The USC Trojans are one of several high profile football programs that will be playing in a big bowl game.
College Football Playoff
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oklahoma
This will mark the second time that these two clubs meet this season, and it should be a dandy.
Peach Bowl: LSU vs. Miami
It’s a new team and a new conference for Mark Richt, but he’ll still struggle against LSU.
National Championship Game-Raymond James Stadium-Tampa, Florida
LSU vs. Oklahoma
A year after nearly losing his job at LSU, Les Miles is once again king of the mountain.
National Champion: LSU
Orange Bowl: Boise State vs. Clemson
Clemson is definitely worthy of getting back to the College Football Playoff, but making the Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.
Cotton Bowl: Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
A trip to the Cotton Bowl will climax the end of a great season for two programs that are on the upswing.
Rose Bowl: UCLA vs. Michigan
It hasn’t taken Jim Mora and Jim Harbaugh that long to get their respective programs back on the national scene.
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State
Will a consecutive trip to the Sugar Bowl bring a different outcome for Oklahoma State after they were blown out by Ole Miss this past January?
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. San Diego State
There will be plenty of offense on display at the New Mexico Bowl between Marshall and San Diego State.
Las Vegas Bowl: Air Force vs. Arizona
The triple-option attack of Air Force versus the spread offense of Arizona will lead to an intriguing contest.
Cure Bowl: East Carolina vs. Georgia State
Georgia State and their powerful running game don’t get enough respect around the nation, but they could get some here.
Camellia Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
This could be a sleeper matchup during bowl season.
New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Southern Mississippi
Georgia Southern will arrive on Bourbon Street with an attitude to run the football.
Miami Beach Bowl: Tulsa vs. Northern Illinois
Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans can use this game as a chance to fine tune his resume as he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks selected in next year’s National Football League Draft.
Boca Raton Bowl: Connecticut vs Middle Tennessee
Bob Diaco is building his program at Connecticut and a bowl appearance would be rewarding to him and his players.
Poinsettia Bowl: Nevada vs. BYU
Although that Bronco Mendehall is no longer coaching at BYU, this program still has what it takes to make a bowl game.
Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Colorado State
It’s a battle of teams that wear green on the “smurf turf” of Boise, Idaho.
Bahamas Bowl: Memphis vs. Western Kentucky
The explosiveness of Western Kentucky’s offense is no longer a secret.
Armed Forces Bowl: Navy vs. Texas Tech
The triple-option attack of Navy against the pass happy offense of Texas Tech should make for an intriguing contest in Fort Worth, Texas.
GoDaddy Bowl: Appalachian State vs Western Michigan
After a strong season at Western Michigan, this could be the last game there for head football coach P.J. Fleck who could be ready to take over a bigger program.
Hawaii Bowl: Stanford vs. UNLV
It’s not the Rose Bowl that we’re accustomed to seeing Stanford in, but they will gladly take a trip to Honolulu after a down year.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Bowling Green
The scoreboard operator at Tropicana Field will be busy as both of these offenses can score with the best of them.
Quick Lane Bowl: Indiana vs. Duke
Indiana versus Duke is no longer simply reserved for the hardwood anymore.
Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Virginia Tech
For a pair of first year head coaches in Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Barry Odom (Missouri), a bowl victory can do wonders for their respective programs.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Minnesota
Louisiana Tech won’t be intimidated by playing a team from a power conference.
Military Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Temple
After a strong season it will be interesting to see if Temple will show up for this one.
Holiday Bowl: Penn State vs. Washington
This will be a contest of teams that are on the verge of breaking through in their respective conferences.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. Utah
There will be plenty of physicality on the field with two teams that are among the toughest in their respective conferences.
Pinstripe Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Wisconsin
The Ramblin’ Wreck makes its way up I-95 to the House that Jeter built.
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Florida State
This contest is New Year’s Day worthy, but we’ll get it in late December.
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. Washington State
Will Nebraska make it consecutive wins at Santa Clara in this game?
Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
Watching TCU and Texas A&M meet on the gridiron will bring back memories when these two schools called the Southwest Conference home; and it doesn’t hurt that the game will take place in Houston.
Birmingham Bowl: Houston vs. Kentucky
This could be Houston’s final audition before joining the Big 12.
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State vs. North Carolina
Mississippi State will have their hands full as this will be a de facto home game for North Carolina in Charlotte.
Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Oregon
A bowl victory for Texas could be the springboard that they need to get back on the national scene.
Liberty Bowl: Baylor vs. Arkansas
After a tough year for both Baylor and Arkansas, they’ll both be happy to have the chance to finish on a positive note.
Sun Bowl: Louisville vs. USC
Louisville will be happy to travel to El Paso, but will it be the same for the Men of Troy?
Arizona Bowl: New Mexico vs. South Florida
Very quietly Bob Davie has done a good a developing a respectable program at New Mexico.
Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Pittsburgh
Will a trip to Nashville signal the end of Gus Malzahn’s run at Auburn?
Citrus Bowl: Georgia vs. Iowa
This will culminate the end of a solid first year at Georgia for Kirby Smart as he gets his squad to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Northwestern
Hugh Freeze is accomplishing one of his goals as Ole Miss is consistently playing on or around New Year’s Day.
Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Florida
After struggles by both teams, they will be thankful to get it on in Tampa on New Year’s Day.
Florida State Seminoles 11-2 (7-1)
When the Florida State Seminoles hired Jimbo Fisher to be their head football coach in 2010, they brought him in with the premise of returning the school to being a national power on the gridiron. In six years at the helm of Florida State, Fisher has a sparking record of 68-14 which includes three Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, and a national title. The Seminoles have finished each year under Fisher ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll as they are getting back to the dominance that they had in the 1980’s and 1990’s under former head football coach Bobby Bowden. And although that the 2015 college football season didn’t end in the fashion that the ‘Noles would have intended as they lost in the Peach Bowl to the Houston Cougars on New Year’s Eve, the bar of expectations will once again be high in Tallahassee.
After splitting time last year with Everett Golson at the quarterback, Sean Maguire won’t be looking over his shoulder in this his senior campaign. It could be very easy for Maguire to attempt to do everything himself, but instead he must lead while also relying on the talent that is around him.
If not for the rule that requires a collegiate player to be out of high school for at least three years before entering the National Football League, running back Dalvin Cook could have been a first-round pick this past April. But the NFL’s loss is Florida State’s gain as Cook is back for his junior season which is bad news for defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year Cook rushed for 1,691 and 19 rushing touchdowns as he was a first-team All-ACC member. Cook has that rare blend of size, speed, and elusiveness which makes him a logical candidate to be the ACC Player of the Year.
The Seminoles also have speed at wide receiver position in the form of junior Travis Rudolph and he should see his fair share of one-on-one matchups due to the respect that defenses will give Cook.
Last year saw the ‘Noles ranked 19th in the nation in total defense. And even though that Fisher must replace some talent on that side of the ball, the Seminoles still have quality athletes as they are led by senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
The Seminoles will get things started on September 5 when they travel to Orlando, Florida to face the Mississippi Rebels of the Southeastern Conference before they embark on a relatively easy conference schedule. Florida State will face their biggest test in the Atlantic Coast Conference on October 29 when they host the Clemson Tigers in a game that will more than likely determine the winner of the Atlantic Division.
Clemson Tigers 11-1 (7-1)
The Clemson Tigers are in the midst of their most prolonged success on the gridiron. Each of the last five years has seen Clemson win at least 10 games. But after going 14-1 last year with a spot in the national championship game, Clemson knows that they will have a bulls eye on them; especially in the Atlantic Coast Conference where they haven’t lost a game since November 15, 2014.
For Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, he enters the 2016 college football season with one of his deepest teams ever. Junior quarterback Deshaun Watson enters this year as the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. Last year Watson accounted for 5,209 all-purpose yards, and after finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2015, he is one of the favorites to win the award this December. Watson simply frustrates defenses with his elusiveness, and his pocket presence. Watson has a strong arm which sees him get the football to an array of wide receivers such as juniors Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, along with sophomore Hunter Renfrow.
The Tigers will return three starters on the offensive line and this unit which is led by senior center Jay Guillermo as they are set provide protection for one of the best group of play makers in nation.
Clemson was 10th in the nation in total defense last year. Although that the Tigers lost impact players such as defensive end Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander to the National Football League, the defense under defensive coordinator Brent Venables will still be able to be stingy against offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Senior linebacker Ben Boulware was third on the team in tackles last season with 82, and he is set to be on of the top linebackers in the ACC in 2016.
Under Swinney, Clemson cannot be accused of playing a soft schedule which is evident by them opening this season on the road against the Auburn Tigers from the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers will begin conference play on the road against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets which won’t be an easy trip. But Clemson’s season will come down to their meeting with the Florida State Seminoles on October 29th as these two schools have accounted for the last seven Atlantic Division winners.
Louisville Cardinals 9-3 (6-2)
Although that the Louisville Cardinals went 8-5 in 2015, it might have been one of the best coaching jobs that their head football coach Bobby Petrino has ever done. The Cardinals began the year with a record of 0-3 before they rallied to win eight of their final 10 games which included a Music City Bowl victory over the Texas A&M Aggies of the Southeastern Conference. Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014, Petrino and Louisville have been a second-class citizen to the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles in the Atlantic Division, and in order for Louisville to reach the conference title game, that must change.
Petrino is known for having one of the best offensive minds in college football and it will be put to good use he has some talent to work with this year at Louisville. The Cards return 10 starters on offense and they will be led by sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson. As a freshman in 2015, Jackson dealt with his fair share of ups downs, but that experience should help him to navigate here in 2016. Aside from being Louisville’s starting quarterback last season, Jackson was also their leading rusher which is something that must change if the Cardinals want to become a serious contender for the Atlantic Coast Conference Title.
Senior running back Brandon Radcliff needs to take some of the rushing load off of the legs of Jackson as he needs to provide some balance for Louisville’s passing attack, while senior wide receiver James Quick and sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Smith need to be more consistent with their pass catching.
Louisville does have four starters returning of the offensive line, but none of them are seniors, with junior in guard Skylar Lacy having the potential to be a standout.
As the 2015 college football season progressed, Louisville’s defense improved. And in 2016, there are some impact players on that side of the football that includes senior defensive end Devonte Fields, junior cornerback Trumaine Washington, and senior middle linebacker Keith Kelsey.
Over a three-week stretch that begins in mid-September, Louisville will itself face both Florida State and Clemson and these two games will go a long way in determining the Cardinals chances in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina State Wolfpack 6-6 (3-5)
It’s been more than 10 years since the North Carolina State Wolfpack contended for the Atlantic Coast Conference Title, and you have to go back to 1979 to find the last time that they won it. Like most of the original remaining members of the ACC, North Carolina State has been caught up in the wash as the conference has now expanded to 14 members, and it won’t get any better for them or their head football coach Dave Doeren here in 2016.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Jalan McClendon saw limited action for the Wolfpack, but he is expected to be the guy this year. McClendon checks in at 6’5″ and weighs 212 lbs., and Doeren is hopeful that the youngster is ready to lead the Wolfpack offense full-time. Last year as a junior, running back Matthew Dayes led the team in rushing, but a foot injury prematurely ended his season. Dayes is now healthy and he will be big part on any success that they Wolfpack intend on having in 2016.
But overall North Carolina State will be dealing with their fair share of growing pains in 2016 as there is a youth movement on the offensive line that has four sophomores and one junior in the starting lineup.
The same can be said on the defensive side of the football where there were plenty of underclassmen who saw valuable time last year. Junior linebacker Airius Moore was the team’s leading tackler last year with 77 and he should once again be an impact player.
The Wolfpack should be able to start 2016 strong, but things will get difficult during October and early November where they will have a brutal stretch that includes games against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Clemson Tigers, Louisville Cardinals, and Florida State Seminoles.
Syracuse Orange 4-8 (2-6)
2016 finds the Syracuse Orange in a very familiar situation as they are once again starting over. Dino Babers is set to begin his first year as the head football coach of the Orange and he will be the school’s fifth different head football coach since 2004. And with the constant turnover for Syracuse at the head coaching position, it isn’t that much of a surprise that they’ve only managed to have three winning seasons since then.
It is going to take Babers some time, but he is looking to revamp the Syracuse offense. Babers comes to Central New York after having the fourth-ranked offense in the nation last year with the Bowling Green State University Falcons, but only he made the trek up north and not his former players.
With a new head football coach in place, you can expect an open competition at every position; including at quarterback as Babers isn’t attached at the hip to any of the current Syracuse roster. The Syracuse offense will be a work in progress, but defensively there is one standout player in junior linebacker Zaire Franklin who should garner some recognition in the Atlantic Coast Conference as one of their top defensive players.
The main thing that Syracuse must focus on in 2016 is competing because they have a long uphill battle in front of them if they expect to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Boston College Eagles 5-7 (2-6)
2015 wasn’t a good one for the Boston College Eagles as they became the first team in the Atlantic Coast Conference to go winless in the conference since the Virginia Cavaliers in 2013. In spite of Boston College’s struggles, the school decided to stick by head football coach Steve Addazio as they feel that he is still the right man for the job, while they are also committed to upgrading the team’s facilities in order to compete in the ACC.
Last year saw the Eagles with some near misses as they lost three conference games by three points or less, and they had a very young team. Of B.C.’s projected 22 starters for the upcoming campaign, only five will be seniors. The main thing that held the Eagles back last year was that they lacked the play makers that could step up and make those critical plays.
Addazio was able to skate by with a subpar season in 2015, but that might not the case again in 2016.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons 1-11 (0-8)
It’s been a tough go at it for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Tobacco Road as they have been caught up in the wash that is the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Demon Deacons last made a bowl appearance in 2011, while they haven’t posted a winning record since 2008. Dave Clawson is in his third year as the head football coach at Wake Forest as he has so far compiled a record of 6-18. And by the looks of things, it won’t be getting any better in Winston-Salem anytime soon.
What Wake Forest needs is to find some more consistency on offense. Last year the Demon Deacons were 114th in nation in total offense and it is important that players such as junior quarterback John Wolford and sophomore wide receiver Cortez Lewis are able to next step to propel this squad into contention.
Wake Forest began 2015 with a record of 3-3 before they dropped their final six contests. And if wins are few and far between for the Deacons here in 2016, it won’t turn out pretty for Clawson.
Miami Hurricanes 11-2 (6-2)
Life in the Atlantic Coast Conference hasn’t been kind to the Miami Hurricanes. Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami has failed to record a 10-win season or participate in a major bowl game. This is a far cry from what the Hurricanes were able to do from 1983-2003 when they finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press Poll 14 times while being a frequent participant in the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls. Typically head football coaches at Miami don’t last that long as in the past they’ve pursued other ventures such as jobs in the National Football League. But each the last three head football coaches that the school employed have been fired as each man was unable to return the program to prominence.
With the ‘Canes looking to once again become a national power, the school reached out to an alum in Mark Richt to turn things around. Richt spent the last 15 years as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs where he compiled a record of 145-51 to go along with a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. But apparently Richt didn’t win enough big games at Georgia which led to his dismissal. Miami has welcomed Richt with open arms and they are hopeful that he will be able to bring some of his magic from Athens with him to South Florida. But as Richt comes to Miami, there will be definitely be some talent in place for him to work with.
As a freshman in 2014, quarterback Brad Kaaya was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year, and if he can make a smooth transition to Richt’s offense in 2016, he could find himself in the running to be the conference’s player of the year. Richt loves to run the football, while he also relies on smart quarterbacks that don’t make mistakes. In Kaaya’s first two years with the ‘Canes, he has done a solid job of protecting the football which bodes well for the success of the team this season.
At 5’9″, 202 lbs., junior running back Joe Yearby is a speedster, but he will definitely get his fair share of carries this year for the Hurricanes as Richt looks to establish the running game. Led by senior guards Trevor Darling and Daniel Isidora, Miami returns all five starters on the offensive line from 2015 as they should be one of the better units within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Led by senior middle linebacker Jermaine Grace, the ‘Canes will have their top four tacklers on defense return this year as this unit looks to become more aggressive under Richt.
With the exception of a road game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Miami finds themselves with a very winnable slate of games. But when conference play begins for the Hurricanes, they will be running the gauntlet. In Richt’s first Atlantic Coast Conference game, he will face a familiar foe in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets who he dominated during his time at Georgia. The meeting against the Yellow Jackets will be the first of five consecutive tough games for Miami as they will also face the Florida State Seminoles, North Carolina Tar Heels, Virginia Tech Hokies, and Pittsburgh Panthers.
Richt’s teams are typically very mentally tough, and it will be interesting to see how he will adjust to life at Miami.
Pittsburgh Panthers 10-2 (6-2)
The first year for Pat Narduzzi as the head football coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers was a successful one. 2015 was Narduzzi’s first go round as a head football coach and he led Pittsburgh to their first 8-win season since 2009. And after finishing second in the Coastal Division last year to the North Carolina Tar Heels, Pitt is hopeful that they have what it takes to make the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history.
Last year as a junior, quarterback Nathan Peterman had his first season as the Panthers starting quarterback and he was solid in helping Pittsburgh win 8 games. Peterman has solid pocket awareness, and if he is able to continue improving as a quarterback, it could be a fantastic year in Western Pennsylvania.
Running back Qadree Ollison was a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Second-team as a redshirt freshman. Ollison averaged 5.3 yards per carry, along with 11 rushing touchdowns, and in 2016, he stands to once again be one of the better runners within the conference. Senior running back James Conner is one of the feel good stories in college football as after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015, he has been undergoing treatment and he looks to play football once again. But what Conner has become is an inspiration to his teammates, coaches, and the entire Pittsburgh community.
Narduzzi has built his reputation on the defensive side of the football which has seen him be the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats and Michigan State Spartans as they are merely two of the stops along his coaching journey. Last year the Pittsburgh defense was a work in progress, but this unit should be improved here in 2016 with the likes of junior defensive back Avonte Maddox and senior linebacker Matt Galambos leading the way.
This year will see Pittsburgh’s non-conference schedule include bragging rights within the State of Pennsylvania against the Villanova Wildcats, and Penn State Nittany Lions. Pitt won’t have that many soft spots in their conference schedule as they’ll have road games against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Miami Hurricanes, and Clemson Tigers who will all be in the running to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina Tar Heels 8-4 (5-3)
It hasn’t taken head football coach Larry Fedora that long to turn around the fortunes of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Fedora just completed his third season at Chapel Hill and he led the Tar Heels to their first 11-win season since 1997. And after reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game for the first time in school history last December, Fedora wants to make sure that his Tar Heels squad doesn’t go in reverse in 2016.
With quarterback Marquise Williams having graduated, North Carolina will some competition between junior Mitch Trubisky and sophomore Caleb Henderson to get the nod to be the team’s starting quarterback. But whoever will be Carolina’s starting quarterback in 2016, he will have the luxury on handing the football off to one of the best running backs in the nation.
Last year as a sophomore, running back Elijah Hood tore up the Atlantic Coast Conference to the tune of 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns. With Carolina lacking a quality passing game, Hood will once again be the focal point of the offense as defenses will be stacking the box in the effort to stop him.
Junior defensive back M.J. Stewart has some of the best hands of the defensive side of the football in the Atlantic Coast Conference as he had 4 interceptions last year, and he’ll be looking to improve his status this season for the 2017 National Football League Draft.
North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference overall are still searching for respect on the college football scene in spite of putting a team into the College Football Playoff in each of the last two years. And for the Tar Heels, they will begin their season at the Georgia Dome against the Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference, while their ACC schedule will see them face the Pittsburgh Panthers, Florida State Seminoles, Virginia Tech Hokies, and Miami Hurricanes in consecutive conference games as winning 11 wins in 2016 won’t be as easy as it was in 2016.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 7-5 (4-4)
During Paul Johnson’s eight-year run as the head football coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, he has a pair of 11-win seasons under his belt. But each time that the Yellow Jackets have won 11 games, they have taken a huge step backwards in the following year. After the Jackets won 11 games in 2014, they managed to go 3-9 last year for their worst season since 1994. And although that Johnson and his triple-option attack are down, they are far from out.
Georgia Tech lives and dies by their triple-option attack and they need to get more consistency in 2016. Last year saw junior quarterback Justin Thomas and a pair of freshman running backs in Marcus Mitchell and Clinton Lynch as the Yellow Jackets top three runners, but the trio only combined to gain 1,608 yards which is a number that must increase drastically in 2016 in order for Georgia Tech to be a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Georgia Tech offensive line in 2016 will be young with just one senior in center Freddie Burden as a starter, but they will need to develop some cohesion early on.
Linebacker P.J. Davis led the Yellow Jackets in tackles last season with 77 and here in 2016 as a senior, he could be one of the better linebackers in the conference.
Last year saw Georgia Tech lose six games by eight points or less, and they have to find a way to win those tight affairs this season. Georgia Tech will get their frequent flyer miles to begin the college football season as they’ll travel to Ireland to meet the Boston College Eagles, and a victory there could be just what the doctor ordered for this year to be much more beneficial than 2015 was.
Duke Blue Devils 6-6 (4-4)
Being that the Duke Blue Devils don’t have a strong football history, the school has been patient with head football coach David Cutcliffe which has paid off. In each of Cutcliffe’s first four years at Duke, the Blue Devils had a losing record. But in each of the last four years, Duke has gone bowling while also winning the Coastal Division in 2013 as Cutcliffe is showing that this is no longer just a basketball school. Aside from winning, Duke has also sent several players to the National Football League which should add some appeal of the program to recruits. But with all of the recent success by Duke, they will be fighting an uphill battle in 2016.
Senior quarterback Thomas Sirk is a solid field general for Duke, but he cannot do it by himself as he was also the team’s leading rusher last year as well. However aside from Sirk, Duke is lacking playmakers on both sides of the football for the upcoming college football season which will test Cutcliffe’s ability as a coach. And with an improved Coastal Division this year, it will be difficult for the Blue Devils to not get caught up in the wash.
Virginia Tech Hokies 6-6 (4-4)
It’s the dawn of a new day for Virginia Tech Hokies football as their new head football coach Justin Fuente is charged with replacing a legend. For the past 29 years, each time that Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from the pubic address system at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, it was Frank Beamer that led the Hokies onto the field as their head football coach. Beamer put Virginia Tech on the map with his famed “Beamer ball” that relied on an opportunistic defense and quality special teams. Under Beamer, Virginia Tech became a pipeline for the National Football League which included the likes of quarterback Michael Vick and strong safety Kam Chancellor, while the Hokies had a stranglehold over the top football recruits within the State of Virginia. But the Hokies have recently fallen on hard times as they have finished each of the last four years not ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 1992.
There will be an open competition to be Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback this year between junior Jerod Evans and senior Brenden Motley. Evans spent the last two years at Trinity Valley Community College and his ability to be a dual-threat quarterback can immediately be beneficial to Virginia Tech. Last year as freshman, running back Travon McMillan continued the Hokies tradition at running back when he rushed for 1,042 yards. And even though that there is a plethora of talented running backs within the Atlantic Coast Conference, McMillan can hold his own. If junior wide receiver Isaiah Ford is able to put some weight on his 6’2″ frame, he could become one of the most imposing figures in the conference as the Hokies look to make it 24 consecutive years with a bowl appearance.
Led by senior left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, Virginia Tech plenty of experience in their offensive line which should benefit them during their adjustment period under Fuente.
Fuente made sure to maintain longtime Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster who has been at Blacksburg since 1987 when Beamer took over. Last year was a down year for the Hokies defensively as they were 44th in the nation in total defense, and if they are going to get things turned around here in 2016, it is going to begin with junior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who was third on the team in tackles last year with 73 to get the ship righted.
The road to a 24th consecutive bowl game won’t be an easy one as it includes a contest against the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference, and road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference against the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, and Pittsburgh Panthers will put immense pressure on the Hokies.
Virginia Cavaliers 2-10 (0-8)
After only being able to lead the Virginia Cavaliers to one winning season during his six-year stint in Charlottesville, Mike London was relieved of his duties as the school’s head football coach. The search for a new Cavaliers head football coach took school officials to Provo, Utah where they were able to convince longtime Brigham Young University head football coach Bronco Mendenhall to leave his cozy post after 11 years at the school where he compiled a record of 99-43 which included a pair of Mountain West Conference Championships, in favor of a Virginia program that has struggled mightily in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’ve only managed to have one winning season since 2008.
I’m sure that Mendenhall and his staff has been thoroughly evaluating Virginia’s roster from his first day on the job and he does have a veteran quarterback in senior Matt Johns and a leader on defense in junior linebacker Micah Kiser to work with, but as of right now the overall talent pool simply isn’t there in Charlottesville.
Mendenhall will definitely be fighting an uphill battle at Virginia in 2016, and the most important thing for him to do is to find a way for his squad to compete as he builds his foundation.
ACC Championship Game: Florida State vs. Miami
Conference Champion: Miami
Coach of the Year: Mark Richt-Miami
Offensive Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson-Quarterbck-Clemson
Defensive Player of the Year: M.J. Stewart-Cornerback-North Carolina
Sources: NationalChamps.net, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com
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