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College Football Preview 2018: Previewing the Power Five Conferences


Atlantic Division
1. Clemson Tigers (National Rank: 1) Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 ACC)
Eric Dungey, Syracuse
Clemson is led by the most formidable defensive line in the country, and one that should go down in history as being one of the best in recent history. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence are going to all vie for All-American honors, and a pair of highly touted freshman arrive to the defensive front as well. On offense, explosive sophomore back Travis Etienne and sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins look ready for big seasons. The Tigers have held the ACC with an iron grip the last three seasons, and I don't expect them to loosen it in 2018. I have them winning the National Title.
2. Florida State Seminoles (National Rank: 16) Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)
New head coach Willie Taggart has breathed fresh new life into Florida State's football program, coming off a disappointing 7-6 record in 2017. Taggart will run early and often with budding superstar Cam Akers, and also has the luxury of a veteran QB in Deondre Francois, coming back from injury. The defense has the talent to be really good, particularly in the secondary, where Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels III look ready to help Seminoles fans forget about Derwin James.
3. NC State Wolfpack Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)
Despite losing first-round NFL Draft selection Bradley Chubb and a number of other important pieces to their defense, NC State looks like a sneaky dark horse team in the ACC Atlantic. Veteran QB Ryan Finley is back for his senior season, and should be one of the best in the conference. He will be aided by an upgraded receiver corps and solid O-Line. The defense does need to replace nine starters, but there are some reserves who should be just fine sliding into starting roles. The Wolfpack should be in contention in the Atlantic, but they will need that defense to gel quickly if they have any shot at overtaking either Clemson or FSU at the top.
4. Boston College Eagles Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
Boston College was a pleasant surprise in 2017, winning seven games behind the powerful running of freshman A.J. Dillon, who came out of nowhere to record 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. Dillon will once more be a workhorse this season, and is actually my Heisman pick this year with the amount of usage he is going to see. Improving sophomore QB Anthony Brown and rock-solid tight end Tommy Sweeney should also lead a maturing offense. The Eagles reload on defense as well as anybody in the conference, and there is still loads of talent there. Senior defensive end Zach Allen and senior free safety Lukas Denis are All-ACC talents. It won't be an easy road for the Eagles in the perilous Atlantic, but they have enough to get a postseason bid.
5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons Projected Record:6-6 (3-5 ACC)
One of the biggest turnarounds in the entire country happened in Winston-Salem last year, as Wake Forest's offense went from one of the worst in the nation to one of the best, averaging 35.3 PPG in '17. They will ride that momentum heavily entering 2018, as the Deacons return top running back Matt Colburn and star receiver Greg Dortch (9 TD last year). However, the issue will be the defense, which was wildly inconsistent a season ago and must replace their top two pass rushers and leader of the secondary, safety Jessie Bates. This team will take a step back from eight victories, but the offense should still make enough plays to go .500. 
6. Louisville Cardinals Projected Record: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)
It is reasonable to assume this is going to be a rebuilding year at Louisville, as they begin life without Lamar Jackson. The likely heir to Jackson at quarterback is sophomore Jawon Pass, who has upside but will still need time to learn. Unfortunately, he will open up his time as starter against Alabama, who will be stout and hungry as usual defensively. Pass will have the help of a strong receivers corps (led by senior Jaylen Smith) and a veteran offensive line, but much like Wake Forest, the defense is a big concern. The Cardinals were tenth in the ACC in scoring defense and now must make do without top defensive back Jaire Alexander and learn under new DC Brian VanGorder, whose last stint ended four games into 2016 at Notre Dame. This could be a major setback season for Louisville, but the pieces are there for them to start building towards a resurgent 2019 and beyond.
7. Syracuse Orange 5-7 (2-6 ACC)
Year Three of the Dino Babers era begins at Syracuse, who had some moments in 2017 but lost their final five games to finish 4-8. Senior QB Eric Dungey is back, but the gritty veteran signal-caller must  make do without a number of his go-to receivers and a rebuilding O-Line. Senior back Dontae Strickland will take some pressure off of Dungey, who was the team's leading rusher a year ago. On defense, the Orange still give up too many big plays and struggle to create turnovers, a poor formula in this balanced division. The defensive front has a number of guys back and the secondary is experienced, so there is hope for improvement. Syracuse should look much better on the field than in '17, but the record may not necessarily indicate it. A number of tough road conference games will decide their eventual fate. 

Coastal Division
1. Miami Hurricanes (National Rank: 9) Projected Record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
For the first time since moving to the ACC, Miami went to the conference championship and won double-digit games, a clear sign of the progress Mark Richt has made. The Hurricanes will once more be aggressive and balanced defensively, where they return seven starters. The front seven should be especially good, with budding star Joe Jackson at end and three veteran starters back at linebacker. The offense still must get better, but junior back Travis Homer and a healthy Ahmmon Richards at receiver will ensure the 'Canes still put up plenty of points. Miami may not yet be ready to contend for a Playoff berth, but the talent on this roster continues to grow and mature. Another Coastal Division crown looks like a near lock in Coral Gables.
2. Virginia Tech Hokies (National Rank: 18) Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 ACC)
Justin Fuente continues to do great work in Blacksburg, and there is enough back for Virginia Tech to contend for a Coastal Title. Quarterback Josh Jackson should take a major step forward in his second season as starter, and he has plenty of weapons to work with offensively, including new Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton. That offense will have to play well, as the Hokies' usual strength, the defense must rebuild. Coordinator Bud Foster must completely restructure the linebacker corps and secondary, where Virginia Tech lost a lot to graduation, early NFL defections and injury. There is still enough talent for the Hokies to be a contender in this conference, but the defense is still too shaky to imagine this being a real breakthrough for Fuente and staff.
3. Duke Blue Devils Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4 ACC)
If you are looking for a dark horse in an interesting Coastal Division, look no further then Duke. The Blue Devils quietly won seven games a year ago, and return a big chunk of that core. It starts with junior QB Daniel Jones, who continues to improve and could be in store for a huge season. He will engineer a methodical offense that also has top receiver T.J. Rahming (795 yards) and back Brittain Brown returning. The defense quietly was 21st in the nation in scoring defense last year, and this under appreciated group should be strong once more. Junior middle linebacker Joe Giles-Harris & junior cornerback Mark Gilbert are two of the best in the conference and will play important roles once again. Duke may not quite be at the level of the elite teams in this conference, but there is experience and some real talent in Durham. It wouldn't be surprising to see this team make some serious noise in '18.
4. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
Head coach Paul Johnson returns for his 11th year in Atlanta, and so too does his triple-option attack. Leading it this season will be senior QB TaQuon Marshall, along with backs KirVonte Benson and Clinton Lynch. With Marshall and Benson, GT returns two guys who ran for over 1,000 yards in 2017, and have an experienced offensive line to run behind. While that bodes well offensively, the other side of the ball needs some major work. Outside of a front seven that has four starters returning, the defense doesn't have much experience and depth is a huge concern. The Yellow Jackets do appear to have enough back to give some teams some trouble with their ground game, but there are still too many holes. Getting back to a bowl after last season's 5-6 record should be the goal for Georgia Tech.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)
After a shaky 2-5 start to 2017, Pittsburgh played improved football down the stretch, and hope to continue some of that momentum on to '18. There is talent offensively, although it is still young and maturing. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett played well in the season's second half, but will have to deal with a rebuilding O-Line and a receiver corps without much proven playmakers. The return of backs Darrin Hill and Qadree Ollison will alleviate some of the pressure off Pickett. The defense was not very good last season, and it is unclear whether this is the group to take a step forward on that side of the ball. The linebacker corps could be pretty good, but the secondary was the big issue on this team a season ago, and must replace three starters. Talent-wise, the Panthers are going to be better than their record may indicate this season, but the Coastal is tough and this team is still young in key areas. It could be another down season for Pat Narduzzi, who may start to feel some pressure to get Pitt back into serious contention.
6. Virginia Cavaliers Projected Record: 4-8 (1-7 ACC)
Bronco Mendenhall made significant strides with Virginia in his second season with the Cavaliers, going from two wins to six, and making a bowl for the first time since 2011. This year's Virginia team could make some progress in some areas, but they are also replacing plenty of important leadership. QB Kurt Benkert graduated, and the defense lost their three best players in Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser and Andrew Brown. Former Arizona State transfer Bryce Perkins will take over the offense from Benkert, but the ground game must get better after managing just 93.5 yards per game in 2017, 128th in the country. It will be tough sledding for the Cavaliers as they embark on a transition season, but the talent level in Charlottesville continues to rise. The future is starting to look bright, and 2019 could be a breakthrough year if the groundwork is laid this year.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels Projected Record: 2-10 (0-8 ACC)
It was already going to be a tough season for UNC, as they attempted to recover from a disastrous 3-9 2017, but suspensions to a number of players over a wide range of games makes 2018 even more of a challenge for Larry Fedora and staff. A total of 13 players were suspended in connection with the selling of school-issued Nike Jordan shoes, an NCAA violation. As a result, QB Chaz Surratt and a number of other players at important positions will miss significant time. There is still hope Fedora can turnaround the offense, which fell apart a season ago but the QB position is still unsettled, and nobody jumps out at receiver beyond junior Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The defense continues to one of the worst in the ACC, although the front seven has the pieces to change that. You hate to bury any team or coach especially in a sport with the parity of college football, but this looks like it could be a long fall in Chapel Hill. It will be interesting to see whether Fedora, who has been relatively mediocre with the exception of one 11-win 2016 will survive it. 

Projected ACC Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College
Defensive Player of the Year: Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson
Newcomer of the Year: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Coach of the Year: Willie Taggart, Florida State
Championship Game: Clemson over Miami

Big Ten

East Division
1. Michigan Wolverines (National Rank: 7) Projected Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
2017 was an off-year for the Wolverines and head coach Jim Harbaugh, but they have the pieces in place to make a grand re-entrance into the National Title conversation. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is immediately eligible at quarterback, and Michigan believes the former five-star recruit will be able to jumpstart their struggling offense. The return of backs Chris Evans and Karan Higdon, as well as the likely breakout of wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones should also help. On defense, UM might have the best unit in the entire country. Up front, they boast two of the best pass rushers in the conference in Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, while linebacker Devin Bush is a surefire All-American. There will be no easy sledding for the Wolverines in the brutal Big Ten East, but this team has all the talent and should produce. A return to a New Year's Six Bowl looks like a fine expectation for the Wolverines in Harbaugh's fourth season.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes (National Rank: 8) Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
The drama following the Urban Meyer situation has subsided, and the result is a three game suspension for the Buckeye head coach. The absence of Meyer and the continuing distraction of the Zach Smith scandal could hurt this OSU team slightly, but they still have the talent to win the Big Ten. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber lead the offense with one of the best 1-2 punches at running back in the country, while the hope is new signal-caller Dwayne Haskins can move the ball through the air more effectively than the departed J.T. Barrett, who loved to tuck it and run. Either way, the defense could still be the backbone of this team, as the defensive line is one of the best out there. Ends Nick Bosa and Chase Young are set to have monster seasons, although the secondary needs some repairing, with some key pieces gone.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions (National Rank: 11) Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Ohio State and Michigan get more national headlines, but Penn State has won 22 games over the last two years and looks primed to be a serious threat once more in 2018. Quarterback Trace McSorley is now the unquestioned leader of the offense as Saquon Barkley moves on, and the senior QB will put up big numbers throwing to receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins. High-profile newcomer Justin Shorter, a huge pickup for James Franklin and staff from New Jersey, is going to make an immediate impact as well. The bigger question is the defense, which has to replace nine starters and has some significant question marks. The D-Line should still be able to provide a hungry pass rush with the leadership of junior end Shareef Miller and the linebacker corps is not a complete problem, with Koa Farmer back and five-star true freshman Micah Parsons set to play plenty of snaps. Yet, the secondary is without much experience or proven playmakers and PSU also has to deal with a schedule that includes the East Division powers as well as Iowa and Wisconsin is the cross-division. Expecting this year to be the playoff jump for Franklin might be a year or two too soon for the Nittany Lions.
4. Michigan State Spartans (National Rank: 12) Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Last year's massive improvement in East Lansing showed Mark Dantonio and the Spartans won't be forgotten about by the other big-time programs in this division. Michigan State will once again not be very flashy, but they will be well-coached and play disciplined football. The offense actually has the chance to be pretty explosive, not typically the norm under Dantonio. Junior QB Brian Lewerke is one of the most underrated players in the conference, and he is joined by workhorse back L.J. Scott and top wide out Felton Davis. Defense should once again be no problem for the Spartans, as the front seven is loaded with size and experience. Junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie might be the best inside 'backer Dantonio has coached in a long-line of good ones, and the pass defense should be rangy as well. In most divisions, Michigan State might be considered a favorite, but this year's East Division is as unforgiving as they come. The Spartans should be able to be in the thick of things, but winning it might be a little bit to ask for a team still learning offensively.
5. Indiana Hoosiers Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
There is a large dropoff between the top four teams in the division and the bottom three, but don't overlook the Hoosiers. Indiana has competed with the top teams in the conference the last few years, and they might have enough to finally pull off an upset in 2018. The offense will be led by sophomore QB Peyton Ramsey or Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins. They should keep the aerial attack sharp throwing the ball to veteran Luke Timian and a healthy Nick Westbrook (995 yards in 2016). The defense was actually the strength of the team last season, an indication of the program's new focus on that side of the ball under second-year coach Tom Allen. This defense must replace eight starters, but the secondary still boasts plenty of experience. The Hoosiers may not yet be at a level to compete for a Big Ten Title, but they could surprise. They look like the dark horse, overlooked team in this division that could create some chaos. 
6. Maryland Terrapins Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
After a strong start to the 2017 campaign, injuries crippled Maryland's chances and they ended up with a disappointing 4-8 record in D.J. Durkin's second season. They then had to deal with a tough off-season that included the death of player Jordan McNair during a summer workout that resulted in the firing of the strength coach and the placing of Durkin on administrative leave. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada will serve as interim coach as Durkin's future remains unclear. Canada will have some intriguing talent to work with on offense, namely senior back Ty Johnson and redshirt freshman QB Kasim Hill. Johnson ran for 875 yards last season and could be in store for a big year running behind a strong O-Line, while Hill showed flashes in '17 before being lost for the season due to injury. The big challenge for the Terrapins will be fixing a defense that was 120th in the nation in scoring defense last season, letting up 37 points per game. Former Auburn defensive end Byron Cowart should upgrade a mild pass rush, as will the improved health of outside linebacker Jesse Aniebonam. However, the secondary is still a concern in an improving passing league, and the continued questions about McNair and the atmosphere in the program could haunt this team. Maryland has the talent to contend, but the looming issues make it look like another rebuilding campaign in College Park. 
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights Projected Record: 4-8 (1-8 Big Ten)
Despite having an offense that managed a measly 18 PPG and just 262 yards per game (dead last in FBS football), Rutgers won three conference games last season and made strides under head coach Chris Ash. Ash still has plenty of work he needs to do, but there is some talent on the Scarlet Knights' roster, and they are making improvements across the board. Freshman QB Arthur Sitkowski is the favorite to start, and the coaching staff has raved about the young signal-caller. With that being said, he will have to lead an offense with a dearth of playmakers, although the addition of Boston College transfer Jon Hilliman at running back helps. The defense could actually be pretty good, and is Ash's expertise as a former Ohio State DC. Senior linebacker Trevor Morris had 118 tackles last season and remains a key defender, and the secondary is healthier entering this fall. The non-conference slate does feature a sneaky Group of Five team in Buffalo, but the Knights should still win all three. If they match last year's conference win total, that would mean a bowl.

West Division
1. Wisconsin Badgers (National Rank: 4) Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big Ten)
After winning 13 games and losing just a single conference game last season, the Badgers are riding high entering 2018. Their offense has the chance to be the most explosive Wisconsin offense in a very long time, with junior QB Alex Hornibrook looking ready to take a big step forward. Sophomore Jonathan Taylor is a Heisman candidate at running back, and should put up huge numbers running behind a stacked O-Line that returns all five starters. There needs to be some retooling on defense, but coordinator Jim Leonhard looks up to the challenge. Senior linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly will be the clear-cut leaders of the unit, and safety D'Cota Dixon will have to stabilize the back-end. While the East Division powers beat themselves up, the path is much more clear for the Badgers to win the conference title in the easier West. If Hornibrook does really take the next step, a Playoff berth is a real possibility.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
The Hawkeyes don't have the talent of some of the top teams in this conference, but don't overlook what Kirk Ferentz and his staff can do. There are some good pieces returning to this roster, and a veteran QB ready to light the way. Even though consistency was a problem, Nate Stanley had 26 touchdowns last season and the QB has his top target, All-American tight end, Noah Fant, back to help out. The ground game must be replenished with their top two rushers gone, but the Hawkeyes reload there as well as anyone. The defense has to replace some premier talent, namely linebacker Josey Jewell and corner Josh Jackson, but coordinator Phil Parker still has plenty of weapons. Junior end Anthony Nelson had 7.5 sacks in 2017, and could form a potent pass rushing combo with veteran Parker Heese. It will be tough for Iowa to overcome the Badgers in this division, but they should still be a factor. Ten wins is not completely out of the conversation, especially if Stanley can become more consistent.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers Projected Record: 7-5 (4-5 Big Ten)
The prodigal son of Nebraska football is back, as Scott Frost arrives after an undefeated season at UCF. He will hope to replenish a program that took a major step back under the leadership of Mike Riley, and is coming off a 4-8 season. Frost has a lot of playmakers to implement his new, up-tempo offense, which will be guided by untested, but talented freshman Adrian Martinez. His top four rushers are all returning, and the receivers corps is led by senior Stanley Morgan Jr. and do-it-all J.D. Spielman. The defense also has significant upside, but there is some work to be done as this was the most porous group in the entire Big Ten a year ago. Much of the front seven is returning, with senior end Freedom Akinmoladun and senior linebacker Dedrick Young the clear leaders. Yet, this is not going to be a complete turnaround in Frost's debut in Lincoln. There is some exciting young talent here, and Frost has shown he can do some special things in short amounts of time. A .500 season which could include some upsets should be a fine start for this new staff.
4. Purdue Boilermakers Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Jeff Brohm made a splashing debut in West Lafayette a year ago, as Purdue won seven games and won their bowl game over Arizona. It will be interesting to see what Brohm and this staff are able to do for an encore. Junior quarterback Elijah Sindelar should be the guy running the show, and he should be able to find success with a talented receivers corps and four starters back on the offensive line. Yet, the offense still has to find a way to create more big plays. Brohm, known as an offensive mind, will have to be more creative in some of the schemes he draws up. The defense was pretty strong in 2017, but must replace seven starters. Junior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal is among the most underrated linemen in the conference, and middle linebacker Markus Bailey is the anchor in the heart of the group. The biggest obstacle in the way of another bowl trip is a tough schedule, which includes two Power Five teams (Missouri and Boston College) and a number of tough road games. It could be a slight step back as the defense adjusts, but Brohm continues to recruit well. 2019 looks like the year for a real breakthrough from the Boilermakers. 
5. Northwestern Wildcats Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Northwestern quietly won ten games last season, and they shouldn't be overlooked heading into 2018. On offense, the key will be the health of veteran QB Clayton Thorson and how the Wildcats are able to replace the program's all-time leading rusher, Jeremy Jackson. Thorson should be good for Northwestern's opener with Purdue, while sophomore Jeremy Larkin looks to mitigate the absence of Jackson. Larkin rushed for 503 yards in relief, and most around the program think he has potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten. Pat Fitzgerald constantly does a great job with this defense, and he has some key pieces back in Evanston in 2018. Sophomore Paddy Fisher emerged as a tackling machine last season, racking up 113 tackles in the heat of the defense. Junior end Joe Gaziano will also play a crucial role after managing nine sacks a season ago. The Wildcats schedule this season is just going to be tough; they face Notre Dame in the non-conference and a lot of their toss-up games in the conference are on the road. That is why I'm picking a dropoff for the 'Cats, but I wouldn't be surprised if they end up winning a lot more than expected.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers Projected Record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
The P.J. Fleck era enters its second season after a rather underwhelming debut. The Gophers had some moments under Fleck, but a terrible passing offense eventually doomed Minnesota to a 5-7 record. Walk-on true freshman Zach Annexstad will now be tasked with upgrading the aerial attack, but he will helped by the addition of highly touted freshman Rashod Bateman and the return of top target Tyler Johnson. Minnesota took a big hit when back Shannon Brooks was lost for the season in the spring, putting more pressure on senior Rodney Smith, who slumped in 2017. Smith has the talent to be one of the best in the conference, but he needs more help from an offensive line still figuring things out. The defense has talent, but they are still very young in a lot of areas. Defensive end Carter Coughlin is a terrific playmaker, and Minnesota hopes Alabama transfer O.J. Smith can become a factor in the heart of the D-Line. The return of junior linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, along with a healthy Antoine Winfield Jr. bodes well for the Gophers. This team has the potential to take a major step forward if the passing game improves and the defense realizes their talent, but they just don't look quite ready just yet. Unless Minnesota can go on the road and beat some pretty strong Big Ten powers (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road) they look like they're bound for another season near the bottom of the West.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini Projected Record: 3-9 (0-9 Big Ten)
The Fighting Illini looked lost at times last year, but Lovie Smith hopes he has figured things out to start building towards contention in Champaign. Smith brings in former Arizona OC Rod Smith to try and jumpstart an offense that lacked any bite in 2017, and there is a decent amount of returning talent. The question is once more at quarterback, where the Illini are turning to former Nebraska and Virginia Tech signal-caller A.J. Bush, although it is likely we see freshman M.J. Rivers at some point. Bush is hoping he can resurrect the career of wide out Mike Dudek; he had over 1,000 receiving yards his freshman year but has missed serious time with two torn ACLs. Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin hope to give Illinois their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010. Smith made some strides with a young defense last season, and all four starters return to an improving secondary. Yet, unless they can get pressure on the QB, they aren't going to contend in this conference. Perhaps freshman defensive tackle Calvin Avery, a huge get from Dallas, will help. The addition of a new offensive system and an abundance of returning pieces on that side of the ball signal some improvement. However, unless the Illini take major leaps forward, they still look like the clear-cut basement dweller in this division.

Projected Big Ten Awards:
Offensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
Newcomer of the Year: Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Championship Game: Wisconsin over Michigan

Big 12

1. Oklahoma Sooners (National Rank: 2) Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big 12)
The three-time reigning Big 12 Champion Oklahoma Sooners will once more be up to their usual tricks in 2018. Head coach Lincoln Riley has weapons everywhere, including budding running back Rodney Anderson and speedy wide out Marquise Brown. The loss of the team's unquestioned leader and Heisman QB Baker Mayfield will obviously be felt, but Kyler Murray has the talent to quickly take over the reigns in Norman. The former five-star recruit is even more mobile than Mayfield, giving this offense yet another element for defenses to plan around. Mike Stoops continues to tool around with the defense, but this group needs to take a step forward if the Sooners want to be serious National Title contenders this year. The return of linebackers Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray should be a guiding force on this defense, and the secondary has a chance to be good, even if they are playing in the wide-open Big 12. Until someone proves they can knock them off, Oklahoma is the favorite in this conference. I see yet another Big 12 Title banner being raised in Norman this next off-season.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers (National Rank: 13) Projected Record: 9-4 (7-2 Big 12)
Will Grier looked awfully at home in his first season in Morgantown following a short-lived stint with Florida. He threw for 4,390 yards and 34 touchdowns and the Mountaineers averaged 34.5 PPG, third in the high-scoring conference. Grier is now back for the Mountaineers, as is a number of his favorite targets, namely Biletnikoff Award favorite David Sills (18 TD receptions in 2017) and senior Gary Jennings. Junior Kennedy McKoy will take some of the pressure off Grier by adding a stable run threat. The offense has serious starpower, but it is the defense that must find a way to improve from a dismal 2017. Coordinator Tony Gibson has proven he can turnaround any group, but he must replace seven starters, and WVU was hit by a rash of injuries in the spring. The D-Line could be improved, as West Virginia welcomes in USC transfer Kenny Bigelow, along with highly touted instate prospect Dante Stills, both who could start at end. Even with this spotty defense, I like West Virginia's chances in a Big 12 that is wide-open past Oklahoma. Ten wins remains a real possibility, and Heisman contention could be in the cards for Grier. 
3. Texas Longhorns Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
Even though it started shaky with a season-opening loss to Maryland, Tom Herman's debut season was just fine in Austin. The Longhorns finished off a reasonable 7-6, but more importantly, looked ready to finally make the jump back into serious contention in the conference with the attitude and confidence they played with. Sophomore QB Sam Ehlinger took advantage of an injured Shane Buechele and had some real promising moments. He beat off Buechele to hold onto the starting job, and should have plenty of big throws with junior receiver Collin Johnson and this stacked receivers group. Though, the offense will take a backseat to what could be a very good defense, even with some pieces gone. Coordinator Todd Orlando has impressed with his exotic looks and innovative mind, resulting in a raise to $1.7 million annually. The Longhorns are hoping that raise can help him find replacements for star linebacker Malik Jefferson and defensive tackle Poona Ford. Senior end/linebacker Breckyn Hager has the chance to be an All-Big 12 talent, and the talent in the secondary is hard to miss. Orlando and staff bring back three starters to that back-end and added a pair of big-time defensive back recruits in Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster. A tough non-conference slate mixed with some interesting road trips make it unlikely this is really the breakout season for Herman and the 'Horns. But, there is no denying the progress already being made under this staff, and a third place finish in this competitive conference should get plenty of respect and recognition.
4. TCU Horned Frogs Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
Gary Patterson and TCU continue to not get much national attention, but the Horned Frogs are coming off an 11-win season and still look primed to make some noise in this conference. QB Kenny Hill is gone, but the staff is hopeful sophomore Shawn Robinson can fulfill has vast potential. He will be aided by junior back Darius Anderson and KaVontae Turpin, among the most exciting and electrifying playmakers there is anywhere. Yet, Patterson still  loves his defense and this group will likely be key to any hopes of returning to the Big 12 Championship Game. Senior end Ben Banogu looks like one of the top pass rushers out there, but the pass defense needs some fixing, as a number of guys are gone from the Big 12's top group in '17. A date in mid-September in Arlington with Ohio State will decide the course of the season. If TCU wins they become a legit Playoff threat but a loss followed up by a road trip to Austin could be troubling and likely result in a mid-tier finish in the league.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big 12)
Much like TCU, Oklahoma State is in somewhat of a rebuilding mode as they break in a new QB and some other new faces, but still be wary of the Cowboys. Senior Taylor Cornelius begins the year as the leader of the offense, one that will still be fast-paced and lean on the air attack. The receivers group is still stocked with talent, and former LSU transfer Tyron Johnson finally looks ready to live up to this talent. Junior back Justice Hill is a key returnee, as he will give the offense bite no matter what happens at quarterback. Hill quietly ran for 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and remains a sneaky Heisman dark horse. As usual, it is the defense that is the big question mark for Oklahoma State, and it will be up-and-down once again in Stillwater. There are some interesting pieces and the rush defense was pretty sound in 2017, but the Cowboys still struggle to defend the pass. With three starters gone in the secondary, there could be a lot of big plays and open lanes for receivers. Even so, Mike Gundy continues to prove himself as a coach that can win in this unconventional league, and he still has plenty of pieces. A ten win 2017 will be hard to replicate, but eight victories seems about right for a team in transition away from the lengthy Mason Rudolph era.
6. Iowa State Cyclones Projected Record: 7-5 (5-4 Big 12)
The most pleasant surprise in the Big 12 a season ago was undoubtedly Iowa State, who won eight games and won back-to-back games over Top 10 opponents. Head coach Matt Campbell continues to work some magic in Ames, and this team should be able to carry some momentum into 2018. Having veteran QB Kyle Kempt will be huge for this offense, which can really move the ball at times. Junior back David Montgomery is another key cog back, although losing record-setting wide out Allen Lazard is a tough pill to swallow. Compared to some of the other teams in this conference, Iowa State defends very well. Their improvement from 86th in scoring defense in 2016 to 26th last year was a major reason for the jump the 'Clones made. There are a number of key contributors to a fearsome pass rush returning, including junior linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. This Iowa State team isn't going to be able to sneak up on teams the way they did last season, but they should still be a serious threat. With some chaos in front of them, a Big 12 Championship Game trip isn't completely out of the question.
7. Kansas State Wildcats Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big 12)
Bill Snyder and Kansas State always seem to make preseason predictions look bad with the way they overachieve, and this year's team could do much the same. The offense will be lose OC Dana Dimel (took over UTEP head coaching job) but will still play their physical, run-minded brand of football. Sophomore Skylar Thompson and junior Alex Delton are battling it out to take over the starting job at quarterback. Whoever wins will be joined by a deep stable of running backs and a strong offensive front that brings back all five starters, including All-Big 12 tackle Dalton Risner. The Wildcats hope the defense can take a step back in the right direction following a pretty disappointing 2017. The rush defense should still remain one of the better groups in the conference, but the pass defense was dismal last season. The good news is top corner Duke Shelley is back, as is two other starters to the secondary, so improvement looks like it should happen. K-State doesn't have the talent or playmakers some of the top teams in this conference possess, but that has never stopped them before. They will play their typical, smashmouth style and ride it to some success. It wouldn't be surprising to see them finish in the top-half of this league.
8. Baylor Bears Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)
Baylor endured a rough start to the Matt Rhule era in 2017, going a measly 1-11 with their only victory coming against Kansas, who also happened to win just one game. Yet, the Bears should be much improved entering 2018, and Rhule continues to recruit the state of Texas well. Baylor's typical high-octane offense switched to a more pro-style attack last season, which took a lot of time to adjust. However, sophomore Charlie Brewer figured things out down the stretch and should be the clear starter at QB, even with the arrival of NC State transfer Jalan McClendon. Brewer has some really interesting weapons back around him, including junior back JaMycal Hasty and a receiver corps headed by Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd. Hurd ran for 2,638 yards in three seasons as UT's tailback before announcing plans to move to receiver and ending up in Waco. He is going to find a way to make an impact on this team. The defense still needs a lot of work, but the cupboard is not completely bare for coordinator Phil Snow. Senior nose tackle Ira Lewis is a key returnee to this rush defense, and the secondary returns both starting cornerbacks. The Bears seem to not quite be at a postseason level, but this team is going to surprise some folks. If Brewer can really take a leap in his second season as starter, this team is going to make a good amount of noise. 
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders Projected Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
It looks like a typical Red Raider team in Lubbock this fall: one that will not struggle to score, but will struggle mightily to stop the other team from doing the same. The Red Raiders' offense will be led by junior QB McLane Carter, who should put up big numbers playing in Kliff Kingsbury's air raid system. Yet, Carter is without any clear-cut No. 1 receiver, as sophomore T.J. Vasher is the only returnee to see any significant snaps a season ago, which could be worrying. The more pressing concern is a defense that was 123rd in pass defense in '17, and allowed 32.2 PPG. There were some strides made on that side of the ball in the occasional area, but coordinator David Gibbs still has his hands full rebuilding this group. Senior linebacker Dakota Allen, featured in Netflix documentary "Last Chance U" is a high character guy that knows how to win in this conference, but he is still looking for help. The secondary does have a lot of guys back, but doesn't have much depth overall. Going 30-33 in five seasons without any marked long-term improvement has left Kingsbury on a hot seat entering '18. Unfortunately, unless the defense completely turns things around or the offense is unstoppable (both unlikely) this team looks like it could be heading for a tough campaign, and Kingsbury's future with TTU seems to be in serious doubt. 
10. Kansas Jayhawks Projected Record: 2-10 (0-9 Big 12)
After a two-win 2016 that included a stunning victory over Texas, David Beaty's rebuild in Lawrence took a step back last season, as they won just one game and were winless in the Big 12. Beaty, who is 3-33 since taking over the Jayhawks, still has an infectious optimism about the program despite their well-noted struggles, but this team still needs a lot of work done to be any type of threat in this conference. The good news is that the offense returns a proven QB in senior Peyton Bender and a top-flight receiver in senior Steven Sims. They will hope to improve an offense that averaged just 18.7 PPG a year ago, 120th nationally. The defense actually has the chance to be better, although that is a relative term for a group that was last in FBS football in scoring defense in 2017. Senior linebacker Joe Dineen and junior safety Mike Lee are two All-Conference talents, but there is so little beyond them, and so much inexperience. KU has been recruiting well for a program that has struggled for so long, and the staff really hit the secondary hard in this cycle. However, unless a bunch of youngsters can grow up quickly in a league with so much offense, they will struggle. The Jayhawks still are not yet ready to turn the corner in this league, but there may be some progress in 2018. Taking advantage of a weak non-conference that includes an FCS school and a bad Power Five team in Rutgers will be imperative if Beaty wants to be coaching here in 2019.

Projected Big 12 Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: Dakota Allen, LB, Texas Tech
Newcomer of the Year: Jalen Hurd, WR, Baylor
Coach of the Year: Gary Patterson, TCU
Championship Game: Oklahoma over West Virginia


North Division
1. Washington Huskies (National Rank: 6) Projected Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Entering his fifth season in Seattle, Washington head coach Chris Petersen may be equipped with his best team. There is experience everywhere on both sides of the ball, and serious star power at the most important positions. That star power includes senior QB Jake Browning and back Myles Gaskin, entering their fourth seasons together as a backfield pairing. Browning hopes to regain his 2016 form after a mildly disappointing '17, but in order to do that, he'll need some help from the rebuilding receivers corps. Gaskin should have a big season as he rushed for 21 touchdowns a year ago and now will be operating behind an O-Line with four starters back, namely left tackle Trey Adams, an All-American talent. The defense will miss defensive tackle Vita Vea but nearly every other big name is returning. The secondary has the chance to be special, as all four starters are back to a group that played great down the stretch last season. Junior free safety Taylor Rapp is an elite-level playmaker who is still getting better, while sophomore corner Byron Murphy is evolving into a shutdown defender. A tough opener with Auburn in Atlanta will be the deciding game of the year for the Huskies; a win there and they become a Playoff frontrunner but a loss, and any route to the four-team field becomes incredibly murky. Either way, Petersen has a loaded roster, and this team should be able to live up to the hype.
2. Stanford Cardinal (National Rank: 15) Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Pac-12)
The Huskies won't be able to run away with this division, as Stanford poses a serious threat to Petersen and the Huskies. The Cardinal will once again be led by star running back Bryce Love, who burst on to the scene with 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to a Heisman runner-up finish. The hope is that sophomore QB K.J. Costello can take some steps forward and provide a balanced offense, something Stanford has long lacked under head man David Shaw. Even if he doesn't, Love should be able to fuel the offense, especially running behind a stacked offensive line. The offense has the chance to be the best it ever has been under Shaw, but the defense surprisingly was pretty porous in 2017 and needs to regain its form if the Cardinal want to win the North. The D-Line loses some real talent, but sophomore end Jovan Swann has the upside to be an All-Conference pass rusher. Senior linebacker Bobby Okereke will be the anchor in the heart of the defense, while the Cardinal will hope veteran corner Alijah Holder can stay healthy on the back-end. Stanford has the talent to win this conference, but a number of tough road games could be a problem. The Cardinal must go on the road against Oregon, Notre Dame and Washington, likely restricting them from fully reaching their potential. 
3. Oregon Ducks (National Rank: 25) Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
After a few down seasons, Oregon seems poised to once more be a serious contender in the North, as new head coach Mario Cristobal has some serious upside on this year's squad. QB Justin Herbert has been receiving plenty of hype this off-season and for good reason. Prior to an injury that knocked him out for the year, the veteran QB had 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns, and the Ducks were 6-1. Now healthy again, Herbert looks like a Heisman dark horse. He will be joined by an offense that has some other interesting playmakers, including junior receiver Dillon Mitchell and senior back Tony Brooks-James, who should help the Ducks move on from record-setting Royce Freeman. Defense has long been an Achilles Heel in Eugene, but coordinator Jim Leavitt did a great job with this group in 2017, and Cristobal managed to keep him under contract for '18. Leavitt will cause real damage with the front seven he'll feature, which includes senior end Jalen Jelks and junior 'backer Troy Dye, two of the best in the conference. The pass defense will have to improve after an inconsistent campaign last season, but all the tools are there. With a healthy Herbert at the helm, this is a scary Ducks team. If they live up to their potential on both sides of the ball, a return to the Pac-12 Title game isn't completely out of the question, even in this brutal division.
4. California Golden Bears Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6 Pac-12)
Justin Wilcox's debut season in Berkeley had some moments, but ultimately fell a little short, as the Bears went 5-7, losing seven of their last nine in the process. Despite this, the Bears look like an intriguing team entering 2018, and they should be able to make some progress under the second year head coach. QB Ross Bowers is a veteran signal-caller who quietly had over 3,000 yards a year ago, but must cut down on his turnovers. He will have to make do without the help of receiver Demetris Robertson, who looked like he was in store for a big 2018 after missing the entirety of last season before announcing he was transferring closer to home at Georgia. However, Bowers will be aided by an offensive front that has everybody back, and a receiver group with some real potential. The defense made some strides under the defensive-minded Wilcox in 2017, and the secondary returns basically intact. Former Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter will once more the defensive coordinator, and he should be able to have plenty of success with a much more experienced unit. While Cal isn't at the level of the top three teams in this division just yet, they look like they will find a way to be a factor. A bowl berth would be solid progress for Wilcox and this staff in Year Two.
5. Washington State Cougars Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)
The Cougars have had a highly successful run the last few seasons under the guidance of head coach Mike Leach, but there are some serious concerns entering 2018. The Cougars will be without their QB Luke Falk and most of their offense, which was second in the country in passing yards a season ago. The defense also loses a number of important leaders, surely indicating a rebuilding season in Pullman. East Carolina transfer Gardner Minshew is the favorite to take over the reigns of Leach's Air Raid offense, but there will be a significant adjustment playing in the Pac-12 and having to form chemistry with an untested group of wide outs. On the other side of the ball, junior defensive back Jalen Thompson and a number of others should keep the unit playing hard, but the loss of coordinator Alex Grinch, who took a co-DC job at Ohio State, will hurt quite a bit. There is also a distraction factor when it comes to Leach; the controversial head coach made it clear he wanted out of Pullman by trying to take the Tennessee job this off-season. It will be interesting to see whether that effects the trust and cohesiveness of this team, which needs all the help it can get.
6. Oregon State Beavers Projected Record: 2-10 (0-9 Pac-12)
Nearly two decades after he was the star quarterback in Corvallis, Jonathan Smith returns to Oregon State as the team's head coach. Smith, the former OC at Washington, has a great attitude about the situation and has a great feel for this division, but he inherits a team that went 1-11 a year ago and looks like the clearly worst team in this conference. Smith is hopeful QB Jake Luton can be healthy and lead his new, up-tempo pro style offense. If he is, he will have the luxury of a pretty solid receivers corps to work with, including junior tight end Noah Togiai. Yet, the even bigger concern for Smith and this new staff is a terrible defense that allowed 43 points per game last year. Just four starters are returning, almost ensuring there will be some massive growing pains for new coordinator Tim Tibesar. Smith should be able to reenergize a fan base that has watched some really bad football over the last few years, but this team is still a major work in progress. Simply climbing out of the cellar would be a huge success in the first year of a new era.

South Division
1. USC Trojans (National Rank: 19) Projected Record: 9-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
Coming off their first Pac-12 Title in a long time, USC must replace their starting QB, top rusher and top receiver. That is a lot to ask, but this is USC, and there is talent ready to step up. True freshman J.T. Daniels enrolled early and won the QB job, earning him the right to work with a talented group of offensive playmakers, and an improved O-Line. Those playmakers include budding sophomore Tyler Vaughns at receiver and sophomore back Stephen Carr, who looks primed for the breakout. With the youth offensively, head coach Clay Helton will turn to this defense to be the strength of the team. A healthy Porter Gustin and the return of senior middle linebacker Cameron Smith will be huge for the defensive front, and the secondary has the talent to be one of the better groups in this conference. Tough non-conference meetings with Notre Dame and Texas will be tough tasks for this reloading 'SC team, but there is no need for talent here. The Trojans should still find a way to come out on top of a wide-open South Division.
2. Utah Utes Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
Since the Pac-12 expanded, Utah is amazingly the only South Division team to not win a division title at least once. Considering how consistent and tough to play the Utes have been under Kyle Whittingham that is very surprising, and also leaves this team very motivated entering what could be a highly successful 2018. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor opened up this offense and made it more of a spread look, with pretty good results. However, he will lose top receiver Darren Carrington II, who made a huge impact in one season as a grad transfer from Oregon. Utah does have a veteran QB back in junior Tyler Huntley, who played well despite some injury issues last season. Fully healthy, he could have a big season in this offense, and will be supported by the return of sophomore wide out Britain Covey, an explosive playmaker who is back from a two-year church mission. Whittingham consistently reloads on defense, and this year should be no different. The front seven lacks much proven experience, but the return of senior linebacker Chase Hansen and junior corner Julian Blackmon should keep this group incredibly stingy. With some real talent on offense and an opening at the top of the South, this could be the year for a breakthrough in Salt Lake City. Getting USC at home could very well decide this division.
3. Arizona Wildcats Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
Kevin Sumlin arrives in Tucson this fall hopeful to recover from a Texas A&M tenure that started off incredibly promising but ended in a disappointing manner. Sumlin will bring his up-tempo, aggressive spread look to Arizona, which could work perfectly with the personnel the Wildcats bring back. That personnel includes junior QB Khalil Tate, who could be a Heisman frontrunner after running for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Sumlin will hope to utilize Tate's legs but also get him passing more effectively, where he still struggles to get the ball down the field at times. Sumlin will also have fun with a talented group of receivers, namely senior Shun Brown and sophomore back J.J. Taylor. The defense has been an issue for Arizona over the last few seasons, but  coordinator Marcel Yates has nine returning starters to work with. The defensive backfield is led by corners Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker, who give Arizona a huge advantage as two superb cover corners. However, unless the 'Cats can get after the QB more effectively in 2018, it will be hard to really take a step forward on that side of the ball. Sumlin is a great fit for this position, and the Wildcats have the talent to win right away. Yet, the transitioning defense may still be a big enough problem to keep them winning the division.
4. Arizona State Sun Devils Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Arizona State gave us the most confusing head coaching hire in recent memory when they opted to bring in Herm Edwards following the firing of Todd Graham. Edwards is a great football mind, but he hasn't coached at the collegiate level since 1989 and it is fair to wonder how he will run a program that is so different than the NFL. The good news is Edwards is blessed with a good roster right away in Tempe, and one that quietly won six conference games last season. Junior receiver N'Keal Harry will undoubtedly be the top playmaker on this offense, as the Biletnikoff Award frontrunner had 1,142 yards last season and has great chemistry with veteran QB Manny Wilkins. The offense also has a lot returning on the line and talent at running back, so lighting up the scoreboard shouldn't be too difficult this year. Yet, much like their in-state rival, the Sun Devils' defense has long been a problem. Unlike Arizona, ASU doesn't have nine starters back, and is very inexperienced in the front seven. Edwards is a good coach, do he should be able to develop some of the talent on that side of the ball. Yet, that hire still looks like it isn't going to end in a good manner. Recruiting in 2018 is a challenge for anybody, especially a coach like Edwards, and he will also see concepts in college completely foreign than the ones he saw in the NFL two decades ago. There is still enough remaining for the Sun Devils for them to still be a contender in the South, but the future looks extremely concerning.
5. Colorado Buffaloes Projected Record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)
The Buffaloes were the biggest surprise in the entire country, winning ten games and playing for the Pac-12 Championship. The good vibes from that season were quickly erased in '17, as Colorado fell to 5-7 and finished last place in the South. Head coach Mike MacIntyre has some good pieces on both sides of the ball, but the Buffaloes must become more consistent. That is especially true for junior QB Steven Montez, who has great arm talent but continues to struggle with turnovers and bad decisions. It won't help that Montez does not have a clear-cut No. 1 receiver to throw to, although Mike's son, Jay, has proven to be very reliable. The addition of running back Travon McMillian, a Virginia Tech transfer, will take pressure off Montez, which should really help this offense. Colorado is yet another team still trying to fix what they have defensively. Considering some of the pieces the Buffs lost prior to 2017 it wasn't surprising to see them struggle there last season, but this unit should be more experienced and prepared. Senior linebackers Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa will have to play well if this team has any chance at becoming a sincere threat in this league. There is enough talent in place in Boulder for the Buffaloes to surprise people, but harnessing it will be the key. Montez is the X-factor; if he takes the next step forward Colorado can easily make a bowl and finish in the upper half of the division. If not, it could be another pretty somber season in Boulder.
6. UCLA Bruins Projected Record: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)
UCLA made the biggest splash of this off-season by bringing Chip Kelly back to the collegiate ranks. The former Oregon head coach had a disappointing run in the NFL, but there is no denying how effective he is at the college level, and he should be able to turnaround the Bruins in quick fashion. The first big question for Kelly is at quarterback, where UCLA must replace NFL-bound Josh Rosen. Sophomore Devon Modster has a little bit of experience, but true frosh Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a better fit for this offense with his speed and big arm. Michigan grad transfer Wilton Speight will also be in the mix, although he isn't a natural fit in this scheme. Kelly will hope to unleash the potential of former five-star running back Soso Jamabo, who has the talent to have a big season in this offense. Kelly isn't known for his defense, but he has some real talent returning on that side of the ball. Sophomore Jaelan Phillips was one of the top recruits in the country a year ago and he flashed serious potential, with 3.5 sacks in 2017. If he can improve rapidly and the secondary plays up to their ability, UCLA could actually be pretty stout. Kelly seems like a good fit in Los Angeles, and soon enough this offense will be scary once Kelly starts to recruit the talent-rich area well. However, it could be a relatively painful return in Year One, as the Bruins still have issues to figure out and face a tough non-conference schedule.

Projected Pac-12 Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Newcomer of the Year: J.T. Daniels, QB, USC
Coach of the Year: Chris Petersen, Washington
Championship Game: Washington over USC


East Division
1. Georgia Bulldogs (National Rank: 5) Projected Record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)
Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs made quite the jump in his second season in Athens, going from a mid-tier 8-5 SEC team to the National Championship, where they came agonizingly close to overcoming mighty Nick Saban and Alabama. Georgia does lose some key pieces from that team, but they still have the talent to once more return to the Playoff. QB Jake Fromm took over the reigns of the offense for the injured Jacob Eason and played terrific. He will likely have to play a larger role with UGA losing their top two rushers, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, although sophomore D'Andre Swift looks ready to take over the feature back duties. The rest of the offense should also be very good, with a stacked group of receivers and one of the top offensive lines in the country. The bigger question will be defense, where the Bulldogs were superb in 2017 but must replace the heart and soul of the unit, linebacker Roquan Smith. The D-Line still has potential to be quite strong, with Jonathan Ledbetter ready to go and former five-star recruit Julian Rochester still scratching the surface of what he can be. The secondary also has proven stars, namely junior safety J.R. Reed and lockdown corner Deandre Baker. With some key leadership pieces gone and a tough schedule, it is not going to be easy for UGA to once more return to the National Championship. Yet, Smart has elevated the talent level in a crazy way in just the few years he has been with the Bulldogs; they should still be the clear favorite in the East.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks (National Rank: 21) Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 SEC)
The biggest threat to Georgia in the East is not Florida, or Missouri or Tennessee. It is Will Muschamp and South Carolina, who very quietly won nine games last season and return a bunch of talent. The offense will once more be under the guidance of steady QB Jake Bentley, who continues to grow into one of the best in the league. He could be even better in 2018 thanks to the return of his top receiver, Deebo Samuel, who missed most of 2017 with injury. Yet, the real strength of this Gamecocks team, unsurprising for a team led by a defensive mind like Muschamp, will be this defense. Up front, South Carolina has done a great job developing defensive line talent, and juniors D.J. Wonnum and Kobe Smith look ready for huge years. They will miss crafty inside linebacker Skai Moore, but the return of junior T.J. Brunson and a healthy Bryson Allen-Williams will work wonders for this team. Don't overlook South Carolina as a serious Playoff dark horse; if they are able to upset Georgia at home in the season's second week, the division is theirs to lose.
3. Florida Gators Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
Florida is hopeful that Dan Mullen can breath some new energy into a program that has not been able to get back to an elite level since Tim Tebow left town years ago. Mullen, who was offensive coordinator in Gainesville under Urban Meyer before a highly successful run at Mississippi State, will focus first and foremost on the offense, which has been consistently near the bottom of the league for a long time. Sophomore Feleipe Franks is set to take the reigns of the offense after an up-and-down 2017, but he should be able to improve with an more stable O-Line, after they let him take 29 sacks a year ago. Franks won't have to be too much; there is a lot of playmakers throughout the offense, including backs Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine, along with speedy wide out Tyrie Cleveland. The Gators also add in Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson at wide out, who could immediately be one of the best players on this offense, as he is eligible right away. Mullen should not lose too much sleep over the defense, which will be as strong as ever. Coordinator Todd Grantham has some star power back in the front seven, but the real strength could be in the secondary, where sophomore corners Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson are ready to show what they can do. Mullen knows how high expectations here at Florida are, but he appears up for the challenge. The offense won't do a complete 180, but there should be enough improvement in Year One for the Gators to double their win total from four to eight.
4. Missouri Tigers Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
Drew Lock, Missouri
Missouri's second half of 2017 was one of the best stories in college football, as the Tigers recovered from a 1-5 start to win their final five games of the regular season and finish .500 in the conference. There is now significant momentum in Columbia following the late-season push and the return of QB Drew Lock, who flirted with the idea of the NFL. Lock had a big '17, flourishing with 3,964 yards and 44 touchdowns, and he has the arm to be a Heisman candidate. Lock hopes to get even better under the leadership of new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who promises to install some pro concepts into this spread offense. The return of a number of other impact receivers and a strong O-Line should also help the veteran QB. Head coach Barry Odom hopes the defense can take a step forward, as the group was surprisingly weak last season under the guidance of the former Mizzou linebacker. Senior defensive tackle Terry Beckner has the chance to be one of the best interior linemen in a conference with a lot of good ones, but he needs some support in this pass rush. The pass defense has to get more consistent, and there is a lot of good pieces back to do just that. The Tigers were a good story a year ago, but it is also important to realize who they beat on their five game win streak: the four weakest teams in the conference (Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt) and Idaho. That shows this team still has to prove themselves in 2018, but with Lock at the helm, another strong campaign should be in order.
5. Kentucky Wildcats Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
One of the most under-the-radar storylines in the SEC is the success of Kentucky, who has now had two straight .500 seasons in the toughest conference in college football. The Wildcats once again like they will be a factor in the East, as they are guided by one of the most exciting players in college football, junior Benny Snell, who ran for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He will take some pressure off the quarterback situation, where untested Oregon transfer Terry Wilson will begin the campaign as the starter. Tight end C.J. Conrad will prove to be an important security blanket for Wilson, as one of the top players at his position in the SEC. Defensively, Kentucky didn't perform up to their talent level a season ago, but there is a lot returning, especially in the front seven. Linebackers Jordan Jones and Josh Allen are two of the most underrated defenders in the conference, and both get continued NFL Draft attention. Senior safety Mike Edwards is another important returnee, as he is joined by a number of other veterans on the back-end. This division has improved, which will make it tougher on the Wildcats, but this team should still be able to make some noise. With Snell leading the charge, a third straight postseason bid is not only a possibility, but likely.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores Projected Record: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)
Derek Mason enters his fifth season in Nashville with significant pressure following a rough ending to 2017, when the Commodores lost seven of their last nine and won just one single conference game. Mason continues to run his prodding, pro-style attack but if Vanderbilt is to really take any steps offensively, senior QB Kyle Shurmur must get better. The veteran has had some moments, but turnovers and inconsistency are still problems. Adding in Illinois transfer Ke'Shawn Vaughn at running back should take some heat off Shumur, but the receiving situation is bad, with no proven wide outs back. Mason prides himself on defense but the Commodores were surprisingly bad against the run last season, ranking 101st in the country. Senior outside linebacker Charles Wright will help in that aspect and as a pass rusher, where he had nine sacks in 2017. With that being said, there isn't much veteran experience beyond Wright returning, although senior LaDarius Wiley should play a pivotal role in the secondary. Mason has done a pretty good job at a tough place, but this just doesn't look like a team ready to make a run at the top of this division. Getting to a bowl would be a tough duty with a road trip to Notre Dame in the non-conference, and there are zero easy wins in SEC play. If it isn't already hot, Mason's head coaching seat may be getting a little bit warmer.
7. Tennessee Volunteers Projected Record: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)
It was a long and tenuous 2017 for Tennessee football, but the Volunteers hope to be moving beyond that as they enter this fall. The Vols fell apart in SEC play, going 0-8 even though they had the talent to contend for a division title. Butch Jones was then fired, but the coaching search was a massive bust. The Vols missed on a number of guys and backed out of a firing of controversial Ohio State DC Greg Schiano. They end up with former Alabama DC Jeremy Pruitt, who wasn't the first choice, but has a proven pedigree. Pruitt will look to run a physical offense, but it is unclear who the leader of it will be. Sophomore Jarrett Guarantano returns after a rollercoaster of a freshman season, but he has the potential to be very good at quarterback. However, Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst came over this spring and has the edge in experience and fit with this offense. Whoever does lock down the QB spot will have a good receiver group to work with, as junior Jauan Jennings is healthy again and junior Marquez Callaway has serious upside. On defense, Tennessee actually had the third-best pass defense in the country a season ago and returns a number of quality guys in the secondary. Up front, there is a lot talent that needs to start producing. Top on that list is senior end Jonathan Kongbo, who has All-SEC talent but has yet to put it all together. Pruitt and staff are very hopeful senior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is 100 percent and ready to contribute again. The veteran is one of the best defenders in the conference when healthy, but he has been plagued by the injury bug throughout his time in Knoxville. Tennessee should look more stable and well-coached as they begin the Pruitt era this fall, but there is a ton of inexperience and a tough schedule. Getting back to the postseason may just be a little too much to ask for at this point.

West Division
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (National Rank: 3) Projected Record: 12-1 (7-1 SEC)
The reigning National Champion will once more be the favorite in the SEC West, although there are some questions they have to answer. The most pressing question will be the QB situation, although it isn't much of a problem. Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa looks like the guy following his play in the National Championship, but junior Jalen Hurts is a proven winner. My bet is Tua will start, but we will see Hurts in certain packages and situations. Having a veteran winner like him will be huge for this offense. The Tide also must replace their defensive coordinator and eight starters, although talent still abounds on that side of the ball. The D-Line has the chance to be top-notch, with All-American Raekwon Davis leading the charge. Linebacker also has returning talent and serious potential, but the secondary is a concern, as all four starters depart and there isn't as much proven talent back there. Even so, Alabama's offense will be able to pick up slack, with 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris still in the fold and breakout stars Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith ready to burst out. Alabama also has an easier schedule than usual; they get Louisville in the non-conference, but the Cards will be in transition as they replace Lamar Jackson. That should put the Tide in position to roll into another Playoff berth, although wrestling the conference title away from Georgia will be no small task.
2. Auburn Tigers (National Rank: 10) Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Auburn returned to the SEC Championship for the first time since 2013 behind the steady play of QB Jarrett Stidham and an improved defense. Those basic pieces should once more be key components in 2018, as Stidham returns and the D should be stingy. Stidham played great football down the stretch, and he has all his top targets back, namely record-setting speedster Ryan Davis. The running back situation is not ideal without workhorse Kerryon Johnson, but Kam Martin looks ready to take over. Coordinator Kevin Steele has done a great job with these last couple Auburn defenses, and last year's group allowed just 18.5 PPG, 11th in the nation. Up front, Auburn is supremely talented, with junior end Marlon Davidson and junior tackle Derrick Brown. They aren't quite as strong in the secondary which could expose them against some teams in this division, but they'll be good enough. The Tigers do play a tough schedule, which has Washington to open the year and includes Georgia and Alabama. Its going to be tough overcoming that to compete for a Playoff spot, but they should still be a factor. They have the talent and physicality to play with the best teams in college football, and should settle into a New Year's Six Bowl.
3. Mississippi State Bulldogs (National Rank: 14) Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Dan Mullen may be moving on, but don't expect Mississippi State to take any step back under the leadership of Joe Moorhead, who put up big numbers the last two seasons as Penn State's offensive coordinator. Moorhead has a ton to play around with, but the most important piece is veteran quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald suffered a scary knee injury in this past season's Egg Bowl, but all rumors point to him being ready for a big fall. If he can improve as a passer, he is in store for a big 2018. Senior back Aeris Williams packs plenty of punch at running back, and the Bulldogs' O-Line is one of the most experienced in the conference. Mississippi State might not have the big name stars other teams in the SEC have, but they have no shortage of talent. They challenge Alabama and Auburn as the top D-Line in the conference, spearheaded by junior tackle Jeffery Simmons and senior end Montez Sweat. The secondary could also be pretty good, as senior safety Mark McLaurin is a turnover machine, coming off a six interception campaign in 2017. Mississippi State still might struggle to overtake the Iron Bowl powers in this division, but don't overlook the Bulldogs. Moorhead should keep the program humming just fine, and a grand finale for Fitzgerald seems highly likely.
4. LSU Tigers (National Rank: 23) Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
There is pressure on Ed Orgeron and LSU, but the Tigers still have the talent to contend in the brutal SEC West. They received a huge present this off-season when former Ohio State QB Joe Burrow announced he would spend his last season in Baton Rouge, immediately upgrading the position, which has long been a problem for the Tigers. Burrow doesn't have to be a superstar but he has to play better in big games than the departed Danny Etling. LSU does not have the star running back they have had the last few years with Derrius Guice now in the NFL. Senior Nick Brossette is slated to be the feature guy, sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire will see snaps. On the outside, Burrow will lean heavily on Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles, who could come in and immediately be one of the top wide outs in the conference. The offense will still have to improve, but LSU can always fall back on their top-flight defense which is still manned by coordinator Dave Aranda, one of the best in the country. Aranda has an All-American defender right in the heart of their unit in junior Devin White, who had 133 tackles last season. He is also equipped with one of the best cornerbacks in the sport, sophomore Greedy Williams. Now, if the pass rush can take a step forward, this defense will be as stout as ever. The addition of Burrow will help, but the Tigers still look like they need to figure out some issues before they can take a serious run at the division title. Eight wins will be tough but possible with the daunting schedule LSU stares down.
5. Texas A&M Aggies Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
The Kevin Sumlin era in College Station has officially come to a close, as the Aggies move onto Jimbo Fisher, who they reeled away from Florida State with a massive contract. The pressure on Fisher will be significant, but the Aggies also have a lot of talent and can still hang with the best in this division. Sophomore Kellen Mond has been handed the keys to the offense; he had moments last season and is a good runner, but needs refinement. He will have to make do with a receivers corps that misses big-time playmaker Christian Kirk. A&M could have their best rushing attack in some time, as Fisher will turn to junior Trayveon Williams early and often. Williams had 798 yards a year ago, but could be in store for much more in an offense that will utilize him more effectively. On defense, Fisher and A&M managed to land Notre Dame's Mike Elko. Elko oversaw a superb turnaround in South Bend last season, and was rewarded with a handsome raise. He will have to upgrade a defense that can be good at times, but is still wildly inconsistent. The pass rush could be dangerous with senior Landis Durham (10.5 sacks in '17) and Daylon Mack both returning. Tyrel Dodson will be Elko's leader at linebacker, but the Aggies issues in the secondary could end up being a major concern for this unit. Fisher knows how to win, but it could be a tough first season in College Station. Texas A&M should compete with some of the best, but thinking they can realistically challenge for a division title is asking a lot of some of the young talent on this roster.
6. Ole Miss Rebels Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
Expect plenty of fireworks in Oxford this fall, as head coach Matt Luke has a ton of exciting weapons at his disposal on offense. Senior QB Jordan Ta'amu impressed fans and staff with the command of the offense he showed after replacing the injured Shea Patterson. He will know get the opportunity to throw to one of the country's premier receivers corps, led by junior A.J. Brown, a likely first-round NFL Draft selection along with sophomore D.K. Metcalf. The ground game is not quite at the level of the aerial attack, but junior Eric Swinney has serious upside and will work behind a strong offensive front. The defense also has talent, but the rush defense was a major issue in 2017 and it doesn't look much improved. Junior defensive tackle Benito Jones can wreak havoc in the heart of the defensive front, but there are no clear starters at linebacker. The secondary is going to have potential, but it could still be prone to the big play. Another thing to consider when looking at the Rebels chances in 2018: their lack of depth. NCAA sanctions allowing transfers to be eligible anywhere else, along with reduced scholarship leaves Ole Miss thin everywhere, which will start to become a major issue down the stretch in this conference.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks Projected Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
The Razorbacks decided it was time to cut Bret Bielema lose following a sloppy 4-8 2017 that included just one conference victory. They quickly replaced him with Chad Morris, who has done a fine job at SMU after previously being Clemson's offensive coordinator. Morris will install a spread, up-tempo attack completely different than Bielema's power running offense. There will be a stark transition between what the two want, and the offense will have some growing pains. Sophomore QB Cole Kelley is the likely guy to run the show, but he will be pushed by junior Ty Storey and true freshman Connor Noland. Morris will still run the ball quite a bit, and he has a proven ball-carrier in junior Devwah Whaley. On defense, Arkansas won't undergo quite an overhaul, as they should be led by seasoned SEC coordinator John Chavis. The defensive front is going to be very good, with junior McTelvin Agim leading the line and junior middle linebacker De'Jon Harris returning following a 115 tackle '17. The schedule is pretty favorable for Morris in his debut season in Fayetteville, and a 4-0 non-conference record has to be the expectation. If that proves to be the case, a bowl berth isn't completely out of the question, but it could be an experimental year for the Razorbacks and Morris.

Projected SEC Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
Defensive Player of the Year: Devin White, LB, LSU
Newcomer of the Year: Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
Coach of the Year: Kirby Smart, Georgia
Championship Game: Alabama over Georgia

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