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
Florida vs. Michigan (Arlington, Tex.), 3:30 p.m., ABC
Alabama vs. Florida State (Atlanta), 8:00 p.m., ABC
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
Clemson at Louisville, 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN
Miami at Florida State, 8:00 p.m., ABC
Northwestern at Wisconsin
Clemson at Virginia Tech
Utah at USC
Michigan at Penn State
Oklahoma at Kansas State
Louisville at Florida State
Penn State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., FOX
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.), 3:30 p.m., CBS
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
LSU at Alabama
Virginia Tech at Miami
Washington at Stanford, 10:30 p.m., FS1
Florida State at Clemson
Georgia State at Auburn
Michigan at Wisconsin
Ohio State at Michigan, 12:00 p.m., FOX
Florida State at Florida
Alabama at Auburn
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
4. NC State
5. Wake Forest
6. Boston College
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.
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
Championship Game: Florida State over Miami
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
5. Michigan State
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.
Championship Game: Ohio State over Wisconsin
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
3. Kansas State
4. West Virginia
8. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State
Championship Game: Oklahoma State over Oklahoma
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.
5. Arizona State
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.
4. Washington State
5. Oregon State
Championship Game: USC over Washington
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.
4. Texas A&M
5. Mississippi State
7. Ole Miss
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.
5. South Carolina
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)