Now that college football has reached its dormant stage of the offseason, which unanswered questions will have the biggest impact on the season ahead? We break down the 16 most meaningful ones below.
16 for ’16: Biggest Question Marks
Spring drills have ended. Fall camp is still a couple of months off. It’s the darkest and quietest time on the college football calendar, when the longing intensifies and the questions about the upcoming season turn into heated debates.
Each of the 128 FBS programs has pressing question marks heading into the summer. The following subplots, though, will be more than just compelling between now and the start of August.
Their eventual outcomes could go a long way to determining who amasses conference hardware in early December before moving on a few weeks later for a crack at a national championship.
16. Can Anyone Catch Houston in the Group of Five Race?
The Cougars didn’t just represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six bowl game last season. They actually went out and throttled Florida State, 38-24, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. A year later, everyone will still be chasing Houston.
The Cougs are surging again now that QB Greg Ward Jr. is back for another season and head coach Tom Herman resisted the temptation to take another offer after one year. However, now the tough part begins for Houston, which will deal with sky-high expectations all year long. The American is a deep, landmine-filled league, and Boise State and San Diego State of the Mountain West are also capable of making a run at the marquee bowl berth.
15. Does Iowa Have Legitimate Staying Power?
The Hawkeyes scripted a special season in 2015, improbably starting 12-0 and coming within a goal line stand in the waning seconds from winning the Big Ten title. Can Iowa now flip its script by remaining on course when hopes are high?
The last two times Kirk Ferentz won at least 10 games, 2004 and 2009, he dropped five the following year. And while there are bedrock players on both sides of the ball, QB C.J. Beathard and CB Desmond King, there’ll be no sneaking up on anyone in 2016. Or missing the top-tier teams from the East Division, since Michigan visits Iowa City on Nov. 12. There’s good and then there’s catch-up-to-the-East good, which is where Iowa hopes to be this fall.
14. Which First-Year Coach Will Make the Biggest Splash?
Now that spring football has ended, every FBS school has been introduced to at least one new coach. Some newcomers will have the opportunity—and visibility—to dramatically improve their Q Score this fall.
Exciting eras are almost ready to officially kick off on campuses like Illinois (Lovie Smith), Miami (Mark Richt), Georgia (Kirby Smart) and Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente), where new leadership brings optimism. Plus, high-visibility coordinators, such as Texas’ Sterlin Gilbert, Oregon’s Brady Hoke and Penn State’s Joe Moorhead, are getting their chances to be fixers of struggling units. A new year means new faces in key places, most of whom are being tasked with breathing life into situations that have become increasingly stale over the past few years.
13. Which Power 5 Conference Gets Left Out of the Third College Football Playoff?
Five leagues. Four spots. As has been the case the past two years, someone is getting left off the New Year’s Eve invitation list.
The Big 12 felt jilted in 2014. Last year, Stanford and the Pac-12 had to settle for a Rose Bowl rout of Iowa. This year? Too early to tell, obviously. But barring surprises, the SEC has its usual depth in these discussions, and the ACC sports a pair of potential powerhouses in Clemson and Florida State. From here, it’ll be a toss-up contingent upon whether the Big Ten, Pac-12 or Big 12 can produce a one-loss champ. Of the three, the Pac-12 is most likely to be absent from the preseason top 10, so there’s a decent chance it’ll once again be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
12. Is Tennessee Really Ready to Break Through?
The Vols boast the returning talent, momentum and hype to build off last season’s 9-4 mark. But can they stick the landing as expectations soar to their highest level of the past decade?
For good reason, Tennessee is one of the trendiest programs this offseason. The team is loaded everywhere, headlined by the backfield trio of QB Joshua Dobbs and backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. And Butch Jones enters his fourth season in charge. But the Vols must prove they can flourish with a target on their backs for a change. And Jones and his kids will have to tune out the ongoing Title IX lawsuit
citing a “hostile sexual environment” involving student-athletes.
11. Is Stanford Still King of the Pac-12 Hill?
The Cardinal has been remarkably consistent and resilient under David Shaw, copping the Pac-12 crown in three of the last four years. Making it four in the last five seasons, though, will require another mini-rebuilding effort on the Farm.
Few schools have been better than Stanford lately at retooling on the fly. Look at last season, when the team overcame wholesale changes to finish No. 3 in the final AP poll. But while the Cardinal has been masterful at seamlessly backfilling on defense and the O-line, the team is looking for a new quarterback this fall. Four-year starter Kevin Hogan is a Kansas City Chief, leaving untested Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst to duke it out for the right to join Christian McCaffrey in the backfield.
10. Who Gets the Ball From Brian Kelly?
The Notre Dame coach has what’s known as a good problem, provided his backup doesn’t make like Everett Golson and transfer out of the program.
The Irish boast arguably the best combination of quarterbacks in the country, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire. Both would be successful in this offense, or plenty of attacks across the country. Kelly, though, has no interest in a rotation that stunts the continuity of the quarterbacks and their receivers. And then there’s Brandon Wimbush, who could wind up being the best of the trio, but won’t be a threat in 2016. Kelly wants to not only make the right choice, but also somehow keep everyone happy and maximize the diverse skill sets of Kizer and Zaire.
9. Is This the Year LSU Stops Kvetching About Its Quarterbacks?
Few individuals are going to be more closely connected to their team’s trajectory than junior Brandon Harris will be this fall in Baton Rouge.
LSU is improved play behind center away from once again being a threat for a first SEC championship in five years—and possibly more. RB Leonard Fournette will be the offensive fulcrum for one final season, and the D will be predictably fast and nasty for new coordinator Dave Aranda. However, Harris and the passing game must emerge from its one-dimensional funk, because it’s difficult achieving top-end goals with a necrotic and unimaginative attack. And it’ll be equally difficult for Les Miles to earn another athletic department reprieve if his Tigers fail to win the West Division.
8. Can Oklahoma Win Big When It’s Supposed To?
The Sooners have been ranked in the preseason top 10 13 times this century under Bob Stoops.
They matched or exceeded their summer ranking just twice, concerning since the team is considered a playoff contender again in 2016.
Stoops has typically done his best work when no one is predicting a Big 12 title. Last season or 2013, for instance, 11-win campaigns that began without the typical hype. After tearing through the back end of the regular season schedule to win the conference, Oklahoma must show it can handle prosperity and expectations for a playoff return. It also must reload a D looking to replace standouts Eric Striker, Zack Sanchez and Charles Tapper.
7. Is Florida State Poised to Take Back the ACC?
After taking a one-year hiatus from the ACC mountaintop, bowing to Clemson, the Seminoles are bucking to win their fourth league title in the last five years.
Compared to its usual standard under Jimbo Fisher, FSU was down in 2015, losing three times. However, the Noles have far fewer question marks than they did at this time last year, save for the uncertainty behind center. Fisher needs either veteran Sean Maguire or rookie Deondre Francois to step up at quarterback, because this team is built for championships everywhere else. Plus, Clemson must travel to Tallahassee on Oct. 29 in a mega-tilt that could eliminate the loser from the playoff chase.
6. Can a School From One of the Weaker Divisions Finally Buck Recent History?
The West Division has been the dominant half of the SEC for the past seven years. Ditto the Pac-12 North, ACC Atlantic and Big Ten East of late. Is this the season someone steps up to stem the tide?
Bama, LSU and Auburn have owned the SEC hardware since 2008. Either Oregon or Stanford has won the last five Pac-12 championships. Clemson and Florida State have boxed the Coastal Division out of crowns the past five years. And either Ohio State or Michigan State has won the last three Big Ten titles. Can anyone make the first Saturday in December a little less predictable? The Pac-12 South could be closest to mounting a serious threat if USC and UCLA continue to beef up their rosters with blue-chip talent.
5. Can Texas—mercifully—Flip the Switch Under Charlie Strong?
After presiding over back-to-back seven-loss seasons, it’s now-or-never for Strong in Austin.
Since losing to Alabama in the 2009 national title game, the Longhorns have been the Big 12’s Tennessee or Miami, unable to restore the glory at a power program. Over the last six seasons, Texas has gone 41-35, the definition of mediocrity. But hope this year springs from another terrific recruiting class, the addition of inventive offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and enough returning starters to spawn a recovery. If the Horns aren’t much better at quarterback, though, AD Mike Perrin could be executing a job search in December. Paging Shane Buechele, the rookie looking to leapfrog erratic holdovers Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard.
4. Will Clemson Take the Next Step With a First National Title Since 1981?
After coming so painfully close to winning a national championship in January, the Tigers are itching for another crack this season.
Clemson won its first 14 games of 2015 before bowing to Bama, 45-40, in a battle it twice led in the second half. Falling short has left the Tigers hungry for a return to the playoffs and a shot to prove they’ve got more than warning track power as a contender. And while Dabo Swinney is clearly building a program with long-term staying power, there’ll be a little sense of urgency in 2016, since it’s likely to be star QB Deshaun Watson’s finale as an unpaid amateur.
3. Will Michigan Be Worth the Incessant Hype?
Jim Harbaugh has been at the center of the college football universe this offseason. Some of the attention was warranted, while much of it was fit for the theater of the absurd. Still, Harbaugh has the Wolverines ascending with a bullet in his second year in Ann Arbor.
Strip away the nonsense and nonstop coverage and Harbaugh is still the real deal, much the way he was at Stanford for four seasons. He’s off to a great at his alma mater, winning 10 games with seven-win talent, and continuing to win on Signing Day and in every facet of the media. Now that Michigan is on the precipice of becoming a national entity again, is it too early to scribble a Big Ten title and playoff contention on the to-do list?
2. Who’ll Be the New Headliners of the Bama Backfield?
The Crimson Tide will be fine, because Nick Saban and perennial star-studded recruiting classes ensure it. Still, there’s tinkering to be done on offense, particularly in the backfield.
Alabama enters 2016 with a new starting quarterback for a third straight year and a need to replace two backs, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. Sophomores Bo Scarborough and Damien Harris ought to be ready to pick up the slack in the power ground game. Quarterback, though, is a riddle that likely won’t be solved until late August. Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell are older, but rookies Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts have the higher ceilings. One thing that’s certain is Saban will have neither a senior nor a returning starter taking snaps for the first time since 2011.
1. With So Many New Starters, How Far Will Ohio State Slip?
No school had more former players selected in the most recent NFL Draft than the Buckeyes. Great news for the state of the program under Urban Meyer, yet concerning for this year’s squad.
The pre-draft process was essentially a three-month advertisement for how well Meyer and his staff have upgraded the talent pool at Ohio State since arriving in 2012. Think Big Ten’s version of Alabama. And while it’d be foolish to doubt that the next wave of Buckeyes will be Sunday-bound as well, there could be a leadership shortage after QB J.T. Barrett. This will be a fun team to monitor, as budding stars begin popping up, but can OSU navigate a schedule that includes trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan State and visit from Michigan?