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Jalen Hurts Crimson Tide starter QB Jalen Hurts. Photo courtesy University of Alabama

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College Football 2018's Top 10 Teams
Jay B Webster looks at the top teams challenging for gridiron supremacy in 2018's College Footbal season
Published on October 5, 2018.
First published in the September/October 2018 edition of The American magazine

Rivalries will be renewed as the leaves turn color and the temperatures fall, with the holy grail of a spot in the College Football Playoffs glowing on the horizon for four lucky teams at the end of a brutal and hard-fought campaign.

Which teams will be left standing after 12 bruising regular season on-field encounters? Who will achieve the ultimate goal of playing for a national championship? Here are ten teams who will be in the mix.

ALABAMA

To say that head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have formed a college football dynasty might be selling them a bit short. The Crimson Tide have appeared in each of the last three national championship games – winning two of them – captured five national titles overall since 2009 and posted a record of 113-12 over the past nine seasons under coach Saban’s reign.

Alabama routinely lures the nation’s top recruiting classes, which has translated into dominant on-field success. So it is no surprise that this year looks like more of the same down in Tuscaloosa.Offensively the Tide will be rolling, with much of their lineup from last year’s title team intact, including running back Damien Harris. There is competition, and perhaps turmoil at quarterback, however. Jalen Hurts is the incumbent starter who has racked up a 26-2 record over the past two seasons and led the team to consecutive national championship games, while tossing 40 TD passes, rushing for 20 more over that span, and throwing just one interception all of last season.

CLEMSON

The biggest threat to Alabama’s dominance looking at things from this end of the season would appear to be the Clemson Tigers. Head coach Dabo Swinney has built his own powerhouse down in South Carolina, reaching the College Football Playoff in each of the last three seasons and tallying 40 wins against just four losses.

This year’s team will be anchored by one of the best defensive lines college football has ever seen in Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, all likely future first-round NFL picks. Much of the offense returns from a team that was the top seed in last year’s College Football Playoff before losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Incumbent senior quarterback Kelly Bryant will also have to fight off stiff competition from highly-coveted freshman Trevor Lawrence, the top-ranked player of the 2018 recruiting class. But with the wealth of talent on display at Clemson, it is easy to see the Tigers making their fourth straight College Football Playoff appearance.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes look poised to make another assault on the Big Ten title and a spot in the CFP under head coach Urban Meyer, who is 73-8 in his 6-year tenure in Columbus but Meyer has been embroiled in allegations of assault against a former assistant coach.

On the field there is a QB battle between Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell, but whoever wins the job will get lots of support from the two-headed running attack of JK Dobbins and Mike Weber, as well as one of the best defenses in the country. A matchup with No. 10 Penn State in Happy Valley on September 29 will be one of the highlights of the Big Ten calendar.

OKLAHOMA

The Sooners have some big shoes to fill with the loss of Heisman Trophy winning QB Baker Mayfield, who led the team to the Big 12 title and an appearance in the College Football Playoff a season ago. Second-year head coach Lincoln Riley, who couldn’t have had a much better debut season, will be looking for Kyler Murray to step in and guide an offensive unit with a lot of weapons at its disposal. Murray also plays baseball for the Sooners and has signed a contract to join the Oakland A’s system after his college days. If he falters on the gridiron this season, look for third-year sophomore Austin Kendall to step in.

GEORGIA

Continuing with the usual suspects theme, the Bulldogs figure to be a strong contender to make yet another run after coming agonizingly close to winning it all last season. While second-year coach Kirby Smart lost a lot of star power from last year’s team, he managed to pull off one of the best recruiting classes of all time. Only time will tell whether that crop of talent will be able reach the highest of heights again this season. And in a theme that seems to be becoming a regular occurrence, incumbent sophomore QB Jake Fromm will be challenged by highly regarded incoming freshman Justin Fields.

WASHINGTON

With the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin – who ran for 1,380 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, the Huskies look to be the cream of the Pac 10 crop. The key to the Huskie’s CFP hopes may lie in their season opener on September 1 against No. 12 Auburn in Atlanta. A win there could set them up for a shot to run the table, while a loss will make it harder for them to build a CFP resume in the weaker Pac 10 conference.

MIAMI

Mark Richt and the Hurricanes took a step towards returning to the glory days of “The U” when they won their first 10 games. But season-ending losses to Pitt, Clemson and then Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl put a bit of a damper on their aura. If the Hurricanes are going to take the next step, quarterback Malik Rosier will have to avoid the mistakes and turnovers that dogged him last year. Miami also opens the campaign with what could be a season-defining marquee matchup with No. 13 LSU on September 2 in Arlington, Texas.

WISCONSIN

After an undefeated regular season, a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game knocked the Badgers out of CFP contention last year. Coach Paul Chryst’s team settled for a 13-1 record and a win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. Running back Jonathan Taylor returns after setting an NCAA freshman rushing record by tallying 1,977 yards, and he’ll be running behind perhaps the best offensive line in the country. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will need to take another step forward if the Badgers are to emerge from an ultra competitive Big Ten conference schedule that includes road games at Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State, and state their case for a CFP appearance.

NOTRE DAME

Coach Brian Kelly was in the hot seat after a 4-8 2016 season, but the Fighting Irish bounced back by finishing with a 10-3 record and capped things off with a victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl. They missed the College Football Playoff though after a one-point loss to Georgia and November defeats to Miami and Stanford. Without a conference championship game and facing a tough regular season schedule that includes five teams ranked in the preseason Top-20 (season opener at Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and the season finale against USC), the margin for error is very small for Notre Dame once again this season. Two losses might be enough to derail the Irish’s CFP chances once again.

Will Grier The rifle arm of West Virginia QB Will Grier. Photo courtesy West Virginia University

WEST VIRGINIA

While the Mountaineers posted just a 7-6 record a season ago, when quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sill V decided to return for their senior seasons, the team became the biggest challengers to Oklahoma’s reign atop the Big 12. With Sills, Gary Jennings and Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons, the Mountaineers have potentially the best receiving corps in the country. Grier is one of the top passers in the college game, with a rifle arm and precision accuracy. He is also mobile and can make teams pay for sitting back too much. After throwing for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns last season, Grier has put himself in the Heisman Trophy discussion this time around. The Mountaineers do need to improve on the other side of the ball, however, as their defense gave up 31.5 points per game last season.

Enjoy the Ride

Those ten teams figure to make a lot of noise on the field this season, but there are a lot of other good quality teams out there. From Penn State, to Auburn, to Michigan, to Stanford, to Central Florida – who finished last year with a perfect 13-0 season – there is no shortage of quality teams who could play a big part in how the playoff picture plays out. It figures to be another thrilling season on the college football gridirons this year. With just four coveted spots open in the actual College Football Playoffs, every week is like a playoff game for the top teams with aspirations of national championship glory. A single loss can derail a team’s dreams, which means it pays to stay on top of things every week. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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