Thor Nystrom

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Springtime Top-30

Thursday, March 23, 2017


 

 

1. Ohio State

The following is a list of websites that installed Alabama No. 1 in their too-early Top 25 lists: SB Nation, Athlon, Bleacher Report, Campus Insiders, CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, Pro Football Focus, Scout and Sports Illustrated.

We slightly prefer the Buckeyes, who are on the same talent plane as the Crimson Tide but enjoy superior quarterback play and an easier road to the College Football Playoff.

The Buckeyes host Oklahoma in Week 2. Win there, and Ohio State will lock up a top-three ranking until at least October 14, when they visit Nebraska. The only two other scary games on the schedule are a home date with Penn State a few days before Halloween and at Michigan in the regular season finale. The Wolverines will be down this year, while Penn State would probably be installed as at least 6-point underdogs if that game were played today.

Expect big improvement from QB J.T. Barrett, who struggled down the stretch in 2016 but is an early 2017 Heisman frontrunner. He shares the backfield with RB Mike Weber, one of the country’s top returning backs. The defense lost LB Raekwon McMillan, CB Gareon Conley and S Malik Hooker to early declaration, but returns plenty, including young stars DE Nick Bosa and LB Jerome Baker.


2. Alabama

The biggest question about this team is whether sophomore QB Jalen Hurts can take a big step forward as a thrower in his second season as a starter. Until Hurts becomes competent in the pocket, the Crimson Tide will be susceptible to getting upset in the same manner that they were upset by Clemson in the title game. Hurts' struggles were the primary reason I picked Clemson to upset Alabama in that game.

Outside of a questionable aerial attack, though, everything else is golden. The rushing attack is elite-plus, with Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs now joined by Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit.

Sure, the Crimson Tide lost DE Jonathan Allen, DE Dalvin Tomlinson, LB Tim Williams, LB Ryan Anderson, LB Reuben Foster, S Eddie Jackson and CB Marlon Humphrey on defense. But Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett return to what will be an outstanding secondary, and Da'Ron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier ensure that the line will be strong again.

The linebacking corps will find complements for Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans from their grab bag of elite recruits. Speaking of those, the Tide haven’t finished below No. 2 in recruiting for the past three cycles. They emerged from National Signing Day 2017 with another unanimous No. 1 class.


3. USC

In early February, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News wrote a column headlined “Suck for Sam: USC’s Darnold could be answer to Jets quarterback questions.” On many levels, it was a ridiculous piece of writing. The Jets pick No. 6 in this year’s NFL Draft, for one, and will be in a position to take a signal-calling prospect like Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson if they so choose. For two, the Jets aren’t going to intentionally tank this coming season with HC Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan both on the hot seat.

So why then did I find myself nodding during Mehta’s piece? Sam Darnold sure looked like a more promising prospect than Trubisky last season, and that was as a redshirt freshman. Darnold was particularly awesome in areas of the game that translate to NFL success. He’s big. He's got a huge arm. He’s mobile. He's accurate. He retains accuracy on the move.

Most importantly, Darnold remains tranquil when bullets are flying around him. Per Pro Football Focus, Darnold ranked No. 8 with a 65.7-percent accuracy under pressure and No. 2 with only 7.2-percent of his pressures converted into sacks.

USC lost starting WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, OTs Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, G Damien Mama and DB/KR Adoree' Jackson. But they have eight returning starters on defense, and RB Ronald Jones II and WR Deontay Burnett joining Darnold in what will be a flammable offense.


4. Florida State

The Seminoles lost program face RB Dalvin Cook to the NFL, but they have two of the nation’s best players leading the offense and defense respectively in QB Deondre Francois and S Derwin James. The defense took a month-and-a-half to recover last season following what turned out to be James’ season-ending knee injury in Week 2. The Seminoles got run off the field by Louisville in Week 3 (63-20) and gave up 37 points apiece to UNC and Clemson in October losses.

With James now back, a defense that got on a roll late should improve. Losing DeMarcus Walker’s 16 sacks will hurt the pass rush, though.

While Cook’s multi-faceted game can’t be replicated by one man, FSU will attempt to approximate it by platooning backs of differing skillsets, led by 6-foot-2, 231-pound sophomore Jacques Patrick and five-star incoming freshman Cam Akers. Between them and Francois, you’ve got a championship-caliber offense.

The biggest complication to the Seminoles’ hopes of making the 2017 CFB Playoffs is the schedule. Florida State kicks off the season against Alabama in Atlanta, and they also must travel to Clemson during the ACC slate. If there’s a positive, it’s that FSU gets Louisville and Miami in Tallahassee.


5. Washington

Just like last preseason, when we picked the upstart Huskies to reach the College Football Playoff, it appears that we’re higher on Washington than most. We understand why the Huskies are closer to the bottom of the top-10 in many outlets’ too-early lists. After all, Washington suffered big defections on defense—DE Joe Mathis, LB Psalm Wooching, DT Elijah Qualls, S Budda Baker, CB Kevin King, CB Sidney Jones—and one huge loss on offense in WR John Ross.

Be that as it may, the defending Pac-12 champions return 14 starters, the same number as USC and more than Alabama and Clemson. Washington’s offense will be stellar again, led by QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin and WR Dante Pettis. On defense, an inexperienced secondary will be helped by a superb front seven featuring DL Vita Vea and Greg Gaines and tackling machine LB Azeem Victor.

Washington’s schedule will provide another assist as well. The Huskies avoid USC in the regular season and welcome Oregon, Utah and Washington State to Seattle.


6. Oklahoma

Though the Sooners lost RBs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and WR Dede Westbrook to the NFL, the offense will hum again with OC Lincoln Riley directing an attack featuring Heisman frontrunner QB Baker Mayfield and one of the nation’s premier offensive lines.

The defense, which made great strides during the 10-game winning streak that capped the season, returns quarterback killer Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB Caleb Kelly and secondary stalwarts Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas.

We would have the Sooners a few notches higher, but the schedule, which includes road trips to Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, is quite formidable.


7. Penn State

The Nittany Lions closed out the 2016 season with eight straight regular season wins, a dramatic victory over Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game and an epic back-and-forth loss to white-hot USC in the Rose Bowl.

The offense lost WR Chris Godwin to early declaration, but will be in good hands with RB Saquon Barkley and QB Trace McSorley returning. In fact, the Nittany Lions return nine starters on offense, along with seven on defense. Another Big 10 title is in play, but we’re a little lower on the Nittany Lions than some other outlets because of a brutal Big Ten road slate that sends the Nits to Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State, in addition Ohio State.


8. Auburn

With nine returning starters on offense and eight returning starters on defense, the Tigers are the most experienced team in our springtime Top 30. QB Jarrett Stidham isn’t one of those returning starters, but he may end up being the most valuable of them all.

Stid the Kid was an enormous acquisition, a JUCO signee who flashed superstar potential at Baylor as a true freshman. He’s a dark horse Heisman candidate in new OC Chip Lindsey’s scheme. Lindsey is one of the sport’s premier developers of quarterbacks. He coaxed nearly 4,000 yards passing out of Corey Robinson as a freshman at Troy in 2000, and engineered Nick Mullens’ 2015 run to Conference USA Player of the Year honors on the back of 4,476 yards passing. Stidham is easily the most talented of the three.


Lindey’s offenses aren’t just aerial shows, but balanced attacks. During 2015 season at Southern Miss, the Eagles had a pair of 1,000 yard rushers despite the fact that they ranked No. 92 nationally in rush attempts. If a Lindsey offense is able to move the ball through the air, chances are good that it will also be able to run all over you. This might be a good time to mention that RBs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson return, as does CBS Second-Team All-American Braden Smith, who's moving from guard to tackle.

We aren’t willing to cede the SEC title to Alabama just yet. Auburn, Georgia and LSU are too talented.


9. Louisville

Lamar Jackson returns. Will the Cardinals block for him this year? Louisville allowed 47 sacks last year, and the pass pro was particularly egregious at the end of the season. The rest of the team cratered along with it, leading to a season-capping three-game losing streak that has rendered the Cardinals an undervalued property heading into the new season.

Prior to this column, the highest we had seen Louisville ranked in the preseason was No. 10 by Bleacher Report. Gridiron Now ranked Louisville No. 22.

We think the Cardinals will be right back in the thick of the race for the ACC title, as well as a bid to the Playoff. The schedule is forgiving, with four freebies in the non-conference. And the offensive line, which returns LT Geron Christian, should be improved. It had better be.


10. Oklahoma State

The decisions of star QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington to return to campus meant that the Cowboys would boast one of college football’s best offenses. But this isn’t just a two-man show: RB Justice Hill was tremendous as a true freshman (1,142 yards) and WR Jalen McCleskey—and not Washington—led the team with 73 catches.

The offense didn’t lose much outside of LT Victor Salako. And you have to like a schedule that brings Oklahoma to town for Bedlam, and also has home dates set against TCU, Baylor and Kansas State.

Whether the Pokes can win the Big 12 and earn a berth into the Playoff will come down to the untested defense. It was done no favors when star DT Vincent Taylor elected to leave early. Joining him out the door is CB Ashton Lampkin, S Jordan Sterns and LBs Jordan Burton and Devante Averette.


11.Georgia

The Bulldogs struggled to an 8-5 record in Kirby Smart’s first season, but Year 2 is going to be far better. The offense, which welcomes back QB Jacob Eason and RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, should be much improved.

The defense could be one of the nation’s best after allowing only 24 points per games in Smart’s first campaign. It returns 10 starters, including DT Trenton Thompson and ILB Roquan Smith, though Thompson’s availability is currently in question after he took a leave of absence from the team and the school both following a mysterious undisclosed health condition. He's reportedly returned to training and may return to classes in May, though he's dropped around 40 pounds and is now between 265-270.

The schedule also lines up well, with the Bulldogs avoiding both Alabama and LSU in SEC play.


12. LSU

We want to like LSU even more, but the reality is that heavy losses were sustained on both sides of the ball, Danny Etling is still the quarterback and Ed Orgeron is unproven as a head coach.

On offense, the Tigers lost RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Travin Dural, TE Colin Jeter, C Ethan Pocic and G Josh Boutte. Ironically, Fournette, the most heralded of the defectors, will likely be the easiest to replace. Derrius Guice had more rushing yards than Fournette in 2016 and is a Heisman candidate so long as Etling doesn’t sink the offense from his perch in the pocket.

The defensive losses were more severe. That unit lost DE Lewis Neal, DE Davon Godchaux, LB Tashawn Bower, LB Duke Riley, S Jamal Adams and CB Tre'Davious White. The returning talent is tremendous, and DC Dave Aranda remains one of the game’s best coordinators, but that’s a lot of NFL-caliber talent to send out the door.

The conference schedule is also brutal, with road trips to Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee.


13. Clemson

Last season, we ranked Clemson No. 1 in the preseason and rode with them in the National Championship game. This year, we’re far less bullish.

The Tigers suffered devastating losses on both sides of the ball. The biggest defection was QB Deshaun Watson, of course, but the Tigers’ offense also waved goodbye to first-round WR Mike Williams, stud collegiate slot WR Artavis Scott, upper-tier move-TE prospect Jordan Leggett, underrated RB Wayne Gallman and line leader C Jay Guillermo.

The defensive losses weren’t as acute, but DT Carlos Watkins, LB Ben Boulware, SS Jadar Johnson and CB Cordrea Tankersley were all good starters.

While the Tigers’ defense, led by the defensive line fronted by Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, will be strong again, nobody knows what the offense will look like. Will veteran backup Kelly Bryant win the starting QB job? Will he be upset by five-star early enrollee Hunter Johnson?


14. Stanford

It’s high time that we just start trusting HC David Shaw to figure things out. That last year’s 10-3 finish was considered a disappointment is a testament to Stanford’s recent run of excellence.

The Cardinal have won less than 10 games in only one of the past seven seasons. In that stretch—which includes Jim Harbaugh’s last year and Shaw’s six to this point—Stanford has posted an average record of 10.9-2.6 while finishing the year ranked No. 12 or better in the final AP poll six of seven times.

This time around, Shaw loses studs on offense (RB Christian McCaffrey) and defense (DL Solomon Thomas), but adds a great recruiting class. The team’s quarterback play can only improve, and RB Bryce Love has All-American upside. The offensive line added two elite recruits and returns four starters.


15. Texas

The Longhorns sacked HC Charlie Strong after a 5-7 season and then suffered through their worst recruiting class of the rankings era. Pessimism for the upcoming season wouldn’t be unfounded. We just wouldn’t agree with it.

Texas lost RB D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) to early declaration, but almost the entirety of the rest of the gang is back. This isn’t your typical 5-7 squad. The ‘Horns had the No. 11 five-year recruiting ranking heading into this past cycle. They return 17 starters, 10 on defense and seven on offense.

The defense will be much improved, and the offense won’t suffer as much following Foreman’s exit as one might expect. Super soph QB Shane Buechele (2,958 yards and 21 TD as a true frosh) will share the backfield with exciting RB talent Chris Warren, who assumes the lead back post after missing most of last season with an injury. LT Connor Williams, perhaps college football’s best lineman, returns to his role of DE-eraser.



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Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
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