Having trouble trying to find a runaway favorite this year in college football? Don’t worry -- everybody is.
Seven teams earned a first-place vote in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 poll, the most to start any season since 1998. And that’s a year after Ohio State became the first unanimous preseason No. 1 since the AP started preseason polls in 1950.
So unlike the last few years, when there was a sense entering the first week that only one or two teams were seriously in the title hunt, the 2016 season is shaping up to be anybody’s race.
“We don’t have ‘Alabama and Ohio State’ or ‘Alabama and Clemson’ and ‘everybody else,’” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Tuesday. “There’s probably 16 teams, maybe more, that if we looked at, you could make a strong case for them and you could make a strong case against them.”
Alabama and Clemson – who finished 1-2 in the AP poll last year after the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers in the national title game – remained in those spots in AP’s preseason poll, with Alabama getting 33 of 61 first-place votes and Clemson getting 16. No. 3 Oklahoma got four first-place votes, No. 4 Florida State earned five and No. 5 LSU, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan each received one vote.
Then there are teams such as Stanford, who won the Rose Bowl last year behind a record-setting season by Christian McCaffrey; Tennessee, who brings back quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd; Notre Dame, who has two talented passers in Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer; and a bunch of other teams with very real College Football Playoff aspirations.
Herbstreit said two things should determine who will make the third edition of college football’s four-team playoff system: how healthy a team is, and how hot they are.
“Anybody could get hot,” he said. “And I think it makes it fun because everybody thinks their team has a shot instead of, ‘Well, we know Alabama’s going to do it.’”
So who does Herbstreit think could make some noise come December? The longtime ESPN analyst and color commentator has his eye on two top-20 teams he feels haven’t gotten as much buzz as they deserve.
“I think TCU,” said Herbstreit, who was on a call to promote Allstate’s #StreitCred program in which fans can tweet him their picks for the week’s standout performances. “They have a chance, I think, defensively to be much better than they were a year ago. They had so many different injuries on that side of the ball, so I think they come back better on defense. I think Kenny Hill will put himself into the Heisman race soon because of the way he’s going to put up some big numbers. So I think people are maybe sleeping a little bit on TCU. I think they’re the team to look out for coming out of the Big 12.”
The other team: No. 19 Louisville.
“With all the focus on Florida State and Clemson, I promise you that Bobby Petrino has a team coming out of the ACC that can be very competitive with those two,” Herbstreit said. “I’m not predicting that they’ll end up getting there, I’m just saying that if you’re looking for a sleeper to come from off the radar, I think Louisville could be that team.”
Of course, whether or not those two teams live up to their sleeper status is to be determined. But the simple fact they’re in the conversation just shows how wide open this season could be.
Said Herbstreit on this year’s championship: “It could virtually come from anybody.”