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2017 CFB preview: Must-see matchups, Heisman hopefuls, title picks

Penn State's Saquon Barkley figures to be drafted in the top four. (AP)

Let’s cast our gaze far and wide at the national scene, as most teams open their seasons later this week.

FIVE POWER CONFERENCES, RANKED

1. Southeastern: Alabama looks the part of a preseason No. 1, but this (finally) isn’t about the Tide. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is the quarterback Auburn has needed to jump back into contention. LSU has stability with coach Ed Orgeron, and Georgia, Florida and Tennessee keep threatening to be high-end relevant again. Arkansas and Mississippi State add quality depth.

2. Big Ten:The way Ohio State was dominated by Clemson in the playoff last season was a bit of an eye-opener. The Buckeyes are surrounded by quality with Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and others, but this conference has something to re-prove now.

3. Atlantic Coast:Florida State appears loaded enough to make a Clemson-style run at a national title. Don’t overlook the Tigers, who move on without quarterback Deshaun Watson. Miami and Virginia Tech keep getting better.

4. Pac-12: The emergence of Washington has done a lot for this conference, which desperately hopes to see Oregon rediscover the road to glory. USC has re-established itself as a power, and Stanford is always more than a handful.

5. Big 12: Oklahoma, check. Oklahoma State, kind of a check. Texas? Maybe now’s the time under new coach Tom Herman.

FOUR EARLY MUST-SEES

1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2, Atlanta): The winner is going to come out of this one screaming playoff contender. The loser might, too.

2. Florida vs. Michigan (Sept. 2, Arlington, Texas): Neither the Gators nor the Wolverines seem poised for a banner season, but this matchup is all kinds of sexy.

3. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9): The Buckeyes made a huge statement in Norman last season. Can they back it up in Columbus?

4. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9): Clemson had to fight tooth and nail last season to beat an Auburn team that had zero answers at quarterback. The quarterback tables have turned dramatically.

THREE HEISMAN HOPEFULS

1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Ladies and gentlemen, here is your golden-armed front-runner.

2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: The best running back in the land, bar none.

3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: And J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. And Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State. And Derrius Guice, RB, LSU. Sorry, it’s just too hard to keep the list to three. Did we mention reigning winner Lamar Jackson is still the quarterback at Louisville?

TWO NOTRE DAME QUESTIONS

1. What’s the most important thing the Irish must do this season?

Run the football. Enough with putting too much pressure on the passing game and putting the defense in untenable positions. If quarterback Brandon Wimbush is turning and handing the ball to his deep stable of backs 40 or 50 times per game, he’ll be doing a great job. Let that experienced offensive line eat, dang it.

2. Is a repeat of 4-8 a possibility?

Put it this way: It’s probably less believable than 8-4. But this is no playoff contender, Irish fans. Might as well perish that thought right now. The test at home against Georgia on Sept. 9 will be telling.

ONE CHAMPIONSHIP PICK

Hate to be so unoriginal, but how does Alabama against Florida State on Jan. 8 in Atlanta sound? Yep, a rematch. And a colossal one at that.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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