Chris LowESPN Senior Staff Writer
To some degree, we’re all probably guilty of putting too much stock into bowl results and how a team finishes a season when trying to predict how a team will fare that next season.
Only two teams — Alabama and Ohio State — have finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll each of the past three seasons. And in the past two seasons, only four teams have finished in the top 10 both years. Clemson and Oklahoma are the other two in that group.
It’s not easy to sustain success at the highest level in college football, and we’ve all been fooled when it comes to picking a team that’s going to carry momentum from one season to the next. That’s because every season stands on its own. We don’t have a crystal ball on injuries, player suspensions, player development, team chemistry, leadership and what a schedule looks like come October.
So with all this in mind, I’m going to buy three teams for 2017 that looked good during the 2016 bowl season, and I’m going to sell three teams for 2017 that were equally impressive during the 2016 bowl season.
If I’m wrong, I’m sure I won’t hear from any of you.
Maybe it really is an ACC world now in college football. With Clemson basking in the glow of its 2016 national championship, Florida State has all of the components to make it a repeat for the ACC in 2017. The Seminoles won their last five games and seven of their last eight, including a 33-32 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl, to cap the 2016 season. The best part for FSU fans is that Jimbo Fisher has told some close to him that he thinks his next two teams could be among his most talented.
The Seminoles return Deondre Francois at quarterback, and look for him to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He passed for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, and the Seminoles love their young receiving talent. Dalvin Cook is gone, but Jacques Patrick gets his chance to be the feature back along with prized signee Cam Akers, who enrolled early, and rising sophomore Amir Rasul, who’s an absolute blur. On defense, the Seminoles have to replace DeMarcus Walker‘s production at end (16 sacks), but Derrick Nnadi is returning for his senior season and will pair with Demarcus Christmas to give the Seminoles one of the most imposing tackle tandems in the country. Safety Derwin James was one of the best players in the nation until he injured his knee in the second week, and rising junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is back after being a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Alabama and Florida State square off in Atlanta on Sept. 2 to kick off the 2017 season. Anybody taking bets on a rematch in the College Football Playoff?
For all the talk about Mike Gundy’s mullet, the guy can flat-out coach. He has built a perennial top-20 program in Stillwater without being a fixture in the top 20 of the recruiting rankings. The Cowboys won eight of their last nine games in 2016 and closed out the season with a 38-8 rout of Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl. It was their third 10-win season in the past four years. They’re poised for a run at the Big 12 championship next season with one of the most productive QB-WR combos in the country returning, and both will be seniors. Quarterback Mason Rudolph passed for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns last season and only four interceptions. Receiver James Washington had 71 catches, averaged 19.4 yards per catch and caught 10 touchdown passes. There won’t be many receiving corps in college football better than what the Cowboys can put on the field next season, and running back Justice Hill also gives them a presence in the running game after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season as a freshman and earning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors.
The schedule is favorable for the Wildcats. Their toughest nonconference game is at Vanderbilt on Sept. 16, and they get Oklahoma at home. The Wildcats won six of their last seven games in 2016, the only loss a 43-37 setback to Oklahoma State, and capped the season with a 33-28 win over Texas A&M in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl. We probably should have learned by now not to doubt the ageless Bill Snyder. At 77, he just keeps churning out good football teams, and his 2017 club has a chance to be a part of the national conversation. A healthier Jesse Ertz should take a big step at quarterback, and Alex Barnes is a budding star at running back, especially if he can stay healthy. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry as a freshman. Losing All-Big 12 linebacker Elijah Lee early to the NFL draft was a blow, but the Wildcats return D.J. Reed at cornerback. The Oct. 7 game at Texas will be pivotal for the Wildcats. If they can win in Austin, it’s not out of the realm to think they could be 6-0 with Oklahoma coming to town on Oct. 21.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here. After all, Bob Stoops has guided the Sooners to 10 or more wins in 14 of his 18 seasons in Norman. They won their last 10 games a year ago, capped by a 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. They also return one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield. But already, the Sooners are being mentioned as a big favorite to make the College Football Playoff in 2017, and this is a program that hasn’t been at its best, at least of late, when it opens the season as one of the favorites to win it all. To be fair, Oklahoma enters every season with lofty expectations. But when there’s not as much hype, the Sooners seem to play their best football. The 2015 season is just one example. The other thing working against Oklahoma next season is the schedule. The Sooners have to go to Ohio State the second week of the season and also face tough road games at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State.
No, I’m not a Justin Fuente doubter. The Virginia Tech program is in good hands as long as he’s in Blacksburg, and there’s a reason he won ACC Coach of the Year honors in his first season as the Hokies’ head coach. They won six of their last eight games a year ago and staged one of the more epic comebacks you’ll see in any bowl season when they rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit to defeat Arkansas 35-24 in the Belk Bowl. The problem is the offense was gutted by early defections to the NFL, most notably quarterback Jerod Evans. He elected to turn pro after only one season at Virginia Tech, and both of his top targets, wide receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges, are also leaving early for the NFL. That’s the kind of trio that would be difficult for any coach to replace, and it stands to reason that the Hokies could experience a little bit of a dip in 2017 after winning 10 games and playing in the ACC championship game in Fuente’s debut season.
Despite some disappointing losses late in the season, Tennessee was impressive in its 38-24 win over Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. It was Tennessee’s third straight bowl win, the first time that has happened since the 1994-96 seasons. But as Butch Jones enters his fifth season in Knoxville, he’s still looking for his first trip to the SEC championship game. The Vols will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2017 with Josh Dobbs graduating and were also hurt but early entrees into the NFL draft. Defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Josh Malone all opted to turn pro. The defense doesn’t have much room to do anything but go up after injuries and inconsistent play plagued the Vols this past season. They allowed 4,288 yards in eight SEC games, the most in program history. The Sept. 4 opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta is tricky with the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense. The Vols have recruited well enough that they shouldn’t fall off the deep end in 2017, but getting back to Atlanta and playing for an SEC title might be a stretch.