It’s never too early to take a peek at next season, right? With the 2015 season ending two days ago, let’s take an ill-advised stab at projecting next season’s Top 25 nearly eight months too early:

1. CLEMSON — Deshaun Watson and a cadre of talented receivers will return. The quarterback likely will enter the season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. A season-opening game at Auburn looks winnable. Losing Shaq Lawson and several members of a terrific secondary will be tough, but coach Dabo Swinney has recruited well. There are no major challengers in the ACC outside of Florida State, either.

2. OKLAHOMA — The decision by coach Bob Stoops to transform the Sooners offense may have been the most impactful in college football last offseason. Dual-threat quarterback Baker Mayfield spearheads a group that averages 45.8 points per game. Assuming he returns to Norman, Okla., that offense should be more or less as potent in 2016, even without receiver Sterling Shepard. (Don’t forget about Samaje Perine, who has scored 37 touchdowns and rushed for 3,000 yards in just two seasons.) These guys should be the Big 12 favorites in 2016.

3. OHIO STATE — There will be no quarterback controversy next season, as Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones depart. This is J.T. Barrett’s team. Outside of Alabama, no team will lose more talent to the NFL. But outside of Alabama, no one has done a better job of recruiting in the last three years than Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Meyer is 31-1 in regular-season Big Ten games since arriving in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes are perpetual preseason favorites until his program takes a discernible tumble.

4. ALABAMA — For a third consecutive year, the Tide will enter the offseason with quarterback questions. Is Blake Barnett ready? Can Cooper Bateman become the guy? Another player not yet in Tuscaloosa? Bama also will lose more talent from its defensive front seven than any team in the country. Oh, and then there’s Derrick Henry. But Alabama’s defense should remain strong, and expect more diverse options on offense. But let’s be honest, this ranking is more about coach Nick Saban’s consistency than it is about Alabama’s personnel in 2016.

5. BAYLOR — Art Briles has proven that the Bears are going to score points, no matter the personnel. Losing Corey Coleman would be a big deal for every other team, but not here. Especially when Baylor should get a return to health from quarterback Seth Russell and running back Shock Linwood. The team will lose all four starters on the defensive line, but outside of a road game against Oklahoma, the schedule is manageable.

6. MICHIGAN — Combine Jim Harbaugh’s career track record with the way the Wolverines finished the season, reaching 10 wins in a transition year, and one can understand the excitement for this team in 2016. Houston transfer John O’Korn gives the team a good replacement for quarterback Jake Rudock. The defensive line should be outstanding and Jabrill Peppers is one of the most talented individual players in the country. The top of the Big Ten looks excellent.

7. FLORIDA STATE — The Seminoles could return their entire starting offense, including Doak Walker Award candidate Dalvin Cook. Losing defensive back Jalen Ramsey and kicker Roberto Aguayo stings, but FSU is used to losing more than that. The defense remains athletic. Returning all five starters on the offensive line is huge, and this team could put up enough points to challenge Clemson.

8. LSU — As long as Leonard Fournette stays healthy, the Tigers are going to be good enough to be favored against teams like Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas. Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is an upgrade and should be an asset as the Tigers face the Badgers at Lambeau Field to open the season. The defensive line and secondary are saturated with as much talent as any team in the SEC. Coach Les Miles survived a coup attempt and always has been very productive at LSU. And Brandon Harris may not be an All-SEC quarterback, but he’s one of the more experienced and entrenched players at the position entering 2016.

9. NOTRE DAME — The defense is a major concern, losing Jaylon Smith and most of the top tacklers from a unit that didn’t perform all that well in 2015. But Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer are back at quarterback, giving the team a situation resembling what Ohio State had this season. The schedule is cake relative to the norm for the Fighting Irish, as the toughest games are at Texas, at home against Michigan State, at home against Stanford, at home against Miami and at USC. It’s possible not a single one of those teams are ranked in the top 10. Avoid upsets outside of those games and go at least 3-2 against those five teams and Notre Dame will win 10 regular-season games again.

10. STANFORD — Running back Christian McCaffrey will be one of the preseason superstars as media and fans look to see if he can again break Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record. David Shaw has emerged as one of the best head coaches in all of college football. If the Cardinal had avoided a “body clock” letdown against Northwestern early in the season, this team would’ve made the College Football Playoff committee’s decision very difficult. Stanford must replace three-plus year starter Kevin Hogan at quarterback and as many as eight starters on defense, but that unit is perpetually strong. And voters usually lean heavily on big-name stars preseason.

11. TENNESSEE — For those already rolling your eyes about the attention being paid to the Vols as a contender in 2016, save it. This program hasn’t been ranked in the top 10 preseason since 2005 and barely has been ranked at all since coach Butch Jones arrived in Knoxville. If Joshua Dobbs can improve as a passer, the offense should be good enough to win the SEC East. Hiring Bob Shoop as the team’s new defensive coordinator was a power move, and as many as 18 starters return on a team that won 9 games with close losses to two playoff teams.




15. UCLA

16. GEORGIA — The biggest question: Can Kirby Smart figure out the quarterback position? True freshman and early enrollee Jacob Eason is the long-term solution, but whether he’ll be ready to unseat Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey is another matter. The Bulldogs also lose a cadre of talented linebackers. But if Nick Chubb returns to form, and we’re assuming he will, Georgia features one of the most dominant offensive players in the SEC.


18. OLE MISS — Chad Kelly’s return does a lot to offset the losses of Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche. Coach Hugh Freeze has beaten Alabama in back-to-back seasons and improved one win every year from 2012 to 2015 with consecutive New Year’s Six appearances. Getting safety Tony Connor back from a knee injury will offset significant losses on defense, and the passing offense should remain exciting. This is the year that Freeze finally gets credit nationally as folks begin to realize he’s created a sustainable program.

19. IOWA

20. USC

21. MIAMI — Let’s face it, the ACC’s Coastal Division is even more convenient than the SEC East. Coach Mark Richt inherits a much better quarterback situation with Brad Kaaya, who will operate behind a veteran offensive line. The Hurricanes are bringing in a recruiting class that will be able to help right away. Look, coach Al Golden and then interim Larry Scott led this team to 8 regular-season wins in 2015. Richt is worth at least one additional win. Doesn’t 9-3 sound about right, Georgia fans?


23. TCU



SEC teams receiving votes: Florida, Arkansas, Auburn