Spring practice season is finished in college football. Classes are out of session, and media days won't begin for over two months yet. That means it's time for a familiar exercise: overthinking the top of preseason polls while nothing else is happening in the sport.
For a couple years, defending champion Florida State and Ohio State teams that returned everybody, including their quarterbacks, were obvious No. 1 choices. But when there is not a clear favorite outside Tuscaloosa, the debate reverts to a conundrum: Someone other than Alabama will probably win college football's national championship, and yet picking anyone other than Alabama as the preseason No. 1 feels foolish.
It's a familiar dance, one that occurred last year, too. Alabama under Nick Saban is one of the most powerful programs in college football history. It has won four of the past eight national championships and has a 112-13 record in the past nine seasons. In the past four years, the Crimson Tide are 51-6. And yet, in those four seasons, Alabama has won only one national championship.
If the question is Alabama vs. The Field for the national championship, The Field is an easy call. (SportsBook currently has Alabama as a 9/2 favorite.) However, preseason polls make the prediction much more difficult: If you don't believe Alabama is going to win the national title, then you have to craft an argument for a specific team to be ranked ahead of Alabama. And when the defending champion doesn't return everybody like those Seminoles and Buckeyes squads -- this year, Clemson returns plenty but loses Deshaun Watson and a whole lot more -- nobody ever seems to have a bulletproof argument to be placed in front of the talent-rich Crimson Tide.
Alabama has signed seven straight No. 1 ranked recruiting classes. It is college football's default favorite when no other clear-cut consensus option exists. But the offseason is long, and picking Alabama is boring. With so much time to fill over the next few months before kickoff, the mind wanders, and it's impossible not to try to talk oneself into something more interesting, if only for the sake of being different. There's...
Ohio State. Despite the Fiesta Bowl debacle and the loss of another seven draft picks -- including three first-round defensive backs -- a strong argument can always be made for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer is college football's second-most successful active coach behind Saban. He has a senior QB in J.T. Barrett, he has recruited better than everyone but Saban and he has a loaded defensive line. He's 61-6 in five seasons with four top-six AP finishes. Ohio State is the second-safest bet to be in the national title race on a yearly basis.
Florida State. The Seminoles make plenty of sense for No. 1, but it's a move that could either pay off in a big way or blow up by the end of the first Saturday. That's because Florida State meets Alabama in Atlanta in Week 1. The Noles have a rising star QB in Deondre Francois, an improved defense and regular recruiting success that gives them a title shot.
USC. The Trojans have the most skilled passer in college football in Sam Darnold, who launched them to nine straight wins last year, including the Rose Bowl. There's some rebuilding to do, particularly on the offensive line, but even through the recent coaching uncertainty, recruiting has never been a problem.
Clemson. The defending national champions could be considered No. 1 until proven otherwise. They lost Deshaun Watson, but they actually had four fewer draft picks (six) than Alabama, and their defensive line will be dominant.
Penn State. Nearly everybody returns from last year's surprise Big Ten champions, including Heisman candidates Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley.
Oklahoma. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has finished in the top four of the Heisman race twice in a row, leading the Sooners to the Big 12 title both years.
Michigan. Somebody's going to pick the Wolverines, although it's much more likely that, with 12 draft picks gone, Michigan will finish third in the Big Ten East again.
Louisville. Somehow the backlash to Louisville's lackluster finish to last season has made Heisman winner Lamar Jackson feel sort of underrated.
Washington. A seasoned, now healthy Jake Browning at QB, a star RB in Myles Gaskin and a dangerous defensive front return to a breakout playoff team, all with a highly respected coach in Chris Petersen, who has found his groove in Seattle.
Auburn. Gus Malzahn is the last coach to beat Alabama and win the SEC, and now he may have a breakout QB in Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham.
There will be arguments made for some or all of those teams and perhaps a few others. And then there will be arguments made against Alabama. The Crimson Tide had 10 players drafted, all in the first four rounds. They lose several All-Americans. Their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, struggled with downfield passing as a freshman, particularly in the playoff. They have another new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll. They have to replenish their pass rush. They have that losable season-opening game against Florida State. The SEC should have better quarterback play, creating more possible challengers to Alabama after a down year in 2016.
Still, while Hurts had faults last season, he was only a freshman and he won SEC offensive player of the year. The supporting cast is fantastic, featuring wideout Calvin Ridley and the nation's deepest group of running backs, hopefully led by a healthy Bo Scarbrough. The defense reloads on an annual basis with little drop-off. Saban is still Saban, and Alabama continues to be a factory, one that is the most reliably great team in college football.
This has the makings of yet another excellent Alabama team, even if it's not necessarily one that is a slam-dunk preseason No. 1 for only the fourth time under Saban.
So far, none of the preseason No. 1 teams under Saban have actually won the title. In fact, the preseason No. 1 team in the AP top 25 has not won the national championship since USC in 2004.
In the end, history says that most people's national championship predictions will be wrong. It happens almost every year. Many of us tried to be bold last year, only for such prognostications to fail as the Tide went undefeated in the regular season and were defeated by the second-most obvious preseason choice, a Clemson team led by Watson. It's just easier to feel good about being wrong if the choice is Alabama, the preseason pick least likely to backfire horribly, because the Crimson Tide are always at least going to have a good chance.
In the absence of an obvious alternative, Alabama is easily argued over everybody else, and picking anybody else can't help but feel like overthinking. So consider this a preemptive column arguing against the desire to be different come August. The next few months of down time will provoke an urge to make arguments for other teams, and many of those arguments will be valid. Alabama will feel boring. But while there's no such thing as a sure bet, Alabama is the closest thing to a safe one.
The Crimson Tide are the best choice now, and they'll still be the best choice in August.