Preseason College Football Rankings: Spring Practice Top 25

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2016

Preseason College Football Rankings: Spring Practice Top 25

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    Depending on your perspective, either not much has happened since we last had an actual college football game, or a lot has gone down. Either way, it's time for some updated rankings.

    Projections for the 2016 season began only moments after Alabama outlasted Clemson for the national title in January. Since then, we've seen teams across the country get altered by NFL draft declarations, dismissals and transfers while also replenished via national signing day. With spring football underway across the country, the process has begun to get things in place for the upcoming year.

    Taking into account any impactful offseason events, we've re-ranked the top FBS teams. This isn't a prediction of what the actual preseason Associated Press Top 25 will look like when it's released in August but rather an assessment of who looks best right now. A lot can—and probably will—change before the 2016 season starts when California and Hawaii play in Australia on Aug. 27.

    For now, though, here's how we have things looking atop the college football world.

No. 25 San Diego State

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    Only two FBS teams enter 2016 with a winning streak of 10 or more games. One won a national championship, while the other is the king of the Mountain West Conference.

    San Diego State beat every team in its league by at least 14 points. It then blew out Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl, winning its last 10 games after a 1-3 start. The Aztecs could be even better this season, bringing back the active leader in rushing yards (senior Donnel Pumphrey, with 4,272) and much of a defense that was tied for second nationally with 34 takeaways.

    The Aztecs might not be able to rank high enough to earn the “Group of Five” invitation to a New Year's Six bowl game, but another conference title and possibly a perfect record are both on the table.

No. 24 Texas

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    Texas coach Charlie Strong's prowess on the recruiting trail—three top-20 recruiting classes—so far is way ahead of the on-field product, which has produced two consecutive losing records. Yet he remains confident that the program is on the way up and isn't afraid to say it.

    Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman tweeted Tuesday that Strong feels when the Longhorns' turnaround happens, they "are going to steamroll everyone. That’s going to happen."

    The jury is still out on exactly when that will occur, but 2016 should see the start of that process. The roster is almost entirely Strong's personnel, and though it will still be on the young side, most have already weathered through enough struggles to be able to build off that.

No. 23 Miami (Florida)

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    One of two teams in our rankings under new leadership, Miami had good pieces to work with but needed the right coach to bring it all together. Mark Richt might not have won enough at Georgia to keep that fanbase happy, but the Hurricanes picked the right guy to try to return The U to its old level of prominence.

    Richt could be the one to take signal-caller Brad Kaaya from being a very good quarterback to a great one, one who deserves to be compared to the school's past passers, including Heisman winners and first-round NFL draft picks. Kaaya has started all but one game over the past two seasons, and many expect him to be this team's leader, with Richt bringing out this leadership trait.

No. 22 Oregon

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    Oregon will have new faces on both the field and the sidelines this season, as it once again looks to be turning to a graduate transfer from the FCS ranks at quarterback while breaking in a new defensive coordinator.

    Vernon Adams turned out pretty well after coming over from Eastern Washington, and the Ducks are hoping the same will be the case with Montana State transplant Dakota Prukop. He has the advantage of already being involved with the team, as well as knowing he's got a loaded backfield (headed by Royce Freeman) and some good receivers to work with.

    The Oregon defense will look very different under the guidance of Brady Hoke, the former Michigan coach who is shifting to a 4-3 alignment that compounds the impact of losing end DeForest Buckner and several other defensive line contributors.

No. 21 TCU

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    In terms of actual results, the massive comeback TCU engineered to win the Alamo Bowl in January won't have any impact on what the Horned Frogs accomplish this season. But the symbolic nature of that rally helped put a cap on a 2015 season that was full of promise yet derailed by injuries, yet in the end, they still came through.

    This is how Gary Patterson has managed to get TCU to this point, going through a series of conference switches to become one of the top teams in a power league. The Frogs are now a perennial Big 12 contender, though this season, they'll have to turn to a crop of new contributors.

    That starts at quarterback, where Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is in line to succeed Trevone Boykin. The one-time way-too-early Heisman front-runner from the 2014 season has been with the program for more than a year and is ready to get back in action.

No. 20 Iowa

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    Iowa was the unquestioned surprise of the 2015 season—a team that wasn't expected to do more than be in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten but ended up starting 12-0 with a division title and its first Rose Bowl appearance in 25 years. Now, the Hawkeyes find themselves in a position to make this the rule and not the exception, as they'll be looking for consecutive 10-win records for the first time since the early 2000s.

    For that to happen, Iowa will need continued solid play from quarterback C.J. Beathard at the helm of an otherwise anonymous offense, as well as cornerback Desmond King and others keeping the defense running on all cylinders. The Hawkeyes didn't blow anyone away with their numbers (or scores) last year, and more of the same could be the case again.

No. 19 Washington

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    Washington hasn't been a serious player in the Pac-12 or on a national level since the turn of the century, but the version that we saw toward the end of last season will be right in the mix this fall. With their two best offensive players only sophomores, and with a defense that has shown it can slow down anyone, the Huskies are one to watch in 2016.

    Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin might be the best young duo in the country, players whom coach Chris Petersen chose to build around last year. This led to early bumps but late success, with Washington averaging 47 points over its final three games (all wins).

    The Washington defense forced 27 turnovers a year ago, and those responsible for most of those takeaways are back for another year.

No. 18 North Carolina

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    North Carolina won 11 consecutive games and made its first ACC title game last season, feats that will be hard for the Tar Heels to top in 2016. But after several inconsistent years waiting for Larry Fedora to get things going in Chapel Hill, being in a position to have to try to match an 11-3 record is grounds for celebration.

    The Tar Heels are set to return 14 starters from the Coastal Division champs, but that doesn't include quarterback Marquise Williams, the school's career total offense leader. UNC feels confident in his replacement, veteran backup Mitch Trubisky, and paired with some solid skill-position players (including Ryan Switzer, who will try to set the FBS career record for punt-return touchdowns along the way), the offense has a chance to lead the country in yards per play.

    Gene Chizik made major improvements to the defense in 2015, ones that he'll hope to maintain. UNC's division has become tougher with the addition of notable new coaches at Miami (Mark Richt), Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall) and Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente), but it's still the Heels' to lose.

No. 17 USC

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    Ideally, USC would like to make another run at a Pac-12 title and get itself back into the national championship conversation. Having a good year that doesn't include any soap opera-like drama would be welcome, too.

    Clay Helton heads into his first season as full-time coach in need of a new quarterback and a new defensive leader, with Cody Kessler and Su'a Cravens among the Trojans' departures. Max Browne has been waiting in the wings to succeed Kessler, and there are a number of rising young stars on defense for Helton and coordinator Clancy Pendergast to pick from, so this offseason is more about preparation than identification of contributors.

    Ronald Jones II will look to build on a good first season in the backfield, while playmakers such as receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and all-purpose star Adoree' Jackson head into their junior years with great results to build off. As long as USC can stay out of the headlines (for things other than wins and losses), it should be in good shape.

No. 16 Michigan State

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    Michigan State's 36-4 run over the previous three seasons featured a lot of the same faces in the same places. Only coach Mark Dantonio remains as the Spartans move toward 2016, though the foundation he's built should prevent any major drop-off.

    It's still a critical offseason, though. The team will have to identify new leaders, and new go-to players must emerge. Malik McDowell figures to be first in line to serve as the defensive linchpin, a junior lineman who could get moved around to maximize the 6'6”, 275-pounder's skill set as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher.

    The Spartans offense has young but established running backs and two capable quarterback candidates—with Dantonio tabbing senior Tyler O'Connor as the current front-runner, per Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press—but still has to shore up the offensive line and build up the receiving unit.

No. 15 Georgia

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    New coach Kirby Smart might not be making any friends with his change to Georgia's transfer policy, but at this point, all that Bulldogs fans really care about is what he's doing to get the team ready for the fall. And in that respect, all signs look positive.

    Georgia may end up starting a true freshman at quarterback in Jacob Eason, a 5-star recruit, and it's looking like Nick Chubb is going to be his old self after going down with a major knee injury in October. Pairing those two together could make for a potent duo and give the Bulldogs their most balanced offense in a few years.

    The Bulldogs defense has a little more uncertainty, though Smart's coaching background is on that side of the ball, and he figures to have his fingerprints all over that area.

No. 14 Stanford

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    Needing to fill roughly half of the starting spots from last year's Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions, Stanford has a lot of work to do this offseason to be able to keep its recent run of success going. Then again, the Cardinal still have the most prolific all-purpose player in FBS history, so don't expect too much of a drop-off, if any.

    Christian McCaffrey gained more than 3,800 yards as a running back, receiver and return man, and the junior will be in line to challenge his own record. That's because he's the only returning player with at least 15 catches from a year ago, and he'll be working with a new starting quarterback, as longtime starter Kevin Hogan graduated.

    The one place Stanford can't turn to McCaffrey—at least we don't think so—for assistance is on defense. The Cardinal have rising star Solomon Thomas on the defensive line, but the rest of that unit will be relatively new this fall.

No. 13 Louisville

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    Louisville didn't spend any time in the national polls last year, not after starting 0-3 and sitting at 2-4 midway through the season. But a 6-1 finish, fueled by the electric yet erratic play of freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson, has the Cardinals heading into 2016 as one of the hottest teams in the country.

    For that to continue into this next season, Jackson must maximize the positives—he ran for a team-high 960 yards and 11 touchdowns—and minimize the negatives (54.7 percent completion rate, eight interceptions, 26 sacks taken). When at his best, he was unstoppable, though his youth and inexperience frequently led to his stopping himself.

    Combined with a strong returning unit on defense, including several players who easily could have made the jump to the pros but opted to come back, Louisville joins established powers Clemson and Florida State in making the ACC Atlantic one of the most top-heavy divisions in FBS.

No. 12 Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame managed to overcome a slew of injuries to remain in contention for the College Football Playoff all throughout last season, with the hidden benefit of that being the development of depth and experience. This will make for spirited competition this spring and summer for various open starting jobs, though apparently not everyone is happy with this.

    Malik Zaire is involved in a quarterback battle for the third year in a row, losing out to Everett Golson in 2014 before beating him out for the job last year. However, he only had the gig for a little while before an ankle injury knocked him out, opening the door for DeShone Kizer to shine.

    "You just really wonder what it's going to take to finally convince people enough that I'm able to do the job," Zaire told the Associated Press. "I don't make the decision. I'm going to keep balling and do what I need to do."

    As long as Zaire's frustration doesn't affect his play, and similar emotions don't impact other position battles, Notre Dame will again be a playoff contender.

No. 11 Ohio State

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    The work has begun in earnest for Ohio State to make another playoff and championship run in 2016, though it's been slow going to this point. Urban Meyer has won 50 games in his first four seasons with the Buckeyes, and whatever number he adds to that tally this year will be the result of a lot of development and teaching—and a lot of patience.

    "Between the 16 starters who have departed from last year and the 11 injured players Meyer was counting on to contribute this spring, mere numbers alone may prevent Ohio State from getting the most out of this spring," Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote. "That, however, won't stop the Buckeyes from trying, as it's only increased the importance for Ohio State's younger players to continue to emerge this spring."

    That youth will make or break OSU this season, as other than junior quarterback J.T. Barrett, the vast majority of the starting spots will end up going to first-time starters or those with limited experience. The talent isn't lacking—just the snaps—but the same was the case in 2014 before the Buckeyes went out and claimed a national title.

No. 10 Houston

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    Houston earned the Group of Five invite to a major bowl game in 2015 but didn't just show up and wave. It crashed the party via a solid victory over an established power, beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

    Now the Cougars have their sights set on vying for a playoff bid, which would be the first by a non-power-conference team, relying on the same things that got them to this point: one of the best dual-threat passers in the country, a defense that loves to take the ball away and arguably the hottest young coach in the land.

    Greg Ward Jr. is a poor man's version of J.T. Barrett, the quarterbackTom Herman turned into a superstar as Ohio State's offensive coordinator in 2014. He's done the same with Ward, while his defensive staff has trained that unit to intercept and force fumbles like no one else (Houston had an FBS-high 35 takeaways last season).

    With games against Oklahoma and Louisville this fall, both in Houston, the Cougars have a shot to be a major player.

No. 9 Ole Miss

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    Coming off the program's best year in a long time, Ole Miss can't expect to just sit back and hope to maintain that level of success. Not when it's tasked with replacing three top-tier juniors (offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche) who all figure to go early in the NFL draft next month.

    This version of the Rebels won't have as much star power—other than record-setting quarterback Chad Kelly—yet could end up being better overall if new standouts can emerge during the offseason. Some will come from down on the depth chart, while others may be newcomers from the No. 6 recruiting class.

    Hugh Freeze has had Ole Miss on the rise since arriving in Oxford in 2012. Now it's a matter of keeping things from slipping back while also trying to continuing going up.

No. 8 Tennessee

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    Another offseason, another load of hype and hope for Tennessee. Maybe this time it will result in a season-long strong performance, not just during the second half?

    The Volunteers have gone 16-10 the past two years under Butch Jones, but they're 10-1 in games played on Halloween or later. That includes six consecutive victories to end 2015, finishing off a year that began with so much promise (and plenty of lofty expectations) but was derailed early by several blown leads.

    The time for excuses has passed in Knoxville, with the roster loaded with talent and depth at every position. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a senior, starting games for the fourth year; the backfield has a strong one-two punch; and the defense is experienced across the board and will be under the guidance of well-regarded new coordinator Bob Shoop. Find a go-to receiver—and knock off some of the teams that keep being the Vols' nemeses—and Tennessee's time could finally come.

No. 7 Baylor

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    Baylor finished last season without a quarterback yet still managed to overwhelm its final opponent with an unstoppable offense. The Bears will be healthy again with the return of both Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham and will again have a seemingly endless supply of running backs and receivers to connect with.

    Art Briles' Bears racked up a bowl-record 645 rushing yards last December, doing so without leading rusher Shock Linwood. He's still recovering from a foot injury, but his absence just means more work for Johnny Jefferson and others. While Baylor lost a great one in wideout Corey Coleman, there's plenty more where he came from.

    Defensive question marks abound, however. Only five starters return from a unit that bent quite a bit last year, allowing 28 points per game overall and 29 in Big 12 play.

No. 6 Oklahoma

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    A major offensive overhaul helped return Oklahoma to an elite level in 2015, navigating the Big 12 with only one loss and then reaching the playoffs. That side of the ball will need to be even more potent this fall as the Sooners try to retool what was an underrated but effective defense a year ago.

    Gone are stalwarts Dominique Alexander, Zack Sanchez, Eric Striker and Charles Tapper, meaning defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will need to work hard to earn his paycheck (and praise from older brother/boss Bob Stoops). In a league so overloaded with offensive-leaning teams, Oklahoma's ability to make stops from time to time is what put it ahead last season, and being able to do so again is imperative.

    But the Sooners will still be able to lean on their offense, one that returns gunslinger Baker Mayfield at quarterback and one of the top rushing tandems in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

No. 5 LSU

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    Les Miles was almost fired near the end of last season, and things have been on the up for him and LSU ever since. The Tigers managed to avoid their normal amount of pillaging from the NFL, losing only one underclassman, and brought in another stacked recruiting class. And to top it all off, Miles spread the program's brand to another country by visiting Cuba.

    It's hard to believe that just a few months ago LSU was in a death spiral of three straight losses that came after starting 7-0 (and sitting second in the initial playoff rankings). That came as the result of stud running back Leonard Fournette having been discovered as human and incapable of completely carrying the team, something the Tigers can't ask him to do again in 2016 if they really want to contend in the SEC and for the playoffs.

    That means getting further improvement at the quarterback position, where Brandon Harris should be in line to start again after doing so all of last year. If he struggles, though, Purdue transfer Danny Etling is there to take over.

No. 4 Florida State

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    After a transition year in 2015, one that still included 10 victories and a major bowl appearance, Florida State is looking to return to the level it had in 2013 and 2014 when it won a national title and made the playoffs the following season thanks to a long winning streak. Coach Jimbo Fisher believes this group is capable of doing that, assuming he can get his athletes play with a certain mindset.

    "It’s just about the relentless effort in competition and the relentlessness of doing it right every time and putting pressure on the opponent from the first play to the last," Fisher said to Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post in explaining his wish to have a playing style similar to the old Arkansas basketball teams of the 1980s and 1990s, known for unleashing "40 minutes of hell."

    That shouldn't be a problem from a strong returning group on defense, led by rising sophomores Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden. The same goes with the run game, where single-season school record holder Dalvin Cook enters his junior year. The receiving corps needs to have some go-to players emerge, though, and Sean Maguire has to show (after returning from ankle surgery) he can put it all together at quarterback or risk losing the job to one of FSU's younger prospects.

No. 3 Michigan

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    Michigan's outstanding first season under Jim Harbaugh ended with a resounding victory in a bowl game in Florida, and since then, some of the Wolverines' biggest moves have involved that state. Harbaugh's controversial choice to hold a portion of spring practice at IMG Academy stoked the flames of his attempt to burn down the status quo, a process that also included turning what, for most schools, is a run-of-the-mill signing-day roundup into a celebrity-filled gala.

    These off-the-field moves could reek of desperation if not for the fact Michigan has a rather well-stocked team, both in terms of returning players and incoming talent. A top-10 defense from 2015 is bolstered by the hiring of Don Brown, who was the coordinator for Boston College's top-rated defense, and one of his first moves has been to test out playmaker Jabrill Peppers at linebacker.

    Michigan needs to find a solid quarterback after graduate transfer Jake Rudock held down the spot admirably last year. Houston transfer John O'Korn, junior Shane Morris and several others are vying for the job, "so a resolution might not come until the regular-season opener for the second straight year," Bleacher Report's David Kenyon wrote.

No. 2 Clemson

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    The 2015 Clemson Tigers showed season-long improvement on the offensive end, while the defense was ironclad and dependable throughout the year. Expect the exact opposite this season, with Deshaun Watson and his cast of star skill players likely to carry the load as another defensive overhaul takes some time to finish.

    Losing potential starting cornerback Adrian Baker to a torn ACL further thins the Clemson secondary, which had already lost four players to the NFL draft, and the front seven was equally ravaged, though it has more depth to work with. The Tigers' 2016 recruiting class, which ranked 10th, may need to provide several instant contributors.

    Watson is coming off arguably the best season ever for a dual-threat passer, the first to top both 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Reliable running back Wayne Gallman set the school rushing mark in 2015, and a talented receiving corps gets top target Mike Williams back after a scary neck injury shelved him in the season opener.

No. 1 Alabama

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    The defending national champions aren't as loaded as the previous two title-winning teams, who began the following season ranked No. 1 like Alabama figures to be. But despite some significant holes to fill, there's no reason to think the Crimson Tide can't make a legitimate push for consecutive championships.

    Not as long as Nick Saban is in charge, Lane Kiffin is turning straw into gold at the quarterback position and the blue-chip recruits keep signing to come to Tuscaloosa.

    Alabama signed another No. 1 class, and while only a few of those newcomers have a shot to step right in and start, we should expect to see many contribute. We'll also be getting a greater look this fall at some past recruiting gems who have only seen the field a little bit to this point—most notably running back Bo Scarbrough, the top candidate to replace Heisman winner Derrick Henry.

    The Tide defense is stacked, and that was before top sack man Jonathan Allen opted to return for his senior year. The only significant question mark is at quarterback, but that was the case the previous two years as well, and look how that worked out.

    All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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