It is true the Tide lost a ton of talent from last year’s national championship team. It is also true that Nick Saban has talent returning and new talent aching for the opportunity to get on the field. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin must pick a new quarterback but then again, he did that last year. And Jeremy Pruitt, recently of Florida State and then Georgia, takes over as the new defensive coordinator. Still, it’s the same old story. Alabama has talent. Alabama has Saban. You won’t find me going against the Tide.
The defending national runners-up boast the nation’s best quarterback in Deshaun Watson as just one of its multiple lethal weapons on offense. Were it not for the fact the Tigers lost seven starters on defense, we’d pick Dabo Swinney’s team to clear the final hurdle and claim the crystal trophy. As it is, we’ll take the Tigers to finish their sixth consecutive season with at least 10 wins.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles’ star dipped a bit last season, overshadowed by Clemson’s climb to the College Football Playoffs. And Jimbo Fisher’s 2016 edition is not without questions. No. 1, who’s the quarterback now that senior Sean Maguire is sidelined by bone spurs? And yet, FSU has the dynamic running back Dalvin Cook on offense and budding star DeMarcus Walker on defense.
Baby-faced Lincoln Riley’s debut as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator was a giant hit as Bob Stoops’ club went 11-2 and reached the College Football Playoffs before losing to Clemson. Quarterback Baker Mayfield (36 touchdowns/seven interceptions) is back. Running back Samaje Perine (1,349 yards rushing) is back. If Stoops’ defense holds up, OU could be playing in the title game.
It’s been a rough pre-season down on the Bayou, and we’re not just talking about the floods. The Tigers lost a pair of defensive linemen the first week of camp. A wide receiver transferred. Star running back Leonard Fournette sprained his ankle. Big deal, says head coach Les Miles, who survived a late-season coup last year to hold on to his job. Miles made a smart offseason move when he lured defensive coordinator Dave Aranada from Wisconsin. Here’s betting the Tigers reclaim their roar.
6. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return just six starters from last year’s one-loss team. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s best player, is now with the Dallas Cowboys. So why is OSU so high? Start with Urban Meyer, a ridiculous 50-4 since becoming the Ohio State coach. Throw in a defense that allowed just 15.1 points per game last year. The Buckeyes will be right there.
The Vols are the popular pick to win the SEC East and maybe even burst Alabama’s bubble and this time the popular pick just might be right. Butch Jones’ team lost four games by a combined 17 points last year. Quarterback Josh Dobbs and star running back Jalen Hurd return. The excellent Bob Shoop left Penn State to become defensive coordinator. It could be a big year for the Big Orange.
The Cardinal remains a throwback to an old-school age before spread offenses and when physical play still mattered. Coach David Shaw has the country’s most versatile player in Heisman Trophy favorite Christian McCaffrey. Shaw must settle on a new quarterback and the schedule could be a killer — road games against Notre Dame, UCLA, Washington and Oregon — but Stanford still could end up the best from the West.
How does Jim Harbaugh find time? When the Wolverines’ coach isn’t feuding with the SEC or Jim Rome, he’s polishing a Michigan team that returns 14 starters from last year’s 10-3 surprise. Harbaugh’s defense allowed just 281 yards and 16.4 points per game last season. The offense improved from 20.9 points to 31.4 points a game. Michigan destroyed Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. To his critics, Harbaugh is about to become much more annoying.
It took three years, but Chris Petersen is on the cusp of having the Huskies back on the national map. The former Boise State coach went 15-12 his first two years, but Washington won their final three games last season, including a 44-31 bowl win over Southern Miss. Quarterback Jake Browning returns. So do 14 other starters.
11. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly was a wizard a year ago, squeezing a 10-3 record out of an Irish team decimated by injuries. Included in the defeats was a two-point loss at Clemson and a two-point loss at Stanford. Kelly has just four starters back on offense, but the injuries forced him to use younger players who should benefit from the experience. Quarterback DeShon Kizer is a key. So is improvement for a defense that allowed 373 yards per game last season.
Head coach Gary Patterson has just three starters back on an offense that averaged 42.1 points and 563 yards per game a year ago. The Frogs have recruited well and with eight starters back there’s reason to believe that the TCU defense, Patterson’s area of expertise, will improve this season. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill takes over at quarterback.
Kirk Ferentz is the definition of your solid, dependable, under-the-radar, Midwestern football coach. Add highly successful to that list. Ferentz has won 127 games in his 17 years in Iowa City, including 12 last season. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is back to lead the offense and eight starters return on a defense that gave up 20.4 points per game last season. The schedule is friendly. The Hawkeyes get Michigan at home.
After an 0-3 start, the Cardinals bounced back nicely to go 8-5 last season, including a win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Head coach Bobby Petrino welcomes back a flock of familiar faces including star end Devonte Fields and linebacker Keith Kelsey on defense. Lamar Jackson, maybe the most exciting running quarterback in college football, is back for his sophomore campaign. Clemson and Florida State are surely the class of the ACC, but U of L won’t be far behind.
The Bruins were a bit of a disappointment last season, but maybe that stood to reason considering freshman quarterback Josh Rosen was learning on the job. No more. Rosen returns and Jim Mora’s club should benefit from the hard knocks. Nine starters are back on defense, so if Mora gets improvement on that side of the ball, UCLA could challenge Stanford for superiority in the Pac-12.
All those whispers about how Hugh Freeze got all that talent to come to Oxford — the NCAA is investigating — must also allow there is a lot of talent on the Rebels roster. At the head of the list is quarterback Chad Kelly, perhaps the nation’s best pure passer. Kelly threw for 31 touchdowns compared to just 13 interceptions last year. And remember, Ole Miss was the only team to beat Alabama a year ago.
17. Michigan State
This is likely a rebuilding year for the Spartans. Quarterback Connor Cook is gone. So are three starting offensive linemen and the two top wide receivers. The defense must stop a slide that has gone from 252 yards a game in 2013 to 316 in 2014 to 350 last year. Still, head coach Mark Dantonio has built a solid foundation, one that should keep MSU in the Top 20.
Some were surprised Tom Herman didn’t jump at a Power Five job after leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record in his first year as a head coach last season. Ah, but Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returns, so it makes sense that Herman returned, too. Ward is one of 11 starters returning for a team that plays Oklahoma on Sept. 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston. Can’t wait.
Favorite son Mark Richt returns to the Hurricanes after being forced out of Georgia despite winning 145 games in Athens. Richt inherits a top-flight quarterback in Brad Kaaya (16 TDs, five picks last season), who leads an offense that returns nine starters. He also hired Manny Diaz away from Mississippi State to take over the defense. Look for a happy homecoming.
Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs replaced Richt with a favorite son of their own, former Bulldogs safety and ex-Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. UGA boasts a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The defense is a question mark. So is quarterback. Smart should succeed between the hedges, but his first year won’t be a wild success.
21. Washington State
It took awhile but Mike Leach finally has the Air Raid off the ground in Pullman. After going 12-25 Leach’s first three years, the Cougars finished 9-4 a year ago, including a 20-14 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Quarterback Luke Faulk returns after throwing for 38 touchdowns last season. He could top that this year.
It’s been a struggle for Charlie Strong in his first two years in Austin where the Longhorns are just 11-14 over the last two years. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Strong has recruited well, in part by taking advantage of Baylor’s fall from grace. A whopping 15 Texas starters return. So should the program’s return to prominence. This year could be the first step.
23. North Carolina
Basketball might still be the big deal in Chapel Hill, but Larry Fedora has built an exciting and now-successful program on the UNC campus. The Tar Heels averaged 40.7 points per game in going 11-3 last season. And defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who made a huge difference in his first year under Fedora last year, is looking for a bigger step forward in year two.
All the attention to the Ducks’ mighty offense gave way to Oregon’s disaster of a defense last year. OU allowed 37.5 points and 485 yards per game in 2015. So ex-Michigan head coach Brady Hoke is the new defensive coordinator in 2016. The Ducks hope Hoke makes a huge difference. Meanwhile, ex-Montana quarterback Dakota Prukop takes over on offense.
Second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, is an up-and-coming star in the profession. He led Pitt to an 8-5 record last year despite the loss of star running back James Conner to lymphoma. Conner is back. So is quarterback Nathan Peterman, who threw for 20 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions last season. In fact, Pittsburgh returns 16 starters overall.
College Football Playoff: Alabama over Oklahoma
College Football Playoff: In a rematch, Clemson over Florida State
College Football Playoff Championship: In a rematch, Alabama over Clemson