Apr 15, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer prior to the annual spring game at Ohio Stadium.  Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

National Signing Day has come and gone, spring games are starting across the nation, and college football coaches, players, and fans are already looking ahead with excitement to the 2017 season. Some fans have more reason to be excited than others, though, with strong returning cores and top recruiting classes setting several squads up for potential runs at the national championship early in 2018.

Here are five teams who stand a pretty good chance at making the College Football Playoff and possibly winning the whole thing next season.

5) USC Trojans

After about five years in what was, at least for them, the college football wilderness, the USC Trojans are back and barreling toward elite status under Clay Helton. Quarterback Sam Darnold will be a Heisman candidate after throwing for 3,086 and 31 touchdowns as a freshman. They’ll lose some talent on the offensive line, but they recruited well by bringing in highly-rated players Austin Jackson and Jalen McKenzie.

The reality is this team will go as far as Darnold can take them.

Once he seized control of the quarterback position, the Trojans reeled off nine consecutive victories, including a rather convincing 26-13 win at eventual College Football Playoff participant Washington. It all culminated in an epic comeback to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl, which should give this team a really good feeling heading into a 2017 season, where a playoff berth is a very real possibility.

4) Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners have had their fair share of off-field issues this offseason, but the vast majority of their offensive talent will be back at Norman next year. That includes quarterback Baker Mayfield, who will appear on a lot of preseason Heisman Trophy prognostications. Their biggest hurdle will be ensuring their running game is up to standard, with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon bolting for the NFL. Wide receiver Dede Westbrook has also graduated, meaning Mayfield will need to find new targets when things get underway. The good news is that he’ll be protected by one of the nation’s strongest offensive lines, which should also help the running game.

The Sooners will also lose a few defensive pieces, but linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo will lead a pass rush that coach Bob Stoops will want to be meaner and tougher going forward. They’ll be tested early, too, with a game at Ohio State in September.

It’s worth remembering that this Sooners team would have had a strong case to make for a College Football Playoff spot had they been able to avoid one of their losses to Houston or Ohio State, as they ran the table in the Big 12. They need some people to step up on offense, but Mayfield is a good enough quarterback to take this team far.

3) Florida State Seminoles

Star running back Dalvin Cook won’t be easy to replace by any means, but the Seminoles are still loaded with talented pieces.

Freshman quarterback Deondre Francois impressed in his first season under center for Florida State, with five-star recruit Cam Akers poised to help fill the void left behind by Cook. Wide receivers Auden Tate and Nyquan Murray, who caught six and five touchdowns, respectively, will also return.

The biggest gain on defense will likely be a player who was already well-established in the collegiate ranks. Injury cost safety Derwin James much of his sophomore season, but the All-American will be healthy and ready to go in 2017.

If the Seminoles can weather the loss of Cook, they’re going to be a huge threat to make a big impact nationally in 2017.

2) Ohio State Buckeyes

Is this Urban Meyer’s best recruiting class ever? It’s hard to say, but it’s unquestionably an elite one, with twelve members of Scout’s top 100 committing to the Buckeyes. That doesn’t even take into account the talent he has returning.

Quarterback J.T. Barrett seems like he’s been at Ohio State forever, and he’s a calm, experienced veteran who will bring continuity to the offense. Thousand-yard rusher Mike Weber should also be a huge weapon.

The Ohio State pass rush is loaded, bringing back virtually everyone who helped the team to a playoff appearance last season. The secondary will require some work with two key starters in Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley headed to the NFL, but the recruiting class of this season — and years past — mean that the Buckeyes have so much talent, they’ll be able to paper over most of their holes.

1) Alabama Crimson Tide

Death, taxes, and the Crimson Tide topping the recruiting rankings, at least according to Scout. They go as far as to say that Alabama’s incoming class is the best college football has seen in a decade, topped by No. 1 overall prospect Najee Harris, who isn’t even a necessity at running back thanks to the presence of Bo Scarbrough. Quarterback Jalen Hurts will land on Heisman lists, and it stands to reason that the SEC Freshman of the Year will be even better in 2017.

Defensively, Alabama will have to withstand the departures of several key linebackers, most prominently Reuben Foster. But depth and strong recruiting will help fill those holes, and a strong secondary led by Minkah Fitzpatrick should help keep the defense stout despite players bolting to the NFL. There is depth in spades here.

Much as the personnel will change, Nick Saban is still there, and he will have his Tide ready to take on all comers. Don’t dismiss the motivation the returning players will have after what happened in last year’s title game. Saban and Alabama do not like losing, and they’re probably the early favorites to reclaim the title in 2018.

This article first appeared on Larry Brown Sports and was syndicated with permission.


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