With National Signing Day in the rear view mirror, it’s time to revisit the Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2017.
Another National Signing Day has come and gone, and once again Alabama was able to haul in the nation’s top recruiting class, keeping its cupboard of talent full for the foreseeable future.
While Nick Saban’s squad was unable to claim a fifth national title in eight seasons, falling to Clemson when the Tigers scored a last-second touchdown in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide remain the standard bearer for accumulating top talent.
It is unknown just how many of the incoming freshmen in this class will be able to step in and contribute right away, but let’s take a look at an updated Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2017 following another Signing Day.
Post Signing Day Top 25 College Football Rankings
Despite losing key assistants/top recruiters this offseason, which is a byproduct of having so much on-field success, Saban was able to restock with running back Najee Harris, who is too talented to keep off of the field despite the Tide boasting depth in the backfield. A fourth consecutive trip to the CFP could be on the horizon if some key pieces are replaced on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s where athlete Dylan Moses can step in. He has a unique combination of size, speed, athleticism and strength.
2. Ohio State
What we saw happen to the Buckeyes against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl will not happen again on Urban Meyer’s watch. It was Meyer’s first shutout loss as a head coach, so he shuffled his offensive staff, and former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson will prove to be one of the better offseason hires. Defensively, Meyer loaded up on defensive backs after losing high-quality talent to the NFL for a second offseason in a row. No matter where he lines up, Jeffrey Okudah will be a playmaker in the secondary for new defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
3. Florida State
Quarterback Deondre Francois loses Dalvin Cook as a backfield mate, but he gains Cam Akers, who has power, speed and good hands as a pass catcher. The Seminoles open the 2017 season against Alabama in Atlanta, so we’ll get a chance immediately to see how FSU stacks up against the SEC’s best. Even if Jimbo Fisher’s team stumbles early, a CFP berth could be on the horizon by taking care of business in the ACC.
Young star quarterback Sam Darnold may have a new top receiving weapon with JuJu Smith-Schuster gone. Wide receiver Joseph Lewis has the ability to step in right away and be an instant-impact player, while Alijah Vera-Tucker could eventually slide into a starting tackle position. The depth of Clay Helton’s team will be tested, though, especially because the Trojans do not have a bye week in ’17. That wrinkle makes USC one of the most intriguing teams in these college football rankings.
All eyes will be on the quarterback battle, where rising junior Kelly Bryant, rising redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and incoming true freshman Hunter Johnson will be vying to replace two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson. There is a lot of departing top talent, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Dabo Swinney has this program at a level in which replacements can be plugged in without the Tigers seeing too much dropoff. We’ll see how new coaches Todd Bates (defensive line) and Mickey Conn (safeties) gel in their new surroundings.
The Sooners landed the best signing class in the Big 12 by a wide margin, which doesn’t bode well for conference foes considering that Bob Stoops has this program humming along after winning at least 10 games in six of his past seven seasons. Trey Sermon and JUCO star Marcelias Sutton have a chance to keep that ground game prolific, and quarterback Baker Mayfield has a chance to cap off his college career with a Heisman Trophy run, especially if JUCO receiver Marquise Brown makes a seamless transition to Big 12 football.
There’s no question that Jim Harbaugh oversaw a very disappointing end to his second season as head man in Ann Arbor. The key is to pick up the pieces and put the close losses in the rear view mirror as well as adjust to life without some of the team’s best players from 2016. No matter who is under center, the Wolverines need new skill players to emerge. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black have a chance to step in at receiver with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson moving on (as well as TE Jake Butt). Peoples-Jones and Black are elite early enrollees who are in position to contribute right away with just 27 receptions returning to Ann Arbor from that WR corps for new assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Chris Petersen was able to take the Huskies to the CFP stage in just his third season, and the talent base will continue to remain at a high level under his leadership. The No. 8 team in our college football rankings, U-Dub loses some key playmakers in the defensive backfield, but cornerback Elijah Molden—the son of former Oregon All-American Alex Molden—could see immediate action.
9. Penn State
The Nittany Lions made a huge jump in 2016 under James Franklin after back-to-back 7-6 seasons. They won 11 games and nearly knocked off USC in the Rose Bowl after claiming a Big Ten title. Defensive tackle Fred Hansard might be able to step in right away after once being committed to Florida. This is a program that is once again on the national map.
10. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy probably is never going to have a standout, Top 10 recruiting class like some of the traditional national powers. But that’s okay, as all he does is put together consistent seasons with the types of recruits he has been bringing into Stillwater. Quarterback Mason Rudolph, wide receiver James Washington and running back Justice Hill will return in the fall, which is huge for an offense that will remain potent. Defensively, though, the Pokes must be able to make enough critical stops to claim a Big 12 crown and win at least 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons.
At No. 11 in the college football rankings, Kirby Smart enters his second season as Bulldogs head coach coming off of a very impressive Signing Day haul. Offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson has a chance to step in on an offensive line that must better protect young QB Jacob Eason and open up running lanes for the deep backfield that is returning to Athens. With Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, this is an offense that can do damage if the O-Line makes strides. Defensively, expect the Dawgs to be improved because talent will never be an issue on that side of the ball.
The Tigers will always bring in one of the finest national recruiting classes. What we do need to see in Baton Rouge, though, is a commitment to opening up the offense, which we began to see when Ed Orgeron took over for Les Miles in the middle of last season. We will continue to see the ‘O’ evolve with new OC Matt Canada, who was creative in leading the Pitt attack in 2016. The Tigers signed pro-style QB Myles Brennan and dual-threat passer Lowell Narcisse, who will compete with Danny Etling for the starting job. Expect Etling to win it, and Canada will put him in the best position to succeed in a faster-tempo attack.
The Cardinals desperately need to better protect their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, who had no chance to excel in the last few games of the 2016 season because he had very little time in the pocket. JUCO offensive tackle Ronald Rudd has a chance to step in right away and be a fixture. Defensively, Peter Sirmon will be tasked with fielding a solid unit after the Cardinals lost DC Todd Grantham.
The Badgers have suffered some key losses, starting with Justin Wilcox, who is the second defensive coordinator in as many seasons to leave Madison. But this is Wisconsin, which has seemingly been operating with machine-like precision since the arrival of Barry Alvarez. There is a lot of returning talent on both sides of the ball—keep an eye on pass-rushing defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel from the JUCO ranks—so the Big Ten West title still runs through Madison.
The biggest addition for Gus Malzahn and Co. is former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He is expected to lead former Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s unit in the fall, and no one should expect this passing attack to be last in the SEC again. If this offense is in sync, the Tigers could be a real threat in the SEC West.
Mark Richt had a very strong first full recruiting class, with linemen being made a priority. The major question in Coral Gables will be who takes over for NFL-bound Brad Kaaya. No matter who is under center—sophomore Malik Rosier has the experience edge—he will have a plethora of weapons to work with offensively, though Joe Yearby, Stacy Coley and David Njoku do depart.
David Shaw has a tough gig ahead of him in 2017 without star running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas, two players with bright NFL futures. There is also the question mark under center for the No. 17 in the college football rankings, as starter Keller Chryst is working through a torn ACL in his right knee. Senior Ryan Burns and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello now may have the edge at QB, but do not sleep on five-star recruit Davis Mills eventually earning the job at some point in the fall. There is no question that Shaw has continued to elevate the talent level with the Cardinal, but how quickly the younger players develop will tell the tale in 2017.
The Gators have won back-to-back SEC East titles, which does not quite carry the same weight as it has in the past because the division has been down a bit lately. Still, Jim McElwain’s first two seasons have been successful. He’ll lose some key personnel on defense, but the real issue will be on the offensive side of the ball. Can Florida football be fun again? We’ll find out very early, as UF opens against Michigan in Arlington, TX. Luke Del Rio will get pushed by Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask at the quarterback position.
Losing Willie Taggart was tough. Then the Bulls made the smart—and in this scribe’s opinion, the easy—move to bring in Charlie Strong, who will crush on the recruiting trail once he gets a full cycle in Tampa. The Bulls have the talent to win the AAC in Strong’s first year, as star quarterback Quinton Flowers paces the offense while a boatload of starters are expected back on defense. If the new staff’s vision is bought into quickly, this is the Group of Five squad to keep an eye on.
The Vols lose several key pieces, but Butch Jones and his staff have excelled on the recruiting trail. A brutal September features games against Georgia Tech, Florida and Georgia, so it will be sink or swim for Jones and Co. in Knoxville. We’ll see if a new offensive coordinator can make a difference on that side of the ball with a new QB, while new starters on defense were able to gain some valuable experience last season because of so many injuries to key players.
Tom Herman is going to benefit from a cupboard that Strong did not leave bare. The former Houston head coach is going to be able to make huge recruiting gains eventually, but getting running backs Toneil Carter and Daniel Young into the fold in this cycle was big. The Longhorns have a tough road slate to navigate in ’17, but this is a team to keep an eye on in the Big 12.
22. Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente had an outstanding debut season in Blacksburg, claiming the ACC Coastal division crown and beating Arkansas in a bowl game. But early departures to the NFL Draft really hurt the Hokies. Fuente and his staff, though, put together a fantastic signing class—led by star safety Devon Hunter—to add depth to a strong defense. The youth at quarterback is a major question mark, but never underestimate Fuente’s ability to field a productive offense.
23. West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to a 10-3 record last fall, but 15 starters are gone from that team. That’s a lot of experience being lost. The positive is that former Florida quarterback Will Grier could be eligible for the start of the season, although we won’t officially know if the NCAA will reinstate him until July 1. The offense should ultimately be fine, as former Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital is in the fold, while offensive tackle Kelby Wickline and receiver Dominique Maiden have come over from the JUCO ranks. The biggest question is whether WVU can play at a high enough level defensively.
24. Kansas State
Gloss over Bill Snyder’s Wildcats at your own risk. K-State finished 2016 at 9-4, and a lot of pieces are back from that successful squad. Quarterback Jesse Ertz and running back Alex Barnes form a sound backfield, while Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath return at receiver. The strength of the team is its secondary, led by Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year D.J. Reed at cornerback.
Kalani Sitake had a very strong debut campaign with the Cougars. He led them to a 9-4 mark, which featured three Power Five wins, victories over Toledo and Wyoming, one-point losses to Utah and Boise State and a three-point setback to West Virginia. The future is bright for a staff that has made recruiting more of a priority than ever, as the Cougars have some tough competition booked on their future schedules. Expect Sitake to continue to improve the team’s depth as the Cougars try to compete with Power Five squads.