College Football Teams That Are Playoff or Bust in 2016-17 Season
The College Football Playoff is an exclusive club. While it is a clear improvement on the Bowl Championship Series, the harsh reality of the playoff is that, at least for now, only four teams make the cut. That creates some fascinating debate and gives the regular season some serious intensity, but it also creates heartache for those left out, like Baylor and TCU in 2014 and Ohio State last fall.
For some teams, nothing short of a playoff trip is acceptable. These programs have talented rosters, rabid fanbases and huge expectations. 2016 will be full of pressure for them, but the reality is that multiple teams will end the year with disappointment. Here’s a look at the eight teams that are thinking College Football Playoff or bust this fall.
Alabama fans have high expectations, and it’s easy to see why. The Crimson Tide are college football’s most tradition-rich program, with 16 national titles and 29 conference championships. Following a frustrating stretch under the watch of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price (briefly) and Mike Shula, Nick Saban has restored the Tide to glory with four national titles in nine seasons.
Anything other than a national title sends Alabama fans into a frenzy, and 2016 will be no different. 2015 was a special season. Alabama overcame an early-season loss to Ole Miss to win the SEC, make the playoff and win a title with a hard-fought 45-40 win over Clemson.
This season, as always, will be a work in progress. Alabama returns 11 starters but must replace Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and hard-hitting linebacker Reggie Ragland, among others. Saban must also identify a replacement for graduated quarterback Jake Coker from the likes of Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell.
With Southern California and Ole Miss on the schedule in September, as well as trips to LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas, 2016 won’t be easy. But the Tide recruit well and will have talent step forward. Bama's rabid fans won’t expect anything else.
Finish the drill. That’s the task for Clemson this fall. In eight years, head coach Dabo Swinney has totally transformed the Tigers program by taking an underachieving team and turning it into one of the nation’s best. Clemson has won at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons, and 2015 was a breakthrough season.
The Tigers won 14 games and were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings from the first rankings in October until the national title game. Special teams and secondary breakdowns led to a 45-40 loss to Alabama, but there’s little shame in losing to the Crimson Tide. Now, Clemson hopes to take the next step and claim the program’s first national title since 1981.
Swinney told reporters after the national championship game, per Sports Illustrated, that the Tigers aren't done yet.
"There’s no doubt that we will be back," Swinney said. "It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that. Our team is built to sustain success. We’ve got the right ingredients from a toughness standpoint, talent standpoint, and then just, again, the will to win and the culture that we have in our program."
Returning eight starters from a powerful offense (including quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting last fall) will help, as will getting back receiver Mike Williams. Williams had 1,030 receiving yards as a sophomore but redshirted in 2015 after suffering broken bones in his neck on the opening drive of the season opener against Wofford.
His presence will make the passing game even better, and powerful tailback Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett also stretch the field. A defense that returns just three starters after losing six starters to the NFL draft (including defensive end Shaq Lawson and cornerback Mackensie Alexander) is a concern.
Clemson’s schedule is reasonable, with an Oct. 29 trip to Florida State the biggest hurdle. But expectations are big, and if the Tigers fall short of the ACC title and the playoff, fans won’t be pleased.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher has restored the pride in Tallahassee. After a strong run under Bobby Bowden’s watch, Florida State slipped in Bowden’s final years.
The Seminoles have won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons, with 2015’s 10-3 record actually representing a drop-off after a three-year period that saw a BCS national championship, a College Football Playoff berth and three ACC titles.
FSU returns 17 starters this fall, including all 11 on offense. Tailback Dalvin Cook is one of the nation’s best runners and a home run threat every time he touches the ball. There are questions whether Sean Maguire can be the man at quarterback, but Fisher’s staff continues to stockpile talent across the board.
All-American cornerback Jalen Ramsey is gone, but safety Derwin James is a budding star in the secondary. The schedule is manageable, with a Labor Day opener against Ole Miss in Orlando the biggest early challenge. As always, though, the season will hinge on whether FSU can beat Clemson. The winner of FSU-Clemson has won the Atlantic Division every year since 2009 and won the ACC title in each of the last five seasons.
Beat Clemson on Oct. 29 and take care of business elsewhere, and odds are good the Seminoles will return to the College Football Playoff. Otherwise, it could be a winter of discontent for FSU’s fans.
2015 was a true roller coaster for head coach Les Miles and LSU. The Tigers began the season 7-0 and entered a showdown against Alabama in prime position for the SEC West title and a College Football Playoff push. But after a three-game losing streak to the Tide, Arkansas and Ole Miss, Miles was nearly fired before cooler heads prevailed, per Stephanie Riegel of the Baton Rouge Business Report.
This fall, Miles is in position to do something special again. LSU returns 18 starters, led by bruising tailback Leonard Fournette, who’ll be a strong Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore. They need more from quarterback Brandon Harris (LSU was No. 111 nationally in passing yardage last fall), and hiring defensive coordinator Dave Aranda away from Wisconsin was a coup.
Opening the season against the Badgers at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field will be a big measuring stick, and a three-game stretch against Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas will define the season. Expectations will be high in Baton Rouge, and little short of a playoff appearance will satisfy a rabid bunch of fans.
When it was time to replace Brady Hoke, Michigan dreamed big. The Wolverines took a major swing and hit a home run by convincing Jim Harbaugh to come back to his alma mater and lead them back to greatness. Harbaugh lived up to the hype and then some in his first season, adding five wins and improving the Wolverines to 10-3.
That only whetted appetites for what lies ahead. The Wolverines return 15 starters, although it remains to be seen if Wilton Speight is ready to step in for steady Jake Rudock at quarterback. Harbaugh also signed an excellent recruiting class highlighted by defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the nation’s top overall recruit according to 247Sports.
Trips to Michigan State and Iowa will be challenging, and the big hurdle will be a Nov. 26 showdown at Ohio State. A year ago, the Buckeyes ripped Michigan 42-13, but the rematch should have Big Ten and College Football Playoff implications. Are the Wolverines ready to become truly great? We’ll find out this fall.
Head coach Urban Meyer has created a high standard for himself. In four years at Ohio State, Meyer has shown why he is one of the nation’s premier coaches. He's guided the Buckeyes to a 50-4 record (with losses only to Clemson, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, twice), as well as the 2014 national title.
2016 will be his biggest challenge, however. Ohio State had an NCAA-record 12 NFL draftees this spring, including nine underclassmen, and returns just eight starters. While junior quarterback J.T. Barrett will provide much-needed leadership, the Buckeyes will rely heavily on freshmen.
Will recruits like defensive end Nick Bosa and tailback Demario McCall pick up the slack left by the departures of Joey Bosa (Nick’s older brother) and back Ezekiel Elliott? That remains to be seen. The schedule has a major early challenge with a trip to Oklahoma on Sept. 17, and ending the season at Michigan State and home versus Michigan will be a big test, too.
Still, Meyer has conditioned Ohio State’s fans to expect greatness, and they seek the same in 2016.
OK, in case you wondered, Bob Stoops can still coach. 2014 ended with a frustrating 8-5 record, but Stoops revamped his coaching staff and hired Lincoln Riley to run the Air Raid offense with transfer Baker Mayfield supplanting Trevor Knight at quarterback. The results were smashing: an 11-2 record, Big 12 title and College Football Playoff berth.
A 37-17 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson was a tough way to end the season, but with 14 starters returning, led by Mayfield, this team is built for a repeat. The backfield tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon is one of the nation’s best, and while leading receiver Sterling Shepard will be missed, Dede Westbrook and Penn State transfer Geno Lewis should pick up the slack.
Ohio State will provide an early test on Sept. 17, as will a trip to TCU on Oct. 1. Ending the season with a Baylor-West Virginia-Oklahoma State run will also be challenging. However, the Sooners have the talent to return to the playoff and hang around a little longer. Watching someone else from the Big 12 do so will leave fans unhappy with Stoops again.
The pre-eminent Pac-12 power isn’t Oregon. Or Southern California. Or UCLA. Nope. Head coach David Shaw has made it clear that the league’s best program is in Palo Alto. Stanford has won three of the last four Pac-12 championships and is coming off a 12-2 2015 season capped by a Rose Bowl rout of Iowa.
The Cardinal have questions despite returning 11 starters, including Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, the nation’s best all-around back who led the FBS in all-purpose yardage a year ago. He rushed for 2,019 yards and also led Stanford in both receptions and receiving yardage.
Steady quarterback Kevin Hogan, the winningest QB in program history, has graduated, and either Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns will replace him. The Cardinal also must break in six new defensive starters, replacing leading tackler Blake Martinez.
A slate that includes Southern California, UCLA and Notre Dame by mid-October will challenge, and a Nov. 12 trip to Oregon could decide the Pac-12 North. However, it’s time for the Cardinal to take the next step, with McCaffrey leading the way. Another New Year’s Six game would feel like a disappointment.