Most years, you can throw a blanket over the list of college football national championship contenders.
This year, all you need is a napkin.
Here we are within (Gus Johnson) shouting distance of Week 1 and already part of the drama has been sucked out of the season.
From this view, there are 10 teams that have a realistic chance of getting to the College Football Playoff, slogging their way through and coming out on top after 15 games.
And folks, that's stretching it.
Sorry to burst your bubble (screen). In good faith, it's hard to get beyond the realistic championship contenders listed below. These 10 teams have accounted for 14 of the 16 CFP berths. (Plus, Auburn played in the last BCS Championship Game.) These teams have won eight of the last nine national championships.
It's a reflection of where the game is headed -- toward a consolidation of power at the top. Five of the seven highest-paid coaches are on the list. There are four teams from the Big Ten -- arguably the sport's best conference this year -- and three from the SEC.
Is this good for the game? That question has (seemingly) already been answered. Despite the wash-rinse-repeat nature of college football, it remains the No. 2 spectator sport in the country.
It just seems like it's more "members only" than ever: Only nine teams have occupied the 16 playoff spots in the first four years of its existence. Only 15 teams played in the 16 BCS Championship Games from 1998 to2013. And only 11 teams won titles in that span.
So, no, you should not be surprised. It's usual suspects-meet-chalk in 2018. A glimpse at the absolute contenders this season (in no particular order).
|Well, duh. Alabama has played in more CFP games (seven since 2014) than 22 FBS teams have played in bowls in their entire history. Nick Saban goes for a record-breaking seventh national title (sixth at Alabama) with one of the best quarterback situations in America. Both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have championship rings. Both can win. Most importantly, both remain on the roster. The defense has to replace eight starters Even with the latest Linebacker Crisis (!), the Tide will be just fine. They have led the country in scoring defense four of the last seven years. |
|If Alabama doesn't win it, Clemson will. The two superpowers already seem to be on a collision course for their third playoff clash in as many years. The defensive line has achieved all-time status. Even if Kelly Bryant is just a place-holder for freshman sensation Trevor Lawrence, Bryant has proved he is a playoff quarterback. The Tigers should moonwalk to another ACC title (their fourth in a row). As it stands, they play one currently-ranked team the entire season (No. 19 Florida State on Oct. 27). Feel free to use ink when penciling in Clemson.|
|Saban should be afraid, very afraid. Kirby Smart is just getting started heading into Year 3 in Athens. The Dawgs should run away with the SEC East, meaning Alabama and Georgia are likely to meet in the SEC title game. Given the CFP climate, they could still meet in a playoff rematch. The running game will still be effective with speedster D'Andre Swift taking over. The Dawgs will be stout in both lines. If Bama doesn't win the SEC, it seems Georgia will. Maybe it doesn't matter if both make it to the playoff, again.|
|Despite the disgraceful conduct by Urban Meyer and the university off the field, the Buckeyes shouldn't slip a bit on it. The defensive line is just a notch below that of Clemson. Defensive end Nick Bosa might be the No. 1 player taken in the draft next spring. The Dwayne Haskins era begins after the departure of J.T. Barrett. J.K. Dobbins is a home-run hitter at tailback. The Buckeyes have to go to Penn State and Michigan State, maybe having to win both to nail down the Big Ten East.|
|The opener against Auburn is looking more and more like a must-win. The Huskies don't have another (currently ranked) top-10 opponent on the schedule. Lose to the Tigers, and it's going to be a problem presenting a stout resume to the playoff committee. Still, Chris Petersen has built a powerhouse in the Northwest. U-Dub is the overwhelming Pac-12 favorite. That makes them the best and (just about only) hope for the West Coast in the playoff.|
|Gus Malzahn is peaking. Fresh off signing a huge seven-year, $49 million contract and armed with a Heisman-caliber quarterback, one of the best play callers in the country should let it all hang out this season. Gus already has beaten Saban twice in his career. He'll probably have to do it again to defend the SEC West. Even then, the Tigers will have to get through the SEC title game to get to the playoff. Longshot? Looks like it but this might be the best team Gus has put together.|
|You don't get better at quarterback losing the Heisman winner, who was the most efficient signal callers in the country two years running. But Kyler Murray doesn't have to be Baker Mayfield. There are plenty of offensive weapons to support him. The defense remains an issue, a bit in the Big 12 and a lot in the CFP. Remember the Sooners blew a 17-point lead to Georgia. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops better hope highly ranked freshman corner Brendan Radley-Hiles can prop up a secondary losing three seniors. Lincoln Riley already is one of the best coaches in the country. Forget his age. He's just getting started.|
|You know it's a closed shop for the natty when a team that has played in five of the seven Big Ten Championship Games is an "outlier." The Badgers are absolutely a championship contender. They have a senior quarterback (Alex Hornibrook), an All-American tailback (Jonathan Taylor) and a defense, well, only Alabama gave up fewer touchdowns than (18) than Wisco (21) last year. The recent loss of two receivers (Quintez Cephus, Danny Davis) to suspension has to be a concern.|
|Very quietly, this might be Mark Dantonio's best team. Eighteen starters return from a 10-win team with plenty going for it. Michigan and Ohio State both come to East Lansing. Quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for the second-most passing yards in school history (3,352) last year. The top three receivers return. The rushing defense was the second-best in the country. Sparty is on a run having bounced back from a 3-9 season in 2016 to reestablish itself in the Big Ten.|
|A stretch? The Nittany Lions get Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin at home. That's either a killer for a team losing eight defensive starters or a wonderful opportunity in college football's toughest division. James Franklin has established himself as an elite coach. Quarterback Trace McSorley will chase a Heisman with a new offensive coordinator (Ricky Rahne). Watch the back-to-back Ohio State and Michigan State games at home with a bye week built in between (Sept. 29 and Oct. 13). That stretch could decide the division, the league and maybe build momentum for a playoff berth. |