25. Utah Utes
You can always expect the Utes to ramp up the running game to run behind a powerful offensive line. The passing will have question marks even with their returning quarterback Troy Williams, who will have to be better in the passing game if he wants to lead the Utes to possible chance at the Pac-12 championship game. But this year, there are a few major holes to fill. Left tackle Garrett Bolles is gone to the NFL, and three other starters are also gone. Losing RB Joe Williams doesn’t help much either, but they don’t have their shortage of backs. Head Coal Kyle Whittingham always has a stock pile to rely on. They will depend a lot on Zack Moss to lead the group. The receiving corps won’t be easily fixed with losing three of the top four targets.
This year, the defense will revolve more than before around the tackles with Lowell Lotuleilei and Filipo Mokofisi a terrific tandem, but the ends and the pass rush will be an issue early on. The linebackers will be just fine, especially in the 4-2-5 alignment. The Utes losing veteran corners Brian Allen and Reggie Porter is bad enough, but two-time All-Pac-12 star Marcus Williams took off decided to take off early to the NFL was not expected.
Overall the Utes has a solid team in Salt Lake City, but the way their schedule looks it may be tough to get to double-digit wins this season. Playing inner state rival BYU on the road is not going to be easy in itself because the play each other so tough. Traveling to Arizona and USC in the division is going to be a battle. The biggest problem, though, will be the interdivisional games. The Utes don’t play Oregon State and Cal but gets the four best teams.
- Tennessee Vols
Tennessee’s offense averaged 444 yards and 36 points per game. Their consistency appeared to vanish after the tough double overtime loss to Texas A&M.
With Josh Dobbs gone. Butch Jones doesn’t have that dual threat quarterback, but projected starting quarterback Quinten Dormady won’t have the mobile ability that Dobbs had, but he will have John Kelly who was the team’s most effective running back for a while during the season last year. Jauan Jennings has to grow into a No. 1 target. The offensive line was solid and did a favorable job protecting and working in the run game last season. They should get better as a group, and ready to pound away for more than five yards per carry.
The Vols were a disappointment in stopping the run game. They couldn’t get decent pressure on the quarterback. They finished the year 95th in the nation in total defense despite all that talent – and now a slew of the key parts have to be replaced.
Now they have to find a pass rush without defensive end Derek Barnett. Getting behind the line wasn’t an issue for the Vols, but the defensive ends have to not only generate more pressure, but stay healthy as well. Jonathan Kongbo is already banged up. There’s beef and talent on the inside, but they all have to start playing up to their hype and not get hurt. There’s a good group of linebackers returning back that made serious impact, but the main group of returning tacklers are in the secondary. Safety Todd Kelly is back after leading the team with 71 stops – the top five tacklers and eight of the top nine return.
The goal at Tennessee always has to be to at least win the division. But maybe, the Vols will pull it off when no one’s expecting it to happen. Last year, Tennessee came into the season with what seemed like the best team in the East, and then the collapse. It’s not going to be easy with the Alabama game on the road and having to deal with LSU, but almost all of the key games in the East are at home, except for the Gators.
- Texas Longhorns
The Tom Herman regime has begun for 2017 in Austin. Charlie Strong is sent packing to South Florida, and Herman comes in with a 22-4 record while at Houston. With the momentum to get strong recruits in the state of Texas; alumni are hoping to that success to Texas and bring the Longhorns back to relevancy.
It’s hard to find any type of consistency when you swap out offensive coordinators frequently. Six coordinators in as many years…not a good look, and can explain the lack of fire in the Texas offense in recent years.
But now it’s Tom Herman’s offense being run by coordinator Tim Beck, and with is offensive influence this could be a big year offensively for Texas.
The Longhorns have true sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, who took bulk of the snaps last year to Texas a proven and experienced signal caller. Herman is not short on talent in the passing game with receivers Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay, Armanti Foreman and Jerrod Heard for Buechele to play pitch and catch with; as well as an offensive line with four returning starters, including All-America left tackle Connor Williams.
Texas is coming off two of its worst defensive seasons in its school’s history under Charlie Strong. The Longhorns gave up 30.3 points per game in 2015 and 31.5 in 2016, which had fans and alumni baffled because Strong was known to have a good defensive mind. So, in a lot of ways, the 3-4 defense of Texas and Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has nowhere to go but up.
Orlando is confident in his defensive line that features rising-star defensive end Malcolm Roach, strong as a fire hydrant nose tackle Poona Ford and gritty defensive end Chris Nelson. Orlando like how the secondary is looking, especially safeties junior DeShon Elliott and sophomore Brandon Jones; as well as junior nickel back P.J. Locke and junior corner Kris Boyd. The biggest question mark may be at linebacker, where Orlando has a lot of talent to work with but just needs to put guys in the right roles.
Herman is 22–4 as a head coach and is 6–0 against teams ranked in the AP top 25. He may also be a master of timing. At Houston, he took over a veteran team coming off an eight-win season and went 13–1 in his first year. Now, Herman takes over a Texas roster returning 37 of the 44 in the two-deep from last season, stocked with back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes under former coach Charlie Strong. On his way out, Strong said whoever was coaching the Longhorns in 2017 would win 10 games.
- Virginia Tech Hokies
It’ll be a changing of the guard for the Hokies offense, with quarterback Jerod Evans, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges all turning pro a year early, not to mention some big senior contributors graduating from last year.
Quarterback will be the focus, although Head Coach Justin Fuente is more concerned about the surrounding pieces. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson figures to have a leg up in the quarterback battle after displaying maturity and great decision making. But the Hokies need playmakers to complement young Jackson. He will show his inexperience so returngin receiver Cam Phillips can help while finishing his career has as the Hokies’ all-time leading receiver, but the experience drops off quickly after him, with youngsters Eric Kumah and Phil Patterson vying for snaps.
Bud Foster’s defenses thrives when they have experience on the defensive side, and Virginia Tech will have that in bunches at the linebacking position and in the secondary this season. The linebackers are the strength of the group, led by Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds on the inside. Terrell Edmunds, who had a breakout 2016, slides over to safety filling the shoes of departed Chuck Clark, while the cornerback trio of Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman and Adonis Alexander could be one of the best in the ACC. The Hokies figure to find a spot for prized safety signee Devon Hunter, whose drawn comparisons to Kam Chancellor.
Fuente had plenty of success after succeeding the legendary Frank Beamer as Virginia Tech’s coach, returning the school to its 10-win standard, claiming the Coastal Division title for the first time since 2011 and giving Clemson all it could handle in the ACC title game. The offensive exodus will challenge this team, particularly early, but Hokies fans hope a full year in the new system, several key returning pieces and Fuente’s offensive acumen can offset some of the loss of talent.
- South Florida Bulls
Led by dynamic senior quarterback Quinton Flowers will have to handle more of the workload on offense after the departure of running back Marlon Mack to the NFL. He has more than enough ability to do so after standout junior season. Incoming Head Coach Charlie Strong is tasked with improving a defense that gave up 31.6 points per game last year. The Bulls should be favored in all 12 regular season games.
Last season, Flowers was the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as he rushed for 1,530 yards, the fourth-highest total ever by a FBS quarterback; with 18 touchdowns. Flowers became a much-improved passer last season with a 62.5 completion percentage and throwing for 24 touchdowns. A talented receiving corps consisting of Junior Tyre McCants, who had 25 catches, and senior Marquez Valdes-Scantling who had 22 catches; gives Flowers some blow off the top defense speed. Sophomore Darnell Salomon has the potential to blossom after limited duty last year.
The backfield took a hit when Marlon Mack, a three-time first-team All-AAC running back who had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and a South Florida career record of 3,609 yards, skipped his senior season for the NFL Draft. But Strong expressed confidence in the returning backs, particularly do-everything senior D’Ernest Johnson, who rushed for 543 yards and had 28 receptions and scoring 14 total touchdowns.
The Bulls return seven of their top nine tacklers from a defense that struggled in 2016. New Defensive Coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, will implement multiple looks, including a 3-3-5 alignment. The secondary is stocked with experience, including cornerback Deatrick Nichols, a big-play senior who has 27 career starts. The Bulls’ defensive line also has experience but as a group did not get enough pressure on the quarterback last season. Middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who ranks second nationally in career tackles among active players with 303.
The Bulls went 11–2 last season and will be returning 16 starters, could be favored to win all of their games. Coming off the school’s first-ever season-ending top-20 national ranking and seeking the first league title in the program’s history, they are a consensus pick to capture the AAC championship. If South Florida is able to reach their full potential, they could soar to heights they would have just dreamed about.
- West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia put together its best season under head coach Dana Holgorsen in 2016, winning 10 games and finishing tied for second in the conference. In order for them to build on that success they will need several players to step up with only seven starters returning on both sides of the ball. Now that Will Grier, former starting quarterback for Florida eligible for the entire seasn, the offense could surprise despite uncertainty up front and at wide receiver. The defense has even more question marks, but momentum is on the Mountaineers’ side and the Big 12 doesn’t look particularly deep this season.
Since Will Grier eligible, it will be a huge boost for West Virginia, which won the services of the quarterback over offers. While at Floriad, Grier completed 65.8 percent passes for 1,204 yards with 10 touchdowns. The Mountaineers has a strong backfield, led by Justin Crawford, who had 1,184 rushing yards last season. At receiver it’s a little shakier. West Virginia will have to replace deep threat Shelton Gibson and solid Daikiel Shorts, but they have talent in Ka’Raun White, brother of Chicago Bear Kevin, as well as Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms. The questions are along the offensive line. All-America center Tyler Orlosky and solid left guard Adam Pankey must be replaced. Left tackle Yodny Cajuste is coming off an ACL injury.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has work to do. He has a nice corps of linebackers and two exceptional safeties, but he is replacing the entire front of his 3-3-5 defense and needs his cornerbacks to step up.
Safety Dravon Askew-Henry is back from an ACL injury. Also back is former four-star junior college recruit Kyzir White, brother of Ka’Raun and Kevin. At corner, Syracuse graduate transfer Corey Winfield is expected to make an impact. The linebackers should be fine with 6’2″, 238-pound Xavier Preston, sophomore David Long and team leader Al-Rasheed Benton. Along the line, though, all three starters from last season Christian Brown, Darrien Howard and Noble Nwachukwu are gone.
West Virginia has talented players. Grier at quarterback, Ka’Raun White at receiver and Crawford at running back comprise a trio that can be tough to beat this season. The question marks that swirl around regarding the defense on the line and at corner leaves much to speculate. Also, uncertainty at corner might give blitz-happy Gibson reason to pause.
By and large, West Virginia have plenty of confidence coming off a 10-win season and enough talent to challenge in a watered-down Big 12.
- Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State has been a model of consistency since Bill Snyder returned as head coach in 2009, as the Wildcats have won at least six games every season and have posted just one losing record. This year’s Wildcats team could be quite dangerous on offense with dual-threat quarterback Jesse Ertz leading the way. The defense must replace Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis up front and its top three linebackers, but there’s experience in the secondary and a couple of guys who could take a big step forward.
Bill Snyder doesn’t have to worry about any quarterback competition with Ertz calling the signals. With Ertz coming off an impressive season in which he led the Wildcats to a 9–4 record while throwing for 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns, while also running for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he can stay healthy after going through shoulder surgery, and improve on his 57.6 completion percentage, he could become one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12.
Deciphering K-State’s running back rotation won’t be so easy. With Alex Barnes and Justin Silmon leading the way, K-State will have a versatile backfield. Barnes was electric during his debut season, averaging 7.9 yards per rush 56 carries. Silmon was impressive, as well, rushing for 464 yards and three touchdowns on 86 carries. They could be quite the dynamic backfield duo; with Barnes carrying most of the load between the tackles and Silmon bouncing outside. They should all have room to run behind an offensive line that returns three starters, including right tackle Dalton Risner. With versatile playmaker Byron Pringle and speedster Dominique Heath back at receiver, along with Cal transfer Carlos this team could be K-State’s best offense in years.
How do you replace an elite pass rusher like Jordan Willis? The Wildcats are about to find out. It’s a good thing it has some talent returning on the defensive line. Reggie Walker will try to fill the void after recording 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks as a freshman last year. Tanner Wood will complement him on the other side. K-State’s top three linebackers last season Elijah Lee, Charmeachealle Moore, and Will Davis have all moved on. Former walk-on Trent Tanking seems poised to step into a leadership role at the position. Da’Quan Patton, junior college transfer, also appears ready to push for a starting spot.
K-State will have experience in its secondary with D.J. Reed and Duke Shelley back at corner and Kendall Adams returning at safety. Returning safeties Sean Newlan and Denzel Goolsby will both get a shot at those positions, but junior college transfer Elijah Walker could also play immediately.
The Wildcats will have serious experience and firepower on offense this season. If they can develop a few players on defense and improve against the pass, they could be one of the Big 12’s biggest threats to dethrone Oklahoma.
- Miami Hurricanes
There is no denying that Mark Richt is a good coach. But in his second season at his almamater, can he get the ‘Canes to finally win the Coastal Division?
If only Brad Kaaya had stayed. Miami’s three-year starting quarterback took his chances in the NFL draft. By doing so, threw a wrench in Richt’s plans to contend for the ACC Championship. There’s no reason they can’t get there still, but finding a quarterback has to be job numero uno. His options include redshirt junior Malik Rosier, a dual threat who owns the only start 2015 against Duke on the roster, and incoming four-star recruit N’Kosi Perry, who is raw but is considered an elite talent. Perry may not start the opener, but don’t be surprised to see him play this fall.
Whoever wins the job can lean on running back Mark Walton, who rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Standout receiver Ahmmon Richards, who broke Michael Irvin’s 31-year-old program record for receiving yards by a freshman with 934 yards won’t be able to suffer through a sophomore slump. It’s critical for Miami to find ways to offset the loss of standout tight end David Njoku and veteran receiver Stacy Coley. Senior tight end Chris Herndon could be a breakout star.
Last year presented a total turnaround in Miami’s defense, and there’s no reason it can’t once again be among the ACC’s best. Every major contributor from a fast, physical front seven is back. Defensive ends Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson combined for 22.5 tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks last year. Tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh brought a combined 19.5 and 4.5, respectively, to the party.
The Hurricanes expect greater things from the starting linebacker trio of Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, who last year were the only trio of true freshmen in the nation to start at linebacker. If they are to get better on defense behind those true linebackers, the revamped secondary will have to find its way. Replacing four senior starters will be tough, but Miami has high hopes for cornerback Dee Delaney, an FCS All-American at The Citadel who transferred in the summer. With junior safety Jaquan Johnson and a talented recruiting class that will get its feet wet early.
If Miami finds a quarterback and the secondary settles down, this could be a special year for the Hurricanes. With the rest of the ACC Coastal rebuilding, the Hurricanes should be able to compete for the division title with an outstanding defense and an offense that does just enough.
- Louisville Cardinals
Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was a one man wrecking show at time last season, but he and the Cardinals were sent back down to earth ending the season with 3 straight losses to end the season with a bitter taste in their mouth. Head coach Bobby Petrino has replaced feisty coordinator Todd Grantham with Peter Sirmon, a former NFL linebacker who ran the Mississippi State defense for one season. Peter Sirmon experience at all three levels to work with. The Cardinals will need to overcome their inexperience and offensive line issues if they want to come close to matching last season’s production and team success.
Jackson is back but he’s one of just four returning starters on offense as other playmakers will need to emerge, and quickly. Bobby Petrino has the nation’s most prolific quarterback in Lamar Jackson. As dazzling as Jackson was last season, running for 21 touchdowns, passing for 30 more and delivering more than 5,100 yards in total offense, Petrino needs him to be more efficient this season by lifting his passing percentage from 56.2. Jackson needs help, especially from his line, which allowed 47 sacks, more than any team in the ACC.
Jeremy Smith excelled in the red zone last season, making him the favorite to become the featured back, but freshman Colin Wilson arrives as the most acclaimed running back Petrino has recruited since Michael Bush.
The Cardinals lost their top three receivers, Jackson has a solid trio of experienced juniors in Devante Peete, Jaylen Smith and Traveon Samuel to throw the ball too.
Drew Bailey will anchor a defensive line that has suffered significant losses to the NFL. Although James Hearns is listed as a linebacker, he typically parks his 6’3″, 249-pound body at end and rushes the passer, making 10 of his 42 tackles behind the line. Hearns and linebacker Henry Famurewa missed the Cards’ bowl game. Linebacker Stacy Thomas overcame injuries to become the Cardinals’ second-leading tackler, solid against the run and pass. Isaac Stewart and Jonathan Greenard did good things in limited playing time.
The secondary should be a strength with four returning starters, including cornerback Jaire Alexander, who led the Cards with five interceptions while generally covering the best receiver. But even the veterans must play better, because Louisville allowed 29 touchdown passes last season, the most in the ACC.
After climbing as high as No. 3 mid-season and ranking fifth in the College Football Playoff poll after Week 12, the Cardinals wobbled down the stretch; allowing too many sacks; giving up too many fumbles and missed tackles. They will have to limit their mistakes. They just can’t afford to make them; they don’t have the firepower to overcome them.
- Florida Gators
Florida has won the last two East Division crowns under Head Coach Jim McElwain. but this year won’t be any easy task to go for three-in-a-row; they not only will have a new and inexperienced quarterback, but one of the nation’s stingiest defenses in 2016 returns just two starters. Florida still has plenty of talent, but it will be tested right out of the gates with games against Michigan and Tennessee on tap within the first three weeks.
Florida depended a lot on their defense to win back to back SEC East titles but will need to score more points to beat the top teams. Among SEC teams, only South Carolina, now under Muschamp, scored fewer touchdowns than the Gators’ 35. McElwain must develop a quarterback and get infinitely better play from the offensive line who has four returning starters. Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks ended spring practices has the frontrunner, but the battle for the starting job took an interesting turn in June with the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.
The past two seasons, receiver/returner Antonio Callaway has averaged 14.5 yards every time he touched the ball. He will have to be more aggressive in getting open because defenses will key on him. Sophomore deep threat Tyrie Cleveland and junior slot receiver Dre Massey need to capitalize. Tailback Jordan Scarlett emerged from a crowded backfield last season to become the Gators’ No. 1 option.
Randy Shannon, who played on and coached national championship defenses at Miami replaces defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left to become Temple’s head coach; looks to replace eight starters and uphold a standard on defense few can match. To field another top unit, several veterans need to thrive in expanded roles, and several young defenders must mature quickly.
Junior defensive end Cece Jefferson has the tools to become a top pass rusher, while redshirt sophomore defensive end Jabari Zuniga has breakout potential. Big things are expected from junior tackle Taven Bryan.
At linebacker, the Gators will turn to a trio of sophomores who were thrown into the fire last year. David Reese has a nose for the ball; Kylan Johnson, a former high school quarterback, is instinctive; and Vosean Joseph is the unit’s enforcer.
The cornerback position is where the Gators have the biggest question mark. Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson off to the NFL. Senior Duke Dawson moves from nickel back to corner, while sophomore Chauncey Gardner is expected to fit in at cornerback from safety, where he earned Outback Bowl MVP honors. Fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris was looked too to anchor the secondary but was lost for the year in July with a torn Achilles. With Harris out for the year, Shannon could move Gardner back to safety.
Two trips to Atlanta for the SEC title game are an impressive start to McElwain’s regime. The next step will be more difficult. Florida opens 2017 season against Michigan in AT&T Stadium. Tennessee visits on Week 3 to begin a stretch of five SEC games, including visits from LSU and Texas A&M.