Alabama makes knocking out double-digit victory seasons look so easy, but for most programs it takes a combination of good play and good fortune that can be difficult to replicate from one year to the next.
Twenty-five FBS teams won at least 10 games last season, including the Crimson Tide for the ninth straight season. National champion Clemson is at six straight double-digit-win seasons. Florida State and Ohio State have done it five straight seasons. All of those powers seem likely to extend their streaks this season.
On the other side, there are six teams that won at least 10 games last season that will have a difficult time repeating that success in 2017 for one reason or another.
Returning starters (according to Phil Steele’s tabulations ): 12 (nine offense, three defense).
The Buffaloes were one of 2016’s best turnaround teams, winning the Pac-12 South. Mike MacIntyre won AP coach of the year for righting a ship that had long been listing, and a major part of the turnaround was a much improved defense. Not only does CU have to replace eight defensive starters, including several NFL-caliber players, but coordinator Jim Leavitt left for Oregon, too. Add a new starting quarterback, and it is highly unlikely the Buffs will be making a second straight appearance in the conference title game.
Returning starters: five (four offense, one defense).
The Wolverines were a few plays away from making the playoff in Jim Harbaugh’s second season, with one of the most experienced teams in the country. The NFL is the next stop for most of the best players from that squad. Michigan has the fewest returning starters in the country. Harbaugh has recruited well, but he will be asking a lot from sophomores and freshmen. The schedule figures to be tougher, too, with an opening neutral-site game against Florida, and road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State after both of those teams played at the Big House in 2016.
Returning starters: 10 (six offense, four defense)
Another Group of Five school coming off two big seasons and transitioning to a new coach. Matt Rhule left for Baylor and former Florida and Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins steps in. The Owls defense has lost several NFL players over the last two years, so Collins will have his work cut out on that side of the ball. The core of a good offense returns, but the American Athletic Conference schedule will be difficult with cross-division games against Houston, Navy and Tulsa and a road game at league favorite USF.
Virginia Tech (10-4)
Returning starters: 12 (seven offense, five defense).
Coach Justin Fuente quickly revived a program that had stagnated in the final seasons of Frank Beamer’s tenure, leading the Hokies to their first double-digit victory season since 2011. A success by any measure. Year Two could pose some greater challenges. Virginia Tech struck gold last season with junior college transfer quarterback Jerod Evans, but he declared for the NFL. So it is back to the drawing board at that position. The Hokies also benefited from not playing Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season. This season, the defending national champion Tigers visit Lane Stadium.
West Virginia (10-3)
Returning starters: eight (five offense, three defense).
Two themes throughout these teams is a dearth of returning starters and more difficult schedules. The Mountaineers check both boxes after having one of the most experienced teams in the Big 12 and five of nine conference games at home last season. The schedule flips and the Mountaineers play Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland, to start this season. A new starting quarterback is also in the fold, but Florida transfer Will Grier might be an upgrade from Skyler Howard.
Western Kentucky (11-3)
Returning starters: 10 (four offense, six defense).
The Hilltoppers have won 23 games the last two seasons, making them one of the most successful programs in the country outside the Power Five. All that success led Purdue to hire away coach Jeff Brohm. Enter former Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame assistant Mike Sanford, the youngest head coach in FBS at 35. He has a returning quarterback in Mike White, but lots of holes to fill elsewhere. Road trips to Illinois and Vanderbilt in nonconference play are winnable and Conference USA’s East Division has no obvious threats to WKU, but the personnel and coaching transition make at least a small step back seem inevitable.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAp
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