The bulk of last year’s Big 12 championship squad is back, including eight offensive starters. Baker Mayfield and the Sooners’ attack could be even better in its second year running Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid offense, provided a young offensive line can come together. On defense, Oklahoma loses three playmakers at linebacker but has potential stars like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and true freshman Caleb Kelly ready to fill the void.
2 of 25Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
#2: Alabama Crimson Tide (2015: 14-1)
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.
3 of 25Joe Robbins/Getty Images
#3: Florida State Seminoles (2015: 10-3)
All the pieces appear to be in place for the Seminoles to return to contention for an ACC title and a College Football Playoff berth after last season’s 10-win “rebuilding year.” Heisman Trophy candidate Dalvin Cook is, of course, the headliner, but Florida State’s defense should be equally intimidating with rising stars Josh Sweat, DeMarcus Walker and Derwin James. Redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois looks on pace to win the starting job, adding to the Seminoles’ weapons on an offense that returns 10 starters.
4 of 25Lynne Sladky/AP
#4: Clemson Tigers (2015: 14-1)
Nearly everyone is back, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Deon Cain, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams. (Not to mention five-star running back Tavien Feaster.) Whether Clemson can defend its ACC title and reach the playoff again will come down to the Tigers’ ability to rebuild defensively for the second straight year. The defensive line, which loses Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and D.J. Reader, appears to be reloading nicely with Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Carlos Watkins and five-star early-enrollee Dexter Lawrence. However, the secondary, which must replace cornerback Mackensie Alexander along with safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, suffered another setback when corner Adrian Baker tore his ACL.
5 of 25Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
#5: Ohio State Buckeyes (2015: 12-1)
As the 12 players taken in the first four rounds of the NFL draft show, Ohio State loses a lot of talent from last year’s squad. But it’s important to remember that, with the exception of Nick Saban, no coach has stacked his roster with talent as well as Urban Meyer has. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and a host of new stars like receivers Torrance Gibson, Terry McLaurin and Austin Mack and defensive players Sam Hubbard and Malik Hooker should keep the Buckeyes in the upper echelon of college football.
6 of 25Marianna Massey
#6: LSU Tigers (2015: 9-3)
It’s hard to imagine how Leonard Fournette could be any better, but there are still plenty of reasons to expect big things from Les Miles’s squad in 2016. The defense was fortunate to get Kendall Beckwith, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal and Tre’Davious White all back, giving the Tigers the makings of a shutdown unit. But for LSU to contend in the SEC West, it must get better production from a passing game that ranked 106th in yards per game last year. Quarterback Brandon Harris appeared to make some strides this spring. We’ll see if those carry over to games this fall.
7 of 25Tony Ding/AP
#7: Michigan Wolverines (2015: 10-3)
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.
8 of 25Mark Zaleski/AP
#8: Tennessee Volunteers (2015: 9-4)
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.
9 of 25Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire
#9: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2015: 10-3)
While much of the attention around Notre Dame focuses on the high-profile QB battle between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, both quarterbacks’ track records suggest whoever wins the competition will be up for the job. The biggest concerns for the Fighting Irish are the number of elite players they lose at other positions, like left tackle Ronnie Stanley, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt and wide receiver Will Fuller. Notre Dame has the talent to offset those losses, but coach Brian Kelly must identify the right replacements and get them ready to fill some big shoes.
10 of 25Orlin Wagner/AP
#10: Baylor Bears (2015: 10-3)
With quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham, running back Shock Linwood and top receiver KD Cannon supported by a group of young speedsters, Baylor’s offense presents its usual crop of weapons. But the Bears will be very young on the lines, particular on defense after the departure of defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Baylor experimented with more 3–4 formations this spring to try to mask that vulnerability.
11 of 25Jed Jacobsohn
#11: Stanford Cardinal (2015: 12-2)
The annual off-season tradition of marveling at how much the Cardinal lose before watching new stars emerge to keep them at the top of the Pac-12 is in full effect. But it’d be lazy to expect Stanford to effectively reload simply because the program has done so in the past. Good thing the Cardinal actually have the players to continue the trend. No one is overlooking running back Christian McCaffrey, but he should get plenty of help from whoever emerges from a fierce QB competition between Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns. Tackle David Bright should anchor the offensive line, while former five-star recruit Solomon Thomas should create plenty of disruption on the defensive line. The next generation of Cardinal football appears right on schedule.
12 of 25Rogelio V. Solis/AP
#12: Ole Miss Rebels (2015: 10-3)
Chaos from off-the-field allegations shouldn’t distract from the talent the Rebels have on the field. Ole Miss’s defensive line loses its star (Robert Nkemdiche) but not its overall ferociousness, which will be boosted by incredible depth that should allow the Rebels to keep their D-linemen fresh. On offense, Chad Kelly gives Hugh Freeze arguably the SEC’s top passer, and the Rebels should be able to find better balance with Akeem Judd and Eric Swinney—a four-star recruit who redshirted last year with a stress fracture—leading the ground game. Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil leave huge holes, but Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow, Van Jefferson, Demarkus Lodge and Evan Engram offer no shortage of targets and five-star tackle Greg Little can step right in on the offensive line.
13 of 25Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire
#13: Houston Cougars (2015: 13-1)
What Tom Herman was able to do in his first year as the Cougars’ head coach was remarkable. But after leading Houston to a victory in the Peach Bowl, Herman will need a similarly astounding coaching job to live up to the lofty expectations for year two. The Cougars return just 11 starters from their 2015 squad. Fortunately, star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is among those 11 and should once again put up eye-popping stats. Running back Duke Catalon, who transferred from Texas, missed the spring game but should offer another threat to complement Ward’s own ability to gain yards on the ground. The defining question for the ’16 season, though, may be whether a defense that must break in five new starters, including three in the secondary, can match last year’s unit, which led the FBS in takeaways.
14 of 25David Purdy/Getty Images
#14: Iowa Hawkeyes (2015: 12-2)
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.
15 of 25Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire
#15: TCU Horned Frogs (2015: 11-2)
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.
16 of 25Andy Lyons/Getty Images
#16: Louisville Cardinals (2015: 8-5)
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.
17 of 25Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire
#17: Washington Huskies (2015: 7-6)
Last year’s surprising finish—the Huskies won their final three games to finish 7–6—bumped up the clock on Washington’s rise under Chris Petersen. Facing massive turnover and with a true freshman at both quarterback and running back, the Huskies seemed likely to miss a bowl game in 2015, show some progress this fall and potentially jump into contention in the Pac-12 North in ’17. Dreams of a division title now seem realistic a year early. Quarterback Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin both shined in their first seasons on campus, and a young Washington defense led the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. The Huskies’ top two receivers in ’15, Jaydon Mickens and Joshua Perkins, both graduated, but the return of speedster John Ross from a knee injury should help.
18 of 25Joe Robbins/Getty Images
#18: Michigan State Spartans (2015: 12-2)
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.
19 of 25John W. McDonough
#19: USC Trojans (2015: 8-6)
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.
20 of 25Gerry Broome/AP
#20: North Carolina Tar Heels (2015: 11-3)
Behind an explosive offense that led the nation in yards per play and a defense that went from terrible in 2014 to average in ’15, the Tar Heels finally broke through and reached the ACC title game. New starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky has big shoes to fill after Marquise Williams’s success, but he’ll be surrounded by talent, including receivers Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer and running back Elijah Hood. Any improvement from last season will have to come on defense, which despite its clear progress under first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, still ranked sixth in the ACC in yards allowed per play. Chizik must identify who will replace Shakell Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer at linebacker.
21 of 25Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
#21: Georgia Bulldogs (2015: 10-3)
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.
22 of 25Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
#22: Oklahoma State Cowboys (2015: 10-3)
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.
23 of 25Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
#23: Oregon Ducks (2015: 9-4)
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.
24 of 25Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
#24: Miami Hurricanes (2015: 8-5)
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.
25 of 25Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire
#25: Washington State Cougars (2015: 9-4)
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.
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