Clemson toes early line for No. 1 poll position

— By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange —

There is always a rush to publish projections for next season’s Top 25 in the immediate aftermath of a college football national championship game, with all of these dart-throwing exercises marked by some sort of self-referential “ridiculously early” title.
What is slightly less ridiculous is waiting until the dust settles from all the staying-or-going announcements about the NFL Draft and being reasonably sure the coaching carousel has stopped spinning.
A few surprising early-entry decisions impacted our pick for No. 1, while the presumed last of the coaching changes helped move a team into our No. 25 slot.
Here is our (mostly) ridiculously early Top 25:

1. Clemson
No matter what happens in the upcoming season, the biggest upset of the year is that defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant came back to school despite having first-round potential. They rejoin defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a true sophomore last season, so good luck moving the ball against the Tigers. Quarterback Kelly Bryant returns for his second season as the starter, assuming he holds off No. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence, already enrolled.

2. Alabama
Same stuff. Nick Saban plus the nation’s best recruits equal another run for the national title, which would be the Crimson Tide’s sixth in 10 seasons if they are able to go back-to-back in 2018. Saban has to replace both coordinators, but that hasn’t been an impediment in the past, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has the look of the Next Big Thing after his title-winning relief appearance against Georgia.

3. Ohio State
Led by junior end Nick Bosa, the Buckeyes will have the nation’s second-best defensive line behind Clemson. There should be a heated battle at quarterback, with high-level talent (led by Dwayne Haskins) having no trouble keeping the beat going with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber in the backfield.

4. Georgia
The Bulldogs are in the mix for the nation’s top recruiting class, and the offense will retool around mature-beyond-his-years quarterback Jake Fromm and sophomore running back D’Andre Swift. The Bulldogs face little resistance in the SEC East.

5. Wisconsin
The Badgers arrived early in 2017, making a run at the College Football Playoff before falling in the Big Ten title game for the second consecutive season and the third time in four years. With running back Jonathan Taylor, quarterback Alex Hornibrook and linebacker T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin will be poised to take one more step forward.

6. Oklahoma
Kyler Murray should be just fine at quarterback, at least approximating the production of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield (if not his moxie). The dual-threat Murray will work with a loaded backfield as the Sooners should again carve up Big 12 defenses.

7. Michigan State
The Spartans return 19 starters from a team that went 10-3 and finished second nationally in rushing defense. Linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes return to lead the salty defense, while quarterback Brian Lewerke and tailback LJ Scott keep the chains moving on offense.

8. Washington
Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin decided to return to be four-year starters in the backfield. The nation’s eighth-ranked defense carries on behind defensive tackle Greg Gaines and a secondary that will be among the country’s best.

9. Miami
The young Hurricanes wilted late, losing their final three games after starting 10-0. They return a solid core, although their starting defensive tackles left early for the NFL despite being middling prospects.

10. Virginia Tech
Betting on redshirting sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson being an even-bigger centerpiece after a 9-4 season. He’ll need to be after the Hokies lost a trio of underclassmen on defense to the NFL Draft.

11. Auburn
Jarrett Stidham returns as quarterback, but topping 2017 will be difficult as games against Georgia and Alabama are now on the road.

12. Stanford
The return of running back Bryce Love and a full season of quarterback K.J. Costello could lead to a special season.

13. Penn State
Quarterback Trace McSorley goes it alone without running back Saquon Barkley. Home games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin will help tell the Big Ten tale.

14. TCU
The Horned Frogs turn to touted quarterback Shawn Robinson, who saw spot duty behind Kenny Hill as a true freshman.

15. USC
A significant talent drains leaves modest expectations, with Matt Fink, Jack Sears and, in the fall, freshman phenom JT Daniels battling to replace Sam Darnold at quarterback.

16. Michigan
If Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson is eligible, then Michigan moves up. The Wolverines probably have top-10 talent, but let’s put them in prove-it mode for now.

17. West Virginia
Quarterback Will Grier and touchdown-making receiver David Sills are back, and coordinator Tony Gibson will have 2017’s young defense on the rise.

18. UCF
New coach Josh Heupel inherits star quarterback McKenzie Milton and ample experience from a 13-0 team. The 2018 challenge: Non-conference games vs. North Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Pitt.

19. LSU
The Tigers should fall out of bed and win eight games in the regular season. As always, more offense is the question.

20. Oregon
Quarterback Justin Herbert and an improving defense give new coach Mario Cristobal a chance for an immediate splash.

21. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have quarterback Jake Bentley and a schedule built for another nine-win season.

22. Florida State
Quarterback Deondre Francois returns from injury to team with sophomore running back Cam Akers, but six players leaving early for the NFL put a damper on the offseason.

23. Notre Dame
Losing the left side of the offensive line, and defensive coordinator Mike Elko, are reasons to limit the Irish’s upside in 2018.

24. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys might have missed its window of opportunity in 2017, but coach Mike Gundy has steered OSU into the final AP poll in seven of the last 10 years … so here they are.

25. Arizona
Kevin Sumlin didn’t win enough at Texas A&M, but his resume plays just fine in Tucson, giving an emotional boost to a team that has quarterback Khalil Tate and a young defense ready to sit at the big-boys’ table.