With signing day completed, the focus for all 130 college football teams shifts to spring practice. And with every program hitting the field for offseason workouts, it’s never too early to look at the year ahead and project where all 130 teams could rank when the official Athlon Sports magazine predictions are released later this summer.
Expect several tweaks to this NCAA football top 130 ranking from now until August and before the 2018 officially starts. However, with spring practice around the corner for all 130 teams, the 2018 outlook for every program is coming into focus.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2018, followed by a handful of other teams to watch this offseason:
Way-Too-Early College Football 130 Team Rankings for 2018
Reason for Optimism: New coach Dana Dimel has previous head coaching experience at two different stops and learned under one of college football’s top coaches in Bill Snyder. Running back Joshua Fields is a good place to start the rebuilding effort on offense.
Reason for Concern: Dimel didn’t fare well at his last stop as a head coach (Houston) and inherits a roster full of issues. The Miners have question marks at quarterback, must replace standout offensive lineman Will Hernandez and rebuild a defense that gave up 36.8 points per game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: After a 1-11 season, the 49ers only have one way to go. Running back Benny LeMay (732 yards), safety Ben DeLuca and offensive lineman Nate Davis could challenge for All-Conference USA honors. Shane Montgomery was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, providing a fresh start for a unit that averaged only 14.2 points a game last fall.
Reason for Concern: As last year’s record indicated, Charlotte has a lot of work to do in order to close the gap in C-USA. Quarterback Hasaan Klugh is a good runner but must cut down on the interceptions (13 on 279 attempts last season). The defense returns nearly everyone from a unit that allowed 32.8 points per game in 2017. How much progress can this group make in one offseason.
128. Kent State
Reason for Optimism: New coach Sean Lewis is an exciting hire for a program in need of a spark.
Reason for Concern: Lewis’ top priority for 2018 is pretty simple: find a quarterback. All-MAC defenders Jon Cunningham and Demetrius Monday have expired their eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: New coach Mike Bloomgren has plenty of experience working at a program with strict academic standards, as he takes over as Rice’s head coach following a stint as an assistant at Stanford. Bloomgren has some promising pieces to work with at the skill positions on offense, including running back Nahshon Ellerbe and receivers Aaron Cephus and Kylen Granson.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. The Owls threw only six touchdown passes to 16 interceptions last year. Top lineman Calvin Anderson and a couple of players on defense are leaving as graduate transfers. The defense needs a lot of work after giving up 35.8 points per game in 2017.
126. New Mexico State
Reason for Optimism: The Aggies are coming off their first bowl trip since 1960. Jason Huntley should be a capable replacement for Larry Rose at running back, and three of the team’s top four statistical receivers are back next fall. The defense has showed improvement under Frank Spaziani’s watch and returns nine of 11 starters from the Arizona Bowl depth chart.
Reason for Concern: New Mexico State is embarking on FBS Independence once again. Needless to say, this is a tough path for one of the toughest jobs at the FBS level. Coach Doug Martin has to reload on offense after losing running back Larry Rose, quarterback Tyler Rogers and receiver Jaleel Scott.
125. Coastal Carolina
Reason for Optimism: Coach Joe Moglia is back on the sidelines after missing the 2017 season due to medical reasons. Malcolm Williams (43 grabs for 793 yards) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning receivers. Center Brock Hoffman and guard Trey Carter are two building blocks up front.
Reason for Concern: Coastal Carolina needs to identify a quarterback after five different signal-callers attempted a pass last fall. Leading rusher Osharmar Abercrombie and All-Sun Belt linebacker Shane Johnson have finished their eligibility. The Chanticleers have to improve on defense after giving up 34 points a game in 2017.
124. San Jose State
Reason for Optimism: The second year under coach Brent Brennan should bring some overall improvement to the program. The offense has a few promising skill players to utilize, including running backs Tyler Nevens and Zamore Zigler and receivers Tre Hartley and JaQuan Blackwell.
Reason for Concern: The Spartans ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring offense and defense. Can the offense find stability and production at the quarterback position? Top linebacker Frank Ginda left early for the NFL after accumulating 173 tackles last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Liberty is a program in transition to the FBS level. The move to FBS is made a little easier thanks to the return of quarterback Stephen Calvert (3,363 yards, 29 TDs). Calvert’s top target will be junior Antonio Gandy-Golden, who caught 69 passes for 1,066 yards and 10 scores last year.
Reason for Concern: Transitioning to a tougher level is never easy. Leading rusher Carrington Mosley must be replaced, and the defense has to cut its points per game allowed (30.4) from last fall.
122. Texas State
Reason for Optimism: It’s the third year under coach Everett Withers. The Bobcats have used several young players over the last two seasons and it’s time for that youth to turn into production. Willie Jones is a promising but raw sophomore quarterback. Linebacker Bryan London has been a tackling machine since stepping onto campus in San Marcos and anchors the defense once again in 2018.
Reason for Concern: How quickly will Jones – or someone else – develop at quarterback? The Bobcats need more out of their ground attack after averaging 3.4 yards per carry, and the line has to step up in pass protection after giving up 36 sacks in 2017. The defense has room to improve after allowing 6.2 yards per play last fall.
121. East Carolina
Reason for Optimism: It’s coach Scottie Montgomery’s third year at the helm. His recruits and overall vision on both sides of the ball should be in place. Receiver Trevon Brown (second-team All-AAC in 2017) is one of the top players at his position in the conference.
Reason for Concern: Both sides of the ball have major concerns. True freshman Holton Ahlers is the front-runner to start at quarterback, and the offense needs more out of a ground game that averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in 2017. How much will ECU improve on defense? This unit gave up 45 points a game last year.
Reason for Optimism: A healthy John Ursua at receiver would be a big plus for Hawaii’s offense. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai is one of the Mountain West’s top returning defenders.
Reason for Concern: Coach Nick Rolovich has to revamp the offense after running back Diocemy Saint Juste expired his eligibility, and quarterback Dru Brown and receiver Dylan Collie left as grad transfers. The offensive line loses standout left tackle Dejon Allen. New defensive coordinator Corey Batoon inherits a unit that allowed 33.9 points a game last fall.
119. Bowling Green
Reason for Optimism: A pair of freshmen made noise for coach Mike Jinks last fall, as running back Andrew Clair and quarterback Jarret Doege showed flashes of potential in last year’s 2-10 season. The Falcons have a new defensive play-caller (Carl Pelini) and can only improve after giving up 38 points a game last fall.
Reason for Concern: Bowling Green has to improve on defense in order to exceed last year’s win total (two). Question marks surround this unit once again, especially after giving up 253.3 rushing yards per game in 2017. The Falcons also must replace receiver Teo Redding (45 catches) and All-MAC punter Joseph Davidson.
118. South Alabama
Reason for Optimism: New coach Steve Campbell is a solid hire, and the Jaguars return enough talent to push for six wins this fall. Receiver Jamarius Way (47 catches for 762 yards) is back after earning all-conference honors in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Cole Garvin and Dallas Davis combined for 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last fall. Will a clear answer present itself at quarterback? Also, a new running back needs to emerge after Xavier Johnson finished his eligibility. Standout safety (and 2017 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year) Jeremy Reaves leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary.
117. Ball State
Reason for Optimism: Injuries (especially at quarterback) wreaked havoc on coach Mike Neu’s team last year. Better luck in the health department could translate into a couple of wins. The backfield is stacked with options, including James Gilbert (back from injury) and Caleb Huntley (1,003 yards in 2017). Receiver Justin Hall also returns after a standout freshman campaign.
Reason for Concern: The defense gave up 40.7 points a game last fall and must replace standout lineman Anthony Winbush. With a return to full strength, will quarterback Riley Neal take a step forward in his development?
116. Central Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Chippewas will have a new quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Jonathan Ward (1,017 yards) until a signal-caller emerges. Lineman Nathan Brisson-Fast and linebacker Malik Fountain are two building blocks for the defense in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Coach John Bonamego’s team has some significant holes to fill this offseason. Is Tony Poljan ready to take over for Shane Morris at quarterback? The receiving corps loses three key seniors, along with tight end Tyler Conklin. The defense finished second in the MAC by limiting opponents to 5.03 yards per play last fall. Matching that total in 2018 will be difficult with the departures of end Joe Ostman, cornerback Amari Coleman and safety Josh Cox.
Reason for Optimism: After a transition year under coach Jay Norvell, the Wolf Pack have a chance to take a step forward in the win column in 2018. The offense is led by senior quarterback Ty Gangi, and there’s talent at the skill positions with the return of running back Kelton Moore and receivers McLane Mannix and Brendan O’Leary-Orange. End/linebacker Malik Reed is one of the Mountain West’s top returning defenders. While the final record was just 3-9, Norvell’s team lost three games by three points or less in 2017.
Reason for Concern: With a full year of snaps in this system, can Gangi be more consistent on a week-to-week basis? Standout tackle Austin Corbett leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches, while the defense has to play at a higher level after giving up 33.9 points a contest last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The win total from 2016 to ’17 was the same (three), but coach Randy Edsall’s team took a small step forward last fall. Leading receiver Hergy Mayala (43 catches) is back, and the Huskies have a promising duo at running back in place with Kevin Mensah and Hate Hopkins.
Reason for Concern: Offense. The Huskies made small strides on this side of the ball last season but enter 2018 with a new coordinator (John Dunn) and uncertainty at quarterback. The defense loses eight of its top 14 tacklers, including standout linebacker Junior Joseph and defensive back Jamar Summers.
113. Georgia Southern
Reason for Optimism: The Eagles played like a different team when Chad Lunsford was promoted to interim head coach late last year. As a result of that late-season success, Lunsford was promoted to the full-time role and seems to be pushing the right buttons so far, which includes hiring a standout staff. Running back Wesley Fields is back after rushing for 811 yards last fall, and quarterback Shai Werts seems to be a good fit for new coordinator Bob DeBesse’s scheme. The line returns intact, while the defense loses only one senior among its top 17 tacklers.
Reason for Concern: It’s one thing to capture momentum after a coaching change. It’s another to sustain that momentum over an entire season. Can Lunsford and his staff return Georgia Southern to a bowl game in 2018?
Reason for Optimism: Billy Napier is a standout hire for Louisiana. The former Arizona State offensive coordinator inherits two quarterbacks with experience (Andre Nunez and Jordan Davis), along with running back Trey Ragas, who rushed for 813 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman last year. The offensive line returns four starters. Rush end Joe Dillon anchors the defensive trenches after earning third-team all-conference honors in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Louisiana. However, Napier’s quest to get to a bowl in his first year will hinge on defensive improvement. Coordinator Ron Roberts inherits a group that allowed 40 points a game in 2017.
111. New Mexico
Reason for Optimism: The Lobos have a couple of interesting options to choose from at quarterback, as junior college recruit Sheriron Jones joins Coltin Gerhart and Tevaka Tuioti in the mix to start. Tyrone Owens (770 rushing yards) is back to anchor the ground game.
Reason for Concern: There’s a lot of turmoil surrounding coach Bob Davie. Will that spill over into the season? The Lobos’ running back depth took a hit with Richard McQuarley, Daryl Chestnut and Romell Jordan expiring their eligibility. The defense also loses its share of proven options and must cut down on its yards per play allowed (6.13).
Reason for Optimism: With a full year under his belt, Mike Sanford should be more comfortable in his second season as the program’s head coach. Receiver Lucky Jackson and safety Devon Key are two promising players for Sanford to build around in 2018.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line. WKU gave up 48 sacks last year and struggled to open up holes in the ground game. Additionally, quarterback Mike White has finished his eligibility, and standout linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe left for the NFL.
109. Old Dominion
Reason for Optimism: After a rebuilding year, the Monarchs are poised to challenge for a bowl game in 2018. Quarterback Steven Williams gained valuable experience as a freshman last fall, and the offense will have a couple of key players returning from injury, including lineman Chad Hendricks and receiver Jonathan Duhart. Defensive end Oshane Ximines is one of Conference USA’s top pass rushers.
Reason for Concern: The defense returns most of its starting 11 from last season but gave up 31.7 points per game. How much can this unit develop over one offseason? Also, how much progress can Williams make during spring ball?
108. Eastern Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Eagles are due for better luck in 2018. Coach Chris Creighton’s team lost all seven games by 12 points or less last fall. Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers joins the mix to replace Brogan Roback at quarterback, while the offense has a solid stable of running backs at its disposal with the return of Ian Eriksen, Shaq Vann and Breck Turner. A defense that limited opponents to 23.3 points a game last fall should be solid once again.
Reason for Concern: Roback will be missed under center, and the Eagles lose their top three receivers from last season. Eastern Michigan needs to be better in the turnover department after posting a minus-four total last year.
Reason for Optimism: It’s David Beaty’s fourth year as head coach. His players are now in place and this team doesn’t lose much in the way of departing seniors.
Reason for Concern: The Jayhawks have just three wins over the last three years. Quarterback play and defense remain big issues.
106. Georgia State
Reason for Optimism: After leading Georgia State to a seven-win season in his first year at the helm, coach Shawn Elliott has this program trending in the right direction. Penny Hart is one of the top returning receivers in college football. The defense returns All-Sun Belt selections Michael Shaw (LB) and Marterious Allen (DL).
Reason for Concern: The Panthers must replace quarterback Conner Manning and find a spark for a ground attack that managed just 3.2 yards per carry last season. The defense loses a couple of key seniors from a unit that limited opponents to 24.8 points per game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Andrew Ford, running back Marquis Young and receiver Andy Isabella headline a dangerous offense. The Minutemen will bolster that trio with the addition of Syracuse transfer Jordan Fredericks at running back. The offensive line also returns intact.
Reason for Concern: In order for UMass to push for a winning record and bowl trip, the defense has to improve after giving up 31.8 points per game in 2017.
104. Western Michigan
Reason for Optimism: The Broncos lost three out of their last four games after quarterback Jon Wassink was lost due to injury. He’s back in 2018, along with receiver D’Wayne Eskridge and running backs Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. Center John Keenoy is one of the MAC’s top returning linemen for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor has finished his eligibility, and the defense loses its share of standouts, including defensive back Darius Phillips and linebackers Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown. The losses on defense are heavy for a unit that allowed 29 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: Despite a 6-5 mark, the Roadrunners did not play in a bowl last season. However, UTSA wasn’t far from winning nine games after losing four games by five points or less. Frank Wilson has this program going in the right direction. The offense averaged only 23.5 points a game last year, so the addition of veteran play-caller Al Borges should help. A healthy year from linebacker Josiah Tauaefa will be huge for the defense.
Reason for Concern: UTSA has a revamped coaching staff on tap for 2018, as Wilson decided to go a different direction at offensive coordinator, and defensive play-caller Pete Golding left for Alabama. The defense led Conference USA in fewest points allowed last fall but must replace standout lineman Marcus Davenport, linebacker La’Kel Bass and three key performers in the secondary. Who steps up to replace Dalton Sturm at quarterback?
Reason for Optimism: FIU improved its win total by four games in coach Butch Davis’ first year. Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan could step in for Alex McGough at quarterback, and he’s supported by a line that returns four starters. Running back Anthony Jones is back from injury. FIU reeled in C-USA’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Reason for Concern: Leading rusher Alex Gardner (791 yards) and top receiver Thomas Owens (59 catches) have finished their eligibility. The defense will be under renovation this spring, as seven of the top nine tacklers from last season have finished their eligibility.
Reason for Optimism: Under third-year coach Matt Viator, the Warhawks are a sleeper team to watch in the Sun Belt for 2018. ULM averaged 33.9 points per game last season and should be prolific on offense once again. Quarterback Caleb Evans is a rising star, and receiver Marcus Green is one of the top all-purpose players in college football. The defense needs to improve, but most of the two-deep from last fall is back for 2018.
Reason for Concern: Defense. ULM allowed 41 points a game and 7.3 yards a play last season. If Viator’s team can cut those numbers into midpack in the Sun Belt, this program can challenge for a bowl game.
100. Oregon State
Reason for Optimism: Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith is the program’s new head coach. In terms of fit, there’s not a better coach for the job than Smith. Safeties David Morris and Jalen Moore are promising pieces for new coordinator Tim Tibesar to build around in the secondary.
Reason for Concern: The Beavers have significant question marks on both sides of the ball. An offense that averaged only 20.7 points a game lost standout running back Ryan Nall early to the NFL, and quarterback uncertainty remains after Jake Luton suffered a season-ending injury after four games in 2017. The defense gave up 43 points a game last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The ground attack. Even though D’Angelo Brewer finished his eligibility, Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II are set to return at running back. The offensive line returns three starters, including all-conference candidates at guard in Tyler Bowling and center Chandler Miller.
Reason for Concern: The offense regressed from averaging 42.5 points a game in 2016 to 29.3 in ’17. Will this unit get back on track in 2018? Can coach Philip Montgomery get better quarterback play? The defense surrendered 37.5 points a game last fall and enters the year with question marks at each level.
Reason for Optimism: The Rebels are on the right path under fourth-year coach Tony Sanchez. After winning three games in his first year (2015), UNLV improved to four wins in 2016 and five last fall. Quarterback Armani Rogers is poised to become one of the Mountain West’s top signal-callers, and he’s joined on offense by running back Lexington Thomas (1,336 yards).
Reason for Concern: Standout receiver Devonte Boyd and left tackle Kyle Saxelid must be replaced. The defense is a work in progress after giving up 6.2 yards per play last fall. This unit must also replace All-Mountain West tackle Mike Hughes.
Reason for Optimism: Recruiting. Coach Luke Fickell inked the AAC’s No. 1 class for 2018. Most of the key players on offense are back, including quarterback Hayden Moore, running back Gerrid Doaks and receiver Kahlil Lewis. The defense loses a handful of key seniors, but lineman Marquise Copeland (8 TFL) and linebacker Perry Young (9 TFL) are back. Additionally, incoming freshman Malik Vann could provide help right away in the trenches.
Reason for Concern: The Bearcats have a long ways to go. This team won three of its four games by four points or less, with two of those victories coming by a single point. The offense has to revamp its line and find ways to jump-start a unit that averaged only 20.9 points a game in 2017. Leading tackler and second-team All-AAC linebacker Jaylyin Minor has finished his eligibility.
96. Southern Miss
Reason for Optimism: The Golden Eagles have some retooling to do on both sides of the ball, but coach Jay Hopson should keep this program in contention for the C-USA West Division title. Paxton Schrimsher, Jeremy Sangster and Racheem Boothe are a promising trio to build around at linebacker. Quarterback Kwadra Griggs returns after throwing for 16 touchdowns and 1,879 yards last fall.
Reason for Concern: The offense must replace its top skill players, as running back Ito Smith and receiver Korey Robertson expired their eligibility. The defense also lost its share of talent, including all four starters in the secondary and end Xavier Thigpen.
Reason for Optimism: The Fighting Illini went with a youth movement last season. The experience gained by these players should translate into better results in 2018. Running back Mike Epstein and receiver Ricky Smalling are two promising pieces for new coordinator Rod Smith to build around this offseason.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Can Smith quickly find an answer under center? There’s plenty of room for improvement on a defense that gave up 31.5 points a game last fall.
94. Air Force
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Arion Worthman is back after leading the team with 821 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, while the linebacker unit is led by Lakota Wills (6 TFL as a true freshman last fall).
Reason for Concern: For the second year in a row, Air Force is losing a significant chunk of its starting lineup. The Falcons must replace running back Tim McVey and four starters in the trenches. The defense loses five seniors among its top eight tacklers, including linebacker Grant Ross (97 stops).
Reason for Optimism: The defending MAC East champs are in good position to repeat. Coach Terry Bowden’s team has a promising quarterback in Kato Nelson at the controls, and the defense could be one of the best in the conference thanks to the return of linebackers Brian Bell and Ulysees Gilbert. Safety Alvin Davis and end Jamal Davis are back after earning All-MAC honors last fall.
Reason for Concern: The Zips need more punch out of their ground game. Also, the receiving corps loses three out of its top four options from last year.
Reason for Optimism: After a 4-9 season, it seems unlikely BYU will be down for long. Coach Kalani Sitake revamped his staff after last year’s disappointing mark, and the changes on offense should provide some help for a unit that averaged only 17.1 points per game in 2017. Tight end Matt Bushman is back after a solid freshman campaign (49 catches), and the running back position should be a strength for new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. Linebacker Fred Warner is a big loss, but the defense is returning a healthy chunk of last year’s two-deep.
Reason for Concern: Will quarterback Tanner Mangum be at full strength by the opener after suffering an Achilles injury late in the 2017 season? If Mangum isn’t ready to go, who steps up at quarterback? The Cougars must improve in the turnover department after posting a minus-10 mark last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The transition from Chad Morris to Sonny Dykes should be a relatively seamless move for the program. The offense will miss receivers Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn, but quarterback Ben Hicks and running backs Xavier Jones, Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freeman are a talented trio for Dykes to build around. Linebacker Kyran Mitchell and cornerback Jordan Wyatt are poised to earn preseason all-conference honors.
Reason for Concern: Quinn and Sutton accounted for 182 of the team’s 283 catches last year. Both will be missed. SMU’s defense has not finished higher than ninth in the AAC in fewest points allowed per game since joining the league in 2013. New coordinator Kevin Kane has a busy offseason ahead.
90. Utah State
Reason for Optimism: After a 3-9 record in 2016, the Aggies rebounded to 6-7 last fall. With most of the team’s core returning for 2018, Utah State could take another step forward in the win column. Quarterback Jordan Love showed promise as a freshman late in the year, and he’s aided in 2018 by the return of top target Ron’quavion Tarver (48 grabs). All five starters return on the offensive line. New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson inherits a unit that loses only two starters and held opponents to 5.2 yards per play last fall.
Reason for Concern: The losses in the secondary are significant. Cornerback Jalen Davis earned All-America honors for a standout 2017 campaign, and safety Dallin Leavitt has also expired his eligibility. Last year’s leading rusher (LaJuan Hunt) must be replaced.
Reason for Optimism: The Bulls are trending up entering 2018. Quarterback Tyree Jackson is back after accounting for 2,293 total yards and 16 overall scores last fall. The skill positions are set with the return of running backs Emmanuel Reed and Theo Anderson, along with big-play receiver Anthony Johnson.
Reason for Concern: The defense finished fifth in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game, but this unit needs to get better against the run (194.8 ypg allowed) and generate more of a pass rush (19 sacks). Each level of the defense has voids to fill. All-MAC defensive lineman Demone Harris has finished his eligibility.
88. Miami (Ohio)
Reason for Optimism: The RedHawks entered 2017 with hopes of winning the MAC East. Those title hopes were derailed after an injury to starting quarterback Gus Ragland in early October. Ragland is back at full strength for 2018, and coach Chuck Martin’s offense returns No. 1 receiver James Gardner (11 TD catches) and running backs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young. The defense ranked third in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game last fall.
Reason for Concern: The losses on defense aren’t extensive, but Martin has to replace two starters in the secondary – Heath Harding and Tony Reid – and standout tackle Ikeem Allen. The offense has to find ways to generate more big plays after posting only five plays of 40 yards or more in 2017.
87. Colorado State
Reason for Optimism: The Rams have to replace All-Mountain West quarterback Nick Stevens, but Collin Hill is back after using a redshirt year in 2017 to recover from a knee injury. Hill threw for 1,096 yards and eight scores as a freshman in 2016. Coach Mike Bobo’s offense will miss running back Dalyn Dawkins, but there’s quality depth at running back. Tennessee transfer Preston Williams is slated to step in at receiver to help replace Michael Gallup. Defensive back Jordan Fogal (71 stops) was granted an additional year of eligibility.
Reason for Concern: How quickly can Hill knock off the rust at quarterback? In addition to Gallup, the Rams must replace two other key targets in the passing game and revamp the left side of the offensive line. Bobo overhauled his defensive staff in an effort to improve a unit that allowed 6.3 yards per play in 2017. The rebuilding effort won’t be easy. Colorado State loses three out of its top six tacklers and struggled to prevent big plays last year.
Reason for Optimism: Craig Bohl is one of the top coaches in the Mountain West and should keep Wyoming near the top of the Mountain Division. The offensive line returns four starters, and leading rusher Austin Conway (61 grabs) is also back in the mix for 2018. The Cowboys led the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 17.5 points a game last fall. This unit should be strong once again, with safety Andrew Wingard contending for All-America honors.
Reason for Concern: Who replaces Josh Allen under center? Wyoming’s offense needs more from its ground game after averaging only 3.2 yards per rush last season.
Reason for Optimism: The Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go, but coach Chris Ash has brought progress over the last two years. New play-caller John McNulty needs to identify a quarterback, but tight end Jerome Washington and running back Jon Hilliman (a Boston College graduate transfer) are two solid players to build around. Standout cornerback Blessuan Austin is back after missing most of the 2017 season due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play and depth at the skill positions. Also, the defense has to cut down on its yards per play allowed (5.7) and generate a pass rush (16 sacks in 2017).
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018
Reason for Optimism: In their second year back on the gridiron, UAB should be one of Conference USA’s top teams after an 8-5 record last fall. Running back Spencer Brown is back after a standout freshman campaign (1,329 yards), and quarterback A.J. Erdely provides stability under center after throwing for 2,331 yards and 16 scores last fall. The bulk of UAB’s defense is back after limiting opponents to 25.6 points a game.
Reason for Concern: While the bulk of UAB’s defense returns, there are holes to fill. The linebacker unit loses Shaq Jones and Tevin Crews, while the line must replace tackle Teko Powell. The secondary will miss standout cornerback Darious Williams. The passing attack could use a few more big plays after connecting on just eight throws of 40 yards or more last fall.
Reason for Optimism: After a 2-10 debut, Virginia showed marked improvement in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season with a 6-7 record. Cornerback Juan Thornhill is back to anchor the secondary, and Chris Peace and Jordan Mack should from an effective one-two punch at linebacker. Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus returns after earning All-ACC honors last year.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Kurt Benkert, safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser have expired their eligibility. That’s three significant pieces from last year’s team to replace.
82. Middle Tennessee
Reason for Optimism: A full (and healthy) year from quarterback Brent Stockstill will keep Middle Tennessee near the top of C-USA’s East Division. The line should take a step forward after an uneven 2017 season, and the team’s top three rushers from last year also return. A defense that limited opponents to 4.95 yards per play last fall is in good shape for 2018.
Reason for Concern: The Blue Raiders must replace standout receiver Richie James, and the defense loses both starting quarterbacks. Middle Tennessee has to do a better job of taking care of the ball after sporting a minus-12 turnover margin in 2017.
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Chase Litton declared for the NFL draft, but coach Doc Holliday landed an intriguing replacement in Wagner graduate transfer Alex Thomson. The Thundering Herd’s supporting cast for Thomson is strong, as all five starters are back on the offensive line, running back Tyler King returns after leading the team in yardage as a freshman, and Tyre Brady averaged 15.2 yards per catch last fall. Marshall’s defense allowed just 4.95 yards per play in 2017 and loses just two senior starters for ’18.
Reason for Concern: How long will it take Thomson to acclimate to new play-caller Tim Cramsey? Also, the defense lost veteran coordinator Chuck Heater.
80. Louisiana Tech
Reason for Optimism: The Bulldogs have made four consecutive bowl appearances and consistently reload under coach Skip Holtz. Louisiana Tech won seven games with just a few seniors on both sides of the ball. Quarterback J’Mar Smith should continue to improve in his second year as the starter and go-to target Teddy Veal (74 catches) returns for 2018. End Jaylon Ferguson (9.5 TFL) is one of Conference USA’s top returning defenders. Cornerback Amik Robertson is a rising star to watch after leading the team with five interceptions last year.
Reason for Concern: The offense loses its top two running backs from last season. The defense must get tougher against the run after finishing ninth in Conference USA last fall.
Reason for Optimism: The Green Wave just missed out on a bowl trip last season and should have a breakthrough year in coach Willie Fritz’s third season at the helm. Quarterback Jonathan Banks had a solid debut last fall and will be even better with another offseason to work as the starter. Four starters are back on the offensive line, and top target Terren Encalade (39 catches) also returns in 2018.
Reason for Concern: Tulane is losing a few of its key players from 2017. Running back Dontrell Hilliard, linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, lineman Sean Wilson and defensive backs Jarrod Franklin and Parry Nickerson won’t be easy to replace.
Reason for Optimism: Matt Rhule is the right coach to get Baylor back into contention for finishes in the top tier of the Big 12. The Bears also helped the rebuilding process by inking one of college football’s top signing classes. Quarterback Charlie Brewer and receiver Denzel Mims are two promising pieces returning on offense.
Reason for Concern: Baylor might be a year away from making a bowl game. The program’s depth is improving, but a few areas are still in development. The offensive line must improve after giving up 38 sacks last fall. The defense surrendered 6.5 yards per play in 2017 and must take a significant step forward in order to reach a bowl game.
77. Arizona State
Reason for Optimism: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is back after a solid 2017 campaign (3,270 yards, 20 TDs). Running back Eno Benjamin is a rising star, and receiver N’Keal Harry is among the top players in the nation at his position.
Reason for Concern: New coach Herm Edwards hasn’t coached in college since 1989. It’s going to take some time to adjust. The Sun Devils lost two of their best defenders – linebacker Christian Sam and lineman JoJo Wicker – early to the NFL. The offensive line gave up 41 sacks last fall, and guard Sam Jones decided to leave early to the next level.
76. North Carolina
Reason for Optimism: Last year was expected to be a rebuilding season, so the Tar Heels should be positioned for improvement in 2018. Running backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter and receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams provide a good foundation at the skill positions.
Reason for Concern: The defense doesn’t lose much, but the departures of linebacker Cayson Collins and defensive back M.J. Stewart hurt a unit that allowed 5.85 yards per play in 2017. Will Nathan Elliott claim the full-time job at quarterback? Or will Chazz Surratt push for the top spot in the spring? The offensive line must be revamped.
Reason for Optimism: The Owls finished 2017 on a high note, winning four out of their final five games under new coach Geoff Collins. The offense should benefit from a full year from Frank Nutile under center, and the one-two punch of David Hood and Ryquell Armstead is back to anchor the ground game. Safety Delvon Randall is back after earning first-team All-AAC honors.
Reason for Concern: Two out of the team’s top three receivers are gone, and the line must replace three starters. The defense loses five out of its top nine tacklers, including standout safety Sean Chandler and linemen Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin and Julian Taylor.
Reason for Optimism: Toledo is the reigning MAC champs, and coach Jason Candle is one of college football’s rising stars. Despite the loss of quarterback Logan Woodside, the Rockets will be picked near the top of the MAC once again. Running backs Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins form an effective one-two punch on the ground, and the receiving corps is deep with options, including Cody Thompson (back from injury) and Diontae Johnson.
Reason for Concern: Replacing Woodside isn’t going to be easy. The Rockets also have to replace four starters on the offensive line and overhaul the defense.
73. Appalachian State
Reason for Optimism: The Mountaineers will boast a strong ground attack once again, as Jalin Moore (1,037 yards) and Marcus Williams (500) are set to anchor the offense next fall. Left tackle Victor Johnson is one of the top linemen in the Group of 5 ranks, while the defense returns standout cornerback Clifton Duck.
Reason for Concern: Who emerges at quarterback to replace Taylor Lamb? On defense, Appalachian State is set to lose a couple of key defenders, including end Tee Sims, safety A.J. Howard and linebackers Eric Boggs, Devan Stringer and Rashaad Townes.
72. Northern Illinois
Reason for Optimism: The Huskies rebounded from a disappointing 2016 campaign to finish 8-5 last fall. Coach Rod Carey has a team capable of winning the MAC once again, as quarterback Marcus Childers is poised for a breakout year, and standout left tackle Max Scharping leads the way in the trenches. Defensive end Sutton Smith is one of college football’s top returning defenders for 2018.
Reason for Concern: A new No. 1 running back must emerge after Jordan Huff finished his eligibility. Three of the team’s top five statistical receiving options are out of eligibility. All-MAC defenders Bobby Jones (LB) and Shawun Lurry (DB) have also finished their playing careers. Carey’s team needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball after losing 24 turnovers last season.
Reason for Optimism: Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and coach Mike MacIntyre’s team should be positioned for a run at a bowl trip in 2018. The offensive staff was shuffled, as MacIntyre looks to help quarterback Steven Montez (2,975 yards and 18 TDs) develop as a junior. Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa are back to anchor the linebacker unit after placing as the team’s top tacklers last fall.
Reason for Concern: MacIntyre has work to do on both sides of the ball. Will Montez take a step forward in 2018? Colorado’s offense will miss running back Phillip Lindsay, and the team’s top three receivers from 2017 have expired their eligibility. Top cornerback Isaiah Oliver left early for the NFL.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2018
70. North Texas
Reason for Optimism: The Mean Green boast one of Conference USA’s top offenses. Quarterback Mason Fine returns after throwing for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns last year. Running backs Nic Smith and Evan Johnson gained valuable experience late in 2017 after Jeffery Wilson was lost due to injury. Fine returns his top three receiving targets from last year, including All-C-USA receiver Jalen Guyton.
Reason for Concern: Defense. North Texas gave up 35 points per game last fall, allowed more than 200 rushing yards a contest and gave up 27 plays of 40 yards or more.
Reason for Optimism: The Trojans are led by one of college football’s top coaches on the rise in Neal Brown, and the program has won 21 games over the last two seasons. A new quarterback must emerge, but the rest of the offense is in good shape. Memphis transfer Jamarius Henderson (7.9 ypc) is due for a bigger workload in 2018, and top receiver Deondre Douglas (48 catches) also returns. Four starters are back in the trenches, and the secondary returns standouts Marcus Jones, Blace Brown and Cedarius Rookard.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up at quarterback to replace Brandon Silvers? The Trojans led the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed per game (18.5) but will have to retool the defensive line and replace linebacker Sam Lebbie.
Reason for Optimism: Frank Solich’s offense led the MAC in scoring last year, and it’s hard to envision this unit slowing down in 2018. Quarterback Nathan Rourke was a standout find from the junior college ranks, and running back A.J. Ouellette is back after rushing for 1,006 yards last fall. Left tackle Joe Lowery and guard Joe Anderson are back to anchor the line after earning second-team All-MAC honors in 2017.
Reason for Concern: Defense. Ohio’s defense must be overhauled after losing linebackers Chad Moore and Quentin Poling, along with linemen Kevin Robbins, Tony Porter, Trent Smart and Cleon Aloese. Cornerback Bradd Ellis is the lone departure in the secondary.
Reason for Optimism: P.J. Fleck. After a 5-7 finish in his first year at the helm, Minnesota should take a step forward in Fleck’s second season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the Golden Gophers reeled in a solid recruiting class. Rodney Smith is back to anchor the ground game, while receiver Tyler Johnson should push for All-Big Ten honors after catching 35 passes for 677 yards in 10 games last fall. Linebacker Thomas Barber (115 stops) leads the way on defense.
Reason for Concern: Is junior college recruit Vic Viramontes the answer at quarterback? The defense loses standout tackle Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin and two starters in the secondary. Minnesota needs more out