It’s that time of year again, football is officially back in the air. That being said, let’s take a look at the Preseason Top 25 as it will surely change between now and the playoffs.
#25 Florida Gators
It’s still up in the air, but Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio will most likely be the Gators’ starting quarterback this at the start of the season. He’s the most talented quarterback, but he’s pretty efficient and can make the right decisions. But the questions are, who will compliment Antonio Callaway at receiver? Will a premiere back emerge to accommodate Del Rio and replace Kelvin Taylor? Will this experienced O-line be able to protect their quarterback? Can HC Jim McElwain and OC Doug Nussmeier transition this offense into a passing treat in 2016, or will the Gators still be a run-first unit?
#24 UCLA Bruins
Jim Mora has his hands full in revamping his offensive talent in 2016. But he doesn’t have the worry of deciding on a quarterback with sophomore Josh Rosen back, and the hype and nostalgia circulating around the Westwood campus that this will be a break out season for the Bruin offense. How will Mora develop the talent that he has around his young QB? With Jordan Peyton and the PAC-12 offensive player of the year Paul Perkins gone, who will fill the void? Senior playmaker Ishmael Adams will jump sides from primarily cornerback to receiver with punt returner duties still in place, he may have to push along junior receivers Darren Andrews and Eldridge Massington to step up their game. While mentoring talented freshman Theo Howard.
Myles Jack is gone, declaring early to the NFL Draft. So the lead had to be established on the defense. DC Tom Bradley has a handful of seniors that can step up and fill that void has a leader. Eyes will be looking a Jayson Brown and/or Deon Hollins to set the tone for the Bruins defense.
#23 Louisville Cardinals
After true freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson lit it up in the Music City Bowl setting a bowl record with 226 rushing yards while throwing for two more touchdowns, the hype swarmed around HC Bobby Petrino’s young quarterback for 2016. But not just for Jackson, but team as a whole. With 10 starters on offense and 9 starters on defense Coach Petrino has a team in a prime position to compete for a spot at the top of the ACC.
#22 Oregon Ducks
It’s been a long time since Oregon didn’t have a decisive front-runner at the quarterback position. The Ducks’ faithful have been spoiled by Devin Thomas and Marcus Mariota, Head Coach Mark Heltrich still has questions to be answered regarding the quarterback competition between Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen. Neither has step to the forefront as emerging starter. Prukop needs more fluidity with the plays and Jonesn is still wet behind the ears.
Brady Hoke comes into Eugene this season to coordinate the defense. Hoke prides his defenses on being technically and fundamentally sound. During spring practice Hoke was able to get his defense installed, but the question is how will it transform on the field?
#21 Baylor Bears
Under Art Briles Baylor was one of the elite teams in college football. Now that he is gone and a new sheriff is in town with Jim Grobe coming from Wake Forest, where will the program go?
Quarterback Seth Russell is back after missing the last six games of the season with a neck injury suffered against Iowa State.
Most of their key starters are gone, and experienced offensive lineman Rami Hammad is suspended. This is not a typical plug and replace team that Baylor is looking at this season. Other than quarterback lots of questions are still up in the air on and off the field?
#20 North Carolina Tar Heels
A surprise ACC championship game appearance for the Tar Heels after finding their niche and reeling off 11 straight victories and a Coastal Division title. It will be hard press to say that they can do it again without Marquise Williams guiding the offense.
If the Heels want to get back to the top, they will need another strong effort on defense—as well as for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to perform like Marquise Williams. But Trubisky isn’t Williams so others will have to step up. He will need to lean on senior receiver Ryan Switzer and junior running back Elijah Hood to help carry the burden.
#19 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are going to be a difficult team to deal with in the Big 12 this season. Don’t be surprised if there will be a shootout (figuratively speaking of course) on December 3rd in Norman against in-state rival Oklahoma for the conference title. No team in the Big 12 brings back as much experience as the Cowboys and Coach Gundy has a knack for getting this team to compete even on a down year when it comes to talent and experience levels are not so high. The entire offensive line comes back and Mason Rudolph is an underrated quarterback. Before these Cowboys can jump a higher fence however, they will need to find a way to stop the ball on defense.
#18 Washington Huskies
Entering into fall practice the Huskies are wondering two thing; can Jake Browning step his game up another level? How long will John Ross be on the field? Jake Browning may not have “blow you away” arm strength, but he does the important things to run a Chris Petersen offense. OC Jonathan Smith will look for Browning to be efficient, and Myles Gaskins will have to piggy back on his freshman season with another if not better season. John Ross was injured mid-season and did not return. He’s knee appeared to be fully recovered during spring ball. And after spending time on both sides (offense and defense) it looks as if Petersen will primarily have Ross be Browning’s number one option.
They’ll be bolstered by an underrated defense that ranked 31st in the nation a year ago, and brings back seven starters, most notably junior cornerback Budda Baker, who could also double on offense as a wide receiver.
#17 USC Trojans
With the interim title stripped away Head Coach Clay Helton is technically in his first-year as head coach after taking the place of suspended Steve Sarkisan 5 games in to the 2015 campaign. He led the Trojans to the Pac-12 title game, but lost to Stanford and then to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. If he thought the start of the 2016 season would be a cake walk or a warm up, he was quickly disappointed when the schedules was revealed and saw that defending national champions Alabama was in the September 3rd slot for week 1.
Not only will there be a new coach in place, but junior Max Browne looks to be the leading man for the starting quarterback job. He was once the highest-rated quarterback recruit out of high school, but spent two seasons backing up Cody Kessler. But there’s no need to worry too much with the talent he as around him at receiver and running back. Leading the receiving core is none other than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster had over 14oo receiving yards last year.
#16 Georgia Bulldogs
The Kirby Smart era is now under way in Georgia. Smart wants to bring the same success he got in Alabama to come to Athens.
2016 Georgia offense looks as good as any team in the conference; on paper. They’ve got elite talent at wide receiver, running back, tight end and quarterback. If all the pieces click, then this could potentially be a complete turnaround from last season’s offensive meltdown. With Chubb and Michel in the backfield, whichever quarterback Smart decides to put under center Chubb and Michel will relief that pressure.
Smart is unsure whether his defense will be as stout as he would like but he knows that his secondary is solid. With four ball hawks who averaged a pick per game last season in Malkom Parrish, Aaron Davis, Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders can turn a game around at any point. The four backups – Mecole Hardman, Rico McGraw, Reggie Wilkerson and Jarvis Wilson are not too shabby themselves.
#15 Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa’s unbelievable march to an undefeated regular season record at 12-0, a Big Ten title game appearance and the program’s first Rose Bowl in 25 years still seems like a dream. The Hawkeyes are now looking to show it wasn’t a fluke, though they won’t have the benefit of a soft schedule in league play.
Iowa has East Division games against Michigan and Penn State, as well as a nonconference matchup with five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. Another upset for the FCS school in the Big Ten, i.e. Appalachian State over Michigan.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard and cornerback Desmond King, the reigning Thorpe Award winner, are part of a senior class that has made a bowl game after each season but lost each time. Iowa last finished a season with a win in 2010.
#14 TCU Horned Frogs
Head Coach Gary Patterson ended the 2015 season on a high note with a 31 point comeback win in the Alamo Bowl against Oregon in triple overtime. But when the dust settled and the offseason hit and some of his notable playmakers moved on to the NFL reality quickly set in and those spots would have to be filled reliable talent. Trevor Boykins has moved on t the Seahawks so the quarterback battle will come down to sophomore Foster Sawyer who played in four games last year and Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill. Sawyer threw two touchdowns and three interceptions and had 155 passing yards. Hill looks to be the favorite though after throwing for over 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2014 for Texas A&M despite splitting time at quarterback.
The football gods smiled down on Patterson delivering Derrick Green transfer from Michigan and former 5-star recruit to deepen the depth chart at running back. And with the loss Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee don’t feel too bad for Patterson has he has a slew of talented young receivers that just need to establish a go to guy.
#13 Houston Cougars
Houston was the top-ranked non-power conference team in 2015, riding that into a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The Cougars sit as the best of the rest again heading into 2016 and have opportunities to climb into the playoff picture thanks to some marquee matchups against power opponents this fall. Starting with Oklahoma in season opener and second to last game against the Cardinals of Louisville.
To succeed will require much of the same things that worked during Tom Herman’s first season, with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. running wild and a defense that loves to force turnovers continuing that trend. Ward had 3,936 yards of total offense and 38 total touchdowns (including 1,108 rushing yards and 21 scores), while Houston led nation with 35 takeaways. They are going to need more of the same if they want to climb the ranks.
#12 Ole Miss Rebels
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, who is trying to replace three potential first-round NFL draft picks among 12 new starters. Four of them are on the offensive linemen. Perhaps the Rebels’ saving grace will be true freshman Greg Little, who was the number one offensive tackle and number three player in the nation in the 2016 recruiting class. He’ll be tasked with protecting the blind side of quarterback Chad Kelly, whose performance in 2015 was among the biggest keys to Ole Miss’ success.
Kelly established new school records for passing yards with 4,042, total offense 4,542 and total touchdowns of 41. He may need to surpass those numbers unless the Rebels can find a go-to running back and wide receiver now that Jaylen Walton graduated and Laquon Treadwell graduated to the NFL
Ole Miss lost a lot of key defensive players on the D-line. A replacement for Robert Nkemdiche will have to emerge, and defensive end Marquis Haynes, who recorded 10 sacks last season, is figured to be the driving force of the defensive line.
#11 Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State has won 36 games the last three years, but nearly all of them were with quarterback Connor Cook at the helm. He and 12 other starters are gone from the team that was shut out by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in December, but what remains is a strong core of players.
A young backfield that had three 500-yard rushers of Madre London, L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes who will figure to be the foundation of the offense, which will be led by either Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry and operate behind a retooled line and with inexperienced wide receivers. This will put additional pressure on MSU’s defense, where veterans reside at all three levels.
Defensive end Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough and safety Demetrius Cox are the standouts who will give Head Coach Mark Dantonio enough confidence to believe that the defense will stand strong against any team in the Big Ten.
#10 Tennessee Volunteers
The Vols keep knocking on the door at becoming a legit threat to compete for an SEC East title. Coach Butch Jones just cannot get over the hump, but they are half way up the mountain. Jones has a buffet of talent and returning starters coming back that are capable of taking it to the next level. The catalyst senior quarterback Josh Dobbs will have to put together an All-Conference type season, especially with the talent pool he has around him. The schedule is pretty tough, especially the first half of the season, but Knoxville is ready to be relevant again.
Butch Jones’ work to beef up the roster has paid off in the form of upperclassmen projected to start at most positions after having to rely heavily on freshmen the previous few years. He was also aided by the return of draft-eligible players such as linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton.
#9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The nation’s most high-profile quarterback battle is taking place in South Bend, where junior Malik Zaire and sophomore DeShone Kizer are competing to operate what should be a solid offense no matter who gets the job. But deciding that winner is going to take a while, possibly all the way up to the Sept. 4 season opener at Texas. Notre Dame is confident it can win with either Zaire or Kizer, but the biggest issue is how to handle one talented signal-caller being relegated to backup duty.
Holes also exist at the offensive skill positions and especially on defense, were the Irish had a tough time stopping the ball when it mattered most last season. With three guys just drafted and four more signed with NFL clubs. There will be plenty of new faces this season. We know what to expect from Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke; the success of the defense will come down to the growth of inexperienced players. Though the Fighting Irish have the talent available to fill those spots without nearly as much attention as the quarterback job.
#8 Michigan Wolverines
Michigan had an offseason that was full of headlines but devoid of much development, but that’s already become the norm under Jim Harbaugh. He continues to draw attention to his rising program through public appearances, manufactured feuds and innovative recruiting tactics, all of which has made up for a lack of noteworthy team progress. The future really looks bright in Ann Arbor now and recruiting success is about to follow. The biggest projects for 2016 include finding a new quarterback and a completely new set of linebackers. But there is plenty of help available to ease in the new signal caller with a veteran offensive line, running back and receiver units.
The Wolverines’ spring was mostly low-key from a player standpoint, though the decision by new defensive coordinator Don Brown to move sophomore Jabrill Peppers to linebacker had sceptics questioning the move.
#7 Stanford Cardinal
Four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan has graduated, part of a slew of contributors from Stanford’s third Rose Bowl team in the last four years to move on. But the Cardinal do bring back the most prolific all-around player in college football history Christian McCaffrey, who set a NCAA record for All-Purpose yard with 3864. Either sophomore Keller Chryst or junior Ryan Burns will get the ball to him. Both are big, physically talented pocket passers. Chryst was the backup last season and is most likely be the one to get the job.
Stanford’s defense took a decided step back last season, mostly because of inexperience. While only six starters are back, three of those play in the secondary, which should be vastly improved this fall. The issue will be up front, which lost leading tackler Blake Martinez. Junior defensive end Solomon Thomas is a solid player, much depends on how well Harrison Phillips does coming back strong from his knee injury. Two of four starters at linebacker in the Cardinal’s base 3-4 alignment are back Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Palma, but there should be significant competition for the other two spots.
#6 LSU Tigers
Les Miles found himself on the hot seat late last season after going from 7-0 and near the top of the playoff rankings to riding a three-game losing streak. They are not familiar with losing streaks down in Baton Rouge since Miles got there, but like most schools with as much talent as the Tigers, a new season brings about new hope and another set of lofty expectations.
But this might be one of Miles’ most loaded teams, mostly because for once LSU didn’t get ravaged by early entry to the NFL draft.
Junior running back Leonard Fournette who made a huge splash last season running through and over defenders, remains the offensive focal point, coming off a school-record 1,953 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015. However, a lot will depend on the play at quarterback from either Brandon Harris or Purdue transfer Danny Etling.
It’s not often you hear a team returning nine starters to one side of the ball, but that’s what the LSU Tigers are bringing back to their 25th-ranked defense from last season.
#5 Ohio State Buckeyes
It may seem like Ohio State is starting over after losing 15 starters from last year’s 12-1 team. The biggest difference is that there is no quarterback controversy. Junior J.T. Barrett doesn’t have any quarterbacks he has to look over his shoulder and worry about taking the job.
Nearly everywhere else on the field will be relatively young players, though ones who are teeming with talent and who have gained experience as backups, particularly on the defensive end.
#4 Florida State Seminoles
Following a “down year” that still included 10 wins and a trip to a major bowl game, Florida State is ready to climb back into the national title conversation. That’s assuming its star running back Dalvin Cook can bounce back from shoulder surgery and it can settle on a quarterback to move the offense. Dalvin Cook, who set a single-season school record with 1,691 rushing yards in 2015.
The Seminoles’ quarterback battle is still in limbo until senior Sean Maguire, who finished up last season as the starter, returns from ankle surgery. In spring ball, the competition was limited mostly to freshmen Deondre Francois and Malik Henry, both of whom showed flashes of potential.
FSU’s defense, though it will have some new starters this fall, is loaded with young talent such as sophomores Josh Sweat at defensive end and Derwin James at safety.
#3 Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma had a lot of time to play the image of their Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in the playoff semifinals, a game that has fueled the offseason as the Sooners push to maintain their spot atop the deep Big 12 conference. And with Baker Mayfield back to run the offense yet again, moving the ball should not be an issue.
Mayfield’s first year with Oklahoma was a break out season for him, with 3,700 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. The Air Raid attack installed by first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley operated with high efficiency, and aided a varied rushing attack that included a combined 2,507 yards and 30 TDs from Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Oklahoma still has work to do on the defensive end, where it lost five starters, including standouts Dominique Alexander, Zack Sanchez and Eric Striker. The new lineup will get tested early this fall, as the Sooners play arguably the toughest nonconference slate in the country with September games against Houston and Ohio State.
#2 Clemson Tigers
If Clemson is going to make a second consecutive trip to the national title game, it will need to find a new set of defensive playmakers with the loss of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd up front; and MacKenzie Alexander at corner.
But even if the Tigers struggle to slow opponents early on, they know their offense won’t have any trouble keeping up. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and an ultra-deep receiving corps boosted by the return of Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of last season with a neck injury has Clemson poised to be an offensive juggernaut once again. Topping last year’s 38.5 points and 514.5 yards per game seems like a pretty safe bet assuming everyone stays healthy.
It’s the Tigers defense that will be the deciding factor, though, as only four starters returning from last year’s top 10 defense, and projected starting cornerback Adrian Baker suffered a torn ACL back in March.
#1 Alabama Crimson Tide
College football’s defending national champion is once again in reloading mode thanks to amazing depth, which figures to account for the players Alabama lost to graduation and the NFL draft. The Crimson Tide had quality potential on the bottom of the depth chart last year, so dominate play shouldn’t be an issue once again this season.
The only position the team is unsure about is quarterback, but that has been the case the previous two springs. Neither Blake Sims in 2014 nor Jake Coker in 2015 emerged as the starter at the start of spring, but things worked out fine, so there’s no panic in Tuscaloosa over the fact that Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts all struggled during the spring game. That was almost to be expected considering the loaded defense they faced, which was credited with 14 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.