Either Alabama will continue its modern college football dynasty Monday night, or Clemson will exact its revenge and claim its first title in 36 years.
The College Football Playoff championship game is a rematch from a classic title showdown a year ago. It’s also the official end of the 2016 season. Most teams have already begun to shift their focus to 2017 while also trying to put the final touches on the current recruiting cycle.
This was a weird college football season. Finding challengers for the Crimson Tide without significant flaws was a problem. Then a small pack of teams broke free of everyone, and there was so much chaos behind them that Ohio State, Clemson and Washington all sustained losses on Oct. 22 or later and still reached the College Football Playoff.
There is still plenty of movement to come before opening week rosters are set for the 2017, but one thing already seems clear: While everyone might be chasing Nick Saban and Alabama again next year, there are going to be more teams that look up to the challenge. Several of the top teams in the nation in 2016 might actually be better in 2017 because of the amount of talent those schools have returning.
Here is Land of 10’s first look at the way-too-early top 25 (and beyond) for the 2017 football season:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2016 S&P+ rank: 1
2014-16 recruiting: 1st, 1st, 1st
Top 2017 games: vs. Florida State in Atlanta, vs. LSU, at Auburn
Could it be anybody else? OK, so the Crimson Tide are going to lose six starters for sure on defense, and a couple others could leave early. They are also going to return a lot of great players on offense, and no school in America has as many potentially great players waiting for their turn. Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley and a small army of great running backs will score a lot of points, and Saban will plug in new blue-chip talents to help Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison wreak havoc.
Key losses: LB Reuben Foster, DL Jonathan Allen, DL Tim Williams, TE O.J. Howard
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 S&P+ rank: 3
2014-16 recruiting: 3rd, 7th, 4th
Top 2017 games: vs. Oklahoma, vs. Penn State, at Michigan
Ohio State lost a bunch of players to the 2016 draft, and the Buckeyes are going to lose a bunch to the 2017 draft. This Ohio State team was really young, though, and a lot of impact players have to return because they’re not eligible yet. Urban Meyer needs to find a wide receiver or three and some more depth on the offensive line. It does have trips to Nebraska and Iowa on the schedule as well, but Ohio State will be formidable in the Big Ten and CFP races again.
Key losses: DB Malik Hooker, DB Gareon Conley, LB Raekwon McMillan, WR Noah Brown
3. Florida State Seminoles
2016 S&P+ rank: 6
2014-16 recruiting: 4th, 3rd, 2nd
Top 2017 games: vs. Alabama in Atlanta, at Clemson, vs. Louisville
The Seminoles are losing one of the best running backs in the country and one of the best pass rushers, but they are also returning a ridiculous amount of talent. They need to get better on the offensive line, specifically to help keep Deondre Francois healthy. All-American candidate Derwin James will be back to lead the defense, and the combination of Josh Sweat and Brian Burns should be able to replace a lot of Demarcus Walker’s production. That opening weekend game against Alabama is going to be incredible.
Key losses: RB Dalvin Cook, DE Demarcus Walker, CB Marquez White
4. Southern Cal Trojans
2016 S&P+ rank: 8
2014-16 recruiting: 10th, 2nd, 10th
Top 2017 games: vs. Texas, vs. Stanford, at Notre Dame
The Trojans will begin next season on a nine-game winning streak, and quarterback Sam Darnold will be considered one of the top contenders to unseat Lamar Jackson for the Heisman Trophy. Ronald Jones also will be back. Deonta Burnett had 13 catches and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl, and he’ll be back. Even if do-everything defensive back Adoree Jackson leaves, the defense will have a lot of talent back as well. Maybe most importantly, Clay Helton could provide some stability to help all of that young talent develop. The Trojans also won’t play Washington or Oregon and gets Stanford at home.
Key losses: WR Juju Schuster-Smith, OL Chad Wheeler, OL Damien Mama, NT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
2016 S&P+ rank: 9
2014-16 recruiting: 24th, 15th, 20th
Top 2017 games: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Michigan, at Ohio State
Penn State should return 16 starters and several key reserves after winning a Big Ten championship. This team was probably a year ahead of schedule, and the 2017 squad could be special. The Nittany Lions will need to replace both starting defensive ends and find a new No. 1 receiver, but having Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki back is a pretty good place to start. Michigan and Ohio State are back-to-back on the schedule, though there is an off week before the Wolverines.
Key losses: WR Chris Godwin, DE Garrett Sickels, LB Brandon Bell
6. Clemson Tigers
2016 S&P+ rank: 3
2014-16 recruiting: 17th, 9th, 11th
Top 2017 games: vs. Auburn, vs. Florida State, at Louisville
In a normal year, a team with back-to-back title game appearances and several key players leaving would still earn a spot in the top 5 in most preseason polls. There are a lot of teams with a lot of talent returning in 2017. That’s not to say that Clemson doesn’t as well, but the Tigers are going to have to rebuild the offense and replace four key players on defense. Running back Tavien Feaster could be a star. There’s plenty of talent at wide receiver, but watch for silky-smooth 5-star freshman Tee Higgins. True freshmen Hunter Johnson and Chase Brice will battle with redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper at quarterback. It should be an interesting year, and it could still be a very successful one.
Key losses: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams, RB Wayne Gallman, LB Ben Boulware, DT Carlos Watkins
7. Oklahoma Sooners
2016 S&P+ rank: 10
2014-16 recruiting: 14th, 14th, 19th
Top 2017 games: at Ohio State, vs. Texas in Dallas, at Oklahoma State
The Sooners will lose their top three skill players and at least four starters on defense. They will return Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield and four starters on the offensive line. They could also return seven of the top-10 tacklers on defense. A veteran star at quarterback and a sturdy offensive line could help young running backs Abdul Adams and Trey Sermon get settled, and if a wideout or two emerge, the Sooners can win the Big 12 again.
Key losses: WR Dede Westbrook, RB Samaje Perine, RB Joe Mixon, LB Jordan Evans
8. Washington Huskies
2016 S&P+ rank: 7
2014-16 recruiting: 37th, 27th, 29th
Top 2017 games: vs. Oregon, at Stanford, vs. Washington State
Four Huskies have said they will enter the NFL draft, which does drop them down this list a little. There still plenty of impact players coming back to contend for the Pac-12 title again, and Chris Peterson is probably one of the five best coaches in the country. Jake Browning will be a three-year starter at quarterback. Myles Gaskin is a fantastic running back. They will need another wideout or two to emerge next to Dante Pettis. The 2017 recruiting class will be the best of Peterson’s tenure and could have a few immediate contributors in it. The schedule might be easier next year, which could be a problem if Washington is in playoff contention again.
Key losses: WR John Ross, DB Budda Baker, DB Sidney Jones, LB Psalm Wooching
9. Georgia Bulldogs
2016 S&P+ rank: 68
2014-16 recruiting rank: 8th, 5th, 8th
Top 2017 games: at Notre Dame, vs. Florida, at Auburn
Bet on the talent. The Bulldogs need to rebuild the offensive line, with three starters gone from a unit that wasn’t very good anyway. But Jacob Eason, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, likely 10 returning starters on defense and a horde of elite recruits from the 2016 and 2017 classes could make Georgia the most improved team in the nation. It was a disappointing first season for Kirby Smart, but his team lost one game on a Hail Mary and two others by a point.
Key losses: WR Isaiah McKenzie, DB Maurice Smith, OL Brandon Kublanow, OL Greg Pyke
10. Michigan Wolverines
2016 S&P+ rank: 2
2014-16 recruiting: 20th, 37th, 6th
Top 2017 games: vs. Florida in Dallas, at Penn State, vs. Ohio State
The leading rusher, top three pass catchers and at least nine starters from that tremendous defense are gone, and it will be 10 if versatile star Jabrill Peppers decides to leave. There are some potential stars returning, including Rashan Gary and Lavert Hill on defense. The 2016 recruiting class will be relied on heavily, and some true freshmen are going to have to help as well. There’s enough talent to still be great and challenge for a Big Ten title, but it might also be a half-step back for Jim Harbaugh and Co. It doesn’t help that Michigan has to go to Madison to play Wisconsin the week before Ohio State.
Key losses: CB Jourdan Lewis, DE Taco Charlton, TE Jake Butt, WR Amara Darboh
11. Louisville Cardinals
2016 S&P+ rank: 12
2014-16 recruiting: 45th, 32nd, 38th
Top 2017 games: vs. Clemson, at Florida State, at Kentucky
Lamar Jackson will be back, so having the best player in college football (for at least the first fourth-fifths of the season) is a good place to start. The Cardinals need to replace the starting running back, top three pass catchers, two offensive linemen and at least five starters on defense. Compared to some of the teams at the top of this list, that is a lot. This will be Bobby Petrino’s fourth season — he went 12-1 and 11-2 in the fourth season the two other times he’s lasted four years in one place. The schedule is also very manageable.
Key losses: WR James Quick, DT DeAngelo Brown, LB Devante Fields, TE Cole Hikutini
2016 S&P+ rank: 4
2014-16 recruiting: 2nd, 6th, 3rd
Top 2017 games: at Alabama, vs. Auburn, at Tennessee
Now that Ed Orgeron is settled as the head coach, he still needs to find a quarterback. Purdue transfer Danny Etling showed flashes of being fine, but inconsistent-to-fine is tough to win a national title with. The rest of the talent will remain ridiculous, even without a few potential first-round picks. Derrius Guice could be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Arden Key could be the top pass rusher in the nation. Dave Aranda could cement a place among the top 3-to-5 defensive coordinators in America. Better quarterback play and LSU will challenge Alabama. Without it, the Tigers will win 8-to-10 games and feel disappointed by it.
Key losses: RB Leonard Fournette, DB Jamal Adams, DT Davon Godchaux, LB Kendell Beckwith
13. Wisconsin Badgers
2016 S&P rank: 11
2014-16 recruiting: 33rd, 40th, 32nd
Top 2017 games: at BYU, at Nebraska, vs. Michigan
After an incredibly tough schedule still didn’t keep the Badgers from a Big Ten West title this year, and the slate softens quite a bit in 2017. Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota are all replacing multi-year starters at quarterback, while Wisconsin will need to replace Corey Clement. Bradrick Shaw could be the next 1,000-yard back off the assembly line. The defense will lose Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, but the Badgers should still be the favorites in the Big Ten West.
Key losses: LB T.J. Watt, LB Vince Biegel, RB Corey Clement, CB Sojourn Shelton
14. Auburn Tigers
2016 S&P rank: 13
2014-16 recruiting: 6th, 8th, 9th
Top 2017 games: at Clemson, at LSU, vs. Alabama
The Tigers could be really fun on offense, with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham joining the backfield duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Auburn’s defense is losing at least four really good players, though. Also, the schedule is brutal. People shouldn’t over/underrate too much based on a future schedule (see Wisconsin in 2016), but games at Clemson, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, plus the Iron Bowl, looks like a really tough slate.
Key losses: DE Carl Lawson, DT Montravius Adams, DB Jonathan Ford, DB Joshua Holsey
15. Stanford Cardinal
2016 S&P+ rank: 23
2014-16 recruiting: 13th, 24th, 16th
Top 2017 games: at Southern Cal, vs. Washington, vs. Notre Dame
Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in program history, so recalibrating the plan on offense will be on the offseason to-do list. Keller Chryst looked like the answer at quarterback, but he sustained a potentially major knee injury in the bowl game. If he’s not going to be ready for the start of the season, Stanford probably won’t be ranked very high in the preseason polls, but 5-star freshman Davis Mills has Andrew Luck-level upside. Chryst or Mills, running back Bryce Love and wideout Trenton Irwin are a nice offensive nucleus. Two 5-star offensive linemen, Foster Sarell and Walker Little, could also help immediately.
Key losses: RB Christian McCaffrey, SS Dallas Lloyd, OLB Peter Kalambayi, WR Michael Rector
16. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2016 S&P+ rank: 22
2014-16 recruiting: 28th, 39th, 44th
Top 2017 games: at Texas, at West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma
Quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington putting off the NFL for one more year makes the Cowboys a Big 12 title contender. Put those two with running back Justice Hill, and that could be the best trio of offensive players in the nation. There are significant losses on defense, but these guys are used to playing in shootouts. Those top three games are all in a row in October.
Key losses: DT Vincent Taylor, DB Jordan Sterns, LB Devante Averette, OL Victor Salako
17. Texas Longhorns
2016 S&P+ rank: 34
2014-16 recruiting: 16th, 10th, 7th
Top 2017 games: at Southern Cal, vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, vs. Oklahoma State
Maybe Charlie Strong needed one more year to have a Mike MacIntyre-esque breakthrough at Texas. He wasn’t given the chance, and Tom Herman inherits a really talented roster. Shane Buechele should thrive at quarterback. D’Onta Foreman was incredible, but Texas does return all of its top receivers. The line will return four starters. The defense should return 10. If Herman can get everyone assimilated to his plan, the Longhorns might return to relevancy next season.
Key losses: RB D’Onta Foreman, OL Kent Perkins, DB Dylan Haines
18. Oregon Ducks
2016 S&P+ rank: 74
2014-16 recruiting: 21st, 16th, 27th
Top 2017 games: vs. Nebraska, at Stanford, at Washington
The Ducks still had an excellent offense last season but the second-worst Power 5 defense ahead of Texas Tech, according to the S&P+ ratings. Stealing Jim Leavitt from Colorado to run the defense was a huge coup for new coach Willie Taggart. He also has quarterback Justin Herbert, tailback Royce Freeman, a bunch of receivers and four returning starters on the offensive line. Taggart has taken some time to find success at his previous stops, but the Ducks were young last year and are primed for a bounce-back campaign.
Key losses: TE Pharaoh Brown, LB Johnny Ragin, OL Cameron Hunt
19. Tennessee Vols
2016 S&P+ rank: 28
2014-16 recruiting: 7th, 4th, 14th
Top 2017 games: at Alabama, at Florida, vs. UGA
Tennessee might be the best answer when someone asks the question, “What happens when a team has superlative talent but maybe not superlative coaching?” The Vols are going to sustain some big losses, but there is still going to be a lot of talent in Knoxville. John Kelly will be the undisputed No. 1 back, but replacing Josh Dobbs should be an interesting battle. The defense is losing several NFL-caliber players, but it was wrecked by injuries in 2016. Lots of young guys earned experience that could help next year.
Key losses: DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, CB Cam Sutton, QB Josh Dobbs
20. Memphis Tigers
2016 S&P+ rank: 44
2014-16 recruiting: 78th, 78th, 62nd
Top 2017 games: vs. UCLA, at Houston, at Tulsa
Memphis doesn’t recruit at an elite level, but the Tigers had three years of Paxton Lynch at quarterback and will be one of the best teams in the Group of Five in Year 2 with Riley Ferguson. Lynch was a 2-star recruit overlooked by bigger schools. Ferguson went to Tennessee, then junior college before landing at Memphis. The top three running backs and top three pass catchers are back too. One of them is Anthony Miller, who had 95 catches and 14 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Chip Long left for Notre Dame, but the Tigers are going to score a lot of points.
Key losses: DB Arthur Maulet, DB Chris Morley, OT Christopher Roberson
21. N.C. State Wolfpack
2016 S&P+ rank: 25
2014-16 recruiting: 34th, 31st, 50th
Top 2017 games: vs. Clemson, vs. Florida State, at Louisville
The Wolfpack are going to return a solid starting quarterback, a unique H-back/tight end in Jaylen Samuels, who is an effective runner and receiver, three of the top four wideouts and four offensive linemen. The offense was pretty mediocre at times in 2016 but could be better. The defense was awesome and will return eight starters. Seven of them will be seniors. This could be a breakthrough season in Raleigh.
Key losses: DB Josh Jones, RB Matthew Dayes
22. Boise State Broncos
2016 S&P+ rank: 19
2014-16 recruiting: 68th, 57th, 70th
Top 2017 games: vs. Troy, at Washington State, at BYU, at San Diego State
Jeremy McNichols was one of the best running backs in the country this past season, but the Broncos are going to return fantastic quarterback Brett Rypien and 1,100-yard receiver Cedrick Wilson. They need to replace six starters on defense, but defensive tackle David Moa and linebacker Jabril Frazier combined for 12.5 sacks and will be back. Boise State has won at least eight games for 18 straight seasons and hit double-digits in 12 of the past 15.
Key losses: RB Jeremy McNichols, WR Thomas Sperbeck, DE Sam McCaskill, DB Chancellor James
23. Miami Hurricanes
2016 S&P+ rank: 14
2014-16 recruiting: 12th, 26th, 21st
Top 2017 games: at Florida State, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Virginia Tech
Mark Richt went 9-4 in his first season at Miami, and three losses were by a touchdown or less. It’s a gamble to place a lot of faith in any team without a clear-cut option at the quarterback situation, but Richt can coach that position really well. Running back Mark Walton and wideout Ahmmon Richards can be stars, but the Hurricanes have to replace quarterback Brad Kaaya and the top three tacklers on defense.
Key losses: QB Brad Kaaya, WR Stacy Coley, DB Corn Elder, DB Rayshawn Jenkins
24. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2016 S&P+ rank: 46
2014-16 recruiting: 36th, 30th, 25th
Top 2017 games: at Oregon, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State
The Cornhuskers won five games two years ago and nine this past season but were probably about a seven-win team both seasons. They need to find a quarterback and replace five of the top seven pass catchers (including top running back Terrell Newby), but will return seven starters on defense. This is a pretty pivotal year for Mike Riley, especially after historic blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa. Oregon, Wisconsin and Ohio State are all by Oct. 14. Being 4-3 at that point would probably not be a good idea.
Key losses: RB Terrell Newby, QB Tommy Armstrong, WR Jordan Westerkamp, DB Nathan Gerry
25. Appalachian State Mountaineers
2016 S&P+ rank: 40
2014-16 recruiting: 86th, 115th, 119th
Top 2017 games: at Georgia, vs. Wake Forest, vs. Georgia Southern
The Mountaineers nearly beat Tennessee and did beat a strong Toledo squad in the bowl game. Jalin Moore ran for 1,400 yards and will be back. Quarterback Taylor Lamb and top wideout Sheadon Meaders are back as well. They do have to replace five starters on defense, but it was a top-30 group in the country in 2016, according to the S&P+ rankings. The Sun Belt had a strong 2016, with Appalachian State and Troy winning 10 games and its top four clubs all winning bowl games. The Mountaineers, Troy and Arkansas State could all be fringe top-25 type in 2017.
Key losses: RB Marcus Cox, OLB Kennan Gilchrist, DE/OLB Dezmin Reed, OL Parker Collins
Just outside the Top 25
26. TCU: The Horned Frogs need Kenny Hill to turn the ball over less, but there is lots to like about nearly the entire offense returning in 2017. Six of the top eight tacklers are back as well. With a little better quarterback play, TCU could be Oklahoma’s top challenger in the Big 12.
27. Notre Dame: Adding former Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long could be a productive move. The Fighting Irish will turn to Brandon Wimbush at quarterback with both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire leaving. They need another wide receiver or tight end to take a big step forward. The defense could return seven starters but is losing its two most disruptive players.
28. Colorado: It was a magical 2016 season for the Buffaloes, returning to national relevance and earning a spot in the Pac-12 title game. Losing Sefo Liufau hurts, but Leavitt leaving for Oregon might be the biggest loss. The defense is also going to have to replace eight starters.
29. Western Michigan: The Broncos are going to lose Corey Davis and Zach Terrell to the NFL, but losing P.J. Fleck to Minnesota hurts the most. Still, Fleck lapped the field in MAC recruiting the past few seasons. Assuming there aren’t a bunch of current players who leave to join Fleck in Minnesota, the Broncos should have enough to make another run at the MAC title.
30. Troy: The Trojans return a 3,000-yard passer (Brandon Silvers), a 1,200-yard rusher (Jordan Chunn) and all of Silvers’ top receiving targets. They need to replace three starters on the line and a few key guys on defense, but the Trojans are going to score a ton of points and could make a statement on opening weekend at Boise State.
31. Florida: The Gators are losing six starters on defense, and coordinator Geoff Collins took the head coaching job at Temple. Florida’s offense has been a mess for a year and a half, since Will Grier was suspended, and there still isn’t an obvious candidate to play quarterback next season.
32. Washington State: Luke Falk is coming back, which means the Cougars will have one of the best quarterbacks in the country. The defense has improved slightly for Mike Leach, and it might have nine starters back. If it can fill in at wide receiver after losing Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, Washington State could help make the Pac-12 North one of the deepest divisions in the nation.
33. Iowa: Getting Akrum Wadley and Matt VandeBerg back is huge, but the Hawkeyes need to replace C.J. Beathard at quarterback and offensive coordinator Greg Davis. They could use some new ideas on that side of the ball. Desmond King and Jaleel Johnson will be missed on defense, but the Hawkeyes should still be pretty stout.
34. Arkansas: Austin Allen should be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC, and the Rawleigh Williams-Devwah Whaley tandem had nearly 2,000 yards rushing last year. The Razorbacks need to find some guys who can catch the ball and get much better at stopping the run on defense.
35. West Virginia: Running back Justin Crawford and three of the top four receivers are back, but the Mountaineers are losing eight starters from the best defense in the Big 12. Skyler Howard will not be back at quarterback, and when Florida transfer Grier will be eligible to replace him remains to be seen. It might be at the start of the season, but it might also not be until halfway through the campaign.
36. Navy: The Midshipmen will lose their all-senior backfield, but they have several guys with plenty of experience ready for a bigger workload. They also bring back a lot of starters on defense. Also, there’s almost 15 years of evidence that this coaching staff is quite adept at reloading and rolling on.
37. Georgia Tech: Speaking of the coaching staff at Navy, its former coach, Paul Johnson just won nine games and is going to return nine starters on offense. Quarterback Justin Thomas is gone, but five of the top six rushers are back and all of the receiving options are as well. Defensive end Patrick Gamble will be missed, but seven starters should be back on defense.
38. Kentucky: That offense with quarterback Stephon Johnson and tailback Benny Snell should continue to very prolific, even without Boom Williams. That defense, well, that’s the issue with trusting the Wildcats. If the defense improves, this could be the year that Mark Stoops makes a real run at the SEC East. If it doesn’t, his job security could become a popular topic in Lexington.
39. Michigan State: Was 2016 just a weird transition year? Spartans fans sure hope so. Brian Lewerke might be the answer at quarterback. It’s time for L.J. Scott to be an all-conference level tailback. Mark Dantonio is a great coach so … he’ll figure the rest out?
40. Duke: Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe has a great quarterback prospect in redshirt freshman Daniel Jones, and three of the top four pass catchers are coming back. He needs to replace a few starters in the secondary, but Cutcliffe could have Duke back in the upper middle-class of the ACC in 2017.