Will Jimbo Fisher be able to live up to the tough expectations at Texas A&M?
Y-Florida State Seminoles 11-2 (9-0)
In seven years as the head football coach of the Florida State Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher has been able to build off of the success that his predecessor Bobby Bowden was able to achieve. Fisher is 78-17 as a head coach, while the Seminoles have finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll in each of his seasons in Tallahassee which included winning the national championship during the 2013 college football campaign. The ‘Noles went 10-3 in each of the last two years, but they were overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference due to the dominance of the Clemson Tigers. But with Clemson expected to take a step back this season after they were able to win the national championship last season, will Florida State be able to take advantage in order to win the ACC?
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois flourished for Florida en route to being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. Francois was able to throw 20 touchdown passes while also completing nearly 60% of his throws. Even more will be expected of Francois this season as if he’s able to build off of his solid freshman campaign, he could overtake Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson in regards to being the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Coming into this season there could be some concern in regards to who will be able to replace the contributions of running back Dalvin Cook as Florida State’s running back after he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, but in Tallahassee the cupboard is never bare. Jacques Patrick spent 2016 as Cook’s understudy and in a limited role he was able to average 5.7 yards per carry. Now as Patrick is entering his junior campaign, he will have to be the guy that must be able to offset Francois in the Seminoles running game.
The offensive line could be a concern for Florida State to begin the season as Fisher is going with two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, while it will be up to senior right tackle Rick Leonard to anchor this unit.
In 2016, the ‘Noles were able to show flashes of brilliance at times on defense, and heading into the new campaign there is once again talent on this squad that is worthy of playing the National Football League.
Last year as a freshman, defensive end Brian Burns was able to tally 9.5 sacks. However Burns was able to accomplish this as he played opposite of defensive DeMarcus Walker. But with Walker now in the National Football League, will Burns be able to be the guy? Burns should be able to answer the call as Florida State as a team was able record 51 sacks last season with the “meet me at the quarterback play” once again being in effect in Tallahassee.
Junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is coming off a season in which he recorded 8 interceptions and here in 2017, his name will be mentioned in regards to winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. But whereas McFadden was able to register 8 picks last season, I don’t see him getting as many chances this time around to display his pass catching skills as opposing offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference will think twice about testing him.
The Seminoles will be tested to begin the new season as they’ll face the Alabama Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference in what will be the first college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And after the ‘Noles lost to Louisville 63-20 last year, revenge will be on their minds heading into the rematch on October 21 in what could decide who wins the Atlantic Division.
X-Louisville Cardinals 10-2 (6-2)
The transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference has been a seamless one for the Louisville Cardinals. Overall the Cardinals are 26-13 since joining the ACC, but they must find a way to contend with the big boys of the conference. Louisville has gone a combined 1-5 versus the Florida State Seminoles and Clemson Tigers which has held them back from winning the conference title. And as head football coach Bobby Petrino and his team are set to embark on a new campaign, they must find a way to finish. After the Cards started 9-1 last year and they were in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff until they finished the season on a three-game losing streak. And it will be interesting to see if the Cards are ready to bounce back in order to take that next step in 2017.
In 2016, quarterback Lamar Jackson had a season for the ages. Jackson accounted for more than 5,000 yards of total offense to become the first player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player. Now as Jackson is set to begin his junior campaign, he must be able to channel out the white noise.
There will be talk of Jackson seeking to become the first player since Archie Griffin in 1975 to win consecutive Heismans, while people will also be discussing the possibility of him being the first overall pick in next year’s National Football League Draft. And we cannot forget about the fact that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will put a target on Jackson’s back as they are seeking to slow him down. But even with all of that if Jackson is able to remain focused on helping his team win games this fall, the Cardinals nor he should falter.
Like Jackson, the Cardinals entire starting offensive line is comprised of juniors which includes left tackle Geron Christian. And due to Jackson’s athleticism, it will be important for Louisville’s offensive line to keep their heads on a swivel because you never know in which direction that he will take the play.
When you think of Petrino led football teams, you think of offensive football; however this year’s Louisville team can be better on defense than expected. Peter Sirmon is set to begin his first season as Louisville’s defensive coordinator and he has some talent to work with.
Senior linebackers James Hearns and Issac Stewart each have the potential to play in the National Football League and the same can be said in regards to junior cornerback Jaire Alexander. These players solid play making ability on the defensive side of football and that’ll be important as they must consistently be able to offset the Cardinals high-octane offense.
In order for the Cardinals to win the Atlantic Coast Conference they will definitely have to earn it as their first two conference games will be against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Clemson. But Louisville’s chances of winning the ACC will come down their October 21st meeting with Florida State which will more than likely decide who wins the Atlantic Division.
X-Clemson Tigers 8-4 (5-3)
Dabo Swinney has nine years under his belt as the head football coach of the Clemson Tigers while the last five seasons have been the best stretch in program history. Over this stretch Clemson is 60-9 which includes them going 14-1 in each of the last two years. Clemson was able to culminate this by winning the national championship last season and the party is still going on. But after the Tigers were able to reach the top of the mountain, what will they be able to do for an encore?
There is no way that the Tigers will be able to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson and what he meant to their program over the last three years, but somebody must try.
Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant appears to be the favorite to be Clemson’s next starting quarterback. Bryant only attempted 9 passes last season and now he will get his chance to show what he can do.
It’s not just Watson who Clemson must replace on offense as running back Wayne Gallman along with wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams are now in the National Football League as after the Tigers had the 12th ranked offense in the nation last season, they should take a step back here in 2017.
Defensively Clemson will miss the leadership of linebacker Ben Boulware, but there are some players who should be ready to step up for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is solid on the interior of the Tigers defensive line, while junior middle linebacker Kendall Russell has the potential to be one of the better players at his position within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Clemson will have a different look when they take the field as compared to the last few years, but don’t expect their opponents to let up on them as they will still be viewed as the defending national champs. This is a rebuilding year for the Tigers, but they should still be respectable.
X-North Carolina State Wolfpack 7-5 (5-3)
With the exception of a minor uprising here and there, the North Carolina State Wolfpack are consistently a middle of the pack football program in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Wolfpack only have one double-digit winning season in their history which gives you an idea as to how consistently inconsistent that they are. Each of the last two years have seen N.C. State go 7-6, and can we expect anymore for this team under head football coach Dave Doeren?
In 2016, Ryan Finley was given his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Wolfpack and he did not disappoint. Finley passed for 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns as he gave the folks in Raleigh some hope for the future. Finley also showed poise as he was able to complete more than 60% of his passes. And now it will be interesting to see if Finley is able to take that next step for both himself and North Carolina State.
Finley will be protected by a veteran offensive line that consist of four juniors and a senior in right guard Tony Adams as they will be important to any potential success for this offense.
Defensively the Wolfpack have a strong core of linebackers that is led by a pair of seniors in middle linebacker Jerod Fernandez and outside linebacker Airius Moore. Both Fernandez and Moore are solid tacklers that possess good lateral movement which will be on display as they seek to slow down the quarterbacks and running backs that that the Atlantic Coast Conference has to offer. Senior defensive end Bradley Chubb could be a first-team All-ACC performer as he has the potential to be the best pass rusher in the conference. Chubb was able to record 10 sacks last season and he should be able to build off of that by tallying at least 12 this year.
The Wolfpack face a daunting schedule which includes road games against the Florida State Seminoles and Pittsburgh Panthers, while home showdowns with the Louisville Cardinals and Clemson Tigers will more than likely keep them as a middle of the road squad within the conference.
X-Boston College Eagles 6-6 (3-5)
You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time in which the Boston College Eagles were able to win more than 7 games in a season. Three of the last four years have seen Boston College go 7-6 with a 3-9 campaign in 2015. But for Boston College head football coach Steve Addazio, will 2017 be the year that he and his program are finally able to buck their trend of mediocrity?
Defense was the name of the game in 2016 for the Eagles and you can expect more of the same this season. Under defensive coordinator Jim Reid, Boston College was ninth in the nation in total defense last season, and if they are going to be successful this season they’ll need to again win ugly.
It would have been easy for defensive end Harold Landry to head to the National Football League last season after he tallied 16.5 sacks in his junior campaign. However Landry decided to return to to school, and the NFL’s loss will be Boston College’s gain. Landry has tremendous edge rushing ability which will be on full display once again. However after Landry was able to get to the quarterback at will last season, I expect more attention this year from opposing offenses for him which should open things up for his teammates to make plays. As a team Boston College was fourth in the nation in sacks with 47 and with Landry leading the way I expect that trend to continue this season.
And that defense will have to once again be rock solid since the BC offense is stagnant at best. Last year the Eagles were 127th in total offense which won’t cut it again. This offense needs to develop some cohesion under Addazio if they want any chance of staying afloat in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they need to provide some balance for a defense that is able to make it happen.
In 2016, the Eagles were able to make a bowl game in spite of the fact that they were only able to win two conference games. That might not cut it again in 2017 as Boston College is going to have to knock off some of the big boys that the conference has to offer in order to gain some respect, and more importantly victories.
Syracuse Orange 4-8 (2-6)
Life on the gridiron in the Atlantic Coast Conference has not been easy for the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse’s best year in the ACC was 2013 when they went 7-6. However since then the Orange have never won more than four games in a season. Dino Babers is set to begin his second season as Syracuse’s head football coach and he is attempting to transform the offense in Central New York. Babers has been known to produce offenses that put up solid numbers and last year Syracuse was 11th in the nation in passing offense. Now it’ll be interesting to see if the Orange will be able to build off of that and sneak up on some teams in the ACC.
Junior quarterback Eric Dungey could be a dark horse as far as being the best signal caller within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year saw Dungey complete nearly 65% of his passes and he also threw for more than 400 yards in a game twice. Syracuse’s offense is conducive to Dungey’s passing ability which could be good news for both he and the Orange.
Senior wide receiver Ervin Phillips was able to haul in 90 receptions in 2016 and he should be able to do more of the same this time around. At 5’11”, speed is the name of the game for Phillips who could again be Dungey’s go-to-guy in the Syracuse passing game.
However as good as Babers’ offenses have been, the same cannot be said in regards to his team’s defensive prowess. Last year the ‘Cuse was 122nd in the nation in total defense which included them surrendering 40 points in six games. Syracuse does have a trio of solid senior linebackers in Jonathan Thomas, Zaire Franklin, and Parris Bennett, but the unit needs to find more play makers on the defensive line.
Syracuse must take advantage of the early portion of their schedule which is easy. But things will get difficult in a hurry for the Orange with a road meeting against the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference, along with road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the North Carolina State Wolfpack, Miami Hurricanes, Florida State Seminoles, and Louisville Cardinals.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons 5-7 (2-6)
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons were able to raise some eyebrows last season when they began the season with a record of 5-1. The competition got tougher in the second half of the season for the Demon Deacons, but they still managed to go 7-6 with their first bowl appearance since 2011. It was not pretty at times, but Wake Forest was able to display an effective brand of football under head football coach Dave Clawson. And although that the Deacons will once again fly under the radar, will they again be able to shock enough teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference in order to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive year?
Defensively Wake Forest must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season. However the Deacons have the luxury of leaning on senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor. Last year Ejiofor was one of the best pass rushers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his skills will once again be needed if Wake Forest wants to be in contention to make a bowl game. Sophomore free safety Jesse Bates is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign which saw him be a Second-team All-ACC member as he tallied 5 interceptions. Bates is a player that has solid football instincts which will once again be on display on Tobacco Road.
However as good as Wake Forest’s defense can be, their offense cannot be held in the same regard. Last year Wake Forest failed to score at least 20 points in a game seven times and their offensively is still not recognized as a juggernaut. And that inability for the Demon Deacons to consistently put up points will hurt them in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Seeing Wake Forest make a bowl game last year was a feel good story, but 2017 might not produce too much for them to cheer about.
X-Miami Hurricanes 10-3 (6-3)
The 2016 college football season was a Jekyll and Hyde campaign for the Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes began the season with a record of 4-0 before they proceeded to lose their next four contests. However Miami would rebound to win their final five games which included them winning a bowl game for the first time 2006. And as Miami won 9 games last season, will this be the year in which they are finally able to win the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Mark Richt has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Miami. Prior to coming to Miami, Richt comprised a record of 145-51 in 15 seasons as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs which including winning a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. In one year at Miami, you can see that Richt is attempting to provide his team with stability, while getting them back to being a consistent force on the college football scene.
Miami is a school which has been known to produce quality running backs and they could have another one in junior running back Mark Walton. Walton averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year and he plays for a head coach in Richt that is dedicated to the running game which means that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to carry the Hurricanes offense.
Walton’s ability to run the football will be important as junior quarterback Malik Rosier is projected to be Miami’s starting signal caller. Rosier only attempted 4 passes last season as he was the backup to Brad Kaaya. But with Kaaya now in the professional ranks, Rosier has to be the guy for Miami.
But being that Richt loves to run the football, along with the fact that the Hurricanes are going with an inexperienced starting quarterback in Rosier, it will be important that they can rely on an experienced offensive line. Led by center Nick Linder, Miami will have three senior starters on the offensive line which plays right into what Richt wants to do on offense and that is to run the football.
Last year Miami was stingy on the defensive side of the football which could once again be the case this year. The Canes were 20th in total defense last year under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and some underclassmen were able to gain some valuable playing time. Sophomore defensive end Joseph Jackson will be in the discussion to be the pass rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while another pair of sophomores in middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and outside linebacker Michael Pickney have tremendous instincts and lateral ability to slow down opposing offenses. However Miami must be able to create more turnovers as they only produced 19 last season which would enhance their chances of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Three of Miami’s four losses last season were decided by a touchdown or less which shows how close that they are to breaking through. And although that the Hurricanes biggest rival in the Atlantic Coast Conference are the Florida State Seminoles, their meetings with the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies on October 28 and November 4 respectively will decide their fate in regards to whether or not that that they’ll finally get the shot to play in the conference title game.
X-Virginia Tech Hokies 10-2 (6-2)
One of the highlights for the 2016 college football season in the Atlantic Coast Conference was the success that first year head coaches were able to have. For the Virginia Tech Hokies, first year head football coach Justin Fuente was able to lead them to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2011, and he was also able to guide them to their fourth bowl victory in the last five seasons. Fuente found a way to awake a sleeping giant in Blacksburg, but will he able to avoid the “sophomore jinx”?
Whereas Fuente was able to rely on a veteran quarterback last year in Jerod Evans, this time around it will be the untested redshirt freshman in Josh Jackson that’ll be taking the starting reps for the Hokies. But Jackson’s job will be made a little bit easier due to the fact that he can rely on a dependable senior at wide receiver in Cam Phillips.
But make no mistake about the fact that Virginia Tech’s bread is buttered on the defensive side of the football. Bud Foster is set to begin his 31st season in being affiliated with Virginia Tech and his 23rd as the team’s defensive coordinator. Foster has sent his fair share of players to the National Football League, and he has several pro prospects on this year’s unit.
Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka set the tone with his instincts along with the fact that he is a fierce competitor. Junior outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is no slouch either as he is one of the most athletic players at his position in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As a unit the Hokies were able reel in 16 interceptions last year and led by junior free safety Terrell Edmunds, points will be at a premium against Virginia Tech.
The Hokies will begin the season by facing an old rival in the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 Conference at FedEx Field as this will mark their first encounter since 2003 when they were members of the Big East Conference. The Hokies find themselves with a manageable conference schedule and their ability to get to Charlotte for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game will come down to whether or not that they can get by the North Carolina Tar Heels at home on October 21st, and the Miami Hurricanes on the road on November 4th.
X-Pittsburgh Panthers 6-6 (4-4)
2016 saw the Pittsburgh Panthers go 8-5 for the second consecutive season. However things could have been much better for Pitt being that four of their losses were decided by a touchdown or less. Pittsburgh head football coach Pat Narduzzi has been able to get his program to a bowl game in each of his first two years in Western Pennsylvania, but will he be able to get them to take that next step and contend for the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Last year saw Max Browne begin as the starting quarterback for the USC Trojans. However after just three starts, Browne was benched in favor of Sam Darnold who ended up leading USC to a Rose Bowl victory. Subsequently Browne would transfer and he has found himself a new home with Pittsburgh. The Panthers needed a new starting quarterback with the departure of Nathan Peterman, Browne will look to finish off his collegiate career on a positive note with the Panthers. Browne will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which features three seniors and a pair of juniors in the starting lineup.
Narduzzi’s specialty is defensive football as prior to taking over at Pitt, he was the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans for eight years. However Pittsburgh struggled last year on defense as they were 100th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering at least 35 points on six occasions. And if Pittsburgh wants any shot to be relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, they are going to have to get stingy on that side of the football.
The non-conference season won’t be kind to the Panthers as they’ll travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions who are the defending Big Ten Conference Champions, while also hosting the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. And road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Virginia Tech Hokies will keep Pittsburgh in chase mode all season long.
X-Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 6-6 (4-4)
After going 3-9 in 2015 for their first losing season since 2010, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were able to bounce back in a big way as they went 9-4 which included their second victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the last three years. For Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson, his triple-option rushing attack can be very frustrating at times for opponents as the Yellow Jackets tend to lull you to sleep before exploding for the big play. And as the Jackets are looking to be a player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will their run game be able to carry them?
After being ninth in the rushing last season, the Yellow Jackets will have a new quarterback operating their triple option in junior Justin Thomas. Thomas will take his fair share of carries with the football, while he will also be handing off to a bevy of ball carriers; however one of those won’t be sophomore running back Dedrick Mills who was dismissed from the program after an athletics department violation. Georgia Tech will have one of the youngest offensive lines in the Atlantic Coast Conference as there will be just on senior in right tackle Andrew Marshall, while there will be three sophomore starting in the unit.
And even though that their are not any standout players defensively for Georgia Tech, this unit will fly around the football, while playing with plenty of passion.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be rocking on Labor Day night when the Yellow Jackets take on the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference, while they will look to survive in the Atlantic Coast Conference with road meetings versus the likes of the Miami Hurricanes and Clemson Tigers.
Virginia Cavaliers 5-7 (3-5)
It’s been some time since the Virginia Cavaliers were relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference as their last appearance in a bowl game came in 2011. Virginia has never won the ACC Title outright and through conference expansion they only finished second in the Coastal Division twice. Bronco Mendenhall has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Virginia as he and his team took their lumps in 2016. The Cavs went 2-10 last season, while only being able to muster one conference win. And after the Cavaliers finished tied for last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC, how will Mendenhall be able to improve his team?
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Kurt Benkert took his lumps as he was guy who endured nine of Virginia’s ten losses. However Benkert showed toughness and grit as he never gave up while providing Mendenhall with a quarterback that he could rely on. And if Benkert is able to complete 60% of his passes this season, it could symbolize that Mendenhall is getting things turned around in Charlottesville.
Benkert has the potential to get the job done for the Cavaliers, but Virginia’s offense needs more balance. Last year the Cavs were 121st in the nation as they were only able to average 3.5 yards per carry. And although that it more than likely that it will be a running back by committee for Virginia, there needs to be more of a focus on being able to establish the running game; especially with three seniors on the offensive line.
Even though that the Cavaliers were 93rd in the nation last season in total defense, there is a glimmer of hope for them heading into a new campaign. Senior middle linebacker Micah Kiser and junior strong safety Juan Thornhill are playmakers who can make those around them better and they will have to be on point if they want to help get things turned around this year for their program.
The Cavaliers will need to get as many victories as possible early on in the season to get some confidence for themselves which could pay huge dividends in the second half of the season.
X-Duke Blue Devils 6-6 (3-5)
2012-2015 saw the Duke Blue Devils have one of their best stretches in program history. The Blue Devils were able to make four consecutive bowl appearances which was highlighted by making the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history in 2013. However Duke to a step back last year as they went 4-8 which included them losing five out of their last six games. David Cutcliffe has been Duke’s head football coach since 2008, and after doing more with less, he once again has a tough sell job on his hands to recruits being that the Blue Devils football facilities and overall tradition don’t measure up against some of the other schools in the ACC. Now Cutcliffe must once again go to the well once in order to get things turned around in Durham.
Cutcliffe’s pedigree is working with quarterbacks and he has another solid one to work with in Daniel Jones. Last year as a freshman, Jones was able to complete nearly 63% of his passes, and outside of a 5-interception performance against the Virginia Cavaliers, he did a solid job of not forcing the football. At 6’5″, 210 lbs., Jones has solid size for the position, along with good instincts which will have to be at the forefront if the Blue Devils are going to get things turned around.
Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming was Jones’s go-to-guy last season in the passing game as he led Duke in receptions with 70. And I expect the combination of Jones and Rahming to once again be on the same page.
As Duke took their lumps last season, it meant that there were some underclassmen who had a chance to get their feet wet. Sophomore outside linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and junior middle linebacker Ben Humphreys were first and second respectively in tackles for the Devils in 2016. And I expect Giles-Harris and Humphreys to become leaders on the defensive side of the football for Duke as the program seeks to get back to its winning ways.
Duke’s journey in the Atlantic Coast Conference won’t be easy, but if they are able to survive which includes road games versus the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies, the Blue Devils could sneak into a bowl game this season.
North Carolina Tar Heels 5-7 (2-6)
Larry Fedora’s time as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels has been successful as his program has been one of the better ones in he Atlantic Coast Conference. Only the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles have won more games in the ACC over the last two years than North Carolina which gives you an idea of how consistent that Fedora has been. But with key talent such as quarterback Mitch Trubisky now in the National Football League, how will the Heels be able to stay afloat in 2017?
Quarterback Brandon Harris began his collegiate career with the LSU Tigers before transferring to North Carolina. And after sitting out due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Harris will bring some athleticism to the quarterback position at Carolina that has not been seen at Chapel Hill in a long time. Harris’ ability to create plays with his legs will be very important for a North Carolina team that will be inexperienced on the offensive side of the football.
For first year North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis, his unit has the chance to be special. Senior linebackers Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb will tackle anything that moves, while junior defensive end Malik Carney is a solid edge rusher who needs to take the next step in order to help North Carolina surprise some teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the biggest thing that the Tar Heels must improve on defensively are takeaways as they only recorded one interception in 2016. And winning the turnover battle will be very important for a team such as Carolina who needs to win the field position battle.
With the exception of facing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Carolina’s non-conference schedule will be easy. However when Atlantic Coast Conference play begins, the Heels will have to tango with the Louisville Cardinals and Miami Hurricanes at home, while going on the road to meet the Virginia Tech Hokies which is a daunting task.
Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game: Bank of America Stadium-Charlotte, North Carolina: Miami vs. Florida State
Conference Champion: Florida State
Y-Conference Champion X-Bowl Eligible
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
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
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Life has been good for the Ohio State Buckeyes under head football coach Urban Meyer. In three seasons under Meyer, the Buckeyes are 37-3 and they won the inaugural College Football Playoff. And thus Ohio State will enter the season as the defending national champions. But for the Buckeyes they will have a huge question mark hovering over their football program. Meyer and Ohio State have a quarterback controversy on their hands which threatens to be their toughest opponent for the upcoming season.
Last year a shoulder injury ended the season of Braxton Miller who was set to be the starter for Ohio State at quarterback. The injury for Miller happened just prior to the start of the 2014 college football season and Meyer went with J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Barrett was an unproven redshirt freshman who accounted for 3,772 yards and 45 touchdowns in helping Ohio State finish the regular season with a record of 11-1. Barrett suffered a broken ankle in the regular season finale versus the Michigan Wolverines which paved the way for Cardale Jones. In the final three games of the season Jones threw five touchdown passes to just a pair of interceptions in helping Ohio State win the national title. The problem for Ohio State is that prior to Miller’s injury, he was the starting quarterback and he hadn’t done anything to lose the job. Barrett was expected to be the heir apparent once Miller graduates next spring, but the folks in Columbus got a look at the future sooner than expected. Jones had been lost in the shuffle on the Buckeyes bench behind Miller and Barrett until this past January. Meyer has three quality quarterbacks, but only one can start and whoever does will always be looking over his shoulder. But with Miller volunteering to play wide receiver for Ohio State, it does cut down on the controversy as this team looks to repeat as national champions.
The Buckeyes do return four starters on an offensive line that will continue to pave the way for junior running back Ezekiel Elliot who should once again flirt with gaining 2,000 rushing yards and he should also be in the discussion to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Buckeyes will also return seven starters on their defense led by defensive end Joey Bosa who had 13.5 sacks last season.
The Virginia Tech Hokies were the only team to defeat Ohio State in 2014. And a trip to Blacksburg, Virginia to meet Virginia Tech is how Ohio State will begin the season. The Buckeyes Big Ten Conference schedule is favorable for them as their last two games will be against the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines respectively. And Ohio State should once again be in the mix to not only win the Big Ten, but also to repeat as national champions.
2. TCU Horned Frogs
After struggling to find their way in their first two years in the Big 12 Conference, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs became one of the nation’s elite college football programs in 2014. TCU went 12-1 last season and they finished ranked third in the Associated Press Poll. TCU head football coach Gary Patterson has become the most successful coach in the history of the program and heading into this college football season, he has a team that is capable of winning the school’s first national title in football since 1938.
TCU senior quarterback Trevone Boykin has adjusted his game from being a running quarterback to being more of a pocket passer while still being the second leading rusher for the Horned Frogs last season. Boykin has learned to be a more efficient quarterback while spreading the football around to an array of wide receivers. TCU returns their top three wide receivers from last season in Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee, and Deante’ Gray who combined to account for 23 receiving touchdowns. Doctson, Listenbee, and Gray will all be seniors this year and speed is the name of the game for them. Like Boykin, Doctson, Listenbee, and Gray, TCU running back Aaron Green is back for his senior season as he’ll look to crack the 1,000-yard mark this season in rushing.
Along with the players at the skill positions, TCU will return four starters on the offensive line and six starters from a defense that was ranked 18th in the nation last season in total defense.
Last year it was a weak non-conference schedule along with Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s inability to determine an outright conference champion that hurt the chances of TCU as far as qualifying for the College Football Playoff. The Horned Frogs once again will have a weak non-conference schedule in 2015, but they are hopeful that road games against the Kansas State Wildcats and Oklahoma Sooners will balance things out for them this time around.
3. USC Trojans
With NCAA sanctions behind them the University of Southern California Trojans are ready to once again burst onto the national scene. The Trojans finished last season with a record of 9-4 with three of those losses coming by a combined 13 points. The Men of Troy narrowly missed out on winning the Pac-12 South in 2014 which is something that they are focused on accomplishing this season along with winning the national championship.
For USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian, he’ll call on senior quarterback Cody Kessler to lead the Trojans this season. Kessler is coming off of a season in which he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes while throwing 39 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions. Kessler will be in the mix to win the Heisman Trophy along with being the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year. USC is still “Tailback U.” and after after watching Buck Allen light it up last season, the job of being the Trojans feature back will fall to junior running back Justin Davis who is more than capable to keep the running back tradition going at Southern Cal. Just like Davis, wide receiver JuJu Smith is ready to emerge from the shadow of former USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor. The Trojans also will return all five starters on their offensive line and they should do a good job in keeping Kessler’s uniform clean.
Led by junior outside linebacker Su’a Cravens, USC returns nine starters on defense to a unit that will look to shut down the high-powered offenses that are in the Pac-12.
The Trojans will have their work cut out for them this season as road games versus the Arizona State Sun Devils, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Oregon Ducks will offset tough home affairs with the Arizona Wildcats and UCLA Bruins. And these games will definitely let us know if USC is truly ready once more for the bright spotlight.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama Crimson Tide head football coach Nick Saban has done what many people said that he wouldn’t be able to when he came to Tuscaloosa in 2007 which is that he’s been able to return the Tide to national prominence.
The Tide come into this college football season looking to wipe the taste out of their mouths from last season that was a heartbreaking loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide have seen their fair share of players go to the National Football League, but the machine there under Saban continues to roll along.
Quarterback Jacob Coker waited patiently on Alabama’s bench last year as he backed up Blake Sims. But with Sims having graduated, Coker is ready for his moment to lead the Crimson Tide offense. Last season running back Kenyon Drake was lost early last season due to an injury. But Drake is back as a senior to team with junior running back Derrick Henry to give the Crimson Tide a “thunder and lightning” duo coming out of the backfield.
Alabama also returns eight starters on the defensive side of the football as they should all be more seasoned after another year under Saban.
The bright lights of the college football world will be on the Tide from their first game of the season as they’ll be at AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas to take on the Wisconsin Badgers of the Big Ten Conference which will get them prepared for the gauntlet that is playing in the Southeastern Conference.
5. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona Wildcats head football coach Rich Rodriguez has a history of getting things turned around at each stop on his journey in the college football world. Last year Rodriguez guided the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game and in spite of losing their final two games in 2015, big things could be on the horizon for Arizona this season.
Last year, Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon was a freshman that played well beyond his years. Solomon has the innate ability to run and pass which is vital for Rodriguez’s spread offense and he’s only poised to get better. Solomon passed for nearly 3,800 yards last season and he’ll be in the running to be the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year in 2015. Solomon isn’t the only sophomore that will be expected to have a big impact for Arizona as sophomore running back Nick Wilson is the perfect running mate for him in the Wildcats backfield. The Wildcats also bring back their two top wide receivers in seniors Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant back as they’ll both provide speed on the outside.
Led by junior middle linebacker Scooby Wright, the Wildcats return six defensive starters from a unit that was very opportunistic last season as they amassed 38 sacks. And of those 38 sacks, Wright accounted for 14 as he can single handedly destroy an opponent’s campaign.
The Wildcats have an easy non-conference schedule and the first part of their conference will be manageable. But three of Arizona’s last four games will be on the road as they’ll face the Washington Huskies, USC Trojans, and their in-state showdown with the Arizona State Devils which could determine the champion of the Pac-12 South.
6. Michigan State Spartans
It’s safe to say that Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mark Dantonio has built a strong program in East Lansing. In each of Dantonio’s eight seasons at Michigan State, the Spartans have gone bowling and they’ll once again be one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference along with contending for a spot in the college football playoff. And for Dantonio, he and his team can take solace in knowing that the only two teams that they lost to in 2014 (Oregon and Ohio State) played in the national championship game.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is back for his senior season and he has been a consistent player for Dantonio. After being the understudy for Jeremy Langford, junior running back Delton Williams will get his opportunity to be the feature back in East Lansing.
But the name of the game for Michigan State is tough and physical football. Led by senior center Jack Allen, Sparty returns four starters on their offensive line which can go along way in getting them to where they want to be in 2015.
Michigan State had the eighth ranked defense last season and you can expect more of the same this season as led by senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, they return seven starters defensively and you can expect more physical football from them.
Unlike last season, Michigan State will host Oregon in September. But the Spartans have a more difficult road slate in the Big Ten Conference as they have road affairs with the Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Ohio State as they seek to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
7. Oregon Ducks
Oregon Ducks head football coach Mark Helfrich was handed a good football team when he became the head football coach there in 2013 and he has made the most of it. In two years of running things in Eugene, Helfrich has a record of 24-4 including an appearance in the first title game of the College Football Playoff. But things will a little bit different in 2015 for Helfrich and the Ducks.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy in 2014 and he decided to take his talents to the National Football League. Junior quarterback Jeff Lockie saw some time here and there in 2014, but now it is his turn to run the spread offense for the team that originated the fad of having numerous uniform combinations. As a freshman, running back Royce Freeman was elusive coming out of the Oregon backfield as he gained 1,365 rushing yards in 2014. Freeman will have to be more of a factor this season as Lockie gets his feet wet at the quarterback position. Aside from Freeman, the Ducks have plenty of speed returning at the skill positions offensively in senior running back Byron Marshall and sophomore wide receiver Darren Carrington. Sophomore wide receiver Devon Allen suffered a torn ACL injury in Oregon’s Rose Bowl victory over the Florida State Seminoles this past January and Helfrich is hopeful to have him back at some point this season while the Ducks will also have three starters returning from their offensive line led by senior offensive tackle Matt Pierson.
The Ducks were 89th last season in total defense and once again their fast paced offense will have to carry them.
The schedule isn’t as favorable this year for Oregon as they’ll have road games against the Michigan State Spartans, Washington Huskies, Arizona State Sun Devils, and Stanford Cardinal.
8. Baylor Bears
In his seven years as the head football coach of the Baylor Bears, Art Briles has built a football program that is making the other football schools within the State of Texas envious. Over the past four seasons Baylor has won 40 games and by the looks of things they are not ready to slow down.
With the graduation of quarterback Bryce Petty, junior quarterback Seth Russell is ready for his chance to become the next gunslinger in Briles’ spread offense. In backing up Petty last season, Russell did appear in eight games for Baylor as he threw eight touchdowns to just one interception as he appears to be ready for the challenges of the Big 12 Conference. Russell will have plenty of talent around him on the offensive side of the football. All five of Baylor’s offensive lineman are returning which includes a quartet of seniors. The Bears also have their two top wide receivers in junior Corey Coleman and sophomore KD Cannon returning as well. In Baylor’s spread offense, they also have a shifty tailback in junior Shock Linwood who should garner some interest in being a first-team All-Big performer this season.
Offense hasn’t the problem in Waco for the Bears as it has been on defense. The Bears had four games last season in which they surrendered at least 40 points. Baylor’s offense can bail them out in the wild world of the Big 12, but for them to be a national championship contender, their defense that returns nine starters from 2014 must improve.
Baylor has another weak non-conference schedule, but the month of November will be telling for them. In November, the Bears will have three road contests against the Kansas State Wildcats, Oklahoma State Cowboys, and TCU Horned Frogs before they finish at home against the Texas Longhorns. The Big 12 doesn’t have a title game, but the Bears are hopeful that their late season stretch will get them some national recognition.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
In the long and storied history of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program, they never had a head football coach to lead the team to a bowl game in each of his first five years with the Irish until current head football coach Brian Kelly. In five years at Notre Dame, Kelly has a record of 45-20 and he has given the Fighting Irish stability and consistency which is something that they have not had since Lou Holtz left South Bend in 1996. Kelly has been able to win at Notre Dame in spite of the fact he has not consistently stuck with a starting quarterback.
After appearing in just games last season, junior quarterback Malik Zaire is ready to be the next player to run Kelly’s offense. Zaire is a physical presence as a quarterback being that he is more or a runner than a passer and it will be interesting to see how much patience that Kelly will have with him this season. Any productivity that Zaire will be able to have in the passing game this season will come down to his ability to connect with junior wide receiver Will Fuller who could have an All-American type season. The strength of Notre Dame’s offense will be found in their offensive line as led by senior guard Nick Martin, they have three returning starters to the unit.
The Irish’s defense was only ranked 73rd last season, but they do return 10 starters and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is in his second year in South Bend as he looks to improve his troops.
The first half of Notre Dame’s schedule will be daunting as it includes their season opener against the Texas Longhorns along with home games versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and USC Trojans as well as a road meeting with the Clemson Tigers. And from that we’ll see how much trust that Kelly has in Zaire.
10. Arizona State Sun Devils
The past two years have seen the Arizona State Sun Devils finish ranked in the top 25 poll in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997. And under head football coach Todd Graham, Arizona State feels that they have everything to win the Pac-12 Conference.
The past few years have seen Taylor Kelly as Arizona State’s starting quarterback. As a senior, Kelly missed part of 2014 with an injury which paved the way for Mike Bercovici to get some reps as the starting quarterback in Tempe. Bercovici will take over this season as the Sun Devils full-time starting quarterback and he can sling the football all around the field. The Sun Devils will look to senior wide receiver Gary Chambers and junior wide receiver Cameron Smith to fill the void in the passing game left by wide receiver Jaelen Strong who is now in the National Football League while senior running back D.J. Foster is as versatile as they come with his running and pass catching ability.
The Sun Devils return nine defensive starters, but they “must” find a way to improve as they were 83rd in total defense last season.
The Sun Devils will begin the season in Houston against the Texas A&M Aggies of the Southeastern Conference and a victory there could steer them in the right direction towards a tough slate in the Pac-12 as they have road games versus the UCLA Bruins and Utah Utes along with homes games against the USC Trojans, Oregon Ducks, and Arizona Wildcats.
11.Florida State Seminoles
The past two years have seen the Florida State Seminoles reemerge as one of the nation’s elite in college football. The ‘Noles went 27-1 over the last two years including winning the national championship for the 2013 college football season. But all of that success for the Seminoles was with quarterback Jameis Winston under center. Winston has departed from Florida State which initially paved the way for junior quarterback Sean Maguire to be the next quarterback for the Seminoles, but that changed once senior quarterback Everett Golson transferred from Notre Dame.
Around Golson, the ‘Noles will be a little green on offense as they only return for starters from last year’s squad that won the Atlantic Coast Conference which means that it will be up to Florida State head football coach Jimbo Fisher to coach his young squad up.
The Seminoles return seven starters defensively, but they were ranked 63rd in the nation in total defense for 2014 as Winston masked some problems with this team. And if Florida State is going to win their fourth consecutive ACC Title, the defense must step it up.
The ‘Noles schedule this season is manageable, but an October trip to Atlanta to meet the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and a November road game against the Clemson Tigers will go a long in determining whether or not that Florida State will once again win the ACC.
12. Missouri Tigers
In a very short time Missouri Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel has done what many didn’t expect him to do which is to win in the Southeastern Conference. Missouri is entering their fourth year in the SEC and they are the current, two-time defending champions of the SEC East as they’ll once again be in the mix to get to Atlanta for the conference title game.
Junior quarterback Maty Mauk is someone that Pinkel trusts to run his offensive system as he stays within the realm of the offense. Senior tailback Russell Hansbrough is looking for his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and he’ll run behind an offensive line that will be returning four starters who are all seniors.
Defensively the Tigers were 23rd in the nation last season in total defense. And in spite of the losses of players such as defensive end Shane Ray to the National Football League, Missouri’s defense will once again be tough as they will be led by middle linebacker Michael Scherer.
The Tigers will open the year with a soft non-conference schedule and with the exception of a road affair against the Georgia Bulldogs, Missouri will welcome the top teams in the SEC East to Columbia this season as they look to win the division for a third consecutive year.
13. Mississippi State Bulldogs
A 9-0 start in 2014 made the Mississippi State Bulldogs the talk of college football. But the Bulldogs stumbled down the stretch losing three of their last four ball games including a 49-34 loss in the Orange Bowl to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. For Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen, his squad crept up on teams last year and it won’t be as easy in 2015.
Last year as a junior, quarterback Dak Prescott was the Bulldogs offense and for them to be a national title contender this season, it must be more of the same in Starkville. Prescott is a tremendous athlete, but how much will he be able to do by himself?
With just four starters returning on offense and four as well on defense, it will be difficult for Mississippi State to avoid getting lost in the shuffle in the SEC West. The Bulldogs 2015 schedule is much tougher as they have road games versus the Auburn Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies, Missouri Tigers, and Arkansas Razorbacks along with home contests against the LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide which will be tough for Mississippi State to survive.
14. LSU Tigers
The Tigers of Louisiana State University are coming off of an 8-5 season, but there is no need to panic down in the Bayou. LSU head football coach Les Miles knows about quick turnarounds with the purple and gold and the Tigers should once again be ready to contend for the top spot in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division.
As a true freshman in 2014, LSU running back Leonard Fournette proved that he was ready for the bright lights of college football as he gained 1,034 and he totaled 5.5 yards every time that he toted the rock. At 6’1″, 230 lbs., Fournette is a load and what makes it worse is that he is like a runaway freight train because he possesses tremendous speed. Junior wide receiver Travin Dural has shown flashes of being the next good wide out at LSU and under Miles a breakout season could be on the horizon for him. But the biggest thing that can help LSU’s offense in 2015 is the improvement at the quarterback. Last year the snaps at quarterback were split between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Jennings is now a junior and he does possess the better arm than the sophomore Harris as the LSU offense needs to take the next step.
Defense has always been a staple for LSU under Miles as they were ranked ninth nationally last season and led by junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, you can expect more of the same from the Bayou Bengals in 2015. But it will be a little different for LSU this time around as longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis left to become the defensive coordinator of the Texas A&M Aggies and he has been replaced in Baton Rogue by Kevin Steele.
The road to an SEC West Title in 2015 will be a tough one for LSU as they’ll face some tough road challenges with games against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Ole Miss Rebels. But Miles always tends to have one a mentally tough that will be up for the challenge.
15. Georgia Bulldogs
Since 2001, all that Georgia Bulldogs head football coach Mark Richt has done is win, but he doesn’t get the credit that he truly deserves. In 14 seasons at Georgia, Richt is 136-48 with a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships on his resume. But Georgia has remained in the shadow of other SEC powers like the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers.
For Richt, he will go with his third different starting quarterback in as many years. Last year quarterback Brice Ramsey saw some mop up duty behind Hutson Mason. But with Mason having graduated, Ramsey will be taking over the reigns now as a sophomore. The past few years have seen the Dawgs develop a powerful running game and you can expect more the same this season from sophomore running back Nick Chubb. Chubb averaged 7.1 yards per carry and he’ll once again be expected to put fear into defenders in the SEC.
In 2014, Georgia had the 17th ranked defense and they’ll return seven starters from that unit including their entire starting secondary as the Dawgs will be led by senior cornerback Devin Bowman.
The month of October will make or break Georgia’s SEC season as they’ll face Alabama, the Tennessee Volunteers, Missouri Tigers, and the Florida Gators.
16. Clemson Tigers
Under head football Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tigers have not only become one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but also in the nation. The Tigers have finished the last four seasons with a least 10 wins and they’ll be back for more in 2015.
The Tigers have seven starters returning on offense. Sophomore Deshaun Watson saw time as a freshman last season and he threw 14 touchdowns to just a pair of interceptions. And entering the 2015 college football season, Watson is on the cusp of really untapping his potential. Also the Tigers have a pair of wide receivers who could garner All-ACC honors. Junior wide receiver Mike Williams along with sophomore wide receiver Artavis Scott are adding to the tradition that Clemson wide receivers have recently created.
The Tigers were tops in the nation last season in total defense, but they will be very green to start the 2015 college football season as they only have three starters coming back from that unit.
From late October to early November, Clemson has a three game stretch with consecutive road games against the Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina State Wolfpack which will be followed by a home affair with the Florida State Seminoles that will go a very long way in determining whether or not that the Tigers can reach the ACC Title Game in 2015.
17. Arkansas Razorbacks
If you want to see physical, smash mouth football, then pay attention to the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Hogs were 26th in the nation in rushing last year under head football coach Bret Bielema and you can expect more of the same if not an increase in their production for 2015. The Razorbacks have four starters returning on their offensive line to block for a pair of running backs that each gained more than 1,100 yards on the ground last season. Senior running Johnathan Williams and junior running back Alex Collins have combined to form the most dominant backfield at Arkansas since the “Hog Wild” days in the mid 2000’s with Casey Dick, Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden, and Felix Jones. And this current Arkansas offense tends to lean on their opponents for 60 minutes and tests their stamina due to their powerful running game.
Led by three starters on the defensive line and three in the secondary, the Hogs return a total of seven starters from a squad that was tenth in the nation last year in total defense as they have become a stingy team under Bielema.
The Razorbacks will embark on an easy non-conference schedule and they should be force to be reckoned with this season in the SEC West.
18. Oklahoma Sooners
The Oklahoma Sooners are coming off of just their third season under head football coach Bob Stoops in which they lost five games. The past two times would see the Sooners win at least 12 games in the following year which does leave some optimism for the folks in Norman, Oklahoma as they look to get the bad taste of 2014 out of their mouths.
One good thing that the Sooners had going for them in 2014 was that they possessed the 24th ranked offense in the nation which should only improve this season. As a true freshman last year, running back Semaje Perine torched opposing defenses in the Big 12 Conference as he rushed for over 1,700 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. And as long as Perine remains healthy in 2015, not only will he flirt with rushing for 2,000 yards, but he’ll also hear his name thrown around in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy. Quarterback Trevor Knight didn’t have the 2014 season that most people expected him to have, but Stoops and the Sooners are hopeful that he’s ready to respond as a junior in 2015. What Knight will need to do is to become more comfortable in the pocket and play off of Perine and the Sooners strong running game.
The Sooners return six starters from a defense that was ranked 52nd in the nation last season and as Mike Stoops enters his fourth year as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, he’ll need to develop a play making defense that can stop some of the top offenses in the Big 12.
The Sooners have a favorable schedule in 2015 which help them contend for the Big 12 Title and also be in the discussion for the national title.
19. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
After several mediocre seasons in a row under head football coach Paul Johnson, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets rebounded for an 11-win campaign in 2014 that culminated with the school’s first Orange Bowl victory since 1951. The option attack might be a dinosaur to most of the college football world, but for Johnson it is his bread and butter.
As a sophomore in 2014, quarterback Justin Thomas led the Yellow Jackets in rushing and he could be in line to do it again in 2015. Thomas is a runner at the quarterback position who harkens back to the days when the likes of Tony Rice and Tommy Frazier were quarterbacks that dominated the option attack. Thomas will be protected by an offensive line that has four returning starters including senior offensive tackles Bryan Chamberlain and Errin Joe.
The Jackets also return eight starters on the defensive side of the football as they look to improve as a unit as they were ranked 81st in the nation last year in total defense.
The Yellow Jackets would love to contend to the title in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it won’t be easy with road games against the Duke Blue Devils, Clemson Tigers, and Miami Hurricanes, along with a non-conference road affair against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
20. UCLA Bruins
In three years as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, Jim Mora has a record of 29-11 and UCLA will begin this season coming off of consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1999. But it will be a little bit tougher for the Bruins to reach the 10-win plateau for a third consecutive year in an improved Pac-12 Conference this season.
Brett Hundley was UCLA’s starting quarterback for the last three years and now he has moved on the National Football League. Junior quarterback Jerry Neuheisel has seen limited action in his first two years at UCLA and now he’ll more than likely be the guy under center this season. Mora doesn’t need Neuheisel to attempt to carry UCLA’s offense as he has plenty of talent around him. All five starters on UCLA’s offensive line from 2014 will return this season as they’ll be opening up gaps for junior tailback Paul Perkins to run through. Perkins gained over 1,500 yards rushing last season and he should get some consideration for the Heisman Trophy in 2015.
Led by junior outside linebacker Myles Jack, UCLA returns eight starters on a very athletic defense that is looking to help the Bruins win their first Pac-12 Championship since 1998.
UCLA’s first three conference games will be against the Arizona State Sun Devils, Stanford Cardinal, and Arizona Wildcats which will give us an idea of how they’ll be able to do in the Pac-12 this season.
21. Auburn Tigers
Under head football coach Gus Malzahn, the Auburn Tigers offense has been “three yards and a cloud of dust”. The Tigers have had one of the nation’s top rushing attacks over the past two years as they will test the stamina of an opponent’s defense. The Tigers will have to re-tool this season at the offensive skill positions as quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne, and wide receiver Sammie Coates are now pursuing their careers in the National Football League.
Junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson will be running Malzahn’s offense this season. At 6’5″, 240 lbs., Johnson is bigger than Marshall and he has the potential to be a more physical runner. The Tigers will be green in the backfield, but they have three starters returning on the offensive line which could make things a bit easier.
Auburn was 66th in the nation in 2014 for total defense, but you can expect a big improvement from them with Will Muschamp returning as their defensive coordinator. Muschamp spent the last four years as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, but he was also Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2006-2007 and he can coach defensive football in his sleep. Muschamp will have plenty of experience to work with as the Tigers will return eight starters on defense.
Auburn’s last two conference games of the will be home affairs against the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide and both games will go a long way in determining if the Tigers will win the SEC West.
22. Texas Longhorns
The first season for the Texas Longhorns under head football coach Charlie Strong was a rocky one, but greener pastures to appear to be on the horizon in Austin. Strong spent his first year at Texas weeding out the guys that he felt were not committed to the Longhorns program as he is trying to find the young men that have a passion for the burnt orange that is close to his.
In 2014, Strong appeared to have found his quarterback going forward in Tyrone Swoopes. Like the Longhorns program under Strong, Swoopes was up and down as a quarterback in 2014, but he could be a breakout performer as a junior in 2015. Swoopes threw 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions last season, but he is an athlete that would benefit from the a running game that must improve for Texas. Last season, the Longhorns were 101st in the nation in rushing which is unacceptable in Austin; especially for a program that has a tradition for sending running backs to the National Football League. But Texas will return all five starters on their offensive line from 2014 including a trio of seniors in left tackle Marcus Hutchins, left guard Sedrick Flowers, and center Taylor Doyle.
Strong has made his reputation in college football on the defensive side and you can expect the Longhorns to improve from being the 26th ranked unit defensive last season as they’ll be led by senior cornerback Duke Thomas.
Strong and the Longhorns might not be ready to contend for a national title in 2015, but they are coming.
23. Texas A&M Aggies
In each of his first three years at the helm in College Station as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has seen his win total decrease. And Sumlin is hopeful that he will be able to buck that trend in 2015. The Aggies had five games in which they scored at least 40 points last season, but they also had five games in which they surrendered at least 30 points which won’t get it done in the Southeastern Conference. The Aggies were 104th in total defense last season, but former LSU Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis will be charged with turning things around. And if you cannot play defense in the Southeastern Conference, the victory float will pass you by.
Aggies sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen can sling the football around and he should be poised for a big year that will include him finding junior wide receiver Josh Reynolds a ton.
The Aggies will begin this season as they’ll take on the Arizona State Sun Devils out of the Pac-12 Conference which should be a tough contest that will prepare them for the riggers of the SEC.
24. Louisville Cardinals
2014 was a year of transition for the Louisville Cardinals football program. It marked the Cardinals first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference and it was also the first season of Bobby Petrino’s second run at Louisville as the head football coach. The Cards would finish in third place in the Atlantic Division of the ACC behind the Florida State Seminoles and the Clemson Tigers. And the Cards are hopeful that they’ll be able to close the gap on both the Seminoles and the Tigers in 2015.
Petrino loves to throw the football and he’ll be relying on junior quarterback Will Gardner to be the signal caller that’ll get the job done for him this season. And aside from Gardner, for the Cardinals to go where they want to go, junior running back Brandon Radcliff will need to have a big season.
The Cards did have the sixth ranked defense nationally last season which should once again be a big part of their potential success in the ACC.
The Cardinals should be in contention this season in the ACC, but their regular season opener against the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference will let us know how far that they’ve come under Petrino.
T-25. Central Michigan Chippewas
Slowly but surely the Central Michigan Chippewas were improving under head football coach Dan Enos. But Enos shocked some people when he left Central Michigan to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Enos has been replaced at Central Michigan by John Bonamego and this is the year that they could be ready to once again make some noise in the Mid-American Conference.
Junior quarterback Cooper Rush is coming off of a season in which he passed for 3,157 yards and threw 27 touchdown passes as he’ll be in the discussion to be the Player of the Year in the MAC. Last season as a freshman, Devon Spalding saw limited action for Central Michigan behind running back Thomas Rawls. But with Rawls graduating, Spalding is going to have his time to shine as the Chippewas need the running attack offset the right arm of Rush.
The non-conference schedule for the Chippewas isn’t an easy one as they host the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference and they’ll travel to take on the Michigan State Spartans of the Big Ten Conference, but they should be in the discussion to win the MAC for the first time since 2009.
T-25. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy feels that he has the team in place to avoid a second consecutive up-and-down season. In 2014, the Cowboys began with a record of 5-1 before they lost their next five games only to finish the season on a two-game winning streak. Senior quarterback Daxx Garman showed flashes of mastering Gundy’s wide open offense last season and if he is able to take his game to the next level this year, the folks in Stillwater will be happy in 2015.
Aside from Garman, the Cowboys return seven starters on offense along with eight defensive starters as they look to contend for the Big 12 Championship.
Oklahoma State has road games this year within their conference against Texas and West Virginia along with finishing the season with consecutive home games against Baylor and in-state rival Oklahoma as they look to prove their worth in 2015.
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Nationalchamps.net
Saturday November 24, 2012 to most people was a time when they were busy eating their Thanksgiving leftovers. But for the Florida State Seminoles football program it was the last time that they tasted defeat. The Seminoles would lose that evening at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee to the Florida Gators 37-26. The Seminoles would finish that season by defeating the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game before breezing through the Northern Illinois Huskies in the Discover Orange Bowl. Florida State began the 2013 college football season with a redshirt freshman as their starting quarterback in Jameis Winston. But Winston would play above his years and have a season for the ages as he won the Heisman Trophy while leading the ‘Noles to an undefeated season and a national championship. Florida State began this season as the top ranked team in the nation and after nine games they have yet to walk off of the gridiron as losers and dating back to 2012, they now have a 25-game winning streak.
Last year Florida State’s average margin of victory was nearly 40 points as they ran roughshod over anyone who faced them. This season has been a little different for Florida State as they are taking everyone’s best punch which is to be expected being that they are the defending national champs. In their season opener, Florida State squeaked past the Oklahoma State Cowboys 37-31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. On September 20, Winston was suspended for Florida State’s game versus the Clemson Tigers in which they needed overtime to prevail in. The following week the ‘Noles traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack. And after one quarter of play Florida State found themselves down 24-7. But undaunted, Winston and the Seminoles would rally to win 56-41. On October 5, Florida State would welcome the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish to Tallahassee and the game was a nail bitter in every perception of the definition as it took a late defensive stand for the Seminoles to triumph 31-27. On October 30, Florida State had to overcome a 21-0 deficit to the ACC newcomer in the Louisville Cardinals as they won 42-31 and while continually finding ways to win.
In spite of their unblemished record, Florida State is currently ranked third in the latest college football playoff rankings due to the fact that the ACC doesn’t stack up with some of the other power conferences such as the Southeastern, Pac-12, and Big 12 Conferences. The current top 15 rankings are dominated by the SEC, Pac-12, and Big 12 Conferences with Florida State being the only ACC team there. The teams from those other power conferences will bump heads while Florida State only needs to worry about winning games instead of style points. Due to the ACC’s reputation as a weak football conference, a loss by Florida State at this point of the season would all but eliminate them from a chance to repeat as national champs. If the Seminoles were to finish the regular season undefeated, a potential showdown with the Duke Blue Devils in the ACC Championship Game could be a shot in the arm for them. Duke currently checks in 21st in the college football rankings. The remainder of the Blue Devils schedule is an easy one which means that they should be ranked in the top 20 by the time that the conference title game rolls around. If that is the case and Florida State is able to defeat Duke for the second consecutive year in the ACC Title Game, it should be enough to propel the Seminoles into the inaugural four-team college football playoff.
Unlike last year when Winston had more of a supporting cast, he has been shouldering the load. Where Winston passed for 4,057 yards last season with 40 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions, he has 17 passing touchdowns so far to 11 interceptions. But Winston plays his best when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter as he simply knows how to take his game to the next level which puts a smile on the face of Florida State head football coach Jimbo Fisher while the Seminoles defense hasn’t been as opportunistic as it was a season ago. This season the Seminoles are giving up 10 more points per game than they did in 2013 which can be attributed to their three best defensive players from a year ago in defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, linebacker Tevin Smith, and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner all moving on to the National Football League. And for the ‘Noles to repeat as national champions some of the youngsters on the defensive side of the football must step it up coming down the stretch.
For Fisher he initially came to Florida State in 2007 as an offensive coordinator and the school made him “the head coach in waiting” to eventually replace the legendary Bobby Bowden. Fisher would take over as the head man in charge in 2009 as he sought to get the ‘Noles back to their perch with the elite teams in college football and he has done that as Florida State has finished every season under him ranked in the top 25 and they began this season as the top team in the nation for the first time since 1999. But it all hasn’t been a bed of roses for Fisher in Tallahassee as he has come under scrutiny in the way that he has handled some of Winston’s off-the-field discrepancies which ultimately led to Winston being suspended earlier this season. But make no mistake about it that Fisher can coach and he has gotten Florida State back to what they were in their heyday under Bowden which was a team that simply dominated the ACC.
For the Seminoles it is simple. A victory this Saturday night by Florida State over the Miami Hurricanes will clinch the Atlantic Division of the ACC. Next Saturday, Florida State will host Boston College before finishing up at home on November 29 versus Florida. If the Seminoles are able to win out they should be able to secure a spot in the college football playoff where anything is bound to happen.
Source: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com