Over the first two years of the College Football Playoff it has been pretty clear who the 4 most deserving teams in the country are each year. In the 2014 season there was little debate that Ohio State was more deserving than Baylor and TCU, and Florida State had to be included as an undefeated defending National Champion. In 2015 there was a small crowd clamoring for Ohio State to get in over Oklahoma, but Oklahoma had the Big 12 title.
This 2016 season could be a lot messier for the Playoff committee. Consider this scenario: Clemson ends the season 11-1 with only a loss to Florida State; Florida State finishes 12-1 with a loss to Louisville or Ole Miss, but wins the ACC; LSU beats Alabama and wins the SEC at 12-1; Alabama finishes 11-1 with only a loss to LSU; Michigan finishes 12-1 beating Ohio State but loses to Michigan State; Ohio State finishes 11-1 with only a loss to Michigan; Oklahoma wins the Big 12 at 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State in the non-conference; and someone wins the Pac 12 at 12-1. This scenario would give you 8 teams with only one loss and a legitimate case for a College Football Playoff birth. Combine this scenario with our current presidential election and America could possibly explode. Putting that doomsday scenario aside for a second, here are my predictions for the 4 College Football Playoff participants.
Alabama is the most boring dynasty in the history of sports, but that doesn’t make them any less dominant. The only real question mark on their roster is at Quarterback where Nick Saban has to choose a starter from a batch of four former 4-star recruits. Whoever wins the job behind center will have plenty of weapons to work with at the skill positions including: RB Bo Scarbrough, RB Damian Harris, WR Calvin Ridley, Bowling Green transfer WR Gehrig Dieter, WR ArDarius Stewart, and the most outstanding player of last year’s Championship Game TE OJ Howard. The defense will be loaded despite the loss of 4 players to the NFL Draft who were all picked in the first 2 rounds.
One other minor concern would be Alabama’s Offensive Line. They return 3 starters including possible top 10 pick LT Cam Robinson, but they must replace the glue that held 2015’s OL together in C Ryan Kelly. Last year’s starting Guard Ross Piersbacher, former 4-star recruit out of Cedar Falls, Iowa, will make the move to Center and is capable of picking up where Kelly left off.
Here’s a quick recap: Alabama’s two biggest question marks will be filled by a highly-touted Quarterback recruit, and a 4-star Offensive Lineman with a full year of starting experience. Another year, another title run in Tuscaloosa.
Florida State’s schedule is about as rough as it gets in the ACC: they start the season vs. Ole Miss (in Orlando), @Louisville, @USF, vs. UNC, @Miami, and vs. Florida, BUT they get to face Clemson at home. I don’t think it’s possible to expect the Seminoles to run through this schedule undefeated, but this strength of schedule should look good to the Playoff Committee. I think that Florida State can make it into the playoff at 11-1 even if they don’t win the ACC, and could even make it as a 2-loss ACC champion. As a college football fan, it’s awesome to see a national power with 3 potential top-25 teams on their non-conference schedule. I just hope it doesn’t come back to bite them at the end of the season.
The Quarterback battle in Tallahassee was settled when Sean Maguire went down with an injured foot. With Maguire out for at least the first two games, 19-year-old Sophomore Deondre Francois will be the Seminoles’ starting signal caller. Francois is a former blue-chip recruit and provides much more upside at the position than Maguire.
The last time the Seminoles gave the Quarterback job to a first year starter his name was Jameis Winston and they won a national title. Can Francois do the same in 2016? He definitely has enough talent around him to do so. Florida State returns 17 starters from last season (not counting Sean Maguire) including Heisman-contender Running Back Dalvin Cook who averaged a staggering 7.4 yards per carry with 19 TDs last season while fighting through hamstring injuries. Pro Football Focus ranked the Offensive Line, which returns their entire 2-deep from last year, as the 10th-best in College Football. FSU lacks a bit of experienced depth on defense, but they have outstanding playmakers at every level of the defense. This team definitely has the talent to be a national title contender; the only question is whether they can overcome one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
Much like the two teams above, the only questionable position on this roster is at Quarterback. That position becomes less questionable when you consider that Jim Harbaugh made Jake Ruddock into a 3,000 yard passer completing 64% of his passes last season. Harbaugh has a great track record with Quarterbacks including the development of Andrew Luck, and reaching a Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick. With Harbaugh at the helm, the Quarterback position will always be stable, if not excellent.
Outside of Quarterback, the Wolverines are stacked with talent. They return 3 of their top 4 Running Backs from last season; possibly the nation’s best receiving corps in Darboh, Chesson, and Jake Butt; and they will field one of the best Offensive Lines in the country with four returning starters. Their defense is even more impressive returning 4 of their top 5 Defensive Linemen from a dominant ’15 unit and adding the #1 recruit in the country at Defensive Tackle in Rashan Gary; 6 of their top 7 Defensive Backs return including possible Heisman dark horse Jabrill Peppers and shutdown Cornerback Jourdan Lewis. They lose their top 4 Linebackers from 2015, but have tons of talent ready to step in to a group that will benefit immensely from outstanding Defensive Line play.
The B1G schedule isn’t kind to Michigan this year with late-season trips to Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State on the docket. The reason I believe they will win the B1G and reach the College Football Playoff is that Michigan got better from 2015 to 2016 while I expect Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State to each take a step back this year (here is my preview on Iowa’s season ICYMI). Michigan definitely created a lot of offseason buzz this year, and I believe they’ll back that up with stellar play and possibly a National Championship.
I wrote my first article for Sports Rants in July highlighting TCU as a College Football Playoff sleeper, and I’m sticking to it. For an in-depth look at this 2016 TCU team you can check out that article here. They return a deep and experienced defense thanks to their 2015 unit being decimated by injuries. Kenny Hill showed flashes of brilliance at Texas A&M and is more than capable of providing high quality Quarterback play this season. Finally, the offense finished 3rd in the country in yards per game in 2015 despite losing their top 3 playmakers to injury. The Horned Frogs will hopefully see much better injury luck this season and steal the Big 12 title from Oklahoma, who has historically had trouble living up to high pre-season expectations.
National Champion: Alabama
In a year that could end in utter chaos, I’m going with the safest bet in sports. The Crimson Tide have won 4 of the last 7 National Championships, and outside of a difficult conference road schedule, there isn’t much reason to believe that this year will be much different. You don’t have to like them, but you do have to respect the greatest dynasty in the history of College Football.