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.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
RECORD: 2015 14-1
2. Clemson Tigers
RECORD: 2015 14-1
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. On the other side of the ball, the Tigers must retool again, especially up front, where departed defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combined for 49 tackles for loss in 2015. Cordrea Tankersley (five interceptions in ’15) should emerge as a shutdown corner. Click here for Clemson's complete scouting report. • Could Clemson and Florida State both make the playoff?
3. Florida State Seminoles
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. Derwin James will play in the secondary, on the line of scrimmage and everywhere in between. Meanwhile, linebacker might finally be a position of strength for the Seminoles. Former five-star recruit Matthew Thomas, who was ineligible last season, will join the steady Ro'Derrick Hoskins, and freshman Josh Brown could find the field early. Click here for Florida State's complete scouting report.
4. Michigan Wolverines
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. Not content to be merely fourth in total defense last season, the Wolverines went out and grabbed the coordinator of the top unit, ex-Boston College assistant Don Brown. The aggressive Brown should guide Michigan to bring more pressure and gets an elite group to work with, including do-it-all sensation Jabrill Peppers. Click here for Michigan's complete scouting report.
5. LSU Tigers
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. LSU’s deep secondary features five players with starting experience, including talented safety Jamal Adams (four interceptions in 2015). Expect more versatility up front in coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, allowing skilled ends Lewis Neal and Arden Key to stand up in pass-rush situations. Click here for LSU's complete scouting report. • Can Les Miles Variety Hour avoid cancellation in 2016?
6. Oklahoma Sooners
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. Gone are all the big-time playmakers from the best defense in the 2015 Big 12 (just 364.5 yards per game for opponents), including all-conference cornerback Zack Sanchez, who picked off seven passes in 2015. The linebacking corps is young and inexperienced, which means true freshman Caleb Kelly, a five-star prospect from Fresno, will have to live up to the hype. Click here for Oklahoma's complete scouting report.
7. Washington Huskies
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). The best defense in the conference brings back plenty of playmakers, led by Budda Baker, who’s totaled 111 tackles and three interceptions in two seasons. He flat-out scares opposing offenses, and they throw away from him as much as possible. That gives his teammates lots of interception opportunities (UW forced 27 turnovers last year). Click here for Washington's complete scouting report.
8. Houston Cougars
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. The Cougars will be vulnerable in the pass-happy AAC after losing four veteran secondary staples who combined for 145 career starts, including first-round corner William Jackson III. Five experienced front-seven starters—led by 314-pound senior B.J. Singleton—will help replicate a marauding crew that vaporized Florida State stalwart tailback Dalvin Cook (33 yards on 18 carries) in Houston’s 38-24 Peach Bowl romp. Click here for Houston's complete scouting report. • Why the Big 12 needs to add Houston
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
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. Facing the pass-happy tempo offenses of Bowling Green, Tulsa and Oklahoma to open the season, the Buckeyes need immediate secondary production from the three new starters alongside junior corner Gareon Conley. Strong safety Malik Hooker, a 205-pound sophomore ballhawk, needs the buzz he built this spring as an athletic freak to translate immediately. Click here for Ohio State's complete scouting report.
10. Tennessee Volunteers