The Problems is happy to be back for another season of second-guessing voters and committees. We have only one SEC team in the top 11 of the opening AP poll (gasp!), while the Big Ten has four such teams - despite it being the same upper echelon that was exposed during postseason play in 2016. Don’t worry though, there are four SEC squads ranked between 12 and 17 ready to presumably skyrocket up the poll with one decent early-season win. The ACC has a nice smattering of teams present, piggybacking somewhat off its banner year a season ago. South Florida is the only Group of Five representative, and few others managed to even receive votes. There are also some big-name programs with new head coaches to add intrigue to an already interesting season. Let’s dive in:
With no clear-cut No. 1 team entering the season, nobody is surprised to see the Crimson Tide as the de facto choice for what seems like the 10th year in a row. The offense has weaponry at its disposal and should be formidable (even though a quarterback controversy could emerge), but the defense may actually be the relative question mark for once. Of course there is always top-shelf talent waiting in the wings, but I don’t know that we have ever seen Alabama incur this level of attrition, given the incredible abilities of the departed Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, et al. There will be little time for trial and error because Bama has a titanic showdown with No. 3 Florida State to highlight the season’s first week.
2. Ohio State
It’s easy to scoff at Ohio State’s ranking given its most recent appearance on the field, but this team has talent and experience all over the place and really should be the class of the Big Ten. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is an excellent addition and should be able to cure the woes that plagued the Buckeyes’ offense late in the 2016 season.
3. Florida State
Hopes are high in Tallahassee that it’s the Seminoles’ year to end Clemson’s two-year stranglehold on the ACC and navigate their way to the Playoff for the first time since 2014. They are plenty good at quarterback with Deondre Francois, but can an offensive line that was dreadful a season ago keep him from getting killed? Fortunately the offense doesn’t need to be incredible, because the defense should be one of the nation’s best. The one-two punch of Jacques Patrick and freshman phenom Cam Akers will do their best to fill the shoes of Dalvin Cook at running back. We won’t have to wait long to see what FSU is made of, as they square off with Alabama to open the season.
The Sam Darnold hype train is at full steam entering the season, but it’s deserved based on his 2016 performance as a redshirt freshman. People forget how well the Trojans played down the stretch after an inauspicious 1-3 start - winning nine games in a row and even garnering reckless Playoff inclusion claims from people who don’t understand how the Playoff works. I actually like the Trojans to win the Pac 12 thanks to Darnold’s ability and a manageable schedule.
This is a pretty fair ranking for the Tigers considering the numerous losses on offense and the uncertainty at the quarterback position. If Kelly Bryant (or somebody else) proves viable as a signal caller early, a return to the Playoff is certainly not out of the question. The defense has the potential to be one of the best Clemson has fielded under Brent Venables, and the first-string defensive line (or the whole front seven, for that matter) is about as good as you can find in college football this season. Clemson’s September slate includes three top-25 teams, so they will need to use the opener against Kent State to its maximum utility.
6. Penn State
Penn State was a bit of a revelation last season when it came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten title and finish just one spot outside the CFP field. While the program is clearly trending upward under James Franklin’s direction, I think they will likely play second fiddle to Ohio State in the Big Ten East this season and lose at least two games. I expect them to be relevant in the conference once again but think they will finish outside the top 10. Saquon Barkley is one of the best running backs in the country, but I don’t think Trace McSorley - while certainly a gamer - is a national championship caliber quarterback.
Bob Stoops’ retirement caught people by surprise, but Oklahoma was more than willing to hand the keys over to 33-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. As usual, the Sooners are as good a bet as anybody to win the Big XII, although the conference feels wide open this season. Baker Mayfield is back for an eighth year at quarterback, but they will have to replace the two-headed monster of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield.
The Huskies return a star passer and rusher in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, respectively, and a very good receiver in Dante Pettis. All this is to say the Huskies shouldn’t suffer much of a drop-off from a season ago offensively. The issue is they lost some serious defensive clout, and with Stanford and arch-rival Washington State residing in the same division, the sailing may not be as smooth as it was last season in the Pac 12.
Wisconsin seems to always be hanging around, and this could be the year the Badgers take a step toward true national prominence. The number one reason? An incredibly friendly schedule that features just one contest against a preseason top-25 opponent: a home date with overrated Michigan. There are some other teams to keep an eye on in the Big Ten West, but this season should be considered a failure if Sconny doesn’t reach the Big Ten title game for the fifth time in seven seasons.
10. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys’ offense should be as explosive as it has ever been with potential Heisman candidate Mason Rudolph at quarterback. Oklahoma State is certainly a threat to win the Big XII, and many people believe their could be a Bedlam rematch with the Sooners in the conference’s contrived championship game. I, for one, am hoping the conference’s insertion of a championship game backfires and keeps them from having a Playoff participant, but that’s a story for another day.
Far be it from me to question the almighty Jim Harbaugh, but I think a team that returns five total starters is more than a bit overvalued at No. 11. Of course, at the rate Florida is suspending players, Michigan may get a free high-profile win over the Gators in Week One.
Auburn’s fate this season, not unlike Clemson, rests on the capabilities of a new quarterback. Most think Jarrett Stidham will be a welcome addition to Gus Malzahn’s offense, and if he plays as advertised, the Tigers could be very dangerous.
Derrius Guice may be the best running back in the nation (I believe he is), and the addition of Matt Canada as coordinator should be a shot in the arm for a program whose offense has been about as uninventive as you could imagine for the past several years. The defense should be salty as usual, with edge rusher Arden Key being the premier player to watch. Let the Coach O era begin.
Stanford jumps into the thick of Pac 12 play early with a road trip to No. 4 USC on Sept. 9 - the beginning of a tough road slate that also features Utah and Washington State. We know the Cardinal will always be competitive, but can they supplant Washington and hold off Washington State to regain control of the Pac 12 North?
High praise for a team coming off a 7-5 season, but the Dawgs may honestly be the favorite in the SEC East. Jacob Eason certainly took some lumps as a freshman quarterback, but having a revitalized Nick Chubb to hand the ball to should help him in trying to improve as a sophomore.
The losses for Louisville were numerous on both sides of the ball, but returning a reigning Heisman winner can make up for a lot of shortcomings - especially when it’s a player as dynamic as Lamar Jackson. The biggest question: Can the offensive line hold up? Louisville faded down the stretch last season as teams realized they could blitz Jackson mercilessly with little resistance.
Florida as won back-to-back SEC East crowns (whatever that’s worth) but really hasn’t been a threat on the national stage since the days of Tim Tebow. It’s hard to expect any massive leap from the Gators this year, especially considering that they are on pace to virtually forfeit their season opener against Michigan via mass suspension.
Miami is back, folks! Maybe. The Hurricanes look to build on Mark Richt’s good, if odd, debut season in which the team won its first four games, lost four games in a row, then won its last five games. Most think it will be a Miami-Virginia Tech battle for the ACC Coastal, with maybe a Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh also making noise. Of course, as history has taught us: We have absolutely no idea what will happen in the Coastal.
19. South Florida
Charlie Strong landed on his feet after being fired from Texas and inherits a USF team that has a real chance at an undefeated season. Quinton Flowers is a phenomenal talent at quarterback and even a darkhorse Heisman candidate.
20. Kansas State
Do not sleep on this team. Kansas State should be the most physical team in the Big XII, and there is plenty to like about senior dual-threat quarterback Jesse Ertz. It should be a true three-horse race for the conference title between the Wildcats and the Oklahoma schools.
21. Virginia Tech
Perhaps a little high given the head-scratching departure of Jerod Evans, but Justin Fuente certainly has the Hokies pointed in the right direction. They will still be a factor in the ACC.
22. West Virginia
The Mountaineers’ inclusion in the top 25 is truly baffling. They lost a TON from last year’s team, but apparently transfer quarterback Will Grier (famous for his Florida PED suspension) is the savior to render those losses meaningless.
Tom Herman is great and everything, but this team went 5-7 last season. Prove it to me first.
24. Washington State
If the Cougars could just beat their season-opening FCS opponent for once, they might have what it takes to make some noise.
Nice to see the Champions of Life make the cut for a week before they lose to Georgia Tech and never return.