Rather than try to build a too-early list of my own, I thought I'd make some notes on the teams that are being popularly prognosticated to have strong teams in 2016. I went with SB Nation's cool "compilation top 25" list that tries to combine the lists that are coming out of multiple outlets. I'm only going to focus on the top 10 though because who cares past that, right? It's all about the playoffs now for the nationally competitive teams and if you aren't a playoff-competitive team it's all about winning your league or having what your tradition dictates is a successful season. The top 25 is an antiquated metric.
Before we begin, I think it's important to keep the following laws in mind as general themes to guide us in gazing through the crystal ball with any degree of confidence.
First Law of preseason prognostications: Team identity is king
How many starters a team returns matters considerably less than whether they have a roster who's key players fit together to form a team identity that role players can then fit around. For instance, the 2015 Buckeyes returned just about EVERYONE from a dominant 2014 team that hit its groove at the perfect time.
However, they didn't carry an established identity into 2015 but instead cycled through their two QBs and failed to figure out how to assemble the offense around the talents of JT Barrett until the rivalry game with Michigan when they landed on double TE spread sets that they then used to eviscerate the Wolverines and Irish.
If you see a team return key players that were important parts of the identity in the previous season, that's a good sign. If you don't, that doesn't mean that one won't be found in the offseason or even during the following season.
2nd Law of preseason prognostications: There's always a redshirt freshman waiting...
Following recruiting and practice reports is really the only way to nail down what's about to happen because there is always some rising star whom no one has seen yet that will turn out to be dominant. 2015's Alabama had Calvin Ridley, Marlon Humphrey, and Ryan Anderson break through in a big way. 2014 Ohio State saw Darron Lee and a rebuilt OL rise to dominance. 2013 Florida State was led by redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. Etc
In general, having a roster full of players who have been in the same program under the same coach for a few years is a better way to anticipate which team will have a good depth chart than looking at who returns the most starters.
3rd Law of preseason prognostications: Better know a schedule
Michigan sure looks strong for 2016 but they also play a schedule that takes them to Lansing and Colombus to play their main rivals for the B1G Eastern division. Maybe that's not enough to stop them but it's worth weighing. Similarly, it's usually a good idea to check which teams have to play in Waco before laying odds on who will win the Big 12 as Briles' Bears don't lose at home too often provided their QB is playing.
Now, the top 10:
The Tigers are losing some big stars in their secondary with Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse moving on...losing NFL DBs from your secondary is a big deal. That said, it's hard to bet against Brent Venables and his established program there having another strong defense.
Clemson is definitely going to return much of their OL, receivers Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett (TE), and QB Deshaun Watson. The chances of that group not performing at a dominant level in 2016 are pretty slim. It's hard to overstate the abundance of these riches.
Dual-threat TEs like Leggett are precious, Renfrow is a guy with whom Watson has tremendous chemistry, Scott is an explosive weapon, and Watson's command of college-level defensive complexity is going to make this passing game nasty next season. Great choice for next year's #1 team.
The Tide are going to be ravaged by the NFL draft, but there's a chance they'll return star players like OJ Howard (TE) and Jonathan Allen (DL), as ridiculous as that sounds. They lose Jacob Coker but big deal, they'll have Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett house-trained by next year.
Overall their offense actually returns a ton of talent, including future NFL LT Cam Robinson, and nearly every good receiver from the 2015 championship team. On defense they return a large number of very athletic DBs who played a lot of snaps in 2015 and with Allen and Anderson returning their pass rush probably won't evaporate either.
There's a reasonably good chance that Alabama could be better in 2016 than they were in 2015 if Allen returns...yes, it's true.
All of the best parts of the 2015 Oklahoma offense were either young or at least due to return in 2016 save for leading receiver Sterling Shepard. The Sooners need to find a new go-to receiver for Baker Mayfield to fill that role, which is a big deal but seems very plausible.
What made Shepard special was that he could line up in the slot or outside, wherever OU wanted him in order to attack a given opponent in a given circumstance, and he ran reliable routes that he finished with reliable hands. OU has a lot of emerging weapons in their WR corps with shifty Dede Westbrook back (I foresee a move to the slot), flex RB Joe Mixon, and flex TE Mark Andrews back. They need someone who can get open outside and they should be ready to roll over the Big 12 in 2016.
Oh yeah, they also bring back both talented tackles and Samaje Perine.
Defensively they bring back 4/5 of a very athletic secondary including young studs Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker and plenty of talent and experience up front. The big question is whether they can replace the pass-rush that Eric Striker brought for the last three years but they've been recruiting OLBs to that end for a while now. With Baylor, OSU, and KSU at home and a resume-boosting preseason slate of Houston and Ohio State (of which the Sooners can afford to lose one game) OU are a pretty safe bet overall.
4. Florida State
2016 looks like a much stronger season for college football with the above three playoff teams returning so much and teams like the 'Noles lurking after rebuilding seasons. Let's start with some big time factors: FSU returns Dalvin Cook, his TE and FB escorts, the entire OL, and the team's top WRs.
Jimbo Fisher has a lot of leeway here on whether he wants to mimic Alabama's 2015 season and rely on stable play from redshirt senior Sean Maguire or to chase upside from one of the young QBs behind him. Personally I'd probably choose the latter as I wouldn't want to enter the playoffs against this Alabama team with Maguire as the guy.
Defensively they lose anchor Jalen Ramsey but have now had two years to rebuild their secondary in the image of their phenomenal 2013 unit. Sophomore Josh Sweat could lead a very talented front which will need some big time talents to be ready to go to replace Clemson as the ACC playoff rep.
Michigan's case for inclusion is built around the fact that Harbaugh brings back TE Jake Butt and WRs Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. They need to choose a QB this spring to develop a rapport with this group over the summer and if they do...Michigan is going to have a lethal passing game that will go through the B1G like crap through a goose. Early money is on Houston transfer John O'Korn.
Defensively, Michigan is coming off a year in which they dominated offenses with a massive and deep front backed up by aggressive press-man schemes. They return much of that front next season, including the top DBs who made this approach possible such as safety Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis. This might be the most underrated team on the list IF Harbaugh can get All-B1G play out of their QB roster.
The Tigers should see an overhaul of their approach with OC Cam Cameron adjusting his "Air Coryell" offense into a simpler, smashmouth spread and changes are guaranteed on defense with Miles replacing Saban-disciple Kevin Steele with Wisconsin's Dave Aranda.
Dave Aranda is one of the finest DCs in the nation, and assuming his new country bumpkin charges are able to easily disseminate his pressure schemes like his over-achieving Wisconsin farm boys did, LSU should have a salty defense next season. Aranda should be shocked and pleased with the quality of DB play he'll have next year with guys like CB Ed Paris and SS Jamal Adams still on the roster.
Meanwhile, the Tigers return Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, FB Bry'Keithon Mouton, and several guys along the OL. If they could just move away from their pro-style approach on offense, which is not a given, this roster could come together in a big way next season.
See what I mean about how loaded 2016's top 10 is? Any of the teams we've discussed so far could reasonably end up becoming national champions. Except Oklahoma.
7. Ohio State
At last we reach a team that doesn't look so strong to these eyes. Urban's Buckeyes were devastated by NFL attrition and also lost DC Chris Ash, whom Meyer replaced with the beloved Greg Schiano. He also hired an additional OL coach to allow OL/OC coach Ed Warriner to remain up in the booth with OC/QB coach Tim Beck.
I'd worry about whether all those coaches could co-exist successfully except that you know Urban is going to oversee the offense very carefully so it's hard to be too concerned. The bigger issue is the manner in which the Buckeyes' roster was decimated by said attrition. On offense they have two choices moving forward as they reload around JT Barrett, one is to maintain the approach that worked at the end of 2015 and play more double TE spread sets so that teams like the Spartans can't cheat numbers into the box to stuff their runs. But do the Buckeyes even have enough quality TEs to make that approach work?
The other option is to develop Barrett as a passer and find him a deep threat weapon to finally replace Devin Smith, the secret ingredient to the 2014 championship.
Defensively the Buckeyes should be strong but with mostly new starters in the secondary and no more Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, or Adolphus Washington it's hard to foresee as strong a defense as they boasted in 2015.
The assumption is that Baylor will reload on offense, score a ton of points, and be back in the thick of it in the Big 12 with a shred of luck with QB health. I think those are pretty safe assumptions but it's still worth noting that 4/5 of the OL are gone and Baylor writers are penciling in a lot of JUCOs that aren't on campus yet to help fill the voids. New starters on your OL is fine but ideally they would be players who have been in the program for a few years. Also, they lose star LT Spencer Drango, the best part of both their protection schemes and their running game.
QB should be fine, whether Seth Russell successfully returns from breaking his neck or is supplanted by rising sophomore Jarrett Stidham. Losing Corey Coleman is rough but the WR corps is plenty talented to still be a load. The question is whether they have anyone that can beat good man coverage from a team with great DBs.
On defense they lose the overrated Shawn Oakman, the underrated Jamal Palmer, and MVP Andrew Billings. In 2015 the Bears were solid in the back seven provided they could get a pass rush and some double-team consumption up front, if DC Phil Bennett can't find the pieces at DL and LB to make that happen in 2016 then this defense could really slip.
Baylor's schedule takes them on the road in 2016 to Austin, Norman, and Morgantown. The first and third are dangerous but surmountable, the real challenge is besting Oklahoma for the league crown without getting to play them in McLane.
9. Notre Dame
This ranking feels more like a "hey, Notre Dame is always good" nod than something based on qualitative analysis of the roster. With QBs Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer both back and future NFL stud WR Will Fuller back I was all in on a strong Irish season, but when Fuller joined the rest of their offensive skill talent in leaving early I became bear-ish in a hurry.
Defensively, the Irish lose NFL players in DT Sheldon Day and LB Jaylon Smith and they don't return but two starters in the secondary. I'm not sure who VanGorder is going to build this defense around even if the star talent of Zaire (and is that knee okay) is enough to launch the offense back to the top.
Last year Butch Jones' overly-conservative offense and poor game management cost the Vols some key games that their strong defense nearly won for them, so he fired his DC...this should go well.
Fortunately for UT fans he hired Bob Shoop, one of the better rising DCs in the country who probably got out of Penn State at just the right time.
You have to admit that the Vols were still young last year and return a lot of what worked well in 2015, save for the secondary where they lose both safeties. If you believe in what Butch Jones is doing it's reasonable to conclude that they could take another leap forward this year and become an elite team.
Notable omissions worth keeping an eye on
Stanford brings back Christian McCaffrey, so I guarantee that they will have a good offense next season without Kevin Hogan. They also return several good WRs and do an amazing job of raising up OL in that program.
On defense they lose a pair of good DEs but return Solomon Thomas and a few key linebackers that were disruptive in 2015. The secondary should be solid with a few players returning and another year of Duane Akina coaching for the younger athletes in the program. Both of their safeties this year were converted WRs so there seems to be some upside in the future here.
Never sleep on Boise State, especially now that Harsin has his QB and has had a few years to rebuild their crucial TE roster.
Mark Richt is inheriting a ton of players at Miami and they seem to be flying completely under the radar right now, probably because they share a conference with obvious heavyweights Clemson and Florida State, but they dodge Clemson on the schedule (though not Notre Dame) and they get FSU at home.
Oregon has some nice pieces back on offense and in the secondary, it's all about how you feel D2 transfer QB Dakota Prukop can do taking over that offense and whether Brady Hoke can build a good 4-3 Under defense out of unique, 3-4 defensive parts. Personally, I'm skeptical.
Finally, although I mocked their process for choosing a HC it's hard not to notice that USC has a lot back from this past season, particularly in the secondary and with stud WR Juju Smith-Schuster. They're also replacing DC Justin Wilcox, who never impressed me, with someone yet to be named. There's some serious potential for improvement from this team if Helton can develop a QB out of what is surely a deep depth chart.