College Football Rankings: Early Look at 2017 Preseason Top 25

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2017

Clemson's Deshaun Watson holds up the championship trophy after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Clemson won 35-31. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

For the second straight year, we're coming off an Alabama-Clemson championship game. For the second straight year, we're trying to recover from an instant classic.

The only thing that's changed is the champion.

Deshaun Watson's historic night ended with a game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining, giving the Tigers a 35-31 win over Alabama. Watson finished with 420 passing yards and four total touchdowns. He has more than 900 total yards and eight total touchdowns in his two title-game matchups with Nick Saban.

So shall we continue to talk Watson? What about Saban? No. Let's kick it up a notch and start looking ahead to 2017.

Now, an acknowledgement: We won't know which underclassmen are leaving or staying until the declaration deadline. That changes things, greatly in some cases. But here's an early look regardless. 

3Florida State
4Ohio State
6Penn State
14Oklahoma State
16West Virginia
19South Florida
22Notre Dame
23Kansas State
25Texas A&M

1. Alabama

Alabama doesn't rebuild. It only reloads. While Saban's defense will likely look far different than his 2016 world-beater, the Tide should have a more explosive and experienced offense in theory.

Jalen Hurts will return for his sophomore season prepared for a potential breakout campaign. There were times when the Tide handled him with kid gloves this season. That can't be the case in 2017, and it won't. Hurts will spearhead a potentially high-powered offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian, though that will depend a bit on who returns.

Tight end O.J. Howard will be playing on Sundays, but Calvin Ridley will be back for his junior year and ArDarius Stewart has a year of eligibility remaining. CBS Sports currently does not have Stewart ranked among draft-eligible receivers, indicating he's probably more likely to return than declare. 

Leading rusher Damien Harris will be back, as will playoff star Bo Scarbrough. A year after having perhaps his best defense since he arrived at Alabama, Saban will arguably have his most talented offense. Seeing as Saban always finds a way to rebuild his defense, there's little reason to think any team other than Alabama will be at No. 1 when we open next season.


2. USC

As both a practical rule and a business decision, the NFL's draft-eligibility rules make sense. There is not a 19-year-old alive ready to handle James Harrison coming off the edge. There are only a few 29-year-olds who do an OK job.

But, man, if you gave the Cleveland Browns a chance to erase that rule right now and scoop Sam Darnold, they'd do it in a heartbeat. Darnold completely transformed USC's season as a freshman, leading the Trojans to a nine-game winning streak to end their season after a 1-3 start. Darnold's only loss as a starter came on the road at Utah, which was also his first collegiate start.

One of the most complete freshman quarterbacks in recent memory, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He had a preternatural ability to hit his receivers in stride and is by no means a stationary product; his 250 rushing yards are a solid number for someone rarely asked to make plays with his feet.

Instead of joining the NFL, he'll be playing for free for at least the next two seasons at USC. What's bad for Cleveland's quarterback future is great for the Trojans, who will also return running back Ronald Jones II and a number of defensive contributors.

If Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell Jr. can adequately replace JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, this offense should be as good (if not better) as it was in 2016.


6. Penn State

The Nittany Lions lost receiver Chris Godwin and defensive end Garrett Sickels to the NFL draft but got a major boon with the returns of tight end Mike Gesicki and safety Marcus Allen. They'll join the most exciting backfield in recent Penn State history, with quarterback Trace McSorely and running back Saquon Barkley both worthy of Heisman watchlist status.

McSorely turned the ball over four times against USC but still finished with 12 touchdown passes in his final three games and came into his own as the season progressed. His consistency will be a huge factor in 2017. The Lions play Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks in October. Then they face a Michigan State team that will be far superior to this past season's descent from relevance.

The Lions will need McSorely to be a superstar next season, something they already have in Barkley. The rising junior has rushed for more than 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns over his first two collegiate seasons, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2016.

Even with J.T. Barrett returning to Ohio State next season, there won't be a more talented offense in the conference. If Penn State can fix its inconsistencies on the other side of the ball, this ranking could look low a year from now. 


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