The new season is finally here! Let’s take a closer look at some of the top teams strengths heading into 2017.
College football officially started last week, but the bulk of the opening games are kicking off this weekend. Fall camp is finally over, the depth charts are mostly set, and the AP Poll has given us a starting point for the race to Atlanta.
A lot can be gleaned about a team’s focus from looking at last year’s statistics. It’s not a perfect model, noting many players have come and gone from last season, but it gives fans a basis of what to expect going into 2017. Here, we will take a closer look at the elite team’s strength from last season and what it means for the new campaign.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Non-Offensive Touchdowns: 12 (First)
What Alabama does better than anyone is playing elite, suffocating defense. They finished second in 2016 in total defense by giving up only 3,927 total yards. The Tide not only excelled at forcing turnovers, but turning those mistakes into immediate points. Over the entire season, Bama had 12 non-offensive points, eight from turnovers, and four from punt returns. To put into perspective just what kind of impact that had on the team, Alabama would have finished with a 6-8 record purely based on those scores.
The majority of the non-offensive touchdowns came from guys that took their talents to the NFL. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (two scores), safety/punt returner Eddie Jackson (three scores), linebacker Ryan Anderson (one score), and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (one score) led the way for the dominant defense. Two other players (Joshua Jacobs and Xavian Marks) accounted for two punt returns for scores also.
Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and safety Ronnie Harrison are the only ones that remain for the Tide’s defense that scored. Harrison had two interceptions with a pick six against Tennessee. Fitzpatrick is no rookie when it comes to reaching the end zone; during his first two seasons, he had eight total interceptions and brought four all the way back for a score. His two interceptions in 2016 came against Arkansas, and against Florida in the SEC Championship game. Both Harrison and Fitzpatrick will be leaders on the defense and look to continue their ball-hawking dominance.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
Turnover Margin: +15 (Third)
Coaches always stress the importance of winning the turnover battle, and not many did it better than Ohio State. The Buckeyes were dominant on both sides of the ball, finishing sixth in total defense and 31st on offense, but a +15 turnover margin took this to the next level.
While working J.T Barrett back into the starting role and breaking in Mike Weber as Ezekiel Elliott’s replacement, the Buckeyes did a great job of keeping their hands on the ball. They only had 12 turnovers all year which put them fifth in the country. J.T Barrett threw only seven interceptions, while Weber only coughed up the ball twice all season. Barrett only has 21 interceptions over his three seasons and Weber is growing increasingly more comfortable handling the bell-cow role. Expect to see much of the same from these two offensive stars in 2017.
Simply holding on to the ball isn’t good enough in Columbus, though. The Buckeyes finished the year ranked 17th in the country and second in the Big Ten in turnovers forced with 27. The secondary flew all over the field accounting for 18 of the team’s 21 turnovers forced.
Unfortunately, 16 of those interceptions came from defensive backs that are no longer there. Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley were first-round NFL picks and Rodjay Burns is transferring to Louisville. The remaining leaders are linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley, who, combined, account for three interceptions and one of the team’s six fumble recoveries. With so many new bodies in the secondary, expect the interception numbers to dip.
No. 3 Florida State Seminoles
Redzone Offense: .965 (First)
Ideally, the red-zone is sacred ground and teams are expected to score whenever they get inside the 20-yard line. Now we all know that doesn’t happen, but no one made the most of their opportunities like the Florida State Seminoles. FSU only entered the red-zone 57 times, which was 35th in the country, but failed to score only twice.
The Noles settled for a field goal 11 of their 55 red-zone scores, and only five teams had fewer field goals while also entering the red zone 50 or more times. But they were also far from one-dimensional when scoring within 20 yards. Of the 44 touchdowns, 26 came on the ground while 18 were through the air.
In 2017, FSU will rely more heavily on sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois rather than running back Dalvin Cook, who is now in the NFL. Francois was critical inside the 20 last season, throwing for 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. Adding three receivers that are at least 6‘3” should, in theory, help the QB in short-yardage situations. If Jimbo Fisher’s comments from spring practice are any indication, the Seminoles shouldn’t have an issue continuing their dominance in the red-zone.
No. 4 USC Trojans
Sacks Allowed: 12 (Sixth)
Finding a dominant offensive line unit in college football is no easy task, but the USC Trojans had just that, with a unit that gave up only 12 sacks in 2016.
Unfortunately, of all the teams on this list, the Trojans will have the hardest time duplicating their successes last season. The three All-Pac 12 players (Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, and Damien Mama) left for the NFL, leaving major holes up front, which is not a welcome sign for Heisman-hopeful QB Sam Darnold.
USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) September 2, 2017
The only two starters remaining are center, Nico Falah, and guard, Viane Talamaivao. Filling out the final three slots is going to be tricky, but isn’t a big concern for the Trojans. Falah only took over as the starter when Toa Lobendahn went down with an ACL injury in the season opener. Early last month, the Trojans were working with both Falah and Lobendahn at center, but signs point to Lobendahn being shifted to left tackle for 2017. The other spots are virtually set with Chuma Edoga taking snaps at right tackle and utility man Chris Brown slotted as the starting left guard. This unit will have to gel quickly in order to keep Darnold upright and have the offense running smoothly.
No. 5 Clemson Tigers
Opponent Third Down Percentage: .281 (Fifth)
Most of the talk last season was surrounded around quarterback Deshaun Watson and the offense, but the defense proved to be the deciding factor in the national championship run.
The Tiger defense ranked eighth the country, giving up 311.5 yards per game and they were one of the best at preventing teams to convert on third down. Clemson forced a third down 221 times (fifth in the country) and allowed teams to convert only 62 times. Even more impressive is in the championship game: the Tigers only allowed two of Alabama’s 15 third down attempts be converted.
Seven of the 11 defensive starters return, but losing guys like Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley, and Carlos Watkins still stings. Like any good team, though, the Tigers have players to plug in. The stars of the show will be along the defensive line, including Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. These two will be a powerhouse and will look to make life hard for anyone hoping to run the ball for a first down.
The Dynamic Duo: Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) August 31, 2017
Read the story here: https://t.co/0MmvSJQDvM
No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions
Passing Yards Per Completion: 16.15 (Fifth)
The Nittany Lions shocked everyone last season by not only beating conference favorite Ohio State, but also by winning the Big Ten title. In 2017, they won’t be taken lightly and a repeat will be difficult. Luckily for them, they have one of the best offensive duos in college footbal: Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley.
It’s already well documented how good Barkley really is and he’s already considered the best running back in college. But what isn’t commonly known is just how good the passing attack is.
Penn State’s Trace McSorley feasted a year ago when he had extended time to throw the ball. pic.twitter.com/WBfS4cTfyZ— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 17, 2017
As Sean pointed out in his Penn State preview, McSorley led the Big Ten in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and passer rating. He also led the conference in yards per completion at 16.15. That mark was also good enough for fifth in the country and second among Power Five schools. Opposing teams will primarily focus their efforts on Barkley (as they should), giving McSorley the perfect opportunity to pick defenses apart. If a team stacks the box to stop the run, McSorley can run the play-action and beat the team over the top. Watch out for McSorley to become more of a household name in 2017.
No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners
Point Per Game: 43.9 (Third)
It’s a simple philosophy, the more you score, the more games you’ll win. The Big 12 is notorious for having overpowering offenses with not much defense. Oklahoma is one of the few with a semi-decent defense, but the offense in 2016 was just as deadly as the rest of the conference, if not more so.
Tomorrow… we are ☝️Oklahoma— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) September 2, 2017
The Sooners ranked second nationally and in their conference, not only in yards per game with 555, but no one in the Big 12 could keep up with their scoring. Among Power Five schools, Oklahoma scored the most points per game at 43.9 and scored 50 or more five times. The top rushers and receiver for the Sooners left, but the most important piece returned with some unfinished business.
Running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for 22 touchdowns, while receiver Dede Westbrook chipped in 17 himself. Losing 53.4 percent of your scoring would normally hurt, but with Baker Mayfield running the show, the Sooners expect the sparks to fly again. Mayfield threw for 3,965 yards and the nation’s sixth most touchdowns with 40. The receiving core isn’t fostering much love, but their QB has their back and has the Sooners looking for a CFP berth.
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