Surprise, surprise: Alabama, Clemson lead Turk’s top 25 heading into summer

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We’ve just passed the midway point of the college football offseason, which means that now is usually the time where no news is the best news as it relates to programs. There hasn’t been much floating around the Big Ten outside of Michigan’s Shea Patterson and his approved eligibility for 2018, but the rest of the nation is still trying to catch Alabama after Nick Saban’s sixth national title.

Here’s my look at a top 25 heading into the summer:

1. Alabama (2017 record: 13-1)

The quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts will be the major storyline throughout the summer, but the skill position players Saban used in the national title game were very young. Former five-star running back Najee Harris is headed into his sophomore year, and veteran Damien Harris has waited patiently for his turn for major carries. Linebacker Dylan Moses burned his redshirt late in the year to make his highly-anticipated debut, and should anchor another impressive defense.

2. Clemson (2017: 12-2)

QB Kelly Bryant is fending off No. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence but enters the season the starter for Dabo Swinney’s team, a rising dynasty that has gone 82-15 since 2011. Their defense led the nation in sacks and returns all four starters, including the NFL-ready Christian Wilkins and an improving junior in Dexter Lawrence in the interior. If Bryant finds another target to compliment wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and RB Travis Etienne, the offense should return to its 2016 levels.

3. Ohio State (2017: 12-2)

RBs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are the headline-makers on offense, and if QB Dwayne Haskins can provide a breath of fresh air in the wake of JT Barrett’s departure, the Buckeyes should have no problem breezing through most of their schedule. Defensive end Nick Bosa is back, and despite losing cornerback Denzel Ward to the top five of the NFL draft, the level of talent coming to Columbus on a yearly basis should let head coach Urban Meyer rest easy. Road trips to Michigan State and Penn State will decide their College Football Playoff fate.

4. Washington (2017: 10-3)

After Chris Petersen’s team made a Playoff run in 2015, their failure to reach the Pac-12 title game last year had to feel like a bit of a disappointment. That said, QB Jake Browning and 1,000-yard RB Myles Gaskin are back and ready to make another bid at the top four. They’ll have to rebuild a defense that loses NFL-bound defensive tackle Vita Vea, but the Huskies do return five of their top seven tacklers.

5. Georgia (2017: 13-2)

Sophomore QB Jake Fromm is back, but RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are not. The Bulldogs must also replace all four of their starting linebackers (including first-round draft pick Roquan Smith) on defense. However, Kirby Smart’s team does return a standout sophomore in RB D’Andre Swift and their toughest game on the schedule is an SEC title game rematch at home with Auburn.

6. Wisconsin (2017: 10-3)

The Badgers’ defense was third in the S&P+ last season, and returns two of the best defenders in the Big Ten in LB T.J. Edwards and defensive back D’Cota Dixon. If they adequately replace three departing defensive lineman, they may not need QB Alex Hornibrook to make the jump Gary Andersen desires. Sophomore RB Jonathan Taylor is among the conference’s best, and he’ll have his entire offensive line back to run behind.

7. Miami (FL) (2017: 10-3)

It will be interesting to see if the ‘Canes can continue to create turnovers as well as they did in 2017, and there’s a chance that safety Jaquan Johnson and LB Shaq Quarterman can replicate the work of last year’s fabled turnover chain. That said, a regression to the mean could make them slip a bit back towards the second tier of the ACC. QB Malik Rosier will look to bounce back from a four-interception Orange Bowl performance, and is joined by returning RB Travis Homer. Either way, Mark Richt’s program is Back™.

8. Michigan State (2017: 10-3)

QB Brian Lewerke has received a touch of preseason buzz already, and RB LJ Scott’s decision to return to school should make for an improved offense in 2018. Despite losing depth to transfers at RB and WR, the main contributors are all still young and have a chance to break out in 2018. The X-factor for MSU’s offense? If one of Cody White or Darrell Stewart Jr. can make the leap to really complement Felton Davis III at the other receiver spot.

The team returns 19 of 22 starters and 40 of 44 players on the main two-deep depth chart, the most returning production in the nation. Their defense allowed over 100 yards rushing just once last year and their schedule hands them both of their main rivals at home. A dark-horse Playoff contender? They surely are.

9. TCU (2017: 11-3)

The Horned Frogs had one of the quietest 11-win seasons I can remember, though Oklahoma did win convincingly in the Big 12 title game. Gary Patterson is continuing to field strong teams and this year’s vintage features a pair of returning All-Big 12 players in WR KaVontae Turpin and DE Ben Banogu. If first-year starting QB Shawn Robinson settles into a solid receiving corps, a conference title is within reach, though they may only be able to lose one game and still be considered Playoff contenders.

10. UCF (2017: 13-0)

Last year, the Knights had a legitimate gripe with the Playoff committee with relation to their hopes of being the first Group of 5 team to make the field of four. Scott Frost is headed back to his alma mater at Nebraska, so it’ll be up to former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to mold a mostly-intact group in 2018. QB McKenzie Milton is a top-five quarterback across the country, and he returns his backfield partner Adrian Killins. If there are serviceable replacements in the secondary, UCF could come close to another perfect regular season.

11. Stanford (2017: 9-5)

Fellow Spartan Red Zone podcaster Zach Swiecicki loved the Cardinal last season, and I’m beginning to come around, especially with Heisman finalist Bryce Love back in the backfield. Their offense could be the best in the Pac-12, but they face a road trip to Notre Dame and QB K.J. Costello is still recovering from a hip injury suffered late last year.

12. Auburn (2017: 10-4)

QB Jarrett Stidham continued to improve as 2017 went on, but with two receivers injuring ACLs in the spring, there are a few question marks on offense, especially on the line. Last year’s defense was second only to Alabama in the SEC, and they feature playmakers at all three levels including CB Javaris Davis.

13. Oklahoma (2017: 12-2)

The major question with the Sooners, obviously, is how to replace Baker Mayfield at quarterback. There are weapons around the offense in RB Rodney Anderson and WR Marquise Brown, but Kyler Murray’s play will be the determining factor for Lincoln Riley’s second year in Norman. Last year’s defense was the trouble spot, and it’ll be up to newcomers in the secondary to keep opposing offenses at bay.

14. Michigan (2017: 8-5)

Shea Patterson isn’t a Heisman contender just yet, but is a definite upgrade over last year’s much-maligned QB spot. WR Tarik Black showed some early promise before an injury, but it’ll come down to the offensive line that had massive problems last year. Jim Harbaugh’s defenses have been consistently excellent, and 2018’s should be the best in the Big Ten, with DEs Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich rushing the passer. The real key to the defense will be how the secondary can work in tandem with the pass rush.  

15. Notre Dame (2017: 10-3)

The Irish had an excellent start to 2017, but losses to Miami and Stanford late in the regular season placed a touch of pressure back on head coach Brian Kelly. QB Brandon Wimbush is a threat on the ground, but finding someone to replace RB Josh Adams and two top-10 offensive lineman will be Kelly’s biggest question mark. The defense will be solid up front, anchored by LB Drue Tranquill.

16. Penn State (2017: 11-2)

2018 may be a season of hard lessons for James Franklin, as the Nittany Lions lose their entire secondary to graduation, as well as MLB Jason Cabinda. Five-star RB Miles Sanders will be tasked with replacing Saquon Barkley, and while QB Trace McSorley should be the best in the conference, the defense has to replace a lot of production, as well as their offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, headed to…

17. Mississippi State (2017: 9-4)

…the Bulldogs, who return a team ready for the SEC. QB Nick Fitzgerald should turn into one of the conference’s best, and if he finds enough pieces around him, look out. Former Spartan Montez Sweat has found a home in Starkville, and could anchor a different MSU’’s defensive line.

18. Oklahoma State (2017: 10-3)

Mike Gundy’s team is looking for their fourth straight 10-win season, and will have to replace Mason Rudolph at quarterback. There’s no fewer than four names vying for the starting gig heading into the summer, and losing WR James Washington will hurt in terms of explosiveness downfield. Their November may be the toughest in the Big 12: at Baylor, at Oklahoma, West Virginia at home and at TCU to close the regular season.

19. LSU (2017: 9-4)

Ed Orgeron has plenty of talent, but no stars in the making – yet. Sophomore Myles Brennan and junior Justin McMillan are the options at quarterback, though Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow could end up on campus in 2019. The defense should again be a top-20 unit, led by LB Devin White.

20. Kansas State (2017: 8-5)

The Wildcats return a lot of production on offense, and Bill Snyder has multiple QBs to pick from, as well as a solid RB in Alex Barnes and a potential impact WR in Chabastin Taylor. Last year’s defense was a problem, but there are returning options up front.

21. Oregon (2017: 7-6)

QB Justin Herbert will be a vital cog for first-year head coach Mario Cristobal, as the junior is already drawing looks for the 2019 NFL draft. If RB Tony Brooks-James can replicate the production from Royce Freeman, the offense will be fine. Continuing to rebuild the defense is another story. If they can return to adequacy, the Ducks are a Pac-12 sleeper.

22. Boise State (2017: 11-3)

The Broncos will rely on fourth-year QB Brett Rypien to lead the offense, but the defense is where the Mountain West’s top team can make a dent in the top 25. They return their entire defensive line and secondary, including DE Curtis Weaver and CB Tyler Horton.

23. Arizona (2017: 7-6)

QB Khalil Tate should turn in another Heisman finalist-type season, but the defense holds the key for first-year Wildcat Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcat defense was No. 115 of 130 teams in defensive S&P+ last year.

24. Iowa (2017: 8-5)

Replacing CB Josh Jackson will be Kirk Ferentz’s toughest task over the summer, but with the 6-foot-6 Anthony Nelson patrolling the defensive line, the Hawkeyes will be a tough matchup with any of the Big Ten.

25. Virginia Tech (2017: 9-4)

The defense last year was elite behind the play of Tremaine Edmunds at linebacker, but the offense needs to be what steps up in 2018. QB Josh Jackson will head into his second year as the starter, and if the Hokies want a outside shot at the ACC, they’ll have to develop playmakers offensively.

Also considered: Memphis, USC, Florida Atlantic

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