Now that spring drills have ended for all 128 FBS teams, it’s a good time to revisit my tentative Top 25 for 2016. While the order is still fluid, pending transfers, injuries and suspensions prior to opening weekend, wholesale changes are unlikely as the race to Tampa gradually shifts into another gear.
Utes are notorious overachievers under Kyle Whittingham, so predicting their demise is a recipe for embarrassment. Utah is facing turnover in the backfield, but they’ll be very good where it matters, along both lines and in the secondary.
The healthy return of Corey Clement means the ground troops will again be deep in Madison. Clement combined with the foundation of a sound defense will help the Badgers navigate a thorny schedule and compete with Iowa for the Big Ten West crown.
Tom Herman plus Greg Ward Jr. might equal 50 points per game for the Cougars, who’ll carry a tailwind into 2016. But the defense loses a ton of playmakers, which could get exposed versus Oklahoma and Louisville … and cost Houston a shot at a second straight New Year’s Six bowl berth.
In 2015, the Huskies rebuilt. In 2016, after using so many underclassmen, they’re ready to go airborne for Chris Petersen. If QB Jake Browning takes the next step as a sophomore, the defense is nasty enough to break Stanford and Oregon’s death grip on the Pac-12 North.
After improbably starting 12-0 last season, the Hawkeyes have the muscle memory for winning the Big Ten West. They’ve also got a returning all-star behind center, C.J. Beathard, and a bunch of had-working former reserves itching to fill holes atop the depth chart.
After impressively milking 11 wins out of an injury-depleted squad, the Frogs are going to be much deeper on D, Gary Patterson’s specialty. Climbing up the Big 12 mountain, though, hinges on how well the team backfills all of the massive openings on the offensive side of the ball.
The Ducks have issues in the trenches. Everywhere else, though, there’s the usual speed and skill that resides in Eugene. Newcomers Brady Hoke and Dakota Prukop have been imported to fix an awful defense and ignite the offense, respectively.
After being besieged by injuries in 2015, the Bruins are hoping for far fewer casualties this fall. They’re also hoping that Josh Rosen can take the next big stride toward being one of college football’s premier young quarterbacks.
After a brief retooling last year, the Cards could be the ACC’s biggest surprise of 2016. Electrifying QB Lamar Jackson is no longer a wide-eyed rookie, the defense will be suffocating and the entire program is feeling bullish after closing 2015 on a 6-1 run.
16. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are out to prove 2015 was no fluke. And they’ve got the talent to back up their goals. In fact, if Mitch Trubisky can take the baton from Marquise Williams at quarterback, Carolina can be every bit as successful as it was last year.
Clay Helton gets his first chance to disprove the notion that Troy could have been pickier when choosing a permanent head coach. As usual, the Trojans have no shortages of talent, though a new quarterback must be broken in, and the D-line remains a serious question mark.
14. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio and his staff know how to build, a good thing considering the makeover being done on both sides of the ball. The recent history of the Spartans says this team will once again overachieve by making sure last year’s backups are ready to roll in 2016.
It’s going to be a transition year in Athens, with Kirby Smart taking over as head coach and true freshman Jacob Eason—possibly—starting at quarterback. Still, there’s always talent at Georgia. And the formula of Smart’s defensive prowess and a backfield of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will keep the Dawgs in the SEC East hunt.
12. Ole Miss
Everyone is about to learn the limits of Chad Kelly’s potential. He’s the SEC premier quarterback, but his supporting cast won’t be what it was in 2015, so there’s more weight to carry. While Hugh Freeze keeps restocking the shelves, the Rebs are going to be a lot younger and inexperienced this fall.
At long last, this should finally be the season the Vols return to SEC contention. Butch Jones is entering his fourth year, the roster is littered with returning starters and 2015 ended with six straight wins. At a minimum, Tennessee ought to be the class of the East for the first time since 2007.
The Bears might need to score more points this season to offset a defense hit hard by graduation. Yeah, that’s rarely a worry for Art Briles, who has two quality hurlers in the stable. Beyond the D, Baylor must also retool an O-line that’ll feature four new starters.
In terms of plugging lineup holes, David Shaw ranks among the top coaches in the game. So, yeah, there are a lot of job openings—again. But Stanford develops backups, especially linemen, extremely well, and having Christian McCaffrey as the offensive centerpiece will erase a lot of flaws.
8. Notre Dame
The raw talent level is peaking for Brian Kelly. It’s not at an Ohio State or Bama caliber, but it’s close. The Irish could have the deepest backfield in the country, and the O-line will be real good even without Ronnie Stanley. The schedule has landmines, but it’ll help getting Michigan State, Stanford and Miami at home.
7. Ohio State
It’s going to be a compelling year in Columbus, as the training wheels come off a slew of young Buckeyes. Raw talent will never be an issue as long as Urban Meyer is on staff. And QB J.T. Barrett will erupt now that Cardale Jones is gone. OSU’s ceiling rests on how quickly the kids handle the spotlight and scrutiny.
Jim Harbaugh has only been in Ann Arbor for one season, though it feels so much longer. He went 10-3 in his debut, and should have better overall talent at his disposal in 2016. Winning the Big Ten for the first time in over a decade will depend on the development of a backfield still searching for its identity and leaders.
For a change, the Tigers will be led by a deep senior class. Those veterans, plus Leonard Fournette storming out of the backfield for one final season, give Les Miles a shot at redemption after almost being sacked last November. However, all bets are off if the passing game remains stuck in neutral.
4. Florida State
After hitting a detour in its usual title run, FSU is equipped to be a contender again in 2016. Both lines are loaded with experience, and Dalvin Cook is as good as any back in the country. Regaining control of the ACC, though, depends on how well Sean Maguire or Deondre Francois handles the starring role under center.
For a team that appeared in the playoffs last season, the Sooners are in very good overall shape. The Air Raid will rock again behind the backfield of Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. And while the defense has openings, there’s a very solid corps of returning playmakers.
Think Ohio State, with a better track record for revamping on the fly under Nick Saban. The defending champs had former blue-chippers all over the second and third teams, so talent is the least of their worries. And the Tide has proven it can thrive despite uncertainty at quarterback. However, new leaders, both physically and emotionally, must be mined in order to repeat.
No one is stopping an offense led by Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and arguably the deepest ensemble of receivers in the country. Whether or not Clemson takes the next step and wins a national championship rests on a defense with a lot of new faces this season.