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College football: More Alabama and Clemson (yawn), or a different look in 2018?

It's time for Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin Badgers to make their playoff breakthrough. (AP/Aaron Gash)

You might want to sit down for this breaking development: Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25, and Clemson is ranked No. 2.

In other news, Illinois isn’t anywhere to be found in the poll and the sky is blue.

But let’s be serious as we wheel toward the start of the college football season. Defending national champion Alabama has made it into all four semifinals since the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff. Clemson — the closest thing there is to an equal of the Crimson Tide — has been in the playoff the last three seasons, a run of excellence that includes a title capper to the 2016 campaign.


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Goodness, of course the Tide and the Tigers are Nos. 1 and 2 — and not merely because of past performance. The talent-soaked Tide happen to have one of their friendliest schedules of recent vintage, including Auburn at home in the Iron Bowl on the last Saturday of November. Clemson has one of the most talked-about defensive fronts in many a year, a group so wicked it might as well just matriculate to the NFL en masse at the end of the season.

The superpowers might meet in a semifinal at the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl or for all the marbles on January 7 in Santa Clara, California. Then again, they might not meet at all.

Hey, we’re not pretending we actually can see the future here.

In Year 5 of the playoff, let’s stick with a ‘‘fives’’ motif, shall we?


1. Neither of 2017’s other playoff teams, Georgia and Oklahoma, will make it back. The Bulldogs have the schedule to pull it off, but they lost so many key pieces — including Bears linebacker Roquan Smith — that we’re just going to have to see another run before we can believe it. And the Sooners post-Baker Mayfield are an insurmountable defensive lapse or two (or three) waiting to happen.

2. After two seasons without the Big Ten champion making the field, Wisconsin and Ohio State will meet again in the conference title game — and the winner will be justly rewarded.

3. Was Washington truly playoff-ready in 2016? Perhaps not, but coach Chris Petersen has shored up his program for a triumphant return. The Huskies are as deep and dangerous as any Pac-12 squad has been since the Chip Kelly days at Oregon.

4. Notre Dame will enter November with a real shot to make the playoff. Calamity will ensue. Well, that’s probably overstating things.

5. Indeed, our playoff four: Alabama, Clemson, Washington and Wisconsin. Not necessarily in that order.


Ranking the conferences:

1. Big Ten: Bring on the accusations of homerism. But the truth is, the East division continues to be the most intriguing in the land. Ohio State just might romp through it, but Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan — are you ever going to get it done, Jim Harbaugh? — might rise up memorably. In the West, Wisconsin will deal with an arrows-up group of division rivals. It can be argued every other West program is on the climb.

2. SEC: It’s going to be hard to hand this conference its customary recognition as the best there is until Florida gets it going again, LSU gets it going again, Tennessee gets it going again . . . you get the picture. But Alabama is state-of-the-art, and Georgia and Auburn would contend in any conference in the land.

3. ACC: Until Florida State reasserts itself as a true national titan, it’s Clemson all the way and a handful of others — Miami, Louisville, Virginia Tech, N.C. State and, yes, the Seminoles — on the chase. The Atlantic still rules too easily over the Coastal.

4. Pac-12: Better — much better — days are coming (or should be). Just imagine if Mario Cristobal gets Oregon firing on all cylinders again and if Kelly approximates his former success with the Ducks at UCLA. USC and Stanford remain strong, but not playoff-strong. Washington isn’t supposed to be this much better than everybody else.

5. Big 12: Is this the year Texas snatches a conference title? (The pick here: Yes, it is.) Oklahoma still can beat anybody. TCU is intriguing, and West Virginia might be out-of-control good offensively. It’ll be a fun season, but ‘‘one true champion’’ will be headed somewhere other than a playoff semifinal.


1. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 1: This isn’t the best matchup in terms of the rankings, but it oozes with history and import. Are the Irish headed for their first playoff or what? Also: Are you ever going to get it done, Jim Harbaugh? Oh, wait, we asked that already.

2. Alabama vs. Louisville, Sept. 1 (Orlando, Florida): If only Lamar Jackson still were standing in the backfield to give the Cardinals a chance. Speaking of quarterbacks, will it be Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts for the Tide?

3. Washington vs. Auburn, Sept. 1 (Atlanta): It’s only 25 times farther to Mercedes-Benz Stadium from Seattle as it is from Auburn, Alabama. See, that’s what’s known in the business as a neutral field.

4. Clemson at Texas A&M, Sept. 8: It’s new coach Jimbo Fisher’s first big’un with the Aggies. Kyle Field will shake — literally — with excitement.

5. Ohio State vs. TCU, Sept. 15 (Arlington, Texas): Suspended coach Urban Meyer won’t be on the Buckeyes’ sideline, which the game announcers likely will mention a few billion times or so.


1. Fisher, Texas A&M: He has a natty under his belt, so he gets the top spot. (OK, you can watch his replacement at Florida State — the terrific Willie Taggart — too.)

2. Kelly, UCLA: How long will it take the Chipster to make the Bruins better at being Oregon than Oregon is?

3. Scott Frost, Nebraska: Lincoln’s favorite son (OK, one of them) comes home. If he ever goes unbeaten with the Huskers as he did with UCF, it’ll be amazing.

4. Dan Mullen, Florida: What a crapshoot it has been in Gainesville since Meyer left. And ‘‘crapshoot’’ is putting it nicely. Drain the Swamp!

5. Herm Edwards, Arizona State: Yes, that Herm Edwards. Just how nutty is this going to get?


1. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: Has he passed 1,000 yards yet? We mean in 2018.

2. Will Greer, QB, West Virginia: The numbers will be there. Will there be enough team success?

3. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington: He isn’t a Tarik Cohen clone, but darn it if it doesn’t appear to be the case sometimes.

4. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Who says the Heisman is a quarterback award?

5. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan: Yeah, it’s probably a crazy reach. But what if he’s the — as in THE — difference-maker the Wolverines have been waiting for?