In news that surely will stun the college football world, the Tide and Seminoles top ESPN’s preseason Power Rankings. The 1-2 matchup on Sept. 2 adds even more spice to a contest featuring mentor and protégé (Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, respectively), two dynamic young quarterbacks (FSU’s Deondre Francois and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts) and the two best defensive backs in the country (Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James).
Check out the rest of the preseason forecast below, compiled by the following ESPN voters: Andrea Adelson, Edward Aschoff, Anthony Becht, Rece Davis, Heather Dinich, Dusty Dvoracek, Brad Edwards, Chris Fallica, Mike Golic Jr., Brock Huard, Chris Low, Tom Luginbill, Ivan Maisel, Ryan McGee, Adam Rittenberg, Mark Schlabach and Seth Walder.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: There are questions with this roster, but it’s still hard to move Alabama off of the top line. The run game is loaded with Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and others, and if Hurts blossoms as a passer under new coordinator Brian Daboll, Alabama will pile up points. The defensive front seven is worth monitoring after several significant departures, but Alabama still returns arguably the nation’s best defender, Fitzpatrick.
2. Florida State Seminoles: After an encouraging finish to a turbulent 2016 season, Florida State is poised for a College Football Playoff push. The defense’s late-season emergence in 2016 bodes well, as multiple starters return at all three levels, along with the best player, James, returning from injury. FSU will lean more on sophomore Francois, whose poise under pressure wowed Fisher. The Seminoles can make a major statement in the opener against Alabama.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes: The talent and coaching are there, but Ohio State’s forecast is understandably murky. The last time we saw the Buckeyes, their offense failed to score as Urban Meyer suffered the first big-stage embarrassment of his coaching career. Meyer brought in Kevin Wilson to boost the offense, which has more experience one the line and at wide receiver. Ohio State also has the nation’s deepest defensive line. A Week 2 showdown with Oklahoma will reveal plenty, especially about the offense.
4. USC Trojans: Clay Helton and his players are embracing the national title talk after a blistering finish to the 2016 season. Picked to win the Pac-12, the Trojans have the ingredients to reach their first playoff. Heisman Trophy front-runner Sam Darnold leads an offense that should electrify despite new faces at receiver. The defense looked great for most of Pac-12 play and returns a strong core at linebacker, highlighted by Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.
5. Clemson Tigers: Dabo Swinney’s roster is reinforced with enough top-shelf talent to limit any major backslides, but losing the greatest player in team history — quarterback Deshaun Watson — will test the defending national champions. All eyes will be on Kelly Bryant and his challengers this preseason, but whoever plays quarterback inherits a solid line and another deep crop of receivers. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence lead one of the nation’s best defensive fronts.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions: There should be zero surprise if Penn State follows last year’s Big Ten championship with another league title push, and perhaps more. Fourth-year coach James Franklin has recruited most of the roster, including one of the nation’s best backfield tandems, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. Penn State still must improve along the line of scrimmage. If the Lions defend Beaver Stadium, the Big Ten again might come down to the Penn State-Ohio State game.
7. Oklahoma Sooners: It’s rare when a Hall of Fame coach steps down in June and his team’s promising outlook barely changes. Bob Stoops wanted Lincoln Riley set up to succeed, and Riley inherits the Big 12’s best roster, led by record-setting quarterback Baker Mayfield and an offensive line that returns intact. There are concerns, such as defensive line and running back, and Oklahoma will be tested away from home against Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas.
8. Washington Huskies: The Huskies surprisingly got a taste of the playoff in 2016. “Now we want the full meal,” linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. The talent is there, especially on an offense led by junior quarterback Jake Browning. Washington needs Bierria, Azeem Victor, Vita Vea and others to help offset some key losses on defense. Picked to win the Pac-12 North, few would be surprised if the Huskies repeat as league champions.
9. Wisconsin Badgers: After winning 21 games in Paul Chryst’s first two seasons as coach, the Badgers are in familiar territory — a very good team with a chance to be great. No Ohio State and Penn State — and playing Michigan at home — means Wisconsin could be favored in every regular-season game. Former Wisconsin All-American Jim Leonhard oversees another talented defense. The run game is worth watching, as the Badgers lack a clear featured back.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys: Who was the last mullet-wearing coach to raise the national championship trophy? Mike Gundy turns 50 on Aug. 12, and he’s having more fun than ever as he brings back what could be his best Pokes team. Quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington lead a dynamic passing attack, and Justice Hill provides balance in the run game. Oklahoma State hosts Bedlam and faces a more manageable non-league slate than Oklahoma or Texas.
11. Auburn Tigers: If Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham gives the Tigers the quarterback boost they’ve lacked the past two years, Auburn could become Alabama’s primary challenger in the SEC West. If not, coach Gus Malzahn could be looking for work soon. Auburn has the run game and the makeup on defense, especially up front and at cornerback, to hold its own in every game. Stidham draws top reviews from coaches but must deliver against elite defenses, beginning with Clemson in Week 2.
12. LSU Tigers: Ed Orgeron has told everyone to geaux away this preseason, perhaps to give a new offense as much of a surprise element as possible. No SEC program has more top-end talent to compete with Alabama, but the Tigers’ offense can’t simply be Derrius Guice carrying the ball. Matt Canada has reshaped offenses at several programs, and if he can give LSU a schematic edge it lacked, look out in the Bayou.
13. Michigan Wolverines: Remove the team name and the head coach. Then review the depth chart. You can see why Michigan isn’t higher in our preseason rankings. Nine wins is reasonable, 10 wins superb. But Michigan expects more under Jim Harbaugh, especially as the program’s two major droughts (Big Ten title and beating Ohio State) linger. Harbaugh has recruited well enough to fill many of the gaps, but the Wolverines face a difficult schedule away from Ann Arbor.
14. Florida Gators: The quarterback competition will be fascinating the next few weeks as Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire pushes presumed front-runner Feleipe Franks. Quarterback is clearly the missing piece for a team with good depth at the skill spots. The defense turns over quite a bit, and an offseason injury to safety Marcell Harris creates another void. Florida hasn’t gained much respect despite consecutive SEC East titles. It can earn some by beating Michigan in the opener.
15. Stanford Cardinal: It’s dangerous to make assumptions in the Pac-12, and Stanford could blow up the one already advancing Washington and USC into the league title game. The Cardinal faces both and, until last year in Seattle, had given both opponents problems. Christian McCaffrey is gone, but speedy successor Bryce Love will operate behind an improved line. Stanford is solid on defense, especially the back seven, but needs much more from the quarterback spot.
16. Miami Hurricanes: The first step toward regaining national relevancy is winning the ACC Coastal Division, which has inexplicably eluded Miami until now. The Hurricanes have the division’s most exciting roster, featuring sophomores such as Shaquille Quarterman, Ahmmon Richards, Michael Pinckney and Joe Jackson. Quarterback is the big question mark, but freshman N’Kosi Perry might be the answer. We’ll learn a lot about Miami during a tricky early stretch (at Arkansas State, at Florida State, Toledo).
17. Georgia Bulldogs: The Bulldogs and preseason hype usually don’t mix, which is why they’re here in the rankings. Still, Kirby Smart deserves a chance to meet expectations, which he embraces in his second year. Georgia has the best combination of experience and talent in the SEC East, and quarterback Jacob Eason should blossom as a second-year starter. If the Bulldogs improve their play in crunch time, they could be making the short trip to Atlanta on Dec. 1.
18. Louisville Cardinals: It’s hard to remember a preseason in which an incumbent Heisman Trophy winner received less buzz than Lamar Jackson has in recent weeks. Let’s not forget what Jackson can do when given room to operate. Louisville’s offensive line was a mess late last season, but if new position coach Mike Summers develops the group, the Cardinals will factor in the ACC race. Cornerback Jaire Alexander gives new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon a dynamic playmaker.
19. Kansas State Wildcats: There’s the sentimental storyline of Kansas State balling out for coach Bill Snyder, the 77-year-old icon recovering from throat cancer. There’s also the practical narrative: A deep and dynamic offense gives Kansas State the chance to make a strong push in the Big 12. The Wildcats lose Jordan Willis, Dante Barnett and others from a defense that finished 2016 well, but there’s enough to rebound and contend in every game.
20. Texas Longhorns: Tom Herman can win right away in Austin, especially if his quarterbacks stay healthy and the defense makes moderate strides. While Shane Buechele might not seamlessly fit Herman’s scheme, the offense has enough talent to score. New coordinator Todd Orlando will lean on players such as Poona Ford and P.J. Locke to get the defense going. A Week 3 trip to USC will show something. A taxing October stretch — Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State — will show even more.
21. South Florida Bulls: Charlie Strong inherits the turnkey team at USF that he never had at Texas. The Bulls boast one of the nation’s most explosive players, dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers. Strong needs to upgrade the defense, but he has plenty of veteran players, such as playmaking cornerback Deatrick Nichols and tackling machine Auggie Sanchez. A manageable non-league schedule and no Memphis during the regular season make 11 or 12 wins realistic for USF.
22. Virginia Tech Hokies: A return to Beamer Ball is possible in Justin Fuente’s second season, as the Hokies will lean on defense and special teams while the offense goes through a personnel overhaul. An excellent linebackers group and secondary should keep Virginia Tech in every game, but Fuente will have to work wonders on offense with few assurances other than receiver Cam Phillips. A tough schedule features West Virginia, an ACC crossover with Clemson and Miami on the road.
23. TCU Horned Frogs: Greater consistency is the goal, and TCU should expect more on defense, as Travin Howard headlines an experienced back seven. Quarterback Kenny Hill is a wild card after throwing 13 interceptions last season, but he has help with versatile running back Kyle Hicks and a seasoned line. A road schedule featuring Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Arkansas looks daunting, but TCU has a solid roster that should produce better results in close games.
24. Washington State Cougars: It’s tough to scrub Washington State’s feeble finish to 2016 from memory, but the Cougars are another team to watch in the loaded Pac-12 North. Mike Leach finally has some experience, and not just with Luke Falk, who has seemingly quarterbacked on the Palouse for decades. There’s excellent pass-run balance on offense, and if Peyton Pelluer, Hercules Mata’afa and others maintain the trajectory on defense, Washington State will be tough to beat.
25. West Virginia Mountaineers: Once upon a time, Will Grier was the best young quarterback in the SEC, primed to lead Florida for many seasons. Now he’s trying to redeem himself at West Virginia. If Grier stays healthy, the Mountaineers have enough talent around him to challenge defenses every week. West Virginia’s own defense, meanwhile, faces great uncertainty, especially with linebacker David Long sidelined through at least September. If coordinator Tony Gibson works his magic, WVU should challenge the Oklahoma schools.