- The Crimson Tide open 2017 atop SI's rankings. But you could have guessed that. What about the rest of the Top 25?
Why wait until January to see the top two teams in the nation square off in Atlanta when you can see the top two teams in the nation square off in Atlanta on Saturday night of Week 1? Alabama and Florida State’s season-opening meeting isn’t just the first milestone in 2017’s chase for the College Football Playoff; it's also a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, if the rankings of the writers and editors at Sports Illustrated are to be believed. The top dogs in this year’s preseason Top 25 should be no surprise: After shipping off another crop of elite talent to the NFL, Alabama is the clear favorite to win its second national championship in three years.
But college football loves chaos too much to ever resign itself to a one- or two-horse race. Will Ohio State’s offense be up to the task in veteran QB J.T. Barrett’s final season (and coordinator Kevin Wilson’s first) in Columbus? Could Penn State and USC’s thrilling Rose Bowl matchup be a precursor for a reunion in the CFP semifinals in Pasadena? Are we closing the book on Clemson’s national title defense too soon?
What follows is SI’s preseason Top 25, led by our picks to join the Crimson Tide and the Seminoles in the College Football Playoff field: Ohio State and Oklahoma State. Below each team’s spot in the rankings, you’ll find an extended breakdown of one player you need to get familiar with before he becomes an X-factor in 2017, along with a quick look at how tough each team’s road to the playoff looks to be. And don’t forget to grab a hard copy of SI’s 2017 college football preview issue for yourself—this year’s four regional covers feature a special augmented reality experience presented by Holiday Inn Express, which you can access by downloading the Life VR app on your phone and using the app’s AR mode to scan the cover.
For now, the pecking order is set. Let the debate begin—and then let the games begin.
Last year: 14–1 (8–0 SEC); Lost to Clemson in national championship game
SI Top 100 players: Nine (QB Jalen Hurts, WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough, OT Jonah Williams, DT Da’Shawn Hand, DT Da’Ron Payne, LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, CB Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison)
Player you need to know: Offensive tackle Jonah Williams played on the right side as a freshman, and this year he moves to the left. As a recruit Williams impressed coaches by asking detailed questions about the Tide’s scheme, so he should quickly master his role in new coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. He proved himself as a run blocker last year, but his attention to detail and his athleticism suggest he’ll be as much a technician in the passing game as he is a mauler in the ground game. Williams’s ability to blow open holes will help the Tide’s deep stable of backs—Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs—and make the read-option decisions easier for quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Path to the playoff: The Tide can overcome a loss against Florida State in Atlanta (9/2) if they blow through the conference: Bama is 25–2 in SEC play in the last three years. LSU’s visit (Nov. 4) could be a thriller, but the SEC West race should come down to the Iron Bowl at an improved Auburn (Nov. 25).
Last year: 10–3 (5–3 ACC); Beat Michigan in Orange Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Six (S Derwin James, RB Cam Akers, QB Deondre Francois, DE Derrick Nnadi, DE Josh Sweat, CB Tarvarus McFadden)
Player you need to know: The Seminoles’ hopes rest on the improvement of their offensive line, and center Alec Eberle is poised to make the biggest jump. Offseason hip surgery has allowed Eberle to once again participate fully in lower-body workouts, and the 6' 4" junior has bulked up to almost 300 pounds after playing much of last season at 285. Florida State won 10 games last year despite allowing 36 sacks. If the line and sophomore QB Deondre Francois—who occasionally held the ball too long—can cut that number by even one-third, it should produce a more consistent offense and keep the defense from facing bad field position. Eberle and the line also need to generate a better push up front to help the young running backs.
Path to the playoff: The Seminoles’ opener against Alabama (Sept. 2) in Atlanta is the start of a punishing September, which includes visits from Miami (Sept. 16) and a senior-heavy NC State (Sept. 23). The ACC Atlantic title—and likely a playoff spot—will hinge on the trip to Clemson (Nov. 11).
Last year: 11–2 (8–1 Big Ten); Lost to Clemson in College Football Playoff semifinal
SI Top 100 players: Four (QB J.T. Barrett, DE Tyquan Lewis, C Billy Price, DE Nick Bosa)
Player you need to know: The Buckeyes are replacing three starting defensive backs for the second straight season. Expect junior cornerback Denzel Ward to take full advantage of his newfound playing time and set the tone for the secondary. Ward thrived in a rotational role last fall, when he flashed the closing speed and impeccable timing to make up for a 5' 10", 191-pound frame that doesn’t stand out on a roster filled with taller blue-chip recruits. Despite coming off the bench he tied for the team lead with nine pass breakups, and he is the safe bet to emerge as Ohio State’s most reliable corner. Playing behind a star-studded quarterback-harassing front seven will only help.
Path to the playoff: The Buckeyes host Oklahoma (Sept. 9), and they also face two of the East’s toughest outs, Penn State (Oct. 28) and Michigan State (Nov. 11), in the Horseshoe—though the trip to Iowa (Nov. 4) in between reeks of a trap game. No matter what, the showdown with Michigan (Nov. 25) looms.
Last year: 10–3 (7–2 Big 12); Beat Colorado in Alamo Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Two (QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington)
Player you need to know: As a freshman last season, running back Justice Hill got off to a slow start before exploding for 122 yards against Baylor in Week 4. From there he rolled, posting six 100-yard rushing performances in Oklahoma State’s final 10 games. A season ago teams hardly expected a dynamic rushing attack from the Cowboys, which allowed Hill to sneak up on opponents and give the offense some balance. Now, the 5' 10", 200-pound back needs to be more consistent, and he has to do it while teams are scheming to stop him. One promising development: As the year went on Hill broke for longer rushes more frequently, with gains of 30-plus yards in each of his last four games.
Path to the playoff: A good-but-not-great Pitt (Sept. 16) is the Cowboys’ most challenging non–Big 12 matchup. That’s not to say Oklahoma State needs to be perfect; a loss to a ranked conference foe might not doom the Pokes, should they go on to win the title showdown.
Last year: 10–3 (7–2 Pac-12); Beat Penn State in Rose Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Six (QB Sam Darnold, LB Cameron Smith, WR Deontay Burnett, LB Porter Gustin, CB Iman Marshall, RB Ronald Jones II)
Player you need to know: Opponents will need to drop extra defenders into coverage to counter sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s pinpoint passing. That should leave more room along the line of scrimmage for running back Ronald Jones II. The 6' 1", 195-pound junior is a big-play threat who can burst through tight holes, gallop away from pursuers, shake open-field tacklers and make an impact as a receiver. Jones tallied 1,082 yards on 6.1 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns last season despite splitting touches. Now that he’s taking on a larger workload, his production should only improve. Darnold is talented, but he could struggle if he doesn’t have a potent ground game to support him.
Path to the playoff: USC avoids Washington and faces Stanford (Sept. 9) at home in Pac-12 play, but the Trojans must overcome road tests against Washington State (Sept. 29) and Notre Dame (Oct. 21). With no bye week, USC could be running on fumes by the time it enters its regular-season finale against crosstown rival UCLA.
Last year: 11–2 (9–0 Big 12); Beat Auburn in Sugar Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Three (CB Jordan Thomas, OT Orlando Brown, QB Baker Mayfield)
Player you need to know: The coaching staff says it has a much deeper receiving corps than it did last year, but it’s unclear who the Sooners’ home run threat will be. Keep an eye on senior Jeffery Mead. A tight-end sized guy with wide receiver speed, the 6' 5" 195-pounder made only 16 catches in his first three seasons in Norman, but he started to flash late last year, and that momentum has carried over to the offseason. “He’s almost 6' 6", has long arms, and he can jump out of the gym,” says quarterback Baker Mayfield. “He just needed to put on a little weight and get a bit stronger. I don’t think he realized how good he was. He finally had that light click, but that was all him. He turned it on. Credit to him for making that transition.”
Path to the playoff: Ugh. Lincoln Riley’s first road game as coach will be at Ohio State (Sept. 9), the first of six dates with potential Top 25 teams—only one of which will be in Norman. Those matchups include the Red River showdown with improving Texas (Oct. 14) and a visit to Oklahoma State (Nov. 4).
Last year: 14–1 (7–1 ACC); Beat Alabama in national championship game
SI Top 100 players: Six (OT Mitch Hyatt, DE Clelin Ferrell, DT Christian Wilkins, DT Dexter Lawrence, LB Kendall Joseph, WR Deon Cain)
Player you need to know: It didn’t take junior offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt long to show why he was a coveted recruit out of North Gwinnett (Ga.) High in the class of 2015. While most linemen need at least a year to get acclimated to the college game, the 6' 5", 295-pounder became Clemson’s starting left tackle as a freshman. He then anchored a line at the heart of an offense that for two years in a row ranked sixth in the country, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P + statistic. With six new starters on offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson gone to the NFL, it will be even more important that Hyatt keep the pocket clean while Watson’s replacement—likely to be junior Kelly Bryant—gets settled in.
Path to the playoff: A visit from Auburn (Sept. 9) offers a shot at a big nonconference win early, and Clemson hosts Florida State (Nov. 11). Still, the Tigers’ ACC schedule is littered with land mines, including road trips to Louisville (Sept. 16), Virginia Tech (Sept. 30) and N.C. State (Nov. 4).
Last year: 11–3 (8–1 Big Ten); Lost to USC in Rose Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Three (QB Trace McSorley, TE Mike Gesicki, RB Saquon Barkley)
Player you need to know: The Nittany Lions have to replace big-play wideout Chris Godwin, their leading receiver in 2016. They’re stocked with rangy targets that at field level resemble defensive ends, but the one who has generated the most buzz this offseason has been a 6' 4", 218-pound sophomore with 4.5 speed—Juwan Johnson. An Academic All-Big Ten qualifier last year, Johnson was primarily Godwin’s backup and a special-teamer. Now he’s primed to slide into one of the outside receiver spots which are big weapons in Joe Moorhead’s system. “He wasn’t consistent before,” the offensive coordinator says. “He’s brimming with confidence now. Juwan had a phenomenal spring.”
Path to the playoff: Out of conference the Nittany Lions have three home games, including one against Pitt (Sept. 9), which beat them last year. In conference a brutal three-week stretch awaits: Michigan (Oct. 21) at home, then trips to Ohio State (Oct. 28) and Michigan State (Nov. 4). That’s asking a lot.
Last year: 12–2 (8–1 Pac-12); Lost to Alabama in College Football Playoff semifinal
SI Top 100 players: Six (S Taylor Rapp, RB Myles Gaskin, DT Vita Vea, LB Azeem Victor, WR Dante Pettis, QB Jake Browning)
Player you need to know: Star safety Budda Baker and standout corners Sidney Jones and Kevin King are gone from a defense that led the Pac‑12 in yards allowed per attempt last season (3.65). Taylor Rapp, last year’s Pac‑12 defensive freshman of the year, should join returning junior starter JoJo McIntosh to solidify Washington at safety. But the questions at cornerback aren’t as easily answered. Freshman Byron Murphy (5' 11", 177 pounds), a four-star recruit who redshirted last season, will need to have a breakthrough year. He shone this spring, leading the Huskies in interceptions. If he can sustain that level of performance Washington will have a chance to defend its conference title.
Path to the playoff: The Pac-12 North title runs through Palo Alto, where Washington visits (Nov. 10). UCLA (Oct. 28), Oregon (Nov. 4), Utah (Nov. 18) and Washington State (Nov. 25) all come to Seattle. But the likely South winner and title-game foe—USC—handed UW its lone regular-season defeat last year.
Last Year: 8–5 (5–3 SEC); Lost to Oklahoma in Sugar Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Three (DE Marlon Davidson, QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway)
Player you should know: If Auburn’s offense improves as expected, the key to competing for the SEC title will be avoiding a drop-off on defense after several losses on the front line. Enter defensive end Marlon Davidson. In 2016 the 6' 3", 282-pound Davidson became the first true freshman in 30 years to be a Day One starter on Auburn’s defensive front. He finished the season with 38 tackles and six tackles for loss, but he’ll need to spend more time in the backfield this year. Along with tackle Dontavius Russell and linebacker Jeff Holland, both juniors, Davidson will have to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks to take pressure off Auburn’s athletic-but-thin secondary.
Schedule: Auburn’s trip to Clemson (Sept. 9) will offer an early test, but October will decide the Tigers’ fate. They host Ole Miss (Oct. 7) and then travel to LSU (Oct. 14) and Arkansas (Oct. 21). If all goes to plan, Auburn will host Alabama (Nov. 25) with the SEC West title on the line.
Last year: 10–3 (7–2 Big Ten); Lost to Florida State in Orange Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Two (DE Rashan Gary, DT Maurice Hurst)
Player you need to know: Junior defensive end Chase Winovich is a former high school quarterback who started two games last season and had eight TFLs and five sacks while playing in the shadow of the now NFL-employed Taco Charlton on a loaded defensive line. Ask Wolverines team leaders who they expect to have a breakout 2017—aside from defensive tackle Rashan Gary—and a lot will stump for Winovich. In hopes of becoming more than primarily a third-down edge rusher, Winovich bulked up in the offseason, adding 10 pounds, so that he now checks in at 6' 3", 245. Offensive tackle Mason Cole, who faces Winovich at practice every day, said of his seemingly tireless teammate, “He has the best motor I’ve ever seen.”
Path to the playoff: The Wolverines open with Florida in Texas (Sept. 2), then face Top 12 in-conference foes Penn State (Oct. 21) and Wisconsin (Nov. 18) on the road before hosting Ohio State (Nov. 25). The PSU game follows a bye for the Lions, who are hungry for payback after a 49–10 pasting last year.
Last year: 11–3 (7–2 Big Ten); Beat Western Michigan in Cotton Bowl
SI Top 100 players: One (LB Jack Cichy)
Player you should know: Wisconsin’s running game rebounded in a big way in 2016 behind star back Corey Clement, but now he’s off to the NFL, and the Badgers will have to replace his production. Enter Pittsburgh transfer Chris James, a 5' 11", 216-pound junior and former four-star recruit. In 2014, James had an impressive freshman season under current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst with the Panthers, finishing with 437 yards and averaging 5.0 per carry. He lost playing time as a sophomore before transferring. He’ll share the job with 6' 1", 220-pound sophomore Bradrick Shaw, but after a year practicing in the Badgers’ system, James should be ready for big reps come fall.
Path to the playoff: Wisconsin has the personnel—especially on D—to win the Big Ten West. A season-ending trip to Minnesota (Nov. 25) will be a challenge, as will a trip to Nebraska (Oct. 7). Even if the Badgers lose to Michigan (Nov. 18) in a crossover showdown, a win in the Big Ten title tilt could catapult them into the playoff.
Last year: 8–4 (5–3 SEC); Beat Louisville in Citrus Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Two (RB Derrius Guice, DE Arden Key)
Player you should know: Sophomore defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence earned a starting job after a standout spring, and the 6' 3" 300-pounder will be an imposing force on the right side. LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Lawrence was the defensive player that had “improved the most” during the offseason, showing particular progress with his hands and footwork. Coach O revealed in July that Lawrence is also a 4.0 student. Last year Lawrence played sparingly, putting up stats in just four games—six tackles and one sack. But the top recruit in Louisiana in the class of 2016, according to ESPN, is a big body with impressive mobility, and he has the stuff to be one of the SEC’s best defensive linemen this fall.
Path to the playoff: The Tigers’ playoff path goes through four teams in SI’s Top 25: at Florida (Oct. 7), Auburn (Oct. 14), at Alabama (Nov. 4) and Texas A&M (Nov. 25). Could the SEC get two entries? Potentially. But LSU will have to earn it, starting with a visit from BYU (Sept. 2).
Last year: 9–4 (7–1 ACC); Lost to LSU in Citrus Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Two (QB Lamar Jackson, CB Jaire Alexander)
Player you need to know: Senior Reggie Bonnafon has been an all-purpose player for Louisville’s offense during his career, and he’ll spend his fourth season as the team’s No. 1 running back. He began as a quarterback in 2014, then played (mostly) running back in ’15 before moving to wide receiver in ’16. During his last stint in the backfield he was fifth on the team in rushing with 175 yards, but this time around he’ll be the lead back. Though quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, led the Cards in rushing last year (1,571 yards), watch out for Bonnafon, who at 6' 3" and 212 pounds will be a fast, physical presence in the ground game.
Path to the playoff: Nonconference games against Purdue (Sept. 2) and at Kentucky (Nov. 25) should be easy, but the ACC Atlantic will be tough. The Cardinals host Clemson (Sept. 16) and go to Florida State (Oct. 21). If they split those and still win the division, the conference championship could be a playoff play-in.
Last year: 10–3 (6–3 Pac-12); Beat North Carolina in Sun Bowl
SI Top 100 players: One (CB Quenton Meeks)
Player you need to know: Stanford has had a terrific run of tight ends, and the 6' 6", 242-pound senior Dalton Schultz is the next in the pipeline. Expect a jump from last season’s 23 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown as the big target helps boost an offense that dropped from 30th in the nation in red zone TD percentage in 2015 to No. 123 in ’16. “Our desire for Dalton was to be that complete NFL tight end. And that’s what he’s becoming,” says Stanford coach David Shaw. “As we stabilize the offensive line and quarterback positions, he’s one of the guys I think is going to benefit and really have a breakout year. And it won’t just be statistically. He’s one of those guys that you’re going to see play on Sundays.”
Path to the playoff: Stanford visits USC (Sept. 9) early, but the key games are at Washington State (Nov. 4) and home against Washington (Nov. 10). Last year Stanford lost to those two by a combined 86–22. If the Cardinal sweeps the Evergreen State, they’ll likely get another shot at the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game.
Last year: 8–5 (4–4 SEC); Beat TCU in Liberty Bowl
SI Top 100 players: Two (RB Nick Chubb, DL Trenton Thompson)
Player you need to know: Georgia needs playmakers on the perimeter, and 5' 11", 185-pound junior receiver Terry Godwin can help. He ranked second on the Bulldogs with 397 receiving yards in 2016, but he could turn into sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason’s go-to target this season. Godwin looked good in spring practice and hauled in five passes for a team-high 130 yards in Georgia’s spring game in April. His ability to scamper for big gains after catching short and intermediate passes will strain defenses already worried about how to stop senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That’s why the Bulldogs will likely go as far as Godwin—and its other wide receivers—can carry them.
Path to the playoff: Georgia travels to Notre Dame (Sept. 9) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 25) and its SEC crossover game is at Auburn (Nov. 11). If the Dawgs win the East—highlighted by a trip to Tennessee (Sept. 30)—they would be underdogs in the SEC Championship, but they would have a shot.
Last year: 11–2 (7–1 AAC); Beat South Carolina in Birmingham Bowl
SI Top 100 players: One (QB Quinton Flowers)
Player you need to know: Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught only 22 passes in his first season of eligibility after transferring from N.C. State, but five of those catches went for touchdowns, tying him for the team lead. With his lanky 6’ 5”, 207-pound frame and straight-line speed, the senior showed he can be a home run threat, averaging 18.9 yards per catch. USF’s offense should still revolve around Quinton Flowers’s legs, but if Valdes-Scantling can deliver consistently enough to handle a high-volume role, he should emerge as Flowers’s new favorite target.
Path to the playoff: The Bulls have the best chance of any Group of 5 team to run the table and steal a playoff spot—but their best non-conference opponent is Illinois (Sept. 15), so they’ll need chaos from the Power Five races. Their bye week falls between home tests against Houston (Nov. 4) and Tulsa (Nov. 16), which leads into a season finale at steadily improving rival UCF (Nov. 24).