The way-too-early top 25 for 2016
It’s never too early to take a peek at next season, right? With the bowl season kicking off next weekend, let’s take an ill-advised stab at projecting next season’s Top 25 nearly eight months too early:
THE SDS WAY TOO EARLY TOP 25
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. 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.
4. 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.
5. NOTRE DAME — The 6-foot-5 sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer arguably made the Fighting Irish better once Malik Zaire went down due to injury. Notre Dame does play five teams in our way-too-early top 25, but just two of them are on the road (Texas, USC). This team usually ranks 5-10 spots higher than its talent would suggest, especially in the preseason. And coach Brian Kelly has assembled one of the most balanced rosters in college football. The Irish are not exceptional in any one area, but they’re solid in every facet.
6. OKLAHOMA STATE
8. MICHIGAN STATE — Yes, the Spartans will lose long-time starting quarterback Connor Cook. But Michigan State returns what should be one of the best offensive lines in college football. The defense is beat up this year, but under coach Mark Dantonio, one can always count on that unit to be strong. Expect Michigan State to run the ball and play great defense. But man, does the 2016 schedule look tough.
9. FLORIDA STATE
10. TENNESSEE — Vols coach Butch Jones claimed earlier this season that it takes “six or seven years” to build an SEC program. Well, he’d better not wait that long. Team 120 will have some less-than-ideal depth in a few spots, but outside of Alabama, every SEC team can say that. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd arguably are the best duo at those positions returning in the SEC. Derek Barnett will be one of the best defensive linemen in the conference as well. And this is a team that finished 8-4 in the regular season with four very close losses, two of them against College Football Playoff participants. UT will be the SEC East preseason favorites.
11. LSU — The Tigers arguably return more talent than Alabama. Leonard Fournette probably will be the SEC’s leading preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. And the offense — whomever the coordinator is — will be under a ton of pressure to evolve. Don’t expect a revelation, but LSU should see incremental progress in its passing game, which remains chock full of talented pass-catchers.
12. MICHIGAN — Jim Harbaugh’s second season should get interesting. Tight end Jake Butt and three-way player Jabrill Peppers should be among the most talented players returning in the entire Big Ten. The Wolverines don’t lose much to graduation or the NFL. And Harbaugh’s cut-throat culture historically hasn’t taken long to institute. He’s also recruited like a shark. There shouldn’t be much separation between Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State by next season.
17. GEORGIA — This is contingent on Nick Chubb returning to health. But if he does, expect Kirby Smart’s first UGA team to look much like Mark Richt’s last. The team is losing several key offensive linemen as well as linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Quarterback remains a position of concern. This team should operate conservatively, with a strong defense and running game. Don’t expect a division title in Smart’s first season, but if he can secure Jacob Eason at quarterback and continue the personnel upgrade on defense that Jeremy Pruitt started, Georgia will be headed in a great direction.
18. HOUSTON — Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is back, coach Tom Herman stayed put and he is set to bring in what is an outstanding recruiting class by Houston standards. The Cougars will be the Group of 5 preseason favorites. If Herman has another good season, don’t be surprised if he moves on to Texas or Texas A&M prior to 2017.
21. TEXAS A&M — The Aggies are saturated with talent at receiver and along the defensive line. If quarterback Kyler Murray develops and the team gets some help for the back end of its defense, Texas A&M has the personnel, at least on paper, to compete in the SEC West. A growing lack of confidence in the offensive coaching staff (including Kevin Sumlin) to do anything other than recruit will tamp down preseason expectations a bit. But 2016 has always been the year that this program could put it all together, not necessarily to win a championship, but to be seen as a very good, respectable team once again.
23. MIAMI — The Hurricanes finished 8-4 with losses to three ranked teams this year. Most people perceive Mark Richt as a coaching upgrade, and quarterback Brad Kaaya will enter the season as one of the country’s best returning passers. This Miami team isn’t losing much — a couple of senior receivers — and should add a strong recruiting class to that. The Coastal Division in the ACC is wide open again in 2016. Don’t be surprised if Richt matches his 9-3 record in his final season at Georgia.
24. NORTH CAROLINA
25. FLORIDA — Will Grier won’t be available for the first six games of the season due to suspension. That means Treon Harris or Feleipe Franks (or Jacob Eason, if he pulls a surprise recruiting flip) will need to navigate games at Tennessee and vs. LSU. The Gators defense is going to lose NFL talent in spades: Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Vernon Hargreaves III, Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal. But expect a fortified offensive line and a more cohesive passing game. If Florida can weather the first six weeks with a 5-1 record, it will have a chance to compete for another East Division title.
SEC teams receiving votes: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn