Our preseason power rankings envision another Alabama vs. Clemson title game matchup, as the Tide and Tigers occupy the top two spots in our top 25.
So how’d we do? Since the first games are still a few weeks away, we assembled a roundtable of ESPN writers Andrea Adelson, Edward Aschoff, Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg and Jake Trotter to take a long look at the rankings and see what might change by the season’s end.
Which team is ranked too high?
Andrea Adelson: Virginia Tech. Justin Fuente has done a terrific job in his first two years with the Hokies, but this season could be his most difficult yet considering the talent they have to replace their top receiver, plus four of their five leading tacklers. Depth is a concern across much of the roster, leaving the Hokies with plenty of questions to answer before the opener against Florida State.
Edward Aschoff: I’m torn between Auburn and Virginia Tech. While I don’t think Auburn finishes in the top 10, I’m not sure Virginia Tech is a top-25 team this season. Those losses on defense are just going to be so hard to overcome. Only four defensive starters are back on an already young defense. Just looking at the schedule today, I can see four losses that would bounce the Hokies out of the top 25.
Chris Low: Michigan. The Wolverines return just about everybody on a defense that was downright nasty a year ago, and that’s always a good place to start. But there’s a ton of pressure on transfer quarterback Shea Patterson to pump some life into a stagnant passing game, and an even bigger concern is a brutal schedule that includes road trips to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State plus home games against Penn State and Wisconsin.
Adam Rittenberg: Virginia Tech. Head coach Justin Fuente and defensive coordinator Bud Foster are among the best at what they do, but I just don’t see it with this Hokies team. The NFL draft certainly took its toll on the roster, as well as other offseason issues. Quarterback Josh Jackson is still there but I don’t know who makes plays around him. The defense lacks alpha dogs other than Ricky Walker. This simply isn’t a top-15 team right now.
Jake Trotter: Jarrett Stidham is one of the top quarterbacks in the country. But what Auburn has — or doesn’t have — returning in front of him is why the Tigers are ranked too high. Auburn’s offensive line collectively claims only 40 career starts. That ranks 114th in the country, according to ESPN’s Phil Steele. If the Tigers struggle to protect Stidham — and run the ball — they could be in for a tough year facing a brutal schedule.
Which team outside the top 15 is most likely to make the CFP?
Adelson: Texas. This might be a pie-in-the-sky expectation for the Longhorns, but they should be better this year, especially on offense. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has some key departures that he has to fill, most notably Malik Jefferson and Poona Ford, but the talent is there. And the schedule is favorable, too.
Aschoff: USC is going to be an interesting team. Yes, a quarterback who should still be in high school could be the starter, but J.T. Daniels is a special talent. I’m not saying he’ll win the Heisman this year, but he’ll win a few games. Plus, there’s plenty of talent around him on offense and the defense should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Neither Washington nor Oregon is on the schedule.
Low: USC. All the Trojans have done the past two years under Clay Helton is win the Pac-12 championship in 2017 and the Rose Bowl in 2016. And while it’s true that Sam Darnold is gone and USC may start a freshman at quarterback, the rest of the offense is stacked with talent, and the defense should also be solid. If the Trojans get past Stanford and Texas on the road those first three weeks of the season, don’t be surprised if they find their way into the College Football Playoff.
Rittenberg: West Virginia. This could be Dana Holgorsen’s best and most complete team in Morgantown. While most playoff contenders have some degree of quarterback uncertainty, he returns a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in Will Grier. WVU has one of the nation’s best wide receiving corps. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is great at getting the most out of an often-thin unit. WVU plays 11 Power 5 opponents (Tennessee and NC State in non-league play) and hosts both Oklahoma and TCU.
Trotter: West Virginia’s Will Grier is arguably the top returning quarterback in college football, armed with, inarguably, one of the top receiving corps in the country. If the Mountaineers escape nonconference bouts against Tennessee and North Carolina State unscathed, they’ll have a chance to roll into November a legitimate playoff contender — with a potential big stage showdown against Oklahoma awaiting on Black Friday in Morgantown.
Which top-10 team is most likely to end the season unranked?
Adelson: Auburn. Stidham returns but there are questions up front as the Tigers have to rebuild their offensive line, and injuries at receiver have placed an emphasis on creating more depth. While the defensive line should be strong again, the secondary remains an unknown.
Aschoff: There’s a chance that Auburn fans could spend yet another year complaining about Gus Malzahn — especially after that sweet, sweet contract extension he just got. This Auburn team is really talented on both sides of the ball, but game against Washington, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama are all away from the Plains. Auburn has burned me in the past (hello, 2015), so when expectations are high, set the bar low.
Low: Auburn. The defensive line should be one of the best in the country, and Stidham should be much more comfortable in his second season on the Plains. The problem is the schedule. The Tigers have to face three preseason top-5 teams (Alabama, Georgia and Washington) away from home, not to mention No. 17 Mississippi State on the road.
Rittenberg: Auburn. There wasn’t an obvious choice, but the loser of the Auburn-Washington season opener could be in trouble. All four Auburn losses in 2017 took place away from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Tigers must travel to face Washington, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama this fall. This isn’t a particularly deep offense outside of Stidham. While I love the defense, especially the front four, the Tigers figure to be in a lot of toss-up games.
Trotter: Not to pick on Auburn, but the Tigers probably have the most difficult schedule of any top-10 team, enhancing their chances of finishing the year unranked. Auburn plays No. 5 Washington in Atlanta, then has to go on the road to face No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama. Despite concerns along the offensive line, Auburn could be stout — and yet, still finish with four or five losses because of the schedule.
Which unranked team will finish the year in the top 10?
Adelson: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have to replace Mason Rudolph and their top receivers so this might be a bit of a stretch. But running back Justice Hill is back and their track record tells us to expect another good year. Oklahoma State has won 10 games three consecutive seasons, and Mike Gundy’s offense has gotten to the point where they can plug and play.
Aschoff: I can already hear all the “homer” calls, but my pick is Florida because that schedule sets up perfectly for a nice first-year run for Dan Mullen. LSU is at home, as are Missouri and South Carolina. That offense will be better and the toughest games are at Mississippi State and Florida State, and against Georgia in Jacksonville. Florida could have two or just three losses in the regular season. Win the bowl game and there’s your top-10 finish.
Low: Florida Atlantic. A year ago, it was UCF from the state of Florida going unbeaten and staking a claim for a national championship. This year, watch out for Lane Kiffin and his Florida Atlantic Owls. Kiffin thinks they will be even better than a year ago when they won 11 games, and they get Oklahoma to kick off the 2018 season. An upset win over the Sooners, and FAU could be well on its way to an unbeaten season and top-10 finish.
Rittenberg: Utah. It wasn’t surprising to see the Utes second in the Pac-12 South in the league’s preseason poll. Coaches I’ve talked to are very high on this team. Utah returns a lot on the offensive line and its defensive line always seems to reload. It also doesn’t hurt to have the best specialist combination (Matt Gay, Mitch Wishnowsky) in the country. Many South division teams are transitioning, so Utah could make a big push.
Trotter: Boston College returns AJ Dillon, who quietly rushed for 1,589 yards last year as a freshman. The Eagles also bring back all five starters on an imposing offensive line on top of sophomore quarterback Anthony Brown. Boasting a loaded defense to boot, Boston College has a terrific chance to be ranked when Miami visits Oct. 26. If the Eagles can win that game, they’ll have a top-10 ranking within their sights.
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