A pre-spring ranking of every FBS team for 2016.
The 2016 college football season officially begins on Aug. 27 with California taking on Hawaii in Australia. While kickoff for 2016 is a ways off, it’s never too early to start thinking about rankings, predictions and a preview for the upcoming year. With spring practice underway, teams are starting to put the pieces in place for 2016 and answer some of the question marks surrounding the depth chart.
Athlon Sports is examining all 128 teams for 2016 with a look at the reasons for hope and concern. These rankings will change a lot over the next few months and are a starting point as the evaluation and ranking process for the 2016 Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazine officially begins this spring.
College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Team Rankings for 2016
Reason for Hope: The 49ers enter their second year at the FBS level with a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball. Running back Kalif Phillips and defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi are two of the best in Conference USA at their respective positions.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Charlotte played three quarterbacks last year, and this trio combined to complete just 52.3 percent of their passes and 23 interceptions.
Reason for Hope: ULM is a tough job, but new coach Matt Viator looks like the right fit to get this program on the right path. Garrett Smith returns at quarterback after showing promise (19 overall TDs) as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line gave up 38 sacks last season and struggled to open up lanes for the running backs (3.2 ypc). The front seven on defense must be revamped and loses standouts Gerrand Johnson (NT) and linebacker Hunter Kissinger.
126. Kent State
Reason for Hope: The Golden Flashes were a young team last year and lost three games by a touchdown or less. Antwan Dixon (13.7 ypc) is a promising receiver to watch, and the defense only gave up 4.86 yards per play in 2015.
Reason for Concern: Colin Reardon and George Bollas combined for just nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last year. The Golden Flashes have to get more out of their offense.
Reason for Hope: Sophomore Ross Comis looks like a capable replacement for Blake Frohnapfel at quarterback. Running back Marquis Young is another player for coach Mark Whipple to build around after rushing for 960 yards in 2015.
Reason for Concern: Life as an FBS Independent won’t be easy for the Minutemen. Standout receiver Tajae Sharpe expired his eligibility.
124. Eastern Michigan
Reason for Hope: The Eagles were more competitive in coach Chris Creighton’s second season and regain the services of defensive lineman Pat O’Connor (All-MAC player in 2014) after he missed 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Eastern Michigan is a tough job, so progress won’t be easy to come by in 2016. The defense returns largely intact but surrendered 42.1 points a game last year.
Reason for Hope: A fresh start under new coach Frank Wilson. Jarveon Williams (1,042 yards in 2015) is one of the top running backs in Conference USA.
Reason for Concern: There’s always optimism under a new coach. How long will it take the Roadrunners to adjust to new schemes on both sides of the ball? Is quarterback Dalton Sturm ready to take the next step?
122. North Texas
Reason for Hope: Seth Littrell was an outstanding hire, and Alabama transfer Alec Morris could be the answer at quarterback. Running back Jeffery Wilson (830 yards in 2015) is primed for a breakout year.
Reason for Concern: There’s plenty of room to improve on defense after giving up 6.67 yards per play and 41.3 points a game last year. How long will it take to transition to the new schemes?
Reason for Hope: The Green Wave landed one of the 2015-16 coaching carousel’s best hires in Willie Fritz. Seven starters are back on defense, including tackle Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley.
Reason for Concern: The transition to Fritz’s scheme on offense is going to take some time. The Green Wave lacks a clear answer at quarterback and three starters on the line must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: New coach Nick Rolovich is the right hire to get this program back on track. Running back Paul Harris (1,132 yards in 2015) should contend for All-Mountain West honors behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Defensive lineman Kennedy Tuliamasealii anchors the defense after recording 18.5 tackles for a loss last year.
Reason for Concern: The Rainbow Warriors have uncertainty at quarterback, and the defense needs to take a step forward after giving up 35.6 points a game last fall.
119. Texas State
Reason for Hope: After a successful two-year stint at James Madison, Everett Withers should be a good fit at Texas State. Quarterback Tyler Jones finished third in the Sun Belt in total offense last season.
Reason for Concern: Last season’s leading rusher (Robert Lowe) and the top four statistical receivers must be replaced. Can Withers improve a defense that surrendered 39.2 points a game in 2015?
118. Ball State
Reason for Hope: A fresh start for the program under the direction of former Ball State quarterback and NFL assistant Mike Neu. Quarterback Riley Neal showed promise as a freshman last season.
Reason for Concern: Last year’s three wins were the fewest since a 4-8 campaign in 2010. Also, Neu has a lot to prove, as he’s never been a head coach or coordinator on the collegiate level. Top receiver Jordan Williams and standout center Jacob Richard expired their eligibility.
117. Miami (Ohio)
Reason for Hope: Coach Chuck Martin went with a youth movement last season, and most of the depth chart returns intact for 2016. The RedHawks also won two out of their last three games.
Reason for Concern: Is Martin’s team a year away from contending for a bowl game? This team needs a quarterback to emerge and must be more productive on the ground after averaging just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015.
Reason for Hope: Last season’s four wins were the most for the Vandals since a 6-7 mark in 2010. Quarterback Matt Linehan also showed promising signs in 2015.
Reason for Concern: The defense surrendered 42.1 points a game last season and loses standout end Quinton Bradley (five sacks).
115. New Mexico State
Reason for Hope: Running back Larry Rose III returns after leading the Sun Belt by averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game last year. A healthy Tyler Rogers and the addition of Tyler Matthews provides coach Doug Martin with options at quarterback.
Reason for Concern: New coordinator Frank Spaziani provides reason for optimism on defense, but this unit has a ways to go after giving up 6.79 yards per play in 2015.
114. South Alabama
Reason for Hope: Tight end Gerald Everett, receiver Josh Magee and running back Xavier Johnson provide a solid foundation for the new starting quarterback. End Jimmie Gipson III returns to the lineup after missing 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: The Jaguars enter spring practice with uncertainty at quarterback. Additionally, the defense needs to find ways to generate more pressure on opposing passers after recording only 11 sacks in 2015.
Reason for Hope: Brian Hill is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks and led all Mountain West rushers by averaging 135.9 yards per game in 2015. The Cowboys were a young team last season and should benefit from another year working under coach Craig Bohl and his staff.
Reason for Concern: Bohl might need another recruiting class to get the depth and talent level where he needs to get this program back to the postseason. End Eddie Yarbrough won’t be easy to replace. The Cowboys also have a question mark at quarterback.
112. UL Lafayette
Reason for Hope: Prior to last season’s 4-8 mark, the Ragin’ Cajuns won nine games in each of coach Mark Hudspeth’s first four years with the program. Running back Elijah McGuire is one of the top playmakers in the Sun Belt.
Reason for Concern: Can Hudspeth and his staff find the right answer at quarterback? The Ragin’ Cajuns also have some work to do in the front seven on defense, while the secondary has to tighten its coverage after giving up 28 passing scores in 2015.
Reason for Hope: It can’t get any worse than last year, right? The Jayhawks have a few promising young players in the program, including quarterback Ryan Willis and defensive linemen Dorance Armstrong and Daniel Wise. Safety Fish Smithson is one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs.
Reason for Concern: Second-year coach David Beaty needs more time to upgrade the program’s talent level and depth. Both sides of the ball need a lot of work this spring.
Reason for Hope: Consider 2015 as a minor blip on the radar for coach David Bailiff. Prior to last year, the Owls played in three consecutive bowl games. A solid stable of running backs is in place to carry the offense.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Who steps up to replace Driphus Jackson? Major improvement is needed on defense after giving up 7.1 yards per play in 2015.
Reason for Hope: Coach Lance Leipold is a proven winner and another year working with this roster should pay dividends. The Bulls have a breakout candidate at running back in Jordan Johnson (811 yards last season) and return two All-MAC performers on defense.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Joe Licata leaves big shoes to fill, and standout left tackle John Kling also expired his eligibility. The Bulls need to shore up their run defense after giving up 187.3 yards per game in conference action.
Reason for Hope: The Trojans showed improvement under first-year coach Neal Brown and won three out of their final six games. Brandon Silvers should be one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt.
Reason for Concern: Two All-Sun Belt performers depart on defense, and the offense loses running back Brandon Burks and the top three receivers from 2015.
107. Army West Point
Reason for Hope: The Black Knights only won two games last season but lost seven others by seven points or less. Coach Jeff Monken seems to have this program moving in the right direction. Quarterbacks Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter also showed promise and provide plenty of hope under center in 2016. Standout cornerback Josh Jenkins returns after missing all of 2015.
Reason for Concern: The pieces are coming together on offense, but Army West Point needs to generate more big plays. The turnover department – minus-11 in 2015 – also has to improve.
Reason for Hope: Coach Charlie Partridge is putting together a solid core of players, and the Owls lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2015. End Trey Hendrickson and lienbacker Azeez Al-Shaair are two names to remember.
Reason for Concern: Standout defensive tackles Trevon Coley and Brandin Bryant have expired their eligibility. Will Jason Driskel or Daniel Parr quickly emerge as the top quarterback this offseason?
Reason for Hope: The Rebels showed improvement in Tony Sanchez’s first year leading the program and 12 starters are back for 2016. Devonte Boyd is one of the nation’s most underrated receivers (904 yards, seven scores in 2015). Junior college recruit (previously at Nebraska) Johnny Stanton could be the answer at quarterback this spring.
Reason for Concern: Sanchez has UNLV trending in the right direction, but this program may be a year away from making a bowl. Are six returning starters on defense enough to improve a unit that surrendered 6.2 yards per play in 2015?
104. Fresno State
Reason for Hope: Coach Tim DeRuyter overhauled his staff after a disappointing 3-9 record in 2015. Receiver Jamire Jordan is back after catching 46 passes as a freshman last fall.
Reason for Concern: The Bulldogs need to find a starting quarterback, lose standout running back Marteze Waller, and the defense has plenty of holes to fill after giving up 38.1 points a game in 2015.
Reason for Hope: The Panthers have increased their win total in back-to-back years after a 1-11 debut under Ron Turner in 2013. Quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and receiver Thomas Owens are a good trio to build around on offense.
Reason for Concern: The defense regressed from 2014 to '15 and loses standouts Michael Wakefield (DE) and Richard Leonard (CB).
102. Georgia State
Reason for Hope: The Panthers turned a corner last November by winning four out of their last five games. After a rough transition to the FBS level, Georgia State has better depth and talent than any point under coach Trent Miles. Receiver Penny Hart is one of the Sun Belt’s top targets.
Reason for Concern: First-team All-Sun Belt quarterback Nick Arbuckle must be replaced. Last year’s leading tackler – linebacker Joseph Peterson – also expired his eligibility.
Reason for Hope: Chad Morris inherited a mess and is starting to put the pieces together for a turnaround. Quarterback Matt Davis is back, but there could be competition from redshirt freshman Ben Hicks. Receiver Courtland Sutton is back after catching 49 passes for 862 yards as a freshman last season.
Reason for Concern: The Mustangs might be a year away from making a big leap in the standings. The defense surrendered 45.7 points a game last season and returns only five starters.
100. Bowling Green
Reason for Hope: The Falcons have been the class of the MAC East in recent years, winning three consecutive division titles. Quarterback James Knapke has experience after starting 13 games in place of an injured Matt Johnson in 2014.
Reason for Concern: New coach Mike Jinks does not have any head coaching experience at the FBS level, and there are several key players to replace, including quarterback Matt Johnson, receivers Roger Lewis and Gehrig Dieter and running back Travis Greene.
99. Old Dominion
Reason for Hope: The Monarchs played better in the second half of 2015 and have two talented options to choose from at quarterback in Shuler Bentley and David Washington. Running back Ray Lawry earned second-team All-Conference USA honors last season after rushing for 1,136 yards.
Reason for Concern: Will the defense take a step forward? This unit returns largely intact after giving up 35.8 points a game in 2015.
Reason for Hope: Everything went wrong for the Knights last year. There’s too much talent in the program to finish 0-12 once again. New coach Scott Frost should infuse energy and jumpstart an offense that managed only 13.9 points a game last year.
Reason for Concern: Frost should help this team show marked improvement, but how high can this team climb with new schemes on both sides of the ball? The defense surrendered 199.2 rushing yards a game last season and loses three starters in the front seven. Will the Knights find a go-to running back after managing only 81.3 rushing yards per game last year?
Reason for Hope: Last season was a year of firsts for the Zips. Terry Bowden’s team won the most games in school history (eight) and claimed the program’s first bowl victory. Quarterback Thomas Woodson is back and is slated to be joined by Ohio State transfer Warren Ball at running back.
Reason for Concern: The Zips lose a handful of key contributors, including defensive tackles Rodney Coe and Cody Grice, linebacker Darryl Monroe and five key contributors from the offensive line.
96. San Jose State
Reason for Hope: After a two-year drought, San Jose State returned to the postseason in 2015 and defeated Georgia State to win the AutoNation Cure Bowl. Quarterback Kenny Potter headlines an offense that returns nine starters.
Reason for Concern: Cornerbacks Cleveland Wallace and Jimmy Pruitt leave big shoes to fill in the secondary. The Spartans need to generate a pass rush – only 17 sacks last year – and force more turnovers (just 12 in 2015). All-purpose threat and standout running back Tyler Ervin must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: A healthy Aaron Jones at running back should provide some punch to an offense that averaged only 20.7 points a game in 2015.
Reason for Concern: The Miners need to be better against the pass (26 TDs allowed in 2015) and must find a consistent answer at quarterback.
Reason for Hope: Quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones is a promising tandem to build around on offense. Nine starters return on defense, and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is back from injury.
Reason for Concern: Where should we start? The Boilermakers have won only two Big Ten games under coach Darrell Hazell. Two new coordinators are in place, and there’s a long ways to go on both sides of the ball. Cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams won’t be easy to replace.
93. Oregon State
Reason for Hope: Gary Andersen is the right coach to get Oregon State back on track. Year two of Andersen’s rebuilding project should show steps in the right direction. The receiving corps is a strength with the return of Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden. Three starters are back on the offensive line, and Gavin Andrews rejoins the lineup after missing 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: There’s a lot of work ahead for Andersen. The Beavers return only 10 starters, and both sides of the ball have glaring concerns. Is Utah State transfer Darell Garretson the answer at quarterback? Key defenders Rommel Mageo (LB), defensive lineman Kyle Peko and cornerback Larry Scott have expired their eligibility.
Reason for Hope: Ohio has been a model of consistency under coach Frank Solich. The Bobcats have not had a losing season since 2008 and have claimed bowl bids in five out of the last six years. Running back A.J. Ouellette is one of the building blocks on offense for Solich after recording 687 yards last season. Linebacker Quentin Poling is also one of the best in the MAC.
Reason for Concern: The Bobcats must break in a new quarterback, lose three key starters on the offensive line and must replace standout cornerback Ian Wells.
91. Central Michigan
Reason for Hope: Cooper Rush is one of the MAC’s best quarterbacks, and running back Devon Spalding is back after missing most of 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: The Chippewas lose three seniors up front, including two All-MAC performers. The defense has to find a way to generate more pressure on quarterbacks after only registering 14 sacks in 2015.
90. East Carolina
Reason for Hope: New coach Scottie Montgomery’s experience should help a Pirates’ offense that managed only 27.4 points a game in 2015. Montgomery inherits a few talented playmakers, and quarterback Kurt Benkert returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: This is Montgomery’s first chance to be a head coach, so there will be a learning curve for the former Duke assistant. The Pirates lose three starters on the offensive line and two all-conference linebackers expired their eligibility.
Reason for Hope: New coach Chris Ash has a good vision and plan to help Rutgers take a step forward after winning just four Big Ten games over the last two years. Josh Hicks and Robert Martin are a promising duo at running back, and Janarion Grant is an all-purpose weapon. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Is there a quarterback on the roster who can execute the new offense? Receiver Leonte Carroo will be missed. The defense surrendered 34.9 points a game last season and must replace all three starters at linebacker. The defense needs a lot of work.
88. Louisiana Tech
Reason for Hope: The Bulldogs have recorded back-to-back seasons of nine wins. Receiver Trent Taylor (99 catches in 2015) is a nice safety valve for the new starting quarterback. Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (six sacks) is primed for a bigger role after a strong freshman season.
Reason for Concern: Running back Kenneth Dixon and quarterback Jeff Driskel will be difficult to replace. Louisiana Tech also catches MTSU and WKU in crossover play with the East Division in 2016.
Reason for Hope: The Wolf Pack are a consistent winner, claiming 10 bowl trips over the last 11 years. Expect the offense to show improvement from last year’s totals (26.2 ppg) with nine returning starters – including running back James Butler and quarterback Tyler Stewart.
Reason for Concern: The front seven was decimated by losses. Standouts Ian Seau and Lenny Jones won’t be easy to replace.
86. New Mexico
Reason for Hope: The Lobos are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2007. The offense averaged 29.9 points a game last season and returns two proven quarterbacks – Lamar Jordan and Austin Apodaca – and running back Teriyon Gipson.
Reason for Concern: Three starters are gone from the offensive line. The pass defense has to improve after ranking 101st nationally in 2015.
85. Colorado State
Reason for Hope: Second-year coach Mike Bobo has the makings of a solid offense with the return of quarterback Nick Stevens, running back Dalyn Dawkins and four starters on the offensive line.
Reason for Concern: Standout receiver Rashard Higgins must be replaced, and the Rams lose key players at each level of the defense.
84. Utah State
Reason for Hope: The offense is primed for a big season. Quarterback Kent Myers, running back Devante Mays and four starters on the offensive line return for coach Matt Wells. The defense loses a handful of key players, but lineman Travis Seefeldt is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: Last year’s 6-7 record was the lowest win total for Utah State since 2010. New co-defensive coordinators Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver will be busy this spring. The defense returns only three starters from a unit that limited opponents to 4.85 yards last year.
Reason for Hope: The Golden Hurricane showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery. Quarterback Dane Evans is back and will be throwing to a talented group of receivers, including Keevan Lucas (2015 season cut short by injury).
Reason for Concern: Go-to receiver Keyarris Garrett (96 catches) will be missed. The defense needs to improve after giving up 39.8 points a game last season.
Reason for Hope: Memphis hit a home run with its hire of Mike Norvell to replace Justin Fuente. Even though the Tigers will miss quarterback Paxton Lynch, there’s a good group of skill players and linemen to build around in 2016.
Reason for Concern: Replacing quarterback Paxton Lynch won’t be easy, and there could be a few ups and downs as the team transitions to a new coaching staff. Will the return of eight starters be enough to improve a defense that gave up 27.3 points a game last year?
Reason for Hope: The coaching carousel and timing was a little awkward, but Lovie Smith is a good hire for Illinois. The Fighting Illini return quarterback Wes Lunt and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, while receiver Mike Dudek is back after missing all of 2015 due to a knee injury.
Reason for Concern: Both sides of the ball need improvement across the board. The defense is thin with just four returning starters. Smith is starting his first season at Illinois behind schedule. 2016 has all of the makings of a transition year.
Reason for Hope: The Huskies improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015. There’s reason to believe another step forward is in the works with 15 starters back. UConn should have one of the top defenses in the American Athletic Conference, and the secondary returns three standout performers, including lockdown corner Jamar Summers.
Reason for Concern: Offense. The Huskies need more from a unit that averaged only 17.2 points a game in 2015. Will quarterback Bryant Shirreffs take a step forward next fall?
79. Northern Illinois
Reason for Hope: The Huskies have dominated the MAC West by earning six consecutive division titles. Quarterback Drew Hare should be at full strength by the fall after a season-ending Achilles injury, and the offense returns running back Joel Bouagnon and receiver Kenny Golladay.
Reason for Concern: Four first-team All-MAC selections must be replaced, while safety Marlon Moore and cornerback Paris Logan also expired their eligibility. The toughest conference game on the 2016 schedule is on the road – at Western Michigan.
Reason for Hope: New coach Jason Candle should pickup where Matt Campbell left off before leaving to go to Iowa State. The Rockets are loaded at running back, return two proven receivers in Cody Thompson and Corey Jones and four starters on the offensive line.
Reason for Concern: The defense will be a revamped group with several key players departing, including defensive tackle Orion Jones and cornerback Cheatham Norrils.
Reason for Hope: Dino Babers was an outstanding hire and is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the nation. Quarterback Eric Dungey is promising, and the Orange have a few talented playmakers on the roster.
Reason for Concern: Coaching transition. It may take a season (or two) to fully implement Babers’ attack on offense. The Orange are very thin on depth and proven talent at defensive end. Three starters are gone off the offensive line.
76. Wake Forest
Reason for Hope: Dave Clawson inherited a major rebuilding project, and some of the pieces needed for a turnaround are starting to fall in place. The offensive line has struggled in recent years but four starters are back and improvement seems likely. Seven returning starters anchor a solid defense.
Reason for Concern: There are reasons for optimism on offense, but the Demon Deacons have a ways to go after averaging only 4.8 yards per play last season. The offense also needs more out of the ground attack. Two linebackers and two starters in the secondary must be replaced.
75. Arkansas State
Reason for Hope: The Red Wolves are a consistent force at the top of the Sun Belt, playing in five straight bowl games and winning at least eight games in four out of the last five years. Most of the starting lineup returns on defense, and junior college recruit Justice Hansen joins the mix at quarterback.
Reason for Concern: The Red Wolves are the defending Sun Belt champions, but quarterback Fredi Knighten, running back Michael Gordon and receivers J.D. McKissic and Tres Houston will be tough to replace.
74. Boston College
Reason for Hope: The offense struggled mightily last season, but the Eagles get quarterback Darius Wade and running back Jon Hilliman back from injury. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade for the starting quarterback job. The defense was among the best in the nation last season and six starters return for new coordinator Jim Reid.
Reason for Concern: Towles (or Wade) and Hilliman should provide a spark for this offense. However, how much will this unit improve after only 17.2 points a game last year? The offensive line and receiving corps are two areas that need attention this spring. The defense should be solid, but this unit is likely to take a step back after losing coordinator Don Brown to Michigan. Standout linebacker Steven Daniels also expired his eligibility.
Reason for Hope: Quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James are back after prolific freshman seasons.
Reason for Concern: There are big losses on defense, including linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard.
72. Iowa State
Reason for Hope: Matt Campbell is one of the top hires in this year’s coaching cycle. The Cyclones also return two of the Big 12’s top playmakers in running back Mike Warren and receiver Allen Lazard. Eight starters – including standout safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and tackle Demond Tucker – are back on defense.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line returns only one starter and is thin on proven depth or experience. How much improvement will quarterback Joel Lanning show under the new coaching staff?
Reason for Hope: A fresh start under new coach D.J. Durkin should help the Terrapins erase last year’s disappointing 3-9 record. This team isn’t lacking talent, as the top four receivers return and Virginia Tech transfer Trey Edmunds will help at running back. Damian Prince and Derwin Gray are two building blocks on the offensive line. Durkin’s background should spark some improvement on defense, and cornerback William Likely is back for his senior year.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Maryland quarterbacks combined to complete 47.2 percent of their throws and a whopping 29 interceptions last year. The defense also has voids to fill up front and in the secondary and must replace Yannick Ngakoue’s production (13 sacks) off the edge.
Reason for Hope: New coach Bronco Mendenhall is a proven winner and arrives in Charlottesville after guiding BYU to 11 consecutive bowl appearances. Running back Taquan Mizzell, quarterback Matt Jones, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding provide a good foundation for Mendenhall to build around in 2016.
Reason for Concern: The Cavaliers need a year to transition to Mendenhall and the new staff. There’s little in the way of proven options at receiver, and three starters must be replaced on the defensive line. Cornerback Maurice Canady also expired his eligibility.
Reason for Hope: Coach Jeff Brohm is one of the best in Conference USA, and the Hilltoppers have a strong supporting cast for the new starting quarterback. Running back Leon Allen missed most of 2015 due to injury but was awarded an additional year of eligibility.
Reason for Concern: Brandon Doughty leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback. How quickly can Brohm settle the quarterback battle? Both starting cornerbacks and standout linebacker Nick Holt depart WKU.
Reason for Hope: Quarterback Chase Litton is a rising star (23 TDs, 8 INTs as a freshman in 2015). The Thundering Herd have a schedule advantage in the race to win the East Division, as WKU and MTSU visit Huntington.
Reason for Concern: The top two receivers from 2015 are gone, and the defense suffered a few heavy losses at each level.
Reason for Hope: The Buffaloes have been more competitive under coach Mike MacIntyre and 15 starters are back for 2016. The status of quarterback Sefo Liufau is uncertain, but Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb was a huge pickup for 2016. Jim Leavitt’s arrival helped spark improvement on defense, and the return of linebacker Addison Gillam adds another difference maker for next season.
Reason for Concern: Webb is a talented quarterback, but he won’t have much time to get acclimated to his teammates and offense. All-Pac-12 receiver Nelson Spruce will be missed. More improvement is needed in the trenches after allowing 40 sacks in 2015.
66. Western Michigan
Reason for Hope: P.J. Fleck is one of the nation’s top rising stars in the head coaching ranks and has guided Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 campaigns. The Broncos should have an explosive offense behind quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis.
Reason for Concern: The defense generated only 17 sacks last season and struggled to stop the run (181.1 ypg allowed).
65. Georgia Southern
Reason for Hope: There’s a new coach in town (Tyson Summers), but the formula for success isn’t going to change. The Eagles boast one of the nation’s top rushing attacks, headlined by quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw, and running backs L.A. Ramsby and Matt Breida.
Reason for Concern: Don’t expect Summers and his staff to make drastic changes, but a coaching transition always provides a few bumps in the road. The back seven on defense needs to be revamped, and both starting guards – Roscoe Byrd and Darien Foreman – expired their eligibility.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up to replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld? Allen should make a difference for Indiana’s defense, but this unit has a long ways to go after giving up 37.6 points a game last season.
Reason for Hope: The Midshipmen lose several key players, but Ken Niumatalolo will find the right answers this spring. Navy has made eight bowl appearances over the last nine years. This program won’t take a huge step back. Six starters also return on defense.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Keenan Reynolds – one of the nation’s top players in 2015 – will be missed. The Midshipmen also lose standout rusher Chris Swain and all five starters on the offensive line. Standout cornerback Brendon Clements is also suspended indefinitely.
62. South Carolina
Reason for Hope: The Gamecocks probably have more talent in the program than last year’s 3-9 record indicated and a stable coaching situation should help this team after the uncertainty in 2015. New coach Will Muschamp should help a defense that surrendered 30.4 points per game last fall.
Reason for Concern: Even if the roster is better than 3-9, there’s a lot of work for Muschamp to do in 2016. Who steps up at quarterback? Is it Perry Orth or will sophomore Lorenzo Nunez take the top spot on the depth chart? Playmakers at running back and receiver must be found. The defense needs a lot of work.
Reason for Hope: The Commodores made strides on defense last season after coach Derek Mason took over the play-calling. Seven starters are back in 2016, including standout linebacker Zach Cunningham. Running back Ralph Webb and quarterback Kyle Shurmur are promising pieces to build around on offense. The offensive line should get a boost with the return of tackle Andrew Jelks from injury.
Reason for Concern: The offense should be better. But by how much? Is Shurmur a year away from taking the next step? The Commodores have to do better in the turnover department (minus-eight last year).
Reason for Hope: The talent level has improved under coach Mark Stoops with four straight top-40 classes. Eddie Gran was a solid hire as the team’s new play-caller, and he inherits an offense with nine returning starters. New quarterback Drew Barker is talented (just inexperienced), and running back Boom Williams is one of the SEC’s top playmakers. Sophomore cornerback Chris Westry is a rising star.
Reason for Concern: How quickly can Barker take control of the offense? The defense is the biggest issue for Stoops. Only four starters are back and each level was hit hard by departures.
Reason for Hope: Gunner Kiel is back at quarterback, and the Bearcats have two talented transfer receivers ready to step in with Avery Peterson (LSU) and Jamil Kamara (Virginia). A minus-19 turnover margin is indicative of some bad luck that should be reversed in 2016.
Reason for Concern: Even though Peterson and Kamara should make an instant impact, the Bearcats lose their top six receivers from last year. Additionally, standout left tackle Parker Ehinger expired his eligibility. There’s room for improvement on a defense that gave up 31.2 points a game in 2015.
Reason for Hope: Barry Odom was a rising star as a coordinator and is familiar with the job after working under Gary Pinkel from 2004-05, 2009-11 and 2015. Despite a lackluster offense, the defense ranked as one of the best in the SEC. That shouldn’t change in 2016 with defensive end Charles Harris, tackle Terry Beckner and linebacker Michael Scherer returning.
Reason for Concern: The offense. The Tigers managed only 13.6 points a game last year. Big question marks are in place for new coordinator Josh Heupel. The offensive line is very thin, and quarterback Drew Lock needs more help from the supporting cast. Will the defense carry the team until the offense is ready to take a step forward?
Reason for Hope: The transition from Jerry Kill to Tracy Claeys should be smooth. Claeys worked for Kill for over 20 seasons and isn’t going to make drastic changes to the program. Quarterback Mitch Leidner enters his third season as a starter, and running back Shannon Brooks showed promise late in the 2015 campaign. Seven starters form a good foundation on defense.
Reason for Concern: Can new coordinator Jay Johnson find ways to spark an offense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in yards per play (league-only games)? Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun will be tough to replace. Punter Peter Mortell is a big loss.
Reason for Hope: The Blue Devils are reaching new heights under coach David Cutcliffe. The program is a consistent winner, recording a bowl appearance in each of the last four seasons. Jeremy Cash will be missed at safety, but the secondary is in good shape with the return of four starters and Byron Fields from injury.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Thomas Sirk may not play in 2016 due to an Achilles injury. Two standouts – Lucas Patrick and Matt Skura – depart the offensive line, leading receiver Max McCaffrey must be replaced, and the front seven on defense must be overhauled.
55. Air Force
Reason for Hope: Quarterback Nate Romine is back to lead the offense after missing most of 2015 due to injury. The Falcons also return a talented stable of running backs, and receiver Jalen Robinette (24.5 ypc).
Reason for Concern: The trenches will be an area of focus after the loss of standout defensive end Alex Hansen and three starters on the offensive line.
54. NC State
Reason for Hope: This is coach Dave Doeren’s fourth year in Raleigh. With a roster shaped in the image of how Doeren wants to build a program, the Wolfpack hope to take the next step in 2016. There’s a solid stable of running backs in place, as Matt Dayes returns after missing five games due to injury, and Johnny Frasier is ready to make an impact coming off a redshirt year. Eight starters are back on defense.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is gone, and the passing attack needs more big plays from the receivers in 2016. Standout offensive linemen – Joe Thuney and Quinton Schooley – have expired their eligibility. End Mike Rose’s (10.5 sacks) ability to get to the quarterback will be missed.
53. Southern Miss
Reason for Hope: The Golden Eagles took a big step forward last year. A strong core returns for new coach Jay Hopson, including quarterback Nick Mullens and running back Ito Smith.
Reason for Concern: Will the coaching transition present any challenges? Prolific receivers Mike Thomas and Casey Martin have expired their eligibility.
Reason for Hope: Last season’s 10 wins tied for the most in school history. The Owls return 11 starters and should be picked near the top of the American Athletic Conference in 2016. Quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas lead the way on offense.
Reason for Concern: The Owls lose a handful of key contributors from last year’s 10-win team. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, center Kyle Friend and safety Alex Wells leave big shoes to fill.
51. Georgia Tech
Reason for Hope: 2015 was simply an aberration. Georgia Tech finished 3-9 – the worst mark under coach Paul Johnson and failed to make a bowl game for the first time since 1996. Quarterback Justin Thomas is due for a rebound year, and running back C.J. Leggett could add a spark to the ground game after missing 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: The Yellow Jackets have to do a better job of holding onto the ball (24 turnovers lost last season). The left side of the offensive line must be revamped, and the secondary loses all four starters.
50. Kansas State
Reason for Hope: Bill Snyder. Kansas State is always going to be a dangerous opponent for the rest of the Big 12 with Snyder on the sidelines. The Wildcats had some awful injury luck in 2015, which included season-ending ailments to quarterback Jesse Ertz and safety Dante Barnett. Linebacker Elijah Lee is one of the Big 12’s top defenders.
Reason for Concern: Four new starters are needed on the offensive line. Can the Wildcats develop more playmakers at receiver and generate more production from the ground game?
Reason for Hope: Stability. Coach Sonny Dykes is coming off his best season (8-5) at California and received a contract extension at the end of the 2015 campaign. This program is headed in the right direction. Three starters return on the offensive line and the top three rushers are back for 2016. Additionally, the defense has made strides over the two years.
Reason for Concern: There’s no easy way to spin it: Quarterback Jared Goff is a huge loss. Additionally, the top six statistical receivers from last season depart. Can the defense carry the team until a new quarterback emerges?
48. Appalachian State
Reason for Hope: The Mountaineers won 11 games last year and are a team on the rise under coach Scott Satterfield. Quarterback Taylor Lamb (36 total TDs last year) returns, and the backfield is stocked with options, including Marcus Cox (1,423 yards in 2015) and Jalin Moore (7.4 ypc).
Reason for Concern: Three of the top four receivers must be replaced. The Mountaineers also lose a couple of standouts – defensive end Ronald Blair and offensive linemen Jesse Chapman and Davante Harris – in the trenches.
Reason for Hope: There’s talent in the program. According to the recruiting rankings, the Longhorns have the best roster in the Big 12 over the last five seasons. Running backs Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman lead the way on offense, and the defense returns linebacker Malik Jefferson and a talented group of young defensive backs.
Reason for Concern: The offense. New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert needs time to implement his scheme. Can the Longhorns find a quarterback who can execute the passing attack? Defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway won’t be easy to replace.
Reason for Hope: This is Kalani Sitake’s first opportunity to be a head coach, but he’s ready for this challenge. Running back Jamaal Williams returns after missing all of 2015, and there are two proven quarterbacks in Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum.
Reason for Concern: Three of the top four receivers and standout defensive end Bronson Kaufusi expired their eligibility. Will there be any speed bumps in the transition from Bronco Mendenhall to Sitake?
45. Texas Tech
Reason for Hope: The Red Raiders have several flaws, but a player like quarterback Patrick Mahomes can cover up a lot of woes. The addition of transfers Ondre Pipkins and Kolin Hill should help to restock the defensive line. The secondary should be a strength with all four starters returning.
Reason for Concern: The defense has to improve. Texas Tech can outscore a lot of teams but improving its record will depend heavily on how far the defense progresses this spring. The Red Raiders gave up 43.6 points a game last year. Running back DeAndre Washington, dynamic receiver Jakeem Grant and four starters on the offensive line depart Lubbock.
Reason for Hope: The Wildcats have the pieces in place for an explosive offense. Quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and receiver Nate Phillips are a solid trio. An overhauled staff could help the defense take a step forward after allowing 35.8 points a game in 2015.
Reason for Concern: Will Anu Solomon rebound to his 2014 form (4,084 total yards)? Go-to receiver Cayleb Jones will be missed, and the defense has a ways to go under new coordinator Marcel Yates.
43. Arizona State
Reason for Hope: Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are a talented duo for new coordinator Chip Lindsey to build around in 2016. Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White are inexperienced, but all three passers are talented. Tim White is a rising star at receiver, and Cameron Smith adds another weapon for the passing attack after missing 2015 due to injury. The front seven on defense should be a strength with the return of linebackers Salamo Fiso, Christian Sam, Laui Moeakiola and defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood.
Reason for Concern: Four new starters must be found on the offensive line. How quickly can the Sun Devils find the right answer at quarterback? The secondary struggled last year and three starters depart.
Reason for Hope: Coach Pat Fitzgerald has the program back on track after a 10-3 record last season. The Wildcats went 5-7 in back-to-back years but finished with 10 wins for the second time in Fitzgerald’s tenure. Running back Justin Jackson is one of the best in the Big Ten. Six starters – including standout linebacker Anthony Walker – return from one of the Big Ten’s top defenses last year.
Reason for Concern: Will the passing attack take a step forward in quarterback Clayton Thorson’s second year as the starter? Who steps up at receiver? There’s a solid core in place on defense, but ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose leave big shoes to fill.
Reason for Hope: Last year’s 6-7 mark wasn’t quite as bad as some may believe. A minus-12 turnover margin and six losses by one score suggest Nebraska could make a quick turnaround in the win column. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong should benefit from another season under coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Jordan Westerkamp is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.
Reason for Concern: The trenches. Nebraska loses three starters up front and has to generate more production from its ground attack. On defense, tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine won’t be easy to replace. The secondary has room to improve after ranking 78th nationally in pass efficiency defense last year.
40. Penn State
Reason for Hope: The Nittany Lions have recruited back-to-back top 20 classes and the overall depth in the program has improved. Running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Chris Godwin are two of the top skill players in the Big Ten. The offensive line has struggled but four starters are back.
Reason for Concern: Is Trace McSorley the answer to replace Christian Hackenberg at quarterback? Will the offensive line take a step forward under new assistant Matt Limegrover? Losing coordinator Bob Shoop was a huge blow to the defense. Additionally, this unit must replace three standouts in the trenches.
39. Mississippi State
Reason for Hope: Dan Mullen has elevated the program. Mississippi State has key faces to replace, but the drop off won’t be significant. The Bulldogs have played in six consecutive bowl games, and there’s enough talent in place to earn a seventh consecutive postseason trip. Linebacker Richie Brown and safety Brandon Bryant are two players for new coordinator Peter Sirmon to build around on defense.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Dak Prescott was one of the best players in school history. He won’t be easy to replace. Will the offensive line and ground attack take a step forward? Peter Sirmon is an intriguing hire as the team’s new defensive coordinator. Sirmon has never worked as for a full season as a play-caller at the FBS level. Standout defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Beniquez Brown and cornerback Taveze Calhoun depart the defense.
Reason for Hope: There’s coaching stability under Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers return 16 starters, and running back James Conner is expected back by the opener. End Ejuan Price and safety Jordan Whitehead are two of the ACC’s top defenders. The offensive line could be the best in the conference next season.
Reason for Concern: The passing attack. Nathan Peterman is back at quarterback, but who steps up at receiver after the departure of Tyler Boyd? Can Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin help the defense take a step forward after allowing 5.69 yards per play last year?
37. Virginia Tech
Reason for Hope: Replacing Frank Beamer won’t be easy, but new coach Justin Fuente seems like the perfect fit in Blacksburg. Fuente’s background should help solve some of the problems Virginia Tech has experienced on offense in recent years. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Fuente’s cause that he was able to convince Bud Foster to stay on as defensive coordinator. Receiver Isaiah Ford, tight end Bucky Hodges and running back Travon McMillian are three All-ACC skill players for the new starting quarterback.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Will a clear starter emerge in spring ball? Pass protection (34 sacks allowed in 2015) needs to be addressed. The Hokies also need to replace end Dadi Nicolas and tackle Luther Maddy on the defensive line.
Reason for Hope: The Utes are coming off their best season (10-3) since joining the Pac-12. Running back Joe Williams is a promising replacement for Devontae Booker. The offensive and defensive lines will be among the best in the Pac-12. The secondary is also a strength with the return of safety Marcus Williams and cornerbacks Dominique Hatfield and Reginald Porter.
Reason for Concern: Offense. Is junior college recruit Troy Williams the answer at quarterback? Who steps up at receiver? Three starters – including standout Gionni Paul – depart the linebacking corps.
35. West Virginia
Reason for Hope: The Mountaineers finished 2015 by winning five out of their last six games, including an entertaining 43-42 shootout against Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl. Quarterback Skyler Howard should benefit from another year under coach Dana Holgorsen, and the receiving corps is poised to make major strides. Four starters also return up front.
Reason for Concern: Howard has to play better in Big 12 games. He only completed 50.4 percent of his throws and tossed 11 picks to 12 scores in nine league contests last year. Standout running back Wendell Smallwood will be missed. The defense returns only three starters and will have a revamped secondary – not ideal in the offensive-minded Big 12 – next season.
34. Texas A&M
Reason for Hope: Defense. The Aggies took a step forward under coordinator John Chavis last year and return six starters for 2016. End Myles Garrett is the top defensive player in college football. New offensive play-caller Noel Mazzone inherits a talented group of receivers and an intriguing transfer at running back in Keith Ford.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Will Jake Hubenak or Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight emerge as a clear answer? Only two starters are back on the offensive line, and both starting cornerbacks must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: Gus Malzahn is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. The offense won’t repeat the 2015 numbers, right? A talented group of freshmen receivers should provide more big-play ability on the outside, and running back Jovon Robinson should get to 1,000 yards. The defensive line is talented and could be among the best in the SEC.
Reason for Concern: Is there an answer at quarterback? Jeremy Johnson and Sean White struggled last season, and junior college recruit John Franklin has to acclimate to the FBS level. Both offensive tackles must be replaced, and the defense loses standouts Kris Frost (LB), Jonathan Jones (CB) and Cassanova McKinzy (DE/LB).
32. South Florida
Reason for Hope: Coach Willie Taggart has recruited well since his hire at South Florida, and the Bulls are starting to see the results. Quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack are a dynamic duo on offense. There’s also a solid foundation on defense with six returning starters.
Reason for Concern: There are few glaring concerns for Taggart, but the Bulls lose two starters on the offensive line and have a few key players to replace on defense. Is Flowers ready to take the next step as a passer?
31. San Diego State
Reason for Hope: The Aztecs are the clear favorite in the Mountain West’s West Division after finishing 2015 with 10 consecutive wins and a conference title. Most of the core from last year’s team returns, including running back Donnel Pumphrey, cornerback Damontae Kazee and linebacker Calvin Munson.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback Christian Chapman showed promise in two starts last year. How will he hold up over the course of a full season? The defense should be fine, but end Jon Sanchez, cornerback J.J. Whittaker and linebacker Jake Fely leave big shoes to fill.
30. Boise State
Reason for Hope: Offense. The Broncos led the Mountain West by averaging 39.1 points a game last season. Quarterback Brett Rypien, running back Jeremy McNichols and receiver Thomas Sperbeck are back to anchor the offense for coach Bryan Harsin.
Reason for Concern: The defensive line – especially the interior – is a concern. Safety Darian Thompson and cornerback Donte Deayon must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: Arkansas is coming off its best season under coach Bret Bielema, and the program is on stable footing entering 2016. Coordinator Dan Enos was a key hire for the offense last season and should ease some of the transition on that side of the ball. The receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC. The Razorbacks struggled on defense last season, but nine starters are back and improvement is expected.
Reason for Concern: Enos is an outstanding coordinator, but Arkansas has big shoes to fill on offense. Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and three starters on the offensive line are tough to overcome. Even though the defense should improve, can it take enough of a step forward to overcome the losses on offense?
Reason for Hope: The Badgers are in good shape to push Iowa for the Big Ten West Division title. Running back Corey Clement returns after missing most of 2015 due to injury, and the offensive line returns a handful of experienced options. New coordinator Justin Wilcox inherits six starters on defense, including standout linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards.
Reason for Concern: The schedule is brutal. Wisconsin plays LSU in non-conference play, catches Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play and has a road date at Iowa. Is Bart Houston ready to replace Joel Stave at quarterback and will a go-to receiver emerge to replace Alex Erickson? Losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was a huge loss on the coaching staff.
Reason for Hope: Mark Richt should provide a coaching upgrade and will steer this program back on track. Quarterback Brad Kaaya should thrive under Richt, and the Hurricanes also return running back Joseph Yearby and receiver Stacy Coley. A talented foundation is in place on defense with seven returning starters.
Reason for Concern: The Hurricanes have underachieved in recent seasons, and Richt is going to need time to implement his schemes and get acclimated to the players. Improvement should be noticeable, but Miami might be a year away from challenging in the Coastal Division. Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Deon Bush must be replaced, and the defense has to get better against the run (201 ypg in 2015).
Reason for Hope: The Gators surprised many by winning the SEC East in coach Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville. There’s no shortage of talent in place, especially on the defense with six returning starters. The offensive line has stability with three returning starters, and Jordan Scarlett is a breakout candidate at running back.
Reason for Concern: Will the offense take a step forward after averaging only 23.2 points a game last year? The status of receiver Antonio Callaway is a mystery as the Gators opened spring practice. Who steps up at quarterback? Will a transfer – Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby – win the job over freshman Feleipe Franks? The secondary loses three standouts, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
Reason for Hope: Josh Rosen. After a standout freshman season, Rosen should be better in his second year as the starting quarterback. Soso Jamabo is due for a breakout season in replacing Paul Perkins, and there’s a foundation to build around on the offensive line with Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy, Jake Raulerson and Scott Quessenberry. Nine starters are back on defense, and defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes returns after missing most of 2015 due to injury.
Reason for Concern: The Bruins have some big names to replace. Linebacker Myles Jack, defensive lineman Kenny Clark, running back Paul Perkins and receiver Jordan Payton will be tough to replace. UCLA’s defense has to improve against the run next season.
Reason for Hope: The Ducks have not won fewer than nine games since 2006. Even with the question marks surrounding this team, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Running back Royce Freeman should be an All-American candidate, and the receiving corps has plenty of speedy, talented options for new quarterback Dakota Prukop. Brady Hoke should help to fix a defense that surrendered 37.5 points a game last year.
Reason for Concern: How quickly will Prukop pickup the offense? The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball have concerns, especially on offense where three starters depart. Hoke is a good hire on defense, but there may be a transition period as the Ducks move to a 4-3 scheme. What tweaks will new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick implement?
23. Washington State
Reason for Hope: Offense. As expected under Mike Leach, Washington State’s passing offense is among the nation’s best. Quarterback Luke Falk and receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft headline an offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in Pac-12 action. The defense took a step forward under coordinator Alex Grinch last season and brings back seven starters.
Reason for Concern: The left side of the offensive line must be replaced, and there are a couple of key losses in the front seven on defense.
Reason for Hope: Injuries hit TCU hard – especially on defense – last season. The added depth and experience should pay off in 2015, as well as the return of end James McFarland, cornerback Ranthony Texada and safety Kenny Iloka from injury. Even though the Horned Frogs have several big names to replace on offense, there’s a lot to like about the skill players in place.
Reason for Concern: Trevone Boykin leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback. Is Kenny Hill the answer? The offensive line returns only one full-time starter from last season. The Horned Frogs must replace standout kicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry.
21. Oklahoma State
Reason for Hope: Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington form one of the nation’s top big-play passing threats. Transfer running back Barry Sanders (Stanford) should add some punch to the ground game. Seven starters are back on defense, and the line will get a boost with the return of tackle Vili Leveni (missed 2015 due to injury).
Reason for Concern: The Cowboys return five starters on the offensive line. Will this unit take a step forward after struggling last year? Is the arrival of Sanders enough to spark a ground game that managed just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015? The defense loses two key pieces in end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson.
Reason for Hope: The Cardinals finished 2015 on a tear with wins in six out of their last seven games. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a rising star, and the supporting cast returns intact at running back and receiver. There’s reason to believe the offensive line will take a step forward after struggling last year. Eight starters return on a defense that should be one of the best in the ACC.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line should be better, but how much progress will this unit make in one offseason? End Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess are big losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. Even if Louisville picks up where it left off at the end of 2015, is that enough to surpass Florida State or Clemson in the Atlantic Division?
Reason for Hope: True freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is a future star for first-year coach Kirby Smart. If healthy, running back Nick Chubb is one of the best in the nation. Until Chubb is 100 percent, Sony Michel is more than capable of carrying the load at running back. The defense returns only five starters, but there’s plenty of promising pieces for Smart to build around in 2016.
Reason for Concern: How long will it take for Eason to get comfortable under center? There’s some uncertainty on the offensive line and more playmakers must emerge at receiver. The top pass rushers – Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins – must be replaced.
18. North Carolina
Reason for Hope: The Tar Heels are the defending champs of the Coastal Division. Mitch Trubisky is a rising star and should have no trouble replacing Marquise Williams at quarterback. Running back Elijah Hood returns, and four starters are back on the offensive line. The defense took a step forward under new coordinator Gene Chizik last season.
Reason for Concern: Standout guard Landon Turner departs the offensive line. The defense struggled to stop the run last season and loses three starters in the front seven. Two of North Carolina’s toughest games in 2016 – Miami and Florida State – are on the road.
Reason for Hope: The Huskies are a team on the rise. Washington won seven games in a rebuilding season and had narrow losses to Oregon, Boise State and California. Quarterback Jake Browning is due for a breakout year, and running back Myles Gaskin is one of the top playmakers in the Pac-12. Eight starters are back from a defense that led the Pac-12 in points allowed in 2015.
Reason for Concern: The Huskies are improving, but is it enough to catch Stanford or Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 North? Is this team one year away? Browning needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver.
Reason for Hope: The Hawkeyes are the defending Big Ten West Division champs and should be the early favorite in 2016. The offense loses three of its top five statistical options from last season but returns quarterback C.J. Beathard and a solid stable of running backs. Eight starters are back – including standout cornerback Desmond King – on defense. This unit could get a boost if end Drew Ott is awarded another year of eligibility.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up at receiver for Beathard? The interior of the line is a concern with the departure of center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. If Ott isn’t awarded an extra year of eligibility, who steps up to team with Parker Hesse on the edge?
Reason for Hope: There’s no coaching uncertainty this year. The interim tag was removed from Clay Helton and a solid staff was hired in the offseason. Nine starters are back on offense, starting with standout receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones. The offensive line could be the best in the Pac-12. Linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson headline a defense with six returning starters.
Reason for Concern: There’s a new quarterback and a play-caller (Tee Martin). Max Browne is the favorite to replace Cody Kessler. Browne is a talented passer but has only 19 career pass attempts. The defensive line is a major concern and standout linebacker Su’a Cravens must be replaced. The schedule is challenging.
Reason for Hope: The Cardinal have won three out of the last four Pac-12 North titles. Even though coach David Shaw’s team has key players to replace, this team won’t suffer too much of a drop in the win column. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy. A handful of key starters are gone on defense, but there’s enough of a foundation for coordinator Lance Anderson to build upon this offseason.
Reason for Concern: Only nine starters return. This is a significant rebuilding project for coach David Shaw. Quarterback Kevin Hogan must be replaced. Will Keller Chryst quickly settle in as the starter? Three starters are gone on the offensive line. Linebacker Blake Martinez expired his eligibility, and the line must be retooled with the departures of end Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu.
13. Michigan State
Reason for Hope: Sure, there are personnel losses to address. But coach Mark Dantonio is one of the best in the nation, and this program has plenty of staying power after winning at least 11 games in five out of the last six years. Running back LJ Scott and guard Brian Allen are two rising stars to build around on offense. Malik McDowell and linebackers Ed Davis and Riley Bullough are a good place to start on defense.
Reason for Concern: The Spartans are losing a handful of key players. On offense, quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge, center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin depart East Lansing. The losses are just as heavy on defense, as end Shilique Calhoun, tackle Joel Heath, linebacker Darien Harris, lineman Lawrence Thomas and safety RJ Williamson must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: Tom Herman wasn’t lured away from Houston by a Power 5 program, and the Cougars should be the top Group of 5 team in 2016. Greg Ward is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, there’s optimism on the offensive line after injuries hit the trenches hard last season, and two transfers – Ra’Shaad Samples (WR) and Duke Catalon (RB) – are impact players.
Reason for Concern: Not a lot. The defense has a few concerns, starting with the secondary and the departure of three starters. Standout linebacker Elandon Roberts also expired his eligibility.
11. Ole Miss
Reason for Hope: Hugh Freeze continues to recruit at a high level, and Ole Miss is ready to reload for a run at the SEC West title with 10 returning starters. Quarterback Chad Kelly is the best in the SEC, and there are plenty of playmakers at receiver. The offensive line has holes to fill, but help is on the way in the form of five-star freshman Greg Little. End Marquis Haynes and safety Tony Conner are two building blocks for the defense to rely on in 2016.
Reason for Concern: Can the Rebels squeeze more production out of the ground game? How quickly will the offensive line jell after losing all five starters from the Sugar Bowl? There is a solid foundation on defense, but tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Trae Elston and Mike Hilton are big losses.
Reason for Hope: Offense. Seth Russell is back at quarterback, the running back stable is among the best in the nation, and there’s talent at receiver despite the loss of Corey Coleman. There’s plenty of staying power for the Bears under coach Art Briles.
Reason for Concern: The trenches. Baylor loses four starters each on the offensive and defensive line. Top cornerback Xavien Howard and receiver Corey Coleman also leave big shoes to fill.
9. Notre Dame
Reason for Hope: DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire are two proven quarterbacks and have an intriguing battle for the starting job this offseason. Running back Tarean Folston (one game) and defensive tackle Jarron Jones also return from injury.
Reason for Concern: The Fighting Irish lose a handful of key players, including receiver Will Fuller, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
Reason for Hope: With 18 returning starters, the Volunteers are the team to beat in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has upgraded the talent level and added to it with another solid class in February. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are back to headline the offense. Bob Shoop is one of the top coordinator hires in the nation. He inherits a defense with nine returning starters, including linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cam Sutton and defensive end Derek Barnett.
Reason for Concern: Not much. The offensive line loses left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and needs more out of the passing attack. Will Josh Malone, Preston Williams and Josh Smith develop into big-time playmakers at receiver for Dobbs?
Reason for Hope: Leonard Fournette. He’s the best running back in college football, and the Tigers can lean heavily on their Heisman candidate. The receiving corps returns three talented options in Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural and Tyron Johnson. Three starters also return on the offensive line. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires in the nation, and LSU’s new defensive signal-caller inherits 10 returning starters. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Les Miles and that’s evident by looking at the depth chart or roster.
Reason for Concern: The offense. Despite all of the talent in place, LSU has to improve its passing attack. Is quarterback Brandon Harris ready to take the next step? Both starting tackles on offense must be replaced.
Reason for Hope: The Wolverines are back on the rise under coach Jim Harbaugh. After a 10-3 record in Harbaugh’s debut, Michigan should be among the favorites to make the College Football Playoff in 2016. The receiving corps is set with the return of Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt, and four starters are back on the offensive line. Don Brown was one of the top coordinator hires for 2016, and he inherits a defense with six returning starters, including one of the top lines and defensive backfields in the nation.
Reason for Concern: Quarterback play. Is Houston transfer John O’Korn the answer to replace Jake Rudock under center? If O’Korn doesn’t win the job, will Shane Morris or true freshman Brandon Peters stake their claim? The linebacking corps is filled with uncertainty but moving Jabrill Peppers from safety alleviates some of the concerns. Michigan’s toughest games – Michigan State and Ohio State – come on the road in 2016.
5. Florida State
Reason for Hope: Talent. Florida State has one of the nation’s best rosters (according to the recruiting rankings), and coach Jimbo Fisher has won at least 10 games in five out of his six seasons. Running back Dalvin Cook is one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, and end DeMarcus Walker turned down the NFL for another season at Florida State. Despite losing Jalen Ramsey, the secondary has a chance to be stingy in 2016.
Reason for Concern: Who steps up at quarterback? Will redshirt freshman or true freshman Malik Henry wrestle the starting job away from Sean Maguire? The offensive line and receiving corps are two areas to watch for development. The linebacking corps is thin.
4. Ohio State
Reason for Hope: The Buckeyes sustained heavy personnel losses, but coach Urban Meyer has recruited as well as any coach in the nation. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the clear starter and should resemble the player that was a Heisman candidate in 2014. Pat Elflein returns to anchor the offensive line at center. While there are big shoes to fill on defense, rebuilding around linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Tyquan Lewis is a good place to start.
Reason for Concern: Even though Ohio State has talent, it may take some time for the new faces to jell into the starting lineup. The receiving corps is thin on proven playmakers, and a running back must step up to replace Ezekiel Elliott. The interior of the defensive line and secondary are the biggest concerns for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano.
Reason for Hope: The Sooners were a year ahead of schedule last season with a trip to the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 title. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine headline an explosive offense, while graduate transfer Geno Lewis (Penn State) should help replace Sterling Shepard’s production at receiver. The secondary will miss Zack Sanchez, but Jordan Thomas should push for All-America honors at cornerback.
Reason for Concern: The offensive line is still a work in progress, the linebacking corps is thin, and Shepard will be missed at receiver. Do the Sooners have enough to make the jump from playoff contender to national champion?
Reason for Hope: Quarterback Deshaun Watson is back, and the Tigers are loaded at the skill positions with the return of receiver Mike Williams from injury. This program has recruited at a high level in recent years, ensuring little drop in talent from year-to-year in the reloading process. Coordinator Brent Venables has to fill voids on defense, but he’s one of the top defensive signal-callers in the nation.
Reason for Concern: Another run at the national championship won’t be easy. The Tigers play at Florida State in a game that could decide the winner of the Atlantic Division. While Clemson’s talent level is high, overcoming the departures of defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse is a lot to ask in one offseason.
Reason for Hope: Talent, talent and more talent. No team has recruited better than Alabama in recent years. The defense is loaded once again for a spot among the nation’s best. Blake Barnett is the most talented quarterback signed by Nick Saban at Alabama, and Bo Scarbrough is a breakout candidate at running back. Receiver Calvin Ridley is back after a standout freshman campaign. Left tackle Cam Robinson anchors a line that returns three starters.
Reason for Concern: Sure, Alabama has a wealth of talent but breaking in a new quarterback isn’t easy. Also, standouts Derrick Henry (RB), Ryan Kelly (center), Reggie Ragland (LB) and A’Shawn Robinson (DL) won’t be easy to replace. Road trips to Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU could derail another national championship.