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John Clay

John Clay’s preseason college football Top 25: There’s a familiar name at the top

My college football preseason top 25:

1. Alabama: Nick Saban labeled the Crimson Tide’s national runner-up finish last season a “rebuilding year.” Yikes. Bama is bigger and badder than ever, led by edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., who would be the favorite for the Heisman Trophy if defensive players ever won the Heisman Trophy. Here’s a Sabanism to remember: “It’s the pain of discipline or the pain of disappointment. Take your pick.”

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have had all spring and summer to seethe about their lopsided loss to Michigan last season. Even a Wolverine beats a Buckeye every once in awhile, apparently. The stellar C.J. Stroud returns at quarterback and coach Ryan Day believes Ohio State’s defense, its downfall last year, can’t help but be much improved in 2022.

3. Georgia: At SEC Football Media Days in July, Georgia coach Kirby Smart practically dared any attendee to mention the word “complacency” with regards to his national champion Bulldogs. Smart lost a ton of talent off his ridiculously talented defense, but the really ridiculous part is Smart has recruited so well, he has a deep stable of five-stars in reserve.

4. Clemson: You can’t keep Dabo Swinney down for long. His Tigers missed the College Football Playoff last season for the first time since 2014. A rock-solid defense should propel Swinney’s squad back into the national title conversation. That is if the Clemson offense rebounds from a dismal 99th national ranking in total yards per game. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei is ready for a bounce-back season.

5. Michigan: It took Jim Harbaugh awhile, but the Michigan Man delivered Michigan an outright Big Ten title for the first time since 2003. Harbaugh spent the first part of the offseason playing footsie with NFL teams, which might be an indication the Wolverines are primed for a letdown. Still, once again it’ll be Michigan vs. Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy.

6. Texas A&M: Oct. 8 cannot arrive fast enough. That’s when Jimbo Fisher takes his Aggies into Tuscaloosa to decide once and for all his offseason spat with his former BFF Nick Saban, who implied his former assistant was cheating, even though with NIL there’s really not cheating anymore. Now we’ll see if the two coaches are ready to make nice and if Fisher’s recruiting victories translate between the lines.

7. Notre Dame: The SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum is about as welcome in South Bend these days as Brian Kelly. Here’s what Finebaum said of the Fighting Irish’s No. 5 AP preseason ranking : “They should not even be in the the top 10. … This is an absolute joke, and it happens every year with the AP poll, which is just as worthless as preseason NFL football.” Welcome to the big time, new head coach Marcus Freeman.

8. Utah: Looking for an under-the-radar team that could crash the College Football Playoff come January? The Utes fill the bill. Coach Kyle Whittingham is 38-12 over his last three full seasons. Returning quarterback Cameron Rising leads a ride-the-throttle offense that should once again make Utah the class of the Pac-12, even with Lincoln Riley now in the league.

9. Miami: OK, we might be getting ahead of ourselves ranking the Hurricanes this high this early in Mario Cristobal’s tenure as Miami’s head coach. But the former Oregon coach and Miami alum has already shown he can recruit at a high level and inherits a high-performing quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke. After several false starts, the ‘Canes are on the comeback trail.

10. Oregon: Speaking of Oregon, the Ducks responded to Cristobal’s departure by plucking 35-year-old Dan Lanning off Kirby Smart’s Georgia staff. Lanning helped build one of the best defenses in recent memory, and he hopes to repeat the feat in Eugene. Potential trouble spot: Oregon’s quarterback is Auburn transfer Bo Nix, known to be a regular on both teams’ highlight reel after every game.

11. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys’ most valuable coach, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, has relocated to Columbus, but Okie State should still be formidable in 2022. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is back to lead Mike Gundy’s offense, which should improve on its uncharacteristically low (No. 56) national ranking last season.

12. North Carolina State: The nation’s best quarterback you might not have heard of is Devin Leary, who threw 35 touchdown passes compared to five interceptions for the Wolfpack last season. And head coach Dave Doeren has playmakers returning from a defense that ranked No. 2 in the ACC last season. Remember, North Carolina State upset Clemson, 27-21 in OT last season.

13. Texas: Quarterback Quinn Ewers is the wild card in Austin. The Ohio State transfer was a highly regarded recruit out of Southwest Carroll in Texas before reclassifying and enrolling in Columbus a year early. After sitting and watching C.J. Stroud, is Ewers ready to master the Steve Sarkisian offense and lead the Longhorns? The eyes of Texas are upon him.

14. Michigan State: I admit to being surprised at how quickly Mel Tucker has transformed the Spartans from forgettable to formidable. The former Georgia defensive coordinator and Colorado head coach went 11-2 last year, his second in East Lansing. Now Tucker has mined the transfer portal for 10 players who should keep Michigan State’s momentum going.

15. Southern Cal: Truth be told, I wanted to rank the Trojans higher but couldn’t quite stick my neck out that far. Former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams followed former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to Hollywood. Then former star Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison — 100 catches last season — relocated to La La Land to give Williams a top-flight target. It won’t be long for the Big Ten-bound Trojans to be back on top.

16. Oklahoma: Norman is no doubt still shocked at Riley’s abrupt departure for California. (One minute he’s there, the next he’s gone.) Former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has big shoes to fill, but he knows the OU landscape. He was on Bob Stoops’ staff from 2004 through 2011. It might take awhile for Venables to put his stamp on the OU program, however.

17. Kentucky: You have to hand it to John Calipari for giving Mark Stoops’ Wildcats a 2022 battle cry. After the Kentucky basketball coach publicly deemed UK a “basketball school” — no disrespect to football, said Cal — Stoops fired back at his colleague, saying his program wasn’t “born on third base.” Bulletin board material for a team that won 10 games last season, its second double-digit win season in the last four years.

18. Penn State: While former Penn State quarterback Will Levis is now the subject of NFL draft hype at Kentucky, Sean Clifford enters his 60th — sixth, actually — season as the Nittany Lions starting quarterback. Coach James Franklin is banking on Clifford’s veteran savvy and a stellar 2022 recruiting class to give his team a needed boost.

19. Tennessee: Second-year coach Josh Heupel has Knoxville buzzing after a better-than-expected 7-6 finish in his Rocky Top debut. Hendon Hooker returns at quarterback after throwing for 32 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions last season, Hooker’s first as a Volunteer after transferring from Virginia Tech. Now Heupel needs to overhaul a defense that ranked 99th in total yards allowed last season.

20. Pittsburgh: The Panthers lost quarterback Kenny Pickett (now of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and wideout Jordan Addison (now of the USC Trojans), but Pat Narduzzi is hoping former Southern Cal quarterback Kedon Slovis is ready for a rebirth in the Steel City. As a freshman with the Trojans, Slovis threw for 30 touchdowns.

21. Arkansas: I’ll admit I’m biased in favor of Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman. How can you not love a coach who has a jukebox in his office and publicly professes his love for Stevie Nicks? Pittman has lived up to his reputation as a terrific recruiter, and then some, with the Razorbacks. Quarterback KJ Jefferson wakes up dangerous every day.

22. Baylor: Bears fans are unhappy with me for ranking Baylor No. 22 in the AP preseason poll. After all, Dave Aranda’s team wound up No. 10 in the total voting. Given my track record, and Aranda’s record, Baylor will no doubt make look foolish come December. A second straight 12-win season is not out of the possibility in Waco.

23. Wake Forest: When Wake announced that star quarterback Sam Hartman was out for an indefinite period of time, the AP gave early voters a chance to change their ballots before the preseason list was dropped Aug. 15. I left the Deacons right where I had them, a testament to what Dave Clawson has done in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons were 11-3 a year ago.

24. Cincinnati: Luke Fickell did the impossible last season, guiding a Group of Five program to the College Football Playoff for the first time in history. The Bearcats are missing key components off that 12-1 team, but UC is no one-hit wonder. Finding an able replacement for departed quarterback Desmond Ridder is key.

25. Wisconsin: It’s only matter of time before defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is a (successful) head coach at a Power Five school. He’s only 39 years old. He has NFL experience. And he coordinated the nation’s top-ranked defense a year ago for a Wisconsin team that should have been in the Big Ten title game had it not lost, 23-13, at Minnesota in the regular-season finale.

College Football Playoff semifinals

— Alabama over Clemson: Back together again, just like old CFP times, the Crimson Tide will send Dabo Swinney and Clemson packing with a win in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

— Ohio State over Georgia: C.J. Stroud will prove to be the difference as Ohio State’s high-octane offense gets the better of Georgia’s defense in the Fiesta Bowl.

College Football Playoff finals

— Alabama over Ohio State: Nick Saban wins his eighth national championship, his seventh in Tuscaloosa, as the Crimson Tide shows the Buckeyes the SEC is still “the” superleague.

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