John Clay

Groundhog Day: Alabama the pick again to win football’s national title

Alabama head coach Nick Saban walked the field before the first half of the Peach Bowl against Washington on Dec. 31, 2016, in Atlanta.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban walked the field before the first half of the Peach Bowl against Washington on Dec. 31, 2016, in Atlanta. AP

My preseason top 25:

1. Alabama: Who else? Yes, the Crimson Tide lost to Clemson in last year’s national title game. Yes, star players Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster are gone from a defense that allowed an average of just 63 rushing yards and 13 points per game. This is Alabama we’re talking about, however. Nick Saban is still there. Another No. 1 recruiting class has arrived on campus. Offensive weapons Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Calvin Ridley return. History says don’t bet against the Tide.

2. Southern Cal: The Trojans finished 2016 on a nine-game winning streak. They beat Penn State in an entertaining Rose Bowl. They return the nation’s No. 1 NFL quarterback prospect in Sam Darnold. It sure looks like USC is finally past the Lane Kiffin firing and ready to return to its habit of being a national title contender.

3. Penn State: The SEC knew that James Franklin was a heck of a football coach by the way he worked miracles at Vanderbilt. Now Franklin is starting to hit his stride with the Nittany Lions. Quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw for 29 touchdowns last year, is back. So, too, is star running back Saquon Barkley. Happy days are here again in Happy Valley.

4. Ohio State: It surely did not sit well with Urban Meyer that the Buckeyes were blanked 31-0 by Clemson in the national semifinal game, i.e. the Fiesta Bowl. Ex-Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is now on board as offensive coordinator, where he hopes to build around quarterback J.T. Barrett.

5. Florida State: If Jimbo Fisher can improve an underachieving offensive line, the Seminoles could win the whole thing. The talent is there. Quarterback Deondre Francois is there. Departed running back Dalvin Cook will be tough to replace, but Fisher always has weapons. And defensive back Derwin James, back from injury, might be the best defensive player in the country.

6. Clemson: The odds are against Clemson winning back-to-back national titles, especially without quarterback Deshaun Watson, but Dabo Swinney has built a perennial powerhouse that has been to two consecutive national title games. It’s unlikely that we would see a third straight Alabama-Clemson battle in the College Football Playoff finals, but it wouldn’t be a total shock.

7. Washington: The big question in Seattle revolves around the shoulder surgery quarterback Jake Browning underwent over the offseason. If Browning is healthy, the Huskies could make it back to the College Football Playoffs. If not, there will be a lot pressure on top backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.

8. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops stunned everyone, including his brother Mark, when he announced his surprise retirement late in the summer. Wonder-boy Lincoln Riley, only 33, takes over as the head Sooner and quarterback Baker Mayfield should smooth the transition. If Oklahoma can improve a defense that ranked 68th last year, Riley could be in the CFP in his first season.

9. Wisconsin: The Badgers faced six top-10 teams a year ago and still won 11 games and made it to the Big Ten title game. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook returns as does star safety D’Cota Dixon. Ohio State is off the Wisconsin schedule and head coach Paul Chryst gets Michigan at home. Look for the Badgers to be playing for the conference championship again.

10. Oklahoma State: Quarterback Mason Rudolph returns after throwing for 4,091 yards with 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions last season. Rudolph alone is enough to make them prime contenders for the Big 12 title, but head coach Mike Gundy has plenty of talent surrounding his stud quarterback.

11. Michigan: On paper, it looks like the Wolverines will take a step back from last year’s 10-3 record and one-point loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. That discounts the Jim Harbaugh factor, however, and the Michigan coach has found a way to make his alma mater an instant contender. Wilton Speight’s play at quarterback is the likely key.

12. Auburn: Right away, Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham makes Auburn’s quarterback position much improved, which should be a major step in making the Tigers much improved over last year’s 8-5 mark. If Kevin Steele’s defense continues to improve, Auburn might actually challenge Alabama’s dominance in the SEC West.

13. Stanford: Head coach David Shaw will have a tough time replacing dynamic playmaker Christian McCaffrey, but the Cardinal could be better in all other areas. Cornerback Quenton Meeks is a rising star on a Stanford defense that should be the strength of this year’s team.

14. Florida: Overcoming an anemic offense, head coach Jim McElwain has won the SEC East each of his first two seasons mainly on the strength of Geoff Collins’ defense. Now Collins is the new head coach at Temple. Good news for the Gators, however, is that ex-Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire is on board as a graduate transfer. A third straight trip to Atlanta could rest on his shoulders.

15. Miami (Fla.): Mark Richt seems to be enjoying himself at his alma mater, where the former Georgia coach went 9-4 in his first season last year. Gone is quarterback Brad Kaaya, but Richt has plenty of talent everywhere else, plus a favorable schedule, to believe the Hurricanes can contend for an ACC title.

16. LSU: Les Miles is gone, but there’s no guarantee successor Ed Orgeron will do a better job with the Tigers’ treasure trove of raw talent. Quarterback Danny Etling must improve his play and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada must develop weapons around star running back Derrius Guice. Meanwhile, Coach O must prove he’s better than his 22-29 career record as a head coach.

17. Georgia: By season’s end, the Bulldogs could well be the best team in the SEC East, but second-year head coach Kirby Smart has to straighten out his offensive line first. A defense that ranked 16th in the nation last season returns 10 starters, meaning Smart should improve on his 8-5 Athens debut.

18. Louisville: Lamar Jackson might be the most disrespected Heisman Trophy winner in the history of the award. The Louisville quarterback was ranked as the sixth best player and third best quarterback for the 2017 season by ESPN. Jackson and U of L’s offense will be fine. The question is new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire last year at Mississippi State.

19. Notre Dame: The football complex at South Bend was surely not a pleasant place to be after Brian Kelly’s Irish slipped all the way to 4-8 last year. The head coach rolled several heads on his coaching staff, bringing in a new offensive coordinator (Chip Long from Memphis) and a new defensive coordinator (Mike Elko from Wake Forest). Notre Dame should be improved — it’s a low bar after 2016 — but the jury is out on how much.

20. South Florida: Things didn’t work out for Charlie Strong in Austin, but the former Louisville coach should execute a soft landing in Tampa. The Bulls have plenty back from a team that went 11-2 last season — winning Willie Taggart the head coaching job at Oregon — including star quarterback Quinton Flowers. Those looking at the USF schedule think there’s even a chance Strong could run the table.

21. Kansas State: It says here that 77-year-old head coach Bill Snyder, who underwent treatments for throat cancer in the offseason, is a national treasure. That alone is enough to put the Wildcats in the top 25, but K-State has plenty of talent back from a team that went 9-4 and beat Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl last season.

22. Virginia Tech: In his first year after coming over from Memphis, head coach Justin Fuente pumped new life into the Hokies, who went 10-4. The offense overachieved a year ago. The defense, under longtime coordinator Bud Foster, ranked 18th in the country. If Fuente can solve his quarterback situation, Tech could climb even higher.

23. Washington State: Just because head coach Mike Leach spent his summer taking Twitter shots at his old employer, Texas Tech, doesn’t mean the Cougars are unprepared for 2017. It just means Leach trusts his quarterback Luke Falk, who led WSU to an 8-5 record and a Holiday Bowl appearance last season.

24. West Virginia: Ex-Florida quarterback Will Grier takes over Dana Holgorsen’s normally high-powered offense in Morgantown. Justin Crawford, who rushed for 1,184 yards last season, is back. The Mountaineers need to improve a defense that gave up 56 points to Oklahoma and 37 to Oklahoma State.

25. TCU: Last year was a down year for the Horned Frogs, who ended up 6-7 after a 31-23 loss to Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Seems unlikely head coach Gary Patterson will be down for long, however. Linebackers Travin Howard and Ty Summers lead a TCU defense that should right the ship in 2017.


Rose Bowl: Southern Cal over Penn State

Sugar Bowl: Alabama over Ohio State

National championship: Alabama over Southern Cal