It’s that time of year already, college football fans.
This Saturday, the march to NCAA College Football Bowl Series (FBS) and the national championship on Jan. 8, 2018 begins in earnest with five D-1 games.
Group of 5 and Mountain West Conference representative Colorado State Rams get first dibs honors, entertaining Power 5 and Pac-12 member Oregon State Beavers in a 2:30 PM (ET) tilt.
Things then get kicked into high gear on Thurs., Aug. 31 with a slew of games.
The defending national champion Clemson Tigers, sans Deshaun Watson, get their 2017 campaign rolling when Kent State comes calling on Sept. 2. Runner-up Alabama Crimson Tide, who lost in the dying seconds of the title game, get a tough contest right out of the gate, tangling with Florida State at home, also on Sept. 2.
There is already plenty of speculation about just who will rise to the top of the polls and make a big run at the title.
Here are our early season thoughts on 20 teams we think have a legitimate shot at being no. 1.
20. West Virginia Mountaineers
Depending on which poll is consulted, the Big-12 Mountaineers are ranked anywhere from 20th (Sporting News) to 22nd (AP) and 21st (Sports Illustrated). We like them at no. 20, based on the fact they are coming off a 10-3 season and have former Florida Gators QB Will Grier in the fold. Grier played six games for Florida in 2015, then was suspended for failing a drug test and then left the team and school. In those six games (all wins) he threw for 1,204 yards and 10 TDs (just three INTs) and recorded a passer rating of 145.4. Grier will be capably backed up by senior running back Justin Crawford, who ran for 1,181 yards and four TDs in 2016. Coach Dana Holgorsen may have the horses to replicate that 10-win season of a year ago.
19. South Florida Bulls
Ranked 19th a year ago after a historic 11-2 season in the American Athletic Conference (Group of 5), the USF Bulls occupy that spot again in most polls. To make it to the playoffs, the Bulls will have to hope there is plenty of upheaval in the Power 5 conferences, considering a Group of 5 team has never been a top-four finalist (hence the reason there has been a call for a separate set of playoffs). Any way things are sliced, the Bulls might just be the best team outside of the Power 5. Standout senior QB Quinton Flowers returns, fresh off a season that saw him pile up 2,812 passing yards, 24 TDs (7 INTs) and a 153.6 passer rating. The defence, which gave up 31.6 points per game last year, only gets better with nine starting returnees. USF gets its season going with a game this Saturday in California against San Jose State.
18. Kansas State Wildcats
Just getting out of the Big 12, with powerhouse teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia to overcome will be tough enough. Yet, the Wildcats have been tabbed a top 20 team in most polls, with a great coach in Bill Snyder at the helm. Snyder has had a winning record in all but two of his eight seasons in his second go around with K-State. The Wildcats finished 9-4 last season and they return starting pivot Jesse Ertz for his final season, along with standout receiver Byron Pringle and Alex Barnes. The defence may be a bit more of a question mark, as LB Elijah Lee and DE Jordan Willis are gone. However sophomore DE Reggie Walker recorded 6.5 sacks as a freshman last year and CB D.J. Reed is back to improve on his Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year stats.
17. Louisville Cardinals
As Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson goes, so go the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards finished second in the Power 5 ACC last year with a 9-4 record, behind only 14-1 national champion Clemson. Jackson was entirely dominant as a sophomore (and was just 19) last season, throwing for ,3543 yards and 30 TDs. He also rolled up an incredible 1,571 yards rushing and scored another 21 touchdowns. The job at hand is for coach Bobby Petrino to ensure that an overhauled receiving corps enhances Jackson’s chances of at least duplicating his amazing overall stats of a year ago. The Cardinals get things rolling on the road against Purdue on Sept. 2.
16. Florida Gators
If the Gators want to make a splash (ahem) this year, they are going to have to rely on a defence that was ranked in the top 20 last year, but has rolled over eight starters and may be in tough in the ultra-competitive SEC. Which means an offence that was ranked way down at no. 107 in 2016 will have to pick up the slack. A quarterback battle has developed in training camp, with incumbent Luke Del Rio having to contend with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire. That battle will continue right up to the Gators first tilt with highly touted Michigan on Sept. 2. Outside of the QB quandary, RB Jordan Scarlett will shoulder much of the running load in his junior year. He ran for 889 yards and six touchdowns last season.
15. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Their first game might be against Tulsa on Sept. 2, but we are going to bet the Cowboys have November 4 circled on their calendar, when Big 12 foe and cross-state rival Oklahoma comes to Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. The Cowboys finished second in the Big 12 behind the Sooners in 2016 and beat no. 11 Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, 38-8. Offensively, this team is loaded with returning QB Mason Rudolph (4,091 yards, 28 TD – 4 INT), running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards, 6 TD) and receivers Jalen McCleskey (73 catches, 812 yards, 7 TD) and James Washington (1,38o yards, 10 TD). They lost three key starters on defence, so there is plenty of work to do there plugging the holes.
14. Stanford Cardinal
We finally cross the continental divide to pay homage to the Cardinal of the Pac-12. They have been extremely consistent on the left coast, winning at least 10 games five of the last six seasons under coach David Shaw. And they can get an early start on another 10-win campaign by beating the host Rice Owls this Saturday in Houston. Stanford went 10-3 last year and beat North Carolina 25-23 in the Sun Bowl, earning a final ranking of no. 16 in the nation. QB Keller Chryst seems to have shook off the rust from a knee injury suffered during that game and will helm an offence that has a noticeable hole at running back where Christian McCaffery used to be. Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett are due to try and make up for McCaffery’s all around play, while returning Trenton Iriwn and JJ Arcega-Whiteside lead the receiving corps. The Cardinal’s biggest weapon may be their defensive secondary, which features returning backs Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid.
13. LSU Tigers
One of the nation’s top programs last won the title game in 2007 and lost it four years later to Alabama in 2011. The Tigers, who finished 9-3 in 2016 and beat Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl, 56-27. They have a new coach in Ed Orgeron, who has plenty of experience as an assistant coach and three seasons at the helm of Ole Miss to draw on. Like most good Tigers teams, running back Derrius Guice, who replaces the departed Leonard Fournette, will be the key piece in the offensive set. The junior runner piled up 1,387 yards rushing last year, along with 15 TDs. QB Danny Etling had a pretty good year as a junior last year, throwing for 2,123 yards and 11 touchdowns. Defensively, LSU returns only four starters, so there may be growing pains. LSU hosts Brigham Young in on Sept. 2 and a later season stretch sees them taking on four SEC foes in a row, highlighted by a visit to Alabama on Nov. 4.
12. Auburn Tigers
That other Tigers team from the SEC will also be in tough in a division that includes powerful Alabama. Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham takes the reins over center and while he is no Cam Newton, will help solidify that position after being named starter this month. He had a ridiculous 199 passer rating last year, based on 1,265 yards passing (68.8 percent completion rate), 12 TDs and just two INTs. While they are solid offensively, the Tigers lost defensive stalwarts DE Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams to the NFL. The D-line might be a question mark, then, but the backfield looks solid with returning LBs Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams and CB Carlton Davis. The SEC is going to be a dogfight and these Tigers get roaring on Sept. 2 against Georgia Southern.
11. Michigan Wolverines
The Jim Harbaugh coached Wolverines might be ranked higher, if not for the fact the team is rebuilding. However, they have had back-to-back top 5 recruiting classes and should make some big noise in the Big 10. Harbaugh has had back-to-back 10-3 seasons since taking over in 2015 and will have his hands full mostly on defence, where Big Blue returns just one starter, LB Mike McCray. On offence, though, he has junior QB Wilton Speight to rely on. Speight tossed for 2,548 yards and 18 TDs (7 INTs) in 2016 in his first full season as a starter. The Wolverines are also blessed with a quartet of fine running backs led by sophomore Chris Evans who ran for 614 yards and four TDs as a freshman in 2016. Michigan does have a tough schedule this year and it opens with a big tilt against ranked Florida on Sept. 2.
10. Georgia Bulldogs
If the Bulldogs hope to be successful in the ultra-competitive SEC, they will rely on a defence that is returning 11 starters. After finishing 8-5 last year (including three losses by three points or less), Georgia is well-positioned then to make a run at the East division crown. Senior linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, who both registered five sacks last year, will be counted on to maul opposition quarterbacks again this season. Senior safety Dominick Sanders was tops in interceptions with three and heads a really good secondary. On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore pivot Jacob Eason was solid last year as a freshman and has returning running backs Nick Chubb (1,130 yards, 8 TD) and Sony Michel (840 yards, 4 TD) to support him. The early part of the ‘Dogs schedule isn’t overly difficult (they open against Appalachian State on Sept. 2), but it gets tough starting on Sept. 30 when they visit ranked Tennessee.
9. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers dodged a couple of bullets when their schedule was released this year. They won’t have to play Big 10 powerhouses Ohio State or Penn State and their only ranked opponent is Michigan, who they will host in the second last game of the regular season. Not to say that the likes of West Division foes Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota won’t just roll over, but the football Gods smiled on Wisconsin this year. They were 11-3 last year and in order to get to the Big 10 title game and beyond, they will count on the continued progress of sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook and a receiving corps fronted by All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli. On the defensive side of the ball, a stingy Badgers unit that surrendered just 15.6 points per game in 2016 doesn’t have a lot of holes in it and sackmaster T.J. Watt (11.5) is back along with Vince Biegel, who had four more.
8. Washington Huskies
The Huskies are stuck in the middle of the top 10, ranked anywhere from 8th to 4th in the nation. They are an odds-on favorite to dominate the Power 5 Pac-12 and don’t have an overly tough schedule until they face ranked opponents Stanford and Washington State in the last three games of the regular season. The Huskies offence will be key to their fortunes this season, with QB Jake Browning calling the plays again after a monster 2016 season. He threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns and a lofty 167.5 passer rating. He did lose top receiver John Ross to the pros (1,150 yards receiving, 17 TDs), but still has Dante Pettis (822 yards, 15 TD) to rely on. In the backfield, Myles Gaskin (1,373 yards rushing, 10 TD) and Lavon Coleman (852 yards, 7 TD) are back. The Huskies cross the continent to face Rutgers first on Sept. 1.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners will be gunning for a three-peat in 2017, having won the Big 12 championship the last two years in a row. This powerhouse program has only failed to reach double digit wins twice since 2000 and is coming off back 11-2 campaigns. If they are going to achieve elusive perfection (they were 13-0 in 2000 and national champions), they will have an early test in week 2, when they visit Ohio State. If they can weather that storm and win, they have a legitimate shot at being no. 1 at the end of the FBS. However, it won’t be the legendary Bob Stoops running things on the sidelines. That honor goes to 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, who was offensive coordinator last year. But, the youngish head coach does have the luxury of utilizing Heisman candidate QB Baker Mayfield. He has thrown for an eye-popping 7,665 yards and 76 touchdowns the last two seasons. The defence may be a bit more of a question mark, but the Sooners do look mighty good.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
The ugliness of two seasons spent in the football wilderness after the Jerry Sandusky scandal that nearly wiped out the Nittany Lions football program has passed. The Nittany Lions hit double digit wins (11-3) in 2016 for the first time since 2009 when they went 11-2 under Joe Paterno. They just missed a playoff berth, based on early season losses to Pitt and Michigan. They did beat no. 2 Ohio State later and won the Big 10 championship, though and lost a heartbreaker to USC in the Rose Bowl by a count of 52-49 to finish the season no. 5 in the polls. They have a high powered offence featuring quarterback Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley and TE Mike Gesicki. The early part of their schedule isn’t overly tough, but after six games they have to host ranked Michigan and then make a visit to the unfriendly confines of Ohio State University the week after.
5. USC Trojans
The quarterback position at USC has always been a prestigious one and the list of former pivots is distinguished and in some cases controversial. They include Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer, Todd Marinovich and Rodney Peete, to name a few. Sam Darnold will be no different, a likely All-American this year who had a monster freshman season, passing for 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns (just nine INTs) and a passer rating of 161.1. Once he took over the starting job for good on Oct. 1 last year, he took the 1-3 Trojans on a nine-game winning streak, capped by a five TD performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And he’ll have plenty of help on offence this year, with standout RB Ronald Jones (1,158 all-purpose yards, 13 TD) in the backfield. USC hosts Western Michigan on Sept. 2 on the road to a potential Pac-12 championship and the FBS playoffs, then sees ranked Stanford and Texas make back-to-back visits.
4. Clemson Tigers
The defending national champs will find the road to the FBS title a little tougher to hoe this year. They lost offensive stars Mike Williams and Deshaun Watson to the pros, as well as defensive standouts Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley and Carlos Watkins. Replacing Watson will be a tough assignment that likely falls on the shoulders of junior Kelly Bryant, who was anointed earlier this month by coach Dabo Swinney. He beat out promising youngsters Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson and may be pushed a bit if the going gets rough. Bryant does have some intriguing targets to throw to, however, in junior WR Deon Cain (724 yards, nine TD in 2016) and Hunter Renfrow (495 yards, 6 TDs). The Tigers entertain Kent State on Sept. 2, but they have probably circled a big tilt with ranked Florida State on Nov. 11 as a pivotal one that could decide the ACC championship.
3. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles will spell relief with a capital “D” this season. The ACC powerhouse returns nine starters on defence and has safety Derwin James, one of the best in college football, back on the roster after he missed most of the 2016 campaign with a knee injury. In addition they have a great defensive line anchored by Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas and an outstanding cover man in the backfield in Tarvarus McFadden. On offence, sophomore QB Deondre Francois played very well in 2016, throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 TDs, but will need a heck of a lot more help from his O-line after being sacked 34 times last year. The Seminoles have been to a record 34 straight bowl games (they won the Orange Bowl over Michigan last year) and were national champs in 2013. If they want to be champs again, they have a tough start, with a “road” game against consensus no. 1 Alabama at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 2.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
With only six returnees in 2016, the Buckeyes did very well to make it to the football playoffs, losing to eventual champion Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl semi-final. Just think, then, what Ohio State can do with a bit bigger herd of returning players this year. That holds especially true for QB J.T. Barrett, who will have former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson calling the offensive sets for coach Urban Meyer. OSU last won the Big 10 in 2014 and will finish this season with a flurry of big contests, including a home game against Penn State late in October and a visit to Michigan in the last game of the season on Nov. 25. Defensively, the Buckeyes defensive line might be the best in the nation, with All-America candidates Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa headlining it. The defensive backfield, though, has question marks and will miss greatly the departures of Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The Tide should roll into their fourth straight college football playoffs this season. They are the only NCAA D-1 team to appear in the first three, losing to Clemson in the national championship game last year. The Crimson Tide won it all in 2015 over those very same Tigers. Coach Nick Saban will have to get the most out of a decent, and somewhat rebuilt defence that lost CB Marlon Humphrey, DE Jonathan Allen and LB Reuben Foster in the first round of the NFL draft. The secondary is very solid, with senior DBs Anthony Averett and Tony Brown leading the way along with converted receiver and sophomore Trevon Diggs. On offence, dual threat pivot Jalen Hurts will hopefully put more into his passing game (2,780 yards, 23 TD) and continue to run like a gazelle (954 yards rushing, 13 TD). The road to an undefeated season and another visit to the college football playoffs and final gets off to a blazing start on Sept. 2 when the Tide entertain third ranked Florida State.