#1 ALABAMA

They lose a lot of talent but most of their position groups are still the top rated in the country:  Four(!) top tier RBs, Offensive line returns three starters, top defensive backfield w/ versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick, deep defensive line anchored by Da’Ron Payne, and a returning QB (for once) in Jalen Hurts who was SEC POY last year.  Schedule-wise, their toughest games of the year are their first (versus Florida State) and their last (versus Auburn).  They should steamroll the rest of the SEC.  They were one second away from a title last year which will provide necessary chip on the shoulder this year. 

Where it could go wrong...

- Yes they fill departed players with four and five-star talent but you don’t just replace DL Johnathan Allen and LB Reuben Foster.  Allen’s extraordinary versatility, playing both DT and DE, and Foster’s impact in making splash plays will be next to impossible to duplicate.  Those guys were real difference makers.

- New OC Brian Daboll has experience and pedigree (five Super Bowl rings as an assistant w/ New England) but little accolades as a coordinator.  Will he build on the power-spread concepts of Kiffin?  Will it resemble New England’s style?  Can he handle the cantankerous Nick Saban day in and day out?

#2 OHIO STATE

In my opinion one of the best moves in all of college football this offseason was hiring former Indiana HC Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator to the Buckeyes.  Wilson will increase the tempo to blur-speed levels and spread the field to open up opportunities for big plays which was lacking last year.  Four year starting QB JT Barrett will benefit from Wilson and likely get him back to this level of production we saw in 2014 of 34 TDs, 10INTS, 65% comp.  The defensive front seven is arguably the best in the country, esp the deep defensive end unit Hubbard, Lewis, Holmes, and Bosa.  Schedule isn’t easy with an early tough game in week 2 versus Oklahoma but they get Penn State off of a bye (who they lost to last year) before they go to Michigan to end the regular season.

Where it could go wrong...

- No deep threat emerged last year and it’s still a question who that is this year.  Paris Campbell is likely and virtual unknown Johnnie Dixon has been raved about coming out of the spring but no sure thing at this point but nothing certain.

#3 FLORIDA STATE

You would be hard pressed to find a team in the country with as much talent on both sides of the ball as FSU.  The return of safety Derwin James is this team’s X-factor. He is 2017’s version of Jabrill Peppers except bigger and more ferocious.  This spring he lined up at safety, corner, middle linebacker, rushed off the edge, and returned punts.  Deondre Francois has NFL potential at QB and can also beat you with his legs.  FSU is loaded.

Where it could go wrong...

- All that talent at the skill positions is great but if you don’t have a good offensive line it’s wasted.  The o-line was a question mark last year and was still a question mark coming out of spring.  They must be great there to make a significant run.

- The schedule.  Alabama to open the season then later get Miami (who will win the ACC Coastal imo), Louisville (Lamar Jackson), at Clemson (enough said), at Florida (top pick to win SEC East) to end the season.  Will be tough to get through that gauntlet losing only one game.

#4 USC

Having the best QB in the nation and likely #1 overall pick in 2018 Draft in Sam Darnold gets them my #3 spot.  He is a pocket guy who can also create and invent on the fly. Running back Ronald Jones returns as one of the best returning backs in college football.  The have no “star” WR but many explosive options for Darnold to connect with.  Defense is talented and experienced save for the defensive line which must have  players emerge, especially at the interior spots.  Lastly, their schedule is VERY reasonable. They avoid Washington and only real challenging games will be week two versus Stanford (at home) and possibly at Notre Dame mid October.  This team has a great chance to be 12-0 heading into the PAC12 Championship game.

Where it could go wrong...

- They lose both OTs and an OG from last year.  Not good.  Combine that with no one of significance behind Darnold at QB.  If a leaky o-line gets their star QB injured then disaster will ensue

#5 PENN STATE

As a former defensive player, I grade the potency of an offense by asking myself the question: “who would I LEAST want to face if I was still playing?”  The answer to that question is why I have Penn State ranked so high.  In my opinion the top RB in the country in Saquon Barkley: total package, can run front side, back side, around you, or through you.  QB Trace McSorely is a Heisman dark horse who runs the read option/RPO offense with striking precision.  Penn State last year had 135 plays of 20+ yards. Look for TE Mike Gesicki to come out of this season as a first rounder prospect.  They return six starters on defense and should be one of the best in the Big10.

Where it could go wrong...

- This year they won’t sneak up on anybody like they did last year.  They play at Ohio State, at Iowa, at Michigan State (never easy) and play Michigan at home albeit after a bye week.  Can James Franklin deliver when expectations are high?

#6 CLEMSON

They win the National Championship last year and after the confetti falls is the realization that coming into 2017 they lose their top player from virtually every position group:  Boulware gone at LB, Gallman gone at RB, Williams gone at WR, Leggett gone at TE, and most importantly Watson no longer there at QB.  Yet this is an opportunity for Clemson because the expectations are under the radar.  Perfect time for a super talented team to strike.  This team has one of the top offensive lines in the country and their defensive line is the best and deepest in college football.  Those two phases are where you win games.  Skill position talent will find a way to replace those who have departed. Kelly Bryant looks to be the guy who will take over at QB.   Bryant may have questions as a thrower but resembles Lamar Jackson as a runner.   Good news is with that line he won’t have to win the game throwing and will have great protection when the ball does need to go in the air.  The schedule is favorable as well with week two versus Auburn and the October game at home versus FSU being the only big challenges.  Clemson has a path to the playoff.

Where it could go wrong...

- This team’s defense is unmatched but if they get behind late in a game does the QB  have the big play/quick strike ability to put up points in a hurry?  

#7 OKLAHOMA

They return every offensive line starter from last year in a group that averages 6’5, 323lbs and should absolutely maul the small/finesse front sevens of the BIG12.  They also return one of the best QBs in CFB Baker Mayfield who is a great runner and greater creator with and uncanny 71% completion percentage last year.  Seven starters return on defense.

Where it could go wrong...

- Schedule is tough.  They play at Ohio State week two then on the road versus the tough conference teams: at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State.

- 33 year old Lincoln Riley takes over as a first time head coach.  Is it not unreasonable to expect a clock management mishap, late game misuse of timeouts, or other game management issue with a young, first year head coach?

#8 WASHINGTON

On offense they return strong Heisman contender QB Jake Browning and most of a unit that averaged 42ppg last year.  Defensively they must replace talent in the backfield but the front seven is formidable with potential first rounder Vita Vea anchoring the line and Azeem Victor a top LB in the country.  They should open the season 9-0 before two tough games in the final three: at Stanford then the Apple Cup at home versus Washington State.  If they win one of those two games it’s hard to not see them not playing USC for the PAC12 Championship

Where it could go wrong...

- Same as Penn State, they will no longer sneak up on people this year after making the playoff last year and high expectations coming in to this year.  

- Some great QBs in the PAC12: Darnold at USC, Falk at Washington State, Rosen at UCLA...can the revamped secondary hold up?

#9  WISCONSIN

Like most Wisconsin teams, this year’s bunch isn’t flashy but they have a strong offensive line, capable weapons, and stout front seven on defense.  Returning 17 starers gives them the continuity and experience to win close games.  A big reason for having them here is their schedule: they avoid Ohio State and Penn State and get their toughest conference games, Michigan and Northwestern, are at home. 

Where it could go wrong...

- Northwestern is a dark horse contender in the West.  A loss there then a late season loss to Michigan (when the Wolverines could potentially be REALLY good) will derail things before the potential Big10 Title game.

 

#10  NOTRE DAME

Ok maybe this is a reach from an alumni but this team lost a lot of close games last year that they won’t lose this year.  Offensively their top 5 receiving targets are 6’4 or taller which should be hell on defenses trying to play man-to-man.  They have a 220lb RB in  Josh Adams running behind maybe the best left side o-line in the country in LG Quentin Nelson and LT Mike McGinchey.  QB is of course a question but Brandon Wimbush, a dual-threat guy, comes highly touted.  Defensively they bring in a great hire at DC in Mike Elko who will simplify the defense and allow that four and five-star talent to shine instead of being muddled up in exotic schemes.  10-2 is possible and would put them at a #10 ranking no question.

Where it could go wrong...

The schedule (as usual) isn’t very nice.  Tough games at Miami and at Stanford plus USC at home is tough sledding.  

RUNNER’S UP: Just missed my Top 10

FLORIDA...offense has potential to explode with great RBs, WRs, and Oline, but still question mark at QB and tough games vs Michigan and Florida State...plus does anyone think they can compete with Bama in a potential SEC Title game?

STANFORD...great team but tough schedule at USC, at Washington State, Washington and Notre Dame at home = brutal

OKLAHOMA STATE...Great QB/offense but too finesse to compete with the big boys

MIAMI...REALLY good D-line and playmakers but who is QB?...will likely lose to FSU early in season, then how does a cold weather game to close the season versus Pitt go?

MICHIGAN...they can be really good this year but replace too much to get a gauge on at this point...however  not impossible they are 11-0 heading into matchup vs Ohio State

AUBURN...a top-flight offense where transfer QB Jarrett Stidham will flourish and a strong defense however on schedule at Clemson and at LSU scare me before getting Alabama at home.