Chaos and unpredictability are college football’s stock-in-trade—MACtion, Pac-12AfterDark, Kick Six, Surrender Cobra, and whatever the hell happens every year in the ACC Coastal—but there are several truisms that we can count on at the start of each season. Texas will always be back (no but seriously this time!), Jim Harbaugh will continue to get a steady dairy diet, and Alabama will keep its tight grip on the sport’s throne.
Or, at least that’s what we thought. For the first time since 2015, the Crimson Tide are not the Associated Press’s preseason no. 1 team, instead checking in at no. 2 behind defending national champions Clemson.
The AP preseason poll is out!— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) August 19, 2019
Who got snubbed? pic.twitter.com/y3bfMGZUcd
Behind Alabama is fellow SEC giant Georgia at no. 3, last year’s College Football Playoff semifinalist Oklahoma at no. 4, and perennial title contender Ohio State at no. 5, with LSU, Michigan, Florida, Notre Dame, and Texas (guys, I swear they’re actually back) rounding out the top 10. Only one Group of Five team, UCF, appears in the preseason poll, while the Big Ten and SEC lead the way with seven and six representatives, respectively.
The first kickoff of the 2019 season comes on Saturday between no. 8 Florida and Miami. Here’s what you need to know about the college football landscape before then:
The Clemson-Bama War for Supremacy Continues Apace
The Tigers drubbed Nick Saban’s squad in last season’s national championship game, 44-16, and open this season ranked no. 1 for the first time in school history. Sophomore quarterback and future Garnier Fructis model Trevor Lawrence returns to Clemson with a national title under his belt, and his sights set on a Heisman trophy.
Either the Tigers or Crimson Tide have won the past four national championships, and they’ve played each other in either the semifinals or the title game in each of those seasons. Bama-Clemson I in 2016 saw Saban claim his fourth national title in Tuscaloosa. Clemson won the rematch in the following season’s national championship game in one of the most memorable finales in recent history, with Hunter Renfrow catching Deshaun Watson’s final collegiate pass for a championship-winning touchdown. The Tide won Bama-Clemson III in 2018 with a 24-6 beatdown in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and last season’s Bama-Clemson IV was one of the most lopsided beatdowns in years, and arguably the worst loss of Saban’s career.
The good news for Alabama is it returns much of the same team that looked poised to go wire-to-wire as last season’s top-ranked squad, led by Tagovailoa and running back Najee Harris. And it’s worth remembering that the last time the Tide didn’t open the season on top of the AP poll, they went on to win the national championship.
Though 2018 was the first year since 2011 that Alabama didn’t claim the top recruiting class, they once again topped the 2019 rankings, and their blue chip ratio—the percentage of incoming recruits considered among the most talented in the sport—still places them among the most skilled squads in the country. Clemson, meanwhile, won two of the past three national championships despite only just reaching the upper echelon of the recruiting hierarchy.
What I guess I’m saying is: Look out for Bama-Clemson V at the end of this season … and maybe VI, VII, and VIII in the years after that.
Don’t Sleep on the Other SEC Teams. (No, Really!)
Before Alabama rolled over the sport like, well, a Crimson Tide, the SEC’s dominance of college football manifested itself through Florida and LSU.
The Tigers, led first by Saban and then by erstwhile madman Les Miles, won national championships in 2003 and 2007, while the Gators took home titles in 2006 and 2008 under Urban Meyer. Over the past decade, though, things haven’t gone according to plan in Baton Rouge and Gainesville.
Florida's S&P+ history. Good god, that 1991-2001 stretch... pic.twitter.com/HRxFjtWeOk— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) August 18, 2019
LSU's S&P+ history. 19 years ago, the sleeping giant woke up. pic.twitter.com/sQJBIqwn9U— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) August 16, 2019
LSU wasted top-flight defense after top-flight defense thanks to quarterbacks who struggled to hit the broad side of a barn from 20 yards away, and before last season, Florida finished ranked 100th or lower in points per game for three consecutive years, winning games solely due to their own stunning defense. But both programs look ready to turn the corner this fall.
Under Dan Mullen last season, Florida went 10-3, hammered their personal bowl demon Michigan 41-15 in the Peach Bowl, and logged 35 points per contest—good for 22nd nationally. LSU, meanwhile, climbed to as high as fourth in the AP poll, and finished 10-3 with a win over UCF in the Fiesta Bowl thanks to a relative offensive explosion led by quarterback Joe Burrow.
Either of these programs could make a run at an SEC title, and by extension, a national championship if things click. Georgia and Alabama are the projected champions in the SEC East and West, but Florida and LSU just might be ready to wake up from their long slumbers.
Texas back! TEXAS BACK!
Listen. I get it. Every year, Texas is hyped in the preseason poll. Every year, some dork (read: me), says that Texas is back, and that the landscape will turn burnt orange, and the force ghosts of Vince Young and Colt McCoy will return to guide Texas into battle, and that the Longhorns shall inherit the earth.
The thing is, last season, that call was right. Tom Herman’s squad improved significantly in his second year in charge, winning 10 games (including a barn-burner over Oklahoma and eventual Heisman winner Kyler Murray that got Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops fired), and capping their year with a victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
For the second straight season, the Longhorns have the no. 3 recruiting class as ranked by 247Sports, and returning junior gunslinger Sam Ehlinger looks poised to improve after passing for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Texas’s no. 10 preseason ranking is its highest to start the season since 2010, when Mack Brown’s squad was coming off a loss in the national championship game.
A home game against LSU in early September will likely determine the fate of both teams’ championship aspirations. With a win, the narrative surrounding Texas’s return to glory would be suffocating. A second neutral-field victory in the Red River Rivalry over Oklahoma would put them in the driver’s seat. And a road victory over preseason no. 21 Iowa State would cement them as one of college football’s teams to beat.
Texas is finally back, y’all. Bevo forever.