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Anthony Chiusano | | August 9, 2016

5 big questions ahead of the college football season

  Malik Zaire (8) is vying for Notre Dame's starting quarterback job with DeShone Kizer.

As the return of college football creeps closer every day, there’s still uncertainty surrounding many programs, coaches and players. Here are five big questions to start the season:

Which quarterbacks will step up and win starting jobs?

  John O'Korn (8) transferred from Houston to Michigan and is competing for the No. 1 job.
Only four of the top 10 teams in the USA Today preseason coaches poll have a clear-cut starter at quarterback. That creates an intriguing situation for many national championship contenders early on in the season.

Notre Dame has the luxury of having two returning quarterbacks who showed flashes of success last season.

Malik Zaire, a rising senior, won the job out of camp last year and was almost perfect in a season-opening 38-3 victory over Texas where he went 19-of-22 with three touchdowns. But after breaking his ankle in week two, sophomore DeShone Kizer stepped in and served admirably in nine wins.

But now both are healthy again and coach Brian Kelly has not named a starter yet.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Michigan and Stanford all have sizable shoes to fill with quarterbacks Jake Coker, Jake Rudock and Kevin Hogan having graduated. A redshirt freshman in Blake Barnett may be in the mix for the Crimson Tide while the Wolverines may turn to Houston transfer John O’Korn.

RELATED: 5 transfers who will prove huge for their new teams

All four teams have realistic shots at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, but all will have to find an answer under center first.

Can a non-Power Five team reach the College Football Playoff?

  Houston went 13-1 last year and is ranked No. 18 in the 2016 preseason coaches poll.
No program outside the Power Five conferences has earned a shot at competing for the national championship through the system’s first two years.

But this season presents a few interesting candidates.

Notre Dame, who garners the attention of a Power Five program while boasting independency, finished eighth in the final playoff poll last year and comes in at ninth in USA Today’s first coaches poll this preseason.

While the Fighting Irish still have to figure out its situation at quarterback, another big concern is health. Along with Zaire, Notre Dame also had to deal with injuries to its top two running backs last year (Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise) in addition to defensive lineman Jarron Jones and defensive back KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame still managed to pull out 10 victories despite these setbacks and could be a major force in 2016 if its skill positions can stay healthy.

MORE: 5 non-Power Five offensive stars to watch

Then there’s Houston out of the AAC.

With the dynamic Heisman candidate Greg Ward Jr. returning at quarterback and eight other returning starters on offense, the Cougars are primed to show last season’s 13-1 record wasn’t a fluke.

Houston will be tested early on, however, as it opens against No. 3 Oklahoma on Saturday, Sept. 3. A season opener won’t make or break one’s postseason prospects, but for a mid-major program looking to make history, it will be an important outcome.

Can J.T. Barrett lead the young Buckeyes to success?

  J.T. Barrett passed for 992 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games last year.
Ohio State headed into last season with three viable quarterback options in J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller. Miller ultimately moved to wideout while Jones and Barrett split time as they and the Buckeyes struggled at times, but finished at 12-1 and just outside the playoff picture.

Now Barrett is the only holdover from the trio and will lead the charge of a young, overturned roster.

Only seven starters return from both sides of the ball, as Barrett will have a whole new receiving corps and won’t have Cowboys first round pick Ezekiel Elliott as his tailback behind him anymore.

But this isn’t considered a rebuilding season by any means, considering the Buckeyes’ No. 5 preseason ranking. However, it will be a personal test for Barrett in terms of rediscovering his success prior to his injury in 2015 and becoming a leaned-upon leader on a young roster.

How high is Leonard Fournette’s ceiling in 2016?

There’s perhaps no other player that will be as exciting to watch this season as LSU running back Leonard Fournette.

The Tigers star broke seven single-season program records, four single-game program records and rushed for 200 yards four times en route to finishing 2015 with 1,953 rushing yards in 12 games.

With that stat line, Fournette enters 2016 as a top Heisman pick.

But can the rising junior sustain his unworldly numbers and possibly post one of the greatest season performances in college football history?

Although Fournette started each game for LSU in 2015, he didn’t cruise through it without any injury scares. In an early season game against Auburn last year, he tallied 228 yards on only 19 carries before being held out for the remainder as a precaution for a minor thigh bruise. As recently as this spring, he missed practice dealing with an injury.

There’s no question Fournette is healthy for the start of this season, but it’s imperative to keep in mind how a running back’s workload wears them down as the season progresses – Fournette was one of five backs last year to get 300 or more rushing attempts.

However, Fournette returns this fall in even better shape and “trimmed up,” for a Tigers team with high hopes – which means Fournette may be the biggest attraction for college football viewers this season.

Can anyone knock off Bama?

  Calvin Ridley (left) and the Crimson Tide defeated Clemson 45-40 in last year's championship game.
This seems to be the biggest question every year across the college football landscape.

Coming off its fourth national championship in the Nick Saban era and with another top class of incoming freshmen, it’s no surprise Alabama starts off 2016 in the same position it ended last year: No. 1.

But with the loss of Coker, Heisman winner Derrick Henry and others, can the Crimson Tide capture a second straight title?

With three of its five elite offensive linemen returning, explosive wideout Calvin Ridley entering his second year and a mostly intact defense that has been the program’s backbone over its recent run of championships, chances seem high.

MORE: Rankings - USA Today Coaches Poll

Clemson, who lost to Alabama in last year’s title game, is sure to have a chance at revenge behind the arm of Deshaun Watson. But the Tigers also lost key pieces on defense.

Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma seem poised to return to the playoffs as well with an abundance of returnees, but early season nonconference games against Houston (week one) and Ohio State (week three) is tough for any team to maneuver through unscathed.

Some darkhorse candidates from Alabama’s own conference like LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia (where former Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart left to become head coach) will also be in play for a playoff spot, but, for now, Alabama still holds claim to No. 1. 

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