The Florida Gators will start with their highest preseason ranking since 2010.
If other pollsters think like me, that is.
I put UF No. 8 on my preseason AP Top 25 ballot. If my voting colleagues agree, that would be the Gators’ best start to the year since opening 2010 at No. 4.
The Gators’ defense should be good — maybe better than good. UF has its best receiving corps since the Tim Tebow era plus a strong backfield. But I have too many questions to put UF in the same tier as Oklahoma and Ohio State. Can Feleipe Franks perform at a high level consistently? Can coach Dan Mullen win 11 games? How good will the rebuilt offensive line be? How will a thin secondary withstand the season? I don’t know the answers, but the Gators’ potential put them near the top of my fourth tier.
Tier 1 is obvious: Alabama and Clemson. But what order? I put the Tigers first for a few reasons: Last year’s blowout, the uncertainty that accompanies more coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa and my faith in star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Georgia is in a tier all by itself. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs aren’t in the pantheon with Clemson and the Crimson Tide, but they’ve recruited at a high enough level to separate themselves from the next group. That’s why the first spot I finalized on my ballot was Georgia at No. 3.
Michigan was one of the trickiest teams for me. The Wolverines have the pieces to win the Big Ten (especially with a new coach and talented but unproven quarterback at Ohio State), but I’m still not sold on Jim Harbaugh as an elite, championship-level coach. Ninth felt like the right compromise for now.
Four teams I’m higher on than most
No. 4 LSU: Advanced metrics like the Tigers, and their defense has a chance to be the best in the country.
No. 10 Auburn: Coach Gus Malzahn calling plays is a plus for me, and both lines should be excellent.
No. 17 Mississippi State: Another advanced metrics favorite, and I feel good about Joe Moorhead with a quarterback he likes.
No. 25 Boise State: Four-year starter Brett Rypien is gone, but 13 starters return from a 10-3 team. I still think the Broncos beat Florida State in the opener in Jacksonville.
Three teams I’m pumping the brakes on
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22. Texas: Advanced metrics have steered me away from the Longhorns, who played down to their competition too much last year.
24. UCF: Repeat after me: Teams rarely lose all-time greats without regressing. I still think the Knights will be among the best in the Group of Five, but I’m skeptical of how they fare without McKenzie Milton. I fear that on the scale of Notre Dame grad transfer quarterbacks, Brandon Wimbush is more Malik Zaire than Everett Golson.
Unranked Miami: I understand why someone might rank the Hurricanes, but I’m not there yet. Too many questions about the offensive line, quarterbacks and first-time head coach Manny Diaz.
Finally, a few quick reminders: This is my best guess of which teams will be best in Week 1, not in January; I’m not trying to predict the future.
Accordingly, I ignore teams’ schedules for these rankings. That’s why Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies start No. 11, even though I doubt they finish there after playing the top four teams in my rankings. I will, however, take strength of schedule into consideration once the games begin.
I do not and, under AP guidelines, cannot give any special treatment to teams I cover. There’s no hometown benefit for USF, or UF, or Florida State, or anyone else.
My preseason ballot
6. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
11. Texas A&M
17. Mississippi State
18. South Carolina
21. Michigan State
23. Iowa State
25. Boise State
Among those also considered (in no particular order): Army, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Miami, Virginia, Northwestern, Stanford, Nebraska, Memphis, Cincinnati, Washington State