Another year, another inaugural set of college football rankings. And for the second straight season, Alabama begins as the No. 1 team in the land.
RANKINGS: Full AP Top 25
Granted, Nick Saban probably cares as much about a preseason No. 1 ranking as he does about Monday’s solar eclipse (spoiler alert: not very much). But voters can’t really go wrong with slotting the Crimson Tide above the rest. They’re the safe pick; for every Derrick Henry that moves on to the NFL, there’s a Bo Scarbrough ready to replace him. Everyone tries to reload. Alabama is just better at it than everyone else.
This version of the Tide is different in one sense, though: for the first time since the A.J. McCarron era, Alabama enters the season with a proven quarterback.
Jalen Hurts was a pleasant surprise as a freshman in 2016, racking up 2,780 passing yards and 36 total touchdowns. Sure, Blake Sims and Jake Coker were productive in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But Hurts is a different beast. The word "dynamic" comes to mind. Combine sound QB play with Alabama’s perennially ridiculous defense and running game, and the No. 1 ranking is easy to justify.
Taking a look at the rest of the Top 10, a theme jumps out: Good quarterback play is vital. Yes, that’s a little like saying, “in order to win, you must score more points than the opponent.” But check out some of these quarterbacks in the top eight.
J.T. Barrett enters his fourth year at No. 2 Ohio State and has thrown more than three times as many touchdowns as interceptions (69-21). Oh, and he’s a better runner than he is a passer. After a slow start on Thursday night, he looked great against Indiana. Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards as a freshman for Florida State. Sam Darnold, the signal caller for No. 4 USC, is college football’s personal embodiment of “Limitless.”
No. 6 Penn State’s Trace McSorley almost edged Darnold in last year’s Rose Bowl, dropping a 52-49 shootout that was one of the most entertaining games of the past 10 years. McSorley may not have a big arm, but he puts the ball where it needs to go, when it needs to be there. He threw for almost 4,000 yards in 2016. Jake Browning led No. 8 Washington to last year’s College Football Playoff behind 34 touchdowns (and only nine picks). And while Baker Mayfield isn’t as naturally gifted as some of the folks mentioned above, has any active player accomplished as much on the college level as the Sooner QB? Mayfield is 20 passing yards shy of 10,000 for his career. Oklahoma must replace most of its talent on the outside, but Mayfield elevates his supporting cast.
There’s seven of your top eight quarterbacks in the preseason AP Poll. Think it’s going to be a fun year?
The lone team we didn’t mention: No. 5 Clemson, which must replace the all-world Deshaun Watson. The Tigers return the bulk of their national title-winning defense, and Dabo Swinney is approaching Saban levels of talent development prowess. Kelly Bryant figures to get the nod behind center on opening day for the Tigers. He’s unproven, but he’ll have a loaded roster flanking him. If Bryant is decent, Clemson will be great.
As usual, the SEC is well represented. It has six teams in the Top 25, best in the country. A full conference breakdown:
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Here are a few more teams to keep an eye on.
No. 13 LSU: The Tigers have Derrius Guice – one of the most electrifying runners in the country – in their backfield. And yet, the biggest reason to tune into LSU on a Saturday afternoon might be to see what the coach does (or says).
Name a more entertaining college football character than Ed Orgeron. I’ll wait. Orgeron led the Tigers to a 6-2 record once he took over last season, with Guice starring. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry and regularly did stuff like this:
LSU’s ground game is always good. So is its defense. As usual, quarterback play is the question. Is Danny Etling the answer? He was unspectacular in 2016, but the Tigers went 8-3 in his starts. If Etling can take a leap forward, LSU could challenge Alabama for the SEC West crown.
No. 16 Louisville: The Cardinals have Lamar Jackson. Remember him? The 2016 Heisman winner? With flashy names like Darnold and Josh Rosen owning much of the quarterback conversation, Jackson is (strangely) flying under the radar. But a quick reminder of his Heisman-winning absurdity: 3,543 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 1,571 rushing yards (!), and 21 rushing touchdowns (!!). Louisville struggled down the stretch last year – it dropped its final three games. Still, with No. 8 in the fold, don’t be shocked to see these guys land in the Top 10 by season’s end.
No. 23 Texas: AP voters must love UT coach Tom Herman. The Longhorns, who went 5-7 last season, lost D’Onta Foreman to the NFL. Foreman ran for more than 2,000 yards as a junior. The rest of the offense was anemic.
But Malik Jefferson returns to lead a defense that should be one of the top units in the Big 12, and Shane Buechele showed flashes behind center as a freshman. Still, ranking the Longhorns inside of the Top 25 is a huge vote of confidence for Herman. Considering the magic he worked at Houston, it may be justified.