For 2017, instead of previewing conferences division-by-division, I decided to preview the 64 Power Five teams individually, so I ranked them and counted down from the bottom.
I created a ranking system based heavily off of Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings: half of the ranking comes from the S&P rankings from the past five seasons among Power Five teams (1/3 of that number is 2016’s ranking; 1/3 is the average from 2014-2016, 1/3 is the average from 2012-2016); half comes from two component parts of his 2017 S&P+ projections, weighed evenly – recruiting impact and returning production – and ranked 1 through 64. There is no subjectivity involved in these rankings and they skew towards emphasizing where the teams were according the 2016 S&P+. I think it serves as a decent way to sequence these previews.
Previously: #64 Purdue, #63 Rutgers, #62 Kansas, #61 Illinois, #60 Boston College, #59 Virginia, #58 Vanderbilt, #57 Syracuse. #56 Maryland, #55 Arizona, #54 Wake Forest, #53 Duke, #52 Iowa State, #51 Texas Tech, #50 Missouri, #49 Oregon State. #48 Arizona State, #47 Cal, #46 Indiana, #45 Kentucky, #44 West Virginia, #43 South Carolina, #42 Washington State, #41 Northwestern. #40 Minnesota, #39 Iowa, #38 Colorado, #37 Kansas State, #36 Utah, #35 Georgia Tech, #34 Nebraska, #33 Michigan State. #32 North Carolina, #31 NC State, #30 UCLA, #29 Mississippi State, #28 Oregon, #27 Arkansas, #26 Pittsburgh, #25 Baylor.
(I didn’t include Notre Dame)
24. OKLAHOMA STATE
#4 Big 12
10-3 (7-2) in 2016
Mike Gundy’s been phenomenal at Oklahoma State, leading the Cowboys to a 104-50 record since taking over for the 2005 season. The former Cowboy QB has had five seasons with double digit wins as the head coach in Stillwater; in 2011, they finished with just one loss and were snubbed from the BCS Title Game in favor of giving Alabama a rematch against LSU. In three of the last four seasons, they’ve won ten games – ascending to at least the fringe of the Top 10 in each season before losing the finale to Oklahoma (they upset the Sooners in 2014, a down year at 7-6). Gundy’s shepherded the program for over a decade and has made good use of the T. Boone Pickens resource pool.
A definitive win over a legitimately good team in a bowl game will always lead to increased expectations for the next season, and with Oklahoma State’s 38-8 victory over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl to close out the 2016 campaign, the Cowboys are receiving plenty of hype as the start of the 2017 season approaches. 2016 was an odd year: they were robbed of a win against Central Michigan (the game should have ended before a late Hail Mary); they beat a better-than-expected Pitt team the next week in a shootout; they lost their first and last Big 12 games and won every game in between. Their hopes of a Big 12 title were still alive entering the regular season finale, but they lost to OU by three scores.
A bigger reason why Oklahoma State is getting the “darkhorse playoff contender” label: they return one of the best QB / RB / WR trios in the country fully intact. Mason Rudolph is now a senior and has had an excellent career thus far in Stillwater – last season, he threw for 4,091 yards at a 63% completion rate and had 28 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions. RB Justice Hill was an unexpected instant impact player (rushing for 1,142 yards) and if he makes a freshman-to-sophomore leap, he could be an elite back. James Washington could have jumped to the NFL, but the senior WR is back after gaining 1,380 yards on an absurd 19.4 yards per catch last season. Rudolph / Hill / Washington is about as good as it gets, and they’re the biggest reason for excitement in Stillwater. Washington isn’t the only quality WR, as Jalen McCleskey and Marcell Ateman are proven commodities. The OL is experienced as well.
The defense will determine whether Oklahoma State is a threat to make the playoff or not. With just five starters returning from a unit that was average at best last season, there’s not much to indicate improvement. The Cowboys lost both DTs, both CBs, and two starting LBs – so there are some potentially glaring holes. If impact players emerge from the ether and the defense is good enough, OSU will be able to rack up a ton of wins leading up to their November showdown with Oklahoma (at home this time) – but that’s a big if.
The Big 12 is often criticized for its lack of defense, and Oklahoma State is the leading candidate to fulfill that stereotype. They have what could be the most explosive offense in the country helmed by one of college football’s best QBs. That alone is enough to put them near the top of the Big 12; if the defense is good enough, they should be able to win it.
23. VIRGINIA TECH
#2 ACC Coastal, #5 ACC
10-4 (6-2) in 2016
It’s always difficult to replace a legendary coach, but Virginia Tech made a great hire in luring Justin Fuente away from Memphis when Frank Beamer retired following the 2015 season. Beamer’s teams had floundered late in his tenure (especially on the offensive side of the ball), but he’d built the program from nothing and maintained a mostly consistent level of success throughout his career. Fuente managed to convince Bud Foster, Beamer’s terrific longtime DC, to stay, even though he may have been passed over for the head coaching job. Tech had gone .500 in ACC play over Beamer’s last four seasons, so Fuente didn’t face outsized expectations right away in Blacksburg.
Still, he turned things around quickly – especially on offense – and the Hokies managed to win the ACC Coastal. Virginia Tech lost their first game against FBS competition in 2016 to Tennessee by three touchdowns at a neutral site and had a weird stretch mid-season when they trounced UNC, were upset at Syracuse, and destroyed Miami within a three-week span. They gave Clemson a good fight in the ACC Championship Game, eventually losing by a single touchdown, and beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl to finish 10-4 in Fuente’s first season.
Fuente is an offensive whiz, as evidenced by what he did with future first-round pick QB Paxton Lynch at Memphis, and he’ll have to get by in 2017 without many of the major pieces from last season – most notably QB Jerod Evans, who accounted for 41 total touchdowns as a senior in 2016. Redshirt freshman QB Josh Jackson (son of former longtime Michigan RB coach and famous exaggerator Fred Jackson) won the starting job; he’ll have Travon McMillan – the starting RB in 2016 – back as well as Cam Phillips, one of VT’s two major targets in the passing game. The Hokies also lost two key OL from last year’s squad. Jackson will inevitably be a downgrade from Evans in the short term and the attrition across the board suggests that the unit as a whole will take a step back even as Fuente goes from year one to year two in his new system.
The defense should be excellent as usual though. Foster corrected course last season after a brief blip in 2015, and even though the Hokies are still too prone to giving up big plays, their stout run defense has them as one of the better overall groups in the ACC. The heart of their defense is extremely strong, with both LBs – Andrew Motuapuaka and Temaine Edmunds – as all-conference type players. The DL will be reloading, but there’s more recruiting hype for that group than any other position group on the team. The DBs should be improved, with four of the five starters from last season back, led by CB Greg Stroman.
The Hokies open the season with a neutral site matchup against old rival West Virginia in a game that’s sure to recalibrate expectations for both teams. While the Coastal is improved, the best three teams in the ACC reside in the other division, so even with uncertainty on offense, Virginia Tech will have a shot at making it two consecutive division titles. A November showdown at Miami could prove to be decisive in that regard.
[19-22 after the JUMP]