Alabama, Clemson should reign supreme over CFB once again
5:35 | College Football
Alabama, Clemson should reign supreme over CFB once again
SI Staff
Friday August 5th, 2016

Alabama finished last season atop the college football world after beating Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game. The Crimson Tide have a strong chance to end this season in the same spot. That's the best explanation for why the Alabama is No. 1 in our preseason rankings. Coach Nick Saban's crew will face plenty of competition, though, starting with two ACC powerhouses (No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Florida State), a Big Ten heavyweight on the rise (No. 4 Michigan) and a familiar SEC West foe (No. 5 LSU).

All of those teams look like safe bets to factor into the playoff conversation, but the national pecking order is less clear after that. Will Oklahoma (No. 6) emerge from the Big 12 to make another appearance in the national semifinals? Can Ohio State (No. 9) reload after enduring heavy losses to the NFL draft this off-season? Is either Washington (No. 7) or Tennessee (No. 10) capable of living up to the preseason hype? There are more questions than answers right now, but don't worry: The start of the season is just a few weeks away.

Sports Illustrated's preseason Top 25 rankings

  • 1
    1Alabama Crimson Tide
    2015 record: 14–1
    For the third consecutive year, Alabama will build an offense around a first-year starting quarterback. And for the first time since the Crimson Tide started winning big in 2008, they don’t return either of their top two rushers from last season.
    Don’t be fooled by the short list of returning starters on defense. Linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson and nose guard Da’Ron Payne played plenty as part of a ridiculously deep front seven rotation during Alabama’s national title run. With Jonathan Allen, Williams and Anderson, this may be the Tide’s best group of pass rushers in the Saban era.

  • 2
    2Clemson Tigers
    2015 record: 14–1
    Deshaun Watson (5,209 yards of total offense in 2015) is a Heisman Trophy favorite with most of his weapons back in addition to Mike Williams (1,030 receiving yards in 2014), who missed nearly all of ’15 with a neck injury. This offense is loaded.
    On the other side of the ball, the Tigers must retool again, especially up front, where departed defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combined for 49 tackles for loss in 2015. Cordrea Tankersley (five interceptions in ’15) should emerge as a shutdown corner.

  • 3
    3Florida State Seminoles
    2015 record: 10–3
    QB Sean Maguire started five games last season, but he will compete with redshirt freshman Deondre Francois for the starting job. RB Dalvin Cook will be the focal point of the offense, but if the Seminoles can get more out of the passing game than last year, they’ll take pressure off their star and place it squarely on the opposing defense. 
    Derwin James will play in the secondary, on the line of scrimmage and everywhere in between. Meanwhile, linebacker might finally be a position of strength for the Seminoles. Former five-star recruit Matthew Thomas, who was ineligible last season, will join the steady Ro'Derrick Hoskins, and freshman Josh Brown could find the field early.

  • 4
    4Michigan Wolverines
    2015 record: 10–3
    After a huge offensive leap forward in 2015, the Wolverines are poised to build on that progress, despite the loss of quarterback Jake Rudock. Whoever wins the starting QB job will get a deep group of receivers to work with and an offensive line that returns four starters.
    Not content to be merely fourth in total defense last season, the Wolverines went out and grabbed the coordinator of the top unit, ex-Boston College assistant Don Brown. The aggressive Brown should guide Michigan to bring more pressure and gets an elite group to work with, including do-it-all sensation Jabrill Peppers.

  • 5
    5LSU Tigers
    2015 record: 9–3
    Bruising back Leonard Fournette, the nation’s most explosive rusher, returns to gallop behind a steady offensive line alongside wideouts Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. But this group’s potential lies on the shoulders of inconsistent quarterback Brandon Harris, who completed just 53.6% of his throws in 2015.
    LSU’s deep secondary features five players with starting experience, including talented safety Jamal Adams (four interceptions in 2015). Expect more versatility up front in coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, allowing skilled ends Lewis Neal and Arden Key to stand up in pass-rush situations.

  • 6
    6Oklahoma Sooners
    2015 record: 11–2
    The Sooners are set at quarterback with Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield and the best running back tandem in the country, but they’ll have to replace Sterling Shepard’s 86 catches and two offensive linemen, including three-year starting right guard Nila Kasitati. Developing a go-to receiver (or two) will be a top priority in fall camp. 
    Gone are all the big-time playmakers from the best defense in the 2015 Big 12 (just 364.5 yards per game for opponents), including all-conference cornerback Zack Sanchez, who picked off seven passes in 2015. The linebacking corps is young and inexperienced, which means true freshman Caleb Kelly, a five-star prospect from Fresno, will have to live up to the hype.

  • 7
    7Washington Huskies
    2015 record: 7–6
    The Huskies have to find some go-to receivers, but are salivating at the potential improvement of sophomore running back Myles Gaskin, who last season became the first UW true freshman to go over 1,000 rushing yards (1,302 yards, 14 TDs). 
    The best defense in the conference brings back plenty of playmakers, led by Budda Baker, who’s totaled 111 tackles and three interceptions in two seasons. He flat-out scares opposing offenses, and they throw away from him as much as possible. That gives his teammates lots of interception opportunities (UW forced 27 turnovers last year).

  • 8
    8Houston Cougars
    2015 record: 13–1
    Houston led the AAC in scoring last season (40.4 ppg), a trend that can only continue if coach Tom Herman can put together a patchwork offensive line. Don’t mistake four experienced starters for quality ones, as the biggest question looming over the Cougars will be whether they can keep wispy quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (185 pounds) upright and healthy.
    The Cougars will be vulnerable in the pass-happy AAC after losing four veteran secondary staples who combined for 145 career starts, including first-round corner William Jackson III. Five experienced front-seven starters—led by 314-pound senior B.J. Singleton—will help replicate a marauding crew that vaporized Florida State stalwart tailback Dalvin Cook (33 yards on 18 carries) in Houston’s 38-24 Peach Bowl romp.

  • 9
    9Ohio State Buckeyes
    2015 record: 12–1
    With just two senior returning offensive starters, it’s easy to cast this as a year of development until the Buckeyes emerge as College Football Playoff favorites in 2017. But Ohio State can fast forward that title timeline if freshman tailback Mike Weber (zero carries) and sophomore receiver Noah Brown (one career catch) can overcome their inexperience and emerge as reliable options to complement junior quarterback J.T. Barrett.
    Facing the pass-happy tempo offenses of Bowling Green, Tulsa and Oklahoma to open the season, the Buckeyes need immediate secondary production from the three new starters alongside junior corner Gareon Conley. Strong safety Malik Hooker, a 205-pound sophomore ballhawk, needs the buzz he built this spring as an athletic freak to translate immediately.

  • 10
    10​Tennessee Volunteers
    2015 record: 9–4
    This unit could score last season (35.2 points per game, third in the SEC), and it brings back nine starters. But the Volunteers need senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs to lead a more reliable aerial attack—Tennessee finished ninth in the league in passing offense last fall—to reach their potential.
    Bob Shoop’s arrival as Tennessee’s new defensive coordinator will add an edge to an experienced group, which brings back menacing end Derek Barnett and ball-hawking corner Cam Sutton. Still, pinpointing an emotional leader to replace fifth-year linebacker Curt Maggitt might determine this unit’s ferocity.

  • 11
    11Stanford Cardinal
    2015 record: 12–2
    Everyone knows what Christian McCaffrey, a junior, can do (in summation: everything, as evidenced by his 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015) but look for sophomore back Bryce Love (29 carries for 226 yards and two touchdowns in 2015) to put up big numbers this season, too. Coach David Shaw plans to put them in the backfield together. Stanford loves its tight ends, which means it’s Dalton Schultz’s turn to shine.
    In the revolving door that is Stanford defensive stars, senior Solomon Thomas (10.5 TFL in 2015) steps forward as the one who will anchor the Cardinal’s line. No more Blake Martinez means junior Peter Kalambayi (52 tackles in 2015) needs a big uptick in production. Shaw is excited about the return of senior safety Zach Hoffpauir, who took 2015 off to play minor league baseball.

  • 12
    12Notre Dame Fighting Irish
    2015 record: 10–3
    The Irish might have to win with offense, so DeShone Kizer (3,404 total yards as a sophomore) and Josh Adams (freshman-record 835 yards rushing) are a good start. Replacing five of the top six receivers and three linemen with 106 combined starts is the issue.
    A unit that lost 57.6% of its tackles and 64% of its sacks needs career years from everyone. Start with Isaac Rochell, a 290-pound senior who must far surpass his one sack in 2015, and Max Redfield, a former five-star recruit who has started 22 games but hasn’t hit his ceiling as a senior.

  • 13
    13Michigan State Spartans
    2015 record: 12–2
    Quarterback is the question, as senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry battle for the job with 80 career pass attempts combined. But three tailbacks that each carried 100-plus times last year (Gerald Holmes, a junior, and sophomores Madre London and LJ Scott) will ease the transition for whomever wins the job.​
    The 6’6”, 280-pound Malik McDowell (13 tackles-for-loss in 2015) can play inside and outside and be one of the nation’s dominant linemen as a junior. Senior linebacker Ed Davis (ACL tear) and sophomore cornerback Vayante Copeland (fractured vertebrae) return to bolster an already formidable back seven.

  • 14
    14Iowa Hawkeyes
    2015 record: 12–2
    The Hawkeyes must find a dynamic wide receiver to complement tough senior Matt VandeBerg, who led the team in receiving last season. Sophomore James Daniels should solidify the center position, but Iowa needs another tight end to emerge to play with George Kittle in the Hawkeyes’ frequent multi-tight end sets.
    This unit had just six sacks in its final six games last season, struggling mightily with its pass rush after losing now-departed defensive end Drew Ott to injury. Jaleel Johnson and Parker Hesse are capable pass rushers, but they’ll need help from others to take pressure off Desmond King & Co. in the secondary.

  • 15
    15Louisville Cardinals
    2015 record: 8–5
    Sophomore Lamar Jackson is back after a promising freshman campaign in which Louisville won six of its last seven games, and with him, the Cardinals will bring back an experienced offensive line—although it did allow Jackson to be sacked 26 times a year ago. With that experience will need to come improvement as coach Bobby Petrino pushes his quarterback to improve his pocket presence and ability to read defenses—and to rely more heavily on the passing game.
    Linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons and defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown all weighed leaving early for the NFL last spring—and each chose to return for his senior season. That will figure big for Louisville’s havoc-wreaking defense, which made its name a season ago by creating 26 turnovers, and with nearly every key defender back, Todd Grantham’s unit should be as aggressive as ever.

  • 16
    16Georgia Bulldogs
    2015 record: 10–3
    Coordinator Jim Chaney’s dilemma is deciding whether to stick with senior Greyson Lambert, who won 10 games as a starter, or hand the offense over to freshman Jacob Eason, who is raw but can make throws most college quarterbacks can’t. If Nick Chubb (knee) and Sony Michel (arm) can return healthy from injuries, the running game will take pressure off the quarterbacks.
    The front seven is young, and new head coach Kirby Smart will miss the depth he left behind on defense at Alabama. If Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy can rush the passer nearly as well as Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, the veteran secondary should allow the Bulldogs to fluster opponents’ passing games.

  • 17
    17Oklahoma State Cowboys
    2015 record: 10–3
    The Cowboys return all five offensive linemen, which should help keep quarterback Mason Rudolph upright and confident. The passing offense will be fine with the return of wideout James Washington and all-conference tight end Blake Jarwin.
    The secondary play will be key to the defense’s success. In the last three games of 2015 (all losses), the Cowboys surrendered an average of 50.3 points a game. Vincent Taylor and Chad Whitener are the leaders of a strong front seven that should survive the loss of All-Big 12 defensive tackle Emmanuel Ogbah. 

    Click here for Oklahoma State's complete scouting report.

  • 18
    18Washington State Cougars
    2015 record: 9–4
    All-league quarterback Luke Falk has plenty of weapons surrounding him but is depending on a pair of new starters to protect his blindside, likely sophomore Andre Dillard at left tackle and Cody O’Connell at left guard. The Cougars offensive line gave up among the most sacks in the FBS last season (3.15 per game), including one that forced Falk to miss the blowout regular-season finale loss at rival Washington due to a concussion.
    The defensive line will have to find new penetration with the losses of Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao, who combined for 11 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss last season. The group’s depth will also be tested by its eight-man rotation as the Cougars need to improve at third-down conversion defense after being one of the nation’s worst last season (44.5% allowed conversion rate).

  • 19
    19Ole Miss Rebels
    2015 record: 10–3
    The Rebels have the SEC’s best returning starting quarterback in Chad Kelly and plenty of depth at receiver to mitigate the loss of Laquon Treadwell, but the offensive line will have to prove itself. None of the three linemen listed above was a full-time starter at a single position last year.
    To combat the lack of experience at linebacker, the Rebels grabbed graduate transfer Rommel Mageo from Oregon State. The toughest question is how will Ole Miss replace DT Robert Nkemdiche, who could capably play any position on the line. Nkemdiche did most of his damage at tackle, and sophomore Breeland Speaks and senior D.J. Jones will try to replicate that disruption.

  • 20
    20TCU Horned Frogs
    2015 record: 11–2
    The Horned Frogs are loaded with inexperience and youth on offense, and they don’t have much time to figure things out before Arkansas rolls into town Sept. 10. Co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham have engineered one of the top offenses in college football over the last two seasons, but that was with an All-American (Trevone Boykin) running the show, and another All-America (Josh Doctson) catching some wild passes. Is junior Kenny Hill, a former Texas A&M starter, capable of the same theatrics? Or will sophomore Foster Sawyer win the job?
    TCU was built on defense, and the Horned Frogs will have to go back to that identity this season while the offense gets settled. Fortunately, they’re finally healthy, and they return a lot of important pieces. Josh Carraway, the 2015 sack leader, is back, as is 2014 sack leader James McFarland, who sat out last season because of a broken toe.

  • 21
    21Oregon Ducks
    2015 record: 9–4
    In a familiar refrain, the Ducks’ offense will again feature one of the best running backs in the nation in junior Royce Freeman, a darkhorse Heisman candidate. Oregon also has a stable of speedy receivers—will Olympic hurdler Devon Allen, a huge piece of Oregon’s 2014 offense, come back for 2016 after a trip to Rio?—but it comes down to who is actually throwing them the ball. The FCS-to-Power Five route worked in 2015, and Oregon is hoping it can repeat that success with transfer Dakota Prukop.
    The entire secondary returns, which can be looked at two ways: Good because experience is an asset, but bad because the Ducks were the Pac-12’s second-worst team at defending the pass in 2015. The addition of former Michigan head coach Hoke as defensive coordinator (2015 DC Don Pellum has gone back to coaching just linebackers) means the Ducks will switch to a 4–3 and, theoretically, get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.​

  • 22
    22North Carolina Tar Heels
    2015 record: 11–3
    Larry Fedora has high hopes for new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who knows the Heels’ offense inside and out. The replacement for the departed Marquise Williams joins returning playmakers like wideout Ryan Switzer, back Elijah Hood and an experienced offensive line from the ACC’s top-scoring unit (40.7 points per game) in 2015.
    The Tar Heels’ defense improved dramatically under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik, allowing 14.5 fewer points per game in 2015. But that group loses two of its top three tacklers in linebackers Shakeel Rashad (126 stops in ‘15) and Jeff Schoettmer (97). Look for safety Donnie Miles to headline an otherwise young group.

    Click here for North Carolina's complete scouting report.

  • 23
    23UCLA Bruins
    2015 record: 8–5
    Sophomore Josh Rosen, who threw for 23 touchdowns on 3,669 yards last season, is poised to be a star, although he’ll need to curb his 11 interceptions of a year ago. The Bruins should turn to a more pro-style offense this season to cater to Rosen’s skills, and despite an impressive backfield, they’re looking at a depleted receiving corps and offensive line.

    In 2015, UCLA’s secondary allowed a Pac-12-best 203.2 yards per game and all four starters are back. Elsewhere, though, the Bruins will need to be stouter against the run; switching from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 should help, as should the return of junior defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who missed 2015 after tearing his ACL, will help in that effort.​

    Click here for UCLA's complete scouting report.

    • Look who's talking: Josh Rosen is ready for his close-up

  • 24
    24San Diego State Aztecs
    2015 record: 11–3
    Make no mistake about it, SDSU will run the ball until someone stops them. The skill positions are solid, but quarterback Christian Chapman must pose a threat in the passing game if the Aztecs want to make it to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
    The secondary is the team's strongest unit, with Damontae Kazee and Malik Smith, both potential All-America candidates returning. The 4-2-5 defensive scheme will rely heavily on the linebacking corps, but they also have the potential to be outstanding. The defensive line has depth, but must replace two departing starters. 

    Click here for San Diego State's complete scouting report.

  • 25
    25Boise State Broncos
    2015 record: 9–4
    Last season, Boise State’s offense averaged more than 500 yards per game, and it brings back the quarterback, receiver and running back most responsible for those staggering numbers. Four of the five starters on the Broncos offensive line are also back, and with one of the brightest young quarterbacks in football in sophomore Brett Rypien (who averaged 304.8 yards per game as a freshman in 2015), this offense could power Boise State into the playoff conversation.​
    Under new coordinator Andy Avalos (promoted from linebackers coach this winter), the Broncos defense will field an inexperienced line and secondary. A year ago, Boise State’s defense ranked 12th in the FBS in total defense—with 31 turnovers gained, good for fifth in the FBS—but it struggled at times against the run, a weakness this year’s unit will need to shore up before facing the likes of New Mexico and Air Force, two option offenses that were able to fleece the Broncos in 2015.

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