Articles By Steven Lassan
Finding or developing a quarterback is no easy task for any college football coach. This position is one of the hardest to evaluate in high school, and quarterbacks often transfer early in their career in search of more playing time if they are entrenched behind a proven starter. Needless to say, quarterbacks are the position likely providing the most headaches for coaches throughout the year. While developing a quarterback through the high school ranks is the preferred option for coaches, the junior college level presents quick-fix options and players who were often overlooked in the recruiting process.
The junior college level always produces a handful of impact transfers each year, and the quarterback position has a few intriguing names back on the scene in 2016. Utah’s Troy Williams, Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and Indiana’s Richard Lagow are just a few of the junior college quarterbacks to watch this offseason. Here’s a look at 10 who could make an impact this fall:
Top 10 Impact JUCO Transfer Quarterbacks for 2016
Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech has experienced its share of inconsistent quarterback play in recent seasons, and new coach Justin Fuente dipped into the junior college ranks for competition and a potential answer under center. Evans ranked as the No. 7 overall junior college recruit in the 2016 247Sports Composite and heads to Blacksburg after throwing for 3,164 yards and 38 scores last season. He also added 414 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. It’s rare to see Virginia Tech look to the junior college ranks for answers, but Evans is talented and should push Dwayne Lawson, Chris Durkin and Brenden Motley for the starting job. Fuente has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks, as he was instrumental in Paxton Lynch’s development at Memphis and Andy Dalton’s rise at TCU. How quickly will Fuente work his magic in Blacksburg?
Riley Ferguson, Memphis
Memphis is one of college football’s most-improved programs in recent seasons, but the Tigers enter 2016 with question marks after the departure of coach Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech and quarterback Paxton Lynch to the NFL. New coach Mike Norvell was an excellent hire to keep the program trending in the right direction, and his first assignment is to find Lynch’s replacement. Three quarterbacks – Brady Davis, Clay Holgorsen and Jason Stewart – return for Norvell, but the answer under center could come from the junior college ranks. Ferguson was a three-star recruit out of high school and signed with Tennessee. However, after a short stint on Rocky Top, Ferguson transferred to Coffeyville Community College and threw for 2,942 yards and 35 scores in 2015. Ferguson ranked as the No. 25 junior college prospect in the 2016 247Sports Composite.
Andrew Ford, UMass
Ross Comis is expected to step in for Blake Frohnapfel as UMass’ starting quarterback next season, but it doesn’t hurt to have depth or competition at the position. Ford was an early February pickup for the Minutemen and lands in Amherst after a season at Lackawanna Community College. In his only year at the junior college level, Ford threw for 1,764 yards and 23 touchdowns. Coming out of high school, Ford was a three-star recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and spent a year at Virginia Tech.
John Franklin III, Auburn
Auburn’s offense was one of the SEC’s biggest disappointments last year. The Tigers averaged only 22.1 points in SEC contests and tossed just five touchdown passes in league games. After last year’s issues, coach Gus Malzahn has to look at every position and find upgrades for 2016. Jeremy Johnson and Sean White are back at quarterback, but Franklin III or incoming freshman Woody Barrett will be awarded every opportunity to claim the starting job. Franklin III was listed as an athlete on the school’s official signing release, but it would be a major surprise if he doesn’t get a look at quarterback. The former Florida State signal-caller threw for 733 yards and seven scores and added 451 yards and nine scores at East Mississippi Community College last year. Adding a dynamic playmaker at quarterback is step one in getting Malzahn’s offense back on track in 2016.
Justice Hansen, Arkansas State
Arkansas State’s high-powered offense has ranked among the top two in the Sun Belt in scoring in five out of the last six seasons. There’s plenty of talent returning for new coordinator Buster Faulkner, but quarterback Fredi Knighten must be replaced after earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2015. Hansen was a key pickup for coach Blake Anderson on the recruiting trail, and the former Oklahoma signal-caller should be among the favorites – if not at the top – to take the first snap for Arkansas State in 2016. Hansen threw for 1,694 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 226 yards and four scores at Butler Community College in 2015.
Richard Lagow, Indiana
Nate Sudfeld finished his career in Bloomington as one of the top quarterbacks in program history and leaves big shoes to fill this spring. Developing high-scoring offenses hasn’t been a problem for coach Kevin Wilson during his tenure with the Hoosiers. However, replacing Sudfeld won’t be easy. Zander Diamont worked as the team’s No. 2 quarterback last season, but Lagow is expected to make a strong push for the starting gig. Lagow began his career at UConn and transferred to Oklahoma State prior to the 2013 season. However, Lagow’s stay in Stillwater wasn’t long and he landed at Cisco Community College for two seasons and threw for 4,516 yards and 38 scores during that span. Lagow ranked as the No. 49 overall junior college recruit by ESPN in the 2016 signing class.
Kevin Olsen, Charlotte
Charlotte’s quarterbacks combined for 12 touchdowns and 23 interceptions last season, so there will be an opportunity for Olsen to push for the starting job right away. The New Jersey native signed with Miami as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2013 signing class, but his stay in Coral Gables was brief. Olsen – the brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen – was dismissed from the program in 2014 and landed another opportunity at Towson. However, Olsen was dismissed from Towson in 2015 and spent last season at Riverside City College. He threw for 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns in nine appearances. Olsen has one more shot at the FBS level – can he take advantage of that in 2016?
Jacob Park, Iowa State
New coach Matt Campbell brought a wave of momentum on the recruiting trail for his first class, as the Cyclones finished No. 52 in the 247Sports Composite – the highest rank for an Iowa State signing class over the last five seasons. Park is one of two scholarship quarterbacks inked in the 2016 class, as he will compete with incoming freshman Zeb Noland and junior Joel Lanning for the starting job this offseason. Park originally signed with Georgia out of high school and spent 2014 as a redshirt year. However, Park decided to transfer last summer and spent the season at Trident Technical College. The South Carolina native was planning on attending Northeastern Oklahoma A&M but landed an opportunity at Iowa State. Park ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2016 247Sports Composite.
Related: Ranking the Big 12 Rosters for 2016
Johnny Stanton, UNLV
Second-year coach Tony Sanchez has UNLV trending in the right direction. The Rebels went 3-9 last season but showed on-field progress and inked the No. 4 recruiting class in the Mountain West in the 247Sports Composite. One of the most intriguing recruits in the haul was former Nebraska signal-caller Johnny Stanton. After two seasons with the Cornhuskers, Stanton transferred to Saddleback Community College and threw for 3,471 yards and 27 scores. He also rushed for 747 yards and 12 touchdowns. Former Nebraska assistant Barney Cotton is UNLV’s offensive coordinator, which should allow an easy transition for Stanton to the FBS level. He will have an opportunity to win the starting job over Kurt Palandech this spring.
Troy Williams, Utah
Upgrading the passing attack is an offseason priority for coach Kyle Whittingham. With a stout defense and ground game, the Utes don’t have to be overly prolific through the air, but improvement is needed off last year’s offense (180 ypg). The quarterback spot is up for grabs this offseason, as Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson expired their eligibility and Conner Manning transferred to Georgia State. The quarterbacks on the roster for spring ball – Brandon Cox, Tyler Huntley and Troy Williams – have combined for just three passes in a Utah uniform. Williams returns to the Pac-12 after originally starting his career at Washington. After redshirting with the Huskies in 2013, Williams played in five games in 2014 and made one start. He finished his Washington career by completing 23 of 36 passes for 176 yards and two picks. Williams transferred to Santa Monica College in 2015 and finished with a prolific season, throwing for 2,750 yards and 31 scores. Williams is the No. 40 junior college recruit in the 2016 247Sports Composite and should be the frontrunner to start for Utah this fall.
Four Other JUCO Quarterbacks to Watch
Sederian Copeland/A.J. Erderly, UAB
UAB is a year away from returning to the gridiron, but Copeland and Erderly have a full season to work with the offense to stake their claim for the Blazers’ anticipated opener in 2017.
Stephen Johnson, Kentucky
Drew Barker is entrenched as Kentucky’s starter, but Johnson was a key pickup for depth after Kentucky lost Patrick Towles to a transfer to Boston College.
Jack Lowary, Missouri
Drew Lock is a promising quarterback for coach Barry Odom, but depth was an issue after Maty Mauk was dismissed from the team. Lowary threw for 3,306 yards and 28 scores at Long Beach City College in 2015.
It’s too early to say whether or not 2016 will be the year of the running back in college football, but there’s no shortage of talent returning at this position next fall. The top three returning options at running back – LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey – should be among the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016. And there’s a strong second tier in place with the return of Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman and Georgia’s Nick Chubb. North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley are two names just inside of the top 10 that could climb even higher next fall.
With spring practice inching closer for all 128 teams, Athlon Sports is taking an early look at the top 75 running backs in the nation for 2016. This list could look a lot different by August, as position battles are sorted out and the distribution of carries for each team is developed, along with the emergence of freshmen in offseason workouts. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Additionally, playing time and the split of carries for teams with multiple backs in consideration was taken into account. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Other names in consideration: Gerard Wicks, Washington State; De’Veon Smith, Michigan; Kalen Ballage, Arizona State; C.J. Leggett, Georgia Tech; Dalyn Dawkins, Colorado State; Terry Swanson, Toledo; A.J. Ouellette, Ohio; Markell Jones, Purdue; Robert Martin, Rutgers; Gerald Holmes, Michigan State; Devin Chafin, Baylor; Anthony Wales, WKU; Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas
College Football's Pre-Spring Top 75 RB Ranks for 2016
75. Marquis Young, UMass
Young’s 960 yards last season was the highest mark by an UMass player since the Minutemen joined the FBS ranks in 2012. He also finished the year on a high note, gashing Buffalo for 240 yards and three scores on 35 attempts in the season finale.
74. Johnston White, Arkansas State
Three Arkansas State running backs eclipsed the 600-yard mark last season. With Michael Gordon expiring his eligibility, Warren Wand and Johnston White should be more involved with the ground attack in 2016. White recorded 616 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015.
73. Devante Mays, Utah State
In his first season at Utah State, Mays led the team with 966 yards and nine rushing scores. The junior college product became more involved as the season progressed and finished with two 100-yard efforts over the final three games.
72. Jarveon Williams, UTSA
Williams was a breakout performer for the Roadrunners last season and is one of the top returning players for new coach Frank Wilson. In 11 appearances last season, Williams rushed for 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns.
71. Paul Harris, Hawaii
Harris has an interesting backstory on his path to Hawaii. In his first year with the Rainbow Warriors, Harris led the team with 1,132 yards and finished the season by recording 125 yards in each of the last four games.
70. Jordan Scarlett, Florida
Scarlett was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for coach Jim McElwain in the 2015 signing class, and the four-star recruit played sparingly behind Kelvin Taylor. In nine appearances, Scarlett recorded 181 yards and one touchdown on 34 carries.
69. LeShun Daniels, Iowa
Iowa may not have a clear star at running back, but the Hawkeyes have plenty of depth and options to lean on in 2016. Daniels gets the nod on the list after finishing second to Jordan Canzeri (expired eligibility after the Rose Bowl) in rushing yards (646) last season. However, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell will factor into the mix for carries.
68. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois
The Fighting Illini offense will miss Josh Ferguson, but Vaughn is a capable replacement. In 11 games as a true freshman last season, he recorded 723 yards and six touchdowns and grabbed 16 receptions for 119 yards.
67. Shannon Brooks, Minnesota
Brooks recorded a solid freshman campaign despite not receiving a carry through Minnesota’s first three contests. The Georgia native finished with 709 yards and seven touchdowns on 119 carries and posted two 100-yard games.
66. Justin Stockton, Texas Tech
Stockton is a big-play threat for coach Kliff Kingsbury and will be critical in helping the Red Raider offense replace DeAndre Washington’s production (1,492 yards in 2015). Stockton averaged 6.02 yards per carry last season and caught 22 passes for 341 yards and six touchdowns.
65. Khalfani Muhammad, California
Starter Daniel Lasco was limited most of the season due to injury, which allowed Muhammad to lead the team in rushing yards (586) last season. Muhammad is also one of the fastest players in college football and could see an increased role next fall.
64. Jela Duncan, Duke
Duncan missed the 2014 season due to a suspension but picked up where he left off in 2013 last fall. In 10 games, Duncan recorded 460 yards and four touchdowns and averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per carry.
63. Jacobi Owens, Air Force
Owens has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Falcons and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors in 2015.
62. Joe Williams, Utah
Devontae Booker leaves big shoes to fill in Salt Lake City, but the Utes got a glimpse of their 2016 ground attack in the final three games of 2015. With Booker out due to injury, Williams – a former junior college recruit – posted 100-yard efforts against UCLA and Colorado and recorded 91 yards against BYU. He has a chance to move up on this list by the conclusion of spring practices.
61. Soso Jamabo, UCLA
With Paul Perkins off to the NFL, Jamabo is slated to take the top spot in UCLA’s backfield. Jamabo was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class for coach Jim Mora and recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries.
60. Jamauri Bogan, Western Michigan
Western Michigan’s leading rusher has been a freshman in each of the last two seasons. Jarvion Franklin paced the Broncos’ ground attack in 2014 with 1,551 yards, and Bogan took the lead for coach P.J. Fleck last season, recording 1,051 yards and 16 scores.
59. Ito Smith, Southern Miss
Todd Monken’s late departure for the NFL has added some uncertainty for Southern Miss going into 2016. New coach Jay Hopson will certainly put his stamp on the program, but the first-year coach shouldn’t change too much on offense. Smith teamed with Jalen Richard to form an effective one-two punch for the Golden Eagles last year, rushing for 1,128 yards and 10 scores and catching 49 passes for 515 yards.
58. Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois
Bouagnon is a 6-foot-2, 226-pound bruising rusher for coach Rod Carey. After sitting behind Cameron Stingily for two seasons (2013-14), Bouagnon stepped into the lead role for the Huskies last year and recorded 1,286 yards and 18 scores.
57. Jamaal Williams, BYU
It’s hard to rank Williams on the list, as he’s coming back from sitting out the 2015 season and an ACL tear suffered late in the 2014 campaign. However, Williams is also one of the most productive running backs in school history and needs just under 1,000 yards to pass Harvey Unga for the most career rushing yards by a BYU player.
56. Devine Redding, Indiana
Jordan Howard’s one-year stint in Bloomington was a successful one, and the Hoosiers have a capable replacement waiting in the wings. Redding rushed for 1,012 yards and nine scores and posted three straight performances of 130 yards or more to end 2015.
55. Justin Davis, USC
Davis is the second USC running back to appear on this list. He nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, finishing with 902 yards and seven touchdowns on 169 attempts. Additionally, he recorded over 100 yards against Oregon and UCLA.
54. Jon Hilliman, Boston College
Hilliman struggled to find running room (3.9 ypc) behind Boston College’s rebuilt offensive line last season and was lost for the year after suffering a broken foot against Northern Illinois.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
53. Jovon Robinson, Auburn
The No. 54 spot on this list might be too low for Robinson. In his first year from the junior college ranks, Robinson rushed for 639 yards and three scores, including 126 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. With Peyton Barber off to the NFL, Robinson is poised to see an increase in carries next fall.
52. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt’s offense is a work in progress under second-year coordinator Andy Ludwig and sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur, but the Commodores are in good shape on the ground, as Webb (1,152 yards and five scores) returns after producing the first 1,000-yard season for the program since 2012.
51. Chris Warren, Texas
Warren stepped up with D’Onta Foreman sidelined by injury in Texas’ final two games of 2015. He gashed Texas Tech for 276 yards and four touchdowns and recorded 106 yards on 28 attempts against Baylor. Warren and Foreman will lead the way for the Longhorns in 2016, but true freshman Kyle Porter could factor into the mix.
50. D’Onta Foreman, Texas
Foreman missed the last two games of 2015 due to injury but finished as Texas’ leading rusher with 681 yards on 95 attempts. His 7.2 yards per carry average ranked second in the Big 12 behind Baylor’s Johnny Jefferson.
49. Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
Mizzell posted a career-best 664 yards last season and was a valuable cog in Virginia’s passing attack. The Virginia native led the team with 75 catches and ranked second with 721 receiving yards.
48. Rushel Shell, West Virginia
High expectations have surrounded Shell since he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. However, he’s yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season and finished second on the team last year with 708 yards. With Wendell Smallwood off to the NFL, Shell will compete with junior college recruit Justin Crawford for the top spot on the depth chart.
47. Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
Lawry led all Conference USA running backs by averaging 103.3 rushing yards per game last season. He also has 27 rushing scores over the last two seasons and was a valuable receiver out of the backfield (21 catches).
46. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott leaves big shoes to fill in Columbus. The Buckeyes head into spring ball with some uncertainty at this position, as Mike Weber, Antonio Williams, Bri’onte Dunn and Samuel are all expected to push for carries. Does Samuel fit in better as a running back, H-back or as a receiver?
45. Johnny Jefferson, Baylor
Jefferson is the second running back from Baylor to make this list. Thanks to 457 yards over the final two games of 2015, Jefferson joined teammate Shock Linwood in the 1,000-yard club last season.
44. Tarean Folston, Notre Dame
Folston’s 2015 season was cut short after a knee injury in the opener against Texas. With C.J. Prosise off to the NFL, Folston is expected to regain the No. 1 job in the backfield. He rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns as Notre Dame’s feature back in 2014.
43. Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh
James Conner is on track to return in 2016, but the Panthers won’t have to rush him back with Ollison in the mix. Ollison kept Pittsburgh’s ground attack going without Conner last year, recording 1,121 yards and 11 scores as a redshirt freshman.
42. Travon McMillian, Virginia Tech
New coach Justin Fuente inherits a couple of talented options in the backfield, with McMillian leading the way after recording 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. He was the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Hokies since David Wilson reached that mark in 2011. Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams return to the mix after redshirt years in 2015.
41. Keith Ford, Texas A&M
Ford should be one of the nation’s impact transfers in 2016. The Texas native was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and played in eight games with Oklahoma in 2014. In limited action with the Sooners, Ford recorded 392 yards and five touchdowns on 71 carries.
Related: Very Early Top 25 for 2016
40. Leon Allen, WKU
Allen is one of the toughest players to rank on this list after a serious knee injury ended his 2015 season in September. As WKU’s feature back in 2014, Allen rushed for 1,542 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for 476 yards and three scores. If Allen isn’t ready by the opener, the Hilltoppers have two capable options on the ground in Anthony Wales and D’Andre Ferby.
39. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Kamara is the second Tennessee running back to make this list and is a solid complement option to starter Jalen Hurd. In 13 games last year, Kamara recorded 698 yards and seven scores and grabbed 34 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns. Opportunities are slightly limited with Hurd the No. 1 option, but Kamara is good enough to start for many SEC programs next season.
38. Matt Dayes, NC State
Dayes was limited to eight games due to injury but still finished as NC State’s leading rusher with 865 yards last season. The Florida native should return at full strength next fall, but he will be pushed for snaps by sophomore Reggie Gallaspy II and redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier.
37. Joseph Yearby, Miami
Mark Richt’s offenses at Georgia always boasted a strong ground game, and it’s a safe bet he will look to energize a rushing attack that ranked 13th in the ACC last season. Yearby was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for Miami and worked as the team’s feature back after a year as Duke Johnson’s understudy. Yearby recorded 1,002 yards and six scores last season.
36. Boom Williams, Kentucky
Williams is an explosive, game-changing back for the Wildcats, and new coordinator Eddie Gran needs to find ways to get the Georgia native more involved. Despite missing two games, Williams averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2015 and recorded six rushing scores.
35. Aaron Jones, UTEP
Jones is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks, but his 2015 season ended after an ankle injury on Sept. 12 against Texas Tech. He should rebound in a big way this fall with a chance to surpass his 2014 totals (1,321 yards and 11 scores).
34. James Butler, Nevada
Nevada’s offense featured two 1,000-yard rushers last season, with Butler leading the way at 1,345 yards. Additionally, Butler recorded a career-best mark of 189 yards in the Arizona Bowl victory over Colorado State and reached 100 rushing yards in five out of his last six games. Penn State graduate transfer Akeel Lynch should take Don Jackson’s place as Butler’s backup in 2016.
33. Jahad Thomas, Temple
Thomas quietly impressed last fall, rushing for 1,262 yards and 17 scores on 276 carries. The 1,000-yard rushing season was the first by a Temple player since 2012 and was a big improvement from the 384 team-leading yards Thomas had in 2014.
32. Demario Richard, Arizona State
A breakout year was expected from Richard last season, and he delivered with a solid, all-around sophomore campaign. He rushed for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 303 yards and three scores. With a new quarterback taking over in Tempe next fall, Richard and backfield mate Kalen Ballage could shoulder more of the workload on offense.
31. Nick Wilson, Arizona
Injuries derailed Wilson’s 2015 season, as he finished second on the team with 725 yards and eight scores after recording 1,375 yards and 16 scores as a freshman in 2014. Wilson rushed for 135 or more yards in three out of the first four games but never eclipsed more than 80 yards in his final four appearances last fall.
30. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner or an All-American at running back is usually a difficult task, but this is the norm at Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s run of talented rushers – Eddie Lacy, Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry – is deep and impressive. Scarbrough has all of the physical tools and talent to be the next standout for coach Nick Saban. However, he just lacks experience after rushing 18 times for 104 yards and one score last year.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2016
29. Marlon Mack, South Florida
Mack is only the third player in South Florida history to reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. After recording 1,041 yards and nine scores as a freshman in 2014, Mack posted a strong sophomore season, rushing for 1,381 yards and eight touchdowns.
28. LJ Scott, Michigan State
Regardless of what Scott does over the next few seasons in East Lansing, he’s already cemented a place in Michigan State history after his game-winning touchdown against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. After a strong freshman campaign (699 yards and 11 scores), the arrow on Scott’s career is clearly trending up for 2016.
27. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
All signs pointed to a breakout season from Clement last fall, as he was pegged as the next star running back for the Badgers in replacing Melvin Gordon. However, hernia surgery sidelined him for most of the year. Clement finished with only 221 yards and five scores. With a full offseason to rehab and return to full strength, Clement should be one of the Big Ten’s top running backs.
26. Elijah McGuire, UL Lafayette
McGuire contemplated an early jump to the NFL but decided to return for his senior season. He’s recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and has 27 rushing scores in that span.
25. Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have a deep backfield of options to lean on in 2016, with Cox leading the way after earning his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign last year. Despite missing a game, Cox finished with 1,423 yards and nine scores and rushed for over 100 yards (103) against Clemson last season.
24. Sony Michel, Georgia
Michel had big shoes to fill midway through 2015. After Nick Chubb was lost for the year with a knee injury, Michel stepped into the starting role at running back and rushed for 1,161 yards and eight scores. Talent certainly isn’t a question – Michel was a five-star recruit – but opportunities will be limited if Chubb returns at full strength in 2016.
23. Ronald Jones II, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack, and the Trojans return two running backs that eclipsed 900 yards last season. Jones II is a rising star after leading USC with 987 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. He should emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top running backs next fall.
22. Brian Hill, Wyoming
Hill finished 2014 on a tear, recording at least 120 rushing yards in four out of Wyoming’s last five games. The Illinois native picked up where he left off with a strong 2015 campaign, which included four 200-yard performances and 1,631 overall yards on the ground.
21. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Hunt missed three out of Toledo’s first four games last season and fell short of 1,000 yards (973) after recording 1,631 yards in 2014. Hunt will team with Terry Swanson to form one of the nation’s top tandems at running back.
20. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
After sitting out 2014 on a season-long suspension, Mixon joined the Oklahoma backfield as the No. 2 option behind Samaje Perine. The former five-star recruit showcased his talent in limited snaps, recording 753 yards and seven scores on 113 carries. He also added 28 catches for 356 yards and four touchdowns.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
19. Mike Warren, Iowa State
New Iowa State coach Matt Campbell had a 1,000-yard rusher at Toledo in three out of his four seasons with the Rockets. Expect to see Campbell build his 2016 offense around Warren after he recorded 1,339 yards and five scores as a freshman last year.
18. James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner is on the comeback trail after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2015 season opener and being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December. And the best news of all: Coach Pat Narduzzi recently indicated he expects Conner to play in 2016.
17. Larry Rose, New Mexico State
Rose is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets and has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Aggies. On 240 carries last season, Rose rushed for 1,651 yards and 14 scores and earned third-team All-America honors by the Associated Press.
16. Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
Breida is one of the nation’s most-explosive running backs and has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Eagles. Over the last two seasons, Breida has recorded 11 rushing plays of 60 yards or more – the most of any player in college football.
15. Myles Gaskin, Washington
Gaskin turned in a breakout performance in 2015, leading the Huskies' ground game as a true freshman with 1,302 yards and 14 scores. Additionally, Gaskin finished the year by rushing for at least 100 yards in seven out of the last nine games, including a season-high of 181 yards against Southern Miss in the Heart of the Dallas Bowl.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
14. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
Boise State’s ground attack didn’t miss a beat after Jay Ajayi left early for the NFL, as McNichols rushed for 1,337 yards and led all Mountain West running backs with 20 rushing scores. The Broncos enter 2016 with a string of seven consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher.
13. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Pumphrey is on the verge of history in 2016, as he enters the season needing 318 yards to break Marshall Faulk’s school record (4,589) for most rushing yards in a career. The Nevada native is poised to earn his third consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2016.
12. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Northwestern’s passing attack ranked last in the Big Ten (138.5 ypg), but the offense churned out yardage thanks to the ground game. Jackson rushed for 1,418 yards and five scores last season, earning his second straight 1,000-yard campaign. He also ranked third on the team with 21 receptions.
11. Shock Linwood, Baylor
Baylor’s backfield is overflowing with riches in 2016, as four players with at least 550 rushing yards return. Linwood is the headliner for coach Art Briles and returns after earning his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign (1,329) last season.
10. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
Hood’s emergence was a key cog in North Carolina’s run to the Coastal Division title last season. The former four-star recruit rushed for 259 yards as a true freshman in 2014 but increased his yardage to 1,463 last season. Hood’s 17 rushing scores ranked second in the ACC to Dalvin Cook (19).
9. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Despite a sluggish offensive line, Barkley managed to record 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns for the Nittany Lions last season. He will be even better as a sophomore in 2016.
8. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
The Tennessee duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara is one of the best in the nation, with Hurd leading the way after recording 1,288 yards and 12 scores last season. He’s also the only player in school history to rush for 100 yards in two bowl games.
7. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Gallman is the perfect complement to quarterback Deshaun Watson in Clemson’s high-powered offense. Not only is Gallman capable of breaking the big play on the ground or on receptions, but the junior is also adept at getting the tough yards between the tackles. Gallman recorded 1,527 yards and 13 scores last season.
6. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Perine’s rushing total dipped slightly from 2014 (1,713 yards) to 1,349 last season. A couple of factors played into Perine’s drop, as Oklahoma’s scheme changed under new coordinator Lincoln Riley, the offensive line had its share of ups and downs, and Joe Mixon made his first appearance in a Sooner uniform. Regardless of the drop in statistics, Perine is the top running back in the Big 12 in 2016.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia
A significant knee injury ended Chubb’s 2015 season in early October. Prior to his injury against Tennessee, Chubb was setting a torrid pace, rushing for at least 120 yards in five consecutive games and averaging 8.1 yards per carry. How quickly will Chubb return to full strength in 2016?
4. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Freeman quietly finished fourth nationally in rushing yards per game (141.2) last season and led all Pac-12 running backs with 17 rushing scores. The most-impressive feat on Freeman’s 2015 resume? He rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 out of Oregon’s 13 contests last year, including 246 against Washington State on Oct. 10.
3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
The ridiculous amount of talent returning at running back next year is evident when Dalvin Cook is ranked No. 3 on the list. A strong argument could be made for Cook at No. 1 or No. 2, but for now, McCaffrey and Fournette get the nod at the top. Despite a hamstring and ankle injury last year, Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 scores and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. Additionally, Cook’s six runs of 40 yards or more tied for fifth nationally.
Related: Very Early Top 25 for 2016
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
After setting the FBS record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) in a single-season, McCaffrey has his sights set even higher for 2016. With the Cardinal replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan and a couple of key offensive line starters, the junior will have to carry more of the workload next fall. However, he’s up to the task and will aim to shatter last year’s rushing mark (2,019).
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette is the nation’s most-talented running back and poised for another monster season after recording 1,953 yards and 22 scores last season. He should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 out of his last 14 games. Fournette led the nation with an average of 162.8 yards per game in 2015 – more than 15 yards more per game than Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
New uniforms are a huge part of any college football offseason, and Kentucky is one of the first teams to unveil a new look for 2016.
On Friday, the Wildcats released their updated uniforms and helmets for the 2016 season.
These aren’t drastically different than the ones Kentucky used in 2015, but there are some solid tweaks to the uniforms.
Check out Kentucky’s new uniforms:
Introducing our new secondary logo. Honoring the school mascot, the wildcat. pic.twitter.com/6BPhLP4ylG— UK Stoops Troops (@UKStoopsTroops) February 5, 2016
Courtney love modeling new blue look pic.twitter.com/00prHpEeG4— Jon Hale (@JonHale_CJ) February 5, 2016
New UK football uniform white pic.twitter.com/RsHaGUYTnM— John Clay (@johnclayiv) February 5, 2016
Some logo, font, color pic.twitter.com/Syntj7hfwY— Jon Hale (@JonHale_CJ) February 5, 2016
UK will now have a new open-mouth Wildcat as a secondary logo pic.twitter.com/5c06xKTQDo— John Clay (@johnclayiv) February 5, 2016
National Signing Day was relatively quiet on the West Coast and the Pac-12. USC picked up a couple of late commitments to finish with the league’s top signing class at No. 9 nationally, and crosstown rival UCLA inked the Pac-12’s No. 2 haul (No. 11 nationally). Only three five-star players signed with Pac-12 programs and all three are headed to either USC or UCLA. Stanford quietly signed another excellent class under coach David Shaw to take No. 3 in the consensus recruiting rankings, while Oregon finished fourth in the Pac-12 and averaged a 29.75 finish nationally – its lowest mark for a recruiting class over the last six seasons.
Washington is a program on the rise under coach Chris Petersen, and the Huskies continue to build momentum on the recruiting trail. Washington’s class ranked No. 26 nationally last season and averaged a No. 33 rank in 2016. Recruiting at a high level hasn’t been a problem for Petersen in his tenure in Seattle. Another underrated storyline from National Signing Day in the Pac-12 was Utah. The Utes averaged a No. 35 finish among the four major recruiting services, which is its best mark since joining the Pac-12.
To recap National Signing Day, Athlon Sports is taking a look at the top recruiting classes by each league. The national rankings from the four major scouting services – Scout, Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN – were used to compile a consensus average, which we used to rank teams in each league. Additionally, the number of three, four and five-star recruits signed by each team are indicated in the table from the 247Sports Composite.
Pac-12 2016 Team Recruiting Rankings
Recruiting results and National Signing Day have been a fascinating area to watch for the Big 12 in recent years. The conference has a stronghold in the state of Texas – one of the nation’s best areas for talent – but the league has watched some of its top talent head to the SEC to play for Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama or Ole Miss. The national recruiting rankings over the last four seasons also paint an interesting picture for the Big 12. During that span, only one class – Texas in 2016 – ranked as a top-10 consensus haul by the 247Sports Composite. While the Longhorns reached the No. 10 mark in the 247Sports Composite, coach Charlie Strong’s team needed a furious close just to reach that mark. Keeping talent at home has to be a priority for the Big 12’s top teams.
Outside of Texas, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma inked strong classes. Coach Art Briles continues to elevate the talent level in Waco, as the Bears recorded a No. 18 national average by the four major scouting services. Oklahoma was the only team in the Big 12 to sign a five-star prospect (linebacker Caleb Kelly). However, the Sooners’ in-state rival (Oklahoma State) finished with an average place of 44.25 among the four major recruiting services. The Cowboys inked four top-35 classes from 2011-14, but coach Mike Gundy’s last two hauls ranked outside of the top 40 nationally.
To recap National Signing Day, Athlon Sports is taking a look at the top recruiting classes by each league. The national rankings from the four major scouting services – Scout, Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN – were used to compile a consensus average, which we used to rank teams in each league. Additionally, the number of three, four and five-star recruits signed by each team are indicated in the table from the 247Sports Composite.
Big 12 2016 Team Recruiting Rankings
The Big Ten is trending up entering the 2016 season, and National Signing Day did nothing to slow the momentum from the 2015 campaign for the league’s top teams. Ohio State and Michigan were two of National Signing Day’s biggest winners, as the Wolverines and Buckeyes landed top-five classes and two of the three five-star prospects entering the conference. Both teams should be playoff contenders next fall, with a handful of freshmen expected to make an immediate impact. Although Ohio State and Michigan won the headlines on Signing Day, Michigan State (No. 20 national average class rank) and Penn State (No. 20.75 average class rank) also picked up solid classes.
One of the Big Ten’s underrated winners of Signing Day was Nebraska. Despite a 6-7 record in coach Mike Riley’s first season, the Cornhuskers signed the Big Ten’s No. 5 recruiting class. Additionally, the No. 24 rank in the 247Sports Composite was the program’s highest mark since a No. 22 finish in 2013. Nebraska signed five four-star recruits according to the 247Sports Composite, which is nearly as many as it inked from 2014-15 (six). The Cornhuskers have signed the best recruiting class in the Big Ten West Division over the last two seasons. That’s a positive sign for Riley and this program moving into 2016.
The Big Ten’s four new full-time coaches had their share of ups and downs on the recruiting trail this season. Two programs Illinois (Bill Cubit) and Rutgers (Chris Ash) finished outside of the top 65 nationally in the consensus rankings among the four major services. Maryland’s D.J. Durkin signed the No. 8 consensus class in the Big Ten but missed on keeping a couple of touted local prospects at home. Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys guided the program to a No. 48 finish in the 247Sports Composite, which is the highest mark for the Golden Gophers over the last five seasons.
To recap National Signing Day, Athlon Sports is taking a look at the top recruiting classes by each league. The national rankings from the four major scouting services – Scout, Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN – were used to compile a consensus average, which we used to rank teams in each league. Additionally, the number of three, four and five-star recruits signed by each team are indicated in the table from the 247Sports Composite.
Big Ten 2016 Team Recruiting Rankings
The ACC isn’t two-team league, but it’s clear Florida State and Clemson are in clear control of this conference. The Seminoles and Tigers have each earned a trip to the College Football Playoff over the last two seasons, and both programs continue to outrecruit their league opponents by a significant margin. Florida State inked the ACC’s top recruiting class with a No. 2 national average and earned the No. 1 class designation from ESPN. Clemson checked in second with an 8.75 national average, with three of the four recruiting services grading coach Dabo Swinney’s class a top-10 group.
The strength of Florida State and Clemson’s class is clearly demonstrated by the five and four-star recruits. The Seminoles and Tigers signed the only five-star recruits in the ACC and 29 of the league’s 48 incoming four-star prospects.
The ACC took a step forward this offseason with the addition of new coaches Mark Richt (Miami), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech. However, Florida State and Clemson continue to set the bar high for the rest of the league.
ACC 2016 Team Recruiting Rankings
The SEC was one of the big winners on National Signing Day. Three teams – Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss – cracked the top six of the consensus national team rankings, with the Crimson Tide taking home the No. 1 overall class for the sixth consecutive season. The depth of the league extends outside of the top six, as Georgia (No. 7) and Auburn (No. 10) are just behind. All 14 SEC teams finished inside of the top 60 in national rankings and only two classes – Missouri and Vanderbilt – ranked lower than 35th.
Needless to say, the rich are getting richer. And there’s no shortage of talent flowing into the SEC.
SEC 2016 Team Recruiting Rankings
Recruiting is the basic blueprint for any college football program. Building a winner starts on the recruiting trail, and the data is there to back up just how important Signing Day is to all 128 teams. Sure, there are going to be hits and misses in the team and player projections each season, but there’s plenty of accuracy and meaning behind the final rankings.
Recruiting isn’t just a one-month exercise, as coaches are essentially on the trail all year for multiple classes. Whether it's the junior college ranks or high school prospects, coaches are constantly looking for talent and their next standout players.
New coaches are often placed into a difficult position, as it takes a year or two to build relationships for a signing class. Most new coaches only have a couple of months (if that) to target their prospects to fit the new systems and fight for commitments on the recruiting trail.
We can’t read much into how new coaches recruited this season due to the short turnaround time. However, the numbers are certainly interesting. And it will be critical to see how these numbers change after each coach has a full year to recruit.
Let’s take a look at how the new coaches for 2016 recruited (all rankings and data from 247Sports Composite)
Power 5 Conferences
|Miami||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Al Golden (2015)||22||26||15||6||0|
|Mark Richt (2016)||18||21||7||10||0|
|Syracuse||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Scott Shafer (2015)||29||58||24||0||0|
|Dino Babers (2016)||20||66||18||0||0|
|Virginia||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Mike London (2015)||23||50||22||1||0|
|Bronco Mendenhall (2016)||25||59||23||0||0|
|Virginia Tech||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Frank Beamer (2015)||24||29||20||4||0|
|Justin Fuente (2016)||21||41||19||1||0|
|Iowa State||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Paul Rhoads (2015)||24||66||18||0||0|
|Matt Campbell (2016)||29||52||26||0||0|
|Illinois||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Tim Beckman (2015)||24||48||18||2||0|
|Bill Cubit (2016)||25||71||20||0||0|
|Maryland||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Randy Edsall (2015)||19||49||15||2||0|
|D.J. Durkin (2016)||21||42||14||3||0|
|Minnesota||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Jerry Kill (2015)||24||63||24||0||0|
|Tracy Claeys (2016)||20||48||18||1||0|
|Rutgers||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Kyle Flood (2015)||25||56||21||1||0|
|Chris Ash (2016)||17||74||13||0||0|
|USC||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Steve Sarkisian (2015)||27||2||9||15||3|
|Clay Helton (2016)||20||8||6||12||2|
|Georgia||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Mark Richt (2015)||30||5||16||12||2|
|Kirby Smart (2016)||20||7||7||10||3|
|Missouri||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Gary Pinkel (2015)||24||25||20||2||1|
|Barry Odom (2016)||18||53||17||1||0|
|South Carolina||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Steve Spurrier (2015)||31||19||20||10||0|
|Will Muschamp (2016)||26||26||20||5||0|
|BYU||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Bronco Mendenhall (2015)||23||64||15||0||0|
|Kalani Sitake (2016)||24||50||17||2||0|
Group of 5 Conferences
|East Carolina||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Ruffin McNeill (2015)||15||95||13||0||0|
|Scottie Montgomery (2016)||22||71||16||0||0|
|Memphis||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Justin Fuente (2015)||33||79||15||1||0|
|Mike Norvell (2016)||23||62||18||0||0|
|Tulane||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Curtis Johnson (2015)||19||93||8||0||0|
|Willie Fritz (2016)||25||86||10||0||0|
|UCF||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|George O'Leary (2015)||18||72||15||1||0|
|Scott Frost (2016)||20||65||18||0||0|
|North Texas||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Dan McCarney (2015)||25||94||10||0||0|
|Seth Littrell (2016)||17||106||6||0||0|
|Southern Miss||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Todd Monken (2015)||27||87||11||0||0|
|Jay Hopson (2016)||20||88||10||0||0|
|UTSA||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Larry Coker (2015)||32||103||11||0||0|
|Frank Wilson (2016)||17||111||7||0||0|
|Ball State||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Pete Lembo (2015)||27||112||6||0||0|
|Mike Neu (2016)||23||108||6||0||0|
|Bowling Green||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Dino Babers (2015)||24||110||5||0||0|
|Mike Jinks (2016)||15||116||5||0||0|
|Toledo||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Matt Campbell (2015)||24||85||10||0||0|
|Jason Candle (2016)||22||93||10||0||0|
|Hawaii||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Norm Chow (2015)||14||123||4||0||0|
|Nick Rolovich (2016)||16||121||7||0||0|
|Georgia Southern||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Willie Fritz (2015)||21||91||13||0||0|
|Tyson Summers (2016)||28||78||12||0||0|
|Texas State||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Dennis Franchione (2015)||25||96||7||0||0|
|Everett Withers (2016)||24||105||7||0||0|
|ULM||Total||National Rank||3 Stars Signed||4 Stars Signed||5 Stars Signed|
|Todd Berry (2015)||27||108||7||0||0|
|Matt Viator (2016)||19||122||5||0||0|
College football’s 2016 National Signing Day is officially in the books. Every FBS program inked recruits to a National Letter of Intent on Wednesday, which means coaching staffs should have a good snapshot of how their program looks for the upcoming season. With spring practice just around the corner, the focus around the nation now shifts to the 2016 season.
There will be several impact performers from the 2016 class this season, and it’s impossible to narrow the names down to just 10. However, now that signing day is complete, let’s take a look at 10 names to watch in 2016 and how they could impact their team in on-field action.
10 Instant-Impact College Football Recruits for 2016
Oluwole Betiku, DE, USC
New coach Clay Helton inked the Pac-12’s top class in the 247Sports Composite rankings, landing at No. 8 overall nationally. Securing talent and depth in the defensive trenches was critical for Helton, and the Trojans have four new prospects joining the roster this offseason. Betiku is the one garnering the most attention as the No. 16 overall player in the 247Sports Composite. The California native registered 17 sacks and 28 tackles for a loss in 2015 and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. With Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Greg Townsend and Antwaun Woods departing Los Angeles, Betiku could be asked to play a lot of snaps as a true freshman.
Nate Craig-Myers/Kyle Davis, WR, Auburn
Upgrading the offense is an offseason priority for coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn averaged only 22.1 points a game and 5.1 yards per play in SEC contests last season and question marks remain under center and at receiver going into spring practice. The top two receivers – Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray – have expired their eligibility after combining for 66 of Auburn’s 179 catches last year. Just how important were the signings of Davis and Craig-Myers to Auburn’s recruiting class? Consider this – the top returning receiver for 2016 is Jason Smith with 13 catches. Craig-Meyers and Davis have a clear path to playing time next fall.
Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
Georgia’s passing game left a lot to be desired last season. The Bulldogs ranked 12th in SEC-only contests in 2015 and tossed only six touchdowns to eight interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey are back in 2016, but Eason is the frontrunner to take the first snap of the year for new coach Kirby Smart. The Washington native enrolled early and will compete in spring practice.
Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan
Gary ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the four major recruiting services – Scout, 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN – and is the anchor for a Michigan class that finished No. 5 in the 247Sports Composite. The New Jersey native boasts a powerful 6-foot-5, 293-pound frame and is capable of wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage with his quick first step and explosiveness. Even though Michigan has one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines in place, Gary will see plenty of snaps for new coordinator Don Brown.
Patrick Hudson, OL, Baylor
Baylor’s offensive line was one of the best in college football last season, but coach Art Briles has some work to do in the trenches this spring. Four starters depart last year’s standout group, including left tackle Spencer Drango. Center Kyle Fuller is the lone returning starter up front, but the cupboard is far from empty. Hudson was a key pickup for the Bears in the 2016 signing class, as the Texas native ranked as the No. 50 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite. Additionally, junior college recruit Branton Autry is also expected to push for time. Hudson is a player to watch this offseason for Baylor’s high-powered attack.
Gregory Little, OT, Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze inked another stellar recruiting class on Wednesday, which includes two of the nation’s top prospects in Little and quarterback Shea Patterson. Little is a key pickup for the Rebels at a position of need. The offensive line loses four key starters, including standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Starting as a left tackle in the SEC is no easy assignment, but Little has the talent, size and strength to protect quarterback Chad Kelly’s blindside next fall.
Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
Clemson continues to churn out elite defensive linemen, and there’s no shortage of talent in the pipeline for coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers have a bigger need at end with the departures of Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson than the interior this offseason, but Lawrence is too talented to keep on the sidelines. The North Carolina native ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and could slide into a rotation at tackle, adding depth to a group that already features Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, Scott Pagano and Albert Huggins.
Austin Mack, WR, Ohio State
Ohio State was hit hard by early departures to the NFL, including its top two receivers – Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall – who combined for 92 catches in 2015. But that’s not all the Buckeyes have to replace in the receiving corps. Also departing is Braxton Miller (26 catches), tight end Nick Vannett (19 receptions) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (27 grabs). Coach Urban Meyer indicated on Signing Day he wants the incoming freshmen play a lot of snaps in 2016, and Mack could be one of the instant impact recruits. The Indiana native ranked as the No. 76 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and is capable of being a physical presence on the outside with his 6-foot-2 frame. Two other incoming freshmen to watch – running back Antonio Williams and defensive end Nick Bosa.
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
It’s rare to see a five-star recruit sign with a program outside of the Power 5 ranks. However, Houston is a program on the rise under coach Tom Herman, and the Cougars have plenty of talent in their backyard in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Herman is having success keeping talent at home and away from Power 5 teams. Oliver played at Westfield High School – just under 30 minutes away from Houston’s TDECU Stadium – and ranks as the No. 6 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite. The Cougars must replace one contributor (Tomme Mark) from the 2015 defensive line, so Oliver may not have to start right away. However, he should be an impact performer for Houston in 2016.
Devwah Whaley, RB, Arkansas
With Alex Collins leaving for the NFL, the Razorbacks are looking for a new standout at running back to anchor Bret Bielema’s ground attack. Kody Walker is back for his senior season, but Rawleigh Williams III is coming off a significant neck injury. Whaley rushed for 1,530 yards and 21 scores as a high school senior and possesses a good blend of size, speed and power. He should have an opportunity to push for carries right away.
Others to Watch
McTelvin Agim, DL, Arkansas
Shane Buechele, QB, Texas
Ben Davis, LB, Alabama
Devin Duvernay, WR, Baylor
B.J. Emmons, RB, Alabama
Damar Hamlin, DB, Pittsburgh
N’keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Daelin Hayes, LB, Notre Dame
Malik Henry, QB, Florida State
Theo Howard, WR, UCLA
Benito Jones, DL, Ole Miss
Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson
Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
Jeffrey Simmons, DE, Mississippi State
Levonta Taylor, CB, Florida State
Kareem Walker, RB, Michigan
Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama
College football’s 2016 National Signing Day ended with a familiar face at the top of the team recruiting rankings: Alabama. The Crimson Tide claimed the recruiting national championship for the sixth consecutive season, slightly edging Florida State for the No. 1 spot in the consensus average from the four major services – 247Sports, Rivals, Scout and ESPN. The Seminoles earned the top spot in ESPN’s ranks, but Rivals, Scout and 247Sports gave Alabama the nod at No. 1.
The SEC was one of the big winners of Signing Day, as five teams claimed spots in the top 10. The conference was close to having a couple of other programs in the top 10, with Florida (No. 13) and Tennessee (No. 15) just missing the mark. Michigan and Ohio State carried the banner for the Big Ten with both programs inking top-five classes. Texas at No. 11 was the top Big 12 team in the rankings, while USC at No. 9 earned the best class in the Pac-12.
Evaluating recruiting classes is no easy task, which is why Athlon Sports has looked to the major scouting services to get their take on the best signing hauls of 2016. Every class was listed in a spreadsheet, added to get a point total and averaged by four to create the consensus team rankings for 2016.
Here’s a look at how the four major scouting services rank the college football signing classes for 2016:
College Football's 2016 Consensus Team Recruiting Rankings
The first Wednesday in February is essentially Christmas for every college football head coach. After months of hard work on the recruiting trail, coaches will hit the offices bright and early on Wednesday for National Signing Day to welcome a new class full of freshmen and maybe a few junior college transfers to chase a national championship.
With most college football teams signing around 25 prospects on Wednesday, there’s over 3,000 players coming to the FBS ranks next season. And it’s no surprise there are some rather entertaining names among the new group of college players. Athlon combed through the recruits for the 2016 signing class by using the database of players at Scout.com and rounded up the best (and most interesting) names from this year's recruiting lists.
Note: Positions of players can very from recruiting service. Players in this article were listed by position according to Scout.
2016 College Football Recruiting All-Name Team
Messiah deWeaver (Wayne High School), Huber Heights, Ohio
Jawon Pass (Carver High School), Columbus, Georgia
Gunnar Hoak (Dublin Coffman High School), Dublin, Ohio
Zeb Norland (Oconee County High School), Watkinsville, Georgia
Jett Duffey (Lake Ridge High School), Mansfield, Texas
Deuce Wallace (Sevier County High School), Sevierville, Tennessee
Harley Kirsch (Eastside Catholic High School), Sammamish, Washington
Yafari Werts (Newberry High School), Newberry, South Carolina
Rudiger Yearick (Metrolina Christian Academy), Indian Trail, North Carolina
Raekwon Bush (Edna Karr High School), New Orleans, Louisiana
Bailin Markridge (Sandra Day O’Connor High School), Glendale, Arizona
Barrick Slaughter (Livonia High School), Livonia, Louisiana
Elijah Holyfield (Woodward Academy), College Park, Georgia
Carlin Fils-Aime (Naples High School), Naples, Florida
Daevon Vigilant (Downey High School), Downey, California
Toks Akinribade (Brownsburg High School), Brownsburg, Indiana
Justice Hill (Booker T. Washington High School), Tulsa, Oklahoma
Torreanho Sweet (Bishop Amat High School), La Puente, California
Kumehnnu Gwilly (Utica High School), Utica, Michigan
Tre Nation (Leeds High School), Leeds, Alabama
Parie Dedeaux (Susan Miller Dorsey High School), Los Angeles, California
Yeedee Thaenrat (Father Judge High School), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chuby Dunu (Buchanan High School), Clovis, California
Priest Bluitt (Clear Falls High School), League City, Texas
Job McGinty (Junipero Serra High School), Gardena, California
Rickey Henderson (Lancaster High School), Lancaster, Texas
Indiana McAlpine (Malibu High School), Malibu, California
Divine Deablo (Mount Tabor High School), Winston-Salem, North Carolina
LePear Toles (McKinley High School), Canton, Ohio
Dock Luckie (Gainesville High School), Gainesville, Florida
Josh Imatorbhebhe (North Gwinnett High School), Suwanee, Georgia
Eddie McDoom (West Orange High School), Winter Garden, Florida
Velus Jones (Saraland High School), Saraland, Alabama
Derrion Rakestraw (Sequoyah High School), Canton, Georgia
True Thompson (Robbinsdale Armstrong Sr.), Plymouth, Minnesota
Taysir Mack (Grand Street High School), Brooklyn, New York
Neru N’Shaka (Hallandale High School), Hallandale, Florida
Major Bellamy (Central Gwinnett High School), Lawrenceville, Georgia
Otumos Payemanu (Athens Drive High School), Raleigh, North Carolina
Deion Hair’Griffin (Arlington Heights High School), Fort Worth, Texas
Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (Breck School), Minneapolis, Minnesota
Bubba Ogbebor (Heritage High School), Frisco, Texas
Stori Emerson (Ben Davis High School), Indianapolis, Indiana
Octavious Cooley (Laurel High School), Laurel, Mississippi
Chase Claypool (Abbotsford Senior Secondary), Abbotsford, BC
Albert Okwuegbunam (Sacred Heart Griffin High School), Springfield, Illinois
J.C. Chalk (Argyle High School), Argyle, Texas
Tangaloa Kaufusi (East High School), Salt Lake City, Utah
Dakota Holtzclaw (Worthington Kilbourne High School), Columbus, Ohio
Scooter Harrington (Greenwich High School), Greenwich, Connecticut
Pro Wells (Dixie M. Hollins High School), St. Petersburg, Florida
Miles Beach (Los Gatos High School), Los Gatos, California
Ian Van der Meer (Sam Barlow High School), Gresham, Oregon
Amorama Noel (Alief Elsik High School), Houston, Texas
Bapa Falemaka (Judge Memorial Catholic High School), Salt Lake City, Utah
Matt Dunkelberger (East Pennsboro Area SHS), Enola, Pennsylvania
Brodarious Hamm (Spalding High School), Griffin, Georgia
Tank Smith (Byron Nelson High School), Trophy Club, Texas
Zeveyon Furcron (Joliet Catholic Academy), Joliet, Illinois
Saige Young (Woodford County High School), Versailles, Kentucky
Lloyd Cushenberry (Dutchtown High School), Geismar, Louisiana
Tope Imade (Bowie High School), Arlington, Texas
Tiller Bucktrot (Stroud High School), Stroud, Oklahoma
Nino Leone (Pingree School), South Hamilton, Massachusetts
Iverson Moana (Faga’Itua High School), Pago Pago, AS
Ulises De Los Santos (Union City High School), Union City, New Jersey
Derices Brown (Muskegon High School), Muskegon, Michigan
Brown Tuiasosopo (San Fernando Senior High School), San Fernando, California
Michael Jordan (Plymouth High School), Canton, Michigan
Coy Cronk (Central Catholic), Lafayette, Indiana
Stone Forsythe (West Orange High School), Winter Garden, Florida
Rowdy Frederick (Broken Arrow High School), Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
Sage Doxtater (Canada Prep Football Academy), St. Catharines, Ontario
Gentle Williams (Florence High School), Florence, Mississippi
Dakota Birdyshaw (Walker High School), Jasper, Alabama
Keymoney Hunt (Sheffield High School), Memphis, Tennessee
Jay-Jay McCargo (Bishop O’Connell), Arlington, Virginia
King James Taylor (Nathaniel Harbonne High School), Harbor City, California
Handsome Tanielu (Snow College), Ephraim, Utah
Boss Tagaloa (De La Salle High School), Concord, California
Raekwon Davis (Meridian High School), Meridian, Mississippi
Shug Frazier (Buford High School), Buford, Georgia
D’Andre Christmas-Giles (St. Augustine High School), New Orleans, Louisiana
Bo Peek (Plant Senior High School), Tampa, Florida
Atunaisa Mahe (West Jordan High School), West Jordan, Utah
David Letuligasenoa (Heritage High School), Brentwood, California
Corey Tipsword (Norman High School North), Norman, Oklahoma
Oluwole Betiku (Junipero Serra High School), Gardena, California
McTelvin Agim (Hope High School), Hope, Arkansas
Levi Onwuzurike (Allen High School), Allen, Texas
Chauncey Manac (Clinch County High School), Homerville, Georgia
Prince Sammons (Cincinnati Hills Christian Aca), Cincinnati, Ohio
Karamo Dioubate (The Preparatory Charter School), Philadelphia, Philadelphia
Jachai Polite (Mainland High School), Daytona Beach, Florida
Adetokunbo Ogundeji (Walled Lake Central High School), Walled Lake, Michigan
Gary Overshown (Horn High School), Mesquite, Texas
Pookie Maka (Woods Cross High School), Woods Cross, Utah
Solomon Wise (Coppell High School), Coppell, Texas
Lyric Bartley (Taylorsville High School), Salt Lake City, Utah
Baer Hunter (West Forsyth High School), Clemmons, North Carolina
Cedric Muzik (Redondo Union High School), Redondo Beach, California
Woodly Sully (Coconut Creek High School), Pompano Beach, Florida
Seufagafaga Luafatasaga (Farrington High School), Honolulu, Hawaii
Shaquille Quarterman (Oakleaf High School), Orange Park, Florida
Kash Daniel (Paintsville High School), Paintsville, Kentucky
Zach Sandwisch (Central Catholic High School), Toledo, Ohio
Tre Threat (Spanish Fort High School), Spanish Fort, Alabama
Tuck Tucker (Ralph H Poteet High School), Mesquite, Texas
Tiger Baldwin (Bedford-North Lawrence High School), Bedford, Indiana
Landan Word (Bishop O’Connell), Arlington, Virginia
Chris Crumb (Olentangy High School), Lewis Center, Ohio
Tru’self Cooper (Benedictine Military School), Savannah, Georgia
Jack Clancy (Westfield High School), Chantilly, Virginia
Case Hatch (Perry High School), Gilbert, Arizona
Michael Divinity (John Ehret High School), Marrero, Louisiana
Jango Glackin (IMG Academy), Bradenton, Florida
Chase Pine (Lafayette High School), Williamsburg, Virginia
Rhe’Neze Galtney (Francis Howell North High School), Saint Charles, Missouri
Ayo Shogbonyo (Mansfield Summitt High School), Arlington, Texas
Michael Jackson (Susan Miller Dorsey High School), Los Angeles, California
Trevor Tank (South Lyon High School), South Lyon, Michigan
Tuf Borland (Bolingbrook High School), Bolingbrook, Illinois
Jett Whitcher (Stanwood High School), Stanwood, Washington
Majestic Jordan (South Central High School), Winterville, North Carolina
Si Kilinc (Southside High School), Fort Smith, Arkansas
Hamp Cheevers (Trenton High School), Trenton, Florida
Raleigh Texada (Centennial High School), Frisco, Texas
Antoine Winfield (The Woodlands High School), The Woodlands, Texas
DiCaprio Bootle (Miami Southridge High School), Miami, Florida
Dude Donaldson (Escambia High School), Pensacola, Florida
Dedarallo Blue (Armwood High School), Seffner, Florida
Mato Pacheco (Claremont High School), Claremont, California
Sir Patrick Scott (Riverdale Baptist School), Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Younis Sangaray (Emmett Conrad High School), Dallas, Texas
Green James (Forestville Military Academy), Forestville, Maryland
Nigel Warrior (Peachtree Ridge High School), Suwanee, Georgia
Brady Breeze (Central Catholic High School), Portland, Oregon
Marlon Character (Grady High School), Atlanta, Georgia
Sir Patrick Scott (Riverdale Baptist School), Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Martial Washington (Liberty County High School), Hinesville, Georgia
Scoop Bradshaw (Plant Senior High School), Tampa, Florida
Kindle Vildor (North Clayton High School), College Park, Georgia
Maximilian Roberts (Salisbury School), Salisbury, Connecticut
Qwuantrezz Knight (West Gadsden High School), Quincy, Florida
Darrius Vukobradovich (Grace Brethren), Simi Valley, California
Ronnie Rust (Central Catholic), Portland, Oregon
Mister Calloway (Lufkin High School), Lufkin, Texas
Justice Summerset (Mountain View High School), Tucson, Arizona
Tayte Doddy (Second Baptist School), Houston, Texas
Sewo Olonilua (Kingwood High School), Kingwood, Texas
Lil’Jordan Humphrey (Carroll High School), Southlake, Texas
ZyAire Hughes (McCracken County High School), Paducah, Kentucky
Bilal Ally (Clay High School), Green Cove Springs, Florida
Onyx Brown (Daphne High School), Daphne, Alabama
Johnny Den Bleyker (Moreau Catholic High School), Hayward, California (LS)
Michael Leshchyshyn (Roosevelt High School), Seattle, Washington (K)
Jet Toner (Punahou School), Honolulu, Hawaii (P)
Caleb Lightbourn (Camas High School), Camas, Washington (P)
Kody Schexnayder (John Curtis Christian, River Ridge, Louisiana (P)
Spring practice for nearly all 128 college football teams is slated to start in March, but it’s never too early to preview the quarterback position and how some of the new faces blend in with the returning stars. It’s no secret quarterback play is critical to the success of any program. First-year starting quarterbacks have experienced success at a high level recently, as three of the playoff teams in 2015 had a new starter under center.
With spring practice inching closer for all 128 teams, Athlon Sports is taking an early look at the quarterback position by ranking every starter for 2016. This list could look a lot different by August, especially once some of the battles are settled at Power 5 programs. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Ranking Every FBS QB for 2016: Pre-Spring Edition
128. Emiere Scaife, Georgia State
Scaife is penciled in as the favorite, but Utah transfer Conner Manning is eligible immediately and will push for time this offseason.
127. Dallas Davis, South Alabama
Davis gets the early nod as South Alabama’s next quarterback after completing 11 of 23 throws for 108 yards and one score last season.
126. Nate German, Rice
German is an intriguing prospect for coach David Bailiff, but he has only two pass attempts in his career. He spent 2015 at receiver and caught 18 passes for 379 yards and three scores.
125. Josh Allen, Wyoming
Wyoming has a wide-open race at quarterback this offseason. Allen was lost for the year after an injury against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 12 but showed promise in limited snaps (3 of 4 for 32 yards).
124. Kevin Olsen, Charlotte
Former Miami quarterback has landed at Charlotte after spending time at Riverside City College. He threw for 1,080 yards and 13 scores in 2015.
123. Devin Powell, Tulane
Tulane is switching to a new offense under coach Willie Fritz, and the quarterback situation heads into spring with plenty of question marks. Tanner Lee transferred, and a couple of quarterbacks join the team from the 2016 recruiting class.
122. George Bollas, Kent State
Bollas and Colin Reardon split time under center for the Golden Flashes in 2015. Bollas tossed two touchdowns and six picks on 167 attempts but showcased his rushing ability by ranking second on the team with 275 yards.
121. Billy Bahl, Miami (Ohio)
Bahl tossed 13 interceptions last season but seven of those came in a two-game stretch (WKU and Ohio). He rebounded late in the year with steady performances against Eastern Michigan and UMass.
120. Ford Childress, Fresno State
Fresno State’s offseason makeover is underway, as Eric Kiesau was hired as the team’s new play-caller, and Zack Greenlee announced his intentions to transfer. Childress is listed here as the starter, but Kilton Anderson and Chason Virgil aren’t far behind.
119. Ikaika Woosley, Hawaii
Nick Rolovich is a good hire for the Rainbow Warriors, but the former Hawaii quarterback opens his first spring with uncertainty under center.
118. Ryan Higgins, Louisiana Tech
Higgins is penciled in as the early favorite to replace Jeff Driskel, but Price Wilson is one to watch this offseason.
117. Ross Comis, UMass
Life as a FBS Independent will be challenging for UMass, but Comis looks like a solid replacement for Blake Frohnapfel. Comis completed 15 of 21 throws for 171 yards and two touchdowns last year.
116. Jason Driskel, FAU
Jaquez Johnson was limited at times due to injury in 2015, which allowed Driskel to gain valuable snaps for 2016. He completed 77 of 151 passes for 965 yards and three scores, including a 385-yard performance against Buffalo.
115. Dalton Sturm, UTSA
Sturm – a walk-on – stepped into the starting lineup after Blake Bogenschutz was lost for the season due to a concussion. He threw for 1,354 yards and 13 scores and rushed for 361 yards and one touchdown.
114. Grant Rohach, Buffalo
Iowa State transfer is penciled in as the favorite here, but redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson is a name to watch.
113. Perry Hills, Maryland
Maryland’s starter for 2016 is uncertain after three quarterbacks combined to throw 29 picks last year.
112. Jordan Davis, UL Lafayette
Davis played well in the Ragin’ Cajuns final two contests of 2015 and has a favorable path to the starting job after Jalen Nixon was moved to running back.
111. Ahmad Bradshaw, Army
Coach Jeff Monken has two quarterbacks – Bradshaw and Chris Carter – he can build around in 2016.
110. Tyler Rogers, New Mexico State
Rogers threw for 974 yards and seven scores through the first four games of 2015. However, he missed the rest of the year due to injury. Southern Miss graduate transfer Tyler Matthews will push Rogers for the starting job.
109. Justice Hansen, Arkansas State
Hansen is a former Oklahoma quarterback who spent 2015 at Butler Community College. He threw for 1,694 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 226 yards and four scores on the ground. Hansen will compete with James Tabary for the starting job this offseason.
108. Kurt Palandech, UNLV
Palandech is expected to open the offseason as the starter, but junior college recruit Johnny Stanton is a name to watch.
107. Alec Morris, North Texas
Landing Morris as a graduate transfer from Alabama is a huge pickup for new coach Seth Littrell. Morris attempted only one pass in three seasons with the Crimson Tide but should be a good fit in Littrell’s offense.
106. Shuler Bentley, Old Dominion
Bentley opened the year as Old Dominion’s starter but was benched late in the year in favor of David Washington. However, Bentley was pressed into action again when Washington suffered an ACL tear against Southern Miss and responded with back-to-back three touchdown performances to end the year. Will Washington regain the starting job this offseason? The winner of this battle should be higher by August.
105. Bart Houston, Wisconsin
Houston was a big-time pickup for Wisconsin on the recruiting trail, but he’s attempted only 51 passes in three seasons of playing time. He completed 27 of 47 throws for 281 yards in limited snaps last year.
104. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
Coach Derek Mason removed the redshirt from Shurmur midway through 2015. He won his first start against Missouri (10 of 20 for 89 yards) and completed 13 of 26 passes for 166 yards and two scores in the 21-17 victory over Kentucky. Shurmur is a promising player to watch in 2016.
103. Zander Diamont, Indiana
Diamont has seven starts in his two seasons with the Hoosiers, but he’s not guaranteed the job next fall. Junior college recruit Richard Lagow is the name to watch this offseason.
102. Jesse Ertz, Kansas State
Ertz was lost for the year after a season-ending injury on the first series of 2015. He’s penciled in as Kansas State’s starter here, but redshirt freshman Alex Delton and Joe Hubener are in the mix.
101. Christian Chapman, San Diego State
Starter Maxwell Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November, forcing Chapman to start the final two games of 2015. He aced his first on-field tests, throwing for 203 yards and one touchdown against Air Force in the Mountain West title game and 113 yards in the Hawaii Bowl win against Cincinnati.
100. Perry Orth, South Carolina
The addition of Kurt Roper as South Carolina’s play-caller should help an offense that averaged only 20.1 points a game in SEC contests last season. Orth is slated to compete with Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nunez and incoming freshman Brandon McIlwain for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
99. Chris Laviano, Rutgers
Laviano edged Hayden Rettig for the starting job last season and finished the year with 2,247 yards and 16 touchdowns. The offensive scheme is changing with a new staff in place, and Laviano will have to compete for the job once again.
98. Nate Romine, Air Force
Romine suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 last season. He was granted an extra year of eligibility and is expected to return as the starter.
97. Kurt Benkert, East Carolina
Benkert was slated to start for East Carolina last season, but a torn ACL in August sidelined him for the entire year.
96. Troy Williams, Utah
Former Washington signal-caller spent 2015 at Santa Monica College and returns to the Pac-12 after a standout year in the junior college ranks.
95. JD Sprague, Ohio
Sprague has played in 17 games over the last two years and threw for 275 yards and three scores in a start against Ball State in 2015.
94. Manny Wilkins, Arizona State
Wilkins did not attempt a pass in four appearances last season but rushed for 55 yards on seven carries. He will be pushed by promising redshirt freshman Brady White this spring.
93. Ryan Willis, Kansas
Willis was one of the few bright spots for Kansas in an 0-12 season. He passed for 1,719 yards and nine scores as a true freshman and nearly led the Jayhawks to upset wins over Texas Tech and TCU.
92. Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan
Roback finished 2015 with solid back-to-back performances and is the clear starter for 2016 with Reginald Bell transferring from Eastern Michigan.
91. Mack Leftwich, UTEP
UTEP’s offense is under the direction of new play-caller Brent Pease, and Leftwich is expected to be pushed by Ryan Metz and Kavika Johnson for the starting job this spring.
90. Tago Smith, Navy
It’s no secret Keenan Reynolds will be missed. However, Navy’s offense should be in good hands with Smith at the controls.
89. Riley Ferguson, Memphis
Paxton Lynch left early for the NFL Draft, but Memphis has an intriguing option stepping into the starting lineup. Ferguson – a former Tennessee quarterback – arrives in Memphis after throwing for 2,942 yards and 35 scores at Coffeyville Community College in 2015.
88. David Blough, Purdue
Blough showed promise in his first action with the Boilermakers, including a four-touchdown performance against Nebraska. He will be working with a new coordinator (Terry Malone) in 2016.
87. James Knapke, Bowling Green
Knapke started 13 games and passed for 3,173 yards after Matt Johnson was lost for the season in 2014. What tweaks will new coach Mike Jinks and his staff make on Bowling Green’s offense this offseason?
86. Riley Neal, Ball State
Mike Neu – a former Ball State quarterback – takes over in Muncie after Pete Lembo left to be an assistant at Maryland. Neal is one of the promising pieces for Neu to build around after throwing for 2,276 yards and 16 scores last season.
85. Matt Linehan, Idaho
Linehan cut his interceptions from 18 in 2014 to 11 last year and finished 2015 with a solid performance (21 of 31 for 309 yards and two touchdowns) against Texas State.
84. Bryant Shirreffs, UConn
NC State transfer helped UConn’s offense take a small step forward last year. Shirreffs threw for 2,078 yards and nine scores but also added 503 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
83. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Replacing arguably the best player in school history – Dak Prescott – is no easy task for coach Dan Mullen. Nick Fitzgerald is penciled in as the early favorite, but Elijah Staley is a name to watch this spring.
82. Luke Del Rio, Florida
Florida’s passing attack struggled in the second half of the season, and it’s safe to assume someone other than Treon Harris will take the first snap for coach Jim McElwain in 2016. Del Rio – an Oregon State transfer – is considered the favorite, but Purdue transfer Austin Appleby and true freshman Feleipe’ Franks are in the mix.
81. Chase Forrest, California
The battle to replace Jared Goff is set to begin this spring. Forrest is considered the early favorite, but Ross Bowers and Luke Rubenzer will compete for the No. 1 job.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
80. Matt Davis, SMU
SMU should be better in its second season under coach Chad Morris. Quarterback play is under the spotlight, as Davis led the team with 761 rushing yards and threw for 2,263 yards and 16 scores. However, redshirt freshman Ben Hicks could push for the starting job.
79. Jerrod Heard, Texas
Texas enters another offseason with question marks on offense. New play-caller Sterlin Gilbert is tasked with implementing a spread attack that can jumpstart an offense that averaged only 25.3 points in Big 12 games last season. Heard can be a dynamic quarterback for the Longhorns, but he will be pushed for snaps by incoming freshman Shane Buechele.
78. Nelson Fishback, WKU
Fishback finished 2015 as Brandon Doughty’s backup, but coach Jeff Brohm has several options waiting to compete for the starting job. Two transfers – Mike White (USF) and Tyler Ferguson (Louisville) – will push Fishback for the starting nod this offseason. The winner of this quarterback battle should be higher on this list by August.
77. Justin Holman, UCF
Injuries and new faces in the supporting cast prevented Holman from building off his 2014 season (2,952 yards and 23 scores). New coach Scott Frost should help Holman get back on track.
76. Trace McSorley, Penn State
Penn State got an early preview of 2016 in the Gator Bowl, as McSorley replaced an injured Christian Hackenberg. McSorley completed 14 of 27 throws for 142 yards and two scores and showcased his mobility by adding 31 yards on the ground. How will McSorley and the Nittany Lions offense adapt to new coordinator Joe Moorhead?
75. Drew Lock, Missouri
Lock was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season and passed for 1,332 yards and four scores. With a full offseason to work as the starter, the former four-star recruit should be better equipped for his second tour through the SEC.
74. Lamar Jordan, New Mexico
Jordan and Austin Apodaca formed an effective two-quarterback system for the Lobos last season. Jordan started 12 of 13 games for New Mexico and finished third on the team with 807 rushing yards.
73. Garrett Smith, ULM
A shoulder injury ended Smith’s season prematurely, but he showed plenty of promise in 10 games, throwing for 2,033 yards and 17 scores.
72. Brandon Silvers, Troy
Troy’s offense showed slight improvement under first-year coach Neal Brown last season. Silvers missed one game but finished the year with 2,378 yards and 20 scores. He’s tossed just 10 picks in 601 career attempts.
71. Tyler Stewart, Nevada
Stewart was steady in his first season as the Nevada starter. He ranked third on the team with 322 rushing yards and four touchdowns and threw for 2,139 yards and 15 scores. Improving the completion percentage (57.1) and generating more big plays in the passing game are two priorities for Stewart and Nevada’s offense to work on this offseason.
70. Logan Woodside, Toledo
Phillip Ely’s season-ending injury in 2014 pressed Woodside into action, and the Kentucky native threw for 2,263 yards and 19 scores in 12 games. With Ely back under center last year, Woodside was able to use 2015 as a redshirt year.
69. Joel Lanning, Iowa State
New coach Matt Campbell has a track record of success on offense and inherits a few talented pieces to work with next fall. How quickly will Lanning adapt to the new scheme in 2016?
68. Dwayne Lawson, Virginia Tech
Lawson is unproven and isn’t guaranteed to win the starting job. However, new coach Justin Fuente has a good track record at developing quarterbacks. Whether it’s Lawson, Brenden Motley or junior college recruit Jerod Evans, the Hokies should find the right answer under center.
67. Jalan McClendon, NC State
Former four-star recruit has waited his turn behind Jacoby Brissett and played sparingly (8 of 14 for 69 yards) last season. An intriguing option for new coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz.
66. Darell Garretson, Oregon State
Garretson sat out 2015 after transferring from Utah State. In two seasons with the Aggies, Garretson threw for 2,576 yards and 18 touchdowns. Former Utah State coordinator Kevin McGiven coached Garretson from 2013-14 and is slated to call the plays for the Beavers in 2016.
65. John Franklin, Auburn
After watching Jeremy Johnson and Sean White combine for 11 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 2015, it was clear the Tigers needed a boost at quarterback. Franklin joins the competition from the junior college ranks, and the former Florida State signal-caller should be a good fit for coach Gus Malzahn’s offense.
64. Drew Barker, Kentucky
With Patrick Towles transferring to Boston College, it’s Barker’s time to take control of Kentucky’s offense.
63. Austin Allen, Arkansas
It’s safe to assume the winner of Arkansas’ quarterback battle will rank higher on this list by August. Dan Enos was one of the top coordinator hires of last offseason and helped Brandon Allen develop into an All-SEC quarterback. USC transfer Ricky Town is expected to push Austin Allen for the starting job.
62. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Thorson is talented – No. 188 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – and guided Northwestern to 10 wins in 2015. While his running skills are a huge asset for the offense, Thorson is still developing as a passer (7 TDs, 1,522 yards).
61. John Wolford, Wake Forest
Wolford has showed promise in his first two seasons with the Demon Deacons, but injuries and a shaky offensive line prevented him from building off his freshman passing totals.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
60. Matt Johns, Virginia
Johns’ 20 touchdown passes last season tied for third among ACC quarterbacks. However, he also tossed 17 picks and has to adapt to a new play-caller (Robert Anae).
59. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
Dungey showed a lot of promise in limited action last season and is expected to take control of Dino Babers’ high-powered offense.
58. Thomas Woodson, Akron
Woodson assumed the starting quarterback job for the Zips in the fourth game of the year and finished 2015 with 2,793 total yards. His emergence was a key cog in Akron finishing 8-5 – the best mark in program history – and the first bowl win for the school.
57. Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State
Connor Cook was the Big Ten’s best quarterback last season, but the Spartans got an early preview of the 2016 signal-caller battle when Cook was sidelined against Ohio State. O’Connor helped Michigan State pull off the upset by completing 7 of 12 passes for 89 yards and one score. He will compete with Damion Terry this spring for the starting job.
56. Alex McGough, FIU
McGough is quietly developing into one of Conference USA’s top quarterbacks. In 12 games last season, he completed 269 of 420 throws for 2,722 yards and 21 touchdowns.
55. Keller Chryst, Stanford
Chryst has big shoes to fill in replacing Kevin Hogan. The California native ranked as the No. 51 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and completed 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and one score in limited action last season.
54. Tyler Jones, Texas State
Jones was expected to push for all-conference honors in 2015, but his passing yards and touchdowns dropped, while his interceptions increased to 10. However, Jones has rushed for at least 500 yards in back-to-back seasons. Should rebound under new coordinator Brett Elliott.
53. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Knight is eligible immediately after transferring from Oklahoma. With Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen leaving College Station, Knight is expected to start over Jake Hubenak this fall.
52. Kent Myers, Utah State
Chuckie Keeton has expired his eligibility, which means the full-time job under center is expected to go to Myers. He’s had his share of promising moments over the last two years and accounted for 1,950 total yards and 19 scores in 2015.
51. Nick Stevens, Colorado State
Stevens’ first season as Colorado State’s starter had its share of ups and downs, but he finished the year with 2,965 yards and 24 passing scores. Additionally, Stevens earned second-team All-Mountain West honors.
50. Blake Barnett, Alabama
Barnett is the highest-ranked quarterback signed by Nick Saban at Alabama. After a redshirt year, he should be the frontrunner to start over Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell.
Related: Very Early Top 25 for 2016
49. Chase Litton, Marshall
Rakeem Cato left big shoes to fill at Marshall, but coach Doc Holliday appears to have his next star at quarterback. Litton threw for 2,605 yards and 23 scores last season and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in four out of the last five games.
48. Max Browne, USC
Browne – a five-star recruit – has patiently waited his turn behind Cody Kessler. It’s a limited sample size, but Browne was sharp in three appearances in 2015 (8 of 12 for 113 yards).
47. Brandon Harris, LSU
LSU’s national title hopes could hinge on Harris’ development this offseason. He threw for 13 touchdowns and 2,158 yards but struggled late in the year against Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
46. Jacob Eason, Georgia
It’s not easy starting as a true freshman at quarterback in the SEC, but Eason – the No. 2 quarterback and a five-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite – is up to the task. Assuming he wins the job over Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey, Eason should move up this list by August.
45. Kenny Potter, San Jose State
Potter was a good find for coach Ron Caragher out of the junior college ranks. In his first season at the FBS level, Potter threw for 1,984 yards and 15 scores and ranked second on the team with 415 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
44. Drew Hare, Northern Illinois
Hare was on his way to a solid 2015 campaign but a season-ending Achilles injury in early November prevented him from playing in Northern Illinois’ final five games. An Achilles injury isn’t an easy recovery, but Hare will be back as one of the top quarterbacks in the MAC.
43. John O’Korn, Michigan
O’Korn is the leader to replace Jake Rudock on a crowded Michigan quarterback depth chart. He threw for 3,117 yards and 28 scores as a freshman in 2013 but took a step back (951 yards and six touchdowns) and was replaced by Greg Ward in 2014.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2016
42. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota
Leidner showed improvement as a passer in 2015 and finished the season on a high note (223 yards, 1 TD) against Central Michigan. How big of a difference will new coordinator Jay Johnson make with this offense next season?
41. Favian Upshaw, Georgia Southern
Looking for a breakout star for 2016? Take a look at Upshaw. He gashed Bowling Green for 199 rushing yards and four scores in the GoDaddy Bowl and averaged 7.3 yards per carry in limited snaps last season. Kevin Ellison also returns in 2016, giving the Eagles two outstanding options at the position.
40. Patrick Towles, Boston College
Towles is eligible right away as a graduate transfer from Kentucky. After a promising 2014 campaign (2,718 yards, 14 TDs), Towles took a step back and was later benched in favor of Drew Barker. Expect Towles to benefit from a fresh start in Chestnut Hill.
39. Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh
Tennessee transfer was solid (20 TDs) in his first season with the Panthers. Has to find a new go-to target with receiver Tyler Boyd off to the NFL.
38. P.J. Walker, Temple
Walker already owns the school record for touchdown passes (52) and is poised to finish his career at Temple as the program’s all-time leading passing yardage.
37. Dane Evans, Tulsa
Evans showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery, throwing for 4,332 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2015. The Texas native will be one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference next fall.
36. Sean Maguire, Florida State
Maguire isn’t guaranteed to start next fall, as Florida State has two talented freshmen – Malik Henry and Deondre Francois – waiting in the wings.
35. Skyler Howard, West Virginia
Howard finished the 2015 season on a high note with 532 passing yards and five scores in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. Cutting down on the picks (14) and raising the completion percentage (54.8) are two areas for Howard to work on for next season.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
34. Dakota Prukop, Oregon
The Ducks are taking the FCS graduate transfer route once again to find their next starting quarterback. Prukop is one of the hardest quarterbacks to rank on this list. He earned first-team All-America honors by the Associated Press in 2015 after accumulating 3,822 total yards and 39 scores. How quickly will he adapt to the Pac-12?
33. Wes Lunt, Illinois
Lunt certainly has the talent to be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks. Is this the year he puts it all together?
32. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Armstrong has the most career passing yards (6,691) of any Big Ten quarterback returning next fall. Cutting down on the interceptions (16 in 2015) is his top priority in 2016.
31. Kenny Hill, TCU
Kenny Trill is back after sitting out 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules. He passed for 2,649 yards and 23 scores before losing the starting job at Texas A&M in 2014. Has big shoes to fill in replacing Trevone Boykin.
30. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Trubisky spent the last two seasons as the backup to Marquise Williams and is ready for an opportunity to be the full-time starter for the Tar Heels in 2016. In limited action last season, Trubisky threw for 555 yards and six touchdowns and completed 40 of 47 passes. Trubisky is poised to be one of the ACC’s breakout stars.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
29. Thomas Sirk, Duke
Sirk is the next standout quarterback for coach David Cutcliffe. Work remains as a passer, but he added 803 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground in 2015.
28. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
What a difference a year makes. Georgia Tech went from the champion of the ACC’s Coastal Division to a 3-9 team. Thomas is the catalyst for the Yellow Jackets’ offense, and coach Paul Johnson’s team needs him to resemble the player that rushed for 1,086 yards in 2014.
27. Tanner Mangum, BYU
Taysom Hill’s season-ending injury in the opener was a big loss for the Cougars, but Mangum kept BYU’s offense performing at a high level. In his first snaps in a BYU uniform, Mangum helped lead the team to wins over Nebraska, Boise State, Utah State and Cincinnati. Former four-star recruit is poised to take another step forward next season.
26. Davis Webb, Colorado
Webb is eligible immediately at Colorado after transferring from Texas Tech. He had back-to-back seasons of at least 20 touchdowns with the Red Raiders in 2013-14. Sefo Liufau’s status for 2016 is in doubt after an injury suffered late in the 2015 season.
25. Brett Rypien, Boise State
As a true freshman last year, Rypien was the Mountain West’s top quarterback (3,350 yards, 20 TDs). Ryan Finley is back from injury and will compete with Rypien for the starting job.
24. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
Kiel missed three games and had an up-and-down season in 2015. However, he’s also the quarterback that threw for 3,254 yards and 31 scores in 2014 and should rebound next fall.
23. Brent Stockstill, MTSU
Stockstill was one of the nation’s top freshman quarterbacks in 2015 and should thrive under new play-caller Tony Franklin. Stockstill’s 327 completions last season were the most by a freshman in FBS history.
22. Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
Central Michigan struggled to establish its ground attack, leaving Rush to carry the offensive workload in 2015. He responded with 3,848 passing yards (a career high) and 25 passing scores.
21. Zach Terrell, Western Michigan
The state of Michigan should be home to the MAC’s top quarterbacks in 2016. Terrell gets a slight nod over Cooper Rush in our early MAC rankings, but both quarterbacks should have big seasons. Terrell threw for 3,526 yards and 29 scores last year.
20. Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
Despite throwing for 2,387 yards and 31 touchdowns and adding 436 yards and six scores on the ground, Lamb flew under the national radar last season. Expect that to change in 2016 as he’s the best quarterback returning in the Sun Belt.
19. Quinton Flowers, South Florida
Flowers turned in a breakout year in 2015 and helped USF make a four-game jump in the win column. Another offseason to work with coach Willie Taggart should help Flowers take the next step in his development as a passer.
18. Anu Solomon, Arizona
Injuries prevented Solomon from building off his freshman season, but he finished strong with 329 passing yards and two scores in the New Mexico Bowl.
17. Nick Mullens, Southern Miss
Coach Todd Monken left Hattiesburg for the NFL, but Southern Miss is still the favorite to win Conference USA’s West Division in 2016 with Mullens returning for his senior season after throwing 38 touchdowns last year.
16. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Jackson enters the offseason firmly entrenched as Louisville’s No. 1 quarterback. The Florida native has room to grow as a passer (54.7 completion percentage in 2015), but showcased his dynamic, play-making ability with 960 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
15. Jake Browning, Washington
Browning is one of the top rising stars in the nation. After a solid freshman season (2,955 yards and 16 passing scores), Browning should push for all-conference honors in 2016.
14. C.J. Beathard, Iowa
Beathard was a big reason why Iowa climbed into playoff contention and nearly won the Big Ten title last season. He threw for 2,809 yards and 17 scores and ranked fourth on the team with 237 rushing yards last season.
13. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
A foot injury late in the year hindered Rudolph against Oklahoma and Ole Miss, but he took a clear step forward in his development and is poised for an even better 2016 campaign.
12. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
Dobbs led all SEC quarterbacks with 671 rushing yards last season and posted solid totals (2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns) as a passer. Dobbs needs to generate more big plays in the passing game after Tennessee finished ninth in the SEC in passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2015.
11. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
Will Zaire take the first snap for Notre Dame next fall? Or will DeShone Kizer hold onto the starting job after taking over for Zaire due to injury in 2015? The winner of this battle could be a few spots higher this fall.
10. Josh Rosen, UCLA
Rosen would be higher on this list if we simply ranked based on pure talent. He passed for 3,669 yards and 23 scores as a true freshman in 2015 and is only going to get better with more snaps.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
9. Luke Falk, Washington State
Falk led the nation in 2015 by averaging 380.1 yards per game and was tied for fourth with 38 touchdown passes. Expect even bigger numbers in his second year at the controls of coach Mike Leach’s offense.
8. Brad Kaaya, Miami
Kaaya’s touchdown total dipped from 26 (2014) to 16 in 2015. However, his yardage was up and completion percentage increased by nearly three points. Should have a huge season under the direction of new coach Mark Richt.
7. Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
Mahomes directs Texas Tech’s high-powered attack and accounted for 46 overall scores last season. He also ranked fourth nationally by averaging 357.9 passing yards per game in 2015.
6. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Kelly passed for 31 scores and 4,042 yards in his first year in Oxford. Supporting cast is a question mark in 2016 after left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell departed early for the NFL, but Kelly is the clear No. 1 quarterback in the SEC next season.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2016
5. Greg Ward, Houston
Coach Tom Herman is one of the nation’s top offensive coaches, and Ward will continue to thrive under his direction. He accounted for 281.1 total yards per game and 38 overall touchdowns last season.
4. Seth Russell, Baylor
A neck injury ended Russell’s 2015 season in late October. But prior to the injury, Russell was setting a torrid pace, tossing 29 scores and only six picks on 200 attempts. Can he hold off Jarrett Stidham for the starting job?
3. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
After a back-and-forth battle with Cardale Jones last season, Barrett is the clear leader and answer at quarterback for Ohio State. Expect to see Barrett resemble the player that scored 45 touchdowns as a freshman next fall.
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Mayfield was the driving force behind Oklahoma’s improvement on offense and run to the Big 12 title and playoff appearance. Under the direction of new coordinator Lincoln Riley, Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and his mobility (405 yards and seven touchdowns) was a huge asset behind an offensive line that struggled at times.
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson set the bar high in his first season as the full-time starter for Clemson. And it's not crazy to suggest he could be even better as a junior next fall. Watson passed for 35 touchdowns and 4,104 yards and guided the Tigers to an appearance in the national title game last season. His supporting cast remains one of the best in the nation, and top receiver Mike Williams is back after missing nearly all of 2015 with a neck injury.
College football’s coaching carousel is one of the most interesting aspects of any season. Coaches are under more pressure than ever before to win and win immediately. The rumor mill never stops churning either. Once one year ends, the hot seat and replacements talk heats up for the next offseason.
It’s no secret coaching changes can have an instant impact on a problem, but some hires need a couple of years to rebuild a mess inherited from the previous staff. Winning right away as a new coach doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success, but it’s easy to get a read on the outlook for any coach after one season. With that in mind, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 15 coaching hires from the 2015 coaching carousel.
Houston’s Tom Herman and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh earned the highest marks from the 2015 season, with Florida’s Jim McElwain and Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi taking the next two spots in our rankings.
Let’s take a look at how the first-year coaches performed and grade their debut:
Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2015
1. Tom Herman, Houston
2015 Record: 13-1
It’s a close call between Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Houston’s Tom Herman for the No. 1 spot on this list. However, the edge goes to Herman after a 13-1 debut and a No. 8 overall finish in the Associated Press poll. Herman’s H-Town Takeover is well underway, as the Cougars tied the single-season record for most wins in school history (13), claimed a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State and won a conference title for the first time since 2006. Houston also scored a key road win at Louisville and easily handled Vanderbilt 34-0 in late October. Additionally, the only loss suffered in 2015 was the only game quarterback Greg Ward did not start (injury). With non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and Louisville next season, along with the return of Ward and the top recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference, Herman has Houston poised for another breakthrough campaign in 2016.
Final Grade: A+
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
2015 Record: 10-3
Harbaugh was widely considered the top hire in last year’s coaching carousel. And after one season in Ann Arbor, it’s clear Michigan with Harbaugh guiding the program is well on its way to becoming an annual threat to make the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines improved their win total by five games in Harbaugh’s first season, soundly defeated Florida (41-7) in the Citrus Bowl and lost two of its three games by a touchdown or less, including one of the season’s craziest endings in a last-second defeat against Michigan State. With an elite recruiting class coming to campus and 14 starters returning, Michigan will be picked near the top of the Big Ten and should be a top-10 team next fall.
Final Grade: A+
3. Jim McElwain, Florida
2015 Record: 10-4
McElwain’s first season at Florida was quite the roller-coaster ride. The Gators started 6-0 behind an impressive 38-10 victory over Ole Miss and a last-minute 28-27 win over Tennessee. However, the Gators season took an interesting turn in mid-October, as starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for one year for violating NCAA policy. Florida’s passing attack never recovered with Grier out of the lineup, but the Gators still won the SEC East and finished 10-4 overall. The inconsistency of the passing attack was a big reason why Florida finished the year with three consecutive losses, but McElwain pushed several of the right buttons to guide the program to a SEC East title.
Final Grade: A
4. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
2015 Record: 8-5
Instability at head coach has been a theme for Pittsburgh in recent years. The program has watched four different coaches and three interim appointments in bowl games pace the sidelines over the last six seasons. While none of that is good news for any program, Pittsburgh found the right man for the job in Narduzzi. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator went 8-5 in his first season in the Steel City and guided the program to a 6-2 mark (highest since joining the ACC) in league play. The Panthers also spent time in the Associated Press top 25 in 2015, the first time the program has reached that goal since 2010. After a period of instability, Narduzzi’s arrival has Pittsburgh trending up and poised to contend for the Coastal Division title once again in the coming seasons.
Final Grade: B+
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
5. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
2015 Record: 6-7
Montgomery worked under Art Briles from 2003-14 at two different FBS jobs (Houston and Baylor), but the Texas native was a relative unknown when he took the top spot at Tulsa. While Montgomery played a key role in the development of the high-powered offenses at Houston and Baylor, the credit for the success went to Briles. But Montgomery is well on his way to earning national respect after an impressive debut as Tulsa’s head coach. The Golden Hurricane made a four-game jump in the win column in Montgomery’s first season, showed marked improvement on offense and earned a spot in the Independence Bowl. Montgomery is a promising up-and-coming coach to watch in 2016 and beyond.
Final Grade: B+
6. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
2015 Record: 10-3
After three seasons as the head coach at Pittsburgh, Chryst returned to Madison to lead his alma mater. Chryst was only 19-19 in three seasons with the Panthers but was a good fit for the Badgers after Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State. Chryst was solid in his return to the Wisconsin sidelines, guiding the program to a 10-3 record and a 6-2 mark in league play. One of the Badgers’ defeats came at the hands of national champion Alabama (35-17) and the other two (Iowa and Northwestern) were decided by a touchdown or less. Losing coordinator Dave Aranda was a huge blow for Chryst and a tougher schedule is on tap for 2016. Chryst’s biggest priority will be finding a quarterback and developing an offensive line that featured four freshmen starting in the Holiday Bowl.
Final Grade: B+
7. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
2015 Record: 7-6
Bonamego was a curious hire after Dan Enos’ late departure for Arkansas last season. His last coaching job in college was at Army in 1998 and his career as an assistant in the NFL was spent on special teams. But Bonamego quickly proved to be a solid hire for Central Michigan, as the Chippewas finished 7-6 and tied for the MAC West’s top spot at 6-2 in league play. Additionally, Central Michigan gave Oklahoma State (24-13) all it could handle, lost by three to Syracuse and defeated Northern Illinois – the MAC West champion. With a full offseason at the controls, Bonamego can make the necessary changes to build off last season’s success and continue to put his stamp on the program.
Final Grade: B
8. Mike Bobo, Colorado State
2015 Record: 7-6
Colorado State returned to the SEC for its next coach after Jim McElwain – a former SEC assistant – left to be the head coach at Florida. Bobo had a similar profile to McElwain as an offensive coordinator at a high-level program (Georgia), and this job (Colorado State) was his first opportunity to be a head coach. Bobo inherited 14 returning starters, but the program had transition in schemes on both sides of the ball and a new starting quarterback. The result was a 7-6 mark, which included two overtime losses – Colorado and Minnesota – against Power 5 opponents. The Rams finished the season on a high note by winning four out of their last five games. Bobo’s debut was solid, but he has plenty of work ahead in the spring with standout receiver Rashard Higgins off to the NFL and a handful of seniors departing on both sides of the ball.
Final Grade: B-
9. Mike Riley, Nebraska
2015 Record: 6-7
Nebraska’s athletic director Shawn Eichorst’s decision to hire Riley as Bo Pelini’s replacement came as a surprise, and the first-year coach received plenty of criticism after the Cornhuskers finished with their first losing record (6-7) since 2007. However, Riley’s first season had its share of bad luck and depth issues left behind by the previous staff. A minus-12 turnover margin was tough to overcome, especially since Nebraska lost six games by eight points or less. If the Cornhuskers eliminate some of the turnovers and quarterback Tommy Armstrong takes a step forward in his development, a few of the close losses should become wins in 2016. While the seven-loss season certainly left a lot to be desired, Nebraska ranked as the No. 36 team in Football Outsiders F+ rankings – only six spots worse than 2014. Coaches are expected to win and win big in Lincoln. But considering how close the Cornhuskers were to eight wins, Riley’s debut maybe wasn't as bad as the record indicated.
Final Grade: C+
10. Neal Brown, Troy
2015 Record: 4-8
Brown is one of the nation’s youngest coaches, but the Kentucky native was ready for this opportunity after working as an offensive coordinator at three different programs – Troy, Kentucky and Texas Tech – from 2008-14. In his first year at the helm, Brown guided Troy to a 4-8 mark – a one-game improvement from 2014. Advanced metrics also gave favorable ratings for Brown in his debut, as the Trojans jumped from 126 (2014) to 90 (2015) in the F+ rankings by Football Outsiders. Troy was closer to adding to the win total with three losses by six points or less, and both sides of the ball made improvement on the stat sheet.
Final Grade: C+
11. Tony Sanchez, UNLV
2015 Record: 3-9
UNLV is a tough job. The program has played in only two bowl games since 1995 and only one season (2013) has resulted in more than three wins since 2010. Needless to say, Sanchez inherited a rebuilding project and needs a lot of time to transform this program into a consistent bowl contender. Sanchez made the rare jump from high school (Bishop Gorman) to FBS head coach. After winning 85 games at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez went 3-9 in his debut but won a rivalry game (Nevada) and lost four games by eight points or less. The on-field improvement was notable in Football Outsiders’ F+ rankings, as the Rebels jumped from 118 (2014) to 105 nationally. Transitioning from the high school to the college ranks isn’t easy, but Sanchez hired a good staff and helped the program take a step forward in 2015.
Final Grade: C+
12. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
2015 Record: 5-7
Leipold was an ultra-successful coach at the Division III level, winning 109 games from 2007-14 and six national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Few coaches in last year’s hiring cycle could match Leipold’s credentials, and the jump from Division III to the FBS level made this hire one of the more intriguing moves in the coaching carousel. Year one for Leipold at Buffalo produced more losses (seven) than he had during his eight years (six) at Wisconsin-Whitewater. However, the Bulls were just a few plays away from reaching the postseason. Buffalo gave MAC champ Bowling Green (28-22) all it could handle, lost by five against UMass, by three to Nevada and by 11 to MAC West champ Northern Illinois. The Bulls have a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball for 2016, but Leipold is bringing in a solid recruiting class and the players are more familiar with the schemes on both sides of the ball.
Final Grade: C
13. Gary Andersen, Oregon State
2015 Record: 2-10
A rebuilding year was expected at Oregon State in 2015. The Beavers returned only nine starters from a team that went 5-7 in 2014 and entered the season with question marks at the quarterback position. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Andersen’s debut resulted in a 2-10 record. The Beavers were simply outmanned on both sides of the ball. The offense ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring (19 ppg), and the defense was last in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.4). After winning 19 games at Wisconsin from 2013-14 and taking Utah State from 4-8 in 2009 to 11-2 and a top 25 ranking in 2012, it’s clear Andersen is the right coach to rebuild Oregon State. Unfortunately, rebuilding in the Pac-12 isn’t easy. The Beavers will be better in 2016 but are a year away from the postseason.
Final Grade: C
14. Chad Morris, SMU
2015 Record: 2-10
Morris was considered one of the top coaching hires last January, but success was hard to come by in his first year. The Mustangs finished 2-10 last season but made a jump from 127 (2014) to 106 in Football Outsiders’ team rankings. While this team improved its win total by only one game from 2014 to 2015, there were signs of progress. SMU’s offense averaged 27.8 points – up from 11.1 in 2014. Morris has this program trending in the right direction and a solid recruiting class is on the way to Dallas to help the rebuilding project for 2016 and beyond. Better days (and seasons) are coming for Morris and the Mustangs.
Final Grade: C
15. David Beaty, Kansas
2015 Record: 0-12
Considering Beaty inherited a mess from the former coaching staff and a roster thin on overall numbers and talent, it’s unfair to place the blame for Kansas’ 0-12 record on his shoulders. The Jayhawks lost seven games by 30 points or more, ranked last in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed on defense and generated on offense and only one player (Fish Smithson) earned All-Big 12 honors. But there were a few positives for Beaty in his first season. Kansas nearly knocked off TCU (23-17) and Texas Tech (30-20) and a few freshmen – QB Ryan Willis, DT Daniel Wise and DE Dorance Armstrong – showed flashes of promise. Beaty needs a couple of recruiting classes to get Kansas back in contention for a bowl.
Final Grade: C-
A deep collection of individual talent is set to return for college football’s 2016 season. Three of the top five Heisman finalists are back, including Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The returning group of options at running back is especially deep, as LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook will be a factor in the Heisman race after finishing inside of the top 10. On defense, ends Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama) rank as the top returning defenders for 2016, with defensive backs Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) and Desmond King (Iowa) not far behind.
The 2016 season is still months away, but the early entry deadline has passed and a better picture of how all 128 teams stack up has started to form. Using career accomplishments so far, projected performance next season, positional importance and overall talent, Athlon Sports has ranked the top 50 players for 2016. This list will look a little different by the fall, but there is no shortage of big names coming back or players poised to take a huge step forward next season.
Just outside of the top 50: North Carolina RB Elijah Hood, Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby, Oklahoma CB Jordan Thomas, Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire, Texas LB Malik Jefferson, Missouri DE Charles Harris and Alabama LB Tim Williams
College Football's (Early) Top 50 Players for 2016
50. Arden Key, DE, LSU
Athletic edge rusher recorded five sacks and 41 tackles as a true freshman in 2015. Key will only get better with another offseason to work under line coach Ed Orgeron.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
49. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Vanderdoes opened 2015 as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive linemen but suffered a season-ending knee injury in opener.
48. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Keanu Neal entered the NFL Draft, but Florida’s secondary has a good foundation in place for 2016. Tabor led the defense with 14 pass breakups and intercepted four passes in 2015.
47. William Likely, CB, Maryland
Likely is only 5-foot-7, but the Florida native is one of the Big Ten’s top cover corners and an outstanding return man.
46. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
Blanding has started all 24 games since he stepped onto campus in 2014 and has over 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. The junior should continue to thrive under new coach Bronco Mendenhall.
45. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Foster is known for his ability to deliver punishing hits, but the Alabama native is Crimson Tide’s top returning tackler (73) and should have his best overall year in 2016.
44. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Howard finished 2015 on a high note, catching five passes for 208 yards and two scores in the national championship. Is this the year Howard is more involved with Alabama’s passing attack? Coach Nick Saban seemed to hint that direction after the win against Clemson.
43. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Ford quietly caught 75 passes for 1,164 yards and 11 scores last season and averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per catch. He was the only ACC receiver to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards last year.
42. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Despite a suspect offensive line, Barkley managed to rush for 1,076 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry – as a freshman. He should see even more opportunities in 2016.
41. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
Whitehead was an impact freshman for coach Pat Narduzzi last season, recording 109 tackles (six for a loss), one interception and six pass breakups. But Whitehead’s impact wasn’t just on the defensive side. He rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 10 yards in a limited role on offense.
40. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Is Walker one of the nation’s most underrated players? We think so. In 13 games last season, Walker recorded 122 tackles (20.5 for a loss), four sacks and one forced fumble.
39. DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Florida State’s defense received good news at the draft deadline when Walker announced his intentions to return in 2016. Line coach Brad Lawing helped mold Walker into one of the ACC’s top linemen last year, as he recorded 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss.
38. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
McDowell is an emerging star for coach Mark Dantonio and the new leader of Michigan State’s defensive line after Shilique Calhoun expired his eligibility. McDowell recorded 13 tackles for a loss in 2015.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2016
37. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Kirk was one of the nation’s top freshmen in 2015 and a dynamic all-purpose threat for the Aggies. He averaged 137.6 total yards per game and led Texas A&M in catches (80), receiving yards (1,009) and receiving touchdowns (seven).
36. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee’s backfield is set with Hurd and Alvin Kamara returning next season. Hurd finished 2015 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts and ran for 1,288 yards and 12 scores last year.
35. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
The “Wayne Train” is a perfect complement to quarterback Deshaun Watson and Clemson’s high-powered passing attack. Gallman ranked second in the ACC in rushing yards (1,527) last season.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
34. Budda Baker, S, Washington
Led by the Pac-12’s top returning defense, Washington is a team on the rise for 2016. Baker and teammate Sidney Jones anchor a secondary that allowed only nine passing scores in Pac-12 games last season. Baker earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors after recording seven pass breakups and 49 stops in 2015.
33. Pat Elflein, OG, Ohio State
With four starters gone from last season’s offensive line, Elflein is slated to be the leader of the Buckeyes’ front five in 2016. The senior has started every game over the last two seasons.
32. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams enters his junior season as a player on the rise after recording 67 tackles, four picks and six pass breakups in 2015. Expect Adams to thrive under new coordinator Dave Aranda.
31. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Former five-star recruit is one of three returning starters for Urban Meyer’s defense. McMillan led the team with 119 stops last season and should be even better as a junior in 2016.
30. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville
Fields was an impact transfer for coordinator Todd Grantham in 2015. The former TCU defender recorded 11 sacks, led the team with 22.5 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles.
29. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen was the nation’s top freshman quarterback last season, throwing for 3,669 yards and 23 scores in 13 starts. The California native has some turnover among his supporting cast for 2016. However, Rosen is only going to get improve with more snaps. No. 29 on this list might be too low by August.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
28. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk is the catalyst behind Washington State’s high-powered passing attack, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors after throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 scores last year.
27. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
Kaaya’s numbers dipped last season after a standout freshman campaign (3,198 yards, 26 TDs). But the junior quarterback should thrive under new coach Mark Richt, and the Hurricanes’ supporting cast returns nearly intact. Expect Kaaya to rebound next fall.
26. Derwin James, S, Florida State
James is just starting to scratch the surface on his potential. In 13 appearances as a true freshman last season, the Florida native recorded 91 stops (9.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He should challenge for All-America honors in 2016.
25. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Hyatt’s emergence as a true freshman was huge for Clemson’s offensive line in 2015. He started all 15 games for the Tigers and played the most snaps by a true freshman in school history. He will protect the blindside for quarterback Deshaun Watson once again next season.
24. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Johnson is the most experienced lineman for the Seminoles and leads the way for Florida State’s ground attack behind Dalvin Cook. Johnson started all 13 games for coach Jimbo Fisher last season and won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which is awarded to the best blocker in the conference.
23. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
Perine suffered an ankle injury that required surgery in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, but he should be at full strength by the start of the 2016 season. Perine has rushed for 3,062 yards over the last two years at Oklahoma.
22. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes is a dynamic playmaker for coach Kliff Kingsbury, and after throwing for 4,653 yards and 36 scores, the junior returns for his second full season as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Mahomes topped at least 300 passing yards in 10 out of 13 games in 2015.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
21. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb could rank higher on this list, but how quickly will he return to full strength after a season-ending leg injury against Tennessee? Chubb was well on his way to having an All-America season prior to the injury, rushing for 747 yards and seven touchdowns in six games.
20. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
Kelly is the SEC’s top returning quarterback for 2016 and a big reason why the Rebels could push for a spot among the top 10 in some preseason polls. In his first year at Ole Miss, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 scores and rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.
19. Greg Ward, QB, Houston
Ward is the top player from the Group of 5 ranks and a dark-horse Heisman contender for 2016. In 14 games last season, Ward threw for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns and led the Cougars with 1,108 rushing yards and 21 scores.
18. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Amari Cooper left big shoes to fill in Tuscaloosa in 2015. However, Ridley’s emergence certainly eased a lot of concerns about the receiving corps. As a true freshman, Ridley grabbed 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven scores.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2016
17. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
After catching 54 passes as a freshman in 2014, Smith-Schuster was picked by many to have a breakout year in 2015. The California native certainly lived up to those expectations and more, ranking fourth nationally with 1,454 receiving yards in 14 games. USC will have a new starting quarterback next fall, but Smith-Schuster should be one of the top receivers in the nation.
16. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers is an emerging star for the Wolverines. In 12 games last season, Peppers recorded 45 stops (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups. But the defensive side of the ball wasn’t the only area where Peppers made an impact. He played limited snaps on offense, rushing for 72 yards and two scores and catching eight passes for 79 yards.
15. Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is one of the best overall athletes in the nation and a player that can impact the game in all three areas for coach Clay Helton. In 14 games last season, Jackson recorded 35 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups. He also averaged 23 yards per kickoff return, averaged 10.5 yards on punt returns and returned two punts for touchdowns. Jackson showcased his explosive playmaking ability on offense by averaging 15.3 yards per catch (27 overall receptions) last season.
14. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
A neck injury ended Russell’s 2015 season in late October. However, prior to the injury, Russell was one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. In seven starts, he completed 119 of 200 passes for 2,104 yards and 29 scores. Russell will face competition from Jarrett Stidham for the starting job this offseason.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2016
13. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
New coordinator Bob Shoop is tasked with taking Tennessee’s defense to the next level, and the former Penn State and Vanderbilt signal-caller has plenty of pieces to work with. Barnett has wreaked havoc against offensive lines over the last two seasons, recording 20 sacks and 33 tackles for a loss in 26 appearances.
12. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Robinson has started all 29 games in his Alabama career and is on track to have his best overall season as a junior next fall. Should be a high first-round draft pick in 2017.
11. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ lockdown cover man turned down the NFL for one more season with the Hawkeyes. King was one of the Big Ten’s top overall defenders in 2015, recording 72 tackles, eight interceptions and 13 pass breakups.
10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
It was easy to overlook Freeman’s season with Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook garnering most of the national attention. However, Freeman finished fourth nationally in rushing yards (1,836) and recorded at least 100 yards in 11 out of Oregon’s 13 games.
9. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Lewis emerged as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks last season and was a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports. In 13 appearances, Lewis recorded 52 tackles (3.5 for a loss), one forced fumble, two picks and 20 passes defended.
8. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
There’s no quarterback controversy in Columbus in 2016. The Buckeyes are Barrett’s team, and the junior should resemble the quarterback that accumulated 3,772 yards and 45 total scores in 2014.
7. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
A’Shawn Robinson is off to the NFL and Jarran Reed expired his eligibility, but the Crimson Tide’s defensive line won’t miss much of a beat with Allen returning for his senior year. Allen recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks in 15 games last season.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2016
6. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett’s athleticism and explosiveness off the edge is a nightmare matchup for opposing offensive tackles. In two seasons with the Aggies, Garrett has recorded 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss. Expect Garrett to take another step forward in his development with another offseason to work under coordinator John Chavis.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The addition of coordinator Lincoln Riley and Mayfield’s return to the field after sitting out 2015 after a transfer from Texas Tech were two of the driving forces behind Oklahoma’s run to the Orange Bowl. Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and ranked third on the team with 405 rushing yards. Top receiver Sterling Shepard has expired his eligibility, but Mayfield is due for another big reason under Riley’s direction.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook ranks No. 4 on this list, but we wouldn’t argue if you wanted to rank the rising junior at No. 3 or even No. 2. Despite missing one game due to injury and dealing with hamstring and ankle ailments for part of the season, Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 scores.
3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey’s prolific 2015 campaign showed why the Colorado native is the top all-purpose player in the nation and one of the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016. McCaffrey averaged 276 all-purpose yards per game and set a new FBS single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. Additionally, McCaffrey was the only FBS player to lead his team in rushing and receiving yardage.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is college football's most-talented running back and led the nation by averaging 162.8 rushing yards per game in 2015. The New Orleans native was held under 100 yards only twice and his 1,953 rushing yards are the most in a season by a LSU player.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson was 14-1 in first full season as Clemson’s starter, finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and nearly guided the Tigers to a national championship win over Alabama. Not bad, right? But here’s the scary part for the rest of college football – Watson could be a better overall player in 2016. With receiver Mike Williams returning from injury, the Tigers will have more weapons in their arsenal, and Watson is poised to take the next step in his development as a quarterback. He’s the favorite to win the Heisman next season.
Even though the Pac-12 fell short of landing a team in the College Football Playoff, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for the conference. Stanford finished 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl in impressive fashion over Iowa, Oregon and Washington State each finished with nine victories, Utah posted its highest win total since joining the Pac-12 and 10 teams played in a bowl game. As the focus shifts to 2016, the Pac-12 could be on the outside looking in for a playoff spot once again – at least in the early predictions. Stanford is the team to beat in the North, but Washington, Oregon and Washington State will be a factor in the division race. The South is USC’s to lose, with UCLA and Utah in the next tier.
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 Pac-12 for 2016:
Early Pac-12 North Rankings for 2016
Stanford certainly has its share of personnel concerns, but it’s hard to pick against coach David Shaw’s team. Of course, a lot could change between now and the end of spring practices. The Cardinal returns Heisman Trophy candidate and the nation’s top all-purpose threat in Christian McCaffrey. After McCaffrey is where the question marks begin. Who will replace quarterback Kevin Hogan? And who steps up to fill the voids in the trenches? Five starters return on defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson has personnel concerns to address at each level. In addition to the personnel concerns, the schedule provides plenty of obstacles, including road dates at Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
The Huskies are a team on the rise and a Pac-12 North title in 2016 wouldn’t be a surprise. Coach Chris Petersen has plenty of reasons to be optimistic on offense next year with the return of freshmen standouts Jake Browning (QB) and Myles Gaskin (RB). The development of the receiving corps and offensive line are two areas to watch in offseason workouts. With eight starters back, the defense should be the best in the Pac-12 next year. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria anchor an active linebacking corps, while the secondary returns All-America candidates in Budda Baker (safety) and Sidney Jones (cornerback). The Sept. 30 matchup against Stanford in Seattle could decide the winner of the Pac-12 North.
3. Washington State
Last season’s 9-4 mark was the highest for Washington State in Mike Leach’s four years in Pullman. With a favorable schedule and the return of quarterback Luke Falk, the Cougars should be a factor in the Pac-12 title race. In addition to Falk, receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft are back, while three starters return up front. The departures of left tackle Joe Dahl and guard Gunnar Eklund are the biggest losses for Washington State’s offense. Coordinator Alex Grinch was a solid hire for Leach last season, improving the defense from 10th in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game to seventh in 2015. Grinch loses a few cogs in the front seven, but the secondary returns cornerback Darrien Molton after a solid freshman season, along with safety Shalom Luani (four picks).
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
It’s dangerous to pick Oregon outside of the top three, but the Ducks are a tough team to elevate prior to spring practice. Coach Mark Helfrich has plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball to address this offseason. Talented – but unproven at the FBS level – Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is slated to replace Vernon Adams at quarterback. Running back Royce Freeman is a candidate for All-America honors, and the receiving corps features talented targets in Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford. Tight end Pharaoh Brown is also slated to return after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Regardless of how explosive the offense is, the Ducks need improvement on defense. How much of an impact will new coordinator Brady Hoke make in one offseason? Five starters are back, but this unit loses standout end DeForest Buckner and three starters in the linebacking corps.
The Golden Bears are coming off their best season under Sonny Dykes, but a step back is in order for 2016. Quarterback Jared Goff left Berkeley a year early for the NFL, leaving Ross Bowers, Chase Forrest and Luke Rubenzer battling for the starting job. In addition to Goff’s departure, California must replace five of the top six statistical receivers, including Kenny Lawler (13 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (21.2 ypc). The news isn’t all bad for Dykes on offense. Four starters are back up front, and there’s a trio of capable options at running back – Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere. Progress is needed on defense, but California’s 6.1 yards per play allowed in 2015 was the best mark under Dykes. End Kyle Kragen, linebacker Jalen Jefferson and safety Stefan McClure are the biggest losses for coordinator Art Kaufman.
6. Oregon State
Expect improvement from the Beavers in coach Gary Andersen’s second year in Corvallis. Andersen inherited a team with just nine returning starters and uncertainty at quarterback last season, so a winless record in Pac-12 action wasn’t a surprise. Utah State transfer Darell Garretson joins the competition at the quarterback, while last year’s starter Seth Collins transferred in late January after moving to a slash (QB/WR) role. Restocking the offensive line is a priority for Andersen after center Josh Mitchell expired his eligibility and guard Isaac Seumalo left early for the NFL. New defensive coordinator Kevin Clune inherits a group that surrendered 6.4 yards per play last year. Most of the unit returns intact, but the defensive line loses three key contributors.
Early Pac-12 South Rankings for 2016
The Trojans are the early favorite in the South Division, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding all six programs in 2016. What changes will Clay Helton make in his first season as the full-time coach? Helton wants the offense to be physical and establish the run, and the pieces are in place in the backfield with the return of Ronald Jones and Justin Davis. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this spring to replace Cody Kessler, but regardless of who wins the starting nod, expect to see plenty of passes in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s direction. Clancy Pendergast returns after a two-year stint in the NFL to coordinate USC’s defense, and the veteran signal-caller has work to do in the trenches with the departure of Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Antwaun Woods and Greg Townsend. Additionally, linebacker Su’a Cravens left early for the NFL. The secondary is the strength of USC’s defense in 2016.
The Bruins were hit hard by early departures to the NFL. Six players are leaving Los Angeles for the next level, including standout linebacker Myles Jack, two starters on the offensive line and All-American defensive tackle Kenny Clark. Despite the personnel losses, UCLA has enough returning talent to exceed last year’s 8-5 mark. Quarterback Josh Rosen should be better in his second season on campus, and Soso Jamabo is a capable replacement for Paul Perkins at running back. Clark and Jack are big losses for the defense, but this unit should get a boost from the return of end Eddie Vanderdoes from a season-ending knee injury.
Last season’s 10-3 record was Utah’s highest win total since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Additionally, the Utes have back-to-back finishes inside of the top 20 in the final Associated Press poll and climbed as high as No. 3 in 2015. Utah will take a step back with a few personnel losses, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s won’t be an easy out for the rest of the South Division. Junior college recruit Troy Williams is expected to compete for the starting quarterback job, but the strength of the offense should be its returning talent in the trenches and running back Joe Williams. Six starters are back on defense, including standout safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Dominique Hatfield. The biggest concern for new coordinator Morgan Scalley is the linebacking corps. Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham leave big shoes to fill.
4. Arizona State
It’s a tough call between Arizona State, Utah and Arizona at No. 3. Each of the teams has its share of personnel concerns, but for now, let’s give an edge to the Utes, with the Sun Devils just a step behind. Coach Todd Graham’s team returns 10 starters, including running back Demario Richard and receiver Tim White. Quarterback Mike Bercovici expired his eligibility after a solid senior year (30 TDs). Three candidates – Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White – will compete for the starting job this spring. In addition to finding a new quarterback, the Sun Devils need to retool the offensive line. The defense ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.24), but six returning starters provide some hope for improvement in 2016. The schedule-makers weren’t kind to Arizona State for 2016. Crossover games against Washington, Oregon and Washington State are on tap, and the Sun Devils visit Arizona and USC.
A similar theme is set to play out in Tucson next season. Arizona should have an explosive offense, but the defense is a major question mark. How much improvement can new coordinator Marcel Yates get out of this group in 2016? Seven starters are back, but the Wildcats are losing their best defender – linebacker Scooby Wright – to the NFL. Arizona is going to have to win its share of high-scoring affairs next season, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team has the firepower to do so. If quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson can stay healthy in 2016, both players should push for all-conference honors. In addition to a non-conference matchup against BYU, Arizona’s conference slate features crossover games against Washington, Stanford and Washington State and road trips to UCLA and Utah.
Progress has been slow for the Buffaloes under coach Mike MacIntyre, but the program is moving in the right direction. While the final record for 2015 was only 4-9, Colorado lost four Pac-12 games by seven points or less. Can the program take the next step and play in a bowl next year? The Buffaloes return most of their starting lineup from last season, but standout receiver Nelson Spruce is a huge loss, and left tackle Stephane Nembot, safety Jered Bell, cornerback Ken Crawley and defensive tackle Justin Solis must be replaced. Quarterback Sefo Liufau suffered a foot injury against USC and is not expected to compete in spring practice. The schedule isn’t kind to Colorado. Crossover games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington State are challenging, and MacIntyre’s team catches Michigan in non-conference play. That’s not exactly an ideal schedule for a program looking for a trip to the postseason.
An interesting battle is set to unfold at the top of the Big Ten next season. Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference last year, but the Buckeyes fell short after a loss to Michigan State, opening the door for the Spartans to represent the East Division in the title game. Despite a handful of key players leaving for the NFL and senior departures, Ohio State is the early favorite for 2016. But the Buckeyes have plenty of competition. Michigan is on the rise under coach Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines return enough talent to win the Big Ten and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State is also in the mix, but the Spartans must replace quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Iowa is the favorite in the West Division, with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern rounding out the second tier.
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 Ten for 2016:
Early Big Ten Predictions and Rankings for 2016
Early East Division Rankings for 2016
1. Ohio State
It’s a close call between Ohio State and Michigan for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Columbus, but there is a considerable amount of turnover on the depth chart, as nine players are leaving early for the NFL. The rebuilding effort on offense starts with quarterback J.T. Barrett and standout guard Pat Elflein, and running back/receiver Curtis Samuel is a player poised for a breakout season with more touches. Only three starters are back for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano on defense, but the pieces are in place for a quick reload. While the interior of the line needs to be rebuilt, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis are back to anchor the end spots. Raekwon McMillan is a rising star at linebacker, with cornerback Gareon Conley the lone returning starter in the secondary. The Buckeyes also have a significant schedule advantage in place next year with the annual rivalry game against Michigan taking place in Columbus.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
As mentioned above, it’s a close call between Michigan and Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. As expected, the Wolverines have experienced a quick turnaround under coach Jim Harbaugh and another step forward should be expected next fall. After averaging only 20.9 points a game in 2014, Michigan finished fourth in the Big Ten by scoring 31.4 a contest in 2015. Finding a replacement for quarterback Jake Rudock is the biggest question mark for the offense. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the early frontrunner, but regardless of who starts under center, there’s a strong supporting cast in place. New coordinator Don Brown is one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a defense capable of being the best in the Big Ten next season. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers help to anchor one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
3. Michigan State
Despite some key personnel departures, Michigan State isn’t going anywhere. The Spartans have plenty of staying power behind coach Mark Dantonio and the reloading process starts on offense. Quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge, center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin leave big shoes to fill. Quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will compete for the job this spring, and both players gained valuable experience in the win at Ohio State in 2015. The defensive line is the position hit the hardest by departures on defense. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas and tackle Joel Heath have expired their eligibility. Tackle Malik McDowell is the top returner in the trenches, and the front seven should get a boost from the return of linebacker Ed Davis from a season-ending knee injury.
4. Penn State
The pressure is starting to build on coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions are just 14-12 in Franklin’s first two seasons, but the former Vanderbilt coach deserves some time to recruit and develop the roster, especially as the program continues to recover from recent scholarship sanctions. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is off to the NFL, which leaves Trace McSorley as the early favorite under center. McSorley will have plenty of help at his disposal, as running back Saquon Barkley is one of the best in the Big Ten, and the receiving corps returns DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin. Will new coach Matt Limegrover generate improvement from a struggling offensive line? The departure of coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee was a huge blow to the defense. New coordinator Brent Pry is tasked with replacing end Carl Nassib, tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson and keeping this unit near the top of the Big Ten. No pressure.
After a 6-7 season and the program’s first bowl trip since 2007, coach Kevin Wilson was awarded a six-year contract extension in January. Can the Hoosiers ride the momentum and earn another postseason trip in 2016? It’s possible. Finding a replacement for quarterback Nate Sudfeld is Wilson’s biggest concern this fall, while the offensive line loses standout tackle Jason Spriggs. Devine Redding proved to be a capable replacement for running back Jordan Howard last season and should have an opportunity to eclipse 1,000 yards next season. Improvement is needed on defense after Indiana surrendered 37.6 points a game last season. The hire of Tom Allen as the team’s new defensive signal-caller should help Wilson improve that side of the ball right away.
Related: 10 Teams on the Rise for 2016
D.J. Durkin was a solid hire for this program, but it’s asking a lot for the former Michigan defensive coordinator to guide Maryland to a bowl in 2016. After sporting a minus-18 turnover margin last season, the Terrapins should have more luck in holding onto the ball in 2016. But will the offense find a consistent option at quarterback and retool the starting five in the trenches? Two defensive starters on the line – end Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson left for the NFL. However, top cornerback William Likely is back for his senior year.
New coach Chris Ash will have his hands full in 2016. Transitioning schemes and to a new coaching staff requires time, but Ash seems like the right coach to get this program on track. The Scarlet Knights won only one game in Big Ten play last season – a 55-52 win over Indiana – and the schedule won’t get any easier in 2016 with Washington in non-conference action, as well as Iowa in crossover play with the West Division. Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig are set to battle once again for the quarterback job. Top receiver Leonte Carroo and left tackle Keith Lumpkin have expired their eligibility, but the backfield features a promising duo at running back in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin. Ash’s specialty is on defense, and Rutgers has plenty of question marks there after giving up 41.8 points a game in Big Ten action in 2015.
Early West Division Rankings for 2016
Iowa was one of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2015, but the Hawkeyes won’t sneak up on the rest of the Big Ten next fall. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team should be the early favorite in the West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard returns after throwing for 2,809 yards and 17 scores last season, and the ground attack is in good shape with LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley handling the workload from departed senior Jordan Canzeri. Two of the top three statistical pass catchers are out of eligibility and two standout performers – Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh – depart the offensive line. Three starters are gone on defense, but this unit should be one of the best in the Big Ten. Cornerback Desmond King turned down the NFL for one more season with the Hawkeyes, and the program is waiting to hear on an additional year of eligibility for standout end Drew Ott.
A 10-3 record was a solid debut for coach Paul Chryst in his return to Madison. The Badgers lost to national champion Alabama in the season opener and lost to Iowa by four and Northwestern by six. The Badgers must replace quarterback Joel Stave, leading receiver Alex Erickson and left tackle Tyler Marz, but Corey Clement returns to lead the ground attack after missing most of 2015 due to injury. Losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU was a huge blow for Wisconsin. The Badgers return a solid core to build around in the front seven, but cornerback Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo have expired their eligibility. A brutal schedule is on tap for Wisconsin in 2016. After a neutral site game against LSU in Green Bay to open the season, the Badgers play Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern on the road. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a home date against Ohio State on Oct. 15.
It’s a close call between Nebraska and Northwestern for the No. 3 spot in the early power rankings. Even though the Cornhuskers finished 2015 with a 6-7 record, advanced metrics by Football Outsiders placed coach Mike Riley’s team at No. 36 overall nationally. Improving on last season’s six wins is realistic for Nebraska next fall, especially if it finds a way to eliminate some of the turnovers (-12 margin in 2015). Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take better care of the ball, but a full offseason working with coordinator Danny Langsdorf should help. Armstrong could use more help from the ground attack, and sophomore Devine Ozigbo could be part of the solution after rushing for 87 yards against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Defense is Riley’s biggest concern. Starting tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are off to the NFL, and this unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed (5.88).
For the second time in four seasons, Northwestern is coming off a year with double-digit wins. That total is even more impressive when you consider the program has just four seasons of more than nine wins in its history. Can the Wildcats make another run at 10 wins in 2016? Doing so will require more from the passing attack and quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern averaged only 136.1 passing yards in Big Ten contests last year and three of the top six receiving options are out of eligibility. Running back Justin Jackson is one of the best in the Big Ten. The strength of last year’s team was clearly a defense that limited opponents to 18.6 points a game. Linebacker Anthony Walker should push for All-America honors next fall, but ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have expired their eligibility.
New coach Tracy Claeys begins his first full season on the job. The first order of business for Claeys this offseason was to address the coaching staff, and three new assistants join the program for 2016. New play-caller Jay Johnson is tasked with improving an offense that averaged only 22.5 points a game last season. Quarterback Mitch Leidner closed out 2015 on a high note with a solid performance against Central Michigan and needs to take another step forward for the Golden Gophers to return to the postseason. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are a promising duo at running back. Claeys is handing off the defensive play-calling to Jay Sawvel and each level of the defense has voids to fill this offseason. Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun depart the secondary, while Theiren Cockran (DE) and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell are key losses in the front seven.
Bill Cubit might not be the long-term answer at Illinois, but the veteran coach is a solid pick to stabilize the program after a tumultuous 2015 season. The Fighting Illini fell just short of a bowl appearance last year and getting to six wins in 2016 will be a challenge with crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State. But this team has a some intriguing pieces returning on offense, and receiver Mike Dudek is back after missing all of 2015 due to a torn ACL. Quarterback Wes Lunt (14 TDs) and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (723 yards) could push for All-Big Ten honors with another step forward in their development. The defense took a step forward on the stat sheet last season, and coordinator Mike Phair has some work to do in order to help this unit make another jump in the standings. The Fighting Illini must replace defensive lineman Jihad Ward, linebacker Mason Monheim and three starters in the secondary.
Coach Darrell Hazell enters his fourth season on the hot seat. Purdue is just 6-30 over the last three years and has only two Big Ten wins under Hazell’s watch. While Hazell didn’t inherit the best roster situation, he needs to show progress to return in 2017. Quarterback David Blough showed promise in his freshman campaign and new play-caller Terry Malone is tasked with helping the sophomore develop after throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Running back Markell Jones is another promising young talent for Hazell’s offense. The defense surrendered 6.13 yards per play last season and is under the direction of new coordinator Ross Els. With most of the defense returning intact, Purdue should expect some improvement on defense next fall.
After a two-year drought in national champions, the SEC is back on top. Alabama defeated Clemson to win college football’s title for the 2015 season, and the Crimson Tide are one of the favorites to win it all in 2016. Coach Nick Saban’s team has a few personnel voids to fill, but the defense will be one of the best in the nation, and receiver Calvin Ridley returns after an impressive freshman season. LSU and Ole Miss are Alabama’s top competition in the SEC West, with Arkansas and Auburn in the next tier. Tennessee is the clear favorite in the East Division, as coach Butch Jones’ team has the necessary pieces in place to be a top-10 team next year. Georgia and Florida are just behind the Volunteers, while the rest of the division is up for grabs.
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 SEC for 2016:
Early SEC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Volunteers haven’t played for the SEC title since 2007, but that streak should end in 2016. Tennessee is an overwhelming favorite in the East Division next fall, as coach Butch Jones has improved this program’s win total by two games in each of the last two years. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd anchor the offense, and four starters return up front. Generating more production from the receivers and big plays in the passing game is a must for the Volunteers next fall. The addition of coordinator Bob Shoop is an upgrade for a defense that returns nearly intact and held opponents to 20 points a game last season. End Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin should be two of the SEC’s top defenders in 2016.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
New coach Kirby Smart is tasked with elevating Georgia back into national championship contention on a yearly basis. Mark Richt set the bar high for Smart, as the Bulldogs won fewer than eight games only once from 2001-15. However, Georgia has not won a SEC title since 2005 and the 2007 Sugar Bowl was its last appearance in a big-time bowl. Smart has plenty of work to do this offseason, but the first-year coach has a favorable schedule and nine wins isn’t out of the question. True freshman Jacob Eason is expected to push for the starting job at quarterback, and the offense should get a boost with the return of running back Nick Chubb. Smart and new coordinator Mel Tucker inherit some promising pieces on defense that limited opponents to 16.9 points a game last season.
Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville was a success. Florida won the East Division, finished 10-4 overall and defeated rival Georgia 27-3 in Jacksonville. Despite the suspension of starting quarterback Will Grier in October, the Gators managed to hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the East but finished with three consecutive losses to close out the 2015 campaign. McElwain is losing five players early to the NFL Draft, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Alex McCalister and running back Kelvin Taylor. Improving the quarterback play is the biggest priority for McElwain, and incoming freshman Feleipe Franks, along with a pair of transfers in Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and Austin Appleby (Purdue) will push Treon Harris for the starting job. There’s plenty of talent in Gainesville. How quickly will McElwain reload on defense and find the right answer at quarterback?
Spots four through seven in the early SEC power rankings are up for grabs. The early nod at No. 4 goes to Missouri, but there’s plenty of work needed under first-year coach Barry Odom. Addressing the offense is Odom and new coordinator Josh Heupel’s first priority. The Tigers averaged a paltry 9.1 points a game in SEC contests last year and enter 2016 with uncertainty at the quarterback spot, four new starters on the offensive line and running back Russell Hansbrough has expired his eligibility. Once again next fall, defense should be the team’s biggest strength. The line should be one of the best in the SEC and two starters return in the linebacking corps and in the secondary. Odom was a great hire, but it may take a year of rebuilding for Missouri to return to the postseason.
There are signs of progress for Kentucky entering coach Mark Stoops’ fourth season. However, the Wildcats have yet to finish better than 5-7 overall or 2-6 in league play under Stoops’ direction. Both sides of the ball are under the microscope this offseason. New play-caller Eddie Gran inherits unproven, but talented quarterback Drew Barker, as well as big-play threat at running back in Boom Williams. The offensive line returns four starters, and the top five statistical wide receivers or tight ends are back for 2016. The defense is a bigger concern for Stoops after giving up 27.4 points a game last season. Only four starters return on defense, and the staff needs a big season from players like linebacker Jason Hatcher, defensive tackle Matt Elam and cornerback Chris Westry. A crossover game against Alabama in early October and road trips to Florida, Louisville, Missouri and Tennessee certainly doesn’t help Kentucky’s chances of reaching a bowl in 2016.
Derek Mason’s second year in Nashville was certainly better than the first go-around. The Commodores improved their win total to four (up one from three in 2014) and claimed two victories in SEC play. And Vanderbilt wasn’t too far off from a bowl bid, as it lost games against WKU and Florida by two points each and South Carolina by nine. Can Mason find the right answers this offseason to help the program return to the postseason? Quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb are a promising combination for coordinator Andy Ludwig to build around, and the line will benefit from the return of Andrew Jelks from a season-ending knee injury. Taking over the defensive signals was one of Mason’s best decisions last year. Vanderbilt allowed only 21 points a game and limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play. This unit returns largely intact and is led by All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham.
7. South Carolina
After a failed stint at Florida, Will Muschamp is getting another chance to be a head coach in the SEC. South Carolina’s decision to hire Muschamp was a bit of a surprise, but he should help with the program’s recruiting efforts and will improve a defense that allowed 6.03 yards per play last season. Finding playmakers are a priority for play-caller Kurt Roper after receiver Pharoh Cooper left early for the NFL and leading rusher Brandon Wilds expired his eligibility. The quarterback position is also up for grabs. Perry Orth (12 TDs, 9 INTs) could be the frontrunner, but sophomore Lorenzo Nunez and true freshman Brandon McIlwain will be in the mix. After watching the defensive film from 2015, it’s probably apparent to Muschamp there’s a need for improvement at each level. However, the personnel losses aren’t too heavy, and standout linebacker Skai Moore is back in 2016.
Repeating as college football’s national champions is no easy assignment. Only one team (Alabama) since the start of the BCS era claimed back-to-back titles. History is working against the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban’s team still has a talent edge on the rest of college football. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman are the frontrunners to take the first snap of the season at quarterback, while Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris headline the replacements for Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back. Despite a huge performance in the national championship and NFL talent, tight end O.J. Howard is back for another season in Tuscaloosa. In addition to Howard, the receiving corps is stocked with talent, including All-America candidate Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart (63 catches). Center Ryan Kelly is a huge loss up front, but left tackle Cam Robinson is back to anchor the line. The defense loses a few standouts in the front seven and is under the direction of new play-caller Jeremy Pruitt. However, the reloading process won’t take long, and the secondary should take another step forward next fall.
The end of the 2015 season for LSU would certainly be characterized as bizarre. Les Miles managed to hold onto his job despite attempts from the administration to make a coaching change and upgraded at defensive coordinator with the addition of Dave Aranda after Kevin Steele left for Auburn. And make no mistake, despite the late-season turmoil, there’s enough talent in Baton Rouge to win the SEC in 2016. Running back Leonard Fournette returns as one of the top players in college football, and the receiving corps brings back Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. However, both starting tackles depart, and question marks remain about the passing game. Aranda inherits a loaded defense, with linebackers Lamar Louis and Deion Jones and safety Jalen Mills the only major contributors leaving. End Arden Key is a rising star, while linebacker Kendell Beckwith, safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre’Davious White should be All-SEC performers next fall.
3. Ole Miss
The Rebels are losing three key standouts early to the NFL and a handful of starters, but coach Hugh Freeze’s team has one big advantage on the rest of the SEC – Chad Kelly. With the rest of the SEC in transition at quarterback, having a proven option like Kelly should ease some of the question marks about the Rebels. Receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil leave big shoes to fill, and the offense still needs to establish a consistent ground attack. Each level of the defense was hit by departures, but there’s enough returning talent to keep this unit among the best in the SEC. Getting safety Tony Conner back after a season-ending knee injury is a huge boost to a secondary losing safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. The schedule isn’t easy. Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in September and has road dates at Arkansas and LSU in October.
The Razorbacks rebounded from a 1-3 start to finish 8-5 and record the program’s highest win total in SEC play (five) since 2011. After spending last offseason working to replace the team’s top three defenders, this spring is all about finding the right answers on offense. Arkansas led the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring (34.4 ppg) but lose quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Denver Kirkland and running back Alex Collins. Austin Allen is the frontrunner to replace Brandon Allen at quarterback, with USC transfer Ricky Town an intriguing option to watch this offseason. The receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC, but there’s uncertainty in the pecking order at running back and a new offensive line coach after Sam Pittman left for Georgia. Arkansas allowed 6.07 yards per play on defense in 2015 – nearly a full yard higher than 2014. The good news? Most of the two-deep returns, including rising star Dre Greenlaw at linebacker.
After a breakthrough 12-2 season and a run to the national championship game in coach Gus Malzahn’s first year, Auburn is just 15-11 since 2014. The Tigers were a disappointing 7-6 last season, and there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball. Quarterback play was an issue all season and remains a question mark for 2016. Will Jeremy Johnson or Sean White take a step forward? Or will junior college recruit John Franklin or true freshman Woody Barrett claim the job? Additionally, three players – running back Peyton Barber and offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Xavier Young – departed early for the NFL. New coordinator Kevin Steele inherits a few promising pieces on defense, and a full (and healthy) year from end Carl Lawson should help this unit after giving up 28.6 points a game in SEC contests in 2015.
6. Texas A&M
The Aggies are just 11-13 in SEC play under coach Kevin Sumlin in the last three years, and a little turmoil hit the program prior to the Music City Bowl. Quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred, leaving junior college recruit Jake Hubenak as the program’s top option. Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight will join the mix this offseason, but question marks still remain under center. There’s also a new play-caller in Noel Mazzone, and three starters depart the offensive line. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation in 2016. The addition of John Chavis as the defensive coordinator paid dividends for the Aggies last season. Texas A&M cut its yards allowed per play average on defense from 5.9 to 5.4 and limited opponents to 22 points a game. Chavis should help this unit take another step forward in 2016, especially with the return of ends Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett, along with active safety Armani Watts (126 tackles).
7. Mississippi State
Quarterback Dak Prescott – easily one of the best players in school history – leaves big shoes to fill in Starkville. However, don’t count out the Bulldogs from pushing for a spot higher than sixth or seventh in the SEC West next year. Damian Williams is back from a redshirt season to compete with Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley for the starting nod. With Prescott departing, coach Dan Mullen needs more from his ground attack after no Mississippi State running back eclipsed more than 415 yards in 2015. De’Runnya Wilson is a huge loss at receiver, but Fred Ross (88 catches) and Fred Brown are back. The question marks continue on defense, as each level loses a key contributor. Defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown are leaving early for the NFL, and the secondary must replace cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond. Linebacker Richie Brown should be one of the best in the SEC next year. It's a coin flip between Mississippi State and Texas A&M at No. 6 in the early SEC West power rankings for 2016.
College football’s Heisman race in 2016 is filled with plenty of big names battling for the top award in the nation. Alabama running back Derrick Henry isn’t returning for another run at the Heisman, but the 2016 race is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.
It’s never too early to think about next season, which is why Bovada has released its early Heisman odds for 2016.
Here are the early odds from Bovada, headlined by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson at 9/2
Bovada's Early 2016 Heisman Odds
|Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson||9/2|
|Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU||5/1|
|Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford||5/1|
|J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State||10/1|
|Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma||10/1|
|Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia||12/1|
|Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State||12/1|
|Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon||12/1|
|Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss||12/1|
|Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma||12/1|
|Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama||12/1|
|Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee||16/1|
|Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami||25/1|
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline officially passed on Monday evening and over 100 players could be on their way to the next level. The official list of players leaving for the NFL will be released on Friday, and there’s a possibility a few could return to school if they change their mind by Thursday night and haven’t signed with an agent.
With the early entrants declared, it’s time to take a look at the winners and losers from a college perspective.
The early entry deadline is a key moment in any college football offseason, as this allows coaches to get a better view of which players are returning and how the roster looks headed into Signing Day.
Which teams are the big winners and which progams have big shoes to fill thanks to the draft deadline? Here are the winners and losers with the draft deadline process:
Winners from the NFL Draft Early Entry Deadline
Considering Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and standout defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson are off to the NFL, it seems odd to list Alabama in the winner category. While Henry and Robinson leave big shoes to fill, the losses could be a lot worse. Tight end O.J. Howard, linebacker Tim Williams, safety Eddie Jackson and end Jonathan Allen all decided to return to Tuscaloosa for 2016.
While the defense was hit hard by departures to the NFL, Clemson’s offense remained intact for 2016. Running back Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett decided to return next fall, which should ensure the Tigers once again have one of the nation’s best offenses and plenty of weapons for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The Hawkeyes should be the favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division in 2016. Star cornerback Desmond King considered an early jump to the NFL but will return to Iowa City. King should be an All-America cornerback and one of the Big Ten’s top players in 2016.
Clemson and Florida State are national title contenders next fall, but don’t count out Louisville from making some noise in the ACC. The Cardinals avoided any early departures to the NFL, as linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields, along with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons decided to return for 2016. In addition to the key returners on defense, the emergence of quarterback Lamar Jackson is a big reason why Louisville should be a top 25 team next fall.
Unlike the past couple of seasons, the draft deadline wasn’t filled with bad news for coach Les Miles. Left tackle Jerald Hawkins declared for the next level, but the Tigers received good news when linebacker Kendell Beckwith, center Ethan Pocic and cornerback Tre’Davious White announced their intentions to return.
The Wolverines should challenge for a spot in College Football’s Playoff next season. After showing marked improvement in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, Michigan is poised to take another step forward and received its share of good news around the draft deadline. Tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jourdan Lewis considered an early departure, but both players are set to return in 2016. Butt and Lewis should be All-America candidates next fall.
San Diego State
The Aztecs finished the year on a 10-game winning streak, and the momentum for coach Rocky Long’s team continued through the draft deadline. Top cornerback Damontae Kazee and running back Donnel Pumphrey will return in 2016 instead of jumping to the NFL. Both players should be first-team All-Mountain West picks next fall.
The Volunteers are heavy favorites to win the SEC East next season, and coach Butch Jones received plenty of good news around the draft deadline. Cornerback Cam Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and running back Alvin Kamara all turned down the NFL for one more season in Knoxville.
With Stanford, Oregon and California each replacing their share of departing seniors, as well as a few departures to the draft, the Pac-12 North’s balance of power could be shifting to the state of Washington in 2016. The Huskies lost running back Dwayne Washington to the NFL, but Myles Gaskin is already entrenched as the team’s No. 1 option on the ground. Washington State did not suffer any early departures to the draft, as receiver Gabe Marks announced his intentions to return for 2016. Things are looking up for the Cougars and Huskies.
Losers from the NFL Draft Early Entry Deadline
The Razorbacks led the SEC in scoring (conference-only games) and was already slated to lose quarterback Brandon Allen. However, the losses for coach Bret Bielema were heavy at the draft deadline, as running back Alex Collins, tackle Denver Kirkland and tight end Hunter Henry are off to the NFL. All three players were strong candidates for first-team All-SEC honors in 2016.
Improving the defense is an offseason priority for Arizona, but the task for new coordinator Marcel Yates got a little tougher with linebacker Scooby Wright declaring for the NFL. The offense is also losing a big-time receiver, as Cayleb Jones (16.4 ypc) is off to the next level.
Running back Peyton Barber’s late declaration came as a mild surprise, and the Tigers also lost two starting offensive linemen – Xavier Young and Shon Coleman – to the NFL. That’s not great news for an offense looking for improvement in 2016.
Coach Art Briles should have a quick reload at Baylor, but the Bears are losing three key contributors. Cornerback Xavien Howard and All-Americans Andrew Billings (DT) and receiver Corey Coleman are leaving Waco for the NFL.
How’s this for a talent drain in 2016? Seven first-team All-Big 12 selections from last season are leaving early for the NFL. The only underclassmen from the Big 12’s first-team awards returning next fall are: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine, Kansas State fullback Winston Dimel, Oklahoma State tight end Blake Jarwin and TCU defensive end Josh Carraway.
California’s 8-5 record in 2015 was the best mark for the program under coach Sonny Dykes. Meeting that record in 2016 will be a huge challenge for Dykes, as quarterback Jared Goff – arguably the Pac-12’s No. 1 quarterback in 2015 – and receiver Kenny Lawler (13 TDs) are departing for the NFL.
How quickly will coordinator Brent Venables find the right answers on defense? The Tigers lost six defenders to the NFL, including standout ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, as well as All-America cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
Five players are leaving early for the NFL, and that total could have been higher had safety Marcus Maye or linebacker Jarrad Davis opted to depart Gainesville. Coach Jim McElwain has recruited well, so there’s talent waiting in the wings. However, players like cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, safety Keanu Neal and end Alex McCalister leave big shoes to fill this spring.
The Tigers lost only one player but it’s a huge blow for new coach Mike Norvell. After throwing for 3,778 yards and 28 scores in 2015, quarterback Paxton Lynch is off to the NFL. Lynch could be a first-round pick this year.
Not only are the Bulldogs losing quarterback Dak Prescott, but three other standouts are headed to the next level. Tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Beniquez Brown and receiver De’Runnya Wilson all declared for the draft.
The Cornhuskers finished second in the Big Ten in rush defense, but the defensive line will need some extra attention from coordinator Mark Banker this spring. Maliek Collins – one of the top defenders in the Big Ten – and fellow tackle Vincent Valentine are both off to the NFL. That’s a huge void up front in Lincoln.
The Fighting Irish should push for a playoff spot once again next season, but coach Brian Kelly’s team is one of the teams hit the hardest by the early entry deadline. The departures of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and linebacker Jaylon Smith are setbacks for the defense, while the offense must replace standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley, go-to receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise.
The Buckeyes were the team hit the hardest by early declarations to the NFL. Nine players are leaving for the next level and there are losses on both sides of the ball. End Joey Bosa, cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Vonn Bell headline the departures on defense, while running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Michael Thomas are off to the next level. That’s a lot of roster turnover for coach Urban Meyer to replace in one offseason.
The Sooners were already set to lose linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper, and the draft deadline added two more departures to the defense. Two standouts and All-Big 12 performers in 2015 – cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander – are both off to the next level.
So far, the start of the 2016 offseason has been a busy one for coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions lost two assistants – defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and line coach Herb Hand – and two players are off to the NFL. Standout defensive tackle Austin Johnson and quarterback Christian Hackenberg are leaving Happy Valley for the next level.
Six Bruins declared for the next level, including linebacker Myles Jack, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and running back Paul Perkins. Rising star quarterback Josh Rosen will have a few new faces in the trenches next fall, as two linemen – Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch – are also headed to the next level.
In a mild surprise, the Mountaineers lost leading rusher Wendell Smallwood (1,519 yards) and top cornerback Daryl Worley to the NFL. Rushel Shell (708 yards) is a solid option to replace Smallwood, but West Virginia’s secondary enters spring practice with just one returning starter.
The definition of a breakout player in college football varies from each analyst or fanbase, but one thing is certain when looking ahead at the next season and the players returning. Regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Which quarterback could be the next Deshaun Watson? Or which receiver could be the next Calvin Ridley in 2016? Both of those questions could be answered this spring.
The emergence and development of young talent can play a critical role in any team’s position in the race to win a college football national championship or conference title. The unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 15 potential breakout stars for 2016.
15 College Football Breakout Candidates for 2016
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning was pressed into the spotlight as a true freshman in 2015, but the California native responded with a solid campaign, throwing for 2,955 yards and 16 scores in 12 games. With Vernon Adams, Jared Goff, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan and Mike Bercovici departing the Pac-12 next season, don’t be surprised if Browning pushes for all-conference honors.
Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
Coordinator Brent Venables heads into another offseason looking to restock one of the nation’s best defenses. The Tigers must replace their top two ends, as Shaq Lawson (12.5 sacks) and Kevin Dodd (12 sacks) are both off the NFL. Bryant flashed potential in his first season on campus, recording 1.5 sacks, 23 tackles (two for a loss) and one pass breakup. Expect to see Bryant take a major step forward as a key contributor to Clemson’s defensive line in 2016.
Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida
Callaway was a key cog in Florida’s passing attack as a true freshman, and his role should grow once again in 2016 – especially if the Gators get consistent production from their quarterbacks. Callaway caught 35 passes for 678 yards and four scores and finished the year with three 100-yard performances. He was also one of the SEC’s top punt returners, taking two returns for a score and averaging 15.5 yards per return in 2015.
Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Just how deep was Alabama’s defensive line in 2015? Hand – the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – was a third-string end. With A’Shawn Robinson leaving early for the NFL, along with Darren Lake and Jarran Reed expiring their eligibility, Hand should see more playing time next fall. Hand played in 14 games in 2015, recording 16 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have some work to do in the trenches this spring. Standout defensive end Joey Bosa left early for the NFL, and defensive tackles Adolphus Washington, Joel Hale and Tommy Schutt expired their eligibility. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Urban Meyer, and Hubbard is poised to be one of the next stars for the Buckeyes. In 13 appearances and less than a full complement of snaps, Hubbard recorded 28 tackles (eight for a loss) and 6.5 sacks.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson showcased his dynamic, dual-threat potential in Louisville’s Music City Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The true freshman gashed the Aggies for 226 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and completed 12 of 26 passes for 227 yards and two scores. Jackson finished 2015 with just under 1,000 yards (960) on the ground and threw for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns on 135 completions. The Florida native needs work as a passer, but a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback in coach Bobby Petrino’s offense should speed up his development.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
With Paul Perkins off to the NFL, Jamabo is poised to step into the No. 1 role in UCLA’s backfield. As a true freshman last season, Jamabo recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries and caught five passes for 58 yards. After Noel Mazzone left to take a job at Texas A&M, coach Jim Mora promoted Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and wants to bring more of a physical presence to the offense. All signs suggest Jamabo will see over 200 carries in 2016.
Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack, and the pieces are in place to do so in 2016. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12, and the Trojans return two running backs that eclipsed 900 yards last season. Justin Davis recorded 902 yards in 13 games, while Jones II rushed for 987 yards in 14 games as a true freshman. Davis will see plenty of attempts, but Jones could become the focal point for the ground game as a sophomore.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
Athletic edge rushers are a staple of LSU’s defenses under coach Les Miles. The Tigers generated 34 sacks in 2015 and could push that total even higher in 2016 if Key develops as expected. He started nine games and played in 12 contests as a true freshman in 2015, recording 41 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and five sacks. Key should be an All-SEC player with another offseason to learn from line coach Ed Orgeron.
Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Scarbrough has a build similar to the player he is replacing – Derrick Henry. The Alabama native was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown on 18 attempts in 2015. Scarbrough will share time with Damien Harris, but he could have a huge season in his first year as the No. 1 back in Tuscaloosa.
LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
With quarterback Connor Cook expiring his eligibility, the Spartans will need even more from their ground game in 2016 to push for another Big Ten title. Coach Mark Dantonio has a deep group of options in place, but Scott is the best of the bunch. In 14 games as a true freshman last season, Scott recorded 699 yards and 11 scores - including the game-winner against Iowa in the Big Ten title. Expect to see more from Scott in 2016.
Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat suffered a torn ACL and dislocated knee during the senior year of his high school career. Considering the seriousness of the injury, Sweat was a candidate for a redshirt year in 2015. However, the Virginia native played more as the season progressed and finished with 41 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks, one interception and two pass breakups. With another offseason to add strength in the weight room, look for Sweat to push for All-ACC honors in 2016.
Casey Tucker, OT, Stanford
Stanford has placed an offensive lineman on the All-Pac-12 first-team for eight consecutive seasons. Could Tucker extend that run to nine in 2016? The Arizona native played in five games as a freshman in 2014 and anchored the right side of Stanford’s line in 2015 with 14 starts. Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett will be missed, but the drop-off in production for the Cardinal’s offensive line is minimized with players like Tucker returning next fall.
KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU
TCU’s offense will have a new quarterback (likely Kenny Hill) in 2016, but Turpin should remain one of the team’s top go-to targets. Injuries hit the Horned Frogs’ receiving corps hard in 2015, which allowed Turpin to emerge as a preferred option for quarterback Trevone Boykin. Turpin caught 45 passes for 649 yards and eight scores, rushed for 116 yards and was one of the top returners on punts and kickoffs in the Big 12. The Louisiana native could be one of the top all-purpose players next fall.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
Ishmael Zamora/Davion Hall/Chris Platt, WR, Baylor
We are cheating a bit here and listing three Baylor receivers instead of picking one, but Zamora, Hall and Platt’s place in this article shows why the Bears still have one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps – even with Corey Coleman declaring for the NFL. In limited action last season, Zamora grabbed nine passes, Hall caught five for 77 yards and Platt ranked fourth on the team with 11 catches. Expect all three to be more involved next fall.
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|