- Alabama takes the No. 1 spot in SI's preseason Top 25, followed by Clemson, Florida State and Michigan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.