The 2015-16 college football season taught us a lot about the game. We learned that Alabama is still the premier program in the country. We learned that Deshaun Watson is nearly unstoppable for the Clemson Tigers. We learned that four teams just might not be enough for the College Football Playoff (or maybe that it’s the perfect number). We also learned that the running back position is still alive and well in the game of football (just look at Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffery, and Leonard Fournette).
Maybe the most important thing that we learned from the college football season is that several teams are on the rise. Despite their inability to capture conference titles or secure playoff berths, at least a handful of teams showed the development of their programs and gave notice to the nation that they are ready to compete and that they are here to stay. No, these teams aren’t the Alabamas or the Florida States of the world.
Instead, they are teams on the rise for the 2016-17 season that may not be at the top of anybody’s rankings. With a bevy of schools having an opportunity to take the next step and compete for a playoff berth next season, we have three teams that could do just that when the new season kicks off. So, based on their play this season and the talent they have available, here are three schools to look out for in 2016.
3. Houston Cougars
Nobody expected the Houston Cougars to do anything of note in 2015. Playing in the American Athletic Conference — a league that is outside of the Power 5 conferences — simply leaves Houston off of the national radar (generally, at least). However, the Cougars really made waves this season and could enter next season as a dark-horse playoff contender. The biggest win in their 13-1 conference title-winning season came in their high-profile bowl game against No. 9 Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
In that game, the underdog Cougars defied the odds to win 38-24 behind another solid performance from dangerous dual-threat QB Greg Ward Jr. The junior quarterback was awesome in 2015, compiling over 2,800 yards passing and over 1,100 yards on the ground with a total of 38 touchdowns. Ward — who could be a dark-horse Heisman candidate next season in his own right — is the prime reason that Houston could make an improbable run next season. With a 2016 schedule that is set to pit the Cougars against top teams like Oklahoma, Tom Herman’s squad can’t be ignored when things get rolling next August.
2. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee finished 9-4 this season, one of the program’s best finishes in recent memory. However, with some close, heartbreaking defeats in each of their four losses, things could have ended up much better for the Volunteers. They held double-digit leads in three losses and nearly defeated two playoff teams, Oklahoma and Alabama. That’s a sign that Tennessee could be destined for greatness in 2016. Finishing the season with six straight victories (including a dominating performance against Northwestern in their bowl game), the Volunteers really put things together at the end of the year.
Next season, fantastic running back Jalen Hurd will be back, as well as multifaceted quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Those won’t be the only guys returning to Knoxville, however, as the Volunteers hold one of the youngest rosters in the country and will return with a bevy of talent. The experience those players gained this season could pay huge dividends next season. It’s likely that the Volunteers will be favored to win the SEC East next season. If they are able to build off of what they did at the end of the year in 2015, this program could be headed to the College Football Playoff next December.
1. Michigan Wolverines
In many ways, it was an emotional rollercoaster of a season for the Michigan Wolverines. With first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines, the Wolverines showcased a spectacular defense that led to a string of three straight shutouts early in the season — prior to a contest against rival Michigan State. Then, one of the most unbelievable endings in the history of the sport saw them lose to the Spartans. Four straight victories following that contest set them against another rival in Ohio State to finish the season, where the Buckeyes absolutely rolled.
Ultimately, Michigan finished on a high note, routing Florida in their bowl game. All of this provides reason to believe that the Wolverines will only be better following a 10-3 campaign this season. Harbaugh has only begun to make his imprint on the program and as he begins to bring in more and more of his own recruits, the team will truly start playing to his style.
Further, this team already has a great defense (as they have for several seasons now) and the offense will only get better (as they did throughout this season). Also, the experiences in big games this season should only make the Wolverines stronger moving forward. Michigan likely deserves to be one of, if not the favorite in the Big 10 entering 2016. They very well could make the playoff next season and will be a force to be reckoned with as long as Harbaugh is on the sidelines.