New Arena’s College Football Top-25: Week One

The College Football season is here! We’ve got a sport chock-full of intriguing storylines and fascinating figures. Each week, New Arena will offer a Top-25 Poll on a week-by-week basis.

Here’s our initial poll for the first week of the season:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

2016 Record: 14-1
Opening Game: 9/2 (neutral site vs. Florida State)

Alabama is gunning for its fifth National Championship since 2010. It’s truly been a mind-boggling tenure for Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. Though his teams routinely lose talent to the NFL, the program continues to replenish annually with blue-chip prospects. This season, starting signal-caller Jalen Hurts will return with a year of experience under his belt. Running back Bo Scarbrough is a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the linebacker-defensive back duo of Rashaan Evans and Minkah Fitzpatrick is as good as you’ll see on the collegiate level. The season-opener versus Florida State could be a College Football Playoff preview.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

2016 Record: 11-2
Opening Game: 8/31 (at Indiana)

Veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett enters this season as the Big Ten’s most dynamic offensive threat. With all respects to Penn State RB Saquon Barkley, Barrett is the most significant athlete within the conference in terms of value. The Buckeyes did lose a ton from last year’s secondary, though head coach Urban Meyer has worked tirelessly to reload depth across the board. OSU resembles that of an SEC team with the amount of athletes it possesses all over the field. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis is looking to establish himself as the next great pass rusher to come out of Columbus.

3. Florida State Seminoles

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 9/2 (Neutral site vs. Alabama)

Sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois has all the tools to develop into an elite player at the position. He’ll be tested right off the bat — as the Seminoles will square off versus the Crimson Tide in the season opener. Athlete Derwin James is as unique a player as one will find. He can literally play on all three levels of the defense (defensive end, outside linebacker, safety), and truly is destined for All-America honors. In order to replace Dalvin Cook, FSU will utilize an immensely talented two-pronged attack featuring stud freshman Cam Akers and a 230-pound beast in Jacques Patrick.

4. USC Trojans

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Western Michigan)

USC is starting to look like the USC of old. In the post-sanctions era, the Trojans are recruiting at an exceptionally high level. It’s a roster chock-full of NFL talent at all levels — starting with QB Sam Darnold. His uncanny ability to evade pressure and make plays downfield has many comparing Darnold to Andrew Luck. The schedule sets up quite nicely for a potential Playoff run. USC misses out on playing both Oregon and Washington, and will host the likes of UCLA, Texas, and Stanford.

5. Washington Huskies

2016 Record: 12-2
Opening Game: 9/1 (at Rutgers)

Washington snuck up on everyone last year en route to a Pac-12 Championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Chris Petersen’s done a fantastic job in rebuilding the program — largely based on excellent player development and a penchant for recruiting hard-nosed, tough athletes. The Huskies will certainly not be surprising anyone in 2017. The favorite in the Pac-12 North, UW will rely upon an explosive offense led by efficient quarterback Jake Browning and underrated running back Myles Gaskin.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

2016 Record: 11-3
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Akron)

Much like Petersen did with Washington, James Franklin has crafted a complete 180 from where the Penn State program was prior to his arrival. The Nittany Lions are a recruiting force throughout the Northeast. Franklin has put together an athletic and aggressive roster. Diminutive quarterback Trace McSorley is a highly entertaining football player. However, Penn State’s success this year begins and ends with running back Saquon Barkley. The junior rusher could be the nation’s top player in the backfield. Penn State has a tough three-game stretch towards the middle of its schedule — which includes a home game versus Michigan, and back-to-back away contests versus Ohio State and Michigan State.

7. Clemson Tigers

2016 Record: 14-1
Opening Game: 9/2 (Kent State)

The reigning National Champions will have to navigate the 2017 without quarterback Deshaun Watson. Now in the NFL, Watson led the Tigers to their first title since 1981. Junior Kelly Bryant will be tasked with replacing the iconic signal-caller. Fortunately for Dabo Swinney’s team, Bryant won’t be asked to carry the load. There’s oodles of ability all throughout the roster — namely within the receiver corps.  Bryant’s ability to perform will be challenged right away. Clemson hosts Auburn in Week 2, followed by games on the road versus Louisville and Virginia Tech (all within the first five games of the year).

8. Oklahoma State Cowboys

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 8/31 (vs. Tulsa)

Oklahoma State is a trendy darkhorse to reach the College Football Playoff in 2017. Senior signal-caller Mason Rudolph is coming off a season in which he threw for 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He’ll be buoyed by arguably the nation’s best group of receivers — led by James Washington, Jalen McCleskey, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. Running back Justice Hill also fortifies what should be an insanely productive offense. If OSU’s defense is merely average, it could be the favorite in the Big 12.

9. Oklahoma Sooners

2016 Record: 11-2
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. UTEP)

Oklahoma had a rather tumultuous offseason. Longtime coach Bob Stoops unexpectedly decided to leave the program. Team leader and Heisman Trophy contender Baker Mayfield was arrested in what was an embarrassing scene. With all of that said, the Sooners still are a viable contender within this year’s College Football landscape. Mayfield is back — and likely will be motivated to perform well for NFL scouts who are concerned over his lack of ideal size for the next level. Oklahoma returns its entire offensive line unit from a year ago, which should help new starting running back Abdul Adams acclimate well. OU sits behind rival OSU largely due to the fact that it will be replacing Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, and Samaje Perine. That’s a whole lot of talent missing from a year ago.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

2016 Record: 11-3
Opening Game: 9/1 (vs. Utah State)

Though Wisconsin doesn’t hold the cachet or recruiting prowess as some of the other schools within the poll, it continually wins at a high clip. The Badgers haven’t had a losing season since 2001. They’ve also won at least 10 games in six of the last eight years. In 2017, Wisconsin doesn’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan State, or Penn State during its regular season conference schedule. It also has the fortune of playing Michigan at home. With a relatively soft schedule and a deep backfield (led by Bradrick Shaw and Pitt transfer Chris James), expect the Badgers to be the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division.

11. Auburn Tigers

2016 Record: 8-5
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Georgia Southern)

Those down on The Plains are salivating over the arrival of Jarrett Stidham. The Baylor transfer was handed the keys to Gus Malzahn’s offense — ultimately winning the job over Sean White. Unlike many of Auburn’s quarterbacks over the past five seasons, Stidham has the ability to push the ball downfield vertically. It will be a welcomed dimension for a group in need of consistency. Talent has never been a problem within the program. There are legitimate All-SEC contenders littered throughout both sides of the ball. Should Stidham prove to be as good as advertised, Auburn may be the biggest threat in usurping Alabama’s standing as the class of the conference.

12. Stanford Cardinal

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 8/26 (at Rice)

With Christian McCaffrey now in the NFL, Bryce Love has become the featured back for the Cardinal. Fast and dynamic, he could be the breakout star within the Pac-12. Stanford returns a vast majority of its team from a season ago. It’s a group heavy on experience, and one fully capable of challenging Washington for the Pac-12 North crown. David Shaw is one of the best head coaches in the country. He’s excellent when it comes to knowing the pulse of his team. Playing Stanford is akin to getting a root canal. It may be boring, but you know it’ll be a major pain. The methodical Cardinal could be a surprise team in 2017 — not only within the conference but also nationally.

13. Michigan Wolverines

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 9/2 (Neutral site vs. Florida)

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a nut in the best possible way. Though eclectic and somewhat unconventional, he’s an excellent football coach. Michigan has yet to release its roster for the 2017 season — let alone a depth chart. The secrecy surrounding the program is surely intriguing, as the Wolverines will be tasked with replacing 17 starters from a season ago (including Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt). When combining Harbaugh’s coaching ability — coupled with the (young) talent on the roster, Michigan should be good. We just don’t know how good they’ll be.

14. Louisville Cardinals

2016 Record: 9-4
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Purdue)

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is back for yet another season. If he can somehow improve upon last year’s statistical output (52 total touchdowns, 5,114 yards of total offense), Louisville likely will be in the Playoff hunt. Bobby Petrino’s team will be tested early — as it travels to North Carolina in Week 2 followed by a Week 3 clash at home versus Clemson. Should Louisville remained unscathed in this stretch, it could be undefeated by the time it travels to Tallahassee for a huge Oct. 21 clash against Florida State.

15. Miami Hurricanes

2016 Record: 9-4
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Bethune-Cookman)

Mark Richt’s first year in Coral Gables was a success by all accounts. The former Georgia head man ushered in an environment rooted in positivity and hard work. Along with that, he helped the Hurricanes sign a very good 2016 recruiting class. Though true freshman N’Kosi Perry was nipping at his heels, Malik Rosier will initially be the man at quarterback for the ‘Canes. Miami is absolutely loaded on the defensive side of the ball — especially within its group of linebackers. If Rosier can avoid turning the ball over, this will a very dangerous squad within the ACC Coastal Division.

16. Georgia Bulldogs

2016 Record: 8-5
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Appalachian State)

Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens was not without some hiccups. He relied heavily on a young roster — integrating true freshmen at a number of spots. Georgia might be a year away from seriously contending in the SEC, but there’s no question that it remains one of the most talented teams in the conference. The improvement of sophomore signal-caller Jacob Eason will also be something to watch for going forward. Blessed with a cannon of a right arm, we saw glimpses of his brilliance a year ago. Assuming he continues to become more consistent as a decision-maker, there’s no reason to think the Bulldogs won’t challenge Florida and Tennessee for an SEC East title. The 2017 schedule isn’t for the faint of heart — as Georgia faces a treacherous road schedule (Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech).

17. South Florida Bulls

2016 Record: 11-2
Opening Game: 8/26 (at San Jose State)

Quinton Flowers may be the best football player you’ve never heard of. The dual-threat signal-caller out of Miami is incredibly lethal with the football — both from a throwing and running standpoint. Last year, Flowers threw for 2,551 yards and 22 touchdowns, and also rushed for 1,425 yards and 15 scores. He helped lead South Florida to an impressive 11-2 standing (which included victories over Syracuse, Cincinnati, Navy, Memphis, and South Carolina). Though the Bulls will have a first-year head coach in Charlie Strong, it returns a large portion of its offense from a season ago, and boasts arguably the most experienced defense in the AAC. Don’t be surprised if South Florida is the non-Power 5 representative in one of the major bowl games. They’re truly that good.

18. LSU Tigers

2016 Record: 8-4
Opening Game: 9/2 (Neutral site vs. BYU)

With Les Miles now in a commentator’s booth, the energetic Ed Orgeron will get a second chance at running a big-time program. He didn’t do too well during his first stop — accruing a 10-25 record in three years before being let go by Ole Miss. However, he is now presented with a far more talented roster. It will be interesting see how the addition of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada changes things. Miles was often criticized for his stringent and archaic offensive scheme. Remember, this is LSU. It possesses an inordinate amount of former all-everything athletes. If the offense is 50-percent better than it’s been in recent years, LSU is a lock for 10 wins (if not more).

19. Florida Gators

2016 Record: 9-4
Opening Game: 9/2 (Neutral site vs. Michigan)

Florida is loaded with ability throughout its defense. It also has a very good running back (Jordan Scarlett) and three outstanding receivers (Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell, Tyrie Cleveland). What it doesn’t have, however, is consistency at the quarterback position. As of August 24, the Gators have yet to name a starting signal-caller. Incumbent starter Luke Del Rio is a savvy player. However, he’s often injured, and possesses arm strength akin to that of a noodle. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is a far more gifted player physically, yet doesn’t have the experience inside head coach Jim McElwain’s system. Feleipe Franks is a monster athletically. With that said, he’s still a bit raw for the position. Possessing adequate quarterback play may be the difference between a division title and a 7-5 season for the Gators.

20. Virginia Tech Hokies

2016 Record: 10-4
Opening Game: 9/3 (Neutral site vs. West Virginia)

Justin Fuente’s first year in Blacksburg was a major success. The former Memphis head coach installed an uptempo, high-octane offense. It was a reprieve from the Frank Beamer ‘defensive-minded’ ball that many had grown accustomed to.  Fuente tabbed Justin Jackson to start at quarterback for the Hokies. The dual-threat athlete out of Michigan will be the first freshman signal-caller to start for Virginia Tech since Tyrod Taylor. He’ll be thrown into the fire right away — as the Hokies square off versus a tough West Virginia team in Week 1.

21. Texas Longhorns

2016 Record: 5-7
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Maryland)

Tom Herman took over the UT program with the hopes of restoring this program steeped in tradition. The Longhorns had fallen on hard times over the last few years. The team generally was soft, and buckled at the sight of any resistance. Herman — an excellent recruiter and strategist — has already proven himself at Houston. Due to the relationships he’s cultivated with high school programs across the state, no longer will Texas play second-fiddle to other institutions within the state (TCU, Texas A&M, Baylor). This upcoming season, Herman will look to build the groundwork for what many expect to ultimately become a juggernaut.

22. Washington State Cougars

2016 Record: 8-5
Opening Game: 9/2 (vs. Montana State)

Despite losing its first two games last year, Washington State finished 2016 winning eight of its last 11 games. Wins over Oregon, UCLA, and Stanford illustrated the progress this program has made under Mike Leach. His vaunted Air Raid offense will yet again be led by talented signal-caller Luke Falk. Perhaps dissimilar from his teams at Texas Tech, the Cougars are sound on the defensive side of the football. Leach and his staff have done an excellent job at unearthing gems from the states of California and Texas. In the process, he’s developed a squad with a fair amount of depth across the board. They certainly will not be a push-over for any Pac-12 opponent. If the Cougs can beat Boise State in Week 2, it could set off a positive domino effect for the remainder of the year.

23. Tennessee Volunteers

2016 Record: 9-4
Opening Game: 9/4 (Neutral site vs. Georgia Tech)

The Volunteers have won nine games in each of the last two seasons. Despite the mild success, UT has yet to get over the proverbial hump in the SEC East. Expectations have been sky-high — largely based upon the recruiting prowess emanating from head coach Butch Jones and his staff. Should the Vols fail to capture the East Division title, it could result in a coaching change. When looking ahead at this year, Tennessee will likely be employing two quarterbacks (Jarrett Guarantaro, Quinten Dormady) in the absence of Joshua Dobbs. The defensive line figures to be loaded — as does the backfield. A difficult schedule drops Tennessee down a bit from where it’d be otherwise. The Volunteers have road games at Alabama and Florida, and will be hosting LSU and Georgia. It also has a tough non-conference opener versus a funky Georgia Tech squad.

24. West Virginia Mountaineers

2016 Record: 10-3
Opening Game: 9/3 (Neutral site vs. Virginia Tech)

Here’s the good news for West Virginia: The Mountaineers are loaded at running back. The three-headed monster of Justin Crawford, Martell Pettaway, and Kennedy McKoy is exceptional. QB Will Grier — a transfer from Florida — will also come in as an experienced option to command the offense. On the other side of the coin, West Virginia has to replace five of its top seven offensive linemen from a year ago, two of its top three receivers, its three-best defensive linemen, and five of the team’s top six defensive backs. Simply put, WVU will have to out-score plenty of people this year. There’s certainly talent on the offensive side of the ball. However, there are also plenty of questions surrounding this team. The season opener versus Virginia Tech will tell us a lot about Dana Holgorsen’s team.

25. Utah Utes

2016 Record: 9-4
Opening Game: 8/31 (vs. North Dakota)

Utah has won at least nine games in each of the last three seasons. Since joining the Pac-12, Kyle Whittingham’s squad has been highly competitive — in large part to his coaching and the collective toughness across the board. In somewhat of a surprising move, Utah benched senior QB Troy Williams in favor of sophomore Tyler Huntley. It was peculiar — considering Williams started 13 games a season ago, and was voted as a team captain last week. Alas, Whittingham is banking on the Florida native to drive his offense. An absolutely fantastic athlete, he should impact things in the run game considerably. As is the case every year, Utah won’t have a ton of household names. However, it will be a well-coached team, and will also feature some physically dominant players on the defensive side of the football.

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