- Who will be standing on the podium in Atlanta? Who will accept college football's highest honor in New York? Which coaches will be out of a job by the time those two things happen? Our college football experts make their predictions for the 2017 season.
The 2017 college football season has arrived, and many of the biggest stories in the game are variations on familiar tunes, from the Big Ten’s Ohio State–Michigan turf war to the bumper crop of big-time quarterbacks to a burgeoning USC bandwagon to the mind-numbing dominance of Alabama. But in a matter of days, those stories will give way to scoreboards as the games begin in earnest and everyone’s preseason expectations are turned on their head.
Who will be this year’s brightest stars and biggest goats? Who will emerge from Atlanta’s sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium as national champions on Jan. 8? Below, SI’s college football experts makes their playoff picks and reveal a few more predictions about the season ahead.
New Year's Six Bowl Matchups
|Writer||Rose Bowl Semifinal||Sugar Bowl Semifinal||CFP title game||National champion|
|Andy Staples||Oklahoma State vs. Clemson||Alabama vs. Ohio State||Alabama vs. Oklahoma State||Alabama|
|Bruce Feldman||Ohio State vs. Washington||Alabama vs. Florida State||Alabama vs. Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Joan Niesen||USC vs. Penn State||Alabama vs. Clemson||Alabama vs. Penn State||Alabama|
|Chris Johnson||USC vs. Florida State||Alabama vs. Ohio State||Alabama vs. Florida State||Alabama|
|Eric Single||Florida State vs. Washington||Alabama vs. Oklahoma||Alabama vs. Florida State||Florida State|
|Writer||Cotton Bowl||Fiesta Bowl||Orange Bowl||Peach Bowl|
|Andy Staples||Oklahoma vs. Penn State||USC vs. Wisconsin||Florida State vs. LSU||South Florida vs. Miami|
|Bruce Feldman||Oklahoma State vs. Louisville||Michigan vs. USC||Clemson vs. Penn State||Oklahoma vs. South Florida|
|Joan Niesen||Oklahoma vs. South Florida||Ohio State vs. Oklahoma State||Florida State vs. LSU||Wisconsin vs. Washington|
|Chris Johnson||Oklahoma vs. Miami||Penn State vs. Washington||Clemson vs. LSU||Georgia vs. South Florida|
|Eric Single||South Florida vs. Penn State||Michigan vs. LSU||Clemson vs. Ohio State||Auburn vs. Louisville|
Who will win the national championship?
Andy Staples: Alabama. I've decided that I will stop picking Alabama to win the national title only after the Crimson Tide stop making the playoff every year and stop signing top-ranked recruiting classes. So, basically, after Nick Saban retires.
Bruce Feldman: Ohio State. Urban Meyer made a couple of critical additions to his offensive staff, adding Kevin Wilson as his coordinator and Ryan Day to take over as QB coach. I think that will spark J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes’ offense. This team is loaded with athletes on both sides of the ball. Meyer loves the leadership of the team, and I feel like they will respond well to the humiliating shutout loss to Clemson in the playoff last year.
Joan Niesen: Alabama. Really, it just seems like it’s Alabama’s turn again. The Crimson Tide should cruise through the SEC to the playoff, and thanks to a reloaded but still great defense and the continued development of quarterback Jalen Hurts, they’ll come out on top.
Chris Johnson: Alabama. Picking Alabama to win the national championship in the preseason seems like the right play until Nick Saban retires. The Crimson Tide look like the best team in the country right now, and that should be the case four months from now. It’s on the rest of the FBS to prove otherwise.
Eric Single: Florida State. To beat Alabama in their second meeting this year, the Seminoles will need Deondre Francois to put on his big-boy pants—but their schedule is tough enough that they don’t need to win Week 1 to end up in the playoff, and they’re talented enough to survive said schedule. I wouldn’t expect rematch fatigue.
Who will be this year’s biggest surprise team?
Staples: LSU. Coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme finally unlocks all the non-tailback skill-position players in LSU’s offense. Combine that with Dave Aranda’s defense, and suddenly LSU looks like a contender in the SEC again.
Feldman: Oregon. I think a lot of folks forgot how good running back Royce Freeman is, and Justin Herbert is a gifted young QB. First-year coach Willie Taggart assembled a really good staff. Don’t be shocked if they go from 4–8 to a Top 25 finish.
Niesen: Virginia Tech. I can see Justin Fuente’s team making waves in the ACC, and in the conference’s weaker division, the Hokies have a pretty strong shot at the championship game. Could they go to Charlotte and beat Clemson or Florida State, the two most likely representatives from the Atlantic Division? Very possibly.
Johnson: Notre Dame. Welcome to college football in 2017, when Notre Dame is actually receiving less hype than it deserves entering the season. The Fighting Irish dropped a bunch of close games in finishing 4–8 in 2016. Better luck this time around, plus an improved defense, will see them improve their win total by four or five.
Single: TCU. I’m all the way in on post-hype Kenny Hill, who could make the Horned Frogs the Big 12’s biggest wild card if he finds some measure of consistency in his final go-round as a college quarterback. Head coach Gary Patterson needs to get his defense out of its two-year funk, and that Week 2 trip to Arkansas will be a tone-setter.
Who will be the most disappointing team?
Staples: NC State. NC State people have told me all offseason to avoid hyping the Wolfpack because the program rarely lives up to high expectations. So perhaps I’m jinxing the jinx here. You’re welcome, Wolfpack.
Feldman: Clemson. The Tigers will still be very good, but the schedule is rough (they play Auburn right before visiting Louisville and travel to NC State right before playing Florida State), and Deshaun Watson leaves some huge shoes to fill at quarterback. Expecting Top 5, as the Coaches Poll predicts, is asking too much.
Niesen: Michigan. The Wolverines seem like they have the potential for an off year after losing so many players to the NFL this spring. That kind of talent drain is a testament to what Jim Harbaugh has been building in Ann Arbor, but I don’t think Michigan’s depth will prove to be at the level of an Ohio State or Alabama, where it’s simply next-man-up after a major departure.
Johnson: Michigan. Harbaugh was the subject of some put-up-or-shut-up takes this offseason, and the angst should grow over the next three months. The Wolverines are young and inexperienced, and they’re looking up at two playoff threats in their own division (Ohio State and Penn State).
Single: Florida. Without top receiver Antonio Callaway on the field, it’s hard to see the Gators beating Michigan in Week 1, and from there it’s easy to see things getting testy in Gainesville, with plenty of losable games lurking in the SEC East. Jim McElwain’s commitment to the Malik Zaire experiment will be a fascinating subplot.
Who will win the Heisman Trophy?
Staples: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. No quarterback in the country has more weapons at his disposal. Rudolph is going to put up video game numbers for a team that should be in contention for a playoff berth, and that should keep him at the top of the Heisman conversation all year.
Feldman: Saquon Barkley, Penn State. The most talented player in college football (he weighs 230 pounds and runs a 4.33) has continued to refine his game and should be even more lethal in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s run-pass option attack, with QB Trace McSorley ready for his second season running the show plus a huge, athletic group of receivers to keep defenses honest.
Niesen: Barkley. This goes hand-in-hand with my pick of Penn State reaching the national title game. If the Nittany Lions are going to get there, it’s going to be thanks in large part to Barkley, who I think will be the best running back in the country this fall.
Johnson: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. Mayfield has traveled to New York as a Heisman finalist twice but come up empty-handed both times. In his final year of eligibility, the former walk-on will snatch the bronze trophy after guiding the Sooners to their their third consecutive Big 12 championship while putting up peerless passing numbers.
Single: Mayfield. The most efficient quarterback in the country a year ago, back at the controls of one of the nation’s best offenses, in tandem with a bright young coordinator turned head coach, with no other prominent Sooners playmaker to siphon away votes. That should be a recipe for a bevy of postseason honors, the Heisman chief among them.
Which player will be the biggest breakout star?
Staples: Cam Akers, RB, Florida State. Replacing Dalvin Cook isn't easy, but the Seminoles may have found the next best thing in this freshman from Mississippi.
Feldman: Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska. The former Tulane starter has everything NFL scouts look for in terms of size, smarts, arm strength and accuracy. He also has quite a bit of speed to work with at the skill positions (keep an eye on spectacular freshman receiver Tyjon Lindsey). With all the preseason hype on Wisconsin, Lee and the Huskers could make things very interesting in the Big Ten West.
Niesen: Akers. Akers seems poised to burst onto the scene this season. The freshman was the top running back recruit in the country in the class of 2017, and he enrolled early, spending the spring in Tallahassee. Akers will have to earn his spot as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back, but based on what he did this spring, I think he will, and he’ll be a force.
Johnson: Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn. There are a handful of SEC quarterbacks (South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Ole Miss’s Shea Patterson, Georgia’s Jacob Eason, Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald) qualified for this honor, but Stidham’s the pick on account of his potential impact on the SEC West and national championship races. The Tigers play at Clemson in early September and host Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Thanksgiving weekend.
Single: Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse. After the Orange offense showed flashes of Dino Babers’s grand vision in his first season in charge, it should hum in year two as long as Dungey is healthy enough to lead it. He has the arm to trigger the explosive plays that Syracuse’s wide-open air raid variant is built for, and he’s equally dangerous when he pulls the ball down finds some space to run. Don’t be surprised if he starts to steal some shine from some of the ACC’s bigger names under center.
Which coach is on the hottest seat?
Staples: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. When your athletic director goes on television and physically lights the fire under your chair, you’re the coach most in danger of getting fired. That’s Sumlin’s situation, courtesy of AD Scott Woodward’s May appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show.
Feldman: Steve Addazio, Boston College. The Eagles have been dreadful on offense the past three years, ranking No. 126, No. 126 and No. 127 in the nation. They’re also 2–14 in ACC play since 2014. It doesn’t help Addazio’s prospects that BC just hired a new AD a few months ago.
Niesen: Sumlin. Sumlin needs a big season at Texas A&M. His teams have been solidly good since his phenomenal first year in College Station, and another finish in the middle of the SEC pack might be too much mediocrity for him to survive.
Johnson: Butch Jones, Tennessee. The Volunteers’ failure to win the SEC East in 2016 after being picked to do so in the preseason felt like a huge missed opportunity. Both Georgia and Florida seem on the upswing under Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain, respectively, meaning it could be a while before Tennessee is back in the conference championship game. The Volunteers also hired a new athletic director this offseason (John Currie), and he should jump at the opportunity to put his own stamp on the program if things go sideways in Knoxville this season.
Single: Dave Doeren, NC State. NC State has too much NFL talent on defense (and too many Jaylen Samuelses on offense) to be average, but as the Wolfpack look up at three top-15 teams in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, that’s a distinct possibility yet again. Doeren can’t afford to get swept by that trio for the fourth straight year, let alone drop an additional head-scratcher to a lesser conference foe.
Bold predictions for the 2017 season
Staples: The Pac-12 getting left out of the playoff will cause that league and the Big 12 to get together and ask the question they should have asked years ago: Why are there five Power 5 leagues and only four playoff spots?
Feldman: Texas Tech will not be awful on defense. The Red Raiders have added some athletic DBs and now have some continuity in David Gibbs’s system. I’m not saying they’ll be the ’85 Bears, but for the first time since 2013 they won’t have one of the five-worst defenses in FBS.
Niesen: BYU will have a solid shot to go undefeated or 12–1 and make a bid for the playoff. A year ago, the Cougars went 9–4, and all of their losses were absurdly close. It’ll be interesting to contemplate how the team would be viewed by the committee should it emerge from a typically brutal schedule without a loss at midseason.
Johnson: South Florida will go undefeated. When Willie Taggart left Tampa to take the Oregon job last December, he left new Bulls head coach Charlie Strong a roster ready to win big right away. The Bulls’ schedule is too soft to make a strong case for a playoff spot, but they’ll run the table in the regular season and earn the Group of Five’s automatic New Year’s Six bid.
Single: Alabama will lose a conference game. It won’t stop them from winning the SEC or knock them out of the playoff, but the Tide face a lot of good quarterbacks in the second half of the season, from Austin Allen (Arkansas, Oct. 14) to Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State, Nov. 11) to Jarrett Stidham (Auburn, Nov. 25)—and that’s setting aside an early-season meeting with Shea Patterson and Ole Miss. The Tide enter the year having won 17 straight games against conference foes, but all those QBs have a capacity for the type of magical day it takes to drive Nick Saban insane.