Predicting First Loss for Every Projected 2016 Top 25 College Football Team
College football, at its highest levels, can be a highly unforgiving game. The combination of only 12 regular-season games and ever-increasing amounts of television dollars and attention create an environment where winning, winning big and winning quickly are paramount. The pressure is intense, and there is little margin for error.
The College Football Playoff has created an exclusive club that only four teams can join per year. It also fosters intense scrutiny that centers around the weekly CFP Top 25 polls that begin midway through the season and run through the national title game. A loss makes the road to the playoff difficult but not impossible to traverse. In its brief two-year history, only two teams (Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015) have finished the regular season unbeaten.
So for almost everyone, losses can and do occur. We’ve taken our best shot at predicting when they’ll happen for each preseason Top 25 team. This ranking was compiled by using a consensus of current preseason Top 25 polls. Losses were predicted by considering opponents and the difficulty of games as they appear on an individual team’s schedule.
25. UCLA Bruins
Following two consecutive 10-win seasons under coach Jim Mora Jr., UCLA slipped a bit in 2015. The Bruins found a potential star in freshman quarterback Josh Rosen (who threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions) but fell to 8-5, ending the year with a Foster Farms Bowl loss to Nebraska.
Rosen is back for his sophomore season and should be even better, but Mora must replace two key offensive pieces in 1,100-yard receiver Jordan Payton and 1,343-yard rusher Paul Perkins. Tailback Soso Jamabo and receiver Darren Andrews will be expected to assume more prominent roles alongside Rosen.
The early schedule isn’t easy. UCLA opens at Texas A&M, which will feature former Bruin offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone in his first game. A home date with UNLV is followed by a Sept. 17 trip to BYU. The Bruins barely survived the Cougars at home last fall, escaping with a 24-23 win. No matter if Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum starts, UCLA won’t be as lucky in Provo.
24. Miami Hurricanes
For Mark Richt and Miami, 2016 has the feel of a homecoming. Al Golden is gone. Hope has arrived in the form of Richt, a Miami alumnus returning home to south Florida following 15 mostly successful years as Georgia’s head coach.
With Brad Kaaya, the 2014 ACC Freshman of the Year, under center, Richt has some solid pieces to mold as he begins his first season as head coach. Miami’s early schedule will give fans some hope, too. The first two games (against FCS foe Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic) are both at home and both very winnable, and while a Sept. 17 trip to Appalachian State is odd, it’s a game Miami should win.
A year ago, the ‘Canes beat Oct. 1 foe Georgia Tech 38-21. A trip to Atlanta is tough but winnable. That brings up an Oct. 8 game with archrival Florida State.
Miami has lost six consecutive games to the Seminoles. The last two defeats (by a combined nine points) have been close, but it’s hard to predict a breakthrough this fall. The talent gap between south Florida and the Panhandle remains too large, at least for this season.
23. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia and North Carolina share a border, but they haven’t shared a football field very often lately. The Bulldogs and Tar Heels haven’t met on the gridiron since 1971. That changes on Sept. 3. Maybe it’s natural, given that Georgia will enjoy a new start this fall under Kirby Smart.
Regardless, the 2016 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game should be a lot of fun. Georgia hasn’t appeared in the game since 2011, and the game is a quasi-home game for Smart’s debut.
It won’t be easy. North Carolina had an excellent 2015 under Larry Fedora, going 11-3 and winning the ACC Coastal Division. The Tar Heels will have a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, but he’ll be running the same fast-paced offense under new offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic, who was promoted after Seth Littrell was hired as North Texas’ head coach.
Meanwhile, Georgia could be starting a true freshman in Jacob Eason. And it’s unclear whether tailback Nick Chubb, coming off surgery to repair multiple torn knee ligaments, will be ready for the season opener. Bulldog fans won’t be happy with Smart’s debut.
22. Washington Huskies
For Washington and coach Chris Petersen, there are reasons for optimism. Petersen is just 15-12 in two seasons leading the Huskies, but UW finished 2015 with three consecutive wins (including a Heart of Dallas Bowl win over Southern Miss) and averaged 47 points per game in the process.
Fifteen starters, led by quarterback Jake Browning, tailback Myles Gaskin (who rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman) and safety Budda Baker return. And the schedule, at least early on, is promising.
Home games against Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State should lead to a 3-0 start, and the Pac-12 opener at Arizona is also winnable. That could leave the Huskies 4-0 entering a Sept. 30 Pac-12 North clash against Stanford. Husky Stadium will be hyped for the Cardinal’s visit. A year ago, Stanford whipped the Huskies 31-14; it’s hard to see how that changes much this season as long as Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey (who accounted for 300 all-purpose yards last fall) is healthy.
21. Louisville Cardinals
As he enters the third season of his second stint at Louisville, it would be surprising if Bobby Petrino wasn’t optimistic. The Cardinals finished 2015 strong, going 8-5 and winning the Music City Bowl over Texas A&M. They return 17 starters, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson (who accounted for 453 yards of total offense and four touchdowns against the Aggies) and key defenders Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Keith Kelsey and Shaq Wiggins.
But September shows why Louisville still faces an uphill battle in the ACC Atlantic. The division still features national powers Florida State and Clemson. The Cardinals should be unbeaten after opening the season against Charlotte and Syracuse, but Florida State comes to town Sept. 17, and that won’t be easy.
The Seminoles return all 11 offensive starters, and they’re coming off a 41-21 win over Louisville last fall. Has Petrino’s bunch closed the talent gap that much in a year? Even at home that’s a rather difficult thing to ask.
20. North Carolina Tar Heels
If Larry Fedora was ever on the hot seat at North Carolina, that throne has cooled considerably. An 11-win season and ACC Coastal Division title did plenty to erase the memory of consecutive 7-6 and 6-7 seasons in Chapel Hill, and Tar Heels fans are excited about a roster that will return 14 starters.
Dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams is gone, but Mitch Trubisky (who pushed him for the starting role in 2014) is ready to step into his shoes. Tailback Elijah Hood rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall and will be one of the ACC’s best runners.
A Georgia Dome opener against Georgia and new coach Kirby Smart will be a tall order, but the Heels will erase the memory of 2015’s neutral-site opener loss to South Carolina. Expect them to be 4-0 with a trip to Florida State looming Oct. 1. However, the ACC Atlantic has proven itself superior to the Coastal over the last five seasons. North Carolina will challenge the Seminoles, but FSU’s talent will reign supreme.
19. Oklahoma State Cowboys
A year ago, Oklahoma State raised eyebrows of many neutral observers. The Cowboys, coming off a 7-6 2014 season, stayed in contention for the College Football Playoff and the Big 12 title until late November, starting 10-0 before finishing the season on a three-game skid.
They won’t catch anyone by surprise this time around. Mike Gundy’s group returns 10 offensive starters, led by quarterback Mason Rudolph (who had 3,770 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his first full season as a starter).
A soft early schedule (OSU faced no Top 25 teams until whipping TCU in early November) fueled the strong start. That won’t be the case this time around. While Oklahoma State should be 3-0 after starting at home against FCS foe Southeast Louisiana, Central Michigan and Pitt, a difficult road trip to Baylor looms Sept. 24.
A year ago, Baylor won a 45-35 shootout. This fall, Oklahoma State will be seeking pass-rush punch to replace defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who left early for the NFL. If OSU’s defense takes any sort of step back, it won’t be enough to keep up with a potent Bears offense.
18. Oregon Ducks
This fall will be one of change at Oregon. The Ducks bring back 11 starters but are replacing both coordinators after Scott Frost left to become Central Florida’s head coach and Don Pellum was demoted following an ugly end to 2015. In addition, Mark Helfrich must find a new quarterback following graduate transfer Vernon Adams’ graduation.
Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is the favorite to win the job but has yet to lock it down completely.
The Ducks will open the season against FCS foe UC Davis and then host Virginia and new coach Bronco Mendenhall. A trip to Nebraska Sept. 17 is a potential red flag. It will be the new quarterback’s first road start in an Oregon uniform, and while the Cornhuskers finished 6-7 a year ago, they lost five games by five points. They’re poised for improvement this fall.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. should be better in his second season in Mike Riley’s offense, and the Big Red will hand Oregon its first loss of 2016.
17. Southern California Trojans
It’s hard to argue Clay Helton earned his role as Southern California’s head coach. The Trojans got off to a 2-3 start and then lost second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was fired following alcohol-related issues.
Helton lost his debut against Notre Dame but righted the ship and took the Trojans to a Pac-12 South title; they lost to Stanford and finished 8-6 following a Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin.
The start of Helton’s first full season as Trojan head coach will be anything but easy. USC travels to Arlington, Texas, to face off with defending national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide is 9-0 in season openers under Nick Saban and hasn’t lost a neutral-site season opener since 1958.
With Southern California breaking in a new starting quarterback in Max Browne or Sam Darnold, don’t expect those trends to change Sept. 3.
16. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa was one of the biggest surprises of 2015. The Hawkeyes started the season well off the national radar after finishing a highly disappointing 7-6 in 2014. But thanks to a nasty defense, a stout running game and improved play from quarterback C.J. Beathard, they finished 12-0 and wound up inches short of the College Football Playoff following a hard-fought 16-13 Big Ten title game loss to Michigan State.
Kirk Ferentz’s team won’t sneak up on anyone after returning 14 starters, including Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King.
The schedule is again highly favorable, as Iowa avoids Michigan State and Ohio State from the Big Ten East; its toughest nonconference game is Iowa State. The Hawkeyes could very well be 9-0 entering a Nov. 12 prime-time showdown with Michigan, although Wisconsin and a trip to Penn State will be challenging.
Jim Harbaugh has never coached in Iowa City, but he lost both of his starts at Kinnick Stadium as a Michigan quarterback, falling 26-0 in 1984 and 12-10 in 1985 in a matchup of the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams. His memories of Kinnick will be far more positive this time around as he finally finds success against the Hawkeyes with a rising Michigan team.
15. TCU Horned Frogs
2016 will be a year of change for TCU. The Horned Frogs return 10 starters, but just three from a high-powered offense, and they must replace starting quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson, an NFL first-round pick. Sophomore KaVontae Turpin and multiple junior-college transfers will attempt to fill the void in the passing game.
With a new starting quarterback (either Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill or Foster Sawyer), there are bound to be some bumps in the road. The first one will come on Oct. 1 vs. Oklahoma, a team that beat the Horned Frogs 30-29 a year ago.
14. Ole Miss Rebels
2015 was a year to remember in Oxford. The Rebels won 10 games, defeated eventual national champion Alabama (for the second consecutive season) and routed Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl to end the season. Athletic passer Chad Kelly returns at quarterback, but the Rebels return only eight starters across the board and must replace NFL first-round picks in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wideout Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
The opener for that new-look group will be very difficult. It’s a neutral-site game at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, although the opponent (Florida State) makes it anything but neutral. The Rebels are talented, but they’ll be green, and Labor Day night will be a difficult first test. They’ll start 0-1.
13. Michigan State Spartans
2015 was a real breakthrough year for Michigan State and Mark Dantonio. The Spartans finished the regular season 12-1 with a Big Ten title and made the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.
As the spotlight intensifies, Dantonio and Co. are retooling. Only nine starters return, with steady starting quarterback Connor Cook and standout defensive end Shilique Calhoun among those gone. Michigan State needs to find new leadership and difference-makers and will be breaking in a new starter under center (backup Tyler O’Connor is the favorite). A Sept. 2 opener against FCS foe Furman is a gimme, but after a week off, the Spartans travel to Notre Dame for a prime-time showdown.
The Irish are also choosing a quarterback between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, but they’re a bit deeper overall and should be the favorite to win this game, although Michigan State won’t make it easy.
12. Houston Cougars
This fall, Houston hopes to prove that a Group of Five team can make a run at a College Football Playoff berth.
Tom Herman caught the nation’s fancy in his first season, putting together a surprising 13-1 season that included an American Athletic Conference title and a Peach Bowl win over Florida State. With 12 starters, including multitalented quarterback Greg Ward Jr., returning, the Cougars are a confident bunch.
They have a huge opportunity in their opener with returning CFP qualifier Oklahoma visiting. Win that game, and the nation really sits up and takes notice, and Houston’s playoff push gets off the ground. However, that’s easier said than done. Oklahoma remains a more talented team, and with quarterback Baker Mayfield facing off against a secondary that is replacing three starters, the Sooners will show why there’s still a gap between the Power Five and the Group of Five.
11. Tennessee Volunteers
Is 2016 the year Tennessee finally breaks through and returns to its perch as one of the nation’s best teams? The Volunteers have shown steady progress under Butch Jones, going 7-6 in 2014 and 9-4 last fall, ending both seasons with resounding bowl victories over Big Ten teams.
Now the Volunteers are poised for something even bigger with 17 starters highlighting a deep roster, led by physical tailback Jalen Hurd and quarterback Joshua Dobbs. But Jones must prove his team can win the truly big game, something it failed at against Oklahoma and Florida last fall.
They don’t get much bigger than the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech. The game will be hosted by Bristol Motor Speedway and is expected to attract the largest crowd in college football history. Will the Vols be able to handle Justin Fuente’s new high-tempo offense and move the ball against Bud Foster’s defense?
Until they prove otherwise, pick against Tennessee in games that truly matter.
10. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford and David Shaw have something truly special going in the Pac-12 North. The Cardinal have proven themselves as one of college football’s real powers. Shaw’s bunch has won three of the last four Pac-12 titles and boasts one of the nation’s top players in Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, the returning leader in all-purpose yardage.
A year ago, Stanford started slow with a 16-6 loss at Northwestern. The Cardinal recovered nicely, but their collective radar will be up when Kansas State visits for the opener. The opening schedule isn’t easy, with Southern California followed by a road trip to UCLA and Washington and a home date against an improved Washington State team.
However, it wouldn’t be stunning to see Stanford at 5-0 entering a crucial road game at Notre Dame Oct. 15. The Fighting Irish pushed the Cardinal to the wire last November before falling 38-36. This time around, they’ll get revenge in South Bend.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame has some uncertainty at quarterback heading into 2016, but not necessarily in a bad way. The Fighting Irish have two highly capable options in Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. The two spent spring practice battling tooth-and-nail for the starting role, but neither really separated. Zaire is recovered from a broken ankle and trying to unseat Kizer, who threw for 2,884 yards with 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and showed mobility while rushing for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns as an injury replacement.
Notre Dame returns only 10 starters and must identify a replacement for fleet wideout Will Fuller, but the schedule is certainly in its favor. The Irish play only three true road games, including the opener at Texas. Brian Kelly has improved the talent level, and expect a 7-0 start after a narrow win over Stanford on Oct. 15.
But after an off week, Miami comes to town for a renewal of the old “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry. Mark Richt and Brad Kaaya have a surprise in store, and they’ll knock off the Irish for their first loss of 2016.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes
Youth will be a huge buzzword in Columbus this fall. After losing 12 players to the NFL draft (nine early), Ohio State returns only six starters. The Buckeyes will be talented but rather green. Having the presence of junior quarterback J.T. Barrett will help immensely as a mobile, experienced leader for the offense and the roster as a whole.
However, Barrett can’t do it all by himself, and there will inevitably be some difficult moments. Ohio State opens the season at home against Bowling Green and Tulsa, two very winnable games that should leave OSU 2-0 entering a key nonconference showdown at Oklahoma.
This will be a huge test for a young roster, especially for a secondary replacing three starters. The Bucks are talented, but they won’t be able to overcome Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield. Barrett will generate points, but it won’t be enough to avoid the season’s first stumble.
7. Baylor Bears
No matter who starts under center, Baylor should have another potent offense this fall. There are some questions up front as the Bears must replace four starting offensive linemen from a year ago and pick a quarterback between Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham (both of whom finished 2015 on the sidelines following injuries).
Last fall, Baylor averaged 616.2 yards of total offense and 48.1 points per game, both best nationally. With KD Cannon as a deep threat and Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson primed as a talented backfield tandem, Baylor will put up big numbers again.
While there are early tests, including a Sept. 24 date with Oklahoma State and an Oct. 29 trip to Texas, the toughest task will be a Nov. 12 visit to Oklahoma. A year ago, the Sooners scored a 44-34 victory over Baylor, handing the Bears their first loss of the season.
Expect a similar result this time around, dealing a serious blow to hopes of a College Football Playoff berth.
6. LSU Tigers
LSU’s decision to hang on to Les Miles rather than fire him following a difficult November 2015 looks like an intelligent choice. The Tigers return 18 starters, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette, coming off a 1,953-yard, 22-touchdown sophomore season. Quarterback Brandon Harris is a capable offensive leader, and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a serious upgrade from Kevin Steele, who bolted for Auburn.
Miles’ group could challenge for an SEC title and a College Football Playoff berth. The Tigers have a tough neutral-site opener against Wisconsin in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, and road trips to Auburn and Florida won’t be easy, either.
However, expect LSU to upend Alabama in Baton Rouge on Nov. 5. The real test? A trip to Arkansas the following week. The Razorbacks own a two-game win streak over LSU, with a 17-0 win in 2014 and a 31-14 shellacking last fall. This time around, Bret Bielema and a reloaded run game will end the Tigers’ hopes of an unbeaten season in Fayetteville.
5. Florida State Seminoles
2015 was something of a disappointment for Florida State fans. Following a strong run that included three ACC titles, a national title and a College Football Playoff appearance, the Seminoles slipped to 10-3. However, that dip was likely temporary.
FSU returns 17 starters (including all 11 on offense), meaning the only direction this fall is up. Junior tailback Dalvin Cook (who rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall) is a Heisman Trophy contender, and safety Derwin James is an athletic freak who is one of the nation’s top defensive backs.
It would be no surprise to see the Seminoles 7-0 as they prepare for a pivotal visit from Clemson on Oct. 29, a game which has decided the ACC Atlantic champion for seven consecutive seasons. Two years ago, Deshaun Watson staked his claim to Clemson’s starting quarterback role and nearly beat FSU before a hail of mistakes allowed the ‘Noles to escape in overtime. Watson has matured, and so have his teammates. Clemson won’t let FSU off the hook this time around.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Under Jim Harbaugh’s watch, Michigan is clearly on an upward trajectory. The Wolverines were a moribund, boring program under Brady Hoke, finishing 5-7 in his final season. But they finished with a flourish in Harbaugh’s first season, winning five of their last six games and winding up with a 10-3 record.
Michigan returns 14 starters but must replace graduated quarterback Jake Rudock, with Wilton Speight as a strong candidate to take over. The Wolverines don’t even leave Ann Arbor until Oct. 8, when they travel to rebuilding Rutgers, and they should be favored in home games against Penn State and Wisconsin on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.
The biggest trouble spot? You guessed it—an Oct. 29 trip to Michigan State. A year ago, the Spartans stunned Michigan on the game’s final play with a muffed/blocked punt return for a touchdown and a 27-23 win. Mark Dantonio’s team is retooling a bit this fall but will still be a worthy challenger. Michigan’s new quarterback, whomever he is, will face a big test from MSU’s defense. The Spartans extend their win streak to four over Michigan and extend their in-state bragging rights as well.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma pulled off one of the greatest walk-on coups ever when Baker Mayfield transferred, sight unseen, from Texas Tech. Kliff Kingsbury and Red Raiders fans surely lament the fact that Mayfield, a transformative figure in OU’s 2015 College Football Playoff run, got out of Lubbock and wound up in Norman.
Mayfield still doesn't have his official release from Tech, which could rob him of a year of eligibility. And as he told ESPN.com's Jake Trotter last season, he's not happy about it.
It’s about that time for (Texas Tech) to realize it’s quite ridiculous that they didn’t pay for any of my school and they’re able to take a year of my eligibility away. I went a whole year-and-a-half, almost two years without (a school) paying for my school, even when I was here, because (Texas Tech) didn’t sign my release. ... A walk-on that didn’t get his school paid for," Mayfield said. "So it’s quite ridiculous, that the rules are that way.
Mayfield got some revenge last fall against Tech, leading a 63-27 blowout in Norman. The Sooners have a tough start to their title defense, beginning with a trip to Houston, welcoming Ohio State into town Nov. 17 and then facing TCU and Texas in back-to-back weeks.
But you have to bet Texas Tech will be ready for Mayfield’s return to the Texas plains. A year ago, pass-happy quarterback Patrick Mahomes was picked off four times while OU tailbacks Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for 355 yards on the ground.
On Oct. 22, Tech gets revenge as Mahomes takes advantage of a weaker pass rush and hands OU its first loss of 2016.
2. Clemson Tigers
This fall, Clemson hopes to finish the drill. In 2015, the Tigers burst onto the national stage, going into the College Football Playoff title game 14-0 before falling to Alabama 45-40. With eight starters returning on offense, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson, Dabo Swinney has reason for optimism (although NFL draft departures that leave only three returning starters on defense is cause for concern).
The Tigers open at Auburn, but another game on the I-85 corridor could be a red flag in their chase of a national title. Clemson’s ACC opener is set for Sept. 22 at Georgia Tech, a Thursday night game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Grant Field has been a house of horrors for Clemson. The Tigers haven’t won there since 2003. Two years ago, Watson left the game following a pair of knee injuries and Tech rolled 28-6. The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 3-9 season, but senior quarterback Justin Thomas and the flexbone offense could give an inexperienced defense fits. The Tigers’ Tech hex continues with a stinging defeat to the Yellow Jackets.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama will enter 2016, once again, as one of the nation’s best teams. The Crimson Tide has questions at quarterback after a starter failed to emerge during spring, and All-America left tackle Cam Robinson’s arrest on drug and weapons charges, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, has also become a major storyline for summer. But 12 starters return from a team that won the fourth national title in the Nick Saban era, and that can’t be ignored. Alabama is deep, talented and knows that “the process,” as Saban calls it, leads to success.
The Tide opens with a neutral-site game against Southern California in Arlington, Texas, and two weeks later travels to nemesis Ole Miss (which has beaten ‘Bama two straight times) for a key SEC West showdown. However, you have to figure Saban has learned from his mistakes. Expect the Tide to be 8-0 as it heads to Baton Rouge on Nov. 5 for what will be an epic battle against LSU.
A year ago, Leonard Fournette gained only 31 yards on 19 carries against a stingy Tide defense. However, four key members of that front seven are gone, including defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. This time, Fournette gets his and gets a measure of revenge as Alabama suffers its first loss of 2016.