It’s never too early to begin talking about the upcoming college football season. So, as the school year comes to a close, here is my top 10 for the 2016 college football season:
1. Clemson: With the return of top offensive weapons in quarterback Deshaun Watson (a preseason Heisman trophy candidate), running back Wayne Gallman, and explosive receiver Deon Cain (who was suspended for the College Football Playoff last year), the offensive firepower for the Tigers is there. Defensively stars Shaq Lawson and McKenzie Alexander must be replaced, but the Tigers will reload thanks to a strong recruiting class. If the Tigers survive in their season opener at Auburn and against Florida State in week nine, the rest of their schedule is very favorable.
2. Alabama: The defending national champions bring in the number two recruiting class in the nation (according to ESPN) to replenish a roster that lost several players the NFL draft. The offense welcomes back receivers Calvin Ridley, who is coming of a 1,000-yard season, Robert Foster who missed most of last season with shoulder injury, and tight end O.J. Howard, who was the offensive MVP of the National Championship Game. There is still the question at quarterback. But in two years at Alabama, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has answered any preseason questions about his unit. With road tests including USC in Dallas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, and LSU, the Tide has many potential stumbling blocks.
3.Oklahoma: The Sooners are coming of an 11-win campaign and look poised for another big season. Heisman hopeful quarterback Baker Mayfield will anchor the offense. But the biggest returning players might be the lethal running back combo of sophomore Joe Mixon and junior Samaje Perine who combined rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2015. The defense returns seven starters. If the Sooners survive out-of-conference tests against Houston and Ohio State, the Big 12 schedule sets up nicely. The Sooners have a revenge game against Texas and a home game against Baylor as their main in conference tests.
4.Baylor: The Bears have no shortage of offensive talent. The running game is strong, with Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson returning. Jefferson burst on to the scene in the Athletic Bowl, running for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The defense lost star linebacker Shawn Oakman and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. But the team’s offensive firepower and schedule bode well. Baylor’s toughest games — at Oklahoma and Texas — come late in the season. The Bears should easily be undefeated going when they face the Longhorns on October 29.
5. Florida State: Quarterback Sean Maguire is back for another season, and he has one of the best receiving corps in the nation. Top three targets Jesus Wilson, Kermit Whitfield, and Travis Rudolph had more than 2,000 yards combined in 2015. The Noles’ schedule is favorable. They only leave the state of Florida three times, and their showdown with Clemson is at home.
6. Michigan: Coming of a 10-win season, Michigan welcomes a consensus top-10 recruiting class. It is is headlined by 6’4”, 290 pound defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the top recruit in the country. The Wolverines return their leading rusher De’Veon Smith and two of their top three receivers. Their schedule is tricky, though, with tough road trips to Michigan State and Ohio State. The last time Michigan went into Columbus and beat the Buckeyes was 2000.
7. Houston: If the Cougars can get past the Oklahoma Sooners in their opener, the rest of the season is a breeze. On offense dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is returning for his senior season and is coming of a junior campaign where he racked up over 3,900 total yards. Two of his favorite targets, receivers Chance Allen and Steve Dunbar, are also back. But perhaps the most important returning performer is head coach Tom Herman, who led the Cougars to a 13-win season in 2015.
8. Tennessee: Dual-threat quarterback Josh Dobbs is coming off of a season in which he racked up more than 2,900 yards of total offense. And running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, who combined for almost 2,000 rushing yards, are also back. But the most exciting player is kick returner Evan Berry, who led the nation in kick return average at 38.3 yards and was second in the nation returning three kick-offs for touchdowns. Tennessee brings back 17 starters. If the Vols survive a tough four-game stretch against Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and home against Alabama, they will be a major factor in the SEC race.
9. Notre Dame: Coach Brian Kelly and the Irish have a favorable schedule. If they can get through it with only one loss, they are a strong candidate for a playoff spot. With quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, that is definitely possible. On defense the Irish are very young, but the experienced offense could have the team in contention for its first national title since 1988.
10. Stanford: Returning Christian McCaffrey, who came in second in the Heisman voting last year, gives the Cardinal one of the country’s top threats. In 2015, McCaffery lea Stanford in both rushing and receiving yards. But with away games at UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona, Oregon, and Cal the Cardinal's schedule is grueling.