The 2015 College Football season is over. Here are our annual “way-too-early” rankings for 2016. We used a prorated SRS formula as a rough baseline, making appropriate adjustments for returning starters, quarterbacks and Jim Harbaugh wizardry. Consider this a “power ranking.” Going through each team’s schedule for a projected finish is too many variables. Before you inquire, yes. We were biased against your team specifically to spite you. Here are the rankings…
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
You may be bored. That doesn’t mean they are. Have the best coach? Sign the No. 1 class every year. You have a very high floor. Alabama will reload on defense. The Tide have quality players at key positions on offense. They will replace Derrick Henry, as they replaced Yeldon, Richardson, Lacy, and Ingram. For the third straight year, the saga will be who starts at quarterback. (Spoiler: It won’t matter that much. They won the SEC the last two years with two stop gaps.)
2. CLEMSON TIGERS
Clemson has almost the entire offense back, including perhaps the nation’s best quarterback (DeShaun Watson). The bigger question will be defense. The Tigers likely lose key defenders – Shaq Lawson, B.J. Goodson, and Mackenzie Alexander – from each phase of the defense. That said, Clemson’s defense had substantial attrition last year and virtually no decline. Viva Venables!
3. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Rebuilding at FSU was 10 wins and a New Years Six bowl bid in 2015. Playoff run in 2016? Florida State has Dalvin Cook, an older offensive line, and some crazy receiver talent. The Seminoles can weather attrition on defense. Their schedule is favorable. But, do they have a quarterback who can run Jimbo Fisher’s offense? Stick withSean Maguire? Throw in talented true freshman Malik Henry? That decision will be an interesting one.
4. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
The Buckeyes send a historic class to the 2016 NFL Draft. That also means a historic level of attrition. Ohio State loses four explosive skill players and much of their offensive line. They part with Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, and Vonn Bell on defense, to name a few. We saw the offensive staff struggle with riches last year. Greg Schiano has not coordinated a defense since 2000. That said, J.T. Barrett will be a Heisman candidate. Urban is 50-4. We suspect he may have some latent blue chip ballers in reserve.
5. STANFORD CARDINAL
Christian McCaffrey is back for more total yardage. A young defense gets a year older and, presumably, wiser with the Cardinal hanging on to Lance Anderson. Stanford must replace longtime starting QB Kevin Hogan, their three best receivers not named McCaffrey, and their two best offensive linemen. But, with the Cardinal you trust the recruiting, the development, and David Shaw’s track record of producing Top 10-ish football teams (despite the at times odd play-calling and pocketed timeouts).
6. OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Oklahoma’s offense should be explosive. Lincoln Riley has a second year with Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine, and Joe Mixon. However, the Sooners lose Zack Sanchez in the secondary and the majority of a strong defensive front seven. Even a slight decline could have a major impact, as the Sooners face a brutal schedule with Houston and Ohio State as two of their three non-conference opponents. .
7. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
Michigan will be the team everyone is high on. With Jim Harbaugh at the helm, it’s hard to talk them down. On offense, the Wolverines return almost everyone. On defense, they bring back a robust, deeper line and an excellent secondary. If Harbaugh can produce a solid quarterback and Don Brown’s staff can cobble together a linebacking corps, there aren’t many weaknesses. Need to step forward against the big teams on the road.
8. BAYLOR BEARS
We trust Art Briles, but he has some work to do for 2016. Seth Russell returns, healthy for his senior year. But, the Bears have to replace four offensive line starters, star wideout corey coleman, and some NFL-caliber players on the defensive line. Baylor should be good. They could be great. But, it feels like last year was an unfortunate missed opportunity.
9. OREGON DUCKS
Another year further away from Chip Kelly. The Ducks will be boom or bust. Oregon has skill talent. If touted Montana State transfer QB Dakota Prukop pans out, the offense will be formidable. Everything will flow from there. If not, look out. Oregon’s secondary play should improve with experience and better injury fortune (it needs to with the front seven departures). It can’t get much worse. Coaching also needs to improve. When injuries forced the Ducks off Plan A, they were abysmal.
10. OLE MISS REBELS
The Rebels have the SEC’s best returning quarterback with Chad Kelly. Ole Miss loses the triumvirate of Treadwell, Tunsil, and Nkemdiche from Hugh Freeze’s monster recruiting class. There’s talent behind them. Beating Alabama twice, the Rebels have proved capable of playing with anyone. Supplanting Alabama atop the SEC West requires far more consistency.
11. LOUISIANA STATE TIGERS
LSU is loaded. They have a game-alterer in running back Leonard Fournette. They don’t lose much beyond their two offensive tackles. Dave Aranda with LSU athleticism is an interesting proposition. That said, this team is 14-10 in the SEC the past three years. Five two-touchdown plus losses in the division the last two years. Beating quality teams and competing for an SEC title requires Les Miles to develop a quarterback. The engine has been in need of repair for some time.
12. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
2016 will be a transition year for the Spartans. QB Connor Cook, the best in program history, departs. So do his top two receivers. That’s crucial since 3rd and long miracles were a staple of the Spartan offense. Michigan State loses numbers and top-tier talent on both lines. There’s work ahead to revamp the back end of the defense. However, the Spartans have weathered transition before. Every important B1G game is at home. “Disrespekt” is college football’s tiredest narrative.
13. UCLA BRUINS
Josh Rosen will be an experienced sophomore. The Bruins return most of their starters. But, the few departures are significant. Perkins and Payton were UCLA’s top rusher and receiver respectively. Kenny Clark and Myles Jack are two potential 1st rounders out the door on defense. There will be offensive staff changes. When does Jim Mora’s recruiting prowess into beating good football teams?
14. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Butch Jones’ recruiting hits critical mass. The Vols have a senior quarterback in Josh Dobbs. They return almost every starter. They have talent at every spot on the field. They made a huge hire with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Considering talent, they are a Top 10 team. Are they well coached? Four losses against Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama came by 10 points. Closing out those types of games and making the right decisions is the difference between a great season and 8-4.
15. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
Notre Dame has a lot coming back. They are loaded at quarterback. They should be healthier. While they don’t have that many players leaving, the ones that are leaving are vital. On offense, the Irish will miss their two biggest playmakers, Prosise and Fuller, as well as two potential first-round offensive linemen. The defense, quite average in 2015, loses Sheldon Day and standout linebacker Jaylon Smith.
16. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Talent has never been the issue for Georgia. It is getting production from that talent. Kirby Smart inherits some top-tier running backs and a veteran secondary. But, they have to replace a lot up front on defense, especially at linebacker. Most important will be finding a quarterback. Ineptitude there kept them from a trip to Atlanta and got Mark Richt fired.
17. USC TROJANS
Clay Helton’s tenure begins in earnest. USC brings back most of its talented offense. But, there will be new play-calling and the Trojans will have to find a quarterback. Their defense has some absurd athleticism in the secondary, but loses a lot up front and faces a coordinator change. Both units will have to click early and weekly. The season could go off the rails quickly with their brutal schedule.
18. AUBURN TIGERS
Gus Malzahn knows how to coach offense. Auburn should bounce back. The Tigers have depth at running back. The element missing in 2015 was the quarterback run game. Maybe lightning quick dual threat transfer John Franklin III can change that. Auburn still has talent up front on defense. A young secondary should improve. That unit did not fall off that much from last year. Auburn’s road back will not be as long as portrayed.
19. TCU HORNED FROGS
TCU in 2016 should be more of a traditional Gary Patterson team, with a veteran, hopefully much healthier defense. Hanging on to offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie was huge. He’ll be working with a new quarterback, a new offensive line, and no Josh Doctson. The triumphant return of Kenny Trill? Take the over on the number of times Patterson wears purple.
20. WISCONSIN BADGERS
The Badgers bring back running backs, most of their offensive line, and most of their defensive front seven. That gets them a long way toward being Wisconsin. Joel Stave leaves, though Bart Houston may be a capable alternative. Dave Aranda and some secondary contributors leave.But, they should be good. Will that be good enough? Wisconsin has skated by with scheduling before. Not in 2016. The Badgers open with LSU, have back-to-back road trips to Michigan State and Michigan, and face Ohio State and Iowa before the end of October. Oof.
21. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Arkansas had the SEC’s best offense in 2015. But, the Razorbacks now replace quarterback Brandon Allen and much of their vaunted offensive line (without coach Sam Pittman). The defense returns most of its starters, and must get a lot better. The offense may not be equipped to bail them out of if they allow 45-plus points (as it did twice in 2015).
22. WASHINGTON HUSKIES
It’s year three. Chris Petersen players are on campus. His systems are fully in place. Quarterback Jake Browning should progress as a sophomore. Washington should return another salty defense (best in Pac 12 in 2015). The capable Huskies had a mercurial 2015. Potential for a poised, confident 2016 will have them atop every sleeper list.
23. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
Young Louisville had an up-and-down 2015. They still nearly beat Houston and Clemson. In 2016, the Cardinals return almost every starter on both sides of the ball. They have a strong, talented defense. Bobby Petrino should have more to work with, as freshman thrust into offensive action become sophomores. Tough ask to catch Clemson/FSU, but that should be enough to get them back into the Top 25.
24. HOUSTON COUGARS
Tom Herman and his grill are back for year two. Star senior QB Greg Ward returns. He should have a more experienced line and enough talent at receiver to withstand Demarcus Ayers’ departure. Well regarded DC Todd Orlando is back too, but with work to do. Houston loses a lot at the back end of the defense. Opening with Oklahoma, we’ll find out where they stand quickly.
25. OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS
The Cowboys’ offense should be loaded. Mason Rudolph is back for his junior year at quarterback. Oklahoma State has depth at receiver and the entire offensive line. Their defense endures only a few departures, though that includes star DE Emmanuel Ogbah. They should improve a bit. Not sure whether it will show up in the record book. The Big 12 gives the Cowboys the sharp end this year. They have Baylor, Kansas State, TCU, and Oklahoma on the road.
Florida Gators: They’ll still have a very good defense. Too much uncertainty on offense. Need to stop “Devin Gardner-ing” Treon Harris into a pro-style system or find a quarterback they like.
Iowa Hawkeyes: C.J. Beathard and most of the defense come back. All their big games are at home. Still hard to wash out that Rose Bowl effort (which meshed well with advanced metrics).
North Carolina Tar Heels: Pieces are there for another strong run in a mediocre ACC. Who is playing quarterback?
Texas A&M Aggies: Hot seat time for Kevin Sumlin. Not buying Trevor Knight throwing Noel Mazzone swing passes until we see it.
Utah Utes: Utah will be strong along both lines. Question marks everywhere else.