Conference breakdowns, Playoff projection, and Heisman predictions, enjoy!
The ACC is really Clemson and Florida State’s conference. Clemson is returning most of their starters on offense, starting with quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson was a Heisman trophy finalist last year and is a preseason favorite to win the award. Alabama coach Nick Saban says Watson is the best college football player since Auburn’s Cam Newton. I completely agree with this. Watson has an extremely strong and accurate arm mixed with the athleticism to escape pressure in the pocket and make big plays with his legs, and he shredded Alabama’s top-ranked defense last year. Watson would have been the clear number one overall pick in the NFL draft last year. He has a great attitude, so he will be even better in 2016.
Watson’s favorite weapons will be returning to the offense. Running back Wayne Gallman, who rushed for 1,500+ yards last year, returns to the Tigers’ backfield, and will balance Clemson’s offense. Wide receivers Artavis Scott, who had 93 receptions in 2015, and Mike Williams, who was lost for the 2015 season with a neck injury, will both return. The offense was explosive without Williams, and with him back healthy, the sky's the limit.
The defense will lose a significant step. Clemson lost some of its most important defensive players from last year’s national championship run in Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson, and Mackenzie Alexander, but the offense will more than make up for this diminished defense.
Clemson's only threat in the ACC is Florida State. This Seminoles team will revolve around Dalvin Cook, one of the best running backs in all of college football. He is an every down back. He is powerful, quick in space, and has breakaway speed. Cook alone is enough to put Florida State in the playoff picture.
Redshirt Freshman Deondre Francois will be the starting quarterback to start the season. Florida State face Ole Miss in Week 1, and Francois’s inexperience could hurt the Seminoles.
The defense returns 7 to 8 starters. Last year Florida State had a stout defensive front, and I see them being just as strong this year. They lost Jalen Ramsey, possibly the best defensive player in all of college football, to the NFL draft, but he will be replaced by Derwin James. James is an athletic and long safety who will anchor the defense. He is practically a clone of Ramsey and could even turn out to be a better football player than his predecessor.
North Carolina had a very good record last year and won their division of the ACC. The Tar Heels went 11-3 last season. And their three losses were all less than 11 points to South Carolina, Clemson, and Baylor. Some might attribute their success to an easy schedule, but they did give Clemson a run for their money in the ACC championship game last year. They lose quarterback Marquese Williams, who accounted for most of UNC’s offense. They do, however, return running back Elijah Hood, one of the most underrated players in college football.
Georgia Tech had a down year last year. Following a successful 2014 campaign, the Yellow Jackets had a disappointing 2015 season, going 3-9. 2014 Orange Bowl MVP and quarterback Justin Thomas is returning for his senior season. Georgia Tech beat Florida State in a thriller last year. The Yellow Jackets have the talent to give either Florida State or Clemson a run for their money, but it depends on which version of the team shows up; 2014 Georgia Tech or 2015 Georgia Tech? This depends on how Thomas plays, and the success of the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense built on a maturing backfield.
Miami is an interesting team. Brad Kaaya is a top 5 quarterback prospect coming into this season, but I don’t think there is enough talent around him for me to consider the Hurricanes a contender. Miami is recovering from the firing of former head coach Al Golden last season.
Louisville, Duke, and Pittsburgh are also teams that have been strong in the past few years. However, the ACC really belongs to Florida State and Clemson. Florida State has Cook, one of the best running back in the nation, but Clemson is blessed with the best player in college football in Deshaun Watson and possibly one of the most explosive offenses in the NCAA. The ACC crown will go to the Clemson Tigers.
Ohio State is the popular favorite to win the Big Ten. The Buckeyes return a measly 6 starters. They had 12 players drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL draft: they didn’t just lose key players, they lost superstars. Urban Meyer is one of the best recruiters in college football, though, and if any team can reload from losing this much talent, it’s Ohio State.
Returning quarterback JT Barrett will be the most important player on this team. Barrett was a preseason favorite to win the Heisman two years ago, but an ankle injury ended his 2014 Heisman campaign. Last year, the Buckeyes struggled, with playing time split between both Barrett and Cardale Jones at QB. But 2016 will be Barrett’s show. His new backfield mate will be running back Mike Weber, a 4-star recruit out of high school who was once committed to Michigan. The defense will be led by returning linebacker Raekwon MacMillian. Barrett is a superstar QB, and can carry this depleted Buckeye squad to the playoffs.
Jim Harbaugh has made a lot of noise this offseason at Michigan. Michigan returns a whopping 16 starters. This is the most talented football team we have seen in Ann Arbor in a long time. Jabrill Peppers is one of the most athletic players in the college football and will play a large role on offense, defense, and special teams. Led by senior captain Chris Wormley, Michigan’s D-line will be one of the best in the country. There are questions marks at the quarterback position. Harbaugh still hasn’t announced whether Wilton Speight, John O’Korn or Shane Morris will start. If the Wolverines don’t get their quarterback position straightened out they could struggle like Ohio State did with Barrett and Jones in 2015. With a defense poised to dominate, and with talent and experience at the skill positions on offense, the only concern for Michigan is whether any of these quarterbacks can carry the team with their arm if they need to, and I don’t think any of them can.
Mark Dantonio proved he belongs with the college football coaching elite last year, when he led Michigan State to a Big Ten title and a playoff berth. The Spartans lost Connor Cook, Jack Conklin, Shilique Calhoun, and Aaron Burbridge to the NFL, but they have important players returning, too. Cook’s replacement at QB, Tyler O’Connor, has some starting experience, and helped MSU beat Ohio State in the regular season last year. The Spartans also return three running backs that all saw a heavy workload last year; LJ Scott, Madre London, and Gerald Holmes, all of whom will run behind a physical O-line anchored by G Brian Allen.
On defense, Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough return to solidify the front seven, and most of their secondary returns. MSU has a lot of talent returning, and their run game will be among the strongest in the Big Ten.
Iowa will win their half of the conference. CJ Beathard is the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten (besides Barrett). The Hawkeyes return lockdown cornerback, Desmond King, last year’s Jim Thorpe award winner.
Wisconsin and Penn State are both in similar situations: both are built around talented running backs in Corey Clement and Saquon Barkley, respectively. There isn’t much talent around these players so it will be up to both running backs to carry their respective teams this year.
Nebraska will be a sneaky team this year. They lost 5 games on the last play in 2015, so they were a better team than their record suggests. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will return for his senior season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cornhuskers shocks some teams this season.
Northwestern is another team that surprised a lot of people last year, as they beat Stanford in their season opener on their way to a 10-3 season. I think the Wildcats are a team that will have another successful season with both quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson coming back, as well as some key guys like Anthony Walker Jr and Godwin Igwebuike on defense.
The ACC only has 2 teams with a realistic shot at winning the conference (Clemson and Florida State). The Big Ten has 3 in Ohio State, Michigan, and MSU. Each team has pros and cons. Ohio State has the best quarterback of the three, but is the least talented across the board and the most poorly coached in game (OSU’s two quarterback struggles and their meltdown against MSU last year as the result of poor coaching). Michigan has the best team from all around but they have many questions at quarterback, which is cause for concern. Lastly, MSU has a good enough defense, but what sets them apart from the rest of the conference is their ability to run the ball effectively. Having three talented running backs will allow them to outlast teams, and survive the season. This will be close conference race until the end, but I think the ground game is what wins games in the NCAA (and how Alabama has won its championships), and I see Dantonio's Spartans coming out of this dog fight on top.
I, like most people, have Oklahoma as the favorites to win the Big 12. Baker Mayfield is coming off of a sensational year after winning the starting quarterback job in 2015. The passing game will take a hit after losing receiver Sterling Shepard to the NFL, but the running game should be strong as ever. Both running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon have rushed for 2000+ career yards, and they return to the Sooners’ backfield. They do lose stars Erik Stricker and Zach Sanchez from the defensive side, but the Sooners return 7 starters on defense. Oklahoma faces the 6th ranked Buckeyes in Week 3, and I think they will lose that contest, but overall I think they are the most talented team in the Big 12 and should come out on top of the conference.
TCU lost a lot from last year, but they have one of the best defenses in the offense-heavy Big 12. While the Horned Frogs lost a lot of players from their 2015 roster, they do bring in key transfers. Quarterback Kenny Hill transferred from Texas A&M where he put up ridiculous numbers, but struggled due to off-the-field issues. And transfer running back Derrick Green from Michigan comes in as a sturdy bruiser to stabilize the offense and compliment starting tailback Kyle Hicks. I look to TCU to be a surprise team this year.
Baylor is a team that has been in the news for all of the wrong reasons. The Bears suffered a multitude of suspensions and punishments from the NCAA for sexual-assault cases, and have fired their head coach Art Briles for his role in the scandal that swept the entire athletic program. With that said, starting quarterback Seth Russell and deep threat KD Cannon both return to the Bears offense. I’m not sure how interim coach Jim Grobe will fair, but the offense returns a lot of firepower. The defense does have a lot of holes, but that’s never been a strong trait of Baylor’s.
Oklahoma St and Texas Tech are two other teams I see with a shot at winning the Big Twelve title. Mike Gundy is one of the best coaches in college football and always has his Cowboys in the title conversation. And Texas Tech returns one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football, Patrick Mahomes II. Kansas State has a chance to be sneaky good this year. If they beat 8th ranked Stanford in Week 1, they could stand a chance to beat a lot of teams this year. And lastly, Texas is still trying to figure out things under second-year coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns have good talent, but I think they are a few years away from being in the playoff conversation.
I see Oklahoma winning the conference, simply because they are the most talented team in the Big Twelve top-to-bottom. However, I don’t see a Big 12 team making the playoffs. The Big Twelve is the weakest conference, and they don’t have a conference championship game. Other conference champion teams will end the regular season with 13 games as opposed to 12 for a Big Twelve team. I don’t see any Big Twelve team going 12-0, and a 12-1 Clemson team will a lot better than an 11-1 Oklahoma team to the Playoff committee, even though Oklahoma has a great non-conference schedule.
The Pac 12 championship race will be more wide open than in the other conferences. The title is up for grabs between a lot of teams. The teams might end up beating each other up, but I think the fact that the Pac-12 has a championship game helps them, and still see the Pac-12 getting a team into the playoffs.
Stanford returns a lot of talented players from their 2015 Pac-12 championship team. Running back Christian McCaffrey was the most dominant player in college football last year, a jack-of-all-trades. He did everything for the Stanford’s offense and specials teams units, and destroyed Iowa in Stanford’s final victory in the Rose Bowl. Opposing defenses still won’t be able to figure McCaffrey out this year, and he will be just as dominant. Senior Ryan Burns will be the new starting quarterback. Burns has big shoes to fill; Stanford’s last two quarterbacks were Kevin Hogan (career 36-9) and Andrew Luck (31-7). Speedster Michael Rector returns and should help out Burns by stretching the field vertically. Stanford’s defense is always strong, and David Shaw is one of the best coaches in the country when it comes to reloading talent on defense.
Oregon had a roller coaster season in 2015. The Ducks were plagued with injuries across the board. Quarterback Vernon Adams was off and on with various injuries, which robbed Oregon of a promising season; Oregon was undefeated whenever Adams lasted for a full game. The Ducks have a punishing runner in Royce Freeman. Adams is gone, but Oregon brings in graduate transfer Dakota Prukop to fill his role. Reports have said Prukop has been gelling well with his new teammates in camp this summer. Both receivers Darren Carrington and Olympic hurdler Devon Allen return. Mark Helfrich has done a stellar job filling in for former head coach Chip Kelly in directing Oregon’s fast-paced offensive scheme. Few teams in the Pac-12 have been able to figure out Oregon’s uptempo assault. Stanford’s Shaw seemed to develop a formula to stop the Oregon offense in 2012 and 2013, but the Ducks have still won 4 of their last 6 meetings against the Cardinal.
Oregon’s defense has been atrocious during Helfrich’s tenure, but new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke should fix that. Although Hoke was a disaster as Michigan’s head coach, his defensive units in Ann Arbor were always strong. Hoke brings some old school grit and toughness that Oregon defenses have lacked in the past few years.
This finally seems to be the year for USC. The Trojans seem to have gotten stronger and stronger every year since they were blasted by sanctions in a few years back. In 2015, USC won the Pac-12 South and hung around with Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. This may be one of the most talented teams USC has had since the glory days with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Senior running back Justin Davis is one of the better runners in the conference, and he will be running behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Juju Smith-Schuster is a superstar receiver who can do everything at the position, and Adoree Jackson is a freakishly athletic two-way player and kick returner who is deadly in open space. Like Oregon’s Allen, Jackson also competed in the 2016 Olympic trials, in long jump. Max Browne will be the quarterback, a solid player with some experience.
USC’s failures to meet expectations over the past few years were the result of poor coaching. Lane Kiffin was an awful decision maker on the field, and Steve Sarkisian had personal problems that distracted him from focusing on his job. New coach Clay Helton took over midway through last year for Sarkisian and did a great job, finishing the year. USC plays Alabama Week 1, and if they manage to beat the Tide Week 1, they have a very good chance of having a successful season. This USC team is stacked with talent on both sides of the ball. This might be the year the mighty Trojans return to former glory.
The other Pac-12 school in Southern California also has a lot of hype coming into 2016. UCLA’s quarterback Josh Rosen had a good freshman campaign in 2015, and I only see him improving in year two. He is a big kid with a strong arm. UCLA has done well in recruiting over the last few years. This Bruins squad will be good, no doubt, but they will still just be right outside of the Pac-12’s elite. The same goes for Washington. The Huskies also have a lot of talent on their roster, and they have a lot of hype surrounding them this year, but are a few years away from making a playoff run.
Utah was a surprise contender last year, but they lose almost everyone to graduation or to the NFL. The Utes won’t meet the mark they set in 2015.
Like I said, the Pac-12 is pretty wide open this year. Stanford has the best player, USC has the most talent, but Oregon has the best combination of talent and cohesiveness, assuming Prukop has a smooth transition learning the Ducks offense, and I think he will. Hoke should improve the defense, and the fighting Ducks will fly to the college football playoffs this year.
The defending national champion Alabama comes into the season ranked no 1 overall in the preseason AP poll. The Tide lost a lot of talent last year, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But nobody reloads better than Nick Saban. Alabama has a lot of guys returning on the front 7, which will be the best in the country. Among them are Tim Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster. OJ Howard is the best tight end in college football and will contribute to many explosive plays this year. Speedy wideout Calvin Ridley returns too. Saban hasn’t announced who the quarterback will be yet out of Connor Bateman or Blake Barnett. Bateman played a bit last season and was absolutely miserable, and Barnett has no experience whatsoever. Alabama won games thanks to a dominant ground game. The new starting running back ,whether it will be Bo Scarbrough or Damien Harris, will have to fill the massive shoes of Derrick Henry, Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon, Trent Richardson, and Mark Ingram. If they get similar production out of their new starting RB, this Tide team will be as dominant as any of the Alabama teams we’ve seen during this dynasty.
Leonard Fournette is the best running back in college football. He is on a different level from any other running back, including FSU’s Cook or Stanford’s McCaffrey. LSU had a topsy turvy season last year and almost fired coach Les Miles. But Miles is back, his job is secure, and the Tigers should have a drama free season. The only concern is if Fournette doesn’t go 100% in order to preserve his body for the NFL. I’m going to assume he will go full speed, and if he does there is not a defense in the country that can stop him. LSU has some other playmakers on offense: wideouts Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, as well as quarterback Brandon Harris, who has a lot of experience, should help out Fournette. LSU’s starting defense is mostly comprised of upperclassmen; they will surely have one of the best units in the nation.
Many analysts seem to have forgotten about Georgia. Football games in college are won on the ground, and the Bulldogs have a top 5 running back on their team in Nick Chubb. Chubb was a preseason Heisman favorite in 2015, but he was lost for the year with a gruesome knee injury midway through the season. He will be back at 100% and I expect him to be just as dominant as before. If other players on this team can step up and do their job, Georgia could easily win their half of the SEC.
Florida boasts one of the best defenses in the country. Jalen Tabor is one of the best cornerbacks in the nation and is capable of taking out an opposing receiver for an entire game. Tabor suffered a hand injury in the offseason and will miss the season opener, but hopefully should be okay for most of the season. The Gators also have some experience at linebacker with Jarrad Davis, and at safety with Marcus Maye. Treon Harris was an awful quarterback for Florida last year; new quarterback Luke Del Rio should prove to be better. Florida will likely have a committee of three running backs at their disposal;Jordan Scarlett, Mark Thompson, and Jordan Cronkrite. If quarterback play is solid for the Gators, they could sneak into the playoffs.
Tennessee is a sleeper pick this year to win the SEC. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs returns for his senior season. The most athletic quarterback in the SEC, Dobbs can create big plays with both his arm and his legs.
Auburn is another team whose name gets thrown around in the SEC contention, but I think this Tigers squad is too far removed from their championship days with Nick Marshall and Cam Newton at quarterback. They play Clemson Week 1 and they will get completely smacked.
Games are won in the trenches and Alabama has the best offensive and defensive lines in the SEC, but Leonard Fournette is a special player. If he doesn’t get hurt, and LSU’s role players contribute, the Bayou Bengals will snap Alabama’s college football streak.
Neither Notre Dame nor Houston are in a Power 5 Conference. Notre has two talented quarterbacks in Malik Zaire and Deshonne Kaizer. This is both a blessing and curse. Ohio State found themselves in the exact same situation as last year, and it ruined their season. I see the same thing happening to the Irish unless they commit to one guy. Houston has an incredibly talented team that beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl to end 2015. They have a lot of guys coming back from last year too. This Houston team will be really good, and they face an early test against 3rd ranked Oklahoma on Week 1. Both Notre Dame and Houston could have excellent seasons, but neither of them is quite good enough to make it to the playoffs this year.
If you’ve been following, you’ll know that my predicted college football playoff will include Clemson, LSU, Oregon, and Michigan State. MSU’s secondary wont be able to stop Deshaun Watson’s aerial assault, and LSU’s defense won’t be enough to keep up with Oregon’s speed. In the finals, Clemson’s offense will be just too much for the Ducks’ improved defense and the Clemson Tigers will win the 2016-17 college football championship.
The Heisman finalists will be Watson, Fournette, and McCaffrey, and the Stanford product will win the trophy he should have won in 2015.