Alabama is No. 1 — again — though voters keep getting it wrong
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Look, everybody is bound to be wrong once.
And by everybody, we mean everybody. As in, all 61 voters who in 2015 made Ohio State the AP’s first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team.
It’s not like they were far off; the Buckeyes, who won it all in 2014, finished 12-1 a year later and narrowly missed the College Football Playoff. But what, in retrospect, strains the imagination is that zero out of 61 voters rolled with the Tide.
Alabama is college football’s defending national champion, which shouldn’t rate as a surprise to anyone on God’s green earth. The Crimson Tide have now won four of the last seven titles. Nick Saban has foisted a dynasty upon the masses who’d prefer to believe that any year might be their year.
“A year ago,” Saban said at the onset of training camp, “I didn’t know that we were going to have that kind of team chemistry. I didn’t know we would have that kind of commitment.”
Raise your hands if you believe that statement.
No one? Didn’t think so.
Alabama is, with 33 of 61 first-place votes, your 2016 preseason No. 1. Really, anything less would’ve been folly. The Tide simply don’t dabble in shoddy chemistry, and they’re always fully committed to reaching the very top of the mountain.
But let’s slow our roll and at least acknowledge the following trend: Over the last 11 seasons, AP voters have nailed their collective preseason No. 1 pick precisely zero times. It’s a remarkably dry run, especially considering Alabama’s four titles and 12-victory average over the last nine campaigns.
Does it, nevertheless, cast doubt on this year’s Alabama pick?
Sure, it does. Second-ranked Clemson, the 2015 runner-up, returns the best quarterback in the land in Deshaun Watson. No. 3 Oklahoma, which also made the 2015 playoff, has star quarterback Baker Mayfield back in the fold and is the Big 12’s clearest favorite in a long time. No. 4 Florida State is one of the precious few programs that have stood nearly toe-to-toe with the Tide on the recruiting front.
Yet we should consider another trend: Six of the last seven national champs have been led by first-year starters at quarterback. Just a coincidence? Perhaps. Or maybe voters foolishly overlooked Alabama in just these situations time and again — Greg McElroy in 2009, AJ McCarron in 2011, Jake Coker in 2015.
Saban let his quarterback competition between Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts play out throughout training camp, which means, among other things, that one of those guys will have to turn up in a big way for the season opener against USC in Arlington, Texas. It won’t be easy for whoever takes that first snap, but the Tide have a history of rolling with one guy from start to finish. Whoever it is, he’ll likely be more than cut out for the job.
This is, after all, Alabama we’re talking about.
Three potential playoff contenders that’ll have unhinged crowd support when the conference stakes are highest:
1. LSU: The fifth-ranked Tigers — who face a season-opening hurdle against Wisconsin in Green Bay — get No. 11 Ole Miss and Alabama back-to-back in Death Valley. This is huge for a team that lost three straight November games last season after climbing to No. 2 in the CFP rankings. Running back Leonard Fournette is a given; quarterback Brandon Harris is not.
2. Michigan State: If the No. 12 Spartans pull off a Game 2 upset at Notre Dame, look out. Both seventh-ranked Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State have to visit East Lansing; Wisconsin and Northwestern do, too. The defense will be typically wicked. Will fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor rise to the challenge in his first go-round as the starter?
3. Oregon: The Ducks — ranked 24th, a potential slight — are picked for third in the Pac-12 North behind No. 8 Stanford and No. 14 Washington. Good luck to the Cardinal and the Huskies at nowhere-else-like-it Autzen Stadium.
RANKING THE POWER 5 CONFERENCES
1. SEC: The sport’s bellwether league was 9-2 last postseason, when all seven teams in the all-powerful West division — home to Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn — went bowling. The East is more of a mixed bag, but Nos. 9 Tennessee, 18 Georgia and 25 Florida have 10-win potential.
2. Big Ten: The East division troika of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State is tantalizingly good. Will Iowa repeat its shocking success of a year ago? The West looks so much weaker again.
3. ACC: Maybe we’ve been lulled into overreacting here, but Clemson and Florida State sure seem like the most capable twosome in league history. New coach Mark Richt has Miami poised for a return to big-time relevance.
4. Pac-12: The much-ballyhooed South division of 2015 came up lame, though UCLA could be dramatically improved and USC will be a tough out for anybody. The North remains where it’s at, yet Stanford must replace a four-year starter at quarterback and both Washington and Oregon are hard to figure.
5. Big 12: Baylor has misbehaved its way into real trouble for this league. Oklahoma could be great; TCU, Oklahoma State and even the Bears can’t be overlooked. Will Texas make good on coach Charlie Strong’s promise? Too much we-don’t-know.
Alabama vs. USC (Sept. 3): This would’ve been insanely exciting in certain previous seasons, but still.
Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3): If Aubie takes down Clemson — a real possibility — the tone will be set for an anything-goes season.
Florida State vs. Ole Miss (Sept. 5): Orlando gets a shot to host a huge game for a change. Winner vaults toward No. 1 in the polls.
Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17): Physical on physical — a dream matchup for old-school fans.
Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17): Let’s see just how great Urban Meyer’s recruiting has been. The Buckeyes lost more 2015 starters than any team in America.
The big three: Watson, Clemson; Fournette, LSU; RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford. Many felt McCaffrey was robbed a year ago, when Alabama running back Derrick Henry edged him. Some of us — not mentioning any names — voted for third-place finisher Watson.
Other names to remember: Mayfield, Oklahoma; RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State; QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State; QB Josh Rosen, UCLA; RB Royce Freeman, Oregon; QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.