Tag Archives: Tom Herman

2017 Big 12 Conference Football Projections

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Y-Oklahoma State Cowboys 12-1 (9-1)

When Bob Stoops shocked the college football world by retiring as the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners this past June, there was sigh of relief that was released in Stillwater from the folks who support the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In 18 years as the head football coach at Oklahoma, the Cowboys were only able to defeat Stoops and the Sooners four times in the Bedlam Game which consistently kept them from winning the Big 12 Conference more often. Oklahoma State has only won the Big 12 once compared to the ten titles that the Sooners have claimed. But with Stoops now enjoying retirement, will the Cowboys and head football coach Mike Gundy be able to take advantage?

If you are a fan of watching wide open offenses in college football, then you need to pull up a chair and take a look at Oklahoma State’s passing attack. The Cowboys were ninth in the nation last season in passing offense and you can expect more of the same this time around. Senior quarterback Mason Rudolph has five games where he passed for at least 300 yards last season which included going for 540 yards in a victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers. Rudolph passed for more than 4,000 yards last season and if he does it again, we’re more than likely looking at the Big 12 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

James Washington

Last year as a junior, wide receiver James Washington tallied 71 receptions for 1,380 yards. Washington could have left school early in order to pursue a career in the National Football League, but he decided to return to Stillwater for his senior season. And as Washington has returned to Oklahoma State, he will be one of the favorites to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. Washington is a speed demon at the wide receiver position and his ability to draw attention from opposing defenses should open things up in the passing game for his teammates.

It isn’t just about Oklahoma State’s passing game as they were 14th overall in the total offense in the nation last year. As a true freshman, running back Justice Hill gained 1,142 yards on the ground last season, and as he is the perfect compliment to the Oklahoma State’s passing game, reaching the 1,500-mark in the category is not out of the question for him this season.

The Cowboys offense should once again be set to shine for head football coach Mike Gundy as the Cowboys arguably possess the best offensive line in the Big 12 Conference. Led by left tackle Aaron Cochran, the Cowboys will have four seniors on the starting offensive line as that experience should give them edge in the race to win the Big 12 Title.

Defense continues to be an issue for the Cowboys as they were 92nd in the nation last season in total defense. One key player to look out for this season will be senior free safety Ramon Richards. However one man alone does not make a team and the Cowboys lack of talent on defense could hinder their chances of making the College Football Playoff.

The Cowboys are in possession of a very manageable non-conference schedule, while their chances of winning the Big 12 Title will come down to consecutive road games in October versus the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers, along with getting past the Sooners at home in Bedlam on November 4.

X-Oklahoma Sooners 9-4 (7-2)

The 2017 college football season will have a different feel to it for the Oklahoma Sooners as for the first time since 1998, Bob Stoops will not be leading this team onto the field. In 18 years as the head football coach at Oklahoma, Stoops comprised a record of 190-48, while going 121-29 within the Big 12 Conference. Under Stoops the Sooners claimed 10 Big 12 Conference Championships, along with one national title as he led Oklahoma to a bowl game in each of his seasons in Norman. But as nothing last forever, it will be up to Lincoln Riley to replace Stoops at Oklahoma.

Lincoln Riley

Riley has spent the last two years as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. And although that Riley is only 33-years of age, the folks in Norman have confidence in him that he’ll be able to keep the Sooners machine going which will be important as the expectations are once again high for Oklahoma.

Baker Mayfield

A big reason why the expectations for Oklahoma are lofty is because of senior quarterback Baker Mayfield. In two years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Mayfield has been a finalist for the Heisman Trophy twice, while also being named as the Big 12 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Mayfield has only thrown 15 interceptions with Oklahoma as his elusiveness allows him to keep plays open and make things happen which makes the Sooners so dangerous. But unlike the last two seasons the Sooners don’t have the same amount of talent around Mayfield on offense like they did in recent years.

The Sooners must replace more than 2,300 rushing yards that is now in the National Football League in the form of running backs Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Last year as a freshman, running back Abdul Adams averaged 5.3 yards per carry as the understudy to Mixon and Perine, but now he will be getting the bulk of the carries as it is all about speed with him. Oklahoma is also inexperienced at wide receiver and the same can be said about their offensive line where they’ll only have one senior in center Erick Wren.

Defensively Oklahoma will be okay since the unit will still be led by defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Senior middle linebacker Emmanuel Beal and senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo will be vital members to the Sooners potential success on defense as it all about athleticism on the defensive side of the football for Oklahoma.

Riley will be entrusted to keep the Sooners machine going, but his first time around the block won’t be easy. Oklahoma will travel to Columbus to face the Ohio State Buckeyes of the Big Ten Conference who came to Norman and won as the rematch won’t be easy. The Sooners will also have road games within the Big 12 versus the Baylor Bears, and Oklahoma State Cowboys, along with their annual meeting in Dallas against the Texas Longhorns. Oklahoma should continue to be one of the top teams in the Big 12, but they’ll take a step back in regards to being the top team in the conference.

X-Kansas State Wildcats 10-2 (6-3)

2016 was a typical year for the Kansas State Wildcats on the gridiron as there were not that many expectations for them, but they found a way to be successful. The Wildcats went 9-4 in spite of the fact that they were never in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. It also marked the Wildcats second nine-win season in the last three years as head football coach Bill Snyder continues to do it without getting five-star recruits. Snyder has made it his business to find players who have a chip on their shoulder after being overlooked by the bigger football programs, while also bringing in junior college talent. And as that philosophy has helped Kansas State under Snyder, they could once again be a dangerous team here in 2017.

Jesse Ertz

The Kansas State passing game was not a thing of beauty, but with senior quarterback Jesse Ertz set to begin his second season as the Wildcats starting signal caller, he should be able to generate more consistency. Ertz’s best asset is his legs as he was the Wildcats leading rusher last season. And if Ertz is able to get to the edge, the chances of him getting past most linebackers are good.

For defensive coordinator Tom Hayes, he may have one of the better units on that side of the football in the Big 12. Last year as a freshman, defensive end Reggie Walker was able to record 6.5 sacks, and he is ready to become one of the better edge rushers in the conference. The Wildcats secondary is loaded with ball hawks as they recorded 16 interceptions in 2016. And junior cornerbacks Duke Shelley and D.J. Reed are ready to once again test their skills against the best wide receivers that the Big 12 has to offer.

The Wildcats won’t be tested in their non-conference, but if they can get past road affairs with the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma State Cowboys, along with welcoming the Oklahoma Sooners to the Little Apple on October 21, they could be a sleeper to win the Big 12.

X-Baylor Bears 8-4 (5-4)

It has been a tough 15 months around the Baylor Bears football program. In wake of a sexual assault scandal that tarnished the school, Art Briles was fired as Baylor’s head football coach in 2016 as his 65-37 record at the school could not save him from the shame that had been brought upon the university by the scandal and cover up.

Last year saw former Wake Forest Demon Deacons head football coach Jim Grobe lead Baylor. Grobe had come out of retirement to lead the Bears a 7-6. However the off-the-field issues caught up to Baylor on the field as after starting the season 6-0, they would lose their next six games before rebounding to defeat the Boise State Broncos in the Cactus Bowl. And as Grobe was simply the stop gap guy at Baylor, school officials set their sights on finding a head coach who would be able to navigate them through these tough times, while helping the team shed its tarnished image.

Matt Rhule

Matt Rhule spent the previous four seasons as the head football coach of the Temple Owls and in the process led them to the American Athletic Conference Title last year. Rhule comes to Waco with a record of 28-23, but more importantly he was brought in due to the fact that he made Temple who had a reputation of being a subpar program into a winner.

Last year as a freshman, quarterback Zach Smith got his feet wet when quarterback Seth Russell succumb to an injury. Smith went 1-3 as a starter, but his play improved in each game which should be able to carry over to this season under Rhule. Rhule has always been focused on the running the football which should continue with junior running back Terrence Williams leading the way this season for Baylor. Williams is coming off of a season where he averaged 5.7 yards per carry which included him gaining at least 100 yards in a game four times. But now with Williams set to be the feature back, those numbers should increase. And the running ability of Williams will be very important since Baylor doesn’t have the explosion at the wide receiver position that they’ve had over the past few years.

However Rhule will inherit a very experienced offensive line which includes three seniors and two juniors. Senior left tackle Maurice Porter and senior center Tanner Thrift are both anchors on this unit and it would not surprise me to see either player be All-Big 12 performers this year.

Solid defensive football hasn’t been a trademark for Baylor which was evident by the fact that they were 81st in the nation last year in total defense. Upon taking over at Baylor, Rhule named Phil Snow as the team’s defensive coordinator. Snow spent the last four years serving as Temple’s defensive coordinator under Rhule which included the Owls being third in the nation in total defense last season.

K.J. Smith

Any success that Baylor intends to have on defense this year will hinge on the play of senior defensive end K.J. Smith and senior outside linebacker Taylor Young as Rhule and Snow are attempting to adjust to life in the Big 12.

As Baylor is looking to once again be one of the top teams in the Big 12, they will be tested as soon as conference play begins when they host the Oklahoma Sooners on September 23. However with road games versus the Kansas State Wildcats, Oklahoma State Cowboys, and TCU Horned Frogs, it is going to be a long shot for the Bears to finish with the top spot in the conference.

X-West Virginia Mountaineers 8-4 (5-4)

The West Virginia Mountaineers spent the entire 2016 college football season flying under the radar. But when it was all said and done the Mountaineers had won 10 games for the first time as members of the Big 12 Conference. The Mountaineers only suffered two conference losses as they fell to the Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The last time that West Virginia had consecutive 10-win seasons came in 2005 and 2006 when they were in the Big East Conference. But for West Virginia head football coach Dana Holgorsen, will he and his team be able to avoid taking a step back after a successful 2016?

In 2015, Will Grier was emerging as the quarterback who was going to return the Florida Gators to prominence. In six games as Florida’s starting quarterback, Grier was 6-0 which included orchestrating a comeback victory over the Tennessee Volunteers. But on October 12, 2015, Grier was suspended by the NCAA for one year after it was revealed that he tested positive for performing enhancing drugs. Grier decided to leave Florida as he found a new home at West Virginia. And after Grier sat out 2016, he will be the guy who is under center in Morgantown.

What Grier brings to the table for West Virginia is a player who has a strong and accurate arm which will bode well in Holgorsen’s system. And if Grier is on point, he has the potential to be the Big 12 Conference’s Newcomer of the Year.

As a team the Mountaineers averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2016 with the majority of that production coming on the legs of running back Justin Crawford. Crawford ran for 1,184 yards last season which included rushing for 331 yards against the Oklahoma Sooners. Crawford’s speed and versatility are the perfect compliment to the Mountaineers passing game which should translate to another solid offensive season for West Virginia.

Senior middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton leads a defensive unit that will looks to shed its image of being lackluster as the Mountaineers cannot solely rely on the offense to win games for them.

West Virginia will get a big test to begin the college football season as they’ll travel to FedEx Field in Maryland to meet the Virginia Tech Hokies of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This year might not be as easy for West Virginia to navigate through the Big 12 as their schedule includes road games against the TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, as well as the Kansas State Wildcats, while they’ll finish up with the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks.

X-Texas Longhorns 7-5 (5-4)

The start of the 2017 college football season will see the Texas Longhorns in an unusual position. This marks the first time since 1989 that the Longhorns have finished unranked in the Associated Press poll in at least four consecutive seasons. Texas finished 5-7 in each of the last two seasons which led to the dismissal of Charlie Strong as the school’s head football coach and the hiring of Tom Herman. Herman takes over at Texas after going 22-4 in two seasons as the head football coach of the Houston Cougars which included leading them to their first Peach Bowl victory in school history. Now Herman is charged with getting Texas back among the elite of college football as the money and resources in Austin are second to none.

After the Longhorns offense was stuck in the mud last year, there should be more fluidity this time around. A few years ago quarterback Shane Buechele was a highly touted high school prospect who decided to remain in the Lone Star State. Buechele took his lumps as a true freshman in 2016, but he was also able to flash his potential by throwing 21 touchdowns. And in Herman’s offense, Buechele has the potential to be as good as advertised due to his strong right arm, along with his pocket presence.

It will be hard for Texas to replace the contributions of running back D’Onta Foreman who rushed for 2,028 yards last season. But it will be up to junior Chris Warren III and sophomore Kyle Porter to provide some balance for the Longhorns offense.

However for Texas to once again become respectable, it is going to have to start on defense. Last year the ‘Horns were 94th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering at least 40 points on four occasions. Todd Orlando served as Herman’s defensive coordinator as Houston where his unit was 13th in the nation in total defense. What the Longhorns must get back to is not only winning the recruiting battle within the State of Texas, but also playing with an attitude on defense. I expect Orlando to light a fire under his unit, but will it be enough to help the Longhorns get back on track?

Texas will get tested this season which includes traveling to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 16th to face the USC Trojans in the first meeting between the schools since the 2006 Rose Bowl. And when Big 12 pay begins, Texas must face the Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys in consecutive games, along with having to meet the Baylor Bears, TCU Horned Frogs, and West Virginia Mountaineers all on the road. Herman’s first year in Austin will be tough, but it should end with the Longhorns playing in a bowl game.

X-TCU Horned Frogs 7-5 (4-5)

After winning a combined 23 games in 2014 and 2015, the TCU Horned Frogs took a big step backwards in 2016. TCU finished 6-7 as things never seemed to come together for them. But as the Horned Frogs got away from their winning ways, head football coach Gary Patterson was able to coach his team up just enough to get them to a bowl game. And hopefully for the Horned Frogs, that extra practice time will be able to translate to bigger things for them this season.

For Texas Christian to have a shot at being a force in the Big 12 Conference, they will need improved quarterback play. Last year quarterback Kenny Hill was up and down which was evident by him throwing 17 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Hill has a big arm and his athleticism allows him to keep plays going. However as Hill’s senior season is set to begin, he will need to be locked in for the Horned Frogs.

Kyle Hicks

Senior running back Kyle Hicks is a solid ball carrier for TCU, while he will running behind an experienced offensive line that has three seniors which includes left tackle Joseph Noteboom.

Gary Patterson

Patterson built his reputation on the defensive side of the football, but in recent years the Horned Frogs have been giving up more yardage and subsequently more points. Last year Texas Christian was 76th in the nation in total defense. However players such as senior outside linebacker Travin Howard who led the team in tackles in 2016 with 130, and senior safety Nick Orr whose 4 interceptions were tops on the unit last season are back. TCU was also eighth in the nation in sacks with 43 as they will need to once again be able to create pressure in order to slow down the high octane offenses of the Big 12.

Road games versus the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma Sooners will make it difficult for TCU to win the Big 12, but overall they stand to be an improved team as compared to last season.

Texas Tech Red Raiders 4-8 (2-7)

If you enjoy the fireworks that come with a prolific passing offense, then cozying up in your favorite chair to watch the Texas Tech Red Raiders is the thing for you. Last year the Red Raiders scored at least 50 points in a game six times as they averaged 566 yards per game en route to possessing the top offense in the nation. But as good as things were for Texas Tech on offense, it was just as bad on defense as they were last in the nation in total defense being that they surrendered 554 yards per contest. Kliff Kingsbury has been the Red Raiders head football coach for the last four years and he has kept the school’s tradition of wide open offenses going which included the tenures of former head coaches Spike Dykes and Mike Leach the school. And although that Texas Tech will indeed be a long shot to win the Big 12, things should be exciting once again in Lubbock.

Nic Shimonek

Quarterback Nic Shimonek stood on the sidelines last year as the understudy to Patrick Mahomes as he watched him pass for more than 5,000 yards. But with Mahones leaving school early to try life in the National Football League, it is Shimonek’s chance to sling the football around. Shimonek saw some time in relief of Mahomes last year on four occasions. But being that Kingsbury’s offense relies on the quarterback taking the majority of his snaps out of the shotgun, Shimonek should be able to get the football out quick enough in order to keep Texas Tech’s offense rolling.

However Shimonek is going to have to do things behind an inexperienced offensive line as the Red Raiders won’t have any seniors in the unit, as it will be bolstered by three sophomores and a true freshman in right guard Jack Anderson.

Being that the Red Raiders were last in the nation in total defense, it can only get better. Sophomore middle linebacker Jordyn Brooks was Texas Tech’s leading tackler last season, but it will need to be a group effort in order to improve. The Red Raiders must find a way to get off of the field on third down as they allowed opponents to convert on 43% of their third down situations, while they only tallied 14 sacks as a team.

Just like 2016, the Red Raiders will be fun to watch on offense, but without a quality defense don’t expect them to be one of the top teams in the Big 12.

Iowa State Cyclones 2-10 (1-8)

The Iowa State Cyclones football program has never been considered as a powerhouse. The Cyclones have never won the Big 12 Conference and their last bowl appearance came in 2012. Since then Iowa State has not won more than three games which includes going 2-7 in each of the last two years within the Big 12. And by the looks of things, it won’t be getting better anytime soon in Ames.

Matt Campbell

For Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell, one standout player on his team will be junior outside linebacker Willie Harvey. Harvey has solid instincts and if he were on a better team he would be a household name.

It will once again be an uphill battle for the Cyclones as their non-conference schedule includes games with their in-state rivals in the Northern Iowa Panthers and Iowa Hawkeyes, while their Big 12 schedule kicks off with them hosting a Texas Longhorns and traveling to meet the Oklahoma Sooners. And for the folks in Ames, it is once again going to be a long football season.

Kansas Jayhawks 1-11 (0-9) 

You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last time that the Kansas Jayhawks finished a college football season with a winning record. Since then the Jayhawks have been relegated to being just another team in the Big 12 Conference as the parade of success has passed them by. Kansas has not won more than three games in a season this decade as things have been extremely tough for them on the gridiron. And as a new college football season is set to begin, does Kansas head football coach David Beaty have any tricks up his sleeve in regards to getting things turned around for the Jayhawks?

Being that Kansas was only able to win two games last year, they were 106th in total offense and 109th in total defense. Offensively one shining star for the Jayhawks could be junior wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. At 5’10”, 176 lbs., Sims will use his speed to navigate his way through traffic in the secondaries around the Big  12 as he looks to make Kansas relevant. Junior defensive end Dorrance Armstrong Jr. led the Jayhawks in sacks with 10, and his ability to rush the passer is going to be important if Kansas is going to be able to pull off some upsets this season.

Whereas Kansas has been passed by in the Big 12 for a decade, that trend will continue here in 2017 as they simply do not have the talent to keep up.

Big 12 Championship Game-AT&T Stadium-Arlington, Texas: Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State

Conference Champion: Oklahoma State

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com

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The Pride Of The AAC

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Long-term stability isn’t something that the Houston Cougars are accustomed to. In the 68 years of Houston’s football program, they have been affiliated with four different conferences, while also being a football independent for 18 years. The Cougars are currently affiliated with the American Athletic Conference, but we’re not sure for how long as there are rumors that the Big 12 Conference has them on their radar. And the reason why the Big 12 has their eyes on Houston is due to the direction that they are currently going in.

Last year the Cougars went 13-1 for the second time since 2008. Houston would upset the Florida State Seminoles in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve which ensured them of their first top-ten finish in the Associated Press Poll since 1990. This year the Cougars began ranked 15th in the nation, and so far they have not disappointed.

Houston immediately served notice to the college football world that last year wasn’t a fluke when they upset the third ranked Oklahoma Sooners by a score of 33-23 on September 3. After cruising past the Lamar Cardinals 42-0 on September 10, the Cougars were expected to be tested this past Thursday when they traveled to face the Cincinnati Bearcats in their first American Athletic Conference game of the season.

Early in the fourth quarter, Houston would find themselves trailing Cincinnati 16-12, but they would control the rest of the action for the game.

Greg Ward Jr.

Cougars senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. would take over as he scored on a pair of touchdown runs to give Houston the 26-16 lead. The Bearcats were driving for a touchdown that would keep them in the game, but Cougars senior linebacker Steven Taylor had other thoughts in mind when he intercepted a pass that was thrown by Cincinnati sophomore quarterback Hayden Moore and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown that would put the game out of reach. And on Cincinnati’s next offensive play, Moore was picked off once again; this time by sophomore defensive back Howard Wilson who scampered 28 yards for a touchdown to make it 40-16 in favor of Houston. The Cougars would go on to win by that score as they served notice to Cincinnati and everybody else in the American Athletic Conference that they won’t be an easy out as they are seeking their second conference crown.

A second consecutive American Athletic Conference Title for Houston would mark the first time that they were able to repeat as conference champions since 1979 when they were members of the now defunct Southwestern Conference. In those days the SWC was one of the best conferences in college football as it included the likes of the Texas Longhorns and Texas A&M Aggies, as Houston was able to hold their own. And this is something that current Cougars head football coach Tom Herman is attempting to get them back to.

The Cougars now consistently find themselves in the spotlight which is something that is going to help them as far as recruiting goes in the talent rich State of Texas. There are facility upgrades that are going on at Houston’s campus which will either make them the envy of the American Athletic Conference, or allow them to hang with the big boys of the Big 12.

Another reason why the Cougars are back in the national spotlight is due to the play of Ward. Ward emerged as a play maker for Houston in 2014 when he took over at quarterback. And when Herman became Houston’s head football coach in 2015, Ward became a household name. Ward would continue to build on that status last year when he accounted for 3,936 yards of total offense and 38 touchdowns.

A shoulder injury kept Ward out of the game against Lamar, but he made his presence known against Oklahoma as he was 23-of-40 passing for 321 yards and a pair of passing touchdowns. And although that Ward threw a pair of interceptions against Cincinnati, he stepped up when his team needed him the most in the fourth quarter. But whereas Ward is in the conversation of winning the Heisman Trophy, along with being the American Athletic Conference, they have a strong presence on the defensive side of the football as well.

Through three games Houston’s defense is averaging only 13 points allowed per game with Taylor leading the charge. Last year Taylor teamed with Elandon Roberts to give the Cougars one of the best linebacking duos in the nation. But with Roberts now in the National Football League as a member of the New England Patriots, Taylor is showing that he can get it done in each phase of the game.

Steven Taylor

Through three games in 2016, Taylor already has 21 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and an interception as he is the front runner to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

In a very short time Herman is showing that he is ready to emerge as one of the best head coaches in college football. And with Houston currently not in a Power Five conference, his name has been thrown around in regards to bigger jobs. But Herman has decided to remain at Houston as the possibility of the Cougars being in the Big 12 real soon appears to be enticing him to stay. Herman has already established himself at Houston and he doesn’t appear ready to go to another school where he would have to start over, while also have to deal with more pressure.

Tom Herman

Outside of a road game against the Navy Midshipmen on October 8, Houston’s conference schedule is very favorable, and the only thing that could prevent them from going undefeated is a meeting with the Louisville Cardinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference on November 17. Houston has already shown that they can defeat a Big 12 team this year as they knocked off Oklahoma, and the rest of this season should be their audition for the Big 12 Conference as it would be nothing but a win-win scenario for both parties. Although that Houston is currently ranked sixth in the Associated Press Poll, it is still a long shot for them to reach the College Football Playoff, but this program has shown the college football world that they can hang with the big boys as this is a definitely a program that is on the rise.

Source: Sports-reference.com

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2016 American Athletic Conference Football Projections

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East

Temple Owls 12-1 (8-0)

It isn’t that often that you’ll hear the term potential conference champion put into the same sentence with Temple Owls Football, but it is indeed a new day for college football in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Owls are coming off of their first 10-win season since 1979, and after head football coach Matt Rhule turned down offers from bigger college football programs, Temple is looking to once again be a force in the American Athletic Conference.

Senior quarterback P.J. Walker has improved as a passer in each of his first three years at Temple. And now as a senior, Walker should get some consideration as far as being the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. Senior left tackle Dion Dawkins is one of two returning starters on the offensive line that will look to open holes for running back Jahad Thomas who has the potential to gain at least 1,500 yards on the ground this season.

The Owls were 20th in total defense in the nation last season and even though that six starters must be replaced from last year’s team, this still has the potential to be one of the top units in the American Athletic Conference as they’ll be led by senior middle linebacker Jarred Alwan who was second on the team in tackles in 2015 with 74.

Temple’s non-conference schedule includes a road game against the Penn State Nittany Lions whom they upset last year while their home game in late October against the Cincinnati Bearcats could determine who represents the Eastern Division in the American Athletic Conference Title Game.

Cincinnati Bearcats 10-2 (6-2)

Last year the Cincinnati Bearcats were expected to contend for the Eastern Division Title in the American Athletic Conference, but instead they had to settle for a third place finish to go along with their 7-6 record. But for Cincinnati head football coach Tommy Tuberville, hope springs eternal as he and his team are seeking a trip to the AAC Title Game.

Gunner Kiel

After a solid 2014 campaign, quarterback Gunner Kiel had to battle through injuries that limited him and Cincinnati in 2015. But as Kiel is set to embark on his senior campaign for the Bearcats, he is looking to put it all together and help Cincy win the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats have three starters returning on their offensive line as they will look to open holes for junior running back Mike Boone and senior running back Tion Green. Last year Boone and Green combined to rush for 1,478 yards, but in 2016, each player will have his sights set on gaining at least 1,000 yards.

Defensively the Bearcats took it on the chin last year as they were 78th in total defense. But for Tuberville and his co-defensive coordinators in Robert Prunty and Steve Clinkscale, things are looking up as they will have nine returning starters on the side of the ball for the upcoming season.

The Bearcats will open up their conference schedule at home against the Houston Cougars and along with road games within the American Athletic Conference against the Temple Owls and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Cincy holds their destiny in their hands as far as winning the conference crown.

Connecticut Huskies 7-5 (4-4)

Bob Diaco

Bob Diaco is coming off of his second year as the head football coach of the Connecticut Huskies and he is building a program that is taking solid strides in the American Athletic Conference. Although that the Huskies will enter the 2016 college football season fresh off of their fifth consecutive losing season, Diaco has something to build off of due to a bowl appearance last season.

Junior quarterback Bryant Shireffs is developing into a solid college quarterback, and if he can shed the label of a game manager, it could mean a solid season for the Huskies in 2016. Diaco has been finding high school talent within the State of Connecticut and junior running back Arkeel Newsome could be ready to put together a 1,000-yard season on the ground. Led by senior left tackle Richard Levy, the Huskies are returning four starters on the offensive line as they could spell trouble for opposing defenses within the American Athletic Conference.

Connecticut will return six defensive starters from a unit that was ranked 33rd in the nation in total defense last season. And led by junior middle linebacker Junior Joseph, the Huskies defense could be a top-20 unit in 2016.

If Connecticut is able to score a pair of non-conference wins against the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’ll host the Virginia Cavaliers and Syracuse Orange, it could set the tempo for a solid season for them within the American Athletic Conference.

East Carolina Pirates 6-6 (4-4)

The Ruffin McNeill era is over as the head football coach of the East Carolina Pirates as he was fired and replaced by Scottie Montgomery.  Like McNeill, Montgomery didn’t have any previous head coaching experience prior to coming to East Carolina. But Montgomery is hopeful to build off of his experience over the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the Duke Blue Devils along with his four-year playing career in the National Football League.

Blake Kemp

Led by senior quarterback Blake Kemp, the Pirates are returning some talent on offense as they’ll look to be a player in the American Athletic Conference. Along with Kemp, the Pirates are returning their top pass catcher in senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones along with three offensive lineman.

And even though that East Carolina was ranked 66th in total defense last year, they are returning seven starters from last year’s unit as they could become a bit pesky.

If East Carolina is able to become bowl eligible in their first year under Montgomery, it would be big for him as he looks to establish him in Greenville.

 

South Florida Bulls 6-6 (4-4)

It has taken South Florida Bulls head football coach Willie Taggart as few years to establish his program in Tampa, but South Florida is coming off of their best season since 2010 as they are seeking their first conference title in 2016.

Junior quarterback Quinton Flowers is a dual-threat as a passer and runner that can give defenses in the American Athletic Conference fits with his play making ability while junior running back Marlon Mack can no longer fly under the radar as a dynamic back. But as good as Flowers and Mack can be, they cannot do it by themselves as South Florida will need to replace four starters on their offensive line.

Auggie Sanchez

Defensively the Bulls were a middle of the pack unit last year. But as South Florida will return six starters on the side of the ball, they’ll be led by junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez who led the team in 2015 in tackles with 115.

South Florida’s schedule won’t be an easy one as they’ll take on the Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference, along with the Florida State Seminoles and Syracuse Orange of the Atlantic Coast Conference before their American Athletic Conference schedule kicks off which includes road games against the Cincinnati Bearcats and Memphis Tigers.

Central Florida Knights 3-9 (1-7)

Scott Frost

After going 0-12 last year, the only way for the Central Florida Knights to go is up. Central Florida went to the Pacific Northwest to find their new head football coach in Scott Frost. Frost spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator of the Oregon Ducks. Prior to that Frost enjoyed a spectacular playing career as an option quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers before embarking on a professional playing career in the National Football League with the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now Frost is looking to make the most of his opportunity to lead a football team.

What the Knights have to do in 2016 is to find a way to be physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. The Knights only averaged 2.7 yards per carry on the ground which isn’t going to get it done at any level of football, but with four starters on the offensive line returning including center Jason Rae, things could be better this fall in Orlando. Even in the midst of a winless campaign, wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith showed promise that he can be an impact player which might include him being an All-American Athletic Conference performer in 2016 as a sophomore.

Central Florida was 114th in total defense last year, but with eight starters returning including three seniors in defensive end Luke Adams, free safety Drico Johnson, and Jeremy Boykins, the Knights should be able to show some improvement.

Frost is laying the foundation for a successful team, and it should be interesting to see how Central Florida will improve as the season goes along.

West

Houston Cougars 10-3 (7-1)

After going 13-1 last year, the Houston Cougars won’t enter the 2016 college football season searching for respect. The Cougars capped off their stellar season with an upset victory over the Florida State Seminoles in the Peach Bowl. And for Houston head football coach Tom Herman, he has a team that is capable of crashing the College Football Playoff party.

Greg Ward Jr.

Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., is the heart and soul of the Cougars team as he can put Houston’s offense on his back which is why there is a good possibility that he’ll named as the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. With the departure of wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, senior wide receiver Chance Allen should become Ward Jr.’s go-to wide receiver. And at 6’2″, Allen is a matchup problem for defenders in the conference. The Cougars also return three starters on the offensive line as this is a veteran bunch that will definitely have a say in Houston’s chances of winning the American Athletic Conference.

The Cougars will return six starters of the defensive side of the football, but they must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season. However senior linebackers Tyus Bowser and Steven Taylor, along with junior linebacker Matthew Adams are capable of stepping up to fill any void.

The Cougars will have their hands full to begin the season as they’ll take on the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference at NRG Stadium in Houston before opening conference play on the road against the Cincinnati Bearcats. But this is a Houston team that won’t back down from a challenge and this should be an interesting college football season for them.

Navy Midshipmen 8-4 (6-2)

Ken Niumatalolo

There’s definitely a winning tradition for Navy Midshipmen under head football coach Ken Niumatalolo. And under Niumatalolo, the Naval Academy is 68-37 with just one losing season. Navy is coming off of their first 11-win season in school history and they dodged a bullet when Niumatalolo turned down an offer to become the head football coach of the Brigham Young University Cougars in order to return to Annapolis which will once again give the Midshipmen a shot at the American Athletic Conference Title.

2015 marked Navy’s first year in the American Athletic Conference and they were one victory shy of playing in the conference title game. But for Navy to get back to that level of success, they must find a way to replace 10 starters on the offensive side of the football, along with Keenan Reynolds who was one the most dynamic players in the history of the program as he contributed to a Midshipmen rushing game that was tied for second in the nation last year. Navy must also replace three starters on defense as together this senior class helped to account for 36 wins over the last four years.

Tago Smith has spent the last three years as the backup to Reynolds and now he will have his opportunity to lead Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack.

Niumatalolo will have to plug in new players on offense, but as the season progresses for Navy, they will be a team to nobody wants to face.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 8-4 (5-3)

After rebounding from 2-10 record in the previous college football season, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane were able to become eligible last year for the first time since 2012. And although that Tulsa only finished with a record of 6-7 in 2015, they could have a hand in who wins the American Athletic Conference in 2016.

What was able to get Tulsa into contention last year and what they’ll need ride to any potential success in 2016 is their passing offense. Last year the Golden Hurricane had the 11th best passing offense in the nation under first-year head coach Philip Montgomery who brought the pass-happy attack with him from his time as the offensive coordinator of the Baylor Bears where the football hardly touched the ground.

Dane Evans

Senior quarterback Dane Evans can sling the football around as good as anyone in that nation. And in the past two years, Evans has passed for 7,434 yards while also throwing 48 touchdowns over that stretch. Evans will have a reliable wide receiver to throw the football to in senior wide receiver Joshua Atkinson who is a prime candidate to get at least 90 receptions this year. And Evans should once again enjoy some solid pass protection in front of his as four of the “big uglies” on the offensive line are back which includes junior left tackle Evan Plagg who will be charged with protecting Evans’ blindside.

But for Tulsa to become a serious title contender in the American Athletic Conference, they must improve defensively as they finished 2015 ranked 126th out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense which included giving up at least 40 points in each of their last four contests. Co-defensive coordinators Brian Norwood and Bill Young will have their work cut out as they look to improve this unit, but they have to be optimistic with seven starters returning.

Outside of a road game against the Ohio State Buckeyes from the Big Ten Conference, the Golden Hurricane’s non-conference schedule is extremely favorable. But in order for Tulsa to be a player in the American Athletic Conference, they are going to have to get it done on the road with games against the Houston Cougars, Memphis Tigers, and Navy Midshipmen.

Memphis Tigers 7-5 (4-4)

The Memphis Tigers are coming off of their best two-year stretch in school history and they are looking to avoid taking a huge step backwards in 2016. As the head football coach at Memphis, Justin Fuente took the program to new heights which saw him become a hot commodity as he is the new head football coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies. As Memphis was searching for a new head football coach to replace Fuente, they would travel to the desert where they would find Mike Norvell who spent the last four years as the offensive coordinator of the Arizona State Sun Devils where he helped them have the 20th ranked passing offense in the nation last season.

But unlike Fuente, Norvell won’t have the luxury of quarterback Paxton Lynch who decided to leave school early in favor of the National Football League. And along with Lynch, Memphis must replace five offensive starters from last year’s team. As of right now the starting quarterback position appears to be Clay Holgorsen’s to lose. Last season Holgorsen saw some mop up duty behind Lynch, and you have to wonder if he is ready to be the guy at Memphis; especially in a new offense, and under a new head coach. However Holgorsen does come from a solid football family as he is the nephew of current West Virginia Mountaineers head football coach Dana Holgorsen.

Whomever that Norvell will put under center to begin the season will have the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that will return four starters which includes senior guard Chris Roberson as the unit could be the best in the American Athletic Conference.

Norvell also inherits seven returning starters on defense, but this was a Tigers unit that was ranked 77th in the nation last year in total defense as they had seven contests in which they surrendered at least 30 points. And it wasn’t a surprise that Memphis was 3-4 in those games.

Memphis will enjoy a favorable non-conference schedule, but when American Athletic Conference play begins, the Tigers will be faced with games against the Temple Owls, Navy Midshipmen, Cincinnati Bearcats, and Houston Cougars where wins won’t be easy to come by.

SMU Mustangs 5-7 (3-5)

As the Southern Methodist Mustangs are set to embark on their second year under head football coach Chad Morris, they must find a way to become more competitive. SMU went 2-10 last season and in those losses, eight were by at least 19 points. Morris has been attempting to recruit within the football crazy State of Texas as he is hopeful to make the Mustangs competitive in the American Athletic Conference, but will it all come to fruition in 2016?

Matt Davis

Senior quarterback Matt Davis is arguably SMU’s best athlete as he led the team in both passing yards and rushing yards last season and he’ll be vital to any success that the Mustangs want to have in 2016. SMU must find a way to have more consistency on offense while they were 76th in the nation in total offense while also being 119th in total defense.

 

 

Morris is attempting to lay his foundation in Dallas which would be a huge step if Southern Methodist is able to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2012.

Tulane Green Wave 1-11 (0-8)

With only three winning seasons since 2000, the Tulane Green Wave are an afterthought on the college football scene. After leading the Georgia Southern Eagles to a 17-7 record over the last two years, Willie Fritz was hired to be the new head football coach at Tulane and hopefully get this team to compete in the American Athletic Conference as they lost six games last season by at least 28 points. But Fritz has his work cut out for him as Tulane was 80th in the nation in total offense and 120th in total defense.

If the Green Wave are able to get a few wins under their belt in 2016, it would give Fritz the ammunition that he needs to turn this program around.

AAC Championship Game: Houston vs. Temple

Conference Champion: Temple

Coach of the Year: Matt Rhule-Temple

Offensive Player of the Year: Greg Ward Jr.-Quarterback-Houston

Defensive Player of the Year: Jarred Alwan-Linebacker-Temple

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com

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2016 College Football Top 25

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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.

Deshaun Watson

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.

Baker Mayfield

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.

Leonard Fournette

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.

Joshua Dobbs

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.

Derek Barnett

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.

J.T. Barrett

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

Brian Kelly

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.

Josh Adams

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.

Cooper Bateman

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 

Jimbo Fisher

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.

Kirk Ferentz

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

Jim Harbaugh

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.

Jabril Peppers

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 

Jim Mora

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.

Mason Rudolph

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.

Chad Kelly

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 

Tom Herman

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.

Justin Jackson

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 

Mike Leach

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.

Hercules Mata’afa

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.

Jeff Lockie

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.

Tyler O’Connor

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

Pat Narduzzi

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.

James Conner

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.

Nick Chubb

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.

P.J. Walker

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.

Anu Solomon

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.

David Shaw

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

Larry Fedora

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.

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

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