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The start of the 2016 college football season is still over 50 days away, but it’s never too early to project how the bowl games and playoff pairings may look by December. The top four teams for year three of the College Football Playoff era could look similar to the final pairings from 2015. Clemson and Alabama are among the favorites to win it all in 2016, with Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, LSU and Notre Dame bringing up the next tier of contenders.
The 2016-17 bowl schedule features 41 overall games including the national championship. Additionally, the semifinals will be on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1 once again this season. The Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl will host the semifinals, while the national championship will be held in Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 9.
How will the postseason matchups look by December? Below are Athlon Sports' predictions for every bowl and playoff game in 2016:
2016 College Football Conference Predictions
Podcast: Ranking the Conferences in 2016
College Football 2016 Bowl Projections
|New Mexico||Dec. 17||
|Las Vegas||Dec. 17||
Boise State vs.
|AutoNation Cure||Dec. 17||
Central Michigan vs.
|New Orleans||Dec. 17||
Southern Miss vs.
|Miami Beach||Dec. 19||
|Boca Raton||Dec. 20||
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 22||
|Armed Forces||Dec. 23||
Sun Belt vs.
Northern Illinois vs.
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||
Kansas State* vs.
Wake Forest vs.
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 27||
Big Ten vs.
Big Ten vs.
Penn State vs.
Big 12 vs.
Big Ten vs.
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 28||
Oklahoma State vs.
Big 12 vs.
Big 12 vs.
West Virginia vs.
Sun Belt vs.
Utah State vs.
|Music City||Dec. 30||
ACC/Big Ten vs.
|Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus||Dec. 31||
Big Ten vs.
Michigan State vs.
ACC/Big Ten vs.
Virginia Tech vs.
Big Ten vs.
Big Ten vs.
New Year's Six Bowls
Big Ten vs.
Big 12 vs.
College Football Playoff
|Chick-fil-A Peach||Dec. 31||
Florida State vs.
CFB National Championship
Peach Winner vs.
* By our projections, the ACC and SEC will fail to fill their allotted slots.
The prevailing view of the Redskins some 18 months ago was of an organization beset by dysfunction — with a meddling owner, a revolving door of coaches and GMs, a mercurial quarterback (Robert Griffin III) who was never the same after reconstructive knee surgery and a history of terrible (and terribly expensive) free-agent signings.
The Redskins’ 2015 season, which produced a surprising NFC East title behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, went a long way toward shedding the dysfunction label. So did the uncharacteristic harmony and decisiveness of the management team, headed by GM Scot McCloughan, whose vast overhaul of the roster continued this offseason — a period bookended by the long-expected release of Griffin and the surprise signing of star cornerback Josh Norman.
Washington may not be the model franchise it was in its 1980s heyday, but with 18 of the 22 starters listed for last season’s Wild Card game returning in 2016, and with what appears to be another solid draft class coming in, the Redskins remain a team on the rise. Much, of course, will depend upon the continued development of Cousins in his second year as the full-time starter in Jay Gruden’s offense.
Handed the starting job during training camp over Griffin — the player drafted three rounds before him in 2012 — Cousins put up dazzling numbers, setting franchise records for passing yards (4,166) and completions (379) while leading the league in completion percentage (69.8) and guiding the Redskins to a 9–7 record. Most important, he learned to protect the ball — his biggest failure in previous seasons — throwing 11 interceptions and losing only four fumbles, both respectable totals, while also avoiding sacks better than his more mobile predecessor. The biggest question now is whether Cousins fits in the team’s long-term plans; he was hit with the franchise tag for 2016, and talks are ongoing regarding a long-term extension.
|Head Coach||Jay Gruden|
|Record With Team||13-19|
|Offensive Coordinator||Sean McVay|
|Defensive Coordinator||Joe Barry|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Ben Kotwica|
|Running Backs||Randy Jordan|
|Wide Receivers||Ike Hilliard|
|Tight Ends||Wes Phillips|
|Offensive Line||Bill Callahan|
|Defensive Line||Robb Akey|
|Outside Linebackers||Greg Manusky|
|Defensive Backs||Perry Fewell|
Cousins has a nice assortment of targets for the passing game, from rising-star tight end Jordan Reed to big-play threat DeSean Jackson to steady veteran Pierre Garçon. Reed led the team in receptions (87), receiving yards (952) and touchdowns (11) in his third season in the league. Jackson averaged 17.6 yards on his 30 receptions. There’s also a nice crop of young players such as Jamison Crowder — who caught 59 passes as a rookie last year — and 2016 first-round draft pick Josh Doctson. The latter was a bit of a surprise for the Redskins in the first round, given their needs elsewhere, but Doctson was also a hedge on the upcoming free agencies of Jackson and Garçon.
The running back spot is something of an unknown. Matt Jones, coming off an unremarkable rookie year, ascends to the starting job, replacing popular veteran Alfred Morris. Backup Chris Thompson is coming off minor shoulder surgery and will have to compete with seventh-round draft pick Keith Marshall — who ran a 4.31 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine — for carries behind Jones. Marshall appeared headed for greatness early in his career at Georgia before tearing his ACL in 2013. Morris isn’t the only veteran back whose departure will be felt in Washington. The team also jettisoned fullback Darrel Young and likely won’t replace him.
If the offensive line is not exactly a strength for the Redskins, at least it is no longer a clear weakness. Left tackle Trent Williams, a four-time Pro Bowler, remains the anchor of the line, while right guard Brandon Scherff, the fifth overall pick in 2015, is coming off a stellar rookie campaign.
At first glance, the sudden signing of Norman, following his release from Carolina, appeared to be another case of Redskins impetuousness. But credit for this move goes to McCloughan, who put aside his build-through-the-draft strategy and pivoted decisively when a game-changer like Norman became available. One of the top cover men in the game, Norman will fit perfectly in coordinator Joe Barry’s zone scheme. With Norman’s signing, the secondary goes from a weakness to a potential strength, with Norman and Bashaud Breeland forming one of the top cornerback duos in the league — a huge plus in a division where they will face Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant twice each.
By the time the Redskins selected cornerback Kendall Fuller in the third round of the draft, there was so much depth in the secondary that the team released veteran corner Chris Culliver, its top free-agent signee of the previous offseason.
Meanwhile, the pass rush should also get a massive boost with the expected return of sack specialist Junior Galette, who missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his Achilles tendon in August; he had 22 total sacks in 2013-14 with New Orleans. On the other side is veteran Ryan Kerrigan, who has totaled 23 sacks the past two seasons. And don’t forget 2015 second-rounder Preston Smith, who amassed six sacks in the final four games of 2015. If Galette returns healthy, outside linebacker Trent Murphy, a 2014 second-rounder, could be moved to defensive end.
Among the more intriguing members of the Redskins’ 2016 draft class was second-rounder Su’a Cravens, a linebacker/safety hybrid out of USC. At 6'1", 226 pounds, he has the size to go either way — though he will be listed as a safety — and the Redskins envision using him as a “dime linebacker,” covering slot receivers, tight ends and running backs on passing downs.
The Redskins’ special teams were once a perennial laughingstock but now are a pillar of stability for the franchise. The team was happy enough with lefty punter Tress Way to take the rare step of signing him to a five-year contract. In 2014, he became the first Redskins punter since 1958 to lead the league in punting average. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, meanwhile, signed with the team last September after being cut by New Orleans and paid immediate dividends. His 52 touchbacks in 2015 were nearly three times as many as Kai Forbath had the year before, while opponents’ starting field position following kickoffs declined by nearly six yards. He also made 25 of his 28 field goal attempts for the year — more than good enough to ensure his roster spot for 2016. The team’s top return men for 2016 also appear set, with Rashad Ross handling kickoffs and Crowder returning punts.
It is tempting to say the signing of Norman pushed the Redskins into the role of favorites in the NFC East. The division was the only one in the NFL last year with three teams with losing records. The Redskins haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1996-97 and haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since making it three in a row from 1990-92, but this year both distinctions could fall. They are certainly far from a sure thing, but with a little more improvement from Cousins, some luck with health and a typical suffocating performance by Norman, the Redskins could improve on last year’s surprising run to the division title.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC East
The Eagles aborted the failed Chip Kelly experiment before last season even ended, giving the former Oregon Ducks boss fewer than three years to make his college system successful in the NFL. Owner Jeffrey Lurie, who in 2013 thirsted to dazzle the league with Kelly’s high-speed offense and alleged revolutionary approach to conditioning and practicing, realized the mistake he made putting someone in complete charge of a program who had never been a part of an NFL staff before. So, he looked back to find his next brain trust.
He started by reinstating Howie Roseman atop the team’s football org chart, after having exiled the Eagles’ former boss in favor of Kelly. Roseman then led a coaching search that featured some misfires (Adam Gase, Ben McAdoo, Tom Coughlin) before resulting in the hiring of former Eagles QB and Andy Reid acolyte Doug Pederson, who will try to take a roster with some serious questions to the top of the NFC East.
The Eagles appeared to have their quarterback situation figured out when they gave Sam Bradford a two-year deal ($22 million guaranteed), signed former Kansas City backup Chase Daniel to provide reinforcements under center and were planning to spend a draft pick on a young quarterback they would groom for the future. Then, the Birds jumped up to the second overall spot, chose North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and Bradford demanded that he be traded to a team for which he could be the clear-cut starter.
|Head Coach||Doug Pederson|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Frank Reich|
|Defensive Coordinator||Jim Schwartz|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Dave Fipp|
|Running Backs||Duce Staley|
|Wide Receivers||Greg Lewis|
|Tight Ends||Justin Peelle|
|Offensive Line||Jeff Stoutland|
|Defensive Line||Chris Wilson|
|Defensive Backs||Cory Undlin|
The funny thing about all this is that while Bradford had a solid second half of 2015, he has never been a consistent winner, thanks to injuries (he missed two games last year) and an inability to avoid mistakes. His petulance created turmoil within the organization, and even if he plays for Philadelphia in 2016, it’s unlikely he will have complete support of his teammates. And it is certain the fans will be merciless in the abuse they heap on him.
Pederson’s West Coast offense is far more conventional than Kelly’s campus attack. The Eagles figured Bradford had the skills to be successful in it and gave Daniel a lot of money ($12 million guaranteed) because he knows it so well. Wentz, a big-armed, mobile passer who led North Dakota State to a pair of FCS titles, has the smarts and tools to be successful in the NFL. But if he plays in 2016, the Eagles likely will not contend.
Whoever is under center will work with an uninspiring cast of wideouts. Third-year man Jordan Matthews is a proven slot weapon but has no downfield ability, which renders the team’s decision to deploy him on the outside this year quite curious. Second-year man Nelson Agholor caught only 23 balls in ’16 and remains an unknown quantity, despite his first-round pedigree. Josh Huff, newcomer Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are hardly inspiring options. The tight end situation is strong, with Zach Ertz and veteran Brent Celek offering plenty of production.
The DeMarco Murray experiment failed spectacularly last year, and the Eagles dished him to Tennessee during the offseason. That leaves Ryan Mathews, who carried the ball just 106 times last year, as the main back, with aging Darren Sproles in reserve. Fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing last year but had some off-field issues, will get a chance for some carries.
They will run behind a line that has some question marks, most notably Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, whose play has slipped the past couple years due to injury. Right tackle Lane Johnson has been steady and will ultimately slide into Peters’ position, while the Eagles need free-agent acquisition Brandon Brooks to provide stability at guard.
The Birds finished 30th in total defense last year, in part due to a gaping time-of-possession deficit caused by Kelly’s refusal to protect his D with any kind of ball-control principles. The Eagles added a couple of pieces to the unit, but it remains devoid of first-rate playmakers. The best move the team made during the offseason was trading underachieving cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins for a draft pick that helped the Eagles move up to acquire Wentz.
Second-year linebacker Jordan Hicks was a revelation last year before tearing his pectoral muscle. He’ll work with Mychal Kendricks, who must become more dynamic, and newly acquired Nigel Bradham on the second line of defense. They’ll work behind a line that includes standout tackle Fletcher Cox, who signed a six-year contract extension in June that is worth $103 million ($63 million guaranteed), and highly capable interior man Bennie Logan. But Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin are not first-rate ends, making this unit a little vulnerable against the run and in the pass rush. The Eagles’ 37 sacks last year were in the middle of the league hierarchy.
Philadelphia reconfigured its secondary during the offseason, a good thing, since only four teams surrendered more yards through the air. The secondary stalwart is safety Malcolm Jenkins, and the Eagles are excited about free-agent arrival Rodney McLeod. But the cornerback situation is not ideal. Neither journeyman Nolan Carroll nor second-year performer Eric Rowe is a standout, and former Bill Leodis McKelvin is not a front-line starter. The Eagles tried to upgrade things through the draft by acquiring safety Jalen Mills and versatile Blake Countess, but both were late-round choices, and it’s unlikely either will play a big role.
The Eagles were forced to use Caleb Sturgis as their kicker last year after Cody Parkey tore his groin muscles early in the year. If healthy, Parkey is a solid option who converted 32-of-36 chances in 2014. He doesn’t have the biggest leg around, but he proved to be a reliable option. If the Birds have to employ Sturgis again, that won’t be good. He isn’t overly accurate, and his leg is less powerful than Parkey’s. Donnie Jones averaged a robust 47.0 yards per punt last year, and his net of 41.6 was sixth in the NFL. His 23 fair catches were second in the league, and he was ninth in punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. Sproles is a dangerous punt return man, although he isn’t as electric as he once was, while Huff averaged a respectable 23.7 yards per kick return last year but hasn’t shown the ability to break off big runs yet..
The Eagles were in contention for the mediocre NFC East until late in the 2015 season, hardly reason for celebration. But Kelly is gone, and the team can get on with the process of playing real football again. The problem is that Pederson is an untested head coach. Roseman may have survival instincts, but he hasn’t shown any reason for fans to believe he is capable of re-tooling the roster. The Eagles’ executive hierarchy is among the least stable in the league, so even the selection of Wentz can be viewed as worrisome.
Should Bradford behave and play to his capability, the team is capable of finishing in the 8–8 range. While there isn’t an abundance of big-time NFL talent on the roster, there aren’t many gaping holes, either. If it’s up to Daniel, and worse, Wentz — at least in the short term — Philadelphia will be lucky to win six games.
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
It’s weird enough that Tom Coughlin is gone after a remarkable 12-year run with the Giants. What’s even weirder is that’s about the only thing that’s changed. Coughlin’s old offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, got promoted to head coach, so the offense won’t change. And McAdoo kept the same defensive and special teams coordinators. Eli Manning and most of the same core of players return, too.
Oh, there was a $200 million spending spree in free agency on defensive players — pretty smart considering the Giants’ defense was the third-worst statistically in the history of the NFL last year. That should obviously help. But mostly, the Giants are hoping a younger, fresher approach will lift the team out of the doldrums of three straight losing seasons and four straight of missing the playoffs. The owners say they weren’t blaming Coughlin, just that “it was time” to try something new. They hope that the change — and $200 million worth of new defensive players — will be enough to help Manning to lead them on one last championship run.
It’s still Manning’s team, now more than ever considering he’s put together his best back-to-back seasons in the two years with McAdoo running the offense. The quick-throw, short-passing game is perfect for a QB who is brilliant at making reads and getting his receivers in the right positions but has tended to force things when a play takes too long to develop.
|Head Coach||Ben McAdoo|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Mike Sullivan|
|Defensive Coordinator||Steve Spagnuolo|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Tom Quinn|
|Quarterbacks||Frank Cignetti Jr.|
|Running Backs||Craig Johnson|
|Wide Receivers||Adam Henry|
|Tight Ends||Kevin M. Gilbride|
|Offensive Line||Mike Solari|
|Defensive Line||Patrick Graham|
It also helps that he still has the incomparable Odell Beckham Jr. to be his big-play threat and one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. While it hasn’t slowed Beckham, the Giants still don’t have a reliable No. 2 receiver. They hope rookie Sterling Shepard, their second-round pick, will immediately have an impact (and be more reliable than their old No. 2, Rueben Randle, who lost Manning’s trust by too often running sloppy or flat-wrong routes). The Giants also are dreaming of the return of Victor Cruz, who has missed most of the last two seasons with knee and calf injuries. That’s a longshot, though.
What would really boost their offense is a reliable running game. They didn’t develop one until late last season when they abandoned their ill-conceived four-running back rotation and let Rashad Jennings become their workhorse. It’s unknown if that’s in McAdoo’s plans again. It would also help if they got some better blocking out of their offensive line, where the right side of guard John Jerry and tackle Marshall Newhouse has been in need of an upgrade that hasn’t yet come.
It’s hard to truly describe how ineffective the Giants’ defense was last season, but consider this: Their pass rush was virtually nonexistent until Jason Pierre-Paul showed up and immediately became their best pass rusher, four months after a fireworks accident that cost him most of his right hand. It also shows the Giants’ desperation that their top free-agent priority was bringing JPP back. JPP was a disruptive force during his eight games last season — and was a big reason why the now-departed Robert Ayers had a career-high 9.5 sacks. But at least this year the Giants got him some help. They beefed up their line with the high-profile additions of end Olivier Vernon and tackle Damon Harrison. Those players, plus the healthy return of tackle Johnathan Hankins, should give the Giants their best front line since their last Super Bowl team (2011).
They also boosted their secondary by signing Janoris Jenkins and drafting Ohio State’s Eli Apple in the first round. Together with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they could be as good as any trio of corners in the league. Sure, there are issues at linebacker — where they have a cast of unproven characters trying to fill the (oft-injured) shoes of the now-retired Jon Beason — and safety, where they’ll head into camp having no idea who will play alongside Landon Collins (third-round pick Darian Thompson might be the best bet). But at least they should have the two elements that make up the best defenses — a strong pass rush and the ability to cover. They had neither of those last season, which is why they set an NFL record by blowing five fourth-quarter leads.
After years of mediocre-to-miserable special-teams play, the Giants not only found some consistency last season, but they also discovered some weapons. The biggest addition was Dwayne Harris, who out of necessity doubled as their third receiver. His most important role, though, was as the kick and punt returner, where he excelled and even scored two touchdowns. Giants returners hadn’t really been a threat to reach the end zone for years.
Harris will be back this season, and so will all of the Giants’ specialists. They re-signed kicker Josh Brown at age 37 because he’s shown absolutely no sign of slowing down. Maybe he doesn’t have the leg strength that he used to, but his kickoffs are fine. And much more important, he’s made 91.7 percent of his field goals in his three seasons with the Giants, including a career-best 93.8 (30-of-32) last year.
A first-year coach with a team he believes can immediately be a contender doesn’t need to mess around with a young, unproven kicker. Brown is becoming one of the most reliable in the league.
The Giants also return their young punter, Brad Wing, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade last year and replaced the reliable — but older — Steve Weatherford. Wing was terrific in his first season, showing off everything — a booming leg, great directional kicking ability and a knack for landing punts inside the 20 (where 33 of his 76 landed).
McAdoo sure did step into a good situation. He was handed a proven quarterback, a dangerous receiving weapon and a veteran group on offense that knows his system. And then he watched as the Giants went crazy buying new defensive players.
That last part may be the key, because in fairness to Coughlin, the Giants simply didn’t have enough good players on defense in his last few years. They were in nearly every game last season and blew those five leads in the fourth quarter. If they just could’ve protected three of those leads, they would’ve been 9–7 instead of 6–10, maybe won the NFC East and Coughlin would still have a job.
With the ability to mount a fourth-quarter pass rush and cover, they should be able to protect those leads now. And the offense, which ranked eighth in the NFL last season, should be at least as good as long as Manning stays healthy. They were closer than you think last year in a terrible division. But even if the NFC East is better this season, the Giants should be good enough to contend. How good? Well, the Giants’ dirty little secret is that by almost any measure they’ve been the most injured team in the NFL over the last five years. McAdoo hopes to change that by overhauling the Giants’ strength and conditioning program among many other behind-the-scenes changes he’s made. If it works, they have the players to be a 10-win team. They don’t have a ton of depth, though, so in the end they’ll need them all.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC East
The Cowboys lost Tony Romo. They lost Dez Bryant. They lost Orlando Scandrick. They lost 12 games. The only thing they didn’t lose after last season was their swag.
The Cowboys did little in free agency despite having the franchise’s worst record since 1989. But Romo, Bryant and Scandrick — who missed a combined 35 games — return from injuries, and the Cowboys drafted dynamic running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys’ goal remains the same as every year — win the Super Bowl. That’s something they haven’t done in more than 20 years, recording a 162–158 mark since the 1995 season ended.
The Cowboys need their quarterback to stay on the field to have a chance to break their Super Bowl drought. He played only two full games — both victories — and less than three quarters of two others, twice breaking his left collarbone. Romo, who also broke his collarbone in 2010, underwent preventive surgery on his collarbone in the offseason. The 36-year-old has not played a full, 16-game schedule since 2012. So while Jones frequently talks about a four- to five-year plan for his quarterback, the Cowboys can’t count on Romo to stay in the lineup for an entire season. Yet, they did nothing to shore up the backup spot in free agency. Three reserve QBs combined for a 1–11 record last season, and Kellen Moore returns as the primary backup. The Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott in the fourth round.
|Head Coach||Jason Garrett|
|Record With Team||45-43|
|Asst. Head Coach/Special Teams Coord.||Rich Bisaccia|
|Offensive Coordinator||Scott Linehan|
|Defensive Coordinator||Rod Marinelli|
|Running Backs||Gary Brown|
|Wide Receivers||Derek Dooley|
|Tight Ends||Mike Pope|
|Offensive Line||Frank Pollack|
|Defensive Ends||Ben Bloom|
|Defensive Tackles||Leon Lett|
The Cowboys missed DeMarco Murray despite Darren McFadden producing the second 1,000-yard season of his career. They discussed a trade with the Eagles to bring back Murray but instead ended up signing free agent Alfred Morris and drafting Elliott with the fourth overall choice. Morris and McFadden were expected to battle for the backup job, but that was before the latter broke his right elbow over Memorial Day weekend. He had surgery on June 14 and there’s a chance he may not be ready to go by Week 1. Lance Dunbar returns as the third-down back after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in Week 4.
Jason Witten, 34, made it through a number of minor injuries, playing all 16 games for a 12th consecutive season. It was the first time he’s shown signs of wear and tear. Witten continues his role as team leader and the quarterback’s security blanket. Gavin Escobar likely enters his final season in Dallas after not living up to expectations as a second-round pick in 2013. He tore his Achilles tendon in December and likely won’t be ready to start the season.
Nothing went right for Bryant last season. He fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in the season opener, requiring surgery that sidelined him five games. Bryant admits he never was healthy the rest of the season, though he did play eight more games before going on injured reserve. Bryant needed more offseason surgery but insists he will return to form in 2016. The Cowboys need their top playmaker to do just that after going without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since 2011. In Bryant’s absence, Terrance Williams failed to show he could be anything other than a complementary receiver. Cole Beasley solidified his role as the team’s third receiver, but Dallas couldn’t find a reliable fourth receiver.
The offensive line didn’t play as well in 2015 as it did the year before, but this group remains the best in the business. Left tackle Tyron Smith, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, allowed the second-most sacks of his career (eight) and tied for the most holding penalties of his career (three). But arguably no left tackle in the NFL does it better than Smith. Center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin joined Smith in the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season. Right tackle Doug Free, 32, is the weak link on the line but remains the unit’s leader. The changing of the left guard came in the middle of last season when La’el Collins replaced Ronald Leary in the starting lineup. Collins had an up-and-down rookie season but made enough highlight-reel plays to bring back memories of Larry Allen.
The Cowboys can’t seem to figure out how to sack the quarterback. They had only 31 sacks last season, three more than the previous season. That was after they signed free agent Greg Hardy, who proved not to be worth the risk.
DeMarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick in 2014, was the lone bright spot. He led the Cowboys with eight sacks, seven coming in the final eight games. The rest of the defensive line contributed only 9.5 sacks. But Lawrence and Randy Gregory, a second-round pick in 2015, both will start the season by serving four-game drug suspensions. Defensive end Benson Mayowa, signed as a restricted free agent, had only two sacks in 28 games with the Raiders, but the Cowboys like his upside. Defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford played last season with a shoulder injury and still made five sacks. The Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to play the nose, but he has only four sacks in 61 career games, so he isn’t likely to help their pass rush. Terrell McClain also will see playing time in the defensive tackle rotation. Draft picks Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper have a chance to compete for playing time.
Sean Lee missed one game due to a concussion and one due to a hamstring but led the team in tackles after moving from middle to weak-side linebacker and earned a Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys re-signed Rolando McClain (80 tackles in 11 games) to man the middle, but he has been suspended 10 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, this coming after missing the first four games of the 2015 season for a previous infraction. Anthony Hitchens made starts at all three positions last season, and he and Kyle Wilber, who started six games on the strong side, will compete for the starting job opposite Lee. Damien Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2015, could earn more playing time this season.
Brandon Carr hasn’t made an interception the past two seasons, but he does stay on the field. That’s something Morris Claiborne and Scandrick haven’t done. Scandrick, who was the team’s co-Defensive MVP in 2014, missed all of last season after tearing two ligaments in his right knee during training camp. He was missed. The Cowboys still hope Claiborne can develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. They used the sixth overall pick on him in 2012, but he has not even shown flashes of being worth that. They upgraded the safety position with Byron Jones, a first-round choice last season. Jones won the starting free safety job from J.J. Wilcox at midseason. But Jones’ versatility hurt him, as the Cowboys asked him to play cornerback in four games Claiborne missed. Jones proved better at safety, and the Cowboys hope to find him a home there this season. Barry Church is a sure tackler at strong safety.
Dan Bailey ranks as the most accurate placekicker in NFL history, converting 90.6 percent of his kicks. He finally earned his first Pro Bowl last season. Punter Chris Jones had his best season with a 45.2-yard average and a 42.5 net. The Cowboys still haven’t replaced Dwayne Harris, who left last offseason for the Giants. Dunbar started the season as the kick returner, and, after his injury, Lucky Whitehead took over the job. Whitehead also ended up winning the punt return job from Beasley.
Jason Garrett has a long-term deal, but a 45–43 record, including only one playoff appearance and one playoff win, isn’t good enough in Dallas. While the Cowboys can write off last season to injuries, Jerry Jones expects more this season. They should contend for the NFC East, but they have too many holes to be considered a Super Bowl contender.
Prediction: 1st in NFC East
It’s first-and-10 near midfield, and the quarterback lines up under center. Josh Sweat, Florida State’s freakish 6-foot-5 defensive end, is standing up on the left side of the line.
While the Seminoles’ other three defensive linemen are bent over at the waist with their hands on the turf, Sweat is in more of a racing position. His right foot is at the line of scrimmage; his left is angled back as if it were pushing against a starting block. He rocks forward while listening to the quarterback’s cadence.
The ball is snapped, and Sweat charges forward, colliding with an offensive tackle who is two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. The pair of Goliaths grapple to an apparent draw until the quarterback senses pressure and tries to escape up the middle. In a flash, Sweat tosses his blocker aside and records a sack.
It’s now second-and-15, and Sweat is in a new position. He’s crouching in a four-point stance like the other linemen. The quarterback takes a shotgun snap and fires a quick pass before Sweat can pose a threat.
One play later, he is standing again at left defensive end; he charges upfield, collapses the pocket and forces an incompletion. On the next, he is back in a four-point stance at left end; he stands his ground on a running play and then chases the tailback down from behind to record a tackle.
On the next play, a third-and-2, Sweat is lined up in yet another new position — he’s in a four-point stance on the right side of the line. This time, he beats a guard with a beautiful inside-out move and narrowly misses his second sack of the drive.
Though they were merely five snaps of an otherwise inconsequential spring game, that single drive offered a snapshot of how Florida State’s defensive coaches plan to use Sweat this season, and what his versatility could mean to the Seminoles’ defense. In an era when most offensive plays are dictated by defensive personnel and alignment, Sweat gives FSU the luxury of having three players in one — a down lineman who can stop the run, a pass rusher and a linebacker who can play in space.
“He’s the real deal,” senior defensive back Nate Andrews says. “He’s one of the most athletic guys on our team. He can rush the passer, drop back in coverage, cover tight ends … he’s gonna be pretty good.”
Sweat already was “pretty good” last season. As a true freshman, he started nine games, recorded 41 tackles, finished fourth on the team with five tackles for a loss, led the Seminoles with three fumble recoveries and even intercepted a pass.
That he even played in 2015 was remarkable in itself. One year earlier, Sweat’s senior season of high school was cut short by a catastrophic knee injury. At the time, he was rated the No. 1 high school prospect in the country. But in mid-September, he sustained a torn ACL and a dislocated left kneecap.
Doctors originally planned to repair the damage with two separate surgeries. But Sweat’s family consulted with longtime New York Giants physician Dr. Russell F. Warren, and he was able to get it done with one operation. Less than three months later, after graduating early from Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., Sweat was enrolled at Florida State and undergoing rigorous rehabilitation with the Seminoles’ trainers and FSU team physician Dr. William Thompson.
Just a few months after that, he was running at close to full speed — a product, trainers say, of Sweat’s relentless dedication to rehab. Not only did the former five-star recruit follow every prescribed workout, but he also often asked for extra. It was a similar approach to Sweat’s play on the field.
Despite receiving Freshman All-America consideration from one national media outlet, Sweat was somewhat disappointed by his first collegiate season. He was happy to earn a starting job so quickly, but he was more frustrated by the sacks he didn’t record than the ones he did.
“As far as the team, I felt I could have helped them a lot better by bettering myself, getting more sacks and tackles for a loss,” Sweat says. “I’ll definitely pull off a lot more sacks [in 2016].”
If Florida State’s spring game was any indication, Sweat could be well on his way. Although he was credited with only one sack, he easily could have had two others. He also provided a stunning display of his athletic ability, moving around to different spots in the Seminoles’ defense on what seemed like every other play.
In the 29 snaps that Sweat was on the field, he essentially lined up six different ways — standing up as an edge rusher on the right side 13 times and on the left side four times; in a four-point stance on the right side six times and on the left side four times. He also lined up as a linebacker in zone coverage twice, and he even dropped into coverage from his end position on one occasion.
He excelled in every facet.
On his first snap at linebacker, the 6'5", 236-pound Sweat read the quarterback’s eyes, anticipated a pass to receiver Jesus Wilson on a crossing route and delivered a wicked hit to separate Wilson from the football.
This article and more on Florida State and the ACC are available in the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Football Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
“Josh can do it all,” sophomore safety Derwin James says. “Josh can play receiver — he played receiver in high school. Josh is looking to play anywhere. He’s a competitor like me. He’s an athlete. He just loves the game.”
For all of Sweat’s athletic ability, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher says his greatest asset actually is his powerful lower body. In 2015, the then-freshman Sweat actually was more effective as a run stuffer than he was as a pass rusher.
“The biggest thing about him is that guy is so strong,” Fisher says. “It’s crazy the leverage he can play with.”
Sweat knows he has plenty of room for improvement, however.
Heading into his sophomore campaign, Sweat’s focus has been twofold: polishing his technique so that he doesn’t miss as many sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and also adding size and strength.
After playing at less than 240 pounds last season, he hopes to be closer to 255 this fall.
“I feel I can be excellent next season,” Sweat says. “I just need to finish on the sacks and stuff like that. I missed way too many [in 2015].”
Sweat is being pushed by his coaches as well. As impressive as he was as a freshman, Fisher says the Seminoles want to see the same type of explosiveness he displayed before his knee surgery. As a junior in high school, Sweat established himself as the nation’s top defensive end by racking up 22 sacks. Nearly one-third (31) of his 94 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.
“I want to see him play with more burst,” Fisher says. “When he wants to turn it on, he can do whatever [he wants].”
His teammates believe that time is now. They say his combination of athletic ability, work ethic and intelligence have him poised to emerge as a national star.
“He’s really instinctual,” says defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, who was a fifth-year senior when he lined up alongside the freshman Sweat in 2015. “He has a lot of gifts that are very rare … He’s going to be a great player for us. He’s going to be Florida State’s next All-American.”
– By Ira Schoffel
Ciara had a life before Russell Wilson and there's no escaping that.
The singer is reportedly fearful for the quarterback's life because of the behavior of her former love, rapper Future. According to TMZ, Ciara filed defamation lawsuit against Future and it brings up the fact that he may have a problem with her relationship with Wilson.
"Ciara just filed legal docs in her defamation lawsuit against baby daddy Future, in which she laid out various threats Future has made. In particular, she notes the football emojis with guns pointing in their direction ... which Future posted a while back."
The singer also mentions a song in which it seems as if Future is referencing doing harm to the Seahawks quarterback. She claims the lyrics, paired with his "frightening" and "socially irresponsible" behavior, is cause for alarm.
The judge will decide after reviewing all factors of the case.
All college football teams have one player who, if he steps up and plays to or above his potential, could be the catalyst for a magical season. The teams in the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) are no different, as many of them have key players who could be the difference between another season of flying under the radar nationally and possibly crashing the party that is the New Year's Six bowls.
Here now are the Wild Card players from the Group of Five:
Billy Atterbury, OT, South Florida
The Bulls are favored by many to win the AAC East Division. For that to happen, Atterbury — a freshmen — will need to own the right side of the offensive line like a seasoned upperclassmen. With a quarterback as mobile as USF's Quinton Flowers, there is no such thing as a blind side of the line.
Duke Catalon, RB, Houston
We all know how talented Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. is. Judging by some of the things head coach Tom Herman has said about Catalon recently, Houston could end up having the most dangerous backfield in the nation. There is already NFL talent all over the field. If Catalon plays up to his potential, there may not be a Group of Five team that can hang with the Cougars.
Tago Smith, QB, Navy
Navy is going to do what Navy does, year in, year out. We all know that. This season, however, is different. Smith steps in under center to replace one of the best players in the country from a season ago, Keenan Reynolds. Additionally, Smith also will be taking over an offensive unit with limited experience. His ability to hit the ground running early on will be key to Navy competing for the conference title.
Ryan Higgins, QB, Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs have a talented receiver corps and figure to be in the mix for the C-USA West Division title in 2016. Higgins, now a senior, will step in as the full-time starter at quarterback for the first time since his freshman season. His maturity and ability to deliver the ball to his talented playmakers could have his team competing for a conference title.
Carlos Johnson, OT, MTSU
The sophomore left tackle will be the newbie on the Blue Raider offensive line. Luckily for him, his quarterback, Brent Stockstill, is a lefty, so Johnson won't be tabbed with blind side responsibilities. That said, the underclassmen's inexperience will be researched and tested as a vulnerability by opposing defenses all season. He'll need to be on top of his game for the MTSU offense to be the powerhouse it was a season ago.
Ty Pollard, OT, Southern Miss
Golden Eagle quarterback Nick Mullens IS right-handed, which means he will rely on Pollard — a freshman — to protect his blind side. Southern Miss is the favorite to win the conference this fall. As the most talented team in Conference USA, those predictions are legit, but Pollard needs to play beyond his years for this team to reach its full potential.
Ronnie Moore, WR, Bowling Green
The Falcons had one of the most dangerous offenses in the country ago, and that scheme is not likely to change with a new head coach. Moore had a solid season in 2015, but will need to step up as the primary threat and play at an elite level for Bowling Green to repeat the success it had last year.
Sebastian Smith, WR, Ohio
Frank Solich's Bobcats are going to be a real threat to earn the unofficial title of "Best Group of Five Team." For that to happen, Smith will need to play up to the NFL-caliber potential some think he has and make the Ohio passing game close to as dangerous a threat as the ground game is expected to be.
Justin Tranquill, S, Western Michigan
The Broncos have the tools in place on offense to make a serious conference title run. Defensively, they'll need to withstand multiple barrages weekly from some high-powered offenses in order to win would-be high-scoring affairs. Tranquill be the the last obstacle standing between opposing skill players and the end zone. The freshman will need to play focused, mistake-free football at the position.
Dylan Sumner-Gardner, S, Boise State
I had DSG on this list last season and he didn't disappoint. The difference in 2016 will be the overall talent level on defense. He'll need to be a leader — both vocally and with his play on the field — in order to elevate the Boise State defense to a level where the unit can be considered an complement to what looks to be an elite offense.
Christian Chapman, QB, San Diego State
Chapman steps in under center as the full-time starter in 2016. The Aztecs are one of the more talented squads in the Mountain West, and Chapman will have plenty of options in terms of who to deliver the ball to. Eventually, teams are going to game plan around stopping running back Donnel Pumphrey. When that happens — especially in big games — Chapman will likely need to make a game-changing play with his arm.
Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force
Air Force could end up being one of the biggest stories in college football in 2016. A lot of that has to do with its defense, which is expected to be among the nation's best by some. Robinette is a Power Five-caliber talent at the receiver position. He'll be catching passes from a quarterback who can make every throw — a rarity when it comes to Air Force football. If Robinette can deliver on his talent, Air Force could claim the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, the Mountain West title and possibly more.
Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State
The sophomore JUCO transfer will obviously play a key role in the new offensive scheme being installed in Jonesboro. He'll have the luxury of playing behind a line that returns five starters. Beyond that, however, the success the Red Wolves have on offense will rest heavily on Hansen's skill set and performance.
Jeremiah Theus, G, Georgia Southern
Few programs run the football as effectively as Georgia Southern. The blocking scheme that the Eagles implement is a big reason for their success, helping their top back average nearly eight yards per carry a season ago. Theus will likely be one of the few freshmen in the country to start at the guard position. The nature of Georgia Southern's attack will put even more attention on Theus' performance every week. If he can excel, Georgia Southern should roll.
Jordan Davis, QB, UL Lafayette
Davis has sort of fallen into the starting role due to a couple of situations beyond his control. That said, he's a big, strong athlete who very well might end up being the catalyst that takes this talented team to the next level. There are few athletes like him at the position — especially in the Sun Belt. If he can just be above average, the Ragin' Cajuns will be a tough out.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 15 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
The balance of power in the ACC clearly rests with the Atlantic Division in 2016, as Florida State and Clemson are expected to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff, while Louisville ranks as a top 15-20 team in most preseason projections. However, the cupboard isn't bare on the Coastal side. North Carolina's cornerback duo of Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart is quietly among the best in the nation, while linebackers P.J. Davis (Georgia Tech) and Matt Galambos (Pitt) are two of the league's most underrated players.
The ACC's 15 Most Underrated Players for 2016
Josh Banks, DT, Wake Forest
Banks has quietly anchored the interior of Wake Forest’s defensive line the last two seasons. The North Carolina native started all 12 games for the Demon Deacons in 2014 and finished the year with 36 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble. Prior to a suspension that ended Banks’ 2015 campaign after the ninth game, he recorded 24 stops (two for a loss) and one sack. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound tackle won’t accumulate big stats, but his impact his felt beyond the box score for coach Dave Clawson’s defense.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
Casey Blaser, OL, Duke
The interior of the Blue Devils’ offensive line must be revamped with the departure of guard Lucas Patrick and center Matt Skura, but the return of tackles Gabe Brandner and Blaser provide a solid foundation for 2016. Blaser emerged as a key cog for Duke’s offensive line in 2014 and started all 13 games for coach David Cutcliffe. In 2015, Blaser once again started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. Expect Blaser to deliver a standout senior season as the anchor for Duke’s front five.
DeAngelo Brown, DT, Louisville
Sheldon Rankins leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches for coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense. While Rankins will be missed, the Cardinals aren’t completely rebuilding up front. Brown has been a key part for the defensive line over the last two years, finishing 2015 with 40 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and two sacks. The Georgia native should push for all-conference honors this fall.
P.J. Davis, LB, Georgia Tech
At 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, Davis doesn’t possess the prototypical size for a linebacker, but the Georgia native is a standout playmaker for coach Paul Johnson’s defense. Davis has accumulated 237 tackles (20 for a loss) and four forced fumbles in his three seasons with the Yellow Jackets. His best overall year took place in 2014, recording 119 stops and three forced fumbles in 14 appearances.
Matt Galambos, LB, Pitt
With eight starters back, Pitt’s defense is expected to take a step forward in the second year under coach Pat Narduzzi. This unit is anchored by All-America candidates in end Ejuan Price and safety Jordan Whitehead, but Galambos is quietly making a push to be considered among the ACC’s best at linebacker. The Pennsylvania native has played in 39 career games and accumulated 198 overall stops in that span. Galambos also thrived under Narduzzi last fall, as he finished 2015 with 88 tackles (10 for a loss) and five sacks.
B.J. Hill, DT, NC State
Mike Rose (10.5 sacks in 2015) must be replaced, but with Bradley Chubb and Hill leading the way up front, NC State’s defensive line should still rank among the best in the ACC. Hill was instrumental on the interior and helped NC State finish fifth in the ACC against the run last fall. He also recorded 51 tackles (11 for a loss) and forced three fumbles. After two steady seasons with the Wolfpack, the junior is due for a breakout campaign this fall.
Steve Ishmael, WR, Syracuse
Inconsistency and injuries at quarterback have hindered Syracuse’s passing attack over the last few seasons. As a result, Ishmael’s numbers haven’t quite matched his potential. In 12 appearances last year, Ishmael grabbed 39 passes for 570 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged a healthy 14.6 yards per catch. Under new coach Dino Babers and rising star Eric Dungey at quarterback, Ishmael should have a career season in 2016.
Danny Isidora, OL, Miami
Even with four starters returning, Miami’s offensive line enters 2016 as one of the team’s biggest concerns. This unit struggled to open holes in the ground game (3.7 ypc) and gave up 19 sacks over 13 games. One player new line coach Stacy Searels won’t have to worry about in terms of performance is Isidora. The Florida native enters 2016 with 26 consecutive starts and is expected to anchor the line after earning honorable mention All-ACC honors last fall.
Des Lawrence/M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina
Both Lawrence and Stewart earned a mention on the ACC’s all-conference team last season, but it’s probably fair to say these two players deserve more credit on the national level. Lawrence played in 14 games in 2015 and finished the year with 59 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Stewart was just as effective, recording 62 tackles (2.5 for a loss), four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. The play of Lawrence and Stewart was a big reason why North Carolina ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Jackson Matteo, C, Virginia
Virginia returns only 10 starters, so a lot of new faces will be stepping into key roles for first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. Matteo should be one of the leaders for the Cavaliers’ offense this fall, as the senior anchors the line after starting all 12 games in 2015. Matteo was named to the Rimington Trophy award watch list for 2016 and earned a spot on Athlon Sports’ projected All-ACC (fourth) team.
Travon McMillian, RB, Virginia Tech
McMillian emerged as Virginia Tech’s go-to back in the second half of last season and finished 2015 with 1,042 yards and seven scores on just 200 carries. After recording only 32 carries through the first five games last year, McMillian posted double-digit attempts in each of the final eight contests, including 33 against Boston College. He also recorded three 100-yard efforts and scored twice in Virginia Tech’s bowl win over Tulsa. McMillian is poised to take on an even bigger role in 2016 under new coach Justin Fuente.
Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
Boston College’s defense was one of the nation’s best in 2015, and despite a few personnel losses, the Eagles should rank near the top of the ACC in 2016. New coordinator Jim Reid won’t have standout linebacker Steven Daniels at his disposal, but this unit is still anchored by Milano and fellow standout Connor Strachan. Milano recorded 60 tackles (including a team-high 17.5 for a loss last season), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Milano should be one of the ACC’s top linebackers in 2016.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Conference Team
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Loaded. That’s the one word that best describes the 2016 receiving corps at Clemson. Mike Williams returns after a season-ending neck injury, Artavis Scott is an All-America candidate after grabbing 93 receptions in 2015, and there’s additional support provided by tight end Jordan Leggett and sophomore receivers Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud. While Scott, Williams and Leggett are likely to garner most of the attention from opposing defenses, Renfrow is another weapon for quarterback Deshaun Watson. As a freshman last fall, Renfrow grabbed 33 receptions for 492 yards and five scores, including seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama. After a standout performance in the College Football Playoff last year, Renfrow should see a few more passes in his direction in 2016.
Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey was the unquestioned leader and top player in Florida State’s secondary last season, but White quietly turned in a standout 2015 campaign and is poised to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall. White’s statistics last fall – 25 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups – were low due to teams avoiding his side of the field. White did not earn All-ACC honors last season but should be one of the league’s top defenders in 2016.
Personalities and college football experts on SiriusXM College Sports Nation ranked the nation’s top 16 quarterbacks, running backs, coaching staffs, defenses, head coaches, mascots, stadiums, uniforms and fan bases and you can hear in-depth analysis on College Sports Nation, Ch. 84.
Among those taking part are former Alabama national championship quarterback Greg McElroy, former Miami and North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, hosts Chris Childers, Chris Carlin, Mark Packer, myself as well as producers Mike Garvin, Dan Bezilla and Regina Ham, in a collection of expert polls titled #SXMTop16.
Today, we take a look at the running backs. Chime in with your rankings!
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
He’s simply the best. Size, speed, power, vision, balance, production. Fournette can do it all and has done it all. Should he lead LSU to a division title there is no doubt he’ll be in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. There is no excuse for him not to get over 300 touches on offense this fall.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
The record-setting all-purpose dynamo does everything for Stanford. Not reflected in the stats below is 1,200 return yards and two more touchdowns. In all, he finished with an NCAA record 3,864 all-purpose yards on 434 total touches. With Kevin Hogan gone and a rebuilt offensive line, McCaffrey will have to carry his team to another Pac-12 title.
3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
There may not be a more explosive player in the country than Cook. He averaged a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, willing Florida State to victory numerous times while overcoming nagging injuries all season long. Fans can bet that if Cook can handle the workload, a 300-touch season is in the works in 2016.
4. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
It took first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley a few games to figure it out, but once he started feeding his running game, Perine delivered in a big way. The Sooners bowling ball rolled up 201 yards against Texas Tech, 166 against Baylor, 188 against TCU and 131 against Oklahoma State — all in the second half of the season. In two seasons, Perine has 3,062 yards, 37 touchdowns and the NCAA’s single-game rushing record (427).
5. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Freeman has quietly put together two monster seasons in Eugene. The bruising back brings power and speed to an offense designed around an explosive running game. Freeman has posted back-to-back 19 total TD seasons and has over 3,200 yards rushing entering his junior season.
What will College Football look like in 2026?
6. Nick Chubb, Georgia
College football was robbed of one its stars last fall when Chubb was lost for the season with a torn ACL after six games. He was averaging over 8.0 yards per carry and had scored eight times. Should he return to form, fans in Athens should be treated to what would amount to his first full year as the true No. 1. His 1,547-yard freshman season came as a pseudo-backup to Todd Gurley.
7. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Chubb, Fournette and Derrick Henry got all of the headlines as far as SEC backs go, but Hurd is just as good. The hulking tailback is less than 900 yards away from becoming Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder leads what should one of the best running games in the entire nation.
8. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
In just his third game as a college player, Barkley carried 21 times for 195 yards and two scores in a Big Ten win over Rutgers. Despite missing two games and playing behind a porous offensive line, Barkley still finished over 1,000 yards and five 100-yard games. He was one of the best freshmen in the nation last fall and will be one of the best sophomores in ‘16.
9. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
After two years on the field, Gallman is 12th in school history in rushing and has an outside shot at putting his name at the top of the list with a big season (1,683 yards). He would pass the likes of C.J. Spiller, Andre Ellington, James Davis, Travis Zachery and Raymond Priester. Gallman is the perfect compliment to superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson.
10. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
The best player the nation hasn’t heard of plays tailback at North Carolina. Hood is the complete package at running back, rushing for 1,463 yards on 6.7 yards per carry in Larry Fedora’s division-winning offense. Look for the Heels to lean on Hood while breaking in a new quarterback this fall.
11. James Conner, Pitt
Conner’s story is appropriately well told. The young man is returning from his battle with cancer after an earth-shattering 2014 campaign. Conner’s numbers earned him ACC Player of the Year. Pat Narduzzi (and the rest of the country) is looking forward to seeing the burly runner back on the field. (stats from 2014).
12. Shock Linwood, Baylor
The Bears offense spreads the ball around so much and takes so many big early leads that Linwood’s number are probably well below his talent and production. He only carried 196 times but was 20th nationally at 110.8 yards per game and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Jim Grobe will feed him the rock.
13. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
The smallish running back (5-9, 180) has shown that he could handle the work load by finishing 10th in the nation with 22.1 carries per game. His 1,653 yards were seventh nationally and actually worse than his impressive 1,873-yard sophomore campaign. With virtually everyone back in San Diego, look for Pumphrey to have a monster final season.
14. Myles Gaskin, Washington
The other half of the Huskies dynamic freshman backfield (Jake Browning) was Gaskin. The freshman got off to a slow start but finished with at least 100 yards in his last four games and seven of his last nine. He also scored eight times in the final five games.
15. LJ Scott, Michigan State
Scott’s numbers weren’t huge relative to others on this list but he had the most dramatic and important one-yard run of anyone in the nation. His Big Ten championship-winning, Playoff berth-clinching touchdown run capped a 22-play epic Spartans march against Iowa. Look for the 240-pounder to get the bulk of the carries this fall.
16. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
A sports hernia limited Clement to just four games and 48 carries last year. But his offensive line wasn’t opening up traditional Wisconsin-like running avenues anyway. With an improved O-Line and healthy Clement, the Badgers could find themselves back in the Big Ten West hunt.
Special thanks to SiriusXM College Sports Nation, Ch. 84. You can listen the best in college sports talk radio seven days a week, 24 hours a day only on College Sports Nation. Like them on Facebook and follow them on twitter.
The wait continues for Jets fans, who saw their team miss the playoffs last season by losing the regular-season finale in Buffalo. It was a torturous loss for the Jets, falling to their former coach, Rex Ryan. And in some ways, it spoiled many of the good feelings that had built up throughout a 10–6 season in 2015.
The Jets still have not made the playoffs since 2010, when they reached their second of two straight AFC title games under Ryan. But 2015 gave them reasons to hope, as general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles — both rookies in those jobs — made promising debuts.
Now, it’s playoffs or bust for these Jets in 2016, as they face a more challenging schedule. Conquering the Patriots in the AFC East won’t be easy, so the Jets could again find themselves clawing for a Wild Card berth in Week 17. But after winning eight, six, eight and four games, respectively, from 2011-14, they at least now have something to build on.
The Jets have an uncertain quarterback situation, with Ryan Fitzpatrick remaining unsigned. Ideally, the Jets would have Fitzpatrick return as their starter in 2016, even though he’s too old, at 33, to be their quarterback of the future. Geno Smith gives them a game-tested backup. It would probably be bad news if the Jets were pressed into playing rookie Christian Hackenberg in 2016. They need time to develop him.
|Head Coach||Todd Bowles|
|Record With Team||10-6|
|Asst. Head Coach/Inside Linebackers||Mike Caldwell|
|Offensive Coordinator||Chan Gailey|
|Defensive Coordinator||Kacy Rodgers|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Brant Boyer|
|Running Backs||Marcel Shipp|
|Wide Receivers||Karl Dorrell|
|Tight Ends||Jimmie Johnson|
|Offensive Line||Steve Marshall|
|Defensive Line||Pepper Johnson|
|Outside Linebackers||Mark Collins|
|Defensive Backs||Joe Danna|
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall remains a dominant factor in the red zone, and Eric Decker can exploit mismatches with slower players while thriving in the slot, as he did last season. Can the Jets find a consistent No. 3 receiver? Quincy Enunwa gives them a big body in that role, but he’s unproven.
With running backs Matt Forté (a prominent free-agent signing) and Bilal Powell, the Jets have two guys in their backfield who are skilled pass catchers. That could be a big asset for offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who leaned heavily on Powell with screen passes late last season.
The Jets’ offensive line is aging. Center Nick Mangold, 32, is still effective. But for how much longer? Right tackle Breno Giacomini, 30, stunk last season. Left tackle Ryan Clady, 29, arrived via trade after D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired. Clady has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. Can he stay healthy?
The Jets got basically nothing from their tight ends in 2015, but now third-year pro Jace Amaro is returning after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. He is a potential weapon in the passing game if he can clean up the drop issues that plagued him at times during his rookie season.
The Jets saw a huge upgrade in their offensive performance in 2015, especially in the red zone. They finished third in the NFL in red zone percentage last year, compared to last in 2014. Whether that continues depends largely on the quarterback situation. Even if Fitzpatrick is back, can he repeat his career-year success from 2015?
The Jets have one of the NFL’s best defensive lines, with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams. Don’t forget, though, that nose tackle Damon Harrison was a huge run-stopping factor for this team last season, and now he’s with the Giants. Steve McLendon, his replacement, appears to be on the next tier down from Harrison among nose tackles.
Inside linebacker Demario Davis was terrible in coverage last season, so the Jets elevated his backup, Erin Henderson, to his starting spot, while letting Davis sign with the Browns. And they also drafted linebacker Darron Lee in Round 1. Bowles hopes Lee’s speed and athleticism will help the Jets in passing situations.
Edge rusher is a huge uncertainty for this team. The Jets will need Lorenzo Mauldin, a second-year pro, to develop into more than just a pass-rushing specialist. Don’t be surprised if third-round pick Jordan Jenkins factors in immediately at outside linebacker.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis showed signs of declining last season, particularly in the Houston loss when DeAndre Hopkins toasted him. The Jets opted to cut Antonio Cromartie and will move slot cornerback Buster Skrine outside to replace him. This is not a sure-thing move, as Skrine has typically played better in the slot. Look for Marcus Williams to take on a bigger role, probably as Skrine’s replacement in the slot.
While Revis is not the player he once was, he still had five interceptions last season. He’ll be 31 when this season starts. It is an important season for him to show that he still has command of his position — at least to some degree.
This season could be the year when strong safety Calvin Pryor, a third-year pro, makes a huge jump forward. He looked so much more disruptive while playing near the line of scrimmage (his natural spot) last season after floundering at times in coverage as a rookie, because the Jets needed him there due to cornerback deficiencies.
The Jets were among the NFL’s best defenses in 2015 (fifth in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings). There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue, as Bowles remains one of the NFL’s top defensive minds.
Nick Folk returns for his seventh season as the Jets’ kicker. He has made 81.3 percent of his field goals while with the franchise. The Jets are starting over at punter after letting the ineffective Ryan Quigley leave for the Eagles in free agency. They’re going to have a competition between two Australian-born rookies: Lachlan Edwards (a seventh-round draft pick) and Tom Hackett (an undrafted free-agent signing).
The return spots are up for grabs. Jeremy Ross and Dri Archer, both of whom signed with the Jets this offseason, figure to be the primary competitors for those jobs.
Overall, the Jets need to upgrade their special teams, which have struggled in recent years. Bowles fired special teams coordinator Bobby April following just one season on the job.
It won’t be easy. Five of the Jets’ first six opponents in 2016 made the playoffs last season —Bengals, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers and Cardinals. From Week 2 through Week 9, the Jets face a tough eight-game stretch that includes just two home games. But if they’re able to weather all of that and be in position to make the playoffs again, they’ll get a chance to exorcise the demons of last season, because they play the Bills again in the regular-season finale — this time at home.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC East
The drama of last season ended in bitter disappointment for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Denver, a loss that hit the team as hard as any in recent years. Now, as the Patriots prepare to take the next step and chase the organization’s fifth Super Bowl title, controversy again surrounds the team with Tom Brady staring down a four-game suspension from the league due to his role in Deflategate.
There is always the chance that Brady has his suspension overturned, but the Pats are looking at beginning their season against the Arizona Cardinals on the road with third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback.
Bill Belichick and Co. made some interesting offseason moves — both in bringing players in and letting others go — but the core of the team remains intact. Despite its flaws and Brady’s early absence, this should again be a Super Bowl contender.
Garoppolo’s been primed for this opportunity. Before the Deflategate penalties were overturned last year, Garoppolo was preparing to begin the 2015 season as the starter. The former second-round pick from Eastern Illinois has made solid strides each year he’s been in the league and is ready for his turn.
|Head Coach||Bill Belichick|
|Record With Team||187-69|
|Offensive Coordinator/QBs||Josh McDaniels|
|Defensive Coordinator||Matt Patricia|
|Running Backs||Ivan Fears|
|Wide Receivers||Chad O'Shea|
|Tight Ends||Brian Daboll|
|Offensive Line||Dante Scarnecchia|
|Defensive Line||Brendan Daly|
|Special Teams||Joe Judge|
|Linebackers||Bobby April III, Jeff Weeks|
|Defensive Backs||Tim McDonald, Ed Reed|
When Brady does come back, don’t expect him to need too much time to return to form. The offense around him should be even more talented than it was last season, and Brady hasn’t shown any signs of aging.
Overall, look for the offense to revolve heavily around the play of its tight ends. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of Martellus Bennett, the Pats will feature plenty of two-tight end sets to challenge teams over the middle and in the red zone.
As usual, Julian Edelman will be the primary weapon at wide receiver. He is especially adept at going over the middle on crossing routes, but it will be important for the Pats to make sure the big hits to Edelman’s head remain limited. When he is out of the lineup, the offense takes a clear step back. He missed seven games last season with a foot injury. He underwent surgery in November, but was able to return for the playoffs. He had a second procedure done in the offseason but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
The rest of the wide receiver corps should be solid, as Danny Amendola has proven his worth since the end of the 2014 season. He caught 65 passes a year ago, the most since he had 85 in his second season in the league with the Rams. The Pats hope new addition Chris Hogan can complement the rest of the group as an outside weapon. Still, the roster lacks a true deep threat.
Keep a close eye on how the running game develops. When Dion Lewis, the team’s latest revelation at tailback, went down with a knee injury last season the running game suffered dramatically. Lewis’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield added another dimension to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ arsenal. A healthy Lewis is critical to the Pats gaining the type of balance they enjoyed early last season.
However, the main point of concern remains the offensive line, as was so clearly shown in the loss to the Broncos in January. If left tackle Nate Solder can remain healthy, the team will be in better shape. The interior line is still young, even with the addition of guard Jonathan Cooper in a trade with Arizona.
This side of the ball made important strides in 2015, and the trend will need to continue for the Pats to take the next step.
One of the main strengths of the team has become its secondary. The emergence of Malcolm Butler as a true No. 1 corner has given defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the ability to play aggressive press man coverage, at which Butler thrives. With Logan Ryan also developing as a solid contributor on the other side, the Pats can man up against top receiver duos and bring pressure from the front seven.
Behind those two is a versatile group of safeties. Devin McCourty remains one of the steadiest center fielders in the game, and Patrick Chung continues to be underrated. Chung’s versatility — he can drop down in the box almost like an extra linebacker, fall back into coverage or lock up in man — is critical to the defense’s success.
The Pats will also boast one of the best linebacker tandems in football. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both bring different skills to the table, but together they can blitz, stop the run and provide pass coverage in a way that every offense has to account for on each play.
Depth at linebacker has been spotty at times, and with Collins and Hightower both missing time last year, the Pats needed to address that in the offseason. They believe they did so with the acquisition of free agent Shea McClellin, but look for Jonathan Freeny to hold on to his spot as the third linebacker when the team is in a base 4-3 set.
The defensive line is the area in which the Pats saw the most upheaval over the offseason. Defensive end Chandler Jones, the team’s leader in sacks last season, was traded to the Cardinals for Cooper, and gone also are defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Dominique Easley. Jones is the biggest loss, but former Rams end Chris Long could slide into his spot. Expect Jabaal Sheard to take on the mantle of the team’s top pass rusher.
Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point miss against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game was a massive disappointment, but overall he remains one of the best kickers in the game. Punter Ryan Allen also does his job well. He consistently gets good hang time on his kicks and places them accurately.
Where the situation gets a little cloudier is on returns. On punts, the Pats have had success with Edelman, but with the drafting of Alabama’s Cyrus Jones in the second round, they may have found a successor. Amendola might be the most logical choice to return either punts or kicks, but again, the addition of Jones could shake up the depth chart there.
Overall, the Patriots possess a Super Bowl roster that only needs to come together to reach its goals. Unless injuries get in the way, the Pats will be the favorites to represent the AFC in Houston.
Prediction: 1st in AFC East
If coach Dabo Swinney’s “All In’’ slogan can help get Clemson to the national title game, maybe it will get the Buffalo Bills to the NFL playoffs.
After a league-high 16 consecutive seasons of failing to accomplish what should happen just by the law of averages, the Bills are willing to try anything. And after an 8–8 finish punctuated by unfulfilled promises and grumbling among the troops, coach Rex Ryan isn’t too proud to steal a good idea when he hears one.
“I think it’s a great slogan,’’ Ryan says. “[Dabo] used it several years ago, but it was something that I think resonates with our football team. It’s easy to talk, ‘Yeah, I’m all in.’ But having it there is a daily reminder of the commitment we have to each other.’’
Sounds good. But the reality is that salary cap jail resulted in Buffalo’s .500 roster being gutted of expensive veterans, little free-agent shopping and the placement of big pressure on an impressive draft class. If quarterback Tyrod Taylor doesn’t elevate his game significantly, another year out of the postseason is guaranteed
Taylor, the ex-Baltimore Raven, provided a lot of highlight-reel plays on the way to accumulating 3,603 total yards and 24 touchdowns in 2015. Now he must provide a lot more consistency and the ability to close out close games. But at least Buffalo goes into the season knowing who is under center. EJ Manuel, a stagnating first-round pick from 2013, was kept as the No. 2 man as the team squeezes every ounce out of his rookie contract.
|Head Coach||Rex Ryan|
|Record With Team||8-8|
|Offensive Coordinator||Greg Roman|
|Defensive Coordinator||Dennis Thurman|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Danny Crossman|
|Asst. Head Coach/RBs||Anthony Lynn|
|Wide Receivers||Sanjay Lal|
|Tight Ends||Tony Sparano|
|Offensive Line||Aaron Kromer|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defense||Rob Ryan|
|Defensive Line||John Blake|
|Linebackers||Bobby April III, Jeff Weeks|
|Defensive Backs||Tim McDonald, Ed Reed|
Taylor will continue to benefit from a “ground-and-pound’’ approach under Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Buffalo’s running game jumped from 26th in the NFL to No. 1 in rushing, improving by nearly 60 yards per game. Some of that is deceiving since Taylor accounted for 568 yards with his scrambling ability. But the additions of Eagles All-Pro LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams, along with veteran fullback Jerome Felton, made Buffalo a team that could legitimately set its mind to running the ball against anybody.
It was paramount that Buffalo retain the left side of its line, and that was achieved with rich new deals for tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito. The entire unit returns intact. Center Eric Wood remains one of the NFL’s most underrated players; 2015 third-round pick John Miller was a first-day starter at right guard; and Seantrel Henderson is back at right tackle. How his newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease affects his play is uncertain, but the team has very strong depth on the line.
The same can’t be said for wide receiver. Although there will be a dozen players at the position when camp opens, it’s really a case of superstar Sammy Watkins (60 catches, 1,047 yards, nine TDs) and everybody else. And in the case of Watkins, he will likely start camp on the sidelines following surgery in April to insert two screws into his left foot to repair a stress fracture. Fourth-year pro Robert Woods doesn’t draw much coverage away from Watkins. Olympic track athlete Marquise Goodwin and rookie Kolby Listenbee offer some field-stretching options. But the team is likely to miss Chris Hogan (Patriots) and Percy Harvin (retired) in a big way.
That’s unless the tight end plays a larger role, which is what former Dolphin Charles Clay began to do last year with 51 catches. Many believe Clay’s potential is just being scratched. And it wouldn’t hurt if McCoy could increase his production in the passing game after catching 32 passes in 2015.
The Bills’ drop from a No. 4 ranking in yards allowed per game (312.2) to No. 19 (356.4) was the major storyline of Ryan’s first season and a source of great embarrassment. Buffalo’s sack total plummeted from an NFL-best 54 to 21, with players such as the departed Mario Williams and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus clearly incapable of doing some of the things Ryan was asking in his hybrid 2-5, 3-4, 4-3 scheme. Getting players who fit his plan was the main focus of the offseason, and while it was difficult to achieve in free agency, the Bills believe they accomplished that goal in the draft.
First-round pick Shaq Lawson of Clemson, a hybrid end/outside linebacker, and second-rounder Reggie Ragland of Alabama, a linebacker with blitzing skills, have already been named “Day 1” starters by the team’s brass. Third-round pick Adolphus Washington of Ohio State, a defensive tackle, was also projected as part of Buffalo’s remodeled front seven.
However, Lawson’s debut will be delayed after he underwent shoulder surgery in May. Lawson’s shoulder was initially flagged during the Scouting Combine and reports are he re-injured it during offseason workouts. With an expected timetable of five to six months, Lawson could start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which means he could miss as many as the first six games.
Pro Bowl tackles Dareus and Kyle Williams (when healthy) form one of the NFL’s best 1-2 punches, with Corbin Bryant and the rookie Washington behind them.
At end/outside linebacker, Jerry Hughes, Buffalo’s most consistent performer in 2015, is expected to be even better when Lawson is finally able to join him on the other side. Lawson had 12.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss last fall for Clemson.
Ragland joins young veteran Preston Brown (120 tackles), free agent Zach Brown (Titans) and Manny Lawson in the linebacker corps, which should be much better at making Ryan’s blitz packages work.
In the secondary, cornerback Leodis McKelvin (Eagles) was lost in the salary cap purge. But there is plenty of size, strength and closing speed in the remaining collection of players.
Now in his fifth season, Stephon Gilmore, the 10th overall pick in 2012, has emerged as one of the league’s best man-coverage corners. Opposite him is Ronald Darby, one of the steals of the 2015 draft as a second-rounder out of Florida State. Darby was an instant-impact player with 68 tackles, two interceptions and 21 passes defended. Nickell Robey and Mario Butler, proven playmakers, will see the bulk of the time in nickel and dime.
Strong safety Aaron Williams was lost to a neck injury in Week 2 last season. He underwent surgery and has been cleared to play, but he’s no lock to reclaim his starting job opposite free safety Corey Graham (team-high 127 tackles, two interceptions). Depth is serviceable with Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks. Free agents Corey White, Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson will compete for spots judging on their special teams contributions.
Veteran placekicker Dan Carpenter is on the hot seat after missing six kicks from the new PAT distance. He was also just 23-of-27 on field goals after converting a franchise record 34 the season before. He was in Ryan’s doghouse much of the year. Punter Colton Schmidt, a waiver find, has found a home in Buffalo, turning in a second solid season with a 46.4-yard average and 22 kicks dropped inside the 20.
With roster departures, receiver Walter Powell moves to the top of the return specialist list. He’ll have plenty of competition as things develop.
After sitting out the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season dating to his days with the Jets, Ryan has toned down his rhetoric. He needs to focus on making Buffalo’s defense one of the top units in the NFL. If he does that, and Taylor takes a step forward at quarterback, the Bills might just win those two to three extra games needed to snap their unfathomable postseason drought.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East
Regroup and reboot. That’s been the annual ritual at the Davie headquarters for more than two decades, since the Dolphins’ last appearance in an AFC Championship Game. They haven’t even appeared in the postseason since 2008.
The latest change? The replacement of interim coach Dan Campbell — who had taken over for Joe Philbin — with former Bears and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who, at 38, will be the NFL’s youngest coach this season. Executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, who researched 25 candidates and interviewed seven, said that “what kept resonating is we wanted to get the right leader. Someone that could relate to young and talented players that we believe we have, and somebody that was high energy and competitive.”
Gase believes he’s ready. “I’ve been in this profession since I was 18 years old, so that’s really more than half my life right now,” he says.
The Dolphins have been in a ditch for about as long. It’s his task to dig them out.
In what was supposed to be a breakout season — with better weapons around Ryan Tannehill — the offense regressed in 2015, as the Dolphins dropped from 14th to 26th in yards and 11th to 27th in points. The Dolphins are largely counting on Gase to serve as the source of improvement. He’s known for working well with quarterbacks; Chicago’s Jay Cutler praised Gase all season and then praised the Dolphins for the hire. Gase will call the plays and is expected to put fewer restrictions on Tannehill, who was limited in his ability to audible under Philbin, Campbell and since-fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
|Head Coach||Adam Gase|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Clyde Christiansen|
|Defensive Coordinator||Vance Joseph|
|Asst. Head Coach/Special Teams Coord.||Darren Rizzi|
|Running Backs||Danny Barrett|
|Wide Receivers||Shawn Jefferson|
|Tight Ends||Shane Day|
|Offensive Line||Chris Foerster|
|Defensive Line||Terrell Williams|
|Defensive Backs||Lou Anarumo|
At this point, Tannehill must prove he’s still worthy of “franchise” quarterback status — his contract structure makes him a possible release next offseason. He’s durable, starting all 64 games the past four seasons even while getting sacked 184 times, but has only 29 wins to show for it. His statistics were solid and roughly the same last season as in 2014, other than a dip in completion percentage, but he continued to struggle at times with awareness in key situations.
He will again rely on upon tough-to-tackle receiver Jarvis Landry, who has 194 catches in two seasons, but mostly for modest yardage. The field-stretching may need to be done on the other side, as 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker gets more comfortable. After taking time to overcome a preseason foot injury and learn the offense, Parker was targeted 42 times in the final six games and had 22 catches for a 22.2-yard average. With Rishard Matthews gone as the third receiver, Miami will need more from tight end Jordan Cameron.
Also gone? Running back Lamar Miller. And while the Dolphins never seemed to use him enough — giving him 20 carries only once in the past two seasons — he was capable of breaking the occasional big play. The first shot at the starting running back job now goes to Jay Ajayi, a 2015 fifth-rounder who got 49 carries as a rookie. He’s a hard runner, but Miami will need to spell him, possibly with slippery rookie Kenyan Drake.
They should have more running lanes, provided that Laremy Tunsil can make the transition to guard, where he’s never played. Tunsil was projected as a top-3 overall pick prior to video of illicit drug use surfacing on his social media account on draft night. His elite quickness and explosion should make him a massive upgrade over the Dolphins’ guard starters last season. Veteran Jermon Bushrod may put those starters, Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, both in backup roles if he can also convert from tackle to guard. Branden Albert remains the left tackle for now, and he should be back to full strength now that he’s further removed from knee surgery, while 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James gets a fresh start after missing the second half of 2015 with a toe injury. Center Mike Pouncey may be the offense’s best player.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Kevin Coyle, who had worn out his welcome with most players, is gone as defensive coordinator, replaced by former Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. While Joseph has experience in 3-4 systems, it appears the Dolphins will run mostly 4-3 schemes — for now.
That seems better suited to Miami’s personnel, even as different as it looks from last season. The Dolphins were supposed to be powerful at the point of attack, but that didn’t play out; even with mega-free agent signing Ndamukong Suh largely playing well, Miami was 28th against the run. Earl Mitchell, who had a disappointing season as Suh’s sidekick, remains the starter and must take better advantage of the attention paid to Suh.
The Dolphins had just 31 sacks, and nearly half of those came from Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, one of whom (Vernon) fled for big bucks with the Giants, while the other (Wake) is returning at age 34 from an Achilles tear. Miami will be counting on free-agent acquisition and former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams looking more like the malevolent disrupter he was in 2013 and 2014 (with 27.5 sacks) than the malcontent he was in 2015 (five sacks). The Dolphins also signed veteran Jason Jones in May to a one-year deal to add depth.
Miami is betting big on two other reclamation projects (linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell), both acquired from the Eagles in a deal that cost the Dolphins five slots in the first round. Alonso is a volume tackler when healthy, but that’s been the problem. Maxwell signed a lucrative contract last offseason with Philadelphia, which saw enough in one season to part ways.
There are questions at every spot in the back seven other than strong safety, where Reshad Jones bounced back from a down 2014 and was a dynamic playmaker, leading the team in tackles while adding five interceptions, two for touchdowns. But Miami doesn’t appear to have many other game-changers in a group that includes linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, or even new free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Xavien Howard, a second-round rookie, will get a chance to make an immediate impact.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
Consider this season a referendum on Tannehill and Tannenbaum; even though Tannenbaum didn’t draft the quarterback, their futures seem tied together. Gase, who signed a five-year contract, will be given some room to grow, and this roster will require it. What will separate him from others? “I think my passion, my attitude, the way that I go about interacting with players and the relationship that I develop with players,” Gase says. But he will probably need better players before the Dolphins return to the playoffs.
Prediction: 4th AFC East
As the 2016 NFL season approaches, it's time to prepare for America's favorite pastime, fantasy football. While it's hard to control how well you do in your draft, there's one thing you can control—your fantasy football team name. Coming up with a funny, silly, crazy, great, clever, cool or even slightly crude fantasy football team name is a must-have to stand out in your league. With that, here are some absolutely awesome choices for 2016:
Golden Tate Warriors
When the Le'Veon Breaks
Le'Veon la Vida Loca
Le’Veon a Prayer
Game of Jones
Julio Think You Are?
Julio Let the Dogs Out
My Ball Zach Ertz
My TE Ertz When Eifert
Winning Is My Forte
Forte Shades of Grey
Forte Year Old Virgin
San Francisco 4th & 9ers
Stairway to Evans
Knockin on Evans Door
2 Gurley's 1 Cup
Runs Like a Gurley
The Gurley Gates
Wilfork on 1st Date
Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood
Eat, Drink and D. Murray!
The Walking Dez
Dez Does Dallas
Dez-ed & Confused
From Wentz You Came
Wentz, Twice — Three Times a Lady
Dude, Where's Derek Carr?
Forte inch Ditka
Check My Balls
Yo Belichick Yo Self
Jamaal About That Bass
Jamaal Charles in Charge
JJ S.W.A.T.T. Team
1.21 JJ WATTS
You Down With JPP?
Hernandez Hit Men
Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam!
You Kaepernick the Future
Ladies and Edelman
Backfields and McCoys
Mike Vick in a box
Montee Can Buy you Happiness
My Percy’s on Broadway
Cry Me a Rivers
Pitch a Trent
Drake's New Favorite Team
Waka Flacco Flame
U Mad Bro?
Rudolph Redzone Reindeer
Kung Suh Panda
Suh Girls, One Cup
Boy Named Suh
Party Like a Gronk Star
The Big Gronkowski
We Wilfork You
Wilfork Dance Party
No Money Manziel
Bend it Like Beckham Jr.
Jay-Z's My Agent
Off to Tennessee the Whiz
Remember the Titans
Kissing Suzy Kolber
Smokin' Jay Cutler
Teenage Mutant Ninja Bortles
Dirty Sanchez Butt-Fumblers
Sherman's Last Rant
The Boldin the Beautiful
Mr. UGG Boots
The Brady Bunch
Luck Beat A Brady Tonight
Call Me the Brees
80% Mental, 40% Physical
Show Me the Money
Big Ol' Bortles
Not Racist Redskins
Hard Knocks Life
Turn Your Head and Coughlin
It's Always Runny in Philadelphia
Favre Dollar Footlong
Makin' It DWayne
Up All Night to Get Luck-y
Red Hot Julius Peppers
Slow White Bronco
In the last three seasons, there’s been a sense that the SEC’s dominance is showing vulnerability.
Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS championship in 2014, and Ohio State eliminated Alabama on the way to the first College Football Playoff title in 2015. The Big Ten is having a resurgence as a national player with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all in various stages of being reliable top-10 programs or better. The last undefeated teams standing at the end of the last three regular seasons have come from the ACC.
None of that seemed to matter when Alabama beat Michigan State in a semifinal last season and then pulled away from Clemson in the final moments of a national championship game thriller.
After a two-year absence, an SEC team finished the season as national champions.
The trends in the rest of the Power 5 landscape still seem to reflect more depth and a handful of teams better equipped to face the best the SEC has to offer at the end of the season.
The big question is if such strides will matter in the playoff.
Until another conference makes a compelling case to wrestle the top spot from the SEC, this league remains the dominant force in college football. In the CFB Playoff, Alabama crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State and handed Clemson its only loss of the season to claim an eighth national title in 10 years for the SEC. The brag sheet continues: The entire SEC West went to bowls for the second year in a row, the league went 9–2 in the postseason as a whole, and the conference had five teams in the final AP top 25. The East, which has not produced the league champion since 2008, could start to make up ground if Tennessee becomes a title contender, if Florida continues its improvement under Jim McElwain, and if Kirby Smart brings Georgia the edge it needs.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten produced six teams that won at least 10 games — more than any other conference — but that couldn’t mask that most of the power resides in the East division. The addition of Jim Harbaugh to a division that already included Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin raised the recruiting profile of the conference and has ensured that the Big Ten won’t fall behind the rest of the Power 5. The West is a different story. With the exception of the Hawkeyes’ performance in the Big Ten title game, Iowa (12–2) and Northwestern (10–3) were not competitive in their biggest games of the year. Wisconsin won 10 games with smoke and mirrors, and Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way on the way to a 6–7 season.
Favorite: Ohio State
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Two schools in the North (Stanford and Oregon) have produced the conference champion in each of the last seven seasons. This could be the season that trend comes to a halt. Stanford and Oregon should be solid again. But Washington is poised to return to the national stage, and UCLA has the league’s best quarterback in Josh Rosen. Talented USC can’t be counted out, either. With Oregon State’s Seth Collins moving to receiver, the Pac-12 returns only five starting quarterbacks, making it the only Power 5 conference that must replace more than half of its starters at the position.
The ACC has become a two-team league with Clemson and Florida State claiming each of the last five conference championships. In each of the last three seasons, either the Tigers or the Seminoles have gone into bowl season as the nation’s last undefeated team. That said, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher can’t get too comfortable: A handful of ACC teams have plans in place to catch up. North Carolina emerged from the always-competitive Coastal Division last season and shows no signs of slowing down. Miami and Virginia Tech made coaching hires that should return both to solid footing.
Favorite: Florida State
5. Big 12
Even Oklahoma’s appearance in the College Football Playoff couldn’t end speculation that the Big 12 will someday, somehow expand. As it is, the Big 12 remains — stylistically speaking — the most up-and-down conference in the country. The league produced four of the top seven offenses and six of the top 25. The Sooners, ranked 39th, were the league’s only top-40 defense. Oklahoma will be a playoff contender again. TCU must replace dynamic quarterback Trevone Boykin but still has the look of a potential contender. Meanwhile, Baylor — now under Jim Grobe — may be one of the most volatile teams in the country. The conference will look to Oklahoma State to take a step forward and for Texas, 11–14 under Charlie Strong, to show some signs of life.
The AAC is coming off the best season in its short history with Houston, Temple, Navy and Memphis leading the way on the national stage. Those four teams accounted for wins over Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The league must replace some outgoing quarterback and coaching talent, but there’s enough remaining to keep the AAC the leader among the Group of 5 conferences. Houston’s coach-QB tandem in Tom Herman and Greg Ward Jr. would be the envy of a majority of Power 5 teams.
The Mountain West started last season with a thud as the league lost 22 consecutive non-conference games through the first three weeks. It’s no surprise that a league that lost TCU, Utah and BYU over the years is still trying to find its way. The MW will need San Diego State to build upon its 11-win season in 2015 and for Boise State (9–4) to continue to be a thorn in the side of the power players. Air Force and Utah State will be tough outs.
Favorite: Boise State
MACtion is alive and well on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights in November, but in the big picture, the MAC may be little more than a pleasant diversion. The best teams in the league last season, Bowling Green and Toledo, lost their coaches to Power 5 schools. Quarterback talent and experience at Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan will set up a heated race in the West.
Favorite: Western Michigan
Two departures, one expected (WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty) and one abrupt (Southern Miss coach Todd Monken) could hold Conference USA back from producing a CFP host bowl contender. Nevertheless, this remains a league with exciting offenses at the top. But half the league could be among the 30 worst teams in college football.
Favorite: Southern Miss
10. Sun Belt
The addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has been a stroke of genius. Both were national champions at the FCS level and have made a seamless transition. Defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has perfected the formula of winning at this level.
Favorite: Appalachian State
The last time we visited Daytona, for the season opener we had a photo finish as Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. by inches at the line. It was a shocking end to NASCAR’s Super Bowl that had seen Matt Kenseth dominate down the stretch only for an unexpected charge past him entering turn 3.
Who knew that last-lap unpredictability would last over the next six months?
Despite ratings that continue to decline, the state of NASCAR competition has appeared to stabilize a bit this season through a series of late-race drama. Three of 16 events this season have been settled by an official lead change during the final two laps, while a fourth last weekend saw two passes after the white flag, the last of which happened during the final turn on a road course. Ten events have seen a margin of victory of less than one second; two of them, at Phoenix and in February’s Daytona 500 have been settled by the razor-thin margin of a hundredth of a second. How close is that? Just try to click your stopwatch on and off so you can get 0.01 secs. You’ll be trying long into the night… and get an immediate sense of how close these final laps have been.
It is true aerodynamic problems continue to plague the sport, in particular when passing for the lead despite its new rules package. More technical upgrades, better branding and a blend of fresh faces up front is needed to fully stop the bleeding. But for the first time in several years, the optimism surrounding the sport down in Daytona to start the season has remained in place by the time the series came back around in July. Executives can only hope that feeling holds, leading to financial and audience recovery by the season finale at Homestead in November.
2016 Coke Zero 400
Time: 7:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Tony Stewart
“Smoke rises.” That’s no longer just an awkward fortune cookie phrase but a NASCAR fact as Stewart rose from the ashes of a lost season to claim victory at Sonoma Sunday afternoon. To do it, Stewart needed a bit of luck in the form of a debris caution that launched him into the lead after pitting; from there, he held off all chargers over the final 20 laps in a heated battle that resulted in a standing ovation from those in attendance in Napa Valley. During the white-flag lap, Denny Hamlin snuck inside of Stewart to take the lead but the three-time series champion dug deep, got back alongside Hamlin in the final turn and rooted the No. 11 car out of the way to take victory. Suddenly, a 45-year-old that looked every bit a driver past his prime during this shortened retirement tour has recovered from eight races missed due to a fractured vertebra and put himself in position to make the Chase. Just nine points out of 30th in the standings, Stewart is on track to qualify as long as six new faces don’t make it to Victory Lane by Richmond, and then? Who knows? For an example, see 2015 series champion Kyle Busch.
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s easily become the most disappointing driver of the season’s first half despite lowered expectations after moving to underdog HScott Motorsports. The team, his home for only a year before Bowyer replaces Stewart in 2017, had high hopes for an upset victory at one of their better tracks (Bristol, Sonoma, one of the plate races) that would earn their primary car a postseason appearance. Instead? They look like the Bad News Bears, mechanical failures causing DNFs and difficult races that have Bowyer fuming. Electrical problems ended a promising weekend at Sonoma, put the No. 15 Chevy in dead last and left Bowyer on camera throwing his gloves and a mini tantrum on camera before getting taken back to the garage. At this point, the driver appears resigned to his fate, simply “playing out the string” while the team faces an increasingly uncertain fate for 2017.
Did Denny Hamlin let teammate Tony Stewart win? Conspiracy theorists abounded after Sonoma considering the way Hamlin slowed dramatically entering the final turn of the race, giving Stewart the edge on older tires to nudge him. Not so, says Hamlin, who emphatically defended himself during a series of Thursday questions at Daytona. “Ultimately, I made a mistake and thought we would maybe drag race to the line,” he said. “My biggest mistake I feel like is not recognizing the gap I had behind me. I needed to execute to make him make the decision [as to where to go entering that final turn]. Instead, I made the decision for him.” Hamlin, who apologized to his crew after the event, still has not won a Cup Series race on a road course.
FOX Sports finished its NASCAR coverage with declines in the majority of 16 events it covered, a combination of races on the mother ship and FOX Sports 1. That sobering reality led to the smallest average audience for the network since they first covered NASCAR live in 2001, raising questions as to whether there will be philosophy changes come 2017. Newcomer Jeff Gordon remains committed, quickly squelching rumors after emerging as a finalist to replace Michael Strahan on the popular morning show “Live With Kelly.” Darrell Waltrip and Mike Joy just finished their 17th seasons, respectively calling FOX races along with booth-turned-studio analyst Larry McReynolds.
NASCAR updated its race eligibility requirements to ensure both franchised (Charter teams) along with ones that have to qualify each week (Open teams) would be guaranteed spots in every Chase race. Under the old rules, rookie Ryan Blaney, driving for the “Open” Wood Brothers No. 21 would be forced to qualify on speed in a way the rest of the postseason field would not.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winners in the first 16 races of the season. Among those that have not yet reached Victory Lane: Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman.
DNFs apiece for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Only BK Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto has more.
Playing The Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Traditionally, plate races are a crapshoot when it comes to setting your fantasy roster. But after what we saw here in February, anyone from Joe Gibbs Racing has to be at the top of your list. The four-car tandem of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were a 1-2-3-4 bullet train for much of the Daytona 500 along with affiliated teammate Martin Truex Jr. The Toyotas still appear to have a handling edge the other manufacturers haven’t figured out and until they do? Even a backup Toyota, the kind Busch was forced to Friday morning after a wreck will be good enough to be up front for the majority of the race’s 160 laps.
Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, has a handful of victories in restrictor plate races and has this event circled on the calendar. Firmly on the Chase bubble, a victory here means McMurray can breathe easy and shifts the focus toward improving his first round exit from the postseason last year. Weird fact? Since that Daytona victory McMurray, who counts this track among his favorites hasn’t collected another top-5 finish here. Clearly, he’s due.
Don’t let last year’s last-lap slam into the SAFER Barrier upside down scare you off. Austin Dillon, driving the iconic No. 3 car, has five straight top-15 finishes Mat Daytona to go along with a pole during his rookie season. Dillon, who’s developed a knack for plate racing, needs a solid run to get his Chase bid back on safer ground and this night races offers an opportunity for a breakout performance.
Regan Smith. Matt DiBenedetto. Landon Cassill. Chris Buescher. Virtually any underdog can be a solid pick here with the way Daytona levels the playing field; those plates give any Cinderella behind the wheel a chance to sneak through with a shocking run near the front. Of all those listed, my bets would be on Cassill and Smith. Both have plenty of experience in Cup cars, are paired with teams that know how to do well at these tracks, and have a history of cashing in with top-10 finishes. Smith, in particular flexed some muscle late at Daytona before fading back into the pack in February.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning the early edge at Daytona, posting 6/1 odds with Daytona 500 winner Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson close behind at 9/1. Brad Keselowski, the season’s other plate winner at Talladega and a dark horse here sits next at 12/1.
What I Think
One week after Stewart shocked us I’m going to once again pick off the grid. Austin Dillon weaves through a sea of Toyotas, gets the right help at the right time and avenges his horrifying 2015 flip with a trip to Victory Lane.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
Cris Carter's son Duron isn't too different from his father.
The CFL receiver for the Montreal Alouettes is catching touchdowns just like the elder Carter, but is adding celebrations all his own. After Duron catches a TD, he goes into a celebration that results in him knocking down the opposing team's coach, causing a brawl with Ottawa. Not surprisingly, Carter was ejected from the game.
Mike Tirico was the voice of ESPN for 25 years, and he's taking his talents to NBC.
ESPN couldn't let him go without creating a tribute to an iconic voice. The play-by-play man has been an intricate part of the network and, at least for now, it's hard to imagine a Monday Night Football game without him.
Thank you to all who have made these 25 years so incredibly enjoyable. It's been an honor to be part of the special @espn family.— MikeTirico (@miketirico) June 30, 2016
UCLA football was left to do some soul-searching after the 2015 season's conclusion. For the first time in head coach Jim Mora's four-year tenure, the Bruins failed to win at least nine games.
Meanwhile, late-season losses at home to Washington State and the first defeat sustained against crosstown rival USC since Mora's arrival denied UCLA a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance.
After an ugly showing in the Foster Farms Bowl, wherein the Bruins lost to a sub-.500 Nebraska team, Mora made some changes. UCLA's introducing a retooled offense to build around the strengths of talented sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen.
With running back Soso Jamabo, a loaded secondary and playmakers along the defensive line, UCLA has the pieces to rebound and make a run at the conference championship. The road to Levi's Stadium won't be easy, though. Here are the Bruins' 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 10 vs. UNLV
In head coach Tony Sanchez's first year, UNLV dropped four games by single digits. A veteran Rebel lineup in 2016 should convert some of those near-misses into wins, and perhaps crash a bowl game.
In a year with plenty of close finishes, UCLA's visit to Sin City was not among them. The Bruins blasted the Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium last September, 37-3. Do not expect the return visit to Pasadena to be much more competitive.
11. Nov. 12 vs. Oregon State
UCLA missed Oregon State in 2013 and '14, part of the conference's imbalanced scheduling. Their last meeting before the Bruins' trip to Reser Stadium last November was an Oregon State upset in the Rose Bowl in 2012, Mora's first season.
Last year's 41-0 UCLA romp paid the Beavers back in full. Nevertheless, expect the Bruins to dole out some more change in Oregon State's first trip back to the Rose Bowl since.
10. Oct. 1 vs. Arizona
Arizona once owned this series, winning every meeting from 2007-11, and six of seven from 2005-11. The script flipped with Mora's arrival, as the Wildcats are batting .000 in four meetings with the Bruins since the 2012 campaign.
Though the 2016 Wildcats should be improved from the version UCLA walloped in Tucson last September, the Bruins' dominance of Rich Rodriguez's teams and home-field advantage land Arizona at just No. 10. Consider it less an indictment of Arizona, and more an indication of the strength of UCLA's schedule.
9. Nov. 26 at Cal
UCLA boasted one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12 last season, and arguably one of the most impressive in all of college football given the many pass-happy offenses the Bruins had to face. Among the opponents UCLA grounded was Cal, featuring the No. 1 draft in this spring's NFL draft, Jared Goff.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes must completely rebuild the passing attack this year with a new quarterback and the departure of last year's top six pass catchers, though the 2016 Golden Bears will be up to speed come the regular-season finale.
UCL is often taken to the limit in its visits to Berkeley. If that's the case once more, it could make for a stressful finale, should the Bruins be in the mix for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
8. Nov. 3 at Colorado
Two of the bigger heartaches Colorado football's suffered in Pac-12 play under head coach Mike MacIntyre are narrow defeats against UCLA.
The Buffs had an opportunity to steal a win on Halloween 2015, and in '14, took the Bruins to overtime in Boulder. Boasting the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12, Colorado is a dangerous team with the ability to shakeup the South division title race.
UCLA visiting Boulder on a Thursday night in November, when the temperatures are likely to dip below freezing, could put a chill on the Bruins' conference championship hopes.
7. Oct. 8 at Arizona State
Mora and Arizona State head coach Todd Graham both arrived in the Pac-12 in the same 2012 season. There of their four meetings thus far have come down to the final possession, and the winner in two of those have gone on to appear in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Sun Devils stunned the Bruins in the Rose Bowl last season, ending UCLA's perfect start. That UCLA team was better than Arizona State on paper, so the Sun Devils' projected rebuilding season means little — especially in early October, when the mercury in Tempe still threatens to reach triple digits.
That's just one kind of heat UCLA can expect to deal with in the Valley of the Sun. The other is the constant blitzing heat Graham likes to bring with his defense.
6. Sept. 17 at BYU
BYU's visit to the Rose Bowl last season was an instant classic. Running back Nate Starks came up big for the Bruins, which got a late score to hold off the upset-minded Cougars.
BYU claims at least a few Power Five pelts every year. UCLA avoided being one such victim last season, but Nebraska last year and Pac-12 counterpart Cal in 2014 were not so unfortunate. The always-raucous LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd promises an inhospitable environment for the Pac-12 visitors, and the Cougars quarterback will challenge UCLA's defense, no matter if it's Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum lining up behind center.
5. Oct. 22 vs. Utah
The visitor has won each of the last three in this series, including Utah spoiling UCLA's previously unblemished record when last visiting the Rose Bowl in 2014.
Last season's matchup was a rough-and-tumble, defensive showdown that ostensibly eliminated Utah from the Pac-12 championship race. Expect a similarly physical matchup this time around, with UCLA's restructured offensive philosophy promising to exchange haymakers with the always-stout Utah defense.
4. Oct. 15 at Washington State
Among the more impressive wins in Washington State's altogether surprising 2015 was its 31-27 shocker of UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The upset effectively knocked the Bruins out of the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South, removing their margin of error for back-to-back road games with Utah and USC.
Luke Falk threw for 331 yards last season in Pasadena, nine yards shy of Rosen's total that night, but Falk had two more passing scores. As two of the top — if not the top two -— quarterbacks in the Pac-12, expect another shootout on the Palouse.
3. Sept. 3 at Texas A&M
Conference pride is at stake when UCLA takes a visit to SEC Country. Week 1 also marks the debut of the Bruins' new offensive philosophy under coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, who replaced Noel Mazzone. Mazzone, meanwhile, is making his debut for... Texas A&M.
Consider the ante raised.
Both UCLA and Texas A&M enter the 2016 season loaded with talent, but face enough question marks that expectations around each program are tempered. An impressive showing here could be the catalyst for a breakout season while a debilitating setback could darken the forecast for the campaign to come.
2.Nov. 19 vs. USC
UCLA's three-year reign over the Los Angeles football scene ended emphatically last November, as USC frustrated and dominated the Bruins like no opponent all season long.
The loss was Mora's first to the Trojans, and kept UCLA out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The implications of this year's matchup should be similar. Both the Bruins and Trojans have the talent to contend for the conference title, though the South division's title game representative is likely to emerge from this game.
1. Sept. 24 vs. Stanford
Stanford is the one mountain — or tree, as it were — UCLA's been unable to climb in Mora's tenure.
The Cardinal have enjoyed some memorable moments at the Bruins' expense in that time, winning the program's first conference championship in more than decade in a thrilling Pac-12 Championship Game in 2012; Christian McCaffrey delivering his breakout performance in last year's encounter; and emphatically denying the Bruins a league title game berth with a blowout win in the Rose Bowl in '14.
The 2016 season brings Stanford's return to Pasadena after that stunning loss on Black Friday two years ago. McCaffrey's still donning the cardinal and white, though remarkably, this will mark the first time a Mora-coached UCLA team has seen a quarterback other than Kevin Hogan behind center for Stanford.
The pairing of UCLA's new-look offense against Stanford's always-stout defense ranks among the Pac-12's more intriguing matchups of the 2016 campaign.
You know the big names to take the field in the Big Ten this season, like Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett or Michigan hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers. We can go on for days about those players. If you want to dig a little deeper, however, you can uncover some players with the potential to be true wild cards for their teams and in the Big Ten championship hunt.
Related: Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions
Whether they are incoming freshmen or players coming off a redshirt season, players looking to fill big shoes by a player that has moved on or simply just look like a player that could benefit form a change of scenery and coaching staff, the Big Ten has a number of players to keep an eye on this fall.
Big Ten East
Offense: Mitchell Paige, Wide Receiver
Indiana’s offense will look to spread the ball around through the air and Paige returns to help lead the receiving unit. Paige led the Hoosiers with six touchdown receptions in 2015 and should remain a dependable target this fall.
Defense: Jayme Thompson, Husky
Indiana’s pass defense left a lot to be desired last season but should improve as a young core continues to grow. Stepping into a key role will be Thompson in the new Husky position. If all goes well, Thompson could have an impact at the position.
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Offense: Avery Edwards, Tight End
Edwards was Maryland’s top tight end last season with 14 receptions for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman. With a year of experience under his belt now, Edwards could be ready to take on a more dependable role in the offense.
Defense: Adam McLean, Defensive Tackle
The true freshman re-enrolled at Maryland and may have to work to land a starting job on Mike London’s defensive line, but the four-star talent could cause problems for offensive linemen once he does get in the mix.
Offense: Tyrone Wheatley Jr., Tight End
Michigan’s offense is already in terrific shape at the tight end position with Jake Butt returning to the Wolverines this season rather than opt for the NFL Draft, but having a complementary tight end like Wheatley Jr. (son of former Wolverine running back Tyrone Wheatley) could help make Michigan’s offense just a bit more dangerous for opposing defenses if they need to worry about two tight ends.
Defense: Lavert Hill, Defensive Back
The Detroit native may not get a chance to shine right away, but the super talented and highly rated defensive back recruit should find his way on the field this season. Hill was one of many key recruits for Michigan’s Class of 2016. Despite some seniors sitting on top the depth chart, Jim Harbaugh would be wise to try and get Hill involved where he can this season and see what happens.
Offense: Donnie Corley, Wide Receiver
An early enrollee, Corley got a jumpstart on fitting in with the Michigan State offense and has quickly proven to be worthy of some early playing time. He also appears to be a player that could do some damage on special teams at times, making him a versatile option for the Spartans.
Defense: Demetrius Cooper, Defensive End
Though he backed up Shilique Calhoun last fall, Cooper managed to cause some problems for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks when he got a chance to line up on the line. Cooper put together five sacks last season and figures to step right in to a starting role alongside Malik McDowell.
Offense: Mike Weber, Running Back
Ezekiel Elliott is gone and will be difficult to replace, but Weber appears ready to make his case for being Ohio State’s next top running back. It may not happen immediately, but look for the redshirt freshman to shine when given opportunities to carry the football, which should eventually lead to him being a key ingredient in the same backfield as J.T. Barrett.
Defense: Dante Booker, Linebacker
Ohio State has a strong history of linebackers and this year should be no exception. Booker was a star recruit in the state of Ohio and will now have a chance to take his game to the next level and, perhaps, be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten when all is said and done this fall.
Offense: Jake Zembiec, Quarterback
By most accounts, it appears as though Trace McSorley has the leg up on the quest to succeed Christian Hackenberg under center. McSorley has limited playing experience over Zembiec, an early enrollee this past January, but if McSorley struggles at any point then it could be Zembiec who steps in to give it a shot. If he does, he may not give it up.
Defense: Jake Cooper, Linebacker
Penn State’s linebackers may not be quite up to par with past units in the storied history, but one name to keep an eye on might be Cooper. The sophomore can play inside and outside to bring some flexibility to the defense in the event someone needs to step in.
Offense: Hayden Rettig, Quarterback
Rutgers is in dire need of a quarterback stepping up and proving to be a reliable asset in the offense. Rettig, a former transfer from Kansas, could be the guy by the end of the season despite not being much of a running threat. Rutgers can get by with a pocket passer if the line is solid enough, and that could lead to Rettig being the best option.
Defense: Ross Taylor-Douglas, Defensive Back
Rutgers has reason to be optimistic about its secondary this season after going through some significant growing pains in 2015. One new addition that could help be a reliable leader could be Taylor-Douglas, a graduate transfer from Michigan. His impact may end up being felt more on the sideline than on the field, but there is value to that.
Big Ten West
Offense: Tre Nations, Running Back
The Illini’s running show will be led by Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but Nation will be the likely next man up in a shallow backfield. The three-star recruit out of Alabama will do his best to fill a void left by the injured Dre Brown and could see a good number of carries as a result. He also has an awesome name.
Defense: Tre Watson, Linebacker
The Illini have a good number of upperclassmen across the defensive side of the field, but Watson is the lone exception. Look for the sophomore to fit right in on the outside and develop into a defensive leader this fall.
Offense: James Daniels, Offensive Guard
Iowa’s offensive line will undergo some turnover this season from last season’s Big Ten West championship roster. Daniels is expected to lock down a starting job at right guard, where he will have the responsibility to help open running lanes for his older brother, LeShun Daniels.
Defense: Matt Nelson, Defensive End
With not too many holes to plug on defense, Iowa is putting the biggest plug they have at defensive end. Nelson (6-8, 275) has the size and should fit in nicely on the end of the defensive line. He lacks experience but there is enough of a veteran presence around him to help make up for that concern, which should benefit him and the Hawkeyes in the long run.
Offense: Rashad Still, Wide Receiver
Minnesota has a couple of upperclassmen to look to make strides in the receiving game, but one younger name to watch will be Still. He appeared in 12 games last fall and caught 18 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He could see his role increase this season as the Gophers look to replace KJ Maye.
Defense: KiAnte Hardin, Defensive Back
There are some big shoes to fill in the defensive backfield, which means Hardin, a sophomore, may be looked to mature quickly as he fills a starting job. Hardin did appear in all 13 games Minnesota played last season, with an average of one tackle per game to show for it. His role will be much more definitive in 2016.
Offense: Derrion Grim, Wide Receiver
Grimm enrolled early and has already started to impress with his abilities. Because his work ethic and skill have been so admirable, Nebraska expects to throw Grim into the mix right away after a solid spring showing.
Defense: Khalil Davis, Defensive Tackle
After sitting out the 2015 season with a redshirt, Davis has been putting in the work in the weight room and building himself to being a potential stopgap on the defensive line. After earing offseason workout recognition from the program, Davis is one giant step closer to sitting in the middle of the line. His twin brother, Carlos Davis, may be a slight step ahead of him, but it may not be long until Khalil leaves an impact as well.
Offense: Garrett Dickerson, Tight End
Northwestern is losing a talented tight end in Dan Vitale, which means the Wildcats have to hope someone can step up and take on the leading role at the position. Dickerson may be best suited for the task as a junior. Formerly a running back, he appeared in 12 games in 2015 recording 12 catches for 124 yards.
Defense: Xavier Washington, Defensive End
Washington enters his third season with the program and could be ready to redeem himself a bit after a disappointing 2015. Washington will join an upperclassmen-filled line and look to draw form his prior playing experience to take his game to the next level to become more of a disruptive force.
Offense: Elijah Sindelar, Quarterback
It goes without saying Purdue does not have Drew Brees to count on any more, as the Boilermakers embark on another season with a huge question mark at quarterback. David Blough may be the guy for now, but do not be surprised if head coach Darrell Hazell makes a switch to Sindelar, a freshman. Hazell’s job security may even depend on it.
Defense: Evyn Cooper, Defensive Back
The redshirt freshman may have to win the job away from somebody, but Cooper has already benefitted from a solid spring and has generated some momentum to a possible starting job sooner rather than later. Purdue could use all the help it can get in the secondary too, so Cooper may have a chance to make some plays early on.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook, Quarterback
The Badgers could be in store for a rough start to the season, which may fuel the fire for a possible QB switch if Bart Houston is the starter at the beginning of the fall. If Houston gets yanked, in will step Hornibrook, a freshman. Whether or not he will be ready for the spotlight remains to be seen, but he should have a chance to finish the season on a high note, which could be good for his development.
Defense: T.J. Watt, Linebacker
The younger brother of former Badger and NFL star J.J. Watt, T.J. looks to step in to a key role of his own this season in Madison. After being converted form the tight end position, has an opportunity to lock down a key role on the defensive side of the football at a position that has been reliable for Wisconsin over the years. And if he is half as good as his older brother, Wisconsin should be in good shape.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
As we all know, a majority of college football games are played on Saturday. But there are quite a few games this year that fall on Friday - 56 to be exact. That is the most ever, and hey, maybe that’s not a bad thing. A matchup on Friday (or a midweek game) provides Group of 5 teams more publicity. But these matchups also take away from high school games and prospective student-athletes with Friday Night Lights. However, at the end of the day, more football exposure, the better. Here are the best quarterback matchups that will be played on a Friday in 2016.
CFB's Top 15 QB Matchups for Friday Games in 2016
|1. Jake Browning (WASH) vs. Luke Falk (WSU) 11/25|
This mouth-watering Apple Cup matchup will display two of the finest arms in the country with Jake Browning and Luke Falk combining for 7,516 yards and 54 touchdowns in the air last fall.
|2. Seth Russell (BAY) vs. Patrick Mahomes II (TTU) 11/25|
|Another Week 13 matchup, this Big 12 clash will feature a couple of gunslingers who are underrated runners. The pair rushed for over 400 yards each last season, respectively.|
|3. Kenny Hill (TCU) vs. Matt Davis (SMU) 9/17|
|Maybe the best matchup of dual-threats quarterbacks on Friday in 2016, expect Hill to rush for over 100 yards with the Mustangs’ front seven only returning two starters from last year.|
|4. Thomas Sirk (DUKE) vs. Lamar Jackson (LOU) 10/14|
|This game will display some of the best running quarterbacks in the ACC as both combined for 1,763 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground last season.|
|5. Dakota Prukop (ORE) vs. Davis Webb (CAL) 10/21|
|Two former transfers look to improve their draft stock in the Pac-12 in what should be a high-scoring affair.|
|6. Quinton Flowers (USF) vs. P.J. Walker (TEM) 10/21|
|Some of the finest Group of 5 dual-threats square off in AAC action. Expect both to find paydirt on the ground.|
|7. Brett Rypien (BOISE) vs. Lamar Jordan (UNM) 10/7|
|These two each bring a different facet to the game - Rypien with his arm (3,353 passing yards) and Jordan with his legs (807 rushing yards).|
|8. Lamar Jackson (LOU) vs. Eric Dungey (SYR) 9/9|
|This will be Jackson’s first road test this fall and look for him to have a lot of rushing yards that night against a Syracuse defense that is expected to start two ends with no playing experience.|
|9. Tommy Armstrong (NEB) vs. C.J. Beathard (IOWA) 11/25|
|Two underrated quarterbacks in the Big Ten ought to slug out a traditional pro-style offensive game to close out the regular season.|
|10. Keller Chryst (STAN) vs. Jake Browning (WASH) 9/30|
|This will be Chryst's first time playing out of state as the Cardinal takes on Athlon's pick to win the Pac 12 (Washington) in Seattle.|
|11. Cooper Rush (CMU) vs. Billy Bahl (MIAO) 11/4|
|The only worthy MAC Friday game on the list, watch for Rush to lead the Chippewas to a strong finish in November.|
|12. Patrick Towles (BC) vs. Deondre Francois (FSU) 11/11|
|The only game the night of November 11, Towles will face the best defense he will see all year in Tallahassee.|
|13. Johnny Stanton (UNLV) vs. Brett Rypien (BOISE) 11/18|
|Will Stanton be comfortable come November in Barney Cotton’s offense? Rypien and Co. will be looking to win here to solidify a spot in the MWC Championship Game.|
|14. Jesse Ertz (KSU) vs. Keller Chryst (STAN) 9/2|
The only Power 5 versus Power 5 Friday matchup in Week 1 features two unproven play-callers looking to start off the year on a high note.
|15. Tago Smith (NAVY) vs. Quinton Flowers (USF) 10/28|
|Another AAC quarterback battle takes place and it will be enjoyable seeing the growth of Keenan Reynolds replacement, Tago Smith.|
There is one date that stands out on the 2016 FSU football calendar — Oct. 29.
With both Clemson and Florida State welcoming back just about every key offensive player along with plenty of talent on defense, it’s more than likely that that game will again determine the ACC Atlantic Division champion. And unless you believe that two ACC teams will make the final four, there's a good chance that a College Football Playoff spot will be on the line that Saturday as well.
Related: ACC Football 2016 Predictions
But after witnessing what happened at Georgia Tech last October, Florida State fans know all too well that every game is important. And there are a lot of potential landmines on this year’s schedule.
Here is a ranking of Florida State’s schedule from the easiest game to the hardest.
12. Sept. 10 vs. Charleston Southern
Athlon Sports ranks the Buccaneers at No. 6 team in their preseason FCS Top 25 and they return a potent, senior-dominated backfield. But CSU has been run over by FBS competition, going 0-14 in program history, losing those games by an average score of 59-9.
11. Oct. 15 vs. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons played a lot of underclassmen in 2015 and that experience figures to pay dividends this season. But the offense was underwhelming last fall and will need to make huge strides to become even average this year. Plus, the loss of star linebacker Brandon Chubb will be difficult to overcome.
10. Nov. 11 vs. Boston College
The Friday night contest comes following a game at NC State, making for a short preparation week. The Eagles’ defense should again be strong and they hope that Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles can solidify their quarterback situation. However, BC has very few threats on offense, especially if running back Jon Hilliman is not 100 percent recovered from last year’s broken foot.
9. Nov. 19 at Syracuse
The Orange will be adapting to new head coach Dino Babers’s fast-paced offense. The good news: sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey looks like he is a perfect fit for the offense. The bad news: the defense will again be shaky. Syracuse will be improved and the Carrier Dome will be noisy when the Noles come to upstate New York.
8. Sept. 24 at South Florida
When the Bulls lost to FSU last September, head coach Willie Taggart was on the hot seat. Now they are one of the favorites in the American Athletic Conference. USF returns 14 starters including difference-makers in running back Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers. That South Florida is the eighth toughest game is a testament to how challenging Florida State’s schedule will be this fall.
7. Nov. 5 at NC State
It seems that Florida State always gets the Wolfpack in the most difficult spot. The week after playing Clemson in the game of the year, the Noles have to go to Raleigh. NC State loses quarterback Jacoby Brissett and the offensive line is in flux. But the defense should be good and there is a history of tough battles between the two programs.
6. Oct. 1 vs. North Carolina
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky steps in to lead what should be a very explosive Tar Heels offense. Running back Elijah Hood can churn up yards and Ryan Switzer is a dangerous wide receiver/return man. But Dalvin Cook’s eyes will light up knowing he will be facing last year’s 122nd-ranked rushing defense in this game.
5. Nov. 26 vs. Florida
Head coach Jim McElwain will eventually fix the Florida offense, but probably not this year. The Gators have question marks all over their offense with the biggest being at the quarterback position. The defense should once again be very nasty and the season-ending matchup is always an extremely emotional affair for both sides.
4. Oct. 8 at Miami
The Hurricanes have lost six straight to the Seminoles but the last two contests have been very close. Mark Richt brings a new attitude to Coral Gables and he has an outstanding quarterback to build around in Brad Kaaya. With three layups and Georgia Tech on the schedule before Florida State, everyone in south Florida will be ready for the Seminole invasion.
3. Sept. 5 vs. Ole Miss (Orlando, Fla.)
How good will Ole Miss be this year? Gone are wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Chad Kelly is back to direct the offense and there is plenty of athleticism on the defense. It helps FSU that this neutral site game is in Orlando.
2. Sept. 17 at Louisville
With all the talk about Florida State and Clemson, the Cardinals feel a little disrespected in the ACC Atlantic conversation. This will be their first opportunity to show the country that they are in the same class as the big two. Quarterback Lamar Jackson should be even better as a sophomore and it will again be tough to score on Todd Grantham’s defense.
1. Oct. 29 vs. Clemson
Deshaun Watson. Wayne Gallman. Artavis Scott. Jordan Leggett. And Mike Williams returning from injury. The Clemson offense could be scary good. The defense loses several key pieces like Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, but defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a lot of talent at his disposal.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
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You know the overused saying, "the schedule does them no favors" that gets applied to almost every team prior to the start of a college football season? Well, that doesn't really apply to Michigan this year.
Jim Harbaugh's team begin 2016 with five consecutive appearances at the Big House, giving them eight home games in all. The non-conference schedule is a cakewalk as the three foes combined for a 7-31 record in 2015. That said, Michigan's three toughest matchups (Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State) will all be on the road, two of which come in November when the weather turns cold and conditions can potentially play a factor in the outcome.
If the Wolverines do somehow come out of those three games unscathed, they could be looking at their first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Here is a look at Michigan’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to the most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Hawaii
These are not your Colt Brennan-led Hawaii Rainbow Warriors of old coming into the Big House. Projected starting quarterback Ikaika Woolsey has yet to throw for a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio in each of his three years with the team. Talent deficit aside, Hawaii has one of the most challenging starts to the 2016 season of any team as it kicks things off a week earlier in Australia against Cal before hitting the road again to face the Wolverines. This will likely be a three-or four-score game after just the first quarter.
11. Sept. 10 vs. UCF
After finishing 2015 winless for the second time in 11 years, UCF should be much improved this upcoming season, due in large part to new head coach and former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost bringing his up-tempo offense to Orlando. The Knights better hope they can take care of business against South Carolina State in Week 1 to end their winless streak, though, because a W is not the likely outcome against the Wolverines. UCF’s talented group of receivers will pose a challenge for new defensive coordinator Don Brown, but the Michigan secondary is one of the best in the country Jourdan Lewis leading the way.
10. Sept. 17 vs. Colorado
If we knew for certain that Colorado starting quarterback Sefo Liufau would be available for this matchup, it could move up a few notches on the list. But as Liufau continues to recover from a fractured left foot he suffered against USC late last season, the Buffs are unsure as to who will be under center to start the year. That does not bode well for a team that will need all hands on deck on the road against Michigan, which should have their quarterback situation figured out by Week 3.
9. Oct. 22 vs. Illinois
The only difficult part about this matchup with the Illini for the Wolverines will be keeping their focus as they will travel to East Lansing that next week. There is finally some excitement surrounding the Illinois program with new head coach Lovie Smith at the helm, but not many pieces for him to work with on either side of the ball as the Illini return just 11 total starters. Michigan should win with ease in its Homecoming game.
8. Nov. 5 vs. Maryland
Don’t expect Jim Harbaugh to take it easy on former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who is now the head man at Maryland. Michigan completely dominated the Terrapins last season, holding them to just 105 yards of total offense in a 28-0 victory, and Maryland really hasn’t improved all that much on the offensive side of the ball in terms of personnel. Unless star cornerback William Likely can provide multiple interceptions or a special teams touchdown, the Terps are unlikely to generate enough offense against the Wolverines’ defense.
7. Nov. 19 vs. Indiana
The Wolverines have completely dominated the all-time series with the Hoosiers, winning 86 percent of the 64 total meetings (55-9), including last year’s 48-41 thrilling overtime victory. Despite having the No. 4 defense in the entire country, Michigan was gashed by Indiana, giving up more than 500 yards of total offense. Did Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson figure out the Wolverines’ defense? He will have to do so again this year – this time on the road and without his starting quarterback and running back from a season ago. Don’t expect a repeat performance from the Hoosiers in the Big House.
6. Oct. 8 at Rutgers
Rutgers is one of the two or three worst teams on Michigan’s schedule, so why is this game ranked sixth? For one, this is a primetime matchup on the road where Michigan did not fare so well the last time, losing 26-24 in Piscataway in 2014. Night games on the road are never an easy task in college football. Secondly, the relatively new rivalry between both coaching staffs on the recruiting trails adds another element of intrigue as Harbaugh continues to poach high school players (Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary) out of the New Jersey area. Rutgers will be highly motivated for this one.
5. Sept. 24 vs. Penn State
The Penn State matchup kicks off the Big Ten slate for the Wolverines in what will be their fourth consecutive game at home to start the season. Michigan’s defense dominated the Nittany Lions last season in Happy Valley, holding them to just 207 total yards of offense. Penn State figures to be improve on offense with new coordinator Joe Moorhead installing a form of the spread offense, but expecting the Nittany Lions to be clicking on all cylinders this early in the year may be a stretch. Michigan’s defense should be able to put the clamps on the Penn State offense once again.
4. Oct. 1 vs. Wisconsin
The Badgers and Wolverines have not played each other since 2010 despite their 63 all-time meetings, and while Michigan leads the series by a considerable margin (49-14), the Badgers have won the last two. Expect the Wolverines to focus solely on stopping the run, as Wisconsin will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but should have star running back Corey Clement at full strength following a injury-plagued 2015. If this game was in Madison, it may have a different outcome, but this will be the Wolverines’ fifth consecutive home game to start the year.
3. Oct. 29 at Michigan State
This spot was a tossup between the Spartans and Hawkeyes, but Iowa gets the nod as its quarterback position looks to be much more settled heading into 2016. Not to say that Sparty will not be sufficient on offense with senior Tyler O’Connor at the helm, but one career start in four years does not exude a ton of confidence. With both of the games in questions coming on the road, most would take their chances against the team with an unproven quarterback, though that could change by Week 9 of the season. Either matchup is a tough one for Michigan.
2. Nov. 12 at Iowa
Most expect there to be a slight drop off this year for the Hawkeyes after finishing the 2015 regular season undefeated, but with eight starters back on defense and an improving offense under the direction of senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa should once again be a factor in the Big Ten West. That alone makes this a difficult challenge for the Wolverines, which have lost four out of the last five matchups against the Hawkeyes. Now add in that this game takes place in mid-November at Kinnick Stadium in prime time. If Michigan is to escape Iowa City with a win, it will have been earned.
1. Nov. 26 at Ohio State
Regardless of the year, regardless of the other teams on the schedule, Ohio State will likely always rank at the top of this list as long as Urban Meyer is still around. Despite losing the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Taylor Decker, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Taylor Decker and other starters, the Buckeyes recruit with the best of them in college football and still have a roster chock full of four- and five-star prospects. Most importantly, starting quarterback J.T. Barrett is fully healthy and back under center as one of the top returning players in the entire country. With this game possibly determining who plays in Indy for the Big Ten championship (and the driver’s seat for a spot in the College Football Playoff), this is far and away the toughest task the Wolverines will face in 2016.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2