Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins sacks Miami (Fla.) quarterback Malik Rosier during the ACC championship game in 2017.
Photo: File
Photo: File

The Top 25: Clemson is No. 1, Bama No. 2, UGA No. 3

In presenting our annual Top 25, we note what should be obvious: The top five teams listed below were the top five teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings last year. This isn’t a sport where interlopers interlope. Of the 16 bids extended over the CFP’s four-year history, 11 have been taken by four schools, all four of which are in our top five. As nice as it might be to see a Central Florida crack the field, it’s not apt to happen soon – if ever. 

1. Clemson 

Last season: 12-2 (7-1 ACC); lost to Alabama in CFP semifinal. 

Schedule: Testing in spots. The Sept. 8 date with Texas A&M in College Station has upset potential. There’s also a Sept. 23 game at Georgia Tech and an Oct. 27 meeting with Florida State in Tallahassee. 

Name to know: Christian Wilkins. He rose to prominence in the 2015 Orange Bowl semifinal against Oklahoma. With the Tigers trailing 7-3, Wilkins – a defensive lineman – caught a pass off a fake punt. Galvanized, Clemson won in a rout. Today he’s the anchor of the nation’s best defensive line. The Tigers have had big-time offensive players under Dabo Swinney – most notably Deshaun Watson – but the defense under coordinator Brent Venables is this mighty program’s bedrock. 

2. Alabama 

Last season: 14-1 (7-1 SEC); beat Georgia in CFP final. 

Schedule: Bordering on ridiculous. Bama has only three real chances to lose, and two of those games – against Texas A&M and Auburn – will be played in Tuscaloosa. Non-conference opponents: Louisville without Lamar Jackson, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and The Citadel. If Alabama doesn’t go 12-0, the absence of quality wins could loom large. 

Name to know: Jaylen Hurts. He’s 26-2 as a starting quarterback. It’s widely believed that Nick Saban will eventually settle on Tua Tagovailoa, who saved the Crimson Tide against Georgia in the title tilt, as Bama’s No. 1. Should that happen, Hurts’ reaction will be fascinating. Will he leave in a huff? Will he stay but grouse? In the history of college football, has there ever been a more riveting QB competition? (Answer: no.) 

3. Georgia 

Last season: 13-2 (7-1 SEC); lost to Alabama in CFP final. 

Schedule: Almost as bad as Bama’s. Non-conference games: Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass and Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs will face only two teams ranked in USA Today’s preseason Top 25 – LSU there and Auburn in Athens. If Georgia passes its Sept. 8 test against South Carolina in Columbia, an unbeaten regular season wouldn’t be a reach. 

Name to know: Justin Fields. He’s the most talented quarterback Georgia has signed since Matthew Stafford. He’s also a dual-threat, which means he could serve as a complement to sophomore incumbent Jake Fromm, who’s more a pocket passer. But the whispers in Athens – with Kirby Smart, there’s never anything above a whisper – hold that the Georgia staff is intrigued by Fields’ potential to put constant pressure on a defense. 

4. Oklahoma 

Last season: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12); lost to Georgia in CFP semifinal. 

Schedule: Not at all flimsy. The first two games are intriguing – against the Florida Atlantic of Lane Kiffin and the UCLA of Chip Kelly. Beyond that, there’s the usual Big 12 grind. Road dates with TCU and West Virginia could be dicey, and the Red River Shootout in Dallas is never easy. 

Name to know: Kyler Murray. Considered one of the greatest high school athletes in Texas annals, he spurned a baseball contract to sign with Texas A&M. He started a few games as a freshman, then threw some interceptions and, as was the case with post-Manziel A&M QBs, up and left. Having served as Baker Mayfield’s understudy last season, Murray is again ready for his close-up. The thought of his run/pass skills in Lincoln Riley’s offense is most intriguing. 

5. Ohio State 

Last season: 13-1 (7-1 Big Ten); beat USC in Cotton Bowl. 

Schedule: Just tough enough. A Sept. 15 date against TCU in Arlington, Texas, is tantalizing. Penn State and Michigan State must be met on the road. Nebraska and Michigan come to Columbus. That said, it’s hard to see the Buckeyes losing more than once. 

Name to know: Urban Meyer. The nation’s second-best coach was placed on administrative leave in lieu of his handling of alleged domestic abuse against former assistant Zach Smith, whom Meyer fired in July. After a two-week investigation and a 11-hour board of trustees meeting Wednesday, Meyer was suspended for the Buckeyes’ first three games. The first two are against Oregon State and Rutgers. The third is against TCU.

6. Washington 

Last season: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12); lost to Penn State in Fiesta Bowl. 

Schedule: Starts with a bang. The Huskies face Auburn in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 1. The loser will be facing an uphill slog to reach the playoff; the winner will get a massive bounce. Other non-league games: North Dakota and BYU, with the latter coming off a 10-loss season. Washington also misses Stanford and USC in regular-season play. 

Name to know: Jake Browning. He steered U-Dub to the CFP semifinal against Alabama two years ago, and he’s still around. He’s not a top-shelf pro prospect. His touchdown passes slipped from 43 (a Pac-12 record) in 2016 to 19 last year. (Receiver John Ross, who was taken in Round 1 of the NFL draft, left after the 2016 season.) Browning threw for only 137 yards in Washington’s season-changing loss to Arizona. He needs to be better. 

7. Penn State 

Last season: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten); beat Washington in Fiesta Bowl. 

Schedule: Breakthrough potential here. The Nittany Lions should be 4-0 when they play host to Ohio State on Sept. 29. They next get Michigan State, also in State College. Their only rough road game is at Michigan, and they get Wisconsin at home. Beat the Buckeyes and the playoff awaits. 

Name to know: Trace McSorley. Back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State – by a total of five points – were all that kept Penn State from the CFP last season. McSorley threw for 381 yards (albeit with three interceptions) against the Spartans; he had 342 in the bowl victory over Washington. He will, however, be without his greatest weapon – Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 pick in this year’s NFL draft. Barkley accounted for 2,329 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns last season. 

8. Wisconsin 

Last season: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten); beat Miami in Orange Bowl. 

Schedule: Here we go again. The Badgers will face two teams ranked in the USA Today Top 25 – Michigan and Penn State, both on the road. Their non-conference slate: Western Kentucky, New Mexico State and BYU. If you recall, Wisconsin was unbeaten entering the Big Ten title game last year but ranked only No. 4 by the CFP committee, behind two-loss Auburn. 

Name to know: Jonathan Taylor. He became the all-time leading freshman rusher (surpassing Adrian Peterson) by gaining 1,977 yards. He had 249 yards against Nebraska, 130 against Miami. Only Ohio State shut him down – 41 yards on 15 carries. As we know, Wisconsin is never the most spectacular team, but it’s great running the ball and playing defense. Taylor finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year. He could win it this time. 

9. Auburn 

Last season: 10-4 (7-1 SEC); lost to Central Florida in Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. 

Schedule: The opener against Washington is huge, not least because it’s in Atlanta. A season that was wild even by Auburn standards came undone in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Tigers, who’d beaten Georgia and Alabama in the span of 15 days, were routed by the Bulldogs for the SEC title and upset by Central Florida on Jan. 1. Having to face Georgia and Alabama on the road this time, Auburn cannot lose a neutral-site game if it expects to do much. 

Name to know: Jarrett Stidham. It’s unclear how much of Stidham’s success at quarterback last season was a byproduct of having Kerryon Johnson in the backfield. With Johnson limited/limping in the rematch against Georgia, he could manage only 145 yards passing, and his fumble on a blindside sack changed a game going the Tigers’ way. 

10. Miami 

Last season: 10-3 (7-1 ACC); lost to Wisconsin in Orange Bowl. 

Schedule: Semi-tough. The Hurricanes miss Clemson in the regular season, but they start against LSU in Arlington, Texas. They get Florida State in Miami, but in November they face back-to-back dates at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. The Coastal Division will surely be won/lost then. 

Name to know: Mark Richt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but last season was Richtian. Miami won its first 10 games against middling-at-best opposition, needing great escapes against Georgia Tech and FSU. Just when you wondered if this Richt season would be different from the Richt seasons that led Georgia to part with him, his team was outscored 96-41 in losses to Pittsburgh, Clemson and Wisconsin. Expectations are higher for this team, and when last did a Richt team rise to the moment? 

11. Michigan State: 

Last season: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten); beat Washington State in Holiday Bowl. 

Schedule: A September game at Arizona State is chancy, an October trip to Penn State problematic. But Michigan and Ohio State come to East Lansing. 

Name to know: Mark Dantonio. You know him, but probably not as well as you should. His Spartans responded to the 3-9 of 2016 by reeling off another 10-win season, their sixth over the past eight years. Michigan State never scores high on signing day, but it’s always among the most difficult teams to beat. There’s coaching being done here. 

12. Notre Dame 

Last season: 10-3; beat LSU in Citrus Bowl. 

Schedule: ACC-heavy. Technically an independent, Notre Dame’s ACC agreement holds that it faces five opponents from that league. Highlight: Florida State in South Bend on Nov. 10. Plus the opener against Michigan. 

Name to know: Brandon Wimbush. He’s a quarterback. He gained 894 yards rushing and scored 14 ouchdowns last season. He’s less good at throwing; he completed 49.5 percent of his passes. Georgia fans will remember him fumbling on the Fighting Irish’s final series last September. 

13. Stanford 

Last season: 9-5 (7-2 Pac-12); lost to TCU in Alamo Bowl 

Schedule: Rough. The Cardinal open against San Diego State, which upset them en route to going 10-3 last season. Then comes USC. Later there are road games at Oregon, Notre Dame and Washington. 

Name to know: Bryce Love. He made news by skipping the Pac-12 Media Days for, of all things, class. He’d already used his excused absences, so he stuck to his summer studies. He’s majoring in human biology. He wants to be a doctor. He’s also among the nation’s better running backs. 

14. TCU 

Last season: 11-3 (7-2 Big 12); beat Stanford in Holiday Bowl. 

Schedule: Circle Sept. 15. That’s when Ohio State comes to Texas, although not to Fort Worth. (Close, though.) That’s a huge game for both the Horned Frogs and their league, which is still fighting its Oklahoma-only image. 

Name to know: Kavontae Turpin. He’s 5-foot-9. He weighs 157 pounds. He plays defensive tackle. (Kidding!) He’s a receiver/returner who amassed 1,202 all-purpose yards last season, scoring touchdowns by rushing, receiving, returning a punt and returning a kickoff. He was a 3-star recruit. 

15. Florida State 

Last season: 7-6 (3-5 ACC); beat Southern Miss in Independence Bowl. 

Schedule: Difficult. The Seminoles open at home against Virginia Tech on Labor Day. It’s Willie Taggart’s debut as FSU’s coach, and it’s a loaded ACC game, too. Dates with Miami, Clemson and Notre Dame follow. 

Name to know: Deondre Francois. His was the saddest story in college football last season. The quarterback tore his patellar tendon in a loss to Alabama. He’s practicing again, but his starting job isn’t guaranteed. James Blackman helped steady the Seminoles near the end of last season. 

16. Central Florida 

Last year: 13-0 (8-0 American); beat Auburn in Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. 

Schedule: Not of playoff caliber. Last season’s self-crowned national champion will face two Power 5 teams. Alas, they’re not very good Power 5 teams – North Carolina and Pittsburgh. Beyond that, there’s South Florida. 

Name to know: Josh Heupel. Hired to replace Scott Frost, Heupel is both a falling and rising star. He was fired as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator by Bob Stoops to make room for Lincoln Riley. Heupel resurfaced in Missouri and helped turn Drew Lock into a big-time quarterback. 

17. West Virginia 

Last season: 7-6 (5-4 Big 12); lost to Utah in Heart of Dallas Bowl. 

Schedule: Inviting. The Mountaineers open at Tennessee, which has issues. Both TCU and Oklahoma will visit Morgantown, the latter on the Friday after Thanksgiving. There’s opportunity here. 

Name to know: Will Grier. Know how Florida has gone forever – or at least since Tebow – without a real quarterback. Grier is a Florida transfer who threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. His only trouble is that he can’t always outscore WVU’s pliant defense. 

18. Oklahoma State 

Last season: 10-3 (6-3 Big 12); beat Virginia Tech in Camping World Bowl. 

Schedule: Perilous at the end. Assuming the Cowboys beat Boise State in September, they could be 9-0 come Nov. 10. That’s when they face Oklahoma in Norman. Then comes West Virginia. Then TCU. 

Name to know: Mike Gundy. There’s the understated kind of underrated – the Bill Snyder kind – and there’s the hiding-in-plain-sight underrated. That’s Gundy. OSU is rarely picked in anyone’s top 10, but it tends to force its way upward. I know. I omit the Cowboys every year. Except this. 

19. Boise State 

Last season: 11-3 (7-1 Mountain West); beat Oregon in Las Vegas Bowl. 

Schedule: The usual. There’s a potential state-your-case game at Oklahoma State. Even if the Broncos lose in Stillwater, they’ll still win their league. They were the unanimous choice of the Mountain West media. 

Name to know: Bryan Harsin. He’s 42-12 since replacing Chris Petersen, who left for Washington. That’s not bad. Last year’s Broncos, however, stumbled against Power 5 opponents Washington State and Virginia. If you’re Boise State, all that matters is knocking off one of the big boys. 

20. South Carolina 

Last season: 9-4 (5-3 SEC); beat Michigan in Outback Bowl. 

Schedule: Everything hinges on Sept. 8. If South Carolina upsets Georgia in Columbia, it can win the East. Its most difficult conference road game will come against Florida, which just fired its coach. That’s a big “if,” mind you. 

Name to know: Will Muschamp. He couldn’t win the division as head ball coach at Florida, which has all the resources. Is it possible he could break through at South Carolina, which has rather less? Or was last season’s tick upward a function of the SEC East, apart from Georgia, being terrible? 

21. USC 

Last season: 10-3 (8-1 in Pac-12); lost to Ohio State in Cotton Bowl. 

Schedule: Rough early. Four of the Trojans’ first seven games are road dates at Stanford, Texas, Arizona and Utah. For a team that will be working behind a new quarterback, that’s a lot to ask. 

Name to know: Clay Helton. He’s 21-6 the past two seasons, but his Trojans haven’t yet cracked the CFP. Last year’s team was believed to be of playoff quality, but an early loss at Washington State threw everything off-kilter, and now quarterback Sam Darnold is gone. 

22. Michigan 

Last season: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten); lost to South Carolina in Outback Bowl. 

Schedule: Big start, big finish. The Wolverines open against Notre Dame in South Bend. They close against Ohio State in Columbus. They get Wisconsin and Penn State in Ann Arbor. 

Name to know: Jim Harbaugh. He’s the Twitter King. He’s the Sultan of Satellite Camps. He has taken spring practice global. He’s also a coach who’s 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State. Penn State’s rise has rendered Michigan the fourth-best team in the Big Ten East. 

23. Texas A&M 

Last season: 7-6 (4-4 in SEC); lost to Wake Forest in Belk Bowl. 

Schedule: Maybe the toughest. The Aggies are the only team scheduled to face both Clemson and Alabama. Then there’s a three-game road stretch: At South Carolina, at Mississippi State, at Auburn. 

Name to know: Jimbo Fisher. It came apart on him at Florida State, but College Station marks a splendid landing spot. He won the 2013 BCS title with FSU by building an SEC-like roster, and now he’s working in the SEC at a hugely ambitious school based in a huge state. He’ll get it going. 

24. Florida Atlantic 

Last season: 11-3 (8-0 Conference USA); beat Akron in Boca Raton Bowl. 

Schedule: Two chances to shock the world. The Owls open against Oklahoma in Norman. If they don’t win there – and they won’t – FAU still plays Central Florida in Orlando on Sept. 23. 

Name to know: Lane Kiffin (like there’s any other name at Florida Atlantic). Just when he’d all but proved he isn’t a head coach, he takes a fixer-upper job and … fixes it up! Meaning the question now becomes: How much longer before another Power 5 school hops a ride on the Lane Train? 

25. Virginia Tech 

Last season: 9-4 (5-3 ACC); lost to Oklahoma State in Camping World Bowl. 

Schedule: Manageable. Opening at Florida State is tough. Home games against Notre Dame and Miami won’t be easy. But the Hokies could have a big season, providing they beat Georgia Tech for the first time under Justin Fuente. 

Name to know: Josh Jackson. He passed for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns as a freshman. He also threw nine interceptions and was sacked 22 times. He was suspended over the summer because of an academic issue, which apparently has been resolved. He showed up at ACC Media Days and deemed himself good to go.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.