Predicting Who Will Lead Major College Football Stat Categories in 2016
College football is a great sport for stat heads. Nearly everything that happens on a field can be tracked, and some of the best analytics minds in sports are constantly finding new ways to more accurately explain all the action.
The game's collective obsession with stats extends into everything from game predictions to awards races to smack talk between rivals fans. People want to dig into box scores after a game or keep an eye on the final numbers that stand out on the TV networks' bottom lines.
So as the offseason continues, let's take a look at some players who could be leading their respective positions in statistical categories this fall.
Here are 10 major stat categories from CFBStats.com and predictions on who will top those charts this season. These picks are based on past performances and potential for the upcoming season, with factors such as fellow returning starters—or the lack of them—playing into the projections.
Who do you think will lead the way in these stat categories this fall? Shout out your picks in the comments below.
Passing Yards Per Game
2015 Leader: Washington State QB Luke Falk (380.1 YPG)
2016 Prediction: Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
A Washington State quarterback has led the entire country in passing yards per game each of the last two seasons, and Connor Halliday was third nationally in that category three seasons ago. But let's go in a different direction for this year's passing king—down to Texas Tech, the former home of Wazzu head coach Mike Leach.
Patrick Mahomes finished fourth nationally behind Washington State's Luke Falk in yards per game last season, tossing 22.2 yards fewer per contest but more overall yards due to an injury to the Cougars quarterback.
But here's where Mahomes can find some separation between himself and Falk: While Washington State returns plenty of starters on what should be a more balanced team in 2016, the Red Raiders recently dismissed the leading tackler from what was the nation's 122nd-ranked defense last season. Running back DeAndre Washington is gone, too, which puts even more pressure on Mahomes to produce.
While Washington State's Air Raid scheme produces huge amounts of passing yards each week, Texas Tech's pass-first attack should be on the field more in 2016. Mahomes has the talent to light up any defense he faces, and he might have to win a few games by himself this fall. For that reason, he edges Falk here.
Rushing Yards Per Game
2015 Leader: LSU RB Leonard Fournette (162.8 YPG)
2016 Prediction: LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Last season, Leonard Fournette had such a good lead on the rest of the country in rushing yards per game, he was nearly 15 yards ahead of second-place finisher Derrick Henry. What's even more impressive is that average featured a 31-yard game against Alabama and didn't feature a season opener against FCS school McNeese State that would've most likely been a huge evening for No. 7.
Fournette looks like a good bet to defend his rushing title in 2016, too. The entire interior of LSU's starting offensive line returns, and Fournette will be motivated to stay consistent after the downturn in form he had late in the 2015 campaign.
Defenses loaded the box against Fournette last season and dared quarterback Brandon Harris to beat them through the air, which led to a late slump by the Tigers. This year, Harris has another season of preparation under his belt and a loaded corps of receivers all coming back to catch passes from him. While the passing game might not be world-class in Baton Rouge this year, it should be enough to keep defenses from handcuffing Fournette.
Fournette is arguably the most talented player in all of college football and showed he is nearly unstoppable with the ball in his hands. This is a banner year for running backs in the sport, but they'll all be chasing Fournette in the race for the rushing title.
2015 Leader: Alabama RB Derrick Henry (28 TDs)
2016 Prediction: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
It may be hard to imagine considering the amount of spotlight and success he had last season, but Florida State running back Dalvin Cook has a great chance of truly breaking out in 2016. One area that he should be front-running in this running back renaissance at the college level is touchdowns.
Cook was the most explosive running back in college football last season, averaging an absurd 7.38 yards per touch across more than 200 carries. He scored a touchdown in all but two games last season—one in which he faced the otherworldly Boston College defense, and another one in which he was injured. Cook even found the end zone against Wake Forest, an opponent that only saw him carry the ball twice.
The Florida State running back has the ability to turn any carry into a touchdown, and he rarely got to play without some sort of nagging injury issue in 2015. While the Seminoles could be starting a freshman quarterback in 2016, they have one of the nation's best running backs behind a line that will return all five starters. In red-zone situations, Cook should carry an even bigger load.
While Cook isn't the same type of workhorse back as the last two rushing touchdown champions—Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon—he should get more carries in a healthy 2016 season, and he's an instant scoring threat every time he touches the field.
Receiving Yards Per Game
2015 Leader: Tulsa WR Keyarris Garrett (122.2 YPG)
2016 Prediction: Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Tulsa wide receiver Keyarris Garrett edged TCU's Josh Doctson and Baylor's Corey Coleman for the receiving title last season after a highly productive first year in Art Briles disciple Philip Montgomery's uptempo offense. Now that Garrett and several of the top receiving names in the game are now gone, it's time to turn the attention to another Group of Five star.
Corey Davis has been the nation's No. 4 receiver in yards per game each of the last two seasons, and he looks primed to take over the top spot this year. He'll be back for another year with efficient big-play quarterback Zach Terrell, and fellow 1,300-yard receiver Daniel Braverman is now off to the NFL. Davis will be the clear-cut No. 1 option for the Broncos, and he should get even more targets in 2016.
"[An NFL draft] departure by the Broncos standout would have been completely understandable after an eight catch, 183-yard performance in the Bahamas Bowl," Daniel Uthman of USA Today wrote. "But Davis will be back, and he will bring a nation's-best 110 receiving yards per game with him."
No returning receiver in college football had more yards per game last season than Davis, and he should have even more production in WMU's offense this season as it looks to break through for a championship in the MAC. He's one of the toughest men in college football to cover—just ask Big Ten champion Michigan State's secondary.
2015 Leader: Baylor WR Corey Coleman (20 TDs)
2016 Prediction: Washington State WR Gabe Marks
Corey Coleman's touchdown explosion in the first half of last season nearly landed him a spot in the Heisman ceremony, but in the end, he settled for the most scores by a receiver in the FBS. This year, look for another Power Five star in a wide-open offense to take that title.
Gabe Marks came back to Washington State last season and hit the ground running, grabbing more than 100 receptions and finding the end zone 15 times. He became the go-to target for Washington State's Luke Falk—a player he could trust to make the sure catch early in the game or with just a few ticks left on the clock.
Marks had a knack for having big scoring games when his Cougars needed them the most. His multi-touchdown performances in 2016 came on the road against Oregon, Arizona and UCLA. He scored in all but three games last season and had five or more receptions in every single contest.
Falk clearly has an established chemistry with Marks, who is outstanding at coming up with big plays in the clutch for Washington State. With 11-touchdown receiver Dom Williams now gone from Pullman, Marks is the best scoring option on the field for an offense that already loves to throw the ball his way.
All-Purpose Yards Per Game
2015 Leader: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey (276.0 YPG)
2016 Prediction: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
Like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey looks like a strong favorite to defend one of his statistical titles from last season. And while it's hard to imagine McCaffrey breaking his own FBS record for most all-purpose yards in a single season, who is even going to come close to his production?
McCaffrey was held out of contact the entire spring for Stanford, which will want him as fresh as possible for the upcoming campaign. With longtime starting quarterback Kevin Hogan gone, there's even more pressure on McCaffrey to lead the offense with his rushing abilities, and he's also the best receiver Hogan's replacement will have on the entire roster.
"There are very few skill players that can have the kind of impact on a football game that a truly dominant hybrid like McCaffrey can and it's not hard to see how Stanford could build another top 10 attack with him returning to anchor the system in what for him will amount to a contract year," Ian Boyd of SB Nation wrote.
McCaffrey is automatically one of the nation's most productive players in whatever role Stanford sticks him in on offense and special teams. Whether or not he gets his hands on the Heisman Trophy this season, it's hard to imagine anyone coming close to his all-purpose numbers.
2015 Leader: Missouri LB Kentrell Brothers (152 tackles)
2016 Prediction: Northwestern LB Anthony Walker
Last season, Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker made a name for himself with his ability to rack up tackles behind the line of scrimmage. This season, Walker has the potential to lead the nation in standard tackles due to his relentless motor and excellent pursuit.
Walker played behind a strong defensive line last season that featured Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Those Wildcats up front freed up opportunities for Walker to swoop in and make plenty of plays in the opponents' backfield. This year, the defensive line will be much different, and Walker's focus down the middle of the defense might be more on just swallowing up plays before they hit the second level.
"I'm not afraid to make statements, and I think he has a chance to be the best we've ever had—and we've had some pretty good ones," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who won the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards as a linebacker for the Wildcats, told Skip Mylenski for the school's website. "He's already walked the walk. Now take the next step. Now you're going from a great player to a special player. I expect to see that from him."
Fitzgerald would know an outstanding linebacker when he sees one, and he said Walker improved on being able to make plays when he's being blocked. As the unquestioned leader of a defense in transition, expect Walker's tackle count of 120 from last season to explode.
2015 Leader: Penn State DL Carl Nassib (15.5 sacks)
2016 Prediction: Alabama LB Tim Williams
Alabama has the best pass-rushing duo in the entire country for 2016 in Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams. This season, look for the latter Tide defender to become a household name as he transitions from being a third-down specialist into an every-down nightmare.
Williams did not start a single game for Alabama last season and was on the field for only around 20 percent of the Tide's defensive snaps. That didn't stop him from being arguably the most efficient defensive role player in the entire country, as he had 10.5 sacks in that small amount of use.
As Kevin Connaghan of Pro Football Focus wrote, Alabama's pass rush should be even better as a whole in 2016 thanks to the return of Williams, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson. The Tide's depth in the trenches should continue to free up space for Williams to attack the passer, and he'll most definitely be on the field for a lot more plays.
Huge sack numbers haven't necessarily been a hallmark of a Nick Saban defense in the past, but the ridiculous amount of talent the Crimson Tide have been able to build up in their NFL-like scheme has finally led to a unit that can be just as dominant against the pass as it's always been against the run. With more playing time, Williams should tee off on quarterbacks all season long.
2015 Leader: Northern Illinois DB Shawun Lurry (nine interceptions)
2016 Prediction: Nevada DB Dameon Baber
Shawun Lurry will be back to defend his interceptions title in 2016, but the Northern Illinois cornerback won't fly under the radar this time around. While opposing quarterbacks will try to avoid Lurry, they won't have the same luxury with another Group of Five ball hawk.
Last season, Nevada safety Dameon Baber had a spectacular true freshman season, picking off six passes in just 10 games. Baber didn't even see the field in the first three contests of the Wolf Pack's 2015 season, but when he finally got his opportunity, he was everywhere. Baber had two clutch interceptions in his first career game, a tight 24-21 win over Buffalo.
Later in the year, Baber picked off three passes in one matchup against Fresno State. From that point on, Baber was a constant presence in the back of a Nevada defense that faced more than 31 attempts per game in the pass-happy Mountain West Conference.
With a full offseason of preparation and a starting job locked down from the beginning of the season, Baber should be a big-play machine in a Nevada secondary that returns all of its starters for 2016. The sophomore has already shown the ability to take over games, and he'll be one to watch out of the MWC this fall.
Field Goals Made
2015 Leader: Clemson K Greg Huegel (27 FGs made)
2016 Prediction: Auburn K Daniel Carlson
Last year, Greg Huegel was a valuable member of national runner-up Clemson's offense by hitting more field goals than anyone else in college football. Whenever the high-powered offense stalled, he was there to put points on the board.
Clemson's Week 1 opponent for 2016, Auburn, has a similar weapon in Daniel Carlson. A Groza Award finalist last season, Carlson missed just four field goals all season and consistently scored from 50-plus yards out. And it's safe to say Carlson should get plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills for the Tigers this fall.
While Auburn's offense should theoretically improve with the return of several running backs and a strong offensive line, the passing game is still a major work in progress. The Tigers will be able to move the ball down the field, but this offense has an issue with stalling out whenever it gets into obvious passing situations. Carlson has excellent range and will be a threat to score anywhere in opponents' territory.
Auburn has produced some top-notch college kickers in the past few seasons, but Carlson has the the potential to be the best of them all. He should rack up scoring chances as Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn looks to bring the magic back to what was formerly one of the most feared offenses in the game.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.