The AP Top 25 came out Sunday and there are at least three reasons why the response was far more muted than it used to be: 1) There’s a playoff system now; 2) There’s an official selection committee that ultimately decides the four playoff teams and it won’t come out with its first set of rankings until November; 3) Frankly, a lot of sports writers don’t feel like blogging on Sundays.
But here I am and this is what I think. The AP got it right for a “preseason” poll by voting Alabama No. 1, Clemson No. 2 and Georgia No. 18, and leaving Georgia Tech out altogether.
But that’s not how things will look at the end.
• Alabama should be over Clemson: There’s some folks, particularly just north of Atlanta off Interstate-85, screaming that Clemson should be ranked No. 1. I get that. Clemson went to the national championship game and lost to the Crimson Tide only 45-40. They also bring back a number of key players, including quarterback Deshaun Watson. But the Tigers lost a lot on defense, including linemen Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and safeties Mackensie Alexander and T.J. Green (all taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft). Clemson will be a fun team to watch again but it could get tripped up, even with a relatively soft schedule. I also believe most people still look at this debate as, “Nick Saban vs. Dabo Swinney (or anybody)” and think, “Come on.” So they vote Alabama. Plus, everybody wants to make a big deal about Alabama’s uncertainty at quarterback, but how is this year any different than last year? For as much of a goofball as Lane Kiffin was as a head coach, Kiffin’s done a great job with quarterbacks and the Alabama offense. My pick (subject to change weekly): LSU. Les Miles will have a great running game (Leonard Fournette), should be better at quarterback and also should benefit defensively from the switch to the 3-4. LSU also gets Alabama at home.
• Georgia will finish higher than 18: The Bulldogs figured to be somewhere in the mid-to-low-teens. Any higher and they would’ve been overranked. The obvious questions: 1) Quarterback. True freshman Jacob Eason will get a lot of playing time and wind up as the starter, even if Greyson Lambert starts the opener. True freshmen, no matter how talented, make mistakes; 2) Defensive line. The Dogs are thin up front and are expected to be without the suspended Jonathan Ledbetter for at least a few games (though coach Kirby Smart has yet to say how many). Even then, there has to be a question about Ledbetter’s conditioning and state of mind after treatment following two alcohol-related arrests; 3) New head coach. While many are excited about Smart’s arrival from Alabama, believing Georgia needed a fresh start and could benefit from the Saban coaching tree, he’s never been a head coach before. Georgia’s biggest tests will come in the first five weeks: North Carolina in the opener at the Georgia Dome, then at Ole Miss and home against Tennessee in Weeks 4 and 5. Getting the Volunteers in Athens is key. If the Dogs come through that early stretch clean, they’ll be back in the Dome for the SEC championship game. My guess: They will, and they’ll finish higher than 18th.
• Don’t sleep at Georgia Tech: I’m not sure how good the Jackets will be but I am certain they won’t be 2015-level of bad (3-9, 1-7). Quarterback Justin Thomas succumbed to trying to do way too much with a weakened/injury-wrecked supporting cast last season and made far too many mistakes and turnovers. The Jackets will have a better offensive line and cast of ball carriers this season. The defense, as always, be an adventure. Tech should win its opener against Boston College in Ireland and could be 3-0 when it enters a difficult stretch against Clemson (home), Miami (Mark Richt, home) and at Pittsburgh. Tech wasn’t even listed in the AP’s “also receiving votes” category. My projection: The Jackets will not only receive votes, they’ll finish the regular season as a top 25 team.
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