The college football countdown continues! This week is my Top 20
August 29, 2017 3:01 AM
by Jim Feist
The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week is my Top 20. The season is underway, so here’s a peak at college football’s best.
20 Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin is a great recruiter and has talent, though there is a lot of inexperience. This offense (34.8 ppg) was No. 34 in the nation in scoring with over 211 yards rushing and passing per game. Senior Jake Hubenak (6 TDs, 2 picks) saw some time and will be pressed by freshmen QBs Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. They have a reliable target in WR Christian Kirk (83 catches, 928 yards) and a speedy group of freshmen.
Sophomore RB Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards) provides balance while DC Jon Chavis has some talented young personnel to work in. The LB corps is solid behind Otaro Alaka, Richard Moore and Cullen Gillaspia. They only have four true road games and get Bama at home Oct. 7.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team has the chance to make some noise with nine starters back on offense, seven on defense. The offense averaged 245 yards passing and returns junior QB Clayton Thorson (22 TDs, 9 INTs), senior RB Justin Jackson (1,524 yds) and four O-line starters. The defense was 23rd in the nation in points (22.1 pg) and brings back LB Nate Hall (73 tackles) plus a strong secondary (16 picks) behind junior CB Montre Hartage, safety Jared McGee and senior safety Godwin Igwebuike. The Wildcats should be 3-0 before a Week 4 battle at Wisconsin, then get Penn State at home in Week 5.
In a retooling year the Cardinal won 10 games. Coach David Shaw lost Christian McCaffrey to the NFL, but returns RB Bryce Love (779 yds) who averaged 7 ypc, along with senior QB Keller Chryst (10 TDs, 2 INTs). Chryst suffered a knee injury in the bowl game, so QB Ryan Burns (1,151 yds) is available. The defense was No. 17 allowing 20.2 points. Week 2 is a huge showdown at USC, a 27-10 win last year. Stanford hosts Washington in a revenge game the Cardinal lost 44-6.
The Longhorns are off a 5-7 campaign but hopes are high for a turnaround under new coach Tom Herman with nine starters back on offense and defense. This offense was very good, averaging 31.9 points, 252 yards passing and 239.3 rushing (No. 17). Sophomore QB Shane Buechele (21 TDs, 11 INT) has a deep group of wideouts to work with and balance with RB Chris Warren (5.9 ypc) back from a knee injury. A late season trip to USC won’t be easy, but they get K-State and Oklahoma State in Austin.
The Huskies won 12 games for the first time since the 1991 national title season. The offense was eighth in the nation in points (41.8 pg) and returns QB Jake Browning (43 TDs, 9 INTs) along with RB Myles Gaskin (1,373 yds). Washington’s under-the-radar defense was basic, but allowed just 17.2 ppg (No. 8 nationally). The secondary lost its top talent. Road games at Stanford and Colorado will be big tests.
Coach Paul Chryst has seven starters back on both sides of the line. Sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook (9 TDs, 7 INTs, 1,262 yds) is back along with four O-line starters to a ground attack that averaged 203 ypg. The defense allowed 15.5 ppg (4th) and is loaded at linebacker.. Wisconsin has been great at home, 81-11 SU, 50-35-1 ATS the last 13 years.
The Gators have a terrific coach in Jim McElwain, off a 9-4 season, winning the SEC East and ripping Iowa in a bowl, 30-3. QB Luke Del Rio (8 TDs, 8 INTs) is back but battled injuries, so Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney are in the mix. The O-line was weak but should improve with four starters back. The defense is always a strength. The opener will be a big challenge against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Texas but they get LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State at the Swamp.
13 Kansas State
The Wildcats overachieved again under outstanding coach Bill Snyder, off a 9-4 campaign. The offense averaged 32.2 points, 231.8 yards rushing and returns four O-line starters and leading rusher senior QB Jesse Ertz (9 TD, 4 INTs) 1,012 yards rushing. The ground game also sports soph RB Alex Barnes (442 yds, 7.9 ypc) and junior Justin Silmon (464, 5.4), while the defense is loaded after allowing 21.8 ppg. Kansas State is on a 37-27-1 ATS run.
Les Miles is gone but he left the cupboard full for Ed Orgeron. QB Danny Etling (11 TDs, 5 INTs) gets the full time job and new OC Matt Canada intends to keep the offense multiple. Junior RB Derrius Grice (1,387 yds, 7.6 ypc) was more productive than Leonard Fournette and four O-line starters return. The defense lost key personnel at LB but the Tigers always reload. And LSU is again loaded in the secondary, especially at corner and nickel. They’ll probably start 5-0 before a showdown in the Swamp at Florida.
11 Notre Dame
The Irish 4-8! When did Gerry Faust return? Notre Dame QBs threw for 27 TDs, 9 picks, yet the Irish stumbled through an astonishingly bad campaign. But that was last year and Brian Kelly’s team is primed for a bounce back behind dual threat soph QB Brandon Wimbush and junior RB Josh Adama (933 yds, 5.9 ypc). Seven of their eight losses came by one possession or fewer. The schedule helps, getting USC at home with road games at rebuilding BC, Michigan State, North Carolina and Miami.
The defending champion Tigers lost their ace QB to the NFL, but return a ton of speed on defense. Soph QB Kelly Bryant knows the system and saw a little time last year, while duel-threat Zerrick Cooper is in the mix. Speedy WR Deon Cain (724 yards) is back along with Hunter Renfrow (495) to keep the passing attack rolling. The defense was No. 12 in the nation, allowing 18.4 ppg, and has a dominant front line anchored by Dexter Lawrence and Al Huggins, while the secondary is strong. The Tigers have challenging road games against Louisville and Virginia Tech, plus home showdowns with Auburn and Florida State. Don’t forget, Clemson didn’t run the table last season, losing at home to Pitt (43-42) as 22-point chalk, along with close wins over Auburn (19-13), V-Tech (42-35), Louisville (42-36), FSU (37-34), Alabama (35-31) and even Troy (30-24).
Hopes are sky-high for the Trojans and young coach Clay Helton. Soph QB Sam Darnold (31 TDs, 9 INTs) dazzled as a freshman and junior RB Ron Jones II returns after averaging 6.1 ypc. Soph 6-4 Michael Pittman anchors a deep group of wideouts alongside Deontay Burnett (622 yds) and Steven Mitchell. The offense averaged 34.4 points and over 200 yards rushing and passing. Instead of opening against Alabama like last year the Trojans host Western Michigan, then get rival Stanford in Week 2 at home.
Mighty Michigan is off a 10-3 campaign but loses 17 starters. The defense is strong and senior 6-6 QB Wilton Speight (18 TDs, 7 INTs) returns to a unit that averaged 40.3 points (11th), 213 yards passing and 212 rushing. Michigan brought in five WRs in the latest recruiting class, including five-star prospect Donovan Peoples-Jones, the highest-rated recruit of the group. The defense allowed 12.5 ppg (No, 2 in the nation) and is strong up front. Michigan is 25-28 SU/22-31 ATS its last 53 road games.
7 Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy’s up-tempo offense returns senior QB Mason Rudolph (28 TDs, 4 INTs, 4,091 yards) and soph RB Justice Hill (1,142 yards, 5.5). The Cowboys averaged 38.6 points, 324 yards passing (No. 9), and return one of the best WR corps in the country led by senior WR James Washington (1,380 yds, 19.4 ypc), junior Jalen McCleskey (812) and Chris Lacy (489).
The Cowboys also welcome back Marcell Ateman (766 receiving yards in 2015) who had a foot injury last season, along with LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. Defense is the main concern, allowing 204 yards rushing per contest and losing its top two run-stuffers. OSU gets Oklahoma and Baylor at home and has had 10 wins in 5 of the last 7 years.
The Bulldogs are off an 8-5 SU/6-7 ATS campaign under first-year coach Kirby Smart. QB Jacob Eason (16 TDs, 8 INTs) returns along with super-back senior Nick Chubb (1,130 yds). They are retooling the O-line, something to watch in September.The defense allowed 24 ppg, No. 16 in yards allowed and returns 10 starters. UGA piled up 29 sacks and looks even better. A week 2 battle at Notre Dame is a good early season challenge and the only tough conference road games are at Tennessee and Auburn.
5 Penn State
The Lions exploded behind a pair of super sophs, winning the Big 10 title in 2016. The offense returns a pair of Heisman contenders in junior QB Trace McSorley (29 TDs, 8 INTs) and RB Saquon Barkley (1,496 yards, 5.5 ypc, 18 TDs). Penn State averaged 37.6 ppg under OC Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo attack and has eight starters returning on both sides of the line for Coach James Franklin.The defense allowed 23.4 ppg and has fine LBs in Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen. The secondary suffered a tough blow with the loss of CB John Reid, who may miss the season. The Nittany Lions look real good, but allowed 47.7 ppg in losses to Pitt, Michigan and USC.
4 Ohio State
The Buckeyes are stacked on offense with senior QB J.T. Barrett (24 TDs, 7 INTs), who ran for 845 yards, and soph RB Demario McCall, along with four O-linemen. The Buckeyes average over 213 yards rushing and passing plus their 39.4 ppg ranked 13th in the nation. The defense was third, allowing 14.2 ppg, and is loaded with elite pass rushers in junior Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes plus senior Tyquan Lewis.
Ohio State is on a 33-22 run OVER the total, plus 17-2 SU/12-6 ATS on the road under Urban Meyer. They have a showdown with Oklahoma on Sept. 9, and a revenge home game against Penn State, but end the season at Michigan.
New coach Lincoln Riley replaces Bob Stoops who stepped aside after 18 seasons at OU. The Sooners have seven starters back on both sides of the ball on a loaded team that went 9-0 in the Big 12. Senior QB Baker Mayfield (40 TDs, 8 INTs, 3,965 yds, 71%) is back along with the entire O-line on a unit that averaged 43.9 points, 318 yards passing and 236.8 rushing.
Some new WRs step in but they look good in speedy JC transfer Marquise Brown and Jeff Badet, who led the SEC with 21.6 ypc last year at Kentucky.
The defense struggled early but got better down the stretch, utilizing five DBs most of the time. Oklahoma is moving from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 to generate more QB pressure. The Sooners are on a 35-27-1 run OVER the total.
The Crimson Tide are still smarting from losing only one game last season – on the last play against Clemson for the national title. But ‘Bama has great balance on offense, averaging 38.8 points, 210 yards passing and 245 rushing for soph QB Jalen Hurts (23 TDs, 9 INTs). Hurts ran for 954 yards, and teams with junior RBs Damien Harris (1040 yds, 7.2 ypc) and Bo Scarbrough (812), plus junior WR Calvin Ridley.
Four starters are back on the O-line, while the defense has five starters back for a unit that ranked No. 1 in points allowed (11.8 ppg). The LB corps has some new looks while the secondary is strong at safety, though they got torched by Clemson and gave up 43 points to Ole Miss. Road games at Texas A&M and rival Auburn will be the biggest tests.
1 Florida State
Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles finished third in the ACC but are loaded for 2017. They won their final five games, including a 33-32 Orange Bowl victory over Michigan. QB Deondre Francois (20 TDs, 7 INTs) was the ACC Rookie of the Year, while the backfield sports junior Jacques Patrick (5.7 ypc) and speedy Amir Rasul. This offense averaged over 200 yards rushing/passing and is just as potent.
While the ACC lost a lot of top defensive talent to the NFL, the Noles return nine starters. DEs Josh Sweat and Brian Burns (9.5 sacks to lead freshmen in the nation) team with DT Derrick Nnadi to form a strong line. Super safety Derwin James is back after missing last season (knee).
Opening against Alabama is a big challenge, but FSU gets defending champ Clemson working in a new QB.