11 Players, Coaches, and Dates That Will Decide the 2016 NCAA Football Season

The 2016 college football season had a soft opening Friday night in Sydney, Australia when Cal routed Hawaii, 51-31.

The game was mostly a blowout from the second quarter on, but a Paul Harris 15-yard touchdown run with 3:40 left in the game allowed the Rainbow Warriors to cover the spread as a 20.5-point underdog.

Anthony Stalter-2
The Turn’s Anthony Stalter

Hello to our first backdoor cover of the year and welcome back, football!

Neither Cal nor Hawaii figure to factor into the playoff picture but these 11 players, coaches, positional groups and dates will help decide the fate of teams in the 2016 college football season.

Deshaun Watson, Clemson, QB, Heisman Favorite…

Watson is currently favored to take home the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and assuming the junior leaves early for the pros, should be one of the top players off the board in next April’s NFL draft.

He’ll also be the biggest reason that Clemson either hoists college football’s crystal ball as national champions or falls short of expectations this season. Watson is the best college quarterback in the nation and could stake claim as the best overall player as well.

If Watson suffers an injury, the Tigers’ season will be ruined.

If he’s the main difference-maker while operating the controls of the best offense in the nation, then Clemson could wind up being favored to win it all next January.

October 29, 2016, in Tallahassee…

Even if Watson stays healthy and dazzles college football fans for four straight months, Clemson could still find itself on the outside looking in when it comes to a playoff berth.

The reason being is October 29, 2016, which is the date Clemson visits Florida State. The Seminoles are the biggest roadblock to the Tigers getting back to the national championship game and they’ll have revenge on their minds after Clemson beat FSU 23-13 last year in a game that was closer than the final score would indicate.

Clemson does open the season at Auburn and hosts Louisville the first day in October, but nothing on the Tigers’ schedule compares to their matchup with the Seminoles at the end of the month. Lose that one and the Tigers’ playoff hopes could be dashed.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Heisman Candidate…

The Seminoles will be breaking in a new quarterback when Deondre Francois joins an offense that has every starter returning this season, including Cook. While Leonard Fournette receives more national attention, Cook is just as good as the LSU back and can make just as much impact in the ACC as the later will make the SEC.

Cook needs to stay healthy after dealing with nagging injuries in 2015. But if he stays healthy, he could ruin Clemson’s season while simultaneously lifting FSU into the playoffs. The junior watched film of several of his worst games of his career this offseason, as well as the work of fellow Heisman contenders Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Royce Freeman in order to help improve his game. He’s hungry, determined, and ready for another sensational season.

Alabama’s daunting road schedule (including  November 5)…

Despite winning four of the last seven national championships, many college football pundits don’t believe Alabama will win it all again this year. Some believe they won’t even make it to the title game and a small contingent doesn’t think the Crimson Tide will even make it to the playoffs.

Doubt Nick Saban all you want, but betting against him has been a losing proposition.  He recruits as well, if not better, than any head coach in the nation and has four former blue-chippers to choose to replace Jake Coker at quarterback.

That said, want the biggest reason to doubt ‘Bama this year? After opening the season versus USC at AT&T Stadium on Saturday night, the Tide play at Ole Miss on September 17, at Arkansas on October 8, at Tennessee the following week and play in Baton Rouge on November 5.

That’s no hill for a climber but if there’s a tougher road schedule this year in college football, I haven’t seen it.

Brandon Harris and LSU’s passing game…

No need to list Leonard Fournette here. We know how important the LSU running back is to the Tigers’ chances of making the playoffs. We also know how he’ll fare most weeks when the opponent isn’t Alabama, so no need to rehash obvious statements.

Outside of Les Miles’ unpredictability in tight, late-game situations, the biggest factor that will decide LSU’s season is Harris’ right arm. Simply put, there will be a time this season when Harris and the Tigers will need to put the ball in the air late in a game to win. When that time comes, will Harris deliver?

Some believe LSU, not Alabama, is the team to beat in the SEC this year. But even though they’re making yet another change under center, the quarterback position rarely decides Alabama’s fate.

Can you say the same thing about LSU?

October 29 in East Lansing and November 26 in Columbus…

Those are the dates and the locations of the biggest hurdles standing in Michigan’s way of making the playoffs in 2016. The October match is against Michigan State, which beat Michigan in Ann Arbor on a fluke play a year ago, while the November meeting is a rematch against an Ohio State team that embarrassed the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium last November.

Jim Harbaugh could have been listed in this space instead of those two dates, because it will be his ability to once again get the most out of the quarterback position with the expectations sky-high in Ann Arbor. Still, it’ll be Harbaugh’s QB pixy dust, plus wins over their biggest rivals that will decide Michigan’s 2016 season.

On a related note, if Michigan stumbles, don’t sleep on Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost a ton of talent to the NFL in April but Urban Meyer is a fantastic recruiter. After suffering a championship hangover in 2015, Ohio State is seemingly flying under the radar for 2016.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, Future No. 1 Overall Pick…

Rosen had some ups and downs as a freshman starter last season but there’s no questioning the signal-caller’s ability. Even as a sophomore, Rosen is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and UCLA is adopting a pro-style offense that will also incorporate spread concepts to get the most out Rosen this season. Two Aprils from now, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Rosen’s name called as the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Before then, Rosen will lead a UCLA team that fell to 8-5 last season after back-to-back 10-win seasons. The Bruins suffered major injuries on defense and were plagued by inconsistent play throughout the year. If they stay healthy and Rosen’s star continues to rise, a Pac-12 title run isn’t out of the question. In fact, if Rosen is brilliant more times than not, UCLA should be the favorite to win an open Pac-12 this year.

Tennessee’s backfield…

The Vols have received plenty of hype this offseason, and with good reason. All of the pieces are in place for Tennessee to edge Georgia and Florida in the SEC East. The Vols are deep, experienced, and boast one of the most dangerous backfields in the nation.

On that note, senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is enough to keep most defensive coordinators up at night by himself. Throw in the outstanding backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and dealing with Tennessee in 2016 will be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

The Vols need to finish games though. They couldn’t hold onto a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter against ‘Bama last season. They also blew a 17-0 lead early to Oklahoma, a 27-14 fourth-quarter lead to Florida, and a 14-0 first-quarter lead versus Arkansas.

If Tennessee finishes games in 2016 as strong as the team started games in 2015, then look out, SEC.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, The Cardinal’s Do-It-All Back…

It’s going to be difficult for McCaffrey to win the Heisman this season unless Stanford wins the Pac-12 and gets into the playoffs, which is a possibility. Still, with Deshaun Watson, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook also in the mix, it’ll be difficult for MCaffrey to take home college football’s most prostiegous award this year, even if the Cardinal makes a playoff run.

Nevertheless, McCaffrey rushed for 2,000 yards last season and also caught 45 passes while starring on special teams. He’s must-watch every week, even with most of Stanford’s games coming late at night due to west coast kickoffs.

The demise of Oregon has been greatly exaggerated and UCLA will be in the Pac-12 title mix because of Josh Rosen. But bet against Stanford at your own risk, especially with a difference-maker like McCaffrey doing it all once again for the Cardinal.

Washington’s young but experienced impact players…

The Huskies are a playoff sleeper this season. They boast the Pac-12’s best defense and return quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin that could lead a breakout offensively. (They also employ the perennially underrated Chris Petersen as their head coach.)

But part of Washington’s appeal is also the thing that makes the Huskies a wildcard this season. Browning and Gaskin started as freshman last season, so while they’re not lacking experience, they’re still young. Assuming that Browning will take that preverbal next step is dangerous when it comes to projecting Washington’s success in 2016.

That said, how could Browning and Co. not improve after receiving quality reps a year ago? With one of the best defenses in the nation as the team’s strength, the Huskies could surprise this year if Browning breaks out.

September 3, 2016, Opening Saturday…

Every team in America wants to start the season off on the right football but when it comes to the playoff teams specifically, there are two key matchups this weekend that could determine the fact of a few teams.

One matchup is Oklahoma-Houston, which plays at NRG Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Cougars beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl, managed to keep rising star Tom Herman for another year, and will once again have Greg Ward Jr. back under center. Houston is an outside playoff contender this season, but only if it can stay undefeated.

If the Cougars lose on Saturday to the Sooners, their playoff hopes will be dashed immediately because they don’t have the heavy-hitters on their schedule to make up for the one lose. This is their opportunity to prove to the playoff committee that they should at least be in the conversation.

As for Oklahoma, the Sooners will bring back quarterback Baker Mayfield (3,700 yards, 36 TDs), running back Samaje Perine (1,349 yards, 16 touchdowns), backfield mate Joe Mixon (753 yards), as well as coordinator Lincoln Riley, who could find himself in a head-coaching role sooner rather than later.

Even if they lose, the Sooners could still win the Big 12 and be in the playoff mix. After all, they found themselves in the postseason last year despite an ugly 24-17 loss to Texas on October 10 in the Red River Rivalry.

MichiBut last season ended on a bitter note for Bob Stoops and Co., which lost 37-17 as a small favorite to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Surely Stoops wants to get the taste of defeat out of his mouth but Houston is no blood donor. The Sooners will be challenged right out of the gates this season.

More: Daily Bernie: August 30 – Mizzou Season Preview, Trouble Brewing in Cards Bullpen