It’s that time of year again. With the college football season just around the corner, it’s time for the Dr. Saturday crew to unveil its preseason Top 25. We all know that once the games begin, things can change very quickly. Still, we thought we’d give our best guess heading into the 2016 season.
No. 10 – Stanford
Stanford was so fun to watch last year with breakout star running back Christian McCaffrey, but a repeat of that success might be hindered with a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line.
The quarterback race has been a tight one between redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst and redshirt junior Ryan Burns, who have been vying for the right to replace Kevin Hogan. Coach David Shaw has been mum about a leader and even said back in June the race could stretch into the regular season. That would be a mistake for the Cardinal, who need an effective signal caller in the backfield to allow McCaffrey to flourish. McCaffrey was the Cardinal’s top weapon a year ago, but teams will be more apt to key in on him, especially with a question mark under center and an offensive line that’s replacing three starters.
Defensively, Stanford returns six starters, but gone is linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the team with 141 tackles last season. However, they do get nose tackle Harrison Phillips back from a torn ACL and former starting safety Zach Hoffpauir, who took the 2015 season off to play minor league baseball, back on the field.
No. 9 – TCU
TCU has won 23 of 26 games since switching to the air raid offense, but this year it might be leaning on a defense that returns eight starters from a year ago. Remember, this was a defense that was ravaged by injuries last year, so the Horned Frogs have a ton of talent and depth at their disposal, similar to the TCU defenses that used to dominate the Mountain West. The Horned Frogs return Travin Howard, Ty Summers and Montrel Wilson, who ranked first, third and fifth on the team in total tackles, as well as defensive end Josh Carraway, who led the team in sacks a year ago, and James McFarland, who led the team in sacks in 2014.
Offensively, TCU hasn’t settled on a quarterback to replace Trevone Boykin, but Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill has a slight edge. Hill, you might remember, was an early star at Texas A&M after Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel left early for the NFL. However, the instant success seemed to go right to Hill’s head and his A&M career ended with a benching, a suspension and ultimately a transfer. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have to contend with an offensive line that is replacing four starters and a receiver group that is talented, but also young.
No. 8 – Notre Dame
The quarterbacking competition between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer has been stealing all the headlines — and still won’t really be resolved by the season opener against Texas — but the Irish have a whole heap of other issues they must address if they want to make the College Football Playoff.
Notre Dame lost its leading rusher and the injured starter who was better than him. It lost four of its top five receivers and their top three tacklers, including the leader in sacks. However, whatever two-deep inefficiencies the Irish have shouldn’t be exposed too much with a schedule that slides more to the weak than the strong side.
And there’s the rub. Even if Notre Dame were to miraculously come together and run the table (even though it couldn’t last year with a slew of NFL talent), it still probably wouldn’t have a tough enough strength of schedule to crack the Top 4 even if teams we have ranked higher had a loss.
So while the potential for Notre Dame is there, this might be another good season, but not a great one.
No. 7 – Michigan
Few teams were talked about more this offseason — for good and bad reasons — than Michigan, but it’s hard to ignore the quick turnaround that coach Jim Harbaugh orchestrated in his first season on campus.
Michigan went from winning five games in Brady Hoke’s final season to winning 10 under Harbaugh. A lot of that turnaround was because of the defense. The Wolverines ranked fourth nationally in total defense, allowing just 280.7 yards per game, and third in the country allowing 158.5 passing yards per game. They were sixth nationally in scoring defense allowing just 16.4 points per game. And six of those starters are back and some might say Michigan made an upgrade with new defensive coordinator Don Brown, who came from Boston College, which had one of the few defenses better than Michigan’s.
Offensively, the Wolverines are once again looking for a starting quarterback. John O’Korn, Wilton Speight and Shane Morris are in a tight contest and Harbaugh has yet to show his hand in terms of a starter. Of the competitors, O’Korn, a former Houston starter, has the most experience with 34 career touchdowns. Speight and Morris have combined for one. However, whoever does earn the starting role will have a fantastic trio of tight end Jake Butt, All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, who combined for 159 catches, 2,145 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago.
No. 6 – LSU
The ending to LSU’s 2015 regular season was one of the weirdest in the country as coach Les Miles basically had one foot out the door. But a slew of media criticism about the move and a win against Texas A&M kept him secure for another season. However, there’s no doubt the pressure is on in 2016.
LSU returns a whopping 17 starters from last season, including All-Everything running back Leonard Fournette, who has been hobbled a bit during fall camp, but returns as the Tigers’ single-season record holder in yards and touchdowns. He should be just good or better than he was a year ago with a veteran offensive line, and a quarterback and receiving corps that should produce more offense than a year ago.
But the strength of this team might be its defense, which returns nine starters. New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who was at Wisconsin, was a great offseason hire and should bring the LSU defense back to where it was when John Chavis was at the helm.
LSU has by far the most starters and some of the best depth in the SEC West, but Miles will have to get this team to the College Football Playoff if he wants to keep his job.
No. 5 – Ohio State
With just six returning starters — three on either side of the ball — most people would call 2016 a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes, but coach Urban Meyer refuses to believe that. Forget the fact that Ohio State’s 2016 draft class, a class that helped lead the Buckeyes to a national title in 2014 and a 12-1 record in 2015, was declared one of the most impressive classes in modern history, the Buckeyes believe they still have the personnel to compete not only for a Big Ten title but also a spot in the playoff.
J.T. Barrett is back as the undisputed starting quarterback, but the Buckeyes will have to fill three spots on the offensive line and will have to find another go-to running back. Also, three of its top receivers are gone, leaving Noah Brown and Corey Smith as the main targets and a slew of inexperienced players behind them.
Defensively, it’s more of the same. Players such as Michael Hill, Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger are the veterans of the group, but there are a lot of questions up and down the two deep.
We’ll know whether to slap the rebuilding label on the Buckeyes early with a Sept. 17 contest at Oklahoma, which could determine playoff possibilities for both programs.
No. 4 – Clemson
Clemson won 14 games last season, but it didn’t win that one that mattered the most. The loss to Alabama in the national title game stung, but will propel the Tigers to get back into national championship position again this year. However, to get there, the Tigers, who once again have a pretty weak schedule, will have to run the table, which means winning games at Auburn, at Georgia Tech and at Florida State.
Heisman hopeful quarterback Deshaun Watson returns along with running back Wayne Gallman, who was a breakout star for the Tigers a year ago. Clemson also will get star receiver Mike Williams back after he missed almost the entire season with injury.
While the offense should be as good or even better than it was a year ago, the defense will once again be a rebuilding process. Only four players from last year return, but that’s nothing new to defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who had three returning starters a year ago and came away with the nation’s No. 1 defensive unit.
No. 3 – Oklahoma
Oklahoma ended last season on a sour note losing 37-17 to Clemson in the Big 12’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff. However, that defeat could be just the thing that propels the Sooners back into the national spotlight.
They return 13 players from last season’s team, including quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, and had 405 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Mayfield’s playmaking was a big reason the Sooners won 11 games and the Big 12 last year, and it’s the reason they’re favored to win the conference again. Mix in the running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and Oklahoma returns one of the most dynamic backfields in the country.
However, the schedule is not kind, especially with nonconference games against Houston and Ohio State. Those contests will test the Sooners’ mettle and will determine early whether the Sooners can attempt to earn another spot in the College Football Playoff. And then from there, Oklahoma will have to navigate the always difficult Big 12 slate. Fortunately, it gets Baylor and Oklahoma State at home, but watch out for TCU and Texas to open the conference season.
No. 2 – Florida State
Florida State finished 10-3 during what was supposed to be a rebuilding year and now with 17 returning starters back, including all 11 starters on offense, the Seminoles are poised to make another run at a national title.
If there’s one question offensively, it’s at quarterback. Sean Maguire, who started last season, suffered a foot injury during camp and will be out for at least a month, which will clear the way for Deandre Francois, a redshirt freshman who impressed during the spring and has continued to do so during fall camp. He’ll be greatly helped by a seasoned offensive line and running back Dalvin Cook, who set Florida State single-season record for rushing yards (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935). He averaged 7.4 yards per carry and 140.9 yards per game and he did so with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries. Cook should have been a Heisman finalist, but was snubbed because he missed parts of games with injuries. That no doubt will drive him this season.
As for the Seminoles as a whole, the schedule is kind, especially if they can get past the season opener against Ole Miss. They get North Carolina, Clemson and Florida all at home.
No. 1 – Alabama
It seems like no matter how many players Alabama loses to the NFL draft, it always comes back strong the following year. And the 2016 season will be no exception. The reigning national champions return just 11 players, but had so much depth last year that we believe they are the team to beat.
As always, the Tide will be anchored by its defense, which ranked third nationally in both total defense and scoring defense a year ago. Most of the secondary returns as does defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster. Jeremy Pruitt replaces Kirby Smart as the team’s defensive coordinator, but the Tide shouldn’t see much change in its scheme.
Offensively, Alabama will be breaking in another new quarterback, but that hasn’t seemed to matter in the past. And with receiving weapons like Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and OJ Howard returning, the offense should be just fine against a schedule that has some challenges, including a season opener against USC and a Nov. 5 date at LSU, but should be fairly easy for this talented squad to navigate once again.