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Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2017

Deondre Francois, Florida State
1. USC Trojans: For years, we've been trying to speculate when the weakened power USC would
once more return to the National Championship picture. The program had struggled to gain traction through sanctions and other issues, and started off 2016 1-3 with a season opening 52-6 beatdown at the hands of Alabama. They simply responded by winning nine straight games the rest of the way, led by redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. They capped it all off with a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State that seemed to announce the Trojans are back. After tossing for five touchdowns in that win, Darnold may enter next season as the Heisman favorite, and he'll have plenty of help. Running back Ronald Jones II is on the cusp of stardom, and the offensive line should be able to withstand the departures of tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner. Defensively, Porter Gustin played terrific over the season's second half and linebacker Cameron Smith is one of the Pac-12's best. This ranking would further be helped if do-it-all Adoree Jackson returned. Jackson can play defense, offense, special teams or anything in between and is a true X-factor for this team. Jackson is projected as a first round pick and will likely head pro, but has not officially declared. While Washington and Stanford will still be tough inside their conference, it appears the Trojans have turned the corner. With Darnold leading the way, this team may be the team to beat.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: The Tide may have just lost a thriller to Clemson a few days ago that ended their perfect season, but that doesn't mean Nick Saban's dynasty will stop rolling. This team will lose some prime NFL talent, and could still be better. Quarterback Jalen Hurts will be a year older and will have more time to work with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. He will be joined by a plethora of weapons that could make this the best Tide offense ever. Bo Scarborough will be the feature back, with Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs supporting, while top receiver Calvin Ridley is also back. Alabama will lose a ton defensively but should still be stout, especially with sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick set to return in back.
3. Florida State Seminoles: After two straight undefeated seasons under Jameis Winston, Florida State is still searching for a return to the Playoff after two good, but not great, years. The key for them in '17 will be the play of redshirt freshman Deondre Francois. Francois took a beating all year long but still looked like a star, and should only get better. He will be aided by an improved offensive line and a defense that should take major steps. Safety Derwin James missed most of '16 with an injury but is an All-American when healthy, while the D-Line oozes potential. At tailback FSU will have to replace dominant Dalvin Cook, but incoming recruit Cam Akers could be the next big thing.
4. Clemson Tigers: After claiming their first title since 1981, Clemson will be eager to prove they can defend it. However, they will have to do so without a big chunk of the team that led them to all this success. Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins are just a few of the big pieces set to leave campus. The offense will undergo a massive rebuild post-Watson but the cupboard is far from bare. On defense, Brent Venables will reload, led by a defensive line that could be absolutely terrifying, as Christian Wilkins, Clelin Farrell and Dexter Lawrence all grow older. The Tigers may enter some type of rebuilding state, but Dabo Swinney has built this program into one that can withstand serious losses. They could still very well win their third straight ACC crown in 2017.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes: Even though 2016 was definitely successful in Columbus the 31-0 loss in the semifinal loss to Clemson left a bad taste in this team's mouth. They are ready to wreak havoc on the Big Ten this year, but will also lose quite a bit. Now a senior, QB J.T. Barrett has to prove he can lead this team going forward. Former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson is now in at offensive coordinator, so he will open things up. However, if Barrett can't regain his 2014 form, this team is definitely limited. Tailback Mike Weber will see an increased workload with H-back Curtis Samuel heading pro, and the O-Line should improve. The Buckeyes lose plenty again defensively, particularly tackling machine Raekwon McMillan and Malik Hooker. Yet, their defensive line could still be a force, headed by Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions: The reigning Big Ten Champion Nittany Lions could still be the team to beat inside the conference, however. James Franklin returns three major contributors to Penn State's explosive offense: QB Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who flirted with the UConn job. The defense will need to replace some quality defenders, but the offense will be just as dangerous and explosive as in 2016.
7. Washington Huskies: UW will lose a number of weapons from their team this offseason but Chris Petersen has built this program into one that can perennially reload. Junior quarterback Jake Browning was wonderful for much of 2016 and will only get better, and running back Myles Gaskin will return to support him in the backfield. The Huskies will lose their top target, John Ross III, and Sidney Jones and Budda Baker on defense, but have enough talent waiting in the wings for this team to get back to the Playoff.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys: While Oklahoma has ruled the Big 12 with an iron fist over the past two seasons, it may be time their instate rival get in on the fun. After winning ten games this past season, the Cowboys return the core of their team. Senior quarterback Mason Rudolph will be helped by his favorite target, senior James Washington, who skipped the pros. Underrated running back Justice Hill will also return to give Oklahoma State one of the nation's most lethal offensive trios. The defense should have enough to assert Oklahoma State as the team to beat inside the conference.
9. Michigan Wolverines: If things had bounced a little bit differently, it may have been Michigan in the Playoff and not Ohio State. But, a deflating loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl showed the Wolverines certainly have much to work on. They will lose Jabrill Peppers and a lot else from both their offense and defense, but could improve in some areas. Quarterback Wilton Speight played very well in 2016 and will be healthy, and freshman Chris Evans showed he could carry the load at running back. On defense, last year's top recruit Rashan Gary, could be in store for a monster campaign, and reinforcements await in the secondary.
10. Oklahoma Sooners: The Sooners have gone 17-1 in the Big 12 in the past two seasons, so they should be able to withstand some tough losses on both sides of the ball. Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook is gone, with the Sooners top two backs, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, also leaving. On defense, OU will miss defensive linemen Charles Walker and a wide range of contributors in the defensive backfield. Even with those losses, Oklahoma could still be very good on offense, thanks to the return of Baker Mayfield. Now entering his third year as starter, Mayfield should lead an offense based all around his arm.
11. Georgia Bulldogs: Kirby Smart's first season with the Bulldogs was far from a huge success, as they went 8-5 and lost some games they shouldn't have. Even so, there were plenty of bright spots, namely true freshman QB Jacob Eason, who lived up to the hype. Eason will be back and should grow as a passer, while also handing the ball off to a deadly 1-2 punch at back in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Chubb was never really 100 percent in '16, but has proven he can be a Heisman candidate when he is. Those three may be able to help the Bulldogs secure the SEC East, but anything beyond that will be up to an inconsistent defense.
12. LSU Tigers: New LSU head man Ed Orgeron gave us a glimpse of what he could do with the Tigers with a Citrus Bowl beatdown of Louisville and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. He will lose some key contributors from the defensive side of the ball, but youngsters are ready to contribute. The key for LSU will be getting their offense going, even without Leonard Fournette. Derrius Guice has proven he can handle the load at tailback, but the Tigers will need to find a quarterback that has proven he can move the ball.
13. Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers received unexpected news when T.J. Wattt opted to head pro a year earlier than many expected. While the loss of the veteran playmaker will hurt, this defense should still be stout, with Jack Cichy returning healthy and Chris Orr back. On offense, the Badgers will miss feature back Corey Clement, but redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw looked fantastic as the future of the backfield. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook should be back to lead this offense full-time.
14. Auburn Tigers: The pressure is on for Gus Malzahn, as Auburn lost their last three games to finish 8-5, marking their third straight year they have lost five or more games since going to the BCS Championship Game. Malzahn has some impressive talent at his disposal, namely backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who should lead a dangerous offense. He also returns quarterback Sean White, although Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham may come in and take over the job. The former Bear was terrific in the Big 12 and would immediately bring big-play capabilities to this offense.
15. Kansas State Wildcats: No team went a quieter 9-4 than Kansas State last season, and the Wildcats should once again be dangerous in 2017. Senior QB Jesse Ertz still struggles as a passer but is a fantastic runner, fitting the Collin Klein mold. He will be helped by powerful fullback Winston Dimel, who ran for 12 scores in '16. On defense, K-State will miss stud linebacker Elijah Lee, but the group has plenty of experience throughout their ranks.
16. Miami Hurricanes: Mark Richt's first team in Miami had some growing pains but still overachieved on the season, posting a strong 9-4 mark. They will be without veteran QB Brad Kaaya, who will go pro, but the rest of the offense returns, with Mark Walton back and Ahmmon Richards ready to break out at receiver. On the other side of the ball, the 'Canes will need some replacements for much of their secondary but Richt's great recruiting will already start playing dividends.
17. Boise State Broncos: A 31-12 loss in the Cactus Bowl to struggling Baylor put a damper on what was a successful year for Boise. The Broncos should win the Mountain West in '17, thanks in large part to the return of QB Brett Rypien. Rypien has already been extremely impressive in his first two years and will play an even larger role with fantastic back Jeremy McNichols leaving for the NFL a year early. On the other side of the ball, Boise State returns veteran defensive tackle David Moa (8.5 sacks) and a number of quality defenders on the back-end. Only helping the Broncos is the fact that San Diego State, the MW Champ the past two years, will almost surely take a step back with Donnell Pumphrey graduating.
18. Stanford Cardinal: The Cardinal had an up-and-down 2016, but should hope for more stability in 2017. Christian McCaffrey may depart, but this offense looked very good in the Sun Bowl without him, as Bryce Love appears set to take over at back. QB Keller Chryst will have to recover from a torn ACL but looked better as the year wore on, and the defense will once again be top notch under David Shaw, even with Solomon Thomas leaving a year early.
19. South Florida Bulls: Willie Taggart may be off to Oregon, but that won't stop the momentum that is building in Tampa. New head coach Charlie Strong has a superstar at his disposal in QB Quinton Flowers, who is one of the nation's premier dual threats. Strong will improve an already-solid defense, with nine starters back. After winning ten games last season, USF should only take further steps and win the American Athletic in '17.
20. Louisville Cardinals: Three straight losses to end 2016 leaves Louisville searching for answers as we approach 2017. Lamar Jackson is set to return, but he struggled mightily in the season's second half and will lose a number of offensive weapons around him. Jaire Alexander and others will have to step up to improve a defense that also fell apart as the year wore on. Not helping the Cardinals will be the improvement of Florida State, which will only make the ACC Atlantic more perilous.
21. Washington State Cougars: Washington State also ended 2016 on a bitter note, losing their last three straight and managing just 12 points in a Holiday Bowl loss.  The good news is that QB Luke Falk is back, after briefly considering the NFL. The big-armed quarterback will lead Washington State's offense to new heights in 2017. Defensively, some new pieces will have to step up, but there is plenty of returning talent on the D-Line.
22. TCU Horned Frogs: TCU slipped in 2016, going just 6-7 as the team underwent a transition away from QB Trevone Boykin. However, there is reason to be excited about '17, as they return a ton of stars. Kenny Hill was very good in his first season as the team's starter and will benefit from a healthy KaVontae Turpin. Seven starters return to the defense, including a number of playmakers in the secondary.
23. Florida Gators: The two-time reigning SEC East Champions will not have an easy road back to the conference's championship game. They will lose corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and a ton from their front seven, along with their defensive coordinator. Even so, Jim McElwain does bring back his starting QB in Luke Del Rio and top offensive weapon in Antonio Callaway so the hope is that the offense can finally pick up some of the flack.
24. Texas Longhorns: Expectations should be tampered for Tom Herman in his first season with UT, but the talent level on this team is still impressive. Quarterback Shane Buechele had his moments last season and will develop more consistency, while Chris Warren will have to take over for the departed D'Onta Foreman. On defense, linebacker Malik Jefferson keeps getting better as he looks towards his junior season.
25. Minnesota Gophers: New head coach P.J. Fleck arrives in Minneapolis with a team that has the talent to surprise a number of folks inside the Big Ten. Backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks could form a deadly 1-2 punch, and the offense could actually improve as turnover-prone Mitch Leidner graduates at QB. On defense, a number of young defenders are ready to star, namely linebacker Carter Coughlin.

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