Monthly Archives: August 2018

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.