Why you should care
Why we’re barking like a Dawg for the return of fall Saturdays.
After cruising through summer baseball matinees and weekends wasted on sandy beaches while longing for a reason to return to the couch, this coming Saturday marks the return of a full slate of college football. And there’s no better way to celebrate the occasion than by ranking the contenders. But make no mistake: This is not a piddling preseason ranking you’ll find anywhere else. This is a forecast of how we see things shaking out in January.
Will quarterback drama derail the two most dominant programs of the decade? Can the Georgia Bulldogs replace the exodus of NFL talent from Athens? Which overlooked Big Ten team is for real, and who’s the most dangerous sleeper down south? Find answers to these questions, and more, in the following manifesto. Then tell us why we’re wrong, and give your own rankings in the comments.
2017 record: 13-2, 7-1 SEC
Upset alert: Sept. 8 at South Carolina
An SEC club with an embarrassment of riches? What a surprise. Georgia has a bona fide winner in quarterback Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the national title game as a true freshman last season. So why the hell do some people want Fromm to lose his job? Much like similar situations at Clemson and Alabama, major college recruiting ensures that no one’s job is safe. Justin Fields, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2018, is breathing down Fromm’s neck for playing time, but UGA coach Kirby Smart would be crazy to bench his starter without good reason. After losing several stars to the NFL, Georgia’s seasoned sophomore is the team’s undisputed offensive leader.
The Bulldogs have a roster full of five-star recruits ready to break out at running back and wide receiver, but one might wonder if a slight regression is due for a team that returns only five starters on defense. One glance at the Bulldogs’ schedule eases those concerns. “[The SEC] has great quarterback play this season,” says CBS college football analyst Rick Neuheisel. “That should lead to some upsets, but Georgia’s schedule looks very favorable.” If the Dawgs avoid chaos at South Carolina in Week 2, their next biggest test will be at LSU in October.
2017 record: 13-1, 7-1 SEC
Upset alert: Nov. 10 vs. Mississippi State
In defeating Georgia in January, the Tide won its fifth championship in nine seasons. Alabama only returns four starters on defense, but, as is customary in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban is confident that a fifth-ranked recruiting class will alleviate those concerns.
The Alabama offense is where things get interesting. The quarterback drama surrounding Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa is no secret, but Saban also needs to replace receiver Calvin Ridley and running back Bo Scarbrough, who left early for the NFL. Leading rusher Damien Harris is back, and sophomore Najee Harris looks prepared to continue the long line of superhuman Crimson Tide running backs. The bottom line? With Saban at the helm and Hurts under center, we know that this is a championship-caliber team. With Saban and the Tagovailoa we witnessed in the second half of last year’s national championship? This team might not lose a game.
2017 record: 12-2, 7-1 ACC
Upset alert: Oct. 20 vs. North Carolina State
The Tigers have made three straight trips to the College Football Playoff, falling in the semis last year. This season — whether it’s Kelly Bryant or five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence starting at quarterback — it’s title or bust in Clemson.
Considering that Alabama won last year’s title game by benching its starter in favor of a freshman backup in Tagovailoa, quarterback controversy is all the rage this season. But QB is not the reason the Tigers will return to the playoff: No team in the country compares defensively, with defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell and linebacker Kendall Joseph back on campus, and two of the three top defensive linemen in the 2018 recruiting class, K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas. Clemson should roll through the ACC once again. And if Lawrence is good enough to take the steady Bryant’s job, that’s probably a sign of championship heroics.
4. Michigan State
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten
Upset alert: Oct. 6 vs. Northwestern
After an embarrassing 3-9 2016 campaign, Michigan State hit college football fans with the Men in Black memory neuralyzer last season, winning 10 games for the sixth time in eight years. That trend will continue this fall. Mark Dantonio’s Spartans boast 19 returning starters — with none more important than junior quarterback Brian Lewerke. Last year, his first full season as a starter, Lewerke became the first MSU quarterback to throw for more than 2,500 yards and run for at least 500. He logged 25 total touchdowns, and was named offensive MVP in the Holiday Bowl. More than Lewerke’s dual-threat ability, Dantonio admires his leadership. “He has an ability to stay calm and collected in times of uncertainty,” Dantonio says. “He’s got some work to do before he gets to the NFL … but I think he’s a rising star.”
MSU also returns running back L.J. Scott and top receiver Felton Davis III. Add in a loaded defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally last season, and a second playoff trip is in order. With home games against both Michigan and Ohio State, watch for Sparty to win the Big Ten East, before meeting Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12
Upset alert: Sept. 1 vs. Auburn
The Pac-12 Conference, once dominated by Southern Cal, officially belongs to the university in Seattle. With running back Myles Gaskin (1,380 yards, 21 touchdowns) back, a Pac-12 title appears to be only one step toward Washington’s national championship aspirations. It helps that quarterback Jake Browning is now the best passer out west and that receiver Chico McClatcher will be fully healthy.
2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big 12
Upset alert: Oct. 6 at Texas
Quarterback Kyler Murray, who was drafted ninth overall in June’s Major League Baseball draft and signed with the Oakland A’s for $4.66 million, is still playing football for some reason. Thus, the Sooners’ chances at a fourth straight Big 12 title, and a third playoff appearance in four years, live on, even with Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield now plying his trade on Sundays. Still, the high-scoring Big 12 is loaded with land mines. I like the Sooners to win the Big 12, but losses to West Virginia, TCU and even Texas would hardly surprise. And they won’t make it back to the playoff.
2017 record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten
Upset alert: Oct. 6 vs. Nebraska
Wisconsin seems to be home to a never-ending line of cornfed behemoths engineered to blow defensive linemen off the ball, opening holes the size of an indoor pool at the Great Wolf Lodge at Wisconsin Dells. Badger football this year will be a constant assessment of astonishing Heisman candidate running back Jonathan Taylor, rusher of a Bowl Subdivision freshman-record 1,977 yards last season. Taylor owes a lot of credit to the big boys on his offensive line, with all five starters back. But I still have doubts about quarterback Alex Hornibrook and a depleted defense (only five returning starters), combined with a loaded road schedule. Expect a slight regression after Wisconsin’s school-record 13 wins last season.
2017 record: 10-3, 7-1 ACC
Upset alert: Oct. 26 at Boston College
After a 10-0 start, Miami’s late-season stumbles turned its meme-worthy “Turnover Chain” tradition on its head. For Mark Richt’s squad to truly return to the dominant ways of old, Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier needs to protect the ball better. Still, with 31 total touchdowns in his first season as a starter, Rosier flashed the caliber of talent that can end Clemson’s ACC reign. Miami returns eight starters on a fearsome defense, including star safety Jaquan Johnson. Week 1 at LSU is a huge test, while November games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech will decide the season.
9. Ohio State
2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten
Upset alert: Sept. 15 at TCU
J.T. Barrett, the ultimate “in college forever” football guy, has finally left Columbus, leaving an open competition for the QB spot. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins appears a capable replacement, with fellow sophomore Tate Martell waiting in the wings. Seven returning offensive starters provide plenty of firepower for Haskins to excel, and an elite defensive line will keep opposing scores low. Still, one has to wonder how the absence of head coach Urban Meyer — suspended for the first three games of the season for his failure to properly deal with an accused domestic abuser on his coaching staff — will affect Ohio State’s preparation. Normally, I would think “not much,” but a chaotic off-season combined with a new quarterback and September road games at TCU and Penn State have me bearish on the Buckeyes’ title chances.
10. Notre Dame
2017 record: 10-3
Upset alert: Nov. 10 vs. Florida State
Dual-threat head-turner Brandon Wimbush is back at quarterback and, reportedly, even better, but head coach Brian Kelly has a plethora of holes to fill on the offensive line, at the skill positions and at defensive coordinator. Watch out for a bigger role for running back Dexter Williams, who averaged more than 9 yards per carry last season. Led by Notre Dame’s best defense since the 2012 Manti Te’o days, this Irish season comes down to Wimbush’s production through the air. They’ll need a more mature Wimbush, who rushed for 805 yards and 14 touchdowns but only passed for 1,870 yards and 16 scores, to reach the next level as a passer.
The Next Five to Watch
11. West Virginia. 12. Mississippi State. 13. Penn State. 14. Virginia Tech. 15. Auburn.