We’ll get to our bold coaching predictions for the season tomorrow, but today I thought I’d go on the record with 10 safe to not-so-safe on-the-field predictions for the 2016 season. Let’s get right to it:
10. Vanderbilt makes a bowl game. Okay, that may not seem that shocking to you. (Kirk Herbstreit predicted the same last week.) But what’s shocking is the way Vanderbilt will get there, by winning more games against the SEC East than in non-conference play. The ‘Dores will open the season with a win over South Carolina, take down both Kentucky and Missouri for the second year in a row and stun Georgia on the road in their path to six wins.
9. Miami (finally!) makes its first ACC championship game. Way back when, the ACC awkwardly placed Miami and Florida State in separate divisions in hopes of cashing in on annual rematches. Eleven years later, that hasn’t happened. In fact, Miami is still looking for its first Coastal Division championship. No longer. In a wide-open division, the combination of Brad Kaaya and a rejuvenated Mark Richt lead the Hurricanes to a rematch with Florida State in the ACC title game… a dozen years in the making.
8. The Big 12 announces in October it will expand with Houston and Cincinnati. I originally predicted this summer the league would add four teams with the thinking that if you’re going to nakedly hold your TV partners up for as much of their millions as possible, you might as well empty out the vault as long as you’re in there. Turns out, Fox and ESPN weren’t too fond of that. Sure, the league could use their contractual right to add four teams with the understanding that they’ll just sell their TV rights to Netflix the next time they come up for bid, but this conference has never been forward-thinking enough to order lunch a day in advance, much less say goodbye to the two most powerful cash cows in college sports. As such, the league will toy with the idea of adding nobody before settling on the Coogs and Bearcats.
7. Leonard Fournette will not win the Heisman. There’s a certain subset in college football that seems oddly determined to convince highly-valued NFL prospects to quit their teams and wrap themselves in foam Little Giants-style until they can be paid for their services, which popped up again when Fournette missed time this month with an ankle injury. That won’t happen, obviously. But I do think the injury will remind Fournette of his mortality enough that, when combined with Ezekiel Elliott going No. 4 in this spring’s draft, Fournette will play this season just cautiously enough that he won’t match last season’s 1,953 yards or 22 touchdowns. Another running back, however, does claim the stiffarm trophy: Dalvin Cook.
6. Auburn struggles to reach a bowl game… again. It’s possible that horrific tackle of Laquon Treadwell that let Auburn escape Ole Miss in 2014 activated some sort of hex on Gus Malzahn and his program. Through that moment, Malzahn was 19-3 overall and 14-3 against Power 5 competition. Since: 8-10 overall and an eye-popping 4-10 against the Power 5. Heading into a season with a team that’s largely the same as last year’s bunch — Kevin Steele for Will Muschamp at defensive coordinator the obvious exception — Auburn opens with the thermostat cranked to 100 from the opening kick. The Tigers could easily play like a top-25 team to open the season and still be 1-3 through September… and then they play four of their final six SEC games on the road.
5. Texas and Texas A&M improve enough for Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin to keep their jobs. The paths to get there may have looked like a banked in 3-point shot, but the end results counted just the same. Strong finally hired a coordinator that will allow his offense to swim with the stream instead of against it. With two full years of recruiting now on the roster, Texas’s new offense will allow its talent to maximize itself over the recruiting-deficient Big 12 enough to reach the requisite 8-or-9 wins. In College Station, Sumlin’s offense has been beset by young quarterbacks that, talented as they were, introduced a volatile aspect that manifested itself over the entire program. No more. In 22-going-on-35 year old quarterback Trevor Knight, Sumlin has a signal caller that, while arguably the least naturally-gifted quarterback he has, is the first that will actually provide a calming effect on the program instead of the opposite. Knight’s skills will mesh with Noel Mazzone’s scheme enough for the Aggies to secure a third-place finish in the SEC West.
4. Baylor is this season’s biggest disappointment. I’ve written on this phenomenon before, but just to state it again: when a head coach is ripped away from his program deep into the off-season, it has a disastrous effect on the team he leaves behind. Arkansas fell from 11-2 in 2011 to 4-8 in 2012. Ohio State plummeted from 12-1 in 2010 to 6-7 in 2011. Yes, Art Briles’s coaching staff is still intact from last season, but his roster isn’t. Baylor starts this season with around 70 scholarship players and must replace four offensive line starters and three defensive line starters. Their top wide receiver is gone. There’s no quarterback depth behind starter Seth Russell, who’s working his way back from a broken neck. The Bears’ typically soft early schedule all but guarantees a 6-0 or 5-1 start, but the schedule after that — at Texas, TCU and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks followed by a slugfest with Kansas State and a shootout with Texas Tech before closing at a frigid West Virginia — could lead to a snowball effect, particularly when attrition becomes an issue and the certainty of a coming coaching change starts to sink in. A 7-5 finish would be a nice season for Jim Grobe.
3. Washington wins the Pac-12. Sometimes a team becomes a preseason darling simply because the college football offseason is dark and full of terrors, and we have to talk about something in the interim. Other times it happens because, well, yeah, that year’s team du jour is due for a jump. This time it’s Washington, with an elite coaching staff, a best-in-its-conference defense and a franchise quarterback in Jake Browning. However….
2. The Big 12 and Pac-12 will pummel themselves out of the national championship picture. It’s no coincidence that the only conferences to play nine-game regular season conference schedules are the only conferences left out of the Playoff through its first two years. They’ll both eliminate themselves this season, hastened by Houston upsetting Oklahoma in the season opener. The twin vacancies allow Michigan to sneak into the Playoff alongside Big Ten champion Ohio State, ACC champion Florida State and SEC champion Alabama.
1. Florida State wins the national championship. I’ve written previously on how the college football gods choose favorites when awarding national champions and, coincidentally, those favorites all happen to recruit at a stratosphere beyond everyone else. The new Playoff era demands it, where the extra game required stacks the odds toward the heavyweights and away from Cinderellas. Ohio State and Alabama took their turns each of the past two seasons, and now it’s Florida State’s.
And, just to put the odds further on his side, Fisher put his team on the right side of recent history when he named redshirt freshman Deondre Francois his starting quarterback. Dating back to 2009, the only non-first year starting quarterback to win a national championship was Alabama’s A.J. McCarron in 2012, and even that’s a bit of a technicality since he won the crown as a first-year starter the year before.
There you have it, folks. Make your bets and your postseason travel plans accordingly.