Classes at colleges and universities around the country are back in session, and with the smell of freshly cut grass and new lines painted on the field, college football is back with it. Last season gave us the best College Football Playoff since its inception back in 2015, with The University of Alabama winning its fifth National Championship in nine years, defeating The University of Georgia in overtime. The win also gave Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban his sixth national championship in his coaching career, tying him with another legendary Alabama head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant for most National Championships won as a head coach.
With teams gearing up for their first opponent in almost 8 months, and week one kickoff just 10 days away we’re going to take a look at the teams who I believe will be in the College Football playoff at the end of season and where they will be ranked.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
It’s no surprise to anyone why I have Alabama as the number 1 team on this list. A Nick Saban coached team always has a shot to contend and this season is no different. The quarterback position is this team's biggest question mark coming into the season. Not necessarily who will be the starting quarterback, but what production will they get out of the quarterback position. The reality is, Tua Tagovailoa has not played enough games to show he can be consistently good and pick up in areas it was clear Jalen Hurts was lacking in. It was obvious to anyone watching that towards the end of the season, Hurts was a liability on offense. However during the offseason, Alabama brought in quarterbacks coach Dan Enos who has worked with Hurts on his ability to throw the ball down field, a trait that plagued him towards the end of last season. There is no denying what Tagovailoa did in the biggest game of the season last year takes a lot of skill, but for me to be convinced Alabama has a legitimate number one quarterback, he needs to show that production over a full season with teams putting their whole defensive game plan around him. If Hurts wants any shot at starting under center this season for the Crimson Tide he needs to have improved immensely on his passing abilities and be capable of hitting receivers all over the field.
A key for the success of Tagovailoa or Hurts this season will be the run game, to alleviate some of that pressure off the passing game. Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris (no relation to Najee) will all see touches this season and were all effective pieces on the ground last season as well. The Tide did however lose last seasons number one back Bo Scarbrough to the NFL draft.
Protecting the quarterback and creating those running lanes is the Alabama front five who are returning 4 of its 5 starters from a year ago. However, the Tide did lose a key player Friday as starting right tackle Matt Womack broke a bone in his foot which required surgery and will sideline him for several weeks according to ESPN. With a lefty quarterback in Tagovailoa as a possible starter, Womack protected his blindside, expect Louisville to attack Womack’s replacement, sophomore Jedrick Wills, if Tagovailoa gets the nod in week one.
Oh yeah, lets not forget about the Alabama defense, which again, has the tools to be one of the top defenses in college football. Guys like Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs getting after the quarterback and stuffing the run from their defensive line spots, and Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson plugging up rushing lanes at the linebacker position. The biggest question the Alabama defense has is the secondary and who will replace players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, who were a big part to the success of the Crimson Tide defense a season ago. Expect teams to take some deep shots early in the season to test those DB’s out.
With a rather weak out of conference schedule, and an SEC West that looks to be a two horse race, and an Iron Bowl played on home turf, it would be no shock if Alabama ends the regular season a perfect 13-0 heading into the College Football Playoff.
2. Clemson Tigers
The Clemson Tigers, fresh off a 12 win season and third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance have only gotten stronger from a season ago. The Tigers are boasting quite possibly the best defensive line in the country, with the likes of Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins, a group who, a season ago allowed just FIVE rushing touchdowns, which lead the nation. Both Ferrell and Lawrence are projected first round draft picks in the 2019 NFL Draft according to 24/7Sports. The Tigers also added two five star recruits to that already dominate defensive line in Xavier Thomas of IMG Academy and KJ Henry of North Carolina.
Clemson ended last season 2nd in Defensive S&P, (S&P calculates a team's efficiency and success rate, relative to the game time situation.) finishing only behind Alabama. Outside of the front five, the Tigers have some question marks on defense, mainly in the secondary. They lost last years starting safety Van Smith to the NFL, and while they do have returning faces, their spot is not guaranteed. As of now the cornerback spot is still up for grabs and could feature veterans like junior Trayvon Mullen, who had 3 picks a season ago, and sophomore A.J. Terrell who, as a freshman made an impact defensively tallying one interception and seven pass breakups. On the flip side senior Mark Fields is still in contention for the job following a season where he missed 6 games due to a foot injury.
The Tigers offense is the focal point of the team this season, returning Heisman hopeful quarterback Kelly Bryant who a season ago, threw for 2,800 yards with 13 touchdowns, and added 11 more scores on the ground. Bryant is the heart and soul of this Tigers offense and depending on the season he has, Clemson might be the runaway favorite to win the National Championship by December.
The Clemson offense is returning a lot of depth in the likes of players such as local hero Hunter Renfrow, who caught the game winning touchdown pass in the final second of the 2017 National Championship game. A catch that secured the schools second ever National Title. Renfrow last season accounted for 60 catches for 602 yards and 3 touchdowns and along with Bryant, will be the veteran leadership on the offense.
In the same light as Alabama, Clemson has a rather easy road to this point playing in a very weak ACC Atlantic division, that ended last season with just 2 teams over .500 in conference play. Clemson showed their dominance in the ACC Championship Game last season against a Miami team who they will most likely see again in that same spot this year. With that rather soft schedule, I again would not be surprised seeing the Tigers walk into the National Semifinal with a perfect 13-0 record.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
The Georgia Bulldogs are entering the season off a crushing defeat to the Alabama Crimson Tide in last year's championship game, losing 26-23 in overtime. A game that saw one of the best defenses in college football, get exposed by a true freshman. The Bulldogs, like the first two teams, have a very favorable schedule to get them into the college football playoff with their one true test coming at home against Auburn.
There are a lot of similarities between the top 3 teams on this list but Georgia stands out because they will be the only team here that does not win their conference. While Jake Fromm looks to improve on his stellar freshman campaign where he racked up 2,615 yards with 24 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, he has lost two key pieces that made him so successful a season ago. The three headed monster he had last season of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift has been trimmed down to just D’Andre Swift, as Michel and Chubb were both drafted back in April. Much like what I said about the Alabama quarterback situation, I believe that the success of Jake Fromm last season had a lot to do with the confidence they had in the running game, and not relying on a young arm to carry the team. D’Andre Swift showed last season he has the potential of being a very good back in this league, collecting 618 rushing yards as a 3rd string running back.
Georgia, however, has a three headed monster at a different position on offense; wide receiver. Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley all played different roles in helping out Fromm a season ago, and being back and matured is what makes this Georgia offense pretty scary. Hardman and Godwin will give Fromm a safety net to dump quick drags off to as well as finding them over the middle of the field, something he did often last year, and Ridley, much like his brother Calvin, will give Fromm a vertical threat down field. To put a bow on their offense, tight end Isaac Nauta, standing 6’4” 240 pounds will be Fromm’s go to down on the goal line.
The Dogs defensive unit looks to be as solid as it was a season ago, ranking 5th in the NCAA in yards allowed per game (293) and 4th in opponents points per game (15.8). It starts with the big boys up front in Jonathan Ledbetter and Tyler Clark plugging up running lanes and getting to the quarterback, an area they were middle of the pack on a season ago, averaging 2.27 sacks per game which was 48th in the NCAA.
The Dogs also have to replace former linebacker Roquan Smith, who was drafted 8th overall to the Chicago Bears. Smith played a pivotal role on the defense last year and acted as the unites captain, leading them to the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Replacing Smith at the helm of the defense this year will be cornerback Deandre Baker who looks to be a top NFL draft pick himself. Baker a season ago recorded 3 interceptions and 9 pass deflections and started all 15 games the team played.
In a very weak SEC East where it's clear who the top dog is (pun intended), I think Georgia will breeze through the regular season a perfect 12-0 but falter to a better Alabama squad in the SEC Championship and will come into the Playoff 12-1.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
This is the year the Wisconsin Badgers take that leap into big boy country and get their crack at the College Football playoff. With an Ohio State team that is in shambles right now after the Urban Meyer scandal, a Penn State team that lost one of the best players to ever come out of the program, and Michigan being Michigan, this is the perfect opportunity for the Badgers to run the table and claim the Big Ten title.
The pieces offensively are there, bringing back quarterback Alex Hornibrook who will do everything he can to be the best game manager in college football, and have a Heisman candidate running back in Jonathan Taylor, who is only a sophomore by the way. Wisconsin though is not known for their offense. There's a common thread between the four teams on this list and that is they all have elite calibre defenses and Wisconsin is no exception.
A season ago the Badgers ranked second in total defense in the entire country, only behind Alabama, giving up just 18 touchdowns all season as a defensive group. Couple that with allowing just over 260 yards per game and that is a recipe for a very scary defense in a conference that prides itself on playing smash mouth football. Georgia is the only team that I would say can compare to this Wisconsin team on their style of play, but the Badgers take it to a whole new level.
T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are the backbone of this defense from their inside linebacker position totaling 81 and 88 tackles respectively, good for first and second on the team in that category. Edwards made more happen when he dropped back into coverage however recording 4 interceptions last season including one he took to the house.
Without a doubt the Badgers have a much tougher road to this point than any other team on this list and play a completely different game than the rest of the teams. Coming into the Playoff Wisconsin will be sporting a nice 12-1 record and a Big Ten Championship to their name, with their only loss coming at Penn State on November 10th.
We have finally got to prediction time so here we go
First 2 Out: Washington, Miami
Cotton Bowl: Alabama defeats Wisconsin 24-7
Orange Bowl: Clemson defeats Georgia 35-24
National Championship: Clemson defeats Alabama 37-30