College football is finally back, and with it comes the return of Bleacher Report’s Top 25 rankings.
Saturday’s slate of games was barely even an appetizer for what lies ahead, but we ravenously consumed it all the same. From Colorado State’s offensive explosion to South Florida’s unexpected need for a comeback and Stanford’s evisceration of Rice, it’s hard to complain about getting to lie around for hours watching college football for the first time in more than seven months.
After soaking in all the action, Bleacher Report’s panel of CFB experts—Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Greg Wallace—convened to declare this “preseason” Top 25.
Others receiving votes: North Carolina State 5, Tennessee 5, Oregon 3, TCU 3, Colorado 1, Iowa 1, Pittsburgh 1.
Who’s Hot: Auburn Tigers
Todd J. Van Emst/Associated Press/Associated Press
In future polls, this spot will be designated for the team that makes the biggest (positive) leap from one week to the next. For this edition, though, we tracked movement with January’s Super Early Top 25 as the baseline.
Not much has changed in the past seven-and-a-half months. No team moved more than six spots in either direction, and 22 teams appeared in both polls. As a result, Auburn qualifies as hot, even though the Tigers only climbed from No. 14 to No. 10.
That may not seem like much, but it’s worth noting that they leapfrogged SEC West companion LSU and were the only SEC team to move up. All six pollsters had the Tigers ranked in the Top 11, so, yes, we are drinking the Jarrett Stidham Kool-Aid and believe that running back Kamryn Pettway can have another season at least as good as his 2016 breakout campaign.
The big question for Auburn will be the defensive line. The Tigers were 1-5 last year when they allowed more than 120 rushing yards, and the departure of end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams to the NFL will not help them in that department. The offense should be improved with Stidham running the show at quarterback, but if the defense takes a similarly sized step backward, it could be just another disappointing year for Auburn.
Who’s Not: Louisville Cardinals
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Louisville was tied for 10th at the beginning of the offseason, but for some reason, the voters fell out of love with the Cardinals. They’ll open the season at No. 16 after not ranking higher than No. 15 on any of the ballots.
Let’s call it the “returning Heisman Trophy winner” effect.
Back in January, we were so enamored with the idea of another year of Lamar Jackson wrecking opposing defenses that we may have overlooked all this team was scheduled to lose. The twitterpated feeling faded over the summer as we realized that (aside from Jackson) the Cardinals lost all four of their leaders in yards from scrimmage as well as key defensive weapons Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields and DeAngelo Brown.
To be sure, this team still has a ton of potential. Anyone who can catch a football is a candidate to become a star with Jackson at the helm, and cornerback Jaire Alexander is a first-team All-American as far as we’re concerned. Given its three straight losses to end the 2016 season, though, Louisville needs to earn its way back into our Top 10.
Fun Fact: Bryce Love’s Career Averages
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Narrowly edging Stanford’s unknown at quarterback while Keller Chryst recovered from a knee injury, the biggest offseason question about the Cardinal was whether the offense could possibly be the same without Christian McCaffrey. Despite missing two games, the 2017 No. 8 overall NFL draft pick notched more yards from scrimmage last year (1,913) than Stanford’s next three players combined (1,746).
Hidden below the radar, though, Bryce Love put up better numbers in fewer opportunities. McCaffrey averaged 6.2 yards per carry and 12.2 yards per reception in his career, but Love entered Saturday night’s opener against Rice with marks of 7.2 and 14.5, respectively.
On the Cardinal’s first play of the year, Love promptly scampered down the field for a 62-yard gain. He finished with 180 rushing yards on just 13 touches, while backup Cameron Scarlett recorded 115 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. All told, Stanford ran for 287 yards and five scores in the 62-7 blowout.
Granted, the game was against the Owls, who ranked 119th in the nation in yards allowed per carry last season and don’t appear to be any better equipped to stop a ball-carrier. However, on a day when heavy favorites BYU and South Florida looked rustier than decades-old bicycles, it was impressive to watch Stanford run a mud hole through the front seven of Rice.
Things won’t be anywhere near as easy in Week 2 against USC, but Love is a more-than-adequate leader of an offense that will score a lot of points this year.
Keep an Eye On: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Gerry Broome/Associated Press/Associated Press
The Wolfpack appeared on three of our six ballots, but it wasn’t enough to debut in the B/R Top 25. However, with an elite rushing defense and what could be one heck of a passing attack, they’re firmly on the radar.
The star of that defense is edge-rusher Bradley Chubb, who had 21 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. He anchored a group that ranked in the top 10 in the nation in both yards allowed per carry and rushing yards allowed per game, and he’s far from NC State’s only returning asset. Airius Moore, Darian Roseboro, Kentavius Street and Justin Jones are back after ranking in the top five on the team in both tackles for loss and sacks.
Most everyone knows about that defensive line, though. What few seem to realize about this team is its potential in the aerial game. Not only do the Wolfpack have Ryan Finley—who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season after transferring from Boise State—but they also still have their top four leaders in receiving yards from last year.
Now, we aren’t nearly as in love with this team as is SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic—who generated some serious Twitter buzz Friday monring with his prediction of NC State in the College Football Playoff—but at least half of this panel thinks the Wolfpack could surprise some people in the brutally difficult ACC Atlantic Division.
What to Watch For: Alabama vs. Florida State
John Raoux/Associated Press
In most weeks, it’ll be tough to decide which game is most deserving of this spot. With all due respect to Florida vs. Michigan, Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia and Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee, this is not one of those weeks.
The Crimson Tide against the Seminoles should be the best game of the entire regular season. Both teams enter the year among the favorites to reach the College Football Playoff, so this may well be a preview of a pairing we’ll see again in January.
Points should come at a premium. Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois are among the best quarterbacks in the game, but they will face arguably the two best secondaries in the country. Florida State is also in the conversation for having the best defensive line, while Alabama may have 2017’s premier corps of linebackers.
The one area in which neither team appears to hold a clear edge is running back. Alabama added top recruit Najee Harris, but he might not even play for a squad that is returning its top four leading rushers. Meanwhile, Florida State’s top recruit, Cam Akers, could be headed for a baptism by fire as either the best or second-best rushing option on the roster. That could be a big advantage for the Crimson Tide.
Regardless of how this shakes out, though, as long as it’s not a 40-point rout, don’t expect the losing team to plummet in the polls. It’s rough to open the season with a 0-1 record, but a loss to a title contender does little to nothing to hurt a team’s national championship chances.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.