2023 Forecast College Football Top 35

1. Georgia – After winning their first national title since 1980, the Bulldogs lost 15 players to the NFL Draft… and followed that up with an undefeated national title in 2022. Another load of players will be off to the NFL, including underrated QB Stetson Bennett and star DT Jalen Carter, but the total number of losses is less than last year. The offense returns TE Brock Bowers and gets the top WRs from Miss State (Rara Thomas) and Missouri (Dominic Lovett), should provide ample weapons for Carson Beck or whomever wins the starting QB job. The defense completely reloaded in 2022 but with 6 starters back, is actually better positioned than coming into last season. With OOC games vs Ball State, UT Martin, UAB and GA Tech, and no Bama, A&M or LSU from the West, the schedule is laughably easy and give the Dawgs time to work out any kinks with a new QB. And once UGA makes the playoff, the depth of talent and coaching means a 3 peat is very possible.
2. Michigan – HC Jim Harbaugh, QB JJ McCarthy and RB Blake Corum all are returning to Michigan in 2023, making the Wolverines, not the Buckeyes, the favorites in the Big Ten. Harbaugh’s Wolverines again beat Ohio State to win the conference and make the playoffs. A loss to TCU in the semifinal was disappointing, especially with several fluky plays that could have gone the other way. But with the offensive stars and 8 starters back on defense, Michigan has a great opportunity to make it back to the playoffs and get that shot at a national title. The schedule is very manageable, beginning with ECU, UNLV, Bowling Green and Rutgers at home; then trips to Nebraska and Minnesota, before games with Indiana then at Michigan State before an off date at Halloween. Penn State is on the road Nov 11 and the season ender with Ohio State is at home.
3. Ohio State – If there ever was a disappointing 11-2 season, this was it. After dominating the Michigan series in recent years, the Buckeyes dropped their 2nd straight to their biggest rivals, snuck into the playoffs only to have a huge win over a dominant Georgie team slip between their fingers in the last minute. Now they have to regroup without NFL draft overall first pick QB CJ Stroud and WR Jaxon Smith-Jigba. WR Marvin Hariison and RB TreVeyon Henderson are back though to give whichever QB (likely Kyle McCord) wins the starting job some great weapons. The defense returns 7 starters but finished the season poorly in games against Michigan and Georgia. The schedule is highlighted by the usual divisional matchups with Penn State and Michigan, and includes a road trip to Notre Dame in week 4.
4. USC – Lincoln Riley’s first year at USC exemplified why the Trojans made the hire in the first place – a Heisman Trophy winning QB leading an explosive offense for a team coming off a 4-8 season that nearly made the playoffs. The other component of a Riley coached team also reared its ugly head with a terrible defense that contributed to two losses to Utah and surrendering 46 points in a loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. QB Caleb Williams is back as are WRs Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice. They add WR Dorian Singer (who led the Pac 12 in receiving yards last year at Arizona) to add to the embarrassment of riches on O. The defense needs some work and Riley brought in a number of transfers on that side of the ball, including LB Mason Cobb who had 96 tackles last season at OK State. The schedule is tougher in ’23 with both Washington and Oregon now added when the Trojans didn’t face either last season. Just a competent defense should be enough with this offense to get USC into the playoff race.
5. Alabama – A very disappointing season by Tide’s standards, with 2 regular season losses, no appearance in the SECCG or playoffs. And with the best offensive player in college football, QB Bryce Young and the best defensive one, Edge Will Anderson, both off to the NFL, there are more questions around the program than in many years. Talent isn’t an issue, as the Tide continues to load up in recruiting, finishing with the #1 class in 2023 after falling to 2nd (behind A&M) last season. Alabama was mistake prone, turnovers and penalties, in their 2 close losses last year, I expect HC Nick Saban to have that addressed this season. The big question is at QB, where the Tide lost out in the Sam Hartman sweepstakes but got former ND QB Tyler Buchner from the portal. It’s very risky to pick against Saban, and the last time his teams did not make the playoffs (BCS or 4 team) was his first 2 years at Alabama. Still, at this moment, it seems that the Tide have more questions going into a season than any other time in recent memory.
6. LSU – A number of pundits were concerned about the fit of Brian Kelly at LSU, but turned out he fit into the Tiger fam-uh-lee just fine. In Kelly’s first year, the Tigers defeated Alabama, made the SEC Champ Game and finished with 10 wins. With QB Jayden Daniels and most of his weapons on offense like WRs Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas, plus TE Mason Taylor returning and all 5 o-lineman, expectations on the Bayou are sky high going in to 2023. The defense was mostly solid but struggled with the top offenses it faced but will build around superstar LB Harold Perkins Jr and has some key additions via the portal to help out. The schedule starts with a bang, vs FSU in Orlando, where the Seminoles themselves also have high expectations for the season, in what will likely be the only top 10 matchup opening weekend. The Tigers go to Bama this year, but don’t face Tennessee and especially UGA from the East. A win in the opener and a Top 10 finish gets more likely.
7. FSU – After a very unimpressive start to the Mike Norvell era, the Seminoles season wins have gone from 3 to 5 to 10 – the first double digit winning season since 2016. And now FSU is in good position for even better things in 2023. It starts with the return of QB Jordan Travis; Travis has always been a good runner but he put on a show last season through the air, completing 64% of his passes and throwing for over 3200 yards. His top WR, the 6’7″ Johnny Wilson (21 yards per catch) and leading rusher Trey Benson, also return. The o-line has been a weakness for years, but enough returning starters and fortified through the transfer portal, its now a strength. BIgger challenges await on a defense that looked fine statistically but really struggled against the better offenses (noticeable in the 45-38 win vs UF and 35-32 vs OU). Star edge rusher Jared Verse turned down the NFL draft to return and help from the transfer portal is also on the way for the D, tackle Braden Fiske (Western Michigan) and cornerback Fentrell Cypress II (Virginia) should help. As noted above, schedule starts with a bang vs LSU in Orlando, another program with high expectations for ’23. The ACC eliminated the nonsensical divisions, so the game at Clemson in late Sept might just be a preview of the ACC champ game.
8. Clemson – the Cade Klubnik era has begun at Clemson as former starter DJ Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State. Klubnik was inconsistent in his performance vs Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, but with new OC Garrett Riley, expectations are high. Riley, the ’22 Broyles Award winner, turned a middle of the road TCU offense into a top 10 unit, and Riley led offenses have averaged over 38 pts per game over the past 3 years. Klubnik has a super talent on his side in RB WIll Shipley, who ran for 1182 yards and had 242 yards receiving last season. A star needs to emerge from the WR corp and that could be Antonio Williams, named to several Freshman All American teams after leading the Tigers in catches and yards last year. There are a few holes to fill on defense, including Edge Myles Murphy, but 8 starters on D return, including DT Tyler Davis. The schedule sets up nicely as the two highest ranked teams (FSu and NOtre Dame) both come to Death Valley (FSu early and Notre Dame late). The season ends as always with the rivalry game vs South Carolina, this year in Columbia. Expect Riley to get the offense on track and this will look more like previous Clem teams than the last 2 years.
9. Penn State- The Nittany Lions had another 11 win season, this one capped by a Rose Bowl win over Utah, but as also true for the others, did not end in a playoff berth. Could this be the year? The offense was great last year but loses star QB Sean Clifford. Fans in Happy Valley are ready and excited to see what uber recruit Drew Allar can do, and will have RBs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen in the back field to help. The defense was much improved under first year DC Manny Diaz, finishing in the top 20 in total and scoring defense. With most of the front 7 back, the D could be even better in 2023. The schedule is very manageable (top OOC game is home vs WVU) and as usual will come down to the 2 biggies – at Ohio State in October and home vs Michigan in November. Get one of those, and Penn State is very much alive in the playoff hunt.
10. Washington – HC Kalen DeBoer had a fantastic first season, improving the Huskies by an amazing 7 games and winning Pac 12 Coach of the Year honors. He had help though, especially from OC Ryan Grubb to bring the Huskie offense out of the doldrums and into an aerial attack not seen in Seattle in decades. QB Michael Penix set all kinds of school records from season passing yards (4641 yds) to single game passing yards (516 yds vs Arizona). Penix returns as a Heisman candidate, and so does Grubb, turning down mega offers from a couple of SEC schools. The Huskies had 2 1000 yard receivers for the first time in history and both Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan return. The leading rusher is gone, but the rest of the RB room is back; there is some rebuilding on the o-line as 3 starters depart. The passing defense was the big liability in ’22, but a lot of that was due to numerous injuries in the secondary. With 8 starters back on D, better health will likely bring much better results. The schedule is more difficult this season – home vs Boise and at Michigan State are on the OOC schedule. Huskies will be notable favorites but both of these teams have talent. The bigger story is in conference, where the Huskies skipped both USC and Utah last season (the 2 teams in the conf champ game) but face both in ’22. The combo of Deboer, Grubb and Penix means Washington is a Pac 12 champion and playoff contender.
11. Notre Dame – An up and down season if there ever was one for the Irish in 2022. Notre Dame looked good in an opening loss to Ohio State, followed by ugly losses to Stanford and Marshall, but wins over UNC and Clemson (the two ACCCG participants) and a win over a hot South Carolina in the bowl finished the season looking up. The big news in the offseason was the arrival of transfer QB Sam Hartman from Wake. Hartman has thrown for over 13000 yards in 5 years with the Deacs – you can’t get much better or more experienced than that! THe top 3 tailbacks and top 3 -lineman return, so there’s a lot of experience around Hartman, although super star TE Michael Mayer to the NFL Is a big loss on offense. Six starters are back on the defense that limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play. The schedule is the usual cross country barnstorming, with the biggest games vs USC and Ohio State at home and a late season trip to Clemson. If the offensive staff from Notre Dame can get as much out of Hartman as Wake’s did, the sky’s the limit for this team.
12. Oregon – the Dan Lanning era at Oregon started with a thud, a 46 pt loss to Georgia in Atlanta. But the Ducks rallied, winning 7 straight games and finishing 10-3. The losses were painful though with a 3pt loss to rival Washington can a 4pt loss to instate rival Oregon State. QB Bo Nix has a great year after transferring in from Auburn, but will have a new OC in ’23 (Kenny Dillingham HC at Arizona St now). A couple of transfers (from Alabama and Troy will give Nix experience at WR and the RB room is solid with Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington returning. Lanning was the architect behind the phenomenal defense at UGA the previous year before taking on the HC job at Oregon, but the Duck’s defense wasn’t great in ’22. The challenge in ’23 is top defensive players LB Noah Sewel and CB Christian Gonzalez are off to the NFL. But Lanning had a top 1- recruiting class in his first full recruiting season, so more talent is on its way.
13. Texas – Even with the loss of Bijan Robinson, Horn’s seemed poised for bigger things this year after a number of closs losses in ’22. The future is now with Quinn Ewers taking over the QB position and not really a competition at this point. WR Adonai Mitchell from UGA is a big addition to his available weapons. The o-line returns 4 starters to provide the protection needed. The schedule includes a marquee OOC game at Alabama plus 9 conference games vs a deep Big 12. Weird that Sark has never won more than 9 games in his career (8 in reg season) but this Horns should be in the race for the conference championship.
14. Tennessee – An incredible job by 2nd year HC Josh Heupel, leading the Vols to an 11-2 season, highest ranking in over 20 years and wins over Florida and Alabama. Tennessee loses stars QB Hendon Hooker and WRs Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman but new QB Joe MIlton performed well in filling in for the injured Hooker in the last 2 games, and his back up is super recruit Nico Iamaleava. The replacement WR’s showed out in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson. The defense last year was good against the run, but struggled at times against the pass. Injuries in the secondary were part of the issue, and greater health in ’23 should lead to greater success. Milton should put up big numbers in HC Josh Heupel’s offense, But Hooker and those WR’s will be hard to replace to duplicate last years success.
15. Utah – All the hype in the Pac-12 this year is either on Coach Prime in Colorado or on USC and their chance at the playoffs. Meanwhile, Utah just chugs along as the two time defending Pac-12 champs! Utes are led QB Cameron Rising, a gritty phyiscal kid perfect for the HC Kyle Wittingham mentality, but is recovering from torn ACL. He is expected to be ready for the key opener vs Florida. The Utes feature a deep RB room and have 3 starters back on the o-line. Utah has 8 starters back on D, including the Pac 12’s Freshman of the year in each of the last 2 years – DL Junior Tufuna and LB Lander Barton. They add LB Levani Damuni from Stanford, the Cardinal leading tackler. The schedule is formidable, with the Utes going to Baylor after the opener vs Florida, and visit both USC and Washington (but get Oregon at home). In a deep Pac-12, Utah is in the race for the conference title with the other top 3 teams.
16. K State – Defending Big 12 champs welcome back QB WIll Howard. RB Duece Vaughn is off to the NFL and is a big loss, but transfer Teshaun Ward from FSU and Keagan Johnson from Iowa are solid replacements. Howard and the backs will be protected by a very experienced o-line as all 5 starters return. Defense is a bit of a rebuild with only 5 starters back, but transfer DE Jevon Banks from Miss St will help fill holes on the line. The LB corp is the strength of the defense and may need to be as the inexperienced secondary gets its groove. The expanded Big 12 shakes up the schedule, with no OU and the big game with Texas in Austin. Wildcats had no problem with former rival Missouri last year but goes to Columbia and don’t overlook the home game with Troy. A solid, physical team in ’23, but too many big playmakers lost to repeat the conference championship of ’22.
17. Texas A&M – Connor Weigman is expected to be the starting QB and threw for 900 yards 8 TDs and 0 INTs in 5 starts last season. He’ll operate behind and experienced oline where 4 starters are back. RB Devon Achane to the NFL Is a big loss, but Ags are high on incoming 5* true fr Reuben Owens. WR Evan Stewart had a good fr seasonand Ainias Smith is back after only playing 4 games last year due to injury. The defense had most of the starters back on the line and in the LB corp, but needs to improve on 100th ranking in total defense last year. schedule features OOC at Miami and draws Tenn and SC from the East. Overall, A&M was one of the least experienced teams in the nation going into last season, but are now one of the most experienced. That experience, plus the talent level, should lead to a rebound in ’23.
18. Wisconsin – Badgers made one of the best offseason hires when they brought in HC Luke Fickell from Cincinnati, after Fickell led the Bearkats to the first G5 playoff bid. And these are not your father’s (or even older brother’s Badgers) as Fickell plans to open up the offense. He brought in SMU transfer QB Tanner Modecai , a 2 year starter for the Mustangs. Wisconsin didn’t have great WR’s on the roster so Fickell brought in several from the portal. The running game won’t go away though and that area is well under control with their top 2 backs. Badgers have a tricky OOC game at Washington State, but don’t play Michigan or Penn State and get Ohio State at home. These transitions usually have some bumps in the road but Fickell has been successful wherever he goes.
19. Oregon State – HC (and former star QB) Jonathan Smith has rebuilt the Beavers into a very physical unit that few teams in the Pac 12 look forward to playing. His efforts led to the breakout ’22 season, their first 10 wins season since 2006, that included wins over rival Oregon and in a bowl vs and SEC team (Florida). Oregon State was able to accomplish this with a run oriented, smash mouth offense that did not include great QB play. The QB will be of much interest in ’23 as the Beavs signed a blue chipper at QB in Aidan Chiles; but the true fr is not expected to be the starter, that opportunity likely will go to DJ Uiagelelei, the transfer from Clemson. Expectations were through the roof, but his time at Clemson was mostly frustrating and he lost the starter job late last season. Maybe a change in scenery in a different offense will bring that blue chip talent back out. Its a bit of a rebuild on the defense as the top 3 players, the all conference picks, move on; but the d line will still be a strength. The schedule isn’t too bad with no USC and Washington, Utah and UCLA come to Corvalis.
20. Iowa – If it wasn’t for stunning ineptitude by the President and other top leaders at Northwestern, Iowa’s offseason drama would the Big Ten West’s biggest story. Frustration with the anemic offense finally boiled over and the ultimatum came down – the team had to average at least 25 points per game or beleaguered OC Brian Ferentz (son of HC Kirk Ferentz) would be fired. In this day and age though, the transfer portal can heal all wounds. The Hawkeyes brought in Cade McNamara, the former Michigan QB that led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title in ’21. McNamara was ultimately benched at Michigan, but even ok QB play would be a big step for the offense that finished next to last in total yards and had 7 receiving TDs on the year. There are some weapons including RB Kaleb Johnson (last season’s leading rusher) and TE Luke Lachey, who caught 4 of those 7 receiving TDs. TE Ercik Ali, also from Michigan, was a nice add in the portal. The defense does lose some leaders with LB Jack Campbell and DL Lucas Von Ness off to the NFL. But DC Phil Parker has done an amazing job with the defense over the years, and a minor step back is still a very good D. If defense isn’t the calling card of the Hawkeyes, its special teams and both their punter and kicker return. The schedule improves with Michigan and Ohio State dropping off, and only Penn State as one of the East big 3 appearing. I think the Ferentz is on a mission to prove that the offense can be better and with the strong D and great special teams, Iowa is a top threat to win the West.
21. TCU – A dream season in 2022 for the Horned Frogs, with a new coach and coming off a 5-7 season, TCU won blew out preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma, won 7 straight conference games by 10 pts or less, and not only made the playoffs, but upset Michigan in a thriller. Matching anywhere near that level of success will be a steep challenge, starting with the loss of QB Max Duggan. Duggan willed the team to win in several of those close games and was a dynamic leader. Chandler Morris was actually the starter at the beginning of the year, but was replaced by Duggan after an injury. The top RBs and WRs depart, but HC Sonny Dykes added a number of offensive players from the portal, including WRs Jojo Earl (Bama) and Jack Bech (LSU) and RB Trey Sanders (also Bama). The offense also gets a new OC as Garret Riley left for Clemson, Dykes brought in Kendall Briles from Arkansas. The rebuild on defense is more modest as they do lose the Jim Thorpe award winner, but 7 starters are back from a defense that held Texas to 10 pts in the huge win in Austin. OOC schedule does not include any top 30 teams, opening with Colorado and also has cross metroplex rival SMU. But conference schedule is challenging with road trips to K State, OU and Texas Tech. The loss of experience on the offense and the number of close wins suggests a significant drop off from last season, but the talent is there in a deep Big 12 for a solid season.
22. Kentucky – HC Mark Stoops has been very successful at Kentucky, but a disappointing year in ’23 with poor offensive play, especially on the line. You might think losing a 2nd round draft pick at QB would mean a rebound is unlikely, but in the age of the transfer portal, anything can happen. Stoops brought in QB Devin Leary, who threw for over 3300 yards for the Pack in ’21, but got injured in the 5th game of the season last year. Stoops is still working the portal to bring in some guys to fortify the o-line, but the defense should be solid as usual. Wildcats do draw Bama this year from the West, but don’t have a decent OOC game until the annual rivalry game with Louisville to end the year.
23. Oklahoma – a terribly disappointing debut for new HC Brent Venables return to Norman. QB Dillion Gabriel is back after throwing for over 3000 yards and 25 TDs in 12 games. Top RB Eric Gray is off to the NFL but two solid backs in Javantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk return. The defense was surprisingly bad under Clemson’s former DC, but with a top 10 signing class and more importantly, reinforcements from the transfer portal, the defense could make a leap forward in ’23. The d-line added Trace Ford (Ok St), Jacob Lacy (ND) Dajon Terry (tenn), and Rondell Brothroyd (14 sacks at Wake last 2 years). Sooners loss 5 one score games in 2022, that luck likely reverses in 2023.
24. Louisville – Cardinals HC Scott Satterfield left for Cincy after an 8-5 season and Louisville brought ‘home’ Jeff Brohm; and Brohm brought with him his former QB at Purdue, Jack Plummer, who threw for over 3000 yards last year at Cal. They have 7 starters back from a defense that gave up only 19.3 ppg. Brohm also used the portal well to fortify the defense. UL does get Notre Dame and Kentucky in their OOC schedule, but skips FSU, Clemson and UNC in conference.
25. Tulane – the biggest good news for the Green Wave coming off their AAC championship and stunning upset of USC in the Cotton Bowl, is that both HC WIllie Fritz and QB Michael Pratt returned after entertaining offers from other schools. Most of Pratts friends upfront return too, but not many of his offensive weapons. And the top 4 leading tacklers are gone off the defense as well. But with UCF, Houston, and Cincy all off to the Big 12, Tulane seems the best team in the AAC and is a big favorite to repeat as champs. Big OOC game when Ole Miss comes to New Orleans in the 2nd week of the season.
26. Ole Miss – The Rebels were off to a great start in 2022, jumping out to 7-0 and #7 in the AP Poll, thanks in a part to a manageable schedule. Then the wheels came off as losses to LSU and Alabama (no shame there), were followed by losses to Arkansas and Miss State and culminating in a blowout loss to Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. There are reasons for optimism in Oxford heading into 2023 though, starting with the return of QB Jaxson Dart, now in his 2nd year. HC Lane Kiffin added QB Spencer Sanders , the #2 all time passer at Oklahoma State to fortify the QB room. RB is set with Quinshon Judkins returning, first team all SEC as a Fr last year, with over 1500 yards rushing and 16 TDs. The top receivers are gone, but Kiffin brought in 2 from the portal, including La Tech’s Tre Harris, an All CUSA pick last year. The defense struggled in the late season slump, so DC Pete Golding from Alabama to shore up the Rebel D. Sr DE’s Jared Ivey and Cedric Johnson return, and LB Monty Montgomery from Louisville, will play a big role. The challenge is going to be the schedule, not only playing Bama and LSU every year, but now drawing UGA from the East this season. Rebels could be a very good team, but more than 8 wins will be hard to come by.
27. North Carolina– The big question heading into last season for the Tar Heels, was how to replace all time career leader in passing, QB Sam Howell. The answer came in the first game when fr QB Drake Maye threw for 300 yards in 6 of his first 7 games and became the only Fr in FBS history to throw for 30 TDs in his first 9 games. The top two WRs are gone, but the entire RB room plus 4 o-line starters are back. Maye will be in the discussion for top pick in the 2024 NFL draft. The reason the Heels are down here in the rankings though is the defense. How’s this for some stats on the D – last in the ACC in scoring, total, sacks, passing efficiency. Most of their leading tacklers return but is that a good thing? And several players, especially in the secondary transferred out. Meanwhile, UNC doesn’t play FSU, but starts with South Carolina, App State, and Minnesota, then opens ACC play at Pitt.
28. Maryland – There’s good news for the Terps heading into 2023… they come off their first 8 win season since 2010 and back to back bowl wins. Also, Taulia Tagavailoa, who has thrown for nearly 8000 yards and 51 TDs in his two years for the Terps. In a league full of bigger name programs, Tagavailoa was 2nd team all Big Ten at QB. Meanwhile, HC Mike Locksley has continued to recruit well and the overall talent level is as good as it’s been in years. The bad news though starts with Maryland in the Big Ten East and ends with having to rebuild both the offensive and defensive lines. But WR Jeshaun JOens leads a talented receiver room and RB Roman Hemby was 3rd among all FBS freshman with 1287 yards from scrimmage. I’m not expecting any wins vs the big 3 – Ohio St, Michigan or Penn State. But the OOC schedule of Towson, Charlotte and UVA should result in a 3-0 start, and neither Wisconsin or Iowa appear on the schedule. Looks like another 8 win season on tap for the Terps.
29. UCLA – HC Chip Kelly did not bring instant success to the Bruins as many thought he might; but the last 2 seasons have shown why UCLA was excited to bring Kelly in. And last season was the best yet, a 9-3 record, wins over highly ranked Utah and Washington, lead by a 5th year QB in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. While DTW departs, the fans in Westwood are very excited about incoming Fr Dnate Moore, the #3 rated QB in the nation in last year’s recruiting class. Moore is the highest rated QB to ever sign with UCLA. They lose top rusher Zack Carbonnet, but have some depth behind him and bring in the MAC’s leading rusher in Carson Steele from Ball State. The top 2 receives are also gone, but again reinforcements come through the transfer portal, including Cal’s leading WR J Michael Sturdivant. The defense wasn’t great and Kelly brought in D’Anton Lynn from the NFL’s Ravens to improve their play. UCLA will have experience up front and in the linebacking corp, so improvement is possible. The OOC schedule features 2 strong G5s programs in Coastal Carolina and San Diego State, and the conference is deep with good teams again in ’23, but the Bruins do skip Washington. It will be hard to replace DTR, but a top notch QB coming in offers a lot of excitement for the season.
30. Boise State – significant improvement for HC Andy Avalos in year 2, as the Broncos improved to 10 wins and an appearance in the Mountain West Conference Champ game. Fr QB Taylen Green took over for the injured Hank Bachmeier and never looked back, throwing for over 2000 yards, rushing for nearly 700 in the last 10 games of the season, earning himself Fr of the year in the MW. Green returns as does both top Rbs, George Holani (1157 yds) and Ashton Jeanty (821nyds) to form a dynamic duo. The top 4 leading receivers are back too. The Broncos have a bigger rebuilding job on the defensive side of the ball, but reinforcements to the line comes through the transfer portal, including TYler Wegis from Utah and Kivon Wright from BC. The talent is there for a big season and finish in the rankings… if it weren’t for the schedule. The blue turf boys open at Washington, then host UCF, and have road games at San Diego State, Memphis, Fresno. This should be a good team, but will hard to top last year’s 9-3 regular season record.
31. Pitt – It’s been a very successful 2 years for the Panthers, with 20 wins, an ACC championship, and a Heisman finalist. HC Pat Narduzzi has positioned the program for another successful year if the transfer QB works out better than last year. After ’21 QB Kenny Pickett went in the first round of the NFL draft, Narduzzi brought in transfer QB Kedon Slovis from USC; but the passing numbers fell off and Pitt ended up running the ball more. This year, longtime BC starting QB Phil Jurkovec transfers to Pitt, but the key may be Narduzzi also brought in OC Frank Cignetti , who was the OC when Jurkovec had his best year. The Panthers will need an improved passing attack, as they’ll miss RB Izzy Abanikanda, who led the nation in rushing TDs. THey bring in RB Derrick Davis from LSU to bolster the RB room. Narduzzi was known for his defenses at Michigan State, and he and DC Randy Bates have continued that success in Pittsburgh. The Panthers have finished in the top 5 in the nation in sacks all 4 years, including last year when two All Americans were drafted the previous year. That year to year consistency is key as the rebuild this year is a little bigger than most with 4 starting d lineman gone and 2 all conference DBs. Even with these departures, Pitt has a lot of depth in both the line and the backfield, and can fill in with quality replacements. The schedule features a couple of big OOC rivalry games up front, vs Cincy and at WVU, and also includes a trip to Notre Dame. The questions on defense are why I have the Panthers just outside the Top 25, but Narduzzi could easily outdo expectations.
32. Toledo – 2022 was a successful season for the Rockets, winning the MAC championship game and their bowl over LIberty, but they’re looking for more in ’23. The offense The offense returns most of their weapons, including a very experienced QB in JDequan Finn, their entiere RB room (their 6! leading rushers) and their top 2 WRs. The Rockets do have some rebuilding on their D line but their LB corp and secondary are among the best in the MAC. The schedule is less challenging with a OOC game at Illinois vs at Ohio State, and a home game vs San Jose State vs at San Diego State. Toledo has a very good chance at a double digit win season this year.
33. Texas Tech – HC Joey McGuire’s debut was a success, beating Ole Miss in the bowl to finish with 4 straight wins and an 8-5 first year campaign. QB Tyler Slough returns, although he’ll be pushed by Behren Morton. Edge Tyree Wilson picked number 7 in the NFL draft is a big loss, but the defensive starters will feature 8 seniors. Tough schedule in ’23 with no team in the Big 12 an easy out and the OOC schedule features a monster home game vs Oregon.
34. UTSA – HC Jeff Traylor has done an amazing job with Roadrunners, with back to back 11+ win seasons. UTSA has been rewarded for its success by moving up to the American Athletic Conference. The Roadrunners are lead by 7 year Sr Frank Harris, who threw for over 4000 yards, with a 69.6% completion % and a 32/9 TD/INT ratio. The o-line returns 3 starters, but was bagned up last season, and back-ups got some experience. The d-line is a strength of the team , and features transfers from LSU and NC State. UTSa won Conference USA last year, but it will be a rougher go in the American, even as several of the top AAC teams left. The OOC features the opener at Houston and a visit to Tennessee, and the Roadrunners to Tulane in conference. As long as Harris is healthy, this team is capable of competing for the conference championship even in a tougher league.
35. South Alabama – Ohio State, Michigan, FSU, LSU, Texas… and South Alabama each have 2 players on the Maxwell Award Watch List, the Maxwell Award given to the “Collegiate football player of the year”. USA Sr QB Carter Bradley set the school record for passing yards with 3343 yards and a 64% completion rate. RB LaDamian Webb, a transfer from FSU, also broke a school record, this for rushing yards in a season with 1063 yards, even though he missed 2 games with injury. Troy was the class of the Sun Belt last season, going 12-2 including an upset of UTSA in the bowl game, but USA was also 7-1 in conference just like Troy, and finished 10-2 in the regular season, the only losses by 4 to Troy and 1 to UCLA. The schedule is tough with SBC games at Troy, at James Madison and home vs Marshall, and get OOC at Tulane and at Ok State. Their 18 starters back from last years 10 win squad, give them the edge to win the Sun Belt.

2022 Top 35

1AlabamaNot unusual to see Nick Saban’s squad at pre-season #1, but this year’s team is an even bigger favorite than usual. A loss in the national title game provides the focus and motivation to win it all in 2022. The Tide return Bryce Young at QB, last season’s Heisman winner, and LB Will Anderson, who finished in the top 5 of the Heisman voting as a defensive player. The TIde loses 2 great WRs in Williams and Mechie, but brings in transfer WR and speedster Jermaine Burton from Georgia. Meanwhile, talk about the rich getting richer – RB Jahmyr Gibbs is a big time playmaker, completely under the radar on a struggling Ga Tech team, but will be a star for Bama. Pairing LB Dallas Turner (himself with 8.5 sacks in ’21) with Anderson and his 17.5 sacks, gives the Tide the top LB duo in the country. The “marquee” OOC game is at Texas (5-7 last season) and the Tide get Texas A&M at home (and no Georgia in the regular season). Anything less than an undefeated regular season will be a disappointment.
2GeorgiaThe Bulldogs finally had their breakthrough season under HD KIrby Smart, rebounding from an ugly loss to Alabama in the SECCG, to defeating the Tide for the National Title. With the talent Kirby has amassed in Athens over the last few years, the team should very much be in the hunt again in ’22. Many didn’t believe QB Stetson Bennett could lead a team to a title, but he did, and returns for his 6th! year. Although UGA’s top 2 RBs are gone, the former backups Kenny McIntosh and Kendall MIlton are poised to breakout. It was a blow when WR Jermaine Burton transferred to Bama, but TE Brock Bowers returns and they may finally get the services of the uber talented Arik Gilbert in 2022. Defense will require more re-building, but for a program like Georgia, it is definitely a re-load. LBs Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr are back and will help out the super talented but less experienced defensive front. The secondary should be ok with Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith returning. The schedule features a very interesting OOC game in the opener vs a talented Oregon in Atlanta’ but one with an all new coaching staff (ironically the former UGA DC Dan Lanning takes over at HC). The Bulldogs are significantly ahead of the rest of the teams in their division and do not face Bama or A&M in the regular season. Another playoff appearance is likely; but can they beat Bama again?
3Ohio StateThe Buckeyes will feature as good of offensive talent as any team in the country. Returning to Columbus is Heisman candidate QB C.J. Stroud, who threw for over 4000 yards in ’21; his leading WR Jaxon Smith-Nigba, coming off 347 yards receiving in the Rose Bowl win over Oregon, and the leading rusher in TreVeyon Henderson. Even without other WR stars like Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, the offense should be one of the nation’s best. But it was the defense that cost the Buckeyes in their 2 losses last year ( 35-28 to Oregon and 42-27 to Michigan). To address the issue, HC Ryan Day brought in DC Jim Knowles, who had built an excellent defense at Oklahoma State. The schedule features a fantastic opener in the Horseshoe vs Notre Dame and concludes with a visit from MIchigan. If Knowles can build a top 5 defense at OK State, then he can get a Buckeye defense to play well enough that the high powered offense can outscore the opponents.
4UtahExciting times in Salt Lake City as the hometown Utes come off their first ever Pac-12 championship and have even higher hopes for 2022. It starts with QB Cam Rising, who took over as the starter in the 4th game and lead Utah to wins at USC and 2 blowout victories over Oregon (the 2nd in the Pac 12 Championship Game). The dual threat Rising is joined by both the top RB, Taylon Thomas who scored 21 TDs, and the leader in receiving, TE Brant Kuithe. The defense does lose star LB Devin Lloyd, but with 6 starters back, the defense should be good as usual under HC Kyle Whittingham. The schedule starts with a bang, with the opener at Florida, hosts SDSU (which the Utes lost to last year) and has to travel to both Oregon and UCLA in conference. USC with new HC Lincoln Riley are a huge wildcard in the Pac-12, but the Utes are at least co-favorites in the conference and maybe more.
5ClemsonChange is in the air in the Southland, as the Tigers are coming off a year where they did not win the ACC or finish in the top 10 and now are replacing both of their long time coordinators. Clemson’s defense was superb, allowing only 14.8 pts per game and keeping them in every game, even when the offense struggled (which was a lot). Legendary DC Brent Venables finally left for a HC job (Oklahoma) and Dabo Swinney followed his normal MO and promoted from within. Not quite as confident in the D without Venables, but the talent is still there to be one of the elite D=lines in the country. The big question is on offense, where QB DJ Uagalelei struggled most of the season, surprising after performing so well when called into action in 2020. DJ has slimmed down and is focused on improvement and with more experience around him, the offense should improve – but will have to do so with new OC Brandon Streeter. Streeter is certainly experienced in the Clemson way, but has his work cut out for him. The schedule features a big OOC match-up with Notre Dame in November, and the upstarts in the division, Wake and NC State, earlier in the season. Clemson should rebound in ’22, but not confident enough in the offense to believe this is a playoff team.
6MichiganSo Jim Harbaugh finally breaks through after a number of good, but not great, seasons at Michigan, beating their nemesis in Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, making the playoffs and finishing in the Top 5 for the first time since 1999. Then it got crazy as Harbaugh flirted with leaving for the NFL, and while he stayed, both his DC and OC did not. Even with a new coordinator, the offense looks to stay strong with two experienced QBs back (J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara) a deep backfield with Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and good receivers including Ronnie Bell back from injury. The defense made dramatic improvements from the previou season, going from allowing nearly 35 pts/game to only 17; but the D faces a rebuilding job with only 4 starters back (and none are Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojaboand) and the change at DC. The OOC schedule is wafer thin – Colorado St, Hawaii and UConn all at home; Wolverines do go to Iowa but get Penn St and Michigan St at home. Don’t expect another Big 10 championship this year, but the talent is there for another double digit winning season.
7Notre DameThis off-season has featured one bombshell move after another, and one of the biggest was the Irish HC Brian Kelly leaving to take over LSU. Kelly was the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, but struggled against the elite competition in the playoffs. His DC, Marcus Freeman, was the very popular pick to secede Kelly and already has raised the level of passion around the program. Freeman retained OC Tommy Rees who has announced former 4* recruit Tyler Buchner has won the starting QB job. He’s a true dual threat, with more yards rushing than passing in backup duty last year. Also, the 0 line developed into a strength in 2021 and the RB room is deep. They’ll need to develop a go to receiver beyond TE Michael Mayer. Freeman picked former Miami Hurricanes HC Al Golden as his new DC, and Golden will have a lot of talent to work with. Replacing star S Kyle Hamilton won’t be easy, but the addition of former Northwestern AA S Brandon Joseph helps make up for the loss. The schedule is the typical coast to coast barn storming the Irish have every season, featuring a wide variety of quality opponent. The season starts with a bang at Ohio State, with games vs BYU in Las Vegas, home against Clemson and ending at USC as the toughest ones on the schedule. The ‘popular players coaches’ aren’t always the most successful, but so far Freeman has the excitement level off the charts heading into 2022.
8Texas A&MThe Aggies followed their season with the breakthrough win over Alabama by signing the best recruiting class in history. The problem was the combination of injuries and inconsistent play at QB, A&M finished unranked with losses to 6-7 LSU and 7-6 Mississippi State. The talent level continues to improve under HC Jimbo Fisher, but better QB play is a must for the program to keep ascending. The QB room includes former starter Haynes King, injured in the 2nd game of the season; 5* prospect Conner Weigman and LSU transfer Max Hall. There is talent around whoever is the signal caller in WR Ainais Smith, speedy RB Devon Arhane and 2 Freshman All Americans on the oline. When DC Mike Elko left to take the HC position at Duke (?), JImbo wasted no time in bringing in another very big name replacement. DJ Durkin takes over after successful stints at Florida and Michigan, and will have a room full of blue chippers to mix and match on D. Look for the secondary to be one of the nation’s best. The schedule features a name OOC opponent in Miami, who has some upward momentum of their own; but also has a new coaching staff and is coming off a 7-5 season. At Bama looks to be a likely loss, but no Georgia on the schedule should result in A&M favored in 11 of 12 games.
9OklahomaSo OU HC Lincoln Riley was telling the truth when he insisted he was NOT leaving the Sooners to coach at LSU; but that did not diminish the bombshell announcement that Riley was leaving to coach USC. Oklahoma brought in arguably the most respected coordinator in the game, Clemson’s DC Brent Venables spent over a decade on Bob Stoop’s staff and seems to be the perfect fit to take over. Not only did Riley leave for USC but he also took his prolific QB Caleb Williams, that took over when uber recruit Spencer Rattler faltered. They’re both gone; but Venables brought in former UCF QB Dillion Gabriel, who was electric for the Knights, but missed most of last year due to injury. What will help is Venables also brought in OC Jeff Libby from Ole Miss, but who was at UCF for 2 years and knows Gabriel. The defense wasn’t great last year, but of all the coaches in major college football, Venables knows what he’s doing on D. The toughest OOC is at Nebraska, and in conference, both Baylor and OK State come to Norman. So much change makes this a difficult year to forecast, but in a Big 12 with no clear favorite, the Sooners are in the race as much as anyone.
10NC StateExpectations are sky high in Raleigh this year as NC State has a great opportunity for a rare 10 win season (first since 2002) after coming close in 2021. The optimism starts with QB Devin Leary, who threw for over 3400 yards, completing 65% and a 35/5 ratio. He will operate behind a senior led offensive line and could put up even better numbers in ’22. Meanwhile the defense returns 10 starters and should have one of the best D lines in the conference. And given all the coaching staff upheaval in the ACC in the offseason, State returns their entire coaching staff intact. The opener may be the toughest OOC game with a trip to East Carolina (always a tough out for state), but there’s also a home game with Texas Tech. Coming off the big home win over Clemson last year, this season’s game is in Death Valley, but the Pack don’t face Pitt or Miami from the Coastal. State has the talent and the schedule to have a special season, will the big question is whether they can live up to high expectations?
11OK StateCowboys came very close to winning the Big 12 and a possible play-off berth, but lost the last second Big 12 Champ game to Baylor. A thrilling come from behind win vs Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl capped a great season. QB Spencer Sanders is experienced and a dual threat, throwing for over 2800 yards and rushing for over 700 in ’21. The challenge is that the teams leading rusher and WR are gone, but the WR room is deep. The defense was dominant last year, leading the nation with 57 sacks. They lose every defender that had over 50 tackles, so a definite rebuild on that side of the ball. The OOC schedule toughest game is at home vs Arizona State, but games at Baylor and at OU will define the season.
12OregonThe incredible start to the year, a win against Ohio State in the Horseshoe, ended in the most surprising way possible – 2 blowout losses to Utah to lose the Pac-12, then HC Mario Cristobal leaves to take the job at Miami. Oregon respond to losing another coach to a rebuilding program in Florida by bringing in former Georgia DC Dan Lanning, fresh off the National Championship driven by one of the most dominant defenses in recent major college football history. The offense will likely be lead by transfer QB Bo Nix, a great dual threat talent, but certainly and up and down career at dysfunctional Auburn. It will help that he’ll be operating behind an O-line with 5 returning starters. The Ducks lose their star on defense in Kayvon Thibodeaux, but have some talent on that side of the ball, and Lanning certainly knows what he’s doing. The schedule again features a monster OOC game early as Oregon opens “at” Georgia in Atlanta, then includes a visit from FCS power Eastern Washington and a very good BYU squad. The conference schedule works out well, as there is no USC and both UCLA and Utah come to Eugene. Always hard to judge a team with a first year head coach, but the talent is there for Lanning to make a splash in his first year.
13BaylorAn incredible year for the Bears in HC Dave Aranda’s 2nd season, beating Texas and Oklahoma at home, winning the Big 12 Championship game and the following Sugar Bowl to finish #5 in the nation. There is some rebuilding to do but in a wide open Big 12, the Bears are one of the favorites in the race. QB Gerry Bohannon played well during the season but got injured late. His backup Blake Shapen took over and was the MVP of the BIG 12 CG. Shapen was named the starter in the Spring so Bohannon transferred. Their O-line should be good, but they lose both their top 2 WRs and RBs. The D improved dramatically from 2020, and their great LB Dillion Doyle returns, but it’s a rebuilding job at some other spots on D, including the secondary. The schedule features an interesting OOC game at BYU, and both Texas and OU are on the road this year. It will be hard to repeat last year’s success, but this is still one of the top teams in the conference.
14MiamiHopes are up in Coral Gables this year that the U will soon be back. It starts with the return of favorite son Mario Cristobal leaving Oregon to become Miami’s new HC. Last year’s preseason top 15 ranking disappeared quickly after blowout losses to Alabama and Michigan state early, but a 6–1 finish has fans optimistic. Fr QB Tyler Van Dyke is a big part of the optimism. He started the last 9 games of the season, and threw for over 300 yards in all 9, including the upset wins over NC State and ACC Champ Pitt. Van Dyke will operate the offense managed by new OC Josh Gattis, the Broyles Award winner last season as the OC at Michigan. The Cane’s defense wasn’t great last year, but veteran DC Kevin Steele has talent to work with. The schedule features an early tough one at Texas A&M, but then a lot of winnable games until the final two, at Clemson and home vs Pitt. Will likely be a few bumps in the road with a new coach, but a great QB and a manageable schedule should start the Cristobal era off with a bang.
15USCThe bombshell news of Oklahoma HC Lincoln Riley leaving to come to USC excited the Trojan fan base of a return to the glory last experience during the Pete Carroll era. The news got even better when he brought his QB Caleb Williams with him. USC lost some of their top offensive weapons, but Riley used the transfer portal well and brought in star replacements, including Biletnikoff winner, Jordan Addison from Pitt. The Trojan defense struggled in ’21, but Riley brought his well respected DC Alex Grinch with him and also added a lot of talent from the portal on the defensive side of the ball as well. The schedule offers opportunity for all the new pieces to come together before the tougher games happen later in the season – at Utah in mid October, and finishing at UCLA and home vs Notre Dame. No Oregon on the regular season schedule doesn’t hurt. A hard to team to judge with so many changes but dramatic upgrade in coaching staff and infusing of talent through the portal could lead to a significant turn around in Riley’s year one.
16Michigan StateHC Mel Tucker has done an incredible job since taking over the Michigan State program 2 years ago, both in expertly using the portal to raise the talent level and finding a way to win the close games. The stunning result was to go from 2-5 in the Covid shortened 2020 season to 11-2 and a top 10 finish in ’21. The offense loses their star, RB Kenneth Walker and his 1700 yds rushing, but does return QB Payton Thorne (3200 yds, 27/10 in ’21) and 1000 yd receiver Jayden Reed. The O-line is not as experienced though as in ’21. The defense last year was terrible against the pass, but did not allow opponents to convert all of those yards to points. With 9 starters back, this side of the ball should continue to improve (after a really bad 2020). The OOC includes a trip to Washington, but otherwise has 2 MAC teams. Sparty draws both Minnesota and Wisconsin from the West and has to go to Penn St and Michigan. MSU won a lot of close games last season, which tends to even out over time. Tucker should continue his success in 2022 but expect a drop-off in record from last year.
17ArkansasThe Hogs were only 3-7 in the Covid affected season of 2020, but the poor record masked some significant improvement. Arkansas had gone 0-8 in the SEC in back to back years, but against an all SEC schedule, won 3 games. But even so, the 9 win 2021 season was unexpected. The Hogs beat Texas a&M. LSU and long time rival Texas in an OOC game. A win over Penn State in the bowl game, meant a Top 25 finish for HC Sam Pittman’s squad. QB KJ Jefferson came into his own in ’21 throwing for almost 2700 yards, rushing for over 600 and a 22/4 ratio. The O-line returns 4 starters and a full stable of running backs. The defense has some rebuilding to do from a team that stiffened in key moments, but also gave up 29 ppg. DC Barry Odom is experienced though and brought in a number of transfers to shore up that side of the ball, including DBs from UGA and LSU as well as a DE from LSU. The schedule does not include UGA from the East this year, but features the tough West and OOC games vs BYU and Cincy. Don’t expect the Hogs to contend for the division but they will continue to be a tough out.
18CincinnatiThe breakthrough of all breakthroughs occurred last season when a G5 team finally made the playoffs – Cincinnati, undefeated and with a win at Notre Dame (and coming off a great season the year before) made the playoffs as the 4 seed. But a lot of that talent is off to the NFL, their QB Desmond Ridder and an incredible 6 draft picks on defense. But the Bearcats have an experienced O-line, brought in a RB transfer from LSU to replace their star RB and do still have a good receiving corp. Its a bigger reload on the defense, but HC Luke Fickell has been great at recruiting and developing that talent; it’s still going to be one of the top teams in the AAC even in a rebuilding year. The OOC schedule features an interesting trip to Arkansas and a key AAC matchup with UCF In the Bounce House. Houston is not on the regular season schedule. Fickell has done such a great job with this program, the thinking is there certainly is a drop off from last year, but this is still a Top 25 team.
19TennesseeVols were 3-7 in the Covid shortened 2020 season after facing a very tough all SEC schedule, and fired HC Jeremy Pruitt. After a roller coaster process that also saw the replacement of AD Phil Fulmer, UCF HC Josh Heupel was hired. Heupel is known as an offensive and QB guru, and it showed in the dramatic improvement from the Vols offense – from 21 pts/game in ’20 to 39 pts/game in ’21. QB Hendon Hooker’s first year in Heupel’s offense produced almost 3000 yards passing and a 31/3 ratio. With most of the offensive playmakers returning and another year in the system, the offense could be even better in ’22. The defense did not match the offense’s improvement though, but with 9 of the 12 top tacklers returning, the D should be better. The OOC features an interesting matchup with Pitt, after losing to the Panthers at home in ’21, the Vols head to Pittsburgh to face a Pitt team without QB Kenny Pickett. The SEC schedule is always tough with Alabama as their permanent partner from the West, but only Georgia in their division is significantly ahead in talent. Vols are definitely in the race for the 2nd best team in the East.
20HoustonIt took until Crazy Hair Holgorsen’s 3rd year as HC of Houston, but the Cougs broke through with a 12-2 season, win over an SEC team in the bowl and a Top 20 finish. QB Clayton Tune was thrown into the fire back in ’19 when QB D’Eriq King reshirted early in the year and he struggled. But he has improved dramatically since then, throwing for over 3500 yards last season with a a 30/10 ratio. His top 2 pass catchers are back, including Nathaniel Dell who caught 90 receptions for over 1300 yards in ’21. RB may be an issue as last season’s workhorse was injured in the spring, but there is still depth in the RB room. The defense was noticeably stingier in ’21, allowing right at 20 ppg (vs the 32 ppg the previous year). There are a few holes to fill especially in the secondary, but the Cougs have an experienced D-line. The schedule is very manageable, with OOC games vs Texas Tech and UTSA, and they do not draw Cincy or UCF in conference play in the regular season. With the defending AAC champs the Bearcats in at least a bit of a rebuild, Houston is very much in the race to win the conference.
21Wake ForestOne of the greatest coaching jobs in all of college football is what Dave Clawson has accomplished at little ole Wake Forecast. He led the Deacs to their highest AP ranking every (#10 after starting 8-0), 11 wins overall and the Atlantic Division championship. An encore begins with QB Sam Hartman, who threw for over 4000 yards and 50 TDs in 2021 and he’ll operate behind a very experienced O-line. The defense wasn’t great last season, but it only needs to be good enough to compliment the high powered offense. The schedule is extremely manageable with the best OOC opponent either Army or Liberty and facing Duke and Carolina from the Coastal. The Deacs have a golden opportunity for another double digit win season!
22WisconsinThe Badgers started 1-3 last season, including blowout losses to Notre Dame and Michigan. But it turned out, those were excellent teams, and Wisconsin rallied to win 7 straight and entered the season finale vs Minnesota with a change to win the Division (Badgers lost). HC Paul Chryst will rely on the programs strong points, running the ball behind a solid O-line, play good defense and then hope his QB can improve their passing game. Most of the RB room returns, including the 2 leading rushers in Braelon Allen (1280 yards rushing) and Chez Mellusi (800+yards). Graham Mertz returns at QB, but needs improvement after only throwing for 10 TDs in the ’21 season (vs 11 INTs). There’s optimism for improvement as this will be his 3rd year in the system; but his leading WR’s depart. The defense only returns a handful of starters, but is in good hands in respected DC jim Leonhard; the Badgers have been able to reload in defense even without a lot of experience. The schedule includes trips to Ohio State and Michigan State and a visit to defending Division champ Iowa.
23KentuckyHC Mark Stoops has done a great job with Kentucky program, with last year’s first ever 2nd place SEC East finish, and a rare 10 win season. NFL prospect and dual threat QB Will Levis returns to lead the offense, but was up and down in 2021. Wildcats also get RB Chris Rodriguez back after rushing for over 1300 yards! in ’21. Otherwise on offense, they do have some holes to fill in the WR corp and on the line. The defense was solid as usual under Stoops, but has some holes to fill up front and in the secondary. The OCC schedule is typical with the only challenge vs Louisville at the end of the season, and the Cards have been no match for Kentucky in recent years. The West teams are a rebuilding Ole Miss team and Miss State. Their 2 biggest division games though, UF and Tenn are both on the road. This Kentucky program often times exceeds expectations, but it appears they won’t match last years 10 wins.
24Kansas StateA nice rebound from 2020 has the Wildcats positioned as a sleeper in the Big 12 race, a lot hinging on an intriguing new QB. Adrian Martinez, who had a very good Fr year at Nebraska, then up and down thereafter, transferred to K State in the offseason. His running ability will be paired with RB (and receiver) Deuce Vaughn to provide an electric combination of play makers on offense. They have 7 starters back from a defense that was much better in ’21 than ’20, so the improvement should continue. At Big 12 Media Days, the team with the most players preseason all conference – K State! (with 6, including the DL Felix Anudike-Uzomah, defensive player of the year).The toughest OOC game is a home date with Missouri, and the Wildcats get 5 road games in the Big 12, including top contenders OU and Baylor. A very interesting team to watch in 2022 if only to see how Martinez plays outside of the hard luck Nebraska program.
25IowaThe Hawkeyes used a solid run game and a ball hawking defense to start 6-0, and a home upset over the then #3 Penn State Nittany Lions moved Iowa up to #2 in the polls. The limitations on offense caught up though as the squad dropped back to back midseason games to division foes Purdue and Wisconsin, and then ended the year with losses in both the Big Ten CCG and the bowl. The defense returns 7 starters, led by their two leading tacklers in ’21, LBs Jack Campbell and Seth Benson. Campbell led the nation with 143 tackles last season. As has become a hallmark of the program, the D was excellent at forcing turnovers – +16 in non garbage time, tops in the nation! The challenge is on the other side of the ball, where even in a 10 win season, the Hawkeyes ranked 121 in the nation in passing offense. The hope is that Spencer Petras will take a step forward now that he’s a Senior as there is plenty of room for improvement over ’21s numbers of 11 TDs and 10 INTs. The schedule features the usual early season matchup with in-state rival Iowa State, but the conference schedule is tougher as Iowa draws both Ohio State and Michigan from the East (not facing either in the regular season last year). Expect another great defense from the Hawkeyes as usual; but also as usual, will likely be held back by the offense.
26PittA dream season for the Panthers, featuring a big OOC win at Tennessee and ending as ACC Champions and a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. To repeat 2021’s success, will mean a lot of new faces need to step up, especially on offense. QB Kenny Pickett (1st round NFL draft), WR Jordan Addison (Biletnikoff winner transferred to USC) and OC Mark Whipple have all left the ‘Burgh. But HC Pat Narduzzi brought in transfer QB Kedon Slovis from USC to step in for the departing Pickett and do have 8 starters back on offense. Pitt led the ACC in rush defense and held teams to 23 ppg overall. They return 3 of their 4 DBs and should have one of the better D Lines in the conference. An interesting OOC features old rival West Virginia and the return visit from Tennessee. Pitt doesn’t draw Clem, Wake or NC State from the Atlantic, and the season ender at Miami could decide the division.
27PurdueThe Boilermakers are coming off their best year under HC Jeff Brohm and their first 9 win season since 2003, and just missed the final AP Top 25 (finishing #29). Purdue returns their QB Adian O’Connell who threw for over 3700 yards and 28 TDs in ’21. His top WR is off to the NFL, but Brohm brought in WR Charlie Jones from Iowa as a transfer to take the spot. The defense was solid last year, giving up just 22 ppg last season, but new DC Ron English has some holes to fill. The schedule starts with a bang, as Purdue hosts Penn State in the opener, but the Boilermakers avoid Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State from the East. In a very wide open Big Ten West, where now team finished in the Top 20 last year and each has holes to fill, the easier conference schedule could make the difference.
28Mississippi StA weird up and down season for the Bulldogs, with big wins over Texas A&M, Kentucky and NC State, but losses to Memphis and a struggling LSU team resulted in a 7-5 regular season. The good news though was the HC Mike Leach Air Raid offense emerged, with QB Will Rogers setting school records for yards (4,739) and TDs (36). Both top RBs Joiquavioius Marks and Dillon Johnson return and while the top WR is gone, the receiver room is talented. On defense, all 5 of the starting D linemen are back, and this from the defense that finished in the top 30 in total D. The challenge is going to be the schedule. A long trip to Arizona and another regional matchup with Memphis highlight the OOC schedule, but the SEC West plus Georgia makes for a difficult schedule. Mike Leach has had breakthrough years with a very experienced QB and the offense should be elite. The schedule keeps them from a true breakthrough though.
29BYUThe Cougs lost star QB Zack Wilson heading into last season and appeared to be rebuilding, but instead went 5-0 vs the Pac 12 and were ranked #12 in the country before getting upset by UAB in their bowl. This season, not only is QB Jaren Hall back, but so are his 2 leading receivers and an experienced O-line. The defense took a step back last season, but had some injuries and brings back a whopping 11 starters! The schedule is brutal though this year with home games against Baylor and Arkansas, on the road at Oregon, LIberty and Boise St and face Notre Dame in a neutral site at Las Vegas. This team is better and more experienced than last year, but so are the opponents. The Cougs will really have to work for a 10 win season in ’22.
30UCLAThe Bruins finally broke through in HC Chip Kelly’s 4th year at the helm, going 8-4 with a home win over LSU and a road victory against the cross town rivals USC. Any chance of matching or exceeding last season’s successes start and end with QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He somewhat surprisingly returned for a 5th year, after leading the conference’s highest scoring offense (36.5 ppg). What will help to keep the offense humming is his bruising RB Zach Carbonnet returns, after 1100+ yards rushing and 13 TDs in ’21. Most of the top pass catchers depart, but Duke transfer Jake Bobo is expected to become the go to guy, after 74 catches and 3rd team all ACC in ’21. The passing defense struggled last season and Kelly brought in former NFL assistant Bill McGovern as his new DC. Not a lot of starters return, but there is talent on the line and a couple of transfers should help. The schedule starts with Bowling Green, Alabama St and South Alabama all at home; and Washington, Utah and USC come to the Rose Bowl as well. At Oregon will be tough, but 5 home games in the conference help. This could be a really special offense and if the defense is good enough, UCLA could make some noise in the Pac 12.
31UCFLosing star QB Dillion Gabriel to a season ending injury in only the 2nd game could have completely derailed the program, but backup Mikey Keene was solid as a Fr, leading the Knights to a 7-3 record including a win over Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. Keene returns with the season under his belt but will have to hold off Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumee, a dual QB threat, the type that thrives in a HC Gus Malzahn offense. UCF’s leading WR Ryan O’Keefeis back after 84 receptions and 7 TDs. Add in a transfer WR from Auburn and a transfer TE from Florida (the Gators 3rd leading receiver last season) and there are plenty of weapons for either QB. The defense improved significantly from 2020 to 2021 and returns 7 starters. The secondary is the strength of the D but the big guys upfront will get some pressure on the opposing QBs. The schedule features home OOC games with Ga Tech and Louisville with American rivals Cincy and SMU also at home; and Houston is not on the schedule. WIthout divisions in 2021, the home games vs Cincy and SMU will likely determine whether UCF makes the conference title game.
32Penn StateThe Lions opened the season 5-0, including a home win over Auburn, and moved into the top 5 of the rankings. While leading Iowa, PSU lost their starting QB Sean Clifford, fell behind and lost that game. Clifford struggled after his return and the Lions lost several more close games to close the regular season 7-5 and unranked. Clifford is back as is now So Christian Veileux but both will be pushed by incoming freshman QBs. Better health and depth at the QB position should result in improvement and the RB and WR rooms are solid. The o-line is the weak spot and may hold the team back again. Six starters are back on defense from last year and the hope is new DC Manny Diaz can get improved production, even if some key starters from last year are gone. The schedule includes a big OOC game at Auburn, plus a key road opener at Purdue, then also get Michigan on the road. Ohio State comes to Happy Valley. Look for a team not as bad as last year’s finish, but without enough offense to contend at the top of the division.
33TexasA solid win over Louisiana to open the season was followed by a blowout loss at Arkansas before the Longhorns appeared to have righted the ship. A monumental 2nd half collapse vs Oklahoma began a downward spiral that ended with a loss to dreadful Kansas (as a 31 pt favorite). HC Steve Sarkisian has his work cut out for him to rebound from an inaugural 5-7 season. He doesn’t have to worry about running back though, as Bijan Robinson returns after rushing for 1100+yards, 11 TDs and oh also almost 300 yards receiving as the Horn’s 4th best receiver. He will get the ball from… either Hudson Card, who began last season as the starter, but was replaced by Casey Thompson (who transferred to Nebraska) and Quinn Ewers, who transferred in from Ohio State after being the nation’s number 1 recruit in 2021. Ewers hasn’t played since a high school senior in the Texas playoffs in 2020, but he is such a highly rated talent, I’d expect him to become the starter sooner vs later. The defense was a disaster last year, but the hope is there is much more talent than the play on the field suggested; meanwhile surprising hire of new “analyst” Gary Patterson may help a lot here. The schedule features a monster home OOC game vs Alabama, OU in the traditional neutral site and tricky road trips to Texas Tech and K State. There are a lot of new pieces to put into place , but there’s more talent than 5-7. The Alabama game likely won’t go well, but maybe some improvement over 2021 is possible.
34MinnesotaA successful season for the Gophers, with 9 wins, including a rare victory over Wisconsin and closing with a win vs West Virginia in the bowl. But an even better season was in their grasp, but losses to a terrible Bowling Green team and a struggling Illini squad held back a truly special year. QB Tanner Morgan returns for his 6th (!) year and is one of 3 other 6 year players for the Gophers. Morgan was a good game manager, but Minnesota’s passing attack overall was not good. HC PJ Fleck fired their OC and brought back Kirk Ciarroca, the OC in 2019 when Morgan had by far his best year. The skill position players are there, but the o-line needs some rebuilding. Ciarroca will try to recapture the successes of 3 years ago. The defense was much improved from 2020, finishing in the top 10 in both scoring (17 ppg) and total defense last season. There are some losses from last year on D, especially on the line, but some transfers have been brought in to help fill in the holes. The OOC schedule is very manageable, with New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado coming to Minneapolis. And the Big Ten schedule makers were kind to the Gophers, neither Ohio State nor Michigan appear on the schedule. The division is up for grabs with a number of teams all in contention, but no great team standing out; PJ Fleck can elevate the program with back to back good seasons.
35Air ForceWhat G5 teams won double digit games last year? Did you include Air Force? The Falcons went 9-3 in the regular season, including a win at Boise, then upset Louisville in the bowl to finish 10-3. Their successes begin with QB Haaziq Daniel, a rare third year starter that is a big playmaker with his arms and legs. He owns the school record for longest pass play and longest rush from scrimmage (90+ yards each). The 8 other starters back on offense include FB Brad Roberts, whos rushed for nearly 1400 yards last year, 3rd most in school history. The defense returns 6 starters from a squad that finished 6th in the nation in total defense. Air Force is 21-6 in their last 27 games, and are unusually experienced for a service academy team. A huge OOC game comes the 2nd week of the season as the Falcons host Colorado, and with Boise, CSU and Navy all coming to Falcon Field, another double digit win is very possible

2021 Predicted Top 35

1GeorgiaHC Kirby Smart has been recruiting like a national championship program, and 2021 is an excellent opportunity to prove it. The Dawgs offense features not only a returning starter at QB, in JD Daniels, now a Junior; but also have the same OC that has started to open up the offense. Star WR George Pickens tore his ACL in the Spring, but WR Kearis Jackson is back, and he lead the team in receiving yards. And UGA got one of the top offensive ‘free agents’ with the signing of fomer LSU TE Arik Gilbert. The defense has more questions, but the line is strong, athletic and experienced. The secondary needs the most rebuilding, but was helped over the summer by landing former Clemson CB Derion Kendrick. The schedule starts with a bang, a non-conference match up with Clemson in Charlotte, but otherwise, for an SEC schedule not too bad. UGA does not play Bama, A&M or LSU from the West; faces a Florida team with a new QB, and a AU team in transition with a new coach. If the Dawgs open with a win, they could lose the SECCG to Bama and still make the playoffs.
2AlabamaThe Tide lost the Heisman Trophy winner, the Davey O’Brien Award winner and the Doak Walker Award winner, and the OC that pulled it all together! And yet Alabama is still one of the top 3 teams in the nation as the Nick Saban juggernaut continues to roll. The reload on offense begins with blue chipper QB Bryce Young, now a Sophmore with the learning that comes with it. He does get WR John Metchie back, who had just under 1000 yards receiving last year. But the offense is going to rely on a number of inexperienced, but very talented players, as well as direction from a new OC, Bill O’Brien. The defense may be the strength of this team, especially early, as 8 starters are back with experience especially up front and in the secondary. While Alabama is as extremetly talented as always, the player and staff rebuild on the offensive side of the team, gives hope that the door to the national championship is open for a few other top contenders.
3ClemsonThe Tigers lose their superstar QB Trevor Lawrence, fullfiling his destiny as the #1 overall NFL Draft pick. Fortunately though, his back-up DJ Uiagalelei is another elite recruit and looked the part in playing in 2 Clemson games last year when Lawrence was out due to Covid. RB Travis Etienne wont be easy to replace, but the program is chock full of talent at the skill positions, and will get WR Justyn Ross back after an injury kept him out last season. The line play was an issue in games against elite teams the past couple years, but the D-line at least looks to be dominant again. Tigers open with UGA in Charlotte, then do not play a ranked team until the ACCCG. Win or lose that opener. Clemson is heavily favored to win the ACC and get back to the playoffs.
4OklahomaAn 0-2 start in Big 12 play ended the Sooners playoff hopes early, but the 8 straight wins to finish the year has expectations for a playoff return in 2021. It starts with QB Spencer Rattler, the conference Newcomer of the Year in ’20 and the pre-season favorite to win the Heisman. OU’s most experienced RB, Kennedy Brooks, returns after opting out last season. The WR group is talented and experienced as the 3 leading receivers from last year are all back. But offense hasn’t been the issue in Norman in recent years, its been the defense. And maybe that light isn’t an oncoming train but really the end of the tunnel. The defense has improved under DC Alex Grinch, finishing 29th in total and scoring defense in 2020. With 7 starters back and under Grinch’s supervision, the D should continue this trend. OU has a good chance at an undfeated season and a playoff berth; the next question is can they actually win a playoff game?
5Ohio stateBig question with the Buckeyes is the QB position, where a freshman (either RS or true) will win the job; none has thrown a pass in a game. Although Trey Sermon is gone, RB Master Teague is back along with the top 3 WRs. ONly 4 starters are back from a defense that struggled against the pass in ’20, finishing a shocking #122 in pass defense. Buckeyes are still extremely talented but this is a bigger reload than in most years. Schedule features home game with Oregon, and home vs Penn St and at Michigan in key games against the East.
6Texas A&MThe Aggies are coming off a great postseason – beating North Carolina in the Orange Bowl and finishing #4 in the AP Poll – their highest final ranking since the national championship in 1939. But one of the big postseason wins was keeping DC Mike Elko and the fans may be rewarded with not just a good but elite defense. A&M returns 9 starters from a D that was #9 in the nation in total defense and #2 in rushing. While all SEC T Bobby Brown is gone, to linemen in Jayden Perry and Micheal Clemons return for their ‘super’ senior years. The offensive side of the ball isn’t as set. QB Kellen Mond, the holder of the school record for evey major career stat is in the NFL now. The challenge will be replacing Mond and the offensive line at the same time. The good news though is that most of the other skill position players return, including RB Isiah Spiller, who rushed for over 100 yards last year in only 10 games. And the WR corp is mostly intact. For an SEC West school, the schedule is reasonable; no UF or UGA from the East; no ranked OOC game and traditional powers LSU and AU are both in transition. HC JImbo Fisher has really built up the talent level in College Station, enough so that even with a new QB, a 10 win season is very possible.
7Iowa StateExpectations are sky high for the Cyclones, with 19 returning starters off the team that won the Fiesta Bowl. Everybody is back including QB Brock Purdy and RB Breece Hall, giving Iowa State not one but 2 Heisman Trophy candidates. The D finished #21 in the nation in total defense, and again, deep and experienced this year. The key OOC game is vs the in-state rival Hawkeyes, where the Cyclones have suffered through some agonizing losses. The ’21 contest in Ames will be the biggest in years if not decades.
8WisconsinBadgers had an uncharacteristically poor season in ’20, slipping to 4-3 any only .500 (3-3) in the Big Ten. But a number of Seniors took advantage of the new rules to return, and maybe just as important, DC Jim Lennhard turned down some offers to remain with Wisconsin. 8 starters back from a defense that finished in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, rushing and total defense . opens with Penn State at home and big OOC is Notre Dame in Chicago. Does not face Ohio State or Penn State from the East.
9CincinnatiBearcats return Senior QB Desmond Ridder and HC Luke Fickell and two Senior WRs including Michael Young; key holes are the two starting OTs must be replaced. 6 starters back from D that finished #13 nationally in total defense, and return several Seniors that could have moved on. But they’ll have to do it with out highly regarded DC Marcus Freeman. Schedule is tougher but that also brings opportunity with games at Indiana and Notre Dame early in the season. In conference, UCF comes to Nippert Stadium and Memphis is not on the schedule.
10Notre DameThe Irish made the playoffs as a member of the ACC, but the season ended on a sour note, with non competitive losses to Clemson and Alabama. Many teams are returning more seniors than usual this year due to the rule change, But the Irish are completely rebuilding especially on the offensive side of the ball. 9 starters are gone, including veteran QB Ian Book and most of the o-line. Defense has a big loss when DC Clark Lea left to become HC at Vandy, but the Irish brought in the very respected Marcus Freeman, the former DC at Cincinnati. A bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the defense, with the 2 DEs leaving, but experience in the middle. And the star DB is back, is S Kyle Hamilton, but the rest of the secondary will be new starters. The schedule is interesting, and the season will be defined by a late Sept-late October stretch that consists of Wisconsin (Chicago), Cincy, at Va Tech, USC and North Carolina – teams with talent but also their own questions.
11North CarolinaThe Tarheels resurgence under Mack Brown starts with their Heisman candidate at QB Sam Howell, who led UNC to their all time school record for total offense and points per game. Howell has 68 TD passes in two seasons, an ACC record. His weapons will be new as his 2 top WRs and RBs depart, but their backups played well in the Orange Bowl vs Texas A&M. Having all 5 starters on the o-ilne return will greatly help the transition to the new skill position players. The schedule is favorable, mainly because in the ACC that means not playing Clemson (at least not in the regular season). Eight starters back on defense should lead to improvement, and if the “D” can force more turnovers (and give the ball back to that offense), the first Top 10 finish since Mack’s last stint as HC is very much within reach.
12WashingtonThe Huskies were a pleasant surprise in HC Jimmy Lake’s first season, wining the PAC-12 North in a very abbreviated season. Starting QB Dylan Morris is back but will be pushed by 5* recruit Sam Huard (name sound familiar?) All 5 starters return on the o-line along with Cade Otton, one of the top TEs in the country. The defense has 8 starters back, but one of the new faces will be at DC, as the former left for Texas. The line is the strength of the defense but a CB transfer from OU may help the secondary improve. The schedule includes a key OOC game at Michigan, but the Huskies do get the North Division showdown with Oregon at home.
13FloridaA great season for the Gators, beating UGA, SEC East Champions, soured at the end with an upset loss to a dreadful LSU squad and a blowout bowl loss amid a number of opt outs. Gatornation will finally find out what they have in QB Emory Jones, one of the top recruits under HC Dan Mullen. It will be hard to replace Kyle Trask and his 43 TDs (a UF record), but Jones is a much better runner. Jones’ weapons also won’t be what UF had last years as the go to WR Kadarius Toney and ‘unicorn’ TE Kyle Trask have moved on.The defense struggled under DC Todd Grantham, but he returns to try again with a talented but less experienced group. The schedule is typical, with little challenge from the OOC schedule, but will come down to the SEC East and the regular cross over vs LSU.
14OregonA weird season for the Duck (even weirder than most during the Covid year), with a number of opt outs, a great start offensively, then a losing streak, then then Washington Covid issues put Oregon in the Pac 12 Championship game where they upset USC. That got the Ducks to the Fiesta Bowl where they were promptly blown out. A much more normal season though should result in a more normal result for the most talented team in the PAC 12 – a conference championship and an outside shot at the playoffs. The starting QB for most of last season transferred to Texas Tech, but late season starter Anthony Brown is back and will have the full offseason under now 2nd year OC Joe Moorhead. The top 2 RBs and WRs are back and will operate behind an experienced o-line. Defense struggled in ’20 and a new DC comes in as Andy Avalos left to take HC job at Boise State. DE Kayvon Thibodeaux is already being talked up as a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft and the Ducks defense will be built around him. Schedule features a monster OOC game at Ohio State, but USC not on the schedule.
15MiamiThe ‘Canes return a staggering 20 starters from last year, but the 2021 season hinges on only one – QB D’Eriq King, who tore his ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl. If he’s back at full strength, Miami has the talent to win the Coastal and get to their 2nd ever appearance in the ACCCG; but all bets are off if King can’t play. Miam’s offense improved dramatically not only with the transfer King at QB, but under new OC Rhett Lashlee. The defense was inconsistent, holding UVA and Pitt to under 20 points but ended the regular season giving up 62 to UNC. HC Manny Diaz is taking over the play calling for the defense, but the ‘Canes need some help stopping the run (allthough the secondary looks good). The pick here is that King is healthy, but the defense still holds the ‘Canes back from a division title.
16Penn StateLions got off to a terrible start last season, due to opt-outs, injuries and a couple fluky losses, but rebounded to win their last 4. Still, 4-5 is not what is expected in Happy Valley. HC James Franklin got rid of his OC and brought in former Texas OC Mike Yurich. QB Sean Clifford is back from an up and down ’20; team was 2nd in the conference in total offense but he through 9 INTs. His top2 WRs and RBs return though, so its very possible he’ll revert to the form of 2019. Defense does return 7 starters, but is rebuilding up front from a unit that was very good last season. Schedule features an interesting OOC game, a home matchup with Auburn in mid Sept, and the Lions go to both Iowa and Wisconsin from the West.
17LousianaThe Rajun Cajuns stunned the world with their 17 pt win at Iowa State to open last season and gets another chance this year at Texas. ULL returns virtually everybody, the most amount of “returning production” according to Bill Connelly’s system, lead by 5th year Sr QB Lewis. Also back are every WR, every TE and o-line starter; the lead RB did leave but his replacement is experienced. Of the 22 defensive players that were in on at least 100 snaps, 21 of them return from a defense that finished #6 in pass defense. The schedule starts with a bang in the aforementioned opener at Texas; features another OOC at LIberty, but the Sun Belt schedule does not include a regular season match up with Coastal Carolina, the Cajuns only loss last season (by 3).
18LSULSU didn’t rebuild or reload after the national title but instead fielded the worst defense in modern school history and need to win their last 2 games just to fiish at .500 with an all SEC schedule. It appears thought that HC Ed Orgeron has identified his mistakes and is working to correct them. He fired both coordinators and brought in assistants from the Joe Brady tree back when LSU had the phenomenal year on offense with QB Joe Borrough. The Bo Pelini experiement as DC was a disaster so Orgeron brought in Daronte Jones, the Vikings RB coach. The Tigers will have an open competition for the QB position, but will be very experienced on both lines – all starters are back! An interesting opener at UCLA, but the SEC schedule will define the success of the season as usual.
19USCAnother talented team but under embattled HC Clay Helton, what is that going to turn into on the field? The good news is QB Kedon Slovis is back, after finishing 6th in the nation in passing yards per game. The WRs are experienced as is the o-line. The defense was decent and returns 6 starters, and has a couple transfers and incoming highly touted recruits to fill in some holes. The schedule is tough, with Notre Dame, BYU and San Jose State in the OOC games; but the Trojans don’t play Oregon or Washington, the two likely ranked teams from the North Division.
20IowaThe Hawkeyes were a hot team at end of last season – after 0-2 start, won out with 20 point win at Penn State and a 21 point win over Wisconsin. QB Spencer Petras returns but while he led the team to wins, didn’t have great stats. But he should be improved in his 2nd year in the program and he was a good leader. Iowa has 7 starters back from #8 team in nation in total defense. Schedule does not include Ohio State from the East (always a good thing), but the non conference matchup with Iowa State is now a big game. In other words, seems like another solid 8ish win team under HC Kirk Ferentz.
21UtahThe Utes were a very inexperienced team coming in to 2020, and went 3-2 in the weird, Covid shortened season. But they won their last 3 to set the stage for a big rebound in 2021. The key will at QB, where Baylor transfer CHarlie Brewer is epected to win the starting job. Brewer had 39 starts for Baylor, where he completed over 64%of his passes plus rushed for over 1000 yards. Brewer will operate behind a very experience o-line where all 5 starters return. HC Kyle Whittingham enters his 18th year here for extreme stability and with 9 starters back on defense, should field another very good d-line. The OOC schedule does include games at BYU and San Diego State, but they skip Washington from the North Divison and get Oregon at home. If Brewer can step in a high level, the Utes can make a run at another memorable season as they did in 2019.
22TexasAlthough Texas finished 7-3 in the crazy Covid year, losses again to OU and TCU sealed the fate of HC Tom Herman. Former Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian was brought in right after the Tide won the national title, where Texas fans are hopeful Sark can do the same for their program. Sarkisian is the latest graduate of the Nick Saban Rehabilitation School, but the Tide offense was great under his guidance. UT loses their star QB in Sam Ehlinger, but if Casey Thompson plays as well as he did in the 2nd half of the Alamo Bowl vs Colorado, the dropoff might not be too much. What will help a lot is that RB Rijan Robinson and his 8.2 ypc returns, as do 4 of the top 5 receivers. And only 1 O-line starter departs. On defense, some key starters are gone, but looks like a budding playmaker in DE Alfred Collins. The line overall is good and experienced. The schedule features a couple of interesting OOC games, in Louisiana and Arkansas, plus the standard full Big 12 schedule. It’s always hard to judge what’s going to happen in the first year of a new coach, but Texas has the talent for Sark to enjoy a successful debut.
23Coastal CarolinaCoastal had not had a winning season since moving up to FBS, but went undefeated in the regular season (giving otherwise undefeated BYU their only loss) before falling in their bowl to Liberty in OT. Like a number of Group of 5 teams, many players took advantage of the rule changes regarding eligibilty and returned for their ‘super’ senior seasons. QB Grayson McCall runs the Chanticleers triple option to perfection and returns his entire staring o-line. but the two backups are talened and experineced. Coastal loses the conference defensive player of the year, but returns every other starter on defense. The schedule is very managealbe with OC games include Citadel, Kansas, Buffalo and UMass and the Chanticleers do not play ULL in conference play (in the regular season).
24Ole MissThe Reb’s offense exploded under new HC Lane Kiffin and OC Jeff Lebby and more of the same is expected in 2021. QB Matt Corral returns after leading the nation in total offense as does the top 5 rushers from ’20. Superstar WR Elijah Moore is gone, but there is experience and depth in the WR room and oh by the way. 4 of the 5 o-lineman are back too. The defense on the other hand was awful, ending last year in the bottom 15 in scoring, passing and total defense. Only one way to go is up right? Kiffin brought in recruits and transfers to help shore up the defense and UGA transfer S Otis Reese will be available for a full season after joining last year with 2 games remaining. OOC is Louisville (Atlanta), Austin Peay, Tulane and Liberty, and cross division opponents are Vandy and Tennessee, so even 2-4 in the SEC West is 8-4 overall.
25TCUThe Horned Frogs won 11 games in 2017 and finished in the Top 10 of the AP poll, but have posted 3 straight years around .500 with no ranked finishes. This year though, in HC Gary Patterson’s 21st year, are much better positioned to get back in the rankings. TCU brings back 18 starters (2nd most in the Big 12) including their very experienced QB in Max Duggan. Duggan has battled injury issues, but if healthy in 2021 should be a very solid leader. The schedule starts with 3 very winable OOC games with Duquesne, Cal and SMU, then gets Texas at home; TCU is 7-2 against the Horns since joining the Big 12. With the unbalanced conf schedule, TCU does have 5 road games, but with the teams and HC Patterson’s experience, should improve on the 6-4 mark of 2020.
26Arizona StateI wrote back in April that the Herm Edwards era at Arizona State has gone much better than most analysts expectations, but now a drama surrounds the program and with several members of the coaching staff are now on leave pending an NCAA investigation. On the field, this could be the breakthrough year, but off it, have no idea how the distractions will effect the team. The positives start with a great QB in Jayden Daniels, who will get to operate behind an experienced o-line. The WR corp is light on experience but the opposite is true in the running game, with the top 5 (5!) RBs returning. Eight starters are back from the top defense in the conference in points allowed per game (based on 4 games anyway) and should have one of their best Ds in many years. The OOC games feature Southern Utah, UNLV and a rebulding BYU team, before the Pac 12 conference schedule kicks in.
27IndianaA magical season for the Hoosiers (#7 in the AP poll at the end of the regular season), started with an unbelievable win over Penn State and ended in a NY6 bowl. Talented QB Michael Penix is back for his 4th year, but can he stay healthy? He has not finished any of the previous 3 seasons, and the team isn’t deep enough to overcome his absence. The top WR Ty Fryfogle is back as one of the top 3 of the 4 to return. The o-line is experienced but was not good run blocking as IU was 114 in rushing last season. The defense returns 8 starters from a unit that led the BIg Ten in sacks and finished #19 in the country in scoring. The OOC features a big game with Cincinnati plus a crossover game at Iowa (in the opener). Indiana won’t sneak up on teams as they did in 2020, but this is still a talented team with an experienced QB.
28UCFNew HC Gus Malzahn steps into a good situation in Orlando with 17 starters back, the most important one QB Dillion Gabriel – 5th in the nation last year with over 3500 yards passing and a 32-4 TD/INT ratio. Malzahn beat Bama 3 times in the 8 years at Auburn so the guy knows how to coach. Last season, the Knights were only 6-4 but that included 3 conf losses by a total of 12 points. The OOC schedule features an blockbuster opener against Boise St at the Bounce House; and a visit to Louisville in mid Sept. The AAC showdown with Cincy is on the road, but even a loss there means a 9-10 win season is still possible.
29MinnesotaHC PJ Fleck led the Gophers to rare heights in 2019 with an 11 win season capped by a win over an SEC team, Auburn, in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota begin 2020 #21 in the rankings, were blown out by a bad Michigan team and limped to a 3-4 record. However, 2 of the losses were in OT and the Gophers return a whopping 20 starters to form a much more experienced team. Tanner Morgan returns at QB after throwing for 1400 yards in a 7 game season, and the entire RB room is back as well. The top 9 (9!) tacklers are back on defense after only 4 starters were back coming in to 2020. the schedule starts with a bang (Ohio State on the opening Thursday) and ends with one (at Iowa, at Indiana, vs Wisconsin), but Fleck is a good coach and maybe they can find 8 wins including a bowl to get close to the top 25.
30NC StateThe Pack rebounded in a big way in 2020, going 8-4 in the Covid affected season, following a 4-8 campaign in 2019. And 2021 could be even better if QB Devin Leary is 100% recovered from his broken leg last year and plays like he did in his 3 games as a starter. State returns all of his primary weapons, as the top 3 RBs and top 3 WRs return. RB Bam Knight avg 5.5 yards per carry in 2020 with 11 TDs. The defense was ok, but hopefully the 9 returning starters can play with greater consistency, especially in run defense. The ACC schedule isn’t easy, with Clemson in the division and drawing UNC and Miami from the Coastal; but the OOC games vs USF, Miss St, Furman and LA Tech – the only P5 in the bunch was 4-7. All together though this is one of most taltented teams HC Dave Doeren has had in his 9 years at State.
31LibertySay what you will about HC Hugh Freeze off the field, but the man can coach. Liberty finished 10-1, with wins over Syracuse and Va Tech (as an 18 pt dog) and over Coastal in Cure Bowl.The only loss was by 1 pt at NC State. The Flames are lead by QB Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer, who completed 64% of his passes and ran for almost 1000 yards, and is getting talk as a first round NFL draftee. As an independent, the schedule is very managable, leading up to a meeting with Freeze’s former school Ole Miss in early November. If Willis continues to grow in the Freeze’s offense, another 10 win season is very much achievable.
32MissouriHC Eli Drinkwitz did a good job in his first year at Missouri in the COVID altered year with no offseason and an all SEC schedule. Even with the limited prep time, he found a starting QB in Connor Bazelak, who threw for over 2300 yards and was Co-offensive Freshman of the year in the SEC. While his best RB has moved on, 6 of his top 7 targets at receiver return. The defense struggled against the better offenses last season, but 6 of the top 8 d-lineman are back which should lead to improvement (besides taking Alabama off the schedule). The toughtest OOC game is at BC, so even though the Tigers are not in the class of Florida or Georgia, the rest of the division offers up winnable games.
33UABThe Blazers finished 6-3 in the Covid shortened 2020 season, with 2 of those a 4 pt loss to Louisiana and an OT loss to La Tech. Both starting QBs from last season return as does the top RBs in DeWayne McBride; they’ll operate behind an experienced o-line. Defense was the calling for this Blazer team in 2020 though, ranking 7th in the nation in scoring and passing defense. The defense returns most of their starters, including their all conference LD/S in Kristopher Moll. Twelve seniors on the UAB squad took advantage of the rule change to come back in hopes of a special season, and the Blazers open their new home stadium with a visit by Liberty in early October. Looks like a repeat of Conference USA championships for the Blazers.
34OK StateThe Cowboys were poised to have a special season in 2020, but defections, injuries and a mostly all conference schedule derailed that plan. Still, 8-3 with a win over Miami in a bowl game wasn’t too shabby. Chubba Hubbard, finished his career with a disappointing final season, but duel threat QB Spencer Sanders is back. Sanders through for 2000 yards and rushed for another 400 in the shorterned, demonstrating his abilities to attack a defense both ways. The RB room is actually pretty deep with all of the leading rushers except for Hubbard back, the injuries on the o-line last year, will pay off with added depth in 2021. The defense has improved in recent years and is very experienced, with 9 or their 10 leading tacklers back from 2020. Expectations are lower this year, but with more consitent play from a more experienced Sanders, and a few less turnovers, the Pokes may not see much of a dropoff from 2020.
35San Jose StateThe Spartans had not won a conference title since 1991, but surprised everyone by defeating Boise St in the Mountain West Championship game to claim the title. The offense is led by 6th year QB Nick Starkel (yes, that Starkel by way of Texas A&M and Arkansas) who completed 64% of passes and a 16/4 TD/INT ratio in the regular season. While is top WRs are gone, the entire o-line is back for 2021. Speaking of returning starters, all 11 on defense are back for the Spartans. An OOC at USC will be a challenge, but more important, in conference play, SJSU doesn’t draw Boise from the other division and could meet the Broncos in the conference championship game for a 2nd straight year.

2019 Preview – Predicted Top 35

1 Georgia The Dawgs have come so close to winning the national title in the past 2 years but one thing has stood in their way – Alabama. Georgia should be right there again, with a 3 year and now unquestioned starter at QB in Jake Fromm, who has a top RB in D/Andre Swift he can hand the ball too. Both will be operating behind one of the best o-lines in the nation. The defense only returns 6 starters, but most their 3 top tacklers return. Throw in the overall talent that HC Kirby Smart has brought into Athens and a senior K (and cult hero) in Rodrigo Blankenship, and UGA has a real chance to break through in 2019.

2 Alabama The TIde ended the 2018 season in both expected and unexpected ways – playing in the National Championship Game but losing by 20 to Clemson. Bama returns electric QB Tua Tagovailoa and their top 3 WRs from an offense that averaged over 40 ppg for the first time in modern history. Alabama always loses a number of players to the NFL draft and this year is no exception, with just 6 starters back on defense. But 6 starters is the most in recent years. The schedule is not as difficult as one would think, with OOC games vs Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina and no regular season games against the East’s two ranked teams, Georgia and Florida. Tide will be hungry after last year’s title game flop and are as usual, one of the top contenders for the national championship.

3 Clemson When we last saw Clemson they were destroying Alabama in the national title game. Both QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne return and are each Heisman Trophy candidates,. The Tigers were #4 in the nation last year in scoring offense at 44 ppg, but could top that number in 2019. The defense loses everyone up front from a unit that held opponents to 13 ppg and overall, only returns 4 starters. The overall level of talent is so high though, the potentially less dominant defense will likely not matter in a regular season, where Clemson will be a big favorite in every game. The Tigers are the team most likely to make the playoffs, but I think the losses on defense will matter in the playoffs (although not until then).

4 Michigan The offense is loaded with QB Shea Patterson in his 2nd year, 4 starters on the o-line and experienced WRs. New OC Josh Gattis, previously at Alabama, will introduce a more up-tempo style so this may be one of the best offenses of HC Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. The defense has some issues though following a ghastly end to the season (surrendering 103 points in the final 2 games) and only returning 5 starters. Harbaugh is 2-7 vs Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame but gets all 3 at home this year (and ‘that team down south’ is rebuilding their coaching staff)… can the Wolverines take advantage?

5 Oklahoma Ho Hum, another season, another record setting QB wins the Heisman (Kyler Murray). The Sooners got the most coveted transfer in QB Jalen Hurts – can HC Lincoln Riley get another high level performance? It will be harder this year with the top o-line in the nation (JOe Moore Award) only returning one starter. The defense took a step back in 2018, allowing 46, 47, 40 and 58 points in a 4 game stretch. New DC Alex Grinch has a great reputation and 8 starters back, so some improvement is expected. Can HC Riley, the QB whisperer get as much out of Hurts as his previous 2 QBs? That will make the difference between a playoff run or simply a Top 10 finish.

6 LSU Not much was expected of the TIgers last season, but transfer QB Joe Burrow was solid and with the typically good defense, LSU ended with 10 wins and a #6 ranking. Burrow in his 2nd year as a starter and with the move to a more RPO style offense, should put up better numbers; and it doesn’t hurt that his top target WR Justin Jefferson returns. The defense has to replace a few key starters that are now in the NFL, like shutdown CB Greedy Williams, but 8 starters back is a lot for this program that cranks out NFL defenders. LSU has a tough OOC game, at Texas in week 2, and is also on the road vs Alabama, but this is a team that has a shot at 11 wins for the first time since ’11 and a spot in the playoffs.

7 Ohio State HC Urban Meyer is gone but in steps former co-OC Ryan Day, a highly regarded assistant who also coached under Chip Kelly. Day will get his opportunity right out of the gate to prove his offensive prowess, as record setting QB Dwayne Haskins was a first round NFL draft pick, and only 4 starters are back on the offense overall. Day will have a transfer in former 5* QB Justin Fields to build around, but the reason Fields is in Columbus and not Athens is that he wasn’t able to beat out Jake Fromm. The defense had a down year in ’18 but with 10 starters back should improve. The schedule is manageable with Cincy as the toughest OOC game and Mich St, Wisc and Penn State all come to Columbus. As per usual, the division will likely come down to the match up in the Big House vs Michigan to end the season.

8 Notre Dame Irish made the playoffs last year behind a dynamic QB in Ian Book and a solid defense. Book is back for ’19 and may be even better with the additional experience but his top RB and WR have moved on. The defense loses several key playmakers and both K and P. The schedule gets more difficult with trips to Stanford, Michigan and UGA. Irish still could win double digit games again this season, but the personnel losses suggest a step back from last year’s playoff appearance.

9 Florida HC Dan Mullen did an amazing job with the Gators in ’18, a stunning 6 victory improvement from the previous season. Maybe even more amazing, he somehow coaxed good QB play out of Felipe Franks. Franks is back and could be better in the 2nd year in the system, but Gators are completely rebuilding their o-line. The defense loses a few key playmakers but does return 7 starters to a side of the ball that had a lot of talent and finished #20 in the nation in scoring defense last season. UF was +12 in turnovers last season, #7 in the nation, but that’s hard to replicate year after year. Mullen has dramatically improved the program in just one year, but Georgia will be hard to catch in the division. Still another double digit win season appears likely.

10 Utah Kyle Whittingham has been with Utah for 15 years and compiled a 120-61 record, but last season was their first as a division winner in a Power 5 conference, losing to Washington in the Pac 12 Championship game. Both their starting QB Tyler Huntley and their star RB Zack Moss missed the end of the season due to injuries, but both are back for 2019. And QB Jason Shelly, who filled in during Huntley’s absence, is also back to give added depth. The Utes have 7 starters back from a defense that surrendered only 19 ppg in 2018. The schedule is a little kinder as both Oregon and Stanford from the North Division are skipped this year. No team from the Pac 12 South finished in the rankings last season, so this is the Utes chance to win the division again, and will be right there with the powers from the North in the conference championship race.

11 Texas 2018 was the breakthrough year Horn’s fans had been looking for since Mack retired, with a 10 win season wrapped up by an impressive upset win over #6 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Sam Ehlinger is the top returning QB in the BIg 12, but he will operate behind a rebuilding o-line. Although the most production WR and RB are gone, there is a lot of talent (and production) from both groups ready to step up this season. The defense played well in the Sugar Bowl but struggled at times during the regular season, and only returns 3 starters for 2019. The overall talent continues to improve in Austin, but the Horns return the fewest production of any power 5 team. The schedule features a monster early season showdown vs LSU, but at least its in Austin and HC Tom Herman gets his teams up for the big games. Herman definitely has the program on the rise but there may be a minor setback this season.

12 Oregon Ducks got a big boost when QB Justin Hebert decided to forgo the NFL and stay at Oregon and he is one of a whopping 10 returning starters on offense. D wasn’t great in ’18, but improved significantly from ’17 and HC Mario Cristobal signed a top 10 class that can help contribute to the already upward trajectory. The biggest challenge may be the schedule – Ducks are hard to beat at Autzen Stadium but starting with the opener vs Auburn in Dallas, most of the tough games are away from home, including trips to Washington, Stanford, USC and Arizona St.

13 Nebraska The Huskers started the Scott Frost era 0-6 but weren’t as bad a team as the record would suggest. The 4-2 finish confirmed that program was on the right track under their former iconic player. The offense avg 36 pts per game during the 2nd half of the season, and now SO QB Adrian Martinez, should be even better in 2019. The D wasn’t great but did improve over 2017 and another year in the scheme should help. The schedule is favorable with Iowa, NW and Wisky at home and no Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. Frost did such an amazing job in turning around UCF in 2 seasons (0-12 to 12-0) that another huge jump in record is possible here too.

14 Miami Miami’s 2018 could not have gone much different (or much worse) compared to the expectations. A pre-season #8 ranking was blown up in the opener vs LSU, then a 7-5 finish was capped by a blowout loss to Wisconsin in a lower tier bowl. And HC Mark Richt retired at the end of the season. The good news, is the “Canes moved quickly and got their man to replace Richt, former DC Manny Diaz. No coach took more advantage of the transfer portal than Diaz. The top prize was former Ohio State QB Tate Martel. Diaz’s defense last year was physical and lead the nation in tackles for loss. The offense on the other hand was dreadful, and QB play was either inconsistent or dreadful. The defense loses most of the secondary, but otherwise, a lot of starters return to make a formidable force up front. It all comes down to the QB play and new OC Dan Enos, former Alabama QC coach. If Miami could just get decent QB play to go with that offense, the coastal division is ripe for the taking.

15 Washington Washington HC Chris Petersen has done a great job as the Huskies won 10 games for the 3rd year in a row. A 4th will be challenging after losing QB jake Browning and the entire D line (only 2 defensive starters back). The good news is the transfer QB Jacob Eason brings talent and experience to the most important position, and may ultimately be an upgrade over Browning. More good news is the schedule – in the unbalanced Pac-12 with 4/5 or 5/4 road/home games, this season SC, Oregon, Utah and Washington State all come to Seattle.

16 Texas A&M A&M brings back QB Kellen Mond who threw for over 3400 yards in ’18 and has 3 o-line starters back. TE Sternberger now in the NFL is a loss, but the next best receivers all return. DC Mike Elko cut A&Ms ppg allowed from 30.7 to 25.3 but he’ll have some work to do this season with only 4 starters back. Jimbo has recruited at an elite level so the talent across the board is rising but the challenge this year is a brutal schedule. Aggies face LSU, Georgia and Clemson all on the road in addition to Alabama at home. The program overall is trending up but it probably won’t show up in the record this year.

17 UCF 2019 looks to be an interesting year for the Knights as star QB McKenzie Milton still out from his gruesome injury, the starter will likely come from former backup Daniel Mack Jr or Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush from ND. Mack played well filling in for Milton at the end of last season, but broke his ankle in practice. The defense only returns 5 starters and just 2 of the top 6 tacklers. Memphi and Cincinnati will be tough in the ACC and UCF has an interesting OCC game with Stanford in Orlando. There’s a reason Wimbush isn’t the starter at ND anymore, so think there will be some drop off at QB play and the defense has questions. But this is still the best program in the AAC and expect another double digit win season and run at the Group of 5 NY6 bowl bid.

18 Washington State HC Mike Leach , after 3 years of solid 8 or 9 sin seasons, had the big break through last year, with 11 wins including a victorious bowl game. Leach appears to have found another budding star at QB in Gabe Guburd, a graduate transfer from FCS power Eastern Washington. Four o-linemen return as well so the offense should continue rolling. There are some losses on D, but the defense overall has improved significantly from earlier in Leach’s tenure, so a slight step back wouldn’t be make or break. The bigger challenge is probably the schedule, which features games vs Houston, Utah, Oregon and Washington all on the road.

19 Missouri HC Barry Odom landed an impact transfer in Clemson’s Kelly Bryant to replace Drew Lock. The Tigers return a deep backfield and three starters in the trenches. Guard Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms is among the SEC’s top returning linemen and anchors a unit that allowed only 13 sacks in 2018. Defense improved dramatically in 2018, after allowing 31.8 points a game in ’17, the Tigers held teams to 25.5 in ’18. The schedule is also manageable. Missouri plays Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina at home, while catching Ole Miss and Arkansas in crossover play. It’s hard to say how the team will react to the bowl ban (as of this writing), but with Bryant’s experience, the Tigers are a dark horse in the SEC East.

20 Auburn Under HC Gus Malzahn, AU has been hard team to forecast – a 12 win team in his first season, mostly 7-8 win seasons, then a 10 win campaign that ended with 2 losses year before last. The strength of this years squad should be on the d-line, fortified by both Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson who would have been high draft picks but returned to school. QB is a question mark after last season with Sr QB Jarrett Stidham was underwhelming, the Tigers will have a new signal caller in 2019. Whomever it turns out to be, should be a better dual threat than Stidham which fits Malzahn’s offense better and oddly enough it seems like he has more success will first year starters. The schedule features an interesting opener vs Oregon in Dallas, but the Tigers get Bama and UGA at home. Could this team repeat the magic of 2017 and make the SECCG? With Malzahn you never know but the pick here is enough talent for a good but not great season.

21 Iowa HC Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured coach in the FBS, but in this decade (2010-2018), last season was only the 2nd 9 or more wins in the 9 year stretch. The Hawkeyes QB Nate Stanley returns from the squad that upset Miss State in the bowl game but for the first time in history for any program, had two TE’s drafted in the first round. Still a lot of talent returns on offense. Defense is the bigger rebuild with only 4 starters returning and losing their entire front 4. Schedule wise, the in-state rival Iowa State will have about as talented a team as they ever do, and the Hawkeyes draw Michigan and Penn State from the East division. This Big Ten West is hard one to rank, but looks like Iowa is one of several teams that will be in the race for the division title.

22 Army What a season for Army in 2018! They won the Commander in Chief trophy for the second straight year, set the school record for wins with 11 and finished in the AP rankings for the first time since ’96! QB Kelvin Hopkins returns with 6 other starters on offense, potentially improving on their 33 ppg output in ’18. The defense was great last season, but looks to take a step back with only 4 starters back. Army put a very big scare into Oklahoma last year, losing in OT. Can the Knights pull off the monumental upset against Michigan in the Big House this year? Probably not, but Army is clearly the class of the service academies at this time and another double digit win season and final ranking is within sight.

23 Virginia Two QBs in FBS ran for over 800 yards and threw for over 2500 – Heisman winner Kyler Murray from Oklahoma and Bryce Perkins from Virginia. HC Bronco Mendenhall has taken the Cavaliers from a 2 win team his first season to an 8 win squad with a both win last year. Perkins returns this year but his two top playmakers, their leading RB and WR, will need to be replaced. The defense improved by more than a full TD in points allowed from ’17, and with 8 starters back should be very good again. UVA has a tough OOC game vs Notre Dame, but otherwise does not face any other ranked teams in the Coaches preseason poll. Hoo’s had a very frustrating loss to rival Va Tech to end last year, this is their chance to finally end the very long losing streak in the series.

24 Penn State The Nittany Lions will be breaking in a new QB after losing Trace McSorely to the NFL after he became the program’s all time leader in wins (from a QB). The story took a weird turn when expected incumbent Tommy Stevens transferred during the off-season. But HC James Franklin has recruited well and although it’s young, there is talent. Meanwhile the defense has 5 of the top 6 tacklers back, and should be good enough to keep the Lions winning, as the likely first ranked opponent isn’t until week 6. The OOC schedule is manageable with rival Pitt (7-7 in ’18) the toughest of the 3. The challenge remains the division foes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State which swept Penn State last year.

25 Iowa State HC Matt Campbell has done a phenomenal job with the Cyclones, taking them from 3-9 his first year to 8-4 in the regular season, a 5 game conference winning streak and back to back bowls. 8 starters are back on a defense that was one of the Big 12’s best, giving up less than 23 ppg in 2018. QB Brock Purdy, which set a number of school records in his Fr year, will operate behind a very experienced o-line. Prudy’s improvement in his 2nd year as a starter should help overcome the loss of star RB David Montgomery and their big playmaker at WR Hakeem Butler. Iowa State has only had 3 straight seasons of at least 8 wins once in their history, they have an excellent chance for this to be their second.

26 Cincinnati The Bearcats enjoyed a huge breakthrough in HC Luke Fickell’s second season, going from a 4-8 season in ’17 to last years 11-2 record and #24 ranking. This year 7 starters return on offense, including dual threat QB Desmond Ridder, the 2018 AAC rookie of the year, plus their top 3 RBs. The defense improved dramatically from ’17 and with 7 returning starters should continue the upward trajectory. Cincy has two games circled on the calendar – the OOC game at Ohio State and the home game with UCF. The Bearcats went to Orlando last year ranked in the Top 20 and were blown out.. they are looking for revenge and a chance to topple UCF for the AAC crown.

27 Baylor HC Matt Rhule has taken the Bears from 1-11 to 7-6 with an upset win over Vandy in Texas Bowl. Baylor returns an experienced QB in Charlie Brewer and a good WR in Denzel Mims and the o-line is better. The defense was not good in 2018, but did improve and with 8 starters back, should be the best unit Rhule has had since he’s been in Waco. The OOC schedule features Stephen F Austin, Rice and UTSA so the record will depend upon the success in conference play. Baylor won’t threaten OU or Texas to win the Big 12, but should now be competitive with the middle of the conference.

28 Syracuse A stunning 2018 for the Orangemen, with a 10 win season and a final Top 20 ranking. QB Eric Dungey was big key to their success, as he not only threw for almost 2900 yards but he was the team’s leading rusher (not counting sacks). The challenge for HC Dino Babers is that Dungey is gone, along with 3 starters on the o-line. The defense did improve although at 64th in scoring, it was the offense most responsible for the wins. The schedule is not too tough with Clemson coming to the Carrier Dome (the Cuse beat the TIgers last time there) and Pitt and Duke in crossover games. The OCC schedule is not challenging and consists of Maryland, West Michigan, Holy Cross, and Liberty. While Babers has done a great job building this program, I don’t think they can replace such a dynamic QB without a drop off. Still, another 8 win season and a bowl is very much in reach.

29 Michigan State The Spartans were a hard team to watch last year, with an offense so dreadful that they lost twice while giving up 9 points or less. The good news is that part or most or this was due to a large number of injuries and better health in ’19 could easily lead to dramatic improvement. Meanwhile the defense was excellent, allowing only 17 ppg even with the inept offense. with 8 starters back, the defense should be stout again. The schedule does not feature a ranked OOC opponent but does include trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. If HC Mark Dantonio could just get a pretty good offense to pair with this great defense, Sparty could surprise big in 2019.

30 Boise State For Boise’s standards, 2018 was not a great season, as the Broncos did not win the conference (lost in the Mountain West conference championship game) and was blown out in their one game vs a Power 5 program (21-44 at Oklahoma State). Boise did finish with double digit wins and a Top 25 ranking though. To do so again in 2019 will require new stars to emerge on offense – the 4 year starter at QB (Brett Rypien), the leading rusher and top two WRs all depart. The good news however, is a solid and experienced offensive line will help with the transition. The Broncos finished #30 in scoring defense and with 8 starters back, could improve on that number. The Mountain West does not look quite as strong as last season, Boise has a good opportunity to win the league in 2019.

31 Wisconsin Big things were expected of the Badgers last season, evident by the #4 preseason ranking. But the 3rd game of the year was a shocking loss at home to 22 pt underdog BYU, and the season went down the drain from there. The offense with a lot of starters back got worse and the defense surrendered 9 ppg more. Now the QB has left (Alex Hornibrook transferred to FSU) and the o-line is rebuilding with only 1 returning starter. The one piece of good news on offense is their workhorse RB Jonathan Taylor returns after 2200 yards on the ground in ’18. The defense does return 6 starters and with better health can get back to the standards of recent years. The schedule is tough, as Wisky draws Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan from the other division and goes to Nebraska, the favorite in the West. This team won 10, 11, and 13 games the past 3 years, so a big rebound would seem likely, but questions remain on offense and a much more difficult conference schedule may limit the turn around.

32 FSU The first year of new HC Willie Taggart was a disaster, with FSU ending the season 5-7, the programs first losing year since 1976! Previous HC Jimbo Fisher had left the program in a much worse state than realized, and Taggart made a number of mistakes with his coaching staff and how he prepared players for game conditions. Year 2 is a restart, with new OC Kendall Briles who was at Houston last year and FAU the year before. Briles and his new OL coach will have a tremendous challenge to work around a poor o-line although both have been very successful in their recent stops. On defense, last season was expected to be a rebuilding year, but the inept offense and terrible return teams meant FSU’s opponents had the best starting field position in FBS. With more experience and 8 starters back, the defense should improve on ’18’s numbers. The schedule features 2 trickly early games, opening with Boise State in Jacksonville, followed 2 weeks later by a trip to Virginia. Games at Clemson and Florida look unwinnable, but improvements on both sides of the ball should lead to a modest improvement in overall record and return to a bowl.

33 USC USC had double digits win season in HC Clay Heston’s first 2 seasons, but lost their last 3 games in 2018 to end the year with a losing record for the first time since 2000. There is hope in Troy though as QB JT Daniels was a rare starter as a true freshman, and he wasn’t bad; with the hiring of “Air Raid” guru Graham Harrell as OC, the offense could make a big jump this year. The defense struggled last season, but a lot of that was due to injuries. Even with only 5 starters back, a more healthy unit should be improved. The road ahead is challenging with Washington, Oregon and Stanford all on the schedule, with no gimmes in the OOC – Fresno, BYU and Notre Dame. Helton is on the hot seat, but this program still has tons of talent, so a rebound is very possible.

34 Virginia Tech The only aspect of Virginia Tech’s 2018 season that was more shocking than finishing with a losing record, was seeing a Bud Foster defense give up 49 points at home to ODU in route to a 31 ppg average on defense. The good news is a lot of youth and injuries lead to the poor performance on D last season, this is a much more experienced group for 2019 so look for significant improvement. Meanwhile the offense had its ups and downs last season, having to switch QBs to transfer Ryan Willis in mid season. Willis returns for this year and with 4 of his top 5 WR’s back, the passing offense should be better. The schedule is manageable and in this division, VA Tech is one of the teams that will contend for the opportunity to lose to Clemson in the ACCCG.

35 Ohio HC Frank Solich is the oldest coach in FBS at 74 and looks to lead Ohio to their first MAC title since 1968. The lofty goals rest on the arm of QB Nathan Rourke, leading the Bobcats to their highest scoring average in their history last season. Although their is turnover on the o-line, having the best QB in the conference should be enough for another good year offensively. Solich is known for his solid defenses and after a rocky start last year, the Bobcats D was solid. They ended the season with a shutout, 27-0 win over SDSU in the Frisco Bowl,. The schedule features one game vs a power 5 team, on the road against Pitt; but the 45-31 loss to UVA and 34-30 loss to Cincy last year, suggests the Bobcats will be competitive with Pitt.

2018 Results… How’d I do?

The 2018 season is in the books, and below is the final AP rankings, including every team that “also received votes”. So how did the pre-season forecasts from Mr College Sports turn out?

At the top, the forecast couldn’t have been better! Clemson defeated Alabama in the National Championship Game so those teams finished 1-2 (Nailed it!). UGA, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma were all expected to finish in the Top 10 and they did. The teams that made the playoffs were preseason rated 1,2, 7, and 9 – not too shabby!

The big miss was the Big Ten. I expected the Big 10 to be loaded with several elite teams in the East and at least 1 in the West. Wisconsin, in both mine and the AP’s pre-season top 4, was shocked by BYU at home early, closed the season with a blowout loss to Minnesota and finished outside the Top 35.  Michigan State was even worse, with 21 starters returning (including specialists) only managing a 7-6 record and losing the awful Redbox Bowl 7-6.

The biggest surprise in the Top 10 was Washington State, losing their starting QB from last year and suffering a terrible tragedy in the offseason, then a transfer QB steps in and lights up the scoreboard. Every other Pac-12 team was disappointing, ranging from slightly (Washington) to terribly (USC). Texas finished in the Top 10 following HC Tom Herman’s second year, but not totally unexpected as the Horns were ranked in the pre-season Top 20. More surprising were the Florida Gators in HC Dan Mullen’s first year, parlaying wins over LSU and Michigan to a #7 finish. No one saw that big of an improvement in year 1, even though Mullen was a highly regarded hire.

I also did not expect the break through seasons by Kentucky and Syracuse, both with key conference wins during the season, and capped by impressive bowl wins. I did correctly forecast Michigan’s non break through year under HC Jim Harbaugh, with a final ranking in between 11-15.

WVU was good but not great, as expected, but I greatly underestimated HC Ed Orgeron and his staff at LSU. The opening win over Miami was not a surprise and the game with Alabama was not close, but a #6 ranking was much higher than I expected.

And while UF was surprisingly good, the other power programs in Florida were not. Miami, coming off a 10 win season and division championship, was blown out in the opener and looked so bad in the bowl loss to fellow underachiever Wisconsin, HC Mark Richt resigned rather than try and fix the program. Meanwhile, I did not expect FSU to be good but, I also did not expect the first losing record in 40 years.

Finally, a mixed bag on the teams I took a flyer on just outside of the Top 25. Several ended up with poor seasons, Virginia Tech, Arizona and South Carolina among them, but some did have solid years, such as Iowa and Texas A&M.

So now it’s on to 2019… look for the first preseason Top 25 this Spring!

Final AP Poll 2018

  1. Clemson
  2. Alabama
  3. Ohio State
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Notre Dame
  6. LSU
  7. Florida
  8. Georgia
  9. Texas
  10. Washington State
  11. UCF
  12. Kentucky
  13. Washington
  14. Michigan
  15. Syracuse
  16. Texas A&M
  17. Penn State
  18. Fresno State
  19. Army
  20. WVU
  21. Northwestern
  22. Utah State
  23. Boise State
  24. Cincinnati
  25. Iowa
  26. App State
  27. Stanford
  28. Miss State
  29. Utah
  30. UAB
  31. Iowa State
  32. Auburn
  33. Oregon
  34. Missouri
  35. Troy
  36. GA Southern
  37. OK State
  38. NC State
  39. Wisconsin

Top 35 for 2018

Here are the predictions for 2018 – The final Top 25 plus 10 more…

1.Clemson – The college football world expected the majority of the Tiger defensive line to turn pro early, and when each decided to return, Clemson became one of the favorites to win the national title. OC’s around the league already had to deal with what was the #2 scoring defense in the country and this group is basically an NFL unit still playing college. There is a question on the offensive side of the ball, as to whether incoming 5 Star fr QB Trevor Lawrence beats out incumbent Kelly Bryant for the starting job, but Bryant should be better with a year of experience under his bett. Thi s is overall a much more experienced team coming into this year compared to last and has a very manageable schedule, facing one ranked team in the regular season. The defensive lineman that came back to win a national title have a realistic shot to do so.

2. Alabama – Alabama has to replac both coordinators, and returns only 3 starters on defense… and will still field a strong defense and is in the top two of the favorites to win the national championship. In the past, HC Nick Saban has reloaded both on his staff and on the field, and still makes the playoffs and 2018 will be no different. What may change though is how he gets there – Saban may have found the dynamic playmaker at QB when Tua Tagovailoa entered late in last year’s title game and came through with a monster play to lead his team to a win. Only 3 starters returning on D is low even by Tide’s standards, but if the offense is better, a slight drop in D won’t hurt. And then there’s the schedule – in what was once considered the toughest division in the toughest conference, the Tide will not face a single Top 20 team away from Tuscaloosa in the regular season; all but assuring the Tide of at least 11 wins and a spot in the playoffs with a win in the SECCG.

3. Wisconsin – While the focus in the Big Ten is on the East Division, one team in the West is also a playoff contender. The Badgers return solid QB Alex Hornibrook, RB Jonathan Taylor and the entire o-line from a team that was 13-1 last year. The challenge is that it was the defense that carried the team, but that side of the ball only returns 3 starters. Meanwhile, the schedule gets tougher – no not the OOC schedule, that’s still a baker’s delight of  cupcakes, but UW goes to both Michigan and Penn State, two of the top teams from the other stronger division. Still, Wisky is by far the best team in the West (at least for now with Scott Frost at Nebraska), and another very good record is likely, and all it takes is wins in a couple big games and the Badgers could find themselves as Big Ten champs..

4. Georgia – An embarrassment of riches at QB with Jake Fromm returning after leading the Dawgs to the National title game as a freshman, competing with incoming 5 Star QB Justin Fields. Fromm was really good as a true Fr and will be even better with the added experience. The running game won’t be as dominant after losing two stars to the NFL, but D’Andre Swift was good as the 3rd option, and will get the chance to showcase his skills. The defense was great in ‘17, finishing in the top 10 in scoring, passing and total defense. Five starters are back but one of them is not Roquan Smith. The D probably slips slightly, but the offense could be better even without the star RBs. The schedule is very manageable, with the home game with Auburn the only top 20 team the Dawgs will face in the regular season.   The rest of the conference champions have to fall right for two teams from the same conference to make the playoff again, but UGA is the greatest threat to Bama in the SEC and will be in the national title discussion for years to come.

5. Washington – Huskies are the big favorite in the Pac-12 with 17 starters back from a 10-3 season. The 8 returnees on offense include QB jake Browning, the Huskies 2nd all time leading passer who should have a great year in his 4th season as a starter. the return of 4 year starter QB Jake Browning. UDub defense will miss big DT Vita Vea but have 9 starters back from a unit that finished in the top ten in the nation in scoring, rushing and total defense. .Washington is a legitimate playoff contender, but the big challenge for the Huskies is the opener vs Auburn in Atlanta – a loss in that game means nothing short of an undefeated season in the Pac-12 to finish with no more than 1 loss.

6. Ohio State – So the final verdict on Urban Liar is in, and he is suspended for the first 3 games of the season. This makes the Buckeyes a big wildcard in the playoff race – does the team rally around Urban and avoid the bad slip-up’s that have kept them out of the playoffs? Or is this like Urban’s last year at Florida where his mental state ultimately affects the play on the field. On the field anyway. OSU returns 7 starters of offense, including two strong RBs in JK Dobbins and Mike Weber. QB JT Barrett set numerous school records over his long career, but Buckeye fans are excited to see what So QB Dwayne Haskins can do as he takes over the reigns. The defense only returns 5 starters, but one of those is DE Nick Bosa and he’s out to prove he’s even better than his older brother Joey. So the talent is there to make a run, but the pick here is that the distractions eventually become too much.

7. Oklahoma – The top story for the Sooners is how they are going to replace the Heisman Trophy winning QB Baker Mayfield; Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray is talented and has big game experience, but won’t replicate last year’s 45 points per game offensive output. That becomes an issue for a defense that only returns 6 starters overall and 2 of their top 6 tacklers and was in games like 62-52 and 48-54. There is no marquee OOC game as there was with the Ohio State series the past 2 years, but conference trips to TCU and WVU will be challenging. Still, this is the most talented team in the Big 12 and is the favorite until another program steps up and knocks the Sooners off.

8. Michigan State – Sparty rebounded from a terrible 2016, to get back to 10 wins and now has a chance to achieve even  more. MSU welcomes back a whopping 10 starters on offense, including QB Lewerke, who threw for nearly 2700 yards and rushed for over 500 in 2017. The nation’s 7th best defense last season, welcomes back 9 starters, including all 4 leading tacklers. As if that wasn’t enough, both the kicker and punter are back as well. Then why not pick Sparty to win the Division, the Big 10 and make the Playoffs? While that is certainly possible, those 10 starters are back from an offense that even with Lewerke’s running skills, was 96th in the nation in scoring. While that number will be much better in 2018, will it be enough to win the rugged Big Ten East?

9. Notre Dame – The Irish rebounded from a dreadful 4-8 2016 campaign to a 10 win 2017, and was in playoff contention until late in the season. A lot of the credit went to first year DC Mike Elko as the defense improved by nearly a full TD per game. 9 starters are back on defense, but the first year turned out to be the last year for Elko as he was offered top dollar to join JImbo Fisher’s staff at TAMU. QB Brandon Wimbush returns, but he had an uneven 2017 and was even benched in the bowl game. Wimbush worked hard in the offseason and appears improved in the Irish fall practices – but will have to overcome the loss of the team’s top RB and WR. The schedule is typical Notre Dame, featuring a wide variety of opponents from across the country, but most of the better opponents do come to South Bend, including Michigan in the opener and Stanford and FSU. This team is a hard one to peg but an improved Wimbush would allow the Irish to match last years 10 wins.

10. Auburn – The Tigers had an incredible finish to the regular season, beating both UGA and Alabama at home, but ended the season with 2 straight losses. The Tigers biggest offseason challenges centered around injuries – returning QB Jarrett Stidham underwent surgery on his non-throwing shoulder and two receivers suffered torn ACLs in the Spring. Combine this with the challenge to find replacements on the 4 starters now gone from the o-line and offense may not improve, even with Stidham’s increased comfort in the system with a year under his belt. The defense looks to be a strong point again, even with a lot of losses in the secondary, there is talent to step in. And then there’s the schedule… in even numbered years, the Tigers go to both Alabama and Georgia and that has not gone well recently. This is an overall talented team though and HC Gus Malzahn has done well when he’s had an experience QB.

11. Penn State  – the good news for Penn State is that QB Trace McSorley returns but the bad news it the other key components do not – the ultimate playmaker, RB Saquon Barkley, is in the NFL and OC Joe Moorhead is the HC at Mississippi State. With a solid line, the offense should still be good, but the defense is another issue. Last year’s defense was #2 in scoring and #1 in TO margin in the Big Ten; but only returns 2 starters. While HC James Franklin is known for the defense, the lack of experience suggests a drop off in ‘18. The Lions didn’t challenge themselves in their OOC schedule, but a brutal road awaits in the Big Ten as this season’s slate includes Wisconsin, in addition to the murderer’s row in the East Division.

12. Michigan – Wolverines were  #3 in the nation in total defense last season, but went just 8-5 due to an anemic offense that recorded 9 TD passes on the season. With 8 starters returning, the defense should be good. While HC Jim Harbaugh is not on the hot seat per se, the pressure is on to a) beat the big rivals and b) win the Big Ten and get to the playoffs. The first part of the plan worked, as former Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson was officially declared eligible. Patterson is clearly and upgrade over what Michigan had last year, but he has to learn a new system, get used to new skill position players around him and oh yeah, operate behind a questionable o-line. Meanwhile the schedule is brutal with an opening date at Notre Dame and a divisional cross-over game vs Wisconsin. The offense should be much improved over last year, but I have more confidence in the other big 3 in the Big Ten East.

13. Miami – “The U is back” claimed many a Miami fan, but the 3 game losing streak to end the season kept the ‘Canes out of the top ten. QB Malik Rosier, who set the Hurricanes single season TD record with 31, returns, but he played poorly in the slide at the end. The defense was good statistically, but made their money off turnovers, finishing #5 in the nation in turnover margin. Can the D be great if the turnover bounces don’t go their way (as it did late last year)? The opener against LSU in Dallas may make the difference between a good and great season.

14. Stanford – talk of the Cardinal has to start with Heisman finalist Bryce Love, who returned for another year on “the Farm” even if a high pick in the NFL draft was waiting. Also back is QB KJ Costello, who by all reports is completely recovered from his surgery in January. The dual threat Costello took over the QB duties in mid season and led the Cardinal to big wins over Washington and Notre Dame. With a total of 9 starters back on offense, this could be on one of the better Stanford offenses in recent memory. There are more questions on the defensive side of the ball after losing their two best DBs from a team that struggled against the pass. The schedule is not friendly, with road games against Washington, Oregon and Notre Dame, but with Costello and Love, this will be another top 15 David Shaw team.

15. Boise State – HC Bryan Harsin has done a solid job since taking over for Chris Peterson 5 years ago and now has a 4 year starter at QB in Brett Rypien. Meanwhile on D, while LB Leighton Vander Esch went in the first round of the NFL draft, the entire d-line and secondary return. The schedule sets up nicely with a road game at Oklahoma State, a power 5 program but one rebuilding in ‘18 plus San Diego State and Fresno come to Boise.

16. Oregon – Ducks have a new HC in former OC Mario Cristobal but returns Jr QB Justin Herbert, who was spectacular when healthy – an experienced o-line will help too. The most important returner though might be DC Jim Leavitt who lead a dramatic turn around in the defense from the previous year, and with 7 starters back could see another drop in points allowed per game. The schedule sets up nicely with OOC games versus San Jose, Bowling Green and Portland State, both Stanford and UW come to Eugene and there is no USC on the schedule. With a dynamic QB and an improving defense Ducks have a good chance to get back to at least 9 wins for the first time since 2015.

17. Mississippi State – New HC Joe Moorhead, former OC at Penn State, steps in to a great position with a loaded Bulldog team coming off a Top 20 finish in 2017. QB Nick Fitzgerald appears on track to recover from his injury in the Egg Bowl, and has 4 starters back on the oline. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the d-line looks to be a strength, with DE Jeffery Simmons a beast up front. The Bulldogs are not in the class with Bama, but with AU, UF and A&M coming to Starkville, another top 20 finish looks likely.

18. USC – True Fr JT Daniels has been named the starting QB, that in spite of his obvious talent, is still surprising that at a program like USC, the best option for QB is a true freshman that just arrived on campus a few weeks ago. Daniels will have to operate without the Trojans leading rusher as RB Ronald Jones and his 1500+ yards are gone as well.. The d-line registered 46 sacks last year, but the secondary was disappointing, finishing #82 in pass defense. There is still a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and maybe in DC Clancy Pendergast’s 3rd season, the performance in his system will improve. USC has not lost at home since the middle of the ‘15 season, but gets Stanford, Texas, Utah and Arizona on the road. The overall talent level keeps the Trojans a slight favorite in the South Division, but the race is wide open.

19. UCF – Knights return star QB McKenzie Milton, who threw for over 4000 yards in UCF’s undefeated “national championship” season. Most of his surrounding cast returns as well. Bigger questions are on defense where just 6 starters return, and leaders such as Shaquem Griffin do not. . But the most critical loss is HC Scott Frost who left for Nebraska and took his entire staff with him! Incoming HC Josh Heupel had success as the OC at Missouri, but has never been a head coach before. A lot of the energy here came from Frost directly, can Heupel keep what is still a talented team together now that they are the favorites and not the underdogs?

20. Texas – So here we go again, the Longhorns have not finished in the rankings since 2012, but each year appears to be the one that UT “turns it around”. I’m drinking the burt orange kool-aid again, noting the dramatic improvement in the Horn’s defense in HC Tom Herman’s first year as an indicator the program has righted the ship on that side of the ball. The biggest challenges in ‘17 was getting consistently good QB play and running the ball well behind a o-line that was banged up. With better health, think that the running game will improve and now the Horn’s have two QBs with a lot of experience. So Sam Ehlinger has been named the starter (over Jr Shane Buechele) and he looked sharp in the Oklahoma and OK State games before suffering from a concussion. A little gun shy about ranking Texas at all given the recent history, but still think that Herman is a very good coach, and just better health on offense should allow for getting into a good rhythm and get the program on a positive trajectory.

21. FSU – Not exactly the 2017 season the Nole fans expected, but here the program is with only its 3rd head coach since 1976. Willie Taggart has a reputation as a great recruiter but limited experience in running a Power 5 program. FSU returns two experienced QBs and a star in the making in So RB Cam Akers, but loses a lot from a defense that underachieved last season. A better DC and a coaching staff that overall is engaged throughout the season will help, but a tough schedule (OOC games at Notre Dame and vs Florida and draws VA Tech and Miami from the Coastal) puts a ceiling on the improvement in year 1 of the Willie Taggart era.

22. TCU – a huge turn around for the Frogs, going from 6-7 in ‘16 to an 11 win season in ‘17. The big challenge staying closer to the 11 win level than the 6 is replacing QB Kenny Hill while also rebuilding the o-line after losing 4 starters. The key to that turnaround was a return to the stout defenses that are the hallmark of a Gary Patterson coached team. Only 1 of the top 4 tacklers return to the D but there is depth. This is a much less experienced team than in 2017, but don’t count out Patterson – 11 wins in 3 of the last 4 seasons.

23. Utah – the Utes are so under the radar I wonder if even avid college football fans realize that HC Kyle Whittingham is the 3rd longest tenured coach at the same school in FBS, entering his 15th year at Utah. It took a few years after the Utes joined the Pac-12 for the talent level to come up, but now they’re a consistently solid program in the South Division, with three 9-win seasons in the last 4 years. QB Tyler Huntley returns after missing some games during the middle of the year to injury, and with 4 starters back on the o-line, the offense could be the best it’s been in several years. Six starters are back on defense, but the defensive line, a typical strong point of Whittingham teams, is rebuilding in 2018. It’s tempting to pick the Utes to win the wide open South division but the rub is the schedule – 5 away games, and Utah draws all 3 heavyweights from the North – Oregon, Stanford and Washington. Still a healthier team should bounce back from the 7 win campaign of 2017.

24. WVU – QB Will Grier returns after throwing for over 3500 yards with 34 TDs despite missing 2 games with a thumb injury, and brings back his top WR targets. Grier is not only the top QB in the Big 12 but in the discussion for best in the nation. The problem for the “Neers is on the other side of the ball, where the D gave up a whopping 31 points per game. And with the top two tacklers leaving and only 5 starters returning, I don’t see the D getting much better in ‘18. The schedule includes two power 5 teams among the 3 OOC games in NC State and Tennessee, and road games against Texas and OK State will be challenging; but TCU and OU come to Morgantown. The offense should be fantastic but the defense will hold the team back from a better record and Big 12 finish.

25. LSU – The offensive improvement that at least the LSU AD expected when Ed Orgeron was hired to replace Les Miles has not yet occured; but expectations are high with incoming transfer QB Joe Borrow from Ohio State. Another change comes at OC where the Matt Canada era was short lived and Steve Ensminger takes over. With Borrow as the starter, the numbers should improve on last seasons 76th rank in scoring, but a lot of new parts have to come together for a top say 30 finish. The defense is not an issue, with 7 starters back from a unit that was in the top 25 in every major category, another excellent year on that side of the ball looks likely… DC Dave Aranda will be worth his $10 million/4 year contract. The TIgers play 3 teams from their division ranked above them, draw UGA out of the East and face Miami in the opener. Although LSU has the type of team that can upset Miami, this looks like another 4 or so loss team.

26. Virginia Tech – Following a legend like Frank Beamer is not easy, but HC Justin Fuente appears to be the right man for the job as the Hokies won 10 and 9 games in his first two seasons. This year presents some challenges, although the Hokies finally have a returning starter at QB, Josh Jackson was an ok 20/9 TDs/INTs on the season. Meanwhile the defense is in rebuilding mode, not only losing several key starters to the NFL, but a terrible offseason of injuries and suspensions, leaves that side of the ball even less experienced. Don’t count out DC Bud Foster though in cobbling together a more than capable unit.

27. South Carolina – the hire of Will Muschamp was generally panned, as Muschamp had been fired at fellow SEC East program Florida primarily for never getting the offense going. But the Gamecocks quietly has a good season in ‘17, finishing with 9 wins including an Outback Bowl victory over Michigan. The defense was good, #25 in the nation in scoring and with 6 starters back should at least maintain. The offense was good enough, but this year’s team has the chance to be Muschamp’s best with star WR Deebo Samuel and RB Rico Dowdle both back after missing time last year to injury; and having a 3 year starter at QB in Jake Bentley.  The schedule features a home game with UGA and trip to Clemson, but is otherwise not daunting, drawing A&M and Ole Miss from the other division. Another 9 win season is quite possible and a win over UGA could lead to even bigger things.

28. Arizona – For a several game stretch in mid-season last year, Wildcat highlights became must see TV, when QB Khalil Tate burst onto the scene when he rushed for 327! Yards against Colorado in a 45-42 win. Teams did a better job containing the rush at the end of the year and the bend and break Arizona defense gave up 40+ in 3 of the last 4 games, all losses. But with a more experienced Tate back, and new HC Kevin Sumlin taking over (no stranger to electric QBs), the Wildcats will be one of the most exciting teams in the nation. The defense does have 9 starters back so just some improvement would allow for U of A to pull out a few more wins. The schedule does not include Washington or Stanford from the North Division, so a visit from USC Sept 29 looms large in getting the Wildcats to their first conference championship game since ‘14.

29. Boston College – The Eagles struggled to score in their 2-4 start, but the offense roared to life in a stunning 45-42 win at Louisville. This lead to a 5-1 finish, highlighted by the 32 point drubbing of FSU on Red Bandana night at Chestnut Hill. The catalyst was RB AJ Dillon who exploded for 1500 yards rushing and is one of a staggering 10 returning starters on O. BC has a tough schedule, getting VA Tech and Miami out of the Coastal and a tricky road OOC game at Purdue, but just a little bit of a passing attack and the Eagles could win 8 games for the first time under HC Steve Addazio.

30. Texas A&M – Aggies made the splashiest hire of the offseason, bringing in Jimbo Fisher to turn around a program that had faded under HC Kevin Sumlin after a great start. Fisher had an amazing run from ‘12-’14 with the Noles, 3 top ten finishes, a national title in ‘13 and the nation’s longest winning streak in the ‘14 regular season. The last 3 years, not so much; 14-10 in the ACC includes last season’s 30 point loss to Boston College and issues off the field and in the classroom. The Fisher era has started well though with great recruiting and an excellent hire at DC – Mike Elko, who turned around the D at Notre Dame after several years of good defenses at Wake. It will take some time for Fisher to install his offense and get a high level of QB play, but look for a 6-7 point decrease in avg points allowed on defense. This should be enough for improvement in the 7-6 record from ‘17.

31. NC State – While Clemson kept all of their stars along the defensive line, State lost theirs, including the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in Bradley Chubb. Ony 3 defensive starters return from a unit that even with Chubb was only #50 in the nation in scoring D. The offense is in better shape, with QB Ryan Finley deciding to come back to school for one more year after throwing for 3500 yards in 2017. If the offense plays as well as it did in the Sun Bowl, a 52-32 win over Arizona State, then another top 25 finish is possible; but even with all that defensive talent now in the NFL, State was only #23 in 2017.

32. Oklahoma State – The Cowboys ended 2017 with a bowl win, a top 15 ranking and another 10 wins, but it felt like something was left on the table with all the talent on offense that OSU had. And ‘had’ is the keyword, as the QB Mason Rudolph (4900 yards passing) and WR’s James Washington (1500 yards receiving) and Marcell Ateman (1100 yards receiving) depart. RB Justice Hill, who led the Big 12 in rushing with over 1500 yards is back though. The defense struggled to contain the good offenses, bottoming out in the 62-52 loss to rival OU. With 7 starters back on D, there should be some improvement from the #79 ranking in 2017, but will it be enough to stop the prolific Big 12 offenses? Meanwhile, HC Mike Gundy announced that 5th year Sr Taylor Cornelius had won the starting job; his last start was against Wall High in the Texas Class 2A playoffs in 2013. Super recruit at QB Spencer Sanders is listed at 3rd on the depth chart, so while he may be the future he is not the QB for 2018. Gundy has been incredibly successful at Ok State, but this looks to be a year where the record takes a step back.

33. Duke – the job that HC David Cutcliffe has done in Durham is nothing short of amazing, leading the Dukies to 3 8 win seasons in the last 5 years. The record fell off in 2016, but is now back on an upwards trajectory, after ending 2017 with 2 straight wins and a 7-6 record. Duke won with defense last season and that looks to be the strong point of the team this year, with 8 starters back from the unit that finished 21st in the nation in scoring and total defense. QB Daniel Jones did not have spectacular numbers in ‘17, but most of his key targets return and has the intelligence and experience of a 3rd year starter. The schedule is not easy, drawing Clemson from the Atlantic Division and features a trip to Northwestern and Baylor in the OOC portion. But the experience on this team and the reputation of Cutcliffe means an 8 win season is a reasonable goal.

34. Iowa – The Hawkeyes have finished 8-5 three times in the last 5 years, so assuming the New England Patriots don’t decide to fire HC Bill Belichick for the Super Bowl loss and hire away HC Kirk Ferentz, this seems about right for 2018. Iowa’s 2017 season was highlighted by the shocking blow out win over Ohio State, but they lost 3 of their 4 Big Ten road games.  QB Nate Stanley is back after a solid first year and has a talented TE in Noah Fant back who caught a whopping 11 TDs last year. The defense returns 6 starters but not LB Josey Jewell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the year, and his 134 tackles on the season. The schedule though is very friendly, with no Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State to be found, and WIsconsin and Nebraska come to Iowa City where the Hawks play well.

35. Florida – HC Jim McElwain had to deal with numerous players suspended for last season’s opener vs Michigan, but appeared to have righted the ship after a win over Tennessee left the Gators #20 in the rankings. But a 1-6 finish, which included blowout losses to rivals UGA and FSU, left the Gators 4-7 and home for bowl season. Throw in some weird off the field issues and McElwain was shown the door. New HC Dan Mullen comes from a successful stint as HC of Mississippi State which followed several years as the OC at Florida under Urban Meyer. The defense took a step back in ‘17, but the talent is there for a rebound. The offense returns 10 starters but Mullen has his work cut out for him to get consistent play at the QB position. Mullen is known for his offensive acumen, and maybe the only returner with experience at QB, Felipe Franks, just needed more time to develop. Gators should improve enough right away to at least get back to a bowl in ‘18.


College Football Playoffs – Thoughts and Reaction

So the College Football Playoffs are set; the committee released the final top 4 this afternoon and they are: 1) Clemson 2) Oklahoma 3) Georgia and 4) Alabama. The first 3 were widely expected as the only question going into the afternoon revolved around the 4th and final spot. Most framed the debate as Ohio State (a 2 loss conference champion) vs Alabama (a 1 loss non champion). USC, also a 2 loss conference champion was thought not to be in the debate, as the Trojans were down at #10 going into the last weekend.
On the morning ESPN show previewing the committee’s final decision, the 3 unbiased analysts, consisting of former players from Alabama, LSU and Georgia, unanimously supported the SEC’s Alabama as the 4th team in. Booger McFarland, who played at LSU, recommended the committee not pay attention to any ‘data’ but use the ‘eye test’ – and that Alabama was clearly the better team for the season as a whole. The committee did select Alabama for the 4th slot. What criteria the committee uses exactly is still unclear after 4 years of playoffs, but the committee spokesman did call out Ohio State’s bad loss – the 30+ point defeat to an Iowa team that finished 7-5 – as a big factor in their final decision.

So was the ESPN SEC crew correct? Should Alabama have been in the playoffs over Ohio State? Is the SEC strong enough to deserve 2 teams in the playoffs? Whats worse – to not defeat a single top 15 team? or to have not one but two blowout losses?

Quite frankly, its not an easy call. Alabama did not look like a top 4 team in its most recent games at Mississippi State and at Auburn. Only once before this year did a team make the playoff without a top 15 win (and that time it also was Alabama). Meanwhile, Ohio State had 3 wins over top 15 teams… but are these really top 15 teams? There are 5 Big Ten teams in the top 20 – Northwestern, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. These 5 teams played a total of 2 ranked teams this year – and were blown out at home in both. Northwestern did not play a ranked team, had a loss anyway; a 24 point drubbing at the hands of 6-6 (3-5 in the ACC) Duke.

In other words, both these teams have a lot of flaws and resume holes. So why didn’t USC at least get a closer look? They were conference champions and every non-conference game was against a team with a pulse. USC idd not have a cupcake before their season finale and played 9 straight conference games. True, they were blown out – but by a good team on the road (not a good team at home, Ohio State by OU or a bad team on the road like Ohio State by Iowa). Their other loss was in  the tough environment of the Friday night road game, and loss to a much better team than Clemson’s Friday night loss.

But when push comes to shove at the very end, when you’re trying to separate teams that all have significant accomplishments but noticeable flaws, for me it came down to who would win. If Ohio State, Alabama and USC played each other, who would win those games? Who has a better chance to beat #1 seed Clemson? For the latter question, I would answer Alabama has the best chance of the 3 to beat Clemson and actually USC would be next and Ohio State would have the least chance to win. I’ll admit last year’s game between the Buckeyes and the Tigers is still in my brain, but after watching Ohio State against a playoff team at home (OU) this season, I don’t have much faith the outcome would be different enough to get a win.

This does mean that the SEC gets two teams in the playoff, in a year when the conference was not at the level it was when it was wining all those national titles. When the 4th place team out of 14 loses at home to Troy, its not a dominant conference top to bottom.

The committee could have made this easy.. just say conference championships aren’t just a factor they carry the majority of the weight. A non champion must be an amazingly dominant team that a weird fluke kept them out of the conference title game. Alabama is good but would not have met this criteria and the playoff would be 4 conference champions. The committee has in back to back years now, picked a non champion. Will this lead to more changes in the guidance to the committee or the structure of the playoffs?

Thoughts on the Initial Playoff Rankings..

The 1st Edition of the College Football Playoff rankings were released this evening.. a look at the Top 10:
1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Notre Dame
4. Clemson
5. Oklahoma
6. Ohio State
7. Penn State
8. TCU
9. Wisconsin
10. Miami

Kudos to the committee for ignoring the AP poll and rewarding the teams with quality wins. In the long run it doesn’t matter, but for now Georgia is ahead of Alabama for #1, as the Dawgs have the best win of any team – over #3 Notre Dame. Tide certainly pass the eye test, but don’t have many quality wins. That will change in coming weeks though. Notre Dame has 3 wins over current Top 25 teams, all by big margins and is the highest ranked 1 loss team. Clemson’s loss is against mediocre Syracuse, but has 6 wins over teams that are .500 or over – most of anyone. OU over Ohio State as the committee didn’t forget the early season dominant win by the Sooners in Columbus.
I expected that Wisconsin and Miami would be much lower in the committee rankings than in the old fashioned AP poll, which continues to focus solely on record and doesn’t look at anything else. The committee noted that Wisconsin and Miami has no wins over ranked teams, although Miami has two monster games coming up.
Of course, this is just the first set of rankings. In the past 3 years, just 1, 2 and 2 of the initial Top 4 made the playoffs, and in two of the three years, a team outside the top 10 in the first rankings, was in the final four at the end.

Conference Ranking for 2017

What was unthinkable 5 years ago happened in 2016… the ACC was the best conference in college football. The top of the conference could not have done more, going 3-0 in the NY6/playoffs, defeating Saban, Meyer and Harbaugh along the way and closed the post-season by hoisting the National Championship Trophy. The middle teams were good too as evidenced by the 9-3 bowl record, which ties for the most bowl wins by any conference in history. The overall depth of the conference was evident in the 17-9 record against the other Power 5 teams, not only the best but the only conference with a record over .500/.

But 2017 is a new year. Several of the ACC’s top players, in particular on offense are now in the NFL including QB Deshaun Watson, QB Mitch Tribinsky and RB Dalvin Cook. The SEC did not have great QB play in 2016 but returns many young QBs that could have big years this season. The Pac 12 probably has the best collection of QBs and although the Big 12 appears the least talented, expected improvements at Texas and TCU should improve the depth there. Each conference has 2 teams that could make the playoffs (although its in the SEC that its the hardest to find that 2nd team) and no conference will be much stronger or much weaker than the others… a much smaller spread in the conference rankings than has happened in the past.

Conference Rankings for 2017
1. SEC – even though the ACC had the best year in 2016, the SEC still produced the most picks in the NFL draft and given the resources spent on recruiting and the location in the footprint of the best high school players, the SEC still has the best collection of talent. Improved QB play and the emergence of some consenters to Alabama should elevate the SEC back up to number 1 among the conferences.
2. Big Ten – the depth at the top of the Big Ten is probably better than the SEC’s but the bad teams at the bottom hurt the conference’s top to bottom ranking. If Michigan reloads better than expected and another contender comes out of the West division, the Big 10 could best the SEC.
3. ACC – the drop off in QB play will be somewhat offset by what could be one great defensive front after another from Clemson to Miami to FSU to NC State and others. The hires the AD’s have made in recent years have dramatically improved the quality of the coaching in the conference, but given the resources are the most limited overall of all the power conference, just a middle of the pack rating is still a solid accomplishment.
4. Pac 12 – USC and Washington are playoff contenders and Stanford and Washington State should be solid (in very different ways). The struggles of the middle programs like Arizona and Arizona State hurt just as did Oregon’s collapse to 4-8 in 2016. While the Ducks should be improved, Colorado may come back down after a surprising season.
5. Big 12 – the amalgamation of the old Southwest Conference and Big 8 has taken its lumps in recent years from the lack of success in the playoff era to the freakishly few draft picks (less than the American in 2016). The struggles at Texas have really hurt the conference but Herman should show some improvement right away, and if TCU and Baylor improve too the conference can have a better overall season. Does the new Conference Championship Game knock out their playoff contender with an upset?