Preseason College Football Rankings: Top 25 After Spring Practice

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2017

Preseason College Football Rankings: Top 25 After Spring Practice

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    College football programs are wrapping up the 2017 edition of spring practice, and we're bracing for a few months of limited news. How do football addicts prepare? With a top 25, of course!

    Perspectives have been altered or reaffirmed throughout the last two months, which included scrimmages, spring games and plenty of updates from every team's offseason work.

    Preseason expectations and spring performance were the largest factors in organizing the top 25. Each section takes a look at a notable update or two from a given team's practice sessions and how it relates to the upcoming season.

    The rankings will shift slightly throughout the summer as competitions are decided, transfers pick new destinations and—unfortunately—injuries, suspensions and departures shake up a roster, but the moves won't be drastic.

25. Kansas State

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    Kansas State has a few unknowns, but quarterback is not one. Jesse Ertz will return under center for the Wildcats.

    Last season, he ran for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns while also completing 57.6 percent of 264 passes. Ertz and K-State relied more on the running game—which isn't a surprise—but his development as a thrower will dictate the team's ceiling in 2017.

    Although the Wildcats need to address turnover at linebacker, they have a budding star in sophomore defensive end Reggie Walker. He'll headline what should be another feisty defense, as long as Will Geary returns from his undisclosed spring absence.

24. Boise State

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    Boise State has holes to fill across the roster, and the spring brought another setback. Expected starter Joe Martarano, who collected 25 tackles as a reserve linebacker last season, left the football team to pursue baseball.

    The list of questions goes on, but every answer revolves around whether quarterback Brett Rypien can carry the Broncos.

    A two-year starter entering his junior year, Rypien worked with an entirely revamped surrounding cast since an ankle injury limited 1,000-yard wideout Cedrick Wilson during the spring. That experience may become vital in the fall.

23. Texas

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    It's not difficult to be optimistic about Texas, but there's a necessary balance of anticipating immediate improvement under Tom Herman and not heaping expectations on the team.

    Shane Buechele showed his value during the spring game, clearly outplaying dual-threat freshman Sam Ehlinger. That's not a knock on the newcomer, who must undergo the same transition process Buechele endured last season.

    Buechele's experience combined with Herman's offensive mind is a major reason the Longhorns should improve.

    While the defense is seasoned, it struggled throughout 2016. Texas has 10 returning starters and several other contributors back in the fold, so the unit's adjustment to defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is just as important and perhaps more impactful than Buechele and the offense.

22. Florida

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    What a difference a year makes.

    In 2016, Feleipe Franks looked like an early enrollee trying too hard to impress and tossed three interceptions on his first four attempts. This year, Franks showed an obvious comfort behind center, finishing 8-of-14 with 119 yards, one touchdown and zero picks.

    "I think he's ahead" in the competition, head coach Jim McElwain said earlier this month, per the Orlando Sentinel. "There's no doubt about it."

    Franks needs to retain that advantage when incumbent starter Luke Del Rio is healthy in the fall, but the two-time defending SEC East champions seem to have a new quarterback for 2017 while rebuilding a defense that lost five certain NFL draft picks.

21. TCU

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    Experienced roster? Check. Good coaching? Check. Quarterback? Maybe.

    Kenny Hill remains TCU's best option, but the spring game certainly didn't spark an unending flurry of optimism. He tossed a pair of interceptions in nine attempts.

    The Horned Frogs must hope the nine other returning offensive starters and seven defenders can atone for likely deficiencies at QB. That should again be enough to attain bowl eligibility and a couple more wins, but anything more will depend on Hill's progression.

20. Oregon

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    One of few programs still closing the spring, Oregon has spent the workouts adjusting to the new systems Willie Taggart brought from South Florida and Jim Leavitt from Colorado.

    So far, so good.

    "It's already been successful," said the new defensive coordinator Leavitt, according to Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard. "I'm pretty happy with where we're at. The structure and the concepts, they've done a pretty good job of picking that all up."

    The Justin Herbert-led attack provided encouraging signs in 2016, and Taggart's spread-based philosophy will only improve the unit. A more consistent offense complemented by a not-terrible defense should propel the Ducks back into the Pac-12 conversation.

19. West Virginia

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    West Virginia has increased its win total in each of the last three seasons, and the program is looking for quarterback Will Grier to continue that streak. The Florida transfer impressed during his first public appearance as the starting quarterback.

    "I think he's as good as advertised," head coach Dana Holgorsen said, per John Antonik of the school's official site. "He's proven he's a winning quarterback. He's a coach's kid. He's smart, and it means a lot to him."

    But still, the real difference-maker for the Mountaineers can be the defense. They allowed 30-plus points just four times—only matched or bested by Kansas State in the Big 12—last year.

    Now, West Virginia's biggest challenge is doing that against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as Grier leads an explosive attack.

18. Miami

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    Pending the readiness of the secondary, Miami will have a defense capable of spearheading a Coastal Division championship. But do the Hurricanes have the quarterback for it?

    Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs, Jack Allison and Cade Weldon competed this spring, and N'Kosi Perry will join the battle in the summer.

    Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the South Florida Sun Sentinel noted head coach Mark Richt said Rosier and Shirreffs separated themselves during the spring. But Richt added he's not opposed to the competition lasting through the fall and into the season.

    Settle that—something not easily done—and the defense-driven 'Canes may finally represent the Coastal in the ACC title game.

17. Stanford

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    Stanford doesn't exactly have a competition, since Keller Chryst will be the starter when healthy. But right now, he's recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee.

    Until then, Ryan Burns and K.J. Costello will battle for the right to lead the offense. Entering the summer, it looks like Burns has the edge. The senior put together a respectable spring game, ending 10-of-15 with a touchdown while Costello went 5-of-13.

    Considering the Cardinal take on USC and UCLA before September ends, they need Burns to continue his fifth-year development and be the guiding hand if Chryst isn't ready immediately.

16. South Florida

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    Thanks to explosive quarterback Quinton Flowers, USF will be widely considered a top Group of Five team during the preseason.

    And he might be even better. ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson noted the senior has overhauled his throwing motion in an effort to quicken the release. It's a much-needed change for Flowers, a talented runner who has rarely controlled a game with his arm.

    To reach what is effectively the ultimate goal (barring a perception change in the College Football Playoff)—a New Year's Six bowl game—USF will need to accomplish something the program has never done: win a conference championship.

15. Wisconsin

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    Every opponent knows what to expect from Wisconsin yet often can't stop it. The offense wants to pound the football, and the defense won't surrender many yards.

    In fact, the defense hasn't finished outside of the top 20 nationally since 2008. As long as the Badgers can adapt to their third coordinator in three seasons, that trend should continue.

    However, Wisconsin needs a game-changing quarterback to become more than a perennial nine-win team. Alex Hornibrook is only a sophomore, so there's hope for him. But the potential of undecided grad transfer Malik Zaire heading to Madison remains appealing.

14. Louisville

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    Unlike several teams in the top 25, Louisville already knows its quarterback. But do the Cardinals have everything else?

    Lamar Jackson can atone for a variety of shortcomings. The Heisman Trophy winner racked up 5,114 yards and 51 total touchdowns during his first season as a starter. But his leading runner, top three receivers and several key defenders all graduated.

    Defensive end Drew Bailey, linebacker Stacy Thomas and experienced defensive backs offer realistic promise for Louisville. But if Bobby Petrino's team is to dethrone Clemson and derail Florida State, Jackson must carry them.

13. Georgia

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    Consistency eluded Georgia in 2016, which can be expected from a young team. Seeing the talent Kirby Smart's club brings back, though, that shouldn't happen again this season.

    In addition to the high-profile returns of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs also kept Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. They combined for 95 tackles with 15 stops for loss, including 10 sacks and 27 hurries, per Pro Football Focus.

    Georgia needs Jacob Eason to avoid a sophomore slump and rapid development from a young receiving group, but the pieces are in place for an SEC East triumph.

12. Penn State

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    Saquon Barkley is electric, and Penn State can expect another prolific season from the running back. But Trace McSorley is the biggest variable for the program's Big Ten title defense.

    Although McSorley put up impressive numbers (3,614 yards, 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions), the quarterback was sometimes reckless with the football. And his premier downfield target, Chris Godwin, declared for the NFL draft.

    The Nittany Lions need the experience on the outside to replace the individual talent Godwin offered. Otherwise, that could be a key reason they encounter a rougher year than has been generally projected.

11. Auburn

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    There's plenty to like about Auburn in 2017 beyond quarterback Jarrett Stidham's arrival. Kamryn Pettway is a monster, the defensive line is deep and the linebackers are steady.

    In other words, the foundation is solid. But constructing a complete roster will be a difficult task.

    While the Tigers finally have a big arm at quarterback, no returning target posted more than 300 yards last year. The offensive linemen have serious improvements to make save for Braden Smith, yet even he's changing positions. And the secondary might be a sieve.

    Auburn is talented enough to hang with every opponent. Making the game-defining play will be the issue against top competition.

10. Michigan

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    How quickly can Jim Harbaugh turn high-potential youth into consistent producers? History suggests it won't take long.

    Granted, it's not like Michigan is replacing a couple of key players in a few spots. The Wolverines lost what will almost certainly be a double-digit number of NFL draft picks.

    They'll be leaning heavily on Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst and the defensive line, while Wilton Speight—barring an immediate surge from future starter Brandon Peters—will be expected to be a steady hand guiding the offense.

    Combined with a manageable schedule, Michigan's rebuilding year likely won't include major regression in the win column.

9. Washington

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    Washington rode an efficient offense and tenacious defense to a Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff last season, and the 2017 team is expected to mirror that style.

    But can the 'Dawgs match those accomplishments?

    They return four offensive linemen, an anchor in defensive tackle Vita Vea and a superb QB-RB-WR trio with Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and Dante Pettis, among other key pieces. Washington's foundation is sturdy, and the season-opening schedule is soft.

    Chris Petersen's team isn't a one-year wonder. The Huskies won't be leaving the national conversation in 2017.

8. Oklahoma

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    Beef is back in Norman. Skill-position leaders are not. The entire offensive line returns in front of Baker Mayfield, but Oklahoma must replace Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

    Defensively, it's mostly a matter of seasoned reserves stepping into larger roles. Matt Romar, Caleb Kelly and Will Sunderland are the most notable names in that category, complementing key returners like Obo Okoronkwo, Neville Gallimore and Jordan Thomas.

    Mayfield can and will shoulder a heavy burden in 2017. The Sooners are certain to contend in the Big 12, but the development of skill-position players on offense plus the defense as a whole will determine whether OU reaches the CFP for the second time in three years.

7. Oklahoma State

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    Behind Mason Rudolph, James Washington and the big-play offense, Oklahoma State has College Football Playoff potential. It will only be realized if the defense is...well, not terrible.

    ESPN.com's Jake Trotter previously noted coach Mike Gundy sees the similarities between the 2011 and 2017 teams. "The good news is, maybe better on defense than we were then," he said.

    Cowboys fans sure would hope so. That defense ranked 107th nationally—14th-worstallowing 456.8 yards per game.

    The spring offered a glimmer of optimism across the unit, but carrying that into the high-powered Big 12 may prove too difficult.

6. LSU

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    A lack of creativity plagued LSU's offense in recent seasons, but Matt Canada's arrival might have solved that issue. That along with Dave Aranda's revitalization of the defense in 2016 means coaching should no longer be LSU's problem.

    Now, the Tigers need to consistently put everything together.

    Last year, LSU averaged 37.9 points in eight wins yet mustered just 9.3 per game during four losses. The difference is undoubtedly a reflection of the quarterback position.

    Aranda's defense will be relentless. Canada's system will create misdirection and put less pressure on Danny Etling. It's the senior's responsibility to facilitate the offense and his challenge to make a game-changing play in rare but high-pressure occasions.

5. Clemson

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    Clemson's offensive personnel is undergoing a major facelift. It's basically the opposite on defense, which returns more than a handful of starters—including three of the ACC's best linemen.

    "I know we've got enough guys to be good," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, according to Scott Keepfer of the Greenville News. "How good we'll be, we'll have to see."

    While the quarterback battle will linger into fall camp and perhaps the regular season, the defense will continue developing youth and building depth. The Tigers will pose a massive test for Auburn and Louisville on two of September's first three weekends.

4. USC

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    USC matching the hype is largely contingent on inexperienced players excelling in leading roles. It's certainly plausible, but there's certainly no guarantee it will.

    Plus, the program cannot seem to escape injury problems. Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Steven Mitchell all missed spring practice, while Porter Gustin, Deontay Burnett, Chuma Edoga and Kenny Bigelow, among others, dealt with health issues.

    The Trojans are already expected to rely heavily on Sam Darnold, but the burden on the sophomore quarterback will only increase if the team cannot stay healthy.

3. Ohio State

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    Ohio State's unknowns ruled the spring. The offense has an unproven group of receivers, the line needs work and J.T. Barrett must improve as a passer. And on defense, the secondary lost three players who could be first-round selections in the NFL draft.

    But the negatives might have unfairly overshadowed a potentially terrifying—in a good way—defensive line.

    "We'll be as good as anybody in America at defensive end," head coach Urban Meyer said, per Joe Dempsey of the Lantern. The Buckeyes boast Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes plus Dre'Mont Jones at tackle.

    Meyer has consistently and efficiently resolved Ohio State's issues during his tenure. It's unlikely 2017 will be any different.

2. Florida State

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    If you happened to watch Florida State's spring game, you noticed a familiar sight—and/or something you must accept as truth very quickly: Derwin James is ready to wreck somebody.

    During the spring game, he notched a couple of sacks and delivered a crushing hit to break up a crossing route across the middle. If anyone was concerned about James' health or rehab following a torn left meniscus, he answered the questions in resounding fashion.

    The offensive line is an unfinished product, and that could become a significant problem if the Seminoles are unable to properly correct the issue before the season opener against Alabama. But the James-led defense should always give FSU a chance to win.

1. Alabama

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    Another year, another reload for Alabama. Considering that talent loss to the NFL, it's no surprise Nick Saban believes the 2017 roster remains a work in progress.

    "My assessment of the spring is that we are not what I would call an elite team right now," said Saban, per Christopher Walsh of SEC Country. "We're an adequate team."

    Walsh noted Saban clarified the quote was not meant as a negative, rather that the roster is going through the annual process of developing. The spring game showed they need to address the offensive line and the secondary in particular.

    But the Crimson Tide haven't lost more than two games in six straight years. Suggesting they won't be prepared once September arrives would be unwise. 


    All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.