I filled out my Associated Press Top 25 preseason football ballot a couple of weeks ago, and as usual I didn’t start it off with Alabama.
Well, four years in a row if that counts as tradition.
I did break with tradition in one way. You will find Texas in my preseason Top 25, just not real high at No. 20. We remember the aftermath after Notre Dame last year, and the math wasn’t good after that dramatic victory. I don’t know if Texas will show up that high in the preseason poll, which will be released on Monday, but the Longhorns will be ranked.
But first things first, and Alabama is not first on my ballot.
Part of my reluctance in putting Alabama in the top spot is, well, it’s akin to voting for the Taj Mahal as your favorite Mahal. Where’s the fun in that? I approach my ballot a little differently and come at it with the idea of which teams might be able to give Nick Saban’s team a game this year. Makes it more of a challenge.
Besides, I’ve been right three of those four voting seasons; the Crimson Tide have won it all only once over that span. Hard to believe, ain’t it? And even the one they won, they had to pull off the most magical onside kick in the history of that ploy and had to have tight end O.J. Howard go crazy. Of course, if tailback Bo Scarbrough hadn’t gotten hurt last year and Ohio State not had that all-world talent — and, of course, new Texas head coach Tom Herman, as the Buckeyes’ play-caller — in 2014, Saban might have had three in a row and five of six.
You think that doesn’t keep him up at night?
My August ballot last year led with Clemson. It finished with Clemson, too, in January. OK, I got lucky. Fortunately the game clock had a full 60 minutes on it, not 59:59, and Hunter Renfrow got his hands on the ball for the Tigers’ game-winning touchdown with a second to go.
This season, my ballot begins with Florida State because I think it may finish with the Seminoles as well. It’s a prediction ballot, remember. Those that follow are simply rewards for results.
To find Alabama on my ballot, you have to go all the way down to, well, No 2.
Interestingly enough, I’m picking the Seminoles and Crimson Tide to meet twice. In Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in two weeks. Then there again in the national championship game on Jan. 8.
I doubt that’s ever happened before where the same two teams opened and closed the season against each other in a title game, certainly not in the same stadium.
Here’s my logic, if you want to call it that. That might be a reach.
Save for Ohio State’s breakthrough championship in 2014, every other national champion since USC in 2004 has come from the South. Another reason to pick FSU.
Look at the quarterbacks for those national champions. Studs like Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton, Vince Young and Cardale Jones. (OK, how did Alabama’s Jake Coker get in there?)
This represents another strong sign for the Seminoles as well as Bama since Deondre Francois and Jalen Hurts both have strong arms, ooze with potential and are Heisman candidates. Consider that the starting quarterbacks for 14 of the last 16 national champions all have been drafted, including six first-rounders. Heck, even Buckeye Craig Krenzel went in the fifth round and Miami’s Ken Dorsey in the seventh.
Dalvin Cook may be gone but Cam Akers should be explosive in the FSU backfield. With preseason All-Americans Tarvarus McFadden at corner and Derwin James at safety, the Noles are set in the secondary.
It’s wise to have a veteran coach at the helm. Jimbo Fisher has a national title, has lost just 17 games in seven seasons including two at the wire last year, and knows what to do with 15 returning starters.
And Saban’s done all right, too.
Completing my top five are Rose Bowl runner-up Penn State, College Football Playoff semifinalist Ohio State and Southern Cal, Texas’ Week 3 opponent.
The next five are Wisconsin (before it lost star linebacker Jack Cichy), talent-rich Oklahoma State, last year Final Four qualifier Washington, defending national champion Clemson and Charlie Strong’s South Florida Bulls, my dark-horse candidate to reach the Final Four.
I wish I had had the guts to pick the Cowboys in the Final Four, but I worry about their loss of defensive playmakers like a pair of linebackers who were the team’s second and fifth-leading tacklers and two defensive backs, including first-team All-Big 12 safety Jordan Sterns. I still think they can make it.
I have Texas ranked in my preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2013, back when Mack Brown’s Longhorns were coming off the school’s last bowl victory in 2012. Yeah, two head coaches ago. Hey, just getting to any bowl game will represent progress.
The last time I had Texas ranked anywhere in the AP Poll was last September when it climbed to my No. 14 on the heels of the double-overtime win over clearly over-rated Notre Dame. Naturally, Texas was clearly over-rated as well, falling to Cal and out of the rankings soon thereafter.
I’m going to be shocked if the Longhorns aren’t competitive in every game this year. Of course, I was shocked when they were rarely competitive the last three seasons.
Other dark horses for the CFP are Georgia and Kansas State. And keep an eye on Major Applewhite’s Houston Cougars, too.
Schedules are critical, obviously. And FSU has lots on its plate with its three toughest games away from Tallahassee in the Alabama game and road trips to Clemson and Florida in the Noles’ last three weeks.
But give both Fisher and Saban credit for facing each other. They’re not ducking anyone.
Sure, FSU also plays Louisiana-Monroe and scheduled its homecoming game with Delaware State. (I guess Delaware was already booked.) But the Noles finish the year at Florida in a second huge, non-conference challenge because it, ahem, values tradition and rivalries. (You listening, Texas and A&M?)
Sure, Alabama will flex its muscles against overmatched teams like Fresno State, Colorado State and Mercer. Mercer? The FCS school in Macon, Ga., whose graduates include Sam Mitchell and Nancy Grace? That Mercer? Of course, the Bears also get Auburn.
We’ll give Saban a pass since he has to play in the SEC. At least he’s starting the season on a high note.
So pay close attention when FSU and Bama tee it up because the winner will have the inside track to return to Atlanta four months later. Who knows, we could have the first glorious rematch since that terrific — oh, wait — Alabama-LSU debacle to decide the 2011 title. Hmm, maybe I should rethink this.
MY PRESEASON AP TOP 25 BALLOT
No. 1 Florida State
No. 2 Alabama
No. 3 Penn State
No. 4 Ohio State
No. 5 USC
No. 6 Wisconsin
No. 7 Oklahoma State
No. 8 Washington
No. 9 Clemson
No. 10 South Florida
No. 11 Oklahoma
No. 12 Auburn
No. 13 LSU
No. 14 Stanford
No. 15 Georgia
No. 16 Kansas State
No. 17 Florida
No. 18 Michigan
No. 19 Miami
No. 20 Texas
No. 21 Louisville
No. 22 Washington State
No. 23 Houston
No. 24 TCU
No. 25 San Diego State