Locking up the top-ranked recruiting class for the second time in the last three years on National Signing Day, the Alabama Crimson Tide look like favorites to repeat as national champions in 2016 and sit atop our preseason top 25 projection.
Five-time national champion head coach Nick Saban is expected to bring back only five players on offense and three on defense next season, the kind of turnover that typically spells trouble and a tumble from atop the national rankings. However, when you have Saban’s skills along the recruiting trail it’s much easier to rebuild and the 2015 roster had plenty of depth.
Joining Georgia and USC as the only programs to secure three or more five-star recruits, Alabama will usher in No. 1-ranked inside linebacker Ben Davis and defensive tackle Kendell Jones to eventually lead the frontline, as well as junior college offensive tackle Charles Baldwin to anchor the rushing attack.
Baldwin will likely battle Brandon Kennedy and Lester Cotton for time beside established starters Cam Robinson, Alphonse Taylor, and Ross Pierschbacher.
That group will undoubtedly create holes for incoming-sophomore running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, both of whom will try to fill the major void left by Heisman Trophy winner and rusher Derrick Henry.
As for who the Tide could square off against for the national title, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes, as well as Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines, Dabo Swinney’s upstart powerhouse Clemson Tigers and Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners.
Harbaugh, who secured the country’s highest-ranked recruit in defensive tackle Rashan Gary, made a huge splash with Gary and five-star running back Kareem Walker to perfectly suit his system’s needs. The Wolverines showed noticeable improvement in Harbaugh’s first-year, and with a full year of his system under their belts along with an impressive recruiting class, Michigan could once again be ready for the national stage.
However, the 2016 Big Ten schedule won’t be kind to the Wolverines as they face Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State on the road.
According to Scout.com ratings, the Buckeyes secured the five-star tandem of massive junior college offensive lineman Malcolm Pridgeon and defensive end Nick Bosa, brother of projected No. 1 overall NFL draft selection Joey Bosa. Pridgeon is listed at 6-foot-8 and 285 pounds, possessing the size and strength to fill in quite well for NFL-bound tackle Taylor Decker.
Still, there could be some attrition for the Buckeyes despite Meyer’s recruiting work. Fourteen former Buckeyes will strut their stuff in front of NFL executives at this week’s scouting combine, including top defensive backs Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell.
Ohio State will also say goodbye to the stellar offensive trio of quarterback Cardale Jones, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and receiver and former quarterback Braxton Miller, but J.T. Barrett comes back under center to keep the Buckeyes offense humming despite difficult road trips to Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
Swinney and the Tigers didn’t crack the top 10 in 2016’s class rankings, but the players they did land should complement the plethora of returning starters. Clemson was only No. 14 in Scout’s rankings, but signed five-star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence as well as running back Tavien Feaster from nearby Spartanburg to go along with 12 total starters returning to the offense and defense next season.
The most important returning starter is of course Heisman candidate and quarterback DeShaun Watson, who immediately gives Clemson a leg up on Alabama and Michigan as they look for replacements for Jake Coker and Jake Rudock, respectively.
However, the Tigers slip back due to No. 3 in our early rankings due only three starters coming back to the defense following the departures of top contributors Shaq Lawson, Jayron Kearse, and Mackensie Alexander.
Early Top 25 Projection