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Tomahawk Nation's way-too-early 2016 top-15

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Too soon? No such thing.

Jimbo Fisher
Jimbo Fisher
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 college football season is history-- which means it's time to get going on 2016, as imprudent as it may be before national signing day, schedule releases, and spring football. But when has that ever stopped anyone? Numerous national outlets have already made their thoughts known about how 2016 will play out, so we thought we'd take our shot at it as well. A dozen Tomahawk Nation contributors submitted a way-too-early top-15, with teams voted No. 1 receiving 15 points, teams ranked No. 2 awarded 14 points, etc.

Here's how things came out, with first-place votes in parentheses:

1. Alabama 169 (7)

Returns: 6 starters on O, 5 on D

5 Toughest Games: USC in Dallas, @ Ole Miss, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, vs. Auburn

At this point, it feels foolish to count out a Nick Saban led team. The man has won four of the last seven national championships, was in the National semifinal in 2014, and missed the BCS championship game in 2013 because of the infamous "Kick Six." So we're just going to let the king have his throne. Good luck, America.

2. Clemson 149 (3)

Returns: 8 starters on O, 3 on D

5 Toughest Games: @ Auburn, vs. Louisville, @ Georgia Tech, vs. South Carolina, @ Florida State

The 2015 runner up returns a boatload of talent. Armed with arguably the best football player in America (Deshaun Watson) and a defensive coordinator who can flat out get it done (how did Venables not get a head gig yet?), the Tigers will enter 2016 as one of the favorites to reach the College Football Playoff. With a favorable schedule, the game to watch will be the showdown for the Atlantic title when the Tigers travel to Tallahassee. The winner of the Tigers/'Noles showdown has won the ACC Atlantic for seven straight years and the last five ACC crowns.

3. Michigan 132

Returns: 8 starters on O, 7 on D

5 Toughest Games: vs. Penn State, vs. Wisconsin, @ Michigan State, @ Iowa, @ Ohio State

In year one of the Harbaugh era, Michigan made noise. A 10-3 campaign that included a dominating bowl win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl, the Wolverines were ahead of schedule and look poised for even bigger and better things in 2016. Harbaugh will need to find his quarterback to lead the charge, but given a light early schedule, they should be poised for a big late-season run in which they will travel to Michigan St, Iowa, and Ohio State over the final five games.

4. Florida State 128 (1)

Returns: 11 starters on O, 6 on D

5 Toughest Games: Ole Miss in Orlando, @ Miami, @ Louisville, vs. Clemson, vs. Florida

After a "rebuilding year" in which the ‘Noles won 10 games and claimed another state championship, Jimbo Fisher and company look poised to attempt to regain their place atop the ACC from division rival Clemson.  Armed with a roster of blue chip athletes, Fisher's toughest decision is likely to be whom he starts at quarterback: the veteran Sean Maguire or one of his young guns in Deondre Francois or Malik Henry. You can expect another athletic and deep defense with a suffocating line and blanketing secondary, and, of course, the Seminoles return one of the nation's finest running backs in Dalvin Cook. The season opens with an out-of-conference Labor Day battle with Ole Miss, but it may come down to a showdown with reigning ACC champ, Clemson, that decides just how high the ceiling can be for the ‘Noles.

5. Oklahoma 127 (1)

Returns: 7 starters on O, 7 on D

5 Toughest Games: Houston in Houston, vs. Ohio State, @ TCU, vs. Baylor, vs. Oklahoma State

The 2015 National semifinalist has a make-or-break opening three weeks with a neutral site matchup with a likely top-10 Houston team in Houston, and then two weeks later the Sooner host Urban Meyer and Ohio State. Given the strength of this out-of-conference slate, it seems likely the Sooners can survive an early season loss and still navigate their way to the playoffs, especially since their toughest road game will be at a re-tooling TCU team. The Sooners return an explosive backfield with Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine, and Joe Mixon, but they will need to replace a couple disruptive forces from their front seven as they lose Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander as well as big-play wide receiver Sterling Shepard.

6. LSU 122

Returns: 9 starters on O, 9 on D

5 Toughest Games: Wisconsin in Green Bay, @ Auburn, @ Florida, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Alabama

Despite a booster-led call for his head, Les Miles is still the head man in Baton Rogue, and once again will field one of the nation's most talented and deepest rosters.  Now a year older and battle tested, LSU boasts 18 returning starters and a freight train for a running back in Leonard Fournette. A schedule filled with landmines awaits, but the Mad Hatter could be poised to laugh at his critics and make another run at a magical season on the bayou.

7. Notre Dame 93

Returns: 5 starters on O, 5 on D

5 Toughest Games: @ Texas, vs. Michigan State, vs. Stanford, vs. Miami, @ USC

Brian Kelly got 10 wins and a New Year's Six Bowl invite in 2015 despite a rash of injuries that took his quarterback and top running back, among others. In 2016, with a tad lighter schedule, Kelly will look to bring the Irish back to the promised land. Malik Zaire should return as his quarterback along with Tarean Folston at running back, so the offense should have some firepower to help a young defense early in the year. The Irish end the year with road trips to national names in Texas and USC, but they will host both Michigan State and Stanford, so the resume will look good on paper should the Irish put things together and make a run.

8. Stanford 90

Returns: 6 starters on O, 5 on D

5 Toughest Games: vs. USC, @ UCLA, vs. Washington State, @ Notre Dame, @ Oregon

The reigning king of the West, Stanford returns Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey, the nation's most versatile weapon. Losing a starting QB, especially one with the experience Kevin Hogan had, is never easy, but David Shaw has proven over the last five years to be one the nation's finest coaches and should have the Cardinal ready to once again capture the Pac-12 crown and maybe finally play for that elusive national championship.

9. Ohio State 73

Returns: 2 starters on O, 2 on D

5 toughest Games: @ Oklahoma, @ Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, @ Michigan State, vs. Michigan

Urban Meyer has won three national championships, but it may take his best coaching job to date in 2016, given all the Buckeyes are losing as well as the schedule at hand. Typically, you would be foolish to expect a Top-10 team with so little returning experience, but this is Ohio State, one of the premier programs in America led by one of the game's best coaches who also recruits better than anyone not named Nick Saban. Barring an early season meltdown, the young Bucks will grow, and by late October they will likely find themselves in the hunt for another Big Ten crown.

10. Baylor 72

Returns: 5 starters on O, 6 on D

5 toughest Games: vs. Oklahoma State, @ Texas, vs. TCU, @ Oklahoma, vs. Kansas State

Points, points, and more points. We know that much about Baylor football: they are going to spread you out and chuck it around the yard, and you better be ready to score and score often when you play them. The question still remains-- can they get the stops needed to compete at the highest level? The Bears' year is likely to be shaped by an early season shootout with Oklahoma State and then with a November grudge match with Oklahoma. If Baylor wants to win the Big 12 and be in the talk for the Playoff, it will need to decide if it is finally ready to stop someone, because we definitely know it can score.

11. Houston 54

Returns: 7 starters on O, 5 on D

5 Toughest Games: Oklahoma in Houston, vs. Louisville, @ Cincinnati, @ Memphis, @ Navy

Tom Herman did a masterful job in his first year in Houston. He won the American Conference, won 12 games total, and brought home a big-game trophy with a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. In 2016, his sights will be set even higher, as he tries to lead Houston to a College Playoff bid. No offense to the rest of the American Conference, but Houston's season likely hinges on two out-of-conference matchups: an opener with Oklahoma in Houston and then a November clash with Louisville. Should Houston win both, it may find itself in early December at 13-0 and praying for an invite to the College Football Playoff. And keep an eye on do-everything quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Should Houston beat Oklahoma in the opener, it will be because of his talents and such a performance will place Ward squarely in the Heisman conversation.

12. Tennessee 46

Returns: 9 starters on O, 8 on D

5 Toughest Games: Virginia Tech in Bristol, vs. Florida, @ Georgia, @ Texas A&M, vs. Alabama

Butch Jones has been building, recruiting well and has back-to-back nine win seasons. So are the Vols finally ready to contend for the SEC East crown again? With a talented QB in Joshua Dobbs and an experienced defense, 2016 may finally be the year. The schedule is front-loaded though, as the Vols face their five toughest tests in their first seven weeks. Should they survive this, they've smooth sailing the rest of the way after a week eight bye.

13.  Ole Miss 32

Returns: 4 starters on O, 4 on D

5 Toughest Games: Florida State in Orlando, vs. Alabama, vs. Georgia, @ LSU, vs. Auburn

The Rebels will need to find replacements for some big time players, and quickly. Robert Nkemdiche (DT), Laquon Treadwell (WR), Trae Elston (S), Mike Hilton (CB), and Laremy Tunsil (LT) are all gone. However, Hugh Freeze has recruited very well in Oxford, and he does return maybe the best signal caller in the SEC in Chad Kelly. But there will be no learning curve, as the Rebs open the year in Orlando vs. Florida State and then the SEC schedule ramps up two weeks later with Alabama and then Georgia. September will make or break the year for Ole Miss.

14. Michigan State 31

Returns: 3 starters on O, 6 on D

5 Toughest Games: @ Notre Dame, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, vs. Ohio St, @ Penn State

Replacing Connor Cook will be a struggle, there is no doubt, but Mark Dantonio has proven his chops as one of the best coaches in the game today. MSU has a favorable schedule that sees the Spartans host Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State in East Lansing, as well as a talented group of defenders returning from a team that made the National Semis in 2015 and a monster in the making at running back in LJ Scott. Sparty might not be in the national title discussion in 2016, but writing them off as a Big 10 contender seems foolish.

15. Oklahoma State 15

Returns: 10 starters on O, 7 on D

5 Toughest Games:  @ Baylor, vs. Texas, @ Kansas State, @ TCU, @ Oklahoma

One of the nation's most experienced teams, the Cowboys have the potential to be the best team in the Big XII...if they can play defense (common theme, huh?). With four of their five toughest games away from Stillwater, Oklahoma State will need to be at its very best to hope to capture the conference crown. After a very promising start to the 2015 season, the Cowboys ended the year on a three-game skid, primarily because they couldn't run the ball or get stops. How well they can fix these two weaknesses will determine just how good this team can be in 2016.

Conclusion:

One thing that should jump out at you here is the precipitous drop off (regarding votes), after the top-six teams. Our staff seems to think, at least as of now, that these half-dozen squads comprise the top tier of the 2016 college football landscape, with the others a step behind. Of course, if these results were to come to fruition at the end of the regular season, Alabama and Florida State would meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal in Atlanta's Peach Bowl, while Clemson and Michigan would play in another in the Fiesta Bowl.

So that's our ridiculously premature top-15. What's yours?