The 2016 college football season is rapidly approaching, so let’s look at 10 questions to ponder before the action kicks off next week.
1. Can Bama repeat after being forced to start a new quarterback?
Some have questioned whether Nick Saban and company can make another run despite starting over again at quarterback. Like that’s stopped Bama before..
In 2014, a career reserve named Blake Sims took the Crimson Tide to the playoffs before ultimately falling to Urban Meyer’s championship-winning Buckeyes. In 2015, Bama won a national title with Florida State transfer Jake Coker, who lost out to Sims in the team’s quarterback competition the year prior.
And here’s the thing about last year’s team: The Tide struggled to find consistency in the passing game until the final six games when they averaged 6.3 yards per play (after gaining 5.6 yards per play in their first nine games). After struggling a bit to find traction, receiver Calvin Ridley emerged as a star in the making and tight end O.J. Howard was a difference-maker against Clemson in the national title game.
Three of Bama’s four recent national championships have come despite a change at quarterback. Saban recruits better than any coach in America and the Tide can choose a new signal-caller among four blue-chippers.
They’ll be fine.
2. Who is Bama’s biggest threat to repeat as champions?
No need to spill a lot of words here: It’s Clemson, hands down.
The Tigers have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Deshaun Watson, they’re loaded at the skill positions, they employ one of the best offensive lines in college football and still boast a solid defense.
Now, without Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson, and Kevin Dodd Clemson doesn’t boast the same pass-rush has it has the previous two seasons. A hangover is possible as well (see Ohio State, 2015).
Other than that, the Tigers and Crimson Tide are the two safest bets in college football to make another playoff run in 2016.
3. What could go wrong for Alabama and Clemson?
Well, plenty. Expectations are high in Clemson and despite being loaded offensively, the Tigers will be without Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander defensively, which could create problems on pass defense. An injury to Watson could derail Clemson’s national title hopes, as well as a loss to Florida State (the Tigers’ biggest threat in the ACC) on October 29.
The Tide has won four of the last seven national championships and has all the makings to win five-in-eight. That said, they open with USC in Arlington and play at Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee (which nearly beat the Tide a year ago), and LSU. That’s one hell of a road gauntlet, even for a team as stacked as Alabama.
4. Which contenders are next in line behind Bama and Clemson?
Ohio State, Florida State, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, in that order. Tennessee has received plenty of offseason hype and Notre Dame is lying in the weeds as well. But the Buckeyes, Seminoles, Tigers, Wolverines and Sooners all pose the biggest threat to a Bama-Clemson national title rematch.
5. Which teams are playoff sleepers?
Let’s start off with the teams that can’t be considered sleepers: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma. Tennessee has received too much buzz this offseason to be considered a sleeper and while Notre Dame is on the fringe, nobody would be shocked if the Fighting Irish were a contender after what Brian Kelly’s program did a year ago despite massive injuries at quarterback. With all-everything Christian McCaffrey at running back, Stanford shouldn’t be counted among true sleepers either.
Washington is 40/1 to win this year’s national championship, Miami is 60/1, and UCLA is 65/1. Those are your playoff sleepers this year.
Washington doesn’t have the elite-level recruits to be in the national title mix but return a quarterback in Jake Browning that started as a freshman last season, a running back in Myles Gaskin that also started as a freshman in 2015, as well as sophomores along the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. Chris Petersen also remains one of the most underrated coaches in the country.
According to Football Outsiders, Washington ranked second behind only Alabama in defensive efficiency last season and the Huskies return most of their depth chart from a year ago. If Browning takes that proverbial next step, the Pac-12 is just unpredictable enough for the young Huskies to contend for a conference title late.
Why Miami and UCLA? One word: Quarterback. In two seasons, Brad Kaaya has thrown for 6,500 yards and 42 touchdowns. The pro-style quarterback will also benefit from Mark Richt’s tutelage in perhaps his final year before entering the NFL. Miami has plenty of question marks, but certainly not at quarterback.
As for the Bruins, Josh Rosen is a future No. 1 overall pick. He learned on the job a year ago as a true freshman and now UCLA is adopting a pro-style offense for its pro-style quarterback. If Rosen can lead the Bruins to a win over USC on November 19, UCLA could thrust itself into the national spotlight, assuming Jim Mora’s squad did suffer a slip-up at some point prior.
6. Is Houston a legitimate playoff contender?
Absolutely. The Cougars went 13-1 last season in Tom Herman’s first year. Herman, of course, was the offensive coordinator in Ohio State when the Buckeyes won the national title two years ago. He’s building something special in Houston, which could join the Big 12 in the near future.
The Cougars grabbed a Group-of-Five bid for a New Year’s Six bowl and then subsequently blew out Florida State in the Peach Bowl. With Heisman sleeper Greg Ward Jr. returning under center and home games versus Oklahoma and Louisville, the Cougars have an opportunity to once again be in the playoff mix at the end of the year.
The biggest hurdle for Houston? Going undefeated. If the Cougars have one slip up, as they did in a 20-17 loss to Connecticut last season, they’ll be knocked out of playoff consideration in a heartbeat.
7. Which national title contender are people sleeping on this year?
Ohio State, and it’s because the Buckeyes are completely starting over at several key positions after losing Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Eli Apple, Darron Lee, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, Adolphus Washington, Braxton Miller, Joshua Perry, and Cardale Jones to the NFL draft in April.
That said, Urban Meyer is one of the most skilled recruiters in the country and new defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has plenty to work with up front. Despite suffering a hangover last season, the Buckeyes still routed then-No. 10 Michigan 42-13 in Ann Arbor and crushed then-No. 8 Notre Dame 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl in their final two games.
Inexperience is a problem in Columbus, talent isn’t. With so much attention being paid to Alabama, Clemson and Michigan this offseason, Meyer’s team is seemingly flying under the radar heading into the season, which makes the Buckeyes dangerous.
8. Will Michigan live up to the hype this season?
Ohio State and Michigan State fans will vehemently disagree with this notion but the answer is yes. The Wolverines have an excellent head coach in Jim Harbaugh, a defense that was one of the best in the nation for much of 2015 that also returns most of its starters, and a schedule that sets up for a deeper run.
The biggest questions are at quarterback, in the running game, and whether or not Harbaugh can win with a target on his back following a headline-filled offseason.
But whether Wilton Speight or John O’Korn starts under center, he’ll benefit from an outstanding a receiving corps, a solid offensive line, and a play-making defense. Plus, Harbaugh has a track record of getting the most out of his signal-callers. (Raise your hand if you had Jake Rudock being drafted a year ago, even in the sixth round.)
The Wolverines have only two landmines on their schedule this year: at Michigan State on October 29 and at Ohio State on November 26. Both situations will be revenge games for Michigan, making those two dates must-watch games.
9. Who is coaching for his job in 2016?
The seats under Charlie Strong (Texas), Darrell Hazell (Purdue), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and even Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) are all blazin’. But no seat is hotter than Les Miles’ at LSU.
The Tigers pose the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC thanks to an absolutely stacked defense and Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette. But when LSU hosts Alabama on November 5 and Nick Saban’s front seven does to Fournette what it did a year ago (i.e. holding the future top 10 pick to only 31 yards on 19 carries), can the Tigers put the ball in the air to win?
Miles won a power struggle with the LSU booster club last November when he was nearly let go then. If he doesn’t win – and win big – he might not survive a second round with the boosters. The Tigers won’t surprise anybody this year, not with Fournette keeping defensive coordinators up weekly in the SEC.
But has the passing game improved enough to make LSU a national title contender? Miles better hope so.
10. Who wins the Heisman?
It’s Deshaun Watson’s trophy to lose, but Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey will have something to say about it in the end. Don’t sleep on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, either. If he helps the Seminoles knock off Clemson in late October, it could wind up being his “Heisman moment.”
A few others to consider: Quarterbacks J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), Chad Kelly (Ole Miss), Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Joshua Dobbs (Tennessee), as well as running back Nick Chubb of Georgia.
Want a true wildcard? Keep an eye on athletic defender Jabrill Peppers at Michigan.