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Post National Signing Day College Football Playoff Predictions

Thanks to national signing day, rosters across college football are about as complete as they're going to be all year. Of course, incoming freshmen still have to qualify and arrive on campus in time to compete, but the number of players is as high as it's going to be. 

As such, the overall look and feel of a team changes a little bit. So, too, do projections for the 2016 season and playoff field. After all, there could be some freshmen and/or junior college transfers who impact the championship race. (Can anyone say Cam Newton and Auburn?)

With signing day now in the rear-view mirror, it's time to call our shots* and predict what next season's four-team playoff field will look like based on returning and incoming players. Seedings are based on projected outcomes in the regular season. 

(*These predictions are bound to change, probably soon and often. We're just trying to be honest here.) 

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Which Fallen College Football Blue Bloods Will Return to Glory in 2016?

College football has gone through a significant shift within the last few seasons, with new championship contenders moving past the game's traditional names.

For every Baylor, Michigan State or Oregon that finds itself in the thick of a title race, there's a fallen powerhouse frustrated with its lack of high-level success. The power balance isn't what it used to be.

But that doesn't mean the game's old money won't return to glory. Former championship programs took some major steps toward returns to the national title picture in 2015, while others have the pieces to get back to prime-time prominence after disappointing seasons last fall.

Here are four college football "blue bloods"—programs that have won multiple national championships and hold high rankings in all-time winning percentage—who have a great chance at competing for a long-awaited conference title in 2016.

By competing for a championship in a Power Five league, these teams would theoretically be in great shape for a spot in the new-school College Football Playoff system.

Some are naturally more set up for national title pushes than others, but all have an opportunity to get back to where they feel they belong in the college football landscape.

 

Michigan

Michigan football returned to some of its former glory in 2015, the first season under successful alumnus Jim Harbaugh.

But with the momentum building in what has been a headline-making offseason for Harbaugh and the amount of talent returning to the Wolverines, 2016 has the chance to be the year when Michigan gets all of that glory back with a run at a College Football Playoff berth.

The Wolverines will return an estimated 15 starters from a team that improved by five wins in 2015 to finish 10-3. That returning experience, combined with the wholesale losses of starters at rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, should make Michigan the team to beat in the Big Ten.

Michigan will be stacked at several key position groups across the field this fall. Offensively, it returns top rusher De'Veon Smith, top three receivers (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt) and four of five starters on the offensive line.

Its defense, which ranked fifth nationally in yards per play last season, will be led by one of the nation's best lines—an experienced unit that received a huge shot in the arm on national signing day when consensus No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary announced he would join the Wolverines.

The defensive tackle was the crown jewel of the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, and his impressive all-around skill set will make him immediately push for plenty of playing time in Ann Arbor.

"When you watch Gary's tape, taking stock of his developed skills and athletic possibilities, you see he's the rare athlete who's not a tweener," Ian A. Boyd of SB Nation wrote. "He's not trapped between college positions without a firm command of the skills needed to excel in either. He is instead legitimately versatile enough to project as a dominant player in many roles."

The likes of Gary and Chris Wormley should torment opposing offenses that also have to deal with Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers in the secondary. 

The holes on the depth chart are obvious for Harbaugh and his team, as they'll have to replace quarterback Jake Rudock and the entire linebacking corps. The signal-caller spot shouldn't loom too large, as early favorite and former Houston star John O'Korn has had a year to prepare in Ann Arbor following his transfer.

Fortunately for Michigan, the 2016 schedule sets up extremely well for a title contender that will have to settle in new starters at quarterback, center and linebacker. The Wolverines' first five games are at home, with the opening three coming against nonconference opponents who combined for a 7-31 record last year.

The back half of the schedule, however, contains road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State—three Big Ten foes that played in the College Football Playoff or New Year's Six bowls last season. 

But if these veteran Wolverines can keep the momentum rolling from a 10-win season and a standout recruiting cycle, there's no reason why they shouldn't be in the hunt for their first Big Ten and national titles since the Lloyd Carr era.

 

Tennessee

With six national championships and 16 conference titles all-time, Tennessee is another one of the great blue bloods of college football that has fallen off in the last decade. The Volunteers haven't won a title since 1998 and haven't played for an SEC crown since 2007.

But this year should be different for Tennessee, which has improved by two wins in each of the last two seasons under Butch Jones.

And even though the Volunteers received plenty of hype last season—not the last several seasons, as Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee has repeatedlytold fans this winter—this year sets up even better for them.

Tennessee returns dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who scored 27 total touchdowns last season and only threw five interceptions. He'll be one of the SEC's best quarterbacks, leading an offense that returns the "Chain-Moving Gang" of backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and four starting linemen.

On the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee made what looks to be a top-notch hire with former Penn State assistant Bob Shoop.

"It became evident to me that [Jones] is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship," Shoop said last month on his decision to leave Penn State for Tennessee, via Sallee.

The new defensive coordinator had the nation's No. 3 and No. 15 defense, respectively, in his two seasons with the Nittany Lions and brings experience in the SEC East from his time at Vanderbilt.

What's even better for Tennessee is that Shoop will inherit eight returning starters from a defense that finished 39th last season in total yards per play.

Defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are supreme stat-stuffers, and cornerback Cameron Sutton's return to school will boost a secondary that has to replace a pair of starters. Projected starting safety Evan Berry and Sutton also combined for the nation's most dangerous special team duo last season.

The Volunteers will take all that returning talent into a schedule that sets up well for a run to the SEC Championship Game. They won't play a game outside Tennessee—their neutral-site game against Virginia Tech is at Bristol Motor Speedway—until the first weekend of October, when they visit a new-look Georgia program.

Tennessee gets defending SEC divisional champions Florida and Alabama both at home, and its final five games of the season doesn't contain a single team that went to a bowl game in 2015. (One of those is FCS team Tennessee Tech, which went 4-7.)

The Volunteers need to start strong and avoid early disappointments this fall. Getting to the back half of that schedule in control of their SEC East fate should lead to a trip to Atlanta—and that could just be the beginning.

 

Nebraska

Nebraska's 2015 season was the quintessential "be careful what you wish for" scenario.

After consistently winning nine or 10 games a season with Bo Pelini, the Huskers went 5-7 in the regular season under first-year coach Mike Riley. While Nebraska was looking to get over the hump and back into title contention when it dismissed Pelini, last year's campaign was a far cry from the high standards this blue blood has for itself.

But there is reason for optimism again in Lincoln, starting with this second season under Riley.

Nebraska returns 15 starters from a team that saw all but one of its losses come by one possession. The Huskers knocked off eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State and beat UCLA in a bowl game.

On offense, Nebraska returns most of its skill talent, which should thrive if a rebuilding line holds up in the second season in Riley's scheme.

As Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh noted last month, electrifying receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El could be a huge difference-maker after missing most of 2015 with injuries. He was one of the nation's top punt returners as a freshman in 2014 and averaged 14 yards per catch.

"If Pierson-El returns, he'll join a loaded group of receivers alongside Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan," Leigh wrote. "If ever senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, whose best days look as good as his worst days look bad, were to post a consistent season, now would be the time."

The Nebraska defense returns several of its top edge-rushers and the core of a secondary that is led by tackle and interception leader Nate Gerry, a truly underrated defensive back on a national level.

But perhaps the best aspect working in Nebraska's favor for a huge charge in 2016 is its division. The Big Ten West is one of the weaker groups in college football, and Iowa was able to make a huge undefeated run thanks to its schedule in 2015.

This year, the Hawkeyes will have a tougher slate of games, while Nebraska has the chance to have a strong start with a front half loaded with home contests.

The Huskers only draw one tough challenge in cross-divisional play—a road game against Ohio State—and won't be overmatched in trips to Wisconsin and Iowa.

Even with the downturn in record during the 2015 season, Nebraska nailed down the best recruiting class in the Big Ten West last week.

The Huskers will be able to add some talented faces to an experienced setup this fall, but they shouldn't have to wait a couple years before making a return to the Big Ten title game. The pieces are in place for a second-year surge under Riley.

 

Miami

It's probably too early to put high expectations on Miami this season, as it will be its first under new coach Mark Richt.

But it's hard to ignore all that's working in the Hurricanes' favor for a return to conference championship contention in 2016.

When Clemson destroyed Miami by a score of 58-0 last year, it was a new low point at home for a once-proud program that won five national championships in the span of two decades. The Hurricanes haven't won a conference title since taking home a Big East crown in 2003.

However, the team rebounded in a huge way after the firing of Al Golden. Interim coach Larry Scott led Miami to four wins in its final six games, with one of its only losses coming in a snowstorm at the Sun Bowl.

Now Richt, who was fired from Georgia despite plenty of 10-win seasons in the ultra-competitive SEC, will bring stability and head coaching success at the power-conference level for a program that hasn't had either in recent years.

Richt inherits a team that returns almost every starter on offense, which is led by experienced quarterback Brad Kaaya, who has thrown for 41 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in the last two seasons.

Every offensive lineman that played a meaningful snap in 2015 will be back for the Hurricanes. Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton also provide a powerful one-two punch at running back.

The defense has to replace some key figures, but most of the front seven stays intact for 2016. Corn Elder is one of the nation's best corners and will be a leader for a secondary that needs some young talent to step into important roles this fall.

Miami has momentum from the way it finished the 2015 campaign and the hiring of Richt. It also has the advantage of playing in a traditionally wide-open ACC Coastal division with a schedule that looks favorable.

The Hurricanes draw defending division champion North Carolina at home as well as cross-divisional rival Florida State. Notre Dame will be a tough nonconference foe, but the others look like victories. They avoid both Clemson and an experienced Louisville team out of the Atlantic.

Miami arguably has as good of a chance as anyone else in the rapidly improving Coastal division to take home the title and play in the ACC Championship Game.

That would be a huge step forward for a talent-rich program that has a great chance to return to its former glory under Richt.

 

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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B/R Recruiting Notebook: Latest News on Top 2017 Prospects

As we congratulate the members of the 2016 class for signing with their respective programs, we must be reminded that recruiting never stops.

Class of 2017, you're up.

Junior days and unofficial visits have kicked off for the next recruiting cycle. There are many athletes already in high demand, and expect more of the same throughout the spring and into the summer and fall.

 

Top 7 for nation's top-ranked CB Holmes

Calabasas, California, 5-star cornerback Darnay Holmes has more than 20 reported offers and is planning to shut his process just in time to have a double celebration.

Holmes, the nation's top-ranked cornerback and No. 6 overall player in the 2017 class, said he will commit to a school on June 23, the day when he'll not only celebrate his college future but also his birthday. He narrowed his choices down to a top seven, which includes schools from the Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten:

"A lot of schools are showing interest," Holmes said. "Right now, I'm just trying to narrow down everything. I'm trying to get to know the coaches more and make the right decision."

Holmes, who most recently took an unofficial visit to Nebraska last month, has his top seven, but added the list isn't completely set. An offer from one or two outside schools could help alter his final decision.

"LSU could be one," Holmes said. "For me, trying to be one of the top DBs in the nation, I want to go a place that produces top DBs. I know LSU has a great fanbase and a great coaching staff. If I have a chance to visit, I know I'd love it."

The winning school will be one that satisfies both his athletic and academic goals. Holmes said he has aspirations of not only being a first-round draft pick, but also someone with a quality degree.

"I want to talk to the administration guys at the schools about academics and ask what they can provide after football," he said. "I want to have something to come back to. I want to be the best football player, but I also want to be the best student-athlete."

 

OT Wilson discusses Michigan unofficial visit

Watching the Super Bowl wasn't a top priority for Brooklyn, New York, 5-star offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson Sunday, but playing in the big game one day is an ambition.

The 6'7", 322-pound Wilson, the nation's No. 5 offensive tackle and top-ranked player from New York, is focused on working to become a pro-caliber lineman, and as he inches toward 30 reported offers, he's making sure he takes his recruiting process slowly to find the best place to put him in position to shine after college.

Michigan is hoping to be that place. Wilson took in Ann Arbor on an unofficial visit over the weekend, shown here with fellow recruit Ahmir Mitchell:

"The process is going great. I'm just trying to take it for what it's worth," Wilson said. "I thought Michigan was great. I was mostly around Ahmir Mitchell and a couple other Jersey kids. Michigan has great people there, and the coaching staff seems real genuine. Michigan is an extremely friendly place. Everyone there wants you to succeed."

Wilson added Alabama, LSU and Georgia as potential destinations for unofficial visits, but said "nothing's been set in stone." Wilson said he will take his time with recruiting and knows what he's looking for in a winning program.

"I simply want a program that feels like home to me," he said. "I'm going to pick a school with a good program and good academics. I just want to feel comfortable wherever I go."

 

Super Bowl finish motivation for WR Nixon

For DeSoto, Texas, 4-star wide receiver K.D. Nixon, watching the conclusion of Super Bowl 50 might have been the next-level motivation he needed.

Nixon watched Denver defeat Carolina in Sunday's game, and he watched former Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller earn game MVP honors. It was special for Nixon, as Miller is a DeSoto High School alum. The pass-rushing dynamo even gave a shoutout to his alma mater after the game, as shared by CBS 11's Keith Russell:

In short, it gave Nixon another reason to shoot for success. He kept his words short after Miller was named MVP.

"You can do the same," Nixon said. "As a matter of fact, I tweeted, 'I'm next.' when I saw it":

Nixon has 16 reported offers and most recently picked up an offer from Oregon State. He last took an unofficial visit to Oklahoma State in January and is preparing to schedule additional unofficial visits in March.

Oklahoma State, Houston, Texas Tech, Arizona State and Tennessee are some of the schools that have offered the speedy slot receiver. Baylor, TCU and Ohio State are three schools he's hoping to impress this spring.

Seeing Miller accept the Super Bowl MVP trophy further enhanced his drive to excel.

"It's going to be my last year, so I've got to keep grinding," Nixon said. "I want to be legendary. In high school, I want to be the best to come out [of DeSoto]."

 

Top-ranked ATH Stevens taking his time

Don't expect Tennessee 5-star JaCoby Stevens to make a decision on his college plans anytime soon.

Stevens, the nation's top-ranked athlete in the class, said he learned a lot after committing to LSU in September before decommitting in November. And as someone with 24 reported offers, Stevens said the recruiting process will be a marathon, not a sprint.

"As of right now, after decommitting from LSU, I've been neutral," Stevens said, "but next weekend, I'm going to Georgia for their junior day."

"I rushed my process [with LSU]," he added. "I really wasn't listening to people who said I needed to figure out if that really was the place for me. It's gotten to the point where I see what I should have waited."

Stevens said LSU is still a contender, but he also has offers from Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and a host of other programs. Stevens said he plans on making a decision next February, on national signing day.

"I'm just looking around," he said. "I'm not really trying to narrow anything down. I'm just looking at what every school has to offer as a whole."

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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Urban Meyer with Cam Newton Is College Football's Greatest 'What If?'

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the door closes on an otherwise remarkable 2015 season with an ugly loss in Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton finds himself at a pivotal point in his professional career.

Despite his team's 15-1 regular-season record and his nearly unanimous MVP selection, the Carolina Panthers quarterback's historic season will now be remembered just as much for the disappointment endured on football's biggest stage as it will be Newton's 50 touchdowns and nearly 4,600 passing yards.

But compared to where his football future stood seven years ago, the 6'5", 245-pound Atlanta native is playing with house money. Dismissed from his college program for off-field issues, Newton found himself headed to junior college, with no guarantee he'd get another shot at gridiron glory.

By now, you know the rest—Newton won a junior college national championship at Blinn College before transferring to Auburn, where he put together arguably the greatest single season in college football history, capturing the 2010 Heisman Trophy and another national title for his resume. From there, he was the first overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft and after five seasons, he found himself one win away from sitting atop the football world.

Newton's storybook career might seem to be at a crossroads as we all become prisoners of the moment, but compared to the uncertainty of seven years ago, this is everything he could have asked for—and more.

Then again, before he was forced to take the JUCO route, this is exactly where Newton was supposed to wind up; the heir apparent to Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer's next great quarterback, the former 4-star signal-caller's original path to football greatness in Gainesville was much more apparent, if not predictable.

But as his issues—including a stolen laptop and allegations of academic fraud—brought an end to his time at Florida after just two short seasons that included no significant playing time for the Gators, Newton's career soon began the winding journey that's landed him where he is today.

In the process, however, it's left us with some of the biggest "what if's?" in college football history—questions and potential outcomes that wouldn't have only affected Newton and Florida, but Meyer, Ohio State and potentially Alabama.

What would have happened had Newton's college career played out as expected with the Gators? We'll never know.

But that can't stop us from exploring some of the sport's most interesting hypotheticals that include what is now football's biggest star.

 

Best season ever?

Four thousand, three hundred, twenty-seven yards, 50 touchdowns, the Heisman Trophy, a 14-0 record and a BCS national championship.

That's what Newton accomplished in his only full season as a starter at the FBS level, all while playing for a head coach in Gene Chizik who would find himself fired just two years after winning a national title.

His SEC single-season record for total offense would only last a year before the mark was broken by Johnny Manziel, but when you consider what he accomplished individually and with his team, it's fair to consider Newton's lone season at Auburn one of the best in college football history.

And yet, there stands reason to believe his college career could have been even better.

While Chizik's early ouster speaks for itself and questions arise about his successor and Newton's offensive coordinator with the Tigers, Gus Malzahn, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was originally set to play for a head coach who is arguably the best in the nation when it comes to developing quarterbacks.

From Josh Harris at Bowling Green to Alex Smith at Utah, Tebow at Florida and Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones at Ohio State, Meyer has a history of getting the most out of his quarterbacks in his spread system, which undoubtedly would have played to the strength's of Newton's dual-threat ability.

"I count Cam Newton because he was with us for a couple of years," Meyer said when asked about products of his offense during an appearance on his radio call-in show in 2014.

But with just 12 attempted passes and 16 rushes in his two seasons of backing up Tebow from 2007-2008, Newton's potential was hardly ever realized under Meyer. It's also worth noting that an ankle injury led to a medical redshirt after just one appearance in his sophomore season and that Tebow's return to Gainesville in 2009 would have meant that, barring injury, Newton likely wouldn't have stepped into the starting lineup until 2010 anyways.

But had that lone season as a starter come under Meyer—who recruited three Top 10 classes from 2008-2010, as opposed to Chizik—it's scary to think what Newton's numbers may have been.

At the very least, they would have likely have been good enough to solidify the Gators' status as national title contenders—which could have created an interesting predicament for his head coach.

 

No more Meyer for hire?

Meyer has won big everywhere he's been—for most of the years he's been there, the lone blemish on his coaching resume came in 2010, one year after he unexpectedly announced his retirement before quickly rescinding it at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

Meyer would make that retirement—from Gainesville, at least—permanent at the end of 2010 as the Gators' reign atop the college football world came to a crashing halt. After accumulating a 57-10 record in his first five years at Florida, Meyer's 2010 team recorded a 7-5 record in the regular season—which still stands as his worst in his 13 years as a head coach.

While it's popular to look back now and blame the Gators' demise on the alleged erosion of their culture, the reality remains that opposed to the first nine years of his coaching year, in 2010, Meyer simply didn't have a quarterback he could rely on.

In the same season that Newton made his return to the SEC, Meyer found himself shuffling the ineffective John Brantley and converted skill players Jordan Reed and Trey Burton in and out of the lineup. On the year, Florida's quarterbacks threw 12 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Had Newton still been around, it's a safe assumption that those numbers would have been significantly better—perhaps even good enough to keep the Gators a national title contender as Auburn would have then been without its star quarterback.

What that would have meant for Meyer, who came out of his short-lived retirement to take over at Ohio State, we'll never know, but the now-three-time national champion head coach isn't interested in playing the "what if?" game.

"I’m not going to go there," Meyer told Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. "I learned six years ago not to live in a world you can’t. It’s 2016. We just had a great recruiting class and Cam is in the Super Bowl. It’s great."

Nevertheless, it's still worth wondering whether Newton could have kept Meyer in Gainesville, and if so, for how long?

Perhaps it would have been long enough to put a dent in—if not stop—what is still college football's premier dynasty.

 

Tide rolled?

Having won this past season's College Football Playoff championship, Alabama finds itself on a remarkable run that includes four national championships in the past seven seasons. The Crimson Tide don't figure to be slowing down anytime soon, with Nick Saban having just signed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class for the the fourth time in the last five years.

But of the road blocks Alabama has seen in the better part of the past decade, Newton and Meyer have provided the two most viable threats.

In his lone appearance in maybe college football's greatest rivalry, Newton dominated the Iron Bowl, tallying 255 yards and four touchdowns in a game that essentially etched his name in the Heisman Trophy as he handed Alabama its third loss of the 2010 season,

Meyer, meanwhile, knocked off the Crimson Tide in the first-ever College Football Playoff, as his Ohio State team defeated Alabama in a Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup.

Team the two of them up and perhaps the momentum of a potential 2010 Gators run to a national title would have been enough for Florida to reassert itself as college football's alpha dog. In fact, knowing what we know now, maybe Meyer made a mistake not turning to Newton sooner.

While Tebow's career made him one of college football's greatest all-time quarterbacks, there stands reason to believe that Newton could have done the same with extended time in Meyer's spread system. According to former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, the now-reigning MVP was good enough as a backup to be a championship-caliber quarterback.

"When I was at Florida [in 2008], I knew Cam Newton was the real deal but Timmy was playing," Mullen told CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon at SEC media days in 2015. "If Timmy had gotten hurt, Cam would have come in and won the championship. And that's the challenge."

It would have been an unprecedented decision to turn to Newton over Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time national champion. But in an alternate universe, it would have been interesting to see how Florida's budding dynasty would have played out had Tebow turned pro after the 2008 season.

Even then, Newton would have had to stay out of trouble—and stay healthy—in order to take over as the Gators' starter, and even then, there is no guarantee how the situation would have played out.

But as his career once again finds itself under the microscope, those in the college football world can't help but wonder what could have been.

And not just for Newton, but all of the big-name coaches, players and programs that he crossed paths with during his never-uninteresting path to where he finds himself today.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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