College Football Playoff Preseason Preview
With kickoff for opening weekend of the 2016 College Football season just days away, which teams are in the best position to hoist the National Championship Trophy in Tampa, Florida come January 9?
(Rankings reflective of AP preseason poll)
(1) Alabama Crimson Tide
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 3 vs. #20 USC, Sept. 17 at #11 Ole Miss, Oct. 15 at #9 Tennessee, Nov. 5 at #5 LSU
Players to Watch: WR Calvin Ridley, SS Eddie Jackson, LB Reuben Foster, TE O.J. Howard, DE Jonathan Allen
The defending champs are no stranger to preseason hype and why should they be? Under head coach Nick Saban’s lead, the Crimson Tide have compiled an astonishing 105-18 record to go along with four National Titles. In addition, a revolving door of NFL-caliber talent helps fill the void left behind by Heisman Trophy winning running back Derrick Henry and defensive anchor Reggie Ragland, both of whom were selected in the second round of last year’s NFL Draft. If the quarterback position can be solidified with either Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett, a fairly tough but manageable schedule could land the Crimson Tide back in the final four come January.
(2) Clemson Tigers
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 3 at Auburn, Oct. 1 vs. #19 Louisville, Oct. 29 at #4 Florida State
Players to Watch: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams, RB Wayne Gallman, LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley
He’s back…and this year Tiger’s quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is more determined than ever heading into the 2016 season following a crushing 45-40 loss to Alabama in last year’s National Championship Game. Predictably, Watson is pegged by many experts as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Heisman Trophy, and together with a deep supporting cast on offense highlighted by 1,500-yard running back, Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett, the Tiger’s offense will again be one of the nation’s elite in 2016. A defense that returns only four starters may struggle, however, with a favorable schedule, Dabo Swinney’s team should again find themselves as favorites to reach the title game.
(3) Oklahoma Sooners
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 17 vs. #6 Ohio State, Oct. 1 at #13 TCU, Dec. 3 vs. #21 Oklahoma State
Players to Watch: QB Baker Mayfield, CB Jordan Thomas, WR Dede Westbrook, LB Jordan Evans, RB Samaje Perine
Expectations are once again sky high in Norman for the Bob Stoops led Sooners. After a season that culminated in an Orange Bowl appearance and that saw transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield emerge as one of the country’s top players, the Sooners are poised for another playoff appearance. An offense that ranked seventh in the FBS returns many key players including running back Samaje Perine and adds Penn State transfer wideout Geno Lewis to help aid the departure of Sterling Shepard. Questions still loom on defense after losing three of last season’s starting linebackers, however, an early win against Ohio State could pave the way for a special season.
(6) Ohio State Buckeyes
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 17 at #3 Oklahoma, Oct. 22 at Penn State, Nov. 19 at #12 Michigan State, Nov. 26 vs. #7 Michigan
Players to Watch: RB Curtis Samuel, LB Raekwon McMillan, DE Sam Hubbard, QB J.T. Barrett, SS Malik Hooker
After being stripped of all their star power by the NFL Draft, the Buckeyes have many large shoes to fill for the 2016 season. Urban Meyer’s team returns an FBS-low six starters, but a talented group of young players led by veteran leaders quarterback J.T. Barrett, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, and lineman Pat Elflein, make it difficult to write-off the Buckeyes. Should OSU get into playoff contention, it will be because of the MVP-caliber play of Barrett who finally has the signal caller job to himself. The Buckeyes are a sneaky pick to crack college football’s final four.
On the Outside Looking In
(4) Florida State Seminoles
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 5 vs. #11 Ole Miss, Sep. 17 at #19 Louisville, Oct. 29 vs. #2 Clemson
Players to Watch: SS Derwin James, RB Dalvin Cook, DE DeMarcus Walker
Just three years removed from a BCS National Championship, the Seminoles are possibly yet again in position to make noise come January. Star running back Dalvin Cook is as good as they come, but the key rests in the arm of quarterback Sean Maguire, who has shown glimpses of both brilliant and substandard play. Jimbo Fisher returns a deep team, but plenty of questions at key positions may result in the ‘Noles falling short.
(5) LSU Tigers
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 24 at Auburn, Oct. 22 vs. #11 Ole Miss, Nov. 5 vs. #1 Alabama
Players to Watch: RB Leonard Fournette, CB Tre’Davious White, SS Jamal Adams
Quarterback play over the last several seasons has been the one thing preventing good Tigers’ teams from being great…this season that narrative continues. Luckily for head coach Les Miles, his offense is guided by arguably the nation’s top player in running back, Leonard Fournette, who nearly eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark on the ground last year. With a loaded defense returning nearly every starter, the Tigers may just have an inside track into the playoff.
(7) Michigan Wolverines
Playoff Impact Games: Oct. 29 at #12 Michigan State, Nov. 12 at #17 Iowa, Nov. 26 at #6 Ohio State
Players to Watch: LB/S/RB/WR Jabrill Peppers, CB Jourdan Lewis, TE Jake Butt
Entering Jim Harbaugh’s second year as head coach, there is renewed buzz in Ann Arbor that hasn’t been felt since the days of Lloyd Carr. A Wolverines team that returns many key players on both sides of the ball is headlined by do it all man, Jabrill Peppers, who possibly is the most versatile player in the country. Quarterback and linebacker questions remain but don’t be fooled, this is still a very talented and dangerous team.
(9) Tennessee Volunteers
Playoff Impact Games: Sept. 24 vs. #25 Florida, Oct. 1 at #18 Georgia, Oct. 8 at Texas A&M, Oct. 15 vs. #1 Alabama
Players to Watch: RB Jalen Hurd, DE Derek Barnett, QB Joshua Dobbs
The Volunteers have been making noise in the SEC East for a few years now, but this season, they potentially have their eyes set on a bigger prize. With one of the top quarterback/running back duos in the nation, in Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd, the Vols have a potent offensive attack to go along with a stout defensive unit that returns key contributors. If Butch Jones’ bunch can manage through a brutal early season schedule, Knoxville will again return to football relevance.
Brad Hayes is a junior at Penn State University majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org