Here is my early preseason top 25. I actually felt pretty comfortable with my top four teams but not very confident in where this batch of Pac-12 teams fit, and I went back and forth on a couple of teams before ultimately bumping Florida and Oklahoma State.
Last year the Tigers, led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, gave Alabama all it could handle in the national title game. It marked Dabo Swinney's program taking the next step in its rise to super-power status, and with the fantastic junior Watson back for another season, I think the Tigers have the stuff to win it all this year. The offense, which now has a more seasoned line, returns a rugged running game led by tackle-breaking tailback Wayne Gallman and will be even more explosive with the return of All-American candidate Mike Williams -- a 6-4, 220-pound receiver with superb range -- to go with Artavis Scott, who caught 93 passes in 2015.
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The defense does have a lot of holes, most notably losing star DEs Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, but I think Clemson will be more than fine up front with the emergence of budding star Christian Wilkins, a freakish 310-pounder to go with Carlos Watkins. And, in 340-pound former five-star DT Dexter Lawrence, the Tigers have another big body who coaches are convinced will be special. The secondary is more of a concern, but with Watson and the Tigers' offensive firepower I think Clemson can overcome it.
The schedule is bookended by a pair of SEC opponents -- at Auburn for the opener and then against arch-rival South Carolina -- but I don't expect either to be a top-25 team this year. The Tigers get Louisville at home, where Clemson has a 16-game home winning streak entering 2016, the second longest active streak in the nation. The toughest test will be against a talented, fast FSU team on the road on Oct. 29, but Watson torched the Noles' D last year for over 100 yards rushing and almost 300 passing -- and last year he was actually even sharper on the road than he was in home games.
I know lots of people have questions about the Tigers' passing game. I was tempted to put Alabama here, but the Tide has questions about its QB too. I know Brandon Harris has been shaky at times, but he has a big arm, can make plays with his feet and he does have experience now. The challenge for him is not to get caught trying to show how strong his arm is. He has some studs at WR with Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural and the great Leonard Fournette will keep defenses up at night.
The defense will be much improved with the arrival of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his 3-4 scheme. He's fantastic and he has a lot to play with. In Arden Key, Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, he has a crew of fierce pass-rushers. Key can be an All-American if he can be more consistent. Kendell Beckwith is a good linebacker. The secondary has typical LSU talent with safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre'Davious White. Keep an eye on 6-3 freshman cornerback Saivion Smith. Word is the coaches love him. He's tall, smooth and a good tackler. Will this group be stout enough inside? We'll see. Freshman Rashard Lawrence figures to help out Davon Godchaux. They'll get a nice test in the opener against Aranda's old team, the very physical Wisconsin Badgers at Lambeau Field. They also have road trips to face their last two DCs, Kevin Steele at Auburn early in the year and the John Chavis at Texas A&M late in the year. They do get Alabama at home this year.
For the third year in a row, the Tide enters training camp with its quarterback still a question mark. Given the success Bama has had, especially in 2015, I don't think this team will be too worried about that fact. Cooper Bateman appears to have the inside track on the job. Whoever is the QB will have a talented crop of wideouts and a play-making TE in O.J. Howard. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are capable RBs, but whether they can be quite as tough as Derrick Henry remains to be seen.
Nick Saban lost some good front-seven talent to the draft, but the Tide is still loaded on D. Tim Williams is a devastating pass rusher and Jonathan Allen made a ton of plays in 2015. Da'Ron Payne is the most explosive big guy Bama has had in awhile. Linebacker Reuben Foster is primed to make a run at All-American, and the secondary looks very good.
The schedule is a handful though. They open against USC in Texas. Then, a few weeks later visit an Ole Miss team that has beaten them twice in a row. Later there's the trip to Baton Rouge. They also have a tricky spot against Texas A&M and its new QB Trevor Knight, who blistered the Tide when he was Oklahoma's quarterback a few years ago. The Aggies will go into that one coming off a bye where Alabama will be coming off consecutive road games against Arkansas and Tennessee).
4. Florida State
The Noles have all 11 starters back on offense. That doesn't include redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, who many close to the program think will overtake Sean Maguire. Running back Dalvin Cook should be in the Heisman mix, and the receivers are dangerous. DeMarcus Walker (11 sacks in 2015) leads a good D-line, and defensive back Derwin James is in line to make a run at All-American honors after a big freshman debut.
The Noles schedule is pretty rough. They have two talented SEC opponents in their non-conference (Ole Miss in Orlando early and Florida in Tallahassee). They also face three teams led by excellent quarterbacks, visiting Louisville and Lamar Jackson and Miami and Brad Kaaya and hosting Clemson and Deshaun Watson. They also play a good UNC squad at home.
Jim Harbaugh won 10 games in his debut season in Ann Arbor and this roster looks better than what he inherited. The Wolverines' receivers are very good in tight end Jake Butt and wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. I think if Michigan had Jake Rudock around for another season, they'd be more of a national title threat. Houston transfer John O'Korn has a bigger arm but can he or Wilton Speight be as smart handling the offense?
New defensive coordinator Don Brown comes from Boston College, where he was excellent. Brown's scheme should be a great fit for wild-card piece Jabrill Peppers, as well as defensive lineman Chris Wormley, cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and all-world recruit D-lineman Rashan Gary. The non-conference schedule is much easier this year. No road trips and they face three teams that were a combined 7-31 last year. The bad news: their last three road trips of the season are against the other three most talented teams in the conference: Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.
Tom Herman had a phenomenal first year as a head coach. His Cougars went 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. They also landed one of the nation's top three freshmen in explosive defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who should make a big impact right away on an already imposing D-line. Ward is back to run the offense and talented Texas running back transfer Duke Catalon should give the Houston attack a new dimension. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando always does an impressive job, but he does have to replace a ton of experience in his secondary and linebacker Elandon Roberts, who provided a lot of leadership. Linebacker Matt Adams should step up. He has plenty of athleticism and is primed to have a big year behind a good front with Cameron Malveaux and company.
A bigger question will be replacing the play-making of slot wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (98 catches, 1,222 yards). Given the way Houston finished last season and what it has coming back, if it can beat Oklahoma in the opener -- and the Sooners still go on to have a strong season -- this Cougar team has a legit shot to make the playoff. A Thursday night game against what figures to be a good Louisville team in Houston shapes up to be a huge game.
Baker Mayfield's back, and he's a legit Heisman contender. The running backs are big and talented. They'll miss Sterling Shepard, but Dede Westbrook is a game-breaker and 220-pound Jordan Smallwood and Geno Lewis give them two reliable physical targets. I'm not as sold on their talent in the front seven though, especially with two very dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks early in their non-conference schedule against Houston and Greg Ward and Ohio State and J.T. Barrett.
The Vols enter 2016 with a lot of momentum. They won seven of their last eight including a 45-6 thrashing of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, and that one defeat was a close one in Tuscaloosa. I know there's still a lot of skepticism of this program. Here's why I'm buying a top-10 year and an SEC East title.
-- Josh Dobbs is an experienced, good quarterback who can beat teams with his feet;
-- They have an excellent 1-2 running back punch in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to go with an improving O-line and some big, athletic receivers;
-- On defense, they have talent at all three levels with sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland, a budding star and leaders in defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton;
-- Better still, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is as good as there is, and he knows the SEC pretty well from his time at Vandy.
The non-conference slate is interesting: Tennessee gets an underrated Appalachian State team in the opener and then Virginia Tech at Bristol. I think the Vols will handle those, but we'll find out much more about them in a four-week stretch: against Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and then against Alabama. I think they split those four. If they win three out of the four, they'll still be in the national title race. To me, this is a very good team, that could have a great year if Dobbs can take the next step as a passer and if the D-line blossoms around Barnett.
9. Ohio State
Nobody in the country has fewer starters back than the Buckeyes, with just three guys back on both sides of the ball. But Urban Meyer still has plenty of talent. Getting physical wide receiver Noah Brown back should provide a nice job for J.T. Barrett. Tyquan Lewis and former lacrosse star Sam Hubbard should anchor another good D-line in front of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Their non-conference schedule isn't easy with a road trip to Oklahoma, and playing Bowling Green and Tulsa figure to get the revamped secondary a LOT of work.
10. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly has two proven quarterbacks in DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire. The Irish lost standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley but still have another terrific one in Mike McGlinchey. I think Tarean Folston and Josh Adams should be fine running the ball and Torii Hunter Jr. and Equanimeous St. Brown should step up at receiver. This team really struggled against the run last year, despite a lot of speed and experience. Will this group be good enough to contend for a playoff spot? It should help a lot in the secondary to get Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford back from season-ruining injuries. Notre Dame should be good on the back end, but let's see how the D-line and linebackers come together.
There's a lot of buzz around the program about big sophomore quarterback Foster Sawyer and we know Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill has talent and experience. The Horned Frogs should be in very good shape offensively with wide receiver KaVontae Turpin set to be a star. The defense, which was so ravaged by injury in 2015, should be much improved.
The Cardinals have 18 starters back -- more than anyone in the ACC and tied for most in the country. Lamar Jackson, a sophomore dual-threat QB, is an intriguing talent for Bobby Petrino to groom. There's a lot of speed around him. Jamari Staples, a Freaky 6-4 wideout, heads an underrated collection of skill guys. The D has speed too and is strong up the middle with defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown, linebacker Keith Kelsey and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. They get the Seminoles in Louisville in mid-September and then visit Marshall before a big trip to Clemson on Oct. 1.
I've been bullish on the Huskies for awhile. I like the young talent Chris Petersen has assembled. On offense, quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are coming off terrific rookie years. This team also has one of the country's top secondaries led by safety Budda Baker. This is the highest Pac-12 team I've got. I expect the league -- especially the North -- to be very balanced. The toughest part of UW's schedule appears to be a double of hosting Stanford and then visiting Oregon, who they haven't beaten in a very, very long time. Later, they have to go to Utah and to arch-rival Wazzu, who they crushed last year but that was without star quarterback Luke Falk playing.
Some might snicker seeing the Hawkeyes this high. Don't. Quarterback C.J. Beathard (17 TDs, 5 INTs) is good and has NFL potential. LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley should combine for around 1,500 yards rushing. All-American cornerback Desmond King leads a defense that has seven starters back. Also, this schedule, again, sets up very well for a double-digit win season. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State in the regular season and the toughest road trip is at Penn State.
15. Texas A&M
Former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight is a great fit for the Aggies. The dual-threat fits new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense pretty well, and even more importantly, his presence as a leader is key for a locker room that needed it. Knight is greeted by some very gifted receivers, fronted by sophomore star Christian Kirk. The Aggies' D should keep getting better and has a line that could play with anyone, featuring DEs Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall and DT Daylon Mack.
They open at home against Mazzone's old team, UCLA, and have manageable (by SEC West standards) road trips -- at Auburn, at South Carolina and at Mississippi State. The real haymaker is at Alabama on Oct. 22, but at least the Aggies have a bye week and Bama will be coming off consecutive road trips.
Kevin Hogan won a lot of big games for the Cardinal. Many expected Keller Chryst to take over but Ryan Burns has pushed hard for the quarterback job. One certainty: Stanford has the best playmaker on the West Coast in do-everything star Christian McCaffrey. There's good young talent around him in Bryce Love and slick route-runner Trent Irwin. Solomon Thomas should be among the Pac-12's top defenders. Hopefully for David Shaw's sake, a quarterback blossoms fast. These are Stanford's first six games: K-State, USC, at UCLA and Washington, then host Wazzu and visit Notre Dame. Doing better than 3-3 against that while breaking in a new quarterback seems overly optimistic.
Seth Russell is on track to return at quarterback and even without Corey Coleman, the Bears are loaded at receiver and in the backfield. Baylor, though, did lose a lot of on the D-line, and I think that could keep them from being a playoff contender in 2016.
18. Ole Miss
The Rebels only have eight starters back -- four on each side of the ball. They do return quarterback Chad Kelly, who looked superb in the last four games of the year in what proved to be an impressive debut season in the SEC. Kelly has athletic receivers even despite losing Laquon Treadwell. He will need a new left tackle, but five-star offensive tackle recruit Greg Little has been touted as one of the most polished offensive linemen to come into college in quite some time. The Rebels open with a rough trip to Orlando to face Florida State. They get Bama and Georgia in Oxford back-to-back and then in October have consecutive trips to Arkansas and LSU and later visit College Station.
Year One of the Kirby Smart Era brings plenty of curiosity, starting with the quarterback. My hunch is by October it'll be true freshman Jacob Eason. He's big and talented but will be making a big jump to the speed of the SEC after playing high school in Washington state. The running backs are terrific, led by Nick Chubb. A neutral site opener against North Carolina will be interesting. They do have to go to Oxford, which figures to be the only road game against a ranked opponent. This is probably about as favorable a schedule as you can expect in the SEC.
20. Michigan State
The Spartans not only lost three-year starting quarterback Connor Cook, but the guts of the offense on the O-line with the departures of center Jack Allen and offensive tackle Jack Conklin. Tyler O'Connor is expected to take over at quarterback. The defense should be salty again with Malik McDowell up front and a terrific linebacker group with Ed Davis returning from injury. Top cornerback Vayante Copeland also comes back from injury. Their toughest road game is in mid-September to South Bend. Later, Michigan and Ohio State visit, as does BYU.
Brady Hoke arrived as the new defensive coordinator and has ramped up the intensity and the aggressiveness of what was a pretty porous group. My hunch is even without DeForest Buckner, the best defender in the Pac-12, this group will probably be better. Former Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop, a dual-threat graduate transfer, has the inside track to take over the offense. The receiver corps is very, very deep and the running backs are outstanding. The Ducks lose Michigan State from the non-conference slate but get a trip to Nebraska to see old friend Mike Riley. A home date with Stanford is sandwiched around trips to USC and Utah, in November -- the toughest stretch of the season.
22. Washington State
Wazzu had a breakthrough season with Luke Falk stepping up at quarterback. They won nine, including two road games as a double-digit underdog. The offense should be even more potent. Gritty Gabe Marks is back and he may lead the country in receiving. Freshman James Williams adds to a solid crew of running backs that provide a solid change of pace to the pass game.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch now has a good secondary, much improved from where it was before he arrived in 2015. Just how stout a rebuilt D-line proves to be will determine whether this group can take another step forward and compete for the Pac-12 title. They get a good test in Week 2 at Boise State, and have a rough start to October with a trip to Stanford sandwiched by home games against Oregon and UCLA. The good news: They don't have to face Utah or USC in the regular season and they get Washington at home.
No one has a tougher schedule. The non-conference: Alabama in Texas, Utah State and Notre Dame. Overall, they're playing 11 teams that went to a bowl game last year. Clay Helton's group has speed and some talent, especially among its underclassmen, but there'll be a new quarterback (likely junior Max Browne with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold hot on his heels) and the D-line is a major question. A big plus: Helton brought back defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who was missed the past two years.
24. North Carolina
Mitch Trubisky -- who was sharp (85 percent completion rate, 6-0 TD-INT) in the limited action he saw in 2015 -- takes over and has a strong cast around him. Running back Elijah Hood quietly ran for almost 1,500 yards last season and he should be a force again. Gene Chizik's defense made some strides in 2015, but it still has to get better. The Tar Heels don't have to face Clemson, but do have to visit Florida State and face Georgia in the opener.
The Bruins shook up their offensive staff and their scheme, which should suit gifted sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen well. Even without Paul Perkins, they have a couple of good running backs, but they have to replace three of their four best receivers. Converted cornerback Ish Adams should help as a playmaker on offense and touted freshman Theo Howard shows promise. Getting Eddie Vanderdoes back up front on defense will help offset the departure of Kenny Clark ,and there's good speed all over this group. Defensive end Takk McKinley, a former sprinter, had an impressive spring and looks ready to emerge. Their non-conference, with road trips to Texas A&M and BYU, doesn't give an overhauled O-line too much time to get up to speed.