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  • Some have coaches with a lot to prove. Some are getting the majority of their key playmakers back. But all of these teams have the looks of fresh entrants into the national title conversation after spending the 2017 season watching from the sidelines.
By Chris Johnson
January 18, 2018

Between now and the start of the 2018 season, teams will finalize their recruiting classes on National Signing Day, go through spring practice and meet for fall camp. In the meantime, players will transfer to different schools and suffer serious injuries, and don’t rule out the possibility of more head coaching changes. Those developments could scramble the national landscape over the next seven months, but it’s still possible to identify some teams that should be better than they were in 2017. Here’s an early look at five teams SI.com thinks are primed to rise in 2018.

Florida State (2017 record: 7–6)

There should be measured expectations for what the Seminoles can achieve in 2018, which definitely was not the case last fall, when they entered Week 1 as a popular national champion pick and ranked third in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls. If you ignore the indignity of needing to reschedule a canceled game against Louisiana Monroe in order to preserve the nation’s longest bowl streak, Florida State did end its miserable season on a positive note by stringing together four consecutive wins, though they came against one Football Championship Subdivision team (Delaware State), two Group of Five teams (Southern Miss and Louisiana Monroe) and fifth-place SEC East finisher Florida.

The Seminoles are losing defensive standouts like safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and tackle Derrick Nnadi, but tailback Cam Akers could take off as a sophomore in new head coach Willie Taggart’s pace-pushing offense after rushing for 1,024 yards last season. And the Seminoles will be in better shape at quarterback if Deondre Francois is fully recovered after undergoing surgery to repair the torn patellar tendon he suffered against Alabama last September. The ACC Atlantic is Clemson’s division to lose until its performance indicates otherwise, but eclipsing the seven victories recorded last season is a reasonable goal for Florida State.

Michigan (2017 record: 8–5)

The Wolverines were responsible for the lone blemish on the Big Ten’s bowl season résumé, a 26–19 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina in which they blew a 16-point lead in the third quarter. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had come under fire for his subpar record against top-notch Big Ten East competition before that loss, and the chorus of critics charging that he’s overrated will pounce if he doesn’t deliver in a big way next season. He should be able to, given the number of quality players returning to Ann Arbor from a young team that predictably took its lumps in one of the Power 5’s most challenging divisions.

Most of the key contributors from a defense that ranked sixth in the country in yards allowed per play will be back, including linemen Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary and linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson. The Wolverines’ offensive outlook will brighten if transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, who threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns against nine interceptions over seven games at Ole Miss last season, is granted immediate eligibility. They also have two other young options in Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey, though Peters didn’t make a strong case for the starting job with his 20-of-44, two-interception performance against the Gamecocks.

Michigan State (2017 record: 10–3)

The Spartans used 2017 to prove that their 3–9 nightmare of 2016 was a blip rather than the onset of a new, lowly existence in the Big Ten cellar. They can use ’18 to reestablish themselves as legitimate national title challengers. Michigan State will open fall practice with most of its two-deep intact after entering last season with fewer returning starters than all but a handful of teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White will lead a proven receiving corps, and LJ Scott and Madre London comprise one of the most formidable rushing tandems in the Big Ten.

The abundance of skill talent should aid the development of quarterback Brian Lewerke, who capped his first full year as the starter by completing 13 of his 21 pass attempts for 213 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions and tacking on 73 rushing yards in the Spartans’ 42–17 pasting of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Lewerke ranked second among Big Ten quarterbacks, behind only Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, in total rushing yards and yards per carry last season. Michigan State is a prime candidate to parlay a “bowl bump” into a lofty preseason ranking, but that doesn’t mean that the Spartans don’t deserve some preseason hype.

Oregon (2017 record: 7–6)

If Michigan State’s bowl showing represented a promising close to an encouraging season, Oregon’s was a disappointing dud, as Boise State put the Ducks in a 24–0 hole and held on for a 38–28 win in the Las Vegas Bowl. Stud tailback Royce Freeman sat out that game, and neither he nor fellow senior Kani Benoit will be back, putting more pressure on Tony Brooks-James to produce in Oregon’s rushing attack. Defenses won’t be able to home in on Brooks-James around the line of scrimmage, lest they expose themselves to being picked apart through the air by quarterback Justin Herbert, who played in the final three games of last season after suffering a broken collarbone during a late-September win over Cal.

With four of the Ducks’ five leading pass catchers returning, Herbert could bounce back from an injury-marred campaign to assert himself as one of the Pac-12’s top passers. Oregon players signaled their support for the program’s decision to promote co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to succeed Taggart as head coach, and Cristobal will have a key staff member around to kick-start his tenure: Following reports of a possible move to join Taggart at Florida State, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who oversaw the Ducks’ rise from 119th to 61st in the country last season in Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P + metric, opted to stay in Eugene.

West Virginia (2017 record: 7–6)

Few programs will head into this season with a more potent quarterback–wide receiver duo than the Mountaineers’ Will Grier and David Sills V. Grier sat out West Virginia’s regular season-ending defeat at Oklahoma and Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to Utah after undergoing surgery to address a finger injury suffered against Texas in mid-November, but he’s a battle-tested trigger man who gives the Mountaineers continuity under center at the same time that the three top teams in the Big 12 standings (Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State) are breaking in new starters at quarterback. Sills hauled in more touchdown passes than any other Power 5 player in 2017, but fellow Mountaineers wide receiver Gary Jennings Jr. recorded more catches and receiving yards than Sills. Both will be back in 2018 to stretch Big 12 defenses, who’ll have a hard enough time trying to shut down a running game with a group of backs, including Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, ready to fill the production void left by leading rusher Justin Crawford.

A rickety defense could keep West Virginia from climbing into the playoff picture, but coordinator Tony Gibson will have an all-conference talent to work with in playmaking linebacker David Long Jr., who ranked fifth in the Big 12 in tackles for loss in 2017 despite missing the first month of the season with a knee injury.

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