Ohio State Buckeyes
J.T. Barrett looks to lead the Ohio State Buckeyes to prominence this year. (Marvin Fong / Cleveland Plain Dealer)

We’re less than a week from college football blessing us with its presence once again and it couldn’t fully begin without the preseason Associated Press Top 25 release. The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes lead off the poll at No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.

The preseason polls don’t mean much until the games are played, but often times we can discern who the contenders will be from analyzing the top 10.

Some years there can be a surprise team that comes from nowhere to make noise and contend for a national championship. The Washington Huskies were 2016’s example, rising from a 7-6 season in 2015 to a Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.

But most times the national champion is likely to come from the preseason poll’s top 10.

Here’s a look at which teams beginning 2017 in the top 10 will still be contenders at season’s end and which teams are likely to fall out of contention before late November.

No. 1 Alabama: Contenders

There’s no surprise here. Alabama has built a dynasty in Division 1 football, unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era. Coach Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to four national championships, and despite missing out on their fifth title by merely one second, they return major playmakers on all sides of the ball.

Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts returns after a remarkable freshman campaign that ended in Tampa, Fla., with a crushing four-point loss to Clemson in the national championship game. Hurts totaled 36 touchdowns through the air and as a runner in 2016 while completing 62.8 percent of his passes. Hurts missed out on being a Heisman Trophy finalist, but he may be the very best dual-threat quarterback in the country if he can grow as a pocket passer in 2017.

Ultimately, Hurts is surrounded by some of the best talent in the country. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris sharing backfield time should be one of the scariest thoughts for all defensive coordinators set to game plan against the Tide.

Alabama opens its season with a top-3 matchup against Florida State in newly opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. If the Crimson Tide get past the Seminoles, their schedule sets up nicely for another 13-0 breeze to the College Football Playoff.

With Ole Miss in a state of chaos and LSU coming to Alabama’s home turf Nov. 4, the Tide are squarely in the contender pool to start the season.

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes: Contenders

THE Ohio State Buckeyes make a return to the top of the polls in 2017 after an embarrassing loss to the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Ohio State had a month to prepare for Dabo Swinney’s defense and laid a goose egg in front of the world on New Year’s Eve 2016.

Changes had to be made after the 31-0 loss, and they were made in a big way. The Buckeyes fired co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck and replaced him with former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson.

Wilson’s presence brings new life to a Buckeye passing game that suffered mightily towards the tail end of the 2016 campaign. Redshirt-senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is back in Columbus for his fifth year under Urban Meyer and he’s set to break Drew Brees’ Big Ten record for total touchdowns (106) with just seven more trips to the endzone.

The biggest question about Ohio State’s offense centers around its receiving corp. After the loss of speedster Curtis Samuel to the NFL Draft, the Buckeyes will be searching for a breakout talent to become a consistent playmaker in the offense.

However, the Buckeyes’ stingy defense is the main reason they’ll be contenders in 2017. Ohio State returns defensive lineman Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. A Week 2 showdown with Oklahoma could be the biggest challenge before a revenge game against Penn State in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 28.

You better believe if Ohio State makes it to Michigan week undefeated, the focus in the locker room will be unmatched.

No. 3 Florida State: Pretenders

Florida State is my first pretender in the AP Top 10 and it’s not because it lacks talent. Jimbo Fisher has become one of the best recruiters in the country and keeps the Seminoles in a great position to compete for ACC championships each season.

Deondre Francois is ready to take a leap as a passer in his second season as Florida State quarterback. Francois’ athleticism allowed him to make plays with his arm and his legs as a redshirt-freshman, and adequately fill in after Jameis Winston jetted for the NFL Draft.

The issue with the Seminoles will be their defense and if it can bounce back after a subpar 2016 season in which it allowed six games of 30 or more points. Luckily for Florida State, it won’t face Heisman winner Lamar Jackson until Oct. 21 and it returns two studs in the secondary with Tavarus McFadden and Derwin James ready to make a statement.

We’ll find out quickly if the ‘Noles are for real in their season opener against Alabama, but my mind tells me that game could be over before it even starts.

No. 4 USC: Contenders

The Trojans are BACK! Well, at least to the point of garnering some public attention. USC enters 2017 coming off a 10-3 season that culminated in an impressive comeback victory against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

Sam Darnold has climbed into the front seat as America’s most beloved pocket passer. The redshirt-sophomore edged out Heisman winner Lamar Jackson as preseason first-team AP All-American and shares a backfield with 1,000-yard rusher Ronald Jones, Jr.

USC is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South with coach Clay Helton firmly at the helm and the Trojans finally moving away from the days of NCAA sanctions. Ultimately, it’s difficult to believe USC has fully made its ascension back to national championship contention without the proof on the field, but if the Trojans can get past their early season bout with No. 14 Stanford, their schedule opens up nicely with perennial pretender Texas coming into the L.A. Coliseum on Sept. 16.

No. 5 Clemson: Contenders

The defending national champions begin the season ranked behind two teams they defeated in the College Football Playoff and a Florida State team that couldn’t keep up with them during the ACC season.

Dabo Swinney has to be using the No. 5 ranking as a strong motivator for his young, talented Tigers to prove the media wrong in 2017. The Tigers got past the days of #Clemsoning and finally proved they can win on the biggest stage against college football’s two best programs.

The loss of Deshaun Watson will be glaring, but Swinney believes his 2017 team has just as much talent as his first national championship squad despite having just six seniors.

“The media’s been the biggest help to me,” Swinney told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel on the Campus Conversation Podcast. “We did not lose many players at all, but we lost some very impactful people that were great leaders… But the great majority of our team is back.”

Clemson has to prove again that it can stop teams on defense with the departure of star linebacker Ben Boulware, but the Tigers have a lot of talent that is waiting to show it can perform at a high level. The Tigers should be right at the top of the ACC standings in 2017 and we’ll likely see them playing for an ACC title in December.

No. 6 Penn State: Pretenders

Many can agree that Saquon Barkley is likely the best player in all of college football. The man is a consensus All-American and a complete beast.

However, much of Penn State’s success in 2016 was flukey. The Nittany Lions were thumped by Michigan on the road and barely escaped with a home win against Ohio State after one of the more timely blocked field goals in recent college memory.

Coach James Franklin deservedly signed a six-year extension worth $5.8 million per year, according to Sports Illustrated. But Penn State clearly doesn’t stack up against the Big Ten elite.

The last two times Penn State went into Ohio Stadium they were throttled 38-10 in 2015 and completely embarrassed 63-14 in 2013. Expect more of the same this season as the Buckeyes will be looking for blood.

Penn State is on the upward trajectory after dealing with years of sanctions, but I’m not believing they can consistently compete with Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh coached teams just yet.

No. 7 Oklahoma: Pretenders

The Sooners have a new head football coach for the first time since 1999 with Bob Stoops stepping down and protege Lincoln Riley leaping into the leading role. But many of the same issues OU had in 2016 will plague them this season.

The biggest issue will come Sept. 9 against an Ohio State team that outclassed the Sooners in Norman, Okla., last season. The trip to Ohio Stadium is a brand new ball game and the Buckeyes will be coming with full force and a raucous crowd behind them.

Ultimately, if Oklahoma can’t pull off a mild upset against Ohio State, its remaining Big 12 conference schedule may not be enough to boost its resume past other potential Power 5 conference champions.

It’s a sad reality for a conference that once flexed its muscle during the BCS era.

No. 8 Washington: Pretenders

The Huskies are bringing back the main components of their dangerous air attack that averaged 258.8 yards per game passing in 2016. Quarterback Jake Browning is returning for his junior season and shifty receiver/return man Dante Pettis is back to terrorize the Pac-12.

Pettis totaled 1,109 yards and 17 touchdowns between his receiving and kick return duty, including a game-winning punt return against Utah.

The Huskies avoid USC during the regular season, but their gauntlet of a schedule will test them heavily. Road games at Colorado (Sept. 23) and at Stanford (Nov. 10) could be Washington’s downfall in its quest to repeat as Pac-12 champion.

No. 9 Wisconsin: Pretenders

Wisconsin is the most interesting team in the AP Top 10 mainly due to its cupcake schedule. The Badgers will not play any team of substance until they face No. 11 Michigan in a late season matchup Nov. 18 in Madison, Wisc.

Each year you can count on the Badgers to be competitive and to have an offensive line that will be large and powerful. It’s quite conceivable the Badgers could rumble to 10-0 and possibly slide into the Big Ten Championship Game without being one of the best three teams in the conference.

Redshirt-sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s growth will be key to Wisconsin’s success, but it’s hard to believe Wisconsin can compete for a national title with the elite programs in the FBS.

No. 10 Oklahoma State: Contenders

You probably remember 2016 Oklahoma State most from its remarkably entertaining loss to Central Michigan on Sept. 10, 2016, when Central Michigan was incorrectly granted an extra down that led to a stunning finish.

The Cowboys finished the season with 10 wins and major optimism heading into 2017. They return quarterback Mason Rudolph who threw for an astounding 4,091 yards in his junior season.

Oklahoma State’s toughest non-conference matchup comes Sept. 16 against Pittsburgh and it gets No. 7 Oklahoma in the Bedlam Rivalry at home Nov. 4.

Ultimately, the winner of Bedlam likely wins the Big 12 and has a chance to sneak into the College Football Playoff if another conference champion has two losses. My money would be on the Cowboys to defend home turf.

 

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