Preseason College Football Rankings 2017: B/R's Super Early Top 25

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2017

Preseason College Football Rankings 2017: B/R's Super Early Top 25

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    DeShaun Watson and the rest of Clemson's team got to kiss the national championship trophy on Monday. Who will be doing so a year from now?
    DeShaun Watson and the rest of Clemson's team got to kiss the national championship trophy on Monday. Who will be doing so a year from now?Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The 2016-17 college football season was a tremendous, non-stop run of incredible action. But now that it's over, can we go ahead and start the 2017 season already?

    If only.

    Sadly, it will be almost seven months until we have meaningful games again—unless you put a lot of stock in spring football, and if so, good on you. But if not, it's going to be a while before this wonderful sports has anything awesome to discuss. That is, other than Bleacher Report's Super Early Top 25 for next season.

    This poll is voted on by 10 members of Bleacher Report's college football staff: Michael Felder, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Brian Pedersen, David Regimbal, Barrett Sallee, Brad Shepard, Greg Wallace, Christopher Walsh and Eric Yates.

    First-place votes are worth 25 points, with each subsequent point worth one fewer point all the way down to one for 25th place. The 25 teams with the most poll points make our list, but we've also noted some of those who just missed the cut.

    Check out how we see things sitting heading into the offseason, then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

Honorable Mentions

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    Northwestern's Justin Jackson has carried 855 times for 4,129 yards and 30 touchdowns in three seasons.
    Northwestern's Justin Jackson has carried 855 times for 4,129 yards and 30 touchdowns in three seasons.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Northwestern

    Quarterback Clayton Thorson and workhorse running back Justin Jackson return in 2017 for the Wildcats, but they lose top receiver Austin Carr and defensive standout Anthony Walker. Northwestern could have the best offense in the Big Ten's West Division next year.

                             

    Tennessee

    Gone are school career sack leader Derek Barnett and several key offensive stars, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs. But Tennessee is still the Champion of Life and no one can take that away from Butch Jones and his staff.

                                        

    Texas A&M

    Kevin Sumlin's Aggies backslid to finish 2016 much the way they did the previous few seasons, but strong recruiting has potential stars waiting for their shots. A&M will be young at quarterback but should build around 1,000-yard rusher Trayveon Williams, since it's 29-0 under Sumlin when gaining 200-plus yards on the ground.

                                          

    UCLA

    Last season was already heading downhill before quarterback Josh Rosen got hurt, but his return brings hope for UCLA. So does adding Jedd Fisch as offensive coordinator after the success he had developing Michigan's passers the last two years.

                                             

    Virginia Tech

    Justin Fuente made the transition from legendary coach Frank Beamer a seamless one in 2016, but he'll be starting over on offense after record-setting quarterback Jerod Evans and top receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges all declared for the NFL draft.

No. 25 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Poll points: 20

    Top returning players: RB Josh Adams, LB Te'von Coney, OL Mike McGlinchey, LB Nyles Morgan, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, WR Kevin Stepherson, S Drue Tranquill

    Biggest losses: DT Jarron Jones, QB DeShone Kizer, CB Cole Luke, LB James Onwualu, QB Malik Zaire

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Temple

                            

    Notre Dame's 4-8 record in 2016 was its worst since 2007, and while things were bad, it wasn't a total disaster. Seven of the losses were by eight points or fewer, mostly because of a defense that couldn't make a stop and thus will be under new leadership in the form of Mike Elko.

    The same goes for the Fighting Irish's hit-and-miss offense, with Mike Sanford, now running Western Kentucky, replaced by Chip Long. Coach Brian Kelly will entrust him with putting together a system that a completely unproven quarterback can thrive in as one passer (DeShone Kizer) is turning pro and the other (Malik Zaire) is transferring.

No. 24 Kansas State Wildcats

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Poll points: 33

    Top returning players: RB Alex Barnes, FB Winston Dimel, QB Jesse Ertz, WR Dominique Heath, WR Byron Pringle, CB D.J. Reed, CB Duke Shelley, DE Reggie Walker

    Biggest losses: WR Deante Burton, RB Charles Jones, LB Elijah Lee, DE Jordan Willis

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Central Arkansas

                                                

    Let's get this out of the way: Bill Snyder is a wizard and he may just live forever. At 77, he's showing no signs of stopping, and with one of his best sets of returners in years, his 2017 Kansas State team could be among the most successful of his very long career.

    The prospects for next season would have been much better had leading tackler Elijah Lee not opted to forgo his senior year, but the Wildcats have plenty coming back to make up for his departure. Another season of a healthy Jesse Ertz running and passing out of K-State's old-school formations will be fun for us to watch and frustrating for opponents to deal with.

No. 23 Utah Utes

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Poll points: 34

    Top returning players: RB Zack Moss, QB Troy Williams, P Mitch Wishnowsky

    Biggest losses: OL Garett Bolles, DE Hunter Dimick, WR Tim Patrick, K Andy Phillips, DE Pita Taumoepenu, RB Joe Williams, S Marcus Williams

    2017 opener: Aug. 31 vs. North Dakota

                                          

    With so many significant losses, not just on offense and defense, but also special teams in the form of ultra-reliable kicker Andy Phillips, why in the world did our voters rank Utah for 2017? Because we've learned not to count out the Utes as long as Kyle Whittingham is in charge.

    The Pac-12's longest-tenured coach by six years—he's been with the Utes since 2005—always manages to find a way to replace departed players, and we're expecting the same next year. It could be harder to do than on most occasions, but if Troy Williams can build off a solid 2,757-yard, 20-total touchdown junior campaign, there's room for optimism.

No. 22 Colorado Buffaloes

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Poll points: 43

    Top returning players: WR Bryce Bobo, WR Shay Fields, LB Rick Gamboa, RB Phillip Lindsay, QB Steven Montez

    Biggest losses: CB Chidobe Awuzie, QB Sefo Liufau, LB Kenneth Olugbode, S Tedric Thompson, CB Ahkello Witherspoon

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Colorado State (in Denver)

                                

    Colorado was one of the biggest surprises of 2016, going from 4-9 in 2015 to 10 wins and a Pac-12 South Division title. The Buffaloes won't be sneaking up on anyone next season, but they also won't have the same lockdown defense to pace another push.

    In addition to losing most of the best players from a side that held six teams to under 20 points, Colorado lost defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to new Oregon coach Willie Taggart's staff. The Buffaloes may need to lean early on their defense, as the offense is losing career passing leader Sefo Liufau, who will be replaced by oft-used backup passer Steven Montez.

No. 21 West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Justin Berl/Getty Images

    Poll points: 56

    Top returning players: RB Justin Crawford, RB Kennedy McKoy, RB Martell Pettaway

    Biggest losses: LB Justin Arndt, CB Rasul Douglas, WR Shelton Gibson, QB Skyler Howard, OL Tyler Orlosky, RB Rushel Shell III, WR Daikiel Shorts Jr.

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Virginia Tech (in Landover, Maryland)

                                             

    West Virginia will be mostly starting over on defense with the loss of eight starters, never the best way to head into the offseason when playing in the offensive-minded Big 12. The Mountaineers also say goodbye to their starting quarterback and a dependable rusher, but those areas are much more well-stocked for the future.

    Will Grier, who shined for Florida in 2015 before getting suspended for violating the NCAA's drug policy, will be eligible next season. He'll have no shortage of players to hand off to as Justin Crawford ran for 1,184 yards this past year, including a 331-yard game against Oklahoma, while Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettway each had 100-yard games as freshmen.

No. 19 (tie) South Florida Bulls

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    Jason Behnken/Getty Images

    Poll points: 58

    Top returning players: QB Quinton Flowers, RB D'Ernest Johnson, CB Deatrick Nichols, LB Auggie Sanchez

    Biggest losses: WR Rodney Adams, LB Nigel Harris, RB Marlon Mack

    2017 opener: Aug. 26 at San Jose State

                                 

    The sole non-power conference team in our rankings is only considered as such because of its placement in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida's talent is comparable with many power programs, and the addition of Charlie Strong as head coach furthers that notion.

    Strong's defensive background should combine with a relatively intact defense to drastically improve that area for the Bulls, who in 2016 allowed 31.6 points per game. They also scored 43.8 per game behind the dual-threat abilities of Quinton Flowers. He may still declare for the NFL draft, but as of now, Flowers is set to return after a junior season in which he threw for 2,807 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,530 yards and 18 scores.

    Losing Marlon Mack is significant, but D'Ernest Johnson was a strong backup who tallied for 14 TDs this past year.

No. 19 (tie) Miami (Florida) Hurricanes

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    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    Poll points: 58

    Top returning players: DE Joe Jackson, WR Ahmmon Richards, LB Shaquille Quarterman, RB Mark Walton

    Biggest losses: WR Stacy Coley, CB Corn Elder, LB Jermaine Grace, S Rayshawn Jenkins, QB Brad Kaaya, TE David Njoku, RB Joseph Yearby

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. TBD

                              

    Mark Richt's first season at his alma mater produced nine wins, including five straight to end the year. The Russell Athletic Bowl victory over West Virginia was a good springboard into the offseason. Now Richt gets to show what he can do with a team made up of more of his own players as graduation and the lure of the NFL draft has thinned the roster.

    The former Hurricanes quarterback has to identify school career passing leader Brad Kaaya's successor. Backup Malik Rosier attempted only four passes in three games in 2016, and there will be a slew of unproven players (including two from the 2017 recruiting class) that could be in the mix.

    Miami allowed 18.5 points per game in 2016, second-best in the ACC, looks strong in the front seven but has some holes in the secondary.

No. 18 Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Poll points: 64

    Top returning players: QB Shane Buechele, WR Devin Duvernay, WR Armanti Foreman, LB Malik Jefferson, DT Poona Ford, RB Chris Warren III, OL Connor Williams

    Biggest losses: RB D'Onta Foreman, S Dylan Haines, QB Tyrone Swoopes

    2017 opener: Sept 2. vs. Maryland

                      

    There will be no first-year free pass for Tom Herman at Texas, not with what former coach Charlie Strong left behind in Austin. Strong didn't get enough time to show what he could do with all the talent he assembled, and as a result, Herman will be expected to win right away. Based on what he has to work with, that shouldn't be a problem.

    Other than D'Onta Foreman's completely understandable jump to the pros after his 2,028-yard junior season, Texas brings back almost the entire team that was on the field at the end of 2016. That's not necessarily the greatest thing for the Longhorns defense, which allowed 31.5 points per game, but with Herman bringing coordinator Todd Orlando with him from Houston, expect that unit to make a marked improvement.

    Shane Buechele should build off a strong true freshman season in which he threw for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns, and the return of Chris Warren from a knee injury that limited him to four games in 2016 should help fill the void left by Foreman.

No. 17 Florida Gators

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Poll points: 74

    Top returning players: WR Antonio Callaway, CB Chauncey Gardner, S Marcell Harris, OL Martez Ivey, K Eddy Pineiro, RB Jordan Scarlett, DE Jabari Zuniga

    Biggest losses: LB Alex Anzalone, QB Austin Appleby, DT Caleb Brantley, LB Jarrad Davis, OL David Sharpe, CB Teez Tabor, CB Quincy Wilson

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Michigan (in Arlington, Texas)

                     

    Florida has won the last two SEC East Division titles, but in many ways, they felt like victories by default, as the rest of the division failed to live up to expectations and enabled the Gators to take the top spot despite some woefully bad offense. Don't expect them to be able to get by with the same formula in 2017, though strong returning rushers and pass-catchers put the Gators in a better position than in the recent past.

    It will all depend on what Florida does at quarterback. Austin Appleby was a one-year rental and now it's up to someone from the group of Luke Del Rio, Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask or incoming commit Jake Allen to emerge as a true performer.

    This is even more imperative for next season, since Florida's defense, which it has leaned on so much under coach Jim McElwain, has already lost four players to early NFL draft declarations in addition to linebacker Jarrad Davis.

No. 16 Stanford Cardinal

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Poll points: 95

    Top returning players: LB Joey Alfieri, WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR Trenton Irwin, RB Bryce Love

    Biggest losses: S Dallas Lloyd, RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Michael Rector, DE Solomon Thomas

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 at Rice

                                        

    Stanford is losing an incredible all-purpose threat in Christian McCaffrey, a swarming defender in Solomon Thomas and plenty of other notable pieces. Yet the Cardinal, which ended on a six-game win streak after opening 4-3, look to be reloading rather than rebuilding.

    Bryce Love could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate as he takes over for McCaffrey in the backfield. As a sophomore, he ran for 783 yards and averaged 7.05 yards per carry, topping 100 yards three times including in both games in which he started in place of McCaffrey.

    The Cardinal graduate two starters on the offensive line but will add the two best tackle prospects in the 2017 class in Foster Sarell and Walker Little. Their quarterback situation is uncertain after Keller Chryst tore his ACL in the Sun Bowl, but K.J. Costello could be primed to take over after redshirting in 2016.

No. 15 Georgia Bulldogs

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Poll points: 99

    Top returning players: K Rodrigo Blankenship, LB Lorenzo Carter, RB Nick Chubb, QB Jacob Eason, WR Terry Godwin, RB Sony Michel, S Dominick Sanders, DT Trenton Thompson

    Biggest losses: OL Brandon Kublanow, WR Isaiah McKenzie, OL Greg Pyke, CB Maurice Smith

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Appalachian State

                                             

    Kirby Smart got a bit of a pass in his first season coaching Georgia, but there won't be any such leeway in 2017. The Bulldogs will bring back more talent than anyone else in the SEC East by a wide margin, and anything short of a division title will be considered a major disappointment.

    That was the case even before junior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both decided to come back. With them in tow, Georgia's offense has all the weapons it needs but will have to rebuild an offensive line that is losing three starters.

    Georgia's defense is set to return almost intact and is adding some immediate help in the form of the nation's No. 2 recruiting class.

No. 14 Auburn Tigers

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Poll points: 100

    Top returning players: K Daniel Carlson, DE Marlon Davidson, RB Kerryon Johnson, S Tray Matthews, RB Kamryn Pettway, QB Sean White

    Biggest losses: DT Montravius Adams, CB Joshua Holsey, OL Alex Kozan, DE Carl Lawson, WR Tony Stevens

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Georgia Southern

                          

    Since losing the final BCS championship game after the 2013 season, Auburn has gone a combined 23-16 with no better than the 8-5 record it had this past year. Still, the Tigers have the talent to be a player in the ultra-tough SEC West and should begin 2017 ranked, unlike last season.

    A bevy of ball-carriers will be at Auburn's disposal with the trio of Kerryon Johnson, Kam Martin and Kamryn Pettway combining for 2,439 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016. Their running ability will complement whoever ends up being quarterback, whether its Sean White or ex-Baylor passer Jarrett Stidham.

    Auburn's defense allowed 17.1 points per game, but many of its top players are moving on.

No. 13 LSU Tigers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Poll points: 121

    Top returning players: WR D.J. Chark, WR Malachi Dupre, QB Danny Etling, RB Derrius Guice, DE Arden Key, CB Donte Jackson

    Biggest losses: S Jamal Adams, LB Kendell Beckwith, RB Leonard Fournette, DT Davon Godchaux, C Ethan Pocic, LB Duke Riley, CB Tre'Davious White

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. BYU (in Houston)

                            

    There are few certainties in college football, but one of them is high expectations for LSU going into a season regardless of what happened the year before. Unlike the recent past, though, the Tigers head into the offseason on a relatively high note based on how they played under coach Ed Orgeron.

    That doesn't mean LSU isn't going to have to replace some big departures, though its perennially strong recruiting should help with most of that.

    Leonard Fournette's replacement already emerged during the second half of 2016 in the form of Derrius Guice, who is primed to challenge all of the records Fournette set during his career. Guice is already well on his way, having run for a single-game record 285 yards and four touchdowns against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving en route to 1,387 yards and 15 TDs for the year.

    Danny Etling brought stability to the quarterback position, but the Purdue transfer isn't guaranteed the starting job in 2017. LSU's incoming recruiting class includes two passing prospects, most notably 4-star Myles Brennan.

No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers

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    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    Poll points: 131

    Top returning players: LB T.J. Edwards, TE Troy Fumagalli, QB Alex Hornibrook, WR Jazz Peavy

    Biggest losses: LB Vince Biegel, RB Corey Clement, QB Bart Houston, S Leo Musso, RB Dare Ogunbowale, CB Sojourn Shelton, LB T.J. Watt, WR Robert Wheelwright

    2017 opener: Sept. 1 vs. Utah State

                              

    Wisconsin may have been the greatest three-loss team in college football history after navigating through a tremendously tough 2016 schedule. The 2017 slate isn't looking as challenging, but the Badgers also won't be as loaded with experience as they were this past season.

    A major question mark is whether Alex Hornibrook, who split snaps with Bart Houston at quarterback, is ready to be the full-time guy. He only attempted 31 passes in Wisconsin's final four games and had seven interceptions against nine touchdowns for the year.

    Also uncertain is the future of left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, a consensus All-American who Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller has pegged as a first-round pick. He's yet to declare or announce his return, but even without him, Wisconsin would be in good shape on the offensive line with four other starters set to return.

    And the defense will still be good, losses aside. That side of the ball has been a Midwestern staple for years and that should continue.

No. 10 (tie) Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Poll points: 139

    Top returning players: RB Justice Hill, QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington

    Biggest losses: DT Motekiai Maile, WR Jhajuan Seales, S Jordan Sterns, DT Vincent Taylor

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Tulsa

                           

    Mason Rudolph needs 547 yards to become Oklahoma State's career passing leader. James Washington has averaged 19.2 yards per reception and is already one of the best receivers in school history. And Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards as a freshman, breaking Thurman Thomas' school record.

    The Cowboys are stacked on offense like few other teams are for 2017, and a sixth 10-win season in the last eight years looks possible. OK State could also make an appearance in the Big 12 championship game.

    OK State's biggest hole to fill is on the interior of the defensive line. Tackles Motekiai Maile and Vincent Taylor combined for 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss this past season.

No. 10 (tie) Louisville Cardinals

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Poll points: 139

    Top returning players: CB Jaire Alexander, LB James Hearns, QB Lamar Jackson, WR Jaylen Smith, RB Jeremy Smith

    Biggest losses: DT DeAngelo Brown, LB Devonte Fields, TE Cole Hikutini, LB Keith Kelsey, WR James Quick, RB Brandon Radcliff, WR Jamari Staples

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis)

                                                           

    Does bringing back the reigning Heisman Trophy winner make up for a whole mess of losses? Louisville is hoping so, because outside of Lamar Jackson, the Cardinals will be mostly new in terms of impact players in 2017.

    Louisville has to replace its leading non-quarterback rusher, its top three receivers and its leading tackler (Keith Kelsey), along with a large helping of its front seven.

    That will put extra pressure on Jackson to at least match—if not surpass—his amazing numbers from this past season when he threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns and ran for 1,571 yards and 21 scores. In order for that to happen, though, the Cardinals will need to shore up an offensive line that allowed 47 sacks, third-most in FBS, and graduates two starters.

    Despite the lack of returning names other than Jackson, though, don't count the Cardinals out as long as Bobby Petrino is calling plays.

No. 9 Michigan Wolverines

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Poll points: 172

    Top returning players: OL Ben Bredeson, C Mason Cole, RB Chris Evans, DE Rashan Gary, DT Maurice Hurst, QB Wilton Speight

    Biggest losses: OL Ben Braden, TE Jake Butt, DE Taco Charlton, WR Jehu Chesson, WR Amara Darboh, CB Jourdan Lewis, LB Jabrill Peppers, RB De'Veon Smith, DE Chris Wormley

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Florida (in Arlington, Texas)

                                                     

    Jabrill Peppers didn't play in Michigan's Orange Bowl loss to Florida State because of a hamstring injury, and after he announced Tuesday he was turning pro after his redshirt sophomore season it means we've seen the end of the versatile star's college career.

    Our voters went with the assumption Peppers was gone, which along with its many departing impact seniors means Michigan has a lot of starters to replace. It also means we'll get to see just how strong Jim Harbaugh's recruiting has been, since most spots will get filled with players he's added the past two years.

    Based on the voting, we're also assuming that these newcomers will be able to fit in just fine and keep the ball rolling. Harbaugh has gotten the most out of players that he inherited, so we it's fair to think his influence on those he personally recruited to Ann Arbor is even more persuasive.

No. 8 Washington Huskies

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Poll points: 177

    Top returning players: LB Keishawn Bierria, QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, WR Chico McClatcher, S Taylor Rapp, DT Vita Vea

    Biggest losses: S Budda Baker, CB Sidney Jones, LB Joe Mathis, DT Elijah Qualls, WR John Ross, LB Psalm Wooching

    2017 opener: Sept. 1 at Rutgers

                     

    The defending Pac-12 champions must replace some major stars, particularly on defense, but with the return of the junior duo of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, a second consecutive conference title and return to the playoffs are in play.

    Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns last season, tying the Pac-12 TD record in the process, while Gaskin is coming off back-to-back 1,300-yard rushing efforts. Another will push him toward the top of the school's career rushing list as he needs 1,375 to top Chris Polk for first.

    Injuries on the defensive side this past season enabled Washington to build depth at many key positions, and those one-time backups are ready to become full-time stars. Tyler Rapp, an FWAA freshman All-American, led the Huskies with four interceptions, with two of those coming in the Pac-12 title game win over Colorado.

No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Poll points: 189

    Top returning players: WR Mark Andrews, QB Baker Mayfield, CB Jordan Thomas

    Biggest losses: LB Jordan Evans, RB Joe Mixon, RB Samaje Perine, S Ahmad Thomas, DT Charles Walker, WR Dede Westbrook

    2017 opener: Sept. 2. vs. UTEP

                      

    Oklahoma had a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists in 2016 but couldn't get into the playoffs. Having only one come back means the prospects shouldn't be any better, but when that returner is the mercurial Baker Mayfield, anything is possible, and he's enough to consider the Sooners a playoff contender.

    Dede Westbrook's graduation and the early departure of rushers Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine mean the Sooners will be looking for some new offensive leaders, but they still have Mayfield for one more year. Mayfield's ability to improvise should help bridge the gap while new targets are identified, though the early game at Ohio State will be a major test for that rebuilt offense.

    The Sooners could return as many as eight defensive starters if their remaining undeclared draft-eligible players all stick around, and that could provide a strong boost while the offense gets settled.

No. 5 (tie) Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Leon Bennett/Getty Images

    Poll points: 199

    Top returning players: RB Saquon Barkley, LB Jason Cabinda, TE Mike Gesicki, QB Trace McSorley

    Biggest losses: LB Brandon Bell, WR Chris Godwin, DE Evan Schwan, DE Garrett Sickels

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Akron

        

    The debate will rage on as to whether Penn State should have been in the playoff instead of Ohio State or Washington, but what will be hard to argue is the amount of talent the Nittany Lions will have on hand for 2017. Unless it has a surprise announcement for the NFL draft from someone like quarterback Trace McSorley, the Lions will enter next season as a top playoff contender.

    McSorley's play under the guidance of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead enabled Penn State's offense to soar this past year, particularly in the second half of games. He threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 18 of those TDs coming after halftime, and heads into the offseason having thrown four TD passes in each of his last three games.

    Saquon Barkley, who ran for 1,496 yards and 18 TDs in 2016, enters his junior year needing 1,361 yards to become PSU's career rushing leader.

No. 5 (tie) Clemson Tigers

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Poll points: 199

    Top returning players: DT Clelin Ferrell, LB Kendall Joseph, DT Dexter Lawrence, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, DE Christian Wilkins

    Biggest losses: LB Ben Boulware, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, WR Artavis Scott, CB Cordrea Tankersley, DT Carlos Watkins, QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Kent State

                            

    Clemson is the reigning national champion, but it is not our voters' pick to be No. 1 heading into 2017. Don't call this bias but rather an assessment of what the Tigers have coming back for their title defense.

    Namely, an experience-lacking offense since Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and top receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams are all leaving early. However, it's not a completely bare cover on offense, since Hunter Renfrow, who has caught five touchdown passes in the past two playoffs and who snagged the title-winning touchdown on Monday, will be a junior in 2017.

    The Tigers defense is also in good shape, particularly on the defensive line, where Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins are back and will serve as the backbone of that unit.

No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Poll points: 215

    Top returning players: LB Jerome Baker, QB J.T. Barrett, DE Tyquan Lewis, RB Mike Weber

    Biggest losses: WR Noah Brown, CB Gareon Conley, C Pat Elflein, S Malik Hooker, LB Raekwon McMillan, RB Curtis Samuel

    2017 opener: Aug. 31 at Indiana

                             

    Another year, another round of early departures for Ohio State getting replaced by the next crop of future stars that coach Urban Meyer has recruited to Columbus. It's not as significant a turnover as after the 2015 season, but there are some major holes to fill, particularly in the secondary.

    Redshirt sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore is still mum on his future, and the Buckeyes have to replace at least two starters from the back line in Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker. That means replacing players who had 11 of the Buckeyes' 21 interceptions and three of their seven pick-sixes. One person who could immediately make an impact there is Jeffrey Okudah, the No. 12 player in the 2017 recruiting class who committed to OSU during Saturday's Army All-American Game.

    OSU's offense won't need as much rebuilding from a personnel standpoint, with J.T. Barrett coming back for his senior year and Mike Weber coming off a strong 1,096-yard performance as a redshirt freshman. Schematically, though, the Buckeyes will change as former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson comes on as offensive coordinator.

No. 3 Florida State Seminoles

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Poll points: 217 (two first-place votes)

    Top returning players: DE Brian Burns, QB Deondre Francois, S Derwin James, CB Tarvarus McFadden, WR Nyqwan Murray, DE Josh Sweat

    Biggest losses: RB Dalvin Cook, DE DeMarcus Walker, CB Marquez White

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Alabama (in Atlanta)

        

    Saying goodbye to the school's single-season and career rushing leader will be tough, but outside of Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles are set to bring back a pretty stacked offense. It's a relatively young one as well, starting with Deondre Francois, after he put together a solid redshirt freshman season with 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and five rushing scores.

    Nyqwan Murray's performance in the Orange Bowl—104 receiving yards and two TDs, including the game-winner—bodes well for FSU's receiving corps, even if junior Travis Rudolph ends up declaring for the draft. The run game will be in the hands of either junior Jacques Patrick or incoming freshman Cam Akers, the No. 4 prospect in the 2017 recruiting class.

    DeMarcus Walker's past two seasons on the defensive line produced 26.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss, but the cupboard certainly isn't bare. Brian Burns and Josh Sweat combined for 15.5 sacks in 2016, and Burns earned FWAA Freshman All-America honors. FSU will get back safety Derwin James after he missed nearly all of his sophomore season with a knee injury.

No. 2 USC Trojans

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Poll points: 235

    Top returning players: QB Sam Darnold, RB Ronald Jones II, CB Iman Marshall, LB Cameron Smith

    Biggest losses: CB Adoree' Jackson, OL Damien Mama, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OL Chad Wheeler

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan

                             

    Few teams ended the 2016 season hotter than USC, which takes a nine-game win streak into next season and brings back a rising star in Sam Darnold to run its offense. As a redshirt freshman, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns on 67.2 percent passing and he figures to be a Heisman Trophy candidate when next season begins.

    The Trojans will need to rebuild on the offensive line, losing both tackles and guard Damien Mama from a group that only allowed 12 sacks. The new line will open holes for Ronald Jones II, who has run for 2,069 yards and 20 TDs in his first two years but now will get a chance to be a featured back instead of splitting carries.

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Poll points: 246 (eight first-place votes)

    Top returning players: QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough

    Biggest losses: DE Jonathan Allen, LB Ryan Anderson, LB Reuben Foster, TE O.J. Howard, LB Tim Williams

    2017 opener: Sept. 2 vs. Florida State (in Atlanta)

                               

    Alabama won't head into 2017 with a chance to be the first three-time national champion since Yale in the late 1800s, but that doesn't mean the Crimson Tide won't be stacked heading into 2017.

    A lot will depend on which of the Tide's many great draft-eligible players come back, a list that includes Bo Scarbrough, who who ran for 273 yards and four touchdowns in the final two games after being a backup most of the season. Scarbrough is expected to return, as will most of the non-seniors who will want to avenge the last-second loss to Clemson.

    A major boost for Alabama will be not having to decide who its quarterback is in during the offseason. Though Jalen Hurts struggled in the national championship, the sophomore-to-be showed he can run things and will work with new coordinator Steve Sarkisian to find a strong balance.

                                        

    All slides written by Brian J. Pedersen. Follow the author on Twitter at @realBJP.