Kickoff for the 2016 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about rankings, predictions and previews for the upcoming year. For most college football fans, one of the annual traditions each summer is the trip to the newsstand to pick up a preview magazine. The good news? The wait is almost over. The 2016 Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazines officially hit the newsstands on May 24, but all five regional and the national editions are available for order in our online store.
But that’s not the only bit of good news for college football fans. After studying depth charts, recruiting classes, schedules, stats and coaching hires or assistant movement, Athlon Sports will release its previews and rankings for the projected top 25 teams for 2016 on Monday.
Predictions for any conference and all 128 teams are an inexact science. And some teams are just a bigger mystery or a hard program to get a read on for the upcoming year. Which teams are the biggest wild cards and the toughest to rank for 2016? Here are 15 candidates:
15 Biggest Wild Card College Football Teams in 2016
Just how far has Baylor progressed under coach Art Briles? The Bears suffered massive losses in the trenches, as the offensive and defensive lines each have to replace four starters from last year. Despite the personnel turnover up front, Baylor has all of the pieces in place to be a top 10 team in 2016. Quarterback Seth Russell returns after missing the second half of 2015 with a neck injury, while the Bears are loaded with talent at the skill positions. How quickly can Briles find the right answers on the line of scrimmage?
The Gators were one of the SEC’s biggest surprises last season. In coach Jim McElwain’s first year, Florida overcame a midseason suspension to starting quarterback Will Grier to claim the East Division title and earn a 10-4 final record. While the Gators won the East, the offense struggled mightily without Grier under center. Florida failed to score more than 24 points in a game over the team’s final six contests and finished the year by averaging only 5.11 yards per play. The offense is once again a concern, as Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is expected to start at quarterback, and McElwain still has work to do on the offensive line. Even though cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, safety Keanu Neal, end Jonathan Bullard and linebacker Antonio Morrison will be missed, there’s a strong foundation in place on defense to prevent a drop in production. Florida’s place in the SEC East will be determined by how fast its offense develops.
Only two teams – Ohio State and Alabama – have recruited at a higher level than Florida State over the last five seasons. With a roster stocked with talent and 15 returning starters from last year’s 10-win team, the Seminoles are poised to rebound back into national title contention. Quarterback play is coach Jimbo Fisher’s biggest concern, but redshirt freshman Deondre Francois was one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and should be an upgrade over last year’s starters. And Francois’ transition to the starting role can be eased by the return of dynamic running back Dalvin Cook, a talented group of receivers and a defense that should be the best in the ACC. There’s no question Florida State has the talent to win it all in 2016. However, how quickly will Francois settle into the starting role? There’s also the schedule to contend with. The Seminoles play Ole Miss and Florida in non-conference play, travel to Louisville and Miami in ACC action and host Clemson on Oct. 29 in a game that should decide the winner of the Atlantic Division.
A new era begins at Georgia this fall, as Kirby Smart replaces Mark Richt after his 15-year tenure ended in November. Smart, a former Georgia defensive back, is no stranger to life in the SEC and has plenty of pressure to win right away. The Bulldogs recruited well under Richt’s watch, but Smart inherits a roster with question marks under center, on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. True freshman Jacob Eason is a future star at quarterback, and it’s only a matter of time before he replaces Greyson Lambert under center. The other big question mark surrounding the offense surrounds the health of running back Nick Chubb after a serious knee injury in 2015. Chubb is expected to play in 2016, but how quickly will he return to his pre-injury form? If Eason quickly lives up to the hype, Chubb returns to 100 percent and the defense finds the right answers in the front seven, could Georgia challenge Tennessee for the SEC East title?
On paper, LSU has the roster talent and returning personnel to win it all in 2016. However, a familiar theme surrounds the Tigers once again this offseason. The defense and rushing attack are strong, but LSU won’t push Alabama in the SEC West or contend for a playoff spot without improvement from its passing attack. In his first full year as the starter, Brandon Harris threw for 2,158 yards and 13 scores. However, he completed only 53.6 percent of his passes and ranked near the bottom of the SEC in yards per attempt (conference-only games – 6.8). With running back Leonard Fournette returning, and a defense that should rank among the nation’s best behind new coordinator Dave Aranda, LSU won’t need Harris to be drastically better to win the SEC.
According to recruiting rankings, Miami has the ACC’s No. 3 roster over the last five seasons. However, the Hurricanes are just 21-19 in conference play in that span and are still looking for their first trip to the ACC title game. Are Miami’s fortunes about to change? The program took a step forward this offseason by hiring Mark Richt to replace Al Golden. Richt plans on calling the plays on offense and is tasked with helping quarterback Brad Kaaya elevate his game to the next level. The Hurricanes should be among the ACC’s best on offense, but question marks remain on defense. This unit surrendered 6.01 yards per play in league games and needs to retool in the back seven. This unit must get tougher against the run after giving up 200.6 rushing yards per game last year. Miami has the talent to win the Coastal in 2016. What type of impact will Richt have on this team?
The Cornhuskers had their share of bad luck in Mike Riley’s first season. Nebraska finished 2015 with a minus-12 turnover margin, which fueled the program’s six losses by eight points or less. After watching the bounces and good fortune go against the Cornhuskers last year, Riley’s team could see a quick turnaround by just eliminating some of the turnovers. There’s also a lot to like on offense, as quarterback Tommy Armstrong leads an attack that averaged 32.8 points a game in 2015 and returns one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. However, the Cornhuskers have to rebuild the offensive line and suffered huge losses on the defensive front, including standout tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine leaving early for the NFL. Road trips to Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are challenging, but better luck in close games could result in Nebraska improving to 8-4 or even 9-3 in 2016.
The Fighting Irish were just a few plays away from a trip to the College Football Playoff last season. While this team has a few significant personnel concerns to address and may not be as talented as the 2015 version, the schedule is manageable enough for Brian Kelly’s team to push for at least 10 wins. The quarterback battle between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer will draw most of the offseason headlines, but the bigger question marks for Kelly on offense rest on the line and in the receiving corps. The defense surrendered 5.6 yards per play last season and must replace standouts Jaylon Smith (LB), Joe Schmidt (LB), Sheldon Day (DL) and KeiVarae Russell (CB). Can the talents of Kizer and Zaire overcome the concerns on defense?
Ohio State’s six returning starters are the fewest among Power 5 teams for 2016. Returning starters isn’t necessarily the best gauge of success for any team, but it’s no secret the Buckeyes were hit hard by early departures to the NFL. However, replacing elite talent is nothing new for coach Urban Meyer. Ohio State has averaged a 4.2 finish nationally in the last five recruiting classes, so the drop off should be minimal. Additionally, there’s no quarterback controversy in Columbus this offseason, and quarterback J.T. Barrett should benefit from a full year to work as the starter. With emerging stars like Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard on the defensive line, along with standout linebacker Raekwon McMillan, new co-coordinator Greg Schiano should have no trouble keeping this defense at the top of the Big Ten. Overcoming the personnel losses is one thing, but Ohio State still has to contend with a schedule that features road trips to Michigan State and Oklahoma.
Let’s group all three Pac-12 North teams into one section. Stanford will be picked by most as the preseason favorite in this division, but the Cardinal have some big question marks outside of running back Christian McCaffrey. Is Keller Chryst ready to step up at quarterback? And how quickly will the offensive and defensive lines develop? Washington is poised for a breakthrough year under coach Chris Petersen. However, is it one year too early for the Huskies? Oregon’s streak of consecutive double-digit win seasons was snapped at seven last year. The Ducks aren’t hurting for skill talent, but Mark Helfrich’s team needs to make significant improvement on defense, and there’s uncertainty under center with FCS transfer Dakota Prukop holding an edge over redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen.
Oklahoma is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 once again in 2016, with Baylor and Oklahoma State and TCU in the second tier. Out of that trio in the second tier, the Horned Frogs seem to have the most potential to surprise in 2016. After injuries and personnel departures hindered the defense early in 2015, this unit played better in the second half of the season and returns four key players from injury. TCU’s defense could be the best in the Big 12, which is critical with an offense returning only one starter and replacing quarterback Trevone Boykin. New quarterback (and Texas A&M transfer) Kenny Hill could hold the keys to the season. If Hill provides stability under center, the Horned Frogs could easily exceed their preseason projections.
The pressure is building on Charlie Strong after a 5-7 record last season, but some of the pieces are starting to fall into place for the third-year coach. New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert provides much-needed direction on offense, and true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele delivered a promising performance in the spring game. It’s no secret improving the offense is a must after Texas has ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in back-to-back seasons. But until Buechele is settled under center, Gilbert can build an offense around talented running backs Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman. Strong’s specialty is defense, and there’s room to improve after giving up 5.63 yards per play in 2015. While the line is thin on numbers, the back seven is headlined by a handful of promising sophomores, including linebacker Malik Jefferson and cornerbacks Holton Hill and Davante Davis. Texas isn’t ready to challenge for the Big 12 title, but there are signs this program is moving back in the right direction. How much improvement can the Longhorns make in 2016?
The Trojans have the best roster in the Pac-12, return a rising star at running back in Ronald Jones and the nation’s best receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster, while cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is one of college football’s best all-purpose players. So why is there doubt about USC in 2016? This is the program’s first full season under Clay Helton’s watch, and new offensive coordinator Tee Martin has never called plays for a full year. The Trojans also have to develop an answer at quarterback – expected to be talented junior Max Browne – and retool a defensive line that was hit hard by departures. As if the question marks at quarterback and on the defensive line weren’t enough to add doubt to this team’s potential, the schedule is arguably the toughest in the nation.