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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#45 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#45

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 70-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

Northwestern is coming off an impressive 10-3 record from 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has a lot of work to do in order to reach double-digit wins once again. The Wildcats can lean on running back Justin Jackson to carry the offense, while quarterback Clayton Thorson should be better in his second year as the starter. The defense was a standout group last season and returns a solid core for 2016. However, the Wildcats have a tougher schedule this year. Is another 10-win season in the works? Or will the schedule and concerns on offense be too much to overcome?

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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense

The Northwestern offense must make significant upgrades in passing (120th in yards per game) and big plays, where it ranked last nationally in percentage of plays 10 yards or longer (14.2). Quarterback Clayton Thorson’s development will help. Now the clear-cut starter, the sophomore improved his footwork and decisiveness during the winter. “He had arm strength and ball speed all the time,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall says. “It was just getting his feet set in the right spot and anticipating the break, anticipating someone getting open.”

A drops-prone receiving corps needs recently converted players like Marcus McShepard (defensive back) and Solomon Vault (running back) to contribute immediately. Austin Carr, who has strong chemistry with Thorson, could become his No. 1 target. Northwestern has little recent production from taller receivers, but redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler shows promise.

Running back is the unit’s most secure position. Justin Jackson has 2,605 rushing yards in his first two seasons, but the staff will try to lighten his load in 2016. Senior Warren Long and explosive redshirt freshman John Moten IV will contribute.

Offensive line play has been spotty, but Northwestern returns an experienced and versatile group that blocked well late in games.

McCall recognizes that the playbook must expand for the Wildcats to come close to 10 wins again. Development at receiver is pivotal because Thorson can handle more responsibility. “We need to get back to pitching and catching the football,” McCall says.

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense

Northwestern became a defense-driven team in 2015 as it led the nation in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (five) and ranked seventh nationally in yards per play allowed (4.5). The Wildcats hub once again looks solid with national awards candidate Anthony Walker at middle linebacker, dynamic junior Godwin Igwebuike at safety, senior Matthew Harris at cornerback and the ability to go five deep at defensive tackle.

The Wildcats need to replenish their depth at end after losing Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, who combined for 12 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss last year. Ifeadi Odenigbo is a gifted pass rusher (13.5 career sacks) who must show he’s an every-down player. The spot opposite Odenigbo is critical, and a tackle like C.J. Robbins could slide over.

Once a huge weakness, the secondary has become one of Northwestern’s strongest units through improved recruiting. “Our DBs can run,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We can match up with people and play more man.”

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists
 

While Northwestern would love to see more accuracy from kicker Jack Mitchell (18-of-27 on field goals) or greater leg strength from punter Hunter Niswander (38 yards per punt), it doesn’t take their experience for granted. Vault, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s top kick returners. The Wildcats have struggled at times to find productive punt returners and hope Flynn Nagel or Harris is their answer.

Final Analysis

A 10-win season revived Northwestern, but coaches know the same approach — overly reliant on defense with limited big-play threat — isn’t sustainable. The offense will make at least marginal strides, and the defense should again be among the Big Ten’s best. But this could easily be a better team with a worse record as the schedule gets much tougher.

Ohio State and Michigan State return to the slate. Northwestern visits both Big Ten heavyweights along with Iowa, the reigning West champion. The Wildcats face all three teams in October, traditionally their worst month in the Pat Fitzgerald era, so a strong start at home will be imperative.

The Debate

Will Clayton Thorson develop into an All-Big Ten QB this year?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#44 California Golden Bears

NATIONAL FORECAST

#44

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Sonny Dykes, 14-23 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jake Spavital | DEF. COORDINATOR: Art Kaufman

Losing the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft will hurt, but coach Sonny Dykes landed a replacement for Jared Goff in May with the addition of transfer Davis Webb. In addition to getting Webb settled at quarterback, the Golden Bears have to find a few weapons at receiver. The defense has improved every year since 2014 and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t continue.

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Previewing Cal’s Offense
 

Quarterback was the big unknown for the Bears with departed star Jared Goff’s backups from each of the past three seasons among the frontrunners to win the job. The Bears began spring practice with five candidates hoping to fill the biggest shoes on campus, but the answer came in May with Davis Webb's arrival from Texas Tech. Webb is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer and should be a good fit in the Bear Raid offense. Third-year sophomore Chase Forrest worked as the backup in 2015 and should return in that role for 2016. 

The new QB will operate behind a line with four returning starters. “It’s huge, especially for young quarterbacks,” Spavital says of the experience up front. Running backs Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere each rushed for more than 500 yards last fall, and the Bears expect to use a committee approach again. Gone are six receivers who totaled 265 catches for 3,878 yards and 38 TDs last season. Replacing them is a group of nearly a dozen that brings size, speed and versatility.

Previewing Cal’s Defense
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has overseen gradual progress after inheriting one of the nation’s worst defenses when he arrived in 2014. The Bears allowed 45.9 points per game in ’13, then improved to 39.8 in ’14 and 30.7 last season. “Last year was better — wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” says Kaufman, who has five starters back from 2015 and greater depth almost everywhere. “Defensively, it’s time to make another jump.” 

Kaufman believes the line will be stronger, led up front by tackle James Looney and end DeVante Wilson. Mostly, the Bears have developed greater numbers of capable players. “You can’t afford to have one-and-a-half at any position. You’ve got to be two-deep, plus,” Kaufman says. The linebacking corps, however, took a huge hit when star Hardy Nickerson announced in late April that he was transferring to Illinois to play his final season for his father, the Fighting Illini’s new defensive coordinator.

The biggest hole on defense is at the second cornerback slot, opposite returning starter Darius Allensworth. One or more of five incoming DBs could fill that void. The status of senior Damariay Drew, expected to anchor the defense from his strong safety spot, is unclear after he had left knee surgery for an injury he sustained in spring camp.

Previewing Cal’s Specialists
 

Matt Anderson was a pleasant surprise at placekicker last season, converting 18-of-21 field goals with just one miss inside 40 yards. Sophomore Dylan Klumph, at 6'3", 230 pounds, won the punting job with a strong performance in spring ball. The Bears hope to get more punch from a return game that was anemic last season.

Final Analysis
 

Dykes understands that outside expectations for his team will be diminished this season following the departure of star quarterback Goff and his receiving corps. But he isn’t lowering the bar after the Bears posted an 8–5 record and a bowl victory in his third season. He considers the performance of Washington State, which jumped from 3–9 in 2014 to 9–4 a year ago, and says, “We’re hoping we can be next year’s surprise team and continue to progress without having to take a step backward.” If the offensive line is as good as Dykes hopes, Webb stabilizes the quarterback play as expected and the defense continues to make progress, perhaps the Bears can avoid taking a step back.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#43 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#43

Big 12 PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

In a must-win year for coach Charlie Strong, the pressure is on in Austin. The Longhorns definitely gained some positive momentum after bringing in some blue-chippers on signing day this past spring, but will that be enough? New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was brought aboard to bring significant improvement to the offense, and there's quarterback uncertainty exiting spring ball. The defense should be solid, especially with the development of sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson. Alumni are getting antsy and this season will be a sign of where things are going- either north or south, there is no in between.  

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Previewing Texas’ Offense

Charlie Strong and Texas had to give new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert a guaranteed three-year deal at $850,000 annually, in part because back-to-back losing seasons have raised doubts about Strong’s own job security. But if Gilbert, an Art Briles disciple, can get anywhere close to an offense resembling Baylor’s, it will have been money well spent.

In many ways, Gilbert and laser-armed freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, the top QB recruit in Texas in 2016, hold the keys to putting the Longhorns back on the path to prominence — and possibly to Strong’s survival. It’s clear Strong likes Gilbert’s simplified, up-tempo scheme with Buechele, an early enrollee who lit up spring football, running it. “Players know players — and they’ll tell me, ‘Shane’s a baller.’ He’s going to play in the fall,” says Strong of Buechele, the son of former Texas Rangers infielder Steve Buechele.

Outside receivers John Burt and 6'6", 212-pound early enrollee Collin Johnson have what it takes to spread defenses from sideline to sideline. That should help make defensive fronts vulnerable to the Longhorns’ “Thunderstorm” running back combination of 238-pound junior D’Onta Foreman and 255-pound sophomore Chris Warren III.

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

The good news is Texas desperately needed defensive tackles in the 2016 recruiting class — and landed five highly recruited prospects: four-stars Jordan Elliott, Chris Daniels and Marcel Southall as well as three-stars D’Andre Christmas-Giles and Gerald Wilbon of Louisiana. The bad news is — because of thin numbers — some or all are going to be relied upon immediately by a defense that gave up 219.2 yards per game on the ground last season.

“The defensive line is a big concern,” Strong says. “Those freshmen are going to have to come in ready to play.”

Sophomore ends Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager as well as linebacker Malik Jefferson, a Freshman All-American in 2015, should be able to generate a pass rush — so long as the defense can get into obvious passing situations.

The secondary is overflowing with top-end talent. Sophomore cornerbacks Davante Davis and Holton Hill both played fearlessly as freshmen. Versatile sophomore linebacker Anthony Wheeler and hard-hitting sophomore safety DeShon Elliott appear poised for breakout seasons in 2016.

Previewing Texas’ Specialists

Poor special teams have played a role in at least three losses over the past two seasons under Strong (UCLA in 2014, Cal and Oklahoma State in 2015). The third-year head coach didn’t exactly comfort fans after spring practice when he admitted he still needed a field goal kicker because three walk-ons failed to impress.

Final Analysis
 

Clearly, Strong believes that Gilbert’s new offense — most likely with Buechele at QB — is going to be a huge upgrade over last year’s three-and-out-a-thon. In the spring, Buechele’s accuracy, moxie and poise set him apart from senior Tyrone Swoopes and sophomore Jerrod Heard.

Texas fans are hoping for the same type of turnaround TCU experienced when Gary Patterson ditched his run-first, pro-style offense and brought in Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie as co-OCs to spread things out. The Horned Frogs, 23–3 since the move, went from 25.1 points per game in 2013 to 46.5 points per game in 2014.

If the Longhorns could get even half of that increase on offense and be solid on defense and special teams, there’s a lot of young talent that could turn 2016 into a surprise year in Austin. The first five games will determine if the Longhorns are finally contenders. Texas opens at home against Notre Dame and plays road games at Cal and Oklahoma State before facing Oklahoma in Game 5.

The Debate

Should Texas start Shane Buechele at quarterback?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#42 Texas Tech Red Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#42

Big 12 PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kliff Kingsbury, 19-19 (3 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Morris | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Gibbs

Having Patrick Mahomes - one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12 - will be a big help, but will those around him make the offense flourish? Texas Tech must replace standout receiver Jakeem Grant and running back DeAndre Washington, and the offensive line has to be rebuilt. Coach Kliff Kingsbury is an offensive mastermind, but the defense also has to make major strides in 2016. Coordinator David Gibbs is in his second year and should ease the growing pains of a young defense.

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Previewing Texas Tech’s Offense

Following a season that saw the Red Raiders set a program record for points scored, Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech offense will look to replace a number of departing seniors in critical positions, namely leading receiver Jakeem Grant, leading rusher DeAndre Washington and left tackle Le’Raven Clark. It’s not all bad news on offense, as quarterback Pat Mahomes returns and will look to build off of his highlight-stuffed sophomore campaign.

There’s competition at both running back and receiver. At tailback, Justin Stockton looks to be the frontrunner to start, as he’s proven himself to be an electric home run hitter. The Red Raiders will have plenty of size at outside receiver, thanks to the arrival of junior college transfer Derrick Willies and the return of Dylan Cantrell from injury. Slot receivers Cam Batson, Ian Sadler and juco transfer De’Quan Bowman will all have opportunities to make noise, too.

The offensive line will be young but talented, anchored by veteran guard Baylen Brown.

Previewing Texas Tech’s Defense

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

The Red Raider defense, like the team’s offense, also set records in 2015. Unfortunately for coordinator David Gibbs, they weren’t positive. Texas Tech surrendered the most points (43.6 ppg) in school history, to go along with its Big 12-worst 279.9 rushing yards allowed per game. It wasn’t all bad for the Red Raiders, as they did make huge strides in gaining turnovers, forcing 25. Now in his second season at Tech, Gibbs is hopeful that stability in the scheme will translate into improvement on the field.

The core of the Tech defense is comprised of three sophomores: defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko, linebacker D’Vonta Hinton and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson. That group will lead as the rest of the picture comes into focus, and it’s a solid quartet around whom Gibbs can build. This unit was dealt an offseason setback when sophomore linebacker Dakota Allen was dismissed from the team in May.

Transfers, such as defensive end Kolin Hill (Notre Dame) and nose tackle Ondre Pipkins (Michigan), are being counted on to come in and contribute right away. Those two newcomers, along with Fehoko and end Gary Moore, are the only players on the defensive line with legitimate experience.

In the secondary, it will be a battle of youth versus experience as seniors such as Paul Banks and Justis Nelson will have to fight off D.J. Polite-Bray and several true freshmen.

Previewing Texas Tech’s Specialists

Sophomore Clayton Hatfield returns as Texas Tech’s primary placekicker after connecting on 14-of-16 field goals last season and making 53-of-54 PATs. Michael Barden replaces Taylor Symmank on punting duties, and he has some big shoes to fill as Symmank garnered some All-Big 12 recognition during his career. Stockton is expected to be the primary kick returner now that Grant is gone, a natural progression for the speedy San Antonio native. Punt returner could be a close competition between incumbent Batson and newcomer De’Quan Bowman, who was one of the most electric punt returners in junior college a year ago.

Final Analysis
 

Texas Tech enters 2016 needing to replace several critical pieces on offense and defense, but those losses should be softened by the return of Mahomes, one of the best quarterbacks in the country. It’s probably too much to expect another record-setting season on offense, but the potential for elite production is there as long as players in vital roles step up to support Mahomes.

Defensively, the youth movement is on. The young core of Fehoko, Hinton, and Johnson is promising, but overall experience is scary low across the board, and the depth situation is just as frightening. Success may come only in the form of baby steps this fall.  A 7–5 or 8–4 season is likely in the cards for the Red Raiders, as so many new players will have to take on vital roles. 

The Debate

Where does Patrick Mahomes rank among the nation's best quarterbacks?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#41 Miss. St. Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#41

SEC West PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 55-35 (67 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Peter Sirmon

In the toughest division in football (SEC West), the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them in 2016. There are key pieces returning to Starkville, but the face of the program now straps up for the Cowboys. Will Dak Prescott be greatly missed? Coach Dan Mullen might have to do his best coaching job yet to go bowling this winter.

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Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense

It’s impossible to overstate just how much Dak Prescott meant to Mississippi State during his career, and how big a hole he leaves behind for the 2016 season. There’s no shortage of contenders to replace him, but no one with any significant amount of pedigree or success. Redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald has to be considered the leading candidate; he served as Prescott’s primary backup last year, and a couple of strong relief appearances breed some confidence.

Fitzgerald, like Prescott, can run with the football. That’s huge, considering the running backs struggled last year, though all of them return. Can Brandon Holloway run for the tough yards? If not, can Aeris Williams or Ashton Shumpert take over? Don’t be surprised if it’s another season in which the Bulldogs’ leading rusher is their quarterback.

Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley or whoever else is at quarterback will have plenty of options at wide receiver. Fred Ross had 88 catches for 1,007 yards as a junior, leading a group that includes deep threat Donald Gray and slot options Gabe Myles and Malik Dear. That group does not include Fred Brown, a senior who was dismissed from the university in April.

Three starters return along an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks (including nine alone to Alabama) in 2015; improvement is necessary from the group up front, especially with the likelihood of a young QB being the one they are protecting.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

An entirely new defensive staff, including coordinator Peter Sirmon (formerly of USC), is installing a 3-4 defense that Sirmon believes will help the Bulldogs to be one of the better units in the SEC. He’s inheriting a group that is not short on talent but did lose several key pieces from 2015.

Up front, defensive end A.J. Jefferson has to lead the way after recording 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a junior. He’ll be joined by Nick James, sliding into a true two-gap role at nose tackle, and a deep rotation at defensive end.

Linebacker Richie Brown, unlike two of his former defensive teammates, turned down the NFL in order to stay for his senior year. That was a great move, for him and for Mississippi State. A top-five tackler in the SEC, Brown will operate from the middle of the 3-4 and help lead redshirt freshman Leo Lewis. Will Coleman is a former defensive end, but he’s been moved to a hybrid role in the 3-4 look — as the Viper, Coleman will often stand up at the line of scrimmage and could rush the passer or drop back into coverage.

Tolando Cleveland is solid at cornerback, and Kivon Coman and Mark McLaurin could be a bit better than that at safety. But Brandon Bryant is a star in the making for the Bulldogs. The safety had three interceptions and 63 tackles as a redshirt freshman and was the talk of spring practices with his athleticism and penchant for playmaking.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialists

Punter Logan Cooke and kicker Westin Graves are both solid and will have more expected of them in 2016 than has been the case previously. Holloway is electric in the open field as a kickoff returner, and Ross is sure-handed on punts and can get a few yards when given the opportunity.

Final Analysis

This is not 2014 Mississippi State — only one starter remains from the group that spent five weeks at No. 1 that season. But the transition started last year, and the Bulldogs still won nine games. Coach Dan Mullen has to find a way to replace Prescott, and the defense will have to acclimate quickly to a brand new coaching staff, but the schedule is lean enough to think the Bulldogs will return to a bowl game for the seventh straight season.

The Debate

Where Does Dan Mullen Rank Among the SEC Coaches?

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