Projecting College Football Preseason Top 25 at the Start of Fall Camp
Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide will almost certainly open the 2017 college football season as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25, but where will Week 1 opponent Florida State land in that poll?
Using a combination of offseason research and observations and the last several years of AP poll data as a guide (more on that information on the following slide), this is our projection of what the preseason AP Top 25 will look like when it is released in a few weeks.
If you can't wait that long for the first ranking, here's a quick preview that is also a review of recent years: Group of Five teams are almost nowhere to be found, the reigning national champion will be in a great position to defend its title, and a minimum of a half-dozen SEC teams made the cut.
Observations from Previous Preseason Polls
After looking through the last few years of AP poll data, there are a number of trends that stand out when comparing the final Top 25 from one season to the preseason Top 25 of the next. Each of these trends was considered in projecting this top 25.
1. Pollsters don't like to pre-emptively dethrone the champ
More on this when we get to Clemson's slide, but the last time the reigning champs failed to open the following season at No. 1 in the AP poll was in 2012, when 2011 champion Alabama started the year at No. 2 with 17 first-place votes. Yet, most of the still-way-too-early top 25s floating around the web have Clemson in the No. 5-7 range.
2. Most of the teams will be the same
Where each team lands in the preseason poll may be significantly different from where it ended up in January, but at least 19 teams will remain in the Top 25. Last year was especially static, as the top 16 teams from the final 2015 AP poll were each in the top 23 of the 2016 preseason poll.
3. SEC will have the biggest riser, as well as a major "plummeter"
Georgia was the biggest jumper in the 2014 preseason poll, going from unranked to No. 12. Auburn made the biggest leap the following year (16 spots), and Tennessee had the most meteoric rise (13 spots) last fall. AP voters just love trying to find that one SEC team that might have the chops to challenge Alabama for conference supremacy.
But the SEC has simultaneously been on the other end of that coin. Prior to the 2014 season, Missouri dropped 19 spots. And in 2015, Mississippi State (15 spots) and Missouri (10 spots) were the two teams that fell the most over the summer.
4. USC is the exception to the rule that the Pac-12 gets no love
Utah, Stanford and Oregon were among the 11 teams that fell at least five spots last summer. The year before that, there were 13 teams that slipped at least three spots, and five of them (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Utah) reside in the Pac-12. For some reason, AP voters become less enamored with most Pac-12 teams during the offseason.
But USC has been exempt from that treatment, jumping four, 12 and six spots, respectively, from 2014-16. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2005-06 to find the last time that USC's preseason rank was worse than its previous postseason rank.
5. Group of Five gets no respect
Excluding Louisville's one year in the AAC, there were seven Group of Five teams that finished in the AP Top 25 in 2013, 2014 or 2015. Five of those seven teams—2013 UCF (10), 2014 Marshall (23), 2014 Memphis (25), 2015 Navy (18) and 2015 Western Kentucky (24)—were unranked the following August. The other two—2014 Boise State (16) and 2015 Houston (8)—each dropped seven spots.
And no unranked teams jumped into the poll during that time, so there has been an average of 0.67 Group of Five teams in the preseason top 25 over the last three years. South Florida should hold steady around No. 19, but if you're expecting to see Western Michigan or San Diego State in the preseason poll, think again.
6. At least one Top 10 team will drop at least eight spots
In each of the past five years (and possibly more), a season-ending Top 10 team fell at least eight spots before the following preseason. Iowa went from No. 9 to No. 17 last year. From 2014 to 2015, it was No. 8 Georgia Tech dropping to No. 16. And the year before that, both No. 5 Missouri and No. 10 UCF plummeted more than 15 spots.
Given the 2018 national championship odds, this trend doesn't seem likely to continue, but perhaps 2016 No. 9 Wisconsin or No. 10 Michigan will slide into the No. 17-20 range in the first AP poll of 2017.
25. Washington State Cougars
2016 Finish: 8-5 (Not Ranked)
For a two-month stretch in the middle of last season, Washington State had the most unstoppable offense in the nation. The Cougars won eight consecutive games, averaging 46.6 points and just under 370 passing yards per game.
In the final four games of that run, Luke Falk put on one heck of a clinic. He completed 77.7 percent (143 of 184) of his pass attempts and averaged 374.3 yards per game with 17 touchdowns against just one interception. Though the QB did lose two of his favorite targets (Gabe Marks and River Cracraft), it's a given in Mike Leach's offense that other weapons will emerge to combat that attrition.
The big question mark is defense. The Cougars allowed at least 31 points in more than half of their games last season, including a 45-42 season-opening loss to FCS school Eastern Washington. But they do get back nine defensive starters, making some improvement on D an expectation. That might be enough for the AP voters to throw Washington State a bone as the preseason No. 25 team.
24. Virginia Tech Hokies
2016 Finish: 10-4 (No. 16)
After sputtering through the final four years of Frank Beamer's three-decade tenure as head coach, Virginia Tech was back in business in 2016, winning the ACC Coastal Division before giving Clemson a run for its money in the ACC Championship Game. Had every eligible Hokie returned for another year, you're probably looking at a preseason Top 10 team.
Instead, starting QB Jerod Evans, leading receiver Isaiah Ford and standout tight end Bucky Hodges all declared early for the NFL draft, leaving the VT offense with a ton of unknowns to sort out. Though Cam Phillips (76 receptions for 983 yards) is a great returnee to build around, there's not a single QB on this roster who has taken a snap at the FBS level. At the very least, the season opener against West Virginia could be an adventure on offense.
But what the Hokies lack in established offense, they make up for with stellar defense. Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman, Adonis Alexander, Mook Reynolds, Andrew Motuapuaka, Terrell Edmunds and Tremaine Edmunds are all back, giving Virginia Tech arguably the best combination of linebackers and defensive backs in the country. Even though the QB situation is a complete mystery, that defense should be enough for the Hokies to open the season in the AP poll.
23. Tennessee Volunteers
2016 Finish: 9-4 (No. 22)
Much like Virginia Tech, Tennessee entered the offseason with the necessary pieces to emerge as a Top 10 team. For the Volunteers, it would have been their second straight year with such a preseason expectation. But with Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone all leaving early for the NFL draft, they are a fringe Top 25 team searching for answers at multiple positions.
On defense, no returning player had more than 2.5 sacks, two interceptions or one forced fumble last season. If there's a playmaker in the bunch, he hasn't yet emerged. And on offense, the Vols lost their starting QB, two of their top three receivers and three of their top four rushers. Beyond John Kelly starting at running back and Jauan Jennings as the No. 1 wide receiver, it's anyone's guess who Tennessee will turn to for yards in 2017.
But one other trend that didn't make the cut for the observations slide is that at least six SEC teams have appeared in the preseason AP Top 25 in each of the last seven years. Even if you aren't sold on the Volunteers as one of the 25 best teams in the country, it's looking like either Tennessee or Arkansas as the sixth-best team in the SEC—which means one of those two teams will likely land in the top 25.
22. Texas Longhorns
2016 Finish: 5-7 (Not Ranked)
There's usually one previously mediocre team that the AP voters are willing to take a chance on. Washington debuted at No. 14 this past season, despite a 7-6 record the previous year. Likewise, Arkansas went 7-6 in 2014 before opening 2015 at No. 18, and North Carolina had the same record in 2013 prior to a No. 23 preseason ranking the following August.
But can Texas complete the rarely seen transition from sub-.500 to preseason Top 25?
With 17 returning starters, the Longhorns are one of the most intact teams in the country. D'Onta Foreman, a 2,000-yard rusher, was a big loss, but they are loaded with options for replacing him. More importantly, starting QB Shane Buechele is back for another year of spreading the ball around the field—eight Longhorns made at least 18 receptions last season, but none had more than 34.
The big question for AP voters will be whether they believe the coaching change to Tom Herman will be enough to repair a defense that gave up at least 24 points in 10 of 12 games last season. Any projected improvement in that department would be huge, as Texas lost five of its seven games by a one-possession margin. Another stop here or there and this is a 10-win program.
21. Florida Gators
2016 Finish: 9-4 (No. 14)
As mentioned on the observations slide, there's usually one SEC team that drops a noteworthy number of spots. Unfortunately for Florida, there aren't any better candidates for that dishonor. Alabama certainly isn't going anywhere, and LSU—like USC—is one team that AP voters tend to like more as the offseason progresses. No other SEC team finished in the AP Top 20, so the Gators are the ones to take a slight tumble.
But this ranking isn't solely an attempt to meet that criterion. Only Ohio State lost more players as early entrants to the NFL draft than Florida did, and it put the Gators' vaunted defense in a bit of a pickle. They only allowed 16.8 points per game last season, but they had seven defensive players drafted in April.
Bringing in Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire should put Florida's offense in a position to score better than 23.9 points per game, but the Gators went 0-4 last season when giving up more than 14 points—which figures to be a more common occurrence in 2017.
That isn't to say Florida is going to struggle to qualify for a bowl game. We're still talking about a Top 25 team. But given all of the roster changes and the uncertainty at quarterback, AP voters might be a little hesitant to put the Gators in the Top 20. Also, Florida's perceived national standing is likely hurt by the fact that SEC East rival Georgia should jump from unranked into the Top 15.
20. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
2016 Finish: 9-4 (No. 20)
Yet another team that will enter fall camp with a nowhere-near-resolved battle at the quarterback position, Miami should be the team to beat in the ACC Coastal Division if and when it makes a decision on Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs or N'Kosi Perry.
In addition to starting running back Mark Walton and top receiver Ahmmon Richards, the 'Canes have four returning starters on the offensive line and bring back virtually all of their defensive linemen and linebackers. Questions abound in the secondary as they attempt to replace Corn Elder and Rayshawn Jenkins, but this team should be a terror in the trenches on both offense and defense.
Which brings us back to the QB competition.
If one of the three options emerges from August as the clear starter and a potential game-changer, Miami might mess around and make a run at the College Football Playoff. (The road game against Florida State should be the only contest prior to the ACC Championship Game in which the 'Canes aren't the favorite.) But if the QB battle never produces an above-average starter, Miami could struggle to even reach a bowl game.
Expect the AP voters to split the difference and call this a back-end-of-the-Top 25 team.
19. South Florida Bulls
2016 Finish: 11-2 (No. 19)
For a second straight year, the AAC will be the home of the Group of Five team with the best (only?) chance of making a run at the College Football Playoff.
Is South Florida up to the task, or will the Bulls stumble to a 9-4 record like Houston did after climbing as high as No. 6 in the AP poll in 2016?
Their schedule is both a gift and a curse. The gift portion is that—according to ESPN's FPI metrics—USF has at least a 56.5 percent chance of winning each game on its schedule. The curse is that things will need to get quite messy in the Power Five conferences for a 12-0 record against this weak schedule to even be worth mentioning among the CFP selection committee.
But regardless of where the Bulls land in the bowl conversation, this should be one of the most oft-discussed teams in the country. With Quinton Flowers leading the way and potentially vying for a spot among the Heisman Trophy finalists, South Florida could occasionally land in the A block of SportsCenter's highlight reels. If the Bulls also improve on defense in the process of putting together an undefeated season, even better.
18. Kansas State Wildcats
2016 Finish: 9-4 (Not Ranked)
If Kansas State is going to live up to the high-as-they-have-been-since-2003 preseason expectations, it all starts and ends with Jesse Ertz. The dual-threat QB of the Wildcats doesn't exactly put up Lamar Jackson or Quinton Flowers numbers, but he was one of just four players with at least 1,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in 2016. Over the final seven contests, KSU went 6-1 while Ertz averaged 102.7 rushing yards and just over one touchdown per game.
And he's just the beginning of what should be one of the 10 best rushing attacks in the nation. The Wildcats also have Justin Silmon, Alex Barnes, Dalvin Warmack and goal-line specialist Winston Dimel, making another season of 232.2 rushing yards and 3.0 touchdowns per game a distinct possibility.
Will they be able to replace Jordan Willis and Elijah Lee, though? The only Kansas State players selected in the 2017 NFL draft gave this Big 12-best defense one heck of a punch at defensive end and linebacker, respectively. The former had 11.5 sacks last season while the latter ranked third in the conference with 110 total tackles. But if they can remain competent on D, the Wildcats could be the third-best team in the Big 12.
17. Wisconsin Badgers
2016 Finish: 11-3 (No. 9)
As previously mentioned, there's typically one season-ending Top 10 team that plummets at least eight spots before the following season begins. And of those 10 candidates, Wisconsin best fits the bill.
The Badgers bring back a respectable 15 out of 22 starters, but they lost a lot of crucial pieces. Their top two running backs (Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale), one half of their QB tandem (Bart Houston), one of the best offensive linemen in the nation (Ryan Ramczyk), two of the best pieces of their secondary (Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton) and defensive star T.J. Watt are all gone, creating the type of widespread unknowns you typically don't see from a Top 10 team.
Transfers will help fill some of those holes. Former Pittsburgh running back Chris James and former Hawaii defensive back Nick Nelson could step in and immediately shine as starters. And recent history would suggest it's silly to bet against Wisconsin's chances of replacing Ramczyk by turning yet another unknown big man into an NFL prospect on the offensive line. Still, a ton of things need to go right for this team to be as good as it was last season.
Given the schedule, though, Wisconsin could be worse than it was in 2016 and still end up with a better record. The nonconference schedule doesn't contain anything close to last year's season-opening battle with LSU, neither Ohio State nor Penn State appears on the docket, and the game against Michigan is at home in late November. The Badgers could flirt with perfection for several months, regardless of where the AP voters put them at the start of the year.
16. West Virginia Mountaineers
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 18)
Fresh off its best regular season in a decade, there are high hopes that West Virginia's glory days have returned. But in order for that to be true, the Mountaineers will need to withstand more attrition than nearly every other team in the country.
In particular, the defense was ravaged. Seven of the team's 10 leading tacklers are gone, including star defensive backs Rasul Douglas, Maurice Fleming and Jeremy Tyler. All told, the 'Eers lost eight defensive starters and another six on offense. Only Air Force (seven) and Michigan (five) return fewer starters.
Yet, the addition of Florida transfer Will Grier has a lot of folks buying stock in West Virginia as the top Big 12 challenger to the Oklahoma schools. The QB who took the world by storm for the first six weeks of the 2015 season will join playmakers Justin Crawford, Kennedy McKoy and Ka'Raun White in what should be an electric offense.
15. Stanford Cardinal
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 12)
Stanford is on a short list of teams that get back at least eight starters on both offense and defense, but the conversation about the Cardinal always seems to begin with two of the starters they lost: No. 3 overall draft pick Solomon Thomas and No. 8 overall draft pick Christian McCaffrey.
Of the two, McCaffrey should actually be easier to replace. Bryce Love averaged 7.1 yards per carry last season and has already proved he can be a major factor in the receiving game. Perhaps he isn't a threat to average 276 all-purpose yards per game like McCaffrey did in 2015, but in Love, Stanford should still have one of the best rushing games in the Pac-12.
Without Thomas, though, the defensive line figures to be Stanford's biggest issue. He led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and fumble recoveries last season, and his departure puts even more pressure on Harrison Phillips to become a standout player at D-tackle. But this team is loaded at linebacker as well as in the secondary, so the Cardinal should still be solid on defense, even if their backfield penetration is next to nil.
The big unknown in this team's preseason ranking is at QB. If Keller Chryst has fully recovered from the torn ACL suffered in January, Stanford will be in business as a potential Top 10 team. If that mystery isn't solved by the time the preseason AP poll comes out, though, the voters will be even more pessimistic about the Cardinal than this. Anything in the No. 10-22 range is a possibility here.
14. Louisville Cardinals
2016 Finish: 9-4 (No. 21)
Lamar Jackson is back, and, let's be honest, that alone is enough for Louisville to be a lock for a spot in the preseason AP Top 25. The Cardinals lost their starting running back and their three leading receivers from last season, but no one even seems to be concerned. Rather, it just means guys like Jeremy Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins are all candidates for breakout seasons.
But things are far from perfect in Louisville. The offensive line allowed 47 sacks last year, and that number might have been more like 67 if Jackson weren't so elusive. If those big men aren't able to do a better job of slowing down pass-rushers, the plan to transform Jackson into more of a pro-style QB could be dead on arrival.
Moreover, the defense is a significant concern. Turnovers and penalties didn't help matters, but Louisville gave up 35.3 points per contest during its season-ending three-game losing streak. This prompted a change at defensive coordinator, but how much will Peter Sirmon be able to do in his first year at the helm?
Early games against North Carolina and Clemson will tell us a lot about this team's ceiling, but the potential of a back-to-back Heisman winner will likely stir up enough excitement to bring Louisville more preseason votes than it maybe deserves.
13. Georgia Bulldogs
2016 Finish: 8-5 (Not Ranked)
Expectations for Georgia are always strong. The Bulldogs have appeared in 15 consecutive preseason AP polls and will extend that streak to 16 this August.
On paper, this team could/should be dominant. They get back 10 starters from an above-average defense, had running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both decide to return for a senior year and have reasonably high hopes for a monster sophomore season from QB Jacob Eason. It's a "the more you look, the more you like" type of roster that will likely receive at least a few Top 10 votes.
But this is also a program that has suffered at least five losses in four of the past eight seasons, failing to live up to its potential time and again. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if the AP voters decided to be a little more cautious with the Bulldogs who cried "Wolf!"
The SEC media is drinking the Georgia Kool-Aid, though, as the Bulldogs were picked as the favorite to win the SEC East at SEC media days earlier this month. Thus, they should at least be the highest-ranked team from that division. And there's always at least one SEC team that makes a meteoric rise in the preseason polls. Add all those factors together and Georgia should enter the season-opening games against Appalachian State and Notre Dame in the No. 10-15 range.
12. LSU Tigers
2016 Finish: 8-4 (No. 13)
In running back Derrius Guice and edge-rusher Arden Key, LSU has two of the best non-QB players in the entire country. You couldn't ask for a better set of building blocks on each side of the ball. But unknowns about their supporting casts may result in LSU having the widest range of placement in preseason ballots.
On the offensive side of things, QB Danny Etling had back surgery this spring to address a nerve issue that plagued him the entire 2016 season. Provided he makes a full recovery, that could mean he's destined for a more productive senior year. But who is he going to throw to? D.J. Chark (26 receptions) is the only returning Tiger who had more than 10 catches last season. Drake Davis and Russell Gage may well be starters at wide receiver, despite a combined six career receptions between them.
And on defense, the Tigers lost seemingly everyone except for Key and DB Donte Jackson. Key is the only returning player who recorded more than three tackles for loss or more than one sack, and Jackson is the only returning Tiger who defended at least five passes in 2016. There will be breakout players—B/R's Matt Miller has CB Kevin Toliver II projected a first-round draft pick next April—but this might be a rare down (still better than the national average) year for LSU's defense.
But LSU always finds favor in the eyes of the AP voters. The Tigers have been ranked No. 14 or better in 15 of the last 16 preseason polls, so it won't be a surprise if Guice and Key are enough for them to get a spot in the Top 10.
11. Michigan Wolverines
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 10)
Aside from head coach Jim Harbaugh, familiar faces will be few and far between for the Wolverines. They only have five returning starters, and one of them (QB Wilton Speight) will enter fall camp in a three-way tie for a starting job, according to what Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days. Even the punter, kicker, punt returner and kick returner will all be different from last year, as Michigan will enter the season as the biggest wild card in the country.
But after back-to-back 10-win seasons to begin this stage of his coaching career, Harbaugh will be more than enough for AP voters to buy stock in Michigan.
Since his arrival, Michigan has become a force of nature on the recruiting trail. 2016 No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary was one of seven top-100 players the Maize and Blue signed last year and will be a nice starting point in the quest to replace 10 defensive starters. They signed another six top-100 players this year and should get immediate contributions from Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Aubrey Solomon.
With Ohio State and Penn State both viable candidates for the national championship, Michigan would be lucky to finish better than third in the Big Ten East. But that could still be good enough for a spot in the preseason Top 10.
10. Auburn Tigers
2016 Finish: 8-5 (No. 24)
As was the case for virtually the entire 2016 season, Auburn's potential is tantalizing.
Both Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson return to anchor a dominant rushing attack, and the addition of Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at QB could revolutionize what this offense is capable of doing. It's tough to pinpoint which receivers will most benefit from Stidham's arrival—as there's not a player on the roster who made more than 25 receptions last year—but the Tigers just might lead the nation in yards per play.
There are some defensive concerns with Rudy Ford, Carl Lawson, Joshua Holsey and Montravius Adams all out of the picture, but Auburn could take a small step backward and still have one of the best defenses in the SEC. The Tigers allowed just 17.1 points per game last season, good for seventh in the nation. And despite the losses, they are loaded with quality options. Marlon Davidson could be an all-SEC first-team defensive lineman as a sophomore, and DB Carlton Davis will be a terror for opposing QBs.
But will the AP voters be able to temporarily forget about the schedule when deciding where to rank Auburn? The Tigers play road games against Clemson and LSU before hosting Georgia and Alabama, putting their chances of an undefeated season somewhere between slim and none. All other things being equal, though, this should be a Top 10 team.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 11)
As far as the high-profile offensive positions are concerned, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team with more returning talent than Oklahoma State.
QB Mason Rudolph threw for more than 4,000 yards last season while recording seven touchdowns for every interception. RB Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards as a true freshman. WRs James Washington and Jalen McCleskey combined for 144 receptions, 2,192 yards and 17 TDs in 2016. All four are back in the fold for the Cowboys. Factor in Chris Lacy, Marcell Ateman and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson and there is no shortage of weapons.
What keeps them from being the prohibitive favorite to win the Big 12 is the defense. Oklahoma State gave up at least 30 points in eight games last season, and that was before losing six starters. In particular, Jordan Sterns, Devante Averette and Vincent Taylor will be a challenge to replace, leaving major holes at all three levels of the defense.
Translation: Oklahoma State might be the most fun-to-watch team in the country, as it is all but guaranteed that this team will play in multiple games in which both teams score at least 40 points.
Following Bob Stoops' sudden decision to retire as Oklahoma's head coach in June, there will likely be a handful of AP voters who rank OK State as the better Bedlam team. But it won't be quite enough for the Pokes to begin the season ahead of Baker Mayfield's team.
8. Oklahoma Sooners
2016 Finish: 11-2 (No. 5)
For all the talk about the weapons Oklahoma lost this offseason, you'd think the Sooners had one of the most depleted rosters in the country. On the contrary, they return 16 starters and should be in fantastic shape if they can figure out the running back situation without Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
The other big loss was Dede Westbrook, but who's to say Baker Mayfield can't create another Heisman candidate at wide receiver?
In just 10 catches last season, Jeffery Mead flashed serious highlight-reel potential, Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet could make an immediate impact and tight end/slot receiver Mark Andrews could easily be a 1,000-yard receiver. The big plus for the Sooners is that all five starting offensive linemen return, so Mayfield should have plenty of time to survey the field.
On defense, Oklahoma is in good shape with the return of defensive backs Jordan Thomas and Jordan Evans as well as sack leader Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Granted, we're talking about a unit that gave up at least 40 points four times last year, but all four of those games came in the first half of the season. The Sooners held each of their final six opponents to 28 points or fewer and should be one of the top defenses in the Big 12.
As mentioned on the previous slide, Stoops abruptly leaving in June could impact the way a number of voters feel about this team. But most media members seemed to like the decision to replace Stoops with offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, so that shouldn't keep Oklahoma from opening the season somewhat comfortably inside the Top 10 of the AP poll.
7. Washington Huskies
2016 Finish: 12-2 (No. 4)
Washington just completed one of its best seasons in school history—and easily its best since 2000—but does it have enough returning pieces for an encore performance?
The offense should still be in great shape. John Ross (1,252 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs) is a huge loss, but the Huskies get back Jake Browning, both pieces of their running back tandem (Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman), Dante Pettis and a bunch of receiving options with proven potential. The offensive line looks solid, too, led by returning starters and 2016 All-Pac-12 selections Trey Adams and Coleman Shelton.
But the defense is decidedly less of a certainty. The front seven ought to be fine with the return of Vita Vea, Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, but the Huskies lost second-round draft picks Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King from their secondary—which was the heart and soul of one of the best defenses in the country last season. Taylor Rapp immediately becomes the star of the defensive backfield as a sophomore, but they have a lot to prove at cornerback.
As a result, Washington will all but unanimously enter the season as the second-best Pac-12 team behind USC, which will make it tough to rank this team in the Top Five nationally. Factor in the aforementioned lack of respect for Pac-12 teams not named USC and the Huskies will likely land in the No. 6-9 range in the preseason AP poll.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
2016 Finish: 11-3 (No. 7)
Penn State was a year ahead of schedule in winning the Big Ten in 2016, and the Nittany Lions have a good shot at repeating thanks to 15 returning starters.
Despite losing leading receiver Chris Godwin, this offense is stacked. Both QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley enter the season with Heisman hopes, and Mike Gesicki might be the most valuable tight end in the country. In Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State has three wide receivers capable of replacing Godwin's big-play potential. For good measure, the Nittany Lions are also getting back four of their five starters on the offensive line.
The defense is more depleted, thanks in large part to a knee injury suffered by John Reid during spring practices. He is expected to miss the entire 2017 season, giving Penn State one more hole to fill in the secondary. But the Nittany Lions still have a bunch of key returning assets, including safety Marcus Allen and linebackers Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen. If Keith Givens can make a leap as a sophomore defensive tackle, they should be in business.
As was the case for Washington in the Pac-12, Penn State has the unfortunate distinction of entering the season as the second-best team in its conference behind Ohio State. As a result, Top Five votes will be tough to come by, but Penn State should be a near-unanimous preseason Top 10 team.
5. Florida State Seminoles
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 8)
Projecting the order of teams No. 2-5 is almost impossible. Maybe we won't see all 16 possible permutations of Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and USC on various ballots, but it seems like a safe bet that each team will receive multiple votes in each of the second, third, fourth and fifth positions.
Logically, though, this spot should belong to either Clemson or Florida State as the projected ACC runner-up. And given the previous note about the season-ending No. 1 team typically opening the following season as the No. 1 team, it's unlikely that Clemson would drop all the way to No. 5. Thus, FSU lands in this spot. But let's note right now that regardless of whether the Seminoles open the season at No. 2 or No. 5, they would jump to No. 1 with a season-opening win over Alabama.
As far as their case as a Top Five team is concerned, this will be one of the best defenses in the country. Losing stud pass-rusher DeMarcus Walker hurts, but they still have Brian Burns, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi, who combined for 21.5 sacks last season. And the secondary should be even better than the defensive line, as Derwin James returns from injury to join forces with Tarvarus McFadden, giving Florida State two of the three best defensive backs in the nation.
On offense, Deondre Francois is the star of the show and a candidate for all-ACC first-team honors. (No, we haven't forgotten about Lamar Jackson.) The Seminoles could win it all if they find a suitable replacement for Dalvin Cook. Whether that guy is junior Jacques Patrick, sophomore Amir Rasul, true freshman Cam Akers or a combination of all three, Florida State will be special if and when it has a reliable plan at running back.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 Finish: 11-2 (No. 6)
Despite reaching the College Football Playoff, the 31-0 shellacking the Buckeyes took from Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl left them at No. 6 in the final AP poll of the year. But as the favorites to win the Big Ten and return to the CFP for a third time in four years, they should climb back into the Top Four to open the 2017 season.
Like Washington, Ohio State's secondary was gutted by the NFL draft. The Huskies lost three second-rounders, but the Buckeyes lost three first-rounders. Replacing Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley is the biggest challenge facing this team this fall, though they do have options aplenty.
Other than that, what's not to like about this team? J.T. Barrett is back at QB for what feels like the 17th year. Mike Weber is looking to build on a redshirt freshman season in which he hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark by his 11th game. Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin are potential junior-year breakout stars at wide receiver. And this defensive front seven is going to demoralize a lot of opposing offensive lines.
If you need any more help buying stock in the Buckeyes, 2011 was the last time they lost more than one regular-season game. Urban Meyer is 61-6 as the head coach and always finds a way to get the most out of his guys. Expect that trend to continue for at least one more year.
3. Clemson Tigers
2016 Finish: 14-1 (No. 1)
After back-to-back 14-win seasons, look for a significant percentage of the AP voters to keep Clemson in their Top Three. As noted on Florida State's slide, the Seminoles would jump to No. 1 with a win over Alabama, regardless of where they open the season, so why not leave the defending national champions ahead of FSU for now as a gesture of respect for the past two years and see how things play out from there?
No, Clemson doesn't have the third-best odds of winning the national championship. In fact, according to the various futures lines on OddsShark, the Tigers are somewhere in the No. 8-10 range. But it has been six years since the last time the No. 1 team at the end of a season started the following year worse than No. 2—when Auburn lost Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and about a dozen other key players and opened the following year at No. 23.
Clemson's "rebuilding" situation isn't nearly that dire. The Tigers enter the fall with a lot of positional battles to be decided, but they are loaded with quality options. Whether it's Kelly Bryant or Hunter Johnson handing off to Tavien Feaster or C.J. Fuller, this offense should still move the ball about as well as any other team, thanks to a deep corps of talented receivers. And this defensive line consisting of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell just might be the most terrifying unit in the country.
2. USC Trojans
2016 Finish: 10-3 (No. 3)
Long before the incredible fourth-quarter comeback in the Rose Bowl, USC was unofficially the media's favorite team. The Trojans lost three of their first four games, but they were a different team once Sam Darnold was established at QB. As they won game after game, everyone seemed to reach a consensus that while the Trojans didn't quite have the resume to belong in the College Football Playoff, they were arguably the most dangerous team in the country.
And as previously mentioned, AP voters always seem to spend the offseason talking themselves into USC being a better version of the team they watched the previous year. Thus, this projected No. 2 ranking has been working its way to a crescendo since the beginning of last October.
The Trojans aren't without question marks, though. They lost 11 starters, including star defender and return man Adoree' Jackson, safety Leon McQuay III, wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers and several offensive linemen. Even kicker Matt Boermeester is no longer on the roster following an unidentified "student conduct issue."
But Darnold is back and is considered the front-runner to win the Heisman, so there will be much more USC Kool-Aid consumed in the remaining days before the 2017 season begins.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2016 Finish: 14-1 (No. 2)
It should come as a surprise to precisely no one that Alabama will enter the season as the favorite to win the national championship.
According to Scout's team rankings, the Crimson Tide have had the No. 1 recruiting class in each of the last five years. As a result, they aren't even fazed by losing 10 players to the NFL draft, including four first-rounders, because there's such an influx of talent on an annual basis. In fact, Alabama might be even better in 2017 than it was in 2016.
The biggest strength of this team will be the rushing game.
Four players ran for at least 565 yards last season. All four are back, and just for good measure, Nick Saban signed the No. 1 overall recruit in this year's class, RB Najee Harris. With this much depth in the backfield, the Crimson Tide could gain at least 300 yards per game without throwing it. But with a lethal connection like Jalen Hurts to Calvin Ridley, they'll probably gain more than 200 yards through the air every game, too.
And it's Alabama, so you know the defense will be top-notch. Aside from Minkah Fitzpatrick and Shaun Dion Hamilton, we'll have to wait and see who the top contributors will be in place of studs like Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson, but look for guys like Christian Miller and Trevon Diggs to make the most of their "next man up" opportunities.
Alabama likely will not be the unanimous No. 1 team in the preseason AP Top 25, but take it to the bank that this will be the consensus top team when that poll comes out.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.