Greetings, friends and college football fanatics. The 2017 season, mercifully, is almost upon us.
I don’t know about you, but the last four or five months have been a struggle. Now that baseball has officially overtaken college basketball as the worst regular season in sports – more on that in a future column – there isn’t a whole lot going on from early April to late August. Truly, what is there to get excited about sports-wise in the summer? A hot dog-eating contest? A home run derby? Even Shark Week has lost its luster.
Point being, it’s been a rough couple of months, but we can now wake from our summer-long slumber and stagger to our flatscreens (or local watering holes) and bask in the glory and honor and magic and majesty that is college football.
I’ll be with you all season, providing weekly rankings as well as my thoughts on all things College Football Playoff. Spoiler alert: You probably won’t agree with me all of the time. In fact, you probably won’t agree with me most of the time. I expect countless insults questioning my intelligence, vocation, and general worth to society. I am okay with this.
It wouldn’t be college football season without it.
With that in mind, here’s a look at my top six teams heading into the 2017 season. This is not – I repeat, NOT – a College Football Playoff prediction. It is a list of the top six teams in America, as things stand, right now, today, according to me.
So buckle up, boys and girls. The season starts now. (Or Aug. 26. Same thing.)
Alabama has played for a national championship in five of the last eight seasons. Well, don’t be surprised if the Tide make it six out of nine.
The only program to reach the College Football Playoff three times, Alabama has won 26 of its last 27 games, with the lone blemish coming against Clemson in January. The Tide must replace another stout first-round haul, including linebacker Reuben Foster and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, but Nick Saban and his unopened bottle of Coca-Cola have been there, done that.
This year will be no different.
Offensively, Bama returns running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris – also known as “the best 1-2 punch in America” – as well as sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, who accounted for 36 touchdowns (23 passing, 13 rushing) as a freshman. If Hurts improves as a passer, this team will be tough to beat.
It will be tough to beat even if he doesn’t.
The SEC was a bit of a one-hit wonder last season, but LSU and Auburn, among others, should be better in 2017. Still, if Alabama survives its opener against Florida State, I don’t know when that first loss is coming.
2) Florida State
This one’s pretty simple:
The ACC champion has reached the College Football Playoff every year, Clemson or Florida State has won the ACC six years in a row, and Deshaun Watson is no longer Clemson’s quarterback.
Seriously, though, the Seminoles are stacked, especially defensively. Remember that scene in Independence Day where the oddball scientist leads Bill Pullman and friends to the underground vault and, moments before being attacked by an alien, says, “Welcome to The Freak Show”? Well, that’s safety Derwin James. He’s The Freak Show. He will wrap his tentacles around your neck and throw your stunned, lifeless body against the glass. And he will like it.
Sorry, ball-carrier/would-be-touchdown-scorer, there cannot be a peace between you.
James was limited to two games with a torn meniscus last season, but he’ll lead a unit that could be downright dominant. There were a few head-scratchers for the Seminoles in 2016 – FSU allowed 18.8 points in its wins, 45.7 points in its losses – but if James is right, the rest should fall into place.
Offensively, Jimbo Fisher will miss Dalvin Cook, but redshirt sophomore Deondre Francois, who threw for 3,350 yards last season – fifth-most in FSU history – looks like the second coming of Jameis Winston (or at least E.J. Manuel). A win over Alabama would vault Francois into the Heisman race – and perhaps the Heisman lead.
I know, I know. I elevated Florida State by downgrading Clemson, so how could I have Clemson at 3? Two reasons: one, Dabo Swinney, and two, Dabo Swinney.
Look, I get it. Clemson lost a ton on offense. Deshaun Watson. Gone. Mike Williams. Gone. Artavis Scott. Gone. Wayne Gallman. Gone. Jordan Leggett. Gone.
That’s a lot to replace. Should we expect a third consecutive 14-win season from Clemson? No. Should we expect 13 wins? Not necessarily. Should we expect 12? I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know: Since 2012, Clemson is 6-1 in bowl games with wins over Alabama, LSU, Ohio State (twice), and Oklahoma (twice). In that time, the Tigers have been, at worst, the third-best program in America. Deshaun Watson ain’t walking through that door, but I’m not sleeping on Dabo Swinney. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt. He also gets Auburn (Sept. 9) and FSU (Nov. 11) in Death Valley.
If you want to dismiss Dabo without Deshaun, go right ahead. I’m not.
4) Ohio State
You could make a case – and a compelling one, at that – that Ohio State deserves to be No. 1 on this list. Urban Meyer, senior quarterback, a bajillion returning starters, best D-Line in America – the list goes on.
But after a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes enter 2017 under the microscope, relatively speaking.
Reaching the CFP with the most inexperienced team in America last season was quite an accomplishment for Meyer. This is a squad that embarrassed Oklahoma in Norman, beat Wisconsin in Madison, and survived Michigan in Columbus. That’s impressive.
But the debacle in the desert was a black eye for the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s season-long shortcomings were exposed in spades that Glendale night: pass protection, pass completions, and pep-less play-calling that would have put even Jim Tressel to sleep.
Wait, what was that? A designed quarterback run with J.T. Barrett?! Shocking! WAKE UP, JIM! WAKE UP!
In any event, out goes Tim Beck, in comes Kevin Wilson – a creative offensive coordinator who will have a plethora of weapons at his disposal, including the aforementioned Barrett. Ever heard of freshmen playing like seniors? Well, Barrett is a senior who needs to play like a (redshirt) freshman. In 2014, Barrett had 45 touchdowns (34 passing, 11 rushing) to just 11 interceptions. If the 22-year-old Texan comes anywhere close to those numbers in 2017, he’ll be in New York, and the Buckeyes will be playing on New Year’s Day.
At least in theory. Ohio State’s schedule, with late-season tilts against Penn State and at Michigan, is no joke, and a Week 2 rematch against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will test a defense that lost three first-round draft picks from its secondary.
All in all, though, the Buckeyes have enough on both sides of the ball – and in the coaching office – to reach their third playoff in four years. Barrett just needs to lead them there.
My top four teams are the last four national champions. I didn’t plan that, but upon further reflection, maybe I should have. These four programs have combined for eight of 12 CFP berths and have all won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons.
The truth is, we don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but if past is prologue, there’s a decent chance that at least one of these programs will be there in the end.
JUST MISSING THE CUT
Nine straight wins, Rose Bowl thriller, Sam Darnold – there are many reasons why USC is a trendy national-title pick. Before stepping aboard the Trojan Train, however, I need to see more.
USC is ranked No. 4 in the preseason. The last two times the Trojans entered a season ranked in top 10 – 2012 and 2015 – they finished a combined 15-12. Even last season, USC entered Week 1 with a top-20 national ranking and lost 52-6 to Alabama.
Don’t get it twisted: The Trojans could – and probably should – win the Pac-12. But first things first. Let’s see how they respond to expectations.
6) Penn State
James Franklin returns 16 starters from his Big-Ten-title-winning, Rose-Bowl-reaching, may-have-gotten-screwed-out-of-a-playoff-spot squad.
Translation: This team is talented, and this team is hungry.
With Heisman candidate and do-everything tailback Saquon Barkley leading the way, Penn State might have the best offense in the Big Ten – and potentially one of the best offenses in America. After allowing 83 points in their final two games, however, the defense needs to improve (come on, Penn State, this isn’t the Big 12).
As it stands, an Oct. 28 visit to Columbus could decide the Big Ten East – and with it, a playoff berth. Stay tuned.
Tony Meale is a Chicago-based author, journalist, and content creator who uses words to inform, educate, entertain, and inspire. A Cincinnati native, he has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Louis University and a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University. He began his career as a high school sports reporter before writing and publishing 2012’s “The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron,” a behind-the-scenes look at the greatest sports story never told. He’s been creating written and spoken content ever since.