Here’s the third edition of the 2018 Way-Too-Early Top 25:
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 1
2017 record: 12-2, 7-1 ACC
Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense, two special teams
Key losses: G Tyrone Crowder, G Taylor Hearn, WR Deon Cain, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, S Van Smith, LB Dorian O’Daniel, CB Ryan Carter
Outlook: The good news keeps coming for the Tigers, who signed a fourth straight top-10 recruiting class after a handful of their draft-eligible juniors decided to return for another college season.
Five-star prospect Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville, Georgia, the No. 1 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, is already enrolled and will have a chance to battle incumbent Kelly Bryant this spring. The Tigers also signed four-star receiver Justyn Ross, the No. 1 prospect in Alabama, who might be able to help right away.
Clemson signed two of the country’s highest-rated defensive ends — K.J. Henry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Xavier Thomas of Florence, South Carolina — and defensive coordinator Brent Venables can bring them along slowly with Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins deciding to come back.
After falling short of winning back-to-back national championships, the Tigers should enter 2018 as a heavy favorite to win the ACC and make their fourth straight appearance in the CFP. The Tigers will play nonconference games against two SEC foes — at Texas A&M on Sept. 8 and at home against South Carolina on Nov. 24. They’ll play Florida State on the road on Oct. 27 and will avoid Miami and Virginia Tech during the regular season.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 2
2017 record: 13-1, 7-1 SEC
Returning starters: eight offense, four defense, zero special teams
Key losses: WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough, DT Da’Ron Payne, C Bradley Bozeman, DE Da’Shawn Hand, LB Rashaan Evans, CB Levi Wallace, CB Anthony Averett, S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison, S Tony Brown, P JK Scott
Outlook: After winning their fifth national championship in nine seasons, the Crimson Tide face major rebuilding on and off the field. Tide coach Nick Saban had to hire five new assistant coaches, including both coordinators, after former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left for the Buffalo Bills and former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was named Tennessee’s new head coach. Outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi was promoted to defensive coordinator while receivers coach Mike Locksley was promoted to offensive coordinator.
Two other assistant coaches also departed: secondary coach Derrick Ansley (Oakland Raiders) and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar (Pittsburgh Steelers). Saban has hired four new assistants: former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos, Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis, Texas Tech defensive backs coach Karl Scott and UTSA defensive backs coach Pete Golding. Saban still has one vacancy to fill.
The turnover was felt in Alabama’s recruiting efforts. After signing the No. 1 class in six of the previous seven years, the Tide slipped to No. 6 this year, which was its worst finish since Saban’s first season at Alabama. Their haul still included No. 1 defensive end Eyabi Anoma, No. 1 cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. and No. 1 athlete Xavier Williams.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 5
2017 record: 13-2, 7-1 SEC
Returning starters: seven offense, five defense, one special teams
Key losses: RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, OT Isaiah Wynn, LB Roquan Smith, DT Trenton Thompson, LB Lorenzo Carter, LB Davin Bellamy, NT John Atkins, CB Malkom Parrish, S Dominick Sanders, CB Aaron Davis
Outlook: After reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time and falling to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the CFP National Championship, the Bulldogs used their momentum to sign the country’s top recruiting class for the first time in school history.
Georgia signed 19 ESPN 300 players, including seven of the top 25, which is the most by any school in a single cycle of the ESPN 300 era. The Bulldogs’ class included three five-star prospects: No. 1 dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields (the No. 1 player overall), No. 2 cornerback Tyson Campbell and No. 5 defensive end Brenton Cox. Georgia also signed No. 1 running back Zamir White, No. 1 guard Trey Hill and No. 2 guard Jamaree Salyer.
The most pressing needs for Georgia in spring practice will be rebuilding its linebacker corps, which lost Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. Top tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb also departed, but quarterback Jake Fromm returns after a sensational freshman campaign and will have four returning linemen protecting him.
Georgia’s nonconference schedule isn’t overwhelming, with home games against FCS foe Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State, UMass and Georgia Tech, and it will play SEC road games at South Carolina, Missouri, LSU and Kentucky (as well as its annual contest against Florida in Jacksonville, Florida).
4. Ohio State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 3
2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big Ten
Returning starters: seven offense, five defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB J.T. Barrett, DE Sam Hubbard, LB Jerome Baker, S Damon Webb, CB Denzel Ward, OT Jamarco Jones, C Billy Price, DE Tyquan Lewis, LB Chris Worley
Outlook: The Buckeyes fell just short of reaching the CFP for the third time in four seasons, but they finished with a five-game win streak, including a 24-7 victory over USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
OSU will have a quarterback battle to watch in the spring; Dwayne Haskins is the favorite to replace Barrett, but highly regarded Tate Martell is a talented, dual-threat quarterback who might bring more creativity to the offense. With J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber back, whoever wins the job will have plenty of help.
Urban Meyer has brought in Washington State’s Alex Grinch, a two-time Broyles Award nominee, to be co-defensive coordinator. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and junior receiver Parris Campbell elected to return to school.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 4
2017 record: 12-2, 8-1 Big 12
Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB Baker Mayfield, TE Mark Andrews, OT Orlando Brown, C Erick Wren, DT Du’Vonta Lampkin, DE D.J. Ward, DE/LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB Emmanuel Beal, FS Will Johnson, SS Steven Parker
Outlook: After guiding Oklahoma to a Big 12 title and a spot in the CFP in his first season as a head coach, Lincoln Riley produced a top-10 class in his first full recruiting effort. It’s the first time in 13 years that the Sooners have had top-10 recruiting classes in consecutive cycles.
The Sooners focused on the defensive side of the ball, where they need a lot of help, and defensive ends Ron Tatum III, Ronnie Perkins and Jalen Redmond and cornerback Brendan Radley-Hiles were important additions.
OU can only hope that the transition from Heisman Trophy winner Mayfield to Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray goes smoothly. Murray played sparingly behind Mayfield last season, but he possesses many of the same dual-threat skills, and he’ll have several playmakers around him.
Riley hired former Georgia assistant Shane Beamer as his new assistant head coach for offense and tight ends, and former Dallas Cowboys strength coach Bennie Wylie was hired to replace Jerry Schmidt, who left for Texas A&M.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 7
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12
Returning starters: eight offense, nine defense, one special teams
Key losses: DT Vita Vea, WR Dante Pettis, G Andrew Kirkland, C Coleman Shelton, TE Will Dissly, LB Keishawn Bierria
Outlook: The Huskies have the best combination of quarterback (Jake Browning), offensive line and tailback (Myles Gaskin) in the Pac-12 coming back this season, and they’ll have nine starters back from what was a young defense in 2017. And now they’ll also have improved depth from what is undoubtedly Chris Petersen’s best recruiting class.
The offense also returns some key contributors who were lost to season-ending injuries, including left tackle Trey Adams, tight end Hunter Bryant and receiver Chico McClatcher.
Petersen has created a potential logjam at quarterback once Browning leaves. Along with Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who must sit out the 2018 season under NCAA transfer rules, the Huskies are bringing in No. 2 pocket passer Jacob Sirmon of Bothell, Washington, and No. 4 pocket passer Colson Yankoff of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.
The Huskies open next season against Auburn in Atlanta and play Pac-12 road games at Utah, UCLA, Oregon, California and Washington State.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 6
2017 record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten
Returning starters: nine offense, five defense, one special teams
Key losses: TE Troy Fumagalli, FB Austin Ramesh, DE Alec James, DE Conor Sheehy, CB Nick Nelson
Outlook: The Badgers won a school-record 13 games this past season, and they’re bringing back a record-setting tailback and all five starting offensive linemen, which is usually a recipe for success.
But Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is going to have to replace a handful of key players, especially in the secondary, where the Badgers lost three of four starters. Three of the top seven prospects in Wisconsin’s recruiting class were cornerbacks, including Donte Burton of Lawrenceville, Georgia, and Rachad Wildgoose Jr. of Miami, a one-time Georgia commitment.
Wisconsin’s offense is loaded for success in 2018. Running back Jonathan Taylor set the FBS freshman record with 1,977 rushing yards and will be a leading Heisman Trophy contender this coming season. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will also be back, along with most of his top targets besides Fumagalli.
Wisconsin’s schedule will be more difficult this coming season, with road games at Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 8
2017 record: 10-3, 7-1 ACC
Returning starters: eight offense, eight defense, one special teams
Key losses: WR Braxton Berrios, OT KC McDermott, G Trevor Darling, DT RJ McIntosh, DT Kendrick Norton, RB Mark Walton
Outlook: After guiding Miami to its first 10-win season since 2003 and its first appearance in the ACC championship game in his second season at his alma mater, Mark Richt continued to rebuild the Hurricanes’ roster with a top-10 recruiting class.
Miami’s No. 8-ranked class includes No. 1 tight end/H-back Brevin Jordan of Las Vegas, No. 3 defensive tackle Nesta Silva of Plantation, Florida, and No. 4 running back Lorenzo Lingard of Orange City, Florida. While the Hurricanes had some national signing day misses in the secondary, No. 8 cornerback Al Blades Jr. and No. 14 safety Gurvan Hall were important additions.
Jarren Williams, the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback, has already enrolled in classes and will compete against returning starters Malik Rosier and redshirt freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon in the spring. Rosier struggled with his accuracy at times last season, but Richt continues to say Rosier is the starter.
The Hurricanes open the season on Sept. 2 against LSU in Arlington, Texas, and they’ll host Florida State on Oct. 6. Their ACC road slate is manageable, with trips to Virginia, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
9. Michigan State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 9
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten
Returning starters: 10 offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: C Brian Allen, DE Demetrius Cooper, LB Chris Frey
Outlook: After winning at least 10 games for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had to shuffle his coaching staff after co-defensive coordinator Harlon Bennett and defensive ends coach Mark Snyder left for Florida State.
Mike Tressel, who shared the coordinator duties with Bennett the past few seasons, will take over the job. Former Kent State coach Paul Haynes was hired to coach defensive backs, former Miami (Ohio) coach Don Treadwell will coach special teams and former MSU linebacker Chuck Bullough is returning to coach defensive ends.
With 19 starters coming back in 2018, Michigan State might be poised to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East. Brian Lewerke was dramatically better in 2017, becoming the first MSU quarterback to pass for more than 2,500 yards and run for more than 500. Tailback LJ Scott is also coming back, along with breakout receiver Felton Davis III.
Another reason for optimism: MSU gets to play both Michigan and Ohio State at home in 2018.
10. Penn State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 11
2017 record: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten
Returning starters: seven offense, three defense, one special teams
Key losses: RB Saquon Barkley, WR DaeSean Hamilton, G Brendan Mahon, TE Mike Gesicki, DT Curtis Cothran, LB Brandon Smith, LB Jason Cabinda, CB Christian Campbell, FS Marcus Allen, SS Troy Apke
Outlook: After losing Barkley to the NFL draft and celebrated offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State, Penn State coach James Franklin started to reload by signing what might arguably be one of the best recruiting classes in school history.
The Nittany Lions had the No. 4 recruiting class in the country, which was led by their first five-star recruits in the ESPN 300 era: defensive end Micah Parson and wide receiver Justin Shorter. In all, Penn State signed 13 players from the ESPN 300.
Franklin is really excited about PSU’s offensive line corps, which includes No. 10 guard Fredrick Scruggs, No. 11 tackle Nana Asiedu and No. 13 tackle Rasheed Walker.
After struggling with depth in the trenches the last couple of seasons, Franklin hopes this class will help shore up that deficiency.
Franklin also hired two new assistant coaches to help expand Penn State’s recruiting reach: former Army receivers coach David Corley and former Florida running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider. Passing-game coordinator Ricky Rahne takes over playcalling duties from Moorhead and had an impressive debut in a 35-28 win over Washington in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State’s schedule gets a little more difficult in 2018, with games against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, but the Nittany Lions will play all but the Wolverines in Happy Valley.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 14
2017 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten
Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Mason Cole, C Patrick Kugler, OT Juwann Bushell-Beatty, QB John O’Korn, NT Maurice Hurst, LB Mike McCray
Outlook: National signing day came and went without the Wolverines making a big splash, as Jim Harbaugh tries to get his program headed back in the right direction. After signing top-10 classes the previous two cycles, Michigan’s class was ranked No. 20 this year.
But Michigan’s move is based on the possibility that Ole Miss QB transfer Shea Patterson will be eligible to play this coming season. U-M officials are expected to file an appeal to the NCAA for relief. If Patterson starts at quarterback this coming season, the Wolverines might be poised for a big turnaround from last season’s five-loss letdown.
Even if it’s Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey and not Patterson, Michigan is bringing back enough talent to be a factor in the Big Ten race. The Wolverines are expected to bring back nine of 11 starters on defense, and Chase Winovich, Devin Bush and Rashan Gary were the key parts of a top-five unit in 2017.
The Wolverines will play road games at Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State in 2018.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 12
2017 record: 9-5, 7-2 Pac-12
Returning starters: eight offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: G David Bright, DT Harrison Phillips, LB Peter Kalambayi, TE Dalton Schultz, S Justin Reid, CB Quenton Meeks
Outlook: Tailback Bryce Love surprised a lot of people on the Farm by deciding to come back for his senior season. If he can stay healthy this coming season, the Cardinal might have enough returning talent to challenge Washington in the Pac-12 North.
Rising sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello took control of the offense in the second half of the 2017 season. He’s the undisputed starter heading into spring practice, especially after former starter Keller Chryst announced he’s leaving as a graduate transfer when he receives his degree in June. Stanford is also bringing back four of five starting offensive linemen, as well as top receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin.
Stanford signed two of the top seven pocket passers in its recruiting class: No. 5 Tanner McKee and No. 7 Jack West. McKee, from Corona, California, won’t step on campus until 2020; he’s completing a two-year Latter-day Saints mission before enrolling.
The Cardinal defense needs some work, after allowing almost 6 yards per play last season, and four underclassmen left for the 2018 draft: Phillips, Schultz, Reid and Meeks.
13. West Virginia
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 10
2017 record: 7-6, 5-4 Big 12
Returning starters: seven offense, seven defense, two special teams
Key losses: RB Justin Crawford, WR Ka’Raun White, G Kyle Bosch, LB Al-Rasheed Benton, LB Elijah Battle, S Kyzir White, CB Mike Daniels Jr.
Outlook: West Virginia looks like Oklahoma’s biggest threat in the Big 12 this coming season, with quarterback Will Grier and All-American David Sills V returning for their senior seasons. If Grier stays healthy, the Mountaineers should be among the most explosive offenses in the country.
The question is whether West Virginia’s defense will improve. The Mountaineers added No. 21 defensive end Dante Stills, No. 16 safety Kwantel Raines, juco linebacker Charlie Benton and former Ohio State cornerback Josh Norwood to try to shore up that side of the ball.
The Mountaineers open the season against Tennessee in Charlotte, and they play Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma at home in Big 12 play.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 13
2017 record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC
Returning starters: six offense, five defense, one special teams
Key losses: RB Kerryon Johnson, RB Kamryn Pettway, CB Carlton Davis, LB Jeff Holland, OT Austin Golson, C Casey Dunn, G Braden Smith, OT Darius James, LB Tre’ Williams, SS Stephen Roberts, FS Tray Matthews
Outlook: The Tigers nearly crashed the CFP last season, and now they’ll have to replace a lot of key pieces on offense to have a chance to challenge Alabama in the SEC West in 2018.
Replacing Johnson, who ran for 1,391 yards with 18 touchdowns, might be the biggest hole to fill, especially with Pettway also turning pro. Baylor transfer Kam Martin will have to take on a bigger role, and incoming freshmen Asa Martin, Harold Joiner and Shaun Shivers also might get early looks.
The good news: Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is returning, along with most of his top wideouts. Golson, Smith and James are three big losses up front, so new offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will have to put in work this spring. He replaced Herb Hand, who left to become Texas’ co-offensive coordinator.
Along with a challenging opener against Washington in Atlanta, the Tigers will also play SEC road games at Georgia and Alabama.
15. Virginia Tech
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 15
2017 record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: seven offense, four defense, one special teams
Key losses: WR Cam Phillips, G Wyatt Teller, C Eric Gallo, RT Kyle Chung, S Terrell Edmunds, LB Tremaine Edmunds, DT Tim Settle, LB Deon Newsome, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, CB Brandon Facyson, CB Greg Stroman
Outlook: The Hokies won 19 games in coach Justin Fuente’s first two seasons, and now they’ll have to reload on both sides of the ball to be as successful in 2018. Quarterback Josh Jackson gives the Hokies a chance to compete for an ACC Coastal title, as long as he plays the way he did during the first half of the 2017 season.
The Hokies will need young skill players to continue to develop, including tailbacks Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples and receivers Sean Savoy and Phil Patterson. The addition of Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton, who sat out last season, might be a big boost for the receiver corps. He had 51 catches for 505 yards with four touchdowns as a freshman.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have to find replacements at defensive tackle and linebacker after Edmunds and Settle turned pro. Replacing Facyson and Stroman in the secondary is another priority. Juco CB Jeremy Webb, No. 9 ILB Dax Hollifield and No. 17 safety Chamarri Conner were big additions through recruiting.
The Hokies will play Notre Dame, Miami and Georgia Tech at home in 2018.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 16
2017 record: 11-3, 7-2 Big 12
Returning starters: one offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB Kenny Hill, WR John Diarse, WR Desmon White, WR Ty Slanina, OT Joseph Noteboom, C Patrick Morris, G Austin Schlottmann, OT Matt Pryor, RB Kyle Hicks, DT Chris Bradley, DE Mat Boesen, LB Travin Howard, CB Ranthony Texada, S Nick Orr
Outlook: The Horned Frogs are coming off another 11-win season, their third in four years, and another thrilling comeback in a bowl game. But TCU faces major facelifts on both sides of the ball heading into 2018. They lose Hill, Hicks, Diarse and four of their five starting offensive linemen. The personnel losses are deep on defense, as well, with Howard, Texada, Boesen and Orr leaving.
You’re probably thinking the Horned Frogs won’t be very good next year, which is exactly what coach Gary Patterson wants you to believe. TCU’s recruiting class ranked No. 25 nationally, which was its highest ranking in Patterson’s 17-year tenure. No. 1 juco offensive tackle Anthony McKinney and No. 11 running back Fabian Franklin were key signees.
Shawn Robinson and incoming freshman Justin Rogers will battle for the quarterback job, and whoever wins will have some playmakers to help, including running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua and receivers Jalen Reagor and KaVontae Turpin.
The Horned Frogs will play a difficult nonconference game against Ohio State in Arlington, Texas, and they’ll host Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State during Big 12 play.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 18
2017 record: 11-3, 8-1 Pac-12
Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: QB Sam Darnold, WR Deontay Burnett, RB Ronald Jones II, C Nico Falah, DE Rasheem Green, LB Uchenna Nwosu, NT Josh Fatu, SS Chris Hawkins
Outlook: After becoming the first USC coach to win at least 10 games in each of his first two seasons, the Trojans rewarded coach Clay Helton with a contract extension through the 2023 season. The Trojans won the Rose Bowl in his first season and their first Pac-12 title since 2008 in his second.
Helton’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed on the recruiting trail, as the Trojans landed a top-10 class that included No. 1 athlete Devon Williams, No. 1 inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote and No. 3 receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Replacing Darnold, the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, will be USC’s biggest priority in the offseason. Rising sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and incoming freshman J.T. Daniels will battle for the unenviable job of succeeding him. Losing Jones, the leading rusher with 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns, and Burnett, the top receiver with 1,114 yards and nine scores, won’t make it any easier on his replacement.
The Trojans will play at Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA next season.
18. Florida State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 22
2017 record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC
Returning starters: nine offense, four defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Rick Leonard, NG Derrick Nnadi, WR Auden Tate, DE Josh Sweat, CB Tarvarus McFadden, LB Ro’Derrick Hoskins, LB Jacob Pugh, FS Nate Andrews, SS Trey Marshall, FS Derwin James, TE Ryan Izzo, DE Jalen Wilkerson
Outlook: After taking over the FSU program in mid-December, former Oregon coach Willie Taggart gave the Seminoles a much-needed boost by closing the recruiting cycle with a flurry. After inheriting a recruiting effort that had been neglected by the previous staff, Taggart and his assistants assembled a class that ranked No. 11 nationally, the best of any FBS first-year coach.
FSU’s class included two of the top four cornerbacks, Asante Samuel Jr. and A.J. Lytton, No. 4 safety Jaiden Woodbey and No. 5 guard Christian Meadows.
Taggart can only hope that momentum carries through the offseason, as FSU is trying to recover from last season’s 7-6 collapse. FSU’s fortunes this coming season largely hinge of quarterback Deondre Francois’ health. He was lost in a season-opening defeat to Alabama, and the Seminoles never recovered.
Cam Akers ran for 1,024 yards as a freshman, and four of five starting offensive linemen and leading receiver Nyqwan Murray are back. The FSU defense will need a makeover, especially in the secondary, where James and McFadden decided to turn pro.
FSU’s road schedule in 2018 is going to be very difficult, with trips to Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State and Miami. Ouch.
19. Boise State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 17
2017 record: 11-3, 7-1 Mountain West
Returning starters: seven offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: WR Cedrick Wilson, C Mason Hampton, OT Archie Lewis, TE Jake Roh, LB Gabe Perez, LB Leighton Vander Esch
Outlook: After enduring heavy roster turnover and coaching staff changes the past few seasons, the Broncos should benefit from continuity in 2018. For the first time since 2013, Boise State is bringing back its offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators.
Quarterback Brett Rypien is returning, and all but one defensive starter is also coming back, so the Broncos should be the preseason favorites among Group of 5 teams to grab a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Rypien threw for 2,877 yards with 16 touchdowns last season. He’ll miss Wilson and Roh, but help might be coming through recruiting.
The Broncos signed three highly ranked receivers: Khalil Shakir, Cameron Thomas and juco transfer John Hightower, as well as No. 11 tight end-H Tyneil Hopper.
Vander Esch, the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, decided to turn pro, but he’s the only defensive player departing from the unit who started in the Broncos’ win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Boise State’s nonconference schedule in 2018 includes trips to Troy and Oklahoma State.
20. Mississippi State
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 19
2017 record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC
Returning starters: eight offense, eight defense, one special teams
Key losses: OT Martinas Rankin, LB Dezmond Harris, CB Lashard Durr, CB Tolando Cleveland, P Logan Cooke, WR Donald Gray, WR Gabe Myles
Outlook: After taking over in November, former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead did an admirable job keeping Mississippi State’s recruiting class intact. The Bulldogs signed three highly regarded receivers — JC transfer Stephen Guidry, Malik Heath and Devonta Jason.
Moorhead will spend the spring implementing his offense, which ranked among the best in the FBS at Penn State. He might have similar success in Year 1 if quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returns from the broken ankle he suffered in the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs will have four seniors back on the offensive line.
Mississippi State’s defensive line will be among the best in the SEC, with four senior defensive tackles and junior Jeffery Simmons returning. Former Georgia player Chauncey Rivers, who took an academic redshirt in 2017, is also expected to be eligible.
The Bulldogs play a nonconference game at Kansas State and SEC road games at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss next season.
21. Notre Dame
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 20
2017 record: 10-3
Returning starters: six offense, nine defense, two special teams
Key losses: RB Josh Adams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, OT Mike McGlinchey, G Quenton Nelson, TE Durham Smythe, LB Nyles Morgan, LB Greer Martini
Outlook: After rebounding from a 4-8 disaster in 2016 to win 10 games for the second time in three seasons, the Fighting Irish face a little uncertainty heading into 2018. The Irish were hit hard by early departures to the NFL draft — Nelson, St. Brown and Adams declared — and highly regarded defensive coordinator Mike Elko left for Texas A&M.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and his staff still managed to sign a top-10 recruiting class, which included No. 5 safety Derrik Allen, No. 14 receiver Kevin Austin, No. 12 cornerback Houston Griffith and No. 10 safety Shayne Simon.
The Irish figure to have a competitive quarterback battle during the offseason. Brandon Wimbush accounted for 30 total touchdowns this past season, but he struggled to throw the ball down the field, which seemed to frustrate Kelly. Sophomore Ian Book replaced Wimbush in a 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl and completed 14 of 19 passes for 164 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Notre Dame’s schedule next season includes road games at Virginia Tech, Northwestern and USC and home games against Michigan, Stanford and Florida State.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 21
2017 record: 13-0, 8-0 AAC
Returning starters: seven offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: OT Aaron Evans, G Chavis Dickey, DE Jamiyus Pittman, DE Tony Guerad, LB Shaquem Griffin, LB Chequan Burkett, WR Tre’Quan Smith, CB Mike Hughes, TE Jordan Akins
Outlook: With former coach Scott Frost leaving for Nebraska, the Knights really weren’t able to cash in on their unbeaten season and self-proclaimed national championship on the recruiting trail. New UCF coach Josh Heupel salvaged their efforts by using 12 of his 19 available scholarships on linemen.
Now the real work begins for Heupel and his assistants, who have to replace many of the key contributors from last season’s record-setting team. At least they’ll have quarterback McKenzie Milton, who threw for 4,037 yards with 37 touchdowns in 2017, and the top five rushers and five of the top six pass-catchers.
Milton will miss Smith, the team’s top receiver in 2017 with 1,171 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Tight end Akins, who had 32 catches for 515 yards with four touchdowns, also elected to enter the draft instead of applying for an extra year of eligibility.
UCF also is losing two of its top linebackers in Burkett and Griffin, who led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss. Pittman, Guerad and Hughes also leave big holes.
UCF’s schedule includes nonconference games against Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, and it will be an overwhelming favorite to American Conf.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 23
2017 record: 9-4, 6-2 SEC
Returning starters:four offense, six defense, two special teams
Key losses: RB Derrius Guice, WR D.J. Chark, OT K.J. Malone, C Will Clapp, OT Toby Weathersby, QB Danny Etling, WR Russell Gage, LB Arden Key, DE Christian LaCouture, NT Greg Gilmore, CB Donte Jackson, CB Kevin Toliver II
Outlook: LSU hired Ed Orgeron to replace Les Miles because he promised to hire two high-profile coordinators and recruit like a madman. After a 9-4 season in 2017 and a recruiting class that ranked No. 14 nationally, the Tigers’ worst ranking since 2002, LSU fans are still waiting for results.
The Tigers were up and down in Orgeron’s first season, beating Auburn and falling to Mississippi State (by 30 points), Troy (at home) and Notre Dame (in the Citrus Bowl). LSU’s issues in 2017 were the same as they were under Miles: The Tigers struggled to pass the ball and score.
It won’t be any easier in 2018, with six underclassmen turning pro, including Guice, Clapp and Weathersby. The Tigers have lost a whopping 31 underclassmen to the pros since 2013.
Orgeron made a change at offensive coordinator, parting ways with Matt Canada after one season and promoting tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to be Canada’s replacement. At least LSU secured defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who received a four-year, $10 million contract, the highest ever for an FBS assistant, after Texas A&M tried to hire him away.
The Tigers will play a nonconference game against Miami in Arlington, Texas, next season, along with road games at Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M.
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 24
2017 record: 7-6, 5-4
Returning starters: eight offense, five defense, one special teams
Key losses: LB Malik Jefferson, OT Connor Williams, S DeShon Elliott, P Michael Dickson, CB Holton Hill, WR Lorenzo Joe, OT Tristan Nickelson, TE Kendall Moore, NT Poona Ford, LB Naashon Hughes, SS Jason Hall
Outlook: The Longhorns lost six games in coach Tom Herman’s first season, which was disappointing, but his first full recruiting effort gives UT fans plenty of hope for the future.
Texas’ recruiting class ranked No. 3 nationally, its first top-five class since 2012, and it signed 14 players ranked in the top 150 of the ESPN 300, which was the most of any program. Herman promised to close the Lone Star State’s borders, and he did exactly that by signing five of the state’s top six prospects, including the top three safeties in the country (B.J. Foster, DeMarvion Overshown and Caden Sterns).
Now, Herman has to improve the product on the field, and that starts with figuring out whether Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger is going to be the quarterback moving forward. The offensive line is going to have to do a better job protecting the quarterback, too, after allowing a whopping 34 sacks in 2017.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando upgraded the unit this past season, but he’ll miss Jefferson, Elliott and Hill, three of his better players. UT plays USC, TCU and West Virginia at home, along with the annual contest against Oklahoma in Dallas.
25. South Carolina
Previous Way-Too-Early rank: 25
2017 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC
Returning starters: nine offense, four defense, two special teams
Key losses: LB Skai Moore, TE Hayden Hurst, C Alan Knott, G Cory Helms, DE Dante Sawyer, DT Ulric Jones, S D.J. Smith, S Chris Lammons, CB JaMarcus King
Outlook: The Gamecocks exceeded expectations in coach Will Muschamp’s second season, which ended with a come-from-behind 26-19 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Muschamp built on that momentum by signing a top-20 recruiting class, which was led by No. 9 offensive tackle Dylan Wonnum, No. 25 defensive tackle Rick Sandidge and No. 7 inside linebacker Rosendo Louis, who was a late flip from FSU.
Muschamp seems to have learned from his mistakes in his first head-coaching stop at Florida; he dismissed offensive coordinator Kurt Roper after the South Carolina offense averaged only 24 points per game. Co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Bryan McClendon will take over the job full-time after calling plays in the bowl game.
Quarterback Jake Bentley gets back top target Deebo Samuel, who missed the final 10 games with leg and foot injuries (he scored six total touchdowns in the first three games).
The Gamecocks will have to replace two starters on the defensive line, Moore and three starters in the secondary. Linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams also returns after missing most of 2017 with a shoulder injury.