Rolling out a Way-Too-Early top five ranking for the 2016 college football season.
Nick Saban may have a 24-hour rule for his team, but forgive Crimson Tide fans if they’d like more than a day to celebrate their 45–40 victory over Clemson to claim their fourth national title in seven seasons. Still, that incredible run of success is a tribute to the always-forward-thinking approach of Saban, who undoubtedly began thinking about a title repeat as soon as he washed the Gatorade off himself Monday night.
As for the rest of the college football world, every other team, of course, did not win a national title, so we might as well turn the page and take an early look at who could be poised to claim next year’s national championship.
SI.com will unveil the full Way-Too-Early Top 25 next week, once players have completed making their decisions on whether to enter the NFL draft or stay in school for another year. But in the meantime, here’s the top five for 2016, with the caveat that these rankings could change based on draft decisions.
It likely comes as little solace after losing the national championship Monday night, but the Tigers are in the best position to return to the title game next season—and win. Quarterback Deshaun Watson should be the early Heisman Trophy favorite, and he’ll have a loaded group of receivers in Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, who missed nearly the entire season with a neck fracture. Tight end Jordan Leggett could be back, too. If tailback Wayne Gallman departs for the NFL, that’d leave a big hole to fill in the ground game, but Tavien Feaster, the No. 1 running back in the recruiting class of 2016, according to Scout.com, could make an instant impact.
Clemson’s defense will have some major production to replace. Star defensive end Shaq Lawson and linebacker Travis Blank have already declared for the draft, and cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse likely will, as well. Leading tackler B.J. Goodson graduates, leaving key playmakers to replace at each level of the defense. However, this is the same unit that seemed destined to be decimated when just three starters returned for the 2015 season. Coordinator Brent Venables has earned the benefit of the doubt, and Kevin Dodd—if he opts to return despite his sensational championship game performance—Ben Boulware and T.J. Green leave plenty of star power.
After Oklahoma lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl semifinal of this year’s College Football Playoff, it’s not hard to picture a rematch of the Sooners and Tigers next year. Like Clemson, Oklahoma returns its star quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who should only be better in 2016 after another off-season to work with coordinator Lincoln Riley. The running game should also be in fantastic shape with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon returning after averaging a combined 6.2 yards per carry this season with 23 touchdowns. The Sooners lose top receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington, both first-team All-Big 12 honorees, but Dede Westbrook (46 catches, 743 yards this season) seems poised to become the focal point of the passing attack and three of five starters on the offensive line should return.
Oklahoma’s losses on defense are more troublesome, as defensive end Charles Tapper, linebackers Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez will all head to the NFL. However, seven other starters should all be back. Cornerback Jordan Thomas (five interceptions, nine passes defended this season) has to step up to anchor the secondary against the usual onslaught of aerial attacks in the Big 12. If he can do that, there’s no reason the Sooners shouldn't be favorites to repeat as conference champions.
As long as the Crimson Tide continue to recruits as well as they do, it’s impossible to not consider them top-tier contenders for the national championship. Alabama’s most recent recruiting classes have ranked second (2015), first (’14), fourth (’13) and second (’12), according to Scout.com. On offense, the Tide will once again have to find a new starter at quarterback, and Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry will surely leave early for the NFL. Center Ryan Kelly’s graduation is also a significant loss. The defensive departures should be even more severe with A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Reggie Ragland, Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson all possibly moving on to the NFL—not to mention coordinator Kirby Smart’s move to Georgia.
But Jeremy Pruitt should keep the Tide’s defense playing at an elite level, and the success of this year’s defense was largely due to its incredible depth. Former five-star recruit Da’Shawn Hand should get more exposure on the defensive line, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams leave the linebacking corps in excellent shape, as do Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary. True freshman running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris both showed potential to replace Henry in the long line of Alabama marquee backs. And whoever emerges at quarterback will play in front of a line anchored by left tackle Cam Robinson and get to throw to star receiver Calvin Ridley. The Alabama dynasty is rolling along.
Ohio State was astonishingly lucky to not lose a single player early to the NFL draft last season after winning the national championship. That was largely due to how much of the talent still wasn’t even eligible for last year’s draft, a perk that has caught up with the Buckeyes after this season. Nine Ohio State players are leaving early for the NFL, including star defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Vonn Bell. The Buckeyes will also lose left tackle Taylor Decker and linebacker Joshua Perry to graduation, among others.
Despite the abundance of key departures, expect Urban Meyer to still have Ohio State competing for a Big Ten title and a playoff berth. Meyer has recruited almost as well as Saban has, bringing in the eighth (2015), fifth (’14), first (’13) and third (’12) recruiting classes, according to Scout.com. Those last two classes are still not draft eligible, forcing playmakers like quarterback J.T. Barrett and linebacker Raekwon McMillan to stay in Columbus. With no QB drama this off-season, Barrett can enter Week 1 poised to lead the Buckeyes offense and take snaps from returning All-Big Ten honoree Pat Elflein, who is set to slide from guard to center. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis will be back after topping Bosa in sacks this season (eight to Bosa’s five, though that was undoubtedly due to the attention Bosa drew from opposing offensive lines).
With a record 29 players selected over the past three drafts, the Seminoles finally had to take a year off from national championship contention in 2015. Of course that still entailed a 10-win season and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl, proof of just how high the program has risen that such a season can be considering a rebuilding year. Several more key Florida State players will depart to the NFL this spring both via graduation (defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, linebackers Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith, safety Lamarcus Brutus) and early-entry (cornerback Jalen Ramsey, kicker Roberto Aguayo). Still, those losses are less damaging than what coach Jimbo Fisher has had to manage in the past few years, and he has the talent in place to make a run at an ACC title in ’16.
Running back Dalvin Cook, whose 7.4 yards-per-carry average ranked second in the country this season, will be a Heisman frontrunner, and he gets an experienced line blocking for him, anchored by left tackle Roderick Johnson. Quarterback Sean Maguire showed notable improvement over the season but could also lose the job to Deondre Francois if the freshman developed in his redshirt year. The Seminoles’ defense could be the best in the ACC even with Ramsey’s departure, as Derwin James, DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat all appear poised to become stars.