Articles By Steven Lassan

All taxonomy terms: College Football, Big Ten, News
Path: /college-football/big-tens-top-10-assistant-coach-hires-2016
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The Big Ten’s coaching carousel was an active one in the assistant ranks this offseason, as 12 out of the league’s 14 teams experienced some staff changes for 2016. While head coach hires often have a bigger impact, key assistant hires are just as critical. Michigan and Ohio State were once again the big winners this offseason. The addition of Don Brown (Michigan) and Greg Schiano (Ohio State) should ensure both teams remain at the top of the league in defense. However, Indiana’s hire of Tom Allen from South Florida should be a huge boost for coach Kevin Wilson’s defense. Maryland’s Walt Bell and Penn State’s Joe Moorhead are just two of the offseason’s top hires on the offensive side of the ball.

 

The Big Ten's Top 10 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016

 

Tom Allen, Defensive Coordinator, Indiana

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson took a big step in addressing a struggling defense this offseason. Allen was hired after a successful one-year stint at South Florida and is an instant upgrade for a unit that has ranked 10th or worse in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed since 2008. Under Allen’s watch last year, the Bulls allowed only 22.9 points a game and limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play. Expect Indiana’s defense to take a step forward under Allen’s watch in 2016.

 

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Walt Bell, Offensive Coordinator, Maryland

New coach D.J. Durkin wasn’t afraid to aim high for his coaching staff, and the first-year coach landed an impressive collection of assistants on both sides of the ball. Bell is one of the rising stars at offensive coordinator, as he lands in College Park after coordinating an Arkansas State offense that averaged 40 points a game in 2015. Maryland averaged only 24.7 points a contest last year, but Bell’s arrival is the first step in fixing the struggling attack.

 

Don Brown, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan

Michigan’s defense was already one of the Big Ten’s standout units under former coordinator D.J. Durkin. And after Durkin left for Maryland, coach Jim Harbaugh made arguably the top coordinator hire of the offseason by bringing Don Brown to Ann Arbor from Boston College. Under Brown’s watch last season, the Eagles allowed only 15.3 points a game and led the nation by holding opponents to 4.1 yards per play. The veteran assistant has a long track record of success from other stops at UConn, Maryland and UMass and should engineer one of the nation’s best defenses this fall.

 

Mike London, Defensive Line/Pete Lembo, Special Teams, Maryland

Having two proven assistants like Mike London and Pete Lembo should be a huge asset for new Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. London comes to College Park after a six-year run as Virginia’s head coach, while Lembo left his position as Ball State’s head coach to coordinate Maryland’s special teams and coach tight ends. Expect both coaches to make an impact and provide a veteran sounding board for Durkin over the next few seasons with the Terrapins.

 

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Garrick McGee, Offensive Coordinator, Illinois

Considering Lovie Smith hasn’t coached in college since 1995, hiring a staff with strong collegiate ties was essential. McGee was arguably the top hire for Smith, as the Oklahoma native has a wealth of experience at the FBS level, including stops as an assistant at Louisville, Arkansas and Northwestern. Additionally, McGee worked for two seasons as UAB’s head coach from 2012-13. McGee is regarded as a good recruiter and his versatile background on offense should be a huge plus for the Fighting Illini.   

 

Drew Mehringer, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers

Mehringer has been on a fast track through the coaching ranks and is a critical hire for new coach Chris Ash at Rutgers. The Texas native started his coaching career at Rice as a student assistant in 2007 and eventually made his way to Ohio State in 2012 as a graduate assistant. After two years with the Buckeyes, Mehringer went to James Madison as the co-offensive coordinator before reuniting with Tom Herman at Houston in 2015. Mehringer helped James Madison’s offense average 35.7 points a game in 2014 and should be one of the nation’s youngest coordinators (28) with the Scarlet Knights.

 

Joe Moorhead, Offensive Coordinator, Penn State

James Franklin is hitting the reset button on Penn State’s offense. The Nittany Lions have struggled to find consistent production from this group over the last two seasons and enter 2016 with question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line. Moorhead comes to Happy Valley after four seasons at Fordham and plans to overhaul the offense from more of a pro-style attack to an up-tempo spread. Prior to a 38-13 stint at Fordham, Moorhead worked at the FBS level as an offensive coordinator at Connecticut and Akron.

 

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John Parrella, Defensive Line, Nebraska

Parrella was a standout player for the Cornhuskers from 1990-92 and returns to Lincoln tasked with rebuilding a defensive line that loses standout tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine and defensive ends Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish. Parrella’s experience on the collegiate level is limited, but as a former Cornhusker and NFL player, his addition should pay dividends for the defense in 2016. Parrella spent the last two years working at Northern Michigan and also made one stop at Chabot College in 2013.

 

Greg Schiano, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State

Replacing assistant coaches is nothing new to Urban Meyer. After Chris Ash left the Buckeye defensive staff to be the head coach at Rutgers, Meyer brought aboard Schiano to work with Luke Fickell as the team’s co-defensive coordinators. Schiano was let go by Tampa Bay after two seasons as the head coach in 2013. Since then, Schiano has been out of football for two years, but there’s a strong track record of success on the defensive side for the New Jersey native. Even with significant personnel losses for Ohio State in 2016, Schiano should ensure the defense doesn’t slip too much in overall performance.

 

Justin Wilcox, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin

Wilcox has big shoes to fill in replacing Dave Aranda as the defensive coordinator in Madison. Aranda was one of the nation’s top assistant coaches and left for LSU after Wisconsin’s bowl win over USC. This will be Wilcox’s fifth coordinator job at the FBS level, with prior stops at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and USC. While Wilcox was let go after his two-year run with the Trojans, Washington’s defense showed marked improvement under his watch, and his 2011 group at Tennessee only gave up 22.6 points a game.

 

Other Key Assistant Hires in the Big Ten

 

Mark Hagen, Defensive Line Coach, Indiana

Jay Johnson, Offensive Coordinator, Minnesota

Jim Leonhard, Defensive Backs Coach, Wisconsin

Bart Miller, Offensive Line, Minnesota

Hardy Nickerson, Defensive Coordinator, Illinois

Brent Pry, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Penn State

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The Big Ten's Top 10 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016
Post date: Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/big-ten-football-2016-returning-starters-analysis
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Returning starter data in college football preseason charts or magazine pages isn’t an exact science. The numbers and data can vary among different websites, magazines or other resources. However, even if there’s some disagreement on the numbers, the data is an interesting early look at how teams are shaping up for the upcoming season.

 

The Big Ten features one of the nation’s most intriguing races for the league title in 2016. Ohio State and Michigan are picked in most preseason polls as neck-and-neck for the top spot in the East and for the No. 1 overall designation in the conference. While the Buckeyes and Wolverines are considered playoff contenders, there’s plenty of depth in this league with Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Additionally, Nebraska should take a step forward in coach Mike Riley’s second season in Lincoln, and Penn State has the talent for a breakthrough year under coach James Franklin.

 

With spring practice underway across the Big Ten, it’s never too early to start looking at the depth charts and returning starters for all 14 teams in the league. In preparation for the 2016 College Football Preview magazine, Athlon Sports determines the returning starters for every team. A simple criteria is used as a baseline for returning starters. A player must start seven overall games or the last six of any season. However, that is not a hard-line rule for returning starters, and there’s plenty of flexibility (snaps or overall playing time as a backup, injuries or scheme) when taking into account the actual number. 

 

East Division
Team Offense Defense
Indiana 6 7
Maryland 4 5
Michigan 8 6
Michigan State 4 5
Ohio State 3 3
Penn State 9 5
Rutgers 8 7

* Ohio State’s six returning starters are the fewest by any Big Ten team for 2016. While the Buckeyes are thin on proven talent, the six returning starters could feature three preseason All-Americans – quarterback J.T. Barrett, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and center Pat Elflein.

 

* Look for Michigan’s offensive line to take a significant step forward in 2016. The Wolverines return four starters, and Mason Cole is expected to slide from left tackle to center to replace Graham Glasgow. Jim Harbaugh has to break in a new quarterback, but Michigan returns three of the Big Ten’s top playmakers at receiver and running back De’Veon Smith.

 

* Despite losing two starters, Michigan’s defensive line could one of the best in college football in 2016.

 

* Rebuilding in the trenches is a priority for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans lose three starters on the offensive side, and tackle Malik McDowell is the only returning starter in the defensive trenches.

 

* Expect Michigan State’s linebacking corps to be among the best in the Big Ten. The Spartans return Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke, while Ed Davis – a likely all-conference performer – is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.

 

* First-year coach Chris Ash inherits plenty of personnel concerns at Rutgers, but the defensive line should be a strength. The Scarlet Knights return three starters, and tackle Darius Hamilton is back after missing most of 2015 due to injury.

 

* New Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen inherits a unit with four new starters up front, but the Hoosiers return seven starters on the back end. Safety Jonathan Crawford, cornerback Rashard Fant and linebacker Tegray Scales are just a few of the promising players returning for Allen in 2016.

 

* Penn State’s nine returning starters on offense are the most by any team in the Big Ten. And with new coordinator Joe Moorhead calling the plays, is this the year the Nittany Lions have a breakout performance on offense?

 

* Maryland cornerback William Likely is one of the Big Ten’s top defenders, but he’s the only returning starter for new coach D.J. Durkin in the secondary.

 

West Division
Team Offense Defense
Illinois 5 4
Iowa 5 8
Minnesota 7 7
Nebraska 6 6
Northwestern 7 6
Purdue 7 9
Wisconsin 6 5

* Nebraska had plenty of bad fortune last season, but the Cornhuskers should get a few bounces to go their way in 2016. The official tally lists 12 starters returning for coach Mike Riley, which is only one behind West Division frontrunner Iowa.

 

* The biggest question mark for Riley is the trenches. Nebraska loses three starters up front on offense and must replace three on defense. The departures on defense are a bigger issue, as tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine won’t be easy to replace in 2016.

 

* Keep an eye on Nebraska’s receiving corps. The above criteria suggests there’s only one returning starter at receiver, but the Cornhuskers return their top eight statistical options from last season. Additionally, dynamic playmaker De’Mornay Pierson-El is slated to return from injury.

 

* Illinois has the fewest amount of returning starters (nine) in the Big Ten West. New coach Lovie Smith also inherits a defense that returns only one starter in the back seven.

 

* Iowa’s eight returning starters on defense are the second-highest total by a Big Ten team for 2016.

 

* The Hawkeyes return only five starters on offense, but one of those players is quarterback C.J. Beathard – the best signal-caller in the Big Ten West Division.

 

* Purdue’s 16 returning starters are the highest total for any Big Ten team in 2016. But will that translate into improvement for a program that’s 6-30 over the last three years?

 

* Minnesota’s secondary was arguably one of the most underrated groups in the Big Ten over the last couple of seasons. This unit loses three starters, but Damarius Travis returns after playing in only one game due to injury in 2015.

 

* Northwestern ranked sixth in the Big Ten in sacks (31) generated last season. However, two starters – Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry – depart after accounting for 12 of those sacks last year.

 

* Standout left tackle Tyler Marz must be replaced, but the Badgers have to be optimistic about their offensive line. Four starters are back for coach Paul Chryst, with sophomore Michael Deiter one of the conference’s rising stars in the trenches.

 

* The Badgers return only one starter in the secondary.

Teaser:
Big Ten Football 2016 Returning Starters Analysis
Post date: Friday, April 8, 2016 - 09:30
Path: /college-football/pac-12s-top-15-players-rise-2016
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Breakout players and the emergence of new faces are one of college football’s annual traditions. Players can go from a backup position into a starting role to earn all-conference honors or produce a big season. Incoming or redshirt freshmen can also make an impact in their first season on campus. Regardless of how players arrive on campus, it’s no secret a new wave of standouts will emerge next season.

 

With spring practice underway across the nation, this is the first opportunity for coaching staffs to get a look at how their team stacks up for 2016. Additionally, this is also the first chance for players to step up into the spotlight and emerge as a breakout candidate.

 

Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the Pac-12? Here are 15 names to watch this spring:

 

Pac-12's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016

 

Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona

The offense is once again the clear strength for coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats must replace receiver Cayleb Jones, but quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are back to anchor the offense. Rodriguez must replace two starters up front, but Alsadek’s return is a bright spot for this group. After starting 11 games in 2014, Alsadek started 12 games at right guard last year. He should be the anchor for Arizona’s line in 2016.

 

Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Washington returns 17 starters from last year’s team and should be in the mix to win the Pac-12 title in 2016. Browning’s development is another reason to believe the Huskies are poised for a big step forward after finishing 7-6 in a rebuilding year. Browning started 12 games as a true freshman in 2015 and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns on 233 completions. He will be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks this fall.

 

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Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA

Paul Perkins jumped to the NFL after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the Bruins are still in great shape at running back. Jamabo was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on just 66 attempts. He should push for 1,000 yards this fall as UCLA’s go-to back.

 

Ronald Jones, RB, USC

New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack in 2016, and the Trojans should have one of the Pac-12’s top one-two punches in the backfield. Justin Davis returns after rushing for 902 yards last year and will be joined by a rising star in Ronald Jones. As a true freshman last season, Jones led USC with 987 yards and eight scores. The sophomore is one of the Pac-12’s most-talented runners and will take a big step forward in 2016.

 

Canton Kaumatule, DL, Oregon

New coordinator Brady Hoke plans on switching Oregon’s defense from a 3-4 look to a 4-3 approach. However, the Ducks need new standouts to emerge with the departure of six starters in the front seven. Kaumatule was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and played sparingly in eight games. The Hawaii native recorded only two tackles last year, but he’s expected to take on a bigger role up front in 2016.

 

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Derek McCartney, DL/LB, Colorado

Colorado’s defense quietly showed marked improvement last season. The Buffaloes limited opponents to 5.7 yards per play in 2015, which marked a healthy decrease from the 6.55 total from 2014. McCartney has been a key cog in the front seven over the last two seasons and should push for All-Pac-12 honors in 2016. McCartney ranked second on the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks last year.

 

Darrien Molton, CB, Washington State

It’s not easy playing cornerback as a true freshman in any FBS league. However, the task is even tougher in the Pac-12 with the amount of high-powered offenses in the conference. Molton certainly wasn’t fazed by anything as a true freshman, as the California native started 11 games and recorded 44 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups.

 

Ryan Nall, RB, Oregon State

The Beavers ranked ninth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) in rushing offense last season. But there’s reason for optimism in 2016 after Nall’s late-season emergence. After recording only 19 carries through the first six games, Nall rushed for 122 yards on 20 carries against Colorado and finished the year by gashing Oregon for 174 yards on 19 attempts. The sophomore will be a bigger part of Oregon State’s ground game in 2016.

 

Kareem Orr, DB, Arizona State

Arizona State’s pass defense had its share of ups and downs last year. The Sun Devils surrendered 35 passing touchdowns in 2015 and must replace three full-time starters. But Orr’s return provides a solid foundation for coach Todd Graham to start the rebuilding process. As a true freshman last fall, Orr recorded 38 tackles, two pass breakups and six interceptions. Orr’s six interceptions were the most by any Pac-12 player in 2015.

 

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Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon

For the second year in a row, the Ducks are tapping into the FCS graduate transfer ranks for an answer at quarterback. Vernon Adams was a huge addition for Oregon’s offense last season, and Prukop could have a similar impact. The Texas native earned first-team FCS All-America honors at Montana State in 2015 after throwing for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 797 yards and 11 scores. Prukop now inherits the controls of Oregon’s high-powered offense.

 

Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford

Stanford has developed its share of standouts at tight end in recent years, and all signs point to Schultz as the next star. After a redshirt season in 2014, Schultz backed up Austin Hooper in 2015 and caught 10 passes for 121 yards and one score. Hooper left early for the NFL, which leaves Schultz as the clear starter at tight end this fall.

 

Cameron Smith, LB, USC

Smith was an impact freshman for the Trojans last season but an ACL tear ended his year prematurely. In 10 games, Smith recorded 78 tackles (one for a loss), one sack, three pass breakups and three interceptions. All three of Smith’s interceptions came in a standout performance against Utah, and the California native was a first-team selection to Athlon Sports’ 2015 postseason all-freshman team. All signs point to Smith returning to full strength and performing at a high level in 2016.

 

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Carlos Strickland/Melquise Stovall, WR, California

California’s receiving corps is facing a massive overhaul in 2016. The Golden Bears lose their top six statistical options from last season, with Chad Hansen (19 catches) the top returning receiver. While the receiving corps will be inexperienced for coach Sonny Dykes, there’s promising talent on the way. Strickland was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and used a redshirt year last fall. Stovall was an early enrollee and has already earned a starting spot on the team’s spring depth chart.

 

Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford

The line is arguably the biggest concern on defense for coach David Shaw. However, the question marks about this unit could be alleviated if Harrison Phillips returns at full strength from a knee injury, and Thomas emerges as an All-Pac-12 player. In his first year of snaps with the Cardinal, Thomas played in all 14 games and recorded 39 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks.

 

Joe Williams, RB, Utah

A strong offensive line and ground attack is critical for coach Kyle Whittingham with uncertainty at quarterback and receiver. Devontae Booker will be missed at running back, but Williams showed he was capable of handling 25-30 carries a game late last year. Williams rushed for 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games of 2015 and is slated to headline the Utes’ rushing attack next fall.

Teaser:
Pac-12's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016
Post date: Thursday, April 7, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/acc-football-2016-returning-starters-analysis
Body:

Returning starter data in college football preseason charts or magazine pages isn’t an exact science. The numbers and data can vary among different websites, magazines or other resources. However, even if there’s some disagreement on the numbers, the data is an interesting early look at how teams are shaping up for the upcoming season.

 

The ACC had a busy 2015 season, as Clemson was on the doorstep of winning the national championship, Florida State won 10 games in a rebuilding year, and the conference as a whole improved with the offseason hires of Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Mark Richt (Miami) and Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia). All four new coaches should have a positive impact on their team in 2016.

 

With spring practice underway across the ACC, it’s never too early to start looking at the depth charts and returning starters for all 14 teams in the league. In preparation for the 2016 College Football Preview magazine, Athlon Sports determines the returning starters for every team. A simple criteria is used as a baseline for returning starters. A player must start seven overall games or the last six of any season. However, that is not a hard-line rule for returning starters, and there’s plenty of flexibility (snaps or overall playing time as a backup, injuries or scheme) when taking into account the actual number. 

 

ACC Football 2016 Returning Starters Analysis

 

Atlantic Division
Team Offense Defense
Boston College 6 6
Clemson 8 4
Florida State 10 6
Louisville 9 8
NC State 6 8
Syracuse 8 7
Wake Forest 8 7

* Louisville returns the most starters (17) of any ACC team. However, that number could dip by one if linebacker Trevon Young does not recover from a hip injury suffered in the bowl game in time for the 2016 season.

 

* Clemson’s four returning starters on defense are the fewest in the ACC. However, three of those – linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and defensive lineman Carlos Watkins – were All-ACC selections last season.

 

* The only position not counted as a returning starter on Florida State’s offense is at quarterback. Sean Maguire started five games last season and is being pushed for the job by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois.

 

* Louisville returns all four starters in the secondary.

 

* NC State returns five of its six starters in the front six, but the one departure – end Mike Rose – is a big loss.

 

* The line of scrimmage is the biggest concern for new coach Dino Babers. The Orange must replace three starters from an offensive line that held opponents to 21 sacks last year. On defense, three starters are gone up front. Syracuse is thin on proven defensive ends.

 

* Four full-time starters depart, but there’s plenty of optimism for Wake Forest’s defense with five starters back in the front seven and standout cornerback Brad Watson.

 

* Boston College only returns 12 starters by the above criteria, but the Eagles get a couple of key players back from injury – running back Jon Hilliman and quarterback Darius Wade. Also, Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles should provide plenty of competition under center.

 

Coastal Division
Team Offense Defense
Duke 5 5
Georgia Tech 6 5
Miami 9 7
North Carolina 7 6
Pittsburgh 8 8
Virginia 5 5
Virginia Tech 8 6

* Duke and Virginia are tied for the fewest amount of returning starters for an ACC team in 2016.

 

* Duke’s number on offense could dip to four if quarterback Thomas Sirk does not return in time for the 2016 season (Achilles injury).

 

* Georgia Tech loses all four starters in the secondary.

 

* Miami’s offensive line enters the year with its share of question marks, but all five starters are back for coach Mark Richt.

 

* The Hurricanes have some retooling in the secondary to do with the departures of Tracy Howard, Deon Bush, Artie Burns and Dallas Crawford.

 

* North Carolina loses standout guard Landon Turner, but there’s a good foundation in place with four returning starters on the offensive line.

 

* Stopping the run was an issue for the Tar Heels last season and three starters depart in the front six.

 

* Virginia Tech must replace three starters on the defensive line. End Ken Ekanem is the only returning starter up front.

 

* The back seven should be the strength of Virginia’s defense under new coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers return five full-time starters in the back seven, including standout safety Quin Blanding.

 

* Pittsburgh returns four starters on the offensive line. Additionally, tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury. The Panthers should have one of the top offensive lines in the ACC next year. 

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Post date: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 10:30
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Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-20-offensive-linemen-rise-2016
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Offensive linemen are the most underrated players in college football. The players in the trenches never get enough credit for their performance, but the five blockers up front set the stage for the skill players to have success. Recruiting and developing offensive linemen is never easy. However, there’s always a new wave of stars ready to emerge in the trenches. With the 2016 season getting closer, it’s never too early to think about next year and some of the faces that can make an impact up front. Here are 20 offensive linemen on the rise for next season:

 

College Football's Top 20 Offensive Linemen on the Rise for 2016

 

Trey Adams, OT, Washington

The Huskies went with a youth movement on offense last season, and coach Chris Petersen should see plenty of dividends in 2016. Adams is one of the promising linemen in place for the Huskies. The Washington native started nine games at left tackle last season and should be even better as a sophomore.

 

Related:

 

Brian Allen, OL, Michigan State

The Spartans are looking for new leaders up front after the departure of center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin. The cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mark Dantonio, as there’s experience and talent in place. Brian Allen is one of the rising stars in the trenches for Dantonio and has been a key cog in the offensive line over the last two years. Allen played in all 14 games last season and made 12 starts. The junior’s versatility is a key asset, as he could start at guard or center in 2016.

 

Kyle Bosch, OG, West Virginia

With four starters back in the trenches, West Virginia should have one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines next season. Bosch started his career at Michigan but transferred to Morgantown and won an appeal to play immediately in 2015. The Illinois native started all 13 games at right guard last year and returns to anchor a solid interior for the Mountaineers.

 

Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma

It’s no secret, but keeping quarterback Baker Mayfield healthy and upright in the pocket is critical to Oklahoma’s hopes of making the College Football Playoff once again. The line returns three starters, and the coaching staff expects Brown to take a step forward in his development after starting all 13 games for the Sooners at left tackle last year.

 

Related:

 

Geron Christian, OT, Louisville

Louisville’s offensive line had its share of ups and downs in 2015, but there is optimism for this unit going into 2016. Three full-time starters are back for coach Bobby Petrino, including Christian at left tackle. As a true freshman last year, Christian started all 13 games. He is expected to anchor the line once again next season.

 

Michael Deiter, OL, Wisconsin

Despite losing standout left tackle Tyler Marz, the Badgers’ offensive line should take a step forward in 2016. Deiter redshirted in his first season at Wisconsin but started all 13 games in 2015. The Ohio native received significant playing time at center and right guard as a redshirt freshman and is expected to challenge for All-Big Ten honors.

 

Brandon Fanaika, OG, Stanford

Stanford’s line was hit hard by offseason departures. Standout center Graham Shuler chose not to return for his final year, while guard Joshua Garnett and tackle Kyle Murphy expired their eligibility. Could Fanaika be the next standout up front? The former four-star recruit played in 13 games last season and is penciled in at one of the guard spots for 2016.

 

Related:

 

Nick Gates, OT, Nebraska

Coach Mike Riley is counting on Gates to become one of the anchors for Nebraska’s offensive line. Gates started 10 games as a redshirt freshman at right tackle last year and is slated to slide to the left side and replace Alex Lewis in 2016.

 

Derwin Gray/Damian Prince, OL, Maryland

Maryland enters spring practice needing to shore up its offensive line. Gray and Prince are two of the answers for new coach D.J. Durkin. Both players were big-time pickups on the recruiting trail and received some snaps last year. Prince had a bigger role last season, as he started six games and played in 10 contests. Both players should claim a starting job this spring.

 

Martez Ivey, OT, Florida

Ivey was a cornerstone of Florida’s 2015 signing class and is a future star on the offensive line for coach Jim McElwain. The Apopka native was a five-star recruit and wasted no time making an impact. Ivey played in 12 games and started the last eight at left guard.

 

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Darius James, OL, Auburn

The Tigers lost both starting tackles from last year’s offensive line, but help is on the way in the form of a transfer from Texas. James was a five-star recruit out of high school and played in six games with the Longhorns in 2014. After sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, James is ready to push for a starting job.

 

Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss

Little won’t hit campus until this summer, but the incoming freshman is already projected to fill a huge void for coach Hugh Freeze. The Texas native ranked as a five-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and is slated to fill the void left behind by Laremy Tunsil.

 

Quenton Nelson, LG, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish will miss Ronnie Stanley’s presence at left tackle, but coach Brian Kelly has recruited well and a huge drop off isn’t anticipated in 2016. Nelson is one of the rising stars for Kelly after starting 11 games for the Fighting Irish in 2015. Nelson was a top-100 recruit in the 2014 signing class and is a player to watch this fall.

 

Ross Pierschbacher, OL, Alabama

Pierschbacher started all 15 games for the Crimson Tide as a redshirt freshman last season. The Iowa native should emerge as one of the leaders for Alabama’s offensive line in 2016 and could start at center after spending all of last year at left guard.

 

Frank Ragnow, C/G, Arkansas

The Razorbacks must replace a few standouts in the trenches this offseason, but coach Bret Bielema already has another wave of linemen ready to step up. Dan Skipper is one of the SEC’s top returning linemen, and Ragnow could push for All-SEC honors in his second full season as a starter. Ragnow played in nine games as a true freshman in 2014 and started all 13 games at right guard last year.

 

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Bentley Spain, OT, North Carolina

Even though the Tar Heels will miss standout guard Landon Turner, the offensive line is still in great shape with four returning starters up front. After playing in 13 games as a true freshman in 2014, Spain stepped up and claimed the starting left tackle spot in spring practice prior to the 2015 campaign. He missed four games due to injury last season but started 10 games and is one of the anchors for coach Larry Fedora’s line in 2016.

 

Keaton Sutherland, OL, Texas A&M

The return of assistant Jim Turner should improve a Texas A&M offensive line that allowed 37 sacks last year. Another reason for optimism is Sutherland’s development after a solid freshman season. Sutherland played in 12 games last year and claimed seven starts. The former four-star recruit is poised to become a cornerstone of Texas A&M’s offensive line.

 

Maea Teuhema, OL, LSU

Replacing two standout tackles is no easy task for LSU’s offense this spring. However, as usual in Baton Rouge, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Teuhema is one of the next stars in the trenches for coach Les Miles. The Texas native played in 12 games as a true freshman last fall and started the final 11 at left guard. The sophomore’s versatility is a huge asset for the offense, as he could slide to tackle to help fill the voids on the outside this year.

 

Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa

Two starters depart up front, but Iowa should have one of the top offensive lines in the Big Ten next fall. Welsh is one of the reasons for optimism in 2016, as the Ohio native returns after starting all 14 games for the Hawkeyes last season. Welsh could start at guard or center.

 

Connor Williams, OT, Texas

The top offseason priority for coach Charlie Strong is to find a spark for an offense that averaged only 26.4 points a game last year. The first step in reaching that goal was hiring Sterlin Gilbert from Tulsa to call plays, and the former Baylor assistant plans on making big changes to the offense. While the passing game is a work in progress, Gilbert should be able to build an offense around the ground attack and the offensive line. Williams is one of the Big 12’s top rising stars after starting all 12 games as a true freshman at left tackle last year.

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College Football's Top 20 Offensive Linemen on the Rise for 2016
Post date: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/washington-huskies-2016-spring-football-preview
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Washington is a team on the rise and one of the frontrunners to win the Pac-12 in 2016. After an 8-6 debut in Chris Petersen’s first season in Seattle (2014), all signs pointed to a rebuilding year for the Huskies in 2015. Despite returning only eight starters, Washington took a step forward last season. Sure, the Huskies only finished 7-6. However, this team matched its Pac-12 record from the previous season (4-5) and lost four games by 10 points or less. Petersen went with a youth movement on offense last season, with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin emerging as two of the Pac-12’s rising stars. With an offense expected to take a step forward, along with a standout defense in place, Washington is poised to push Stanford in the Pac-12 North.

 

4 Storylines to Watch in Washington’s Spring Practice

 

1. Jake Browning’s Development

A year after a quarterback battle dominated the spring practice headlines, the Huskies open offseason workouts with zero doubt about their starting signal-caller. Jake Browning started 12 of Washington’s 13 games as a true freshman last season and finished the year with 2,955 passing yards and 16 scores. Browning closed the year with a strong performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, completing 23 of 34 passes for 284 yards against Southern Miss. With 12 starts under his belt and another offseason to work as the starter, how far will Browning develop as a sophomore for 2016?

 

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2. The Receiving Corps

The receiving corps is the biggest concern on offense for coach Chris Petersen. Washington generated only 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2015, which tied for ninth in the Pac-12. Adding to the concerns for Petersen is the departure of receiver Jaydon Mickens (58 catches) and tight end Darrell Daniels (36 catches). Dante Pettis (30 receptions) is the team’s top returning option, with Brayden Lenius (26 catches), Chico McClatcher (eight receptions) and Isaiah Renfro (13 grabs) also in the mix. Tight end Darrell Daniels is poised for a bigger role after Perkins’ departure, and the receiving corps should get a boost from the return of John Ross from injury. Ross was the team’s top big-play threat in 2014, averaging 21.8 yards per catch on 17 receptions. How quickly will Ross return to full strength? Can Washington develop another receiver or two to replace Mickens and give Browning more targets to stretch the field?

 

3. Finding the Right Mix on the Offensive Line

The development of quarterback Jake Browning and the receiving corps is essential to Washington’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 North next year, but the offensive line also has to take a step forward. The Huskies surrendered 34 sacks last season and only one player (Siosifa Tufunga) started all 13 games in the same position. Four starters return in 2016, including promising tackles Kaleb McGary and Trey Adams. Both players saw extensive playing time as freshmen last season and should take a step forward in their development. Coleman Shelton is expected to slide from guard to center to replace Tufunga. This spring is the first opportunity for Petersen and line coach Chris Strausser to find the right mix in the trenches.

 

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4. New Faces at Linebacker

With eight starters returning in 2016, Washington’s defense is poised to be the best in the Pac-12. The Huskies led the conference in scoring defense (18.8 ppg) and limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play last season. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski shouldn’t have too many concerns about this group in spring ball, but Washington is losing two key members of its linebacking corps. Cory Littleton (65 tackles) and Travis Feeney (56 tackles) expired their eligibility and leave big shoes to fill this spring. Not only were both players near the top of the defense in tackles, but this duo also accounted for 14 sacks. Who steps up to replace that production?

 

Pre-Spring Washington Outlook in the Pac-12

 

It’s easy to pencil in Stanford as the favorite in the Pac-12 North next year. After all, the Cardinal have won at least 11 games and claimed at least share of the North title in four out of the last five seasons under coach David Shaw. However, with Stanford losing three starters on the offensive line, quarterback Kevin Hogan and only five starters back on defense, the door is open for Washington, Oregon or Washington State to push for the No. 1 spot in the North. The Huskies have a few voids to fill on defense but should remain the best in the conference next season. The offense experienced its share of growing pains with a young lineup last year and improvement is expected with Browning and Gaskin returning as sophomores. Washington should be squarely in the mix for the Pac-12 title in 2016.

Teaser:
Washington Huskies 2016 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Friday, March 25, 2016 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Big Ten, News
Path: /college-football/big-ten-top-15-players-rise-2016
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Breakout players and the emergence of new faces are one of college football’s annual traditions. Players can go from a backup position into a starting role to earn all-conference honors or produce a big season. Incoming or redshirt freshmen can also make an impact in their first season on campus. Regardless of how players arrive on campus, it’s no secret a new wave of standouts will emerge next season.

 

With spring practice underway across the nation, this is the first opportunity for coaching staffs to get a look at how their team stacks up for 2016. Additionally, this is also the first chance for players to step up into the spotlight and emerge as a breakout candidate.

 

Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the Big Ten? Here are 15 names to watch this spring:

 

15 Big Ten Players on the Rise for 2016

 

Brian Allen, OL, Michigan State

Allen has been a key cog in the trenches in his first two years on campus, but with the departures of Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C), the Spartans need more of their versatile junior. The Illinois played in 12 games as a true freshman and became a full-time player in 2015 by recording 12 starts. Allen has played both guard spots and received snaps at center, and his flexibility is key for a revamped offensive line. Allen is listed as the starting center on Michigan State’s first depth chart, but he could end up at guard by the fall.

 

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Shannon Brooks, RB, Minnesota

New coach Tracy Claeys is hoping a new play-caller and direction helps Minnesota take a step forward on offense after finishing 13th in the Big Ten in scoring (22.5 ppg) in 2015. Jay Johnson takes over the offense after five seasons at UL Lafayette and inherits a few talented pieces to work with, including two promising running backs in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. While both players are going to see carries, the guess here is Brooks emerges as the team’s No. 1 back. In 12 games as a true freshman last season, Brooks recorded 709 yards and seven scores. He averaged a healthy 5.96 yards per attempt and grabbed 17 receptions for 167 yards.

 

Jonathan Crawford, S, Indiana

Defense has been Indiana’s Achilles heel in recent years. The Hoosiers have ranked 10th or worse in the Big Ten in scoring defense in each of the last eight years. But there is reason for optimism in Bloomington. The addition of Tom Allen as the unit’s play-caller is a step in the right direction, and there is talent returning in the back seven. Crawford is one of the promising players in place for Allen, as the Florida native finished second on the team with 76 stops as a true freshman last season. Additionally, Crawford intercepted four passes, forced one fumble and broke up one pass in 2015.

 

Michael Deiter, OL, Wisconsin

Producing standout offensive linemen is an annual tradition at Wisconsin. However, the Badgers experienced some growing pains up front last year. While last year wasn’t up to the usual standard, coach Paul Chryst returns a group with a lot of promise for 2016. Deiter started all 13 games as a redshirt freshmen last season, including the final five at center after Dan Voltz was lost for the year due to injury. Deiter should be one of the anchors on the line for Chryst in 2016.

 

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Nick Gates, OT, Nebraska

Nebraska loses four key members of last season’s offensive line, but two full-time starters return to anchor this group in 2016. Gates started 10 games as a redshirt freshman at right tackle last year and is expected to anchor the left side of the line in 2016. With another offseason to work in the weight room and under coach Mike Riley, expect Gates to thrive as the anchor of Nebraska’s offensive line next season.

 

Grant Haley, CB, Penn State

A couple of Penn State defensive backs could fit in this space, as Haley, John Reid and Marcus Allen are all promising players for new coordinator Brent Pry. Haley started all 11 games he played in last season and finished with 42 tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions and seven pass breakups. His emergence last year was a key reason why Penn State allowed only nine touchdown passes in Big Ten action. Additionally, Haley earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2015. He should take another step forward this spring.

 

Parker Hesse, DE, Iowa

With the uncertainty surrounding Drew Ott’s status for 2016, the emergence of Hesse last season is an even bigger development for Iowa as it heads into spring practice. The Iowa native shifted from linebacker to defensive end during his redshirt year (2014) and was pressed into a starting role last year after Ott was lost for the season. Hesse played in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes and recorded two sacks, three tackles for a loss (44 overall stops) and one forced fumble. With another offseason to work at defensive end, Hesse should become an even bigger presence off the edge for Iowa.

 

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Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State

Ohio State’s defense is under construction this spring. New co-coordinator Greg Schiano inherits only three returning starters, and each level of the defense was hit hard by departures. Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt leave big shoes to fill in the trenches, but Ohio State isn’t short on talent. Tyquan Lewis returns at one end spot after recording eight sacks last year, and the coaching staff is counting on Hubbard to increase his production as a full-time player. As a redshirt freshman last season, Hubbard recorded 6.5 sacks, eight tackles for a loss and forced one fumble.

 

Markell Jones, RB, Purdue

Purdue’s offense is in desperate need of a spark after averaging only 4.8 yards per play last season. Coach Darrell Hazell has a few promising players to build around in 2016, including running back Markell Jones and quarterback David Blough. After earning Mr. Football honors in Indiana as a high school senior, Jones made an instant impact as a true freshman. In 12 appearances, Jones recorded 875 yards and 10 scores and caught 34 passes for 239 yards and one touchdown. He should build on those totals in 2016.

 

Tyler Lancaster, DT, Northwestern

Lancaster didn’t make a huge contribution on the stat sheet for coach Pat Fitzgerald in 2015, but his impact on the defense goes beyond the box score. In 13 games last year, Lancaster recorded 33 tackles (5.5 for a loss), 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Illinois native was a big reason why Northwestern ranked third in the Big Ten (conference-only games) against the run. Additionally, opposing rushers in conference play averaged only 3.2 yards per rush. Expect Lancaster to push for All-Big Ten honors next year.

 

Robert Martin/Josh Hicks, RB, Rutgers

New coach Chris Ash inherits an offense with question marks at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line, but the Scarlet Knights have a solid group of running backs in place. Hicks and Martin led the way for the offense last season and combined for 1,437 yards and six touchdowns. This duo has showed plenty of promise over the last two seasons and should provide a solid foundation for new coordinator Drew Mehringer to build the offense around next fall.

 

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D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland

Maryland’s offense had its share of ups and downs last season, and new coordinator Walt Bell inherits a unit that averaged only 22.3 points in Big Ten games. Despite the uneven quarterback play, there were signs of promise at receiver in 2015. Levern Jacobs and Taivon Jacobs combined to catch 56 passes, while Moore – as a true freshman – grabbed 25 for 357 yards and three scores. Assuming the Terrapins can generate more consistent play out of their quarterbacks, Moore should be able to increase his totals from 2015 and become an even bigger part of the offense. Talented sophomore linemen Derwin Gray and Damian Prince are two other names to watch this spring.

 

Grant Newsome, OL, Michigan

Newsome has only played in four career games for the Wolverines, but the sophomore is a player to watch next season. With center Graham Glasgow departing, coach Jim Harbaugh and line coach Tim Drevno are shuffling the five starters up front. Mason Cole – last year’s starter at left tackle – is slated to move to center. With Cole moving to center, Newsome is slated to take over at left tackle. Newsome was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and has the necessary size (6-foot-7, 300 pounds) to anchor the blindside for the starting quarterback.

 

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Illinois

Vaughn quietly impressed as a true freshman last season and is poised to take on a bigger role in the ground attack under new coach Lovie Smith. The Tennessee native led the team with 723 rushing yards and six scores and recorded 16 receptions for 119 yards. Vaughn recorded just one game of more than 100 yards (Purdue), but he also recorded only one contest of more than 20 carries. With more opportunities expected in 2016, Vaughn should increase his production as a sophomore.

 

Dedrick Young, LB, Nebraska

Young wasted no time making an impact in his first season in Lincoln. The Arizona native started 11 contests as a true freshman and ranked fourth on the team with 61 tackles. Additionally, Young recorded five of those tackles for a loss and broke up three passes. Young is only going to get better with more experience, and coordinator Mark Banker should expect another step forward from Young next season.

Teaser:
15 Big Ten Players on the Rise for 2016
Post date: Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 10:00
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College football’s 2015-16 coaching carousel was one of the most active in recent memory. After 28 jobs changed hands, the 2016-17 version may not be as active at the end of the year. However, several big-time jobs could open, as Les Miles (LSU), Charlie Strong (Texas), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) enter the 2016 season squarely on the hot seat.

 

Spring practice is underway across the nation, and the offseason workouts are the first step to starting the countdown for the 2016 season. Coaches are always on the hot seat and under pressure to win. However, here are 10 coaches who need a big 2016 season to hold onto their job in 2017.

 

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Coaches on the Hot Seat: 2016 Spring Practice Edition

 

Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State

Record at Fresno State: 29-23 (4 years)

 

Fresno State got off to a fast start under DeRuyter. The Bulldogs went 20-6 through DeRuyter’s first two seasons and won the 2013 Mountain West title. But after Derek Carr expired his eligibility, DeRuyter has struggled to keep the program at the top of the conference. The Bulldogs are just 9-17 over the last two years and finished 3-9 in 2015. Last season’s three wins were the fewest by the program since 1978 (3-8). Will staff changes help DeRuyter get Fresno State back on track in 2016?

 

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Paul Haynes, Kent State

Record at Kent State: 9-26 (3 years)

 

Haynes has ties to the Kent State program as a former player and spent time as an assistant at Louisville, Michigan State, Ohio State and Arkansas before taking the top spot with the Golden Flashes. In three years at Kent State, Haynes is just 9-26 and has lost at least eight games in each season. The offense has been especially problematic for Haynes, as the Golden Flashes averaged only 13.1 points a game in 2015.

 

Darrell Hazell, Purdue

Record at Purdue: 6-30 (3 years)

 

Purdue is one of the Big Ten’s toughest jobs, and Hazell inherited a roster in need of repair. However, progress has been tough to find over the last three years. Under Hazell’s watch, the Boilermakers are just 6-30 and have only two wins in Big Ten play. In an effort to spark improvement, Hazell made significant changes to his staff, including new play-callers on both sides of the ball. Progress will be tough to find in 2016, but Purdue has two promising players to build around on offense in quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones. In two years at Kent State, Hazell went 16-10 and had the Golden Flashes on the cusp of a MAC title in 2012.

 

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia

Record at West Virginia: 36-28 (5 years)

 

Holgorsen enters 2016 in an odd position. Despite West Virginia earning its best record (8-5) since joining the Big 12, Holgorsen was not able to land an extension and only has two years left on his contract. Could a slow start by the Mountaineers have an effect on Holgorsen’s outlook with the program? After a 10-3 debut and a Big East title in 2011, West Virginia has not finished higher than 8-5 and has only one winning mark in conference play in the last four years.

 

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Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

Record at Colorado: 10-27 (3 years)

 

MacIntyre inherited a big-time mess from former coach Jon Embree. The Buffaloes went 4-21 under Embree’s watch, and the roster wasn’t exactly stocked with talent. There have been noticeable signs of progress under MacIntyre’s watch, as Colorado has two four-win seasons over the last three years. However, the Buffaloes have only two victories in Pac-12 action in the last three seasons. Is Colorado poised for a breakthrough in 2016? After losing five games by one score in 2015, the Buffaloes are close to pushing for a bowl game next fall.  

 

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Record at Auburn: 27-13 (3 years)

 

Auburn is just two years removed from an appearance in the national championship game, but the overall trend for this program has not been favorable since 2013. Despite an 8-5 record in 2014, the Tigers entered 2015 with high expectations. However, Auburn slipped to 7-6 overall and won just two games in SEC play. After winning 12 games in 2013, Malzahn’s record has slipped in each of the last two seasons. Another problem for Malzahn is his specialty – offense. The Tigers managed only 22.1 points a game and averaged 5.1 yards per play in SEC contests last year.

 

Les Miles, LSU

Record at LSU: 112-32 (11 years)

 

Prior to LSU’s season finale against Texas A&M, all signs seemed to point to a coaching change in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers defeated the Aggies, and athletic director Joe Alleva announced Miles would return as the program’s head coach in 2016. The ending to the season was certainly bizarre, but is that the last of this story? Miles has won 112 games in 11 years and continues to assemble an impressive roster of talent. However, despite recruiting at a high level, LSU has not finished higher than No. 13 in the final Associated Press poll over the last four years. Additionally, the Tigers are only 9-7 in SEC play over the last two seasons. Improving the offense – specifically the passing attack – is a top priority for Miles and the coaching staff this offseason.

 

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Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Record at Kentucky: 12-24 (3 years)

 

Kentucky has made small strides under Stoops’ watch, but the program is still looking for a bowl bid and is only 4-20 over the last three years in SEC play. After a 2-10 record in 2013, the Wildcats took a step forward over the last two seasons. Kentucky has recorded back-to-back 5-7 marks and just missed a bowl in 2015 after losing three games by one score. The talent level is on the rise in Lexington, but this team enters 2016 with question marks on both sides of the ball. Can Stoops deliver a breakthrough year?  

 

Charlie Strong, Texas

Record at Texas: 11-14 (2 years)

 

Strong didn’t inherit a roster overflowing with talent, but the expectations are high in Austin. Simply, finishing with a .500 record in back-to-back years with the Big 12’s top roster (according to recruiting rankings) isn’t sitting well. The Longhorns are just 11-14 in Strong’s two seasons and finished 4-5 in Big 12 play last year. Texas was up-and-down in conference action in 2015, pulling off surprise wins over Oklahoma and Baylor (when the Bears were hit with injuries at quarterback) and suffered a blowout loss (24-0) at the hands of Iowa State. Strong has promising young talent in place on defense, but the offense is probably a year away under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. 

 

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

Record at Texas A&M: 36-16 (4 years)

 

Texas A&M made quite a splash in Sumlin’s first year. Behind quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Aggies finished 11-2 in 2012 and claimed a No. 5 finish in the Associated Press poll. However, the Aggies have been unable to capitalize off that momentum. Sumlin has guided Texas A&M to a 25-14 record over the last three seasons but does not have a winning mark in conference play in that span. Additionally, the Aggies have not recorded a top 25 finish in each of the last two years. Sumlin has recruited well, and the addition of John Chavis helped the defense take a significant step forward in 2015. Will the addition of Noel Mazzone as the play-caller help Texas A&M’s  offense take a step forward in 2016?

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College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat: 2016 Spring Practice Edition
Post date: Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 10:00
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Running back is one of the easiest positions to find a new standout each year, and there always seems to be a wave of stars ready to emerge in offseason workouts. Last season, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey finished second in the Heisman voting in his first year as the starter, while Alabama’s Derrick Henry went from sharing time with T.J. Yeldon to finishing as the nation’s leading rusher and the Heisman Trophy winner. Regardless of whether teams use a committee approach or rely on one back, spring practice is the first opportunity to find the next star at the position. Players like Penn State's Saquon Barkley, USC's Ronald Jones, Washington's Myles Gaskin, Alabama's Bo Scarbrough and Michigan State's LJ Scott are just a few of the next wave of players ready to emerge as stars at the running back position. 

 

Quarterback battles will receive most of the attention in spring practice, but there are a handful of key playoff contenders losing a starter at running back or have a player poised for a breakthrough season. While pinpointing breakout players is easier after spring practice, it’s never too early to examine some of the top rising stars at running backs.

 

Let’s take a look at 30 running backs on the rise for 2016, followed by a few other names to watch:

 

College Football's Top 30 Running Backs on the Rise for 2016

 

Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Despite running behind an inconsistent offensive line, Barkley became the first Penn State rusher to reach 1,000 yards since 2012. Barkley recorded 1,076 yards and seven scores on 182 attempts and posted five 100-yard efforts. His best performance of the season came against Rutgers (195), but Barkley also found running room against tough defenses in Ohio State (194) and Michigan State (103). After a standout debut as a true freshman last year, Barkley is due for more opportunities in 2016.

 

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Shannon Brooks, Minnesota

Minnesota has churned out plenty of standouts at running back in recent memory, and Brooks looks like the next star for new coach Tracy Claeys. Brooks made 12 appearances as a true freshman last year and finished the season with 709 yards and seven scores. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark two times, including 176 yards against Purdue in a 41-13 victory for the Golden Gophers. Brooks will share carries with Rodney Smith, but the Georgia native should threaten the 1,000-yard mark in his sophomore campaign.

 

James Butler, Nevada

The Mountain West has a solid stable of running backs returning in 2016, and with names like Donnel Pumphrey (SDSU), Brian Hill (Wyoming) and Jeremy McNichols (Boise State) grabbing national attention, Butler’s name gets lost in the mix. The Illinois native recorded 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and averaged a healthy 6.5 yards per carry. Additionally, Butler posted 100-yard efforts in eight games, including 189 against Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl and 107 against Texas A&M.

 

Duke Catalon, Houston

Houston is losing a sizeable chunk of its ground attack with the departure of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. The duo combined for 1,365 yards last season, and Kaliq Kokuma is the only returning running back on the roster that recorded a carry (18) in 2015. Catalon is expected to make an immediate impact for coach Tom Herman and should assume the top spot in the backfield. After a redshirt year at Texas in 2014, Catalon – a four-star recruit coming out of high school – chose to transfer to Houston and is poised to be a difference maker for the Cougars in 2016.

 

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Matthew Dayes, NC State

Dayes was off to a fast start last season but a foot injury limited him to just eight games. Prior to the season-ending ailment, Dayes rushed for 865 yards and 12 touchdowns and recorded at least 100 yards in five contests. His best effort of the year came against Wake Forest (205 yards). Dayes should open the season as NC State's No. 1 back, but he will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier. A committee approach would not be a surprise for the Wolfpack.

 

Keith Ford, Texas A&M

The Aggies won’t drastically alter their scheme for 2016, but this team might play more to its defense and the ground game than it has since joining the SEC. New coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense generated a 1,000-yard rusher in three out of his four seasons at UCLA. Mazzone won’t have Tra Carson at his disposal, but the Texas A&M ground attack should be in good shape with Ford leading the way. Ford was a five-star recruit in the high school ranks and spent two years at Oklahoma, recording 503 yards and six rushing scores.

 

D’Onta Foreman/Chris Warren, Texas

Transitioning to a new offense and sorting out the quarterback situation is a tough challenge for new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert in his first season in Austin. But the cupboard isn’t completely bare for Gilbert. Foreman and Warren were a bright spot last year, as the duo combined for 1,237 yards and eight scores. Foreman brought more of a big-play element to the offense, as he gashed opponents for 7.2 yards per rush. Will this duo share carries once again? Or will Foreman emerge as the clear No. 1 back?

 

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Myles Gaskin, Washington

Washington is poised to challenge Stanford for Pac-12 North supremacy this season, as the Huskies are a team on the rise behind talented sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and one of the nation’s top defenses. Additionally, the offense found a spark on the ground last year with the emergence of Gaskin. As a true freshman in 2015, Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 scores. Additionally, he eclipsed at least 100 yards in each of Washington’s last four games.

 

Soso Jamabo, UCLA

Paul Perkins’ decision to leave for the NFL opens the door for Jamabo to take over as UCLA’s No. 1 back. The five-star recruit from Texas impressed in limited action last season, recording 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries. Jamabo’s best performance came against Oregon State (90 yards), and he also posted two outings of 79 yards (Virginia and California). Expect the sophomore to lead the way for UCLA’s ground attack and push for at least 1,000 yards in 2016.

 

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Jordan Johnson, Buffalo

Second-year coach Lance Leipold faces a rebuilding project on offense, as just two starters are back for 2016. However, the offense has a good place to start the rebuilding effort at running back with the return of Johnson. As a backup to starter Anthone Taylor last season, Johnson rushed for 811 yards and 12 scores on 172 attempts. Despite the limited action, the New York native showcased the necessary talent to handle the every-down role for the Bulls. He recorded 147 yards on 28 attempts against Ohio and posted 123 yards against Miami (Ohio) in late October.

 

Xavier Johnson, South Alabama

Getting the ball to Johnson more often in 2016 should be a priority for coordinator Bryant Vincent. Johnson showed big-play ability and explosiveness in 12 games for the Jaguars last year, rushing for 956 yards and seven touchdowns on 145 attempts. Johnson posted five 100-yard games but only attempted at least 20 carries two times in 2015. With a few more opportunities next season, Johnson should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and push for All-Sun Belt honors.

 

Markell Jones, Purdue

Coach Darrell Hazell is looking for a spark on offense after Purdue averaged 22.5 points a game in Big Ten action last season. Even though the Boilermakers have room to improve on offense, the emergence of two freshmen last season – quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones – provide hope for 2016. Jones led the Boilermakers with 875 rushing yards and 10 scores. His best performance came against the rugged Michigan State defense, recording 157 yards on 22 attempts. With more help up front and opportunities, Jones could become Purdue’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2008.

 

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Ronald Jones, USC

With quarterback Cody Kessler expiring his eligibility, it’s safe to assume the Trojans will utilize their ground attack more in 2016. New coach Clay Helton and coordinator Tee Martin aren’t hurting for options at running back, with Jones returning as the lead back after a strong freshman campaign. In 14 games last year, Jones recorded 987 yards and eight scores. He posted just one effort of more than 100 yards, but the Texas native also never attempted more than 19 carries in a contest. With more opportunities and a solid offensive line leading the way, Jones should easily eclipse 1,000 yards next season.

 

Devante Mays, Utah State

Mays was a key pickup from the junior college ranks last season and provided some punch to Utah State’s ground game late in the 2015 campaign. After recording less than 12 carries in each of the first six contests, Mays recorded at least 15 attempts in five out of the last seven games. Additionally, Mays posted three 100-yard efforts in the second half of the season, including 176 against Wyoming and 124 against Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

 

Travon McMillian, Virginia Tech

New coach Justin Fuente inherits a talented group of running backs in Blacksburg, and this unit will help the first-year coach alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterback. McMillian had a breakout year as a redshirt freshman last season, and all signs point to an even better 2016 campaign. McMillian rushed for 1,042 yards and seven scores on 200 attempts and recorded three straight 100-yard efforts in the second half of the year. The return of Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie adds depth to this backfield, but McMillian should remain the go-to back for Fuente.

 

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Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

Opportunities could be limited for Mixon with Samaje Perine clearly entrenched as Oklahoma’s No. 1 back. However, as Mixon showcased in his first year of playing time with the Sooners, he’s got plenty of big-play ability and is a valuable receiver out of the backfield. In 13 games last season, Mixon ran for 753 yards and seven scores and grabbed 28 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Exceeding those totals by a lot in 2016 won’t be easy, but coordinator Lincoln Riley should find a few additional ways to get Mixon more involved.  

 

Ryan Nall, Oregon State

“The Wrecking Nall” is still a bit of a mystery after recording only 73 carries last season. Despite the small sample size, there’s a lot to like about the converted tight end. Nall rushed for 455 yards and three scores on 73 attempts and caught seven passes for 109 yards in 2015. Nall was more involved in the offense late in the year, including a 174-yard effort against Oregon and 122 yards against Colorado. Coach Gary Andersen inherited a major rebuilding project, but Nall is a player that could help spark an Oregon State offense that managed only 19 points a game last year.

 

Devine Redding, Indiana

Jordan Howard’s one-year stint at Indiana was a successful one, but the drop-off at running back for coach Kevin Wilson should be minimal. Redding was a solid No. 2 option last season, rushing for 1,012 yards and nine scores on 226 attempts. He also filled in as Indiana’s No. 1 back when Howard was injured late in the year and recorded three consecutive performances of at least 130 yards in each of the final three games. Redding gashed Duke for 227 yards and one touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl and is poised to build on those totals in 2016.

 

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Jovon Robinson, Auburn

This is the second year in a row Robinson makes an appearance in this list. The junior college product rushed for 639 yards and three touchdowns last season and finished the year on a high note with 126 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. With Peyton Barber departing to the NFL, combined with Robinson’s strong close to the 2015 season, all signs point to a breakout year in his second year at Auburn.

 

Bo Scarbrough, Alabama

Derrick Henry will be missed, but as usual in Tuscaloosa, Alabama isn’t hurting for talent at running back. Scarbrough looks like the next star for coach Nick Saban after rushing for 104 yards and one score on 18 attempts last season. The Alabama native was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Scarbrough has a physical build similar to Henry. Scarbrough needs to prove he can stay healthy for a full season, but the sophomore will be one of the SEC’s top breakout stars at running back. 

 

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LJ Scott, Michigan State

With quarterback Connor Cook off to the NFL, the Spartans are expected to lean more on their ground attack in 2016. Coach Mark Dantonio has assembled a deep backfield for the offense to utilize, as three players return that recorded at least 500 rushing yards in 2015. Scott led the way with 699 yards and 11 scores, including 73 yards and the all-important game-winning score to beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Gerald Holmes, Madre London and Delton Williams will see carries, but the guess here is Scott emerges as the team’s go-to back in 2016.

 

Ito Smith, Southern Miss

New coach Jay Hopson inherits six returning starters from an offense that averaged 39.9 points a game in 2015. Quarterback Nick Mullens is the headliner, but the ground attack shouldn’t be overlooked. Smith quietly rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 scores last season and was a key target in the passing game with 49 catches for 515 yards. He also led all Conference USA running backs with nine rushes of 30 yards or more in 2015.

 

Justin Stockton, Texas Tech

DeAndre Washington capped a solid career in Lubbock with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. While the Red Raiders lean on the passing attack and quarterback Patrick Mahomes to generate points and yards, the ground game is far from an afterthought. Stockton is slated to get the first opportunity to replace Washington at running back, and the junior has already showcased big-play potential in limited snaps. Stockton rushed for 367 yards (6.02 ypc) last season and added 22 receptions for 341 yards and six scores in 2015. Corey Dauphine and Quinton White are also expected to push for carries this offseason.

 

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Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois

New coach Lovie Smith is just getting acclimated to his new team, but Smith has to like the start the Fighting Illini has on offense. Quarterback Wes Lunt and receiver Mike Dudek return, and the ground attack should be in good shape with Vaughn leading the way. As a freshman last year, Vaughn led the offense with 723 rushing yards and six scores and caught 16 balls for 119 yards. The Tennessee native is poised for a breakthrough campaign in 2016.

 

Mike Warren, Iowa State

Warren is the centerpiece of new coach Matt Campbell’s rebuilding effort at Iowa State. In 12 games last year, Warren rushed for 1,339 yards and five scores and posted one 200-yard effort (245 against Texas Tech). Campbell nearly landed Warren as a recruit at Toledo, so there is plenty of familiarity between Warren and the new coaching staff. Additionally, Campbell’s offenses (as a head coach) at Toledo generated a 1,000-yard rusher in three out of the four seasons. If a rebuilt offensive line meshes early in the year, Warren could challenge for the Big 12’s rushing title.

 

Mike Weber, Ohio State

This spot could go to a couple of Buckeyes, but the guess here is Weber ends up leading the team in rushing yards by the end of 2016. Weber was slated to play as a true freshman last season, but a knee injury kept the Detroit native on the sidelines. The potential and upside is there for Weber to step in and soften the blow from Ezekiel Elliott’s early departure to the NFL. Weber was a four-star recruit and ranked as the No. 78 overall prospect in the 2015 signing class. Antonio Williams and Bri’onte Dunn are also in the mix for carries.

 

Boom Williams, Kentucky

Williams has been a solid player for coach Mark Stoops in each of the last two seasons, but the Georgia native is capable of elevating his game to another level. Despite missing two games last year, Williams rushed for 855 yards and six scores last season. Additionally, Williams recorded 7.1 yards per rush – the most by any SEC running back with at least 100 carries. With four starters back on the offensive line, can Williams hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2016?

 

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David Williams, South Carolina

One of the biggest concerns for new coach Will Muschamp has to be the skill players on offense. The Gamecocks lose running back (Brandon Wilds) and three of the top four receivers from 2015. Williams was rated as a four-star recruit out of high school but has only worked in a reserve role in each of the last two years. The Philadelphia native has never recorded more than 14 carries in a game, but 2016 should be his time to step forward as South Carolina’s go-to running back.

 

Jarveon Williams, UTSA

New coach Frank Wilson certainly knows all about finding and developing good running backs. After all, Wilson comes to UTSA after tutoring standouts Leonard Fournette, Stevan Ridley and Jeremy Hill at LSU. Wilson should find plenty to like in Williams, as the Texas native is UTSA’s top weapon on offense. In 11 games last year, Williams recorded 1,042 yards and eight scores on 173 attempts. Expect Wilson to utilize Williams even more in 2016.

 

Joe Williams, Utah

Utah got an early glimpse of its 2016 backfield after Devontae Booker was lost for the year in mid-November with a knee injury. Williams filled in admirably late in the year, recording 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games and finished the season with 477 yards on 104 attempts. After a strong showing in his first year on campus, Williams is poised for even bigger things in 2016 as Utah’s No. 1 running back.

 

Others to Watch

 

Josh Adams/Dexter Williams, Notre Dame

Tarean Folston is back from a season-ending knee injury, but the Fighting Irish could spread the wealth in carries in 2016. Adams finished second on the team in 2015 with 838 yards, while Williams chipped in 81 yards on 21 carries. Both players should see plenty of opportunities next fall.

 

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Warren Ball, Akron

Ball was a four-star recruit but never found consistent playing time with the Buckeyes. The Columbus native could realize his potential as a graduate transfer with the Zips.

 

Jamauri Bogan, Western Michigan

Bogan supplanted Jarvion Franklin (1,551 yards in 2014) as Western Michigan’s No. 1 back in 2015 and finished the year with 1,051 yards and 16 scores. Will Bogan remain in the lead role or will Franklin reclaim the starting job?

 

Mike Boone, Cincinnati

Three Cincinnati backs rushed for 700 yards last season, but only two – Boone and Tion Green – return for 2016. Boone rushed for 749 yards and nine scores in 11 games last season and showed the most big-play ability (7.2 ypc) in the Cincinnati backfield.

 

Fred Coppet, Bowling Green

New coach Mike Jinks won’t have quarterback Matt Johnson or dynamic receivers Roger Lewis or Gehrig Dieter at his disposal, but Coppet returns after working as the No. 2 option to Travis Greene last year. Coppet rushed for 825 yards and five touchdowns on 145 carries last fall.

 

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Justin Crawford, West Virginia

Crawford should play a key role in West Virginia’s ground attack after Wendell Smallwood left early for the NFL. Crawford ranked as the No. 34 overall junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite.

 

LeShun Daniels/Akrum Wadley, Iowa

With Jordan Canzeri out of eligibility, the focus in the Iowa backfield shifts to Daniels and Wadley. Derrick Mitchell is also in the mix, but Daniels and Wadley worked in the backup role to Canzeri in 2015. Will the Hawkeyes find a clear No. 1 back or is a committee approach coming in 2016?

 

Dontrell Hilliard, Tulane

It’s no secret new coach Willie Fritz likes to run the ball. Hilliard only rushed for 646 yards last year, but his 5.6 per carry average provides promise for 2016.

 

Xavier Jones, SMU

Coach Chad Morris is starting to put the pieces into place for improvement on SMU’s offense. Jones was a three-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and finished second to quarterback Matt Davis in rushing yardage (632) and tied for the team lead in rushing scores (10).

 

C.J. Leggett, Georgia Tech

Leggett was poised for a huge role in Georgia Tech’s backfield last season but an ACL tear in April ended his 2015 season. Leggett is expected to return at full strength to help anchor the ground attack for coach Paul Johnson in 2016.

 

Robert Martin/Josh Hicks, Rutgers

Martin and Hicks earn a mention in this column for the second year in a row. This duo combined for 1,437 yards and 10 scores last season and will be the focal point for the offense under new coach Chris Ash.

 

I’Tavius Mathers, MTSU

Ole Miss transfer is eligible after sitting out 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules. Mathers recorded 290 yards with the Rebels in 2014 and should provide some punch to a MTSU ground attack that ranked 12th in Conference USA last year.

 

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Izzy Matthews, Colorado State

Dalyn Dawkins is still the lead back in Fort Collins, but Matthews will get more opportunities after rushing for 590 yards as a true freshman last season.

 

Timothy McVey, Air Force

McVey doesn’t have a huge sample size of stats, but the Ohio native showcased a knack for creating big plays last year. He caught 10 passes for 307 yards (30.7 ypc) and four touchdowns and gashed opposing defenses for 435 yards and nine touchdowns on just 51 carries. Will the Falcons get McVey more involved in 2016?

 

Jalin Moore, Appalachian State

The Mountaineers are loaded at running back – led by standout Marcus Cox – but Moore could find a few additional opportunities after rushing for 731 yards on just 99 carries (as a freshman) last fall.

 

Khalfani Muhammad, California

With Jared Goff departing, the focus of California’s offense could shift more to the ground attack in 2016. Muhammad leads a solid trio of backs for coach Sonny Dykes and finished with 586 yards and one score on 87 rushes last year.

 

Arkeel Newsome, UConn

The ground attack is the strength of UConn’s offense, and Newsome is the headliner for coach Bob Diaco after recording 792 yards and six touchdowns on 183 carries in 2015.

 

A.J. Ouellette, Ohio

Ouellette has been a steady performer for the Bobcats over the last two seasons and rushed for 785 yards on 160 carries in 2015. Will the junior get more opportunities in 2016?

 

Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are hoping to generate more from their ground attack in 2016, but will a clear go-to option at running back emerge for coach Mike Riley? Ozigbo is one to watch after he rushed for 87 yards on 21 attempts in the Foster Farms Bowl win against UCLA.

 

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Jordan Scarlett/Mark Thompson, Florida

The Gators are searching for a new No. 1 back after Kelvin Taylor left Gainesville to head to the NFL. Scarlett was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and rushed for 181 yards and one score on 34 attempts. He will be pushed for snaps by incoming junior college product Mark Thompson.

 

Alonzo Smith, Miami, Ohio

The RedHawks struggled to establish their ground attack last season, but Smith showed promise late in the year by recording 93 yards against Eastern Michigan and 109 against UMass.

 

Shaq Vann, Eastern Michigan

Vann should be a key cog in the Eastern Michigan offense this season. As a backup to starter Darius Jackson last year, Vann recorded 586 yards (5.8 ypc) and five touchdowns. He also posted one 100-yard effort (Wyoming) and is the go-to back with Jackson out of eligibility.

 

Kareem Walker, Michigan

The top three running backs from 2015 are back for coach Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines could have trouble keeping Walker on the sidelines. The New Jersey native was a four-star recruit and ranked No. 100 in the 247Sports Composite. Early playing time is certainly possible in 2016.

 

Warren Wand/Johnston White, Arkansas State

Michael Gordon (1,063 yards in 2015) will be missed, but Arkansas State’s ground attack shouldn’t miss a beat with Wand (707 yards last year) and White (14 TDs, 616 yards) back in Jonesboro. 

 

Devwah Whaley, Arkansas

Who will be the next star running back for Bret Bielema at Arkansas? Whaley – a top 100 recruit in the 247Sports Composite – is a name to watch when he hits campus this summer.

 

Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas

Wilson should be one of the top playmakers for new coach Seth Littrell in 2016. Wilson showed flashes of promise last year by recording for 830 rushing yards and one score (5.4 ypc) on 155 attempts.

 

Marquis Young, UMass

Young quietly finished the 2015 season on a high note by recording 472 yards over the final three games for the Minutemen. He should be more involved with the ground attack as a sophomore next fall.

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Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five out of the last six seasons, so the bar is set high for coach Mark Dantonio as the program looks to quickly restock a depth chart losing a handful of key players. The Spartans were easily handled by Alabama in the College Football Playoff last year, but there were plenty of highs and accolades for last year’s team. Michigan State claimed the Big Ten title in dramatic fashion with a win over Iowa, won at Michigan and Ohio State and finished as a top-10 team in the final Associated Press poll for the third consecutive year. As Dantonio turns the page to 2016, Michigan State has its share of concerns. Quarterback, offensive line, receiving corps, defensive line and secondary are just a few of the issues for Dantonio to address in spring practice. However, there’s a solid foundation in place, and the Spartans aren’t going to regress too far in the Big Ten.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State’s Spring Practice

 

1. Quarterback Battle

Connor Cook leaves big shoes to fill in East Lansing, and all eyes in spring practice will be on the quarterback battle. Just how big are those shoes to fill for coach Mark Dantonio? Cook finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in career passing yards and touchdowns and compiled an impressive 34-5 overall record. Junior Damion Terry, senior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke enter spring practice vying for the starting job, with O’Connor a slight favorite due to his experience. Terry and O’Connor shared snaps in Michigan State’s upset win over Ohio State in 2015, and both players bring something different to the table. O’Connor is more of a pro-style quarterback, while Terry is a better runner. Will one quarterback emerge as the clear starter by the end of spring? Or could Michigan State utilize both O’Connor and Terry in major roles this season?

 

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2. Restocking the Weapons at Receiver

Finding the right answer at quarterback is the unquestioned No. 1 issue for Dantonio and his staff this spring, but the receiving corps is also under the spotlight. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. combined for 125 of Michigan State’s 244 receptions last year and both expired their eligibility at the end of the 2015 season. The cupboard is hardly bare, as receiver R.J. Shelton (43 grabs in 2015) and tight end Josiah Price are a solid duo to build around. However, which players will step forward to round out the receiving corps? Felton Davis and Monty Madaris are due for a bigger role, and talented freshmen Cam Chambers and Donnie Corley enrolled in time to compete this spring.

 

3. Finding the Right Mix on the Offensive Line

The question marks on offense continue in the trenches. Michigan State must replace three starters, including standouts Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C). Guards Brian Allen and Benny McGowan and tackle Kodi Kieler are back as returning starters. Will all three players stay at those spots in the spring? Or will the coaching staff shuffle the players to get the best five on the field? Brandon Clemons is expected to be awarded a sixth season of eligibility, and tackle Dennis Finley is aiming for a return to 100 percent by the fall after a leg injury in early October. This unit has talented pieces in the mix, but Conklin and Allen won’t be easy to replace. How long will it take this unit to mesh this offseason?

 

4. Reloading on the Defensive Line

The Spartans have produced plenty of standouts in the trenches under Dantonio’s watch, and it’s time for the next wave of stars to emerge. Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas expired their eligibility, which leaves Malik McDowell as the lone returning starter on the defensive line. McDowell is a rising star and should contend for All-America honors after recording 13 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks last season. Demetrius Cooper, Craig Evans, Montez Sweat and Raequan Williams are a few names to watch as potential breakout candidates in the fall. This unit is expected to receive a boost from tackle Damon Knox, who expects to get a sixth season of eligibility for 2016.

 

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5. Concerns in the Secondary

Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” wasn’t quite as intimidating to opponents in 2015. The Spartans ranked 72nd nationally in pass efficiency defense, gave up 20 passing scores (most since 2011) and allowed 22 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Injuries played a role in last year’s totals, and the return of cornerback Vayante Copeland should help to solidify one spot in the secondary. Darian Hicks is the frontrunner to grab the other cornerback spot, with Jermaine Edmondson and Tyson Smith vying for more snaps. At safety, Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson combined for six picks last season and form a solid tandem for 2016. Assuming Copeland returns to full strength, and both safeties continue to play at a high level, this unit is on track to take a significant step forward on the stat sheet.

 

Pre-Spring Michigan State Outlook in the Big Ten

 

It’s no secret most preseason predictions will have Michigan State picked third in the Big Ten East Division for 2016. The Spartans return only nine starters and enter the offseason with big question marks on both sides of the ball. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe this team will be a factor in the division and contend for one of college football’s top bowl games. Sophomore LJ Scott headlines a strong stable of running backs, while there’s some experience and a rising star at guard (Brian Allen) to build around in the trenches. The defense should show improvement in the secondary, but the line could take a small step back. Home dates against Michigan and Ohio State should allow Dantonio’s team to play spoiler. And with all preseason predictions likely to take the Buckeyes or Wolverines ahead of the Spartans, there's no shortage of fuel for Dantonio to use as motivation in 2016.

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Louisville finished the 2015 season by winning six out of its last seven games, and there is plenty of optimism for coach Bobby Petrino’s team when spring ball begins on March 22. The Cardinals return 18 starters, including dynamic sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson and standout linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey. Jackson is still developing as a passer, but his athletic ability will create plenty of problems for defensive coordinators in the ACC next fall. Helping Jackson’s development is a strong supporting cast of weapons, along with an offensive line expected to improve with four returning starters. The ACC Atlantic features two of the nation’s top teams in Clemson and Florida State. Contending for the division title won’t be easy, but Louisville could challenge for double-digit wins in 2016.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Louisville’s Spring Practice

 

1. Lamar Jackson’s Progress

After shuffling through three different quarterbacks in the starting lineup last season, Louisville enters spring practice with a clear answer under center. Lamar Jackson closed his freshman campaign with solid back-to-back performances, which included an impressive all-around showcase (453 total yards, 4 TDs) in the bowl win over Texas A&M. In 12 appearances last season, Jackson threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and rushed for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns. With a full offseason to develop as the starter, Jackson should take another step forward in his development. This spring is all about Petrino building the offense around Jackson and continuing to work with the talented sophomore on his passing ability (54.7 percent in 2015).

 

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2. Development of the Offensive Line

This unit is the biggest concern for Louisville entering spring ball. The offensive line surrendered 44 sacks in 13 games last season (most in the ACC), and rushers averaged only 3.5 yards per carry (ACC-only contests). Additionally, the Cardinals were held under 100 rushing yards in half of their ACC games last year. There are reasons to be optimistic here, especially with the return of Geron Christian at left tackle. He started all 13 games as a true freshman last season and is expected to anchor the line in 2016. Lukayus McNeil (left guard) and center Tobijah Hughley are back as returning starters, while guard Kiola Mahoni and tackle Kenny Thomas also gained valuable starting experience last season and will push for snaps. There’s promise here, but Louisville needs this unit to take a step forward. 

 

3. Filling the Voids in the Trenches

With eight starters back, Louisville’s defense will be among the best in the ACC. There are few concerns for coordinator Todd Grantham, but the Cardinals lose two key members from the defensive line. Sheldon Rankins – one of the ACC’s most underrated players – and Pio Vatuvei expired their eligibility. Tackle DeAngelo Brown is the lone returning starter in the trenches, and the Georgia native ranked seventh on the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss last season. Grantham will be looking for bigger contributions from Kyle Shortridge and Drew Bailey, while Johnny Richardson should be a factor after an injury limited him to just two games in 2015. Junior college recruit Chris Williams and redshirt freshman G.G. Robinson are two names to watch this spring.

 

4. Development of the Secondary

Louisville’s secondary finished 2015 ranked 45th nationally in pass efficiency defense. That’s not bad by any means, but there is certainly room to improve. The Cardinals surrendered 22 passing plays of 30 yards or more (10th in the ACC) and gave up 17 passing scores in league games. The good news? All four starters are back, including safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerbacks Trumaine Washington and Shaq Wiggins. With a healthy pass rush in front, this unit won’t have to cover for too long. However, this unit is capable of taking their play up a notch, and the spring is the first chance for the secondary to work out some of the kinks for 2016.

 

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5. Trevon Young’s Health and the Linebacking Corps

Trevon Young was a key cog in Louisville’s linebacker unit last year, but his status for 2016 is uncertain after a serious hip injury in the bowl game against Texas A&M. In 12 games last season, Young ranked second on the team with 8.5 sacks and also recorded 10 tackles for a loss. The Iowa native is on track in his recovery, but he also faces long odds to play in 2016. With Young’s status for next fall in doubt, this spring is the first opportunity to find replacements and build depth at linebacker. Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey are two of the top linebackers in the ACC and will be joined by other experienced options in Stacy Thomas, James Hearns and Isaac Stewart. Hearns is an intriguing edge rusher that should help to fill the void if Young doesn't return in 2016.

 

Pre-Spring Louisville Outlook in the ACC

 

Is Louisville ready to take the next step in the Atlantic Division? That’s the big question for 2016 as spring ball opens in coach Bobby Petrino’s third season back with the Cardinals. Of course, that’s easier said than done with Florida State and Clemson in the same division. While Louisville doesn’t need to finish ahead of the Seminoles or Tigers to have a good season, this team is certainly capable of pulling an upset against one of the league’s top teams. The schedule isn’t overwhelming. Outside of matchups against Florida State, Clemson and Houston, Louisville should be favored in its remaining games. With 18 starters back and a rising star at quarterback, nine wins in the regular season should be the expectation. 

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Despite what was titled a “rebuilding year” at Florida State, the Seminoles won 10 games and reached one of college football’s top postseason games (Peach Bowl). During Jimbo Fisher’s six-year run in Tallahassee, Florida State has won at least 10 games in five of those seasons and has lost only six contests over the last four years. Needless to say, the bar is set high in Tallahassee, and Florida State opens spring practice as one of the favorites to win the national title in 2016. Running back Dalvin Cook is one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy, but Fisher needs to settle on a quarterback and generate more consistency from the offensive line and receiving corps. Six starters are back on defense, but there is work to do in the back seven. The Seminoles also lost standout kicker Roberto Aguayo early to the NFL. While there are holes to fill, Florida State is loaded with talent and primed for a spot among the nation’s best in 2016.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Florida State’s Spring Practice

 

1. Quarterback Battle

The Seminoles are looking for more consistency out of this position after Everett Golson and Sean Maguire had an uneven performance last year. Golson expired his eligibility, while Maguire returns after throwing for 1,520 yards and 11 scores last season. However, Maguire suffered an ankle injury in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Houston and is slated to miss spring workouts. With Maguire sidelined, it’s unlikely Florida State will have much clarity at this position until the fall. However, Maguire’s absence means redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, sophomore J.J. Cosentino and true freshman Malik Henry will have an opportunity to impress. Francois is Maguire’s biggest competition for the starting job this offseason.

 

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2. Developing Weapons at Receiver

This position isn’t lacking for talent or options, but coach Jimbo Fisher hopes the receiving corps will take a step forward with another offseason of experience. Travis Rudolph (59 catches last year) is the clear No. 1, while Kermit Whitfield (57) and Jesus Wilson (58) also return as key weapons. All three players are listed at 6-foot-1 and under, so there’s room for a bigger receiver to emerge. That list includes junior Ermon Lane (6-foot-3), George Campbell (6-foot-4) and Auden Tate (6-foot-5). Ja’Vonn Harrison, Da’Vante Phillips and Nyqwan Murray are also names expected to factor into the receiving corps this season. Talent isn’t an issue, but Fisher needs more overall production and big plays from this group.

 

3. Finding the Right Five on the Offensive Line

Last season was a rebuilding year in the trenches for the Seminoles. Four new starters took the field in last year's opener, with left tackle Roderick Johnson entrenched as this group’s leader and one of the top linemen in the ACC. As expected, this group had its share of ups and downs. Florida State surrendered 26 sacks and lacked overall consistency. The good news? Plenty of talent and experience returns to vie for snaps this offseason, and a strong incoming class of freshmen will bolster the depth for the fall. Johnson is back to anchor the group on the left side, and guard Wilson Bell returns after starting all 13 games last season. Brock Ruble (RT), Alec Eberle (center) and Kareem Are (left guard) finished the year as starters. Can they hold onto their spots this offseason? Chad Mavety, Derrick Kelly, Abdul Bello and Ryan Hoefield won’t practice this spring due to injury, so this group is likely to head into fall workouts with uncertainty and starting jobs up for grabs.

 

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4. Concerns at Linebacker

This is the position likely giving Fisher and coordinator Charles Kelly the most concerns during spring workouts. Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup expired their eligibility, leaving Ro’Derrick Hoskins (52 tackles last year) as the top returner for this unit. Hoskins will be counted on for an even bigger role in 2016, and the Seminoles are hoping for a huge season from Matthew Thomas after sitting out the 2015 due to a violation of NCAA rules. Outside of Hoskins and Thomas, the development of Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane and Delvin Purifoy and recovery of Tyrell Lyons from a knee injury is worth watching this spring. True freshman Josh Brown – a four-star recruit – enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and is expected to push for snaps. There’s not a ton of proven depth here, but if Thomas develops into an impact player and Brown contributes as a freshman, most of the concerns about this group will dissipate.

 

5.  Finding the Next Jalen Ramsey

Make no mistake: Jalen Ramsey will be missed in Florida State’s secondary next season. Sure, there is a lot of talent and potential for this group, but Ramsey was one of the nation’s top all-around defensive backs, and his versatility was a huge asset for the defensive staff. Senior Marquez White returns at cornerback after an underrated 2015 campaign and is expected to be the top cover option in the secondary. Sophomores Tarvarus McFadden, Calvin Brewton and Marcus Lewis will be vying for more playing time this season, while fellow sophomore Derwin James is poised to build off an impressive freshman campaign. Safety Trey Marshall returns after missing the final seven games due to injury last season, while incoming freshman Levonta Taylor ranked as a top 10 prospect in the 2016 247Sports Composite. Overall, this unit is in good shape with the talent and depth in place. Ramsey is a big loss, but if McFadden or Lewis emerges with a strong sophomore season, the drop off should be minimal.

 

Pre-Spring Florida State Outlook in the ACC

 

One of the toughest preseason debates for any prognosticator is the ACC Atlantic. Will Clemson claim the division title for the second year in a row behind quarterback Deshaun Watson? Or will the Seminoles return to top? All of the pieces are in place for Florida State to win the ACC, but how quickly will this team find an answer at quarterback? Is Sean Maguire ready to build off his 2015 performance? Or is redshirt freshman Deondre Francois the answer? Cook is the offense’s top playmaker, but this team needs more consistency from its passing game. The return of end DeMarcus Walker to Tallahassee and a talented group of defensive backs should alleviate the concerns about the linebackers. Hosting Clemson is a huge schedule advantage, but Florida State still has road trips to Louisville and Miami, along with a neutral site matchup against Ole Miss on the schedule.  

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Spring practice is the first look at all 128 college football teams for 2016, and every coaching staff has a long list of questions for their programs to answer during offseason workouts. While replacing key players in the trenches or rebuilding the secondary is critical to the success of any team, quarterback battles are always going to steal the offseason spotlight. This spring features several contenders looking to find the right answer under center, including Michigan, Alabama, Florida State, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

 

With spring practice underway across the nation, Athlon Sports is previewing some of the biggest storylines for the offseason workouts. Here’s a look at 25 of the biggest quarterback battles and the candidates vying for snaps. 

 

College Football's Top 25 QB Battles to Watch in Spring Practice

 

1. Alabama

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 1

Departed Quarterback: Jake Coker (263 of 393, 3,110 yds., 21 TDs, 8 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Blake Barnett (FR), Jalen Hurts (FR), David Cornwell (SO), Cooper Bateman (JR)

 

The Breakdown: This appears to be a two-man battle entering spring practice. Barnett was a five-star prospect out of high school and redshirted in his first season on campus. Bateman made one start last year and completed 37 of 52 passes for 291 yards and one score. Can Bateman’s experience win out over Barnett’s talent?

Predicted Winner: Barnett

 

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2. Notre Dame

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 9

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Malik Zaire (JR), DeShone Kizer (SO)

 

The Breakdown: The Fighting Irish enters offseason workouts with two proven options at quarterback. Malik Zaire opened 2015 as the team’s No. 1 quarterback but suffered a season-ending leg injury against Virginia. Prior to the injury, Zaire completed 26 of 40 passes for 428 yards and four scores and rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries. Kizer started the final 11 games after Zaire’s injury and threw for 2,880 yards and 21 scores. He also rushed for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns. Having two proven quarterbacks is a good problem for coach Brian Kelly.

Predicted Winner: Zaire

 

3. Florida State

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 5

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Sean Maguire (SR), Deondre Francois (FR), Malik Henry (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the nation’s top quarterback gurus. But after tutoring three first-round picks under center in Tallahassee, the Seminoles struggled to get consistent play at quarterback last year. Everett Golson and Sean Maguire combined for 3,325 yards and 22 scores, with Maguire finishing the season as the No. 1 quarterback. However, Maguire is nursing an ankle injury and won’t participate in spring ball. Maguire’s injury opens the door for two talented freshmen – Malik Henry and Deondre Francois. Maguire’s edge in experience might be enough to win the job in the fall. But it won’t be easy holding off Francois.

Predicted Winner: Maguire

 

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4. Michigan

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 6

Departed Quarterback: Jake Rudock (249 of 389, 3,017 yards, 20 TDs, 9 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Brandon Peters (FR), John O’Korn (JR), Shane Morris (JR), Alex Malzone (FR), Wilton Speight (SO)

 

The Breakdown: Can coach Jim Harbaugh have success for the second year in a row with a transfer quarterback? In his only year at Michigan, Iowa transfer Jake Rudock threw for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns. After sitting out 2015 due to transfer rules, former Houston signal-caller John O’Korn is the favorite to take the first snap in 2016. O’Korn was benched after a slow start in 2014 but threw for 3,117 yards and 28 scores in 2013. Morris has the most experience among the signal-callers in a Wolverine uniform and is back in the mix after a redshirt year. Peters – a four-star recruit – enrolled in time to compete in spring ball.

Predicted Winner: O’Korn

 

5. Michigan State

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 13

Departed Quarterback: Connor Cook (229 of 408, 3,131 yards, 24 TDs, 7 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Tyler O’Connor (SR), Damion Terry (JR), Brian Lewerke (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Connor Cook finished a stellar career in East Lansing with a 34-5 record as Michigan State’s starter. But Cook’s absence in one of the Spartans’ biggest wins last season (Ohio State) provided some insight into the quarterback battle for 2016. Both Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry received snaps in the win, with O’Connor completing 7 of 12 throws for 89 yards and a score. He’s the frontrunner to claim the starting job, but Terry’s mobility provides some extra intrigue and specialty packages for the offense.

Predicted Winner: O’Connor

 

6. Stanford

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 14

Departed Quarterback: Kevin Hogan (206 of 304, 2,867 yards, 27 TDs, 8 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Keller Chryst (SO), Ryan Burns (JR), K.J. Costello (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Kevin Hogan wasn’t the flashiest or most prolific quarterback in the nation, but he was a great fit for coach David Shaw’s offense. With Hogan departing, the Cardinal is expected to turn to Keller Chryst – a top-100 recruit in the 2014 signing class. The California native completed 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and one score in limited action last year.

Predicted Winner: Chryst

 

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7. Texas

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 47

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Kai Locksley (FR), Shane Buechele (FR), Jerrod Heard (SO), Tyrone Swoopes (SR)

 

The Breakdown: Scoring points has been a problem for the Longhorns under coach Charlie Strong, and the team is headed in a new direction with Sterlin Gilbert coming from Tulsa to coordinate the offense. Gilbert is expected to implement a Baylor-like attack in Austin, but it will take at least a year to accumulate the right pieces. Finding a quarterback to fit this offense in 2016 is going to be a challenge. Swoopes and Heard bring plenty of mobility to the table and have the edge in experience. True freshman Shane Buechele has the best skill set for the offense. How quickly can he adapt to the FBS level?

Predicted Winner: Heard

 

8. Auburn

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 33

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Sean White (SO), Jeremy Johnson (SR), John Franklin III (JR), Woody Barrett (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Considering Gus Malzahn’s track record, last year’s struggles on offense came as a surprise. Getting back on track on offense starts with finding a quarterback, and the Tigers have four candidates vying for snaps. Johnson and White combined for 11 touchdowns to 12 interceptions last season, while Franklin joins the competition from the junior college ranks. He’s the best fit for this offense but faces a tough transition to the SEC.

Predicted Winner: Franklin III

 

9. BYU

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 46

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Tanner Mangum (SO), Taysom Hill (SR)

 

The Breakdown: Similar to fellow Independent Notre Dame, BYU opens spring practice with two capable and proven options at quarterback. Hill had options to leave Provo as a graduate transfer, but he decided to return for his senior year and compete with Mangum for the starting job. Mangum stepped up for the BYU offense after Hill was lost for the rest of the 2015 season due to an injury in the opener against Nebraska. Mangum finished 2015 with 23 touchdowns and 3,377 yards on 267 completions. This battle may not be decided until the end of fall practice.

Predicted Winner: Mangum

 

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10. Texas A&M

Pre-Spring Rank: 34

Departed Quarterbacks: Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray

2016 Candidates: Jake Hubenak (JR), Trevor Knight (SR), Nick Starkel (FR)

 

The Breakdown: The December transfers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray came as a surprise, which left Texas A&M with only one quarterback – Jake Hubenak – with experience for the Music City Bowl against Louisville. Hubenak performed admirably under the circumstances, completing 28 of 48 throws for 307 yards and two scores in a 27-21 loss. Help and depth is on the way in the form of Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, while true freshman Nick Starkel joins the team in the summer. Knight has the edge in experience, but all three quarterbacks will be learning a new offense with the hire of Noel Mazzone as the program’s play-caller.

Predicted Winner: Knight

 

11. Florida

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 26

Departed Quarterbacks: Will Grier, Treon Harris (moved to receiver)

2016 Candidates: Kyle Trask (FR), Feleipe Franks (FR), Luke Del Rio (SO), Austin Appleby (SR)

 

The Breakdown: The Gators are desperately looking for improvement in the passing game after averaging only 207.1 passing yards a game last season. Treon Harris is expected to move to receiver, leaving four quarterbacks vying for the first snap. Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is the early favorite, but talented true freshman Feleipe Franks is one to watch in spring workouts.

Predicted Winner: Del Rio

 

12. Georgia

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 19

Departed Quarterback: None

2016 Candidates: Jacob Eason (FR), Greyson Lambert (SR), Brice Ramsey (JR)

 

The Breakdown: One of the first tasks for new coach Kirby Smart was to ensure Eason kept his commitment to Georgia. Mission accomplished. The five-star recruit and No. 5 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite is expected to compete for the starting job this spring. Greyson Lambert is Eason’s biggest competition after completing 63.3 percent of his passes and 12 scores last year. Even though Eason lacks experience, he’s too talented to keep on the bench.

Predicted Winner: Eason

 

13. Arkansas

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 29

Departed Quarterback: Brandon Allen (244 of 370, 3,440 yards, 30 TDs, 8 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Austin Allen (JR), Rafe Peavy (SO), Ricky Town (FR), Ty Storey (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Dan Enos earned high marks for his first season in Fayetteville, as the Razorbacks led the SEC (conference-only games) with an average of 34.4 points a game. A couple of key pieces from last year’s offense are gone, including quarterback Brandon Allen after an underrated 2015 season. Austin Allen (Brandon’s brother) is the frontrunner to win the job in 2016 after serving as a backup for the last two seasons. USC transfer Ricky Town – a top-100 recruit in the 2015 signing class – is one to watch this spring.

Predicted Winner: Allen

 

14. Penn State

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 40

Departed Quarterback: Christian Hackenberg (192 of 359, 2,525 yards, 16 TDs, 6 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Tommy Stevens (FR), Trace McSorley (SO), Jake Zemblec (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Penn State’s offense has struggled under James Franklin, but there is reason for optimism in 2016. Sure, Christian Hackenberg is a talented quarterback and will be missed. However, the offense has more depth and overall talent than it has in recent seasons. McSorley worked as Hackenberg’s backup last year and completed 20 of 40 passes for 185 yards and two scores. With an offensive line struggling to maintain its pass blocks, a mobile quarterback like McSorley could be a valuable asset for Franklin. Stevens and Zemblec ranked as three-star recruits and should have the opportunity to push McSorley this offseason.

Predicted Winner: McSorley

 

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15. California

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 49

Departed Quarterback: Jared Goff (341 of 529, 4,719 yards, 43 TDs, 13 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Ross Bowers (FR), Luke Rubenzer (JR), Chase Forrest (SO), Zach Kline (SR), Max Gilliam (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Jared Goff finished his prolific career in Berkeley on a high note (467 yards) against Air Force and ended the 2015 season with 4,719 yards and 43 passing scores. Chase Forrest (10 of 18 for 162 yards and 1 TD) spent last season as Goff’s backup and is the frontrunner by default. Bowers joins the mix after a redshirt year, while Gilliam enrolled in time to compete in spring practice.

Predicted Winner: Forrest

 

16. Arizona State

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 43

Departed Quarterback: Mike Bercovici (318 of 531, 3,854 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Bryce Perkins (FR), Dillon Sterling-Cole (FR), Brady White (FR), Manny Wilkins (SO)

 

The Breakdown: The competition in Tempe is one of the toughest quarterback battles to get a read on this offseason. New coordinator Chip Lindsey has four talented options to choose from, but no quarterback on the roster has attempted a pass in a Sun Devil uniform. Wilkins worked as the backup to Bercovici last season and is the favorite by default. However, White was the highest rated quarterback of the group coming out of high school.

Predicted Winner: White

 

17. Virginia Tech

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 37

Departed Quarterback: Michael Brewer (126 of 216 for 1,703 yards, 13 TDs, 7 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Dwayne Lawson (SO), Brenden Motley (SR), Jerod Evans (JR)

 

The Breakdown: Two freshmen – Joshua Jackson and Jack Click – are in the mix, but all signs point to this battle becoming a three-man race in spring ball. Motley has the edge in experience over Lawson and Evans, passing for 1,155 yards and 11 touchdowns on 92 completions last year. But Motley could be facing an uphill battle to win the starting job this spring under new coach Justin Fuente. Evans ranked as the No. 50 junior college prospect by ESPN, while Lawson (a four-star prospect) has the most raw talent.

Predicted Winner: Evans

 

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18. USC

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 15

Departed Quarterback: Cody Kessler (298 of 446 for 3,536 yards, 29 TDs, 7 INTs)

2016 Candidates: Max Browne (JR), Sam Darnold (FR)

 

The Breakdown: USC is listed as a “quarterback battle” here, but all signs point to Browne as the clear favorite to replace Cody Kessler. Browne – a five-star prospect in 2013 – worked as Kessler’s backup in each of the last two seasons and completed 8 of 12 throws for 113 yards last year. Darnold ranked as a four-star prospect from the 2015 signing class and took a redshirt season in his first season on campus.

Predicted Winner: Browne

 

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19. TCU

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 22

Departed Quarterback: Trevone Boykin (4,187 total yards and 40 total TDs)

2016 Candidates: Zach Allen (JR), Foster Sawyer (SO), Grayson Muehlstein (SO), Kenny Hill (JR), Brennen Wooten (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Trevone Boykin leaves big shoes to fill in Fort Worth, but TCU appears to have a capable replacement in Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill. In 2014, Hill threw for 2,649 yards and 23 scores with the Aggies but transferred after losing the job to Kyle Allen. Zach Allen, Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein will have a shot to compete for the starting job this spring. However, it’s unlikely Hill is unseated from the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

Predicted Winner: Hill

 

20. Mississippi State

Team Pre-Spring Rank: 39

Departed Quarterback: Dak Prescott (4,381 total yards and 39 TDs)

2016 Candidates: Damian Williams (JR), Nick Fitzgerald (SO), Elijah Staley (SO), Nick Tiano (FR)

 

The Breakdown: Replacing arguably the best player in school history won’t be an easy task for coach Dan Mullen. However, the Bulldogs have some intriguing options in place. Damian Williams started one game for the Bulldogs in 2013 and used a redshirt season in 2015. Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley are promising sophomores and gained valuable reps in limited snaps last year. This battle could go deep into the fall.

Predicted Winner: Fitzgerald

 

21. Boise State

Brett Rypien is coming off a stellar debut as a freshman last season, but Ryan Finley will have a chance to compete for the job.

 

22. Utah

The Utes should have a strong ground attack and offensive line, but big question marks remain about the passing game. Junior college transfer (and former Washington signal-caller) Troy Williams has the early edge over intriguing freshman Tyler Huntley and junior Brandon Cox.

 

23. Wisconsin

The Badgers have a two-man race to replace Joel Stave. Senior Bart Houston has waited his turn in Madison and is the favorite to start over redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook.

 

24. Kansas State

Injuries hit Kansas State’s quarterbacks hard last season, but this unit is in better shape going into the 2016 season. Jesse Ertz opened 2015 as the starter and was lost for the year due to a knee injury in the opener. Joe Hubener saw the bulk of the snaps the rest of the season and returns to compete for the job, along with freshmen Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson.

 

25. WKU

Jeff Brohm’s high-powered offense needs a new signal-caller after Brandon Doughty expired his eligibility following the Miami Beach Bowl win over USF. Two transfers – Mike White (USF) and Tyler Ferguson (Louisville) – will push Nelson Fishback for the starting job.

 

Others to Watch: South Carolina, Oregon State, Bowling Green, Toledo, Memphis, Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Cincinnati, NC State, Colorado, Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland, Indiana, Boston College

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College Football's Top 25 Quarterback Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
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Ohio State and Michigan enter 2016 as the frontrunners to win the Big Ten title, but both teams enter spring practice with plenty of work to do. The Buckeyes return quarterback J.T. Barrett and a few rising stars on defense. However, only six starters are back for coach Urban Meyer. The skill players need to be restocked, and the defense has to reload in the trenches and in the secondary. The Wolverines are loaded on defense and at the skill positions, but can a clear answer emerge at quarterback? The only storylines in the Big Ten this spring aren’t just from Ohio State and Michigan, as there’s a rebuilding effort underway at Michigan State on offense, Iowa is looking to fill in the necessary pieces to win the Big Ten West again, while Nebraska hopes to take a step forward in coach Mike Riley’s second season.

 

Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

 

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the Big Ten this spring:

 

Big Ten 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

 

East Division

 

Indiana

2015 Record: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 7

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Nate Sudfeld’s Replacement

Quarterback Nate Sudfeld finished his career in Bloomington as one of the most prolific passers in school history. The battle to replace Sudfeld begins this spring, and junior college recruit Richard Lagow is the early favorite with Zander Diamont sidelined due to offseason surgery. Lagow threw for 2,285 yards and 21 scores at the junior college level last season and also spent time in his career at UConn and Oklahoma State. With Diamont sidelined, Lagow will have a chance to stamp his place at the top of the depth chart. If he can’t, Austin King and Danny Cameron are the next options in the mix this spring. Another storyline to watch for Indiana is the transition on defense to new coordinator Tom Allen.

 

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Maryland

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

It’s no secret Maryland’s quarterback play was a major issue last season. Four different signal-callers received snaps and combined for 29 picks and a sluggish 47.2 completion percentage. Needless to say, new coordinator Walt Bell has his hands full this spring. Perry Hills passed for 1,001 yards and eight scores last season and added 535 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He’s the frontrunner to take the first snap, but Caleb Rowe, Gage Shaffer and Shane Cockerille will push for time in the spring. True freshman Tyrrell Pigrome arrives this summer and is a name to watch in the fall.

 

Michigan

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

The linebacking corps is another unit to watch in spring practice, but it’s safe to assume all eyes in Ann Arbor will be on the quarterbacks. Jake Rudock’s one-year stint at Michigan resulted in a 3,000-yard (3,017) season, and the Iowa transfer leaves big shoes to fill. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the frontrunner, but freshman Brandon Peters, Wilton Speight, Shane Morris and Alex Malzone will push for snaps. How quickly will coach Jim Harbaugh find the right answer?

 

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Michigan State

2015 Record: 12-2, 7-1 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Filling the Voids on Offense

With only nine returning starters this spring, both sides of the ball are going to receive plenty of attention in East Lansing. While the defense has personnel losses at each level, the needs are greater on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Connor Cook expired his eligibility, leaving Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor as the top candidates vying for time this spring. The offensive line loses standouts Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C), and two of the top receivers – Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings – also expired their eligibility. The cupboard isn’t bare, but it will take some time for the new pieces to fall into place for coach Mark Dantonio.

 

Ohio State

2015 Record: 12-1, 7-1 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 3

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Restocking the Skill Positions

It’s hard to mention just one position in this space. The Buckeyes return only six starters for 2016 and lose several key pieces on both sides of the ball. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback headed into spring ball, but the supporting cast is filled with uncertainty. Who replaces Ezekiel Elliott at running back? Senior Bri’onte Dunn, junior Curtis Samuel and freshmen Antonio Williams and Mike Weber will battle for snaps in the spring. Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller depart from the receiving corps, which leaves Noah Brown and Corey Smith as the likely go-to targets in 2016. However, the Buckeyes need more than just Brown and Smith. True freshman Austin Mack is a name to watch. Talent isn’t an issue, but Meyer and his offensive staff need time to restock the weapons around Barrett.

 

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Penn State

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Offensive Line

It may seem like a broken record, but the offensive line is once again a huge issue for Penn State. This unit has a new coach in former Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover, and he’s tasked with improving a group that’s allowed 83 sacks over the last two years. The good news? The talent and depth have improved under coach James Franklin. Four starters return, and two freshmen – Alex Gellerstedt and Connor McGovern – enrolled in time to compete this spring. In addition to this group, keep an eye on the defensive line and Trace McSorley’s first opportunity to win the starting quarterback spot in spring practice.

 

Rutgers

2015 Record: 4-8, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Transition to the New Staff

The Scarlet Knights hit the reset button after a 4-8 record last season. Kyle Flood was fired, and Ohio State assistant Chris Ash was hired as the program’s new coach. Ash was a solid hire for Rutgers, but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level. Additionally, he’s inheriting a team in need of significant work on both sides of the ball. The offense averaged only 21.3 points a game (conference-only matchups) last year and enters spring with a quarterback battle on its hands. Additionally, top receiver Leonte Carroo must be replaced, and the offensive line has to improve after surrendering 25 sacks last year. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit gave up 34.9 points a game last season and struggled to stop the pass. How much of a difference will Ash make in one offseason?  

 

West Division

 

Illinois

2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 4

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Getting Defensive

Lovie Smith’s first spring in Champaign is all about building relationships and getting familiar with his new team. This is Smith’s first job in the collegiate ranks since 1995, so there’s going to be plenty of transition and kinks to work through on both sides. Smith has a strong track record on defense, and that’s a huge area of need for the Fighting Illini with just four returning starters. Each level was hit hard by departures, and this unit also suffered another blow via the transfer route when T.J. Neal departed to Auburn. Illinois has a few issues to address on offense, but quarterback Wes Lunt and receiver Mike Dudek are a good duo to build around. How quickly will the players adapt to Smith and transition to the new schemes?

 

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Iowa

2015 Record: 12-2, 8-0 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 8

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Playmakers at Receiver

The Hawkeyes are in good shape for another run at a Big Ten West Division title, but there are a few areas for coach Kirk Ferentz to address in spring workouts. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is one of the top signal-callers in the Big Ten, but his receiving corps was hit by departures. Leading receiver Matt VandeBerg is back, while receivers Tevaun Smith (32 catches) and Jacob Hillyer (16 catches) and tight end Henry Krieger Coble (35 grabs) expired their eligibility. That’s 83 of the team’s 227 receptions from last season, and that number grows to 103 if you count the departure of running back Jordan Canzeri. In addition to leaning more on VandeBerg, the coaching staff will be looking for more from Jerminic Smith, Riley McCarron and Jay Scheel. Who steps up at receiver and tight end this spring?

 

Minnesota

2015 Record: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Adjusting to the New Offense

Minnesota’s revamped secondary deserves a mention here, but the biggest spring storyline in Minneapolis is the offense. The Golden Gophers have finished 11th or worse in the Big Ten in scoring offense in two out of the last three years. New coordinator Jay Johnson has to get more out of this group, but there are pieces to build around in 2016. Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns after throwing for 2,701 yards and 14 scores last season, and running back Shannon Brooks is back after a promising freshman campaign. Leidner will be limited this spring due to surgery. Receiver is an area of focus for Johnson after KJ Maye expired his eligibility (73 catches in 2015). Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Brandon Lingen are back, but the Golden Gophers will be looking for more out of Eric Carter and Rashad Still. The offensive line also features some uncertainty, and the coaching staff will be keeping a close eye on the progress of junior college recruits Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright this spring.

 

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Nebraska

2015 Record: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Line of Scrimmage

The progression of quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a key storyline to monitor out of Lincoln, but Nebraska won’t take a step forward without retooling in the trenches. The Cornhuskers lose three starters on the offensive line and must replace three on the defensive side. Left tackle Alex Lewis and center Ryne Reeves leave big shoes to fill, but the losses are even heavier on defense. Tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left early for the NFL, and end Jack Gangwish expired his eligibility. Will the Cornhuskers finish spring with answers on both sides of the ball?

 

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Northwestern

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Passing Game

Defense and a strong ground attack led Northwestern to a 10-3 mark last season. But even with 13 starters back this spring, the Wildcats will need more out of the passing attack to push for 10 wins once again. Quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 1,522 yards and seven scores and rushed for 397 yards and five touchdowns in his first year as the starter. He’s expected to take a step forward this spring, but the supporting cast at receiver has its share of question marks. Dan Vitale (33 catches), Christian Jones (23) and Miles Shuler (15) expired their eligibility. Austin Carr (16 catches) and running back Justin Jackson (21) are the top returning targets. Northwestern needs more out of Thorson and the receiving corps.  

 

Purdue

2015 Record: 2-10, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 9

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: David Blough’s Development

There are several areas requiring attention for coach Darrell Hazell this spring, but David Blough’s development is critical for the Boilermakers to have any shot at finding improvement in the win column next season. Blough had his share of ups and downs as a freshman last year and finished the year by throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns. New play-caller Terry Malone has to get Blough to take the next step, as well as generate more big plays from a passing attack that generated only 28 plays of 20 or more yards last year.

 

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Wisconsin

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterbacks and Receivers

With a solid defense and ground attack in place, Wisconsin doesn’t need a prolific passing game to win the Big Ten West Division next season. Quarterback Joel Stave expired his eligibility after the Holiday Bowl win over USC, which leaves senior Bart Houston as the frontrunner over redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston played in seven games last season and completed 27 of 47 throws for 281 yards and three touchdowns. In addition to the quarterback battle between Houston and Hornibrook, the receiving corps is looking for a new go-to target after Alex Erickson expired his eligibility. This is a key spring for Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love and Jazz Peavy.

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The celebration and good feelings from Alabama’s national championship victory against Clemson are over. Spring practice in Tuscaloosa is set to begin on March 11, and the Crimson Tide enters the season with a bullseye on their back. As usual, coach Nick Saban’s team is one of the early favorites to win the national title. The offense returns six starters, including rising star Calvin Ridley at receiver and standout left tackle Cam Robinson. Tight end OJ Howard – the star of the win over Clemson – also returns. The defense loses a few key pieces, but this unit won’t miss a beat. End Jonathan Allen is among the nation’s top returning players, and the secondary has made steady improvement over the last two years. 

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Alabama’s Spring Practice

 

1. Quarterback Battle

For the third consecutive spring, there’s a quarterback battle set to unfold in Tuscaloosa. Jake Coker expired his eligibility after the national championship, leaving Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts to compete for the starting spot. Bateman has the edge in experience with one career start under his belt, while Hurts just arrived on campus in January. Barnett is the most talented quarterback inked by coach Nick Saban since he came to Tuscaloosa. Bateman’s experience certainly helps but keeping Barnett on the sidelines will be a challenge.

 

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2. The Next Star at Running Back?

Derrick Henry was a huge part of Alabama’s national championship run last season and claimed the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. There’s no doubt Henry leaves big shoes to fill. But as usual at Alabama, the cupboard isn’t bare. Bo Scarbrough appears to be the next star running back for the Crimson Tide and showed promise in limited carries last year (104 yards and one touchdown). Scarbrough will have competition from sophomore Damien Harris, true freshman B.J. Emmons (arrives this summer), Xavian Marks and Ronnie Clark. Will Scarbrough stake his claim for the starting job or will this battle head into fall with a committee approach taking shape? 

 

3. Filling the Voids on the Offensive Line

Alabama’s offensive line enters 2016 in relatively good shape. Left tackle Cam Robinson is one of the best in the nation, guard Ross Pierschbacher returns after starting all 15 games as a freshman last year, while Alphonse Taylor anchors the right guard position. While that trio is a solid start up front, the Crimson Tide lose standout center Ryan Kelly and Dominick Jackson at right tackle. J.C. Hassenauer is the frontrunner to replace Kelly at center, while right tackle could be junior college recruit Charles Baldwin’s job to lose. This unit allowed only 1.73 sacks a game last season, so the bar is set high for the new starters.

 

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4. Who Steps up at Linebacker?

It’s no secret the importance of linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Three seniors depart this unit for coach Nick Saban, including standout Reggie Ragland. Who steps up at this position in 2016? Count senior Reuben Foster as one of the answers. The Alabama native is known for his ability to deliver monster hits, but he’s also capable of being the leader and filling the void left behind by Ragland. Tim Williams was only a situational player last season but registered 10.5 sacks. He is a key cog in the pass rush once again for 2016. Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson and Christian Miller are other names to watch at this position, while incoming freshmen Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson will push for snaps when they arrive this summer.

 

5. Restocking the Defensive Trenches

The Crimson Tide enters spring practice with some big shoes to fill in the trenches. Lineman A’Shawn Robinson left early for the NFL, while Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway and Darren Lake expired their eligibility. The next wave of stars is ready to emerge for Saban this spring. End Da’Shawn Hand – a former five-star recruit – is poised for a breakout season, while Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Ron Payne are ready for an increased role. This unit also returns end Jonathan Allen – likely an All-American selection in 2016 – after he led the team with 12 sacks last season. There’s plenty of talent here. How quickly will Saban and the defensive staff fill out the two-deep and develop the rotation?

 

Pre-Spring Alabama Outlook in the SEC

 

Alabama is the team to beat in the SEC next season. Sure, there are personnel concerns and some uncertainty at quarterback. However, that theme has played out in Tuscaloosa before. With a strong offensive line, receiving corps and breakout candidates at quarterback, the new quarterback won’t have to shoulder the entire workload on offense. The defense will be among the nation’s best once again, but linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end A’Shawn Robinson won’t be easy to replace. Expect the secondary to take a step forward under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The biggest obstacle to a repeat? The schedule. Alabama has road trips at Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas and LSU. Even with that upcoming slate, it’s tough to pick against the Crimson Tide. 

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The 2016 season officially begins on Aug. 27 with California taking on Hawaii in Australia. While kickoff for 2016 is a ways off, it’s never too early to start thinking about rankings, predictions and a preview for the upcoming year. With spring practice underway, teams are starting to put the pieces in place for 2016 and answer some of the question marks surrounding the depth chart.

 

Athlon Sports is examining all 128 teams for 2016 with a look at the reasons for hope and concern. These rankings will change a lot over the next few months and are a starting point as the evaluation and ranking process for the 2016 Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazine officially begins this spring. 

 

College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Team Rankings for 2016

 

128. Charlotte

Reason for Hope: The 49ers enter their second year at the FBS level with a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball. Running back Kalif Phillips and defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi are two of the best in Conference USA at their respective positions.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Charlotte played three quarterbacks last year, and this trio combined to complete just 52.3 percent of their passes and 23 interceptions. 

 

127. ULM

Reason for Hope: ULM is a tough job, but new coach Matt Viator looks like the right fit to get this program on the right path. Garrett Smith returns at quarterback after showing promise (19 overall TDs) as a redshirt freshman in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: The offensive line gave up 38 sacks last season and struggled to open up lanes for the running backs (3.2 ypc). The front seven on defense must be revamped and loses standouts Gerrand Johnson (NT) and linebacker Hunter Kissinger.

 

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126. Kent State

Reason for Hope: The Golden Flashes were a young team last year and lost three games by a touchdown or less. Antwan Dixon (13.7 ypc) is a promising receiver to watch, and the defense only gave up 4.86 yards per play in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: Colin Reardon and George Bollas combined for just nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last year. The Golden Flashes have to get more out of their offense. 

 

125. UMass

Reason for Hope: Sophomore Ross Comis looks like a capable replacement for Blake Frohnapfel at quarterback. Running back Marquis Young is another player for coach Mark Whipple to build around after rushing for 960 yards in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: Life as an FBS Independent won’t be easy for the Minutemen. Standout receiver Tajae Sharpe expired his eligibility. 

 

124. Eastern Michigan

Reason for Hope: The Eagles were more competitive in coach Chris Creighton’s second season and regain the services of defensive lineman Pat O’Connor (All-MAC player in 2014) after he missed 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Eastern Michigan is a tough job, so progress won’t be easy to come by in 2016. The defense returns largely intact but surrendered 42.1 points a game last year. 

 

123. UTSA

Reason for Hope: A fresh start under new coach Frank Wilson. Jarveon Williams (1,042 yards in 2015) is one of the top running backs in Conference USA.

 

Reason for Concern: There’s always optimism under a new coach. How long will it take the Roadrunners to adjust to new schemes on both sides of the ball? Is quarterback Dalton Sturm ready to take the next step?

 

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122. North Texas

Reason for Hope: Seth Littrell was an outstanding hire, and Alabama transfer Alec Morris could be the answer at quarterback. Running back Jeffery Wilson (830 yards in 2015) is primed for a breakout year.

 

Reason for Concern: There’s plenty of room to improve on defense after giving up 6.67 yards per play and 41.3 points a game last year. How long will it take to transition to the new schemes?

 

121. Tulane

Reason for Hope: The Green Wave landed one of the 2015-16 coaching carousel’s best hires in Willie Fritz. Seven starters are back on defense, including tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley.

 

Reason for Concern: The transition to Fritz’s scheme on offense is going to take some time. The Green Wave lacks a clear answer at quarterback and three starters on the line must be replaced. 

 

120. Hawaii

Reason for Hope: New coach Nick Rolovich is the right hire to get this program back on track. Running back Paul Harris (1,132 yards in 2015) should contend for All-Mountain West honors behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Defensive lineman Kennedy Tuliamasealii anchors the defense after recording 18.5 tackles for a loss last year.

 

Reason for Concern: The Rainbow Warriors have uncertainty at quarterback, and the defense needs to take a step forward after giving up 35.6 points a game last fall.

 

119. Texas State

Reason for Hope: After a successful two-year stint at James Madison, Everett Withers should be a good fit at Texas State. Quarterback Tyler Jones finished third in the Sun Belt in total offense last season.

 

Reason for Concern: Last season’s leading rusher (Robert Lowe) and the top four statistical receivers must be replaced. Can Withers improve a defense that surrendered 39.2 points a game in 2015?

 

118. Ball State

Reason for Hope: A fresh start for the program under the direction of former Ball State quarterback and NFL assistant Mike Neu. Quarterback Riley Neal showed promise as a freshman last season.

 

Reason for Concern: Last year’s three wins were the fewest since a 4-8 campaign in 2010. Also, Neu has a lot to prove, as he’s never been a head coach or coordinator on the collegiate level. Top receiver Jordan Williams and standout center Jacob Richard expired their eligibility. 

 

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117. Miami (Ohio)

Reason for Hope: Coach Chuck Martin went with a youth movement last season, and most of the depth chart returns intact for 2016. The RedHawks also won two out of their last three games.

 

Reason for Concern: Is Martin’s team a year away from contending for a bowl game? This team needs a quarterback to emerge and must be more productive on the ground after averaging just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015.

 

116. Idaho

Reason for Hope: Last season’s four wins were the most for the Vandals since a 6-7 mark in 2010. Quarterback Matt Linehan also showed promising signs in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: The defense surrendered 42.1 points a game last season and loses standout end Quinton Bradley (five sacks).

 

115. New Mexico State

Reason for Hope: Running back Larry Rose III returns after leading the Sun Belt by averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game last year. A healthy Tyler Rogers and the addition of Tyler Matthews provides coach Doug Martin with options at quarterback.

 

Reason for Concern: New coordinator Frank Spaziani provides reason for optimism on defense, but this unit has a ways to go after giving up 6.79 yards per play in 2015.

 

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114. South Alabama

Reason for Hope: Tight end Gerald Everett, receiver Josh Magee and running back Xavier Johnson provide a solid foundation for the new starting quarterback. End Jimmie Gipson III returns to the lineup after missing 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The Jaguars enter spring practice with uncertainty at quarterback. Additionally, the defense needs to find ways to generate more pressure on opposing passers after recording only 11 sacks in 2015. 

 

113. Wyoming

Reason for Hope: Brian Hill is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks and led all Mountain West rushers by averaging 135.9 yards per game in 2015. The Cowboys were a young team last season and should benefit from another year working under coach Craig Bohl and his staff. 

 

Reason for Concern: Bohl might need another recruiting class to get the depth and talent level where he needs to get this program back to the postseason. End Eddie Yarbrough won’t be easy to replace. The Cowboys also have a question mark at quarterback.

 

112. UL Lafayette

Reason for Hope: Prior to last season’s 4-8 mark, the Ragin’ Cajuns won nine games in each of coach Mark Hudspeth’s first four years with the program. Running back Elijah McGuire is one of the top playmakers in the Sun Belt.

 

Reason for Concern: Can Hudspeth and his staff find the right answer at quarterback? The Ragin’ Cajuns also have some work to do in the front seven on defense, while the secondary has to tighten its coverage after giving up 28 passing scores in 2015.

 

111. Kansas

Reason for Hope: It can’t get any worse than last year, right? The Jayhawks have a few promising young players in the program, including quarterback Ryan Willis and defensive linemen Dorance Armstrong and Daniel Wise. Safety Fish Smithson is one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs.

 

Reason for Concern: Second-year coach David Beaty needs more time to upgrade the program’s talent level and depth. Both sides of the ball need a lot of work this spring. 

 

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110. Rice

Reason for Hope: Consider 2015 as a minor blip on the radar for coach David Bailiff. Prior to last year, the Owls played in three consecutive bowl games. A solid stable of running backs is in place to carry the offense.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Who steps up to replace Driphus Jackson? Major improvement is needed on defense after giving up 7.1 yards per play in 2015.

 

109. Buffalo

Reason for Hope: Coach Lance Leipold is a proven winner and another year working with this roster should pay dividends. The Bulls have a breakout candidate at running back in Jordan Johnson (811 yards last season) and return two All-MAC performers on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Joe Licata leaves big shoes to fill, and standout left tackle John Kling also expired his eligibility. The Bulls need to shore up their run defense after giving up 187.3 yards per game in conference action.

 

108. Troy

Reason for Hope: The Trojans showed improvement under first-year coach Neal Brown and won three out of their final six games. Brandon Silvers should be one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt.

 

Reason for Concern: Two All-Sun Belt performers depart on defense, and the offense loses running back Brandon Burks and the top three receivers from 2015.

 

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107. Army West Point

Reason for Hope: The Black Knights only won two games last season but lost seven others by seven points or less. Coach Jeff Monken seems to have this program moving in the right direction. Quarterbacks Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter also showed promise and provide plenty of hope under center in 2016. Standout cornerback Josh Jenkins returns after missing all of 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: The pieces are coming together on offense, but Army West Point needs to generate more big plays. The turnover department – minus-11 in 2015 – also has to improve. 

 

106. FAU

Reason for Hope: Coach Charlie Partridge is putting together a solid core of players, and the Owls lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2015. End Trey Hendrickson and lienbacker Azeez Al-Shaair are two names to remember.

 

Reason for Concern: Standout defensive tackles Trevon Coley and Brandin Bryant have expired their eligibility. Will Jason Driskel or Daniel Parr quickly emerge as the top quarterback this offseason?

 

105. UNLV

Reason for Hope: The Rebels showed improvement in Tony Sanchez’s first year leading the program and 12 starters are back for 2016. Devonte Boyd is one of the nation’s most underrated receivers (904 yards, seven scores in 2015). Junior college recruit (previously at Nebraska) Johnny Stanton could be the answer at quarterback this spring.

 

Reason for Concern: Sanchez has UNLV trending in the right direction, but this program may be a year away from making a bowl. Are six returning starters on defense enough to improve a unit that surrendered 6.2 yards per play in 2015?

 

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104. Fresno State

Reason for Hope: Coach Tim DeRuyter overhauled his staff after a disappointing 3-9 record in 2015. Receiver Jamire Jordan is back after catching 46 passes as a freshman last fall.

 

Reason for Concern: The Bulldogs need to find a starting quarterback, lose standout running back Marteze Waller, and the defense has plenty of holes to fill after giving up 38.1 points a game in 2015.

 

103. FIU

Reason for Hope: The Panthers have increased their win total in back-to-back years after a 1-11 debut under Ron Turner in 2013. Quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and receiver Thomas Owens are a good trio to build around on offense.

 

Reason for Concern: The defense regressed from 2014 to '15 and loses standouts Michael Wakefield (DE) and Richard Leonard (CB). 

 

102. Georgia State

Reason for Hope: The Panthers turned a corner last November by winning four out of their last five games. After a rough transition to the FBS level, Georgia State has better depth and talent than any point under coach Trent Miles. Receiver Penny Hart is one of the Sun Belt’s top targets.

 

Reason for Concern: First-team All-Sun Belt quarterback Nick Arbuckle must be replaced. Last year’s leading tackler – linebacker Joseph Peterson – also expired his eligibility. 

 

101. SMU

Reason for Hope: Chad Morris inherited a mess and is starting to put the pieces together for a turnaround. Quarterback Matt Davis is back, but there could be competition from redshirt freshman Ben Hicks. Receiver Courtland Sutton is back after catching 49 passes for 862 yards as a freshman last season.

 

Reason for Concern: The Mustangs might be a year away from making a big leap in the standings. The defense surrendered 45.7 points a game last season and returns only five starters. 

 

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100. Bowling Green

Reason for Hope: The Falcons have been the class of the MAC East in recent years, winning three consecutive division titles. Quarterback James Knapke has experience after starting 13 games in place of an injured Matt Johnson in 2014.

 

Reason for Concern: New coach Mike Jinks does not have any head coaching experience at the FBS level, and there are several key players to replace, including quarterback Matt Johnson, receivers Roger Lewis and Gehrig Dieter and running back Travis Greene.

 

99. Old Dominion

Reason for Hope: The Monarchs played better in the second half of 2015 and have two talented options to choose from at quarterback in Shuler Bentley and David Washington. Running back Ray Lawry earned second-team All-Conference USA honors last season after rushing for 1,136 yards.

 

Reason for Concern: Will the defense take a step forward? This unit returns largely intact after giving up 35.8 points a game in 2015.

 

98. UCF

Reason for Hope: Everything went wrong for the Knights last year. There’s too much talent in the program to finish 0-12 once again. New coach Scott Frost should infuse energy and jumpstart an offense that managed only 13.9 points a game last year.

 

Reason for Concern: Frost should help this team show marked improvement, but how high can this team climb with new schemes on both sides of the ball? The defense surrendered 199.2 rushing yards a game last season and loses three starters in the front seven. Will the Knights find a go-to running back after managing only 81.3 rushing yards per game last year?

 

97. Akron

Reason for Hope: Last season was a year of firsts for the Zips. Terry Bowden’s team won the most games in school history (eight) and claimed the program’s first bowl victory. Quarterback Thomas Woodson is back and is slated to be joined by Ohio State transfer Warren Ball at running back.

 

Reason for Concern: The Zips lose a handful of key contributors, including defensive tackles Rodney Coe and Cody Grice, linebacker Darryl Monroe and five key contributors from the offensive line.

 

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96. San Jose State

Reason for Hope: After a two-year drought, San Jose State returned to the postseason in 2015 and defeated Georgia State to win the AutoNation Cure Bowl. Quarterback Kenny Potter headlines an offense that returns nine starters. 

 

Reason for Concern: Cornerbacks Cleveland Wallace and Jimmy Pruitt leave big shoes to fill in the secondary. The Spartans need to generate a pass rush – only 17 sacks last year – and force more turnovers (just 12 in 2015). All-purpose threat and standout running back Tyler Ervin must be replaced.

 

95. UTEP

Reason for Hope: A healthy Aaron Jones at running back should provide some punch to an offense that averaged only 20.7 points a game in 2015. 

 

Reason for Concern: The Miners need to be better against the pass (26 TDs allowed in 2015) and must find a consistent answer at quarterback.

 

94. Purdue

Reason for Hope: Quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones is a promising tandem to build around on offense. Nine starters return on defense, and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is back from injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Where should we start? The Boilermakers have won only two Big Ten games under coach Darrell Hazell. Two new coordinators are in place, and there’s a long ways to go on both sides of the ball. Cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams won’t be easy to replace. 

 

93. Oregon State

Reason for Hope: Gary Andersen is the right coach to get Oregon State back on track. Year two of Andersen’s rebuilding project should show steps in the right direction. The receiving corps is a strength with the return of Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden. Three starters are back on the offensive line, and Gavin Andrews rejoins the lineup after missing 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: There’s a lot of work ahead for Andersen. The Beavers return only 10 starters, and both sides of the ball have glaring concerns. Is Utah State transfer Darell Garretson the answer at quarterback? Key defenders Rommel Mageo (LB), defensive lineman Kyle Peko and cornerback Larry Scott have expired their eligibility.  

 

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92. Ohio

Reason for Hope: Ohio has been a model of consistency under coach Frank Solich. The Bobcats have not had a losing season since 2008 and have claimed bowl bids in five out of the last six years. Running back A.J. Ouellette is one of the building blocks on offense for Solich after recording 687 yards last season. Linebacker Quentin Poling is also one of the best in the MAC.

 

Reason for Concern: The Bobcats must break in a new quarterback, lose three key starters on the offensive line and must replace standout cornerback Ian Wells.

 

91. Central Michigan

Reason for Hope: Cooper Rush is one of the MAC’s best quarterbacks, and running back Devon Spalding is back after missing most of 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The Chippewas lose three seniors up front, including two All-MAC performers. The defense has to find a way to generate more pressure on quarterbacks after only registering 14 sacks in 2015.

 

90. East Carolina

Reason for Hope: New coach Scottie Montgomery’s experience should help a Pirates’ offense that managed only 27.4 points a game in 2015. Montgomery inherits a few talented playmakers, and quarterback Kurt Benkert returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: This is Montgomery’s first chance to be a head coach, so there will be a learning curve for the former Duke assistant. The Pirates lose three starters on the offensive line and two all-conference linebackers expired their eligibility.

 

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89. Rutgers

Reason for Hope: New coach Chris Ash has a good vision and plan to help Rutgers take a step forward after winning just four Big Ten games over the last two years. Josh Hicks and Robert Martin are a promising duo at running back, and Janarion Grant is an all-purpose weapon. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Is there a quarterback on the roster who can execute the new offense? Receiver Leonte Carroo will be missed. The defense surrendered 34.9 points a game last season and must replace all three starters at linebacker. The defense needs a lot of work. 

 

88. Louisiana Tech

Reason for Hope: The Bulldogs have recorded back-to-back seasons of nine wins. Receiver Trent Taylor (99 catches in 2015) is a nice safety valve for the new starting quarterback. Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (six sacks) is primed for a bigger role after a strong freshman season.

 

Reason for Concern: Running back Kenneth Dixon and quarterback Jeff Driskel will be difficult to replace. Louisiana Tech also catches MTSU and WKU in crossover play with the East Division in 2016. 

 

87. Nevada

Reason for Hope: The Wolf Pack are a consistent winner, claiming 10 bowl trips over the last 11 years. Expect the offense to show improvement from last year’s totals (26.2 ppg) with nine returning starters – including running back James Butler and quarterback Tyler Stewart.

 

Reason for Concern: The front seven was decimated by losses. Standouts Ian Seau and Lenny Jones won’t be easy to replace.

 

86. New Mexico

Reason for Hope: The Lobos are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2007. The offense averaged 29.9 points a game last season and returns two proven quarterbacks – Lamar Jordan and Austin Apodaca – and running back Teriyon Gipson.

 

Reason for Concern: Three starters are gone from the offensive line. The pass defense has to improve after ranking 101st nationally in 2015. 

 

85. Colorado State

Reason for Hope: Second-year coach Mike Bobo has the makings of a solid offense with the return of quarterback Nick Stevens, running back Dalyn Dawkins and four starters on the offensive line.

 

Reason for Concern: Standout receiver Rashard Higgins must be replaced, and the Rams lose key players at each level of the defense.

 

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84. Utah State

Reason for Hope: The offense is primed for a big season. Quarterback Kent Myers, running back Devante Mays and four starters on the offensive line return for coach Matt Wells. The defense loses a handful of key players, but lineman Travis Seefeldt is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Last year’s 6-7 record was the lowest win total for Utah State since 2010. New co-defensive coordinators Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver will be busy this spring. The defense returns only three starters from a unit that limited opponents to 4.85 yards last year.

 

83. Tulsa

Reason for Hope: The Golden Hurricane showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery. Quarterback Dane Evans is back and will be throwing to a talented group of receivers, including Keevan Lucas (2015 season cut short by injury).

 

Reason for Concern: Go-to receiver Keyarris Garrett (96 catches) will be missed. The defense needs to improve after giving up 39.8 points a game last season.

 

82. Memphis

Reason for Hope: Memphis hit a home run with its hire of Mike Norvell to replace Justin Fuente. Even though the Tigers will miss quarterback Paxton Lynch, there’s a good group of skill players and linemen to build around in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: Replacing quarterback Paxton Lynch won’t be easy, and there could be a few ups and downs as the team transitions to a new coaching staff. Will the return of eight starters be enough to improve a defense that gave up 27.3 points a game last year?

 

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81. Illinois

Reason for Hope: The coaching carousel and timing was a little awkward, but Lovie Smith is a good hire for Illinois. The Fighting Illini return quarterback Wes Lunt and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, while receiver Mike Dudek is back after missing all of 2015 due to a knee injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Both sides of the ball need improvement across the board. The defense is thin with just four returning starters. Smith is starting his first season at Illinois behind schedule. 2016 has all of the makings of a transition year.

 

80. Connecticut

Reason for Hope: The Huskies improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015. There’s reason to believe another step forward is in the works with 15 starters back. UConn should have one of the top defenses in the American Athletic Conference, and the secondary returns three standout performers, including lockdown corner Jamar Summers.

 

Reason for Concern: Offense. The Huskies need more from a unit that averaged only 17.2 points a game in 2015. Will quarterback Bryant Shirreffs take a step forward next fall?

 

79. Northern Illinois

Reason for Hope: The Huskies have dominated the MAC West by earning six consecutive division titles. Quarterback Drew Hare should be at full strength by the fall after a season-ending Achilles injury, and the offense returns running back Joel Bouagnon and receiver Kenny Golladay.

 

Reason for Concern: Four first-team All-MAC selections must be replaced, while safety Marlon Moore and cornerback Paris Logan also expired their eligibility. The toughest conference game on the 2016 schedule is on the road – at Western Michigan.

 

78. Toledo

Reason for Hope: New coach Jason Candle should pickup where Matt Campbell left off before leaving to go to Iowa State. The Rockets are loaded at running back, return two proven receivers in Cody Thompson and Corey Jones and four starters on the offensive line.

 

Reason for Concern: The defense will be a revamped group with several key players departing, including defensive tackle Orion Jones and cornerback Cheatham Norrils. 

 

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77. Syracuse

Reason for Hope: Dino Babers was an outstanding hire and is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the nation. Quarterback Eric Dungey is promising, and the Orange have a few talented playmakers on the roster.

 

Reason for Concern: Coaching transition. It may take a season (or two) to fully implement Babers’ attack on offense. The Orange are very thin on depth and proven talent at defensive end. Three starters are gone off the offensive line. 

 

76. Wake Forest

Reason for Hope: Dave Clawson inherited a major rebuilding project, and some of the pieces needed for a turnaround are starting to fall in place. The offensive line has struggled in recent years but four starters are back and improvement seems likely. Seven returning starters anchor a solid defense.

 

Reason for Concern: There are reasons for optimism on offense, but the Demon Deacons have a ways to go after averaging only 4.8 yards per play last season. The offense also needs more out of the ground attack. Two linebackers and two starters in the secondary must be replaced.

 

75. Arkansas State

Reason for Hope: The Red Wolves are a consistent force at the top of the Sun Belt, playing in five straight bowl games and winning at least eight games in four out of the last five years. Most of the starting lineup returns on defense, and junior college recruit Justice Hansen joins the mix at quarterback.

 

Reason for Concern: The Red Wolves are the defending Sun Belt champions, but quarterback Fredi Knighten, running back Michael Gordon and receivers J.D. McKissic and Tres Houston will be tough to replace. 

 

74. Boston College

Reason for Hope: The offense struggled mightily last season, but the Eagles get quarterback Darius Wade and running back Jon Hilliman back from injury. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade for the starting quarterback job. The defense was among the best in the nation last season and six starters return for new coordinator Jim Reid.

 

Reason for Concern: Towles (or Wade) and Hilliman should provide a spark for this offense. However, how much will this unit improve after only 17.2 points a game last year? The offensive line and receiving corps are two areas that need attention this spring. The defense should be solid, but this unit is likely to take a step back after losing coordinator Don Brown to Michigan. Standout linebacker Steven Daniels also expired his eligibility. 

 

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73. MTSU

Reason for Hope: Quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James are back after prolific freshman seasons.

 

Reason for Concern: There are big losses on defense, including linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard.

 

72. Iowa State

Reason for Hope: Matt Campbell is one of the top hires in this year’s coaching cycle. The Cyclones also return two of the Big 12’s top playmakers in running back Mike Warren and receiver Allen Lazard. Eight starters – including standout safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and tackle Demond Tucker – are back on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: The offensive line returns only one starter and is thin on proven depth or experience. How much improvement will quarterback Joel Lanning show under the new coaching staff?

 

71. Maryland

Reason for Hope: A fresh start under new coach D.J. Durkin should help the Terrapins erase last year’s disappointing 3-9 record. This team isn’t lacking talent, as the top four receivers return and Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds will help at running back. Damian Prince and Derwin Gray are two building blocks on the offensive line. Durkin’s background should spark some improvement on defense, and cornerback William Likely is back for his senior year.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Maryland quarterbacks combined to complete 47.2 percent of their throws and a whopping 29 interceptions last year. The defense also has voids to fill up front and in the secondary and must replace Yannick Ngakoue’s production (13 sacks) off the edge.

 

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70. Virginia

Reason for Hope: New coach Bronco Mendenhall is a proven winner and arrives in Charlottesville after guiding BYU to 11 consecutive bowl appearances. Running back Taquan Mizzell, quarterback Matt Jones, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding provide a good foundation for Mendenhall to build around in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: The Cavaliers need a year to transition to Mendenhall and the new staff. There’s little in the way of proven options at receiver, and three starters must be replaced on the defensive line. Cornerback Maurice Canady also expired his eligibility. 

 

69. WKU

Reason for Hope: Coach Jeff Brohm is one of the best in Conference USA, and the Hilltoppers have a strong supporting cast for the new starting quarterback. Running back Leon Allen missed most of 2015 due to injury but was awarded an additional year of eligibility.

 

Reason for Concern: Brandon Doughty leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback. How quickly can Brohm settle the quarterback battle? Both starting cornerbacks and standout linebacker Nick Holt depart WKU.

 

68. Marshall

Reason for Hope: Quarterback Chase Litton is a rising star (23 TDs, 8 INTs as a freshman in 2015). The Thundering Herd have a schedule advantage in the race to win the East Division, as WKU and MTSU visit Huntington.

 

Reason for Concern: The top two receivers from 2015 are gone, and the defense suffered a few heavy losses at each level. 

 

67. Colorado

Reason for Hope: The Buffaloes have been more competitive under coach Mike MacIntyre and 15 starters are back for 2016. The status of quarterback Sefo Liufau is uncertain, but Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb was a huge pickup for 2016. Jim Leavitt’s arrival helped spark improvement on defense, and the return of linebacker Addison Gillam adds another difference maker for next season.

 

Reason for Concern: Webb is a talented quarterback, but he won’t have much time to get acclimated to his teammates and offense. All-Pac-12 receiver Nelson Spruce will be missed. More improvement is needed in the trenches after allowing 40 sacks in 2015. 

 

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66. Western Michigan

Reason for Hope: P.J. Fleck is one of the nation’s top rising stars in the head coaching ranks and has guided Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 campaigns. The Broncos should have an explosive offense behind quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis.

 

Reason for Concern: The defense generated only 17 sacks last season and struggled to stop the run (181.1 ypg allowed). 

 

65. Georgia Southern

Reason for Hope: There’s a new coach in town (Tyson Summers), but the formula for success isn’t going to change. The Eagles boast one of the nation’s top rushing attacks, headlined by quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw, and running backs L.A. Ramsby and Matt Breida.

 

Reason for Concern: Don’t expect Summers and his staff to make drastic changes, but a coaching transition always provides a few bumps in the road. The back seven on defense needs to be revamped, and both starting guards – Roscoe Byrd and Darien Foreman – expired their eligibility. 

 

64. Indiana

Reason for Hope: The Hoosiers have turned a corner under coach Kevin Wilson. Last year’s trip to the Pinstripe Bowl was the program’s first bowl appearance since 2007. Three starters are back on the offensive line, and running back Devine Redding finished 2015 on a high note by gashing Duke for 227 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl. Tom Allen was one of the nation’s top hires at defensive coordinator.

 

Reason for Concern: Who steps up to replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld? Allen should make a difference for Indiana’s defense, but this unit has a long ways to go after giving up 37.6 points a game last season. 

 

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63. Navy

Reason for Hope: The Midshipmen lose several key players, but Ken Niumatalolo will find the right answers this spring. Navy has made eight bowl appearances over the last nine years. This program won’t take a huge step back. Six starters also return on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Keenan Reynolds – one of the nation’s top players in 2015 – will be missed. The Midshipmen also lose standout rusher Chris Swain and all five starters on the offensive line. Standout cornerback Brendon Clements is also suspended indefinitely. 

 

62. South Carolina

Reason for Hope: The Gamecocks probably have more talent in the program than last year’s 3-9 record indicated and a stable coaching situation should help this team after the uncertainty in 2015. New coach Will Muschamp should help a defense that surrendered 30.4 points per game last fall.

 

Reason for Concern: Even if the roster is better than 3-9, there’s a lot of work for Muschamp to do in 2016. Who steps up at quarterback? Is it Perry Orth or will sophomore Lorenzo Nunez take the top spot on the depth chart? Playmakers at running back and receiver must be found. The defense needs a lot of work. 

 

61. Vanderbilt

Reason for Hope: The Commodores made strides on defense last season after coach Derek Mason took over the play-calling. Seven starters are back in 2016, including standout linebacker Zach Cunningham. Running back Ralph Webb and quarterback Kyle Shurmur are promising pieces to build around on offense. The offensive line should get a boost with the return of tackle Andrew Jelks from injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The offense should be better. But by how much? Is Shurmur a year away from taking the next step? The Commodores have to do better in the turnover department (minus-eight last year). 

 

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60. Kentucky

Reason for Hope: The talent level has improved under coach Mark Stoops with four straight top-40 classes. Eddie Gran was a solid hire as the team’s new play-caller, and he inherits an offense with nine returning starters. New quarterback Drew Barker is talented (just inexperienced), and running back Boom Williams is one of the SEC’s top playmakers. Sophomore cornerback Chris Westry is a rising star.

 

Reason for Concern: How quickly can Barker take control of the offense? The defense is the biggest issue for Stoops. Only four starters are back and each level was hit hard by departures.

 

59. Cincinnati

Reason for Hope: Gunner Kiel is back at quarterback, and the Bearcats have two talented transfer receivers ready to step in with Avery Peterson (LSU) and Jamil Kamara (Virginia). A minus-19 turnover margin is indicative of some bad luck that should be reversed in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: Even though Peterson and Kamara should make an instant impact, the Bearcats lose their top six receivers from last year. Additionally, standout left tackle Parker Ehinger expired his eligibility. There’s room for improvement on a defense that gave up 31.2 points a game in 2015.

 

58. Missouri

Reason for Hope: Barry Odom was a rising star as a coordinator and is familiar with the job after working under Gary Pinkel from 2004-05, 2009-11 and 2015. Despite a lackluster offense, the defense ranked as one of the best in the SEC. That shouldn’t change in 2016 with defensive end Charles Harris, tackle Terry Beckner and linebacker Michael Scherer returning.

 

Reason for Concern: The offense. The Tigers managed only 13.6 points a game last year. Big question marks are in place for new coordinator Josh Heupel. The offensive line is very thin, and quarterback Drew Lock needs more help from the supporting cast. Will the defense carry the team until the offense is ready to take a step forward?  

 

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57. Minnesota

Reason for Hope: The transition from Jerry Kill to Tracy Claeys should be smooth. Claeys worked for Kill for over 20 seasons and isn’t going to make drastic changes to the program. Quarterback Mitch Leidner enters his third season as a starter, and running back Shannon Brooks showed promise late in the 2015 campaign. Seven starters form a good foundation on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: Can new coordinator Jay Johnson find ways to spark an offense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in yards per play (league-only games)? Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun will be tough to replace. Punter Peter Mortell is a big loss.

 

56. Duke

Reason for Hope: The Blue Devils are reaching new heights under coach David Cutcliffe. The program is a consistent winner, recording a bowl appearance in each of the last four seasons. Jeremy Cash will be missed at safety, but the secondary is in good shape with the return of four starters and Byron Fields from injury.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Thomas Sirk may not play in 2016 due to an Achilles injury. Two standouts – Lucas Patrick and Matt Skura – depart the offensive line, leading receiver Max McCaffrey must be replaced, and the front seven on defense must be overhauled.

 

55. Air Force

Reason for Hope: Quarterback Nate Romine is back to lead the offense after missing most of 2015 due to injury. The Falcons also return a talented stable of running backs, and receiver Jalen Robinette (24.5 ypc).

 

Reason for Concern: The trenches will be an area of focus after the loss of standout defensive end Alex Hansen and three starters on the offensive line. 

 

54. NC State

Reason for Hope: This is coach Dave Doeren’s fourth year in Raleigh. With a roster shaped in the image of how Doeren wants to build a program, the Wolfpack hope to take the next step in 2016. There’s a solid stable of running backs in place, as Matt Dayes returns after missing five games due to injury, and Johnny Frasier is ready to make an impact coming off a redshirt year. Eight starters are back on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is gone, and the passing attack needs more big plays from the receivers in 2016. Standout offensive linemen – Joe Thuney and Quinton Schooley – have expired their eligibility. End Mike Rose’s (10.5 sacks) ability to get to the quarterback will be missed. 

 

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53. Southern Miss

Reason for Hope: The Golden Eagles took a big step forward last year. A strong core returns for new coach Jay Hopson, including quarterback Nick Mullens and running back Ito Smith.

 

Reason for Concern: Will the coaching transition present any challenges? Prolific receivers Mike Thomas and Casey Martin have expired their eligibility.

 

52. Temple

Reason for Hope: Last season’s 10 wins tied for the most in school history. The Owls return 11 starters and should be picked near the top of the American Athletic Conference in 2016. Quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas lead the way on offense.

 

Reason for Concern: The Owls lose a handful of key contributors from last year’s 10-win team. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, center Kyle Friend and safety Alex Wells leave big shoes to fill. 

 

51. Georgia Tech

Reason for Hope: 2015 was simply an aberration. Georgia Tech finished 3-9 – the worst mark under coach Paul Johnson and failed to make a bowl game for the first time since 1996. Quarterback Justin Thomas is due for a rebound year, and running back C.J. Leggett could add a spark to the ground game after missing 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The Yellow Jackets have to do a better job of holding onto the ball (24 turnovers lost last season). The left side of the offensive line must be revamped, and the secondary loses all four starters. 

 

50. Kansas State

Reason for Hope: Bill Snyder. Kansas State is always going to be a dangerous opponent for the rest of the Big 12 with Snyder on the sidelines. The Wildcats had some awful injury luck in 2015, which included season-ending ailments to quarterback Jesse Ertz and safety Dante Barnett. Linebacker Elijah Lee is one of the Big 12’s top defenders.

 

Reason for Concern: Four new starters are needed on the offensive line. Can the Wildcats develop more playmakers at receiver and generate more production from the ground game?

 

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49. California

Reason for Hope: Stability. Coach Sonny Dykes is coming off his best season (8-5) at California and received a contract extension at the end of the 2015 campaign. This program is headed in the right direction. Three starters return on the offensive line and the top three rushers are back for 2016. Additionally, the defense has made strides over the two years.

 

Reason for Concern: There’s no easy way to spin it: Quarterback Jared Goff is a huge loss. Additionally, the top six statistical receivers from last season depart. Can the defense carry the team until a new quarterback emerges?

 

48. Appalachian State

Reason for Hope: The Mountaineers won 11 games last year and are a team on the rise under coach Scott Satterfield. Quarterback Taylor Lamb (36 total TDs last year) returns, and the backfield is stocked with options, including Marcus Cox (1,423 yards in 2015) and Jalin Moore (7.4 ypc).

 

Reason for Concern: Three of the top four receivers must be replaced. The Mountaineers also lose a couple of standouts – defensive end Ronald Blair and offensive linemen Jesse Chapman and Davante Harris – in the trenches.

 

47. Texas

Reason for Hope: There’s talent in the program. According to the recruiting rankings, the Longhorns have the best roster in the Big 12 over the last five seasons. Running backs Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman lead the way on offense, and the defense returns linebacker Malik Jefferson and a talented group of young defensive backs.

 

Reason for Concern: The offense. New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert needs time to implement his scheme. Can the Longhorns find a quarterback who can execute the passing attack? Defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway won’t be easy to replace.

 

46. BYU

Reason for Hope: This is Kalani Sitake’s first opportunity to be a head coach, but he’s ready for this challenge. Running back Jamaal Williams returns after missing all of 2015, and there are two proven quarterbacks in Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum.

 

Reason for Concern: Three of the top four receivers and standout defensive end Bronson Kaufusi expired their eligibility. Will there be any speed bumps in the transition from Bronco Mendenhall to Sitake?

 

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45. Texas Tech

Reason for Hope: The Red Raiders have several flaws, but a player like quarterback Patrick Mahomes can cover up a lot of woes. The addition of transfers Ondre Pipkins and Kolin Hill should help to restock the defensive line. The secondary should be a strength with all four starters returning.

 

Reason for Concern: The defense has to improve. Texas Tech can outscore a lot of teams but improving its record will depend heavily on how far the defense progresses this spring. The Red Raiders gave up 43.6 points a game last year. Running back DeAndre Washington, dynamic receiver Jakeem Grant and four starters on the offensive line depart Lubbock.

 

44. Arizona

Reason for Hope: The Wildcats have the pieces in place for an explosive offense. Quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and receiver Nate Phillips are a solid trio. An overhauled staff could help the defense take a step forward after allowing 35.8 points a game in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: Will Anu Solomon rebound to his 2014 form (4,084 total yards)? Go-to receiver Cayleb Jones will be missed, and the defense has a ways to go under new coordinator Marcel Yates.

 

43. Arizona State

Reason for Hope: Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are a talented duo for new coordinator Chip Lindsey to build around in 2016. Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White are inexperienced, but all three passers are talented. Tim White is a rising star at receiver, and Cameron Smith adds another weapon for the passing attack after missing 2015 due to injury. The front seven on defense should be a strength with the return of linebackers Salamo Fiso, Christian Sam, Laui Moeakiola and defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood. 

 

Reason for Concern: Four new starters must be found on the offensive line. How quickly can the Sun Devils find the right answer at quarterback? The secondary struggled last year and three starters depart. 

 

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42. Northwestern

Reason for Hope: Coach Pat Fitzgerald has the program back on track after a 10-3 record last season. The Wildcats went 5-7 in back-to-back years but finished with 10 wins for the second time in Fitzgerald’s tenure. Running back Justin Jackson is one of the best in the Big Ten. Six starters – including standout linebacker Anthony Walker – return from one of the Big Ten’s top defenses last year.

 

Reason for Concern: Will the passing attack take a step forward in quarterback Clayton Thorson’s second year as the starter? Who steps up at receiver? There’s a solid core in place on defense, but ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose leave big shoes to fill. 

 

41. Nebraska

Reason for Hope: Last year’s 6-7 mark wasn’t quite as bad as some may believe. A minus-12 turnover margin and six losses by one score suggest Nebraska could make a quick turnaround in the win column. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong should benefit from another season under coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Jordan Westerkamp is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.

 

Reason for Concern: The trenches. Nebraska loses three starters up front and has to generate more production from its ground attack. On defense, tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine won’t be easy to replace. The secondary has room to improve after ranking 78th nationally in pass efficiency defense last year. 

 

40. Penn State

Reason for Hope: The Nittany Lions have recruited back-to-back top 20 classes and the overall depth in the program has improved. Running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Chris Godwin are two of the top skill players in the Big Ten. The offensive line has struggled but four starters are back.

 

Reason for Concern: Is Trace McSorley the answer to replace Christian Hackenberg at quarterback? Will the offensive line take a step forward under new assistant Matt Limegrover? Losing coordinator Bob Shoop was a huge blow to the defense. Additionally, this unit must replace three standouts in the trenches. 

 

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39. Mississippi State

Reason for Hope: Dan Mullen has elevated the program. Mississippi State has key faces to replace, but the drop off won’t be significant. The Bulldogs have played in six consecutive bowl games, and there’s enough talent in place to earn a seventh consecutive postseason trip. Linebacker Richie Brown and safety Brandon Bryant are two players for new coordinator Peter Sirmon to build around on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Dak Prescott was one of the best players in school history. He won’t be easy to replace. Will the offensive line and ground attack take a step forward? Peter Sirmon is an intriguing hire as the team’s new defensive coordinator. Sirmon has never worked as for a full season as a play-caller at the FBS level. Standout defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Beniquez Brown and cornerback Taveze Calhoun depart the defense.

 

38. Pittsburgh

Reason for Hope: There’s coaching stability under Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers return 16 starters, and running back James Conner is expected back by the opener. End Ejuan Price and safety Jordan Whitehead are two of the ACC’s top defenders. The offensive line could be the best in the conference next season.

 

Reason for Concern: The passing attack. Nathan Peterman is back at quarterback, but who steps up at receiver after the departure of Tyler Boyd? Can Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin help the defense take a step forward after allowing 5.69 yards per play last year?

 

37. Virginia Tech

Reason for Hope: Replacing Frank Beamer won’t be easy, but new coach Justin Fuente seems like the perfect fit in Blacksburg. Fuente’s background should help solve some of the problems Virginia Tech has experienced on offense in recent years. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Fuente’s cause that he was able to convince Bud Foster to stay on as defensive coordinator. Receiver Isaiah Ford, tight end Bucky Hodges and running back Travon McMillian are three All-ACC skill players for the new starting quarterback.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Will a clear starter emerge in spring ball? Pass protection (34 sacks allowed in 2015) needs to be addressed. The Hokies also need to replace end Dadi Nicolas and tackle Luther Maddy on the defensive line. 

 

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36. Utah

Reason for Hope: The Utes are coming off their best season (10-3) since joining the Pac-12. Running back Joe Williams is a promising replacement for Devontae Booker. The offensive and defensive lines will be among the best in the Pac-12. The secondary is also a strength with the return of safety Marcus Williams and cornerbacks Dominique Hatfield and Reginald Porter.

 

Reason for Concern: Offense. Is junior college recruit Troy Williams the answer at quarterback? Who steps up at receiver? Three starters – including standout Gionni Paul – depart the linebacking corps. 

 

35. West Virginia

Reason for Hope: The Mountaineers finished 2015 by winning five out of their last six games, including an entertaining 43-42 shootout against Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl. Quarterback Skyler Howard should benefit from another year under coach Dana Holgorsen, and the receiving corps is poised to make major strides. Four starters also return up front.

 

Reason for Concern: Howard has to play better in Big 12 games. He only completed 50.4 percent of his throws and tossed 11 picks to 12 scores in nine league contests last year. Standout running back Wendell Smallwood will be missed. The defense returns only three starters and will have a revamped secondary – not ideal in the offensive-minded Big 12 – next season.

 

34. Texas A&M

Reason for Hope: Defense. The Aggies took a step forward under coordinator John Chavis last year and return six starters for 2016. End Myles Garrett is the top defensive player in college football. New offensive play-caller Noel Mazzone inherits a talented group of receivers and an intriguing transfer at running back in Keith Ford.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Will Jake Hubenak or Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight emerge as a clear answer? Only two starters are back on the offensive line, and both starting cornerbacks must be replaced.

 

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33. Auburn

Reason for Hope: Gus Malzahn is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. The offense won’t repeat the 2015 numbers, right? A talented group of freshmen receivers should provide more big-play ability on the outside, and running back Jovon Robinson should get to 1,000 yards. The defensive line is talented and could be among the best in the SEC.

 

Reason for Concern: Is there an answer at quarterback? Jeremy Johnson and Sean White struggled last season, and junior college recruit John Franklin has to acclimate to the FBS level. Both offensive tackles must be replaced, and the defense loses standouts Kris Frost (LB), Jonathan Jones (CB) and Cassanova McKinzy (DE/LB).  

 

32. South Florida

Reason for Hope: Coach Willie Taggart has recruited well since his hire at South Florida, and the Bulls are starting to see the results. Quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack are a dynamic duo on offense. There’s also a solid foundation on defense with six returning starters.

 

Reason for Concern: There are few glaring concerns for Taggart, but the Bulls lose two starters on the offensive line and have a few key players to replace on defense. Is Flowers ready to take the next step as a passer?

 

31. San Diego State

Reason for Hope: The Aztecs are the clear favorite in the Mountain West’s West Division after finishing 2015 with 10 consecutive wins and a conference title. Most of the core from last year’s team returns, including running back Donnel Pumphrey, cornerback Damontae Kazee and linebacker Calvin Munson.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Christian Chapman showed promise in two starts last year. How will he hold up over the course of a full season? The defense should be fine, but end Jon Sanchez, cornerback J.J. Whittaker and linebacker Jake Fely leave big shoes to fill.

 

30. Boise State

Reason for Hope: Offense. The Broncos led the Mountain West by averaging 39.1 points a game last season. Quarterback Brett Rypien, running back Jeremy McNichols and receiver Thomas Sperbeck are back to anchor the offense for coach Bryan Harsin.

 

Reason for Concern: The defensive line – especially the interior – is a concern. Safety Darian Thompson and cornerback Donte Deayon must be replaced.

 

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29. Arkansas

Reason for Hope: Arkansas is coming off its best season under coach Bret Bielema, and the program is on stable footing entering 2016. Coordinator Dan Enos was a key hire for the offense last season and should ease some of the transition on that side of the ball. The receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC. The Razorbacks struggled on defense last season, but nine starters are back and improvement is expected.

 

Reason for Concern: Enos is an outstanding coordinator, but Arkansas has big shoes to fill on offense. Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and three starters on the offensive line are tough to overcome. Even though the defense should improve, can it take enough of a step forward to overcome the losses on offense?

 

28. Wisconsin

Reason for Hope: The Badgers are in good shape to push Iowa for the Big Ten West Division title. Running back Corey Clement returns after missing most of 2015 due to injury, and the offensive line returns a handful of experienced options. New coordinator Justin Wilcox inherits six starters on defense, including standout linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards.

 

Reason for Concern: The schedule is brutal. Wisconsin plays LSU in non-conference play, catches Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play and has a road date at Iowa. Is Bart Houston ready to replace Joel Stave at quarterback and will a go-to receiver emerge to replace Alex Erickson? Losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was a huge loss on the coaching staff.

 

27. Miami

Reason for Hope: Mark Richt should provide a coaching upgrade and will steer this program back on track. Quarterback Brad Kaaya should thrive under Richt, and the Hurricanes also return running back Joseph Yearby and receiver Stacy Coley. A talented foundation is in place on defense with seven returning starters.

 

Reason for Concern: The Hurricanes have underachieved in recent seasons, and Richt is going to need time to implement his schemes and get acclimated to the players. Improvement should be noticeable, but Miami might be a year away from challenging in the Coastal Division. Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Deon Bush must be replaced, and the defense has to get better against the run (201 ypg in 2015).

 

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26. Florida

Reason for Hope: The Gators surprised many by winning the SEC East in coach Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville. There’s no shortage of talent in place, especially on the defense with six returning starters. The offensive line has stability with three returning starters, and Jordan Scarlett is a breakout candidate at running back.

 

Reason for Concern: Will the offense take a step forward after averaging only 23.2 points a game last year? The status of receiver Antonio Callaway is a mystery as the Gators opened spring practice. Who steps up at quarterback? Will a transfer – Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby – win the job over freshman Feleipe Franks? The secondary loses three standouts, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.

 

25. UCLA

Reason for Hope: Josh Rosen. After a standout freshman season, Rosen should be better in his second year as the starting quarterback. Soso Jamabo is due for a breakout season in replacing Paul Perkins, and there’s a foundation to build around on the offensive line with Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy, Jake Raulerson and Scott Quessenberry. Nine starters are back on defense, and defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes returns after missing most of 2015 due to injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The Bruins have some big names to replace. Linebacker Myles Jack, defensive lineman Kenny Clark, running back Paul Perkins and receiver Jordan Payton will be tough to replace. UCLA’s defense has to improve against the run next season.

 

24. Oregon

Reason for Hope: The Ducks have not won fewer than nine games since 2006. Even with the question marks surrounding this team, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Running back Royce Freeman should be an All-American candidate, and the receiving corps has plenty of speedy, talented options for new quarterback Dakota Prukop. Brady Hoke should help to fix a defense that surrendered 37.5 points a game last year.

 

Reason for Concern: How quickly will Prukop pickup the offense? The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball have concerns, especially on offense where three starters depart. Hoke is a good hire on defense, but there may be a transition period as the Ducks move to a 4-3 scheme. What tweaks will new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick implement? 

 

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23. Washington State

Reason for Hope: Offense. As expected under Mike Leach, Washington State’s passing offense is among the nation’s best. Quarterback Luke Falk and receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft headline an offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in Pac-12 action. The defense took a step forward under coordinator Alex Grinch last season and brings back seven starters.

 

Reason for Concern: The left side of the offensive line must be replaced, and there are a couple of key losses in the front seven on defense. 

 

22. TCU

Reason for Hope: Injuries hit TCU hard – especially on defense – last season. The added depth and experience should pay off in 2015, as well as the return of end James McFarland, cornerback Ranthony Texada and safety Kenny Iloka from injury. Even though the Horned Frogs have several big names to replace on offense, there’s a lot to like about the skill players in place.

 

Reason for Concern: Trevone Boykin leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback. Is Kenny Hill the answer? The offensive line returns only one full-time starter from last season. The Horned Frogs must replace standout kicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry.

 

21. Oklahoma State

Reason for Hope: Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington form one of the nation’s top big-play passing threats. Transfer running back Barry Sanders (Stanford) should add some punch to the ground game. Seven starters are back on defense, and the line will get a boost with the return of tackle Vili Leveni (missed 2015 due to injury).

 

Reason for Concern: The Cowboys return five starters on the offensive line. Will this unit take a step forward after struggling last year? Is the arrival of Sanders enough to spark a ground game that managed just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015? The defense loses two key pieces in end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson.

 

20. Louisville

Reason for Hope: The Cardinals finished 2015 on a tear with wins in six out of their last seven games. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a rising star, and the supporting cast returns intact at running back and receiver. There’s reason to believe the offensive line will take a step forward after struggling last year. Eight starters return on a defense that should be one of the best in the ACC.

 

Reason for Concern: The offensive line should be better, but how much progress will this unit make in one offseason? End Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess are big losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. Even if Louisville picks up where it left off at the end of 2015, is that enough to surpass Florida State or Clemson in the Atlantic Division?

 

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19. Georgia

Reason for Hope: True freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is a future star for first-year coach Kirby Smart. If healthy, running back Nick Chubb is one of the best in the nation. Until Chubb is 100 percent, Sony Michel is more than capable of carrying the load at running back. The defense returns only five starters, but there’s plenty of promising pieces for Smart to build around in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: How long will it take for Eason to get comfortable under center? There’s some uncertainty on the offensive line and more playmakers must emerge at receiver. The top pass rushers – Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins – must be replaced. 

 

18. North Carolina

Reason for Hope: The Tar Heels are the defending champs of the Coastal Division. Mitch Trubisky is a rising star and should have no trouble replacing Marquise Williams at quarterback. Running back Elijah Hood returns, and four starters are back on the offensive line. The defense took a step forward under new coordinator Gene Chizik last season.

 

Reason for Concern: Standout guard Landon Turner departs the offensive line. The defense struggled to stop the run last season and loses three starters in the front seven. Two of North Carolina’s toughest games in 2016 – Miami and Florida State – are on the road. 

 

17. Washington

Reason for Hope: The Huskies are a team on the rise. Washington won seven games in a rebuilding season and had narrow losses to Oregon, Boise State and California. Quarterback Jake Browning is due for a breakout year, and running back Myles Gaskin is one of the top playmakers in the Pac-12. Eight starters are back from a defense that led the Pac-12 in points allowed in 2015.

 

Reason for Concern: The Huskies are improving, but is it enough to catch Stanford or Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 North? Is this team one year away? Browning needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver. 

 

16. Iowa

Reason for Hope: The Hawkeyes are the defending Big Ten West Division champs and should be the early favorite in 2016. The offense loses three of its top five statistical options from last season but returns quarterback C.J. Beathard and a solid stable of running backs. Eight starters are back – including standout cornerback Desmond King – on defense. This unit could get a boost if end Drew Ott is awarded another year of eligibility.

 

Reason for Concern: Who steps up at receiver for Beathard? The interior of the line is a concern with the departure of center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. If Ott isn’t awarded an extra year of eligibility, who steps up to team with Parker Hesse on the edge?

 

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15. USC

Reason for Hope: There’s no coaching uncertainty this year. The interim tag was removed from Clay Helton and a solid staff was hired in the offseason. Nine starters are back on offense, starting with standout receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones. The offensive line could be the best in the Pac-12. Linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson headline a defense with six returning starters.

 

Reason for Concern: There’s a new quarterback and a play-caller (Tee Martin). Max Browne is the favorite to replace Cody Kessler. Browne is a talented passer but has only 19 career pass attempts. The defensive line is a major concern and standout linebacker Su’a Cravens must be replaced. The schedule is challenging.

 

14. Stanford

Reason for Hope: The Cardinal have won three out of the last four Pac-12 North titles. Even though coach David Shaw’s team has key players to replace, this team won’t suffer too much of a drop in the win column. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy. A handful of key starters are gone on defense, but there’s enough of a foundation for coordinator Lance Anderson to build upon this offseason.

 

Reason for Concern: Only nine starters return. This is a significant rebuilding project for coach David Shaw. Quarterback Kevin Hogan must be replaced. Will Keller Chryst quickly settle in as the starter? Three starters are gone on the offensive line. Linebacker Blake Martinez expired his eligibility, and the line must be retooled with the departures of end Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu.

 

13. Michigan State

Reason for Hope: Sure, there are personnel losses to address. But coach Mark Dantonio is one of the best in the nation, and this program has plenty of staying power after winning at least 11 games in five out of the last six years. Running back LJ Scott and guard Brian Allen are two rising stars to build around on offense. Malik McDowell and linebackers Ed Davis and Riley Bullough are a good place to start on defense.

 

Reason for Concern: The Spartans are losing a handful of key players. On offense, quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge, center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin depart East Lansing. The losses are just as heavy on defense, as end Shilique Calhoun, tackle Joel Heath, linebacker Darien Harris, lineman Lawrence Thomas and safety RJ Williamson must be replaced.

 

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12. Houston

Reason for Hope: Tom Herman wasn’t lured away from Houston by a Power 5 program, and the Cougars should be the top Group of 5 team in 2016. Greg Ward is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, there’s optimism on the offensive line after injuries hit the trenches hard last season, and two transfers – Ra’Shaad Samples (WR) and Duke Catalon (RB) – are impact players.

 

Reason for Concern: Not a lot. The defense has a few concerns, starting with the secondary and the departure of three starters. Standout linebacker Elandon Roberts also expired his eligibility. 

 

11. Ole Miss

Reason for Hope: Hugh Freeze continues to recruit at a high level, and Ole Miss is ready to reload for a run at the SEC West title with 10 returning starters. Quarterback Chad Kelly is the best in the SEC, and there are plenty of playmakers at receiver. The offensive line has holes to fill, but help is on the way in the form of five-star freshman Greg Little. End Marquis Haynes and safety Tony Conner are two building blocks for the defense to rely on in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: Can the Rebels squeeze more production out of the ground game? How quickly will the offensive line jell after losing all five starters from the Sugar Bowl? There is a solid foundation on defense, but tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Trae Elston and Mike Hilton are big losses. 

 

10. Baylor

Reason for Hope: Offense. Seth Russell is back at quarterback, the running back stable is among the best in the nation, and there’s talent at receiver despite the loss of Corey Coleman. There’s plenty of staying power for the Bears under coach Art Briles.

 

Reason for Concern: The trenches. Baylor loses four starters each on the offensive and defensive line. Top cornerback Xavien Howard and receiver Corey Coleman also leave big shoes to fill. 

 

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9. Notre Dame

Reason for Hope: DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire are two proven quarterbacks and have an intriguing battle for the starting job this offseason. Running back Tarean Folston (one game) and defensive tackle Jarron Jones also return from injury.

 

Reason for Concern: The Fighting Irish lose a handful of key players, including receiver Will Fuller, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell. 

 

8. Tennessee

Reason for Hope: With 18 returning starters, the Volunteers are the team to beat in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has upgraded the talent level and added to it with another solid class in February. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are back to headline the offense. Bob Shoop is one of the top coordinator hires in the nation. He inherits a defense with nine returning starters, including linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cam Sutton and defensive end Derek Barnett.

 

Reason for Concern: Not much. The offensive line loses left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and needs more out of the passing attack. Will Josh Malone, Preston Williams and Josh Smith develop into big-time playmakers at receiver for Dobbs? 

 

7. LSU

Reason for Hope: Leonard Fournette. He’s the best running back in college football, and the Tigers can lean heavily on their Heisman candidate. The receiving corps returns three talented options in Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural and Tyron Johnson. Three starters also return on the offensive line. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires in the nation, and LSU’s new defensive signal-caller inherits 10 returning starters. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Les Miles and that’s evident by looking at the depth chart or roster.

 

Reason for Concern: The offense. Despite all of the talent in place, LSU has to improve its passing attack. Is quarterback Brandon Harris ready to take the next step? Both starting tackles on offense must be replaced. 

 

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6. Michigan

Reason for Hope: The Wolverines are back on the rise under coach Jim Harbaugh. After a 10-3 record in Harbaugh’s debut, Michigan should be among the favorites to make the College Football Playoff in 2016. The receiving corps is set with the return of Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt, and four starters are back on the offensive line. Don Brown was one of the top coordinator hires for 2016, and he inherits a defense with six returning starters, including one of the top lines and defensive backfields in the nation.

 

Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Is Houston transfer John O’Korn the answer to replace Jake Rudock under center? If O’Korn doesn’t win the job, will Shane Morris or true freshman Brandon Peters stake their claim? The linebacking corps is filled with uncertainty but moving Jabrill Peppers from safety alleviates some of the concerns. Michigan’s toughest games – Michigan State and Ohio State – come on the road in 2016.

 

5. Florida State

Reason for Hope: Talent. Florida State has one of the nation’s best rosters (according to the recruiting rankings), and coach Jimbo Fisher has won at least 10 games in five out of his six seasons. Running back Dalvin Cook is one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, and end DeMarcus Walker turned down the NFL for another season at Florida State. Despite losing Jalen Ramsey, the secondary has a chance to be stingy in 2016.

 

Reason for Concern: Who steps up at quarterback? Will redshirt freshman or true freshman Malik Henry wrestle the starting job away from Sean Maguire? The offensive line and receiving corps are two areas to watch for development. The linebacking corps is thin. 

 

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4. Ohio State

Reason for Hope: The Buckeyes sustained heavy personnel losses, but coach Urban Meyer has recruited as well as any coach in the nation. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the clear starter and should resemble the player that was a Heisman candidate in 2014. Pat Elflein returns to anchor the offensive line at center. While there are big shoes to fill on defense, rebuilding around linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Tyquan Lewis is a good place to start.

 

Reason for Concern: Even though Ohio State has talent, it may take some time for the new faces to jell into the starting lineup. The receiving corps is thin on proven playmakers, and a running back must step up to replace Ezekiel Elliott. The interior of the defensive line and secondary are the biggest concerns for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano.

 

3. Oklahoma

Reason for Hope: The Sooners were a year ahead of schedule last season with a trip to the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 title. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine headline an explosive offense, while graduate transfer Geno Lewis (Penn State) should help replace Sterling Shepard’s production at receiver. The secondary will miss Zack Sanchez, but Jordan Thomas should push for All-America honors at cornerback.

 

Reason for Concern: The offensive line is still a work in progress, the linebacking corps is thin, and Shepard will be missed at receiver. Do the Sooners have enough to make the jump from playoff contender to national champion?

 

2. Clemson

Reason for Hope: Quarterback Deshaun Watson is back, and the Tigers are loaded at the skill positions with the return of receiver Mike Williams from injury. This program has recruited at a high level in recent years, ensuring little drop in talent from year-to-year in the reloading process. Coordinator Brent Venables has to fill voids on defense, but he’s one of the top defensive signal-callers in the nation.

 

Reason for Concern: Another run at the national championship won’t be easy. The Tigers play at Florida State in a game that could decide the winner of the Atlantic Division. While Clemson’s talent level is high, overcoming the departures of defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse is a lot to ask in one offseason. 

 

1. Alabama

Reason for Hope: Talent, talent and more talent. No team has recruited better than Alabama in recent years. The defense is loaded once again for a spot among the nation’s best. Blake Barnett is the most talented quarterback signed by Nick Saban at Alabama, and Bo Scarbrough is a breakout candidate at running back. Receiver Calvin Ridley is back after a standout freshman campaign. Left tackle Cam Robinson anchors a line that returns three starters.

 

Reason for Concern: Sure, Alabama has a wealth of talent but breaking in a new quarterback isn’t easy. Also, standouts Derrick Henry (RB), Ryan Kelly (center), Reggie Ragland (LB) and A’Shawn Robinson (DL) won’t be easy to replace. Road trips to Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU could derail another national championship.

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College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Team Rankings for 2016
Post date: Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 12:30
Path: /college-football/sec-2016-spring-football-preview-and-power-rankings
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Spring practice around the begins with 13 teams chasing Alabama for conference supremacy. The Crimson Tide have won three out of the last four SEC titles and open offseason workouts as one of the favorites to win the 2016 college football championship. But Alabama’s path to another SEC or national title won’t be easy. LSU and Ole Miss are loaded for a run at the West Division title, and Tennessee returns 18 starters from a team that won nine games in 2015. Quarterback play is also a huge question mark around the league for next season. Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Florida and Auburn are just a few teams opening spring practice with uncertainty under center.

 

Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

 

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the SEC this spring:

 

SEC 2016 Spring Preview and Power Rankings

 

East Division

 

Florida

2015 Record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

Florida’s passing attack struggled mightily after Will Grier was lost midway through the 2015 season due to a suspension. Over the final seven games, the Gators managed to surpass 165 passing yards only once (South Carolina) and never completed more than 49 percent of passes in the final four matchups. Treon Harris is slated to move to receiver, leaving two transfers Austin Appleby (Purdue) and Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and true freshman Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask battling for the starting job.

 

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Georgia

2015 Record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 5

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get QB Jacob Eason Ready

New coach Kirby Smart inherits plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs have concerns on both sides of the ball. Running back Nick Chubb’s return from a knee injury is something to monitor, while the offensive line has holes to fill, and more playmakers must emerge at receiver. The defense returns five starters but question marks remain in the front seven. While those areas are all worth watching in spring ball, there’s not a bigger storyline in Athens than the arrival of true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The Washington native was the No. 5 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite and arrived on campus to compete in spring practice. He’s the frontrunner to take the first snap for Smart in 2016. How quickly will Eason get acclimated to the offense under new coordinator Jim Chaney?

 

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Kentucky

2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 4

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improvement on Defense

There’s no doubt most of the preseason attention in Lexington will be on quarterback Drew Barker and his learning curve under new coordinator Eddie Gran. However, the defense is just as much of a concern for coach Mark Stoops. Over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have ranked 12th or worse in the SEC in scoring defense. Only four starters are back this spring, with standouts Cory Johnson (DT) and linebacker Josh Forrest expiring their eligibility. This is a big spring at linebacker for Nebraska transfer Courtney Love and former junior college recruit Alvonte Bell, while defensive end Denzil Ware and cornerback Chris Westry hope to build off promising freshman seasons.

 

Missouri

2015 Record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 8

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Offensive Line

A similar theme should play out for Missouri in 2016. With eight returning starters, the defense will be among the best in the SEC. But the offense is going to be a work in progress with five starters back and question marks at each position. The offensive line is the position group likely giving new coach Barry Odom the most concern. This unit returns only one starter, and there’s very little in the way of proven depth. Junior college recruit Tyler Howell could help at one of the tackle spots, but this unit needs time to jell under new assistant Glen Elarbee.

 

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South Carolina

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 5

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Playmakers

There are several areas requiring attention for new coach Will Muschamp this spring. The defense needs a major overhaul after giving up 6.03 yards per play last season, the quarterback position is unsettled and the offensive line returns only two starters. The Gamecocks are also thin on proven playmakers, as running back Brandon Wilds (567 yards) and tight end Jerell Adams (28 catches) expired their eligibility. Additionally, go-to receiver and all-around threat Pharoh Cooper left early for the NFL. The top returning statistical receiver is Deebo Samuel (12 catches for 161 yards). Could Lorenzo Nunez shift to receiver if he doesn’t win the starting quarterback job?

 

Tennessee

2015 Record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 9

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Big Plays in the Passing Game

Tennessee is tied with LSU for the most returning starters (18) in the SEC next season. The Volunteers are the favorite to win the SEC East, and there are few glaring holes or concerns to address in spring ball. But one area of focus for coach Butch Jones has to be the passing game. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 scores last year, yet only connected on five passes of 40 yards or more. Last year’s leading receiver Von Pearson expired his eligibility, but Josh Malone, Josh Smith and tight end Ethan Wolf are back. This spring will be a good opportunity for sophomore Preston Williams and junior college recruit Jeff George to stake their claim for playing time. 

 

Vanderbilt

2015 Record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 7

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking:  6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Kyle Shurmur’s Growth at QB

Derek Mason’s decision to take over the defensive play-calling paid big dividends for the Commodores last season. With the defense on the right track, the focus shifts to the offense after averaging only 4.08 yards per play in league games last season. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur had his redshirt removed midway through the 2015 season, and the true freshman showed promise by throwing for 503 yards and five scores. How much progress will Shurmur make under center this spring? 

 

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West Division
 

Alabama

2015 Record: 14-1, 7-1 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

The SEC is short on proven quarterbacks next season, and for the third consecutive offseason, the Crimson Tide open a spring practice with uncertainty under center. Jake Coker expired his eligibility after the national championship, leaving Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, sophomore David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts as the contenders to start at quarterback. Bateman has the edge in experience, but Barnett is the most talented quarterback signed by Nick Saban at Alabama. Will spring ball provide any clarity?

 

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Arkansas

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 9

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Rebuilding on Offense

Despite losing a handful of key players from last season’s team, Arkansas is in relatively good shape going into spring ball. The defense has plenty of room to improve after giving up 27.4 points a game last season but nine starters are back and improvement is expected. The biggest question marks for coach Bret Bielema reside on offense. The Razorbacks thrived under new coordinator Dan Enos last year, leading the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring (34.4 ppg). However, quarterback Brandon Allen, guard Sebastian Tretola and center Mitch Smothers expired their eligibility, and running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and tackle Denver Kirkland left for the NFL. Austin Allen has the edge to start at quarterback, but USC transfer Ricky Town is a name to watch. Kody Walker will get the first opportunity to win the starting job at running back. However, true freshman Devwah Whaley is a name to remember this summer. The cupboard isn’t bare for Enos, but there’s a lot of work ahead this offseason.

 

Auburn

2015 Record: 7-6, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get the Offense Back on Track

Was 2015 an aberration or are there real concerns for Auburn’s future under coach Gus Malzahn? The Tigers went 12-2 in Malzahn’s first year but have slipped to 15-11 over the last two seasons, including a 2-6 mark in league games in 2015. The first step for Auburn to erase last year’s disappointing record? Get the offense back on track. Auburn averaged only 22.1 points in league games last season – the lowest mark of Malzahn’s tenure as head coach. Settling the quarterback battle is Malzahn’s top priority, and junior college recruit John Franklin will compete with Jeremy Johnson and Sean White for snaps this spring. The offensive line must replace both of its starting tackles, and the receiving corps lost its top two targets. Additionally, more big plays are needed from the receivers in 2016, which is expected to rely on a couple of talented freshmen for major contributions.

 

LSU

2015 Record: 9-3, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 10

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Developing Balance on Offense

LSU doesn’t have to have the nation’s most prolific offense to win the SEC West next year. With running back Leonard Fournette and a standout defense in place, coach Les Miles’ team has the talent in place to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. However, the Tigers need to show improvement after only generating 172.6 passing yards in SEC contests last season. Quarterback Brandon Harris is back, and there’s plenty of talent at receiver with Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and Tyron Johnson. How much progress can the passing attack show in spring practice?

 

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Mississippi State

2015 Record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Dak Prescott’s Replacement

Dak Prescott finished his prolific career in Starkville as one of the best players in Mississippi State’s history. Needless to say, filling Prescott’s shoes won’t be easy for the next quarterback. But coach Dan Mullen has a few intriguing options to choose from this offseason. Sophomores Elijah Staley and Nick Fitzgerald are considered the frontrunners, and Damian Williams is back after a redshirt season (one start in 2013). Will Mullen identify a clear frontrunner in spring practice?

 

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Ole Miss

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Offensive Line

Keeping quarterback Chad Kelly upright in the pocket is critical to Ole Miss’ hopes of winning the SEC West in 2016. While receiver Laquon Treadwell is a big loss, and more improvement is needed from the ground game, the focus of spring ball has to be up front. Standout tackle Laremy Tunsil left for the NFL, and four other starters from the Sugar Bowl expired their eligibility. Finding the right mix up front could be tough this spring, especially with Robert Conyers (center/tackle) and guard Rod Taylor out due to injuries. Additionally, incoming freshman Greg Little is expected to start at left tackle next season, but he won’t arrive on campus until this summer. The first step to finding the best five linemen in the trenches starts this spring.

 

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Texas A&M

2015 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

The unexpected departures of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray before the Music City Bowl placed the Aggies into a difficult spot at quarterback this offseason. Former junior college recruit Jake Hubenak started the bowl game against Louisville and completed 28 of 48 passes for 307 yards and two scores. He’s the only quarterback on the roster that’s completed a pass in a Texas A&M uniform. But competition is on the way this spring in the form of Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, the offense also has a new play-caller (Noel Mazzone) and a few voids to fill up front. 

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It’s hard to declare any team or conference the winner of an offseason, but things have been going well in the since the end of the regular season. Syracuse (Dino Babers), Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall), Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente) and Miami (Mark Richt) all hired excellent coaches, which should help each of those programs take a step forward over the next few seasons. Florida State and Clemson inked standout recruiting classes, adding to the depth and talent level for the league’s top two programs. The Tigers and Seminoles should be in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2016.

 

Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

 

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the ACC this spring:

 

ACC 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

 

Atlantic Division

 

Boston College

2015 Record: 3-9, 0-8 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Answers on Offense

Boston College earned back-to-back bowl appearances in coach Steve Addazio’s first two years, but the program took a step back last season with a 3-9 record. The offense was the primary culprit in the three-win season, especially after injuries to starting quarterback Darius Wade and running back Jon Hilliman. New coordinator Scot Loeffer is tasked with generating improvement from an offense that averaged only 9.1 points a game in ACC contests last year. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade at quarterback, and the Eagles need to develop more playmakers at receiver. 

 

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Clemson

2015 Record: 14-1, 8-0 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 4

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Find the Next Standouts at DE

Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd accounted for 24.5 of Clemson’s 48 sacks last season and leave big shoes to fill after the talented duo decided to leave Clemson for the NFL Draft following the national championship. The Tigers faced a similar scenario in last year’s spring session in replacing Vic Beasley and easily reloaded behind Lawson and Dodd. Can coordinator Brent Venables and ends coach Marion Hobby find the next stars at end this spring? Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin, Sterling Johnson, Chris Register and Clelin Ferrell will battle for snaps.

 

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Florida State

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 10, Defense: 6

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

Replacing Jameis Winston wasn’t supposed to be easy, but Florida State struggled to get consistent production from its quarterbacks last year. Everett Golson was benched midway through the year in favor of Sean Maguire, who threw for 1,520 yards and 11 scores. Maguire is the frontrunner based on experience, but he is out for spring practice after an ankle injury suffered against Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. With Maguire sidelined, this spring is a good opportunity for redshirt freshman Deondre Francois or true freshman Malik Henry to state their case for the starting job.

 

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Louisville

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 10, Defense: 8

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improving the Offensive Line

With Lamar Jackson firmly entrenched at quarterback and eight returning starters on defense, Louisville should be a top 25 team in 2016. But taking the next step and pushing Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Division will require better play from the offensive line. The Cardinals surrendered 44 sacks last season – worst in the ACC – and averaged just 4.5 yards per carry. The good news? Four starters are back, including rising star Geron Christian at left tackle. Will this unit take a step forward in spring practice?

 

NC State

2015 Record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 8

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Passing Attack

New coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz inherits six starters on offense, but this unit loses a standout quarterback in Jacoby Brissett and is looking for more big plays from an offense that managed only nine passing plays of 40 yards or more in 2015. Sophomore Jalan McClendon is considered the favorite to replace Brissett, but redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers is also in the mix. McClendon is an intriguing prospect for coach Dave Doeren, and he completed 8 of 14 passes for 69 yards in limited work last season. Tight end Jaylen Samuels is the go-to option (65 catches in 2015), but who will emerge as big-play threats at receiver? Jumichael Ramos (13.4 ypc in 2015) and Bra’Lon Cherry (22 catches) are back, while redshirt freshman Freddie Simmons is a name to watch.

 

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Syracuse

2015 Record: 4-8, 2-6 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Adjusting to the New Staff

Syracuse hit a home run by hiring Dino Babers to replace Scott Shafer. In two stops as a head coach (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green), Babers is an impressive 37-16 and is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. The Orange are a team in transition on both sides of the ball, with the offense appearing in better shape to adapt to the new staff this spring. Quarterback Eric Dungey is promising, and there is talent at running back and receiver. The biggest concern for Babers’ offense is the line with three starters leaving. After giving up 31 points a game last season, the defense is probably going to give Babers the most headaches in spring ball. The Orange are thin on proven options at defensive end and need to adapt to a new scheme.

 

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Wake Forest

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improvement on Offense

Scoring points has been an issue for the Demon Deacons in recent years. Since 2012, Wake Forest has ranked 12th or worse in the in scoring. Coach Dave Clawson went with a youth movement in his first year in 2014, and this unit showed slight improvement last season, recording 4.8 yards per play (up from 3.4 in 2014). For this unit to take a step forward, quarterback play and offensive line has to take a step forward. The line has allowed 88 sacks over the last two seasons but returns four starters from 2015. Additionally, John Wolford and Kendall Hinton have showed promise at quarterback. Will a clear frontrunner emerge at quarterback this spring? And will the Demon Deacons finally find the right mix in the trenches?

 

Coastal Division

 

Duke

2015 Record: 8-5, 4-4 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get QB Parker Boehme Ready

Duke’s offense already suffered a big setback this offseason with starting quarterback Thomas Sirk sidelined indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Sirk’s status for 2016 is unsettled, and all signs point to Parker Boehme taking the first snap of the season. Boehme started one game (Pittsburgh) last year and finished the 2015 campaign with 579 passing yards and two touchdowns on 43 completions. He’s also showed promise as a runner, averaging 4.02 yards per carry on 45 attempts last season. With Sirk’s status uncertain for 2016, this spring is a good opportunity for Boehme to get comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback with new coordinator Zac Roper.

 

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Georgia Tech

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get the Offense Back on Track

A year after winning the Coastal Division, Georgia Tech took a major step back in 2015. The Yellow Jackets won just one game (Florida State) in play, struggled to find consistency on offense and surrendered 31.3 points a game in league contests. The defense opens spring ball with question marks at each level, but coach Paul Johnson has to get the offense back on track. Georgia Tech averaged only 5.8 yards per play last season, which was the program’s lowest mark since 2010. Quarterback Justin Thomas is capable of contending for All-ACC honors, and his supporting cast will receive a boost from the return of running back C.J. Leggett after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Can Johnson start to put the pieces together up front and generate more consistency from the receiving corps and running backs? The pieces are in place for a quick turnaround for the Yellow Jackets in 2016.

 

Miami

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 7

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Answers on Defense

Miami has work to do on its offensive line and must develop a few additional options outside of Stacy Coley at receiver for Brad Kaaya, but the offense is in relatively good shape entering spring practice. The defense? Not so much. New coordinator Manny Diaz inherits a unit that allowed 5.78 yards per play last season and returns seven starters for 2016. The secondary is a huge concern after the loss of Tracy Howard and Artie Burns and safety Deon Bush. Better play is needed in the trenches after surrendering 201 rushing yards per game in 2015.

 

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North Carolina

2015 Record: 11-3, 8-0 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Revamping the Front Seven

Most of the attention in Chapel Hill this spring will reside with new quarterback Mitch Trubisky and his adjustment into the starting lineup. However, there’s a glaring concern up front for the Tar Heels after surrendering 247.4 rushing yards a game last season. The defensive line loses tackle Justin Thomason, and the linebacking corps must replace Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. Junior Dajaun Drennon and sophomore Jalen Dalton are two names to watch in the trenches. Can coordinator Gene Chizk start to find the right pieces up front this spring?

 

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Pittsburgh

2015 Record: 8-5, 6-2 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 8

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Generating More from the Passing Attack

New coordinator Matt Canada doesn’t need to change the formula for success in the Steel City. The Panthers should build their offense around a strong ground attack with running backs James Conner and Qadree Ollison and a standout offensive line. However, for Pittsburgh to challenge for the Coastal Division title, the passing attack needs to take a step forward. The Panthers ranked 11th in the in pass offense last year and generated only four plays of 40 yards or more. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is back after a solid debut with the Panthers in 2015, but the receiving corps loses standout Tyler Boyd (91 of the team’s 212 catches last year), and there’s not a ton of proven options outside of Dontez Ford at receiver. 

 

Virginia

2015 Record: 4-8, 3-5 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Developing Playmakers at Receiver

New coach Bronco Mendenhall will have a busy spring implementing new schemes and getting to know the roster in his first season in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers return 10 starters from last year’s 4-8 team, and there’s work to do on both sides of the ball at each level. One of the glaring issues for Mendenhall is at receiver with the departure of standout Canaan Severin (54 catches) and T.J. Thorpe (23 grabs). The team’s top returning receiver is running back Taquan Mizzell (75 catches), with Keeon Johnson (13 receptions) as the top statistical wide receiver from last season. Quarterback Matt Johns returns after a solid 2015 campaign (20 TDs, 2,810 yards), but the supporting cast has to improve if Virginia wants to challenge for a bowl.

 

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Virginia Tech

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

Virginia Tech won the coaching carousel with its hire of Justin Fuente, and the spring is the first opportunity for the new staff to put its stamp on the program. Restocking the trenches on defense is another area to watch, but the biggest storyline in Blacksburg is the quarterback position. Junior college recruit Jerod Evans enrolled in time to compete in spring practice with Brenden Motley, Dwayne Lawson and Chris Durkin for the starting job. Evans was a touted – and rare junior college prospect signed by Virginia Tech – while Lawson was regarded as a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class. Motley has the edge in experience (167 career pass attempts). 

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opens its second spring practice under coach Mike Riley hoping to build off the momentum from a 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. The Cornhuskers finished 6-7 in Riley’s first year, but six of the seven defeats came by eight points or less. Even with the departure of a couple of key players, there is reason for optimism in Lincoln. The Big Ten West is more forgiving than the East Division, and Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa could take a small step back in the win column in 2016. If Nebraska is able to find more consistency on the ground and eliminate some of the turnovers that plagued this offense last year, Riley’s team can easily make a run at nine wins next fall.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Nebraska’s Spring Practice

 

1. Tommy Armstrong’s Development

Both methods of attack on offense need improvement. However, the biggest area of focus for Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf has to be quarterback Tommy Armstrong. In 12 games last season, Armstrong threw for 3,030 yards and 22 scores but also tossed 16 interceptions and completed just 55.2 percent of throws. His mobility on the ground – 400 yards and seven touchdowns – is a huge asset in this offense, but Armstrong has to find a way to eliminate the mistakes. A second year under Langsdorf and Riley and within the scheme should help Armstrong take a step forward. However, the starting job isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Talented true freshman Patrick O’Brien enrolled in time to compete this spring and is the future for the Cornhuskers under center. 

 

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2. Establishing the Ground Attack

Nebraska’s rushing attack averaged only 180 yards per game last season, which was its lowest mark since joining the Big Ten in 2011. This unit showed some life in the bowl game, gashing UCLA for 326 yards and four touchdowns on 62 attempts. Was that a sign of things to come? Don’t expect 300 yards a week, but small improvement on the ground would be a good step forward for Riley’s offense. Terrell Newby (765 yards and six scores) is the headliner, but Devine Ozigbo (5.5 ypc), Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor will push for snaps. How will the pecking order look at running back by the end of spring ball?

 

3. Revamped Offensive Line

Four key members of last year’s offensive line are gone, including left tackle Alex Lewis and center Ryne Reeves. While the losses are heavy, the cupboard isn’t totally bare. Rising star Nick Gates started 10 games as a redshirt freshman at right tackle last season and is expected to move to the left side to replace Lewis. Dylan Utter started all 13 games at left guard in 2015 and will spend time this spring at center. Gates and Utter will anchor this group next season, but three other starters must emerge. Sophomore Tanner Farmer is a name to watch at right guard, while Jalin Barnett could be an answer on the other side. David Knevel played in nine games as a reserve last year and is considered the frontrunner to start at right tackle. The Cornhuskers have a good mix of talent and size here. However, this unit is inexperienced. How quickly will the starting five mesh this spring?

 

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4. Rebuilding the Defensive Line

This unit was one of the positions hit the hardest by offseason departures. Additionally, the defensive line is under the direction of a new coach – John Parrella – this spring. Standout defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left early for the NFL, and end Jack Gangwish expired his eligibility. The presence of Collins and Valentine on the interior was a big reason why Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten against the run in 2015. Needless to say, both players leave big shoes to fill. Greg McMullen saw snaps at end and tackle last year and could stay on the interior to alleviate some of the losses there. Kevin Maurice (21 tackles in 2015) is likely to step into the other starting role on the interior. At defensive end, Freedom Akinmoladun (4.5 sacks) is poised to build off a promising redshirt freshman season. The Cornhuskers are also relying on Ross Dzuris, A.J. Natter and Sedrick King to step up in 2016. On paper, this unit is weaker than it was in 2015. However, this spring will go a long ways to finding the right answers.  

 

5. Turnovers

Luck – good and bad – plays a big role in the turnover department. While this area can be emphasized by the coaching staff, it’s not a skill that’s easy to translate into takeaways or preventing giveaways. However, this is one area the Nebraska coaching staff has to stress this offseason. The Cornhuskers posted a minus-12 in turnover margin last year, which ranked 13th among Big Ten teams. Any improvement to the positive side or simply even could net Nebraska a win or two next season. The defense (only 15 forced turnovers) needs to create more takeaways, while the offense (27 giveaways) needs to do a better job of holding onto the ball.

 

Pre-Spring Nebraska Outlook in the Big Ten

 

Considering the bad luck in the turnover department and close losses, it’s fair to say Nebraska was better than its record indicated. According to Football Outsiders’ F+ ratings from 2015, the Cornhuskers ranked as the No. 36 team in the nation – just behind Wisconsin at No. 32 and ahead of Iowa at No. 38. And after the bowl win against UCLA, there’s reason for optimism for the Cornhuskers. However, translating hope and optimism into wins won’t be easy with the revamped lines of scrimmage. The offense needs more from its ground attack, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take a step forward in this scheme. If Armstrong limits his mistakes and settles into the offense, the passing game should thrive with nearly all of its playmakers in the receiving corps back for 2016. A matchup against Oregon is the toughest non-conference game, but Nebraska misses Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in crossover play. How quickly the Cornhuskers reload in the trenches and handles road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa will decide how high this team climbs in Mike Riley’s second season.  

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The is known for its offensive firepower and high-scoring attacks, so it should be no surprise four of the top five players in the pre-spring top 15 rankings are quarterbacks. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield takes the top spot in the early ranks, but Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Baylor’s Seth Russell aren’t far behind. The theme with offense continues throughout the top 10, as Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine and two receivers – James Washington (Oklahoma State) and KD Cannon (Baylor) – make the cut. 

 

As spring practice begins around the Big 12, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016. 

 

With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the Big 12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

Big 12's Pre-Spring Top 15 Player Rankings for 2016

 

Just Missed: Kyle Fuller, C, Baylor; Ahmad Thomas, S, Oklahoma; Jordan Sterns, S, Oklahoma State; Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma; Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State; Noble Nwachukwu, DL, West Virginia; Taylor Young, LB, Baylor; Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State; Fish Smithson, DB, Kansas; Dante Barnett, S, Kansas State; Vincent Taylor, DT, Oklahoma State; Denzel Johnson, S, TCU; Connor Williams/Patrick Vahe, OL, Texas; Travin Howard, LB, TCU; James McFarland, DE, TCU

 

15. Mike Warren, RB, Iowa State

Warren is one of the building blocks for new coach Matt Campbell. The Oklahoma native emerged as one of the Big 12’s top running backs last year by recording 1,339 yards and five scores on 227 carries. He will be running behind a revamped offensive line this fall.

 

14. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor

Baylor’s backfield should be among the best in the nation, as this group goes four-deep with the return of Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson, Devin Chafin and Terence Williams. Linwood is the headliner for this group, leading the Bears in rushing over the last two years with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns.

 

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13. Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State

A breakout year was projected for Lee last season, and the Missouri native delivered with a strong 2015 campaign. In 13 games, Lee paced Kansas State's defense with 80 tackles (7.5 for a loss), ranked third on the team with five sacks and forced one fumble. He also earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.  

 

12. Tyler Orlosky, C, West Virginia

West Virginia’s offensive line could be the best in the Big 12 next year. Orlosky is the anchor for coach Dana Holgorsen and enters 2016 with 29 career starts.

 

11. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas

Jefferson is one of college football’s top defensive players on the rise. The former five-star recruit started to scratch the surface of his potential last season, recording 61 tackles (seven for a loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. 

 

10. KD Cannon, WR, Baylor

Corey Coleman’s big-play ability will be missed, but Baylor’s receiving corps is loaded with another wave of standouts for 2016. Cannon is expected to be the go-to option for quarterback Seth Russell after catching 50 passes for 868 yards and six scores. 

 

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9. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State

Considering the talent at receiver in the Big 12 last year – Sterling Shepard, Jakeem Grant, Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson – it’s fair to say Washington was largely overlooked on a national level. Washington finished last season with 53 catches for 1,087 yards, averaging a whopping 20.5 yards per catch. Additionally, Washington’s four catches of 70 yards or more were the most by any receiver in 2015.

 

8. Charles Walker, DL, Oklahoma

Walker did not record a start last season but was one of Oklahoma’s most disruptive players in the front seven. He missed the Orange Bowl matchup against Clemson, but Walker finished the year with 36 tackles (10 for a loss) and six sacks. He should slide into a starting role this fall.

 

7. Josh Carraway, DE, TCU

Injuries and roster turnover hit TCU’s defense hard last year, but the Horned Frogs still finished third in the Big 12 in fewest points allowed. Carraway was a consistent force for coach Gary Patterson in 2015, finishing the year with 47 tackles (11.5 for a loss), nine sacks and one forced fumble.

 

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6. Jordan Thomas, CB, Oklahoma

Zack Sanchez garnered most of the attention and accolades in the Oklahoma secondary last season, but Thomas had a strong argument to make as the top defensive back in Norman. In 12 games, Thomas recorded 46 tackles, five interceptions and four pass breakups. He also earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2015.

 

5. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State’s two-quarterback system of Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh guided the offense to an average of 39.5 points a game last season. With Walsh expiring his eligibility, the focus of the offense shifts to Rudolph, but the junior is certainly capable of carrying this team. Rudolph threw for 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns last season – including 352 yards and 5 TDs against TCU – and is surrounded by a solid supporting cast at receiver.

 

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4. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma

Perine will miss spring practice due to ankle surgery, but all signs point to a full recovery by the 2016 opener. Perine followed a standout freshman season – 1,713 yards and 21 scores – with 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015. He will team with Joe Mixon to form one of the nation’s top tandems at running back.

 

3. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor

Russell was off to a prolific start in his first season as Baylor’s starting quarterback, but a neck injury suffered against Iowa State ended his year prematurely. Prior to the injury, Russell threw for 2,104 yards and 29 scores to only six picks. All signs point to Russell returning to 100 percent by fall practice.

 

2. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

Mahomes is the next star in a long line of standouts for Texas Tech at quarterback. In his first full year as the starter, Mahomes led the nation by averaging 393 total yards per game and became just the sixth quarterback in FBS history to throw for over 4,000 yards and rush for at least 450 in a season. He’s a dark-horse Heisman candidate for 2016.

 

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s offense got a much-needed boost last season, as coordinator Lincoln Riley was one of the nation’s top assistant hires, and Mayfield emerged as a Heisman contender in his first year in Norman. Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and rushed for 405 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games. He was voted a second-team All-American by the Associated Press last season.

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The is a league in transition for 2016, as most preseason polls have the conference on the outside of the College Football Playoff picture. While the overall team strength for several of the usual challengers for the league title is unsettled, there’s no shortage of individual talent. The quarterback position is solid with the return of UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk, and two of the nation’s top running backs – Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oregon’s Royce Freeman – reside in the Pac-12. USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson ranks as the top defensive player entering spring practice, but Washington’s Budda Baker isn’t far behind.

 

As spring practice begins around the Pac-12, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016. 

 

With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the Pac-12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

Pac-12's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

 

10 to Watch on Offense: Chad Wheeler, OL, USC; Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon; Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona; Chris Borrayo, OL, California; Jordan Villamin/Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State; Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA; Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona; John Ross, WR/DB, Washington; Davis Webb, QB, Colorado; Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon

 

10 to Watch on Defense: Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford; Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford; Iman Marshall, DB, USC; Shalom Luani, DB, Washington State; Keishawn Bierria, LB, Washington; Fabian Moreau, DB, UCLA; Randall Goforth, DB, UCLA; Jaleel Wadood, DB, UCLA; Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State; Cameron Smith, LB, USC

 

25. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State

Richard was projected by Athlon Sports to have a breakout year in 2015, and the California native certainly delivered. In his first full season as the starter for Arizona State, Richard rushed for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 303 yards and three scores.

 

24. Charles Nelson, WR/DB/RS, Oregon

Nelson is one of college football’s top all-around threats, as he’s capable of seeing significant snaps on offense, defense and special teams. In 12 appearances on offense last year, Nelson recorded 115 rushing yards and one touchdown and 17 receptions for 270 yards and three scores. Nelson became a key contributor in the secondary over the last half of the season, starting the final six games and finishing 2015 with 47 tackles, two picks and four pass breakups. He also averaged 26.5 yards on kickoff returns and took one for a touchdown against Arizona State.

 

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23. Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah

Fitts should be the next star defensive end in “Sack Lake City”. After sitting out 2014 as a transfer from UCLA, Fitts played in all 13 games for the Utes and recorded seven sacks, 41 tackles (eight for a loss) and four forced fumbles. He also defended 10 passes.

 

22. Chidobe Awuzie, DB, Colorado

Awuzie is certainly a known commodity to most around the Pac-12, but the California native deserves more attention on the national level. New coordinator Jim Leavitt helped the Buffaloes take a step forward on defense last season, with Awuzie delivering plenty of big plays in the secondary. He recorded 90 tackles (12 for a loss), four sacks, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

 

21. Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon

New play-caller Matt Lubick inherits a few challenges in his first season, namely finding a replacement for quarterback Vernon Adams and three new starters in the trenches. Crosby is one of the answers for Lubick, as the Nevada native has started 21 games over the last two seasons for the Ducks.

 

20. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington

The Huskies entered 2015 with a revamped linebacking corps, but this unit emerged as a strength behind Victor, Travis Feeney, Keishawn Bierria and Cory Littleton. With Feeney expiring his eligibility, the focus of the unit shifts to Victor, who led the team with 95 tackles (nine for a loss) and recorded 1.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles last year.

 

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19. Ronald Jones, RB, USC

Jones is poised for a breakout season after recording 987 yards and eight scores as a freshman in 2015. Justin Davis will handle a share of the carries, but Jones should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark next fall.

 

18. J.J. Dielman, OT, Utah

Dielman anchors a standout offensive line for coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utah native has started every game over the last two seasons and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year.

 

17. Marcus Williams, S, Utah

Utah’s secondary led the Pac-12 in interceptions (22) last year, with Williams one of the top ball-hawks in the conference. The California native ranked second in the Pac-12 with five interceptions and also added 66 tackles and five pass breakups in 13 games.

 

16. Conor McDermott, OT, UCLA

UCLA’s offensive line will have a couple of new faces stepping into starting roles, but the blindside of quarterback Josh Rosen is protected with McDermott’s return to UCLA. He started 12 games and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year.

 

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15. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

After throwing for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman last season, the Huskies have high expectations for Browning in 2016. If Browning takes a step forward in his development (as most expect), Washington will challenge for the Pac-12 North title.

 

14. Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah

Lotulelei isn’t going to make a huge contribution to the stat sheet in some games, but his impact goes beyond the box score. The 6-foot-2, 302-pound tackle plugs the interior of the line for coach Kyle Whittingham and helped the Utes lead the Pac-12 in run defense last season.

 

13. Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State

Todd Graham isn’t afraid to be aggressive on defense, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have players like Fiso capable of getting to the quarterback and creating havoc on a regular basis. In 13 games last year, Fiso ranked second on the team with 20 tackles for a loss, generated 4.5 sacks and recorded 99 tackles.

 

12. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Gaskin emerged as Washington’s go-to back in early October and finished the season on a tear by recording 181 yards on 26 attempts against Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Gaskin finished his true freshman campaign with 1,302 rushing yards and 14 scores. Even bigger things are expected from Gaskin in 2016.

 

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11. Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State

Marks took a redshirt year in 2014 and displayed no rust in his return to the high-powered Washington State offense. The California native paced the Cougar receiving corps with 104 catches for 1,192 yards and 15 scores.

 

10. Zach Banner, OT, USC

Banner is regarded as one of the top offensive line prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, and the Washington native anchors a USC group that should be one of – if not the best – line in the Pac-12 next season. Banner has 26 career starts for the Trojans.

 

9. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington

Budda Baker is the headliner in Washington’s secondary, but Jones is quietly one of the nation’s top cover corners. Jones recorded 45 stops, four interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season and was a big reason why the Huskies limited opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks to just nine touchdown passes in league games.

 

8. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA

Losing Vanderdoes to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the year was a huge setback for UCLA’s defensive front. The Bruins finished eighth in the Pac-12 against the run and only generated 28 sacks. All signs point to a return to full strength by Vanderdoes for the 2016 opener, and the California native should make an instant impact in the trenches. He recorded 50 tackles and started 12 games with the Bruins in 2014.

 

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7. Budda Baker, S, Washington

With eight starters returning in 2016, Washington’s defense should be the best in the Pac-12. Baker is one of the stars for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and is among the top safeties in college football. The Washington native was limited early in the season with an ankle injury but still recorded 49 tackles (1.5 for a loss), two interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2015.

 

6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

It’s a close call between Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk for the top spot among quarterbacks on this list. Rosen has the edge in overall talent, but the Bruins open spring practice with a few holes to fill at receiver and on the offensive line. Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall.

 

5. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

As mentioned above, it’s a coin flip between Rosen and Falk for the top quarterback spot among Pac-12 signal-callers. The edge for now goes to Falk after throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 scores in his first full year as the starter.

 

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC

Smith-Schuster has a strong claim as the nation’s top returning receiver in 2016. As a sophomore last year, Smith-Schuster grabbed 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. Adapting to a new quarterback – likely Max Browne – is the top offseason priority for Smith-Schuster.

 

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3. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC

Jackson is spending time this spring honing his track and field skills to pursue a spot in the 2016 Olympics. However, Jackson is slated to return to Los Angeles in time for next season’s opener and should resume his role as a three-way threat for coach Clay Helton. Jackson is a lockdown corner on defense (35 tackles, 8 PBU), a big-play option at receiver (15.3 yards per catch in 2015) and a threat to score on returns (two punt returns last year).

 

2. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Christian McCaffrey garnered most of the attention (and rightfully so) at running back among Pac-12 performers, but Freeman wasn’t far behind on the stat sheet. In 13 games, Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 scores. Additionally, his 6.5 yards per carry average was the highest by a Pac-12 starting running back and eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 contests.

 

1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

McCaffrey enjoyed a breakout campaign last year, and there’s even more pressure on the Colorado native with a new quarterback taking over and just two returning starters on the offensive line. McCaffrey played in all 14 games for the Cardinal in 2015 and set a new FBS record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) in a season. He also finished second to Alabama running back Derrick Henry in Heisman Trophy voting.

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The enters 2016 with momentum on its side. Ohio State is just a year removed from a national championship, and even with several new faces on both sides of the ball, the Buckeyes will be a factor in the College Football Playoff picture next fall. Additionally, Michigan capped a solid first season under coach Jim Harbaugh with an outstanding recruiting class. Needless to say, the arrow on Harbaugh’s team is clearly pointing up. Michigan State reached the College Football Playoff last year and has plenty of staying power behind coach Mark Dantonio. In the West Division, Iowa is the frontrunner for 2016, but Nebraska and Wisconsin finished with big wins in their bowl games. 

 

As spring practice begins around the Big Ten, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016. 

 

With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the Big Ten for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

Big Ten's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

 

10 to Watch on Offense: Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska; Mason Cole, OL/C, Michigan; Erik Magnuson, OT, Michigan; Markell Jones, RB, Purdue; Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa; Shannon Brooks, RB, Minnesota; Jehu Chesson, WR, Michigan; Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan; Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska; Mike Dudek, WR, Illinois

 

10 to Watch on Defense: Demetrious Cox, DB, Michigan State; Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State; Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers; Jake Replogle, DL, Purdue; Marcus Allen, DB, Penn State; T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin; Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska; Matthew Harris, CB, Northwestern; Ed Davis, LB, Michigan State; Jack Lynn, LB, Minnesota

 

25. Jordan Westerkamp, WR, Nebraska

Westerkamp has a knack for making acrobatic catches, but he’s more than just highlight-reel moments. In 13 games last year, Westerkamp grabbed 65 catches for 918 yards and seven scores. His best performance came in a 39-38 victory against Michigan State (nine catches for 143 yards and one score).

 

24. Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State

Godwin was the go-to target for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and was one of only three receivers to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in the Big Ten last season. Can Godwin maintain that level of success with a new quarterback and play-caller?

 

23. Riley Bullough, LB, Michigan State

Bullough gets the nod in the pre-spring top 25 rankings, but Ed Davis shouldn’t be overlooked in his return from a knee injury. Bullough recorded 106 tackles (7.5 tackles for a loss), four sacks and two forced fumbles. He will be one of the leaders for Michigan State’s front seven in 2016.

 

22. Drew Ott, DE, Iowa

Place an asterisk by this name. Ott is impossible to rank on this list, as there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his status for 2016. The Nebraska native is petitioning the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility after being limited to six games due to injury in 2015. If he’s approved for another year, Ott should be a few spots higher on this list. In four seasons of playing time, Ott has recorded 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss. 

 

21. Brian Allen, OG, Michigan State

Michigan State’s offensive line suffered massive losses from 2015, and Jack Allen (center) and Jack Conklin (left tackle) leave big shoes to fill. The rebuilding effort has to start with Allen – a rising star for coach Mark Dantonio after playing in 26 games in his first two years on campus.

 

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20. Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin

Losing coordinator Dave Aranda was a big blow to Wisconsin’s defense, but there’s a strong core in place for new play-caller Justin Wilcox. Biegel is one of those pieces for Wilcox to utilize, as he’s recorded 30.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons.  

 

19. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State

Scott scored the biggest touchdown of the 2015 season for Michigan State, as his one-yard touchdown run with less than 30 seconds left against Iowa secured the Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff for the Spartans. After finishing his freshman season with 699 yards and 11 touchdowns, Scott should be a bigger part of the offense in 2016.

 

18. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin

Clement’s 2015 season never got on track, as a hernia injury limited him to just 221 yards on 48 carries. With a full offseason to recover, Clement should resemble the player that rushed for 949 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup in 2014.

 

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17. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa

Jewell had a breakout year last fall, emerging as one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers and a key cog on a standout Iowa defense. The Iowa native recorded 126 tackles (7.5 for a loss), one forced fumble and four interceptions in 14 games.

 

16. Chris Wormley, DT, Michigan

Michigan’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation next fall. In addition to earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2015, Wormley recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He will anchor the defensive front for new coordinator Don Brown. 

 

15. Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State

Lewis is one of the top breakout candidates for 2016. With Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington departing, the Buckeyes will be looking for new standouts to emerge. Lewis looks like a future star after recording eight sacks and 14 tackles for a loss last year.

 

14. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan

Michigan enters spring practice with uncertainty at quarterback, but the receiving corps is set with the return of Butt and receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Butt caught 51 passes for 654 yards and three scores last season and should be in the mix for All-America honors in 2016.

 

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13. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Northwestern’s offense averaged only 19.5 points a game last season, but Jackson was one of the few bright spots for coach Pat Fitzgerald. After leading the team with 1,187 rushing yards as a freshman in 2014, Jackson eclipsed that total on 312 carries last season, recording 1,418 yards and five scores. Additionally, Jackson finished the year by posting at least 100 rushing yards in four out of Northwestern’s final five games.

 

12. Dan Feeney, OG, Indiana

Feeney has been an underrated stalwart on the offensive line for coach Kevin Wilson over the last three seasons. The Illinois native has started all 37 games in his career and allowed only one sack in that span. Feeney should challenge for All-America honors in 2016.

 

11. C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa

The decision to start C.J. Beathard over Jake Rudock paid big dividends for the Hawkeyes last year. Beathard guided Iowa to a Big Ten West Division title and the doorstep of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Beathard completed 223 of 362 pass attempts last season for 2,809 yards and 17 scores. He also added 237 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Beathard’s five interceptions were the fewest by a full-time starter at quarterback in the Big Ten last season.

 

10. William Likely, CB, Maryland

The best news of the offseason for new coach D.J. Durkin was Likely’s decision to return for his senior year. The Florida native has been a standout performer in the Terrapins’ secondary over the last three seasons and finished 2015 with 44 tackles, 11 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Likely is also an impact player on special teams and has scored six times on returns over the last three years.

 

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9. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Despite a struggling offensive line and few running lanes to be found, Barkley ranked third in the Big Ten last season with 1,076 rushing yards. Barkley also recorded five 100-yard performances, including 194 yards on 26 attempts against Ohio State. Additionally, the Pennsylvania native averaged 5.9 yards per carry and recorded seven rushing touchdowns.

 

8. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern

Walker might be one of the nation’s most underrated players and was a key cog in a Northwestern defense that limited opponents to 18.6 points a game last year. The Florida native made plays all over the field in 2015, recording 122 tackles (20.5 for a loss), four sacks and one interception. Walker’s 20.5 tackles for a loss were the most by any player in the Big Ten last season.

 

7. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State

Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas leave big shoes to fill in the trenches, but line coach Ron Burton can lean on McDowell as the building block for the next wave of standouts on the defensive front for Michigan State. McDowell finished 2015 with 13 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

 

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6. Pat Elflein, OL, Ohio State

Ohio State’s offensive line is in rebuild mode after the departure of three starters this offseason. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Urban Meyer. Elflein started all 13 games at right guard for the Buckeyes last year and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Elflein is expected to slide from guard to center for 2016.

 

5. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State

McMillan is poised for a breakout season as the new leader for Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes lose a good chunk of talent from last year’s standout group, but a quick rebuild is in store. McMillan is one of the building blocks for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano, as the former five-star recruit anchors the defense after recording 119 tackles in 2015.

 

4. Jabrill Peppers, DB/LB, Michigan

Peppers is listed here as a defensive back/linebacker, but the sophomore will be used in a variety of roles for coach Jim Harbaugh. In 12 games last year, Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups on defense, averaged 11.4 yards on punt returns and added 72 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Peppers could see an increased role on offense this season, and his versatility on defense will be valuable as a linebacker/safety hybrid under new coordinator Don Brown.

 

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3. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan

Opposing quarterbacks had little success against Michigan’s secondary last season, and there’s no reason to expect a drop in performance in 2016. The Wolverines finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2015 and return four starters this season, including Lewis – one of the nation’s top cover corners. Lewis blanketed opposing receivers last year and finished the season with 52 tackles, two interceptions and 20 pass breakups.

 

2. Desmond King, CB, Iowa

Prior to the 2015 season, King was already regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs. However, the Michigan native elevated his game to another level last fall. King played in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes and finished the season with 72 tackles, 13 passes defended and eight interceptions. He was also awarded the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s top defensive back and should be a lock for preseason All-America honors in 2016.

 

1. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

There’s no quarterback controversy in Columbus this season. After last season’s back-and-forth battle between Barrett and Cardale Jones, Barrett is the clear No. 1 quarterback. Continuity and clarity at the position should help Ohio State’s offense build off back-to-back performances of over 40 points in the last two games of 2015. Barrett should resemble the quarterback that accumulated 3,772 yards and 45 overall touchdowns in 2014.

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The best collection of talent in college football resides in the . While the conference is short on proven quarterbacks for 2016, ranking the top 25 players headed into spring practice is no easy assignment considering the talent on defense and some of the positions on offense. LSU’s Leonard Fournette takes the top spot in our pre-spring player rankings, with Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett a close No. 2. 

 

As spring practice begins around the SEC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016. 

 

With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the SEC for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

 

15 to Watch on Offense: Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas; Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas; Boom Williams, RB, Kentucky; Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida; Alex Kozan, OL, Auburn; Braden Smith, OL, Auburn; Drew Morgan, WR, Arkansas; Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State; Ralph Webb, RB, Vanderbilt; Travin Dural, WR, LSU; Brandon Kublanow, OL, Georgia; Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama; Josh Reynolds, WR, Texas A&M; Ethan Pocic, OL, LSU; Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU

 

15 to Watch on Defense: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee; Charles Harris, DE, Missouri; Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina; Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida; Kendell Beckwith, LB, LSU; Cam Sutton, CB, Tennessee; Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn; Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M; Marcus Maye, DB, Florida; Dre Greenlaw, LB, Arkansas; Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State; Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn; Lewis Neal, DL, LSU; Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia; Terry Beckner, DT, Missouri

 

25. Tim Williams, LB, Alabama

Williams wasn’t a full-time starter for Alabama last season, but his ability to get to the quarterback was a huge asset for coach Nick Saban. In 15 games, Williams finished with 10.5 sacks (third in the SEC) and recorded 12.5 tackles for a loss. He should have an opportunity to earn more of a full-time role in the linebacking corps this spring.

 

24. Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss

With Robert Nkemdiche off to the NFL, Haynes is the new leader in the trenches for the Rebels. He led the team with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss and recorded three forced fumbles in 2015.

 

23. Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

LSU’s secondary surprisingly finished 51st nationally in pass efficiency defense last season but improvement should be noticeable in 2016. White defended seven passes in 2015 and recorded 44 tackles. He is considered among the best prospects at cornerback for the 2017 NFL Draft. 

 

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22. Davon Godchaux, DT, LSU

Dave Aranda is one of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2016, and the first-year assistant in Baton Rouge should make a difference for the LSU defense. Godchaux is one of the standouts for Aranda in the trenches and is expected to build off a strong sophomore campaign (41 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble) next season.

 

21. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Conner was projected as one of the nation’s best safeties going into the 2015 season, but a knee injury limited the junior to just five games. He recorded 17 stops (four for a loss) in limited action. Conner’s return should be a big boost for the Rebels’ secondary.

 

20. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

Howard was quiet for most of the 2015 season but finished with a monster performance (five catches for 208 yards and two scores) against Clemson in the national title game. After turning down the NFL for one more season in Tuscaloosa, it’s safe to assume coordinator Lane Kiffin will find more ways to get Howard involved.

 

19. Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss

It’s a close call between Engram and Alabama’s O.J. Howard as the top tight end from the SEC. Engram caught 38 passes for 464 yards and two touchdowns last season and is expected to see a bigger role in 2016 with the departure of receivers Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core.

 

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18. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama

Jackson’s move from cornerback to safety added more athleticism in the secondary and paid huge dividends for Alabama’s defense. Jackson recorded 46 tackles, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and led the defense with six interceptions. 

 

17. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

Alabama’s secondary took a step forward in 2015 and finished No. 8 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Despite the loss of cornerback Cyrus Jones, this unit should be one of the best in the nation. Fitzpatrick played in 14 games as a true freshman last season and recorded 45 tackles (three for a loss), two sacks, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

 

16. Arden Key, DE, LSU

All signs point to Key emerging as the next star edge rusher in Baton Rouge. As a true freshman last season, Key recorded five sacks, 6.5 tackles for a loss and led all LSU defenders with nine quarterback hurries. Under the watchful eye of line coach Ed Orgeron, expect Key to elevate his game even higher in 2016.

 

15. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Foster is known as a big hitter, but he’s developed into an all-around standout at linebacker for the Crimson Tide. He ranked second on the team with 73 tackles last season (eight for a loss) and broke up nine passes. With Reggie Ragland off to the NFL, Foster is now the leader of Alabama’s linebacking corps.

 

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14. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

In his first full season as Tennessee’s starting quarterback, Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 scores and showcased his rushing ability by adding 671 yards and 11 touchdowns. Elevating the passing attack and stretching the field to generate more big plays are at the top of the priority list for Dobbs this spring. 

 

13. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt’s defense showed marked improvement with Derek Mason calling the plays last season. The Commodores should build off their 2015 success on defense with seven starters back, including Cunningham – a likely first-team All-SEC selection. Cunningham led all Vanderbilt defenders with 103 tackles (16.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks and recorded four forced fumbles.

 

12. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

Kirk was one of the nation’s top freshmen last season and was a valuable all-purpose threat for coach Kevin Sumlin. In 13 appearances, Kirk averaged 137.6 all-purpose yards per game and grabbed 80 passes for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns. He also scored twice on punt returns last year.

 

11. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee

Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette garnered most of the attention among SEC running backs last season, but Hurd quietly rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 scores. Through two seasons, Hurd has 2,187 yards on the ground, 57 receptions and 21 overall scores. If Hurd eclipses the 1,000-yard mark in 2016, he will set a new Tennessee record for most rushing yards in a career.

 

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10. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Chubb’s 2015 season was cut short by a serious knee injury suffered in the sixth game of the year. Prior to the injury, Chubb rushed for 747 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. How long will it take for Chubb to return to 100 percent and back to the player that rushed for 1,547 yards in 2014?

 

9. Jamal Adams, S, LSU

Adams is the enforcer patrolling the secondary for new coordinator Dave Aranda, and the Texas native is poised to build off a strong sophomore season (67 tackles, four interceptions and six pass breakups).

 

8. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida

Most of the attention in the Florida secondary went to Vernon Hargreaves III last season, but Tabor quietly had a strong 2015 campaign. In 13 games, Tabor broke up 14 passes (tied for most in the SEC), intercepted four passes and recorded 40 tackles. He should be the SEC’s top cover corner in 2016.

 

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7. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss

The SEC is light on proven quarterbacks for 2016, but there’s no doubt the best one resides in Oxford next season. Kelly was an impact addition for coach Hugh Freeze, passing for 4,402 yards and 31 scores. Additionally, Kelly rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.

 

6. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

One of the biggest question marks for Alabama’s offense last season was who would step up to replace standout receiver Amari Cooper. Ridley quickly emerged as the Crimson Tide’s go-to target, catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven scores. And here’s a scary thought for the rest of the SEC: He’s only a sophomore in 2016.

 

5. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

Barnett has been an immediate difference maker for the Volunteers since he stepped on campus in 2014. The Tennessee native has recorded back-to-back seasons of 10 sacks and generated 33 tackles for a loss in his career. Barnett anchors one of the SEC’s best defensive lines for 2016.

 

4. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama

Robinson is one of the top prospects on the offensive line for the 2017 NFL Draft. After two years of steady play on the left side for coach Nick Saban, Robinson is poised for his best season in Tuscaloosa.

 

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3. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama

Allen’s decision to return to Tuscaloosa was somewhat of a surprise, but the news was certainly a welcomed sight for coach Nick Saban. With A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed off to the NFL, Allen is expected to see more attention from opposing offensive linemen. In 15 games last year, Allen recorded 36 tackles (14.5 for a loss), 12 sacks and two forced fumbles.

 

2. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

Garrett is a physical specimen at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds and is the top defender in the SEC for 2016. The junior is an explosive edge rusher and possesses the ability to dominate at the point of attack. The Texas native has recorded 24 sacks, five forced fumbles and 33.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons and could be the first player picked in the 2017 NFL Draft.

 

1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

In terms of pure talent, not many running backs in recent history can match Fournette’s ability. The New Orleans native set the LSU single-season rushing record for most yards in a season (1,953) and touchdowns (22) in 2015. Only two teams – Arkansas and Alabama – managed to keep Fournette under the 100-yard mark last year. Fournette is once again the focal point of LSU’s offense and one of the preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

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SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
Post date: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 - 10:00
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The enters 2016 as a conference on the rise. Both Clemson and Florida State have made appearances in the College Football Playoff over the last two years, and both teams are positioned for another run next fall. But the league’s overall depth is improving, thanks to a Louisville team that’s on the rise, as well as stellar coaching hires at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Miami and Virginia this offseason. The overall talent level in this league is high, as two players – Florida State running back Dalvin Cook and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson – are among the nation’s top frontrunners to win the Heisman next fall. 

 

As spring practice begins around the ACC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016. 

 

With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the ACC for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

ACC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

 

10 to Watch on Offense: Jaylen Samuels, TE, NC State; Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech; Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson; Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina; Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami; Dorian Johnson, OG, Pittsburgh; Jon Heck, OT, North Carolina; Jay Guillermo, C, Clemson; Caleb Peterson, OG, North Carolina; Matt Dayes, RB, NC State

 

10 to Watch on Defense: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson; Brad Watson, CB, Wake Forest; Marquez White, CB, Florida State; Harold Landry, DE, Boston College; Josh Harvey-Clemons, S, Louisville; Micah Kizer, LB, Virginia; Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech; DeVon Edwards, S, Duke; M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina; Matt Milano, LB, Boston College

 

25. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State

Sweat is a name to remember for 2016 and a player that could easily climb these rankings by the end of spring practice. After suffering a serious leg injury as a high school senior, Sweat was relentless in his recovery and returned in time to play in all 13 games for the Seminoles last season. Sweat recorded 41 stops (five for a loss), two sacks and two pass breakups as a true freshman in 2015. With another offseason to work in the weight room and develop under line coach Brad Lawing, expect to see Sweat as one of the breakout stars for Florida State in 2016.

 

24. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech’s 2015 season was a disappointment, but there’s reason for optimism entering spring practice. The Yellow Jackets return plenty of experience at running back, receiver and on the offensive line, which should translate into improvement. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Thomas is back to run the option attack. He threw for 1,345 yards and 13 scores last season and ran for 488 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a drop from his 2014 totals (1,086 rushing yards). Thomas should have a rebound year in 2016.

 

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23. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

Williams was poised to build off an impressive 2014 campaign (57 catches for 1,030 yards) last fall, but a neck injury against Wofford in the opener ended his season. All signs point to a return to full strength for Williams, giving quarterback Deshaun Watson another target in one of the nation’s top receiving corps.

 

22. Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson

Scott only averaged 9.7 yards per catch last season, but he’s a key cog in Clemson’s passing attack in the screen game. On 93 receptions in 2015, Scott recorded 901 yards and also reached paydirt six times.

 

21. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson

Mackensie Alexander received most of the attention in the Clemson secondary, but Tankersley quietly developed into another All-ACC cornerback on the other side. In addition to recording 48 tackles, Tankersley picked off five passes and led all Tigers with nine pass breakups last season. He should slide into the No. 1 corner role for Clemson.

 

20. Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson

Standout ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson are gone, but the cupboard isn’t empty for coordinator Brent Venables. Watkins is back for his senior campaign and should continue to dominate the interior of the line after recording 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2015. 

 

19. Adam Bisnowaty, OT, Pittsburgh

Bisnowaty and teammate Dorian Johnson are both worthy of mention in this space. However, a slight edge goes to the Bisnowaty as the anchor of a Pittsburgh line that should be one of the best in the ACC next season. Bisnowaty has started 30 games over the last three years and earned second-team All-ACC honors last year.

 

18. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

Jackson is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks on the rise and a dangerous dual-threat option for coach Bobby Petrino. After throwing for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for 960 yards and 11 scores last season, Jackson is only going to get better as a sophomore with a full offseason to work as the starter.

 

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17. Keith Kelsey, LB, Louisville

Kelsey is the first of two Louisville linebackers to appear on this list. After ranking second on the team in tackles in 2014, Kelsey paced the Louisville defense with 107 stops (12 for a loss) last season and recorded 3.5 sacks. The Florida native should push for first-team All-ACC honors in 2016.

 

16. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

The best news of the offseason has to revolve around the health of Conner in his recovery from Hodgkin lymphoma. Coach Pat Narduzzi has indicated he believes Conner will play in 2016, and the junior is attending the team’s offseason conditioning workouts. Pittsburgh won’t have to rush Conner back this fall with capable backup Qadree Ollison recording 1,121 yards last season.

 

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15. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia

New Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall has a strong reputation on the defensive side of the ball from his tenure at BYU. Additionally, his acumen and background on defense should help Blanding continue to develop as a player after a solid start to his career with the Cavaliers. Blanding is a former five-star recruit and is coming off back-to-back seasons of over 100 tackles. He should be in the mix for All-America honors at safety this season.

 

14. Ejuan Price, DE, Pittsburgh

The Panthers received good news in early February when Price was granted a sixth year of eligibility for 2016. The Pennsylvania native is one of the top edge rushers in the ACC and finished 2015 with 11.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for a loss and one forced fumble.

 

13. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech

Ford was the ACC’s only 1,000-yard receiver last season, and his 1,164-yard campaign was the best mark in school history. Ford also averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per reception and grabbed 11 touchdown scores. He should benefit from the hire of Justin Fuente - a proven offensive mind at TCU and Memphis - as the program’s new head coach.

 

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12. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina

Hood was North Carolina’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012 by recording 1,463 yards and 17 scores on 219 attempts. He also ranked third among ACC running backs last season by averaging 106.8 rushing yards in conference games. Expect to see Hood even more involved in 2016.

 

11. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville

Fields was one of the Big 12’s top defenders at TCU, but an off-field incident forced him to spend a year at Trinity Valley Community College. The Texas native returned to the FBS level and was a force off the edge for coordinator Todd Grantham. Fields closed 2015 on a tear, recording seven sacks over the final three games, including three against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. He also registered 64 tackles (22.5 for a loss) last season.

 

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10. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh

Whitehead won ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 and is poised for an even bigger role with the Panthers next fall. After a limited role on offense last season (132 yards), the Panthers plan to utilize Whitehead as more of a two-way player in 2016. While the Pennsylvania native is due to see a few more snaps on offense, he’s still one of the top defensive backs in the ACC. Whitehead recorded 108 tackles, one interception and six tackles for a loss in 2015.

 

9. Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson

Boulware is just one of four returning starters for coordinator Brent Venables from last year’s standout defense. Boulware earned first-team all-conference honors from the ACC coaches and is the team’s top returning tackler for 2016 (82 stops last year).  

 

8. DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State

Florida State’s defensive line showed marked improvement under the direction of Brad Lawing last season. The Seminoles finished last in the ACC in sacks in 2014 (17) but improved that number to 32 in 2015. Walker thrived under Lawing’s tutelage in 2015, recording 10.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles.

 

7. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson

Clemson’s offense runs through quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the ground attack shouldn’t be overlooked with Gallman leading the charge. The Georgia native recorded 1,527 yards and 13 scores last year and caught 21 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown. Not only is Gallman versatile enough to pop a big play on the ground, he also has the strength and power to get the tough yards between the tackles.

 

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6. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami

Kaaya is one of the big winners from Miami’s coaching change, as former Hurricane quarterback Mark Richt should help the junior take his game to the next level. Kaaya missed one game due to injury last season but still threw for 3,238 yards and 16 scores.

 

5. Derwin James, S, Florida State

James became a bigger part of Florida State’s defense over the course of 2015 and is poised to challenge for All-America honors as a sophomore next fall. In 13 games last year, James recorded 91 stops (9.5 tackles for a loss), 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, James is already one of the most physically impressive safeties in the nation.

 

4. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson

Hyatt was one of the nation’s top true freshmen last season and a key cog in Clemson’s run to the national championship game. The Georgia native started all 15 games for the Tigers, set the school record for most snaps played by a true freshman offensive lineman and earned third-team All-ACC honors.

 

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3. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State

Johnson enters 2016 with 18 consecutive starts at left tackle and is the anchor for a Florida State offensive line expected to take a step forward next fall. The Missouri native won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s top offensive linemen last season and was voted first-team all-conference.  

 

2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Despite a nagging hamstring and ankle injury in October, Cook still managed to rush for 1,691 yards and 19 scores last season. Additionally, Cook recorded 100 yards in four out of his final five games, including 183 yards in a 27-2 victory over rival Florida. He should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.

 

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Watson is the catalyst behind Clemson’s high-powered attack, and after a standout sophomore campaign, the bar is set high for the junior quarterback in 2016. In 15 games last year, Watson threw for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns and added 1,105 yards and 12 rushing scores. Watson should open 2016 as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

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ACC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
Post date: Monday, February 29, 2016 - 10:00
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Coming off a historic 2015 season, has one goal in mind when it begins spring workouts – a national championship. After falling just short against Alabama for the national title, the Tigers hope to get back to the College Football Playoff and claim the championship in 2016. Taking the next step will require some retooling on both sides of the ball, but Clemson is equipped as any team in the nation to make a run at the title. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the top returning player in college football, and the supporting cast is strong. How quickly will the Tigers find the right answers on defense? Here’s a look at what’s ahead for Clemson this spring:

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Clemson’s Spring Practice

 

1. Restocking the Offensive Line

This unit was the biggest concern entering fall practice last season. The Tigers returned only one starter, was thin on depth in the trenches and was counting on talented true freshman Mitch Hyatt to protect Deshaun Watson’s blindside. Any concerns about this group were alleviated early in the season, as the line morphed into a strength and allowed only 18 sacks in 15 games. Hyatt quickly blossomed into a star on the left side and anchors a group breaking in two new starters this spring. Hyatt, center Jay Guillermo and guard Tyrone Crowder form a solid trio to build around, but guard Eric Mac Lain and right tackle Joe Gore leave big shoes to fill.

 

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2. The Return of Mike Williams

Clemson’s receiving corps was loaded with talented options last season. Different year, same story in Death Valley. The Tigers return Artavis Scott (93 catches), tight end Jordan Leggett (40 catches) and rising star Deon Cain (17.1 ypc as a freshman last season), Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud. Charone Peake expired his eligibility after ranking second on the team with 50 catches last year, and Germone Hopper decided to transfer. However, the Tigers are more than capable of replacing Peake and Hopper’s production with the return of Mike Williams. The South Carolina native was considered one of the ’s top receivers last year but suffered a season-ending neck injury in the opener. Getting back in the mix this spring is the first step in Williams’ return and the addition of another big-time playmaker for Watson.

 

3. Next Wave of Stars at Defensive End

A Clemson defensive end has registered at least 12 sacks in each of the last three seasons. Who are the next standout pass rushers for the Tigers in 2016? Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd departed early for the NFL after combining for 24.5 sacks last season, and both players leave big shoes to fill. Austin Bryant worked as the backup at the end spots as a freshman last season and finished the 2015 campaign with two tackles for a loss. Coordinator Brent Venables is counting on Bryant, Richard Yeargin and Clelin Ferrell to help fill the voids off the edges, while four-star recruit Xavier Kelly joins the mix this summer. Talent isn’t an issue, but how quickly will the Tigers replace the production left behind by Dodd and Lawson?

 

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4. Rebuilding in the Secondary

The losses at defensive end are heavy, but the secondary also suffered its share of setbacks since the national championship. Clemson lost cornerback Mackensie Alexander, safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green and linebacker/safety Travis Blanks early to the NFL Draft. That’s a lot of talent and production to replace for a secondary that ranked No. 11 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Cordrea Tankersley returns as one answer at cornerback, with Adrian Baker and Mark Fields holding the early edge to start on the other side. One key question to watch in the fall: Where does true freshman Trayvon Mullen fit into the mix? Korrin Wiggins should help fill the void left behind by Blanks as the nickel back, but he missed all of 2015 due to injury.

 

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5. The Linebackers

With Ben Boulware returning, the Tigers already have a good starting point for their 2016 linebacker unit. However, this group will miss B.J. Goodson’s production (108 tackles last year) and must replace hybrid player Travis Blanks. Sophomore Kendall Joseph worked as Goodson’s backup last season and should have an opportunity for a bigger role this spring. Additionally, two of Clemson’s early enrollees are potential impact players at linebacker – Tre Lamar and Rahshaun Smith. 

 

Pre-Spring Clemson Outlook in the ACC

 

As mentioned above, the 2016 season is all about the national championship and College Football Playoff for Clemson. Coach Dabo Swinney has raised expectations in recent years, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. After falling just short of the national title last season, the Tigers begin 2016 as one of the favorites. The offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is the early frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy. Even though this team has question marks on the offensive line and at each level on defense, Watson is good enough to carry this team to another title and appearance in the College Football Playoff. Of course, that path takes Clemson to Florida State on Oct. 29 in a game that should decide the ACC Atlantic – and potentially a spot in the CFB Playoff.

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Clemson Tigers 2016 Spring Practice Preview
Post date: Friday, February 26, 2016 - 10:00

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