Let’s give credit where it’s due.
For its “Way-Too-Early” listing of this summer’s preseason Top 25 in college football, the writers/editors at ESPN.com could have easily gone the tomato route, installing Alabama and Clemson at No. 1 and No. 2 — just one month after a sterling national title game.
Instead, the four-letter network has astutely identified Florida State (18 returning starters, absurdly deep roster, Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook) as Alabama’s greatest threat to a national championship. Within that scope, ESPN has correctly tabbed LSU (No. 6 overall) and Tennessee (No. 12) as the SEC’s second- and third-best clubs for 2016.
And why shouldn’t the Tide — who have captured four national titles since 2009 (all under coach Nick Saban) — take the No. 1 ranking into the fall?
Yes, Alabama has a daunting slate of Southern California (neutral site), Ole Miss (road), Arkansas (road), Tennessee (road) and LSU (road) in the first nine weeks; but a quick peek at the projected depth chart — loaded with all-conference and All-American candidates — barely even accounts for Alabama landing the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class last week.
(Quick question: How does Alabama, which lost only two underclassmen to the NFL draft, even have room for a super-sized class of 24 signees?)
In other words, it would reek of ignorance or pure SEC loathing to give the No. 1 ranking to any other school not located in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Of course, in 2010 with Sports Illustrated, I had Alabama similarly marked as the undisputed heavy favorite for that year’s national title; and the Crimson Tide — featuring Julio Jones, Mark Ingram (2009 Heisman Trophy winner), Trent Richardson, Courtney Upshaw, Marcell Dareus, Eddie Lacy, Dont’a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron — ended up falling to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn … by a grand total of 18 points (deep sigh).
Moving forward … when perusing the other SEC programs listed in the rankings — Ole Miss (No. 13), UGA (No. 19), Florida (No. 24) — it’s easy to discern ESPN’s rationale for how this conference season will shake out:
a) The Alabama-LSU winner (Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge, La.) has a clear path to the SEC West title.
b) Tennessee can absorb a home loss to Alabama (late October) … and still march to the SEC East crown.
c) Led by All-SEC quarterback Chad Kelly and a stellar recruiting class, Ole Miss must split its clashes with Alabama (Sept. 17) and LSU (Oct. 22) … and then be perfect against Florida State (season opener in Orlando, Fla.), UGA (home), Arkansas (road), Auburn (home) and Texas A&M (road).
d) Florida apparently picked the wrong season to schedule Tennessee, LSU, UGA and Florida State.
Oh wait, the Gators face the Volunteers, Tigers, Bulldogs and Seminoles every year.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.