With most players’ NFL draft decisions submitted, we have a good sense of who will return and who won’t for the 2016 season. And while spring practice injuries or a sudden off-season improvements can reshape a team, the bulk of how we’ll evaluate teams heading into Week 1 is the same as how we can evaluate them now.
So, with 237 days until the 2016 college football season kicks off, here’s how teams stack up in the Way-Too-Early Top 25.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
If the list of key returning players looks a lot longer than the list of key departures to you, you’re right. Sure, the Sooners lose some notable pieces, especially Sterling Shepard and Ty Darlington on offense and Eric Striker, Zack Sanchez and Charles Tapper on defense, but what they have returning dwarfs the losses. Baker Mayfield gets another season to work with offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, and though Mayfield loses his top target in Shepard, the electric trio of Dede Westbrook, Geno Lewis and Mark Andrews will offer solid reinforcement. While the defense loses its four stars, seven returning starters will keep the unit sharp.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
As long as the Crimson Tide continue to recruit as well as they do, it’s impossible to not consider them a top contender for the national championship. And Alabama’s losses to the draft this year could have been far worse as Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Eddie Jackson and O.J. Howard all decided to return to Tuscaloosa. The defense loses some major playmakers in Reggie Ragland and A’Shawn Robinson, but a huge part of what made this year’s unit so special was its depth. Alabama faces questions at quarterback, but offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has found answers to those questions each of the past two years.
3. Clemson Tigers
Clemson led my Way-Too-Early Top Five last week, but as I explained then, I could change that order based on NFL draft decisions. After the Tigers lost just about every player who was considering early draft entry except running back Wayne Gallman, I now have some concerns. The offense will be exceptional with Deshaun Watson, Gallman, the bulk of the receiving corps and three of five offensive line starters back. But defense loses 62.5% of its sacks with the departures of Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and B.J. Goodson, and the secondary will suffer from the loss of Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kerse and T.J. Green. Clemson’s defense lost a ton last year and rebuilt to remain one of the nation’s best. Asking it to do so again feels ambitious.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Still, if any coach has recruited at close to the level of Nick Saban over the past several years, it’s Urban Meyer. Plus several stars like J.T. Barrett and Raekwon McMillan aren’t draft-eligible yet. It’ll be a lot new names in a lot of roles for the Buckeyes, so they won’t enter ’16 in the same position as ’15: the overwhelming favorites and unanimous preseason No. 1. But Ohio State has positioned itself to reload rather than rebuild. That’ll be put to the test this fall.
5. Florida State Seminoles
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, even if that ‘year off’ included a 10-win season and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. Several key Florida State players will depart to the NFL this spring both via graduation (Nile Lawrence-Stample, Reggie Northrup, Terrance Smith, Lamarcus Brutus) and early-entry (Jalen Ramsey, Roberto Aguayo). Still, those losses are less damaging than coach Jimbo Fisher has had to manage over the past few seasons, and he has the talent in place to make a run at an ACC title in ’16. Dalvin Cook 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.
6. LSU Tigers
Things have been looking up for Les Miles since he survived an apparent coup at the end of the regular season. LSU thumped Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl, and Kendall Beckwith, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Ethan Pocic and Tre’Davious White all opted to return to Baton Rouge. With a top Heisman contender in Leonard Fournette returning as well, the Tigers could be poised for the type of season that would vindicate Miles—that is if quarterback Brandon Harris can provide some balance.
7. Michigan Wolverines
Taking huge leaps like Michigan did in 2015—the Wolverines improved by five wins—are hard. Maintaining them may be even harder. Still Jim Harbaugh has Michigan positioned to compete for a Big Ten title as long as he can find stability at starting quarterback. Whoever it is will play in front on an experienced and improving offensive line and get support from a ferocious defensive line and secondary. The Wolverines’ biggest defensive challenge will be replacing their entire starting linebacker unit.
8. Tennessee Volunteers
The Tennessee off-season hype train got a great starting push from the Volunteers’ 45–6 drubbing of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. But before you dismiss it, look at how Tennessee ended the 2015 season—six straight wins. The Vols struggled to close out tight game, a factor in all four of their losses, but they weren’t far from a huge breakthrough season. That may come in 2016 with a more experienced team and proven playmakers all over the field.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Fighting Irish possess an abundance of wealth at quarterback with DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire returning, and Josh Adams’s strong finish to the season eases concerns about losing C.J. Prosise, as does Tarean Folston’s return from a torn ACL. But the offensive line has big shoes to fill at left tackle and center after Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin’s departures. And the defense faces even bigger questions with significant losses at each level of the unit.
10. Baylor Bears
The talent at the skill positions will always be there, even with top wide receiver Corey Coleman’s departure. KD Cannon should be a lethal receiving threat, and quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham both return after injuries ended their 2015 seasons. The concern for Baylor is whether it can stay in playoff contention after major turnover on both its offensive and defensive lines.
11. Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal suffer huge losses on both sides of the ball, including their two best offensive linemen (Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett), their starting tight end (Austin Hooper) and quarterback Kevin Hogan. But with the variety of ways Christian McCaffrey can impact a game, it’s hard to be too down of them. And the defense has the potential to be excellent despite losing top tackler Blake Martinez.
12. Ole Miss Rebels
The class that announced Ole Miss’s resurgence is essentially gone, but don’t expect the Rebels to fade after their first 10-win season since 2003. The offensive line has to be completely replaced, but quarterback Chad Kelly gives Ole Miss one of the sharpest passing options in the SEC. And while top receiver Laquon Treadwell is gone, Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Evan Engram offer Kelly plenty of options. Robert Nkemdiche leaves a big hole to fill on the defensive line, but Marquis Haynes and the return of Issac Gross from injury should help. Tony Conner must anchor a secondary that loses top playmakers Trae Elston and Mike Hilton.
13. Houston Cougars
Houston loses plenty from its Peach Bowl championship team, but perhaps the biggest returns for the Cougars are on the coaching staff: Tom Herman is back as head coach along with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Star quarterback Greg Ward Jr.’s return is crucial, too. Orlando has his work cut out for him to rebuild a secondary losing three starters in time for the Cougars’ season opener against Oklahoma.
14. Iowa Hawkeyes
Whether you believed Iowa was the real deal or not this season, there’s little reason to expect a dropoff in 2016. The Hawkeyes will need to find some new leaders on the offensive line without Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, but the offense is in solid shape with C.J. Beathard back. Desmond King’s decision to return to Iowa City was a huge boost for an already stout defense that also gets Josey Jewell back to lead the unit from middle linebacker.
15. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU can return to its defensive roots in 2016 while it tries to rediscover its offensive footing without star QB-WR duo Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson. After the Horned Frogs’ defense was plagued with injuries this season, it should return with fantastic depth and talent next fall. Former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill is the likely successor to Boykin. If he can quickly grasp Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham’s scheme, the sky’s the limit for TCU.
16. USC Trojans
Clay Helton loses some headliners from his 2015 group, including Cody Kessler and Su’a Carvens, but the bulk of the Trojans’ firepower returns, especially on offense. Max Browne likely takes over under center and gets to work with Ronald Jones II and JuJu Smith. Do-it-all star Adoree’ Jackson and Cameron Smith, whose breakout true freshman season ended early due to a knee injury, return to anchor new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit.
17. Michigan State Spartans
The 2016 campaign will test Mark Dantonio’s ability to keep Michigan State at the top of the Big Ten, as the Spartans’ losses, particularly on offense and on the defensive line, are significant. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will compete to replace Connor Cook at quarterback, but they’ll need a rebuilt offensive front and tailback LJ Scott to step up and help whoever wins the job. Michigan State’s ferocious pass rush requires a complete renewal. At least experience should help the secondary improve from this year’s 7.3 yards allowed per pass attempt.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Expect more explosive passing from the Cowboys in 2016 as Mason Rudolph and top targets James Washington and Marcell Ateman return, but they will have to find new answers for its pass rush now that Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean (18.5 combined sacks, 28 combined tackles for loss) are gone. The key area that could determine whether the Cowboys compete for a Big 12 title or not is the rushing game. Oklahoma State hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012, and top tailback Chris Carson gained just 517 yards this season. Five returning starters on the offensive line should help in ’16.
19. Louisville Cardinals
See the five players listed under key losses? Those are the only five starters on offense and defense that Louisville loses after the 2015 season. The Cardinals should be among the most experienced teams in the country, especially after Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins and Keith Kelsey all opted to pass on the NFL draft. The off-season storyline to watch will be dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson’s development.
20. North Carolina Tar Heels
Even if it was mop-up duty, new quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s line (85.1% passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions) gives a boost of confidence for an offense that loses Marquise Williams and coordinator Seth Littrell. Running back Elijah Hood offers reliable balance for Trubisky, too. Despite the Tar Heels defense’s dismal bowl performance, Gene Chizik helped the unit improve by a full yard in yards allowed per play in 2015. Chizik must replace two solid linebackers, but several other key returnees should allow for further strides in ’16.
21. Oregon Ducks
When Vernon Adams Jr. was healthy, Oregon’s offense looked as explosive as ever. The Ducks are reaching into the FCS transfer well once more and hoping for similar success (but with better injury luck) with Dakota Prukop. If Prukop proves up to task, Oregon is loaded with its typical talent at skill positions to thrive. New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke must make quick improvements to a defense that allowed 5.8 yards per play in 2015. For better or worse, that unit will undergo some massive turnover, though the loss of potential first-round pick DeForest Buckner will undoubtedly hurt.
22. Georgia Bulldogs
All eyes will be on whether five-star true freshman Jacob Eason can unseat Greyson Lambert at quarterback, but regardless of who’s under center, Georgia’s offense should focus on a healthy Nick Chubb. New coach Kirby Smart will oversee a front seven undergoing significant turnover, but that group still returns plenty of talent in Lorenzo Carter and Trenton Thompson. A Bulldogs secondary that led the nation in passing yards allowed (156.5 per game) brings back all four starters.
23. Miami Hurricanes
Mark Richt inherits a solid situation with the Hurricanes, who have the potential to reach the ACC title game in year one under the former Georgia coach. Brad Kaaya is the best quarterback in the ACC not named Deshaun Watson, and he’ll receive support from speedy running back Joseph Yearby and an offensive line that returns all five starters. The biggest issue for new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is to build up a secondary that loses three starters.
24. Washington Huskies
Despite a young roster, Washington still managed to win seven games in 2015, including the final three of the season. Now that the youth has had a season of experience, Chris Petersen should have the Huskies poised to take the next step. Quarterback Jake Browning showed promise as a true freshman, and fellow true freshman Myles Gaskins closed out the 2015 season with 554 rushing yards over his final four games. That duo will be supported by an offensive line that returns four starters. A Washington defense that ranked 13th in points allowed brings back seven starters, including star safety Budda Baker.
25. Washington State Cougars
After passing for 4,561 yards (1,192 of them to Gabe Marks), Luke Falk and Marks both return to Pullman to give Washington State a loaded aerial attack once again. No. 2 target Dom Williams is gone, but River Cracraft and Robert Lewis leave no shortage of receiving options. The Cougars’ defense wasn’t exceptional in 2015, but it improved by 0.6 yards allowed per play. Several of the key playmakers from that group are back, including top tackler Peyton Pelluer, Hercules Mata’afa (seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss) and Shalom Luani (90 tackles, team-high four interceptions).
Next five: Boise State, Florida, UCLA, Arkansas, Wisconsin