Top 25 college football teams for 2016: Preseason edition
It’s time. Summer barbecues are winding down and the leaves will change colors soon, and pumpkin spice lattes will be back at Starbucks in no time. In fact, Octoberfest beer is already hitting the shelves and if there’s a rite of passage to college football falls, that may be it.
But enough scene-setting, it’s college football time and there’s no better way to kick it off than a healthy August debate about the best teams in the land. The college game holds a unique position when compared to the NFL as the best teams are often the ones hitting their stride in recruiting while pairing it with a little luck if they can hold off attrition to the NFL and graduation.
The top 25 is generally a good mix of teams with a lot of returning talent or teams returning one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. The teams that can do both are way ahead of the pack, but there are few teams in that boat this season. Here’s a look at the PFF College preseason top 25.
[Editor’s note: This is an update to our Top 25: Spring edition, which was published three months ago. In our new ranking, you’ll find surges from North Carolina and Washington State, drops from Stanford and Baylor — and a complete slip out of the 25 by Auburn.]
It may sound cliché at this point to put Alabama at the top, but even with their usual plethora of talent heading to the NFL, they still have plenty of top players coming back. Even though they’ve lost 5,079 defensive snaps to the NFL, they return eight players in their front-seven who played at least 180 snaps and graded positively, including two pass-rush forces in DT Jonathan Allen and the nation’s most efficient snap-for-snap pass rusher in OLB Tim Williams. Offensively, they have to reload at quarterback with either Cooper Bateman or former Elite 11 champion Blake Barnett, but with most of their receiving talent and three starters on the offensive line coming back, they will be right in the mix for the National Championship once again.
If QB Baker Mayfield plays at a similar level as last season, Oklahoma is a legitimate title contender. Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman voting and perhaps should have been higher, and even with WR Sterling Shepard moving on to the NFL, Mayfield can lead Oklahoma’s offense to a Big 12 championship and beyond. Defensively, Charles Walker anchors the defensive line while LB Jordan Evans and SS Steven Parker emerged as quality players last season. The Sooners’ chances may hinge on Mayfield, but the nation’s top-graded returning quarterback has shown that he is up to the task.
LSU had a great start to 2015 before a disastrous November, but it might have been a year early to discuss them as part of the national title picture. With RB Leonard Fournette leading a number of junior skill position players (QB Brandon Harris and WR Malachi Dupre) combined with young playmakers on defense, this could be LSU’s year to make a run. The defense loses only LB Deion Jones and S/CB Jalen Mills to the NFL while the offense returns all but two starters (OTs Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins).
Few teams have sent as much defensive talent to the NFL over the last two years, but Clemson survived that attrition a year ago and they’ll be faced with a similar task in 2016. Their top playmakers at every level are moving on, including DEs Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd as well as CB Mackensie Alexander, but with Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson returning at quarterback, the Tigers will be in every game. He was the nation’s top quarterback from Week 9 to the end of the season, and he heads into 2016 as the top prospect for the NFL draft. Watson’s continued development will have Clemson in the title discussion, especially with the majority of his surrounding offensive talent returning.
It’s all about the defense at Michigan, as they’re poised to be one of the nation’s best. They return the nation’s top-graded cornerback in Jourdan Lewis as well as two of the top three graded interior defensive linemen in Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst. It will be on the offense to find a way to score points, but the majority of the offense returns and the results of their wide-open QB race – led by Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn – will determine just how far this Michigan team will go.
- Florida State
Years of strong recruiting has kept the talent flowing in Tallahassee, led by perhaps the nation’s best all-around defensive player, Derwin James. The defensive line returns DeMarcus Walker, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi, who all showed well a year ago, while the offense is led by the nation’s most dynamic running back in Dalvin Cook. Like Michigan, it will be all about the quarterback position for the Seminoles, as Sean Maguire (-4.8 in 2015) battles redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, but it looks like Francois is the leader in the clubhouse. The last time Florida State started a redshirt freshman on a talented team, Jameis Winston led them to the national championship in 2013.
After monster recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015, this was always supposed to be Tennessee’s year to shine. Only two FBS teams return more snaps to both sides of the ball, led by QB Joshua Dobbs and All-American DE Derek Barnett. With Dobbs in the backfield with RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Tennessee will have one of the nation’s most dangerous running attacks, even behind an offensive line that has struggled the last two years. If they show even moderate improvement, watch out for Tennessee this season.
Speaking of top recruiting classes, Ole Miss has turned the program around in recent years, and even with three first-round picks moving on, they return talent all over the roster. QB Chad Kelly was one of the nation’s best quarterbacks down the stretch last season and continued development will put Ole Miss right there with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. Defensively, Ole Miss returns four defensive linemen who played at least 400 snaps with positive grades so they should be strong in the trenches once again.
Losing 6,531 defensive snaps and 6,575 offensive snaps to the NFL is no easy task to replace, but Ohio State continues to bring in strong recruiting classes and their roster has plenty of promising players ready to take a step forward. QB J.T. Barrett continues to progress while defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard will become better-known as the year goes on. LB Raekwon McMillan is a first-round candidate as well and while there may be some growing pains, Ohio State still has enough left to be a top-10 team in 2016.
With 68 percent of snaps returning on both sides of the ball, North Carolina has a chance to do a lot of damage in the ACC, even with QB Marquise Williams graduating. There are plenty of playmakers at wide receiver between Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, while the offensive line loses only one starter in guard Landon Turner. RB Elijah Hood is one of the many top-notch running backs sprinkled around the nation. Defensively, they lose five players who played at least 600 snaps, but none of them stood out from a performance standpoint. DTs Nazair Jones and Jeremiah Clarke are poised to become stars, while CB M.J. Stewart emerged as one of the best players on the defense a year ago.
- Notre Dame
A quarterback battle will be the story heading into the fall, as both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire have performed well in their young careers; regardless of who wins, the Irish should be in good hands. They’ve lost some talent along the offensive line, and WR Will Fuller’s big-play ability will be difficult to replace, but there are solid options in both spots. The defense might have a harder time replacing the second-graded interior defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, or the seventh-graded linebacker, Jaylon Smith, so look for the offense to be forced to carry the defense in a number of games next season.
Oklahoma State will boast one of the most explosive offenses in the nation behind QB Mason Rudolph and a plethora of skilled receivers. They return 86 percent of offensive snaps, more than enough to carry a defense that lacks established stars. Keep an eye on DT Vincent Taylor and CB Ashton Lampkin to emerge as the best players on a defense that merely has to hold the fort for a high-powered offense.
There will be some concerns for Stanford heading into 2016, as the offense replaces three offensive line starters and QB Kevin Hogan moves on to the NFL, but RB Christian McCaffrey is still here to carry the offense and ease the transition to a new signal caller. McCaffrey was the nation’s best player a year ago and the early favorite for the Heisman. Defensively, DE Solomon Thomas is the top returner on a unit that loses half of its snaps to graduation and the NFL and they’ll have to pick up the slack if Stanford is to make a run in the Pac-12.
The offense returns important playmakers in RB Jeremy McNichols (+26.9) and WR Thomas Sperbeck (+21.3), as well as true sophomore Brett Rypien, who was one of the nation’s best freshmen a year ago. The defense has a lot more to replace, but there are still 10 players who played at least 200 snaps and posted positive grades a year ago, so look for Boise to make their annual run at crashing the party at the top of the polls.
With one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in Greg Ward, Houston will be difficult to defend, even with WR Demarcus Ayers and RB Kenneth Farrow moving on. The defense loses quite a bit of talent as well, including first round CB William Jackson III, but LB Steven Taylor was a force getting after the quarterback a year ago and LB Tyus Bowser was a strong complement.
With a number of good young playmakers on defense, Washington may be a dark-horse contender for the CFB Playoff. Safety Budda Baker, DT Elijah Qualls and CB Sidney Jones will be well known around the nation in 2016, while last year’s super freshmen – QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin – will carry the offense. There’s a fear that we’re pushing Washington a year early, and a deep Pac-12 may make it difficult for them to make a playoff run, but the talent is there on both sides of the ball.
Off-field issues have been the story at Baylor this offseason so that will be a wild card for their on-field performance this year. From a scheme perspective, we’ve seen Baylor’s offense reload and remain explosive as long as the quarterback can throw the deep ball and, Seth Russell should be just fine. Defensively, they lose big-time players like DT Andrew Billings and CB Xavien Howard, but they return 57 percent of their snaps and including one of the nation’s best linebackers in Taylor Young.
- Washington State
Head coach Mike Leach has done a fine job of turning around the Washington State program and with QB Luke Falk’s emergence, they can do plenty of damage in the Pac-12. WR Gabe Marks is his top option in the receiving game, while DE Hercules Mata’afa leads a defense that returns 60 percent of snaps from a year ago.
It will be difficult to replace QB Trevone Boykin and first-round WR Josh Doctson, but incoming QB Kenny Hill played well at Texas A&M in 2014 and his emergence will be key to TCU’s run in the Big 12. With 72 percent of defensive snaps returning, the Horned Frogs will rely on players like S Denzel Johnson (+17.2).
They might not post the same record as last season, but Iowa returns a solid quarterback in C.J. Beathard and perhaps the nation’s top cornerback in Desmond King. The defense has 72 percent of its snaps returning, so expect progress on that side of the ball.
Another year of reloading at Oregon, but they’re in good hands with RB Royce Freeman and the return of TE Pharaoh Brown, who missed 2015 due to injury. Replacing first-round DE DeForest Buckner will be the biggest issue defensively and they may struggle on that side of the ball, but Oregon is hoping another dive into the FCS quarterback market with Dakota Prukop will prove as effective as last year’s addition of Vernon Adams.
Last season, Utah had eight defensive linemen play at least 150 snaps while grading at +10.0 or above, and six of them return for 2016. They will set the tone for the defense as the offense looks to replace QB Travis Wilson and RB Devontae Booker. Isaac Asiata and J.J. Dielman anchor the offensive line.
Even with the offseason drama surrounding their quarterback situation, Texas A&M might surprise some people in 2016, as former Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight tries to build on the flashes of brilliance he showed at times in Norman. Future top-five pick Myles Garrett leads the defense along a line that improved greatly over 2014 and returns four players with at least 390 snaps and positive grades.
True sophomore QB Josh Rosen was excellent as a freshman, and he’s expected to take great strides in a new system in 2016. The defense continues to reload up front as DE Takkarist McKinley is poised to break out and NT Eddie Vanderdoes returns from injury after only 32 snaps in 2015. OLB Deon Hollins adds an explosive pass rush threat despite his 216-pound frame.
Only six Power-5 teams return more snaps than Louisville, and they lead all Power-5 teams with 91 percent of snaps returning on the offensive side of the ball. True sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson flashed his potential last season, showing well as a run threat while dealing with the common passing inconsistencies of true freshmen. If he takes a step forward this year, Louisville will be a dangerous team. The defense returns two PFF College 101 players in OLB Devonte Fields and DT DaAngelo Brown.