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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Florida State Seminoles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jimbo Fisher, 68-14 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jimbo Fisher | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charles Kelly

After finishing 10-3 in a rebuilding season, Florida State is loaded for another run at a national championship in 2016. The biggest question mark for coach Jimbo Fisher is at the quarterback position, but the Seminoles aren’t hurting for talent. Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry will push Sean Maguire for the starting job, with Francois expected to start. Helping Francois ease into the starting role is a talented supporting cast, headlined by Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook at running back. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey will be missed, but Florida State’s defense could be better than the 2015 version that limited opponents to 17.5 points a game. Another huge advantage for Florida State? Clemson has to visit Tallahassee this season.

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Previewing Florida State’s Offense 
 

During a remarkable sophomore campaign, tailback Dalvin Cook established new FSU records for rushing yards (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935) in a season. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry and 140.9 yards per game. What made Cook’s performance even more impressive were the circumstances. Not only did he play through hamstring and ankle injuries that caused him to miss one game and parts of others, but he also was running behind an inconsistent and injury-plagued offensive line. FSU’s inability to establish a vertical passing game also allowed opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage.

The offensive line should be much improved with seven players returning with starting experience, including All-America candidate Roderick Johnson at left tackle, and the wide receiver group is deep and talented. The biggest question mark is at quarterback, where senior Sean Maguire returns but will be pushed by a pair of talented underclassmen — redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry — who were very impressive in spring drills.

Previewing Florida State’s Defense 
 

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

After recording career highs with 58 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks, DeMarcus Walker flirted with a jump to the NFL before returning for his senior year. That decision gives the Seminoles an elite pair of defensive ends, with Walker on one side and sophomore Josh Sweat, a former five-star recruit, on the other.

FSU must replace All-America cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the Seminoles have recruited so well in the secondary that it shouldn’t be much of a concern. Senior Marquez White returns at one corner, and much-hyped sophomores Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis are battling it out for the other. The rest of the secondary is filled with experienced players, including senior Nate Andrews, junior Trey Marshall and super sophomore Derwin James.

If there is one area of concern on a defense that ranked No. 9 nationally in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) last season, it’s at linebacker, where FSU lost seniors Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith. Projected starters Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins are talented, but Thomas has yet to play a full season of college football. He was suspended for half of the 2014 season and was ineligible for all of 2015.

Previewing Florida State’s Specialists
 

The Seminoles have major holes to fill here as All-America placekicker Roberto Aguayo bolted early for the NFL and four-year starting punter Cason Beatty graduated. Aguayo’s younger brother, Ricky, enrolled in January and should take over field goals and kickoffs. Fellow freshman Logan Tyler is expected to win the punting job.

Final Analysis 
 

To understand just how much talent Jimbo Fisher has ushered into Florida State’s locker room during the first six years of his tenure, one needs only consider this simple fact: The Seminoles are coming off of a rebuilding year that saw them go 10–3 and earn a coveted spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Did we mention that it was a rebuilding year?

Despite losing No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jameis Winston at quarterback and another dozen starters, the Seminoles reached double-digit wins for the fifth time in six years and once again swept rivals Florida and Miami. Now, FSU appears to have the experience to go with that talent. Florida State returns nine starters on offense and six on defense. They even bring back several key reserves who have started games in the past.

The schedule won’t necessarily be easy, but the always-crucial ACC Atlantic Division battle against Clemson will be played in Tallahassee. The winner of that game has advanced to the College Football Playoff in both of its first two years of existence.

The Debate

Is Dalvin Cook the best running back in the nation?

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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 
 

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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

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

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 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 Big Ten College Football Preview, 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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#4 Clemson Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#4

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#2

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 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 ACC College Football Preview, 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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Ranking the Big 12's College Football Coaches for 2016

Oklahoma's Bob Stoops ranks No. 1.
Ranking the Big 12's College Football Coaches for 2016

Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.

 

Ranking the Pac-12's College Football Coaches for 2016

Washington's Chris Petersen ranks among the Pac-12's best coaches.
Ranking the Pac-12's College Football Coaches for 2016

Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.

 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Michigan Wolverines

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#2

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 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 Big Ten College Football Preview, 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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#6 Oklahoma Sooners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#6

Big 12 PREDICTION

#1

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 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 Big 12 College Football Preview, 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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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 
 

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.

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

#8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

Independents PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 55-23 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Sanford | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian VanGorder

The Fighting Irish return only eight starters, but coach Brian Kelly’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a playoff contender. Two talented quarterbacks – DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire – will battle for the starting job, and Tarean Folston returns at running back after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. Finding a No. 1 receiver to replace Will Fuller and restocking the line are the biggest concerns on offense. The defense suffered key losses at each level, but tackle Jarron Jones is back after missing 2015 due to injury. Despite the personnel turnover and concerns on both sides of the ball, a favorable schedule should allow Notre Dame the opportunity to push for 10 wins in 2016.

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Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense 
 

Brian Kelly’s most productive Notre Dame offenses have come in the last two seasons — averaging 33.5 points over the last 26 games — and the Irish should boast another explosive unit in ’16. It will help if Kelly can piece together a quality offensive line and turn a talented but unproven receiving corps into one as productive as when Will Fuller was slicing through opposing secondaries with ease.

The challenge at quarterback is to maximize two capable starters — DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire — with one football. Kizer led the Irish to nine of 10 victories and a Fiesta Bowl berth after starter Zaire was sidelined from the second game on with a broken ankle.

The running game should be in good hands with veteran Tarean Folston and Josh Adams; the latter set Notre Dame single-season rookie marks with 835 yards rushing and a 7.1-yard average.

Torii Hunter Jr., son of the baseball standout, is the top pass-receiving threat. A pack of youngsters, led by Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin, give the Irish great length at wideout. The top NFL prospect on the offensive side of the ball may be sophomore receiver Alizé Jones, although guard Quenton Nelson deserves to be in the discussion.

Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense 
 

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It’s difficult to imagine the defensive improving in the third year of coordinator Brian VanGorder’s reign with the loss of linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, tackle Sheldon Day, end Romeo Okwara, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and strong safety Elijah Shumate.

The strength of this unit, though, is up front. Veteran end Isaac Rochell is the anchor with promising pass rusher Andrew Trumbetti, experienced nose tackle Jarron Jones, and highly touted tackle Jerry Tillery. Where the Irish have improved significantly under Kelly is in developing defensive line depth, although how the talent stacks up among the nation’s elite remains to be seen. The Irish were great on third down last year but horrific in the red zone.

The back seven boasts little experience beyond cornerback Cole Luke, who had a better sophomore than junior season. James Onwualu replaces Joe Schmidt as the brains of the operation at Sam linebacker, albeit on the outside rather than inside. Highly regarded Nyles Morgan’s opportunity finally has arrived at Mike linebacker. The defense’s versatility hinges partly on the health of cornerback Shaun Crawford, a potential stalwart who missed the entire ’15 season with a torn ACL. Drue Tranquill, now with two ACL tears on his résumé, is a key contributor as a box safety.

Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists 
 

Few teams in the country boast a better one-two punch at kicker-punter than Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome. Yoon converted 15-of-17 field goals as a true freshman while Newsome, also with three years of eligibility remaining, averaged 44.5 yards per punt as a redshirt freshman.

Final Analysis
 

Now in his seventh season — making him the longest-tenured Irish head coach since Lou Holtz (1986-96) — Kelly is signed through the 2021 season. The program is on very solid footing. The overall depth is improved, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s ability to win 10 games despite an onslaught of frontline injuries in ’15. It remains to be seen, however, if the Irish can develop into a consistent New Year’s Six/College Football Playoff program. The key is on the defensive side of the football now that Kelly seems to have found his groove with the offense. Unless the Irish make significant strides on defense, Notre Dame will hover around the fringe of the nation’s elite with an occasional burst into the lead pack. On the surface, the schedule looks forgiving enough for the Irish to achieve another double-digit victory season, but only if the defense shows significant improvement.

The Debate

Will Notre Dame make the College Football Playoff in 2016?

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