The 2016 season ended with the same two teams, Alabama and Clemson, back in the national championship game. Will 2017 be any different? Will Ohio State rebound from its playoff semifinal shutout? Will Washington make it back? And will USC and Penn State continue their season-ending surges?
Here is my extremely early look at next season’s top 25.
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Alabama (14-1 in 2016)
Out goes one crop of All-Americans, in comes another. Nick Saban’s team will return QB Jalen Hurts, RBs Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs and WRs Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. The defense loses stars Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. But DT Da’Ron Payne and DE Da’Shawn Hand have ample experience. CB Minkah Fitzpatrick leads a loaded secondary.
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Ohio State (11-2)
Urban Meyer felt before the season his team was “a year away” from playoff contention. A new offensive coordinator will inherit QB J.T. Barrett and RB Mike Weber but must develop other playmakers. DE Tyquan Lewis’ decision to come back means the Buckeyes’ entire D-line, including DE Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes, remains intact. The secondary must retool after CB Gareon Conley and S Malik Hooker turned pro.
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Two-time Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson heads to the next level and leaves the national champs, and sophomore Kelly Bryant will compete to replace him. RB Wayne Gallman is gone, and WR Mike Williams will almost certainly declare. But Dabo Swinney will likely have another dominant defensive line with Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell. Other notable returnees include S Van Smith and LB Kendall Joseph.
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This ranking assumes star CB Adoree’ Jackson turns pro. Rising sophomore QB Sam Darnold may enter the season as the Heisman favorite following his epic Rose Bowl performance but will need a new No. 1 receiver. Clay Helton needs to replace two important tackles, Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. Most of the Trojans’ key defensive players will return, with the notable exception of standout DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
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Florida State (10-3)
FSU played the entire season without its best defensive player, S Derwin James. His return from injury should elevate a unit that could return nine 2016 starters (though not star DE DeMarcus Walker). Jacques Patrick and perhaps five-star recruit Cam Akers will step in for departed star RB Dalvin Cook. QB Deondre Francois should enter his second season with confidence after beating Florida and Michigan.
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Penn State (11-3)
The Nittany Lions could bring back as many as 17 starters from their Big Ten championship squad. QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley are the headliners, and McSorley gets back most of his top receivers and pass blockers. Defensively, Penn State loses starting ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels as well as second-leading tackler Brandon Bell. Younger players will need to emerge up front.
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NFL defections hit the 2016 Pac-12 champs hard, with WR John Ross, S Budda Baker, D Elijah Qualls and CB Sidney Jones all declaring. Standout QB Jake Browning returns, though, as do WRs Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher and RBs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. Coach Chris Petersen has a long track record of reloading defenses. The D-line should be strong yet again with Vita Vea and Greg Gaines.
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Star QB Baker Mayfield’s presence ensures a top 10 spot for the Sooners, but there won’t be many other familiar faces on offense with WR Dede Westbrook and RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon all NFL-bound. Mark Andrews may become a No. 1 receiver. LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo emerged as a leader for a defense that shined in the Sugar Bowl. Top CB Jordan Thomas is also returning for his senior year.
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Oklahoma State (10-3)
The Cowboys are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. With the prolific tandem of QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington returning, Oklahoma State could field a powerful offense if its O-line develops. RB Justice Hill ran for 1,000 yards as a freshman. LB Chad Whitener returns. Replacing all-conference DE Vincent Taylor and S Jordan Sterns will be a challenge.
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The Tigers could see significant improvement in 2017 thanks to Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham’s arrival and stud RB Kamryn Pettway’s return. Stidham fills a two-year QB void for coach Gus Malzahn. Freshman WR Eli Stove emerged as a playmaker as well. Standout DE Carl Lawson turned pro, but the Tigers could still bring back eight defensive starters, including budding freshman DE Marlon Davidson.
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Don’t expect much drop-off from the Big Ten West champs. Coach Paul Chryst’s offense returns QB Alex Hornibrook, WR Jazz Peavy, TE Troy Fumagalli and most of the O-line. Redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw likely becomes the top running back. Wisconsin’s D was outstanding in 2016 but must replace LBs T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel and S Sojourn Shelton. Star LB Jack Cichy and S D’Cota Dixon return.
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RB Bryce Love showed a glimpse of the post-McCaffrey era in Stanford’s Sun Bowl win over North Carolina, running for 115 yards on 22 carries. But QB Keller Chryst tore his ACL in the same game, which could put him in jeopardy to start next season. Fierce DE Solomon Thomas declared for the draft, passing the torch to Harrison Phillips and Dylan Jackson. The secondary could be strong with CB Quenton Meeks.
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Kirby Smart endured a rocky first season. He’ll have no excuses next year with potentially 18 returning starters. QB Jacob Eason has a year’s experience, RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both come back and the O-line should get better. DT Trenton Thompson and LBs Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick highlight a stocked defense that needs to develop a better pass-rush.
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Ed Orgeron’s team finished the season with blowout wins over Texas A&M and Louisville. RB Derrius Guice emerged as a 2017 Heisman candidate. Standout pass-rusher Arden Key returns for what should be another stingy defense even without NFL-bound S Jamal Adams. The Tigers do have some rebuilding to do on the offensive line, and are still awaiting the NFL decisions of WRs Malachi Dupre and D.J. Chark.
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Jim Harbaugh has to replace a staggering 18 starters, including LB Jabrill Peppers (presumably, though he hasn’t yet declared), CB Jourdan Lewis, TE Jake Butt and the entire front four. Fortunately, QB Wilton Speight is among the returnees. Freshman DE Rashan Gary will be a star and freshman RB Chris Evans showed promise. Harbaugh’s biggest challenge will be rebuilding what was already an average offensive line. C Mason Cole is a key returnee.
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Kansas State (9-4)
Bill Snyder’s teams have their best seasons with veteran quarterbacks, and Jesse Ertz gained confidence during a seson-ending four-game win streak. Four starters will return from an O-line that helped produce a strong rushing attack. The defense will miss All-American DE Jordan Willis and LB Elijah Lee. DT Will Geary and DE Reggie Walker lead a strong defensive front.
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Jim McElwain’s team will enter yet another season with uncertainty at quarterback but should be set otherwise on offense. RB Jordan Scarlett, WR Antonio Callaway and four of the five O-line starters return. The defense loses stars Teez Tabor, Marcus Maye and Quincy Wilson, but freshmen S Chauncey Gardner and LB Vosean Joseph broke out in the bowl game against Iowa. Randy Shannon takes over as defensive coordinator.
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Heisman winner Lamar Jackson comes back but needs improvement from an O-line that cratered over the Cardinals’ last three games. Expect sophomore WRs Jaylen Smith and Traveon Samuel and RB Jeremy Smith to take on bigger roles. Standout LBs Stacy Thomas and James Hearns, DE Drew Bailey and CB Jaire Alexander are returning headliners on a defense that must replace four important seniors.
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Coach Mark Richt’s team overachieved in his first season. Replacing NFL-bound QB Brad Kaaya won’t be easy, but Richt’s specialty is grooming young QBs. RBs Mark Walton, who gained 1,117 yards, as well as speedy freshman WR Ahmmon Richards. The defense was incredibly young in 2016 and will return eight starters, most notably Freshman All-American LB Shaq Quarterman.
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As Charlie Strong said on his way out, he “baked the cake. Now it’s Tom Herman’s job to put the icing on it.” Herman inherits a talented roster that finally has some experience, including QB Shane Buechele, All-American T Connor Williams, DT Poona Ford, DEs Malcolm Roach and Breckyn Hager and LB Malik Jefferson. New DC Todd Orlando’s first priority needs to be fixing a beleaguered secondary
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Charlie Strong’s Bulls will be the preseason Group of 5 favorite to reach a New Year’s Six bowl. That’s primarily because of QB Quinton Flowers, who amassed a Lamar Jackson-esque 1,530 rushing yards and a Top 20 passer rating. Three-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack turned pro, but most of Flowers’ receivers return. DT Deadrin Senat and CB Deatrick Nichols lead what should be an experienced defense.
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The post-Josh Dobbs era begins for the Vols. In addition to figuring out a new quarterback they must replace star RB Alvin Kamara. But Butch Jones has recruited well at those spots and will have a veteran O-line. Star DEs Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen are gone, but LBs Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Colton Jumper, S Todd Kelly Jr. and DT Kendal Vickers return. Tennessee also gets back injured DL Shy Tuttle.
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Washington State (8-5)
The Cougs won eight straight before ending 2016 on a three-game losing streak. They should still be better next season. Prolific QB Luke Falk will be a senior. He loses top receiver Gabe Marks, but most of Wazzu’s other skill players return, and All-American G Cody O’Connell put off the NFL. Wazzu’s defense was not great in 2016 but should return nine starters, including DE Hercules Mata’afa.
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NC State (7-6)
The Wolfpack quietly improved in 2016, finishing 28th in the S&P+ efficiency rankings and routing Vanderbilt in their bowl game. NC State only loses a few senior starters from that squad. S Josh Jones turned pro. QB Ryan Finley and playmaker Jaylen Samuels return on offense. Star DE Bradley Chubb announced he’s coming back for his senior season. Darian Roseboro and Justin Jones are solid up front.
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There will inevitably be teams like Colorado this year that drastically improve their record. The Bruins are as good a bet as any. QB Josh Rosen returns after missing most of his sophomore season to injury and will be working with new OC Jedd Fisch from Michigan. Top-end defenders Tak McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes are NFL-bound, but productive LB Kenny Young leads a promising D.
Just missed: Virginia Tech, Utah, Colorado, Notre Dame, West Virginia