Which teams could break up another Alabama-Clemson title game next season?

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For those who loathe the reality of Alabama-Clemson IV, there can be only one thing worse:

The looming threat of Alabama-Clemson V.

A year from now, there is a great chance that the Crimson Tide and Tigers are facing off again in the College Football Playoff, with the winner taking another national championship. There is no sign that either head coach is going anywhere. Their brilliant quarterbacks both will be back. Clemson’s leading rusher and top three receivers in terms of yardage all return. So will Alabama’s entire quarter of big-play receivers, plus its No. 2 rusher. Both teams will have some significant holes to fill defensively and on the offensive line, but have you seen the way they’ve recruited?

So, yeah. The two-program domination of college football appears quite likely to continue.

Unless someone can break the stranglehold. But who?

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pose with the trophy at a news conference for the NCAA college football playoff championship game Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pose with the trophy at a news conference for the NCAA college football playoff championship game Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There are eight candidates for that dirty job. None may be able to do it. But for a jealous nation steeped in bitterness over the lack of diversity at the top of the sport, these are your best hopes for a breakthrough:

Georgia Bulldogs

The team that has played Alabama better than anyone for two straight seasons brings back two-year starting quarterback Jake Fromm, leading rusher D’Andre Swift and a punishing offensive line. A top-15 defense was largely manned by underclassmen. And Kirby Smart’s 2019 recruiting class should be his third straight ranked in the top three nationally by Rivals.com, as the talent piles up in Athens.

The schedule: It will be harder than it was in 2018. Notre Dame comes back on the slate, as does Texas A&M. The good news for the Bulldogs is that both those games will be between the hedges, as will matchups with Kentucky and Missouri. Toughest road game: at Auburn on Nov. 16.

The problem: Georgia has had at least one game the past two seasons where everything goes to hell (Auburn in 2017, LSU in 2018, most of the game against Texas in the Sugar Bowl). That’s a trait the Bulldogs need to purge, along with Smart’s penchant for disastrous fake kicks.

Oklahoma Sooners

Yes, the Sooners are replacing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. How did that turn out last time? Pretty well, when Kyler Murray somehow topped Baker Mayfield’s magic. Next in the Lincoln Riley pipeline is Austin Kendall, highly regarded in his own right. He will have two backs who combined to rush for 2,000 yards to work with, in addition to 1,100-yard receiver CeeDee Lamb. Oklahoma’s defense was dreadful, but also very young — look for significant improvement with more experience and the arrival of coordinator Alex Grinch.

The schedule: Non-conference play opens with Houston in Norman, and if Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King is back from a November knee injury, that will at least present a challenge. There also is a trip to UCLA, which figures to be improved in its second year under Chip Kelly. Since only one team has run the table in the Big 12 since it went to nine league games, there could be an ambush somewhere — most likely in Dallas.

The problem: The defensive makeover would have to be massive to beat either Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence. And Kendall will have a lot on his shoulders replacing back-to-back Heisman winners.

Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns take a lot of momentum into the offseason after whipping Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and appearing in the Big 12 title game. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger keeps getting better, looking more like Tim Tebow with each physical run and clutch pass. Receiver Collin Johnson’s decision to return to school was big — and if he’s joined by fellow junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey it would be huge. There will be some rebuilding to do on a defense that started eight seniors in the Sugar Bowl.

The schedule: There is a huge yardstick game Sept. 7, when LSU visits Austin. But after what’s happened the last two seasons against Maryland, the Longhorns will have to be ready for the opener against a Louisiana Tech program that is usually competitive.

The problem: Texas won 10 games in 2018, but was hardly a dominant team. Almost every game was decided by one score, and the Longhorns actually gave up more yards per play (5.61) than they gained (5.51). It’s a big leap up to taking down Alabama or Clemson.

Will Tom Herman (L) and Texas break through and challenge Alabama and Clemson next season? (AP)
Will Tom Herman (L) and Texas break through and challenge Alabama and Clemson next season? (AP)

Ohio State Buckeyes

We’ll see how Ryan Day does replacing a legendary winner in Urban Meyer, but he at least starts from a position of strength in terms of available talent. Assuming Dwayne Haskins goes pro, the eligibility of transfer quarterback Justin Fields becomes paramount. J.K. Dobbins has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards in two seasons, and a deep receiving corps should continue to be well-manned even with several departures. A defense that was young and vulnerable in 2018 should get better in ’19, led by monster rush end Chase Young. There is always ample talent in Columbus.

The schedule: There are no Power Five opponents in the non-conference slate, which could be a problem — but Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference is no slouch, coming off an 11-win season. Ohio State plays both of the best programs from the Big Ten West on consecutive weeks in October — first Northwestern, then Wisconsin. And the regular season ends with a wallop: Penn State on Nov. 23 and at Michigan on Nov. 30.

The problem: Does the quarterback production slide without Haskins? Does the preparedness and motivation slide without Meyer? Those are two big unknowns.

Michigan Wolverines

Even with three early entries in the NFL draft on defense, the Wolverines return a lot of parts from a 10-win team. Quarterback Shea Patterson, his top two receivers and basically the entire offensive line are back. While the defensive losses are appreciable, there are several returning impact players. The 2017 recruiting class, which ranked fourth nationally, should be fully integrated into the ’19 on-field product.

The schedule: The biggest games are at home. Notre Dame comes into the Big House on Oct. 26, with two road games immediately preceding that meeting and one immediately after. The season ends with nemesis Ohio State coming to Ann Arbor.

The problem: The Wolverines still have to show they can close the gap on Ohio State before worrying about closing the chasm between them and Clemson/Alabama.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Fighting Irish start with quarterback Ian Book operating behind a line that returns most of its key parts. There is depth at receiver and running back to keep the offense rolling. A lot of playmakers depart from the Irish defense, most notably All-American cornerback Julian Love, but several also remain. Super reliable kicker Justin Yoon must be replaced.

The schedule: For everyone who whined about Notre Dame not playing anybody in 2018, that argument disappears in ’19. The Irish visit Georgia, Michigan and what should be an improved Stanford team, with home games against USC and Virginia Tech (both of which also should be improved).

The problem: A good Notre Dame team lost to Clemson by 27 this year. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

Stanford Cardinal

Quarterback K.J. Costello returns after carrying the Cardinal with his arm this season. Stanford would probably like to get back to more of a run-based offense, and that could be possible despite the loss of its top two running backs. An offensive line hit hard by injuries in 2018 should be better in ’19. Defensively, there will be holes to fill and improvements to make.

The schedule: Stanford had better be ready early, because it opens with Northwestern, USC and Central Florida. Notre Dame visits at the end.

The problem: Can the Pac-12 produce anyone good enough to beat the best?

Oregon Ducks

When QB Justin Herbert surprisingly announced his return to school, that elevated the Ducks’ chances for 2019. The loss of leading receiver Dillon Mitchell to the draft hurts, but virtually every other major skill-position contributor is expected back. The offensive line that started the Redbox Bowl included no seniors. Oregon was young defensively as well, and it adds instant-impact recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux.

The schedule: The Ducks get an opener that could make or break playoff hopes, taking on Auburn in Arlington, Texas. A win there would go a long way. There are challenging road games at Stanford, Washington and USC.

The problem: See above. Can the Pac-12 close the gap that has opened up between its best teams and the very best in the nation?

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