Who Wins the 2017/2018 College Football Playoff title: Early top 10 contenders and a darkhorse

Alabama Crimson Tide at No. 1 until further notice
By Adam Jacobi, The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 9, 2017 at 1:15 PM
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As the final minutes tick off in the 2016 season, it's already time to start looking ahead to the next season. Everyone starts the season undefeated, as the saying goes, but if we're being honest some teams have more reason for optimism than others.

Here are the top 10 teams with a shot at hoisting The Golden Parentheses or whatever we're supposed to call that championship trophy in January 2018.

1. Alabama

Of course it's Alabama at No. 1 until further notice. Jalen Hurts returns at quarterback, and he's surrounded by elite talent. RBs Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris will be among the best backfield combinations in the NCAA. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart will be among the best wideout combinations in the NCAA. The line, anchored by guard Ross Pierschbacher and tackle Jonah Williams, will be among the best blocking units in the NCAA. Noticing a pattern? Yes, Bama's defense will take a significant step back, but it's not enough to doubt the Crimson Tide.

At this point, the only coach in America who can hold Alabama down is Nick Saban, and his entire modus operandi (recruiting, game preparation, assistant coaching staff) is about ensuring that doesn't happen. Sorry, Bear Bryant, but Saban is the best coach college football has ever seen. Bama's No. 1, and you don't want Bama.

2. Florida State

As Florida State outlasted Michigan in the Orange Bowl, it was easy to wonder how on earth FSU lost three ACC games. The amount of talent in Tallahassee is simply overwhelming, and that'll continue to be the case in 2017. QB DeAndre Francois should take his next step as a signalcaller after a successful freshman campaign, and he has a deep, deep well of receivers to depend on, even as WR Kermit Whitfield graduates and RB Dalvin Cook enters the draft early. WR Travis Rudolph and OT Roderick Johnson may join them in leaving early; FSU could surely use some good news on either of them.

On defense, only two seniors depart, though FSU was sufficiently shaky last year that maybe having the vast majority of the starters back isn't the "best" news. Still, it's easy to get excited about defenders like LB Matthew Thomas, who registered 15 tackles against Michigan, and All-ACC DT Derrick Nnadi. Both are back for senior campaigns and poised for monster years.

3. Oklahoma

Bad news for the Big 12: Baker Mayfield's back. The Sooners' dynamic quarterback announced he would return for his senior season, and he's coming back behind a ferocious offensive line that returns four starters (and an easy fill-in at center in rising senior Jonathan Alvarez). OU loses superlative talents Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon to the NFL Draft, but the Sooners will probably miss WR Dede Westbrook more. Still, there's no shortage of athleticism behind these NFL-bound playmakers.

The Sooners' nonconference slate will be a little easier to handle in 2017, which is an odd thing to say about a team that has to travel to Columbus to face Ohio State. That game should be tough but competitive, though, and if OU comes out of The 'Shoe with a victory, running the table is wholly plausible in a Big 12 that lacks another elite contender.

4. Ohio State

The conventional wisdom going into 2016 was that Ohio State was a year away from making its title run. The Buckeyes did that anyway, landing the No. 3 seed in the CFB Playoff, and they're still equipped for another title run. QB J.T. Barrett announced his return to campus, and he'll continue to rewrite OSU's record books under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day.

Another slew of early entrants to the NFL Draft, including three solid defenders, takes some shine off OSU's title hopes. But there's still a ton of talent there in Columbus, and the Buckeyes' only road game against a team that will finish ranked this season is at Michigan, a venue they're certainly not afraid of.

5. Penn State

The clock struck midnight on Penn State's Cinderella run before the Rose Bowl's clock hit zero, but that doesn't mean the fairy tale is ending for the Nittany Lions. QB Trace McSorley leads the high-octane passing game back for another go, and RB Saquon Barkley is on a short, short list of Heisman candidates for 2017. The young line will be even better, and the PSU defense doesn't lose much talent.

That said, the schedule does PSU few favors, including a trip to Columbus to face an angry Ohio State squad and crossover road trips to Iowa and Northwestern along with home dates with Michigan and Nebraska. For as charmed a season as Penn State had in 2016, those close games may not swing the way of the blue and white so consistently this year.

6. Clemson

Losing Deshaun Watson will hurt. Let's get that out of the way right now. Clemson has some intriguing prospects in the pipeline right now, but expecting anything like Watson's production out of Hunter Johnson or one of the other competing QBs is probably too much. Clemson also loses juniors at WR (Mike Williams Jr. and, in all likelihood, Artavis Scott) and RB (Wayne Gallman), but there should be less of a drop-off in production from the talented underclassmen who will step up into starting roles in 2017.

Past that, Clemson still shares a division with Louisville and Florida State, and Auburn won't be a kind guest in Week 2. Dabo Swinney has recruited this team excellently and they're hardly rebuilding. But they are losing some serious NFL talent from 2016, and that's enough to ding the Tigers.

7. Wisconsin

Don't look now, but Paul Chryst might be every bit as perfect a fit in Madison as Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema were. Chryst loses just a handful of seniors (and NFL-bound junior OLB T.J. Watt) from a team that won 10 games against a murderous schedule, and the Badgers' 2017 slate looks to give them the inside track to another Big Ten West championship. Freshman QB Alex Hornibrook grew into the role while sharing snaps with departing Bart Houston, and he'll have at least four starters back from the line. OT Ryan Ramczyk received a first-round grade from the NFL, and while he hasn't officially declared for the draft, it's coming soon.

It's sad to see RBs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale depart, but surprise: just like every year dating back to the '90s, Wisconsin's loaded with talented tailbacks waiting to take their place. Watch out for Chris James, who followed Chryst from Pitt and will be ready to roll in 2017: he's a workout monster and should thrive behind the Badger line.

8. USC

QB Sam Darnold was an absolute revelation in 2016 as a redshirt freshman, throwing for over 3,000 yards despite not starting until Week 4. He'll miss wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but the bigger losses might be on the offensive line, as USC must replace both starting tackles and early NFL entrant Damien Mama. If Clay Helton's a capable developer of talent, USC should still be dangerous on offense.

The defense should be strong up front once again, as USC welcomes back Rasheem Greene and Porter Justin on the edges and Cameron Smith at inside linebacker. All three can challenge for first-team All-Pac 12. But plenty of optimism hangs on the decision of Adoree' Jackson, who was sensational as both a cornerback and a returner. He hasn't officially declared for the NFL yet, but his Rose Bowl ankle injury shouldn't be enough to affect his draft stock. If he's back, feel free to move USC up a few spots, but that would be a surprise.

9. Auburn

There's no position where Auburn struggled more than at quarterback in 2016, and that's a shame; the team was loaded with talent everywhere else. Former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham seemed to have noticed that too, and he declared for Auburn in December. As he already spent a season off in community college after the Art Briles fiasco at Baylor, Stidham should be ready to immediately challenge Sean White and John Franklin III for the starting spot.

Early entrant Carl Lawson is a tough loss at rush end for Auburn, who also loses Montravius Adams at DT to graduation. Likewise, offensive linemen Alex Kozan and Robert Leff won't be easy to replace. But Braden Smith should coast to another All-SEC nomination in 2017, whether coaches keep him at guard or move him to tackle, and former five-star recruit Darius James should dominate as a senior at left tackle.

10. Georgia

In his first season at the helm of UGA, Kirby Smart experienced something that haunted predecessor Mark Richt often: the sting of losing a completely winnable division. But if Georgia stays healthy, 2017 should be a much happier campaign.

Jacob Eason struggled as a freshman at quarterback, but he flashed the reasons why he was starting to begin with -- he's got a huge arm and all the physical skills a coach could ask for. He needs to improve, but young quarterbacks typically do. Also back are Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two outstanding rushers who'll power the offense as Eason continues to develop. Add years of strong recruiting and yet another iffy SEC East, and Georgia looks ready to vie for a conference championship.

SEE ME IN 2018: Michigan

The Wolverines lose an unholy amount of talent from 2016, including basically the entire first string on defense. Jim Harbaugh rotated enough players that he won't be depending on guys who have never seen the field before, but he's retooling basically everywhere but at quarterback -- and QB Wilton Speight wasn't tremendous against the better defenses he played.

That said, Harbaugh recruits like a madman, and the pieces are there for Michigan to stay good enough for a darkhorse Big Ten East run. And if there's anything Urban Meyer has taught us, it's that replacing NFL talent with high-level recruits leads to less of a drop-off than most fans would fear. But this team's probably a year away from having title hopes.

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