As the calendar turns to June, the sports world shifts its focus to the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals. Through the early part of the month many people are transfixed on the drama that professional basketball and hockey bring, but in the South, even in the offseason, the buzz is always about football, particularly, college football.
With any offseason comes predictions for the upcoming season. So, with less than 100 days until kickoff, here is a preseason Top 25 for the 2018 season.
- Clemson: The Tigers are turning into the Alabama of the ACC under Dabo Swinney. Having won the ACC three years in a row, along with three straight College Football Playoff appearances, the Tigers are yet again poised to win a fourth straight conference title and make another CFP appearance. With running back Travis Etienne in the backfield, and a solid Defensive Front 7 anchored by Clelin Ferrell and Tre Lamar, the Tigers have weapons all over the field. This may not surprise many people, but Clemson will be really good…again.
- Alabama: Another year, another preseason poll with Alabama in the Top 3. Just get used to it because that’s how preseason polls will be for the extended near future. Even with all of the Crimson Tide’s departures to the NFL, the golden rule about Alabama still exists: As long as Nick Saban is the head coach, Alabama doesn’t rebuild, Alabama reloads.
- Ohio State: The Buckeyes were last year’s victims of their own previous year’s fortunes when they got snubbed from the CFP while still winning their conference championship game. Second year running back J.K. Dobbins will carry a massive workload for Urban & Co. as they go for yet again another Big Ten Eastern Division title. But before the dreams of June become the realities of December, the Buckeyes have to play away from home against TCU, Penn State, and Michigan State.
- Georgia: Did Georgia peak too soon last year, or was 2017 a preview of what’s to come in Athens under Kirby Smart? Yes, the Dawgs lost some key pieces to the NFL from their National Championship run, but what Smart has brought together the past three recruiting seasons is nothing short of impressive. Georgia has the ability to win back-to-back SEC titles, but the real question still lingers; when will the Dawgs win the national title?
- Oklahoma: The Sooners out-performed all expectations last season under first year head coach Lincoln Riley. Many people may expect there to be a drop off after losing Baker Mayfield, but quarterback Kyler Murray is one of the most versatile athletes in all of college football and can pick up right where Mayfield left off. Big 12 away games at Iowa State, TCU, and West Virginia will be critical tests for Boomer, but the Sooners have the pieces to make another push for the CFP.
- Wisconsin: Last year the Badgers really went above and beyond expectations. With quarterback Alex Hornibrook and running back Jonathan Taylor returning, the Badgers look to keep the consistency going in Madison. A weaker Big Ten Western Division gives Wisconsin the best odds in reaching the Big Ten Championship Game from their side of the conference. Look for the Badgers to run the ball about 35 times a game, pass the ball about 15 times a game and possibly go undefeated through the regular season.
- Miami: Is The U back? Who knows, but Mark Richt sure has everyone on South Beach believing they are. After three straight losses to end the season, many skeptics would say Miami peaked too soon, but with the plethora of high school talent coming out of the state of Florida, let alone Dade County, Uncle Richt is set pretty well to make another run at an ACC Championship Game appearance. However, games against LSU, Florida State, and at Virginia Tech will be huge for the Canes to prove last year wasn’t a fluke and that The U is back.
- Washington: The first Pac-12 team in this Top 25 should come as no surprise as it’s the Huskies from the Pacific Northwest. The Huskies have the talent, especially in senior quarterback Jake Browning, but they also have a gauntlet schedule with games against Auburn, at UCLA, at Oregon, and Stanford all before their bye week on November 10th. That’s right, Washington has to play ten straight games before their week off. Chris Petersen will have his coaching hands full, but the Huskies could be looking at their second CFP appearance in three years.
- Auburn: The 2018 season ushers in Year 2 of the Jarrett Stidham Experiment. Based on last year’s results, the experiment wasn’t too bad. They beat Alabama, won the Western Division, but lost in the SEC Championship Game and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Auburn starts their 2018 campaign against a formidable Pac-12 opponent in Washington. It will be the Tigers’ third straight game in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, where as we all know, the Tigers haven’t played so well in. The SEC is a gauntlet in and of itself, but head coach Gus Malzahn has a history of succeeding by doing more with less. Look for the SEC West to again come down to the Tigers and the Tide.
- Penn State: Rounding out the Top 10 is last year’s winners of the “WE WANT BAMA!” fans. Penn State’s hot start last season led to “We want Bama” chants being heard throughout Happy Valley in mid October. Two straight losses to Ohio State and Michigan State cooled those chants, but last year’s Fiesta Bowl win got the hype train rolling again going into the 2018 season. Senior quarterback Trace McSorley gets his last shot at a CFP berth for the Nittany Lions, but this year’s schedule may be the hardest to date in his tenure having to play Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and at Michigan. With that schedule they may be chanting, “We want the Outback Bowl!”
- Michigan State: Of all seven teams in the Big Ten Eastern Division, the Spartans have, arguably, the most formidable schedule. With Michigan and Ohio State at home, along with Penn State and a rebuilding Nebraska on the road, Sparty looks to be a dark horse contender for the Big Ten East title. Quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott give the Spartans solid veterans to run the table, and head coach Mark Dantonio has proven year after year that he doesn’t need an all star roster to succeed, just guys willing to work hard and grind through the Big Ten.
- Notre Dame: Losing two offensive lineman to the first round of the NFL Draft will be tough to replace for Brain Kelly’s squad, but the talent and speed at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback will keep the Irish in games this season. Like always, their schedule is, well, awkward. Having so many “rivalries” against teams from six different conferences, accompanied with a requirement of four ACC games, the Irish’s schedule takes them all across the nation playing solid opponents. The highlight though of their schedule may just be the first game of the season in a renewal of their rivalry against Michigan.
- TCU: The Horned Frogs enter the 2018 season coming off a huge come-from-behind win against Stanford in the Alamo Bowl. Gary Patterson will have his hands full this year with, arguably, the hardest schedule in the Big 12. Patterson’s crew host Ohio State and play at texas in back-to-back weeks, along with trips to West Virginia and Baylor later in the season. Their new quarterback Shawn Robinson may get baptized by fire early on, and if Patterson’s defense gives up yards and points like they did last season, TCU may be looking to 2019 in early November.
- Stanford: A long time ago the football gods destined Bryce Love to be coached by David Shaw. It was just meant to be. This duo alone should have Stanford in anyone’s Top 20. Solid coaching, powerful running game, easier second-half-of-the-season schedule. Three huge pieces that put the Cardinal in place for another great season.
- Virginia Tech: Blacksburg is once again buzzing with potential as they head into the 2018 season. Third year coach Justin Fuente has the pieces in place to challenge Miami for the ACC Coastal Division title. He does however need to have his team in mid-season form on Day 1 because of their matchup with Florida State in Tallahassee on Labor Day. If the Hokies find balance with quarterback Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech could be looking at a push to play in the ACC Championship Game for the second time in three years.
- Southern Cal: By all means, Clay Helton has done a fantastic job at establishing USC as a dominant presence in the Pac-12 yet again. With that said, Helton now has the task of finding a starting quarterback to replace Sam Darnold, and having three road games within the first five games of the season at Stanford, Texas, and Arizona will be no small task. If the Trojans can get at least eight or nine wins this season, the Men of Troy will have had a solid 2018 campaign.
- Michigan: Hot seat level for Jim Harbaugh: lukewarm. If he loses again to Ohio State and Michigan State: blazing. Every year, around this time, we see the “OMG Jim Harbaugh has an absolute monster this year” headlines. Then, every year around early November, we see the “Is Harbaugh overrated?” headlines. The latter of the two happens to be the more accurate as of late, and if Harbaugh struggles again this season, the powers that be in Ann Arbor may be looking for a different leader.
- LSU: One year in the near future, there will be an NFL Draft where the entire first round will be defensive backs from LSU, Texas, and Ohio State. Head coach Ed Orgeron should be used to replacing his secondary by now, but this year he is tasked with revamping his offense. If he can find wide receivers, and most importantly, a consistent quarterback, the Bayou Bengals will compete with Alabama and Auburn for the Western Division crown.
- West Virginia: As the dark horse of the Big 12, the Mountaineers, led by quarterback Will Grier, are poised once again to lead an all-out aerial assault against the conference this year. Added depth on defense from two grad transfers and two JUCO transfers should improve defensive stability overall. Their schedule, however, is brutal with early season non-conference games against Tennessee and NC State, and a November schedule consisting of games at Texas, TCU, at Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma.
- Oregon: The Ducks are set up pretty well for Mario Cristobal’s first season as head coach. Their first four games are at home, their bye week is before the Washington game, and they have a handful of returning starters. Back-to-back road games at Washington State and Arizona could prove to be tough later in the year, but if the Ducks can pull upsets against Stanford and Washington earlier in the season, they’ll have more to fight for than just a solid bowl berth.
- Central Florida: Last year’s “national champions” come off an undefeated season looking to continue the success under new head coach Josh Heupel. The good news is UCF returns key people like quarterback McKenzie Milton to run the table in the Group of 5 again. The bad news is games at North Carolina, Memphis, USF, and a home game against Florida Atlantic may get in the way of self-proclaiming themselves “back-to-back national champs”.
- Texas: In Tom Herman’s second year the Longhorns have more to build on than they ever did under Charlie Strong. Coming off a bowl win in Year 1, Herman has tangible pieces to bring Texas back from the bottom of the Big 12. Texas has to play at Oklahoma State in late October, but other than that, their toughest games will either be at home or at neutral sites. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger looks to continue off his success last season and gives Herman someone to continue to build his offense around.
- Boise State: When Chris Petersen left four years ago for Washington many people thought Boise would fall into obscurity. To the contrary, Bryan Harsin has brought three ten-win seasons in the past four years since Petersen’s departure. With their extremely formidable Mountain West schedule, and an away game at Oklahoma State, the Broncos could find themselves atop the Group of 5 at season’s end trying to vie for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
- Mississippi State: When Dan Mullen left for Florida, Mississippi State was left with a huge hole to fill. The administration in Starkville did a fantastic job in bringing in Joe Moorhead. The transition will be easy for senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald as both coaches’ offense are very similar in style. Being in the SEC West is never easy, especially with a first year head coach, but the Bulldogs should find themselves in the hunt for a top 3 spot in the division nonetheless.
- South Carolina: The Gamecocks are sneaky dangerous going into the 2018 season. Third year coach Will Muschamp is quietly assembling a monster in Columbia. While the rest of the SEC is focused on Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn, the Gamecocks, led by quarterback Jake Bentley, are poised to make some noise in the SEC Eastern Division. A lot of their season may ride on their performance against Georgia in the second game of the year, but if they can pull off the upset, they could very well play for the SEC Championship in December.
Well, there it is. The Early Summer Preseason Top 25. As the season gets closer, and the anticipation grows stronger, remember one key aspect in all of this: the Playoff Committee doesn’t consider feelings. They’re ruthless and only choose the best four teams for the Playoff… most of the time.