- Offseason hype serves a purpose, but when September arrives, the imperfections of many top teams will be exposed. With a new season around the corner, we attempted to strip away the hype and rank 2018's strongest teams.
As the 2018 season begins, the FBS’s 130 teams all set out with a clean slate and at least some level of optimism about the next three months. The excitement of Week 1 temporarily masks the truth that many of those teams will be watching the national title game from home, having endured a campaign somewhat below their August projections. The quarterback questions surrounding the nation’s top teams have made this summer’s preseason rankings especially complicated, and once the games start, whichever team can navigate the expectations and find its balance quickly could end up atop the first College Football Playoff rankings on Oct. 30.
Below are the first Power Rankings of 2018, which depart from SI’s Preseason Top 25 by attempting to separate each team’s offseason hype from its actual potential.
The Hype: Alabama had 12 players selected in the 2018 NFL draft. It doesn’t matter. As long as Nick Saban is in charge, the Crimson Tide will get opposing SEC coaches fired in droves and get into the CFP committee’s final four if they’re in the mix on championship weekend.
The Reality: At the end of the season the Crimson Tide will be where they are accustomed to being: at or near the top of these rankings and coasting toward a fifth straight playoff appearance.
The Hype: The Tigers’ dynamic defensive line is the best position group in college football history and will set the tone for a dominant run through the ACC and into the playoff.
The Reality: That defense tends to suck the life out of opponents until the offense delivers a kill shot, but it was no small part of the reason the Tigers lost to teams like Syracuse. Recent CFP success and all, Clemson has shown a propensity for a clunker or two in the regular season, and it often comes down to quarterback play: Kelly Bryant missed the second half against the Orange, and Deshaun Watson threw three picks against Pitt two years ago. Bryant and heralded freshman Trevor Lawrence determine the Tigers’ outlook as much as, if not more than, that D-line.
The Hype: With the top incoming recruiting class and a fast-growing cache of five-stars at multiple positions, Georgia has no business not making the playoff. Jake Fromm can become the SEC’s best quarterback and ensure there will be no championship game hangover. Get used to seeing Georgia in the national title picture for years to come.
The Reality: Unless the passing game dramatically regresses and an elite offensive line forgets how to block for the new workhorses of the run game, headlined by sophomore D’Andre Swift, the Bulldogs will make it back to the SEC title game.
4. Ohio State
The Hype: Talent across the board has the Buckeyes eyeing another title run, whether Urban Meyer is there or not. Expect a vast improvement from the passing game now that Dwayne Haskins is under center, and with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber back to power the run game and a defense led by unanimous SI preseason All-America end Nick Bosa, Ohio State can move up one critical spot from their 2017 finish.
The Reality: The schedule is no picnic. Games away from Columbus against TCU, Michigan State and Penn State should give anyone predicting a Buckeyes national championship some pause.
The Hype: Wisconsin will maul teams with their experienced offensive line, clearing a path for sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor to gash defenses. After Big Ten title game losses in three out of the last four seasons, this is the year that the Badgers finally break through.
The Reality: Ground-and-pound can only get you so far. What happens when teams stack the box again and force the Badgers to throw the ball? After throwing 15 interceptions last season, quarterback Alex Hornibrook has doubters to defy.
The Hype: Washington can cruise through the Pac-12 and score a playoff berth without much fuss, as it did in 2016. It’s not essential to their CFP chances, but a victory in the season opener against Auburn will go a long way as a confidence booster if the Huskies get a chance to play another SEC foe in December.
The Reality: Who is senior quarterback Jake Browning going to throw to? The Huskies might have to rely on a nasty defense and the legs of Myles Gaskin for the first few games. Another 10–3 season would be a big disappointment in Seattle.
The Hype: Jarrett Stidham needs to improve under pressure enough to mitigate the loss of four starting offensive lineman. On the other side of the trenches, Auburn has the nation’s best front four outside of Clemson.
The Reality: Any time the Tigers haven’t gotten to 10 wins in the last five years, a corner of the fan base has called for Gus Malzahn’s head, and the gallery will be pretty loud at the end of the year if Auburn dooms its SEC title chances somewhere within a characteristically loaded November schedule. Beating both 2017 national title game participants for the second straight year is a tough ask.
8. Penn State
The Hype: Quarterback Trace McSorley comes into this season with Heisman hype, and the Nittany Lions got a fairly favorable draw within the Big Ten East. Penn State’s first national championship since 1986 is within reach.
The Reality: The loss of valuable assets on the offensive side (especially running back Saquon Barkley and coordinator Joe Moorhead) plus key departures in the secondary and at linebacker should be worrisome. At worst the Nittany Lions can expect to have a shot at another New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
The Hype: With electric dual-threat Kyler Murray taking over at quarterback and both top rushers back, the Sooners’ offense can roll out of bed and score 45 on any team in the nation.
The Reality: With only six starters back and oft-maligned coordinator Mike Stoops calling the shots, the Sooners’ defense can roll out of bed and give up 45 to any team in the nation.
The Hype: After three years of waiting, the Wolverines should finally reap the on-field rewards of opening up the vault to make Jim Harbaugh one of the nation’s highest paid coaches. In Harbaugh’s fourth year at Stanford, his team went 12–1 and won the Orange Bowl.
The Reality: If newly crowned starter Shea Patterson proves to be too inconsistent to snap the streak of mediocre quarterback play in Ann Arbor, Michigan will again play second fiddle to the States of the Big Ten (namely Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State).
11. Notre Dame
The Hype: Is this the year Notre Dame puts it all together and avoids any clunkers down the stretch? Head coach Brian Kelly will have to work through the deficiencies on offense, where there are questions about the quarterback and the left side of the O-line, but the Irish’s defense can be a reliable calling card.
The Reality: The season won’t get off the ground with a starting quarterback that completes less than half of his passes. But a tailor-made home schedule plus enough cupcakes to pad the win total means Notre Dame can dream of being in the mix when the first few in-season playoff rankings come out.
12. Miami (FL)
The Hype: The Hurricanes will carry the momentum of the Turnover Chain over into year three under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and turn around the bad injury luck that took the wind out of their 2017 playoff push.
The Reality: Miami should be able to squeeze out double-digit wins out of a highly favorable schedule, but a quarterback change could be coming if senior Malik Rosier can’t take advantage of the weapons at his disposal.
The Hype: Defenses up and down the West Coast are bracing for more long Bryce Love touchdowns, which means quarterback K.J. Costello will have no excuses not to be successful with four starters back on the offensive line and his full complement of skill guys back for a second straight trip to the Pac-12 title game.
The Reality: There’s no easing into the schedule, with games against San Diego State, USC, Oregon and Notre Dame in September. The Cardinal have more questions than normal on the defensive side, but David Shaw will again work his magic to keep Stanford in the thick of a tough division.
14. Michigan State
The Hype: There will be no excuse for Michigan State not to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten. The Spartans return almost everyone from a team that pleasantly surprised a season ago.
The Reality: With all that experience coming back, finishing fourth in the absurdly difficult Big Ten East would feel like a failure, but it isn’t considering the three top-shelf teams that might push Michigan State to the middle of the pack.
15. Mississippi State
The Hype: Joe Moorhead’s offense should bring excitement and intrigue to Starkville, and with dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald back at full-speed after a gruesome ankle injury, the Bulldogs have a chance to pile on the points.
The Reality: The honeymoon phase could be cut short by road trips to Kansas State, LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss. Oh, and the Bulldogs host Florida (coached by old friend Dan Mullen) and SEC West champ Auburn in consecutive weeks in October.
The Hype: It seems like every year, TCU is picked to finally be the team that dethrones Oklahoma in the Big 12. Gary Patterson’s crew will have the horses on defense to make this the year, returning a dozen players that got significant playing time last season.
The Reality: The Horned Frogs basically have an entirely new offense, with only one starter returning from the team that played in the Alamo Bowl and Shawn Robinson in at quarterback after Kenny Hill’s graduation. Another 11-win season with that much turnover might be too much to ask.
17. Florida State
The Hype: There is optimism in Tallahassee as Willie Taggart comes to town looking to spice up a seven-win team from a year ago. The key to a speedy turnaround will be the new offense, which should be more up-tempo and exciting than Jimbo Fisher’s by default and will utilize the skill and speed currently on the roster.
The Reality: The Seminoles will have to wait for an extremely young team to mature. Clemson is still the class of the conference and fans should not be disappointed with the expected second-place finish in the ACC Atlantic.
18. Virginia Tech
The Hype: If Josh Jackson becomes a more consistent quarterback, the Hokies could ride an extremely manageable schedule and catch some lucky breaks all the way to the ACC title game.
The Reality: The losses in the secondary and inexperience at multiple offensive skill positions could lead to a backslide in Blacksburg. With a couple of breaks, a Coastal Division title isn’t out of the question, but seven or eight wins would be more realistic.
The Hype: Road games against Stanford, Texas, Arizona and UCLA—woof. But USC is one of college football’s biggest wild cards, and it’s not out of the question that the replacement for Sam Darnold finds immediate success with the playmakers around him.
The Reality: The Trojans don’t play Oregon or Washington this season, making their Pac-12 South title defense a little simpler. But that will ramp up the heat on head coach Clay Helton if they don’t reach the Pac-12 title game.
The Hype: Coming off an undefeated season, a Peach Bowl victory and a national title claim, UCF has the inside track on another New Year’s Six appearance as the Group of Five’s best team.
The Reality: With new coach Josh Heupel and fringe Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton at quarterback, the Knights could win 30 in a row and still wouldn’t get a sniff of the playoff. Heupel’s offense will be hard-pressed to replicate the style points Scott Frost’s system racked up to help get UCF on the map last year.
21. Oklahoma State
The Hype: Oklahoma State can sling the ball around as well as anyone in the nation and with a new quarterback and electric running back Justice Hill, a Big 12 title isn’t out of the question. The question, as always, is consistency.
The Reality: The Cowboys will find a way to win 10 games and earn a trip to something like the Alamo Bowl, but the step back at quarterback in a post–Mason Rudolph world makes itself evident in their games against the Big 12’s best.
22. Boise State
The Hype: The days of Boise State sneaking up on people are long gone, especially with this year’s squad. With a steady Brett Rypien at QB, the defending MWC champs are ready to make a run at more than just a conference title, and they could make some CFP committee members uncomfortable.
The Reality: This will be the Group of Five’s best team. Road games at Oklahoma State and Troy will provide enough of a challenge where if they come out of October with one loss, the Broncos will be in good shape to lock up a New Year’s Six berth.
23. West Virginia
The Hype: The 2018 Mountaineers are the trendy pick of pundits nationwide, and Will Grier has the inside track on being the first quarterback off the board in the 2019 draft. Grier and touchdown machine David Sills V will continue their lethal connection and bully Big 12 defenses all year.
The Reality: Grier needs to stay healthy, because West Virginia went off the rails after he broke the middle finger on his throwing hand. Dana Holgorsen’s crew will be in every game, but its free-wheeling style is tough to maintain over three months.
The Hype: The Longhorns lost four games by five points or less last season, and there’s reason to believe in a year-two leap under Tom Herman that puts them back in the Big 12 title conversation.
The Reality: Texas hasn’t won 10 games in a season in almost a decade. Herman’s offenses at Houston and Ohio State could score on anyone, but no one on his 2018 roster can measure up to the quarterbacks he had at those two places. The Longhorns won’t succeed if neither starter Sam Ehlinger nor battle-tested backup Shane Buechele separates himself under center.
25. South Carolina
The Hype: Any nine-win season will have morale soaring in Columbia, even if the Gamecocks didn’t make 2017 look pretty at times. While quarterback Jake Bentley entering his junior year and dynamic wideout Deebo Samuel recovered from a broken leg, this year’s offense doesn’t have to shy away from lofty expectations.
The Reality: A repeat of last year’s second-place SEC East finish may not be in the cards if Florida and Tennessee improve under their new coaches, but South Carolina gets a good crack at Georgia at home in early September and could get off to a fast start if it enters a three-game home slate in October on a roll.
By conference: SEC (5), Big Ten (5), Big 12 (5), ACC (4), Pac-12 (3), Independent (1), AAC (1), Mountain West (1).
Maybe next week: LSU, Arizona, Houston, Oregon, Florida, Florida Atlantic, NC State.