I had my last preseason Top 25 in mid-May. A lot has actually changed since then. Baylor has a new coach, among other things. A few other programs have sorted out QB battles. Some touted newcomers have emerged. After visiting a few training camps and making a bunch of phone calls, here is my updated post-fall camp Top 25.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportDerick E. Hingle
They’ll have a new starting QB and a very inexperienced D-line and will have to cope with a schedule that starts with Alabama and includes 11 teams that went to a bowl game last year. The bright side: Ronald Jones is a big-play RB and there’s a deep group of wideouts. Plus the linebackers and DBs have loads of young talent, and DC Clancy Pendergast returns after doing a good job for the Trojans a few years back.
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Mitch Trubisky -- who was excellent (85 percent completion rate, 6-0 TD-INT) in the limited action he saw in 2015 -- is the new QB. Running back Elijah Hood quietly ran for almost 1,500 yards last season and is one of the best players in college football. The D still needs a lot of work, though. The Tar Heels don't have to face Clemson but do have to visit Florida State and face Georgia in the opener.
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Montana State grad transfer Dakota Prukop takes over at QB. He’s a good runner and can rely on arguably the most talented collection of RBs and receivers the Ducks have ever had. The defense, under new DC Brady Hoke, needs to improve a lot from last year for this team to contend in the stacked Pac-12 North. We’ll see how much better that D is come November when they have a home date with Stanford sandwiched around trips to USC and Utah.
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A lot has changed since our last Top 25 rankings. Art Briles, the AD and the school president have all been ousted. Jim Grobe takes over and inherits a team with lots of speed and a very good QB in Seth Russell, who is coming back from a serious neck injury. Depth is a concern, though, and Baylor did lose a lot on both lines.
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Luke Falk is back to run the offense after a huge 2015. Gabe Marks leads a deep group of wideouts, and WSU has four capable RBs. The left side of the O-line has been rebuilt, but the early returns are very favorable. The Cougars’ secondary has improved a lot since DC Alex Grinch took over before the start of the 2015 season. Wazzu has to go to Boise State in the non-conference and also has a trip to Stanford sandwiched by home games against Oregon and UCLA. On the bright side: They don't have to face Utah or USC in the regular season, and they get Washington at home.
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Kirby Smart takes over a pretty young team with uncertainty at QB and an almost entirely new front seven. But if Nick Chubb comes back to form, as expected, the Dawgs have a fantastic building block at RB. As I wrote a few months ago, aside from a trip to Oxford, which figures to be the only road game against a ranked opponent, this is probably about as favorable a schedule as you can expect in the SEC.
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Replacing quarterback Connor Cook won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be even harder to replace the guts of the offense on the O-line with the departures of center Jack Allen and offensive tackle Jack Conklin. But the attitude of this team is what you have to respect. They are convinced they’re tougher than Michigan and Ohio State and are wired to beat both.
The defense should be salty again with Malik McDowell up front and a terrific linebacker group. Top cornerback Vayante Copeland also comes back from injury. Their toughest road game is in mid-September to South Bend. Later, Michigan and Ohio State visit, as does BYU.
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The Bruins shook up their offensive staff and their scheme, which should suit gifted sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen well, and towering Conor McDermott is a good one at LT. Even without Paul Perkins, they have a couple of good running backs, but they have to replace three of their four best receivers. Keep an eye on young Theo Howard and converted CB Ish Adams.
Eddie Vanderdoes is healthy, and that should make a good front four even more of a problem for rival offenses. The secondary also has plenty of experience. The non-conference is pretty rough, with road trips to Texas A&M and BYU.
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The Rebels actually have only two more returning starters back than Ohio State does, but they do have a terrific QB in Chad Kelly and a very athletic group of receivers along with one of the better D-lines in college football. But I still think getting nine wins in the regular season is going to be a steep climb. The Rebels open with a rough trip to Orlando to face Florida State. They get Bama and Georgia in Oxford back-to-back and then in October have consecutive trips to Arkansas and LSU before later visiting College Station.
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Kenny Hill’s ability to extend plays helped him win the starting job. I expect him to have a big season, although he has huge shoes to fill in replacing Trevone Boykin. Replacing go-to receiver Josh Doctson will be another challenge, but there are a bunch of options with JC transfer Taj Williams being one to keep an eye on. The defense, which was so ravaged by injuries in 2015, should be much improved and will feature some terrific defensive ends in Josh Carraway and James McFarland. They also get both Oklahoma schools in Fort Worth.
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OU grad transfer Trevor Knight’s presence as a leader is key for a locker room that needed it. Knight is greeted by some very gifted receivers, fronted by sophomore star Christian Kirk. Expect a more fundamentally sound O-line. The Aggies' D should keep getting better and has a line that could play with anyone, featuring DEs Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall and they have three excellent safeties to anchor the back end in Justin Evans, Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson.
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I like the Huskies but have softened a little on them, moving Stanford above them in my rankings and as my pick to win the Pac-12. I think Chris Petersen’s team is a year away from possibly being a Top 5 bunch. On offense, quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are coming off terrific rookie years. This team also has one of the country's top secondaries led by safety Budda Baker.
The toughest part of UW's schedule appears to be a double of hosting Stanford and then visiting Oregon, who they haven't beaten in a very, very long time. Later, they have to go to Utah and to arch-rival Wazzu, who they blasted last year in Seattle but that was without star quarterback Luke Falk playing.
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Quarterback C.J. Beathard (17 TDs, 5 INTs) is good and very well respected by Big Ten coaches for his presence. LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley should combine for around 1,500 yards rushing. All-American cornerback Desmond King and LB Josey Jewell lead a defense that has seven starters back. Also, this schedule again sets up very well for a double-digit win season. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State in the regular season, and the toughest road trip is at Penn State.
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The two-man QB battle between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire is still unfolding as we head into the season. The RBs are going to be good, especially behind what should be an outstanding O-line. The wideouts are young and unproven. There’s a lot of athleticism there. Same for the defense, but it’ll be really young especially now that veteran safety Max Redfield has been booted. The schedule is pretty manageable with only three opponents in the preseason AP Top 25: home against Michigan State and Stanford and at USC.
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The ACC Atlantic has two legit national title contenders, but don’t sleep on the Cardinals. They have 18 starters back -- more than anyone in the ACC and tied for most in the country. Lamar Jackson, a sophomore dual-threat QB, is a special talent who has generated a lot of buzz inside the program. There's a lot of speed around him. Jamari Staples, a freaky 6-foot-4 wideout, heads an underrated collection of skill guys.
The D has speed too and is strong up the middle with defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown, linebacker Keith Kelsey and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. They get FSU at home in mid-September and then visit Marshall before a big trip to Clemson on Oct. 1. A mid-November Thursday night trip to Houston also will be a huge test.
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Ryan Burns has been announced as the new starting QB. Can he be accurate enough to burn defenses? We’ll see. We know he can rely on one of the most dynamic weapons in college football in Christian McCaffrey. There's good young talent around him in Bryce Love and slick route-runner Trent Irwin. DL Solomon Thomas should be among the Pac-12's top defenders, and the secondary is expected to be outstanding. The early half of the schedule, though, is brutal. These are Stanford's first six games: K-State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, then host Wazzu and visit Notre Dame.
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Nobody in the country has fewer starters back than the Buckeyes, with just three guys back on both sides of the ball. But there’s some excellent talent in key spots with J.T. Barrett at QB, Pat Elflein at center and Raekwon McMillan at MLB. There’s also some good buzz about young RB Mike Weber, and WR Noah Brown was poised for a breakout year last fall before getting injured late in camp.
Their non-conference schedule isn't easy with a road trip to Oklahoma, and playing Bowling Green and Tulsa figure to get the revamped secondary a LOT of work. The second half of the schedule figures to be pretty taxing for such a young team: at Wisconsin, at Penn State, Northwestern, Nebraska, at Maryland, at MSU and then Michigan.
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QB Greg Ward is back to run the offense and talented Texas running back transfer Duke Catalon should give the Houston attack a new dimension. In Chance Allen, UH has one stud at receiver, although I think they’ll miss the play-making of slot wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (98 catches, 1,222 yards). The D-line looks excellent with true freshman DT Ed Oliver ready to emerge as a star there.
They lost some good players in the secondary, but there’s still plenty of athleticism back there. UH has a big opener against Oklahoma and gets a visit from a talented Louisville team in November. I think they’re quite a bit better than anyone else in the AAC.
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My visit to Knoxville this spring convinced me things are looking up there. I heard a lot about the improved leadership in the locker room there, especially on D in Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cam Sutton. Also, new DC Bob Shoop, one of the best in the business, was a terrific addition. He has a deep D-line and a budding young star in LB Darrin Kirkland. The offense should be fueled by Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield, and Josh Dobbs has experience and makes some plays in the running game. If he can be more consistent as a passer, they might be a Top 5 team.
We'll find out much more about this team in a four-week stretch: against Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and then against Alabama. If they can go 3-1, they’ll play in the SEC title game for a legit shot at the playoff, I think. Even going 2-2 in those four might leave them with a decent shot to get in.
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My first shake-up from my post-spring Top 25. QB Baker Mayfield is primed for a huge season in his second year in this system. Even without Sterling Shepard, he’s got a deep and talented group of receivers with Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews and a host of others who will play well off the versatile and big RB tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The O-line is still young, but it’s also talented. I do have some concerns about the OU defense, especially the front seven, and it will be tested early against Houston’s Greg Ward and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
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Here’s why I think the Wolverines win the Big Ten: They have the best collection of offensive and defensive lines in the conference. They also have a superb starting group of receivers in tight end Jake Butt and wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. They have arguably the best coverman in college football in Jourdan Lewis, a difference-maker who can be deployed all over the field in Jabrill Peppers and they brought in a fantastic blitz-maven in DC Don Brown.
Oh, and they’ve got jim Harbaugh, who is excellent with QBs, which is why I think they’ll be just fine whether it’s Wilton Speight or John O’Korn running the show. Now, the rough part: Their last three road trips of the season are against the other three most talented teams in the conference -- Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State, where they haven’t won in 16 years.
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The injury to quarterback Sean Maguire doesn’t give me any pause. I expect gifted redshirt freshman Deondre Francois to take over. He’s bright, has a quick release and very good feet. He’ll also have every starter back on the offense, led by the great Dalvin Cook. Do-everything DB Derwin James is the headliner of another fast defense.
In the non-conference, they get two formidable teams: Ole Miss in Orlando early and Florida in Tallahassee. They also face three teams led by excellent quarterbacks, visiting Louisville and Lamar Jackson and Miami and Brad Kaaya and hosting Clemson and Deshaun Watson. In addition, they also play a good UNC squad at home. I like this team a lot, but I like Deshaun Watson and his crew just a bit more.
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Once again, the Tide enter the season for the third year in a row with uncertainty at QB. Maybe it’ll be Cooper Bateman. Maybe it’ll be freshman Jalen Hurts. One thing I think will make this year different than the past two is there’s no Ryan Kelly at center to anchor the O-line. Still, there’s a lot to work with for OC Lane Kiffin, starting with TE O.J. Howard and WR Calvin Ridley. Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter also should be a big factor. Another newcomer to keep an eye on is freshman RB B.J. Emmons. Word from inside the program is he’s a dynamic talent who also has terrific ball skills.
Defensively, even after losing some big-time talent in the front seven, Bama is still loaded. The schedule though looks tricky. They open against USC in Texas. Then, a few weeks later, the Tide visit an Ole Miss team that has beaten them twice in a row. Later there's the trip to Baton Rouge to visit Fournette and Co. They also have consecutive road games against Arkansas and Tennessee.
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I haven’t budged on my surprise SEC pick. I think Year 3 in the system for QB Brandon Harris will be a turning point for him. He has a big arm, can make plays with his feet and does have experience now. The challenge for him is not to get caught trying to show how strong his arm is, but he’s matured and has some playmakers in Malachi Dupre and Travis Dural, and the rest of the offense will lean on Leonard Fournette. The O-line, anchored by Evan Pocic, should be terrific.
On D, I love the addition of DC Dave Aranda. He inherits a ton of talent, especially in the secondary. The D-line also has some promising huge men to cause problems up front. The big note on the schedule is getting Alabama in Baton Rouge this year.
Getty ImagesMichael Chang
I’m still riding this bandwagon. Last year the Tigers, led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, gave Alabama all it could handle in the national title game. It marked Dabo Swinney's program taking the next step in its rise to super-power status, and with the fantastic junior Watson back for another season, expect the Tigers to be even better on offense this year. He’s bulked up 15 pounds to better handle the workload they give him in big games, and he’ll get back Mike Williams, his most dynamic WR, who will team with Artavis Scott (93 catches last season) for a great tandem.
There's also a more seasoned O line and tackle-breaking tailback Wayne Gallman. The defense does have a lot of holes, but I think Clemson will be more than fine up front with the emergence of budding star Christian Wilkins, a freakish 310-pounder, and keep an eye on 340-pound former five-star DT Dexter Lawrence. The secondary is more of a concern, but with Watson and the Tigers' offensive firepower, I think Clemson can overcome it.
The schedule is bookended by a pair of SEC opponents -- at Auburn for the opener and then against arch-rival South Carolina -- but I don't see either as Top 25 material. The Tigers get Louisville at home, where Clemson has a 16-game home winning streak entering 2016, the second-longest active streak in the nation. The toughest test will be against a talented, fast FSU team on the road on Oct. 29, but Watson torched the Noles' D last year for over 100 yards rushing and almost 300 passing -- and last year he played even better on the road than he did in home games.
Just Missed the Cut: Utah; San Diego State; Florida; Oklahoma State; Boise State; Pittsburgh; Penn State; Nebraska; Miami; BYU; Arkansas; USF; Appalachian State.