What to watch for in 2016: Rising Michigan; Texas hot seats


By Ralph D. Russo - AP College Football Writer



Alabama head coach Nick Saban and players celebrate after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Clemson, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. Alabama won 45-40. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT


GLENDALE, Ariz. — There is no reason to ask whether Alabama can contend for another national championship under Nick Saban in 2016.

It is practically a foregone conclusion. Alabama has become the surest thing in sports.

In the last seven years, Nick Saban’s team has won more national championships than it hasn’t and only once lost more than two games.

Next season, the Tide will probably go into the season as No. 1. Maybe No. 2.

The next wave of Alabama stars could include running back Bo Scarbrough and quarterback Blake Barnett. The Tide will lose a small army of talent to the NFL draft and then reload with another platoon of five-star recruits.

Alabama has repeated as national champions once under Saban. Can the Tide do it again? Of course.

Here are the other story lines that will make headlines next season:

SMART CHOICES?

First-year coaches are always in the spotlight and none more so than Georgia’s Kirby Smart. The longtime Alabama defensive coordinator returns to his alma mater to take over a program that is generally in good health. Bulldogs fans will give Smart some slack, but this isn’t a rebuild. Georgia won 10 games this season and anything less next season will not be acceptable.

South Carolina’s Will Muschamp is a getting a second chance to prove he can lead a program after a rough tenure at Florida.

USC’s Clay Helton enters his first full season as the Trojans permanent head coach riding a two-game losing streak and with an opening game against Alabama.

MICHIGAN’S NEXT MOVE

Year one of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan was a raging success. The Wolverines went 10-3 under Twitter’s favorite football coach. The rebuild that seemed like it might take a couple of years is way ahead of schedule. Michigan has no ceiling and it seems perfectly reasonable to think the Wolverines could be playing for a national title in Harbaugh’s second season. Especially considering the massive talent drain at Ohio State. Don’t underestimate Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. Where they go from here will be fascinating, too. But Harbaugh’s team is the most interesting in the Big Ten.

HESIMAN RACE

This should be fun. Star players leading championship contender teams could make this one of the most intriguing Heisman Trophy races in recent memory.

It starts with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who put on a virtuoso performance in the title game loss against Alabama that will make him the preseason favorite.

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and AP Player of the Year, is back. So is Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was fourth in the Heisman voting.

Then there are star tailbacks Leonard Fournette of LSU and Dalvin Cook of Florida State. Both finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting.

Throw in Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was fourth in the voting in 2013, and you have one eye-popping list of Heisman hopefuls.

NOTRE DAME QBs

Remember when we could not stop talking about Ohio State’s three-man quarterback competition?

Well, Notre Dame might be heading for a similar situation. DeShone Kizer was terrific stepping in for the injured Malik Zaire (leg) early in this season.

Zaire should be back and Kizer isn’t going anywhere. Also, Brandon Wimbush, who sat out his freshman season, is waiting in the wings and might be the most talented of the bunch.

All eyes will be on the competition in South Bend this offseason and ultimately it seems like a good problem to have — which is exactly what Ohio State fans thought until the season started.

HOT IN TEXAS

The coaches at Texas and Texas A&M are both heading toward pivotal seasons.

Charlie Strong’s first two Texas teams have finished with losing records. A third would be a big problem for Strong, who finally hired an offensive coordinator to install the type of spread attack that has become a necessity to compete in the Big 12.

Meanwhile, at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin’s team is 11-13 in Southeastern Conference games since he became a $5-million-per-year coach. And he just lost two former five-star quarterbacks to transfer.

Adding to the intrigue is what is going on at Houston, where Tom Herman should have another Top 25 team. He will be atop almost every athletic director’s coaching wish list.

The thought of a bidding war between the Longhorns and Aggies for Herman is pretty exciting — especially for Herman’s agent.

NEW YEAR’S EVE, AGAIN

Now everybody knows what a bad idea it is to play the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve — and it still isn’t moving off Dec. 31 next season.

The good news is New Year’s Eve falls on a Saturday so that should help regain some of the interest for the event that was lost this season. Another tank job might create some urgency among the conference commissioners to change it.

The guess is the television ratings rebound enough for the folks in charge to claim victory and not do a thing.

EXTRA POINT

Way too early playoff picks: Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and players celebrate after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Clemson, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. Alabama won 45-40. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_108073884-0f99ff5d71474940a4de66a0134cc6b2.jpgAlabama head coach Nick Saban and players celebrate after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Clemson, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. Alabama won 45-40. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT

By Ralph D. Russo

AP College Football Writer

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