Folks, I’ve got some bad news: After five months, thousands of angry playoff debates and one national title game for the ages, college football is officially over. With Clemson your 2016 national champion, we’ve got a long, painful, eight-month stretch between now and the start of the start of the 2017 season.
Even though there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 240 days between now and kickoff, it’s never too early to look ahead. Most of the major NFL declarations have been made, and for the first time, it’s safe to start projecting out next season. Clemson will almost certainly take a step back without Deshaun Watson, and with Alabama, Ohio State and Washington all suffering major personnel losses as well, it seems likely that there will be some new blood in next year’s College Football Playoff.
So which teams that missed this season’s playoff could make it next winter? Here are 11.
It sounds preposterous that after a 5-7 season that included a loss to Kansas, the Longhorns could be in the playoff mix next year. But with everyone from the folks in Vegas to Charlie Strong himself expecting big things from Texas, it might be time to start taking them seriously.
And with good reason. The Longhorns return virtually their entire defense (including eight of their 10 leading tacklers) with Shane Buechele back to lead the offense. As much as Buechele struggled at times, he threw 21 touchdowns as a true freshman and should be significantly better in 2017. So, too, should the Longhorns.
Tom Herman’s loss was Ed Orgeron’s gain. Just hours after Herman’s interest in the LSU job cooled, Orgeron was named the head man. And boy, what a team he inherits.
Sure, most of the focus is on the guys that LSU loses (Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Tre’Davious White), but let’s focus on who comes back. Derrius Guice is one of the top returning rushers in the SEC, and the defense is always stocked full of talent -- even if we’re not quite sure who the stars will be entering the season.
What it really comes down to for LSU entering 2017 is this: How do Danny Etling and the passing game adjust to new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme? If the answer is “smoothly,” we could be looking at a darkhorse playoff contender.
This is based entirely on the fact that Lamar Jackson returns to Louisville, and that for about 10 weeks this year, he was one of the most electric college football players we’ve seen in years.
Still, with the departure of a good chunk of their defense and star running back Brandon Radcliffe, it will take a super-human effort from Jackson (even more so than this year) to get the Cardinals into the playoff.
We’re not ruling out the Cardinals completely from this conversation. But it does feel like a long shot at best.
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Oklahoma State Cowboys
This is almost entirely based on the fact that Oklahoma State will return the best pitch-catch combination in college football next year in Mason Rudolph (4,091 yards passing, 28 touchdowns) and James Washington, who tallied a staggering 19 yards per catch on 71 grabs this season.
Admittedly, it’s been six seasons since the Pokes last won the Big 12 and were a true title contender. But if there’s ever a year where they jump back into the fray, 2017 seems like it might be it.
Truthfully, I’m not as high on the Wolverines as most going into next year, if only because they lose virtually every meaningful player off their roster from 2016. Name a contributor from this year – including everyone from Jabrill Peppers to Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jourdan Lewis – and they’re all gone next season.
At the same time, it feels like it’d be disingenuous to count out the Wolverines. For the second straight year, Jim Harbaugh is set to sign a Top 5 recruiting class, meaning that even if the Wolverines’ talent is young in 2017, it will be there. Not to mention that the schedule – with Ohio State and Michigan State at home – is manageable, with the toughest test potentially coming at Penn State. And we all saw what happened when those two teams played this year, right?
Suddenly, a Michigan playoff berth doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?
We’re still in the “long shot” range, but a case can be made for the Tigers. For starters, they appear to have finally – FINALLY – found their answer at quarterback, with the arrival of Jarrett Stidham. The Baylor transfer threw for 12 touchdowns in limited time in 2015 before sitting out all of this past season as a transfer. The Tigers will also welcome back the SEC’s most feared rusher, Kamryn Pettway, who averaged a staggering 136 yards per game on the ground last season.
Then there’s the schedule. If Auburn is ever going to climb Mt. Saban – which is what it will almost certainly take to make the playoff – 2017 seems like the year, right? At home, with arguably the best quarterback in the league, and Alabama –
OK, so anyone topping Alabama in the SEC feels preposterous. But stranger things have happened, right?
Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions were the darlings of the regular season and team that many – myself included – still believe should have been in the playoff. But no worries, Penn State fans. With a number of key returnees, there’s no reason to think the Nittany Lions won’t be firmly in the mix heading into 2017.
It all starts on offense, where Trace McSorely returns after tossing 29 touchdowns this season, and Saquon Barkley is the best returning running back in the Big Ten, if not the country. The schedule is also more manageable than other Big Ten teams', with no Wisconsin, and Michigan at home. A road trip to Ohio State looms tough, but that’s the same Ohio State club the Nittany Lions beat this season.
After nine wins in their last 10 games in 2016, Penn State could break through right into the playoff next season.
Expect Georgia to get the full-fledged Tennessee Vols treatment next summer, as the club that could make the leap from “uninteresting bowl team” to “playoff contender.” For Kirby Smart’s sake, let’s hope things work out better for the ‘Dawgs than they did for the Vols (who finished 9-4 overall).
Still, the hype will be justifiable for Georgia, a club that benefitted more than any other from a handful of players turning down NFL opportunities to return to college. Nick Chubb will be back for a fourth season after rushing for 1,130 yards this season and Jacob Eason is back after tossing 16 touchdowns as a true freshman. On defense, a number of key players, including linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive tackle Trenton Thompson return.
Florida State Seminoles
After limping off to a 3-2 start, the Seminoles' 2016 season was over before it even really began. However, after winning seven of their final eight games (with their only loss to eventual national champion Clemson), there’s reason for major optimism in Tallahassee entering 2017.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Deondre Francois returns after an impressive redshirt freshman season, which included 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The defense will again be loaded and welcomes back all-world safety Derwin James, who suffered a knee injury the second game of the season and missed the remainder of the year.
So how good will Florida State be? We should find out quickly: They open the season in Atlanta against some school called “Alabama.”
After two college stops and seemingly two decades in college football, the Baker Mayfield experience will come to an end in 2017, when the fifth-year senior takes his final snaps in Norman. The question is how good the talent around him will be, with running backs Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon, as well as Bilitnekoff Award winner Dede Westbrook headed to the NFL.
Frankly, it might not matter as much as you think. The Big 12 looks like it once again be a bit down; Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas all linger, but none will have the front-line talent of the Sooners.
If Oklahoma can get by Ohio State in Week 2 – a big “if” – it should be favored in every game the rest of the season. Even if the Sooners lose to the Buckeyes, they still might be able to win enough to find themselves in next year’s final four.
Or as we should probably call them “The Fighting Sam Darnolds.” The simple truth is that USC was a completely different team once Darnold took over this season; he won his last nine games as a starter and will enter 2017 as a major Heisman contender.
In addition to Darnold – who threw 31 touchdowns in just 10 games this season -- including a record five TDs in the Rose Bowl – the Trojans are absolutely loaded. They also return 1,000-yard rusher Ronald Jones II, as well as a stacked defense that includes leading tackler Cameron Smith and terror Porter Gustin along the defensive line. There’s also still a small (though not realistic) chance that Thorpe Award winner Adoree Jackson returns as well.
Even without Jackson, the Trojans will be an overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12 next season, especially in a season in which teams like Washington and Colorado should take a step back. That’s also why USC is the team most likely to make the playoff in 2017 after missing it this year.