NCAA football Top 25 preseason poll: Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide leading way

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 13, 2017 at 7:01 PM
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Alabama is No. 1. It just makes too much sense. Best program, best players, best coach. Yeah, Alabama.

That the Crimson Tide sits atop pretty much every preseason ranking is no surprise. In fact, there is a certain logic that permeates much of everybody's top 10 -- you tend to see almost the identical teams in just a slightly different order. We get it.

After that, though, it gets a bit more interesting.

Now armed with a couple of weeks of information from fall camp, The Sports Xchange is ready to take a few leaps of faith -- but not with Texas, Notre Dame or Tennessee -- and launch our preseason Top 25:

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide has 10 of the Top 100 players on NFLDraftScout.com's ranking of the best prospects for 2018, led by defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 9. Nobody has recruited better than Nick Saban, who is going for his fifth national title in Tuscaloosa and sixth overall. A reloading defense is beyond reproach; Alabama has had a national top 10 scoring defense in each of the past nine seasons.

What we don't like: The offense has the deepest group of running backs in America, but Jalen Hurts has to be more accurate on mid-range and deep passes for new coordinator Brian Daboll.

2. USC

Nine consecutive wins to end last season laid the foundation for high expectations in 2018, and coach Clay Helton spackled roster cracks with a top-notch recruiting class that include play-now kids like defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, running back Stephen Carr and wideouts Randal Grimes and Joseph Lewis. With quarterback San Darnold in charge, this is USC's most talented team since the Pete Carroll days.

What we don't like: USC plays 12 consecutive weeks without a bye.

3. Ohio State

Quarterback J.T Barrett has accounted for 100 career touchdowns and holds enough school records to be a scarlet-and-gray legend, but the senior has much to prove all over again because he hasn't regained his spectacular freshman level, when his late-season injury opened the door for Cardale Jones to carry the Buckeyes to the national title. This season, though, Ohio State's real strength is along both lines -- and that's a great way to be.

What we don't like: A new weapon or two needs to emerge to complement Barrett.

4. Florida State

The Seminoles no longer have a quarterback deficit when matched up against Clemson, which clears the path to the ACC Atlantic crown on the way to the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Deondre Francois has a year of experience and another loaded backfield. Safety Derwin James is a difference-maker in the national championship chase.

What we don't like: The offensive line must improve; tough schedule opens vs. Alabama, ends at Florida and has a game at Clemson in between.

5. Washington

You might have to erase the images from late last season -- losses to USC and then Alabama in a national semifinal game -- to believe in the Huskies this high, but know that quarterback Jake Browning was ailing with a shoulder injury at that time. Coach Chris Petersen has another salty D, ample offensive weapons and a program built to last in ways last seen in Seattle more than 25 years ago.

What we don't like: Three second-round draft picks must be replaced in secondary.

6. Oklahoma State

Can anybody stop these guys? Not many "triplets" are as good as quarterback Mason Rudolph, receiver James Washington and running back Justice Hill. Having Bedlam in Stillwater could be the deciding factor in the race to the regular-season Big 12 title, but what about a potential rematch with Oklahoma in the new league championship game?

What we don't like: Can the defense merely be adequate?

7. Penn State

Quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki are among the best in the nation at their positions, and sophomore receiver Juwan Johnson has been the buzz of fall camp. Who knew a Penn State offense could be so fun?

What we don't like: Lots of tough road games, and a three-week stretch in the back half of the schedule that features Michigan and trips to Ohio State and Michigan State.

8. Clemson

Whether this season ends in a third straight playoff berth -- and it certainly could because that defensive line is all kinds of manly -- isn't the total point. Dabo Swinney's program is bigger than one player, and Clemson, with that 2016 national title in its pocket, is now a national fixture.

What we don't like: Was Deshaun Watson worth a couple of wins by himself? Yeah, he might have been.

9. Oklahoma

There's no fundamental flaw with the Sooners, although first-time head coach Lincoln Riley has to prove his mettle. The road schedule is tough enough to assume two losses (Ohio State, Oklahoma State?), but all things are possible with quarterback Baker Mayfield.

What we don't like: Oklahoma did lose 4,502 scrimmage yards and 47 touchdowns from the departures of wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

10. Auburn

The arrival of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham upgraded the Tigers' outlook and put the Tigers on the fringe of the playoff discussion -- especially with the Iron Bowl in Auburn this season. Coach Gus Malzahn still has quarterback Sean White -- looking good in camp -- but figure on Stidham and the running back combo of Kamyrn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson to have Auburn at its near-national-championship level of offense from 2013.

What we don't like: Road games at Clemson, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

11. Georgia

This ranking assumes quarterback Jacob Eason blossoms as a sophomore -- true freshman Jake Fromm is waiting in the wings -- but the Dawgs can also unleash the running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That, plus a defense that returns 10 starters, is Georgia's edge in the SEC East under second-year coach Kirby Smart.

What we don't like: The receiving corps hasn't been one of Smart's favorite position groups in camp.

12. Stanford

Quarterback Keller Chryst, coming off a torn ACL in the Sun Bowl, has been healthy enough in camp to be named the season-opening starter. Bryce Love will be more than fine as a Christian McCaffrey replacement. The Cardinal has finished in the national top 12 in five of the past six seasons.

What we don't like: There is no "next Solomon Thomas" at defensive tackle.

13. Wisconsin

The Badgers arrived ahead of schedule last season with 11 wins a Big Ten West title. The Badgers are still sorting out their running back battle, but Alex Hornibrook settled in at quarterback last season and should be better as a sophomore. In camp, outside linebacker Leon Jacobs is flashing some ability to replace the pass-rushing production of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel.

What we don't like: Wisconsin lost starting inside linebacker Jack Cichy for the season during camp.

14. Florida

The two-time defending SEC East champs brought in Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, who has been earning good reviews in camp. Who takes the first snap vs. Michigan on Sept. 2? That might still be redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. Don't sleep on Jordan Scarlett at running back.

What we don't like: If the Gators' D takes an expected step back, is the offense good enough?

15. Louisville

Mr. Heisman, Lamar Jackson, is back -- and here are a couple of potential names for breakout players at wide receiver -- Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. The secondary, led by Jaire Alexander, is cocky enough to call itself "The Tax Boys." They'll make opposing offenses pay.

What we don't like: The Cardinals didn't have 12-game staying power last season, and the team isn't as physical as division rivals Clemson and Florida State.

16. LSU

Perhaps it will all click for head coach Ed Orgeron and new LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who is trying to diversify an attack that includes star running back Derrius Guice. Danny Etling was so-so last season but is holding off challengers in camp as the starting quarterback. You can file that under either good news or bad news.

What we don't like: Love the Coach O energy, but LSU hasn't finished higher than 14th nationally since 2011. Seems like status quo for now.

17. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh has recruited well, so the miniscule number of returning starters (five) is mostly bogus. Just about every coach would trade for Michigan defensive linemen Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary -- and none is technically a returning starter. At quarterback, 2016 starter Wilton Speight is trying to hold off John O'Korn.

What we don't like: These guys lost 11 draft picks.

18. USF

The Bulls have a new coach in Charlie Strong and the same old quarterback in Quinton Flowers. After an 11-2 season, USF is eying a perfect regular-season run and a big bowl as the best of the teams from the Group of 5 conferences.

What we don't like: The strength of schedule isn't good enough to earn a playoff berth.

19. Miami

Mark Richt, in his second year with the Hurricanes, is building something good (Miami is nearly leading the field in the 2018 recruiting rankings). In the meantime, Miami's still-young defensive front seven could be nasty, continuing the momentum created by a five-game winning streak to end last season.

What we don't like: The quarterback competition -- fronted by Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs -- is ongoing in camp.

20. Northwestern

Clayton Thorson returns for his third season as the starting quarterback, Justin Jackson is one of the top running backs in the nation and safety Godwin Igwebuike is a top 100 draft prospect, according to NFLDraftScout.com. The Wildcats miss Ohio State and Michigan, increasing the chances that coach Pat Fitzgerald will get his third 10-win season in the past six years.

What we don't like: There is nobody like departed receiver Austin Carr on the roster.

21. TCU

The Horned Frogs finished 6-7 last season. That was the aberration. TCU won 23 games in the previous two seasons and can approach those levels with a deeper, bigger defense eager to bare its teeth and rally around tackling-machine linebacker Travin Howard.

What we don't like: Gotta score in the Big 12. Kenny Hill and his receivers must be far more efficient.

22. North Carolina State

A big jump is possible after a seven-win season that featured four losses by a touchdown or less (including against Clemson and Florida State). This is a veteran team, featuring star defensive end Bradley Chubb, that could easily climb to nine victories while posting a marquee upset.

What we don't like: The Wolfpack plays in the ACC Atlantic.

23. Kansas State

A young Wildcats team won nine games last season and brings back dual-threat Jesse Ertz, who has as much moxie as any quarterback in the country. Coach Bill Snyder, coming off treatment for throat cancer, turns 78 during the season; this could be his best team since going 11-2 in 2012.

What we don't like: The second tier of the Big 12 is one big toss-up.

24. Washington State

Luke Falk is going to throw for 4,500 yards (again) and complete 70 percent of his passes (again), and we're going to assume that the Cougars won't lose a season-opening game to a lower-division opponent for the third consecutive season. Weird to say, but WSU's running backs are pretty good, too, in coach Mike Leach's Air Raid.

What we don't like: WSU has a deep group of receivers -- freshman Jamire Calvin has been drawing camp raves -- but none has the proven production of departed Gabe Marks and River Cracraft.

25. West Virginia

Former Florida quarterback Will Grier is an upgrade at quarterback, and running back Justin Crawford ran for 1,184 yards and better than 7 yards per carry last season. There is no glaring weakness for a team that won 10 games and lost to only Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in conference play last season.

What we don't like: A new three-man defensive line will be under constant fire in the Big 12.

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