College Football Rankings 2015: Top 25 Post-NFL Draft Announcements

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2015

College Football Rankings 2015: Top 25 Post-NFL Draft Announcements

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    Urban Meyer and Ohio State are sitting pretty on top of the college football world.
    Urban Meyer and Ohio State are sitting pretty on top of the college football world.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    After the confetti dropped in AT&T Stadium following Ohio State’s win over Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the speculation began anew. We had a rush of “way too early” top 25 polls, like this one from Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel, with every pundit rushing to stake their claim on how the 2015 season will unfold.

    Now that the NFL draft declaration deadline has passed, we can get a more complete look at the national landscape, and we’ve done our own top 25. Quality of returnees, coaching changes and draft losses were all considered. Stats were taken from individual schools’ websites. Here we go!

25. Oklahoma State

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    Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State finished the 2014 season strong.
    Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State finished the 2014 season strong.Matt York/Associated Press

    Oklahoma State took a step back in 2015, finishing 7-6 after a Cactus Bowl win over Washington. That was expected, though, as Mike Gundy’s group was a very young team. The Cowboys were very up and down. They followed a five-game win streak with a five-game losing streak, but did defeat Oklahoma and built on it with the bowl win over the Huskies.

    The Cowboys will return 16 starters, which includes quarterback Mason Rudolph. Rudolph was solid after having his redshirt pulled in November, throwing for 853 yards with six touchdowns against four interceptions. There are concerns in the backfield after leading rusher Desmond Roland graduated and talented Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team following a domestic violence charge. However, Oklahoma State’s arrow is pointing up this fall.

24. Arkansas

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    Bret Bielema has Arkansas on the right track.
    Bret Bielema has Arkansas on the right track.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Midway through 2014, it would’ve been understandable if Arkansas fans were upset with Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks’ bombastic head coach had lost 13 consecutive SEC games, burying Arkansas in the difficult SEC West. But the Razorbacks turned a corner at season’s end, defeating Ole Miss and LSU and finishing the season with a Texas Bowl rout of former Southwest Conference rival Texas.

    The future is bright: Bielema returns 16 starters, highlighted by a duo of 1,100-yard rushers in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and improving quarterback Brandon Allen. There are concerns on defense following defensive end Trey Flowers’ graduation and linebacker Martell Spaight’s departure to the NFL draft, but there are reasons to be excited in the Ozarks when fall arrives.

23. Tennessee

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    Jalen Hurd and Tennessee are young and improving in the SEC East.
    Jalen Hurd and Tennessee are young and improving in the SEC East.RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    Phil Fulmer’s firing cast Tennessee into the college football wilderness, but the Volunteers appear to be emerging. Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley’s tenures were disastrous in their own ways, but Butch Jones clearly has the program on the right track. Jones played 23 freshmen in 2014 and got the program to its first bowl since 2010.

    In the TaxSlayer Bowl, Tennessee thumped Iowa 45-28 in a game that wasn’t even as close as it looked. The Vols have a talented young quarterback in Joshua Dobbs, a dual-threat who grabbed the job and ran with it. Defensive end Derek Barnett is an excellent pass-rushing talent, and tailback Jalen Hurd (899 yard, five touchdowns) is an impressive young back who’ll only improve with experience. Jones has the Volunteers on the path back to prominence.

22. Utah

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    Devontae Booker is an impressive tailback talent in Utah's backfield.
    Devontae Booker is an impressive tailback talent in Utah's backfield.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Following a pair of 5-7 seasons, Utah enjoyed a bounce-back season, finishing 9-4 with a blowout win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Coach Kyle Whittingham lost several key assistants and experienced some friction with Utah’s administration, but signed a contract extension that should end talk of his unhappiness.

    The Utes return 15 starters, led by tailback Devontae Booker, who rushed for 1,512 yards with 10 touchdowns and also caught 43 passes for 306 yards and two scores. Utah must replace defensive end Nate Orchard (84 tackles, 21.0 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks) and needs to find a steady quarterback between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson, but there are many reasons to be excited in Salt Lake City.

21. Texas A&M

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    Kyle Allen will be the clear leader for Texas A&M's offense this fall.
    Kyle Allen will be the clear leader for Texas A&M's offense this fall.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The first post-Johnny Manziel season was a mixed bag for Texas A&M. The Aggies started 5-0 and put up some big offensive numbers, but struggled defensively, allowing 28.1 points per game (No. 76 nationally). There is young talent on defense, though, led by star end Myles Garrett, and it’ll be interesting to see how John Chavis, one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators, can mold it after being lured from LSU.

    Kyle Allen is now the clear No. 1 quarterback, and he showed some promise, throwing for 1,322 yards with 16 touchdowns against seven interceptions after supplanting Kenny Hill midseason. He has some talented options to throw to in Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones. There’s no doubt that A&M will score, but can the Aggies stop foes? We’ll see.

20. Boise State

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    Bryan Harsin was an excelllent hire for Boise State.
    Bryan Harsin was an excelllent hire for Boise State.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    This year, Boise State partied like it was 2009. The Broncos didn’t miss a beat after Chris Petersen’s departure to Washington, hiring former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and going 12-2, capping the season with the program’s third Fiesta Bowl win, beating Arizona.

    Boise will return 17 starters but must replace a pair of key pieces in tailback Jay Ajayi (1,823 yards, 28 touchdowns) and quarterback Grant Hedrick, who threw for 3,696 yards. Still, the Broncos are the clear favorites to win the Mountain West and appear in another New Year’s Day bowl game.

19. Georgia Tech

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    Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech enjoyed an impressive 2014 season.
    Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech enjoyed an impressive 2014 season.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    It was a good year to be Paul Johnson. Following several down years, Georgia Tech showed the flexbone option can be successful, finishing 11-3 with an ACC Coastal Division title and an Orange Bowl rout of Mississippi State. Quarterback Justin Thomas was very impressive in his first season as a starter, passing for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushing for 1,086 yards with eight touchdowns.

    The Yellow Jackets will return 13 starters, but besides Thomas, their top rushers (Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins) graduated, as did top receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. But having Thomas back is a crucial piece of a potent offense.

18. LSU

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    Leonard Fournette is one of the nation's top tailbacks.
    Leonard Fournette is one of the nation's top tailbacks.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    A raft of early NFL draft departures caught up with LSU in 2014, as the Tigers slipped to 8-5 and capped the season with a Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. The good news? The bulk of a young team is back, with Les Miles returning 14 starters. Tailback Leonard Fournette got better as the season went along, finishing with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns and looking like an early Heisman Trophy candidate.

    Young wideouts like Travin Dural, John Diarse, Malachi Dupre all return as well. There are questions at quarterback, however. Neither Anthony Jennings nor Brandon Harris truly grabbed the starting quarterback role last fall, and LSU’s ceiling could be limited by the quarterbacks’ struggles.

17. Arizona

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    Anu Solomon and Arizona made a breakthrough in 2014.
    Anu Solomon and Arizona made a breakthrough in 2014.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Rich Rodriguez’s third season in Tucson was a smashing success. Arizona won 10 games, won the Pac-12 South and made the Fiesta Bowl, although losing to Boise State was a disappointment. Freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was very impressive, throwing for 3,793 yards with 28 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Fellow freshman Nick Wilson was a revelation in the backfield, rushing for 1,375 yards with 16 touchdowns.

    And who can forget Scooby Wright, who was the nation’s best defender, taking home the Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik and Lombardi Awards? Rodriguez brings back 12 starters, but must replace three starting offensive linemen and returns only one starter in the secondary. Still, if Solomon and Wilson can keep the offense humming, the Wildcats have excellent potential.

16. Wisconsin

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    Corey Clement has some big shoes to fill in Wisconsin's backfield with Melvin Gordon gone.
    Corey Clement has some big shoes to fill in Wisconsin's backfield with Melvin Gordon gone.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Wisconsin enjoyed an impressive 11-win season in 2014, winning the Big Ten West Division and capping the year with an Outback Bowl win over Auburn. It was surprising that coach Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State after just two seasons on the job, but athletic director Barry Alvarez made an excellent hire in former offensive coordinator and Madison native Paul Chryst.

    Chryst has some work to do, as the Badgers do lose 10 starters, highlighted by Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns. However, sophomore Corey Clement is ready to step into the No. 1 role. Wisconsin needs improved quarterback play from Joel Stave, who threw nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions, but the Badgers shouldn’t see any drop-off in 2015.

15. Clemson

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    Deshaun Watson is one of the nation's top young quarterbacks.
    Deshaun Watson is one of the nation's top young quarterbacks.RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    Ho-hum. Another year, another 10-win season for Clemson and Dabo Swinney. In what could’ve been a rebuilding year following the losses of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, the Tigers just kept humming, putting together a 10-3 season capped by a Russell Athletic Bowl blowout of Oklahoma. When Deshaun Watson was healthy, he was one of the nation’s top freshman quarterbacks, throwing for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions. He has two excellent targets in wideouts Mike Williams (57 receptions, 1,030 yards, six touchdowns) and speedy Artavis Scott (76 receptions, 965 yards, eight scores). 

    Clemson returns 10 starters, but must replace eight starters on defense, including defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony. It’ll be interesting to see how new co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott function in replacing Chad Morris, who left to become SMU’s head coach. But with the offensive talent on hand, the Tigers should keep humming this fall.

14. Georgia

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    Georgia's Nick Chubb emerged as one of the nation's best tailbacks in 2014.
    Georgia's Nick Chubb emerged as one of the nation's best tailbacks in 2014.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Athens is one of the few places where a 10-3 record would be considered disappointing, but such are the expectations that Mark Richt has built for himself. The Bulldogs won double-digit games but lost to Georgia Tech, Florida and South Carolina. That said, the future remains bright.

    The Bulldogs return 13 starters, led by tailback Nick Chubb, who was incredible in replacing Todd Gurley (he rushed for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns). UGA's defense also showed improvement in Jeremy Pruitt's first season as coordinator, allowing 20.7 points per game (No. 16 nationally). They must replace quarterback Hutson Mason, and it'll be interesting to see how Brian Schottenheimer functions as the replacement for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who was hired as Colorado State's head coach.

13. UCLA

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    Paul Perkins leads a talented group of returnees for UCLA.
    Paul Perkins leads a talented group of returnees for UCLA.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    UCLA was hyped as a College Football Playoff dark horse last season but never really sniffed the playoff hunt despite a 10-win season. This year, the Bruins could be even better. They lose talented quarterback Brett Hundley (NFL draft) and leading tackler Eric Kendricks but return an impressive 18 starters, with Hundley the only loss on offense.

    Prolific tailback Paul Perkins (1,575 yards, nine touchdowns) returns, as does versatile linebacker Myles Jack, who contributed on both sides of the ball last season. But with a few breaks, the Bruins could challenge Oregon and Southern California for Pac-12 supremacy.

12. Arizona State

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    D.J. Foster is one of the nation's most versatile tailbacks.
    D.J. Foster is one of the nation's most versatile tailbacks.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Todd Graham has been well-traveled, to say the least, but it looks like he has found a home in the desert. Last fall, the Sun Devils finished 10-3, their second consecutive 10-win season under Graham. And they’ll return 16 starters from that team, led by tailback D.J. Foster, an impressive dual threat who rushed for 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 62 passes for 688 yards and three touchdowns.

    Junior Jaelen Strong, who had 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns, departed for the NFL, and quarterback Taylor Kelly graduated. But Mike Bercovici was solid in Kelly's stead last season, and the offense shouldn't miss a beat with him under center. The defense (which allowed 27.9 points per game, No. 76 nationally) must improve, but this is a team that can compete with the Pac-12's elites.

11. Ole Miss

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    Hugh Freeze is building a talented program at Ole Miss.
    Hugh Freeze is building a talented program at Ole Miss.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Despite an ugly Peach Bowl loss to TCU, 2014 was a great year in Oxford. The Rebels won nine games, including victories over rivals Alabama and Ole Miss, and made a New Year's Six bowl game. They'll return 17 starters, led by standout defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and standout receiver Laquon Treadwell (who broke his ankle in a loss to Auburn) should return full-speed as well.

    Hugh Freeze's team must replace talented secondary members Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson as well as up-and-down quarterback Bo Wallace. Transfer Chad Kelly would be the leader to lead the offense, but his future is uncertain following recent legal issues. Still, Ole Miss should contend in a deep SEC West.

10. Auburn

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    Jeremy Johnson is ready to step in as Auburn's starting quarterback.
    Jeremy Johnson is ready to step in as Auburn's starting quarterback.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Following a magical run in 2013, Auburn took a step back last fall, slipping to 8-5. The Tigers finished the season on a 1-4 slide, and coach Gus Malzahn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after the defense allowed 26.7 points per game, No. 63 nationally, allowing at least 31 points to its last six SEC opponents.

    The Tigers lose star quarterback Nick Marshall and leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne but do return 12 starters and get talented pass-rusher Carl Lawson back from a torn ACL that sidelined him last season. Jeremy Johnson appears ready to step in at quarterback, and tailback signee Jovon Robinson will make an immediate impact in the backfield. And Malzahn made a superb hire in former Florida coach Will Muschamp as the new defensive coordinator. He'll have an positive impact on the defense.

9. Southern California

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    Cody Kessler is one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks.
    Cody Kessler is one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Steve Sarkisian's first season as Southern California's head coach wasn't perfect, but the Trojans flashed plenty of potential with a nine-win season capped by a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. USC will return 15 starters although defensive end Leonard Williams, wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius Allen all turned pro.

    The returnees are led by quarterback Cody Kessler, who quietly had an outstanding season with 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns against five interceptions. And freshman defensive back Adoree' Jackson is one of the nation's most versatile talents. With the roster being rebuilt following a recent NCAA probation, USC should take its place as one of the nation's top programs again.

8. Notre Dame

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    Brian Kelly and Notre Dame should be much improved this fall.
    Brian Kelly and Notre Dame should be much improved this fall.Associated Press

    2014 was a season of highs and lows for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish started the season 6-0 but finished the year by losing five of their last six games, including ugly blowouts at Arizona State and Southern Cal. However, a Music City Bowl win over LSU gave Brian Kelly's group positive momentum going into the offseason.

    Notre Dame returns 19 starters, including 10 on a defense that had its share of issues but should be better with a second season under coordinator Brian VanGorder's watch. There are questions about quarterback Everett Golson, who lost his job to Malik Zaire late in the season after struggling with turnovers. But overall, the Irish should be much improved this fall.

7. Baylor

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    Shawn Oakman will be one of the nation's top defensive ends this fall.
    Shawn Oakman will be one of the nation's top defensive ends this fall.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2014 didn't end the way Baylor had hoped. The Bears were snubbed for the College Football Playoff and then blew a 20-point fourth-quarter Cotton Bowl lead to Michigan State, falling 42-41. However, there's plenty of room for optimism in Waco. Art Briles lost quarterback Bryce Petty but returns 17 starters. Sophomore Seth Russell performed well as Petty's understudy and is the heir apparent.

    KD Cannon and Corey Coleman are explosive targets in the passing game, and tailback Shock Linwood led a deep backfield with 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. The defense got a huge boost when defensive end Shawn Oakman turned down the NFL draft for his final season of college football. The Bears should be one of the Big 12 and national elites again.

6. Michigan State

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    Connor Cook will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks this fall.
    Connor Cook will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks this fall.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    How do you top 13-1, a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win? Michigan State did the best it could last fall. The Spartans won 11 games—with their only losses coming to national title game participants Ohio State and Oregonand won the Cotton Bowl with a stunning fourth-quarter rally that erased a 20-point Baylor lead.

    The Spartans will return 12 starters, led by quarterback Connor Cook, who was one of the nation's top starters last fall with 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns against five interceptions. They must replace top tailback Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, as well as top receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery. Losing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who became Pittsburgh's head coach, is also a blow, but there are few reasons to think that Michigan State won't keep rolling this fall.

5. Florida State

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    Dalvin Cook will be a key piece of Florida State's offense this fall.
    Dalvin Cook will be a key piece of Florida State's offense this fall.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    January hasn't been a fun month for Florida State and coach Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles' 29-game win streak ended at Oregon's hands in the Rose Bowl, and no program was hit harder by the NFL draft. FSU lost five underclassmen, led by controversial quarterback Jameis Winston, defensive end Mario Edwards and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman.

    Still, FSU and Fisher have recruited exceedingly well, and plenty of young talent remains on the roster, led by speedy tailback Dalvin Cook. There might be a few rough moments early, but the Seminoles will be one of the nation's best teams again.

4. Oregon

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    Royce Freeman will be a key piece of Oregon's offense this fall.
    Royce Freeman will be a key piece of Oregon's offense this fall.Doug Benc/Associated Press

    Oregon had a special season in 2014, but it wasn't quite perfect. In their second national title game appearance, the Ducks were pushed around by a stronger, more physical Ohio State team. It was also quarterback Marcus Mariota's last game, as the Heisman Trophy winner declared for the NFL draft, as expected.

    Still, the cupboard is far from bare for head coach  Mark Helfrich in Eugene. The Ducks will return 13 starters, led by talented tailback Royce Freeman. There are questions at quarterback, where Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and Ty Griffin will compete to replace Mariota, as well as on the offensive line, where three starters depart. But don't expect Oregon to fall far. The Ducks will still be in the College Football Playoff chase.

3. Alabama

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    Derrick Henry is ready to carry a bigger load in the backfield for Alabama.
    Derrick Henry is ready to carry a bigger load in the backfield for Alabama.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If a 12-2 record can be considered disappointing, it was for Alabama. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide won the SEC and entered the College Football Playoff as the top seed but suffered a very disappointing Sugar Bowl loss at the hands of Urban Meyer and Ohio State.

    Alabama returns only nine starters following the NFL draft departures of Biletnikoff Award winner Amari Cooper, tailback T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins. However, the offense should flourish with tailback Derrick Henry getting a full-time load as the No. 1 backfield option. Will Jake Coker replace Blake Sims as the Tide's quarterback, or could a younger option step forward? Saban has holes to fill in his lineup, but nobody has recruited better than Alabama recently, so don't expect any drop-off.

2. TCU

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    Trevone Boykin leads one of the nation's best offenses at TCU.
    Trevone Boykin leads one of the nation's best offenses at TCU.Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    No team had a bigger breakthrough in 2014 than TCU. The Horned Frogs adopted the "Air Raid" offense with new co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, going from 4-8 in 2013 to 12-1 and just out of the College Football Playoff. The Frogs will return 16 starters, too, including 10 on that potent offense.

    Quarterback Trevone Boykin was a revelation, throwing for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while also rushing for 707 yards and eight touchdowns. Linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet (who combined for 236 tackles) will be tough to replace, but expect the Frogs to be one of the nation's best teams this fall.

1. Ohio State

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    Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State look like the nation's best team right now.
    Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State look like the nation's best team right now.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    What a magical season it was for Ohio State. The Buckeyes overcame adversity at quarterback, squeezed into the College Football Playoff and bulled past Alabama and Oregon to win the national title. Urban Meyer will return 14 starters and could have one of the most fascinating quarterback battles in recent memory with Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones competing for the starting role.

    Jones contemplated going to the NFL after leading the Buckeyes to the title but decided against it, telling reporters, including Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch, that he needed more time in college. 

    "Of course I want to play in the NFL, but I want the time to be right," he said. "It was very simple. The NFL, after three games, was out of the question."

    The defense loses a pair of starting defensive linemen but returns end Joey Bosa, one of the nation's most fearsome pass-rushers. And tailback Ezekiel Elliott looked like a star after rushing for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns. Sure, Meyer has some questions to answer, but this is the nation's most talented team top to bottom.

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