The 2015 season ended less than 24 hours ago, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the 2016 campaign. It’s also never too early to start jinxing teams that — at least from their rosters — could be the next national champion (sorry, Ohio State).
With that said, it’s time to look at the way, way, way too early 2016 preseason Top 25, a list that will no doubt look different by the time the national title game is played in Tampa, Florida.
No. 1. Clemson
A year after everyone championed Ohio State as the next great dynasty, Clemson is now on the firing line in terms of expectations. The biggest issues for the Tigers will probably be on defense as key pieces like Mackensie Alexander and Shaq Lawson are probably headed to the NFL draft. But it’s hard to bet against quarterback Deshaun Watson, especially with an ACC schedule the Tigers should be able to manage.
No. 2 Alabama
The Tide is losing starting quarterback Jake Coker, but that doesn’t really matter. Alabama has made the College Football Playoff with non-star quarterbacks each of the past two seasons. As long as they have a strong running game, which they should even if Derrick Henry opts to go pro, and continue to dominate in the trenches, it’s hard to see any other team winning the SEC.
No. 3 Michigan
Jim Harbaugh’s first season with the Wolverines was no fluke. He’s a good coach and he’s got a good nucleus with which to work. Michigan bring almost all of its starters back on offense and John O’Korn should be a suitable replacement for departed quarterback Jake Rudock. Defensively, Michigan could have one of the nation’s best defensive lines. The only cause for concern is replacing the entire linebacking corps.
No. 4 Oklahoma
The Sooners didn’t exactly bow out gracefully from the 2015 season, but going from an eight-win team to an 11-win team in a year shows that this program has some moxie. Most of that bravado comes from quarterback Baker Mayfield, who will once again be in the Heisman conversation. It helps that he returns top running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, but the defense will need some retooling with players such as Eric Striker and Zach Sanchez moving on.
No. 5 Baylor
The Bears have been so close to the CFP in each of the past two seasons that it’s crazy not to think they’ll get in eventually, right? It’s not going to be easy this year with the loss of star receiver Corey Coleman, four starting offensive linemen and four starting defensive linemen, but the Bears do return quarterback Seth Russell and running back Shock Linwood. And more importantly, coach Art Briles showed during the bowl game that his team is pretty good against adversity. Hard to count the Bears out.
No. 6 Florida State
This is a team loaded with so much skill and experience that it’s almost scary. The biggest question for the Seminoles will be at quarterback as starter Sean Maguire will miss spring practices while he recovers from a broken ankle. That said, redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois might be the next big thing and if he turns out to be as good as advertised, that game against Clemson in Tallahassee will loom large for the playoff picture.
No. 7 Stanford
Replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan will be a daunting task for this program, but it’s hard not to like this offense with Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey returning to the backfield. The Cardinal lose some offensive linemen, leading tackler Blake Martinez and a couple starters in the secondary, but for the most part this team should be ready to contend for another Pac-12 title.
No. 8 Notre Dame
Notre Dame will be in a similar position as Ohio State was a year ago with two potential starting quarterbacks — Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer — vying for playing time. Replacing starting receiver Will Fuller will be a tough task, but running back Tarean Folston and tight end Durham Smythe will return from injury. If the quarterback battle doesn’t divide the team, Notre Dame will be a team to watch once again.
No. 9 LSU
Just because Les Miles escaped the firing line this past season doesn’t mean his job is safe. He’s still going to need to produce better than a 9-3 record if he wants to continue leading the Tigers. It helps that running back Leonard Fournette is back, but something has to be done about the passing game, which ranked 111th in the country.
No. 10 Houston
First-year head coach Tom Herman wowed with a 13-win season that was capped with a win against Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Now what will he do for an encore? Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is back, but leading receiver Demarcus Ayers and tailback Kenneth Farrow are gone. Make no mistake though, the Cougars are not only the darlings for the Group of Five’s spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl, but as a potential crasher of the CFP. But beware, Boise State had this preseason pressure coming into 2015 and flopped.
No. 11 Tennessee
Let’s not mince words, the Vols were a big disappointment in 2015. The saving grace was their bowl win, which provided a glimmer of hope that this team might be something special after all. Quarterback Josh Dobbs returns, but he’ll need to improve his passing game if the Vols want to be a player in the SEC. Overall, Tennessee returns 17 starters from last year’s team and adds a new defensive coordinator from Penn State. Tennessee is definitely a team to watch in the fall.
No. 12 Ohio State
Just eight total starters return for the 2014 national champion, so coach Urban Meyer is going to have to work his magic. And really, his penchant for doing that year-after-year is the reason why the Buckeyes are ranked this highly. However, this won’t be an easy task. In addition to the seniors lost, nine juniors also declared early for the NFL draft. All eyes will be on quarterback J.T. Barrett as he helps to shape the new-look Buckeyes.
No. 13 Michigan State
The Spartans didn’t end the season on a high note, but at least they’re moving in the right direction. The Spartans lose eight offensive starters, but did use a lot of backups this year, so the experience is there. Defensively, the Spartans lose three linemen, but nose tackle Malik McDowell could be an all-conference player. The talent is there for the Spartans, they’re just going to need a lot of work becoming a team this offseason.
No. 14 Oregon
Oregon won the FCS quarterbacking lottery for the second consecutive season, but will this be the year it actually pays dividends? Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop has all the makings of the next great Oregon QB, which could make the Ducks one of the teams to beat in the Pac-12. Oregon also will be learning under new offensive and defensive coordinators, so this spring will be an important one.
No. 15 North Carolina
Something clicked for this North Carolina team this past season and coach Larry Fedora will look to keep that spark alive despite losing quarterback Marquise Williams, who had 4,020 yards of total offense with 37 touchdowns last season. However, quarterback Mitch Trubisky is more than capable of filling Williams’ shoes and the offense shouldn’t miss a beat. It also helps that the Tar Heels play two FCS schools (again) this year.
No. 16 USC
The Trojans struggled in their final two games of 2015, but there are a lot of good pieces returning for 2016. All eyes will be on the quarterback as Max Browne and Sam Darnold compete to replace three-year starter Cody Kessler. Whoever wins will have an offensive line that started the second half of the season, a talented group of running backs and several other skill players. The biggest losses were on defense where the Trojans will have to rely on younger players to fill the gaps.
No. 17 Louisville
Lamar Jackson provided a glimpse of just how good he could be during the 27-21 win against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. He does need to improve as a passer for the Cardinals to be more efficient on offense, but the pieces are definitely there. Defensively, Louisville received a big boost when all four of its star underclassmen prospects announced they were returning for another year. Louisville had one of the best defenses in the country and it should only get better with a wealth of depth and experience.
No. 18 Iowa
It’s hard not to like Iowa simply because of its schedule. For the second consecutive season, it will have one of the easier draws in the Big Ten. It doesn’t play Michigan State or Ohio State and faces Michigan at home. It did lose some key players such as running back Jordan Canzeri, but a lot of the other players that helped the Hawkeyes to a 12-win season are back, including All-American cornerback Desmond King.
No. 19 TCU
This season will be Kenny Hill’s year of redemption. Remember him? He’s the guy who started Texas A&M’s 2014 season like a ball of fire, got consumed by the hype and then flamed out. Well, he’s in line to replace Trevone Boykin and perhaps keep the momentum from the big bowl win against Oregon going. The Horned Frogs defense should be OK, but TCU will have to replace four offensive linemen.
No. 20 Ole Miss
Ole Miss appears to be a bit undervalued here, but this is a team that’s losing seven starters from its vaunted Landshark defense and seven starters from the offense, including star receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Still, quarterback Chad Kelly is back and there are pieces around which to build. It just won’t be easy in a stacked SEC West.
No. 21 Oklahoma State
The key for Oklahoma State to improve on its 10-win season from a year ago is to get something going in the running game. The Cowboys were 107th nationally in rushing with 126.8 per game. Quarterback Mason Rudolph returns to lead what should be a high-powered passing attack, and seven starters should be back on the Cowboys hit-and-miss defense. OSU doesn’t have the greatest schedule going to Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma, but the Cowboys were the surprise last year, so it’s hard to count them out.
No. 22 Washington State
The transformation hasn’t been quick, but Mike Leach is starting to show marked improvement at Washington State and the Cougars figure to be even better in 2016. The Cougars are coming off a win against Miami in the Sun Bowl, which should provide motivation moving forward. Quarterback Luke Falk and his favorite receiving target Gabe Marks are both back in this high-powered offense. If there’s any concern, it’s on defense, but the Cougars made strides last year on improving that side of the ball.
No. 23 UCLA
UCLA has not had a great offseason. Several unexpected players have declared early for the NFL draft and offensive coordinator Noel Mazone (and his son) bolted for Texas A&M. Quarterback Josh Rosen returns for his second season as starter, but he loses top receiving targets Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte. Running back Paul Perkins is also gone as are three offensive linemen. Still, the defense is almost entirely intact, which makes it difficult to count the Bruins out.
No. 24 Boise State
No matter what, you can’t rule out Boise State. The Broncos had a rough nine-win season last year, but this team did a lot of maturing as the season progressed and could be poised for that Group of Five NY6 Bowl run many expected in 2015. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols are back, but some of the top receivers are gone. The Broncos do have a couple tough games on their nonconference slate with Washington State, Oregon State and BYU, but they should be one of the favorites to win the Mountain West.
No. 25 Washington
The Huskies took a giant step forward this past season, giving coach Chris Petersen his first bowl win and a winning campaign. Now the goal is to keep on moving up. Defensively, Washington is solid. It returns seven starters on defense and Petersen rotated a lot of players, so the depth is there. Offensively, the Huskies won seven games with a freshman quarterback and a freshman running back. Both players gained confidence that will serve them well in 2016. Washington won’t win the Pac-12, but it’s definitely going to make it interesting.
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