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This was supposed to be the season college football got back to normal.
After 2020 was dominated by the pandemic with games held in mostly empty stadiums and with uncertain schedules being the norm, the focus this year was going to be on the field. It hasn't worked out that way.
The approval of name, image and likeness compensation, the announcement of a possible playoff expansion and the decision of Oklahoma and Texas to leave the Big 12 for the SEC have been a shock to the system this summer. And the latest rise in COVID-19 cases leaves uncertainty as to what atmospheres will be like on Saturdays this fall.
One constant, however, will stay the same: The USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. This year's preseason Top 25 poll will be released Tuesday at noon ET and it incorporates voting from 65 coaches from the American Football Coaches Association across the 10 conferences plus independents in the Bowl Subdivision.
The discussion surrounding who will open the season in the No. 1 spot starts with the team that finished in that position last year. Alabama returns several key players from that championship squad. What might be notable, however, are the absences for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. Gone is quarterback Mac Jones along with Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris. That's some significant offensive firepower to replace. It's easy to assume the Tide will reload as Saban goes for his seventh national title at the school, but the road might be a little bumpy as Bryce Young endures growing pains as the successor to Jones.
So who could challenge Alabama for the top spot?
Clemson also is replacing an elite quarterback. However, the Tigers already got an early look at DJ Uiagalelei last year when he started two games with Trevor Lawrence sidelined. The sophomore looked more than capable of leading the offense and hopes to have elite wide receiver Justyn Ross back after he missed last year with a spinal injury. Clemson's dominance of the ACC – it has won six consecutive league titles – gives it an inside track to the playoff.
Another team going for its seventh conference title in a row is Oklahoma. And the Sooners might have the best situation at quarterback with Spencer Rattler hoping to build on an impressive freshman season that finished strong. If Rattler continues his improvement, he could be the latest Lincoln Riley protégé to win the Heisman Trophy. However, what likely will decide the fate of the Sooners is their defense. After major gains last year, there's enough talent returning that it should become a reliable strength that makes OU capable of stopping the better offenses and finally winning a playoff game.
Also in the mix for the top spot this year are Ohio State and Georgia. The Buckeyes lost quarterback Justin Fields and there's no definite leader to replace him. The bright side is that the wide receiver combination of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will give the winner of the competition two elite targets.
The Bulldogs don't have any questions at quarterback with JT Daniels in place. All the pieces are there for Kirby Smart's team to make a serious push for a national title. The biggest obstacle might be the first one. Georgia and Clemson meet in the opener in Charlotte, North Carolina, making for some big stakes early in the season.
Beyond these five, there's sure to be contenders that arise. It's shaping up to be another unpredictable college football season.
The USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll panel for the 2021 season:
Tom Allen, Indiana; Blake Anderson, Utah State; Dino Babers, Syracuse; Walt Bell, Massachusetts; Mike Bloomgren, Rice; Craig Bohl, Wyoming; Neal Brown, West Virginia; Troy Calhoun, Air Force; Matt Campbell, Iowa State; Jason Candle, Toledo; Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina; Paul Chryst, Wisconsin; Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech; David Cutcliffe, Duke; Butch Davis, Florida International; Manny Diaz, Miami (Florida); Dave Doeren, North Carolina State; Karl Dorrell, Colorado; Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri; Sonny Dykes, Southern Methodist; Luke Fickell, Cincinnati; Jedd Fisch, Arizona; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern; James Franklin, Penn State; Willie Fritz, Tulane; Danny Gonzales, New Mexico; Todd Graham, Hawaii; Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State; Will Hall, Southern Mississippi; Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois; Bryan Harsin, Auburn; Clay Helton, Southern California; Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky; Brady Hoke, San Diego State; Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech; Butch Jones, Arkansas State; Brian Kelly, Notre Dame; Jimmy Lake, Washington; Clark Lea, Vanderbilt; Tim Lester, Western Michigan; Sean Lewis, Kent State; Maurice Linguist, Buffalo; Seth Littrell, North Texas; Mike Locksley, Maryland; Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern; Gus Malzahn, Central Florida; Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio); Doug Martin, New Mexico State; Phillip Montgomery, Tulsa; Dan Mullen, Florida; Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette; Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh; Ken Niumatalolo, Navy; Gary Patterson, TCU; Sam Pittman, Arkansas; NIck Rolovich, Washington State; Nick Saban, Alabama; Steve Sarkisian, Texas; Scott Satterfield, Louisville; Greg Schiano, Rutgers; Kirby Smart, Georgia; Jake Spavital, Texas State; Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee; Mel Tucker, Michigan State; Kyle Whittingham, Utah.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll: Who will challenge Alabama for No. 1?