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Detroit News Top 25 college football preview

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
After beating Michigan State, 38-0, in the Cotton Bowl and Clemson, 45-40, in the national title game, Alabama checks in at No. 1 in the News' top 25.

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News, who has a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, breaks down the top 25 teams in his preseason rankings.

1. Alabama

Last season: 14-1 overall, 7-1 SEC; beat Michigan State, 38-0, in Cotton Bowl and beat Clemson, 45-40, in national championship game

Coach: Nick Saban (100-18 in nine seasons at Alabama, 191-60-1 overall)

Outlook: For just about any other team not named Alabama, the holes the Crimson Tide have to fill heading into 2016 would be enough to knock them down a few pegs. But let’s be honest, this is Alabama and it happens to be coached by Saban. He’s merely won five national championships and routinely brings in the top recruiting class each year. So while the NFL grabbed its share of Crimson Tide players to stock its rosters, the cupboard is hardly bare in Tuscaloosa as the Tide will be pushing for the playoffs once again.

2. Clemson

Last season: 14-1 overall, 9-0 ACC; beat Oklahoma, 37-17, in Orange Bowl and lost to Alabama, 45-40, in national championship game

Coach: Dabo Swinney (75-27 overall and in eight seasons at Clemson)

Outlook: The Tigers had success few teams had last year against Alabama as the potent Clemson offense proved it was worthy of being in the national title game. Plenty of weapons return, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Heisman Trophy favorite who rolled up more than 450 yards of total offense against the Crimson Tide. He gets most of his supporting cast back, and if the Tigers can win at Florida State, they’ll be in good shape to get back to the playoffs.

3. LSU

Last season: 9-3 overall, 5-3 SEC; beat Texas Tech, 56-27, in the Texas Bowl

Coach: Les Miles (112-32 in 11 seasons at LSU, 139-53 overall)

Outlook: After a 7-0 start last season, things collapsed for the Tigers amid all sorts of drama surrounding the future of Miles. The coach is back, however, and he brings as much talent as any team in the nation. Running back Leonard Fournette is a leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy and the defense gets a spark from new coordinator Dave Aranda, who left Wisconsin to take over at LSU. The Tigers get Alabama at home as well as Ole Miss and could be in position to get to the SEC title game.

4. Oklahoma

Last season: 11-2 overall, 8-1 Big 12; lost to Clemson, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl

Coach: Bob Stoops (179-46 overall and in 17 seasons at Oklahoma)

Outlook: The Sooners don’t typically do well when they’re ranked highly in the preseason, but they’ve got an outstanding duo on offense in quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine. It provides a potent attack as the defense must replace its share of All-Big 12 performers. The Sooners will find out quickly just how good they are as they open the season against Houston, face Ohio State two weeks later and follow that up with a visit from TCU.

5. Florida State

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 ACC; lost to Houston, 38-24, in the Peach Bowl

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (68-14 overall and in six seasons at Florida State)

Outlook: The schedule is no piece of cake and figuring out who will play quarterback could be an ongoing issue, but the Seminoles have running back Dalvin Cook, one of the best in the country, leading what is an otherwise solid offense. The defense isn’t bad either, and the consistent top-level recruiting allows for very few gaps for a team that expects to be playing for the ACC championship and a spot in the playoffs.

6. Ohio State

Last season: 12-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten; beat Notre Dame, 44-28, in the Fiesta Bowl

Coach: Urban Meyer (50-4 in four seasons at Ohio State, 154-27 overall)

Outlook: Meyer has to replace all kinds of starters, but considering the Buckeyes have recruited better than any team in the Big Ten, the talent should still be there. It’s definitely there at quarterback where junior J.T. Barrett returns. He’ll have to be on his game as Ohio State faces its share of challenges this season, including road games against Oklahoma and Michigan State.

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, left, enters the 2016 season as one of the top players in the country and a Heisman favorite.

7. Stanford

Last season: 12-2 overall, 8-1 Pac-12; beat Iowa, 45-16, in the Rose Bowl

Coach: David Shaw (54-14 overall and in five seasons at Stanford)

Outlook: With running back Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best player in the country, the Cardinal offense should be good enough despite inexperience at quarterback. The defense should take a big jump after gaining experience a season ago and should serve the Cardinal well throughout a tough path in the Pac-12. Come out on top and they could be headed for the College Football Playoff.

8. Notre Dame

Last season: 10-3 overall; lost to Ohio State, 44-28, in the Fiesta Bowl

Coach: Brian Kelly (55-23 in six seasons at Notre Dame, 226-80-2 overall)

Outlook: The Fighting Irish suffered their share of injuries last season and head into 2016 with plans to use both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire at quarterback. How long the two-quarterback system lasts remains to be seen, but the typically tough schedule the Irish face gets a little bit of a break with some of its biggest games at home, including Michigan State and Stanford. However, Notre Dame does play Texas in Texas and closes the season at Southern Cal.

9. Michigan

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten; beat Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl

Coach: Jim Harbaugh (10-3 in one season at Michigan, 68-30 overall)

Outlook: The Wolverines enter the season with as much buzz as any team in the nation, thanks to the presence of Harbaugh and a defense that could be among the best in the nation. The schedule is a piece of cake through the first seven weeks, giving the Wolverines time to have their offense settle in under a new quarterback — with John O’Korn or Wilton Speight. Whoever it is will have plenty of weapons to throw the ball to on the outside. The season truly comes down to the last few weeks when UM must play at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.

Michigan's offense: Five key points

10. Iowa

Last season: 12-2 overall, 8-0 Big Ten; lost to Stanford, 45-16, in the Rose Bowl

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (127-87 in 17 seasons at Iowa, 139-108 overall)

Outlook: The Hawkeyes return nearly everyone from a team that went undefeated in the regular season and was minutes away from a Big Ten title and a spot in the playoffs. Cornerback Desmond King is the returning Jim Thorpe Award winner while the Hawkeyes are solid up front and at linebacker. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is also back as Iowa faces a favorable schedule and a clear path to another Big Ten West title.

11. Michigan State

Last season: 12-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten; lost to Alabama, 38-0, in the Cotton Bowl

Coach: Mark Dantonio (87-33 in nine seasons at Michigan State, 105-50 overall)

Outlook: The Spartans once again find themselves the underdog in the difficult Big Ten East after losing quarterback Connor Cook to the NFL, as well as receiver Aaron Burbridge, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and All-American offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen. But the cupboard is hardly bare for a Spartans team that should be among the best in the nation defensively and have plenty of weapons in the backfield. One bonus is both Michigan and Ohio State come to Spartan Stadium.

MSU's offense: Five key points

12. Washington

Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12; beat Southern Mississippi, 44-31, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl

Coach: Chris Petersen (15-12 in two seasons at Washington, 107-24 overall)

Outlook: One of the best defenses in the country a season ago returns plenty and has many thinking big things are on tap for the Huskies. Much of that will likely lie with the offense, one that had its growing pains in 2015. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are expected to make significant improvement, something necessary if the Huskies expect to be competing for the conference title.

13. Tennessee

Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 SEC; beat Northwestern, 45-6, in the Outback Bowl

Coach: Butch Jones (21-17 in three seasons at Tennessee, 71-44 overall)

Outlook: Before closing the 2015 season with six straight victories, the Volunteers pushed Alabama to the limit on the road. At least 17 starters return to that team and many now believe the Vols are the favorite to win the SEC East, and take a run at winning the conference and getting into the College Football Playoff. Snapping an 11-game skid to Florida would help, and they get the Gators at home.

14. Louisville

Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-3 ACC; beat Texas A&M, 27-21, in the Music City Bowl

Coach: Bobby Petrino (58-18 in six seasons at Louisville, 100-39 overall)

Outlook: The Cardinals have plenty of talent back from a team that won eight of its last 10 games, including quarterback Lamar Jackson and a solid defense from front to back. However, coming out on top in the ACC won’t be easy as the Cardinals must hit the road to play Clemson and host Florida State. Add in a late non-conference trip to Houston and there are few breaks on the schedule.

15. UCLA

Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-4 Pac-12; lost to Nebraska, 37-29, in the Foster Farms Bowl

Coach: Jim Mora (37-16 overall and in four seasons at UCLA)

Outlook: It’s Year 2 for quarterback Josh Rosen, who threw for more than 3,600 yards as a freshman. He’ll have the benefit of a strong defense that returns nine starters and a schedule that sees the Bruins avoid playing Washington and Oregon while getting Stanford at home. Closing at Southern Cal and California will be a tough finish.

16. Ole Miss

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 SEC; beat Oklahoma State, 48-20, in the Sugar Bowl

Coach: Hugh Freeze (34-18 in four seasons at Ole Miss, 64-25 overall)

Outlook: The Rebels will lean heavily on quarterback Chad Kelly, who threw 31 touchdown passes and for more than 4,000 yards last season. He’ll have the benefit of another solid defense, but the Rebels will also be playing with an investigation ongoing and getting out of the SEC West, maybe the toughest division in football, is no simple task.

17. TCU

Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Big 12; beat Oregon, 47-41, in the Alamo Bowl

Coach: Gary Patterson (143-47 overall and in 15 seasons at TCU)

Outlook: The Horned Frogs have been known over the years for their defense, but the inexperienced unit struggled in 2015, giving up nearly 400 yards a game. They should see improvement this season, but the big questions come on offense where quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson are gone. Former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill will be counted on to add some spark to the offense.

18. Houston

Last season: 13-1 overall, 7-1 American; beat Florida State, 38-24, in the Peach Bowl

Coach: Tom Herman (13-1 overall and in one season at Houston)

Outlook: The Cougars have a non-conference schedule that is worthy of a playoff team by taking on Oklahoma and Louisville, but for a Group of 5 team there is little room for error. Under Herman, the offense will likely be potent again thanks to quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who accounted for 17 passing touchdowns and 21 rushing touchdowns and piled up almost 4,000 yards in total offense in 2015.

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is looking to build off his stellar 2015 season where he tallied nearly 4,000 yards of total offense and had 38 total touchdowns.

19. North Carolina

Last season: 11-3 overall, 8-0 ACC; lost to Baylor, 49-38, in the Russel Athletic Bowl

Coach: Larry Fedora (32-20 in four seasons at North Carolina, 66-39 overall)

Outlook: The Tar Heels were Coastal Division champions last year thanks in large part to a huge turnaround on defense, orchestrated by first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. The Heels should be good on that side of the ball again and the offense seven starters, including running back Elijah Hood, who scored 17 touchdowns in 2015.

20. Southern Cal

Last season: 8-6 overall, 6-4 Pac-12; lost to Wisconsin, 23-21, in the Holiday Bowl

Coach: Clay Helton (6-4 overall and in two stints as interim head coach at USC)

Outlook: The season-opener against Alabama kicks off one of the toughest schedules in the nation as the Trojans hit the road to play Stanford, Washington and UCLA before closing the season with a visit from Notre Dame. There is plenty of talent, but the Trojans must break in a new quarterback with little to no margin for error.

21. Oklahoma State

Last season: 10-3 overall, 7-2 Big 12; lost to Ole Miss, 48-20, in the Sugar Bowl

Coach: Mike Gundy (94-47 overall and in 11 seasons at Oklahoma State)

Outlook: The Cowboys were on a tear last season, winning their first 10 games of the season and thinking of a Big 12 title. However, they lost the final three, including a blowout loss at the hands of Oklahoma and a disappointing showing in the Sugar Bowl. Seventeen players return, which bodes well for another solid regular season. And keep an eye on graduate transfer Barry J. Sanders, the running back who’s finishing his career at his dad’s alma mater.

22. Boise State

Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Mountain West; beat Northern Illinois, 55-7, in the Poinsettia Bowl

Coach: Bryan Harsin (21-6 in two seasons at Boise State, 28-11 overall)

Outlook: The Broncos have the talent on offense to possibly finish the regular season undefeated and make things interesting when the College Football Playoff committee is making its choices. It won’t be simple with some tough games in the Mountain West and non-conference matchups with Washington State and Oregon State, but the Broncos could very well be in the conversation all season long.

23. Washington State

Last season: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12; beat Miami (Fla.), 20-14, in the Sun Bowl

Coach: Mike Leach (21-29 in four seasons at Washington State, 105-71 overall)

Outlook: Leach could have one of his most potent offenses with the Cougars as quarterback Luke Falk returns following a 2015 season that saw him average 380 passing yards a game. The big question for the Cougars is the defense and whether it can hold up in the Pac-12. It will be tested early with a trip to Boise State then conference games against Oregon, Stanford and UCLA.

24. Texas A&M

Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC; lost to Louisville, 27-21, in the Music City Bowl

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (36-16 in four seasons at Texas A&M, 71-33 overall)

Outlook: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator for a unit that will be led by quarterback Trevor Knight, but the offensive line is inexperienced. It also doesn’t help the Aggies have had trouble stopping the run on the other side of the ball, but talent is still there to reach double-digit wins and make some noise in the SEC West.

25. Pittsburgh

Last season: 8-5 overall, 6-2 ACC; lost to Navy, 44-28, in the Military Bowl

Coach: Pat Narduzzi (8-5 overall and in one season at Pittsburgh)

Outlook: The Panthers expect to compete in the Coastal Division this season and that could receive a boost from the likely return of running back James Conner, who is overcoming a knee injury and cancer diagnosis in the offseason. Getting beyond the ACC title game might be a stretch, but getting there should be the goal for the Panthers.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau