By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
The last time Alabama was ranked lower than No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25, Nick Saban had not yet won a national championship with the Crimson Tide.
There is a very real possibility that when the new preseason AP Top 25 is unveiled on Monday at noon Eastern, ‘Bama could be squeezed out of the top three. After all, the Tide went 11-2 and didn’t make the College Football Playoff in 2022 and then said goodbye to Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and two-time national defensive player of the year Will Anderson Jr.
Not exactly cause for alarm in Tuscaloosa, but for a program with six national titles in the last 14 years — and five of the last seven preseason No. 1 rankings — there are more unknowns than there have been in a while.
“Our team seems to be pretty hungry this year and motivated,” coach Nick Saban said during SEC media days. “Like all teams, we probably have some issues that are created by graduations and people leaving the program. Obviously, the No. 1 thing that people are most interested in is the quarterback.”
Everybody should be so lucky to have the Tide’s uncertainty as Saban tries to sort through another roster filled with former blue-chip recruits to unearth the next wave of All-Americans. The last time Alabama began a season ranked outside the top three was 2009, when the Crimson Tide was No. 5 — and went on to win its first national title under Saban.
There is plenty to ponder as the unofficial start of the season nears with the release of AP Top 25.
WHO’S NO. 1?
Georgia has won two straight national championships, but hasn’t been preseason No. 1 since 2008 — the Bulldogs’ one and only time starting the preseason on top of the AP poll.
After ending a four-decade title drought in 2021, Georgia had a record number of players drafted. The created just enough doubt about the Bulldogs going into last year to be ranked No. 3 in the preseason.
Even with more significant turnover, Georgia is the odds on favorite to be preseason No. 1. Michigan, coming off consecutive CFP appearances — but no playoff victories — looks like the most likely alternative.
The Wolverines have a load of experience and talent returning, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy and All-America running back Blake Corum, and a two-game winning streak against rival Ohio State.
Michigan should be thinking big, even if its coach is trying to tamp things down a bit.
“Championship or bust? I mean, what does that mean?,” Jim Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days. “That doesn’t mean anything to me, that’s not real. We’re the same as we always are.”
The Horned Frogs became the first true Cinderella team in the College Football Playoff era, getting to the championship game the year after having a losing season and with a first-year coach.
Sonny Dykes’ crew was unranked heading into the season and not even considered a threat to win the Big 12. The Frogs then proceeded to win eight regular-season games by 10 points or fewer and then upset Michigan in the CFP semifinals.
Gone from that surprising team is Heisman runner-up Max Duggan, first-round draft pick Quentin Johnston and a slew of productive veterans who spurred last season’s magical run.
So what will voters do with TCU this year?
The lowest preseason ranking for a team that reached the CFP the previous season was given to Cincinnati at No. 23 last year. The Bearcats became the first team from outside a Power Five conference to reach the playoff in 2021, and then lost just about all their star players to the NFL draft.
The lowest-ranked Power Five team in the preseason poll the season after making the playoff was Michigan State at No. 12 in 2016. That team finished 3-9.
The Horned Frogs did some good work in the portal, including bringing in three former blue-chippers from Alabama, and have a quarterback in Chandler Morris who beat out Duggan for the starting job last season before being injured in Game 1.
How poll voters deal with last year’s national runner-up is one of the fascinating question about the preseason Top 25.
ODDS AND ENDS
The Pac-12’s demise off the field is especially ironic because of the conference’s apparent strength on the field heading into this season. The conference finished last season with six ranked teams.
How many Pac-12 teams will be in the preseason poll and how high will they climb?
Southern California, Washington and two time-defending champion Utah would seem to be locks to be ranked somewhere with both Oregon and Oregon State looking good, too.
The Pac-12 last had as many as five teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 just two years ago.
The difference was in 2021, the Pac-12 had no top-10 teams and three of the five were ranked from 20-25. This season’s Pac-12 — maybe the last Pac-12, with star quarterbacks Caleb Williams of USC, Bo Nix of Oregon, Michael Penix Jr. of Washington and Cam Rising of Utah leading the way — appears much stronger.
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