11. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford is coming off its fifth 10-win season in six years. Trust the consistency. Bryce Love, who averaged seven yards/carry as a sophomore last year, should soften the blow from losing Christian McCaffrey. The bigger issue will be on defense. Stanford should be solid at the back end. But, they lost disruptive, probable first-rounder Solomon Thomas and a lot of senior depth on the defensive line.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State came out of nowhere in 2016, which is why our formula is doing some brake pumping. Most of the offense besides receiver Chris Godwin returns, including Trace McSorely and standout running back Saquon Barkley. The offensive line, which started three freshmen in the Rose Bowl, should progress. Penn State’s defense brings a veteran core back but loses both starting DEs. We did not knock the Nittany Lions down for McSorely’s trademark home run/salute celebration. But, we should have.
13. Auburn Tigers
Auburn was formidable when they had healthy, stable quarterback play and was feeble when they did not. If the Tigers can get that in 2017, there’s a strong core coming back. Johnson and Pettway return in the backfield. Three of Auburn’s top four receivers were freshmen last year and should improve. The Tigers lose Carl Lawson, but keep most of their strong defense. This team needs a few tweaks, not an overhaul.
14. Miami Hurricanes
Media members will have eight months to talk themselves into Mark Richt and Miami. The hype won’t be entirely unfounded. Miami’s leading rusher and receiver, both underclassmen, return. They bring back a play-making front seven with four players who had 10-plus TFL last year. Two of those were freshmen. Not putting them at FSU/Clemson level, but the Hurricanes should be pretty good if they have a quarterback. That’s still an “if” at this juncture.
15. Texas Longhorns
Charlie Strong thought Texas would be a 10-win team in 2017, with or without him. That’s not inconceivable. Strong recruited well. This was a very young team with freshmen and sophomores throughout the two-deep. The Longhorns have a quarterback to develop in Shane Buechele. He’s now being coached by Tom Herman. If Herman is the coach many believe he is, this team should get rolling from the start, especially against what looks like a soft schedule.
16. Louisville Cardinals
No relevant program needed the 2016 season to end more than Louisville. Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson returns for his third year. Bobby Petrino is calling plays. That and good health will paper over some cracks. The Cardinals defense drops a few veterans but should still be effective. Some concerns on offense where Louisville loses its leading non-Jackson rusher, top three receivers, and three offensive line starters.
17. Florida Gators
Jim McElwain had to relay the foundation of Florida’s offense. We should see some progress in 2017, as the 2016 two-deep was almost entirely freshmen and sophomores. Better quarterback play would be helpful. The bigger trouble may be on defense, where the Gators lose multiple All-American caliber players from what was arguably college football’s best secondary. The defensive foundation Will Muschamp left has been what has carried Florida the past two years.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State should be loaded on offense next year. Mason Rudolph and James Washington opted to come back for their senior years. The Cowboys’ leading rusher was a freshman. Most of the offensive line is back. This team should score some points. There are more concerns on defense, where losing Vincent Taylor won’t help. Fortunately, there are no MAC teams on the schedule. Will Mike Gundy finally got a hair cut?
19. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee was last year’s “throw them in the top 5-10” team. They won eight games. Butch Jones has recruited well. The Vols have talent to work with despite losing Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, and the best player from each phase of the defense. This team should still be at least among the SEC East favorites. That said, Tennessee has still not hired an offensive coordinator. Butch Jones is clearly on the hot seat. The flux makes it hard to expect much from this team.
20. Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech bounced back to 10 wins in year one under Justin Fuente. But, they may not close the rest of the gap to the ACC contenders in 2017. That “Bud Foster” defense has a lot of young playmakers coming back. Though the Hokies’ offense takes a hit. Star QB Jerod Evans, two of his best receivers, and the entire right side of the line will not return.
21. Utah Utes
Another “trust the consistency” pick. The Utes lose a lot on the defensive line, but should still be strong, physical, and solid throughout. But, upperclassmen must step forward on offense. Utah loses most of the offensive line, their best rusher Joe Williams, and their best receiver Tim Patrick. Utah will need a great leap forward from senior QB Troy Williams. Win a game they shouldn’t. Lose a game they shouldn’t. Finish just off the Pac 12 South title. Sounds about right.
22. Texas A&M Aggies
Oh, Texas A&M. Kevin Sumlin may have the hottest seat. It’s not clear he has a quarterback. The offense has standouts with Trayveon Williams and Christian Kirk. No burdensome questions about how they could possibly not be using their receiver depth, as it is departing for the NFL. The defense as a whole may coalesce more, and not be much better losing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall up front. Expect the team to start hot and be ranked in the Top 10 by Bama time and probably not finish.
23. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss had a brutal schedule, two brutal losses after taking leads against FSU and Alabama, a brutal finish with Chad Kelly going down, and could be in for a brutal offseason with NCAA sanctions looming. That said, this was a Top 10-ish team the two previous seasons. There should be some bounceback. A highly-touted young QB Shea Patterson and a bevy of receivers who stepped forward as freshmen last year is a good place for Hugh Freeze to start.
24. West Virginia Mountaineers
After a suspension and a transfer from Florida, Will Grier is eligible to return. That should soften the blow of losing Skyler Howard. He and Dana Holgorsen have a number of skill players returning to make offense with. However, last year’s senior-laden defense could take a step backward. The Mountaineers also face a tougher Big 12 schedule with five conference road games.
25. Boise State Broncos
Boise State hung on to head coach Bryan Harsin, whose name came up for Minnesota and other jobs. Quarterback Brett Rypien is back for his junior year, after averaging 9.3 yards/att as a sophomore. Losing Jeremy McNichols (1709 yards, 23 touchdowns) complicates matters. So does losing their top receiver and three fifth-year offensive line starters.