What an incredible end to the 2016 college football season. It doesn’t feel like the dethroning we saw in 2013 when Auburn took down Alabama in the Iron Bowl, but it was still pretty darn satisfying to see a different team taking home the hardware. The Clemson Tigers put together an unbelievably talented squad this year, including surefire first-rounder Deshaun Watson under center and top receiving prospect Mike Williams out wide. However, both these pieces and more will not be in Clemson next season, so I project a bit of a drop-off for the orange and purple. With that said, here’s my way, way-too-early projections for the pre-playoff Top 5.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
They’re still pretty damn good. Some key pieces from Alabama’s stifling defense are moving on, but I trust Nick Saban’s ability to recruit, both in and out of state, to fill those voids on the defensive side of the ball. On offense, you’ll see the returns of key skill guys that kept the Tide in the game last night. Freshman phenom Jalen Hurts will be back at quarterback, where he’ll hand off to Bo Scarbrough, who is proving to be a physical freak out of the backfield. Alabama will continue to pound defenses to death, and I have no trouble seeing them run away with the SEC West and, ultimately, the SEC. Alabama was physically punishing on both sides of the ball in 2016, and I expect Saban and Co. to utilize that same style to get the Crimson Tide back to the national title game in ’17.
2. Florida State Seminoles
The ‘Noles lose Dalvin Cook and other important weapons, but I trust the leadership of Deandre Francois, who was productive in his first starting season. Francois benefits from a multitude of targets that give him options any time he has the football. The defense isn’t at the special level of Alabama’s, per se, but Jimbo Fisher will have both sides of the ball ready to go by the time August rolls around. In an ultra-competitive ACC, I see the Seminoles feeding off Clemson’s critical graduations, and finding a way to win what might be the best conference in college football.
3. Washington Huskies
Don’t sleep on the Huskies in ’17. Some defensive powers, including safety Budda Baker, are declaring for the draft, but Washington’s underclassmen-heavy defensive unit will keep opponents at bay. Jake Browning will be back at quarterback–look for him to enter the Heisman competition for real next year. Four out of five starting offensive lineman are back, and Dante Pettis will be out wide catching for Browning. Washington will also have to contend with both Stanford and Colorado on the road next season, so wins in Palo Alto and Boulder could seriously bolster the Huskies’ resume, which was the subject of much scrutiny by the committee and common fans this season.
4. Clemson Tigers
I struggled with who to put in the four-spot, but Clemson showed me enough on Monday to say that they belong in the bracket, at least for now. There are certainly concerns as far as graduation/draftees go, but there are able backups on this Tiger team. Exhibit A: Deon Cain. Did Cain not play like a beast last night? When Mike Williams was being tended to on the sideline following a jarring first-quarter hit, Cain was out there making himself available for Deshaun. Cain is more than capable of keeping this Clemson offensive machine humming. On the subject of receivers, Hunter Renfrow played out of his mind Monday night. Faced with a tough matchup against Alabama defensive back Tony Brown, the smallish Renfrow ran exact routes and was open all night. On defense, Coach Swinney will miss guys like Ben Boulware, but there might not be a school in the nation that is a more powerful recruiting machine than Clemson right now, with the exception of maybe Alabama. Dabo Swinney is obviously a great coach, but he’s instilled a winning culture in every guy on this roster. They expect to win, because they’ve been to the top now.
5. South Florida Bulls
I know, I know. I’ll leave now. But before I do, just hear me out. The Bulls finished the season ranked #19 in the nation, and this team will benefit from very few exiting players. No one in the Top 25 scores more than South Florida, and if they can recruit on the defensive side of the ball, this team should have no problem going 12-0, followed by a win in the AAC Championship Game. The ranking may seem a bit steep, but let’s not forget about Boise State, which regularly finished inside the Top 10, and even as high as #6 during their runs of the 2000s. I don’t know if I see the Bulls getting to the playoff, but they’re no doubt talented, and deserve recognition. USF isn’t the Western Michigan of 2017; rather, I see them as the magical Boise State Broncos, part II.