With the season fast approaching, I started from scratch in compiling my latest 2016 Top 25. Coming out of last month’s Media Days circuit, my opinions about certain teams have changed -- in some cases dramatically -- since May. One thing that remains the same is my top four. I feel confident with all of those teams. Unfortunately, there’s no one I feel particularly strong about after that. Oklahoma got the nod at No. 5, but it could have just easily been any of the teams in my 6 through 9 range. After that, my confidence level dropped a couple more rungs, but we know from experience that several currently unsung teams will finish the year in the Top 10.
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The most inspiring story of the offseason is RB James Conner’s return from cancer. In 2014, Conner, who tore his ACL early last season, was the nation’s No. 6 rusher. He’ll greatly benefit returning QB Nathan Peterman. Coach Pat Narduzzi is known for producing fearsome defenses. With eight starters back, including DE Ejuan Price and S Jordan Whitehead, the Panthers should produce one of the ACC’s best units.
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The Gators’ offense can only go up, as it should with promising transfer QB Luke Del Rio and young RBs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite benefitting from more bodies on the offensive line. Defensively, though, the Gators are stacked, with DE Bryan Cox Jr., LB Jarrad Davis, CB Jalen Tabor and S Marcus Maye all among the best in the SEC at their positions, and sophomore DE CeCe Jefferson a potential breakout star.
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The Cowboys managed to win 10 games last season despite producing one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks. QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington are still the featured attractions, but a more experienced O-line could open more holes for the running backs. The Cowboys’ defense returns seven starters but it lost its biggest star from 2015 in DE Emmanuel Ogbah.
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The Aggies don’t need Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight to become an All-SEC performer, but if he’s accurate and avoids mistakes he’ll be able to maximize the talents of Christian Kirk and a loaded group of receivers. The defensive line, led by DE Myles Garrett, and secondary, with S Armani Watts, figure to be strengths, but A&M will need to be much better up the middle to avoid getting run over again by physical offenses.
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The Tar Heels offense led the nation last season (7.28 yards per play) and could be even better with 1,463-yard rusher Elijah Hood and WRs Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard surrounding experienced QB Mitch Trubisky. The question yet again is UNC’s defense, which improved as a whole in 2015 but still finished 109th nationally against the run after Baylor gashed it for 645 yards in the bowl game.
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Few team have garnered more buzz this offseason, and the Cougars can prove themselves immediately against Oklahoma in the opener. QB Greg Ward Jr. is one of the nation’s most exciting players, and he figures to lead another explosive offense. But Tom Herman’s team could regress on defense with the loss of CB William Jackson III and five other starters. Five-star DT Ed Oliver should contribute immediately.
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The Spartans have big holes to fill on the offensive line and at receiver, but fifth-year senior QB Tyler O’Connor is capable of succeeding Connor Cook, and sophomore RB LJ Scott is a budding star. DT Malik McDowell will vie for All-American honors, and the defense as a whole could be spectacular if CBs Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland, both injured much of last season, rejuvenate MSU’s pass defense.
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I’m becoming more skeptical of the Rebels, in part because the cloud of an NCAA investigation keeps lingering but also due to how much star power they must replace. Hugh Freeze does bring back QB Chad Kelly and a bunch of talented receivers. But DE Marquis Haynes is one of the few proven veterans along the offensive and defensive lines, where Ole Miss will be counting on touted true freshman OT Greg Little.
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The Utes will keep doing what they do best -- mauling people in the trenches. All five starters return on the offensive line, and Kylie Fitts, Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei are among the top D-linemen in the conference. RB Joe Williams should carry a heavy load. However, the Utes will miss four-year QB Travis Wilson, and perhaps even more significantly, two-time Ray Guy Award punter Tom Hackett.
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Washington State: Mike Leach’s team quietly won nine games last season, beating Oregon, UCLA and Miami, and should only get better in the passing game. QB Luke Falk returns after throwing for 4,561 yards, as does All-America caliber WR Gabe Marks. The Cougars defense improved considerably last season, led by sophomore DE Hercules Mata’afa, but remains susceptible to physical running teams.
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The Hawkeyes won’t likely start 12-0 again, but they remain the team to beat in the Big Ten West. Underrated QB C.J. Beathard returns, as do eight starters from what was a stingy defense pre-Rose Bowl. Thorpe Award winner Desmond King is the headliner, but don’t overlook MLB Josey Jewell. The Hawkeyes will need to rebuild on the right side of the offensive line in order for the offense to become more consistent.
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The Bruins will shift to more of a pro-style offense, with gifted sophomore QB Josh Rosen poised for a huge year. Explosive sophomore RB Soso Jamabo could match or exceed Paul Perkins’ production. But young receivers and O-linemen need to emerge. UCLA’s defense, decimated by injuries last season, should be much improved. DE Eddie Vanderdoes, DL Deon Hollins and CBs Fabian Moreau are solid veterans.
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Count me among the many who’s jumping aboard this returning 7-6 team’s bandwagon. Chris Petersen produced the Pac-12’s top defense last season despite very little experience. Eight starters are back, led by DT Elijah Qualls and S Budda Baker. Sophomore RB Myles Gaskin ran for 1,302 yards as a freshman. To take the next step as a program, sophomore QB Jake Browning needs to develop quickly.
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Either QB DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire can capably lead the Irish. ND gets back two proven runners in Josh Adams and Tarean Folston. While WR Will Fuller will be hard to replace, Equanimeous St. Brown leads a talented group of youngsters. Defensively, the Irish lost a ton of experience up front but should get a boost from DT Jarron Jones’ return from injury. The secondary may be a work in progress.
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The Cardinal bring back all-everything RB Christian McCaffrey and will complement him with speedy sophomore Bryce Love. But there are multiple questions elsewhere on offense, most notably replacing four-year quarterback Kevin Hogan but also three starters on the line. Stanford, led by sophomore DE Solomon Thomas, should be strong defensively but needs a new face or two to emerge on the interior defensive line.
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Expect the Cardinals, which won six of their last seven a year ago, to take a sizeable step forward in Bobby Petrino’s third season. Dangerous dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson, who shredded Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, leads the way. UL has both a deep backfield and receiving corps. Last year’s Top 20 defense brings back eight starters, most notably pass rusher Devonte Fields and DT DeAngelo Brown.
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There’s no position group where the Vols are lacking for quality and experience. The offense should revolve around RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, with dual-threat QB Josh Dobbs keeping foes honest. The defense is loaded with stars like DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cam Sutton, but perhaps more importantly, Butch Jones stole away renowned coordinator Bob Shoop from Penn State.
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Jim Harbaugh’s second team is strong at the areas he values most -- up front on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines know they can rely on the likes of WRs Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, TE Jake Butt, LB Jabrill Peppers and CB Jourdan Lewis. However, Harbaugh does have a looming headache replacing Jake Rudock at quarterback. Houston transfer John O’Korn is no sure thing to beat out sophomore Wilton Speight.
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I’ve come around to the notion that Urban Meyer’s squad might not slip as much would be expected for a team replacing 12 draft picks. It starts with QB J.T. Barrett, poised for a huge junior season, and the buzz around redshirt freshman RB Mike Weber. The Buckeyes’ defense could struggle early, but DEs Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, LB Raekwon McMillan and CB Gareon Conley should play big roles.
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The Horned Frogs went 23-3 the past two seasons and are still being widely overlooked. Remember, TCU beat Oregon in last year’s Alamo Bowl without star QB Trevone Boykin. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill may be the guy this year. Overall, 20 returnees have made at least five career stars. Look for all-purpose threat KaVonte Turpin and LB Travin Howard to emerge among the next wave of standouts.
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The Sooners ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring offense last season (43.5 ppg) and should only be more lethal in coordinator Lincoln Riley’s second year. QB Baker Mayfield and RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon make for an enviable trio. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops may have difficulty replicating the Big 12’s top-ranked unit, but a secondary led by CB Jordan Thomas and S Steven Parker should be solid.
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This is easily Les Miles’ most talented team since the 2011 squad that reached the BCS championship game, starting first and foremost with RB Leonard Fournette. The Tigers took a step back on defense the past couple of years, but new coordinator Dave Aranda has a proven track record and stars like DE Arden Key and LB Kendell Beckwith. As always, Miles needs more consistency from QB Brandon Harris in order to win big.
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The Tigers should be special on offense, not just because of star QB Deshaun Watson but RB Wayne Gallman and a stacked receiving corps led by Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. It’s hard to believe last season’s Top 20 defense won’t take a step back after losing six starters early to the NFL. Secondary, in particular, is a big question. But Clemson’s line will be strong inside with Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins.
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I like the ‘Noles just a smidge better than Clemson due to a potentially dominant defense led by DEs DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat and likely All-American S Derwin James. Much will depend on redshirt freshman and likely starting QB Deondre Francois, but he doesn’t have to put the team on his back with lethal RB Dalvin Cook, a deep receiving corps and much-more experienced offensive line.
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Alabama may be my preseason No. 1 every year until Nick Saban leaves or has a down season. The Tide are once again loaded on defense, especially up front with DE Jonathan Allen, DTs Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand and LB Tim Williams. This Saban team does not have a proven experienced running back like years past, but Bo Scarborough and/or Damien Harris will carry the torch just fine.