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Looking for clues to predict 2016 College Football Playoff contenders

Grab your NCAA tournament bracket. Look at your Final Four. We're sure you've made justifiable and educated guesses on who will make it that far. Does it look anything like what you imagined it would in the preseason? And, with that in mind, are you prepared for being really, really wrong?

When we make sports predictions, we lean on past experience. We look at personnel and coaches and perhaps dig into statistical patterns. More often than not, we are wrong. But it's not about being right. It's about playing the speculative game, which is as much a part of being a fan as watching the actual season transpire before us.

While a lot of folks expected Alabama to reach the College Football Playoff last year, who else picked Clemson, Michigan State and/or Oklahoma? The answer is not a soul. Yet perhaps there are lessons to be learned from that unexpected quartet that might provide a path to predicting who might break through in 2016.

Or not.

Call this an attempt to sniff out a few bread crumbs by examining similarities between this past season's CFP semifinalists and teams that might make their case for inclusion this fall.

Michigan State in 2015 becomes Ole Miss in 2016

The connection here starts behind center. The Spartans had veteran cornerstone Connor Cook while the Rebels will lead the SEC with Chad Kelly. Like the 2015 Spartans, the Rebels are replacing some big names on both sides of the ball, the most notable parallel being at receiver.

The biggest difference is Michigan State entered 2015 with one of the nation's best offensive lines, while that's an area of rebuilding for the Rebels.

In 2015, Michigan State was coming off impressive victories in the Rose Bowl (Stanford) and Cotton Bowl (Baylor) the previous two seasons. In 2016, Ole Miss will be building on a Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State after getting humbled by TCU following the 2014 season in the Peach Bowl. Further, both these rising programs were national powers in the 1950s and 1960s but then suffered through fairly significant and extended downturns. Finally, both need to eclipse a perennial national heavyweight in their own division -- Michigan State with Ohio State and Ole Miss with Alabama -- that, oh by the way, they've had recent success against head-to-head.

Clemson in 2015 becomes Baylor in 2016

The obvious connection here is also quarterback, but in a different way. Clemson rolled to the CFP behind sophomore QB Deshaun Watson, who bounced back from a season-ending injury suffered during the 2014 campaign. Baylor hopes to get the same from Seth Russell, who looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate before he went down in Game 7 with a neck injury. At that point, Russell had accounted for a mind-blowing 35 touchdowns -- 29 passing, six rushing -- and the Bears were unbeaten and ranked No. 2.

In 2015, the preseason story for Clemson was restocking both lines. Same for Baylor in 2016. Then there are the coaches. Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Baylor's Art Briles are cut from the same cloth -- outgoing, folksy men of faith who aren't afraid to have fun with their players. Clemson entered the 2015 season having won 42 games over the previous four seasons. Baylor has won 40 games over the past four years, so the Bears share a sense of "Close But Not Yet" with the Tigers.

The big difference: Clemson's main obstacle was Florida State, while Baylor's is its own weak scheduling practices.

Oklahoma in 2015 becomes Auburn in 2016

Oklahoma began the 2014 season ranked fourth but finished 8-5, and folks were questioning Bob Stoops, despite his success and reputation. Auburn began the 2015 season ranked sixth but finished 7-6, and folks are questioning Gus Malzahn, despite his success and reputation.

Of course, that's not an exact match; Stoops has been winning in Norman since 1999, while Malzahn has been at Auburn only three seasons. But, as we all know, SEC seasons are like dog years. Stoops made major staff changes after the disappointment of 2014, as did Malzahn this winter, though the Sooners focused on offense with new playcaller Lincoln Riley, and the Tigers' big change was bringing in Kevin Steele on defense.

Oklahoma entered the 2015 season uncertain at quarterback and the offensive line. Auburn will be the same this spring. The Sooners offense found its footing with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield prevailing over past starters behind center. The Tigers are perhaps hoping that JC transfer John Franklin III, formally of Florida State, will be their guy. The Sooners began the 2015 season ranked an uncharacteristically low 19th. Auburn, at best, will begin in the bottom quarter of the top 25 -- ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach didn't include the Tigers in his latest "Way-Too-Early-Top-25." But it ain't where you start. ...

Alabama in 2015 becomes Ohio State in 2016

Alabama is a Program with a capital "P" and Nick Saban is a Coach with a capital "C." The same can be said for Ohio State and Urban Meyer. No one will even argue that these two programs and coaches aren't fronting the college football universe at present.

Meyer is 50-4 since he took over at Ohio State, winning the 2014 national title. Saban is 50-6 over the same span, winning titles in 2012 and 2015. The Buckeyes were the nation's most talented team last year, but something was missing as they tried to defend their 2014 title.

The same could be said for Alabama in 2014, when it was shocked by the Buckeyes in one of the CFP semifinals. In the 2015 preseason, Alabama had big questions at quarterback, wide receiver and the offensive line, but was notably stout with its defensive front seven.

In the 2016 spring, Ohio State has just six returning starters -- three on each side of the ball -- but it's dynamic at QB with J.T. Barrett and has been recruiting just like Saban and the Crimson Tide. Despite its personnel losses, Alabama began the 2015 season ranked No. 3. The Buckeyes are unlikely to begin that high, but they'll be in the preseason top 10.

And who would be surprised if they ended up in the CFP next January?