Ranking the Toughest Games on LSU’s College Football Schedule in 2016

Les Miles and the Tigers host Alabama and face Arkansas and Texas A&M both on the road in November
Ranking the Toughest Games on LSU’s College Football Schedule in 2016

Year 11 with the Tigers was almost a curtain call for LSU head coach Les Miles in Baton Rouge.

5 Teams That Could Surprise in Power 5 Conference Title Races in 2016

These teams aren't the favorites, but each has what it takes to win their conferences and possible qualify for the College Football Playoff
5 Teams That Could Surprise in Power 5 Conference Title Races in 2016

Athlon Sports has unveiled its projected Top 25 for the 2016 college football season.

College Football's 10 Most Explosive Receivers Returning for 2016

Who are the top big-play threats returning for 2016?
College Football's 10 Most Explosive Receivers Returning for 2016

Having a wide receiver who has the ability to stretch the field and take the top off the defense is a must for passing attacks. These receivers have the unique ability to turn ordinary plays into paydirt and six points for the offense. They come in different shapes and sizes, but there are a few qualities each big-play receiver seems to possess - speed, acceleration and great hands.

College Football Podcast: Baylor, Ole Miss and the Countdown to Kickoff

The guys tackle some tough topics following a news-filled Memorial Day weekend.
College Football Podcast: Baylor, Ole Miss and the Countdown to Kickoff

Braden Gall, David Fox and Mitch Light are back in the booth talking the latest in college football.


- Mitch's 14-year old daughter explains satellite camps in one sentence.


- What were our reactions when we found out Baylor fired Art Briles? What (or who) could be next for the Bears? Has Baylor done enough to keep the NCAA at bay and should the NCAA be involved at all? How does Jim Grobe fit in and how have our preseason projections changed on Baylor? How is this situation different than Tennessee?


Athlon Sports College Football 2016 Team Rankings 1-128

Athlon ranks every team for the 2016 season.
College Football 2016 Team Rankings 1-128

The 2016 college football season is less than 100 days away, but the countdown to kickoff is officially underway. Athlon Sports’ 2016 College Football Preview annuals are already on newsstands across the county and available for order in the online store, hosted by Amazon. Each year, Athlon Sports produces regional preview magazines for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as a national edition with previews for all 128 teams.



#56 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 12-24 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eddie Gran, Darrin Hinshaw | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

After another hot start under Stoops, Kentucky finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl appearance. The Wildcats hope to take the next step for the program in 2016 as quarterback Drew Barker must lead the charge. The offense won’t miss a beat this year with returning the most starters in the SEC on that side of the ball. The defense on the other hand must make strides under coordinator D.J. Eliot to keep the momentum going for a full season.

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Previewing Kentucky’s Offense

Kentucky will play with its third different offensive coordinator in three seasons this fall, but the arrival of new co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw from Cincinnati has led to renewed optimism about the direction of the offense after one season of struggles with Shannon Dawson at the helm. The new UK assistants inherit a strong nucleus of young talent with nine of the 11 starters from the 2015 season finale back on campus. Former quarterback Patrick Towles, who transferred to Boston College after losing the starting job to Drew Barker, was the only player who recorded a carry or catch last season not to return this spring.

Barker is the odds-on favorite to start at quarterback this fall after completing 35-of-70 passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in five games, including two starts, in his debut season. He is joined by a three-headed rushing attack featuring junior All-SEC contender Boom Williams, senior Jojo Kemp and sophomore Mikel Horton. Tight end C.J. Conrad figures to take on a larger role after earning SEC All-Freshman honors in 2015.

Senior center Jon Toth anchors an offensive line that returns four of five starters but needs to improve in obvious passing situations after ranking 85th nationally in sacks allowed (30) last season.

Previewing Kentucky’s Defense

Kentucky’s defense boasts little of the returning experience the offense will lean on this fall.

The Wildcats return just one full-time starter in the front seven, and the returning defensive linemen and linebackers accounted for just 2.5 sacks last season. Following the offseason dismissal of senior outside linebacker Jason Hatcher, sophomores Denzil Ware and Josh Allen will need to take on much of the pass-rushing burden.

A pair of FBS transfers — middle linebacker Courtney Love from Nebraska and outside linebacker De’Niro Laster from Minnesota — could be key in replacing some of the lost production from 2015. Love has been hailed as the defense’s new leader and will be particularly important in leading the way for an inside linebacker group that has almost no returning experience. But Love totaled just six tackles in 12 games as a redshirt freshman at Nebraska in 2014.

The strength of the defense is the secondary, where the Wildcats return almost the entire two-deep, led by SEC All-Freshman corner Chris Westry. Seniors Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and J.D. Harmon should add a veteran presence to support what could be four sophomore starters.

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists

Kicking was a significant problem for Kentucky in 2015, with former All-SEC place kicker Austin MacGinnis battling a nagging groin injury and senior punter Landon Foster posting the worst season of his career. Foster, who was otherwise steady in four years as the No. 1 punter, graduated, but MacGinnis returns and reported being back to 100 percent this spring. Freshman punter Grant McKinniss, who was rated as a four-star recruit by Scout, will need to make an immediate impact. UK’s return game has added little excitement in the Stoops era, but Sihiem King showed potential on kickoffs.

Final Analysis

Gran’s Cincinnati offense posted video-game numbers, ranking sixth nationally in passing yards (359.9) and total yards (537.8) per game. Kentucky may need its offense to find similar success to make up for massive turnover on defense. After back-to-back 5–7 seasons that featured second-half collapses, the Wildcats have all eyes set on reaching their first bowl game since 2010. The schedule is never easy in the SEC, but home games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State combined with the returning talent on offense offer hope Stoops can reach his first bowl game this fall.


#57 Vanderbilt Commodores





HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, 7-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Derek Mason

Progress was noticeable for the Commodores under coach Derek Mason last season. And with 12 starters back, Vanderbilt could build on last year's record and have a shot at a bowl game in 2016. Star running back Ralph Webb will carry the load offensively and expect him to push for all-conference honors. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is one of the nation's best at his position and anchors a defense that will be among the best in the SEC.

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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense

Kyle Shurmur started five of the last six games at quarterback as a true freshman and showed enough promise to earn the unofficial title of presumptive 2016 starter. Shurmur, however, will receive a challenge from junior Wade Freebeck, a four-game starter as a true freshman in 2014 who slipped down the QB food chain last fall and played in only one game. He’s back in the mix after a strong spring.

Ralph Webb has been a consistent producer on an inconsistent offense. He followed a 907-yard freshman season with 1,152 yards as a sophomore — the second-highest single-season total in school history.

As recently as 2013, Vanderbilt’s starting lineup featured two future NFL wide receivers — Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. The last two years, however, have seen a huge struggle at the position. There is hope for significant improvement in 2016 as the Commodores welcome back three key players who missed most or all of last season with injuries — wide receiver C.J. Duncan (441 yards receiving in 2014) and tight ends DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney.

The Commodores’ offensive line was hit hard by a rash of injuries last fall — none more damaging than the torn ACL that sidelined Andrew Jelks, a two-year starter at left tackle. Jelks could return to tackle or take over at center, where the Dores must replace the dependable Spencer Pulley. Vanderbilt welcomes back five other linemen who started at least two games in 2015. The coaches believe sophomore tackle Justin Skule has All-SEC potential.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense

Whether it was due to Derek Mason taking on a larger role or simply being in the second season in the new 3–4 alignment, Vanderbilt’s defense showed drastic improvement in 2015. Mason tweaked his defense in the spring and introduced the Star, a hybrid defensive back/linebacker that will allow the Commodores to handle spread offenses out of their base defense. The position is tailor-made for junior Oren Burks, a two-year starter at free safety.

Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham was perhaps the most surprising player in the SEC last season, emerging as a first-team all-conference pick despite not starting until Week 3. A gifted athlete, the 6'4", 230-pound Cunningham led the team with 103 tackles and made countless big plays in short-yardage situations.

Mason says he likes to have at least five cornerbacks ready to play. Good thing the Commodores have quality depth at the position. Torren McGaster, a physical 6'1", 200-pound senior, headlines the group.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists

Vanderbilt struggled on special teams last season — not something you want to see out of a team with a talent deficit. Mason responded by firing special teams coach Charles Bankins (who also coached running backs) and hiring Jeff Genyk, a former head coach at Eastern Michigan and assistant at Wisconsin and Northwestern (among other schools).

Final Analysis

Progress. That’s all Vanderbilt fans were looking for in 2015 after a disappointing — and that is putting kindly — first season under Mason. Mission (mostly) accomplished. Vanderbilt improved its record from 3–9 overall and 0–8 in the SEC to 4–8 and 2–6. In 2014, the Commodores were outscored by an average of 22.6 points per game in SEC play; last fall, that number dropped to 9.7 per game.

To take the next step — return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013 — Vanderbilt will need to improve significantly on offense. Despite the aforementioned “progress,” the Commodores still struggled to move the ball with any consistency. They ranked 117th in the nation in total offense (326.5 ypg), 124th in scoring offense (15.2 ppg) and topped 400 yards in only one SEC game (411 vs. Tennessee).


#62 Missouri Tigers





HEAD COACH: Barry Odom, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Heupel | DEF. COORDINATOR: DeMontie Cross, Ryan Walters

Previewing Missouri’s Offense for 2016: 

With almost no support — the run game was mostly dreadful, and the receivers were mostly sophomores — quarterback Drew Lock’s freshman season was a struggle. He completed just 49 percent of his passes and went 2–6 as a starter. He enters his sophomore season with new coaching (offensive coordinator Josh Heupel takes over) and a much more experienced receiving corps at his disposal. His throwing motion is still museum-worthy, and there’s still time for him to develop into the star he was supposed to become, but last year proved how far he might still have to go.

Mizzou will have quantity and experience at receiver in 2016 — whether it will have quality remains to be seen. Freshmen and sophomores ended up accounting for 121 of the Tigers’ 186 receptions last season, but there are no excuses in 2016. Juniors J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown will be joined by Alabama graduate transfer and former blue-chipper Chris Black. Lock needs a security blanket, and in the spring, Black filled that role nicely. Tight end Sean Culkin might, too.
With Russell Hansbrough injuring his ankle on his first carry of the season, Ish Witter ended up leading the team in both carries and yards. Witter struggled, but he showed flashes of late-season development. He’ll be pushed by sophomore Trevon Walters and newcomer Damarea Crockett. Additionally, Missouri added Oklahoma graduate transfer Alex Ross at the end of spring ball, giving Heupel another option at this position. 
Injuries and depth issues doomed Missouri’s offensive line in 2015, and it remains the single biggest issue — not only was the line poor, but it was also full of seniors. Juniors Nate Crawford and Alec Abeln both have starting experience, and junior college tackle Tyler Howell is both enormous and well-regarded. But any injuries could be devastating.

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Previewing Missouri’s Defense for 2016:  

Missouri’s offensive issues were underscored by the simple fact that the defense was playing so incredibly well but couldn’t even get a little bit of help. And once again, the catalyst for the Tigers’ defensive success came up front. New line coach Jackie Shipp inherits an incredible set of weapons, including ends Charles Harris and Walter Brady, and tackles Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley and Terry Beckner Jr., a sophomore blue-chipper. The depth is impressive enough that Missouri can afford to work 2014 star Harold Brantley slowly back into the fold; Brantley was severely injured in a car accident last summer and redshirted.

New linebackers coach (and co-defensive coordinator) Demontie Cross inherits a pretty stocked cupboard as well, with seniors Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom back. The calling card of a Barry Odom defense is versatility, and he and Cross should have fun mixing between 3-4 and 4-3 personnel. They have a lot of options in their front seven.

Cornerback Aarion Penton and safety Anthony Sherrils were stalwarts last fall, combining for 8.5 tackles for a loss, 14 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Battles for the other two starting spots will continue in fall camp.

Previewing Missouri’s Specialists for 2016: 

Punter Corey Fatony was outstanding as a freshman, averaging 42.9 yards per kick last year. But while Fatony should be a starter for three more years, the Tigers must replace longtime placekicker Andrew Baggett. Meanwhile, the return game was one of the country’s worst.

Final Analysis

Mizzou’s 2015 campaign was frustrating and memorable. The offense bottomed out, the team announced a brief boycott, and 15-year head coach Gary Pinkel retired to fight lymphoma. With Odom taking over for Pinkel, Mizzou is hoping for a quieter, more successful 2016. The defense should again be stout, but nothing else matters until the offense rebounds. And that will likely depend on an offensive line patched together with string and duct tape.


#63 South Carolina Gamecocks





HEAD COACH: Will Muschamp, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryan McClendon, Kurt Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travaris Robinson

Previewing South Carolina’s Offense in 2016

South Carolina finished 11th in the SEC last year and lost its best offensive player when wide receiver Pharoh Cooper gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL. Replacing Cooper and finding more perimeter playmakers are vital for the Gamecocks, but the first priority for first-year head coach Will Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is finding a quarterback.

There won’t be a more interesting quarterback competition this fall than South Carolina’s. The Gamecocks listed all five scholarship quarterbacks as co-starters entering the spring, but incumbent starter Perry Orth (collarbone) and sophomore Lorenzo Nunez (knee) were unable to complete spring practice due to injuries, allowing early enrollee freshman Brandon McIlwain to emerge. McIlwain ended spring as the top available QB ahead of Connor Mitch (transferred after spring practice) and Michael Scarnecchia.

However, the competition got more crowded unexpectedly when four-star prep quarterback Jake Bentley, the son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley, verbally committed to the Gamecocks for the class of 2017 and then revealed he could graduate from high school early and enroll in college this summer. That means Bentley will be able to compete for the starting job this fall.

Junior tailback David Williams finally has emerged as the team’s starter, and Muschamp believes he could be an above-average SEC tailback. Sophomore Deebo Samuel, who is explosive but was limited by a hamstring injury last year, is the only proven playmaker at wide receiver. To compensate for the lack of depth at the position, South Carolina will look to tight ends Hayden Hurst and Kevin Crosby.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing South Carolina’s Defense in 2016

Linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler each of the last three seasons, was slated to be one of the SEC's top defenders in 2016. However, Moore was ruled out for the 2016 season due to offseason neck surgery. Moore's injury is a huge loss for a team that finished last in total defense in the SEC a year ago. 

The defensive line’s issues are well chronicled (99th in the nation in sacks with 20 and 102nd in tackles for a loss with 64 last year). The Buck position (a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot) is a staple of Muschamp’s new defense and should help get pressure on the quarterback, particularly if sophomore Boosie Whitlow can have a breakout season. The biggest concern on defense is the secondary, where sophomore cornerback Rashad Fenton is the only player who has drawn consistent praise from the coaching staff.

Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists in 2016

There’s little drama here for South Carolina. Senior Elliott Fry, a former walk-on, will handle field goals and extra points for the fourth consecutive year. Senior Sean Kelly will be the punter, and senior Drew Williams will be the long-snapper, giving the Gamecocks one of the most experienced trios in the nation. The only question is who will return kickoffs and punts. Samuel is a very valuable offensive weapon and could take punts just to give South Carolina another chance to get the ball in his hands. 

Final Analysis 

Muschamp has reminded folks plenty of times that he’s taking over a 3–9 football team. He’s even gone so far as to refer to himself as a 3–9 football coach. It illustrates the rebuilding project that is ahead of this group. The unprecedented heights of the Steve Spurrier Era (three straight 11-win seasons) are a distant memory, and the Gamecocks have to remake the roster, among other things. This is a team that very well could be starting a true freshman quarterback, has very little proven talent at wide receiver, an unproven defensive line and a shaky secondary. A 6–6 season would mark substantial progress, and anything between 4–8 and 7–5 is where realistic fans should set their goals.


#41 Miss. St. Bulldogs





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
Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, 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.

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