The first game of the season is in the books (congrats, Cal), but we’re not done making predictions. Here’s how I see the 2016 season playing out, complete with playoff picks, a Heisman winner and the national champion.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY SportsMelina Vastola
Jim Harbaugh's legend keeps growing ... to a point
After dominating the offseason with satellite camps and rap songs, Michigan’s coach will keep making headlines. Behind a physical rushing attack and defensive front, the rapidly improving Wolverines take a 7-0 record into their Oct. 29 clash with rival Michigan State. I’ll go one step further than that – they win that one, too, then beat Maryland to get to 9-0 and No. 2 in the national polls.
But then Iowa brings Michigan back to earth, and worse, 9-2 Ohio State beats Harbaugh in the Horseshoe to claim the Big Ten East. Michigan still reaches a New Year’s Six bowl and starts 2017 in the Top 5.
Getty ImagesGregory Shamus
Charlie Strong reminds everyone he can still coach
All you need to know about the talent level Strong inherited is that the ‘Horns had six players drafted over the past three years. The program he left behind, Louisville, had 15 guys selected over the same time period, including five first-rounders. Not coincidentally, Strong went 23-3 his last two seasons at Louisville and 11-14 his first two in Austin.
This season, three years of Strong’s recruits take over the depth chart, which, coupled with installing Baylor’s offense, enables the ‘Horns to take a big jump in the Big 12 standings. They might even get to 10 wins with a bowl game.
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Nick Saban starts a true freshman dual-threat quarterback
It might not happen Saturday against USC. But at some point this season, the five-time national champ will hand the reins of his trusted pro-style offense to Jalen Hurts, a 6-foot-2, 209-pound early enrollee who by all accounts has continually impressed the coaches since playing the role of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson for the Tide’s scout team his first week on campus.
It would be a stunning departure for Saban, whose previous Alabama quarterbacks were all in at least their third seasons on campus and, with the lone exception of Blake Sims (2014), were prototypical drop-back guys.
Getty ImagesScott Halleran
Gus Malzahn gets fired after the Iron Bowl
Less than three years removed from a last-second BCS championship game in his first year on the job, Malzahn is handed his walking papers after this year’s Iron Bowl, in which the Tigers fall to a second straight 6-6 regular season. The same guy who helped Cam Newton win a Heisman and Nick Marshall an SEC championship is ultimately done in by another year of poor quarterback play, as well as repeated disciplinary issues with key players, having recently dismissed top rusher Jovon Robinson.
As such, Malzahn becomes the fourth straight Auburn head coach to lose his job despite having produced at least one conference champ and/or undefeated season. It’s a tough job even not competing head-to-head with Nick Saban.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY SportsJasen Vinlove
Houston goes through a semi-humbling autumn
Tom Herman’s program has been the toast of the offseason. That comes crashing to a halt Saturday when Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield picks apart the Cougars, heading off any Group of 5 playoff talk. More crushingly, the Big 12 ultimately opts against adding Houston to its conference due to opposition from the non-Texas schools. (It may be that the conference doesn’t expand after all.)
Not all is lost, though: Houston finishes 11-2 and reaches the Cotton Bowl.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis
The Big Ten and Pac-12 miss the playoff
During the first two years of the CFP, nine of the 10 Power 5 champs finished with no more than one loss. History tells us that’s not likely to be the norm. Over the last eight seasons of the BCS (2006-13), 20 of the 40 teams that won the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC finished with two or more losses. Even with mass realignment since, the trend shouldn’t change that dramatically.
This season, the Pac-12 seems least likely of the five to produce an undefeated or one-loss champ due to parity and difficult non-conference schedules. I have Stanford emerging at 11-2 but would not be surprised if its champ is 10-3. In the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan State are both going through major rebuilding, and I’m less confident than most that Michigan is yet capable of going 12-1.
Which means …
Getty ImagesGregory Shamus
The SEC gets two teams in the playoff
I have Florida State and Clemson finishing 13-0 and 11-1, respectively, but I don’t believe the Tigers can get in without winning the conference. Based on my other predictions, they would finish the season having beaten just five teams with .500 or better records and just one Top 25 team. Playoff participants will generally have two to three Top 25 wins and eight to 10 against .500-plus foes.
But the SEC is a different story. I have Alabama winning the conference at 12-1 and LSU suffering its only loss to the Crimson Tide. The Tigers would still beat at least two Top 25 foes and eight .500-plus opponents. It would be a no-brainer that LSU gets in ahead of a two-loss Big Ten champ. It would be a closer call with a two-loss Pac-12 champ.
Getty ImagesChris Graythen
TCU crashes the playoff party
Three of my four playoff picks started in the AP’s preseason Top 5. The fourth is 13th. This despite the Horned Frogs having gone 23-3 the past two seasons.
Trevone Boykin, a mostly middling quarterback his first two seasons, threw for 7,475 yards and 64 touchdowns in two seasons working with co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. The pair will do similar wonders with new starter Kenny Hill, who, lest we forget, threw for 2,649 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight picks in eight starts for Texas A&M in 2014.
Getty ImagesTom Pennington
Florida State wins it all
As I wrote earlier this month, the ‘Noles have the making of another special team -- as they should every so often given the ridiculous recruiting riches Jimbo Fisher brings in annually. The wild-card is redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, but I’m guessing a guy who’s produced three straight first-round quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston) and a No. 1 pick before that (LSU’s JaMarcus Russell) will figure that out.
“I won't compare him to a guy that played here a few years ago,” Fisher reportedly told a local booster club last week, “but when he plays, you'll like what you see."
The ‘Noles handle TCU in their semifinal matchup, then top LSU for the title in what will be a de facto home game Jan. 9 in Tampa.
And to top it off …
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
FSU's Dalvin Cook wins the Heisman
The way the Heisman works, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and LSU’s Leonard Fournette all enter 2016 at a disadvantage simply by beginning the year on top. The explosive tailback is hardly an unknown, rushing for 1,691 yards and 19 TDs in 2015, but he will feel like the trendy alternative Heisman voters crave.
Cook opens his campaign with a prime showcase Labor Day night against Ole Miss, surges to No. 1 by beating Watson head to head on Oct. 29 and stays there the rest of the way.
There you have it. Ten predictions. None of which, of course, will now come true.