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The 2017 season is over. The Alabama Crimson Tide earned their place as national champions thanks to Tua Tagovailoa’s improbable showing in a thrilling 26-23 overtime victory over the Georgia Bulldogs.
Who’s ready for 2018?
Bleacher Report’s college football staff certainly is. Four writers—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller and Brad Shepard—submitted ballots. A first-place vote landed 25 points, and the sequence continued to one point for the No. 25 slot.
First, the qualifier: NFL draft declarations, transfers, injuries and suspensions are going to affect the outlook of many programs. It is indeed way too early to view B/R’s Top 25 as a final determination on what will happen next season.
So, consider this an initial expectation list. The perception of a team’s performance in 2018 may eventually reflect how it performed in comparison to rankings like this.
2. Ohio State
10. Penn State
13. Notre Dame
14. West Virginia
15. Michigan State
16. South Carolina
17. Florida State
22. Virginia Tech
24. Florida Atlantic
Biggest leap forward: Michigan Wolverines
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The 2017 season was a considerable disappointment for Michigan, which lacked an offensive identity en route to an 8-5 record. By no means is head coach Jim Harbaugh on the hot seat, but he must address some difficult questions this offseason.
“This is a really gifted roster with a lot of youth and promise on both sides of the ball,” B/R’s Adam Kramer said. “But this missing piece, as has been the case since Harbaugh arrived, has been quarterback.”
Fortunately for the Wolverines, that enormous void has an answer in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson.
In mid-December, ESPN.com’s Dan Murphy reported Harbaugh was unsure of whether Patterson will be granted immediate eligibility. That decision from the NCAA will determine the ceiling of Michigan’s season.
“This is still a team with Top 10 talent regardless of whether he’s eligible,” Kramer said. “But he changes the outlook a great deal, and I think his potential alone impacts the larger question: Can Michigan win a national title?”
Biggest drop-off: Central Florida Knights
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As the conversation lingers about whether the undefeated UCF Knights deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff, the future of the program is both promising and unsettled.
“This team was 0-12 the year before Scott Frost took over, and he turned them into an undefeated ‘national champion’ in just two seasons,” B/R’s Kerry Miller said. “Can Josh Heupel possibly maintain that level of excellence as a first-time head coach?”
Quarterback McKenzie Milton will return to lead an offense that finished 2017 atop the nation in points per game. Heupel oversaw several high-powered scoring attacks in his time as a coordinator at Missouri and Oklahoma, and he’ll avoid Memphis and Houston in AAC crossover games during his debut, too.
On the other hand, Frost took all of his assistants along to Nebraska. As encouraging as Heupel is, nobody can know for certain how UCF’s revamped coaching staff will affect the roster.
Plus, the defense will need to replace four key members of the front seven as well as two primary offensive threats, as Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins have already declared for the NFL draft. Cornerback Mike Hughes likely will join them.
UCF should remain competitive in the AAC, but after seeing how the committee hasn’t valued perfection from Group of Five teams over the last two years—fair or not—even a 10-2 record wouldn’t turn heads.
Keep an eye on: Florida Atlantic Owls
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The battle for Group of Five supremacy may take place Saturday, Sep. 22, when UCF hosts Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic.
Kiffin helped the Owls tear through the 2017 campaign, collecting more wins than the program had in the previous three years combined. Following three consecutive 3-9 seasons, FAU finished 11-3 and won the first Conference USA title in program history.
And the roster remains mostly intact.
Running back Devin Singletary, who accounted for 33 touchdowns this season, will be a junior. Quarterback Jason Driskel completed 66.5 percent of his passes, collected 2,674 yards of total offense and only threw four interceptions. Willie Wright led the Owls with 56 receptions as a freshman.
On defense, Azeez Al-Shaair ranked third nationally with 147 tackles and notched 10.5 stops for loss.. Rashad Smith, Leighton McCarthy and Hunter Snyder, none of whom are seniors, each had at least eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage as well.
FAU will be a popular pick as the Group of Five’s potential representative in a New Year’s Six bowl.
New faces in new places: Florida State Seminoles
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Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M, and Florida State’s disappointing, frustrating 7-6 season is finally in the rearview mirror. The ‘Noles are looking forward to the beginning of the Willie Taggart era.
If he has a quarterback, FSU could rebound just about as quickly as it fell.
Deondre Francois has NFL talent, but the redshirt sophomore has given no indication he will leave for the pros despite missing the majority of the 2017 season.
Taggart will implement a new offensive style and tempo, and that transition may not be seamless. No program should expect a national championship, anyway.
Still, this roster has plenty of talent. Even after the early NFL declarations of Derwin James, Josh Sweat and Auden Tate, Taggart has the pieces to succeed in 2018. There’s no shortage of respect for the ‘Noles here.
Catching and staying with Clemson will be more than a one-year process, but Florida State shouldn’t need much time to surge under T