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Game changing storylines to watch in 2016

After a long offseason in which I dove deeper into the world of college football than I’ve ever dove before, I’ve identified a few major storylines to track that could very well determine the 2016 season.

Now there are a few national ones that are fairly obvious. For instance, if LSU’s bevy of freak athletes take well to Dave Aranda’s defensive schemes and Brandon Harris provides quality play at QB...well then Les Miles will keep his job and the Tigers are going to be pretty dang good.

Alabama is pretty much a known commodity at this point. You know that they’ll run the ball effectively and this might be their most devastating defense yet. Their QB play will probably range from “adequate” to “horrifyingly good” and we’ll probably see them in the playoffs one way or the other.

The ACC at least seems straightforward enough, the winner of the Clemson-FSU battle will probably be the league champion and a playoff contestant.

Here are some storylines in the other leagues that I think could have bigger consequences than many realize. We’ll start out west...

Can Brady Hoke shore up that Oregon defense?

Mark Helfrich has really gotten a raw deal from most writers and fans for what he’s done at Oregon. Here’s just a peak of what the Ducks have put on the field during his three year run:

Since he took over for offensive guru, Chip Kelly, the Duck offense has...continued to be absolutely brilliant. The problems have been on the defensive side of the ball. Longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti stuck around in 2013 to ease the transition and then linebacker coach Don Pellum took over. Well that didn’t work out so hot in 2015 when an unsound defense cost the Ducks multiple games.

So Helfrich brought in Brady Hoke to revamp and fix the defense. Nationally the perception of Oregon is that they’re a program that’s starting to fall apart without Chip Kelly’s guidance, but Kelly leaned on Aliotti for years on defense without having to intervene or demonstrate much oversight on that side of the ball. The last three years might have looked exactly the same unless Kelly had made a better hire than Helfrich.

Oregon needed only two things to right in the offseason for 2016 to potentially field another playoff caliber team for Helfrich. They needed a sound defense and another distributor at quarterback that understood how to make the reads and throws in their brilliant, spread-option offense.

They found the latter in the FCS transfer market, now it’s simply a question of how far Hoke can bring their defense. Positive results there and the entire narrative on the Oregon program could transition from “they’re lost without Kelly!” to “was Helfrich the true genius all along?” That’d be an oversteer, of course, but that’s how these things can tend to play out.

This eastern time zoner is going to have to try and stay up for some Oregon games this year.

Jim Harbaugh’s latest QB project

For my money, Michigan is one of the best looking teams in college football in 2016. The defense is totally loaded and Harbaugh hired one of the best coordinators in the country to take over a unit with NFL players across both the secondary and the defensive line.

The skill talent returns multiple quality backs, virtually the entire offensive line, and leading receivers Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt (TE), and Amara Darboh. This is the kind of team that just needs a quality quarterback with enough strengths to build around and they could really make hay due to all of the surrounding talent.

A team kinda like the San Francisco 49ers with Colin Kaepernick, or the 49ers with Alex Smith, limited signal-callers that Harbaugh got the most from.

It looks like that guy will be Wilton Speight, whom I dubbed “check-down Speight” after his spring game performance. By all accounts Speight has really grown under Harbaugh’s tutelage, as quarterbacks are prone to do, and presents the best option for managing the loaded Wolverine attack.

At 6’6” 243, Speight is an interesting choice with some big time upside. If he’s anywhere close to being “the next Big Ben” like his trainer likes to claim then Michigan should probably be a favorite to win the title.

Speight seems to understand the offense and in his battle with John O’Korn has been labelled as the guy who makes safe decisions with the ball. If he can add some extra play-making with his strength by shaking off defenders and buying time then things could get pretty wild in Ann Arbor.

Can Sparty stop the spread?

I’ve been harping on this for some time, having anticipated that Oregon would give them problems, that Baylor would throw all over them, and then detailing how their scheme set them up to get abused by Alabama.

The Spartans are going to be loaded along the defensive line this year with Malik McDowell returning inside, the linebacker corps has real experience and playmaking, and the secondary could have returning starters at three positions with rising star Vayante Copeland in the fourth spot.

If it’s possible for their scheme to bring back the “no fly zone” in a day when anti-Spartan tactics are starting to gain traction then it would be this coming season.

As it happens, Michigan State has an early date with Notre Dame on September 17th in South Bend. Brian Kelly has designed the Irish offense to break up quarters schemes by putting his best receiver to the far hash, where teams like Sparty tend to defer stress, and then flinging it out there with big armed QBs like Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

Notre Dame has a more physical rushing attack than even much of the Big 10, but they also pair it with a spread passing attack that looks to get vertical early and often. Back in 2014 that really hurt the Spartans, although it was via several controversial pass interference calls. The Notre Dame run game and vertical passing attack are both better now then they were for that contest.

If Michigan State gets through this one and proves their scheme can dominate spread passing attacks like it does everything else then that certainly changes the dynamics of the Big 10 in 2016 and moving forward. Color me skeptical.

Who will have the best defense in the Big 12

The Frogs are very likely to reload on offense for reasons that we’ve covered in this space (in part due to a reason that can’t be covered in space) and reports out of camp suggest “Kenny Trill” and the offense are going to be just fine.

Oklahoma will also be fantastic on offense, perhaps better than TCU with Baker Mayfield and their Cerberus backfield returning. The defense has a lot more question marks. They look very athletic and capable in the defensive backfield but replacing a pass-rushing talent like Eric Striker is no joke.

Right now the edge for “best B12 D” goes to TCU, who return the best defensive end from 2014 after he missed 2015 (James McFarland) and also return the best defensive end from 2015 (Josh Carraway). Patterson spent last year scrambling for solutions when injuries wiped out the defensive backfield and now gets a main cog back in cornerback Ranthony Texada while also returning the best solutions.

Linebackers Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson adapted very well from safety while converted cornerback Nick Orr brought a ton of coverage and range at safety. Now the Frogs are set with a defense perfectly suited to matching up with spread opponents across the league and handling run games with numbers and aggressiveness thanks to an improved secondary.

For Oklahoma it’s mostly just a question of whether some of their younger athletes are ready to make a leap and become stars. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo will get the first crack at replacing Striker’s pass-rush from the Jack outside-backer position but the Sooners have a lot of talented young guys recruited behind him as well that could be called upon if he’s not up for it.

If the Sooners can close the gap on TCU’s defense, their own offense will be enough to put them over the top and give them a chance to repeat as Big 12 champions and playoff contestants. If not, either the Frogs, early season dates with Houston and Ohio State, or round-robin Big 12 scheduling will drag them down.

Keep an eye on these storylines, there’s a very good chance they will each play a major role in determining who joins Alabama er SEC champion and ACC champion in the next playoffs!