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Found 17 results

  1. The Philadelphia Eagles were not notable for having an amazing wide receiver cops this last season. The Eagles have a first round pick in the 2017 Draft this year thanks to the season that the Minnesota Vikings had and will most likely use it to draft a skill position player whether that be cornerback, running back, or wide receiver. Carson Wentz is a franchise player who needs a franchise wide receiver to throw to and Mike Williams provides a top option for him going forward. His size, speed, incredible jump range and will to win gives him an advantage over all of the receivers that the Eagles currently have on their roster. One obvious advantage that Williams would have if he came to Philadelphia would be the jump ball. Wentz loves to throw high balls and often overthrew his receivers making them uncatchable. Williams is the x-factor that would make those balls catchable at least half of the time. Williams also has a winning mentality. Coming off of an excellent National Championship performance, Williams shows that he is willing to compete even when the odds were not in his favor. If the Eagles were able to draft Williams as well as acquire a receiver through free agency, Wentz and the Eagles offense would already have an arsenal whose skill level is five times better than what they had in 2016. Only three months away until Eagles fans see the future of the franchise and possibly hear Williams name being called in the first round.
  2. The Philadelphia Eagles were not notable for having an amazing wide receiver cops this last season. The Eagles have a first round pick in the 2017 Draft this year thanks to the season that the Minnesota Vikings had and will most likely use it to draft a skill position player whether that be cornerback, running back, or wide receiver. Carson Wentz is a franchise player who needs a franchise wide receiver to throw to and Mike Williams provides a top option for him going forward. His size, speed, incredible jump range and will to win gives him an advantage over all of the receivers that the Eagles currently have on their roster. One obvious advantage that Williams would have if he came to Philadelphia would be the jump ball. Wentz loves to throw high balls and often overthrew his receivers making them uncatchable. Williams is the x-factor that would make those balls catchable at least half of the time. Williams also has a winning mentality. Coming off of an excellent National Championship performance, Williams shows that he is willing to compete even when the odds were not in his favor. If the Eagles were able to draft Williams as well as acquire a receiver through free agency, Wentz and the Eagles offense would already have an arsenal whose skill level is five times better than what they had in 2016. Only three months away until Eagles fans see the future of the franchise and possibly hear Williams name being called in the first round. View full NFL news story
  3. 2016-2017 College Football Preview

    Preseason 1. Alabama: Nick Saban has built the Crimson Tide into the gold standard of college football, annually taking the nation’s top recruiting classes and turning them into highly-touted NFL draft picks. Of course, I made the mistake of betting against them last year. There are questions abound surrounding the quarterback position, but they remain unwarranted: the Tide won three of their past four national titles despite August quarterback concerns. Replacing Derrick Henry isn’t going to be the task many would assume; he tallied an assuming 1,372 yards his first two seasons before breaking out in 2015 and Bo Scarbrough is more than primed to carry the load with Damien Harris as an impactful number two. Whoever is throwing the ball will have NFL-caliber talent in O.J. Howard and receivers ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter (my number one receiving unit). Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has done an exceptional job of opening up things down the field for his talented receiving trio and getting Howard the ball underneath; his National Championship game performance was not a fluke. Returning three starters up front will help the cause as well: can you believe ‘Bama returned two offensive starters last season and still finished number one? The other side of the ball presents more question marks as Alabama has to replace five starters from (arguably) their best front seven ever under Saban. Johnathan Williams and his 12 sacks will anchor the line while Tim Williams is college football’s budding star. Having the nation’s top defensive backs unit aids their cause as well, highlighted by Eddie Jackson and his SEC-leading six interceptions. Any questions surrounding Kirby Smart’s departure can simply turn to the names of Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, and Jim McElwain, all-star assistants on Saban’s coach tree who left for head jobs. Alabama doesn’t rebuild, they reload. 2. Clemson: 2015 was not supposed to be Clemson’s year. There were well-deserved questions surrounding Deshaun Waston’s return from ACL surgery while they were tasked with replacing a whopping eight starters (including two first rounders) from the nation’s number one total defense that also ranked third, fifth, and second in scoring, rushing, and passing respectively. A 14-1 record later, the Tigers were just a touchdown away from their first title since 1981. Watson, the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for 4,000+ yards and run for another 1,000+ in a single season, returns with seven other offensive starters including my third best receiving corp led by Mike Williams, the 6’4,” 220-pounder who returns from a serious neck injury. Three starters on the offensive line return including a more experience Mitch Hyatt, the Tigers’ sophomore left tackle who contributed to the lowly 15 sacks surrendered last season. Running back Wayne Gallman is coming off a school-record 1,527-yard season as one of 2017’s top draft prospects. This offense is loaded with Heisman-favorite Watson at the helm. Brent Venables is undoubtedly the best defensive coordinator in the country, never more evident than their top-25 ranking in scoring, rushing, and passing defense in ’15, while coming in at 10th in total D. Venables is seeing double in 2016 having to replace eight starters including their top two pass rushers and three backfield starters who left for the NFL. Incoming freshman Dexter Lawrence will likely serve as an immediate impact player up front (6’5,” 340 pounds), while linebacker Ben Boulware and corner Cordrea Tankersley are the leaders of this group. Venables trusts his complex scheme because of the smart athletes tasked to play it: they have paced the nation in third defense for the each of the last two seasons. 3. LSU: I’m all in on the Tigers this year. Head coach Les Miles constantly has them on the brink of a national title every year -- they were 7-0 before dropping three straight in ’15 -- but they just can’t seem to get the job done. Their 2016 team has more NFL-ready talent (and 18 returning starter) than anyone not named Alabama with two sophomores in Arden Key and Kevin Tolliver that already appear to be top-10 picks in 2018. Quarterback Brandon Harris looked much improved in his first season as the starter, throwing for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions; that full year of experience should help him build on his 54 completion percentage. Handing the ball off to a tremendous back in Leonard Fournette (1,953 yards, 22 TDs) and throwing to uber-talented receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre will help establish a dominant offense. Three starters return up front anchored by center Ethan Pocic. Miles brings in former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, their third in as many seasons. All Aranda did last year was establish the nation’s top scoring defense last season (13.7 ppg) with half the talent he inherits. Eight defensive starters return from a unit that was one of the youngest in the SEC, a number that was originally nine before losing impactful defensive lineman Christian LaCouture to a season-ending ACL injury two weeks ago. Sophomore defensive end Arden Key is coming off a Freshman All-American season and he looks primed to be college football’s next best pass rusher; linebacker Tim Beckwith will be a junior and a likely first rounder in 2017. In addition, their defensive backfield is one of the country’s best yet again lead by playmakers Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams. 4. Florida State: Winning 10 games is widely considered a good year at most FBS programs. Don’t tell that to head coach Jimbo Fisher whose 10 wins in ’15 were the program’s fewest since 2011-his second season with the Seminoles. They felt the pain of having to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback as Sean Maguire’s struggles (1,520 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions) forced them to turn to my number one rated running back, Dalvin Cook. The Heisman candidate posted a school record 1,691 yards and an ACC-best 19 touchdowns while averaging a whopping 7.4 yards per carry, second most in the nation. Receivers Travis Rudolph (916 yards, seven TDs) and Kermit Whitfield (798 yards, six TDs) return to form one of the nation’s most athletic duos, while three starters return up front lead by junior left tackle Roderick Johnson. Maguire will be pushed by two tremendous athletes and the line will need to take the next step if the offense wishes to achieve the necessary continuity. The ‘Noles have arguably the nation’s most athletic defenses despite losing eight contributors to the NFL. Defensive ends DeMarcus Walker (10.5 sacks) and Josh Sweat to return as the ACC’s most formidable duo with talented linebackers behind them. The second is incredibly loaded lead by sophomore safety Derwin James who led the team with 91 tackles and was second on the team with 4.5 sacks. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the generational talent that Derwin James is as he will likely be a top three pick in the 2018 draft should he declare. Not to be outdone are fellow defensive backs Nate Andrews and Marquez White who bring veteran experience to the group, while true freshman Levonta Taylor looks to replace the gaping hole Jalen Ramsey left at the “Star” position. 5. Oklahoma: Fans in Norman are far too familiar with the pressure of having to meet expectations: the past four times the Sooners have been a preseason top five team, they finished 15th or lower, twice finishing unranked. Nonetheless, Oklahoma only returned 11 starters last season and compiled an 11-2 season and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Guiding Boomer Sooner is their eccentric senior quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Big 12 offensive player of the year who tallied 4,105 total yards in ’15. At his disposal is one of the nation’s best running back tandems in Samaje Perine (1,349 yards) and Joe Mixon (753), backs who will see increased workloads to compensate for the loss in the receiving corp: Duron Neal and Sterling Shepard, one of the school’s most accomplished pass-catchers, are gone. Dede Westbrook is the only returning starter while four of the five starters on the offensive line are sophomores. Mayfield took 41 sacks last season -- some of which were a catalyst of his inability to get rid of the ball on time -- and the line is still relatively inexperienced. The defense’s six returning six starters match that of the offense, but they are tasked with replacing four leaders and essential contributors. Regardless, there shouldn’t be a major drop off in talent as the Sooners had to replace six starters last year and still became the first Big 12 team since 2001 to lead the conference in the four major defensive statistical categories. Defensive tackle Charles Walker and his key stat line (10 tackles for loss, six sacks) return with Jordan Thomas (five interceptions), Steven Parker, and Ahmad Thomas (135 combined tackles) in the back end. Five-star recruit Caleb Kelly was a highly-anticipated signee who may serve as an immediate impact the linebacker spot. 6. Tennessee: This is not a typo: expectations are high in Knoxville as the Vols enter year four of the Butch Jones project. They’re coming off a 9-4 season and return 17 starters for the second straight season (9 offensive, 8 defensive) led by dual-threat passer Josh Dobbs whose 671 rushing yards last season were the most in school history. Despite his accuracy issues, Dobbs’ measly five interceptions were the fewest by a Volunteer starter since some guy by the name of Peyton Manning 20 years prior; Dobbs became just the third SEC quarterback in the last 20 years to throw for 300 yards and add another 100 on the ground in the same game. Massive running back Jalen Hurd (6’4,” 240 pounds) returns after finishing fourth in the SEC with 1,288 yards, while the versatile Alvin Kamara (698 rushing yards, 34 receptions) adds another dimension defenses have to account for. Despite losing receiver Von Pearson, six of the Vols’ next leading receivers return in Kamara, Hurd, receivers Josh Smith, Jauan Jennings, Josh Malone, and tight end Ethan Wolf. They have established continuity up front with fourth returning starters, but starting left tackle Drew Richmond is cause for concern. Regardless, Davis has established a plethora of playmakers. For all the shine the offense garners, the defense is equally as noteworthy. New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has led a defense to a top-25 ranking in each of the last five years and nine of this years 11 starters are juniors or seniors; there is talent and experience abound. Barring injury, Derek Barnett is a first round lock, and his 20 sacks in his first two seasons are a testament to his NFL-ready traits while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has tallied 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons. Six of the front seven starters are back. Cornerback Cameron Sutton anchors the back end of the group, a fiery player that will make a major impact for a unit with serious depth: safety Todd Kelly Jr. has recorded six career interceptions in five starts spanning two seasons. 7. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had a nuclear absurdity of talent last season, and they were easily college football’s most talented team -- their 12 draft picks in April’s draft were tied for sixth most in the draft’s history, all coming in the first four rounds, a modern-day record. A late loss to Michigan State was the only thing that kept them out of the playoff before capping their 12-1 campaign with victories over Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined score of 86-41. J.T. Barrett is primed to lead the Buckeye offense having scored 67 touchdowns in 17 career starts (15-2), but it will be a new-look O: they return just two other starters and will likely start a freshman at running back and right guard. Billy Price and Pat Eiflein are valuable pieces along the line that will lead the youngsters, but 80 percent of Ohio State’s receptions are gone. The roster turnover on the other side of the ball is the exact same having to replace eight starters without a single senior starter. There isn’t a huge reason to fret as defensive Tyquan Lewis will provide much-need production (14 TFL, eight sacks) and linebacker Raekwon McMillian will likely be the first linebacker taken in April. Expectations are sky-high for fellow defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa, younger brother of sack master Joey. Corner Gareon Conley is the lone returner in the secondary and will contribute to a defense that finished second in the nation in scoring. Urban Meyer’s recruiting ability rivals that of Saban and Fisher, and the majority of their 25 true freshmen could see the field at one point or another. 8. Michigan: Coming in one spot below the Buckeyes is going to irk those in Ann Arbor, but the (enter most fitting superlative here) Jim Harbaugh has already built the Wolverines into contenders after going 10-3 in his first season. Quarterback questions are the crux of their questions on the offensive side of the ball having to replace Jake Rudock (3,017 yards, 20 TDs). Leading the pack are Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn, the latter of which was the starting quarterback as a freshman, throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 TDs against 10 INTs before his poor play in 2014 lead to his benching in favor of current star, Greg Ward Jr. Whoever Harabaugh taps will be developed with quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch (look at the work they did with Rudock) and have next-level talent in receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Dobrah and tight end Jake Butt (12.8 yards per catch). Running back De’Veon Smith returns with four quality starters up front coming back to Ann Arbor. Expect Michigan to improve on their 83rd ranking in rushing as they lost three of the four games in which they ran for less than 100 yards. This defense is going to make some serious noise this season. Harbaugh brought in former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown who orchestrated college football’s number one total defense and placed fourth, second, and sixth in scoring, rushing, and passing respectively. His aggressive blitzing and disguised coverage will play right into the hands of Michigan’s talented D. They only return five starters, albeit five that could all be drafted in April led by down players Chris Wormley (end) and Ryan Glasgow (nose tackle). All-everything Jabrill Peppers is the focal point of this defense and will absolutely thrive in Brown’s system; he will make the transition to Mike, but figures to see time at corner and safety due to his unique athleticism. All-American corner Jourdan Lewis is one of the country’s best and he, along with Peppers, may see time on the opposite side of the ball as well. The Wolverines ranked fourth in total D and sixth in scoring in ‘15, so don’t expect much regression. 9. Houston: The Cougars are for real. Despite returning a lowly 11 starters (five offensive, six defensive) last season, Todd Herman turned in one of college football’s best coaching performances by guiding the Cougs to a 13-1 record capped by a victory over the mighty Seminoles in the Peach Bowl. It was easily one of ‘15s most complete game in every facet. Herman and offensive whiz Major Applewhite have developed quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (3,936 total yards and 38 total touchdowns) and his elite dual-threat ability. He takes care of the football (2:1 TD-INT ratio) and possesses accuracy having completed 67 percent of his passes in two years as a starter; it’s difficult to project his NFL ceiling as many of those passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage. They are going to miss running back Kenneth Farrow’s 1,077 yards and 12 TDs from scrimmage, but Duke Carlton was a highly-touted prospect and looks primed to carry the load. The departure of Demarcus Ayers (97-1,221-6) is noticeable, but fellow receivers Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar return as does tight end Tyler McCloskey. The biggest question marks come up front: Houston’s only returner is sophomore center Will Noble with two other sophomores and a freshman penciled in. It’s an inexperienced group, but Ward can make plays and Houston was +21 in the turnover margin last season, second best in the country. Defensively, the losses are key. The secondary lost three of four lead by first round pick William Jackson III who also provided an impact on special teams. The silver lining? The five returners are all seniors while four of the remaining six projected starters are juniors. What’s more, Houston has forced an astounding 108 turnovers since 2013, tops in the nation over that time span (their 35 in ’15 paced the nation). Defensive tackle B.J. Singleton anchors a defense that ranked eighth against the run while linebacker Steven Taylor is a machine that posted a team-high 10 sacks and the second most tackles (92) and TFL (18.5); he also intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles. Taylor and fellow returning linebacker Tyus Bowser combined for 15.5 sacks, contributing to Houston’s AAC-best 36 sacks. Corner Brandon Wilson is the lone returner in the secondary, yet the epitome of a playmaker: he scored two touchdowns in all three phases of the game last season. 10. Notre Dame: “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” The old adage remains true because it disrupts any rhythm your offense hopes to establish -- just ask Ohio State. Notre Dame isn’t nearly as talented as the Buckeyes were last year, so traveling to Texas and hosting Michigan State in the first three weeks of the season will prove to be daunting. Regardless, Brian Kelly will run a platoon system against a Texas team that will likely do the same; the Irish throttled the Longhorns last season, but 2016 may be a different narrative. At the helm of the system is Malik Zaire and Deshone Kizer, the former of which is 5-2 as a starter, but was forced to miss the remainder of the ’15 season after breaking his ankle against Virginia. Enter Kizer who guided the Irish’s fourth quarter comeback against the Cavaliers, finishing 8-3 as the starter with 2,880 yards and 21 touchdowns (10 INTs) through the air and another 525 and 10 on the ground. If they prove to handle Texas, this platoon system could carry over into Week 2 against a Nevada team they should take care of. The 13 receivers on the roster combined for just 48 receptions last season, an alarming amount that could prevent replicating their ’15 success through the air (Torii Hunter Jr. snagged 28 of those passes for 363 yards). The loss of running back C.J. Prosise will be felt, but Tarean Folston returns from a torn ACL and should be ready to go after rushing for 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2014. Sharing the workload will be Josh Adams whose 835 yards last season eclipsed the school record for yards by an Irish freshman. Rounding out their three returning starters is left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey; the three departed starters took 106 combined starts with them. A year after retaining 10 starters on defense, the Irish only get four back in ’16 with a big hole at each level. Defensive end Isaac Rochell is the only down guy returning from defense that finished T-74th in the FBS with 25 sacks; 64 percent of that meager number is gone, putting immense pressure on this unit to do the same against the quarterbacks they’ll face. Senior linebacker James Onwualu’s return is beneficial but he joins Rochell as the only returners along a front seven that will severely miss Jaylon Smith. 56.7 percent of the tackle production is gone as well, but the return of corner Cole Luke and safety Max Redfield are integral boosts to their secondary. 11. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has done a remarkable job in his four years as the Rebels’ coach, posting a 7-6 record in his first season just one year removed from a 2-10 finish. Each season since, they have bettered their record including two consecutive victories over Alabama. Things look bleak in ’16 as an NCAA investigation looms with a loss of three scholarships per season and only 10 returning starters (five offensive, five defensive) a year after losing quality players to the draft. Chad Kelly is their saving grace on offense and sure to make an appearance on every preseason Heisman short list after throwing for 4,402 yards and 31 touchdowns while adding 500 and 10 on the ground. Losing his top target Laquon Treadwell isn’t quite the chore many would think: Damore’ea Stringfellow returns after averaging 14 yards per catch. He is joined by Quincy Adeboyejo, Damarkus Lodge, and tight end Evan Engram to form a quartet that each caught 30+ passes in ’15. There are questions regarding the ground game due to the fact that the Rebels have yet to feature a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009 despite a run-first team predicated on inside and outside zone and RPOs (run-pass options). Replacing a left tackle is never easy, but replacing a cornerstone protector with a true freshman is unprecedented. Ole Miss is expected to replace Laremy Tunsil with 6’6,” 326-pounder Greg Little, the consensus number at said position in last year’s recruiting class. While his build and strength have garnered praise, adjusting to life in the SEC as a freshman will serve as a roll coaster ride; center Sean Rawlings is the only returning starter up front. The nation’s number one scoring defense in 2014 regressed to 33rd last year despite returning seven starters. Three are gone lead by Robert Nkemdiche, but Marquis Haynes and his 10 sacks return with Fadol Brown on the end of the line. In the back end are corners Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster who look to build on a secondary that contributed to a 104th ranking against the pass. 12. Washington: Chris Peterson has been rather unremarkable in his two years as the Huskies’ coach (15-12), but posting a 7-6 record with a true freshman quarterback and six sophomore starters on defense -- what Washington did in ’15 -- is a sign of things to come. Jake Browning is the most decorated prep passer in California state history and wasn’t he even projected to start, eventually winning the job and finishing with 2,955 yards (fifth most in school history) and 16 touchdowns. Behind him is sophomore running back Myles Gaskin who tallied 1,348 yards and 14 touchdowns, both tops amongst freshman runners; he and Browning form one of the nation’s best backfields. At Browning’s disposal are receivers Dante Pettis and John Ross, the speedster who sat out the ’15 campaign with a knee injury, and tight end Darrell Daniels. The trio should help compensate for the loss of their top two pass catchers. The offensive line must improve after allowing 2.54 sacks per game, good for 96th in the FBS, but returning three starters should help accomplish such goal. The defense has been nicknamed “Death Row” and rightfully so: after losing four starters to the 2015 draft, the group rebuilt and allowed the fewest points and yards in the conference. Eight starters are back this year with 6’1,” 321-pound nose tackle Elijah Qualls anchoring the middle of a unit that allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry. Linebacker Azeem Victor is electrifying (95 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and three turnovers), but the real talent is in the secondary. Three of the four starters are back with NFL-ready corners in Sidney Jones and Kevin King (seven combined interceptions) and equally-talented safety Budda Baker (129 tackles, three INTs the last two seasons combined). Peterson and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski have done a tremendous job of developing talent on this side of the ball. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. 13. Georgia: Mark Richt is gone after cementing himself as one the SEC’s most proficient coaches to date, indicative of his 145-51 record, two SEC titles, and 9-5 record in bowl games. National titles are the baseline for the prominent SEC programs, and Richt failed to win such creating a call for change. Enter former Alabama DC Kirby Smart who inherits 14 returning starters (eight offensive, six defensive) and arguably the program’s most highly-anticipated recruit since Herschel Walker. Taking over the reins will not be a simple task as incumbent starter Greyson Lambert went 10-2 last season. Regardless, Nick Chubb is a special talent at running back and looks to return 100 percent healthy from a season-ending knee injury (8.1 yards per carry in his six games) while fellow back Sony Michel, who had surgery to repair a broken arm, has proved he can carry the load after tallying 1,147 yards and eight TDs. Receivers Terry Godwin and Reggie Davis and tight end Jeb Blazevich will serve as key targets for whoever is under center; the line is experienced with two projected junior and senior starters each. The other side of the ball was led by linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and an athletic secondary that allowed the fewest passing yards in the country and the seventh fewest total yards. Jenkins and Floyd are gone, but sophomore defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, widely considered the number one prospect at that position in the ’15 class, is primed for a breakout season. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are tasked with filling the shoes at linebacker, the former who had 4.5 sacks and 18 pressures in ’14 and the latter who tallied three sacks last season. There is serious talent behind them with three returning starters in the secondary, none more vital than junior safety Dominick Sanders (nine career INTs). 14. Stanford: As cringe-worthy as it was to watch quarterback Kevin Hogan throw the football, the Cardinal are going to miss him dearly. He compiled more than 10,000 total yards and 90 touchdowns while posting a 36-10 (12-2 last season) record as a starter with two Rose Bowl victories. Set to replace him is redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst, who has thrown just nine career passes but has six returning starters to help ease the transition. He gets a boost from receivers Michael Rector (34-559-7) and Francis Owusu and tight end Dalton Schultz, a 10 game starter who will fill the void left behind by Austin Hooper. The offensive line only returns two, but the three projected starters are juniors or seniors. Despite all the question marks, Stanford has the most versatile player in college football who, like FSU’s James, fits the bill of every positive superlative in the English language; he set a new NCAA standard with 3,864 all-purpose yards last season, and even threw two touchdowns. The defense featured three returning starters and it showed: they surrendered 22.6 ppg (32nd), 139.9 rushing yards per game (30th), 228.4 passing yards per game (71st), and 368.3 total yards per game (43rd) a year after posting rankings of second, seventh, eighth, and third respectively. With eight returners this season, expect a return to form lead by nose tackle Solomon Thomas. The 6’3,” 275-pound junior is something built in a lab; how many humans that size can broad jump 10’2,” vertically leap 34 inches, cover 40 yards in 4.56 seconds, and bench press 225 pounds 34 times? He looks to build on his 10.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. The Cardinals also return all three linebackers highlighted by Peter Kalambayi and his 52 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. Three starters from the ’15 secondary are back, as is ’14 starting free safety Zach Hoffpauir who spent last season playing minor league baseball (does it get much more athletic?) after tallying 44 tackles and four TFL as a junior. 15. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio has developed Sparty into a winner with a record of 87-33 in nine years, including 11+ wins in four of the last five seasons. Doing so with the most successful quarterback in school history in Connor Cook can make life easier, but he’s gone and has turned the keys over to fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor. The 6’3,” 227-pounder guided MSU to an upset victory over Ohio State last season, and brings veteran experience that shouldn’t present a seismic drop-off. Dantonio will establish pounding run game led by sophomores LJ Scott and Madre London, while junior Gerald Holmes is no slouch; the trio combined for 1,739 yards and 22 TDs. The Spartans’ top two targets are gone, but senior R.J. Shelton (43-503-4) returns and senior tight end Josiah Price (23-267-6) is a red zone threat who looks to play this season fully healthy. Expectations are also sky-high for four-star freshmen receivers Donnie Coley and Cam Chambers. The offensive line has serious question marks after the loss of left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, prompting right tackle Kodi Kieler’s move to center. Now, their tackles have combined to start one career game. Pattern-match schemes are complex and confusing to read, and no one does a better job of executing it than MSU. They finished first against the run and eighth in total yards in ’14, but fell to 11th and 26th last season despite returning seven quality starters. Six are back this season with 6’6,” 280-pound defensive tackle Malik McDowell anchoring a line that held opponents to three yards per carry or less on six occasions; he is a stellar talent who could go top-10 in April. Linebacker Riley Bullough is next in line of a long lineage in East Lansing as a second team All-Big 10 playmaker in ’15 and next to him is Ed Davis who missed the entire year with a torn ACL; he looks to return to 2014 form (12 TFL, seven sacks). The secondary returns three for a unit that could be as talented as their vaunted “No Fly Zone” group in 2013. 16. Louisville: Bobby Petrino enters the third year of his second go-round as the Cardinals’ head man, compiling a 17-9 record; they finished the 2015 campaign 8-5 despite returning only nine starters. 2016 features twice that amount headlined by sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson who, in 12 appearances last season, threw for 1,840 yards and 12 TDs and added another 960 yards and 11 on the ground; his 960 yards broke the schools’ career rushing record. Running back Brandon Radcliff returns after rushing for 634 yards and seven touchdowns, but the receiving duo of Jamari Staples (37-638-3) and James Quick (39-624-5) is imperative to their success through the air. Getting four starters back up front should help as well. Eight starters are back to form one of the nation’s most athletic defenses, allowing the 14th fewest rushing yards and 18th fewest total yards. Sheldon Rankins is gone, but edge rusher DeVonte’ Fields sacked the quarterback 11 times and looks to replicate that success. Productive linebackers Trevon Young (8.5 sacks) and Keith Kelsey (107 tackles) are back with all four starters in the secondary returning. The safeties are incredible athletes: Josh Harvey Clemons (88 tackles, three INTs) is a physically imposing figure at 6’5,” 230 pounds and Chucky Williams finished the year with 62 tackles and three INTs. 17. Oklahoma State: A year after going 7-6, the Cowboys far exceed expectations by going 10-3 and climbing as high as number four in the playoff poll despite starting the season unranked. Head coach Mike Gundy has won 10+ games in three of the last five seasons (12-1 and Big 12 champs in ’11) and this coming season could be his second straight. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is back with eight starters after finishing second in school history with 264 completions on 424 attempts for 3,770 yards (290 yards per game, also second in school history). Barry Sanders Jr. is the projected starter at running back after transferring from Stanford where he rushed for 664 yards in three years, but averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 11 games last season. Slot man David Glidden is gone, but James Washington is a big play threat (20.5 yards per catch, FBS-most four 70+ yard receptions) after hauling in 53 receptions for 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns with Marcell Ateman (17.2 yards per catch, five touchdowns) also back. All five starting offensive linemen are back, a huge boost if they improve: they allowed 32 sacks (90th) and the rushing game averaged 3.58 yards per carry. The defense is going to miss Emmanuel Ogbah as a key contributor to OSU’s 39 sacks, second in the Big 12. Seven starters are back with linebacker Jordan Burton in the middle, but they absolutely must improve after finishing between 87th and 99th in scoring, rushing, passing, and total D; they surrendered 344 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in a 58-23 loss to Oklahoma. Three of the four starters in the secondary are back and combined for five interceptions last season. Safety Jordan Sterns has racked up 211 tackles and 5.5 TFL the last two seasons. 18. UCLA: Josh Rosen is the future of UCLA football. That undeniable truth is supported by the fact that Jim Mora believes the sophomore would’ve been the first quarterback taken in April’s draft had he been eligible. It’s difficult to dispute that. New offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu brings a pro-style offense that better suits Rosen’s skill set and will allow him more freedom at the line. Rosen’s leadership abilities and growth are going to be on full display as he lost four playmakers and a right tackle to the NFL Draft; Rosen joins only three other returning starters. The Bruins have a young, three-headed monster at running back that should replicate the impact Paul Perkins served on the ground (1,343 yards, 13 TDs) and through the air (30-242-1), but the loss of a talented trio of receivers raises some serious questions. Kenny Walker is back after catching a mere nine passes, but he averaged 25.7 yards a catch while corner Ishmael Adams made the switch to receiver and freshman Theo Howard projects to be an essential part of the passing game. The left side of the line is anchored down by Connor McDermott (tackle) and Kenny Lacy (guard), but there is warranted uncertainty at the other spots. The Bruins were gutted last year when they lost three of their best defenders for the majority of the year, but they get seven back highlighted by defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who suffered a torn ACL in their opener. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley was a productive forced last season, racking up 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles as an athletic specimen. Losing linebacker Myles Jack is notable, but the middle of the defense retains Jayon Brown, Kenny Young, and Isaako Savaiinaea, with Deon Hollins coming off the edge. Rounding out the unit is one of the nation’s most athletic secondaries with safeties Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth and corner Marcus Rios coming back; fellow corner Fabian Moreau was one of the aforementioned players lost for the ’15 season (Lisfranc injury in Week 3), so his return is much-anticipated. 19. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz is synonymous with Iowa Hawkeye football, but after a rather unremarkable 16 seasons and equally unremarkable four-year mark of 26-25, 2015 was a make-or-break year for the head coach. He answered the bell, responding with a 12-2 record and Rose Bowl appearance despite returning only 10 starters and breaking in a new starting quarterback. C.J. Beathard was stellar and efficient in ’15, throwing for 2,809 yards and 17 TDs with a QBR of 139.5; he also threw 155 consecutive passes without an interception. Departed running back Jordan Canzeri accumulated 1,192 yards and 13 TDs from scrimmage, but LeShun Daniels Jr. ran for 646 and eight while Beathard added 237 and six; speedster Akrum Wadley will provide a nice compliment to Daniels. Beathard has quality targets in receiver Matt VandeBerg (65-703-4) and tight end George Kittle who will smoothly fill the void left by Henry Krieger-Coble after snagging 20 balls for 290 yards and six TDs. The offensive line features four players who logged multiple starts last season. The Hawkeyes were stout on the other side of the ball, finishing 19th in scoring, 15th against the run, and 22nd in total D. They get five starters back including Jaeel Johnson and Nathan Bazata in the middle; Johnson registered 5.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks while Bazata tallied five and two. Linebacker Josey Jewell enters his second year as a starter after compiling nine tackles per game (35th) and solidifying his playmaking abilities: 7.5 TFL, three sacks, four INTs, and a forced fumble. The biggest boost (undoubtedly) comes from corner Desmond King who chose to return for his senior year after picking off eight passes and making 72 tackles en route to the Thorpe Award. Opposite him is Greg Mabin (two INTs, six pass breakups, and one forced fumble) with Miles Taylor at strong safety. 20. North Carolina: After beginning the 2015 season with a forgettable loss to South Carolina, the Heels reeled off 11 straight wins to earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game against the Clemson. They came within a terrible call on an onside kick from a playoff birth. If they wish to achieve such, they will have to do it without Marquise Williams, a three-year starter who compiled more than 10,000 total yards and 96 touchdowns. Stepping in is the capable Mitch Trubisky who has seven returning starters at his disposal, none better than running back Elijah Hood (1,463 yards, 17 TDs); the 6-foot, 220-pounder squatted an astounding 635 pounds in the summer before his sophomore year and has the talent to be a first-round pick. They would like to have Quinshad Davis back, but the trio of Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins combined for 113 receptions for 1,926 yards and 18 TDS; the ever-elusive Switzer is also the game’s most lethal returner, but Hollins has big-play ability (24.8 yards per catch). Four starters are back up front to form a veteran line with four seniors and a junior. The Heels were one of college football’s most explosive offenses with an FBS-best 7.3 yards per play, so don’t expect much less. Gene Chizik worked wonders in his first year as the defensive coordinator, shaping a defense that went from allowing 39 points per game in ’14 to 24.5 this past season. The run defense proved to be their demise, allowing 319 and 645 in their final two games against Clemson and Baylor respectively; they finished 121st in total run defense. Retaining three of your four starting down guys is a major boost, but they have to replace all three linebackers. The secondary turned in an apt performance last year as the catalyst for their 18th ranking in passing defense, and they are led by corners Des Lawrence (two INTs, 12 PBUs) and M.J. Stewart (2.5 TFL, one sack, four INTs, 10 PBUs, and a forced fumble). Half of North Carolina’s opponents can run the football and facing three NFL-ready backs in the first five weeks is going to push them to their limits. 21. TCU: The Horned Frogs are bona fide winners thanks in part to Gary Patterson’s resurrection of the program, going 143-47 in 16 years with a 23-3 mark in the last two seasons. They have quarterback Trevone Boykin to thank for the two-year stretch, a serious athlete who was able to bail them out of peril. Boykin is gone, along with seven other starters, leaving Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer as their best options. Many remember Hill replacing Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M where he broke Manziel’s single-game passing yard record with 511 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start. Following his second start against Lamar (283 yards, three TDs), Hill and the offense began to collapse, eventually leading to his benching and suspension for violating team rules. Speedster KaVontae Turpin is back at receiver (45-649-8), but the rest of the corp is inexperienced and lacking the true number one Josh Doctson was. Boykin and running back Aaron Green were the teams’ top two rushers, leaving Kyle Hicks to serve as the Frogs’ main rusher. Up front, only left tackle Joseph Noteboom is back to round out an offense that will struggle to match their finishing spots of seventh and third in scoring and total offense respectively. There is help defensively with seven returning starters lead by book ends Josh Carraway (nine sacks) and James McFarland (seven sacks in ’14), the latter who missed all of last season with a broken toe. The team’s leading tackler, linebacker Travin Howard, is back with fellow linebacker Montrel Wilson and should help shore up a defense that was 64th in scoring and 63rd in total defense; Howard also finished with 9.5 TFL (third on team), three sacks (third), and three forced fumbles (first). The secondary returns two highlighted by the team’s leader in TFL, safety Denzel Johnson (13.5). 22. Oregon: Tasked with replacing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, head man Mark Helfrich (33-8 in three years) turned to Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams. Their Week 1 victory featured an injury on Adams’ throwing hand that caused a serious blow to morale; it’s safe to assume Adams completes this throw sans injury and the Ducks make a run at a second straight championship appearance. The Ducks will turn to another FCS star in Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, an ideal fit for their offense. Having one of the nation’s most productive backs in Royce Freeman (1,838 yards and 17 TDs on the ground, 348 and two through the air) will prove to be a tremendous asset, while fellow backs Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin, and Tony Brooks-James all averaged seven yards per carry last season. Receiver Bralon Addison is gone, but Darren Carrington snagged 32 passes for 609 yards and six TDs in only seven games and is joined by Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson, and tight end Evan Baylis. There is no shortage of playmakers on this team. The loss of center Matt Hegarty was fully evident in their loss against TCU-now he must be replaced for a full year. Tackles Tyrell Crosby and Cameron Hunt are back, but the interior success looks bleak. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost is gone, too, putting Oregon’s nine-year streak of at least eight wins in serious jeopardy. The loss of center Matt Hegarty was fully evident in their loss against TCU-now he must be replaced for a full year. Tackles Tyrell Crosby and Cameron Hunt are back, but the interior success looks bleak. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost is gone, too, putting Oregon’s nine-year streak of at least eight wins in serious jeopardy. As was usually the case under Don Pellum, the defense was horrendous (115th in scoring, 73rd in passing, 125th in rushing, 118th in total) and led to his demotion to linebackers’ coach. Replacing him is former Michigan head man Brady Hoke and his 4-3 scheme that will suit the defense better having lost their second straight 6’7” down guy (DeForest Buckner). In total, five starters are back with only two coming in the front seven. The back part has unquestioned athleticism, but were forced to play early and were ultimately exposed. Corners Arrion Springs and Chris Seisay and safety Tyree Robinson are now juniors and combined for five interceptions. Nelson (two INTs) should continue to see time at corner, while Ugo Amadi picked off two passes in his 10 games as a freshman. 23. Washington State: The Air Raid is alive and well in Pullman, and head man Mike Leach doesn’t appear to stop anytime soon. Quarterback Luke Falk is back after guiding the nation’s top passing attack to a 9-4 season, their most since 2003. He is a highly-regarded draft prospect who looks to lead 13 other returning starters (eight offensive, six defensive), most notably receiver Gabe Marks who paced the team in receptions (104), yards (1,192) and touchdowns (15). Having fellow 1,000-yarder Dom Williams would be appreciated, but River Cracraft (53-615-4) and Robert Lewis (43-490-1) create a formidable trio. Leading rusher Gerard Wicks is back following a 610-yard season, the most for a Cougar back since 2007, but buzz-worthy freshman James Williams will see valuable time as well. The offensive line also features three returning starters. A year after posting marks of 114th in scoring, 124th in passing, and 97th in total D, coordinator Alex Grinch brought those finishes down to 74th, 64th, and 84th respectively. Six returning starters are back again, four appearing in an extremely talented secondary featuring one of the nation’s best safeties in Shalom Luani (90 tackles, three TFL, four INTs, two forced fumbles). Corner Marcellus Pippins is back after intercepting three passes and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Peyton Pelluer (101, 11 TFL), joins him. 24. Baylor: The Bears were well on their way to a national title with an offense firing like it never had before (63.8 points per game in their first six games). It came crashing to an unfortunate stop when quarterback Seth Russell (2,104 passing yards and 29 TDs) broke a bone in his neck and the team dropped three of the last five. Speaking of firing, head man Art Briles is gone after a disturbing sexual assault scandal that puts Jim Grobe in charge. The loss of receivers Jay Lee and Corey Coleman will not be replicated, but KD Cannon (50-868-6) is an absolute vertical threat that will be heavily relied upon. The offense will once again establish the run first (second in the nation last year) as 1,000-yard rushers Shock Linwood (1,329 and 10 TDs) and Johnny Jefferson (1,000 and eight) return. Russell added 402 and six on the ground while fellow backs Devin Chaffin and Terence Williams combined for 1,139 yards and 12 TDs. Seismic losses will be felt along the line (Shawn Oakman, Andrew Bilings) as ferocious linebacker Taylor Young is the only returner in the front seven; he finished with 80 tackles and 13.5 TFL. The other four starters are in the defensive backfield, led by nickel back and absolute playmaker Trayvon Blanchard (83 tackles, 7.5 TFL, two sacks, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles). Safeties Chance Waz and Orion Stewart combined for 134 tackles and 2.5 TFL, important back ends. The starters and projected starters feature 10 juniors and seniors, and their success is heavily dependent on that experience and leadership. 25. San Diego State: It’s too soon to claim that the Aztecs have dethroned Boise State as the Mountain West master, but they’re making a strong case. Rocky Long guided SDSU to an 11-3 season that ended with 10 straight victories and a 42-7 throttling of Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl. Christian Chapman filled the void left by injured starter Maxwell Smith in the final two games and looks primed to start full-time. There is little pressure on the sophomore thanks to his indescribably talented running back Donnel Pumphrey who tallied 2,067 yards and 20 TDs from scrimmage as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Receivers Mikah Holder (24-439-6) and Chase Favreau and tight end Daniel Brunskill return to give Chapman a valuable receiving corp. Three senior starters are also back along the line (seven total on offense) led by NFL-ready guard Nico Siragusa. The Aztecs also had the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year in running back Rashaad Penny who registered 488 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage. Long also serves as the defensive coordinator of a unit that was supreme in ’15, finishing seventh in scoring and rushing, tenth in passing, and fifth in total defense; they also paced the FBS in turnover margin. They match of offensive starters coming back beginning with defensive end Alex Barrett who tallied 12 TFL, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Linebacker Calvin Munson was a precious aspect of their defensive philosophy, leading the team in tackles (98), TFL, (15), and sacks (10.5) while intercepting two passes; he is truly an invaluable piece of this team. The last level gets all four starters back, highlighted by the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (SDSU was the only FBS team to have a conference’s Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams POY) Damontae Kazee, a corner who was tied for second in the nation with eight INTs. Safety Malik Smith made five stops behind the line and picked off five passes. Where They’ll Finish 1. LSU: Like I said: I’m all in on the Tigers. Returning the nation’s most starters is one thing, but having at least half of them as NFL-ready talent is another. The SEC West is going to yet again be a daunting task, but they will likely be favored in all 12 games save for ‘Bama, who they at home, and Florida, a talented team that the Tigers have to play in Gainesville; they open against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, but Miles and Co. should handle the Badgers. LSU’s true test will, of course, be the Crimson Tide who’ve had their number for five years straight, but the narrative should shift: Harris’ development will remove the burden Fournette was asked to carry in that game last year that simply wasn’t going to work from the jump (1.6 yards per carry). He has weapons at his disposal and a defense that faces a new quarterback and running back that dominated the Tigers in ’15 (210 yards, three TDs). Expect the defense to better its’ ranking of 10th in the SEC (24.3 ppg) and give Miles his first national title since 2007. 2. Clemson: The Tigers are locked and loaded, and a plethora of offensive talent is only going to better their cause. Only four starters are back on defense, but as I mentioned earlier, they only had three coming back last season so I don’t expect a season-altering drop in talent. Opening at Auburn is tough and Louisville and Pitt are improved, but they get the latter two at home. The real test comes in Tallahassee against an improved, athletic Seminoles team that played them close last season and features another high-impact recruiting class; Jimbo Fisher is going to have his team ready to play and attack an offensive line that allowed one sack a game. I believe Louisville and Auburn could give them some trouble, but facing the ‘Noles on the road will ultimately make the Tigers the underdogs in Vegas. Clemson should earn a birth in the ACC Championship and claim their second straight conference title, but I think LSU has too much firepower on both side of the ball and a more experienced head coach to give them an edge. 3. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh is alive and well in Ann Arbor. Jake Rudock transitioned from a guy you could win with to a guy you won because of (see the last five games of their season), and that quarterback development shouldn’t change regardless of who wins the starting nod this season. They will get to 7-0 before their first true test of the season, a matchup in East Lansing to take on the Spartans that Michigan should avenge after a fluke loss in ’15; the Spartans have to replace key talent and I’m not sure they have the depth to take down the Wolverines. Traveling to Iowa and Ohio State in final three weeks doesn’t do them many favors, but the Hawkeyes are truly the only team I feel will give Michigan a run for their money. History is against them as they have not beaten the Buckeyes and the Spartans in the same season since 2003, but the conference lost valuable talent and is now vulnerable. The defense finished top-10 in three major categories, so replicating that success with six returning starters and an intelligent new DC is paramount to their success. 4. Tennessee: This is the season Vols fans have been waiting for: it’s the culmination of Jones’ recruiting and developing; they also enter the ’16 campaign after winning six straight to end the year. Shoop has incredible athletes in front of him and is expected to refine a defense that was above average last season, but brings back a number of key starters. The offense should click early, Tennessee faces a brutal four-week stretch against Florida, at Georgia and Texas A&M, and finally hosting Alabama. The Vols have dropped 11 straight to the Gators including a one-point defeat at the Swamp last season, while their matchup against the Bulldogs has been decided by a touchdown or less the last four seasons. The Aggies are one of the nation’s best teams no one is talking about (for the right reasons) and Bama is…well, Bama; the Vols have dropped nine straight against them. The theme for Tennessee’s 2016 campaign is "finish" -- all four losses were by seven points or less featuring three blown leads in the final five minutes. With an electric backfield and a defense littered with NFL talent, Tennessee should eclipse 11 wins. 5. Alabama: Betting against Alabama is understandably unwise. Quarterback questions seem to plague everyone except the Tide and they return four more offensive starters from just two last seasons, while featuring multiple NFL-ready starters. The difference this year begins with the loss of Henry and center Ryan Kelly; Henry’s won’t be replicated and Kelly was the unquestionable leader of that offensive line. They are also expected to start a freshman at right tackle and sophomores at center and left guard and we don’t know how good Cooper Bateman is going to be at quarterback. Most importantly, the conference schedule is a grinder: they have to travel to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU. Seeing them escape that quartet of matchups with at least two losses is not unfathomable, particularly considering that the Rebels have had Bama’s number for two straight years and three of the last four games against LSU have decided by only a touchdown or less. The Tide should have little issue with USC in the opener, but the SEC West is wide open from there. 6. Florida State: If you’re looking for (arguably) the nation’s most athletic defense, look no further: this unit was ninth in scoring last year and they will bring back six starters. There are uncertainties on the offense due to quarterback Sean Maguire’s surgery to repair a broken ankle, but also regarding his play if he is fully healthy. He was less than stellar and it ultimately led to a heavy reliance on their star running back who also missed most of the spring with shoulder surgery; Maguire could be beaten out by the untested redshirt freshman, Deondre Francois. The ‘Noles also lose the NCAA’s most historically productive kicker in Roberto Aguayo who bailed them out of tough situations. The schedule begins with a tall task against Ole Miss in Orlando before road games against Miami and Louisville, but drawing Clemson and North Carolina. Florida State has authentic National Championship potential, but their quarterback play is too unpredictable at the moment. Hopefully they don’t stroll into their opener with a lull after suffering a demoralizing loss against Houston to complete the 2015 campaign. 7. Washington: The Huskies and Chris Peterson are a perfect a marriage, a tremendous recruiter who has strung together increasingly improved recruiting classes. Entering the 2016 season following a season-ending three game win streak is a confidence booster. Browning and Gaskin are a formidable duo that will have the country on notice and the other six starters will support the two. The defense was 13th in scoring and 19th against the run with NFL-caliber defenders, Washington’s M.O. They suffered an opening season defeat against Peterson’s former employer Boise State last season, but host a Rutgers team they should coast past. Getting Stanford and USC home are pluses -- they lost by two touchdowns in Palo Alto last year -- while traveling to Oregon and Utah aren’t the same tasks they were last year. The season finale against Washington State is in Pullman, but the Huskies pummeled the Cougars 45-10; that same margin isn’t expected, but the result is. Peterson and Co. reach at least 10 wins. 8. Iowa: After the countless years of finishing around the .500 mark, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes achieve their second consecutive double-digit win season. Beathard has quietly developed into one of the game’s top NFL-prospects, and with talent at the other offensive units, he should string together a tremendous season. Although five returning starters could present some challenges, they are extremely efficient and three of those returning starters are in a secondary that helped the Hawkeyes finish 11th in turnover margin. The schedule presents very little issues: the Big 10 West’s talent is nearly nonexistent-Iowa’s five conference opponents went 10-30 in conference play last season and they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. Traveling to Ann Arbor won’t be a cakewalk, but they certainly have a shot particularly if the Wolverines don’t have their quarterback situation aligned. The Hawkeyes’ third game presents an intriguing matchup against the North Dakota State Bison, FCS National Champions for the last five years who sport an 8-3 record over FBS programs since 2006. While the Bison have to replace a megastar at quarterback and this is the best FBS team they’ve faced by far, anything can happen in college football. 9. Houston: The top "Group of 5" team is not taking any steps back. They return the same amount of starters from a year ago with an even better Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback and a schedule with only two road bumps against Oklahoma and Louisville, both at home (their opener against the Sooners is at NRG Stadium, but is still technically a home game considering the stadium is in Houston). The Cougars’ only blemish last year came at UConn in a game that Ward left after throwing only four passes; don’t expect that same slip-up this season. Herman also guided the Cougars to a victory in Louisville, 34-0 blanking of SEC foe Vanderbilt, and a dominant 38-24 defeat of Florida State. They are a confident bunch with swagger heading into the ’16 season. Their potent offense and feisty defense will be tested early, but splitting the aforementioned road bumps is very feasible. 10. Louisville: This team was off to a rather inauspicious start with a 0-3 record to begin the ’15 campaign, but found its stride by winning six of their last seven to finish 8-5. Along the way, they found their star quarterback in Jackson while featuring a defense that has finished in the top 25 in total D the last three years. This team came within three points of knocking off Clemson in 2015 and six in 2014, but they have to travel to Death Valley this time around; home games against Houston and Florida State are beneficial as well. Per Phil Steele, 99.8 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive output returns along with eight defensive starters to form one of the nation’s most experienced team with momentum. Eleven wins are on the horizon. 11. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys raced out to a 10-0 start before dropping their last three by 73 combined points. They bring back veteran experience (16 returning starters) lead by one of the program’s most prolific passers and all five starters up front; they must better their ability to keep Rudolph upright if they wish to have success through the air. Featuring the school’s most decorated kickers is a luxury most school would love to have. Pittsburgh and Texas come to Stillwater, but they are both improved and talented while the Pokes have to face Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma on the road. Baylor and Oklahoma lost valuable pieces and are certainly susceptible to defeat, but they must build on their ability to stop the run. Eleven wins is their ceiling as Gundy gets his fourth double-digit win season in six years. 12. North Carolina: I’m admittedly higher on the Heels than most, but they have weapons who can score points, in turn making Trubisky’s job easier for a first-year starter. Head coach Larry Fedora also knows how to maximize their offensive ability with a smart system that will allow everyone to thrive. The defense was weak against the run, but 42nd in scoring and 18th against the pass in Chizik’s first season -- up from 116th and 101st respectively in ’14. Seven starters are back on defense with an understanding of Chizik’s system which should ignite even more success but remains paramount to their success. North Carolina opens against Georgia in Atlanta -- a road game for all intents and purposes -- that is a bit of a tossup on paper, but the ‘Dawgs will likely be favored in Vegas. Pitt comes to Chapel Hill, but Florida State and Miami don’t; the Heels finish that quartet at 2-2 at worst en route to a second straight ACC Championship appearance. 13. Oklahoma: Boomer Sooner was a train last year as they made an unlikely run at the playoff before being derailed by Clemson. Mayfield is a Heisman Trophy contender with a two-headed monster at running back and six starters back on defense, but the holes they have to fill are massive. Starting on offense, two of his three top targets on gone -- vital ones at that -- as are his two best protectors on a line that is projected to start four sophomores. The losses are far more pivotal on defense, having to replace the heart of the defense in linebacker Eric Striker and focal points defensive end Charles Tapper (three-time all-conference selection), linebacker Dominique Alexander (three-year starter), and corner Zack Sanchez (fourth in school history in INTs). They also travel to Houston to open the season and TCU in game four, while hosting Ohio State in Week 3; it’s not a stretch to see the Sooners enter their matchup against Texas, who defeated them last year, at 2-2. The schedule does do them favors by getting Baylor and Oklahoma State in Norman, but Stoops has a well-documented history of failing to meet preseason expectations. 14. Ohio State: This is a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes. They return fewer starters than any other FBS program (six) which will lead to Meyer playing some, if not most, of his heralded recruits. Barrett is going to thrive in Meyer’s system like his predecessor Braxton Miller did and will serve as the offensive cornerstone, similar to that of McMillan on defense. They draw Nebraska, Northwestern, and Michigan in Columbus, but traveling to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State will test the Buckeyes; excluding Oklahoma, they face those opponents in five of the last six games. Meyer’s coaching ability is going to be on full display this year, and they may need to be victorious in their bowl game to reach 10 wins. 15. Stanford: Much of Stanford’s success depends on McCaffrey more than ever with the loss of Hogan and it may prove to be to be too much. Hogan was a capable runner that defenses had to account for, and it’s unsure whether Chryst will provide the same effect. The middle to left side of the line is brand new, but Chryst still has viable receiving options. The defense was above average as a unit, but they can afford to improve their third down D (45th) and turnover margin (65th). The first half of the season will prove tough for the Cardinal to make it through unscathed, featuring trips to UCLA, Washington, and Notre Dame; they also have to travel to Eugene to take on a Ducks team that defeated them at home last season. Stanford made it to the Rose Bowl in Hogan’s first year as a starter and he didn’t have a player in the same stratosphere of McCaffrey’s caliber at his disposal. An improved Pac-12 North and non-conference games against Kansas State and Notre Dame make the possibility an unfavorable one. 16. UCLA: The proverbial Pac-12 South favorites have a fringe-generational talent at quarterback; his ability to lift a depleted receiving corp will shed the fringe label. The Bruins have three other joining Rosen as the returning starters, so expect the defense to anchor this team if they can improve on a 54th finishing in scoring and 67th finish in total D. The loss of Ka’imi Fairbairn is noteworthy, proving to be one of the nation’s top kickers as a freshman is slotted to replace him. The Bruins were off to a 7-2 start before dropping three of their last four, capped by two uninspiring finishes in which the Bruins looked disinterested. UCLA opens at Texas A&M before traveling to BYU two weeks later -- two challenging games to begin the season -- but there is no Oregon and Washington on the schedule with Stanford at home. Ten wins is likely their ceiling, but 11 isn’t impossible. 17. Ole Miss: Fans in Oxford are expecting more excitement come fall, but it comes with tempered expectations. They return the SEC’s fewest starters for a team that was heavily reliant on those stars, especially on defense. Regardless, Kelly leads an offense that finished eighth in scoring and 10th in both passing and total O for an offense that beats opponents with deception; they will feature athletic down guys once again on defense equally athletic defensive backs. Freeze has done a tremendous job of recruiting and he’s not averse to playing freshman, but it’s still the SEC West. The first four weeks feature games against Florida State, Alabama, and Georgia, but the Rebels’ have posted six upsets in the last three years, three over ranked teams -- anything can happen in those three matchups. Road trips against Arkansas, LSU, and Texas A&M don’t make things easier, but Kelly tore LSU apart with 361 total yards and four TDs a year ago. Improving the win total for a fifth straight year is unlikely, but don’t count the Rebels out. 18. San Diego State: SDSU stumbled out of the gates, dropping three straight against Cal, South Alabama, and Penn State to begin 1-3. 10 straight wins and a Mountain West Championship later, the Aztecs finished with the nation’s second-longest winning streak behind Alabama’s 12. Chapman is just a sophomore in his first full year as a starter, but he won’t be asked to beat teams with his arm in a “ground-and-pound” type offense. Pumphrey is as good as they come while Penny adds another dimension to an offense that finished 14th in the FBS. Defense is their M.O. and six starters return on a unit that is experienced as any in the defensive backfield (three senior starters, one junior). They host Cal and travel to Northern Illinois in two of the first three weeks, winnable games that could propel them into the playoff following a second straight MW Championship. 19. Notre Dame: Kelly will straighten out his quarterback situation and either one is a capable winner, but there are near-insurmountable losses on the line and at the receiving corp; most of the defensive production has left as well. Luckily, the Irish did a fine recruiting job and may see solid production from their freshman. Opening at Texas is much more difficult than most expect and they end the year at USC, although home games against Michigan State, Stanford, and Miami aid their cause. A lot of their success rides on the quarterback play, a testament to their 2015 campaign that saw them finish the regular season 10-2 with both losses coming by a combined four points at Clemson and at Stanford. They must get to the quarterback more often and avoid the injury bug as often as possible, otherwise, Notre Dame’s window is 8-10 wins. 20. Miami (FL): The ‘Canes are back under new head coach Marck Richt. He inherits 16 returning starters (10 offensive, six defensive) led by star quarterback Brad Kaaya and some lethal weapons in running back Joseph Yearby (1,002 rushing yards and six TDs, 23 receptions for 273 yards and two touchdowns) and receiver Stacy Coley (47-689-4); fellow running back Mark Walton (754 yards, 10 TDs from scrimmage) and tight end David Njoku (21-362-1) are also back. Kaaya will also be protected by all five returning starters up front. To win games, however, Miami must improve their 117th rated running game. The D returns six, featuring massive linebacker Al-Quadin Muhammad (6’4,” 250 pounds; 8.5 TFL and five sacks) and corner Corn Elder, an impactful punt returner who picked off two passes and registered two sacks; safety Rayshawn Jenkins is also back after recording three interceptions. Richt also compiled the nation’s 21st best recruiting class according to 247Sports, hauling in linebacker and slotted starter Shaquille Quarterman. The defense struggled to stop opponents from scoring (77th) and running on them (101st), key areas new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will focus on. They get Pitt, North Carolina, and Florida State at home (they beat the Panthers and played the ‘Noles close in Tallahassee, but got obliterated by the Heels) and there is no Clemson on the schedule. On the other hand, those three games are sandwiched by consecutive road trips against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Double-digit wins are a real possibility for the first since 2003. 21. Michigan State Dantonio and the Spartans defeated Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan on their way to College Football Playoff, their only loss a wild, questionable ending against the Cornhuskers; the Spartans were ultimately blanked 38-0 by Alabama. Now they have to replace a senior class that won 36 games, two conference titles, and a Rose Bowl. Yikes. The program is high on O’Connor, but experience matters and Cook’s was extremely valuable, and he only gets returning starters on offense. The defense needs to improve after what was a disappointing season by their standards as they will expect much from their six returners. The Spartans are 6-2 against top-10 opponents since 2013, but they have dropped four of its last five games against Notre Dame, their second matchup in South Bend. The good news is that their toughest opponents (Northwestern, Wisconsin, BYU, Michigan, and Ohio State) have to play in Spartan Stadium and their toughest road game is Penn State. On the flip side, all seven games will be heavy-hitters. Expect nine wins from Sparty this season. 22. Pittsburgh: The Panthers are my surprise team this season despite the loss of wideout Tyler Boyd. Nathan Peterman is back after throwing for 2,287 yards and 20 TDs against eight interceptions in his first full-time stint. He will get the 2014 ACC OPOY James Conner back at running back after sitting out last season with a knee injury; Conner was later diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, but made a full recovery, serving as a true inspiration. Dontez Ford isn’t the receiver Boyd was, but he still snagged 26 passes for 505 yards and two touchdowns while tight end Scott Orndoff saw five of his 13 receptions go for scores. Most importantly, four starting offensive linemen are back with a left side as good as anyone. Defensively, seven starters are back from a unit that surrendered 26.1 ppg (57th) last year, led by defensive end Ejuan Price, the team’s leader in TFL (19.5) and sacks (11.5). Pitt dropped five games last year, but three (North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Iowa) came by a combined 22 points. Two of the first four matchups are consecutive road trips against Oklahoma State and North Carolina before November road games against Miami and Clemson; they’ll be lucky to get two wins out of that stretch. Pat Narduzzi won eight games in Year One, and should see nine in ’16. 23. Georgia: Whoever starts at quarterback won’t be asked to do much the duo of Chubb and Michel, but none of that matters if the two aren’t 100 percent come September. Lambert was a capable and efficient starter (63.3 completion percentage, 1,953 yards, and 12 TDs versus two INTs), so there isn’t an immediate need to play Eason. Defensively, Smart is going to maximize his six returning starters from a unit that allowed a mere 16.9 PPG. There is no Alabama on the schedule and the Bulldogs get Tennessee at home, but they open against a stout North Carolina team, travel to Oxford, and face tricky matchups against Florida and Auburn. The last eight head coaches hired in the SEC have an average of seven first-season wins, but Smart could potentially see nine. 24. Washington State: There’s no secret to what the Cougars are trying to do on offense, but they are incredibly efficient so good luck trying to stop them; it’s difficult to blitz them because Falk is great at throwing hot and he has a talented receiving corp. They also scored on 94.5 percent of their red zone opportunities, second in the FBS and a proponent of their efficiency. Six defensive starters should help the unit progress, but there’s no need to transform the unit into a stalwart with an offense that returns eight, can outduel all of their opponents, and run the ball efficiently. The schedule isn’t particularly difficult, but their first two matchups against Eastern Washington and at Boise State will provide intrigue. They get Oregon, UCLA, and Washington at home and their lone road challenge is against Stanford. Nine wins is in their future, but don’t be shocked if they make a deep run. 25. USC: We finish the rankings with another Pac-12 school that endured another disappointing season. Cody Kessler was an illustrious Trojan passer, but he is gone and will be replaced by Max Browne. The junior quarterback has serious help: the Trojans return nine starters highlighted by a top running back duo in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II -- they combined for 2,117 yards and 16 TDs from scrimmage -- and a top NFL prospect in receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The other side of the ball has to improve if they wish to be competitive, finishing 65th in total D and 93rd against the pass while allowing 40+ points four separate times. Su’a Cravens was an immense part of their schematic philosophy, lining up in multiple spots, but they still get six starters back including playmaker Cameron Smith (linebacker) and three defensive backs; Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall are a seriously athletic duo and another year experienced. ‘SC will be tested early and often, opening against Alabama in Jerry World that I have the Tide winning by two scores: under Saban, ‘Bama has won their last four neutral site openers by 20 points. Their game against UCLA is a true “away” game, but Stanford and Washington are and the Trojans are 15-13 in all road games the past four seasons; Oregon and Notre Dame are on the schedule again, albeit at home. With one of the country’s toughest schedules, any more than nine wins seems undoable, and may take a bowl victory to reach. Next Five: Boise State, Northwestern, Florida, Baylor, Arizona
  4. Preseason 1. Alabama: Nick Saban has built the Crimson Tide into the gold standard of college football, annually taking the nation’s top recruiting classes and turning them into highly-touted NFL draft picks. Of course, I made the mistake of betting against them last year. There are questions abound surrounding the quarterback position, but they remain unwarranted: the Tide won three of their past four national titles despite August quarterback concerns. Replacing Derrick Henry isn’t going to be the task many would assume; he tallied an assuming 1,372 yards his first two seasons before breaking out in 2015 and Bo Scarbrough is more than primed to carry the load with Damien Harris as an impactful number two. Whoever is throwing the ball will have NFL-caliber talent in O.J. Howard and receivers ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter (my number one receiving unit). Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has done an exceptional job of opening up things down the field for his talented receiving trio and getting Howard the ball underneath; his National Championship game performance was not a fluke. Returning three starters up front will help the cause as well: can you believe ‘Bama returned two offensive starters last season and still finished number one? The other side of the ball presents more question marks as Alabama has to replace five starters from (arguably) their best front seven ever under Saban. Johnathan Williams and his 12 sacks will anchor the line while Tim Williams is college football’s budding star. Having the nation’s top defensive backs unit aids their cause as well, highlighted by Eddie Jackson and his SEC-leading six interceptions. Any questions surrounding Kirby Smart’s departure can simply turn to the names of Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, and Jim McElwain, all-star assistants on Saban’s coach tree who left for head jobs. Alabama doesn’t rebuild, they reload. 2. Clemson: 2015 was not supposed to be Clemson’s year. There were well-deserved questions surrounding Deshaun Waston’s return from ACL surgery while they were tasked with replacing a whopping eight starters (including two first rounders) from the nation’s number one total defense that also ranked third, fifth, and second in scoring, rushing, and passing respectively. A 14-1 record later, the Tigers were just a touchdown away from their first title since 1981. Watson, the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for 4,000+ yards and run for another 1,000+ in a single season, returns with seven other offensive starters including my third best receiving corp led by Mike Williams, the 6’4,” 220-pounder who returns from a serious neck injury. Three starters on the offensive line return including a more experience Mitch Hyatt, the Tigers’ sophomore left tackle who contributed to the lowly 15 sacks surrendered last season. Running back Wayne Gallman is coming off a school-record 1,527-yard season as one of 2017’s top draft prospects. This offense is loaded with Heisman-favorite Watson at the helm. Brent Venables is undoubtedly the best defensive coordinator in the country, never more evident than their top-25 ranking in scoring, rushing, and passing defense in ’15, while coming in at 10th in total D. Venables is seeing double in 2016 having to replace eight starters including their top two pass rushers and three backfield starters who left for the NFL. Incoming freshman Dexter Lawrence will likely serve as an immediate impact player up front (6’5,” 340 pounds), while linebacker Ben Boulware and corner Cordrea Tankersley are the leaders of this group. Venables trusts his complex scheme because of the smart athletes tasked to play it: they have paced the nation in third defense for the each of the last two seasons. 3. LSU: I’m all in on the Tigers this year. Head coach Les Miles constantly has them on the brink of a national title every year -- they were 7-0 before dropping three straight in ’15 -- but they just can’t seem to get the job done. Their 2016 team has more NFL-ready talent (and 18 returning starter) than anyone not named Alabama with two sophomores in Arden Key and Kevin Tolliver that already appear to be top-10 picks in 2018. Quarterback Brandon Harris looked much improved in his first season as the starter, throwing for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions; that full year of experience should help him build on his 54 completion percentage. Handing the ball off to a tremendous back in Leonard Fournette (1,953 yards, 22 TDs) and throwing to uber-talented receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre will help establish a dominant offense. Three starters return up front anchored by center Ethan Pocic. Miles brings in former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, their third in as many seasons. All Aranda did last year was establish the nation’s top scoring defense last season (13.7 ppg) with half the talent he inherits. Eight defensive starters return from a unit that was one of the youngest in the SEC, a number that was originally nine before losing impactful defensive lineman Christian LaCouture to a season-ending ACL injury two weeks ago. Sophomore defensive end Arden Key is coming off a Freshman All-American season and he looks primed to be college football’s next best pass rusher; linebacker Tim Beckwith will be a junior and a likely first rounder in 2017. In addition, their defensive backfield is one of the country’s best yet again lead by playmakers Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams. 4. Florida State: Winning 10 games is widely considered a good year at most FBS programs. Don’t tell that to head coach Jimbo Fisher whose 10 wins in ’15 were the program’s fewest since 2011-his second season with the Seminoles. They felt the pain of having to replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback as Sean Maguire’s struggles (1,520 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions) forced them to turn to my number one rated running back, Dalvin Cook. The Heisman candidate posted a school record 1,691 yards and an ACC-best 19 touchdowns while averaging a whopping 7.4 yards per carry, second most in the nation. Receivers Travis Rudolph (916 yards, seven TDs) and Kermit Whitfield (798 yards, six TDs) return to form one of the nation’s most athletic duos, while three starters return up front lead by junior left tackle Roderick Johnson. Maguire will be pushed by two tremendous athletes and the line will need to take the next step if the offense wishes to achieve the necessary continuity. The ‘Noles have arguably the nation’s most athletic defenses despite losing eight contributors to the NFL. Defensive ends DeMarcus Walker (10.5 sacks) and Josh Sweat to return as the ACC’s most formidable duo with talented linebackers behind them. The second is incredibly loaded lead by sophomore safety Derwin James who led the team with 91 tackles and was second on the team with 4.5 sacks. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the generational talent that Derwin James is as he will likely be a top three pick in the 2018 draft should he declare. Not to be outdone are fellow defensive backs Nate Andrews and Marquez White who bring veteran experience to the group, while true freshman Levonta Taylor looks to replace the gaping hole Jalen Ramsey left at the “Star” position. 5. Oklahoma: Fans in Norman are far too familiar with the pressure of having to meet expectations: the past four times the Sooners have been a preseason top five team, they finished 15th or lower, twice finishing unranked. Nonetheless, Oklahoma only returned 11 starters last season and compiled an 11-2 season and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Guiding Boomer Sooner is their eccentric senior quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Big 12 offensive player of the year who tallied 4,105 total yards in ’15. At his disposal is one of the nation’s best running back tandems in Samaje Perine (1,349 yards) and Joe Mixon (753), backs who will see increased workloads to compensate for the loss in the receiving corp: Duron Neal and Sterling Shepard, one of the school’s most accomplished pass-catchers, are gone. Dede Westbrook is the only returning starter while four of the five starters on the offensive line are sophomores. Mayfield took 41 sacks last season -- some of which were a catalyst of his inability to get rid of the ball on time -- and the line is still relatively inexperienced. The defense’s six returning six starters match that of the offense, but they are tasked with replacing four leaders and essential contributors. Regardless, there shouldn’t be a major drop off in talent as the Sooners had to replace six starters last year and still became the first Big 12 team since 2001 to lead the conference in the four major defensive statistical categories. Defensive tackle Charles Walker and his key stat line (10 tackles for loss, six sacks) return with Jordan Thomas (five interceptions), Steven Parker, and Ahmad Thomas (135 combined tackles) in the back end. Five-star recruit Caleb Kelly was a highly-anticipated signee who may serve as an immediate impact the linebacker spot. 6. Tennessee: This is not a typo: expectations are high in Knoxville as the Vols enter year four of the Butch Jones project. They’re coming off a 9-4 season and return 17 starters for the second straight season (9 offensive, 8 defensive) led by dual-threat passer Josh Dobbs whose 671 rushing yards last season were the most in school history. Despite his accuracy issues, Dobbs’ measly five interceptions were the fewest by a Volunteer starter since some guy by the name of Peyton Manning 20 years prior; Dobbs became just the third SEC quarterback in the last 20 years to throw for 300 yards and add another 100 on the ground in the same game. Massive running back Jalen Hurd (6’4,” 240 pounds) returns after finishing fourth in the SEC with 1,288 yards, while the versatile Alvin Kamara (698 rushing yards, 34 receptions) adds another dimension defenses have to account for. Despite losing receiver Von Pearson, six of the Vols’ next leading receivers return in Kamara, Hurd, receivers Josh Smith, Jauan Jennings, Josh Malone, and tight end Ethan Wolf. They have established continuity up front with fourth returning starters, but starting left tackle Drew Richmond is cause for concern. Regardless, Davis has established a plethora of playmakers. For all the shine the offense garners, the defense is equally as noteworthy. New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has led a defense to a top-25 ranking in each of the last five years and nine of this years 11 starters are juniors or seniors; there is talent and experience abound. Barring injury, Derek Barnett is a first round lock, and his 20 sacks in his first two seasons are a testament to his NFL-ready traits while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has tallied 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons. Six of the front seven starters are back. Cornerback Cameron Sutton anchors the back end of the group, a fiery player that will make a major impact for a unit with serious depth: safety Todd Kelly Jr. has recorded six career interceptions in five starts spanning two seasons. 7. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had a nuclear absurdity of talent last season, and they were easily college football’s most talented team -- their 12 draft picks in April’s draft were tied for sixth most in the draft’s history, all coming in the first four rounds, a modern-day record. A late loss to Michigan State was the only thing that kept them out of the playoff before capping their 12-1 campaign with victories over Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined score of 86-41. J.T. Barrett is primed to lead the Buckeye offense having scored 67 touchdowns in 17 career starts (15-2), but it will be a new-look O: they return just two other starters and will likely start a freshman at running back and right guard. Billy Price and Pat Eiflein are valuable pieces along the line that will lead the youngsters, but 80 percent of Ohio State’s receptions are gone. The roster turnover on the other side of the ball is the exact same having to replace eight starters without a single senior starter. There isn’t a huge reason to fret as defensive Tyquan Lewis will provide much-need production (14 TFL, eight sacks) and linebacker Raekwon McMillian will likely be the first linebacker taken in April. Expectations are sky-high for fellow defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa, younger brother of sack master Joey. Corner Gareon Conley is the lone returner in the secondary and will contribute to a defense that finished second in the nation in scoring. Urban Meyer’s recruiting ability rivals that of Saban and Fisher, and the majority of their 25 true freshmen could see the field at one point or another. 8. Michigan: Coming in one spot below the Buckeyes is going to irk those in Ann Arbor, but the (enter most fitting superlative here) Jim Harbaugh has already built the Wolverines into contenders after going 10-3 in his first season. Quarterback questions are the crux of their questions on the offensive side of the ball having to replace Jake Rudock (3,017 yards, 20 TDs). Leading the pack are Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn, the latter of which was the starting quarterback as a freshman, throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 TDs against 10 INTs before his poor play in 2014 lead to his benching in favor of current star, Greg Ward Jr. Whoever Harabaugh taps will be developed with quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch (look at the work they did with Rudock) and have next-level talent in receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Dobrah and tight end Jake Butt (12.8 yards per catch). Running back De’Veon Smith returns with four quality starters up front coming back to Ann Arbor. Expect Michigan to improve on their 83rd ranking in rushing as they lost three of the four games in which they ran for less than 100 yards. This defense is going to make some serious noise this season. Harbaugh brought in former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown who orchestrated college football’s number one total defense and placed fourth, second, and sixth in scoring, rushing, and passing respectively. His aggressive blitzing and disguised coverage will play right into the hands of Michigan’s talented D. They only return five starters, albeit five that could all be drafted in April led by down players Chris Wormley (end) and Ryan Glasgow (nose tackle). All-everything Jabrill Peppers is the focal point of this defense and will absolutely thrive in Brown’s system; he will make the transition to Mike, but figures to see time at corner and safety due to his unique athleticism. All-American corner Jourdan Lewis is one of the country’s best and he, along with Peppers, may see time on the opposite side of the ball as well. The Wolverines ranked fourth in total D and sixth in scoring in ‘15, so don’t expect much regression. 9. Houston: The Cougars are for real. Despite returning a lowly 11 starters (five offensive, six defensive) last season, Todd Herman turned in one of college football’s best coaching performances by guiding the Cougs to a 13-1 record capped by a victory over the mighty Seminoles in the Peach Bowl. It was easily one of ‘15s most complete game in every facet. Herman and offensive whiz Major Applewhite have developed quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (3,936 total yards and 38 total touchdowns) and his elite dual-threat ability. He takes care of the football (2:1 TD-INT ratio) and possesses accuracy having completed 67 percent of his passes in two years as a starter; it’s difficult to project his NFL ceiling as many of those passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage. They are going to miss running back Kenneth Farrow’s 1,077 yards and 12 TDs from scrimmage, but Duke Carlton was a highly-touted prospect and looks primed to carry the load. The departure of Demarcus Ayers (97-1,221-6) is noticeable, but fellow receivers Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar return as does tight end Tyler McCloskey. The biggest question marks come up front: Houston’s only returner is sophomore center Will Noble with two other sophomores and a freshman penciled in. It’s an inexperienced group, but Ward can make plays and Houston was +21 in the turnover margin last season, second best in the country. Defensively, the losses are key. The secondary lost three of four lead by first round pick William Jackson III who also provided an impact on special teams. The silver lining? The five returners are all seniors while four of the remaining six projected starters are juniors. What’s more, Houston has forced an astounding 108 turnovers since 2013, tops in the nation over that time span (their 35 in ’15 paced the nation). Defensive tackle B.J. Singleton anchors a defense that ranked eighth against the run while linebacker Steven Taylor is a machine that posted a team-high 10 sacks and the second most tackles (92) and TFL (18.5); he also intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles. Taylor and fellow returning linebacker Tyus Bowser combined for 15.5 sacks, contributing to Houston’s AAC-best 36 sacks. Corner Brandon Wilson is the lone returner in the secondary, yet the epitome of a playmaker: he scored two touchdowns in all three phases of the game last season. 10. Notre Dame: “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” The old adage remains true because it disrupts any rhythm your offense hopes to establish -- just ask Ohio State. Notre Dame isn’t nearly as talented as the Buckeyes were last year, so traveling to Texas and hosting Michigan State in the first three weeks of the season will prove to be daunting. Regardless, Brian Kelly will run a platoon system against a Texas team that will likely do the same; the Irish throttled the Longhorns last season, but 2016 may be a different narrative. At the helm of the system is Malik Zaire and Deshone Kizer, the former of which is 5-2 as a starter, but was forced to miss the remainder of the ’15 season after breaking his ankle against Virginia. Enter Kizer who guided the Irish’s fourth quarter comeback against the Cavaliers, finishing 8-3 as the starter with 2,880 yards and 21 touchdowns (10 INTs) through the air and another 525 and 10 on the ground. If they prove to handle Texas, this platoon system could carry over into Week 2 against a Nevada team they should take care of. The 13 receivers on the roster combined for just 48 receptions last season, an alarming amount that could prevent replicating their ’15 success through the air (Torii Hunter Jr. snagged 28 of those passes for 363 yards). The loss of running back C.J. Prosise will be felt, but Tarean Folston returns from a torn ACL and should be ready to go after rushing for 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2014. Sharing the workload will be Josh Adams whose 835 yards last season eclipsed the school record for yards by an Irish freshman. Rounding out their three returning starters is left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey; the three departed starters took 106 combined starts with them. A year after retaining 10 starters on defense, the Irish only get four back in ’16 with a big hole at each level. Defensive end Isaac Rochell is the only down guy returning from defense that finished T-74th in the FBS with 25 sacks; 64 percent of that meager number is gone, putting immense pressure on this unit to do the same against the quarterbacks they’ll face. Senior linebacker James Onwualu’s return is beneficial but he joins Rochell as the only returners along a front seven that will severely miss Jaylon Smith. 56.7 percent of the tackle production is gone as well, but the return of corner Cole Luke and safety Max Redfield are integral boosts to their secondary. 11. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has done a remarkable job in his four years as the Rebels’ coach, posting a 7-6 record in his first season just one year removed from a 2-10 finish. Each season since, they have bettered their record including two consecutive victories over Alabama. Things look bleak in ’16 as an NCAA investigation looms with a loss of three scholarships per season and only 10 returning starters (five offensive, five defensive) a year after losing quality players to the draft. Chad Kelly is their saving grace on offense and sure to make an appearance on every preseason Heisman short list after throwing for 4,402 yards and 31 touchdowns while adding 500 and 10 on the ground. Losing his top target Laquon Treadwell isn’t quite the chore many would think: Damore’ea Stringfellow returns after averaging 14 yards per catch. He is joined by Quincy Adeboyejo, Damarkus Lodge, and tight end Evan Engram to form a quartet that each caught 30+ passes in ’15. There are questions regarding the ground game due to the fact that the Rebels have yet to feature a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009 despite a run-first team predicated on inside and outside zone and RPOs (run-pass options). Replacing a left tackle is never easy, but replacing a cornerstone protector with a true freshman is unprecedented. Ole Miss is expected to replace Laremy Tunsil with 6’6,” 326-pounder Greg Little, the consensus number at said position in last year’s recruiting class. While his build and strength have garnered praise, adjusting to life in the SEC as a freshman will serve as a roll coaster ride; center Sean Rawlings is the only returning starter up front. The nation’s number one scoring defense in 2014 regressed to 33rd last year despite returning seven starters. Three are gone lead by Robert Nkemdiche, but Marquis Haynes and his 10 sacks return with Fadol Brown on the end of the line. In the back end are corners Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster who look to build on a secondary that contributed to a 104th ranking against the pass. 12. Washington: Chris Peterson has been rather unremarkable in his two years as the Huskies’ coach (15-12), but posting a 7-6 record with a true freshman quarterback and six sophomore starters on defense -- what Washington did in ’15 -- is a sign of things to come. Jake Browning is the most decorated prep passer in California state history and wasn’t he even projected to start, eventually winning the job and finishing with 2,955 yards (fifth most in school history) and 16 touchdowns. Behind him is sophomore running back Myles Gaskin who tallied 1,348 yards and 14 touchdowns, both tops amongst freshman runners; he and Browning form one of the nation’s best backfields. At Browning’s disposal are receivers Dante Pettis and John Ross, the speedster who sat out the ’15 campaign with a knee injury, and tight end Darrell Daniels. The trio should help compensate for the loss of their top two pass catchers. The offensive line must improve after allowing 2.54 sacks per game, good for 96th in the FBS, but returning three starters should help accomplish such goal. The defense has been nicknamed “Death Row” and rightfully so: after losing four starters to the 2015 draft, the group rebuilt and allowed the fewest points and yards in the conference. Eight starters are back this year with 6’1,” 321-pound nose tackle Elijah Qualls anchoring the middle of a unit that allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry. Linebacker Azeem Victor is electrifying (95 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and three turnovers), but the real talent is in the secondary. Three of the four starters are back with NFL-ready corners in Sidney Jones and Kevin King (seven combined interceptions) and equally-talented safety Budda Baker (129 tackles, three INTs the last two seasons combined). Peterson and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski have done a tremendous job of developing talent on this side of the ball. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. 13. Georgia: Mark Richt is gone after cementing himself as one the SEC’s most proficient coaches to date, indicative of his 145-51 record, two SEC titles, and 9-5 record in bowl games. National titles are the baseline for the prominent SEC programs, and Richt failed to win such creating a call for change. Enter former Alabama DC Kirby Smart who inherits 14 returning starters (eight offensive, six defensive) and arguably the program’s most highly-anticipated recruit since Herschel Walker. Taking over the reins will not be a simple task as incumbent starter Greyson Lambert went 10-2 last season. Regardless, Nick Chubb is a special talent at running back and looks to return 100 percent healthy from a season-ending knee injury (8.1 yards per carry in his six games) while fellow back Sony Michel, who had surgery to repair a broken arm, has proved he can carry the load after tallying 1,147 yards and eight TDs. Receivers Terry Godwin and Reggie Davis and tight end Jeb Blazevich will serve as key targets for whoever is under center; the line is experienced with two projected junior and senior starters each. The other side of the ball was led by linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and an athletic secondary that allowed the fewest passing yards in the country and the seventh fewest total yards. Jenkins and Floyd are gone, but sophomore defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, widely considered the number one prospect at that position in the ’15 class, is primed for a breakout season. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are tasked with filling the shoes at linebacker, the former who had 4.5 sacks and 18 pressures in ’14 and the latter who tallied three sacks last season. There is serious talent behind them with three returning starters in the secondary, none more vital than junior safety Dominick Sanders (nine career INTs). 14. Stanford: As cringe-worthy as it was to watch quarterback Kevin Hogan throw the football, the Cardinal are going to miss him dearly. He compiled more than 10,000 total yards and 90 touchdowns while posting a 36-10 (12-2 last season) record as a starter with two Rose Bowl victories. Set to replace him is redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst, who has thrown just nine career passes but has six returning starters to help ease the transition. He gets a boost from receivers Michael Rector (34-559-7) and Francis Owusu and tight end Dalton Schultz, a 10 game starter who will fill the void left behind by Austin Hooper. The offensive line only returns two, but the three projected starters are juniors or seniors. Despite all the question marks, Stanford has the most versatile player in college football who, like FSU’s James, fits the bill of every positive superlative in the English language; he set a new NCAA standard with 3,864 all-purpose yards last season, and even threw two touchdowns. The defense featured three returning starters and it showed: they surrendered 22.6 ppg (32nd), 139.9 rushing yards per game (30th), 228.4 passing yards per game (71st), and 368.3 total yards per game (43rd) a year after posting rankings of second, seventh, eighth, and third respectively. With eight returners this season, expect a return to form lead by nose tackle Solomon Thomas. The 6’3,” 275-pound junior is something built in a lab; how many humans that size can broad jump 10’2,” vertically leap 34 inches, cover 40 yards in 4.56 seconds, and bench press 225 pounds 34 times? He looks to build on his 10.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. The Cardinals also return all three linebackers highlighted by Peter Kalambayi and his 52 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. Three starters from the ’15 secondary are back, as is ’14 starting free safety Zach Hoffpauir who spent last season playing minor league baseball (does it get much more athletic?) after tallying 44 tackles and four TFL as a junior. 15. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio has developed Sparty into a winner with a record of 87-33 in nine years, including 11+ wins in four of the last five seasons. Doing so with the most successful quarterback in school history in Connor Cook can make life easier, but he’s gone and has turned the keys over to fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor. The 6’3,” 227-pounder guided MSU to an upset victory over Ohio State last season, and brings veteran experience that shouldn’t present a seismic drop-off. Dantonio will establish pounding run game led by sophomores LJ Scott and Madre London, while junior Gerald Holmes is no slouch; the trio combined for 1,739 yards and 22 TDs. The Spartans’ top two targets are gone, but senior R.J. Shelton (43-503-4) returns and senior tight end Josiah Price (23-267-6) is a red zone threat who looks to play this season fully healthy. Expectations are also sky-high for four-star freshmen receivers Donnie Coley and Cam Chambers. The offensive line has serious question marks after the loss of left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, prompting right tackle Kodi Kieler’s move to center. Now, their tackles have combined to start one career game. Pattern-match schemes are complex and confusing to read, and no one does a better job of executing it than MSU. They finished first against the run and eighth in total yards in ’14, but fell to 11th and 26th last season despite returning seven quality starters. Six are back this season with 6’6,” 280-pound defensive tackle Malik McDowell anchoring a line that held opponents to three yards per carry or less on six occasions; he is a stellar talent who could go top-10 in April. Linebacker Riley Bullough is next in line of a long lineage in East Lansing as a second team All-Big 10 playmaker in ’15 and next to him is Ed Davis who missed the entire year with a torn ACL; he looks to return to 2014 form (12 TFL, seven sacks). The secondary returns three for a unit that could be as talented as their vaunted “No Fly Zone” group in 2013. 16. Louisville: Bobby Petrino enters the third year of his second go-round as the Cardinals’ head man, compiling a 17-9 record; they finished the 2015 campaign 8-5 despite returning only nine starters. 2016 features twice that amount headlined by sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson who, in 12 appearances last season, threw for 1,840 yards and 12 TDs and added another 960 yards and 11 on the ground; his 960 yards broke the schools’ career rushing record. Running back Brandon Radcliff returns after rushing for 634 yards and seven touchdowns, but the receiving duo of Jamari Staples (37-638-3) and James Quick (39-624-5) is imperative to their success through the air. Getting four starters back up front should help as well. Eight starters are back to form one of the nation’s most athletic defenses, allowing the 14th fewest rushing yards and 18th fewest total yards. Sheldon Rankins is gone, but edge rusher DeVonte’ Fields sacked the quarterback 11 times and looks to replicate that success. Productive linebackers Trevon Young (8.5 sacks) and Keith Kelsey (107 tackles) are back with all four starters in the secondary returning. The safeties are incredible athletes: Josh Harvey Clemons (88 tackles, three INTs) is a physically imposing figure at 6’5,” 230 pounds and Chucky Williams finished the year with 62 tackles and three INTs. 17. Oklahoma State: A year after going 7-6, the Cowboys far exceed expectations by going 10-3 and climbing as high as number four in the playoff poll despite starting the season unranked. Head coach Mike Gundy has won 10+ games in three of the last five seasons (12-1 and Big 12 champs in ’11) and this coming season could be his second straight. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is back with eight starters after finishing second in school history with 264 completions on 424 attempts for 3,770 yards (290 yards per game, also second in school history). Barry Sanders Jr. is the projected starter at running back after transferring from Stanford where he rushed for 664 yards in three years, but averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 11 games last season. Slot man David Glidden is gone, but James Washington is a big play threat (20.5 yards per catch, FBS-most four 70+ yard receptions) after hauling in 53 receptions for 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns with Marcell Ateman (17.2 yards per catch, five touchdowns) also back. All five starting offensive linemen are back, a huge boost if they improve: they allowed 32 sacks (90th) and the rushing game averaged 3.58 yards per carry. The defense is going to miss Emmanuel Ogbah as a key contributor to OSU’s 39 sacks, second in the Big 12. Seven starters are back with linebacker Jordan Burton in the middle, but they absolutely must improve after finishing between 87th and 99th in scoring, rushing, passing, and total D; they surrendered 344 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in a 58-23 loss to Oklahoma. Three of the four starters in the secondary are back and combined for five interceptions last season. Safety Jordan Sterns has racked up 211 tackles and 5.5 TFL the last two seasons. 18. UCLA: Josh Rosen is the future of UCLA football. That undeniable truth is supported by the fact that Jim Mora believes the sophomore would’ve been the first quarterback taken in April’s draft had he been eligible. It’s difficult to dispute that. New offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu brings a pro-style offense that better suits Rosen’s skill set and will allow him more freedom at the line. Rosen’s leadership abilities and growth are going to be on full display as he lost four playmakers and a right tackle to the NFL Draft; Rosen joins only three other returning starters. The Bruins have a young, three-headed monster at running back that should replicate the impact Paul Perkins served on the ground (1,343 yards, 13 TDs) and through the air (30-242-1), but the loss of a talented trio of receivers raises some serious questions. Kenny Walker is back after catching a mere nine passes, but he averaged 25.7 yards a catch while corner Ishmael Adams made the switch to receiver and freshman Theo Howard projects to be an essential part of the passing game. The left side of the line is anchored down by Connor McDermott (tackle) and Kenny Lacy (guard), but there is warranted uncertainty at the other spots. The Bruins were gutted last year when they lost three of their best defenders for the majority of the year, but they get seven back highlighted by defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who suffered a torn ACL in their opener. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley was a productive forced last season, racking up 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles as an athletic specimen. Losing linebacker Myles Jack is notable, but the middle of the defense retains Jayon Brown, Kenny Young, and Isaako Savaiinaea, with Deon Hollins coming off the edge. Rounding out the unit is one of the nation’s most athletic secondaries with safeties Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth and corner Marcus Rios coming back; fellow corner Fabian Moreau was one of the aforementioned players lost for the ’15 season (Lisfranc injury in Week 3), so his return is much-anticipated. 19. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz is synonymous with Iowa Hawkeye football, but after a rather unremarkable 16 seasons and equally unremarkable four-year mark of 26-25, 2015 was a make-or-break year for the head coach. He answered the bell, responding with a 12-2 record and Rose Bowl appearance despite returning only 10 starters and breaking in a new starting quarterback. C.J. Beathard was stellar and efficient in ’15, throwing for 2,809 yards and 17 TDs with a QBR of 139.5; he also threw 155 consecutive passes without an interception. Departed running back Jordan Canzeri accumulated 1,192 yards and 13 TDs from scrimmage, but LeShun Daniels Jr. ran for 646 and eight while Beathard added 237 and six; speedster Akrum Wadley will provide a nice compliment to Daniels. Beathard has quality targets in receiver Matt VandeBerg (65-703-4) and tight end George Kittle who will smoothly fill the void left by Henry Krieger-Coble after snagging 20 balls for 290 yards and six TDs. The offensive line features four players who logged multiple starts last season. The Hawkeyes were stout on the other side of the ball, finishing 19th in scoring, 15th against the run, and 22nd in total D. They get five starters back including Jaeel Johnson and Nathan Bazata in the middle; Johnson registered 5.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks while Bazata tallied five and two. Linebacker Josey Jewell enters his second year as a starter after compiling nine tackles per game (35th) and solidifying his playmaking abilities: 7.5 TFL, three sacks, four INTs, and a forced fumble. The biggest boost (undoubtedly) comes from corner Desmond King who chose to return for his senior year after picking off eight passes and making 72 tackles en route to the Thorpe Award. Opposite him is Greg Mabin (two INTs, six pass breakups, and one forced fumble) with Miles Taylor at strong safety. 20. North Carolina: After beginning the 2015 season with a forgettable loss to South Carolina, the Heels reeled off 11 straight wins to earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game against the Clemson. They came within a terrible call on an onside kick from a playoff birth. If they wish to achieve such, they will have to do it without Marquise Williams, a three-year starter who compiled more than 10,000 total yards and 96 touchdowns. Stepping in is the capable Mitch Trubisky who has seven returning starters at his disposal, none better than running back Elijah Hood (1,463 yards, 17 TDs); the 6-foot, 220-pounder squatted an astounding 635 pounds in the summer before his sophomore year and has the talent to be a first-round pick. They would like to have Quinshad Davis back, but the trio of Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins combined for 113 receptions for 1,926 yards and 18 TDS; the ever-elusive Switzer is also the game’s most lethal returner, but Hollins has big-play ability (24.8 yards per catch). Four starters are back up front to form a veteran line with four seniors and a junior. The Heels were one of college football’s most explosive offenses with an FBS-best 7.3 yards per play, so don’t expect much less. Gene Chizik worked wonders in his first year as the defensive coordinator, shaping a defense that went from allowing 39 points per game in ’14 to 24.5 this past season. The run defense proved to be their demise, allowing 319 and 645 in their final two games against Clemson and Baylor respectively; they finished 121st in total run defense. Retaining three of your four starting down guys is a major boost, but they have to replace all three linebackers. The secondary turned in an apt performance last year as the catalyst for their 18th ranking in passing defense, and they are led by corners Des Lawrence (two INTs, 12 PBUs) and M.J. Stewart (2.5 TFL, one sack, four INTs, 10 PBUs, and a forced fumble). Half of North Carolina’s opponents can run the football and facing three NFL-ready backs in the first five weeks is going to push them to their limits. 21. TCU: The Horned Frogs are bona fide winners thanks in part to Gary Patterson’s resurrection of the program, going 143-47 in 16 years with a 23-3 mark in the last two seasons. They have quarterback Trevone Boykin to thank for the two-year stretch, a serious athlete who was able to bail them out of peril. Boykin is gone, along with seven other starters, leaving Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer as their best options. Many remember Hill replacing Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M where he broke Manziel’s single-game passing yard record with 511 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start. Following his second start against Lamar (283 yards, three TDs), Hill and the offense began to collapse, eventually leading to his benching and suspension for violating team rules. Speedster KaVontae Turpin is back at receiver (45-649-8), but the rest of the corp is inexperienced and lacking the true number one Josh Doctson was. Boykin and running back Aaron Green were the teams’ top two rushers, leaving Kyle Hicks to serve as the Frogs’ main rusher. Up front, only left tackle Joseph Noteboom is back to round out an offense that will struggle to match their finishing spots of seventh and third in scoring and total offense respectively. There is help defensively with seven returning starters lead by book ends Josh Carraway (nine sacks) and James McFarland (seven sacks in ’14), the latter who missed all of last season with a broken toe. The team’s leading tackler, linebacker Travin Howard, is back with fellow linebacker Montrel Wilson and should help shore up a defense that was 64th in scoring and 63rd in total defense; Howard also finished with 9.5 TFL (third on team), three sacks (third), and three forced fumbles (first). The secondary returns two highlighted by the team’s leader in TFL, safety Denzel Johnson (13.5). 22. Oregon: Tasked with replacing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, head man Mark Helfrich (33-8 in three years) turned to Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams. Their Week 1 victory featured an injury on Adams’ throwing hand that caused a serious blow to morale; it’s safe to assume Adams completes this throw sans injury and the Ducks make a run at a second straight championship appearance. The Ducks will turn to another FCS star in Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, an ideal fit for their offense. Having one of the nation’s most productive backs in Royce Freeman (1,838 yards and 17 TDs on the ground, 348 and two through the air) will prove to be a tremendous asset, while fellow backs Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin, and Tony Brooks-James all averaged seven yards per carry last season. Receiver Bralon Addison is gone, but Darren Carrington snagged 32 passes for 609 yards and six TDs in only seven games and is joined by Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson, and tight end Evan Baylis. There is no shortage of playmakers on this team. The loss of center Matt Hegarty was fully evident in their loss against TCU-now he must be replaced for a full year. Tackles Tyrell Crosby and Cameron Hunt are back, but the interior success looks bleak. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost is gone, too, putting Oregon’s nine-year streak of at least eight wins in serious jeopardy. The loss of center Matt Hegarty was fully evident in their loss against TCU-now he must be replaced for a full year. Tackles Tyrell Crosby and Cameron Hunt are back, but the interior success looks bleak. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost is gone, too, putting Oregon’s nine-year streak of at least eight wins in serious jeopardy. As was usually the case under Don Pellum, the defense was horrendous (115th in scoring, 73rd in passing, 125th in rushing, 118th in total) and led to his demotion to linebackers’ coach. Replacing him is former Michigan head man Brady Hoke and his 4-3 scheme that will suit the defense better having lost their second straight 6’7” down guy (DeForest Buckner). In total, five starters are back with only two coming in the front seven. The back part has unquestioned athleticism, but were forced to play early and were ultimately exposed. Corners Arrion Springs and Chris Seisay and safety Tyree Robinson are now juniors and combined for five interceptions. Nelson (two INTs) should continue to see time at corner, while Ugo Amadi picked off two passes in his 10 games as a freshman. 23. Washington State: The Air Raid is alive and well in Pullman, and head man Mike Leach doesn’t appear to stop anytime soon. Quarterback Luke Falk is back after guiding the nation’s top passing attack to a 9-4 season, their most since 2003. He is a highly-regarded draft prospect who looks to lead 13 other returning starters (eight offensive, six defensive), most notably receiver Gabe Marks who paced the team in receptions (104), yards (1,192) and touchdowns (15). Having fellow 1,000-yarder Dom Williams would be appreciated, but River Cracraft (53-615-4) and Robert Lewis (43-490-1) create a formidable trio. Leading rusher Gerard Wicks is back following a 610-yard season, the most for a Cougar back since 2007, but buzz-worthy freshman James Williams will see valuable time as well. The offensive line also features three returning starters. A year after posting marks of 114th in scoring, 124th in passing, and 97th in total D, coordinator Alex Grinch brought those finishes down to 74th, 64th, and 84th respectively. Six returning starters are back again, four appearing in an extremely talented secondary featuring one of the nation’s best safeties in Shalom Luani (90 tackles, three TFL, four INTs, two forced fumbles). Corner Marcellus Pippins is back after intercepting three passes and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Peyton Pelluer (101, 11 TFL), joins him. 24. Baylor: The Bears were well on their way to a national title with an offense firing like it never had before (63.8 points per game in their first six games). It came crashing to an unfortunate stop when quarterback Seth Russell (2,104 passing yards and 29 TDs) broke a bone in his neck and the team dropped three of the last five. Speaking of firing, head man Art Briles is gone after a disturbing sexual assault scandal that puts Jim Grobe in charge. The loss of receivers Jay Lee and Corey Coleman will not be replicated, but KD Cannon (50-868-6) is an absolute vertical threat that will be heavily relied upon. The offense will once again establish the run first (second in the nation last year) as 1,000-yard rushers Shock Linwood (1,329 and 10 TDs) and Johnny Jefferson (1,000 and eight) return. Russell added 402 and six on the ground while fellow backs Devin Chaffin and Terence Williams combined for 1,139 yards and 12 TDs. Seismic losses will be felt along the line (Shawn Oakman, Andrew Bilings) as ferocious linebacker Taylor Young is the only returner in the front seven; he finished with 80 tackles and 13.5 TFL. The other four starters are in the defensive backfield, led by nickel back and absolute playmaker Trayvon Blanchard (83 tackles, 7.5 TFL, two sacks, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles). Safeties Chance Waz and Orion Stewart combined for 134 tackles and 2.5 TFL, important back ends. The starters and projected starters feature 10 juniors and seniors, and their success is heavily dependent on that experience and leadership. 25. San Diego State: It’s too soon to claim that the Aztecs have dethroned Boise State as the Mountain West master, but they’re making a strong case. Rocky Long guided SDSU to an 11-3 season that ended with 10 straight victories and a 42-7 throttling of Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl. Christian Chapman filled the void left by injured starter Maxwell Smith in the final two games and looks primed to start full-time. There is little pressure on the sophomore thanks to his indescribably talented running back Donnel Pumphrey who tallied 2,067 yards and 20 TDs from scrimmage as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Receivers Mikah Holder (24-439-6) and Chase Favreau and tight end Daniel Brunskill return to give Chapman a valuable receiving corp. Three senior starters are also back along the line (seven total on offense) led by NFL-ready guard Nico Siragusa. The Aztecs also had the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year in running back Rashaad Penny who registered 488 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage. Long also serves as the defensive coordinator of a unit that was supreme in ’15, finishing seventh in scoring and rushing, tenth in passing, and fifth in total defense; they also paced the FBS in turnover margin. They match of offensive starters coming back beginning with defensive end Alex Barrett who tallied 12 TFL, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Linebacker Calvin Munson was a precious aspect of their defensive philosophy, leading the team in tackles (98), TFL, (15), and sacks (10.5) while intercepting two passes; he is truly an invaluable piece of this team. The last level gets all four starters back, highlighted by the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (SDSU was the only FBS team to have a conference’s Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams POY) Damontae Kazee, a corner who was tied for second in the nation with eight INTs. Safety Malik Smith made five stops behind the line and picked off five passes. Where They’ll Finish 1. LSU: Like I said: I’m all in on the Tigers. Returning the nation’s most starters is one thing, but having at least half of them as NFL-ready talent is another. The SEC West is going to yet again be a daunting task, but they will likely be favored in all 12 games save for ‘Bama, who they at home, and Florida, a talented team that the Tigers have to play in Gainesville; they open against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, but Miles and Co. should handle the Badgers. LSU’s true test will, of course, be the Crimson Tide who’ve had their number for five years straight, but the narrative should shift: Harris’ development will remove the burden Fournette was asked to carry in that game last year that simply wasn’t going to work from the jump (1.6 yards per carry). He has weapons at his disposal and a defense that faces a new quarterback and running back that dominated the Tigers in ’15 (210 yards, three TDs). Expect the defense to better its’ ranking of 10th in the SEC (24.3 ppg) and give Miles his first national title since 2007. 2. Clemson: The Tigers are locked and loaded, and a plethora of offensive talent is only going to better their cause. Only four starters are back on defense, but as I mentioned earlier, they only had three coming back last season so I don’t expect a season-altering drop in talent. Opening at Auburn is tough and Louisville and Pitt are improved, but they get the latter two at home. The real test comes in Tallahassee against an improved, athletic Seminoles team that played them close last season and features another high-impact recruiting class; Jimbo Fisher is going to have his team ready to play and attack an offensive line that allowed one sack a game. I believe Louisville and Auburn could give them some trouble, but facing the ‘Noles on the road will ultimately make the Tigers the underdogs in Vegas. Clemson should earn a birth in the ACC Championship and claim their second straight conference title, but I think LSU has too much firepower on both side of the ball and a more experienced head coach to give them an edge. 3. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh is alive and well in Ann Arbor. Jake Rudock transitioned from a guy you could win with to a guy you won because of (see the last five games of their season), and that quarterback development shouldn’t change regardless of who wins the starting nod this season. They will get to 7-0 before their first true test of the season, a matchup in East Lansing to take on the Spartans that Michigan should avenge after a fluke loss in ’15; the Spartans have to replace key talent and I’m not sure they have the depth to take down the Wolverines. Traveling to Iowa and Ohio State in final three weeks doesn’t do them many favors, but the Hawkeyes are truly the only team I feel will give Michigan a run for their money. History is against them as they have not beaten the Buckeyes and the Spartans in the same season since 2003, but the conference lost valuable talent and is now vulnerable. The defense finished top-10 in three major categories, so replicating that success with six returning starters and an intelligent new DC is paramount to their success. 4. Tennessee: This is the season Vols fans have been waiting for: it’s the culmination of Jones’ recruiting and developing; they also enter the ’16 campaign after winning six straight to end the year. Shoop has incredible athletes in front of him and is expected to refine a defense that was above average last season, but brings back a number of key starters. The offense should click early, Tennessee faces a brutal four-week stretch against Florida, at Georgia and Texas A&M, and finally hosting Alabama. The Vols have dropped 11 straight to the Gators including a one-point defeat at the Swamp last season, while their matchup against the Bulldogs has been decided by a touchdown or less the last four seasons. The Aggies are one of the nation’s best teams no one is talking about (for the right reasons) and Bama is…well, Bama; the Vols have dropped nine straight against them. The theme for Tennessee’s 2016 campaign is "finish" -- all four losses were by seven points or less featuring three blown leads in the final five minutes. With an electric backfield and a defense littered with NFL talent, Tennessee should eclipse 11 wins. 5. Alabama: Betting against Alabama is understandably unwise. Quarterback questions seem to plague everyone except the Tide and they return four more offensive starters from just two last seasons, while featuring multiple NFL-ready starters. The difference this year begins with the loss of Henry and center Ryan Kelly; Henry’s won’t be replicated and Kelly was the unquestionable leader of that offensive line. They are also expected to start a freshman at right tackle and sophomores at center and left guard and we don’t know how good Cooper Bateman is going to be at quarterback. Most importantly, the conference schedule is a grinder: they have to travel to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU. Seeing them escape that quartet of matchups with at least two losses is not unfathomable, particularly considering that the Rebels have had Bama’s number for two straight years and three of the last four games against LSU have decided by only a touchdown or less. The Tide should have little issue with USC in the opener, but the SEC West is wide open from there. 6. Florida State: If you’re looking for (arguably) the nation’s most athletic defense, look no further: this unit was ninth in scoring last year and they will bring back six starters. There are uncertainties on the offense due to quarterback Sean Maguire’s surgery to repair a broken ankle, but also regarding his play if he is fully healthy. He was less than stellar and it ultimately led to a heavy reliance on their star running back who also missed most of the spring with shoulder surgery; Maguire could be beaten out by the untested redshirt freshman, Deondre Francois. The ‘Noles also lose the NCAA’s most historically productive kicker in Roberto Aguayo who bailed them out of tough situations. The schedule begins with a tall task against Ole Miss in Orlando before road games against Miami and Louisville, but drawing Clemson and North Carolina. Florida State has authentic National Championship potential, but their quarterback play is too unpredictable at the moment. Hopefully they don’t stroll into their opener with a lull after suffering a demoralizing loss against Houston to complete the 2015 campaign. 7. Washington: The Huskies and Chris Peterson are a perfect a marriage, a tremendous recruiter who has strung together increasingly improved recruiting classes. Entering the 2016 season following a season-ending three game win streak is a confidence booster. Browning and Gaskin are a formidable duo that will have the country on notice and the other six starters will support the two. The defense was 13th in scoring and 19th against the run with NFL-caliber defenders, Washington’s M.O. They suffered an opening season defeat against Peterson’s former employer Boise State last season, but host a Rutgers team they should coast past. Getting Stanford and USC home are pluses -- they lost by two touchdowns in Palo Alto last year -- while traveling to Oregon and Utah aren’t the same tasks they were last year. The season finale against Washington State is in Pullman, but the Huskies pummeled the Cougars 45-10; that same margin isn’t expected, but the result is. Peterson and Co. reach at least 10 wins. 8. Iowa: After the countless years of finishing around the .500 mark, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes achieve their second consecutive double-digit win season. Beathard has quietly developed into one of the game’s top NFL-prospects, and with talent at the other offensive units, he should string together a tremendous season. Although five returning starters could present some challenges, they are extremely efficient and three of those returning starters are in a secondary that helped the Hawkeyes finish 11th in turnover margin. The schedule presents very little issues: the Big 10 West’s talent is nearly nonexistent-Iowa’s five conference opponents went 10-30 in conference play last season and they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. Traveling to Ann Arbor won’t be a cakewalk, but they certainly have a shot particularly if the Wolverines don’t have their quarterback situation aligned. The Hawkeyes’ third game presents an intriguing matchup against the North Dakota State Bison, FCS National Champions for the last five years who sport an 8-3 record over FBS programs since 2006. While the Bison have to replace a megastar at quarterback and this is the best FBS team they’ve faced by far, anything can happen in college football. 9. Houston: The top "Group of 5" team is not taking any steps back. They return the same amount of starters from a year ago with an even better Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback and a schedule with only two road bumps against Oklahoma and Louisville, both at home (their opener against the Sooners is at NRG Stadium, but is still technically a home game considering the stadium is in Houston). The Cougars’ only blemish last year came at UConn in a game that Ward left after throwing only four passes; don’t expect that same slip-up this season. Herman also guided the Cougars to a victory in Louisville, 34-0 blanking of SEC foe Vanderbilt, and a dominant 38-24 defeat of Florida State. They are a confident bunch with swagger heading into the ’16 season. Their potent offense and feisty defense will be tested early, but splitting the aforementioned road bumps is very feasible. 10. Louisville: This team was off to a rather inauspicious start with a 0-3 record to begin the ’15 campaign, but found its stride by winning six of their last seven to finish 8-5. Along the way, they found their star quarterback in Jackson while featuring a defense that has finished in the top 25 in total D the last three years. This team came within three points of knocking off Clemson in 2015 and six in 2014, but they have to travel to Death Valley this time around; home games against Houston and Florida State are beneficial as well. Per Phil Steele, 99.8 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive output returns along with eight defensive starters to form one of the nation’s most experienced team with momentum. Eleven wins are on the horizon. 11. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys raced out to a 10-0 start before dropping their last three by 73 combined points. They bring back veteran experience (16 returning starters) lead by one of the program’s most prolific passers and all five starters up front; they must better their ability to keep Rudolph upright if they wish to have success through the air. Featuring the school’s most decorated kickers is a luxury most school would love to have. Pittsburgh and Texas come to Stillwater, but they are both improved and talented while the Pokes have to face Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma on the road. Baylor and Oklahoma lost valuable pieces and are certainly susceptible to defeat, but they must build on their ability to stop the run. Eleven wins is their ceiling as Gundy gets his fourth double-digit win season in six years. 12. North Carolina: I’m admittedly higher on the Heels than most, but they have weapons who can score points, in turn making Trubisky’s job easier for a first-year starter. Head coach Larry Fedora also knows how to maximize their offensive ability with a smart system that will allow everyone to thrive. The defense was weak against the run, but 42nd in scoring and 18th against the pass in Chizik’s first season -- up from 116th and 101st respectively in ’14. Seven starters are back on defense with an understanding of Chizik’s system which should ignite even more success but remains paramount to their success. North Carolina opens against Georgia in Atlanta -- a road game for all intents and purposes -- that is a bit of a tossup on paper, but the ‘Dawgs will likely be favored in Vegas. Pitt comes to Chapel Hill, but Florida State and Miami don’t; the Heels finish that quartet at 2-2 at worst en route to a second straight ACC Championship appearance. 13. Oklahoma: Boomer Sooner was a train last year as they made an unlikely run at the playoff before being derailed by Clemson. Mayfield is a Heisman Trophy contender with a two-headed monster at running back and six starters back on defense, but the holes they have to fill are massive. Starting on offense, two of his three top targets on gone -- vital ones at that -- as are his two best protectors on a line that is projected to start four sophomores. The losses are far more pivotal on defense, having to replace the heart of the defense in linebacker Eric Striker and focal points defensive end Charles Tapper (three-time all-conference selection), linebacker Dominique Alexander (three-year starter), and corner Zack Sanchez (fourth in school history in INTs). They also travel to Houston to open the season and TCU in game four, while hosting Ohio State in Week 3; it’s not a stretch to see the Sooners enter their matchup against Texas, who defeated them last year, at 2-2. The schedule does do them favors by getting Baylor and Oklahoma State in Norman, but Stoops has a well-documented history of failing to meet preseason expectations. 14. Ohio State: This is a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes. They return fewer starters than any other FBS program (six) which will lead to Meyer playing some, if not most, of his heralded recruits. Barrett is going to thrive in Meyer’s system like his predecessor Braxton Miller did and will serve as the offensive cornerstone, similar to that of McMillan on defense. They draw Nebraska, Northwestern, and Michigan in Columbus, but traveling to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State will test the Buckeyes; excluding Oklahoma, they face those opponents in five of the last six games. Meyer’s coaching ability is going to be on full display this year, and they may need to be victorious in their bowl game to reach 10 wins. 15. Stanford: Much of Stanford’s success depends on McCaffrey more than ever with the loss of Hogan and it may prove to be to be too much. Hogan was a capable runner that defenses had to account for, and it’s unsure whether Chryst will provide the same effect. The middle to left side of the line is brand new, but Chryst still has viable receiving options. The defense was above average as a unit, but they can afford to improve their third down D (45th) and turnover margin (65th). The first half of the season will prove tough for the Cardinal to make it through unscathed, featuring trips to UCLA, Washington, and Notre Dame; they also have to travel to Eugene to take on a Ducks team that defeated them at home last season. Stanford made it to the Rose Bowl in Hogan’s first year as a starter and he didn’t have a player in the same stratosphere of McCaffrey’s caliber at his disposal. An improved Pac-12 North and non-conference games against Kansas State and Notre Dame make the possibility an unfavorable one. 16. UCLA: The proverbial Pac-12 South favorites have a fringe-generational talent at quarterback; his ability to lift a depleted receiving corp will shed the fringe label. The Bruins have three other joining Rosen as the returning starters, so expect the defense to anchor this team if they can improve on a 54th finishing in scoring and 67th finish in total D. The loss of Ka’imi Fairbairn is noteworthy, proving to be one of the nation’s top kickers as a freshman is slotted to replace him. The Bruins were off to a 7-2 start before dropping three of their last four, capped by two uninspiring finishes in which the Bruins looked disinterested. UCLA opens at Texas A&M before traveling to BYU two weeks later -- two challenging games to begin the season -- but there is no Oregon and Washington on the schedule with Stanford at home. Ten wins is likely their ceiling, but 11 isn’t impossible. 17. Ole Miss: Fans in Oxford are expecting more excitement come fall, but it comes with tempered expectations. They return the SEC’s fewest starters for a team that was heavily reliant on those stars, especially on defense. Regardless, Kelly leads an offense that finished eighth in scoring and 10th in both passing and total O for an offense that beats opponents with deception; they will feature athletic down guys once again on defense equally athletic defensive backs. Freeze has done a tremendous job of recruiting and he’s not averse to playing freshman, but it’s still the SEC West. The first four weeks feature games against Florida State, Alabama, and Georgia, but the Rebels’ have posted six upsets in the last three years, three over ranked teams -- anything can happen in those three matchups. Road trips against Arkansas, LSU, and Texas A&M don’t make things easier, but Kelly tore LSU apart with 361 total yards and four TDs a year ago. Improving the win total for a fifth straight year is unlikely, but don’t count the Rebels out. 18. San Diego State: SDSU stumbled out of the gates, dropping three straight against Cal, South Alabama, and Penn State to begin 1-3. 10 straight wins and a Mountain West Championship later, the Aztecs finished with the nation’s second-longest winning streak behind Alabama’s 12. Chapman is just a sophomore in his first full year as a starter, but he won’t be asked to beat teams with his arm in a “ground-and-pound” type offense. Pumphrey is as good as they come while Penny adds another dimension to an offense that finished 14th in the FBS. Defense is their M.O. and six starters return on a unit that is experienced as any in the defensive backfield (three senior starters, one junior). They host Cal and travel to Northern Illinois in two of the first three weeks, winnable games that could propel them into the playoff following a second straight MW Championship. 19. Notre Dame: Kelly will straighten out his quarterback situation and either one is a capable winner, but there are near-insurmountable losses on the line and at the receiving corp; most of the defensive production has left as well. Luckily, the Irish did a fine recruiting job and may see solid production from their freshman. Opening at Texas is much more difficult than most expect and they end the year at USC, although home games against Michigan State, Stanford, and Miami aid their cause. A lot of their success rides on the quarterback play, a testament to their 2015 campaign that saw them finish the regular season 10-2 with both losses coming by a combined four points at Clemson and at Stanford. They must get to the quarterback more often and avoid the injury bug as often as possible, otherwise, Notre Dame’s window is 8-10 wins. 20. Miami (FL): The ‘Canes are back under new head coach Marck Richt. He inherits 16 returning starters (10 offensive, six defensive) led by star quarterback Brad Kaaya and some lethal weapons in running back Joseph Yearby (1,002 rushing yards and six TDs, 23 receptions for 273 yards and two touchdowns) and receiver Stacy Coley (47-689-4); fellow running back Mark Walton (754 yards, 10 TDs from scrimmage) and tight end David Njoku (21-362-1) are also back. Kaaya will also be protected by all five returning starters up front. To win games, however, Miami must improve their 117th rated running game. The D returns six, featuring massive linebacker Al-Quadin Muhammad (6’4,” 250 pounds; 8.5 TFL and five sacks) and corner Corn Elder, an impactful punt returner who picked off two passes and registered two sacks; safety Rayshawn Jenkins is also back after recording three interceptions. Richt also compiled the nation’s 21st best recruiting class according to 247Sports, hauling in linebacker and slotted starter Shaquille Quarterman. The defense struggled to stop opponents from scoring (77th) and running on them (101st), key areas new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will focus on. They get Pitt, North Carolina, and Florida State at home (they beat the Panthers and played the ‘Noles close in Tallahassee, but got obliterated by the Heels) and there is no Clemson on the schedule. On the other hand, those three games are sandwiched by consecutive road trips against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Double-digit wins are a real possibility for the first since 2003. 21. Michigan State Dantonio and the Spartans defeated Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan on their way to College Football Playoff, their only loss a wild, questionable ending against the Cornhuskers; the Spartans were ultimately blanked 38-0 by Alabama. Now they have to replace a senior class that won 36 games, two conference titles, and a Rose Bowl. Yikes. The program is high on O’Connor, but experience matters and Cook’s was extremely valuable, and he only gets returning starters on offense. The defense needs to improve after what was a disappointing season by their standards as they will expect much from their six returners. The Spartans are 6-2 against top-10 opponents since 2013, but they have dropped four of its last five games against Notre Dame, their second matchup in South Bend. The good news is that their toughest opponents (Northwestern, Wisconsin, BYU, Michigan, and Ohio State) have to play in Spartan Stadium and their toughest road game is Penn State. On the flip side, all seven games will be heavy-hitters. Expect nine wins from Sparty this season. 22. Pittsburgh: The Panthers are my surprise team this season despite the loss of wideout Tyler Boyd. Nathan Peterman is back after throwing for 2,287 yards and 20 TDs against eight interceptions in his first full-time stint. He will get the 2014 ACC OPOY James Conner back at running back after sitting out last season with a knee injury; Conner was later diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, but made a full recovery, serving as a true inspiration. Dontez Ford isn’t the receiver Boyd was, but he still snagged 26 passes for 505 yards and two touchdowns while tight end Scott Orndoff saw five of his 13 receptions go for scores. Most importantly, four starting offensive linemen are back with a left side as good as anyone. Defensively, seven starters are back from a unit that surrendered 26.1 ppg (57th) last year, led by defensive end Ejuan Price, the team’s leader in TFL (19.5) and sacks (11.5). Pitt dropped five games last year, but three (North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Iowa) came by a combined 22 points. Two of the first four matchups are consecutive road trips against Oklahoma State and North Carolina before November road games against Miami and Clemson; they’ll be lucky to get two wins out of that stretch. Pat Narduzzi won eight games in Year One, and should see nine in ’16. 23. Georgia: Whoever starts at quarterback won’t be asked to do much the duo of Chubb and Michel, but none of that matters if the two aren’t 100 percent come September. Lambert was a capable and efficient starter (63.3 completion percentage, 1,953 yards, and 12 TDs versus two INTs), so there isn’t an immediate need to play Eason. Defensively, Smart is going to maximize his six returning starters from a unit that allowed a mere 16.9 PPG. There is no Alabama on the schedule and the Bulldogs get Tennessee at home, but they open against a stout North Carolina team, travel to Oxford, and face tricky matchups against Florida and Auburn. The last eight head coaches hired in the SEC have an average of seven first-season wins, but Smart could potentially see nine. 24. Washington State: There’s no secret to what the Cougars are trying to do on offense, but they are incredibly efficient so good luck trying to stop them; it’s difficult to blitz them because Falk is great at throwing hot and he has a talented receiving corp. They also scored on 94.5 percent of their red zone opportunities, second in the FBS and a proponent of their efficiency. Six defensive starters should help the unit progress, but there’s no need to transform the unit into a stalwart with an offense that returns eight, can outduel all of their opponents, and run the ball efficiently. The schedule isn’t particularly difficult, but their first two matchups against Eastern Washington and at Boise State will provide intrigue. They get Oregon, UCLA, and Washington at home and their lone road challenge is against Stanford. Nine wins is in their future, but don’t be shocked if they make a deep run. 25. USC: We finish the rankings with another Pac-12 school that endured another disappointing season. Cody Kessler was an illustrious Trojan passer, but he is gone and will be replaced by Max Browne. The junior quarterback has serious help: the Trojans return nine starters highlighted by a top running back duo in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II -- they combined for 2,117 yards and 16 TDs from scrimmage -- and a top NFL prospect in receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The other side of the ball has to improve if they wish to be competitive, finishing 65th in total D and 93rd against the pass while allowing 40+ points four separate times. Su’a Cravens was an immense part of their schematic philosophy, lining up in multiple spots, but they still get six starters back including playmaker Cameron Smith (linebacker) and three defensive backs; Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall are a seriously athletic duo and another year experienced. ‘SC will be tested early and often, opening against Alabama in Jerry World that I have the Tide winning by two scores: under Saban, ‘Bama has won their last four neutral site openers by 20 points. Their game against UCLA is a true “away” game, but Stanford and Washington are and the Trojans are 15-13 in all road games the past four seasons; Oregon and Notre Dame are on the schedule again, albeit at home. With one of the country’s toughest schedules, any more than nine wins seems undoable, and may take a bowl victory to reach. Next Five: Boise State, Northwestern, Florida, Baylor, Arizona View full article
  5. Kevin Dodd is a very accomplished all round pass rusher with an excellent range of moves at his disposal making him a handful for any tackle. He has all the prototypical measurable you would look for 6'5'', 277 pounds, 1.70 10-yard split, 34'' arms and 10'' hands. These stats all add up to create a picture of a prototypical pass rusher, he has very good flexibility and bend to allow him to get round the edge which led to the majority of his sacks in college. Dodd is one of the best all round Defensive ends I've seen in this draft class and I believe he can utilize every move in the book to beat the man opposite, this is an attribute that made him very tricky to guard in college. Perhaps his best attribute however is the way he performs in big games, Dodd shined in the big moments and against top opposition especially in the NCAA national championship game recording 7 tackles and 3 sacks. I don't really have to many concerns with selecting Dodd in the late first round. However it is important to take into account who he played with in college, Dodd definitely benefited from having Shaq Lawson on the other side of a talented defensive line at Clemson. This allowed him to often have favorable match ups and see less double teams than some of the other top pass rushers in this draft class. Dodd is relatively inexperienced with only one year of notable production, however he had an incredibly impressive season in 2015 especially towards the end with a dominant stretch through some crucial games and into the college playoffs. I think it will be important for whoever drafts Dodd to pair him with another good pass rusher to take the pressure of him and allow him to develop as he still needs time due to a lack of playing time in college. I think it would be an excellent pick for a team with a talented defensive line to add another young pass rusher to the group and this would benefit both the team and Dodd massively. My favorite thing when watching him play was the way he played on key downs and in big games. On a given 3rd&3 you could almost guarantee Dodd would be disruptive getting a sack or tackle for loss. Overall I would be very pleased taking Dodd in the late first round and potentially even the middle of the first round depending on the fit. The Bills (19th pick), Texans (22nd pick) and Seahawks (26th pick) would be three great fits for Dodd. Games watched: vs Notre Dame vs Miami vs South Carolina vs Oklahoma vs Alabama
  6. Reader is not (or at least should not be) a plug-and-play starter for any team in the NFL, but he might be developed into a good backup and rotational player. He uses his bulk to his advantage, often using good hand placement and lower body strength to move the man across from him. Taking good pursuit angles and not giving up on plays early, Reader is a textbook example of a hustle player. He at times shows the ability to hand-fight and prevent blockers from completely engaging him. Unfortunately, Reader's weaknesses are significant. He doesn't keep a consistent pad level, allowing blockers to out-leverage him on many occasions. He struggles to disengage from blockers and will often expose his chest plate to blockers. Since he isn't an elite athlete, Reader is going to need to fix his technical issues if he wants to stick in the NFL.
  7. Reader is not (or at least should not be) a plug-and-play starter for any team in the NFL, but he might be developed into a good backup and rotational player. He uses his bulk to his advantage, often using good hand placement and lower body strength to move the man across from him. Taking good pursuit angles and not giving up on plays early, Reader is a textbook example of a hustle player. He at times shows the ability to hand-fight and prevent blockers from completely engaging him. Unfortunately, Reader's weaknesses are significant. He doesn't keep a consistent pad level, allowing blockers to out-leverage him on many occasions. He struggles to disengage from blockers and will often expose his chest plate to blockers. Since he isn't an elite athlete, Reader is going to need to fix his technical issues if he wants to stick in the NFL. View full report
  8. The 2016 NFL Draft is just a few weeks away and there has been a wide range of speculation on who the New York Giants will select with the 10th pick. Even though the Giants have been busy during free agency, they still have to work to do if they want to contend for a championship. If the Giants want to get back to being a championship caliber franchise, they need to draft Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. One of the main reasons the Giants won two Super Bowls over the past 10 seasons was due to the fact they had three or four pass rushing specialists. So adding a pass rusher like Lawson would be a proven recipe for success. Last season with Clemson, Lawson had 12.5 sacks and showed that he was one of the elite pass rushers in the nation. Some would argue that the Giants should use their first round pick on the offensive side of the ball and draft either Notre Dame offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott or Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. These three players would be immediate upgrades to the Giants offense, but the offense wasn’t the biggest issue with the Giants last year, the defense was. Despite not having a second reliable receiving option and a rushing attack that was 18th in the league, the Giants still scored the sixth most points in the NFL last season. In contrast, the Giants defense was the third worst scoring defense in the NFL, and gave up the most yards. Should the Giants draft Lawson, opposing offenses would have to deal with him, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon on passing situations which would be troublesome to say the least. These pass rushers would evoke memories of the Giants NASCAR defensive line that wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Another benefit of drafting Lawson is the uncertainty surrounding Jason Pierre-Paul who the Giants resigned to a one-year contract. JPP has stated he will not play with a club on his right hand this season, but it’s unknown if he’ll be able to get back to his Pro Bowl form. If he’s able to get back to that form, then he’ll want to get paid as one of the best pass rushers in the league and it might be too high of a price for the Giants. If he’s unable to get back to his Pro Bowl form, the Giants won’t bring him back in 2017. In either scenario, Lawson would be able to replace JPP. There are a number of players that would be a good fit for the Giants to take in the first round. But, none of them would be a better fit than Shaq Lawson.
  9. The 2016 NFL Draft is just a few weeks away and there has been a wide range of speculation on who the New York Giants will select with the 10th pick. Even though the Giants have been busy during free agency, they still have to work to do if they want to contend for a championship. If the Giants want to get back to being a championship caliber franchise, they need to draft Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. One of the main reasons the Giants won two Super Bowls over the past 10 seasons was due to the fact they had three or four pass rushing specialists. So adding a pass rusher like Lawson would be a proven recipe for success. Last season with Clemson, Lawson had 12.5 sacks and showed that he was one of the elite pass rushers in the nation. Some would argue that the Giants should use their first round pick on the offensive side of the ball and draft either Notre Dame offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott or Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. These three players would be immediate upgrades to the Giants offense, but the offense wasn’t the biggest issue with the Giants last year, the defense was. Despite not having a second reliable receiving option and a rushing attack that was 18th in the league, the Giants still scored the sixth most points in the NFL last season. In contrast, the Giants defense was the third worst scoring defense in the NFL, and gave up the most yards. Should the Giants draft Lawson, opposing offenses would have to deal with him, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon on passing situations which would be troublesome to say the least. These pass rushers would evoke memories of the Giants NASCAR defensive line that wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Another benefit of drafting Lawson is the uncertainty surrounding Jason Pierre-Paul who the Giants resigned to a one-year contract. JPP has stated he will not play with a club on his right hand this season, but it’s unknown if he’ll be able to get back to his Pro Bowl form. If he’s able to get back to that form, then he’ll want to get paid as one of the best pass rushers in the league and it might be too high of a price for the Giants. If he’s unable to get back to his Pro Bowl form, the Giants won’t bring him back in 2017. In either scenario, Lawson would be able to replace JPP. There are a number of players that would be a good fit for the Giants to take in the first round. But, none of them would be a better fit than Shaq Lawson. View full NFL news story
  10. Although he only played two years at Clemson, it's hard to think of Mackensie Alexander as anything less than a top defensive prospect entering the 2016 NFL Draft. The top corner on one of the top defenses in college football will deservedly get a lot of attention and hype moving into the draft, and in Alexander's case, it's merited. Although Alexander only started for two years, his relative lack of experience isn't actually immediately apparent on a football field. He appears savvy to the pattern matching and route pickups from bunch formations in banjo coverage. His bump and run technique is excellent - he jams receivers effectively with the proper hand placement and has hips fluid enough to turn and run with them. When bailing in coverage, he does tend to give receivers too much cushion underneath and could stand to tighten his coverage up. What may give NFL scouting departments some pause is that he has yet to record an interception since senior year of high school. Despite some noteworthy ball skills, he has still only 11 pass deflections in two years as a starter as well. Honestly, his press coverage is quite immaculate for a second-year college player. He's not an off-man corner, as his fiery attitude lends itself best when he gets to jam a receiver and talk back after the play. This is a guy who relishes in physicality at the line of scrimmage and working back to the ball, and who appreciates the opportunity to remind the receiver of that. His length will limit him somewhat as a boundary guy, but he should be able to get inside receivers' heads consistently.
  11. Although he only played two years at Clemson, it's hard to think of Mackensie Alexander as anything less than a top defensive prospect entering the 2016 NFL Draft. The top corner on one of the top defenses in college football will deservedly get a lot of attention and hype moving into the draft, and in Alexander's case, it's merited. Although Alexander only started for two years, his relative lack of experience isn't actually immediately apparent on a football field. He appears savvy to the pattern matching and route pickups from bunch formations in banjo coverage. His bump and run technique is excellent - he jams receivers effectively with the proper hand placement and has hips fluid enough to turn and run with them. When bailing in coverage, he does tend to give receivers too much cushion underneath and could stand to tighten his coverage up. What may give NFL scouting departments some pause is that he has yet to record an interception since senior year of high school. Despite some noteworthy ball skills, he has still only 11 pass deflections in two years as a starter as well. Honestly, his press coverage is quite immaculate for a second-year college player. He's not an off-man corner, as his fiery attitude lends itself best when he gets to jam a receiver and talk back after the play. This is a guy who relishes in physicality at the line of scrimmage and working back to the ball, and who appreciates the opportunity to remind the receiver of that. His length will limit him somewhat as a boundary guy, but he should be able to get inside receivers' heads consistently. View full report
  12. Lawson was amongst the standout edge rushers during a 2015 season where his presence certainly impacted his Clemson team and helped catapult them into the NCAA playoff. Shaq is slightly smaller than some of his fellow edge rushers in this draft at only 6'3'' however this often showed in a positive way as his low center of gravity made it hard for opposing lineman to keep track of him. He is excellently built with powerful legs and a well balanced body, however his large muscle bulk seems to have a negative impact on his flexibility. The 2015 all american could likely attract interest from teams with both a 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 scheme. Clemson head coach Dabo Sweeney had Shaq both drop in pass coverage and rush from standing or with a hand in the dirt. The versatility to do different things makes Lawson an intriguing prospect for teams looking for a defensive lineman. Shaq was explosive coming off the edge in his last year and saw his sack count rise hugely however this could be partly due to fellow Clemson pass rusher Kevin Dodd helping out on the other side of the line. Lawson is good against the run and will be able to secure the edge's in a defense and has the potential to develop into a good pass rusher. If Lawson wants to become a pass rusher who can get after the QB more and be freed up to rush every play he will need to work on his technique and skills. Lawson sometimes uses his body to much and leans on opposing defenders rather than using his hand which allows better lineman to lock him up on blocks at times. The spin move Lawson showcased when he featured in NFL Network's Path to the Draft was certainly and effect move in college however he used it far to often and sometimes his lack of variety was on show and could have a negative effect. Lawson's injury will be a slight concern for teams as his shoulder issues are rumored to have caused nagging issues over the last year. If he is healthy however he will be a top-20 pick and I could see him potentially going as high as pick #9 to the Buccaneers or #10 to the Giants. Overall, I would definitely expect Lawson to go in the middle of the Round 1 and to do a range of things on the edge whether in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
  13. Lawson was amongst the standout edge rushers during a 2015 season where his presence certainly impacted his Clemson team and helped catapult them into the NCAA playoff. Shaq is slightly smaller than some of his fellow edge rushers in this draft at only 6'3'' however this often showed in a positive way as his low center of gravity made it hard for opposing lineman to keep track of him. He is excellently built with powerful legs and a well balanced body, however his large muscle bulk seems to have a negative impact on his flexibility. The 2015 all american could likely attract interest from teams with both a 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 scheme. Clemson head coach Dabo Sweeney had Shaq both drop in pass coverage and rush from standing or with a hand in the dirt. The versatility to do different things makes Lawson an intriguing prospect for teams looking for a defensive lineman. Shaq was explosive coming off the edge in his last year and saw his sack count rise hugely however this could be partly due to fellow Clemson pass rusher Kevin Dodd helping out on the other side of the line. Lawson is good against the run and will be able to secure the edge's in a defense and has the potential to develop into a good pass rusher. If Lawson wants to become a pass rusher who can get after the QB more and be freed up to rush every play he will need to work on his technique and skills. Lawson sometimes uses his body to much and leans on opposing defenders rather than using his hand which allows better lineman to lock him up on blocks at times. The spin move Lawson showcased when he featured in NFL Network's Path to the Draft was certainly and effect move in college however he used it far to often and sometimes his lack of variety was on show and could have a negative effect. Lawson's injury will be a slight concern for teams as his shoulder issues are rumored to have caused nagging issues over the last year. If he is healthy however he will be a top-20 pick and I could see him potentially going as high as pick #9 to the Buccaneers or #10 to the Giants. Overall, I would definitely expect Lawson to go in the middle of the Round 1 and to do a range of things on the edge whether in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. View full report
  14. Kevin Dodd is a very accomplished all round pass rusher with an excellent range of moves at his disposal making him a handful for any tackle. He has all the prototypical measurable you would look for 6'5'', 277 pounds, 1.70 10-yard split, 34'' arms and 10'' hands. These stats all add up to create a picture of a prototypical pass rusher, he has very good flexibility and bend to allow him to get round the edge which led to the majority of his sacks in college. Dodd is one of the best all round Defensive ends I've seen in this draft class and I believe he can utilize every move in the book to beat the man opposite, this is an attribute that made him very tricky to guard in college. Perhaps his best attribute however is the way he performs in big games, Dodd shined in the big moments and against top opposition especially in the NCAA national championship game recording 7 tackles and 3 sacks. I don't really have to many concerns with selecting Dodd in the late first round. However it is important to take into account who he played with in college, Dodd definitely benefited from having Shaq Lawson on the other side of a talented defensive line at Clemson. This allowed him to often have favorable match ups and see less double teams than some of the other top pass rushers in this draft class. Dodd is relatively inexperienced with only one year of notable production, however he had an incredibly impressive season in 2015 especially towards the end with a dominant stretch through some crucial games and into the college playoffs. I think it will be important for whoever drafts Dodd to pair him with another good pass rusher to take the pressure of him and allow him to develop as he still needs time due to a lack of playing time in college. I think it would be an excellent pick for a team with a talented defensive line to add another young pass rusher to the group and this would benefit both the team and Dodd massively. My favorite thing when watching him play was the way he played on key downs and in big games. On a given 3rd&3 you could almost guarantee Dodd would be disruptive getting a sack or tackle for loss. Overall I would be very pleased taking Dodd in the late first round and potentially even the middle of the first round depending on the fit. The Bills (19th pick), Texans (22nd pick) and Seahawks (26th pick) would be three great fits for Dodd. Games watched: vs Notre Dame vs Miami vs South Carolina vs Oklahoma vs Alabama View full report
  15. In some ways, Charone Peake is similar to another receiver that recently was drafted out of Clemson: Martavis Bryant. However, he is a bit smaller and not quite as athletic, but both are still positive traits for him. Another difference is the injury history is much more of a concern with Peake, not just with how raw they both were. The uncertainty coming from a prospect like Peake will make pro decision-makers nervous to take him and it could even prevent him from being drafted, although he certainly does possess rare physical traits. That being said, he has fought back from diversity very well and has shown the ability to make tremendous plays using his leaping ability and ball-tracking abilities in the deep part of the field. When he's been able to find space, he demonstrates some encouraging signs of getting yards after the catch as he develops more. By all accounts, he is a great guy who will be a nice addition to any locker room. Upon entering the NFL, Charone Peake will in all likelihood end up on the practice squad for at least a year. He's a player with lots of potential, but a long and very difficult journey is ahead of him if he is to reach it with how many aspects of his game need work. Realistically he will end up a similar player to Ricardo Lockette, where he provides an occasional amazing catch downfield, but overall doesn't see a ton of action. Staying healthy may end up being the single greatest factor in his future success.
  16. In some ways, Charone Peake is similar to another receiver that recently was drafted out of Clemson: Martavis Bryant. However, he is a bit smaller and not quite as athletic, but both are still positive traits for him. Another difference is the injury history is much more of a concern with Peake, not just with how raw they both were. The uncertainty coming from a prospect like Peake will make pro decision-makers nervous to take him and it could even prevent him from being drafted, although he certainly does possess rare physical traits. That being said, he has fought back from diversity very well and has shown the ability to make tremendous plays using his leaping ability and ball-tracking abilities in the deep part of the field. When he's been able to find space, he demonstrates some encouraging signs of getting yards after the catch as he develops more. By all accounts, he is a great guy who will be a nice addition to any locker room. Upon entering the NFL, Charone Peake will in all likelihood end up on the practice squad for at least a year. He's a player with lots of potential, but a long and very difficult journey is ahead of him if he is to reach it with how many aspects of his game need work. Realistically he will end up a similar player to Ricardo Lockette, where he provides an occasional amazing catch downfield, but overall doesn't see a ton of action. Staying healthy may end up being the single greatest factor in his future success. View full report
  17. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl #18 Houston (12-1) vs #9 Florida State (10-2) Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA Noon EST CAPITAL ONE ORANGE BOWL - CFP SEMIFINAL #4 Oklahoma (11-1) vs #1 Clemson (13-0) Sun Life Stadium, Miami, FL 4:00PM EST GOODYEAR COTTON BOWL - CFP SEMIFINAL #3 Michigan State (12-1) vs #2 Alabama (12-1) AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX 8:00PM EST Players to Watch Projected First Round Picks: Florida State FS, #8 Jalen Ramsey Ramsey has top tier athleticism mixed with fluid body mechanics. He is controlled when changing direction and smoothly transitions when backpedaling. Ramsey has the size and skillset to play both cornerback and safety. Clemson CB, #2 Mackensie Alexander Alexander possesses a thick frame from the top down. He is light on his feet, but plays with aggression. He has both the size and speed to play outside, but it also shifty enough to shadow in the slot. Clemson DE, #90 Shaq Lawson Lawson has quick, strong hands, and the upper body strength to push opposing lineman into the backfield. He is a disciplined defender who knows his role and finishes the job. He is both big and fast, which helps him in both the run game and the pass game. Alabama LB, #19 Reggie Ragland Ragland has quick burst on his first step and pursues opposing players with good speed. He closes on the ball carrier with enough momentum to lay the big hit. Ragland works through blocks and gets to the ball. He doesn’t have the greatest range, which will limit him to the inside. Clemson FS, #1 Jayron Kearse Kearse is more raw than other top defensive backs in the class. He has natural athleticism and a large frame. He has a good mind for the ball and makes plays on the defense. He is still working on smoothing his transitions in coverage, but has the potential to become a good NFL caliber player. Alabama DT, #90 Jarran Reed Reed holds down the middle of the defensive line for the Crimson Tide. He has good power and leverage, which allows him to eat up blocks and create room for other defenders. He has great awareness and the ability to push the ball carrier outside, sealing up the defensive line. Alabama DL, #86 A’Shawn Robinson Robinson is another big, strong anchor on the Alabama defensive line. He has great upper body strength, and pushed the pocket into the opposing quarterback. He is also solid in the run game. His natural ability to win in the trenches make him a top draft prospect. Projected Second Round Picks: Alabama DL, #93 Jonathan Allen We are starting to see a theme here with the Alabama defensive line. Allen the more explosive of the bunch, but still embodies power to push into the backfield. He has great length, which open up his blocks and frees him into open space. He has quick pursuit on the ball carrier. Oklahoma DE, #91 Charles Tapper Tapper also has great length and extends well right off the snap. He uses his long arms to push through the offensive line and disrupt the play. He improved his tackle, sack, and forced fumble numbers from last year, showing that he can lead a defense. Michigan State DE, #89 Shilique Calhoun Calhoun has a great jump off the ball and uses that speed to generate push at the line. He has quick feet and lateral quickness which allows him to shed blocks and get into the backfield. He controls his body well allowing him to change direction without slowing down. He is the ideal pass rush prospect. Projected Third Round Picks: Houston CB, #3 William Jackson Jackson has great size and length. He is aggressive at the catch point and is a physical pass defender. He fights for the ball on every play. Jackson does a great job closing the gap between the receiver and the sideline, allowing himself more room to make plays. Alabama RB, #2 Derrick Henry Probably the most notable player on this list. He was the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner and single-handedly marched the Alabama offense downfield all season. He has excellent size mixed with power. He has great acceleration and vision through the hole. Henry can struggle with indecisiveness behind the line, which can lead to many one or two yard gains. Oklahoma WR, #3 Sterling Shepard Shepard is a deep threat wide receiver with the ball skills to play both outside and in the slot. His shifty feet and athleticism make him a dangerous playmaker in open space. He lacks size, but makes up for it with the ability to create over the top separation. He does get overpowered when matched up against more physical defenders. Corey Brewer is a Featured Analyst for Pro Football Spot as well as the AFC North Division Coordinator. He is also a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow @BrewerIPA on Twitter.