Predicting the Achilles' Heel of Every Projected Top 25 Team for 2016
Heading into the 2016 offseason, each Top 25 college football team has a shortcoming on the roster that can be considered the program's Achilles' heel.
Losses are hard enough to bear. However, dropping games because of a known weakness or particular individual struggle that wasn't addressed or overcome is even more painful.
Perhaps the necessary adjustments are made or breakout players emerge to fill the gaps during spring practice or fall camp, but these problems are expected to linger into the regular season.
Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval's "Super Early Top 25" was the ranking used to create the list.
The secondary is a bit of a concern—especially behind Corn Elder at cornerback—but Miami needs a strong year of development on the offensive line to compete in the ACC. Against Florida State and Clemson, for example, the Canes managed 73 yards on 48 carries.
Stacy Searels, who previously worked under head coach Mark Richt for four years at Georgia, is the unit's new leader. Searels only has two definite starters in center Nick Linder and right guard Danny Isidora.
Behind them, Miami will be looking for progression from Trevor Darling, Alex Gall, Kc McDermott and Sunny Odogwu. Tyree St. Louis, Bar Milo and Hunter Knighton may factor into the rotation, too.
Richt's style is to establish a running game, and the Hurricanes have two terrific backs in Joe Yearby and Mark Walton. They simply need more consistent blocking up front.
The common theme of top-tier defenses is a strong line. What happens when an awful defense no longer has its best weapon and a couple key pieces up front?
DeForest Buckner (10.5 sacks) is headed to the NFL. Mainstay Alex Balducci may do the same, while top reserve Tui Talia played his final college season.
Back to the drawing board the Ducks go.
Who of Jalen Jelks, T.J. Daniel, Rex Manu, Austin Maloata and a handful of freshmen—both redshirt and true—will fit Oregon's puzzle?
23. Washington State
If Washington State can improve defensively, Mike Leach's team will be better prepared to win the shootouts we know are coming.
But the Cougars were vulnerable against the run in 2015, and they must continue without Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo, Jeremiah Allison, Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio.
Hercules Mata'afa, Peyton Pelluer and the versatile Parker Henry compose a decent core, so Washington State isn't exactly in awful shape.
Building around those main pieces is the primary objective. Robert Barber, Daniel Ekuale, Logan Tago, Chandler Leniu and others need to solidify the front seven.
Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee are off to earn a paycheck, but TCU still has some promising receivers in KaVontae Turpin and Jarrison Stewart. What head coach Gary Patterson needs is a quarterback.
Yes, Kenny Hill figures to replace Trevone Boykin and should keep the Horned Frogs competitive.
However, inconsistency cost Hill his starting job at Texas A&M, ultimately leading to his transfer. With shootouts the norm in the Big 12, Hill cannot afford to repeat his former woes.
Co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Combie are facing a critical offseason of development.
The potential of Jim Chaney's wide-open offense should excite Bulldogs fans, but the to-be-named quarterback—perhaps 5-star Jacob Eason—will be scraping for weapons.
Malcolm Mitchell tallied 58 receptions, 865 yards and five touchdowns last season. Terry Godwin, the No. 2 receiver, had just 35 catches, 379 yards and two scores. Isaiah McKenzie's best contributions came on special teams.
But not every recruit is a plug-and-play prospect. Godwin, McKenzie and Reggie Davis must provide a more regular impact.
20. Oklahoma State
Though Oklahoma State was among the nation's best at sacking the quarterback last season, it helps when two players shoulder most of that load. Emmanuel Ogbah (13.0) and Jimmy Bean (5.5) notched nearly half of the 40 sacks.
Vincent Taylor had five last year, which is particularly impressive for an interior lineman. His job is more about disruption than numbers, however. The defensive ends are a different story.
Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford are the favorites to secede Ogbah and Bean, while Trey Carter and Cole Walterscheid should follow in the rotation. For OSU's sake, hopefully they're ready.
Since quarterback C.J. Beathard and leading wideout Matt VandeBerg return, Iowa has a respectable No. 1 connection. Iowa might survive the Big Ten and repeat as West Division champions, but the Hawkeyes will need to pass the ball eventually.
On the rare occasions the offense had to rely on a passing attack in 2015, it wasn't good enough.
Iowa may expect Jerminic Smith—who managed six catches for 141 yards and one touchdown last season—and potentially redshirt freshman Emmanuel Ogwo to provide the deep threat Tevaun Smith (32-563-3) was for Beathard.
The Hawkeyes don't need a receiving corps that has six standout players, but more than two is absolutely necessary.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will once again utilize a 5-2 base defensive alignment, but three departed starters won't make the transition easy.
USC shouldn't lack confidence, considering the staff recruited well over recent seasons. Kenny Bigelow, Noah Jefferson, Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin should slide into starting roles.
Similar to many other teams on the list, however, this is a "potential to production" matter.
Mental mistakes are certain to happen with the new system. The Trojans can ill afford problems in development, too.
Washington is shaping up to be the 2016 offseason's "Team the East Coast Didn't Know Was Actually Pretty Good." To officially earn that title, the Huskies need a breakout campaign from the wideouts.
Jaydon Mickens, a model of consistency over the last three seasons, exhausted his eligibility. Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius are the top returners, but Washington can't have just two decent receivers.
Although John Ross III might provide that spark if he successfully bounces back from a right knee injury, that's not a certainty. Maybe Isaiah Renfro takes the next step in his development.
Theoretically, the talent is there. Will results follow?
16. Michigan State
The Spartans should cobble together enough of an offensive line to protect their new quarterback, but that might not be the case for the receivers.
Aaron Burbridge racked up 85 catches for 1,278 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while Macgarrett Kings Jr. added 40 receptions, 519 yards and five scores. They combined to register at least half of the team's production in each category.
While R.J. Shelton grabbed 43 passes, he's the lone returning wideout who notched at least 10. That's not a good sign.
15. North Carolina
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the defense brings back a strong portion of its production. Unfortunately for UNC, a large chunk of the departed contributions are at linebacker.
Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer combined for 223 tackles—15 of which were for loss—and four interceptions.
Andre Smith and Cayson Collins have meaningful experience, but deep reserves like Cole Holcomb, Ayden Bonilla and Hunter Crafford do not.
Even with the impacts of Rashad and Schoettmer, North Carolina had the seventh-worst run defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year. The inexperienced unit has a steep hill to climb.
Louisville has other issues, but a combination of three concerns is the team's Achilles' heel in 2016.
The Cardinals need to ignore the temptation to shuffle through quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson is the best option. However, he doesn't fit Bobby Petrino's typical style. The head coach must adapt and commit to those changes.
If Petrino wavers in any fashion, though, Florida State (Sept. 17) and Clemson (Oct. 1) will end Louisville's hopes for a conference title run, let alone anything more.
Perfect harmony on offense is not easy to attain, but Jackson, Petrino and the Cards won't strike the proper tune without it.
Houston exploded during the first year of Tom Herman's tenure, but graduation blew a massive hole in the secondary.
William Jackson III, who is only an underrated draft prospect because of the logo on his helmet, is headed to the NFL. Veterans Adrian McDonald, Trevon Stewart and Lee Hightower each ran out eligibility.
Spring practice will almost bring a crop of completely new faces, since Brandon Wilson will miss the workouts after undergoing knee surgery. Wilson recorded 51 tackles for the Cougars in 2015.
Jeremy Winchester, Garrett Davis and Khalil Williams figure to play major roles. Terrell Williams and J.J. Dallas should compete for snaps, too. They were reserves or at a different school last season.
12. Ole Miss
The key loss on Ole Miss' offensive line is Laremy Tunsil, who might be selected No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL draft. But the Rebels also must replace Aaron Morris, Ben Still, Justin Bell and Fahn Cooper.
Robert Conyers and Rod Taylor are among the safer names to expect in the lineup, but they're recovering from a torn right ACL and a shoulder injury, respectively, and will miss the spring.
Javon Patterson, Sean Rawlings, Jordan Sims and Alex Givens should log plenty of action in practice, and Ole Miss needs that to translate in the fall. Otherwise, Chad Kelly scrambling will be a sight too often seen.
11. Ohio State
One of the many positional units the Buckeyes must reload is the secondary, which had Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell each declare for the NFL draft.
Gareon Conley returns, bringing his 49 tackles and two interceptions. Other than him, Ohio State has depth that needs to emerge.
Denzel Ward, Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore will compete to start opposite Conley. Malik Hooker, Erick Smith and Cam Burrows highlight a handful of names who will battle for two safety spots.
After throwing in a handful of freshmen, the Buckeyes have plenty of options. But are they ready? Or will the sheer mass of unproven young players result in too much experimentation?
10. Notre Dame
A new-look defense is coming to South Bend—especially at linebacker after the departures of Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt.
The expectation for the regular season is James Onwualu will lead the corps. But behind the senior, not much is clear. Plus, it'll be a while until Notre Dame has a healthy unit.
Greer Martini, Te'von Coney and 5-star signee Daelin Hayes are each nursing injuries during spring practice. In the meantime, Nyles Morgan and redshirt freshmen Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will receive valuable reps.
Piecing together a cohesive unit may be a challenge for the Irish.
From the trenches to the headsets, Stanford is experiencing a heap of change. Defensive line coach Randy Hart retired, while Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett exhausted their eligibility.
Solomon Thomas, who notched 49.0 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, will start. The rest of the unit is a mystery.
The Cardinal have obvious choices, but they don't come without questions. Harrison Phillips is working back from a torn ACL. Luke Kaumatule redshirted last in 2015. Fifth-year senior Jordan Watkins has yet to break into the rotation.
Stanford might be shuffling through its depth on the defensive line throughout the fall.
Baylor lost four starters on the offensive line, but Art Briles' fast-paced system gets the ball out quickly anyway.
Consequent to that scheme, rarely does a quarterback improvise for the Bears. The same cannot be said for opponents, however—especially in 2016.
Andrew Billings, Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer finished Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in sacks, and Beau Blackshear was a three-year starter. That's a lot of production and experience to replace.
Baylor will turn to Byron Bonds, K.J. Smith and Brian Nance, among others. From a way-too-early March perspective, most signs point to the Bears needing a high-scoring season from the offense.
Tennessee has a penchant for bad losses, and sometimes the blame doesn't stray far from the coaching staff.
Last season, the Vols coughed up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead at home to Oklahoma, failed to seal a road victory at Florida after multiple lapses and watched Alabama snatch a win in the closing minutes.
Perhaps the 2015 campaign allowed Butch Jones and Co. to shake out the ugly, but that's the eternal optimist's view.
A difficult four-week stretch starting vs. Florida on Sept. 24, then continuing at Georgia, at Texas A&M and home to Alabama, should provide what we need to know.
Quarterback and linebacker are the glaring holes for Michigan, but Jim Harbaugh's coaching and Don Brown's attack-minded defense may lessen those worries.
Run blocking, however, is a concern.
Four starters on the offensive line return, so the Wolverines have reason to be encouraged. Nevertheless, the unit trailed off as competition increased in 2015 before assembling its best performance of the season during the Citrus Bowl.
In order to compete for a Big Ten crown—let alone the national championship—the Maize and Blue must have a reliable ground game.
And so the story repeats.
Barring a surprising development, Brandon Harris will be LSU's quarterback next season. Barring a surprise development, the Tigers will be hamstrung by their quarterback.
Can he perform at a level high enough to compete with the likes of Alabama or any other defense that successfully contains Leonard Fournette? Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are superb receivers, but they're not miracle workers.
LSU's road to both the SEC title game and College Football Playoff runs through the Crimson Tide. Harris finished 6-of-19 for 128 yards against Bama last season.
To say that dreadful performance must not be duplicated is an understatement.
Sterling Shepard's production won't be matched, but the NFL-bound receiver is only one weapon.
The Sooners need to replace Eric Striker, Frank Shannon, Dominique Alexander and Devante Bond at linebacker. Each of the four players finished top 10 in tackles, combining for 260 total.
Jordan Evans could use some friends. Tay Evans, Curtis Bolton, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Ricky DeBerry and Caleb Kelly are among the names to watch, though none has significant experience.
Since Houston and Ohio State are on the September slate, the linebackers don't have much time to get comfortable.
3. Florida State
Thanks to 18 starters—including all 11 on offense—and a collection of top backups returning, there's a lot to like about the Seminoles in 2016. Let's nitpick!
Despite the departure of Jalen Ramsey, the secondary is in excellent shape. Plus, Florida State's defensive line should be terrific. Other than kicker, the position in the most trouble is linebacker.
Gone are Reggie Northrup (94 total tackles last season) and Terrance Smith (65 stops in nine games), but Ro'Derrick Hoskins is back. So, the Noles need potential to turn into production.
Watch for Matthew Thomas and Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane, as well as freshmen Josh Brown and Dontavious Jackson.
As is the case with most elite programs currently labeled "elite," Clemson doesn't have an overwhelming issue on the roster. Still, the secondary must replace three NFL-bound pieces.
Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green leave vacancies in the defensive backfield. Cordrea Tankersley is the lone returning starter.
Mark Fields, Jadar Johnson and Van Smith will likely secure No. 1 roles, while others like Korrin Wiggins, Kaleb Chalmers and Marcus Edmond will compete for snaps.
The question isn't whether the roster has the talent. Rather, it's how quickly the new players can excel to keep the Tigers atop the conference—and, subsequently, the nation.
Achilles injuries—while immensely painful—are only temporary. That figures to be the case for Alabama's quarterbacks in 2016, because we don't have much evidence for the contrary.
Still, the Crimson Tide will open fall camp wondering if Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell will hold down the starting nod or redshirt freshman Blake Barnett will leap the duo on the depth chart.
Nick Saban's squad doesn't kick off the season with tune-up games, though. Alabama will challenge USC and Ole Miss on Sept. 3 and 17, respectively, with Western Kentucky sandwiched between the showdowns.
Problems at quarterback likely won't linger, but the Tide could use a strong start under center.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.
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