50 biggest questions heading into the 2016 CFB season
With football just weeks away, the PFF analysts have joined forces to identify the biggest questions from around the country.
50 biggest questions heading into the 2016 CFB season
Football fans can feel it in the air — the 2016 season is right around the corner, and with it comes dozens of uncertainties in each conference. Will your team survive a coaching change? Which quarterback can win the starting job? Who has the best defense in the nation?
Our college football analysts have combined to highlight the biggest questions from around the country — some that will be answered in the next few weeks, and still other’s that could take until season’s end.
Will running backs dominate the Heisman conversation?
We dubbed last year the “year of the running backs,” as top runners took center stage in the national conversation, and with most of the top talent returning this season, it may be more of the same. LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Georgia’s Nick Chubb are among the many names capable of making a Heisman run this season. Quarterbacks have a few possibilities as well, with perhaps the overall favorite in Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and perhaps an outside shot with Washington State’s Luke Falk. But expect “year of the running back, part 2” as the nation is littered with top runners.
Which teams are on their way up?
Tennessee is everyone’s favorite to live up to recently strong recruiting hauls while Washington is the darling upside candidate out west, though they may still be a year away. Keep an eye on Louisville as the Cardinals return talent on both sides and stars on defense — especially true if sophomore Lamar Jackson develops as a passer. Washington State will challenge in a deep Pac-12 behind QB Luke Falk’s arm.
Which teams are on the decline?
Michigan State is unlikely to repeat as Big Ten champions after losing QB Connor Cook, one of the nation’s best OTs in Jack Conklin and one of the nation’s best pass rushers in Shilique Calhoun. Mississippi State has questions at QB with the departure of Dak Prescott, Navy has similar issues with record-setting QB Keenan Reynolds moving on as well as a number of other starters graduating. The other obvious choice for regression is Ohio State as they return only 37 percent of last year’s snaps — lowest at among Power-5 teams. They’ll be talented, but young, and perhaps too young to challenger for the College Football Playoff.
Which players will be stars by the end of the year?
UCLA QB Josh Rosen is a common choice, and he’s right in the mix, but fellow true sophomore QB Jake Browning of Washington is right there with him. If Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon can steal some carries from Samaje Perine, he’ll be considered one of the nation’s best. A number of edge rushers are ready to become household names including Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise and Alabama’s Ryan Anderson. We feel that Florida State safety Derwin James is already a star, but another season under his belt will put him on the national radar as a true sophomore.
Which QB transfers will make the biggest difference in 2016?
A number of signal callers have had prior success at their original stops and they’ll be counted on as starters for new teams this season. Texas A&M welcomes Trevor Knight, who flashed his potential throughout his career at Oklahoma but ultimately had too many negatively-graded games to keep his starting job. Former Aggies QB Kenny Hill will likely start at TCU and given the strong early-season performance we saw from him in 2014, he may be the most productive transfer QB by season’s end. Cal landed former Texas Tech QB Davis Webb who has big-play potential but must take a step forward with his decision-making. Michigan brought former Houston QB John O’Korn in to compete for their starting job but he must improve after ranking 131st out of 151 QBs in the nation in 2014. Finally, Patrick Towles improved last year at Kentucky and he still has room to grow as a passer at Boston College while Florida is counting on Luke Del Rio to settle the position with accuracy and good decision-making.
Will the defensive line set the tone across the nation?
When researching the PFF College 101, it was easy to find deserving defensive linemen but much harder to slot on offensive linemen. The SEC in particular is loaded with talented edge rushers, and that’s the general theme around the nation, but top-notch offensive linemen are difficult to find. The PFF College 101 features 31 defensive linemen and only nine offensive linemen, so we may see the defensive fronts controlling the action this season.
Which true freshman QBs will see action?
Last year we were introduced to Josh Rosen, Jake Browning, and Jarrett Stidham among other true freshmen quarterbacks, so which freshmen will have an impact this season? Shane Buechele appears to be the favorite to win the job at Texas; he was PFF’s No. 2-graded QB at Elite 11 last summer. South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain is in the mix to start, as is Jacob Eason at Georgia. Malik Henry at Florida State and Jalen Hurts at Alabama are unlikely starters, but they’re at least a part of the competition heading into the season.
Can Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly take that next step at QB?
There was a point during the 2015 season when Chad Kelly looked like he was ready to enter the Heisman trophy conversation. He had a huge game against Fresno State early in the year, but graded negatively in each of the next four games. He stepped it up again after that though, and would finish the year third in the nation with 16 touchdown passes that travelled 20 yards or more downfield. Obviously he has to adjust with the loss of Laquon Treadwell, but he showed last year that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the nation.
Alabama’s pass rushing superstars, did their damage in limited roles in 2015. Williams played just 197 snaps, while Anderson played just 361, so the big question is whether or not they can be as productive on much bigger roles this coming season. Our pass rushing productivity signature stat measures pressure on a per snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, giving a better indication of production than sacks alone. Anderson was fifth among 3-4 outside linebackers last year at 19.1, while Williams lead them all at 28.4. That kind of production will be tough to maintain, but we expect both to have big years one way or another.
Can LSU’s Leonard Fournette force 100 missed tackles?
LSU’s star running back Leonard Fournette bascially ran over, under, around and through every defense he faced last year, with the exception of games against Alabama and Ole Miss. Over the course of the year, he forced 85 missed tackles on 300 carries, working out at a missed tackle forced once every 3.5 carries. To get to 100 missed tackles forced — which would be an incredible total — on the same workload as last year, he needs force one once every three tackles. That would be a tough ask, but if anyone can do it, it’ll be a one-man wrecking crew like Fournette.
Who starts at quarterback for Georgia?
One of the most interesting positional battles in the SEC this year is the Georgia quarterback battle. True freshman Jacob Eason might have been considered a long shot at one point, but after a strong showing at Georgia’s spring game, he’s now in with a realistic shot to win the job. Greyson Lambert was inconsistent, finishing the year with an adjusted accuracy percentage of 72.0 percent, ranking 44th in the nation. Our adjusted accuracy percentage takes into account drops, batted passes, throwaways, spikes and throws while being hit, giving a better indication of a quarterback’s accuracy than completion percentage. Brice Ramsey has never really shown he deserves the starting job, with three of his four attempts travelling 20 yards or more downfield last season falling incomplete, and the other being intercepted.
Can Tennessee’s rushing attack propel them to the SEC title?
The Tennessee Volunteers are the hot pick by a lot of people to go on to win the SEC this year, with a strong recruiting class coming of age. A big part of that is how good they are at running the football, with quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara all having impressive seasons last year. Our elusive rating looks at missed tackles forced and yards after contact, giving a truer look at running back production and tackle breaking ability than yards alone. Dobbs had an elusive rating of 160.9 last season, a better mark than any running back in the nation last year. Hurd is a tough player to bring down, and has rushed for 2,186 yards and scored 17 touchdowns over the past two season, while Kamara trailed only Stanford Christian McCaffrey, averaging 2.60 yards per route run as a receiver.
The SEC is absolutely loaded with pass rushers, and it’s arguably the strongest group of players in any conference in the nation. Auburn’s Carl Lawson hasn’t quite broken into that group yet, but did miss all of 2014, and a large part of 2015, through injury. In flashes he was incredibly productive, registering a sack and eight hurries on 33 pass rushing snaps in the bowl game against Memphis, giving him a pass rushing productivity of 21.2 that was the fifth-best mark among defensive ends during bowl season. He wasn’t consistent though, and registered two pressures or fewer in three of the seven games he played in. The two keys to Lawson joining the top tier pass rushers in the conference are linked, he has to stay healthy, and has to be more consistent.
Will Nick Chubb be ready to start the year?
While Georgia’s quarterback battle is one of the most interesting battles in the conference, it’s not even the biggest storyline on the team. Nick Chubb burst onto the scene as a freshman, seizing the opportunity when star running back Todd Gurley went down. He forced 63 missed tackles on 219 carries, averaged 3.73 yards after contact per carry, and forced another six missed tackles on eight receptions. That gave him an elusive rating of 108.5, which ranked sixth among running backs in the nation. Chubb went down injured himself in 2015 and, while there doesn’t appear to be any doubt that he’ll be ready at some point in 2016, there does appear to be some concern that he won’t be ready for the start of the year. If that happens, they’ll rely on Sony Michel to pick up the slack again and while he wasn’t quite as difficult to bring down as Gurley or Chubb, he still had a respectable elusive rating of 85.1 in 2015.
Who has the better year — Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett or Tennessee’s Derek Barnett?
While Carl Lawson is battling to join the elite pass rushers in the conference, the top two defensive ends in the nation are currently Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett. Barnett out graded Garrett in 2015, +54.0 to +52.8, but Garrett far out graded Barnett in 2014. Both are incredibly good players, but over the balance of two season, Garrett has been the better of the two. The big question is whether or not Barnett can maintain the gap beween the two from this year. His pass rush grade of +42.7 was the best of any returning edge rusher, racking up 10 sacks and 62 pressures in total.
Who will be Michigan’s quarterback?
Jake Rudock is now a Detroit Lion, thus the Wolverines enter the 2016 season with one of the deepest and most talented teams, but no clear starting QB. Wilton Speight filled in admirably last year when Rudock was injured against Minnesota last year, but otherwise has no relevant college experience. John O’Korn transferred to Michigan from Houston and sat out last season, thus he has not taken a college snap since 2014. While again, Michigan certainly has the defense to carry the team through what should be a relatively easy start, the winner of this month’s QB competition will inevitably need to come through in a big way if the Wolverines are to truly compete for the Big Ten title.
No one is going to question the talent level the Buckeyes have on the defensive side of the ball, as head coach Urban Meyer has consistently produced top-10 recruiting classes. However, with eight starters from last year’s second-highest-graded defense either graduated or in the NFL, the 2016 unit will need time to gel. Unfortunately, the schedule does not afford them much time, as they travel to Oklahoma in Week 3. The three returning starters should all be among the Big Ten’s best, but with so many new faces it’s natural to expect inconsistency.
Saquon Barkley had an outstanding freshman year at Penn State, as he averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 182 carries and broke 60 tackles. Not surprisingly considering how often he made tacklers miss, his elusive rating was the best in the country, and it wasn’t very close. Draft-eligible players like Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook will get much of the nation’s attention, but if Barkley can put together another season like 2015, he deserves to be considered among the nation’s elite.
Who will be our top-graded defensive interior players?
Michigan has a trio of defensive interior players who graded in the top 20 last year (Maurice Hurst, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow), Purdue has Jake Replogle and Nebraska has Kevin Maurice. This list doesn’t even include possible top ten pick Malik McDowell, who is expected to play mostly DE in 2016 for Michigan State. The Big Ten boasts the country’s best collection of returning interior defenders from last season, and all of the above-listed player should again post monster seasons in 2016.
Which elite CB will be better?
The defensive line isn’t the only area stocked with several of the county’s elite, as the conference also boasts 2015’s two highest-graded CBs in Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Iowa’s Desmond King. Northwestern’s Matthew Harris and Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick also graded out well, as they both finished last year with top 25 CB grades (among returning players). Considering how poor the QB play is expected to be in the Big Ten this year, this group of CBs should again be among the most productive in the country.
Can someone in the tackle class pass block?
With Ohio State’s Taylor Decker moving on to the NFL and Michigan’s Mason Cole kicking inside to center this year, no returning offensive tackle in the conference had a positive pass blocking grade in 2015. In fact, Nebraska’s Nick Gates is the only tackle to grade positively on run blocks last year. Offensive line is the unit we typically see the most variance and improvement in from year to year, but with the entire conference literally having nothing but subpar or first-year starters, this could be another rough year against the uber-talented EDGE players littered throughout the Big Ten.
On the strength of a schedule that avoided Big Ten East powers Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, Iowa went undefeated in the 2015 regular season before finally succumbing to the aforementioned Spartans in the Big Ten championship game. Many key players from last year’s squad return, and they still avoid Michigan State and Ohio State (Michigan pays a visit on November 12th). Among this year’s returnees is the conference’s highest-grade QB, Iowa could have the squad it needs to repeat in the west and make it to the Big Ten Championship in December.
Can MSU carry on its recent history at QB position?
Drew Stanton, Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook are all former Spartan QBs currently on NFL rosters. This means Tyler O’Connor has massive shoes to fill as the new signal caller in East Lansing. While he was the starter for Michigan State’s huge victory against Ohio State last year, he accounted for just 113 yards of total offense and has just 40 pass attempts over the last two seasons combined. With this much inexperience from their starting QB, the Spartans should see a significant drop off in play at the QB position this year.
Does the new UCLA offense fit quarterback Josh Rosen’s skill set?
Josh Rosen is an NFL-caliber QB who started and played well as a freshman, throwing for 3671 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Bruins decided to change the offense this season to better cater to Rosen and new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu will be using the run more and will feature more two-back sets and plays from under center. The new offense should result in an increase in play-action passes for Rosen. In 2015 Rosen excelled on play-action passes completing 61.3 percent of them with 10 touchdowns and only one interception, so the new offense should fit Rosen’s skill-set well. Unfortunately, in the very first game of the season Rosen will be facing college football’s best defensive player in Texas A&M’s edge-rusher Myles Garrett.
Is Zach Banner the best tackle in college football?
Zach Banner has elite size for a tackle at a gigantic 6-9 and 350 pounds. He has two years of solid grades now and showed improvement from his 2014 to 2015 season which saw him only allow one sack, two hits and 6 hurries on 406 pass rush snaps. Banner’s 98.3 pass blocking efficiency rating in 2015 ranks No.1 among returning Power-5 offensive tackles. Banner is also a top-notch run blocker and his +15.6 run blocking grade ranks No. 5 among returning Power-5 offensive tackles. Look for Banner to have another stellar campaign and be a top prospect for the 2017 NFL draft.
Will the Apple Cup determine the Pac-12 North winner?
Stanford is the returning Pac-12 champ but both Washington and Washington State are talented teams that have easier out-of-division and out-of-conference games than Stanford, and both teams are returning their starting quarterbacks who are coming off of big years. Falk (69.1) and Browning’s (66.7) adjusted completion percentages under pressure rank No.1 and No. 2, respectively, among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. It is entirely possible that one or both of these teams could emerge in the Apple Cup with better records than Stanford making the Apple Cup a de facto Pac-12 North championship game.
Does Oregon have the best tight end group in the country?
The Oregon Ducks’ tight end group features three players that have NFL-ability in Evan Baylis, Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown. Baylis and Mundt’s run blocking grades rank No. 5 and No. 7, respectively, among returning Power-5 tight ends. Baylis ranks No. 2 in slot performance among returning Power-5 tight ends. Pharaoh Brown who missed 2015 season due to injury ranked No. 4 among all FBS tight ends in slot performance in 2014. With the Ducks’ quarterback situation in flux they will be relying more on the tight ends to produce than they have in the past. Look for the Ducks to feature more two-tight end personnel groupings in 2016 in an effort to get two of these talented players on the field together.
Last season Christian McCaffrey was our choice for the Heisman winner but finished second to Alabama’s Derrick Henry. While Henry had a stellar 2015 season, some analysts feel that McCaffrey should have won the award but a number of votes actually came in before all the games were played, rendering McCaffrey’s monster Rose Bowl performance mute. McCaffrey will likely not be relied upon as heavily in 2015 as he was in 2016 and therefore shouldn’t reproduce his record-breaking season. However, McCaffrey is still the best pass-catching running back, the best running back, and the best player in college football and should firmly be in Heisman contention with another season close to his 2015 campaign.
Can Max Browne or Sam Darnold lead the Trojans past Alabama in Week 1?
Both USC and Alabama will feature new starting quarterbacks in 2016 and should expect some difficulty early in the season and especially in Week 1. However, Alabama is so loaded on defense that it should present the Trojans’ offense with their most difficult test of the season. Alabama has a distinct pass-rushing edge on the Trojans as Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson pass rush productivity ratings both ranked in the top-5 among 3-4 outside linebackers last season. The Alabama defensive line is once again stocked with talented players and their secondary with talented players like Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson ranked as our best secondary unit in the country. The Alabama defense will make it a long game for whichever USC quarterback gets the start and should help the Tide win this big Week 1 matchup.
Historically, the Mike Leach Cougars’ offense has thrown the ball a ton. In 2014 then-starter Conner Halliday completed 350 of 526 passes for 3,840 yards 32 touchdowns when healthy. In 2015 Luke Falk completed 447 of 649 passes (68.9 percent) for 4,580 yards and 38 touchdowns. In 2016 Falk is joined once again by talented weapons like wide receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Falk is going into his second full season as a starter and third with Coach Leach so it is highly probable that Luke Falk throws for over 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns once again in 2016.
Can Stanford survive a quarterback change and still win the Pac-12 North?
Stanford is returning a talented conference-winning team but did lose their veteran starting quarterback Kevin Hogan to the draft. The two quarterbacks competing for the spot Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are both veterans of the program but just short on actual game time with Chryst only attempting eight passes in 2015 and Burns none. Unfortunately, in the first month of the 2016 season while the new starting quarterback is getting his early game experience and Stanford’ offense is adjusting to their new signal caller, they play three very difficult conference games against USC, UCLA and Washington. Later they also have an out-of-conference game against talented Notre Dame. The strength of schedule and the fact that it is front-loaded with so many difficult games could easily keep Stanford from winning the Pac-12 North.
Can Baylor’s offense play at the same level it did without former coach Art Briles?
Baylor has had one of the best offenses in the country seemingly almost every year since Briles took over as coach. Now that he’s gone, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to be as effective as before. The main reason for optimism is that they still have QB Seth Russell. Under Russell the Baylor offense thrives, averaging over 63 points and 600 yards per game. Russell has an overall grade of +27.3 in his eight starts for Baylor. If he can stay healthy, this Bears’ offense should be able to find success next year even without Briles as the coach.
It’s no secret that Oklahoma’s success this year will hinge on the play of QB Baker Mayfield. Last season he led the team to the College Football Playoff, before a tough outing cost them in the semi-finals. No returning quarterback in all of college football had a higher grade last season than Mayfield’s +49.6. His 77.2 adjusted completion percentage ranks third among returning quarterbacks and his 12 touchdowns thrown while under pressure ranks second. If he falters then Oklahoma could be on the outside looking in come playoff time. But if he can improve on last year, he just might play his way to a Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
Can Oklahoma State’s offense be even better this year?
Oklahoma State returns nearly their entire offense from last season and if they can improve like they’re expected to with another offseason of growth, this could be a scary team. QB Mason Rudolph has our highest passing grade among returning QBs at +43.5 and he split time at the position last season. WRs James Washington and Marcell Ateman are back with a combined grade of +19.1 last season. The running back trio of Chris Carson, Rennie Childs and Raymond Taylor had a combined +14.7 rushing grade last season. The biggest question becomes the offensive line. All five starters are back, but they weren’t exactly good last year. If they can improve to even just average, this offense could be the best in the nation.
Who will start at QB for Texas?
Based on the play of their returning players, the Texas defense shouldn’t be a huge problem this year for them. They have two fantastic running backs in D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III. They have a solid offensive line. The single biggest question mark for the Longhorns is their passing game. While both QBs Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard were impressive runners, neither had a positive passing grade, with Swoopes well in the negative. The wild card here is freshman QB Shane Buechele. He’s been impressing in the spring and if he can bring an above-average pocket passing game to the Longhorns, their offense could catch up to the rest of the Big 12 in 2016.
Will TCU be able to overcome the loss of Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson?
It’s hard for any team to lose their starting quarterback and best receiver. But when they are at the level that Boykin and Docston were, it’s almost impossible to completely replace them. However the Horned Frogs are in a good position to continue to find success without them. Much of their defense returns, including a secondary led by safety Denzel Johnson that should be the best in the entire Big 12. Offensively they have transfer QB Kenny Hill likely taking over and he showed he could be successful in limited starts for Texas A&M in 2014. While not at Boykin’s level he can still be an effective replacement for the Horned Frogs this season.
Can Patrick Mahomes take the next step and make Texas Tech a competitive team?
Texas Tech had one of the most exciting and effective offenses in the Big 12 last season and it was largely thanks to the play of QB Patrick Mahomes. He graded out at +4.5 in the passing game which, while not bad, needs to improve to compete with the top QBs in his conference. But what Mahomes can already do is make plays with his legs. Not just scrambling and running (although his +9.8 rushing grade is fantastic) but extending passing plays. Mahomes was sacked on just 11.7 percent of his pressured snaps, one of the best marks in the NCAA. He also threw 13 touchdowns under pressure, more than any other returning QB.
Can West Virginia’s defense do enough to push them to the top of the Big 12?
West Virginia will see QB Skyler Howard and a few strong offensive linemen like C Tyler Orlosky return on the offense but it should be their defense that leads this squad. The Mountaineers have 10 returning defenders who graded above +1.0 last season. They’re led by DE Noble Nwachukwu and his team-leading +16.3 grade. But he’s not alone up front as his opposite DE Christian Brown had a nearly just-as-good run defense grade. The secondary is extremely strong and led by safeties Dravon Askew-Henry and Jeremy Tyler, who combined for a +17.8 overall grade last season.
How can Kansas State return to their 2014 level of success?
Kansas State struggled last season after finishing third in the conference just a year earlier. Offensively they had a strong run game but the passing game lacked. On defense they had plenty of below-average players, especially at their linebacker position. If they’re going to succeed offensively it’ll start with QB Joe Hubener. His -10.5 passing grade last year was second-lowest in the Big 12 and needs to be better for the Wildcats. Defensively they’ll be led by defensive linemen Will Geary and Jordan Willis, who’s combined +53.8 overall grade makes them one of the best returning line duos in all of the NCAA.
Can Clemson generate a pass rush?
The Tigers lost 1,849 snaps from defensive lineman to the NFL. Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson and DJ Reader combined for a +49.8 pass rush grade last season. Only one returning lineman graded positively getting after the quarterback in 2015 (minimum 200 snaps). The edge rushing unit consists predominantly in freshman and sophomores. True sophomore Austin Bryant led the returners with 235 snaps a season ago. He produced a solid +3.8 grade, but remains an unknown as an every-down player. Otherwise, only redshirt sophomore Richard Yeargin managed any snaps at all (145). Much will depend on the contributions of redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell and redshirt sophomore Chris Register. As good as Clemson’s offense might be in 2016, the defense could struggle.
Can Sean Maguire lead Florida State?
For all his flaws, Everett Golson played pretty well for Florida State last season. Perhaps an off-the-field incident led to his benching in favour of Sean Maguire, but the new signal caller failed to improve the Seminoles’ fortunes. He earned a -4.8 overall grade last season, including a -3.5 grade as a passer. Maguire completed just 58.6 percent of passes with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Maguire has struggled under pressure in particular, earning a 63.1 QB rating and -3.0 passing grade when disrupted in the pocket. The Seminoles’ defense is talented enough for a championship push (see below), but will the offense match those high standards?
Can BC’s OL keep their QB upright?
The quarterback position remains the key area in need of remedy at Boston College, but the passing game will be consistently hampered until the offensive line improves. Describing the performance of the Eagles’ front five in 2015 as terrible might be putting it kindly. The right side of their line (including the center) struggled in particular. Boston College’s starting trio of Jon Baker, Chris Lindstrom and Aaron Monteiro combined for a –26.4 pass protection grade. They allowed six sacks, eight hits and 35 hurries between them. The projection on the left side is much more ambiguous. LG Jim Cashman was slightly below average in 293 snaps a year ago, while left tackle Jimmy Lowery transferred from Eastern Illinois. Boston College’s defense is consistently effective, but the offensive ineptitude has held them back the past few years.
Will Thomas Sirk emerge as a legitimate passer?
Sirk first saw the field for Duke as a short yardage and goal line running threat. He may have been lined up behind the center but, short of a jump pass here or there, he was used to punish defenders between the tackles. That works as a gimmick, but is not sustainable over the long-term. Sirk’s disproportionately more threatening as a runner (where he posted a +7.3 grade) than as a passer (+0.9 grade). He simply lacks the consistency of accuracy required of a dropback quarterback, hitting the mark on just 68.8 percent of attempts last season (55th in the FBS). Sirk also made too many mistakes, tossing eight interceptions a season ago. A pre-season injury to their starting quarterback won’t help a Duke program reliant on Sirk becoming a genuine dual-threat quarterback.
Can Georgia Tech maximise their playmakers’ production?
The Yellow Jackets’ ensured all of their playmakers stayed involved last season. Although the offense functioned poorly when trailing in games – an inherent deficiency of the triple option – Georgia Tech spread the football around effectively. A backfield involving Clinton Lynch, Marcus Marshall, Justin Thomas and Isiah Willis combined for 16 touchdowns, 48 broken tackles and a +13.6 rushing grade. Leading receiver Ricky Jeune was not found consistently (catching just 24 of 57 attempts), but made the most of accurate targets, amassing 520 yards with four touchdowns. He also broke five tackles, earning a +6.3 receiving grade. Georgia Tech’s ball-carriers offer promise of an exciting campaign.
Can Al-Quadin Muhammad live up to his potential?
Physically, Muhammad possesses all the traits to become a dominant pass rusher. Assuming his technical development continues apace, he will prove a terror off the edge next season. In 2015, Muhammad earned a +15.8 overall grade, balancing his impact as a run defender and pass rusher. He racked up five sacks, seven hits and 29 hurries, culminating in a +8.8 grade, attacking off the edge a season ago. The numbers are solid but unspectacular. He also impressed against the run, managing 29 stops and a +8.2 grade. Muhammad could improve as a tackler, after missing ten of 54 attempted last season, but looks on course to become a complete edge defender.
Who starts at quarterback?
Notre Dame can’t really go wrong here as both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer have proven they should be starting quarterbacks at a high level program. The decision though will have a huge impact on not only the upcoming season, but future ones as well as the loser of the competition may very well transfer out. I already went in-depth on why the grading points to Zaire as the choice, though we’ve received no indication either way out of Notre Dame as of yet.
Who can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
It was their downfall last season and again looks like their biggest weakness heading into 2016. Adding fuel to the concerns is the fact that they lose easily their highest-graded pass-rusher in Sheldon Day (+31.3 a year ago). The next highest-graded player in terms of pass rush on the defensive line? Isaac Rochell at +3.9. Yikes. Jarron Jones return will add some push from the interior, but Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage, and Jonathan Bonner all graded negatively a year ago (Jay Hayes didn’t see a single snap).
Group of 5
Can Corey Davis emerge as the nation’s top wide receiver?
Although Davis ranked in the top 10 in overall grades among wide receivers in 2014 and 2015 as well, he is still underrated due to the conference he plays in. The Western Michigan player finished last season with 137 targets, which was tied for sixth in college football. However, with the departure of fellow wide receiver Daniel Braverman, he could have an even bigger role in the Broncos offense this year. If he can repeat the past two seasons he should have an excellent chance to be the first wide receiver off the board in the 2017 NFL draft.
Who will be next year’s Paxton Lynch or Carson Wentz?
While it is nearly impossible to predict whether there will be any under-the-radar signal callers outside of the Power-5 selected in the first round of the 2017 draft, there are a couple possible candidates. Southern Miss’ Nick Mullens had the highest passing grade last year among returning quarterbacks; however, there is a degree of uncertainty around Mullens after losing his top two receivers in the offseason. Another intriguing option is Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel, who showed potential in limited playing time last season and could turn heads in 2016.
What is the ceiling for Houston?
The Cougars finished the 2015 season as the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five before upsetting Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Although they lost their top running back and wide receiver, as well as several key players on defense, Houston is still considered the Group of Five team with the highest potential. Obviously, the main reasons for this are Greg Ward Jr., one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the nation, and Tom Herman, the Co-Coach of the Year in the American Conference last year. The Cougars’ first game of the season will reveal a lot when they face the Oklahoma Sooners led by Baker Mayfield.