John Clay

John Clay’s Top 25: Clemson has the goods (again) to stop Alabama

Kelly Bryant (2) threw 13 touchdown passes and ran for 11 more scores for Clemson last season.
Kelly Bryant (2) threw 13 touchdown passes and ran for 11 more scores for Clemson last season. AP

My preseason Top 25:

1. Clemson: It begins and ends in the trenches where the Tigers are ridiculously strong along the defensive line. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is a hoss, but all four starters have NFL paychecks in their future. Quarterback Kelly Bryant returns to lead the offense, but strong-armed freshman Trevor Lawrence will push for playing time. Dabo Swinney’s team broke Alabama’s stranglehold on the national title in 2016. The Tigers will do it again in 2018.

2. Alabama: The dominant question in Tuscaloosa is who will Nick Saban pick for his starting quarterback? As if that really matters. Jalen Hurts took the Tide to the 2016 title game. Tua Tagovailoa won the 2017 title game. Saban lost both his offensive and defensive coordinators, plus eight starters on defense. Big deal. Saban just plugs and plays.

3. Ohio State: The burning question in Buckeye Land is how much of an effect will the pre-camp Urban Meyer job controversy have on a team capable of a national title run. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has to settle on a quarterback, but 1,400-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins should make the new guy’s life a little easier. Meanwhile, junior defensive end Nick Bosa is in the conversation for the nation’s top defensive player. Don’t feel sorry for THE Ohio State.

4. Auburn: The Tigers were the only team in the country to beat both national finalists last season, besting both Georgia and Alabama in the regular SEC season. Jarrett Stidham returns at quarterback after tossing 18 TDs compared to just six picks a year ago. If Gus Malzahn and his clipboard can beat Washington in a drool-worthy opener in Atlanta, the Tigers will be in the national title hunt all fall.

5. Washington: Speak of the devil, the Huskies return 17 starters for head coach Chris Petersen. One is quarterback Jake Browning, the school’s No. 2 career passer. Another is running back Myles Gaskin, who has topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark three straight seasons. Nine starters return from a Washington defense that allowed less than 300 yards per game last year.

6. Oklahoma: Baseball’s Oakland A’s snapped up Kyler Murray in last June’s draft, which shows the athleticism of the Sooners’ new quarterback. Whether Murray can make OU fans forget Baker Mayfield is another matter. He’ll have plenty of help on offense, but the key could be how much improvement coordinator Mike Stoops can squeeze out of his defense.

7. Georgia: Though Kirby Smart is building a beast between the hedges, the Bulldogs will take a slight step back this season. After all, they lost a ton of talent off last year’s national runner-up team. The quarterback battle between freshman Justin Fields and sophomore Jake Fromm has dominated the headlines, but who replaces linebacker Roquan Smith is of more concern.

8. Stanford: A self-professed Stanford nerd, head coach David Shaw took his family to historic sites in Paris and London over the summer. And history suggests his Cardinal will be a handful, thanks in part to nine starters returning on offense. The star is running back Bryce Love, who rushed for 2,118 yards last season in Stanford’s rock-em/sock-em offense. Quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 14 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions.

9. Wisconsin: The Badgers are 45-10 over the past four seasons, including 13-1 last season. That loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game kept Paul Chryst’s team out of the College Football Playoff. Seven lost starters on defense will do the same this season, though an offense led by sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 1,977 yards last season, should take up some slack.

10. Miami: It didn’t take long for Mark Richt to make an impact in South Florida. The Hurricanes are 19-7 since Richt was forced out at Georgia and returned to his alma mater. The U has 14 starters back from a team that was 10-0 last year before dropping its final three games. Senior quarterback Malik Rosier is the team leader. Jaquan Johnson continues the school tradition of stud safeties.

11. Mississippi State: There’s a new Yankee in Starkville, what with former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead assuming the main headset after Dan Mullen took flight to Florida. Moorhead inherits a loaded roster. Seven starters are back from last year’s 9-4 team. Star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald should be healthy after suffering a gruesome ankle injury in last year’s Egg Bowl. And the cowbell crowd gets to welcome Mullen back to campus Sept. 29.

12. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh’s club slipped to 8-5 last season in large part because of an offense that struggled to put points on the board against big-name opponents. That shouldn’t be the case this year thanks to transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, who escaped probation-saddled Ole Miss in time to help the cause in Ann Arbor. Led by defensive end Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush, the Wolverines are scary on defense.

13. West Virginia: It’s always nice to have a quarterback and head coach Dana Holgorsen has one of the best in Will Grier. The former Florida Gator threw for 34 touchdowns last season for a WVU offense that averaged 34.5 points per game. Grier has a top target in All-America wide receiver David Sills. If the Mountaineers improve on defense, they will challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title.

14. Penn State: Yeah, yeah, Saquon Barkley has thrown his Superman cape over his shoulder and headed to the NFL, but the Nittany Lions should still be a force in 2018. Quarterback Trace McSorley is back for his senior season and if James Franklin can find adequate replacements for the majority of last year’s starters on defense, PSU could again be Ohio State’s stiffest challenge in the Big Ten.

15. Notre Dame: For Brian Kelly it all comes down to his quarterback, and the Irish do return Brandon Wimbush, who threw for 16 touchdown passes last season as Notre Dame went 10-3. Nine starters return on defense, which will be required to come up big in September home games against Michigan and Stanford.

16. North Carolina State: Under the radar, head coach Dave Doeren has done a stellar job building an improving program in Raleigh. The Wolfpack has gone 7-6, 7-6 and 9-4 the past three seasons. Quarterback Ryan Finley threw for 17 touchdown passes compared to just six interceptions last season. And Finley is back for his senior season.

17. Michigan State: Going 10-3 last season, the Spartans bounced back nicely from a 3-9 backslide in 2016. Head coach Mark Dantonio returns 19 starters, including quarterback Brian Lewerke, who threw for 20 touchdowns and rushed for more than 500 yards last season. MSU’s 42-17 drubbing of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl might have been a sure sign of the success to come.

18. Utah: With 14 starters back, including quarterback Tyler Huntley and star running back Zack Moss, the Utes will be the surprise of the Pac-12. Having the nation’s best kicker in Matt Gay doesn’t hurt. Last season’s close losses — 23-20 to Stanford; 28-27 at USC; 33-30 at Washington — could flip the script this year for Kyle Whittingham’s club.

19. Virginia Tech: Frank Beamer left some oversized shoes to fill, but Justin Fuente has done an admirable job, going 19-8 in his first two seasons in Blacksburg. Bud Foster’s defense is always opportunistic and Fuente returns quarterback Joshua Jackson, who threw for 20 touchdowns a year ago. The Hokies get Miami at home on Nov. 17 which could decide the ACC Coastal Division.

20. Central Florida: Former head coach Scott Frost answered the call back home to Nebraska, but quarterback McKenzie Milton is still around. The junior threw for 45 touchdowns and completed 67 percent of his passes in the Knights’ 2017 undefeated season. New head coach Josh Heupel, last seen directing Drew Lock at Missouri, knows how to scheme an air attack.

21. Southern Cal: With quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones having moved to the pros, the Trojans appear destined to slip back from last year’s 11-3 mark. Still, it would be premature to count them out. Back-to-back September road games at Stanford and Texas will tell the tale for head coach Clay Helton, who is 27-10 with the Men of Troy.

22. Boise State: The Broncos once again have the secret sauce for success, i.e. a veteran quarterback and a terrific defense. Brett Rypien is the quarterback. He threw for 16 touchdowns last year as a junior. Ten starters are back on a defense that was the difference for Bryan Harsin’s team in a 17-14 win over Fresno State in the Mountain West title game.

23. South Carolina: After an 8-4 regular season, head coach Will Muschamp shook up the Gamecocks by firing offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and turning the attack over to wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon. The result was a 26-19 Outback Bowl win over Michigan. Quarterback Jake Bentley returns and Carolina gets back star wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

24. Kansas State: At 78 years young, legendary head coach Bill Snyder just accepted another five-year contract extension and for good reason. He is 210-110-1 as the KSU coach, including 8-5 last year. Thirteen starters return, including eight on offense. And the Wildcats won five of their final six games a season ago.

25. Texas: You knew it wouldn’t take long for Tom Herman to get the Longhorns turned around. After a 7-6 mark in his Austin debut, the ex-Houston coach appears to have laid the foundation for better days ahead. Fourteen starters return. If Herman can work his magic with sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger, Texas could be the surprise team of 2018.