College football is finally back!

After a very long offseason filled with weird recruiting scandals, NCAA investigations and Jim Harbaugh popping up in the news everyday, the greatest game in America has returned to us.

This season has a chance to be both very strange and very special.

For one, several of the best players in college football last season return for one more year. Deshaun Watson is the best quarterback in the nation and has one more year at Clemson. Myles Garrett may be the next Jadeveon Clowney and he will (presumably) enter the draft after this year at Texas A&M. Finally, the plethora of running back talent in college football returns for another year. Whether that be Leonard Fournette at LSU or Dalvin Cook at Florida State, the talent at running back is insane this year.

But the burning question in every college football fan’s mind is the same. Who will win the national championship this year?

The contenders are well known. Alabama enters as the defending champs and they’re always a threat to reload and content for the title. Ohio State has to replace a whole bunch of NFL Draft picks, but they have plenty of blue-chip players waiting in the wings. Florida State is a trendy pick as well, but the Seminoles need to figure out their quarterback situation. Clemson returns the best quarterback in the nation, but they have to replace nine starters on defense.

There are also some sleepers waiting in the wings. Washington has received a lot of hype this offseason and they return a bunch of starters. Michigan is finally getting its act together under Jim Harbaugh. Could a mid-major like Houston make a push under the guidance of Tom Herman?

CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Southeastern Conference

West Division Winner: Alabama (11-1)

I can’t pick against the Tide. LSU should be a very, very good team this year, but Alabama has proven time and time again that they are on a whole different level than the rest of the country. Although they have to replace their quarterback and a Heisman-trophy winner at running back, Nick Saban has been the best recruiter in the nation and Alabama will have five-star players all over the field this year. I expect Alabama to drop a game this year, perhaps early on to USC or Ole Miss, but the Tide have proven that they can bounce back. Three of the past four times the Tide have won the title has been with one regular season loss.

East Division Winner: Tennessee (10-2)

Tennessee has received a lot of hype this offseason. They return many of their starters and play in a very weak East division. Although we’ve heard this story before, I believe this is the year when the Vols finally put it all together and make it back to the SEC Championship. Simply put, they have more talent and proven starters than Georgia or Florida (their main competition).

SEC Championship: Alabama (12-1) over Tennessee (10-3)

No question here. Nick Saban wins yet another SEC Championship and the Crimson Tide easily coast to their third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.

at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Tim Williams and the Alabama defense will be crucial for the Crimson Tide’s chances of three-peating as SEC Champions.

Big 10 Conference

East Division Winner: Michigan (11-1)

All aboard the Michigan hype train! I’m all in on the Wolverines this year. I think this squad has a chance to be very special in the second year under Jim Harbaugh. Regardless of who the quarterback is (either Wilton Speight or John O’Korn), the Wolverines should have a very good offense and an elite defense. They have a lot of guys who will be playing on Sundays, including Jabrill Peppers, Jake Butt and Rashan Gary. Ohio State will still be a tough contender, but the fact that the Buckeyes have to replace so many starters on both sides of the ball lends itself to think that Ohio State may face a rebuilding season this year.

West Division Winner: Iowa (9-3)

Iowa took college football by storm last year, running out to a 12-0 record before losing the Big 10 championship to Michigan State and getting crushed in the Rose Bowl by Stanford. I still think the Hawkeyes will be very good this year, but just undefeated good. They return an experienced senior quarterback in C.J. Beathard and the defending Thorpe award winner in Desmond King as well.

Big 10 Championship: Michigan (12-1) over Iowa (9-4)

Michigan wins the Big 10 championship for the first time since 2004. The national media is the big winner of this, as they get to cover the crazy antics of Jim Harbaugh even more as the Wolverines earn a berth in the College Football Playoffs.

Michigan State v Michigan
Jabrill Peppers is moving to linebacker this season, but there is no question that Michigan will still try to get the ball into his hands this season.

Pac-12 Conference

North Division Winner: Stanford (10-2)

I get the Washington hype. I really do. But I think we’re just writing off Stanford too easily. I was a little surprised with Shaw’s decision to go with Ryan Burns over Keller Chryst at quarterback, but his history with quarterbacks speaks for itself. They return the most dynamic player in the nation in Christian McCaffrey and have proven that their system of sitting and developing players works.

South Division Winner: UCLA (9-3)

UCLA returns one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in sophomore Josh Rosen. A year older, Rosen should contend for the Heisman trophy this season. The Bruins do have to replace a lot of his weapons at receiver, but they have recruited at a fairly high level. On defense, a lot of players who stepped in because of injuries last year return. This means they return more players who have played major snaps. With Rosen at the helm and an improved defense, this Bruins team could make some serious noise in 2016.

Pac-12 Championship: Stanford (11-2) over UCLA (9-4)

Rosen might be the best quarterback in the Pac-12, but Stanford is a more complete team. The Cardinal win their second consecutive championship and wait with baited breath to see if a 11-2 record is enough for them to get in the playoffs.

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Stanford will lean on Christian McCaffrey this year as the ease in a new quarterback.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Atlantic Division Winner: Florida State (11-1)

Clemson went to the national championship last year, but they have to replace nine starters on defense this year. Not an easy feat. The annual FSU vs Clemson game is also in Tallahassee this year, which gives a slight edge to the Seminoles. Florida State will be rolling with a freshman at quarterback this year, but return Dalvin Cook and every starter on offense last year. On the other side of the ball, Derwin James and DeMarcus Walker lead a unit that will likely be a Top-10 defense in the country.

Coastal Division Winner: North Carolina (10-2)

North Carolina was nearly undefeated last year. If not for Marquise Williams tossing the ball to South Carolina defenders, they would have been seen in the same light that Iowa was. Still, the Tar Heels should be very good this year. Mitch Trubisky steps in for Williams and some people believe Trubisky could be even better. With the Coastal division always in flux, the Tar Heels have a chance to solidify themselves as the team to beat.

ACC Championship: Florida State (12-1) over North Carolina (10-3)

Jimbo Fisher wins his fourth ACC championship and the Seminoles return to the College Football Playoffs for the second time in three years.

Florida State v Florida
With Dalvin Cook running the ball, Florida State should be able to ease their new quarterback in without much pressure.

Big 12 Conference

Winner: Oklahoma (10-2)

Oklahoma returns a terrifying trio in Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon on offense, but they still have to replace a bunch of starters on both sides of the ball. It will be very hard to replace Sterling Shepard, perhaps the best receiver in program history. The Sooners also have a tough schedule this year. They open against Houston, host Ohio State, travel to TCU, play Texas in the always-weird rivalry game, travel to Texas Tech and host Oklahoma State to end the year. I think the Sooners take a step back this year and finish 10-2, but it will be enough to win the Big-12. TCU and Texas are also popular choices here, but I think the Big-12 cannibalizes itself in the end.

Capital One Orange Bowl - Clemson v Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield will be at the helm of one of the best offenses in college football as the Sooners attempt to return to the College Football Playoffs.

American Athletic Conference

West Division Winner: Houston (10-2)

Tom Herman has done a fantastic job turning Houston into a national contender. They return the dynamic Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback and have a plethora of options available to replace departed starters. Their schedule does them no favors though, as they play Oklahoma to open the season, travel to Cincinnati and host Louisville this year. I think this team drops a game or two, but will still make a major bowl game at the end of the year.

East Division Winner: South Florida (9-3)

Midway through last year, Willie Taggart was on the hot seat. Then the Bulls turned things around and finished last year on a very high note. I think this team takes another step forward in 2016 and makes the AAC championship behind the electric duo of Quinton Flowers at quarterback and Marlon Mack at running back.

AAC Championship: Houston (11-2) over South Florida (9-4)

Houston doesn’t get a berth in the playoffs, but will still make a New Year’s Bowl for the second time in a row.

Mountain West Conference

Mountain Division Winner: Boise State (10-2)

Boise State is quietly one of the better teams in the nation. Sophomore Brett Rypien will take another step forward this year and they return a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. We may be talking about Boise State in the same light that we did for Houston last year.

West Division Winner: San Diego State (10-2)

San Diego State returns one of the best running backs in the nation in Donnel Pumphrey, who ran for over 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. The Aztecs have a good squad, but still face some tough opponents like California, Utah State and Colorado State.

Mountain West Championship: Boise State (11-2) over San Diego State (10-3)

Boise State finally returns to the national stage. They will compete with Houston for the Group of Five’s berth in the New Year’s Bowl.

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Brett Rypien and Boise State should be able to push Houston for the Group of Five’s berth in the New Year’s bowls.

Mid-American Conference

West Division Winner: Western Michigan (8-4)

Row the boat!

East Division Winner: Ohio (9-3)

Go… Bobcats?

MAC Championship: Western Michigan (9-4) over Ohio (9-4)

ROW THE BOAT!

Conference USA… Conference

East Division Winner: Marshall (9-3)

Marshall is always that team that shows up midway through the year and we’re all like, “Oh, wait is Marshall really undefeated?”

West Division Winner: Southern Miss (8-4)

I think Nick Mullens is pretty good.

C-USA Championship: Marshall (10-3) over Southern Miss (8-5)

Marshall should have a pretty good offense. Key word is “should.”

Sun Belt Conference

Winner: Georgia Southern (10-2)

Hey, they beat the Gators once.

Five Players with Breakout Seasons

Jacob Eason, freshman, QB, Georgia

A five-star recruit, Eason should take over soon as Georgia’s starting quarterback despite Greyson Lambert being named the opening day starter. Eason has all the tools you want from a franchise quarterback (listed at 6-5, 235-pounds) and could be the next great Georgia quarterback. With running backs like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel alongside him, Eason will be able to lean on them as he eases into the starting job.

Max Browne, redshirt junior, QB, USC

A former five-star recruit from the 2013 class, Browne finally gets his chance to shine. He beat out redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the job at USC and, with weapons like Juju Smith-Schuster, Browne will have a chance to shine this season. USC’s schedule is the toughest in the nation, so the Trojans will need Browne to live up to the hype immediately.

la-sp-usc-max-browne-steve-sarkisian-comments-20150406
Four years after enrolling at USC, Max Browne will finally get a chance to lead the Trojans.

KD Cannon, junior, WR, Baylor

With Corey Coleman moving on to the NFL, there is no question that KD Cannon is the next big Baylor wide receiver. At 6-0, 180-pounds, Cannon has the size and speed to be a No. 1 receiver. Although he has quietly flown under the radar, he has had impressive freshman and sophomore seasons. But with the way that Baylor’s offense functions, look for Cannon to put up some insane numbers in 2016.

Josh Sweat, sophomore, DE, Florida State

At one point, Josh Sweat was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country. Then, he suffered a freakish knee injury which caused him to miss the majority of his senior season. Florida State coaches did not expect him to play last season as a true freshman, but Sweat defied all expectations and ended the season as a starter. Now, Sweat is almost two years removed from his knee injury and should be close to 100%. If he can regain the freakish burst that made him the No. 1 recruit in the country, he will certainly be in line to live up to the Jadeveon Clowney comparisons.

Kevin Toliver II, sophomore, CB, LSU

It’s not often that a five-star player has an under-the-radar season at LSU. But with players like Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams lining up in the secondary, the national media sort of forgot about Kevin Toliver. A five-star recruit, Toliver was the best CB recruit in the class of 2015. He has great size at 6-2, 193-pounds and is certainly in line for a breakout season with all the talent that LSU returns on defense.

HEISMAN VOTING

5. Saquon Barkley, sophomore, RB, Penn State

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Barkley was one of the best running backs in the nation as a true freshman and, at times, was literally the entire Penn State offense. This year, Penn State is moving towards a more Oregon-like offense with up-tempo spread concepts. This should help increase Barkley’s production and workload. There is no question that Barkley is the best running back in the Big 10 at the moment. If his production increases and he leads Penn State to a couple of big wins, there is no question that Barkley could find himself on the Heisman ballot by season’s end.

Illinois v Penn State
Saquon Barkley will put up huge numbers in an offense that is transitioning to life without Christian Hackenberg.

4. J.T. Barrett, redshirt junior, QB, Ohio State

People seem to forget that Barrett was a Heisman contender as a redshirt freshman before he went down with an injury. Last year, Ohio State started the wrong guy at quarterback and it wasn’t until midseason that they finally realized that Barrett was the better player for their system. Although Ohio State replaces a lot on both sides of the ball, they have four and five-star players waiting in the wings. They have a couple of marquee matchups, including a trip to Oklahoma and a home game versus Michigan, so Barrett will have plenty of opportunities to send a message to Heisman voters everywhere.

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You often have to remind people that J.T. Barrett was a serious Heisman contender as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

3. Leonard Fournette, junior, RB, LSU

Last year, Fournette was the entire LSU offense. He ran for nearly 2,000 yards with basically zero passing game around him. This year, it should be much the same. LSU will lean on Fournette hard this season. They return many starters on offense and their offensive line should be much improved from last season. The big question for Fournette lies in that Alabama game. Last year, the Crimson Tide shut Fournette down and it allowed Derrick Henry to gain a big lead as the Heisman favorite. If Fournette and the LSU offensive line can handle Alabama’s dominant defensive line, there is no question that Fournette will be able to put up the stats necessary for a Heisman winner.

LSU v Mississippi
Leonard Fournette should be able to crack the 2,000-yard mark as a junior in 2016.

2. Christian McCaffrey, junior, RB, Stanford

Many people believe that McCaffrey should have won the Heisman last year. Part of this was blamed on the fact that Heisman voters often times missed his west-coast games due to the late time slots. This year, there is no question that Heisman voters will be staying up to watch McCaffrey run all over Pac-12 defenses. Stanford will be breaking in a new quarterback this year so a lot more responsibilities will be placed on McCaffrey’s shoulders. If he can replicate his production from last year, there is no question that the junior will earn another trip to New York City.

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Christian McCaffrey should be able to replicate, or at least come close, to his record-breaking performance again.

2016 Heisman Trophy Winner: Deshaun Watson, junior, QB, Clemson

In an era where Heisman trophy voting is dominated by quarterbacks and running backs, Deshaun Watson is in the perfect situation to duplicate his success from last season and win the Heisman trophy this year. He will be at the helm of the best offense in the entire country and will be tasked with scoring more often this year, as Clemson replaces nine starters on defense.

Clemson’s offense returns nearly every starter from last and gets back Mike Williams, a 6-4, 220-pound wide receiver who was a dominant force in 2014. With an improved offense line, Watson has a very good chance of replicating his 4,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing performance from last year.

Even though I do not have Clemson winning the ACC, I still believe that Watson will have plenty of opportunities to leave an impression on Heisman voters. Other than that road game versus Florida State, Clemson should cruise through their schedule with relative ease and Watson should be putting up touchdowns left and right. They open against Auburn (which should be a bloodbath), travel to Georgia Tech for a Thursday night game, travel to Boston College for a Friday night game, travel to Florida State for a game that will likely be in primetime, and host Pittsburgh near the end of the season.

So while Watson may not have a true “Heisman moment” per se, there is no doubt that he will be able to make his case for the Heisman. Besides, he was invited to New York City last year as a finalist and all the Heisman voters know his name. If he can replicate his 4,000-1,000 performance from last year, Watson should run away with the Heisman voting.

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Deshaun Watson is the best overall player in college football. The Heisman is his to lose.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

1. Alabama (12-1)

From top to bottom, Alabama has the best roster in the entire country. Regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Crimson Tide, they will roll through their schedule and earn another berth in the playoffs. With elite talent like Calvin Ridley, Tim Williams, O.J. Howard and Jonathan Allen on their roster, they will easily be able to repeat as SEC Champs and earn the top seed.

2. Florida State (12-1)

If Florida State can get good quarterback play from Deondre Francois, then this team will be in good position to return to the playoffs. They still have Dalvin Cook, perhaps the best overall player in college football, and their defense will be scary good. The matchup against Clemson will be the biggest game of the season, but the Seminoles hold a slight advantage seeing as the game is in Tallahassee this year.

3. Michigan (12-1)

Michigan’s schedule is laughably easy. I still believe they trip up once, but only once. I think they get revenge on Ohio State to end the season and Jim Harbaugh brings the Big 10 championship back to Ann Arbor. With a great resume with wins over Ohio State and in the Big 10 championship, the Wolverines earn the third seed in the playoffs.

4. Clemson (11-1)

Clemson sneaks into the playoffs, with their only loss of the season to No. 2 seed Florida State. With Stanford and Oklahoma (Pac-12 and Big 12 champs respectively) sitting with two loses, I think Clemson could definitely steal the last playoff spot. And with Deshaun Watson returning (and potentially winning the Heisman), I think the playoff committee will be eager to see him on the big stage again.

FIESTA BOWL

2. Florida State vs 3. Michigan

This would be a very good matchup between two very well coached teams. Both Florida State and Michigan have elite defenses, so the difference here is which team can move the ball better. While Michigan has names like Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt on offense, Dalvin Cook is on a whole other level in terms of offensive playmakers.

Predicted Winner: Florida State

PEACH BOWL

1. Alabama vs 4. Clemson

A rematch of last year’s national championship. Last time these two teams met, Clemson and Deshaun Watson put up 40 points on Nick Saban’s defense. However, the Crimson Tide offense was able to move at will through the Clemson defense as well. Again, this all comes back to talent, and no team is more talented than Alabama. The Crimson Tide do not have Derrick Henry this year, but they return a plethora of skill players on offense and should not take a significant step back.

Predicted Winner: Alabama

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

1. Alabama vs 2. Florida State

Perhaps the best possible outcome from the college season.

Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher.

Teacher versus student.

These two teams match up really well on paper. Both teams have elite defenses and very good playmakers on offense. Both have new starting quarterbacks, but enough talent on both sides of the ball to help their new signal caller.

This would be a very good matchup, but I can’t pick against Nick Saban and Alabama.

National Championship Winner: Alabama Crimson Tide

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Nick Saban will once again hoist the national championship trophy in 2017.
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