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College football is finally back, and with it comes the return of Bleacher Report’s Top 25 rankings.
Saturday’s slate of games was barely even an appetizer for what lies ahead, but it was still regular-season football that counted, doggone it! Even if you didn’t watch Hawaii and Colorado State combine for more than 900 passing yards or the Wyoming defense suck the life out of the New Mexico State offense, the race to the next College Football Playoff is underway.
Five of our college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Brad Shepard, Ian Wharton and me—ranked their top 25 teams, yielding the following consensus. Some thoughts on big movers, our potentially controversial No. 1 team and more will follow:
3. Ohio State
12. Penn State
13. Michigan State
14. Notre Dame
15. West Virginia
16. Boise State
17. South Carolina
18. Mississippi State
22. Florida State
23. Florida Atlantic
Others receiving votes: Virginia Tech, LSU, Arizona, Utah, Iowa, Iowa State, Texas A&M.
Biggest Leap: Boise State Broncos
John Locher/Associated Press
In future polls, this spot will be designated for the team that makes the biggest (positive) leap from one week to the next. For this edition, though, we tracked movement from January’s super early Top 25.
Not much has changed in the past seven-and-a-half months. Every team that was in our top 25 in January is still in our top 27 now, and there were only three teams who moved up more than two spots: Washington (from No. 11 to No. 5), Mississippi State (from unranked to No. 18) and Boise State (from unranked to No. 16).
Washington’s bump can be attributed to the fact that Myles Gaskin didn’t make his decision to return for his senior season until a week after our initial poll. And the longer we mulled the combination of new head coach Joe Moorhead and electric dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State, the more interesting the Bulldogs became.
What changed for Boise State?
Well, nothing. To be honest, we probably just overlooked the Broncos because they hadn’t played since the first day of bowl season and because both UCF and Florida Atlantic were more intriguing Group of Five teams at the time. With the benefit of the full offseason to re-evaluate, it’s clear Boise State is one of the top candidates to claim the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls, per usual.
Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and tight end Jake Roh were big losses, but just about every other starter is back for Boise State, including Brett Rypien for his fourth season at quarterback. As a result, it’s a relatively safe assumption this team will win at least 10 games for the 16th time in 20 years.
In fact, if the Broncos win their Week 3 road game against Oklahoma State, an undefeated season will become a possibility. Just don’t expect it to get Boise State any closer to the CFP than UCF was last year. Rypien and Co. don’t face a single opponent in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, and Fresno State (one point) is the only other Mountain West Conference team that was even acknowledged in that poll.
Biggest Drop: LSU Tigers
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Based on offseason changes, if LSU were going to move, it probably should have gone up a couple of spots. The Tigers added Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow to its list of quarterback options, and wide receiver Justin Jefferson had such a breakout spring that he went from an unknown commodity absent from most way-too-early depth charts to a projected starter alongside Jonathan Giles.
Yes, the Tigers lost a lot from last season, including Derrius Guice, Arden Key and several other entrants to the draft, but none of those things have changed since our initial poll. If anything, they’re better off than expected.
So why did the Tigers go from No. 19 to unranked?
For starters, the improvement in Mississippi State’s stock means some other SEC West team’s stock had to take a hit. The Bulldogs and Tigers basically just switched spots in our poll.
The bigger reason, though, is this is one case in which difficulty of schedule may have affected our rankings. One doesn’t give any thought to schedules in January, but it’s hard to not think about them at this point—particularly with LSU opening the season with a brutal game against Miami. And that’s just the first of four games the Tigers will play versus teams in the preseason AP Top 10.
That isn’t supposed to matter. Preseason rankings should be based on talent, not on projected records. But it’s also hard to rationalize giving a vote to a team you’re expecting to lose at least four times.
New No. 1 Team: Clemson Tigers
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Though there wasn’t a ton of movement in our rankings, there was one other noteworthy development: Clemson jumped from No. 3 to No. 1 thanks to first-place votes from four of the five experts.
Back then, we weren’t sure what the Tigers defense would look like. Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Kendall Joseph and Christian Wilkins had not yet announced their stay-or-go plans, and it seemed likely at least two would jump to the NFL. Instead, all four came back, meaning an already dominant defense retained 15 of its 18 leading tacklers.
The national media has spent the offseason projecting this defensive line as one of the best in college football history, but the linebackers and the defensive backs aren’t exactly chopped liver. The unit should be almost impenetrable.
Even if you somehow manage to score 21 points on Clemson, good luck keeping the Tigers offense from doing the same. Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster averaged a combined 6.7 yards per carry while rushing for 20 touchdowns last year. Sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins is a staple on every list of breakout candidates. And whether it’s Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, the Tigers are in great hands.
We don’t mean any disrespect to the reigning national champions. All five of us have Alabama at either No. 1 or No. 2 on our ballots. But Clemson should be the best team this season.
Keep an Eye On: Arizona Wildcats
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Arizona received one 24th-place vote, and three other voters had the Wildcats in the Nos. 26-30 range.
In other words, we’re cautiously optimistic about what Kevin Sumlin can do with Khalil Tate.
Heaven knows the man has done some incredible things with quarterbacks he didn’t initially recruit.
When he got his first head coaching job at Houston in 2008, Case Keenum was already on the roster and prepared to throw for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in three of the next four seasons. Then Sumlin went to Texas A&M in 2012 and handed the reins to a redshirt freshman by the name of Johnny Manziel, resulting in 11 wins and the Heisman Trophy.
Those two quarterbacks combined for 10,357 passing and rushing yards and accounted for 98 touchdowns in Sumlin’s debut years. That boils down to 398.3 yards and 3.8 touchdowns per game. Not too shabby.
Now Sumlin gets to coach Tate, who was the breakout sensation of the 2017 season.
In his first six games of significant action, Tate averaged 12.0 yards per carry and 201.2 rushing yards per game. He also completed 62.5 percent of his passes while pacing Arizona to five wins and 46.5 points per game.
Can he do it again this year, or was his end-of-season swoon a sign the jig is up?
If it’s the former, the schedule certainly bodes well for a big year for the Wildcats. Their toughest nonconference opponent is Houston, they don’t face Washington or Stanford, and their games against USC and Oregon are at home. They just might mess around and win the Pac-12 South.
What to Watch for in Week 1
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
With the exception of the colossal clash between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State, the first week of the 2017 season was a wall-to-wall snoozefest. Oh, there were entertaining games, but if you waited until Week 2 to start paying attention, you didn’t miss much.
That is not an option this year.
On Friday night, Heisman frontrunner Bryce Love and No. 13 Stanford open the season with what could be a tricky game against visiting San Diego State.
In the opening slate of games Saturday afternoon, everyone’s favorite Twitter troll Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic will visit Oklahoma with the hopes of throwing an early wrench into the Big 12’s CFP dreams.
The biggest game of the day is the 3:30 p.m. ET showdown between Washington and Auburn. Both teams are on the fringe of the still-laughably-too-early playoff conversation, so this may be a result we end up talking about for the next four months.
Fast-forward to 7:30 p.m. ET, and it’s Michigan at Notre Dame in another battle destined to have long-lasting implications. Maybe this one won’t become a factor in the Top Four of the CFP standings, but given where these teams are ranked—the Wolverines are No. 14 and the Fighting Irish No. 12 in the AP Top 25—this could be something of a play-in game for a New Year’s Six bowl.
The fun doesn’t stop there. We’re also getting Miami against LSU on Sunday night and Virginia Tech at Florida State on Monday night, each of which is a matchup between teams in the AP Top 25.
And you just know there’s going to be some kind of unpredictable chaos along the way, right?
We finally made it through the offseason.
Now buckle up for a wild opening weekend.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.