Projecting College Football Preseason Top 25 at the Start of Fall Camp
College football's fall camps are coming, and the preseason AP Top 25 won't be far behind. We're under a month away from finding out where each team will (or won't) open the season in the poll, but it's already a foregone conclusion that Alabama will be in the top spot.
Beyond the Crimson Tide, though, the possible permutations are almost endless.
Read enough tea leaves and offseason articles, and compare that information to preseason polls of years past, and you should be able to make a good guess at the AP Top 25 before it is announced. I had the correct 25 teams when I wrote this piece last summer, so there's at least some semblance of science to this process.
If correct, there will be five Big Ten teams in the top 11 spots, but the SEC takes the cake with a total of six teams in the Top 25. Elsewhere in the power five, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are each projected for four spot in the Top 25. Notre Dame and Boise State fill in the remaining gaps.
Also considered: Florida, Texas A&M, UCF, Florida Atlantic, Kansas State
No. 25 South Carolina—No. 21 West Virginia
25. South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks have been curiously absent from most of the way-too-early/offseason top-25 rankings, but maybe that's just because they haven't appeared in the AP Top 25 since September 2014. Or maybe it's because some people forgot that Deebo Samuel is returning from injury to an offense getting back most of its starters. Either way, South Carolina has the makings of a team that will gain some traction in the national conversation throughout fall camp.
24. Oregon Ducks
Justin Herbert broke his collarbone last season, but Oregon's quarterback is one of the top candidates for the Heisman if he can stay healthy throughout this campaign. Despite losing star RB Royce Freeman from a team that lost six games in 2017, Herbert's presence at QB should be enough for the Ducks to get a fair amount of preseason love.
23. Boise State Broncos
Boise State has two massive holes to fill, left by WR Cedrick Wilson and LB Leighton Vander Esch, but the Broncos are in great shape to be the top Group of Five team in 2018. Brett Rypien is back for his fourth season as starting quarterback, and Alexander Mattison returns after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and a dozen touchdowns as a sophomore.
22. LSU Tigers
LSU has been in every preseason AP poll since 2001, but this would be the Tigers' worst initial ranking during that time. They are almost always in the top 15, but they've got a lot to prove after losing all of their best pass-rushers on defense and just about all of the skill-position players on offense. Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles could be a major difference-maker in the receiving game.
21. West Virginia Mountaineers
If you're a fan of college football games in which even the losing squad scores at least 35 points, West Virginia is your official 2018 bandwagon team. Led by Will Grier, David Sills V and Gary Jennings, the Mountaineers should have one of the most potent offenses in the nation. But the defense lost the two leading tacklers from a unit that was already allowing 31.5 points per game.
No. 20 Texas—No. 16 Virginia Tech
20. Texas Longhorns
Can Texas establish a running game after part-time QB Sam Ehlinger led the team in rushing yards in 2017? And can the defense possibly remain as potent after losing Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott? Year No. 2 under Tom Herman should go better than the first, but it's a little surprising that the Longhorns are getting so much offseason respect, considering they haven't won 10 or more games in a season since 2009.
19. USC Trojans
The Trojans are the biggest wild card in the preseason picture. This is arguably a top-five roster in terms of pure talent and athleticism, but there's also a gigantic question mark at quarterback with Sam Darnold out of the picture. True freshman JT Daniels is probably the best man for the job, and USC has a legitimate College Football Playoff pulse if he immediately pans out. If not, the Trojans may struggle to even become bowl-eligible.
18. Florida State Seminoles
The one-two punch of Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick combined for nearly 1,800 rushing yards, just under 300 receiving yards and 15 combined touchdowns last season, and they're both back for another year. Florida State has plenty of options in the passing game, too. The big question is on defense, but we'll be spending a lot of time talking about the 'Noles if former 5-star recruits Marvin Wilson, Joshua Kaindoh and Levonta Taylor are ready for the spotlight on D.
17. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU has won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons, but the Horned Frogs lost more than half of their starters from last year. At this point, AP voters will likely give Gary Patterson the benefit of the doubt in the form of a top-20 ranking, and we'll find out in a hurry if this particular roster is worthy of that praise. TCU has tough games away from home against Ohio State and Texas in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively.
16. Virginia Tech Hokies
Similar to its ranking Texas No. 20, the AP is likely to list the Hokies too high. Virginia Tech's defensive line should be solid, but this group was gutted by offseason departures at linebacker and in the secondary. The Hokies also lost star receiver Cam Phillips, and this rushing attack hasn't averaged better than 4.1 yards per carry since 2011. Josh Jackson did a nice job as a redshirt freshman QB last year, but he wasn't even on the Sporting News' list of the top 25 quarterbacks for 2018. The Hokies ought to be good, but "preseason top 20" good?
No. 15 Notre Dame—No. 11 Penn State
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame's offense is going to look a lot different without Josh Adams running behind Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. The Fighting Irish still have Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book at quarterback, though, and they get back the vast majority of a defense that held opponents to 21.5 points per game. A tough schedule might keep them out of the CFP conversation, but let's just say no one is expecting a regression to the 4-8 record from two seasons ago.
14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The schedule—at Alabama, LSU, Kansas State and Ole Miss; home against Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M—is downright brutal, but it seems like everyone is buying Mississippi State and new head coach Joe Moorhead as the one team beyond the CFP favorites that could mess around and compete for the national championship. If Nick Fitzgerald makes a full recovery from the devastating ankle injury he suffered last November, the Bulldogs will certainly have the talent to compete with anyone.
13. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford is loaded with question marks on defense after losing arguably the three best players (Harrison Phillips, Justin Reid and Quenton Meeks) from a unit that allowed more than 400 yards from scrimmage per game. However, the return of Heisman frontrunner Bryce Love means the expectations for this offense are the highest they have been since Andrew Luck's final season. Whether it's K.J. Costello or Davis Mills at quarterback, the Cardinal just need a quality game manager in order to compete for the Pac-12 title.
12. Auburn Tigers
Jarrett Stidham might be the best quarterback in the nation this season, but Auburn's title hopes will hinge on his blockers and his ball-carriers. The Tigers lost four starters on the offensive line, as well as RB tandem Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. If the run game fails to exceed expectations, games away from home against Washington, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama might all be losses.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions
Miles Sanders and incoming freshman receiver Justin Shorter should keep the offense from falling to pieces sans Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, but how will the defense fare after losing nine starters? Penn State was among the best in the nation on that side of the field last season, allowing just 16.5 points per game. If that number creeps up into the mid 20s as a result of the roster turnover, the Nittany Lions could struggle in the loaded Big Ten East.
10. Michigan State Spartans
2017 Season: 10-3 (Won Holiday Bowl)
Last year, the Georgia Bulldogs got back most of their starters on both offense and defense from a team that went 8-5 the prior season. Thanks in large part to that cohesion, they were one of the most improved teams in the country, falling just short of winning a national championship.
Why bring that up in regard to Michigan State, you ask?
Well, because the Spartans bring back 19 starters from a team that went 10-3 with monumental wins over Michigan and Penn State. And while keeping a roster mostly intact doesn't automatically mean improvement, it's a whole heck of a lot more likely than it would be for a team that's replacing 19 starters. (Cut to Michigan Wolverines fans grimly nodding in remembrance of last season.)
To be fair, those returning starters weren't exactly the cream of the Big Ten crop last year. The only one voted first-team all-conference by either the coaches or the media at the end of 2017 was David Dowell, and the sophomore safety only got that recognition because all five of his interceptions came against either Michigan (two), Penn State (two) or Ohio State.
That isn't to say talent is lacking on this roster. It's just talent that isn't yet well-known at a national level. But dual-threat QB Brian Lewerke deserves that type of recognition. Same goes for senior wide receiver Felton Davis III and junior linebacker Joe Bachie. Now that the Spartans will be opening the season as the hunted, more people will know those names soon enough.
Michigan State has a tough road game against Penn State in mid-October, but this is the most favorable schedule among the four teams vying for the Big Ten East title. The Spartans do not have to face Wisconsin or Iowa, and they get both Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing. Protecting home turf against those teams won't be easy, but one doesn't need to squint that hard to see a potential 11-1 record and a Big Ten championship appearance.
9. Michigan Wolverines
2017 Season: 8-5 (Lost Outback Bowl)
It's year No. 4 of the Jim Harbaugh experience in Michigan, and expectations are sky high.
He gets a mulligan for last year. The Wolverines simply lost too much talent to be able to repeat what they accomplished in 2016—and that was before the entire QB depth chart got devoured by the injury bug. Harbaugh brought in an outstanding recruiting class in 2017, but that young, raw talent was nowhere near enough to replace Jabrill Peppers, Amara Darboh and Co.
But now that Donovan Peoples-Jones and the rest of that class have had more than a year to get their feet wet...
And now that former No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary is a fully grown man ready to devour opposing offensive lines...
And now that Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is eligible and ready to become this program's most talented quarterback since (at least) 2007 when it had both Chad Henne and Ryan Mallett on the roster...
Watch out, college football world.
Michigan has arrived.
No. 9 is a conservative estimate for where the Wolverines will open the season in the AP poll, simply because you almost never see a team go from unranked in the final poll of one year to ranked in the top five to begin the next one. Michigan should get a few top-five votes, though, and it ought to sneak into the top 10 with a little room to spare.
But, mercy, this team has a tough schedule. In addition to conference games at home against Penn State and Wisconsin and on the road against Michigan State and Ohio State, the Wolverines open the regular season with a road game against Notre Dame. That's five games against projected preseason top-15 opponents. There has not yet been a two-loss team selected for the College Football Playoff, but the Wolverines sure will have a case if they fit that description this December.
8. Miami Hurricanes
2017 Season: 10-3 (Lost Orange Bowl)
The incredible thing about the season that will forever be remembered for its turnover chain is that the Hurricanes did it a year ahead of schedule while enduring several should-have-ruined-their-season injuries.
In 2016, Mark Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns and Ahmmon Richards had more than 900 receiving yards as a freshman. Both guys were preseason all-ACC first-team selections, but neither one had anything close to a healthy season. Walton only lasted five games, and Richards battled hamstring, ankle and knee injuries all year.
Walton's injury paved the way for Travis Homer to shine at running back and also forced QB Malik Rosier to shoulder more of the offensive load. They'll both be challenged in fall camp by freshmen—Lorenzo Lingard for Homer and N'Kosi Perry for Rosier—but that's a nice problem for Miami to need to figure out. Whichever way the 'Canes go with those battles, with a presumed-healthy Richards back in the fold, this offense could be much better than last year.
And get ready to see a lot of Manny Diaz's gold brainchild once again, because most of the turnover-forcing pieces of this defense are back for another rodeo. Clemson clearly has the best defensive line in the ACC, but Miami might have the best collection of both linebackers and defensive backs, led by Shaquille Quarterman and Jaquan Johnson.
The schedule isn't particularly daunting, either. The 'Canes open the season with a neutral-site, Sunday night game against LSU, but if they can come away from that one with a win, there's a decent chance they start out 10-0 for a second straight year.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
2017 Season: 12-2 (Reached College Football Playoff)
Baker Mayfield may be gone, but the Sooners are still in great shape to make their third trip to the College Football Playoff in four years.
It's unclear at this point whether Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall will win the now-vacant quarterback job, but that starter is going to be surrounded by talent.
Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon both averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry and combined for 1,905 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and both running backs return for the Big 12 favorites. Oklahoma also still has wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, which might be the best duo of wideouts in the entire country. The offensive line is also intact from last year, although replacing Orlando Brown will be no simple task.
If this team is going to have problems, they will most likely arise on the defensive end.
Oklahoma's D was already less than stellar, and it lost at least one of the most important players from all three levels. Defensive end D.J. Ward ranked second on the team in both sacks and tackles for loss as a senior. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was No. 1 in both categories by a wide margin, and both he and leading tackler Emmanuel Beal are gone from the linebacking corps. And defensive backs Steven Parker and William Johnson will be missed in the secondary.
Even if the defense is a little worse than last year, and even if the offense takes a step backward without Mayfield, this is still clearly the team to beat in the Big 12. That doesn't mean the Sooners will be able to moonwalk through the season, though. Games away from home against Iowa State, Texas, TCU and West Virginia will all be significant challenges. But the Sooners have won at least 10 games in 15 of the last 18 seasons and ought to do so again.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
2017 Season: 13-1 (Won Orange Bowl)
There was no bigger breakout sensation in 2017 than Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. Rated by 247Sports as the 28th-best running back in last year's recruiting class, the true freshman dominated to the tune of 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the process, he became the first freshman to rush for at least 1,810 yards in a season since Adrian Peterson in 2004.
All five starters on the offensive line are also back for the almost-undefeated Badgers. In fact, the only starter that Wisconsin lost on offense was tight end Troy Fumagalli. That's a tough loss, since he led the team in both receptions and receiving yards, but there are several other tight ends on the roster who could take a step forward to fill that void.
There is one big unknown on offense, though, and that's whether good Alex Hornibrook or bad Alex Hornibrook is going to show up more often at quarterback.
Between the Orange Bowl against Miami and the regular season games against BYU, Utah State and Minnesota, Hornibrook completed 75 percent of his pass attempts and threw 14 touchdowns without an interception. Excellent stuff. But in the marquee battles with Michigan and Ohio State, he combined for one touchdown and three interceptions and had a sub-48 completion percentage in each game. Not so excellent.
But Good Hornibrook could lead Wisconsin to a national championship, even though it needs to replace a ton of starters on defense. Leading tacklers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards are back, as is safety D'Cota Dixon. Every other spot in the starting lineup is changing hands, which could get a little messy. But Wisconsin has had one of the stingiest defenses in the nation in each of the last three seasons. At this point, we almost have to trust that the Badgers will figure out a way to more than hold their own on that side of the field.
Wisconsin is the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten West, even with road games against Penn State and Michigan on the docket. Assuming the Badgers can get to the Big Ten championship once again, they'll have a shot at the College Football Playoff.
5. Washington Huskies
2017 Season: 10-3 (Lost Fiesta Bowl)
Washington has become a defensive powerhouse under Chris Petersen. Three years ago, the Huskies gave up 18.8 points per game. They got that number down to 17.7 in the process of reaching the College Football Playoff in 2016. And last year, they kicked it up another notch by allowing just 16.1 points per game. Heck, it wasn't until the eighth game of the season that they allowed more than 16 points in any contest.
Expect more of the same, thanks to what might be the best secondary in the nation.
Washington gets back all five starters from a unit that gave up just 10 passing touchdowns all year. And that includes the three letdowns at the end of the season. Through the first 10 games, the Huskies allowed just five passing touchdowns and 155.9 passing yards per game. And with former Pac-12 QBs Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Luke Falk all now out of the league, this secondary could look better than ever.
There's plenty of firepower on offense for Washington, too. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin both return for the rarely seen QB-RB duo of four-year starters. There's also Salvon Ahmed, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a freshman and who should now be the primary backup. Both he and Gaskin will be running behind one of the better offensive lines in the country.
The big unknown here is the receiving corps. Two years removed from dominating through the air with John Ross and Dante Pettis, Washington's most noteworthy returnee is probably tight end Hunter Bryant—and he only had 22 receptions for 331 yards and one touchdown last year. But perhaps Chico McClatcher can return from injury for the type of breakout campaign we were expecting in 2017. Or maybe incoming freshman Marquis Spiker will be able to make a major immediate impact.
If either of those things happens, Washington could be almost unstoppable in what is otherwise a rather lackluster Pac-12.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
2017 Season: 12-2 (Won Cotton Bowl)
Is Dwayne Haskins ready to lead this team to the promised land?
Everywhere else on the roster, Ohio State has the makings of a title team. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber should be the best running back duo in the country. And with the exception of tight end Marcus Baugh, the Buckeyes get back all 10 players who made at least 10 receptions last season. They also got to keep most of their offensive linemen, although, replacing Billy Price will take some time.
On defense, they'll be anchored by the potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft, Nick Bosa. He and Chase Young are going to cause constant problems for opposing offensive lines. And though Ohio State lost Damon Webb and Denzel Ward from the secondary, the defensive backfield is loaded with all-conference potential, per usual. Linebacker is a bit of a concern, but if Tuf Borland is able to recover from the Achilles injury he suffered in March, the Buckeyes should be better than fine in that department.
Thus, if Haskins is the answer at quarterback after four years of J.T. Barrett holding down the job, Ohio State is the Big Ten's best shot at a national championship.
Given how well Haskins played against Michigan last year in relief of an injured Barrett, there's plenty of cause for optimism. Still, we're talking about a redshirt sophomore who has only played about 20 meaningful minutes thus far in his career. Nothing is guaranteed.
And the schedule isn't exactly a walk in the park. Ohio State has road games against Penn State and Michigan State, a "neutral" game against TCU in Texas and the regular-season finale at home against Michigan. Among the four favorites to reach the College Football Playoff, this is the most difficult schedule, and it's not even close.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
2017 Season: 13-2 (Reached National Championship)
Georgia was no one-hit wonder in the College Football Playoff. In fact, looking at the combination of talent on the roster and the lack of difficulty on the schedule, the Bulldogs appear to be the most likely team to go 12-0 during the regular season.
Let's flip the script from the previous six teams and start out with the schedule. As far as legitimate challenges go, Georgia has true road games against LSU and South Carolina, a "neutral" game against Florida in Jacksonville and a home game against Auburn. Any one of those contests could end the dream of a perfect season, but the Dawgs should be favored by at least a touchdown in every game leading up to the presumed SEC championship showdown with Alabama.
On the roster front, five straight years of top-eight recruiting classes has Georgia well-positioned to withstand a significant amount of attrition.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both graduated, leaving Kirby Smart without either half of last year's dynamic running back duo. But there are options upon options for replacing them, beginning with D'Andre Swift, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry as a true freshman. Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield, Zamir White and James Cook will all be in the mix for touches behind an offensive line that retained four of its starters.
At quarterback, Georgia is in the enviable position of needing to choose between the guy who led the team to the brink of a national championship as a freshman (Jake Fromm) and the incoming freshman rated as the No. 2 overall player in this year's class (Justin Fields), per 247Sports' composite rankings. It's a tough decision that will inevitably be questioned at the first sign of adversity, but there's no wrong answer with those options.
The defense is more of a question mark than the offense, as the Bulldogs need to replace one of the best individual players in the nation (LB Roquan Smith) and seven other starters. Again, there's no shortage of talent on the roster, but that's quite a change in experience after bringing back 10 defensive starters from the previous season.
Once those younger guys get up to speed, though, Georgia's defense could be just as stingy as it was this past season.
2. Clemson Tigers
2017 Season: 12-2 (Reached College Football Playoff)
Alabama might be the unanimous No. 1 team when the first AP poll is released, but Clemson is just as deserving of that honor.
That's largely because the Tigers have one of the best defensive lines in the history of college football. Dabo Swinney signed two of the best defensive ends in this year's class (Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry), but they're barely going to see the field as true freshmen with Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins all returning.
Clemson was already tied for the national lead in sacks last year, and now that unit is one year older, wiser and stronger. The Tigers should eclipse four sacks per game with room to spare.
And that's just one piece of the puzzle. The back seven of the defense should also be rock solid with the likes of Tre Lamar, Kendall Joseph, Tanner Muse and Trayvon Mullen returning.
Clemson has an abundance of talent at all of the skill positions on offense, including a quarterback battle between senior Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence that will likely linger for the entire season. Leading rushers Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster are both back, as is slot receiver Hunter Renfrow for what feels like the eighth year.
And look for Tee Higgins to have a breakout year at wide receiver, possibly becoming the best at that position in the ACC as a sophomore. Freshman Derion Kendrick could make some noise, as well.
With the possible exception of the road tilt against Florida State in late October, Clemson ought to be heavily favored in every regular-season game. Barring a rash of devastating injuries, the Tigers should be headed to the CFP for a fourth consecutive year.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2017 Season: 13-1 (Won National Championship)
Alabama has been ranked in the Top Three in eight consecutive preseason AP Top 25 polls, and you can take it to the bank that the reigning national champions will be in the No. 1 spot this fall.
An awful lot of time and energy has been spent debating whether Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa should be the starting quarterback, but one thing that can't be argued is that the offense is overflowing with talent.
Even with Bo Scarbrough leaving for the NFL, the Crimson Tide still have Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson Jr. at running back—each of which averaged better than six yards per carry in 2017. And the sophomore trio of Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy will give either Hurts or Tagovailoa a plethora of excellent receiving targets. The offense also gets back four of the five starting offensive linemen, most notably left tackle Jonah Williams.
The defense is less of a sure thing with so many starters to replace, but come on, when in the past decade has that ever been a problem for Nick Saban? Yes, the entire starting secondary departed and Da'Ron Payne is a big loss on the D-line, but Alabama hasn't given up more than 18.4 points per game in a season since 2007. And it's not like this is the first time the Crimson Tide have lost at least a half-dozen starters on defense.
Even if the defense does take a slight step backward, this might be the most gifted offense of this dynastic run. It can pick up some of the slack by scoring more than 40 points per game.
As far as the schedule goes, Alabama will be in the same position as both Clemson and Georgia: favored in every game it plays at least until the conference championship. The only potential Top 10 team Alabama draws during the regular season is the home game against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. A road game against LSU and a home game against Mississippi State are the only other contests against likely Top 25 foes. So the streak of seasons with at least 11 wins should extend to eight.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.