PREVIEW REVIEW

SI scribes take a look back at their preseason write-ups for the final four teams and take note of what they got right—and wrong
December 14, 2015

1 CLEMSON

BY / ZAC ELLIS

THE QB OF THE FUTURE IS HERE

Injury-free in '15! couldn't prevent the arrival of quarterback Deshaun Watson . Despite missing nearly seven full games with injuries, he threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman and looked every bit the five-star signee he was. Now healthy, Watson says, "I want to come back even better." Check.

With the departure of offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU, Um, it looks as if they figured it out: 12th in total offense. Fast-paced unit that has just one starting lineman returning—center Ryan Norton—but plenty of talent: 6'4" junior wideout Mike Williams (57 catches for 1,030 yards), sophomore receiver Artavis Scott (76 catches, 965 yards) and sophomore running back Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards in '14).

SCHEDULE ANALYSIS

Clemson can work out the kinks against Wofford and Appalachian State before its season-defining stretch: a Thursday-night trip to Louisville (Sept. 17), followed by daunting home games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. If the Tigers make it through mid-October unbeaten, a visit from No it won't: That was a 23-13 win. North Carolina took the ACC championship game to the wire 45-37. in their quest for an ACC championship.

Wow, the Tigers fell all the way to ninth this year, 4.68 yards per play. Last fall (4.0 yards per play), the Tigers have to replace All-America linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett and two All-ACC picks, linebacker Stephone Anthony and corner Garry Peters. Still, coach Dabo Swinney says, the unit "is talented—maybe more talented." Junior ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and senior tackle D.J. Reader lead a rebuilt front, with sophomore corner projected first round heading up the secondary.

X-FACTOR

As a freshman All-America, Shaq Lawson had 35 tackles (10 for loss) and four sacks. He followed that up in 2014 with 44 tackles and 3½ sacks. Now, after a mass exodus of Tigers linemen, Expectations met: 54 tackles, 21½ for a loss! from the 6'3", 275-pound junior. Lawson's off to a good start: Dabo Swinney raved about his pass rushing during the spring.

2 ALABAMA

BY / ANDY STAPLES

SABAN'S CHOICE

For the second consecutive season Alabama enters camp with a quarterback competition. Senior Jake Coker, the Florida State transfer, will try to fend off Cooper Bateman, a dual threat who can also do damage on the ground. Coach Nick Saban has offered no timetable for a decision, so the winner might not be known until the first game.

Whoever runs the offense, he'll have to operate Coker is your guy. Start him in every game, especially against, say, Ole Miss. In their first year under coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide averaged 9.2 more plays than in 2013. The QB's job will be made easier by a one-two wallop of running backs in junior Derrick Henry (6'3", 242 pounds) and senior speedster Kenyan Drake (4.4 in the 40). The line is anchored by sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson (6'6", 326 pounds), who's one of two Outland Award contenders in Tuscaloosa with senior center Ryan Kelly.

The defense allowed only 3.2 yards a rush last season, and a deep front led by 6'4", 312-pound junior A'Shawn Robinson should keep that number low. Improvements to a pass rush that finished 60th in sacks per game (2.2) will help a secondary that has lagged; in the Tide's Sugar Bowl loss, Ohio State completed third-and-long passes of 26, 26, 40 and 47 yards. So did freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick, who emerged as a star at the fifth DB position.

X-FACTOR

Last year Lane Kiffin ran the offense through receiver Amari Cooper; the most likely candidate to fill Cooper's spot is Robert Foster, a 6'2", 194-pound sophomore. Foster, who had just six catches for 44 yards, can't hope to match the All-America's record-breaking production. But he must keep defenses from packing the box to stuff the run; that will open up the field for whichever quarterback emerges.

SCHEDULE ANALYSIS

Teams coming off open dates weren't a problem. Committing five turnovers against Ole Miss was. Including three in a row starting on Oct. 17 (at Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU). That run against tough SEC teams with fresh legs comes after a couple of ground-and-pound matchups: at Georgia on Oct. 3, Arkansas on Oct. 10. The season ends with hard trips to Mississippi State and Auburn, sandwiched around Charleston Southern at home.

3 MICHIGAN STATE

BY / BRIAN HAMILTON

LET THE CHIPS FALL

The Spartans have won 11 or more games in Make it five of six. Still, they treat success with wariness. They talked about a chip before the Big Ten title game too. MSU fabricates more chips than Microsoft. (Get it?) Last season they finished fifth in the final polls after a 42--41 Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor; to open spring practice, coach Mark Dantonio reminded them they had failed to accomplish their goals. "What we hang on to," says senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun of his team's motivation, "is losing."

The reality? Michigan State is a team with top-shelf players and top-end consistency worthy of championship expectations. Senior quarterback Connor Nothing potential about it now. Has thrown 32 more touchdowns than interceptions the last two years. Tackle Jack Conklin, a 6'6", 317-pound junior who could have been drafted in round 1 last spring, anchors a Oops, big drop off in 2015: surrendered 17 sacks, 20.5 points per game.

My personal contribution to Sparty's stack of chips. Two defeats in 2014 were to the teams that played for the national title. "A lot of people give us credit right now," Dantonio says. "We have to reach higher."

Should have thought of Michigan's punt team. My bad.

In a former life Lawrence Thomas was a four-star linebacker recruit. Now he's a 6'4", 300-pound senior D-lineman who will shift between end and tackle depending on the personnel package. If Thomas can improve his sack numbers—he had three in '14—he can keep teams from sliding protection to Shilique Calhoun, much as now-graduated Marcus Rush did for the last three years.

SCHEDULE ANALYSIS

A high-impact visit from Oregon on Sept. 12 won't determine whether the Spartans are a playoff contender—but it will define the context of their season. Actually, top three. Lose, and the margin for error in Big Ten play is zero, with road games at Michigan, Nebraska and OSU. Smile, swirl brandy.

4 OKLAHOMA

BY / LINDSAY SCHNELL

WHO WILL PILOT THE AIR RAID?

Don't believe everything you hear, says coach Bob Stoops. While popular chatter in Norman would indicate that the quarterback battle is decided, "that couldn't be further from the truth," says Stoops, who will give Good idea. Mayfield turned that chance into 3,389 passing yards, 420 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns. (The Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2013) a chance to unseat junior Trevor Knight (179-of-316 passing for 2,300 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions) in fall camp.

SCHEDULE ANALYSIS

After going 8--5 last year, OU can't afford to take anyone lightly. A The SEC is overrated, proclaimed linebacker Eric Striker, and that was before the Sooners rallied from a 17-point deficit for a 31-24, double-overtime win. He was right. should tell Bob Stoops a lot about whether his new offense is working, and Called it! on Oct. 10 in Dallas. The toughest stretch is mid-November, when the Sooners face Baylor (away), TCU (home) and Oklahoma State (away) with no bye.

While Stoops has defended his program after a disappointing 8--5 season, he made eight changes to his staff, highlighted by At 32, Riley is already being talked about for head-coaching jobs. Though he's an Air Raid disciple, Riley won't give up on the ground game—not with 5'11", 237-pound sophomore Samaje Perine, who last year set an FBS record with 427 rushing yards against Kansas.

After switching to a 3--4 defense in 2013, the Sooners will incorporate more 4--3 this year to cater to senior linebacker Eric Striker's strengths. They have other effective run-stoppers in junior Dominique Alexander (107 tackles) and redshirt senior Frank Shannon (92 tackles in 2013, suspended for '14 for sexual misconduct). The Hmmm, maybe not. The Sooners allowed 201.5 passing yards per game, fewest in the Big 12. Which gave up 276.2 passing yards per game last season, most in school history.

X-FACTOR

After being suspended for his freshman season because of a misdemeanor assault charge (he took a plea bargain), 749 yards rushing, 345 receiving, 11 TDs. He was a double x-factor. (Pounds) will have an instant impact. Mixon hasn't played in a real game since 2013 at Freedom High in Oakley, Calif., when he ran for 1,704 yards and 23 touchdowns. A gifted receiver, he's an ideal fit for the Sooners' new pass-heavy offense.

PHOTORAINIER EHRHARDT/AP (WATSON) PHOTODOUG BUFFINGTON/ICON SPORTSWIRE/AP (LAWSON) PHOTOJASON PARKHURST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HENRY)Keep feeding him. He can handle it. PHOTOSTACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES (FOSTER)Foster was lost for the season with a right-shoulder injury suffered in the Ole Miss game. But Coconut Creek, Fla., native Calvin Ridley caught 75 passes for 893 yards and five TDs. PHOTOPAUL SANCYA/AP (CALHOUN) PHOTOSCOTT BOEHM/AP (THOMAS) PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PERINE)Oklahoma ranked 18th in rushing with 2,820 yards. Perine contributed 1,291. PHOTOSOOBUM IM/USA TODAY SPORTS (MIXON)

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