TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The start of the 2016 college football season is fast approaching.
Teams are locked into their offseason training programs which is where the games are often won or loss.
For four of the last seven seasons, Alabama has finished the year as national champions and the last team standing.
The Crimson Tide will once again have the target firmly on their backs as they navigate another SEC gauntlet. Talent-wise, Alabama has the pieces to repeat. But it one be easy as every team in the country is gunning for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and ultimately the title game.
Last week, we took a look at the team within the SEC that could push Alabama for the national spotlight. Here are three teams outside of the league that have a strong chance to win the national championship.
Why they can: Simply put, their offense.
With quarterback Deshaun Watson back on campus, Clemson will have a shot in every game. If you’re ranking the top college football players in country, Watson belongs among at least the top three. The dual-threat quarterback almost single-handled beat Alabama for a national championship last season as he passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
Clemson returns a total of eight starters, including running back Wayne Gallman who rushed for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Leading wide receiver Artavis Scott (93 catches, 901 yards, 6 touchdowns) is also back in the fold.
The Tigers have a chance to improve on what was already the ACC’s most explosive passing and total offense.
Why they won’t: While Clemson returns a ton on offense, their defense was gutted by the NFL draft. Key contributors like defensive end Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and others are gone as the Tigers return just three starters from last year’s unit.
Clemson has recruited well in the defensive front, so there’ll be talent there. The issue may be the Tigers secondary which not only lost three starters, but also cornerbacks Kaleb Chalmers (dismissed from the team) and Adrian Baker (torn knee ligaments) were lost during the spring.
From a schedule standpoint, Clemson’s two toughest games are on the road as the Tigers travel to Auburn to open the season and play at Florida State in late October. The clash with the Seminoles could decide the ACC race as well as which team will represent the league in the College Football Playoff.
Why they can: Urban Meyer is both the second-best coach and recruiter in the country behind Saban. That means the Buckeyes has plenty of returning talent. It also helps when you have a dynamic quarterback like J.T. Barrett back for another season.
Unlike last year’s run at repeating as national champions, the Buckeyes won’t be playing under the same amount of pressure. There’ll be no quarterback controversy. There’ll be no star running back calling out the coaching staff for play-calling. A lot of the distractions the Buckeyes dealt with last season are gone, and young players should be able to step into more prominent roles.
Why they won’t: No team was hurt by the NFL draft more than Ohio State. Star players like running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive end Joey Bosa and quarterback Cardale Jones all opted to leave school early.
Ohio State set a record with 12 players taken in the first four rounds of the draft. That’s good for the next level and recruiting, but replacing that many key players won’t be easy. Ohio State returns just three starters on offense and three on defense. This season will truly test just how well Meyer and his staff have been recruiting in Columbus.
After playing one of the easiest schedules in college football last season, the Buckeyes beefed things up this year with a matchup at Oklahoma in Week 3. Ohio State also has to play at Wisconsin, at Penn State and at Michigan State. Neither of those teams are world beaters on paper, but that’s a tough string of games on the road. The Buckeyes get Michigan at home, but the Wolverines won’t be a pushover in Jim Harbaugh’s second season.
Why they can: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook may have been the most underappreciated star player in all of college football last year. Cook finished top 10 nationally in rushing yards (1,691), yards per carry (7.38), touchdowns (19) and yards per game (140.9). But despite all of that production, Cook was completely overshadowed by some of the other top running backs in the country.
Cook had offseason shoulder surgery, but should be ready for the fall. Cook should have more help on offense as some of the Seminoles young playmakers are ready for bigger roles like rising junior wide receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane.
Schedule-wise, Florida State does have to open the season against Ole Miss in Orlando. But the Seminoles get Clemson and Florida in Doak Campbell Stadium.
Why they won’t: Florida State lost a lot of valuable players on defense with cornerback Jalen Ramsey, defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample and linebacker Reggie Northrup all moving on. The Seminoles also lost kicker Robert Aguayo, who was one of the most automatic kickers in college football history.
The Seminoles could have a quarterback controversy on their hands. Incumbent starter Sean Maguire sat out the spring while recovering from a broken ankle. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, who threw for 246 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the spring game.
A lengthy quarterback competition could hurt the timing and overall efficiency of the Seminoles passing game.