Now that Alabama has once again validated its claim as college football’s biggest dynasty, it’s time for a peek at the potential Top 25 teams of 2018.
The Crimson Tide, of course, have been, are and will be the No. 1 program in the nation, until further notice. But where’s the fun in all that? And we’re curious. Has Alabama ever had a parade in Tuscaloosa? Probably not because Nick Saban wouldn’t want to take two hours away from recruiting.
So now that we’ve established it’s absolutely idiotic to put anyone besides Alabama at the top, we put Clemson at No. 1. If you can’t be bold in January, when can you?
Dabo Swinney might have the best team on paper. Possibly on the field as well, so we’ll take a flier on the Tigers just as we did in 2016. Hey, we got one right.
Last year, not so much. Went in January with Florida State, which looked awesome in pregame warmups against Alabama before it unraveled and lost six games, its quarterback, its head coach and its way. Don’t expect the Seminoles to stay down under Willie Taggart? Got them at No. 11.
Sure, Alabama captured the rubber match in the Sugar Bowl, winning decisively without the Tigers putting up much fight. We’re not exactly thrilled with the prospect of a fourth game between the two giants.
We do like variety and — for the sake of argument — would love to see a Big 12 team in the College Football Playoff. Not likely, however. West Virginia’s our highest-ranked team at No. 12, followed by Kansas State at 17, Oklahoma at 18 and Iowa State at 22.
Our surprise team? Jeff Brohm’s Purdue at No. 24.
Our missing teams? Nowhere to be found are USC, Notre Dame, LSU and Florida. Let ’em prove themselves.
Surprisingly low? The Sooners, despite great running backs and good receivers. Taking a risk there.
Surprisingly high? We threw UCF a bone at No. 8. A big bone.
But Clemson’s my No. 1.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant and the premier defensive line in all of college football failed to live up to expectations against Alabama, but all are back. Bryant returns to try to hold off Hunter Johnson and Trevor Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins and Clelin Farrell both decided against turning pro and are back to rejoin Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence up front.
Both Clemson and Alabama had five players defect to the NFL early, but the Tigers have a wealth of talent returning with running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, and reliable Hunter Renfrow, Amari Rodgers and Tee Higgins will avoid any drop-off at wide receiver despite Deon Cain’s exit. Brent Venables has linebacker Kendall Joseph back along with a well-stocked secondary that gave up just 16 touchdown passes and had 14 picks.
The Tide wasn’t decimated by the NFL draft but does have to make up for the losses of wide receiver Calvin Ridley; defensive tackle and Rose Bowl star Da’Ron Payne; the most versatile defensive back in the country, All-American Minka Fitzpatrick; running back Bo Scarbrough; and safety Ronnie Harrison.
All that leaves Saban with is his choice of quarterbacks: Jalen Hurts, a 26-2 starter, or sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, who simply turned Georgia upside down with a spectacular second half and a perfect strike on the final play of the CFP title game for Alabama’s fifth national championship in nine seasons.
Tagovailoa is a better passer than Hurts and has plenty of targets with receivers DeVonta Smith (who caught the winning pass in Atlanta), Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. Running back Damien Harris returns, backed up by Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, to run behind maybe the best line in the country.
On defense, the secondary needs a makeover, but linebackers Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses are back, and end Raekwon Davis has All-America potential.
Schedulewise, Alabama takes on Louisville and has just four true road games. Clemson plays Texas A&M in Week 2.
So there you have half of the CFP field for 2018.
The other half could well come from the Big Ten on the heels of that league’s dominance with a 7-1 bowl record. Only Michigan lost, falling to South Carolina. After missing the playoffs, the entire league is loaded, with seven ranked teams. Three teams are positioned for a great run, with Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 6, sandwiched around No. 5 Washington.
All three Big Ten teams are stout defensively.
All three have premier running attacks, from main Badger and 1,900-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor, to the two-headed Buckeye duo of Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, to Spartan L.J. Scott.
All have taxing schedules.
Rounding out the Top 10 are Georgia, Central Florida, Stanford and Miami. Central Florida?
The Bulldogs would be higher as the clear favorite in the SEC East, but they lost the best running back tandem in the nation, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and all three of their dynamite linebackers, including All-American Roquan Smith.
The Knights have a distant shot at another mythical title with the return of quarterback McKenzie Milton and a stable of running backs and receivers, but they have to overcome the loss of inspirational head coach Scott Frost and hope Josh Heupel has similar magic.
The Cardinal won the offseason lottery with the return of Heisman finalist Bryce Love, the top running back in the nation as well as four linemen but need more help defensively.
The Hurricanes dipped back in the past and are in the process of restoring their glory but lost a pair of linemen on both sides of the ball. Expect many more turnovers.
And except for Clemson and Bama, expect chaos in ’18.
Biggest plus: The most balanced team in the country with the best front four.
Biggest minus: QB inconsistency: Kelly Bryant’s not Deshaun Watson yet.
2018 schedule: At Texas A&M and Florida State, hosts South Carolina.
Biggest plus: Interchangeable QBs, relentless defense. What NFL draft?
Biggest minus: Nick Saban must break in two new coordinators.
2018 schedule: Only four true road games, and Louisville is toughest nonconference foe.
3. MICHIGAN STATE
Biggest plus: A great defense, including nine returning starters.
Biggest minus: QB Brian Lewerke still has to improve.
2018 schedule: Hosts Ohio State, Michigan.
Biggest plus: Stud RB Jonathan Taylor; the OL returns intact
Biggest minus: Front-seven losses on defense, with six seniors gone.
2018 schedule: Road slate at Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa.
Biggest plus: Jake Browning is the Pac-12’s top passer; Myles Gaskin’s a great RB.
Biggest minus: Saying goodbye to DT Vita Vea, a probable first-round pick, and WR Dante Pettis.
2018 schedule: Opens with Auburn in Atlanta.
6. OHIO STATE
Biggest plus: The nation’s best RB tandem (J.K. Dobbins, Mike Weber), and Nick Bosa paces a top defense.
Biggest minus: Has J.T. Barrett really left? Dwayne Haskins’ time is here.
2018 schedule: Travels to TCU, Penn State and Michigan State.
Biggest plus: QB Jake Fromm proved his mettle against Bama; RB D’Andre Swift is ready to take over.
Biggest minus: Said goodbye to three LBs, including Butkus winner Roquan Smith, and two star RBs.
2018 schedule: Hosts Auburn, travels to LSU.
8. CENTRAL FLORIDA
Biggest plus: McKenzie Milton’s the best QB no one knows, one of 13 starters back.
Biggest minus: Josh Heupel has to fill Scott Frost’s really large shoes.
2018 schedule: Faces Pitt, North Carolina, Florida Atlantic.
Biggest plus: Bryce Love, go to the front of the Heisman class with four OL back.
Biggest minus: The NFL’s taking half the secondary and DT Harrison Phillips.
2018 schedule: Goes to Washington, Oregon, Notre Dame.
Biggest plus: Pedigree, QB Malik Rosier and Mark Richt’s growing culture at Turnover U.
Biggest minus: Lost two bigs on both sides of the ball.
2018 schedule: Faces LSU in the opener, goes to Toledo.
11. FLORIDA STATE
Biggest plus: How long can the Noles really stay down? Deondre Francois will be a healthy QB, and RB Cam Akers is a 1,000-yard rusher.
Biggest minus: The Willie Taggart regime is an unknown quantity and two big-time DBs are gone.
2018 schedule: Away games vs. Miami, Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Louisville.
12. WEST VIRGINIA
Biggest plus: Will Grier is the Big 12’s reigning top QB, with loads of top WRs such as Gary Jennings Jr. and David Sills V, plus a solid OL.
Biggest minus: Defense needs to improve, especially the pass rush.
2018 schedule: Plays Tennessee, hosts Oklahoma, Kansas State.
13. BOISE STATE
Biggest plus: Will butt up against UCF as the best of the Group of Five. Back are QB Brett Rypien, 10 defensive starters.
Biggest minus: Lost top WR Cedric Wilson.
2018 schedule: Travels to Oklahoma State, LSU-killer Troy.
14. VIRGINIA TECH
Biggest plus: QB Josh Jackson had a strong year; the defensive front is solid.
Biggest minus: Must replace three starting OL and refurbish the ground game.
2018 schedule: Hosts Miami, Notre Dame.
15. PENN STATE
Biggest plus: QB Trace McSorley should be a Heisman candidate with a solid stable of WRs.
Biggest minus: How do you replace a Saquon Barkley? They just might. Lions also breaking in a new OC and bulk of the defense.
2018 schedule: Favorable with home games vs. Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State.
Biggest plus: Gus Malzahn, who knew how to beat two CFP finalists, has QB Jarrett Stidham returning.
Biggest minus: Said goodbye to two RBs, including Kenyon Johnson, and four OL.
2018 schedule: Must visit Alabama and Georgia.
17. KANSAS STATE
Biggest plus: Don’t ever sleep on Bill Snyer, who’ll turn 79 during the season. He’ll have two solid QBs (Alex Delton, Skylar Thompson), top DE Reggie Walker and S Denzel Goolsby.
Biggest minus: The kicker and punter spots are vacant.
2018 schedule: Hosts Mississippi State, goes to OU, West Virginia, Iowa State.
Biggest plus: A stable RB corps, good WRs and a leap of faith in freakishly athletic QB Kyler Murray.
Biggest minus: Must overcome the departures of Mr. Heisman (Baker Mayfield) and All-Americans at OT, TE and LB.
2018 schedule: Goes to Iowa, TCU and Oklahoma State and gets Texas in Dallas.
19. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Biggest plus: 16 starters return, including a pair of top CBs and recovering QB Nick Fitzgerald.
Biggest minus: Penn State OC Joe Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen as a rookie head coach.
2018 schedule: Travels to Alabama, LSU and Kansas State.
Biggest plus: Better than average defense, and RB Jeremy Larkin looms large.
Biggest minus: How does QB Clayton Thorson recover from his ACL injury in the bowl game?
2018 schedule: Visits Michigan State, hosts Wisconsin, Michigan and Notre Dame.
21. SOUTH CAROLINA
Biggest plus: Maybe Will Muschamp’s got this head coaching gig down after all.
Biggest minus: Must break in a new OC and get more production from third-year QB Jake Bentley.
2018 schedule: Faces Georgia in Week 2, hosts A&M, visits Clemson.
22. IOWA STATE
Biggest plus: David Montgomery returns as one of the Big 12’s best RBs.
Biggest minus: Can Matt Campbell regain momentum from wins over OU, TCU while replacing LB Joel Lanning and WR Allen Lazard?
2018 schedule: Goes to Iowa, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State.
Biggest plus: The Ducks won’t stay down for long under new coach Mario Cristobal and ascending QB Justin Herbert with some top WRs.
Biggest minus: The defense needs to keep maturing.
2018 schedule: Hosts Washington, Stanford, UCLA; skips USC.
Biggest plus: Taking a flier on rising star head coach Jeff Brohm, who won seven games and returns QB Elijah Sindelar.
Biggest minus: Has to reshape the defense.
2018 schedule: Opens with Northwestern, hosts Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Biggest plus: Expect no drop-off from all-star defense with DE Rashan Gray, LB Devin Bush.
Buggest minus: Calling Jim Harbaugh. Are you there? Do you have a quarterback?
2018 schedule: At Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame.
Just missed the Top 25 — Notre Dame, Missouri, Oklahoma State,Texas A&M, and USC.