This season’s college football landscape features as many elite players as ever. The top 20 is packed with Heisman candidates, from former finalists Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey to up-and-comers Bo Scarbrough and Baker Mayfield. All of that talent will make for a diverse mix of teams competing for playoff spots — the top four teams all represent a difference conference. Jabrill Peppers could become the second defensive player to win the award, and Leonard Fournette could put LSU back on the map.
Sports Illustrated Kids breaks down all the potential from the top teams in college football with our 2016 Top 20 preview.
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Deshaun Watson (4) will lead the Tigers' offense again this season after falling short of a Heisman Trophy and a national title last year. The QB scored 47 touchdowns and eclipsed 5,000 yards of total offense in 2015 en route to winning the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's best signal-caller. He's poised for similar results this year, when he will be surrounded by many familiar faces, including running back Wayne Gallman. The only Tiger to rush for more yards than Watson in 2015, Gallman will help carry the load in the backfield, opening up the passing game. Lanky receiver Mike Williams is also back after a neck injury ended his junior season during the first game. Clemson lost eight starters on defense, but with the country's best offense, the Tigers will make it back to the national championship on firepower alone. And this year, they will come home happy.
Photo: Al Tielemans
After falling to Clemson in the playoff semifinals last year, the Sooners will be back in the national championship picture thanks to a dynamic duo. Quarterback Baker Mayfield finished last season with 3,700 passing yards and 43 total touchdowns, but he was the odd man out when it came time to pick the three Heisman finalists. Running back Samaje Perine is an offensive machine in his own right. He ran for 1,349 yards in 2015 after going for 1,713 as a freshman. If Mayfield gets left out of the Heisman festivities again this year, it might be because Perine overshadows him. Sure, it's a potential controversy. But it's a nice problem for Sooners coach Bob Stoops to have.
Photo: Alonzo Adams/AP
Leonard Fournette was the front-runner for the 2015 Heisman until Alabama's defense stopped him in his tracks. He ran for just 31 yards in a 30--16 defeat, sending the Tigers on a three-game losing streak that almost cost coach Les Miles his job. Fournette (1,953 yards) is back and will be determined to finish the job, but he'll need help from quarterback Brandon Harris, who was erratic as a sophomore.
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As the best two-way player in college football, Jabrill Peppers could build a Heisman-worthy season. Peppers, who is moving from defensive back to linebacker, also saw time at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Oh, and he was one of the best kick returners in the country. Michigan showed major improvement under coach Jim Harbaugh. With Peppers leading the way on both sides of the ball, things will only get better.
Photo: Tony Ding/AP
Tailback Bo Scarbrough didn't have the eye-popping numbers of a Heisman candidate (104 yards in seven games). Assuming he holds onto the job as starter for the Crimson Tide, though, the sophomore could contend for the trophy. His skill set is similar to that of 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry, so Scarbrough should excel in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's scheme, which is built around the run. That means Scarbrough could put up big numbers, but he'll be tested early. Alabama faces two top-20 teams (USC and Ole Miss) in the season's first three weeks.
Photo: Kent Gidley/UA Athletics
6: Ohio State
Late in the 2014 season, quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a broken ankle. Cardale Jones stepped in and led the Buckeyes to a national championship. So last year Barrett and Jones split time under center. Now with Jones in the NFL, Barrett, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting in '14, will again lead the Buckeyes' attack. Ohio State has only six returning starters, though, so Barrett will have to shoulder a heavy load. History (he's 13--2 as a starter) suggests he can do just that.
Photo: Jay Laprete/AP
Christian McCaffrey was second in last year's Heisman voting and remains one of the most interesting prospects in college football. He was revolutionary last season, excelling as a return specialist and a running back as he broke the NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards (3,864) held by Barry Sanders. McCaffrey is the Swiss Army knife that should make opponents in the Pac-12 — and potential playoff contenders — beware.
Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
8: Florida State
Dalvin Cook is as established as anyone in college football. The junior back has rushed for 2,700 yards and 27 touchdowns since he arrived in Tallahassee. With its entire offense returning, Florida State is certain to vie for a playoff spot. That will mean additional exposure for Cook, who set a school record last year with 1,935 all-purpose yards despite playing much of the season with hamstring and ankle injuries. If he's healthy, watch out.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
9: Notre Dame
DeShone Kizer could be a Heisman candidate this year. Or he could be a backup. After taking over for an injured Malik Zaire early last season, a freshman Kizer (2,880 yards passing) quarterbacked the Fighting Irish to a 9--3 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance. With Zaire healthy, the Irish have quite a battle brewing. Whoever wins, the Irish offense, which is loaded with quality youngsters, will be in good hands.
Photo: Michael Conroy/AP
Nick Chubb was on his way to challenging LSU's Leonard Fournette for the title of most dominant running back in the SEC before a knee injury against Tennessee ended his season (and his streak of 13 straight 100-yard games). New coach Kirby Smart isn't going to rush Chubb back. (Though of course the Bulldogs could use him for the opener against North Carolina.) When the junior does return, Georgia's offense will go from pretty good to elite in a hurry.
Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Trojans coach Clay Helton has a lot to do: settle into a new job, decide on a quarterback, and replace several key defensive players. But nine returning offensive starters will help — none more than junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Helton will likely go with a more ground-based offensive game, but Smith-Schuster (1,454 receiving yards last year) will still be the most dangerous weapon on an exciting Pac-12 team.
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
12: Ole Miss
The Rebels have the most established quarterback in the SEC in Chad Kelly. The speedy 6'2" 224-pounder threw for 4,042 yards last season, breaking Eli Manning's school record by more than 400 yards. What can he do for an encore? Get the Rebels, who have been as high as No. 3 in the polls in each of the past two seasons, over the hump and into the SEC championship game.
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
13: Michigan State
All-Everything QB Connor Cook is gone to the NFL, which means the gig in East Lansing belongs to Tyler O'Connor. The fifth-year senior led the Spartans to an upset of Ohio State last fall when Cook was sidelined with a shoulder injury. If his performance against the Buckeyes was any indication, O'Connor won't be flashy. But with a defense like Michigan State's, he doesn't have to be.
Photo: Al Goldis/AP
After a promising freshman season, QB Brad Kaaya fell into a sophomore slump (16 TDs, versus 26 in 2015). He's still a bright spot, though, and new coach Mark Richt's arrival bodes well for Miami.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
15: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have great receivers and an elite QB, Mason Rudolph (3,770 yards passing last year). The question is on the other side of the football: a so-so defense lost several top players.
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QB Josh Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 671 rushing) gives the Vols a chance to return to SEC relevance. Tennessee snuck back into the Top 25 last year after five straight losing seasons.
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Houston tied a school mark with 13 wins, including a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. That game's offensive MVP, Greg Ward (2,828 passing yards and 1,108 rushing yards), is back.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
18: North Carolina
Running back Elijah Hood racked up 17 TDs and 1,534 yards as a sophomore last season. But with QB Marquise Williams gone, Hood will have to shoulder a much bigger load.
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19: Texas A&M
Trevor Knight was the MVP of the 2014 Sugar Bowl for Oklahoma. After graduating, the QB transferred to the Aggies and will have one season to show the Sooners what they're missing.
Photo: Jackson Laizure/Getty Images
At the Music City Bowl, Lamar Jackson became only the third player in FBS history to run and pass for 200 yards in a postseason game. Look for the Cardinals to continue their hot streak.
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
2016 College Football Top 20