Top College Football Playoff Contenders For 2016-17

    Top college football playoff contenders for 2016-17. An early look at which teams could compete for the national championship.

    January 12, 2016

    Early look at the top College Football Playoff contenders for 2016-17.


    E-mail Rich Cirminiello | Follow @RichCirminiello

    Too early to begin talking about the 2016 college football season? From a practical perspective, well, of course. There’ll be a ton of changes and developments between now and Labor Day, most happening in the spring and summer. But where’s the fun in passing on a head start opportunity to handicap those programs best positioned to make a run at the Fiesta and Chick-fil-A Bowl semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, as well as the remaining New Year’s Six bowl games? Let’s take an early look at the College Football Playoff contenders for 2016-17.

    Top 10 College Football Playoff Contenders

    Alabama

    Think Ohio State. The defending champs, like the Buckeyes, harbor a Hall of Fame coach and a steady influx of blue-chip talent, so their inclusion as a contender is a given. New year equals new stars to go along with returners Cam Robinson, Calvin Ridley, Marlon Humphrey and whichever producers return for their senior seasons. The challenge for Nick Saban, who’ll no longer have Kirby Smart orchestrating his D, will be to develop a new starting quarterback for a third year in a row and to navigate a schedule featuring games with USC, Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU outside of Tuscaloosa.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 5 at LSU

    Baylor

    To Art Briles’ credit, the Bears are now a perennial playoff threat, regardless of the personnel changes. The staff attracts so much explosive speed, and the offense is so consistently dangerous, that anything less than Big 12 contention is improbable. Baylor will also be in much better shape behind center after Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham ended the year on the IR. Since turnover on both lines will be a major offseason point of emphasis, the program would catch a huge break if star NT Andrew Billings returns for his senior year.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 12 at Oklahoma

    Clemson

    The 2015 runner-up could wind up being next year’s team to beat when the initial preseason rankings are released in the summer. On a macro level, the Tigers matured exponentially this past season, and Dabo Swinney’s staff continues to stockpile elite high school recruits. Plus, the foundation of returning talent will be rock-solid on both sides of the ball. The offense, led by the quartet of QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, will again rank among the most potent in the country.

    Show-Me Moment: TBD at Florida State

    Florida State

    In many respects, 2015 was a rebuilding year in Tallahassee. And after going 4-3 down the stretch, the Seminoles will be poised to challenge again for an ACC crown and a playoff berth, especially since Clemson must travel to Doak Campbell Stadium. The D-line will be terrific and the O-line returns every one of Dalvin Cook’s blockers. Now, Florida State needs to elevate the play of the starting quarterback, whether that winds up being incumbent Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino, Deondre Francois or even blue-chip enrollee Malik Henry.

    Show-Me Moment: TBD vs. Clemson

    LSU

    Les Miles has the requisite talent to win a national championship, as if that’s ever an issue in Baton Rouge. As always, though, the Tigers, specifically QB Brandon Harris, need to showcase a lot more pop in the passing game. Elsewhere, this program has Miles poised for redemption after he was nearly sacked at the end of November. Leonard Fournette spearheads the offense, the toughest opponents will travel to Death Valley and only a few starters must be replaced. Out of character for LSU, it is not being gutted by early departures to the NFL Draft.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 5 vs. Alabama

    Michigan

    Bank on the Wolverines being even tougher—and buzzier—now that Jim Harbaugh is entering his second season in Ann Arbor. Michigan won 10 games, capped by a Citrus Bowl rout of Florida, to lay a great foundation for the future. Plus, Harbaugh has lured respected defensive coordinator Don Brown away from Boston College and the offensive skill positions are set. Taking the next step in the Big Ten could hinge on the development of QB John O’Korn, the Houston transfer now in the mix to succeed Jake Rudock.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 26 at Ohio State

    Notre Dame

    The silver lining to all of the Irish injuries in 2015 is that a ton of players earned reps that they otherwise wouldn’t have received. DeShone Kizer, for example, who’ll battle Malik Zaire in one of the more interesting offseason quarterback derbies. The entire backfield will be loaded, in fact, now that RB Tarean Folston is returning from his ACL tear. The defense needs to rebuild, and the O-line is likely to be searching for replacements for LT Ronnie Stanley as well as C Nick Martin.

    Show-Me Moment: Oct. 15 vs. Stanford

    Ohio State

    As long as Urban Meyer is in Columbus, a lack of athletes will never be a problem. However, inexperience is going to be a steep hurdle that the coach and his kids must clear in 2016. Ohio State has lost as much talent, particularly early entries, to the NFL Draft as any program. The promising news is that there’ll be no quarterback controversy with which to deal, as J.T. Barrett operates without looking over his shoulder. There’ll be ample opportunities for new stars, like DE Sam Hubbard and RB Mike Weber, to blow up into household names.

    Show-Me Moment: Sept. 17 at Oklahoma

    Oklahoma

    The Sooners will be looking to take the next step after surprisingly winning the Big 12 and bowing to Clemson in a semifinal playoff game. The high-scoring offense is going to reload around the backfield of QB Baker Mayfield and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Even better, just two of the team’s nine defensive all-stars were seniors. Oklahoma faces Houston and Ohio State in the first three games, so it’ll be battle-tested long before the conference schedule begins with an Oct. 1 trip to Fort Worth.

    Show-Me Moment: Sept. 17 vs. Ohio State

    Stanford

    The Cardinal boasts arguably the best player in college football. But who’ll be complementing electrifying all-purpose playmaker Christian McCaffrey? Stanford has won three of the last four Pac-12 titles under David Shaw, and will be the early favorite in 2016. However, the program is once again facing wholesale turnover on both sides of the ball, including at quarterback now that Kevin Hogan has graduated. It’s a good thing the Cardinal has mastered retooling on the fly, thanks to ace recruiting and player development.

    Show-Me Moment: Oct. 15 at Notre Dame

    … and the best of the rest.

    The Best Of The Rest

    Houston

    Tom Herman has been inked to a new five-year contract. Greg Ward Jr. is back behind center. The Cougars will be heavily favored to be back in a New Year’s Six bowl game, particularly after beating Florida State in last season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Herman’s top objectives between now and the opener with Oklahoma in Houston will be to rebuild a secondary losing three all-stars. And considering what’ll be at stake—and who’ll be on the other side of the ball—that defensive backfield will be squarely under the microscope in April and August.

    Show-Me Moment: Sept. 3 vs. Oklahoma

    Michigan State

    It’d be foolish to dismiss the Spartans based on personnel challenges alone. Yeah, the vacancies are huge, none bigger than the one behind center that used to be occupied by Connor Cook. However, few do a better job of coaching up kids than Mark Dantonio, so there are guaranteed to be hidden gems lurking in East Lansing. QB Tyler O’Connor earned valuable reps in November, and last year’s top three rushers were underclassmen. The D will get an enormous boost if LB Ed Davis is granted a sixth year of eligibility.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 19 vs. Ohio State

    Ole Miss

    The Rebels return prolific QB Chad Kelly, who led the team to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl blowout of Oklahoma State. But like McCaffrey at Stanford, returning to a New Year’s Six bowl game rests on the evolution of new starters on offense and defense. Since Hugh Freeze was hired in 2012, Ole Miss has improved by one victory in each successive year. If that trend continues, the Rebs will be right back in SEC West and marquee bowl contention. Bama, which has dropped two straight to Ole Miss, must play in Oxford this September.

    Show-Me Moment: Sept. 17 vs. Alabama

    Oregon

    The Ducks are putting their offense in the hands of an FCS transfer for a second consecutive year. Unlike in 2015, though, Montana State import Dakota Prukop will have an entire offseason to digest Mark Helfrich’s attack. And that, plus the returns of RB Royce Freeman and WR Darren Carrington, ought to help keep Oregon among the nation’s most dizzying offenses. However, the D, which has an opening at coordinator, must execute a quantum leap in 2016 to narrow the gap with Stanford in the Pac-12 North Division.

    Show-Me Moment: Nov. 12 vs. Stanford

    Tennessee

    This could be the season that long-suffering Vol fans finally get to cheer for a title-contender. Tennessee took another step forward under Butch Jones in 2015, winning nine, including an Outback Bowl demolition of Northwestern, for the first time in eight years. Best of all, UT was relatively young, employing just a handful of seniors. The backfield will be in great shape with QB Josh Dobbs and runners Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and DE Derek Barnett headlines a D that could be built around last year’s top six tacklers.

    Show-Me Moment: Oct. 15 vs. Alabama

    USC

    Now that Clay Helton has an entire offseason to prepare as the head coach, it’s going to be an interesting year at Troy. While Helton did a solid job in relief, he now gets a first chance to prove he can elevate the Trojans to Pac-12 champs. The cupboard is well-stocked, even with QB Cody Kessler exhausting his eligibility. Former ballyhooed recruit Max Browne gets first dibs on piloting an offense returning nearly all of 2015’s top rushers, receivers and blockers. The D also leaned on a lot of youth in the back seven, though a line overhaul will put pressure on returners Kenny Bigelow, Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green.

    Show-Me Moment: Sept. 3 vs. Alabama

    MORE: Way-Too-Early College Football Rankings, 2016

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