Submitted by Jim Feist on Thursday, August 31, 2017 at 12:00 AM
by Jim Feist
The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week is my Top 20. The season is underway, so here's a peak at college football's best.
20. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin is a great recruiter and has talent, though there is a lot of inexperience. This offense (34.8 ppg) was #34 in the nation in scoring with over 211 yards rushing and passing per game. Senior Jake Hubenak (6 TDs, 2 picks) saw some time and he will be pressed by freshmen QBs Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. They have a reliable target in WR Christian Kirk (83 catches, 928 yards) and a speedy group of freshmen.
Sophomore RB Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards) provides balance while defensive coordinator Jon Chavis has some talented young personnel to work in. The linebacker corps is solid behind Otaro Alaka, Richard Moore and Cullen Gillaspia. They only have four true road games and get Bama at home October 7.
19. Northwestern: Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has the chance to make some noise with 9 starters back on offense, 7 on defense. The offense averaged 245 yards passing and returns junior QB Clayton Thorson (22 TDs, 9 INTs), senior RB Justin Jackson (1,524 yds) and four offensive line starters.
The defense was 23rd in the nation in points (22.1 pg) and brings back LB Nate Hall (73 tackles) and a strong secondary (16 picks) behind junior CB Montre Hartage, safety Jared McGee and senior safety Godwin Igwebuike. They should be 3-0 before a Week 4 battle at Wisconsin, then get Penn State at home in Week 5.
18. Stanford: In a retooling year the Cardinals won 10 games. Coach David Shaw lost Christian McAffrey to the NFL, but returns RB Bryce Love (779 yds) who averaged 7 yards per carry, along with senior QB Keller Chryst (10 TDs, 2 INTs). Chryst suffered a knee injury in the bowl game, so QB Ryan Burns (1,151 yds) is also available.
The defense was #17 in the nation allowing 20.2 points and returns sophomore pass rusher Dylan Jackson, while CB Quenton Meeks and Frank Buncom anchor a fine secondary. Week 2 is a huge showdown at USC, a 27-10 win last year. Stanford hosts Washington in a revenge game the Cardinal lost 44-6.
17. Texas: The Longhorns are off a 5-7 campaign but hopes are high for a turnaround under new coach Tom Herman with 9 starters back on offense and defense. This offense was very good averaging 31.9 points, 252 yards passing and 239.3 rushing (#17). Sophomore QB Shane Buechele (21 TDs, 11 INT) has a deep group of wideouts to work with and balance with RB Chris Warren (5.9 ypc) back from a knee injury.
The defense underachieved so new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is preaching a hard-hitting unit designed to cause chaos and turnovers, likely a more blitz-happy unit. Junior LB Malik Jefferson is talented but inconsistent, so he may thrive under the new staff. A late season trip to USC won't be easy, but they get K-State and Oklahoma State at home.
16. Washington: The Huskies won 12 games for the first time since the 1991 national title season. The offense was 8th in the nation in points (41.8 pg) and returns QB Jake Browning (43 TDs, 9 INTs) and RB Myles Gaskin (1,373 yds).
Washington's under the radar defense was basic, but allowed just 17.2 ppg (#8). Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski rarely called blitzes, yet Washington was #14 in sacks and returns run-stuffer DT Elijah Qualls. The secondary lost its top talent and road games at Stanford and Colorado will be big tests.
15. Wisconsin: Coach Paul Chryst has 7 starters back on both sides of the line. Sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook (9 TDs, 7 INTs, 1262 yds) is back along with 4 offensive line starters to a ground attack that averaged 203 yards. RB Chris James sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh.
The defense allowed 15.5 ppg (#4) and is loaded at linebacker with Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly. Wisconsin finished tied for second with 22 interceptions and returns two starters in the secondary. Wisconsin has been great at home, 81-11 SU, 50-35-1 ATS the last 13 years.
14. Florida: The Gators have a terrific coach in Jim McElwain, off a 9-4 season winning the East and ripping Iowa in a bowl, 30-3. QB Luke Del Rio (8 TDs, 8 INTs) is back but battled injuries, so Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney are in the mix. The offensive line was weak but should improve with four starters back.
The defense is always a strength and the secondary has top-tier talent and experience with Nick Washington, Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner. The opener will be a big challenge against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Texas but they get LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State at the Swamp.
13. Kansas State: The Wildcats overachieved again under outstanding coach Bill Snyder, off a 9-4 campaign. The offense averaged 32.2 points, 231.8 yards rushing and return four offensive line starters and leading rusher senior QB Jesse Ertz (9 TD, 4 INTs) 1,012 yards rushing.
The ground game also sports soph RB Alex Barnes (442 yds, 7.9 ypc) and junior Justin Silmon (464, 5.4), while the defense is loaded after allowing 21.8 ppg (#20).
Sophomore DE Reggie Walker is a force, the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, while the secondary has junior CB D.J. Reed and FS Kendell Adams. Kansas State is on a 37-27-1 ATS run.
12. LSU: Les Miles is gone but he left the cupboard full for Ed Oregon. QB Danny Etling (11 TDs, 5 INTs) gets the full time job and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada intends to keep the offense multiple. Junior RB Derrius Grice (1,387 yds, 7.6 ypc) was more productive than Leonard Fornette and four offensive line starters return.
The defense lost key personnel at linebacker but the Tigers always reload. And LSU is once again loaded in the secondary, especially at corner and nickel. They'll probably start 5-0 before a showdown in the Swamp at Florida. That starts a stretch playing 4 of 6 away, including at Alabama, a 10-0 loss last season. LSU carries a 10-2 run under the total into the new season.
11: Notre Dame: 4-8? When did Gerry Faust return? Notre Dame QBs threw for 27 TDs, 9 picks, yet the Irish stumbled through an astonishingly bad campaign. But that was last year and Brian Kelly's team is primed for a bounce back season behind dual threat sophomore QB Brandon Wimbush and junior RB Josh Adama (933 yds, 5.9 ypc).
New DC Brian Elko did a great job at Wake Forest and should help turn things around in South Bend. Seven of their eight losses came by one possession or fewer. The 2017 schedule helps, too, getting USC at home with road games at rebuilding BC, Michigan State, North Carolina and Miami.
10. Clemson: The defending champion Tigers lost their ace QB to the NFL, but return a ton of speed on defense. Sophomore QB Kelly Bryant knows the system and saw a little time last year, while duel-threat Zerrick Cooper is in the mix. Speedy WR Deon Cain (724 yards) is back along with Hunter Renfrow (495) to keep the passing attack rolling.
The defense was #12 in the nation allowing 18.4 ppg and has a dominant front line anchored by Dexter Lawrence and Al Huggins, while the secondary his strong. They have challenging road games against Louisville and Virginia Tech, plus home showdowns with Auburn and Florida State. Don't forget that Clemson didn't run the table last season, losing at home to Pitt (43-42) as 22-point chalk, along with close wins over Auburn (19-13), V-Tech (42-35), Louisville (42-36), FSU (37-34), Alabama (35-31) and even Troy (30-24).
9: USC: Hopes are sky-high for the Trojans and young coach Clay Helton. Sophomore QB Sam Darnold (31 TDs, 9 INTs) dazzled as a freshman and junior RB Ron Jones II returns after averaging 6.1 ypc. 6-4 sophomore WR Michael Pittman anchors a deep group of wideouts alongside Deontay Burnett (622 yds) and Steven Mitchell.
The offense averaged 34.4 points and over 200 yards rushing and passing. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has talent to work with on a unit that allowed 22.2 ppg (#24 in the nation). Instead of opening against Alabama like last year they host Western Michigan, then get rival Stanford in Week 2 at home.
8. Michigan: Mighty Michigan is off a 10-3 campaign but loses 17 starters. But the defense is strong and senior 6-6 QB Wilton Speight (18 TDs, 7 INTs) returns to a unit tht averaged 40.3 points (#11), 213 yards passing and 212 rushing. Michigan brought in five wide receivers in the latest recruiting class, including five-star prospect Donovan Peoples-Jones, the highest-rated recruit of the group.
The defense allowed 12.5 ppg (second in the nation) and is strong up front behind sophomore Rashan Gary and senior Maurice Hurst. The Wolverines open vs Florida and have road games at Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin. Michigan is 25-28 SU/22-31 ATS its last 53 road games.
7. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy’s uptempo offense returns senior QB Mason Rudolph (28 TDs, 4 INTs, 4,091 yards) and sophomore RB Justice Hill (1,142 yards, 5.5). The Cowboys averaged 38.6 points, 324 yards passing (#9), and return one of the best WR corps in country led by senior WR James Washington (1380, 19.4 ypc), junior Jalen McCleskey (812) and Chris Lacy (489).
They also welcome back Marcell Ateman (766 receiving yards in 2015) who had a foot injury last season, along with LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. The defense is the main concern, allowing 204 yards rushing per contest and losing its top two run stuffers. But they get Oklahoma and Baylor at home and have had 10 wins in five of the last seven years.
6. Georgia: The Bulldogs are off an 8-5 SU/6-7 ATS campaign under first-year coach Kirby Smart. QB Jacob Eason (16 TDs, 8 INTs) returns along with super-back senior Nick Chubb (1,130 yds). They are retooling the offensive line, something to watch in September.
The defense allowed 24 ppg, #16 in yards allowed, and returns 10 starters. They piled up 29 sacks and look even better. A week 2 battle at Notre Dame is a good early season challenge and the only tough conference road games are at Tennessee and Auburn.
5. Penn State: The Lions exploded behind a pair of super sophs, winning the Big 10 title in 2016. The offense returns a pair of Heisman contenders in Junior QB Tracey McSorely (29 TDs, 8 INTs) and RB Saquon Barkley (1,496 yards, 5.5 ypc, 18 TDs). Penn State averaged 37.6 points per game under OC Joe Moorhead's an up-tempo attack.
8 starters returns on both sides of the line for Coach James Franklin. The defense allowed 23.4 ppg and has fine LBs in Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen. The secondary suffered a tough blow in spring practice with the loss of CB John Reid, who may miss the season. They look real good, but allowed 47.7 points per game in osses to Pitt, Michigan and USC. Penn State is on a 36-23-1 run over the total run.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes are stacked on offense with senior QB J.T. Barrett (24 TDs, 7 INTs), who ran for 845 yards, and sophomore RB sophomore Demario McCall, along with 4 offensive linemen. They averages over 213 yards rushing and passing and their 39.4 ppg ranked #13 in the nation.
The defense was third allowing 14.2 ppg and is loaded with elite pass rushers in Junior Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, senior Tyquan Lewis. Ohio State is on a 33-22 run over the total, plus 17-2 SU/12-6 ATS on the road under Urban Meyer. They have a showdown with Oklahoma on September 9, and a revenge at home against Penn State, but also end the season at Michigan.
3. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops has 7 starters back on both sides of the ball on a loaded team that went 9-0 in the Big 12 last season. Senior QB Baker Mayfield (40 TDs, 8 INTs, 3,965 yds, 71%) is back along with the entire offensive line on a unit that averaged 43.9 points, 318 yards passing and 236.8 rushing.
Some new receivers step in but they look good in speedy JC transfer Marquise Brown and Jeff Badet, who led the SEC with 21.6 yards per catch last year at Kentucky. The defense struggled early but got better down the stretch utilizing five defensive backs most of the time. They are moving from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 this season to generate more quarterback pressure. The Sooners are on a 35-27-1 run over the total.
2. Alabama: The Tide are still smarting from losing only one game last season -- on the last place against Clemson for the national title. But 'Bama has great balance on offense averaging 38.8 points, 210 yards passing and 245 rushing for sophomore QB Jaen Hurts (23 TDs, 9 INTs). Hurts ran for 954 yards, and teams with junior RBs Damien Harris (1040 yds, 7.2 ypc) and Bo Scarbrough (812), plus junior WR Calvin Ridley.
Four starters are back on the offensive line, while the defense has five starters back to a unit that ranked No. 1 in points allowed (11.8 ppg). The linebacking corps has some new looks while the secondary is strong at safety, though they got torched by Clemson and gave up 43 points to Ole Miss. Road games at Texas A&M and rival Auburn will be the biggest tests.
1. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher’s Seminole's finished third in the ACC last season but is loaded for 2017. They won their final five games last year, including a 33-32 Orange bowl victory over Michigan. QB Deondre Francois (20 TDs, 7 INTs) was the ACC Rookie of the Year, while the backfield sports junior Jacques Patrick (5.7 ypc) and speedy Amir Rasul. This offense averaged over 200 yards rushing and passing and is just as potent.
While the ACC lost a lot of top defensive talent to the NFL, Florida State brings back nine starters on defense. DEs Josh Sweat and Brian Burns (9.5 sacks to lead freshmen in the nation) team with DT Derrick Nnadi to form a strong line. Super safety Derwin James is back after missing last season (knee). Opening against Alabama is a big challenge, but they catch defending champion Clemson working in a new QB.