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We’re just days into 2018, why not look ahead to the 2018 college football season? Here’s our absurdly early Top 25 for the upcoming year. Four of our top five teams from last year’s absurdly early poll went to New Year’s Six bowl games. The fifth was Florida State.
This must be the fourth straight year we’ve included Texas in preseason rankings. Maybe 2018 is the year it finally comes to fruition. The Longhorns went 7-6 in Tom Herman’s first season, but lost to the Big 12’s best by some really slim margins. UT loses a lot of talent to the NFL, but Herman has been recruiting at a high level and has a quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, to build around. That should begin to show on the field in 2018.
Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State, prompting the promotion of offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to head coach. He has an assortment of talent to work with, led by quarterback Justin Herbert. We all saw what Herbert meant to the Ducks in 2017. They were 6-2 with Herbert in the lineup but went 1-4 when he was sidelined with an injury. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt had the chance to follow Taggart to FSU, but chose to stay in Eugene. The defense improved quite a bit in his first season with the program.
23. NC State
NC State vaulted into these rankings when news broke that Ryan Finley will return to Raleigh for his final season. Finley, who threw for 3,518 yards while completing 65.1 percent of his passes, certainly would have been drafted, but he decided to return to a stacked Wolfpack offense for 2018. The team’s top three wideouts, Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis, will all be back. Running back Nyheim Hines is expected to return, too. The defense has to replace All-American end Bradley Chubb, but NC State has a bunch of talent returning coming off their best record (9-4) under Dave Doeren.
22. Notre Dame
The majority of Notre Dame’s offensive success this season came from its running game, but the Irish lost running back Josh Adams and its top two offensive linemen, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, to the NFL. Equanimeous St. Brown, the team’s best receiver, is going pro as well. There is depth on the line and at receiver, but finding a running back to complement Brandon Wimbush will be important for the Irish. Wimbush needs to improve as a passer, too. He completed only 49.5 percent of his passes in 2017. The Irish will have a new defensive coordinator, too, after Mike Elko left for Texas A&M.
21. Florida State
The Seminoles were considered national title contenders entering 2017, but those expectations fell off a cliff. It started with the injury to quarterback Deondre Francois and spiraled from there. Though FSU was able to finish the year with four straight wins, it did so without head coach Jimbo Fisher. Fisher left for the Texas A&M job and Oregon’s Willie Taggart returned to his home state to run the Seminoles. It may take a year for Taggart to get the Seminoles back toward the top of the ACC, but they will still have a ton of talent in 2018.
20. Virginia Tech
We’re big believers in Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson. He struggled with his accuracy at times during his first season as Virginia Tech’s starter, but showed enough as a redshirt freshman to make you believe he’s ready to take a big step forward in 2018. He has a good group of skill players around him, but the Hokies will have some new starters up front. The Hokies were No. 13 nationally in total defense this year. Don’t expect much (if any) of a drop off in 2018 from Bud Foster’s unit.
19. West Virginia
West Virginia had a chance to play for the Big 12 title but lost its last three games after quarterback Will Grier was injured. Grier, along with receivers David Sills (18 TDs) and Gary Jennings (97 catches) will be back in 2018 to lead a potentially potent offense. If the Mountaineers find themselves in the Big 12 race late in the year, they close out the regular season with TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. That’s a brutal stretch, but the Horned Frogs and Sooners will be traveling to Morgantown.
LSU is going to have quite a bit of production to replace in 2018, especially if RB Derrius Guice declares for the NFL as expected, but a lot of underclassmen saw significant action in Ed Orgeron’s first year as head coach. The impending quarterback competition between Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse will get the attention, but LSU’s defense is what could carry it through the SEC West. The schedule won’t be easy, however, with a neutral site game against Miami and a trip to Auburn in the month of September.
The 2017 season was an expected rebuilding year for the Wolverines, but the heat has been turned up for Jim Harbaugh after the Wolverines ended the season with three straight losses. Those late-season lumps could translate into some wins for a more-experienced group in 2018, especially if quarterback Shea Patterson, a five-star transfer from Ole Miss, is granted eligibility by the NCAA. Patterson could be the stud quarterback Harbaugh has lacked throughout his return to Ann Arbor, but it won’t be easy to leapfrog Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East.
16. Mississippi State
MSU lost head coach Dan Mullen to Florida but made a shrewd hire, bringing in Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Moorhead has a lot to work with. Even if quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (ankle) isn’t back for the start of the season, Keytaon Thompson impressed in a TaxSlayer Bowl win over Louisville. Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, both first-team All-SEC selections, will be back on the defensive line, too. The Bulldogs have the talent to make some noise in the SEC West.
15. Central Florida
Star quarterback McKenzie Milton is back along with running back Adrian Killins. How will the Knights adjust to new coach Josh Heupel after Scott Frost’s departure to Nebraska? The Knights do have to replace linebacker Shaquem Griffin and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, but still should be the best non-Power Five team in the country. And hey, when you’re the defending national champions you have to be included in the following season’s top 25. It’s a law.
The Trojans have already lost quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones to the NFL and more offensive talent could declare before the early-entry draft deadline. Redshirt freshman Matt Fink is the favorite to take over at quarterback and he’ll have Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman to throw to among others. If USC can replace what it loses up front in Uchenna Nwosu, the Trojans could be higher.
13. Oklahoma State
We’re putting faith in Mike Gundy’s offensive system with this ranking. Gone are QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington, the nation’s top QB/WR combination over the past two seasons. But running back Justice Hill returns and so does wide receiver Jalen McCleskey. The Big 12 is wide open once again and the Cowboys should be near the top of the conference. The biggest question for the Cowboys may be if Gundy’s mullet makes it to the 2018 season.
12. Michigan State
It’s possible to have the Spartans higher in this given the amount of talent that’s returning to the team. But could we have three teams from the same division in the top 10? Michigan State returns 10 starters on offense including running back L.J. Scott and quarterback Brian Lewerke. The defense brings back as many as nine starters too, including everyone in the secondary. The Spartans are going to be dangerous.
Will Bryce Love declare for the draft? He hasn’t yet and if he decides to stay at Stanford for his senior season he’s going to be a Heisman favorite. If he leaves, Cameron Scarlett should fill in admirably. Outside of Love, all of Stanford’s offensive skill position starters return. The Cardinal lose a lot on defense, but there’s still plenty of talent to work with. Stanford should once again be a contender for the Pac-12 North with or without Love.
Could Miami be even better in 2018? Malik Rosier is back for a second season as a starter and Travis Homer will return as the No. 1 running back following Mark Walton’s departure to the NFL. The Hurricanes offense should improve, especially after the injuries that plagued the team at the end of the season. DBs Michael Jackson and Jaquan Johnson returning for their senior seasons is big for a defense that had just one senior starter in 2017. The turnover chain will be seen a lot again in 2018.
QB Jarrett Stidham said he was coming back to the Tigers, though given the loaded quarterback draft class already it’s not much of a surprise. The run game will depend on Kam Martin after the departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway to the NFL. But all of Auburn’s wide receivers are back for another season with Stidham and the defense should be good once again. Auburn is poised to be the top challenger to Alabama again.
Baker Mayfield is gone and this is Kyler Murray’s Sooner team now. Expect to see some more quarterback-designed runs as Lincoln Riley tailors his offense to Murray’s talents. Running back Rodney Anderson is back alongside receivers CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown. The loss of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is big for a defense that was shredded against Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Will the unit improve?
7. Penn State
Yeah, Saquon Barkley is off to the NFL but there’s a lot of talent returning for the Nittany Lions. Trace McSorley is back for his final season and has Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins to throw to. Miles Sanders should step in at running back. The biggest question for Penn State is on defense as the Nittany Lions need to replace eight starters. But Penn State should be in the mix for the Big Ten East again.
Jake Browning is back for his senior season and running back Myles Gaskin could return too. Even if Gaskin goes pro, there’s plenty of talent on offense for the Huskies. The defense should be even better in 2018 despite the loss of Vita Vea, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, to the NFL. Washington had nine non-senior starters on the unit in 2017 and we’re past the point of doubting teams coached by Chris Petersen. We could talk ourselves into putting Washington into the College Football Playoff.
Freshman all-star running back Jonathan Taylor is back for his sophomore campaign. All he did in 2017 was break Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing record. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is back too and if he can sustain the level of performance he had in the Orange Bowl, the Badgers could be borderline unbeatable. That’s probably too much to ask, but this is a Wisconsin team that returns a ton from 2017 and is in the Big Ten’s easier division.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes should be the best of a really crowded Big Ten East despite all the loss of senior talent. J.T. Barrett finally used up his college eligibility meaning the quarterback for 2018 will either be Dwayne Haskins or Tate Martell. Haskins performed admirably when replacing Barrett against Michigan after the senior’s knee injury. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are back too and will take pressure off whoever is playing quarterback. The Buckeyes’ depth up front on defense takes a hit, but Nick Bosa should be a star.
Kelly Bryant should only get better in his second season as a starter for the Tigers, who have recruited as well as anyone in the country over the past few seasons. WR Ray-Ray McCloud made the surprising decision to go pro over the weekend but Hunter Renfrow is back for what feels like his 15th season with the Tigers. Running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne return too, along with defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Tre Lamar. This team should be the overwhelming favorite in the ACC.
Surprise! The Bulldogs lose a lot on defense. But we’re putting stock in Kirby Smart’s defensive system and the way he’s recruited in his time at Georgia. The Bulldogs’ defense should be very good once again in 2018. Georgia also loses running backs NicK Chubb and Sony Michel, but D’Andre Swift (603 yards) should step in admirably and Smart signed two five-star running backs in the December early signing period. If there’s a dropoff in Georgia’s run game it will be offset in the gains QB Jake Fromm makes as a passer in the offseason.
Another surprise! Another all-SEC title game and an Alabama-Georgia rematch will not go over well in much of the country. But we’re saying there’s a chance. Alabama will have turnover, especially in the defensive secondary, but we all know how well Nick Saban’s teams reload year after year. A possibile QB controversy between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa looms and we’re guessing either Damien Harris or Bo Scarbrough will return for a senior season while wide receiver Jerry Jeudy should take a step forward. But the national champions should start the next season where they ended this one.
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