Like it or not, you are going to see more college football players skip their bowl games in favor of the National Football League Draft. And you cannot blame them.
College Football Playoff
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oklahoma
This will mark the second time that these two clubs meet this season, and it should be a dandy.
Peach Bowl: LSU vs. Miami
It’s a new team and a new conference for Mark Richt, but he’ll still struggle against LSU.
National Championship Game-Raymond James Stadium-Tampa, Florida
LSU vs. Oklahoma
A year after nearly losing his job at LSU, Les Miles is once again king of the mountain.
National Champion: LSU
Orange Bowl: Boise State vs. Clemson
Clemson is definitely worthy of getting back to the College Football Playoff, but making the Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.
Cotton Bowl: Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
A trip to the Cotton Bowl will climax the end of a great season for two programs that are on the upswing.
Rose Bowl: UCLA vs. Michigan
It hasn’t taken Jim Mora and Jim Harbaugh that long to get their respective programs back on the national scene.
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State
Will a consecutive trip to the Sugar Bowl bring a different outcome for Oklahoma State after they were blown out by Ole Miss this past January?
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. San Diego State
There will be plenty of offense on display at the New Mexico Bowl between Marshall and San Diego State.
Las Vegas Bowl: Air Force vs. Arizona
The triple-option attack of Air Force versus the spread offense of Arizona will lead to an intriguing contest.
Cure Bowl: East Carolina vs. Georgia State
Georgia State and their powerful running game don’t get enough respect around the nation, but they could get some here.
Camellia Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
This could be a sleeper matchup during bowl season.
New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Southern Mississippi
Georgia Southern will arrive on Bourbon Street with an attitude to run the football.
Miami Beach Bowl: Tulsa vs. Northern Illinois
Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans can use this game as a chance to fine tune his resume as he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks selected in next year’s National Football League Draft.
Boca Raton Bowl: Connecticut vs Middle Tennessee
Bob Diaco is building his program at Connecticut and a bowl appearance would be rewarding to him and his players.
Poinsettia Bowl: Nevada vs. BYU
Although that Bronco Mendehall is no longer coaching at BYU, this program still has what it takes to make a bowl game.
Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Colorado State
It’s a battle of teams that wear green on the “smurf turf” of Boise, Idaho.
Bahamas Bowl: Memphis vs. Western Kentucky
The explosiveness of Western Kentucky’s offense is no longer a secret.
Armed Forces Bowl: Navy vs. Texas Tech
The triple-option attack of Navy against the pass happy offense of Texas Tech should make for an intriguing contest in Fort Worth, Texas.
GoDaddy Bowl: Appalachian State vs Western Michigan
After a strong season at Western Michigan, this could be the last game there for head football coach P.J. Fleck who could be ready to take over a bigger program.
Hawaii Bowl: Stanford vs. UNLV
It’s not the Rose Bowl that we’re accustomed to seeing Stanford in, but they will gladly take a trip to Honolulu after a down year.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Bowling Green
The scoreboard operator at Tropicana Field will be busy as both of these offenses can score with the best of them.
Quick Lane Bowl: Indiana vs. Duke
Indiana versus Duke is no longer simply reserved for the hardwood anymore.
Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Virginia Tech
For a pair of first year head coaches in Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Barry Odom (Missouri), a bowl victory can do wonders for their respective programs.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Minnesota
Louisiana Tech won’t be intimidated by playing a team from a power conference.
Military Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Temple
After a strong season it will be interesting to see if Temple will show up for this one.
Holiday Bowl: Penn State vs. Washington
This will be a contest of teams that are on the verge of breaking through in their respective conferences.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. Utah
There will be plenty of physicality on the field with two teams that are among the toughest in their respective conferences.
Pinstripe Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Wisconsin
The Ramblin’ Wreck makes its way up I-95 to the House that Jeter built.
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Florida State
This contest is New Year’s Day worthy, but we’ll get it in late December.
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. Washington State
Will Nebraska make it consecutive wins at Santa Clara in this game?
Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
Watching TCU and Texas A&M meet on the gridiron will bring back memories when these two schools called the Southwest Conference home; and it doesn’t hurt that the game will take place in Houston.
Birmingham Bowl: Houston vs. Kentucky
This could be Houston’s final audition before joining the Big 12.
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State vs. North Carolina
Mississippi State will have their hands full as this will be a de facto home game for North Carolina in Charlotte.
Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Oregon
A bowl victory for Texas could be the springboard that they need to get back on the national scene.
Liberty Bowl: Baylor vs. Arkansas
After a tough year for both Baylor and Arkansas, they’ll both be happy to have the chance to finish on a positive note.
Sun Bowl: Louisville vs. USC
Louisville will be happy to travel to El Paso, but will it be the same for the Men of Troy?
Arizona Bowl: New Mexico vs. South Florida
Very quietly Bob Davie has done a good a developing a respectable program at New Mexico.
Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Pittsburgh
Will a trip to Nashville signal the end of Gus Malzahn’s run at Auburn?
Citrus Bowl: Georgia vs. Iowa
This will culminate the end of a solid first year at Georgia for Kirby Smart as he gets his squad to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Northwestern
Hugh Freeze is accomplishing one of his goals as Ole Miss is consistently playing on or around New Year’s Day.
Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Florida
After struggles by both teams, they will be thankful to get it on in Tampa on New Year’s Day.
Tennessee Volunteers 10-3 (6-2)
In a very short time Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones has gotten his program back to respectability. Jones is coming off of his third year in Knoxville and last season he led Tennessee to their first 9-win season since 2007. But can Jones do something that hasn’t happened since 2007 which is to get the Volunteers to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game?
This year’s Tennessee squad has arguably the most experience in the Southeastern Conference as they have 10 returning starters on offense and 8 on defense. Senior Joshua Dobbs is in his fourth year as the Volunteers starting quarterback and his play has improved in each year. Dobbs has also shown the qualities to be a leader on the field for the Vols. As Tennessee has one of the bigger and more physical offensive lines in the SEC that features senior right guard Dylan Wiesman, they can lean on opponents with their running game. Junior running back Jalen Hurd nearly rushed for 1,300 yards last year and he is looking to add to the program’s long history at running back which includes the likes of Jamal Lewis and Arian Foster.
Defensively the Vols were ranked 36th in the nation last year in total defense and there are players on the unit that have potential to play in the National Football League. Senior outside linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin led the Volunteers in tackles last season with 105 and he has the potential to be an All-SEC player here in 2016. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the potential to hear his name called very early at next year’s NFL Draft as he is a solid edge rusher that offenses in the SEC must constantly account for. And if Tennessee’s front seven isn’t enough to deal with, they also have an opportunistic secondary that had 12 interceptions last year with 3 coming from junior free safety Todd Kelly Jr.
Last year all four of Tennessee’s losses came by four points or less and if Jones is able to remedy that, he will have a team on his hands that is worthy to win the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia Bulldogs 9-3 (6-2)
During Mark Richt’s 15 years as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, all he did was win. Richt comprised a record of 145-53 at Georgia which included a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships and nine years in which his team won at least 10 games. But all of that success wasn’t enough for Richt to maintain his job due to to the fact that he didn’t win enough big games. Richt has been replaced by former Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who will have some lofty expectations to live up during his first go round as a head football coach.
Under Richt, Georgia had one of the best rushing games in the nation as they were a pipeline to the National Football League. That won’t change this year with the combination of junior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as each player has the potential to gain 1,000 yards rushing if they are healthy. Senior quarterback Grayson Lambert has had an up and down collegiate career that began with the Virginia Cavaliers. But as long as Lambert can keep it simple and not try to win games by himself, he and the Bulldogs should be able to enjoy a good year.
Mel Tucker is beginning his first year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and he is inheriting a defense that was seventh in the nation last season in total defense. The Dawgs will have to replace some talent in their front seven, but the strength of this defense is in the secondary where all four starters from 2015 are back. Safety Dominic Sanders led the team in interceptions last year with 6, and here in his junior campaign, he should be in the conversation to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, while also gaining a ton of attention from the National Football League scouts.
Smart is adding his own touch to Georgia’s program and he should have the Bulldogs right in the mix to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Florida Gators 8-4 (5-3)
It didn’t take Florida Gators head football Jim McElwain that long to get his program back to respectability. In one year at the helm at Florida, McElwain was able to get the Gators to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the first time since 2009. But will McElwain be able to do something that hasn’t happened in Gainesville since the 2000’s which is to make the Gators consistent? The Gators have not finished consecutive seasons in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll since 2009 while they’ve been an up and down program since then. And after winning the SEC East in 2015, the other six teams within the division will gunning for Florida this year.
One of the biggest things that has been holding Florida back in recent years is the fact that they have struggled mightily on offense. Last year Florida was 112th in total offense which makes the fact that they were able to win 10 games that more remarkable. McElwain is offensive coach that was able to make adjustments to his team during his first year at Florida, but he must find more consistent play at quarterback. Last year saw Treon Harris thrust into a tough situation as he was asked to be a pocket passer in spite of the fact that he came to Florida as a spread option quarterback under former Gators head football coach Will Muschamp.
Sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio transferred to Florida and he is more capable to run McElwain’s pro-style offense which makes him the favorite to start under center for the Gators when the season begins. The Gators still don’t have the explosion in the passing game that made them a national power during the 1990’s and 2000’s, but Del Rio will be protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from last year.
In recent years the Florida defense has carried this team as they were eighth in the nation last year in total defense. And just like last year, the Gators have talent on that side of the football which will soon be coming to a National Football League City near you. Junior outside linebacker Jarrad Davis can tackle anything that moves and junior cornerback Jalen Tabor is one of the best cover guys in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida should once again be in the mix to qualify for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, but all of that will come down to their meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Kentucky Wildcats 6-6 (3-5)
The past two years have seen the Kentucky Wildcats go 5-7 and they appear to be on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Last year saw the Wildcats lose three Southeastern Conference games by five points or less. And as Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops is set to begin his fourth year in Lexington, a trip to a bowl game could make him a very popular mean within the Commonwealth State.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Drew Barker was able to get some brief experience under center, and now in 2016 as a sophomore, he will be the guy for the Wildcats offense. But one of the main keys for Kentucky will be whether or not that junior running back Stanley “Boom” Williams will be able to gain at least 1,000 yards as that would be the symbol of the Wildcats success. The Wildcats have an experienced offensive line that has four junior starters and one senior in center Jon Toth.
Stoops’ specialty is defensive football which he has been unable to bring to Lexington and the Wildcats will be fighting an uphill battle on that side of the football due to the fact that they have a ton of experience to replace on that side of the football from last year’s team.
Kentucky won’t be able to dodge some of the heavyweights that the Southeastern Conference has to offer as they’ll tango with the Tennessee Volunteers, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama Crimson Tide. But if the Wildcats are able to handle their business against the teams that they should beat, they should be able to receive the bowl invite that has eluded them for more than five years.
Missouri Tigers 6-6 (3-5)
In the four years that the Missouri Tigers have been a member of the Southeastern Conference, it has been either feast or famine for them. 2012 saw Missouri go 5-7, while they would win the SEC East in 2013 and 2014. Last year the Tigers once again went 5-7 and it marked the end of the line for Gary Pinkel as Missouri’s head football coach as he decided to retire. Pinkel’s successor in Columbia is a Missouri lifer in Barry Odom. Odom was a linebacker at Missouri from 1996-1999, and he has also been an assistant coach there since 2003. Since 2012, Odom was the Tigers defensive coordinator and he oversaw a unit that has sent its fair share of players to the National Football League in recent years. But now Odom is the guy that is in charge of this program and he doesn’t want his team to get caught up in the wash that is the SEC.
With Missouri’s struggles as a team last year, quarterback Drew Lock gained valuable playing time as a freshman that should translate to something positive for him and the Tigers here in 2016. But Lock will have to carry a Mizzou offense that was 125th in total offense last year.
However as bad as Missouri’s offense was, their defense kept them in games as they were sixth in the nation in total defense. And the Tigers have some key players in senior middle linebacker Michael Scherer, junior defensive end Michael Harris, and sophomore defensive end Walter Brady that have the potential to be the best at their respective positions in the Southeastern Conference.
Just like last year the defense will carry the Tigers. But as the season progresses, this will be a team that nobody in the Southeastern Conference will want to face.
South Carolina Gamecocks 4-8 (1-7)
It’s hard to believe, but the South Carolina Gamecocks will enter the 2016 college football season on the heels of their first losing season since 2003. The Gamecocks went 3-9 last year in what would be Steve Spurrier’s last year as South Carolina’s head football coach. In nearly 11 years in Columbia, Spurrier was able to build off of the transition that had begun under former head football coach Lou Holtz as he turned the Gamecocks into a national power which included winning the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference in 2010, while also having three consecutive top ten finishes in the Associated Press Poll. Now it is up to Will Muschamp build off of what Holtz and Spurrier were able to do at South Carolina.
Before Muschamp became the head football coach at South Carolina, he enjoyed several stints in the Southeastern Conference as a defensive coordinator for the likes of the Auburn Tigers and LSU Tigers. But Muschamp’s most notable venture within the SEC came as the head football coach of the Florida Gators where he compiled a record of 28-21 in four years. The expectations at South Carolina for Muschamp won’t be as high as they were for him at Florida which should benefit him and his program.
Being that South Carolina was 3-9 last year, there isn’t a ton of returning talent for Muschamp to work with as he’ll turn to a true freshman at quarterback in Brandon McIlwain. Senior middle linebacker Skai Moore will definitely garner some interest from the National Football League as he is one of the best overall linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. Moore has knowledge of his position as well as the other defensive positions, while he led South Carolina in tackles with 111 and interceptions (4) last year.
This year will definitely be a struggle for the Gamecocks, but as the season progresses, Muschamp will begin to put his stamp on this program.
Vanderbilt Commodores 3-9 (1-7)
It’s been a tough go for Derek Mason as the head football coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. In two years at Vanderbilt, Mason has won seven games compared to the nine games that were won by James Franklin in his final year with the Commodores in 2013. But such is the life of the underbelly that is the Southeastern Conference as it is indeed difficult to keep up with the Joneses. However hopes springs eternal for Mason and Vandy as the 2016 college football season is set to begin.
Mason has some individual talent to work with this year in Nashville, but I doubt it will enough to make Vanderbilt respectable. Junior running back Ralph Webb is the heart and soul of the Commodores offense, while junior linebacker Zach Cunningham and junior defensive back Oren Burks have the potential to be two of the better players within the Southeastern Conference. But all of that won’t be enough to help the Commodores in the win column as the collective talent pool simply isn’t there.
LSU Tigers 12-1 (7-1)
In 11 years as the head football coach of the LSU Tigers, all Les Miles has done is win. Miles has compiled a record of 112-32 which includes a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships along with a national title. But what has hurt Miles is that his Tigers are 0-5 in their last five contests against the Alabama Crimson Tide which almost led to his departure last year. However cooler heads were able to prevail in Baton Rogue as Miles has been retained, and rightfully so being that he has a football team here in 2016 that is not only capable of winning the SEC, but the national title as well.
Under Miles, the Bayou Bengals get off of the bus running the football and you can expect more of the same this year. Junior running back Leonard Fournette has been as good as advertised in his first two years at LSU, and you will definitely hear his name in conversations to win the Heisman Trophy as he has the potential to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
Junior quarterback Brandon Harris has taken his lumps over the last two years, but if he is able to get on the same page with senior wide receiver Travin Dural and junior wide receiver Malachi Dupre to compliment the running ability of Fournette, the LSU offense has the potential to be very special this fall.
Dave Aranda is entering his first year as LSU’s defensive coordinator and he definitely has some talent to work with in Death Valley. Senior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith will tackle anything that moves while senior defensive end Lewis Neal is one of the best edge rushers in the Southeastern Conference. And junior strong safety Jamal Adams is a ball-hawking player that can change the landscape of a game with his range and nose for the football.
I don’t see Louisiana State being intimidated by the fact that they’ll open their season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin when they tango with the Wisconsin Badgers of the Big Ten Conference, while things are shaping up for them to run the table in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama Crimson Tide 10-2 (6-2)
Since Nick Saban became the head football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2007, he has done what most people said that he wouldn’t do which was to build a juggernaut in the toughest football conference in the United States. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Saban is 100-18 which includes five national titles and it has made life extremely difficult for every other program within the Southeastern Conference as they have tried to keep up with the Tide. The Tide head into the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions and this is a program that knows how to deal with the high expectations, along with the fact that everyone will be gunning for them.
Over the past two years, quarterback Cooper Bateman has gotten brief doses of being the guy at Alabama, but in his junior year he no longer has to look over his shoulder. The main thing for Bateman will be to not to try doing everything by himself and instead relying on the Alabama machine. The Crimson Tide are going to miss the production of running back Derrick Henry as he won the Heisman Trophy last year as sophomore running back Damien Harris will look to become the next great tailback for ‘Bama. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will look for sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley and senior tight end O.J. Howard to continue improving their productivity which would definitely benefit Bateman, while there is plenty of experience on the Crimson Tide offensive line which is led by junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson and senior guard Alphonse Taylor.
Defensively the Tide lost plenty of talent to the National Football League, but as Saban is one of the best recruiters in the nation, there is always somebody in Tuscaloosa that is waiting for their respective opportunity. Senior strong safety Eddie Jackson led Alabama in interceptions last year with 6, while senior outside linebacker Reuben Foster returns to school after being the team’s second leading tackler in 2015 with 73. But Alabama will still be able to rush the passer with the likes of defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams returning for their senior seasons. The duo of Allen and Williams combined for 22.5 sacks in 2015, and they should once again be menaces to quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
Make no mistake about it that Saban doesn’t duck any of the top teams in the nation and this college football campaign won’t be any different as Alabama will make the trek to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to clash with the USC Trojans of the Pac-12 Conference to kick off their defense of the national title on September 3. But road life in the Southeastern Conference won’t be easy for Alabama as they’ll travel to face the Ole Miss Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
Ole Miss Rebels 9-3 (6-2)
Hugh Freeze has completed four years as the head football coach of the Mississippi Rebels and in each year in Oxford, his win total has increased. Ole Miss coming off of their first 10-win season since 2003, and their first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970. Freeze has gotten things turned around as the 2016 National Football League Draft saw three of his players selected in the first round, while the Rebels were also able to secure a road victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide which was their only defeat en route to claiming the national championship. And as the Rebels have made tremendous strides in the last few years, the next step for them is to win the Southeastern Conference Championship for the first time since 1963. But will 2016 be the charm?
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly is looking to finish his collegiate career with a bang after he threw for 31 touchdowns in 2015, but he will miss the contributions of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell who is now the National Football League. There is plenty of returning talent on the defensive side of the football which includes the likes of junior defensive end Marquis Haynes, junior outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates, and senior cornerback Tony Bridges who all have the potential to be All-SEC performers.
Ole Miss no longer has to search for respect as they are getting it around the country. But that won’t stop the Rebels from facing the Florida State Seminoles from the Atlantic Coast Conference in Orlando, Florida to begin their season on Labor Day. The Rebels will definitely have to buckle their chin straps on September 17 when they welcome the Crimson Tide to Oxford as they will be seeking their third consecutive victory over the defending national champions. And road games against the Arkansas Razorbacks, LSU Tigers, and Texas A&M Aggies will definitely test how far that Freeze has brought his program.
Texas A&M Aggies 9-3 (5-3)
In Kevin Sumlin’s four years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, he has compiled a record of 36-16, but that hasn’t kept him from avoiding the hot seat in College Station. After the Aggies won 11 games in 2012, they have been unable to replicate that success. And as the powers that be at A&M believe that their program is good enough to win the Southeastern Conference, it has put Sumlin in a bind.
One thing that has hurt the Aggies over the past two years is their inconsistency at quarterback as it has been a revolving door at College Station. But here in 2016, the Aggies appear ready to commit to senior quarterback Trevor Knight who transferred there after being a part of the Oklahoma Sooners program. Knight’s time at Oklahoma included leading the Sooners to an upset victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. And the main thing that Knight will be able to provide the Aggies with is stability and leadership at the quarterback position which is something that they have lacked in each of the last two years.
Make no mistake about it that Texas A&M can run the football, but there is still the threat of the big play in the passing game. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Kirk is looking to add to his resume after a sparkling freshman season in which he tallied 80 receptions for 1,009 years. But the Aggies big home run hitter at wide receiver is junior Ricky Seals-Jones. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Seals-Jones has the size that the pro scouts like; now it is just a matter of him putting it together for a full season.
Defensively the Aggies do have play makers, but they need to be more consistent. In 2015, A&M defensive backs made too many tackles as free safety Armani Watts led the team in tackles with 126. Junior defensive end Myles Garrett is arguably the best defensive player in the nation as he could be the first overall pick of the 2017 National Football League Draft. But the Aggies must find a way to become more consistent under defensive coordinator John Chavis which includes them getting off of the field on third down.
If A&M is going to be one of the better teams in the nation in 2016, they will have to earn it as their schedule isn’t filled with that many soft spots. The Aggies will begin the college football season by hosting the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference, while having conference road games against the Auburn Tigers, Alabama, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, along with finishing the regular season at home against the LSU Tigers.
Auburn Tigers 7-5 (4-4)
After Auburn Tigers head football coach Gus Malzahn led his team to the Bowl Championship Series Title Game in 2013, it has been a rough go for him. In that year Auburn won 12 games en route to winning the Southeastern Conference Championship while they’ve combined to win 15 over the last two years. The competition is always hot and heavy in the SEC West. And as the Tigers don’t want to get caught up in the wash there, their fans are hoping to not avoid a repeat of when this program took a brief nose dive after winning the national title in 2010.
Under Malzahn, Auburn incorporates an uptempo offense that is predicated on solid production from the quarterback and a quality ground game. The Tigers were unable to get either in 2015 which has led to a three-man competition to be the team’s starting quarterback between JUCO transfer John Franklin III, senior Jeremy Johnson, and sophomore Sean White. Neither White or Johnson were as productive as Auburn was envisioning in 2015, and if the Tigers are unable to find the guy at quarterback, they will once be fighting an uphill battle.
The Tigers also need to get more out of their running game as so much of Malzahn’s offense is predicated by what they are able to get accomplished in their running game. There will be plenty of experience on Auburn’s offensive line as they have a pair of seniors in the starting lineup which includes left tackle Robert Leff, and three juniors.
Last year Auburn’s defense was attempting to get a feel for things under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But being that Muschamp was looking to get back to being a head coach sooner rather than later, you knew that he wouldn’t be there for long. After one year at Auburn, Muschamp agreed to become the head football coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks which has paved the way for Kevin Steele to become the Tigers new defensive coordinator.
This isn’t Steele’s first go round in the Southeast Conference as a defensive coordinator as he previously worked with the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers. And now Steele will be charged with getting this Auburn unit back to the top of the SEC.
Last year as a freshman, defensive back Carlton Davis led the team in interceptions with 3, but Auburn lost its top five leading tacklers from 2015 which will leave a very huge void.
Auburn’s schedule won’t be an easy one as they’ll begin by taking on the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with road games against the Mississippi Rebels, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 7-5 (4-4)
In Dan Mullen’s seven years as the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, he has shown that he can hang with the best that the Southeastern Conference has to offer. The Bulldogs call the SEC West home and in each of the last six years, they have gone to a bowl game which is by far the longest stretch in the history of the program. And now as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, the Bulldogs are seeking to win at least 9 games for the third consecutive year which would be the first time in school history that it occurred.
It won’t be as easy for Mississippi State to rack up the victories as quarterback Dak Prescott who did everything for this team over the past few years has graduated. Last year as a freshman, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald got some brief time under center, but now he is expected to be the guy. At 6’5″, 227 lbs., Fitzgerald is a very imposing figure that can make life difficult for defenses in the Southeastern Conference once it all comes together for him.
Last year saw the Bulldogs get away from the running game that Mullen build his initial success upon and it will once again need to be a factor in 2016 for them to be in contention. Expect senior running back Brandon Holloway to get his chance to be the feature back in Starkville, but after carrying the football just 92 times last year, will he be up for the increased workload? However led by senior center Jamaal Clayborn, the Bulldogs do have three upperclassmen on the offensive line which should help out the inexperienced quarterback.
Mississippi State’s defense has the potential to be very stout with six returning starters, which includes six of their top seven tacklers from 2015. Senior middle linebacker Richie Brown could be a first-team All-SEC member, while sophomore strong safety Brandon Bryant has shown that he has range in the secondary.
The road will define Mississippi State here in 2016 as they’ll travel to face the LSU Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Mississippi Rebels in three contests that will help to the shape the title picture in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas Razorbacks 7-5 (4-4)
In 2015, the Arkansas Razorbacks were unable to live up to the lofty expectations that were thrust on them as they were done in by the injury bug. But the Razorbacks were still a team that opponents in the Southeastern Conference were not excited to play against as they were the most physical team in the conference. During Bret Bielema’s time as a college coach which included a seven-year stretch with the Wisconsin Badgers where he compiled a record of 68-24, his teams have been known for their physicality on both sides of the football. Now as Bielema is set to begin his fourth year with the Hogs, he is starting to get his kind of football players to come to Fayetteville as he has now established himself in that region of the country.
After Brandon Allen spent that last four years as the Razorbacks starting quarterback which led to him being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has now made way for another member of his family at Arkansas. Junior quarterback Austin Allen is Brandon’s younger brother and now he gets his chance to show the Southeastern Conference what he can do under center. But the Hogs will have to replace plenty of talent in the running game as running back Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are now in the National Football League. And after spending that last three years as a backup to Williams and Collins, senior running back Kody Walker will get his opportunity to be the feature back in Bielema’s power running attack.
At times in 2015, the Razorbacks defense took it on the chin as they surrendered 45 points or more in a game three times, but with nine starters returning on that side of the football, there is some optimism. Senior middle linebacker Brooks Ellis is the leader of the Hogs defense and he will tackle anything that moves, while sophomore outside linebacker sophomore Dre Greenlaw is his tag-team partner.
The Hogs might not be the team that will win the Western Division of the Southeast Conference in 2016, but they will be a squad that nobody wants to tango with.
SEC Championship Game: LSU vs. Tennessee
Conference Champion: LSU
Coach of the Year: Butch Jones-Tennessee
Offensive Player of the Year: Leonard Fournette-Running Back-LSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylen Reeves-Maybin-Outside Linebacker-Tennessee
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, 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
It’s safe to say that the National Football League has diminished the value of having a quality running back. This decade has only see nine running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft while this past season only produced seven running backs that gained at least 1,000 yards on the ground. The NFL has become more of a passing league where teams have diminished the role of the running back. More teams are going to running back tandems in order to keep their backs fresh as the physical riggers of the game can be grueling on the position. This off-season has already seen running back Marshawn Lynch retire. Lynch is only 29-years of age, but he apparently had enough of the physical pounding that comes with playing the position. But as Lynch decided to retire, the running back position in the NFL is still defined by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson who is the current gold standard for the position and Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley who is the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. But there could be some help on the way from the collegiate ranks to make the running back position once again the glamour position in the NFL.
The past college football season saw 66 players gain at least 1,000 yards rushing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and some of these guys are expected to be headliners once again in 2016. Last year saw Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy and for the first time since 1999, we could see a running back win the Heisman in consecutive years.
This past season saw Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey finish second to Henry in the Heisman voting. McCaffrey gained 2,019 yards on the ground while setting a new NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. There was a growing consensus about the “West Coast” bias when it came to McCaffrey not winning the award, and he gave the nation an opportunity to see what he was about in last month’s Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes where he set a Rose Bowl record for total offense with 368 yards. McCaffrey will return to Stanford for his junior year, and if it were not for the National Football League rules which require a player to be out of high school for at least three in order to get drafted, he would be a first-round pick this April. But McCafrrey’s loss in college football’s gain as he will be displaying his skills for free for another year.
Whereas McCaffrey stepped onto the college football scene as a relative unknown, the same could not be said about LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Fournette came to LSU as a highly touted recruit. Last year Fournette had three consecutive games in which he rushed for at least 200 yards which paved the way for him gaining 1,953 rushing yards to go along with 22 touchdowns on the ground. Like McCaffrey, Fournette has been done in by the rules of the National Football League as he must return to college for his junior year before becoming eligible to be drafted next year. At 6’1″, 230 lbs., Fournette is a load and I feel sorry for any defenders that have to tackle him.
Dalvin Cook-Florida State
Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook is another back that has his sights set on the National Football League in 2017. Like McCaffrey, and Fournette, Cook will be a junior heading into the 2016 college football season and he is the real deal. Cook was a product of Miami Central High School which has produced NFL talent such as Bruce Armstrong and Willis McGahee. As a freshman at Florida State, Cook ran for 1,008 yards and he was also the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game. This past season Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns and heading into 2016, he will look to reach the 2000-yard mark in rushing.
As a true freshman in 2014, it didn’t take running back Samaje Perine that long to make an impact for the Oklahoma Sooners. In Perine’s first collegiate game, he rushed for 77 yards on 13 carries and he was just getting warmed up. Before 2014 ended, Perine set a new single-game Football Bowl Subdivision record with 427 rushing yards against the Kansas Jayhawks as he was named as the Big 12 Conference’s Rookie of the Year. This past season, Perine ran for 1,713 yards in helping Oklahoma win the Big 12 and advance to the College Football Playoff.
Perine’s running ability will translate to the next level due to the fact that at 5’11”, he runs very low to the ground and he has very thick legs as he tips the scales at 237 lbs.
Another potential junior that will garner interest from the National Football League next year is Oregon Ducks running back Royce Freeman. Make no mistake about it that Freeman is a burner and he is tailor-made for the spread-offense attack of the Ducks. Freeman will be an early favorite to be the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year as there are not that many defenders around in the nation that can catch him when he gets a full head of steam.
Unlike the other running backs so far, Clemson Tigers running back Wayne Gallman had the opportunity to leave school this year. Heading into the 2016 college football season, Gallman will be a redshirt junior, but he is returning to school as he is looking to help Clemson win their first national title since 1981.
Last year Gallman exploded for 1,527 rushing yards as he was intrical in helping the Tigers play for the national championship. This year all eyes in the Atlantic Coast Conference will be on Gallman and Clemson, but another strong performance will have the scouts of the National Football League focused on him.
Elijah Hood-North Carolina
Last year saw the North Carolina Tar Heels win 11 games for the first time since 1997 along with making their first trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game with a big part of the team’s success being running back Elijah Hood. As a sophomore in 2015, Hood ran for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was overshadowed within the ACC by Cook and Gallman. However if Hood can lead the Tar Heels to the ACC Title in 2016, everyone will know who he is.
The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off of their best season since 2007 and heading into the 2016 college football season, they will be a trendy pick to win the Southeastern Conference. A big part of the Volunteers re-emergence can be traced to running back Jalen Hurd. At 6’4″, 240 lbs., it is safe to say that Hurd is a load as he gained 1,288 on the ground last year. And as a junior in 2016, a 1,500-yard season by Hurd should symbolize a solid season for the Vols. Due to Hurd’s size, defenders tend to tackle him low, but he is agile, and he can be a solid short yardage back at the next level.
And once you factor in the talent of New Mexico State Aggies sophomore Larry Rose III , Wyoming Cowboys sophomore Brian Hill, Georgia Southern Panthers junior Matt Brieda, Northwestern Wildcats sophomore Justin Jackson, and South Florida Bulls sophomore Marlon Mack, the running back position will be loaded heading into the 2016 college football season with all of these players expected to make National Football League rosters in 2017 as we could see a return to the ground attack as opposed to doing everything by air.