ESPN College Football Power Rankings: Bama, Clemson rule (again)

Can Alabama repeat as College Football Playoff champions? Do Deshaun Watson and Clemson have the goods to get back to the title game again? Does Year 2 of the Jim Harbaugh Era mean a playoff run for Michigan?

So many questions … good thing we have enough experts and data to provide an answer to any and all of your 2016 queries. With help from ESPN Insiders, plus a healthy dose of ESPN’s Football Power Index, we were able to plot out how the whole year would play out.

A hint: As much as things stay the same (hello, Bama and Clemson at the very top), look out for a bunch of CFP party crashers.

New quarterback, new running back, new defensive coordinator … no problem in Tuscaloosa, where the Tide begin 2016 the same way they ended last season: at the top of the college football heap.

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Sure, last year ended with heartbreak in the CFP title game. But with QB Deshaun Watson and RB Wayne Gallman back, a repeat trip is entirely possible — and so is a different outcome in that final game.

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OU lost four first-team All-Big 12 defensive players, but QB Baker Mayfield and RB Samaje Perine may be the best backfield duo in the country. We’ll know a lot about the Sooners … er … sooner rather than later, with games against Houston, Ohio State, TCU and Texas in the first six weeks of the season.

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Figuring out a starting quarterback is a predicament for coach Jimbo Fisher. But what the QB has to do is easy: Hand the ball to RB Dalvin Cook.

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After a 9-3 season that left LSU fans unfulfilled, the Tigers bring back 17 starters — and one of them is RB Leonard Fournette. So yes, consider LSU a national title threat.

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Nobody wanted to be playing Ohio State at the end of last season. And even though the Buckeyes lost a historic crop of players to the NFL, opponents may again not want anything to do with the Buckeyes come the 2016 postseason.

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The Cardinal may be even better in 2016 than they were in 2015. And that Christian McCaffrey guy may just top last season’s record-breaking performance.

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With its four top receivers returning, a stout defense and a friendly schedule cushion to start 2016, Michigan ought to open 7-0. Unbeaten Jim Harbaugh in late October? Yes, please.

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Three potential future first-round NFL draft picks on defense. QB Joshua Dobbs and a running back duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Yep, the Vols are stacked for an SEC championship run.

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Torii Hunter Jr. Co. may not yet know who will be throwing him the ball, but the Notre Dame offense ought to be just fine. It’ll help that the Irish have only three true road games, too.

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QB Chad Kelly could be the best quarterback in the country … and he isn’t shy about saying so. Can Ole Miss make up for massive losses elsewhere, though?

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The Cougars have the talent — and every intention — to crash the CFP party this postseason. Beating OU on Sept. 3 will be a huge first step.

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New starting QB … terrible loss to end last season … ranked outside the top 10. In other words, LJ Scott and Sparty are exactly where they want to be.

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Can QB Jake Browning and the Huskies be true sleepers with the hype tidal wave that is growing behind them?

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Sure, the starting lineup looks very different from a year ago. But RB Kyle Hicks (4.8 yards per carry in 2015) is returning, and he’s not the only potential star moving up the depth chart.

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The schedule is brutal, and that might be an understatement. But the roster is impressive, and that may be an understatement, too.

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The Pac-12 should be a ton of fun in 2016. And Fun Guy to Watch No. 1 could be QB Josh Rosen.

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Dawgs RB Nick Chubb is a handful to tackle. Backup Sony Michel is no picnic, either. And that makes Georgia dangerous.

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The Cardinals are solid almost everywhere, and potentially spectacular at QB with star Lamar Jackson.

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RB Royce Freeman and the Ducks’ offense will score. But can that leaky defense (485.3 YPG allowed in 2015) force a few more punts?

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Don’t forget that the Cowboys started 10-0 last year, and bring back 17 starters. Included on that list: standout QB Mason Rudolph.

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Coach Art Briles is gone after a disastrous offseason at Baylor. But the Bears have talent (like WR KD Cannon) and should rack up some early wins against a soft schedule.

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Just like last year, MLB Josey Jewell and the Hawkeyes’ defense should be tough to score on. The question is: Can the Iowa offense produce enough to win double-digit games again in 2016?

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The Tar Heels will again have a strong offensive line blocking for RB Elijah Hood. Early-season games against Georgia and Florida State will be the difference between another 11-win regular season and a solid top-25 finish.

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Houston who? The Aztecs and terrific RB Donnel Pumphrey think they are the CFP dark horse, not the Cougars.

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Top 25 voters Edward Aschoff, ESPN staff writer; Butch Davis, ESPN analyst, former coach at Miami and North Carolina; Heather Dinich, ESPN staff writer; Brad Edwards, ESPN Radio College GameDay analyst, ESPN Insider; Chris Fallica, ESPN senior researcher, “The Bear” on College GameDay; Rod Gilmore, ESPN analyst, former Stanford cornerback; Danny Kanell, ESPN analyst, former Florida State quarterback; Chris Low, ESPN senior writer; Ivan Maisel, ESPN senior writer; Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer; Brett McMurphy, ESPN college football Insider; Adam Rittenberg, ESPN staff writer; Mark Schlabach, ESPN senior writer

Top 25 projections Football Power Index: FPI predicts and ranks team strength based on expected points added from offense, defense and special teams, adjusted for opponent strength. Using preseason FPI, ESPN Stats Information has projected each team’s chances to win every game on its schedule as well as its chances to take home a conference crown.



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