Welcome to the second edition of Dr. Saturday’s way-too-early top 25 for the 2017 season. Our top 25 below is the second edition of January’s absurdly-early top 25. We’ll update our top 25 for a third time in August as the 2017 season gets closer.
25. North Carolina (January rank: not ranked): The Tar Heels enter our top 25 after the addition of former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. The former four-star recruit never put it together with the Tigers but will have less pressure and a much more open offense at North Carolina. Don’t be surprised if Harris is one of the most productive QBs in the ACC.
24. West Virginia (16): The Mountaineers’ defense returns eight starters but the offense needs to replace a ton of production. There will be two new starters on the offensive line and wide receivers Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts are gone. So is running back Rushel Shell, though Justin Crawford should be a fine replacement. If new QB Will Grier, formerly of Florida, can find some go-to weapons quickly, we’ll be regretting this drop for the Mountaineers.
[More college football from Yahoo Sports: Big 12 spring practice summaries]
23. TCU (NR): The Horned Frogs’ defense has to get better in 2017, right? The unit needs to replace five starters, but we’re confident coach Gary Patterson will get some reinforcements. The offense now rests fully in OC Sonny Cumbie’s hands as he attempts to get Kenny Hill back to the brief glory days of the 2014 season.
22. Nebraska (NR): Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is the successor to quarterback Tommy Armstrong and he’ll have a nice group of playmakers around him, highlighted by explosive wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El. Mike Riley’s third season at Nebraska could easily result in another 9-4 season and Bo Pelini will likely take notice as the Huskers aim to compete with Wisconsin at the top of the Big Ten West.
21. Notre Dame (25): While it may not be likely, don’t be surprised if the Irish begin the season 5-0 before heading to North Carolina. A Week 2 game at home vs. Georgia looms large, but it’s winnable if Notre Dame’s offense is as good as it can be with new quarterback Brandon Wimbush. And unlike Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire in 2016, Wimbush should start the season as the undisputed No. 1.
20. Texas (23): We’re not sold on the Longhorns just yet, but they could creep up a couple spots over the summer if former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire transfers here. New coach Tom Herman made no secret of his desire to land LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris as a QB and he’ll be happy to install Zaire as his Week 1 starter if he picks Texas.
19. South Florida (22): New USF coach Charlie Strong’s first offseason with the Bulls hasn’t been worthy of any boasting. But he inherits a team that should be the favorites in the AAC thanks to the return of QB Quinton Flowers. If Strong can make the defense even better, an 11-2 repeat could happen.
18. Kansas State (18): As longtime KSU coach Bill Snyder continues to recover from cancer treatments, he has a pretty good team coming back for 2017. Quarterback Jesse Ertz could be one of the best QBs in the Big 12 and he’ll have a lot of returning help on offense. The defense lost DE Jordan Willis, LB Elijah Lee and a few other starters but Snyder’s never had a problem unearthing new defensive stars.
17. Florida (15): Who is Florida’s quarterback going to be? Right now it could be Feleipe Franks, who had a good spring as returning starter Luke Del Rio is sidelined with a shoulder injury. No matter if it’s Franks or Del Rio (or someone else) at quarterback, Florida should be better on that side of the ball. The key to sustained defensive success is replacing all the talent lost to the NFL.
[More college football from Yahoo Sports: SEC spring practice summaries]
16. Georgia (17): The Bulldogs return quarterback Jacob Eason and running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in 2017. A young defensive front should improve. The schedule is pretty enticing as well. Expectations will be sky-high for coach Kirby Smart in 2017 to get Georgia back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2012.
15. Stanford (19): It won’t be easy to replace Christian McCaffrey, but there shouldn’t be too steep of a drop-off with Bryce Love, who gained 779 yards while averaging 7.0 yards per carry in 2016, at running back. If the offensive line is solidified and the team has improved quarterback play to go with its usual steady defense, Stanford should be the biggest challenger to Washington in the Pac-12 North.
14. Louisville (10): Louisville, of course, has Heisman Trophy quarterback Lamar Jackson back in the fold in 2017, but he may be forced to do even more with his top three receivers and top running back from 2016 no longer with the team. The Cardinals have an unproven offensive line and production to replace on the defensive line, too, which explains the slight drop in our rankings. The Cardinals will have to get some of their new starters acclimated quickly with Clemson coming to town in Week 3.
13. Wisconsin (13): We thought Wisconsin was due for a down year in 2016 and ended up being way off. We won’t make that mistake this year as the Badgers are our early pick to repeat in the Big Ten West. After splitting time last year, Alex Hornibrook will take the reins full time at quarterback. Playing behind a stout line, he’ll look the way of stud tight end Troy Fumagalli early and often. There’s some NFL talent (T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel) to replace on defense, but Jack Cichy and Chris Orr are slated to return from injury.
12. Michigan (12): The Wolverines lost a staggering 18 starters from 2016, but Jim Harbaugh has been recruiting at a really high level to ensure there’s no big drop off. The 2017 season will be his first test. Luckily, Wilton Speight is back at quarterback and he’ll have some highly regarded receivers, like five-star recruit Donovan Peoples-Jones, to target. Also, former No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary should be unleashed on defense. But will that be enough to surpass Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten East?
[More college football from Yahoo Sports: Big Ten spring practice summaries]
11. Auburn (14): With Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham running the show at quarterback, it looks like Gus Malzahn will really get to crank up his offense like he did back in 2013. Stidham will need some guys to step up at wide receiver, but has one of the top running back duos in the country in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson at his disposal. If Kevin Steele’s defense continues on an upward trajectory, the Tigers have a chance to make things interesting in the SEC West.
10. LSU (9): Things start here with Derrius Guice, who, with Leonard Fournette dealing with injuries, rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns and looked like one of the best running backs in the country in doing so. He’s quite the toy for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada to work with, but getting consistent play out of QB Danny Etling will be a more important task if LSU wants to go toe-to-toe with Alabama in Ed Orgeron’s first full season as head coach. The defense looks like it’ll be the stronger side of the ball, especially if Arden Key is rushing the passer.
9. Washington (8): Jake Browning is back at quarterback (though he is coming off shoulder surgery), but Washington lost some of its best players — in the secondary, especially — to the NFL. Despite the losses, the Huskies still have a ton of talent returning, namely WR Dante Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin on offense and LB Azeem Victor and DT Vita Vea on defense. UW, our favorite to win the Pac-12 North, also has the luxury of not facing USC in the regular season.
8. Oklahoma State (11): This is Oklahoma State’s best chance to win the Big 12 in quite a while. James Washington leads a stacked receiver group (watch for LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, too) for QB Mason Rudolph to go with 1,000-yard rusher Justice Hill. Mike Gundy also went to the graduate transfer market to shore up two spots via former Cal tackle Aaron Cochran and Clemson DB Adrian Baker. The defense needs to be better than it was last year. If it is, the Cowboys can make the jump back to the top of the conference.
7. Penn State (7): After just missing the College Football Playoff in 2016, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are back to lead one of the country’s most prolific offenses, but PSU will need a few pass-rushers to emerge on the other side of the ball. A home upset over Ohio State propelled PSU toward the conference title last year. This time around, PSU will face the Buckeyes in Columbus in a game that could decide the division.
6. Clemson (6): Similar to Alabama, the Tigers should have success no matter who starts at quarterback. A young defensive line anchored by sophomores Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence and junior Christian Wilkins should be the best in the country. When it comes to quarterback, there isn’t much clarity just yet. Clemson’s summer depth chart lists Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson at the top.
[More college football from Yahoo Sports: ACC spring practice summaries]
5. Oklahoma (5): Baker Mayfield, Heisman favorite? If Mayfield is going to book a return trip to the Heisman ceremony in New York he’s going to have to do it without Samaje Perine, Dede Westbrook and Joe Mixon. And he’s going to need a lot more help than the Oklahoma defense gave him at times in 2016. Don’t be surprised if Bedlam between the Sooners and Cowboys on Nov. 4 is for the top seed in the Big 12 Championship Game. Remember, the game is back in 2017.
4. Ohio State (4): Kevin Wilson is the key to Ohio State’s season. After a disaster of a Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State brought in the former Indiana coach to be the team’s new offensive coordinator. Wilson should be able to make JT Barrett a better passer and the OSU offense better as a whole. But even if Barrett improves, Ohio State’s fortunes may hinge on a defense that lost a ton of talent to the NFL.
3. USC (3): The Sam Darnold hype train shows no signs of derailing. As long as Darnold meshes with his new receiving corps the Trojans should be the favorite in the Pac-12 South and Darnold will continue his march towards being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
[More college football from Yahoo Sports: Pac-12 spring practice summaries]
2. Florida State (2): The Seminoles are still No. 2 because Derwin James is set to be fully healthy and the run game shouldn’t drop off too much even without star running back Dalvin Cook. An offseason of development for quarterback Deondre Francois and a defense that could be even better in 2017 means Florida State is the favorite in the ACC over Clemson.
1. Alabama (1): It’s easy to forget that Alabama has started two different quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons and still made it to the College Football Playoff title game. That’s why it’s easy to dismiss talk of a quarterback controversy between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama coach Nick Saban is used to dealing with quarterbacks competing with each other and this shouldn’t be a distraction heading into the season.
Teams that dropped out: Boise State, Colorado, Tennessee
Teams also considered: Oregon, Virginia Tech, Miami
More college football on Yahoo Sports: