AP Top 25 Reality Check: Hoping for best amid uncertainty
Imagine for a moment this all works out.
College football has not one but two seasons, played from beginning to end no interruptions. In the fall, a super-sized Southeastern Conference schedule, Notre Dame battling for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a better chance than ever for a Group of Five team to reach the College Football Playoff (yes, imagine, too, there is a playoff).
Then, a couple weeks after a fall champion is crowned, Season II kicks off throughout the Midwest and West Coast, concluding with a springtime Rose Bowl.
Far from ideal, a season turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic could still be pretty cool. Of course, it is entirely possible the next down of major college football will be played at the end of August 2021.
The preseason AP Top 25 was released Monday. It was unusual, which is only right for what promises to be an unusual season.
In the past, the preseason edition of Reality Check has been about tempering expectations, pointing out reasons to be pessimistic about each of the ranked teams.
Not this year. We could all use some optimism these days. Here’s why everything is going to work out great for each team:
No. 1 Clemson
Opener: at Wake Forest, Sept. 12
Reality check: QB Trevor Lawrence becomes Clemson’s first Heisman Trophy winner in his final college season and freshman DE Bryan Breese emerges as the next great Tigers’ defensive lineman.
No. 2 Ohio State
Reality check: The Buckeyes are loaded again, and if QB Justin Fields opts in for a winter season they will be positioned to become the first team in Big Ten history to win four straight outright conference championships.
No. 3 Alabama
Opener: at Missouri, Sept. 26
Reality check: Plan A: QB Mac Jones, who played well in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa, takes another step forward and the Tide keeps rolling. Plan B: Five-star freshman QB Bryce Young quickly blossoms into college football’s next big thing and the Tide keeps rolling.
No. 4 Georgia
Opener: at Arkansas, Sept. 26.
Reality check: New coordinator Todd Monken unleashes a diversified, creative offense to go along with what might be the best defense in the country, led by S Richard LeCounte and LB Monty Rice.
No. 5 Oklahoma
Opener: vs. Missouri State, Sept. 12.
Reality check: Spencer Rattler becomes the fourth straight Sooners’ starting quarterback to become a Heisman finalist.
No. 6 LSU
Opener: vs. Mississippi State, Sept. 26.
Reality check: Replacing a mountain of talented players and assistant coaches, coach Ed Orgeron guides the Tigers through a smooth transition that includes QB Myles Brennan doing a good enough impersonation of Joe Burrow.
No. 7 Penn State
Reality check: The Nittany Lions’ best player (LB Micah Parsons) has opted out, but Penn State rides RB Journey Brown and a loaded defensive line to another season pushing Ohio State.
No. 8 Florida
Opener: at Mississippi, Sept. 26.
Reality check: The Gators have the pieces to put together their best offense in years behind QB Kyle Trask and TE Kyle Pitts, even with an opt out or two.
No. 9 Oregon
Reality check: Super sophomore DE Kayvon Thibodeaux leads the best defense in the Pac-12 and star OT Penei Sewell provides Secret Service-level protection for whomever emerges as the Ducks’ starting quarterback.
No. 10 Notre Dame
Opener: vs. Duke, Sept. 12.
Reality check: A talented offensive line, led by OT Liam Eichenberg, mauls its way to an ACC championship game and rematch with Clemson.
No. 11 Auburn
Opener: vs. Kentucky, Sept. 26.
Reality check: QB Bo Nix builds off some inspiring moments as a freshman and combines with a group of blazing fast receivers to give the Tigers the explosive offense they lacked last season.
No. 12 Wisconsin
Reality check: New workhorse running back (Nakia Watson?). Three new offensive line starters. Same old efficient and powerful Badgers.
No. 13 Texas A&M
Opener: vs. Vanderbilt, Sept. 26
Reality check: QB Kellen Mond finds consistency as a fourth-year starter and the Aggies take a leap forward in Year 3 of coach Jimbo Fisher’s 10-year contact.
No. 14 Texas
Opener: vs. UTEP, Sept. 12.
Reality check: A healthy defense, led by LB Joseph Assai, flourishes with new coordinator Chris Ash and the Longhorns take another run at dethroning five-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
No. 15 Oklahoma State
Opener: vs. Tulsa, Sept. 12.
Reality check: After a tumultuous offseason, the Cowboys find harmony with RB Chuba Hubbard powering a monster offense.
No. 16 Michigan
Reality check: A star quarterback emerges from the competition between junior Dylan McCaffrey and sophomore Joe Milton, unlocking the versatile offense coach Jim Harbaugh has been searching for.
No. 17 Southern California
Reality check: An overhauled defensive coaching staff and maturing QB Kedon Slovis put the Trojans in position to win the Pac-12 and guarantee another season for head coach Clay Helton.
No. 18 North Carolina
Opener: vs. Syracuse, Sept. 12
Reality check: Coach Mack Brown’s turnaround kicks into high gear with QB Sam Howell leading a supercharged offense.
No. 19 Minnesota
Reality check: The Gophers will have to make do without star WR Rashod Batemen, who opted out, but they’re at their best when pushing around opponents anyway. They will do that behind a huge and experienced offensive line.
No. 20 Cincinnati
Opener: vs. Austin Peay, Sept. 19.
Reality check: Nine returning starters on defense, seven of them seniors, have the Bearcats in the thick of another highly competitive AAC race.
No. 21 UCF
Opener: vs. FIU, Sept. 21
Reality check: The Knights lost three games by a total of seven points last year. Better luck to go with maybe the most talented roster in the AAC and UCF might finally get that playoff spot it has yearned for.
No. 22 Utah
Reality check: South Carolina transfer QB Jake Bentley allows the Utes to lean on their offense as they rebuild the defense. Stability makes Utah an outlier in the Pac-12 South.
No. 23 Iowa State
Opener: vs. Louisiana, Sept. 12.
Reality check: An experienced defense and QB Brock Purdy lead the Cyclones to the breakout season that has been just beyond their grasp the past two years.
No. 24 Iowa
Reality check: RB Tyler Goodson and a versatile group of skill players help ease in new starting QB Spencer Petras and the Hawkeyes are again contenders in the Big Ten West.
No. 25 Tennessee
Opener: at South Carolina, Sept. 26.
Reality check: Riding a six-game winning streak, the Vols continue their steady climb back to relevance on the strength of one of the most experienced rosters in the SEC.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/
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