College football sells unpredictability. It has 130 Division I teams, each dependent on a roster half composed of teenagers. No player is eligible for more than four seasons, so instability is built into the sport. A single game can ruin a team’s season.
But college football is also easy to predict, at least from a macro perspective. Only four active head coaches have ever won a national championship: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Seven of the 12 spots in the first three renditions of the college football playoff have gone to three teams: Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. It is virtually impossible for a team to win the title if less than half of its roster is made up of four- or five-star recruits, and only 10 schools entering the 2017 season fit that description. The players change, but the big-picture outlook doesn’t.
You don’t need me to tell you that Alabama is the national championship favorite. Honestly, you don’t need to have looked at any information about college football all offseason to know that. If you fell asleep in 2012 and I dumped water on your head and yelled, “IT’S 2017, WHO DO YOU THINK WILL WIN THE TITLE AND WHY,” as you jolted awake, you might answer “WHAT THE HELL, uh, Alabama, because Nick Saban?” And you’d be right.
With that said, the preseason is a time for predictions, so here are 10 schools that could be the next national champion. While many of these programs feel familiar, each would take a different path en route to a title.
The Obvious Champion: Alabama
Alabama did not win the national title last season, missing what would have been its second straight championship (and fourth in six seasons) by a single play. I’d say there are two primary reasons Alabama lost that game—and Bama shouldn’t fret much about either this year.
The first was since-drafted Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who somehow outlasted Alabama in that classic 35-31 game in January. He should have been broken after being battered by Bama’s incredible defensive line, but instead he left the Crimson Tide defense gassed. Clemson ran 99 plays (more than Alabama had faced in a single game in a decade), and I doubt any quarterback but Watson would have had the stamina, skill, or composure to maintain that quality for all 99. But Watson is now the stuff of college football lore—and a member of the Houston Texans. Alabama doesn’t have to worry about him anymore.
The second reason was the late-season inconsistency of quarterback Jalen Hurts—and the changing staff responsible for coaching him. Hurts won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 3,734 total yards in 2016, a remarkable feat for a true freshman, but had his two worst performances of the season in the two all-important playoff games. His shaky effort in a win over Washington hastened the departure of offensive coordinator turned Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin. His 13-of-31 passing showing against Clemson meant that Alabama had only two drives of longer than two minutes—this is how Clemson ran 99 plays—and turned out to be the only game Steve Sarkisian served as Alabama’s play caller. Experience alone would explain a 2017 improvement for Hurts, who was already really good last year. And new coordinator Brian Daboll should provide more stability and less tomfoolery than Kiffin. (Daboll comes from the New England Patriots. If you’re a college football fan and somehow know the Patriots only from money-and-failure magnet Charlie Weis, let me assure you: They often have good coaches.)
Alabama barely faltered last season, and we have reason to believe it should patch the few gaps that it had. The Tide will replace their departing stars with other stars. They will be the smartest national championship pick for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the 65-year-old Saban will even defeat aging and keep Alabama in permanent championship contention. He has to hope that Deshaun Watson doesn’t play for Aging.
The Please Forget What I Wrote in a Few Days Champion: Florida State
Of course, everything can change in a second. Bama plays Florida State in the biggest Week 1 game in the century and a half that we’ve been doing this college football thing. Both teams could legitimately be considered the best in the country, and one will open the season with a loss and a slim margin for error before facing an extremely tough divisional schedule.
FSU’s defense was young and pretty good last year, which means it’ll be older and probably excellent this fall. The Seminoles should be even better with the return of transcendent safety Derwin James, who missed almost the whole 2016 season with a knee injury. (If you’re unclear how a safety can be transcendent, here is a highlight video.) Florida State isn’t favored against Alabama (Vegas currently has the line at Bama -7), and it shouldn’t be. But a win is plausible, and it would instantly establish Florida State as the national title favorite.
The Plausible Contrarians’ Champion: Ohio State
I don’t think Ohio State is going to win the national championship. But if I were on a 10-person panel and the first nine people all took Alabama and I wanted to seem like an original thinker without saying something too ridiculous, I would definitely pick Ohio State.
The Buckeyes’ zero-point performance in last year’s playoff semifinal against Clemson should tip you off to the fact that Ohio State’s 2016 offense was a weakness. But new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson should change things up in that department. He’s regarded as one of the most influential offensive coordinators ever, but spent the past few seasons as head coach of a chaotic, point-heavy Indiana program. I think Ohio State will need to score points in the upcoming playoff to win the championship. Wilson, with the help of quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Mike Weber, might be the man to make that happen.
Of course, the Buckeyes will have to get past Michigan and Penn State. The former came an undisclosed number of inches from beating the Buckeyes last year; the latter did beat the Buckeyes.
The New York Jets Vicarious Lifestyle Champion: USC
The Jets will intentionally lose NFL games this season so that they have a chance to draft USC quarterback Sam Darnold in 2018. Well, maybe they won’t intentionally lose games, but they’ve announced that they’re starting Josh McCown and they just signed a guy named “Armagedon.” They’re headed for disaster whether they try to or not.
Still, their fans can live vicariously through USC’s successes. By the time Darnold took over as USC’s starting quarterback as a freshman last fall, the Trojans were 1-2 and virtually out of the national title picture. He took the reins—not the literal reins, that’s this guy’s job—and USC’s offense came to life, winning their final nine games, including a 52-49 Rose Bowl shootout.
Darnold and the Trojans should lay waste to most of the Pac-12 this season. Jets fans may find little joy in following the Jets, but watching Darnold should be fun. And good news: There’s no evidence to date that this USC quarterback may one day treat a lineman’s butt like moths treat patio lights.
The Defense-Optional Champion: Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s decision to promote Lincoln Riley to head coach after the surprise June retirement of Bob Stoops indicates a desire to live in a world free of defense. One might have assumed the Sooners would have turned to Stoops’s brother, Mike, the team’s longtime defensive coordinator. Instead they chose Riley, a 33-year-old Mike Leach disciple whose entire coaching résumé consists of installing the Air Raid offense.
The Sooners offense should be great again this fall. Last year, it ranked third in the nation in scoring (43.9 points per game) and first in offensive S&P+. Riley was in charge of that, and he’s the position coach for redshirt senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield. Stoops will not take the team’s point-scoring potential to whichever beach he chooses to live on. OU is projected to have the best offense in the nation once again.
It’s also projected to have the 40th-best defense. Last season’s team gave up 45 points to Ohio State, 46 to TCU, 40 to Texas, 59 to Texas Tech—and that was behind a seasoned head coach who made his name on the defensive side of the ball. Oklahoma already resembled the Big 12 prototype before its coaching swap. Under Riley, it’ll likely skew even more in that direction. Sooners fans better hope Bob still picks up the phone when Mike calls.
The Repeat Champion: Clemson
Often, the team that won the previous season’s national championship is projected as a favorite again the following fall. But I think the departure of Watson to the NFL will be too much for the Tigers to bear. He was the QB Who Lived—the guy who came away from playing 60 minutes against Saban’s dementors with a victory. J.K. Rowling didn’t write any books about what happens at Hogwarts after Harry Potter graduated, although I’m sure there were some really cool quidditch matches and stuff like that.
Clemson will likely be very good this season, bolstered by a powerful and merciless defensive line. Here is 300-pound Christian Wilkins doing a split. But the Tigers are going to trot out somebody inexperienced (Kelly Bryant has been named the starter) at the position where a legend just powered them to a national championship. Something special would have to happen to compensate for that drop-off.
The Iron Bowl Switcheroo Champion: Auburn
In four of the last seven seasons, Alabama has played in the national championship game. In two of the three others, Auburn won the Iron Bowl—two of the best football games of the last seven years—and played in the national title game instead. The best pathway to prevent Alabama from winning it all is to have Auburn go 7-0 or 6-1 in SEC play and beat Bama during their matchup on November 25.
A lot of the time, Auburn isn’t good enough to pull that off. Last year, that was clear right off the bat, as the Tigers struggled to a 1-2 start that included a season-opening loss in which the offense used four quarterbacks. They eventually settled on Sean White, although let’s just say that questions remained under center.
This year Auburn has Jarrett Stidham, a former five-star recruit who performed pretty damn well in limited snaps at Baylor before transferring to the Plains last December. He should be the best QB whom Gus Malzahn has coached since Cam Newton. (He will not be as good as Cam Newton, but nobody is.) These Tigers might be good enough to top Bama, and that might be enough to throw the SEC race into turmoil at the last possible moment.
The National Champion I Want, Plausible Edition: LSU
LSU’s 2016 team had a fearsome defense, two fearsome running backs (Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice), and no semblance of an offense outside of those running backs. This combination made the Tigers a top-15 team in the nation and left them a few miles from topping Alabama for the SEC West title. Former head coach Les Miles’s tenure was largely defined by teams with these qualities, and I have little reason to believe that the Tigers will be significantly different in year one under Ed Orgeron.
Little reason outside of my sheer desire for a beefy Cajun boy with the vocal cords of a bayou alligator to magically make everything he touches better, of course. That didn’t happen the last time he was a full-time head coach, back in the mid-2000s at Ole Miss. But his two stints as an interim head coach (2013 at USC, last year at LSU) were successful. And while Fournette is now in the NFL, Guice remains on campus, and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada might be able to help make up for LSU and Orgeron’s offensive deficiencies. I would love to see this team truly contend, although it’s equally possible that the Tigers will finish third in their division.
Somewhat relatedly: The new Mike the Tiger is a good cat.
The Rodger’s Attempt to Avoid Angry Fan Mail Champion: Michigan
I’d say there’s a roughly 90 percent chance that one of the top-three teams listed in this column will win the championship. Beyond that, though, there are about 10 or 15 teams that should be very, very good, and are therefore plausible, if not likely, title contenders. Michigan is one of those, and I’d like to mention Michigan here because there are a lot of Michigan fans on the internet and some get very defensive when Michigan is left off lists.
The 2007 Disaster Scenario Anniversary Champion: South Florida
Remember 2007, the best—or at least weirdest—season in recent college football memory? Michigan lost to Appalachian State, LSU won the title despite losing in triple overtime twice, West Virginia nearly made the national championship game before losing as a 28.5-point favorite to Pitt, and, least believable of all, Kansas was good.
An odd subtext to this was South Florida’s rise to no. 2 in the AP Poll thanks to a 6-0 start and general absurdity elsewhere. The Bulls quickly tumbled down the rankings after losing three straight games, two against UConn and Rutgers. Which is weirder: USF being no. 2 in the country? Or the no. 2 team in the country losing to Rutgers and UConn? Who knows?
Anyway, on the 10-year anniversary of that ludicrous season, USF is in its best shape since. The Bulls finished fourth in the nation in scoring last season (averaging 43.8 points per game) and return superstar quarterback Quinton Flowers, who accounted for 4,339 total yards with 42 touchdowns as a junior. They lost head coach Willie Taggart to Oregon, but gained Texas castoff Charlie Strong, who honestly seems like he’ll be happier away from Austin—and might have a roster better suited to his strengths. They’re the only non–Power Five team ranked in the preseason polls.
In 2007, the Bulls were part of a major conference, the defunct football version of the Big East. Now they’re part of the American Athletic Conference, so it’ll be harder for them to gain respect. I think it would be nearly impossible for any non-power conference team to make the playoff without some sort of disaster scenario, so let’s craft one.
The SEC West cannibalizes itself, with Alabama, Auburn, and LSU creating an ouroboros of defeat. NC State takes down Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville before closing the season with losses to Boston College, Wake Forest, and North Carolina. The Big 12’s highest-ranked team loses in the league’s revived championship game; Wisconsin, and not one of the three Big Ten East powerhouses, wins the Big Ten; and Darnold decides to take the whole second half of the season off to preserve his draft status. Some people say the meme of responding to any college football prompt with “Notre Dame went 4-8” is getting old, so let’s pencil in the Fighting Irish for 3-9.
And amid it all, USF lives up to its preseason ranking and goes 12-0. The Bulls are my pick to be college football’s chaos champion, spreading points, joy, and Texan regret as Strong throws up the USF horns while hoisting the national championship trophy.