SI.com unveils its too-early Top 25 rankings for the 2016 college football season, led by Oklahoma and Alabama.
With spring practices in the books, we’re one step closer to the 2016 college football season. So what do we think we know now that we didn’t know before teams opened their off-season camps? I say think because it’s important to put a caveat on any insight gained from spring practices. If a quarterback looked impressive, is that indicative of a productive passing attack or a lousy secondary? The best we can do is try to find reasons to explain why what we see and hear during spring means or doesn’t mean anything.
That said, between the pieces returning from the 2015 season and some practicing and scrimmaging, teams are starting to show what they might look like this fall. We’ve still got four months until the season to debate, so let’s start projecting. Here is SI.com’s 2016 Post-Spring Top 25.
You can be concerned that the Crimson Tide offense didn’t score a point in the first three quarters of its spring game, but I’m not. Alabama’s defense is so loaded, especially after Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Allen all returned to Tuscaloosa, that its offense will be merely the first of many to struggle to score against the Tide. Left tackle Cam Robinson’s return from injury should help the offensive line regain its form, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has earned the benefit of the doubt with his ability to develop the Tide’s next starting quarterback.
If there was one area of concern on a Michigan defense that looks poised to be one of the Big Ten’s best, it was a linebacking corps that lost all of its starters. But with one position switch, the Wolverines may have turned that group into one of their biggest strengths. Jabrill Peppers moved down to outside linebacker from safety this spring, meaning that one of Michigan’s linebacker spots is now filled by one of the top defensive players in the nation. The Wolverines still don’t have a starter at quarterback after losing the reliable Jake Rudock, but Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn have both thrived in the competition.
Count me among those buying the Tennessee hype. The Volunteers seem to be finally set to make a run to the SEC Championship Game, bolstered by a core that has developed from high-potential youth into experienced talent. The defense boasts stars at every level from Derek Barnett at defensive end to Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker to Cam Sutton at cornerback. The offense brings back Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at running back and four returning starters on the offensive line. The Vols ended 2015 on a high note, winning their final six games. They appear poised to pick up where they left off this fall.
The key cogs of the Hawkeyes’ breakout season last year are back, including quarterback C.J. Beathard, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King. Iowa reshuffled its line after losing Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, but its running game remains in strong shape with backs LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Based on personnel there’s little reason to expect one of the bigger surprises of the 2016 season to suddenly backslide. If the Hawkeyes do slip, it’ll likely be because the Big Ten’s switch to a nine-game conference schedule contributes to a significantly more difficult slate this season. Last year’s divisional crossover games against Indiana and Maryland are replaced by trips to Rutgers and Penn State and a home date with Michigan.
Until offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie’s offense took off with Trevone Boykin in 2014, Gary Patterson’s teams had been led by stout defenses. Expect that to return in ’16. Meacham and Cumbie may be able to rebuild an offense that returns just three starters and turn either Kenny Hill or Foster Sawyer into a star, but things look much safer on the other side of the ball. After being devastated by injuries last fall, the Horned Frogs defense enters this season loaded with depth as well as key returnees like defensive end James McFarland, linebacker Travin Howard and safety Kenny Iloka.
Spring game stats are mostly meaningless, particularly in a scrimmage like Louisville’s in which the first-team offense match up against the second-team defense and faced no pass rush. Still, Lamar Jackson’s performance is worthy of some note. The sophomore completed 24 of 29 passes for 519 yards with eight touchdowns. The Cardinals will obviously face tougher challenges, but the touch Jackson showed on his passes will be critical to finally boosting Louisville into the ACC’s elite. Bobby Petrino’s squad has the rest of the pieces to do that: an offense that returns nine other starters in addition to Jackson and a defense that brings back eight starters after ranking third in the ACC in yards allowed per play.
The Spartans have a lot to replace from last year’s Big Ten championship squad. Quarterback Connor Cook is gone as are top receivers Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr., top offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, and top defensive linemen Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas. Still, Mark Dantonio’s ability to turn Michigan State into a program that won 36 games over the past three years and 10 or more in five of the last six seasons can’t be dismissed. And at least one key question looks like it might have its answer: Tyler O’Connor shined during the spring and appears poised to take over the starting QB role.
Despite losing three-year starting quarterback Cody Kessler, the Trojans offense enters 2016 in excellent shape. Replacing Kessler has proved to be more of a contest than expected, though that’s largely a positive, resulting from redshirt freshman Sam Darnold putting up a strong fight for a job that seemed likely to be handed down to Max Browne. Whoever ultimately prevails inherits an attack that brings back nine starters, including top running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. On defense, the Trojans are already facing depth issues on the defensive line due to Scott Felix’s positive test for a banned substance and Kenny Bigelow’s torn ACL.
Kirby Smart’s first Georgia team should be strong offensively, particularly if Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney turn to true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, who has a much higher upside than returning starter Greyson Lambert. Eason, paired with a backfield that returns Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, should improve an attack that averaged just 15.8 points per game over the final six games of the regular season. Smart has his work cut out for him with a front seven that loses key players like linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jake Ganus and Jordan Jenkins.
Forget the defensive line that must replace Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Forget the passing game, too, which returns quarterback Mason Rudolph and big-time receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman. For Oklahoma State to have any shot at contending in the Big 12, it must improve in a big way on the offensive line. The Cowboys averaged 3.6 yards per carry last season, ranked 127th in adjusted line yards and gave up 32 sacks. All five starters are back on the offensive line, so chemistry shouldn’t be an issue.
There’s no shortage of weapons in Oregon’s offense, including Royce Freeman, Taj Griffin and Kani Benoit at running back and Dwayne Stanford, Dillon Mitchell, Charles Nelson and Devon Allen at receiver. But for the Ducks to rebound from a disappointing 2015, they’ll need a field general to emerge from the battle between Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen. They’ll also need new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke to make quick improvements to a defense that allowed 6.03 yards per play. Hoke should make Oregon much more aggressive defensively. Time will tell if that pays off.
The Hurricanes’ spring reinforced their strengths but also put a brighter spotlight on their vulnerabilities. Quarterback Brad Kaaya gives Miami an edge on every team on its schedule (the ‘Canes don’t play Clemson), Al-Quadin Muhammad should be a force at defensive end, and even with Mark Walton’s suspension for his DUI arrest, the ground game is in good shape with Joseph Yearby. However, a thin group of receivers saw its clear leader Stacy Coley’s injury issues flair up again, and a secondary that loses three starters looks like it could remain a major weakness.
A Cougars squad that made the biggest improvement in wins of any team in the country last season isn’t likely to fade a year later. Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has all the pieces it needs to deliver an eye-popping season with Luke Falk back at quarterback and Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Robert Lewis back at receiver. Washington State has never been a defensive-led group under Leach, but last year’s unit proved to at least be adequate enough to allow its prodigious offense to shine. The Cougars lose five starters on defense, and second-team All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao leaves a big hole on the line. But defensive end Hercules Mata’afa could be in for a big season, and linebacker Peyton Pelluer and safety Shalom Luani should be key contributors.
Next five: Boise State, Florida, UCLA, Wisconsin, Texas A&M