The recruiting dead period just ended and coaches from coast-to-coast are starting their last-ditch efforts to land a few top prospects ahead of the Feb. 3 National Signing Day.
But before the recruiting classes are cemented, we have seen enough from the 2015 season and most of who’s coming in next season to get a good idea of what teams will be vying for the four precious playoff spots. So here are our way-too-early top 10 rankings for 2016:
2015 record: 14-1 (7-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Pick against the defending national champs at your own peril. Sure, the Crimson Tide will have to replace quarterback Jake Coker, but that has not been an issue since Lane Kiffin arrived as the offensive coordinator in 2014. Most likely he’ll just plug in Blake Barnett and coach ‘im up.
2015 record: 14-1 (8-0 ACC)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense
The Tigers came oh-so-close to winning the national championship and they’ll get another crack at it next season with QB Deshaun Watson coming back, along with almost all the starters on both sides of the ball. Their big test will be a road game at Florida State.
2015 record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
The Sooners get back most of their powerhouse offense, with QB Baker Mayfield and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon all returning. The Big 12 won’t be as competitive as it was in 2015, but OU will have to survive early-season non-conference games against Ohio State and at upstart Houston.
4. Ohio State
2015 record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 4 offense, 4 defense
The Buckeyes probably suffered more attrition than any other top team, losing nine draft-eligible juniors. But they will have QB J.T. Barrett returning as well as one of the top recruiting classes as part of Urban Meyer’s reload. Their schedule isn’t as favorable as it was in 2015, but they’ll get Michigan at home.
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Jim Harbaugh got 10 wins out of a group that couldn’t qualify for a bowl in 2014, and he’s now set his sight on bigger things and more wins. He’ll have to replace QB Jake Rudock, but if anything, Harbaugh has proved to be the quarterback whisperer. The Wolverines’ defense should be downright nasty.
2015 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Stanford has to replace its quarterback with the departure of Kevin Hogan, but will have a whole lot returning from the reigning Pac-12 championship team, including Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey. The Cardinal open conference play against USC, so they’ll have to get up to speed fast.
7. Notre Dame
2015 record: 10-3
Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
The Irish suffered a slew of injuries throughout the 2015 season yet still came within a late field goal by Stanford of nearly making the playoff. If most of the injured players return healthy and they can settle the quarterback situation between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, they have a very favorable schedule to make some noise again.
2015 record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense
LSU has running back Leonard Fournette, who is among the favorites to win the Heisman, along with nearly all the starters on both sides of the ball returning. Les Miles will have to fix a sputtering passing game that has doomed the Tigers the last few seasons.
9. Florida State
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
Returning starters: 11 offense, 6 defense
The Seminoles have every starter back on offense, including QB Sean Maguire, though likely he’ll face some competition for the starting job. They do have the luxury of a not-so-difficult ACC schedule, with their two toughest opponents – Clemson and North Carolina – coming to play at Doak Campbell.
2015 record: 10-3 (6-3 Big 12)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
The Bears finished the 2015 season with their third-string QB after a promising campaign was wrecked by injuries. They’ll have both Seth Russell and Jared Stidham back, as well as running back Shock Linwood. If they can stay healthy, they will contend for the Big 12 title and a playoff spot.
Next 5: Tennessee, Michigan State, USC, Houston, TCU.