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Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018

Nick Bosa, Ohio State
1. Ohio State Buckeyes: Despite being snubbed from the College Football Playoff, Ohio State ended their 2017 season on a high note, dominating USC in the Cotton Bowl. The Buckeyes will begin 2018 without long-time starter J.T. Barrett at quarterback, but this team will still be talented enough to earn Urban Meyer his second National Title in Columbus. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins is expected to compete with highly touted Tate Martell to replace Barrett, and both will have plenty to work with. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber could form the nation's best 1-2 punch, and Ohio State should Parris Campbell on the outside. Defensively, star defensive end Sam Hubbard should move on to the NFL, but junior Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones should keep the front seven as good as ever. The back-end of the defense will lose some serious talent, but the depth Ohio State has throughout the roster should ensure there isn't any drop off. There will be an adjustment period as Ohio State moves on from Barrett as their team leader, but this team is seriously talented. They have the best shot of breaking up the Alabama stranglehold on the sport.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: It should be a usual off-season for Alabama. They will lose defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (who took the Tennessee head coach job), lose a ton of NFL talent on both sides of the ball, and face lofty expectations. And yet, the Tide should still be the favorite in the SEC and have a serious shot at getting their third title in four years. No matter who starts at quarterback, whether it is junior Jalen Hurts or sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, the offensive system should not change much. Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs should take over the role as the top backs, as Bo Scarbrough and likely Damien Harris both move on. On the outside, Calvin Ridley will be missed but this past season, true freshmen Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, who caught the game-winner in the National Championship, proved they can be elite playmakers. The defense will miss stars at nearly every position group, but this is Alabama, which means former four and five-star recruits are ready to fill in. Junior Mack Wilson is set to become the next great 'Bama linebacker, while defensive back Trevon Diggs is set to break out.
3. Clemson Tigers: Clemson has proven they are a program with the depth and talent base to reload every season, which they will have to do this spring, as defenders Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant all could be first-round NFL selections. The big question, however, will likely be at quarterback, where incumbent starter Kelly Bryant will have to fight off highly touted true frosh Trevor Lawrence. Whoever does get the reigns to the offense will have sophomore speedster Travis Etienne at running back, and an offensive line anchored by Mitch Hyatt, who decided not to turn pro. If defensive coordinator Brent Venables can rebuild the defense, which still has All-American candidate Dexter Lawrence up front, the Tigers should coast to another ACC crown.
4. Oklahoma Sooners: Sure, the Sooners will lose Heisman winner and record-setting QB Baker Mayfield, but that shouldn't completely kill the momentum that has built in Norman after earning their third consecutive Big 12 title in '17. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray should take over for Mayfield and while he may not completely replicate Baker's production, the former five-star recruit should still be an ideal fit for the offense. Murray will be aided by a running back committee that is as good as there is in the nation, along with an O-Line that should still be quality, even with star Orlando Brown set to leave school early. On the outside, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and company will give Murray and head coach Lincoln Riley plenty to play with. The defense has long been the Achilles Heel at Oklahoma, and the unit will have to replace some serious production. However, linebacker Caleb Kelly and corner Tre Norwood will give the group some base to work with.
5. Michigan Wolverines: A disappointing 8-5 campaign has left some Michigan fans wondering if head coach Jim Harbaugh really is the savior in Ann Arbor. However, Michigan had to replace their entire defense this past season, and dealt with some devastating injuries on offense. The struggles the team suffered through in 2017 should set them up for a huge 2018. QB Brandon Peters is expected to take over the offense, but will have to hold off rising Dylan McCaffrey, Christian's younger brother and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who should be eligible right away. Backs Chris Evans and Karan Higdon should both be back to help guide the run-orientated offense, while Grant Perry, Donovan Peoples-Jones and a healthy Tarik Black give UM an abundance of weapons on the outside. The defense, Harbaugh's strength, should be as stout as ever next season. Defensive end Rashan Gary, the former No.1 recruit in the country, is set to become a superstar, and Chase Winovich also opted to skip the NFL for now. Linebacker Devin Bush should also compete for All-American honors, and the secondary should be incredibly deep. There are certainly some question marks surrounding Michigan, but if this team can play up their talent level, they could very well make the Playoff in '18.
6. Georgia Bulldogs: The Bulldogs were one of the biggest surprises of the 2017 season, and of course, came agonizingly close to a National Title in Kirby Smart's second season in Athens. Georgia will have to replace program staples Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as well as likely linebacker Roquan Smith, the unquestioned leader of the defense. Even so, expect another successful season for Smart and company. Jake Fromm returns at quarterback and could be in store for a huge sophomore season. He will helped out by Elijah Holyfield Jr. and D'Andre Swift, who should replace the Chubb/Michel combo at running back, while Riley Ridley is a breakout star at wide out. The defense will be in store for a transition without Smith, as well as the losses of other contributors, like John Atkins, Davin Bellamy and defensive backs Deandre Baker and Dominick Sanders. End Jonathan Ledbetter and defensive tackle Trent Thompson will have to step up, and the 'Dawgs will hope Smart's great recruiting on that side of the ball will pay dividends.
7. Miami Hurricanes: Before their three-game losing streak to end the season, Miami looked like a prime National Title threat, and things should only be better in 2018. Quarterback Malik Rosier will return for his senior campaign after throwing for 3,120 yards last year, and should be helped by a dynamic receiver corps which will include junior Ahmmon Richards, who was hurt for most of '17. On the other side of the ball, Mark Richt will have a ton of experience and talent back, starting with a stacked linebacker unit, which will bring back Michael Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman. The back-end will have to replace stud graduate transfer Dee Delaney at corner, but Malek Young and Michael Jackson should ensure the unit stays stingy. If Rosier can continue to grow as a passer and the defense can play up to their talent level, the 'Canes have all the pieces to win their first conference title since moving to the ACC.
8. Wisconsin Badgers: After coming within one game of the Playoff this past season, Wisconsin will once more have their eyes set on the four-team field next year. The defense will have to replace talent at every level, but linebacker T.J. Edwards and underrated defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will ensure there is not much of a dropoff on that side of the ball. On offense, the Badgers will likely return ten starters, including QB Alex Hornibrook and Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor at running back. Hornibrook showed progress in his first full season as starter for the Badgers, and should only get better with more time under his belt. Taylor will be the feature back for Wisconsin after a huge true freshman campaign, but expect Bradrick Shaw and former Pitt transfer Chris James should also see action.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers: This has potential to be the best West Virginia team since 2007, when the Pat White-led Mountaineers came within one game of the National Championship. Quarterback Will Grier put up big numbers in 2017 and opted to wait on the NFL. He will form a terrifying combination with star wide receiver David Sills V, who also decided to wait on turning pro. Add in fellow wide out Gary Jennings (97 catches in '17) and running back Kennedy McKoy (596 yards), and WVU's offense will be among the best in the country. The defense had an inconsistent season in '17, but returns enough pieces to be serviceable. Four out of the top seven tacklers are slated to return, including stud linebacker David Long.
10. Auburn Tigers: After beating two No. 1 teams in consecutive weeks, Auburn ended the season in a disappointing manner, losing their final two games to go 10-4. However, the Tigers got quite the late Christmas present when QB Jarrett Stidham decided to return for another year on the Plains. The big-armed QB should contend for Heisman honors, especially with the help of top pass-catchers Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. Auburn will have to replace backfield mates Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway (injured for most of 2017, has decided to leave program) and some playmakers defensively, but the tools are still in place for the Tigers to contend for a second straight SEC West title.
11. Washington Huskies: UW is coming off consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since the early 1990s, but the Huskies have bigger goals than just ten wins, such as the Playoff and conference title, which eluded them in 2017. QB Jake Browning should be back to fuel an offense that will once again be dangerous, even if coordinator Jonathan Smith left for the head coach job at Oregon State. Running back Myles Gaskin will likely be back for his senior season, and left tackle Trey Adams should have a big year returning from injury. The defense will lose some important pieces, but the secondary could be one of the nation's best, with shutdown corner Byron Murphy and interception machine Taylor Rapp set to return.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions: PSU has won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but must now say goodbye to back Saquon Barkley, who should go in the Top 5 of the 2018 NFL Draft. It will be nearly impossible to completely replace Barkley, but former highly touted recruit Miles Sanders should do a fine job in the feature back role. Trace McSorley should return for his senior season, but will have to identify a new top target, with DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki graduating. The defense will have to rebuilt without stars Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen, but the front should still be solid, with breakout candidate Shareff Miller leading the charge.
13. Virginia Tech Hokies: While Miami will be the favorite in the ACC Coastal, Virginia Tech should be able to challenge the 'Canes. Soon-to-be sophomore Josh Jackson impressed in his first season as starting QB last year, and should only get better in '18. The offensive line will have to be rebuilt, and the Hokies will have to identify a new No. 1 receiver with Cam Phillips leaving, but the talent is there. On the other side of the ball, long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster will keep VT as stout as ever. Replacing linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who is leaving for the NFL a year early, won't be easy but defensive tackle Ricky Walker and corner Adonis Alexander are All-ACC candidates.
14. Michigan State Spartans: With Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State stealing headlines, it is easy to forget about Michigan State, but this team is a serious Big Ten dark horse entering 2018. QB Brian Lewerke continues to improve after a solid sophomore season, and will be joined by a supporting cast that includes back L.J. Scott and wide out Felton Davis. MSU has long been a defensive team, and that should once again be the case next year. Only Demetrius Cooper and Chris Frey are set to graduate, and there is impressive depth throughout the unit.
15. Stanford Cardinal: As of right now, it is completely unclear whether running back Bryce Love will return for his senior season in Palo Alto after coming in second in Heisman voting. If he does, the Cardinal will be the favorite in the Pac-12 and likely a serious Playoff contender. If he doesn't, Stanford should still be in a pretty good spot. Young QB K.J. Costello should be in store for a big leap in his second year as starter, and will be helped by a wide out group that is led by Trenton Irwin and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Stanford should also be exceptional on the offensive line and on defense, where head coach David Shaw always has guys ready to step up.
16. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Mississippi State often gets overlooked in the loaded SEC West, but this team could be in store for something special in 2018. Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead takes over in Starkville, and should be able to do serious damage with underrated Nick Fitzgerald at QB, assuming he comes back from a scary injury in the Egg Bowl. Running back Aeris Williams (1,107 yards) and receivers Keith Mixon and Malik Dear will give Moorhead plenty of toys to play with. The defense should be solid as well, particularly if former five-star recruit Jeffery Simmons has the breakout season many people around the program expect him to have under new coordinator Bob Shoop.
17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The Irish were one of the biggest surprises in the nation this past season, going from a 4-8 2016 to a ten-win campaign. They'll be awfully talented next season, but there are still some serious question marks. Ian Book and Brandon Wimbush both showed flashes of brilliance at QB and will compete for the starting job. Running back Josh Adams will be a big loss, as will star offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. On defense, the Irish must replace D-coordinator Mike Elko (set to become the coordinator at Texas A&M) but there is an abundance of talent set to return, including Drue Tranquill, Julian Love and Jerry Tillery, assuming he doesn't turn pro early.
18. LSU Tigers: Offense has long been an issue for LSU, and it is hard to see the Tigers making any noise in 2018 until they solve their offensive woes. It is unclear whether O-coordinator Matt Canada will be back and even if does return, he'll have to replace QB Danny Etling and star back Derrius Guice. The good news is that soon-to-be sophomore Myles Brennan has some experience at QB, and LSU always has a good stockpile of running backs. Also, the defense should be as good as ever, especially if linebacker Devin White continues to get better.
19. USC Trojans: Expect a rebuilding season in Southern California in 2018, as the Trojans must replace star QB Sam Darnold, as well as their leading rusher and receiver. It is unclear who will replace Darnold, but this is USC, so the cupboard is far from bare. The defense should take major steps forward after an up and down '17. Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin both decided not to turn pro and when joined by All-American candidate Rasheem Greene, the defensive front should be imposing. The secondary will have to be shored up, but there is ample talent in the unit.
20. Boise State Broncos: While UCF and Florida Atlantic pose quite a threat, Boise State is the early favorite to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six bowls. Veteran quarterback Brett Rypien returns to lead the offense, and will be joined by underrated running back Alexander Mattison, who did a fabulous job replacing Jeremy McNichols this season. The defense should be very strong, even with star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch set to leave early for the NFL. Nearly every other big name returns to a group that allowed just 22.9 points per game in 2017.
21. Texas Longhorns: There were some growing pains, but Tom Herman did a fine job in his first season in Austin, and the Longhorns could have a breakthrough year in 2018. Soon-to-be sophomore Sam Ehlinger is expected to retain the starting quarterback job, but former starter Shane Buechele will likely push him. Ehlinger showed incredible promise as a true frosh this past season and will be helped by the return of his top three receivers. The defense will miss linebacker Malik Jefferson, but D-coordinator Todd Orlando is one of the most innovative minds in the game and will utilize the impressive talent Herman was able to land on the recruiting trail.
22. Florida Atlantic Owls: FAU ended 2017 on a ten game win streak, and the Owls could be in store for even bigger things under second year head coach Lane Kiffin. QB Jason Driskel is expected to return to run the offense, as is running back Devin Singletary, who could become a dark horse Heisman candidate after managing 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns in '17. Kiffin will also have the luxury of an experienced defense, as FAU should return likely every single one of their top ten tacklers from last season.
23. Florida State Seminoles: The Seminoles were a major disappointment in 2017, but new head coach Willie Taggart should inject some new energy into the program. Taggart has two quarterbacks with significant experience including Deondre Francois, who missed basically all of '17 but impressed as starter in 2016. Taggart will also have two quality running backs in Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick and while the defense will have to replace some serious star power, defensive end Brian Burns and defensive back Levonta Taylor provide a good core to work with.
24. South Carolina Gamecocks: It has not gotten much national attention, but Will Muschamp has done a fabulous at South Carolina, who quietly won nine games this past season. Even bigger things could be in store in 2018, especially if young QB Jake Bentley can continue to grow. Bentley will be helped by a stocked backfield, as well as wide out Deebo Samuel, who was putting together a huge 2017 before getting injured and sitting out the year. The defense will need some retooling and must move on from star linebacker Skai Moore, the anchor of the unit for years, but Muschamp has recruited well.
25. UCF Knights: The self-proclaimed National Champions will have to not only move on from head coach Scott Frost, they will also have to replace a bunch of stars from the defense. That will not be an easy task but new head man Josh Huepel (formerly the OC at Missouri) will have plenty to work with on offense, where every big name returns, including QB McKenzie Milton, who finished eighth in Heisman voting.

Others to Watch
Kansas State Wildcats
Oregon Ducks
Iowa State Cyclones
Oklahoma State Cowboys
NC State Wolfpack
Northwestern Wildcats
Florida Gators
Purdue Boilermakers

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