2016 preseason Crystal Ball: Picks for the playoff, Heisman, hot seat, more
- Who will win the national championship and the Heisman? Which team will flop? Which player will be a breakout star? SI's college football writers answer these questions and more.
The start of the 2016 college football season is finally upon us (and not just an early tease in Australia). It's been a long seven months of speculating and analyzing without actual games, but that all changes this weekend. Soon, Alabama will get a chance to prove whether it can replace starting quarterbacks again and win another national championship. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey will get his shot to show he deserved last year's Heisman Trophy and claim this year's award. And of course the bumpy road to the College Football Playoff will unfold once again.
With games set to kick off, it's time for SI's college football experts to make their final preseason predictions. Here are their picks for the playoff, the Heisman and other burning questions whose answers will define the season.
|writer||Peach Bowl Semifinal||Fiesta Bowl Semifinal||National champ. game||NATIONAL champion|
|Andy Staples||Florida State vs. Oklahoma||Alabama vs. Clemson||Florida State vs. Alabama||Florida State|
|Pete Thamel||Clemson vs. TCU||Stanford vs. Ohio State||Clemson vs. Ohio State||Clemson|
|Lindsay Schnell||Clemson vs. TCU||Michigan vs. Stanford||Clemson vs. Michigan||Clemson|
|Brian Hamilton||Florida State vs. Alabama||Oklahoma vs. Clemson||Florida State vs. Oklahoma||Florida State|
|Joan Niesen||Clemson vs. Alabama||LSU vs. TCU||Clemson vs. LSU||Clemson|
|Colin Becht||Alabama vs. Notre Dame||Ohio State vs. Florida State||Alabama vs. Florida State||Alabama|
|Gabriel Baumgaertner||Ohio State vs. Oklahoma State||Alabama vs. Florida State||Ohio State vs. Florida State||Ohio State|
|Chris Johnson||Alabama vs. Michigan State||Florida State vs. LSU||Alabama vs. Florida State||Florida State|
New Year's Six bowl games
|writer||Orange Bowl||Cotton Bowl||Rose bowl||Sugar Bowl|
|Andy Staples||Louisville vs. Michigan||Houston vs. Texas A&M||Ohio State vs. Stanford||Oklahoma State vs. Georgia|
|Pete Thamel||Florida State vs. LSU||Houston vs. Georgia||Michigan vs. Oregon||Oklahoma vs. Alabama|
|Lindsay Schnell||Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Houston vs. Alabama||Michigan State vs. Washington State||Oklahoma vs. LSU|
|Brian Hamilton||Louisville vs. Tennessee||Houston vs. Michigan||Ohio State vs. Stanford||Oklahoma State vs. LSU|
|Joan Niesen||Florida State vs. Ohio State||Houston vs. Michigan State||Michigan vs. Stanford||Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss|
|Colin Becht||Clemson vs. Tennessee||Boise State vs. TCU||Michigan vs. Stanford||Oklahoma vs. LSU|
|Gabriel Baumgaertner||Clemson vs. Michigan State||Houston vs. Georgia||Michigan vs. Stanford||TCU vs. LSU|
|Chris Johnson||Clemson vs. Ohio State||Boise State vs. Oklahoma||Michigan vs. Stanford||TCU vs. Tennessee|
Who will win the national championship?
Staples: Florida State
I am putting my faith in Deondre Francois to be special. If he is, it will improve Florida State’s passing game and take pressure off Dalvin Cook, who had to carry the offense last season. With DeMarcus Walker, Josh Sweat and especially Derwin James, the defense should be excellent.
The Tigers got so close to winning the national title last season that Nick Saban needed a onside kick to prevent Deshaun Watson from getting the ball back. Watson is an elite college quarterback and will go in the top two in the NFL draft. Sit back and enjoy his final season in college, which will end with Clemson hoisting the championship trophy.
I’m a big believer that before you can get to the top, you have to come agonizingly close to understand what it takes. Enter the Tigers. Clemson returns Watson, which gives them an advantage over basically everyone. He was astonishingly good against Alabama in last year’s title game, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for an additional 73 yards. Yes, Clemson has to replace a lot on defense, but it had to do that last year, too, and that worked out pretty well. In Brent Venables I trust.
Hamilton: Florida State
The new starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Francois, has zero experience. This normally would be a problem. But there’s a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back in Cook, and defensive end Walker says this could be the best Seminoles defense in years, despite losing a half-dozen starters. If all that falls into place, Francois doesn’t need to be great. He just needs to be not terrible.
I think this is the Tigers’ year, and I envision them beating out Florida State in the ACC and rolling to the national championship behind the best quarterback in the game. Having Wayne Gallman and Mike Williams back on offense won’t hurt, either.
Don’t overthink this. The Crimson Tide are once again the most talented team in the country. By year’s end, they will once again be crowned the best team. As with last year, I expect Alabama will lose once during the regular season, likely at Ole Miss, at Tennessee or at LSU. But with a defense that could be among Nick Saban’s best, the Tide can afford a slipup as they figure out who their new stars are on offense. As with the past two seasons, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have that settled by the postseason, paving the way for another national title.
Baumgaertner: Ohio State
J.T. Barrett enters the season as probably the nation’s most underrated player, and despite the overhaul needed on defense, Ohio State’s recruiting acumen is too strong to be questioned. Even after losing an army of NFL first-round picks, the Buckeyes’ secondary depth and new wave of talent—running back Mike Weber is a potential breakout player—could mirror the success of the 2014 team that won the national title. Perhaps I just worship at the altar of Urban Meyer, but the system he’s cultivated in Columbus is admirable. If it all clicks, this team will be impossible to beat on both sides of the ball.
Johnson: Florida State
Three years after one prodigious redshirt freshman quarterback (Jameis Winston) led Florida State to a national championship, the Seminoles will win another title behind another talented redshirt freshman passer. Francois, stud running back Cook, star safety James and the rest of a loaded roster will run through the ACC, edging Clemson in Tallahassee in late October. Then Florida State will reassert its status as one of the sport’s elite programs by winning the playoff.
Who will be the biggest surprise team?
Staples: Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin’s seat is warm, but he has what might be his deepest and best team since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman year in 2012. A lot depends on Trevor Knight at quarterback, but if Knight is good, the Aggies should be very competitive in the SEC West.
The stars could align for the Utes to make more noise in the Pac-12 this year. Utah is stout on both the offensive and defensive lines and has the recruiting depth now that it’s an established Pac-12 team. Look for Utah to upset USC on Sept. 23 and make a charge to the top 10.
Schnell: Washington State
Don’t sleep on Washington State. The Cougars have a dark-horse Heisman contender in quarterback Luke Falk (448 of 645 passes completed for 4,566 yards with 38 touchdowns in 2015), one of the best receivers in the country in Gabe Marks (104 catches for 1,192 yards with 15 touchdowns) and a coach who fears nothing, including five-hour games where no one ever runs the ball (thanks for that, Mike Leach). Wazzu might not be ready to break through and win the Pac-12 just yet, but I can see the Cougars ruining a few teams’ seasons, and reaping the benefits of it by heading to the Rose Bowl. Backup surprise team: TCU, which will win the Big 12.
I don’t know that the Huskies can quite make the jump from 7–6 to a New Year’s Six bowl, but they could come close. Quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin now have a year of experience, and the defense, which was already among the best in the Pac-12, has seven returning starters, including SI preseason All-America safety Budda Baker. That’s enough for the next step to being a borderline top-10 team.
The Horned Frogs finished last season without their two best receivers and with a depleted defense, leaving in our recent memory a team very different from the one that will take the field this fall. I doubt many people have the Horned Frogs as their Big 12 playoff team, but I think they can edge Oklahoma and be the best team in the conference with Kenny Hill under center.
The upward mobility of the Cardinals is limited by playing in the same division as Clemson and Florida State, but nobody—Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher included—will be eager to face Bobby Petrino’s squad this fall. Lamar Jackson should ride his hot performance in the Music City Bowl into a breakout campaign that thrusts him into the upper tier of quarterbacks in the country. And Louisville’s defense returns eight starters, including star linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey, after ranking third in the ACC in yards allowed per play last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals take down either the Tigers or the Seminoles this year.
Baumgaertner: Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy has his best QB-WR tandem in Mason Rudolph and James Washington since he coached Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon in 2011. That team beat Andrew Luck and Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. With a forgiving beginning to the season and a top-tier passer, the Cowboys stand a good chance to put together their best campaign in school history. Rudolph is a star in the making, and if the defense can bend but not break too many times, Gundy’s unit will be terrifying.
Johnson: Michigan State
Michigan and Ohio State are considered the frontrunners in the Big Ten East entering this season, but it’s the Spartans who’ll emerge at the top of the division and earn a playoff berth. Expect a smooth transition at quarterback from Connor Cook to veteran Tyler O’Connor, and Michigan State returns defensive standouts like tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Riley Bullough. Plus, the Spartans face both the Wolverines (Oct. 29) and the Buckeyes (Nov. 19) in East Lansing.
Which highly touted team will flop?
The Volunteers have the best roster in the SEC East, but they also have the toughest schedule in the division. They’re expected to win at least a division title, but that’s asking a lot when Georgia and Florida appear to have much easier paths. Tennessee needs to beat the Gators and Bulldogs in consecutive weeks. If not, those cross-division games with Texas A&M and Alabama (yikes) become must-wins.
The Wolverines will be very good again under Jim Harbaugh, especially with a Hostess sponsored early-season schedule. But it’s hard to trust Michigan at quarterback, especially with its three toughest Big Ten games—Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State—on the road. Playoff talk in Ann Arbor is premature.
Calling the Crimson Tide a flop might seem like a stretch given their recent dominance, but I think that in Tuscaloosa, a spot in the playoff is expected year in and year out. So missing it this season will be a severe disappointment, inexperienced quarterback be damned. What fells Alabama? I think LSU and Tennessee. Some would rejoice over playing in the Cotton Bowl. Nick Saban is not one of those people.
The promotion of Clay Helton from interim to full-time coach was celebrated by the players, and that is no small thing. And the 5–1 record in Pac-12 play last year was auspicious. But he’s still an unknown quantity. There’s no guarantee he can extract greatness from the talent on hand, especially with a new quarterback guiding the way—and greatness may be required with this schedule. Alabama to open. Road games at Stanford and Utah before September is out. A brutal November that features Oregon, road games at Washington and UCLA and then a finale with Notre Dame. The path to five or six losses is not hard to discern, and while everything is relative, that’s on the floppier side in Troy.
The Volunteers are ranked ninth in the preseason AP poll, and I’m still not buying it. Tennessee hasn’t been a top-10 team to close a season since 2001, and though the Vols have ticked upward in the wins category in each of the past three seasons, I just don’t see them among college football’s elite yet.
With all the talk about whether the Cougars can become the first Group of Five team to make the playoff, don’t be surprised if they’re not even the Group of Five’s representative for a New Year’s Six bowl. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is electrifying and Tom Herman is a phenomenal coach, but Houston has to rebuild the non-Ward portion of its running game and loses top receive Demarcus Ayers. The Cougars’ secondary also has to replace three starters. These vulnerabilities won’t tank Houston, but with a challenging schedule that includes nonconference matchups with Oklahoma and Louisville on top of a tough American Athletic Conference slate, the Cougars will fall well short of last season’s 13–1 mark.
The team itself is playoff caliber. The problem is the schedule is completely top-heavy, even if the Sooners survive Houston in Week 1. Fortunately, Bob Stoops’s squad gets Ohio State at home, but the punches come early and often (at TCU, Texas, Kansas State and at Texas Tech). These are all games that the Sooners should win, but the toll will be heavy. Even with a top-tier QB (Baker Mayfield) and two star running backs (Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon), the schedule looks like it’ll betray the Sooners this year.
There’s a lot to like about the Bruins, starting with the best quarterback prospect in the country (Josh Rosen), a talented running back (Soso Jamabo) and top-line defenders like tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau. Still, it’s not clear where the Bruins stand in the Pac-12 pecking order with North Division teams Stanford, Washington and Oregon and South Division squads USC and Utah all looking capable of outperforming them this season. Far from a national championship threat, UCLA looks like one of a group of good-but-not-great teams in a league that will get shut out of the playoff again.
Who will win the Heisman Trophy?
Staples: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Same guy I predicted last year. Same guy I had No. 1 on my Heisman ballot last year.
Thamel: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
This one is easy. McCaffrey should have won the award last year after the most productive single season in college football history. The one area he “lacked” was touchdowns, as Remound Wright served as Stanford’s red zone workhorse and scored 13 touchdowns. McCaffrey should at least double his eight rushing scores from last year.
In my answer to the next question you’ll see why this is a bit of a risky pick, but let me explain. I think McCaffrey will follow a similar arc to former Pac-12 standout Marcus Mariota, who used the 2013 season as a sort of warm-up before winning the Heisman in ’14. I have believed since the middle of last season, when I watched McCaffrey roll up 369 all-purpose yards on UCLA, that the 6-foot, 197-pounder is the best player in college football. I still think that. What will help McCaffrey this year are earlier Stanford kickoffs. Voters have to pay attention now. (Related: McCaffrey has to play well at Notre Dame on Oct. 15 to win the honor.) I think he’ll give them a good show.
He passed for 4,109 yards and rushed for 1,105 and finished third in the balloting after 2015. And his best big-play receiver, Mike Williams, returns after missing last fall with a neck injury. Watson also could get a boost from graduating in six semesters (plus summer school), if voters are inclined to give extra credit there.
Niesen: LSU RB Leonard Fournette
It’s Fournette’s year this time around. Sure, he’ll face challenges from Watson and from Florida State’s Cook—who at his best is just as good of a back as, if quite different from, Fournette. Still, to go along with my pick of LSU making the national title game, I’m giving the nod to Fournette, who will power the Tigers’ offense.
Becht: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Cook was the best running back in college football last year. If you doubt that, remember that his yards per carry topped Fournette’s by nearly a yard, McCaffrey’s by nearly a yard-and-a-half and Heisman winner Derrick Henry’s by nearly two. Cook’s 19 rushing touchdowns also put him near Fournette (22) and well ahead of McCaffrey (eight). The point of this is not to relitigate debates from the 2015 season but merely to note that Cook would have gotten a lot more Heisman buzz had Florida State stayed in the playoff hunt. With a more complete and deep squad around him this year, Cook can lead the Seminoles back to the peak of college football and claim his rightful spot as the game’s most dangerous offensive weapon in the process.
This selection is nearly impossible as there are five players (McCaffrey, Fournette, Cook, Watson and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett) that are all eminently qualified to enter the season as the preseason favorite. I’m picking McCaffrey because the weakest opposing defenses all exist on the back end of Stanford’s schedule. If he has a few big games early in the season, he’ll eat up a ton of all-purpose yards when the Heisman talk gets louder. He may also receive some guilt votes from those who incorrectly picked Henry over him last year.
Cook was awesome as a sophomore last season even though he dealt with multiple injuries. He’ll be healthy in 2016, and both his supporting cast on offense and the Seminoles’ talent on defense make them a top national championship contender. If they get there, Cook will have the individual production and team success to win the sport’s most prestigious award.
Who'll be the first player to fall out of the Heisman race?
Staples: LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Unless he gets more help from quarterback Brandon Harris and the passing game, this year could look an awful lot like last year. And Fournette would have to settle for only being the first back off the board in the 2017 NFL draft.
Thamel: UCLA QB Josh Rosen
If anyone picked Jeremy Johnson last year, they’d have looked really smart. There’s so many marquee match-ups opening weekend this year, that a few top contenders will fall hard. My pick is Rosen, as the Bruins could struggle at Texas A&M with a new offense, overhauled offensive line and a flock of new receivers. UCLA will miss running back Paul Perkins more than anyone thinks, too.
Preseason hype is often the toughest foe. After leading the Heisman discussion for most of last year until a blah game at Alabama, Fournette enters the 2016 season as one of the early Heisman darlings. The trouble with that type of attention is that often, it places unrealistic expectations on players. Fournette will be the first victim of that, but don’t be surprised if others fall prey, too.
Hamilton: Georgia RB Nick Chubb
The Bulldogs may have abundant raw talent, but every team will gang up on the run until Kirby Smart proves he has a viable starter at quarterback. Three of the first five games are dangerous: North Carolina in Atlanta to start the season, a road trip to Ole Miss in Week 4 and a home date with Tennessee in Week 5. If it’s slow going while Georgia jostles between Greyson Lambert and true freshman Jacob Eason, Chubb may not have enough time to catch up to other Heisman wannabes.
Niesen: Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Barrett is one of the few veterans remaining on a Buckeyes team that had five players picked in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. That attrition will cause Ohio State to have a down year and will boot its quarterback from the race by midseason.
The hype around the UCLA quarterback is understandable. Rosen displayed beautiful touch on his throws as a true freshman last fall, passing for 3,670 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But he has a sophomore slump in the making due to one critical flaw in his game. Pro Football Focus notes that Rosen’s QB rating last season fell 60 point when he was under pressure. Guess where the Bruins have a clear vulnerability this season? The offensive line, which must break in three new starters. Guess whom the Bruins face in Week 1. Texas A&M, which boasts perhaps the best defensive ends in nation in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.
Baumgaertner: Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Honestly, I’m just hoping his rumored “black list” exists and that maybe it’ll fuel him to prove me wrong since being totally wrong in preseason predictions is often more fun than being right. The problem is the departure of one of the nation’s best receivers (Sterling Shepard) is going to really haunt the Sooners’ offense. Mayfield will probably carve up an undermanned Houston defense with little trouble, but if Ohio State puts him on the mat one too many times, there won’t be any Heisman talk for him after Sept. 17.
Barrett resides close to the top of the list of Best Quarterbacks Not Named Deshaun Watson, but he’ll have a hard time staying near the front of the Heisman race into October. The Buckeyes play at No. 3 Oklahoma in Week 3, a game I expect the Sooners—led by fellow Heisman contender Mayfield—to win. That’ll put a huge dent in Barrett’s candidacy.
Who will be the biggest breakout star?
Staples: Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell
Meet the newest version to roll off the Tigers’ pass-rushing assembly line, which also produced Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd.
Thamel: Oregon RB Royce Freeman
Lost amid McCaffrey’s historic season and Rosen’s NFL future is Oregon junior tailback Royce Freeman, a 5’ 11”, 230-pound bowling ball who averaged 6.5 yards per carry last year. He’s scored 38 career touchdowns, a number that should increase significantly if the Ducks defense can hold up its end this year.
Schnell: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
It’s weird to think of Cook, who’s been getting some Heisman buzz, as a breakout player. But he has to be one because too many people are still unaware of how good he is. Based on numbers (1,691 rushing yards, 1,935 all-purpose yards and 7.4 yards per carry) alone last year, he should have been invited to New York. He’s still one of the most underrated running backs in the country (also in contention: Oregon’s Freeman). Florida State will make a strong push for the playoff this year—and give us one hell of an ACC title race with Clemson—but fall just short. In the process, Cook will become a household name.
Hamilton: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
The freshman year stats weren’t compelling: Jackson completed 54.7% of his passes and threw 12 touchdowns against eight interceptions (though the 960 yards rushing were a plus). At ACC media day, Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino related a story about watching film and concluding that, nope, Jackson had no idea what he was doing on a given play. But Jackson says he hit the books and the film room, which should smooth his rough edges and turn him into an electric playmaker as a sophomore.
Niesen: Iowa CB Desmond King
King could likely have been a first-round pick this spring, but he instead decided to return to the Hawkeyes. With more eyes on Iowa City after the team’s undefeated regular season a year ago, King should get some of the hype he missed out on last fall when it took until midseason for anyone to notice Iowa. I expect him to make even more strides as a senior.
Becht: Ohio State WR Noah Brown
If the Buckeyes are going to get back to the playoff, as I expect them to do, they’re going to need some new stars. Barrett gives the offense a fantastic leader, but he’ll need some support after losing running back Ezekiel Elliott and top receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marsall and Braxton Miller. Brown was set to be a breakout star last season before he broke his leg in August and missed the season. He’ll get his chance this season and should emerge as Barrett’s favorite target in a rebuilt but still explosive Ohio State attack.
Baumgaertner: North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky
The Tar Heels seem pretty giddy on showcasing Trubisky, an Ohio high school football legend who is finally inheriting the starting role. A dual threat with plenty of weapons around him (running back Elijah Hood, wide receiver Ryan Switzer), Trubisky is expected to command Larry Fedora’s high-flying offense even better than Marquise Williams did last season. He also meditates to Frozen.
Johnson: Boise State QB Brett Rypien
Rypien shined as the Broncos’ starter in 2015, completing 63.6% of his passes for 3,353 yards with 20 touchdowns and earning All-Mountain West first-team honors. Yet the true freshman didn’t garner a lot of national attention because Boise State suffered three regular-season losses. Should the Broncos (as I predicted above) earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl this season, everyone will know his name.
Which coach is on the hottest seat?
Staples: Texas's Charlie Strong
You can’t go 11–14 in two seasons at Texas and expect much cushion. Strong has recruited well, but the Longhorns must show dramatic improvement.
Thamel: West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen
This one isn’t close. Holgorsen’s situation with the Mountaineers is so tenuous it would be a surprise if he makes it to Election Day.
Schnell: Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin
It’s more than just the mediocre record (8–5 each of the last two years) and the fact that Texas A&M has invested a LOT of money in the past few years with few returns. If I were a member of the administration, I’d be more concerned about off-field issues: quarterbacks transferring away, assistants acting like immature 12-year-olds, other assistants getting into Twitter fights, etc. How can any of this be appealing to a top prospect’s parent? Remember, it is often the moms who are big influences in recruiting, and moms do not have patience for most of this stuff. Fortunately the Aggies brought in one of the best leaders in college football in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. If his attitude, work ethic and maturity rubs off in the locker room, I think Texas A&M, and Sumlin, will be O.K. Talent is not a problem in College Station.
Hamilton: Auburn’s Gus Malzahn
On the one hand, the Tigers don’t play a game outside Jordan-Hare Stadium until Oct. 8. On the other hand, Clemson arrives for the opener and visits from Texas A&M and LSU won’t exactly be uncomplicated. A slow start would be compounded by the 7–6 record in 2015 and by all the championships the team up the road in Tuscaloosa has won. It’s unclear that Malzahn could survive that.
Niesen: LSU’s Les Miles
A year ago, Miles came as close to getting fired without actually being booted as any coach in college football ever has, it would seem. LSU pledged its support for its longtime coach after he beat Texas A&M on Nov. 28, but don’t kid yourself; if the Tigers underperform, the heat will be back on. (That said, I don’t think underperforming will be an issue, based on my playoff picks above.)
Miles getting carried off the field after beating Texas A&M, a win which ultimately won him another year at LSU, was a feel-good moment, but it merely moved the flames that were napping at his heels to the backburner rather than dousing them for good. LSU expects SEC titles and playoff berths, so the standards Miles must meet are significantly higher than what all the other coaches on the hot seat face. If he can finally beat Alabama but still falls short of an SEC championship, will that be enough? Who knows?
I want to pick Sumlin because of the apparent lack of institutional control hounding Texas A&M, but the pressure surrounding Miles is entirely too high not to pick him. Miles doesn’t deserve to be on a hot seat, but if he is unable to ride Fournette and a top defense to a win over Alabama and (at least) a New Years’ Six game, then I think LSU will cash out and do everything within their power to hire Tom Herman. The problem is that Texas, Texas A&M and Auburn may all preemptively fire their own coaches to chase Herman as well.
It wasn’t that long ago that Sumlin was rumored to be a candidate for an NFL head coaching position. Yet he enters this season needing to prove Texas A&M should keep him around through the holidays. The Aggies face tough SEC games against Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, plus a challenging nonconference tilt with UCLA, so things could get ugly if Sumlin doesn’t have his team ready.
Which first-year coach will fare the best?
Staples: Georgia's Kirby Smart
If my prediction above of Georgia winning the SEC East and making the Sugar Bowl is correct, that would be an excellent year one for Smart. If I’m wrong and Tennessee and Florida remain above the Bulldogs, it’ll get noisy quickly.
Thamel: Toledo’s Jason Candle
Candle’s debut Toledo team returns an veteran offense that blew Temple off the field in the Boca Raton Bowl. (Candle coached that game after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State.) Tailback Kareem Hunt is an NFL-caliber player, and no Group of Five school has a better looking pair of defensive tackles than Miami transfer Earl Moore (6’1”, 300 pounds) and senior Treyvon Hester (6’3”, 300 pounds).
I’m torn between Miami’s Mark Richt and Smart, but I’ll give the new Bulldogs coach the slim advantage. Georgia has a lot of talent (as usual) and a manageable schedule. The Bulldogs get Tennessee at home, which bodes well. There will probably be a few surprises on the way, but Georgia closes out the regular season with three games at home. I think Smart wins nine games his first year, but heck, it could be 10.
Hamilton: Miami’s Mark Richt
This is all relative. Upon further inspection, none of the first-year coaches in college football are in tremendously advantageous positions. But Richt rates an edge over Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, a fellow ACC Coastal rival, because he has quarterback Brad Kaaya while getting Florida State and North Carolina at home and missing Clemson. The playoff isn’t realistic this season, but setting the stage for future postseason runs is.
Smart inherits a team that won 10 games a season ago, and most of the talent that got the Bulldogs to double-digit wins is back. Chubb should factor big in Georgia’s success—he was cleared Monday to play in the Bulldogs’ opener—and no matter if the team goes with Lambert or Eason at quarterback to start, its future at the position is bright.
Typically when new coaches are brought in to take over blueblood programs, it’s because that blueblood has fallen into disarray. Whether you agree with Georgia’s decision to fire Mark Richt or not, that’s obviously not the case for Smart, who inherits a team that went 10–3 last year and landed the No. 2 quarterback recruit in the country, according to Scout.com. With Eason, Chubb and a secondary that returns four starters after ranking 10th in the country in yards allowed per pass attempt, the Bulldogs have the pieces to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. A favorable conference schedule helps, too.
Smart inherits an ideal situation at Georgia and made a savvy hire in poaching offensive coordinator Jim Chaney from Pittsburgh. Even if the Bulldogs start true freshman Eason at quarterback, Chaney is adept at integrating both spread and pro-style concepts into his offense. That should take a lot of pressure off of Eason and let stud running backs Chubb and Sony Michel thrive. The defense has to replace the hole left by Leonard Floyd, but let’s not forget that Smart was the architect behind those Alabama defenses that left most opponents with broken bones and shattered dreams.
Smart won’t be ready to challenge his mentor in Tuscaloosa for a playoff spot this season, but he’s capable of leading the Bulldogs to an SEC East title. While Georgia’s quarterback situation is up in the air, it’ll be able to lean on an excellent running back tandem (Chubb and Michel), and the schedule is favorable: Division favorite Tennessee comes to Athens on Oct. 1, and the Bulldogs avoid Alabama and LSU from the SEC West.
What will be the biggest playoff-related controversy this year?
I’ve predicted two ACC teams making the playoff with the Big 12 and Pac-12 left out. That would be pretty controversial, but it isn’t that far-fetched. Had the circumstances been slightly different, it would have happened with Michigan State and Ohio State last year.
The SEC not reaching the playoff. See my bold prediction below.
The SEC gets left out. Gasp! How could I pick something so sacrilegious in this, the game that belongs to the South? Well, preseason predictions are only fun if you take some risks, so I’m anticipating that the SEC beats up on on other a little too much and has to lick its wounds in the Orange and Sugar Bowls instead of a playoff semifinal. If this happens, of course, I expect all elected officials in SEC states to ban together and write legislation forcing the playoff to expand to eight teams immediately. This is an election year, after all, and we’re just trying to make college football great again.
Against most (if not all) odds, the ACC places two teams in the field: Florida State beats Clemson, Clemson doesn’t lose any other game while walloping everyone else, and other contenders from other leagues beat each other up just enough that an 11–1 Tigers squad looks too good to ignore. In this case, Jim Delany calls an emergency meeting in his secret volcano lair and threatens to destroy the moon unless everyone votes for an eight-team playoff, starting immediately.
There will be neither a Big Ten nor a Pac-12 representative, which will be sure to rile up most of the middle of the country and the West Coast. For the first year since the playoff began, the SEC is going to be the conference that unquestionably dominates this fall.
The only way Notre Dame could make the playoff without igniting controversy would be if the Fighting Irish went undefeated. I don’t expect that to happen, so I expect their playoff berth will be extremely contentious. With games against Michigan State, Stanford and USC, Notre Dame has the right balance of a schedule that offers enough opportunities for marquee wins without burdening the Irish with too many hurdles to clear. If they win two out of those three and sweep the rest of their schedule, the committee will have a tough time saying no. But that won’t mollify a jilted two-loss conference champion or another one-loss team.
The three-headed monster of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will leave at least one team out and spark flashing signs similar to the “61–58” craze between TCU and Baylor in 2014. The potential cannibalization of three teams that all deserve top-10 billing should provide some great entertainment.
Media members have grumbled about the televised weekly reveal since its inception, but this will be the year when the furor boils over. A seemingly incomprehensible shuffle of teams in the rankings or the invention of a new term to justify upward/downward movement will set off a frenzy. And yet, we will all continue to watch the show, no matter how pointless it seems, because it gives us something to talk about.
One bold prediction for the season
If my two-teams-from-the-same-league prediction happens, there would be a push to expand the playoff sooner rather than later. Remember, only the ACC and the SEC wanted a four-teamer until Oklahoma State was left out of the BCS championship game in 2011. Then the Big 12 flipped and tipped the scales.
The SEC’s run of presumed and assumed dominance is nearing an end. The league was perilously close to not having a team in the playoff last season, only bailed out by a fluky lateral that prevented Ole Miss from winning the SEC West. This is the year the league really does get shut out of the playoff. The SEC 2016 obituary will list a cause of death as lack of quality quarterback play.
Harbaugh stops tweeting about weird things and sticks to football. This might be a little too pie-in-the-sky, but I think when Michigan claims the Big Ten championship and rolls into the playoff on an undefeated streak (I know, I can’t believe it either) Harbaugh will start to talk about actual football. He trolls people and programs right now because he can (and because everyone eats it up, which gives him no reason to stop) but when the Wolverines get really good, I think he’ll be so focused on game film that he won’t have time for Twitter.
Art Briles will be a head coach somewhere by the national championship game. I don’t know why this would happen. But I am cynical enough about college athletics to suspect it will.
We’re over-hyping Michigan. The Legend of Jim Harbaugh has reached an almost fantastical frenzy, and though I think the Wolverines have plenty of talent and a great (if human) coach, I’m predicting three losses: at Iowa, at Michigan State and at Ohio State.
America as we know it will cease to exist on the night of Nov. 8. Sure, the United States has confronted its fair share of discord and anger, but never has it seen a night like Tuesday, Nov. 8, which holds not only the presidential election but also the second weekly installment of the playoff selection committee’s rankings. Perhaps it will be the combination of a Trump defeat and a snub of Ole Miss that will form the Molotov cocktail of rage that will reshape the nation. Or maybe it will be a Clinton loss and a cold shoulder to Stanford’s playoff hopes that set off uprisings in California. Either way, the fury may be too much to contain.
Florida State’s Derwin James becomes a Heisman Trophy finalist ahead of his teammate Dalvin Cook. James is one of the most unique and terrifying defensive players that college football has ever seen. Andy Staples did a nice job breaking this down in his Swiss Army Men feature, but the basics are this: James’s upper body might be made of tungsten alloy, he flatbacks offensive linemen with flicks of his wrists, and he’s adept dropping into coverage and protecting the secondary. He’s the most versatile defender in college football and one of the best pure defenders the college game has seen in some time.
The Pac-12 will be effectively eliminated from the playoff race by Thanksgiving. Stanford represents the league’s best candidate to make the national semifinals, but the Cardinal will pick up three losses by the middle of November: at Washington (Sept. 30), one other team (possibly Notre Dame or USC) and at Oregon (Nov. 12). No other Pac-12 squad will have compiled a strong enough résumé by that point of the season to merit consideration as a playoff participant, leaving the conference out of the picture on selection weekend.