Preseason College Football Rankings: Top 25 After Spring Practice
The past few weekends have been filled with college football, and though none of it counts in the standings, those spring practices and scrimmages were as close as we've gotten to the real thing since January. It's also the last we'll see of these teams until August, when preseason camps open in preparation for the 2016 season.
The NCAA allotted every FBS school 15 practices that it could use to work on different schemes, identify starters and, in many cases, acclimate players to an entirely new coaching staff. Along the way, there were some injuries, breakout performances and sluggish efforts, all of which have led to some minor tweaks in our rankings heading into the summer.
This is not a prediction of what the Associated Press or Amway Coaches Top 25 polls will look like when they come out in August; rather, it's a reflection of what Bleacher Report feels are the best teams in college football at this point in the offseason. Consider it a conversation starter to help you get through the rest of the offseason, which is now down to only about four months.
No. 25 Miami (Florida)
The combination of quarterback Brad Kaaya and new coach Mark Richt should make for strong results this fall, and Miami is probably wishing the 2016 season would hurry up and get here. That's because the offseason has been riddled with off-field issues, most recently the arrest of running back Mark Walton on a DUI charge.
Walton, who has been suspended from the program, ran for 461 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns last season for the Hurricanes. He's the fourth Miami player to be arrested this year, along with offensive linemen Trevor Darling and Jahair Jones and kicker Jon Semerene. The latter was dismissed from the program in March following a DUI arrest.
Walton's absence could have an impact, but Miami also has Joseph Yearby, who ran for 1,002 yards in 2015, while Kaaya is coming off consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons.
No. 24 Wisconsin
Paul Chryst's return to Wisconsin as head coach produced 10 wins in 2015, and he did that without a healthy Corey Clement at running back. Now a senior, Clement is ready to be the breakout player he was widely projected to be while shining as a backup.
"He looked revived from a year ago with his burst clearly returned," Owen Riese of Bucky's 5th Quarter wrote after Saturday's spring game. "That should catapult him full speed ahead into his summer workouts. He'll be the focal point of the offense this year."
A healthy Clement will allow Wisconsin to take its time sorting out the quarterback competition, which is between senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibook.
No. 23 Washington State
It might be one of the most geographically isolated power programs in the country, but coming off a 9-4 season and with plenty of weapons coming back, Washington State should have no trouble getting attention in 2016. Coach Mike Leach and his high-flying offense rarely disappoint.
The Cougars had the top passing offense in the country last year, averaging 389.2 yards per game with 41 touchdowns. Luke Falk was responsible for much of that production, throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 TDs while completing 69.4 percent of his passes with just eight interceptions on 644 attempts.
Four players who had at least 40 catches a year ago have returned, led by senior Gabe Marks and his 104 receptions, 1,192 yards and 15 TDs last year.
No. 22 Oregon
Oregon is the only power-conference program that's still holding spring practice, with its scrimmage set for Saturday. That will be the first opportunity to see if the Ducks' latest dip into the FCS ranks for their quarterback will pay off as well as the last time.
While Vernon Adams Jr. excelled in 2015 despite not arriving from Eastern Washington until August, ex-Montana State passer Dakota Prukop has been in spring camp and has impressed to this point. Not enough, though, to win the job yet, as coach Mark Helfrich has said, “We won’t decide on the quarterback position until I don’t know when, but that will play out in fall camp,” per Steve Mims of the Register-Guard.
Prukop isn't the only notable new face with the Ducks, as the defense is now being run by former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
No. 21 TCU
When we last saw Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs, the veteran coach had done a halftime wardrobe change that may or may not have motivated his team to tie for the biggest comeback in bowl game history. In reality, it was more a product of TCU's season-long ability to overcome adversity, mostly in the form of injuries.
The Frogs went 11-2 despite nearly every top player missing time during the season, which has them set up for another strong year in 2016 with more depth and experience.
The battle between Foster Sawyer and Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill to replace Trevone Boykin at quarterback will continue into the fall, with the winner operating an offense that only returns three starters.
No. 20 Iowa
Iowa's unthinkable run to a 12-0 regular season, a Big Ten title game appearance and the program's first Rose Bowl in 25 years still seems like a dream. The Hawkeyes are now looking to show it wasn't a one-year fluke, though they won't have the benefit of as easy of a league schedule.
Iowa has crossover games against Michigan and Penn State, as well as a nonconference matchup with five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard and cornerback Desmond King, the reigning Thorpe Award winner, are part of a senior class that has made a bowl game after each season but lost each time. Iowa last finished a season with a win in 2010.
No. 19 North Carolina
A surprise ACC championship participant that pushed Clemson to the limit in the title game, North Carolina is coming off its first 11-win season since 1997. The Tar Heels dipped to 7-5 after that last breakout year, a path it will look to avoid this time around.
For history not to repeat itself, the Heels will need another strong effort on defense—as well as for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to perform like Marquise Williams, the program's career leader in total offense. Trubisky, who backed up Williams in 2014-15, was officially named starter on April 22.
UNC's defense, which was 120th in 2014, held seven of its first eight opponents to under 20 points last season.
No. 18 Washington
Sitting at 4-6 in mid-November, Washington's best days appeared to lie ahead of it. Then it won the final three games of the 2015 season, moving up the clock on coach Chris Petersen's future plans.
The Huskies enter this fall as a trendy pick to contend in the Pac-12 for the first time since the early 2000s, and they'll be doing it behind one of the best sophomore offensive duos in the country. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin shined as true freshmen a year ago and figure to only get better.
They'll be bolstered by an underrated defense that ranked 31st nationally a year ago and brings back seven starters, most notably junior cornerback Budda Baker, who could also double on offense as a wide receiver.
No. 17 USC
Clay Helton is technically a first-year head coach, but one who has 10 games of experience with USC thanks to his spot as its interim coach during most of 2015 and a one-game special in 2013. He led the Trojans to the Pac-12 title game but ended up losing that one and the Holiday Bowl, and with a Sept. 3 opener against defending national champion Alabama, the Trojans could be facing their first three-game losing streak since the end of 2012.
It's never dull with USC, a program that's hardly ever lacking in talent, but since Pete Carroll returned to the NFL, has seemed to be in near-constant turmoil. Helton's hiring as the permanent coach was meant to stabilize things, and assuming he makes the right choice at quarterback, then all the pieces are there for success.
Either junior Max Browne or redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will replace three-year starter Cody Kessler, and that QB will have an endless supply of skill weapons to work with. The Trojans defense is a little thin up front but otherwise loaded with star power at linebacker and in the secondary.
No. 16 Michigan State
Michigan State has won 36 games the last three years, but nearly all of them were with quarterback Connor Cook at the helm. He and 12 other starters are gone from the team that was shut out by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in December, but what remains is a strong core of players.
A young backfield that had three 500-yard rushers figures to serve as the foundation of the offense, which will be led by either Tyler O'Connor or Damion Terry and operate behind a retooled line and with inexperienced wide receivers. This will put additional pressure on MSU's defense, where veterans reside at all three levels.
Defensive end Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough and safety Demetrius Cox are the standouts who give coach Mark Dantonio confidence, enough to tell Mike Griffith of MLive.com, “I think we have a chance to have an excellent defense.”
No. 15 Georgia
There's a new coach and (probably) a new quarterback, but otherwise, it's the same old Georgia team that will be expected to contend for the SEC East Division title. The last few Bulldogs teams couldn't make that happen, ultimately leading to the end of Mark Richt's 15-year tenure and the start of the Kirby Smart era.
Smart, who won four national titles as Alabama's defensive coordinator, has already put his stamp on the program through recruiting and a change to the team's transfer policy. Turning to true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason as his starter would further make the Bulldogs his team if he chooses to go that route.
"Smart needs to use the grace period that first-year head coaches receive, name Eason the starter now, let him learn with the first team all offseason and trot him out as the starting quarterback against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote.
One thing Smart can't control is the progress of star running back Nick Chubb, who is coming back from torn knee ligaments suffered in October.
No. 14 Stanford
Four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan has graduated, part of a slew of contributors from Stanford's third Rose Bowl team in the last four years to move on. But the Cardinal do bring back the most prolific all-around player in college football history, not to mention a winning track record under coach David Shaw.
Christian McCaffrey ran, received and returned his way to 3,864 all-purpose yards last season, obliterating Barry Sanders' longstanding FBS record. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a sophomore and figures to be even more integral to Stanford's offense as someone either Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst will look to quite often.
The one place McCaffrey has yet to contribute (never say never!) is on defense, where the Cardinal are replacing five starters but can build around rising sophomore defensive end Solomon Thomas.
No. 13 Louisville
The same things that paced Louisville's hot finish to last season will be what carries it through 2016, as the Cardinals bring back one of the hottest young quarterbacks in the country and a veteran-laden defense.
Lamar Jackson was hot and cold as a passer, completing just 54.7 percent of his passes with eight interceptions against 12 touchdowns, but his legs never let him down. As a true freshman, he ran for a team-high 960 yards and 11 TDs, including 226 yards and two scores in the Music City Bowl when he also threw for 227 yards and two TDs.
Eight starters are back from a defense that allowed 24.1 points per game, paced by linebacker Devonte Fields. The former TCU star had 11 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss after spending 2014 at the junior college level.
No. 12 Houston
Houston was the top-ranked non-power conference team in 2015, riding that into a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The Cougars sit as the best of the rest again heading into 2016 and have opportunities to climb into the playoff picture thanks to some marquee matchups against power opponents this fall.
The Cougars open against Oklahoma and also host Louisville. To succeed will require much of the same things that worked during Tom Herman's first season, with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. running wild and a defense that loves to force turnovers continuing that trend.
Ward had 3,936 yards of total offense and 38 total touchdowns (including 1,108 rushing yards and 21 scores), while Houston led FBS with 35 takeaways.
No. 11 Notre Dame
The nation's most high-profile quarterback battle is taking place in South Bend, where junior Malik Zaire and sophomore DeShone Kizer are competing to operate what should be a solid offense no matter who gets the job. But deciding that winner is going to take a while, possibly all the way up to the Sept. 4 season opener at Texas.
"Neither player has a distinct advantage over the other, which very well may not change any time soon," JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago wrote.
Kizer was the one who stepped in during the second game of last year and helped Notre Dame navigate a season full of injuries to go 10-3, but Zaire had won the job going into the fall after displacing previous starter Everett Golson.
Holes also exist at the skill positions and on defense, though the Fighting Irish have the talent available to fill those spots without nearly as much attention as the quarterback job.
No. 10 Ohio State
It may seem like Ohio State is starting over after losing 15 starters from last year's 12-1 team, but it's not like the Buckeyes haven't been through this before. The 2014 squad, which looked lost early on, ended up steamrolling to a national title despite not much collective experience.
The biggest difference between this team and that one is that J.T. Barrett is a junior entering his third year as OSU's quarterback rather than a redshirt freshman thrown into the fire right before the season begins.
"Barrett's intangibles and leadership will determine how far Ohio State goes in 2016," Bleacher Report's David Regimbal wrote.
Nearly everywhere else on the field will be relatively young players, though ones who are teeming with talent and who have gained experience as backups, particularly on the defensive end.
No. 9 Ole Miss
Construction on Vaught-Hemingway Stadium kept Ole Miss from holding a scrimmage at the end of spring practice, keeping its offseason in the shadows. That's perfectly fine by Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, who is trying to replace three potential first-round NFL draft picks among 12 new starters.
Those replacements still haven't all arrived, as 5-star offensive tackle Gregory Little has been pegged as the heir apparent to Laremy Tunsil. He'll be tasked with protecting the blind side of record-setting quarterback Chad Kelly, whose performance in 2015 was among the biggest keys to Ole Miss' first 10-win season in 13 years.
Kelly established new school marks for passing yards (4,042), total offense (4,542) and total touchdowns (41). He may need to surpass those numbers unless the Rebels can find a go-to running back.
No. 8 Baylor
Baylor's spring storylines mostly revolved around its injured players, those it saw return from ailments that happened in 2015 and ones who remain out. The Bears welcomed back quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham, the former having overcome neck surgery, while leading rusher Shock Linwood missed all of spring recovering from a foot injury.
The Bears showed late last year they could improvise on offense when they ran for a bowl-record 645 yards against North Carolina, as Johnny Jefferson gave them two 1,000-yard rushers. Their receiving corps is where the depth needs to stand out this season, as Corey Coleman and Jay Lee have moved on.
"Baylor has so many talented wide receivers, it can be nearly impossible to sort through them all," Shehan Jeyarajah of the Dallas Morning News wrote.
Offensive explosiveness may need to make up for a rebuilt defense, one that will have at least six new starters.
No. 7 Tennessee
With six consecutive victories, Tennessee heads into 2016 tied with Western Kentucky for the nation's third-longest win streak. Add in a veteran roster that has been playing together for several years, and the Volunteers' expectations are at an all-time high.
Or at least as high as they've been in a year.
Butch Jones' work to beef up the roster has paid off in the form of upperclassmen projected to start at most positions after having to rely heavily on freshmen the previous few years. He was also aided by the return of draft-eligible players such as linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton.
Tennessee's main question mark can be found at wide receiver, where last year it had no player log more than 38 catches, 409 yards or three touchdowns.
No. 6 Oklahoma
Oklahoma has had more than four months to stew over its Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in the playoff semifinals, a game that has fueled the offseason as the Sooners push to maintain their spot atop the deep Big 12 conference. And with Baker Mayfield back to run the offense yet again, moving the ball won't be an issue.
Mayfield's first year with Oklahoma was a splendid one, with the Texas Tech transfer throwing for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns and completing 68.1 percent of his throws. The Air Raid attack installed by first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley operated with high efficiency, aided by a varied rushing attack that included a combined 2,507 yards and 30 TDs from Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Oklahoma still has work to do on the defensive end, where it lost five starters, including standouts Dominique Alexander, Zack Sanchez and Eric Striker. The new lineup will get tested early this fall, as the Sooners play arguably the toughest nonconference slate in the country with September games against Houston and Ohio State.
No. 5 LSU
Les Miles found himself on the hot seat late last season after going from 7-0 and near the top of the playoff rankings to riding a three-game losing streak. Such things aren't acceptable for teams in the upper tier of the SEC, but like most schools with as much talent as the Tigers, a new season brings about new hope and another set of lofty expectations.
But this might be one of Miles' most loaded teams, mostly because for once LSU didn't get ravaged by early entry to the NFL draft.
"For the first time, we return a big senior class," Miles said in a press release this past January. "Any time that you have a senior-dominated team, you recognize that you are going to play with leaders, and guys always play their best year of football when they are most mature."
Junior running back Leonard Fournette remains the offensive focal point, coming off a school-record 1,953 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015. However, a lot will depend on the play at quarterback from either Brandon Harris or Purdue transfer Danny Etling.
No. 4 Michigan
Michigan had an offseason that was full of headlines but devoid of much development, but that's already become the norm under Jim Harbaugh. He continues to draw attention to his rising program through public appearances, manufactured feuds and innovative recruiting tactics, all of which has made up for a lack of noteworthy team progress.
The Wolverines' spring was mostly low-key from a player standpoint, though the decision by new defensive coordinator Don Brown to move sophomore Jabrill Peppers to linebacker earned strong reviews.
"He's a dark-horse Heisman candidate for 2016 despite primarily playing defense and learning a new position," ESPN.com's Dan Murphy wrote.
The Wolverines are still searching for the right pieces to make for a productive offense, with the quarterback job yet to be decided and a run game that has options but features nobody who stands out from the pack.
No. 3 Florida State
Following a "down year" that still included 10 wins and a trip to a major bowl game, Florida State is ready to climb back into the national title conversation. That's assuming its star running back heals up as expected from offseason shoulder surgery and it can settle on a quarterback to move the offense.
Dalvin Cook, who set a single-season school record with 1,691 rushing yards in 2015, had surgery that, according to coach Jimbo Fisher "cleaned some stuff up" in his right shoulder, per Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat. That's the same shoulder in which Cook suffered a torn labrum in spring of 2014 but was able to recover from enough to rush for 1,008 yards as a freshman.
The Seminoles' quarterback battle is still in limbo until senior Sean Maguire, who finished up last season as the starter, returns from ankle surgery. In spring ball, the competition was limited mostly to freshmen Deondre Francois and Malik Henry, both of whom showed flashes of potential.
FSU's defense, though it will have some new starters this fall, is loaded with young talent such as sophomores Josh Sweat at defensive end and Derwin James at safety.
No. 2 Clemson
If Clemson is going to make a second consecutive trip to the national title game, it will need to find a new set of defensive playmakers to help it recover from the mass exodus it experienced on that side of the ball. But even if the Tigers struggle to slow opponents early on, they know their offense won't have any trouble keeping up.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and an ultra-deep receiving corps—boosted by the return of Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of 2015 with a neck injury—has Clemson poised to be an offensive juggernaut once again. Topping last year's 38.5 points and 514.5 yards per game seems like a pretty safe bet assuming everyone stays healthy.
"I'd be really disappointed if we're not one of the best offenses in the country," head coach Dabo Swinney told Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson. "That's our expectation, and it should be, with the people we have."
It's the Tigers defense that will be the deciding factor, though, as only four starters return from last year's top-10 unit, and projected starting cornerback Adrian Baker suffered a torn ACL in March.
No. 1 Alabama
College football's defending national champion is once again in reloading mode thanks to amazing depth, which figures to account for the players Alabama lost to graduation and the NFL draft. The Crimson Tide had 5-star prospects on the third line of their depth chart in 2015, so things look pretty good for next season.
The only position the team is unsure about is quarterback, but that has been the case the previous two springs. Neither Blake Sims in 2014 nor Jake Coker in 2015 emerged from a multiplayer competition until either the preseason or early in the regular season, but things worked out fine, so there's no panic in Tuscaloosa over the fact that Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts all struggled during the spring game.
That was almost to be expected considering the loaded defense they faced—which was credited with 14 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
"Alabama's defense appears to not just be very good but potentially outstanding," Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh wrote.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.