Pre-Spring Practice 2016 Record Predictions for Top 25 College Football Teams

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystFebruary 22, 2016

Pre-Spring Practice 2016 Record Predictions for Top 25 College Football Teams

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    Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
    Clemson QB Deshaun WatsonRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Excluding the action already underway in the year-round warmth of Arizona, spring practices for top college football programs are right around the corner, ready to thaw the bitterly cold beginning to the long offseason.

    In the weeks to come, 2016 depth charts will start to come into focus, and possible breakout candidates will emerge on practice fields and in film rooms all across the country. It'll be brief, but fans everywhere will get a glimpse of what to expect when college football returns this fall.

    And as more spring camps start to get underway this week at schools such as Baylor, Clemson and Stanford, it's time for the first round of top-25 win-loss projections for the 2016 college football season.

    A lot can change between now and the opening kickoff of the season—from roster movement to injury woes. But right now, here are some regular-season record predictions based on how each team did in 2015, what it has coming back in 2016 and how the schedule looks this far in advance.

    In order to get a better handle on preseason polls instead of just relying on one opinion, I compiled a composite top 25 that averaged early projections from Bleacher ReportCBS SportsESPNFox SportsSports IllustratedUSA Today and Yahoo Sports. So, if you have a complaint with where a team is ranked, you can take it up with the majority of the national college football media.

    Of course, way-too-early win-loss projections like these are sure to spark some passionate responses. Give us your own predictions in the comments section below. 

25. UCLA

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    UCLA QB Josh Rosen
    UCLA QB Josh RosenThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 8-5

    2016 Returning Starters: 11 (four offense, seven defense)

    Last year, UCLA trusted true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen to lead an offense that was filled with returning experience. This year, Rosen will look like a veteran on the offense, as the Bruins must replace star running back Paul Perkins, three of their top four receivers and three linemen.

    The defense has more starters coming back, and the return of tackle Eddie Vanderdoes after an early-season injury will be a welcome sight. However, it also has to reload in spots without tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Myles Jack. Still, this unit ranked 28th in the nation in yards allowed per play last year, and it could be stronger in the second year under coordinator Tom Bradley's system.

    The front half of UCLA's schedule is tricky, with trips to Texas A&M and BYU in the first three weeks of the season, followed by a home game against defending conference champion Stanford. But after taking some possible lumps early, this Bruins team in transition could go on a run toward the Pac-12 South title, as it hosts both Utah and USC.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

24. Miami

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    Miami QB Brad Kaaya
    Miami QB Brad KaayaKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 8-5

    2016 Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, six defense)

    Head coach Mark Richt is stepping into a good situation at Miami after his dismissal from Georgia. His alma mater is in a wide-open ACC Coastal division and returns quite a bit of talent on both sides of the ball. 

    Brad Kaaya is entering his third season as the Hurricanes' starting quarterback and can be trusted to lead a stronger offense that returns Joseph Yearby, Mark Walton and every lineman that played meaningful minutes in 2015. The defense needs to rebuild in the secondary outside of senior corner Corn Elder, but the front seven has a great mix of young and old talent that responded well in the second half of last season.

    Miami should be able to gain some momentum in September before hitting a tough October that contains matchups against Florida State, North Carolina, at Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame. November looks better, though, so don't be shocked if the Hurricanes hit the postseason looking for win No. 10 under Richt.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

23. Georgia

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    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 14 (eight offense, six defense)

    Georgia is ultra-talented and transitioning in 2016 after hiring Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt. A healthy Nick Chubb is one of the toughest players to stop in college football, but the Bulldogs have a giant question mark in their passing game. Defensively, Georgia will need the front-seven talent it's been stockpiling in recruiting to flash some serious star power.

    The Bulldogs' 2016 campaign could hinge on who wins the starting quarterback job. Jacob Eason is as talented as true freshmen signal-callers come, but he would be thrown into the fire early with games away from home against North Carolina, defensive-minded Missouri and Ole Miss in the first month of the season. Can UGA rely on a newcomer to get the most out of its receiving corps?

    A front-loaded schedule with a possible new-look passing game and a definite new-look defensive front could spell trouble for Georgia in 2016. But if the Bulldogs can navigate September and early October with only a couple of losses, the back half of the schedule looks promising for a strong finish under Smart.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

22. Washington

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    Washington DB Budda Baker
    Washington DB Budda BakerJennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 7-6

    2016 Returning Starters: 15 (eight offense, seven defense)

    For good reason, Washington will be a name on the rise in the preseason. The Huskies return most of their starters from a young 2015 team that dropped five of its six losses by 11 or fewer points and scored 141 points in a three-game season-ending winning streak.

    Bill Connelly of SB Nation's S&P+ advanced ratings projects Washington to be the No. 10 team in the country this fall. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are a dangerous combo in the backfield, and the majority of the top talent is back from the Pac-12's No. 1 defense.

    The Huskies should skate through their nonconference schedule, and they host Stanford early in the season on a Friday night. Road games against Oregon, Utah and Washington State won't be easy, but the tests are spread out enough to foresee a run to the Pac-12 North title for Washington in 2016.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

21. Louisville

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    Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
    Louisville QB Lamar JacksonAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 8-5

    2016 Returning Starters: 18 (10 offense, eight defense)

    By all the preseason eyeball tests, Louisville should be a dangerous team in 2016. The Cardinals are tied with LSU and Kent State for the most returning starters in college football, and they have one of the nation's most exciting talents in Lamar Jackson at the most important position on the field.

    The schedule, though, is quite brutal. Louisville is in a division with two of the most talented teams in the country—Clemson and Florida State—and it also has a road game against high-flying Houston late in the season. The Cardinals now also have to adjust to changes at outside linebacker, as senior Trevon Young is reportedly out for 2016 with a hip injury and senior Keith Brown transferred to Western Kentucky.

    Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval wrote in January that "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 being said, expect to see at least some improvement in the win-loss column for Bobby Petrino's program.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

20. North Carolina

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    North Carolina RB Elijah Hood
    North Carolina RB Elijah HoodGerry Broome/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 11-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)

    North Carolina returns a good bulk of the starters from last year's team that won 11 straight games and pushed Clemson to the brink in the ACC Championship Game. And new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky might be a better option than Marquise Williams in the Tar Heels offense, which averaged more yards per play than anyone else in the FBS.

    Elijah Hood is a true home run threat out of the backfield. Trubisky will be able to sling the ball around to an experienced group of wide receivers behind a strong offensive line. A defensive front that got torched against Baylor in bowl season needs new contributors, but cornerback M.J. Stewart is back to lead one of the nation's most improved pass defenses in its second year under Gene Chizik's tutelage.

    UNC opens with a tough matchup in Atlanta against Georgia and a road trip to Illinois, but it will be able to pick up two easy wins over FCS foes. In ACC play, road trips to Florida State and Miami will be the toughest parts of a manageable slate. A phenomenal offense and what should be a still-improving defense could pick up 10 wins from this schedule.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

19. Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State WR James Washington
    Oklahoma State WR James WashingtonRob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 16 (nine offense, seven defense)

    The big question mark this season for Oklahoma State is becoming a typical one in Stillwater: Will there be any sort of consistent rushing threat? Stanford transfer Barry Sanders Jr. is set to join an offense that, while one-dimensional for the majority of last season, can carry a team to playoff contention.

    Mason Rudolph is a fine Big 12 gunslinger who has his entire offensive line coming back in front of him and perhaps the nation's most dangerous vertical threat in James Washington out wide. The defense needs to re-establish its pass rush without Emmanuel Ogbah, but there should be enough experience in the secondary to handle the loss of shutdown corner Kevin Peterson.

    The main issue standing between Oklahoma State and another run at a Big 12 title is its schedule, as it flips from hosting the conference's "big three" of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma to visiting all three in 2016. The Cowboys are too talented to get swept in those matchups, but the odds of overtaking their Big 12 rivals in the final standings are against them.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

18. Oregon

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    Oregon RB Royce Freeman
    Oregon RB Royce FreemanDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 9-4

    2016 Returning Starters: 14 (eight offense, six defense)

    There are a lot of changes swirling around the Oregon football program after slipping back below the 10-win mark for the first time in quite a while. There's a new FCS transfer at quarterback again, two new coordinators, a new defensive front and several new starters on the offensive line.

    When Vernon Adams was healthy last season, he was the most efficient quarterback in the entire country. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop wasn't as successful in the lower subdivision as Adams was, but he'll have the advantage of being on campus for spring ball. The talent on offense—Royce Freeman is criminally underrated at running back—should make this a top-10 unit again, but new coordinator Brady Hoke has quite a rebuilding effort on his hands on defense.

    Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer wrote last month he's skeptical of Prukop's potential impact, but staying healthy and being in early will be huge. If Hoke can get some sort of improvement out of the defense, Oregon could take advantage of a schedule that includes home games against Washington and Stanford. These Ducks should be in the thick of the tightest division race in college football this year.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

17. USC

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    USC WR/DB Adoree' Jackson
    USC WR/DB Adoree' JacksonLeon Bennett/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 8-6

    2016 Returning Starters: 15 (nine offense, six defense)

    Stop me if you've heard this one before: USC has the talent to compete for a national title, but can it put everything together? The common preseason refrain for the Trojans is back, as USC returns 15 starters but has some key spots to fill and a tough-looking schedule for the fall.

    Max Browne should be fully prepared to replace Cody Kessler at quarterback, and the rest of the top offensive talent is back for the Trojans, including star wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. Returning coordinator Clancy Pendergast had a top-15 defense at USC back in 2013, but he'll only have a couple of returning starters along his front seven. The secondary, while experienced, needs to improve from a No. 93 finish in yards per attempt last season.

    But even with all that talent, can USC survive such a brutal schedule? The Trojans open with defending national champion Alabama, and they also have to play Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA away from home in a pair of back-to-back sets. A 9-3 finish feels right for a team that has a fair amount of positives and question marks to go along with a tough schedule. 

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

16. Iowa

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    Iowa CB Desmond King
    Iowa CB Desmond KingReese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 12-2

    2016 Returning Starters: 12 (five offense, seven defense)

    A favorable schedule made Iowa the surprise team of 2015. The Hawkeyes shouldn't take anybody by surprise this season, but not many are predicting another Top 10 campaign for Kirk Ferentz and company.

    But if last year's Iowa team could pull off that kind of regular-season record, this year's Iowa team can at least come close to it. Quarterback C.J. Beathard will lead a tough ball-control offense that returns its leading receiver, its No. 2 and No. 3 running backs and several key linemen. The Hawkeyes should also challenge for the title as the Big Ten's best defense with a unit led by Josey Jewell and defending Thorpe Award winner Desmond King.

    The Big Ten cross-divisional schedule trades Maryland and Indiana for the tougher assignments of Penn State and Michigan, but the Hawkeyes will get to play their best conference opponents at home this season. With a favorable nonconference slate and a good amount of experience coming back, Iowa has a great chance to follow the blueprint it laid out in its storybook 2015 season.

    2016 Prediction: 11-1

15. TCU

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    TCU DE Josh Carraway
    TCU DE Josh CarrawayJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 11-2

    2016 Returning Starters: 10 (three offense, seven defense)

    TCU dealt with a tremendous amount of injuries last season and still finished the season with 11 victories. And while it has to replace the vast majority of its offensive firepower, there's plenty of reasons to be confident in TCU heading into the 2016 campaign—especially its now-deep defense that looks like it'll be a vintage Gary Patterson unit.

    Gone are Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, but TCU has a versatile breakout star in KaVontae Turpin and an ideal fit at quarterback in Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill. The way their attack looked in the last two seasons under coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, the Horned Frogs might be approaching the level where you'll know the offense will be in the top-10 range no matter who is starting.

    What also works well for TCU in 2016 is its schedule. Outside of a trip to Baylor on November 5, the toughest opponents the Frogs will face this fall all have to come to Fort Worth—specifically Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Even with just 10 returning starters, there's enough here to project another 10-win season for Patterson and TCU.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

14. Ole Miss

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 10 (five offense, five defense)

    Ole Miss is starting to challenge Auburn as the SEC's most unpredictable team. The Rebels have knocked off eventual SEC champion Alabama in back-to-back seasons but have failed to hold onto the early advantage in the division down the stretch.

    More than half of their starters are gone—including the vast majority of the offensive line—but Ole Miss still has one of the SEC's most talented playmakers in Chad Kelly at quarterback and some of the departed Laquon Treadwell's successful sidekicks at receiver. The biggest names on the "Land Shark" defense are gone, though, with big gaps left along the front seven.

    The Rebels will get both Alabama and Georgia at home in September after playing a virtual road game against a Florida State team that returns a lot more experienced talent. Kelly might lead Ole Miss to a big upset over Alabama or LSU in the division, but a team that lost this many starters will be hard to trust in the long run in the SEC West. This looks like a transition season in Oxford.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

13. Michigan State

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    Michigan State LB Riley Bullough
    Michigan State LB Riley BulloughJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 12-2

    2016 Returning Starters: 10 (four offense, six defense)

    Michigan State's returning starter count in 2016 is tied for fourth-fewest in the entire FBS. So why am I projecting the Spartans to still have a 10-win finish in the regular season?

    For starters, Michigan State isn't completely inexperienced on offense. Tyler O'Connor has stepped in at starting quarterback before in a big-game situation, and L.J. Scott was the team's leading rusher last season. The offensive line and wide receiving corps needs an injection of new blood, and the latter area got a shot in the arm with Donnie Corley and Cameron Chambers, the top names from a massive early-enrollee class.

    Also, Michigan State gets to play both Michigan and Ohio State at home this year, as well as potentially dangerous Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Northwestern. An early road trip at Notre Dame will be tough, but the rest of the schedule sets up nicely. Plus, MSU has had a 10-win regular season in five of the last six years. It's now second nature to predict another one for coach Mark Dantonio.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

12. Houston

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    Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.
    Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.John Raoux/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 13-1

    2016 Returning Starters: 11 (five offense, six defense)

    Like Iowa and North Carolina, Houston won't take many people by surprise this season after running all the way to an American championship and a Peach Bowl title under coaching hotshot Tom Herman. And while the Cougars need to replace several key players, especially on what was a stingy defense last year, another New Year's Six run looks likely.

    Greg Ward Jr. did his best Braxton Miller impression in Herman's offense last season, racking up plenty of all-purpose touchdowns. His supporting cast will have some new faces, but there's a lot of potential in Ward behind an offensive line that returns most of its starters. Defensively, a veteran front seven will be boosted by the arrival of top-10 recruit Ed Oliver, who should wreck AAC offenses.

    The season opener against national title contender Oklahoma will be tough for Houston, as well as the late-season showdown with a revenge-minded Louisville team. But while the rest of the top teams in the AAC reload for 2016, Houston will take the next step as a budding powerhouse behind the dream duo of Herman and Ward.

    2016 Prediction: 11-1

11. Tennessee

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    Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
    Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-MaybinJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 9-4

    2016 Returning Starters: 17 (nine offense, eight defense)

    While their fans might actively shy away from it, the Volunteers should receive plenty of due preseason hype in 2016. They return 17 starters from a team that won its last six games of the 2015 campaign and will be the early favorites to finally get back to Atlanta as SEC East champions.

    Joshua Dobbs and the "Chain-Moving Gang" of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara make up one of the most talented backfields you'll find anywhere. The offensive line is experienced along with the wide receivers, and the defense brings back a star-studded group led by pass-rushing machine Derek Barnett, tackle magnet Jalen Reeves-Maybin and special teams great Evan Berry.

    The schedule might be too tough to push Tennessee into early playoff contention, though, as the Vols face Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in four straight weeks. However, the last five games look perfect for a strong closeout to a divisional title run. It might not make a return to the national title picture in 2016, but Tennessee has all the makings of a team that will be back in the SEC race.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

10. Stanford

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    Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
    Stanford RB Christian McCaffreyThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 12-2

    2016 Returning Starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)

    Christian McCaffrey is back at Stanford after a breakout 2015 campaign that ended with a strong push for the Heisman Trophy. After the do-it-all running back, though, the Cardinal have concerns all across the depth chart as they try to defend their Pac-12 title.

    Gone is quarterback Kevin Hogan and his years of experience leading the ground-and-pound attack. The top three receiving targets not named McCaffrey are gone, too, along with three cornerstones of the offensive line. Defensively, Stanford returns six starters, but several of the ones it must replace—such as Aziz Shittu, Blake Martinez and Kodi Whitfield—made up its top performers in 2016.

    On top of that, there's the schedule, which contains road games at UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame and Oregon in addition to some normally tough home matchups. Stanford should be one of the most talented teams on the West Coast again this fall, but there's too much non-McCaffrey production to be replaced to see a Pac-12 repeat in this treacherous schedule.

    2016 Prediction: 9-3

9. Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
    Notre Dame QB DeShone KizerRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 10 (five offense, five defense)

    Few teams saw as many key players leave early for the NFL this offseason as Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish have plenty of reason to believe they can battle back to national title contention in 2016. They built up a ton of valuable depth last year when an outbreak of injuries forced new contributors to emerge throughout the roster.

    Notre Dame can't go wrong with either Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer at quarterback, and they'll spread the ball around to some solid playmakers who got valuable playing time last year. The defense will give Notre Dame cause for concern, though, after losing virtually the leader in every position group—especially linebacker.

    The good news for Notre Dame, though, is that it only has four true road games—all against beatable teams—and the best competition it will face must come to South Bend. Typically, this many new starters would cause a program to take a step backward. However, the Irish showed they could handle great roster turnover last year, and the schedule shapes up well for another 10-win campaign.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

8. Ohio State

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    Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
    Ohio State QB J.T. BarrettRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 12-1

    2016 Returning Starters: 6 (three offense, three defense)

    The mass exodus of NFL talent from Columbus this offseason means Ohio State has the fewest returning starters of any team in college football for 2016. But the Buckeyes are arguably reaching Alabama's level of recruiting strength that, no matter how many new faces are on the depth chart, you can expect them to compete for championships.

    Quarterback J.T. Barrett is back for another season, and he's proved to be a deadly dual-threat weapon when Ohio State turns him loose as the No. 1 option. Pat Elflein was a key return on the offensive line, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan will be relied on as the leader of a defense that has plenty of talented yet unproven youth. 

    These young Buckeyes will have their hands full with an early trip to Oklahoma, but the middle of the slate sets up well for a new-look team to pick up much-needed momentum and victories. By the time they hit the road to face Michigan State and host Michigan, the Buckeyes won't be so inexperienced anymore. Coach Urban Meyer should have another talented title contender in a tight battle for Big Ten supremacy.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

7. Baylor

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    Baylor QB Seth Russell
    Baylor QB Seth RussellTom Pennington/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 10 (five offense, five defense)

    It's foolish to underestimate a Baylor offense, especially one that continued to rack up the most yards and points of any team in college football after a bizarre rash of late-season injuries in 2015. A healthy Seth Russell was a legitimate Heisman contender last season, and the Bears will have four experienced running backs this fall.

    The problems, though, will be in the trenches—an area of the field Baylor was underrated in last year. The offensive and defensive lines will almost be totally rebuilt. Fortunately for Baylor, though, the defense returns most of its key players in the secondary, which will be valuable in the pass-happy Big 12.

    Baylor has another pillow-soft nonconference schedule and avoids the murderers' row of late-season opponents that crashed its playoff push last year. The Bears host Oklahoma State and TCU but must travel to Oklahoma in Big 12 play. The offense will be more than fine, and the defense should have just enough returning firepower to keep Baylor toward the top of the conference.

    2016 Prediction: 11-1

6. LSU

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    LSU RB Leonard Fournette
    LSU RB Leonard FournetteMarvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 9-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 18 (nine offense, nine defense)

    One glance at LSU's ultra-talented depth chart should be enough to send people running to buy tickets for preseason trips on the Tigers' hype train. Leonard Fournette is back to decimate defenses behind an experienced offensive line, and former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is inheriting a unit with nine returning starters.

    But, as Billy Gomila of SB Nation points out, all those pieces to a title run hinge on a familiar question mark for the LSU program: the quarterback. Brandon Harris had his good moments last season, but the Tigers need consistency, especially considering all the talent they're bringing back at wide receiver. Can Harris do enough to force defenses not to stack the box against Fournette and wear him down?

    If so, the potential is sky-high in Baton Rouge. LSU hosts both Ole Miss and Alabama, its two biggest challengers in the SEC West, this season. The road tests will be tough but manageable for a team as talented as this one. Harris and the passing game are enough reasons for hesitation, but there's no doubt this team will be contending for a title again in the second half of the season.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

5. Florida State

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    Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
    Florida State RB Dalvin CookMelina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 17 (11 offense, six defense)

    The buzz surrounding Florida State this time last year was that a young team of Seminoles would have a rebuilding season in 2015. It was just that for Jimbo Fisher's program, but it still finished with 10 wins and a New Year's Six bowl berth—things that plenty of experienced Power Five teams would love to have in their best seasons.

    That speaks to the incredible amount of talent in Tallahassee, and now most of it will return some sort of high-level experience in 2016. If the Seminoles can sort out the passing attack with either Sean Maguire or one of their several exciting young talents at quarterback, the offense should soar with explosive rusher Dalvin Cook and an intact starting offensive line.

    Florida State's defense was a top-20 unit last year, and it should be a strength again with the likes of Derwin James, DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat back. The home game with Clemson is already shaping up to be a national quarterfinal, and most of the top teams FSU will face this year have to come to the Sunshine State. The Seminoles should return to the title picture in 2016.

    2016 Prediction: 11-1

4. Michigan

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    Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers
    Michigan DB Jabrill PeppersTony Ding/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 10-3

    2016 Returning Starters: 13 (seven offense, six defense)

    Michigan went from a sleeping giant to a national title contender in the span of one season under coach Jim Harbaugh. Now the Wolverines have plenty of momentum behind them as their two biggest rivals have to replace a majority of their starters in 2016.

    Houston transfer quarterback John O'Korn showed incredible promise during his time with the Cougars and will have spent a year preparing under Harbaugh, who did great work with Jake Rudock in 2015. Michigan should be fearsome on both lines with so much returning talent, and the star secondary duo of Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis will go a long way in covering for the new set of starters at linebacker.

    The Wolverines should blow by their early competition, but they have to travel to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State in the last five weekends of the season. While the road-heavy end to the schedule prevents Michigan from being the clear-cut Big Ten favorite in my eyes, the Wolverines will be in the championship conversation all season long.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

3. Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
    Oklahoma QB Baker MayfieldSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 11-2

    2016 Returning Starters: 13 (seven offense, six defense)

    The Sooners returned to the national championship picture in 2015 and quickly built up more momentum for themselves in 2016 thanks to the returning talent coming back in their elite backfield. But a return to a Big 12 title and the College Football Playoff won't come without plenty of obstacles for OU.

    Quarterback Baker Mayfield could have easily been a Heisman finalist last season and will play with a huge chip on his shoulder alongside the talented rushing duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The Sooners have some key faces to replace at wide receiver and on the offensive line, but that doesn't compare to the talent that's now gone from the defense—including Charles Tapper, Eric Striker and Zack Sanchez.

    The early schedule is filled with landmines, from early nonconference matchups with Houston and Ohio State to a road game at TCU and the rivalry showdown with a Texas team that upset OU last season. The Sooners get Baylor and Oklahoma State at home, but the slate might be too treacherous for a team that will have to rely on several new starters in key roles on the depth chart.

    2016 Prediction: 10-2

2. Alabama

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    Alabama DE Jonathan Allen
    Alabama DE Jonathan AllenEric Gay/Associated Press

    2015 Record: 14-1

    2016 Returning Starters: 11 (six offense, five defense)

    Even with only 11 starters returning in 2016, defending national champion Alabama is projected to be right back in the championship race, and no one should bat an eye at that news. Coach Nick Saban's long streak of No. 1 recruiting classes and track record of development should make the Tide the team to beat again this fall in the SEC.

    Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has done wonders with first-year starting quarterbacks in the last two years, and whoever takes over as his No. 1 signal-caller will be able to rely on the top three receivers from last year's title run. The running back room is once again loaded, and the defense has enough returning star power—sack leader Jonathan Allen, interception machine Eddie Jackson and hard hitter Reuben Foster—to expect another elite unit in 2016.

    Alabama has enough of the usual question marks and new starters that another early-season loss away from home—USC, Ole Miss or Tennessee—wouldn't be completely shocking. But once the Tide get rolling with their 5-star talent, they'll be difficult to slow down as they eye another championship.

    2016 Prediction: 11-1

1. Clemson

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    Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
    Clemson QB Deshaun WatsonAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    2015 Record: 14-1

    2016 Returning Starters: 12 (eight offense, four defense)

    It's hard to go undefeated in college football. Games can come down to fortunate bounces, controversial calls or miracle plays. But in a way-too-early projection that looks at returning talent and possible matchups, Clemson has what it takes to go undefeated in the regular season once again.

    Deshaun Watson is the early Heisman favorite after the first 4,000/1,000 season in college football history, and he's getting 2014 top wideout Mike Williams back with leading rusher Wayne Gallman, leading receiver Artavis Scott and several offensive linemen. The bulk of the defense must be replaced, but coordinator Brent Venables has already proven he can build a championship-caliber squad with a similar number of returning starters.

    Outside of the road trip to Florida State, the schedule looks even more favorable for an undefeated run—Clemson plays six FBS teams that didn't go bowling last year and an additional FCS team. Clemson's offense should be even better in 2016, and the Tigers have been recruiting like a powerhouse on the defensive side of the ball. Back-to-back undefeated seasons might be a bold prediction, but Clemson has all the pieces.

    2016 Prediction: 12-0

    All statistics courtesy of CFBStats. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Returning starter counts are from Phil Steele.

    Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.