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.
(I didn’t include Notre Dame)
#4 ACC Coastal, #8 ACC
8-5 (5-3) in 2016
In 2015, UNC took a step forward under Larry Fedora; the Heels hadn’t won more than eight games in a season since Mack Brown was in Chapel Hill back in the 90s, but Fedora led them to an 11-3 season – after losing the opener, they won out over the rest of the regular season before dropping the ACC Championship Game to Clemson and the bowl game to Baylor. They’d improved their win total by five games over the previous season, and Fedora had the breakthrough that North Carolina had been waiting a long time for.
Last year, the Heels had a weird season: new QB Mitch Trubisky was far better than anyone expected (and was drafted second overall in the NFL Draft), but they went just 8-5 on the season. They lost the opener to Georgia in Atlanta; they were destroyed at home in midseason game against Virginia Tech in a heavy rainstorm; they upset both Florida State and Miami on the road; they were upset by in-state rivals Duke and NC State in two of the last three weeks of the season. They scored a late touchdown against Stanford in the bowl game, but the two-point conversion attempt failed and they lost 25-23.
2016 was a moderate disappointment and 2017 looks to be a rebuilding season. They’re losing a ton on offense: in addition to Trubisky, UNC will be without its top two running backs (who combined for 1,508 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns a season ago), its top two receivers (including Ryan Switzer, who set the school single-season and career receiving yards records as a senior), and three starting offensive linemen. Fedora brought in a bevy of grad transfers from power programs to help stem the bleeding. QB Brandon Harris was benched at LSU and has big play potential despite his inaccuracy, Stanton Truitt comes in from Auburn to shore up the RB corps, and OL Cameron Dillard and Khaliel Rodgers arrived from Florida and USC, respectively.
DC Gene Chizik turned around Fedora’s tenure by steadily improving the defense season-over-season, but he retired after 2016. Chizik left the unit in good shape though: the top three tacklers from last season return and the front seven as a whole could be one of the better groups in the ACC. It’s a veteran-laden group highlighted by LB Cole Holcomb, DE Malik Carney, and SS Donnie Miles. Fedora’s a coach with a background on the offensive side of the ball, and while most of his teams at North Carolina have had better offenses than defenses, the opposite is likely to be true in 2017.
In 2015, UNC won the Coastal and in 2016, they finished tied for second a game back in the standings from Virginia Tech; they figure to take a step back in 2017. Fedora’s had explosive offenses throughout his tenure, but going from Trubisky and Marquise Williams before him to Brandon Harris or a young, unproven QB is a big downgrade. The Coastal has been steadily getting better and UNC has games against Louisville and Notre Dame from outside the division, so a reasonable goal for this season would be becoming bowl eligible.
#4 ACC Atlantic, #7 ACC
7-6 (3-5) in 2016
The Wolfpack exist in a difficult, purgatorial caste in the ACC: they’ve won nine games or more in a season just thrice since the 70s and play in the same division as powerhouses Florida State and Clemson as well as upstart Louisville. NCSU is historically mediocre but not exactly bad; Dave Doeren needed a one-year rebuild after taking over from Tom O’Brien, and has gone a combined 22-17 in seasons two through four in Raleigh. In 2016, they started off 4-1, including a win over Notre Dame in a hurricane, before taking Clemson to OT on the road and losing (later in the season, they blew a fourth-quarter lead against Florida State). They dropped games to East Carolina and Boston College and needed an upset over rival North Carolina in the season finale to become bowl eligible.
Doeren’s been steadily building, and NC State figures to improve as they’re one of the most experienced teams in all of college football. The offense took a step back last season after he got rid of OC Matt Canada, but they’re now in the second year of a new scheme and have nine total starters returning on that side of the ball. The headliner is Jaylen Samuels, the ultimate blocky-catchy guy and one of the most versatile players in the country: he ran for 5.7 yards per carry and six touchdowns while leading NCSU in receptions (with 55) and receiving touchdowns (with seven) in a hybrid FB / H-Back / TE role.
Samuels is a useful Swiss army knife weapon, and he’s joined by all but two skill position players from last season (1,000-yard rusher Matthew Dayes and a rotation WR). The Wolfpack moved Nyheim Hines from WR to RB and he projects to be the starter. Former Boise State QB Ryan Finley had a strong season in 2016 in his first season as the starting signal caller in Raleigh: he threw for 3,059 yards and 18 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions. The offensive line returns mostly intact, and it’s led by enormous senior guard Tony Adams.
The 2016 defense struggled with East Carolina and they were destroyed by Louisville, but otherwise they were one of the stoutest groups in the ACC. The Wolfpack allowed an impressive 3.3 yards per carry over the entire season, and their entire DL and LBs corps return – their 4-2-5 should be excellent against the run. DE Bradley Chubb is perhaps the best pass-rusher in the ACC, and LB Jerod Fernandez was quite productive in the middle of the defense. They lose three of their five starting DBs (including the leading tackler from last season), so the secondary is less proven than the rest of the defense.
So much points to a breakthrough year for NCSU – they could have one of the best run defenses in the country, have their QB back, and should have a solid offensive line (though the Wolfpack did have a hard time running the ball themselves last season). Still, they’re in the Atlantic, which may be the toughest division in the country in 2017. In order for them to contend for the division – and plenty of prognosticators think they have a shot – they’ll probably need to beat two of Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville. History suggests that it’s unlikely, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the Wolfpack regardless.
[25-30 after the JUMP]
#2 Pac-12 South, #5 Pac-12
4-8 (2-7) in 2016
Jim Mora led UCLA to within a field goal of winning the Pac-12 championship in his first season and won ten games each of the next two seasons, but they slipped to 8-5 in year four and went just 4-8 in 2016: few programs fell as far as fast (Michigan State, Notre Dame and Oregon did last season), and another middling-or-worse season might cost Mora his job. He’d spent his career in the NFL before heading to Westwood, and he’s assembled a legion of blue-chip recruits there, led by former #1 QB prospect Josh Rosen.
Rosen certainly looked the part in his freshman season, but he suffered an injury against Arizona State in 2016 (after playing quite well) and UCLA went 1-6 in that game and over the rest of the season. The return of the outspoken signal-caller will probably bump up the Bruin’s record by a few wins in and of itself, but a bigger problem than losing Rosen might have been the total impotence of the running game last season: despite an All-Pac 12 center, highly-touted recruits along the line, and a five-star RB, they averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, one of the worst marks in the country.
If Rosen’s shoulder is healed, the offense will probably air it out a lot – Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley were the top two WRs on the team and they’re back. Mora hired his third offensive coordinator in three seasons, bringing in Jedd Fisch from Michigan. Fisch may not have had the biggest role in Michigan’s success in the passing game these past two seasons, but he’ll be a sure upgrade over his predecessor, who totally destroyed UCLA’s rushing game in attempting to move to a more run-heavy offense. Rosen and Fisch may be enough to survive that anemic running game. Of course, talent and experience dictate that the line will improve somewhat with four starters back.
UCLA’s defense loses a few key players who were early-round draft picks, but they return some proven contributors and have talented young players stepping into big roles. DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner anchors a line that will decline somewhat due to attrition, though freshman DE Jaelan Phillips was the top recruit in the country by the end of the cycle. The secondary has three of four starters back, and will plug in five-star freshman Darnay Holmes into the open starting spot in all likelihood. Longtime Penn State DC Tom Bradley has a lot of talent to work with and the Bruins should have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12.
With an elite-if-healthy QB and a solid-at-worst defense, UCLA should be in for substantial improvement. A total inability to move the ball on the ground is obviously a severe liability – though the Bruins should be better in that regard. It’s probable that they’ll be far closer to the caliber of Mora’s first four teams (that went a combined 37-16) than his fifth.
USC is loaded and has a star QB of their own, and UCLA has to travel to both Stanford and Washington in cross-divisional play, while the Trojans don’t even have Washington, a playoff participant last season, on the schedule. Realistically, UCLA is right there with Colorado and Utah in the second tier of teams behind the heavy favorites. The Bruins host Texas A&M in the second leg of a home-and-home for the opener, and that will be an interesting litmus test early in what will be a pivotal season for Mora.
#7 SEC West, #10 SEC
6-7 (3-5) in 2016
Dan Mullen will be in his ninth season at Mississippi State in 2017; at 61-42 overall and 29-35 in the SEC, he’s exceeded expectations, building a consistently solid program at the most resource-disadvantaged program in the nation’s most difficult conference. His tenure peaked in 2014 when he started the season 9-0 and ascended to the #1 spot in the polls for a few weeks – that Bulldog team made the Orange Bowl. Mullen’s taken the program to bowl games in every season he’s been in Starkville except for his first. It’s remarkable that he hasn’t left for a bigger job yet – there have been plenty of rumors – but for now, he has MSU punching way above their weight class.
2016 was a down year from the beginning: They blew a late lead and doinked a FG at the buzzer to drop a 21-20 contest to heavy underdog South Alabama (they joined the Sun Belt in 2012). They lost three close games on the road to bowl-bound teams – in 2OT to BYU, by 3 to LSU, and by 2 Kentucky. A win over Texas A&M in the Aggies’ customary November swoon was a big upset; Mississippi State also won the Egg Bowl over Ole Miss by five touchdowns. At 5-7, they made a bowl game and won a hideous contest against Miami (the MAC Miami) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Mullen was quite successful with QB Dak Prescott and needed to replace him in 2016 – after some early hiccups, he settled on Nick Fitzgerald, then a sophomore. He improved over the course of the season and he’s an elite runner – at 6’5, he has breakaway speed and usually falls forward. Fitzgerald had 1,375 yards on the ground at 7.1 yards per carry and rushed for 16 touchdowns – he struggled with accuracy as a passer, but put up a 21 TD : 10 INT ratio. He’ll need to find a new top target in the passing game (though WRs 2, 3, and 4 are back), but he’s one of the most underrated/unknown-but-great QBs in the country and should put up even more impressive numbers in his second season as a starter. With the loss of three multi-year starters on the OL, that position group is a big concern and could be a severe liability.
For several seasons, Mississippi State gave up about 23 points per game and that number slipped to 31.8 in 2016. Peter Sirmon was the DC for that season and MSU actually wound up swapping coordinators with Louisville as the coaching carousel turned; Grantham has a big reputation, but had a few iffy units in his time at Georgia and Louisville. He’s inheriting a defense that loses its top tackler by far and will be breaking in a new DL rotation. LB Leo Lewis was a blue-chip recruit and played very well as a freshman in 2016. The secondary has a lot of players back. Among Mississippi State’s JUCO recruits is former Michigan Wolverine Brian Cole.
Outside of Fitzgerald, there’s little reason to believe that the Bulldogs will finish with a winning record in conference play. Even though Mullen’s overachieved and Fitzgerald is perhaps the best QB in the SEC… they’re in the SEC West. Ole Miss’s implosion helps their long-term fortunes, and should provide some excellent schadenfreude in the interim. State will probably become bowl eligible this season, but much more than that is too much to ask.
#3 Pac-12 North, #4 Pac-12
4-8 (2-7) in 2016
From 2008-2014, Oregon was one of the best programs in the country – a Chip Kelly-led spread revolution made the Ducks into a cutting-edge offensive powerhouse; they won double-digit games in each of those seasons, won four of seven Pac-12 titles over that span, and played in two national title games. Mark Helfrich took over when Kelly leapt to the NFL and kept things going with Heisman-winning QB Marcus Mariota, going 24-4 in his first two seasons as the head coach in Eugene.
As soon as the program was further removed from the Kelly era, things fell apart. From 2014 to 2015, the Ducks gave up 13.9 more points per game, and even though they went 9-4 on the season, there were problems: they were absolutely destroyed at home by a strong Utah team 62-20 early in the season and ended the season with an epic collapse in the bowl game against TCU. In 2016, Helfrich brought in Brady Hoke to fix the defense and that move was a resounding failure, as Oregon went 4-8 and Helfrich was fired after the season. The Ducks hired Willie Taggart, fresh off a successful tenure at USF, to turn things around.
The offense wasn’t a problem, especially after they turned to true freshman QB Justin Herbert, who completed 64% of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions after taking over as the starter. Taggart had a wide-open big play offense at USF, and he’ll have some other weapons in the backfield: RBs Royce Freeman – who was limited by injury last season – and Tony Brooks-James are a nice thunder and lightning duo, and most of the line that blocked for them last season is back – the interior of the line is especially strong. Oregon will have to find some new targets in the passing game outside of WR Charles Nelson though.
Nine starters and 12 of the top 13 tacklers from last season’s defense are back – the unit was atrocious (and quite young) a year ago. Jim Leavitt, formerly Colorado’s defensive coordinator (who did an excellent job in Boulder) was brought in to fix the defense; he’s moving back to the 3-4 after Hoke’s 4-3 scheme change didn’t take. LB Troy Dye was probably the best player on the defense as a true freshman a year ago, and if the Duck DL can avoid getting beaten up like they did last season, Dye should rack up a lot of tackles. Leavitt should turn things in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go.
Taggart was a good hire and should return Oregon to near the top of the Pac-12 North – though he might need more than one year to do it. They have the requisite offensive talent to get to 10 wins, but the defense makes it hard to believe that it’s a serious possibility unless Leavitt works a miracle. An early-season matchup at home against old foe Mike Riley and Nebraska may spring the Ducks to a strong start to the season – and they avoid USC from the South – but road trips to Stanford and Washington loom large. The Ducks should make a bowl game in 2017 and Taggart has every opportunity to succeed in the long-term at this program; they’re still at least a year away from challenging for the division title.
#6 SEC West, #9 SEC
7-6 (3-5) in 2016
Bret Bielema was incredibly successful at Wisconsin, going to three Rose Bowls in a row, so it came as a shock when he took the Arkansas job in the wake of l’affaire Bobby Petrino. He lost his first 13 SEC games as the head man in Fayetteville, and he’s gone 25-26 total over four seasons. Bielema’s one of the highest-paid coaches in the country, but so are his competitors in the SEC West. A 15-4 record against mostly poor non-conference competition has kept his head above water somewhat, though he’s going to have to start moving up the division standings to extend his tenure at Arkansas much further.
2016 showed that they’re still a ways away from challenging the upper tier of the SEC. They scraped by Louisiana Tech by a single point to open the season, and the Razorbacks lost home games to Alabama and LSU and a neutral site game to Alabama by at least three scores each. They did pull a big upset over Florida, but still finished with a losing record in conference play after being upset by a bad Missouri team in the season finale. The rest of the West is so competitive that even if Arkansas has a top 25 type team according to various computer metrics, they can still have a mediocre season.
Like his teams were at Wisconsin, Bielema’s Arkansas squads have been built on a power running game behind a gigantic offensive line. This year, they return Austin Allen, who’s one of the best QBs in the SEC; he threw for 3,430 yards but was careless with the ball (throwing 15 interceptions in 2016). Allen will be without all but one of his targets in the passing game – so WR Jared Cornelius will likely need to take an increased role out of necessity. Most of the OL returns intact, led by All-American C Frank Ragnow, and they’ll be paving the way for RB Devwah Whaley, who showed potential as the freshman change-of-pace back last season.
Arkansas’s defense was quite strong in 2014, but has tailed off since, and now new DC Paul Rhoads looks to turn things around on that side of the ball. The Razorbacks have to replace three of their top four tacklers from last season, though there are plenty of players with some experience in each position group. DE McTelvin Agim played last season as a blue-chip freshman and is the only returning starter on the line; the LBs will need to step up with a move to a 3-4 defensive scheme. The pass defense was solid and the CBs return, though Arkansas does need to find new pass rushers.
It’s hard to see the Razorbacks making much progress. Allen could be really good and the offense as a whole should be solid at worst, but the defense was a problem last season and the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 might not take right away. With a perpetually difficult conference schedule (that features Alabama and Auburn back to back) and an easy non-conference slate, Arkansas probably will become become bowl eligible with a .500 or worse record in SEC play again.
#3 ACC Coastal, #6 ACC
8-5 (5-3) in 2016
After cycling through a couple coaches in a short span of time, Pitt seems to have found a very good one in former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. They’ve gone 8-5 in his first two seasons; in 2016, they beat a Penn State team that wound up winning the Big Ten in an early-season shootout and pulled one of the biggest upsets of the season, defeating eventual national champions Clemson in Death Valley with a 43-42 victory won on a long field goal in the game’s waning moments. Pitt finished in a three-way tie for second in the Coastal behind Virginia Tech – the Panthers lost to the Hokies by three at home.
In the complete inverse of what one would expect from a Narduzzi-led team, last year’s Pitt squad was far better on offense than it was on defense. Senior QB Nathan Peterman threw for 2,855 yards and 27 touchdowns (to just 7 interceptions) last season; senior RB James Connor was a workhorse back, gaining 1,092 yards on 216 attempts and scoring 20 total touchdowns. Replacing those two will be very difficult – Max Browne, a former USC five-star, comes in as a one-year grad transfer rental at QB, but there is no obvious replacement for Connor. Their offensive line was strong last season and should be again.
OC Matt Canada left for a job in the same role on Ed Orgeron’s staff at LSU, and Narduzzi brought in Shaun Watson, formerly of Texas, to lead his offense. Whether he keeps WR/KR/PR Quadree Henderson in his offensive role as a jet-sweep specialist (and decoy) remains to be seen, but he should make an effort to get Henderson touches, as he’s one of the most electric returners in the country. The leading WR from last season, Jester Weah, caught ten touchdowns in 2016 and should give Browne a solid targeting the passing game.
The offense will inevitably regress, as it’s losing key players and its coordinator from one of the best groups in all of college football from a year ago. The defense needs to improve, but with just four starters returning, some new names will have to make a big impact to turn things in the right direction. Pitt won games in which its opponents scored 61 (Syracuse), 42 (Clemson), 39 (Penn State), and 34 (Georgia Tech) points; all four of their regular season losses came in games in which they gave up at least 37. Narduzzi’s aggressive quarters defense led to plenty of breakdowns a year ago, and solving those issues will be critical if Pitt is to stay near the top of the pecking order in a decent Coastal division.
In conference games in 2016, Pitt’s average score was 45-39. That first number will fall; the second number needs to as well for the Panthers. They avoid Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville from the Atlantic. If Narduzzi figures out a way to fix his defense (he’s a fantastic defensive coach, so there’s a good chance it may happen) enough to mitigate the offensive regression, Pitt will be right where they were in his first two seasons. A spot in the ACC Championship game is improbable, unless Browne is much better than what he showed at USC.
#5 Big 12
7-6 (3-6) in 2016
Last summer, Baylor got rid of head coach Art Briles for presiding over a toxic program that had fostered a rape culture of unimaginable scale and severity. Briles (and other administrators) did not adequately respond to many allegations of sexual assault, and he was fired, despite being the most successful coach Baylor had ever had. Last season, interim coach Jim Grobe got the program through the 2016 season with a cast of Briles holdovers as assistants.
After Matt Rhule was hired this past offseason, they cleaned house entirely. Baylor’s scandal will live on in infamy as perhaps the most glaring example of the type of heinous behavior some schools will tolerate in order to win football games – and it’s difficult to focus on the actual football itself with the background knowledge of the crimes that were committed and enabled by the program, even now that the Briles and company have moved on.
Baylor had ascended unprecedented heights, winning the Big 12 in both 2013 and 2014 and spending much of Briles’s last three seasons in the Top Ten of various rankings. Once the scope of the scandal was revealed, Briles had no chance of retaining his job, and the rest of the program experienced inevitable attrition as players fled as transfers and recruits dropped their commitments. The timing of Briles’s firing all but ensured that 2016 would be a lost season, and while the Bears did start 6-0 (mostly against terrible teams, though there was a win over Oklahoma State in there), an upset at Texas gave way to several consecutive blowout losses and a six-game losing streak to end the regular season. Baylor upset Boise State in the bowl to get to a winning record.
Baylor hired Rhule from Temple and, as a defense-oriented coach with an old-school offense, he couldn’t be further stylistically from the high-octane Briles teams that won so many games over the course of his tenure in Waco. Rhule will have to find a new QB – most likely sophomore Zach Smith or Arizona transfer Anu Solomon – as well as some new primary targets in the passing game. They’ll likely run the ball plenty with RB Terence Williams (who had 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) returning. Last season, the offense dropped off quite a bit from the standard of previous years, and it seems unlikely to rebound.
The defense could be pretty good, with DE KJ Smith returning as a first-team All-Conference selection from a year ago. The DL may be the best position group on the entire team, as what was a very inexperienced unit in 2016 exceeded expectations – especially with two freshmen starting on the interior. Both starting CBs are gone from last season, as are two of the top three tacklers overall, but nearly everyone else is back and with Rhule taking over, they should be one of the Big 12’s better defenses.
Baylor football has been in chaos making it difficult to predict how they’ll do on the field in 2017. Oklahoma heads to Waco for the opening game of conference play and the Bears travel to Kansas State and Oklahoma State for the two following games, so Rhule will need them to be ready early.