Extremely early Top 25 for 2016 college football season

BY Stewart Mandel • January 12, 2016

The SEC claimed its eighth national title of the last decade with Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson on Monday night. The Tide will contend again in 2016, as they always do, but their most formidable competition may come in the form of two ACC teams.

Florida State or Clemson has reached at least the playoff for three straight seasons, and both look as stacked as anybody on paper based on their expected returnees. Elsewhere, Jim Harbaugh may have Michigan primed for a huge season, and stars like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette should contend for the Heisman.

Here is my extremely early stab at next season’s Top 25.

1. Clemson (14-1 in 2015): The national runner-up's stock could fall depending the NFL decisions of several star underclassmen. But we know Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson will return at quarterback, as will top target Artavis Scott. Most of the Tigers’ formidable front seven returns as well. If CB Mackensie Alexander and/or S Jayron Kearse hold off on the pros for another year, Dabo Swinney may have his best defense yet.

2. Florida State (10-3): The ’Noles went through massive rebuilding this season and still won 10 games. It will be quite the opposite this fall, as Jimbo Fisher brings back his entire starting offense, led by incumbent QB Sean Maguire and star RB Dalvin Cook. The defense loses CB Jalen Ramsey and a few other notable figures but is teeming with budding stars like freshman S Derwin James and freshman OLB Josh Sweat.

3. Alabama (14-1): The Tide must reload at several areas, but that’s true every year. One difference is they could be very young on offense, as freshman QB Blake Barnett and classmate Bo Scarbrough may take over for Jake Coker and Derrick Henry. But top receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart return. Defensively, ’Bama will be inexperienced at linebacker, but the next wave up front and in the secondary saw plenty of action this year.

4. Michigan (10-3): Jim Harbaugh exceeded the most optimistic predictions in Year 1; his Wolverines should be even better in Year 2. Key juniors DT Chris Wormley, CB Jourdan Lewis, TE Jake Butt, RB De’Veon Smith and WRs Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh return. So do four of five offensive-line starters. The big challenge will be replacing productive QB Jake Rudock, but former Houston starter John O’Korn is waiting in the wings.

5. LSU (9-3): Les Miles should have his best combo of talent and experience in years. Superstar RB Leonard Fournette returns, as do QB Brandon Harris and top WRs Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. Defensively, the Tigers have been racked by NFL defections in the past, but it appears LB Kendell Beckwith and CB Tre’Davious White are staying. The D-line, led by Arden Key and Davon Godchaux, should improve.

6. Oklahoma (11-2): The Sooners will be well-equipped to make a run at a repeat Big 12 title, led by star QB Baker Mayfield and RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Replacing stalwart O-linemen Ty Darlington and Nila Kasitati and go-to WR Sterling Shepard could prove daunting. The bigger rebuild comes on defense, but the secondary should shine with CB Jordan Thomas and safeties Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas.

7. TCU (11-2): The Horned Frogs won 11 games in 2015 despite an inordinate rash of injuries. Former Texas A&M starter Kenny Hill likely replaces All-American Trevone Boykin, but he’ll be working with some inexperienced O-linemen and receivers. Gary Patterson should be able to lean more heavily on his defense, which gets back S Kenny Iloka, LBs Sammy Douglas and Travin Howard and DE Josh Carraway.

8. Ole Miss (10-3): Coach Hugh Freeze has laid the foundation for the Rebels to survive losing stars like WR Laquon Treadwell and DT Robert Nkemdiche. Returning QB Chad Kelly finished the season on a tear and the Rebels also bring back WRs Damore'ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo and TE Evan Engram. Furthermore, Freeze will likely lean on multiple members of his incoming recruiting class, currently in the mix to finish No. 1 nationally.

9. Baylor (10-3): By now it’s a given that Art Briles’ team will field a powerful offense, with either QB Seth Russell or Jarrett Stidham leading it and RBs Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson and WR K.D. Cannon as weapons. Baylor does have to replace the bulk of its stout offensive line. The defense could take a step back without D-linemen Shawn Oakman and expected NFL defector Andrew Billings, but Baylor will score points.

10. Houston (13-1): The Cougars showed they can hang with the big boys with their 38-24 Peach Bowl win over Florida State. Stud QB Greg Ward Jr. should continue to develop under coach Tom Herman. He loses RB Kenneth Farrow and WR Demarcus Ayers but still has proven receivers Steven Dunbar and Chance Allen. All-American CB William Jackson III is a big loss, but solid DT B.J. Singleton and S Adrian McDonald return.

11. Tennessee (9-4): After a rough start, the Vols won seven of their last eight, the lone setback a 19-14 loss to Alabama. As many as 18 starters could return, including veteran QB Josh Dobbs and standout defenders like DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cam Sutton and standout return man Evan Berry. Renowned former Penn State DC Bob Shoop could be a huge addition for head coach Butch Jones.

12. Stanford (12-2): All-everything RB Christian McCaffrey will go into the season as a preseason Heisman favorite, but coach David Shaw must break in a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years. Despite losing top tackler Blake Martinez, the Pac-12 champs may be even better on defense with playmakers like DT Solomon Thomas, LBs Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Palma plus DBs Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks.

13. Michigan State (12-2): It’s unwise to doubt Mark Dantonio at this point, but the Big Ten champs will be hard-pressed to avoid a dropoff. QB Connor Cook, WR Aaron Burbridge and All-American O-linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin are gone. The defense is in better shape with star DT Malik McDowell, LB Riley Bullough and an experienced secondary.

14. Ohio State (12-1): After losing a staggering nine underclassmen to the NFL, Ohio State will return just six starters. QB J.T. Barrett could struggle early as the Buckeyes rebuild their O-line and receiving corps. LB Raekwon McMillan will anchor the defense, while DEs Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard and LB Chris Worley emerge as the next wave of stars.

15. Washington (7-6): A young Huskies team scored nice wins this season over USC (17-12), Arizona (49-3) and Washington State (45-10). Freshman QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin will form the core of a potentially explosive offense. Coach Chris Petersen brings back seven starters from a defense that finished 13th nationally in points allowed (18.8).

16. Notre Dame (10-3): Brian Kelly has some rebuilding to do after losing standouts like WR Will Fuller, T Ronnie Stanley, LBs Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt and DT Sheldon Day. He’ll also have to decide between QBs Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. RB Josh Adams and WR Corey Robinson headline the skill players, while S Max Redfield leads a strong secondary.

17. USC (8-6): Will this be the year the Trojans finally play to their potential? Coach Clay Helton and likely new QB Max Browne will enjoy a veteran O-line and skill talent like WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, two-way star Adoree’ Jackson and RB Ronald Jones. Former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to help rebuild a depleted defensive line.

18. Iowa (12-2): The Hawkeyes received some much-needed good news after their blowout Rose Bowl loss when Thorpe Award winner Desmond King came back to school. Iowa will return most of the defense that excelled during Big Ten play as well as QB C.J. Beathard and RB LeShun Daniels. They’ll need to replace key O-linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe.

19. Georgia (10-3): New coach Kirby Smart will not be lacking for talent, starting with star RB Nick Chubb’s return from injury. DE Lorenzo Carter and DT Trenton Thompson could thrive in his scheme. The Dawgs’ season largely hinges on how quickly incoming freshman QB Jacob Eason is ready to take the reins of coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense.

20. North Carolina (11-3): QB Mitch Trubisky has seen action in spurts and should be effective leading an offense that also returns RB Elijah Hood, WR Ryan Switzer and most of the offensive line. Coordinator Gene Chizik’s defense needs to improve while rebuilding its linebacker corps.

21. Oklahoma State (10-3): Putting the Sugar Bowl blowout behind, the Cowboys should be a better team in 2016 thanks to a returning QB in Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington and an O-line that returns all five starters. The defense will be without All-American DE Emmanuel Ogbah.

22. Oregon (9-4): Mark Helfrich will once again be counting on an FCS transfer, Dakota Prukop, to run the offense. If he’s efficient, the Ducks should score points with RB Royce Freeman and several decent receivers. A new coordinator must upgrade the Ducks’ woeful defense while replacing nearly their entire front seven.

23. Louisville (8-5): The Cardinals could return 19 starters from a team that won six of its last seven ACC games and beat Texas A&M in its bowl. QB Lamar Jackson showed as a true freshman he can be a big-time runner, but he must get better as a passer. Big-time pass rusher Devonte Fields put off the NFL, and a very experienced secondary should return intact.

24. Utah (10-3): Kyle Whittingham’s solid program will survive losing QB Travis Wilson and RB Devontae Booker. RB Joe Williams stepped up late in Booker's absence. DE Kyle Fitts and CB Dominique Hatfield lead a defense that has to replace star Gionni Paul.

25. Miami (8-5): The ’Canes showed a pulse after Al Golden’s dismissal and should only get better under new coach Mark Richt. That starts with third-year QB Brad Kaaya, RB Joe Yearby and five returning O-line starters. The defense should be better up front but may struggle in the secondary.

Just missed: UCLA, Boise State, Wisconsin, Washington State, Nebraska.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.

share story