Athlon projects college football's very early top 25 teams for 2016.
College football’s 2016 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. It’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 128 teams.
Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2016 officially starts.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2016, followed by 10 other teams to watch this offseason: (LOOK FOR OUR 5/16 UPDATED TOP 25 HERE)
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016
The Crimson Tide have their share of personnel losses and question marks to address, but talent certainly isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa. Star running back Derrick Henry is expected to leave for the NFL, while quarterback Jake Coker and center Ryan Kelly expire their eligibility after the national championship. Coordinator Lane Kiffin will start the process of reloading on offense with two talented running backs in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, as well as receiver Calvin Ridley and left tackle Cam Robinson. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett is expected to take the reins at quarterback. The losses on defense will be heavy, but there’s enough talent and depth returning for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to keep this unit among the best in the nation. The schedule features road trips to Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as a neutral site game against USC to open the 2016 season.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy in 2016, and the junior has a strong supporting cast in place, including left tackle Mitch Hyatt and standout receiver Artavis Scott. The receiving corps should receive a boost with the return of Mike Williams (57 receptions in 2014), who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Coordinator Brent Venables has holes to fill on defense, but this unit remained one of the best in the nation despite losing a handful of key contributors from the 2014 group. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and end Shaq Lawson are expected to leave for the NFL, while the linebacking corps must replace standout B.J. Goodson. One huge road block to a repeat for the ACC title – a road date at Florida State.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
The Sooners showed marked improvement in 2015, rebounding from an 8-5 record in 2014 to a playoff spot and an 11-2 mark overall. The eight-win season in 2014 sparked the need for change in Norman, as coach Bob Stoops hired four new assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The addition of Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield paid big dividends for the Sooners. Oklahoma’s offense led the Big 12 (conference-only matchups) in points per game (47.2) and yards per play (7.04) in 2015. Receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington are the biggest losses on offense, but running back Samaje Perine, receiver Dede Westbrook and freshmen linemen Orlando Brown and Dru Samia join Mayfield as key returners on offense. The question marks are bigger on defense, as linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper expired their eligibility, and cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft. The path to the playoffs won’t be easy. Oklahoma plays Houston and Ohio State in non-conference matchups and have road trips to TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia in league play.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were one of the teams hit the hardest by early departures to the NFL Draft. In addition to defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, offensive lineman Taylor Decker and linebacker Joshua Perry expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State lost nine players to the next level, including end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The rebuilding effort for coach Urban Meyer starts at quarterback, as J.T. Barrett finished the year on a high note (19 of 31 for 211 yards against Notre Dame). Barrett will be the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback next season, but Meyer has to reload at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Sam Hubbard should be the new standouts for a defense under the direction of new co-coordinator Greg Schiano. A road trip to Oklahoma and back-to-back matchups against Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan (Nov. 26) will play a huge role in just how high the rebuilt Buckeyes can climb in the playoff picture.
5. Florida State
2015 was a rebuilding year for Florida State, yet the Seminoles won 10 games and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach). Under coach Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons and is poised to push Clemson in the ACC next year. Nearly everyone is back on offense for Fisher, including Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Dalvin Cook. The junior will be running behind an offensive line that should improve over the offseason and is anchored by left tackle Roderick Johnson. Finding a quarterback is Fisher’s top priority, as Sean Maguire will compete with sophomore J.J. Cosentino and freshmen Malik Henry and Deondre Francois for the starting job. After giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2014, the Seminoles’ defense showed marked improvement in 2015. Florida State ranked second in the ACC by holding opponents to 4.68 yards per play, second in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) and generated 32 sacks (up from 17 in 2014). This unit has a few key players to replace – tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup – and cornerback Jalen Ramsey left early for the NFL. A huge schedule advantage for Florida State in 2015 – Clemson, North Carolina and Florida all visit Tallahassee next season.
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were one of the teams hit the hardest by the injury bug in 2015. 38 different players earned a start for coach Brian Kelly’s team, with starting quarterback Malik Zaire lost for the season after Week 2. While the injuries were a huge hit to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in 2015, the added depth and experience should help this team in 2016. Zaire will compete with DeShone Kizer for the starting nod at quarterback, while Tarean Folston returns from injury to team with Josh Adams at running back. The biggest losses on offense will be at receiver (Will Fuller) and on the offensive line (Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin). The overall performance of the defense has to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2015, but tackle Sheldon Day is gone and the status of linebacker Jaylon Smith is uncertain after a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Wolverines took a step forward in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, winning double-digit games (10) for the first time since 2011. And despite a few personnel losses, Michigan is positioned for a run at the Big Ten title in 2016. Finding a quarterback to replace Jake Rudock is the No. 1 priority for Harbaugh, but the offense returns leading rusher De’Veon Smith, and the top three receiving options – wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a group that finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.4 ppg). The Wolverines are stocked up front and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps loses all three starters from 2015. Michigan’s road schedule in conference play is brutal, as trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State await next season.
The Volunteers will open 2016 as the clear favorite in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has brought steady improvement over the last three years, increasing the team’s win total by two in each of the last two seasons after a 5-7 debut in 2013. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd headline an offense that averaged 31.3 points per game in SEC contests in 2015. An area of focus and development for coordinator Mike DeBord this offseason is generating more big plays in the passing game after recording only five of 40 yards or more in 2015. The Volunteers return their deepest and most talented defense under Jones in 2016. Only three senior starters – tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil – depart from the starting 11 from the Outback Bowl. End Derek Barnett, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton anchor the defense next season. The schedule is manageable, but Alabama visits Knoxville and the Volunteers play at Georgia in early October.
LSU isn’t hurting for talent, but coach Les Miles’ team still has question marks on offense. Running back Leonard Fournette returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy and is expected to be the focal point of the offense once again. The receiving corps is anchored by Travin Dural and rising star Malachi Dupre, and the offensive line is in good shape despite losing standout tackle Vadal Alexander. However, the Tigers won’t push Alabama in the SEC West if quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t take the next step in his development. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires for 2016, and the new defensive signal-caller inherits talent on each level of the defense, including end Arden Key and safety Jamal Adams.
Injuries derailed Baylor’s playoff hopes in 2015, and despite a few key losses in personnel, coach Art Briles’ team could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck) and Jarrett Stidham (leg) are expected to return to full strength in 2016, but standout receiver Corey Coleman and four starters on the line must be replaced. The improvement of Baylor’s defense is an underrated part of Briles’ tenure, and coordinator Phil Bennett will have a busy offseason searching for replacements at end (Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer) and cornerback (Xavien Howard). Even with new faces stepping into key roles, Baylor won’t take a huge step back in the win column in 2016.
11. Michigan State
Coach Mark Dantonio is losing several key pieces from the 2015 edition that won the Big Ten Championship and earned a playoff spot in the Cotton Bowl against Alabama. While the Spartans are due to take a step back in the win column, Dantonio has this program on solid ground and a quick rebuild is in store. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will battle this offseason to replace Connor Cook at quarterback, while Dantonio must find replacements for receiver Aaron Burbridge and center Jack Allen. End Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Darien Harris will be missed on defense, but tackle Malik McDowell is back, and linebacker Ed Davis returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
The Pac-12 will be an interesting league to watch in 2016. The expected frontrunners for both divisions feature big question marks, so this conference could be on the outside of the four-team playoff picture once again. Even though the Cardinal is losing a handful of key players, coach David Shaw’s program has earned the benefit of the doubt after winning at least 11 games in four out of the last five years. Running back Christian McCaffrey returns after a historic 2015 season, but he will be taking handoffs from a new quarterback and an offensive line featuring three new starters. The defense has some retooling to do up front, at linebacker with the loss of linebacker Blake Martinez, and the secondary must replace safety Kodi Whitfield and cornerback Ronnie Harris.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons after a 7-6 record in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year (2012). Can Ole Miss take the next step and win the SEC West in 2016? For Freeze to elevate this program into the SEC Championship game next season, he needs a big year from quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior college transfer is one of the few proven quarterbacks in the SEC for 2016, but he won’t have standout receiver Laquon Treadwell or left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the supporting cast next year. The defense loses tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston but returns end Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and safety Tony Conner. Freeze has recruited well, so there is promising young talent in place to fill some of the personnel voids.
14. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys finished 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but coach Mike Gundy’s team has momentum from a 10-win campaign and a good chunk of its depth chart returns in 2016. Quarterback Mason Rudolph headlines the offense, with big-play threat James Washington (20.5 ypc) returning as the go-to target. The top priorities in offseason workouts for Gundy will be improving the offensive line and jumpstarting a rushing attack that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry in 2015. End Emmanuel Ogbah is expected to leave for the NFL, and top cornerback Kevin Peterson expired his eligibility after the Sugar Bowl. While Ogbah and Peterson will be missed, coordinator Glenn Spencer has a solid core to build around this spring. Oklahoma State’s path to a Big 12 title is on the road in 2016, as trips to Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor dot the schedule next fall.
The second year of coach Tom Herman’s H-Town Takeover in Houston could be just as successful as the 2015 version. The Cougars capped an impressive debut under Herman with a 13-1 record and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. A strong core returns for Herman to build around in 2016, including quarterback Greg Ward (281.1 total yards per game in 2015), receiver Chance Allen and offensive lineman Will Noble. The defense loses a handful of key contributors – linebacker Elandon Roberts, safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart and cornerback William Jackson III – but coordinator Todd Orlando should keep this unit performing at a high level. Houston also has a huge showcase in next season’s opener – a trip to NRG Stadium in Houston to take on Oklahoma.
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The Trojans will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2016. New coach Clay Helton begins his first full season as the program’s head coach, and USC returns enough talent to win the Pac-12 South once again. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this offseason to replace Cody Kessler at quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis and a solid offensive line until the passing attack develops behind a new signal-caller. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be one of the best in the nation in 2016. The defense is Helton’s biggest concern, especially in the front seven where Delvon Simmons (DT), Antwaun Woods (NT) and linebacker Su’a Cravens depart. The secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and rising star Iman Marshall. A brutal schedule is on tap for USC next season, starting with a neutral site affair against Alabama in Week 1 and includes road dates at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA. Additionally, USC hosts Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State next year.
Kirk Ferentz 3.0 was nearly enough for Iowa to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Hawkeyes won’t fly under the radar in 2016, as Iowa should open next season as the favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had a breakout season in 2015 and returns to anchor the offense. Replacing running back Jordan Canzeri, receiver Tevaun Smith and offensive linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe top the priority list for coordinator Greg Davis this spring. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and received a boost with the announcement top cornerback Desmond King would return for his senior year. All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott was limited to six games due to injury and applied for an additional year of eligibility. The schedule is also a huge advantage for Iowa, as Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2016.
18. North Carolina
In addition to the ACC Coastal title, the Tar Heels are coming off their first double-digit win total for the first time since 1997. The momentum for coach Larry Fedora should continue in 2016, as North Carolina is the early favorite to win the Coastal once again. Mitch Trubisky will replace Marquise Williams at quarterback, and running back Elijah Hood is poised to build off a strong sophomore campaign (1,463 yards). The biggest losses on offense will be guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis. The defense showed marked improvement in Gene Chizik’s first season and returns largely intact next fall. North Carolina’s schedule features a few intriguing games, including a road trip to Florida State and a neutral site matchup against Georgia in Week 1.
Looking for a sleeper pick to win the Pac-12 in 2016? Take a look at Chris Petersen’s Huskies. Washington was slated for a rebuilding year in 2015, and this team finished with at three-game winning streak to get to 7-6 overall. The biggest reason for optimism in 2016 is the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin after impressive freshman seasons, while the defense returns nearly intact after leading the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 points per game allowed) and the fewest yards per play (4.9). The Huskies visit Oregon next year but Stanford, USC and Arizona State visit Seattle.
It’s a new era in Athens, as Mark Richt is out after 15 seasons on the Georgia sideline. New coach Kirby Smart knows his way around the SEC as a former Georgia player and assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007. The first order of business for Smart and new play-caller Jim Chaney is to address an offense that averaged only 22.9 points per game in SEC contests. Five-star recruit Jacob Eason could be the immediate answer at quarterback, while running back Nick Chubb is slated to return in 2016 from a serious knee injury. Smart’s specialty is defense, and the first-year coach inherits a group that limited opponents to 16.9 points per game in 2015. There’s a solid core of talent in place for Smart on defense, but the linebacking corps loses Jake Ganus, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
The Horned Frogs were a trendy pick to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015, but injuries and roster turnover on defense prevented a run at the Big 12 title. However, playing time for young players in 2015 should help with the transition in 2016. Coach Gary Patterson’s team will have its share of question marks this offseason, starting at quarterback with Trevone Boykin’s replacement. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is the frontrunner to replace Boykin, but the Horned Frogs lose four starters on the offensive line and receiver Josh Doctson is out of eligibility. Defense should be a strength for TCU in 2016 with the return of cornerback Ranthony Texada, linebacker Sammy Douglas and end James McFarland from injury, along with returning seniors Josh Carraway (DE), Aaron Curry (DT) and safety Denzel Johnson. The schedule features a favorable home slate, including games against Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and the arrow is clearly pointing up for coach Bobby Petrino’s team for 2016. Quarterback Lamar Jackson capped a solid freshman season with 453 total yards in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M and is poised for even bigger things next fall. The Cardinals also return every key receiving threat from 2015, running back Brandon Radcliff and left tackle Geron Christian (started all 13 games as a true freshman last season). The defense has been a strength for Petrino over the last two years and will be one of the best in the ACC once again. Linemen Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei and linebacker James Burgess are the biggest losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. A strong core is in place for Grantham 2016, which includes linebacker Keith Kelsey, tackle DeAngelo Brown and defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. The Cardinals have to play Clemson and Houston on the road next year, but Florida State and rival Kentucky visit Louisville.
23. Washington State
The Cougars opened 2015 with a disappointing loss to Portland State but ended with nine wins, a Sun Bowl victory over Miami and optimism for 2016. Coach Mike Leach’s team will be a factor in the North Division next season, as quarterback Luke Falk returns and receiver Gabe Marks is back to anchor a deep receiving corps. The biggest concern on offense is the loss of two linemen, including standout left tackle Joe Dahl. Washington State’s defense took a step forward under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch by holding opponents to 27.7 points per game in 2015. This unit needs to retool a bit in the front seven, but cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are key pieces for Grinch to build around next fall. The Cougars have a favorable schedule in conference action by missing USC in crossover play and visits by UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to Pullman.
The Ducks are one of the hardest teams to slot in an early top 25 for 2016. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team still has a cast of talented skill players in place, including running back Royce Freeman and receiver Darren Carrington. However, the line loses standouts in tackle Tyler Johnstone and center Matt Hegarty, and the quarterback position is up for grabs, with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop the favorite to replace Vernon Adams. Oregon’s defense is in need of repair after giving up 6.03 yards per play in 2015. Play-caller Don Pellum was demoted to linebackers coach, and the new coordinator inherits a group losing standout end DeForest Buckner and linebackers Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. But the Ducks catch a break in scheduling, as Stanford and Washington visit Eugene in 2016.
Jim McElwain’s first season at Florida was a successful one due to the SEC East title, but the Gators struggled on offense at the end of 2015 and lose a handful of key contributors on defense. Needless to say, McElwain has his work cut out for him this spring. Finding a quarterback is McElwain’s biggest priority, and Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is a name to watch in the battle to start under center. Receiver Antonio Callaway will be even better as a sophomore, but running back Kelvin Taylor is leaving early for the NFL Draft. Improving the offensive line is also a necessity for McElwain after this unit allowed 45 sacks in 2015. The strength of last season’s team was its defense, but lineman Jon Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III leave big shoes to fill.
10 Teams to Watch
Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins (assuming he leaves for the NFL) and tight end Hunter Henry will be difficult to replace. However, coach Bret Bielema has established a solid foundation in Fayetteville to prevent a significant drop-off in 2016.
The Tigers were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2015. Can coach Gus Malzahn get this program back on track? There’s a lot of talent, but Auburn won’t push for a spot in the top 25 without an answer at quarterback.
The Broncos took a step back in coach Bryan Harsin’s second year, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2016. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols return to anchor an explosive offense, and the schedule is favorable with Washington State, Colorado State and Utah State traveling to Boise State.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hurricanes sneak into some preseason top 25 lists with new coach Mark Richt at the controls. Richt will have plenty of talent to work with, including junior quarterback Brad Kaaya and running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby.
Wildcats were anchored by a standout defense in 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team needs more from the offense to contend in the Big Ten West next year.
Willie Taggart has South Florida trending in the right direction after an 8-5 mark in 2015. The Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, while the defense looks to take another step forward under coordinator Tom Allen.
Is 2016 a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M? Landing Trevor Knight as a graduate transfer at quarterback helps to alleviate some of the concern under center, but the Aggies have to take another step forward on defense and find the right answers on the offensive line.
The 8-5 mark by UCLA in 2015 was its lowest win total under coach Jim Mora. However, the Bruins should be USC’s biggest obstacle to a Pac-12 South title next fall. Running back Paul Perkins is gone and the offensive line has a few concerns, but quarterback Josh Rosen is back after a standout freshman season. The defense has holes to fill with the departure of linebacker Myles Jack and tackle Kenny Clark to the NFL.
Justin Fuente was one of the top coaching hires of college football’s coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for a program that’s struggled on that side of the ball in recent years. The defense remains in Bud Foster’s hands, but the line must be overhauled in 2016.
The Badgers quietly won 10 games in 2015, with two of their losses – Northwestern and Iowa – coming by six points or less. And the other loss? Alabama. Running back Corey Clement returns next fall, and the defense returns one of the top linebacker units in college football. However, coordinator Dave Aranda will be missed, a new quarterback must be found, and the secondary loses standouts Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo.