Aside from Alabama, next season will provide an interesting perspective on which team may separate itself from the pack in the Southeastern Conference. While it’s tough to judge the schools that will challenge the Crimson Tide in the SEC, there are a few institutions on par with the Tide that expect to win a national title in the third year of the College Football Playoff.
Despite a devastating one-point loss to Pittsburgh, head coach Dabo Swinney, quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers would go an epic run last season to return to the playoff stage.
After falling 45-40 versus Alabama in the previous championship game meeting, the Tigers evened the score 35-31 at Raymond James Stadium – winning its first title in 35 years. Following the accomplishment, Clemson lost a ton of marquee names to the National Football League – including Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett, Cordrea Tankersley, Carlos Watkins and Ben Boulware. Even with how well Swinney’s recruits, the probability of the Tigers repeating as champs after losing so much is not high.
Michigan, like Clemson, made a New Year’s Six Bowl, but suffered a one-point loss to Florida State to finish its 10-3 season in the Capital One Orange Bowl. An exodus on defense is the reason why the Wolverines won’t return to the playoff, especially with nine of 11 departures coming on that side of the ball.
Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan lost Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Glasgow and Jeremy Clark. Regardless of reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson returning to Louisville, the Cardinals must find continuity on its offensive line before it can start thinking about the playoff. Listed below are the programs that yours truly of TDA Magazine has battling the Tide for a title.
Florida State Seminoles, ACC
Head coach: Jimbo Fisher
2016 record: 10-3
Departures: Dalvin Cook, Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson, DeMarcus Walker
Summary: Florida State may have gotten wacked by Louisville and handed a tough 37-34 loss to Clemson; however, it still posted a 10-win season with a 33-32 victory over No. 6-ranked Michigan in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Head coach Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles lost multiple pieces on offense, including running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Kermit Whitfield and Jesus “Bobo” Wilson – but the experience it has returning is very promising.
Sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois has a prime opportunity to do what former Noles standout and Heisman winner Jameis Winston did in 2013, carry the team to a championship.
After being tested against Ole Miss to start the year, Francois ended 2016 with 3,350 passing yards and 25 total touchdowns to seven interceptions on a 58.8 percent completion rating.
Jacques Patrick returns at running back, following his performance of 350 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 61 carries through 13 games. Should Patrick not win the job, it will be because of five-star Cam Akers.
Akers, a native of Clinton, Miss., was high on Alabama in the 2017 recruiting cycle – prior to signing with Florida State. Wide receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate both caught 20-plus passes and totaled at least 400 yards last season. Although Murray led the duo in receptions (27) and receiving yards (441), Tate carried the edge in touchdowns (six).
Pass rusher DeMarcus Walker is the biggest presence gone on defense.
He was among the team leaders in tackles (68), while anchoring the Seminoles with 21.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. Florida State does bring back its leading tackler in linebacker Matthew Thomas, sack specialists Brian Burns, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi, and lastly, defensive back Tarvarus McFadden – who led the secondary with eight interceptions. The Seminoles open the 2017 season against Alabama in Atlanta, and even if it’s the loser, Florida State would not be out of playoff contention.
Oklahoma Sooners, Big 12
Head coach: Lincoln Riley
2016 record: 11-2
Departures: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Dede Westbrook, Jordan Wade, Jordan Evans, Ahmad Thomas
Summary: Disciplining a returning starter at quarterback is usually not the first thing on the list for a new head coach, but it was on Lincoln Riley’s list concerning Baker Mayfield.
He won’t face any jail time and after he completes his hours of community service, the senior will not be suspended either. Riley takes over for a legend in Bob Stoops, who retired from Oklahoma after 18 years with the program. He mentored Heisman finalists in both Mayfield (3,695 passing yards, 46 touchdowns) and receiver Dede Westbrook (1,524 yards, 17 scores).
Losing both Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon hurts the Sooners in the rushing department, but it returns Abdul Adams and Dimitri Flowers. Oklahoma signed four-stars Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks in its 2017 class.
Westbrook was Mayfield’s favorite target in 2016, yet the program brings back Mark Andrews (489 yards, seven scores), Jeffrey Mead and Nick Basquine. Before Stoops left, the Sooners notched its first top-10 signing class in quite some time. With having 18 four-stars, the class was No. 8 nationally and first in the Big 12.
Defensively, the Big 12 powerhouse lost Jordan Evans (98 TKLs, 10 TFLs, four interceptions), Jordan Wade and Ahmad Thomas. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is back as the school’s leading man in tackles for loss (12), sacks (nine) and quarterback pressures with seven. Having Tom Herman at Texas does make the conference better, but Oklahoma has taken ownership of the Big 12 as of late. After beating Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, Riley would like nothing more than to open his head coaching career with a national championship trophy.
Ohio State, Big Ten
Head coach: Urban Meyer
2016 record: 11-2
Departures: Raekwon McMillian, Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley
Summary: Ohio State was not supposed to have been as good as it was last season, but somehow under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes found itself back on the playoff stage.
Retooling the defensive secondary will be job No. 1 for coach Greg Schiano heading into the coming fall. Ohio State lost 15 interceptions, 242 return yards and four touchdowns with Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley all in the National Football League.
Finding a voice at linebacker for the departed Raekwon McMillian is also important. He led the team in tackles (102) and carried seven tackles for loss with two sacks. While Damon Webb is the lone returning starter in the secondary, the Buckyes will get Jerome Baker, Chris Wormley, Tyquan Lewis (10.5 TFLs, eight sacks) and Nick Bosa (seven TFLs, five sacks) back on roster.
Offensively, quarterback J.T. Barrett returns to guide a very talented group. He’s coming off a season in which he tossed for 2,555 passing yards and totaled 33 touchdowns to seven picks.
Sophomore running back Mike Weber looks to build off a 1,000-yard season (1,096 yards, nine scores), and sophomore receiver Noah Brown leads all returners with 402 yards and seven touchdowns.
Southern California, Pac-12
Head coach: Clay Helton
2016 record: 10-3
Departures: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, Justin Davis, Michael Hutchings, Adoree Jackson
Summary: USC head coach Clay Helton would start his debut as the Trojans man at 1-3, but quickly turned things around – winning the next nine games to deliver USC to a 10-3 season.
Switching out Maxx Browne for Sam Darnold at quarterback ignited a spark. University of Southern California has had its fair share of great quarterback, including Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez and Cody Kessler, but Darnold’s arm talent, accuracy and leadership can potentially land him as the best ever for the men of Troy.
The redshirt sophomore threw for 3,086 passing yards and 31 touchdowns on a 67.2 percent completion rating, and he’s back for more. Running back Ronald Jones II will accompany Darnold in the backfield, as he returns after posting 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Despite losing its top two receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell, Jr., both are back for USC. Burnett hauled in 56 catches for 622 receiving yards and seven touchdowns through 13 games last season. Linebacker Michael Hutchings and defensive back Adoree Jackson were two critical loses for the Trojans on the defensive side.
Linebacker Cameron Smith, who led the team in tackles in 2016 (83), returns on defense with defensive linemen Porter Gustin (13 TFLs, team-high) and Rasheem Green (six sacks).
No matter the improvements that Washington, Colorado and others in the Pac-12 are making, Helton and the Trojans remain the team to beat in the conference.
Penn State Nittany Lions