2016 college football season predictions

Movie quote of the day:

“If I’m not back in five minutes, just wait longer.”

– Ace Ventura, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (1994)

Today is finally the beginning of the most wonderful time of year – the college football season. I know that the season technically started last week when Cal and Hawaii met in Australia, but I consider this weekend the first week. I don’t know about everyone else, but this season has felt like it’s taken an eternity to get here. It almost felt like it wasn’t going to happen. A couple of things to know before I get into my predictions: First, I don’t like to predict a team to finish undefeated – no matter how good the team appears on paper (every team slips up at some point), and I don’t like to pick a reigning champion to repeat (seriously, the odds of repeating are slim).

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the rest of his team celebrate after winning the 2016 national championship.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the rest of his team celebrate after winning the 2016 national championship.

Award winners predictions:

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson.

Heisman (most outstanding player): QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Maxwell (best player): Deshaun Watson
Davey O’Brien (best QB): Deshaun Watson
Doak Walker (best RB): Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Fred Biletnikoff (best WR): Juju Smith-Schuster, USC
John Mackey (best TE): Jake Butt, Michigan
Outland (best lineman): OT Cam Robinson, Alabama
Dave Rimington (best center): Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia
Chuck Bednarik (best defensive player): DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Butkus (best LB): Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Jim Thorpe (best DB): S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Lou Groza (best K): Austin Siebert, Oklahoma

Power Five conference champions:

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook.

ACC – Florida State Seminoles (over North Carolina in the ACC Championship)

2015 record: 10-3 (6-2)
Head coach: Jimbo Fisher (68-14) – seventh season
Returning starters: 15 (9 offense, 6 defense)
Key returning players: RB Dalvin Cook, OT Roderick Johnson, S Derwin James
2015 total offense rank: No. 51
2015 scoring offense rank: No. 47
2015 total defense rank: No. 19
2015 scoring defense rank: No. 9
2016 recruiting class rank: No. 2 (Rivals, 247 Sports)
Las Vegas win total odds: 9.5

Florida State had “down” year last season after the departure of a lot of NFL talent from the 2014 season, but Jimbo Fisher still managed to lead the Seminoles to a 10-win season that included a New Year’s Six bowl berth. The Seminoles return a lot of offensive fire power – 78 percent of Florida State’s offensive production last season is coming back. Cook finished last season with 1,691 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns after he battled injuries, average quarterback play, and a banged up offensive line. The offensive line ought to be better and healthy, so, Cook might have an even better season. The only question mark for Florida State’s offense is quarterback. Sean Maquire took over for Everett Golson as the starter last season and finished the last five games of the regular season with 1,055 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and just two interceptions. However, he threw four interceptions in the Peach Bowl. He must improve if the Seminoles are going to be a national-title contender. I expect Maguire to be improved because he has Jimbo Fisher (a great offensive mind) as a head coach and spent an offseason battling for the starting job with talented underclassmen, Malik Henry and Deondre Francois.

Florida State does lose some starters on defense – including All-America cornerback Jalen Ramsey. However, the Seminoles return talented sophomore safety Derwin James. Plus, Florida State has ranked in the top five in recruiting each of the last three years, so, the Seminoles don’t lack the talent to field a great defense. Florida State’s schedule isn’t easy but manageable, kicking off the season in Orlando, Fla. against Ole Miss. The Seminoles do have road trips to Louisville (potential ACC contender) and South Florida (don’t sleep on the Bulls). The biggest advantage for Florida State is that the Seminoles will host Clemson this season in Tallahassee. That game will likely decide the Atlantic division. I don’t see any team winning the conference from the Coastal division. If Florida State can get to the ACC title game, the Seminoles should have a good chance to win.

2016 record: 12-1

Ohio State QB J. T. Barrett.
Ohio State QB J. T. Barrett.

Big Ten – Ohio State Buckeyes (over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship)

2015 record: 12-1 (7-1)
Head coach: Urban Meyer (154-27) – fifth season
Returning starters: 8 (3 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams)
Key returning players: QB J. T. Barrett, LB Raekwon McMillan, DE Tyquan Lewis
2015 total offense rank: No. 41
2015 scoring offense rank: No. 28
2015 total defense rank: No. 9
2015 scoring defense rank: No. 2
2016 recruiting class rank: No. 3 (Rivals), No. 4 (247 Sports)
Las Vegas win total odds: 9.5

This prediction might surprise a lot of people. I know that Ohio State lost a lot players to the NFL and that Michigan is the sexy pick to win the Big Ten this season, but I still think Michigan is a year away from being legit. Ohio State still returns important veterans like quarterback J. T. Barrett and linebacker Raekwon McMillan. I think it’s significant that the Buckeyes return the leaders on both sides of the ball because it will help the development of the new starters. Also, Ohio State has assembled a top-five recruiting class in four of the last five years. So, there’s no shortage of talent to help replace the production from last season. It might take a few games, but I think Urban Meyer will get Ohio State clicking on all cylinders by season’s end.

The Buckeyes have a tough schedule ahead that includes road trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State. However, Wisconsin and Penn State don’t have the talent of Ohio State, and Michigan State lost a lot from last season and Ohio State will be hungry to beat them after the Spartans stole a win in Columbus last year. Like with Florida State, the biggest advantage for the Buckeyes is that Michigan has to visit The Horseshoe in late November. That game will almost certainly decide the East division. Like I said above, I think Ohio State will be performing well by the end of the season just in time for that game. I think the Buckeyes should be able to handle any team that comes out of the West division in the Big Ten title game.

2016 record: 11-2

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield.
Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield.

Big 12 – Oklahoma Sooners

2015 record: 11-2 (8-1)
Head coach: Bob Stoops (179-46) – 18th season
Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams)
Key returning players: QB Baker Mayfield, RB Samaje Perine, DE Charles Walker
2015 total offense rank: No. 7
2015 scoring offense rank: No. 4
2015 total defense rank: No. 39
2015 scoring defense rank: No. 28
2016 recruiting class rank: No. 16 (Rivals), No. 19 (247 Sports)
Las Vegas win total odds: 10

Oklahoma ought to have one of the most dynamic offenses in the country this year. Dual-threat quarterback Baker Mayfield returns after throwing for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns, and rushing for 405 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The Sooners also return four of the top five leading rushers from last year – including running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon who combined for 2,102 yards and 23 touchdowns last season – and three starters on the offensive line. There are questions at wide receiver after the departure of Sterling Shepard. However, Oklahoma does return three of its top five receivers from last year including Dede Westbrook, Mixon, and Mark Andrews. Westbrook should be the top option for Mayfield after he tallied 46 receptions for 743 yards and four touchdowns last year.

Even though the Sooners return the majority of their defensive starters from last year, they did lose playmakers Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, and Zack Sanchez – all earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. Even with those players gone there’s a lot of hope. Mike Stoops is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country and Oklahoma still returns defensive end Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, safety Ahmad Thomas, and cornerback Jordan Thomas – who were all named second-team All-Big 12 a season ago. In my opinion, the Sooners have the toughest schedule in this post. Oklahoma has an out of conference slate that includes a “neutral” site game against Houston, in Houston (basically a road game), and a home game against Ohio State. Also, the Sooners will have tough road games against Texas Tech (tough place to play), TCU (dark horse to win the Big 12), and West Virginia (WVU hasn’t beat Oklahoma since joining the Big 12, odds are against the Sooners to win this matchup for a fifth-consecutive season). Oklahoma will have a tough road ahead but there’s a lot of talent on this team. The Sooners have a great rushing offense that will help chew clock. I also think Oklahoma will have the best defense in the conference, which is important when trying to slow down the high-octane offenses in the Big 12.

2016 record: 11-1

UCLA QB Josh Rosen.
UCLA QB Josh Rosen.

Pac-12 – UCLA Bruins (over Washington in the Pac-12 Championship)

2015 record: 8-5 (5-4)
Head coach: Jim Mora (37-16) – fifth season
Returning starters: 12 (4 offense, 8 defense)
Key returning players: QB Josh Rosen, LB Jayon Brown, DE Eddie Vanderdoes
2015 total offense rank: No. 28
2015 scoring offense rank: No. 45
2015 total defense rank: No. 67
2015 scoring defense rank: No. 54
2016 recruiting class rank: No. 10 (Rivals), No. 12 (247 Sports)
Las Vegas win total odds: 8.5

This is the prediction that I have the least confidence in. Mainly because the Pac-12 is WIDE OPEN and deep with potential conference contenders, making no clear favorite. UCLA didn’t have a lot of experience last season and it ended up being the first season that UCLA didn’t win at least nine games since 2011. UCLA doesn’t have a lot coming back offensively this season, but the Bruins have ranked in the top 50 in both total and scoring offense in every season since Jim Mora became head coach. So, the Bruins at least have had a good track record of assembling a quality offense under Mora. Josh Rosen returns at quarterback after putting up decent numbers as a true freshman last year (3,670 yards and 23 TD). The Bruins do lose Paul Perkins (who led the team in rushing last season) but return Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks as capable replacements – both rushed for 723 yards and nine touchdowns. There are question marks at the offensive line and wide receivers. UCLA lost three starters on the offensive line (at least the starting left tackle returns) and four of their top five leading receivers.

UCLA’s defense was hit with a lot of injuries last season and the defense suffered – ranking No. 54 in the country in scoring defense. However, the unit returns eight starters and has Tom Bradley as its coordinator (one of the best defensive minds in the country), so, the defense should be improved. Even with all the question marks, the Bruins have a talented roster. UCLA has ranked in the top 20 in recruiting every year since 2012. The schedule won’t be easy. The Bruins have to play Texas A&M and BYU in out of conference play, both on the road. It gets more favorable for UCLA in conference play because the Bruins get Stanford, Arizona, Utah, and USC at home. The most difficult conference road game will be Washington State, which isn’t an impossible game to win. Bottom line, the Pac-12 is wide open and I could see four to six teams emerging as the champion. I think this type of year works out well for UCLA, I think it’ll be the first time that a team in the South division wins the Pac-12.

2016 record: 10-3

LSU RB Leonard Fournette.
LSU RB Leonard Fournette.

SEC – LSU Tigers (over Tennessee in the SEC Championship)

2015 record: 9-3 (5-3)
Head coach: Les Miles (139-53) – 12th season
Returning starters: 20 (9 offense, 10 defense, 1 special teams)
Key returning starters: RB Leonard Fournette, CB Tre’Davious White, S Jamal Adams
2015 total offense rank: No. 39
2015 scoring offense rank: No. 44
2015 total defense rank: No. 25
2015 scoring defense rank: No. 41
2016 recruiting class rank: No. 5 (Rivals), No. 3 (247 Sports)
Las Vegas win total odds: 10

I realize that Alabama is the favorite to win both the SEC and the national championship, but I’m not so sure. Alabama is once again in a bad position at quarterback, returns just 11 starters, and has a tough schedule this season. LSU, on the other hand, has 19 starters returning including running back Leonard Fournette – who rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. The Tigers also return three starters on the offensive line and the top three leading receivers from last year. However, the Tigers must improve at quarterback if they’re going to be a serious threat to win the SEC and national championship. Brandon Harris was subpar last year with just a 53.8 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, and six interceptions. I’m expecting improvement from Harris after he competed with Purdue transfer Danny Etling during the offseason and the fact that Cam Cameron is a pretty good offensive coordinator. For as bad as LSU was at quarterback last season, the Tigers still ranked in the top 50 in total and scoring offense. I expect LSU’s offense to be improved with the experience that’s coming back.

As for the defense, LSU returns 10 starters and should have one of the best secondaries in the nation led by cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams. The Tigers should also have a solid pass rushing presence with Arden Key and Lewis Neal – who combined for 13 sacks last season – coming off the edge. It’ll be difficult for opposing quarterbacks to successfully throw the ball against the Tigers. Also, the schedule is very manageable. LSU opens with a “neutral” site game against Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis. The toughest road game for the Tigers is probably Florida or Texas A&M – both very winnable games. Other than that, LSU hosts Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Alabama in Baton Rouge. Bottom line, LSU has too much talent coming back and has a major advantage in the schedule because the Tigers will play the top teams in the West division at home. Both games against Alabama and Ole Miss will likely decide the West division, and I expect LSU to take care of business in those games, clinch the division, and win the SEC championship against whoever comes out of the lesser East division.

2016 record: 12-1

CFP

New Year’s Six bowls:

Fiesta (College Football Playoff semifinal): No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Florida State
Peach (College Football Playoff semifinal): No. 4 Clemson vs. No. 1 LSU
Rose: UCLA vs. Ohio State
Cotton: San Diego State vs. Notre Dame
Sugar: Oklahoma State vs. Alabama
Orange: North Carolina vs. Michigan

I think that this is going to be a weird season of college football. I think it’ll be the first season that two teams from the same conference make the College Football Playoff. It might be the SEC with Alabama and LSU, but I think it’ll be the ACC. Florida State and Clemson are both very talented and have the luxury of playing in the weakest Power Five conference. As for my non-Power Five school bid, I don’t like picking the same school to make a New Year’s Six bowl from the previous season (even though I did it last year). San Diego State won 11 games last season, returns 15 starters, and doesn’t have to play a major Power Five opponent besides Cal, and won’t play Boise State until the Mountain West championship game (if both teams make it).

National Championship:

No. 4 Clemson vs. No. 3 Oklahoma

Champion:

No. 4 Clemson

Like I said, I think this is going to be a weird season. What’s weirder than an at-large team getting into the College Football Playoff AND going on to win it all? I think that Florida State will get the best of Clemson in Tallahassee, but Clemson will respond in a 2008 Florida-like way after that loss and start playing like the best team in the country, and ride that wave into the playoff. Clemson will match up well with LSU and I expect Deshaun Watson to make more plays than Brandon Harris, and score more points. As for Oklahoma, I think it’s similar to the LSU-Clemson matchup. I think Baker Mayfield will outplay Sean Maguire and Oklahoma’s run game will be too much for Florida State. Then, I think Clemson will best Oklahoma in Tampa for the national championship. I think Clemson will be a team on a mission after coming up just short of winning the school’s second national title last year, and suffering a tough loss to Florida State this year.

Thanks for reading

Shane Price
Follow me on Twitter – @priceisright53

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