Which teams are in the early running for the 2017-18 College Football Playoff?
We’re not even 48 hours removed from the moment Clemson players hoisted the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy, but it’s already time to look ahead to 2017-18.
Can Clemson repeat? Will Alabama maintain its stranglehold over the SEC? Will teams like Oklahoma, USC and Penn State carry their late-season momentum into the new year?
It’s way too early to answer definitively, but here’s a look at some of the top contenders for next year's CFP:
The Crimson Tide have a rising sophomore phenom at quarterback, a breakout star running back, an always-reliable elite defense and Nick Saban at the helm.
Yeah, Alabama’s in good shape, even after falling just short in its quest for a 15-0 record and a second-straight national title this year.
The Tide will be without graduating seniors Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen on the defensive side, among others, but that hasn’t stopped Alabama from churning out new defensive stalwarts before.
Meanwhile, the offense returns possible Heisman hopefuls Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough along with top receiver Calvin Ridley to make a formidable attack.
It was a down year across the board for the SEC below Alabama in 2016. While that probably won’t be the case again in 2017, the Tide is still the cream of the crop.
Sooners fans can rejoice in the fact that quarterback Baker Mayfield has already announced he will return to Norman for his senior year.
Now the challenge will be to find a new top target for him to throw to, as Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook prepares for graduation. Then there’s also replacing 2,334 yards out of the backfield from running back departees Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Nonetheless, Oklahoma was arguably the hottest team down the stretch with 10 straight wins to close out the season after starting off 1-2. One of those losses came to Ohio State in Norman.
The Sooners will get a shot at revenge this season in Columbus on Sept. 9. Can Oklahoma learn from its mistakes and pick up an early statement win this time around?
The Big 12 was the one Power Five conference left out of the CFP party in 2016. But with Mayfield the man under center, a return may be imminent.
Sam Darnold is the real deal at quarterback. The true freshman proved that in a Rose Bowl duel for the century against Penn State where he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns in a last-second win.
Like Oklahoma, the Trojans closed out 2016 with 10 straight wins, all coming after Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup. It’s fun to imagine what he can do now with a full season on deck. Even without top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster coming back, he’ll have a lot to work with.
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On defense, having Adoree’ Jackson return for his senior season as a top cover guy and elite returner would be a major plus. He hasn’t announced if he’s heading for the NFL Draft yet.
But either way, this may finally be the year that USC returns to power within the Pac-12.
Speaking of freshman quarterback stars, expect more big things from the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois. He played with a veteran presence under center and unparalleled toughness in his first FSU campaign, which ended with an Orange Bowl win over Michigan.
Francois has enough young talent around him on offense to help him develop further -- even with the loss of the program’s all-time leading rusher Dalvin Cook -- and the majority of starters on defense will be back for the Seminoles.
However, its early season schedule doesn’t do any favors as it immediately pits the Seminoles in a possible top five matchup with Alabama at a neutral site in Atlanta. Week 1 won’t make or break a season, but 0-1 is still a tough pill for a Playoff contender to swallow.
For the second straight year, the Buckeyes will cope with major losses on both sides of the ball. And for the second straight year, they’ll try to brush aside the doubts that come with that to make it to the Playoff.
First and foremost, J.T. Barrett will be back under center for his senior season. And while he tries to shake off his subpar performance in Clemson’s 31-0 beatdown over the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, his experience is unmatched among other CFP contenders and their quarterback situations.
Urban Meyer still hasn’t lost to Michigan since taking over in Columbus, and his team should never be counted out when it comes to the Big Ten race.
At the time in October, Penn State’s thrilling victory over Ohio State could’ve been seen as a fluke. But not anymore.
Playoff hopes have returned to Happy Valley after a remarkable 2016 season that almost ended with that aforementioned Rose Bowl title. With the duo of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley returning to an experienced offense now in 2017, a second-straight Big Ten title is squarely in the picture.
With that said, there is room for improvement. Its defense will have to step up with some losses on the front line and its offense must avoid slow starts like those that held back PSU in a number of games in 2016, including the Rose Bowl.
But the Nittany Lions’ revival should continue as they try to make their first CFP.
Coach Chris Petersen and the Huskies were probably a year ahead of schedule in 2016, as seen in the Peach Bowl when they were simply overmatched by Alabama.
Now it’ll be intriguing to see how Jake Browning continues to develop in his third season under center with tailback Myles Gaskin joining him. On defense, UW faces uncertainty in its once-strong secondary with the departures of Sydney Jones and Budda Baker.
While the Huskies’ offense should theoretically grow in 2017, its defensive play against some top Pac-12 offenses must be sound despite these big losses then some.
Still, Washington should head into the new year as North favorites. Wouldn’t a conference title game between USC and Washington be fun?
The Tigers played inspired behind Ed Orgeron after he was elevated to the role as interim head coach. Now that the interim tag has been removed, there’s reason to believe LSU will be the darkhorse SEC contender to rival Alabama.
LSU went 6-2 down the stretch, came the closest to beating Alabama in the regular season in a 10-0 loss and stifled Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville in the Citrus Bowl.
David Guice emerged as a top-tier running back in Leonard Fournette’s absence and should carry the burden of LSU’s offense next year as Danny Etling looks to establish himself as a formidable option at quarterback.
LSU should open the year in the middle of the pack in the rankings and can easily rise as long as its passing offense doesn’t sputter. From there, save this date: Saturday, Nov. 4; LSU vs. Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Michigan football is back, largely thanks to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor two years ago.
However, there will be a sizable mountain to climb to reach the CFP summit with 10 of 11 defensive starters departing, including do-it-all weapon Jabrill Peppers.
Let’s not discount Michigan’s depth and incoming reinforcements though. Bitter rival Ohio State just went through a similar roster overhaul this past season and still made it to the CFP semifinals.
With a healthy Wilton Speight at quarterback and a young but talented corps, Michigan will still have a shot at its first conference title in more than a decade. But first, it will likely have to get over its rivalry game rut and best the Buckeyes for the first time since 2011.
It’s impossible to overlook the losses Clemson faces following its national title run this season – the biggest of which is two-time Davey O’Brien Award winner Deshaun Watson.
Sophomore quarterback Kelly Bryant will likely enter the fold with a hefty set of options still left to throw to, so Clemson’s offense shouldn’t fall too far behind under the direction of Dabo Swinney.
But look for the defense to shine even brighter in 2017 with plenty of experience on the defensive line. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence (15.5 combined sacks in 2016) all return to give opposing quarterbacks nightmares.
It’s hard to repeat – we just saw that with Alabama. But as far as simply getting back to the CFP goes, Clemson is a prime contender out of the ACC.
Of course, preseason expectations mean very little when positional battles haven’t been sorted out and the next crop of future stars haven’t even touched the field yet. But it’s fun to speculate.
There’s only 201 days until kickoff of the 2017 season, but who's counting.