Now that your heart rate has slowed after Monday’s national title game, you must be clamoring for more football. As we enter the two-month college football wasteland before spring practice begins in earnest, it’s time to look ahead to next fall and how things will stack up going into the 2018 season. With many recruits already signed thanks to the addition of December’s early signing period, the picture seems a bit clearer than it would have in years past—although key decisions about the NFL draft remain ahead of next Monday’s declaration deadline. With some of the biggest names in the game off to the pros—goodbye and good luck to Baker Mayfield, J.T. Barrett, Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold, among others—next year’s standings will likely see a dropoff from several programs that have been among the top 10 in recent seasons.
Still, there are plenty of studied backups waiting in the wings, which should bode well for Oklahoma, Penn State and Ohio State—all of whom remain in our top 10 despite significant losses. With seven months until camp, there’s plenty of time for major shifts among the ranks of these teams, but for now, here’s how things stack up.
Editor’s Note: In tinkering with Michigan’s ranking during the revision process, we accidentally bumped Michigan State out of the rankings. The Spartans are back at No. 12, where we intended to have them all along. (As for Northwestern, which drops out of the Top 25 as a result of the correction: Better luck in our post-spring practice rankings.)
Sure, the Bulldogs lost—but in spectacular fashion to a very good Alabama team. Kirby Smart has things rolling in the right direction in Athens, and that will stay the case in 2018. The playoff runners-up lose top running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, plus leading receiver Javon Wims, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith (probably) and more stars of their defensive front. The speedy D’Andre Swift proved in his freshman year that he could be a worthy backfield successor to Chubb and Michel, and true freshman QB Jake Fromm displayed the big-game cool necessary to make it all hum. Add the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class to that foundation, and nobody will want to cross the Bulldogs.
Speaking of true freshman QBs, Tua Tagovailoa looks like he’s going to be a problem. Was Monday night’s title game a warning shot to the entire nation for next fall and beyond? What Nick Saban's program did in this year’s playoff reinforces that the Tide are never to be counted out.
Clemson showed us all this season that losing Deshaun Watson was no reason to count it out, and even if one or two of its star D-linemen leave early for the NFL, Dabo Swinney’s team has the depth to remain among the country’s best.
4. Ohio State
Losing Barrett will be a blow, but the Buckeyes are no stranger to attrition, and with Dwayne Haskins stepping in to take his place on a full-time bases, plus the returns of running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Nick Bosa, things in Columbus will be just fine.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is returning for his senior season, and after Auburn’s wins over 2017’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams, there’s no doubt the Tigers are for real. Keeping coach Gus Malzahn from bolting for Arkansas helps, but they’ll still have to replace key contributors in the running game and on defense.
The Badgers will have one of the nation’s best defenses yet again, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook will return with another year of experience. In a weak Big Ten West, Wisconsin should come out on top for the third straight year.
7. Penn State
Losing Barkley doesn’t help Penn State’s case, nor does the departure of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but the Nittany Lions still have a stout defense and lots of potential on the offensive side of the ball.
The Sooners were more than just Mayfield in 2017, and with Kyler Murray waiting in the wings to take over at quarterback, Lincoln Riley’s team should be an offensive juggernaut as always.
The Hurricanes came out of nowhere this season to captivate the general college football populace—but it was arguably a year ahead of schedule for the breakout promised by Mark Richt’s arrival, and they return tons of talent (plus the turnover chain) in 2018.
10. Virginia Tech
The Hokies were a bit of a mystery this season, but with a year of experience under his belt, quarterback Josh Jackson could be one of the best in the ACC, and Bud Foster’s defense should be as stout as usual.
Without Darnold, the Trojans will grapple with a new identity in 2018, likely taking a step back in the process. Still, there’s enough talent up and down the roster for USC to contend for the Pac-12.
12. Michigan State
The 2017 season was enough to prove 2016 was an aberration in East Lansing. Between quarterback Brian Lewerke’s continued development and the slew of returning starters, including leading rusher LJ Scott, things look good for the Spartans.
13. Notre Dame
The Irish lost all their momentum in 2017 after getting throttled by Miami in November, and they’ll have big question marks on their offensive line next year. Still, there are enough pieces on offense for the Irish to reach double-digit wins again.
The Tigers were up and down in 2017, but Ed Orgeron won’t be lacking for talent as he continues to mold the team in his image, for better or worse.
Scott Frost is gone, but most of a talented roster that got a taste of winning in 2017 returns. The Knights made an interesting head coach hire in Josh Heupel, and quarterback McKenzie Milton should be one of the Group of Five’s best players.
The Huskies have been good the past few seasons, but not quite great—and that’ll continue in 2018, Jake Browning’s final year at quarterback.
If Bryce Love returns, the Cardinal could be a top-10 team, but they’ll have to play their best ball to start the year if they want a shot at the Pac-12 come November.
The Horned Frogs play Ohio State in September, which will be a good litmus test for whether they’ll be able to compete for the Big 12 with first-year starter Shawn Robinson at quarterback.
19. Florida State
Quarterback Deondre Francois should be back to full health, and with new coach Willie Taggart, the Seminoles have a ton of talent to unleash. Running back Cam Akers will be one of the most fun players to watch in college football next year.
Mike Norvell’s team had one of the most fun offenses in the nation in 2017, and even with attrition across that unit, it’s still stacked enough to put up big numbers once again.
21. South Carolina
In a thinner SEC East, the Gamecocks have a good chance to win double-digit games behind third-year starter Jake Bentley at quarterback.
Tom Herman found his quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, and the Longhorns are only going to get better and better the as his recruits begin to find the field.
This was one of the tougher rankings to assign, and it depends a lot on the eligibility of Shea Patterson. Should the Ole Miss transfer play in 2018, Michigan might be a top-15 team, but that’s still uncertain.
24. Boise State
The Broncos won 10 games in 2017, finishing the year No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and a Sept. 15 matchup with Oklahoma State will be a good test of how far they can go in 2018.
25. Texas A&M
With Jimbo Fisher at coach, the Aggies should get a leg up from the so-so seasons of Kevin Sumlin, although to expect them to contend for a title within a year or two seems premature.