We learned a lot about various teams during spring football, enough to make some tweaks to the last Top 25 I published way back in January. Alabama retained the top spot, though I seriously considered Ohio State instead.
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The Crimson Tide aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll inherits an established QB (Jalen Hurts), a veteran O-line and an absolutely loaded backfield (Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and frosh Najee Harris.) Defensively, the Tide are once again deep up front but need CB Trevon Diggs to step up alongside proven DBs like S Minkah Fitzpatrick.
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Like Alabama and Clemson last year, Ohio State will boast an absolutely stacked defensive line led by Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Nick Bosa. And new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has already begun paying dividends. QB J.T. Barrett, his offensive line and receivers showed off a much-more effective downfield passing game this spring. The biggest concern will be the Buckeyes’ NFL-gutted secondary.
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The Trojans boast “it” QB Sam Darnold, who spent the spring developing chemistry with a youngish receiving corps. Look for sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. to emerge as a playmaker. USC should be strong across the board on defense thanks to DL Rasheem Green, LBs Cam Smith and Porter Gustin and CB Iman Marshall. Replacing star CB Adoree Jackson will be a challenge, especially in the returns game.
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The defending Big Ten champs morphed into an offensive juggernaut by season’s end. They bring back QB Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley and all but one O-line starter. Deep threat Chris Godwin is gone, but 6-4 Juwan Johnson showed breakout potential this spring. Penn State definitely needs to show improvement on defense. S Marcus Allen leads a secondary that may be without injured CB John Reid.
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Last year’s national champ slipping to No. 5 is all about one person: Deshaun Watson. The overwhelming majority of teams slip a year after losing such a distinguished quarterback. Junior Kelly Bryant exited spring as the frontrunner to succeed Watson. But Clemson won’t slip far thanks to another loaded defense, led by DTs Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, DE Clelin Ferrell, LB Kendall Joseph and S Van Smith.
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QB Jake Browning had offseason shoulder surgery but appeared back at full strength by late in spring camp. Stud WR John Ross is gone, but Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher return, as do RBs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. NFL defections hit last year’s defense hard, but the Huskies should produce another ferocious pass rush with Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. CBs Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy must step up.
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There’s a lot to like about the ‘Noles, particularly on defense, where All-American S Derwin James returns after missing most of last season. He was dominant in spring. Counting James, FSU returns 10 starters on that side of the ball. But reports out of spring indicate QB Deondre Francois and the ‘Noles’ passing game remain a work in progress. Freshman RB Cam Akers may have to shine from Week 1.
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Star QB Baker Mayfield, 22-4 as OU’s starter, leads what should be another potent offense, even without stars Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The Sooners return all five starters on the O-line. Defensively, an already strong secondary added a breakout spring star in CB Parnell Motley. Coordinator Mike Stoops is moving to a 4-3 defense in hopes of generating a better pass rush.
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Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham put on a show at the Tigers’ spring game and appears to be the dynamic signal-caller Gus Malzahn has been missing. He could help open up an offense that brings back productive RBs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Auburn’s defense made considerable improvements last season. Stars Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams are gone but DE Marlon Davidson is a budding star.
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This should be Mike Gundy’s best team since his 12-1 2011 squad. Veteran QB Mason Rudolph and a stacked receiving corps led by James Washington should light up the scoreboard. LSU transfer WR Tyron Johnson impressed coaches this spring. The Cowboys won’t be dominant defensively but possibly better than years past. Clemson grad transfer CB Adrian Baker could add valuable experience to the secondary.
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The Cardinal will likely field a salty defense, with CBs Quenton Meeks and Alameen Murphy headlining a stout secondary and Joey Alfieri one of several veterans in a deep linebacker corps. Speedy RB Bryce Love steps in full-time for Christian McCaffrey. Stanford’s season will hinge on QB Keller Chryst returning to heath after a bowl game ACL tear and the Cardinal developing young receivers for him to throw to.
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The Dawgs should be improved on offense what with QB Jacob Eason entering his second season and the return of both RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Playmakers need to emerge at receiver. Kirby Smart said the O-line had its way much of spring against a defense that returns nearly every key contributor. That should include DT Trenton Thompson, pass-rusher Lorenzo Carter, LB Roquan Smith and S Dominick Sanders.
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The Badgers’ defense, now under the direction of former star safety Jim Leonhard, has the pieces to replicate last season’s Top 10 unit. Beyond established names like LB Jack Cichy and DE Conor Sheehy, Hawaii transfer CB Nick Nelson and LB Leon Jacobs had strong springs. QB Alex Hornibrook returns, as does big-play WR Jazz Peavy. RBs Bradrick Shaw and Chris James look to upgrade the rushing attack.
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Dual-threat QB Jesse Ertz started every game for last season’s 9-4 squad and ran for 1,012 yards. He’s one of 10 returning starters on offense, including the entire line. RBs Justin Silmon and Alex Barnes lead a deep backfield. Most of the starting defense returns as well, though pass-rusher Jordan Willis and LB Elijah Lee are big losses. JUCO LB Da’Quan Patton should fill one need. The secondary should be solid.
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Florida transfer QB Will Grier, who went 6-0 as a starter two years ago, looked as advertised in the spring game. He’ll be aided by WR David Sills and underrated RB Justin Crawford. Coordinator Tony Gibson’s stout defense must replace standouts like CB Rasul Douglas and DL Noble Nwachukwu. But sophomore LB David Long is a force, while stud S Dravon Askew-Henry returns after missing 2016 to injury.
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Jim Harbaugh’s team spent spring visiting Rome and attempting to replace a whopping 18 starters — 11 of whom got drafted. DE Rashan Gary, the former No. 1 recruit, takes over the spotlight on defense, and sophomore LB Devin Bush could become a star. Incumbent QB Wilton Speight should be a steadying presence as Michigan retools on offense. Running back could be a strength for UM with Chris Evans and Ty Isaac.
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Gators fans were encouraged to see redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks take control of Florida’s quarterback race. He’ll look to spark UF’s long-suffering offense with help from WR Antonio Callaway and RB Jordan Scarlett. New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon inherits just three returning starters, but juniors DT Taven Bryan and DE Cece Jefferson should bolster the line, though the secondary could struggle.
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Heisman winner Lamar Jackson continued progressing as a passer this offseason. His top targets this season should include WRs Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick. The question is whether Louisville’s O-line can protect him better than last year. New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon inherits a strong front led by Drew Bailey, Stacy Thomas and James Hearns. Jaire Alexander could be a premier cornerback.
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Neither junior Malik Rosier nor sophomore Evan Shirreffs claimed the starting QB job this spring. Whoever emerges will throw to big-time receiver Ahmmon Richards. The ‘Canes’ defense could be very strong, with nearly every key D-lineman returning. LB Shaquille Quarterman earned All-ACC honors as a true freshman and sophomore CB Malek Young came on late. Look for several incoming freshmen to play early.
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Former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada showed off his use of pre-snap motion during LSU’s spring game, but QB Danny Etling showed little improvement. RB Derrius Guice will be one of the nation’s best. LSU must reload on defense, but should have a strong pass-rush with Arden Key and upstart Rashard Lawrence. The secondary is inexperienced; early enrollee Grant Delpit emerged as a potential starting safety.
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QB Luke Falk has already thrown for nearly 11,000 career yards. He’s back, as is All-American G Cody O’Connell. JUCO WR Easop Winston joins Dezmon Patton and Tavares Martin Jr. in a promising receiving corps. Several experienced tailbacks return as well. DE Hercules Mata’afa is a proven pass-rusher. Previously little-used D-lineman Kingston Fernandez earned praise from coaches this spring.
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First-year coach Charlie Strong’s Bulls are this year’s Group of 5 darlings. USF is coming off an 11-2 season and brings back prolific dual-threat QB Quinton Flowers. Strong brought with him from Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who runs a Baylor-style offense. WRs Deangelo Antoine and Marquez Valdes-Scantling should benefit. It may require a running back-by-committee to replace standout Marlon Mack.
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The Huskers’ offense should be in capable hands with Tulane transfer QB Tanner Lee. He’ll have some nice targets to throw to in Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El, but the Huskers’ offensive line remains a concern. New coordinator Bob Diaco was so secretive about his 3-4 defense that the Huskers didn’t show it in the spring game. CBs Lamar Jackson and Chris Jones could become stout bookends.
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It’s been a slow build for Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, but this is his most experienced team. DE Bradley Chubb is a dominant pass-rusher. QB Ryan Finley is solid, and WR Jaylen Samuels could be one of the nation’s most versatile weapons. The defense returns eight starters, not even including LB Germaine Pratt, who had a strong spring after missing 2016 to injury. The Wolfpack should be better than 7-6.
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Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs are a solid bet to improve sharply from 6-7 last season. QB Nick Fitzgerald quietly led the SEC in total yards last season, though he’ll need to rely less on his feet, more on his arm. Redshirt freshman CB Cameron Dantzler emerged in the spring, joining JUCO S Brian Cole in a potentially ball-hawking secondary. JUCO DT Deion Pope could be another big addition for new coordinator Todd Grantham.
Just missed: Tennessee, Texas, Virginia Tech, Utah, Notre Dame