We once thought in terms of Top 10s, Top 20s and, more recently, a Top 25. The advent of the College Football Playoff has reduced the sport’s pertinent number to four. In the game of — as the CFP’s slogan has it — “Who’s In?” is there a difference between being No. 5 and No. 25? (In bowl payouts, yes. In the grand scheme, no.)
This countdown offers three banks of teams — the 15 that will be pretty good but not good enough to matter, the six that will come close to mattering and the chosen four. In ascending order:
THE REST OF THE BEST
25. Auburn. The Tigers will finish fourth in the SEC West; Gus Malzahn will enjoy his buyout.
24. Miami. Manny Diaz agreed to replace Geoff Collins at Temple; he wound up replacing Mark Richt at the U.
23. Nebraska. The Cornhuskers started 0-6 under Scott Frost. A year later, they’re picked to win the Big Ten West.
22. Missouri. A chic choice to finish second in the SEC East. Third sounds more like it.
21. Virginia. Somebody has to win the ACC Coastal. Might as well be the one team that never has.
20. Syracuse. The Orange were a fourth-down stop from winning the ACC Atlantic and denying Clemson a national title.
19. Boise State. The annual disclaimer: As long as I’m doing a Top 25, the Broncos will be in it.
18. Iowa State. Long-suffering Cyclones have gone 8-5 in consecutive seasons under Matt Campbell.
17. Wisconsin. The Badgers’ run of four double-digit-win seasons was snapped. Bounce-back time.
16. Army. The Black Knights are 21-5 the past two seasons under Paul Johnson protégé Jeff Monken.
15. Washington. Chris Petersen tends to do well with quarterbacks. Now he has Jacob Eason.
14. Central Florida. The Knights haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2016. They’ll lose one this time.
13. Utah. The media’s preseason pick to win the Pac-12, which tells us much about the Pac-12.
12. LSU. The Tigers surprised me by being rather good last season. Did they convince me? No.
11. Oregon. For the Ducks and their sagging conference, much rides on the opener against Auburn.
10. Texas A&M. Here’s your new challenger to Alabama in the SEC West, and there are reasons to believe the Aggies will have a staying power that Auburn and LSU haven’t lately mustered. Given the requisite resources, Jimbo Fisher has proved he can win it all. (His 2013 Florida State Seminoles were the best team of the past decade, the Alabamas and Clemsons included.) A&M is based in a more fertile recruiting state that any SEC team save Florida. The catch is that the Aggies play a frightful schedule. They face Clemson, Georgia and LSU on the road and play Bama and Auburn in College Station. Still, going 2-3 in those games would merit a berth in the top 10, would it not?
9. Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish’s lopsided playoff loss to Clemson was met the way all postseason Irish losses are — as proof they weren’t as good as their record. But let’s not let a convenient narrative get in the way of facts. Brian Kelly has managed a course correction in South Bend, going 22-4 over the past two seasons. (Here’s where Southern voices harrumph, “Yeah, what would it have been in the SEC?”) But the Irish can never be discounted when the Irish have it going, and they do again. And we can’t say Notre Dame won’t be tested: It faces road dates against Georgia and Michigan, two teams we’ll discuss in a bit.
8. Oklahoma. Are all high-profile transfer quarterbacks created equal? That’s the question in Norman, which has seen Baker Mayfield (ex-Texas Tech) and Kyler Murray (ex-Texas A&M) bank consecutive Heisman Trophys under the tutelage of Lincoln Riley. Now comes Jalen Hurts, who was 26-2 as an Alabama starter but wound up playing behind Tua Tagovailoa. At issue is whether Hurts is as skilled a passer as Mayfield and Murray. (Note that both were the No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts.) The guess is that Hurts will be good enough to lift the Sooners to 11-2. The guess also is that two losses will bar them from the playoff.
7. Ohio State. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 5, tops among Big Ten teams, in the USA Today coaches’ poll. They were ranked No. 2 in their division by the Big Ten media. Those those closest to the scene may have a better grasp on reality, and the reality is that Ohio State is replacing Urban Meyer, among the greatest college coaches ever, with Ryan Day, whose record as a head coach comprises three games as a fill-in when Meyer was suspended. The reality is also that Dwayne Haskins, who finished third in Heisman voting, is being replaced at quarterback by Justin Fields, who couldn’t dislodge Jake Fromm at Georgia.
6. Florida. Opinions vary as to whether the Gators’ strong first season under Dan Mullen was a warning shot to the rest of the SEC or a red herring. Florida went 10-3, losing to the three best division opponents — Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia — it faced. Then again, the Gators finished with a flourish, routing Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. They could well drop their Orlando opener to Miami, and they’ll probably lose in Baton Rouge. But this correspondent believes they’ll beat Georgia in Jacksonville — that has happened before, as we know — and win the East on the strength of the tiebreaker. They won’t beat Alabama on Dec. 7, though.
5. Texas. Another eye-of-the-beholder team. On the one hand, the Longhorns lost four games last season. On the other, they smacked Georgia — which clearly wasn’t overly interested — in the Sugar Bowl. Was that game in New Orleans a sign that, as quarterback Sam Ehlinger said afterward, Texas is back? Or have we heard that Texas-is-back line too often to get fooled again? Let’s split the difference. Let’s say the Longhorns lose the Red River Shootout to Oklahoma but beat the Sooners in the Big 12 title tilt. Let’s say Texas also finishes with two losses. As Georgia fans know too well, no two-loss team has made the playoff.
THE FINAL FOUR
4. Michigan. It’s now-or-never time for the man in khakis. Jim Harbaugh has had three 10-win seasons over his first four at Michigan. That’s pretty good. He’s 0-4 against Ohio State — last year’s score was 62-39 — and hasn’t taken the Wolverines to the Big Ten championship. That’s not. If he can’t lift Michigan higher in a year where he has an incumbent quarterback (Shea Patterson, formerly of Ole Miss) and Ohio State has both a new coach and a new quarterback and November date in Ann Arbor, it might be time to head back to the NFL. Having whiffed the past two seasons, the Big Ten is desperate for another playoff. Here it is.
3. Georgia. The Bulldogs seethed last year when Notre Dame, which doesn’t play in a conference, made the playoff without having to endure a 13th game. One year earlier, Georgia cringed when it was beaten in the national championship game by Alabama, which hadn’t won the SEC West. This December should evoke no hedge-based hue and cry. Georgia will go 11-1, the loss coming against Florida, and will be rewarded for missing the SEC Championship game with a playoff berth. What goes around, comes around. This part, alas, will remain the same. The Bulldogs will put up a spirited semifinal fight against Alabama in Glendale, Ariz., and will, as ever, lose.
» UGA OPPONENTS: Vanderbilt | Murray State | Arkansas State | Notre Dame | Tennessee | South Carolina | Kentucky | Florida | Missouri | Auburn | Texas A&M | Georgia Tech
2. Alabama. The temptation to pronounce the Crimson Tide as at their end has been growing since Bama lost to Ole Miss in September 2015. (The Tide won 38-10 in Athens the next week and, come January, banked another national title.) Another round of staff upheaval swept through Tuscaloosa, though it’s unclear whether the departing assistants jumped or were pushed. Still in place: Heisman runner-up Tagovailoa; maybe the greatest collection of receivers in collegiate history, and Nick Saban, the greatest coach ever. Two things we know: The Tide will hit a wobble somewhere along the line, and they’ll still play for the national championship.
1. Clemson. What are the odds on going undefeated again? The USC of Carroll/Leinart/Ball couldn’t do it. Saban’s Bama has gone unbeaten only once. One loss in the SEC isn’t a playoff disqualifier; one loss in the ACC, which has become a one-team league, could be. Should Texas A&M upend Dabo Swinney’s men in Death Valley on Sept. 7, the tenor of the season would change. The Tigers still appear the nation’s best team — that’s why I’m picking them to — but the history of title-winners tripping over themselves a year later is chilling. Think USC in 2005, Alabama in 2010, Florida State in 2014, Ohio State in 2015. Just sayin’.
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