2016 college football preview
Alabama, Clemson early favorites to play for national championship
With the 2016 college football season set to begin this weekend, Local10.com previews some of the most anticipated games of the year.
No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina
It's the dawn of a new era for Georgia football. After 15 seasons under Mark Richt, the Bulldogs are now led by one of their own. Enter Georgia alumnus Kirby Smart, who spent the past eight seasons as Alabama defensive coordinator and played defensive back for the Bulldogs under Ray Goff and Richt's predecessor, Jim Donnan, in the 1990s. Smart will make his debut against a team that the Bulldogs haven't met since defeating North Carolina, 7-3, in the 1971 Gator Bowl. Atlanta would seem to be an obvious home advantage for the Bulldogs, but that wasn't the case in their only previous Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game appearance -- a 35-21 loss to Boise State at the Georgia Dome in 2011. Kirby's tenure has already gotten off to a frenetic start -- he was able to convince top quarterback recruit Jacob Eason (who committed to the Bulldogs under Richt) to enroll early at Georgia and attracted a Southeastern Conference-record 93,000 fans to the spring game. Now all he has to do is win more than Richt, whose 145 victories are second only to Vince Dooley. It will help having junior running back Nick Chubb back after a leg injury sidelined him for the majority of the 2015 season. Chubb finished his freshman season with 1,547 rushing yards despite starting just eight games and tied 1982 Heisman Memorial Trophy winner Herschel Walker with 13 consecutive 100-yard games before he was injured last year. North Carolina won 11 games a season ago, but the Tar Heels haven't had much recent success against Southeastern Conference teams (losing to South Carolina in 2013 and last year and Louisiana State in 2010). Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky has been tapped as the starter to replace departed Marquise Williams, who passed for 3,072 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 13 touchdowns last season.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California
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Former Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin will scheme against the program that gave up on him after three-plus seasons. Kiffin was fired from USC in September 2013, but he seems to have found his place in Alabama as offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide. Kiffin will be tasked with grooming a new starting quarterback for the third straight year. Junior quarterback Cooper Bateman enters the season as the heir apparent after the loss of Jacob Coker, but redshirt sophomore David Cornwell, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts will challenge Bateman for the job. Alabama also loses Heisman winner Derrick Henry, who became the first SEC running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. The Tide also lose the majority of their defensive starters, among them defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. However, they welcome a familiar face to the sideline with the return of Jeremy Pruitt, this time as Alabama's defensive coordinator. Pruitt previously served as defensive backs coach under head coach Nick Saban before leading the defense at Florida State, where he won a national championship, and Georgia. Clay Helton begins his first full season as USC's head coach after leading the Trojans to a 5-4 record after Steve Sarkisian was fired last October. Alabama and USC haven't met since the Tide's 24-3 win in the 1985 Aloha Bowl in Hawaii. Alabama is 3-0 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, since it opened in 2009.
No. 5 Louisiana State vs. Wisconsin
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Louisiana State travels north to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the first college football game at Lambeau Field since 1983. Much like the games involving the Green Bay Packers, this could be an old-fashioned game of smash-mouth football. Junior running back Leonard Fournette has rushed for 2,987 yards and 32 touchdowns in 25 games at LSU. He led the nation last season with an average of 162.8 yards per game. Wisconsin has a bruiser of its own in senior Corey Clement, who rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns while backing up Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon in 2014. Clement only rushed for 221 yards in 2015, missing eight games with a sports hernia and another due to suspension. LSU head coach Les Miles is back for a 12th season after reports surfaced that he would be fired last year after the Tigers, undefeated and ranked second in the country, lost three consecutive games in November. With Richt's departure and the retirement of former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, Miles becomes the longest-tenured coach in the SEC. The Badgers must find a new quarterback to replace four-year starter Joel Stave. Fifth-year senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are vying for the job. First-year LSU defensive coordinator held the same position with the Badgers the last time these teams met in 2014, when the Tigers won 28-24 at another NFL venue in Houston.
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn
Only one thing is certain when Clemson travels to Auburn. The Tigers will win. Will it be the Clemson Tigers, who advanced all the way to the College Football Playoff National Championship unscathed before falling to Alabama? Or will it be the Auburn Tigers, who are just 15-11 since losing to Florida State in the final Bowl Championship Series national title game. Clemson has won the previous two meetings -- a 38-24 victory at home in 2011 and a 26-19 win in Atlanta in 2012. When Clemson last visited Auburn, the home team's 27-24 win served as a springboard for Auburn's national championship run in 2010. Auburn's only home wins against non-conference Football Bowl Subdivision teams (San Jose State and Idaho) last season had a combined 10-15 record. The primary goal for Auburn will be containing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who became the first FBS player to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in a single season. First-year Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele joins the Tigers after serving in the same capacity at LSU last season. Steele was in charge of Clemson's defense from 2009-11, but he and head coach Dabo Sweeney parted ways after an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Junior college transfer John Franklin III, who began his collegiate career buried on the depth chart behind eventual No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jameis Winston at Florida State, and redshirt sophomore Sean White will battle for Auburn's starting quarterback job.
No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas
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Originally scheduled for Sept. 3, the game between Notre Dame and Texas was moved back a day to accommodate a rare Sunday night appearance on national television. How much has Texas improved since last year's 38-3 loss at Notre Dame to begin the season? A lot will depend on the play of the quarterback. Texas might finally have the elite signal caller who has eluded the Longhorns since Colt McCoy left after the 2009 season. Early enrollee Shane Buechele threw for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of the spring game. Behind center for Notre Dame during last year's drubbing of Texas was Malik Zaire, who torched the Longhorns for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He'll be back for another year after a broken ankle ended his junior season prematurely. DeShone Kizer orchestrated a fourth-quarter comeback after Zaire was injured and will compete with Zaire for the starting job in 2016. The Longhorns haven't beaten Notre Dame since the 1970 Sugar Bowl.
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Mississippi
This Labor Day evening game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, matches a pair of New Year's Six bowl participants from a season ago. Florida State won 10 games before falling flat in a 38-24 loss to Houston in the Peach Bowl, while Mississippi earned its 10th win in a 48-20 romp of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. The unequivocal leader for the Seminoles is junior running back Dalvin Cook, who shattered the single-season rushing record (1,242 yards set by Warrick Dunn in 1995) with 1,691 yards. He is 1,261 rushing yards away from Dunn's career rushing mark of 3,959. Sean Maguire returns for the Seminoles at quarterback, but he missed spring practice while recovering from ankle surgery. Maguire played in the bowl game with a fractured ankle, which he injured in the first quarter. His absence in the spring allowed redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and early enrollee Malik Henry to split time with the first-team offense. Francois threw for 246 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the spring game (also in Orlando), while Henry threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Maguire injured a bone in his foot early during fall practice, requiring surgery to repair, and Henry was suspended indefinitely in August for a violation of team rules. Maguire's injury and Henry's suspension all but cement Francois as the starter for the season opener. There is no question who will be behind center for the Rebels. Chad Kelly returns for his senior campaign after leading the SEC in passing yards (4,042) and touchdowns (31) last season. Kelly won't have his top target in Laquon Treadwill, who left school early to become a first-round NFL draft pick. Kelly also won't have offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil to protect him anymore. Tunsil, who became the 13th overall pick in April's draft, only allowed two sacks in his college career. The Rebels won 33-0 in their only previous meeting with the Seminoles in 1961.
No. 9 Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
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Move over, NASCAR. An estimated record-crowd is expected at Bristol Motor Speedway (the race track seats about 160,000) when Tennessee and Virginia Tech meet in Bristol, Tennessee. The timing of this game couldn't be better. One school is finding its resurgence after more than a decade of irrelevance, while the other school is seeking to reestablish its football identity after the face of the program retired. Virginia Tech says goodbye to Frank Beamer this year after 29 seasons at the helm. Justin Fuente becomes the first head coach other than Beamer to lead the Hokies since 1986. Fuente compiled a 26-23 record in four years at Memphis, guiding the Tigers to a pair of bowl games in each of the past two seasons. The Hokies beat Tennessee in their last meeting in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Volunteers lost all four games last season by a total of 17 points and ended on a six-game winning streak, including a decisive 45-6 victory against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. This game could come down to whichever team gets the most out of its quarterback. Fuente must choose between last year's backup in senior Brenden Motley or junior college transfer Jerod Evans. Tennessee senior Joshua Dobbs had 2,962 total yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns last season. If he improves his accuracy (59.6 percent ranked ninth in the SEC in passing efficiency), Dobbs will be hard to stop.
Penn State at Pittsburgh
This once-annual state rivalry is temporarily renewed this year for the first time in 16 years. Penn State and Pittsburgh met every year from 1935 to 1992, but the series was discontinued when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993. The teams got together for a four-game, home-and-home series from 1997 to 2000, but the series was once again was placed on hiatus. The Panthers will have home-field advantage and a senior quarterback against a Penn State team that is still finding its way under third-year head coach James Franklin. Nathan Peterman passed for 2,287 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, but he loses his top target with the graduation of wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Peterman could be helped by the return of junior running back James Conner, whose 2015 season was cut short after he was injured in the opening game and then later diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year said in December that he was cancer-free and will attempt to return to the field in 2016. If he can't return, the Panthers will have another reliable running back to fill the void in sophomore Qadree Ollison, who earned ACC rookie of the year honors last season while filling in for Conner. Penn State will be breaking in a new quarterback in a competition that Franklin claims won't be settled until August. The frontrunner appears to be sophomore Trace McSorely, who completed 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Although Pitt blanked the Nittany Lions 12-0 in their last game in 2000, Penn State has won seven of the past eight meetings.
No. 6 Ohio State at No. 3 Oklahoma
Seven teams have participated in the College Football Playoff since it began two seasons ago. Ohio State and Oklahoma are two of them. The Buckeyes steamrolled Alabama and Oregon to win the 2014 national championship, and the Sooners earned a spot in last season's four-team playoff. Bob Stoops brings stability and a championship pedigree to Oklahoma. Now that Beamer has retired, Stoops is the longest tenured head coach in the country. If the Sooners can overcome Ohio State, they should be a favorite to make the CFP again this season, mainly because of quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine. Mayfield threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns against just seven interceptions last season. He also rushed for 405 yards and seven scores. After rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, including an NCAA-record 427 yards in one game, Perine took a step back last season, finishing with 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns. Mayfield and Perine must perform at a high level against Ohio State's defense, which finished among the top 25 in all four major categories. Spearheading this year's defense will be junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who led the team in tackles last season. The Buckeyes only return three offensive starters, but one of them is junior quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Oklahoma native has passed for 3,826 yards and 45 touchdowns in two seasons with the Buckeyes, while also amassing 1,620 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground. Oklahoma senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook was arrested in May on criminal trespassing charges, and a team spokesman said the matter would be handled internally. What punishment, if any, Westbrook faces remains to be seen. He caught 46 passes for 743 and four touchdowns in his first season with the Sooners.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 11 Mississippi
Mississippi was the only team to beat Alabama during its 2015 national championship campaign. The Rebels have actually won two in a row against the Tide, but can they make it a trifecta? No Saban-coached team has lost three straight to the same school since Michigan State dropped three consecutive games to Purdue in the 1990s. Much like last season, the Rebels will enter the game with the more established quarterback. Kelly led the SEC in passing yards (4,042), touchdown passes (31) and total offense (4,542) last season. He had a performance for the ages against Alabama in 2015, passing for 341 yards and three touchdowns to go along with a rushing touchdown.
No. 12 Michigan State at No. 10 Notre Dame
This regional rivalry is renewed after a two-year absence. The teams had met annually since 1959 before Notre Dame made the highly criticized decision to drop the Spartans from its schedule after the 2013 season. That left a sour taste in the mouths of Michigan State fans, whose team is in the midst of a three-game losing streak to Notre Dame dating to 2011. Fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor is the heir apparent at quarterback for the Spartans. He proved his worth last year when he led Michigan State to an upset of Ohio State when former starter Connor Cook was injured. The Spartans haven't won at Notre Dame Stadium since a 31-14 victory in 2007.
No. 20 Southern California at No. 8 Stanford
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The most versatile player in college football returns for Stanford in this early-season rematch of last year's Pacific 12 Conference title game. Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey is back for his junior season after setting the NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. McCaffrey rushed for 207 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in last year's 41-22 title game victory against USC. McCaffrey will again be the centerpiece of the Stanford offense, so it will be up to new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who held the same position with the Trojans in 2013, to find a way to stop him. It won't be easy, as Pendergast must replace USC's entire starting defensive line.
No. 25 Florida at No. 9 Tennessee
This game used to determine the SEC Eastern Division, but it's become a lopsided affair for more than a decade. Tennessee is long overdue for a win. The Gators have won 11 in a row -- the longest winning streak for either team in the history of the rivalry. Tennessee's last win against Florida was a 30-28 home victory in 2004, when Ron Zook was still trying to escape the shadow of Spurrier's legacy. The season seemingly fell apart for the Gators after quarterback Will Grier was suspended by the NCAA after testing positive for a banned substance. The Gators lost their final three games by a combined score of 97-24, prompting head coach Jim McElwain to call his team's collapse "embarrassing." Grier has since transferred, while backup Treon Harris was converted to receiver, suspended and left school in the summer. The Gators will begin the 2016 campaign with their ninth starting quarterback since former Heisman winner Tim Tebow departed after the 2009 season. Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio, whose father is Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, finally gets his chance to be a starter. He comes to Florida after previous stops at Alabama and Oregon State. Del Rio ended Florida's spring game 10-for-11 for 176 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
No. 22 North Carolina at No. 4 Florida State
Remember when the North Carolina-Florida State games of the mid-1990s used to be the gold standard of ACC football? This rare cross-divisional meeting between the Seminoles and the Tar Heels could be a resurgence of the Bobby Bowden-versus-Mack Brown era. North Carolina won 11 straight games last season on the way to a Coastal Division title. Although Williams is gone, North Carolina returns seven starters on offense, including junior running back Elijah Hood and senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Hood amassed 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, while Switzer finished second on the team in receiving yards (697) and touchdowns catches (six). The Tar Heels won the last meeting, 37-35, in Tallahassee in 2010.
Texas vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Oklahoma's lone regular-season loss last season came to an underperforming Texas team at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Sooners are 10-7 in the "Red River Showdown" since Stoops got to Oklahoma in 1999, but Texas has won two of the past three meetings. Both times, the Longhorns were unranked when they steamrolled the Sooners -- 36-20 in 2013 and 24-17 last year. Texas trampled Oklahoma's defense in 2015 with 313 rushing yards and held the Sooners to 67 yards on the ground. The Longhorns have clearly embraced the underdog role against Oklahoma, which is 2-6 against unranked Texas teams since 1989 when the Sooners are ranked in the top 25.
No. 4 Florida State at Miami
Could this be the season that Florida State and Miami meet in the regular season and again for the ACC title? Miami welcomes Mark Richt back to Coral Gables after 15 seasons at Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to a 145-51 record, two SEC championships and three other SEC title game appearances. Impatient Hurricanes fans who had to endure five years of mediocrity under Al Golden are expecting immediate success from a proven winner like Richt, especially against rival Florida State. Richt, a former quarterback who played for Howard Schnellenberger at Miami and grew up in nearby Boca Raton, knows a thing or two about the Seminoles. He was offensive coordinator for FSU's first two national championship teams in the 1990s and spent 15 of 16 seasons as an assistant coach or graduate assistant in Tallahassee. Joining Richt's staff is defensive coordinator and FSU graduate Manny Diaz. The Seminoles are 9-3 against Miami since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004. Cook propelled FSU to a 29-24 win last year after rushing for 222 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes have an experienced quarterback in junior Brad Kaaya, who threw for 6,436 yards and 42 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter. Kaaya also cut his interceptions from 12 to five last season and is 3,130 yards away from breaking the school's all-time passing record. FSU hasn't lost in South Florida since 2004, when the Hurricanes were still playing in the now-demolished Miami Orange Bowl. A victory would match FSU's longest winning streak since the Seminoles won seven in a row from 1963-72.
No. 5 Louisiana State at No. 25 Florida
This annual crossover SEC game always seems to involve a trick play with Louisiana State coach Les Miles at the helm. There was the fake field goal by LSU for a 33-29 win in 2010. Then last season the Gators were neck and neck with LSU when the Tigers faked another field goal in a 35-28 win. Sophomore receiver Antonio Callaway was suspended in January and missed all of spring practice, but he rejoined the team in time for fall camp. Callaway was Florida's leading receiver last season with 678 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to 435 punt return yards and two scores. His return provides a much-needed spark for the offense, but will all the time away adversely affect his performance? "The Swamp" is usually unkind to SEC opponents, but the Tigers are 4-3 in Gainesville since 2002. If the game comes down to a kick, the Gators might have one of the best kickers in the country. Eddy Piniero, who signed with Florida in February after spending last season at a junior college in Miami, booted a 56-yard field goal in the spring game.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee
Tennessee won its final six games and returns 19 starters from last season's nine-win campaign. Aside from Dobbs, the Tennessee offense will be led by junior running back Jalen Hurd, who ran for 1,288 yards last season. Despite a scoring defense that ranked 16th in the nation a season ago, Tennessee parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek and lured Bob Shoop from Penn State, where he spent the past two years in the same capacity. Beating Alabama will be a tall task for Tennessee. Alabama has won eight in a row on the "Third Saturday in October." The Volunteers last beat Alabama 16-13 in 2006, one year before Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
No. 8 Stanford at No. 10 Notre Dame
McCaffrey ran all over the Fighting Irish with 228 all-purpose yards in Stanford's 38-36 win last season. The Irish were so weary of McCaffrey that they used starting defensive players on special teams to try to contain him. Stanford and Notre Dame have met every year since 1997, with the Irish holding an 11-8 advantage. Perhaps a sign of the rivalry's national significance, both teams have been ranked entering the game each year since 2011.
Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama
Remember when the Aggies put the SEC on notice that they could compete for championships after an impressive 29-24 win at Alabama in their inaugural season? They've been far from repeating the feat ever since their door-knocking 2012 upset. Alabama has outscored Texas A&M 149-65 each of the past three meetings. The Aggies were shut out 59-0 when they last visited Tuscaloosa in 2014. Texas A&M is starting over at quarterback and will likely turn to Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, who became a household name after leading the Sooners to a 45-31 upset of Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. The Aggies are counting on another record-setting performance (348 yards and four touchdowns) from the Sugar Bowl's most valuable player. Knight, who has one season of eligibility remaining, could be pushed by sophomore Jake Hubenak, who made his first start in Texas A&M's 27-21 loss to Louisville in last year's Music City Bowl.
No. 2 Clemson at No. 4 Florida State
The winner of this game has ultimately gone on to win the ACC Atlantic Division each year since 2009. The Tigers and Seminoles have hoisted the ACC championship trophy for the past five seasons. Clemson snapped a three-game losing streak to the Seminoles with a 23-13 win last year. Defense could be the key for these division rivals. Clemson ranked 10th in total defense last season, while the Seminoles finished 19th. The Tigers haven't won in Tallahassee since 2006.
No. 7 Michigan at No. 12 Michigan State
Michigan will likely be out to vindicate its loss after what was arguably the most thrilling finish to any college football game last season. The Wolverines scored first and never trailed until the final play of the game. With the Wolverines leading 23-21, Michigan State drove into field goal range, but a sack pushed them outside the 40-yard line. The Spartans failed to convert on fourth and long, giving Michigan the ball and seemingly the victory. However, with 10 seconds left in the game, Michigan opted to punt on fourth and short, but punter Blake O'Neill mishandled the snap and, in an attempt to recover, batted the football into the air. Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson caught the ball and broke several tackles on his way to the end zone, giving the Spartans a 27-23 win. O'Neill is no longer at Michigan, so there will be no excuses for the Wolverines when they travel to Michigan State for the third time in four seasons. The Spartans have won four in a row against Michigan in East Lansing.
Miami at No. 10 Notre Dame
The rivalry affectionately known as "Catholics vs. Convicts" was essentially born in 1988, when Notre Dame edged Miami 31-30 and went on to win the national championship. Notre Dame leads the series 17-7-1 and has won the last three meetings. The Fighting Irish defeated the Hurricanes 29-20 the last time Miami traveled to Notre Dame Stadium in 1990. The Irish also notched a 33-17 win in the 2010 Sun Bowl, and Notre Dame defeated Miami 41-3 in their last meeting at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2012.
No. 25 Florida vs. No. 18 Georgia
This border war in Jacksonville, Florida, almost always puts the winner in the driver's seat in the SEC East race. Florida has won two in a row against the Bulldogs and 20 of the past 26 meetings, but neither team has benefitted much from victories in recent years. Georgia has only played for the SEC championship twice in the same seasons that it beat Florida during that span. Last season's 27-3 romping aside, the Gators have only represented the SEC East in the championship game five times since 2000 after beating Georgia. That's a far cry from Florida's six appearances in the first eight years of the conference title game, when the Gators beat the Bulldogs in all but one season. Florida's eighth-ranked defense from a season ago will be tested by Georgia's young offense. Statistically, the Gators lose 40 percent of their tackles, 45 percent of their sacks and 48 percent of their tackles for loss. Georgia's Eason, who completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in the spring game, will compete with incumbent Greyson Lambert and junior Brice Ramsey for the starting quarterback job. Even if Eason doesn't win the job at the start of the season, it wouldn't be surprising if he wound up behind center by the time the Bulldogs get to Jacksonville. Georgia will once again have the best running back tandem in the country with Chubb and junior Sony Michel, who finished with 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns as Chubb's backup last season.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 5 Louisiana State
LSU was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country when it all fell apart last November in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers were upset by then-No. 5 Alabama, 30-16, which was the first of three consecutive losses for LSU. The Crimson Tide held Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries, overtook the Tigers for the No. 2 ranking and went on to win the national championship. In nine years at Alabama, Saban is 7-3 against the team he led to the 2003 national title, including a 3-1 record at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers have lost five straight games to Alabama since their 9-6 overtime win in 2011.
No. 23 Baylor at No. 13 Texas Christian
How will Baylor respond after the May dismissal of head coach Art Briles in the fallout from the sexual assault scandal? Briles' replacement is former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who led the Demon Deacons to an improbable ACC championship in 2006. He'll be tasked with keeping the Bears near the top of the Big 12 standings, as they have been every year since 2013. With the July decision by backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham to transfer, senior Seth Russell will need to stay healthy this season. Stidham started three games for the Bears in 2015, throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns while filling in for an injured Russell. The depth chart is thin behind Russell, with true freshman Zach Smith becoming the top backup. Texas Christian will need to find a replacement for departed quarterback Trevone Boykin. Redshirt junior Kenny Hill is expected to fill the void for the Horned Frogs. Hill sat out the 2015 season after transferring from Texas A&M, where he led the Aggies to a 5-0 start in 2014 -- throwing for 17 touchdowns and two interceptions -- before being benched after throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (six) in his last three games.
No. 23 Baylor at No. 3 Oklahoma
Baylor has won three of the past five meetings, but Oklahoma defeated the Bears 44-34 last season. Of course, all three of Baylor's victories were with Briles at the helm of the program. The Bears were ranked No. 2 in the country when Russell went down with a season-ending injury. Baylor was 7-0 with Russell and 3-3 without him. Much like last season, the schedule sets up nicely for Baylor early, but after a challenging two weeks at Texas and at home against TCU, will the Bears be fatigued by the time they travel to Oklahoma? Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman left school early, so Russell will have to find a new favorite target for the pass-happy offense that finished first overall last season. Oklahoma has its own question marks, beginning with junior cornerback Jordan Thomas. Can Thomas stay out of trouble long enough to stay on the field? Thomas, who picked off five passes last season, was arrested twice in a span of seven months (December and June), leaving his status with the team in jeopardy. The offensive line will also have to do a better job protecting Mayfield, who was sacked 41 times last season.
No. 8 Stanford at No. 24 Oregon
This game has decided the Pac-12 North Division every year since the conference expanded. Stanford and Oregon are the only teams to represent the division in the Pac-12 title game, posting a combined 5-0 record against the South Division. The Cardinal have won three of the past four Pac-12 crowns, while the Ducks took home the trophy in 2011 and 2014. Oregon failed to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2007, but there is no reason to expect the same result with a legitimate Heisman contender in Royce Freeman. The junior running back has rushed for 3,201 yards and 35 touchdowns the past two seasons. Oregon will once again turn to a graduate transfer at quarterback to replace Vernon Adams Jr., who led the FBS in passing efficiency last season. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is the favorite to win the job.
South Carolina at No. 25 Florida
Steve Spurrier left Florida and later became head coach at South Carolina. Now that Spurrier has retired, the Gamecocks are turning to another Florida coach in 2016. Will Muschamp takes over at South Carolina and will return to the place where he led the Gators for four seasons before his ouster in 2014. Muschamp learned his fate at Florida after the Gators lost 23-20 the last time the Gamecocks traveled to Gainesville. The defensive-minded Muschamp will be tasked with improving the defense, which finished last in the SEC in total yards and points allowed last season. South Carolina had never beaten the Gators before Spurrier's arrival. Since then, the Gamecocks are 5-6 against Florida. It took Spurrier three tries to notch his first win in Gainesville. Will the shunned Muschamp find success sooner?
No. 6 Ohio State at No. 12 Michigan State
Urban Meyer is 50-4 as head coach at Ohio State. Half of those losses are to the Spartans. Michigan State has found sustained success against the Buckeyes, posting a 3-2 record since 2011. The Achilles heel for Michigan State, however, is that this year's game is at home. All three victories during that span have come on the road -- at Ohio Stadium in 2011 and 2015, and at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in the 2013 Big Ten championship game. Michigan State hasn't beaten the Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium since 1999. Fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor is the heir apparent to replace Connor Cook at quarterback for Michigan State. O'Connor led the Spartans to a 17-14 upset at Ohio State last season when Cook was injured, ending the Buckeyes' 23-game winning streak and knocking them out of the playoff race. Both teams will be burdened with an extra game in Big Ten play as the league moves to a nine-game conference schedule this season.
No. 7 Michigan at No. 6 Ohio State
This border rivalry isn't what it used to be. Ohio State has won 11 of the past 12 meetings against the Wolverines, including a perfect 4-0 record under Meyer, and Michigan hasn't won at the "Horseshoe" since 2000. Still, there is optimism that this year's Michigan team has enough talent to play for a national championship. To do that, the Wolverines will likely have to beat Ohio State first. The Wolverines are breaking in a new quarterback this year in a battle between senior John O'Korn, junior Shane Morris and third-year sophomore Wilton Speight. O'Korn and Speight appear to be the leaders. O'Korn threw for 34 touchdowns at Houston before losing the starting job and transferring to Michigan last year, while Speight led the Wolverines to a comeback win at Minnesota last season. Michigan's defense finished fourth in the country last season, leading Maryland to hire defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. In his place is Don Brown, whose Boston College defense was No. 1 overall.
No. 25 Florida at No. 4 Florida State
Florida State has won five of the past six in this state rivalry, but the lone loss during that span came in Tallahassee in 2012. A fourth consecutive win this season would tie the longest winning streak against the Gators since FSU won four in a row from 1977-80. Cook ran for 183 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 27-2 win last year. The Seminoles own the nation's longest home winning streak at 21 games. Their last loss in Tallahassee was to the Gators in November 2012.
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