This early-bird special bears a different look. For two years running, the reigning national champ — Florida State coming off 2013, Ohio State after last season — has been the easy choice as next season’s No. 1. Well, there’s an easy choice for 2016, and it’s not crowned-again Alabama.
1. Clemson. Don’t start me talking about Deshaun Watson, else we’ll be here until next January. He’s from Gainesville, Fla. He’ll be a junior. He’ll be the best player in college football, same as he was at the end of this season. The Tigers showed us how fruitful their recruiting has been by coming within an eyelash of a national title in a season that saw them return two starting offensive/defensive linemen. This is a program built to last.
2. Alabama. Speaking of lasting, the Crimson Tide have averaged 12 1/4 victories over the past eight seasons. Bama must replace quarterback Jake Coker and Heisman Trophy holder Derrick Henry, not to mention defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. But if we’ve learned anything over those eight seasons, it’s that there’s always another recruit or assistant coach coming along. The only indispensable man in Tuscaloosa is Nick Saban.
3. Michigan. I confess that I’m weary of the Jim Harbaugh hype, but the Wolverines did deliver a 10-win season against a daunting-by-Big-Ten-standards schedule and were unlucky not to go 12-1. Harbaugh replaced D.J. Durkin, the coordinator under whom Michigan’s defense finished No. 4 nationally and who left for Maryland, with Don Brown, the coordinator under whom Boston College’s defense finished first.
4. Baylor. Apart from Watson’s play against Bama — don’t get me started — the most astonishing performance of the postseason was authored by the Bears, who were missing their Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, the nation’s best receiver and a 1,000 rusher. They amassed 756 yards, 645 of them rushing, against North Carolina. Both quarterbacks figure to be back, which means Art Briles will again be able to call pass plays.
5. Tennessee. This might seem a tad high, but the Volunteers were 9-4 against another brutal schedule. The four losses came by a total of 17 points, and two were against teams that qualified for the playoff. Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta could be the SEC’s best quarterback. Butch Jones’ decision to replace defensive coordinator John Jancek with Penn State DC Bob Shoop was maybe the biggest upgrade of the offseason.
6. Florida State. For three season, Clemson was a very good team trapped in a division with an excellent FSU team. Cleats are on the other feet, as it were. Forget the mailed-in bowl loss to Houston. Jimbo Fisher again has a quarterback in Sean Maguire. Tailback Dalvin Cook is tremendous. The ACC Atlantic will again come down to Clemson-versus-FSU, but I’m not picking against — have I mentioned him already? — Watson.
7. Stanford. If (that name again) Watson figures to be the nation’s best player, where’s Christian McCaffery? Um, second-best? Second-best in what figures to be a really great season, like the 1982 Herschel/Elway/Dickerson/Marino year? McCaffery is so omnipresent that the Cardinal quarterback doesn’t have to be another Elway, which is good. Kevin Hogan, a four-year starter, finally exhausted his eligibility.
8. Houston. The backstage talk throughout the postseason was of Tom Herman, who many figured would take his 13-1 rookie season as head coach and bolt upward. He spurned all overtures, South Carolina most notably, and is back to consolidate the gains made in that bowl rout of FSU. This is the non-Power Five team most apt to crash the playoff, but it better hurry. Speculation holds that Herman could be coaching Texas or Texas A&M come 2017.
9. Oklahoma. The Sooners crashed the playoff with a spirited closing run. They have a fine quarterback in Baker Mayfield and splendid runners in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. So why this low? Because the 37-17 loss to Clemson hinted Oklahoma’s return to eminence might have been because of more than a dollop of luck. In that closing run, it didn’t face the No. 1 quarterback for TCU, Baylor or Oklahoma State. It did face Watson. The end.
10. LSU. Leonard Fournette? Another great player. Might have won the Heisman over Henry and McCaffery and Watson had he not slammed into Smart’s Alabama defense. Smart won’t be coaching that defense this season, and the game will be in Baton Rouge. Coordinator Dave Aranda, who oversaw the nation’s No. 2 defense at Wisconsin, is an improvement over Kevin Steele, who left for Auburn. But the Tigers still need a quarterback.
11. Ohio State. The Buckeyes have lost nine starters early to the NFL. They keep quarterback J.T. Barrett, who finished the season as the starter, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan of Hinesville. Urban Meyer also is sticking around.
12. Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish came lose to an undefeated regular season, falling by two points apiece at Clemson and Stanford. That was without quarterback Malik Zaire, lost to injury in Week 2. He’ll be back this season.
13. Oregon. Here’s the line of demarcation in this Top 25. The teams listed above look strong. The next 13 appear less imposing. The Ducks are an example. They won nine games, but blew a 31-point bowl lead and will again have a new quarterback.
14. Michigan State. As will Michigan State, Connor Cook being gone. In a backhanded way, the 38-0 playoff loss to Alabama proved how good a coach Mark Dantonio is. The Spartans’ talent is never anything special, but they always win 10 games.
15. TCU. The Horned Frogs entered last season as the team most apt to unseat Ohio State. They led the nation in major injuries and still won 11 games, which tells us something. But quarterback Trevone Boykin must be replaced.
16. Louisville. Nobody much noticed, but the Cardinals bled an 8-5 record out of a season that started with losses to Auburn, Houston and Clemson. In Lamar Jackson, Bobby Petrino found a quarterback. Petrino does well when he has a quarterback.
17. USC. An awful season ended badly. Under interim coach Clay Helton, the Trojans lost three of their final four to finish 8-6. An interim coach no longer, Helton should bring stability to a program in dire need of same.
18. Ole Miss. If not for a wild Arkansas lateral in overtime, the Rebels — not Alabama — would have made the SEC title game. Ole Miss loses a slew of big-name players, but Hugh Freeze keeps outperforming recruiting expectations.
19. Iowa. All year, folks lampooned the Hawkeyes’ regular-season schedule. Still, Iowa came within a last-gasp Michigan State drive of making the playoff, and guess what? The 2016 schedule doesn’t look all that much tougher.
20. UCLA. On the one hand, Jim Mora had the nation’s best freshman quarterback in Josh Rosen. On the other, the Bruins lost five games — including an inexplicable bowl loss against 5-7 Nebraska. Let that be a lesson for our next team, which is …
21. Georgia. Smart replaces Mark Richt. Nick Chubb is set to return, which should make things easier for the heralded recruit Jacob Eason. For the record, Bulldogs were 8-5 when Matthew Stafford was a freshman. Just sayin’.
22. North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost to South Carolina, which was 3-9, in their opener. They won the next 11. Then they lost to Clemson and were annihilated by Baylor. Now they must replace quarterback Marquise Williams. They open against Georgia in the Georgia Dome.
23. Washington State. Just when you thought Mike Leach, formerly of Texas Tech, had flamed out in Pullman, his Cougars were 9-4 and beat Oregon, Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State. Was that a blip? (Wazzu also lost to Portland State.)
24. Oklahoma State. On Nov. 16, the Cowboys were 10-0 and ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press. Then quarterback Mason Rudolph got hurt. They didn’t win again. Rudolph will return, which should help the Stillwater cause.
25. Miami. Why not? Mark Richt gets a fresh start with a proven quarterback in Brad Kaaya. Hiring Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator was inspired. The ACC Coastal is again in flux. Best of all, the ‘U’ doesn’t play Deshaun Watson’s team.