May 02, 2016 - Dave Miller
2016 Post-Spring Top 25
Follow @Miller_Dave With the calendar flipping to May and spring practices completed for programs across the country, it's time to take a look at the National Football Post's post-spring Top 25. 1. Alabama: Nick Saban’s defending national champs aren’t going anywhere, as the reload continues in Tuscaloosa. Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts will try to win the starting job under center, but it may not matter who is the starter because the Tide are loaded on defense. 2. Florida State: The biggest question for the Seminoles is whether Deondre Francois or Malik Henry can beat out senior Sean Maguire for the starting quarterback gig. We know that Dalvin Cook will remain a beastly and productive running back after setting the single-season school record with 1,691 rushing yards, but the ‘Noles need to be able to make big plays through the air. The defense will feature new starters, but safety Derwin James leads a talented unit. 3. LSU: It was ridiculous that Les Miles had to deal with the “hot seat” drama late last season, but that’s the world of big-time college football that we live in these days. The Tigers certainly enter the new season with high expectations, as a boatload of veteran talent returns. Leonard Fournette recorded a school-record 1,953 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns last year, but can Brandon Harris or Purdue transfer Danny Etling provide a steady force under center? I'm convinced that Harris is poised for a strong '16 campaign. 4. Tennessee: Is this the year for the Vols? Butch Jones led his team to six straight victories to close out last season, and most of the main pieces are back from that squad, including linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton on defense and quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd on offense. The defense is deep and experienced, but can the offense be more explosive and pick up bigger chunks of yardage in bunches? 5. Baylor: Quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham return to an offense that should be stocked again with leading rusher Shock Linwood and a receiving corps that is still deep despite the losses of Corey Coleman and Jay Lee. The defense is undergoing a bit of a rebuild, but coordinator Phil Bennett's unit should be steady enough to complement the explosive offense. 6. Clemson: The Tigers nearly captured the national title last season, and they’ll have a chance to win one this year behind stud quarterback Deshaun Watson, who could be the top overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’ll be surrounded by weapons such as running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams, who was lost to a neck injury last season. We saw how good the Tigers were defensively last year despite losing a ton of talent to the NFL, but can that level of play be sustained after returning just four starters from the ’15 unit and losing cornerback Adrian Baker to a torn ACL in March? Three defensive backs left early for the draft, and pass rushers Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson also departed. 7. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh has put his stamp on the Wolverines faster than most had expected, so expectations are very high for the ’16 squad. Star defender Jabrill Peppers will be used as a hybrid linebacker by coordinator Don Brown, so his athleticism will be depended upon when facing teams with spread elements. Offensively, can former Houston signal-caller John O’Korn lead the unit as well as Jake Rudock did last season? 8. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly and his offensive staff must decide on a starting quarterback after junior Malik Zaire and sophomore DeShone Kizer both proved capable of carrying the load. Kizer was thrown into a difficult situation but managed to help the Irish to a 10-win season after Zaire was hurt early in the season at Virginia. The team certainly lost top-level talent in this past weekend’s NFL Draft, but the cupboard isn’t bare in South Bend. 9. Oklahoma: The Sooners made the College Football Playoff last season, but they didn’t have the Orange Bowl experience that many had expected. Baker Mayfield is back to run the offense, which should continue to be efficient under coordinator Lincoln Riley. Mayfield completed over 68 percent of his throws last season, while Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined to rush for over 2,500 yards. But can the defense replace the level of play that performers such as Zack Sanchez and Eric Striker provided? Tests against Houston and Ohio State will answer that question early in the season. 10. Stanford: The Cardinal reached their third Rose Bowl in four seasons in ’15, but longtime starting quarterback Kevin Hogan is gone. However, do-everything Christian McCaffrey, who notched 3,864 all-purpose yards last season, returns for another Heisman Trophy run. The question is whether Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst will be able to do enough through the air to complement McCaffrey’s game. 11. Ohio State: Urban Meyer seems to do his best work with young squads, and the ’16 version of the Buckeyes will indeed feature youth. The program lost 15 starters from last year’s one-loss team, but keep in mind the national championship team from two years ago was short on experience. It helps that this will be J.T. Barrett’s offense again. 12. Houston: Tom Herman put together a magical first season as a head coach, as the Cougars earned a berth to the Peach Bowl where they handled Florida State. Can Greg Ward Jr. (3,936 yards of total offense and 38 total touchdowns in ’15) and an opportunistic defense (35 takeaways last fall) actually compete for a College Football Playoff berth in ’16? The schedule may allow for it to happen, as UH opens against Oklahoma and hosts Louisville. 13. Georgia: Kirby Smart landed his dream job in Athens, and he inherits a team loaded with talent. When will true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason get his chance to run the offensive show? Greyson Lambert may get the call against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but Eason will see the field very soon. Oh, and star running back Nick Chubb is expected to be at full strength after tearing knee ligaments last October. 14. Michigan State: The Spartans will be replacing Connor Cook at quarterback with either Tyler O'Connor or Damion Terry, and whoever wins the battle will be working behind a line that lost some key pieces. However, the backfield is deep, and the defense is filled with experience such as defensive end Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough and safety Demetrius Cox. 15. TCU: The Horned Frogs showed a lot of resiliency throughout last season, including in the team’s bowl game. Injuries decimated the squad, but Gary Patterson still notched 11 wins. Foster Sawyer and Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill are battling to replace prolific signal-caller Trevone Boykin, and a lot will be expected of the winner of that QB derby because the offense only returns three starters. 16. Ole Miss: The Rebels lost some top talent to the NFL, as head coach Hugh Freeze has to replace 12 starters from a team that helped the program to its first 10-win season in 13 years. Quarterback Chad Kelly is back after setting program records for total offense and total touchdowns, but he’ll need some help from the running back corps. 17. Louisville: Bobby Petrino brings back an electric quarterback and an experienced defense. There’s no question that Lamar Jackson needs to be more consistent and efficient through the air, as he completed just 54.7 percent of his passes and tossed eight interceptions last fall. However, the sophomore nearly ran for 1,000 yards and had 11 TDs on the ground. Can he consistently resemble the player we saw go off in the Music City Bowl? Former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields paces the defense and had 11 sacks and was a force against the run last fall. 18. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were a goal-line stand away from making the second College Football Playoff, but longtime head coach Kirk Ferentz was still able to lead the program to its first Rose Bowl in 25 years. Can the Hawkeyes prove that 2015 was not a fluke? They have a chance with quarterback C.J. Beathard, who proficiently led an offense that was more wide open in ’15. 19. USC: Clay Helton had the interim tag removed from his title, but can he navigate a tough schedule and the high-stakes pressure of being in the Los Angeles spotlight? The Trojans open up the season against defending national champion Alabama, and either junior Max Browne or redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will be under center. Offensive weapons abound, but can the defensive line hold up for an entire season? 20. Washington: The Huskies are a sleeping giant in the Pac-12 under Chris Petersen. The team closed ’15 strong, and the duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin will pace the offense. How much time will junior cornerback Budda Baker see at wide receiver? The defense returns a lot of key players from a unit that led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense. 21. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys bring back a lot of experience from a team that won 10 games in '15, although the Pokes did drop their final three contests of the season. Better offensive line play is needed, as OSU ranked 113th in the FBS in rushing yards per game and allowed 32 sacks. Road trips to Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma loom. 22. Florida: Jim McElwain claimed an SEC East title in his first season in Gainesville, and he'll need to find a quarterback if the Gators want to repeat and put up a better fight than they did in their showcase games to close the '15 campaign. Luke Del Rio is the favorite to start at quarterback, and plenty of talent remains on defense. 23. Boise State: Bryan Harsin has taken over play-calling duties on offense after coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz left for NC State, while linebackers coach Andy Avalos was promoted to defensive coordinator to replace Marcel Yates, who left for Arizona. Quarterback Brett Rypien passed for 3,353 yards with 20 touchdowns as a freshman, while running back Jeremy McNichols grounded out 1,337 rushing yards and 20 scores. 24. North Carolina: The Tar Heels advanced to the ACC title game and gave Clemson fits before ultimately falling short. Still, Larry Fedora led the program to its first 11-win season since 1997. UNC made a dramatic improvement on defense last year, so a similar effort will be needed along with stability at quarterback with Mitch Trubisky, who is replacing the prolific Marquise Williams. 25. Miami (FL): New head coach Mark Richt inherits Brad Kaaya, who is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and has logged consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons. We don’t know what the future holds for running back Mark Walton (DUI charge), who had a team-high nine touchdowns last season. But Joseph Yearby ran for 1,002 yards in 2015. Under consideration: Oregon Wisconsin UCLA Arkansas Washington State Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.