After a two-year absence at the top, Alabama stormed back to reclaim the college football throne by defeating Clemson in a scintillating national championship game. Nick Saban went on to corral the top-ranked recruiting class a month later, so it looks like the crimson dynasty will continue, right?
Actually, maybe not. Now in the third year of the playoff era, the college football landscape looks more competitive than ever. The Big Ten is unquestionably on the rise again; the elite teams in the ACC are as good as those in the SEC; and the nouveau riches of the Big 12 have successfully broken up the Oklahoma-Texas monopoly.
Will we see a third different champion in as many years? Might there be a legitimate party crasher from out of the Power 5 conferences? We have questions – and answers – from on the off the field for the 2016 season:
- Has Alabama lost too much to repeat?
Sure, Saban is just going to reload, no matter how much he’s lost in the offseason. But it might not be that simple. The Crimson Tide will debut a fourth starting quarterback in as many seasons and must address attrition throughout both sides of the ball, including Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry. Add road games at LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee, the task of repeating suddenly looks pretty daunting.
- Is Houston a legitimate playoff contender?
Under first-year coach Tom Herman, the Cougars seemingly came out of nowhere to go 13-1, claimed the Group-of-Five bid for a New Year’s Six bowl and blew out Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Houston then added the most impressive recruiting class among G5 schools. With nonconference home games against Oklahoma and Louisville, the Cougars may get a shot (though a long one) at a playoff berth if they can go undefeated.
- How soon will Big 12 expand and which schools will it add?
It’s not a matter of if, but when, will the Big 12 add at least two more teams to make its name eponymous again. And that may happen as soon as this summer. The top candidates for the conference’s expansion are BYU, Cincinnati, UConn and maybe UCF and USF. West Virginia favors an eastern school as a travel partner, and school president Gordon Gee is lobbying hard for it.
- What kind of TV windfall can Big Ten expect to get?
Commissioner Jim Delany is a shrewd negotiator and this is why the Big Ten is expected to get the most lucrative media rights deal when its current contracts expire after the 2016-17 season. Fox anted up $250 million per year for half of Big Ten’s media rights, with ESPN and NBC in hot pursuit of the other half. When it’s all said and done, the Big Ten will at least triple the $100 million annual take from its last deal.
- Will USC’s schedule torpedo Clay Helton’s first season?
Let’s see, the Trojans open against Alabama at Jerry World, play road games at Pac-12 champ Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA. And they also get Oregon at home and finish the regular season with Notre Dame. Is that all? This is by far the hardest schedule any team will face this season, if not in recent memory. Helton, in his first full season as USC’s head coach, will have his hands full, even with a very talented squad.
- Will another running back win the Heisman Trophy?
In this century, the Heisman has been dominated by quarterbacks. You have to go back to 1998-99 to find non-QBs winning the statuette in consecutive years. That may happen again this year as most of the Heisman front-runners are running backs, including last year’s runnerup Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson may have a different idea, though.
- Is Clemson here to stay as a powerhouse?
Watson, who dazzled in the national title game and nearly single-handedly took down Alabama, is back with the Tigers. But Florida State, which won the last BCS title in 2013 and also made the playoff in 2014, will want to reclaim supremacy in the ACC. Their clash on Oct. 29 at Doak Campbell Stadium will settle a lot more than who wins the conference title.
- Might it be SEC’s turn to miss the playoff?
Given the current playoff format, each season at least one Power 5 conference will be kept out of the four-team field. And don’t laugh, it might be the SEC’s turn in 2016. If Alabama should stumble in conference play and no dominant team emerges in its stead – especially if the still-rebuilding SEC East wins the title game – the “toughest conference in college football” just might be missing out.
- What will Jim Harbaugh do to stay in the news?
Without question, since he returned to college football last year, Harbaugh has been the No. 1 newsmaker in college football. Whether it’s his satellite camps, recruiting tactics and clever subtweets, the Michigan coach has had everyone’s rapt attention. But the thing he craves the most is winning, and this year he might have the team to compete not just in the Big Ten but also for a playoff berth. If the Wolverines win the conference for the first time since 2004, Harbaugh-mania will be difficult to escape.
- Who’s going to win it all in 2016?
Last year, only Alabama made it back to the playoff after being in the inaugural field in 2014. This year, Clemson will be the only team among last year’s final four to return. The ACC champion Tigers should be joined by Big Ten champ Michigan, Pac-12 winner Stanford and the surprise entrant Houston in the four-team field. Clemson will win it all this time, defeating Heisman winner McCaffrey and Stanford in the title game.