Less than two months remain before the start of the college football season. This season, college football has a soft opening of sorts, with a few games beginning on Saturday, August 26. The majority of teams start their season between August 31-September 2. The preseason top 25 polls will not be released until late-August.
You’ll notice our top ten list is full of the usual suspects. Alabama enters the season armed with the number one ranked recruiting class and talented young quarterback Jalen Hurts. Fresh off their championship season, Clemson is full of talent in the trenches, but questions remain on how the Tigers will replace Deshaun Watson.
After years of enduring cruel jokes, the Big Ten has three teams ranked inside Heavy’s top ten with a good chance to be the best conference in the country.
Out West, Washington and USC are expected to fight for the Pac-12. Both teams also look poised to be in contention for the College Football Playoff.
While Heavy will release our preseason top 25 rankings closer to the season, let’s take a look at the top teams heading into the fall. The returning starters data for each team comes courtesy of Phil Steele’s annual preview. Here’s Heavy’s college football power rankings for the top ten teams.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
We know, we’re going out on a limb with this pick. Here’s why it is difficult to talk yourself out of giving Alabama the top spot. In an uncharacteristic move, Nick Saban went with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts last season, and still made the national championship game. Hurts enters this season with a year of experience under his belt, and has a number of key receivers returning including Calvin Ridley.
Alabama has 11 returning starters, which by their own standards is not as bad as some years. The Crimson Tide have a history of replacing NFL talent with more pro-level talent. This year should be no different. Alabama gets an early test to start the season against Florida State in Atlanta. It could be a matchup featuring the top two teams in the preseason polls.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
Last year, the Buckeyes entered the season with skepticism since Ohio State had so many new faces. This year, Ohio State returns 15 starters making them one of the most experienced squads in the Big Ten. The Big Ten was once one of the shallower conferences in the country, but became arguably the best conference in college football last season.
In addition to being tested inside their own conference, Ohio State faces Oklahoma the second game of the season. The big question heading into the season is whether quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes can have a truly lethal offense.
No. 3 Florida State Seminoles
An argument can be made for the Seminoles to be higher or lower inside the top five. Here’s what we like about Florida State. Deondre Francois had a solid freshman season at quarterback for the Seminoles. Francois threw for 3,350 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Francois showed promise last season, and it is reasonable to expect him to play even better during 2017.
Florida State is also slated to have one of the best defenses in the country. The Seminoles have nine of eleven defensive starters returning, with a total of 15 returning starters on both sides of the ball. The Seminoles window to overtake Clemson once again in the ACC could be this season.
No. 4 USC Trojans
We get it. The USC hype machine is always running overtime in the off-season. However, there is reason to believe in the Trojans this season. After losing three of their first four games, USC rattled off nine straight wins, including an impressive performance at Washington. The Trojans started trending up after switching to quarterback Sam Darnold.
USC not only found their quarterback, but a signal caller that is likely to be one of the first selections in the 2018 NFL Draft. While the season is full of surprises, USC and Washington should be the class of the Pac-12. Expect the USC offense to be prolific with Darnold under center, and top running back Ronald Jones II giving Pac-12 defenses fits.
No. 5 Washington Huskies
It is a difficult decision choosing who to rank higher between USC and Washington. USC gets the edge given their dominant performance last season on the road against Washington. The only chance of a rematch this season would be if both teams advance to the Pac-12 championship.
Jake Browning played through a shoulder injury last year, and his play took a dip to close out the season. It will be worth watching how Browning performs in 2017 after shoulder surgery. The Huskies return 13 starters from the team that made the College Football Playoff a season ago.
The month of November will decide the season for Washington as they face Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State.
No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions
Some might be surprised to see Penn State ahead of Michigan. With the Wolverines lack of experience, we think Penn State is the safer bet. Penn State returns 15 starters giving them an advantage in the Big Ten.
It is hard to find a better duo than Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards, 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2016. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns while being one of the quickest backs in college football.
Penn State has a good chance to start the season undefeated. They hit a challenging stretch in late October when they play Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. If they can survive that gauntlet, Penn State puts themselves in the College Football Playoff conversation.
No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners get bumped down just a bit with the retirement of Bob Stoops. Oklahoma seems in capable hands under Lincoln Riley, but switching coaches with just a few months to go before the season is less than ideal.
Oklahoma fans are hoping for a seamless transition as Riley can lean on one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield. Lincoln is helped by the fact the Sooners return 16 starters, including nine of 11 on offense. Oklahoma has a big test early as they visit Ohio State during Week 2.
No. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys
There’s a chance we were a year early on Oklahoma State. We projected them to be one of the top teams last year. They disappointed us, then won seven straight games before losing Bedlam. Why put faith in them again?
With Mason Rudolph entering his final season, the Pokes have one of the best quarterbacks in college football. Oklahoma State’s offense projects to be one of the most explosive in the country. Rudolph has playmaker James Washington to throw to as the Cowboys look to compete with the Sooners in the Big 12. Oklahoma State returns 12 starters, but their success depends on how good their defense can be this season.
No. 9 Clemson Tigers
Clemson is strongest on the offensive and defensive lines where games are won or lost. However, the Tigers have a Deshaun Watson size hole to fill, and it looks like Kelly Bryant will be the quarterback who leads the Tigers. The start of the season could play out just how Dabo Swinney likes it. No coach plays the “disrespect card” better than Swinney, and this season he might have a point.
Despite being the defending champions, most are picking Florida State over Clemson in the ACC in preseason publications. Clemson would be higher on our list, but the uncertainty at quarterback drops them down a few spots.
No. 10 Michigan Wolverines
Jim Harbaugh has had no problem bringing talent to Ann Arbor. The challenge is the same talent tends to head to the NFL. Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the country with just one returning starter on defense and five starters overall. Can they have the kind of season their enemies in Columbus had last season?
Ohio State was able to make the College Football Playoff last season despite losing most of their starters. Michigan fans might cringe at the comparison, but they will take the results. Michigan does get quarterback Wilton Speight back, who had a great season after finally winning the job.