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, schools will have to adjust as some players transfer and others 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 seem likely to backslide from their standout performance in 2017. To be clear, we are not predicting that the five squads below will tank, but explaining why they could be worse in 2018 than they were the previous season. (For those who prefer to think positively, last week we looked at five outfits we think are set to rise next year.)
Georgia (2017 record: 13–2)
The program that beat the Bulldogs in the national title game has spent every preseason this decade as a no-questions-asked national championship contender. Georgia is clearly trending upward under Kirby Smart, but unlike Alabama, it needs to string together multiple seasons like the one it had in 2017 before it can be trusted to reload and compete at the sport’s highest level no matter how extensive its personnel turnover.
The Bulldogs’ most notable loss comes from a defense that ranked sixth nationally in points allowed per game last season. Roquan Smith, who amassed 137 tackles and won the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker in his junior season, announced earlier this month that he would enter the 2018 NFL draft. Defensive tackle Trenton Thompson made the same call. Other departures on that side of the ball include linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, and Georgia is also losing ace running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn and leading wide receiver Javon Wims. Getting fellow wideout Terry Godwin and cornerback Deandre Baker back for another season will help the Bulldogs cope, but it won’t change the harsh reality that a good number of the players who made major contributions to the program’s best season in a long time are headed out the door.
Notre Dame (2017 record: 10–3)
The Fighting Irish improved their win total by six last season. There seems a good chance their record will dip in 2018, though maybe not all the way back down to 4–8. It’s not clear how Notre Dame will upgrade a passing offense that ranked 102nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in efficiency and 118th in completion percentage. Starter Brandon Wimbush was pulled in favor of Ian Book during the Fighting Irish’s matchup with LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and Book responded by hitting on 14 of his 19 passing attempts and tossing two touchdowns in a four-point win. Maybe he or true freshman Phil Jurkovec, the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite, can make Notre Dame a more intimidating proposition through the air for opposing defenses than it was last season with Wimbush at the controls.
But next year’s starter will have to get by without two of the Fighting Irish’s three top receivers from ’17. Equanimeous St. Brown elected to enter the draft, and Kevin Stepherson was one of four players recently dismissed from the team. (The others are tailbacks Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes and defensive lineman Brandon Tiassum.) No. 1 rusher Josh Adams is off to the NFL, and two Sports Illustrated first-team All-America linemen that paved the way for him (Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson) have played their final games in South Bend.
Oklahoma State (2017 record: 10–3)
The Cowboys’ recent history under head coach Mike Gundy should give pause to anyone predicting they’ll fall off a cliff this season. Only once (2012) over the previous decade has Oklahoma State won fewer than nine games, and it has posted 10 victories three years running. Chances are the Cowboys can get close to that total again in 2018, but it’s difficult to imagine them matching the offensive firepower that produced an average of 7.34 yards per play, good for fifth in the country, and 3.47 points per drive, which ranked second. Their two offensive headliners, quarterback Mason Rudolph and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver James Washington, both project as potential first-round picks in the draft, and two first-team All-Big 12 offensive linemen, Zach Crabtree and Brad Lundblade, are also gone.
Gundy can lean on tailback Justice Hill, who led the conference in rushing yards (1,467) and touchdowns (15) last season, while Rudolph’s successor acclimates to running the show, and in Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner, the Cowboys will have proven pass catchers available even with Washington and fellow 1,000-yard receiver Marcell Ateman out of the picture. It’s premature to pass judgment on Oklahoma State’s defense because the program hasn’t announced a replacement for defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who was fired earlier this month.
TCU (2017 record: 11–3)
TCU’s success last season owed far more to its uniqueness as a defensive stalwart in an offense-first league than its quarterback play. But the Horned Frogs did win 11 games with Kenny Hill under center, and their top candidates to replace him have yet to show they can be effective against college defenses. Both returnee Shawn Robinson, the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2017, and incoming freshman Justin Rogers, the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite, received high marks from scouting services, but there could be an adjustment period for whoever wins the starting job.
Fortunately for that QB, he’ll have a clear sophomore leap candidate in wide receiver Jalen Reagor to target on the perimeter and a deep running game to fall back on. Head coach Gary Patterson’s reputation as a defensive whiz is well-earned, but he’s losing a handful of key pieces from the unit that led the Big 12 in yards allowed per play and points allowed per game in 2017, including top tackler Travin Howard, sack leader Mat Boesen and defensive backs Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada. Though another year-to-year plummet, like the one that saw the Horned Frogs go from 11–2 in 2015 to 6–7 in 2016, feels unlikely, so does another conference championship game appearance.
USC (2017 record: 11–3)
Teams do not easily replace potential top-three draft picks, especially at critical positions like quarterback. The Trojans don’t have an obvious successor lined up for Sam Darnold. Jack Sears redshirted last season, fellow underclassman Matt Fink attempted only nine passes in reserve duty and USC’s other option, five-star true freshman J.T. Daniels, was on track to be a high school senior this fall before announcing in December that he was reclassifying from 2019 to ’18. The winner of the QB battle will have to make do without tailback Ronald Jones II, who finished second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards behind only Heisman Trophy finalist Bryce Love last season, and go-to wide receiver Deontay Burnett, as both are jumping to the pros.
The Trojans are stockpiled with enough high-end recruits to weather those defections, returning running back Stephen Carr and wideout Tyler Vaughns among them, and Daniels is the linchpin of a 2018 prospect haul rated higher than that of any other Pac-12 program, according to the 247Sports Composite. USC also still looks like the class of the conference’s South division even taking into account UCLA making an A+ hire in Chip Kelly after canning Jim Mora. Two North teams, Stanford and Washington, are more compelling candidates than the Trojans to represent the Pac-12 in the playoff this season, though.