Does Alabama make it to the national championship game again? And why Oklahoma-Ohio State is the most important non-conference game in 2017.

Alabama is the elite program in college football.

But that doesn’t guarantee the Crimson Tide will win the national championship each season. Or, for that matter, does it mean Nick Saban’s team will play for the title each year.

Nevertheless, the conversation about teams that could win it all must begin with Alabama. So, let’s take a look at how I think the 2017 college football season will play out.

ACC Champion: Florida State. The Seminoles overall depth should be the difference in the ACC, which is hamstrung by having its three best teams in the same division. Clemson is the next best team, and the Tigers will make clear in 2017 how much of their success over the last two seasons was the result of Deshaun Watson. If Clemson steals the ACC, then Dabo Swinney could command Nick Saban like money.

Big 10 Champion: Ohio State. The Buckeyes couldn’t be faulted if they’ve got Oct. 27 big and bold on their calendars. That’s the day Ohio State hosts Penn State. There ought to be a lot riding on that game. Penn State is the Big 10’s next best team, but the gap between the squads appears substantial, and the Nittany Lions will not have the element of surprise (or a home crowd) in 2017.

Big 12 Champion: Oklahoma. The Sooners blew a chance to showcase their national championship potential early in the 2016 season with a big loss to Houston. The Sooners have a September game at Ohio State. History could repeat itself. Oklahoma State is the next best team, but the Cowboys need to win games that end with the scoreboard representing a football, not a basketball, game to be a title contender.

Pac-12 Champion: USC. The Trojans carry the burden of big expectations in 2017. Some teams live up to that opportunity; others crack and finish something like 9-3. Either is possible for this team. Washington is the next best team, and the Huskies’ regular-season schedule doesn’t include the Trojans.

SEC Champion: Alabama. The Crimson Tide open the regular season with Florida State and end it with Auburn. During those weeks, and in every other week in which Alabama takes the field, the opponent wants to topple the best. The loss of top notch talent makes that possible. Auburn is the next best team, and Gus Malzahn is itching to prove that he’s brought the Tigers back after a couple of bad (by Auburn standards) seasons.

AAC Champion: South Florida. The Bulls should runaway with the AAC title and grab a spot in one of the elite bowl games. Houston might be the only team capable of slowing down USF.

If these teams are the conference champions, then what are the major bowl matchups?

SCENARIO 1: Three undefeated teams.

Alabama, Ohio State and USC go undefeated, and Oklahoma and Florida State lose only once (to the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide, respectively).

Alabama would be the top seed with Ohio State and USC nabbing the second and third positions. I think the Seminoles’ wins against Clemson, Louisville and the ACC Coastal Division champion will earn Florida State the fourth position over Oklahoma.

The National Semifinals: Alabama vs Florida State; Ohio State vs USC. 

The major bowl matchups:

SUGAR: Alabama vs Florida State
ROSE: Ohio State vs USC
COTTON: Oklahoma vs Penn State
FIESTA: Washington vs Oklahoma State
ORANGE: Clemson vs Georgia
PEACH: Auburn vs South Florida

SCENARIO 2: Two undefeated teams, and neither is USC.

However, a one-loss USC team would finish below a one-loss Florida State and a one-loss Oklahoma (presuming those losses, again, are to Alabama and Ohio State, respectively). If this is the case, I’m guessing that the selection committee will intentionally avoid regular season matchups in the national semifinals.

The National Semifinals: Alabama vs Oklahoma; Ohio State vs Florida State. 

SUGAR: Alabama vs Oklahoma
ROSE: Ohio State vs Florida State
COTTON: Washington vs Penn State
FIESTA: USC vs Oklahoma State
ORANGE: Clemson vs Georgia
PEACH: Auburn vs South Florida

SCENARIO 3: Two undefeated teams, and one of them is USC.

Now the fun really starts. Let’s presume that Alabama and USC are the two undefeated teams in this scenario. In addition, Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma win their conferences with no more than one loss.

Now, the September games between Alabama and Florida State, and Ohio State and Oklahoma are huge.

I think Florida State makes it in on the strength of rallying from an opening loss to Alabama. The fourth team? Does Ohio State get in because it beat Oklahoma but then lost to an inferior conference team? Or does Oklahoma steal the spot because it will go through the Big 12 cleanly?

The National Semifinals: Alabama vs Oklahoma; USC vs Florida State. 

SUGAR: Alabama vs Oklahoma
ROSE: USC vs Florida State
COTTON: Washington vs Penn State
FIESTA: Ohio State vs Oklahoma State
ORANGE: Clemson vs Georgia
PEACH: Auburn vs South Florida

The bottom line: There might not be a more important non-conference game in 2017 than Ohio State vs. Oklahoma. The Buckeyes could go 12-1 with that one loss to Oklahoma and still make it into the national semifinals. The Sooners could be the team left out — and the Big 12 has had that happen to it before — while losing just one time. However, if the Sooners beat the Buckeyes, they would have the edge on any other one-loss team, even if they lose to a lesser opponent. They would, right?

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