During the final season of the College Football Playoff's four-team format, the empires will strike back.
Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have made more CFP appearances than any other schools through the nine years of the postseason system, but only two combined in the past two seasons. The Crimson Tide, Tigers, Buckeyes and Sooners are no longer the safe bets to win their conferences like they were through a good chunk of the last decade.
No. 1 Georgia has bullied its way past fourth-ranked 'Bama to the top of the Southeastern Conference and the sport.
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, No. 9 Clemson has gone two seasons without making the playoff and now faces a legitimate threat in No. 8 Florida State.
No. 20 Oklahoma is coming off its worst season in more than two decades, slipping into the crowded pack of Big 12 hopefuls after being a clear favorite for years.
To predict a national championship for anyone other than the Bulldogs, who have both the best roster and an accommodating schedule, feels like just trying to be different. That said, no team has ever won three straight national championships and still with only four teams making the CFP, the margin for error in the regular season (including conference title games) is thin.
This column has always taken the position that it's more fun to be different than right. And besides, how often do you get the chance to take Alabama and have it be a bold choice?
And is it, really?
Reminder: The Crimson Tide has not gone more than two seasons without a national title since Nick Saban took over in 2007.
Three teams that start the season ranked but will finish unranked:
— No. 14 Utah. The Utes start the season with uncertainty at quarterback as Cam Rising recovers from knee surgery with his backup also ailing. Not an ideal way to head into a September schedule that features Florida, Baylor, UCLA and Oregon State.
— No. 16 Kansas State. In 2021, Baylor beat Oklahoma State in a thrilling Big 12 title game between two surprising participants. Both started 2022 ranked. Neither finished that way. Can TCU and K-State avoid similar regression after being last season's surprising success stories? Pencil the Wildcats in for a big step back.
— No. 21 North Carolina. QB Drake Maye won't be able to cover the Tar Heels' deficiencies as well as he did last season.
Three teams that start the season unranked but will finish ranked:
— UCLA. Five-star freshman quarterback Dante Moore behind a good offensive line in a Chip Kelly offense: Promising.
— Kentucky. If the Wildcats' rebuilt offensive line can protect North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary, this could be the second-best team in the SEC East.
— Boise State. The Broncos have a brutal early schedule (at No. 10 Washington, UCF, at San Diego State, at Memphis), which presents both a challenge and opportunity to assert themselves as the best team outside the Power Five.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION PREDICTIONS
American Athletic Conferenc e — SMU over UTSA. The Mustangs win their first league title since 1984 in the Southwest Conference.
Atlantic Coast Conference — Clemson over Florida State. New coordinator Garrett Riley brings the juice back to the Tigers' offense and sends Clemson back to the CFP.
Big 12 — Oklahoma over Texas. Will the Big 12 even paint the logo on the field for a title game with their SEC-bound heavyweights?
Big Ten — Ohio State over Iowa. The Buckeyes fix their Michigan problem and then dispatch the Hawkeyes in the final East vs. West Big Ten title game.
Conference USA — Western Kentucky over Liberty. WKU QB Austin Reed passed on opportunities to transfer to bigger schools to stay and lead the Hilltoppers to a title.
Mid-American Conference — Ohio over Eastern Michigan. If in doubt, pick the team with the best quarterback. In the MAC, that's Kurtis Rourke.
Mountain West — Boise State over Air Force. Broncos win their first league championship since 2019.
Pac-12 — USC over Oregon. Nothing sums up the Pac-12's recent fortunes better than USC finally getting its act together in football after it triggers the demise of the conference.
Southeastern Conference — Alabama over Georgia. In a stunning upset, the Crimson Tide snaps its one-game losing streak against the Bulldogs.
Sun Belt — Marshall over South Alabama. Thundering Herd's Charles Huff could be the next Sun Belt coach to make a big jump.
Early firings were all the rage last season. The hot spot that could pop before October this year is in West Virginia. Neal Brown drew a bad September schedule (No. 7 Penn State, Pitt, Texas Tech, No. 17 TCU) for a coach in need of a fast start.
Who could replace Brown? As mentioned, maybe Charles Huff of Marshall. James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti and North Carolina State defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, a former DC at WVU, could also get a look, depending on how 2023 plays out.
NEW YEAR'S SIX BOWL PICKS
Just can't quit the Aggies.
Cotton Bowl — Texas vs. USC.
Orange Bowl — Florida State vs. Penn State.
Fiesta Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Boise State.
Peach Bowl — Texas A&M vs. Michigan.
Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Georgia.
Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Clemson.
Alabama over Ohio State.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football