Predicting the Top 20 Offenses of the 2017 College Football Season
What defines a great college football offense?
Just because a team scores a bucketload of points or piles up yards doesn’t make it elite. It depends on the competition, it depends on the players and it depends on the ability to make key plays at key moments.
The kind of offensive firepower that can carry teams to conference and national prominence and compete at the highest level separates the strong teams from the best ones. All of that is taken into consideration as Bleacher Report attempts to predict college football’s top offenses in 2017.
That’s why prolific scoring teams on lower levels that are no-brainer stat-padders such as Troy and Middle Tennessee won’t be found on this list. Yes, those teams have great offenses, but would they be great on the highest levels of competition?
It’s hard to say. But the schedules those teams play leave the question unanswered. Instead, teams that have proven they can score in big-time games, such as USC, Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State, made the list.
Others with offensive masterminds at the helm, like Tom Herman’s Texas Longhorns, Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines and Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia Mountaineers, did too.
Let’s take a look at the top 20 offenses for the upcoming season.
20. Michigan Wolverines
It’s unfathomable to think Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh won’t field a strong offense in 2017.Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Michigan lost plenty off a team that was blessed with a massive senior class left behind by former coach Brady Hoke, sending an eye-popping 14 players to the NFL combine.
But there’s a reason why the Wolverines pay Jim Harbaugh megabucks to be the head football coach.
Offense is his specialty, and with the miracles he has worked with quarterbacks seemingly left for the scrap heap the past two years, it should be exciting news in Ann Arbor that Wilton Speight is back and ready for another season at the helm of UM’s offense.
Speight completed 62 percent of his passes a year ago for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He’ll likely improve on that in his second year as the starter under Harbaugh’s tutelage. Pairing him with offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and new assistant Pep Hamilton will be big.
Chris Evans needs to be a workhorse at running back, especially since Michigan’s offensive line will be light on experience, and there are still concerns about Grant Newsome.
The loss of star tight end Jake Butt will hurt, but the Wolverines have talent at the position. At receiver, they lose Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, but neither was an explosive game-changer. UM will add one of those in true freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, who is good enough to star early.
This could be a transition year for Harbaugh before the Wolverines are consistently good, but don’t bet on it. Michigan has all the elements in place to have a good offense, even with such a difficult schedule.
19. Kansas State Wildcats
As a freshman in 2016, running back Alex Barnes looked capable of helping the Wildcats take a big offensive step.Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps the most surprising team on this list may be head coach Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats. After all, those purple jerseys haven’t screamed “offensive firepower” since the days of Michael Bishop and Darren Sproles.
But the Wildcats could make a gigantic leap in 2017. They quietly finished 9-4 a year ago, and though they finished a measly 83rd in total offense, they still scored 32.2 points per game. In a Big 12 that won’t be as strong in 2017, those numbers should improve.
Kansas State returns quarterback Jesse Ertz and star sophomore running back Alex Barnes, and those two helped aid a ground game that averaged nearly 232 yards per game a season ago. Barnes experienced his breakout game in a four-touchdown performance against Baylor.
“He was a monster,” K-State senior receiver Deante Burton told the Wichita Eagle‘s Kellis Robinett after that game. “That kid is a beast, very hard to tackle. I loved his intensity. He knew we were going to lean on him, and a lot of guys with his age would have folded under that pressure, but he grabbed the opportunity and handled it like a fifth-year senior. He went out there and made big plays for us.”
The top two receivers (Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath) are back, and the Wildcats have experience on the line, too.
All of those things should add up to a strong offense to go along with perhaps the best defense in the league.
18. Auburn Tigers
Kamryn Pettway already leads a potent Auburn rush attack that could be electric if Baylor transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham steps up.John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
Some of the past few Auburn offenses have been grumble-worthy on the Plains, especially considering head coach Gus Malzahn is considered a guru.
For instance, there is little excuse for the egg the Tigers laid in Athens, Georgia, last year with so much on the line in a late-season loss. AU’s defense played well enough to finish the season with a much better record than 8-5.
But the Jeremy Johnson experiment failed over the past couple of years, and quarterback Sean White wasn’t dynamic enough to carry the Tigers offense in important moments. When he and stud running back Kamryn Pettway got hurt, Malzahn had no answers.
With Pettway returning along with Kerryon Johnson in 2017, the Tigers will be much improved with better quarterback play. Throw Baylor transfer signal-caller Jarrett Stidham into the mix along with redshirt freshman Woody Barrett, and you’d think AU will find an able quarterback.
The money here is on Stidham, who has a cannon for an arm, enough running ability to run Malzahn’s scheme and the swagger an athlete needs to play quarterback at a high level. The best thing for the Tigers is he’s got three years of eligibility remaining.
It’s going to be a fun quarterback battle to watch, and if the Tigers find one to go along with a more experienced offensive line and a bunch of young, talented receivers, AU should have a breakout season.
All of the ingredients are there to put up big-time numbers.
17. Texas Longhorns
New Texas coach Tom Herman has a lot of weapons with which to work in Austin.Eric Gay/Associated Press
How can Texas lose one of the best running backs in the nation in D’Onta Foreman and actually improve on offense?
The short answer is new head coach Tom Herman.
A little bit of the luster may have worn off Herman during a midseason swoon at Houston last year after a breakout 2015, but it had to be difficult for the Cougars to play through all those coaching rumors swirling around their head man and the LSU and Texas jobs.
As it turned out, the Longhorns got their man, and he’ll pay big dividends in the future.
The cupboard Herman inherited from former coach Charlie Strong isn’t bare. Quarterback Shane Buechele started all 12 games as a freshman, and that means stability at the offense’s most important spot.
Throw in the fact Texas has seven scholarship running backs to fill Foreman’s shoes, led by Chris Warren, and there are enough playmakers to run Herman’s pro-spread attack.
“It will help Herman and his offensive staff that Strong opted for a wholesale move to a spread-based offensive system before last season,” wrote USA Today‘s Paul Myerberg. “Though the move didn’t save Strong’s job—and though the offense wasn’t nearly as productive as needed—the shift will pay dividends as Herman installs his potent scheme during the offseason.”
There’s a lot to like about the situation in Austin, and Texas recruited some strong players in Strong’s past two classes. The Longhorns just need the right man to make it all click.
16. South Florida Bulls
Dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers has the ability to continue the Bulls’ successful offensive run, even without former coach Willie Taggart.Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
The list now moves on from the team that fired Charlie Strong to the one that hired him. The situation in South Florida actually sets up nicely for the head coach who never really could escape negative headlines in Austin.
Now, Strong is back to his old stomping grounds of the Sunshine State where he excelled as the Gators’ defensive coordinator for so many years. He has proven he can recruit the state with the best of them while at Louisville, and the Bulls are thrilled to have him.
Strong will have one of college football’s most electric weapons around which to build in quarterback Quinton Flowers.
The 6’0″, 210-pound rising senior is the defending American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and he will lead a prolific offense that was fourth nationally in scoring and 11th in total offense a season ago.
USA Today Draft Wire’s Luke Easterling called Flowers the “best college football player you don’t know about.”
Considering Strong inherited 15 starters, there’s no reason the Bulls can’t finish as the highest Group of Five team and be a threat for a major bowl game.
The loss of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack, who declared early for the NFL Draft, will be tough, but D’Ernest Johnson is ready to take over full-time. While USF lost leading receiver Rodney Adams, the next four leading receivers are back.
Yes, the loss of left tackle Kofi Amichia is a blow, but three other offensive line starters are back for what could be a memorable season.
15. Georgia Bulldogs
With star running back Nick Chubb returning for his senior season along with Sony Michel, second-year coach Kirby Smart will have a bunch of playmakers on offense to help the Bulldogs rebound from a dismal ’16 campaign on that side of the ball.Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
The team with the most offensive firepower ranked low on this list due to the previous season is Georgia.
A lot of the untapped potential rests with rising sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason, who had all of the clout of a star coming out of high school but experienced his fair share of growing pains as a full-time freshman starter in the SEC.
There were flashes of brilliance but nothing close to resembling any consistency.
Eason will get a major boost in 2017 thanks to the return of a duo of senior running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who battled injuries in 2016 and never quite were themselves. Chubb especially returned from his gruesome knee injury and wasn’t 100 percent. A year removed from it, he should shine.
Those two should make the Bulldogs the favorite in a wide-open SEC East division that is there for the taking.
The loss of speedster Isaiah McKenzie at wide receiver hurts, but Terry Godwin and sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta should be emerging stars, and there are a lot of other young, talented players at skill positions, too.
With all the struggles the offensive line faced in 2016, that group will have a year to jell and also have an infusion of talent that will help it improve dramatically under assistant Sam Pittman in Year 2.
That’s why SEC Country’s Alec Shirkey noted he thinks offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is the SEC assistant facing the most pressure in 2017. If he doesn’t do it with all this talent, when will he?
The Dawgs should be very good on offense.
14. Washington State Cougars
Luke Falk isn’t just a system quarterback running coach Mike Leach’s offense; he is also a bona fide pro prospect.Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest reason for a ranking this high for Washington State, of course, is an offensive mastermind at head coach in Mike Leach. But he just happens to have the perfect maestro to lead his unit in quarterback Luke Falk.
The NFL prospect elected to return for his senior season in Pullman, and that’s big news for the Cougars, who will need his experience and expertise, especially considering top-two receivers River Cracraft and Gabe Marks are gone to graduation.
Falk will run the “Air Raid” as well as it can be run next season, but he needs weapons around him. Junior Tavares Martin is a safe bet to break out and get a lot of those catches that left with the departures of Cracraft and Marks.
The numbers were gaudy for the Cougars in 2016, as they finished 18th in scoring offense and total offense. But the season was largely a disappointment because of all the midseason promise that fell flat toward the end.
“It was a mixed bag,” Falk said of the season to ESPN.com’s Ted Miller. “At times, we could have played a lot better, and at times, we played at a real high level. I wish we could have finished the season off right, but we’re fixing some things that need to be fixed. We’re getting our chemistry right.”
That’s why it’s so big that Falk returned.
James Williams is back after a 584-yard freshman campaign, and even though the Cougars will never be a run-oriented team under Leach, it’s good to have a productive runner like Williams.
If WSU can strike a little balance, 2017 could be a big year.
13. Clemson Tigers
Clemson must replace a bunch of studs on offense, but receiver Deon Cain leads a group that will be as talented as anyone in the nation still, thanks to Dabo Swinney’s exceptional recruiting.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A team doesn’t just replace a generational talent in star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who took the Tigers on his shoulders to a national championship.
In addition to him, head coach Dabo Swinney must find a way to account for the losses of running back Wayne Gallman and targets Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett.
Just those four players, sans Watson, accounted for 65 percent of Clemson’s offensive touchdowns in 2016.
But there’s still a lot of experience coming back in the receiving corps thanks to Watson spraying the ball around the field, led by Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow. Tavien Feaster and C.J. Fuller have more than enough talent to excel at running back.
With a lot of strength coming back in the offensive front, that leaves the biggest question of quarterback.
It’s ludicrous the amount of talent the Tigers have at the position, even without Watson. Zerrick Cooper and stud incoming freshman Hunter Johnson are the two most talked-about candidates, and then there’s Kelly Bryant, Chase Brice and Tucker Israel.
Between those five, somebody will emerge.
That’s why it’s hard to see the Tigers taking a major step backward. An early-season out-of-conference test against Auburn will set the stage, and then the difficult ACC schedule follows. But with the way Swinney has recruited in recent years, he’s built what looks like a potential dynasty at Clemson.
This won’t be a national championship team, but it will still put up impressive numbers.
12. TCU Horned Frogs
It wasn’t a great 2016 season for the Horned Frogs, but Gary Patterson has a lot of offensive firepower coming back.Tom Pennington/Getty Images
The TCU Horned Frogs, on paper, are loaded on offense in 2017.
According to SBNation’s Bill Connelly, the Frogs return 92 percent of their offensive production in 2017 from a team that finished 29th in total offense and averaged 31 points per game. That doesn’t mean they’re without fault.
TCU must get better in third-down conversions, as ESPN.com’s Max Olson wrote, and a lot of that falls on the shoulders of quarterback Kenny Hill. The days when he dubbed himself “the Thrill” at Texas A&M are over. Now, the Frogs just want him to be a steady player.
He must improve on an uneven 2016 season, and if he does, he’ll make up a nice duo with running back Kyle Hicks. Also, five of the team’s top eight receivers are seniors, so those veterans need to step up and prove they can be difference-makers.
Not only is co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie returning along with Curtis Luper, but the Frogs added a major coaching piece in former California head coach Sonny Dykes, who joined the staff as an offensive quality control assistant.
He gives head coach Gary Patterson an all-star staff on that side of the ball, and with the dearth of defense in the Big 12 along with Oklahoma having to replace a lot on that side of the ball, the conference is wide-open for some big offensive stats.
if TCU can get over that Sooner-sized hump, the conference is there for the taking.
11. Ohio State Buckeyes
It’s a safe bet that Ohio State and quarterback J.T. Barrett will respond after being shut out by Clemson in the College Football Playoff, but to what extent?Norm Hall/Getty Images
Ohio State has become an NFL draft factory, much the way Alabama is in the South. That’s why head coach Urban Meyer must replace playmakers on both sides of the ball every year.
That’s no different in 2017 as receiver Noah Brown and running back Curtis Samuel left early. Offensive lineman Pat Elflein won’t be back, either. That’s just to name a few stars the Buckeyes must replace.
Thankfully, new Buckeyes offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will have a talented—if inconsistent—quarterback returning in J.T. Barrett to run the show. Wilson was a coup as the former Indiana head coach replaces the maligned Tim Beck, who was ousted following an uneven season calling plays.
Barrett didn’t help matters much most of the time, going from Heisman Trophy candidate to struggling to throw the ball downfield.
“We will become a good passing team, we will,” Meyer declared after the 31-0 College Football Playoff loss to Clemson, according to Land-Grant Holy Land’s E.L. Speyer. “Next year.”
If that’s going to happen, Wilson needs to get some of the talented players involved such as K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack, along with incoming recruits Trevon Grimes and Jaylen Harris to go along with Jalin Marshall.
Depth at running back is an issue behind stud Mike Weber. Cleveland.com’s Ari Wasserman speculated DeMario McCall may be moved to H-Back, and he said a big question is whether JK Dobbins and Antonio Williams can push for playing time.
There are plenty of concerns for the Buckeyes on the offensive side in 2017, but Meyer and Wilson are a formidable duo with a ton of glowing pieces. They’ll find a way to put them all together.
10. Louisville Cardinals
Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will try to make sure his Cardinals don’t repeat a late-season collapse.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Last season’s late collapse by Louisville could go one of two ways: First, it could mean college defenses around the country are learning how to scheme star quarterback Lamar Jackson. Or, it could mean Jackson spent this offseason working on diversifying his skill set to improve.
If it’s option B, the rest of the college football world should be scared.
The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback is far and away the sport’s most dynamic player on this level, especially now that Deshaun Watson is gone to the NFL. But the onus is now on head coach Bobby Petrino and the rest of the Cardinals coaching staff to not put so much on his shoulders.
They’ve got to build a better team around him.
Jaylen Smith is a star receiver in the making, but Jackson must have more time to throw the ball. That’s why Petrino brought in former Florida offensive line coach Mike Summers to help solidify that unit.
At running back, Colin Wilson was a big signee who could come in and help a group that needs a proven playmaker with Brandon Radcliff gone. Jeremy Smith and Malik Williams return, as well as Trey Smith and Dae Williams, who redshirted this past year.
But Jackson’s top three receivers are gone from the team, and there are still plenty of reasons about which to be concerned. If the Cardinals can’t answer those questions, Jackson has proven he’s elite. But is he enough to win the biggest games without much help?
The final two games of 2016 answered that.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers
With Florida transfer Will Grier eligible to play for the Mountaineers, head coach Dana Holgorsen may spray the passes all around the field again in 2017.John Raoux/Associated Press
Dana Holgorsen may just have his muse in 2017 to run the type of offense he’d love to run.
Florida transfer Will Grier will be eligible following his exit from the Gators after his suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs. The last time he was on the field, he was flinging darts and looking like he’d be the next big thing in the Swamp.
All of that spiraled down the drain, but now, he’s got a golden opportunity for a memorable second chance.
That opportunity is even more impressive thanks to all the talent around him.
At receiver, Grier will be throwing to Ka’Run White and Shelton Gibson, who are dynamic playmakers with the ball in their hands. Behind him, there is Justin Crawford, who is returning from a 1,184-yard season. Sophomores Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway have talent, too.
With Holgorsen calling plays, that’s a group that can put up some Xbox numbers.
Even with the talent, there are some questions up front.
“There’s reason to feel positive about the right side of the line, where both starters return, and some optimism about overall tackle play, with two fairly experienced options at the staff’s disposal,” USA Today‘s Paul Myerberg wrote. “But there’s no sugarcoating the holes up front: WVU is going to struggle attempting to replace center Tyler Orlosky, for one. And as a unit, this line must improve its performance in the red zone.”
It’s not nitpicking to call out issues on the front; if a team doesn’t have an offensive line, it doesn’t have an offense. But if the Mountaineers can answer those questions, it could be a very nice season in Morgantown.
8. Oregon Ducks
New head coach Willie Taggart has Royce Freeman and a lot of weapons to help the Ducks rebound from a forgettable season.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Get ready for the Ducks to soar again in 2017.
New head coach Willie Taggart is at the helm, and he has the coaching chops and the talent in place to succeed right away where former coach Mark Helfrich couldn’t.
The fall from grace for Oregon has been quick, but it isn’t like the Ducks have a dearth of talent. They should be one of the nation’s most improved teams this year and rebound from last season’s 4-8 debacle.
Quarterback Justin Herbert was a bright spot last season on a bad team, throwing for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns. The biggest recruiting coup for Taggart came when he convinced star running back Royce Freeman to return for his senior season after a junior year plagued by injuries.
“The prospect of playing for Coach Taggart my final year here was certainly a factor in my return,” Freeman said according to the Associated Press’ Anne M. Peterson. “His enthusiasm and vision for this program are contagious. I am certainly excited to be coached by him and enhance my development.”
With receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson back, all of the elements are there for Taggart to come in and exceed expectations. Toss in four freshmen offensive linemen who will be a year more seasoned, and there is belief the Ducks could improve dramatically.
Perhaps the best news for Oregon is it doesn’t have to play USC in the regular season, which bodes well for putting up big offensive numbers. If the defense can improve under Jim Leavitt, the Ducks will win a lot more games.
7. Washington Huskies
Washington quarterback Jake Browning will put up huge numbers throughout his career for the Huskies.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Washington star quarterback Jake Browning threw up some gaudy numbers in 2016, but when the Huskies lined up against elite teams such as USC and Alabama, they fell flat.
The junior quarterback will be a year more seasoned, and that will show this college football season.
He’s going to have two star running backs behind him in Myles Gaskin (1,373 yards, 10 TDs) and Lavon Coleman (852 yards, 7 TDs), who will be as good as any returning tandem in the country.
There’s no way for head coach Chris Petersen to replace John Ross, who caught 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns while running for a score and returning a kick for another one. But Washington has a group of players who could by committee.
Dante Pettis will be the bell cow of the group, and he is an electric player with the ball in his hands. If Ross’ production can be replaced, the Huskies will return to the College Football Playoff.
Receivers like Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, Quinten Pounds and Brayden Lenius could combine for those numbers, and if they all emerge, it will mean more weapons for Browning. The offensive line is stout, too.
Washington’s schedule is pretty light, and the Huskies should take advantage of that. Without Southern Cal on the regular-season schedule, that’s a reason to think Petersen’s team will again be in contention for important games at meaningful times.
There’s simply too much returning firepower and too few obstacles on Washington’s slate to believe the Huskies will take a dip in 2017. The numbers will be there, and so will the wins.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide
With running back Bo Scarbrough and others returning for Alabama, the Crimson Tide have as much potential as anybody offensively.John Bazemore/Associated Press
For all of its defensive prowess in 2016, it’s easy to forget just how potent Alabama’s offensive attack was at times under Lane Kiffin.
Now that he’s gone to take over his own program at Florida Atlantic, the caretaker of all that talent on the offensive side of the ball will be handed over to former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll. It’s safe to say the Alabama fans’ refrains of, “Run the dang ball!” will be inherited, too.
Daboll would be wise to listen.
With running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough returning, along with star prospect Najee Harris, the Crimson Tide will have an embarrassment of riches behind quarterback Jalen Hurts. That’s not even mentioning Joshua Jacobs.
At receiver, Calvin Ridley returns as one of the best pass-catchers in the nation. While ArDarius Stewart’s loss will sting, the Tide have a lot of other options, too.
The way head coach Nick Saban reloads the pantry with 5-star recruit after 5-star recruit each year, Alabama will have its share of jewels to choose from along the offensive front, and that will begin with rising star tackle Jonah Williams, who was elite as a freshman in 2016.
The biggest question for the Tide remains with Hurts, who was bad at times in key moments down the stretch. If he falters, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see freshman Tua Tagovailoa get a shot.
Daboll has a wealth of options to throw a balanced attack out there that can still impose its will on teams with its running depth. In an SEC that is still on the mend, the Tide should be the elite team again, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were carried by their offense for a change.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
Baker Mayfield is back, but how is he going to recreate all that magic without Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon?Jackson Laizure/Getty Images
Much like Clemson, Oklahoma must find a way to replace a bevy of talent from a prolific offense that torched scoreboards in 2016.
Unlike the Tigers, the Sooners get their leader back in senior quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield is a magician, extending plays with his feet, making things happen with his arm and turning dead-end plays into touchdowns. He’s a wizard when plays break down.
That may bode well in 2017.
The Sooners are going to be throwing Mayfield into life without running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon as well as Mayfield’s fellow Heisman Trophy finalist Dede Westbrook.
There will be plenty of time to find playmaking options thanks to what could be the nation’s top returning offensive line. That’s a relief for Mayfield, who has a lot of unproven weapons but a lot of options around him.
At running back, Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson return, but the most excitement perhaps revolves around incoming freshman Trey Sermon and JUCO transfer speed-burner Marcelias Sutton.
It’s Mark Andrews’ time to step up as Mayfield’s top target, but Jeff Mead and A.D. Miller have potential, too. JUCO transfer Marquise Brown has a lot of potential.
“Like the RBs, it’s not fair to assume there won’t be a small drop off for the Sooners in 2017 after replacing Westbrook, but Oklahoma will end up OK,” Brady Vardeman of SportsDay wrote. “OC Lincoln Riley has recruited well at the position during his time in Norman and there are plenty of athletes waiting in the wings.”
Head coach Bob Stoops has recruited well enough to load back up on future stars. The biggest question is how long will it take them to familiarize themselves with college football’s top returning quarterback?
4. Penn State Nittany Lions
Trace McSorley leads the Nittany Lions in what could be one of the most prolific offenses in the country.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Penn State is hardly ever known for its offense, but that changed in 2016 when head coach James Franklin found his key quarterback cog in Trace McSorley, and all of his recruiting victories began to fall in place in Happy Valley.
Though the Nittany Lions took Franklin from the edge of the hot seat to a Big Ten title, PSU’s season ended with a disappointing Rose Bowl collapse that enabled USC to come back and win. Still, it was a very successful season, and PSU has reason for excitement in 2017, too.
McSorley is back to lead what should be a high-octane offense. Star running back Saquon Barkley is back to anchor a potent ground game, and McSorley will have a bunch of options to throw to as well.
ESPN.com writer Brian Bennett tabbed PSU’s receiving corps/tight ends the best in the Big Ten on paper coming back in 2017, highlighted by the senior duo of DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki. That group would have been boosted even more, but Chris Godwin elected to forego his final season.
“What really puts this group over the top, however, is tight end Mike Gesicki,” Bennett wrote. “A rare big-time playmaker at his position, Gesicki is a go-to guy for Trace McSorley who is capable of making spectacular catches.”
Nobody expected PSU to come out of nowhere and be a contender in the Big Ten, yet the Nittany Lions won the league. Now, with the Wolverines and Buckeyes rebuilding somewhat, the conference is there for the taking again.
Franklin has the weapons in position to do that.
3. Florida State Seminoles
Quarterback Deondre Francois has a lot of targets, such as Auden Tate (pictured).Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports
Florida State lost Dalvin Cook to the NFL, and despite one of the nation’s top playmakers being gone, the Seminoles will still be a terror to defend in 2017.
That’s because they’ve got everything on offense you could ever ask for.
At quarterback, Deondre Francois had some high and low moments in his first year starting as a redshirt freshman, but for the most part, he showed flashes of being a prolific playmaker who improved as the season wore on. In key moments late in the year, he looked good.
Many of his top targets return, even though Travis Rudolph left for the NFL. Though he and Cook will be big losses, they aren’t irreplaceable. The way Jimbo Fisher has recruited to Tallahassee, there are plenty of elite players waiting in the wings.
Perhaps the most exciting new name to watch is star running back signee Cam Akers, who may just be the best high school runner in the country. He’s the kind of player who can come in and make an immediate impact.
Akers will team with Jacques Patrick to give FSU another formidable offensive backfield.
Though the ‘Noles’ offensive line was a weak link in 2016, it won’t be this year. Landon Dickerson got experience and will be a much better player as a sophomore. Alec Eberle and Brock Ruble improved throughout the season, and they return as well.
So this may be considered a little bit high for some, but the Seminoles should be dynamic in 2017. If they are, Fisher may just have his team playing for the national championship.
2. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Receiver Jalen McCleskey and the rest of the Cowboys’ offensive weapons could be the best in the Big 12 in 2017.Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports
There is no question the Oklahoma State Cowboys, head coach Mike Gundy and college football’s best head-coaching hairstyle have the Big 12 title in their sights for 2017.
With as much offensive firepower returning as they have, anything less would be a disappointment.
It all starts with quarterback Mason Rudolph, who will have stud receivers such as James Washington, Jalen McCleskey, Marcell Ateman and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson to fling the ball around to. Washington, especially, should have a big year after eschewing the NFL draft to return to Stillwater.
These Cowboys aren’t just a one-shot show, though. They’ve also got some running power in the form of Justice Hill, who was one of the nation’s most productive freshmen, running for 1,142 yards in his first college season.
Hill will miss spring drills after having shoulder surgery, but it doesn’t seem to be anything concerning Gundy, who told NewsOK.com’s John Helsley: “He had it fixed and now he’ll feel like new.”
That’s great news for Oklahoma State, which needs its star runner to be healthy. As good as Rudolph is, Hill is the type of player who can balance the strong passing game Gundy is known for developing and make the Cowboys a next-level team.
They’ve won 10 or more games in five of the past seven seasons, but this could be the year the Cowboys break through for bigger things. They’ve got the offensive stars in the right positions in which to do that.
1. USC Trojans
USC coach Clay Helton has a lot going for him in Los Angeles.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Holding down the top spot as the most effective, efficient and electric offense that could carry its team to a championship level is Clay Helton’s USC Trojans.
With rising sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold at the helm, the Trojans are the emerging darlings of college football after a dismal stretch for the program over the past few years and the forgettable regimes of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.
USC’s rousing Rose Bowl comeback win over Penn State capped a brilliant season that started with Darnold on the bench watching the Trojans get shellacked by Alabama. That team came further than any other through the course of the season.
“USC is back in the national spotlight,” Sporting News’ Bill Bender wrote. “The question now is whether the Trojans can handle the high expectations in 2017 after a 10-3 season that culminated with a thrilling 52-49 victory against Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl Game.”
The answer is yes because of Darnold and the offense.
Yes, Juju Smith-Schuster is gone, but Deontay Burnett is capable of being a No. 1 receiver. Daniel Imatorbhebhe leads a group of players who should make up a talented stable of receiving options.
At running back, blossoming star Ronald Jones II is back following a 1,000-yard campaign, and Aca’Cedric Ware looks like he could be a playmaker, too. That’s not even mentioning the jewel of USC’s star-studded class in running back Stephen Carr.
There’s just too much talent on that side of the ball for there to be any drop-off at all. This is the year USC lights up the scoreboard and wins big.
Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered on CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter: @Brad_Shepard.