College Football 2017: Projecting the Record of Every Power 5 Conference Team

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2017

College Football 2017: Projecting the Record of Every Power 5 Conference Team

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    Early projections for conference champions and qualifiers for the 2018 College Football Playoff are rolling in, but we're about to take projections one step further.

    Separated by last year's results, we've predicted the win-loss record for each Power Five school during the upcoming regular season. Conference title games and postseason matchups are not included.

    The final AP Top 25 poll from the 2016 season set the order of all individual programs highlighted, which follows five sections of unranked teams sorted based on conference affiliation.

    Offseason developments may affect final projections, but this is our way-too-early complete look at 2017.

Unranked ACC Teams

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Boston College: 4-8 (1-7 ACC)

    The 2017 campaign will test the fortitude of Steve Addazio's squad. Boston College will open the year against Northern Illinois and Wake Forest before entering a seven-game stretch that includes Notre Dame, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Florida State. November will bring three winnable games, but getting there with a resilient attitude will be the challenge.

       

    Duke: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)

    Immediate nonconference success will be a big factor in Duke's postseason pursuit. The Blue Devils will host North Carolina Central, Northwestern and Baylor to kick off the year. While a 2-1 record wouldn't make a bowl berth a foregone conclusion, anything worse would complicate the chase for six wins. Playing Army, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest down the stretch could save Duke.

       

    Georgia Tech: 8-4 (6-2 ACC)

    Should the defense improve as expected, Georgia Tech will be a stingy opponent in the ACC. Kicking off conference play with home victories over Pitt and North Carolina will be crucial to their success, but as long as the Yellow Jackets avoid a sweep by Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson, they'll stay in the Coastal picture. Tennessee and Georgia bookend the demanding slate.

       

    North Carolina: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)

    Between the departures and Gene Chizik's resignation, 2017 should be a rebuilding year for North Carolina. In addition to getting Louisville as a crossover opponent, the Tar Heels must play Notre Dame. The remainder of UNC's nonconference schedule is a breeze, but it'll take a surprising offensive effort to contend in the ACC.

       

    North Carolina State: 6-6 (4-4 ACC)

    The good news is that the defense ought to give the Wolfpack a chance just about every week. The bad news is that North Carolina State will take on South Carolina in a neutral-site season opener, the Atlantic Three (Clemson, Florida State, Louisville) and Notre Dame. A favorable set of crossover games should allow the Wolfpack to clinch a fourth straight bowl appearance.

       

    Pitt: 6-6 (4-4 ACC)

    Can the Panthers stop anyone this year? We'll find out quickly since explosive offenses in Penn State and Oklahoma State are on the September docket right before Georgia Tech. Pitt will likely need to navigate a four-game stretch in October against Syracuse, North Carolina State, Duke and Virginia unblemished to be a real contender in the Coastal, but we're not sold on Max Browne as a program savior.

    Syracuse: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)

    If nonconference action goes as planned, Syracuse will enter ACC play at 3-1. Then, it's a matter of scratching three wins in a schedule that includes Clemson and road games against Miami, Florida State and Louisville. Barring an upset, the Orange need those victories in the combination of North Carolina State, Pitt, Wake Forest and Boston College. Doable? Yes. Projected? Not quite.

    Virginia: 4-8 (1-7 ACC)

    We should know Virginia's fate by the end of October. Five of the Cavaliers' first eight games are in Charlottesville, and the toughest opponents are Boise State, Indiana and Duke. If UVA isn't 5-3, bowl eligibility probably isn't happening. The Cavaliers will close the campaign against Georgia Tech, at Louisville, at Miami and against Virginia Tech.

    Wake Forest: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)

    Of all programs below six wins, Wake Forest has the greatest chance of shattering the projection. Last season's offense remains almost entirely intact for 2017, and the Duke Ejiofor-led defense is promising. The Demon Deacons will be an annoyance for the Atlantic Three, as well as Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

Unranked Big Ten Teams

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    Illinois: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

    Lovie Smith has recruited well since arriving in Champaign, but it's going to take another year for Illinois to start seeing that progress. The bright side for the Illini is that they will avoid a crossover gauntlet, taking on Ohio State but getting Rutgers and Indiana. Throw in the annual meeting with Purdue, and Illinois has five-win potential.

       

    Indiana: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

    Highlighted by Tegray Scales and Rashard Fant, the defense should be strong. Dan Feeney's graduation and Kevin Wilson's dismissal will affect the offense, though. Indiana is talented enough to spring an upset, especially if wideout Simmie Cobbs Jr. is healthy to pair with Nick Westbrook. The Hoosiers must avoid a bad November loss to Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue to reach a bowl.

    Iowa: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)

    The 2017 season will be typical Iowa: a run-first offense with lesser-known players who do just enough to take advantage of a stout defense. Home games against Penn State and Ohio State are prime upset chances (i.e. Michigan, 2016), but the Hawkeyes will travel to each of Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Finishing the road slate better than 2-2 will be a trick.

       

    Maryland: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

    D.J. Durkin is a defensive master, so Maryland's main concern is how the offense will score consistently. However, the overlying issue is that the Terrapins have the hardest Big Ten schedule possible. They'll head to Ohio State and Wisconsin in October before hosting Michigan and Penn State in November. Throw in a season opener at Texas, and Maryland's margin for error is thin.

    Michigan State: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

    Arguably the most perplexing Big Ten team of the offseason, Michigan State is dealing with massive turnover following a 3-9 campaign. While Mark Dantonio has earned the benefit of the doubt, 2017 has the makings of another frustrating year. Why? Because veterans floundered last season, and young players will make similar mistakes this year. But we're cautiously putting faith in Dantonio based on recent history.

       

    Minnesota: 7-5 (4-5 Big Ten)

    For a mere $50,000, MLive.com's Cory Olsen noted that P.J. Fleck can "Row the Boat" in Minneapolis. But can a transitioning offense navigate a brutal late-season schedule, or will the running game propel the Gophers to safety? We're not abandoning ship on Minnesota, but Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin down the stretch is a rocky finish.

    Nebraska: 7-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

    Per SB Nation's Bill Connelly, no Big Ten offense must replace more of its offensive production than Nebraska. Additionally, the Cornhuskers will play Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. That combination is a major problem, but Nebraska will also get Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue—likely the three worst conference teams. Although it's a rebuilding year, the Cornhuskers should be bowl-eligible.

    Northwestern: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)

    A division title should be Northwestern's goal, and we'll find out if that's reasonable within three weeks of Big Ten action kicking off. The Wildcats will face Wisconsin, Penn State and Maryland. Even after that stretch, Northwestern has a prime schedule to be a spoiler for division hopefuls. The Wildcats will host Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota throughout the final five weeks of 2017.

    Purdue: 3-9 (2-7 Big Ten)

    Syracuse, heading into the 2016 season, had just hired Dino Babers. Expectations were low, but the up-tempo spread offense showed promise. Purdue is hoping for a similar outcome in 2017 with Jeff Brohm on the headset. David Blough will only be a junior next season, so the Boilermakers can look forward to two seasons of the Brohm-Blough pairing. 

       

    Rutgers: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)

    At least Rutgers has Eastern Michigan and Morgan State on the schedule. The Scarlet Knights must figure out their quarterback situation, though a mass transfer thinned out the depth chart. Chris Ash has an arduous process ahead, and he'll need another year or two before seeing the results that matter most.

Unranked Big 12 Teams

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    Baylor: 6-6 (3-6 Big 12)

    Of all projections, Baylor's is most subject to change. On Monday, returning starter Dom Desouza retired from football, per Tony Adame of 247Sports. We simply have no idea what will happen throughout the offseason. Nevertheless, if the Bears sweep their leisurely nonconference slate, they could slide into a bowl.

       

    Iowa State: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)

    "Tantalizingly close" is how we expect Iowa State's 2017 campaign to shake out. The Cyclones will likely pull off an upset at home while playing just about everyone else close. It'd be a great story if Iowa State reached its first bowl in five years, but that'll only happen if the explosive offensive potential makes more than one appearance.

    Kansas: 3-9 (0-9 Big 12)

    David Beaty seems to be steering the program in the right direction, and the 2018 recruiting class is promising. Unfortunately, that does no good for this season. Kansas' struggles on offense will continue to plague the team in clutch moments, and it'll be another irritating year before brighter days arrive.

       

    Kansas State: 8-4 (5-4 Big 12)

    For the last five seasons, Kansas State has alternated hot and cold starts. That's largely a product of the schedule, but it just so happens that 2017 should be a smooth September. October, though, not so much. That's the time for the Wildcats to prove all doubters wrong, but the stretch against Texas, TCU and Oklahoma could crush their Big 12 hopes.

    TCU: 9-3 (6-3 Big 12)

    Considering the amount of production that returns, last season's overall struggles shouldn't be repeated. Nevertheless, we've twice watched Kenny Hill surge in September before cooling late in the year. TCU might be in Big 12 contention entering November, but back-to-back weeks of Texas and Oklahoma will provide the dagger.

      

    Texas: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)

    Tom Herman's arrival has brought attention to Texas as a whole and particularly the offense. But the bigger story in 2017 may be Todd Orlando directing a junior-filled yet experienced defense. Although the Longhorns will encounter some rough moments, they'll be a thorn for hyped teams like USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

       

    Texas Tech: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)

    Nic Shimonek, assuming he wins the starting quarterback job, has the arm talent and receiving corps necessary to light up the scoreboard. However, Texas Tech's defense will likely remain a sieve. The offensive upside makes the Red Raiders a treacherous matchup—but they're still a wildly inconsistent team.

Unranked Pac-12 Teams

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    Arizona: 4-8 (1-8 Pac-12)

    Though Anu Solomon's transfer slowed the quarterback carousel, it doesn't mean Brandon Dawkins is the answer. He's young, so there's no reason to close the book on him. Still, the junior may need to carry an unfair burden because of Arizona's defense, and he's not a great passer. Unless the Wildcats quickly rebuild at linebacker, opposing running games will feast on Arizona.

    Arizona State: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)

    Blake Barnett's waiver approval makes things interesting for Arizona State. Incumbent Manny Wilkins likely would've started the year, but now, they're fighting for the season-opening spot. At the first sign of struggles, though, will the Sun Devils panic and change QBs? With Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC, Colorado and UCLA in a row, they cannot afford to waste September.

    Cal: 2-10 (1-8 Pac-12)

    It could be a frustrating year to support Cal. While the skill positions are in decent shape, a new starter at quarterback and a revamped offensive line are problematic unknowns. Justin Wilcox's hiring should lead to reasonable success on defense, but the Bears won't have 40-point upside on a regular basis without Davis Webb slinging the ball.

    Oregon: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)

    The offense will be loaded, and the defense only lost a couple of contributors. Oregon could be headed for a bounce-back year in a big way, particularly since Justin Herbert is locked in at quarterback. However, we need to temper defensive expectations. Yes, nearly everyone is back with a new coordinator. But this unit isn't going from good to great. The Ducks must focus on progressing from bad to tolerable first.

    Oregon State: 3-9 (1-8 Pac-12)

    If Oregon State doesn't win a couple of nonconference games, October may be an unpleasant time for Gary Andersen. After facing both Washington schools in September, the Beavers will then take on USC, Colorado and Stanford. The latter two are in Corvallis, so perhaps there's upset potential. But Oregon State has no respite until Cal, Arizona and Arizona State in November.

    UCLA: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)

    Jedd Fisch's arrival seems to receive cursory mentions whenever UCLA pops up, but the hiring is more than a notable offseason event. He's been an absolute master at developing college quarterbacks, and none of them—Stephen Morris, Jake Rudock, Wilton Speight—have Josh Rosen's ceiling. While the reloading defense will hurt the Bruins, Rosen is headed for an efficient year.

    Washington State: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)

    Although the Cougars lost Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, Luke Falk and most of the defense returns for 2017. Washington State should be optimistic about the 2017 campaign, but a brutal schedule won't do Mike Leach's crew any favors. In addition to road games against Oregon and Washington, the Cougars have crossover games with USC and at Utah. And Stanford in November.

Unranked SEC Teams

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    Arkansas: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)

    The SEC West is an annoying place for mid-tier teams. Arkansas has decent potential, but it's squarely behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU while not being superior to Texas A&M and only cautiously ahead of Ole Miss and Mississippi State. With a nonconference bout with TCU and a crossover game against South Carolina, the Razorbacks might be a six-win team despite a nine-win roster.

    Georgia: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)

    One of 2017's upcoming offseason darlings, Georgia brings back high-upside talent for a heavily favorable schedule. Jacob Eason's second-year development will be the biggest storyline, but the Bulldogs are positioned well for an SEC East run. As long as Georgia maneuvers a stretch with Florida, South Carolina and Auburn at 2-1, the division should go to Kirby Smart and Co.

    Kentucky: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

    Dark-horse contender might be too strong, but Kentucky could make a noticeable impact on the SEC East race. The Wildcats will take on Ole Miss and Mississippi State in crossover action, while Florida, Georgia and Tennessee will get LSU, Auburn and Alabama, respectively. A mid-September meeting with South Carolina will be a critical outing for both lurking programs.

    Mississippi State: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

    Nick Fitzgerald is an electric dual-threat quarterback. Is that enough for Mississippi State? The defense was objectively terrible in 2016, and a majority of the starters graduated. The Bulldogs need their JUCO additions to excel right away. Otherwise, Fitzgerald's big numbers won't result in many wins.

    Missouri: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

    Thank you, nonconference. Missouri ought to knock off Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho and Connecticut. Picking up a pair of SEC victories is the trouble. The offense should be the strongest unit, which is relatively concerning, given Drew Lock's inconsistency. Maybe the Tigers will surprise, but bowl eligibility is the ceiling.

    Ole Miss: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)

    Here are the keys to a Ford Focus, Shea Patterson. Now go win the Daytona 500. The rising sophomore will be driving a suitable offense, but Ole Miss isn't in a great spot. A favorable group of nonconference games should be confidence-boosters heading into SEC play, but the young offense may be overwhelmed by the West.

    South Carolina: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

    Projections for South Carolina are almost entirely dependent on the perception of Jake Bentley. The neutral-site opener will be an important test because of North Carolina State's expected defensive strength. If he handles the Wolfpack, the Gamecocks won't play a tougher defense until November. It's probably still a year away, but South Carolina has serious upset potential in 2017.

    Texas A&M: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)

    Settle on a quarterback, and there's promise in College Station. But replacing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall on the defensive line while reloading at receiver will be a challenge. The nonconference slate after UCLA is a breeze, so the Aggies should be bowl-bound. Reaching four SEC wins with the strong West and South Carolina and Florida as crossover games might be the max, though.

    Vanderbilt: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

    We want to believe, Vanderbilt. It's up to you, Kyle Shurmur. Following a visit from Kansas State, the Commodores will open SEC play against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. A victory in that stretch is unlikely, but Vandy could turn around and rattle off a handful of wins—if Shurmur becomes a weapon. Much of the offense returns, and it's a senior-laden defense. The pieces are there. It's on the quarterback now.

Auburn

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 24

    The prevailing thought is that Jarrett Stidham will solve Auburn's offensive troubles, and it's reasonable. He collected 934 yards and six touchdowns in three starts at Baylor.

    However, the success will be largely contingent on a sophomore-heavy receiving group being ready for major roles. Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis, Eli Stove and Ryan Davis combined for 75 receptions, 958 yards and four touchdowns last season. The talent is there; the production must follow.

    An early road matchup with Clemson will show the unit's development, but the back half of 2017 will be the ultimate test. The final six games include LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC)

Utah

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 23

    Utah often cruises below the national radar before surging and flirting with nine or 10 wins. Underestimating the Utes can lead to being proved terribly wrong.

    Let's see if it happens again.

    After a manageable nonconference slate—though the Holy War is at BYU this season—the Utes must battle the absolute toughest Pac-12 schedule imaginable. Their four North Division opponents are Stanford, Oregon, Washington and Washington State.

    Combine that with massive defensive turnover, no more Joe Williams and annual contests against USC, UCLA and Colorado, and Utah has a brutal outlook for 2017.

    Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6 Pac-12)

Tennessee

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 22

    "The Champions of Life" likely won't be adding a physical accolade to the trophy case, but that's partly a product of the schedule.

    September will be a crucial month for Tennessee, which travels to Florida and Georgia. A couple of wins there, and things get interesting. However, the Vols will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and a revamped defense in two must-win outings.

    Since Alabama and LSU await Butch Jones' team in October and November, respectively, early losses to East Division foes could send Tennessee reeling to a third-tier bowl game.

    Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)

Louisville

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 21

    Louisville wasted a great chance in 2016. Now, Lamar Jackson needs to carry a retooled offense that loses its leading rusher and top three pass-catchers. The defense also loses three integral pieces.

    But with a talent like Jackson, nobody should count out the Cardinals.

    A 2-0 start to conference play with victories over North Carolina and Clemson would take pressure off Louisville, which follows up that stint with Kent State and Murray State. Avoid a Thursday night upset at North Carolina State, and the Cardinals could take command of the Atlantic Division in a mid-October showdown at Florida State.

    The late-season inconsistency from 2016 is worrisome, so we're not banking on the best-case scenario. But again, Jackson has a Heisman Trophy for dynamic reasons.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)

Miami

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 20

    Completing the ACC head-to-head table brought an unexpected result. Is Miami a 10-win team despite losing Brad Kaaya?

    Not only has the program regularly suffered at least one bad loss in recent seasons, but the receiving group is also unproven behind Ahmmon Richards, and cornerback depth is lacking. But following mass departures at Virginia Tech and North Carolina, the new secondary isn't quite as scary.

    After playing Florida State in mid-September, Miami's toughest ACC games are almost exclusively at home. The Hurricanes aren't yet built for a national run, but 2017 feels like the year they finally win the Coastal Division.

    Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)

West Virginia

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 18

    Will Grier shined at Florida in 2015, and that offense wasn't as quarterback-friendly as Dana Holgorsen's system. West Virginia should be excited for Grier's debut.

    The defense, however, is a problem in waiting. The Mountaineers are almost entirely rebuilding on that side of the ball, losing every starter on the defensive line and most of the secondary.

    Grier will excel in the point-happy and top-heavy Big 12, but it won't be enough for West Virginia to win the conference.

    Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big 12)

Colorado

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 17

    After stunning the college football world with a Pac-12 South Division crown in 2016, Colorado will attempt to show it can sustain that level of play next season and beyond.

    Thanks to a soft nonconference slate, the Buffaloes should roll to 3-0. After that, though, the rebuilt defense will be tested.

    Colorado's returning talent on offense should buoy the team, but a drop in victories is a guarantee. It would be a disservice to 2016's seniors to suggest they are quickly replaceable.

    Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)

Virginia Tech

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 16

    Justin Fuente's first year at Virginia Tech was a complete success, but his initial offseason brings an interesting issue. While the scoring attack has holes everywhere, the defense is simply patching a couple of leaks.

    While the Hokies will open the year against West Virginia, they have invaluable time to prepare for ACC play. They'll work through three nonconference opponents before taking on Clemson.

    But it won't be an easy fix, considering the massive turnover on offense. Road games at Miami and Georgia Tech could expose that.

    Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)

Florida

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 14

    Is Luke Del Rio the guy? Is Feleipe Franks ready? Does it matter?

    Florida deserves credit for swiping a pair of SEC East titles, but the best competition—Michigan, Florida State and Alabama—still regularly dismantled the Gators. After losing core pieces at each level of the defense, it's probably going to happen again.

    National contention is a mere dream since Michigan and Florida State bookend the schedule. Perhaps the East flounders again, but Florida will only be in position to capitalize if it doesn't get swept by Tennessee, LSU and Georgia—and avoids the seemingly inevitable bad loss.

    Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3 SEC)

LSU

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 13

    A strong running game and tenacious defense can only carry a team so far. LSU is capable of beating every team on the schedule, but anything more requires a major improvement at quarterback.

    The Tigers signed a pair of promising signal-callers, yet setting immediate and massive expectations for a true freshman is unwise. Barring injury, Danny Etling will likely remain under center. But being decent overall—and terrible against the bestdoesn't win championships.

    An unimposing nonconference schedule will generate hype around LSU before a rocky SEC road curbs the praise.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)

Stanford

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 12

    Stanford loses one enormous piece in Christian McCaffrey and a couple of key defenders, including Solomon Thomas and Dallas Lloyd.

    Nevertheless, the program has six 10-win seasons in seven years. Count out Stanford at your own risk. Bryce Love won't be a seamless replacement, but he's a terrific running back. Additionally, the defense will be riddled with experienced juniors and seniors.

    Inconsistent quarterback play remains an issue, though. Unless Ryan Burns settles the dilemma while Keller Chryst rehabs, Stanford—exactly like LSU—will fall short because of it.

    Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)

Oklahoma State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 11

    All aboard the Oklahoma State hype train! There will be other moments to jump on throughout the offseason, but it's far more enjoyable to take a seat right now and be wrong later.

    Mason Rudolph is an efficient gunslinger with a bevy of weapons in James Washington, Justice Hill, Jalen McCleskey and Chris Lacy. The Pokes averaged just shy of 40 points per game in 2016, and they'll likely eclipse the mark this season.

    A three-game stretch starting in late October against Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma will play the largest role in determining Oklahoma State's pursuit of the Big 12 Championship Game.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big 12)

Michigan

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 10

    The only way Michigan could be facing a more thorough rebuild is if Mason Cole and Maurice Hurst had declared for the draft. But after a neutral-site meeting with Florida to begin the campaign, the schedule favors the young Wolverines.

    Jim Harbaugh's club must not overlook Michigan State and Indiana, but the Wolverines should be favored in both games. They could head to Penn State in mid-October at 6-0.

    Sound familiar, Ohio State?

    Even if Michigan survives what will presumably be the whiteout game in Happy Valley, a road trip to Wisconsin and home showdown against Ohio State close the season. Anything worse than 2-1 opposite those teams won't be good enough.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Wisconsin

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 9

    The primary unknown for the Badgers isn't on the roster, which is both good and bad. Alex Hornibrook is a capable starter, and Wisconsin is safely the West Division favorite with him. But is the southpaw a championship-worthy quarterback?

    Malik Zaire offers that kind of upside.

    According to Pete Sampson of Scout.com, the Notre Dame transfer won't make his decision until April. Zaire could be the final piece to Wisconsin's intriguing puzzle.

    For now, that's only speculation. Hornibrook is the clear No. 1 entering the spring, but the Badgers will rely on the running game and defense anyway. That combination has worked for a decade.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Florida State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 8

    Deondre Francois was the epitome of toughness in 2016, taking several huge hits and leaving multiple games yet returning every single time. Despite the anticipated departure of Dalvin Cook, the offense is in terrific hands.

    Good thing, too, because the Seminoles need excellence from the QB immediately. They will kick off 2017 against Alabama.

    Florida State's schedule is difficult, but the hardest opponents are evenly scattered throughout the slate. While Miami, Louisville, Clemson and Florida are all capable of upsets, the Seminoles never play those programs in consecutive weeks.

    Jimbo Fisher's crew is the early conference favorite.

    Projected Record: 11-1 (8-0 ACC)

Penn State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 7

    Most evidence points to a continuing ascent for Penn State, which used a comeback win over Ohio State and a little help to steal the East Division and eventually the Big Ten in 2016.

    But there's always an offseason darling that falters. A road-heavy schedule could make the Nittany Lions that team. They will travel to Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State and even Maryland, only hosting Michigan and Nebraska.

    A majority of those contests happen before October ends, so Penn State has little time to waste in 2017.

    Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

Ohio State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 6

    At his best, J.T. Barrett is a Heisman contender. At his worst, well, Ohio State gets smacked around on the biggest stage.

    The Buckeyes have voids in the secondary and must fix the offensive line, but the front seven is potentially overwhelming. Ohio State should be a better team in 2017, yet it went 11-1 during the 2016 regular season. Not a bad down year.

    Other than the early tilt with Oklahoma, the schedule sets up nicely for the Buckeyes. They must handle an arduous final five weeks—Penn State, at Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois, at Michigan—but should be 7-0 or 6-1 entering that season-defining stretch.

    Projected Record: 12-0 (9-0 Big Ten)

Oklahoma

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 5

    In Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley we trust.

    No offense has to replace the combination of production and on-field talent Oklahoma had in Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Properly filling those voids is practically impossible, but Mayfield's smarts in Riley's efficiency-focused system will ease the transition.

    Reaching the College Football Playoff is possible, though it's a tall order that will begin with snatching a win in Columbus. Regardless of that result, the Sooners will be a dangerous team in the Big 12.

    Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Big 12)

Washington

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 4

    Save the drama for November, why don't you, Washington?

    The Huskies will launch their Pac-12 title defense with nonconference games against Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State. Though the early portion of the conference slate isn't a breeze, Colorado, Oregon State, Cal and Arizona State is not a rigorous stretch, either.

    But after a bye week, Jake Browning and a retooled secondary may put an undefeated record on the line. Washington will close the campaign against UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State. Only Stanford is on the road.

    The Huskies aren't going away just yet.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Pac-12)

USC

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 3

    USC's unofficial motto for 2017? Meet the hype immediately and then avoid a letdown. Do that, and the College Football Playoff could be next.

    Now, the Trojans must defend the championship expectations out of the gate. Stanford and Texas will come to the Coliseum on consecutive September weekends, and USC will also head to Washington State before the month ends.

    The rest of the slate is manageable, but the Trojans will need to navigate back-to-backs against Utah and Notre Dame, plus Colorado and UCLA. Is USC up for the challenge? We say almost.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (8-1 Pac-12)

Alabama

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 2

    Alabama has won neutral-site season openers in five consecutive seasons. If that streak continues with a victory over Florida State in Atlanta, who can actually beat the Tide prior to November?

    Well, we're not picking overmatched programs Fresno State, Colorado State, Vanderbilt, rebuilding teams Ole Miss and Texas A&M or mid-tier options Arkansas and Tennessee. The final month will bring LSU to Tuscaloosa and send Alabama to Auburn.

    Unless Etling improves significantly, though, LSU's offense will likely struggle again in this matchup. And if Auburn cannot overcome massive losses on the defensive line, the Tide will run all over the Tigers.

    Alabama is a safe pick, but it's also a smart pick. Don't argue with the last decade. Unlike Nick Saban, you will lose.

    Projected Record: 12-0 (8-0 SEC)

Clemson

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Final AP Poll Ranking: 1

    Clemson achieved greatness with Deshaun Watson behind center. Will that continue with Kelly Bryant or Hunter Johnson?

    Though Bryant is unproven, Tigers fans are most excited about Johnson anyway. But remember what we cautioned with LSU: Placing huge expectations on a true freshman typically ends in disappointment.

    Clemson's defense has the talent to frustrate every explosive offense, specifically Auburn, Louisville and Florida State. The championship question is if Bryant and/or Johnson can consistently capitalize on those strong performances—or survive a rough outing yet still win a shootout like Watson could.

    Dabo Swinney is building Clemson into a powerhouse, but 2017 will likely be a "close but not quite" year for the program.

    Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)

    All recruiting information via Scout.com. 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.