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College Football 2016 Season Preview: 10 Burning Questions

It’s the most wonderful time of the year as college football returns to us this week. Coming into this weekend, 127 FBS teams are undefeated (sorry, Hawaii) and every fan base just knows this is their year. But not everybody can go home happy, so here are some of the biggest question marks as we enter the 2016 college football season.

Can Anyone Stop The Crimson Tide?

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Alabama topping the preseason AP poll should come as no surprise. The defending champs return many key parts from last year’s squad and secured 33 out of 61 possible first-place votes. The Crimson Tide has won four titles since 2009 and has had the top-ranked recruiting class six years running. So there’s really no good reason for them not to be the preseason pick.

However, the Crimson Tide does have some question marks. Alabama must replace seven players who were drafted in the first three rounds, including Heisman-winning workhorse running back Derrick Henry. They’ll also be breaking in a new quarterback which, as of this writing, coach Nick Saban has yet to name (it’s between junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett).

The schedule is no cakewalk as the Crimson Tide has No. 20 USC and No. 11 Ole Miss in the first three weeks of the season and still has Top Ten opponents in Tennessee and LSU coming up later. Plus, history is not on Alabama’s side as only two teams in history (1999 Florida State and 2004 USC) began the season at No. 1 and went on to win the title.

While Alabama will likely be favored in every game this year, they’re certainly not a slam dunk to take home another title. The question then becomes who can knock them off?

Who Are the Other Contenders?

Capital One Orange Bowl - Clemson v Oklahoma
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Including Alabama, the top of the preseason AP poll is filled with many of the usual suspects. No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Oklahoma squared off in last year’s playoffs and, with both returning Heisman-caliber quarterbacks, should be in the running once again. No. 4 Florida State and No. 5 LSU boast two of the nation’s best running backs in Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette, respectively, and should be able to hang with anyone in the country. The Big Ten–and a playoff spot–could well come down to Nov. 26 showdown at the Horseshoe between No. 6 Michigan and No. 7 Ohio State. And don’t sleep on No. 8 Stanford. The Cardinal faces a tough early gauntlet with four ranked opponents in the first six weeks. But if they can get through that stretch, Stanford and record-setting running back Christian McCaffrey could be looking at a really special season.

Can a Group of Five Team Make the Playoffs?

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Florida State v Houston
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a sleeper pick, look south where Houston is building a potential powerhouse. The Cougars are coming off a 13-1 season that was capped by an upset of Florida State in the Peach Bowl. They return do-it-all quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. (3,936 total yards and 38 touchdowns last year) and have a chance to put themselves in the national spotlight with a Week One upset of Oklahoma.

However, after Houston, the pickings are pretty slim as you have to go well down into the “Others receiving votes” section of the poll to find another Group of Five program. While it’s possible someone like Boise State or Navy could run the table, it’s difficult to see their strength of schedule allowing them to move past a one-loss ACC champion or SEC team. So the Group of Five’s only hope for a playoff spot falls squarely on Houston’s shoulders.

Which Week One Games Will Have the Biggest Impact?

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Mississippi v Oklahoma State
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While most of Week One will give us a steady diet of the usual “Powerhouse vs. Podunk” games, there is actually a surprising number of big name matchups this weekend.

No. 3 Oklahoma begins with a rare road opener at No. 15 Houston. With more big games coming up, Oklahoma could recover from a loss and work itself back into the playoff mix. But this is one of the biggest games ever for Houston, with a chance to put themselves on the national scene. Additionally, No. 16 UCLA goes on the road against Texas A&M while No. 22 North Carolina hosts No. 18 Georgia. No. 2 Clemson and No. 10 Notre Dame will both face big tests on the road against Auburn and Texas, respectively.

I’m a sucker for the “big name teams in neutral site” games, so I love the Lane Kiffin Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 20 USC at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX. And there may not be enough beer in the Midwest to handle two of football’s most raucous fan bases when Wisconsin hosts No. 5 LSU at Lambeau Field. To top it off, we get bonus Monday football when No. 11 Ole Miss takes on No. 4 Florida State at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Don’t wait until the last minute–go ahead and put fresh batteries in your remote now.

 Is this the Year of the Running Back?

Miami v Florida State
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman last year) heads up many observers’ Heisman watch lists. But he could have a lot of company this year.

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the runner-up last year, is coming off of a record-setting season capped by a record 368 all-purpose yards in the Cardinal’s Rose Bowl win over Iowa. LSU’s Leonard Fournette returns after rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 scores in the SEC last year. Oklahoma boasts arguably the best backfield combo in the country, with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon (2,481 combined yards last year). Georgia’s Nick Chubb returns from an ACL injury after tying Herschel Walker’s school record with 13 straight 100-yard games. And the list goes on with other big names like Royce Freeman from Oregon, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, Baylor’s Shock Linwood and Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. Any one of these guys could be poised for another monster season and position themselves as the Heisman front runner.

Which leads to my next question . . .

Who Walks Away With the Hardware?

Capital One Orange Bowl - Clemson v Oklahoma
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Last year, Alabama’s Derrick Henry became the first non-quarterback to win the Heisman since 2009. As already mentioned, there’s a good chance another running back could make it two in a row. But it’s certainly not a slam dunk as plenty of other big-name players could be in the mix.

Clemson’s dual threat quarterback Deshaun Watson is the obvious choice. The junior finished third in last year’s voting after passing for 4,104 yards, rushing for 1,105 more and scoring 47 touchdowns. With a friendly schedule (only two opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25), Watson figures to not only put up more big numbers but to keep the Tigers in the thick of the national title mix.

But he’s not the only signal caller who could make his way to New York. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns) finished fourth in the voting last year and should be a contender once again. However, he and the Sooners face tough tests early against Houston and Ohio State, both of whom feature dual threat quarterbacks (Greg Ward, Jr. and J.T. Barrett, respectively) who could make themselves Heisman contenders in their own rights with an early upset.

It’s been 25 years since a receiver (Desmond Howard) won the Heisman, but Alabama’s Calvin Ridley could make a run at ending that streak. As a freshman last year, Ridley made several highlight reel catches while racking up 1,045 yards and seven scores in a run-heavy offense. He had at least one 30+yard reception in five of his last six games. With Derrick Henry gone, the Alabama offense figures to be a little more balanced this year and give Ridley the chance to make his presence known.

Who Is On the Hot Seat?

at Tiger Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Last year by this time, we’d already had one coach fired. And while nobody has gotten the axe so early this year (unless you count Art Briles, who was let go in June), there are several coaches out there who desperately need some early success to get some pressure off.

Every year it seems we hear about Les Miles on the hot seat and every year he does just enough to keep things rolling at LSU. This year poses an interesting challenge where much is expected of the No. 5 Bayou Bengals. LSU should be solid favorites until October when they begin a tough stretch that includes No. 25 Florida, No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 1 Alabama in a four-game stretch. Those games could well determine MIles’ future in Baton Rouge.

Staying in the SEC, the heat is certainly on Gus Malzahn at Auburn, where a 7-6 season and consecutive double-digit losses to Alabama won’t cut it. Auburn opens with No. 2 Clemson and closes the month hosting Texas A&M and No. 5 LSU. A 1-3 September would have Malzahn squarely in the crosshairs. Likewise, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin is looking to regain the magic the Aggies showed under Johnny Manziel. While Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight isn’t that kind of athlete, he has shown he can beat Alabama and should help keep the Aggies competitive. At Kentucky, Mark Stoops is coming off of back-to-back 5-7 seasons, which will not appease an administration that just put millions into upgrading the team’s facilities.

The Big 12 also has its share of coaches on the hot seat. Beside the obvious Jim Grobe as the “acting” coach at Baylor, it remains to be seen how long Texas faithful will stand by coach Charlie Strong after the Longhorns have gone just 11-14 in two years. Beating Oklahoma again and a decent bowl game would definitely help. In West Virginia, the athletic director has given coach Dana Holgorsen the dreaded vote of confidence, but did not offer him an extension past the end (2017) of his current contract. If that doesn’t scream red flag, I’m not sure what does.

Who is the New Coach to Watch?

University of Miami Introduces Mark Richt
Joe Skipper/Getty Images

29 teams will be entering 2016 with a new coach and it will be interesting to see how many of these new hires shake out.

Former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost is getting his first head coaching experience at Central Florida while former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is being handed the reins at Georgia.

Baylor will be worth watching just to see how Jim Grobe handles himself amid all of the Bears’ off-field distractions.

After years in the NFL, Lovie Smith looks to make his mark at the college level, taking over at Illinois. Justin Fuente, meanwhile, is moving up the ladder, jumping from Memphis to take over for the legendary Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.

But probably the most intriguing move will be to see what former Georgia coach Mark Richt can do at Miami. Unfortunately, it’s rare for a former player to have success as a coach at his alma mater (there are a lot more Brady Hokes than Steve Spurriers). But it has been so long since Miami has been relevant on the national scene, the Hurricane faithful are hoping this is finally the guy to turn things around after going just 71-55 (40-40 in conference) since 2006. While south Florida is certainly a recruiting hotbed, Miami has fallen behind in the facilities arms race and Richt has his work cut out for him.

Who Will Start at Quarterback for Notre Dame?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Love the Fighting Irish or hate them, there’s no doubt that it’s still one of the most watched and debated teams in the country. By default, the Notre Dame quarterback will be under the microscope. If only we knew who that was.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is in an enviable position, choosing between two known commodities who have both proven to be successful. 2015 starter Malik Zaire has recovered from the ankle injury that ended his season after just two games. In his absence, DeShone Kizer threw for nearly 2,900 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the Irish to an 8-3 record. Kizer’s mobility (520 rushing yards) may give him a slight lead but, as of this writing, Kelly has not yet named a starter for the Irish’s season opener at Texas.

Can the Season Start Already?

Way ahead of you.

University of California v University of Hawaii - College Football Sydney Cup
Mark Nolan/Getty Images

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