Across the States, aficionados of America’s Game sit twiddling their thumbs and twitching at every noise and vibration from their phone. If they’re at home, their eyes switch between ESPN, to their phone screen, to a laptop, and back again. If they’re at work it will be the first item to be checked off the break-time to-do-list. Even before making a coffee.
Yes, I’m referring to the release of the annual Associated Press (AP) Top 25 – the signal that the chaos of college football is back and debate can commence immediately.
The Top 25 is a list that ranks the best 25 college teams in the country and is the final measuring point before mid-season. Teams at the top have to balance outside pressures and in-house ambitions. Teams that slip or rise compared to the last season will set out to prove people wrong – or right. And teams that miss out altogether? Count that as a chip on their shoulder the size of Alabama. Alabama’s flagship program itself tops the three most widely-known and contested lists (there is not one definitive Top 25; the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll and the Sports Illustrated Top 25 are the main three but the former is seen as the daddy).
The top four teams at the end of the year contest the College Football Playoff: the winners of the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl semi-finals will face off for the National Championship at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on January 9 2017.
So here is the Helmets and Haggis Top 25:
1- Alabama Crimson Tide. The defence is as strong as ever despite losing a few players to the recent draft – they’ve recruited so well that it will make up for it. On offense the quarterback situation is not ideal but this program can win – and has won – with game managers in the past. They’ll run at you first, and have an NFL-ready tight end in O.J. Howard and wide receiver Calvin Ridley is already filling (perhaps outgrowing) Amari Cooper’s boots.
2- Clemson Tigers. Deshaun Watson will be the face of college football this year. He played so well last season he may well have been the first pick in the NFL Draft – but he’ll take that mantel next year. Offensively most integral starters return with Watson, like Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman. 6’4″ receiver Mike Williams is back which will add a true deep threat to the offense. The defence has lost influential players like Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander but guys like defensive tackle Carlos Watkins will ensure this is a top defence once again.
3- Michigan Wolverines. If Jim Harbaugh’s intention was to make Michigan the epicentre of college football, he succeeded. Ten-fold. This offseason has been one of the most bizarre ever. Among other things, Harbaugh has been pictured topless, welcomed in new enrolees at a star-studded event with Tom Brady (dabbing at said event, too), held a successful satellite camp tour that invoked nationwide envy and debate and wore the jerseys of multiple NFL teams to try and win kids over. Not to mention a few spats along the way. Actually on the field though? This team really is good. The defence boasts two of the best players in the country in Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers. Other players like Chris Wormley will be early-round picks in the next NFL draft. It will be hard but this defence could be even better than last year. De’Veon Smith will do what Harbaugh wants: run hard. That’s his A-game. The passing game will rely on star receivers Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. Whatever quarterback wins out, Harbaugh will mentor and train to be an effective passer, like he did with Jake Rudock (who at this point last year was less-skilled than both Houston transfer John O’Korn and junior Wilton Speight are). Rest assured Harbaugh knows who his QB is already, but he wants to keep the nation guessing. It means they still talk about Michigan. He’s like the Jose Mourinho (and Sir Alex Ferguson) of college football.
4- Florida State Seminoles. Running back Dalvin Cook is a Heisman Trophy candidate. We may not know if Deondre Francois would have beaten out senior Sean Maguire for the quarterback job but the latter’s injury opens the floor for the redshirt freshman. Normally that’s a bad sign, but the last time a redshirt freshman QB started for FSU? They only went undefeated, on the road to winning a national championship; the QB won the Heisman Trophy himself. He then went on to be the number one overall pick in the draft.
5- Oklahoma Sooners. Baker Mayfield is an exciting talent. He can beat you with his arm or his legs. Add in the fact he has Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon to hand the ball off to and the Sooners have a three-headed monster that can come at you. The loss of Sterling Shepard to the NFL will definitely hurt though. They’ll hope Penn State transfer Geno Lewis can fill the big-play void. On defence, the Sooners boast perhaps the most exotic defence in their conference. They vary looks and schemes week-in week-out and have the ability to surprise with blitzes. That means they will keep offenses on their toes – even if the names on the unit aren’t known nationwide, outside of maybe Jordan Thomas, their stud cornerback.
6- Ohio State Buckeyes. Urban Meyer has been looking over his shoulder at Michigan since the rumours of Harbaugh’s return. Now he’s looking at them from behind. The Buckeyes have recruited well but they just lost a record of number of players to the NFL. The quarterback situation is in a much better spot than last year and J.T. Barrett will hope to return to his record-breaking 2014 form. But he won’t have Ezekiel Elliott to hand off to. Players who accounted for 80% of OSU’s catches last year are gone but the pass game was always secondary for Meyer anyway. Defensively will Nick Bosa, younger brother of first-rounder Joey, be able to replace his game-wrecking talent? Who becomes the leader of the defence now that Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are gone from the linebacker corps and Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell are no longer in the secondary? The Buckeyes stay so high despite the questions because their quarterback can do a lot on his own and their freshmen should be the top contributors in the nation.
7- LSU Tigers. Leonard Fournette. The LSU running back almost single-handedly puts his team in the top 10. He’s up their with the best to play the position in years (Adrian Peterson included). Brandon Harris is just such a huge question mark at quarterback but if he shows progress this team is in the playoff hunt. A strong front seven and NFL-calibre talents in the secondary like Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams will ensure the defence is not on the field for long very often.
8- Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee has never (and was never) going to be the same team when Peyton Manning left all those years ago. But no one expected just how low the program would plunge post-Manning. After initial success in the early to mid-noughties, the Vols from 2011-2013 had three 5-7 win-loss seasons. Now they are well and truly back. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is the polar opposite of Manning from a playmaking standpoint – in that he’s more likely to make big plays with his legs than his arm – but he’s a talented kid. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara complement each other well as a 1-2 punch of power and speed. On defence, the Vols want to rush the passer first and foremost. Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be the focal point of that, while cornerback Cameron Sutton will be asked to make plays in the secondary (and on special teams). They have a tough schedule, especially in the four weeks before their bye (home to Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, home to Alabama) but if they can come out of that stretch with a positive record they can win the SEC East.
9- The Stanford Cardinal. Head coach David Shaw doesn’t need a quality quarterback to win games. Kevin Hogan didn’t have a strong arm and wasn’t very mobile. Keller Chryst is young and inexperienced but he’ll be an upgrade over Hogan, if not now then certainly in the long run. For now, his unpredictability is an asset. Without doubt his main asset though is do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey. The Heisman Trophy candidate amassed 2,654 yards from scrimmage last season, with eight touchdown runs and five touchdown catches. Add in his dynamic, game-breaking abilities on returns and you have perhaps the most complete skill-position player in the league. The 6’0″, 200-lb back is a joy to watch. Defensively, what’s to like about Stanford is not how talented they are but how well coached they are. Solomon Thomas is an athletic freak, having one of them around always helps.
10- Notre Dame Fighting Irish. We don’t know how long it will last but Notre Dame are going to start two quarterbacks in their Texas opener. Malik Zaire was named the starter last season before an injury early in the season that meant DeShone Kizer had to step up. And step up he did: to the tune of a Fiesta Bowl berth. Whatever happens down the line, the Fighting Irish QB will miss Ronnie Stanley’s outstanding protection and Will Fuller’s blazing speed at receiver. Josh Adams will likely be the starting running back after he broke school records for a freshman. On defence Notre Dame can surprise anyone with their pressure but the loss of game-changing linebacker Jaylon Smith to the NFL is a huge blow. Teams had to game plan for him (and they couldn’t). Notre Dame could’ve missed out on the top ten if the teams behind them were a little better. I wouldn’t be surprised if they slip down the list, it all depends on how the QB situation pans out, but the talent is definitely there.
11- Iowa Hawkeyes. C.J. Beathard can win games. He might not receive the national attention that other Big 10 quarterbacks inevitably will but he makes plays with both his strong arm and efficient legs. He’s a good scrambler when need be but the offensive line is so good and well-drilled that he won’t need to run out of the pocket often. Desmond King is possibly the best corner in the nation. He has good size (5’11”, 203 lbs) and speed and, most importantly, the ability to snatch the football (as evidenced by his eight interceptions last year). He may well have been the second cornerback off the board in this year’s draft (some liked him even more than Vernon Hargreaves, too).
12- Michigan State Spartans. Mark Dantanio is an outstanding coach. One of the nation’s best. His team can count themselves unlucky to not be ranked higher but the departure of Connor Cook means the quarterback situation is made worse by the fact that only one receiver with more than two catches last season returns and the offensive line has one combined start amongst five men. Cook’s favourite receiver Aaron Burbidge is gone too. On the back end, there is a talented secondary with Vayonte Copeland coming back from a vertebrae injury. Ed Davis and Malik McDowell are terrific talents on a front seven that will put fear into opposing offenses (the latter a sure-fire first-rounder). Even though QB Tyler O’Connor showed promise against Ohio State, he doesn’t have the same talent and stability around him that Cook had. The Spartans rank below the Hawkeyes in spite of the fact they beat them in the Big 10 Championship Game because they lose more key personnel.
13- Ole Miss Rebels. Chad Kelly is the best senior quarterback in the Power Five conferences. That counts for something. He’s also the nephew of NFL Hall 0f Fame QB – and cancer survivor – Jim Kelly. That could counts for something more. But the nephew of the former Buffalo Bills hero has had a controversy-filled college career and his instihas also been put under the spotlight for the wrong reasons recently. No-one can shy away from the Rebels’ signal-caller lethal arm and active legs, though. The loss of Laremy Tunsil will hurt the offensive line more than the loss of Laquon Treadwell will hurt the receiving corps but both mean there is a lot of faith being put in Kelly’s abilities.
14- Houston Cougars. Greg Ward Jr. is a likable kid. That’s both on and off the field. He’s a dynamic talent on it and a calm, lead-by-example type off of it. Comparing him to recent former college dual-threat quarterbacks is hard. He’s elusive and agile like Russell Wilson but faster. His straight-line speed isn’t the same as Robert Griffin III, but his acceleration over five to ten yards is probably quicker. He’s six inches and 65 lbs smaller than Cam Newton. What all this means is Ward Jr. is a unique talent. On the other side of the ball, the Cougars lose leading cornerback William Jackson III to the NFL but Brandon Wilson is a playmaker (he can also play running back and return kicks); his coverage skills are what need to improve. Defensive tackle B.J. Singleton and linebacker Steven Taylor will lead the unit. Their opener against Oklahoma presents a sort of catch-22 situation: It’s Houston’s biggest game but the same cannot be said for the Sooners and moreover, if the Cougars lose there’s no chance they’ll make the playoff conversation – even if they win out from there – but if Oklahoma lose they can still work their way back into the picture. One could also argue that even if Houston win, because it’s so early in the season it might not matter come December.
15- Georgia Bulldogs. New head coach Kirby Smart has zero experience at that level – but his training could not have taken place in a better situation: under Nick Saban at Alabama. However, Smart’s focus has not been on the defensive side. It’s been all offense – specifically the quarterback situation. First team reps have been toing and froing between senior Greyson Lambert and freshman Jacob Eason. Lambert transferred from Virginia and posted a 10-2 record last season, throwing for just under 2,000 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Eason is more talented but of course less experienced. Regardless of who starts, the numbers won’t be gaudy because of the two stellar running backs: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They’re the latest in a line of productive recruits at the position for Georgia and – bold prediction – will end up going for over 1,200 yards from scrimmage, each. The defence will only improve under Smart and the personnel is already there for the new boss to implement what he wants. He just won’t have the depth up front he did at Alabama and he’ll have a Leonard Floyd-shaped void to fill rushing the passer. In the back end they can build on a secondary led by junior safety Dominick Sanders. Georgia had a 10-win season in 2015 but the average win total for the last eight coaches hired in the SEC is seven. So, touching back on the QB front, what will probably happen is that Lambert starts initially but as Smart adjusts to juggling all sorts of duties from play-calling to player health and who talks to the media, blame for the inevitable misfires falls at Lambert’s feet and the clamour to start Eason increases (Tennessee are one of the best teams at stopping the run so we may see Eason starting one week later against South Carolina).
16- Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals retain 18 starters this year and quarterback Lamar Jackson is the most important. Though similar in stature to former Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater*, the two are like chalk and cheese in their play styles. Jackson wants to open up the defence by breaking out of the pocket and making throws on the run or taking it upfield himself. He ran for a school freshman-record 960 yards last year and rushed for more yards than he threw three times (in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M, Jackson posted 227 yards through the air and 226 yards on the ground). Outside linebacker Devonte Fields will be the team’s primary pass rusher and his 4.62 40 yard dash time would have been eighth fastest at this year’s combine (it’s also faster than the times ran by nine wideouts). Safety is Josh Harvey-Clemons is 6’5″, 238 lbs. Enough said.
*Tough break for Bridgewater, by the way. The Minnesota Vikings were looking like serious contenders this year and not just in their division. And Bridgewater is a likable guy.
17- Washington Huskies. Sports Illustrated has the Huskies as high as seventh on their Top 25. The Huskies improved towards the end of last season but still finished 7-6, and the year before were only 8-6. They’re fast on both sides, with safety Budda Baker and do-it-all slot receiver John Ross III. The latter missed last year but in 2014 started four games at corner and three at receiver, and had two touchdowns on kick returns. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin can grow together, with the latter topping all freshmen for rushing yards (1,348) and rushing TDs (14).
18- TCU Horned Frogs. TCU lost their two best offensive players to the 2016 NFL Draft: receiver Josh Doctson and quarterback Trevone Boykin. Running back Aaron Green was important too but he will be easier to replace. The scheme won’t change much at all, in fact. They will still utilise that up-tempo, spread attack. Kenny Hill will be the man to replace Boykin but who will but Doctson’s production will likely be achieved by a committee. The defence will go back to being the program’s pride and joy. James McFarland returns at end following a team-leading seven sacks in 2014; fellow senior Josh Carraway led the team in 2015 with nine while McFarland was sidelined. Travin Howard and Ty Summers are up-and-coming linebacker talents. Junior cornerback Ranthony Texada does for the Horned Frogs what Richard Sherman does for the Seattle Seahawks.
19- UCLA Bruins. If NFL teams could take players out of high school in the way they do in baseball and basketball, there’s a genuine chance someone would have done that with quarterback Josh Rosen, UCLA’s record-breaking starter as a freshman. Last year he completed 60% of his passes while throwing for 3,670 yards. He’s not a runner per se, but he’s mobile enough. Of course, if they had done that they would not have noticed Rosen’s brazen yet nonchalant character. He’s an enigma but boy is he talented. The Bruins’ will switch to a more pro-style attack under new coordinator Kennedy Polamalu and that will only make the sophomore QB’s stats better and improve his overall play in general. Rosen will miss Paul Perkins at running back though and Rosen is the type of guy who makes his receivers look better, not the other way around. Eddie Vanderdoes’ return on defence is huge and he’ll lead the line. The secondary is one of the deepest in the conference and safeties Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood are the best of the bunch but corner Fabian Moreau could go higher in the draft than both if he has a bounce back year.
20- North Carolina Tar Heels. Running back Elijah Hood and receiver Ryan Switzer make the team tick on offense: they are still waiting for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to consistently play to his potential. The defence was a mess in 2014 and coordinator Gene Chizik helped turn that around last year but they still have a way to go (the Tar Heels finished tenth or worse in their conference in sacks and run defence). Their secondary is the brightest spot, headlined by corners M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence.
21- Oklahoma State Cowboys. Quarterback Mason Rudolph has proved his talent and effectiveness and so the biggest question is: Who will replicate Emmanuel Ogbah’s immense defensive production (28 sacks along with eight passes defended in his career)? Despite Rudolph’s presence there are still questions on the offensive side: Is the running game good enough to compete for a title? The addition of Barry Sanders Jr. shouldn’t be considered a second coming. Wideout James Washington should improve on his personal production from 2015 because slot receiver David Glidden is in the NFL and this will mean more targets – but then will it mean Rudolph is throwing into double coverage more?
22- Florida Gators. The Gators have some stars on defence that will help negate the losses of Vernon Hargreaves and Antonio Morrison. Some scouts like junior corner Jalen Tabor more than Hargreaves and Jarrad Davis has been compared to Jonathon Vilma, Jon Beason and Ray Lewis by his position coach Randy Shannon. Tabor had four interceptions in 2015 while Davis made 98 stops with 11 tackles for loss. The quarterback situation at UF has been a bit of a mess – an embarrassment even – for the past couple of years (and not always because of poor play). Now Luke del Rio steps in and head coach Jim McElwain is ready for improvement in year two.
23- Oregon Ducks. For the second consecutive season the Ducks will look to a transfer from the FCS for their starting quarterback. This year: Dakota Prukop from Montana State. Prukop increased his passing touchdown total from 17 to 28 last year and while that doesn’t match Vernon Adams Jr.’s eye-widening 55 and 35 from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the former Bobcat can boast double-digit rushing touchdowns in both his years as a starter. Their unique offense might not be as special as it was but running back Royce Freeman is. Defensively the Ducks have to deal with the loss of man-mountain DeForest Buckner, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, as well as a shift to a 4-3 defence. Regardless, the tempo with which the Ducks play always makes them a tough outfit to suss out, even if they’re not to be feared on a national standing like they once were.
24- Miami Hurricanes. Could this be Brad Kaaya’s year? He was the ACC rookie of the year in 2014 and named All-ACC last year. The Heisman Trophy and an ACC Championship berth could be on the horizon for the future first-round pick. Kaaya is a better version of Jared Goff and new head coach Mark Richt, who comes over from Georgia, will only be good for him. Manny Diaz arrives as the new defensive coordinator and that should help improve that unit.
25- USC Trojans. The Trojans have two Heisman Trophy candidates in wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and cornerback (and part-time receiver) Adoree Jackson. Both are genuine speed freaks and will be asked to help out new quarterback Max Browne, who takes over from the underrated Cody Kessler. Jackson is also a threat on returns but it’s on defence where he’ll need to make his mark more consistently: he batted down six passes in 2015 but only had one interception (granted, he returned it 46 yards for a touchdown).
Just missing out – and why: Baylor Bears – a tumultuous last nine or so months weighs too heavily on a team that doesn’t have the talent it did a year ago. Texas Longhorns – too many unanswered questions, simple. Utah Utes – can count themselves unlucky; just don’t have the same talent as teams above. Boise State Broncos – they’ve set the standard for the Group of Five teams but are entering a lull. Wisconsin Badgers – see Utah.
And there you have it. Let the chaos commence.