1. Clemson Tigers
2015 was indeed a magical year for Clemson Tigers Football. Clemson won 14 games which was a single-season school record, but they were just short of winning their first national championship since 1981. And as good as 2015 was for the Tigers, 2016 can actually be better.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Deshaun Watson was healthy and he showed his ability as an impact player by passing for 4,104 yards while also rushing for 1,105 yards. And as a junior, Watson will be one of the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy while National Football League scouts are also drooling at his play making ability.
Running back Wayne Gallman had the opportunity to leave school last year for the NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Clemson and the combination of him and Watson will be tough on defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Led by junior wide receiver Artavis Scott and redshirt sophomore Hunter Renfrow, Watson has an array of talented wide receivers to throw the football to while he’ll be protected by an offensive line that will be returning three starters from last season.
Defensively the Tigers were ranked tenth nationally last year and they will return six starters. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has changed the culture on that side of the ball at Clemson as they are now consistently sending players to the National Football League. And led by senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, the Tigers have a defensive unit that can set the tone for their team.
Clemson has a non-conference that’ll see them dip into the Southeastern Conference as they will be on the road against the Auburn Tigers, while finishing up their regular season slate at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks. As for Clemson’s Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, their road meeting with the Florida State Seminoles on October 29 will more than likely determine who will get to the conference title game, while also having an impact on the College Football Playoff scene. But for Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, his team should be up for the challenge.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
After surviving the gauntlet that is the Big 12 Conference schedule last year, the Oklahoma Sooners took their place in the College Football Playoff. But in the Orange Bowl, the team speed of the Clemson Tigers was too much for Oklahoma too deal with. The Sooners will come into the 2016 college football season with some unfinished business that they are hopeful to attend to. And luckily for Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops, he has a team that will once again be in contention to win the national championship.
In his first season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield displayed a solid blend of running and passing ability that made him one of the most dynamic play makers in the country. As a senior, Mayfield comes into 2016 as the reigning Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, and after finishing fourth in the Heisman voting last year, he’ll once again be in the conversation.
But the engine that makes the Sooners offense go is junior running back Semaje Perine. In two years at Oklahoma, Perine has gained 3,062 yards on the ground. And barring an injury, Perine is in line to surpass Adrian Peterson this year as Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher. At 5’11”, 237 lbs., Perine has a very thick lower body that it makes it tough for defenders to tackle him.
Led by senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook, Mayfield will be throwing to experienced receivers while also being protected by a offensive line that has three returning starters as they’ll be led by sophomore left tackle Orlando Brown. Led by senior middle linebacker Jordan Evans, the Sooners are returning seven defensive starters as they will once again look to contain the high octane offenses in the Big 12.
The upcoming schedule won’t be an easy one for the Sooners as they’ll begin the campaign against the Houston Cougars who are the defending American Athletic Conference Champions. Also in non-conference play, the Sooners will welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Conference to Norman for a game that could go a very long way in determining who’ll make the College Football Playoff. Most of Oklahoma’s toughest conference games will be at home while they’ll also have to worry about their annual tilt with the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. But the Sooners could be one of the final teams standing come January.
3. LSU Tigers
With all of the controversy that swirled around the LSU Tigers in 2015, you would have thought that they had a bad season. But the Tigers did manage to go 9-3. At the beginning of November, LSU was 7-0 with an eye on the College Football Playoff. However the Bayou Bengals would suffer three consecutive losses, including a 14-point defeat to the eventual national champion in the Alabama Crimson Tide which put head football coach Les Miles on the hot seat. LSU appeared headed to firing Miles, until they began to see the negative backlash that they were facing and thus Miles is returning to Baton Rogue for 2016.
Led by junior running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers will return 10 starters on the offensive side of the ball as they look to build some cohesion. And barring injury, Fournette should be in the running to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Tigers were ranked 25th in the nation last season in total defense and with six starters returning on that side of the ball, led by on all four starters on the defensive line, the Bayou Bengals will be a force to be reckoned with in the Southeastern Conference.
The schedule in 2016 won’t be an easy one for LSU as they have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Auburn Tigers, and Florida Gators. But the Tigers season will be defined by what they’ll be able to do on November 5 when they host Alabama whom they have not defeated since 2011.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
After finishing the 2015 college football season with a record of 9-4, it appears that the Tennessee Volunteers are back. In three years at Tennessee, head football coach Butch Jones has been in the process of building something special as the folks in Knoxville believe that this team is once again ready to contend for the Southeastern Conference Title. Whereas the better teams in the SEC typically have to worry abut players leaving school early for the National Football League, the Vols didn’t have to concern themselves with this as they’ll have nine starters returning on offense and eight on defense.
Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is entering his fourth year as Tennessee’s starting quarterback and he has plenty of expectations that will be heaped onto his shoulders. Dobbs is more of a dual-threat quarterback, but if he is able to become a more consistent passer, the Vols offense will be difficult to deal with.
The Volunteers offense will lean heavily on Dobbs and junior running back Jalen Hurd who at 6’4″, 240 lbs. is in the mode of former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.
Tennessee has eight returning starters on defense and there is plenty of pro talent on this unit. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the ability to be one of the best pass rushers in the Southeastern Conference, while senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has what it takes to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And the Vols also have a ton of experience in their secondary that features senior cornerback Cameron Sutton, junior cornerback Justin Martin, junior strong safety Todd Kelly, along with junior free safety Evan Berry.
The Volunteers season will be defined four-week stretch that begins in late September where they’ll host the Florida Gators, which will be followed by road games against the Georgia Bulldogs, and Texas A&M Aggies before returning home to face the defending national champions in the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 15.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
It might be a new college football season, but that hasn’t prevented the Ohio State Buckeyes from being one of the top teams in the nation. After last year’s 12-1 campaign, Ohio State lost a ton of talent to the National Football League with 9 underclassmen declaring early. But if you’re Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, you need not worry as the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.
Coming into 2016, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett won’t have to look over his shoulder as he is entrenched as the Buckeyes starting signal caller with Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller now pursuing careers in the National Football League. Barrett gives Meyer that dual-threat of a passer and runner that he covets at the quarterback position and more will be put upon his shoulders this year. With the departure of running back Ezekiel Elliot, you can expect seniors Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball to split the carries while Barrett could have a more active role in the Buckeyes running game.
The Buckeyes must replaces six starters on defense, but junior middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a play maker that could find himself in the discussion as far as being the Big Ten Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Ohio State can’t be accused of lining up the cupcakes in their non-conference schedule as they will travel to face the Oklahoma Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference on September 17 which will be a tune-up for Big Ten Conference play as the Buckeyes will have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Michigan State Spartans, before finishing the regular season at home versus the Michigan Wolverines.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Since Brian Kelly took over as the head football coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, he has succeeded in what the school wanted him to do and that was to make Notre Dame Football consistently relevant. In six years at Notre Dame, Kelly has a record of 55-23 with three of the last four seasons seeing the Irish ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll. And after flirting with reaching the College Football Playoff last season, Kelly and Notre Dame will be thinking about bigger things in 2016.
Last year as a true freshman, DeShone Kizer was thrust into the role of starting quarterback after an early season injury to Malik Zaire. Zaire will be back for his senior season and Kelly has a difficult decision to make as Zaire is the better athlete, but Kizer has the better arm.
Like Kizer, Notre Dame relied on another true freshman last year in the backfield in running back Josh Adams. With C.j. Prosise having graduated and moving on to the National Football League, Adams is expected to be the feature back as Kelly will lean on him and Kizer due to the fact that Notre Dame will be a little green in the passing game.
Defensively the Irish must replace six starters from last season, but with defensive coordinator Brain VanGorder entering his second year in South Bend, Indiana, he now has more of a feel of what Kelly wants done.
With an early season road meeting against the Texas Longhorns, the rest of Notre Dame’s most difficult games will be at home, and if they are able to handle their business, they could be College Football Playoff bound come January.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Although that the Alabama Crimson Tide will enter the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions, they won’t be the top team in the land due to the many defections that they had. Alabama must replace eight defensive starters from a unit that was tied for second in the nation last year in total defense.
The Crimson Tide must also replace quarterback Jake Coker who they lost to graduation and running back Derrick Henry who won the Heisman Trophy. But the Tide still have Nick Saban as their head football coach which is the right person to be in charge as under him, it’s about reloading at Alabama, and not rebuilding.
It will be Cooper Bateman’s opportunity to be the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Bateman spent his first two years at Alabama primarily serving as a backup quarterback, and now as a junior it will be his job to lose. Sophomore running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will be splitting time this fall in the Alabama backfield as they will be running behind an offensive line that is returning three starters with junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson potentially being a first-team, All-Southeastern Conference member.
Defensively Alabama will be very green while they will also miss the leadership of former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who is now the head football coach for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Right out of the chute we’ll see how good that this Alabama team will be as they’ll begin the season on September 3 against the USC Trojans out the Pac-12 Conference at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Tide also have road games in the Southeastern Conference against the Ole Miss Rebels, Arkansas Razorbacks, Tennessee Volunteers, and LSU Tigers. But Saban always knows how to get the best out of his teams.
8. Florida State Seminoles
Under head football coach Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State Seminoles have returned to being one of premier college football programs in the nation. In each of Fisher’s six years at Tallahassee, the Seminoles have finished the season ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll along with playing in a top-tier bowl game in each of the last five years. With the ‘Noles back on the national scene, it also means that they are once again sending talent to the National Football League, and when talent is headed to the pro ranks, it also means that there are consistent voids to fill on the roster which Florida State must do this year.
After spending the last three years as a backup quarterback, senior Sean Maguire is ready for the spotlight at Florida State. At 6’3″, 224 lbs., Maguire has a solid frame for a quarterback, but it won’t be a situation where he will have to do it by himself. National Football League scouts are drooling over the play making ability of junior running back Dalvin Cook. With two years as the Seminoles starting running back, Cook has gained 2,699 yards on the ground as he has become the heart and soul of this team. And in 2016, you can expect Cook to be a favorite to be the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year. Led by junior wide receiver Travis Rudolph, the ‘Noles have their top three wide receivers returning from last year’s team while all five of the big uglies up front are back.
The Seminoles also have six starters returning from a defense in 2015 that was 19th in the nation and under defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, they will look to wreak havoc on the offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
You can’t accuse Florida State of ducking anybody as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Ole Miss Rebels and the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. But the Seminoles Atlantic Coast Conference slate will be defined by their home game against the Clemson Tigers on October 29 as that contest will more than likely determine who will win the Atlantic Division and get to the conference title game and be a potential player in the College Football Playoff.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
The college football season 2015 saw the Iowa Hawkeyes fly under the radar, and before you knew it, this team was 12-0. But as good as Iowa’s season was, they will still enter the 2016 college football season with a bad taste in their mouths after losing their last two games from the previous season which were the Big Ten Championship Game to the Michigan State Spartans and the Rose Bowl to the Stanford Cardinal.
The workman like approach that was so effective for Iowa in 2015 will once again be at the forefront for head football coach Kirk Ferentz and his crew as they look to win the Big Ten. What helped Iowa in 2015 was their ability to not defeat themselves as they were 11th in the nation in turnover margin. The Hawkeyes have a senior quarterback C.J. Beathard who stays within the realm of the offense which means him not trying to do everything himself, while relying on Iowa’s solid running attack and stingy defense.
Iowa’s was 22nd in the nation last year in total defense, and led by junior linebacker Jewell Josey, this band of brothers will once again pack their lunch pales every Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten.
The fact that the Hawkeyes play in the Big Ten West will see them once again have a favorable schedule and they could fly under the radar just like they did in 2015.
10. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to once again create a buzz around his football program. In just one year, Harbaugh has put Michigan back onto the national scene and after a 10-3 record in 2015, the Wolverines are eyeing bigger and better things this year. Last year Michigan benefited from a transfer at quarterback in Jake Rudock. And this year the Wolverines will lean on another transfer quarterback in John O’Korn.
O’Korn began his collegiate career at the University of Houston where he was the 2013 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year as passed for 3,117 and 28 touchdowns. But injuries and the emergence of Greg Ward at quarterback made O’Korn expendable as he found a new home in Ann Arbor. Now O’Korn will play for a head coach in Harbaugh that wants him while also showcasing his live right arm. With four returning starters on the offensive line, senior running back De’Veon Smith should have plenty of running room to work with as Harbaugh is returning Michigan to the days of smash-mouth football of Bo Schembechler.
Last year the Wolverines were fourth in the nation in total defense which included three consecutive shutouts. And with hard hitting, redshirt sophomore Jabril Peppers making the move strong safety to linebacker, Michigan will have a physical presence once more.
Outside of road games against the Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, and Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan has a very favorable schedule which bodes well as far as their chances of winning the Big Ten Conference.
11. UCLA Bruins
Make no mistake about that the expectations have changed for the UCLA Bruins ever since Jim Mora became their head football coach in 2012. The Bruins have been in contention in the Pac-12 Conference while also re-emerging on the national scene. And after an 8-5 campaign in 2015, is UCLA ready to win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff?
If sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen can cut down on the turnovers in 2016, he has what it takes to be the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Rosen started all 13 games for the Bruins last year and he has the potential to be a very special player. Senior outside linebacker Jayon Brown is a solid tackler and the Bruins defense as a whole can get after opponents as they registered 28 sacks in 2015.
Under Mora, the Bruins don’t shy away from playing big teams from power conferences as they will begin the season on the road against the Texas A&M Aggies, while their Pac-12 slate includes road games against the Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington State Cougars.
12. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Although that the 2015 college football season didn’t end in the fashion that the Oklahoma State Cowboys would have liked, this a team that still has high hopes. The Cowboys won their first 10 games in 2015 before things fell apart as they lost their final three contests. Defense has never been Oklahoma State’s calling card as they surrendered 151 points in those three losses. But even with that Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy has a squad that will be capable of winning the Big 12 Conference.
Junior quarterback Mason Rudolph has proven that he can sling the football around in Gundy’s wide-open, spread-offense attack. The Cowboys offense doesn’t focus on pounding you with a running attack, but more with a passing game that can spread out opposing defenses and exploit weaknesses. Junior wide receiver James Washington and senior wide receiver Marcell Ateman were first and third respectively in receiving yards last year for the Cowboys and defenses in the Big 12 Conference will once again have their hands full with this duo. All five starting offensive linemen from last year’s team are back for the Cowboys and that continuity up front should give Rudolph ample time to pick apart defenses.
Defensively Oklahoma State was ranked 100th in the nation in total defense last year, and even though that they are returning eight starters on that side of the football, the unit will still be a work in progress.
The Cowboys season will be defined the Bedlam Game on December 3 against the Oklahoma Sooners as the winner of this contest will more than likely not only win the Big 12, but get to the College Football Playoff.
13. Ole Miss Rebels
Don’t look now, but there is a certain buzz around the Mississippi Rebels football program that hasn’t been in Oxford, Mississippi for quite some time. Hugh Freeze is set to begin his fifth season as the Mississippi head football coach and in each year there, the team’s win total has increased. And after showing that they can compete in the Southeastern Conference, the Rebels are ready to show that they have what it takes to be a contender for the College Football Playoff.
There’s a growing consensus that senior quarterback Chad Kelly could be the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year. If the last name sounds familiar it is that the Rebels quarterback is the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. But the younger Kelly is writing his own legacy as he might be the finest pocket passer that currently calls the SEC home. Kelly will have to carry the Ole Miss offense this year due to the fact the team lost so much production from last year’s squad which included four offensive linemen and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
Ole Miss will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation which features games against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with conference affairs against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
14. Houston Cougars
For Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman and his squad, they are out to prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke. The Cougars went 13-1 last season and only a three-point road loss to the Connecticut Huskies prevented them from having an undefeated season. But the Cougars return a ton of talent on both sides of the football as they are seeking to qualify for the College Football Playoff, while also impress the on lookers of the Big 12 Conference for a potential bid to join.
The Cougars have a dynamic play maker at quarterback in senior Greg Ward Jr. Last year Ward accounted for 3,936 yards of total offense for Houston and his name could be thrown around in the Heisman discussion this season. At 6’2″, 200 lbs., senior wide receiver Chance Allen has solid size and he has shown that he can be a go-to-guy for Ward in the red zone during jump ball situations. The Cougars have a young, but experienced offensive line that will be running the show as there are four returning starters from 2015, but none of them are seniors.
Senior outside linebacker Steven Taylor will look to cushion the loss of middle linebacker Elandon Roberts whom Houston lost to graduation as he leads a unit that forced 21 interceptions and had 36 sacks in 2015.
The Cougars will be in the mix to once again win the American Athletic Conference, but they can make a huge statement when they take on the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference to begin the season as they look to repeat as AAC Champs and potentially get to the College Football Playoff.
15. Baylor Bears
Hands down the past few years have been the golden era of Baylor Bears football. Four of the last five years have seen Baylor win at least 10 games as they’ve garnered national attention under head football coach Art Briles. But all good things must come to an end as Baylor parted with Briles due to numerous off-the-field situations involving his players with the most notable issue being sexual assault. Briles has been replaced by former Wake Forest Demon Deacons head football coach Jim Grobe who will try to maintain Baylor’s recent success on the football field.
The Bears must replace a ton of production on the offensive side of the football as they lost seven starters from last last year’s team including four starters on the offensive line. Senior quarterback Seth Russell is returning from a neck injury that ended his 2015 college football season abruptly and his right arm along the ability to find junior wide receiver KD Cannon will be important for Baylor’s chances as far as staying in the Big 12 Title hunt.
Baylor was 61st last year in total defense, but they are returning seven starters as defensive coordinator Phil Bennett hopes that his unit will be able to do enough to offset the Bears high-powered offense.
Outside of road games against the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners, the Bears, Big 12 Conference schedule is a favorable one. But a weak non-conference schedule could once again impact Baylor’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
16. Northwestern Wildcats
The Northwestern Wildcats will enter the 2016 college football season looking to build off of their surprising success in 2015. Northwestern was able to win 10 games last year, but they are looking to avoid taking a huge step backwards. The Wildcats would also win 10 games in 2012, but they won a combined 10 games over the next two seasons. However this time around Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald could have a team that can contend in the Big Ten West. Fitzgerald doesn’t attempt to mask his philosophy which consists of a solid defense and a strong running game as they are a throwback to old school, smash mouth football in the Big Ten.
Last year Northwestern running back Justin Jackson was a menace for opposing defenses to deal with as he gained 1,418 yards on the ground. And this year as a junior, Jackson and his elusiveness will once again be difficult to deal with. The Wildcats have four starters returning on their offensive line which is led by senior center Ian Park who could be an All-Big Ten performer.
Last year Northwestern had the 13th ranked defense in the nation, and with five starters returning on that side of the football, the Wildcats will once again be difficult to deal with. Junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker will be in the conversation to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while senior cornerback Matthew Harris will be in consideration to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
The month of October won’t be easy for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats as they’ll have three road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Ohio State Buckeyes, but they should be hang around in the Big Ten Title conversation.
17. Washington State Cougars
As Mike Leach is set to embark on his fifth season as the head football coach of the Washington State Cougars, he is looking to put it together in consecutive years. Under Leach, the Cougars are coming off of their first winning season since 2003 and they are now looking to become a player in the Pac-12 North.
Junior quarterback Luke Falk is coming off of one of the finest seasons in Washington State history as he passed for 4,561 and 38 touchdowns in Leach’s pass happy system. It has taken Leach some time, but he has found the right signal caller in Falk to operate his offense. Along with Falk, the Cougars have senior wide receiver Gabe Marks who could be an All-Pac-12 player this season while also becoming the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Washington State also returns three starters on the offensive line as they look to provide blanket protection around Falk and the skill players.
Defensively the Cougars have six returning starters from 2015 and they have some play makers in the form of junior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, sophomore defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, and free safety Shalom Luani that can positively impact the game for the Cougars.
The Cougars have to travel to face the Stanford Cardinal, but they get both the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies in Pullman which could help them with the Pac-12 North.
18. Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks are hopeful that their strong finish to the 2015 college football season will carry over to this year. The Ducks were able to win seven of their last nine games as head football Mark Helfrich is emerging from the shadow of his predecessor Chip Kelly.
Senior quarterback Jeff Lockie has been real patient as he has been the understudy to both Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams. But now Lockie can finally show what he can do under center for the Ducks. The Ducks have a player to look out for in the Heisman Trophy race in junior running back Royce Freeman. Last year Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns, and in 2016, he still be one of the fastest players in the nation. If Lockie is able to get the Ducks offense going, he has an array of receivers to get the football to in Oregon’s spread attack which includes senior wide receiver Bralon Addison and junior wide receiver Darren Carrington.
On defense, the Ducks must replace six starters in their front seven, but they will have a ton of experience in the secondary where led by junior Arrion Springs, all four starters will be returning.
As the season progresses, Oregon’s schedule will get tougher which includes road games against the Southern California Trojans and Utah Utes, but the Ducks do have enough firepower to win the the Pac-12 Conference.
19. Michigan State Spartans
The Michigan State Spartans are coming off of their best three-year stretch in school history. The Spartans have won 36 games over the last three seasons to go along with a top ten finish in the Associated Press Poll in each year as well. And although that there has been some talent that has left East Lansing, Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio still has a team to be reckoned with.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has bided his time on the bench behind Connor Cook who is now in the National Football League. And as a senior, O’Connor will get his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Spartans. You can expect Dantonio to lean heavily on the running game which will feature sophomore running back LJ Scott who could become a very punishing runner in the mode of former Michigan State running backs Lorenzo White and T.J. Duckett.
The Spartans must replace some talent on the defensive side of the football as they lost six starters from last year’s unit, but led by senior safety Demetrious Cox, the defense should be able to take shape as the season progresses.
Michigan State won’t be able to steamroll through the season like they did when they reached the College Football Playoff last year, but under Dantonio they will once again be a tough out.
20. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last year the Pittsburgh Panthers overachieved under first-year head football coach Pat Narduzzi as they won eight games for the first time since 2010. But it will be interesting to see if this program will be able to take the next step that has alluded them for more than 30 years.
Narduzzi likes to keep it simple on offense which means ball control and not turning the football over. Last year as a junior, quarterback Nathan Peterman made the most of his chance to be Pitt’s starting quarterback as he threw 20 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions. As a team the Panthers also averaged 4.8 yards on the ground and you can expect more of the same from them in 2016.
After being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of The Year in 2014, running back James Conner was limited to being a spectator for the majority of the 2015 college football season as he underwent cancer treatment. But now Conner is healthy and his return to competition alone should be inspiring to the Panthers program. In Conner’s absence, running back Qadree Ollison stepped up to gain more than 1,200 yards rushing, and going forward this duo should be problems for opposing defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Narduzzi has built his reputation on the defensive side of the football and with an experienced unit which includes eight seniors which is highlighted by senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos, the Pitt defense could resemble some of Narduzzi’s defenses during his time as the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans.
Pitt’s non-conference schedule won’t be a cakewalk as it includes games against the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten Conference and the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. But when Atlantic Coast Conference plays begins, the Panthers will be staring down the barrel of some daunting road affairs against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Miami Hurricanes, and Clemson Tigers as all three teams with be in the hunt to take the conference’s crown.
21. Georgia Bulldogs
This college football season will have a different feel for the Georgia Bulldogs as for the first time since 2000, Mark Richt will not be the head football coach in Athens. Kirby Smart has spent the last eight years as the defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide where he helped the school win four national titles while also sending a bevy of talent on that side of the football to the National Football League. Now Smart is returning to his alma mater in the hopes of adding to what Richt has accomplished by taking Georgia’s program to the next level.
I expect Georgia to continue pounding the football which means that you can expect a healthy dose of a pair of junior running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Both Chubb and Michel are explosive running backs that are always one play away from going the distance. In front of Chubb and Michel, the Bulldogs will only have two starters returning on the offensive line, but one of those is junior left tackle Isaiah Wynn who will look to anchor the offensive line.
On defense for Georgia, there will be some inexperience in the front seven, but there is a very experienced secondary in Athens which includes junior safety Dominick Sanders who will be in the mix to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
A road game against the Mississippi Rebels along with their annual meeting in Jacksonville against the Florida Gators will be the determining factor into whether or not that Smart will be able to get the Dawgs to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
22. Temple Owls
It’s a new day for Temple Owls football as they are being at looked as a team that can win the American Athletic Conference while finishing the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1979. Matt Rhule is in his fourth year as Temple’s head football coach, and he is steadily developing a program that will make the folks in Philadelphia very proud.
Senior quarterback P.J. Walker has been Temple’s starting quarterback in each of the last three seasons and he has developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference. Senior running back Jahad Thomas is a work horse for Rhule who only gets stronger as the game goes on. Temple has a ton of experience on their offensive line which includes four returning starters from 2015. Of those four starters, the Owls have a pair of senior in left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Brendan McGowan who’s experience should pay dividends for Temple’s offense.
Last year Temple was ranked 20th in the nation in total defense and with seven starters returning on the side of the ball, they can once again be stingy. Senior middle linebacker Jarred Alwan has solid range and he has the potential to carry the Owls defense while being one of the best linebackers in the American Athletic Conference.
Temple is no longer Philadelphia’s little secret and they could be in line to win their first conference title since 1967.
23. Arizona Wildcats
In 2015, the Arizona Wildcats were unable to live up to their preseason expectations as they stumbled to a record of 7-6, which included losing four out of their last six contests. But for Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez, you can expect his team to take a turn for the better this year in Tucson.
After a stellar freshman campaign in 2014, quarterback Anu Solomon took a step backwards last year which was a microcosm of the Wildcats team. But there is a ton of talent returning on the offensive side of the football around Solomon which includes three starters on the offensive line, and junior running back Nick Wilson.
For the Wildcats to have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12 Conference in 2016, they will need a much more spirited effort on defense. Last year the Wildcats were 115th in the nation in total defense as they had ten games in which they surrendered at least 30 points. Arizona does return six defensive starters, but for first-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, he is hopeful to find some impact players.
Arizona has a favorable non-conference schedule, but things will get tougher in October with consecutive road games against the UCLA Bruins and Utah Utes as the Wildcats will have their hands full as far as winning the Pac-12 South for the second time in the last three years.
24. Stanford Cardinal
The Stanford Cardinal might not get the respect that they deserve nationally, but this is a program that has become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Five of the last six college football seasons have ended with Stanford finishing no lower than 11th in the final Associated Press Poll which included being third last year after their dominating Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes.
But it won’t be as easy for Stanford to win the Pac-12 this time around as they have to replace a plethora of talent. The Cardinal lost eight starters on offensive line which includes four offensive linemen and quarterback Kevin Hogan who was a four-year starter. However the Cardinals still have Mr. Versatility in junior running back Christian McCaffrey. Last year McCaffrey set an NCAA single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards as he was named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year. McCaffrey is an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and if he is able to keep Stanford among the upper echelon teams in the nation, he could put to bed the “East Coast bias” that has been a stigma with the Heisman voting.
Like their offense, the Cardinal defense must replace a wealth of talent as five starters from last year’s unit graduated. But the cupboard hasn’t been bare for some time at Palo Alto as senior linebackers Kevin Palma and Peter Kalambayi will look to step up and fill voids.
Under head football coach David Shaw, Stanford never has a cupcake schedule which is once again the case this year as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Kansas State Wildcats of the Big 12 Conference and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish along with a brutal conference slate that will see them get it on with the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Washington Huskies, and Oregon Ducks.
25. North Carolina Tar Heels
In just four years as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, Larry Fedora has built his program into a power within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year Fedora led North Carolina to 11 wins which tied a school record. The Tar Heels won the Coastal Division of the ACC for the first time in school history, and as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, Fedora is looking to build off of that success.
After spending the last two years as the understudy to quarterback Marquise Williams, junior Mitch Trubisky is ready for his opportunity to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback. But whereas Trubisky might be inexperienced as Carolina’s starting quarterback, he has plenty of talent around him. The Heels have three returning starters on the offensive line which included both offensive tackles in seniors Bentley Spain and Jon Heck. The Tar Heels have two senior wide receivers in Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer that Trubisky can lean on to make plays. However the engine for North Carolina’s offense is junior running back Elijah Hood.
Last year Hood rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the play of Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson and Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook. But make no mistake about it that Hood is a play maker who will be in the running to be the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
The Tar Heels have seven starters returning on defense as their pass rush will be anchored by senior defensive end Mikey Bart. The Heels also have experience in their secondary with no player being more vital to their success than junior cornerback M.J. Stewart who is one of the top corners in the nation.
As Fedora is attempting to build North Carolina’s brand, he and his program will have a golden opportunity to win a showcase game to begin the season when they travel to face the Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference at the Georgia Dome on September 3, while they also have road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference against the Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, and Duke Blue Devils.
In the mix-Western Michigan Broncos, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Northern Illinois Huskies, Boise State Broncos
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com