Why so high: The nation’s best quarterback — let’s start there. Superb running back in Wayne Gallman — that’s No. 2. Upgraded receiving corps — there’s No. 3. Also tremendous talent across the board and the confidence that comes from breaking through after years of just falling short.
What could go wrong: Last year’s success spawns overconfidence and the Tigers lose a game they shouldn’t. (They open at Auburn.) Or they lose to Florida State because the Oct. 29 game is in Tallahassee. Or Deshaun Watson gets hurt.
Why so high: Because the nation’s best program never really has a dip. (Blips, yes. Dips, no.) Because there’s more talent among Bama reserves than many Top 25 teams have in their starting 11s. Because Nick Saban … well, what’s left to say about King Crimson?
What could go wrong: Having a fourth different No. 1 quarterback in four years catches up with the Crimson Tide. Kirby Smart’s absence as defensive coordinator is felt. A difficult SEC road schedule reduces Alabama to second place in the West.
Why so high: The Wolverines will be huge favorites in their first seven games, meaning Jim Harbaugh will become the biggest story in college story. (He’s close as is.) For all the hype, Harbaugh did go 10-3 in Year 1 in Ann Arbor and nearly won a Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick.
What could go wrong: Michigan essentially plays a three-game season. All three games — Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State — are on the road. Going 2-1 could get the Wolverines into the Big Ten title game and the playoff. Going 1-2 won’t.
Why so high: A return-to-glory season ended with a thud against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but a lot went wrong for the Sooners that day. (Their two best backs got hurt.) This offense — with quarterback Baker Mayfield and coordinator Lincoln Riley — could be the nation’s best.
What could go wrong: With the tumult at Baylor, the uncertainty at Texas and the probable decline of TCU, the Big 12 is the Sooners’ to lose. One wobble — such as last year’s flop against Texas — in a diluted league might bar a one-loss Oklahoma from the playoff.
5. OHIO STATE
Why so high: Last year’s unanimous preseason No. 1 rarely reached peak capacity and finally lost to Michigan State, dooming the Buckeyes’ chance to repeat as champion. There’s not as much talent on hand, but there’s still enough. And the too-many-quarterbacks issue is moot.
What could go wrong: A Sept. 17 loss at Oklahoma indicates that Ohio State’s personnel losses were too heavy to fuel a playoff run. Replacing defensive coordinator Chris Ash proves prove as problematic as replacing offensive coordinator Tom Herman was last year.
6. FLORIDA STATE
Why so high: The Seminoles are coming off an unsatisfying 10-3 that included a bizarre loss at Georgia Tech and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl no-show against Houston. But they’re at worst the ACC’s second-most talented team, and they get Clemson at home.
What could go wrong: FSU stumbles in its Orlando opener against Ole Miss. Or it loses at Louisville on Sept. 17 or Miami on Oct. 8. Sean Maguire doesn’t seem the answer at quarterback, leaving Jimbo Fisher again scrambling to find a post-Jameis fix.
Why so high: If not now, when? The SEC East is there for the seizing: Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri have new coaches; Florida won the division, but lost its final three games. Butch Jones’ recruiting has garnered enough gifted players to end Tennessee’s time in the wilderness.
What could go wrong: Still unclear is whether this coach is capable of deliverance. Jones’ teams have lost so many close games and beaten so few worthy opponents that this Big Orange has become what Clemson was — not to be trusted.
8. NOTRE DAME
Why so high: Two-point losses at Clemson and Stanford kept Notre Dame out of last season’s playoff, and that was with quarterback Malik Zaire being lost in September with a broken ankle. DeShone Kizer stepped in and took the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl. They’re both back.
What could go wrong: The Fighting Irish flub their opener against Texas in the Meadowlands. A quarterback controversy ensues. The loss of receiver Will Fuller to the NFL renders the offense pedestrian. Brian Kelly’s urge to leave for an NFL job becomes palpable.
Why so high: Not impressed by a 7-6 record that began with a loss to Boise State? Look closer. The Huskies return 16 starters. Coach Chris Petersen, formerly of Boise State, has had two seasons to settle at UDub. As unsettled as the Pac-12 is, somebody has to win it.
What could go wrong: Washington’s returning starters turn out not to be good enough. Stanford comes to Seattle on Sept. 30 and wins, thereby laying claim to the Pac-12 North. The Huskies lose at Oregon the next week and again wind up in a fourth-tier bowl.
Why so high: In Tom Herman’s first season, he presided over a 13-1 season capped by a comprehensive dismissal of Florida State. Year 2 begins with a big-ticket opponent — Oklahoma in massive NRG Stadium. An upset there and the Cougars could well be playoff-bound.
What could go wrong: Houston is routed by the Sooners and the playoff talk yields to the reality of an undistinguished conference schedule the next burning question: Where’s Herman going to coach next season — at Texas or at Texas A&M?
Why so high: As ever, the Tigers’ talent is immense. For all the great backs in the nation — Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, FSU’s Dalvin Cook, Georgia’s Nick Chubb — Leonard Fournette is probably the best. LSU’s hire of Dave Aranda as defensive coordinator was inspired.
What could go wrong: The Tigers lose to Wisconsin, Aranda’s old employer, in their opener at Lambeau Field, and the furor over Les Miles rages anew. LSU’s inability to find a passing game to complement Fournette brings the Mad Hatter’s madhouse crashing down.
Why so high: Christian McCaffrey, who had 368 total yards against Iowa in the Rose Bowl, is the nation’s best all-around player. His ability to run and catch makes a rudimentary offense appear special, and his ability to return kicks churns out what coaches like to call “hidden yardage.”
What could go wrong: McCaffrey is only one guy, and he’ll be missing quarterback Kevin Hogan. Never a spectacular player, Hogan was 36-10 as Stanford’s starter. And the road schedule — at UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona — is oppressive.
Why so high: Nick Chubb returns from a torn ACL. Jacob Eason arrives on a wave of hype. Kirby Smart inherits a team that won 10 games and brings the Alabama Intensity to a program that had become known for losing a game or two every year it shouldn’t have.
What could go wrong: No quarterback distinguishes himself. Personnel deficiencies on defense undermine Smart’s defensive chops. Georgia loses back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Tennessee while Mark Richt’s Miami seizes control of the ACC Coastal.
Why so high: The Horned Frogs opened last season ranked No. 2. That they suffered so many injuries — and saw quarterback Trevone Boykin suspended for the Alamo Bowl — and wound up 11-2 was a credit to Gary Patterson’s coaching. This year they face Oklahoma in Fort Worth.
What could go wrong: Finding a full-time replacement for Boykin proves problematic. (Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is a candidate.) TCU loses home games to Arkansas on Sept. 10 and the aforementioned Sooners on Oct. 1 and never finds its footing.
15. BOISE STATE
Why so high: Coming off an un-Boise-like 9-4, the Broncos have a real chance to go undefeated. (Vegas sets their over/under on wins at 11.) They face two Pac-12 opponents in Washington State and Oregon State, neither of which is expected to be very good.
What could go wrong: Boise loses to Washington State and Oregon State. The issue of whether an undefeated team could be left out of the playoff is tabled before the committee even meets. Everybody forgets about the Broncos until next year.
16. OLE MISS
Why so high: Even if some folks still wonder how they do it, the Rebels keep recruiting at a high level. Per Rivals, this year’s class was Ole Miss’ second top-10 haul in four years. Chad Kelly is the SEC’s best passer. They play Alabama and Georgia in Oxford on consecutive Saturdays.
What could go wrong: The Rebels lose their opener to Florida State and go 0-2 against Bama and Georgia. Folks start wondering if Hugh Freeze can actually coach. Oxford is overrun by NCAA sleuths digging into Laremy Tunsil’s post-draft admission that he was paid to play.
Why so high: This will be Jim Mora’s fifth season in Westwood. By way of contrast, he lasted three seasons with the Falcons and one with the Seahawks. He has found a niche in the crowded L.A. marketplace and, in sophomore Josh Rosen, has one of the nation’s better quarterbacks.
What could go wrong: The Bruins drop September games at Texas A&M and BYU and then lose to Stanford in Pasadena. It’s noted that, after consecutive 10-3 seasons, Mora’s 2015 team was 8-5 and lost to USC for the first time. His expiration date might be nigh.
Why so high: Much scrutiny was paid the Hawkeyes as they rose to 12-0 last season without beating an opponent of consequence. (They finished 12-2.) Something similar could happen again: They should be favored in every game until they meet Michigan on Nov. 12.
What could go wrong: Frankly, not much. Iowa opens against Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State. The first three road games are at Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue. Even if the Hawkeyes are upset by North Dakota State, it’s hard to imagine them not winning 10 games.
19. MICHIGAN STATE
Why so high: After Saban and Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio might be the nation’s third-best coach. He won the Big Ten by beating both Michigan and Ohio State on the road. He’s 65-16 with three Big Ten titles over the past six seasons, and he never has a top-10 recruiting class.
What could go wrong: The Spartans return only 10 starters from last season’s playoff team. Among the losses is quarterback Connor Cook, who was 23-2 against Big Ten opposition as a starter. Nobody coaches ’em up like Dantonio, but even he might not get 10 wins this time.
20. SAN DIEGO STATE
Why so high: Remember us saying Boise State could go unbeaten? Here’s one reason why it might not. The Aztecs won the Mountain West last season and look even stronger now. The official Playoff Buster game could well be the Mountain West title tilt.
What could go wrong: The Aztecs lose to California in Week 2, are beaten at Northern Illinois and then lose at South Alabama. The 1-3 start doesn’t preclude them from winning the West Division, but it does take the luster off a promising season.
Why so high: Mark Richt won the SEC in his second Georgia season; it would be no shock if he won the Coastal in his first season at his alma mater. With the Bulldogs, he had to wait for redshirt freshman David Greene to ripen. With the Hurricanes, he inherits Brad Kaaya.
What could go wrong: The talent at the “U” isn’t to be confused with what Richt inherited from Jim Donnan in Athens. The schedule includes Notre Dame on the road and Florida State in Miami Gardens. But there’s also a trip to Bobby Dodd Stadium, where Richt is undefeated.
Why so high: Actually, this should be “why so low.” And you know why: Because Baylor fired coach Art Briles over the summer after an investigation revealed that the program, defying the laws of civility, had established a culture where sexual assault was seen as no big deal.
What could go wrong: Jim Grobe, who led Wake Forest to the 2006 ACC title, replaced Briles. How will Briles’ assistants and players respond to the temperamentally different new man? It’s hard to imagine the Bears will win as big as they might have under Briles. But really, who cares?
Why so high: The third-best team in the Atlantic Division might well be the third-best team in the whole ACC. Bobby Petrino’s team started 0-3 last season but wound up 8-5, finding a quarterback in Lamar Jackson along the way. Todd Grantham’s men finished 18th nationally in total defense.
What could go wrong: Once past Clemson on Oct. 3, the Cardinals should be favored in every game except a Nov. 17 date at Houston. Given that schedule, anything less than 9-3 — and maybe even 10-2 — should be seen as a disappointment.
Why so high: The West Coast’s flagship program is working under its third head coach — fourth if you count Ed Orgeron’s interim stint — since 2013. That’s not a positive. But Clay Helton cannot help but bring more stability to Troy than Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian did.
What could go wrong: The Trojans get rolled by Alabama in their opener and go 0-3 on the road against Stanford, Washington and UCLA. They lose the season finale to Notre Dame. That would make for 7-5 at best, which could lead USC elders to believe Helton isn’t the guy, either.
25. NORTH CAROLINA
Why so high: After years of underachieving, the Tar Heels were 11-1 in the regular season and gave Clemson a run in the ACC title game. Gene Chizik, fired by Auburn two years after winning a BCS title, rendered Carolina’s famously porous defense a bit stouter.
What could go wrong: Without quarterback Marquis Williams, last season turns out to have been a mirage. The Heels, who beat nobody of note, yielded 645 yards rushing to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl. If fully healthy, Georgia’s Chubb might go for 300 on Sept. 3.
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