Articles By Steven Lassan
The ACC’s title has resided with Florida State or Clemson in each of the last five seasons, and it’s hard to see that changing in 2016. The Tigers are the early favorite to win the ACC next year, but the Seminoles are a close No. 2. Clemson’s defense needs to be retooled, while the offense should remain one of the best in college football behind quarterback Deshaun Watson. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the way for Florida State, and the Seminoles have an advantage in scheduling with Clemson visiting Tallahassee in 2016. Louisville is another team to watch after winning six out of its last seven games last season. North Carolina tops the early Coastal Division power rankings, but Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh are capable of pushing the Tar Heels for the No. 1 spot.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2016:
Early ACC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
After winning 14 games and falling just short of a victory in the national championship in 2015, Clemson has its sights set on another title run next fall. But it won’t be easy for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the way for an explosive offense, and running back Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett provide plenty of talent at the skill positions. The offense also regains the services of receiver Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt will be even better as a sophomore, but two starters must be replaced on the offensive line. While the offense is primed for a huge season, the defense may take a step back. Six players – ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and defensive backs Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green, Travis Blanks and Jayron Kearse – declared early for the NFL. A road date at Florida State could be all that stands between Clemson and another undefeated regular season.
2. Florida State
The ACC should have two playoff contenders next season, as there’s not a huge gap separating Clemson and Florida State prior to spring practice. Despite a rebuilding year in 2015, the Seminoles won 10 games and earned a spot a New Year’s Six Bowl. Nearly all of the two-deep is back on offense, including running back Dalvin Cook and standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. Question marks remain on the offensive line and at receiver, but the quarterback position will be under the microscope this offseason. Can Sean Maguire hold off a challenge from freshmen Deondre Francois and Malik Henry? The defense made big strides last season by limiting opponents to 4.68 yards per play. End Demarcus Walker is a candidate for All-America honors, and safety Derwin James and end Josh Sweat are back after standout freshmen seasons. The development of the linebacking corps will be an area to watch in spring practice.
The Cardinals started slow (0-3) but finished 2015 as one of the hottest teams in the ACC. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team won six out of its last seven games, including a 38-24 victory over rival Kentucky and a 27-21 win against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, starting with a rising star at quarterback in Lamar Jackson and the return of running back Brandon Radcliff and receivers Jamari Staples, James Quick and Jaylen Smith. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, but Geron Christian is a promising player to build around. The defense has ranked near the top of the ACC in each of the last two seasons under coordinator Todd Grantham and a strong core is in place for 2016. End Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess will be missed, but linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey and all four starters are back in the secondary.
4. NC State
The Wolfpack have recorded back-to-back 3-5 records in ACC play, and progress in the win column in 2016 could be a challenge for coach Dave Doeren's program. The Atlantic Division is loaded at the top with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, and NC State catches an improving Miami team and Coastal Division champion North Carolina in crossover play. New coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz won’t have quarterback Jacoby Brissett to work with, but Jalan McClendon is an intriguing player to watch. There’s a strong stable of running backs in place for McClendon to lean on, starting with Matthew Dayes (865 yards) and Reggie Gallaspy II (4.79 ypc). All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels headlines the targets at receiver, but three starters are gone from the offensive line. Improvement is needed on defense after giving up 29.6 points per game in ACC contests last season. However, most of the depth chart returns intact, with end Mike Rose, safety Hakim Jones and cornerback Juston Burris the biggest losses for coordinator Dave Huxtable.
5. Boston College
Last year’s 3-9 record was the worst mark for Boston College under coach Steve Addazio. However, 2015 was largely a lost season due to injuries on offense. Starting quarterback Darius Wade was hurt in the third game of the year, and All-ACC candidate in running back Jon Hilliman was limited to 198 rushing yards due to injury. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade for the starting job this offseason. Despite the lack of production on offense, the Eagles lost five games by three points or less. That’s largely due to a defense that led the nation in fewest yards per play allowed (4.07), finished fourth in points allowed (15.3 ppg) and second nationally against the run. Coordinator Don Brown left for Michigan, but linebacker Matt Milano and end Harold Landry are back to anchor a solid defense in 2016.
6. Wake Forest
Third-year coach Dave Clawson has recorded identical records (3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play) in back-to-back seasons. However, there are signs of progress in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons lost four games by a touchdown or less, including matchups against Florida State (24-16), Louisville (20-19) and Duke (27-21). After playing several freshmen over the last two years, the experience could pay off in the form of a few more wins in 2016. Quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton will compete for the starting job, and there’s talent in the skill positions with running back Tyler Bell (451 yards), receiver Cortez Lewis (47 catches) and tight end Cam Serigne (46 catches). In order for the offense to take a step forward, the line and ground attack has to improve. The defense has been placed into some bad situations with a struggling offense over the last two years, yet managed to hold opponents to 24.6 points a game in 2015. Most of the defense is back for 2016, but standout linebacker Brandon Chubb will be missed.
The Orange deserve high marks for the hire of Dino Babers, but 2016 will be a challenge for the first-year coach. Babers’ high-powered offense has a few promising players in place, including quarterback Eric Dungey, receiver Steve Ishmael and running back Jordan Fredericks. Three starters depart on the offensive line. Syracuse’s defense surrendered 6.21 yards per play and 31 points a game last season, so there’s plenty of work needed by new signal-caller Brian Ward this spring. The good news? Most of the unit returns intact, with ends Ron Thompson (early NFL Draft entrant) and Donnie Simmons (expired eligibility) the biggest losses. The 2016 schedule doesn’t provide many breaks for Babers, as Syracuse plays swing games against Boston College and Wake Forest on the road and catches Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh in crossover play. There's not much separation between Boston College at No. 5 and Syracuse at No. 7 in the early power rankings.
1. North Carolina
The defending Coastal Division champions are in good shape to make a repeat trip to Charlotte next December. Mitch Trubisky is ready to step in as the team’s starting quarterback after Marquise Williams expired his eligibility after the 2015 season. Elijah Hood is one of the ACC’s top running backs and returns after rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 scores last year. Quinshad Davis (55 catches) is the biggest loss in the receiving corps, while standout guard Landon Turner is the only departure from an outstanding offensive line. The defense showed improvement in coordinator Gene Chizik’s first season and should be poised for another step forward on the stat sheet in 2016.
New coach Mark Richt inherits a team capable of contending for the Coastal Division title in 2016. And the schedule certainly doesn’t hurt Richt’s first-year momentum, as Miami hosts Florida State and North Carolina and misses Louisville and Clemson in crossover play. Quarterback Brad Kaaya should benefit from Richt’s tutelage, and the rest of the offense returns nearly intact. Rashawn Scott (52 catches) is the biggest loss, while running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby return, along with receiver Stacy Coley and all five starters on the offensive line. The defense needs the most attention from Richt and new play-caller Manny Diaz this spring. Seven starters return from a unit that surrendered 6.1 yards per play in ACC contests last season. However, the secondary must be retooled with the departures of cornerbacks Tracy Howard and Artie Burns, along with safeties Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford.
3. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock wasted no time in replacing retiring coach Frank Beamer, and the program landed a home-run hire in Justin Fuente. After struggling on offense in recent seasons, Fuente’s background on that side of the ball should pay off in 2016 and beyond. The quarterback position is up for grabs with Michael Brewer expiring his eligibility, but the Hokies return running back Travon McMillian and standout receiving targets in Isaiah Ford (75 catches) and tight end Bucky Hodges (40 catches). One of Fuente’s biggest moves so far was to retain veteran coordinator Bud Foster and most of Beamer’s defensive staff. Foster has a busy spring ahead, as three starters depart the line and linebacker Deon Clarke must be replaced. The secondary held ACC quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion clip this season and should be solid once again in 2016.
Pat Narduzzi has Pittsburgh on the right track. The Panthers’ 8-5 record in 2015 was the program’s highest win total since 2010, and the stability at the top should pay off for this program in 2016 and beyond. Nate Peterman edged Chad Voytik for the starting quarterback job during the regular season and returns for his senior year under the direction of new coordinator Matt Canada. Top receiver Tyler Boyd will be missed, but the offensive line should be one of the ACC’s best. Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin have a few holes to fill this spring, as tackles Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and cornerback Lafayette Pitts have expired their eligibility. But the cupboard is far from empty. End Ejuan Price is expected to get a sixth year of eligibility, and safety Jordan Whitehead is one of the ACC’s top defensive backs.
5. Georgia Tech
What a difference a year makes. After winning the Coastal Division in 2014, the Yellow Jackets slumped to 3-9 overall and claimed one victory – a last-second win over Florida State – in ACC play. So where does that leave Georgia Tech for 2016? Probably somewhere in the middle. Coach Paul Johnson’s team wasn’t as bad as it played last season but contending for the Coastal Division title seems to be out of reach. Quarterback Justin Thomas is back for his senior year, and a promising group of options returns at running back. Improvement on the offensive line and a few more big plays in the passing game are a must for Johnson’s offense in 2016. The secondary was hit the hardest by departures on defense, with end KeShun Freeman and linebacker P.J. Davis headlining the returning corps for 2016.
To put the coaching job by David Cutcliffe at Duke into perspective, a quick history trip is needed. The Blue Devils are pushing for their fifth consecutive bowl appearance in 2016. Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke played in eight bowl games from 1922-2011. The Blue Devils will be another tough out for the rest of the ACC next fall, as quarterback Thomas Sirk should benefit from another offseason to work as the starter, and the ground attack is in good hands with Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan. Center Matt Skura and guard Lucas Patrick are big losses in the trenches. Safety Jeremy Cash, end Kyler Brown, tackle Carlos Wray and linebacker Dwayne Norman are big losses on defense, but cornerback Bryon Fields returns after missing all of 2015 due to an ACL tear.
Virginia’s hire of Bronco Mendenhall as the program’s new coach came as a surprise. But after winning 99 games at BYU from 2005-15, Mendenhall should be a solid hire for a program that hasn’t played in a bowl since 2011. Mendenhall is a defensive-minded coach and inherits a group that surrendered 32.2 points a game last season. Safety Quin Blanding is a rising star, and linebacker Micah Kiser is another key cog for Mendenhall to build around in the front seven. Virginia has not finished higher than ninth in the ACC in scoring offense in each of the last five seasons. Go-to receiver Canaan Severin departs, but quarterback Matt Johns and running back Taquan Mizzell are back for new coordinator Robert Anae.
The College Football Playoff era has been an interesting two-year period for the Big 12. The future shape and outlook for the conference is a source of ongoing debate, but the league got a much-needed boost last season with Oklahoma earning the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and a trip to the Orange Bowl. While one season isn’t enough data, the Sooners’ playoff bid shows the Big 12’s current format (round-robin schedule and no conference championship) is enough for a team to reach the top four.
As the page turns to 2016, Oklahoma is the clear favorite to win the Big 12 once again. The addition of play-caller Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield sparked the Sooners’ offense last season, and this unit will be just as deadly next fall. Baylor has to reload in the trenches, but the Bears have enough offensive firepower to be a top 10-15 team. Oklahoma State and TCU are next up in the early pecking order, with West Virginia, Texas Tech and Texas rounding out the next group of teams.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2016:
Early Big 12 Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Sooners were a year ahead of schedule in 2015 and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Big 12 and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. After an 8-5 finish in 2014, coach Bob Stoops overhauled his staff with four new assistants and tweaked the offense under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley. Oklahoma’s offense thrived under Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield by averaging 47.2 points a game in Big 12 contests. Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine anchor the 2016 version, but receiver Sterling Shepard will be missed. The offensive line must improve for Oklahoma to contend for the national title and question marks remain with the departure of center Ty Darlington and guard Nila Kasitati. The Sooners led the Big 12 in scoring defense (22 points a game allowed in 2015), and six starters return for coordinator Mike Stoops. However, this unit must replace cornerback Zack Sanchez, linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper.
The Bears have some work to do in the trenches, but there’s enough firepower coming back to Waco to ensure Baylor is back in contention for the Big 12 title. Additionally, coach Art Briles and his staff have upgraded the talent level in recent recruiting classes, allowing the Bears to quickly reload after key personnel losses. Center Kyle Fuller returns to anchor an offensive line that returns just one starter, and KD Cannon becomes the new go-to threat with Corey Coleman off to the NFL. Shock Linwood headlines a loaded backfield, but the biggest question mark on offense resides at quarterback. Seth Russell is expected to return to full strength after a neck injury in October. Will Russell hold onto the starting job or will Jarrett Stidham claim the No. 1 spot this offseason? It’s a good thing Baylor’s offense should have no trouble scoring points next fall, as the defense may need some time to find the right mix with new personnel. Ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer and defensive tackles Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear depart the line, and cornerback Xavien Howard left early for the NFL.
3. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys ended 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but the 10-3 record was a solid rebound for coach Mike Gundy’s team after a 7-6 mark in 2014. Matching 10 wins next fall isn’t unrealistic, especially if the offense continues to average over 40 points a game in Big 12 matchups. J.W. Walsh is not expected to gain a sixth season of eligibility, which leaves Mason Rudolph as the clear No. 1 at quarterback. Rudolph threw for 3,770 yards and 21 scores in 2015 and should take another step forward in his development next fall. Receiver James Washington (20.5 ypc) will be one of the top targets in the Big 12. However, question marks still remain on the offensive line and running back. Seven starters provide a solid foundation for coordinator Glenn Spencer, but the defense is losing some of its top performers from 2015, including end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson. After a favorable home slate in 2015, most of Oklahoma State’s toughest games are on the road in 2016.
Injuries and roster turnover on defense hindered TCU’s hopes of a playoff push in 2015. The Horned Frogs will enter 2016 with lower expectations, as coach Gary Patterson’s team must replace quarterback Trevone Boykin, running back Aaron Green, receiver Josh Doctson and four starters on the offensive line. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is considered the favorite to replace Boykin at quarterback, and the cupboard isn’t bare at running back and receiver. Defense should be a strength for Patterson in 2016. The Horned Frogs return seven starters and cornerback Ranthony Texada, safety Kenny Iloka and end James McFarland are back from season-ending injuries. TCU also has an intriguing home slate, starting with a home non-conference matchup against Arkansas and Big 12 games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
5. West Virginia
Last year’s 8-5 record was West Virginia’s best mark since joining the Big 12 in 2012. Can the Mountaineers take another step forward in 2016? Doing so will require more development from quarterback Skyler Howard and a quick rebuild on defense with only three returning starters. Howard closed out the 2015 season on a high note, throwing for 532 yards and five scores in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. Howard returns four starters up front and four of the top five statistical receivers. Running back Wendell Smallwood will be missed at running back, but Rushel Shell (708 yards in 2015) is capable of carrying the ground attack. The back seven on defense will require the most attention for coordinator Tony Gibson, as linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and cornerbacks Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut leave big shoes to fill.
6. Texas Tech
After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2014, the Red Raiders had a nice bounce back year, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play. Taking a step forward and climbing into the top half of the standings next season starts with improvement on defense. Coordinator David Gibbs was the right hire to fix Texas Tech’s defense, but this unit surrendered 43.6 points a game in 2015 and loses two of its top players in end Pete Robertson and Micah Awe. The good news for Gibbs? The secondary returns largely intact and linebacker Dakota Allen (87 tackles) turned in a solid freshman season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II is one of the nation’s most underrated signal-callers, but he will have to shoulder more of the workload with a revamped offensive line and the departure of running back DeAndre Washington and receiver Jakeem Grant.
The pressure is building on coach Charlie Strong. Can Texas take a step forward in 2016? We’ll see. The Longhorns are 11-14 in Strong’s two seasons and once again begin spring ball with question marks on offense. New assistants Matt Mattox and Sterlin Gilbert were hired from Tulsa to implement a spread attack, but do the Longhorns have a quarterback on the roster to run the offense? Jerrod Heard (1,214 yards, 5 TDs), Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Kai Locksley are back and will be joined by incoming freshman Shane Buechele to compete for the No. 1 job under center. While question marks exist at quarterback, the running back corps (D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III) and receiving corps (John Burt) feature a few promising playmakers. Three starters are back up front, including standout freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe. Strong’s specialty is defense, and this unit returns a handful of promising youngsters to build around, including linebacker Malik Jefferson.
8. Kansas State
Last season’s 6-7 record was the worst mark of coach Bill Snyder’s second stint in Manhattan. Retirement rumors popped up during 2015 for Snyder, but the 76-year-old coach put those to rest after the Liberty Bowl defeat against Arkansas. Snyder is slated to return on the Kansas State sidelines next fall with 11 returning starters. Injuries hit the quarterback position hard in 2015, but Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton will return to full strength and ready to compete with Joe Hubener for the No. 1 spot. Four starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including stalwarts Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson. The defense should be the strength for the Wildcats, as seven starters are back, and safety Dante Barnett returns after missing nearly all of 2015 due to injury.
9. Iowa State
Iowa State gets high marks for the hire of rising star Matt Campbell as the program’s new coach. Campbell went 35-15 at Toledo and should bring improvement to the Cyclones after three seasons of missing out on a bowl. Campbell inherits a few talented pieces on offense to build around, as running back Mike Warren (1,339 yards in 2015) and receiver Allen Lazard (56 catches) should contend for All-Big 12 honors. However, the offense needs more development from quarterback Joel Lanning and the offensive line returns only one starter. Iowa State’s defense returns nine starters, but this unit needs to get better against the pass (111th nationally in pass efficiency defense) and cut down on the yards allowed per play (6.16). It may not show too much in the win column this year, but the Cyclones will take a step forward in Campbell’s first season.
David Beaty’s massive rebuilding project at Kansas enters 2016 looking for small steps in the right direction. The Jayhawks showed some signs of life in league play with close losses to Texas Tech and TCU last year. But there’s a lot of work for Beaty and this staff to do next fall, as Kansas has a 15-game losing streak and the roster is littered with question marks. Quarterback Ryan Willis and running back Ke’aun Kinner are two promising players to build around on offense, and Texas A&M transfer LaQuivionte Gonzales joins the mix at receiver this spring. The defense surrendered 46.1 points a game last season and the overall depth and talent is still a work in progress. Freshmen Dorance Armstrong Jr. (DE) and Daniel Wise (DT), linebackers Joe Dineen Jr. and Marcquis Roberts and senior safety Fish Smithson form a foundation for co-coordinator Clint Bowen to build upon next year.
College football’s 2015 season ended in thrilling fashion, as Alabama edged Clemson for the national championship on Jan. 11. Even though the 2015 season just ended, it’s never too early to start thinking about 2016 and examine some of the teams poised to show improvement in the win column. Michigan, Florida State and Tennessee weren’t in the playoff picture last season, but all three could be a factor in 2016. The Wolverines are poised to take another step forward in coach Jim Harbaugh’s second season, the Volunteers are the favorite to win the SEC East, while the gap between Clemson and Florida State in the ACC Atlantic isn’t as wide as some may think.
With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed this offseason.
There’s a long ways to go until the 2016 season officially begins, but here are 10 teams we think are on the rise for next season.
College Football’s Top 10 Teams on the Rise for 2016
After a 27-1 mark from 2013-14 and a NFL Draft record with 29 players selected over a three-year span, a small step back in the win column was expected for Florida State in 2015. However, the Seminoles still finished 10-3 – with one of those losses coming on an unlucky blocked field goal return for a touchdown against Georgia Tech – and played in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Houston. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has reloaded and is poised to challenge Clemson for the ACC title and a playoff berth next year. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the way on offense, and the offensive line returns standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. Development at receiver and the quarterback battle are Fisher’s biggest question marks on offense. The defense finished second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 4.68 yards per play in 2015 and returns freshmen standouts Josh Sweat (DE) and Derwin James (safety) and All-America candidate DeMarcus Walker. The schedule also breaks in Florida State’s favor. Clemson, Florida and North Carolina visit Doak Campbell Stadium in 2016.
Tom Herman’s arrival as Houston’s head coach propelled the Cougars to one of the best seasons (13-1) in program history. Herman’s encore could be just as successful, as Houston should be the top team from the Group of 5 conferences and ranked in the 10-15 range in most preseason polls for 2016. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leads an explosive offense, but he will have to find a new go-to receiver after Demarcus Ayers left for the NFL, and go-to option at running back after Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson expired their eligibility. The Cougars may ask their offense to shoulder more of the load next season with a defense losing a few key pieces from a unit that limited opponents to 20.7 points per game in 2015. Standout cornerback William Jackson III, linebacker Elandon Roberts and safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart are four big losses for coordinator Todd Orlando. After scoring huge wins over Power 5 teams Florida State, Louisville and Vanderbilt last season, the Cougars will have at least two more opportunities next fall with a neutral site matchup against Oklahoma to start the year, followed by a home game against Louisville in late November.
The ACC’s Atlantic Division will be top heavy next year, as Florida State and Clemson should be in contention for a playoff spot, while Louisville is poised to build off an 8-5 record in 2015. The Cardinals won six out of their last seven games last season, including a 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl and a 38-24 victory over rival Kentucky. Led by dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson, the offense is poised for a breakout season in 2016. Jackson’s rushing ability is a huge asset for an offense looking for the right pieces up front, and this team returns every major contributor at receiver and running back. Linebacker James Burgess and ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei are big losses, but the defense returns largely intact. Linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields will be two of the best in the ACC at their position in 2016, while safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is back after a solid performance in the Music City Bowl. Louisville’s schedule is favorable for a run at 10 wins, including home games against Florida State and Kentucky, along with favorable crossover contests in league play against Duke and Virginia.
Are the Hurricanes ready to take a step forward and finally win the ACC’s Coastal Division? It certainly seems that way. Hiring Mark Richt as the program’s new coach to replace Al Golden was a step in the right direction, and Richt has assembled a solid staff for recruiting and player development. New defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski and coordinator Manny Diaz are key pickups for a defense that’s ranked 10th or worse in the ACC in points allowed per game in three out of the last four seasons. Richt plans to have a prominent role in the offense, and junior quarterback Brad Kaaya is poised for his best season in Coral Gables. Kaaya is surrounded by playmakers at receiver and one of the ACC’s top backfields with the return of Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton. Road trips to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame dot the schedule for Richt’s debut, while the Hurricanes have a favorable draw at home with Florida State and North Carolina visiting Sun Life Stadium.
It’s only a matter of time before Jim Harbaugh has Michigan in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines finished 10-3 in Harbaugh’s debut and closed the year on a high note by dominating Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. Surpassing the 10-win mark in 2016 is realistic, but Harbaugh has to find a new quarterback to replace Jake Rudock and continue to develop a running game that averaged 4.19 yards per carry last season. Regardless of who steps in at quarterback, the Wolverines should have a solid group of targets in the passing game with the return of tight end Jake Butt and receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. The offensive line returns four starters, including All-Big Ten selection Erik Magnuson. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires of the offseason, and the Wolverines return one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines and secondary groups in 2016. There’s a good chance three road dates – at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State – decide just how high Michigan can climb in next year’s playoff picture.
It may come as a surprise to some to see Nebraska mentioned in this space. Despite a 6-7 record in coach Mike Riley’s debut, things are looking up for the Cornhuskers. This team finished 2015 with momentum after a win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl and is due for better luck next fall. Nebraska’s minus-12 turnover margin played a huge role in why this team lost six games by eight points or less. Pushing the turnover margin to even or in the positive category could net an improvement of a couple of games in the win column. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take better care of the ball, but a second offseason under Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf should help the senior have a better grasp of the offense. The biggest concern for Riley is the defense, which must replace standout tackle Maliek Collins and needs overall improvement after giving up 5.88 yards per play in 2015. The schedule has its share of tough games next fall, but Nebraska hosts Oregon in non-conference play and catches Maryland and Indiana in Big Ten crossover action.
After a 6-18 start to his tenure at South Florida, coach Willie Taggart needed to show signs of progress in 2015. Mission accomplished. The Bulls made a four-game improvement in the win column with an 8-5 final mark and an appearance in the Miami Beach Bowl. South Florida fell just short of winning the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and won seven out of their last nine games in 2015. Taggart will have a few voids to address this offseason, as South Florida needs to retool a bit in the trenches, and standout safety Jamie Byrd has expired his eligibility. However, the Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, and the schedule in conference play (no Houston) is manageable. Taggart has South Florida on the right track and there’s also another solid recruiting class on the way to Tampa.
The Volunteers are primed to take another step forward in 2016. After a 5-7 debut in 2013, coach Butch Jones has improved Tennessee’s win total by two games in each of the last two seasons. The best team of Jones’ tenure is in place next fall, starting on offense with the return of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. Four starters are back on an improving offensive line, but the receiving corps has to improve after the passing attack generated only seven plays of 40 yards or more in 2015. Tennessee ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense last year and should be one of the best in the league with the addition of new coordinator Bob Shoop. This unit returns rising stars Kahlil McKenzie (DT) and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin turned down the NFL for one more season in Knoxville. Tennessee should be the favorite in the SEC East Division next year.
With Stanford losing a few key players from its Pac-12 Championship team, and the uncertainty at Oregon, Washington should contend for the conference title next year. The Huskies are 15-12 under coach Chris Petersen and closed 2015 by winning four out of their last six games. Additionally, four out of the team’s six losses came by 10 points or less, including a six-point defeat to Oregon in mid-October. Most of this team’s core returns for 2016, starting with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The defense loses a couple of starters but returns largely intact. The secondary could be one of the best in the nation, while linebacker Azeem Victor is a rising star in the front seven. Washington also hosts Stanford, USC and Arizona State next fall.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see two of the Pac-12’s best teams reside in the state of Washington next year. Washington is a sleeper candidate to win the league next season, and Washington State is coming off its best season (9-4) under coach Mike Leach. Offense – as expected with a Mike Leach-coached team – leads the way for the Cougars. Quarterback Luke Falk threw for 38 scores last season and returns a loaded receiving corps, including Gabe Marks (104 catches in 2015) and River Cracraft (53 receptions). Replacing the left side of the offensive line is Leach’s biggest priority in spring ball. The defense took a step forward in Alex Grinch’s first season as the coordinator. After giving up 38.6 points a game in 2014, the Cougars cut that total to 27.7 in 2015. Linemen Destiny Vaeao and Darry Paulo are big losses, but there are reasons to be optimistic on this side of the ball. Cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are two building blocks in the secondary, while linebacker Peyton Pelluer returns after leading the team with 101 stops in 2015. The Cougars also have a favorable conference schedule, with UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon visiting Martin Stadium next fall.
Five Group of 5 Teams to Watch
The Mountaineers should be the early favorite to win the Sun Belt next season. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team finished 11-2 in 2015 after a victory over Ohio in the Camellia Bowl, with most of this team’s core set to return in 2016. Quarterback Taylor Lamb leads the way on offense, with freshman Jalin Moore a rising star to watch at running back.
San Diego State
A rebound year is expected for Boise State next fall, but don’t forget about San Diego State as a team that could push Houston for the top spot among Group of 5 teams. The Aztecs return most of their core from a team that quietly won 11 games last season, including running back Donnel Pumphrey, safety Malik Smith and cornerback Damontae Kazee.
The Golden Eagles are coming off their best season (9-5) under third-year coach Todd Monken. Standout receiver Mike Thomas will be missed, but quarterback Nick Mullens is back and is a big reason why Southern Miss should get consideration as the favorite in Conference USA next fall.
New coach Jason Candle should keep the Rockets near the top of the MAC next season. Running back Kareem Hunt is one of the MAC’s top playmakers, and left tackle Storm Norton anchors a solid offensive line. The biggest question marks for Candle in 2016 revolve around the defense.
P.J. Fleck has guided Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons, and the Broncos are coming off the first bowl win in program history. The pieces are in place for Western Michigan to win the MAC West next fall. Toledo and Northern Illinois visit Kalamazoo, and the offense is primed for another big season with the return of quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis.
Even though the 2015 season just ended on Monday night, it’s never too early to consider the early favorites for the 2016-17 College Football Playoff.
William Hill Sportsbook has provided the first glance into Vegas’ early favorites for 2016, with two familiar teams (Clemson and Alabama) leading the way at the top.
The Tigers are listed at 6/1 odds, followed by the Crimson Tide at 7/1. Another playoff team from 2015 (Oklahoma) is listed at 10/1.
Here are the full and very early odds from the sportsbook for next season:
|San Diego State||300/1|
Numbers and statistics are a huge part of college football. Every week during the regular season, reading updated box scores and stats is like Christmas for fans and media members. Some stats like total offense and total defense are overrated, but each help paint a picture for a team or particular game. The same can be said after bowl games. While postseason matchups are just one game in sample size of around 13 contests, the bowl games often produce plenty of interesting or intriguing totals. Additionally, the bowl season often allows players to reach various statistical milestones they couldn't hit with just 12 regular season matchups.
Whether the stats are historic, advanced or just an observation from a box score, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the college football bowl action:
20 Amazing College Football Stats from the 2015-16 Bowl Season
4: National Titles by Alabama Under Nick Saban
Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson in the national championship secured the Crimson Tide’s fourth title in seven seasons. And the list of accomplishments and accolades for coach Nick Saban continues to grow, as Alabama has won at least 10 games in eight consecutive seasons and has not finished lower than 10th in the final Associated Press poll during that span.
4,000/1,000: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson Sets FBS Record
Thanks to a monster performance in the national title (478 overall yards), Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson became the first player in FBS history to reach 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
51: Clemson’s Streak of Wins When Leading Into Fourth Quarter
Alabama’s outstanding special teams play helped to lead a 24-point fourth quarter in the national championship, guiding the Crimson Tide to a 45-40 victory. The fourth-quarter performance by Alabama ended Clemson’s streak of wins (51) when leading going into the final 15 minutes.
31: TCU Ties Largest Rally in Bowl History
The odds were stacked against TCU in the Alamo Bowl with starting quarterback Trevone Boykin suspended and a 31-0 deficit at halftime on the scoreboard. However, behind backup quarterback Bram Kohlhausen – and a sluggish Oregon offense without its quarterback Vernon Adams – the Horned Frogs scored 31 unanswered points in regulation to tie (Texas Tech, 2006 Insight Bowl) the largest comeback in bowl history.
645: Baylor Sets Bowl Record for Most Rushing Yards in Single Game
Injuries hit Baylor’s offense hard in the final month of the season, leaving coach Art Briles’ team without quarterbacks Jarrett Stidham and Seth Russell, along with All-America receiver Corey Coleman for the Russell Athletic Bowl matchup against North Carolina. While Russell, Stidham and Coleman were missed, Briles and his staff showed why they are one of the best in the nation by tweaking the offense to fit the personnel available for the bowl game. The Bears gashed North Carolina for 645 rushing yards – a FBS bowl record – on 84 attempts. Johnny Jefferson led the way with 299 rushing yards, while Devin Chafin (161) and Terence Williams (97) also made key contributions.
88: Career Touchdowns by Navy QB Keenan Reynolds
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds clinched his spot in FBS history in the Midshipmen’s 44-28 victory over Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. Reynolds completed 9 of 17 passes for 126 yards and one score and added 144 rushing yards and there touchdowns on the ground. Reynolds ends his career in Annapolis with 88 career touchdowns, which is the most by a player in FBS history.
87: Career Touchdowns by Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon
Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon finished his prolific career in Ruston with 87 overall touchdowns – just one short of Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Dixon rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 113 yards and two scores in Louisiana Tech’s 47-28 win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl.
3,017: Michigan QB Jake Rudock’s Season Passing Yardage Total
Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock capped a solid season with a standout performance in the Wolverines’ 41-7 victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Rudock threw for 278 yards and three scores against the Gators, which pushed his season yardage total to 3,017. Rudock is just the second quarterback in school history to reach 3,000 passing yards in a single season.
625/10: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott’s Rushing Yards and TDs in Bowl Career
Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott only received carries in three bowl games during his career, but he made the most of his opportunities. In those three contests – 2015 Sugar Bowl, National Championship against Oregon and 2016 Fiesta Bowl), Elliott recorded 625 rushing yards and 10 scores.
50-4: Ohio State’s Record Over Last Four Seasons
Ohio State’s senior class closed a prolific four-year run with a victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The win over the Fighting Irish gave the Buckeyes' senior class a 50-4 mark over the last four seasons, which ties Boise State (2008-11) for the most victories in a four-year span.
0.6: Northern Illinois’ Average Yards Per Play Against Boise State
Boise State thoroughly dominated Northern Illinois in a 55-7 rout in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Broncos limited the Huskies to seven first downs, 0.6 average on yards per play, generated five sacks and allowed zero offensive plays longer than 12 yards.
9,000/2,500: Miss. State QB Dak Prescott’s Career Totals Enter FBS Record Book
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott finished his career as only the fourth player in FBS history to pass for more than 9,000 yards and rush for over 2,500. The other three quarterbacks? Florida’s Tim Tebow, Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick.
100: Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd Sets School Bowl Record
Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd became the first player in school history to eclipse 100 rushing yards in two bowl games. Hurd recorded 130 yards and one score against Northwestern this season and rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 attempts against Iowa last year.
200: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson Joins Elite Company With 200/200 Performance
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is a rising star to watch for 2016, as the true freshman eclipsed 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in the Cardinals’ 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Jackson is only the third player in FBS history to reach that mark in a bowl. Additionally, Jackson’s 226 rushing yards against the Aggies is the second most by a quarterback in a bowl.
3: Consecutive 1,000-Yard Seasons by Arkansas RB Alex Collins
Arkansas running back Alex Collins finished his career in Fayetteville with a standout performance (185 yards and three scores) against Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. The junior is off early to the NFL, but his career ends at Arkansas with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Collins is only the third player in SEC history to reach 1,000 rushing yards in three consecutive years.
123-16: Final Scores in Northwestern’s Three Losses in 2015 Season
Northwestern won 10 games for the fourth time in school history this season, but the Wildcats were easily handled (123-16) in their three losses.
368: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey Sets Rose Bowl Record for All-Purpose Yards
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey gashed Iowa for 368 all-purpose yards in the 45-16 Rose Bowl victory for the Cardinal. McCaffrey rushed for 172 yards, caught four passes for 105 yards and added 91 overall yards on returns. The 368 all-purpose yards by McCaffrey were the most in a Rose Bowl.
55: Virginia Tech Sets Bowl Record With 55 Points Against Tulsa
Frank Beamer’s tenure at Virginia Tech ended on a high note. The Hokies defeated Tulsa 55-52 to send the retiring coach out with a victory and finish the 2015 season at 7-6 overall. The 55 points scored by Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl were the most by the Hokies in their bowl history.
3: Wins By 5-7 Teams in the Bowl Season
Allowing 5-7 teams to participate in bowl games wasn’t necessarily the most popular idea, but teams with a losing record weren’t fazed by the chatter. Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State won their postseason matchups, moving 5-7 teams to 3-0 in bowl games this year.
1: Akron and Western Michigan Win First Bowl Games in School History
Akron edged Utah State 23-21 in a defensive battle in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 22. The victory over the Aggies was the Zips’ first bowl win in program history and propelled Akron to its highest win total (eight) since joining the FBS level. Western Michigan defeated MTSU 45-31 in the Bahamas Bowl to also earn the first postseason victory in program history.
* After losing only 10 turnovers in the regular season, Florida State lost five in its loss against Houston in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
* West Virginia and Arizona State combined for 85 points and 1,196 yards in the Cactus Bowl.
* USC recorded only 286 yards of total offense against Wisconsin in the 23-21 Holiday Bowl loss. The 286 yards were the fewest by the Trojans in 2015.
* Florida managed only 28 total yards in the second half of its Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan.
* Michigan State recorded a season-low 29 rushing yards in the Cotton Bowl loss against Alabama.
* Clemson’s defense recorded 18 tackles for a loss in its playoff games against Oklahoma and Alabama.
* Ole Miss’ victory over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl gave the program its first double-digit win total (10) since 2003.
* Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for a career-high 458 yards in the program’s bowl win over Arkansas State.
* WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty ended a prolific career with a huge performance in the Miami Beach Bowl victory over USF. Doughty threw for 461 yards and three scores and completed 32 of 44 passes against the Bulls. Doughty threw a touchdown pass in 28 consecutive games to end his career.
* LSU averaged 10.3 yards per play in its 56-27 victory over Texas Tech. The 10.3 mark is only the second time since 2008 the Tigers averaged double digits in yards per play.
* Three Duke players rushed for over 100 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Indiana.
* Nebraska recorded 326 rushing yards in its Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA. That’s the highest mark for the Cornhuskers under new coach Mike Riley.
* MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill set the FBS record (327) for most completions by a freshman in a single season.
* Georgia Southern rushed for seven touchdowns in its 58-27 bowl win over Bowling Green.
* Auburn’s defense held Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch to 108 passing yards in the Birmingham Bowl. The 108 passing yards are the fewest by Lynch against a FBS opponent in 2015.
College football’s 2015-16 bowl season is officially over. A whopping 41 postseason games dotted the schedule this year, with Alabama edging Clemson 45-40 for the national championship on Monday night. The Crimson Tide’s close victory over the Tigers and entertaining title game made up for a few blowouts in the New Year’s Six matchups. However, the bowl season produced plenty of entertaining games, including TCU’s 47-41 triple-overtime victory over Oregon, Duke’s 44-41 overtime win against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl, and the West Virginia-Arizona State shootout in the Cactus Bowl.
The bowl season had several big-time performances from players at every position, but here are Athlon Sports' picks for the 2015-16 All-Bowl Team.
College Football's 2015-16 All-Bowl Team
|First Team||Second Team|
QB Bram Kohlhausen
RB Alex Collins
RB Devine Redding
RB Derrick Henry
AP Tyler Ervin
San Diego State
FB Chris Swain
WR Michael Thomas
WR Kenny Lawler
WR Calvin Ridley
TE Hunter Henry
OL Sebastian Tretola
OL Jason Spriggs
OL Jerald Hawkins
OL Eric Mac Lain
OL Graham Shuler
DL Delvon Simmons
DL Kenny Clark
San Diego State
DL Aziz Shittu
DL Kamalei Correa
LB Darron Lee
LB Reggie Ragland
LB Aiavion Edwards
CB Brendon Clements
William Jackson III
CB Mackensie Alexander
S Derwin James
S Josh Harvey-Clemons
K Jaden Oberkrom
P JK Scott
KR Shaun Wilson
PR Cyrus Jones
Alabama earned its fourth national championship in seven seasons under Nick Saban, edging Clemson 45-40 in a back-and-forth, entertaining battle in Glendale, Ariz. on Monday night. After several blowouts in bowl season and in the New Year’s Six matchups, the national title game for the 2015 season lived up to the hype and was one of the best matchups of the year. The Crimson Tide and Tigers exchanged punches and scores throughout all four quarters, with the two teams combining for 1,023 overall yards in the game and 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and eventually sealed the victory for the Crimson Tide with a one-yard plunge with just over a minute remaining. The second half was 30 minutes of momentum swings for both teams. Clemson led 24-21 late in the third quarter and had Alabama on its heels after stopping the Crimson Tide’s offense on the next drive. However, Alabama’s defense held the Tigers’ explosive attack and a timely onside kick call early in the fourth quarter eventually moved the momentum and lead on the scoreboard for good in favor of the Crimson Tide.
Five Takeaways from Alabama’s CFB National Championship Win
1. Alabama’s Special Teams Were…Special
The best coaching decision of the night belongs to Alabama’s Nick Saban. After tying the game at 24 with just over 10 minutes left, Saban called for an onside kick. The call was executed perfectly by kicker Adam Griffith and defensive back Marlon Humphrey caught the short kick, allowing the Crimson Tide to gain a possession on Clemson. The following possession? A touchdown gave the Crimson Tide the lead (for good) at 31-24. Punter JK Scott averaged 42.4 yards per punt return and his height on kicks limited Clemson to just 22 punt return yards. Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, extending Alabama’s lead to 38-27. Special teams are often overlooked, but the Crimson Tide’s played a huge role in this game.
2. Big Plays by QB Jake Coker and TE O.J. Howard
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard has all of the physical gifts to be a prominent force in the passing game for the Crimson Tide. However, Howard entered Monday night’s matchup with just 33 catches for 394 yards. The junior took advantage of a few critical breakdowns in the Clemson secondary and hauled in five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Coker’s final stat line (16 of 25 for 335 yards) was solid, but the senior had an uneven performance. However, Coker connected with Howard on three passing plays of at least 50 yards and made a key 38-yard completion to ArDarius Stewart.
3. Solid Performance for the Heisman Trophy Winner
Another game, another workmanlike effort for Alabama running back Derrick Henry. The Heisman Trophy winner recorded 158 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, including a 50-yard score in the first quarter. Henry also reached paydirt on a one-yard run with less than two minutes remaining, which extended Alabama’s lead to 45-33 and essentially clinched the national title for this team.
4. The Best Player on Monday Night was QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama won the national championship, but Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had the top individual performance. The Heisman Trophy finalist provided plenty of headaches for the Crimson Tide defense, completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns and added 73 yards on the ground. Some of Watson’s best plays weren’t recorded in the stat column. When pressure collapsed the pocket, Watson was able to create just enough room for throwing lanes and avoid sacks. He should be the favorite to win the Heisman in 2016.
5. Clemson More Than Held its Own in the Trenches
The battle in the trenches was a key focal point headed into Monday night’s game. Alabama’s defensive line was the best in the nation during the regular season, and the offensive line improved over the second half. However, it was Clemson’s defensive line that won the battle on Monday night. The Tigers sacked quarterback Jake Coker five times and limited running back Derrick Henry to 4.4 yards per carry. End Kevin Dodd wreaked havoc all night around the line of scrimmage, recording seven tackles (five for a loss) and three sacks.
CFB National Championship Awards
Offensive MVP: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Even though Clemson came up short on the scoreboard, a strong case could be made quarterback Deshaun Watson deserves this award. However, let’s hand the hardware to Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who caught five passes for 208 yards and three scores. Howard also delivered a clutch catch for the Crimson Tide, taking a short pass and rumbling 63 yards on 2nd and 12 with just over five minutes to go.
Defensive MVP: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Eddie Jackson was the official pick at the game, but let’s give a tip of the cap to Evans as the Athlon Sports Defensive MVP of the national championship. The sophomore recorded three tackles (two for a loss) and two sacks. Evans’ two sacks were the only ones recorded by Alabama against Clemson’s high-powered attack.
Special Teams MVP: Kenyan Drake, RB/Adam Griffith, K, Alabama
Alabama’s special teams played a huge role in the victory over the Tigers. Punter JK Scott averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but it’s Drake and Griffith splitting this award after delivering clutch plays in the second half. Griffith perfectly executed an onside kick in the fourth quarter, allowing the Crimson Tide to take a 31-24 lead with just over 10 minutes to go in the final period. Drake also followed with a clutch play in the fourth quarter, returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, edging Alabama’s lead to 38-27. Drake finished with 196 yards on five kickoff returns.
The champion of the 2015 college football season will be crowned on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz. as Clemson and Alabama meet in University of Phoenix Stadium with a national title at stake. It’s no secret the superstars and a few x-factors for both teams have to deliver in order to hoist the championship trophy. The Crimson Tide’s defense will be geared to stop the Tigers’ explosive offense, which is led by quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman. When Alabama has the ball, Clemson wants to limit running back Derrick Henry’s damage on first and second downs, forcing quarterback Jake Coker to win this game through the air.
Winning games at any point of the season always starts with individual matchups. Whether it’s an offensive lineman against a defensive end or a cornerback against receiver, matchups are a critical aspect to the outcome. Which matchups might determine the winner on Monday night? Here are five to watch when college football’s national championship starts just after 8:30 p.m. ET.
5 Must-See Player Matchups in Clemson vs. Alabama
Alabama OT Cam Robinson vs. Clemson DE Kevin Dodd/Shaq Lawson
Robinson has been a key piece of Alabama’s offensive line since he stepped on campus in 2014. The Louisiana native has started all 28 games in his career at left tackle and finished 2015 by earning first-team All-SEC honors. Robinson faced a tough defensive line (Michigan State) in the Cotton Bowl, and the sophomore could be matched against Clemson’s All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson on Monday night. However, how healthy is Lawson after a knee injury against Oklahoma? If Lawson is limited, the defensive end position needs more out of Dodd, Richard Yeargin and Austin Bryant. Can Robinson keep the Tigers’ athletic pass rush away from quarterback Jake Coker?
Clemson OT Mitch Hyatt vs. Alabama Defensive Line
Clemson’s offensive line was a question mark entering 2015, but this group emerged as one of the best units in the ACC. The Tigers only allowed 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman to each eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. Hyatt – a true freshman – has been a critical piece of the success for the Tigers in the trenches. However, Monday night is easily the toughest test for Hyatt this year. Alabama’s defensive front is loaded with talent, including three potential first-round picks in Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson. Hyatt and the Clemson offensive line need to keep Watson upright in the pocket in order to win on Monday night.
Alabama LB Reggie Ragland vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
When Clemson’s offense has the ball, this unit wants to go fast, press the tempo and prevent the Alabama defense from subbing in fresh bodies. The Crimson Tide owns the nation’s best front seven, including standout linebacker Reggie Ragland. The senior is the leader is the leader for this unit and plays a critical role in getting all of the defenders aligned before each snap. Additionally, Ragland’s ability to make sure tackles at the line of scrimmage will be critical to limit Watson’s yardage at the line of scrimmage on running plays. If Clemson presses the tempo and Alabama is unable to sub, Ragland’s presence is an asset for coach Nick Saban in keeping the defense aligned against the high-powered attack.
Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander vs. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Alexander is one of the nation’s best cornerbacks and is rarely tested by opposing quarterbacks. Ridley is Alabama’s top weapon in the passing game, catching 83 passes for 1,031 yards and seven scores this season. If Alexander blankets Ridley, the Crimson Tide need receivers ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard to step up as prominent options for quarterback Jake Coker.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry vs. Clemson LB B.J. Goodson
Pencil in any Clemson player outside of the front four in this space. When Henry is able to hit the second level of the defense, the Tigers have to limit the damage and prevent big plays from Alabama’s ground attack. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound back has the size, power and speed to wear on a defense. The three-yard runs in the first quarter often become 10-yard gains in the second half. Depth is an issue for the Tigers and was a big reason why this defense gave up its share of big plays. Goodson and fellow linebacker Ben Boulware were two of the best in the ACC at their position in 2015. Goodson led the team with 98 tackles, recorded 14 for a loss and forced one fumble. Will the senior contain Henry around the line of scrimmage and prevent the Heisman Trophy winner from breaking into the secondary early and often on Monday night?
The 2015 college football season is down to its final game, as Clemson and Alabama are set to meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the national championship. The Tigers handled Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 to clinch a spot in this game, while the Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
These two programs are separated by over 300 miles, but there are plenty of similarities and one big connection. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was a walk-on receiver at Alabama from 1990-92 and later worked as an assistant with the program under Gene Stallings (1996) and again under Mike DuBose (1997-00). Swinney has shaped Clemson into one of the nation’s top 10-15 programs, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. The bar at Clemson has been raised under Swinney’s direction, and a win on Monday night would give this program its first national championship since 1981. The Tigers are college football’s lone unbeaten, headlined by an explosive offense and an athletic, shutdown defense.
College Football Podcast: Alabama vs. Clemson Preview
Playing for national championships, recording double-digit victory totals and winning SEC titles has become the norm at Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide set the standard for the rest of college football, claiming at least 10 victories in each of the last eight seasons. Additionally, Alabama is 3-0 in national championship appearances under Saban and is the only team to claim back-to-back playoff appearances. The Crimson Tide’s path to the national championship game featured an early loss to Ole Miss this season, but Alabama rallied by winning its next 11 games – with only one result coming by 13 points or less.
Alabama leads Clemson 12-3 in the all-time series between these two teams. The last matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide took place in 2008, as Nick Saban’s team won 34-10 in a neutral site game in Atlanta to open the season.
National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama’s Defense Against Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Mobile quarterbacks and spread, up-tempo offenses have provided the most trouble for Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide have made a few tweaks in recent years, and this unit is more adept at matching spread offenses. But Monday night will be the biggest litmus test for this unit from the 2015 season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s best offensive lines lead Clemson’s explosive offense. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year and added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott limited Watson’s rushing attempts early in the year but asked more of the sophomore in the second half of 2015. Watson rushed for 100 or more yards in five out of Clemson’s last six games and finished the year with a healthy 5.5 yards per carry mark. In the 37-17 win over Oklahoma, Watson’s accuracy (51.6) was off, and the sophomore managed only 187 passing yards. It’s no secret Watson is the driving force behind this team. If he struggles, Clemson has no chance to win on Monday night. While the Tigers’ offense is the toughest Alabama will face this year, there’s also an important counter point – Clemson hasn’t faced a defense like the one the Crimson Tide bring to Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11. Alabama has limited opponents to 4.09 yards per play, 13.4 points a game, ranks first with 50 sacks generated and only one team (Ole Miss) scored more than 25 points. Watson’s rushing yardage and ability to keep plays alive with his legs are two of the keys to watch on Monday night. If Watson is stuffed on running plays and Alabama’s defense has a couple of sacks, Clemson is likely to be facing a deficit on the scoreboard. But if Watson has success on the ground, that’s a huge advantage in favor of the Tigers.
2. The Battle in the Trenches
While all of the attention in Monday night’s game is likely to follow Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, this matchup will be won or lost in the trenches. Both units for Clemson and Alabama – offensive and defensive lines – are among the best in the nation. Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall but emerged as a strength behind true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. Alabama’s defensive line is the best in college football, so this will be a monumental challenge for Clemson’s front five. A’Shawn Robinson is the headliner for the Crimson Tide’s front seven, while ends Jonathan Allen (12 sacks) and Jarran Reed are capable of wrecking plenty of havoc. Linebacker Tim Williams (10 sacks) is another asset for Smart and Saban in the pass-rush department. This unit is capable of generating pressure or controlling opposing team’s ground attack with just its defensive line and linebackers.
When Alabama has the ball, it will face a similar challenge against Clemson’s defensive front. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism and speed in the trenches, headlined by end Shaq Lawson and tackle Carlos Watkins. But this unit is a bit of a mystery for Monday night’s game. Lawson is dealing with a knee injury and may not be at full strength. If Lawson can’t play or is at less than full strength, it’s a huge blow for a defense that limited opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and generated 43 sacks in 2015. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly, and this group showed steady improvement over the course of the season. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Alabama altered its usual approach and came out throwing to alleviate the pressure on running back Derrick Henry. Quarterback Jake Coker responded with one of his best efforts of the season, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Can the Crimson Tide’s offensive line protect Coker and successfully open up holes for Henry to run through against a tough Clemson front seven?
3. The Playmakers
Some of college football’s top skill players will be on display in the national championship. Alabama running back Derrick Henry was relatively quiet (75 yards) in the Cotton Bowl, but the low production was largely by design on the strength of Michigan State’s front seven. The Heisman Trophy winner faces another talented front on Monday night and will look to get back on track by recording another huge performance to close out the season. Receiver Calvin Ridley is quarterback Jake Coker’s go-to option in the passing game, but he will be matched against Clemson’s shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Will Ridley break free of the secondary for any big plays?
When Clemson has the ball, this offense has its own set of playmakers at running back and receiver. Wayne Gallman might be one of the nation’s most underrated running backs. In 13 games, Gallman has rushed for 1,482 yards and 12 scores and gashed Oklahoma for 150 yards in the Orange Bowl. Receiver Artavis Scott plays a key role in establishing the screen game for Clemson’s offense, and the sophomore has recorded 89 catches for 868 yards this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama devote most of its attention in the secondary to stopping Scott and forcing the other receivers to make plays. Will the game’s biggest plays come from the players in this group? Or will a few unsung heroes make the biggest difference on Monday night?
Three Under-the-Radar Numbers to Know
Turnover Margin: Alabama +9, Clemson -1
Third-Down Defense: Clemson No. 2 nationally, Alabama No. 5
Plays of 30+ Yards or More Allowed: Alabama: 16, Clemson: 26
Position-by-Position Breakdown of Alabama vs. Clemson
The national championship isn’t a new experience for Alabama and coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are looking for their fourth title in seven seasons and are considered by the Vegas odds to be a touchdown favorite. Clemson has won plenty of big games during coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, but this is the program’s biggest stage and toughest opponent from the 2015 season. In order to beat Alabama, the Tigers need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, press the tempo, allow quarterback Deshaun Watson to make plays with his legs, and force the Crimson Tide to win by going to the air and not grinding it out with running back Derrick Henry. Also, Clemson can’t afford to lose the turnover battle or consistently take field goals instead of touchdowns once it reaches the red zone. Alabama’s gameplan for Monday night is simple. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage, contain Watson and get Henry on track to open up downfield shots for Coker and Ridley. Will Clemson claim its first title since 1981? Or will the Crimson Tide add another title to the trophy case in Tuscaloosa?
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Tim Williams, DL/LB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
Alabama and Clemson will meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the 2015-16 college football national championship. Both teams earned convincing wins in the playoffs, setting the stage for an intriguing matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium. There’s no shortage of star power for the Tigers and Crimson Tide in this game. Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finishing third. In addition to Henry and Watson, players like Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and Alabama lineman A’Shawn Robinson are just a few of the superstars taking the field on Monday night.
While Henry, Watson and the other All-America or all-conference players from Alabama and Clemson are critical to the outlook of either team’s chances of winning the national title, there are always a few x-factors that deliver a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine 10 potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 11.
10 X-Factors for the 2016 College Football National Championship
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama
With Michigan State’s strength in the trenches and a gameplan to stop running back Derrick Henry in the Cotton Bowl, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker. The Crimson Tide came out throwing against the Spartans, and Coker responded by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. The performance in the Cotton Bowl continued a string of solid performances by Coker. He’s tossed zero interceptions over the last four games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight contests. Considering the strength of Clemson’s defense in the front seven and its ability to stop the run, Alabama might have to throw or open up the offense more than it prefers. Can Coker pick up where he left off in the Cotton Bowl?
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
It’s no secret the focus of Alabama’s backfield is with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But the Crimson Tide’s stable of running backs isn’t just a one-man show. Drake has the ability to be the lightning to Henry’s thunder. The senior averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season, recording 407 yards and a touchdown on 76 attempts. Drake was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield, catching 27 balls for 255 yards and a score. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Drake recorded 60 rushing yards on four carries and caught three passes. Don’t be surprised if Kiffin finds a way to get Drake more involved against the Tigers.
Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama
The secondary was Alabama’s biggest concern this preseason, but the defensive backfield finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense (up from 30th in 2014) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage in SEC games. Jones earned Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors after recording three tackles and one interception against Michigan State. Additionally, he scored on a 57-yard punt return in the third quarter. Not only is Jones critical to the success of Alabama’s pass defense, but his ability to change the game with one return is an underrated storyline to watch on Monday night.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Howard is one of the most physically gifted tight ends in the nation. However, Howard only has 33 catches for 394 yards this season and has yet to reach the end zone. Could that change on Monday night? After two games – Auburn and Florida – with zero receptions, Howard recorded three for 59 yards against Michigan State. While Howard’s blocking is valuable, the junior should have opportunities to attack the middle of the field against Clemson.
Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall and entered the year as a question mark. The emergence of Hyatt at left tackle was a big reason why this group was one of the best in the nation by the end of 2015. The true freshman started all 14 games at left tackle for Clemson’s high-powered offense and helped to lead the way for a line that allowed only 16 sacks in 14 contests. Hyatt more than held his own in 2015, but Monday night’s matchup against Alabama in the national championship will be his toughest assignment this season. Will Hyatt win the battles against A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen and keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright in the pocket?
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
If quarterback Jake Coker is the biggest x-factor for Alabama, Lawson is the No. 1 pick for Clemson. The junior was among the nation’s best at defensive end this season, recording 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. However, just how healthy is Lawson? The junior suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma and may not recover to full strength by Monday night. If Lawson plays, how effective can he be against a stout Alabama offensive line? And if Lawson is limited or can’t play, will Kevin Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin match his production?
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Mobile quarterbacks seem to provide the most headaches for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s defenses at Alabama. While Smart and Saban have made a few tweaks to combat spread offenses, containing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a tough assignment for the Crimson Tide defense. In addition to throwing for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year, Watson added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The sophomore recorded at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Will Alabama utilize a spy to contain Watson in the pocket? The Crimson Tide should be able to generate pressure with its defensive line, allowing the linebackers to make plays in space or devote attention to keeping Watson from hitting the edges. Ragland is one of college football’s top linebackers, and as the anchor in the middle, he will play a key role in getting Alabama’s defense aligned against Clemson’s spread attack.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s receiving corps suffered a setback when big-play threat Deon Cain (17.1 ypc) was suspended for the Orange Bowl and national championship. With Cain sidelined, the Tigers needed some of other options to step up and take some of the pressure off of leading receiver Artavis Scott. Renfrow delivered a clutch performance against Oklahoma, catching four passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. With Scott expected to draw a lot of attention from the Crimson Tide secondary, Renfrow should see more opportunities on Monday night.
JK Scott, P, Alabama
Scott is one of the nation’s top punters and a weapon on special teams for Alabama in the battle for field position. The sophomore averaged 44.4 yards per kick in 2015, placed 22 of his 63 punts inside of the 20 and boomed 20 kicks for 50 yards or more. Scott averaged 46.5 yards per punt on six tries against Michigan State, placing four of those inside of the 20. If Scott is able to consistently pin Clemson’s offense in bad field position, that’s a huge advantage for Alabama.
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Mackensie Alexander is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, and the sophomore could be matched on Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Monday night. If Alexander takes on Ridley, that leaves Tankersley against ArDarius Stewart or Richard Mullaney. While the Crimson Tide needs to get the ball in Ridley’s hands, don’t expect quarterback Jake Coker to test Alexander too often. Instead, Coker could utilize Stewart and Mullaney more, attacking Tankersley and the other Clemson cornerbacks. According to CFBFilmRoom.com, Tankersley allowed four completions on seven targets against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
College football’s 2016 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. It’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 128 teams.
Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2016 officially starts.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2016, followed by 10 other teams to watch this offseason: (LOOK FOR OUR 5/16 UPDATED TOP 25 HERE)
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016
The Crimson Tide have their share of personnel losses and question marks to address, but talent certainly isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa. Star running back Derrick Henry is expected to leave for the NFL, while quarterback Jake Coker and center Ryan Kelly expire their eligibility after the national championship. Coordinator Lane Kiffin will start the process of reloading on offense with two talented running backs in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, as well as receiver Calvin Ridley and left tackle Cam Robinson. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett is expected to take the reins at quarterback. The losses on defense will be heavy, but there’s enough talent and depth returning for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to keep this unit among the best in the nation. The schedule features road trips to Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as a neutral site game against USC to open the 2016 season.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy in 2016, and the junior has a strong supporting cast in place, including left tackle Mitch Hyatt and standout receiver Artavis Scott. The receiving corps should receive a boost with the return of Mike Williams (57 receptions in 2014), who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Coordinator Brent Venables has holes to fill on defense, but this unit remained one of the best in the nation despite losing a handful of key contributors from the 2014 group. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and end Shaq Lawson are expected to leave for the NFL, while the linebacking corps must replace standout B.J. Goodson. One huge road block to a repeat for the ACC title – a road date at Florida State.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
The Sooners showed marked improvement in 2015, rebounding from an 8-5 record in 2014 to a playoff spot and an 11-2 mark overall. The eight-win season in 2014 sparked the need for change in Norman, as coach Bob Stoops hired four new assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The addition of Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield paid big dividends for the Sooners. Oklahoma’s offense led the Big 12 (conference-only matchups) in points per game (47.2) and yards per play (7.04) in 2015. Receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington are the biggest losses on offense, but running back Samaje Perine, receiver Dede Westbrook and freshmen linemen Orlando Brown and Dru Samia join Mayfield as key returners on offense. The question marks are bigger on defense, as linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper expired their eligibility, and cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft. The path to the playoffs won’t be easy. Oklahoma plays Houston and Ohio State in non-conference matchups and have road trips to TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia in league play.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were one of the teams hit the hardest by early departures to the NFL Draft. In addition to defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, offensive lineman Taylor Decker and linebacker Joshua Perry expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State lost nine players to the next level, including end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The rebuilding effort for coach Urban Meyer starts at quarterback, as J.T. Barrett finished the year on a high note (19 of 31 for 211 yards against Notre Dame). Barrett will be the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback next season, but Meyer has to reload at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Sam Hubbard should be the new standouts for a defense under the direction of new co-coordinator Greg Schiano. A road trip to Oklahoma and back-to-back matchups against Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan (Nov. 26) will play a huge role in just how high the rebuilt Buckeyes can climb in the playoff picture.
5. Florida State
2015 was a rebuilding year for Florida State, yet the Seminoles won 10 games and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach). Under coach Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons and is poised to push Clemson in the ACC next year. Nearly everyone is back on offense for Fisher, including Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Dalvin Cook. The junior will be running behind an offensive line that should improve over the offseason and is anchored by left tackle Roderick Johnson. Finding a quarterback is Fisher’s top priority, as Sean Maguire will compete with sophomore J.J. Cosentino and freshmen Malik Henry and Deondre Francois for the starting job. After giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2014, the Seminoles’ defense showed marked improvement in 2015. Florida State ranked second in the ACC by holding opponents to 4.68 yards per play, second in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) and generated 32 sacks (up from 17 in 2014). This unit has a few key players to replace – tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup – and cornerback Jalen Ramsey left early for the NFL. A huge schedule advantage for Florida State in 2015 – Clemson, North Carolina and Florida all visit Tallahassee next season.
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were one of the teams hit the hardest by the injury bug in 2015. 38 different players earned a start for coach Brian Kelly’s team, with starting quarterback Malik Zaire lost for the season after Week 2. While the injuries were a huge hit to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in 2015, the added depth and experience should help this team in 2016. Zaire will compete with DeShone Kizer for the starting nod at quarterback, while Tarean Folston returns from injury to team with Josh Adams at running back. The biggest losses on offense will be at receiver (Will Fuller) and on the offensive line (Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin). The overall performance of the defense has to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2015, but tackle Sheldon Day is gone and the status of linebacker Jaylon Smith is uncertain after a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Wolverines took a step forward in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, winning double-digit games (10) for the first time since 2011. And despite a few personnel losses, Michigan is positioned for a run at the Big Ten title in 2016. Finding a quarterback to replace Jake Rudock is the No. 1 priority for Harbaugh, but the offense returns leading rusher De’Veon Smith, and the top three receiving options – wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a group that finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.4 ppg). The Wolverines are stocked up front and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps loses all three starters from 2015. Michigan’s road schedule in conference play is brutal, as trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State await next season.
The Volunteers will open 2016 as the clear favorite in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has brought steady improvement over the last three years, increasing the team’s win total by two in each of the last two seasons after a 5-7 debut in 2013. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd headline an offense that averaged 31.3 points per game in SEC contests in 2015. An area of focus and development for coordinator Mike DeBord this offseason is generating more big plays in the passing game after recording only five of 40 yards or more in 2015. The Volunteers return their deepest and most talented defense under Jones in 2016. Only three senior starters – tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil – depart from the starting 11 from the Outback Bowl. End Derek Barnett, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton anchor the defense next season. The schedule is manageable, but Alabama visits Knoxville and the Volunteers play at Georgia in early October.
LSU isn’t hurting for talent, but coach Les Miles’ team still has question marks on offense. Running back Leonard Fournette returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy and is expected to be the focal point of the offense once again. The receiving corps is anchored by Travin Dural and rising star Malachi Dupre, and the offensive line is in good shape despite losing standout tackle Vadal Alexander. However, the Tigers won’t push Alabama in the SEC West if quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t take the next step in his development. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires for 2016, and the new defensive signal-caller inherits talent on each level of the defense, including end Arden Key and safety Jamal Adams.
Injuries derailed Baylor’s playoff hopes in 2015, and despite a few key losses in personnel, coach Art Briles’ team could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck) and Jarrett Stidham (leg) are expected to return to full strength in 2016, but standout receiver Corey Coleman and four starters on the line must be replaced. The improvement of Baylor’s defense is an underrated part of Briles’ tenure, and coordinator Phil Bennett will have a busy offseason searching for replacements at end (Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer) and cornerback (Xavien Howard). Even with new faces stepping into key roles, Baylor won’t take a huge step back in the win column in 2016.
11. Michigan State
Coach Mark Dantonio is losing several key pieces from the 2015 edition that won the Big Ten Championship and earned a playoff spot in the Cotton Bowl against Alabama. While the Spartans are due to take a step back in the win column, Dantonio has this program on solid ground and a quick rebuild is in store. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will battle this offseason to replace Connor Cook at quarterback, while Dantonio must find replacements for receiver Aaron Burbridge and center Jack Allen. End Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Darien Harris will be missed on defense, but tackle Malik McDowell is back, and linebacker Ed Davis returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
The Pac-12 will be an interesting league to watch in 2016. The expected frontrunners for both divisions feature big question marks, so this conference could be on the outside of the four-team playoff picture once again. Even though the Cardinal is losing a handful of key players, coach David Shaw’s program has earned the benefit of the doubt after winning at least 11 games in four out of the last five years. Running back Christian McCaffrey returns after a historic 2015 season, but he will be taking handoffs from a new quarterback and an offensive line featuring three new starters. The defense has some retooling to do up front, at linebacker with the loss of linebacker Blake Martinez, and the secondary must replace safety Kodi Whitfield and cornerback Ronnie Harris.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons after a 7-6 record in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year (2012). Can Ole Miss take the next step and win the SEC West in 2016? For Freeze to elevate this program into the SEC Championship game next season, he needs a big year from quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior college transfer is one of the few proven quarterbacks in the SEC for 2016, but he won’t have standout receiver Laquon Treadwell or left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the supporting cast next year. The defense loses tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston but returns end Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and safety Tony Conner. Freeze has recruited well, so there is promising young talent in place to fill some of the personnel voids.
14. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys finished 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but coach Mike Gundy’s team has momentum from a 10-win campaign and a good chunk of its depth chart returns in 2016. Quarterback Mason Rudolph headlines the offense, with big-play threat James Washington (20.5 ypc) returning as the go-to target. The top priorities in offseason workouts for Gundy will be improving the offensive line and jumpstarting a rushing attack that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry in 2015. End Emmanuel Ogbah is expected to leave for the NFL, and top cornerback Kevin Peterson expired his eligibility after the Sugar Bowl. While Ogbah and Peterson will be missed, coordinator Glenn Spencer has a solid core to build around this spring. Oklahoma State’s path to a Big 12 title is on the road in 2016, as trips to Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor dot the schedule next fall.
The second year of coach Tom Herman’s H-Town Takeover in Houston could be just as successful as the 2015 version. The Cougars capped an impressive debut under Herman with a 13-1 record and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. A strong core returns for Herman to build around in 2016, including quarterback Greg Ward (281.1 total yards per game in 2015), receiver Chance Allen and offensive lineman Will Noble. The defense loses a handful of key contributors – linebacker Elandon Roberts, safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart and cornerback William Jackson III – but coordinator Todd Orlando should keep this unit performing at a high level. Houston also has a huge showcase in next season’s opener – a trip to NRG Stadium in Houston to take on Oklahoma.
Related: College Football’s Awards for 2015
The Trojans will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2016. New coach Clay Helton begins his first full season as the program’s head coach, and USC returns enough talent to win the Pac-12 South once again. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this offseason to replace Cody Kessler at quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis and a solid offensive line until the passing attack develops behind a new signal-caller. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be one of the best in the nation in 2016. The defense is Helton’s biggest concern, especially in the front seven where Delvon Simmons (DT), Antwaun Woods (NT) and linebacker Su’a Cravens depart. The secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and rising star Iman Marshall. A brutal schedule is on tap for USC next season, starting with a neutral site affair against Alabama in Week 1 and includes road dates at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA. Additionally, USC hosts Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State next year.
Kirk Ferentz 3.0 was nearly enough for Iowa to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Hawkeyes won’t fly under the radar in 2016, as Iowa should open next season as the favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had a breakout season in 2015 and returns to anchor the offense. Replacing running back Jordan Canzeri, receiver Tevaun Smith and offensive linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe top the priority list for coordinator Greg Davis this spring. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and received a boost with the announcement top cornerback Desmond King would return for his senior year. All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott was limited to six games due to injury and applied for an additional year of eligibility. The schedule is also a huge advantage for Iowa, as Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2016.
18. North Carolina
In addition to the ACC Coastal title, the Tar Heels are coming off their first double-digit win total for the first time since 1997. The momentum for coach Larry Fedora should continue in 2016, as North Carolina is the early favorite to win the Coastal once again. Mitch Trubisky will replace Marquise Williams at quarterback, and running back Elijah Hood is poised to build off a strong sophomore campaign (1,463 yards). The biggest losses on offense will be guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis. The defense showed marked improvement in Gene Chizik’s first season and returns largely intact next fall. North Carolina’s schedule features a few intriguing games, including a road trip to Florida State and a neutral site matchup against Georgia in Week 1.
Looking for a sleeper pick to win the Pac-12 in 2016? Take a look at Chris Petersen’s Huskies. Washington was slated for a rebuilding year in 2015, and this team finished with at three-game winning streak to get to 7-6 overall. The biggest reason for optimism in 2016 is the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin after impressive freshman seasons, while the defense returns nearly intact after leading the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 points per game allowed) and the fewest yards per play (4.9). The Huskies visit Oregon next year but Stanford, USC and Arizona State visit Seattle.
It’s a new era in Athens, as Mark Richt is out after 15 seasons on the Georgia sideline. New coach Kirby Smart knows his way around the SEC as a former Georgia player and assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007. The first order of business for Smart and new play-caller Jim Chaney is to address an offense that averaged only 22.9 points per game in SEC contests. Five-star recruit Jacob Eason could be the immediate answer at quarterback, while running back Nick Chubb is slated to return in 2016 from a serious knee injury. Smart’s specialty is defense, and the first-year coach inherits a group that limited opponents to 16.9 points per game in 2015. There’s a solid core of talent in place for Smart on defense, but the linebacking corps loses Jake Ganus, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
The Horned Frogs were a trendy pick to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015, but injuries and roster turnover on defense prevented a run at the Big 12 title. However, playing time for young players in 2015 should help with the transition in 2016. Coach Gary Patterson’s team will have its share of question marks this offseason, starting at quarterback with Trevone Boykin’s replacement. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is the frontrunner to replace Boykin, but the Horned Frogs lose four starters on the offensive line and receiver Josh Doctson is out of eligibility. Defense should be a strength for TCU in 2016 with the return of cornerback Ranthony Texada, linebacker Sammy Douglas and end James McFarland from injury, along with returning seniors Josh Carraway (DE), Aaron Curry (DT) and safety Denzel Johnson. The schedule features a favorable home slate, including games against Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and the arrow is clearly pointing up for coach Bobby Petrino’s team for 2016. Quarterback Lamar Jackson capped a solid freshman season with 453 total yards in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M and is poised for even bigger things next fall. The Cardinals also return every key receiving threat from 2015, running back Brandon Radcliff and left tackle Geron Christian (started all 13 games as a true freshman last season). The defense has been a strength for Petrino over the last two years and will be one of the best in the ACC once again. Linemen Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei and linebacker James Burgess are the biggest losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. A strong core is in place for Grantham 2016, which includes linebacker Keith Kelsey, tackle DeAngelo Brown and defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. The Cardinals have to play Clemson and Houston on the road next year, but Florida State and rival Kentucky visit Louisville.
23. Washington State
The Cougars opened 2015 with a disappointing loss to Portland State but ended with nine wins, a Sun Bowl victory over Miami and optimism for 2016. Coach Mike Leach’s team will be a factor in the North Division next season, as quarterback Luke Falk returns and receiver Gabe Marks is back to anchor a deep receiving corps. The biggest concern on offense is the loss of two linemen, including standout left tackle Joe Dahl. Washington State’s defense took a step forward under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch by holding opponents to 27.7 points per game in 2015. This unit needs to retool a bit in the front seven, but cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are key pieces for Grinch to build around next fall. The Cougars have a favorable schedule in conference action by missing USC in crossover play and visits by UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to Pullman.
The Ducks are one of the hardest teams to slot in an early top 25 for 2016. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team still has a cast of talented skill players in place, including running back Royce Freeman and receiver Darren Carrington. However, the line loses standouts in tackle Tyler Johnstone and center Matt Hegarty, and the quarterback position is up for grabs, with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop the favorite to replace Vernon Adams. Oregon’s defense is in need of repair after giving up 6.03 yards per play in 2015. Play-caller Don Pellum was demoted to linebackers coach, and the new coordinator inherits a group losing standout end DeForest Buckner and linebackers Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. But the Ducks catch a break in scheduling, as Stanford and Washington visit Eugene in 2016.
Jim McElwain’s first season at Florida was a successful one due to the SEC East title, but the Gators struggled on offense at the end of 2015 and lose a handful of key contributors on defense. Needless to say, McElwain has his work cut out for him this spring. Finding a quarterback is McElwain’s biggest priority, and Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is a name to watch in the battle to start under center. Receiver Antonio Callaway will be even better as a sophomore, but running back Kelvin Taylor is leaving early for the NFL Draft. Improving the offensive line is also a necessity for McElwain after this unit allowed 45 sacks in 2015. The strength of last season’s team was its defense, but lineman Jon Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III leave big shoes to fill.
10 Teams to Watch
Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins (assuming he leaves for the NFL) and tight end Hunter Henry will be difficult to replace. However, coach Bret Bielema has established a solid foundation in Fayetteville to prevent a significant drop-off in 2016.
The Tigers were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2015. Can coach Gus Malzahn get this program back on track? There’s a lot of talent, but Auburn won’t push for a spot in the top 25 without an answer at quarterback.
The Broncos took a step back in coach Bryan Harsin’s second year, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2016. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols return to anchor an explosive offense, and the schedule is favorable with Washington State, Colorado State and Utah State traveling to Boise State.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hurricanes sneak into some preseason top 25 lists with new coach Mark Richt at the controls. Richt will have plenty of talent to work with, including junior quarterback Brad Kaaya and running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby.
Wildcats were anchored by a standout defense in 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team needs more from the offense to contend in the Big Ten West next year.
Willie Taggart has South Florida trending in the right direction after an 8-5 mark in 2015. The Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, while the defense looks to take another step forward under coordinator Tom Allen.
Is 2016 a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M? Landing Trevor Knight as a graduate transfer at quarterback helps to alleviate some of the concern under center, but the Aggies have to take another step forward on defense and find the right answers on the offensive line.
The 8-5 mark by UCLA in 2015 was its lowest win total under coach Jim Mora. However, the Bruins should be USC’s biggest obstacle to a Pac-12 South title next fall. Running back Paul Perkins is gone and the offensive line has a few concerns, but quarterback Josh Rosen is back after a standout freshman season. The defense has holes to fill with the departure of linebacker Myles Jack and tackle Kenny Clark to the NFL.
Justin Fuente was one of the top coaching hires of college football’s coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for a program that’s struggled on that side of the ball in recent years. The defense remains in Bud Foster’s hands, but the line must be overhauled in 2016.
The Badgers quietly won 10 games in 2015, with two of their losses – Northwestern and Iowa – coming by six points or less. And the other loss? Alabama. Running back Corey Clement returns next fall, and the defense returns one of the top linebacker units in college football. However, coordinator Dave Aranda will be missed, a new quarterback must be found, and the secondary loses standouts Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo.
Alabama has set the standard for the rest of college football to aim for in recent seasons, as the Crimson Tide have won three national championships under coach Nick Saban and were the only team to make the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Saban is a perfect 3-0 in National Championship contests at Alabama and is considered the favorite by Vegas to win on Jan. 11 over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. Even though the Crimson Tide have inked the No. 1 recruiting class in five consecutive years, it’s not just about assembling talent for Saban and this coaching staff. Alabama thrives at roster and player development, which has translated into eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins.
The 2015 version of the Crimson Tide isn’t much different than Saban’s previous teams. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart have assembled a suffocating defense, and the offense leans heavily on running back Derrick Henry and a standout offensive line. Alabama suffered a 43-37 loss against Ole Miss in mid-September and finished the year by winning 11 consecutive games, including 10 of those matchups by 13 points or more. Why will the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers? Here are five reasons to believe in Saban’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson for the National Title
1. Alabama’s Defense is the Best in the Nation
Defense wins championships. That’s an old cliché mentioned when discussing playoff or championship games, but there is some truth in that statement. Saban and Smart have developed a factory of elite defenses at Tuscaloosa, and the 2015 version ranks among the best in college football over the last five years. Alabama’s defense led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (13.4) and ranks second nationally in yards per play allowed (4.09). The dominance extends after a deeper look at the stat sheet. The Crimson Tide led the nation with 50 sacks, ranked fifth in third-down defense, have allowed only 11 touchdowns on 25 red zone trips, forced 26 turnovers and rank first nationally in rush defense. Even though Ole Miss (40.8 ppg) ranks higher on the scoring offense stat sheet, Clemson’s explosive attack (38.4 ppg) will be the toughest challenge for Alabama’s defense in 2015. Mobile quarterbacks have provided the most problems for the Crimson Tide defense in recent years, but Smart and Saban made a few tweaks, which allowed this unit to be more effective against spread offenses. Additionally, the secondary climbed from No. 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense (2014) to No. 4 in 2015. Even if the Tigers land a few big plays, the Alabama defense still has the necessary personnel, depth, talent and scheme to keep Clemson’s dynamic offense in check.
2. Battle in the Trenches
Alabama’s defense is loaded with NFL talent at each level, starting in the trenches with tackle A’Shawn Robinson and ends Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen. Robinson sets the tone up front with his ability to win the battle at the point of attack, allowing a standout group of linebackers opportunities to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Allen led the team with 12 sacks, while Reed registered eight quarterback hurries and is another 300-pound athletic force up front. The talent extends to the linebacking corps, as senior Reggie Ragland is one of the best in the nation at this position, and Tim Williams finished second on the team with 10.5 sacks. Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall are two other key cogs in this unit, while Reuben Foster (64 stops) is known for his big hits. Clemson’s offensive line was its biggest question mark on offense to open 2015, but this unit emerged as a strength by January. While the line has played well since a few early-season struggles, this unit has not faced a defense with the overall depth, talent and athleticism the Crimson Tide will bring to Glendale, Ariz. It's not just the defense playing with a stacked depth chart in terms of talent in the trenches. When Alabama is on offense, expect its line to challenge Clemson’s standout defensive front. Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are two of the nation’s best at their respective positions, and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher has started all 14 games at left guard. The Tigers overwhelmed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl with their talent in the trenches. However, Alabama is stocked up front and capable of beating Clemson for the edge at the line of scrimmage.
3. Alabama QB Jake Coker is Ready to Step Up
Coker’s performance in Alabama’s win over Michigan State was one of the biggest storylines in the College Football Playoff. With the Spartans expected to focus on stopping running back Derrick Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker in the Cotton Bowl. The senior delivered with a sharp performance, completing 25 of 30 throws for 286 yards and two scores. Coker’s 286 passing yards were a season high and continued a run of improvement for the Mobile native. The senior has tossed only one interception over the last six games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each contest during that span. With an elite defense and ground attack at his disposal, Coker doesn’t have to carry the Alabama offense. However, the senior needs to limit mistakes and deliver the ball to a solid group of playmakers at receiver in space. Clemson’s secondary is sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense, while the front seven helps the Tigers rank 18th nationally against the run. With Clemson having the necessary talent up front to slow Henry’s production on the ground, Coker may need to replicate his production from the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 11. Judging by his recent performance, the senior is up to the task.
4. Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Henry wasn’t a complete afterthought in the 38-0 win over Michigan State, but the Heisman Trophy winner only recorded 75 yards and two scores on 20 carries. Additionally, the 3.75 average on attempts was the second-lowest total of the season for the junior. While those statistics are notable, the opponent had a lot to do with Henry’s workload, production and focus on the gameplan for Alabama. With the Spartans gearing up to stop Henry, the Crimson Tide focused more on opening up the passing attack. Clemson is expected to use a similar approach on Jan. 11, as the Tigers own one of the nation’s best front sevens and limited opponents to 124.4 rushing yards per game in 2015. But a deeper look at those totals suggests Henry and the Alabama offensive line could find success. The Tigers allowed 197 rushing yards to Florida State, 242 to Syracuse, 181 to North Carolina and 142 to South Carolina. Clemson also allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and may not have standout end Shaq Lawson available due to injury. Henry may not find much success early, but two-yard carries could become eight-yard rushes in the fourth quarter. The junior stepped up in Alabama’s clutch situations or when the offense needed to grind out the clock late in games, and it’s a safe assumption Henry will play a key role in the Crimson Tide’s hopes of winning on Jan. 11.
5. The Nick Saban Advantage
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer isn’t far behind, but Alabama’s Nick Saban should sit at the top of any list ranking the best coaches in college football. In a one-game scenario with a national championship on the line, it’s tough to pick against Saban and this Crimson Tide coaching staff. Saban has won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons and went 7-1 in SEC play each year during that span. While last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff was a surprise, Alabama went 3-0 in appearances in the BCS National Championship under Saban. In addition to Saban, the Crimson Tide’s staff is loaded with experience in the assistant ranks. Lane Kiffin was a shrewd hire for Saban, adding a few spread, up-tempo elements to the offense, and his gameplan against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was flawless. The national championship matchup versus Clemson is Smart’s final game at Alabama, as he will take over at Georgia as the head coach on a full-time basis after this contest. While Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has emerged as one of the top 10-15 coaches in the nation, and coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best assistants in college football, the edge in coaching goes to Alabama and Saban. With a quick turnaround to the national championship game, as well as getting the players focused on the Jan. 11 contest, the experience, development of gameplans and track record of Saban is a huge asset for the Crimson Tide. If a team needs to win one game in any scenario, there's not a better coach to have on its side than Saban.
Clemson is 60 minutes away from the second national championship in program history. Under coach Dabo Swinney’s direction, Clemson has emerged as one of the nation’s top programs, winning at least 10 games in each of the last five years. 2015 has been a historic season for coach Dabo Swinney’s squad. The Tigers are college football’s only remaining unbeaten team, won the ACC title, handled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and bring a 17-game winning streak to Glendale, Ariz. for the national title matchup against Alabama. Swinney’s team has thrived behind an explosive offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, while the defense quickly reloaded behind standout coordinator Brent Venables.
While Clemson has won a lot of big games under Swinney’s watch, the national championship matchup against Alabama is the biggest stage this program has experienced in recent years and the toughest game on its 2015-16 schedule. Why will the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide? Here are five reasons to believe in Swinney’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, but a strong case could be made Watson is the best or most valuable player in the nation. Watson showcased his potential as a true freshman in 2014, throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. However, Watson was limited due to injuries, including a torn ACL suffered in late November against Georgia Tech. The sophomore showed no ill-effects from last season’s injuries and emerged as the nation’s best quarterback in 2015. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores and recorded 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. The sophomore became more of a factor in the ground attack over the second half of the season, recording at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Watson is the type of quarterback that has provided the most headaches for Alabama’s defense in recent years. The Crimson Tide have lost seven games over the last five seasons, and there’s a familiar pattern among the quarterbacks – Jordan Jefferson, Johnny Manziel, Trevor Knight, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly – mobility or the ability to extend plays with their legs. Not only is Watson a sharp passer, but the sophomore’s legs and ability to extend plays will be a huge asset and provide plenty of headaches for Alabama’s defense.
2. Clemson’s Offensive Line Can Handle Alabama’s Defensive Front
Despite returning only one starter on the offensive line, Clemson’s front five has been one of the best in college football this year. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.99 yards per carry. This unit had its share of ups and downs early but showed steady improvement over the course of the season. True freshman Mitch Hyatt started all 14 games and joined guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo as the anchors for this group. In the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked just once and the offense recorded 312 rushing yards. Alabama’s defensive front is the best in the nation and will present a tougher challenge than the one the Tigers played in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. However, with the development of Clemson’s offensive line throughout the year, combined with Watson’s mobility, the Tigers have the pieces in place to match the play of the Crimson Tide in the trenches.
3. Clemson’s Defensive Line Can Create Problems for the Alabama OL
As mentioned in the previous section, Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker units form the nation’s best front seven. However, Clemson isn’t too far down the list of best defensive fronts in college football. Under the watch of coordinator Brent Venables and defensive line assistants Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, the Tigers quickly reloaded up front after losing several key pieces at the end of the 2014 campaign. Gone from last season’s front that led the nation with 131 tackles for loss were ends Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Vic Beasley and tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Despite the personnel losses, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. End Shaq Lawson was the unit’s top performer, recording 10.5 sacks and earning second-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. However, Lawson isn’t the only standout for this defense in the trenches. Junior Kevin Dodd (18.5 TFL, 9 sacks) is another threat off the edge, while the interior is in great shape with Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader and Christian Wilkins. B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are two standouts in the linebacking corps, and both players are active around the line of scrimmage. Lawson suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma, and his status is uncertain for Jan. 11. Even if Lawson is sidelined, Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin are capable of creating plenty of havoc against Alabama’s offensive line and slowing running back Derrick Henry. Clemson ranks 18th nationally against the run and first in tackles for loss (117).
4. Playmakers at Running Back and Wide Receiver
With speed and athleticism at running back and receiver, Clemson’s skill talent can put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s defense. Wayne Gallman might be the nation’s most underrated running back, recording 1,482 yards and 12 scores on 269 carries this season. Gallman has the speed to attack the edges, while also bringing an element of power to attack the middle of the field. Zac Brooks and C.J. Fuller will spell Gallman at running back. The receiving corps won’t have Deon Cain available due to suspension, but Artavis Scott (89 catches) is the team’s go-to option. Scott’s ability to make plays off screen passes helps to set up the deep balls to Charone Peake (14.0 ypc) and Germone Hopper (15.1 ypc). Tight end Jordan Leggett (35 catches) is another valuable weapon for Watson, and freshman Hunter Renfrow (15.5 ypc) is a security blanket over the middle. In order to beat Alabama’s defense, offenses have to spread the field and attack a secondary that ranked ninth in the SEC by giving up 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more. That's exactly the type of ability Clemson's group of skill players will bring to Glendale, Ariz. and Alabama's defense on Jan. 11.
5. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
Alabama’s receiving corps faced question marks to open the season after the loss of the top three options – Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones – from 2014. However, this group has improved over the course of the season, significantly helped by the emergence of freshman Calvin Ridley. In 14 games, Ridley has grabbed 83 receptions for 1,031 yards and seven scores. Additionally, ArDarius Stewart (61 grabs) and Richard Mullaney (37 catches) stepped up in 2015 and made key receptions in the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State. Tight end O.J. Howard (33 receptions) is another weapon Clemson will have to account for on Jan. 11. Clemson’s secondary has surrendered a few big plays (16 of 30 yards or more), but this unit features a lockdown All-America cornerback in Mackensie Alexander, while safety Jayron Kearse (second team) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (third team) earned All-ACC honors. Expect to see Alexander matched on Ridley on Jan. 11, which forces Alabama to rely more on Stewart and Mullaney. If Alexander contains Ridley, that’s a huge advantage in Clemson’s favor in the national championship.
Alabama is 60 minutes from another national championship after a thorough and dominant 38-0 victory over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. With the Spartans geared up to stop running back Derrick Henry, coach Nick Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Coker. The senior responded with an efficient and effective effort, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Receiver Calvin Ridley caught eight of Coker’s passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s defense allowed only 239 yards and forced two turnovers in a dominant effort.
Miss the Alabama victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Crimson Tide’s easy win:
1. Alabama QB Jake Coker connects with WR Calvin Ridley to set up the first touchdown:
2. Alabama's Cyrus Jones scores on a 57-yard punt return to lead 24-0:
3. Alabama RB Derrick Henry stiff arms Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun:
4. Alabama QB Jake Coker finds WR Calvin Ridley on a 50-yard touchdown pass:
When Jake Coker throws to Calvin Ridley, good things happen. https://t.co/1Tw2yTEC6R— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2016
5. Alabama LB Dillon Lee snags a nifty interception to end a late Michigan State drive:
Clemson booked a trip to the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. with a 37-17 victory over Oklahoma on Thursday night. The Tigers won the battle at the line of scrimmage, got huge performances from quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, and overcame a few problems in the red zone in the first half to score a convincing victory in the Orange Bowl.
Miss the Clemson victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Tigers’ impressive win:
1. Quarterback Deshaun Watson connects with Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown:
Idk why so many people slept on Clemson. pic.twitter.com/DP1LDYsNNl— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) December 31, 2015
2. Quarterback Deshaun Watson scores on a five-yard touchdown run:
It's like he stops, thinks, and says "I'm Deshaun Watson, I'll take this." pic.twitter.com/8TTH6HnmFD— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) December 31, 2015
3. Linebacker Ben Boulware intercepts Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in the fourth quarter:
4. Quarterback Deshaun Watson somehow escapes the Oklahoma rush in the first half:
5. Fake punt helps spark Clemson in the first half:
And finally: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after a fourth-quarter touchdown:
Oregon and TCU bring their high-powered offenses to San Antonio, Texas on Saturday night for a showdown in the 2016 Alamo Bowl. This bowl was one of the most anticipated matchups of the postseason but lost some of its appeal on Thursday morning. TCU starting quarterback Trevone Boykin was arrested after an incident in San Antonio and is suspended for Saturday's contest. The Ducks and Horned Frogs average over 40 points a game, but Boykin's absence is a huge setback for TCU.
Oregon was expected to take a small step back in the post-Marcus Mariota era, and the Ducks’ 2015 campaign and Pac-12 North title hopes suffered an early blow when Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams was injured in the opener. Adams eventually returned to full strength and guided the Ducks to six consecutive wins to close out 2015. With Adams back at 100 percent, Oregon’s up-tempo attack was firing on all cylinders, as the Ducks scored at least 38 points in five out of their last six games. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team will have a full and healthy arsenal of weapons available for this game, but the play-calling duties will be altered with coordinator Scott Frost accepting the head coach job at UCF. Helfrich and receivers coach Matt Lubick will handle the play-calling duties on Saturday night.
With quarterback Trevone Boykin and an explosive offense in place, TCU was picked by some as a national title contender this preseason. The Horned Frogs started 8-0 but injuries and the roster turnover on defense was eventually too much for coach Gary Patterson’s team to overcome. TCU went 2-2 over its last two games, which included a one-point defeat to Oklahoma without Boykin under center, as well as a 28-21 victory over Baylor in a monsoon on Nov. 27. While TCU failed to make a push for a playoff spot, there’s still plenty for Patterson’s team to play for, including an 11-win season and a chance to finish in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. With Boykin suspended, it's up to backups Foster Sawyer and Bram Kohlhausen to finish the season out on a high note for the Horned Frogs.
This is only the third meeting on the gridiron between TCU and Oregon. The overall series is tied at one victory apiece, and the last meeting between the Ducks and Horned Frogs took place in 1978.
Alamo Bowl: TCU vs. Oregon
San Antonio, Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU - 1
Three Things to Watch
1. Vernon Adams vs. TCU's Quarterbacks
Outside of the Orange Bowl duel between Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, there wasn't a better or more anticipated quarterback showdown in a postseason game than the one in San Antonio between Oregon’s Vernon Adams and TCU’s Trevone Boykin. However, the outlook on this matchup changed significantly with Boykin's suspension. Despite missing three games due to injury and playing sparingly against Utah, Adams finished with 2,446 passing yards and 25 scores and completed at least 73 percent of his throws in each of Oregon’s last three games. The Eastern Washington transfer was only on campus for one season, but Adams has made a huge impression. The senior is adept at using his mobility to slide around the pocket and keep plays alive and generated 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Boykin was more of a true dual-threat quarterback, as he passed for 3,575 yards and 31 touchdowns and added 612 yards and nine scores on the ground in 2015. Senior Bram Kohlhausen and freshman Foster Sawyer both played in critical moments for TCU this season, and Kohlhausen is expected to start. The senior completed 27 of 43 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns but doesn't have the mobility Boykin brought to the offense. How much of the offense will co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham alter with Kohlhausen and Sawyer taking snaps? Both quarterbacks are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including 1,000-yard rushers at running back (Royce Freeman, Oregon and Aaron Green, TCU), solid offensive lines and big-play threats at receiver. Both defensive backfields had their share of breakdowns in the secondary this season and there will be opportunities for big plays from both offenses. All eyes in San Antonio, Texas will be on the quarterbacks, as Adams looks to finish the year on a high note, while Kohlhausen/Sawyer steps in for Boykin.
2. Getting Defensive
Even though Boykin is suspended, TCU should be able to move the ball on Oregon's defense. And with Adams under center for the Ducks, it's no secret the Horned Frogs will have their hands full on Saturday night. With both teams possessing a bevy of talented skill players, this matchup could be decided on which defense can make enough timely stops. It’s unlikely either defense will control the pace of the game, so getting stops in the red zone, on third downs and forcing turnovers is critical. TCU’s defense holds the edge in third down and red zone stops, while Oregon’s unit holds a slight advantage in forcing turnovers (21 to 18) and in sacks (36 to 28). The Ducks’ defensive efforts are led by standout lineman DeForest Buckner (16 TFL and 9.5 sacks), while the linebacking corps features the steady play of Joe Walker (82 tackles), Rodney Hardrick (72 stops) and Tyson Coleman (10 TFL). However, the secondary has been a problem spot for this team, ranking 95th nationally in pass efficiency defense. It’s up to Buckner and the linebacking corps to slow TCU running back Aaron Green and get to Kohlhausen/Sawyer in the pocket. When Oregon has the ball, TCU’s defensive front has to win the battle in the trenches, force the Ducks behind the chains and keep this offense from getting into its fast tempo.
3. TCU’s Receiving Corps and RB Aaron Green
There’s no doubt TCU is going to miss standout receiver Josh Doctson against Oregon. The senior caught 79 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 scores before suffering a season-ending wrist injury against Kansas. Boykin’s ankle injury and the weather against Baylor skewed the passing totals late in the season. However, it’s noteworthy TCU’s lowest passing performances all took place with Doctson out of the lineup. With a month to prepare, co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham should be able to shuffle the receivers and make the necessary adjustments to fortify Boykin’s supporting cast. But who will step up as TCU’s go-to receiver against Oregon’s struggling secondary? Of course, that question even tougher to answer with Boykin sidelined. Is freshman KaVontae Turpin (14.6 ypc) the top option? Or will the Horned Frogs feature Shaun Nixon or the speedy Kolby Listenbee more against the Ducks? Doctson’s production and presence will be tough to replace, but TCU has proven options. Will those receivers step up with the game on the line Saturday night? Without Boykin, Oregon's defense should expect to see a lot of running back Aaron Green. The senior rushed for 1,171 yards this season and faces a defense that ranked sixth in the Pac-12 against the run. The supporting cast for TCU is even more critical without Boykin at the controls.
Before Boykin's suspension, all signs pointed to an offensive shootout and one of the highest-scoring games of the postseason. However, with Boykin sidelined, those expectations should be tempered. With only two days to prepare Kohlhausen or Sawyer, TCU has a tough assignment ahead on Saturday night. The Horned Frogs need a huge effort from their defense and running back Aaron Green to knock off the Ducks. Oregon closed out the regular season as one of the hottest teams in college football. However, did the month off from game action cool Helfrich’s offense? Maybe a little. Even if TCU finds a way to slow Oregon's offense, it's asking a lot of Kohlhausen and Sawyer to replicate Boykin's production and overall impact on a defense. The Ducks' sluggish defense keeps the Horned Frogs in it, but Adams and Freeman eventually put this one away for Oregon in the second half.
Prediction: Oregon 45, TCU 30
The Fiesta Bowl couldn’t have asked for a better or more interesting matchup, as Ohio State and Notre Dame are set to tangle in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes-Fighting Irish contest is one of the most intriguing bowl games on the postseason slate this year. Not only does this game feature two of the premier programs in college football, these two teams were just a couple of plays away from a different total in the win column and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Injuries hit Notre Dame hard in 2015, as starting running back Tarean Folston was lost for the year after the opener against Texas, and No. 1 quarterback Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 against Virginia. Injuries to Folston and Zaire weren’t the only ailments to hit coach Brian Kelly’s team, but those two were the biggest during the year that forced the coaching staff to shuffle things on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer stepped up in Zaire’s absence, while C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams successfully handled the workload for Folston on the ground. Despite the injuries, the Fighting Irish were just a couple of plays away from a perfect season. Notre Dame lost 24-22 in a monsoon against Clemson on Oct. 3 and fell on a last-second field goal at Stanford on Nov. 28.
Ohio State entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to repeat, but all of the pieces never fell into place for coach Urban Meyer. Despite an offense that never seemed to be firing on all cylinders, the Buckeyes started 10-0 but stumbled in a 17-14 defeat against Michigan State on Nov. 21. Ohio State rebounded from the loss against the Spartans with a 42-13 win over rival Michigan in the regular season finale. While it’s hard to consider an 11-1 record a disappointment, the Buckeyes expected to be in Arizona on Jan. 11 playing for the national championship – not playing on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl. Will motivation be a concern for Meyer’s team?
Ohio State and Notre Dame have met only five times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes hold a 3-2 edge over the Fighting Irish and have won three consecutive matchups in this series. The last meeting between these two teams took place in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, with Ohio State earning a 34-20 victory.
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame’s Secondary and Ohio State’s Defensive Line
It seems odd to mention the secondary for Notre Dame and defensive line for Ohio State in the same sentence, but the last month has not been kind for either position. Defensive tackle Adolphus Washington was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after an off-field incident, and fellow interior starter Tommy Schutt won’t play due to a foot injury. With Washington and Schutt sidelined, the Buckeyes will turn to sophomores Donovan Munger, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, along with senior Joel Hale to anchor the interior. End Joey Bosa may see some snaps on the interior to alleviate the losses of Washington and Schutt. The Notre Dame secondary is also dealing with its share of issues, as starter KeiVarae Russell suffered a season-ending leg injury against Boston College, safety Max Redfield was sent home from the Fiesta Bowl due to a rules violation, and Devin Butler (Russell’s replacement) suffered a foot injury in bowl practices and won’t play on Jan. 1. Which team will feel its recent injuries and suspensions the most on Friday?
2. The Quarterbacks
With a month to prepare for this matchup, will Ohio State’s passing attack take a step forward? The Buckeyes ranked sixth in the Big Ten (conference-only games) by averaging 198.5 yards per game and recorded only seven passing scores during league contests. J.T. Barrett replaced Cardale Jones as the starting quarterback in four out of the final five games, but the offense still struggled to generate big plays through the air. Barrett is facing a patchwork Notre Dame secondary, so this matchup should be a prime opportunity for the sophomore to test the Fighting Irish downfield. On the other sideline, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is facing the best statistical defense this offense has played in 2015. Kizer threw for 2,596 yards and 19 scores and added 499 rushing yards and nine touchdowns after taking over for Zaire. The redshirt freshman was efficient (63.3%) and will have his share of big-play opportunities with Will Fuller (13 TDs), Chris Brown (44 catches) and Amir Carlisle (29 catches) on the outside. Not only is Ohio State’s talented secondary a concern for Kizer, but the Buckeyes will test a stout Notre Dame offensive line with one of the nation’s top defensive players in end Joey Bosa. Will Kizer play a flawless game and find opportunities for big plays against the stingy Ohio State pass defense?
3. Notre Dame’s Front Seven Against Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
As mentioned above, Ohio State’s passing game had its share of ups and downs in 2015. And it’s no secret to Notre Dame’s defense what the Buckeyes want to do on offense – get the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott. The junior rushed for 1,672 yards and 19 scores this season, recording 100 yards in 11 out of Ohio State’s 12 contests. Notre Dame’s defense ranked 64th nationally against the run this season, but it’s noteworthy this unit played two option teams, slightly skewing the overall numbers. While the statistics aren’t necessarily in the Fighting Irish’s favor, the front seven has two All-Americans in linebacker Jaylon Smith and tackle Sheldon Day and could have additional help with the return of tackle Jarron Jones (missed all of 2015 due to a knee injury). Stopping Elliott and forcing Ohio State into third-and-long and obvious pass situations will be critical for Notre Dame’s defense.
These two teams weren’t far from securing a playoff spot, and if both are motivated, this could be one of the better matchups of the postseason. Considering the preseason expectations, it’s fair to wonder about Ohio State’s motivation in this game. However, even if the Buckeyes have some lingering disappointment, coach Urban Meyer will have his team ready to play. The formula for Ohio State is simple – establish Elliott and utilize Barrett’s mobility for plays on the ground and to create opportunities through the air. Will Notre Dame stack the box and contain Elliott? When the Fighting Irish have the ball, the return of C.J. Prosise will help the offense test an Ohio State defense without its starting defensive tackles. However, this game could come down to whether or not Kizer and Fuller can hook up for a few big plays against a tough secondary. Turnover margin is also critical. Notre Dame was minus-five in that department in 2015, while Ohio State was just plus-two. Barrett, Elliott and Bosa each contribute a big play in the fourth quarter, allowing the Buckeyes to cap the season with a close victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
Prediction: Ohio State 31, Notre Dame 27
The highly anticipated 2015-16 College Football Playoff kicks off on Thursday afternoon in Miami with Clemson and Oklahoma meeting in a national semifinal in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers finished the regular season at 13-0 and are the only unbeaten team in college football. The Sooners overcame a loss to Texas in early October to earn the final spot in the four-team playoff, finishing the year as one of the hottest teams in the nation on a seven-game winning streak.
Coach Dabo Swinney has raised the bar at Clemson in recent seasons, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive years. The Tigers returned only five starters from last season’s team, yet finished with a school-record 13 victories and two wins is all that separates the program from its first national championship since 1981. Clemson’s rebuilt defense limited opponents to 4.7 yards per play, and the offense averaged 38.5 points per game behind Heisman finalist and quarterback Deshaun Watson. En route to their 13-0 record, the Tigers scored key victories against Notre Dame (24-22), Florida State (23-13) and North Carolina (45-37).
Oklahoma has been a model of consistency and success under coach Bob Stoops, but the Sooners hit an interesting point in Stoops’ tenure after an 8-5 record in 2014. Maintaining success at a high level for a long period of time isn’t easy for any coach. However, Stoops shuffled his coaching staff, and the found a spark on offense behind new coordinator Lincoln Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield. A loss to Texas in mid-October cast doubt on Oklahoma’s Big 12 title hopes, but the Sooners rebounded in November with huge wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma and Clemson have played four previous times on the gridiron. The series is tied at two victories apiece for each team, while the last two matchups took place in bowl games. The Tigers have won the last two meetings against the Sooners.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Miami Gardens, Fla.
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson
The Orange Bowl should feature one of the best quarterback duels of any postseason game this year. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in his debut in Norman, throwing for 3,389 yards and 35 scores and rushing for 420 yards and seven touchdowns. Mayfield was the perfect triggerman for new coordinator Lincoln Riley’s spread attack, and his ability to escape the rush and avoid sacks was especially critical for an offense with an inexperienced line. Watson made an immediate impact for Clemson in eight games last season, but his true freshman campaign was derailed by injuries. Under the co-coordinator tandem of Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, Watson has elevated his game even higher as a sophomore. He threw for 3,512 yards and 30 scores this season and ranked second on the team with 887 rushing yards. Watson’s rushing ability was utilized even more late in the year, as he recorded four 100-yard games on the ground over Clemson’s last five contests. There are similarities between the two quarterbacks and how they will approach this matchup. Both players need to use their legs to create plays when things break down in the pocket and take advantage of opportunities downfield to a deep group of skill players in the receiving corps. Both quarterbacks were efficient and limited their overall mistakes in 2015. Will that continue on Thursday night? How will Oklahoma contain Watson’s rushing ability? And when the Sooners are on offense, can Mayfield avoid the initial Clemson pass rush to connect with receiver Sterling Shepard on big plays downfield?
2. Clemson’s Defensive Line Against Oklahoma’s Offensive Line
Despite losing a handful of key contributors on last year’s unit, Clemson’s defense didn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet in 2015. The Tigers ranked third in the ACC by holding opponents to 20.2 points per game and second in the conference in yards per play allowed (4.68). Under the watchful eye of coordinator (and former Oklahoma assistant) Brent Venables, the front seven was a big reason why Clemson’s defense was among the best in the nation. The Tigers generated 38 sacks and 108 tackles for a loss and forced a healthy 23 turnovers in 13 contests. Wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage starts with the front four, and Venables quickly restocked the cupboard after losing a handful of key players. Junior Shaq Lawson (9.5 sacks) is the top performer, but tackle Carlos Watkins was one of the ACC’s top interior players this season. The Sooners returned only one starter on the offensive line this fall and struggled to find consistency early in the year. However, this unit paved the way for Oklahoma to average at least 4.4 yards per carry in each of the final seven games. The insertion of true freshman Dru Samia into the starting lineup added stability to the right side of the line, while left tackle Orlando Brown got more comfortable over the course of the season. After giving up 36 sacks in 12 contests, Oklahoma needs more from this unit against Clemson. Can the Sooners keep Mayfield upright in the pocket and clear rushing lanes for running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon?
3. The Running Backs
While all of the pregame attention is focused on the quarterbacks – Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield – and the talent at receiver – Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard – don’t forget about the running backs in this matchup. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman pounded his way for 1,332 yards and 10 scores this season, while Oklahoma’s one-two combination of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for 2,040 yards. Quarterback play is going to be critical to the outcome of this game on Thursday, but both teams have to establish a presence on the ground. Clemson has been tougher against the run this year, and it’s imperative the Sooners avoid consistently getting into third-and-long situations. Establishing balance is going to be critical for both teams.
Don’t read anything into last year’s game. These are two different teams and plenty of new faces have emerged since last season’s meeting in the Russell Athletic Bowl. On paper, the Orange Bowl matchup is relatively even. Both offenses hope to push the tempo and rely on their quarterback’s mobility to take advantage of big plays when things break down in the pocket, but this game still comes down to the battle in the trenches and the overall play of the defenses. Clemson’s defense has been better than Oklahoma’s this year and has the edge up front on the defensive line. However, the Tigers aren’t deep on defense, and the depth could be an issue if the Sooners establish the run with Perine and Mixon. In addition to being an even contest, the Orange Bowl should be one of the best bowl games of the 2015-16 postseason. If Oklahoma picks up where it left off in the regular season, coach Bob Stoops’ team should be positioned for a trip to the national championship. However, knocking off a month’s worth of rust will be a challenge early. Clemson starts fast, but the Sooners rally in the second half to win a tight, back-and-forth matchup.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, Clemson 34
It’s a small part of every college football bowl game, but the field paintings or logos and end zone designs are usually tailored to the teams and bowl experience.
The Alamo Bowl is raising the bar for future bowl games, as the game unveiled unique and awesome end zone designs for TCU and Oregon on Tuesday.
Check out these unique designs for TCU and Oregon for Saturday’s Alamo Bowl matchup:
A heavyweight, physical battle is set to unfold in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 31, as Alabama and Michigan State meet in a playoff semifinal in the Cotton Bowl for a trip to the College Football National Championship. 60 minutes and a victory is all that separates the Spartans and Crimson Tide from a chance at the national title in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11.
There are a lot of similarities in the path to the Cotton Bowl and the overall style of play between Alabama and Michigan State. The Crimson Tide had to overcome an early loss to Ole Miss in 2015, while the Spartans rebounded from a controversial defeat at Nebraska on Nov. 7 to win the Big Ten title over Iowa on Dec. 5. Both offenses are capable of spreading the field with their passing attack, but the basic approach for Michigan State and Alabama consists of leaning heavily on defense and running the ball. Additionally, there’s also the Nick Saban connection between these two programs. Saban worked as Michigan State’s head coach from 1995-99 and left East Lansing for LSU prior to the Citrus Bowl in 1999.
The disrespect card is used by many teams in bowl season, and there will be a chip on Michigan State’s shoulders on Thursday night. Even though both teams are 12-1 and claimed a title in two of the best conferences this season, Alabama is a double-digit favorite. The Spartans thrived as the underdog this year in a road trip to Ohio State, and coach Mark Dantonio can use the spread and lack of faith in Michigan State by experts as a way to motivate his team.
Alabama and Michigan State have only one previous meeting on the gridiron. The Crimson Tide defeated the Spartans 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. These two teams were scheduled to play in 2016 and 2017 during the regular season, but the series was canceled in 2013 by Alabama due to the uncertainty of how many league games the SEC would play in future years.
Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Alabama
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle in the Trenches
Some of the nation’s best offensive and defensive linemen will be on the field in Thursday night’s game. Michigan State’s offensive line was picked in the preseason as one of the best in the nation. The Spartans were forced to shuffle this unit due to injuries to left tackle Jack Conklin, right tackle Kodi Kieler and center Jack Allen. Despite the injuries, Michigan State’s offensive line allowed only 17 sacks. On the other side of the ball, the Spartans boast a ferocious pass rush behind end Shilique Calhoun, and tackle Malik McDowell emerged as a star in the second half of the season. While Michigan State’s defensive line is one of the best in college football, Alabama’s should rank No. 1 on any list. The Crimson Tide limited opponents to just 74 rushing yards per game and registered 46 sacks. The strength of the defensive front rests with lineman A’Shawn Robinson, and there’s talent at the end spots coming in the form of Jonathan Allen (10 sacks) and Jarran Reed. On the offensive side of the ball, Alabama’s line had its share of ups and downs early but finished the year playing at a high level. Sophomore tackle Cam Robinson and senior Ryan Kelly are the headliners up front for coach Nick Saban. The battle between Michigan State’s offensive line versus Alabama’s defensive front should be an epic matchup between two of the nation’s best units. Can the Spartans protect quarterback Connor Cook and open up rushing lanes for running back LJ Scott? And when Michigan State is on defense, can the nation’s ninth-ranked run defense find a way to slow down Alabama running back Derrick Henry? Expect the battle in the trenches to have a huge role in the outcome of Thursday night’s game.
2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Even though Michigan State’s offensive line is one of the best in the nation, it seems unlikely the Spartans can simply line up and run the ball on Alabama’s front seven. Only one team (Georgia) managed more than 140 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide in 2015. Michigan State has three capable options at running back, starting with talented freshman LJ Scott (691 yards), but yardage could be tough to find. With tough sledding expected on the ground, the Spartans need a big performance from quarterback Connor Cook. The senior suffered a shoulder injury against Maryland and missed the following week’s matchup against Ohio State. The extra time to prepare should help Cook’s shoulder return to full strength. Avoiding long-yardage situations and getting rid of the ball quickly to avoid the pass rush are two critical areas to watch on Thursday night. Will the Spartans throw on early downs to stay out of third-and-long situations? Alabama’s secondary is loaded with promising talent, but good quarterbacks had success against this unit. Michigan State’s hopes of winning could come down to how well Cook plays, as the senior quarterback is the x-factor in the Cotton Bowl.
3. Alabama’s Passing Attack
Alabama should review Ohio State’s gameplan for its November matchup against Michigan State and quickly realize what not to do against this defense. The Spartans are stout in the trenches, limiting opponents to just 113.1 rushing yards per game. However, while it’s no secret the Crimson Tide’s offense flows through Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back, the junior has to get his share of touches, even if yardage and big-play opportunities are tough to come by in the first half. Could Alabama use a throw to run approach similar to the one Michigan State is expected to use? Quarterback Jake Coker played better over the second half of the season and tossed only one interception in his last five games. In addition to Coker’s improvement, Alabama’s passing attack received a boost from the emergence of freshman receiver Calvin Ridley (75 catches). Even though the Crimson Tide needs production from Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin needs to spread the field and allow Coker to take advantage of opportunities in Michigan State’s secondary. The Spartans “No Fly Zone” wasn’t as dominant in 2015 as it was in previous seasons, giving up 19 plays of 30 yards or more and ranking 69th in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit will have reinforcements for the Cotton Bowl, as starting safety RJ Williamson is back after missing the last eight games due to injury. Henry will get his opportunities, but Kiffin would be wise to allow Coker to spread the field, hitting on easy throws to keep Alabama out of third-and-long situations. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see Coker and Ridley attempt to connect on a few deep shots in the first half. The Crimson Tide cannot afford to follow the same blueprint Ohio State used against Michigan State and fail to test the Spartans’ secondary downfield or feed Henry 25-30 times on Thursday night.
The first thing that stands out in the Michigan State-Alabama matchup is the similarities between these two teams. Both programs want to establish the run, win the battle at the line of scrimmage and lean on their defense. Expect the Spartans to load the box and stop running back Derrick Henry, forcing quarterback Jake Coker to win this game with his arm. When Michigan State has the ball, Alabama wants to force the Spartans to take to the air in third-and-long situations and not control the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide has an edge in overall talent, but the Spartans can use the underdog and no respect angle as motivation. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook makes several clutch throws to star receiver Aaron Burbridge to keep the Spartans in it, but Alabama has too much talent and its defense eventually puts the clamps on the Spartans in the second half to clinch a spot in the national championship.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Michigan State 20
The New Year’s Six bowl slate kicks off on Dec. 31 with an intriguing matchup between Florida State and Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Seminoles and Cougars start a huge day for college football fans on Thursday, as playoff games in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl begin later that afternoon.
First-year coach Tom Herman guided Houston to a 12-1 mark during the regular season and the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 conferences. Herman was one of the top hires last offseason and quickly showed why he is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks. The Cougars improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015, defeated two Power 5 opponents in Louisville and Vanderbilt and claimed the American Athletic Conference title with a 24-13 victory over Temple. Herman’s background on offense was also showcased in 2015, as quarterback Greg Ward was a breakout star, and the Cougars averaged 40.6 points per game.
Florida State was expected to take a small step back in the win column after a significant amount of roster turnover after the 2014 season. The Seminoles had 11 players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and returned only 10 starters from last year’s team. Despite the overall youth on both sides of the ball and uneven quarterback play at times, coach Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to its fourth consecutive season of at least 10 wins. The Seminoles lost only two games in the regular season – a crazy, last-second defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech and a 23-13 loss at Clemson on Nov. 7. The future looks bright for Fisher’s team in 2016, and a win over Houston would only add to the hype of what could be another playoff run next season.
Florida State and Houston have met 16 previous times, with the Cougars owning a 12-2-2 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1978.
Peach Bowl: Florida State vs. Houston (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Running back was one of the nation’s deepest positions for talent this season, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was an Athlon Sports first-team All-American after rushing for 1,658 yards and 18 scores in 11 games. Cook’s totals are even more impressive when you consider injuries to his hamstring and ankle forced him to miss one game and limited his workload in October. The sophomore is the catalyst for Florida State’s offense and Houston’s chances of knocking off the Seminoles revolve around its ability to keep Cook in check. The Cougars led the American Athletic Conference in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 116 rushing yards per game. Six Houston defenders earned all-conference honors this season, including linebackers Elandon Roberts (132 stops) and Steven Taylor (nine sacks) and defensive lineman B.J. Singleton (20 tackles). No team has finished a matchup against Houston this season averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have been stingy on the ground all year, but Florida State’s young and improving offensive line, combined with the explosiveness and speed of running back Dalvin Cook will be their toughest assignment of the 2015 season.
2. Stopping Houston QB Greg Ward
Houston suffered its lone loss (UConn) of the 2015 season in the only game quarterback Greg Ward was unable to start due to injury. Ward showed signs of promise in 2014 but has thrived under Herman’s coaching this year. The junior completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the team with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 scores in the regular season. But Ward isn’t a one-man show on offense. The Cougars’ ground attack is anchored by running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, and receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 catches) is a big-play threat on the outside. How will Florida State defend Ward? Will the Seminoles keep a spy around the line of scrimmage to force Ward to stay in the pocket? Florida State’s defense showed marked improvement on the stat sheet this season, lowering its yards per play mark allowed from 5.5 in 2014 to 4.7 in 2015. A big reason for the improvement on defense was the development of the defensive line, which figures to be a handful against a Houston offensive line that experienced its share of injuries and allowed 26 sacks this season.
3. Standout Defensive Backs
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl might feature one of the postseason’s best collections of talent in the defensive backfield. Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is one of the nation’s best at his position, and the junior is joined by a standout freshman at safety (Derwin James) and an underrated cornerback (Marquez White) on the other side. Houston’s secondary ranked No. 68 nationally in pass efficiency defense this season, but the Cougars boast three all-conference selections. Safety Trevon Stewart recorded 72 tackles and two interceptions this season, while cornerback William Jackson III picked off three passes and broke up 21 throws in his direction. How will the standout defensive backs affect the passing attack for both teams? Florida State has connected on only 14 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season, but Sean Maguire has settled into the starting job over the final five games. Maguire has been careful with the ball (two picks on 145 attempts) and that play has to continue against an opportunistic Houston secondary (17 picks). When Maguire throws, expect Kermit Whitfield and Travis Rudolph to be the primary targets. Houston isn’t as deep as Florida State at receiver, and the Cougars need Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar to win one-on-one battles, especially if Demarcus Ayers is held in check by Ramsey or White.
This is a dangerous matchup for Florida State. Houston has nothing to lose in this game, and the pressure is on the Seminoles to avoid an upset loss. From a matchup standpoint, Florida State has several advantages. The Seminoles’ defensive front should create a few headaches for Houston’s offensive line, and the speed and athleticism on defense should help to contain quarterback Greg Ward. Florida State’s offensive line is young, but this unit has cleared rushing lanes for running back Dalvin Cook all season. The Cougars need to keep Cook in check and force the Seminoles to win this game with Maguire’s arm. Also, the turnover margin will be critical to monitor. Houston is one of the best in the nation at plus-17, while Florida State is plus-four. The edge in talent rests with the Seminoles, but the Cougars keep this one close deep into the fourth quarter. Cook and Maguire make just enough plays for Florida State to earn its 11th win of 2015 and build momentum for a promising 2016 campaign.
Prediction: Florida State 31, Houston 24
(Credit to @UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of QB Greg Ward)
College football 2015-16 bowl season has almost reached its halfway point. With 20 games in the books, 21 contests remain, including the New Year’s Six matchups and the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. The first portion of the bowl slate produced a handful of entertaining games, including the Miami Beach Bowl between WKU and South Florida, the Georgia Southern-Bowling Green meeting in the GoDaddy Bowl, and Virginia Tech sending coach Frank Beamer out a winner in a high-scoring affair versus Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. While the bowl season is off to an entertaining start, some of the nation’s top teams have yet to take the field, so the best of the postseason has yet to come.
With 21 bowl games left, Athlon Sports has updated its bowl picks for the remainder of the postseason. With injuries and transfers affecting a few teams, some of the predictions from the staff have changed since mid-December. Here’s an updated picks grid from the Athlon Sports staff for the remaining bowl matchups
Predictions for Dec. 29-Jan. 2 Bowl Games and National Title
Every college football season is a new opportunity for the freshmen players on 128 FBS teams to make a statement. While each year always produces a handful of freshmen standouts, it seems more first-year players are making an impact at a high level. 2015 is a good barometer for that statement, as three of the four College Football Playoff teams feature a freshman on the Athlon Sports first-team All-Freshman squad this season.
UCLA’s Josh Rosen headlines the first-team selections at quarterback, while running backs Mike Warren (Iowa State), Saquon Barkley (Penn State) and receivers Calvin Ridley (Alabama) and Christian Kirk (Texas A&M) round out some of the nation’s high-profile freshmen on offense. The defensive line and secondary positions are loaded with talent in the freshmen ranks, including Florida State safety Derwin James, Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Compiling the all-freshman team at the end of the regular season is no easy task. Several worthy players missed the cut, as we tried to combine stats, competition level talent and playing time to piece together the all-freshman teams for 2015.
2015 Awards and All-Conference Teams
College Football's 2015 Postseason All-Freshman Team
QB Brent Stockstill
QB DeShone Kizer
RB Myles Gaskin
RB Qadree Ollison
RB Joe Mixon
RB Ronald Jones III
WR Penny Hart
WR Deon Cain
WR Tre'Quan Smith
WR Eddie Daugherty
WR Courtland Sutton
WR Antonio Callaway
AP Britain Covey
AP Nyheim Hines
TE David Njoku
TE C.J. Conrad
OL Geron Christian
OL Blake Hance
OL Dalton Risner
OL Patrick Vahe
OL Michael Dieter
OL Will Noble
OL Martez Ivey
OL Trey Adams
OL Maea Teuhema
OL Chance Hall
DE Jaylon Ferguson
DE Josh Sweat
DE Sam Hubbard
DE CeCe Jefferson
DT Daylon Mack
DL JoJo Wicker
DT Hercules Mata'afa
DL Trenton Thompson
LB T.J. Edwards
LB Dedrick Young
LB Dakota Allen
LB Ty Summers
LB Darrin Kirkland
LB Troy Reeder
DB Iman Marshall
DB Carlton Davis
DB Kareem Orr
DB Adonis Alexander
DB Marlon Humphrey
DB Chris Westry
DB Kevin Toliver II
DB Darrien Molton
K Justin Yoon
K Clayton Hatfield
P Corey Fatony
P Jake Hartbarger
KR Michael Walker
KR KaVontae Turpin
PR Antonio Callaway
PR Britain Covey
The last of college football’s pre-Christmas bowl games kicks off on Thursday, Dec. 24, as Cincinnati and San Diego State make the trek to Honolulu for an intriguing matchup in the Hawaii Bowl. The Aztecs are making their sixth consecutive postseason appearance, which is more than the program had combined from 1969-2009. The Bearcats have been a frequent visitor to the postseason since 2000, earning 13 trips to bowl games in that span.
Cincinnati was picked as one of the frontrunners to win the American Athletic Conference this preseason, but the Bearcats stumbled to 7-5, snapping a streak of four consecutive seasons with at least nine wins. Turnovers were a huge problem for coach Tommy Tuberville’s team, as Cincinnati recorded a minus-16 margin in 12 games. The defense was a concern entering the year, and the Bearcats surrendered 5.8 yards per play and 30.3 points per game. Despite the problems on defense and in the turnover department, Cincinnati wasn’t far from winning a few of its biggest games this season. The Bearcats lost by eight to Temple, by seven to Memphis and by three to Houston.
With a win over Cincinnati on Dec. 24, San Diego State would tie a school record for the most victories in a season (11). The Aztecs started 1-3 but finished 2015 by winning nine consecutive games, including the Mountain West Championship over Air Force. The victory over the Falcons secured San Diego State’s first outright conference championship since 1986 and the program’s first double-digit win season since 1977.
San Diego State and Cincinnati have only one previous matchup in program history. The Bearcats defeated the Aztecs 52-23 in 2007. This is the first time either team has played in a postseason bowl game in Hawaii.
Hawaii Bowl: Cincinnati vs. San Diego State
Honolulu, Hawaii – Aloha Stadium
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: San Diego State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior rushed for 1,554 yards and 16 scores this season and is the focal point for the Aztecs’ offense. Pumphrey also leads the team with 27 catches and tied for first among Mountain West running backs with four runs of 50 yards or more this year. The junior isn’t the only option at running back for this offense, as Chase Price (940 yards) and Rashaad Penny (351 yards) are capable of spelling Pumphrey when he needs a break. Also, fullback Dakota Gordon is a 5-foot-10 power blocker and a key cog in a rushing attack that also boasts two all-conference linemen in guard Nico Siragusa and tackle Pearce Slater. Establishing the run is critical for San Diego State, as this offense isn’t built to come from behind. The Aztecs average 48 rushing attempts per game, compared to just 19 pass attempts. Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith suffered an ACL tear against Nevada on Nov. 28 and did not play in the win over Air Force on Dec. 5. Smith is delaying surgery in an attempt to play in the bowl, but all signs point to freshman Christian Chapman (9 of 14, 203 yards against Air Force) making his second start. Smith’s injury only adds to the pressure on Pumphrey and the San Diego State ground attack. Stopping the run has been an issue for Cincinnati this season, as the Bearcats ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference, surrendering 190.8 yards per game. Additionally, this defense gave up at least 200 yards on the ground in four of the last five games.
2. Cincinnati QB Hayden Moore
Cincinnati’s quarterback position has experienced its share of twists and turns in the 2015 season. Gunner Kiel opened the season as the starter, but Hayden Moore received more playing time after Kiel was injured against Memphis and finished the regular season with two starts. Kiel was the better quarterback in 2015, throwing for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns. However, Kiel won’t make the trip to due a personal matter, leaving Moore as Cincinnati’s starter on Thursday night. The freshman had his bright spots (4 TDs against Memphis) but also tossed eight picks on 195 attempts. Moore has a tough assignment against San Diego State’s 3-3-5 defense, which wreaked havoc on Mountain West quarterbacks in 2015. The Aztecs allowed only 4.68 yards per play, gave up 17.2 points per game, generated 33 sacks and forced 31 takeaways. The Bearcats have a deep receiving corps, but San Diego State’s secondary is anchored by the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Year Damontae Kazee and all-conference selection J.J. Whittaker. Can Moore avoid turnovers and connect on a few big plays against the stingy Aztec secondary?
San Diego State doesn’t have a huge margin for error in this game. The Aztecs should be able to establish the run against Cincinnati, but coach Rocky Long’s offense cannot afford to fall behind the chains or on the scoreboard. San Diego State’s passing game is not built to rally from a large deficit. On the other sideline, Cincinnati is capable of putting up points in a hurry. Of course, scoring points and establishing drives also depends on holding onto the ball. The Bearcats ranked No. 124 nationally with a minus-16 in turnover margin this season. San Diego State finished the regular season ranked first nationally in turnover margin, losing only 12 turnovers all year. If the turnover margin totals hold true on Thursday night, Cincinnati is going to have a tough time earning the victory over the Aztecs.
This is a classic matchup of a high-powered offense (Cincinnati) versus a stingy defense (San Diego State). Which style of play will establish control of this game early in the first half? If the Aztecs get the ground game on track, win the time of possession battle and force a few turnovers, coach Rocky Long’s team should earn its 11th win of the season. The Bearcats have the edge in offensive firepower and need to push the tempo early to get San Diego State out of its comfort zone. The Mountain West has lost its last eight trips to this bowl. That losing streak ends on Christmas Eve, as the Aztecs cap one of the best seasons in school history with a close victory over the Bearcats.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Cincinnati 24
(Credit to SDSU athletic media relations for top photo of RB Donnel Pumphrey)
College football’s bowl season always seems to be a good spot for teams to unveil a new alternate helmet or uniform.
Duke is one of the first teams to unveil a new design for the postseason, as the Blue Devils will wear a white helmet and alternate logo for their matchup against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The alternate logo features a Blue Devil mascot and is a design from the 1966-69 seasons.
Check out Duke’s awesome alternate helmet for the Pinstripe Bowl: