The college football season is officially underway, but while the early slate of games featured lightweights and pretenders, the true National Championship contenders begin play this week.
Using the Associated Press (AP) preseason poll as a metric, the consensus top team in America at the moment is, as it has been for nearly a decade now, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Under the tutelage of head coach Nick Saban since 2007, the Tide have rolled up four national titles over that time, while narrowly missing out on a fifth in January. After compiling a perfect 13-0 regular season record in the tough SEC, Alabama rolled over playoff opponent Washington to reach the title game, only to fall just short in a 35-31 last-second thriller against Clemson.
Sufficed to say, with the sting of his first championship game loss still fresh in mind, Saban will have his juggernaut ready for a rebound in the 2017-18 season.
That journey begins Saturday night, when the top-ranked Tide take on third-ranked Florida State on a neutral field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Alabama faces stiff competition in the Seminoles. The title-town days of Jameis Winston may be long gone, but head coach Jimbo Fisher certainly knows how to rebuild through recruitment.
According to online sportsbook Bovada, the Tide will take the field as 7-point favorites – a relatively slim margin given Alabama’s propensity for taking talented teams apart. It was only last year when Alabama played USC on a neutral field in another highly anticipated season-opener between top-ranked teams, only to demolish the Trojans in a 52-6 laugher.
Bettors must decide between a pair of sophomore signal-callers, with Alabama’s quarterback Jalen Hurts squaring off against Deondre Francois of Florida State.
But before that, the AP’s second-ranked team Ohio State takes on Big Ten doormat Indiana in a Thursday night tilt. The Hoosiers are coming off a disappointing 6-7 season in which the team got nothing going, while the Buckeyes are disappointed for entirely different reasons.
Ohio State went 11-1 in the regular season last year, only to fall in humiliating fashion in the College Football Playoff as Clemson blanked them 31-0.
Like Saban and Fisher, head coach Urban Meyer isn’t one for rebuilding, so this year’s Buckeyes team is stacked from top to bottom as per usual. Accordingly, even as the road team, Ohio State has been installed as heavy 21.5-point favorites.
The aforementioned USC Trojans may not have started strongly last year, but after dropping three of their first four contests, the team rallied to run the table. A regular season record of 9-3 was enough to earn a Rose Bowl berth, where USC rallied with 17 points in the fourth quarter to beat Penn State in a 52-49 instant classic.
That sustained momentum, coupled with a fully restored scholarship allotment and restocked roster, makes USC the AP’s fourth-ranked team.
They’ll put that lofty ranking to the test on Saturday afternoon in a home matchup against Western Michigan, which ran the MAC schedule last year en route to a perfect 14-0 regular season record. And while the Broncos lost to Wisconsin in the subsequent Cotton Bowl, Western Michigan proved that its high-scoring offensive attack can put up points in bunches.
Nonetheless, the bookmakers at Bovada don’t like the Broncos’ chances this week – especially on the road as they’re sitting as 27.5-point road underdogs.
One game that football fans and bettors alike will be watching keenly pits 11th-ranked Michigan against 17th-ranked Florida. Both teams are perennial powers within their respective conferences, and both have the combination of coaching acumen and roster depth needed to compete for a College Football Playoff berth.
The Gators are 4-point underdogs against the Wolverines on Saturday, in a game set for AT&T Stadium in Arlington.