Wake Forest Clemson Football

Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross, second from right, celebrates a touchdown with teammates Trevion Thompson (1) and Christian Wilkins (42) during a game at Wake Forest last season. 

It was apparently easy to forget how difficult filling out the first top-25 ballot of the season would be.

I know Clemson is the best team in the country and I know Alabama is the second-best team. After those two, the next three or four teams come together without much difficulty.

And then the fun begins when you have to remember Michigan got lit up in the bowl game by a Florida team that returns seven defensive starters, and that Lincoln Riley has another new quarterback at Oklahoma that automatically is in the Heisman discussion, and that LSU might return the best defender in college football with safety Grant Delpit, and that Oregon’s Justin Herbert has an offensive line with six returning starters protecting him (five of them seniors).

So, shuffle up and deal.

Here’s the ballot I filed to start this season:

1. Clemson

Last season: 15-0, beat Alabama 44-16 in national championship.

First game: vs. Georgia Tech (Aug. 29)

2. Alabama

Last season: 14-1, lost to Clemson 44-16 in national championship.

First game: vs. Duke (Aug. 31)

3. Georgia

Last season: 11-3, lost to Texas 28-21 in Sugar Bowl

First game: at Vanderbilt (Aug. 31)

4. Ohio State

Last season: 13-1, beat Washington 28-23 in Rose Bowl

First game: vs. Florida Atlantic (Aug. 31)

5. Notre Dame

Last season: 12-1, lost to Clemson 30-3 in CFP Semifinal

First game: at Louisville (Sept. 2)

My take: Maybe the easiest segment of the ballot. Clemson is going to score at will with wunderkind Trevor Lawrence, returning ACC player of the year Travis Etienne and future NFL wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Alabama only returns Tua Tagovailoa and a receivers corps that is, on the whole, better than Clemson’s. For Georgia and Notre Dame, their quarterbacks (Jake Fromm and Ian Book, respectively) elevate them into the top five. For Ohio State, it’s nine returning starters on defense, all of which are seniors and juniors. It’s also how impressive the Buckeyes were in Ryan Day’s three-game stint as interim coach last season.

6. Oklahoma

Last season: 12-2, lost to Alabama 45-34 in CFP Semifinal

First game: vs. Houston (Sept. 1)

7. LSU

Last season: 10-3, beat UCF 40-32 in Fiesta Bowl

First game: vs. Georgia Southern (Aug. 31)

8. Michigan

Last season: 10-3, lost to Florida 41-15 in Peach Bowl

First game: vs. Middle Tennessee (Aug. 31)

9. Florida

Last season: 10-3, beat Michigan 41-15 in Peach Bowl

First game: vs. Miami (Aug. 24)

10. Oregon

Last season: 9-4, beat Michigan State 7-6 in Redbox Bowl

First game: at Auburn (Aug. 31)

My take: More quarterback stability (other than Oklahoma), which is becoming increasingly clear as the No. 1 criteria for a high preseason ranking. Even the Sooners, with Jalen Hurts entering, get a QB who took Alabama to two national championship games. I’m a big believer in Joe Burrow at LSU — give me a QB with swagger every day of the week — and in Justin Herbert at Oregon. Honestly, Oregon stands the most to gain of any team in my ballot in the first week with its trip to Dallas. I’m sure I’ll be lower on Michigan than most (writing this before the ballot has been published), but color me skeptical that a defense losing three of four starters on a vicious defensive line and one of the best linebackers in college football a year ago can sustain its past levels. I kind of regret not ranking Michigan behind Florida.

11. Texas

Last season: 10-4, beat Georgia 28-21 in Sugar Bowl

First game: vs. Louisiana Tech (Aug. 31)

12. Penn State

Last season: 9-4, lost to Kentucky 27-24 in Citrus Bowl

First game: vs. Idaho (Aug. 31)

13. Utah

Last season: 9-5, lost to Northwestern 31-20 in Holiday Bowl

First game: at BYU (Aug. 29)

14. Texas A&M

Last season: 9-4, beat N.C. State 52-13 in Gator Bowl

First game: vs. Texas State (Aug. 31)

15. Iowa State

Last season: 8-5, lost to Washington State 28-26 in Alamo Bowl

First game: vs. Northern Iowa (Aug. 31)

My take: I’m sure I’m lower on Texas than others, and that’s fine. Sam Ehlinger might push them into the CFP discussion, but their defense is replacing nine starters on a unit that wasn’t that good — even by Big 12 standards — last season. I’m high on Utah and Iowa State because of, surprise, quarterbacks. Tyler Huntley led the Utes to a win at Stanford and blowouts of Arizona, USC and UCLA before suffering a broken collarbone last season. Brock Purdy was the best non-Trevor Lawrence freshman quarterback in the country last season, quietly, for the Cyclones. Texas A&M has a grueling schedule, but Jimbo Fisher and Mike Elko will knock off one or two higher-ranked foes. Penn State transitions to a defensive power and has the star power to do so while its offense comes up to speed.

16. TCU

Last season: 7-6, beat California 10-7 in Cheez-It Bowl

First game: vs. Stephen F. Austin (Aug. 31)

17. UCF

Last season: 12-1, lost to LSU 40-32 in the Fiesta Bowl

First game: vs. Florida A&M (Aug. 29)

18. Michigan State

Last season: 7-6, lost to Oregon 7-6 in Redbox Bowl

First game: vs. Tulsa (Aug. 30)

19. Washington

Last season: 10-4, lost to Ohio State 28-23 in Rose Bowl

First game: vs. Eastern Washington (Aug. 31)

20. Virginia

Last season: 8-5, beat South Carolina 28-0 in Belk Bowl

First game: at Pittsburgh (Aug. 31)

My take: Here comes Virginia. The Cavaliers are going to be the second-best team in the ACC – but that is a massive first game against the reigning Coastal Division champs. Michigan State might be too low, as the Spartans return eight starters from a defense that led the nation in rushing last year. Keeping quarterback Brian Lewerke healthy will be key, as Michigan State returns its top two receivers and top running back. TCU is here because Phil Steele’s magazine convinced me the Horned Frogs are going to have a bounce-back season — or, as much of one as you can have after a 7-6 record. UCF is here because they’re the G-5 champs until proven otherwise.

21. Nebraska

Last season: 4-8 (won four of last six games)

First game: vs. South Alabama (Aug. 31)

22. Auburn

Last season: 8-5, beat Purdue 63-14 in Music City Bowl

First game: vs. Oregon (Aug. 31)

23. Boise State

Last season: 10-3, didn’t play Boston College in First Responder Bowl

First game: vs. Florida State (Aug. 31)

24. Syracuse

Last season: 10-3, beat West Virginia 34-18 in Camping World Bowl

First game: at Liberty (Aug. 31)

25. Washington State

Last season: 11-2, beat Iowa State 28-26 in Alamo Bowl

First game: vs. New Mexico State (Aug. 31)

My take: Ah Nebraska, the wonders of what stable quarterback play can do for me. The only team here that had a losing record last year, Scott Frost and Adrian Martinez won four of their final six games — and the two losses were 36-31 at Ohio State and 31-28 at Iowa. The Cornhuskers have as much momentum rolling as possible off of a 4-8 season. Auburn can shoot up the rankings with a win over Oregon, while the Boise State-Florida State matchup in Week 1 is a sneaky good one. Syracuse has had Tommy DeVito lined up to replace Eric Dungey for a while, but the Orange will be more of a defensive team to start. To close it out: Never sleep on Mike Leach, whose latest transfer star quarterback is one who already beat Leach (Gage Gubrud, who racked up more than 11,000 yards of offense and 100 touchdowns at Eastern Washington).

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