Alabama, Clemson top Lindy’s preseason Top 25 Staff

August 20, 2016 at 8:10 pm.

Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard (88) celebrates a touchdown with wide receiver Calvin Ridley (3) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 CFP National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard (88) celebrates a touchdown with wide receiver Calvin Ridley (3) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 CFP National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

  1. Alabama Crimson Tide (2015 Record: 14-1)

Returning Starters: 13; 6 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: We were leaning toward Clemson as No. 1 right after Alabama’s victory over the Tigers in the national championship game, but many of the expected early defections from the Tide defense never occurred. Lineman Jonathan Allen, safety Eddie Jackson and linebackers Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson bypassed various 2016 NFL possibilities to return to school. On offense, Alabama has among the best sets of receivers in the country (plus another surprise returnee, tight end O.J. Howard), and perhaps the top left tackle, Cam Robinson. Heisman-winning Derrick Henry is gone, but one rival SEC coach who talked to Lindy’s merely shrugged because the backfield is reloaded with the tandem of Bo Scarbrough and Damian Harris. Said the coach about Alabama losing Henry: “It’s like you’re at the Goodyear plant and your tire wore out. Just get another one.”

THE BAD NEWS: If you’re not picking Alabama No. 1 in the preseason, it’s because of the quarterback. We get that. The Tide will have its third starter in three seasons, and presumptive leader Cooper Bateman doesn’t have the experience or the obvious skills that will have defensive coordinators holed up in their panic rooms over the summer. But we’ll say this about Nick Saban’s QBs: He might not often have a great one, but he never has a bad one.

OUR CALL: Saban’s defense, even without longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (Georgia head coach) is again as impenetrable as a locked iPhone. The skill on offense will prop up the new quarterback. Make it six national titles overall for Saban. He has the best players.

  1. Clemson Tigers (2015 Record: 14-1)

Returning Starters: 13; 8 offense, 3 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: This will be a spectacular offensive team, with Deshaun Watson running the show, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Deon Cain leading a ridiculous group of receivers, and Wayne Gallman back to pound out big yards on the ground. Forty points a game? Seems like a given.

THE BAD NEWS: Defense could be a season-long issue. Last year’s Shaq Lawson-led front was so disruptive, but just three defensive starters return. Has Clemson risen to such a high plug-and-play level with its recruiting that it’s no big deal? We’ll learn a lot from its opener at Auburn.

OUR CALL: We believe in Watson, Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Why wouldn’t we? The culture of winning in Death Valley is real.

  1. Oklahoma Sooners (2015 Record: 11-2)

Returning Starters: 14; 6 offense, 8 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: Stronger, tougher, better — the Sooners seem capable of being all those things, especially on offense. As dynamic as QB Baker Mayfield is, his best move will be handing the ball to Samaje Perine or Joe Mixon and watching them move the chains behind a line that could become dominant. Most of a potentially nasty defense returns.

THE BAD NEWS: The early schedule is over the top, with an opener against Houston in Houston and a Week 3 visit from Ohio State leading into the first Big 12 test at TCU. The Sooners could be toast, playoff-wise, before they know it.

OUR CALL: This program is revived under the coach with the longest continuous tenure at one school in the country. The Big 12 favorites have an excellent chance to be a more complete team than they were in 2015

  1. Ohio State Buckeyes (2015 Record: 12-1)

Returning Starters: 8; 3 offense, 3 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: There’s no quarterback controversy; it’s J.T. Barrett’s show. And the pressure to be — well, unbeatable — has lightened. Football could be more fun for the Buckeyes in 2016, and the recruiting has been so successful that there’s still more talent here than nearly any place else.

THE BAD NEWS: We simply don’t know if a revamped offensive line and an Ezekiel Elliott-less backfield will enable Barrett to be his best, most dynamic self. Without Joey Bosa and pals being disruptive up front, offenses could pick on a host of new starters in the back seven.

OUR CALL: The Buckeyes have massive personnel losses, but who wouldn’t trade for OSU’s five-stars-galore talent? Maybe only Alabama.  If OSU is Big Ten’s best, it is playoff-bound.

  1. Baylor Bears (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 11; 4 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: The Bears’ quarterback situation is still in good shape with the return of senior Seth Russell, who is back from a scary neck injury and projects as the starter. The loss of talented sophomore Jarrett Stidham (transferred) stings, but if Russell can stay healthy the Bears should score in bunches once again. Some big names have moved on at receiver, but that’s no big deal in Waco.

THE BAD NEWS: Art Briles is no longer the head coach. There’ll also be at least half a dozen new starters on defense and the second-half schedule includes Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia on the road. Factor in, too, that almost nothing rates higher nowadays in Big 12 country than knocking off Baylor.

OUR CALL: Line up the probable point spreads for the Bears right now, and they’re underdogs only in Norman. Despite the loss of Briles, Baylor has the talent to remain a top-tier team. But the Bears could crash and burn in a hurry if interim coach Jim Grobe can’t restore order and get a derailed locomotive back on the track.

  1. Tennessee Volunteers (2015 Record: 9-4)

Returning Starters: 19; 9 offense, 8 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: The offense (35.2 ppg last season) is dynamic behind Josh Dobbs and RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. There is an All-SEC candidate at every level of the defense — DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, CB Cameron Sutton.

THE BAD NEWS: As a practical matter, the Vols need a left tackle. Beyond that, it’s simple: Can they finish? Their four losses of 2015 came by 17 points. The last piece to this puzzle is to establish a culture of winning.

OUR CALL: The Vols won their final six games last season and routed Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. The breakthrough has arrived.

  1. Michigan Wolverines (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 14; 8 offense, 5 defense, kicker

THE GOOD NEWS: Frankly, there’s almost nothing but good news. Will it add up to Top 10 good news? That’s the question. Maybe the Wolverines — whose team-wide physicality has exploded since Jim Harbaugh arrived prior to last season — are still a year away. Or maybe Harbaugh, with a nasty defense and a much-improved running game, will join Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel and Gene Chizik as a Year 2 national champ. We wouldn’t put it past him.

THE BAD NEWS: Michigan doesn’t even have a clue who its starting quarterback is. Wilton Speight? John O’Korn? Shane Morris? Someone will have to step forward in training camp.

OUR CALL: At Michigan State. At Iowa. At Ohio State. Somewhere in there, the Wolverines probably will be derailed. One would think so, anyway.

  1. Florida State Seminoles (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 12; 7 offense, 5 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: An opener against Ole Miss in Orlando could break bad, but it’s a chance for FSU to fl ex what should be extraordinary defensive muscle. Up front, this should be a wicked defense, with Derrick Nnadi and DeMarcus Walker leading the way. Derwin James and the rest of the secondary will be outstanding.

THE BAD NEWS: Is there a good enough quarterback in the program? Maybe senior Sean Maguire will make big strides — he has shown flashes — yet the most important position on the field feels like the same weakness it has been since Jameis Winston left campus.

OUR CALL: If we’re talking about one of the elite defenses in the country — and we’re pretty sure we are — then 2016 could be a special season in Tallahassee. Program-wide, though, the enthusiasm still needs to be ramped up.

  1. LSU Tigers (2015 Record: 9-3)

Returning Starters: 18; 8 offense, 9 defense, kicker

THE GOOD NEWS: LSU had 22 underclassmen declare for the NFL Draft from 2012 to 2015. This year, just one. The passing game maybe, kind of, looked a bit better in the spring, but QB Brandon Harris knows he doesn’t have to be Deshaun Watson since Les Miles will get as much mileage out of Leonard Fournette as he can.

THE BAD NEWS: Can Harris — or backup Danny Etling — hit the deep pass and be error-resistant? Defensively, LSU is adjusting to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Dave Aranda.

OUR CALL: LSU fans expect championships. Beat Alabama at home on Nov. 5, and the Tigers are on their way.

  1. Stanford Cardinal (2015 Record: 12-2)

Returning Starters: 16; 6 offense, 8 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: Christian McCaffrey smashed the NCAA record for single-season all-purpose yards last season with an unstoppable package of moves, speed and toughness. DL Solomon Thomas and LB Peter Kalambayi can be pillars on defense.

THE BAD NEWS: McCaffrey doesn’t play defense (although we love the idea!). Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are still sorting themselves out to replace QB Kevin Hogan. The first half of the schedule is a nightmare: Kansas State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State, at Notre Dame.

OUR CALL: Stanford is the most stable and trustworthy of the league contenders, but the balanced Pac-12 is least likely of the Power 5 conferences to send a team to the College Football Playoff.

  1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 9; 3 offense, 4 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: Notre Dame has a pair of proven quarterbacks — DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire — preparing to duke it out in training camp. There’s no wrong answer here, as each player is capable of delivering the fi nest season for a quarterback in Brian Kelly’s time in South Bend.

THE BAD NEWS: The other skill spots on offense took heavy losses, and star defenders Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Sheldon Day have moved on. It’s probably fair to say the starting 22 invites more questions than it did a year ago.

OUR CALL: Let’s look closer at that schedule. The opener at Texas won’t be easy. Hosting Michigan State two weeks later will be a bear. It isn’t at all inconceivable, though, that the Irish will be favored in all 12 games.

  1. Houston Cougars (2015 Record: 13-1)

Returning Starters: 12; 6 offense, 5 defense, kicker

THE GOOD NEWS: We have to start with Greg Ward Jr., don’t we? One of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks returns to contend for the Heisman Trophy. And a turnover-mad defense that forced 35 takeaways last season could be even saltier and hungrier this time around.

THE BAD NEWS: It’s just so dang hard for a non-Power Five team to crack the ceiling, you know? Right off the bat, the Cougars will have to prove themselves against Oklahoma — but it’s in Houston. A November home date with Louisville will press the edges of this team’s capability. AAC games at Navy and Memphis will be rough, too.

OUR CALL: The opportunity is there for Houston to strike in historic fashion, but running the table probably is too tall an order. Meanwhile, holding on to an up-and-comer like Tom Herman is a chore unto itself.

  1. Ole Miss Rebels (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 10; 4 offense, 4 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: QB Chad Kelly dazzled as a passer, and then a runner late in the season, and he has a trio of good targets — WRs Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, and TE Evan Engram. All-SEC talent remains on defense.

THE BAD NEWS: The worst thing to have in the SEC is an inexperienced offensive line to go against all those freakish defenders. The Rebels return one (part-time) starting OL and might start a freshman at left tackle.

OUR CALL: We have to give Ole Miss three losses right off the top (Florida State, Alabama, LSU). Throw in another setback somewhere in the SEC, and that would be a hard-earned 8-4 regular-season.

  1. Louisville Cardinals (2015 Record: 8-5)

Returning Starters: 15; 7 offense, 8 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: Louisville returns one of college football’s most experienced defenses, a speedy group led by a straight-up star in pass rusher Devonte Fields. And speaking of speedy, there aren’t many players in the country who are more dangerous than young QB Lamar Jackson. He could stand to throw the ball more efficiently, but we’re talking about a guy who will be among the most improved players in the ACC.

THE BAD NEWS: There’s still a gap between Louisville and the powers-that-be in the Atlantic — Clemson and Florida State. The Cardinals will be stressed at the point of attack against top competition.

OUR CALL: It’ll be the biggest game in Part 2 of Bobby Petrino’s act in Louisville when FSU comes calling on September 17. And then there’s the October 1 affair at Clemson, and a late-season game at Houston. Double-digit victories are attainable nevertheless.

  1. Iowa Hawkeyes (2015 Record: 12-2)

Returning Starters: 13; 5 offense, 8 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: It’s not a stretch to peg C.J. Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback in the Big Ten. He is confident, clutch, and geared to lead the sort of painstaking drives that make all the difference. The Hawkeyes return more than half their starters, which bodes well on both sides of the ball. That’s why they remain Big Ten West favorites. Lindy’s first-team All-American and top-ranked cornerback Desmond King leads a veteran defensive unit.

THE BAD NEWS: All sorts of little things fell right for the Hawkeyes during their 12-0 run. The games against Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Minnesota, to name three, certainly could have ended differently. Kirk Ferentz hasn’t been knocking it out of the park in recruiting; it’s going to take another high-wire act just to win the division.

OUR CALL: Home against Northwestern. Home against Wisconsin. Home against Nebraska. If that’s not a giant West advantage, what is?

  1. Oklahoma State Cowboys (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 19; 10 offense, 7 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: There isn’t a team out there that has more experience in the lineup. From quarterback Mason Rudolph to receiver James Washington to an underrated offensive line to a defense with returning starters at every level, this is a group that has been through the wars.

THE BAD NEWS: Has the Big 12 elite taken it to another level, or has OSU’s recruiting languished a bit? The answer is probably both. The Pokes have to rediscover their inner tough guy. They have a big chance to prove themselves, but this group of players has known mainly disappointment in big games.

OUR CALL: The schedule includes road dates at Baylor and Oklahoma, so let’s just forget about the Pokes winning the Big 12. They can grab 10 Ws, however, and that would set them up for a return to prominence in 2017.

  1. USC Trojans (2015 Record: 8-6)

Returning Starters: 13; 9 offense, 4 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: JuJu Smith-Schuster is already USC’s next star wideout. Sophomore Ronald Jones II will be USC’s next star running back. Adoree’ Jackson is a star of whatever he wants to be.

THE BAD NEWS: USC faces Alabama and Stanford in two of its first three games, and all that opposing running power might be more than a new-look defensive line can handle. The race to replace QB Cody Kessler is ongoing.

OUR CALL: We’ll trust that the Trojans have moved past all the coaching turmoil and a six-loss season in which they still managed to win the Pac-12 South. Expect a repeat in the division.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs (2015 Record: 10-3)

Returning Starters: 13; 8 offense, 5 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: Start with the running game. Nick Chubb is among the nation’s elite RBs, and Sony Michel is another 1,000-yard-caliber back, although he injured his forearm in an off-roading accident this summer and his status for the season is uncertain. The secondary, still led by FS Dominick Sanders, allowed a national-low 156.5 passing yards a game last season, and it isn’t like the SEC has a bunch of Mannings these days.

THE BAD NEWS: Chubb is still working his way back from an October knee injury. Much of the front seven needs replacing — but there’s talent, making it a problem that an old D-coordinator like Kirby Smart will relish.

OUR CALL: Smart’s hire provided the desired fireworks — 93,000 at the spring game — but it’s all still too new for the 2016 Dawgs to challenge for their first SEC title since 2005.

  1. San Diego State Aztecs (2015 Record: 11-3)

Returning Starters: 15; 7 offense, 7 defense, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: SDSU doesn’t play its normal killer non-conference schedule. There’s an early home game against Jared Goff-less Cal, but otherwise this slate has a potential 12 wins in it. The Aztecs ran through the MW with a 9-0 record last season — only one outcome within 14 points — so why wouldn’t they do it again? Oh, and that Donnel Pumphrey guy, the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 (1,653 rushing yards on 309 attempts (5.3 avg.) and 17 rushing touchdowns; 2,069 all-purpose yards), is pretty darn good.

THE BAD NEWS: SDSU doesn’t play its normal killer non-con schedule. It’s going to be diffi cult for the Aztecs to gather strength-of-schedule bonus points in their attempt to make a New Year’s Six bowl.

OUR CALL: You can downplay SDSU and ponder “Would SDSU beat Team X from a major conference?” … and we’d say, “Who the heck knows, buddy?” What we can say: These guys will accrue too many wins to not be ranked, but their margin of error is slim.

  1. TCU Horned Frogs (2015 Record: 11-2)

Returning Starters: 9; 2 offense, 7 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: This team could call to mind some of Gary Patterson’s better ones from TCU’s pre-Big 12 days. New pieces across the offense will need the defense to lead the way. Terrific pass-rusher Josh Carraway and a stellar group of linebackers are well-suited for that challenge.

THE BAD NEWS: Life after Trevone Boykin and wideout Josh Doctson will take some getting used to. Until a quarterback takes charge — Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill? — this is a team in transition.

OUR CALL: No one is picking the Frogs to reach the playoff this year. An early home game against Arkansas will be a stern physical test. If TCU emerges from that scrape with a victory, we’ll know Patterson is up to some good stuff.

  1. Washington Huskies (2015 Record: 7-8)

Returning Starters: 15; 6 offense, 8 defense, kicker

THE GOOD NEWS: In addition to the promise of Jake Browning (2,955 passing yards) and Myles Gaskin (1,302 rushing yards), the Huskies get back WR John Ross from injury to infuse the receiving corps and return game with loads of speed. S Budda Baker and CB Sidney Jones are the backbone of an outstanding secondary. Chris Peterson seems to finally have the personnel in place to make a run in the Pac-12

THE BAD NEWS: U-Dub has lost 12 in a row to Oregon — and only last year’s game was closer than 17 points. The Huskies have to go to Eugene this season in an effort to solve that North Division puzzle. The O-line needs to improve for the offense to reach a higher level.

OUR CALL: No one has ever doubted Coach Pete’s coaching chops, and he has a chance to put together the Huskies’ best team and season since they won 11 games and went to the Rose Bowl under Rick Neuheisel in 2000.

  1. Michigan State Spartans (2015 Record: 12-2)

Returning Starters: 9; 2 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: Michigan and Ohio State must visit East Lansing, which gives Sparty a shot in the Big Ten East. MSU also gets divisional crossover foes Wisconsin and Northwestern at home. In a season when the Spartans need a friendly schedule, they have one.

THE BAD NEWS: Connor Cook exited the program as its all-time leader in touchdown passes, passing yards, total offense and — most important — victories. There isn’t a great deal of excitement surrounding potential successors Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry.

OUR CALL: This might not turn out to be one of MSU’s premium defenses, but Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough and crew are confident and on the rise. Although Dantonio has his players aiming much higher, third place in the East feels like the right spot for this squad.

  1. UCLA Bruins (2015 Record: 8-5)

Returning Starters: 12; 4 offense, 8 defense

THE GOOD NEWS: UCLA spent the spring putting the pro-style Josh Rosen more under center and creating a downhill running game that will create killer play-action chances for his deep ball, which might be the best in the country. Converting CB Ishmael Adams to WR is a fascinating and likely successful transaction.

THE BAD NEWS: The receiving corps has been gutted (hence the move of Adams), and the offensive line has to replace three starters. Spread guru Noel Mazzone left for a three-year deal at Texas A&M. Kennedy Polamalu was promoted to offensive coordinator, which is not a bad thing, but creates more transition.

OUR CALL: UCLA has the raw materials to be a perennial Top 25 team and needs to act like it. Beat USC and these gutty littles can take the South.

  1. Oregon Ducks (2015 Record: 9-4)

Returning Starters: 11; 8 offense, 3 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: If you don’t know QB Dakota Prukop, you will. And if the Montana State transfer does for the Ducks what fellow FCS grad transfer Vernon Adams Jr. did last season (when healthy), then we have calculated Oregon too low in these rankings. Skill still abounds: RB Royce Freeman, WR Darren Carrington and WR Charles Nelson.

THE BAD NEWS: The disaster on defense prompted coach Mark Helfrich to demote coordinator Don Pellum and bring in former Michigan coach Brady Hoke to run the unit. How has Oregon not developed a high school QB since Marcus Mariota?

OUR CALL: Oregon has the skill to thrive and win the North, but the safer course of action here is to put the Ducks’ D in prove-it mode.

  1. North Carolina Tar Heels (2015 Record: 11-3)

Returning Starters: 16; 7 offense, 7 defense, kicker, punter

THE GOOD NEWS: You have to feel good about UNC’s progress defensively under second-year coordinator Gene Chizik. He’ll bring more of an increasingly aggressive approach in Year 2, leaning on the abilities of cornerbacks Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart to handle their business in man coverage. It’s time for running back Elijah Hood to become one of the bigger names in the country at his position.

THE BAD NEWS: Marquise Williams wasn’t the most consistent quarterback on the planet, but he was hugely productive. Will new starter Mitch Trubisky be nearly as good?

OUR CALL: It’s hard to put a finger on any one reason UNC can’t outperform this modest ranking. It’s a talented team with lots of experience. The Tar Heels have burned believers before, though. Again: We’ll have to see it to believe it.