College Football


#3 Ohio State Buckeyes



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 50-4 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Schiano, Luke Fickell

Despite losing a wealth of talent to the NFL, Ohio State is poised for another run at the Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Urban Meyer’s team returns only six starters, but elite recruiting has the Buckeyes’ roster stocked for a quick rebuild. J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback and the lack of a controversy under center should allow the junior take full control of the offense. New co-coordinator Greg Schiano will keep the defense near the top of the Big Ten, and there’s no shortage of talent to work with, including standout linebacker Raekwon McMillan, ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard and cornerback Gareon Conley. 

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Previewing Ohio State’s Offense 

Not only did the Buckeyes lose the program’s No. 2 all-time rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, but Ohio State’s all-time leader in total offense — Braxton Miller — also is out the door. That’s a lot of production to attempt to replace, especially when you add in the fact that commodities such as wideout Michael Thomas, tight end Nick Vannett and All-America tackle Taylor Decker also are gone.

Fortunately for coach Urban Meyer, he still has a high-quality starting point in veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett. The offense soared late in the year with Barrett taking snaps and finding receivers, and he managed to produce 682 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just 115 attempts on the ground, good for 5.9 per carry.

Still, the tasks now are to find reliable running options behind Barrett, reconstruct the offensive line and to begin polishing a corps of speedy wideouts who are not yet proven. Redshirt freshman Mike Weber is ready to emerge at running back, and H-back Curtis Samuel also should get a healthy dose of handoffs.

OSU’s best every-down receivers appear to be Noah Brown and Corey Smith, but both are coming off injuries that required surgery and were limited in the spring. Look out for youngsters K.J. Hill and Austin Mack, who add quickness and provide depth.

Up front, Pat Elflein is expected to shine at center after shifting from a guard spot, and the other returning starter, guard Billy Price, will continue to maul people. Jamarco Jones has emerged as the new left tackle, but the other spots are not yet nailed down.

Previewing Ohio State’s Defense 

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

Just like on offense, the Silver Bullets return only three starters but have an All-Big Ten anchor in middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The junior became a reliable commodity last season while racking up a team-high 119 tackles. He’s expected to be flanked by Dante Booker and Chris Worley, although young Jerome Baker is bucking for a role as well. The tackling ability, depth and potential of this group could develop into a major team strength.

The defensive line won’t be as dynamic with superstar end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington now taking paychecks. But Sam Hubbard is an emerging star on the outside, and bookend Tyquan Lewis is coming off a breakthrough season. Also, position coach Larry Johnson can mix in Jalyn Holmes as a pass rusher and has many capable bodies to rotate inside.

Gareon Conley is the new top dog at corner, and it’s time for Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward to begin reaching their potential as cover men. Safety will have a new look with the successful Vonn Bell/Tyvis Powell combo departed, but Erick Smith could be the next standout on the back end.

Previewing Ohio State’s Specialists 

Meyer doesn’t like to call for a lot of field goals and, of course, he’s not wild about punting, either. But Ohio State has veteran Sean Nuernberger to handle placements, while senior punter Cameron Johnston is one of the best in college football. The Buckeyes didn’t return a kick for a score for the first time in 13 years. They’d like to start a new streak with talents such as Samuel and Dontre Wilson on the move.

Final Analysis

After the loss of 16 starters, the two-deep is now filled with players who were elite high school recruits a couple years ago, which means the clock is ticking on their development. Also, the schedule shows a brutal early road test against Oklahoma and is back-loaded, once again, with clashes against those schools from up north. It would be easy to label Ohio State a non-contender this fall, but the guy prowling the sideline and the vast amount of raw talent on hand suggest otherwise.

The Debate

Does Ohio State have the Big Ten's toughest schedule in 2016?

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#4 Clemson Tigers





HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney, 75-27 (7+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Scott, Tony Elliott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marion Hobby, Brent Venables

Dabo Swinney has raised expectations at Clemson, and last year's 14 wins in 2015 were the most in program history for a single season. However, the Tigers enter 2016 with unfinished business. Clemson fell just short in the national title game against Alabama, and the Tigers are hoping for another run to the championship in 2016. The pieces are certainly in place for Swinney’s team to win it all. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads a dynamic offense, with the receiving corps and offensive line among the best in the nation. For the second year in a row, coordinator Brent Venables has work to do in rebuilding the defense. However, considering Venables’ success in rebuilding this group last season, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop in production. The Oct. 29 showdown at Florida State should decide the ACC Atlantic.

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Previewing Clemson’s Offense 

Following offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ departure to become SMU’s head coach, Clemson’s offense didn’t miss a beat under the watch of co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. The Tigers averaged 38.5 points per game and finished as national runner-up to Alabama. The scary part? They could be even better this season. Clemson returns eight offensive starters, led by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson, an elusive, dynamic run-pass threat with a big arm, finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting and became the first FBS player ever to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He’s the key to Clemson’s national title hopes.

The Tigers scored a major offseason victory when tailback Wayne Gallman returned for his junior season. Gallman is a powerful, violent runner who emerged as a star last fall, rushing for 1,527 yards with 13 scores as one of the ACC’s best backs.  A strong offensive line, led by sophomore tackle Mitch Hyatt, will open plenty of holes for him.

Watson will throw to a deep receiving corps that will be even better with the return of Mike Williams, who had 1,030 yards as a sophomore but redshirted after suffering a broken bone in his neck in Clemson’s opener. He’ll be a perfect complement to speedy junior Artavis Scott.

Previewing Clemson’s Defense 

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

A year ago, Brent Venables lost nine starters from the nation’s No. 1 defense and forged a unit that still finished No. 10 nationally. Following a major round of NFL Draft departures — led by defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander — repeating that production would be a feat. Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and emerging star Christian Wilkins will hold down the middle, and freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, will make an impact. Untested defensive ends Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin must prove they’re ready for front-line action.

Senior Ben Boulware is Clemson’s leading returning tackler with 82. He is a fiery, intense competitor who’ll be the heart of the Tigers’ linebacker corps and the defense as a whole. Coaches love middle linebacker Kendall Joseph’s potential.

Beyond All-ACC-caliber senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, there are serious questions in the secondary, a group that gave up multiple big plays in 2015. Mark Fields and Ryan Carter are candidates to start across from Tankersley, and both must make the leap from trusted reserve to starter. The departures of starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to the NFL hurt. Senior Jadar Johnson will get a chance to shine in a starting safety role, but this group overall could give Venables some heartburn this fall.

Previewing Clemson’s Specialists 

Greg Huegel came up huge to begin 2015 after being thrown into the fire following senior Ammon Lakip’s DUI and cocaine possession-related suspension. The freshman made 27-of-32 field goals, including 21-of-22 from 40 yards and in. Punter Andy Teasdall was up-and-down but landed 23 punts inside the opponent’s 20 and averaged 39.5 yards per kick. Scott has major potential as a speedy kick returner.

Final Analysis 

Coming off its best season since 1981, Clemson has shaken labels like “soft” and “not clutch” that were remnants of the Tommy Bowden era. The Tigers are tough, deep and talented, and with Watson leading a potent offense, they have the ingredients to make sure 2015 wasn’t a fluke. Can Venables mold another inexperienced defense into a winning unit? If so, this group will challenge for another ACC title and College Football Playoff berth. The biggest concern is a trip to Florida State on Oct. 29, but Watson and a potent offense could be good enough to overcome a less talented defense. 

The Debate

Where does Dabo Swinney rank among the ACC's best coaches?

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#5 Michigan Wolverines





HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh, 10-3 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Drevno | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Jim Harbaugh has Michigan back among the nation’s best, and the Wolverines should be in the conversation for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2016. Road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State will determine just how high Michigan climbs in rankings, but the pieces are in place for a run at the Big Ten title. While a new quarterback must emerge to replace Jake Rudock, the supporting cast is strong with four returning starters on the line and one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. New coordinator Don Brown inherits six starters from a defense that limited opponents to 16.4 points a game in 2015. 

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Previewing Michigan’s Offense 

For the first time since 2013, the bulk of Michigan’s returners on offense are playing in the same system for a second year in a row. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno aren’t installing major parts of the team’s pro-style offense. Instead, they’re fine-tuning it. However, the Wolverines are faced with the same major question they were a year ago at this time: Who’s the quarterback?

Jake Rudock set career highs in every major passing category last year under Harbaugh (3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns, 64 percent completion rate). But now, Rudock’s gone and Harbaugh (along with quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch) is tasked with breaking in a new signal caller. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the presumed frontrunner, but he will find himself in a tight race with sophomore Wilton Speight and junior Shane Morris in preseason camp.

O’Korn has thrown 34 touchdowns as a college quarterback. The rest of Michigan’s scholarship passers have combined to throw one.

The good news here? Michigan’s eventual starting quarterback will have the benefit of throwing to three very experienced targets. All-America tight end Jake Butt, All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson and fifth-year senior Amara Darboh are all back. A year ago, those three combined for 159 catches, 2,145 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Up front, Michigan returns four of its five starting offensive linemen but will be playing with a twist this year. Starting left tackle Mason Cole has moved inside to center as a replacement for the departed Graham Glasgow, pushing sophomore Grant Newsome into the first five as the team’s blindside tackle. Michigan will look to improve on what, statistically, was a pedestrian run game a year ago (158.2 ypg).

Previewing Michigan’s Defense 

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

Michigan will have a new look on defense this season after defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin left to run Maryland’s program in December. Harbaugh then hired Don Brown — the architect of the country’s No. 1 overall defense last season — away from Boston College.

Brown will inherit plenty of returning talent from Michigan’s top-five defense from 2015. All-America corner Jourdan Lewis and All-America rover Jabrill Peppers are back — though the latter will have a new role. After playing mainly as a nickel/safety last season, Peppers will occupy Brown’s hybrid strong-side linebacker position in 2016. Brown’s defense relies heavily on pressure and blitzes and will place Peppers — the team’s best athlete — in the box with hopes of creating more havoc in opposing backfields.

The Wolverines lost defensive tackle Willie Henry to the NFL Draft, but senior ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley (12 combined sacks) are back, as are tackles Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst. Bryan Mone, who missed last season with a broken leg, will return as well. The Wolverines will get a huge boost up front this fall from incoming freshman Rashan Gary — the country’s top-ranked recruit.

Previewing Michigan’s Specialists 

The Wolverines return starting placekicker Kenny Allen (18-of-22 last season) but lose punter Blake O’Neill. Allen may end up handling all of the team’s kicking duties this season, unless incoming freshman Quinn Nordin can win one of the three jobs. The team’s return game should still be in great hands. Peppers averaged 11.4 yards per punt return last season, while Lewis was second in the Big Ten with 25.2 yards per kick return.

Final Analysis

The Wolverines were one fumbled punt snap against Michigan State away from being in the College Football Playoff conversation last November.  If Harbaugh can work his magic on another quarterback once again, this team has the goods to push Ohio State for the Big Ten East Division championship and a shot at this year’s CFP.

The Debate

Can Michigan overtake Ohio State in the Big Ten East in 2016?

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#6 Oklahoma Sooners





HEAD COACH: Bob Stoops, 179-46 (17 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lincoln Riley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Stoops

Another run at the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 title is certainly within reach for Oklahoma. The Sooners return 12 starters from last year’s 11-2 team, including Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield and talented running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Replacing Sterling Shepard and rebuilding the line are the biggest concern on offense for coordinator Lincoln Riley. Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Sooners, but there are concerns on defense after the departure of end Charles Tapper, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez. The schedule is favorable, but a two-game stretch early in the year against Ohio State and TCU could be a road block in Oklahoma’s path to another playoff berth.

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Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense 

Baker Mayfield was forced to wait to make his Oklahoma debut, sitting out the 2014 season after transferring from Texas Tech, where he was a walk-on. For the Sooners, he was well worth it. Mayfield delivered a swashbuckling style that energized the program. And with the style, there was substance, too, as he threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, adding another 405 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. He’ll enter 2016 as a prominent Heisman Trophy candidate.

There’s work to do, Mayfield says, with better ball protection his emphasis in the offseason. He threw only seven interceptions last season, but two came in the season-ending Orange Bowl loss to Clemson.

“That’s the most important thing,” Mayfield says. “And if I do that, we’re going to win come this fall.”

The offense is geared to win, with Mayfield and a running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon that rivals any in the country. Still, there are question marks. Two new starters are needed along the offensive line, with young and inexperienced replacements in position to take over. And even with Dede Westbrook returning, there’s a shortage of proven commodities at receiver to guarantee that the Sooners’ spread offense will continue clicking.

Previewing Oklahoma’s Defense 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Sooners lost most of their premier playmakers from the 2015 defense, with Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Dominique Alexander and Zack Sanchez all moving on. That’s four first-team All-Big 12 selections, 265 tackles, 16.5 sacks and nine interceptions out the door. So the search is on for new stars and new leaders on the defensive side.

There are logical candidates, as end Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, safety Ahmad Thomas and cornerback Jordan Thomas were all good enough to draw second-team All-Big 12 notice a year ago. And all are poised for bigger years in the spotlight. Walker anchors what should be a solid front, while the Thomas tandem headlines an experienced cast in the secondary.

“I feel like we are all comfortable out there,” says safety Steven Parker. “It’s about building depth, going out there every day with a chip on our shoulder. It was great last year, but we want to be even greater this year.”

The major concern is at linebacker, where only Evans is back, flanked by an inexperienced cast of hopefuls who failed to move the meter in the spring. With 83 tackles last season, Evans finished as the team’s No. 2 tackler.

Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists 

With Mixon in a time-share at running back, he’s free to lend his talents to the return game, giving the Sooners a potentially dynamic element. With Alex Ross transferring, Mixon could shoulder more of the workload on returns. The kicking duties are in good shape with Austin Seibert, who punted and handled placement duties as a freshman a year ago, averaging 42.0 yards on punts and booting 18 field goals.

Final Analysis

Mayfield offers an “it” factor for the Sooners, an inspiring and invaluable intangible that adds to all his special skills at the most important position on the field. With Mayfield heading a group of 12 returning starters from a squad that advanced to the College Football Playoff a year ago, the Sooners are fixed on making another run. “Oh yeah, we’re even more hungry,” Mayfield says.

If the question marks on the offensive line, at receiver and linebacker can be transformed into solid answers, Oklahoma is built for another big year. The Sooners will be the favorite in the Big 12, yet before getting there they’ll have to navigate a rugged non-conference schedule that includes a trip to on-the-rise Houston in the opener and a home clash with Ohio State.

The Debate

Which team is the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12?

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