25. Boise State
The Broncos are coming off another 10-win season under Bryan Harsin. Quarterback Brett Rypien (3,646 yards, 24 touchdowns, eight interceptions) leads the way. He’s the nephew of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Mark Rypien, and he’ll be targeting another NFL legacy, wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (1,129 receiving yards, team-high 11 touchdowns) a lot. The Broncos must replace leading rusher Jeremy McNichols, leading receiver Thomas Sperbeck and their top four tacklers from a year ago, but there is a lot still left in the cupboard. They could end up being the best team from the Group of Five.
Speaking of good teams from the Group of Five, USF went 11-2 last season and is back for more under new head coach Charlie Strong. Bruising back Marlon Mack is gone, but dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers (42 total touchdowns) is back. He’ll once again lead a high-octane attack that scored more than 43 points per game last season. On the other side of the ball, the Bulls return nine starters and seven of their top nine tacklers from 2016. Double-digit wins should once again be the goal in Tampa.
23. Kansas State
Bill Snyder just keeps chugging along in the Little Apple. Last year, the Wildcats won nine games and reached a bowl for the seventh-straight year. Dual-threat Jesse Ertz passed for 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns and ran for 1,012 yards and 12 more scores last fall. How he bounces back from off-season shoulder surgery is critical. He has multiple returning offensive lineman to protect him. Defensively, KSU welcomes back cornerback D.J. Reed, the Big 12’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year last season. With home games against Oklahoma, TCU and West Virginia, the possibility is there for a sleeper run at the Big 12 title.
22. Notre Dame
A 4-8 record in 2016 set off crisis mode in South Bend, and had many wondering if Brian Kelly’s days were numbered. Kelly’s job should be safer after this year, as the Irish are a good candidate to win eight games. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush takes over at quarterback, and many are giddy about his potential. He’ll hand off to running back Josh Adams (933 rushing yards) and throw to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (961 receiving yards). The linebacking unit (Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill) should be a strong point, and the secondary should be improved. Watch out for a breakout from defensive end Daelin Hayes. The downside? A rugged schedule featuring Georgia, Miami (Fla.), USC, Stanford and some other sneaky tests.
The Tom Herman era is here. Recruiting is going well for the Longhorns, and now it’s time to test things out on the field. Shane Buechele (2,959 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), figures to be Texas’ starting quarterback again. How he develops in year two will have a big effect on how the season turns out. However, it might be the defense, which returns 11 starters, that leads the way in Austin. Linebacker Malik Jefferson (62 tackles, 5.5 sacks) is the biggest name on that unit, but fellow LB’s Breckyn Hager and Anthony Wheeler aren’t shabby either. USC (Sept. 16) will be an early-season barometer of where the ‘Horns are at. This team should be in the thick of the Big 12 race.
20. West Virginia
Another Big 12 squad in our top 25. The Mountaineers had a resurgence in 2016, going 10-3. With quarterback Skyler Howard gone, all eyes are now on Florida transfer Will Grier. Returning wide receivers Ka’Raun White and Jovon Durante should be his top targets. At running back, 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford returns. On defense, second-leading tackler Al-Rasheed Benton is back, but replacements must be made along the defensive line and in the secondary. The Mountaineers’ opening weekend game against Virginia Tech is an enticing matchup, while road games at TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma loom large.
19. Miami (Fla.)
Miami went 9-4 in Year One under Mark Richt, and now we’ll see what the program does for an encore. Who will replace quarterback Brad Kaaya, Malik Rosier or Evan Shirreffs? Explosive sophomore Ahmmon Richards (934 receiving yards, 19.1 yards per reception) is a big-time weapon, as is running back Mark Walton, who eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2016. Linebacker Shaquille Quarterman (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks) wreaks havoc, but the Hurricanes must replace three starters in the secondary. All eyes are on an early-season showdown against Florida State in Tallahassee (Sept. 16). This could be the year Miami finally wins the Coastal.
The Horned Frogs had a down year (6-7) in 2016, but are poised to bounce back. Quarterback Kenny Hill (3,208 yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) returns. Running back Kyle Hicks led the team in rushing yards (1,042) and receptions (47) last year. Linebacker Travin Howard led the Big 12 in tackles a year ago with 130. For good measure, his counterpart Ty Summers compiled 121. They are two of 16 starters back for TCU. Gary Patterson’s crew will be tested early, with games against Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Arkansas in the first five weeks of the season.
Florida returns nine offensive starters, but there is a good chance the Gators will be breaking in a new quarterback. Luke Del Rio, who started six games last year, is recovering from multiple off-season surgeries. That leaves Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire battling it out with redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Offense has been UF’s bugaboo the past couple of seasons, but the Gators do bring back their three leading rushers from last year. On defense, standouts Jarrad Davis, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Alex Anzalone, Marcus Maye and Caleb Brantley must be replaced, but leading tackler Marcell Harris returns in the secondary. The Gators open up against Michigan, but do host LSU, Texas A&M, Florida State and Tennessee.
It is amazing that LSU could lose a player like Leonard Fournette and still be fine at running back, but Derrius Guice is a stud. He led the Tigers in rushing (1,387 yards, 15 touchdowns) a year ago as Fournette was limited by injuries. Will Danny Etling’s back be okay enough for him to resume his role as starting quarterback? That is the biggest question facing LSU under first-year head coach Ed Orgeron. Defensively, Arden Key will be back after a leave of absence. He could lead the SEC in sacks and be a first-round draft pick. It will be tough replacing defensive backs Jamal Adams, linebackers Duke Riley and Kendall Beckwith and defensive lineman Davon Godchaux, but coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense should be a source of strength.