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Top 25 for 2017: #1-#5

1. Alabama – True Freshman QB Jalen Hurts was not a great deep ball passer, but ran for almost 1000 yards and nearly led his team to another national championship except for a phenomenal performance by Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. The run game will be nearly unstoppable with the Tide’s stable of backs plus Hurts ability to run. Bama’s D was number 1 in the nation in nearly every category last year, including a whopping 50+ sacks, but the line does need reloading. But this is an area Saban’s extraordinarily talented and deep teams do well, so not many worries there. The schedule isn’t easy, and opens with FSU in Atlanta. The Tide has elevated themselves above the rest of the SEC and the loss in the title game adds extreme motivation to an already elite program.

2. Ohio State – the Buckeyes overcame the upset loss to Penn State to make the playoffs, but laid an egg on the big stage in the 31-0 loss to Clemson. One of the least experienced teams in the nation last season, OSU still went 11-2. The offensive struggles late in the year (including scoring 0 points in the playoff loss to Clemson) led HC Urban Meyer to bring in former Indiana head coach and offensive guru Kevin Wilson. Meyer is 61-6 at Ohio State and gets the two Top 10 opponents on their schedule (OU and Penn State) at home. More explosiveness on offense coupled with what should be a great front wall on defense should get the Buckeyes back to the playoffs, with a more successful performance in the offing.

3. USC – a slow start last year for the Trojans turned into a blockbuster season with a 7 game winning streak and a thrilling win in the Rose Bowl. The key to the turnaround was starting QB Sam Darnold, who threw for over 3000 yards and 31 TDs as a Freshman. USC has recruited well, and is far enough removed from the NCAA sanctions to field one of the most talented teams in the country. Expectations are very high given the finish, but is HC Helton the man to see them fulfilled?

4. Penn State – the Nittany Lions likely would have entered ‘17 on a long winning streak, but ran into the only team hotter than them in the Rose Bowl game vs USC. PSU started slow but came around on both sides of the ball by late in the year, highlighted by the win over Ohio State, followed by dominating wins vs the rest of the schedule. With a Heisman candidate at both QB (Trace McSorley, 3600+ passing yards in ‘16) and at RB (Saquon Barkley – nearly 1500 yards rushing in ‘17) the offense should be a top 3 all time in school history. And 7 starters back on defense should lead to improvement on that side of the ball. Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten, but the Lions are legitimate playoff contenders.

5. Florida State – the Noles started slow in 2016 (it doesn’t get much “slower” than trailing 61-10 as FSU did vs Louisville), but wins over their rivals Miami and Florida and a heart-stopping victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl has Seminole Nation excited about 2017. Fr QB Francois was inconsistent but a tough leader, and he should be better in the 2nd season under HC Fisher. RB Dalvin Cook is a big loss, but the cupboard isn’t bare, including the top incoming Fr RB in the nation, Cam Akers, who’s already enrolled. The defense was terrible to start the season, but gets back all everything S Derwin James, ranked as the best player in the country by ESPN and SI. The challenge is the production hasn’t always matched the talent on defense under DC Charles Kelly and outside of QB Francois the offense is very young… can FSU escape the opener vs Alabama and key conference games against Miami and NC State in the first 4 weeks with no more than 1 loss?

Top 25 for 2017: #6-#10

6. Oklahoma State – Cowboys had a great season, but can only wonder what it could have been if it wasn’t for the controversial loss to Central Michigan early in the year. HC Gundy got an unexpected gift when both the star QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington announced they were returning to Stillwater, ensuring the high powered offense will continue. The bigger questions come on defense especially the ability to contain the rival Sooners offense on the annual bedlam game. The combination of experience and talent on offense and the challenges OU faces with a coaching change, opens the door for the Cowboys to take the Big 12 title.

7. Clemson – it all came together for the Tigers in 2016. They overcome several close calls and an upset loss to Pitt to win the program’s first national title since ‘81. HC Dabo Swinney had his skeptics when he took over for the ousted Tommy Bowden, but he has built the program to an elite level… elite enough to withstand the loss of the generational player in QB Deshaun Watson, plus the other stars on offense in RB Wayne Gallman and WR MIke Williams. But with 7 starters back on defense, the team can give time for a new QB to develop, and maybe in time for hosting FSU November 11. The game with the Seminoles has determined the division and the conference, and 2017 should be no different.

8. Washington – Huskies finally had the breakout season under HC Chris Petersen, and with Heisman candidate QB Browning back, can keep the success going. Browning threw for nearly 3500 yards with an eye popping 43 TDs to just 9 INTs. His top target departs, but the running game has a chance to improve. UW plays another easy OOC schedule and avoids USC from the other division, so a repeat of last season’s PAC 12 North Division championship is very doable.

9. Oklahoma – the Sooners went 9-0 in the Big 12, and defeated an SEC team in the Sugar Bowl. But, two early season non-conference losses kept OU out of the national picture for most of the year. With only 1 tough out of conference game on the schedule (against Ohio State) and Heisman candidate QB Baker Mayfield among 10 starters back on offense, the Sooners would be in the mix for a playoff spot in ‘17. But the stunning retirement of HC Bob Stoops now brings some uncertainty to the program. New HC Lincoln Riley is whip smart and highly regarded. He should maintain continuity, but first year head coaches always have to deal with issues they’ve never faced before. While the transition should go about as smooth as it could, it is still a big step up to become head coach of a major program for the first time.

10. Wisconsin – the Badgers jump-started two main themes of the 2016 regular season, the resurgence of the Big Ten and the struggles of the SEC (outside of Alabama), when UW upset LSU in Lambeau Field in the opener. Even with a very difficult schedule, Wisconsin finished with 10 wins and a top ten ranking. The Badgers return 9 starters to an offense that should improve on ‘16’s ordinary passing numbers, and just needs to hold the fort with 6 starters back on a Top 10 defense. An improved offense, a continued solid defense and no Ohio State or Penn State on the schedule and the Badgers could enter the Big 10 Championship game undefeated with a shot at the playoffs.

Top 25 for 2017: #11-#15

11. Florida – The Gators have two seasons under HC Jim McElwain and have an SEC East championship to show for it in each year. But the limitations of the Gator offense were noticeable in the blowout losses to FSU and Alabama at the end of both seasons. Redshirt Fr Feleipe Franks was in the lead to win the starting job over 2016’s starter Luke Del Rio, coming out of the spring… but now that Florida was the destination of former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire the race has come much more interesting. The Gators return 9 starters on offense and with the talented Zaire and highly recruited and now more vocal and experienced Franks competing, surely the offense can take a big step forward. The schedule isn’t easy, opening with Michigan and closing with FSU, but the Gators don’t play Alabama and after the SEC’s poor handling of the Hurricane Matthew rescheduled game, get LSU at home. Florida has won back to back East titles without consistent QB play and has an opportunity to have their best season yet under McElwain.

12. Auburn – so the big question for offensive guru HC Malzahn is: when are the the Tigers going to get great QB play again? Well it could be in 2017, when former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham makes his debut. Stidham was excellent in his time with the Bears and should have even better talent around him now. The defense finished in the top ten in the country in scoring, a big improvement over recent years. This is the Tigers best chance to make noise in the SEC West and maybe give Alabama a run in the West for the first time since the infamous Kick Six game in 2013.

13. Michigan – a significant rebuilding year for HC Jim Harbaugh with nearly every defensive starter departing Ann Arbor. The starting QB Wilton Speight returns, but the Wolverine passing attack ranked only 85th in the nation in ’17. For all the bluster around Harbaugh, the Wolverines were upset by Iowa, finished 3rd in their own division and went 1-3 to close the season (although each loss was very close). This is a very inexperienced team, but Harbaugh has dramatically improved the talent in just two short years. Michigan will still be in contention in the Big Ten in 2017 but I think the big year comes in 2018.

14. LSU – so the Ed Orgeron era begins as the interim label has been removed for the now permanent head coach. Orgeron did have success at LSU as interim, and also did at USC in the same position, but his record as a head coach is poor. He clearly loves the school, understands the culture and will likely recruit well, but whether he can dramatically improve the QB play remains to be seen. Orgeron did bring in OC Matt Canada from Pitt, but not sure if the talent is there on at the QB position. It is there at the RB position, as Derrius Guice may not make Tiger fans et Leonard Fournette, but he looks almost as good. Still looks to me like the Tiger teams of recent vintage – strong athletic defense and a solid running game but a average passing attack that will put a ceiling on the potential success.

15. Georgia – a rough first year for new HC Kirby Smart, highlighted (or lowlighted) by an uncompetitive loss to Florida and a loss to Vandy. But Smart played more freshman than any other team in the nation and that should pay dividends in ‘17. Fr QB Jacob Eason has another year of experience, but more important than that is both UGAs star RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel decided to return to Athens. Meanwhile, the Dawgs bring back a whopping 10 starters on defense after finishing in the Top 20 in total defense last year. It sure looks like the division will come down to Georgia and Florida – can the Dawgs get past the Gators to take a big leap forward in Smart’s second year?

Top 25 for 2017: #16-#20

16. Kansas State – HC Bill Snyder may be 77 years old, but he has done an unbelievable job with the K-State football program. I’m now a little concerned about Snyder’s health in 2017 as his staff will have to pick up more slack than typical. The Wildcats were 9-4 last year, and have most of their key offensive starters back including an experienced QB in Jesse Ertz and 4 on the o-line. And with 2016 Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year DJ Reed back to anchor the secondary, KSU could make some noise in the Big 12. The mid-season game when Oklahoma comes to the Little Apple could have bearing on the Big 12 title.

17. Louisville- Cards QB Lamar Jackson burst on the scene in 2016, with video game-esq stats in passing and rushing, and won the school’s first Heisman trophy since Johnny Unitas in the 50s. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ACC title and college football playoffs – the defense was unable to stop Clemson in the key conference showdown, then the offense and the o-line in particular collapsed in late season losses to Houston and in the bowl game vs LSU. And now a new season begins with every opponent fully aware of what Jackson can do. I expect Jackson to still be dynamic, but the questions on the o-line and defense linger.

18. USF – The Bulls and the Boise State Broncos will be the favorites from the Group of Five to make a New Year’s Six bowl this season. An unusual coaching change in that USF lost their HC, Willie Taggart, to a power program in Oregon, but gained his replacement also from a power program in Charlie Strong (from Texas). Regardless of the coach, the team is built around QB Quinton Flowers who can hurt you with his legs as well as his arm. The Bulls’ bigger issue is a defense that gave up more than 30 points per game (i.e., scoring 35 on FSU but still losing by 20). Many starters are back, and Strong has a defensive background so there is optimism for an improved D to better compliment the power on O.

19. Stanford – a little hard to rank the Cardinal at his point since their projected starting QB suffered a serious injury in the Sun Bowl, and the question remains if he’ll be ready to play at the beginning of the season. That said, whomever does lead the offense will have a budding star in RB Bryce Love, and both will operate behind a very experienced line, a calling card of HC David Shaw’s offenses. The defense returns 9 starters from a unit that ranked 18th in the nation in scoring, and should be especially strong in the secondary. Christian McCaffrey will not be easy to replace, but Shaw has done an amazing job with this program.

20. Miami – expectations were high in HC Mark Richt’s first year following a long successful stint coaching the Georgia Bulldogs. A four game losing streak in mid-season took the shine off of the Hurricanes season, but a year ending four game winning streak, including a dominant win over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, has Canes fans talking about the program’s return to prominence. The challenge will be replacing the record holding QB Brad Kaaya who’s off to the NFL. Miami was #20 in total defense in 2016, and with 8 starters back, could remind fans of the dominant, athletic defenses of their heydey. The Cane’s won’t see Clemson or Louisville from the other division, and in the wide open Coastal Division, Miami has a real shot at their first ever appearance in the ACC Championship Game.

Top 25 for 2017: #21-#25


21. Notre Dame – 2016 was a forgettable year for Irish fans, with the team beginning the season ranked #10 but stumbling to a 4-8 finish. HC Brian Kelly has cleaned house on his staff bringing in a new DC (from Wake Forest) and an OC from Memphis. Both 2016 QBs have either graduated or transferred, but otherwise 15 starters are back. The Irish did have several close losses last season that could fall the other way this year, but a challenging schedule will limit the turn around.

22. Texas – by far the most important “recruit” to Texas was not a player but getting new HC Tom Herman from Houston. Herman was a success from the get-go in his first season with the Cougars, and the Longhorn fans are hoping for some of that magic right away at Texas. It does appear that at least some pieces are in place, including a QB in sophomore Shane Buechele, and a whopping 10 starters back on defense. There always seemed to be more talent under previous HC Charlie Strong than the game day performance showed, but Herman still has his work cut out for him. The schedule is not easy with a non-conference game against USC and a deep conference where each team plays each other.

23. UCLA – the Bruins have not been a reliable pick under Jim Mora and are coming of a dreadful 4-8 campaign in 2016. However the team suffered through a terrible rash of injuries and when QB Josh Rosen went down so did UCLA’s chances. With 9 starters back on offense including a healthy Rosen, I look for a much higher scoring team. A tough schedule though reduces the chances of a really big year.

24. Northwestern – Wisconsin is the big favorite in the Big Ten West, but Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa will all battle it out for second. The Wildcats feature 15 returning starters, including their starting QB and RB; and have the most favorable schedule – skipping Ohio State and Michigan and OOC schedule includes Duke, Bowling Green and Nevada. If Northwestern can flip some of the close losses from 2016 into close wins in 2017, a top 25 finish is possible.

25. Oregon – The Ducks program took a dramatic dive from the 2014 National Championship game appearance to the 8 loss campaign in 2016, and it cost HC Mark Helfrich his job. In comes Willie Taggart from USF, and he has talent to work with. QB Justin Herbert was solid as a true Fr after taking over the starting job, and should be improved with the extra year of experience. Add in the return of Sr RB Royce Freeman, and the Ducks offense should be very good. The defense struggled last season, but new DC Jim Leavitt did a great job with Colorado’s D the past two years. The Ducks come into the season a much more experienced team than the past two seasons, giving Taggart a great opportunity to get the new era off to a good start.

Top 25 for 2017: first up – the next 10

It’s about that time college football fans, the season is just around the corner! Mrcollegesports presents the forecast Top 25 for 2017 with a special bonus this year – the next 10 teams that just missed making the Top 25.
This week Mrcollegesports will count down the Top 25, starting with the next 10 (#26-#35), then revealing the rest over the next few days, culminating with the top 5 including the playoff teams and the predicted national champion.

Without further ado, the 10 that just missed the Top 25 but could finish in the rankings with just a break here or there…

26. West Virginia – did you ever wonder what happen to former Florida QB Will Grier? He was the QB the last time the Gator offense was good, but after receiving a full year suspension for PEDs, instead of waiting, he transferred out of the Florida program. He landed here at WVU, maybe the least respected 10-2 team in all the power conferences last season, and Grier in HC Dana Holgorsen’s offense gives the Neer’s a fighting chance. Some are saying he’s better than Skyler Howard who Grier is replacing. The problem is, well, everything else. The Mountaineers lose their top 5 tacklers on defense and only return 3 starters on that side of the ball. The Big 12 will be improved and as many as 6 teams will be vying for spots in the top 25.

27. NC State – Will Muschamp, whose South Carolina team opens with the Wolfpack, called States front 4 on defense the best the Gamecocks will face all year. That’s a pretty strong statement given the defensive talent in the SEC plus the season ender against Clemson. But it’s not all over the top coach speak, and with 21 seniors on the roster, including 11 seniors among the returning starters, the Pack are poised for their first true breakout year under HC Dave Dorren. Being in the ACC’s Atlantic Division is a challenge, but the Pack do not see Miami or VA Tech from the Coastal. Don’t be surprised if NCSU finally pulls the upset on one of the big powers in the division.

28. Washington State – the Cougars had a great season in Pac 12 play in 2016, but really hurt their overall record and ranking with some bad non-conference losses to open the year. QB Luke Falk has been spectacular in HC Mike Leach’s air raid offense, and should put up eye-popping numbers again. The big question, as it always is with the air raid teams, is the defense. With 9 starters returning on D, the Cougs just need some improvement to make some noise in the deep Pac 12 North.

29. TCU – A disappointing season for the Frogs ended with a thud, a loss to Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. But a rebound is in store for ‘17 with a whopping 10 starters back on offense (compared to 2 in ‘16) and a defense more like the ones HC Gary Patterson has produced over the years. QB Kenny Hill is back and more mature after an inconsistent 2016, and, literally, his entire corp of receivers return intact. TCU will be a tough out in 2017 and may contend for more than just a top 30 ranking.

30. Boise State – the Broncos have been the model for success in the Group of Five programs for many years now (especially since TCU and Utah joined power conferences), but the Boise program has taken a bit of a step back since HC Chris Petersen left for Washington. Last year included a loss to Wyoming, a team the Broncos used to dominate, and a third consecutive loss to Air Force. Still, with QB Rypien back, the offense should be very good, and the Broncos will compete with USF for the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six Bowls.

31. Tennessee – 2016 was supposed to be the year that the Vols decade long rebuilding finally resulted in an SEC East division title. Late season losses to underdogs South Carolina and Vanderbilt ended what had started as a promising season. UT loses a number of the key players on offense, including QB Joshua Dobbs whose heroics seemed to single handedly win some games. But the news is better on defense where 7 starters return, and injuries last season will result in a deeper pool of experienced players this year. The Vols do still have talent and maybe this program will perform better when they’re under the radar.

32. Virginia Tech – HC Justin Fuente’s debut season replacing the legendary Frank Beamer went about as well as Hokie Nation could ask for, with 10 wins, a strong performance in the ACCCG and a top 20 final ranking. The 2nd year HC now has some rebuilding to do, especially on offense where QB AND leading rusher Jerod Evans surprisingly declared early for the NFL (and was not 1 of the 10 QBs drafted). Long time DC Bud Foster did field a top 20 defensive unit in 2016 and with 7 starters returning, should be the strength of the team. The opener with West Virginia at the Redskins stadium will let the world know where the rebuilding stands right out of the gate.

33. BYU – The cardiac kids from BYU were nothing if not exciting to start last season, with each of their first FIVE games decided by 3 points or less (with a 2-3 record to show for it). The Cougs lose their starting QB Taysom Hill, but return back-up Tanner Mangum, who has played for many years and battled more than one season ending injury. The defense does return 7 starters, but the team overall is less experienced than entering last year. The life as an independent means a widely varying schedule, and 2017 is no different – with opponents ranging from Wisconsin and LSU to UMass and Portland State. First year HC Kalani Sitake had a good debut season replacing Bronco Mendenhall and look for another solid year in Provo in ‘17.

34. Utah – The Utes are typically overlooked when talking about the Pac 12, yet each year HC Kyle Whittingham usually has his team in the Pac 12 South race until the end. That said, wth star RB Joe Williams leaving, this is one of the least experienced Utah teams in recent years. QB Troy Williams is back, but he was not dynamic as a passer. Still, look for HC Kyle Whittingham to plug some holes on D and field another physical team.

35. Texas A&M – If you look up “hot seat” in the dictionary, you’ll now find a picture of Aggie HC Kevin Sumlin, after the A&M A.D. spelled out the expectation for improvement in 2017. The Aggies have now started hot early then collapsed down the stretch for 3 straight years, turning Top 10 rankings in mid-season into unranked 8-5 finishes. The problem now is the Aggies lose their QB and star defensive player, and still face a tough SEC West schedule with the opener at UCLA. They do have an experienced talend defense, but I don’t see that as enough to improve upon their recent 8-5 records.

Forecast Top 25 for 2016

1 Clemson We saw what QB Deshaun Watson did against a great Bama D and this year’s offense should be even better with the return of RB Wayne Gollman and WR Mike Willians and the rest of the talent on offense. Defense is rebuilding, but a good sign that DC Brent Venerables reloaded last season with even fewer returning starters. Tigers face only 2 of these Top 25 teams, including Louisville at home. ACC Game of the Century October 29 in Tallahassee is for a playoff berth.
2 Alabama This ranking is heavily based on HC Nick Saban’s resume. The Tide have won national titles with a similar profile to this years team – only 11 starters back, freakishly talented on D and having to find a new QB. And a few defenders turned down an early jump to the NFL to return to T-Town. But a couple of differences – the new QB will be working with a new center, unlike the past 2 seasons; and DC Kirby Smart will no longer be on the sidelines for the Defense. The SEC West is no picnic in any year, but with Ole Miss, Tenn and LSU all on the road, the gauntlet is even more challenging. A playoff spot this season will cement Saban’s rep as the best in the business.
3 Michigan Programs often make their greatest progress in the 2nd season of a new HC, and if that happens for the Wolverines, the sky’s the limit. HC Jim Harbaugh has been a social media maven since arriving in Ann Arbor, which has taken some attention away from the fact that Michigan went from 5-7 to 10-3 in his first year! The challenge will be finding a new QB, but this was the case last year and Harbaugh got a career year out of Jake Rudock. Wolverines do have a new DC but Don Brown comes from BC – the nation’s #1 defense last year. The beginning of the schedule is easier than last year, giving time for the new QB to get in a groove before the games at Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan determine the fate of the season.
4 LSU It looked like HC Les Miles was going to be fired after a 3 game losing streak took the Tigers out of the playoff and SEC race, but a win over A&M to close the year and disagreement in the athletic dept gave him a reprieve. LSU has not finished in the Top 10 since losing the BCS Championship game to Alabama in 2011 but has a chance at a special season this year. New DC Dave Aranda will have 9 starters back to work with and much more talent than he had even while very successful at Wisconsin. Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette returns at RB after setting the school season record for rushing yards. QB play has held back the program for a few years now, but should improve enough with a dominant D and rushing attack to give the Tigers a realistic shot at the playoffs.
5 Ohio State Urban Meyer is an eye popping 50-4 since taking over the Buckeyes four years ago, but 2016 will be the biggest challenge. The Buckeyes had an incredible 9 players taken in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft, which begs the question how this team didn’t make the playoffs last year. For most programs this would be a complete rebuilding year, but there is so much talent in Columbus, the dropoff won’t be as much as you’d think. With an experienced QB in JT Barrett back, and a Big 10 schedule that is once again back loaded, the Buckeyes will be in the conference and playoff race until the end.
6 Tennessee HC Butch Jones has been building towards this year with 17 starters back from a team that lost close games to 2 of the playoff participants. Vols defense has improved in each of the last 3 years and with 8 starters back should continue that streak. And Tennessee has one of the few experienced QBs returning in the SEC, unlike the 3 best teams on their schedule. Alabama and Florida come to Knoxville, and the Vols don’t play a ranked opponent in the non-conference schedule. UT is the clear favorite to win the East meaning they’re an upset in the SECCG away from making the playoffs.
7 Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield may be the big star, but OU will feature a one-two punch at RB in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine that will be hard to top on any team in the country. On D, Sooners do lose some of their big playmakers, but still return about as many starters as last years unit that went on to finish in the Top 10 in spite of playing in the pass happy Big 12. There are some big concerns here though – a brutal schedule that includes Ohio State and Houston in OOC games and an interesting stat unearthed by Phil Steele: the last 4 times OU was ranked in preseason top 5, Sooners finished outside top 15 all 4 times and unranked twice!
8 Notre Dame Irish came very close to making the playoffs in ’15 with close losses to Clemson and Stanford (#2 and #3 in the final poll). This year’s squad only has nine returning starters, but the number is a little deceiving as numerous injuries took their toll last year, but results in more players with experience for this season. Both starting QBs from last season return in DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire provide HC Brian Kelly with options if one is injured or not playing well. Last 2 years featured a road game against an ACC team that made the playoffs, but this year’s ‘conference’ road game is at NC State.
9 Washington HC Chris Petersen slowly building talent in Seattle and enter 2015 with QB Jake Browning, RB Miles Gaskin and 4 starting o-lineman returning. The offense exploded for 40+ points in each of the last 3 games, to rally the program to a winning record and set the stage for 2015. 7 starters are back from a defense that held opponents to 19 pts per game, leading the Pac 12. The schedule is not easy but the Huskies do skip UCLA, the favorite from the South; and the key may be that 2015 North division champion Stanford comes to Husky Stadium in late September.
10 Florida State Noles fans are having deja vu all over again as they look to a redshirt freshman QB (Deondre Francios) to lead the team as Jameis Winston did in his stunning debut season in 2013. The similarities don’t end there, in that ’13 team had an experienced oline, top RB and talented defense, all components of the 2016 team. The challenge for this season is a much tougher schedule in the first half of the season with that rFr QB and an oline that was not good in 2015. Can the Noles get through Ole Miss, at USF, at Louisville, UNC and at Miami in the first 6 games of the season with 1 loss or less to set up the Game of the Century with Clemson in late October?
11 Mississippi HC Hugh Freeze’s great recruiting class of ’13 paid dividends with back to back NY6 bowls, but several of those elite players are now in the NFL, including DT R Nkemdiche. But the most important offensive player, QB Chad Kelly, returns after leading the Rebs to 40+ points per game in 2015. Only 10 returning starters does mean a significantly less experienced team than last season. This would suggest a drop off for 2016, but with the best QB in the SEC at the helm and the depth of talent Freeze has recruited, the Ole Miss program will remain one of the SEC’s elite.
12 Stanford HC David Shaw has arguably been as good as Nick Saban in building a dynasty given the circumstances he faces at a private school where fan support for football is not rabid. The Cardinal bring back their most important player – not QB Kevin Hogan but all everything RB/WR/KR Christian McCaffrey. Unfortunately, not many other starters return on offense and the Cardinal need to rebuild their oline.  Its hard to pick against Shaw, but a killer 5 week stretch of the schedule – USC, at UCLA, at Washington, WSU, and at Notre Dame, will make it hard to repeat last season’s top 5 finish. Still one of the Pac 12’s elite programs and will be in the division and conference race.
13 TCU Horned Frogs stumbled down the stretch of an injury plagued season and now only return 3 starters on offense for ’16. But HC Gary Patterson gets a very interesting transfer at QB as former TAMU QB Kenny Hill becomes eligible. All of those injuries hurt last year but provided a lot of depth for this year, so team is more experienced than the “returning starters’ stat suggests. This season looks to harken back to the strong defenses Patterson was known for in the Mountain West days.
14 Houston Electric QB Greg Ward Jr returns, but the bigger story is that HC Tom Hermann is back. The former Ohio State OC, Herman could not have had a better debut season as the Cougs went 13-1, upset Florida State in a NY6 bowl and finished in the top 10. This year’s team will be the hunted not the hunter, and is not as experienced as the 2015 edition. Hosting Oklahoma in the opener puts UH at least in the position of a run at a playoff spot if they can pull the upset. Up and coming teams like this typically don’t handle the transition to favorites well, but Hermann has done an amazing job so far.
15 Iowa Hawkeyes finally had their breakthrough season in 2015 and have a great opportunity to continue that success. Iowa’s offense only finished #72 in total offense in 2015, but was enough with a stout defense that forced a lot of turnovers. QB CJ Breathard is back along with 3 olineman they have depth at RB. The defense will be the strength of this team though with 8 starters back from a squad that ranked in the top 20 in the nation in scoring defense. The schedule is a little tougher including a visit from Michigan; but with all the top opponents coming to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes get the nod as favorite in the BIG10 West.
16 Baylor Unless your home address is Mars, whenever you hear the name “Baylor’ you’re not thinking about the team on the field. For this analysis, we’ll leave it at that. Several key injuries derailed the Bears season, but those players are expected back in ’16 including QB Seth Russell. Bears have to completely rebuild both lines though. The most significant on the field ramification to the turmoil is the replacement of HC Art Briles by former Wake Forest HC Jim Grobe. Grobe had success at Wake, but couldn’t sustain it and was forced out. This team could easily move into the Top 10 or finish the season unranked, it’s hard to predict how the players will react. Best guess is the loss of Briles (and nearly every starter on both oline and dline) will result in a decline.
17 UCLA Much heralded freshman QB Josh Rosen “The Rosen One” returns after a solid debut, but will have a less experienced team around him, at least on offense. The big improvement should come on defense, where after numerous injuries took their toll in 2015, 9 starters return. While the OOC schedule has potential land mines, at Texas A&M and at BYU, the conference schedule sets up nicely with Stanford and Oregon not on it, plus 5 home conf. games. Bruins lose too much on offense to be a playoff contender, but they’re the Pac 12 South favorite.
18 Michigan State HC Mark Dantonio has built a tremendous program at MSU, but 2016 will feature a number of challenges, starting with the loss of QB Connor Cook, one of 8 starters on offense to move on. And with all that experience on offense, Sparty finished #60 in the nation in scoring offense. The defense played well in 2015 and will be the strength of the team this year. Sparty plays well with a chip on their shoulder, but now faces a much tougher schedule with Notre Dame and BYU in non conference games, and Wisconsin and Northwestern from the West Division on the schedule.
19 Oregon HC Mark Helfrich is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle for a second year in a row, with a graduate transfer from an FCS program coming in to QB the Ducks. Bigger issue may be on the defensive side of the ball, where Oregon gave up 38 ppg in ’15. New DC Brady Hoke will try to improve the defense, but only 5 starters are back and none of their top 3 tacklers. Ducks do get Washington and Stanford at home, so any of these 3 could win the North, but the edge goes to the other 2.
20 Louisville All the ACC talk focuses on Clemson and FSU, but there is another team in the same division that will have a huge say in the conference race. The Cardinals won 8 of their last 10 games last season and come into 2016 as a much more experienced team. QB Lamar Jackson exploded in the bowl against Texas A&M, throwing for over 220 and rushing for over 220 in the win. UL has a tough non-conference game at Houston (after losing to the Cougs at home last year), but gets FSU at home in a great spot to pull off the upset.
21 Oklahoma State Pokes return QB Mason Rudolph along with four o-lineman which should lead to a very productive offense. Problem the past 2 years has been on D where OSU entered the last 2 games of the season #4 in the nation, only to give up 45+ point in each of the last 3 games including the bowl. The D has 7 starters back but also has to deal with the biggest games on the road. Cowboys are one of the most experienced teams in the conference but think the schedule will keep them from surpassing last season’s record.
22 Miami New HC Mark Richt was criticized at UGA for not winning the big one (or enough big ones), but he’s the best coach the Hurricanes have had in 15 years. UM brings back a great QB in Brad Kayaa who will operate behind a much more experienced oline. Miami has been pedestrian on defense for the 4 seasons, but gets a coaching upgrade here too in new DC Manny Diaz. The Canes don’t face ACC favorite Clemson and get rival FSU, and last years division winner, UNC, both at home. Richt seems very energized by the move and has a great opportunity to make a spash in year 1.
23 Georgia Dawgs finished 2015 with such unimpressive wins that a 10-3 SEC team finished unranked. New HC Kirby Smart has brought some of that Tide intensity to the UGA program. Dawgs will likely start a Fr QB, but QB play couldn’t get much worse or disjointed as it appeared at times last season, and a healthy Nick Chubb will take a lot of pressure off. D loses two top tacklers, but a lot of talent remains and Kirby should get the most out of them. No Bama on the schedule helps, but a trip to Ole Miss will be a challenge as will the opener against UNC. Still an 8 win season seems very doable.
24 Florida A poor finish took some of the shine off HC Jim McElwain’s first year, but 10 wins and the SEC East championship was well beyond expectations. Gators strength will continue to be a defense that held opponents to 18 points per game in 2015, and with 6 starters back should be able to about match the numbers. Big challenge is to upgrade the QB play that went off the rails after Will Grier was suspended and will look to a transfer, Luke Del Rio, to get the offense back on track. Don’t think the offense will be as good as it was under Grier, but don’t think it will be as bad as it was late in 2015. Gators should still be competitive in the SEC East.
25 USC Trojans return 10 starters on offense, and are loaded with talent at every position. Problem is that the 11th starter was QB Cody Kessler and USC will be much less experienced at the key position. Defense has more reloading to do, but the program is now finally back up to near normal scholarships and has better depth than in a number of years. Schedule is incredibly tough with non-conference games against Alabama and Notre Dame, plus the 3 best from the PAC 12’s other division, the North’s Oregon, Stanford and Washington. This is a very talented team but may get overwhelmed by the schedule.

Early look at 2016 Top 25

1 Clemson – Even with the loss of several defensive standouts, the return of Heisman favorite QB Deshaun Watson puts the Tigers on top.
2 Alabama – Tide will have a new QB and RB, but HC Nick Saban just reloads the machine. D-line will be very strong again.
3 Michigan – Wolverines went from 5 wins to 10 in HC Jim Harbaugh first season.. 8 starters back on offense but need to replace QB Jake Rudock
4 Notre Dame – A number of starters depart, but a several key players return from injury including QB Malik Zaire. Road game with Clemson replaced by visit to NC State.
5 Oklahoma – 7 starters back on offense including QB Baker Mayfield, but a brutal schedule that includes Ohio State and Houston
6 Tennessee – HC Butch Jones has been building towards this year with 17 starters back from a team that lost close games to 2 of the playoff participants. Vols will be heavy favorites in East and get Bama and UF at home.
7 Baylor – Several key injuries derailed the Bears season, but those players are expected back in ’16 including QB Seth Russell. Bears have to rebuild both lines though.
8 Stanford – HC David Shaw has arguably been as good as Nick Saban in building a dynasty given the location; Cardinal bring back all everything RB/WR/KR Christian McCaffrey
9 Florida State – Noles return every single offensive starter but will need to get improved play at QB to take on a much tougher schedule that kicks off with Ole Miss.
10 Mississippi – HC Hugh Freeze’s great recruiting class of ’13 paid dividends with back to back NY6 bowls, but several of those elite players are now leaving, including DT R Nkemdiche. But with QB Chad Kelly back, offense should still be strong.
11 Ohio State – 2016 will be the biggest challenge HC Urban Meyer has faced since taking over the Buckeyes. Nine juniors declared for early entry into the draft, leaving only 8 starters back overall.
12 LSU – Not the typical slew of early NFL draft entries leaves the TIgers with an unusually experienced team. Can an offense built around a great RB, not QB, win big today’s game?
13 Oklahoma State – Pokes return QB Mason Rudolph along with four o-lineman to keep the passing game humming. With 17 starters back overall, OSU is a contender in the Big 12 but this season faces their biggest games away from T Boone Pickens Stadium.
14 Michigan State – HC Mark Dantonio has built a tremendous program at MSU, but 2016 will feature a number of challenges – the loss of 8 starters on offense, including QB Connor Cook and a schedule that includes both NW and Wisky from the B1G West plus Notre Dame and BYU OOC.
15 Washington – HC Chris Petersen slowly building talent in Seattle and this may be the year of the breakthrough, with QB Jake Browning and RB Miles Gaskin and 4 starting o-lineman returning.
16 Houston – Electric QB Greg Ward Jr returns, but the bigger story is that HC Tom Hermann is back. Cougs will be in unfamiliar position of heavy favorite, but don’t count out what Hermann has done in one season.
17 TCU – Horned Frogs stumbled down the stretch of an injury plagued season and now only return 3 starters on offense for ’16. But HC Gary Patterson has been able to plug and play and gets an intriguing prospect as former TA&M QB Kenny Hill becomes eligible
18 Georgia – Dawgs finished 2015 with such unimpressive wins that a 10-3 marquee SEC team finished unranked. New HC Kirby Smart should energize the program and with Alabama off the schedule,
19 Miami – New HC Mark Richt was criticized at UGA for not winning the big one (or enough big ones) but he’s the best coach the Hurricanes have had in 15 years. UM brings back a great QB in Brad Kayaa which means Richt could make a splash his first season.
20 Iowa – Hawkeyes finally had their breakthrough season in 2015 and have a solid core group of players returning, including QB CJ Breathard. A tougher B1G schedule makes a repeat of last years success unlikely.
21 Oregon – HC Mark Helfrich is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle for a second year in a row, with a graduate transfer from an FCS program coming in to QB the Ducks. Bigger issue may be on the defensive side of the ball, where Oregon gave up 38 ppg in ’15.
22 Florida – A poor finish took some of the shine off HC Jim McElwain’s first year, but 10 wins and the SEC East championship was well beyond expectations. Gators need to find a QB but defense should be good again, and often times improvement happens in a new coach’s second season.
23 Utah – Utes didn’t lose HC Kyle Wittingham in the coaching carousel last season, and should continue with his philosophy of defense first. Utah looking to JC to find a replacement for departing QB Travis Wilson.
24 Boise State – The offense responsible for over 600 yards in the Poinsettia Bowl returns 9 starters, including QB Brent Rypien and RB Jeremy McNichols, but must rebuild the defense. OOC schedule includes up and coming Washington State and BYU.
25 UCLA – Much heralded freshman QB Josh Rosen “The Rosen One” returns after a solid debut and leads the Bruin offense to greater heights.

Initial thoughts on the Playoff selections

The four teams selected for the College Football Playoff were announced today and unlike last year’s stunning change in the final rankings, this year’s situation produced no such drama. The top 4 of Clemson vs Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Alabama vs Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl were exactly the teams everyone expected and as a group, virtually controversy free. That does not mean the rankings weren’t without ramifications though, here are a few initial thoughts:
Good news for the Tide…
Michigan State moving up to #3 provides Alabama with a much more favorable match up for two reasons: 1) Bama brings fans in droves, so they’re not hugely outnumbered regardless of the scenario, BUT a game in Dallas vs nearby Oklahoma would have been the largest crowd for their opponent that Bama would have ever faced in a playoff/BCS title game. 2) Alabama’s few losses in recent years have come against mobile QBs that throw for big numbers. Very good teams that feature a generally pro-style offense, run the ball well and play good defense typically do not defeat the Tide (see LSU the past 4 years). The only team in the playoff that fits the model of a team Alabama usually beats is Michigan State. It’s not surprising that Vegas has initially made the Tide a whopping 11 point favorite.
And more on the Spartans…
Michigan State has given two teams their only loss. Not only is MSU the only team to accomplish the feat this year, it is a rare to happen in any year. But if you look a little closer, it helped MSU, and the Big Ten in general, to have so few games between the better teams. The top 3 teams in the West (Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin) only had 1 game against the top 3 teams in the East (Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan). Given that there could have been up to 9 games between these teams, that leaves 8 games that were unplayed – 8 losses that these teams didn’t have. The West Division teams that MSU played were 2-10 Purdue (MSU won by 3) and 5-7 Nebraska (MSU lost). What if MSU had played Northwestern and Wisconsin in the regular season? Or what if either of these teams had played Ohio State? And Iowa didn’t play Michigan or Ohio State. This is a huge number of losses that didn’t occur, simply because the teams didn’t play. The Big Ten could have easily had no teams in the top 8 and been the conference left out of the playoffs rather than the Pac 12.
Same as it ever was…
the current playoff and New Year’s Six structure is a dramatic improvement from the BCS era, which in spite of the critics, was a dramatic improvement over the previous system (or lack thereof). That said, there are still some remnants from the old bowl system that had a noticeable effect on the quality of the games this year.
The Sugar is tied in to the SEC/Big 12 match-up; this would be great except both conferences did not produce a 2nd Top 10 team. So while #10 North Carolina (Russel Athletic) and #11 TCU (Alamo) are in secondary (at best) bowls, #12 Ole Miss and #16 Oklahoma State are playing in the Sugar.

Georgia Fires Mark Richt – Commentary

The University of Georgia announced today that Mark Richt would be stepping down as head coach after the bowl game. While officially stated as a “mutual decision”, all indications were that Richt wanted to return as head coach next year. As expected, the news was met with a mixed reaction, many acknowledging Richt’s overall high winning percentage with others noting the recent poor record in big games and lack of division titles.

No one wants to see a man lose their job, and by all accounts, Richt was honest, down-to-earth, genuine person and he spends his off time doing charitable and missionary work. But with the very high salary and profile of the Head Coach of a major football program, comes the cold hard facts of the performance on the field. Let’s look at those facts and see why Georgia made the difficult, but correct decision (part 1).

It started great… Richt was phenomenally successful his first eight years as Georgia Head Coach. The bulldogs finished in the AP rankings all 8 years, with 4 top 10 appearances. Georgia had the 6th highest winning percentage in the nation during that time period. True, UGA did not appear in any BCS Title games, but that was more a factor of luck. During those same years, LSU became the first national champion with 2 regular season losses after #2 West Virginia lost to a 4-7 Pitt squad the last week of the season. And Urban Meyer got a title at Florida in 2006 –in order for the Gators to get into the BCS Championship game, #2 USC had to lose to 6-5 UCLA (who would follow up that win by getting blown out in the Walnut Bowl). So no BCS good fortune for Richt, but he had the program rolling.

But the last 6 full seasons (2009-2014) have not been nearly as productive. UGA finished outside the AP Top 25 in half the years, and more notably, is tied for 21St for winning percentage amongst the FBS programs during that time. By comparison, Richt took over when Jim Donnan was fired after the 2000 season. Donnan’s winning percentage ranked 12th in the nation for the previous 4 years, much higher than the ranking of Richt’s program the past 6. Richt was given extra opportunity to turn the program around, and this year was likely the final opportunity. The blow-out loss to Alabama at home was painful, but the bizarre decision on the starting quarterback versus Florida made it appear that Richt was out of answers. And seeing the Gators with a first year coach not just win but dominate the Bulldogs was the last straw for the Georgia administration.

Georgia should never be the 21st best program in the nation. The administration made the difficult first part of the move to improve the program, but now needs to make the 2nd part. Mark Richt was a good hire at that place and time; can they make the right hire this go round?