Home / College Football Live / Sorry, Alabama, but Clemson is the new No. 1 in Way-Too-Early Top 25
Sure, Alabama just won the national title, but with Clemson unexpectedly returning several potential first-round picks to its dominant defensive line, the Tigers overtake the Tide for the top spot in our rankings.

Sorry, Alabama, but Clemson is the new No. 1 in Way-Too-Early Top 25

Jan 17, 2018

  • Mark SchlabachESPN Senior Writer
    Close

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia

College football underclassmen had to declare their intentions for the NFL draft by Monday.

No FBS team was a bigger winner than Clemson. Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, who both might have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft, decided to return to school. They’re joined by defensive end Austin Bryant and linebacker Kendall Joseph in returning, which led to the Tigers’ supplanting reigning national champion Alabama as the No. 1 team in the second edition of the 2018 Way-Too-Early Top 25.

Stanford, which kept star tailback Bryce Love, and Washington, which will have tailback Myles Gaskin for another season, were among the other big movers.

Here’s the second edition of the 2018 Way-Too-Early Top 25:

1. Clemson

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 2

2017 record: 12-2, 7-1 ACC

Returning starters: Seven offense, eight defense, two special teams

Key losses: G Tyrone Crowder, G Taylor Hearn, WR Deon Cain, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, S Van Smith, LB Dorian O’Daniel, CB Ryan Carter

Outlook: After falling short of winning back-to-back national championships, the Tigers should enter 2018 as a heavy favorite to win the ACC and make their fourth straight appearance in the CFP.

Clemson’s chances received a major boost when a handful of underclassmen — defensive linemen Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins and linebacker Kendall Joseph — decided to return to school. Ferrell and Wilkins were considered probable first-round selections if they entered the NFL draft.

The Tigers had one of the most dominant defenses in the FBS this past season; they were tied for the FBS lead in sacks (46), sixth in tackles for loss (109) and eighth in yards allowed per rush (3.1). They also signed two of the top three defensive linemen prospects in the 2018 class in Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry.

Much of the Tigers’ offense returns in 2018. One burning question: Can quarterback Kelly Bryant hold off incoming freshman Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pocket passer and No. 2 player overall in the ESPN 300?

For more on how the Tigers will look in 2018, check out Clemson’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


2. Alabama

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 1

2017 record: 13-1, 7-1 SEC

Returning starters: Eight offense, four defense, zero special teams

Key losses: WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough, DT Da’Ron Payne, C Bradley Bozeman, DE Da’Shawn Hand, LB Rashaan Evans, CB Levi Wallace, CB Anthony Averett, S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison, S Tony Brown, P JK Scott

Outlook: Alabama won its fifth national championship in nine seasons by defeating Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Now, the Crimson Tide face another overhaul of their roster and coaching staff.

Tide coach Nick Saban is searching for two new coordinators; offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left for the same position with the Buffalo Bills, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is Tennessee’s new head coach. The Tide figure to have a quarterback battle on their hands this spring. Rising sophomore Tua Tagovailoa should be the favorite over Jalen Hurts after coming off the bench in the second half of the CFP championship game.

Bama will miss two of their better playmakers, Riley and Scarbrough, who left early for the NFL draft. Leading rusher Damien Harris elected to return. The Tide will lose some key players on defense, including much of their secondary and All-American Fitzpatrick.

Look for players such as running back Najee Harris, receiver Jerry Jeudy, and linebackers Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson to emerge as key contributors this spring.

For more on how the Tide will look in 2018, check out Alabama’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.

3. Ohio State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 3

2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten

Returning starters: Seven offense, five defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB J.T. Barrett, DE Sam Hubbard, LB Jerome Baker, S Damon Webb, CB Denzel Ward, OT Jamarco Jones, C Billy Price, DE Tyquan Lewis, LB Chris Worley

Outlook: The Buckeyes fell just short of reaching the CFP for the third time in four seasons, but they finished with a five-game win streak, including a 24-7 victory over USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

OSU will have a quarterback battle to watch in the spring; Dwayne Haskins is the favorite to replace Barrett, but highly regarded Tate Martell is a talented, dual-threat quarterback who might bring more creativity to the offense. With J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber back, whoever wins the job will have plenty of help.

Urban Meyer has brought in Washington State’s Alex Grinch, a two-time Broyles Award nominee, to be co-defensive coordinator. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and junior receiver Parris Campbell elected to return to school.

For more on how the Buckeyes will look in 2018, check out Ohio State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


4. Oklahoma

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 4

2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big 12

Returning starters: Seven offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Baker Mayfield, TE Mark Andrews, OT Orlando Brown, C Erick Wren, DT Du’Vonta Lampkin, DE D.J. Ward, DE/LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB Emmanuel Beal, FS Will Johnson, SS Steven Parker

Outlook: The unexpected transition from Bob Stoops to first-year coach Lincoln Riley couldn’t have gone much better, as the Sooners won their third straight Big 12 title and reached a CFP semifinal for the second time in three years.

OU can only hope that the transition from Mayfield to Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray goes as smoothly. Murray played sparingly behind the Heisman Trophy winner this past season, but he possesses many of the same dual-threat skills, and he’ll have several playmakers around him.

The bigger question for Oklahoma this season is how much of a makeover, if any, the defense will see this season? Riley gave embattled defensive coordinator Mike Stoops a vote of confidence after the Sooners’ 54-48 loss in two overtimes to Georgia in their CFP semifinal.

For more on how the Sooners will look in 2018, check out Oklahoma’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


5. Georgia

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 5

2017 record: 13-2, 7-1 SEC

Returning starters: Seven offense, five defense, one special teams

Key losses: RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, OT Isaiah Wynn, LB Roquan Smith, DT Trenton Thompson, LB Lorenzo Carter, LB Davin Bellamy, NT John Atkins, CB Malkom Parrish, S Dominick Sanders, CB Aaron Davis

Outlook: The Bulldogs will have to replace a lot of star power in their backfield and defense, especially after Smith, the Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, and Thompson chose to enter the NFL draft. But after a breakthrough campaign in coach Kirby Smart’s second season, there are enough key pieces in place for them to make a run at a second straight SEC championship.

Replacing Chubb and Michel won’t be easy, but freshman D’Andre Swift and sophomore Elijah Holyfield were productive in limited roles this past season. Zamir White and James Cook, two of the top three running backs in the ESPN 300, are part of Georgia’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

Quarterback Jake Fromm is the undisputed starter after leading the Bulldogs to the CFP title game as a freshman. Where will incoming freshman Justin Fields, the No. 1 player overall in the ESPN 300, fit in the mix?

For more on how the Dawgs will look in 2018, check out Georgia’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


6. Wisconsin

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 6

2017 record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten

Returning starters: Nine offense, five defense, one special teams

Key losses: TE Troy Fumagalli, FB Austin Ramesh, DE Alec James, DE Conor Sheehy, CB Nick Nelson

Outlook: The Badgers won a school-record 13 games this past season, and they’re bringing back a record-setting tailback and each of their five starting offensive linemen, which is usually a recipe for success.

Running back Jonathan Taylor set the FBS freshman record with 1,977 rushing yards and will be a leading Heisman Trophy contender in 2018. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will also be back, along with most of his top targets besides Fumagalli.

The Badgers will have more holes to fill on defense, especially in the secondary, where three of four starters are departing. Both starting defensive ends and outside linebackers are also leaving, but inside linebacker T.J. Edwards announced that he is coming back.

Wisconsin’s schedule will be more difficult this coming season, with road games at Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State.

For more on how the Badgers will look in 2018, check out Wisconsin’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


7. Washington

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 8

2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12

Returning starters: Eight offense, nine defense, one special teams

Key losses: DT Vita Vea, WR Dante Pettis, G Andrew Kirkland, C Coleman Shelton, TE Will Dissly, LB Keishawn Bierria

Outlook: The Huskies look like the class of the Pac-12 in 2018, and they might even be CFP contenders now that tailback Myles Gaskin has decided to return to school. He ran for 1,380 yards with 21 touchdowns this past season. The offense also returns some key contributors who were lost to season-ending injuries, including left tackle Trey Adams, tight end Hunter Bryant and receiver Chico McClatcher.

Jake Browning will become the league’s best quarterback with USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk departing. The Huskies might have picked up their quarterback of the future in Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who is reportedly expected to enroll and will have to sit out the 2018 season under NCAA transfer rules.

The Huskies will miss Vea, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and Bierria, their emotional leader on defense.

For more on how the Huskies will look in 2018, check out Washington’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


8. Miami

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 7

2017 record: 10-3, 7-1 ACC

Returning starters: Eight offense, eight defense, one special teams

Key losses: WR Braxton Berrios, OT KC McDermott, G Trevor Darling, DT RJ McIntosh, DT Kendrick Norton, RB Mark Walton

Outlook: In Mark Richt’s second season back at his alma mater, the Hurricanes returned to national relevance with their first 10-win season since 2003, introduced us to the Turnover Chain and played in the ACC championship game for the first time. However, their three-game losing streak to close the season showed that the “U” isn’t yet all the way back.

If Miami is going to be better in 2018, quarterback Malik Rosier will have to avoid the mistakes and turnovers that plagued him in his first season as a starter. Wide receiver Berrios and two starting offensive linemen will be missed. Sophomore Ahmmon Richards might be Miami’s next star if he recovers from a knee injury.

The Hurricanes will also have to replace their top two defensive tackles, Norton and McIntosh, who left early for the NFL draft. Florida transfer Gerald Willis III, who practiced on the scout team this past season, might be able to help.

For more on how the Hurricanes will look in 2018, check out Miami’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


9. Michigan State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 9

2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten

Returning starters: 10 offense, nine defense, two special teams

Key losses: C Brian Allen, DE Demetrius Cooper, LB Chris Frey

Outlook: After winning at least 10 games for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, the Spartans’ 3-9 disaster in 2016 seems like a distant memory. With 19 starters coming back in 2018, Michigan State might be poised to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East.

Brian Lewerke was dramatically better in 2017, becoming the first MSU quarterback to pass for more than 2,500 yards and run for more than 500. Tailback LJ Scott is also coming back, along with breakout receiver Felton Davis III.

Cooper and Frey are the only starters leaving from a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in run defense and total defense. MSU coach Mark Dantonio will have to replace two of his defensive assistants as co-coordinator/defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett and defensive ends/special-teams coordinator Mark Snyder left for Florida State.

Another reason for optimism: MSU gets to play both Michigan and Ohio State at home in 2018.

For more on how the Spartans will look in 2018, check out Michigan State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


10. West Virginia

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 10

2017 record: 7-6, 5-4 Big 12

Returning starters: Seven offense, seven defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Justin Crawford, WR Ka’Raun White, G Kyle Bosch, LB Al-Rasheed Benton, LB Elijah Battle, S Kyzir White, CB Mike Daniels Jr.

Outlook: As soon as quarterback Will Grier and All-American receiver David Sills V announced that they were returning for their senior seasons, West Virginia became Oklahoma’s biggest threat in the Big 12. There’s no doubt that the Mountaineers are going to score a lot of points this coming season. With Sills, Gary Jennings and Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons, the Mountaineers might have the best receiving corps in the country in 2018.

But West Virginia has to continue to improve on defense to become a legitimate Big 12 title contender. The Mountaineers open the season against Tennessee in Charlotte, and they play Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma at home in Big 12 play.

For more on how the Mountaineers will look in 2018, check out West Virginia’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


11. Penn State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 11

2017 record: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten

Returning starters: Seven offense, three defense, one special teams

Key losses: RB Saquon Barkley, WR DaeSean Hamilton, G Brendan Mahon, TE Mike Gesicki, DT Curtis Cothran, LB Brandon Smith, LB Jason Cabinda, CB Christian Campbell, FS Marcus Allen, SS Troy Apke

Outlook: After struggling in his first two seasons as Penn State’s coach, James Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to 11-win seasons and New Year’s Six bowl appearances in back-to-back seasons. Now the real work begins, as Penn State will have to replace Barkley, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (now Mississippi State’s head coach) and eight defensive starters.

Passing-game coordinator Ricky Rahne took over playcalling duties and had an impressive debut in a 35-28 win over Washington in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. Moorhead also snagged running backs coach Charles Huff, whom Franklin replaced with Army’s David Corley.

The Nittany Lions might rely on quarterback Trace McSorley even more next season, and he’ll be one of the top Heisman Trophy candidates if he delivers.

Penn State’s schedule gets a little more difficult with games against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, but the Nittany Lions will play all but the Wolverines in Happy Valley.

For more on how the Nittany Lions will look in 2018, check out Penn State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


12. Stanford

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 18

2017 record: 9-5, 7-2 Pac-12

Returning starters: Eight offense, nine defense, two special teams

Key losses: G David Bright, DT Harrison Phillips, LB Peter Kalambayi, TE Dalton Schultz, S Justin Reid, CB Quenton Meeks

Outlook: If Love can stay healthy, the Cardinal should be explosive on offense as quarterback K.J. Costello grows. He’ll have four of five starting offensive linemen coming back, as well as top receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin.

Stanford’s defense allowed almost 6 yards per play last season, so it will need to improve on that side of the ball. The Cardinal lost four underclassmen to the 2018 draft: Phillips, Schultz, Reid and Meeks.

Stanford’s road schedule will be arduous in 2018, with trips to Oregon, Notre Dame and Washington.

For more on how the Cardinal will look in 2018, check out Stanford’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


13. Auburn

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 12

2017 record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC

Returning starters: Six offense, five defense, one special teams

Key losses: RB Kerryon Johnson, RB Kamryn Pettway, CB Carlton Davis, LB Jeff Holland, OT Austin Golson, C Casey Dunn, G Braden Smith, OT Darius James, LB Tre’ Williams, SS Stephen Roberts, FS Tray Matthews

Outlook: What an aggravating season for the Tigers, who twice beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country and then watched those teams (Alabama and Georgia) play for the CFP National Championship. Auburn’s resurgence was enough to land coach Gus Malzahn a seven-year contract extension after Arkansas tried to hire him as its new coach.

The Tigers will miss Johnson, who ran for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns this past season, and Pettway, who also is turning pro. They’ll also have to replace four of five starters on the offensive line. With quarterback Jarrett Stidham returning, along with most of his top wideouts, the Tigers should have a potent passing game.

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has built one of the better units in the SEC, but the Tigers will miss Holland’s pass-rushing skills and Davis’ coverage skills.

For more on how the Tigers will look in 2018, check out Auburn’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


14. Michigan

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 13

2017 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten

Returning starters: Seven offense, eight defense, two special teams

Key losses: OT Mason Cole, C Patrick Kugler, OT Juwann Bushell-Beatty, QB John O’Korn, NT Maurice Hurst, LB Mike McCray

Outlook: When Michigan brought Jim Harbaugh back to his alma mater in 2014, he was supposed to be the coach who could catch Ohio State. Now, after the Wolverines have dropped eight of their past 17 games, U-M fans might be wondering whether he can stay ahead of Michigan State.

The Wolverines were supposed to take a step back this season, but no one expected their offense to be so bad. Michigan threw nine touchdown passes, its fewest since 1975, when it attempted only 125 passes while running the triple option under Bo Schembechler.

Michigan hopes former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, who has already enrolled in classes but hasn’t yet been ruled eligible by the NCAA, can help fix things. If Patterson can play in games this coming season, the Wolverines should be much better on offense. If he isn’t eligible, Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey will battle for the job. The Wolverines are also pursuing former Rice offensive tackle Calvin Anderson, another graduate transfer.

Karan Higdon, who led the Wolverines with 994 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2017, decided to return to school.

The Wolverines will play road games at Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State in 2018.

For more on how the Wolverines will look in 2018, check out Michigan’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


15. Virginia Tech

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 14

2017 record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC

Returning starters: Seven offense, four defense, one special teams

Key losses: WR Cam Phillips, G Wyatt Teller, C Eric Gallo, RT Kyle Chung, S Terrell Edmunds, LB Tremaine Edmunds, DT Tim Settle, LB Deon Newsome, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, CB Brandon Facyson, CB Greg Stroman

Outlook: Quarterback Josh Jackson seemed to hit the freshman wall in the second half of the 2017 season. The Hokies struggled right along with him, losing three of their final five games. Jackson should be even better as a sophomore, after passing for 2,991 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples emerged as productive runners, and the Hokies will have to replace three of their five starting offensive linemen.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit loses a couple of key pieces, such as Motuapuaka and Facyson, but there’s plenty for him to work with. Tremaine Edmunds, the Hokies’ leading tackler with 109 stops and 14 tackles for loss, turned pro, along with his brother, starting safety Terrell Edmunds.

The Hokies will play Notre Dame, Miami and Georgia Tech at home in 2018.

For more on how the Hokies will look in 2018, check out Virginia Tech’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


16. TCU

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 16

2017 record: 11-3, 7-2 Big 12

Returning starters: One offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Kenny Hill, WR John Diarse, WR Desmon White, WR Ty Slanina, OT Joseph Noteboom, C Patrick Morris, G Austin Schlottmann, OT Matt Pryor, RB Kyle Hicks, DT Chris Bradley, DE Mat Boesen, LB Travin Howard, CB Ranthony Texada, S Nick Orr

Outlook: The Horned Frogs are coming off another 11-win season, their third in four years, and another thrilling comeback in a bowl game. But TCU faces major facelifts on both sides of the ball heading into 2018. They’ll lose Hill, Hicks, Diarse and four of their five starting offensive linemen. The personnel losses are deep on defense, as well, with Howard, Texada, Boesen and Orr leaving.

You’re probably thinking the Horned Frogs won’t be very good next year, which is exactly what coach Gary Patterson wants you to believe.

Shawn Robinson and Justin Rogers will battle for the quarterback job, and whoever wins will have some playmakers to help, including running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua and receivers Jalen Reagor and KaVontae Turpin.

The Horned Frogs will play a difficult nonconference game against Ohio State in Arlington, Texas, and they’ll host Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State during Big 12 play.

For more on how the Horned Frogs will look in 2018, check out TCU’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


17. Boise State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 17

2017 record: 11-3, 7-1 Mountain West

Returning starters: Seven offense, nine defense, two special teams

Key losses: WR Cedrick Wilson, C Mason Hampton, OT Archie Lewis, TE Jake Roh, LB Gabe Perez, LB Leighton Vander Esch

Outlook: With quarterback Brett Rypien and all but one defensive starter coming back in 2018, the Broncos should be the preseason favorites among Group of 5 teams to grab a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Rypien threw for 2,877 yards with 16 touchdowns last season. He’ll miss Wilson and Roh, but almost everybody else is returning.

Vander Esch, the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, decided to turn pro, but he’s the only defensive player departing from the unit who started in the Broncos’ win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Boise State’s nonconference schedule in 2018 includes trips to Troy and Oklahoma State.

For more on how the Broncos will look in 2018, check out Boise State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


18. USC

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 15

2017 record: 11-3, 8-1 Pac-12

Returning starters: Seven offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: QB Sam Darnold, WR Deontay Burnett, RB Ronald Jones II, C Nico Falah, DE Rasheem Green, LB Uchenna Nwosu, NT Josh Fatu, SS Chris Hawkins

Outlook: The Trojans won at least 11 games for the first time since 2008 and won their first Pac-12 title in nine years. But given their lofty expectations last summer, the season felt a little empty, especially after a 17-point loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

Replacing Darnold, a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, will be USC’s biggest priority in the offseason. Rising sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and incoming freshman J.T. Daniels will battle for the unenviable job of succeeding him. Losing Jones, the leading rusher with 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns, and Burnett, the top receiver with 1,114 yards with nine scores, won’t make it any easier on his replacement.

The USC defense will miss Green, its leading pass rusher in each of the past two seasons.

The Trojans will play at Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA next season.

For more on how the Trojans will look in 2018, check out USC’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


19. Mississippi State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 19

2017 record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Returning starters: Eight offense, eight defense, one special teams

Key losses: OT Martinas Rankin, LB Dezmond Harris, CB Lashard Durr, CB Tolando Cleveland, P Logan Cooke, WR Donald Gray, WR Gabe Myles

Outlook: Moor cowbell? Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen, who left to become Florida’s new coach. Moorhead helped Penn State’s offense rank among the best in the FBS, and he might have similar success in Year 1 if quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returns from the broken ankle he suffered in the Egg Bowl.

Moorhead’s coaching staff includes former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who inherits a much-improved unit that brings back all but three starters, including both cornerbacks. Former Green Bay Packers receivers coach Luke Getsy is MSU’s offensive coordinator, and former Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth was hired as associate head coach.

The Bulldogs play a nonconference game at Kansas State and SEC road games at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss next season.

For more on how the Bulldogs will look in 2018, check out Mississippi State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


20. Notre Dame

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 20

2017 record: 10-3

Returning starters: Six offense, nine defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Josh Adams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, OT Mike McGlinchey, G Quenton Nelson, TE Durham Smythe, LB Nyles Morgan, LB Greer Martini

Outlook: The Fighting Irish bounced back from a 4-8 disaster in 2016 to win 10 games for the second time in three seasons. The Irish have been hit already by early departures for the NFL draft — Nelson, St. Brown and Adams have declared. The Irish must replace defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who left for the same position at Texas A&M, and offensive coordinator Chip Long is reportedly a candidate for the same position at Alabama.

Notre Dame figures to have a competitive quarterback battle during the offseason. Brandon Wimbush accounted for 30 total touchdowns this past season, but he struggled to throw the ball down the field, which seemed to frustrate coach Brian Kelly. Sophomore Ian Book replaced Wimbush in a 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl and completed 14 of 19 passes for 164 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

On Tuesday, Kelly dismissed four players from the team, including third-leading receiver Kevin Stepherson and third-leading rusher Deon McIntosh.

Notre Dame’s schedule next season includes road games at Virginia Tech, Northwestern and USC, and home games against Michigan, Stanford and Florida State.

For more on how the Fighting Irish will look in 2018, check out Notre Dame’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


21. UCF

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 21

2017 record: 13-0, 8-0 AAC

Returning starters: Seven offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: OT Aaron Evans, G Chavis Dickey, DE Jamiyus Pittman, DE Tony Guerad, LB Shaquem Griffin, LB Chequan Burkett, WR Tre’Quan Smith, CB Mike Hughes, TE Jordan Akins

Outlook: The Knights declared themselves national champions after they were the only FBS team to finish unbeaten following their 34-27 win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel takes over for Scott Frost, who left to become Nebraska’s new coach. Heupel and his staff will have to replace a couple of key players on defense, including Griffin, but almost everyone else is expected back on offense.

Quarterback McKenzie Milton is coming back after throwing for 4,037 yards with 37 touchdowns, along with the top five rushers and five of the top six pass-catchers. He’ll miss Smith, the team’s top receiver in 2017 with 1,171 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Tight end Akins, who had 32 catches for 515 yards with four touchdowns, also elected to enter the draft instead of applying for an extra year of eligibility.

UCF’s schedule includes nonconference games against Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, and it will be an overwhelming favorite to repeat as AAC champion.

For more on how the Knights will look in 2018, check out UCF’s recruiting profile and ESPN RecruitingNation’s class rankings.


22. Florida State

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 22

2017 record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Returning starters: Nine offense, four defense, two special teams

Key losses: OT Rick Leonard, NG Derrick Nnadi, WR Auden Tate, DE Josh Sweat, CB Tarvarus McFadden, LB Ro’Derrick Hoskins, LB Jacob Pugh, FS Nate Andrews, SS Trey Marshall, FS Derwin James, TE Ryan Izzo, DE Jalen Wilkerson

Outlook: The Seminoles collapsed after losing quarterback Deondre Francois in their season-opening loss to Alabama, and then things worsened after former coach Jimbo Fisher decided to depart for Texas A&M. Former Oregon coach Willie Taggart takes over, and he’ll have a better chance to succeed in Year 1 if Francois bounces back from a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.

Cam Akers ran for 1,024 yards as a freshman, and four of five starting offensive linemen and leading receiver Nyqwan Murray are back. The FSU defense will need a makeover, especially in the secondary, where James and McFadden decided to turn pro.

Along with prying Barnett and Snyder away from Michigan State, Taggart has targeted Alabama assistant Mike Locksley as his offensive coordinator. Locksley is also a candidate for the same position with the Tide.

FSU’s road schedule in 2018 is going to be very difficult, with trips to Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State and Miami. Ouch.

For more on how the Seminoles will look in 2018, check out Florida State’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


23. LSU

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 23

2017 record: 9-4, 6-2 SEC

Returning starters: Four offense, six defense, two special teams

Key losses: RB Derrius Guice, WR D.J. Chark, OT K.J. Malone, C Will Clapp, OT Toby Weathersby, QB Danny Etling, WR Russell Gage, LB Arden Key, DE Christian LaCouture, NT Greg Gilmore, CB Donte Jackson, CB Kevin Toliver II

Outlook: The Tigers were up and down in coach Ed Orgeron’s first season, beating Auburn and falling to Mississippi State (by 30 points), Troy (at home) and Notre Dame (in the Citrus Bowl). LSU’s issues in 2017 were the same as they were under former coach Les Miles: The Tigers struggled to pass the ball and score.

It won’t be any easier in 2018, with six underclassmen, including Guice, Clapp and Weathersby, turning pro. The Tigers have lost a whopping 31 underclassmen to the pros since 2013.

Orgeron made a change at offensive coordinator, parting ways with Matt Canada after one season and promoting tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to be Canada’s replacement. At least LSU secured defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who received a four-year, $10 million contract, the highest ever for an FBS assistant, after Texas A&M tried to hire him away.

The Tigers will play a nonconference game against Miami in Arlington, Texas, next season, along with road games at Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M.

For more on how the Tigers will look in 2018, check out LSU’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


24. Texas

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 24

2017 record: 7-6, 5-4

Returning starters: Eight offense, five defense, one special teams

Key losses: LB Malik Jefferson, OT Connor Williams, S DeShon Elliott, P Michael Dickson, CB Holton Hill, WR Lorenzo Joe, OT Tristan Nickelson, TE Kendall Moore, NT Poona Ford, LB Naashon Hughes, SS Jason Hall

Outlook: The Longhorns lost six games in coach Tom Herman’s first season, which was disappointing. But four of them were games decided by five points or fewer, including losses to USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Can the Longhorns learn to win close games in Year 2? If they do, they might enjoy a second-year bounce like Georgia and Miami had this past season.

Herman is going to have to figure out whether Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger is going to be the quarterback moving forward. The offensive line is going to have to do a better job protecting the quarterback, too, after allowing a whopping 34 sacks in 2017.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando upgraded the unit this past season, but he’ll miss Jefferson, Elliott and Hill, three of his better players. UT plays USC, TCU and West Virginia at home, along with the annual contest against Oklahoma in Dallas.

For more on how the Longhorns will look in 2018, check out Texas’ recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


25. South Carolina

Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 25

2017 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

Returning starters: Nine offense, four defense, two special teams

Key losses: LB Skai Moore, TE Hayden Hurst, C Alan Knott, G Cory Helms, DE Dante Sawyer, DT Ulric Jones, S D.J. Smith, S Chris Lammons, CB JaMarcus King

Outlook: The Gamecocks were dramatically improved in coach Will Muschamp’s second season, which ended with a come-from-behind 26-19 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Muschamp seems to have learned from his mistakes in his first head-coaching stop at Florida; he dismissed offensive coordinator Kurt Roper after the South Carolina offense averaged only 24 points per game.

Co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Bryan McClendon will take over the job full-time after calling plays in the bowl game. Quarterback Jake Bentley gets back top target Deebo Samuel, who missed the final 10 games with leg and foot injuries (he scored six total touchdowns in the first three games).

The Gamecocks will have to replace two starters on the defensive line, Moore and three starters in the secondary. Linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams also returns after missing most of 2017 with a shoulder injury.

For more on how the Gamecocks will look in 2018, check out South Carolina’s recruiting profile and ESPN’s class rankings.


About proncaa

Check Also

Michigan AG launches inquiry into Michigan St.

Michigan's attorney general says he will give an all-encompassing look into how much Michigan State officials knew about claims of sexual abuse by patients of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar.

Follow live: Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama

While top prospect Josh Allen did nothing to jeopardize his stock for the North All-Stars, it was Richmond senior QB Kyle Lauletta who stole the show by tossing three TD passes for the South All-Stars.

Dantonio, Izzo address MSU assault allegations

While Mark Dantonio said accusations of the Michigan State football program mishandling sexual assault allegations are "completely false," basketball coach Tom Izzo declined to get into specifics Friday night.

MSU trustee to abused women: ‘We failed you’

Michigan State's board of trustees held a public meeting Friday afternoon to introduce an acting president and apologize for the tone it has taken regarding sexual assault victims.

Scout’s Take: WR Jalen Hall to Oregon

In four-star prospect Jalen Hall, Oregon is getting the tall, athletic pass-catcher it desired for its 2018 recruiting class.