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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#1 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#1

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 105-18 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

Alabama begins 2016 where it ended in January – at the top of college football’s rankings. The Crimson Tide have claimed three out of the last five national championships and are Athlon’s projected No. 1 team and pick to win it all in 2016. As usual, Nick Saban’s team has work to do on both sides of the ball, but a roster loaded with talent isn’t going to have a significant transition period. While a new quarterback must emerge, Alabama can lean on its defense and ground attack to carry the team early in 2016. The schedule does provide its share of challenges. The Crimson Tide has road dates at Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU. 

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Previewing Alabama’s Offense 
 

Unlike last year, all the experience will be with Alabama’s receivers instead of in the backfield. But exactly like the last two seasons, the Crimson Tide will have a new quarterback running the show. For the first time in Nick Saban’s 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa, he’ll have neither his first- nor second-leading rusher back, as Heisman winner Derrick Henry declared for the NFL Draft and Kenyan Drake graduated. Teammates have lauded former top recruit Bo Scarbrough as the next star running back.

The passing game will be dictated by the winner of the third annual quarterback competition. Cooper Bateman’s the only one of the four scholarship passers to appear in a college game. There was spring-practice buzz surrounding David Cornwell, a third-year sophomore who has the 6'5", 234-pound build that’s ideal for a pro-style quarterback. Younger candidates Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts bring more mobility to the offense but had issues with consistency in spring practice.

There’s no doubt where the strength of the offense resides. Leading receiver Calvin Ridley is back along with No. 2 target ArDarius Stewart. Robert Foster appeared to be the big-play threat until going down in Week 3 with a season-ending shoulder injury. He could be the fastest of the group. Also add in Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter’s ability to make circus catches and the potential tight end O.J Howard showed in a monster national championship game, and Alabama’s aerial game is an accurate passer away from something big. Protection is a factor; Alabama must replace three-year starting center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Additionally, the status of standout tackle Cam Robinson is uncertain after an off-field incident in May.

Previewing Alabama’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

It’s no coincidence Alabama returned to the national championship stage when the defense returned to form. A generational defensive line and NFL-caliber talent among the linebackers and defensive backs led the way to a fourth title in seven years. The core of that line is moving on to the NFL, but high-end talent returns with Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen. Depth won’t be the game-changing factor it was a year ago, but talent won’t be lacking up front.

Reuben Foster is next up in the alpha middle linebacker role. Sliding into Reggie Ragland’s spot, the one-time five-star prospect has developed into the leader of the group. Having draft-ready pass rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on the outside will also make a difference. Sacks increased to 52 last year after only 31 in 2014.

The secondary was the most improved unit a year ago. It’ll miss the presence of no-nonsense cornerback Cyrus Jones but has plenty of talent returning. Eddie Jackson, the former cornerback who became an All-America safety, will be a crucial facet as Alabama transitions from Kirby Smart to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Previewing Alabama’s Specialists 


After missing the first four kicks of the 2015 season, Adam Griffith became a consistent force on special teams. He ultimately went 23-of-32, including two makes from 50-plus. Griffith will be best remembered for the perfect onside kick in the fourth quarter of the national championship game. JK Scott is back after seeing his average dip to 44.2 yards after an incredible 48.0-yard average as a freshman. The real question will be in the return game. Look for Ridley and Xavian Marks to get a look.

Final Analysis 
 

The adversity and motivation that drove last year’s run back to the top disappeared into the sea of confetti and streamers on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Now all Alabama has to do is the same thing again this fall. Expectations aren’t leaving with the first-round draft picks the Tide will replace this fall. The target will be as big as ever as Saban begins Year 10 in Tuscaloosa.

The Debate

Will Alabama Repeat as the national champion in 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 Tennessee Volunteers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, 21-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike DeBord | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

Tennessee is the clear favorite in the SEC East and a legitimate playoff contender. The Volunteers return 18 starters from last year’s nine-win team, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and standout running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. While the ground game is among the best in the SEC, Tennessee needs more out of its passing attack in 2016. New coordinator Bob Shoop inherits a defense that gave up only 20 points a game last season and has All-SEC talent at each level. With nine starters back, Tennessee’s defense will be among the best in the SEC. Winning at least 10 games and the East Division title is the expectation for the Volunteers in 2016.

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Previewing Tennessee’s Offense 
 

The X-factor for Tennessee this season will be whether Joshua Dobbs finally develops into a masterful passer to match the boost he gives the Volunteers as a runner. Even if he finishes his Tennessee career without adding the deep ball to his repertoire, teams struggle to bring him down in the open field, making him a guaranteed net positive on the offense. But if Dobbs does grow as a passer, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say the Vols can contend for a CFB Playoff spot.

The Vols’ talent at running back is a big reason why they are a popular pick to win the SEC East. Junior Jalen Hurd needs 892 yards this year to become the program’s all-time leading rusher. For Hurd, this season might be his last to show that Tennessee is back to national prominence before the NFL beckons. Alvin Kamara has proven that he is an SEC-caliber talent and a capable pass catcher as well. There’s no reason to believe the two won’t form one of the sport’s most successful running back duos this year. The Vols’ passing game is unproven, but this group of running backs is explosive enough to again power the offense. After all, this team did run the ball two-thirds of the time last year.

The Vols have playmakers at receiver, but it’s hard to expect consistency given the unproductive recent history here. The Vols will rely on veterans Josh Smith and Josh Malone, hoping that an offseason of work has boosted the overall chemistry with Dobbs.

Along the offensive line, the return of four starters means there’s no reason to expect regression. Guard Jashon Robertson should anchor the Vols up front if he’s healthy.

Previewing Tennessee’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Tennessee brought in a new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, this offseason, but little else has changed on this side of the ball. The Vols bring back starters nearly across the board but will need to find two new safeties.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. should form one of the top linebacker duos in the league. Reeves-Maybin has developed into an emotional leader, and the duo should dictate the success of the defense as a whole.

Along the line, Derek Barnett has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the conference, if not the country. At the other end position, Corey Vereen brings experience, and Jonathan Kongbo could be the next great Tennessee sack master. Depth could be an issue on the interior, and 6'3", 344-pound tackle Kahlil McKenzie faces expectations as large as he is.

Tennessee is fortunate that star cornerback Cameron Sutton decided to return for a final season. Todd Kelly Jr. should be able to step up and fill one of the safety spots without going through much of a learning curve. The other safety position is one of the only unknowns on an otherwise stellar defensive unit.

Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists 
 

Tennessee had arguably the best group of specialists in the SEC a season ago, and everyone is back. Evan Berry emerged as a threat to take every kickoff he handled back for a TD and finished a fraction of a yard away from breaking the NCAA’s all-time single-season record for return average. Sutton was nearly as dangerous on punt returns. Trevor Daniel was a pleasant surprise at punter, but kicker Aaron Medley will need a rebound year.

Final Analysis
 

Everything feels bigger for Tennessee this season, from the stage for its Week 2 showdown with Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway to the national prognostications. Butch Jones no longer has youth as an excuse, and two straight dominant bowl wins over Big Ten teams have fans dreaming big in 2016. All the pieces the Vols need to succeed are back. A division title is the expectation in Knoxville this season. 

The Debate

Is Bob Shoop the best assistant coach hire in the SEC for 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#9 LSU Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#9

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Les Miles, 112-32 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

LSU’s 2015 season ended in bizarre fashion, as there was plenty of doubt on coach Les Miles’ future entering the regular season finale against Texas A&M. However, after beating the Aggies, Miles was retained for 2016 and returns a roster capable of contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. For LSU to win the SEC and claim a playoff spot, the passing game has to improve behind quarterback Brandon Harris. Running back Leonard Fournette will carry the offense once again, but Harris and his receivers have to provide more balance. Dave Aranda was one of the top coordinator hires in the nation, and the defense should rank among the best in the SEC with 10 returning starters.     

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Previewing LSU’s Offense 
 

Returning as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner after setting LSU’s single-season rushing record, Leonard Fournette will once again buoy a Tigers offense that broke out in a Texas Bowl win against Texas Tech but is still searching for a consistent passing game. Fournette will be a workhorse, but returning quarterback Brandon Harris gets his two leading receivers back — along with a new position coach in Dameyune Craig — in hopes of reinvigorating a stagnant passing attack.

Harris and Purdue transfer Danny Etling battled throughout the spring, when Harris took most of the first-team reps. Harris said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s move from the press box to the sidelines in the Texas Bowl aided his progression and said it’d be “paramount” to the unit’s success this year.

It also helps to have Fournette, who needs 13 yards to become the fastest back in school history to reach 3,000 yards. The development of sophomore Derrius Guice could give Fournette an opportunity to lighten his workload. They will run behind an offensive line that absorbed the losses of senior Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins — LSU’s only early entrant into the NFL Draft. Ethan Pocic, whom Les Miles has called one of the most versatile linemen he’s ever coached, steadies the line at center.

Previewing LSU’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

LSU’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons, Dave Aranda ushers in a new era, bringing a 3-4 alignment to Baton Rouge for the first time in Les Miles’ tenure.

Returning ends Arden Key and Lewis Neal will now play a more stand-up, outside rushing role, though Aranda’s flexible front won’t allow them to abandon the traditional, hand-in-the-dirt position. Interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Greg Gilmore will stay inside, but Aranda’s preached a more aggressive, active plan for them to get up the field.

Kendell Beckwith headlines an otherwise thin linebacking corps that was boosted by the emergence of mid-year enrollee Devin White in the spring. Donnie Alexander also impressed in spring to earn a spot. Senior Duke Riley, who saw some time at middle linebacker last season, expects to play more outside in Aranda’s scheme.

The scheme may change, but LSU’s loaded defensive backfield will not. Tre’Davious White, who was chosen to wear the program’s revered No. 18 last season as a junior, returns for a final season in Baton Rouge after leading the team with seven pass break-ups last season. Jamal Adams, a hard-hitting junior who had four interceptions last season and played his way into second-team All-SEC honors, returns at safety alongside Rickey Jefferson — another three-year letterman and rising senior in this veteran, deep position group that promises to anchor Aranda’s new-look defense.

Previewing LSU’s Specialists
 

Trent Domingue started last season 10-of-10 and was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, eventually finishing 13-for-17 in his first season as LSU’s primary placekicker. Reloading the Australian punter pipeline, the Tigers will likely turn to Domingue or Aussie redshirt freshman Josh Growden to replace the graduated Jamie Keehn, another Aussie who was LSU’s starting punter for the last three seasons.

Final Analysis
 

LSU returns 18 starters from a team that, at its peak, was No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings and had the presumed Heisman Trophy winner. A trip to Tuscaloosa sent the season, and Miles’ job security, into a tailspin before the Tigers ended their season on a two-game winning streak and kept Miles. Aranda’s arrival interjected exuberance into a defense that struggled at times last season, but it was hardly the main problem. LSU’s offense will need to, once again, refine its passing game and get consistent quarterback play if the Tigers hope to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.  

The Debate

Is Dave Aranda the best assistant coach hire for 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#10 Ole Miss Rebels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#10

SEC West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Hugh Freeze, 34-18 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Luke, Dan Werner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Jones, Dave Wommack

Even with the departure of three NFL first-round picks, Ole Miss isn’t going to slip too far in the SEC West. The Rebels return the SEC’s top quarterback in Chad Kelly, and there’s a host of talented receivers waiting to emerge as a replacement for standout Laquon Treadwell. The biggest concern on offense is the line, but true freshman Greg Little could provide stability this fall. Each level of the defense suffered key losses, yet five returning starters form a solid foundation for 2016. Coach Hugh Freeze has to quickly find the right answers, as Ole Miss has one of the nation’s toughest starts to the season, featuring matchups against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia. 

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Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense 
 

The Rebels have stability under center, and that’s where all great teams start. Chad Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns and is the top returning quarterback in the SEC.

Great quarterbacks need great blind-side protection, and Kelly had that for the latter half of last season when Laremy Tunsil returned from his suspension. Whether he has it this season remains to be seen, and much of that responsibility is expected to fall to true freshman Greg Little. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze raves about Little’s athleticism, but it’s a lot to ask of a true freshman to step in at left tackle from Day 1. Three other offensive line positions will have new starters.

Laquon Treadwell, a once-in-a-generation-type player, leaves a hole at wide receiver, but the Rebels have the depth and talent to be strong at the position once again. Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow had 36 catches in his first season at Ole Miss. Senior tight end Evan Engram is a weapon in the passing game as well.

Senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins are bigger backs than Freeze has typically had at Ole Miss. They both averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry in backup roles last year.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

In spite of the loss of tackle Robert Nkemdiche, the Rebels figure to be talented and experienced up front. Junior end Marquis Haynes provides a pass rush threat off the edge. His 10 sacks last year tied a school record. Fadol Brown is a bigger body at the other end who could gain more NFL attention if his consistency improves. The wild card here is senior Issac Gross, who missed almost the entire 2015 season after neck surgery. He will be a disruptive presence in the backfield if he remains healthy.

The Rebels must replace two starting safeties but have recruited well at the position in recent seasons. Senior Tony Conner returns at nickel back in the 4-2-5 after missing most of 2015 following a knee injury in Week 3 at Alabama. He was a projected first-round pick before the injury.

Freeze was not able to address needs at middle linebacker to the level he had hoped on Signing Day. He continued to search for players and landed a couple of promising newcomers in graduate transfer Rommel Mageo and junior college transfer Detric Bing-Dukes. Mageo led Oregon State with 87 tackles last year and will be the favorite in August to win the starting job.

The Rebels have star potential at outside linebacker in junior DeMarquis Gates. He became a starter only when Denzel Nkemdiche’s season ended in early November, but Gates finished with a team-high 76 tackles.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists  
 

Junior kicker Gary Wunderlich hit 19-of-25 field goal attempts and converted all 63 PATs to become the SEC’s top scorer at the position. Wunderlich doubled as the team’s long-distance punter. Freeze would like to use junior punter Will Gleeson, a rugby-style kicker, more often and is hopeful that Gleeson will bounce back after struggling late last season. Ole Miss has had solid kick and punt coverage units, but the Rebels have not produced enough big plays in the return game.

Final Analysis
 

The Rebels are 19–7 overall and 11–5 in the league in the last two seasons, highlighted by two wins over Alabama and a dominating win over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl in January. This team has the talent to contend in the SEC West once again, but the offensive line must become a team strength and provide suitable protection for Kelly. If that happens, the Rebels’ offense should have little trouble scoring points. The defense loses its most talented player in Robert Nkemdiche, but there is star power on every level. Another top-10 finish is well within reach. 

The Debate

Does Ole Miss have the SEC's toughest non-conference schedule?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#16 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#16

SEC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Kirby Smart, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mel Tucker

It’s a new era for Georgia’s football program, as Mark Richt’s 15-year stint in Athens ended after the regular season, and former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart was hired to lead his alma mater to SEC titles. Smart inherits plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs also feature question marks on both sides of the ball. On offense, there’s uncertainty under center with true freshman Jacob Eason and Greyson Lambert battling for the starting job. Additionally, running back Nick Chubb is recovering from a serious knee injury. Georgia boasts one of the SEC’s top defensive backfields, but the front seven has to be retooled.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense 
 

For an offensive-minded coach known for developing quarterbacks, Mark Richt’s downfall at Georgia came down to those two things. When Mike Bobo left after 2014, Richt didn’t make the right hire to replace him, and Georgia’s passing-challenged offense sputtered to a ranking of 83rd nationally in 2015.

Enter Kirby Smart, a defensive-minded coach who had long had his eye on a couple assistant coaches to fill his staff. So he closed in on offensive coordinator and QB guru Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman, the latter of whom required a three-year contract at $650,000 per season to pry him away from Arkansas.

So how quickly will things be turned around? Potentially pretty quickly. The quarterback spot already looks better, whether it’s fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert (who started all but one game last year after parachuting in from Virginia) having a full offseason in Georgia, or five-star freshman Jacob Eason living up to his potential. And don’t rule out junior Brice Ramsey and his strong arm.

All eyes will be on how soon Nick Chubb will get back on the field, and how close to his old form he’ll be after significant knee surgery. Either way, junior Sony Michel — who rushed for more than 1,000 yards despite starting only six games last year — is back. Receivers Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie offer dynamic options, and tight end is very deep.

Ultimately, the course of this offense may come down to quarterback and offensive line — which loses two starters — the two spots that plagued Richt’s final Georgia team.

Previewing Georgia’s Defense
 

which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Smart inherits a pretty good group on defense. Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Smart in his old job as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, did a solid job recruiting on his side of the ball in two years at Georgia. The strength should be the secondary, which returns almost everybody from the nation’s top-ranked pass defense. That’s a tad deceiving, as Georgia faced two triple-option teams, and its schedule wasn’t that strong — Alabama, for instance, picked apart the Bulldogs secondary. But safety Dominick Sanders was first-team All-SEC and anchors a very talented group.

The front seven is inexperienced but offers plenty of upside. Defensive tackle Trent Thompson, considered by many to be  the nation’s best overall recruit last year, showed flashes. He’s joined by a deep class of sophomores and freshmen. The only question is how quickly this unit can harness all that talent.

The big question is at linebacker, where Georgia lost team MVP Jake Ganus, an inside linebacker, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. Outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter are two talented juniors who could disrupt opposing passing games. Reggie Carter, who missed most of last year with a shoulder problem, is healthy again to play inside linebacker, and sophomores Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith have high upside.

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists
 

McKenzie, in just two years, has already tied Georgia’s school record for return touchdowns and punt return touchdowns. His only issue will be staying healthy. The kicking spots are a concern. Marshall Long was signed to be the punter. The placekicking job will be occupied by a walk-on. There could be some very tense moments when Georgia is attempting field goals this year.

Final Analysis
 

Smart’s first season sets up a lot like Richt’s final few: A chance for a 10-win season, but maybe not quite enough to win it all. For it all to come together, quarterback play and blocking will have to be much better, the inexperienced front seven will have to play well immediately, and the kicking game will have to be unexpectedly good. That’s a lot to ask. But the pieces are still there to contend in the mediocre SEC East. 

The Debate

Is Jacob Eason already one of the SEC's top quarterbacks?

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