-- Alabama and Clemson played in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T for the second straight season on Monday night.?
It was another championship game classic between these two teams, as the Tigers avenged last season's loss with a thrilling come-from-behind 35-31 win to prevent the Tide from finishing 15-0 and defending their title.?
Will the Crimson Tide or the Tigers be back again after the 2017 season??
Now that the 2016 season has come to a close, let's take a quick glance ahead with the inaugural 2017 Way-Too-Early Top 25. (Underclassmen have until Jan. 16 to declare for the NFL draft, so returning starters numbers subject to change.)?
1. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/333/alabama-crimson-tide" target="_blank">Alabama</a>
2016 record: 14-1, 8-0 SEC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: The Crimson Tide might have as many as six players selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, which would tie the record set by Miami in 2004, so coach Nick Saban will have some work to do. Several seniors from a menacing defense played their last game for the Tide in Tampa, and it's likely that underclassmen such as OT Cam Robinson and CB Marlon Humphrey?will leave early for the NFL. But Alabama reloads better than anyone else in the country, and there are plenty of former five-star recruits waiting to step forward. Quarterback Jalen Hurts should be better in his second season as a starter, and former Washington and USC coach Steve Sarkisian takes over as the Tide's offensive coordinator. Alabama opens the 2017 season against Florida State in Atlanta, and its most difficult road games might be at Texas A&M and Auburn.
2. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/52/florida-state-seminoles" target="_blank">Florida State</a>
2016 record: 10-3, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook:?Since Clemson is losing star quarterback Deshaun Watson and a boatload of other starters, Florida State might be primed to retake the ACC in 2017. Star tailback Dalvin Cook will be sorely missed, but quarterback Deondre Francois was sensational in his first season as a starter. FSU's workhorse back next season could be sophomore? Jacques Patrick?or incoming freshman Cam Akers, who is enrolling early. Most of the Seminoles' defensive starters will be back, including safety? Derwin James, who missed much of 2016 with a knee injury, but FSU will really miss DeMarcus Walker's pass-rushing skills (16 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss). FSU opens the season against Alabama in Atlanta and plays Clemson on the road in ACC play, but Louisville and Miami will travel to Tallahassee next season.
3. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/30/usc-trojans" target="_blank">USC</a>
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12
Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: After nearly being run out of Hollywood early in the season, coach Clay Helton produced quite a turnaround. After a 1-3 start, the Trojans won their last eight regular-season games and had a thrilling comeback in a 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold directed the rebound, and he'll be back with at least five other starters on offense. After throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns in 10 starts, Darnold might be the Heisman Trophy favorite heading into 2017. The Trojans will miss junior JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, their top two receivers, as well as starting tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner. DB/KR Adoree' Jackson?has yet to announce his NFL intentions. USC will play one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in the FBS in 2017, including home games against Western Michigan and Texas and a road trip to Notre Dame.
4. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/213/penn-state-nittany-lions" target="_blank">Penn State</a>
2016 record: 11-3, 8-1 Big Ten
Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: The Nittany Lions' dramatic turnaround in 2016 -- they won their final eight regular-season games and beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game --?should serve as a big springboard to 2017. Leading receiver? Chris Godwin?opted to leave early for the NFL draft, but most of Penn State's starters on offense will return, including star tailback Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.?Both will be top Heisman Trophy candidates. Plus, PSU will get back a few offensive linemen who were hurt for the stretch run. Four of the defense's most productive players are departing -- defensive ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and strong safety Malik Golden --?but everyone else is expected back. The Nittany Lions will have to navigate their way through a difficult Big Ten road schedule that includes trips to Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State.
5. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/228/clemson-tigers" target="_blank">Clemson</a>
2016 record: 14-1, 7-1 ACC
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: After guiding the Tigers to back-to-back appearances in the CFP National Championship, coach Dabo Swinney faces a rebuilding job in 2017. But Clemson has recruited as well as anyone outside of maybe Alabama, and the Tigers have plenty of young players ready to step up. Sophomore QB? Kelly Bryant, who attempted 18 passes the past two seasons combined, is the favorite to replace Watson, who leaves as arguably the best player in school history. The Tigers will also have to replace leading rusher Wayne Gallman and top wideouts Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who are all expected to enter the NFL draft as juniors. The personnel losses on defense aren't as heavy -- not with? Dexter Lawrence,? Christian Wilkins?and Clelin Ferrell?returning to anchor the defensive line -- but linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins will be missed. The Tigers will play Florida State at home and Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road during ACC play, along with a difficult nonconference home game against Auburn.
6. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/194/ohio-state-buckeyes" target="_blank">Ohio State</a>
2016 record: 11-2, 8-1 Big Ten
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense, 0 special teams
Outlook: Even after the Buckeyes' unsightly 31-0 loss to Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, there's no debate they were probably a year ahead of schedule in 2016. Even after losing 12 players to the NFL draft, including 10 who were selected in the first three rounds, coach Urban Meyer guided the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years. With nine starters coming back on offense and eight on defense, Ohio State looks loaded for 2017. Quarterback J.T. Barrett?must improve dramatically, and the Buckeyes must improve at wide receiver. Co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck is leaving for Texas, which might be the first of a few moves on Meyer's staff. Former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson has reportedly been hired to replace Beck, and Ryan Day will be the new quarterbacks coach. OSU plays a nonconference game against Oklahoma and Big Ten road contests at Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan.
7. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/197/oklahoma-state-cowboys" target="_blank">Oklahoma State</a>
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big 12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: The Pokes will have to rebuild their defense after losing top tacklers Jordan Sterns and Devante Averette plus star defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, who is entering the NFL draft as a junior. But with quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington announcing they'll return for their senior seasons, Oklahoma State might have one of the country's most high-powered offenses in 2017. Coach Mike Gundy has guided the Pokes to 10-win seasons in five of the past seven years, and after back-to-back second-place finishes in the Big 12, they might be ready to challenge Oklahoma for the title. They'll get to play the Sooners at home in the Bedlam game next season, and the Pokes will also host?TCU, Baylor and Kansas State in Big 12 play.
8. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/264/washington-huskies" target="_blank">Washington</a>
2016 record: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: We figured it was only a matter of time until coach Chris Petersen built a playoff contender at Washington, and it happened this season. After losing six games in each of his first two seasons in Seattle, Petersen guided the Huskies to a Pac-12 championship and CFP berth. With quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin coming back, the Huskies will be big favorites to win the Pac-12 North again in 2017. However, they will have to replace several key contributors on defense. Washington's nonconference schedule isn't very challenging, with a road game at Rutgers and home games against FCS foe Montana and Fresno State. Plus, the Huskies?won't play USC during the regular season and will play Utah and Washington State at home.
9. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/275/wisconsin-badgers" target="_blank">Wisconsin</a>
2016 record: 11-3, 7-2 Big Ten
Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: Even after the disappointing loss to Penn State in the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers enjoyed a very special -- and unexpected -- season. With a senior-laden defense and quarterback Alex Hornibrook returning, Wisconsin will be a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten West again. The Badgers are expected to get back injured linebackers Jack Cichy and Chris Orr on defense, and redshirt freshman? Bradrick Shaw and junior Chris James, a transfer from Pitt, are in line to take over at tailback. OT Ryan Ramczyk?might declare for the NFL draft. Wisconsin's 2017 schedule might set the Badgers up for another Big Ten title run; they don't?play Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State during the regular season, and they host Iowa and Michigan in November.
10. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/201/oklahoma-sooners" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>
2016 record: 11-2, 9-0 Big 12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: With quarterback Baker Mayfield returning?for his senior season, the Sooners are in position to win a third consecutive Big 12 championship -- even with tailbacks Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine both leaving early. All five starters are expected to return on the offensive line, but the Sooners will have to replace All-America wideout Dede Westbrook's production, which won't be easy. OU's defense played better down the stretch, and as many as seven starters might return. OU will have to survive an early road trip at Ohio State as well as Big 12 road trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
11. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/2/auburn-tigers" target="_blank">Auburn</a>
2016 record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: The Tigers had an up-and-down campaign in 2016, but they still managed to win eight games and reach the Allstate Sugar Bowl. However, Auburn's offense was a mess at times, and its 12 touchdown passes bettered only Vanderbilt in the SEC. Incoming Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who threw for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns for the Bears in 2015, might bring more punch and stability to the offense. Tailbacks Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are returning, but the Tigers will have holes to fill on their offensive line, although? Braden Smith's decision to return is a welcome boost.?Defensive tackle Montravius Adams and end Carl Lawson, who is leaving early for the NFL draft, are big losses. The Tigers play at Clemson early and also play road games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M during SEC play.
12. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/130/michigan-wolverines" target="_blank">Michigan</a>
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten
Returning starters: 4 offense, 1 defense, 0 special teams
Key losses: WR Amara Darboh, WR Jehu Chesson, OT Ben Braden, G Kyle Kalis, OT? Erik Magnuson, TE Jake Butt, RB De'Veon Smith, LB/RB Jabrill Peppers, DE Chris Wormley, NT Matthew Godin, DT Ryan Glasgow, DE Taco Charlton, LB Ben Gedeon, CB Jourdan Lewis, SS Dymonte Thomas, FS Delano Hill, CB Channing Stribling
Outlook: The Wolverines are losing 10 starters on defense, their top two receivers, an All-American tight end and a starting tailback. Therefore, it would be an understatement to say Jim Harbaugh is facing a massive rebuilding job in his third season as coach of his alma mater. But Ohio State's Urban Meyer faced a similar reboot this past season and still guided the Buckeyes to a spot in the CFP. The good news for the Wolverines: Quarterback Wilton Speight was better than expected in his first season as a starter. On defense, linebacker Mike McCray and end Rashan Gary will lead what figures to be a very young unit. The Wolverines open the season against Florida in Arlington, Texas, and will play Big Ten road games at Penn State and Wisconsin (Ohio State travels to Michigan).
13. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/61/georgia-bulldogs" target="_blank">Georgia</a>
2016 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: After limping through much of Kirby Smart's first season as coach of his alma mater, the Bulldogs might be poised to take control of the SEC East in 2017. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter?have decided to return for their senior seasons rather than enter the NFL draft early. Quarterback Jacob Eason should be better in his second season as a starter, and help for the offensive line is coming in a top-five recruiting class. Georgia is expected to lose only one starter on defense -- safety Maurice Smith -- and many of its best players on that side of the ball were freshmen and sophomores. The Bulldogs will play at Tennessee and Auburn in the SEC, and will take nonconference road trips to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
14. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/24/stanford-cardinal" target="_blank">Stanford</a>
2016 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: Despite everything that went wrong this past season, Cardinal coach David Shaw somehow managed to guide his team to 10 victories, the fifth time in the past six seasons he has led Stanford to at least 10 wins. If Stanford is going to return to the sport's elite in 2017, Shaw and his staff have to find an answer at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore? Keller Chryst?injured his knee in the Sun Bowl, and reports indicate he may have torn his ACL, so redshirt junior Ryan Burns and K.J. Costello, who redshirted this season,?might battle for the job this spring. The Cardinal are expected to lose only one starting offensive lineman, and sophomore Bryce Love looks capable of replacing Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. Stanford will really miss star defensive end Solomon Thomas, but nine starters are expected back on defense.
15. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/99/lsu-tigers" target="_blank">LSU</a>
2016 record: 8-4, 5-3 SEC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: Ed Orgeron guided LSU to a 6-2 record after he replaced former coach Les Miles, and Orgeron will get to put his stamp on the program during the offseason. He has already retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and hired Pitt's Matt Canada as his new offensive coordinator. Junior tailback Leonard Fournette is entering the NFL draft, but Derrius Guice did most of the heavy lifting this past season anyway. Junior QB? Danny Etling will get the first chance to run Canada's up-tempo offense, but 2017 commits? Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse?might also get looks once they enroll. The Tigers will open the season against BYU in Houston, and they play SEC road games at Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee.
16. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/2390/miami-hurricanes" target="_blank">Miami</a>
2016 record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: After winning nine games, including Miami's first bowl victory in a decade, Mark Richt's first season as coach of his alma mater was an undeniable success. Miami's defense under coordinator Manny Diaz was much improved, even with the Hurricanes starting three freshman linebackers. If the Hurricanes are going to improve in Year 2 under Richt, they'll have to find a replacement for quarterback Brad Kaaya. The program's all-time leading passer is leaving early for the NFL draft. Sophomore? Malik Rosier, who has thrown 61 passes the past two seasons combined, is the favorite to replace him, but freshmen Jack Allison and Evan Shirreffs might also get looks. The Hurricanes will play three of their most difficult ACC games on the road in 2017 -- at North Carolina, Pitt and Florida State.
17. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/2306/kansas-state-wildcats" target="_blank">Kansas State</a>
2016 record: 9-4, 6-3 Big 12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: What will 77-year-old coach Bill Snyder do next? He won nine games with a very young team in 2016, including a 5-0 mark against Texas schools. The Wildcats might be poised to challenge for a spot in the Big 12 championship game (which returns in 2017) if they can improve in the passing game and defending the pass. Quarterback Jesse Ertz is coming back, along with four starting offensive linemen and all but one receiver. The defense will miss Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis and leading tackler Elijah Lee, but six other starters are expected back on that side of the ball. The Wildcats have a chance to start 3-0 in nonconference games, and they'll play Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and West Virginia at home.
18. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/97/louisville-cardinals" target="_blank">Louisville</a>
2016 record: 9-4, 7-1 ACC
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: The Cardinals limped to the finish line, losing their last three games to spoil what once looked like a magical season. If Louisville is going to be any better in 2017, the team will?have to prove it's more than a one-man show and get some help for QB? Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner. The UL offensive line surrendered 47 sacks and couldn't protect Jackson in the final month. Top tailback Brandon Radcliff is leaving, along with the team's top three receivers. Linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields and safety Josh-Harvey Clemons, the defense's most disruptive players, also are gone.
19. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/2628/tcu-horned-frogs" target="_blank">TCU</a>
2016 record: 6-7, 4-5 Big 12
Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: The Horned Frogs limped through a 6-7 campaign in 2016, but they might be poised for a big bounce-back next season. After going 4-8 in 2013, coach Gary Patterson guided TCU to 23 wins in the next two seasons combined. Next season, the Horned Frogs might have as many as 10 senior starters on offense, including quarterback Kenny Hill and tailback Kyle Hicks. Hill will have to cut down on his 13 interceptions in 2016. TCU will have to replace three of its starting defensive linemen, but seven starters are coming back on that side of the ball. The Horned Frogs will have Big 12 road games at Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma, but they'll play West Virginia and Texas at home.
20. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/58/south-florida-bulls" target="_blank">USF</a>
2016 record: 11-2, 7-1 AAC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: Former Texas coach Charlie Strong might have inherited the best team in a Group of 5 conference from former USF coach Willie Taggart. Quarterback Quinton Flowers?is back, but losing tailback Marlon Mack?(1,187 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) to the NFL draft is a big blow. Still, the Bulls should have one of the most potent offenses in the FBS. Nine starters are expected back on defense as well. USF's nonconference schedule isn't very difficult (there's a home game against Illinois), and the team?will play AAC foes Houston, Temple and Tulsa at home. Strong might have a very big maiden season in Tampa, Florida.
21. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/57/florida-gators" target="_blank">Florida</a>
2016 record: 9-4, 6-2 SEC
Returning starters: 9 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams
Key losses: NT Joey Ivie, DT Caleb Brantley, LB? Daniel McMillian, LB Jarrad Davis, LB Alex Anzalone, CB Quincy Wilson, CB Teez Tabor, S Marcus Maye, DE Bryan Cox Jr., QB Austin Appleby, OT David Sharpe
Outlook: The Gators won the SEC East for the second straight season, but some UF fans are still unhappy with the team's lack of firepower on offense. UF coach Jim McElwain better figure out a way to fix it because most of the star players from his stingy defense are departing, including star cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson and linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Junior quarterback Luke Del Rio will have to hold off freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask for the starting job. Whoever wins the job will get the help of five returning offensive linemen and wideouts Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell. Florida opens the season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and plays only three true road games -- at Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.
22. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/221/pittsburgh-panthers" target="_blank">Pittsburgh</a>
2016 record: 8-5, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: The Panthers defeated both ACC champion Clemson and Big Ten champion Penn State, and four of their five losses came by a combined 18 points. Even with tailback James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman departing, Pitt might be poised for a breakthrough in coach Pat Narduzzi's third season. The Panthers have to eventually get better on defense, and Narduzzi is slowly upgrading the defensive talent. Pitt plays Penn State (road) and Oklahoma State (home) in nonconference games and doesn't play ACC foes Clemson, Florida State or Louisville during the regular season.
23. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/265/washington-state-cougars" target="_blank">Washington State</a>
2016 record: 8-5, 7-2 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: The Cougars opened the 2016 season with two straight losses and finished with three consecutive defeats. In between, they won eight straight games and might be in position to start and finish better in 2017 if junior quarterback Luke Falk returns to school. The Cougars will miss Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, the top two receivers in school history, but their top three rushers and three starting offensive linemen are expected back. The Cougars will play Pac-12 road games at Oregon, Utah and Washington and play Stanford and USC at home.
24. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/259/virginia-tech-hokies" target="_blank">Virginia Tech</a>
2016 record: 10-4, 6-2 ACC
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Outlook: The Hokies were one of the biggest surprises in the FBS in 2016, winning 10 games with first-year coach Justin Fuente and first-year quarterback Jerod Evans. The Hokies seemed poised for even bigger things in 2017, but Evans and receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges are turning pro a year early. Most of the defense is coming back, although Tech will have to replace three key linemen. The Hokies open the season against West Virginia in Landover, Maryland, and they'll play ACC road games at Georgia Tech and Miami.
25. <a href="http://www.espn.com/college-football/team/_/id/251/texas-longhorns" target="_blank">Texas</a>
2016 record: 5-7, 3-6 Big 12
Returning starters: 8 offense, 10 defense, 1 special teams
Outlook: Former Houston coach Tom Herman won't work miracles in his first season in Austin, but the Longhorns will have a chance to finish among the top four teams in the Big 12. Herman won 13 games in his first season as a head coach, and he'll be inheriting more talent at UT. Quarterback Shane Buechele gives Herman a chance to win right away, but the Longhorns will miss 2,000-yard rusher D'Onta Foreman. As many as 10 starters are expected back on defense, and that's where Herman and his staff need to do the most work. UT will get a big early test at USC on Sept. 16, and the Longhorns will play Big 12 road games at Baylor, TCU and West Virginia.