Here is my Top 25 College Football Preview. My own Top 25 would have been flush with group think, talking season bull excrement, and other sort of biases. I strove for some objectivity with a formula.
I merged Projected S&P+ rankings with three-year prorated SRS numbers provided by the estimable Jason Lisk. SRS is strength of schedule and margin of victory. Projected S&P+ factors in recruiting, returning experience, and past play-by-play and drive data.
This is not a projection of where teams will end up. My predictions don’t hold to the rankings. It’s a rough gauge of where teams should be given the objective factors. It weeds out a lot of garbage. But that, of course, came at the cost of accounting for factors such as “Jim Harbaugh is coaching” or “Art Briles is no longer coaching.”
I’m not a statistics expert. I took the basic college statistics course that permitted one to use a note card, and borrowed my friend’s note card. Take the formula for what it’s worth, which probably is not much.
Michigan and Michigan State came out to an exact tie. Tie went to the program that has won seven of the past eight meetings. That was the only executive decision in the rankings.
Iowa and Houston are not here. This ranking projected had both schools projected outside the Top 30.
On to the rankings…
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why To Like Them: Alabama is loaded in all three phases of the defense, which some believe may be even better than last year’s. Lane Kiffin has a cabinet full of playmakers. No one recruits better than Alabama. No one develops talent better. They have won four of the past seven national titles.
Why Not To Like Them: They lost multiple NFL players (which happens every year). Quarterback is a question entering the season. It was the last two times they made the playoff.
Prediction: 11-1. This is a rough schedule, even for Alabama. The Tide play five Top 20 teams – USC, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU – away from home. It feels like they drop a game somewhere, but remain well within the SEC title and playoff mix.
2. Clemson Tigers
Why To Like Them: Clemson brings back presumptive Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson at QB. They get WR Mike Williams back from injury. Their offense could be even better than last year.
Why Not To Like Them: The defense gets gutted, again. Clemson loses seven NFL draft picks from that side of the ball. Whatever gains made on offense could be countered by defensive regression.
Prediction: 11-1. I’ll hedge and say there’s a loss somewhere. Clemson travels to Tallahassee. Road trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech (short week, Thursday night) could be interesting. There’s also Louisville, who almost beat them last year.
3. LSU Tigers
Why To Like Them: For once, the NFL Draft let them be. LSU returns 17 starters. Their defense is well supplied for new coordinator Dave Aranda. They have ample offensive skill talent, a veteran line, and some dude named Leonard Fournette.
Why Not To Like Them: The passing game. Opinions on Brandon Harris vary. But, this coaching staff has an established track record of not developing quarterbacks and not putting them in positions to succeed. Nothing changed from last season.
Prediction: 9-3. Alabama and Arkansas have had LSU’s number. Auburn and Florida tend to be tricky road trips. There will be games where LSU can’t just run teams over. I’m not sure they win those. Miles’ future may come down to the final weekend again.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Why To Like Them: Offense. A quarterback was Oklahoma’s missing ingredient. They have Baker Mayfield, along with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. They kept Lincoln Riley on to deploy them.
Why Not To Like Them: Defense. Getting pressure up front on defense. Charles Tapper and Eric Striker depart. They accounted for a combined 14.5 sacks and 29 TFL last year. The Sooners also lose Zack Sanchez in the secondary. Also factor in “Big Game Bob” potential and the loss of Sterling Shepard.
Prediction: 10-2. The Sooners have a tough start with Houston, Ohio State, and a road trip to TCU in the first five weeks. Texas plays them tough. Road trips to Lubbock and Morgantown. They should win the Big 12. But, they should just about every year. Whether that feat gets them to the playoff is another matter…
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why To Like Them: This team is built on four strong recruiting classes. Urban Meyer is 44-2 during the regular season at OSU, 31-1 in the B1G. Few teams have a better returning QB than J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Why Not To Like Them: Ohio State sent a historic class to the NFL Draft. That also means the Buckeyes must replace a “historic” level of talent and production. They have questions on all three phases of their defense. The offense has all new skill players and a rebuilding offensive line.
Prediction: 11-1. This is a tougher schedule than Ohio State is accustomed to, but not an unreasonable one. It takes the Buckeyes a while to get the kinks worked out. They drop a game somewhere. But, Urban’s ballers will be running amok on the field by season’s end.
6. Florida State Seminoles
Why To Like Them: NFL talent. A lot of it. The Seminoles bring pretty much the entire offense back, most notably Dalvin Cook. The first line of their defense should be really, ridiculously good.
Why Not To Like Them: The quarterback question. Jimbo Fisher and the talent give this team a high floor every year. Getting to the ceiling will require decisive quarterback play. Sean Maguire is injured. Deondre Francois is an unknown quantity.
Prediction: 11-1. The Seminoles may take one at home against Clemson. But, there are opportunities – three road trips to USF, Louisville, and Miami in four weeks, at N.C. State in a let down spot, or non-conference games against Florida and Ole Miss – to give one back.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
Why To Like Them: The Rebels have the best returning quarterback in the SEC, Chad Kelly. He has people to throw to. Ole Miss’ defense should be SEC caliber and solid. They will play without Tunsil, Treadwell, and Nkemdiche, but that was not an uncommon occurrence when those guys were enrolled.
Why Not To Like Them: Some possible distraction with the looming NCAA saga. More tangibly, Ole Miss is clearing out and starting over on the offensive line. Dropping back near the bottom of rushing in the SEC would put a lot of pressure on Kelly week-in, week-out.
Prediction: 8-4. This is a heinous schedule. Their first three FBS games are Florida State, Alabama, and Georgia. Then they play Memphis, who beat them last year. After the bye, back-to-back road trips to Arkansas and to LSU. This is a good team, against a schedule that could make a great one struggle.
8. Stanford Cardinal
Why To Like Them: Christian McCaffrey. The star running back enters the season as a Heisman favorite. He, perhaps, should have won it last year. David Shaw has a strong track record rebuilding rosters.
Why Not To Like Them: Quarterback instability with Kevin Hogan leaving. Rebuilding to do on both lines. David Shaw’s conservative, weird play-calling in tight games.
Prediction: 8-4. Stanford deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, there’s a lot of doubt and a horrific schedule. The Cardinal open the season with Kansas State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State. and at Notre Dame. They play 11-straight games without a bye. They don’t play a non-Power Five team until the end of November. SRS will love them.
9. Oregon Ducks
Why To Like Them: Offense. The Ducks are flush with depth and talent at the skill spots. If the quarterback play can be solid, Oregon will do their customary up tempo, napalming. They may be the most underrated team entering the season.
Why Not To Like Them: Their defense was a dumpster fire last season. The Ducks lose almost their entire front seven. The man tasked to fix it is…Brady Hoke, who has never been a defensive coordinator. He is not optimistic.
Prediction: 9-3. The Ducks are a legit Top 10-15 team. But, the Pac 12 is a slog. Their defense will have to stop someone at some point.
10. Baylor Bears
Why To Like Them: Seth Russell should be back and healthier at quarterback. Baylor has a number of talented skill position guys Art Briles bought to campus.
Why Not To Like Them: A major scandal deposed Briles in the spring. The closest comp for that is Arkansas, who went 4-8 after Petrino left in 2012. Compound that uncertainty with turnover on both the offensive and defensive lines. The floor could drop out from underneath them.
Prediction: 7-5. Jim Grobe is not John L. Smith. The Big 12 is not the SEC West. Baylor should be able to open with a strong hand and beat the weaker opponents on the schedule. I’m not sold they will be able to adjust and win close games against better teams. On the field, Art Briles’ acumen will be missed.
11. USC Trojans
Why To Like Them: USC has talent and weapons on offense. They bring back most of their offensive line. If Max Browne is solid, the Trojans are going to score points. They have some absurd athleticism in the secondary. Clancy Pendergast was a strong defensive coordinator choice.
Why Not To Like Them: There’s uncertainty around Clay Helton long term. He is the least accomplished head coach in the conference. This season, USC faces a substantial overhaul in the front seven on defense. Clancy Pendergast will need a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Prediction: 8-4. USC is fairly solid. But, their schedule is unforgiving. They play Alabama, Stanford, Utah, Washington, and UCLA away from home. They host Oregon and Notre Dame. The other games aren’t body bags. 8-4 is a good season.
12. Georgia Bulldogs
Why To Like Them: Georgia has two quality tailbacks in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and what should be a veteran offensive line. The back end of their defense should be quite capable.
Why Not To Like Them: Quarterback. Even if Jacob Eason plays as well as Josh Rosen, he’s still going to have up-and-down games and be facing much better defenses. There’s potential up front on defense, but little proven production from a front seven that gets cleaned out and loses Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
Prediction: 9-3. A record that got Mark Richt fired. A record that’s an auspicious start for Kirby Smart? Georgia should be solid. But, there are pitfalls and I’m not sure the Dawgs are flexible enough to avoid them.
No. 13 Michigan State Spartans
Why To Like Them: Everyone is doubting them, this year. The defending Big Ten champs tend to feed on that. The Spartans bring back strong depth at running back. They return what should be a very solid back seven of the defense with Malik McDowell anchoring the line up front.
Why Not To Like Them: The Spartans lose their best QB in school history, their top two receivers, and two All-American offensive linemen. Last year’s stupendous third and long conversions may be this year’s three and outs.
Prediction: 9-3. Michigan State takes a step back, but not a huge one. They should be a factor in the Big Ten race. They get Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State at home.
No. 14 Michigan Wolverines
Why To Like Them: Year two of Jim Harbaugh. Don Brown comes over from Boston College to coordinate the defense, which has a lot more talent than he had to work with last year. The defensive line should be deeper. They don’t play an explosive offense until late November. Michigan is very good and deep at running back, wide receiver, and tight end.
Why Not To Like Them: We’ll see what happens at quarterback. The crucial factor is the offensive line. Michigan was a pass-first offense last year. They need to be able to move the line and run the ball against good teams. Progress there will make the difference between floor and ceiling.
Prediction: 11-1. Playoff caliber? Not clear. But Michigan has one of the easier runs to get there in the country. The season comes down to the two rivalry games. Michigan has to beat them on the road.
No. 15 UCLA Bruins
Why To Like Them: Josh Rosen. If not the nation’s best QB, he’s the NFL’s best QB prospect. The Bruins have depth at running back. They should be excellent at the back end of the defense and get Eddie Vanderdoes back up front.
Why Not To Like Them: UCLA has a new offensive coordinator, a rebuilt offensive line, and loses four of its top five receivers from 2015. The Bruins were very meh getting pressure up front last season. Jim Mora has brought in and developed talent. But, the Bruins don’t beat good teams or come out strong every week. It’s time to start doing that.
Prediction: 7-5. The Pac 12 is deep. Two of UCLA’s three road games are at Texas A&M and at BYU. It’s hard to put any wins down for them in pen. ASU on the road? The Sun Devils beat them by two touchdowns in Pasadena last year.
No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Why To Like Them: The Irish have two viable, top caliber options at QB. They have talent and depth at running back. They have experienced contributors returning most areas of the field.
Why Not To Like Them: Last year was the year to make a run. Notre Dame loses seven difference-making players who were chosen in the 2016 NFL Draft. All were within the first 103 picks. All were at key positions. They don’t have Alabama’s track record replacing those type of players.
Prediction: 9-3. Notre Dame isn’t great, but they have a softer schedule than recent years. They get Michigan State, Stanford, and Miami in South Bend. Between the book end road trips to Texas and USC, they play one game in an opposing team’s stadium.
No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers
Why To Like Them: Butch Jones can recruit. Bob Shoop inherits a loaded defense to work with. The Vols have a senior QB, two great running backs, and most of the receivers and linemen back. On paper, they have very few questions and playoff potential.
Why Not To Like Them: Butch Jones can build. Can he coach? Tennessee doesn’t beat good teams. When the going gets tough, the coaching staff makes poor, conservative decisions and their Mike DeBord offense becomes predictable and unimpressive (as it was a decade ago at Michigan).
Prediction: 9-3. The season comes down to a four-game stretch: Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, Alabama. Those are the games Tennessee has not been winning. N.B. The Vols have lost 11-straight to Florida and nine-straight to Alabama.
No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Why To Like Them: This is a solid SEC team. Mississippi State returns a lot of solid experience and depth in all phases. They should be decent and efficient on both sides of the ball.
Why Not To Like Them: Losing Dak Prescott at QB could be massive. He was their guy who could carry the team, make plays, win games. Even if the QB play is solid, it’s not clear this team will have that extra gear or come up with that big play when required.
Prediction: 8-4. This is not a terribly difficult schedule for Mississippi State. Three non-conference games are body bags. They drew South Carolina and (at) Kentucky from the East. They get make or break games Auburn, A&M, and Arkansas in Starkville.
No. 19 Arkansas Razorbacks
Why To Like Them: The Razorbacks kept Dan Enos as OC for another season. They have depth at running back and wide receiver. You have to trust Bret Bielema to get an offensive line sorted out. They return almost their entire defense from last year.
Why Not To Like Them: That defense returning was a near complete failure last year. They have to replace their QB, Brandon Allen, who was the SEC’s best passer last season. Losing Alex Collins (1,577 yards and 20 TD last year) may not be insignificant.
Prediction: 7-5. The schedule goes two ways. If the Razorbacks are a legit Top 20 team, they play Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, and Florida at home and can spring an upset or three. If they are not, all the key games they need to win to salvage respectability and bowl play are on the road.
20. Washington Huskies
Why To Like Them: Defense. The Huskies were ranked 2nd in FEI defense and 9th in S&P+ defense last season. They return most of that unit, led by alliterative safety Budda Baker. Washington should be nasty on that side of the ball. The Huskies also have sophomore RB Myles Gaskin coming off a solid freshman campaign.
Why Not To Like Them: Offense. When Washington’s offense came across a defense last year…it came to a screeching halt. Jake Browning has potential. He should improve as a sophomore. But, this team has work to do to get average at throwing the ball against good teams.
Prediction: 10-2. I’m making a tepid leap to the hype train leaves the station. Chris Petersen is still Chris Petersen. Toughest non-conference game is Rutgers at home. They get Stanford at home on a week night and USC at home in November. They could definitely win an open Pac 12.
21. Auburn Tigers
Why To Like Them: Hmm… The Tigers get most of a Top 40 defense back. There’s potential to be really strong on the defensive line if Carl Lawson stays healthy. Most of the question marks are on offense. Guz Malzahn has a pretty good track record of answering questions on offense. When things look bleakest tends to be the time to double down on Auburn.
Why Not To Like Them: Quarterback. Is Sean White the real deal? The cupboard looks kind of bare at the skill spots if youngins at running back and receiver don’t step into the breach. Going from Will Muschamp to Kevin Steele is a downgrade. Let’s not understate where the Tigers are. They have lost nine of their last 11 in the SEC.
Prediction: 6-6. Let’s presume Auburn bookends with losses to Clemson and (at) Alabama. They still play Georgia, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State on the road. Not to mention home games against Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU. Not out of the question Arkansas State takes a run at them in a September sandwich game and they start 0-4.
22. Louisville Cardinals
Why To Like Them: Exciting dual threat QB Lamar Jackson should get better as a sophomore. All the skill players are back. The offensive line won’t be starting multiple freshmen. That offense has Bobby Petrino coordinating it. Oh, and an athletic, aggressive defense comes back with some top end talent and another year of seasoning.
Why Not To Like Them: O-Line could go from a moderate to grave concern with injuries. They must beat Clemson and Florida State to win their division. They play both early.
Prediction: 10-2. Louisville is a complete, sexy sleeper team. Bobby Petrino wins football games. Not sold this team will come out screwed tight every week. But, they are capable of pulling off an upset or two.
23. Florida Gators
Why To Like Them: Defense. The Gators return top-tier talent and depth in all three phases. They will shut down just about everyone on the ground and keep themselves in ball games.
Why Not To Like Them: Offense. Jim McElwain inherited a mess from Will Muschamp. He’s had poor luck with quarterbacks since. They are very young at the skill spots. Their starting quarterback is Luke Del Rio. Florida just isn’t prepared to score a lot of points.
Prediction: 9-3. Florida has flaws. So does the rest of the East. The Gators have three non-entities non-conference aside from FSU. If they beat Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina at home and beat Vandy that’s 7. Can they split at Tenn (won 11-straight), LSU, Georgia, at Arkansas?
24. Texas A&M Aggies
Why To Like Them: Two really outstanding units. They may have the most explosive WR corps in the nation. If they can get the ball to players in space and capitalize on special teams returns, they are going to put up points. Their defensive line led by Myles Garrett and groomed by John Chavis will overwhelm unprepared opponents.
Why Not To Like Them: The general malaise with the coaching staff. Both Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray left, to be replaced by Oklahoma cast off Trevor Knight. They struggle running the ball and stopping the run, which tends to be a problem in the SEC.
Prediction: 6-6. This is a heinous schedule. Texas A&M plays eight Top 25 teams in this ranking. They face UCLA, Auburn (road), and Arkansas in September. In a rosy scenario, the Aggies are 4-3 after Alabama with LSU, Ole Miss, and a trip to Starkville left. Even if A&M can push it to 8 wins, no small feat, would that be enough to save Kevin Sumlin?
25. TCU Horned Frogs
Why To Like Them: Defense. The Horned Frogs return almost everyone and get players back from injury. They have Gary Patterson coaching them. They should be the best unit in the Big 12.
Why Not To Like Them: They lose a lot on offense. QB Trevone Boykin is gone. So are Josh Doctson, leading rusher Aaron Green, and three All-Conference offensive linemen. It’s the Big 12. They will be involved in a shootout at some point. A lot is going to depend on whether Kenny Trill can party like it’s September 2014.
Prediction: 9-3. The Horned Frogs play three Top 25 teams on this list. Two, Oklahoma and Arkansas, are at home. The third is Baylor. Counterpoint: TCU is 9-2 in one-score games the past two years (two against Kansas) and have lost both their quarterback and a very good kicker.