The top three spots on my Associated Press top 25 preseason ballot were easy: Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, in that order.
The next 22 were the most perplexing jumble I’ve experienced in six years as a voter.
Rankings typically cluster into a handful of tiers with obvious breaks between, say, 7-11 and 12-18. Not this year. I could have justified putting the Sooners in my top 10, leaving them off my ballot entirely or slotting them anywhere in the middle. I’m not the only one feeling confused in the transfer portal era.
“You don’t really know what anybody has until about Week 3 or 4,” USF coach Jeff Scott said.
I feel pretty good about what Alabama and Ohio State have. Alabama has arguably the top two players in the country (linebacker Will Anderson and quarterback Bryce Young), and the Buckeyes are loaded. They were an easy 1-2. I expect Georgia to regress slightly, but the reigning national champions are talented enough to start third.
The best of the rest begin with Utah at No. 4. The Utes return a veteran quarterback (Cam Rising), 1,100-yard rusher Tavion Thomas and five of their top six receivers. With so many unknowns, I gave the edge to the stability of 18th-year coach Kyle Whittingham. I expect Utah to beat Florida in Week 1 by at least a touchdown.
I put Texas A&M fifth because of the strong recruiting classes Jimbo Fisher has amassed. The potential is there, even if Fisher hasn’t lived up to the hype (or his salary) yet.
No. 15 Miami was the only state team on my ballot (no others were close). I like the Hurricanes’ staff, and quarterback Tyler Van Dyke is a first-round NFL prospect. There’s not enough high-end talent around him, however, to deserve a higher ranking coming off a 7-5 season.
Other thoughts from my ballot:
The Gators aren’t the only team with a tough opener. I put USF’s Week 1 opponent, BYU, at No. 25. I have more confidence in the Cougars (21-4 over the last two seasons) than the others I strongly considered (Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Penn State and Tennessee).
Team I’m more skeptical on than most: Tennessee. I’ve seen the Vols as high as No. 9 nationally, and I understand the buzz. Tennessee outperformed expectations last year and has some big pieces coming back, like quarterback Hendon Hooker and 1,000-yard receiver Cedric Tillman. But a 7-6 first season isn’t enough to shake my skepticism around former UCF coach Josh Heupel.
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Two teams I’m higher on than most: No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 17 Kentucky. In a year with so many unknowns, I’m buying into steady programs with good returning quarterbacks. The Demon Deacons and Wildcats both fit that description.
Team most likely to make me look clueless: No. 8 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack return almost everyone from a top-15 defense plus ACC preseason player of the year Devin Leary. But N.C. State has never finished in the top 10 and hasn’t won the ACC since 1979. Putting the Wolfpack ahead of No. 9 Clemson and — gulp — picking them to win the conference is a gamble. However, I have questions about the Clemson’s quarterbacks and suspect the team will fade to its pre-2012 form after losing both coordinators.
UF, FSU have tough schedules. The Gators face three of my top five teams (Georgia, Utah and Texas A&M) plus Kentucky. The Seminoles face four top-15 teams in a six-week stretch (Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Clemson and Miami). Consider my imperfect rankings another reason to keep expectations grounded, given where both programs are in their rebuilding processes.
Here’s my full ballot:
2. Ohio State
5. Texas A&M
7. Notre Dame
8. North Carolina State
10. Michigan State
13. Wake Forest
16. Oklahoma State
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