1. Clemson will win the National Championship
Lead by Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers and Coach Dabo Swinney return an absolutely loaded offense that may actually be better than last year. Watsons running mate, Wayne Gallman will lead the Tigers backfield, and Artavis Scott, the team’s leading receiver, returns along with the team’s most talented pass catcher, Mike Williams, who missed all but the first drive of the 2015 season with a neck injury. Tight end Jordan Leggett is a freak athlete and one of the top tight ends in the nation. Clemson also returns 3 starting linemen.
The defense suffered some major losses to the draft, including ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, tackle DJ Reader, linebacker BJ Goodson, and defensive backs Mackenzie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, and TJ Green. But the Tigers return senior linebacker Ben Boulware, and tackles Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins. Only 1 of the 4 secondary starters from 2015, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is back. Defensive end Austin Bryant looks like a potential breakout candidate.
Overall the Tigers should be a juggernaut on offense and be just fine on defense under the direction of Brent Ventables, one of the best defensive coaches in college football. They’ll run through the ACC and won’t find a team who can stop them on offense once they make the playoff.
2. The College Football Playoff Field: Clemson, LSU, Ohio State, Florida State
Here goes the first seriously crazy prediction. Alabama, the reigning National Champions of the college football world, will not make the playoff. Instead, Les Miles and LSU, led by workhorse running back Leonard Fournette, will upset the Crimson Tide and win the SEC.
Michigan has been getting all the hype this offseason, and most of it is deserved, they have a very talented team and are making huge strides as a program. Well that’s all nice, but let us not forget the absolute beat down that Ohio State put on the Wolverines in Michigan last year. JT Barrett returns as the top QB in the Big 10, and with Urban Meyer running the show, the Buckeyes should run the table. Being on the road at Oklahoma will be a huge test, but I’ll take the Bucs in that one.
I’ll give the last spot to the Seminoles, who I see only losing one game, and that will be to eventual National Champion Clemson. As long as they win every other game, they should have a strong case for the final playoff spot.
3. Heisman Trophy Winner: Deshaun Watson QB Clemson
This is a pretty simple pick. He finished 3rd in the voting last year, when he became the 3rd quarterback in the FBS era to throw for over 3,500 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. He has all his weapons from last year back, along with his best receiver who played only 1 series last season. His team is likely going to the national championship. Unless one of the other finalists puts up historical numbers (say McCaffrey breaks his own all-purpose yards record), then Watson winning is a no brainer.
4. Heisman Finalists: Watson, JT Barrett, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Greg Ward Jr.
Fournette and McCaffrey should once again dominate both of their respective conferences, but Fournette has to overcome a giant hurdle in Alabama’s defense in order to overtake Watson, and McCaffrey will have to have an even better season than last year. Barrett will run all over the Big 10, but the real question is whether he can put up the passing numbers to make him Heisman worthy. Ward is one of the most dynamic players in college football, and if he puts on a show against Oklahoma and then puts up big numbers the rest of the season, he will be a legitimate dark horse candidate.
5. Top Offensive Freshmen: Jacob Eason QB Georgia
Eason was the top quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class, and is currently challenging for the starting job for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs. He is a physical specimen at 6’5 and 235 pounds, and performed extremely well in Georgia’s spring game, completing 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. If he wins the job, I expect a strong freshmen season that may not result in a SEC championship for the Dawgs, but will build a solid foundation for the future of the program.
Honorable Mention: Greg Little OT Ole Miss
6. Top Defensive Freshmen: Nick Bosa DE Ohio State
Maybe it’s my Ohio State bias talking, but based on spring practices and summer camp, Nick Bosa looks like he could be better than his 2-time All-American brother Joey. Listed as the 2nd string defensive end behind Sam Hubbard, Bosa should see his playing time rise significantly, and very quickly.
Honorable Mention: Ed Oliver DT Houston