Let’s look ahead to 2018, where hope springs eternal.
#1 Alabama: Nick Saban doesn’t rebuild, he reloads. Win or lose, he’ll be on to next year after tonight’s final whistle. The Tide will funnel gross talent into the NFL draft and replace it with another wave of playmakers. All Jalen Hurts has done in his two years is play in two national title games. If he falls off, Tua Tagovailoa is waiting in the wings. Don’t overthink it. Alabama is the top dog until proven otherwise.
#2 Clemson: Kelly Bryant was not Deshaun Watson and that proved to be a fatal flaw. He did, however, get a year of seasoning and show competence. The Tigers lose top-line defensive talent in Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell. But Dabo Swinney has shown in recent years that he, like Saban, has no problem fielding a blue-chip next man up.
#3 Ohio State: J.T. Barrett leaves Columbus after what feels like 17 years of success. Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell will duel for the starting job. Either winner will have a stable of offensive playmakers at their disposal. Running back Mike Weber is leaning toward returning, along with J.K. Dobbins. The Buckeyes could lose many starters from the defense, though Nick Bosa will continue to wreak havoc.
#4 Wisconsin: The Badgers’ only blemish this year was a one-score nail-biter against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. They fought for, but never truly earned national respect. Next year could be a similar story. Ten of 11 offensive starters return, including standout running back Jonathan Taylor. Three All-Americans provide the Midwestern beef on the offensive line. Alex Hornibrook, for all the questions, is 20-3 as a starter. T.J. Edwards anchors a defense that’s allowed 14.4 points/game over the last three years. Paul Chryst has a system and it’s working.
#5 Georgia: Jake Fromm wasn’t supposed to be The Guy. Now he is. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb will be off to follow Todd Gurley’s footsteps in the NFL. The nation’s premier class is en route. Kirby Smart’s cupboard is nowhere near bare.
#6 Penn State: Yes, the nation’s best player, Saquon Barkley is going to the pros. Quarterback Trace McSorley, the living embodiment of Brett Favre, is not. The Nittany Lions have come perilously close to playing in the last two College Football Playoffs. Perhaps 2018 is the year they break through.
#7 Auburn: Gus Malzahn loves to run the ball. Jarrett Stidham and the departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway may bring a more pass-friendly offense. The fact that Malzahn is returning to The Plains is a sign he thinks the Tigers can win 10-plus games again next season.
#8 Miami: The Hurricanes’ title hopes evaporated quickly down the stretch but Mark Richt’s team appears ahead of schedule. This year’s lumps could pay dividends next year. Malik Rosier is back. Braxton Berrios’ belly shirt is not.
#10 Washington: Jake Browning, who has been in Seattle forever, is somehow back. He is competent and efficient, but the Huskies win with hard-nosed defense and a potent running attack. Myles Gaskin could explore the draft — but if he doesn’t — watch out.
#11 Michigan State: The Spartans defied expectations in 2017 while fielding a day care center. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is further along at this point of his career than both Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook were. L.J. Scott is returning and could see 850 carries. A stable of young receiving talent and overachieving defense will have Mark Dantonio smiling.
#13 LSU: Coach O will have an athletic defense and an unproven offense. Look for Devin White to have a huge year and the Tigers to be a physical challenge.
#14 Stanford: Bryce Love’s status is unknown. If he opts for another year in Palo Alto, be prepared to rewrite all the record books. Cameron Scarlett is a capable stand-in if not. David Shaw’s offense may be further along than his defense for a change.
#15 Oklahoma State: Mason Rudolph and favorite target James Washington’s production will be impossible to replicate. On the bright side, running back Justice Hill is a monster and Mike Gundy is a brilliant offensive mind.
#18 Michigan: Shea Patterson is the next savior up for the Wolverines. If he is granted immediate eligibility, he’ll be a great bonus for an offense that struggled. It’s a huge year for Jim Harbaugh, who needs his defensive playmakers like Rashan Gary to continue their excellence.
#19 Central Florida: Magic was captured in 2017. Scott Frost rode it all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is a playmaker and the bar has been set. Looking forward to another great season, this time with high expectations.
#21 Virginia Tech: Josh Jackson showed flashes during a stellar freshman campaign. Bud Foster’s scheme is an anchor.
#23 Florida State: Putting this disastrous year in the rearview will be a welcome activity in Tallahassee. Willie Taggart still has copious talent to work with and a newfound hunger.
#24 Oregon: The Ducks were a good team with Justin Herbert running the offense and a poor one without him. His health is of paramount importance — should he stay upright, look for a rebound.
#25 Texas: Ah, yes. Ranking the Longhorns preseason, a tradition unlike any other. Considering the law of averages, one time this will look brilliant in hindsight.