By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
With two of the best players in the country leading the way — and a championship game loss as motivation — Alabama is No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason college football poll for the second straight season and ninth time overall.
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, national defensive player of year Will Anderson Jr. and the Crimson Tide received 54 of 63 first-place votes and 1,566 points in the Top 25 presented by Regions Bank released on Monday.
Ohio State is No. 2 with six first-place votes (1,506 points) from the media panel and defending national champion Georgia is third with three first-place votes (1,455 points). Clemson is No. 4. Notre Dame rounds out the top five, setting up a tantalizing opener at Ohio State on Sept. 3.
The Tide’s preseason No. 1 ranking is the seventh in 15 years under coach Nick Saban. Since the preseason rankings started in 1950, only Oklahoma with 10 has been No. 1 in the initial poll more often than Alabama.
The Crimson Tide started last season No. 1 and finished ranked No. 2 after losing the national championship game to the Southeastern Conference rival Bulldogs.
“It wasn’t our end goal that we wanted,” Anderson said in the spring. “But I’m super proud of those guys, the way they fought. We were a young team. We had people go down. People had to step in that never been there before. So, I think that’s just a learning experience.”
Saban recently called 2021 a rebuilding season for his Tide dynasty, which has won six national titles over the last 13 years. He has a point.
Young was in his first season as a starter, playing behind an inexperienced offensive line. He was unfazed, throwing for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Anderson was a force on the other side ball as Alabama broke in a back seven with mostly new starters. The sophomore led the nation in tackles for loss with 33 1/2, 11 1/2 more than No. 2 on the list.
Ohio State brings back a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback in C.J. Stroud while at Georgia, most of the key players from one of the best college defenses of the last 25 years are now in NFL. Still, quarterback Stetson Bennett and All-America tight end Brock Bowers return to a Bulldogs offense that could be even more explosive in 2022.
Texas A&M, which finished last season unranked despite handing Alabama its only regular-season loss, starts this season No. 6.
Defending Pac-12 champion Utah is seventh, the best preseason ranking in school history. Defending Big Ten champion Michigan is No. 8 after making the playoff for the first time last season.
No. 9 Oklahoma is the highest-ranked Big 12 school, one spot ahead of defending league champion Baylor.
Alabama has been in the preseason top five in each of last 14 seasons and in the preseason top three in 13 straight. The Tide’s 31st preseason top-five ranking this year matches Ohio State for second-most in poll history behind Oklahoma’s 37.
Turning preseason No. 1 into a national championship has proved tricky throughout history, even for Alabama.
The Crimson Tide have gone on to win the national championship after starting No. 1 just once under Saban and twice overall.
Since the AP preseason poll began in 1950, there have been 11 preseason No. 1 teams that also finished the season top ranked. Alabama was the last to do it (2017).
RARITIES AND STREAKS
— No. 13 North Carolina State is ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2003. The Wolfpack matched their best preseason ranking. They were also 13th in 1975.
— No. 17 Pitt is in the preseason rankings for the first time since 2010.
— No. 20 Kentucky is making its first preseason poll appearance since 1978.
— No. 22 Wake Forest made the preseason rankings for the first time since 2008.
— Ohio State is ranked in the preseason for the 34th straight season, breaking a tie with Nebraska (1970-2002) and Penn State (1968-2000) for the longest such streak in poll history.
— Texas A&M has the second-best preseason ranking for a team that finished the previous season unranked. Ohio State was No. 3 in the 1972 preseason poll after being unranked at the end of the 1971 season and Notre Dame also started No. 6 in 1983 after finishing unranked in 1982.
How did the seasons work out for those teams? Ohio State went 9-2 and finished the season No. 9. The Irish went 7-5 and unranked again.
— LSU with new coach Brian Kelly will start the season unranked for the first time 2000, Saban’s first of five seasons as coach of the Tigers.
— Florida and Florida State are both unranked to start the season, which has not happened since 1974.
Five schools ranked in the preseason poll have head coaches starting their first full seasons: Notre Dame (Marcus Freeman), Oklahoma (Brent Venables), No. 11 Oregon (Dan Lanning), No. 14 USC (Lincoln Riley) and No. 16 Miami (Mario Cristobal).
This is the second time in the last five seasons that five teams with new coaches were ranked in the preseason, according to Sportradar. It also happened in 2018, but before that season that type of representation in the preseason poll for teams with new coaches was a rarity.
You have to go all the way back to 1990 when six schools with coaches entering their first full season appeared in the preseason Top 25, according to Sportradar. That list includes some notable names: Gary Moeller, Michigan; Ken Hatfield, Clemson; Gene Stallings, Alabama; Jack Crowe, Arkansas; Paul Hackett, Pittsburgh; and John Jenkins, Houston.
For the fourth straight season, the Southeastern Conference has three teams in the top six.
The Atlantic Coast Conference matched its best showing in the preseason poll with five teams. The ACC has reached that number four previous times.
SEC — 6 (Nos. 1, 3, 6, 19, 20, 21).
ACC — 5 (Nos. 4, 13, 16, 17, 22).
Big Ten — 4 (Nos. 2, 8, 15, 18).
Big 12 — 3 (Nos. 9, 10, 12).
Pac-12 — 3 (Nos. 7, 11, 14).
American — 2 (Nos. 23, 24).
Independents — 2 (Nos. 5, 25).
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
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