15. Georgia Bulldogs
2nd year Head Coach Kirby Smart, who is defensive-minded and the defense will be more of the strength of the team this season. Ranked in the top 20 nationally last season in both total and passing yards per game allowed, the defense returns intact and should be among the best in the SEC.
Georgia fans figure their offense will improve this year, since true sophomore Jacob Eason will be more comfortable in his second year as the starting quarterback. He was solid as a freshman and now will be a better leader of the offense.
Georgia fans are elated that Nick Chubb decided to come back and join his running mate Sony Michel whom should keep the running game from falling off, but they will need blocking help. The offensive line and receivers have the biggest question marks. For this season, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is installing more run-pass options. And Chaney needs to do a better job of scheming around the weaknesses at receiver and line.
This defensive unit has a chance to be one of the best units in the SEC, and probably in the country. It was pretty good last year, ranking 16th nationally in total defense, and it returns all but one starter. The front seven could be dominant, with a deep defensive line led by Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter. The edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are both seniors who decided to come back instead of going on to the NFL. The inside linebackers are juniors who are adept tacklers, Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick.
The secondary doesn’t have as much star power. Safety Dominick Sanders was a first-team All-SEC in 2015, but his performance fell off last year, is back healthy and is joined by fellow seniors Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish, along with some talented freshmen who will push for playing time.
If the defense plays up to its potential, and the offense and special teams improve even a little, Georgia has a very good chance to win its first SEC East title in five years. There’s a chance to go even further, if Eason improves and Chubb can stay healthy. There’s a chance they can disappoint, which Georgia has tended to do lately.
14. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford must replace a pair of top-10 NFL draft picks in running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas. The loss of McCaffrey and Thomas won’t have the Cardinal falling off the map. They have eight starters returning on both sides of the ball, the offensive line will be the bruiser that they usually are, and the secondary is deep and talented. The key will be what happens at quarterback and if Bryce Love can fill McCaffrey’s big shoes as the primary ball carrier.
At the top of David Shaw’s priority list is knowing exactly when returning starting quarterback Keller Chryst will be available. He injured his knee during Stanford’s 25–23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, who helped the Cardinal go 6–0 towards the end of the season with wins over Oregon, Cal and the aforementioned bowl game.
Regardless of who wins the quarterback position, they will be doing a lot of handing off to one of the most explosive players in the conference in Bryce Love. Used primarily as a change-of-pace option to Christian McCaffrey, Love is poised to take over as the primary back with McCaffrey’s departure.
Another stout offensive line built with four returners with quality starting experience should pave the way for Love.
While the Cardinal will miss the speed and reliability of receiver Michael Rector, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin look for Dalton Schultz, who had 23 catches last season, to build off of those numbers at tight end.
The defensive line will once again be an issue as the Cardinal look to replace backfield menace Solomon Thomas. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has the most experience of the group after posting 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2016. The centerpiece of the front seven is outside linebacker Joey Alfieri, who is one of the most versatile defenders the Cardinal have. He posted 5.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss last year.
The Cardinal secondary will be the backbone of the defense. They are deep in talent and experience. This unit could be one of the best in the country. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder make up one of the top cornerback tandems in the conference, and Justin Reid is a returner at strong safety, and Brandon Simmons also has some starting experience at free safety.
The Cardinal have reached a point where going 10–3, as they did in 2016, actually feels like a down year. With USC rising from the ashes again in the South; the Cardinal will have to find a way to beat Washington if they hope to return to the Pac-12 title game.
13. Auburn Tigers
Head Coach Gus Malzahn is hoping that a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback are just what the Tigers need to help them take that next step and emerge as a threat to Alabama. The offense will need to lead the way with the defense needing to replace three key players. Auburn has enough talent to remain in the hunt in college football’s toughest conference, but do they have enough to capture a SEC title?
Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey from Arizona State back to Alabama where he made a name for himself as a high school coach. He has the responsibility of transforming Auburn’s offense from a flash in the pan to a consistent force. The running game should be in good hands with the return of SEC leading rusher Kamryn Pettway and the versatile Kerryon Johnson.
Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham should add more depth at quarterback. Returning starter Sean White was solid when he was healthy last year, but four injuries in two seasons makes it difficult to trust his availability. If Stidham can open up the offense on a consistent basis with his arm, the Tigers should achieve that much needed balance and become an offensive power.
There’s no question that the defense will take a step back without defensive end Carl Lawson, tackle Montravius Adams and safety Rudy Ford. Making sure it’s only a small step back is what defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has to figure out.
The defensive front is loaded with talented players such as defensive end Marlon Davidson, who started as a true freshman; tackle Derrick Brown and end/tackle Byron Cowart. Who will step up and be the dominant figure to make teams lock in or strategize around? Deshaun Davis and Tre’ Williams are entrenched at linebacker. The potential is there for this crew to be one of the SEC’s best, but some younger players up front have to grow up.
The core of that offense is back, and adding Stidham can open things up for the offense, and once again be part of the topic of conversation when College Football Playoff talk comes around.
12. LSU Tigers
Head Coach Ed Orgeron is about to start his first full season at Baton Rouge after the firing of Les Miles the early part of last season when he first took over. He has brought in Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada, who plans to open up the offense this season. But to do so he’ll need to rely on a host of new starters. The defense once again was hit hard by NFL draft departures, but plenty of talent remains. How quickly this unit comes together will likely determine if the Tigers can be a threat to Alabama’s dominance in the SEC West.
Canada is expected to deliver more passing and a lot more misdirection. Think jet sweeps and multiple pre-snap shifts. Senior quarterback Danny Etling is LSU’s only experienced signal caller after former starter Brandon Harris transferred to North Carolina. Etling threw for 2,123 yards with 11 touchdowns last season.
The offense will still depend heavily on a quality running game. Despite losing Leonard Fournette, the Tigers have plenty of power in reserve with the return of junior Derrius Guice. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs while Fournette suffered from his ankle injury last season. The Tigers are retooling at wide receiver with the loss of their top two pass catchers, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, to the NFL. Senior D.J. Chark is now poised to be Etling’s top target.
Christian LaCouture was convinced to return for his fifth season after missing all of 2016 with a knee injury. There was at least some concern about the future of junior Buck Arden Key, but appears to be back and ready go from his off the field troubles. The SEC’s leader with 1.1 sacks per game, Key sat out spring practice for what LSU termed personal reasons.
The linebacker corps is the Tigers’ biggest rebuilding job after losing inside linebackers Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith, who led LSU with 93 and 91 tackles, respectively. Senior Donnie Alexander, will take over one inside spot and sophomore Devin White will take over the other, who is said to be a promising talent.
In the secondary, junior Donte Jackson takes over the shutdown corner role from Tre’Davious White. John Battle is a returning starter at safety, but look for true freshman JaCoby Stevens to push for playing time after arriving in January.
Orgeron retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and hired Canada to break LSU out of its predictable offensive patterns. A tough schedule awaits the Tigers. They have only three SEC home games so a 10–2 record would probably be the ceiling, which is not a bad goal in the Tigers’ first full year under the new regime.
11. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Offense should not be an issue for Oklahoma State this season with quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington leading what should be a prolific attack whether the Cowboys decide to throw or run the ball. The defense returns only five starters, but it’s not short on talent and the coaching staff is optimistic about the unit’s potential. Oklahoma State has some tough tests, but the schedule for the most part should only help the Cowboys stay towards the top in a race for a conference championship bid.
Quarterback Mason Rudolph decided to return to Oklahoma State a premium triggerman for what should be an electric attack that feeds optimism for a special season. The Cowboys return seven starters on offense. Rudolph has weapons in waves, led by game-breaking receiver James Washington, whose 19.4 yards per catch in 2016 led all FBS receivers with at least 70 receptions. Along with Washington, Jalen McCleskey and Marcell Ateman are multi-year starters with a combined 15 career touchdown receptions, while Chris Lacy starred in place of the injured Ateman last fall and produced in the passing game.
Running back Justice Hill returns after rushing for 1,142 yards, topping all FBS freshmen and earning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and consensus Freshman All-America honors. Three starters are back on the offensive line. Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran should provide a boost at tackle.
The defensive line should be a strength of the defense, with an abundance of good ends, including all-conference candidates Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford, as long as he can stay healthy can disrupt offensive lines this season. Darrion Daniels, entering his junior year, has to show that he is ready for a major breakout season.
Smart and savvy linebacker Chad Whitener enters his third season as a starter, and safety Tre Flowers is a rangy playmaker with 200 tackles and 17 pass breakups in his career. Ramon Richards, who’s started 23 games at cornerback, shifts to the other safety, leaving a cast of young and talented players bidding to fill both corner spots. The addition of Clemson graduate transfer Adrian Baker alleviates some of the concern at cornerback.
The Cowboys will have to manage trips to Pittsburgh and West Virginia, but the rest of the schedule sets up nicely. And they’ll have to find a way to beat Oklahoma, which has blocked their path the past two seasons
10. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers’ customarily stout running game will look different this fall with new primary ball carriers and left tackle. The hope is that quarterback Alex Hornibrook can improve and stay healthy. With a new defensive coordinator and also replacing two standout linebackers defensively the Badgers have an uphill climb. Still, the beat should go on for Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team, who will remain the favorite in the Big Ten West.
The Badgers were ranked 39th nationally in rushing offense last season. Whether Wisconsin can continue to trend upward in the running game will depend largely on how a new-look backfield performs. Gone are Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. Taking their place are Bradrick Shaw and Chris James. Shaw averaged 5.2 yards per carry in limited action last season. James, a transfer from Pittsburgh, gives Wisconsin a speedy option in the backfield. There’s plenty of experience returning on the offensive line, although Wisconsin has to replace left tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Taking Ramczyk’s place will be David Edwards. Michael Deiter, who has started 27 consecutive games, provides options because he can play either center or guard.
Alex Hornibrook needs more consistent. He started in nine games as a redshirt freshman and had some big moments, but he had almost as many interceptions as touchdown passes. The good news for Hornibrook is that his top two targets from last season wide receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli are back.
New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard; the third coordinator in as many years., who played for the Badgers, was promoted from within to run the unit after Justin Wilcox was named head coach at California. Leonhard’s biggest challenge will be replacing outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Watt, who had 15.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks as a junior, left early for the NFL Draft. The rest of the front seven stays intact. The Badgers have loads of experience at the front of their defense, and inside linebacker is an area of strength. Jack Cichy, who played inside linebacker last season but has the ability to play on the outside as well, may help fill the playmaking void left by Watt and Biegel.
Cornerback Derrick Tindal and strong safety D’Cota Dixon are back, but Wisconsin has to replace two players who had fantastic final seasons with the Badgers. Nick Nelson, a transfer from Hawaii, will step in for four-year starter Sojourn Shelton at the other cornerback spot.
The Badgers have won 21 games over Paul Chryst’s first two seasons despite inconsistency on offense. The defense, on the other hand, has been terrific, and Chryst doesn’t expect that to change now that Leonhard is directing the defense. It would take some of the pressure off that group if the Badgers returned to the days where the offensive line wore down opponents.
9. Michigan Wolverines
Jim Harbaugh has a veteran quarterback in Wilton Speight and plenty of young, talented kids ready to take advantage of more playing time. The key will be how quickly all of the pieces come together, as Michigan’s margin for error is small as it relates to the difference between being a good team and a College Football Playoff contender.
Quarterback Wilson Speight will be the team’s starting quarterback baring injury, as he threw for more than 2,500 yards to go along with 18 touchdowns. He’ll have all new receivers, though, as Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt are off to the NFL. Michigan boasts plenty of young talented players like Kekoa Crawford, Eddie McDoom and five-star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, but they are inexperienced. Sophomore Chris Evans, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry last season, leads an experienced running back group, the only experienced group on this side of the ball.
Up front, things will be a challenge. The offensive line will once again be the determining factor in how far Michigan goes in 2017. Last year’s group was experienced, but it faltered in three losses against Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State. Michigan brings back versatile senior Mason Cole and talented sophomore Ben Bredeson, but Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will need three new starters.
Michigan loses 10 starters from the country’s top-ranked defensive. Jabrill Peppers, captain Chris Wormley, star corner Jourdan Lewis and sack leader Taco Charlton all have went to NFL. But it does bring back coordinator Don Brown, who helped push this unit to the next level with his high-pressure blitzing scheme last year.
Defensive end Rashan Gary is an athletic freak and might be the best player on the team right now. Maurice Hurst turned down a chance to go pro early and is back as a leader up front at tackle. Elsewhere, sophomores Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, Josh Metellus, David Long and Lavert Hill will look to make their mark in starting roles. They have big shoes to fill, but all of them got real-time reps last year at linebacker, safety and corner, respectively.
Harbaugh’s demanding enough as a coach to push a team to more wins than its talent and/or experience level typically produce. Now, he’ll have to circle the wagons and live with the growing pains of recruiting and playing with inexperience especially on offense. 2017 Harbaugh will have one of the youngest squads Michigan’s had in some time. This team does get Ohio State at home, but a road trip to an improved Penn State squad won’t be easy. Neither will a season-opening game against Florida in Texas.
8. Oklahoma Sooners
The start of the Lincoln Riley era after Bob Stoops decided to step down as head coach back in June. Oklahoma returns just about everyone on offense, including Heisman Trophy contender Baker Mayfield, as the Sooners look to make it three Big 12 titles in a row. Mayfield will need a new No. 1 target and the backfield is unproven, but a veteran offensive line should help this attack remain productive. There’s more pressure on a defensive side of the ball; they will some standouts to step their games up if the Sooners want to continue their streak of conference titles and a chance back in the College Football Playoff race.
So, yes, stars Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook are gone, along with their combined 2,435 rushing yards and 2,168 receiving yards. Mayfield is back, determined to maintain Sooner standards. Mayfield isn’t the only key player back, as the Sooners return all five offensive line starters and pass-catching tight end Mark Andrews to go with the next wave of playmakers. The running back competition could involve as many as six players, although former four-star recruits Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson head into fall as the frontrunners.
There’s a search among veterans and newcomers for reliable receiving options alongside the big-play Andrews, who also lines up in the slot. Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet could be a major wild card after totaling 82 catches for 1,385 yards with 7 touchdowns in three seasons with the Wildcats.
Inexperience creates some concern among the front seven, yet there’s comfort in knowing a strong secondary has their backs. Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker may be the best set of corners in the conference, giving the Sooners the luxury to defend a conference where it’s loaded with spread passing attacks. Thomas is a star, controlling one side of the field as a physical cover corner who discourages throws his way. Steven Parker returns as a fixture at strong safety, carrying 30 career starts into this season.
Veteran tackle Matt Romar fills one of the interior spots, while Neville Gallimore looks to make the move inside after working at defensive end in Oklahoma’s old 3-4. D.J. Ward could thrive as an edge rusher in the new look. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Caleb Kelly return as outside linebackers to book end redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry in the middle. Okoronkwo brings an attacking style, reflected in a team-leading nine sacks and 12 tackles for a loss.
The Sooners enter 2017 as the favorites to win a third straight Big 12 championship, but the fans are asking for more. Mayfield and the standout offensive line give them a chance not to disappoint. A challenging road schedule that features a Sept. 9 visit to Columbus to meet an Ohio State team that thumped Oklahoma in Norman in 2016. And there are trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, two of the other top contenders in the Big 12. If all goes well, there’s a rematch with someone in the resurrected Big 12 Championship Game.
7. Washington Huskies
The Huskies are not short of talent despite the boat load of players that departed for the NFL. Quarterback Jake Browning and a potent one-two punch at running back will lead the way on offense, but new targets need to emerge for the passing game since the speedster John Ross is gone. The defense lost three standouts in the secondary, but the linebacking corps should be strong. Chris Petersen has put Washington back on the national stage of prominence and there’s no reason to think these Huskies are just going to disappear in 2017.
The Huskies should have no trouble moving the ball and running up points. They have quarterback stability in Jake Browning. He directed the league’s highest-scoring offense (41.8 ppg), threw a conference record tying 43 touchdown passes and was selected conference Offensive Player of the Year. The Huskies are loaded at tailback with the league’s best one-two punch in junior Myles Gaskin and senior Lavon Coleman, who combined for 2,200 yards last season.
The Huskies’ veteran line is poised for a breakout season. The centerpiece is left tackle Trey Adams, who has the NFL written all over him. Huge and mobile, he was a 1st team All-Pac-12 selection and enters his third season as a starter. Senior center Coleman Shelton, a four year starter and is a highly dependable player.
If there’s a question mark on offense, it’s at wide receiver. The Huskies have a good one in senior Dante Pettis, who had 53 receptions and 15 scores last season, but a reliable second option needs to step forward.
Junior defensive tackle Vita Vea, was projected as a second-round NFL Draft pick but decided he wasn’t ready. While starting just five games last season, Vea made enough of an impression that he was named 2nd team All-Pac-12. He will team with junior defensive tackle Greg Gaines, deceptively good at stopping the run, to form another stout front wall.
The strength of the Huskies’ defense shifts from the secondary to the linebackers. Three starting linebackers return, most notably senior inside linebacker Azeem Victor, a highly aggressive player who was named 1st team All-Pac-12 even after missing four games with a broken leg. Victor will start for a third consecutive season alongside fellow senior inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria.
The secondary lost three highly decorated players. The Huskies return a budding star in sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp, but their biggest challenge will be to find cornerbacks who will come of age as the season progresses, which could determine this team’s ultimate fate.
Petersen continues to recruit well. He has another soft non-conference schedule and doesn’t have USC on the schedule. If the Huskies can restock the secondary and keep the momentum going, the Huskies will be a serious contender both in the Pac-12 and nationally again.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State may have been the biggest conference champion surprise of the Power 5 conferences last year, but the Nittany Lions aren’t sneaking up on anyone in 2017. The offense returns every starter but one while the defense brings back plenty of experience as well. Ohio State will get its shot at revenge against Penn State at home but Michigan, Nebraska and in-state rival Pitt all come to Happy Valley. The pieces and the schedule are in place for the Nittany Lions to repeat 2016’s success.
The Nittany Lions enjoyed an offensive breakthrough in 2016 and return a pair of Heisman hopefuls in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. McSorley threw for a school-record 3,614 yards in his debut season, with 29 touchdowns. His average of 16.1 yards per completion led the nation. Barkley appears poised to pick up where he left off after gouging USC for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.
The Lions also have a marvelous versatile tight end in Mike Gesicki, whose 679 yards as a junior were the most ever by a Penn State tight end. The team will definitely will miss NFL-bound receiver Chris Godwin, but with DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and three other scholarship players back, there’s depth at wideout. It also helps that the line is no longer a liability. The Lions return four starters up front and two other players with extensive starting experience.
The Lions have some holes to fill at defensive end and outside linebacker. But due in part to a wave of injuries, the Lions used a lot of players last year to fill the gaps, so while they’re still fairly young, they aren’t inexperienced.
Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz are vying for the starting end spots, with seniors Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran back at tackle. Manny Bowen and Cam Brown were both thrust into the starting lineup last year at outside linebacker. Senior Jason Cabinda, a two-year starter who ranked third on the team in tackles last season despite missing five games with a wrist injury is back to have another magical run.
The secondary got a big boost when free safety Marcus Allen announced that he would not be leaving early for the NFL. He was the third-leading tackler in the Big Ten last year with 110 stops. But the Lions suffered a major loss when standout cornerback John Reid went down with a potentially season-ending injury this spring. Penn State is deep at cornerback, but Reid won’t be easily replaced.
Penn State appears to have the potential, particularly on offense, to approach or maybe even surpass last year’s stunning 11–3 finish. Barkley and McSorley are the headliners, but the supporting cast, especially the offensive line, has made major strides, and those players are now versed in the intricacies of coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offensive system.