College Football Power Rankings for Week 10

The college football season typically begins reaching its peak as the calendar turns to November. Sure enough, this past weekend–on the first Saturday of November–several big games wrecked the Playoff hopes of some big-name teams, while others solidified their status, or at least survived to stay in contention another week.

This week should be even more consequential, as eight of the top 10 face a ranked opponent, with four of those on the road, and six of the top 10 facing each other.

With three weeks left in the regular season, here are how the teams stack up in this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (9-0, Last Week: 1st, CFP Ranking: 2nd)
Although the Crimson Tide are second in the Playoff rankings, they remain first in both polls. Their 24-10 win over LSU was convincing on the scoreboard, although the Tide and the Tigers were quite even statistically. This week the Tide meet arguably their biggest test yet when they travel to #16 Mississippi State.

2. Georgia (9-0, LW: 2nd, CFP: 1st)
Georgia dispatched South Carolina, 24-10, behind one of quarterback Jacob Fromm’s best performances of the season (16-22, 196 yards, two touchdowns), as the Bulldogs held the Gamecocks to 43 rushing yards. Georgia will play in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2–they clinched the SEC East on Saturday–but the biggest threat ahead of that game to their Playoff status is this weekend when they head to the plains to face #10 Auburn.

3. Notre Dame (8-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 3rd)
The Irish beat Wake Forest 48-37, although they led 48-23 early in the fourth before a pair of late Demon Deacon touchdowns. The Irish totaled 710 yards offensively, but those defensive lapses are something the Irish need to fix; if they allow 587 yards again this week, the odds of leaving with a win over #7 Miami would be slim.

4. Clemson (8-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 4th)
NC State is a tough place to play, but the Tigers were able to survive their trip to Raleigh with a 38-31 win. Although the Wolfpack outgained the Tigers 491-415, the Tigers used 224 rushing yards–including 88 from quarterback Kelly Bryant–and two Wolfpack turnovers to seal the win. The Tigers host Florida State this week in a game that, given Florida State’s 3-5 record, is much more pedestrian than it would have appeared before the season.

5. Oklahoma (8-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 5th)
The Sooners’ “Bedlam” game with rival Oklahoma State was just that: a 62-52 shootout with 1,446 combined yards of offense and 62 first downs. Quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 598 yards and five touchdowns, throwing himself right into the middle of the Heisman discussion. Saturday the Sooners will host #6 TCU; it’s a potential preview of the Big 12 title game, although the winner will greatly enhance their chances of getting there.

6. Miami (8-0, LW: 9th, CFP: 7th)
The biggest knock on Miami has been their schedule, but that is changing. The Hurricanes beat Virginia Tech on Saturday, 28-10, on the strength of 210 rushing yards and four Hokies turnovers, and will now host #3 Notre Dame on Saturday
#3 Notre Dame

7. Wisconsin (9-0, LW: 8th, CFP: 8th)
Wisconsin, who beat Indiana 45-17 on Saturday, is another team who has been hurt some by their schedule. However, they do now at least have one win over a ranked team, as Northwestern, who they beat Sept. 30, is now a top 25 team, and they will have a chance at another this weekend due to the emergence of #20 Iowa.

8. TCU (8-1, LW: 10th, CFP: 6th)
The Horned Frogs responded to their Oct. 28 loss to Iowa State with a 24-7 win over Texas, outrushing the Longhorns 177-9 in the win. This week, TCU faces their biggest test so far this season, when they travel to #5 Oklahoma, a team they could potentially have to beat twice to make the College Football Playoff.

9. Washington (8-1, LW: 13th, CFP: 9th)
The Huskies are quietly hanging around in the top 10, and defeated Oregon 38-3 on Saturday, holding the Ducks to just 31 passing yards. The Huskies are the favorites to win the Pac-12, but to return to the College Football Playoff they’ll need a ton of help. First though, they must win out, starting Saturday at Stanford.

10. Auburn (7-2, LW: 14th, CFP: 10th)
The Tigers beat Texas A&M 42-27 on Saturday, and are still lurking in the SEC race. They still control their fate in the SEC West, although it won’t be easy–they would have to beat the top two teams in the nation to reach the title game, then beat one of them again to win it–but Auburn has been in a similar situation before; remember 2013? The gauntlet stretch run begins Saturday, when the Tigers host #1 Georgia.

Worth a Mention: Iowa (6-3)
What is it about Iowa pulling off huge upsets at home? The Hawkeyes have now won four of their last five home games against top-five competition. Last year’s win over Michigan cost the Wolverines a Playoff berth, and Saturday’s 55-24 drubbing of Ohio State will likely do the same to the Buckeyes. The Hawkeyes had scored a combined 27 points their previous two games entering Saturday–and more than doubled that in their upset win, with the help of the defense’s four interceptions of Buckeyes signal-caller J.T. Barrett.

11. Ohio State (7-2, LW: 3rd, CFP: 13th)
12. USC (8-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 11th)
13. Michigan State (7-2, LW: unranked, CFP: 12th)
14. Penn State (7-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 14th)
15. Oklahoma State (7-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 15th)

16. UCF (8-0, LW: 16th, CFP: 18th)
17. Virginia Tech (7-2, LW: 11th, CFP: 17th)
18. Mississippi State (7-2, LW: 19th, CFP: 16th)
19. Washington State (8-2, LW: 25th, CFP: 19th)
20. Michigan (7-2, LW: 24th, CFP: unranked)

21. South Florida (9-1, LW: 22nd, CFP: unranked)
22. Memphis (8-1, LW: 23rd, CFP: 22nd)
23. Iowa (6-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 20th)
24. Iowa State (6-3, LW: 15th, CFP: 21st)
25. NC State (6-3, LW: 20th, CFP: 23rd)

Fell from Rankings: Stanford (6-3, LW: 18th), LSU (6-3, LW: 21st)

Also ranked in CFP Rankings: LSU (6-3, 24th), Northwestern (6-3, 25th)

College Football Power Rankings for Week Eight

1. Alabama (8-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
The Tide dominated Tennessee as expected on Saturday, winning 45-7, outgaining the Volunteers 604-108, and remain the unanimous number-one team in the AP and Coaches Polls.  The Tide will be idle this weekend ahead of hosting LSU next week, with their two toughest games still remaining (LSU, at Auburn).

2. Penn State (8-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 2nd)
For Penn State, it’s one down and two to go after a 42-13 win over Michigan to start a very difficult three-week stretch of games.  The Nittany Lions finished Saturday’s game with 28 unanswered points, led by the dynamic duo of quarterback Trace McSorley (17-26 passing, 282 yards, one passing touchdown, 11 carries, 76 yards, three rushing touchdowns) and running back Saquon Barkley (15 carries, 108 yards, two touchdowns).  The toughest of this three-game gauntlet comes this week, as the Nittany Lions travel to Columbus to face Ohio State in a game that will go a long way towards deciding the Big Ten East, and will have sizable College Football Playoff ramifications as well.

3. Georgia (7-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 3rd)
The Bulldogs had a bye on Saturday, and will play Florida in Jacksonville on Saturday in the rivalry game known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

4. TCU (7-0, LW: 4th, AP: 4th)
Consensus is that Kansas is the worst Power Five football program, but TCU’s showing against the Jayhawks was still impressive, especially defensively.  The Jayhawks gained just 21 yards–and lost 25 yards rushing–as the Horned Frogs held them to four first downs in a 43-0 drubbing.  Quarterback Kenny Hill also threw for five touchdowns, matching a career high.  This week’s game against Iowa State didn’t look particularly big in August, but the Cyclones are an upstart team having a solid year, have already shown their big-game meddle, and will have the crowd behind them in arguably their biggest home game in years.

5. Wisconsin (7-0, LW: 5th, AP: 5th)
The Badgers defeated Maryland comfortably on Saturday, 38-13, to stay perfect.  Running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown, topping the 1,000-yard mark for the season, as the Badgers executed a very balanced offensive attack with 225 passing yards and 215 rushing yards.  The Badgers begin a two-game Big Ten road trip at Illinois on Saturday.

6. Clemson (6-1, LW: 6th, AP: 7th)
The Tigers had a much-needed bye, coming off their stunning loss to Syracuse.  Georgia Tech visits Death Valley on Saturday night, a week ahead of a potential division-determiner at NC State.

7. Ohio State (6-1, LW: 7th, AP: 6th)
The Buckeyes also enjoyed a bye week ahead of this week’s showdown with Penn State.  That scheduling could be an advantage, as the Buckeyes should be rested while the Nittany Lions are coming off a physical game with Michigan.

8. Miami (6-0, LW: 8th, AP: 8th)
The Hurricanes were able to do something their ACC counterparts at Clemson were unable to do the week before:  they put away Syracuse in the fourth quarter.  The Orange had another upset chance at Miami, but the Hurricanes scored on a 33-yard Travis Horner run with 2:48 to go to extend the lead to the eventual final score of 27-19.  The Hurricanes did allow 264 Syracuse rushing yards, but also forced four Orange turnovers.  In a scheduling quirk, the Hurricanes will head to North Carolina this week for their final road game until after Thanksgiving.

9. Oklahoma (6-1, LW: 9th, AP: 10th)
The Sooners survived a trip to Kansas State, a tough place to win on the road, by scoring a go-ahead touchdown with seven seconds left.  Rodney Anderson, who totaled 147 rushing yards in the game, ran it in from 22 yards to give the Sooners a 42-35 victory, as quarterback Baker Mayfield had another strong game, completing 32 of his 41 passes for 410 yards and two touchdowns.  Texas Tech visits the Sooners on Saturday, ahead of a September in which they will play the three other four ranked teams in the Big 12 (at Oklahoma State, TCU, West Virginia).

10. Notre Dame (6-1, LW: 22nd, AP: 9th)
All season, I’ve thought the Irish were only ranked because of the name on the front of their jersey, and I didn’t bye the hype around their rebound from last year’s 4-8 record.  But after Saturday’s 49-14 win over USC, I have much more faith in the Irish and their abilities.  The team rushed for 377 yards, led by 191 from running back Josh Adams and 106 from quarterback Brandon Wimbush, while holding the Trojans to 76 rushing yards and forcing three Trojan turnovers.  The Irish have only lost once all season, by a single point to #3 Georgia.  This week, the Irish will be tested again as NC State comes to South Bend, in a rematch of last year’s 10-3 slobber-knocker in Raleigh in the rain from Hurricane Matthew.

Worth a Mention: Bye Weeks
An unusually high number of programs were idle on Saturday, as six of the current top 25 had their bye week for the season, along with several other notable unranked teams.  This was part of the reason for a fairly bland Saturday of college football, with the only ranked teams to lose doing so against other ranked teams and the two big games being played in prime time, and made it the rare Saturday in the fall that was actually perfect for catching up on yardwork or homework, or attending a wedding like I did (congrats, Jackson and Natalie).  This week, four ranked teams including Alabama have byes, but we’ll make up for it with a slew of ranked matchups.

11. Virginia Tech (6-1, LW: 14th, AP: 13th)
12. Oklahoma State (6-1, LW: 11th, AP: 11th)
13. Washington (6-1, LW: 12th, AP: 12th)
14. Washington State (7-1, LW: 15th, AP: 15th)
15. Auburn (6-2, LW: 16th, AP: 19th)

16. South Florida (8-0, LW: 17th, AP: 17th)
17. NC State (6-1, LW: 18th, AP: 14th)
18. UCF (6-0, LW: 19th, AP: 18th)
19. USC (6-2, LW: 10th, AP: 21st)
20. Stanford (5-2, LW: 20th, AP: 20th)

21. Michigan State (6-1, LW: 21st, AP: 16th)
22. Michigan (5-2, LW: 13th, AP: unranked)
23. West Virginia (5-2, LW: 23rd, AP: 22nd)
24. LSU (6-2, LW: 24th, AP: 23rd)
25. Memphis (6-1, LW: 25th, AP: 24th)

Also ranked in AP Poll: Iowa State (5-2, 25th)

College Football Power Rankings for Week Six

1. Clemson (6-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 2nd)
The Tigers beat Wake Forest 28-14 Saturday, but led the Demon Deacons 28-0 in the fourth before allowing two late scores. Clemson won this game doing what they’ve done all year: dominate on defense, and supplement that with a more-than-sufficient offense. The offense isn’t without questions, however, heading into this week’s game at Syracuse, as quarterback Kelly Bryant is questionable with a sprained ankle. The Tigers biggest remaining regular season game isn’t Florida State, as everyone would have predicted, but a trip to NC State on Nov. 4.

2. Alabama (6-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 1st)
The Crimson Tide didn’t dismantle Texas A&M quite like they did Ole Miss and Vanderbilt the previous two weeks, but the Tide outrushed the Aggies 232-71, including 124 yards from Damien Harris, and forced three turnovers to win in College Station, 27-19. The SEC isn’t as strong this year, and it shows in the Tide’s schedule: they have yet to play a team that is currently ranked (that win over Florida State hasn’t aged well), and only have one ranked team on the regular-season agenda the rest of the way, as they travel to Auburn on Nov. 25.

3. Penn State (6-0, LW: 4th, AP: 3rd)
Both teams struggled on the ground–it wasn’t a traditional Big Ten ground-and-pound affair–but despite only rushing for 95 yards, the Nittany Lions used their running game in the right spots to beat Northwestern 31-7 in Evanston. Three of Penn State’s touchdowns came on the ground, including the game’s biggest play: a 53-yard Saquon Barkley run that gave the Nittany Lions some third-quarter breathing room. The Nittany Lions have a bye this weekend, which comes at a good place in the schedule–the next three games are against ranked opponents (Oct. 21 vs. Michigan, Oct. 28 at Ohio State, Nov. 4 at Michigan State)

4. Georgia (6-0, LW: 5th, AP: 4th)
After a 45-14 win over Vanderbilt, it’s safe to say the state of Tennessee doesn’t like the Georgia Bulldogs; the last two weeks, they’ve beaten the state’s two SEC teams by a combined 86-14 margin. The rushing duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb dominated in the win, with Michel gaining 150 yards and a touchdown, and Chubb rushing for 138 yards and two scores. The Dawgs host struggling Missouri this weekend, before a bye week ahead of their rivalry game with Florida.

5. Washington (6-0, LW: 7th, AP: 5th)
Saturday, the Huskies defeated California 38-7, doing so with an exceptional defensive performance. Cal only gained 93 yards in the game, and the Golden Bears actually lost 40 yards rushing against the Washington defense. The Huskies are ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency as they try to return to the College Football Playoff. Washington travels to Arizona State this weekend before a bye, and while coaches don’t like to look ahead, I will:  the “Apple Bowl” rivalry game against Washington State on Nov. 25 looks bigger and bigger every week.

6. TCU (5-0, LW: 10th, AP: 6th)
The Horned Frogs were outdone by West Virginia in nearly every stat category on Saturday, but TCU won the most important one–points–by a 31-24 margin after quarterback Kenny Hill’s go-ahead rushing touchdown with 2:53 to go. Hill became the just second player with passing, rushing and receiving touchdowns in the same Big 12 conference game. This week the Horned Frogs head to Kansas State; the Wildcats are unranked, but Manhattan is always a hard place to play.

7. Washington State (6-0, LW: 9th, AP: 8th)
A week after beating USC, the Cougars went on the road and dominated Oregon 33-10 for another impressive win. People focus on the Cougars offense, but their defense contained Oregon to 277 yards and held the Ducks scoreless after the first quarter. The Cougs play their second Friday game in three weeks tonight, when they travel to Cal.

8. Wisconsin (5-0, LW: 8th, AP: 7th)
Jonathan Taylor ran for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries Saturday in a 38-17 win at Nebraska, as the Badgers further cemented their status as the heavy favorites in the Big Ten West. Taylor’s performance was his second 200-plus-yard game this season, after gaining 223 on Sept. 9 against Florida Atlantic, and the freshman is averaging 153 rushing yards per game. The Badgers host Purdue this weekend.

9. Miami (4-0, LW: 13th, AP: 11th)
Even in a rivalry with an abundance of classic games, Miami’s win over Florida State on Saturday is one that will be remembered for a long time by Hurricanes fans. The win, which snapped the team’s X-game losing streak to their rivals, came after Darrell Langham barely crossed the goal line (if he even did at all–the play was the subject of a very tough replay review) after a 23-yard pass from Malik Rozier with 0:06 to play, giving the Hurricanes the 24-20 triumph after a back-and-forth thriller. The Hurricanes return home Saturday to face Georgia Tech.

10. Auburn (5-1, LW: 12th, AP: 10th)
The Tigers dominated Ole Miss even more than the 44-23 final score sounds; Auburn led 41-10 after three quarters, to the tune of a 561-yard offensive explosion. Auburn outrushed the Rebels 326-83, with 204 yards coming from Kerryon Johnson, who scored three touchdowns on his 28 rushes. The Tigers have an interesting schedule the rest of the way, as they have three straight road games, starting Saturday at LSU, before finishing with three straight home games.

Worth a Mention: Iowa State (3-2)
Iowa State is not one of the more prominent Power Five-conference programs, as they haven’t had a winning season since 2009, and have combined for an 11-37 record the last three years. Yet once every three or four years, the Cyclones program has a knack for sneaking up on a big-name team and pulling off an upset. It most notably happened to Oklahoma State in 2011, costing the Cowboys a BCS Championship Game berth, but it happened again on Saturday when the Cyclones traveled to Norman and upset #3 Oklahoma, 38-31. With a win on Saturday against Kansas (the worst team in the Power Five by far), Iowa State would win their fourth game, a mark they haven’t reached since a 6-7 season in 2012. Don’t look now, but second-year coach Matt Campbell, who came to Iowa State after a successful stint at Toledo, has vastly improved this program.

11. Oklahoma (4-1, LW: 3rd, AP: 12th)
12. Ohio State (5-1, LW: 11th, AP: 9th)
13. USC (5-1, LW: 14th, AP: 13th)
14. Oklahoma State (4-1, LW: 15th, AP: 14th)
15. Michigan (4-1, LW: 6th, AP: 17th)

16. Virginia Tech (5-1, LW: 17th, AP: 15th)
17. South Florida (6-0, LW: 19th, AP: 18th)
18. San Diego State (6-0, LW: 20th, AP: 19th)
19. NC State (5-1, LW: 23rd, AP: 20th)
20. UCF (4-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 22nd)

21. Stanford (4-2, LW: unranked, AP: 23rd)
22. Michigan State (4-1, LW: unranked, AP: 21st)
23. Notre Dame (5-1, LW: unranked, AP: 16th)
24. Utah (4-1, LW: 18th, AP: unranked)
25. Navy (5-0, LW: unranked, AP: 25th)

Also ranked in AP Poll:  Texas Tech (4-1, AP: 24th)

Fell from Rankings:  Florida (3-2, LW: 16th), Louisville (4-2, LW: 21st), Florida State (1-3, LW: 24th), West Virginia (3-1, LW: 25th)

College Football Power Rankings for Week Five

1. Clemson (5-0, Last Week: 3rd, AP Poll: 2nd)
After the Tigers’ 31-17 win at Virginia Tech, they clearly have the best resume of anyone. Clemson has three wins against the current AP Top 25 (Virginia Tech, Louisville, Auburn)–no one else has more than one–with two on the road. They are playing better than anyone, including Alabama, and have only been kept from the top spot because the Tide, who were the top-ranked team in the preseason, hasn’t struggled with anyone (more on that below). It’s the Tigers, not the Tide, with the best resume right now.

2. Alabama (5-0, LW: 1st, AP: 1st)
Pushing Alabama down to the second spot is in no way a knock to their early-season success. In fact, it’s almost unfair to knock the Tide down a spot, given their 125-3 advantage over the last two weeks, and a majority of the AP Poll voters decided not to punish Alabama for Clemson’s success, which is out of the Tide’s control. But while Alabama has simply been dominant, they don’t have the resume to match Clemson, at least not right now.

3. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 3rd)
The Sooners are coming off a bye week, and face Iowa State on Saturday. As is the case with Alabama, Oklahoma dropping a spot is not a slight to them, but is simply because Clemson has earned the right to move up.

4. Penn State (5-0, LW: 4th, AP: 4th)
Penn State’s game against Indiana had the narrative of Nittany Lion domination from the opening kickoff, which was returned for a touchdown by Saquon Barkley, as they went on to beat Indiana 45-14, led by DaeSean Hamilton’s three receiving touchdowns. The Nittany Lions travel to Northwestern on Saturday before a bye next week, but have back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State lurking on Oct. 21 and Oct. 28.

5. Georgia (5-0, LW: 8th, AP: 5th)
A year after losing to Tennessee in a heartbreaking last-second Hail Mary, the Bulldogs found revenge and then some with a 41-0 drubbing in Knoxville, giving the Volunteers their worst home loss since 1905. While the Dawgs lack the resume of some of the teams above them–their best win is at Notre Dame–they have nonetheless looked more and more impressive each week.

6. Michigan (4-0, LW: 6th, AP: 7th)
The Wolverines are coming off a bye week as they face in-state rival Michigan State on Saturday night. While Michigan clearly has the better team on paper, history shows you should throw out the records and the stats as bragging rights are on the line in the Great Lake State.

7. Washington (5-0, LW: 7th, AP: 6th)
After leading by just seven at halftime, the Huskies scored 35 in the second half to pull away from Oregon State, 42-7. The Huskies schedule gets progressively tougher leading to a huge November against Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State.

8. Wisconsin (4-0, LW: 9th, AP: 9th)
The Badgers held Northwestern to 25 rushing yards in a 33-24 win over the Wildcats, coming off a bye the previous week. Wisconsin will travel to Nebraska this week before back-to-back Big Ten home games with Purdue and Maryland.

9. Washington State (5-0, LW: 20th, AP: 11th)
While Washington gets a lot of the attention in the Pac-12 after reaching the College Football Playoff last year, the Cougars made their own statement on Friday night with a 30-27 win over USC. The win was the Cougars’ first over a top five opponent since 1992, and their first over USC since 2002, giving them a 5-0 record for the first time since 2001. Staying perfect won’t be easy, though, as the Cougs travel to Oregon on Saturday.

10. TCU (4-0, LW: 10th, AP: 8th)
The Horned Frogs enjoyed a bye, fresh off their big 44-31 win over Oklahoma State. TCU enters Saturday’s game against West Virginia with a 17-0 record at home as a top 10-ranked team under coach Gary Patterson.

Worth a Mention: Troy (4-1)
In 2008, Troy led LSU 31-3 before the Tigers pulled off their largest-ever comeback in a 40-31 win. Saturday, Troy was able to finish off the upset, winning 24-21 in Baton Rouge to hand the Tigers their first home non-conference loss since 2000, ending a 49-game streak. The Trojans, who were paid $985,000 to come play LSU, are now 4-1, and have steadily progressed since their season-opening loss to Boise State.

11. Ohio State (4-1, LW: 11th, AP: 10th)
12. Auburn (4-1, LW: 14th, AP: 12th)
13. Miami (3-0, LW: 13th, AP: 13th)
14. USC (4-1, LW: 5th, AP: 14th)
15. Oklahoma State (4-1, LW: 15th, AP: 15th)

16. Florida (3-1, LW: 16th, AP: 21st)
17. Virginia Tech (4-1, LW: 12th, AP: 16th)
18. Utah (4-0, LW: 17th, AP: 20th)
19. South Florida (5-0, LW: 19th, AP: 19th)
20. San Diego State (5-0, LW: 19th, AP: 19th)

21. Louisville (4-1, LW: 21st, AP: 17th)
22. UCF (3-0, LW: unranked, AP: 25th)
23. NC State (4-1, LW: 24th, AP: 24th)
24. Florida State (1-2, LW: 25th, AP: unranked)
25. West Virginia (3-1, LW: unranked, AP: 23rd)

Also ranked in AP Poll: Notre Dame (3-1, 21st)

Fell from rankings: Mississippi State (3-2, LW: 22nd), LSU (3-2, LW: 23rd)

College Football Power Rankings for Week Four

1. Alabama (4-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
In arguably Vanderbilt’s biggest home game in years–the Commodores entered undefeated–the Tide destroyed them, 59-0. Now they face old nemesis Ole Miss, although the Rebels are nowhere close to the team that beat the Tide in 2014-15.

 

2. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 3rd)
The Sooners trailed winless Baylor 31-28 late in the third, but responded with a strong fourth quarter to survive. The Sooners enter a bye week with the  nation’s longest road winning streak at 13 games, and have also matched longest conference win streak in school history at 17.

 

3. Clemson (4-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 2nd)
After the Tigers, as five-touchdown favorites, entered the final quarter tied against Boston College, they outgained the Eagles 213-37 in the fourth on their way to 27 unanswered points and a 34-7 win. Now the Tigers will face a tough road test against Virginia Tech, though they aced the last such test at Louisville two weeks ago.

 

4. Penn State (4-0, LW: 4th, AP: 4th)
Night games in Iowa City tend to be dangerous for highly-ranked teams, and it took until the last play for the Nittany Lions to avoid such doom, scoring on a 7-yard pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired. The Lions now host Indiana, with a Happy Valley showdown against Michigan looming.

 

5. USC (4-0, LW: 6th, AP: 5th)
Following the theme among several highly-ranked teams, USC’s win at Cal wasn’t convincing–they were tied 13-13 going to the fourth quarter–but it was enough, with a 17-point fourth leading to a 30-20 win, although they did force six turnovers in the game. The Trojans will be tested this week as they head to Washington State.

 

6. Michigan (4-0, LW: 7th, AP: 8th)
After trailing 10-7 at half, the Wolverines shut out Purdue in the second half, holding the Boilermakers to just 10 yards of offense in the second half on their way to a 28-10 win. Now the Wolverines get an off week to figure out the health of quarterback Wilton Speight, who left Saturday’s game in the first quarter and was relieved by John O’Korn, who helped lead the team’s second-half surge.

 

7. Washington (4-0, LW: 8th, AP: 6th)
In last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game, Washington beat Colorado 41-10; Saturday, they put on an encore performance, winning 37-10 on the road in Boulder. Myles Gaskin rushed for 202 yards in the win for the Huskies, who will travel to Oregon State this weekend, where they will likely be 30-plus point favorites.

 

8. Georgia (4-0, LW: 12th, AP: 7th)
A week after Mississippi State’s impressive blowout of LSU, it was the Bulldogs from Athens–not the ones from Starkville–that impressed on Saturday in a 31-3 rout. Running back Nick Chubb scored twice, giving him six touchdowns for the year, as the Dawgs collectively rushed for 203 yards. Georgia faces back-to-back SEC East road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but then won’t play a true road game again until November 11.

 

9. Wisconsin (3-0, LW: 9th, AP: 10th)
Coming off a 40-6 road thrashing of BYU, the Badgers enjoyed a bye week Saturday and return to action this week as they host Northwestern. The Badgers have the easiest schedule of the top ten, as they won’t face a currently-ranked team until November 18 (Michigan).

 

10. TCU (4-0, LW: 20th, AP: 9th)
The Horned Frogs picked up one of the most impressive wins of anyone so far this season when they beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 44-31, leading my as many as 20 early in the fourth. Darius Anderson ran for a career-high 160 yards and three touchdowns, and the Horned Frogs forced four Cowboy turnovers in the game. TCU now has a bye ahead of next week’s home game against #23 West Virginia.

 

Worth a Mention: UCF (2-0)
After missing two games due to Hurricane Irma, the Knights of UCF showed some serious meddle–and no rust whatsoever–when they went to previously unbeaten Maryland and won 38-10. The Knights should contend in the American Athletic Conference, and may threaten to be the “Group of Five” representative in the New Years Six bowl games.

 

11. Ohio State (3-1, LW: 11th, AP: 11th)
12. Virginia Tech (4-0, LW: 13th, AP: 12th)
13. Miami (2-0, LW: 14th, AP: 14th)
14. Auburn (3-1, LW: 15th, AP: 13th)
15. Oklahoma State (3-1, LW: 5th, AP: 15th)

 

16. Florida (2-1, LW: 16th, AP: 21st)
17. Utah (4-0, LW: 18th, AP: 20th)
18. South Florida (4-0, LW: 19th, AP: 18th)
19. San Diego State (4-0, LW: 21st, AP: 19th)
20. Washington State (4-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 16th)

 

21. Louisville (3-1, LW: 25th, AP: 17th)
22. Mississippi State (3-1, LW: 17th, AP: 24th)
23. LSU (3-1, LW: 24th, AP: 25th)
24. NC State (3-1, LW: unranked, AP: unranked)
25. Florida State (0-2, LW: 10th, AP: unranked)

 

Also ranked in AP Poll: Notre Dame (3-1, 22nd), West Virginia (3-1, 23rd)

 

Fell from rankings: Colorado (3-1, LW: 23rd)

College Football Fast Five and Power Rankings: Week Two

Fast Five:  Week Two Storylines

Mayfield, Oklahoma top Ohio State

A year after Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman, the Sooners returned the favor in Columbus with a 31-16 victory over the Buckeyes.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield led the Sooners to 28 second-half points, going 27-35 for the game with three touchdowns.  His Ohio State counterpart J.T. Barrett completed just 19 of his 35 attempts with an interception.  Mayfield outpassed Barrett 386 yards to 183.

The Sooners also controlled the ball well, possessing it for 35:17.  The result, despite a 3-3 halftime tie and a 17-13 game through three quarters, was a convincing Oklahoma win that moved them to second in the AP Poll.

Clemson defense stifles Auburn

In a battle of Tigers, Clemson’s offense totaled just 284 yards, but that was enough to beat Auburn 14-6 after an incredible defensive effort by the Tigers in orange and purple.

Clemson held Auburn to 117 total yards, including just 38 rushing yards in 42 attempts.  While Clemson’s own offense didn’t have their best night (284 yards), and while Clemson had two turnovers against none by Auburn, Clemson made enough plays to win–they were 9-for-16 on third down, and got two rushing touchdowns from QB Kelly Bryant, while Auburn’s failure to get touchdowns on two first-half red zone trips came back to haunt them.

Auburn was unable to return the favor for a 2011 loss at Clemson–their first as defending national champions–and their 2016 loss to Clemson in Auburn; Clemson passed their first big test in their title defense.

USC races past Stanford

USC dominated Stanford in every statistical category–the Trojans outgained the Cardinal 623-342, outpassed them 316-172, outrushed them 307-170, and had 28 first downs to Stanford’s 16–on their way to a 42-24 win.

Several Trojans had huge nights:  QB Sam Darnold was 21-26 for 316 yards and four touchdowns, with nine of those receptions for 121 yards on connections with Deontay Burnett, who scored twice, while Stephen Carr rushed for 119 yards on just 11 carries and Ronald Jones II ran for 116 with two touchdowns on 23 attempts.

If not for two pro-Cardinal factors, Stanford may have lost by more than 18.  Darnold did throw two interceptions–the only knock on an otherwise excellent game by the early-season Heisman candidate–and Bryce Love ran for 160 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

A week after struggling to top Western Michigan, the Trojans reasserted themselves as Pac-12 favorites by this commanding win over Stanford, who was coming off a 62-7 win over Rice in their opener.

Late turnover dooms Irish in slugfest

Neither team was particularly awe-inspiring in the first regular-season meeting between traditional powers Georgia and Notre Dame, but a late fumble recovery by the Bulldogs sealed a 20-19 win in South Bend.

It was a sloppy game by all accounts–the teams were a combined 7-35 on third down, totaled 20 penalties for 189 yards, and committed two turnovers each.  Irish QB Brandon Wimbush was 19-39 for 211 yards and rushed for the team’s only touchdown, as the Irish rushed for just 55 while settling for four field goals.  Georgia managed just 141 yards in the air, but 185 rushing yards helped lead them to the win.

After a back-and-forth game, Georgia took the lead with 3:39 left on a go-ahead field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, a former walk-on who was just placed on scholarship this past week, before the fumble with 1:27 to play clinched the Georgia victory.

Hurricane Irma alters schedule

While the sports impact is a minor detail of Hurricane Irma, given its sheer magnitude and its impact on Florida and the southeast, the storm has affected college football’s schedule for both Week Two and Week Three.

Games in the state of Florida that were cancelled over the weekend include Memphis at Central Florida, Louisiana-Monroe at Florida State and Northern Colorado at Florida.  Miami’s game at Arkansas State and South Florida’s game at Connecticut were also cancelled due to travel concerns.  None of these games are expected to be made up (all are non-conference games except South Florida-Connecticut).

The Miami at Florida State game scheduled for this weekend has been postponed to Oct. 7, which was originally an open week for both teams.  As a result, Miami’s game against Georgia Tech that was originally scheduled for the following Thursday (Oct. 12) has been moved to Oct. 14.

Week Two Power Rankings

1. Alabama (2-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
After QB Jalen Hurts rushed for 154 yards in a 41-10 win over Fresno State, the Tide will face Colorado State; the Rams should be one of the best non-Power Five teams this season, but don’t expect them to be competitive in Tuscaloosa.

2. Oklahoma (2-0, LW: 6th, AP: 2nd)
The Sooners have the most impressive win so far after their convincing win at Ohio State.  They begin a stretch of three ranked opponents in four games on October 21, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t enter that stretch at 6-0.

3. USC (2-0, LW: 4th, AP: 4th)
The win over Stanford was a defensive improvement for the Trojans, who had looked sluggish against Western Michigan.  While they’ll be heavy favorites in the coming weeks, the next three teams they face can each score a lot of points if that defense doesn’t continue improving.

4. Penn State (2-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 5th)
The Nittany Lions avenged last year’s loss to Pittsburgh with a 33-14 win.  Looking ahead, their two biggest games (and the only two they won’t be favored in) are back-to-back, against Michigan and Ohio State the last two weekends in October.

5. Oklahoma State (2-0, LW: 5th, AP: 9th)
A 44-7 win at South Alabama isn’t impressive on paper, but give the Cowboys credit for agreeing to play the Jaguars, who were hosting their biggest home game ever, on the road.  This week they travel to Pittsburgh, who they beat last year in a 45-38 track meet.

6. Clemson (2-0, LW: 9th, AP: 3rd)
I still have questions about Clemson’s offense, but they answered a lot of questions about their defense in holding Auburn to 117 yards.  That said, the defense isn’t out of the woods–this week the Tigers travel to Louisville and face defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.

7. Michigan (2-0, LW: 7th, AP: 7th)
On one hand, the Wolverines looked unconvincing at times against Cincinnati, even in a 36-14 win.  On the other hand, they have two games they should win easily and a bye week before facing Michigan State on Oct. 7.

8. Washington (2-0, LW: 12th, AP: 6th)
The Huskies have been quietly solid, outscoring their first two opponents 93-21, although their toughest opponent so far was Rutgers.  This week they finish their non-conference slate with Fresno State, before a Pac-12 Championship Game rematch with Colorado to open league play.

9. Wisconsin (2-0, LW: 11th, AP: 10th)
The Badgers, who beat Florida Atlantic 31-14 over the weekend and travel to BYU this weekend, have the easiest schedule of any top 10 team–they will face one team that is currently ranked the entire season (Nov. 18 vs. Michigan).

10. Florida State (0-1, LW: 10th, AP: 11th)
Hurricane Irma has compromised the Seminoles’ schedule; they will resume play Sep. 23 against N.C. State after a 21-day layoff.

Worth a Mention:  Duke (2-0)
Northwestern was ranked 23rd in these rankings last week, reason being that they were an experienced team from a Power Five league that I thought could be a sleeper in the Big Ten West.  Then they met Duke:  the Blue Devils outgained the Wildcats a staggering 538-191, held the Wildcats to 22 rushing yards, and gained 34 first downs to Northwestern’s 15 while possessing the ball for 41:18.  I don’t have the Blue Devils ranked, but I’m surprised they didn’t get any AP Poll votes (they did get three votes in the Coaches’ Poll).

11. Ohio State (1-1, LW: 2nd, AP: 8th)
12. Georgia (2-0, LW: 13th, AP: 13th)
13. Auburn (1-1, LW: 8th, AP: 15th)
14. Miami (1-0, LW: 14th, AP: 17th)
15. LSU (2-0, LW: 16th, AP: 12th)

16. Kansas State (2-0, LW: 17th, AP: 18th)
17. Virginia Tech (2-0, LW: 18th, AP: 16th)
18. Utah (2-0, LW: 20th, AP: unranked)
19. Florida (0-1, LW: 19th, AP: 24th)
20. Stanford (1-1, LW: 15th, AP: 19th)

21. Louisville (2-0, LW: 21st, AP: 14th)
22. South Florida (2-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 22nd)
23. Tennessee (2-0, LW: 24th, AP: 23rd)
24. UCLA (2-0, LW: 25th, AP: 25th)
25. TCU (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 20th)

Also Ranked in AP Poll:  Washington State (2-0, AP: 21st)

Fell from Rankings:  Northwestern (1-1, LW: 23rd)

College Football Fast Five and Power Rankings: Week One

Fast Five:  Week One Storylines

Alabama beats Florida State convincingly

The #1 vs #3 showdown to start the season on Saturday–possibly the biggest opening weekend game ever–ended with Alabama winning convincingly, 24-7.  The overall stats were, for the most part, fairly even for the game, except for turnovers.

The Crimson Tide, who didn’t turn the ball over in the game, intercepted Deondre Francois twice, blocked a field goal and a punt and recovered a fumble on a kickoff.  That, coupled with Florida State being held to 40 rushing yards, left Alabama to dominate the ‘Noles, winning comfortably even though the Tide themselves had just 269 yards of offense.

Florida State loses a game… and a quarterback

The Seminoles loss naturally hurts their Playoff chances, as they now they likely have to win out to qualify.  But their season took an additional unfortunate turn when QB Deondre Francois went down in the fourth quarter with a season-ending patella injury.

Francois hadn’t played his best game–he was 19-for-33 for XX yards with a touchdown and two interceptions–but the sophomore quarterback would have been a big key for the ‘Noles the rest of the way.  Now the offense is in the hands of true freshman James Blackman, who did not throw a pass Saturday after coming in for Francois late in the game.

Moderate struggles for Ohio State and USC

Ohio State won 49-21 Thursday night at Indiana, but didn’t score a touchdown until the 5:17 mark of the first half and trailed 21-20 with 4:56 left in the third.  After a sluggish start for the Buckeyes, they finished with 29 unanswered points, led by J.K. Dobbins’ 181 rushing yards, an Ohio State freshman record.

Western Michigan led 21-14 at USC for most of the third quarter, then after USC took a 28-21 lead tied the game at 28-28 with 7:54 to go before the floodgates opened for the USC offense and the Trojans won 49-31.  The USC defense allowed 263 rushing yards to the Broncos, and the Trojans were saved by 521 total yards of their own and 28 fourth-quarter points.

Both highly-ranked clubs had moderately inauspicious starts, and both can’t afford to repeat those performances this weekend.  Ohio State hosts #5 Oklahoma, while USC hosts #14 Stanford in their Pac-12 opener.

Michigan muscles past Florida

Florida was shorthanded, especially on offense, after the suspension of 10 players for the Gators’ game against Michigan.  The lack of depth showed, as the Gators were held scoreless in the second half and Michigan turned a 17-13 halftime deficit into a 33-17 win.

The Gators were outgained 433-192 and held to just 11 rushing yards, while the Wolverines had a very balanced attack, passing for 218 yards and rushing for 215.  Michigan’s Ty Isaac rushed for 114 yards on just 11 carries.

UCLA’s comeback

When UCLA scored with 2:06 left in the third against Texas A&M it seemed insignificant, as it only pulled the Bruins to within a 44-17 deficit.  But, as it would turn out, the second-largest comeback in FBS history had just begun.

The Bruins scored four more unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter–the first two on Darren Andrews runs and the last two on Josh Rosen passes–to stun the Aggies, 45-44.  Now, after his team seemed to stop paying attention with over a quarter to go, A&M’s Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat more than ever, and I agree that firing him may be in the school’s best interests this coming offseason.

 

Week One Power Rankings

1. Alabama (1-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
After maybe the biggest opening-weekend game ever, the Crimson Tide don’t play another ranked team until October 21, and don’t leave Tuscaloosa until September 23.

2. Ohio State (1-0, LW: 4th, AP: 2nd)
The Buckeyes didn’t play their best 60 minutes against Indiana, but they will if they want to beat Oklahoma on Saturday.

3. Penn State (1-0, LW: 5th, AP: 4th)
Penn State quietly had no trouble whatsoever with Akron (52-0 win), and now will try to avenge last year’s loss to Pittsburgh that kept them out of the Playoff.

4. USC (1-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 6th)
If the Trojans play Stanford like they played in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan, they’ll be fine.  If they don’t, they may be in for a long night.  Stanford won their opener against Rice, 62-7 in Australia.

5. Oklahoma State (1-0, LW: 6th, AP: 11th)
The Cowboys had no problem with Tulsa and shouldn’t with South Alabama this week, but the schedule will get tougher after that (at Pittsburgh, TCU).

6. Oklahoma (1-0, LW: 7th, AP: 5th)
Oklahoma will have revenge on their mind against Ohio State after last year’s loss, but will be in a tough environment at The Horseshoe in Columbus.  The Sooners beat UTEP in their opener, 56-7.

7. Michigan (1-0, LW: 13th, AP: 8th)
The Wolverines may have had the most impressive non-Alabama win of the weekend; that inexperience that many pundits (myself included) were concerned about wasn’t a factor on the big stage against Florida.

8. Auburn (1-0, LW: 8th, AP: 13th)
After Auburn’s 2010 national title, their first loss the following season came at Clemson.  Can Auburn now return the favor?  The Tigers are coming off a 41-7 win over Georgia Southern.

9. Clemson (1-0, LW: 9th, AP: 3rd)
Clemson beat Kent State, 56-3, in the first game without many of their championship stars.  We’ll know soon how good some of their replacements are–Auburn comes to town Saturday night.

10. Florida State (0-1, LW: 3rd, AP: 10th)
I’m not sure which is worse for the Seminoles long-term:  the loss to an Alabama team that looked darn-near unbeatable, or the loss of QB Deondre Francois for the year.  The ‘Noles get Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday, but can’t rest on their laurels with Miami looming next week.

Worth a Mention:  Howard (1-0)
The Bison of Howard, coming of a 2-9 campaign in the MEAC, became the biggest point-spread underdogs to ever win a game when they beat UNLV on Saturday in Las Vegas, 43-40, as 45-point underdogs.  Howard QB Caylin Newton, the brother of former NFL MVP Cam Newton, rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns, also passing for 140 yards and a touchdown.  While the Runnin’ Rebels were 4-8 in 2016, beating them is still a high mark for Howard, in their first season under former Virginia coach Mike London.

11. Wisconsin (1-0, LW: 11th, AP: 9th)
12. Washington (1-0, LW: 12th, AP: 7th)
13. Georgia (1-0, LW: 14th, AP: 15th)
14. Miami (1-0, LW: 15th, AP: 16th)
15. Stanford (1-0, LW: 16th, AP: 14th)

16. LSU (1-0, LW: 17th, AP: 12th)
17. Kansas State (1-0, LW: 18th, AP: 19th)
18. Virginia Tech (1-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 18th)
19. Florida (0-1, LW: 10th, AP: 22nd)
20. Utah (1-0, LW: 21st, AP: unranked)

21. Louisville (1-0, LW: 20th, AP: 17th)
22. South Florida (2-0, LW: 19th, AP: 21st)
23. Northwestern (1-0, LW: 23rd, AP: unranked)
24. Tennessee (1-0, LW: 24th, AP: 25th)
25. UCLA (1-0, LW: unranked, AP: unranked)

Fell from Rankings:  West Virginia (0-1, LW: 25th)

Also Ranked in AP Poll:  Washington State (1-0, 20th), TCU (1-0, 23rd), Notre Dame (1-0, 24th)

 

 

2017 College Football Preview

After the offseason, the “talking season” (as Steve Spurrier calls it), and about a month of practice, the college football season begins tonight (with the exception of the couple of games last weekend).

Everyone thinks they know what is going to happen this season, and I’ll take my own stab at it here, but there’s a reason they play the games–you know, to prove all the pundits wrong.

So yeah, don’t take these picks to the casino.  And if you need any further proof of that, here’s last year’s preseason rankings, from which two of the top 10 have had coaches fired since.

That said, here is my best guess on the 25 best teams entering the season, plus 25 games that will go a long way towards determining who ultimately makes the College Football Playoff and wins the national title, and my predicted order of finish in each conference.

25 Teams to Watch

(AP rank in parentheses)

1. Alabama (1st)
Last Year:  (14-1, 8-0 SEC, lost national championship game)
As well as Nick Saban churns out talent year after year, even after losing several players to graduation or the draft, it’s become wise to rank Alabama #1 at this time of year until someone else proves otherwise.  That said, the Crimson Tide have actually not won a championship under Saban in any year they’ve been ranked #1 in the preseason, something they’ll try to do this year.

2. USC (4th)
Last Year:  (10-3, 7-2 Pac-12, Rose Bowl champions)
The Trojans finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning nine straight including a Rose Bowl thriller over Penn State.  Now, with one of the nation’s best players in QB Sam Darnold, they’ll try to avoid their recent preseason rankings curse:  the last three times the Trojans have started the season ranked in the top 10 (including 2012 as preseason #1), they have finished unranked twice and #22 in 2014.

3. Florida State (3rd)
Last Year:  (10-3, 5-3 ACC)
Last year’s Seminoles team was picked fourth by both myself and the AP Poll, but lost three times including two close games.  This year’s team returns 15 starters, and has the talent to contend for a national title.  But it won’t be easy; the ‘Noles open with Alabama in Atlanta, and meet both Clemson and Florida on the road.

4. Ohio State (2nd)
Last Year:  (11-2, 8-1 Big Ten, College Football Playoff semifinalist)
The last two times an Urban Meyer-coached team lost a bowl game, they won the national title the following season.  Guess what?  The Buckeyes lost their bowl game (31-0 to Clemson in a Playoff semifinal), and they have a team capable of repeating that history.  Senior QB J.T. Barrett has as much experience as any team leader in college football, although the first task is leading the team to a division title in a Big Ten East that includes Penn State and Michigan.

5. Penn State (6th)
Last Year:  (11-3, 8-1 Big Ten, Big Ten champions)
2016’s biggest surprise may have been Penn State’s run to the Big Ten title, narrowly missing the College Football Playoff.  With both QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley returning, complimented by a strong defense, the Nittany Lions are capable of repeating their conference title, though the biggest roadblock is an October 28 trip to Ohio State.

6. Oklahoma State (10th)
Last Year:  (10-3, 7-2 Big 12)
The Cowboys came within one win of a Big 12 title last year, and their fans will remind you they should 11-2 last season (an officiating error–later admitted by the Big 12–cost them a win against Central Michigan).  The 12 starters that return include QB Mason Rudolph and several other of their strongest players from last year, and their biggest game–“Bedlam” against Oklahoma–is at home, serving as a potential preview of the reborn Big 12 Championship Game.

7. Oklahoma (7th)
Last Year:  (11-2, 9-0 Big 12, Big 12 champions)
After winning their final 10 games last year, the Sooners have some momentum, but also a new head coach in Lincoln Riley after Bob Stoops’ abrupt departure.  QB Baker Mayfield is one of the nation’s best, and the team’s depth and talent won’t be a problem–but road games at Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State may be.

8. Auburn (12th)
Last Year:  (8-5, 5-3 SEC)
The Tigers got as high as ninth in these rankings last year, and two of their losses were to national finalists Alabama and Clemson.  Now they’re the most experienced team in the SEC and add Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at QB, the best passer Gus Malzahn has had since Cam Newton.  They’ll be tested early, at Clemson on September 9, and late, against Alabama at home on November 25.

9. Clemson (5th)
Last Year:  (14-1, 7-1 ACC, national champions)
The Tigers won their first title since 1981 last season, but the key this year will be how quickly the Tigers rebound from losing key players, especially offensively, including QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and three of their top four receivers.  Adapting will be easier with their toughest two games, Auburn and Florida State, at Death Valley, but don’t underestimate an early trip to Virginia Tech.

10. Florida (17th)
Last Year:  (9-4, 6-2 SEC, SEC East champions)
The recurring theme in Gainesville has been a strong defense with a struggling offense, first under Will Muschamp and now Jim McElwain, but the offense should be better this year, with strong units at RB and WR and choices at QB.  The Gators will be tested early, meeting Michigan this weekend in Arlington, Tex. with 10 players suspended, but the overall schedule is favorable for the Gators to win the SEC East for a third straight year.

11. Wisconsin (AP Rank: 9th; Last Year:  11-3, 7-2 Big Ten, Big Ten West champions)
12. Washington (8th; 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12, College Football Playoff semifinalist)
13. Michigan (11th; 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
14. Georgia (15th; 8-5, 4-4 SEC)
15. Miami (18th; 9-4, 5-3 ACC)

16. Stanford (14th; 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12)
17. LSU (13th; 8-4, 5-3 SEC)
18. Kansas State (20th; 9-4, 6-3 Big 12)
19. South Florida (19th; 11-2, 7-2 American)
20. Louisville (16th; 9-4, 7-1 ACC, Heisman winner Lamar Jackson returns)

21. Utah (unranked; 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12)
22. Virginia Tech (21st; 10-4, 6-2 ACC, ACC Coastal champions)
23. Northwestern (unranked; 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten)
24. Tennessee (25th; 9-4, 4-4 SEC)
25. West Virginia (22nd; 10-3, 7-2 Big 12)

Also considered:  NC State, Texas A&M, UCLA, Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Texas, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, TCU, BYU, Appalachian State, Washington State, Pittsburgh

Also ranked in AP Poll:  Texas (23rd), Washington State (24th)

25 Games to Watch

September 2
Florida vs. Michigan (Arlington, Tex.), 3:30 p.m., ABC
Alabama vs. Florida State (Atlanta), 8:00 p.m., ABC

September 9
Auburn at Clemson, 7:00 p.m., ESPN
Oklahoma at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ABC
Stanford at USC, 8:30 p.m., FOX

September 16
Clemson at Louisville, 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN
Miami at Florida State, 8:00 p.m., ABC

September 30
Northwestern at Wisconsin
Clemson at Virginia Tech

October 14
Utah at USC

October 21
Michigan at Penn State
Oklahoma at Kansas State
Louisville at Florida State

October 28
Penn State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., FOX
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.), 3:30 p.m., CBS

November 4
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
LSU at Alabama
Virginia Tech at Miami

November 10
Washington at Stanford, 10:30 p.m., FS1

November 11
Florida State at Clemson
Georgia State at Auburn

November 18
Michigan at Wisconsin

November 25
Ohio State at Michigan, 12:00 p.m., FOX
Florida State at Florida
Alabama at Auburn

Conference Predictions

ACC

Atlantic Division

At the top, the ACC Atlantic is as good as any division in football, putting a team in the College Football Playoff in its first three years of existence and the BCS Championship Game the year before that.

That streak could very well continue, with Florida State and Clemson’s November 11th meeting looming large.  Louisville returns Heisman winning QB Lamar Jackson, and NC State is a sleeper as one of the most experienced teams in the country.

1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Louisville
4. NC State
5. Wake Forest
6. Boston College
7. Syracuse

 

Coastal Division

The Coastal is typically one of the hardest divisions to pick, but this year it’s easier with a clear top two ahead of the pack.

Miami’s 15 returning starters in Mark Richt’s second season give them a slight edge over Virginia Tech, as big interdivision games–Miami at Florida State, Clemson at Virginia Tech–could play a role in who wins the Coastal, in addition to Miami and Virginia Tech’s game against each other on November 4.

1. Miami
2. Virginia
3. Pittsburgh
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
6. Duke
7. Virginia

Championship Game:  Florida State over Miami

 

Big Ten

East Division

The Big Ten East ranks among the best divisions in football, with three teams that contended for the College Football Playoff last year.

Those three are the three favorites again in for the division title, with the general consensus picking Ohio State by a nose over Penn State, with Michigan third.

With three contenders comes three defining games:  Michigan at Penn State on October 21, Penn State at Ohio State on October 28 and Ohio State at Michigan on November 25.  Two East teams play the primetime opener tonight, as Ohio State travels to Indiana.

1. Ohio State
2. Penn State
3. Michigan
4. Indiana
5. Michigan State
6. Maryland
7. Rutgers

 

West Division

While the West is overshadowed by their league’s other division, it could also have quite a race.  Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but five teams have a realistic chance.

Northwestern has 16 returning starters, Minnesota will be motivated with vocal new head coach P.J. Fleck, and Iowa and Nebraska can stay with anyone in their rugged Midwestern style of football.

Northwestern avoids the big three from the East, while Wisconsin and Minnesota only meet one of the three, and Iowa and Nebraska play two of them.

1. Wisconsin
2. Northwestern
3. Minnesota
4. Iowa
5. Nebraska
6. Purdue
7. Illinois

Championship Game:  Ohio State over Wisconsin

 

Big 12

The Big 12 discontinued its championship game in 2010 after the conference retracted from 12 teams to 10, but this year the title game returns, as the top two in the regular season standings will qualify for the December 2nd game in Arlington, Tex.

Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the two favorites to reach that game, with the most talented teams and the most big-game experience in the league.

However, Kansas State and West Virginia may have something to say, and Texas has the talent to contend, depending on if Tom Herman’s turnaround can happen overnight.

1. Oklahoma State
2. Oklahoma
3. Kansas State
4. West Virginia
5. Texas
6. TCU
7. Baylor
8. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State
10. Kansas

Championship Game:  Oklahoma State over Oklahoma

 

Pac-12

South Division

National contender USC is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South, and may be the best of any team in the division at each position on the field.

That said, UCLA should be a solid team if QB Josh Rosen can stay healthy (he didn’t last year), although they have a brutal schedule, while Utah is young but is promising on defense.  Colorado won this division last year, but lost a ton of experience from that team.

1. USC
2. UCLA
3. Utah
4. Colorado
5. Arizona State
6. Arizona

 

North Division

Washington made the College Football Playoff last year as the Pac-12 champion, and returns solid experience from that team while avoiding USC from the South on their conference schedule.

Their game against Stanford may decide the division (November 10) as the Cardinal, who are one of the most consistent teams this decade, have lost key skill players but are experienced elsewhere and could threaten to take the Huskies’ crown.

Offensive juggernauts Oregon, with new coach Willie Taggart, and Washington State are both sleepers here.

1. Washington
2. Stanford
3. Oregon
4. Washington State
5. Oregon State
6. California

Championship Game:  USC over Washington

 

SEC

West Division

With Alabama as the favorite to win it all, they’re naturally the favorites in the SEC West, although that won’t be a cakewalk.

Auburn boasts the league’s most experienced team and the best QB they’ve had in a while in transfer Jarrett Stidham, and while LSU isn’t as strong on the experience front they are talented, as always.  Beneath the top three chances lessen, although Mississippi State is a potential surprise contender.  Ole Miss is in dysfunction after Hugh Freeze’s ouster, and that is likely to show on the field this year.

1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. LSU
4. Texas A&M
5. Mississippi State
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss

 

East Division

While Florida and Georgia are the relatively easy top two picks in the SEC East, there are actually six teams with a realistic shot at winning it if the top two falter.

Tennessee can match Florida and Georgia on a talent level, and perhaps will surprise this year after being picked by everyone to win the East last year and falling short.  Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt would all need a best-case-scenario-type season and maybe some help, but all three are trending upward.

1. Florida
2. Georgia
3. Tennessee
4. Kentucky
5. South Carolina
6. Vanderbilt
7. Missouri

Championship Game:  Alabama over Florida

 

Best Teams From the “Group of Five” Conferences

The highest-ranked team among conference champions from the Group of Five conferences (the five FBS conferences that are not “Power Five” leagues) qualifies for a New Year’s Six bowl.

The leading candidate for this spot is South Florida, who is the favorite in the American Athletic Conference, the best league among the Group of Five.  The Bulls, led by former Texas coach Charlie Strong in his first season, are experienced and strong–no pun intended–at many positions, including Heisman dark horse QB Quinton Flowers.

Houston, who should be able to overcome a coaching change since Major Applewhite was promoted from within, is the biggest threat to South Florida in the American, while Appalachian State, who has won 27 of their last 32 games and opens the season at Georgia, may be the biggest threat to the Bulls regarding New Year’s Six status.

1. South Florida (American)
2. Appalachian State (Sun Belt)
3. Houston (American)
4. San Diego State (Mountain West)
5. Colorado State (Mountain West)

Group of Five Championship Games:

American:  South Florida over Houston
Conference-USA:  Western Kentucky over Louisiana Tech
Mid-American:  Toledo over Ohio
Mountain West:  San Diego State over Colorado State
Sun Belt:  Appalachian State wins regular season title over Arkansas State (no title game)

ACC Postseason Power Rankings: North Carolina Wins League’s 14th National Title

After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the ACC had only one of its nine tournament teams still alive, and some questioned the league’s strength.

Two weeks later, the ACC can boast a national champion for the 14th time (the league will claim 18, but Louisville and Syracuse combined for four before they were in the ACC).

North Carolina has won nearly half of the ACC’s titles, winning their sixth this year, after they were the best and most consistent team throughout the entire season.

Behind the obvious number one choice of the Tar Heels, here is how the rest of the ACC stacks up as the season comes to a close:

1. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  National Champions (6-0)
Season High in SOS Rankings: 1, Season Low: 3
The Tar Heels won the regular season title in the nation’s best conference, foreshadowing what they would accomplish in the NCAA Tournament by winning the national title over Gonzaga on Monday.  With his third title (2005, ’09, ’17), Roy Williams passes his mentor, the legendary Dean Smith (national champion in 1982, ’93), and joins Mike Krzyzewski as one of two active coaches with three or more championships.

2. Duke (28-9, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Champions (4-0)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 7
At the ACC Tournament, Duke became the first team in tournament history to win four games in four days, beating Notre Dame for the title after previously beating Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina.  In the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils were stunned in the second round by South Carolina, although they weren’t the only team the Gamecocks upset on their way to the Final Four.

3. Louisville (25-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (0-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 6
After losing their ACC Tournament opener to Duke, the Cardinals lost a back-and-forth second round battle in the NCAA Tournament to Michigan, who was one of the hottest teams in the NCAA field until their eventual loss to Oregon.  The postseason performances of the Cardinals did not match the strength of their season overall, although postseason results are often how a season is measured.

4. Florida State (26-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 3, Season Low: 5
The Seminoles were a great team, but had some inconsistency, which bit them in a blowout loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  Despite being arguably Leonard Hamilton’s best team in Tallahassee, the ‘Noles missed an opportunity to have Hamilton’s best March result.

5. Notre Dame (26-10, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Runners-up (2-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 9
The Irish reached the finals of the ACC Tournament for the second time in the last three years, falling to Duke, before surviving a NCAA first round scare against Princeton then losing to West Virginia.  Mike Brey has a knack for overachieving teams, and this year was no different–I picked them ninth in the league in November.

6. Virginia (23-11, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 6
After a quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame in Brooklyn, the Cavaliers reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but scored just 39 points in a 26-point loss to Florida.  Virginia’s success under Tony Bennett has come by winning low-scoring defensive struggles, but scoring just 39 in an NCAA Tournament will never get a team where they want to go.

7. Virginia Tech (22-11, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 6, Season Low: 8
This season has to be considered a success for Buzz Williams’ Hokies, who reached their first NCAA Tournament since 2007 and second since 1996.  They weren’t the only team knocked out by Wisconsin, as the Badgers also beat top overall seed Villanova in the next round.

8. Wake Forest (19-14, 9-9 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Four (0-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
Danny Manning’s rebuild in Winston-Salem reached the NCAA Tournament a year quicker than many expected.  Down the stretch of the season, and in both postseason tournaments, the Deacon defense was an issue; that, along with whether or not First Team All-ACC forward John Collins returns, are the biggest questions heading into next year, as the Deacs should continue improving.

9. Miami (21-12, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 12
The Hurricanes reached the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years, marking only the second such stretch in school history.  Jim Larranaga had tough coaching matchups in the postseason:  after beating Jim Boeheim in Brooklyn, the Hurricanes lost to Roy Williams in Brooklyn and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament.

10. Georgia Tech (21-16, 8-10 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
NIT:  Runners-up (4-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 15
An ACC Tournament loss to Pittsburgh nailed the Yellow Jackets’ NCAA coffin shut, but the Yellow Jackets took advantage of their NIT opportunity by reaching the final, where they lost to TCU.  This season still has to be considered a success for Josh Pashner in his first season in Atlanta–the team was picked last in the ACC by many, including me.

11. Clemson (17-16, 6-12 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NIT:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 7, Season Low: 12
Clemson hung around the NCAA bubble deep into the season despite a mediocre record because of a very difficult schedule.  But in the end, the Tigers just didn’t win enough to make The Dance.  After losing to eventual ACC champ Duke in Brooklyn, the Tigers were upset by Oakland in their NIT opener, ending their season.

12. Syracuse (19-15, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (0-1)
NIT:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
The Orange didn’t have a good postseason, losing to Miami in the ACC Tournament, scantly missing the NCAA Tournament, then losing to Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT.  And yet, their postseason won’t even be most remembered for those results, but instead for the war of words between Jim Boeheim and the city of Greensboro.  C’mon, Jim.

13. Pittsburgh (16-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 4, Season Low: 14
After some guy named Chris Stiles picked this veteran team to finish fourth in the ACC, the Panthers were the biggest underachiever in the country this season, winning just four ACC games.  But hey, with their first round win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, they ensured the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t go to the NCAA Tournament either.

14.  NC State (15-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 7, Season Low: 15
The Wolfpack also underachieved, with a roster including future NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith.  They did something they hadn’t done since 1995, beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but after Mark Gottfried was fired Feb. 13, the Wolfpack uneventfully played out the string.  Kevin Keatts, coming off back-to-back NCAA bids at UNC Wilmington, will take over in Raliegh.

15. Boston College (9-23, 2-16 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 14, Season Low: 15
The last several years have been a struggle for the Eagles, so much so that their 2-16 conference record is actually an improvement.  However, ending the season on a 15-game losing streak still leaves a bitter taste in their mouths entering the offseason.

2017 MLB Preview

After a thrilling 2016 season that concluded with the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 (and being named Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year), it’s time for the 2017 season to commence.

The season begins today with a trio of games on the ESPN family of networks (N.Y. Yankees at Tampa Bay, San Francisco at Arizona, Chi. Cubs at St. Louis), before Opening Day around the country tomorrow.

As usual, there are many storylines entering the season.  With the Cubs no longer having a century-long curse without a title, the longest drought now belongs to the Cleveland Indians, but they have positioned themselves well to potentially end their own dry spell this year.

Meanwhile, the Cubs remain strong and have a legitimate chance to repeat, while every other team that made the playoffs in 2016 has very good shot to return, with nearly all favored or co-favored in their respective divisions.

That’s not to say there can’t be risers from 2016’s non-playoff teams.  That group includes the Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Tigers and Astros, all of whom have had recent success, as well as teams on the rise like the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Mariners.

So without further adieu, here are my predictions for each division race in the 2017 season.

P.S.:  don’t take these to the bank–last year’s picks missed all over the map, with some picks missing badly.

 

Editor’s note:  instead of boring you with a detailed description of the depth of each roster, I’ve only included a few key points.  Links to each team’s MLB.com depth chart are included if you would like to see how each individual position stacks up.

 

NL East 

1. Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost to Dodgers in NLCS
The Nationals have a rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top and the underrated pair of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross at the bottom–to match that of the division-rival Mets.  Scherzer is the defending NL Cy Young winner, but it was Roark who had the staff’s best ERA last year (2.83).  The bullpen, however, will be a question mark.

With the additions of OF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters, which helped offset a few bench departures, their lineup is better than New York, and should give them the slight edge in a tight division race.  It’s hard to believe, but the Nationals have still never won a playoff series in franchise history, including last year’s 5-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers; that fact could change in 2017.

2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game
After a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants, if the Mets stay fully healthy, they could very easily top the Nationals.  But over the last couple of years, injuries have ravaged this team on both sides of the ball.  Their rotation, when healthy, may be the best in baseball, but all five of their young arms have an injury concern, and oft-injured 3B David Wright is out for now with a shoulder injury.  That said, Robert Gsellman, who may not have even made the roster if not for Steven Matz’s elbow inflammation, is a sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.

Offensively, the Mets return last year’s lineup, which was at times too reliant on the home run–no regular starter hit higher than .282 (Neil Walker); for their best shot at the Nationals, more consistency in the offense and their health will be important.

3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Braves were a different team last year after the trade-deadline acquisition of Matt Kemp (37-68 before, 31-25 after), which gave Freddie Freeman some “protection” in the lineup.  2017 Rookie of the Year favorite Dansby Swanson was also effective in a short late-season stint, and the bullpen got better as the year progressed.

Now, with no significant roster losses and the interim tag removed from manager Brian Snitker, the Braves pitching staff has added Jaime Garcia and former Cy Young winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to the rotation short-term to bridge the gap to 2018 and beyond, when the strong pitching in baseball’s top farm system will continue reaching the majors.  In the meantime, this team should be more competitive than the last two years, and if it all comes together could be a sleeper in the East.

4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82; last postseason appearance: 2003
The September death of pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragic, as a shining young star in the game was lost much too soon.  But beyond just the emotional loss for the Marlins, they now have a hole to fill in the rotation.  The team tried in free agency, but the aging Edinson Volquez is unlikely to match Fernandez’s effectiveness or spirit.

This team will hit, especially if Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy (he hasn’t for a full season since 2014), and has added veterans Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa for depth in an already strong bullpen.  This team is not terrible, and should hover at or just below the .500 mark again, but there is no reason to believe this is the year they make the leap to contenders.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Phillies added some experience to their young roster this offseason, adding P Joaquin Benoit in free agency and trading for P Clay Buchholz, P Pat Neshek and OF Howie Kendrick.  However, these moves essentially just offset the players lose in free agency, leaving the Phillies with a similar roster composition to their team from last year.

This organization is moving in the right direction, although they are doing it slowly.  There is talent on the major league roster, and those players will get better with more experience, while more young talent comes through a strong farm system.

 

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
2016: 103-58, defeated Indians to win World Series
A year after breaking the most famous drought in professional sports, the Cubs are fully capable of winning the World Series again in 2017.  The core of the 2016 champs is intact, with the exception of free agent departure Dexter Fowler, whose place in center field will be taken by a Jon Jay/Albert Almora platoon.  Kyle Schwarber will also be with the team a full season after missing the entire regular season then becoming a World Series hero.

The Cubs rotation, with the 2015 Cy Young Winner (Jake Arrieta) and two of the top three in last year’s Cy Young voting (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) held a remarkable 2.96 ERA.  The bullpen lost free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but after signing Wade Davis and Koji Uehara have three of the last four pitchers to record the final out of the World Series (along with returning Cub Mike Montgomery).

2. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game last season, snapping a five-year postseason streak, and they’ll be motivated after their rivals from Chicago won it all.  Free agent OF Dexter Fowler left the Cubs to come to St. Louis, giving the Cardinals the true leadoff hitter they’ve lacked the last couple of years.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the depth they’ve had in previous years, especially in the bullpen, but should still be strong; Carlos Martinez has emerged as the staff ace, and free agent signee Brett Cecil will help in the ‘pen.

This is still the typical Cardinals roster full of players they have drafted and developed (with a few exceptions), and while they don’t quite match up with the Cubs, they are still capable of a successful season and a wild card berth.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2016: 78-83; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Bucs took a big step back last year, winning 20 games less than in 2015, and this year they continue to look fairly mediocre.  The pitching staff features young talent, including Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who may experience some growing pains.

Offensively, while no position stands out as a glaring weakness, there aren’t many strengths either.  How Andrew McCutchen plays after the Pirates tried to trade him in the offseason could be a big key to whether or not the Pirates have any shot at contending, although being in the same division with the Cubs, said contention would more likely be for a wild card spot.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
2016: 73-89; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Brewers understand their situation as a rebuilding team, and instead of punishing manager Craig Counsell for losing seasons his first two years, extended him through 2020.  A pitching staff full of young players and reclamation projects is potentially no better than last year, especially after losing free agent reliver Tyler Thornburg.

Offensively, the team does have a couple of things going for them, even after the loss of free agent slugger Chris Carter.  Ryan Braun continues his very solid career, and Jonathan Villar has established himself at the top of the order.  An intriguing player is Eric Thames, who hasn’t played in MLB since 2012 but signed as a free agent after a successful stint playing in Korea.  But even if it all clicks offensively, it’s unlikely to be enough to contend.

5. Cincinnati Reds
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Reds are also in a rebuild, and I wrote about their indifferent long-term outlook when they traded Brandon Phillips in February.  After going a combined 132-192 in the last two seasons, they return virtually the same roster (with the exception of losing Phillips).

Offensively, a lineup including 1B Joey Votto and young slugger Adam Duvall was mid-pack in the National League, and should continue to be.  However, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.91 a year ago, including 5.09 in relief, and is no better this year.  Some of that is due to playing in a small ballpark, but the struggles of this pitching staff still can’t be ignored entering 2017.

 

NL West 

1. San Francisco Giants
2016: 87-75, lost to Cubs in NLDS
After having the best record in MLB at the All-Star break last season, the Giants ended up as a Wild Card team; the main reason was a horrendous bullpen.  That unit improved with one offseason move–the signing of closer Mark Melancon.  Now, when the solid Madison Bumgarner-Johnny Cueto-Matt Moore trio in the rotation gives the Giants a lead, there’s a better chance the team will keep it.

Last year’s Giants offense, led by C Buster Posey and OF Hunter Pence, was above average in batting average and below average in home runs.  That combination had that offense, which is essentially unchanged, ranking ninth in the NL in runs.  With a strong rotation and improved bullpen, that could be enough to win the West.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 91-71, lost to Cubs in NLCS
The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, and have the longest active postseason streak in baseball.  Last year, they did it offensively with young players, like Joc Pedersen, Andrew Toles and NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager.  They’re all back, with another year’s experience under their belt, although they lose OFs Josh Reddick and Howie Kendrick.

The pitching staff couldn’t stay healthy last year, and still had a 3.70 team ERA.  The best pitcher in the game resides at Dodger Stadium in Clayton Kershaw, but he also has a very deep unit behind him (so much so, Alex Wood is starting the season in the bullpen).  The bullpen lost some of its depth in free agency and is the team’s biggest question mark–even with the re-signing of closer Kenley Jansen, the unit’s instability moves the team just behind the Giants in the West.

3. Colorado Rockies
2016: 75-87; last postseason appearance: 2009
The Rockies have improved their win total the last two years, and have one of the best offenses in the game–their offensive stats, including a .275 average, are spectacular, even for a team that plays half its games at altitude–led by MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.  That offense now adds veteran Ian Desmond, a player who is used to being on successful teams, although he’ll start the season on the DL.

Pitching at Coors Field is tough, and while this team (or any Rockies team, for that matter) is highly unlikely to lead the league in ERA, their young rotation has a shot to be really good, while a bullpen that had a 5.13 ERA in 2016 has bolstered itself by adding Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn.  The Rockies are probably still a year away, but some teams have gotten “ahead of schedule” in recent years, so Colorado could be a sleeper team out west.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2011
After looking like a potential contender last year, the Diamondbacks’ season was about as horrendous as their uniforms.  Former Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo comes in as manager, and faces a tough task in the desert.  The offense was not the problem in 2016–led by 1B Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs were above average in batting average, OPS, homers and steals–and should still be good, even without NL hits leader 2B Jean Segura.

A 5.09 staff ERA was main cause of last year’s struggles, including a 5.19 rotation ERA.  This year’s staff may be moderately better with the additions of Taijuan Walker in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, but mostly consists of the same cast of characters and lack of depth that plagued them last year.  Those struggles are likely to continue, keeping them from contention once again this year.

5. San Diego Padres
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2006
The Padres have lost at least 85 games every year since 2010, and after a rough 2016 campaign have lost OF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris, P Edwin Jackson, P Brandon Morrow and P Tyson Ross (who was injured in 2016 but was a key piece previously).

Jhoulys Chacin, who was the #4 starter to start the season last year for an Atlanta team that lost 93 games, is now the Opening Day starter for the Padres, and former catcher Christian Bethancourt has made the roster as a reliever, both of which tells you all you need to know about their lack of pitching depth.  The offense, which was well below average last year, has solid young players like OFs Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, in addition to established 1B Wil Myers, but this team looks worse than last year’s 94-loss team, and is miles away from contention.  Three Rule 5 Draft players made the roster; the last such team was the 2003 Tigers (43-119).

 

National League Playoffs Prediction

NL Wild Card Game:  Cardinals def. Dodgers

NLDS:  Cubs def. Cardinals, Nationals def. Giants

NLCS:  Cubs def. Nationals

 

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox
2016: 93-69, lost to Indians in ALDS
After winning the AL East last year, the Red Sox got even better in the offseason.  While they lost David Ortiz to retirement, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland is a worthy addition to mostly fill that void, and the young outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi will be a year older and more experienced after each were solid in 2016 (Benintendi is still considered a rookie, and is AL Rookie of the Year favorite).

The pitching staff boasts 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but he is not even the best pitcher on the staff after the acquisition of Chris Sale; a top three featuring those two and David Price, also a former Cy Young winner, is as good as any.  In the bullpen, trading for Tyler Thornburg (although he’ll start on the DL) offsets some losses in free agency.  The Red Sox are favored to repeat as AL East champs, although it will, as always, be a very tough division to win.

2. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 89-73, lost to Indians in ALCS
The Blue Jays return mostly the same roster that has gone to the ALCS the last two years, with one glaring exception.  DH Edwin Encarnacion became an Indian in free agency, and the aging Kendrys Morales, who signed with Toronto, won’t replace all of Encarnacion’s production.  Otherwise, the team’s offense remains intact.

While the Blue Jays are known for the high-flying offense of the last two years, their pitching staff is quietly one of the best in baseball.  Their 3.78 ERA last year was the best in the AL, with a strong five-deep rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) and a bullpen anchored closer Roberto Osuna and former closer Jason Grilli.  Beating Boston won’t be easy, but it’s doable if everything comes together.

3. New York Yankees
2016: 84-78; last playoff appearance: 2015
The Yankees are transitioning into a team with a young core capable of a sustained run, a solid development for a team whose main criticism the last couple of years was its increasing age.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired and Brian McCann was traded, clearing the way for young guns such as C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird and RF Aaron Judge.  This trio will make the Yankees formidable in the years to come.

The Yankee rotation is still old, led by Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia.  The bullpen is bolstered by Aroldis Chapman, who was dealt to the Cubs in July for prospects and returned to New York on a lucrative five-year free agent deal.  The ‘pen, which also features Dellin Betances (who would close almost anywhere else) and Tyler Clippard, pitched to a 3.67 ERA last year.  The Yankees are probably a year away from threatening a deep playoff run, but if the young players adapt quickly and the veterans stay healthy they could pose a threat to Boston and Toronto now.

4. Baltimore Orioles
2016: 89-73, lost to Blue Jays in AL Wild Card Game
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have made the playoffs every other year; if the trend continues, they’re due to miss the postseason this year, and after a quiet offseason that is realistic.  Offensively, C Wellington Castillo replacing the departed Matt Wieters is the only major change to an offense right at the league average in batting average and on-base percentage, although they only stole 19 bases all season.

Rotation depth was questionable last year, with a 4.72 unit ERA, and is worse this year after Yovanni Gallardo was traded and Tommy Hunter became a free agent.  Making matters worse, two of their five projected starters are on the DL to start the season.  The bullpen is good (3.40 ERA in 2016), and closer Zach Britton is great (), but how many leads will they get?  Sure, this is somewhat the same team that won 89 games last year, but after their stagnant offseason they’ve lost ground in the AL East.

5. Tampa Bay Rays
2016: 68-94; last playoff appearance: 2013
After losing 94 games in 2016, the Rays also had a tellingly uneventful offseason.  An offense that hit a league-worst .243 last year is no better, and while the team did make one signing to try to improve themselves, it was C Wilson Ramos, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a knee injury from last year.

The Rays have a solid top three in the rotation, with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb, although below that it is less stable, and a bullpen that pitched to a 4.09 ERA last season lost Kevin Jepsen.  In the AL East, facing the four teams above them 19 times each, it is going to be a long year for the Rays.

 

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians
2016: 94-67, lost to Cubs in World Series
The 2016 Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings, becoming the first team to do so since the 1997 Indians.  Good news for Cleveland is all three previous teams to lose Game 7 in extra innings won at least 89 games and made at least the LCS the following year.  Even better news is that this year’s edition should be even better than the 2016 team.

The core of last year’s squad is intact, while free agent DH Edwin Encarnacion adds some power to the lineup.  The 2016 playoff run was without OF Michael Brantley and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar; all three of those key pieces are now healthy. Imagine last year’s playoff run with even more pitching depth, or another clutch hitter.  It’s scary, and the rest of the league should be scared of what this team is capable of in 2017, as they try to win their first World Series in 69 years.

2. Detroit Tigers
2016: 86-75; last postseason appearance: 2014
Last year, the Tigers were still alive to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.  This year, with mostly the same roster, Brad Ausmus’s team is looking to take the next step.  The offense was the strength of last year’s team, led by a perennial MVP candidate in 1B Miguel Cabrera, veteran DH Victor Martinez and slugging LF Justin Upton.

The pitching staff’s 4.24 ERA last year was 11th in the AL, despite the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander and the Rookie of the Year season of Michael Fulmer.  The bullpen has been a problem here for years, although it is improving, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and up-and-coming set-up man Bruce Rondon.  The Indians will be tough to catch, but a Wild Card berth is very realistic for the Tigers.

3. Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81; last postseason appearance: 2015
After ending a 29-year playoff drought in 2014 by reaching the World Series, then winning it all in 2015, the Royals led the division after a 30-22 start, a 20-33 record in June/July doomed them to a distant third-place finish and a .500 record.  Offensively, the team offset the loss of Kendrys Morales by signing Brandon Moss, traded for OF Jorge Soler, and retain most of the core from the championship team.

The biggest loss of the offseason came with the death of ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident.  Overcoming that loss emotionally won’t be easy, and replacing him on the field won’t be either, especially since the team lacks the depth provided previously by departed players Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis.  The addition of Travis Wood will help, and Mike Minor, who has moved to the bullpen, could as well if he stays healthy, but it’s hard to see any better of a record than last year.

4. Minnesota Twins
2016: 59-103; last postseason appearance: 2010
2016 was not a good year for the Twins, who had a league-worst 5.08 ERA, a league-worst .979 fielding percentage, and a fifth-worst .251 batting average.  On one hand, the outlook isn’t good for 2017 either, as C Jason Castro is the team’s only addition, although he essentially just replaces free agent Kurt Suzuki.

On the other hand, this is a rebuilding team, and the young core of the future is intact for another season.  Sure, it can’t get much worse than a 103-loss season, but players like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton who are the all-stars of the future should be better with more experience.  This team won’t win the Central, but still has some big issues in the pitching staff, but should be moderately better and could pass the White Sox.

5. Chicago White Sox
2016: 78-84; last postseason appearance: 2008
The White Sox started 2016 at 23-10 and looked like a potential contender, but as the season crumbled away the team decided it was time to rebuild.  Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded, and Justin Morneau and Austin Jackson are among the free agent departures.  Those trades netted the Sox two of baseball’s best prospects in P Lucas Giolito and IF Yoan Moncada, but they aren’t quite MLB-ready to start the season.

Besides Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier in the middle of the order, the lineup is full of young players and reclamation projects.  The rotation is led by legitimate ace Carlos Quintana, but it’s no secret the White Sox are trying to trade him for a haul of prospects, so it’s unknown if he’ll be in Chicago all season, and beneath him the pitching staff has many more questions than answers.  It’s going to be a long year (or few years) in the South Side as the White Sox rebuild.

 

AL West

1. Houston Astros
2016: 84-78; last postseason appearance: 2015
Last year, coming off their “ahead of schedule” postseason berth in 2015, the Astros underachieved and missed the playoffs.  As a result, they were aggressive in free agency to try to add to their talented core of young stars including Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, and added DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann (via trade) and OFs Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick.  This lineup is stacked, which is refreshing after they struggled to score at times last year.

The bullpen (3.56 ERA in 2016) remains a force from top to bottom.  The biggest question is the rotation, which added Charlie Morton to offse tthe loss of Doug Fister.  If Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form, there’s no reason the Astros can’t win the West and be a threat to go deep in October.

 

2. Seattle Mariners
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2001
The Mariners fell just short in 2016, and still seek their first playoff appearance since 2001.  Some wonder if their window is closing, as stars Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aren’t getting any younger.  In an effort to win now, the Mariners made a plethora of trades this offseason, but none were bigger than a deal to get SS Jean Segura, who led the NL in hits last year with Arizona.  The Mariners stole just 56 bases last year, while Segura himself stole 33.

The back end of a good rotation was helped with the acquisition of Yovanni Gallardo, while Edwin Diaz emerged as the closer last year in a strong bullpen (3.55 ERA) that could be even better.  This team has the talent to win the division, although they’ll need a solid season to beat Houston.

3. Texas Rangers
2016: 95-67, lost to Blue Jays in ALDS
The Rangers were a statistcal anomaly in 2016, at 26 games over .500 despite a run differential of just +8.  Now, while the core of the defending West champs remains, some of the supporting cast is absent.  DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland and P Colby Lewis are among the departures.  The team did add 1B Mike Napoli and P Andrew Cashner, who will start the season on the DL.

The lineup was above average in every major category last year, but that may change without Beltran, Desmond and Moreland.  A good rotation led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will give way to a bullpen that struggled last year to a 4.40 ERA and is virtually unchanged.  This is still a good team, but the Astros and Mariners have passed them this offseason.

 

4. Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88; last postseason appearance: 2014
Depth is a key issue for the Angels.  Offensively, behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, there’s not much there, although they have one of the game’s best defenders in SS Andrelton Simmons.  There also aren’t reinforcements coming:  the Angels farm system is consistently rated one of the game’s worst.

Starting pitching depth and health was an issue in 2016, and loses depth in departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.  The bullpen isn’t bad (3.77 ERA in 2016), that won’t be enough to cure this team’s problems.  The Angels are in transition; they aren’t in a all-in rebuild, but they also aren’t going to be contenders.

5. Oakland Athletics
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2014
The A’s have lost 93-plus games the last two years, and last year were well below average on both sides of the ball.  The lineup adds Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe, and while no large holes jump off the depth chart their lineup is full of guys who would be hitting in the bottom half of the order most other places.

On the mound, ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the DL, and beneath him the A’s have no rotation depth.  The bullpen isn’t much better, with journeyman Ryan Madson set to serve as closer.  The “Moneyball” concept has worked at times in Oakland; this is not one of those times, as the refusal to spend much to make this team better is going to cost them for another year.

 

American League Playoffs Prediction

AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays def. Mariners

ALDS: Indians def. Blue Jays, Red Sox def. Astros

ALCS: Indians def. Astros

 

World Series Prediction

113th World Series:  Indians def. Cubs