The kickoff of the 2017 college football season might still be a little over two months away, but it gets a tiny bit closer with each passing day. Media days are set to begin in earnest next month, and before you know it, you’ll be firing up the grill – and demanding that your alma mater’s coach be fired just a few hours later. Ah, college football.
But now let’s look at the opposite. What could allow each of this year’s preseason Top 25 teams to surpass expectations?
Mississippi State: Nick Fitzgerald was the best dual-threat QB no one talked about in college football last season
After Dan Mullen’s club started the post-Dak Prescott era with a thud last season (a 2-5 record), it closed strong. And looking at the stat sheet, you can draw an almost direct parallel between Fitzgerald’s rise and that of his team. Over the final seven games of the season, the redshirt freshman rushed for over 100 yards six times (the only time he didn’t was against some school called “Alabama”). Mississippi State went 4-3 in that span, with wins over Texas A&M and rival Ole Miss. With another offseason under his belt it isn’t impossible to imagine Fitzgerald surpassing those stats in 2017, and the Bulldogs finishing in the top half of the SEC West.
NC State: It has the most underrated defensive front in college football
The Wolfpack return their entire front seven, and incredibly six are seniors. That includes one of the most underrated players in all of college football, defensive end Bradley Chubb (pictured above) who finished with 21.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. Also, don’t sleep on Darian Roseboro – a junior who isn’t technically a starter, but still finished with seven sacks last season. That was second on the team, behind only Chubb.
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Nebraska: Tanner Lee is better than anyone realizes
Tommy Armstrong’s career in Lincoln is over after four seasons, a school-record 45 starts and hundreds of wobbly, overthrown passes. But while losing a four-year starter might be problematic at some schools, it could be a blessing in disguise in Lincoln. Armstrong’s replacement is Tanner Lee, a two-year starter at Tulane who sat out last year after transferring. The time off didn’t seem to affect him in Nebraska’s spring game, when he tossed for 190 yards and three touchdowns. If that was any indication of what is to come, the Cornhuskers could be one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2017.
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South Florida: Have you seen its schedule?
While it will probably keep the Bulls from being a legitimate playoff contender, that weak schedule – coupled with a loaded roster – should help Charlie Strong win a whole bunch of games during his first season in Tampa. The Bulls play only one Power 5 team (Illinois, which is Power 5 in name only) and their conference schedule is soft even by AAC standards. They don’t play Navy (which won nine games last season) and also catch Temple and Houston, both of which are breaking in new coaches. South Florida only plays four teams that made bowl games last season (an incredible stat when you consider how many bowl games there are), and three of those games are at home.
Washington State: It has the most underrated running back corps in the Pac-12
The terms “Mike Leach offense” and “running back” almost feel oxymoronic, until you realize that the position is key as both a blocker and pass-catcher in Leach’s system. So yes, the position has value, and few teams are as stacked as the Cougars entering the season. Their top three rushers (James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerald Wicks) all return, and that trio combined for nearly 2,000 yards rushing last year and 125 catches.
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LSU: It won’t miss a beat without Leonard Fournette
While the Tigers’ 2016 went from “dumpster fire” to “salvaged and fun” thanks to Ed Orgeron, the one thing that college football fans missed out on last year was a fully healthy Leonard Fournette. Thankfully, Fournette’s absence (due to a string of injuries) paved the way for Derrius Guice to emerge as a legit lead back and Heisman contender entering 2017. Last year, Guice (now a junior) rushed for 1,387 yards and actually broke Fournette’s single-game school rushing record with 285 yards against Texas A&M. Those numbers should only improve with his former teammate now in Jacksonville and Guice the team’s unquestioned star.
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Miami: It has one of the most manageable schedules in college football
We’ve spilled plenty of ink on Miami’s schedule these past few weeks, so we won’t bore you with too many details. But here are a few of the particulars you need to know: The Hurricanes don’t play Clemson or Louisville from the ACC Atlantic, and two of their toughest opponents (Virginia Tech and Notre Dame) come to Miami. If Miami can somehow get by Florida State in mid-September – something that will NOT be easy, by the way – you will hear an awful lot of “can ‘The U’ crash the College Football Playoff” talk by October.
Louisville: It still has Lamar Jackson
For all the talk about how things ended for Louisville last season (three straight losses to close the season), it's easy to forget that Lamar Jackson was still the most dynamic player in college football for most of the 2016 campaign. Even six months after Jackson’s last game, his 2016 numbers still look like they’re straight out of a video game (51 total touchdowns, 1,571 rushing yards). Louisville still has Jackson, and the other team doesn’t, making it threat to win every game on its schedule.
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Florida: It might finally have its QB
The Gators have won back-to-back SEC East titles with quarterback play that could best be described as “anemic.” And if we’re being perfectly honest, they haven’t had anything above an average signal-caller since Tim Tebow left in 2009. That could finally change this year, as Feleipe Franks (pictured above) emerged as a real threat in the spring game (119 yards passing and one touchdown in one half of play). However, it still might not be enough to beat out Malik Zaire, who recently transferred from Notre Dame. The Gators have won plenty of games through the years with mediocre quarterback play. Can you imagine what could happen if they can get something half decent out of the position this year?
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Michigan: In Harbaugh we trust
Ask most non-Michigan fans about Jim Harbaugh (specifically those from some town called “Columbus”) and virtually all will complain that for all the exposure he’s gotten over the past couple years, Harbaugh hasn’t really accomplished anything. Talk about people crying over spilled milk, huh (see what I did there)? In all seriousness, the Harbaugh reign hasn’t been perfect, but the Wolverines were coming off a 5-7 season when he arrived and have managed to win 10 games in each of the past two seasons since Harbaugh took over. They were also a questionable fourth-down call against Ohio State away from playing for a Big Ten title and potential playoff berth last year. So while there is a lot left for Harbaugh to accomplish, let’s not diminish what he’s done so far. As long as the Wolverines have Harbaugh, they have a chance.
West Virginia: Its running attack will open the passing game
Remember what I wrote earlier about Washington State and the importance of running backs in its offense? Well, considering that Dana Holgorsen is a Mike Leach disciple, you might as well plug that in here, too. The good news for the Mountaineers is that few teams in the Big 12 return a better back than Justin Crawford, who tallied over 1,100 yards on the ground last season. His production should open up the passing attack – now led by former Florida Gator Will Grier, who will be eligible midseason (if not sooner).
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Kansas State: Jesse Ertz is one of the sport's most underappreciated QBs
Quietly, Ertz had one of the best seasons of any dual-threat quarterback not named “Watson” or “Jackson” in 2016. He threw for over 1,700 yards and rushed for another 1,000, and his team took off when he did (like Mississippi State did behind Fitzgerald). Ertz rushed for 50 or more yards in six of the Wildcats’ final seven games, and K-State won five of those games when he topped the 50-yard mark. That included victories against Texas (which ultimately proved the beginning of the end of the Charlie Strong era) and Texas A&M during bowl season.
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Wisconsin: Its schedule
We’ve spent quite a bit of time breaking down the Badgers’ schedule this spring, but it is pretty favorable – especially compared to last season. After opening the season against either LSU or Alabama in 2014, 2015 and 2016, only a trip to BYU should keep Wisconsin from entering Big Ten play undefeated in 2017. And once there, well, it doesn’t get much tougher. The Badgers don’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State during the regular season and while they do face Michigan, they get Jim Harbaugh’s club at home. That should put Wisconsin in the driver’s seat for another division title, with a chance to go even further.
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Georgia: Have you seen the rest of the SEC East?
I don’t want to say the SEC East is weak, but … my God is it weak. Florida could be good, but (as mentioned above) is breaking in a new quarterback and lost eight starters off one of the SEC’s best defenses a season ago. Tennessee lost virtually every key contributor off of what was already one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and while South Carolina should be improved, it had the worst offense in the conference last season. Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt seem to be trending up, and their talent levels (especially Vandy's) are nowhere close to Georgia’s. The Bulldogs might never be an easier path to the SEC title game than this year. Whether they get there is another story altogether, however.
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Stanford: Its most important game of the season is at home
Sure, the Cardinal play USC in September at Los Angeles Coliseum. But while that game is huge, it ultimately won’t impact their chances at a Pac-12 North title or potential playoff berth. You know what game almost certainly will? A mid-November showdown with Washington. Last season, the Huskies rode the wave of a big win over the Cardinal in Seattle to a playoff berth. With the game in Palo Alto this year, could Stanford do the same?
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Oklahoma State: It has the most skill position talent in the Big 12
While their cross-state rivals have the best quarterback in Big 12 (more on Baker Mayfield in a minute), no one in the conference can top the across-the-board skill position talent the Pokes have. Oklahoma State features one of the most accomplished signal-callers in the sport (Mason Rudolph, who threw for over 4,000 yards last year) and unlike Oklahoma, the Cowboys also have key returnees at running back and wide receiver. Justice Hill finished with 1,142 rushing yards last season, while James Washington remains one of the sport’s most underappreciated receivers. He made 71 catches for 1,380 yards a season ago.
Auburn: Jarrett Stidham is its best QB since Cam Newton
With all due respect to Nick Marshall (who led the Tigers to a title game), Stidham is the best quarterback on the Plains since some kid named “Cam” led Auburn to a title in 2010. The former five-star recruit is the real deal, showing off his raw talent in one season at Baylor (1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns when filling in for an injured Seth Russell) before transferring and sitting out last season. It looked like Stidham hadn’t missed a beat upon his return, completing 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards in Auburn’s spring game in April.
Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield will be a stud regardless of the coach
Mandel’s Top 25 was constructed before Bob Stoops’ shocking retirement announcement last week, but Lincoln Riley's move from offensive coordinator to head coach shouldn’t change Baker Mayfield’s production. The fifth-year senior has quietly been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in college football over the last two seasons, tossing an incredible 76 touchdowns to go along with over 7,600 passing yards. A coaching change shouldn’t prevent Mayfield from putting up another monster season in 2017.
Florida State: It has the best combination of talent and experience of any team in college football
We’re not saying the Seminoles have the most talented defense in college football (honestly, we don’t want the grief from Tuscaloosa). While Alabama will be talented but young, the Seminoles bring back a number of key starters, including defensive linemen Josh Sweat and Brian Burns (who combined for 16.5 sacks), as well as Tarvarus McFadden (who tied for the FBS lead with eight interceptions). And by the way, Florida State also returns Derwin James (pictured above), a potential All-American and Top 10 draft pick next spring who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Washington: Its offense is still crazy explosive
Many will lament on the loss of first-round NFL Draft pick John Ross at wide receiver, but outside of Ross, the Huskies’ offense returns virtually intact. Jake Browning is back for his third season as a starter after tying a Pac-12 record with 43 touchdown passes a season ago, and Myles Gaskin is also back after rushing for over 1,300 yards. While the receiving corps will miss its most explosive playmaker (Ross), keep in mind that Dante Pettis had 15 TD catches a season ago. Chico McClatcher should take on a larger role after grabbing 31 passes last season.
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Clemson: Its two biggest games are at home
The Tigers have won a staggering 28 games over the past two years, resulting in two ACC titles and one national championship. But with Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams and a bunch of key pieces from their defense gone, it’s impossible to expect them to match what they’ve accomplished recently. Still, they might not fall as far as you’d think, thanks to a fairly manageable schedule. The Tigers’ two biggest games (against Auburn and Florida State) are at home. That doesn’t mean they’ll win both, or either. But it does make life easier as Clemson begins life without Watson.
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Penn State: The Big Ten's best team last season returns the most talent
Although some would argue that Ohio State was the best team in the Big Ten last season (some might even fight for Michigan), the record books say Penn State finished on top after winning the first Big Ten title game in program history. And entering 2017, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Nittany Lions can do it again. The schedule is tough, but they return a ton of talent, including an emerging star at quarterback (Trace McSorley, who passed for 3,600 yards last year) and running back (Saquon Barkley, who is a Heisman front-runner entering 2017).
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USC: Sam Darnold isn’t as good as you thought – he’s better
Penn State's Barkley might be a Heisman front-runner, but Darnold is the favorite after throwing for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. The crazy part? Those numbers probably aren’t truly representative of how good he is when you consider he didn’t start the first three games of the season. He started the final 10, however, going 9-1 (including nine straight wins to close the season) with seven of those wins coming by double-digits.
Sure, the College Football Playoff didn’t go as planned last year (a 31-0 loss to Clemson), but that defeat might have overshadowed the finest coaching job of Urban Meyer’s career. Entering last season, the Buckeyes lost 12 players in the NFL Draft (including five first-rounders) and were supposed to take a step back. Instead, they finished 11-1 in the regular season and made the playoff. Believe it or not, those 11 wins are the fewest of Meyer’s five seasons at the school, and his current marks in Columbus are almost too incredible to believe. Get this: Meyer is 61-6 overall and 39-2 in Big Ten play at Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes have problems coming into the season, just like everyone else. But honestly, are you really doubting Urban Meyer?
Alabama: Because it's ‘Bama
We could get into depth charts and schedules, but none of it really matters. Nick Saban has built a big, crimson machine, one that has won 10+ games each of the past nine years, 11 or more the past six and 14 apiece in each of the past two years. The Tide also have won four national titles during his run and won the past three SEC titles as well. At this point, betting against Saban is like betting against the Harlem Globetrotters. You can do it if you want, but it isn’t going to work out well.