Pre-Spring Practice Record Predictions for Top 25 College Football Teams

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2017

Pre-Spring Practice Record Predictions for Top 25 College Football Teams

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    Dabo Swinney and Clemson held the 2016 CFP National Championship Trophy proudly. Can the Tigers repeat this fall?
    Dabo Swinney and Clemson held the 2016 CFP National Championship Trophy proudly. Can the Tigers repeat this fall?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    College football can be an unpredictable sport. Year to year, it changes quickly thanks to coaching switches, recruitment and departures to the NFL draft and graduation. While Alabama and Clemson played in the national title game for the second consecutive season, their continued success was the exception and not the rule.

    Just look at teams like Michigan State. The Spartans went from the College Football Playoff to 3-9 and sitting at home for the postseason. So nothing is guaranteed, which might be the way fans like it.

    It can make records difficult to predict, but we're going to take a shot at it here.

    Here's a look at the predicted records for the top 25 teams in college football, based on the final 2016 AP Top 25 rankings. Factors such as difficulty of schedule, returning starters and recruiting classes were taken into consideration.

25. San Diego State

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    Rocky Long has built a solid program at San Diego State.
    Rocky Long has built a solid program at San Diego State.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Under coach Rocky Long, San Diego State has emerged as one of the best Group of Five programs.

    The Aztecs put together back-to-back 11-3 seasons and were rightfully represented in 2016's final rankings after a Las Vegas Bowl demolition of a good Houston team. However, a third consecutive 11-win campaign could prove difficult.

    San Diego State returns 11 starters but suffered some major losses. Donnel Pumphrey, the FBS' all-time leading rusher, graduated, as did talented cornerback Damontae Kazee.

    The Aztecs face Pac-12 foes Stanford and Arizona State in nonconference play, and while they avoid Wyoming, they do draw Boise State and Air Force. Long has a steady foundation, but some regression is inevitable.

    Predicted record: 8-4

24. Auburn

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    2017 looms as a huge year for Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
    2017 looms as a huge year for Gus Malzahn at Auburn.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    2017 looms as a crucial season for Gus Malzahn at Auburn.

    Since guiding the Tigers to a national runner-up finish in his first year on the Plains, the head coach is 23-16 in the last three seasons, including just 11-13 in SEC play. That isn't good enough at Auburn, and improvement will be expected. It could certainly happen this year.

    The Tigers return 17 starters and signed former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham after he spent a year on the sidelines. In addition, Malzahn hired Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to improve his offense. AU had the SEC's worst passing attack a year ago. Can Stidham grab the starting role and give the offense some punch?

    The schedule features trips to Clemson, LSU and Texas A&M and Alabama and Georgia at home. Still, we should see some progress this fall.

    Predicted record: 9-3

23. Utah

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    Kyle Whittingham has built a solid winner at Utah.
    Kyle Whittingham has built a solid winner at Utah.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Kyle Whittingham has quietly done an excellent job at Utah. The head coach has 103 wins in 12 seasons, and the Utes are developing into a yearly Pac-12 contender following three consecutive seasons with at least nine wins and end-of-year Top 25 finishes.

    The Utes have a nice base ready for 2017, particularly on the defensive line, where standout defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei returns for his senior season. However, Utah must replace four starting offensive linemen, including early NFL draft entrant Garett Bolles and productive tailback Joseph Williams.

    The Utes do get Stanford at home but must travel to BYU, Washington and Southern California, although the rest of their nonconference slate (San Jose State and North Dakota) is hardly imposing. They should be Pac-12 contenders again.

    Predicted record: 8-4

22. Tennessee

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    Butch Jones will begin 2016 under pressure at Tennessee.
    Butch Jones will begin 2016 under pressure at Tennessee.Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

    Tennessee was one of the most disappointing teams of 2016.

    Butch Jones' team was expected to continue its progression in his fourth season with an experienced, talented roster. Instead, injuries and a struggling defense led to an 8-4 regular season, and even a Music City Bowl win over Nebraska didn’t feel like a great consolation.

    Jones will be under increased pressure this fall, but it should be noted that the Volunteers do return 15 starters, including every notable receiver save Josh Malone, who declared for the NFL draft.

    Tennessee must replace quarterback and team leader Joshua Dobbs, as well as talented defensive end Derek Barnett and safety Cameron Sutton.

    A nonconference slate headed by Georgia Tech is reasonable, but UT must travel to Florida and Alabama, and draws LSU from the SEC West. This feels like another eight-win season, which isn't good news for Jones.

    Predicted record: 8-4

21. Louisville

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    Lamar Jackson ran all over college defenses in 2016.
    Lamar Jackson ran all over college defenses in 2016.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Louisville had a breakthrough year in 2016, even though it didn't end the way Bobby Petrino and Co. had hoped.

    Quarterback Lamar Jackson ran away with the Heisman Trophy, but the Cardinals finished 9-4 after ending the season on a three-game losing streak, including blowout defeats to Houston and LSU. Jackson is back for his junior season, but can Louisville challenge Clemson and Florida State for ACC supremacy?

    Louisville returns 12 starters but must protect Jackson better—he was sacked 47 times. The Cardinals also need to replace wideouts Jamari Staples and James Quick and key defenders Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields and Josh Harvey-Clemons.

    The schedule is tough in September, with a trip to North Carolina on Sept. 9 and a visit from Clemson the following week. The Cards also must travel to Florida State and Kentucky in the second half of the season.

    Predicted record: 9-3

20. Miami

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    Malik Rosier is stepping into some big shoes at Miami.
    Malik Rosier is stepping into some big shoes at Miami.Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Mark Richt's first season at Miami left Hurricanes fans with a positive feeling about the future.

    The 'Canes went 9-4 and were generally more competitive than under Al Golden, ending the season on a five-game win streak capped by a bowl blowout of West Virginia. Can they build on it in 2017? It could be challenging.

    The Hurricanes return 14 starters, but standout Brad Kaaya, one of the nation's top pocket passers, is not one of them after bolting early for the NFL.

    Backup Malik Rosier is expected to replace Kaaya, and 1,117-yard rusher Mark Walton returns as well.

    Miami must travel to Florida State, North Carolina and, oddly enough, Arkansas State, but it does host Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in south Florida. Expect Richt's second season to be incrementally better as he builds talent and roster depth.

    Predicted record: 9-3

19. South Florida

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    Quinton Flowers emerged as one of the most versatile quarterbacks in college football in 2016.
    Quinton Flowers emerged as one of the most versatile quarterbacks in college football in 2016.Jason Behnken/Getty Images

    Charlie Strong flamed out after three losing records in as many years at Texas, but he certainly found a soft landing spot at South Florida.

    The Bulls had an incredible 11-3 season, but they lost Willie Taggart and his staff to Oregon. He left an excellent base for Strong, though, with 16 starters (led by do-everything quarterback Quinton Flowers) returning.

    The Bulls should be a strong contender in the American Athletic Conference, where Strong found great success at Louisville while it was known as the Big East (37-15 in three seasons at the Big East and one in the AAC).

    Illinois is the toughest nonconference game, and Temple, Houston and Tulsa all visit Tampa. The Bulls should run roughshod in the AAC again this season.

    Predicted record: 11-1

18. West Virginia

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    Justin Crawford is ready to carry West Virginia's offense.
    Justin Crawford is ready to carry West Virginia's offense.Justin Berl/Getty Images

    Dana Holgorsen needed a big season at West Virginia in 2016, and he got it. The Mountaineers had their best season since joining the Big 12, going 10-3 and contending for the league crown well into November.

    However, WVU might have a tough 2017 ahead. Holgorsen returns just seven starters, losing key contributors on both sides of the ball, including starting quarterback Skyler Howard. But Florida transfer Will Grier is ready to step into the role; the NCAA will rule July 1 whether he must sit out the season's first six games after redshirting in 2016 following a year-long NCAA suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test.

    Starting tailback Justin Crawford, who rushed for 1,184 yards last fall, does return. He'll carry the offense if Grier is sidelined for any length of time.

    WVU starts with a neutral-site clash with Virginia Tech and also travels to TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma, hosting Oklahoma State and Texas. The Mountaineers could take a step back this fall.

    Predicted record: 7-5

17. Colorado

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    Mike MacIntyre had a breakthrough season with Colorado in 2016.
    Mike MacIntyre had a breakthrough season with Colorado in 2016.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Colorado had a year to remember in 2016. The Buffaloes went 10-4, winning as many games as Mike MacIntyre had in his first three seasons combined. That cooled his seat significantly, which is a good thing, because the core of a strong defense has departed.

    The Buffs return only three defensive starters, and while nine starters return on offense, quarterback Sefo Liufau is not one of them.

    Dual-threat backup Steven Montez will step into the starting QB role, and the schedule is manageable. Colorado State is the toughest non-Pac-12 foe, and Southern California and Washington come to Boulder. The Buffs must travel to Utah, UCLA and Washington State. Will there be a drop-off? Maybe not as much as you think.

    Predicted record: 8-4

16. Virginia Tech

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    Justin Fuente had a special debut season with Virginia Tech.
    Justin Fuente had a special debut season with Virginia Tech.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Justin Fuente's first season at Virginia Tech couldn't have possibly gone much better.

    Fuente stepped into the considerable shadow left by Frank Beamer and gave a program that had slipped into mediocrity a major jolt of energy. The Hokies went 10-4 and won the ACC Coastal, giving eventual national champion Clemson a major push before falling in the ACC title game. Now the tough part: doing it again.

    Fuente will return 12 starters, but he must find a new starting quarterback after Jerod Evans surprisingly declared for the NFL draft after one season in Blacksburg. The new QB also must develop new targets after Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges joined Evans in the pro ranks.

    Fuente said the offense will look different this season, per Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

    "People always ask, ‘What does your offense look like?’ I say, ‘Well, what do our players look like?’ When we were at TCU, it looked a little bit different," Fuente said. "When we were at Memphis, it looked different. And this past year, at Virginia Tech, it looked different. And this next year, it’ll continue to look different.”

    VT welcomes Clemson to Lane Stadium but must play three of its final four games on the road at Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia. Fuente better hope the new quarterback grows up fast.

    Predicted record: 8-4

15. Western Michigan

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    Western Michigan had a season to remember in 2016.
    Western Michigan had a season to remember in 2016.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan went from obscurity to the toast of the college football world in 2016.

    Head coach Fleck rowed the Broncos' boat to a 13-0 regular season, earning a New Year's Six bowl bid that ended with a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin. And if you can't beat a Big Ten team, join 'em; Fleck headed to the Big Ten West by taking Minnesota's opening.

    He leaves plenty for new coach Tim Lester, who last served as Purdue's quarterbacks coach. The Broncos return 13 starters but must replace a prolific passing game duo in receiver Corey Davis and quarterback Zach Terrell.

    WMU opens the season at Southern California and Michigan State, but the Broncos should be one of the MAC's best once again.

    Predicted record: 9-3

14. Florida

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    Jim McElwain has enjoyed a successful start to his Florida career.
    Jim McElwain has enjoyed a successful start to his Florida career.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Jim McElwain's first two seasons in Gainesville were successful, yet unfulfilling. The Gators won a pair of SEC East titles but ran into a brick wall in the form of Alabama in both conference title games. They also lost both rivalry games with Florida State.

    Will that change in 2017? It won't be easy.

    Florida returns 11 starters, but it lost five starters early to the NFL draft in corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, linebacker Alex Anzalone, defensive tackle Caleb Brantley and left tackle David Sharpe.

    The Gators open the season with a tough test versus Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but they do host Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU and Florida State. It is a challenging slate, without question, but with a down SEC East, another run at a division title is possible.

    Predicted record: 8-4

13. LSU

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    Derrius Guice is poised for a special season at LSU.
    Derrius Guice is poised for a special season at LSU.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Ed Orgeron did the unlikely by replacing Les Miles as LSU's interim coach and winning the job full-time with a strong finish. Now comes the really tough part: winning consistently and pleasing the Tigers' rabid but tough-to-please fans.

    The Tigers return 12 starters but did lose multiple players to the NFL draft, including standout tailback Leonard Fournette and hard-hitting safety Jamal Adams.

    However, Derrius Guice, who rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while Fournette struggled with leg injuries, is a more-than-capable replacement.

    LSU's schedule is tough as always. The Tigers open up with BYU in Houston and must travel to Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss while hosting Auburn and Texas A&M. Is Danny Etling the answer at quarterback? That remains to be seen.

    Predicted record: 9-3

12. Stanford

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    David Shaw is one of college football's best coaches.
    David Shaw is one of college football's best coaches.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Ho hum. Just another 10-win season for Stanford, which started 4-3 but closed the season by winning six consecutive games, including a Sun Bowl victory over North Carolina.

    Head coach David Shaw returns another solid roster that includes 16 starters, but he must find a way to replace do-everything tailback Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas, both of whom left early for the NFL draft.

    There are also questions at quarterback after Keller Chryst tore his ACL in the Sun Bowl; will senior Ryan Burns be ready to step up in his absence?

    The schedule is tough early and late, with September road trips to Southern California and San Diego State and November visits from Cal, Washington and Notre Dame. As we've learned, it's not smart to count out the Cardinal.

    Predicted record: 10-2

11. Oklahoma State

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    Mason Rudolph is developing into one of college football's top quarterbacks.
    Mason Rudolph is developing into one of college football's top quarterbacks.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Mike Gundy is a man. He's turning 50 this year, and he can really coach.

    Gundy has grown an excellent mullet and led Oklahoma State to 10 wins in three of the last four seasons. Will 2017 be any different? The Cowboys return 13 starters, including prolific receiver James Washington and star quarterback Mason Rudolph.

    The schedule has its challenges, including nonconference road trips to bowl teams South Alabama and Pitt, but Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU all come to Stillwater. Oklahoma State could have yet another 10-win season on its hands this fall.

    Predicted record: 10-2

10. Michigan

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    Rashan Gary is ready to become college football's next great defensive  lineman.
    Rashan Gary is ready to become college football's next great defensive lineman.Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    Jim Harbaugh has done an excellent job making Michigan relevant again. The Wolverines are 20-6 in his two seasons in Ann Arbor, with a pair of 10-win campaigns. However, his true success will be measured by how many Big Ten and national titles he brings back to the Big House.

    Taking that next step will be challenging this fall. The Wolverines return only five starters, including only one on defense after suffering serious graduation and NFL draft losses, including Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers.

    Michigan does have plenty of talent, led by emerging defensive end star Rashan Gary, but there could be some bumps in the road in 2017.

    The season opens in Arlington, Texas against Florida, and Michigan also must travel to Penn State and Wisconsin before finishing the season at home against Ohio State. This fall could see a step back to take two forward.

    Predicted record: 8-4

9. Wisconsin

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    Paul Chryst has kept Wisconsin on the right track.
    Paul Chryst has kept Wisconsin on the right track.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Wisconsin knows its role in college football's ecosystem very well. The Badgers are rarely overhyped. They aren't flashy. But no matter the coach, they keep running the ball, playing good defense and winning. 2016 brought another Big Ten title and an 11-3 record, as well as a Big Ten West title.

    Coach Paul Chryst returns 14 starters, although the loss of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who became Cal's head coach, will be felt. All-American offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and linebacker T.J. WattJ.J. Watt's younger brotherboth left for the NFL draft, and Corey Clement's graduation leaves a hole in the backfield.

    However, the schedule, which includes trips to BYU and Nebraska and visits from Michigan and Iowa, is very manageable. Another Big Ten West title is in the offing.

    Predicted record: 10-2

8. Florida State

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    Deondre Francois had an excellent freshman season for Florida State.
    Deondre Francois had an excellent freshman season for Florida State.Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    Jimbo Fisher has built something special at Florida State. How high are the Seminoles' standards? Well, they've won 20 games over the past two seasons and both were disappointments compared to a 39-3 run from 2012-14 that produced a national title and three ACC titles.

    Is this the season FSU leaps over Clemson and gets back in the national spotlight?

    The Seminoles lose home-run hitting back Dalvin Cook but do return 16 starters, including quarterback Deondre Francois, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman.

    FSU begins the season with a huge neutral-site showdown versus Alabama in Atlanta and also travels to Clemson and Florida while hosting Miami and Louisville. Expect this season to be one worth savoring for Seminoles fans.

    Predicted record: 11-1

7. Penn State

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    Saquon Barkley is one of college football's best tailbacks.
    Saquon Barkley is one of college football's best tailbacks.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    James Franklin came to Penn State in 2014 with high hopes. In 2016, he finally began delivering on them.

    Following a pair of seven-win seasons, the Nittany Lions broke through for an 11-3 record and Big Ten title, just missing the College Football Playoff.

    The Lions return 16 starters, but they must replace lead receiver Chris Godwin, who left early for the NFL. However, a potent offense returns quarterback Trace McSorley and productive tailback Saquon Barkley.

    The Lions will host rival Pitt in September, but the season's story will be told by a three-game stretch versus Michigan and then at Ohio State and Michigan State in late October and early November. Expect this team to compete for another Big Ten title this fall.

    Predicted record: 10-2

6. Ohio State

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    J.T. Barrett will be a key leader for Ohio State this fall.
    J.T. Barrett will be a key leader for Ohio State this fall.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    While 2016 didn't end the way Ohio State had hopedwith a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemsonit has to be considered a success regardless. The Buckeyes made another College Football Playoff berth with a young team and finished 11-2.

    Ohio State does return 15 starters from that team, led by dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett, but must find a way to protect him better, as Clemson's defensive line showed.

    OSU must replace middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore, but head coach Urban Meyer and his staff have recruited well.

    A Sept. 9 showdown with Oklahoma will be challenging, and the Buckeyes host Penn State and travel to Michigan. We're guessing Meyer will find a way to get the most out of this group, too.

    Predicted record: 11-1

5. Oklahoma

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    Baker Mayfield will again be a key cog for Oklahoma's offense.
    Baker Mayfield will again be a key cog for Oklahoma's offense.Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

    Oklahoma didn't make the College Football Playoff, but 2016 was another great year for Bob Stoops and the Sooners. OU went 11-2, with the only losses coming to Ohio State and Houston, and won another Big 12 title with a perfect 9-0 mark.

    The Sooners are built to do it again, with quarterback Baker Mayfield leading 16 returning starters.

    OU must find a replacement for backfield tandem Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon as well as productive wideout Dede Westbrook, but the schedule is set up for success.

    The Sooners must travel to Ohio State Sept. 9 and also head to Oklahoma State and Baylor, but they host TCU and West Virginia. They should be right with the Cowboys as the class of the Big 12 once again.

    Predicted record: 11-1

4. Washington

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    Jake Browning led Washington to a College Football Playoff bid in 2016.
    Jake Browning led Washington to a College Football Playoff bid in 2016.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    In Chris Petersen's third season at Washington, the Huskies made a major move upward. Washington went 12-2, won the Pac-12 title and made the College Football Playoff before falling to Alabama. Can it happen again in 2017? The Huskies certainly have an excellent base.

    Petersen returns 14 starters, led by star quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin, both of whom should be even better as juniors. The secondary suffered major NFL draft losses in Budda Baker and Sidney Jones, and Browning must find a new key target after speedy receiver John Ross declared as well.

    Washington must travel to Stanford and Colorado, but it hosts Utah and Washington State to end the season and doesn't face Southern California, which handed it its only loss last fall. This should be another solid season in Seattle.

    Predicted record: 11-1

3. Southern California

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    Sam Darnold made USC's offense go as a freshman quarterback.
    Sam Darnold made USC's offense go as a freshman quarterback.Harry How/Getty Images

    Southern California's 2016 season is proof that you don't give up on teams in September.

    The Trojans began the year 1-3 with losses to Alabama, Stanford and Utah but ended it on a nine-game win streak that included a win over Washington and a wild Rose Bowl win over Penn State.

    Sam Darnold is poised to make a Heisman Trophy run; his insertion into the starting quarterback role in September got the Trojans rolling.

    USC has a tough opening stretch versus Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas (all at home) and three of the final five games are on the road, including trips to Notre Dame, Arizona State and Colorado.

    Fourteen starters return, but the Trojans must identify playmakers following the departures of JuJu Schuster-Smith and Adoree' Jackson to the NFL draft. This is a College Football Playoff contender.

    Predicted record: 11-1

2. Alabama

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    Jalen Hurts hopes to build on a strong 2016 season as a sophomore.
    Jalen Hurts hopes to build on a strong 2016 season as a sophomore.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Alabama was close, so close, to a repeat national championship. But Hunter Renfrow's touchdown catch with one second left lifted Clemson to a title and left the Crimson Tide stunned.

    Can the Tide return to the mountain top this fall? Never doubt Nick Saban, who has won four national titles in his Tuscaloosa tenure and seeks one for the thumb again. Alabama returns 11 starters, but we've learned that Alabama doesn't rebuild, it reloads with strong recruiting classes.

    Quarterback Jalen Hurts should be even better in his second year as a starter, and Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris form a potent backfield tandem.

    The Tide will open the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with a huge opener against Florida State, and they also travel to Texas A&M and Auburn while hosting Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee. It will be another special season at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

    Predicted record: 12-0

1. Clemson

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    Hunter Renfrow's clutch catch handed Clemson its first national title since 1981.
    Hunter Renfrow's clutch catch handed Clemson its first national title since 1981.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    It took 35 years, but Clemson finally found its way back to the top of the college football world.

    Deshaun Watson's final-play touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow clinched the program's first national title since 1981 in a wild 35-31 victory over Alabama. The Tigers have gone from the hunters, shall we say, to the hunter.

    Clemson returns 12 starters, but it lost Watson (a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist), athletic receiver Mike Williams, wideout Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and speedy back Wayne Gallman to the NFL draft.

    Backup Kelly Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson will compete for the starting quarterback role. Whoever wins will navigate an opening month that features a visit from Auburn and trips to Louisville and Virginia Tech. Florida State will visit on Nov. 11.

    Another College Football Playoff trip is possible, but it won't come easily.

    Predicted record: 10-2

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