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College football power rankings: Bama-Clemson, Round IV?

Reported by ESPN:

Ready for Alabama-Clemson, Round IV? If our Preseason Power Rankings are any indication, expect to see the latest installment of college football’s best rivalry in this year’s title game. Ohio State and Georgia round out our top four heading into the season. And what about the other national champions? Despite a new coach in Josh Heupel, UCF finds its way into the rankings at No. 24.

Here are the ESPN Preseason College Football Power Rankings:

The runaway favorites in the SEC, the defending champion Crimson Tide could have one of their most explosive offenses in years with tons of depth at running back and receiver, led by Damien Harris. The question is: Who plays quarterback? Whether it’s Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts or some combination of the two, Nick Saban’s squad should put up points. The defense, however, could be a relative work in progress with four new starters in the secondary and already a major loss at linebacker (Terrell Lewis). But don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for Saban’s latest collection of five-stars. — Alex Scarborough

Ever since Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell announced they would come to Clemson for their senior seasons, the Tigers have been a favorite to play for yet another national championship. And with good reason. The three defensive linemen team with junior tackle Dexter Lawrence to form the best defensive line in the country, a veteran unit that has embraced the high expectations and leadership on what is now a veteran team. While there is some uncertainty at quarterback, there is no doubt this position is in much better shape with Kelly Bryant back and ESPN 300 talent Trevor Lawrence onboard. Expect both to play. The depth at running back is stellar, and receiver Tee Higgins is a star in the making. If Clemson lives up to its vast potential, chances are high it will be back in the championship mix come January — Andrea Adelson

The Buckeyes are once again the team to beat in the Big Ten. Nick Bosa will headline a defensive front that is once again loaded despite losing three draft picks from last year’s group. A mature group of receivers and stud running back J.K. Dobbins should provide plenty of cushion for an offense replacing record-setting quarterback J.T. Barrett. September trips to TCU and Penn State don’t leave expected starter Dwayne Haskins much runway to get up to full speed, but his performance against rival Michigan last November should quell any panic about his ability to be ready for a big stage. — Dan Murphy

The defense must replace Roquan Smith and others, but the Bulldogs’ offense could take a big step forward this season. After a stellar freshman year, Jake Fromm is back at quarterback with a more experienced offensive line and weapons at running back (D’Andre Swift) and receiver (Terry Godwin). Add in QB Justin Fields, the No. 1 recruit from the 2018 class, and the Bulldogs have lots of options to help Kirby Smart in his quest to break the Nick Saban assistant curse. — Scarborough

The heavy favorite in the Pac-12, Washington figures to be the conference’s best candidate to be a part of the playoff picture. And unlike in recent years, the Huskies have a chance to make a statement in the nonconference with a marquee opener against Auburn. They’ll need some receivers to emerge, but with QB Jake Browning set to begin his fourth season as the Huskies’ starter, there is plenty of reason for optimism on that side to go along with a defense that has the potential to be the best in coach Chris Petersen’s tenure. — Kyle Bonagura

Paul Chryst has won at least 10 games in each of his three seasons coaching his alma mater, and there’s no reason to expect any less in 2018. Wisconsin’s offense returns a couple of All-America candidates on the line, some promising young receivers and perhaps the country’s best workhorse running back, Jonathan Taylor. More than half of last year’s starting defense is gone, but the Badgers have a long track record of success with plugging in new players on that side of the ball without taking a step backward. The big question in Madison this year is if they can get over the hump and win more than the West Division. — Murphy

Outside of quarterback, the Sooners should be even better than last year on offense, with running back Rodney Anderson and wideout Marquis Brown returning to flank one of the most dominant offensive lines in the country. The defense should be better, too — if only because it can’t be any worse. Of course, the quarterback position is a pretty important one, and Kyler Murray will attempt to adequately succeed Baker Mayfield, one of the greatest players in Oklahoma’s storied history. Murray might not be Mayfield, but he still has the talent to quarterback the Sooners to the CFP for the third time in four years. — Jake Trotter

What does Penn State look like without the architect of its explosive offense (Joe Moorhead) and once-in-a-generation running back Saquon Barkley? Probably not all that different. Quarterback Trace McSorley is back, and the Nittany Lions staff has stocked up plenty of talent on the recruiting trail. James Franklin is confident the offensive line has at last been replenished after taking a big hit due to scholarship reductions. The toughest hurdles on the way to a Big Ten title (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin) all have to go to Happy Valley this fall. — Murphy

Nobody in Miami is happy with the way last season ended: three straight losses to put a damper on what was the best season in more than a decade in Coral Gables. Using that as offseason motivation, Miami has its sights set on starting strong, and also finishing strong. The returning starters at linebacker and in the secondary combine to give the Hurricanes one of the best units in the ACC. It’s on offense where Miami needs to show marked improvement over a unit that couldn’t hit big plays with consistency last season. The offensive line remains a work in progress, and that could cause trouble Week 1 against what should be a tough LSU defense. — Adelson

The Tigers return a 3,000-yard passer (Jarrett Stidham) and a loaded defensive line (see: Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, etc.). So what’s not to like? The schedule. Not only does Auburn open the season against Washington, it ends the season with road trips to Georgia and Alabama. If the Tigers can somehow survive that, they’re a playoff contender. — Scarborough

The Irish host one of the biggest games of Week 1 when they renew a rivalry with Michigan in a matchup between two strong teams with big questions to answer. Will Notre Dame’s defense and its athletes in the secondary continue to look sharp with new coordinator Clark Lea? Will Brandon Wimbush improve his passing game after slumping down the stretch in 2017? The pieces are in place for the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in South Bend since the Lou Holtz days if Brian Kelly can find answers to those questions in the coming month. — Murphy

Shea Patterson is one of four quarterbacks to transfer to Ann Arbor since Jim Harbaugh arrived four years ago. The Wolverines are optimistic he’ll be a difference-maker, but sorting out the offensive line is a bigger piece of the puzzle to improving on offense this year. The defense, led by Rashan Gary and Devin Bush, is loaded with playmakers from front to back and gives Michigan a chance to win every game it plays. As running back Karan Higdon said at Big Ten media days, it’s a “don’t talk about it, be about it” year after three seasons of the Wolverines losing to their top rivals. Murphy

The Spartans are at their best when they field a solid defensive front and an experienced quarterback. That’s what they have returning in 2018. Brian Lewerke is among the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks and has a couple of talented targets in the passing game. Linebacker Joe Bachie and a pair of stout defensive tackles make the defense solid up the middle. The nightmare season of 2016 is firmly behind the Spartans, who have course-corrected to look once again like a perennial contender in the conference. — Murphy

The model of consistency on the West Coast for nearly a decade, there is nothing to indicate Stanford won’t be a Pac-12 contender so long as David Shaw is the head coach. This year is no different, and RB Bryce Love‘s return gives the team arguably the most dangerous offensive threat in college football. Initially, the biggest adjustment might be the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who left to become the head coach at Rice and was replaced by former Stanford QB Tavita Pritchard. — Bonagura

Nobody in the ACC had a more difficult offseason than Virginia Tech, which had to deal with off-field distractions involving a former assistant and its star quarterback, injuries and dismissals. There’s no question the challenges are great for the Hokies this season, starting on defense, where Bud Foster has to replace seven starters and build depth at linebacker and in the secondary. On offense, Virginia Tech needs to identify go-to players at both receiver and running back, positions that are up for grabs this fall. That will only help quarterback Josh Jackson in his development. — Adelson

The book on USC remains the same: It has talent, but can the Trojans put it all together? And this year, it comes with a giant question mark at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Matt Fink is the most experienced of the three players competing for the starting job and has attempted a grand total of nine passes at the college level. That’s why the widely held assumption is that immensely talented true freshman J.T. Daniels, who would have been eligible to play high school football in 2018, has a good chance to win the job. — Bonagura

Joe Moorhead might have the best season of any first-year coach in the SEC, including the man he’s replacing, new Florida coach Dan Mullen. Not only does he inherit a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, he gets a stacked defensive line with Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. — Scarborough

Last season, the Seminoles had the type of year nobody ever expects in Tallahassee. This year should show major growth, considering the talent returning and the new schemes on offense and defense. Though they haven’t settled on a starting quarterback yet, James Blackman and Deondre Francois give Florida State depth at quarterback for the first time in years. Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick form a terrific 1-2 combo in the backfield. Defensively, Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas are in line for big years. Florida State still needs its receivers, offensive line and linebackers to take the next step, and its schedule is difficult. But the Seminoles will be better. — Adelson

Though Central Florida and Florida Atlantic generate more headlines, the top Group of 5 team in the country this season just might be Boise State. The Broncos return 10 starters defensively and filled the one hole vacated by first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch with graduate transfer Tony Lashley, who was All-Sun Belt for Idaho last year. Offensively, quarterback Brett Rypien has 36 career starts. If Rypien & Co. can knock off Oklahoma State (Sept. 15), they’ll be on their way to becoming the ones who represent the Group of 5 in the New Year’s Six. — Trotter

Good luck finding a more lethal offensive skill contingent than West Virginia’s. Quarterback Will Grier has the goods to lead the country in passing, with one of the top receiving corps in the country at his disposal, spearheaded by Biletnikoff finalist David Sills V and Big 12 receptions champ Gary Jennings. A three-headed rotation at running back, led by Kennedy McKoy, and a pair of high-profile transfers in receiver T.J. Simmons (Alabama) and tight end Jovani Haskins (Miami) round out the attack. If the Mountaineers get enough defense — and that’s a big “if” — they could challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy. — Trotter

Under defensive-minded coach Gary Patterson, TCU has bucked the trend in the Big 12, consistently featuring hard-nosed defenses in an offense-first league. This season should be no different. Headlined by preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Banogu and reigning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Ross Blacklock, the Horned Frogs are loaded along the defensive line. That should give the offense some cover as it gels around new quarterback Shawn Robinson and a completely revamped offensive line. — Trotter

The last time Texas was relevant nationally was 2009, when Heisman finalist Colt McCoy was behind center. The Longhorns’ path back to relevancy hinges on what happens at quarterback, more specifically promising sophomore Sam Ehlinger. The native of Austin, Texas, had an up-and-down season as a true freshman, defined by spectacular big-game moments, yet also catastrophic, loss-clinching turnovers and head injuries. Assuming he wins the job over Shane Buechele, Ehlinger will have more help around him, especially on the offensive line. If he can finally give the elite quarterback the program has so desperately longed for, it won’t be long before Texas truly is back. — Trotter

Junior quarterback Justin Herbert is a future pro, and how he goes, so do the Ducks. They took an encouraging step last year under coach Willie Taggart, but after he left to take the Florida State job, it’s up to Mario Cristobal to build off that progress. Outside of Herbert’s health, continued improvement on the defensive side figures to be the key in Oregon’s ascension. — Bonagura

Nobody really knows what to expect from coach Josh Heupel as he takes over from Scott Frost. But the offense should be ready to pick up where it left off last season behind quarterback McKenzie Milton, whom the school is already touting for the Heisman Trophy. Though leading receiver Tre’Quan Smith is gone, UCF has plenty of athletes across the board at the skill positions to make up for his departure. The bigger question is how the Knights go about replacing Shaquem Griffin, not only their best player on defense, but the heart and soul of the entire team. It’s never easy replacing such a natural, gifted leader, especially one with the ability to turn a game’s momentum at any time. — Adelson

The Gamecocks, not the Gators, could become the No. 1 challenger to Georgia in the SEC’s East Division. Jake Bentley is back at quarterback, along with one of the best tandems of receivers in the conference, Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel. If the offensive and defensive lines can hold up, Will Muschamp’s squad could make some noise. –– Scarborough

Also receiving votes: LSU, Utah, Texas A&M, Florida, Oklahoma State, Boston College, Northwestern, Missouri, Florida Atlantic

Voters: Andrea Adelson, Joel Anderson, Edward Aschoff, Heather Dinich, Brad Edwards, Chris Fallica, Paul Finebaum, Chris Low, Ryan McGee, Adam Rittenberg, Marty Smith, Marcus Spears, Mark Schlabach, Maria Taylor, Seth Walder