Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at  thixx25@gmail.com.

Looking behind No. 1 Alabama

Sept. 28, 2017

OK, so everyone has Alabama as its clear No. 1 team in the country. In many cases, there are those who don’t see a close No. 2 team. And it is there where things get interesting.

While preparing for Ole Miss, a team that has given the Crimson Tide trouble in the past and a team, let’s be honest, with nothing to lose this season, Alabama sits atop the college football mountain having established itself not only as the No. 1 team in preseason polls, but deserving of the ranking heading into the final games in the month of September.

Certainly a lot could change; it usually does in college football, especially in the closing weeks of the regular season when bowl berths and College Football Playoff spots are at stake. At this moment, it seems Alabama will be a part of the CFP Top Four once again. But behind the Crimson Tide — or alongside, according to how things shake out — should prove to be fun to sit back and watch as to how it unfolds.

Consider this: In the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, Alabama was No. 1, Ohio State was No. 2, Florida State was No. 3 and Southern Cal was No. 4. This week’s AP Top 25 has Alabama in the top spot, followed in order by Clemson, Oklahoma and Penn State, three teams that weren’t among the top four in the preseason. And we’re not even out of September yet.

There’s still a long way to go and a lot of games to be played. Without question, those spots will change again, perhaps as early as this week. But it certainly has been interesting thus far. Florida State, which lost to North Carolina State last weekend, is 0-2 and isn’t even in the Top 25 for the first time since 2011. TCU, which wasn’t included in the AP’s preseason Top 25, has zoomed up to No. 9 after handling Oklahoma State.

And how ‘bout them Dawgs? Georgia, which started the year as the No. 15 in the AP preseason poll, slammed its way to No. 7 this week and is looking good. Its next three opponents are Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Missouri, followed by a meeting with Florida. Hmmm.

Ohio State is having trouble getting back among the top four teams. In fact, the success of Georgia and TCU played a role in pushing the Buckeyes out of the AP Top 10 this week, landing them at No. 11. It’s the first time the Buckeyes have been out of the Top 10 in 45 weeks. They get a shot at Michigan (No. 8) and Penn State (No. 4) later in the season, so there is the possibility the Buckeyes could climb back into playoff contention, but the road will be difficult.

Clemson has demonstrated it is a team intent on making a serious run at defending its national crown, and the Tigers’ defense will lead that charge. Penn State has received some attention, especially with its Heisman Trophy candidate at running back and a building confidence that could see it among the Final Four in December, but it too is in the gauntlet of Big Ten teams, with games against Michigan and Ohio State back-to-back ahead.

And what about Oklahoma? The Sooners have looked very strong, especially in their manhandling of Ohio State the second week of the season (31-16). But the Sooners have to play Oklahoma State and TCU in back-to-back weeks later in the season in what could both be high-scoring affairs. Oklahoma has scored at least 49 points in three of its four games thus far and this past weekend TCU beat Oklahoma State in a game in which the teams combined to score 75 points.

Who are the sleeper teams out there? How about Washington? Will USC live up to all the preseason hype or will it be a team of smoke and mirrors? Michigan has been in Ohio State’s shadow and now that of Penn State too in its own conference, but does it beat those teams and sail into playoff contention? Is Georgia ready to make a bold move? It looks right now as though an Alabama-Georgia SEC title game matchup is in the works, unless Florida has something to say about that. Maybe even Auburn.

Is Wisconsin, another Big Ten team, a Final Four squad? It doesn’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State in the regular season, but it must contend with Michigan late in the year. Still, that’s quite a scheduling plus for a team seeking to make a move on the national stage. In fact, No. 8 Michigan is the only Top 25 team (based on current rankings) remaining on the Badgers’ schedule this season. There’s something to be said for that. The Badgers are in the West Division, with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all in the East Division.

So while it’s always fun to keep an eye on the No. 1 slot in college football, the real intrigue is what happens on the hill behind No. 1, those trying to get to the top of the college football mountain. And change comes every week.