Take 5: Alabama headlines early peek at ’18 contenders

Sure, the confetti is still on the field, and Sweet Home Alabama hasn’t stopped echoing inside the Georgia Dome.

That means it’s a perfect time to start thinking about the 2018 season. Here are five programs to keep an eye on to hoist the Golden Parentheses this time next year.

What more can be said about the most dominant college football program of the postwar era? Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to five national championships in nine years, and there’s no sign the Tide’s going back out any time soon. That’s not to say Alabama’s a lock to repeat; depending on how many early NFL draft entrants come out, Saban may need to replace about half of his starting lineup from this championship squad. But Bama’s strength has always been as much about the second… and third… and fourth strings as the elite talent up front. There are no down years in Tuscaloosa, not for a juggernaut like this.

Make no mistake about Georgia becoming Alabama’s latest postseason victim — the Bulldogs belonged, and they’ll be back. Yes, the iconic duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be missed, along with a bevy of playmakers on defense. Yet there’s enough high-level talent ready to step in or take a step forward that the Bulldogs won’t have to look like the same team to make another run at a championship. Few head coaches know that better than Kirby Smart after his stint as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.

There’s an argument to be made that Ohio State could have made the 2017 College Football Playoff by scheduling, say, Tulsa instead of Oklahoma. Perhaps, but then Ohio State wouldn’t be Ohio State: fearless, tough and talented. OSU will miss J.T. Barrett and could use a speed upgrade on the outside. But QB Dwayne Haskins looked the part this year, and nobody cranks out more elite defensive linemen than position coach Larry Johnson. And by the way, OSU travels to AT&T Stadium to face TCU in Week 3. It wouldn’t be fun if it were easy.

If it weren’t for Alabama, Clemson would be the most fearsome program in college football. The Tigers are the only other team to make each of the three Playoffs, and 2017 was the seventh straight season with 10 or more wins under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers only started four seniors by the end of the season — that number looks to jump substantially in 2018. Rising senior quarterback Kelly Bryant is ready to follow his predecessors Deshaun Watson and Tajh Boyd in pushing for a first-team All-ACC season; that may be all Clemson needs to complement its ferocious defense.

Yes, Saquon Barkley is gone to the NFL where he belongs, but with ultra-athletic RB Miles Sanders stepping in, Penn State’s offense shouldn’t suffer much. The big question is whether Penn State can withstand heavy senior losses in the secondary. If James Franklin has enough talent waiting to replace them, that’s just about all PSU’ll need to put together a monster run; four offensive line starters return for Trace McSorley, the closest thing the Big Ten has to a Baker Mayfield. PSU might not even be the best team in its division in 2018 — but that didn’t stop Alabama from winning its latest title.

–Adam Jacobi, Field Level Media