60. Texas Tech-Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is back to lead the Raiders offense after throwing for 4,653 yards and 36 touchdowns while also rushing for ten scores in 2015, a major reason why the team finishing ranked second nationally in scoring, passing yards per game and total yards. What surrounds him on offense may be an issue, with the team losing both a running back and receiver that each gained over 1,000 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns, while also returning just two starters to an inexperienced offensive line that will begin the season with two freshmen and a sophomore up front. The defense was the exact opposite of the offense in 2015, finishing 124th in scoring and 126th in yards allowed per game, and will need to replace three of their top four tacklers who combined for 294 tackles last season. They show promise for this year and down the road with three sophomores the cornerstone of their unit; safety JahShawn Johnson, linebacker DVonta Hinton and tackle Breiden Fehoko. The team has done well against non-conference teams in recent years, going 21-2 over the last six seasons, but will likely find trouble with a road game at Arizona State in week two. Thankfully for Red Raiders fans that game against the Sun Devils is sandwiched between two very easy matchups, which means they should be entering Big-12 play with a 2-1 record, but this is where things get tough for Tech. In the last six weeks of their season they play the top five teams in their conference, Oklahoma, at TCU, Texas, at Oklahoma State and Baylor, never a good sign for a the folks in Lubbock hoping to see their team post a winning record in the Big-12 for the first time in seven years.
59. Kansas State-After starting 2015 with a 3-6 record the Wildcats won their final three games to gain postseason eligibility and reach their seventh straight bowl game. Their win/loss performance followed along with point spread expectations for most of the year, going 5-1 when favored and 1-6 in games as underdogs. Their offense will have questions all over to begin 2016, with only five returning starters, uncertainty at quarterback and a severe of experience on the offensive line with just one starter back from a year ago. Defensively they look to be in better shape with seven returning, including linebacker Elijah Lee, who led the KSU with 80 tackles (25 more than anyone else on the team) and defensive end Jordan Willis, who was third in the Big 12 in tackles for loss with 15.5 and finished second in sacks with 9.5. The schedule is tough, opening with a difficult non-conference road battle against Stanford and ending with a conference lineup that features five road games, including matchups at Baylor and TCU in the final three weeks. Head coach Bill Snyder has always gotten more out of his team than expected and will have his work cut out for him this year, while Kansas State financial backers will sure be hoping he can keep up his 42-18-1 record against the spread in conference games since returning as the Wildcats coach in 2009.
58. Cincinnati- The Bearcats started playing football in 1885 and in the 131 years between then and 2006, they had just four seasons with at least nine victories and only one season with double-digit wins. In the nine years since, they have reached at least 9 wins seven times and achieved 10 or more victories four times. Their success started with coaches Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly, and now Tommy Tuberville enters his fourth year as the Cinci coach and looks to have his best team their yet. The defense returns eight starters including two seniors who had over 100 tackles in 2015, linebacker Erik Wilson and safety Zach Edwards. Gunner Kiel is back at quarterback after throwing for 2,777 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and hopes to improve on his inconsistent and turnover prone play down the stretch (the team as a whole finished -19 in turnover ratio, 124th overall), though it was his conspicuous absence from the teams bowl game after not even traveling to Hawaii for the Bearcats Christmas Eve matchup against San Diego State for questionable personal reasons, that has led some to question his leadership abilities. Sure doesnt help Kiels cause that they got crushed in said bowl game 42-7, which was the third straight postseason loss under Tuberville and during that trio of terribleness they have been outscored by a combined 144-41 margin.
57. Georgia Tech-After going 11-3 in 2014 and ending their season with a 49-34 victory against Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, the Yellow Jackets started their season as expected with a 2-0 record after easy wins against Alcorn St and Tulane. They then hit a brick wall toward success, losing nine of their last ten games and finishing with a 3-9 record, there worst record since 1994, which also ended a streak of reaching 18 straight bowl games. They suffered multiple injuries to their backfield, never a good sign when your offensive is reliant on the option, which clearly affected quarterback Justin Thomas, who saw his stats deteriorate from the previous season in every category, touchdown passes (18 to 13), interceptions (6 to 8), passing yards (1719 to 1345), rushing yards (1086 to 488) and rushing touchdowns (8 to 6). How Thomas responds, and this year he is playing behind just two offensive line starters, will be the major questions facing the George Tech offense this season. A schedule that ranks 20th in the country wont do the Yellow Jackets any favors either, this despite the fact they have only four true road games and avoid Florida State and Louisville from the ACC Atlantic division. They should start 3-0 with games against Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt, but then go up against Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks before ending the season with a tough November that includes road matchups at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and ending with interstate rival Georgia. The biggest key to their success is quarterback Justin Thomas, and whether or not he can return to 2014 form. If he could even find middle ground between the two it could make the difference between getting to a bowl or missing out for on the postseason for the second straight year.
56. Air ForceWhile the Falcons offense returns just four starters, two of them are senior leaders who have been consistent producers over the years and are sure to be the teams focal point in trying to match last years squad that ranked second in scoring and total offense in the Mountain West, Jalen Robinette and Jacobi Owens. Robinette ranks first in touchdowns and third in yards all time amongst Air Force wide receivers, while Owens is coming off back-to-back seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing and leads a strong backfield that was fourth overall in the NCAA last season averaging over 319 yards per game. The strength of the Falcons though will be on the other side of the ball, which returns nine starters including two dominant defensive backfield senior performers who both earned first team Mountain West All-Conference honors a year ago, cornerback Roland Ladipo and star safety Weston Steelhammer. Facing a schedule that ranks a paltry 118th can only help matters for the aptly-named hard hitting Steelhammer, who is looking to become just the 10th player ever drafted out of Air Force and the first since 2006.
55. Arizona State After back-to-back ten win seasons and a 28-12 record through Todd Grahams first three years as the Sun Devils coach, the team regressed in 2015, finishing 6-7 while winning just two of their last seven games. The offense returns just four starters and will rely on junior running back Demario Richard to carry the load after putting up over 1,400 yards of total offense and ten touchdowns last year. Unfortunately for Demario he will be running behind an offensive line that returns only one starter, and will be on an offense led by an incredibly inexperienced quarterback, as Arizona State does not have a signal caller on their team that has thrown a single FBS pass attempt. Graham will be hoping that some incoming JUCO transfers can help throw a spark into his blitz happy defense that ranked 113th in the country in yards allowed per game and dead last at 128th in passing defense. With a tough conference schedule that includes five Pac-12 road games and ends with matchups at Oregon, Utah and at Washington in the final four games of the year, it doesnt look like Todd and the Tempe Terrors will be getting back to ten wins anytime soon.
54. West Virginia-In Dana Holgorsens first year as the Mountaineers head coach in 2011 his team went 10-3, which was their seventh straight campaign with at least nine wins. The following season WVU joined the Big-12 and things havent gone so well since, posting a positively mediocre 26-25 record, including a disappointing 15-21 mark in conference. The offense looks to in the best shape of either side of the team with eight starters back, including, quarterback Skyler Howard (3,145 passing yards, 26 touchdowns passes, 6 rushing) and his favorite target, wide receiver Shelton Gibson (887 yards, 9 touchdowns, conference leading 24 yards per catch). Howards greatest asset will his offensive line, which has four starters back and ranks as one of if not the best lines in the Big-12. The Mountaineers defense will find it difficult to match last years production when they were ranked 23rd nationally in yards allowed per game, especially with only four starters back and having lost five of their top six tacklers. Incredibly West Virginia only has four road games all season, but if they ever want to compete seriously whether in or out of conference, they will have to start doing better against ranked opponents, having gone 1-10 in their last eleven against polling teams, including last year when they went 0-4 while letting up 44 points per game, contrasting against 8-0 vs. non-ranked opponents and letting up just 12 points per game.
53. Penn State-On the field the Nittany Lions will have a different look then in recent years, with new offensive and defensive coordinators, only five starters back from last years defense that ranked 14th nationally in yards allowed and three-year starter at quarterback Christan Hackenberg having moved onto to the NFL to be a terrible pro for the New York Jets. Off the field, it has now been two years since the NCAA questionably decided to lessen the sanctions levied against Penn State after the abuse and awfulness that was allowed go on for 30 years with Jerry Sandusky as a member of the coaching staff. Soon after they postseason prohibition was lifted, fans started pining for the statue of former head coach Joe Paterno, the man who in charge of the team and widely reported to have known exactly what was going with the abuse, to be put back up after it was removed when the scandal first broke. Then on July 5th of this past summer it was reported that over 200 former Nittany Lion players signed a letter which was sent to school administration also asking for the return of the Paterno statue. All were apparently wearing blinders that didnt allow them to see exactly the disgraceful type of person they were supporting, which an exact week after the players sent that letter was made as clearly evident as possible to even the most ardent advocate of just what sort of individual they had been rabidly defending when court documents were released showing that Paterno very much knew and allowed to continue what was going on with Jerry Sandusky and his reign of torment and terror that went on for multiple decades at State College. And not only did he know about it but did the opposite of what any rational and remotely caring person would do, by turning his back on the children who confided in him and allowing it to go on for so many preventable years later. Instead of a statue, the only thing that should be put up is a plaque to remind alumni and administration just who their beloved Joe Pa really was, with it commemorating his actual quote to one abuse victim who went to him for help-I dont want to hear any of that stuff. I have a football season to worry about.
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52. Duke- After seventeen consecutive losing seasons, the Blue Devils have been to four straight bowl games, including last years 44-41 overtime win against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl, their first postseason win in 56 years. Having senior quarterback Thomas Sirk on the field for the first day of practice was a welcome surprise considering he ruptured his left Achilles back in February. While still not close to 100%, knowing that Sirk will return at some point will help offset the fact that they lost each of their top running back, wide receiver and offensive lineman, while also having to adapt to a new offensive coordinator. The defense has questions as well after losing Jeremy Cash, last years ACC Defensive Player of the year, whose departure leaves a dearth in their front seven that has just two returning starters, and though they get back four senior starters to their defensive backfield, they are the same ones that helped them to a 88th ranking against the pass last season. The schedule may be the final strike against their chances for making a fifth straight bowl game, this despite the fact that they avoid Florida State and Clemson from the ACC Atlantic, as they start with two September out of conference road games against Notre Dame and Northwestern along with a final six game schedule that may see them as underdogs in every game, with four road matchups against Louisville, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami and home games against Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
51. Virginia Tech -For the first time since 1987 someone other than Frank Beamer will be patrolling the sidelines as head coach of the Hokies, with Justin Fuente leaving Memphis to take over the job in Blacksburg. As beloved as Beamer was, it was time for change with his team having gone just 29-23 over the past four years, including just 18-18 in conference and 14-11 at home. Fuente inherits an experienced team with 15 returning starters, including eight on an offense that has four back up front on their line along with a 1,000+ yard rusher in sophomore back Travon McMillian, along with junior wide receiver Isiah Ford, who finished 2015 with 75 catches for 1,194 and 11 touchdowns. The defense brings in a new coordinator to hopefully spark a squad that didnt come close meeting expectations last season, and they will start with leaders back in all major categories defensive end Ken Ekanem (sacks), linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka (tackles for loss), cornerback Adonis Alexander (interceptions) and free safety Chuck Clark (tackles). The new staff will also benefit from a schedule that includes just five road games and luckily avoids Florida State, Clemson and Louisville from the ACC-Coastal division. They will be tested out of conference early and late in the year with a September game against Tennessee at the Bristol Motor Speedway and a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in November, but with the benefit of missing out on the powers of their conference they should have little issue getting to their 24th consecutive bowl game, the second longest current streak in the NCAA behind Florida State and fifth longest in FBS history.
50. Memphis-In 2014 the Tigers ended their year with a 10-3 record, which marked the first time since they started football in 1960 that they reached the double-digit win plateau. It looked like they were following the same path last season after starting the year 8-0 and a ranking of 15th in the polls, their highest spot ever achieved, but then the rails came of their season, losing their next three games (twice by at least 19 points) before limping into the postseason and getting rolled by Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, 31-10. There are questions abound going into 2016 with a new head coach along with new offensive/defensive coordinators, but nothing is more uncertain the quarterback position, which lost Paxton Lynch to the first round of the NFL draft and now has to choose between a group that has just four pass attempts combined in their college careers. Their schedule has the benefit of five road games, though one is a tough non-conference trip to Ole Miss to begin October, but isnt as friendly in the AAC, where they draw the top three teams from the East division and also end their season with games at Cincinnati and home against Houston, the two best teams in the conference. Even with the talent they lost, Memphis will still make a bowl for the third straight year, but eclipsing the win total of either of the past two seasons is unlikely, especially with the loss of their legendary leader Lynch.
49. Toledo-Matt Campbell has moved on to Iowa State after four highly successful years in Ohio that saw his now former team finishing with a winning record in each, ranked twice in the polls (had only been ranked seven other times in school history) while also making three postseason games, including back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. He is replaced by rookie head coach Jason Candle, who begins his tenure in Toledo with eleven starters back, including just four on a defense which is thankful that all of those back, tackle Treyvon Hester, linebackers Jaylen Coleman and JaWuan Woodley along with safety DeJuan Rogers, were key contributors a year ago. The offense is in better shape with seven returning, most notably four starters on the line up front and two backs that each ran for over 900 yards, Terry Swanson and Kareem Hunt, with the senior Hunt also leading the team in touchdowns with twelve. The defense doesnt look nearly as promising with only four returning starters and missing their two leaders in tackles along with five of their top seven in the same category. They benefit from only five true road games, but their season will likely come down to the final three weeks when they play MAC- West heavyweights Northern Illinois and Western Michigan in what will be the November stretch that decides whether or not they can put themselves in position to win a conference championship for the first time since 2004.
48. Indiana-The Hoosiers went 6-7 in 2015, earning their first postseason berth since 2007 and just the second since 1993. Their record couldve been even better as they lost five games by just one possession, including four Big-10 games and their 44-41 overtime loss to Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl. They have major shoes to fill on offense entering 2016, losing quarterback Nate Sudfeld (3,573 yards passing, 27 TD passes), running back Jordan Howard (1,213 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and All-American left tackle Jason Spriggs. Whoever replaces Sudfeld at QB will at have some weapons at their disposal, namely running back Devine Redding, who managed to rush for over 1,000 yards despite playing behind Howard, and wide receiver Simmie Cobbs, another player who managed to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier while also hauling in 60 catches and four touchdowns. Their schedule is favorable as they have only five road games and avoid Iowa and Wisconsin from the Big Ten West, but will hope to finally break through and get a win against the better teams in their conference, having gone 0-12 against ranked Big Ten teams since head coach Kevin Wilson arrived in 2011.
47. Marshall-Doc Holliday has been patrolling the sidelines as head coach for the Thundering Herd since 2010, but its in his last three years that they have really hit their stride, achieving a 33-7 record with double-digit wins in all three seasons (the last time they had at least 10 wins was back in 2002 when Byron Leftwich was starting at quarterback), which includes a 21-5 record in conference games and 18-1 at home. This year the Thundering Herd return seven on offense, and will need budding star at quarterback, sophomore Chase Litton, to continue his play from a strong rookie campaign that saw him throw for over 2,600 yards while tossing 23 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions. He will be well protected by four returning starters to the offensive line, and will need all the time he can breaking in new skill position players as the team is missing two of their top three running backs and top two wide receivers from a year ago. The defense has just four back from last seasons unit that ranked 10th in the nation in scoring, and while they are missing four of their top five tacklers from 2015, they still have senior leaders free safety Tiquan Lang and defensive end Gary Thompson along with incoming junior college transfer Davon Durant at linebacker. The best thing Marshall has going for them into the 2016 season though is their schedule, especially in conference where they avoid La. Tech, Rice and UTEP from the CUSA-West division while also getting the top three in the CUSA-East at home. That combined with the coach Holliday, Litton at quarterback and the inexperienced but certainly talented defense gives Marshall a good chance of getting to at least ten wins for the fourth year in a row and claiming their second Conference USA title in three years.
46. Northern Illinois- Last season was a down one for the Huskies, ending the year with an 8-6 record, their first in six years without at least 11 wins, which they could have reached if not for losing their last three games of the year, including a 34-14 loss to Bowling Green in the MAC Title and 55-7 beatdown by Boise in the Poinsettia Bowl. This was the second time in three years they have been defeated by the Falcons in the conference championship game and fourth straight time they have lost a bowl, with the defense letting up over 50 points in each of the last two. The defense is highlighted by All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry, who led the NCAA with nine interceptions and finished second in passes defended with 24. Drew Hare is back for his senior season after playing efficiently well (1962 yards passing, 14/4 TD-INT ratio) before getting hurt and missing the final five games of the year. He should have better protection with an experienced offensive line returning three starters, along with the best two best weapons from last season, running back Joel Bouganon (1,285 yards rushing, 18 touchdowns) and wide receiver Kenny Golladay (73 receptions, 1,129 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns). Two tough non-conference games await them in September with matchups against South Florida and San Diego State, but things get easier with a MAC schedule that avoids Ohio and Akron from the East division while getting Bowling Green at home and Toledo in-state. Its highly doubtful they will return to the 11 win plateau, but with star power returning and a beneficial conference schedule awaiting, a MAC title and a hopeful end to their four game bowl losing streak are certainly attainable goals.
45. Navy- The offense in Annapolis has some big questions heading into 2016, not only who can replace four year starter at quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who holds the NCAA record for most rushing touchdowns in his career, but also how can fill all the other holes on a side of the ball that has just one returning starter out of eleven back from a year ago. They will hope new QB Tago Smith can get through his growing pains quickly, which wont be easy working behind an offensive line with zero returning starters and with a backfield that lost four of its top five running backs from a year ago. The defense returns seven with the linebackers the clear strength and will be led by junior Micah Thomas, the teams returning leader in tackles from a year ago. Even with all the roster uncertainty, the Midshipman should still be in for a good season with a very manageable schedule that includes only five road games, which is especially beneficial for a team that has gone 15-2 in their last three years at home. They open against with a sure win again Fordham but from there have three tough non-conference games at Air Force, their season-ender against a much better than many expect Army team and a trip to Jacksonville to open November against Notre Dame. Navy had lost to the Irish 43 consecutive years between 1964-2006 before beating them three times in a four year span, including twice in South Bend when the Golden Domers had to suffer through the woeful and worthlessness of Weis. In conference things look much better as they avoid Cincinnati and Temple from the AAC East while also getting their fellow West divisioners Houston and Memphis at home. Even with the inexperience, Navy should still find a way to make get to a fifth straight bowl game and reach eight wins for the thirteenth time in the last fourteen years.
44. Western Kentucky The Hilltoppers suffered a major loss with quarterback Brandon Doughty graduating after leading his offense to the rating fourth nationally in passing for 2015 and second nationally in 2014. He will be replaced by a transfer, and whoever wins between Penn States Tyler Ferguson or Mike White from South Florida will have five returning starters to the offensive line protecting them up front along with three productive senior skill position options with running back Anthony Wales (1,091 yards, 9 touchdowns) along with receivers Taywan Taylor (88 receptions, 1,467 yards, 17 touchdowns) and Nicholas Morris (63 catches, 971 yards, 6 touchdowns). Only four starters return from last years defense, but the unit is more experienced then they appear as all but one of their eleven expected to begin the year on the field are either a senior or junior, including their top two in tackles from a year ago, linebackers Tim McCollum (106) and Keith Brown (96). This will be Jeff Brohms third season as a head coach of the Hilltoppers and in his first two he managed to lead WKU to their first two bowl wins in school history along with a conference title in just their second year since joining Conference USA. His team will face a tough road schedule with an early game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa followed by CUSA battles against Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State and Marshall, but also benefits from avoiding Southern Miss out of the West division and getting an easy home schedule that should have Brohm adding to his already impressive 11-1 record at home in L.T. Smith Stadium and quite possibly winning his third straight bowl game on the sidelines at WKU.
43. Appalachian State The Mountaineers return sixteen starters from a 2015 team that went 11-2 and ended their season with a 31-29 Camellia Bowl win against Ohio, becoming the first former FCS team ever to win a bowl game in their first year of eligibility. Quarterback Taylor Lamb is back after throwing for a school record 31 touchdowns last season, and while he is missing three of his top four wide receiver targets from a year ago, he will be joined by senior running back Marcus Cox, who is back for his final year in Boone after rushing for 1,423 yards in 2015, his third straight with 1000+ yards. The Appalachian defense returns nine starters from a dominant 2015 squad that ranked 11th in the NCAA in yards allowed per game and first in the Sun Belt in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. They do lose defensive end Ronald Blair, last years Sun Belt defensive player of the year, but amongst the nine back are two others that earned first team Sun Belt All-Conference honors, cornerback Latrell Gibbs and linebacker John Law. The team starts their season with an opening week game on the road against Tennessee followed two weeks later with a home matchup against the Miami Hurricanes. From there things get a lot easier, as they miss Arkansas St (the only team to beat them in conference last year) on the schedule and after the Canes game should be favored every week the rest of the season. Eleven wins may be tough to match with the tough September slate, but the Mountaineers could still reach double-digit wins and give them a chance to add to their undefeated bowl record.
42. Arizona Rich Rodriguez is going into his fifth season as the Wildcats head coach, and the team will start 2016 with a new mindset after Rich Rod cleared house and got rid of all five coaches on the defensive side of the ball after finishing 2015 ranked a measly 115th in yards allowed and 107th in scoring defense. They also finished with a 3-6 Pac-12 record, which isnt much of a surprise when considering they had zero players make the all-conference team, but whats troublesome for those in Tucson is that this years squad doesnt have anyone picked for preseason all-conference honors in 2016 either. They offense will hope that quarterback Anu Solomon can stay healthy after missing time due to multiple concussions last season and that junior running back Nick Wilson can return to the form of his freshman season when he ran for 1375 yards. With only four road games and fifteen returning starters they should be able to improve on last years porous statistical season, but it sure looks they will be continuing their streak of being the only Pac-12 team to never make a postseason trip to the Rose Bowl.
41. BYU Former Cougar fullback Kalani Sitake takes over as head coach for Bronco Mendenhall, who in his 11 years leading BYU saw them go to ten straight bowl games and finish nine of ten seasons with at least nine wins. The team will have a vast amount of experience at the quarterback position regardless of who wins the battle between senior Taysom Hill, last years starter before dislocating his foot in week one, or sophomore Tanner Mangun, who threw for 3,337 yards and 23 touchdowns after replacing the injured Hill. They will also have the benefit of learning under a new offensive coordinator, former BYU and perennial NFL backup Ty Detmer, who put up gaudy enough stats in 1990 to steal the Heisman from Notre Dames Raghib Rocket Ismail. The only issue in the way of another successful season in Provo is an absolutely brutal schedule that includes eight of their first nine games against teams ranked in the top 50, six of which are from Power 5 conferences, and the other two are road trips against Boise State and Cincinnati, both of whom are expected to compete for their respective conference championships. Even with a talented team at his disposal, coach Sitake will likely have some beginner bumps in the road dealing with absurd itinerary of games facing BYU this season.
40. Mississippi State-This will be Dan Mullens 8th year as head coach of the Bulldogs, during which span the team has been to six straight bowl games, which is even more impressive considering they had only been to thirteen postseason games before that in the previous 74 seasons. He will need to replace departed quarterback and team general Dak Prescott, who threw for 3,793 yards along with an impressively efficient 29/5 touchdown to interception ratio, while also adding 588 yards on the ground with ten rushing touchdowns. The offense will hope sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, who played well enough throughout eight games of limited action last year (11/14 passing, 3 TD, 0 INT), can help fill the vast void left by the loss of Prescott. Fitz will certainly be aided by the return of senior wide receiver Fred Ross, who led the team in yards with 1,007 and receptions with 88 a year ago, along with three senior returning starters to the offensive line. The defense is in much better shape, getting six starters along with six of the their top seven tackles back from a year ago, including the teams leaders in sacks and tackles (linebacker Richie Brown) and tackles for loss (A.J. Jefferson). The Bulldogs as usual will benefit from a cupcake non-conference schedule, they are 27-3 the last six years against non-SEC foes, while also being helped by not having to play the top three teams from the SEC East, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. A road trip to LSU in week three is their biggest challenge in the first two months, but its how they handle their nefarious November gauntlet of games against Texas A&M, at Alabama, Arkansas and then ending on the road at interstate rival Ole Miss, that will decide the season in Starkville.
39. South Florida-After four straight losing seasons from 2011-2014, the Bulls started last season off 1-3 and it looked like business as usual in Tampa. From there coach Willie Taggerts team finished the year strong going 7-1 in their final eight games to end the season with a record of 8-5, tied for the most amount of wins theyve had in year since 2007. They get seven back on each side of the ball with talent abound on most positions, especially on the skill side with the offense returning key components at quarterback (Quinton Flowers), running back (Marlon Mack) and wide receiver (Rodney Adams). The defense returns five of their top six in tackles, including their stat leader in linebacker Auggie Sanchez who is the conferences returning leader in tackles after recording 117 in 2015. He will be backed up by the AACs top secondary, with first team all-conference cornerback Deatrick Nichols the best of the bunch. The team should be 3-0 heading into their week four, interstate matchup against Florida State, after which theyll start their conference slate that includes three tough road games against Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis but does benefit from avoiding Houston and Tulsa from the West division. Coach Taggert has USF heading in a winning direction and they have a definite shot at their first AAC title since joining the conference, but those invested monetarily on the Bulls be wary of their spread situation on the road, having gone 19-9 against in their last 28 against the spread has an away dog, but just 5-12 in their last 17 as a road favorite.
38. Nebraska-The Cornhuskers qualified for the postseason despite finishing the regular season with a 5-7 record, and thankfully for rookie head coach Mike Riley they managed to win their Foster Farms Bowl game against UCLA 37-29 to cap off what was a continuous heart breaking year for those in Lincoln that saw them lose a whopping five games in the final seconds. It was also the end of many a winning streak, including seven straight seasons with at least 9 or 10 wins, nine straight seasons with an over .500 record at home and six straight with a winning mark on the road. This year Rileys offense returns seven starters, including four seniors that were their best skill position players last season; quarterback Tommy Armstrong, running back Terrell Newby along with wide receivers Jordan Westercamp and Brandon Reilly. Defensively they face questions up front with zero returning starters to their line and will need sophomore end Freedom Akinmoladun, last years team leader in sacks, and the strong linebacking crew behind him to step up quickly to fill the void up front. The two leading tacklers from a year ago are back, safety Nathan Gerry and cornerback Joshua Kalu, but when your top two in the category are defensive backs, it goes a long way in explaining why they finished 122nd against the pass a year ago. The positive part of their schedule is that they only have five road games, get two easy non-conference games to start the year against Fresno St. and Wyoming, while they also have the benefit of avoiding Michigan and Michigan State from the Big-10 East. The bad news is their third non-conference game is a tough one against Oregon and they also have to face their four toughest Big Ten opponents on the road, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa, with the last three coming in the final 28 days of the season.
37. Pittsburgh – The Panthers return an experienced team for the 2016 season, with eight starters back on each side of the ball, including the ACC Defensive (safety Jordan Whitefield) and Offensive (RB Qadree Ollison) Rookies of the Year. Ollison will be running behind a line up front with four returning starters, and will be handed the ball of by an experienced, smart decision maker at quarterback in senior Nathan Peterman. The biggest story for Pittsburgh will be the return of running back James Conner, who in 2014 ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns and looked on his way to a Heisman run after rushing for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half of week one last season before tearing his MCL in the second quarter and being lost for the season due to the injury. Three months later he found out the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and shortly thereafter started undergoing chemotherapy, which he bravely fought through and announced a mere five months later that he had been ruled cancer free and was ready to start playing football. There are not many feel good stories better then Conners going into the year, who was already a very easy person to root for after he was elected to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team for his repeated volunteer work for the Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh, National Kidney Foundation and Mel Blount Youth Home for victims for childhood abuse and neglect. And he also gives the city of Pittsburgh football fans a positive role model for their kids to look up to after dealing with the moral bankruptcy of Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison for the past decade.
36. Northwestern-Somehow despite having an offense that ranked 114th in scoring and 116th in yards per game, the Wildcats were fortunate enough to end their season with a 10-3 record, highlighted by two wins as double-digit underdogs, first in week one 16-6 against Stanford and again in late November when they won 13-7 at Wisconsin. The running game was the one positive part of the Northwestern offense last year and the catalyst for that success is back with junior Justin Jackson returning after posting 1,418 yards rushing and five touchdowns, and this year he will have the added benefit of four starters returning to the offensive line blocking ahead of him. Amongst the six returning starters to the defense is one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, junior Anthony Walker, who led the conference in tackles for loss in 2015 with 20.5 and is also the leading returning in tackles per game with 9.4. Northwestern was able to get to at least six conference wins last year for only the sixth time since they start playing in 1896, and reached ten victories on the season for just the third time in team history (the other two were in 1995 and 1903). They will have great difficulty reaching consecutive years of those accomplishments, as this year they play five conference road games, including three against some of leagues best when they play Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State as part of a four game stretch to start October. Even with the tough slate of games, the Wildcats will find themselves back in the postseason, where hopefully they can turn around their holiday ineptitude which has them going just 1-10 in their last eleven bowl games.
35. Auburn Last year the Tigers started the year ranked sixth in the AP poll, but after nearly losing to Jacksonville State as a 47 point favorite in week two and then getting pounded 45-21 against LSU in week three, they dropped out of the polls and never returned. They finished 7-6 overall with all of their losses by at least seven points, a 2-6 record in conference (going back to 2014 they are 2-9 in their last eleven SEC games) and went just 3-4 home, including 0-7 against the spread. This year it looks like they will need their defense to carry the load, which thankfully for the Auburn faithful includes three future NFL players, defensive ends Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams along with safety Jonathan Ford, who ended the year third in the SEC in tackles with 118. The offense ranked 94th overall last year, and after losing running back Peyton Barber and his 1000+ yards and 13 touchdowns, expected starter Javon Robinson was recently thrown off the team for being conduct-challenged. The teams quarterback position, which last year was inconsistent at best/atrociously terrible at its worst, is still up in the air and whoever ends up winning the battle will be throwing to a wide receiving corps that lost its two most productive players from last season. A schedule with only four road games is usually a good sign, but unfortunately for Auburn theirs ranks 4th hardest in the country and includes September games against Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU, and ends with road trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama in the final five weeks of the year. How the offense responds to the second straight offseason of calamity and in-team fighting will go a long way in determining the shape of the Tigers season.
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34. Washington State- Mike Leach is back for his fifth season as coach of the Cougars and will hope to find some better offensive balance after his team finished 2015 ranked 1st in passing but dead last at 128th in rushing. Its easy to understand why they would favor such a pass heavy offense, with future NFL quarterback Luke Falk back for his junior year after throwing for 4,561 yards, and 38 touchdowns compared to just 8 interceptions. The time is now for the Wazzu offense, as odds are likely that Falk will be off to the NFL at seasons end, as will their second best offensive weapon, senior wide receiver Gabe Marks, who returns after compiling 104 receptions for 1,192 yards and fifteen touchdowns in 2015. Three players of varying years will lead each part of the defense, with sophomore Hercules Mataafa on the line, junior linebacker Peyton Pelluer in the middle and safety Shalon Luani with the backs. They open with a tough non-conference road matchup against Boise State in week two, followed by a brutal, three game PAC-12 stretch to start October against Oregon, at Stanford and then home against UCLA. These are three teams the Cougars have been gotten mauled by in recent years, with current streaks of 0-8 vs. Stanford, 1-5 against UCLA and 1-8 vs. Oregon. If they can get buck that trend though and end their first half in strong shape they will be set up well for a highly successful year, with their only remaining question mark a home matchup against interstate rival Washington to end their regular season, another team they have struggled with having lost six of their last seven against the Huskies.
33. Arkansas- Fans in Fayetteville were fretting after the Razorbacks started 2-4 last seasons, but Bret Bielemas team turned things around and went 6-1 through their final seven games, including upset road wins at Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU, and culminating with their third straight bowl victory, a 45-23 thrashing of Kansas St in the Liberty Bowl. The defense returns nine starters and ten of its top eleven tacklers from a year ago, including linebacker Brooks Ellis who was the team leader in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. The offensive side of the ball will be a lot less experienced and has major shoes to fill, as the team lost tight end Hunter Henry, the Mackey Award winner for best tight end in the country, and running back Alex Collins, who ran for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015. At quarterback the team will hope for continued production from kinfolk, as brother replaces brother with junior Austin Allen taking over for three-year starter Brandon Allen, who threw for 3440 yards and 30 touchdowns a year ago. The biggest problem for Arkansas though might be their schedule, which despite having only four true road games and avoiding Tennessee and Georgia from the SEC East, is still ranked as the second toughest in the country as they face teams that were a combined 104-52 last season.
32. Texas A&M- 2015 marked the fourth straight year under head coach Kevin Sumlin that the Aggies managed to end their season with at least eight wins. He will hope to avoid a second half SEC swoon that has affected them in each of the last two seasons though, with his team ending 2014 by going 1-5 in their last six conference games and 2-4 in the same situation in 2015. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball though none more prevalent then defensive lineman Myles Garrett, who led the SEC in both tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (12.5) last season and is widely expected to be the first non-quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. Garretts line along with a strong defensive backfield led by safety Armani Watts, the SEC returning leader in tackles and tackles per game, will hope to do their part to help offset a linebacking group that is easily the weakest point of their defensive unit. The offense will hope that Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight can make a seamless transition to College Station at quarterback; especially with A&Ms top five in receptions back from last season, including two receivers (Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds) who each put up at least 900 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2015. A great sign of success for Aggies fans is their teams schedule, which includes only four road games and the additional benefit of avoiding Florida, Georgia and Missouri from the SEC-East, something that should be of great help in hoping to elude the previously mentioned late season conference collapse that has plagued them in recent years.
31. Texas-The coaching hot seat may be at its highest temperature in Austin, with the Longhorns having gone two straight years with a losing record under coach Charlie Strong, who faces pressure from administration and alumni alike to reestablish the winning tradition they had grown so accustomed to seeing, or else. Strong will looking to the kin of two former professional athletes to help boost their struggling offense; freshman quarterback Shane Buechele (son of former Texas Ranger Steve Buechele) and sophomore running back Chris Warren III (father Chris played for the Seahawks amongst other NFL teams). The defense will also feature a youth movement, with two emerging stars part of a group of five sophomores that will begin the year as Longhorn starters, linebacker Malik Jefferson and cornerback Holton Hill. Of the 24 players expected to start the season for the offense, defense and special teams, only three are seniors while a whopping fifteen are freshman or sophomores. Of all of which means that if Charlie Strong can survey another year of pressure as the Horns head coach, the team is built for success down the road with the young roster of talent he has assembled in Austin. To get to his fourth season, he will need to survive another tough schedule, though at least this season they have the benefit of playing just five true road games and also getting their three of their toughest games at home in Texas Memorial Stadium (Notre Dame, Baylor, TCU), in addition to a home-state matchup in Dallas against rival Oklahoma, a team they have beaten two of the last three years despite being a double-digit underdog both times. If Strong can keep his team on the track they are on, the coaching heat should dissipate by seasons end with the Longhorns getting back to the winning ways their fans have grown so accustomed to seeing over the years. Pad your bankroll to start the season by taking advantage of a HUGE 100% bonus at REALBET!