front seven which makes life easier for the secondary. Last year Washington was able to tally 15 interceptions and they’ll once again be ball hawks which will make them one of the top defenses in the Pac-12.
The Huskies will begin the season on the road when the face the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference, while Pac-12 road games against the Utah Utes, UCLA Bruins, and California Golden Bears will go a long way in determining whether or not that this team will be able to win the conference and qualify for the College Football Playoff.
8. Miami Hurricanes
It hasn’t taken head football coach Mark Richt that long to turn around the fortunes of the Miami Hurricanes. In two years under Richt, the Hurricanes have won 19 games which included playing in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2003. Richt has brought the “swagger” back to Miami and there is once again a buzz around this program. But as you can argue that the Hurricanes invented swagger, will they be able to do it in 2018 when everyone expects them to succeed?
If you watched the ‘Canes play last year, you know that there is no denying that quarterback Malik Rosier is a special talent. Rosier has given Miami some stability at the quarterback position which included him throwing 26 touchdown passes last season as a junior. But if Miami is going to contend for a national title this year, Rosier must improve his pocket awareness as he only completed 54% of his passes last season, while throwing 14 interceptions. In 2017, Rosier’s production as a passer decreased in the second half of the season due to the fact that the teams that Miami faced were tougher on defense. And for Rosier, his pocket presence must improve in order for the ‘Canes to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And as Miami lost their final three games of the 2017 season, the production from the team’s running game regressed as well. Running back Travis Homer was held to just 115 yards over the final three games as that along with Rosier’s struggles passing hampered Miami’s chances. But as the new season is right around the corner, expect Miami to have a renewed focus on running the football which will set the tone for this season.
Over the last 40 years the Miami has produced some quality defensive players which includes Jerome Brown along with Ed Reed, and they have some more on this year’s squad. Junior middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman plays like a man possessed, while senior cornerback Michael Jackson and senior safety Jaquon Johnson are enforcers in the Hurricanes safety.
Richt is trying to get Miami’s program back to being a national power and the ‘Canes will have a chance to take the next step when they begin the season in Arlington, Texas versus the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. Miami will host the Florida State Seminoles in October which is always a big game, while a November showdown with the Virginia Tech Hokies will have a big bearing on whether or not that the ‘Canes will be able to win the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time in program history.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Penn State Nittany Lions enter the 2018 college football season looking to do something that they’ve been unable to do since 1999 which is to finish ranked in the top 25 in three consecutive seasons. Over the past two years Penn State has combined to go 22-5 which includes winning the Big Ten Title in 2016. James Franklin has four years under his belt in regards to being the head football coach at Penn State, and anyone who thinks that this program is ready to take a back step should think again.
The past two years have seen Trace McSorley morph into one of the better quarterbacks in Penn State’s history. McSorley has thrown 57 touchdown passes over the last two seasons compared to just 18 interceptions, while his running ability reminds some people of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. And although that McSorley can take off to become a runner, opponents should not sleep on his ability in the pocket as he’ll be in the mix to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in this his senior year.
The biggest question for Penn State’s offense in 2018 is how will they be able replace the contributions of running back Saquon Barkley? Barkley dazzled Penn State fans over the last three years as he added his name to a long list of quality running backs who have come through the program. And all eyes will be on junior running back Miles Sanders who after spending the last two years as Barkley’s understudy, will now get his chance to add his name to lineage at “Running Back U”.
The Nittany Lions will have a young offensive line this year as only one senior will be with the unit in offensive tackle Chasz Wright as this will be a work in progress as the season goes along.
Defensively the Nittany Lions were 17th in the nation last season in total defense and they will once again be a force to be reckoned in the Big Ten Conference. Sophomore defensive end Shareef Miller has the potential to be one of the better edge rushers in the Big Ten, while senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye has good hands in the secondary to go along with good coverage skills.
With meetings against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Michigan Wolverines, Penn State will have their work cut out in order to win the Big Ten, but at the very least they should be in contention to appear in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes
In each of the last six years the Ohio State Buckeyes have finished no lower than 12th in the Associated Press Poll as they are one of the top programs in the nation along with being one of the blue bloods of college football. Heading into the 2018 college football season, the Buckeyes are once again one of the more talented teams in the nation, but there is a huge storm cloud which is currently hanging over this program heading into the new college football season.
There is the possibility that Ohio State could soon be without the services of head football coach Urban Meyer. Recently reports surfaced that Meyer was aware of domestic violence allegations against for Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith in 2015, and continued to employ him until last month when he was fired. Meyer is currently on paid administrative leave as the school investigates the matter as there is a strong possibility that he may have coached his last game in Colombus.
But on the field the Buckeyes will have plenty of talent on offense which includes sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins rushed 1,403 yards last season, and if he is able to build off of that, he will definitely find himself in the mix to win the Heisman Trophy. Led by left tackle Isaiah Prince, the Buckeyes have plenty of experience up front on the offensive line with three seniors as this unit will be charged with not only opening holes for Dobbins, but also providing protection for sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Haskins saw limited action in 2017 as he backed up J.T Barrett, but now he gets his crack to be the point guard in this uptempo spread offense.
The Buckeyes were ninth in the nation last season in total defense, and you can once again expect this unit to wreak havoc. Junior defensive end Nick Bosa is among the best pass rushers in the nation as he leads a unit that tallied 45 sacks last year as Ohio State defenders specialize in meeting at the quarterback.
Regardless of who is coaching Ohio State during the upcoming season, it will be imperative to find a way to channel out everything which is going on with this program as this could potentially be a long year for them.
11. Florida State Seminoles
The Florida State Seminoles are looking to bounce back after a very disappointing season for their standards. The Seminoles had to rally in 2017 just to go 7-6 in order to secure their 41st consecutive winning season. It wasn’t an easy go for Florida State as they had to do it without the services of quarterback Deondre Francois who was lost in their first game of the season when he ruptured his patellar tendon, while also losing their head coach.
After eight years at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher decided to leave Tallahassee in favor of College Station, Texas as the almighty dollar is why he is now the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies. But Florida State would not take Fisher’s departure lying down as not only did they find a head football coach who wanted to be in Tallahassee, but one who also has recruiting ties to the talent rich State of Florida.
New Florida State head football coach Willie Taggart is a native of Brandenton, Florida, while he also spent four years as the head football coach of the South Florida Bulls where he compiled a record 24-25 as he turned around one of the worst football programs in the nation. Taggart spent last year as the head football coach of the head football coach of the Oregon Ducks, and it appeared that he was going to be there awhile, but when an opportunity arose for him to return to the Sunshine State, he took it.
At Florida State, Taggart inherits a team that is looking to get back on track. The ‘Noles came into the 2017 college football season expecting to contend for a national championship, but when they lost Francois things changed as the life was taken out of this team. Francois is now back, but it’s not a guarantee that he’s entrenched to be Florida State’s starting quarterback due to fact that he has had several off-the-field issues as well as the fact that James Blackmon filled in admirably last year as a true freshman. And it will be interesting to see if Taggart will go with the junior Francois, or Blackmon to lead his team.
Florida State continues to churn out quality ball carriers and they have some on this year’s team in senior Jacques Patrick and sophomore Cam Akers. Akers and Patrick give Florida State a thunder and lightning tandem at the running back position as this duo will test the endurance of the defenses that they will be facing.
But Florida State has to get back their swagger which is something that they got away from last season. Taggart must also work to get this defensive team flying to the football all at once, but he will have to do it with a green defense as the only senior starter will be defensive tackle Demarcus Christmas.
Like most of the Power Five Conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference will see some teams face conference opponents to begin the year as the Seminoles will begin their season at home versus the Virginia Tech Hokies. The ‘Noles will have their ups and down this year, but they have their guy in Taggart to lead them back to prominence.
12. USC Trojans
The USC Trojans have compiled a record of 21-6 over the last two years. But now the hard part begins for USC head football coach Clay Helton as he looks to get it done without quarterback Sam Darnold. The last two years saw Darnold light it up with his passing which led to him being one of the top picks in the National Football League Draft earlier this year.
After backing up Darnold last year, sophomore Matt Fink looked like he was going to have his opportunity to add his name to a long lineage of quality quarterbacks at Southern Cal, but true freshman JT Daniels has been charging hard in training camp. At 6’3″, Fink has the height, but he is rather slender at 190 lbs. Helton has had a history of developing quarterbacks throughout his coaching career, and whether it is Fink or Daniels, they will definitely benefit from his schooling.
Aside from losing Darnold to the National Football League, ‘SC also lost their top running back in Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett; however there is always a wealth of talent that is waiting in the wings for the Trojans.
Last year as a freshman, running back Stephen Carr saw limited action as a backup to Jones, but now he will have his chance to add his name to the long list of quality ball carriers that have suited up for the Men of Troy. Another player who is looking to build off of having a solid freshman campaign is wide receiver Tyler Vaughns. Vaughns was USC’s second leading pass catcher in 2017, and he improved as the season progressed which should carry over into the new campaign.
Under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, USC has a defense which flies around and wreaks havoc. The Trojans have a smart pair of inside linebackers in senior Cameron Smith and junior John Houston Jr. Senior free safety Marvel Tell is an enforcer in the ‘SC secondary, while senior cornerback Iman Marshall is one of the better cover corners in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year saw the Trojans tie with the Clemson Tigers to lead the nation is sacks with 46, and led by junior defensive end Christian Rector, they’ll once again be a force in regards to getting to opposing quarterbacks.
With consecutive road games versus the Stanford Cardinal and Texas Longhorns in September, it could be a slow start for Southern California, but come November they’ll be in the mix to win the Pac-12 for a consecutive year.
13. TCU Horned Frogs
Three of the last four college football seasons have ended with the TCU Horned Frogs being in the top ten of the Associated Press Poll. And after the Horned Frogs finished ninth in the nation in 2017, they have all of the tools in place to have another dominant team under head football coach Gary Patterson.
After limited action in 2017, Shawn Robinson will be the guy at quarterback for Texas Christian. Robinson spent his freshman season as a backup to Kenny Hill, but now it will be his time to shine as a sophomore. At 6’2″, 225 lbs., Robinson is a big quarterback with a strong arm, while he also brings the ability to run to the table which is something that most of the quarterbacks in Patterson’s system can do.
The Horned Frogs must replace some talent at the skill positions as they lost their top two ball carriers and top three pass catchers from last year’s team, while their offensive line will primarily be comprised of juniors and sophomores. However Patterson has done a solid job of recruiting within the State of Texas which is something that has only been magnified since TCU joined the Big 12 Conference in 2012.
But defensive football is where TCU’s bread is buttered under Patterson, and after the Horned Frogs were 19th in the nation in total defense last season, you can expect the unit to once again be stingy. Senior defensive end Ben Banogu was second on the team in sacks last season with 8.5 and he has the potential to be one of the finest edge rushers in the Big 12.
Stepping out of conference to face the Ohio State Buckeyes of the Big Ten Conference on September 15 is big for Texas Christian as they look to bolster their chances of making the College Football Playoff. And after TCU fell just short of winning the Big 12 last year, they will look to change their fortunes this time around.
14. North Carolina State Wolfpack
2017 saw the North Carolina State Wolfpack break through for their first 9-win season since 2010. The Wolfpack were able to sneak up on some teams last year in the Atlantic Coast Conference under head football coach Dave Doeren. And although that it won’t be easy for N.C. State to creep up on opponents this year, it doesn’t mean that the Wolfpack won’t be in line to have a good season.
Expect the Wolfpack to have one of the more explosive offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and it begins with the play of senior quarterback Ryan Finley. Finley is coming off of consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons, but it is his poise in the pocket that sets him apart. Finley is cool customer and he lets the game come to him, while also leading this offense. And once you factor all of that in, Finley will be in the running to be the ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
Around Finley, North Carolina State will have one of the best receiving duos in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the form of a pair of juniors in Jakobi Meyers and Kelvin Harmon, while they’ll have three seniors on the offensive line which includes left tackle Tyler Jones.
The Pack will miss the contributions of defensive end Bradley Chubb who is now in the National Football League, but with nine of their eleven projected starters here in 2018 being seniors and juniors, they will be a tough unit to penetrate.
N.C. State’s season will come down to what they are able to do on October 20th when they travel to face the Clemson Tigers as not only will that contest have a big hand in who’ll win the Atlantic Coast Conference, but whether or not that the Wolfpack will be able to get to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
A year ago there were some people who wanted to see the Notre Dame Fighting Irish move on from head football coach Brian Kelly. The Irish were coming off of their first losing season under Kelly as some people felt that he had lost his way in regards to getting the best out of his squad. However Kelly would have the last laugh as Notre Dame rebounded last season to go 10-3 which included their third bowl victory in the last five years. And now as Notre Dame has shown that 2016 was a blip on the radar, will they be able to remain consistent enough in 2018 in order to make the College Football Playoff for the first time in school history?
During Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, he has been known to be very impatient with his quarterbacks. However last season saw Brandon Wimbush assert himself as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback and heading into his senior season, he appears ready to give the Fighting Irish more consistency at the position. Running backs Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. saw limited action last year, but you can expect them to get the bulk of the carries in their senior and junior seasons respectively. The Irish were seventh in the nation last year in rushing as they averaged 6.3 yards per carry as the running game has always been a staple of Kelly’s offense.
Two players to keep an eye on defense for Notre Dame are senior middle linebacker Te’von Coney and junior cornerback Julian Love. Coney led the team in tackles last year with 116, and his ability to get to the ball carrier will keep him in the discussion to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Love is a player who is solid in the secondary and his ability should help to bolster a unit that is looking to keep improving after they were 46th in the nation in total defense in 2017.
There aren’t too many soft spots in Notre Dame’s schedule as they’ll have home games versus the Michigan Wolverines, Stanford Cardinal, and Florida State Seminoles, along with a trip to Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans to end the regular season.
16. Central Florida Knights
The Central Florida Knights have been playing college football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level for 22 years now, and they primarily flew under the radar until last year. The Knights came out of nowhere to be the only team at the FBS level that finished the season undefeated which included a victory over the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference in the Peach Bowl. Hands down the Knights enjoyed their best season at the FBS level, but now let’s see if they will be able to sustain it.
The Knights success led to them losing their head football coach as Scott Frost returned to his alma mater in the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the same capacity. Frost has been replaced at Central Florida by former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Josh Heupel. After helping the Sooners win a national championship as a player in 2000, Heupel spent 10 years as an assistant coach at the school. Heupel spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Missouri Tigers, and as his offenses were always known to produce points, he’ll look to bring that to Central Florida with him.
Heupel inherits a strong team that is led by junior quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton was the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 as he passed for 4,037 yards, while throwing 37 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions. In two years at Central Florida, Milton has exuded solid pocket presence, and it should be a smooth transition for him from Frost’s offense to that of Heupel.
Led by junior left tackle Jake Brown, the Knights will have one of the more experienced offensive lines in the American Athletic Conference to protect Milton. UCF was fifth in the nation in total offense last season, and it should once again be all systems go.
Defensively the Knights will miss the contributions of linebacker Shaquem Griffin who is now pursuing a career in the National Football League, but the linebacking core for Central Florida will continue to be strong. Senior inside linebacker Pat Jasinki and senior outside linebacker Titus Davis are each solid tacklers and you’ll see them emerge as leaders for this unit this season.
The Knights will also look to keep the turnover trend going as they forced 20 interceptions last season. And with ball hawks in the secondary like junior free safety Kyle Gibson, Central Florida’s defense will continue to be a problem for opposing offenses in the American Athletic Conference.
Once again the Knights won’t be faced with a difficult schedule, but two non-conference affairs with the North Carolina Tar Heels and Pittsburgh Panthers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with conference showdowns with the Memphis Tigers and South Florida Bulls will go a long way in determining whether or not that Central Florida will be able to repeat as American Athletic Conference Champions.
17. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn Tigers are coming off of their first 10-win season since 2013, but they have to sit back and wonder what could have been. Auburn defeated both the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide during the regular season in order to earn a berth in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. But in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn would lose the rematch to Georgia which led to them missing out on making the College Football Playoff. And to add insult to injury, Auburn lost in the Peach Bowl to the Central Florida Knights, while also having to see Alabama and Georgia play for the national championship.
In five years as Auburn’s head football coach, Gus Malzahn has done a good job in regards to keeping the Tigers relevant, and 2018 won’t change that.
In his first year in Malzahn’s uptempo offense, quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a solid season as threw 18 touchdown passes, while also completing 66.5% of his attempts. And now that Stidham has two years under his belt to learn Malzahn’s offense (once you factor in that he sat out after transferring), that seasoning should allow him to take his game to another level here in 2018.
With the departure of running back Kerryon Johnson to the National Football League, the time has come for junior Kam Martin to be Auburn’s featured ball carrier. In limited action last year, Martin averaged 6.1 yards per carry and his speed will put stress on defenses throughout the Southeastern Conference.
In 2017, Auburn’s defense was ranked 14th in the nation, and they must find a way to get back to being the unit that they were prior to their final two contests of the season. The catalyst for the Tigers defense will be senior middle linebacker Deshaun Davis. Davis is a leader as well as a tone setter for the way the plays which includes his ability to attack the ball carrier.
Auburn will have to take another trip to Atlanta when they begin their season against the Washington Huskies of the Pac-12 Conference. However Auburn’s season will be defined by what they are able to do during the month as they’ll be on the road to face both Georgia and Alabama.
18. South Carolina Gamecocks
Will Muschamp has two years under his belt in regards to being the head football coach for the South Carolina Gamecocks and he has his program headed in the right direction. The Gamecocks are coming off of their first 9-win season since 2013. And heading into a new college football campaign, they are not only looking to do some big things in the Southeastern Conference, but also on the national stage as well.
The Gamecocks have an emerging stud on their hands at quarterback in junior Jake Bentley. Bentley has nearly two full years under his belt at quarterback and the confidence is really exuding from him. At 6’3″, 220 lbs., Bentley is a big and physical quarterback who is not afraid to stay in the pocket in order to throw the football down the field. Bentley also has the leadership intangibles which are necessary if the Gamecocks are going to hang around in the top 25 this year.
Bentley will have the privilege of being protected by one of the top lines in the Southeastern Conference this season. Led by left tackle Malik Young, South Carolina’s starting offensive line will have four seniors in the group. And that experience should allow Carolina to control the football which fits into the offensive philosophy of Muschamp.
The Gamecocks defense has continued to improve since Muschamp arrived in Columbia, and they should be stingy in 2018. Junior defensive end D.J. Wonnum has the potential to become one of the better pass rushers in the Southeastern Conference, while junior middle linebacker T.J. Brunson will tackle anything that moves. The Gamecocks will also have strong play in their secondary from senior safety Steven Montac and sophomore defensive back Jamyest Williams. Both Montac and Williams have a nose for the football, and they’ll be able to benefit from the pressure that will be created by South Carolina’s front seven.
South Carolina’s second game of the season will see them clash with the Georgia Bulldogs in a contest that will set the tone for each of them in the SEC East. The Gamecocks will be a force to be reckoned with all season long which will lead to them finishing the year ranked for the first time since 2013.
19. Northwestern Wildcats
For the second time in the last three years, the Northwestern Wildcats are coming off of a 10-win season. Head football coach Pat Fitzgerald has established Northwestern as a consistent team in the Big Ten Conference as under him the Wildcats have made a bowl game in eight of the last ten years. The last time that Northwestern began a season ranked was 2013, but they were unable to live up to the expectations as they went 5-7. However will things be different for the Wildcats here in 2018?
Unlike some teams Northwestern will be afforded the luxury of having experience at the most important position on the football field. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson has three years of experience under his belt which should come in handy this year. Thorson was able to complete more than 60% of his passes last year, while he has continued to progress as a pocket passer. Thorson will be aided by a very experienced offensive line which has the senior starters as it includes left tackle Blake Hance.
Northwestern is poised to have a big year defensively due to the extensive amount of play makers that they have. The Wildcats have two of the best bookend pass rushers in the Big Ten Conference with junior defensive end Joe Gaziano and sophomore defensive end Sam Miller. Northwestern will also have solid play at the linebacking position with sophomore middle linebacker Paddy Fisher who’ll be in the mix to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top middle linebacker and senior outside linebacker Nate Hall. Defensively last season Northwestern forced 17 interceptions, and with senior cornerback Montre Hartage and sophomore safety J.R. Pace in the mix, possession will once again be nine-tenths of the law for them.
Right out of the chute, Northwestern will be tested when they travel to face the Purdue Boilermakers, and they won’t have too many soft spots in their schedule with games versus the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Wisconsin Badgers, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the docket.
20. Stanford Cardinal
The last ten years have seen the Stanford Cardinal morph into one of the top football programs in the nation. The Cardinal have finished seven of the last eight years ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, while they’ve also managed to win three Pac-12 Conference Championships. For Stanford head football coach David Shaw, he enters the new college football season with a team that is not only capable of winning the Pac-12 once again, but also qualifying for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
This year Stanford will be paced by senior running back Bryce Love. Many people expected Love to leave school early after he rushed for 2,118 yards last year, but instead he decided to return to Stanford for one more season. In Love’s spectacular season he was held under 100 yards in just one game, and he has the ability to put up a similar season in spite of the fact that defenses will be lining up to stop him. Love finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year to former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, but this time around, the award is his to lose.
Junior quarterback K.J. Costello now has a year under his belt, and he was able to progress as the season went along. Costello is a solid quarterback in the pocket who will not only benefit from being in the backfield with Love, while also having another year of being coached by Shaw.
Love and Costello will also be the beneficiaries of an experienced offensive line in front of them. Center Jesse Burkett is one of three seniors on Stanford’s offensive line. Burkett is the real deal, and he’ll be in the mix to win the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center.
The Cardinal must replace a ton of talent on defense from last year’s team, but there is always talent waiting in the wings in Palo Alto as defensive coordinator Lance Anderson will once again have a formidable unit.
Road games with the Notre Fighting Irish, Oregon Ducks, and Washington Huskies will definitely test Stanford, but come December they’ll once again be one of the top teams in the Pac-12.
21. Michigan Wolverines
The 2017 college football season didn’t end well for the Michigan Wolverines as they lost at least five games for the fourth time in the last six years. Four of Michigan’s five losses came versus teams that finished the year ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll which didn’t sit well with their head football coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has been tireless in his efforts to get Michigan back to being a national power. And although that the Wolverines took a slight step back in 2017, you can expect this team to ratchet it up in 2018.
Michigan’s offense was stuck in the mud which begins with their passing game that was 111th in the nation. No Wolverines starting quarterback passed for more than 1,000 yards last season, but that will change this year.
Quarterback Shea Patterson started 10 games over the last two years for the Mississippi Rebels as he threw 23 touchdown passes on a team that was not that talented. The Rebels were staring at a variety of NCAA violations which led to Patterson transferring to Michigan.
What Patterson gives Harbaugh is the best play maker that he has had at the quarterback position since he took over at Michigan. Patterson has the ability to be a runner, but he scrambles to give his receivers time to get open down the field, and with him under center, he will bring some excitement to a Michigan which has lacked it for some time now.
But aside from having improved quarterback play, the Wolverines must get back to having an improved ground attack. In each of Harbaugh’s three years at Michigan, the Wolverines have not been able to produce a 1,000-yard back, but as a team they only averaged 4.4. yards per carry last season and compared to 4.8 in 2016. Senior running back Karan Higdon will get the bulk of the carries this season as I expect Harbaugh to put more of an emphasis on the running game.
Only the Alabama Crimson Tide and Wisconsin Badgers had better defenses than the Wolverines did in 2017, and you can you expect them to once again have one of the better units in the nation. Junior middle linebacker Devin Bush will be in the mix to be the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, while Michigan knows how to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks as they recorded 42 sacks last season. Look for junior defensive end Rashan Gary to have a big year, while junior linebacker Khaleke Hudson who is a hybrid, will be impacting the game in several different ways.
The Wolverines will begin the year by rekindling their rivalry with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, while they will have their hands full in Big Ten play with meetings with the Michigan State Spartans, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Ohio State Buckeyes in a five-week span.
22. Boise State Broncos
The Boise State Broncos continue to be the symbol for the underdog in college football. The Broncos won at least 10 games in ten of the last 12 years, and at season’s end, you can expect them to have put together another quality season. Bryan Harsin has four years under his belt as Boise State’s head football coach, and during this stretch his record is 42-12. Last season Harsin led the Broncos to a top 25 finish, as well as a their second Mountain West Conference Title. And as Boise is set to embark on another season, they’ll once again be a thorn in the side of the superpowers in the sport.
Boise State has a good problem to have as they have two players that are good enough to be the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Quarterback Brett Rypien was expected to have a stronger junior campaign than he did, but he still managed to pull off a solid as he threw 16 touchdown passes. However if Rypien is able to put up similar numbers to what he did in 2016 which included throwing 24 touchdown passes, it will definitely make Boise tougher to beat.
When running back Alexander Mattison is on top of his game, the Broncos are a tough team to beat. And it was no wonder that in each of Boise State’s three losses last year that Mattison was held under 100 yards. At 5’11”, 219 lbs., Mattison is a blend of size and speed, and his brings his A game, there won’t be too many people that will be able to stop him or this Boise State offense.
Defensively the Broncos are loaded with talent as well as the unit will feature junior middle linebacker Tyson Maeva, sophomore defensive end Curtis Weaver, and junior strong safety Kekoa Newahine. Defensively the Broncos were ranked 21st in the nation in total defense, and with this trio leading the way in 2018, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Boise State will be the team to beat in the Mountain West, and don’t be surprised if they crash the New Year’s Six bowl party.
23. Virginia Tech Hokies
It has not taken head football coach Justin Fuente that long to get the Virginia Tech Hokies back on track. In just two years under Fuente, the Hokies have won 19 games, finished both years ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, and have regained their spot as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And just as Virginia Tech is once again one of the top teams in the ACC, the 2018 college football season will show that they are also set to be one of the top teams in the nation.
Josh Jackson is coming off of his first year as Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback and he had a solid season. However in the Hokies four losses last year, Jackson only threw a pair of touchdown passes, while he was intercepted 5 times. Jackson has the ability to scramble, but his biggest asset is his arm, and if he able to get his completion percentage around 65%, while throwing 20 touchdowns once more, his senior season in Blacksburg should be solid.
But Virginia Tech’s bread is buttered on defense which begins and ends with Bud Foster. Foster has been with the Virginia Tech program since 1987, and he has served as the team’s defensive coordinator since 1995. Foster preaches attacking defense which has sent countless players to the National Football League. Under Foster, Virginia Tech was 13th in the nation in total defense last season as eight opponents failed to tally 20 points against them.
The Hokies have plenty of talent to replace from the 2017 squad, but one player to keep an eye on will be junior strong safety Reggie Floyd as his playmaking ability will make one of the top defenders in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies will open up on the road versus the Florida State Seminoles, but their November 17th showdown with the Miami Hurricanes will go a long way in shaping Virginia Tech’s chances to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, as well as their chances to get to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game.
24. Florida Atlantic Owls
Don’t look now, but these Florida Atlantic Owls are for real. After a 1-3 start in 2017, the Owls would win their final ten games of the season en route to winning their first Conference USA Championship in school history. The Owls did that with balance on offense as well as having a stout defense. In his first year as Florida Atlantic’s head football coach, Lane Kiffin brought a level of swagger with him that rubbed off onto his team. And if anyone thinks that Florida Atlantic was merely a feel good story in 2017, this team is ready to once again prove the doubters wrong.
The heart and soul of this Florida Atlantic team is junior running back Devin Singletary. Last year Singletary gained 1,920 yards on the ground to go along with 32 rushing touchdowns. Singletary was also very durable as he amassed 301 carries, and you can expect Kiffin to continuously feed him the football once more this season.
The Owls had a bend, but don’t break defense last year as they gave up nearly 400 yards per game, but they were stingy in the red zone which included holding their final three opponents of the season to a combined 32 points. Senior Azeez Al-Shaair and junior Rashad Smith are two of the finer linebackers in Conference USA due to their tackling ability. And senior safety Jalen Young has great hands as his 7 interceptions last season will definitely to transfer as he pursues a career in the National Football League.
In two of Florida Atlantic’s first four games this year, they will face a pair of conference champions from last season in the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference, and the Central Florida Knights of the American Athletic Conference. But even with those two early tests, the Owls will still be the team to beat in Conference USA this year
25. Oklahoma State Cowboys
In each of the last three years the Oklahoma State Cowboys finished with a record of 10-3 as well as finishing ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. But unfortunately for the Cowboys, three losses over that stretch to the Oklahoma Sooners have prevented Oklahoma State from winning the Big 12 Conference, and improving their status as a national brand. For Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy, he once again has a team that will light up the scoreboard, but will it be enough for the Cowboys to be one of the top teams in the country?
The Cowboys will no longer have the services of Mason Rudolph at quarterback. Rudolph rewrote the Oklahoma State passing records over the past few years, but he is now pursuing a professional career in the National Football League. Now without Rudolph, Gundy will turn to true freshman Spencer Sanders to be the guy under center for the Cowboys. And as Sanders is looking to get his feet wet, expect junior running back Justice Hill to have a bigger role in the offense, while senior wide receiver Jalen McCleskey will more than likely be Sanders’ go-to-guy in the passing game.
Oklahoma State has never had a reputation in regards to being stout on defense, however one player to keep an eye on will be junior cornerback A.J. Green who not only led the Cowboys in interceptions last season with 4, but also has some of the best hands for a defender in the Big 12.
Oklahoma State will be tested on September 15th when they host the Boise State Broncos of the Mountain West Conference, while road games in November versus Oklahoma and the TCU Horned Frogs will go a very long way in deciding whether or not that the Cowboys will have what it takes to win the Big 12.
Just missed the cut: Fresno State Bulldogs, San Diego State Aztecs, LSU Tigers
Teams by conference Big Ten (6) ACC (5) SEC (4) Big 12 (3) Pac-12 (3) Mountain West (1) American (1) Independents (1) Sun Belt (1)
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com. Ourlads.com