Super Early Top 25 Preseason Poll for 2016 College Football Season

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2016

Super Early Top 25 Preseason Poll for 2016 College Football Season

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    The 2015-16 college football season is officially in the rearview mirror. So, what do you do now? Stare longingly out a window for eight months? Pick up a couple of new avocations? Re-watch highlights on YouTube all day?

    There's no wrong answer, but you can also take a blindfold and start throwing darts at a board to project next year's Top 25. That's what we're doing.

    (Kidding. This is a touch more scientific than that.)  

    After all, it's never too early to look ahead. Otherwise, what else would we talk about in the offseason?

    As with every way-too-early Top 25, this is not a projection of how teams will finish the season or their path to the College Football Playoff/national championship in 2016. On the contrary, it's a ranking of the teams right now heading into the offseason based on who's coming back from a coaching and personnel standpoint. 

    With that said, take a gander at B/R's official way-too-early poll and sound off in the comment section below. Then, you can go back to looking out your window. 

25. Miami (Florida)

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    Let's get this rolling with Mark Richt's new team, Miami. It still feels weird seeing Richt throw up "The U," but perhaps the longtime Georgia coach is finally the man to take the Hurricanes to the ACC Championship Game. 

    He definitely inherits a superb offense. Quarterback Brad Kaaya will be a junior, as will 1,000-yard rusher Joseph Yearby. The entire offensive line returns as well. The key will be rebuilding the secondary, which loses its starting four players. 

    However, this might be a perfect match for Richt and The U. Things were getting complacent at Georgia, and the Bulldogs weren't winning the big games. Perhaps some new scenery and returning to the ol' alma mater will do wonders for Richt. Bringing defensive coordinator Manny Diaz from Mississippi State is a splash hire as well. 

24. Oregon

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    For the second year in a row, Oregon will test the grad-transfer waters with former Montana State signal-caller Dakota Prukop. The Ducks had a lot of success with another FCS transfer—Vernon Adams Jr.—and expectations are high for Prukop as well. 

    However, if Oregon wants to get back to the Pac-12 Championship Game, it has to improve on defense. The pass D was dreadful, and Don Pellum was demoted from defensive coordinator to linebackers coach. But the woes don't stop there; the Ducks have to replace practically their entire defensive front seven, including defensive end DeForest Buckner. 

    Even if Prukop thrives alongside running back Royce Freeman, the O-line needs to replace three starters, and there are simply a lot of questions about this team. Still, Oregon guarantees to be exciting once again thanks to a plethora of skill players. 

23. Washington State

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    If you've recently come out of a coma, have absolutely no ties to a college football program and are looking to adopt one Premier League style, may we recommend Washington State. This team projects to be all kinds of fun. You're going to see a ton of offense and even more late-night shootouts. 

    Quarterback Luke Falk is one of the more underrated quarterbacks nationally. This past season, he threw for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns. He'll have most of his skill players around him back for another year, including his favorite target, receiver Gabe Marks. 

    If the Cougars can be even adequate on defense, this is a team that could improve on its nine-win mark from this year. Most of the defensive front will have to be replaced, however. 

22. TCU

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    TCU needed a miracle of all miracles to come back and beat Oregon in the Alamo Bowl without quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson. The fact that the Frogs did come back to win 47-41 in overtime says everything about head coach Gary Patterson. 

    Patterson is going to have his work cut out for him again in 2016, however. The offense will have a mostly new look to it. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill should be the early favorite to succeed Boykin, but most of the O-line has to be replaced. The good news is utility player KaVontae Turpin will be back. 

    Despite an unfair number of injuries this past year, the TCU defense should be back to its normal self in '16. Defensive end Josh Carraway will be back along with a young but talented linebacker group that had to grow up quickly. 

21. Georgia

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    First-year head coach Kirby Smart is a wild card, but he inherits a lot of talent at Georgia.

    The question will be how quickly players adapt to new schemes and how easily new starters in the trenches get acclimated. Running back Nick Chubb will be back, so the staple of the offense will be in place. However, where does Georgia turn at quarterback? Will touted incoming freshman Jacob Eason get the nod, or will Smart go with a more veteran player?

    On defense, nearly the entire starting defensive front seven has to be rebuilt. That could be problematic at first, but young players such as Trenton Thompson will be stars before too long. 

20. Oklahoma State

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    For the second year in a row, Oklahoma State will act as the Big 12 dark-horse title contender. Can the Cowboys finish better than they did in 2015?

    Head coach Mike Gundy is criminally underrated nationally, and two years ago, he broke in basically a brand-new team. Now, that team is loaded with veterans with tons of starting experience. Ultimately, there are two major question marks for the Pokes: the running game, as Jake Trotter of ESPN.com noted, and the pass rush. 

    In 2015, Oklahoma State ranked ninth in rushing offense. “If we don't improve in the running game, we won't win 10 games next year," Gundy said via Kyle Fredrickson of the Oklahoman.

    Additionally, Oklahoma State loses its top pass-rusher, Emmanuel Ogbah, who led the team with 13 sacks. If the Pokes can improve even marginally in the run game—quarterback J.W. Walsh has graduated—while picking up the slack in pass rush, they'll be more formidable in the Big 12 title race than many think. 

19. Iowa

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    The dream season for Iowa ended in the Big Ten championship against Michigan State, and Stanford embarrassed the Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl. All in all, though, head coach Kirk Ferentz did an outstanding job. 

    The core of Iowa's '15 team returns, which is good news for a program that wants to get back to the Big Ten title. Quarterback C.J. Beathard could emerge as one of the conference's best, and running back LeShun Daniels Jr. is ready to be the full-time back with Jordan Canzeri moving on. 

    Defensively, a stout group comes back mostly intact, aided largely by the return of Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King. If Iowa was able to win 12 regular-season games last year with most of this group, there's no reason to think this team can't win at least 10 games again. 

18. USC

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    When you know USC is talented but don't know what to fully think of it, putting the Trojans at No. 18 seems about right. It respects the talent but doesn't make too much of it. 

    First-year full-time head coach Clay Helton didn't exactly get off to a great start after having the interim tag removed from his title—USC lost to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship and Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl—but he deserves a chance to get his own assistants lined up and put his stamp on the program.  

    There are major losses, including quarterback Cody Kessler and linebacker Su'a Cravens. In fact, the defensive front seven will have a new look overall. But, at a place such as USC, there are more than enough players ready to step up. Do-it-all weapon Adoree' Jackson will be back, and linebacker Cameron Smith is already crushing it as a freshman. 

    The offense should be fine, however. Max Browne is the likely candidate to replace Kessler. At Browne's disposal will be a veteran offensive line, running back Ronald Jones II and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

    Now, can USC play up to the potential?

17. Washington

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    Every year, there's an offseason Power Five team du jour that pundits/hacks think will make big strides the following season. Typically, this team has a lot of returning starters, a dash of potential and a solid head coach on the sidelines. 

    The Washington Huskies fit that bill. (So, with all apologies to Washington's fanbase, that probably means I've jinxed them. Sorry, everybody.)

    In all seriousness, head coach Chris Petersen probably did a better job in year two, going 7-6 with an extremely young team, than he did in year one. Out of all the losses, only one (versus Stanford) was ever truly out of hand. The key moving forward will be avoiding slow starts. That was a major problem. 

    There's some exciting talent on this team, though. Quarterback Jake Browning came on at the end of the season, and running back Myles Gaskin was an underrated freshman performer. 

16. Michigan State

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    Putting Michigan State at No. 16 might actually be giving the Spartans too much credit since almost the entire offense and half the defensive front seven have to be replaced. However, head coach Mark Dantonio has earned that credit. So, here we are. 

    The quarterback competition to replace Connor Cook will be under an intense microscope, but the offensive line is a bigger question mark overall. Jack Allen and Jack Conklin are gone. Additionally, the Spartans' best outside weapon, receiver Aaron Burbridge, was a senior. 

    It could be the defense that wins games for Michigan State in '16. Nose tackle Malik McDowell came into his own as a sophomore, and the secondary, once a liability, should be the strength. 

15. North Carolina

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    Total domination at the hands of Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl aside, North Carolina dramatically improved from 2014 to '15. Moving into next season, head coach Larry Fedora should be able to keep the Tar Heels rolling. 

    Quarterback Marquise Williams is gone, but backup Mitch Trubisky was outstanding in mop-up duty and should be able to slide right into the starting role. Most of the losses are on defense, which moved up the ACC thanks to defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, but the core of that unit returns. 

    With another wide-open year in the ACC Coastal Division, the Tar Heels should be early favorites to get back to their conference championship game. 

14. Louisville

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    You know the rules by now. Part of projecting the way-too-early Top 25 is ignoring schedules and how a team might finish at the end of the year. We're going to break that rule once, and only once, for Louisville. 

    Because, gosh almighty, the Cardinals could be in a real pickle. Nearly all of the starting 22 that won six of the team's last seven games return. However, Louisville gets Clemson and Florida State thanks to its alignment in the ACC Atlantic Division and Houston in nonconference play. 

    What we're saying is, it's entirely possible Louisville's record doesn't look that much better from 2015, yet the team itself could actually be significantly better. That's why the Cardinals are getting this much love in the way-too-early rankings. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is going to be a superstar, and the defense is loaded with returning players, including pass-rusher Devonte Fields and defensive back Josh Harvey-Clemons. 

    There are a lot of reasons to love Louisville in 2016, but that schedule features some brutal games. 

13. Houston

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    Houston did not begin the 2015 season ranked. After finishing 13-1 with a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl, rest assured that won't happen again in '16. The year of head coach Tom Herman is strong. 

    The Cougars lose some big pieces, most notably leading receiver Demarcus Ayers and cornerback William Jackson III. However, quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returns as one of the most electric playmakers in all of college football. If you're looking for a fun, outside-the-Power Five Heisman hopeful, Ward is your man. 

    Most of the defensive line returns, and if he honors his verbal commitment, there's no reason to think freshman Ed Oliver, a 5-star prospect according to 247Sports, won't get some playing time. 

    Can Houston hang with the big boys again? The Cougars get a chance right away with a Week 1 game against Oklahoma. 

12. Ole Miss

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    If there was ever a year in which Ole Miss could have made a run at a national title, 2015 felt like that year. Still, the Rebels won 10 games and beat the ever-living daylights out of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. 

    There aren't many returning starters because the '15 Rebels were such a veteran-laden team, but quarterback Chad Kelly does come back. Kelly is big, can run, possesses a cannon of an arm and has seemingly put his troubled past behind him. As far as SEC signal-callers go, Kelly is arguably the best. 

    Ole Miss will be without three staples from the '13 recruiting class: receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Still, defensive back Tony Conner and tight end Evan Engram will be back to boost both sides of the ball. 

11. Ohio State

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    Head coach Urban Meyer is the man. B/R colleague Bryan Fischer correctly pointed out Meyer and Alabama coach Nick Saban are ruling college football at the moment, but even Meyer could have some setbacks in '16. 

    The Buckeyes are losing a whopping nine underclassmen to the NFL draft. While that says a lot about Meyer's ability to recruit NFL-caliber stars, it also means there will be years like this when turnover is glaring. The offensive line will have to be rebuilt, and the top receiving target, Michael Thomas, is gone. 

    There are some good pieces in place to start on defense. Edge-rusher Sam Hubbard and linebacker Raekwon McMillan are future stars. It just feels like the Buckeyes are finally in line for a setback. Of course, a setback for Ohio State probably still means nine or 10 wins. 

10. Notre Dame

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    Looking back, 2015 was probably Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's best coaching job. The Irish basically rolled with their C squad for most of the year and still won 10 games. 

    Some of the injuries and attrition that plagued the Irish this year should pay dividends in '16. Backups are more experienced, and a quarterback competition between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, the season-opening starter, should be compelling. 

    But, as usual with a place such as Notre Dame, other players will need to step up in the absence of guys such as offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley, defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and receiver Will Fuller. 

    There's a lot of potential with Kizer, running back Josh Adams and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Can Kelly take a new-look squad and rebuild it without much of a drop-off? That remains to be seen, but the talent, while not at a '15 level, should have fans excited. 

9. Stanford

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    When you have a player such as all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey returning, you're going to get some offseason love. Stanford has been a model of consistency under head coach David Shaw, and there's little reason to think the Cardinal won't contend for a Pac-12 championship next season. 

    Replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan will be the position battle to watch. Hogan isn't the pro prospect Andrew Luck was, but he drastically improved in his final year and was the leader of the team. However, the overall bigger rebuilding project will be up front along the offensive line, which will be missing Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett, among others. 

    The defense wasn't as stingy as previous years, and top tackler Blake Martinez is gone, but there's a lot of young talent ready to improve. The defensive line, led by stud Solomon Thomas, should be the cornerstone of that side of the ball. 

8. Baylor

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    We know this much about Baylor in 2016: The Bears are going to be exciting. For goodness' sakes, head coach Art Briles totally changed his offense for the final two games and tallied up 645 yards rushing against North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl. 

    Biletnikoff winner Corey Coleman will be gone, but Baylor churns out wide receivers without effort and KD Cannon should take the leap as the No. 1 guy on the outside. Additionally, quarterback Seth Russell will be back and healthy. 

    The concern about Baylor is what made this team so special this year: the trenches. The Bears were so physical up front. A good chunk of the starting offensive and defensive lines will be gone. That's not to say Baylor can't reload, but that process usually isn't as easy as it's made out to be. That'll be be the area to watch. 

7. Tennessee

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    Oh, boy. Here it comes. I can already feel the torch mob forming and demanding to know why Tennessee, once again, is being overrated. 

    First of all, you can't use past seasons as a projection for how a team will do the following year. This whole Top 25 is a look toward the future—not an homage to the past four months. 

    Second, the Volunteers are s-t-a-c-k-e-d. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd, defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are just some of the names returning for what will now be an experienced and extremely talented group. Additionally, Tennessee upgraded its defensive coaching staff by bringing in Bob Shoop from Penn State. 

    Head coach Butch Jones has been building for a year like this. Tennessee actually came close to winning all its games in 2015, but blown leads were the theme. Finishing will be the key to the Vols' taking that long-awaited next step. Will Jones get it done? Who knows for sure, but the players are in place to make it happen. That much isn't up for debate. 

6. Michigan

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    Michigan is going to be scary good in the trenches in 2016. Though the Wolverines lose center Graham Glasgow, they return almost everyone else, and the defensive line is going to be up there among the best in college football thanks to returning players such as defensive end Chris Wormley. 

    The linebacker group will have to be completely replaced, but the secondary will be anchored by Jabrill Peppers. Offensively, Houston transfer John O'Korn feels like the early clubhouse leader to replace Jake Rudock. Head coach Jim Harbaugh worked wonders with the offense in '15. Rudock improved as the year went on, so imagine what that means for a guy who sat out a season to develop. 

    With powerful running back De'Veon Smith returning, Michigan's identity as a smashmouth football team should continue. 

5. LSU

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    Based on talent alone, LSU deserves top-five consideration. Superstar running back Leonard Fournette returns for what will likely be his final season in college. (On a separate note: Time, it flies.) If quarterback Brandon Harris continues to improve—he made some strides as a sophomore—then the offense should be more balanced. There's certainly talent at wide receiver. 

    The big offseason move was bringing in Dave Aranda from Wisconsin to coach the defense. The Badgers have consistently had one of the top defenses in college football over the last few years. Couple Aranda's X's and O's acumen with the talent in Baton Rouge, and there should be immediate results. If cornerback Tre'Davious White and linebacker Kendell Beckwith stay for another year, this should be one of the top units in the SEC. 

    "I don't how that will affect it overall, but I can tell you that both guys should consider the fact that this decision was one that will advance us in terms of scheme and technique," head coach Les Miles said (via Jeff Roser of the New Orleans Times-Picayune). 

4. Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma's quest for a national championship ended on a sour note thanks to a 37-17 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in the semifinals, but give some credit where it's due: Head coach Bob Stoops completely reinvented himself, and the results showed. The Sooners won yet another Big 12 title and had one of the top offense/defense combinations in college football. 

    There are two significant losses on offense: wide receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington. Otherwise, this group is loaded. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon—they're all back. The offensive line will be more experienced, and the wide receiver/tight end unit should develop some household names. 

    The defense suffers bigger losses. Gone are edge-rushers Eric Striker and Charles Tapper, plus linebacker Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez. Still, the secondary should be a strength with Jordan Thomas, Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas.

    This is a team primed and ready to compete for another Big 12 championship with a playoff spot on the line. 

3. Florida State

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    How good a job did head coach Jimbo Fisher do in 2015? Florida State was forced to rebuild in just about every imaginable area after losing a wealth of talent to the NFL—and the Seminoles still won 10 games. It doesn't matter how much raw talent a roster has; when you have to start over like that, growing pains are inevitable. 

    There are some losses on defense, namely defensive back Jalen Ramsey. However, the future is undeniably bright with players such as defensive end Josh Sweat and safety Derwin James, both of whom are just freshmen. 

    The key for Florida State moving forward will be the passing attack, which, despite being ranked fourth in the ACC, had its problems. The biggest was pass protection on long-developing plays. But the offensive line was terribly young and should be better in 2016. When given time, quarterback Sean Maguire has shown a knack for making big throws; he just needs to work on his decision-making. 

    The peak concern is the wide receiver group. Travis Rudolph showed flashes of getting open downfield, but overall this is a group that struggled with contested catches. 

    But with Florida State recruiting at a high level, all that's missing is the experience. The Seminoles got that in 2015. 

2. Clemson

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    Following the national championship loss to Alabama, I opined Clemson had the best chance—or, at the very least, was the safest bet—to win the national championship next year. That does not mean, however, the Tigers have to enter the preseason ranked No. 1. What creates caution from doing so is that a few key players who could declare for the NFL draft haven't yet, but whether they will remains to be seen. 

    Either way, the key piece, quarterback Deshaun Watson, is coming back. The sophomore has been described as "potentially transcendent" by writers such as Matt Hinton, and he's not wrong. Watson is a rare talent for the Clemson program. He progressed tremendously throughout the 2015 season. He'll have almost his entire offense returning around him. That's big news for a guy who led the ACC in total yards. 

    The defense is a bigger question mark with players such as defensive end Kevin Dodd declaring for the NFL draft, according to TigerNet.com's David Hood. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is also expected to leave. Still, this should not be the same type of overhaul Clemson had to make from 2014 to '15. And if one (or both) of those aforementioned defenders returns, head coach Dabo Swinney could have a defense rivaling the '14 group. 

1. Alabama

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    To be clear, Alabama didn't get the top spot simply because it won the national championship. Each team is different from year to year; the concept of "being No. 1 until someone beats you" is misguided.

    The starting defensive front seven will basically be gone. The thing is, the Crimson Tide were so deep there—we're talking third-stringers making an impact deep—it's hard to imagine the next group of standouts not stepping right in and picking up the slack. If anything, how Alabama adjusts without defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who left to become the head coach at Georgia, will be the bigger change to watch. 

    Offensively, Alabama will be young in some key spots, including quarterback and running back. The successor to Jake Coker will be the critical position battle in the offseason, but running back (surprise!) should be in good hands with super freakish Bo Scarbrough

    As long as the Tide can run the ball, and there's not a reason in the world to think they won't be able to, then they should be fine. 

    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com