Drive any direction out of downtown Atlanta and soon you’ll find a college football program with championship aspirations in 2018. Nothing new, I know, but never have Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Auburn collectively been regarded so highly this time of year.
Alabama, Clemson and Georgia are ranked one-two-three in the preseason AP poll and Auburn is No. 9. This is the first time all four teams are ranked in the top 10 of the preseason poll, which began in 1950. Only twice were at least three of those teams ranked in the preseason top 10: 2015 (Clemson was No. 15) and 1984 (Georgia was unranked).
Polls are nice, but I prefer using betting markets to gauge public expectations. In that spirit, I looked at the regular-season season win totals (over/under) for Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Auburn and predicted how they’ll finish.
That reminds me: don’t forget to enter the AJC’s college football pick ‘em contest.
(Win totals via MGM Race & Sports Book as of Friday)
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Win total: 11
The Crimson Tide have gone undefeated during the regular season only twice in Nick Saban’s 11 seasons. Saban is breaking in two more coordinators again, and the secondary is green and thin. He may have to manage a rare quarterback controversy.
But, as always, Alabama is stacked on both lines. There are plenty of elite recruits to replace departed skill players, including current Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Alabama again should be able to run the ball effectively against pretty much any opponent.
Alabama figures to big favorites in nine of its games. The Tide should be at least slightly favored at LSU and at home vs. Mississippi State and Auburn.
Alabama is still Alabama, but even some of Saban’s great teams didn’t win every game. It’s hard to do. The Crimson Tide will stumble once in 12 games, then face their toughest test of the year vs. Georgia in the SEC Championship game.
No. 2 Clemson Tigers
Win total: 11
Clemson won the 2016 national championship with quarterback DeShaun Watson. After he left to be picked 12th overall in the NFL draft, the Tigers won the ACC and went back to the CFP semifinals. It was Clemson’s third straight season with at least 12 victories.
The Tigers are winning big consistently with coach Dabo Swinney. Their chances of continuing that trend were boosted when star defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant decided to skip the draft. Clemson’s defense is talented and deep, and coordinator Brent Venables may be the best.
The defense has been so good that Clemson usually gets away with playing it safe on offense. The running game is always reliable. If the Tigers decide to take more chances, freshman Trevor Lawrence could supplant Kelly Bryant at quarterback.
The Tigers are serious national-championship contenders and the schedule is favorable. Still, I think their tendency to slow play games against inferior opponents will trip them up for one loss.
No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs
Season win total: 10.5
As noted previously, it’s significant that Georgia is ranked in the top five despite a lot of talent departing. Among them are tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and SEC defensive player of the year Roquan Smith. There also are questions in the secondary.
Yet the experts expect the Bulldogs to fill the holes and keep rolling. I agree.
There are more potential star tailbacks in waiting, like always. The receiving corps is stacked, too. There’s no reason to believe quarterback Jake Fromm won’t be better from the start after he finished last season strong. His line also should be better.
It may take time for Georgia’s defense to figure things out. The Bulldogs should have that luxury because they’ll play only one good offensive team, Missouri, over the first six weeks (and the Tigers don’t have the defense to keep up)
The Bulldogs face a tough test at LSU on Oct. 13 and at home vs. Auburn on Nov. 10. They may lose one of those, but they will handle the rest of the schedule for 11 victories.
No. 9 Auburn
Season win total: 9
A resurgent season for Auburn prompted the school to give coach Gus Malzahn a contract extension in December. The expectation is that the Tigers are back. That may be true, but even if Auburn is good again, another demanding schedule means it could slip after earning 10 victories in 2017.
No doubt Auburn has plenty of talent. The defense should be elite for the third year in a row. The offense hasn’t been great often enough but, if he can fix the line, Malzahn can work with quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
But there’s still that schedule. The Tigers play at Alabama and Georgia this year after beating both last regular season. The Tigers also are at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. They have a difficult opener against Washington on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Auburn loses four games.