<
>

The biggest strength for every Way-Too-Early Top 25 team

Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. Joe Hermitt/PennLive.com via AP

Every team in Mark Schlabach's 2017 Way-Too-Early Top 25 is loaded with talent. But on every team, there is always one unit, one group or one player that stands out above the rest. Here is the biggest strength of every top 25 team.


1. Alabama

Want to guess how many carries the Tide lose from their top five rushers last season? That would be zero. Not only are projected co-starters Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough back, so are Joshua Jacobs and B.J. Emmons, who played well as true freshmen. And that's not to mention five-star early enrollee Najee Harris, who will be tough to keep off the field -- Alex Scarborough


2. Florida State

DeMarcus Walker vacates his position at defensive end, but Brian Burns and Josh Sweat limit the loss. Burns' 9.5 sacks led all freshman last season, and Sweat had 4.5 sacks over his final three games after recovering from midseason knee surgery. Don't forget senior Jacob Pugh and five-star freshman Joshua Kaindoh, too. -- Jared Shanker


3. USC

The Trojans might have the Pac-12's best player in quarterback Sam Darnold, and he'll make a push to be named the nation's most outstanding talent with a continuation of late 2016. USC was not a flawless team last season, but Darnold's instincts and raw ability in the pocket painted a fresh coat of shiny paint on the Trojan operation, and Clay Helton is resting easy with his guy back at the helm in 2017. -- David Lombardi


4. Ohio State

The Buckeyes were going to be loaded on the defensive line no matter what Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard or Jalyn Holmes decided to do when pondering an early departure to the NFL draft. But with all three returning alongside Nick Bosa, Dre'Mont Jones and a recovering Tracy Sprinkle -- among others -- Ohio State could boast the deepest, most talented unit up front in the nation. -- Austin Ward


5. Penn State

There won't be many better backfield combinations in the country than the one returning for the Nittany Lions. And with quarterback Trace McSorley and dynamic tailback Saquon Barkley generating early Heisman Trophy buzz, Penn State might already be at the top of the list when it comes to top one-two punches in the nation. -- Austin Ward


6. Clemson

What has set Clemson apart in recent years is the dominance of its big boys up front on defense, and the Tigers have plenty to work with on the defensive line in 2017. From returning stars such as Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins to emerging talent such as Austin Bryant, Xavier Kelly and Nyles Pinckney, this might be Brent Venables' deepest group yet, and that's really saying something, considering Clemson has led the nation in tackles for loss for four straight years. -- David M. Hale


7. Washington

The Huskies double-punched opponents with their tandem of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman at running back last season, and that combo should continue delivering big runs in 2017. Gaskin, who was excellent through his freshman and sophomore seasons, should be stronger as an upperclassman, and Coleman is primed for a big senior year .-- David Lombardi


8. Oklahoma

The Sooners have one of the most accomplished players in the country in QB Baker Mayfield, who twice has placed in the top five of the Heisman voting. Last year, Mayfield broke the FBS season record for passing efficiency. -- Jake Trotter


9. LSU

Even without Leonard Fournette, the Tigers still have one of the SEC's best running backs with Derrius Guice who rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Guice was the guy for most of the season, thanks to Fournette's ankle injury, but now this is officially his backfield, and that's a good thing for LSU. Darrel Williams is more of a plugger at running back, but pay attention to Nick Brossette, who still has a lot to prove but has a ton of upside. -- Edward Aschoff


10. Oklahoma State

The passing connection of Mason Rudolph to James Washington could be as prolific as any in the country next season. Washington is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Rudolph, who threw for 4,000 yards last year, has 27 career starts. -- Jake Trotter


11. Auburn

Kamryn Pettway went from a relative unknown to a 1,200-yard rusher in the blink of an eye last season. And now, rather than turn pro, he returns to play alongside Kerryon Johnson, who serves as the lightning to Pettway's thunder in the Auburn backfield. -- Alex Scarborough


12. Wisconsin

The Badgers must replace playmaking outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, but they are stuffed at the inside linebacker spot. Chris Orr and the dynamic Jack Cichy are back from injuries to join last year's leading tackler T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly at the position. The enviable depth there should help Wisconsin field one of the Big Ten's top defenses again in 2017. -- Brian Bennett


13. Georgia

The offensive line might have been inconsistent last season, but with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Brian Herrien returning at running back, along with sophomore Jacob Eason at quarterback, the Bulldogs have a lot of star power in their backfield. That's 2,333 rushing yards returning from a trio of rushers that will help take some pressure off Eason, who should only be better in his second year in Athens. -- Edward Aschoff


14. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh really knows how to develop quarterbacks, and he has plenty of talent to work with now. Wilton Speight had some strong moments in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey will push him, along with veteran John O'Korn. -- Brian Bennett


15. Stanford

Excellent recruiting and development from defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and defensive backs coach Duane Akina has positioned the Cardinal's secondary among the national elite. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder give Stanford a pair of lockdown threats on the outside, and safety Justin Reid continues to develop into a rangy force. -- David Lombardi


16. Miami

Every player on the two-deep returns on a defensive line that ranks among the best in the ACC, so it's safe to say that is a big strength for the Hurricanes. That includes standout freshman Joe Jackson, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, along with Chad Thomas, Kendrick Norton, Trent Harris, RJ McIntosh and Demetrius Jackson. Miami had 37 sacks a year ago, its highest total since 2010. Figure that number to go up in 2017. -- Andrea Adelson


17. Kansas State

Cornerbacks D.J. Reed and Duke Shelley form one of the best tandems nationally. Reed, a juco transfer who began his career at Fresno State, was named the defensive newcomer of the year in the Big 12. Shelley is set to start for a third season in the league's top secondary. -- Mitch Sherman


18. Louisville

Strength? That's easy: Lamar Jackson. As bad as things looked down the stretch last year, it only served to showcase how many struggles on offense were hidden by the talent of the defending Heisman winner. Jackson is a superstar, and while he'll need to improve his accuracy and timing in the pocket as a junior, he's still the most electric player in college football. -- David M. Hale


19. Colorado

Phillip Lindsay should be in contention for the Pac-12 rushing title in 2017 after racking up 1,252 yards on 5.1 yards per carry this past season, so the Buffs' offensive backfield is in solid shape. After the graduation of quarterback Sefo Liufau, the offense is likely to feature Lindsay and the ground game. -- David Lombardi


20. South Florida

The good news for coach Charlie Strong is that the Bulls' best player returns for this season: quarterback Quinton Flowers. Last year, Flowers won AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors after becoming the first 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in USF history, while also setting records for rushing yards (1,530), rushing touchdowns (18), total offense (4,337) and total touchdowns (42). -- Andrea Adelson


21. Washington State

The Cougars are in a similar situation here to Pac-12 counterpart USC: Although there are issues and departures to address across the roster, there is a strong unifying element returning at quarterback. Luke Falk will be a senior, and he's exactly the leader Mike Leach wants to orchestrate his Air Raid system. Washington State also returns its top three running backs. -- David Lombardi


22. West Virginia

Dana Holgorsen has arguably the Big 12's best group of running backs to build an offense around, and Will Grier could be a serious upgrade at QB. You don't have to worry much about their defense, thanks to Tony Gibson, who has emerged as one of the game's best defensive coordinators. After their breakthrough 10-win season, this team should continue playing with a lot of confidence in 2017. -- Max Olson


23. Texas

Raw talent might be the Longhorns' biggest advantage, with 37 former ESPN 300 recruits on their 85-man roster. They've got the best left tackle in college football in Connor Williams, their best QB situation in a long time, young playmakers at the skill positions and tons of experienced depth on defense. They've got an impressive new coaching staff to develop all that talent, too. -- Max Olson


24. Boise State

Quarterback Brett Rypien made significant strides from his freshman to sophomore season, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt last year, good for sixth in the nation. He can become a true star in 2017, and the Broncos will probably need that with do-everything running back Jeremy McNichols and three starting offensive linemen gone. -- David Lombardi


25. Virginia Tech

A pass defense that jumped from No. 64 in 2015 into the top 20 last year helped Virginia Tech regain its standing as one of the country's best units. Now that defensive back seven remains largely intact. Only five linebackers had more tackles for loss than Tremaine Edmunds' 18.5 last season, and brother Terrell's four interceptions at safety tied for the team lead. In all, 41 starts from 2016 return at linebacker, and three starters from the secondary come back, too. -- Jared Shanker