When the preseason coaches and AP polls were released over the past few weeks, there was no surprise at the top: Alabama is ranked No. 1, after winning its fourth national championship in the past seven years under coach Nick Saban. It makes sense. Alabama is the team to beat, until proven otherwise.
While Alabama is undoubtedly a top contender for this year's College Football Playoff title, that doesn't mean it is infallible. Someone is capable of dethroning the king in 2016. On Monday, after posting previews for all the conferences the past two weeks, Sports on Earth published projections for this year's 40 bowl games, including the two playoff semifinals at the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl.
The predictions are LSU vs. Clemson in the Peach Bowl and Florida State vs. Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, with LSU and Florida State meeting in the national championship game on Jan. 9 in Tampa.
So who's going to win the national championship? Here is our thought process, followed by the title prediction.
The Alabama Question
In 2014, Florida State returned most of its national championship team, including Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and his entire offensive line, and was the overwhelming choice as the preseason No. 1 team. The Seminoles made the playoff, but they flirted with disaster all season before unraveling against Oregon in the playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
In 2015, Ohio State returned most of its national championship team, including three star quarterbacks, a Heisman-candidate running back and several defensive All-America candidates. The Buckeyes were a unanimous preseason No. 1 in the AP poll. But their offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm, and it unraveled in an excruciating three-point loss to Michigan State in November. They missed the playoff and won the Fiesta Bowl instead.
Winning a national championship is difficult task, even for the most talented of teams. It requires great talent, good coaching and plenty of luck. It requires a team not getting complacent, especially after already winning a title. Repeating is even more difficult, as Florida State and Ohio State showed, and the margin for error is slim in college football's national title race.
In 2016, Alabama is the preseason No. 1. It returns an All-American left tackle, one of the nation's best receiving corps and a star-studded defense, coming off six straight No. 1 recruiting classes. It is also coached by Nick Saban, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. Even with a revamped and unproven backfield, both at quarterback and running back, it's hard to formulate a strong argument against the Crimson Tide. Nobody amasses talent and depth like Saban and his staff, and nobody develops players like Saban and his staff, either.
Picking Alabama is always the safest and smartest pick. That doesn't mean its championship chances are ever guaranteed. Strangely, Alabama has won four national titles under Saban, but none of those came when it started a season ranked first in the preseason AP poll. In 2009, the defending champion Crimson Tide lost three regular-season games and finished 10th. In 2013, the back-to-back champion Tide lost to Auburn on the Kick Six, then fell to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
No preseason AP No. 1 has won the national championship since USC in 2004. That alone isn't reason enough to pick against Alabama, but even in its dominant run under Saban, it's not as if the Crimson Tide are unbeatable. Including the postseason, they've lost at least two games in four of nine seasons under Saban. We're nitpicking here,, but it's a national championship race, and with games away from home against USC, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU, there are possible landmines for an Alabama team trying to pick another new QB -- its fourth starter in four years -- and replace a Heisman Trophy winner at running back.
Picking Alabama under Nick Saban is one of the safest things to do in the history of college football. Repeating may be hard, but in 2011-12 Saban did manage to pull off a repeat. There's a good chance I will pick Alabama next year, and it's hard to find fault with anybody picking Alabama this year.
But there are other worthy candidates, too, and Alabama falling short wouldn't be a surprise.
BCS/Playoff Era National Champions
The following table breaks down the 18 national champions of the BCS and College Football Playoff, including where they ended the previous season in the AP poll, where they began in their championship season, their final record, whether they had a first-year starter at quarterback, where they ranked in Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System on offense and defense and their average recruiting ranking of the previous four classes, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Recruiting rankings are included for only the past 10 championship teams because of the limited data available.
So what does a national champion look like? Of the past 10 title winners, all but 2010 Auburn -- which had Cam Newton -- had had an average recruiting class in the top 10. Which teams have averaged a top-10 class the past four years? Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Florida State, Georgia, USC and Auburn, with Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Florida and Ole Miss just missing the cut.
Six of the past 18 national champions have started the season outside the AP top 10. And while having a returning starting quarterback can certainly be an advantage, nine of 18 have had a new starter at the position, including six of the past seven.
2016 Title Contenders
Alabama. See above.
Clemson. Last year's national runner-up returns most of an exceptional offense. That includes Deshaun Watson, the nation's best QB; a star running back in Wayne Gallman, a terrific offensive line; and a deep receiving corps that's headlined by Mike Williams, who missed last season with a injury. How quickly can the defense reload, again? Coordinator Brent Venables successfully avoided too much of a drop-off despite a ton of impact losses last year. Now, just four starters return, and starting DE Austin Bryant is out for a few weeks with a broken foot. Despite the rebuilding needed on defense, our picks include Clemson as one of two ACC teams in the playoff, but with another tough loss in the postseason.
Michigan. The projected Big Ten champion went 10-3 in Jim Harbaugh's first season, exceeding expectations -- going from preseason unranked to 12th -- with a defense that was often dominant. The Wolverines still lost to rivals Michigan State (on a miracle) and Ohio State, but it's already become clear that Harbaugh has the Wolverines on the rise. The defense can be dominant again, and the offensive line and receiving corps are in good shape. A significant question remains at quarterback, but Michigan has plenty of time to figure it out before its big late-season road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. The Wolverines might not be good enough to beat two top-four teams in a playoff to win the title, but they're capable of getting into the field.
Ohio State. The pressure is off, at least. Most of the 2014 national championship team is gone, and now the Buckeyes are rebuilding around QB J.T. Barrett. There is a long way to go for a team returning only six starters, but Urban Meyer and his staff are terrific recruiters, and this roster is stocked with young players who will soon become household names. It may just be a year early for another national championship … although that's what was said in 2014, too.
Oklahoma and TCU. Our Big 12 preview has TCU winning the conference via a tiebreaker with Oklahoma because of the head-to-head result on Oct. 1 in Fort Worth. But while we give TCU the slight edge to win the conference, Oklahoma has a higher ceiling and is a better national championship bet, if everything goes right. With a star QB in Baker Mayfield, a talented backfield tandem and improving play at the line of scrimmage, a run back to the playoff wouldn't be surprising. TCU can get to the playoff too behind an exceptional defense, but it would be unlikely to win two games if it gets there.
Tennessee. It is finally time for the Volunteers to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007. The Vols have recruited well (average four-year ranking: 12.25). They have an excellent running game. They have a senior QB, Joshua Dobbs. Their defense will be among the SEC's best. They host rivals Florida and Alabama, who have owned them over the last decade. Do the Vols have enough to win the entire SEC, make the playoff and win the national title? No, probably not, but this is the most talented Tennessee team in a long time.
Pick a Pac-12 team. UCLA has perhaps the biggest rising star quarterback in Josh Rosen, and it is our pick to win the Pac-12. Stanford has Christian McCaffrey. Oregon's offense remains dangerous, if it finds the right quarterback. USC has a ton of talent, with an average recruiting ranking of 8.5 in the past four years. Washington is on the rise and primed for a breakout season. There are a lot of good teams in the Pac-12, but they mostly play difficult schedules -- particularly USC and Stanford -- that could eliminate them from the national title conversation. It's a long list of teams that could be envisioned in the top 10, but it's much harder to see a national champion.
Notre Dame. Yet again, the preseason has not been kind to Notre Dame, with off-the-field issues dominating the headlines last weekend. With stars like Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley and Jaylon Smith gone, it's probably too much to ask for the Fighting Irish to get to the national title game. But they have two talented quarterbacks, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, and Brian Kelly's recruiting classes have an average ranking of 11th the past four years. There's a lot of talent on this roster, and the Fighting Irish survived bad injury luck to win 10 games last year, with close losses to Clemson and Stanford.
LSU vs. Florida State
As detailed in Monday's postseason projections, Sports on Earth picks LSU to beat Clemson in the Peach Bowl and Florida State to beat Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl in the New Year's Even College Football Playoff semifinals. So will the Tigers or Seminoles hoist the playoff trophy?
Why LSU can win the national championship. Forget about Alabama for a moment, and let's evaluate what LSU has stockpiled on its depth chart. It has signed four straight top-six recruiting classes. After losing an unparalleled amount of talent early to the NFL draft, it has survived the draft's underclassman deadline relatively unscathed the last couple years. Players forced to play earlier than expected are maturing into stars now, with nine of the top 11 tacklers from last season ready to play in 2016 on defense under former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, one of the best coaching moves of the offseason.
Aranda had good players to craft great Badgers defenses, but the talent level under his watch takes a step up in Baton Rouge, with stars like CB Tre'Davious White, SS Jamal Adams, LB Kendell Beckwith, DE Christian Neal, DT Davon Godchaux and rush end Arden Key at his disposal. Les Miles has had some great defenses at LSU; this will be among the best, another one capable of making big plays to aid the offense.
And despite all the criticism of the LSU offense, the unit ranked 17th in yards per play last year -- ahead of Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama. There's no question that the offense can be too conservative, and that QB Brandon Harris needs to improve. But in his first year as starter, as a sophomore, Harris was serviceable for much of the season, before collapsing in November with a rough outing against Alabama.
Harris is now entering his second year as starter, and it's reasonable to believe he will improve. He's protected by a quality offensive line, and he has two excellent receivers in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. He's also handing the ball off to Leonard Fournette, one of the most talented college running backs in years. Fournette would have rushed for 2,000 yards last year had the Tigers' opener not been canceled, and he was the Heisman frontrunner until the Alabama game. He's still one of the most valuable players in the nation.
Miles is 112-32 with a national championship as coach of LSU. He has the best player of his tenure in Fournette, and he has one of the nation's most talented defenses. LSU gets both Ole Miss and Alabama at home. While Alabama is still a title favorite, this LSU roster presents a golden opportunity for Miles to break back through to the top of the national conversation.
Why Florida State can win the national championship. Yes, Florida State won the national championship in 2013 with a breakout performance from a redshirt freshman quarterback. With an otherwise experienced roster, it is natural to draw parallels. But let's no go claiming that Deondre Francois is Jameis Winston. Winston was a rare talent; while Francois is undoubtedly talented and could be poised for a breakout campaign, it's highly unlikely that he'll touch Winston's level.
He doesn't need to. Florida State's offensive line has been rebuilt, led by star left tackle Roderick Johnson. Its receiving corps still needs some work, but Travis Rudolph is a talented player, and there are breakout candidates in the group, including Auden Tate. The defense is loaded with talent, including sophomore safety Derwin James -- who might already be the best defensive player in college football -- plus CB Marquez White, DT Derrick Nnadi and DEs DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat.
Florida State will have to prove itself early. It faces Ole Miss, Louisville, North Carolina and Miami in its first six games, and, of course, it hosts Clemson on Oct. 29. Clemson will have a quarterback advantage no matter how quickly Francois develops. Still, Florida State has the look of a complete team, one that has finished in the top four in recruiting three years in a row.
The Seminoles also have Dalvin Cook. The most explosive running back in the country, Cook averaged 7.4 yards per carry despite dealing with injuries and a young offensive line last year. He ran for 1,691 yards and 19 TDs, and he's a threat for 2,000 yards and the Heisman as a junior. LSU has Fournette, but Cook is on Fournette's level.
National Championship Pick: LSU Tigers
Maybe it's crazy to believe that LSU will end its five-game losing streak against Alabama, especially after watching how hopeless the offense became in last year's loss in Tuscaloosa, which dealt a significant blow to Fournette's Heisman hopes. Maybe it's crazy to pick an LSU team that proceeded to lose to both Arkansas and Ole Miss after that Bama game, nearly resulting in the firing of Miles. There is risk involved, for sure.
But it's not crazy to believe that this is one of the five most talented rosters in college football. It's not crazy to believe that Harris, who took too much criticism as a sophomore, will improve. It's not crazy to believe that this will be one of LSU's best defenses. And it's certainly not crazy to believe that Fournette is one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
Alabama is college football's surest thing, but Miles might still have some magic left. LSU can win the 2016 national championship.